Starz Denver Film Festival's Big Night strikes gold with a small film: Nebraska

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Who is this man? No doubt his family, friends and loved ones will be able to identify him instantly. But the rest of us would probably be at a loss, despite the fact that he was among those who walked the red carpet Saturday outside the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in advance of the Starz Denver Film Festival's Big Night presentation. Still, the lack of luminaries was appropriate to the movie that was the focus of the evening: director Alexander Payne's Nebraska, a determinedly small-scale flick that also happened to be charming, melancholy and wholly deserving of the spotlight.

See also: Photos of Starz Denver Film Festival opening night and a corn-porny Labor Day.

The venue was mostly full if not overflowing when Denver Film Society head Tom Botelho took to the microphone and offered an amusingly rambling introduction to the festivities. His most memorable moment? While running down the success of the DFS' capital campaign, an upcoming endowment effort, the purchase of new digital projectors and the upgrading of the Sie FilmCenter, the society's home on Colfax, he accidentally touted adult films -- make that adult film-education classes. Of course, the film fest does indeed specialize in adult films, albeit ones whose climaxes are typically cinematic rather than literal. Yet after a Starz executive stepped behind the podium to introduce the main event, the first item to flicker against the giant screen over the Ellie stage was fun for movie lovers of all ages. Fluffy the Flying Fish, by filmmaker Ryan Charmatz, was an animated offering that told the tale of transporting a goldfish won at an amusement park from Los Angeles to Denver using technology not that far removed from a notepad and some Magic Markers. And yet it was funny, winning and thoroughly delightful right down to the closing credits, in which Charmatz gave credit to, of all things, the font he used for the titles. Thank you, Comic Sans!

Charmatz's mini-opus proved to be the ideal lead-in for Nebraska, which also zeroed in on an everyday sort of challenge -- dealing with an elderly loved one who's losing whatever grip on reality he once had -- in a manner that was light and graceful, as opposed to being weighted with seriousitude.

Woody Grant, played with big-eyed, slack-jawed ease by veteran character actor Bruce Dern, whose last starring role this notable may have been for the sci-fi cult favorite Silent Running way back in 1972, is a Billings, Montana-based drunk (despite his certitude that "beer ain't drinkin'") without much reason to continue breathing until he gets a pitch for magazine subscriptions that includes a certificate for a million dollars -- if his number is chosen at random, that is.

This last requirement escapes him, however, and he keeps wandering off en route to contest headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska, in order to claim his prize, which he wants to use to purchase a new truck, despite his lack of a license to drive, and an air compressor like the one he says his former business partner, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), borrowed and never returned thirty years earlier.


Continue for more about Nebraska and the Starz Denver Film Festival's Big Night. The raw ingredients for great drama? Not so much. But when son David (Saturday Night Live alum Will Forte), the least successful of Woody's offspring -- Bob Odenkirk's Ross is well on his way to becoming "the Tom Brokaw of Billings," decides that the best way to break his dad of his delusion is to drive him to Lincoln to prove that seven-figure riches are not coming to him, he sets into motion a wistful road trip comedy during which he gets new insight into his dad.

Don't worry: The secrets he learns don't cause the scales to fall from his eyes. But if none of them are particularly shocking, they help David fill in the gaps of his father's life by revealing the sort of telling incidents that all of us wish our parents would share with us, but seldom do.

Meanwhile, a little-known actress named June Squibb casually steals the show. As Kate, Woody's wife, Squibb reels off profane comments about everyone she's known, living or dead: In a hilarious set piece that takes place in a cemetery, she moves from gravestone to gravestone casually denigrating the dead, with this corpse a slut and that one always trying to get into her bloomers.

If the film manages to garner Academy Award consideration -- and it may, given Payne's track record (his most recent nominee magnet was The Descendents, which was also a part of the Denver Film Festival before hitting theaters) -- Squibb's the most likely beneficiary, along with screenwriter Bob Nelson, getting his first screenplay produced in his late fifties. But Nelson is fortunate to have had Payne as the person bringing his little world to life.

Payne shot the picture in black and white (the lovely cinematography is by Phedon Papamichael), but that's pretty much his only artsy gesture. Otherwise, he sketches out these ordinary lives with patience, good humor and empathy, refusing to tart up the narrative for Hollywood consumption.

Expect some critics to denigrate his accomplishment by noting that Payne has been here before: Echoes of his 2002 effort About Schmidt are especially prevalent. But like Wes Anderson, Payne is a director who is more interested in honing and perfecting his personal style instead of altering it each time out to prove he can make an action-adventure or a bodice-ripping tragedy, too. He does what he does better than anyone, and with Nebraska, it's more than enough.

And that's how a small film makes for a Big Night.

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

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