Telluride 2016: 'Why Is Casey Affleck Not Famous'

Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Robert Wetzel

Saturday, September 3

One thing I have learned for sure in the first couple of days of the Telluride Film Festival (TFF): don't trust what your iPhone says about the weather.  Each day has been forecast to be dark and stormy, and so I dutifully bundle up with raincoat and hat, carrying my umbrella.  And -- so far -- each day has been bright and sunny.  If a brief storm passed through, it was while I was in the theater -- although that is a pretty good probability, since I am MOSTLY in the theater!

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But being in the theaters at TFF is a good thing!  And particularly on this Saturday.  I started the day with the tribute to Casey Affleck, followed by his new film, directed by Kenneth Lorergan, 'Manchester by the Sea'.  The moderator of the tribute raised the question, which was the title of a New York Times article a few years ago, "Why is Casey Affleck not famous"?  And then, with a 30-minute reel of clips from Affleck's movies, followed by a 2-hour master class in the subtlety of real acting ('Manchester'), the actor proceeded to answer the question: it is inexplicable.  

Perhaps because he is overshadowed by his older brother: he of the blockbusters and tabloid headlines.  Perhaps because he has curated (an excellent description, but not my words) his career in films that are wonderful but not really 'popular'.  Or perhaps he simply does not seek fame: he has been seen throughout the streets and bars of Telluride with no entourage and no expectations.  Whatever the reason, Casey Affleck is the real deal.  And 'Manchester by the Sea' is one of his best performances -- one that will, in my humble estimation, bring him his first Best Actor Oscar nomination.

Playing a repressed and haunted loner with a back-story I will not disclose, Affleck's Lee is given guardianship of his 16 year-old nephew upon the tragic death of his older brother.  As he tries -- vainly -- to come to grips with the responsibilities of the role, he is thrust back into the waterfront community in which he grew up and crashed down.  The memories are too much for him.  And as Lee struggles to adapt, and consistently fails, Affleck inhabits the character in a way that we seldom see.  Lee tries so hard to overcome the past, and as an audience, we empathize deeply.  But perhaps we empathize more when Lee discovers that he simply cannot change.  This is reality -- harsh reality.  Our journey with Lee is a journey through our own souls: sometimes we win, but sometimes we lose.  Accepting defeat with grace is a victory in itself -- perhaps a hollow victory, but in Affleck's beautiful performance, we are all winners.

From this hollow victory, I was transported to a story of soaring victory (pun intended -- you'll see) over cultural bias, gender norms and nature itself.  'The Eagle Huntress' is a beautiful documentary film that never seems like a documentary.  It follows the development of a young Mongolian girl, Aisholpan, who is the oldest child in a family who have been eagle hunters for many generations.  In the film, Aisholpan's father decides that she has the characteristics to continue the lineage, even though the tribal traditions require that only boys may be trained.  Aisholpan succeeds beyond anyone's wildest expectation to become, at age 14, the first Eagle Huntress and the winner of the annual tribal competition against men from 20 to 80.

This is not a spoiler: you know from the beginning that this will be the outcome of the film.  But it does not in the least spoil the movie.  This is a gorgeously filmed and edited work, evoking the harsh environment of the Altai mountains of Mongolia, the changing lives of the tribes who have inhabited the region for millennia, and the beauty of the eagles and their handlers as they hunt for fox and other fur bearing animals to provide the warm coats and hats required to survive in this climate.  The filmmaker, Otto Bell, has created an exceptional first film.

And as I often say, there are no coincidences in life.  'The Eagle Huntress' is a film I could have easily overlooked amoung the many, many films at TFF.  But Aisholpan, her family, and Bell just happened to sit down at our table during the opening brunch on Friday morning.  We were immediately fascinated -- even though Aisholpan, her father and mother, could not speak English,  With the help of signs, some interpretation and discussion with Bell, we simply fell in love -- with the girl, the family and the filmmaker.  'The Eagle Huntress' will come out in limited release thanks to Sony Classics in October.  GO SEE IT!! It will transform you. (And for my 'local' readers, we are working hard to bring the film to Dartmouth later in the fall).

If you are seeing many films, they cannot all be wonderful.  That's about all I can really say about Amy Adams' big premiere 'Arrival'.  With nods to 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind', 'Contact' and similar alien encounter films, this one just didn't grab me as those did.  Adams plays a world renown linguist who is drafted by the military to attempt to communicate with aliens who have suddenly appeared on earth.  With a painful backstory and plenty of 'issues', Adams portrays a woman caught between her life and her profession -- and both play into the story as she seeks to save humanity from itself.  

I'll admit that there are some good moments in 'Arrival'; and the overall theme of communication and how misunderstandings among 'people' trying to communicate can lead to potentially disastrous results, is compelling.  But the film, the performances and the outcome are just a bit too hokey for my taste.  Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker don't help, with lackluster performances as a scientist and military commander participating in the process.  If you loved the films noted above; if you are a big science fiction fan; or if you just believe that 'they are out there', you may enjoy 'Arrival'.  See it and make up your own mind.

OK, bedtime.  More to come tomorrow!


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