The 23rd Denver International Film Festival leaves the gate Thursday with an opening-night screening at the Buell Theatre of David Mamet's State and Main. How appropriate. The playwright/filmmaker's latest effort is a comedy about the effects of a film crew's visit on a quiet Vermont village; it stars Alec Baldwin, Sarah Jessica Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman and William H. Macy.
This year's festival will also feature an evening with producer Frank Capra Jr., son of the late, great director of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (to be screened), as well as other classics and an homage to French cinema featuring twelve films, both new and old, from France. Don't miss Jean Vigo's rarely screened L'Atalante, made in 1934. Sean Penn will accept the fest's prestigious John Cassavetes Award for achievement in independent filmmaking; veteran actress Shirley MacLaine will enliven closing night, October 21, with a visit to the Buell and a program of clips chronicling her distinguished movie career. This year, MacLaine made her debut as a feature film director with Bruno, which is also on the screening slate.
Between Mamet and MacLaine, the festival will hold forth at the Tivoli Theatres, West Ninth Avenue and Auraria Parkway, with more than a hundred screenings and special events. A few highlights: Arthur Rimbaud: A Biography, a moving account of the symbolist poet's life, directed by another festival visitor, French documentarian Richard Dindo; Paul Cox's Innocence, a story of lovers reunited after fifty years that drew widespread praise at this spring's Cannes Film Festival; Boesman and Lena, the late John Berry's adaptation -- with Danny Glover and Angela Bassett -- of South African playwright Athol Fugard's searing immersion in black alienation and despair under apartheid; and Volker Schlöndorff's The Legends of Rita, a fascinating study of a fugitive West German terrorist whose world is turned upside down when the Berlin Wall crumbles in 1989. Canadian director Denys Arcand (Jesus of Montreal) satirizes celebrity culture in Stardom, while Greek filmmaker Nicholas Triandafyllidis takes his own shot at showbiz and power politics in Black Milk.
In the French film package, look for Dominik Moll's half-hilarious, half-scary Harry, He's Here to Help, in which a smiling, satanic muse insinuates himself into the life of an unassuming former grammar-school classmate -- with extremely violent results. In Gerard Stembridge's About Adam, an unlucky singer-waitress brings the man of her dreams home to meet her mother, two sisters and brother -- only to find herself embroiled in a most unusual family affair. Yi Yi, directed by Edward Yang, reveals the turmoil among three generations of a contemporary Taiwanese family. The Yards, a gritty New York melodrama directed by 29-year-old James Gray (Little Odessa), stars Boogie Nights' Mark Wahlberg as a young ex-convict with a weakness for money and power that gets him into trouble with corrupt politicians and his own relatives, including a menacing patriarch played by James Caan. Ali Pomeroy's Death Row, U.S.A. takes a hard look at the death-penalty debate, and Of Civil Rights and Wrongs: The Fred Korematsu Story, directed by Eric Paul Fornier, chronicles the heroism of a Japanese-American who refused to report to an internment camp in 1942 and took his fight to the U.S. Supreme Court.
As always, the Denver festival will feature a nice selection of classics and revivals. Among them: F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent masterpiece Nosferatu, the father of all Dracula films, is bound to chill brand-new audiences, and Ernst Lubitsch's 1934 musical romp, The Merry Widow, will remind us again what Hollywood high style used to be, courtesy of Maurice Chevalier, Jeannette MacDonald and the lilting music of Franz Lehár.