Starz Denver Film Festival 2011 Opening Night: Like Crazy works like crazy

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The 2011 Starz Denver Film Festival's slogan is "Roll out the Red" -- a reference to the many red carpet screenings on tap over the next week and a half or so. The first of those took place last night at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House -- or, as Like Crazy director Drake Doremus called it in a Q&A that followed the screening of his casually arty, immensely likable flick, the "Macaulay Culkin Opera House." Oh yeah: He also Tebowed -- twice.

The sharp bite of last night's weather made the stroll to the Ellie's entrance less glitzy than during some years. For the most part, women wearing micro dresses that wouldn't require any skirt hiking if they headed to a gynecologist appointment afterward didn't reveal their outfits until they were inside -- and many other attendees opted for warmth over fashion. Nonetheless, the pleasantly crowded if not jam-packed venue crackled with anticipation, as has each opening night of the fest's 34 years. Every film may not be great, festival veterans know, but they're a helluva likelier to be fresh than the majority of stuff currently clogging the average multiplex.

Just after 8 p.m., the lights dimmed and Denver Film Society board chairman David Charmatz -- once Starz's Senior Vice President of Product Planning and Development, now an independent media consultant -- took to the podium. He's a dynamic speaker, striking just the right mix of movie love and boosterism. He noted that the fest is considered one of the fifty best on the planet (by indieWIRE) and pointed out that more than 270 pictures will unspool in the coming days, making this year's model the most ambitious ever, at least from a volume perspective.

Following Charmatz and a rather rote short highlighting sponsors was fest director Britta Erickson, who introduced Doremus by pretending that she couldn't share the name of his previous film with such a tony gathering before blurting it out: Douchebag. Then came Doremus, Tebowing for the first time in the evening. This unexpected nod to the locals drew a strange response -- delighted laughter, a smattering of applause and even a few boos presumably aimed at Broncos QB Tim Tebow's "performance" versus the Detroit Lions last weekend, not the filmmaker himself. Doremus, whose sister lives in Denver and was on hand for her bro's big moment, reacted with a showman's verve -- an attribute that isn't foregrounded in Like Crazy, but one that's key to the picture's accessibility.

The story revolves around Jacob (Anton Yelchin), a young L.A. furniture designer, and Anna (Felicity Jones), a British student in SoCal. The pair soon engage in a slow-burn love affair so life-altering that Anna subsequently overstays her visa because she can't bear to part from him -- a decision that has unfortunate repercussions when she's not allowed to return to the U.S. after a return to England. This complication transforms their relationship into a series of stops and starts, with the would-be partners each engaging in extracurricular activity -- Jacob with Samantha (Jennifer Lawrence), Anna with Simon (Charlie Bewley) -- before coming together in an ending that will have audiences debating about whether it was happy or not. In her intro, Erickson said Like Crazy has been called the Love Story for a new generation, and having just recently sat through the clunky, terribly dated Ryan O'Neal/Ali MacGraw tear-yanker, I can say with a tremendous sense of relief that this comparison is way off-base.

Doremus used an outline rather than a script, relying on his actors to improvise the lion's share of the dialogue. It's a strategy that could have been disastrous, but his snippety technique makes it work. Like the memory books of love that Anna assembles, the narrative is pieced together to form an impressionistic collage that mimes naturalism even as the narrative is guided by its creator.

Not to say the piece is contrivance-free. The visa situation is something of a gimmick, although one that isn't treated like an impervious barrier to amore. And a couple of developments are far too symbolically on the nose, including the breaking of a bracelet with the word "Patience" engraved on it and Simon putting a beautifully simple chair Jacob made for Anna in a closet in favor of a gaudy one of his choosing. But such forced moments are in the minority thanks to the understated playing of Yelchin and, especially, Jones, on whom every dude with a drop of testosterone in his system will immediately begin crushing. With her Ione Skye-circa-Say Anything visage and charming imperfections (like those two big teeth that peak through her parted-lips smiles), she's so obviously a breakthrough talent that she might as well be wearing a sign around her neck reading "New Star."

Which made it that more interesting when Doremus, chatting with festival artistic director Brit Withey after the screening, revealed that he cast Jones just five days before shooting began. But intensive rehearsal before day one, and the willingness to keep the cameras rolling after scenes had ostensibly ended (he only used about 2 percent of the footage he shot), resulted in rare on-screen intimacy.

The digital projection system used at the Ellie was less effective, bleaching out so much of the film's color palette that Withey joked about it looking as if it had been made in black and white. But Doremus was unbothered by this glitch. After Like Crazy won the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival early this year, it didn't screen again until the Toronto fest about six weeks ago -- but since then, he's visited fifteen cities, including Denver. Exhausting, yes, but he seemed to be pacing himself well, just as local film lovers should. As Charmatz noted, the festival is a marathon, not a sprint.

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More from our Television & Film archive: "Starz Denver Film Festival 2011: Five red carpet events, Big Night screening of The Descendants."

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