Denver Film Festival 2019 First Weekend Review: DeVotchKa and More

A still from Dziga Vertov's 1929 film Man With a Movie Camera.EXPAND
A still from Dziga Vertov's 1929 film Man With a Movie Camera.
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The Denver Film Festival's 42nd edition got off to a strong start by way of a heartfelt tribute to the late artistic director Brit Withey, who died in a car crash earlier this year, and a buoyant opening night sparked by director Rian Johnson's appearance on behalf of the crowd-pleasing whodunit Knives Out .

But the fest's first weekend is when cineastes get to experience the width and breadth of the programming. In just over 48 hours, I caught nine movies, including triumphs, disappointments and everything in between. Here's my overview of a movie-going binge scheduled to continue through November 10, the 2019 fest's final day.
Friday, November 1

Honey Boy
Actors make a living by putting their personal trauma on display — but few have done so as nakedly as Shia LaBeouf. He not only wrote the autobiographical script for his latest project, Honey Boy, but portrays a thinly veiled version of his failed-performer father as he alternately cajoles and bullies a junior thespian drawn from LaBeouf's own childhood. Even Freud would have a tough time tracing all the psychodramatic threads woven through the episodic narrative, which juxtaposes insight with heavy-handedness. The results aren't always coherent, but they're consistently passionate thanks to a wonderful performance by Noah Jupe as, essentially, Shia the younger and an edgy turn by the always watchable Lucas Hedges, cast as the actor during his troubled early adult years. LaBeouf, for his part, doesn't always seem wholly in control of his live-wire work, but that makes his efforts that much more compelling. It might not be great acting, but it sure as hell is a spectacle. And you'll never watch an episode of Even Stevens the same way again.

The Twentieth Century
Few films in the fest will generate the number of WTFs as this oddity from director Matthew Rankin — a parodic biopic about a historical Canadian prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King. Rather than putting a premium on many (make that any) facts, Rankin uses zany, stylized sets, occasional animation and characterizations as broad as the Great White Way in an attempt to twist the often staid form. For about ten minutes, it works like gangbusters. But then, like many a project in which artists attempt to stretch a sketch to feature length, the gags start falling flat — or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say "wilt," since so many of them have to do with masturbation. Couple that with a devotion to cross-dressing humor that references music-hall traditions but feels uncomfortably retrograde in 2019, and the result is a clumsy curio that I wanted to like a lot more than I actually did.

Saturday, November 2

Good intentions are evident in abundance throughout Pahokee, a documentary by Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas about a high school in the small, rural Florida town for which it's named. Bresnan, who was on hand at the screening, stressed that he wanted the offering to be built upon rituals, and there's no shortage of them on screen: lots of football games, cheerleader practices and dances, etc. The goal is to underscore that these kids of color are just like their peers everywhere, and Pahokee certainly accomplishes it. Problem is, the four main characters are given such superficial treatment that the viewer is left wondering what was omitted to create such sunny portraits, and in his post-screening comments, Bresnan confirmed that he'd left out some material (like scenes of a young dad smoking pot) to maintain the positivity. Pahokee eventually emerges as the equivalent of an Instagram gallery from one year in the lives of students who are undoubtedly more multi-dimensional and interesting than they want people to know.

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

In stark contrast with Pahokee, this doc from filmmaker Matt Wolf makes the most of a fascinating subject by taking a warts-and-all approach. The late Marion Stokes, the central figure of the production, was a complicated person — a onetime librarian and outspoken Communist who ensured that she was the sun around which her wealthy husband revolved, in part by driving a wedge between him and his children from a previous marriage. Her idiosyncracies had the same effect on her own son, too. But along the way, Stokes's quirky habit of recording news and other programs on videocassette recorders kept running 24 hours a day for more than three decades emerges as vitally important, since much of the material was subsequently purged from broadcasters' archives and would be lost to posterity without her efforts. The Internet Archive is currently endeavoring to make this treasure trove accessible to the general public for free — an appropriate tribute to a complicated woman whose particular brand of madness gives Recorder a strange power.

The Invisible Life
The centerpiece of the 2019 Denver Film Festival's focus on Brazilian cinema, The Invisible Life may have modern touches, including a frank portrayal of sexuality epitomized by a woman's priceless reaction to her first look at an erect male penis. But at its foundation, it's an old-fashioned melodrama that serves as a reminder about the emotional power of the form. The Karim Aïnouz-helmed opus establishes the love between two sisters, then engineers ways to keep them apart for year upon year. Yes, men are at fault, for reasons that are as childish and petty as they are. (These dudes are disgusting, too, as depicted in scenes of rutting that make intercourse seem more like punishment than pleasure for the women involved.) But for all its contrivances, the plot is damnably effective, leading to a conclusion that's as inevitable as it is impactful.

Kabul, City in the Wind
Like Pahokee, this portrait of Afghanistan from director Aboozar Amini presents a slice of life rather than a strong storyline or theme — and that's definitely a detriment. But for me, Kabul, City in the Wind still managed to produce some affecting moments, thanks largely to scenes starring two young brothers: one street smart and savvy beyond his years, the other getting there fast. They're amazing camera subjects, and watching them cavort and play while navigating an incredibly severe landscape marred by warfare and carnage is both charming and terrifying. For instance, the favorite ditty of the younger boy is a warning to a yellow kitty to stay inside or he'll die — a message made even more acute by the cheerful, carefree way he warbles it. Not all of the film's sequences are this memorable; we spend way too much time with a bus driver trying to repair his ride. But the ones that are make the journey worthwhile.

Sunday, November 3

Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Another genre staple revived. These days, thank goodness, there are fewer social obstacles that keep lovers apart — or at least that's the case more often now than in years or centuries past. But queer period pieces offer barriers aplenty, and their insurmountable nature serves to ratchet up the dramatic tension in ways that can reinvigorate the doomed-romance formula. This French offering earned a screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival, and deservedly so, since the machinations that bring together Lady Héloïse, who's been instructed to wed against her will, and Marianne, an artist asked to paint her portrait surreptitiously while masquerading as her companion, offers a clever variation on gothics such as Wuthering Heights while keeping all the amplified feelings intact. Fire is (sorry, but it's appropriate) a slow burn, but when it ignites thanks to the undeniable chemistry between actors Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, the flames leap high.

Il traditore (The Traitor)
Even Italian Mob movies are indebted to The Godfather, and the opening section of The Traitor, despite being based on actual events, feels like a mashup of tropes derived from Frances Ford Coppola's masterpiece, including simmering tension at a big party that explodes in violence. But just when the flick seems fated to become a mere homage, the action shifts because of the decision by Mafioso Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino) to squeal on his Cosa Nostra pals. What follows is a de facto courtroom drama, albeit one much more lively than those that have long been a staple of American television: The accused are held in cages opposite a panel of judges and frequently burst into bellowed profanities and assorted vituperation. These set pieces are fresh and vital, but the story is repetitive by its very nature, resulting in pacing issues, false endings and a certain redundancy. Still, there are numerous rewards in this scattershot saga, including an unexpected one for Colorado viewers: For a time, Buscetta and his family were secretly housed in Fort Collins.

DeVotchKa's Nick Urata gets low in his conversation with John Moore about Man With a Movie Camera.
DeVotchKa's Nick Urata gets low in his conversation with John Moore about Man With a Movie Camera.
Michael Roberts

Man With a Movie Camera
A silent 1929 documentary by Soviet director Dziga Vertov, Man With a Movie Camera was voted the best documentary ever made in a 2014 Sight & Sound poll and the eighth greatest film of any kind by the same publication two years earlier. For me, though, it's less moving than diverting — a cinematic time capsule in which Vertov uses all of the techniques and filmic language established since the dawn of the medium to celebrate life as it was lived in Moscow (and pretty much everywhere else) at the time. The largely plotless collage of images is intriguing, especially for film nerds, but it requires viewers to provide the meaning.

Last night at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science's IMAX theater, DeVotchKa proved to be the perfect vessel for the task. The four members of this terrific Denver band — Nick Urata, Tom Hagerman, Jeanie Schroder and Shawn King — have plenty of experience scoring films, including the 2006 indie smash Little Miss Sunshine, and they used tunes from numerous previous recordings as the basis for a live soundtrack that was packed with thrills and swerves flavored with delicious Eastern European touches. The bandmates faced the screen as they played, giving them the opportunity to improvise with the images to a delightful degree. Suddenly, a wordless film was transformed into an invigorating sonic experience.

John Moore, a former Denver Post theater critic who now works for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, served as the host for the evening, and his post-screening interview with the group was highly entertaining, shedding light on the creative process while keeping the mood lighthearted. During the conversation, Urata and company stayed seated and facing away from the audience for the most part, but the effect wasn't off-putting. Instead, it encouraged the sense of being part of DeVotchKa's inner circle — and that was enhanced by the world premiere of the band's latest video, "Done With Those Days," which contained plenty of visual hat-tips to none other than Man With a Movie Camera.

The people in the auditorium left knowing that they'd just witnessed something truly special — and that's the Denver Film Festival at its best.

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