Film and TV

Denver Film Festival Closing Weekend 2016: Edge of Seventeen and More

The 39th annual Denver Film Festival kicked off on November 2 with the screening of La La Land, already anointed an Academy Award front-runner, and the red-carpet appearance of star Emma Stone.

And while I had a mixed response to Dev Patel's Lion, one of the subsequent showcase items, our roundup of the fest's first weekend confirmed that the event was off to an impressive start.

There were more ups and downs during DFF39's final days, when I caught seven more films, including an insane four flicks back to back to back to back on Sunday, November 13. But overall, the quality of the fare was first-rate. The result was among the best Denver film fests ever.

Artistic director Brit Withey told us that the appearance at the festival of filmmakers Domique Abel and Fiona Gordon, co-directors and co-stars of three films scheduled for screening, was a personal highlight, and Rumba, which I caught on Thursday, November 10, showed why.

A simple recitation of Rumba's plot — a pair of dance enthusiasts struggle to get on with life after an automobile accident that results in amnesia for him and the loss of a leg for her — makes it seem like a tragic tale. Instead, it's a wonderfully funny throwback to the offerings of silent-film-era greats such as Buster Keaton, but with a decidedly European-absurdist sensibility. Sight gags involving a failed suicide attempt, a house accidentally burned to the ground and a clumsiness tour de force by Gordon as she fumbles for her crutches not only land, but land beautifully thanks to a deadpan sensibility that extends to the visual aesthetics; the camera hardly moves as it captures the crazy action. Yet the conclusion, in which a happy reunion is prefigured by a fully limbed dance on the surface of the ocean, is unexpectedly sweet.

So, too, were Abel and Gordon, whose Q&A after the screening merely confirmed that their chemistry is in abundant supply whether they're acting out loopy scenarios or simply standing next to each other, beaming at the audience's pleasure.

Two days later, on Saturday, November 12, the Ellie Caulkins Opera House played host to two more red-carpet presentations.

First up was Edge of Seventeen, a coming-of-age narrative that marks the feature film debut of writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig (working under the tutelage of acclaimed producer-director James L. Brooks). The advance hype has suggested that the movie was in the tradition of movies by the late teen-flick auteurist John Hughes — a claim that's been made plenty of times over recent decades about now-forgotten directors. This time, though, it might actually be true.

Granted, Hailee Steinfeld, of True Grit and Pitch Perfect 2 fame, isn't exactly natural casting for protagonist Nadine, an alienated, awkward self-loather who considers high-school life to be an agonizing game she can't possibly win — and Blake Jenner, 24, cast as her older brother, looks about as much like a high school senior as Ryan Reynolds. But Fremon Craig's dialogue is biting, surprising and capable of adding unexpected detail to roles that might have seemed stereotypical in other hands. In addition, she gets enjoyably performances out of Woody Harrelson, as a teacher who manages to mentor Nadine in a way that eschews creepiness in favor of good-humored empathy, and newcomer Hayden Szeto, playing an Asian character far more laudable than Hughes's Long Duk Dong.

Szeto appeared at the screening, and afterward, he proved to be absolute charmer, gushing after receiving the festival's Rising Star award as if he'd won his first Oscar. Then again, he admitted that he'd been practicing acceptance speeches alone in his room for many a year. No wonder he's mastered the skill.

That evening at the Ellie, the festival presented Jackie, another buzzy award hopeful. But in his introduction, Denver Film Society executive director Andrew Rodgers didn't devote much time to lauding the flick. Instead, he delivered a fervently political speech about the arts in post-Trump America.

Festival director Britta Erickson's remarks prior to Edge of Seventeen had hinted at this subject by way of allusions to diversity, safe places for speech and how "it takes a village," in Hillary Clinton's phrase, to put together such a large event. But Rodgers was much more direct, seguing from reports of hate crimes in the election's wake to the ways in which the arts can inspire social change. For example, he pointed to how works such as Angels in America and Philadelphia effectively advocated for greater acceptance of homosexuality and a more positive view of the fight against AIDS. And while he acknowledged that he was essentially preaching to the choir at the Ellie, he encouraged attendees to take people who might not agree with their political views to see Native American exhibits at the Denver Art Museum or Denver Film Society fare capable of broadening their views and deepening their empathy for people different from them.

Throughout his comments, Rodgers received one round of applause after another — all of them well-deserved.

Too bad Jackie wasn't as deserving of an ovation.

Natalie Portman's performance as Jacqueline Kennedy is easily the best thing about the film; she nails Jackie's whispery voice and oddball cadence without descending into caricature. But she's undone by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín's approach to the material, which reduces the days in the immediate aftermath of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas to an impressionistic collage that focuses relentlessly on two themes: Jackie's shock at the horrific event and her resolve to preserve her late husband's legacy, as sketched out in conversations with a reporter (Billy Crudup) used as a clunky framing device.

Larraín's approach certainly positions Portman for her own Oscar nod; a seemingly endless closeup of a traumatized, red-eyed Jackie shakily wiping JFK's blood off her face is only the most obvious of the for-your-consideration moments collected here. But there's no sense of a journey or a dramatic arc, just one pretentiously monochromatic episode after another, with occasional cameos from figures such as Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard was the wrong man for the job, as he proves in each scene). Jackie avoids turning into yet another TV-movie-like rendition of these familiar happenings, but it never earns its sense of importance.

The next day, historical dramatization was replaced by middle-man-free reality. All four of the films I caught on Sunday, November 13, were documentaries — and three were absolute winners.

First up was Mifune: The Last Samurai, a documentary about the late actor Toshiro Mifune, best known to Western audiences for his roles in films by director Akira Kurosawa, including Seven Samurai.

Director Steven Okazaki deploys numerous conventional elements in the piece, including interviews with former co-stars, including one fight choreographer who is said to have been killed by Mifune on-screen more than one-hundred times. (Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese add their compliments, too, and the film is narrated by actor Keanu Reeves.) And there are some priceless backstage anecdotes, including details about Throne of Blood, among Mifune's most towering accomplishment.

Throne, an adaptation of Macbeth (and, for my money, the single best Shakespeare adaptation on film), ends with an absolutely astonishing death scene, as Mifune's character is targeted by an army's worth of archers. Okazaki reveals that their arrows were real and could actually have killed Mifune, especially given that the people unleashing them were college students with highly questionable expertise. Yet he went through with the scene anyhow because he owed Kurosawa his career — and fortunately, it didn't come to a premature end at the conclusion of the movie.

Even better, the film offers a mini-history of the samurai film, complete with silent footage that few people have seen for a century. This beguiling imagery helps to lift Mifune: The Last Samurai above the level of standard biographical docs.

Less successful was Actors of Sound, a loving tribute to Foley artists — the folks who add sound effects to films in post-production.

There's no denying that filmmakers such as director Lalo Molina and co-producer/editor Gustavo Bernal have their hearts in the right place. They lavish attention on a filmmaking element little known or understood by the general public, and one that has hardly changed since the early days of talkies.

Foley pros such as Gregg Barbanell, who appeared alongside Molina and Bernal at the Denver screening, use mini-walkways with an assortment of surfaces to reproduce just the right footstep and common household items to create sonic signatures that viewers would only notice if they were gone. Example: The sound of E.T. walking was achieved in part by squishing Jell-O.

Problem is, beyond the interesting aspects of the job itself, Actors of Sound never builds to anything in particular. At one point, it appears that the doc will cast Foley artists as a dying breed, especially given the closure of one notable effects-house and attempts by technicians to come up with digital substitutes for hand-made noises. But that theme is promptly set aside in favor of more random shots of dudes walking on sidewalk slabs in high heels.

Without a story or a direction, Actors of Sound winds up feeling like a potentially engaging DVD-extra padded to feature length.

That definitely wasn't the case for Check It, part of the fest's nod to CinemaQ, a program of LGBTQ films founded by Westword contributor Keith Garcia, who introduced the documentary at yesterday afternoon's screening.

Check It involves a group of LGBTQ teens in Washington, D.C., who were attacked and abused so frequently that they created their own gang for self-protection — and the group ultimately grew to include around 200 members.

But co-directors Toby Oppenheimer and Dana Flor aren't content with simply portraying this effort as bold, if unconventional, empowerment. They dig into the lives of assorted Check It members, many of whom have been rejected by their parents and their community. Several are homeless and must support themselves by way of prostitution only a couple of miles from the White House.

In addition, the film follows the efforts of an activist to point the members in a less violent, more positive direction — and in the end, the gang morphs into a fashion business specializing in "Check It" T-shirts. But this ending isn't happy in a one-dimensional way. While things are definitely looking up for Travon Warren, aka Tray, a documentary subject who spoke after the screening, nothing is guaranteed and and not everyone is likely to steer clear of the beatings and jailings that once seemed to be the only future available to them.

The last film on my agenda was the final flick of the festival — Obit, which was both a witty choice for this slot and a fine way to finish off the proceedings.

On the surface, a documentary about obituary writers at the New York Times would seem to risk the same fate as Actors of Sound. But director Vanessa Gould does more than just showcase people who have an unusual way of making a living. She weaves in threads about changes in the newspaper industry (few publications have units devoted to obituaries anymore), as well as changes dictated by the Internet and clashes between modern technology and ancient practices. The latter is exemplified by the Times morgue, whose single overseer (there were once as many as fifteen people who worked there) admits that he has only the vaguest idea of all the stuff that was collected by his predecessors over a century-plus.

Case in point: the discovery that an advance obituary for a teen aviatrix has been written in the early 1930s, but wasn't used for more than eighty years.

The Denver Film Festival isn't quite that old; it's ramping up to its fortieth anniversary next year. But based on this year's array of cinematic delights, it's got a lot more life left in it.

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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