By Chris Willman
Updated August 03, 2020 at 08:06 PM EDT
Credit: Chuck Zlotnick

Everybody’s dying up in the Colorado mountains right now. Mostly just on-screen; the altitude only makes Telluride Film Festivalgoers feel like they’re about to expire, as they huff and puff and sprint between four, five, or six screenings a day. But the second and third days of this year’s Telluride Film Festival have found an even greater abundance of cinematic terminal cases than usual.

There’s a good chance you already know what kind of protracted and inglorious end meets the solitary mountain man of Into the Wild, Sean Penn’s highly anticipated adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction bestseller. Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is based on a well-known memoir by a French magazine editor who became paralyzed and dictated the book by blinking his one good eye; the movie version has been expanded to include the real-life protagonist’s eventual death. On the fictional side, Rails and Ties, the directorial debut of Alison Eastwood (Clint’s daughter), has Kevin Bacon shutting down emotionally as he deals with the terminal cancer of his wife, played by Marcia Gay Harden. And in The Savages, Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman struggle with finding a nursery home for their dad, who’s suffering from dementia and probably dying of Parkinson’s disease.

But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the wonderful mountain scenery?

But some of these films are actually more feel-good — to use a term that may be legally banned on the festival circuit — than they sound. The Savages, in particular, may be the closest thing to a universal crowd-pleaser (sorry, another verboten word!) in Telluride this time around. The dramedy premiered in unfinished digital form earlier this year at Sundance, but Laura Linney and writer-director Tamara Jenkins (pictured, right, with Linney) were eager to debut the final version of the film here, not least of all because the actress fell in love with Telluride and moved to town after being the subject of a tribute a few years back. It’s a very funny but fairly tough piece, both warm and unsentimental. A more conventional treatment of middle-aged kids dealing with aging parents would have arrived in at least one scene where the angry, amnesia-stricken dad briefly blooms back to life enough to have a moment of reconciliation with his estranged children. But filmmaker Jenkins said after the screening that she looked long and hard to find an actor to play the elderly father who wouldn’t be cute or “twinkly-eyed” (though she didn’t elaborate, I imagine she was thinking of roles like Alan Arkin’s in Little Miss Sunshine). She found her untwinkly old man in theater legend Philip Bosco, who plays it as unlovably as humanly possible. If The Savages (which hits theaters in December) doesn’t at least pick up acting nominations for these three, you’ll have to wonder if too many Academy members are suffering from a touch of dementia themselves.

addCredit(“Laura Linney and Tamara Jenkins: Chris Willman; Into the Wild: Chuck Zlotnick”)

Into the Wild is the other major American movie at Telluridethat seems to be meeting with across-the-board hosannas, though it’stougher to predict whether the young lead, Emile Hirsch (pictured),outstanding as he is, will be considered seasoned enough to generatethat kind of Oscar buzz. At two hours and 20 minutes, it’s a longenough sit that I feared for those attending Saturday night’s outdoorscreening, since the nights in Telluride are cool enough that theframing scenes in the Alaskan wilderness might come to feel a littletoo close to home. (And I suspect there will be some Eddie Veddernon-fans who’ll feel the movie could’ve been even better attwo-hours-and-10, with a couple of his acoustic-y songs taken out.) Butthe sentiment is indeed universal that this is easily Sean Penn’s bestfilm as a director to date. In the past, he’s gravitated toward tragedyas a default position; I was beginning to wonder if Penn had ever met areally, really, really unhappy ending he didn’t like. Into the Wildobviously ends on something less than a complete upper, too, yet it’s amovie in which he feels a clear and present affection for eachcharacter, from the pathologically Thoreau-loving protagonist to theroad hippies (like Catherine Keener) and churchgoing sages (HalHolbrook) he meets along his travels. Sean Penn — a cockeyed optimistabout humanity? Can actual hugs for the paparazzi be next?

It might’ve been too much to ask Brian DePalma, director of the controversial Redacted(which had its U.S. premiere here after bowing in Venice the daybefore), to share that same kind of affection for all his characters,since some of them are American soldiers who participate in the rape ofa 15-year-old Iraqi girl and then kill her immediate family. ButDePalma was so outraged — understandably — by the real-life incident inMahmudiya last year that he’s populated his movie with evil,buffoonish, ugly-American soldier stereotypes who rant about “sandn—–s” before raping and murdering them. If Arabs upset at theAmerican presence in Iraq kidnapped some American actors and forcedthem to make a propaganda film, they’d be hard-pressed to make one muchmore simple-minded than Redacted — though at least theirsprobably wouldn’t resemble a stagy, overacted, off-off-Broadway playquite as much as this one does. On a formal level, Redacted isfascinating; it consists entirely of faked “found” video footage,culled together from soldiers’ camcorders, surveillance footage, andeven terrorist websites. Yes, it’s Casualties of War meets The Blair Witch Project.But the conceit of having sneering American soldiers passionately plan,commit, and cover up their heinous misdeeds in the full view of cameralenses ensures there’s not a believable minute in a film that stylesitself as a faux documentary. By the time you get to the actual rapescenes, you may feel you’re watching a new genre: anti-war porn. Atleast you can give it credit for being better-intentioned than The Black Dahlia. But not, unfortunately, better.

In our next Telluride installment: seeing whether the world premiere of Jason (Thank You for Smoking) Reitman’s new comedy, Juno, lives up to its considerable buzz.