I feel confident in saying that never before in the 41-year history of the Denver Film Festival has a member of a panel dropped trou and showed his ass to the audience. But this new ground was broken on Friday, November 9, following the Colorado debut of Industrial Accident: The Wax Trax! Records Story, when Ministry's Al Jourgensen, joined by the Dead Kennedy's Jello Biafra and My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult's Frankie "Groovie Mann" Nardiello, unbuckled his belt and displayed a wide variety of assets.
A rear view of Jourgensen's man meat swung into view, too, which is why we've pixelated a key portion of the photo above. You're welcome, by the way.
The discussion that followed Jourgensen's unveiling was unquestionably the craziest I've witnessed at DFF in more than a decade of covering it — and given the ultra-awkward Q&A about the flat-Earth movement described in our weekend one roundup of fest activities, that's impressive.
In all, I caught seventeen films during DFF's 2018 edition at venues such as the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, the Sie FilmCenter and the UA Pavilions. Some were great, others less so — and one seemed to leave audience members so traumatized that as soon as the credits began to roll, hundreds of them fled toward the exits like inmates who suddenly discovered that a power surge had caused all their cell doors to open. As such, its director was left to offer his take on what had just unspooled to a house that was suddenly more than half empty.
Here's the rundown of eight screenings from week two.
Ash Is the Purest White
Monday, November 5
A sprawling epic from Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke, Ash Is the Purest White has plenty to recommend it, including the juxtaposition of stunningly photographed vistas and up-close crime-syndicate action involving Qiao and Bin, a couple whose relationship is passionate but consistently off-kilter. But the theme of toxic love that pushes the pair together and rips them apart over a span of years was handled more compellingly in one of the best efforts on view during week one, Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War . There are too many discursive subplots, including a fleeting tryst with a man who claims to be a UFO investigator, and a surplus of sequences that meander rather than ratcheting up the dramatic tension. Ash is an ambitious effort, but it left me wishing it had burned hotter.
Postcards From the 48%
Wednesday, November 7
How could a timely documentary about Brexit be anything less than fascinating? The answer to that question involves an imbalance between artistry and advocacy. Director and on-screen narrator David Nicholas Wilkinson is among those who feel that Britain's planned exit from the European Union is a terrible idea that will have long-term negative connotations for the 48 percent of voters who cast ballots against it, as well as the slim majority that gave the measure a thumbs-up. But rather than seeking any input from pro-Brexit types, Wilkinson exclusively interviews opponents who rattle off their reasoning in a way that's erudite but redundant. Plenty of notables materialize to express antipathy, including Atonement author Ian McEwan and Boomtown Rats singer turned Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof. But their words and thoughts eventually blend together with those from dozens of additional talking heads saying much the same things. The comments are strung together without shape or structure over 114 minutes that felt like that many hours — and after the screening, Wilkinson added to this impression by rattling off more facts and figures that he somehow hadn't managed to shoehorn into the flick but felt an urgent need to share anyhow. He made plenty of sense, but that didn't prevent him, and his documentary, from becoming exhausting in the end.
The Front Runner
Thursday, November 8
Ellie Caulkins Opera House
The story of how Colorado Senator Gary Hart's 1988 presidential campaign imploded after implications that he'd broken his marital vows with a young woman named Donna Rice, The Front Runner has obvious resonance for local viewers. And as a bonus, the flick's entire creative team — writer/director Jason Reitman, co-writers Jay Carson and Matt Bai, and producer Helen Estabrook — were on hand to talk about their efforts. The film itself is a mixed bag: It starts out with Altman-esque energy, all overlapping dialogue and frantic movement by a sprawling cast, but grows logy after the scandal breaks, with the filmmakers underlining the connection of the story to today's political moment a bit too overtly. Still, the performances are strong — Hugh Jackman doesn't look much like Hart, but he captures his flinty, impatient side, and Vera Farmiga as his wife, Lee, manages to cut her loyalty with exasperation — and the execution stays smart to the bittersweet end.
In a subsequent conversation with moderator Maximillian Potter, a 5280 veteran now with Esquire, Reitman's compatriots offered up plenty of compelling tidbits. For example, Carson, a veteran of many Democratic political campaigns, earned laughs when arguing that one of his clients, 2004 presidential hopeful Howard Dean, was toast long before he unleashed his infamous scream. But Reitman stole the show. He's a wonderful speaker — funny and self-deprecating, but also incisive and heartfelt. And while he didn't reveal the reaction to the film of Gary and Lee after he showed it to them in Denver, he did note that afterward, Hart said to his wife, "I don't talk that way, do I?" Her answer: "Yes, you do."
Industrial Accident: The Wax Trax! Records Story
Friday, November 9
Directed by Julia Nash, the daughter of the late Wax Trax! Records co-founder Jim Nash, Industrial Accident is two films in one. In addition to describing how a record store founded in Denver (it's still a local gem) led to a Chicago-based label that helped birth the industrial-music subgenre, the documentary tells the unconventional love story of Dannie Flesher and Nash, who is said to have ended the marriage that produced Julia because his wife "didn't have a dick." The songs generated by the partnership remain strangely riveting, but more affecting is the portrayal of Flesher, Nash and other oddballs who formed an alternative family powered by their rejection by and of straitlaced society.
Afterward, Nash joined onetime Boulderite Biafra, as well as Jourgensen and Nardiello, who worked at the Chicago outlet before becoming successful musicians. All three were clearly loaded to the gills on what was almost certainly a potpourri of substances, and festival artistic director Brit Withey soon gave up trying to conduct a typical interview in favor of letting them expound on whatever notion bloomed in their heads. It was a wise choice, since Jourgensen, in particular, began reeling off one loopy anecdote after another — like the time he waited on that "English douchebag" Robert Plant, of Led Zeppelin fame, urinating on the 45s he'd purchased for his jukebox before handing them over. Yet toward the end of the session, Jourgensen turned unexpectedly sentimental, expressing his love for the Wax Trax! family in a way that found him baring his soul. After he'd bared something else, that is.
Saturday, November 10
Ellie Caulkins Opera House
While introducing Roma to the crowd at the Ellie this past Saturday afternoon, Denver Film Festival director Britta Erickson dubbed the film a "modern masterpiece." And although it's not usually a good idea to toss around that term casually, the remark was hardly without merit. Director Alfonso Cuarón, whose credits include Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (the best film in the series by a wide margin), based the story on the woman who largely raised him: the family nanny, portrayed by Yalitza Aparicio with such grace and simplicity that it's hard to believe she's acting. The narrative takes place in Mexico City circa 1970 and 1971, during a tumultuous time for the country, with small family moments (money problems, an unfaithful father, an unplanned pregnancy) given just as much weight as an earthquake and a street riot. The black-and-white photography is luminous, the family's interactions feel warm and authentic, and the more distressing plot twists are handled with unflinching honesty. Feel free to award it with the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award now. Why wait for the inevitable?
Saturday, November 10
Ellie Caulkins Opera House
Most of those who filled up the lower bowl of the Ellie Caulkins Opera House on Saturday night probably knew little about Vox Lux beyond its description as a satirical portrait of a pop star portrayed by Natalie Portman, with original music by Sia. So when director Brady Corbet, who's from Colorado, took to the microphone before the lights lowered to say that in light of the mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California, last week, audience members should be prepared for violence, but that the scenes hadn't been included "for no reason," many were undoubtedly caught by surprise that turned to dismay when the film opened with a graphically depicted school shooting set in 1999. Shortly thereafter, a couple of dozen or so attendees split, including my own daughter, who grew up near Columbine and is now working as a teacher — and as noted above, the majority of folks ultimately raced out fire-drill style rather than stick around for a chat about the offering.
Should Corbet or fest executive director Andrew Rodgers, who introduced the film, or someone have been more explicit about the content of the movie, especially for a showing in Denver? That's a subject worthy of serious conversation. But afterward, Corbet said he was trying to show how stunning tragedies and pop culture ephemera are being treated equally these days — and if that was his goal, he didn't succeed. Instead, the film comes across as a banal indictment of the star-making machine, which manages to transform the protagonist, Celeste, from a sympathetic figure (she rises to fame after singing a song at a memorial for shooting victims) into a hateful cynic who seems more annoyed than empathetic after the attackers in another orgy of gunfire make a direct reference to her. In Vox Lux, shock value masquerades as profundity.
Breaking the Bee
Sunday, November 11
After the darkness at the heart of Vox Lux, a little cinematic lightness was in order, and that's precisely what Breaking the Bee provided. The documentary examines the recent dominance of children from Indian and South Asian backgrounds at the Scripps National Spelling Bee by following several contestants and their families through the process leading up to the 2017 event. Also included is commentary from prominent folks such as CNN’s Sanjay Gupta and Fareed Zakaria, ESPN anchor and bee emcee Kevin Negandhi, and comedian Hari Kondabolu, who provides the film's most amusing and pointed moments — among them a takedown of a racist troll who managed to misspell a word in his tweet about spelling. The direction by Sam Rega, who was present at the screening, is utilitarian: He mostly just sits back and lets the ultra-bright kids soak up the spotlight, and steers clear of potentially ticklish subjects (like the bee's version of stage parents). But with a subject this good, who can blame him?
Bathtubs Over Broadway
Sunday, November 11
Another delightful doc, Bathtubs Over Broadway draws back the curtain from the largely hidden world of industrial musicals — full-scale, Great White Way-style productions once routinely mounted by corporations at annual meetings. Our guide is Steve Young, a longtime writer for The Late Show With David Letterman, who stumbled upon albums commemorating such productions while gathering material for a long-running bit called "Dave's Record Collection," and his finds are incredible. Take "The Bathrooms Are Coming!," a tribute to toilets, sinks and plumbing that includes a ballad in which a nightgown-clad ingenue warbles about the bathroom being a special place where she can "cream and dream." Over time, though, Young winds up meeting many of the people involved in these shows, including that singing creamer-and-dreamer, and forms genuine friendships with them, in part because he legitimately appreciates their work, as opposed to viewing it simply as something to ridicule for short-term giggles. He also gets to know others obsessed with industrial musicals — among them none other than Jello Biafra, making his second cameo in a film at this year's fest. What are the odds?
Afterward, Bathtubs director Dava Whisenant, once an editor at Late Night, shared the news that the film has gotten picked up for theatrical distribution (the announcement should come in the next week or so), with engagements planned for New York and Los Angeles before year's end in order to qualify for the Oscars. If a nomination happens, the Denver Film Society will earn a small slice of the glory, since DFS provided Whisenant with a grant for rights to some of the music that makes the film so bizarrely memorable.
Like so much of the 41st annual Denver Film Festival.
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