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Opening with the usual hoopla, the 37th STARZ Denver Film Festival is well underway. Red carpet screenings at The Buell and their requisite parties ushered in some of the big films, while the 200+ films being screened over the twelve day fete continue to intrigue, provoke, terrify and delight moviegoers.
Opening night brought a very pretty but far too predictable “5 to 7”, directed by Victor Levin and starring the lovely Berenice Marlohe and Anton Yelchin in a rendezvous I never quite believed. Yelchin plays an aspiring, unpublished writer, living in a nice Manhattan flat I kept wondering how he paid for. Nice comic turns by Glen Close and Frank Langella as Yelchin’s parents. I guess they pay for the flat.

The Big Night fared much better, offering The Imitation Game. Benedict Cumberbatch (TV’s Sherlock) leads a spot on cast in this solid biopic about a British mathematician, Alan Turing, who broke the German’s Enigma code, diminishing Nazi power in World War II. I loved how the story marched forward with strength and vitality while never allowing itself to get too showy. Cumberbatch pulled off a very graceful performance full of nuance but with the seams tucked in. Nice to see a leading man lead the story without feeling the need to steal the show.

My chaos theory and chaotic reality clash as I approach the twelve day cinematic binge-fest. Poring over the film guide, I circle, highlight and mark out my must see list. Then real life happens and I show up when I can and roll into the next available screening. My free-form-festing brings surprise and serendipity, leaving vapor trails that connect themes in mysterious ways.

rsz_i_believe_in_unicorns_publicity_still03 Leah Meyerhoff’s I Believe in Unicorns is a feature film debut, told by an old-soul storyteller. Her painterly eye and 16mm format sweep us into a mythical tale that lifts beyond the coming of age story, stirring up the memory of first love. The characters are young and perfect; hearts true, logic flawed, but they press on in heroic longing, even as the ugly reveals. Haunting, and beautiful, and as painful as love can be, “I Believe in Unicorns” left me musing on the power of our personal magic, wondering why we choose to spend it where we do.

Slipping into an afternoon screening of the documentary, 3 Still Standing was a dream-stand-still of another time. San Francisco in the early 80s was the Mecca of stand-up comedy. Sure, New York and LA had their stars and bars and comedy clubs, launching careers of our comedy pearls, but the oyster was the City by the Bay. In 3 Still Standing, directors Robert Campos and Donna LoCicero follow three comics from back in the day and the realities of what happens when your dreams don’t come true. Or do they? Larry Bubbles Brown, Will Durst and Johnny Steele were some of the rising stars of the SF stand-up scene, but unlike their friends and peers, Dana Carvey, Paula Poundstone and Robin Williams (each of whom appear in the film), their arcs were not stratospheric. There is something lonely and tragic in the film. The characters are not to be pitied; each man takes responsibility for his choices, but the whims of fate can be cruel and when the work dries up the dream often goes with it. The beauty in this yarn lives in the integrity of the three comics who continue to pursue and perfect an art form in a world that holds no place for it. And stand-up is hard. It takes craft and guts, high intelligence and a musician’s ear to find and formulate the funny. Will Durst, Johnny Steele and Larry Bubbles Brown stand for something, reminding us that the dream is not always connected to fame and fulfillment; sometimes the dream is in the doing.

Now it’s off to the shorts and the Brazilians!

Photo courtesy of Leah Meyerhoff

Grunge film frameAfter scouring the guide and culling the heard and overheard, here are my STARZ Denver Film Festival favorites…so far. Of course, it’s only day 3 and already my Thesaurus is dog-eared and coffee stained.

For the big movies, there’s nothing more fun than to see the next big thing before it’s been released in a theatre full of film buffs. So I’ve got all of them on my list:
1. Labor Day (see below)
2. Nebraska (Alexander Payne directs Bruce Dern. ‘Nuff said.)
3. August: Osage County (Okay, I’m not a big fan of Julia Roberts but I’m a HUGE fan of Tracy Letts. And who knows, she could surprise me.)
4. At Middleton (Adam Rodgers gets his debut feature film slotted into closing night of the Starz Denver Film Festival. It’s gotta be sumpin’)

Hanna Ranch and American Mustang top my list of beautiful, moving films that reflect my interests and the gorgeous state I call home.
GENE KELLY: THE LEGACY. I was raised on the back lot of M-G-M where the likes of Mr. Kelly would cruise casually into the barber shop or to lunch at the Commissary. This should feel like a home movie.
The Resurrection of a Bastard- Dutch. Thriller. Done.
The Truth About Emmanuel- This one could go either way but my part of Denver Actor Project screens before so I’m there.
The One Who Loves You- Denver actor/director Katharyn Grant’s Indie love story because I hope it’s great and there is a cadre of Denver talent in the cast.

And then there is the element of surprise. I love to pick a day, a time, a venue and then jump in and see the film I know nothing about. It’s like buying a wine you’ve never had and the thrill of reaching beyond what you know is…thrilling. So there will be some of that throughout the week.

What I’ve seen:

Labor Day. Festival opener had me floored from the main title. Based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Maynard, Labor Day hits a place of intimacy and then stays there. One look at the state of single mother, Adele (Kate Winslet), and you can feel her heartbreak in the relatable way that says “that’s about two houses down from me”. When a bleeding stranger presses himself upon her son seeking refuge, she allows it. Or does she? I talked to many of the movie-goers at the opening night party who felt (quite adamantly) that a mother never would have done that. I saw it differently. I saw a woman whose stunned state of sorrow had stripped her of her strength. Earlier in the afternoon, I sat down with Joyce Maynard and we discussed this very thing. “The loneliness of Adele, her deep sadness, that part comes from me. The rest, of course, is fiction.” I could relate. Especially when the bleeding stranger is Josh Brolin. Labor Day is a love story. It should be no surprise that they will fall in love, what is surprising is how lovely it is to watch them do so. Look for my full review on Huffington Post

Gloria– Chilean film, takes place in Santiago, award-winning actress and a story of a woman who defies society’s definition of age… or so the promo says. I did enjoy this film though it’s filled with a lot of mundane tasks so you’re thinking, “Okay, she’s vacuuming her car. Uh-huh, she’s singing on the way to work…”. Having seen a number of ‘coming of a certain age’ stories, I don’t know what to think anymore. Is it all about regret? The one who got away? Getting your ‘groove’ back? Seems like there’s not much else we see or write about when it comes to the middle-aged, divorcee and as one, that depresses the hell outta me. Gloria differs in that she takes the ball in her own hands, frequenting a dance club filled with age-appropriate men. (Must be unique to Santiago;-) Finding one she particularly likes, she ventures into a sexual, and then loving, relationship with a man who cannot relinquish his past. Particularly the dependent ex and his grown and spoiled daughters. Gee… this sounds like a match.com story. Gloria shows the wisdom of maturity as she deals with a lover who is less so, leaving me to believe she’d rather be alone with a hairless cat and a joint than in love with a man who’s a child. Good point. Still kind of depressing.
Dallas Buyers Club. This was a surprise screening for Reel Social Club members, none of whom knew what film it would be until the doors opened. I was ready to pack up and head for the Late Night Lounge when the announcement came. I’d heard of the film months ago but wasn’t really paying attention. Saying goodbyes and grabbing a ticket, I missed the main title. I had no idea who Matthew McConaughey was for the first 20 minutes of the movie. That’s how good he was (and how much weight he’d lost). He and Jared Leto absolutely KILL it in a semi-biographical film about Ron Woodruff, a homophobic Texan who contracts the HIV virus and takes it down like a bull rider. Due to the historical nature of the story, [Woodruff was the one who took on the FDA and AZT, traveling to Mexico and Japan to bring in Interferon and Peptide T which paved the way for the lifesaving “cocktail”] there are some overly expositional bits but the film is not to be missed for the MM and JL performances.

Whether you buy a single ticket or a VIP package, the STARZ Denver Film Festival experience it worth the price of admission.

Rona BarrettThe Starz Denver Film Festival, now in its 36th year, opens this week with an impressive array of cinematic treats. More than 250 features, shorts, music videos and student films will be screened over the eleven day festival with plenty of pre-show parties, post-film panels, Red Carpet Galas and whispers in the Late Night Lounge. We’ll roll out the Kleig lights for those soon-to-be-Hollywood-blockbusters; Labor Day, Nebraska, August: Osage County, At Middleton and the Red Carpet Galas that put the “festive” in the Festival, but it’s the lesser known films that are often are the most memorable. I’ll be scouring and screening, sorting out the skinny and bringing you the news and interviews (Hello Joyce Maynard!) via my THE HUFFINGTON POST blog, but the really hot dish heats up here. I’m goin’ all Rona Barrett on you as I put the Gal in Gala, the life into the party and bring it all to you in (sur)real time and living color.
Pick-your-enemies-carefully-or-you'll-never-make-it-in-Los-Angeles.
All the little last minute details… Right now we don’t know which version LA is sending for The Centerpiece screening of August: Osage County. Will it be director John Wells’ cut or will producer Harvey Weinstein have his way with us?
All the ruffled feathers… One local filmmaker is upset by the content of the Denver Actor Project… something about “Audition tapes” was overheard. Ironically the genesis of the Denver Actor Project was intended to bring Denver filmmakers together to reflect our talent pool and beautiful city, a’la Paris Je T’aime, which Nebraska director Alexander Payne was a part of. The love letter to Denver was too ambitious to do in the available time frame so director, Brad Stabio marched to his own one-man-band pulling together six Denver actors (Jordan Leigh, Chris Grundy, Paul Page, Amie MacKenzie, Jeff Kosloski and me), shooting six individual films and a story to tie these short films together. Running 1-3 minutes each of these six short pieces reveal a part of the whole. I am one of the six, with my part screening before “The Truth About Emmanuel” on Sunday and Monday.
I plan on seeing everything my fellow thespians are in, including Katharyn Grant’s award-winning Indie, The One Who Loves You. Grant, a Colorado actor/filmmaker, directs herself in this love story, set in the 1970s about a failed singer who falls for the grifter who helps her believe in herself. Shot in and around Denver, the cast of The One Who Loves You features some of Denver’s most familiar faces including Rhonda Brown, donnie l betts, Martha Harmon Pardee, Candy Brown, Judy Phelan-Hill, Elizabeth Rose, Laura Norman and Jordan Leigh. The One Who Loves You screens Monday, November 11 at 4:45 and Tuesday the 12th at 9:00.
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