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A Grand Finale

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The November 18 screening of

Rescue Dawn

at the Temple Buell Theater didn't constitute the official conclusion of the 29th annual Denver Film Festival; other flicks unspooled later that evening and throughout the next day. Yet the event neatly encapsulated the best of the fest.

The proceedings got off to a nice start thanks to former mayoral spokesman turned Frontier Airlines exec Andrew Hudson, who turned his introduction into an energetic three-cheers-for-Denver session. Denver Film Society program director Brit Withey then helped dispense the bash's three main prizes, and winners associated with two were present to take possession of their baubles. Brothers Aaron and Adam Nee gleefully accepted the Emerging Filmmaker Award for The Last Romantic, while director A.J. Schnack lauded anyone and everyone connected with Kurt Cobain About a Son, which took the Maysles Brothers Award for best documentary. Their enthusiasm was infectious enough to make attendees happy there was no band to play them offstage when their speeches went long.

Next up were

Rescue Dawn

first assistant director/co-producer Harry Knapp and co-star Jeremy Davies, still looking painfully thin after portraying a war prisoner in the movie. Both praised the Denver Film Festival, which presented the flick's U.S. premiere, and director Werner Herzog, who has twice tackled the story of downed pilot Dieter Dengler; a documentary,

Little Dieter Needs to Fly

, was released (although not widely here) in 1997.

Such praise is predictable -- but this time around, it was deserved. Plot-wise, Rescue Dawn falls into the prison-escape genre. However, Herzog, whose previous offering was the acclaimed doc Grizzly Man, keeps things small-scale and personal. Throughout, his focus remains riveted on Dengler, portrayed by Christian Bale, who's shot down during a secret Vietnam-era mission over Laos. Shortly thereafter, he's imprisoned at a Laotian camp with a handful of captives who, like him, are stuck in a sort of geopolitical limbo. During this period (the mid-1960s), the American government had not publicly acknowledged that the Vietnam War had spilled into neighboring countries. Hence, the only way these guys will be able to get out of stir is if they take the initiative themselves.

The action isn't glamorized, but neither does Herzog amp up the grimness for dramatic effect. The tone is set by Bale, who eschews the dark intensity of recent performances (e.g., The Prestige) in favor of quirky optimism and a can-do spirit. He's a veritable MacGyver at times, but only the over-the-top conclusion smacks of Hollywood convention. Until then, Rescue Dawn enlivens its formula with eccentricity and a singularity of vision that events like the Denver Film Festival were created to celebrate. -- Michael Roberts

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