Denver Film Festival Closes Out on a Winning Note

Writer-director Trey Edward Shults poses on the Ellie Caulkins Opera House red carpet before the November 7 screening of Waves.
Writer-director Trey Edward Shults poses on the Ellie Caulkins Opera House red carpet before the November 7 screening of Waves.
Photo by Michael Roberts
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The 42nd annual Denver Film Festival is a wrap, and while attendance figures aren't available at this writing, the surplus of packed screenings and the success of highlighted events, including the opening-night visit of Knives Out director Rian Johnson and a first-weekend-capping presentation of the 1929 silent documentary Man With a Movie Camera live-scored by DeVotchKa, bodes well for the future of an organization rocked earlier this year by the death of artistic director Brit Withey and the resignation of Denver Film Society executive director Andrew Rodgers.

Festival director Britta Erickson is filling the Rodgers slot on a temporary basis. But on Thursday, November 7, prior to a red-carpet presentation at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House of the new indie heartbreaker Waves , which incorporated an appearance by writer-director Trey Edward Shults, she revealed that the "interim" part of the title originally bestowed upon Matt Campbell when he took over Withey's role has now been removed; he'll be the organization's artistic director of festivals moving forward.

This vote of confidence was appropriate given the overall strength of the festival's selections. As with any event of this size and scope, there were hits, misses and everything in between. But the majority of the twenty movies I saw over the course of the gathering's twelve-day run were worthy selections, and often a lot more than that — with one big exception, as you'll see below.

Continue to eyeball mini-reviews of the nine films I caught after the opening weekend, many of which will soon be coming to a theater or a streaming service near you.
Tuesday, November 5
Divine Love
There's no denying that Divine Love, one of many films from Brazil spotlighted over the course of the fest, boasts a load of intriguing satirical elements: a near-futuristic setting, a societal focus on the importance of procreation, a burgeoning movement that mingles religiosity and sex in the kinkiest of ways (the group sex scenes are ultra-explicit), and the possibility of immaculate conception. But once director/co-writer Gabriel Mascaro pulls together these ingredients, he seems to think his job is done. The story revolves around Joana (played by Dira Paes), a bureaucratic clerk who tries to dissuade unhappy couples from getting divorced, and early on, there's a great scene in which she goes to a drive-through faith center and receives a dramatic ministerial pep talk without leaving the passenger section of her car. But instead of coming up with more fresh bits of this sort, Mascaro simply repeats them, to diminishing returns — and a similar redundancy caused by this sudden inventiveness shortfall ultimately causes the narrative to collapse into torpor. The color scheme is vibrant, and so are glimpses of EDM-fueled spiritual services. Too bad the character and plot development never quite achieve divinity.

Trey Edward Shults chats with former Denver Post film critic Lisa Kennedy after the Waves screening.
Trey Edward Shults chats with former Denver Post film critic Lisa Kennedy after the Waves screening.
Photo by Michael Roberts

Thursday, November 7
In remarks prior to the unspooling of Waves, writer-director Shults encouraged audience members to "stay with" the film — a hint that the emotional impact of the story wouldn't wait for the final moments. And indeed, the plot is essentially bifurcated, with separate but related storylines dominating its two halves, the first of which is truly devastating. A strange but apt corollary is Stanley Kubrick's 1987 Vietnam war film, Full Metal Jacket, whose opening segment builds in a stylized and carefully organized fashion toward an explosive conclusion that threatens to blow a hole through the middle of the movie, but somehow manages to inform everything that follows.

Offering more specifics about what happens to the African-American family at the center of Waves — teen siblings Tyler and Emily, played by Kelvin Harrison, Jr. and Taylor Russell, plus Sterling K. Brown and Renée Elise Goldsberry as their parents — careens into spoiler territory. But race certainly plays a role in how a viewer will respond, particularly in terms of Tyler's actions, which follow the outlines of behavior we see all too often in negative depictions of young black men. Granted, Shults's presentation is much more thoughtful and nuanced than usual, but I found myself struggling with its implications even as the tension related to the character's arc — supercharged by a doomy, dread-infused score by Nine Inch Nails vet Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — ratcheted higher and higher. The tragedy that results lingers over part two, which focuses on Emily, and the musical elements suggest more anguish to come by way of her relationship with a classmate (Lucas Hedges, who also turned up in another fest offering, Honey Boy). Instead, there's redemption that's all the more moving for the battles that preceded it.

Even before the credits were completed, Shults took a seat on the Ellie stage opposite former Denver Post film critic Lisa Kennedy for one of the most insightful Q&As at the festival in recent memory. He talked about the care he took in orchestrating audio, visuals, color schemes and more to create an expressionistic reflection of each character while offering behind-the-scenes details — revealing, for instance, that he made the family African-American mainly because he wanted to work again with Harrison, who'd been part of his previous film, 2017's It Comes at Night. This decision has repercussions on Waves, and those who don't know the origin story may very well process it differently than those who do. But the film remains a fascinating effort that marks Shults as a filmmaker of rare skill, boldness and verve.

Friday, November 9
The Aeronauts

Like Hollywood biopics of yore, The Aeronauts never lets the facts get in the way of a good story. The depiction of a record-setting 1862 balloon flight by James Glaisher, who's presented as (ahem) a crusading meteorologist, has no shortage of fictional elements, not the least of which is pilot Amelia Wren, a composite character rather than an actual person. But by the end of director/co-writer Todd Harper's yarn, a lack of fealty to the historical record matters not one whit — and neither does the lack of charisma actor Eddie Redmayne demonstrates as Glaisher. (Just try not to laugh inappropriately when he flutters his lids while speechifying about the miraculous benefits of weather prediction, particularly considering how often 21st-century forecasters still get it wrong.) That's because actress Felicity Jones gives Wren a plucky audaciousness that's absolutely winning, and the action scenes — yes, in a movie about a craft known as the tortoise of the airways — are consistently exciting, even though the outcome is never in doubt. A crazy storm and a loony landing are handled with aplomb, but the best set piece involves Wren climbing up the outside of the ice-covered balloon to open a frozen valve. Viewers who have issues with heights are advised to watch it through their fingers — but they won't be able to turn away. Corny but compelling.

Denver Film Festival's Neil Truglio chats with director Bob Byington after a screening of Frances Ferguson.
Denver Film Festival's Neil Truglio chats with director Bob Byington after a screening of Frances Ferguson.
Photo by Michael Roberts

Saturday, November 9
Frances Ferguson

The 11 a.m. screening of Frances Ferguson, the latest twisted comedy from director Bob Byington, may be the last time the quirky comedy will appear on a big screen. As Byington noted, it's scheduled to start airing on Amazon later this month — an indication of how much streaming has changed the movie business.

Onetime Boulder resident Kaley Wheless stars as the title protagonist, a North Platte, Nebraska, substitute teacher so unhappy in her loveless marriage to scuzzball husband Nick (Keith Pouson) that she engages in a brief tryst with a student that causes her life to implode. In his intro to the flick, Byington said he was interested in looking at such an incident through the prism of a teacher's inner life, but in the beginning, we're not allowed much access to Frances's feelings; she creates a barrier around herself using cynicism and snark. But over the course of the brief narrative (it runs well under ninety minutes), we get a greater sense of why she acted as she did thanks to cameos from Judd Apatow-blessed supporting players such as Martin Starr and David Krumholtz and hilariously deadpan narration by Nick Offerman.

The film as a whole may have only been mildly entertaining, but Byington was much more than that, dubbing Offerman "the white Morgan Freeman" (for his current indie-comedy ubiquity), revealing that he'd tried to film a sex scene for the project but dropped it because it was as awkward as his own romantic life, and suggested that he'd won the Denver Film Festival audience award for his flick Harmony and Me ten years earlier because Withey had fixed the vote. He also recalled a time when he was teaching a film class at Colorado College and Withey showed students A Woman Under the Influence, a John Cassavetes scorcher that closed the festival. There were many nods to Withey over the course of the festival, but Byington's may have been the most telling.

The Two Popes
From an accuracy standpoint, The Aeronauts and The Two Popes share a lot in common — and that's a much bigger issue for the latter than the former. Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, the man behind the remarkable City of God, and screenwriter Anthony McCarten, whose credits include The Theory of Everything and Bohemian Rhapsody, have constructed a fantasy in which Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) decides to step down from his role, in large part because he recognizes the fabulous qualities of the man who would become Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), even though the two vehemently disagree on virtually every issue facing the Catholic Church then and now. Such wishful thinking may be reassuring to Francis fans, but it contradicts credible reports that Benedict has been actively working behind the scenes to undermine pretty much everything his reform-minded successor has tried to do. Hopkins and Pryce give it their all, and Meirelles offers flashback scenes that explore what Francis sees as youthful missteps (Benedict's past doesn't interest the director). But in the end, The Two Popes is little more than professionally rendered hooey.

Marriage Story
The Hollywood hype machine is working overtime in regard to Marriage Story, director/writer Noah Baumbach's tale of a relationship's end, and that makes perfect sense. Because there's nothing that those in the entertainment industry love more than tales about themselves, expect the flick, which focuses on an actress (Scarlett Johansson) and a director (Adam Driver), to rack up a great many Academy Award nominations — and there are plenty of reasons why such nods will be deserved. Johansson gives her best performance to date as a woman who's tired of deferring her dreams, Driver is magnetic and more multi-faceted than many observers may have believed (he's even given a chance to warble a show tune), and there are a slew of showy supporting performances by the likes of Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta. But the piece as a whole is a bit scattershot, with some sequences (like one about delivering divorce papers) recalling network sitcoms and others (an extended verbal fight between Johansson and Driver that might as well have included a flashing Oscar icon in the corner of the screen) going for kitchen-sink realism. As such, the whole of Marriage Story doesn't quite exceed the sum of its parts — but a lot of those parts are quite notable.

Sunday, November 10

Forman vs. Forman

Far too many documentaries about filmmakers turn into de facto hagiographies, and Forman vs. Forman, a look at the life of the late director Miloš Forman, certainly flirts with this prospect. The narration of the movie, from Czech directors Helena Tetíková and Jakub Hejna, is entirely delivered by Forman through excerpts from past interviews over the course of his career. But Forman turns out to be a magnetic personage, cheerfully railing against boredom and bullshit, and his life before earning the first of his two directorial Oscars for 1975's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest proves to be utterly fascinating. His parents both died during the Holocaust, and his revelations about his last conversation with his mother at a German death camp is fascinating (who knew Auschwitz allowed visitors?) and shattering. Likewise, his anecdotes about filmmaking under Communist rule and slumming at the Chelsea Hotel after Taking Off, his first American movie, flopped result in a deeper understanding of his work.

The Human Factor
Director Dror Moreh's careful, deliberate documentary about the 1990s-era attempts by presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton to achieve a lasting peace in the Middle East plays out like a slow-motion horror movie, as one gaffe and stumble after another leads inexorably to disaster. The main speakers are six diplomats who tried their best to keep negotiations on track despite a series of events beyond their control: the assassination of Israel prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (pretty much the only politician to emerge with his reputation unscathed), the rise of Israeli hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu and gamesmanship-challenged bungler Ehud Barak, and an inability to truly see the scenarios through the eyes of Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. There are a few moments of levity, including the machinations necessitated by Rabin's declaration that he would shake Arafat's hand but not kiss him. But mostly, The Human Factor is a catalogue of disappointments whose gradual accretion explains why this region of the world remains such a seemingly intractable quagmire to this day.

A ticket to Atlantics seemed like an excellent way to conclude the event on a positive note. After all, the movie won the Grand Prix, the second-highest prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival. French-Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop has emerged as a true groundbreaker — the first female director of African descent to ever land a film in competition at the annual spectacle. It gives me no joy, then, to report that I found Atlantics absolutely stultifying. The premise, involving exploited workers drowning en route to a better life only to return in spectral form to haunt those they left behind, suggests a supernatural thriller, but the presentation is so flat, affectless and sluggishly paced that the piece's impact is entirely negligible. The setting is unusual, and young actors such as Mame Bineta Sane and Ibrahima Traoré show promise. But for this viewer, Atlantics was much ado about nothing.

Fortunately, the same can't be said about the Denver Film Festival, which needed a win after one of its most challenging years. And it got one.

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