The fortieth annual Denver Film Festival opened triumphantly on November 1 with the Colorado debut of Lady Bird , only to stumble as a result of the mediocre Big Night offering Submission and a handful of other high-profile misses. But the last full week of the fest, which concluded on Sunday night, November 12, succeeded more often than it failed, both artistically and from an attendance standpoint, with a highlight being a night built around Molly's Game, a surefire Oscar contender that drew writer-director Aaron Sorkin to the Ellie Caulkins Opera House stage to talk about the story of Colorado native Molly Bloom, who was also on hand. Here's a roundup of happenings, complete with takes on seven movies that unspooled during one of Denver's best yearly cultural events.
The fest's star power got a boost on November 8 at the Sie FilmCenter, where actor Bill Pullman turned up to talk about The Ballad of Lefty Brown. Too bad the flick was unworthy of much conversation.
The concept offers a twist on classic Westerns of the 1930s and 1940s, when casts typically included a character present solely for comic relief — usually an oddball sort with a silly voice, quirky mannerisms and a propensity for bugging out his eyes and spouting catchphrases at moments of high tension. Lefty, played by Pullman, is just such a figure — but instead of relegating him to the fringes of the action, writer-director Jared Moshé pushes him into the foreground, where the hero usually stands.
In this case, though, the center doesn't hold, and Pullman's performance is a big reason why. His acting is so broad and shticky that he frequently seems drunk whether Lefty is supposed to be or not. And to make matters worse, the rest of the actors on hand — among them Jim Caviezel, Peter Fonda, Kathy Baker and Sons of Anarchy veteran Tommy Flanagan — apparently didn't get the memo that they were supposed to draw upon acting styles from the first half of the last century. Their more naturalistic turns only make Pullman's histrionics seem more grating and wrongheaded in comparison, and the simple tale of revenge and redemption Moshé created for them doesn't offer nearly enough compensations to make up for it.
Afterward, Pullman cheerfully talked about character actors of yore from whom he drew inspiration, including squeaky-voiced Andy Devine. He also expressed his excitement over taking on an advisory role with the DFS — a coup announced by Denver Film Society executive director Andrew Rodgers, who officiated the Q&A — and was becomingly modest when one over-enthusiastic attendee congratulated him on what he foresaw as an Academy Award for Ballad. If that happens, I'll be the guy wearing mittens and a knit cap in Hell.
Molly's Game, on November 9 at the Ellie, has much more realistic awards-season hopes, and as a bonus, it's also hugely entertaining. Rather than simply detailing protagonist Bloom's stint as the host of huge-money poker games played by celebrities and industry titans, as well as her inevitable downfall, Sorkin weaves in her personal history as a top-flight skier who wasn't quite as good as little brother Jeremy, a two-time Olympian from CU Boulder who also briefly played in the NFL. The dueling time frames present a challenge for Sorkin in his first foray into directing after a career spent penning scripts for TV (The West Wing) and movies (The Social Network — the offering for which he won an Oscar). But he manages to keep all the plates spinning while inspiring lively work from stars Jessica Chastain, Idris Eba and even Michael Cera, as a self-absorbed thespian who couldn't possibly be anything like that, right?
The opera-house audience (the largest of the festival) was fully engaged throughout, laughing heartily at Sorkin's hyper-caffeinated wordplay, with visuals and quick-cutting to match. Moreover, Sorkin kept them going throughout a conversation with Jeremy that confirmed that the on-screen allusions to rivalry between the siblings was based in reality.
Jeremy, whose Wish of a Lifetime seniors' charity benefited from the event, seemed legitimately surprised to discover that Molly tried to bribe editors with cookies to snip out a brief bit of stock footage showing him triumphing on the slopes — and Sorkin said she had been less than thrilled by a concluding scene in which announcers can't resist the urge to mention him. Jeremy reassured her by saying that in the wake of the movie, she'll no longer be identified as Jeremy Bloom's sister — and he'll be known as Molly Bloom's brother.
Friday, November 10, brought AlphaGo, a documentary by Greg Kohs that presented a behind-the-scenes look at a man-versus-machine battle over the ultra-complicated Chinese board game Go that pitted South Korean legend Lee Sedol against a computer programmed by a team from Google DeepMind. Those who followed the contest, which took place last year, already know the results, but the match sequences work up a great deal of suspense anyhow, particularly given Sedol's self-flagellation any time he fails to live up to his self-appointed role as representative of humanity. The conclusion, however, offers a more positive view of artificial intelligence than Hollywood blockbusters that have turned the idea of technological enslavement into a sci-fi trope. Kohs suggests that AI might actually make us better, as opposed to treating us like a virus in need of termination — and thank goodness.
Saturday, November 11, brought two more visits to the Ellie. First up was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a feel-good movie about murder, rape, arson, racism, police brutality and cancer — and, no, I'm not kidding.
Writer-director Martin McDonagh is best known for In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, a pair of dark comic melodramas about amoral criminality. So Three Billboards, about the reaction of residents in a small town when the mother of a homicide victim pays for billboards chastising the local cops for inaction, seems like a significant shift. But, no: As the piece unfolds, McDonagh's black humor is on full display throughout a narrative that whipsaws from uproarious banter to heart-stopping violence without ever losing its way. Just as important, Frances McDormand, as the mom, never resorts to bidding for viewers' sympathy. Her integrity is so unwavering that it could cost her an Academy Award, but I hope not — because she's just that brilliant.
The evening's closing-night feature, I, Tonya, was placed in the unfortunate position of following Three Billboards to the opera house, and it couldn't help falling short despite (or perhaps because of) a similar tone. The film is presented as a mock-documentary of figure skater Tonya Harding, who was implicated, along with her abusive husband, Jeff Gillooly, in a 1994 attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan, and along the way, director Craig Gillespie opts for an approach that recalls the Coen Brothers — or so he'd like to think. The portrayals of these self-described rednecks comes across as sneeringly elitist, condescending and so obvious that the fun bleeds off fast. Margot Robbie, who's hardly a physical match for Harding (she's five inches taller, for one thing), tries her best beneath caterpillar-like eyebrows affixed to her noggin for no discernible reason, but she fails to give the character additional dimensions. Allison Janney, as Harding's venomous mother, fares better and earns a big laugh during a moment in which she breaks the fourth wall. But in the venomous-mother sweepstakes, McDormand takes the gold.
Sunday, November 12, brought two more visits to the Sie FilmCenter. First up was Rumble Fish, a part of the festival's retrospective section; it was the opening-night movie way in 1983. Back then, I remember enjoying director Francis Ford Coppola's second adaptation of an S.E. Hinton young-adult novel (following The Outsiders, released earlier that year), and I had fun 34 years later, too — albeit while making note of the film's considerable flaws. It looks gorgeous, thanks to crisp black-and-white cinematography (with a few flashes of color) by Stephen H. Burum, and Coppola captured his players — Matt Dillon and Diane Lane, in particular — at their most beautiful. But Mickey Rourke's James Dean impression as Motorcycle Boy is more than faintly ridiculous, and so, too, are the post-Kerouac Beat mannerisms that predominate despite the ostensibly contemporary setting. The result is a minor entry in the Coppola catalogue, but an occasionally beguiling one.
Then came the very last screening of the festival: Quality Time, a production from the Netherlands. Artistic director Brit Withey introduced one of his must-see picks cautiously, warning attendees that the compendium of five short films might prove too weird for some of them. But he shouldn't have worried. Yes, Quality Time was strange, but it was also as funny as it is difficult to describe. It's a lot easier to enjoy a five-minute skit about a man forced to eat too much ham and drink too much milk year after year at family gatherings than to explain why it's so riotous — especially considering that all of the characters are portrayed as dots. Think of it as a Dutch variation on Monty Python, but even more obsessed with the bright side of death, and you'll be on the right track.
So ended the fortieth annual Denver Film Festival — with the type of discovery that makes us eager for the 41st edition.
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