Telluride touts treasures

The older the film the better was the prevailing rule at the 22nd Telluride Film Festival, which unspooled in this tiny mountain town over a sun-baked Labor Day weekend.

As usual, an atmosphere of great warmth and conviviality kept the conclave of buffs in upbeat spirits during the screening-packed 3 1/2 days, but the realities of a generally mediocre year in international cinema hit even this highly selective event, where, with a handful of exceptions, the new entries couldn’t begin to measure up to the archival treasures on view.

Of the feature world preems, John Duigan’s Miramax release “The Journey of August King,” an immaculate, small-scale period piece about a white man who helps a young slave woman escape from 1815 North Carolina, received a solid response. Another audience fave, although a very mainstream effort for a fest, was New Line’s romantic comedy “Pie in the Sky,” debut feature from Bryan Gordon, director of the Oscar-winning short “Ray’s Heterosexual Male Dance Hall.”

Less promising prospects lie ahead for Agnieszka Holland’s misbegotten “Total Eclipse,” an unconvincing look at the tempestuous relationship between the poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine starring Leonardo DiCaprio and David Thewlis. Fine Line will release this one. Also world-preemed here were Tim McCann’s “Desolation Angels,” a confident but grim New York indie about a young man dealing poorly with his girlfriend’s infidelity, and, from China, Ning Ying’s “On the Beat,” a political parable about Beijing police.

In Pictures, which works with indie filmmakers to secure domestic and international distribution and raise completion financing, has acquired worldwide rights to “Angels” and company will produce McCann’s features over the next five years. “Angels” has no domestic distribution yet.

Previous preems

Pix rounded up by fest directors Tom Luddy and Bill Pence that have shown at previous fests but were seen in their U.S. premieres included “Shanghai Triad,” with director Zhang Yimou present to receive a special tribute; Gus Van Sant’s tangy Cannes sleeper “To Die For”; Jafar Panahi’s Cannes Camera d’Or winner “The White Balloon”; stage director Roger Michell’s outstanding Jane Austen adaptation, “Persuasion”; Gary Fleder’s Cannes hit “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead”; “Carrington,” with writer-director Christopher Hampton on hand for a tribute; Mark Rappaport’s imaginative docu take on an actress’s life, “From the Journals of Jean Seberg”; Bertrand Tavernier’s potent study of teen murderers, “Fresh Bait”; Bigas Luna’s fantastical “The Tit and the Moon”; Malaysian director U-Wei Bin Hajisaari’s impressive Faulkner adaptation “The Arsonist”; and Sherwood Hu’s mythical epic from China, “Warrior Lanling.”

Allan Holzman’s hourlong docu “Survivors of the Shoah,” the first production to emerge from Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation and destined for cable airing in January, was seen for the first time, as was Peter Kaufman’s docu “China: The Wild East.”

“Cold Comfort Farm” was roundly liked when screened as part of a John Schlesinger tribute.

Illuminating pix

Still, by far the highlight of the festival, and one of the celestial cinema programs ever presented at Telluride or elsewhere, was “100 Years Ago: Lumiere,” a stunning, often very funny hourlong program of films made by the cinema’s father, Louis Lumiere. Narrated in person with boundless wit and wisdom by Tavernier and Thierry Fremaux, this selection goes way beyond most people’s cliched image of standard Lumiere moments to show the astonishing breadth, directorial intelligence and humor of Lumiere’s work.

Public hurrahs

So overwhelming was the response here that plans already are in the works for Tavernier and Fremaux to tour the U.S. with the program next year.

The Hollywood discovery of the fest was Vincent Sherman’s superb 1942 Warner Bros, meller “The Hard Way,” which also served as an effective tribute to the film’s star, Ida Lupino, who died Aug. 3. Written by Daniel Fuchs, Peter Viertel and an uncredited Irwin Shaw, pic threw much-deserved light on the talents of the neglected Sherman, who regaled audiences with anecdotes of Hollywood’s golden age.

Highlighted retros

Other archival highlights were a mini-Frank Borzage retrospective, a fully restored print of Wojciech Has’ long-unavailable 1964 Polish feature “The Saragossa Manuscript,” Mikio Naruse’s great “Floating Clouds” and Dziga Vertov’s silent classic “The Man With the Movie Camera,” performed with Vertov’s own score by the Alloy Orchestra.

Film critic Andrew Sarris received this year’s silver medallion from guest director Phillip Lopate.

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