Film and TV

Starz Denver Film Festival 2014: Keep On Keepin' On Highlights Fest's Closing Week

Our Starz Denver Film Festival opening days roundup noted that the above-average quality of the screenings I caught offered compensation for weak attendance at numerous high-profile events. I wasn't quite so lucky over the course of the fest's last week-plus, but Keep On Keepin' On, a documentary with deep Colorado ties, was the exception that proved the rule.

See also: Starz Denver Film Festival 2014: The Real Pleasures of The Imitation Game and More

Keep On Keepin' On was one of two documentaries given the red-carpet treatment at the Buell Theatre during Saturday afternoons, with the first being the November 16 local debut of Touch the Wall, a film about Colorado Olympic hero Missy Franklin, who retweeted this pic from 9News' Cheryl Preheim:

Keep On Keepin' On drew a considerably smaller crowd on November 22; once again, the upper levels of the Buell were closed off, as was the case for the opening night bow of the underwhelming 5 to 7. And the situation was repeated that evening for Like Sunday, Like Rain, one of the weakest-ever picks designated for a closing night showcase-- a misnomer given that Sunday featured a full slate of additional screenings, but never mind.

Directed by Frank Whaley, who's best known as a character actor (he has a small but key role in Pulp Fiction), Like Sunday, Like Rain is the tale of a twelve-year-old genius who grows close to his troubled nanny.

Julian Shatkin, the unknown young actor in the central role, is the highlight of the film; Whaley, who also wrote the script, presents him as a less tortured but still needy variation on Max Fischer from Rushmore, with idiosyncrasies that include a gourmet vegetarian palate and a casual mastery of every academic subject. But the nanny, portrayed by ex-Gossip Girl Leighton Meester, is essentially a blank despite add-ons like a terrible family and a dipshit boyfriend -- Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong in a portrayal so amateurish that it's unclear if he could competently play himself.

Meester's interplay with Shatkin works on occasion, but Whaley's desire to play with sexual tension, epitomized by Meester's willingness to share a motel with the boy and a number of other creepily touchy-feely moments, feels more awkward than brave. Worse are the slack pacing (nearly every scene goes on too long, to no discernible purpose), the uninteresting visuals, and the continuity errors; both the boy and the nanny are supposed to be accomplished musicians, but the sequences in which they play are staged with laughable ineptitude.

No wonder so many members of the modest crowd chose to split rather than listen to Whaley chat with film critic Robert Denerstein for a Q&A afterward.

The percentage of ticket buyers who stuck around for the post-screening bonus after Keep on Keepin' On, was much higher, as were the number of smiles.

Continue for more of our Starz Denver Film Festival 2014 wrap-up, including more photos. Keep On Keepin' On focuses on the friendship between Clark Terry, a jazz legend in failing health as he enters his nineties, and Justin Kauflin, a young pianist who went blind at age eleven. This set-up seems to invite the maudlin treatment, especially given that Terry, a diabetic, suffers from increasing vision difficulties, as well as circulation issues that eventually lead to amputations of both legs. But this trap is avoided due to the temperaments of the two main figures: Both Terry and Kauflin are optimistic, funny and charming, making for an odd couple that ends up being awfully simpatico in the end.

Musician-turned-first-time-director Alan Hicks wisely avoids over-hyping narrative incidents like Terry's long-term hospitalization and Kauflin's entry into a jazz contest that could make or break his career. Instead, he maintains an easy-going tempo dictated by the rhythms of their friendship even when Terry's old mentee, super-producer Quincy Jones, decides to take Kauflin under his wing. More important than musical fame for Kauflin is the connection between two people who have much more in common than either their backgrounds or their vintages would imply.

Jones is among the executive producers of Keep On Keepin' On, but the person mainly responsible for pushing it into the spotlight is Paula DuPré Pesmen, whose presence in Colorado led Hicks, an Australian by birth, to move here. Both were present afterward, along with editor Davis Coombe and Kauflin, accompanied by Candy, a seeing-eye dog that keeps threatening to steal the movie. Also present was Denver jazz vocalist Diane Reeves, who appears in the movie, and Denver Post critic Lisa Kennedy, whose obvious affection for the film helped her facilitate a conversation that was as warm as the film itself.

After Kauflin played two lovely songs, including one entitled "For Clark," with Candy curled up at his feet, a member of the audience sitting near me told her companion, "Now that was worth the fifteen bucks." Amen.

The other films I saw at the festival this past week were, for the most part, less heavenly. Viva La Liberta, is a near-miss -- a satire that made the mistake of devoting equal screen time to a burnt-out Italian politician when his brother, an eccentric twin who trades places with him, is infinitely more entertaining. And the Oscar-baiting Foxcatcher finds Steve Carell playing against type as murderous wrestling aficionado John Du Pont -- but while he's almost unrecognizable in the part, his performance is more heavily mannered stunt than revelatory eye-opener. As for 21 Years: Richard Linklater, the career overview of a director whose Boyhood is undeniably one of 2014's best films is among the most superficial documentaries I've ever seen. Instead of digging into Linklaters' background or motivations, it consists almost entirely of actors such as Jack Black, Ethan Hawke and Matthew McConaughey saying nice things about him. If you don't know anything about Linklater going in, about all you'll learn is that his friends really like him.

As noted by fest director Britta Erickson prior to the doc's unspooling, the Starz Denver Film Festival has been around even longer than Linklater -- 37 years to his 21 -- and its status as a Denver cultural touchstone is well-deserved. Even when certain flicks fall short, it's reassuring to know that the fest will continue to keep on keepin' on.

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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