Elephant (2003, Gus Van Sant)
Gus Van Sant was invited to accompany his film Elephant to the Starz Denver International Film Festival. He did not attend. Instead, Lisa Kennedy, the Denver Post film critic, introduced the movie. She said she thought it was a cowardly move for Van Sant not to want to face a Denver audience with a movie so closely based on the Columbine killings. I tried to think about that while watching the movie, and I came up with a few answers as to why people here would dislike it.
1. People have a hard time seeing killers portrayed as human, especially when they are based on actual people. We like our villains prepackaged as evil, and we like them to be very different from us. Van Sant wasn’t willing for this to be that easy. He didn’t give us a couple of black-clad kids listening to Marilyn Manson and gleefully shooting people. Instead, he gives us kids who play classical piano and talk about never having kissed anyone. He also gives us “victims” who suffer from bulimia, drunken parents, get picked on, and may be pregnant. Until you see two kids with big black bags approaching the school, it’s a normal high school, and the kids in the movie were students from a high school in Portland, where Van Sant shot. Nobody is perfect and nobody is evil, for the most part. The shooters do have a devil air freshener in their car, and they are watching a Hitler documentary when they receive their guns (ordered from the Internet!), which are choices that may seem heavy-handed, but for the most part, he steers away from making judgments and leaves that up to the viewer.
Which brings me to point 2. People don’t like to have to make choices during a movie. They want answers. Kennedy said that Van Sant has said he sees this movie as a poem, and having seen Gerry, I was prepared not to have a conventional plot. He’s not looking to give answers. Instead he evokes a mood, then cuts off abruptly to leave you with it. Maybe too abruptly–I would’ve liked to see some of the students’ reactions to the aftermath, but maybe he understands that a tragedy like this is never truly over.
I’m not saying there was nothing wrong with the movie, or that Denver audiences in particular don’t have a right to dislike it. There were parts where I felt Van Sant strayed from his objectivity–I felt the movie was seen through too much of a male point of view, and wanted to see some girls who weren’t friendless geeks or bulimic blonde bimbos, in particular, but I think he succeeded in creating a poem on film, and I wish he had come here to talk about his film. Then again, I’m not from Denver either, so perhaps I see Columbine the same way that Van Sant did.
Dallas 362 (2003, Scott Caan)
Scott Caan, son of James Caan, and actor in such movies as Ocean’s Eleven and Gone in 60 Seconds, makes an impressive debut as writer-director-costar in Dallas 362. Such choices can often result in overblown ego-projects, but Caan’s reasoning on making his first film seems more down-to-earth. While in Denver discussing his film, he told the story of a friend of his who spends more time on the couch watching TV than anything else. This friend asked him to appear in a short film he was making, so Caan, who regularly writes and directs for the stage with his theater company, agreed to show up. When he did, the friend had an elaborate professional setup for his short. So, Caan laughed, “I figured that if this moron could make a short, I could make a full-length feature.”
Partly based on autobiographical details, Caan crafted a humorous yet realistic tale of two boys drifting in early adulthood, spending more time in barfights than jobs. Dallas (Caan) and Rusty (Shawn Hatosy), both named for Matt Dillon’s characters in The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, respectively, are two bright, witty kids joined at the hip. Rusty idealizes Dallas, who in reality is more of a small-time hood with big-time plans. Rusty’s mom (Kelly Lynch) is dating a psychiatrist (Jeff Goldblum), who agrees to see Rusty for free, but none of them can stop Dallas.
Caan does a masterful job for someone so young in the triple roles of writer, actor, and director in this touching story of loyalty and missed opportunities. In addition to great acting, especially by standout Val Lauren from Caan’s theater group, the photography is excellent, and the music is great and adds to the feel of the film. It is stylish without being overstylized, and tough without losing its humanity. Caan says he wants to do more directing, and is steering away from wanting to be the tortured Marlon Brando or James Dean actor-type, and I hope that everything he does is as good as this. The movie doesn’t have major distribution with, but two companies are interested, so hopefully you will be able to see this movie soon, and I strongly recommend that you do.
Friday Night (2002, Claire Denis)
Demonlover (2002, Olivier Assayas)
Two movies, seemingly with little in common.
What they really had in common: they are both French, and in neither one could I really tell what was going on.
In Claire Denis’ Friday Night, a woman (Valerie Lemercier) sets out to drive to a friend’s house for dinner, but ends up stuck in a traffic jam caused by a mass transit strike. She is due to move in with her boyfriend the next day, but after sitting in traffic for a while, she lets a stranger into her car, and change ensues–or so the synopsis would have you believe.
In Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover, Connie Nielsen is a woman working for a French company attempting to make a deal with a Japanese animation company. She is playing both sides, though, and intrigue ensues.
In Demonlover, much happens, and it’s terribly hard to follow. In Friday Night, not much happens, and yet it’s still hard to follow. Demonlover has as a bonus the winning performances of Gina Gershon and Chloe Sevigny, and a plot that seems to be going somewhere, but it quickly spins out of control and out of any possibility of a rational resolution. Yes, it’s unpredictable, sexy, and intricately planned, but at the end, you’re left unsure as to what you’re supposed to think, or what really happened.
Friday Night is also sexy, less intricately planned, and the end is a little clearer. You know what has happened, essentially, but not exactly, and not how it happened. After one clear fantasy sequence, you are left wondering what is real and what is happening inside Laure (Valerie Lemercier)’s head.
I won’t say either one was a bad movie. Both were certainly worth watching. Friday Night contrasted lovely photography with very odd and uncomfortable camera angles, and Demonlover had quirky characters and anime porn sequences. Interesting, and possibly thought-provoking, but at the end of both, I wondered: Did I miss something? Or did the filmmakers not have a clear point either?
The 26th Annual Denver Film Festival kicks off this Thursday, October 9th. This year’s schedule includes several premieres, a salute to Italian cinema, and award presentations to a few well-known actors. Obviously, I won’t be able to see all of the films, but I’m going to try and cover as many as possible for you, and hopefully bring you some insider information as well.
The festival opens on Thursday night at 7:30 P.M. with Robert Benton’s “The Human Stain”, starring Oscar-winning actors Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, as well as Oscar-nominated actors Gary Sinise and Ed Harris (who also stars in Radio, playing Thursday, October 16th at the festival.) The Human Stain is the story of a professor (Hopkins) with a dark secret, who gets involved with a woman (Kidman) with secrets of her own.
The centerpiece of the festival will be Jim Sheridan’s “In America”, on Saturday, October 11th at 8:00. This film is based on Sheridan’s own experiences, and details the struggles of an Irish family illegally living in New York. Actor Djimon Hounsou has been invited to appear at the screening.
Closing the festival down will be Wayne Kramer’s “The Cooler”, starring William H. Macy, (Fargo, Boogie Nights, Magnolia) who will be receiving the festival’s John Cassavetes award for his contribution to American independent film. The award will be presented at 4:30 P.M. on Saturday, October 18th, and the film will be screened at 8:00. The Cooler is the story of a man whose luck is so bad that he is hired by a casino to cool off gamblers’ hot streaks.
Other gala screenings at the festival include “A Heart Elsewhere” (2003, Italy, directed by Pupi Avati, starring Neri Marcore and Giancarlo Giannini), “Radio” (2003, USA, directed by Michael Tollin, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ed Harris), “Pieces of April” (2003, USA, written and directed by Peter Hedges, starring Katie Holmes, who will be appearing in person), “Shattered Glass” (2003, USA, directed by Billy Ray, starring Hayden Christensen), “Off the Map” (2003, USA, directed by Campbell Scott, who will be appearing in person), and “Piaf: Her Story, Her Songs” (2003, USA/France, directed by George Elder, starring Raquel Bitton, who will be appearing and performing live.)
The tribute to Italian cinema includes Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2”, “Amarcord”, “La Strada” and “La Dolce Vita”, the 366-minute epic “The Best of Youth”, Franco Piavoli’s experimental film” At the First Breath of Wind”, the Oedipal love story “Burning in the Wind; The Chameleon”, which Luca Barbareschi (who will be appearing at the festival) wrote, directed, and starred in; Krzysztof Kieslowski award finalist I’m Not Scared, Giada Colagrande’s directorial debut “Open My Heart”, Piergiorgio Gay’s The Power of the Past, as well as the gala screening of “A Heart Elsewhere”.
In addition to the John Cassavetes award, the festival presents the Krzysztof Kieslowski award to the best European film, and the Starz People’s Choice award, which you can vote for following the screenings. Also, actor Campbell Scott will be receiving a tribute, and appearing along with his films “Off The Map”, “Lush”, and “The Spanish Prisoner”. The Encore Westerns Channel Award will be presented to Wes Studi (Last of the Mohicans, Geronimo: An American Legend), and the Rising Star award will be presented to Bobby Cannavale, star of The Station Agent.
World premieres and special awards aside, other movies screening at the festival worth seeing include” Breakfast with Hunter”, a documentary about journalist and Colorado resident Hunter S. Thompson; “Bored in Brno”, a love story from the Czech Republic; “Casa de los Babys”, director John Sayles (who is filming Silver City in Denver currently)’s story of six women trying to adopt South American babies; Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant”, about a Columbine-like school shooting; “Dallas 362”, actor Scott Caan’s directorial debut; “La Petite Lili”, starring Ludivine Sagnier of “Swimming Pool” and “8 Women”; “The Revolution Will Not be Televised”, a documentary filmed during the military coup in Venezuela; “The Singing Detective”, with an ensemble cast including Robert Downey, Jr., Robin Wright Penn, Katie Holmes, Mel Gibson, and the always-wonderful Adrien Brody; and two groups of shorts by Colorado filmmakers: Colorado Independents: Documentary, and Colorado Independents: Fiction.
“The Human Stain”, “In America”, and “The Cooler” will screen at the Buell Theatre at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. “A Heart Elsewhere”, “Radio”, “Pieces of April”, “Shattered Glass”, “Off the Map”, and “Piaf: Her Story, Her Song”s, as well as the salute to Willam H. Macy, will be at the King Center behind the Tivoli. All other films will be shown at the Starz Film Center at 9th Avenue and Auraria Parkway.
A complete listing of films showing at the Denver International Film Festival is available at www.denverfilm.org. See you there!