The terror attacks in Paris cast a shadow over the last days of the Denver Film Festival. At screening after screening throughout the fest's final weekend, speakers referenced the horrific crimes and encouraged attendees to send positive thoughts to victims and survivors in the City of Light.
But the shows went on and attendance was strong, for the most part, strong, especially for Coming Through the Rye, the closing-night feature at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. Credit for the turnout, which resulted in the opening of the Ellie's upper levels, goes in part to writer-director James Sadwith, who noted that investors had traveled from as far away as Vermont to offer their support, and young star Alex Wolff, who brought his mom along.
Clearly, the movies offered an escape from the grimness of reality even when they took on heavy topics — and plenty of the fest selections I caught after our first-weekend roundup took chances rather than complying with familiar formulas.
War of Lies, which screened on Tuesday, November 10, is built upon an extended interview with Rafed Ahmed Alwan, a petrochemical engineer turned Iranian defector who supplied the American government with false information about WMDs that was used to justify military action in Iraq; his CIA code name was "Curveball." Alwan proves to be a slippery subject, willing to admit his prevarications but less eager to concede that his falsehoods carried with them a terrible cost. At one point, he claims, jaw-droppingly, that he was the only victim in the entire Iraq War debacle.
Unfortunately, director Matthias Bittner illustrates Alwan's material with shaky-cam reenactments that suggest the world's most boring Paranormal Activities sequel. There are point-of-view shots aplenty of Alwan wandering around his apartment — keeping his domicile was among his primary motivations for maintaining his fictions — and looking at his cell phone, but few images that complement the narrative in any substantial way. Moreover, Alwan resists self-reflection until the final moments, by which time his justifications have grown tiresome and redundant. The documentary's conclusion would pack more of a punch if the swings that preceded it made more of an impact.
Then again, War of Lies was a masterpiece in comparison to Camino, the latest from director Josh Waller and Zöe Bell, Quentin Tarantino's favorite stuntwoman (she doubled as Uma Thurman in Kill Bill and played a role in Death Proof). Bell and Waller appeared prior to the Friday, November 13, screening at the United Artists Denver Pavilions, with Waller stressing that the movie was "fun." But in truth, the tale of a photojournalist, played by Bell, who must fight to survive when she discovers that the supposedly humanitarian leader of a guerilla squad is actually a vicious psychopath, is dreary exploitation fare (as opposed to the actually entertaining kind). The visuals are undistinguished, the characters lack any memorable qualities, and few scenes take advantage of Bell's formidable athletic skills. The narrative contains far too many moments during which women are battered and abused, with the camera glorying in the repugnance in such a creepy fashion that any subsequent retribution is tainted as a result. The kicker? Bell is hardly present for the last portion of the picture (save a cliched coda) for reasons that any competent screenwriter would have addressed long before film was rolling.
I Saw the Light, which screened later on November 13 at the Sie FilmCenter, was a considerably larger disappointment. A biopic of country titan Hank Williams, based on an excellent biography by Colin Escott, the film seems to have all the ingredients for success, including the presence of Tom Hiddleston, who looks poised for a breakout following his charmingly nefarious turns as Loki in assorted Marvel movies. But from the flick's first moments, during which Hiddleston is seen crooning while lit like '50s-era Frank Sinatra, director Marc Abraham fails to capture the essence of this musical innovator.
Part of the problem is Hiddleston, whose singing is far too smooth and slick. (Elizabeth Olsen, who plays Williams's first wife, has more of Hank's trademark nasal twang than he does — and her lousy vocals are a key plot point during the story's first half.) He portrays Williams as a matinee idol rather than the visual oddball he was. Moreover, the movie concentrates on his drinking, back problems and womanizing to the exclusion of digging into his creative process. Musical sequences end up feeling like interstitial material — links to scenes of Hank behaving badly. And if his groundbreaking songs are treated so offhandedly, why should an audience care about his tragic fate?
But if I Saw the Light is failed Oscar bait, Carol, which played during an afternoon red-carpet presentation at the Ellie on Saturday, November 14, is the real deal — a prestige picture about a lesbian relationship during the 1950s that also happens to work as compelling drama.
One reason the film feels so assured may be that director Todd Haynes has essentially made it before: 2002's Far From Heaven, about a relationship between a white woman (Julianne Moore) and a black man (Dennis Haysbert) offered a similar tale of illicit love during the Eisenhower era. But while Heaven was an overt homage to the cinematic stylings of Douglas Sirk, the maker of dark, impressionistic soaps such as the second Imitation of Life, Carol feels more personal — less a visual exercise than a character study whose potboiler elements seem considerably more organic. The acting is superlative as well, with Cate Blanchett, in the title role, underplaying rather than champing the scenery, as she did in the Oscar-winning Blue Jasmine, and Rooney Mara, as the naive but impetuous object of her desire, subtly coming into her own over the course of the film. And if the material, drawn from a book that suspense writer Patricia Highsmith allowed to be published under her name only after her death, is antiquated, it's also era-appropriate, offering a window into a world that, at long last, is finally fading away.
Coming Through the Rye isn't nearly on that level. Writer-director Sadwith's semi-autobiographical story of his late-'60s meeting with reclusive author J.D. Salinger, whom he hoped (in vain) would bless his stage adaptation of Catcher in the Rye, has an Afterschool Special feel at times — as when Stefania Owen, as love interest Deedee, tells protagonist Jamie (Wolff, as Sadwith's stand-in) that he's the bravest boy she's ever met.
Sadwith aims for a John Hughes-y quality, complete with scenes during which Wolff speaks directly to the camera, but the story remains schematic and the narrative underpopulated — and Chris Cooper, who plays Salinger in a couple of brief scenes, is saddled with a pair of giant eyebrows that makes him look a bit like a Dick Tracy bad guy. But the saving grace is Wolff, best known for his days as one of the main figures in the popular Nickelodeon series The Naked Brothers Band, whose blend of wit and sincerity is utterly charming. He received the Denver Film Festival's Rising Star award, and damned if he doesn't show every sign of becoming one, as evidenced by his cheeky responses during a post-screening Q&A with Sadwith conducted by film writer Robert Denerstein. Coming Through the Rye will likely be a minor part of Wolff's filmography, but an important one.
My personal fest ended on Sunday, November 15, at the UA Pavilions with Lamb, an Ethiopian film by director Yared Zeleke. The film centers on Rediat Amare as Ephraïm, a boy who moves in with relatives after his mother dies and his father must leave the drought-stricken village and go to the city in search of work . Ephraïm's constant companion is a lamb named Chuni, and when it becomes obvious that his pet is seen by his new caretakers as the main course of an upcoming holiday meal, he dedicates himself to escape for both of them.
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But if this description makes the film sound like a heartwarming, family friendly tale, it's not. Among other things, director Zeleke explores gender stereotypes — the patriarch of the family reviles Ephraïm as a "sissy" because he's a great cook — and the necessity of sacrifice in an environment where starvation is an immediate concern. The story doesn't quite follow Old Yeller down the path to eternity, but neither is its conclusion especially tidy, which may explain why the audience at the Denver screening offered only a smattering of applause at the film's conclusion, despite Lamb's visual beauty and compellingly naturalistic performances.
But Lamb offers no easy answers — and in the wake of the Paris attacks, that's appropriate. In 2015, we need art that challenges our preconceptions. And at its best, the fare presented at the 38th annual Denver Film Festival did just that.