DENVER FILM FESTIVAL 2004

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Telluride might have the mountain beauty and low-key charm, but Denver’s annual film festival has now secured the top spot in terms of content. Again, Telluride will always be my favorite as it involves an actual vacation, whereas Denver features what I can catch after getting home from work (along with two full weekends), but with ten full days instead of an all-too-brief Labor Day weekend, the Mile High City’s cinematic explosion simply can’t be beat. Yes, Telluride features more world premieres and arguably more star power, but Denver’s selections are so diverse and unlimited that I can see documentaries and foreign films that may never show anywhere else, along with major releases and “bigger” offerings. Initially disappointed by the absence of several more high profile films, I quickly converted to an unconditional love, and have been privileged to see some of the best films of the year, including one that will almost certainly top the list. Not everything worked, of course, but there were fewer bombs than usual, and certainly more highlights, including a short that actually made me laugh rather than vomit all over the seat. I attribute the overall success to my complete avoidance of Eastern European cinema, an unfortunate patch of earth usually responsible for at least one sleepless night of sweat-filled horror as well as many of my favorite porn stars. What did I learn? First, the South may indeed rise again, but it will be at the expense of our collective prosperity, education, sanity, and health. Second, sometimes the familiar can appear new and exciting once again, except of course when we’re dealing with slobbering old coots from the so-called “Greatest Generation”. And third, Trekkies are indeed a frightening lot, but even the biggest geek — down to the sort who speaks Klingon to his children — is a virtual saint when set against Catholics, child molesters, or Harvey Weinstein. And now, to tell the tale, listed in their order of importance (to me and to you, if you know what’s good for you):


Overnight

We’re not yet out of October, but I’ll make the call nevertheless — I will not see a better film in 2004 than Mark Brian Smith & Tony Montana’s brilliant documentary, Overnight. As an exploration of hubris and unrestrained ego, I’ve never seen a more blistering portrait, and I doubt I’ll ever encounter a viler monster than self-proclaimed genius Troy Duffy. A Shakespearean villain who would have both Richard III and Lady Macbeth for breakfast, Duffy was Hollywood’s new “Golden Boy” back in 1997, when his screenplay for The Boondock Saints sent movie executives scrambling for both dollars and superlatives. Given the opportunity of a lifetime (a generous contract to direct the film, as well as a record deal for his band The Brood), Troy lost it all not because of unfortunate circumstances or the cruelties of fate, but due entirely to his own bitterness, stupidity, arrogance, and unparalleled vanity. The film is both a document of a poor boy’s rise to the top (the filmmakers were initially asked to chronicle a “star in the making”), and a complete meltdown that might have been perceived as tragic had Troy had an ounce of human decency. About fifteen minutes in, we know what’s coming (Troy is a prick to everyone, especially the most powerful people in the business), but the ride down is never anything less than a laugh-filled, entertaining riot; the most glaring example of schadenfreude ever witnessed. I’d sooner trust my fate to Hitler, Stalin, Genghis Khan, Mao or Pol Pot than Mr. Duffy, the most putrid stain on humanity since the earth first cooled. I defy you to spend 81 more pleasurable minutes in the presence of something that isn’t naked.


CSA: The Confederate States of America

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The pseudo-documentary has become a tired genre indeed, but director Kevin Willmott has found a way to bring it back, not only in style, but with humor and daring insight. Presented as a “lost tape” from England (in the style of Ken Burns), the mockumentary imagines an America if the South had won the Civil War, complete with a Slave Shopping Network, overtly racist programming, and the substitution of abolitionists for Communists in the minds of the witch hunters. But instead of taking easy potshots (Southerners are illiterate crackers who would have turned America into a giant plantation), the film takes a much darker course, even amidst the laughter — had the South forced the North to surrender, America would be, well, much as it is today. Allowing for a few minor differences here and there (such as Lincoln being forced into exile and Jefferson Davis moving into the White House), the film presents an America full of bigotry, segregation, lynching, economic disparity, and unending tension. You know, the way it actually turned out.

Even the commercial parodies ring true because, as the filmmaker reveals in the closing credits, there were Nigger Hair Cigarettes, Coon’s Fried Chicken, and the tar baby-ish Gold Dust Twins, and what’s more, they were made by Northern companies! We might laugh at the moral bankruptcy of a nation built in Dixie’s image, but consider this: each and every presidential election hinges on the South, a strategy first devised by Nixon, not George Wallace or Jesse Helms. And have we not succumbed to the allure of white trash culture? And given the American system of institutionalized racism, can the USA really claim superiority over the fictional CSA? Still, this is far from a preachy exercise. There are big laughs here, including a spot-on recreation of a mythical D.W. Griffith film called “Dishonest Abe,” which shows Lincoln escaping to Canada (in blackface!) with the help of Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad. Finally, an original, inspired look at race in America that never resorts to easy answers or cheap nostalgia.


Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst

Familiar as I was with the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, I could not have imagined how involved I would be in a documentary about that famous event. But more than a mere recreation of news clips, director Robert Stone has assembled archival footage, interviews, and tape recordings to comment on the radical Left itself; both in terms of its appeal and self-destructiveness. For the first time, I witnessed the famous surveillance video in its entirety (not just the shot of Hearst with her weapon) and listened as Patty turned from a scared, pampered heiress to a fiery, mean-spirited revolutionary (her words against her fiancee are priceless). And it never ceases to amaze me how the Symbionese Liberation Army — quite literally a handful of young idealists — brought California to its knees, mocking authority and eluding capture for many months. And the more brazen they became — daylight bank robberies, for example — the more fascinating I (and we) found them. They were doomed to failure, of course (most of the members were eventually killed when the police set fire to their hideout), but for a time they captured the spirit of an age, which means of course that they inhabited that middle ground between romance and murderous thuggery. And because this is America, Hearst is now a celebrity once again, this time for her frequent appearances in the films of John Waters. But in many ways, it was a more innocent time — when terrorists were as likely to demand food for the poor as they were the head of The Man on a stick.


Monster Road

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Who knew that madness and alienation were so much fun? Documenting the bizarre life of claymation artist Bruce Bickford, filmmaker Brett Ingram gives us two movies in one: the sheer joy of creation (with art that is truly amazing), and the despair of a life that long ago went off the rails, never to return to the realm of the normal. Similar in tone to Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, Monster Road holds a unique power more for what it doesn’t say than anything it might spell out for the rest of us. Bruce lives with his demented father (now cursed with Alzheimer’s) and while they seem to get along, there is more buried rage than even Freud could pull forth. While it is never fully explained, it is clear that Bruce, along with his brothers (one of whom committed suicide in the 60s) were savagely abused; physically and emotionally without question, sexually more than likely. Like R. Crumb, Bruce lives in his art, and channels whatever bitterness and hostility he might have into his complex clay creations. Bruce even seems at peace, preferring a soft-spoken, serene tone, when we know that he’d rather be beating his prick of a father with a shovel. In fact, his art is so violent (with dismemberment a constant theme) that I imagine he’s played out his revenge fantasies a thousand times. But as we see, insanity and brilliance are constant companions, which lends credibility to the idea that the truly gifted — those for whom invention is an effortless exercise — are always a bit “touched.” Nevertheless, this is far from a depressing journey, for I could have watched Bruce’s movies for hours, especially those glorious scenes from the clay torture chamber.


The Woodsman

Seemingly an impossible task, Nicole Kassell has crafted a film about a pedophile that is neither judgmental nor forgiving, preferring the complexity of human emotions to easy answers and obvious targets. After all, it would be no great leap to imagine a child molestor as a twitchy, sweaty monster; the sort of brute who crawls along city streets looking for fresh meat. And it would be just as obvious to blanket the proceedings with the light of understanding, as if any of us had to hear that even predators were people too. In many ways, then, this is not a story so much as an observation — a detached, purely objective glimpse of a man (played with restraint and maturity by Kevin Bacon) who is released from prison and must deal with life as an ex-convict, yes, but also the stamp of a sex offender. He secures a job through a friend of the family, but otherwise, he is a lonely soul with little to do but fight the temptation he knows is a mere encounter away. There are police officers, possible love interests, and disquieting meetings in the park with a sad-eyed young girl, but never is there a melodramatic eruption, nor is there even a hint of that old stand-by, “redemption.” A quiet film that will no doubt enrage most of America, especially those who believe that unless we can see the horns, we’d rather not see them represented — and this goes for any perceived enemy of decency and righteousness.


Sideways

Alexander Payne’s latest feature is a pleasant, deceptively simple tale of two friends heading in different directions — one who is about to embark on an already troubled marriage, while the other licks his wounds after a recent divorce. Paul Giamatti is Miles, a struggling writer whose pessimism, rage, and sadness can only be healed by a fine glass of wine or better yet, an involved discussion about the same. In fact, he only really comes alive in the presence of a prized vintage. Thomas Hayden Church is Jack, a silly, immature actor who uses a week-long bachelor party with Miles as an excuse to have sex with as many women as possible, leading to numerous complications and doubts. Pulsating with a jazzy score and the lush scenery of California’s wine country, it’s a welcome diversion into character-driven drama, helped along by comic touches that succeed in nearly every case, the lone exception being the matter of the waitress, the naked husband, and the retrieval of Jack’s wallet. Because the script finds the right tone and stays with it throughout, the lapse into farce is painfully jarring. Still, this is solid, adult filmmaking; a courageous foray into the loneliness and desperation of the American male. And despite his retreat into cynicism, Miles loves life more than he knows, as he has found that which eludes so many — passionate devotion. Listen closely when he discusses his love of pinot noir. Most people would be hard-pressed to talk about their own kids with such tenderness.


Dear Frankie

A sweet little tale from Scotland, although not so sweet that I couldn’t bring my blackened heart to the proceedings. Nine-year-old Frankie doesn’t remember his father, and he must cling to “memories” that are provided by his mother, who has resorted to writing letters in the dad’s name to convince the boy that he’s away at sea. Sounds like a gag-inducing mess, right? Hardly. With a stark, somber setting (once again, it’s impossible to make Scotland lighten up), and confident storytelling, the film avoids the expected traps and refuses to sentimentalize either the boy (and it would be easy, given that he’s also deaf) or the family’s plight, even when a stranger is paid to portray the dad for a few days. Again, the sitcom premise is handled with dignity and intelligence, and as we begin to realize that the boy is much more enlightened that he first appeared, the film takes on added significance. This could easily be a Mike Leigh tale, complete with the working class setting, desperate lives teetering on the edge of chaos, and hope yielding — though not fully — to harsh reality.


With All Deliberate Speed

For all those who believe that Brown v. Board of Education is the entire story of school desegregation, this film is a necessary correction. Filmmaker Peter Gilbert presents more than a mere case — he gives us living, breathing, and above all, hard-working people who risked their very lives so that cases like Brown could reach the courts in the first place. Of course we meet Thurgood Marshall and his team of NAACP lawyers, but the true heroes of this piece are the black families and children of the backwater South, who refused to accept crumbling buildings, outdated textbooks, and the lack of adequate transportation. In a turn that should surprise no one, especially in this age of unfunded mandates, the schools we visited in the 1940s and 1950s are largely unchanged today, as white flight and declining resources put new generations of predominantly black children at risk. As a history lesson, it’s a powerful, moving journey, made that much more heartbreaking by seeing how little progress we’ve actually made.


Rebel Frontier

If there is an enduring theme to the American experience, it is that of the conflict between capital and labor; working men and women struggling, scraping, fighting, striking, and dying, while management enlists the aid of the state to disrupt (and kill) the establishment of justice. Desmond Bell’s documentary about Butte, Montana around the outset of World War I is another chapter in that bloody history, where the copper mines were filled with the corpses of the poor as jack-booted industry once again triumphed over those who actually built this country. Narrated by Martin Sheen, the film (in only 65 minutes) lays out the cast of characters, the dynamics of the town, the clashes between Irish and Finnish immigrants and the native born, and the crime perpetrated against those who had the audacity to demand safety in the workplace, reasonable hours, and a modest pay raise in the midst of exploding profits. Just about every community in the West has a story like this, and I’m always glad when a filmmaker bucks the trend to ignore our violent heritage and passionately defend the powerless. In an age of Wal-Mart and increasing consolidation, it’s always depressing as hell to be reminded that as it was, so shall it be. Forever and always.


Saints and Sinners

The sight of a happy couple shopping for wedding attire, cakes, and catering would be my idea of hellish torment, but when the pair involves two men, I’m willing to endure, if only for the pain it brings to the Catholic Church. Two openly gay men, both adherents to a wacky creed that casts them both to an eternity of mining cars and on-the-rack torture, discuss their relationship, their families, and the search for acceptance in a community of faith that seems to accept pedophiles more readily than homosexuals. We follow their journey from trying to find a church that will accept their wedding, to their triumphant ceremony among friends and loved ones, and it never left my mind that if this wasn’t a gay couple, I’d be storming the exits. Perhaps that’s the point. By showing how ordinary all of this is, filmmaker Abigail Honor argues persuasively for the idea that in the end, gay marriage is far from the threat to heterosexual unions that many seem to assume. I’m already on board with the idea that the Constitution protects marriage for all consenting adults, gay or straight, but I imagine that someone who hasn’t thought too deeply about the subject could be moved to say, “Shit, is that all there is?” By being so banal and straightforward, this film does far more for the cause than a hundred screeching polemics.


Primer

Shane Carruth’s quirky piece is bound to alienate audiences across the country, if only because of its deliberately confounding dialogue. Two brilliant tech-nerds break away from their group of fellow engineers after accidentally discovering a method of time travel, via the machine that they’ve constructed in a garage. Wanting to keep the project secret, they enlarge it, move it to a storage facility, and begin human testing, with themselves as the guinea pigs. It’s okay to admit to being lost on occasion — I sure as fuck was — due to the techno-babble as well as the slippery hold on reality. What is the present? Are the two guys overlapping with their doubles who have gone back in time? If an event is changed to alter the present, can it be altered again by going back before it was changed the first time? Huh? Overall, it’s a fun, thought-provoking ride that remains believable throughout because it avoids silly special effects (the ultra low budget helps matters) and the events, so difficult to understand for the audience, also remain out of reach for the characters, as it is clear that their experiment has become too much to handle. The best part, however, had nothing to do with the film itself. Some Russian chick was making kissy faces with her boyfriend while chatting up a storm, which led to a fight with my wife, who kicked the Commie’s chair and told her to get out. It never got any better than when the Russian yelled “It’s none of your business!” followed by a pair of “Shut ups!” Classic stuff, but it’s getting to be a tradition.


Earthlings (Ugly Bags of Mostly Water)

If you’re even remotely interested in the origins and development of the Klingon language, this is the documentary for you. And while I am always fascinated by people who devote their lives to the useless (this is the fictional language of a fictional race, after all), the film stopped short of inspired greatness by avoiding all but the face-to-face interview. Director Alexandre O. Philippe tries to spice it up with a few film school tricks (differing film stock, avant-garde sets), but they only end up as tiresome distractions. I had a great deal of fun listening to these people explore their own obsessions, but would it have been too much trouble to show footage from the Klingon Language Institute they all seemed to love so much? And what about conventions? Or the home lives of the enthusiasts? And why is it that paint ball fanatics are so fucking weird? You’d think they were discussing their participation in the D-Day invasion, for fuck’s sake. The screening was helped along by the presence of at least five “actual” Klingon warriors, who no doubt went straight from the Q&A session to a hot night of wild, passionate ass-pounding and Mountain Dew drinking. That, or they pulled out their dog-eared and deeply wrinkled spread of Jeri Ryan and went to work with the hand lotion.


Between the Lines

This German documentary from Dirk Simon considers the strange case of Egon Bunge, an East German border soldier who killed a fellow guard and escaped to the West in November of 1980. The film explores the murder itself, as well as the personal lives of killer and victim, all in the larger context of Cold War Germany. The film wasn’t bad as a whole, but it took forever to get started, and the glacial pace prevents the viewer from full emotional involvement. Despite the inherent drama of an escape from slavery to freedom, there seems to be little urgency in the tale, and as it was a German production, little seemed to be done to bring foreign audiences into the story. No doubt this issue still resonates with the German people, but I couldn’t help but think that it was much ado about very little. Even though my interest wavered from time to time, the lively, informative Q&A session made me rethink what I had seen, although I don’t think I’ll change my mind about the execution.


The Conscientious Objector

The story of Desmond T. Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist who, as a pacifist, managed to win the Congressional Medal of Honor for his work as a medic during World War II, could have been a fascinating tale, except the subject himself kept getting in the way. I admire anyone who sticks to their principles — even some religious kook — but as Doss kept talking, I realized with a jolt that as much as I hate war, a conscientious objector really has no business on the battlefield. Killing violates one’s sense of God? Fine, stay home and accept the consequences. That would be a brave act of conscience. But once you’re in the shit (Doss spent most of his time on Okinawa, the worst bloodbath in the entire Pacific theater), your quirks threaten lives and cease to be noble. One example in particular made me purple with rage: as his unit was preparing to storm an important hill (remember, we lost over 15,000 men on this island), Doss informs his commander that they’ll have to wait for him to finish his Bible study. Why? Because it’s his “day of rest,” and that, apparently, comes before the lives and safety of his entire unit. I was floored. Coming off as unreasonable and selfish rather than heroic, Doss (and the film) never recovered because I could no longer stand a man who believed he was doing exactly as Jesus would have done. No, I think when faced with 50,000 roaring enemy soldiers, even Christ would have aimed for the whites of the eyes.

[Ed Note: And if you really want to puke, turn on your speakers and click here]


Shocking and Awful: A Grassroots Response to War and Occupation

I’m sure glad I stuck it out until the end of this three-part “package,” because the first segment — some collection of performance art pieces, paintings, photographs, and poems related to the war in Iraq — was so naive and embarrassing that I was tempted to howl at the screen. If this is anyone’s idea of liberalism, then it’s no wonder that the left has fallen out of favor in this country. I’m all for creative expression, but getting naked will not bring peace on earth, especially if those removing their clothing are these ghastly creeps. The other two segments, one entitled “The Cultural Destruction of Iraq,” and the other “The Real Face of Occupation” were far superior, using powerful images from the ground to counter every single thing we’ve ever heard from the likes of Fox News and CNN. Pulled from a larger collection of programs (New York City’s Deep Dish TV), what I saw might enlighten those who were unfazed by the looting and desecration of precious ancient artifacts (as one man says, it would be like the Smithsonian being attacked and razed to the ground), but I have a feeling that few will make it past the first half-hour.


Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus

Think of the possibilities — filmmaker Andrew Douglas picks up a classic Chevy convertible and takes us on a journey through the deep, deep South, where the Pentecostal religion oozes out of every pore, and the music stands as a reflection of their sorrow, woe, and passion for life. What would we find on this bizarre trip? Snake-handlers? Faith-healers? Murderous fundamentalists? Yes, we found the nuts, the losers, the freaks, and the schizos, but Douglas, rather than genuinely explore their lives with critical detail (or at the very least, detached objectivity), has genuine fondness for these people, believing that they and they alone have found authenticity in the American landscape. As such, the trip becomes a loving valentine to a people; the very sort who deserve our unending scorn for failing to evolve beyond the 18th century. Admirable? Why, because they believe in a literal heaven and hell? That running water is a tool of the devil? And because Douglas is such an irritating guide, he makes it as much about him as his subjects, which leaves me with absolutely no one to care about. But here’s the kicker — we explore Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Kentucky, and at no time (and I mean AT NO TIME) do we see any black people. Not one man, woman, or child. That would be like filming a documentary about Los Angeles without finding a single Latino. Honestly, can anyone hope to understand Southern music without blacks? Are you fucking kidding me? That glaring omission pissed me off, and caused me to question the director’s motives. Conclusion? He’s a racist asshole who would rather spend time with some drunk lunatic with a hard-on for Jesus than an old bluesman.


Tarnation

Ignore the hype, disregard the bullshit regarding the film’s budget ($218 my ass), and prepare yourself for one of the most unpleasant experiences you’ll have all year. Do I say this because the film concerns a young man’s portrait of his nutty mother, in addition to the abuse, the foster homes, and the pain? You know me better than that. I enjoy depressing films, and am usually dissatisfied unless someone worthwhile dies violently. Jonathan Caouette’s movie stinks up the joint not because of its honesty, but rather because of its fundamental dishonesty. Far from a cathartic experience, this is narcissism in its ugliest form; an 88-minute excuse for a wannabe actor, wannabe filmmaker, and wannabe All-American star to stick his pathetic mug before the camera at every opportunity, all in the hopes that he’ll get noticed by someone at the William Morris Agency. Even the scenes of despair seem staged, as if Jonathan knew that the best way to attract attention to himself was to emote like some method actor. As the format is limited — Caouette pulled together photographs, home movies, answering machine messages, and phone calls, and slapped them together on his home computer — any meaning must be extracted from what are obviously disconnected items. But the only theme I could find was that whenever there was something to be filmed, Jonathan was there. And hey, anyone who films every last detail of their life from age 11 is clearly someone who has planned for (and expects) fame to drop in his lap at some future moment. A film might have been made on this subject by an objective source, but Caouette is too close to the project. As such, he can never stay out of the way. And as much as I’d like to watch your brain-zapped mother cackle about a pumpkin for ten minutes, it’s best you find a better editor next time out.


FINAL QUESTIONS

  • Were the shorts typically awful? Actually, there were two that managed to be quite clever, “Gay by Dawn” and “Getting through to the President.” I won’t bother saying anything further, as you’ll never, ever see them.
  • Any performances worth mentioning? Paul Giamatti in Sideways, Kevin Bacon in The Woodsman, and Gerard Butler in Dear Frankie. That’s it, dude — the rest were documentaries.
  • Who was more vile — Jonathan Caouette or Troy Duffy? As I compared Duffy to Hitler, I’d say the choice is clear, although there’s something quite unseemly about Jonathan’s self-absorbed preening while his mother is losing her mind. Let’s call it a draw and ask that both be shot on sight.
  • Dude, what about Desmond T. Doss? Didn’t he compare himself to Jesus? Point taken. Make it a threesome.
  • Outside of Sideways, am I ever going to get to see any of these motherfuckers? Not unless you live in Los Angeles or New York, I’m afraid, which means that I’ll keeping rubbing your nose in the fact that you’ve missed several of the year’s best.
About Matt

Matt is the site’s Longest Serving Critic and chief misanthrope. He divides his time between classics of cinema and the most ridiculous movies he can find on Redbox.
Follow Matt: @mattcale52