Film and TV

Denver Film Festival 2016, Weekend One: Dev Patel's Lion Roars (Sort of) And More

After a wow of an opening night (including an appearance by megastar Emma Stone), the 39th annual Denver Film Festival got down to the business of screening films — some big, some small, some in-between.

And while the star wattage was dialed down in the wake of La La Land, the film for which Stone made her first trip to Denver, the quality of the fest selections I caught through the weekend remained generally high, if not universally so.

When Stone strolled the red carpet in front of the Ellie Caulkins Opera House on Wednesday, November 2, the crowd of attendees, press and celebrity watchers lining the walkway was the largest in recent festival history.

Two days later, prior to the "Centerpiece" showcase for the film Lion, the area wasn't nearly as packed, as you can see by the photo below.

It wasn't tough to figure out why. While Lion is highlighted by some name talent, including Dev Patel, of Slumdog Millionaire fame, and Academy Award winner Nicole Kidman, they weren't on hand.

Instead, the folks in front of the photographers' lenses included new Denver Film Society executive director Andrew Rodgers and retired Starz CEO Bob Clasen — fine folks whose efforts are key to the festival's success, but not exactly big screen luminaries.

Likewise, the opera house wasn't exactly bursting at the seams, as it had been for La La Land, when Rodgers took to the podium to introduce Lion and tout the fest as a whole. Fortunately, he turned out to be a fine speaker — low key, yet decidedly passionate about the films on view.

Rodgers has only been on the job at the Denver Film Society for a few months, but with the blessing of Clasen, the head of the society's search committee, who also addressed those gathered at the Ellie, he made a good first impression and gives every indication of being just the sort of cinematic ambassador the DFF needs.

And then came Lion, which had some excellent moments, albeit ones that didn't include either Patel or Kidman. The story, based on actual events, opens with a boy named Saroo, who lives in a remote Indian village with his mother and older brother. Saroo, played by Sunny Pawar, tags along with big bro as he heads off to work, but instead of waiting for him on a bench where he falls asleep, the boy wanders off — and winds up on a train bound for Calcutta.

In the sequences that follow, Saroo must contend with indifferent throngs, child snatchers, presumed pedophiles and more — and Pawar makes every frame of the action utterly compelling. He's a wondrous camera subject whose dilemma is gut-wrenchingly compelling.

But the tension ratchets down after Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple portrayed by Kidman and David Wenham. Soon (too soon), we flash forward to Saroo's young-adult years, during which he becomes obsessed with finding the family he unwillingly left behind so many years earlier.

The narrative becomes Hollywood-familiar at that point, with Patel (who looks nothing like Pawar) brooding and moping while trying to find his old home on Google Earth — a quest that endangers his relationship with his girlfriend, played by Rooney Mara as if the generic role isn't thankless (which it is). Meanwhile, Kidman is given a couple of for-your-consideration scenes meant to beguile Oscar voters prior to Patel's journey back to India and a resolution that feels rushed and dramatically slack in comparison with the vivid depiction of his original disappearance.

Then again, half a good movie is better than none.

The Last Family, among DFF artistic director Brit Withey's must-see picks for the weekend, was a trickier proposition. Another adaptation of a true story, the film focuses on a famed Polish painter (Andrzej Seweryn) who lives in an apartment from the Soviet era with his long-suffering wife and his elderly mother and mother-in-law. His son has his own place in a neighboring building, and his manic episodes provide the catalyst for much of the action; he's either absurdly enthused (he's a DJ with a particular fondness for Yazoo) or suicidal.

The painter, for his part, has an active fantasy life that pivots on sado-masochism and a narcissistic obsession with documenting every second of his life on video or audio. Even the corpse of a loved one who died seconds earlier gets a closeup.

The tale, which spans three decades-plus, can be a tough watch at times. (My wife, who accompanied me, told me afterward that she's done with Polish cinema. Sorry, Poland.) But it's also filled with black humor and absurdity, resulting in a twisted take on familial love that lingers long after the lights go up. Best of all is Seweryn, who disappears into the role to an uncanny degree. He was on hand for an intriguing Q&A following the Thursday, November 3, unspooling I attended, and had I not known that he and the man I'd just watched for two hours on the screen behind him were one and the same, I would never have guessed.

On Saturday and Sunday, November 5 and 6, I caught two other films recommended by Withey — the documentaries Do Not Resist and Off the Rails, respectively. Both of them were impressive in very different ways.

Do Not Resist, which played at the UA Pavilions on November 5 (but is also on view tomorrow — election day, appropriately enough), is a hot-button depth charge of a doc about the repercussions of arming police forces with military weaponry at a time of social unrest epitomized by Black Lives Matter protests flowing from the rallies in Ferguson, Missouri.

Craig Atkinson, Resist's director, doesn't pretend that he's objective about the subject matter. Instead, he juxtaposes vivid scenes of police action with red-meat rhetoric from figures such as a SWAT trainer who whips his audience into a frenzy of righteousness and blood lust, a surveillance advocate who talks about technology capable of predicting the odds that an unborn child will commit a homicide before his eighteenth birthday, and FBI director James Comey, a man much in the news due to his debatable handling of the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation, who admits that he lied to his kids about monsters not being real — because they are, and they're out there right now.

Off the Rails is a more subtle piece, but arguably even more impactful. In it, director Adam Irving details the life of Darius McCollum, a man with Asperger's syndrome who's achieved a bizarre brand of fame due to his obsession with commandeering buses and subway trains in the New York City transit system. He's been arrested more than thirty times for such crimes and is currently in jail, with a possible fifteen-year sentence hanging over his head — the sort of punishment that should be familiar to him, since he's spent about half his life behind bars.

Even so, McCollum is decidedly cheerful about his love of these vehicles, which he doesn't swipe for joy-riding purposes. Rather, he drives the routes perfectly — better than many longtime employees, at least one source maintains. And despite his many trials and convictions, he can't squelch his compulsion to man the controls one more time.

On one level, the film is a study of an unusual character, pure and simple. But it's also an indictment of criminal-justice system that doesn't provide mental-health care for individuals who desperately need it or support services for those who've completed their sentences to make sure they don't immediately re-offend. Whereas Do Not Resist hammers in its points, Off the Rails allows viewers to discover them — and the effect is undeniably powerful.

This won't be the only time McCollum's story will be told; it's also the basis for Train Man, an upcoming flick to which Julia Roberts is attached. (She's slated to play McCollum's lawyer.) But it's hard to imagine it being done better — and that constitutes another coup for the Denver Film Festival as it rolls into its second week.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts