Not all films are fabulous…some can be flawed or pretentious or downright irritating!

Bravo to the Denver Film Festival programming team for being adventurous in their programming. There are so many wonderful films and undiscovered gems in this year’s programs. There are also some that I wish I hadn’t wasted my time on…

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Yes, this cabin was parked in front to SIE for the Premiere of “Walden”

Walden…oh Walden.  How much did I want to love you?! A Colorado narrative feature with a big name actor and lots of local crew and local supporters (including DFF!), Walden, Life In The Woods is an amazing short film. Trapped in a feature.

Three narrative threads attempt to illustrate three lost souls struggling through one day.  A man working at a senior center, played by Demian Bichir (Academy-nominated) is trapped in a spiral of financial woe. Will he have a nervous breakdown over the endless choices of bbq grills at the massive warehouse store? An egocentric young man is troubled by his boyfriend’s lack of support in his work. Is he losing his soul to corporate America? Or will he join his lover in the wilderness in a poorly-constructed cabin? Yes, I’m trivializing their plights but they are are the weak links in this saga.

While the two men struggle along on their literal paths thru the stores and streets and over rivers and rocks…the heart of the film is unfolding in the beautiful portrayal of an elderly woman (Lynn Cohan) overwhelmed by her dementia. Using drawings, stop motion animation and intricate camera work, the audience is shown a window into her world. Laura Goldhammer, also a producer on the film, created the wonderful animation. If only the rest of the film matched the vibrancy and uniqueness of this section…really wonderful.

Drinks with Films rating: 2 slugs out of a whiskey flask while sitting by a Colorado lake (out of 5)

A team of Colorado filmmakers, including director Alex Harvey, producers Mitch Dickman (Hanna Ranch, DFF37; Rolling Papers) and Shane Boris, writer Adam Chanzit, and musician-animator Laura Goldhamer, shot Walden on location. T.J. Miller (Deadpool, Cloverfield, Silicon Valley), Chris Sullivan (This Is Us) and Demián Bichir (The Hateful Eight; Alien: Covenant; Weeds; Un Cuento de Circo & a Love Song, DFF39) co-star.  They even brought the cabin to the World Premiere!

A Chiambra is Italy’s submission for next year’s Academy Award for Foreign Film. If you like gritty, down-on-their-luck tales of familial love, despair and crime; this is the film for you. There are no beautiful vistas of scenic Italy. This is car-jacking, children-smoking slice of ghetto life captured with too much handheld camerawork. Co-executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, there isn’t a lot of violence but there’s a lot of shouting and table pounding.

Rating: 1 glass of cheap Italian red, sipped from an unclean glass in a cluttered kitchen

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Sometimes it’s my own anticipation that does me in…I was so thrilled to get to see Sally Potter’s new film, The PartyWhat a cast! Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Timothy Spall. I’m thinking witty bon mots, sparkling British dialogue, something of a farce but brutally funny…

Instead, it’s a black-n-white bore with stilted dialogue, frenetic acting, and a plot that even your dottiest aunt would never believe. Patricia Clarkson is the only one who seemed to have made friends with the cinematographer; she looks glamourous. Emily Mortimer wandered in from another movie in her overalls…she’s the only one who isn’t speaking the dialogue as if reading from a cue card. This was one Party I was glad to leave.

Rating: 1 glass of champagne tossed right out the balcony of the well-appointed London flat!

“In The House”: in the company of Francois Ozon’s women

Francois Ozon has created a body of work that features some unique film worlds: the pastel-colored past of “Potiche”, the soap-opera world of singing actresses in “8 Women”, and many films where the real and imaginary walk hand-in-hand!  His films break the “fourth wall”, challenging the audience to accept the unexpected.  One of things audiences can expect: strong roles for women performed by some of the biggest names in French cinema.

In “Swimming Pool” and “Potiche”, the narrative is driven by Charlotte Rampling and Catherine Deneuve. Charlotte Rampling’s character re-discovers her sexuality while embroiled in a mystery involving a young woman (played by the luminous Ludvine Sagnier).  Catherine Deneuve’s character in “Potiche” takes over the family business, resolves a crisis, and discovers romance.  Both films feature women taking control of their lives and expressing their desires.

“In The House” continues that tradition with Kristin Scott-Thomas, the brilliant British actor who lives in France and speaks fluent French, and with Emmanuelle Seigner (“La Vie en Rose”). They, too, exist in the Ozon film universe of fractured realities. The film opens with the voice and view of a young voyeur, Claude, attempting to win the affections of a family.  Ernst Unhauer portrays Claude as an intelligent but troubled teen; yearning for a place within what he perceives as an idealized family.  He describes his classmate waiting for his parents after school.  His classmate is embraced by them and yet feels no shame in this public display.  Claude clearly desires this closeness but, at the same time, seems to want to destroy it.  He describes, with teenage arrogance, his classmate’s mother as “listlessly thumbing through House Beautiful magazines while lounging on the couch”.  Esther, (Emmanuelle Seigner), is set-up as the bored and passive suburban housewife…

As Claude’s Literature teacher, Germain (Fabrice Lachine) reads his essay and becomes intrigued “by the scent of the suburban woman” — but also by his young student who shows some promise as a writer.  His wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott-Thomas), is immediately suspicious.  She sympathizes with the Mother, who is being objectified by both men, and senses an unhealthy fascination.  Her advice to discourage this willful young man in his writing goes unheeded.

Claude narrates, as his writing comes to life on the screen — but is it this his version of events, or is it reality?  He writes about this family, not as a class assignment, but as if he is obsessed by them.  Germain encourages him and then starts behaving in erratic and unprofessional ways in an attempt to facilitate the writing of the essays he’s becoming increasingly addicted to.  The essays always end with “To be continued…”  He becomes so enmeshed in Claude’s intrigues that he even appears in the scenes interacting with the teen, and with his object of desire, the passive Esther.

Both women are shown reacting to their husbands.  Jeanne runs a contemporary art gallery but she is in danger of losing her business and often asks Germain for advice. She is also losing the affection and physical attentions of Germain.  She even invites the couple–whom they’ve grown to feel an uncomfortable intimacy with through Claude’s writing– to appear in the flesh at a gallery opening!  Unaware of the earlier angry confrontation between Germain and Claude’s father, Jeanne is both disappointed and distraught when Germain flees the gallery.

Esther is also dealing with her husband’s erratic behavior.  He is losing his job and Esther is shocked to learn that he behaved unprofessionally – and that he has committed a crime.  Stepping out of her passive role, she forces Claude to see that his romantic view is a fantasy.  He is forced back to his role as an outsider; no longer the threatening interloper.  Esther moves from being the object of desire — and passive — to actively creating a new life for herself and her family.

“In The House” is an interesting film with strong performances by the entire cast.  The female leads start the film in passive roles, reacting to the men in their lives.  By the film’s conclusion, both women ACT to take control of their lives.  When a crucial event described (and filmed) is revealed to be a vengeful fantasy, Germain (and the audience), must confront the powerful thrall that Claude’s story has cast.  Is it all just fiction?  And what price must be paid when reality intrudes and the consequences must be faced?  The final scene reveals Germain and Claude, alone, watching other people’s lives unfold before them.  Stranded and abandoned, they are relegated to the sidelines.

Rating: 3 glasses of French Chablis