This year marks the 36th opening night for the Denver Film Festival, and like the previous 35, last night's kickoff event took place against a backdrop of glitter, glamour and anticipation. And if director Jason Reitman's Labor Day, which unspooled at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House before many of the local arts community's best, brightest and most bedazzled, was more corn-porn hokum than masterpiece, its sweaty silliness didn't dim the excitement over one of Denver's most beloved cultural institutions.
The red carpet leading to the entrance of the Ellie was crowded with photographers, videographers, Denver Film Society supporters and just plain folks interested to see if they'd recognize any of those cast in the spotlight -- which doesn't always happen, frankly.
For Labor Day, though, the fest -- sponsored again this year by Starz -- drew a couple of major players: author Joyce Maynard, who wrote the book on which the film is based, and rising teen star Gattlin Griffith, who is billed beneath on-screen mom Kate Winslet and father figure Josh Brolin, for obvious reasons, but is actually the centerpiece of the film (although the narration is handled by Tobey Maguire, who briefly appears as Griffith's character, Henry, all grown up).
First, though, the crowd inside the opera house was greeted by festival director Britta Erickson, who outlined the vast array of films to be screened -- 270 of them -- as well as highlights such as a focus on Norwegian cinema, awards for foreign and student films, more than thirty productions from Colorado and appearances by the likes of Harry Dean Stanton, who'd have been second-billed to Carl Reiner if the latter's participation in an upcoming tribute wasn't going to take place via Skype.
Erickson was followed to the podium by a spokesman for opening night presenter Key Bank, who introduced the annual on-screen nod to sponsors -- this one the most nondescript and unmemorable in recent memory. But things livened up with the appearance of Maynard, who, unlike many writers, clearly loves being in front of a crowd. Still best known in some quarters as reclusive author J.D.Salinger's paramour when he was in his fifties and she was eighteen (a relationship she recounted in the book At Home in the World), she wore a tiny, cougarirffic dress and the haircut of a Vampire Diaries cast member despite being just days from her sixtieth birthday -- something that earned precisely the reaction that she no doubt intended when she announced it.
Maynard talked about the Labor Day five years ago when the fictional thirteen-year-old Henry began speaking to her from the year 1987, as well as the journey to seeing his story made into a major Hollywood feature -- and she predicted that audience would fall in love with young Griffith by the time the tale wrapped.
No doubt many in the audience did so, even though Griffith's main requirements in the film are looking soulfully at Winslet and Brolin and trying not to masturbate during the numerous sequences in which he's seen in bed listening to to the pair boink elsewhere in the house. Time and again, he clutches his arms at the level of his chest, as if terrified by what might happen if his hand wound up south of the border.
If that description sounds creepy, it should, since there's a weird, incestuous subtext to a lot of the goings-on.
The narrative revolves around a pained, semi-agoraphobic mom (Winslet) and her son (Griffith), who are kinda/sorta held hostage over a Labor Day weekend by an escaped convict (Brolin). But this is no home-invasion shocker. Frank, Brolin's character, is absurdly idealized despite being a convicted murderer, his mild initial menace giving way to compassion, caring and an eagerness to complete household tasks without waiting for anyone to give him a honey-do list.
And that's not to mention his acumen at cooking, which director Reitman turns into the least subtle erotic metaphor imaginable during a scene in which the three main characters make a peach pie that stakes its claim as the most fuckable pastry in movie history. (Sorry, American Pie: You've been served.) Which wouldn't be so bad if the lovingly fetishized closeups of Brolin's and Winslet's hands rubbing together underneath a thick coating of syrup weren't joined by Griffith's, too. Imagine the pottery scene in Ghost if Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore were joined by Fred Savage of The Wonder Years and you've got the idea.
Throughout this scene and others, Winslet, an actress of rare gifts in many of her previous roles, alternates between looking stricken and seeming so desperate for a years-in-the-waiting orgasm that a stiff breeze might turn her into Mount Vesuvius. And while Reitman doesn't subject us to the sight of her and Brolin grinding on each other (we're left in the same position as young Henry), they soon become a couple, completing the plot's soft-focus variation on rape fantasy. Never has Stockholm Syndrome been so sexy!
Of course, Labor Day is also a gloss on middlebrow love stories like Bridges of Madison County: lonely woman is brought back to life when the perfect man drifts into her life and gives her long-dormant libido a jump-start. It might have been enjoyable if Reitman (best known for comedy-dramas like Juno and Up in the Air, both of which appeared at the Starz Denver Film Festival) had allowed himself to have some fun with it -- and indeed, the few goofy moments, like Griffith pretending to purchase a man's razor for himself, are the liveliest on view. However, the director seems determined to prove that he can make a movie that isn't primarily intended to deliver laughs -- and winds up prompting the occasional snicker instead.
Not that the crowd raced out of the opera house at movie's end. The vast majority stuck around to watch Griffith and Maynard chat with former Rocky Mountain News film critic Robert Denerstein about the picture. Griffith came across as shy and charming, while Maynard dished with aplomb.
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Many more filmmakers, actors and so on will follow in their footsteps before the extravaganzas ends on November 17, and that's one of the glories of the Starz Denver Film Festival. Even when the movie's mediocre, the conversation usually isn't.
Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.