Regular Denver Film Festival-goers tend to judge their experiences in part by the percentage of good movies to lousy ones they see before each edition of DFF runs its course.
By that measure, my experiences since catching Charlie Kaufman's low-key, defiantly weird Anomalisa on the fest's opening night this past Wednesday have been way above average.
I truly enjoyed four of the five additional flicks I caught and found the fifth — Michael Moore's Where to Invade Next, which got the red-carpet treatment at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House on Friday, November 5 — to be at least intermittently entertaining and informative after putting it through the agenda filter that's required for any of Moore's cinematic efforts.
Here's the rundown, in chronological order.
Brooklyn: Thursday, November 4, Sie FilmCenter
A feel-good movie about immigration? Definitely.
Brooklyn, directed by John Crowley and adapted by screenwriter Nick Hornby from a book by Colm Tóibín, offers a soft-hued, nostalgic vision of relocating to these United States via the tale of a young woman, played by Saoirse Ronan, who comes to New York City from Ireland circa the 1950s.
Granted, she must leave behind her wonderful sister and beloved yet overly needy mother, and early on, she suffers the usual pangs of homesickness. But upon her arrival in the U.S., she's taken under the wing of a kindly priest (Jim Broadbent) and a persnickety but ultimately nurturing landlady (Julie Walters) and quickly meets a young Italian plumber (Michael Zegen) who's so fumblingly charming that attempts to make it seem that she might throw him over in favor of a new paramour (Domhnall Gleeson) she encounters on a return trip to the Emerald Isle are strained at best.
But if there's not much grit in the scenario, there are plenty of laughs courtesy of Hornby, who gets to use his skills at character-driven humor far more frequently than he did in his most recent high-profile scripting assignment (Reese Witherspoon's Wild), not to mention the sort of luminous turn by Ronan that will only make it more difficult for her to convince casting directors that she'd be as good in a contemporary tale as she is in period pieces.
Where to Invade Next: Friday, November 6, Ellie Caulkins Opera House
Director Michael Moore was never really an enfant terrible, but acting as if he is one remains part of his schtick — and he trots the persona out one more time in Where to Invade Next.
The title implies an attack on America's military industrial complex, but the truth is more complicated, and a bit too cutesy. Moore's goal this time around is to lead a one-man invasion of countries around the globe with the intention of claiming each nation's good ideas for the United States. Among those he takes into custody: the large amount of paid vacation time mandated by Italy, the lack of standardized testing in Finland, and the free college tuition offered in Slovenia even to American ex pats, including a student who announces that he relocated to the semi-obscure Eastern European nation because he couldn't afford the tuition at CU-Boulder — a claim that earned a big laugh at the Ellie.
Of course, Moore is at heart a propagandist who tends to ignore information that might contradict his theses — hence, his one-dimensionally positive salute to the freedom for women in Tunisia despite an interview segment with a gruff official who explains that he requires his wife to wear a burka.
The results are far less impactful than Moore's most provocative works, including Roger & Me, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine. But beneath his shameless self-promotion is a true believer whose passions still manage to shine through, albeit in a preaching-to-the-choir kind of way.
Once Upon a Crime: The Borrelli-Davis Conspiracy: Saturday, November 7, Sie FilmCenter
I've written at length about this film on our news blog under the headline DEAR GOV. HICKENLOOPER: HERE'S WHY YOU SHOULD PARDON BOB DAVIS NOW.
Still, it's worth adding that the documentary about two wrongful convictions in a murder committed in Denver circa the 1970s is well-paced, carefully researched and often infuriating, particularly when it comes to Bob Davis, whose record deserves to be cleared once and for all, and as soon as possible.
Credit should also be given to director Sheldon Wilson, who said during a Q&A session following the screening that he stumbled upon the Borrelli-Davis case while looking for stories to adapt into screenplays, but soon realized that Borrelli and Davis should be given the chance to tell their own stories.
And even though Wilson isn't a specialist in documentaries, he managed to unearth new information about the case — most notably the whereabouts of prosecution source Terry D'Prero, who was given immunity in the original trial prior to being placed in the witness-protection program (and becoming a member of Texas' most-wanted list). This bit of detective work is considerably more impressive than that of investigators who helped put a pair of innocent men behind bars.
Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made and Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation: Sunday, November 8, Sie FilmCenter
The story behind Raiders! is stranger than fiction: In 1981, Chris Strompolos, age eleven, fell so deeply in love with a new movie called Raiders of the Lost Ark that he and a series of pals, including Eric Zala and Jayson Lamb, spent the next seven summers making a shot-for-shot remake. They succeeded with the exception of one sequence, involving a fight around an airplane that concluded with a series of explosions — so last year, as adults, they spent many thousands of dollars recreating it.
Viewers will have to decide for themselves if their obsession is magnificent or ridiculous. But their efforts are a tribute to perseverance, as well as the patience of their parents. Their folks only drew the line on their adventure in film-making after they saw footage that involved setting Zala on fire — but then allowed the kids to continue under the supervision of an extra from George Romero's Dawn of the Dead who was way less responsible than they were.
The line of the movie belongs to Zala's son, who proudly notes that Steven Spielberg spent $20 million to complete Raiders, while his dad managed to make a version of his own using only his allowance.
Following the documentary, attendees got the chance to see the boys' masterwork, with the new sequence inserted. The transition from grainy VHS to crystal-clear film stock would seem even bumpier were it not for earlier sequences in which the ages of the participants vary from shot to shot. But if watching kids play the Raiders parts Bugsy Malone-style can seem cheesy, the stars' youthful ingenuity more than makes up for any shortcomings. The Adaptation is a paean to the love of movies — as is the Denver Film Festival as a whole.