Starz Denver Film Festival: Quartet's Big Night among four fest snapshots

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The 35th annual Starz Denver Film Festival rolled into its first weekend with a head of steam -- and a pile of cash, thanks to a $2.5 million gift from philanthropists John and Anna Sie that's allowing the Denver Film Society to own its home. Everything hasn't run smoothly over the past few days, but the goodwill produced by the event has carried it over each bump thus far -- including a highly anticipated screening that didn't actually happen.

On Friday evening, the L2 Center, across the street from the complex that houses the Denver FilmCenter/Colfax (soon to be rechristened the Sie FilmCenter, thanks to the aforementioned donation), was scheduled to host the Denver debut of The Sapphires, a film about an Aboriginal soul group that's reportedly a crowd-pleaser extraordinaire. In her introduction for the flick, festival director Britta Erickson noted that it had earned a ten-minute ovation from the notoriously jaded attendees of the Cannes Film Festival, and had been just as enthusiastically received at the Telluride Film Festival, where she first fell under its spell.

Erickson's lead-in further whetted the appetite of the big L2 crowd -- but after the lights dimmed, the digital projector that was to play it split the film into two rectangles, neither of which showed the complete image.

When the movie was stopped, most attendees anticipated that the delay would be momentary. But no: A group of crew members struggled with the contraption for a full hour before a fest staffer announced that the projector appeared to be irrevocably broken. Ticket buyers were offered their money back, and promises were made (and kept) about additional screenings. A new time was set for Saturday afternoon, with three more on the docket for Sunday, November 11; click here for more details.

Afterward, Erickson was understandably frustrated. She told me that a few hours earlier, volunteers had run the film in its entirety on the very projector that went south as a test, and the device had passed with flying colors. She also noted that the technicians had actually been on the phone with the projector's manufacturer during the delay, only to learn there was no quick fix.

What was remarkable about the evening, though, was the response of those on hand to his unfortunate turn. No one seemed angry or upset -- no one I saw, anyhow. Spirits remained high, with plenty of those who thought they'd be watching The Sapphires venturing into the Tattered Cover and Twist and Shout, the FilmCenter's two great neighbors, and spending some quality time with books and music. The reaction was a heartening indication of just how beloved the festival has become over its three-and-a-half decades of life.

The next morning, I ventured to the Denver Pavilions -- a new participant in the festival, now that the film complex at the Tivoli is no longer available -- and took advantage of another of the fest's most enjoyable attributes: the ability to see much-anticipated new movies before they come to the average neighborhood multiplex. In this case, the featured item was Hyde Park on Hudson, with Bill Murray portraying Franklin Delano Roosevelt during a period in which he engaged in an extended affair with a distant cousin (Laura Linney) even as he prepared for a visit from King George VI (Samuel West) as war clouds gathered over Europe.

The film itself falls short of brilliance by a considerable margin. Murray captures the charm and mannerisms of FDR, if not his accent, and the sequences in which George VI and his queen (Olivia Colman) try to determine if a picnic menu that includes hot dogs is meant to ridicule them is mildly amusing in a dry, Downton Abbey sorta way -- although recent memories of The King's Speech and Colin Firth's Oscar-winning portrayal of the stuttering monarch don't do the new offering any favors. But the juxtaposition of the royals' visit and the president's far-from-juicy affair (Linney's performance is tentative and muted) make for a split focus that prevents either narrative from seizing the day. The result is a pleasant enough confection, but one that won't linger for long afterward.

The same conclusion works for that evening's Big Night presentation.

Continue for more about the Starz Denver Film Festival's opening weekend. The film festival's Big Night event -- staged, like opening and closing nights, at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House -- has frequently lived up to its moniker, as was certainly the case last year, when the marquee item was The Descendants, which subsequently landed on many critics' best-of-the-year lists. But that's unlikely to be the case for Quartet, the directorial debut by veteran actor Dustin Hoffman, which earned the slot for Saturday's presentation.

Granted, the movie wasn't as flat-out agonizing as Last Chance Harvey, a Hoffman film whose screening during Closing Night in 2008 ended a fine festival on a decidedly weak note. Rather, Quartet is a mildly diverting entry in the growing Geriatric Cinema genre epitomized by the likes of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel -- mediocre, but not appallingly so.

The plot turns on a group of veteran opera performers whose retirement home is in financial difficulty. What can save it? How about a performance by a quartet of performers who happen to live there; they're portrayed by Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly, joined early on by Maggie Smith, fresh from (our second reference) Downton Abbey. Problem is, Smith is reluctant to diminish recollections of her greatness by showing the damage age has done to her pipes -- and there's also the matter of her awkward relationship with the Courtenay character, whom she wed and then quickly jilted long ago.

Will they find a way to overcome these challenges and triumph? Of course they will. But director Hoffman fails to ratchet up anything resembling tension, and because the main players (unlike many of the folks in smaller supporting roles) can't pull off convincing operatic performances, he doesn't actually let us hear their preparation or performance -- a weird attempt at fealty that's worse than the alternative, lip-syncing. That leaves us with Connolly making amusingly randy and inappropriate come-ons to everything in a skirt and Smith looking as if she's waiting for someone to deliver a script with more for her to do.

And yet, after the screening, I heard little grumbling about the tepidness of Quartet. Maybe that's because it was aimed squarely at the demographic of the audience -- or maybe, as with The Sapphires, these folks love the festival so much that they eagerly cut it slack even when the Big Night turns out to be much more modest-sized.

Sunday morning brought a very different sort of response in regard to one of the fest's most unusual and idiosyncratic entries: Consuming Spirits, an animated film made over a fifteen-year period by Chris Sullivan, who was on hand for the presentation. The work is as much folk art as movie, with its five segments rendered in a combination of stop-motion animation, pencil sketches, puppetry and more. The individual images are often strangely beautiful and oddly disturbing -- but for the first 80 percent of the movie, the narrative is more surreal than straight-forward.

The small-town residents spotlighted include an odd radio host, a newspaper paste-up artist with a suicidal mother, a nun who becomes the victim of a traffic accident, a man dressed as a deer and more. And while the final segment explains the previously mysterious interrelationships in a fairly cogent way, only the most patient viewers are likely to get this far without a modicum of resentment about the slow pace and the knotty storytelling, no matter how eye-catching the visuals are.

As evidence, note that when the words "The End" appeared on the screen, no one in the three-quarters-full auditorium at the Denver FilmCenter/Colfax clapped -- and there was only a polite round of applause when the credits ended. Moreover, about half the crowd hurried away before Sullivan began to speak, and he only got a handful of questions from those who remained.

But although few will recall Hyde Park on Hudson or Quartet years from now, many more will remember Consuming Spirits -- a film unlike any they've seen before, or will ever see again. That's part of the film-festival experience, too. And a wonderful part it is.

More from our Film archive: "Starz Denver Film Festival: $2.5 million gift puts Opening Night in the money."

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