At the outset of the 2014 Starz Denver Film Festival, the weather gods seemed angry. Historic low temperatures put a damper on turnout for the Opening Night screening of 5 to 7, and daylong snowfall and the lingering freeze did likewise for Saturday's Big Night presentation of an infinitely higher profile offering, The Imitation Game. Yet attendance for other flicks has been extremely solid, and frequently better than that, and the quality of the selections has, for the most part, rewarded those willing to brave the cold.
In the lead-up to The Imitation Game, traffic froze, appropriately enough, on the approach to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, creating a jam so long-lasting and persistent that after moving half a block in thirty minutes, I bailed down an alleyway, found an outlying pay lot and hoofed it several blocks to the Buell Theatre, where the film was slated to unspool.
Upon my arrival, I discovered that, as with 5 to 7, the upper-levels of the Buell were off-limits due to a sales shortfall. But in contrast to Opening Night, when attendees were allowed to sit wherever they wished, ushers refused entry to the lower section for anyone lacking the proper laminate, despite probably one-hundred open seats -- a stark contrast to the other main-level sections, which were full of the hoi polloi.
That left those who arrived late through no fault of their own with nowhere to go. In the end, my son and I slid past the barrier to the mezzanine when no one was looking. Around fifty others made their way there as well, giving us great views of all those unused seats closer to the screen.
Moments later, the introductions began, and there were plenty of them: Denver Film Society executive director Tom Botelho was followed by DFS board chairman Anthony Paul and Starz chief revenue officer Michael Thornton. Fortunately, all three were able to effectively convey their enthusiasm for this particular Big Night, which capped Denver Arts Week, and The Imitation Game, which was both an Academy Award hopeful and something much more important: a praise-worthy film.
The Imitation Game tells the tale of Alan Turing, a mathematical prodigy who led the British project to break the German code dubbed "Enigma" during World War II. Benedict Cumberbatch portrays Turing as more than just a social misfit; his inability to perceive attempts at humor is one of many characteristics shared with those located on the autism spectrum. But his awkwardness is also influenced by the necessity that he hide his homosexuality, which at the time wasn't just frowned upon by society as a whole, but was also a crime punishable by imprisonment or chemical castration.
That sounds like a recipe for a heavy slog, and in other hands, it might have been. But director Morten Tyldum, working from Graham Moore's adaptation of Andrew Hodges's biography, models the tale into a decidedly old-fashioned entertainment, replete with a disapproving boss (Charles Dance, in full Tywin Lannister mode), a more supportive superior (Mark Strong) and a cadre of cohorts who don't get Turing until they do (included are Matthew Goode and Downton Abbey's Allen Leech). Also key is Keira Knightley as a like (as opposed to love) object -- someone who appreciates Turing's brilliant mind enough not to care about other parts of his anatomy.
Many of the narrative's set pieces are familiar in the extreme: Among them is a scene in which Turing's teammates threaten to quit if he's fired, plus assorted stock-footage montages and a light-bulb moment triggered by a random comment -- such a staple of biopics about geniuses that they may be required by law. But these elements are so sturdily assembled and effectively paced that the result is less resentment over the way the material has been squeezed into a familiar shape than appreciation for the craftsmanship at its foundation.
And then there's Cumberbatch, whose career as a film actor remains in the shadow of his wonderful portrayal of Sherlock Holmes on the BBC. At last year's Starz Denver Film Festival, for example, he was featured in August: Osage County in what I described at the time as the worst performance of his career. But he's clearly got a knack for playing misunderstood intellectuals: His Turing veers from comically exasperating to undeniably tragic. Yet Cumberbatch remains consistent throughout, preferring nuance to scenery-chewing.
The same can't be said for Reese Witherspoon in Wild, an Oscar-baiting marathon of physical agony, slow deaths, heroin injections and emotional torment that was also screened on Thursday, November 13 as part of the festival. But the other films I've eyeballed so far were all worth seeing.
Free Fall, which I caught on Friday, is a collection of surreal, barely related tales assembled by Hungarian directors György Pálfi, Gergely Pohárnok and Zsófia Ruttkay. Some segments really hit (loved the one about the germophobic couple trying to have sex), while others missed in ways that were usually still provocative. Let's just say that after witnessing one bit, you'll never look at the birth canal the same way again....
In addition to The Imitation Game, Saturday also brought 1959's Black Orpheus, director Marcel Camus's astonishingly exuberant re-imagining of the Orpheus myth against the backdrop of Carnival in Rio, and The Drop, starring Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini (in his final role), a fairly minor effort distinguished by its presenter, film writer David Thomson, whose comments fore and aft were incisive, well considered and often funny. (In case you're curious, he has one word for Interstellar: "crap.") And on Sunday, I caught El Critico, a lightweight Argentine charmer about what happens to a film critic who hates romantic comedies when he finds himself in one.
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That's a pretty good percentage for any film festival, especially considering that we're not even at the halfway point of this year's Starz Denver extravaganza. And as a bonus, the weather is getting better....
Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.