The 33rd Starz Denver Film Festival is going to extremes in 2010.
The 12-day festival, with the Opening Night screening of Rabbit Hole on Wednesday at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, has the usual mix of feature and short films (more than 200 scheduled), along with parties and receptions, celebrity sightings, seminars, workshops and award presentations.
But festival director Britta Erickson is also pleased to announce a splendid addition to the family -- the sparkling new Denver FilmCenter/Colfax -- and is proud of the fact that there will be eight Colorado-produced features, a festival record.
Then there are a couple of movies that explore the "ex" factor. If watching characters expressing extreme behavior under extreme conditions while taking extreme measures to survive is your idea of an exciting night out, then the festival will gladly take you to the limit.
British director Danny Boyle's 127 Hours (on Nov. 5) and daring Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan (Nov. 13) are two of the Red Carpet screenings -- also at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House -- that basically bookend the festival.
While movie themes involving rock climbing and ballet seem as incompatible as Taylor Lautner and Taylor Swift, they do share common ground by taking filmgoers on a captivating thrill ride, arriving at the end with a similarly heart-pounding adrenaline rush.
Boyle's visually stunning and beautifully shot 127 Hours is the true -- and gory -- story of Aron Ralston, the Colorado adventure-seeker turned rock star who cut off his arm after getting stuck by a falling boulder in southeastern Utah's Blue John Canyon in 2003.
Aronofsky, never afraid to take chances, turns Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet into a twisted examination of a dangerous mind. Dainty Natalie Portman portrays a Good Girl Gone Mad who was raised to make the leap to prima ballerina.
Along the way, Portman's Nina is kept on her toes by a brilliant Barbara Hershey as a smothering mother more frightening than Mommie Dearest; Winona Ryder as an over-the-hill performer who's more camp than vamp; Vincent Cassel as a slimy artistic director/choreographer straight out of Showgirls; and Mila Kunis as the seductive, hot-to-trot Lily, a neurotic and erotic Black Magic Woman who wants to take her rival for the leading role to the Dark Side. This is no Queen Amidala-Darth Vader kiddie show, though.
Having contributed to spreading the word about the two directors' previous films -- Boyle's Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire and Aronofsky's The Wrestler -- by screening them during Denver's 2008 event, festival officials "put 127 Hours and Black Swan at the top of our list to pursue for this year," Erickson said.
"We track films by directors that we and our audience are keenly interested in from the moment they are announced as going into production to being dated for their theatrical release," she added in response to an e-mail question.
Also, Erickson said, "The local angle of Aron Ralston, having grown up in Denver, made 127 Hours all the more alluring to us. We do look for things that tie back to our own community," citing last year's Precious, and Denver's husband-and-wife producing team of Gary Magness and Sarah Siegel-Magness, as an example.
While rarely making the trek southwest to the annual film festival over Labor Day weekend in Telluride, Erickson said she saw both 127 Hours and Black Swan there this year with an audience. Their success had nothing to do with them being chosen for Denver, she said, but only "reinforced the selection process as we had already invited the films."
Both films created buzz as sneak previews at Telluride, often considered the state's crown jewel for film enthusiasts in comparison to Denver's semiprecious gem. Then they gained momentum -- and additional Oscar attention -- at the Toronto Film Festival, the typical "gauge" for Denver that Erickson bypassed this year for the first time in a decade.
In fact, 127 Hours sort of produced its own urban legend in Telluride, where it was reported that at least two audience members in different theaters needed medical attention after passing out during the brutally realistic scene when Ralston, played by James Franco (above), goes through with the self-amputation.
Festival employees have called those exaggerated accounts, saying one fainting filmgoer needed assistance for altitude sickness and it was nowhere near that cutting edge scene. Anyway, it's no grosser than what film buffs witness in horror schlock like the Saw or Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchises.
During a public interview with Peter Sellars in Telluride's Elks Park on Sept. 5, Franco admitted, "There's a scene in there that's very, very intense; and it's graphic, but I think possibly it's having this effect on some people because of the way the whole movie is presented.
"There's plenty of other movies that have bloodier scenes and decapitations or whatever ... but because they are slasher flicks or a different kind of a presentation, you're relating to it in a very different way. But this film, you're sitting with this character for the whole movie and so you're invested in this character in a different way, I assume."
Crowds will root for Ralston, who now lives in Boulder with his wife (Jessica) and baby boy (Leo), and will appear in Denver along with Boyle for a Q&A following the Big Night screening on Nov. 5. Before he got caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place (the name of his 2004 book), Ralston, under the good-guy guise of Franco, is shown in Boyle's film to be a helpful, charming and go-for-the-gusto free spirit. It all plays out to a rocking soundtrack from Slumdog Millionaire composer A.R. Rahman that also includes a glorious collaboration with divine pop diva Dido.
Once he is trapped in not-so-splendid isolation, Franco's character experiences hallucinations, celebrates life's little victories (such as retrieving the dull but valuable knife that dropped to his feet) and lovingly flashes back to his childhood, when dad helped him learn how to become one with nature.
With a handheld video camera the character uses, Franco leaves those General Hospital acting skills behind on his soap opera dish and covers a full range of emotions. And during what is essentially a powerful one-man performance filled with riveting moments, viewers will stayed glued to their seats, thankful they are free to come and go as they please.
On the flip side, Black Swan, will leave viewers squirming in their stadium chairs. A harrowing tale of paranoia in a world filled with backstabbers, do-gooders and pirouetting princesses trying to get a leg up, it should connect with anyone at the office being pushed to climb the corporate ladder.
Aronofsky, who grabbed Ellen Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream) and Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) out of acting mothballs and thrust them into the Oscar spotlight, might do the same for Portman (above), a lovely actress who has never been challenged this way. There's one cell phone scene -- where her character expresses relief, repulsion and exultation -- that is compelling enough to get Portman that introduction to Mr. Oscar.
At a Labor Day picnic in Telluride's Town Park during a seminar titled "Do You See What I See?" Aronofsky said he found a lot of connections between Black Swan and The Wrestler.
"They're both about performers," he said. "One's about high art, one's about low art, if you want to call wrestling 'art.' I was thinking about how to connect them artistically."
While "The Wrestler" had a grittier documentary style attached to it, Aronofsky put Portman's character through just about the same amount of intense pressure, leaving Nina ready to crack at any moment.
Obviously under the influence of Swan Lake more than The Red Shoes, and making the cast and crew sit through at least "five different versions" of a production that dates back to 1877, Aronofsky said he focused on controlling the color palette in order to stylize the film.
"We knew black and white was going to be a major issue because there's a Black Swan and a White Swan," he said. "And then we wanted to expand on that because just a black and white world would be way too extreme.
"So the first color that was obvious was pink because it's set in the world of ballet. Pink is such an important color for the ballet world as well as it's the color of innocence and childhood and young girls and so we tied that to our White Swan/innocent character."
He neglected to mention the color red, as in the blood-is-thicker-than-water shade. That becomes apparent soon enough, though.
Not for the faint of heart (or weak of stomach), both films have the nerve to leave you either squeamish about the silver screen or in a state of exhaustion, especially in the Mile High City.
Just make sure to exhale.
This story first appeared in The Pueblo Chieftain.
127 Hours and Black Swan stills courtesy of Fox Searchlight and the Denver Film Festival.