Starz Denver Film Festival: $2.5 million gift puts Opening Night in the money

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The opening evening of the Starz Denver Film Festival always focuses on the love of movies, and last night was no exception. But this year (the fest's 35th), the event was also about...a huge pile of cash. Before a big crowd at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, fest vet Ron Henderson revealed that philanthropists John and Anna Sie have gifted the Denver Film Society with $2.5 million with which to buy its current home, the Denver Filmcenter/Colfax. Not that it'll have this name for much longer.

See also: Photos: Starz Denver Film Festival: Opening Night 2012

The red carpet outside the Ellie prior to the big reveal was jammed with filmmakers, actors and the like, all enjoying a spectacular Colorado evening. No doubt they enjoyed showing off their wardrobe finery rather than having to huddle in wool coats. Not a lot of big name performers or instantly recognizable faces were caught in the many camera lenses, but the spirit of the attendees was so bright that flashes might not have been necessary.

Inside the Ellie, plenty of folks were still milling around and hobnobbing when festival director Britta Erickson stepped to the podium and encouraged everyone to take a seat. She began in standard fashion, talking about the growth of the festival and many of the special events that will be taking place over the course of the next week and a half or so, including appearances by Vince Vaughn, Tippi Hedren and Boulder artist Stacey Steers, winner of the annual Stan Brakhage Vision Award.

In addition, she praised the scope of the films selected for screening, which include a slew from Argentina, whose cinematic output is being prominently featured this year, and sixteen entries from Colorado filmmakers.

Shortly thereafter, an executive of Key Bank, a sponsor of opening night, gave a brief, sorta awkward talk before introducing the annual salute to the festival's sponsors -- a political parody co-starring former Westword staffer John Ashton that was easily the funniest and most successful clip of its sort made in at least the last five years.

At that point, most folks in attendance likely figured the evening's main attraction -- the film A Late Quartet -- would start to unspool. But no: Erickson introduced Henderson, the co-founder and longtime face of the fest, who began talking about the Sies -- John, the founder of Starz Entertainment Group, and Anna, one of the city's most prominent benefactors, and a great lover of Italian cinema. (The fest's Maria & Tommaso Maglione Italian Filmmaker Award is named for her parents.)

Why this tribute? Henderson took a while to get to the news, but it was definitely worth the wait. In mid-October, he revealed, the Sies had given $2.5 million (a $1.5 donation and a $1 million low-interest loan) to allow the Denver Film Society to purchase the Denver FilmCenter/Colfax. After more than three decades, Henderson said, "we own our own home."

Continue to read more about opening night at the Starz Denver Film Festival. A short time later, the Sies stepped forward, earning a well-deserved standing ovation. But rather than simply basking in the adoration, John looked to the future. He said his goal has long been for Denver to become a legitimate filmmaking hub -- and he challenged those in attendance, and the local art scene in general, to combine forces in order to make it happen.

As for the complex's moniker, it's undergoing some alterations. Henceforth, the facility will be known as the Anna Sie and John J. Sie FilmCenter -- shorthanded as the Sie FilmCenter. Moreover, the main auditorium will be named for Anna's parents.

Given all the hoopla, A Late Quartet couldn't help seeming a bit anticlimactic. The story concerns a well-regarded four piece whose dynamic is disrupted when Peter, its most senior member (portrayed by Christopher Walken), begins suffering from the early stages of Parkinson's disease. In the wake of the revelation, and his decision to withdraw after a final performance, the second violinist, Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), begins lobbying Daniel, the lead instrumentalist (Mark Ivanir), for more solo time even as his relationship with his violist wife, Juliette (Catherine Keener), begins to fray thanks in part to his infidelity. And finally, the ultra-controlled Daniel decides to embrace the passions of life as embodied by Alexandra (Imogen Poots), a young violinist who also happens to be -- yes, you guessed it -- Robert and Juliette's daughter.

These ingredients sound juicy, as well as potentially comic -- and indeed, significant portions of the audience laughed during several scenes meant to be searing, probably because of the times when Christopher Walken couldn't help being Christopher Walken, replete with the sort of eccentric line readings that have made him a favorite of impressionists for years. But the characters are underwritten, with their actions vacillating from stereotypical to contradictory and back again, and while all of the actors have their moments -- especially Hoffman, who gives Robert the most convincing inner life -- and the concluding concert sequence is moving, the picture as a whole emerges as sketchy and erratic.

And yet, the evening's final act went a long way toward redeeming the flick. Ivanir was in attendance, and after the lights came up, he engaged in a Q&A with longtime Rocky Mountain News film reviewer Robert Dennerstein -- and the resulting conversation offered the sort of fascinating look behind the curtain in which the festival specializes. Ivanir shared the last-minute nature of his casting, the difficulty of learning how to fake being an elite-level violinist in just ten days (when he proudly demonstrated his technique to his family via Skype, they muted him), and his terror at having to improvise with the likes of Hoffman, whose skills ultimately prompted him to come up with dialogue in advance for any conceivable twist and turn.

Of course, the Starz Denver Film Festival has been on quite a journey, too, as Erickson acknowledged in her remarks. But the latest development is among the most heartening in the Denver Film Society's history.

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