Again this year, Denver Film Festival artistic director Brit Withey is offering his must-see picks for each day of the fest — including many flicks that movie lovers might otherwise miss amid the flood of silver-screen goodies. Today he spotlights selections for November 6 (Once Upon a Crime: The Borelli-Davis Conspiracy), November 7 (Embrace of the Serpent) and November 8 (Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made and Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation).
"This is one of my favorite documentaries in the festival by far," says fest artistic director Brit Withey. "It's really remarkable — and it's a Denver story. It's set in Denver in the mid-1970s and has a lot of great, old Denver footage.
"The gist of the story is that Michael Borelli, a retired New York City police detective, moves to town and gets involved with a couple of people in opening up an Italian restaurant — and then one of the financiers gets murdered. There were four partners in the restaurant, and they all had life insurance policies on one another because of their investments, and the detective gets fingered for the murder even though there's very little evidence against him.
"Now, back in the '70s, there was a group of police officers who ran sort of a mob squad to tamp down any sort of Mafia involvement in Denver — and they thought because this was an Italian guy and an Italian restaurant, it had to be a mob hit. And they had this witness they gave immunity to who said this guy did it. But over time — and I'm not giving anything away here — it becomes clear that the witness who was given immunity was involved in some way. He's a terrible witness; all the information he gives is flat-out wrong. But the cops, some of whom were part of Elvis Presley's protection squad when he came to town, stand by him. And Michael Borelli and his detective partner, Bob Davis, are accused of murder and conspiracy to murder and are sent to prison."
The pair are free now — and both of them will be in Denver for the screenings along with Davis's daughter Melody, who, Withey says, "was a big advocate for Bob and spent a lot of time trying to get him out."
"Embrace of the Serpent is a narrative film from Colombia, and it's Colombia's submission for Best Foreign Language film" in relation to the next Academy Awards, Withey explains. "It's a really beautiful black-and-white film, just stunning to look at. And it's got a really interesting, strange little story. I'd sort of liken it to a Joseph Conrad-Heart of Darkness kind of tale.
"The film is set in the early 1900s, when a German botanist has gone into the jungles of the Amazon to search for this mythical medicinal plant that he's heard of. By this time, the tribes in the area have been decimated; they were converted to Catholicism or killed off by the Spanish or have died of diseases. But the botanist hooks up with this one survivor, a really badass warrior who knows where the plant is.
"The warrior escorts the botanist up the river to find the plant and, along the way, they come upon these odd scenes — monasteries where the tribe people have been converted and Catholics are worshiping this one insane Spaniard who's still in the jungle. But they finally find the plant. Then the story shifts forward fifty years and another German is recreating the trip — and he runs into the same, now very old warrior and asks him to guide him. And the warrior is less inclined to help anymore. He sees Anglos as evil people by now.
"It's a relatively simple film that follows these two people as they go up-river and encounter some pretty surreal things. But it's really compelling and beautiful."
Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made and Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation
Raiders! directed by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen
6:30 p.m. Friday, November 6
11:15 a.m. Sunday, November 8
"This is a unique project that's actually a two-part film," Withey allows. "You can't go to part two without seeing part one.
"Raiders! is a documentary about this group of kids in the '80s, around the advent of the consumer model VHS camcorders that allowed people to start making their own movies. When they were around eleven, the kids saw Raiders of the Lost Ark and loved it so much they decided they wanted to do a shot-for-shot remake of it.
"They were just kids, but they were insanely devoted to their goal, and they had the perfect parents for something like this: They thought it was a really cute idea and left the kids to it. And so on weekends, they started remaking the movie in their basement and their back yard — and as they grew older and got to be thirteen or fourteen, they started reshooting things, trying to make them better, because they'd gotten a little more experienced and they had more financial resources.
"You won't believe their audacity and their naivete. Like, they remade the bar scene from the movie in their basement, and they actually started the bar on fire. It's amazing they didn't burn down the whole house.
"Over the course of six or seven years, they eventually remade the entire film except for the big scene at the end with the airplane and the fights and the melting face. They couldn't afford to do that, so they just put up a title card that said, 'Scene Missing.' But the idea that they didn't finish the movie ate at them over the years, and by the time they got into their forties, they got back together to do the final scene. They got an airplane, they got a special effects guy who knew pyrotechnics. And they finally finished the movie."
Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation — the second half of the double feature — is their completed opus. How is it?
"It's actually good," Withey enthuses. "You do have to adjust, and part of it is funny. It's funny seeing twelve-year-olds making these amateurish love scenes. But they really put their heart into it and did it really, really well."
Look below to see trailers for Once Upon a Crime: The Borelli-Davis Conspiracy, Embrace of the Serpent and Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Movie Ever Made. To access all of the film festival's selections and purchase tickets, click here.
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