2002 DENVER FILM FESTIVAL
Denver, on the whole, is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and sports fanatics alike. We have hockey, baseball, football, basketball (if the Nuggets can be considered a professional franchise), and a host of sweat-inducing activities that require pounds and pounds of expensive gear. We bike, hike, camp, and demonstrate to the nation that when in doubt, we must avoid idleness. I am, of course, referring to those people, but as for me (and others with unshaped flab a-plenty), a man who prefers atrophy to action, indoor relaxation to anything even remotely resembling movement, there are films; even more, there are film festivals. While the mindless, foolhardy outdoorsy types prefer to “get in shape” or “get back to nature” (ironic considering that they drive through the mountains in their gas-guzzling SUVs), I prefer the stimulation and unending pleasure of darkened movie houses and the soothing sound of a whirring projector. With Telluride but a memory, I embarked on Denver’s own version of film heaven. And believe me, it does not disappoint. Without sounding like a mere cheerleader, I can say that Denver boasts one of the best festivals in the country; combining more commercial ventures with obscure documentaries, foreign releases, short films, retrospectives, and insightful workshops and lectures. Here is what I found:
White Oleander – A bit too commercial for a film festival offering, although it was somewhat entertaining in spite of itself. Starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Robin Wright Penn, Renee Zellweger, and newcomer Alison Lohman (who strangely outclasses them all), the film is typical chick flick-style, Oprah bullshit: women suffer, girls challenge their mothers, somebody dies, and all are empowered. All is predictable and bereft of cinematic flair, but it might do the trick if your bubble-headed lady-fair is pushing you to take her out.
All or Nothing – Easily the best of the festival, Mike Leigh’s latest just might be his best as well. As a portrait of sad-sack, working-class Londoners, few films have captured desperation, loneliness, and alienation with more realism and subtle grace. This is no heavy-handed polemic; rather, Leigh uses incident and character to shed light on the human condition without a trace of sentimentality. Invigorating, spirited, and further evidence that Leigh is one of cinema’s most confident, talented masters of the art.
Brief Crossing – The iconoclastic and daring Catherine Breillat is at it again, subverting our expectations and twisting gender roles into knots of anger. A woman of thirty meets a French boy of sixteen aboard a ferry from France to England, and thus begins an unpredictable relationship that may or may not be about sex and unfulfilled longing. As we analyze the motives and movements of the characters, we realize we are witnessing a dissection of the art of seduction, and thereby what men and women seek from the opposite sex. As with all Breillat films, there is a “twist” ending, but this time, rather than resorting to shock or violence, she ends on a note of quiet irony, forcing us to reassess all that has come before. Needless to say, she continues to pummel the male species against the ropes.
Chiefs – A rather straightforward, yet compelling documentary about a high school basketball team from the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. We do get a portrait of desperate lives amidst great poverty and hopelessness, although this is primarily a story of hope; how lives otherwise without direction find strength in the one thing that gives these young men pride and a sense of accomplishment. Yes, it smacks of Rocky and a hundred other films about “deeper-meaning-through-athletic-competition,” but it works.
Interview With the Assassin – This faux-documentary manages to transcend its gimmicky premise: an out-of-work reporter finds the story of a lifetime – his neighbor claims to be the “grassy knoll gunman” of lore, and what’s more, he’s willing to prove it. What follows is a chilling (and utterly believable) story of paranoia, powerlessness, and madness (and the strange allure of conspiracy theories), although the film refuses to reveal whether or not the self-proclaimed assassin is delusional or in fact telling the truth. It’s not only fun, but masterful from a purely technical standpoint. Still, the key lies in the performances. Not once did I catch anyone “acting;” all of the actors are wonderful, especially Raymond J. Barry (as Walter the “assassin”), who deserves, but stands no chance of receiving, an Oscar nomination.
Nine Good Teeth – A documentary about a feisty Italian-American Jew who is nearing her one hundredth birthday. Sound like a snoozer? Hardly. We not only learn about this woman’s fascinating journey of a life, but we are also treated to humor, bawdiness (she refuses to accept that she can no longer have an orgasm, for example), and family dynamics. Very rarely are we treated to memorable human beings in the cinema (fictional or real), yet I will always treasure the time I spent with Mary Mirabito.
Old Coaches – Once again, a competent, yet routine documentary about a football coach at Green Mountain High School in Colorado. It is a fascinating look “inside the locker room” so to speak, but nothing revolutionary is being revealed here (coaches are obsessive, jocks are mindless jerks, football is revered while academics remain secondary.stop the presses!) Still, I liked it, if only because it was such a well-made film for an amateur filmmaker. The film never dragged and did not (thankfully) overstay its welcome.
Punch-Drunk Love – Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is a far cry from his previous American epics (this one clocks in at a breezy 91 minutes), but it still manages to capture his manic energy and unique style – at least at the beginning. Adam Sandler’s much-publicized change of pace is fine, but hardly the revolutionary performance that is being discussed. He has quieted down somewhat, but he is still Sandler, a curse he can perhaps never escape. For the first thirty minutes or so I was whirled away in a fit of dizzy joy, but the story takes a ludicrous turn and never recovers. What’s more, the relationship between Sandler and Emily Watson is the stuff of cinematic lunacy – we never once believe it is anything but the creation of a screenwriter.
The Quiet American – I am usually a sucker for old-fashioned political melodramas, and this film doesn’t disappoint. Michael Caine is Thomas Fowler, a British journalist covering the conflict between French troops and the increasingly radicalized Vietnamese. The story begins as the French are losing their will to fight for their long-held colony, and the Americans are beginning to see a potential battleground for their ideological war against Communism. In a refreshing turn (especially in our current climate of jingoism and love-it-or-leave-it Americanism), American policy is indicted at every turn, and we must watch with passive humiliation as the voices of reason are shouted down in favor of a misguided policy that will claim over 50,000 American lives. The lone weakness: the Vietnamese woman both Caine and Brendan Fraser (as the man of the title) long for is one of the least captivating love interests in cinema history. She might do for a behind-the-thatched-hut suckie-suckie, but her vapid, glassy-eyed silliness is hardly the stuff for which men would risk life and limb.
Roger Dodger – One of the biggest disappointments of the festival. Starring Campbell Scott as a smarmy, know-it-all player, the story concerns Roger (Scott) and his 24-hour journey of hellish discovery with his young nephew Nick. Only it is not hellish; and not at all a discovery. What could have been a savage indictment of the male mind was nothing more than a clichd, retread effort, where we watch men clumsily seducing women. The dialogue is dull and strangely lifeless, while the characters puff and storm about with a sense of importance that is not matched by the material.
Ruthie & Connie: Every Room in the House – Another documentary, this time dealing with two women who have been lesbian lovers for over a quarter century. The twist? Both were once dutiful Jewish housewives and mothers. Now empowered by their sexuality and identity, they remain activists, mentors, and living refutations of the absurd notion that gay people cannot exist in stable, committed relationships. Still, the premise fails to capture the real treat of the film – the charm, wit, and sheer passion these two women bring to life. Now for the bad news. The film was preceded by a 20-minute short, To Ease the Loss. Quote me on this: I will NEVER witness a more insulting, maudlin motion picture in my entire life. Poorly acted, sappy beyond belief, and so wholesome and life-affirming that it could play comfortably at a Fundamentalist Christian Film Festival, I gagged, raged, and considered attacking the projectionist as I watched a couple try to find peace after the death of their idiot son. Did I mention that the son returns as a smiling apparition, courtesy of an old movie camera sent by the mother’s dead parents (they too appear as spirits)? And yes, just for good measure, the spirit of a dead dog appears, to show everyone that life continues on in a sterile, unchanging afterlife where all kids continue to run and play. Fuck that shit.
Sleeping Rough – I shouldn’t have to say it, but merely because a film is not American does not mean it has inherent value. This film from the Netherlands, dry and brittle as an octogenarian’s thighs, asks us to care about a bitter old Dutchman and the equally underdeveloped character of an immigrant from the Sudan. One is lonely, the other desperate for work and a place to sleep, and both form a tentative relationship that rarely goes beyond a sluggish game of checkers. It is quiet and unassuming, but so much so that I thought it would float away without a whisper. If you want to watch a wrinkled, corpse-like prune sip endless cups of tea, check it out.
Streeters – Billed as another treat from Mexico a la Y Tu Mama Tambien, the film has no relation to that wonderful film other than its setting. While I won’t say that this story of a young punk searching for his father in the open sewer that is Mexico City is wholly without merit (how often will one see a father anally rape his own son?), I will admit to remaining indifferent throughout. Alternately bored and frustrated, I often felt the mechanics of the story grinding on to their inevitable conclusion. Note to self: avoid Mexico City unless accompanied by several hundred barrels of smallpox and an army willing to commit mass murder.
Temptations – A bizarre Hungarian selection about a young boy who purchases a young Gypsy girl to help him bilk banks out of vast sums of money. The film alternates between black & white and color (close-ups are in color) for no apparent reason other than to fool the audience into believing it is serving some artistic purpose. The Gypsy girl falls in love with the young man, yet he only wants her as a project – to help in a life of crime and better her circumstances (apparently grand larceny has more moral heft than living as a nomad). The ending is truly weird; involving the furious Gypsy and her “magical” revenge. Whatever.
To Be and To Have – Normally I would run screaming from any theater featuring a film about children not being shot or stabbed, but this remains an exception. This French documentary (more cinema verite than a conventional non-fiction piece) tells the tale of a dedicated, unconventional teacher (unconventional in that, as a non-American, he is competent) in a rural French town. The school is but one room, and all grade levels are thrown together. Without the distraction of narration, we watch the learning process itself; the searching, wide-eyed wonder that accompanies intellectual growth. Moreover, as the children are European (and therefore well-spoken, well-mannered, and undeniably charming), they elicit our concern and hope. These are kids that even I would love to spend time with, if only because there isn’t a Sega Genesis or Harry Potter book to be found. Alas, the film ended and I was once again face-to-face with the assorted mallrats and ADD-afflicted brats I have always known and despised.
Year of the Devil – A Czech Spinal Tap wannabe, this film tried to be humorous, but I simply didn’t get it. There are moments of charm, but the film as a whole meanders too often to warrant a recommendation. As the festival program describes it, there is certainly a high dose of whimsy, but as I was expecting raucous laughter (nary a peep escaped my lips, I’m afraid), I will not say it resembled a comedy in the conventional sense. Just as the world began to feel sympathy for the Czech people (what with the flooding of Prague and all), it has all been erased by the revelation that this film is one of the most popular motion pictures ever released in that country. Oh well, at least that distinction isn’t held by Titanic. No country would be that stupid..
Zero Day – Two troubled teenagers videotape the final months of their lives as they make preparations for a Columbine-style massacre. Similar in tone and technique to the Blair Witch Project, the heightened realism adds much to the low budget production. Fortunately, the filmmaker makes no effort to psychoanalyze the two youths and in many ways, the lives of the boys are startling in their ordinariness. From all accounts, it would appear that they are murdering their classmates for no other reason than they have nothing better to do. Because the kids are so similar to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and the final bloodbath in the library is so much like the official version of the actual event, the film could be seen as an attempt to “replay” Columbine and give us what we did not, or could not, see for ourselves. Hey, if I can see teenagers being blown away in any context, I’m there.
Vakvagany – If a stranger were to watch our home videos, what would he or she be able to determine about our character? Our personality? Our passions and desires? Would the child we view in these tapes provide any clue to the adult he or she would become? That is the premise of this bizarre, and ultimately failed effort to analyze the home movies of a Hungarian family, which were found quite by accident during a move. We watch clips, listen to various “experts” analyze their content (one such expert is author James Ellroy), and attempt to determine what it is we are viewing. In the last half of the film, we spend most of the time in the presence of Erno, a pathetic, obese man (who is obviously mentally ill, if not semi-retarded) who was the young boy of the home movies. Yes, it all sounds quite weird, and while I appreciated what was being done as the film progressed, it was too incoherent and frustrating to be in any way successful.
Terror from Within – Well-made, if overly routine, documentary about Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing. As a straightforward, A&E-style film it certainly holds the viewer’s attention, but it doesn’t break any new ground, either in terms of content or presentation. Still, I was frustrated (and ultimately angered) by the filmmaker’s driving point-of-view – that he appeared far less concerned about the racist, right-wing groups with whom McVeigh associated than with the government’s handling of the case. Because the filmmaker believes that McVeigh was merely a pawn in a larger conspiracy, he wonders why the government chose to “suppress” evidence that led in that direction. During the Q&A session that followed, I also learned that the filmmaker made an anti-government Waco video (blaming the ATF for the deaths, claiming that they “fired the first shot,” as if I give a shit who started it, as long as those religious zealots stay good and dead) and runs a production company that seeks to make family-friendly films. As a result, I could see that his latest “documentary” played right into the hands of the very people he allegedly derides in the film. And did I really need to hear the paranoid urban legend that ATF agents were “curiously absent” from work at the federal building that fateful morning? What was a decent film experience turned into an embarrassing charade with yet another filmmaker’s silly agenda.
Personal Velocity – Three separate stories, all involving “women in transition,” add up to an entertaining, albeit indistinct film. The first tale involves a hyper-sexualized Kyra Sedgwick, who leaves her abusive husband, lives in a safe house, and then ends up at the residence of an old friend. Somehow, all of this leads to her jerking off Telly from Kids. The second (and most successful) story features Parker Posey as an ambitious (and overly horny) book editor who grows increasingly bored with her good-natured husband. The final segment stars Fairuza Balk as a disaffected (and pregnant) woman who runs out on her Haitian boyfriend, takes to the road, and picks up an abused young boy along the way. Thankfully, the two do not connect (nor do they share a tender lovemaking session, which would have been the usual result of such a cinematic pairing) and the kid ends up stealing her car, leaving her to rot at a Dunkin Donuts. It may not sound like much, but it is a well-acted, character-driven film that manages to throw in a sense of humor along with its heavy themes.
Best and Worst of the Festival
- Best Film (feature-length): All or Nothing
- Best Film (short): Is there such a thing?
- Worst Film (feature-length): Vakvagany
- Worst Film (short): To Ease the Loss
- Best Performance: Raymond J. Barry, Interview With the Assassin
- Worst Performance: That Kid in To Ease the Loss; although he dies, which brought me as much pleasure as anything at the festival