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Telluride Tries to Survive Life During Wartime

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This is the second in a series of reports from the Telluride Film Festival. The event customarily held over the Labor Day weekend returned for its 36th season September 4-7. Coverage will include a quick look at a film screened the previous night; highlights of some of the group discussions and celebrity appearances; and word on the streets (or the tweets) about who or what might be creating the most showbiz buzz.

Saturday's sneak review: Life During Wartime, which is playing all the major fall festivals, including Toronto, premiered Thursday at Venice and was in competition for the Golden Lion.

Running time: 96 minutes.

What's it all about? Maybe this is as close as writer/director Todd Solondz will ever get to a feel-good movie. Solandz has called Life During Wartime a "quasi-sequel" to 1998's Happiness, his bizarre take on the weirdness that happens in Everyday, USA. And while many of the same characters return, along with a couple more from Solondz's first film, 1995's Welcome to the Dollhouse, they are played by entirely different actors. But themes of forgiving, forgetting, loneliness and madness inhabit this world, where pedophiles and perverts share the same space with red-haired, freckle-faced boys who think they're becoming men and wounded women looking for a second chance at happiness. But instead of using sex as a weapon, one female character finds an Emmy statue works just as well.

Director and writer: Solondz (Palindromes, Storytelling, Happiness) first made himself known to Telluride audiences when he brought Happiness here in 1998. Wrote Roger Ebert of the reaction: "The film they couldn't get a handle on was Happiness, which is about characters so pathetic and perverse that you watch them with a kind of horror." In 2004 at Telluride, Solondz and actress Ellen Barkin presented Palindromes, a film in which the lead role was played by six different actors, including Jennifer Jason Leigh. Solondz missed Telluride this year because he is in Venice.

Leading roles: Shirley Henderson (Joy); Allison Janney (Trish); Ciaran Hinds (Bill); Michael Lerner (Harvey).

Also appearing: Paul Reubens (Andy); Ally Sheedy (Helen); Charlotte Rampling (Jacqueline).

Telluride take
• Lerner, a veteran character actor who was nominated for an Academy Award in the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink, introduced the nighttime screening at the Chuck Jones Cinema with Rich Pecci, who plays his son in a brief but memorable role. Lerner prepared the uninitiated for what to expect. "There's really no necessity of seeing the previous films to enjoy this," said Lerner, who said he experienced "a shock to my system" after watching it for the first time earlier in the day. "It's very funny, very bizarre, strange, macabre, a sullen movie. From the couple of reviews we've been hearing, they say it's his best movie yet. We hope you agree." Actress Brenda Blethyn, in town with London River, was in the sold-out crowd.
• Janney, maybe best known for her long-running role on The West Wing, has played her share of memorable moms before, but really gets to cut loose as Trish. She is looking for love again while telling the rest of the family her husband (Ciaran Hinds' Bill), locked up for pedophilia and rape, is dead. When little Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) learns otherwise from the kids at school, Trish tells him, "I just wanted to protect you. ... I wanted you to grow up free and happy as if he were dead." (Janney is shown with Snyder.)
• An eclectic cast certainly will bring out the fast and the curious but Reubens, best known for his Pee-wee Herman role before his career was sidetracked in the early Nineties for some questionable behavior, seems to be more of a distraction here. Andy, Joy's rejected boyfriend, wants her to take him back ... if only he were still alive. Another Eighties icon, Sheedy broke away from her Breakfast Club persona long ago as the drug-addicted lesbian photographer in High Art, and she delivers here again as a self-absorbed television writer who left her family behind and is "crushed by the enormity of my success."

What you might not know
• "Lifetime During Wartime" is also a song in the movie, but if you're expecting Talking Heads, you might be disappointed. This version was written by Tony Award-winning songwriter Marc Shaiman with lyrics by Solondz, and is performed twice, with Joy on a bed singing sweetly while plucking an acoustic guitar and Andy asking "Was your song about me?" (Reubens is shown with Henderson.) Then folkie Devendra Banhart is heard singing it over the final credits. For good measure, there's music from classical composers such as Handel and Vivaldi.
• One of the great TV villains in recent seasons, Omar Little from HBO's The Wire, was played by Michael K. Williams, who makes a ruthlessly funny appearance here in the opening scene as Joy's husband Allen. He also has a role in The Road, which made its Telluride premiere Sunday following a tribute to Viggo Mortensen.

High on Telluride
• Director Werner Herzog, always a Telluride favorite who is on the festival's "esteemed council of advisors," has two films showing Sunday. He and star Nicolas Cage will attend two screenings of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Then Herzog will present an 11 p.m. sneak preview of My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done, a David Lynch-produced film about a presentation of Sophocles' Orestes that goes terribly wrong. It stars Michael Shannon, Willem Dafoe and Chloe Sevigny.
• The sneak preview of Up In The Air, starring George Clooney, was well-received while reportedly hundreds of pass-holders were turned away. Festival guest director Alexander Payne was almost kept out, until a staffer came to his rescue. Before the screening, director Jason Reitman announced to the crowd he was celebrating his fifth wedding anniversary.

Check out Day 2 festival photos, including Carey Mulligan, the breakout star of An Education.