While introducing a screening at the 36th Starz Denver Film Festival late last week, fest director Britta Erickson asked members of the audience how many people had seen 25 movies by then -- and a number of hands went up, with even more rising to confirm other ticket-holders had caught twenty or ten. Compared to these fortunate folks, I was an absolute slacker: Due to circumstances beyond my control (read: life), I only managed to attend seven. And of those, fact definitely defeated fiction.
We've previously shared our takes on the opening night feature, the corn-porny Labor Day, and Big Night focus Nebraska, easily our favorite of the flicks that flickered to life at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House during red-carpet presentations.
But we also made it to The Resurrection of a Bastard, one of the most acclaimed works included in the fest's tribute to the cinema of the Netherlands. And we didn't come away singing its praises.
Yes, there's plenty of striking imagery on view amid this tale of Ronnie, a thug (played by Yorick van Wageningen) who begins to moderate his behavior after a near-death experience. But when the first nice thing you have to say about a movie involves the cinematography, there's a damn good chance the story and characters are lacking, and that was definitely the case with this particular Bastard. Director Guido van Driel, working from a screenplay he co-wrote, uses a splintered narrative approach that can't help recalling Pulp Fiction-era Quentin Tarantino. But neither Ronnie nor any of the others in his orbit are funny or verbose or compelling or tragic enough to sustain interest over the artsy time- and viewpoint shifts, and the quasi-surreal symbolism like that depicted in the image above feels tacked on rather than intrinsic to the tale as a whole.
On the plus side, you do get to see a guy have his eyeball sucked out by a vacuum cleaner. So, there's that.
The storytelling in Out of the Furnace is more straightforward. But the latest effort from Scott Cooper, who's best known for writing and director Jeff Bridges to an Oscar in Crazy Heart, is essentially a B-movie whose pretentiousness sucks out most of the potential fun.
Christian Bale is solid and watchable as always in the role of Russell, a mill worker in a dying steel town who winds up doing a prison stint after drunkenly killing a child in a car crash -- and upon his release, he finds himself in the position of protecting his little brother (Casey Affleck), whose economic desperation draws him into a doomed allegiance with a crank-addled backwoods fight promoter (Woody Harrelson). The picture pay overt homage to iconic works such as On the Waterfront with zero subtlety: For those who weren't already reminded of The Deer Hunter, Cooper helpfully includes a deer-hunting scene. But in the end, these elements feel secondhand and predictably by-the-numbers, not newly energized and freshly relevant. And yet another mopey, redundant, dark-night-of-the-soul Affleck performance almost makes me look forward to brother Ben's impending turn as Batman. Operative word: "almost."
Many of the same issues afflict the festival's Centerpiece film, August: Osage County, which comes across as the hottest Oscar hopeful of 1959. On screen, Tracy Letts's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, minimally opened up for a different kind of theater, comes across like a mash-up of Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee: Who's Afraid of a Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, maybe? The overheated family drama, set in steamy Oklahoma, revolves around Violet Weston, a cancer-stricken, pill-addicted truth-teller played by Meryl Streep with the kind of I'm-hungry-for-scenery voraciousness that Academy Award voters who like their acting to be obvious instead of invisible won't be able to resist.
Add in Julia Roberts as a daughter with more than a touch of Violet in her, plus two more starkly drawn sisters (Julianne Nicholson as the shy one who stays and Juliette Lewis as the slutty one who leaves) and an old-style plot that turns on the unveiling of squirmy secrets and you've got a Battle of the Archetypes that couldn't feel stagier if the players took a bow at the end. And that's not to mention what we hope is the worst performance of Benedict Cumberbatch's career. He's proof that not every Brit can pull off an American accent.
Too bad everyone who sees the flick in the months to come can't experience it the way attendees at the Ellie did. Afterward, director John Wells, a Cherry Creek grad who went on to oversee some of the best television programs of the recent past (The West Wing) and the present day (Shameless), took to the stage, and his conversation with Robert Denerstein was a pure pleasure -- more enlightening and entertaining that the movie he was on hand to promote. No need to wait for the DVD release, since Wells's visit definitely qualified as bonus material.
Far less enlightening was the post-screening conversation between Denerstein and five folks from the closing night movie, At Middleton: star Andy Garcia, supporting actors Spencer Lofranco and Stephen Borrello, director Adam Rodgers, and his co-writer, Glenn German. For some bizarre reason, no chairs were provided for the quintet, so they stood side by side, as if in a police lineup, and before long, the session dissolved into an awkward fiasco, with Borrello not saying a word, Garcia rambling and Lofranco delivering a freestyle rap so embarrassing that it was unintentionally funnier than anything in the film.
Oh yeah: the movie. A middle-aged, sitcom friendly variation on Before Sunrise, At Middleton revolves around a college tour during which two unhappily married parents -- Garcia and Vera Farmiga -- kindle romance while spending the day together. But both actors up the cutesy factor into the toxic zone during one cliched sequence after another (yes, they do get high in a dorm room!) before director Rodgers tries for and fails to achieve final act poignance the proceedings definitely haven't earned.
Not that it matters much. At Middleton is mere piffle of the sort that is occasionally foisted upon the festival due to its association with main sponsor Starz -- about on par with Last Chance Harvey, a Dustin Hoffman-Emma Thompson movie that received an opera house moment back in 2008 before disappearing from theaters and memories at lightning speed. Expect the same in this case.
We hope this fate will not be suffered by the two documentaries we caught at the festival, with the first being Caucus. Directed by AJ Schnack, the film offers a behind-the-scenes look at the 2012 Republican caucus in Iowa -- traditionally the official kickoff to the presidential campaign. Schnack doesn't get into the question of whether that remains true: Indeed, he makes the vote seem so important that viewers can be excused for thinking the current occupant of the White House is actually the Iowa GOP winner, Rick Santorum. But along the way is one head-shaking or hilarious moment after another from candidates such as Michele Bachmann -- she reveals that she was the last person in her class to learn how to tell time -- and Ron Paul, whose inability to close a van door is a comedy bit worthy of Buster Keaton. Seek it out.
Even more successful is Here Was Cuba. Directors John Murray and Emer Reynolds tackle the Cuban missile crisis, an event from the period of the John F. Kennedy administration that's been the subject of many previous docs, not to mention TV movies (1974's seminal The Missiles of October) and theatrical features (2000's Thirteen Days). But while some of the stories shared in Here Was Cuba are familiar (the late Kennedy hagiographer Ted Sorensen gets plenty of face time), the filmmakers also chat at length with Russians and Cubans who provide a fascinatingly different perspective on incidents that pushed the planet's biggest powers to the cusp of nuclear war. The recap of a Soviet submarine captain's freak-out, which almost resulted in a torpedo launch that could easily have led to mushroom clouds was as riveting as any scene in a fiction film at this year's festival.
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