Starz Denver Film Festival: Quartet's Big Night among four fest snapshots

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quartet movie maggie smith.jpg
The film festival's Big Night event -- staged, like opening and closing nights, at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House -- has frequently lived up to its moniker, as was certainly the case last year, when the marquee item was The Descendants, which subsequently landed on many critics' best-of-the-year lists. But that's unlikely to be the case for Quartet, the directorial debut by veteran actor Dustin Hoffman, which earned the slot for Saturday's presentation.

Granted, the movie wasn't as flat-out agonizing as Last Chance Harvey, a Hoffman film whose screening during Closing Night in 2008 ended a fine festival on a decidedly weak note. Rather, Quartet is a mildly diverting entry in the growing Geriatric Cinema genre epitomized by the likes of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel -- mediocre, but not appallingly so.

The plot turns on a group of veteran opera performers whose retirement home is in financial difficulty. What can save it? How about a performance by a quartet of performers who happen to live there; they're portrayed by Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly, joined early on by Maggie Smith, fresh from (our second reference) Downton Abbey. Problem is, Smith is reluctant to diminish recollections of her greatness by showing the damage age has done to her pipes -- and there's also the matter of her awkward relationship with the Courtenay character, whom she wed and then quickly jilted long ago.

Will they find a way to overcome these challenges and triumph? Of course they will. But director Hoffman fails to ratchet up anything resembling tension, and because the main players (unlike many of the folks in smaller supporting roles) can't pull off convincing operatic performances, he doesn't actually let us hear their preparation or performance -- a weird attempt at fealty that's worse than the alternative, lip-syncing. That leaves us with Connolly making amusingly randy and inappropriate come-ons to everything in a skirt and Smith looking as if she's waiting for someone to deliver a script with more for her to do.

And yet, after the screening, I heard little grumbling about the tepidness of Quartet. Maybe that's because it was aimed squarely at the demographic of the audience -- or maybe, as with The Sapphires, these folks love the festival so much that they eagerly cut it slack even when the Big Night turns out to be much more modest-sized.

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"Consuming Spirits."
Sunday morning brought a very different sort of response in regard to one of the fest's most unusual and idiosyncratic entries: Consuming Spirits, an animated film made over a fifteen-year period by Chris Sullivan, who was on hand for the presentation. The work is as much folk art as movie, with its five segments rendered in a combination of stop-motion animation, pencil sketches, puppetry and more. The individual images are often strangely beautiful and oddly disturbing -- but for the first 80 percent of the movie, the narrative is more surreal than straight-forward.

The small-town residents spotlighted include an odd radio host, a newspaper paste-up artist with a suicidal mother, a nun who becomes the victim of a traffic accident, a man dressed as a deer and more. And while the final segment explains the previously mysterious interrelationships in a fairly cogent way, only the most patient viewers are likely to get this far without a modicum of resentment about the slow pace and the knotty storytelling, no matter how eye-catching the visuals are.

As evidence, note that when the words "The End" appeared on the screen, no one in the three-quarters-full auditorium at the Denver FilmCenter/Colfax clapped -- and there was only a polite round of applause when the credits ended. Moreover, about half the crowd hurried away before Sullivan began to speak, and he only got a handful of questions from those who remained.

But although few will recall Hyde Park on Hudson or Quartet years from now, many more will remember Consuming Spirits -- a film unlike any they've seen before, or will ever see again. That's part of the film-festival experience, too. And a wonderful part it is.

More from our Film archive: "Starz Denver Film Festival: $2.5 million gift puts Opening Night in the money."

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