In 2007 and 2008, the Starz Film Festival's annual "Big Night" presentation truly lived up to its name, screening Juno, a smart, sharp-tongued charmer that went on to become an unlikely left-field smash (and earn screenwriter Diablo Cody an Oscar), and Slumdog Millionaire, which ultimately collected several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, by dint of sheer quality.
What are the odds of a trifecta? Mighty slim: The Last Station, which got the Big Night treatment on Saturday evening at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, is the kind of high-brow production whose prestigious elements fail to coalesce into something truly memorable.
Chris "Birdman" Andersen, the cult hero from the Denver Nuggets, who walked the red carpet at the screening (likely because he was paid or doing someone a favor) split about five minutes after the lights went down -- and while few others immediately followed, a large chunk of the audience left as the final credits rolled rather than stick around to hear director Michael Hoffman discuss his accomplishment.
Oh, what a difference a year makes: At last year's Big Night, newly named executive director Bo Smith introduced the flick, clumsily sharing anecdotes about his recent move from Boston before turning over the stage to Starz Entertainment Group CEO Bob Clasen, who delivered a much slicker presentation. In the interim, however, Smith was sacked following mass resignations by most of the Denver Film Society's staff -- and Clasen's on the way out, too. During the Starz chief's remarks this year, he confirmed that he'll be retiring in a short time, although he and his wife plan to make their permanent home in Denver.
Clasen was preceded to the stage by Tom Botelho, the former Denver Post executive who stepped into Smith's shoes -- and his steadying influence has gone a long way toward preventing the DFS from melting down entirely. He provided a similar service on Saturday, only briefly acknowledging the troubles of months past (he called the recent period "turbulent," in an understatement of massive proportions) before going on to praise the employees, volunteers and sponsors that helped keep the event going for 32 years -- "and hopefully at least 32 more," he said.
Hoffman followed Botelho and Clasen to the podium, offering a preview of The Last Station, his adaptation of a Jay Parini novel about the later years of Leo Tolstoy, who became what the director described as a "guru" preaching in favor of celibacy, vegetarianism and, more presciently in light of the subsequent Russian revolution, the evils of private property. He noted that the picture had its U.S. debut at the Telluride Film Festival, joking that the kind reception it received there might have had something to do with the altitude -- a phenomenon he hoped would be repeated in Denver.
Not so much.
The cast certainly wasn't to blame. Tolstoy is played by Christopher Plummer, who consistently infuses the role with a welcome whimsy, while Helen Mirren gives the Countess, Tolstoy's wife, a combustible blend of resentment, anger and lingering affection for the old coot with whom she's lived and loved for nearly half a century. (This last quality is at the center of perhaps the film's best scene, when the Countess coaxes Tolstoy back to her bed by laughingly clucking like a chicken.) And the supporting cast includes a ripe Paul Giamatti and James McAvoy as Valentin, a young Tolstoy acolyte who's been following the old man's advice to the letter -- not necessarily to his benefit.
Unfortunately, the story's engine -- Tolstoy is considering signing over the rights to his works to the Russian people, much to the Countess' displeasure -- isn't the sort of thing designed to get hearts racing, especially given the grandeur of the family's circumstances. Clearly, no one's going to starve, making the resolution of the plot point seem more academic than urgent. Even worse, Giamatti's character is such a stock villain that he actually spends much of the movie rolling the ends of his curly mustache -- although he does resist the urge to tie Mirren to railroad tracks as a train approaches.
As for McAvoy, his young devotee is the only person on screen with the capacity for change, and while he comes out of his shell to some degree after being belatedly deflowered by free-spirited Masha (Kerry Condon), he remains too much a study in passivity. By the end, he's lost his most amusing tic -- a tendency to sneeze when he gets nervous -- but it's not replaced by anything nearly as endearing.
The last third of the narrative deals with Tolstoy's decision to leave the Countess, after which he falls ill along his escape route. The drama set up by these circumstances is supposed to revolve around whether Giamatti's sycophant, in league with Tolstoy's daughter (Anne-Marie Duff), will allow the Countess to visit her husband on his deathbed. But the standoff feels contrived, in part because it would instantly end the moment Valentin speaks up -- an act he delays for reasons having more to do with script necessities than common sense.
When the lights came back up, they illuminated a considerably less crowded house than originally. Of course, one factor in the fleeing could have been snowfall that had forced the red carpet to be moved indoors. But attendees continued to filter out as Hoffman chatted about the film with former Rocky Mountain News reviewer Robert Denerstein.
Not that Hoffman was dull or off-putting. He offered interesting background on Tolstoy and the Countess, sympathizing with the latter's sense of feeling marginalized by the author's philosophical switch, which he said was preceded by a nervous breakdown. He described her reaction as, "What the fuck?" -- saltier language than expected given the just-concluded proceedings, which were more Merchant-Ivory than Martin Scorsese. He also compared the rocky ups and downs the Tolstoys experienced to his own marriage -- an analogy that probably wouldn't thrill his wife.
In the end, though, his insights could only go so far toward deepening one's appreciation for a film that's well-mounted but lacking in impact. Other nights at the film festival have certainly been bigger.