The fortieth annual Denver Film Festival got off to a fine start with Lady Bird, an opening-night flick well worth discovering. Since then, the event's attendance has been impressive despite a lack of star power on par with Emma Stone's appearance for La La Land last year and the mixed quality of the six movies I caught during the fest's first weekend. Note that a Q&A with co-star Kyra Sedgwick on November 3 barely mentioned Submission, the DFF's centerpiece presentation at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House for which she was ostensibly on hand, and no one seemed to care.
Submission involves sexual-harassment charges against a college professor played by Stanley Tucci, and in introducing it, Denver Film Festival artistic director Britta Erickson touted the timely nature of the subject matter given the scandals that have arisen in the wake of revelations about disgraced indie-film legend Harvey Weinstein. But this connection is more tangential than it might seem at first blush.
Far from portraying Tucci's character as a Weinstein-like predator who uses his power to feed his perversions, director Richard Levine, who was also at the Ellie for the November 3 presentation, treats him as a sympathetic figure — a dizzy sap who falls for the charms of a student (Addison Timlin) who seems unstable, manipulative or a combination thereof. The relationship more or less follows the arc of the 1930 Marlene Dietrich film Blue Angel (that's also the title of the Francine Prose novel on which it's based), but with a lot less surety and style than Josef von Sternberg's kinky masterpiece. The credits include a copyright date of 2015, which suggests the project has been sitting on a shelf for a couple of years and is now being resurrected in the hope that its theme will resonate with current events. But don't bet on it.
Sedgwick, who plays the professor's wife and does what she can with a stereotypical revelation scene (surprise: It's in a restaurant), accepted the festival's annual John Cassavetes Award before sitting down to chat post-screening with film critic Lisa Kennedy. But after asking a general question about Submission, Kennedy moved on to Sedgwick's directorial debut, Story of a Girl, which no one at the Ellie had seen yet; it didn't debut at the fest until the following day. That seemed about right.
Prior to Submission, I caught the November 3 Sie FilmCenter unspooling of Last Flag Flying, the latest from indie auteur Richard Linklater, whose 2014 film Boyhood was an unalloyed triumph in a filmography that's been consistently personal and inventive. These qualities turn up only rarely in Flying, which may be the least Linklater-like movie he's ever made. The plot involves three former Marines, played by Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne, who reunite circa 2003 to bury the Carell character's son, who was killed in Iraq. The Cranston and Fishburne roles are straight-up stock — the former is a hard-boozing bad boy, the latter a reformed wildman turned priest — and sadness is pretty much the only emotion Carell's given. Worse, many of the bits play like badly adapted theater scenes even though its source material is a novel by Darryl Ponicsan, who co-wrote the script. A few moments display Linklater's signature verve, but too many of them feel as if he's trying to play the Hollywood game at the very time he should be able to tell big-shot producers to go to hell. Let's hope he does just that next time around.
Bernard and Huey, which played at the UA Pavilions on November 4, was a more successful effort, if modestly so. The characters played by Jim Rash, best known for Community (but also an Oscar-winning screenwriter for The Descendants) and David Koechner, of Anchorman fame, were created by Village Voice and Playboy cartoonist Jules Feiffer way back in the 1950s, and their saucy dialogue about sexual conquests feels pleasantly antiquated, like a throwback to the days when "Va-va voom!" was considered a compliment. The script doesn't gather much momentum, since it's more a series of gags than a consistent narrative, but co-stars such as Eka Darville, Richard Kind, Nancy Travis, Bellamy Young and Mae Whitman are clearly having fun, and a post-screening talk by director Dan Mirvish showed why. His tales of resurrecting the screenplay, which Feiffer had penned for Showtime back in the mid-1980s, and shooting a subway scene in his garage were at least as funny as anything that made it onto the screen.
In contrast, Chappaquiddick, a retelling of the 1969 car accident that killed both campaign aide Mary Jo Kopechne and Senator Ted Kennedy's presidential aspirations (it showed at the Sie FilmCenter on November 5), was stolid, serious and so studiously neutral that it managed to transform one of the biggest political scandals of the past half-century into a stone bore. Jason Clarke's Teddy is colored in so many shades of gray that he practically drifts away, like wisps of smoke, Kate Mara's Mary Jo dies so quickly that she fails to make much of an impression, and the stunt casting of comics Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan in dramatic parts results in a split verdict; Helms holds his own, Gaffigan doesn't. There are a few intriguing juxtapositions with Neil Armstrong's moon landing, which was taking place at the same time (I also dug the excerpt from a commercial for Quisp cereal, which remains delicious). But for the most part, Chappaquiddick, directed by John Curran, is so afraid of being accused of being exploitative that it forgets to be entertaining.
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An even bigger disappointment for me was Have a Nice Day, an animated feature from China directed by Liu Jian that was also at the Sie FilmCenter on Sunday. The movie is advertised as a Tarantino-esque look at crime at its grimiest and most blood-spattered, and these elements are definitely on view — and the dialogue has a similar blend of literary smarts and gutter jargon as in Pulp Fiction (made under the supervision of, yep, Harvey Weinstein). Visually, though, it's relentlessly static, presumably for budgetary reasons. There's occasional motion within the frame, albeit often of the minor variety (lips moving, eyes blinking), but I don't think there's a single image in which the frame itself so much as budges. Moreover, the pace is stultifying — a deadly error for what's supposed to be an action-packed post-noir extravaganza. The result is like slowly paging through a flip book instead of letting the pages flutter.
Fortunately, another international effort — Thelma, which graced the UA Pavilions on Saturday — made a much more memorable mark. Director Joachim Trier, who helmed what has already been named Norway's official entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, tells the story of a young woman (Eili Harboe) who has psychic powers beyond her understanding or control — at first. The tale is wound up in religious oppression and sexual discovery, and these themes add heft to sequences that build slowly but inexorably to often startling climaxes. The material works in part because of Trier's patient approach, which is unexpectedly naturalistic rather than contrived. If any supernatural thriller can be deemed realistic, it's this one.
Bet some American producer is planning a shitty remake of Thelma right now — but you can still see the original. It's Denver Film Festival artistic director Brit Withey's must-see pick for today, November 6.