Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on November 15, 2009
There are thousands of film festivals out there, and most of them are small D.I.Y. affairs that lean heavily on digital projection and extremely low-budget projects that happily take up any host that will notice them. And that’s fine. But I’ve also seen an abuse of local media by some of these overzealous festival promoters who know that the over-worked and harried journalists at shrinking newspapers often times won’t question their outrageous claims at being the “Cannes of the (your location here)” or other such nonsensical hyperbole. So it’s with great pleasure that I announce the return of a “reel” film festival that’s been around for several decades and that ambitiously brings in ten days of very eclectic programming, most of which is still on 35mm film: The 2009 Starz Denver Film Festival (Nov. 12 – 22).
Before I go any further, a mandatory disclaimer: my calendar film series (The International Film Series) is in cahoots with SDFF. In fact, this is the tenth year we’ve worked together by bringing satellite screenings of their films to Boulder. SDFF features some hundred-plus films and over 30 visiting filmmakers. The Mayor’s Career Achievement Award this year goes to Ed Harris. The Excellence in Acting Award: Hal Holbrook. The Stan Brakhage Vision Award: Ernie Gehr. A side-bar focuses on Festival de Cine Mexicano. In a way, that tells you a lot right there: mainstream, indie, avante-garde, and foreign. The SDFF casts a wide net. But my focus will be on the six films they programmed through my film series. They are:
Film Ist. A Girl & A Gun (Gustav Deutsch, 2009)
“Drawing on European archives and material from the Kinsey Institute, avant-garde filmmaker Gustav Deutsch uses footage from silent films, shorts, pornography, and scientific and historical reels to piece together a singular and challenging meditation on sex, death, and the nature of cinema. This is the thirteenth episode in Deutsch’s Film Ist series.”
I’ll admit to reading the program notes above and hoping for something along the lines of Bill Morrison’s Decasia (2002) – which is a beautiful marriage of both sound and mesmerizingly distressed archive footage that blows my mind from frame one to the end. Deutsch’s work is full of incredibly interesting moments (stag footage from the early 1900′s, crazy stuff with Zeppelins going up in flames) but, for the most part, this was a bit too academic for me and lacked the visual poetics I was hoping for. Still, it had lasting images. Creepy to see silent film footage of people wearing masks, be it for medical purposes or pornographic ones.
Leaves of Grass (Tim Blake Nelson, 2009)
“Edward Norton, Susan Sarandon, and Keri Russell star in this black comedy about a mild-mannered professor of classics who returns home to rural Oklahoma for the funeral of his miscreant twin brother, where a reunion with his estranged mother isn’t all that awaits him: romance beckons too.”
Nelson is an actor who had a strong directorial debut with Eye of God (1997). Here he goes for Coen Brothers terrain and, while promising, falls a bit short of hitting either the poignant emotional or visually stunning marks of either, say, Fargo or Blood Simple. But there’s no assailing Norton – he’s a pleasure to watch, be it as a virtuous professor or his no-good, drug-dealing brother. Richard Dreyfuss puts in an amusing cameo and, overall, this was well received by an audience that was looking for fun. There was an abrupt tonal shift, however, just past the half-way mark where suddenly things get graphic and bloody. It’s all the more jarring because up to this point the crowd had been lulled into a state of comedic complacency.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog, 2009)
“Filmmaking legend Werner Herzog’s thrilling remake of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 cult favorite features Nicolas Cage as a corrupt, drug-addicted cop, Val Kilmer as his paunchy sidekick, Eva Mendes as his prostitute/girlfriend – and post-Katrina’s New Orleans as a city in even more trouble than Ferrara’s New York.”
I’ve already reviewed this film in my previous Telluride Film Festival post, and will only add that I must take exception with a couple points raised in the program notes above. Kilmer is only onscreen for a few seconds and, more importantly, this film has nothing to do with Ferrara’s 1992 film. This is a unique hybrid of Herzog idiosyncrasies with Hollywood glam courtesy Cage hamming it up. I love Herzog’s penchant for animals and the sublime, not to mention his fascination with larger-than-life people with larger-than-life problems. I was also surprised to find myself laughing all the way through as Cage takes his “I’m on crack, man!” method-acting wayyyy over the top. The last half-hour goes into “the land of miracles” and reminds me of The Last Laugh (1924) – where the director films a string of improbably optimistic events with a wink at the audience. This is a self-conscious film, and purposefully funny. It’s also such an odd duck that, rumor has it, it’s gong to be unceremoniously dumped to DVD without a proper theatrical release.
Eccentricities of a Blonde Girl (aka: Singularidades de uma Rapariga Loura, by Manoel de Oliveira, 2009)
“From centenarian Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira comes this modern romance about a man who falls in love with a woman he sees out the window of his Lisbon office. Setting off to make his fortune so he can claim his bride, he returns only to be confronted by a discovery that love cannot conquer.”
Oliveira’s got almost 50 films under his belt, he’s 100-years-old, and has been the oldest director in activity for the last eight years. Eccentricities of a Blonde Girl has a classical aesthetic; the camera hardly moves, all shots are static, no close-ups (mostly medium-shots), compositions are carefully arranged with deep focus so that the background and foreground are given equal weight. The story begins with a man on a train deciding to tell his story of woe to a stranger. We see the story unfold in flashbacks. It’s a cautionary tale, both simple yet elegant. It feels like it comes to us from a time long ago, and yet feels timeless. It does a great job of capturing the joy of young love, as well as heavy disappointment that can follow. Included are some strange scenes involving family members that give it a folk-tale quality. It’s a short film that sits well in the mind and sets itself far apart from the hurried and frenzied works out there that seem to revel in conniptions.
Best Worst Movie (Michael Stephenson, 2009)
“As an unbelievably bad horror film becomes a cult fave many years after its release, the original cast is rousted out to attend special screenings, bestowing a strange brand of restored celebrity on the leading man – now a small-town dentist who fortunately sees the humor in the whole situation.”
As I’m seeing this tonight, I can not yet comment on it personally. However, my good friend Alisha just caught an earlier screening in Denver and emailed me this: “Make sure and encourage peeps to see Best Worst Movie. Saw it last night and it was great, fun, charming and I got dimples from smiling so much while watching it. A real treat!”
Troll 2 (Claudio Fragasso, 1990)
“This cult classic (and subject of Best Worst Movie, also playing at SDFF 32) tells the utterly garbled story of a family that travels to the creepy town of Nilbog (wink, nudge), only to become vegetarian food (see: “garbled”) for a clan of rabid – and badly costumed – things. Must see to believe.”
Supposedly, at one point, this was the worst-ranked film on IMDB, but it’s now #54 on the “Bottom 100 movies as voted by (IMDB) users.” The “top” spot is currently given to Super Babies: Baby Geniuses 2 (2004). Either way, this is a rare 35mm print that can only be screened in theaters with reel-to-reel projectors (which mine has), so I’m looking forward to some campy fun. As the picture below shows, there seem to be quite a few unabashed fans for trolls rolling around out there – so I’m hoping we get some butts in the seats tonight for a howling good time.
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