Good Fest, Bad Fest

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A pair of events included in Saturday's Denver Film Festival slate ran the qualitative gamut.

Things started on a positive note with a tribute to Vilmos Zsigmond, 76, a Hungary-born cinematographer who made some of the most visually distinctive American films of the 1970s, and is still active today. (Don't blame him for his latest stinker, The Black Dahlia, helmed by Brian DePalma.) After Zsigmond accepted an achievement award from fest chieftain Ron Henderson, he settled back for a leisurely conversation with journalist Bob Fisher -- emphasis on "leisurely." The conversation was scheduled to last two hours, but at 8 p.m., the alleged conclusion time, the pair's chronological survey of Zsigmond's work (complete with sample scenes and montages) had only reached The River, a Mel Gibson-Sissy Spacek flick released in 1984.

The pace lagged at times, owing mostly to questions from verbose audience members determined to prove that their knowledge of cinema encompassed everything from the Lumi�re brothers to Saw III. Yet Zsigmond was enjoyably droll throughout, offering technical details about his trademark "flashing" technique (it doesn't involve raincoats), as well as sharing captivating behind-the-scenes anecdotes.

Examples? Zsigmond revealed that he wasn't thrilled by director Robert Altman's request that he keep his camera in constant motion throughout 1973's The Long Goodbye but did so anyway -- and subsequently earned raves and a critics' prize for his efforts. He also confirmed the story that his bold use of light in 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (for which he won an Oscar) was at least partly necessitated by director Steven Spielberg's dissatisfaction with the crummy-looking aliens, and said that his first thought upon meeting Bette Midler prior to filming 1979's The Rose was "Jesus Christ!," because he had no idea how he could make someone with such unconventional features look good on the big screen. He was assisted in this last chore by Midler's prodigious talent, he added, but in the end, he had to use "every trick in the book."

Far less enjoyable was another item on Saturday night's slate: Cheech, a film by Canadian director Patrice Sauve, which served as a reminder that the copy in film festival guides doesn't always accurately represent the flick it supposedly describes.

In this case, the blurb namechecked Sunset Boulevard and included this line: "With a graphic, darkly comic style updated from Tarantino and the Coen brothers, Sauve has built a quick-paced, funny and juicy whodunit." But while the film deals with low-life characters like the one seen here and sports a fairly sophisticated look, it lacks the flair, wit and vision of even the lesser entries in the Tarantino or Coen brothers canon. On top of that, the pacing was glacial, not quick, the attempts at humor were mostly stillborn, and the central mystery was pointless, since none of the people on the screen inspired the slightest rooting interest.

Attempts at creating surprising plot points were just as problematic. Early on in the narrative, a guy shows a neighbor a photo of his "girlfriend" -- and the image looks exactly like the ones that are placed in sale frames at drug stores. Then, toward the movie's end, the shot is revealed to be an image from a sale frame at a drug store. The director should have struck when the irony was hot.

Of course, bummer flicks are part and parcel of film festivals -- and at least those who suffered through this one had the satisfaction of knowing it was a U.S. premiere. And probably a U.S. swan song, too. -- Michael Roberts

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