The day after the left-field success of its opening night on Halloween, the 2018 Denver Film Festival truly got rolling, with a veritable avalanche of celluloid offerings that were both anticipated and unknown screening at venues such as the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, the Sie FilmCenter and the UA Pavilions.
Counting The Favourite, which got the red-carpet treatment at the Ellie on October 31, I've caught nine flicks thus far and experienced a wide range of cinematic awe and awkwardness — with the latter exemplified by a Q&A for Behind the Curve, a documentary about the flat-Earth movement, that co-starred a guest whose participation appeared to surprise even the other attendees: a true believer from Colorado who's spotlighted in the film.
And that's not to mention the best offering I've seen thus far — and it's one you'll still be able to catch.
Here's the rundown:
Thursday, November 1
DFF scheduled two unspoolings of Boy Erased at the Sie FilmCenter on November 1, and both were packed — an indication of the interest in the adaptation of writer Garrard Conley's memoir about being subjected to gay conversion therapy by his father, a Baptist preacher played by Russell Crowe, and his acquiescent (at first, anyway) wife, portrayed by Nicole Kidman. But while writer/director Joel Edgerton, who also plays lead "therapist" Victor Sykes, is to be commended for not succumbing to the temptation of simplistic demonization (except in regard to a Sykes assistant whom the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea turns into the walking/talking representation of ’roid rage), his muted approach prevents the material from having the emotional impact that would seem to flow naturally from the material. Lucas Hedges, who embodies Conley (for some reason, his name has been changed to Jared), gives a beautifully nuanced performance that eschews showy histrionics for something deeper and more true. But in the end, Boy Erased is too polite for its own good.
Friday, November 2
Ellie Caulkins Opera House
Why the hell was The Upside chosen for the fest's prestigious Centerpiece presentation? The answer to that question is probably more interesting than the movie, which attracted among the smallest crowds to the Ellie of any film in recent years; the upper levels of the house were closed and the lower bowl had plenty of room to spare. Director Neil Burger, whose work includes such film landmarks as Divergent, was given the task of proving that comic Kevin Hart can be a serious actor — or at least semi-serious, since The Upside is more dramedy than drama. But Hart, cast as an ex-con who bumbles into the job of assisting a billionaire (Bryan Cranston) paralyzed from the neck down in a hang-gliding accident, seems to believe the way to infuse dialogue with an undertone of pathos is to look bored and say everything more slowly than usual. The scenes only play when he falls back on his trademark shtick, which the Denver Film Society regulars seemed to enjoy; there was a lot of laughter, probably because none of them had ever seen a Kevin Hart movie before. But Nicole Kidman (she's back again) is stuck in a thankless part as the billionaire's associate — her performance is a reminder why she should stay away from anything requiring displays of humor (I'm still trying to forget Bewitched) — and Cranston can't overcome the collection of clichés that constitute his character. And that's only part of the downside for The Upside.
Saturday, November 3
As noted in this compelling documentary, the company called General Magic was a failure, at least in the economic sense; its main product flopped and it declared bankruptcy before folding for good. But the firm is a winner from a historical standpoint, since many of the innovations developed during the outfit's early 1990s heyday served as templates for a fairly well-known device called the iPhone. It's not quite an underdog story, since the firm was originally funded by Apple and was headed by a slew of longtime intimates of Steve Jobs, Andy Hertzfeld among them. Moreover, filmmakers Sarah Kerruish and Matthew Maude occasionally give short shrift to some bizarre business moves that helped doom the effort — among them Apple's decision to release its own failed gadget, the Newton, at the worst possible moment, from General Magic's perspective. Still, General Magic remains a fascinating look at a little remembered chapter of the late-twentieth-century technology revolution.
The World Before Your Feet
Saturday, November 3
Director Jeremy Workman's The World Before Your Feet — Denver Film Festival artistic director Brit Withey's must-see pick for today, November 5 (click for more details) — is a documentary attuned to both the macro and the micro. The film follows former engineer Matt Green as he attempts to walk every block in the five boroughs of New York City, a distance that, including parks, beaches and the like, he estimates at spanning more than 8,000 miles. Green is ultra-likable as he moves about the city, frequently stopping to chat with bystanders, help a driver whose car has gotten stuck in a snowstorm, or document the evolution of neighborhoods like Harlem, where many onetime synagogues have been turned into churches — or churchagogues, in his nomenclature. Nonetheless, his meandering mission will divide viewers, and not just because the account of his journey feels about half an hour too long. Is he a modern-day Thoreau who's managed to turn the Big Apple into his own personal Walden Pond? Or an egocentric slacker — he has no permanent home and makes money by cat-sitting for folks who allow him to coach-surf — with no interest in making the world a better place? I felt the pull of these opposing forces during the film, but ultimately fell under Green's spell and the ways he shows the pleasures of slowing down as opposed to racing the rest of the rats. But during his Q&A after the film, he also gave off the vibe of someone who enjoys the attention his quest is receiving. He's a solitary man no longer.
Behind the Curve
Saturday, November 3
Strange as it might seem to most of us, an increasing number of folks believe the Earth is flat, as evidenced by the existence of the Flat Earth International Conference, taking place in Denver on November 15 and 16; more details are a click away. Behind the Curve starts off as if director Daniel Clark and producer Caroline Clark will be satisfied with merely chortling at the oddballs who reject globe-centric thinking. Over the course of its running time, though, the film deepens and broadens to consider whether rejecting such folks out of hand rather than trying to engage with them is the right course of action — and if there's a corollary between their rejection of what most of us see as facts and the practice of groups defining truisms they don't like as fake news. The two Clarks were gently probing this subject matter in a post-screening Q&A conducted by artistic director Withey when their careful conversation was suddenly invaded by Bob Knodel, a Colorado engineer whose experiment to prove the earth's flatness, highlighted at length in the movie, appears to be a failure. Not that Knodel put it quite that way. He insisted that while the results hadn't supported his theory, he saw no reason to give up on such tests, especially in light of how a flat-Earth analysis from a hundred years ago supposedly hadn't been adequately debunked. The other panelists who stood watching him deliver this diatribe couldn't have looked more uncomfortable if Neil deGrasse Tyson had stepped from behind the curtain to say Knodel was right. (Behind the Curve screens again at 4 p.m. Tuesday, November 6, at the UA Pavilions.)
Saturday, November 3
Actor Paul Dano not only makes his directorial debut with Wildlife, but he co-wrote the script with Zoe Kazan — and the work of her grandfather, Elia Kazan, is the stylistic touchstone for the piece. Like the elder Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire and East of Eden, the story focuses on a family in turmoil during the period when so-called kitchen-sink dramas were considered the height of American theatrical artistry. Too bad the conflicts experienced by Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), who's unhappy about being dragged to small-town Montana by her underachieving, immature husband, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), seem so narratively undernourished and schematic. The pacing is sluggish, the scenes feel stagy, and Joe (Ed Oxenbould), Jeanette and Jerry's fourteen-year-old son, is mainly called upon to offer up a series of shocked expressions at his mom's behavior, and to look uncannily like an adolescent Dano. The picture's main attribute is a tremendous performance by Mulligan, who boldly refuses to soften the edges of her character, but it wasn't enough to make Wildlife work for the screening's attendees. Festival director Britta Erickson introduced the movie as her favorite from this year's Sundance Film Festival — and as I was leaving, I heard a man tell his companion, "It must have been a shitty year at Sundance."
Sunday, November 4
Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida won the 2015 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and the reception to Cold War suggests that he should get his tuxedo dry-cleaned. But while there are certainly dark and heavy elements in this tragic romance, which stretches from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, the piece is lively and even exuberant at times. The professions of pianist/conductor Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and vocalist Zula (Joanna Kulig) give Pawlikowski numerous opportunities to mount vibrant musical sequences, including a series of Eastern European folk dances, some hot jazz and even a moment of unbridled joy and desperation set to Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock." While structured like an epic, the narrative is brisk, with images (the black-and-white cinematography is striking), expressions and brief interchanges telling the tale more effectively than reams of exposition ever could. The film calls to mind the classically twisted collaborations of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, but with an overlay of fatalism that feels particularly attuned to our present moment.
Another Day of Life
Sunday, November 4
For me, Another Day of Life is the highlight of the Denver Film Festival thus far, largely because of the casual aplomb with which it shreds genre distinctions. The film recounts the experiences of the late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, on whose book it's based, during the Angolan civil war of the early 1970s. The African nation was torn apart by warring factions supported by the Soviet Union and the United States, and the story is told from the former viewpoint. But if the U.S. is mainly portrayed as a villain, the film's conclusion doesn't settle for easy propaganda — and neither do filmmakers Raúl de la Fuente and Damian Nenow, who meld together archival footage, newly shot sequences, interviews with important survivors, and animation that draws upon the vintage Rotoscoping technique. In recent years, the style, which essentially traces live action, has been associated with a pair of Richard Linklater flicks, Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, that have their moments of visual intrigue yet fall short dramatically. But the new film avoids this pitfall by way of imaginatively surrealistic interludes that explode the frame, often literally. The various elements shouldn't fit together, but somehow they manage to do so seamlessly, making Another Day of Life a completely fresh and impactful movie-going experience. And as a bonus, you can see it tonight at 7 p.m. and Wednesday, November 7, at the UA Pavilions; get the particulars here.
Bet you'll be thrilled as well as excited that the 2018 Denver Film Festival still has the better part of a week to go.
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