DIFF 2015 – Day 10

April 24, 2015

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Day 10 – Sunday April 19

The festival comes to an end on a high note, and once again, I recommend DIFF for any movie lover who wants to overdose on independent films and documentaries without fighting the crowds of Sundance, Toronto, Cannes, etc.  It’s a very well run festival and, with 160 films on the schedule., likely holds multiple films for you – regardless of your movie tastes.  My final three movies of this year’s festival:

LOVE & MERCY (2015)

love and mercy Greetings again from the darkness. Beach Boys fans may struggle a bit with this one since the light-hearted, airy feel to the “Fun, Fun, Fun” music of the band is mostly absent. Instead, director Bill Pohlad pulls back the curtain on the emotional and mental struggles of visionary songwriter Brian Wilson … the band’s creative force.

In an unusual artistic approach, Paul Dano plays Brian from the 1960’s period that resulted in the revolutionary Pet Sounds album and the ongoing battle with his domineering father; while John Cusack plays Brian from the late 1980’s – his most creatively bankrupt period and the subsequent debilitating influence of quackster psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).

The two periods are blended together as we (and Brian) bounce back and forth between the struggle of a budding musical genius working to release the sounds in his head, and a middle aged man so heavily medicated that speaking, eating and even getting out of bed are such overwhelming obstacles that music rarely registers. It’s during the latter period that Brian is truly at the mercy of Dr. Eugene Landy. Giamatti sports a floppy wig and proceeds to rage at Brian while trying to charm Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), Brian’s new romantic interest. Knowing this disgusting period was part of Brian’s life only adds to the anger and frustration we feel … not just as fans, but as human beings.

What sets this biopic apart is actually the performance of Dano and the peek inside the process of Brian’s genius. Watching Brian work the musicians and mold the music on the fly is breath-taking, even though we see the challenges of his early mental issues.  It’s a joy to see a tribute to the studio session players known as “The Wrecking Crew” … themselves the subject of a recent stellar documentary. It’s during this period that the Wilson brothers’ father (played by Bill Camp) constantly derides Brian and his “new” music.  There is also some insight into the Brian vs Mike Love battles – Brian exploring his creative music, while Mike just wants to keep cashing in with their expected “fun” style.

Some may find the two-headed approach to be distracting, but it drives home the point of what a different man he was in comparing the mid-1960’s to the late 1980’s. Mostly, I found the 1960’s portion to be an insight into what we hear from so many geniuses, regardless of their specialty. Brian says it’s like “Someone is inside me. Not me.” His struggles are non-relatable to others – even his brothers, and especially his dad. What is mostly a look at the darkness behind the “sunny” music, does come with real life redemption courtesy of Melinda’s strength … and witnessed in the video shown over the closing credits.

MANGELHORN (2015)

manglehorn Greetings again from the darkness. For those of us who grew up with 1970’s cinema, it’s been painful to watch Al Pacino’s career over the last two decades … with only a couple of exceptions. We have longed for the actor who became Michael Corleone, and cringed with each outing that seemed to parody his Oscar winning performance in A Scent of a Woman (1983). Along comes the latest from director David Gordon Green and with it a reappearance of that actor so worshipped by John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever.

A.J. Manglehorn is an elderly locksmith who lives each day under his self-designed cloud of despair. His droopy eyes, droopy shoulders and droopy social skills are eclipsed only by his love for Fanny the cat, and his daily letters to Clara – the long lost love of his life. The only other signs of life in Mr. Manglehorn are displayed when he is telling a customer that it’s time to wash their car, when he is hanging out with his granddaughter, or when he is exchanging Friday flirtations with bank teller Dawn (a sparkling Holly Hunter).

Director David Gordon Green is best known for comedies such as Pineapple Express (2008), The Sitter (2011), and TV’s “Eastbound & Down”, and while this one (filmed in Austin, Texas) has some awkward and offbeat comedic moments, it would have to be categorized as a drama. Symbolism is everywhere as Manglehorn keeps his emotions “locked” away from his snooty yuppie son (Chris Messina) and retreats into his imaginary relationship with Clara, rather than embracing Dawn’s brave come-on.

There are a couple of extraordinary scenes … Pacino and Messina talking around, rather than about, their relationship and the type of men they are; and the excruciatingly awkward and heart-breaking first date between Pacino and Hunter. The forlorn Manglehorn remains behind the locked door and allows the shadow of his dream girl to cast a pall, despite having a real life dream girl sitting across the table.

Pacino recaptures his mastery of the close-up. Such emotion from so little apparent movement is the work of a once great master who proves he still has it. Some may be put off by the lack of big action, but these are people living life and trying to make the best of it. There is a line from the movie, “When you choose this life, there is no one”. It’s a line that tells us so much about Manglehorn’s daily approach. Whether he finds the right key matters to us for one reason … Pacino makes us care.

SLOW WEST (2015)

slow west Greetings again from the darkness. Every now and then a movie catches us off guard as the tone shifts during the story progression. The first feature film from writer/director John Maclean is an example of this, and even more impressive in the manner that it delivers contradicting and overlapping tones through much of its run time. Balancing life and death tension with laugh out loud comedic elements requires a deft touch, and Maclean proves his mettle.

Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road, Let Me In) stars as Jay Cavendish a young Irish man traveling westward across the old west Colorado frontier to find his true love Rose (Caren Pistorius). Jay’s babyface, naïve approach and trusting nature make his survival dubious at best … at least until he hires a grizzled gunslinger named Silas (Michael Fassbender) to act as his guide and protector.  There is vital information about Rose known to all but Jay, which leads us to not be so trusting of Silas’ motives in sticking with the young man.

The trail provides the expected hardships and a reluctant bond between the two opposites. Some of the tension is created by crossing paths with a couple of bounty hunters … one a long range dead-eye who sports a priest collar, and the other a nasty sort played by the always dangerous Ben Mendelsohn who leads the gang Silas once rode with.

Jay’s mission to find Rose is quite a romantic quest, but the effective use of flashbacks and dreams tells us more of the story, and in particular, why Rose and her dad (Rory McCann) are on the run. So as this tension builds, the startling and abrupt use of off-the-wall humor takes us viewers out of our comfort zone and into the unusual place of utter surprise at the back and forth between violence, romantic notions and laughter.

Fassbender and Smit-McPhee are both excellent in their roles, and relative newcomer Pistorius oozes with potential. Jed Kurzel’s (The Babadook) music effectively adds to both the drama and comedy, and the script is smart and funny – a rare combination these days. It’s likely that viewers will feel guilty for some of the laughs, but that just adds to the ingenuity of Mr. Maclean. Even the body count tally forces one additional guilty laugh from us before leaving the theatre. Very well done.

 

 


The sun sets on JUSTIFIED

April 21, 2015

 

justified2 Greetings again from the darkness. The reason I don’t typically write about television shows is that very few justify (sorry!) the effort .  However, the series finale of “Justified” aired last week, and it’s a series I will definitely miss.

Many people disregarded it immediately assuming it was just another western – you know, since the lead character wears a hat and holsters his gun. But at its core, it’s a story of good guys vs. bad guys … only the good guy had some flaws and the bad guys were anything but the backwoods hillbillies they appeared to be. The three categories that elevated the show above typical TV fluff were: Writing, Characters, and Acting.

WRITING

Let’s start with Elmore Leonard. His novella “Fire in the Hole” is the source material for the show, and provided the emphasis on character and dialogue that was so crucial to its unique feel and style.

Ahh yes … those words. The majestic verbosity was spread across all characters – lawmen, judges, and the hardened criminals. Heck, even the teenage girl, bartender, BBQ pitmaster, and hired gunslinger were loquacious in their ability to turn a phrase.

For those of us who strain and sweat over the use of a particular word or the structure of a sentence, the show humbled us weekly through the apparent ease with which the English language was played like a finely tuned instrument.

As for the story, it was remarkable that the battle of guns and wits between Raylan and Boyd endured for the entire series run; and it was fascinating to see how each season brought a new criminal element and challenge … some tying into current characters, while others were more standalone.

CHARACTERS

justified A few of the characters managed to stick around for the series run … some more regular than others. Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder will both go down as iconic TV characters, but it’s important to note the other regulars such as Raylan’s boss and father figure Art Mullens, the other two Deputy U.S. Marshals Tim and Rachel, and of course, Ava Crowder whose character arc was broader and more diverse than any other on the show.

There was also a group of recurring characters who felt like regulars, which speaks again to the sterling writing: Raylan’s on-again-off-again squeeze Winona, the smarmy Wynn Duffy, Boyd’s cousin Johnny, the comical Dewey Crowe and Dickie Bennett, and the memorable Arlo Givens (Raylan’s shifty father).

The third group of characters to mention includes those that had a dramatic impact on only one or two seasons: the isolated pitmaster Limehouse, Loretta the teenage survivor, the good-hearted hooker Ellen May, smooth talking Ty Walker, the lovable Constable Bob, the not so lovable Bo Crowder (Boyd’s dad) and criminal masterminds such as Robert Quarles from Detroit, Katherine Hale and Avery Markham who sometimes worked together and other times not, and most importantly Mags Bennett – the driving force behind the peak of season two.

Twenty two. That’s how many characters are named in the previous three paragraphs. And it’s pretty easy to name another 15 or more characters that played key roles. It’s not just the sheer quantity of characters, but rather the fact that they were so well written that we felt like we immediately knew them … plus they were fun to watch.

ACTING

Every actor dreams of being cast in a well written show. Take those extraordinary lines of dialogue and really good actors never have to over-do it … in fact, they can let the scenes breathe. As filled with tension as any show you’ve seen, it still managed to have a slow pace that matched what we expected from Harlan County Kentucky.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the roles of Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), Chief Deputy US Marshal Art Mullins (Nick Searcy), or smarmy Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns). All four of these actors embodied their particular characters so completely that we viewers fully accepted them. A similar comparison would be James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. It’s rare for TV shows, but “Justified” had four!

The supporting roles never disappointed, though the survival rate varied immensely. Joelle Carter as Ava saw her screen time grow as the show progressed, though Erica Tazel (Rachel) and Jacob Pitts (Tim) are probably the only two who could offer up any kind of argument that they had to work to get noticed. Natalie Zea as Winona bounced in and out from season to season, and her presence never failed to bring about a change in Raylan just when he most needed one. Raymond J Barry as Arlo Givens was one of the show’s most colorful figures, though Damon Herriman and Jeremy Davies, as Dewey Crowe and Dickie Bennett respectively, gave him a run for the title.

As each season brought focus to a new criminal lead, the acting was varied and spectacular at times thanks to Neal McDonough, Michael Rappaport, Mykelti Williamson, M.C. Gainey, and of course, the final season with Garrett Dillahunt, Mary Steenburgen and Sam Elliott. Special mention goes to Margo Martindale for her Emmy Award winning performance as Mags Bennett in Season Two.

THE REST OF THE STORY

Hand-in-hand with the importance of Leonard’s writing is the work of show creator, producer and director, Graham Yost. Wisely working with Leonard those first few seasons (Mr. Leonard passed away in 2013), Yost ensured the weekly scripts were packed with the expected lines of dialogue, and his feel for the material allowed him to never miss with his casting.

The brilliant first scene of the first season introduces us to Raylan as he squares off against a bad guy while poolside in Miami. It’s this quick wit, quick draw and quick trigger that gets Raylan shipped back to the area of his youth, Harlan County Kentucky. The rest of the show taught us never to get comfortable around a hillbilly drawl, bring your own glass if someone offers you their “apple pie”, and the toughest bond to break is when you “dig coal together” with a buddy.

WWED


CAS & DYLAN (2015)

April 21, 2015

Cas Dylan Greetings again from the darkness. Jason Priestley is well known for his acting career, and his first feature film as a director combines two of the more familiar movie paths – the odd couple and the road trip. Writer Jessie Gabe jolts the screenplay with enough comedy and poignancy that we overlook the air of familiarity and instead concentrate on the mismatched titular characters. Ms. Gabe also makes a memorable onscreen appearance as a snippy receptionist.

Richard Dreyfuss plays Dr. Cas Pepper … yep, he is Dr. Pepper (I suspect that’s why he goes by Cas). Thanks to the narration and early scenes, we quickly learn Cas is a widower, a 30 year doctor, and recently discovered to be terminally ill. Cas has perfectly worked out a plan to “head west” and go out on his own terms … if only he wasn’t experiencing writer’s block on his suicide note.

Worlds collide as Cas agrees to give Dylan Morgan (Tatiana Maslany, “Orphan Black”) a ride to her boyfriend’s trailer. Cas wrongly assumes that the energetic and fast-talking Dylan was visiting a relative at the hospital, and soon learns that she was experiencing “suffering vicariously through patients”. See, Dylan fancies herself a writer and has developed a new genre, Action Romanture, which she is convinced will secure a publishing deal and rescue her from a world that doesn’t appreciate her in the least.

An unexpected turn leaves Cas and Dylan on the road together, and quibbling like an old (and odd) couple. Nothing that follows is especially ground-breaking, and in fact, is mostly quite familiar; yet the two leads somehow captivate us with their banter and the understanding that this is leading right where we know it must lead.

Director Priestley wisely utilizes the stunning landscapes of western Canada, and allows the two actors to go at each other in a way that two different generations must – all the while building a friendship that we see long before they do. There are some interesting and effective song choices, but it’s Ms. Maslany’s spunk and depth as Dylan that allows the interactions to click. The legacy note may be the goal here, but the lesson is that no one should be alone … no matter if they be a 22 year old social misfit, or a sixty-something doctor near the end of life.

watch the trailer:

 

 


DIFF 2015 – Day 9

April 21, 2015

 

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Day 9 – Saturday April 18

FRAME BY FRAME (documentary)

DIFF 2015 Silver Heart Award Winner

frame by frame Greetings again from the darkness. Sitting comfortably in our recliners or desk chairs, we have come to take for granted the exceptional work of photojournalists from inside locations we ourselves would never risk going. These folks risk their lives to capture otherwise unimaginable conditions and injustice from around the world.  Co-directors Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli profile four courageous photographers from Afghanistan.

Documenting the truth with a camera seems so simple; however, as one of the photographers explains, he often finds himself running towards the spot from which everyone else is running away. Put yourself in this situation … you are taking photos of a solemn religious ceremony when suddenly a bomb explodes and bodies, limbs, blood and destruction are everywhere. Do you stay to record the fallout and help the injured, or do you run away from the scene in case another bomb is set to detonate? This film doesn’t judge, but instead it matter-of-factly points out that these photographers understand the role they play in exposing such evil and cruelty.  In other words, they stay.

One of the photographers profiled is Massoud, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his stunning photo of “The Girl in Green”. Massoud is now head photographer of AP – Kabul, and he remains in touch with the girl and her family, while maintaining his mission of documenting history in his country.

The most heart-breaking and anger-inducing segment involves Massoud’s wife Farzana, who is also a photojournalist. Yes, a female photojournalist in Afghanistan. Her personal story is so touching as she was a mere 13 year old girl when she had her first run-in with The Taliban, which had seized control in 1996 – making photography, education, history and any semblance of women’s rights a thing of the past. She shares her story which serves as her inspiration to record the injustices toward women that remain in the country, despite the social improvements since The Taliban was ousted from Kabul in 2001.

This review is no place for all the details covered in this emotional and powerful and informative documentary, but to paraphrase one of the photographers … “my heart was crying but my eyes had no tears left”. Please don’t mistake what these brave people do with the personal infringements of the celebrity paparazzi. The only similarities are the cameras they carry. These photojournalists and the others like them around the globe understand that their “empathy brings meaning to their photographs”, and that photographs are the only assurance that a segment of the population will never again be “voiceless”.

 

DIFF 2015 Award Winning Short Films

The last few days of a film festival allow the opportunity to catch up with the award-winning films that we may have missed. Below is a recap of the six award winning short films from this year’s Dallas International Film Festival:

WORLD OF TOMORROW (USA)

Directed by Don Hertzfeldt. The animated winner jumps ahead 227 years to show us a world where cloning provides everlasting life and perseverance of history and memories. It also depicts a world where financial status remains important, and leaves us with the philosophical thought … “Now is the envy of all dead”.

CAST IN INDIA (India/USA)

Directed by Natasha Reheja. Have you ever noticed that the manhole covers in NYC are stamped “Made in India”? Ms. Reheja noticed and thus began her journey to foundry where the bronze plates are crafted. It turns out these are highly skilled workers who take great pride in their work, face labor union issues, and sacrifice their hands, feet and backs for the manually intensive manufacturing process.

THE FACE OF UKRAINE (Australia)

Directed by Kitty Green. We see a stream of auditions from girls of various ages wanting the highly coveted role of the Ukrainian legendary figure skater Oksana Baiul – former World Champion and Olympic Gold Medalist.

ONE HITTA QUITTA (USA)

Directed by Ya Ke Smith. This provides a look at the despicable fascination of some high school kids regarding videos of violence … especially a “one hitta”, which is blindsiding some innocent with a punch to the face. It also takes us inside a classroom where a teacher pays the price for being in a no-win situation with a punk kid named Jason, whose clueless mother only contributes to his sickening actions.

THE CHICKEN (Germany/Croatia)

Directed by Una Gumjak. It is a pristine example of how a short film can so quickly capture our attention and shift tone from comedy to danger to heartfelt. During war-torn 1993 Sarajevo, a girl receives the gift of a live chicken from her soldier father, and what follows is worthy of the film’s award.

MELVILLE (USA)

Directed by James M. Johnston. The combination of a bleak diagnosis and pregnant wife lead to open mic night at a local hangout, and the unforgettable lyrics of “F Cancer”.

 

RADIATOR

DIFF 2015 – Grand Jury Winner

radiator Greetings again from the darkness. The feature film debut of writer/director Tom Browne might be best suited to live theatre, though it works just fine on the silver screen. So fine in fact, that is was named the Grand Jury winner at the Dallas International Film Festival. On the surface it looks like yet another glimpse at the miseries of aging; however, it doesn’t take long before we viewers are entangled in this three-headed web of marriage, family, dominance and the struggles of growing old and losing control.

Fortunately the bleak subject matter is juiced with enough dark comedy that we actually laugh out loud periodically, while other times we manage at a smile for the smattering of sweet moments. Daniel (played by co-writer Daniel Cerqueira) is beckoned to the rural family home by his mother Maria (Gemma Jones) as she finds herself at a loss on how best to deal with Leonard (Richard Johnson), her husband and his dad.

This is a towering performance from Mr. Johnson, and he plays it full hilt as some odd type of tyrannical tragedy. See, Leonard’s reign as a force in family and life is now relegated to wallowing in his own sorrow, pain and feces while committed only to lying prone on the sofa and bossing his wife about the house with menial tasks for which he demands perfection. When Daniel arrives, he is taken aback by the squalor and demeanor of his once powerful father. He does what any of us would do … he takes control by ordering a hospital bed, getting dad cleaned up, etc.

As viewers we initially see things through the eyes of Daniel and Maria – on the wrong end of Leonard’s demeaning abuse. Somewhere along the way, there is a subtle shift in viewpoint and tone. The roots of love and marriage are revealed to run inordinately deep after so many years. An act of cruelty can somehow be forgotten and life can move on … even after situations that might never survive a shorter-term relationship. This shift is brilliant writing, and at a level we don’t typically see in movies.

In fact, the film seems to disprove one of its more poignant lines: “The black moments smother any flicker of light”, and instead builds on another: “Just because someone changes, doesn’t mean you stop loving them”. You will likely recognize all three lead actors, and each of them deliver excellent performances. Despite the subject matter, my takeaway is actually summed up in yet another line from the film … “I remember so much pleasure”.

 

 

 


TRUE STORY (2015)

April 17, 2015

true story Greetings again from the darkness. “Sometimes the truth isn’t believable. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true”. These words are spoken by Christian Longo, the man accused of brutally murdering his wife and 3 kids in 2001. The line between truth and lies is at the core of this real life story directed by Rupert Goold and based on journalist Michael Finkel’s memoir and recollections of his conversations with Longo.

The New York Times investigative reporter Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) is introduced to us as he is researching the story which ultimately leads to his dismissal, after it’s discovered he played fast and loose with details in order to present a more impactful story. Soon he receives an odd phone call from an Oregon writer (Ethan Suplee) who informs Finkel that his name is being used by Longo (James Franco), the suspected murderer who was recently captured in Mexico. As a disgraced journalist, Finkel seizes the opportunity to connect with Longo, and soon enough the two morally-compromised men are locked in psychological warfare, where we as viewers aren’t sure just who is using who in this oddball “friendship”.

Hill and Franco are best known for their raunchy and raucous comedies, and both deliver much “quieter” performances than what we have come to expect from them. While it’s a bit of stretch to buy Jonah Hill as a renowned writer, Franco is absolutely chilling as a manipulative psychopath. Franco is so good in the role that he overpowers Hill, which undermines what was supposed to be an intricate game of cat and mouse.

Franco is a frightening figure on the courtroom witness stand as he tells his version of that fateful night, and he is equally unnerving to watch in general conversation with Finkel. However, the single best scene in the film comes when Felicity Jones unleashes the wrath of truth on Franco’s Longo. Ms. Jones is otherwise underutilized for most of the film, as her relationship with Finkel is never really explored.

Rather than provide any substantive background on what makes either Finkel or Longo tick, we are instead left to make our own assumptions based on the framed magazine covers and the spurts of flashbacks. And thus the film’s biggest flaw is cheating us out of the backstory that might help explain the otherwise fascinating conversations/showdowns between these two flawed gents … one significantly more flawed than the other.

It’s impossible not to compare this to Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and the subsequent films based on his writing experience: Capote (2005), and Infamous (2006). Stretching and bending the truth are common themes, as are intriguing and disturbing insights from the writers and the accused.

There are times True Story comes off as little more than a made for TV movie, but the best moments more than make up for it, and Franco’s portrayal will stick with you long after Finkel finally understands who and what he is dealing with. It’s also a reminder that there are people who “want the truth so badly” they “will lie to get it”. Try saying that with a wink.

watch the trailer:

 

 


DIFF 2015 – Days 6 and 7

April 17, 2015

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Days 6 and 7, Wednesday and Thursday April 15 and 16

Below is a recap of the four movies I saw over these two days. I am counting the six Documentary Shorts as one movie since it was one block on the festival programming:

DOCUMENTARY SHORTS – DIFF 2015

The Dallas International Film Festival is a great place to catch up with those hard to find short films. It’s not unusual for short films to be later developed into feature films, but regardless, the short film format requires a unique skill set for writers, directors and actors. A connection must be made immediately with the viewer because there is no time for gradual acceptance or interest.

Short films come in three flavors: live action, animated, and documentary. Below is a recap of the six documentary short films at this year’s DIFF.

Crooked Candy (USA)

Directed by Andrew Rodgers. Kinder eggs are illegal in the United States as they are considered a choking hazard for kids. However, this collector has hundreds of the miniature figures/toys thanks to decades of pursuing the eggs through his global travels.

(The And) Marcella & Rock (USA)

Directed by Topaz Adizes. A couple face off against each other with some extremely personal questions. In a matter of minutes, the audience is as uncomfortable listening as the participants are in revealing very private thoughts.

Spearhunter (USA)

Directed by Adam Ruffman, Luke Poling. The story of Gene Morris who successfully fought to get spearhunting approved as an acceptable form of hunting in Alabama. Guns and bows lacked the challenge that Morris desired.  We even visit his legacy – a Spearhunting museum that houses some of the trophies from his 592 kills. His ex-wife labels the late Mr. Morris a serial animal killer.

Master Hoa’s Requiem (USA)

Directed by Scott Edwards. Master Hoa was one of the hundreds of thousands who fled South Vietnam by boat in 1975. In the process, he lost his family. We see how he re-established a new life, and we go with him on a heart-breaking search for the graves of his family.

Cast in India (India/USA)

Directed by Natasha Reheja. Have you ever noticed that the manhole covers in NYC are stamped “Made in India”? Ms. Reheja noticed and thus began her journey to foundry where the bronze plates are crafted. It turns out these are highly skilled workers who take great pride in their work, face labor union issues, and sacrifice their hands, feet and backs for the manually intensive manufacturing process.

The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul (Australia)

Directed by Kitty Green. We see a stream of auditions from girls of various ages wanting the highly coveted role of the Ukrainian legendary figure skater Oksana Baiul – former World Champion and Olympic Gold Medalist.

That’s it for the documentary shorts. Below are the three features I watched in addition to the previous doc shorts.

ECHOES OF WAR

echoes of war Greetings again from the darkness. The fallout from war goes beyond the violence and massive loss of life. Returning soldiers often struggle to regain a sense of normalcy, and are often labeled as PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  And what of the families … those left behind with a gaping hole in their heart from the loss of a loved one, and those having to adjust to the “affected” surviving soldiers? This is the heart-breaking story of two families at the convergence of all of the above.

With the Civil War ending, Wade (James Badge Dale, “The Pacific”) returns home in search of “peace”. He shows up at the house of his brother-in-law Seamus (Ethan Embrey) and is greeted with open arms by his niece Abigail (Maika Monroe, It Follows) and nephew Samuel (Owen Teague), who clearly worship him as their favorite Uncle.

Though it’s not a Hatfield and McCoys extreme, it doesn’t take long for Wade to figure out the awkward and mostly silent unbalanced relationship between Seamus’ family and the McCluskey neighbors. Randolph McCluskey (William Forsythe) is a bitter man who lost a son in the war, has an unresponsive wife (Beth Broderick) due to that loss, and two sons: Dillard (Ryan O’Nan) who is a bit slow-witted, and Marcus (Rhys Wakefield) who is far too sensitive to be accepted by his crusty old father.

Wade’s best intentions of protecting his family turn a barely tolerable arrangement into an all-out war. On top of that, we get a bit of Romeo and Juliet to go along with Wade’s slow-drip meltdown as he is simply unable to handle what the war has made him. The connection between Abigail and Marcus is exciting to watch, though we all recognize a romance facing a heavily stacked deck. Wakefield was previously seen in The Purge, and Ms. Monroe was stunning in It Follows. Both are young actors to keep an eye on.

It’s almost unbelievable to accept that this is the first feature film from director Kane Senes and his co-writer John Chriss. There is so much going on here with multiple layers of conflict and personalities … plus the movie is beautifully shot with an air of artistic flair that lightens a mood when necessary, or makes an analogy of nature and man either through plants, critters or the sky. Religious overtures play a role, and it’s fascinating to watch the various interactions … each more complex than the previous, culminating with Wade and Seamus who seemingly couldn’t be more different.

The film explores the comparison of bravery versus cowardice and it challenges our beliefs. There is also a theme of survival – just what makes a life worth living? The acting here is something to behold. All eight are exceptional and contribute to the film’s ultra-serious approach, broken by brief moments of pure joy. With a terrific and complex story, stellar acting, and a talented director, this is one that serious film goers should seek out and embrace.

NOWITZKI: THE PERFECT SHOT (documentary)

nowitzki Greetings again from the darkness. Dallas loves Dirk. The reasons why become obvious during this biopic that takes us from Dirk’s youth basketball league in Germany through his NBA Finals, while including significantly more information on his family and personal life than we have previously seen. Interviews come courtesy of such well known faces as Kobe Bryant, Don Nelson, Michael Finley, Mark Cuban, Yao Ming, Jason Kidd and former NBA commissioner David Stern.

Contrary to many sports documentaries, this is no shrine to its subject. Of course, we can’t help but be charmed by the “great guy” superstar, but it’s through his life challenges that we come to truly respect Dirk as a man. Director Sebastian Denhardt is one of the most prolific documentarians and filmmakers in Germany, but this look at Germany’s most popular and successful athlete is his best and most accessible work to date.

The most interesting segments involve Dirk’s long time personal coach Holger Geschwindner, plus insight from Dirk’s father, mother, sister, and childhood friend. It’s during these times that we realize Dirk’s “posse” is made of the people who he has always trusted – family and friends. The only two newcomers to his group of “insiders” are Lisa Tyner and Dirk’s wife Jessica. Ms. Tyner is the Mavericks staffer who took Dirk under her wing when he was a youngster transitioning to life in the United States.

While the film drills home the importance of Dirk’s work ethic and commitment to excellence, the most entertaining moments include: Dirk’s first meeting with Steve Nash, Dirk as a stick figure on Holger’s software, Dirk in a tennis skirt (for Halloween), Dirk dominating on the court as a teenager, Dirk’s mother discussing his move to the U.S., and best of all, Dirk stretching the truth a bit while meeting with former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt … and then admitting it!

These days, disappointment seems to be the most common reaction when the curtain gets pulled back on celebrities and heroes. It’s refreshing to look into the life and see that the biggest scandals were when Dirk was the one cheated by a former girlfriend, and he stood by in full support of a friend going through an investigation for tax evasion. Dirk shows he is as impressive as a human being as he is a basketball player. What he definitely isn’t? A singer … we re-live his “We are the Champions” rendition from the parade. Dirk rocks!

DARE TO DRUM (documentary)

dare to drum Greetings again from the darkness. D’Drum. Stewart Copeland. Gamelan. Most viewers might be familiar with one of these – Stewart Copeland is the world famous Rock drummer and co-founder (with Sting) of The Police. D’Drum is a Dallas area based ensemble of percussionists who have been playing together for two decades. Gamelan is the traditional percussion based music so important to Java and Bali in Indonesia.

If you are curious how these three pieces might fit together, let’s make it more challenging and unlikely by blending in world class conductor Maestro Jaap Van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Yes, this really happened and the result was a show-stopping 2011 performance of “Gamelan D’Drum”, a symphony composed by Copeland, conducted by the Maestro, and performed by the D’Drum fellows and the musicians of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

John Bryant is one of the drumming members of D’Drum, and in very impressive fashion, he also directed, edited and produced the film. He perfectly captures the process of these passionate musicians (insert drummer joke here) and their never-ending quest for new percussion instruments, no matter the part of the world. Their multi-cultural approach led to a stage filled with dozens of instruments, including those custom-made for the performance.

Inspirational seems to fall short in describing what unfolds on screen. Mr. Copeland’s enthusiasm towards the project was obvious in the post-screening Q&A as he energetically answered any question even remotely directed his way. See, he is what one would call a courageous musician – one not intimidated by the traditions of the world of symphonies and orchestras. He understands that the foundation of art is creating something new, and he brilliantly manages this without losing the audience.

While Copeland’s creativity and D’Drums eagerness are commendable and a joy to watch, none of this happens without the (risky) support of Maestro Jaap Van Zweden. So many conductors are tied to the traditions, and hesitant at best, to take risks with music that has been played the same basic way for sometimes hundreds of years. Instead, his positive attitude and willingness to push boundaries delivered one of the most exciting evenings ever for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra … not to mention Stewart Copeland and the members of D’Drum.  Should you have the opportunity to see this one, take it. And afterwards … “Do it again, man”!

 

 

 


DIFF 2015 – Days 4 and 5

April 16, 2015

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Days 4 and 5, Monday and Tuesday April 13, 14

My recap of the (only) three movies I watched over these two days (hey, a guy has to earn a living!)

 

DIVINE ACCESS

divine access Greetings again from the darkness. Meet Jack. Thanks to a mother who dragged him around as a kid to a stream of religious events and retreats, he has grown into an adult who has vast knowledge about various religions and approaches to spirituality. Yet, despite this, he is a slacker and self-anointed underachiever … a man living the simple life of fishing, drinking beer and morning skinny dips in the lake.

As a favor to his friend Bob (Patrick Warburton), Jack (Billy Burke) agrees to appear on a cable access show. It turns out Bob wants Jack to humiliate the current host … Reverend Guy Roy Davis (Gary Cole). The stunt works sending Guy Roy off the deep end, and turning Jack into an oddball spiritual leader.

The film balances some extremely funny segments and moments with the drama that typically accompanies anything religious. As the film points out, a great many people are looking for something to believe in. Jack’s simple talks revolve around philosophical bits such as: Believe you are loved. Why are you certain you are right and other are wrong? Tell your story and listen to others tell theirs.

When Jack hits the road to give his talks across Texas, he undergoes a personal transformation that is tied to Marian (Sarah Shahi) who he can’t quite figure out whether she is real or a vision. His travel buddies include Nigel (Joel David Moore) and Amber (Dora Madison Burge). The interaction between these three characters makes for the best scenes in the film.

The casting and acting is superb. Gary Cole is both painful and hilarious to watch as Guy Roy, a man committed to spreading the gospel through his ventriloquism with a creepy “Mini Jesus” doll. Sarah Shahi brings the necessary level of mysticism to her role, and Adrienne Barbeau is spot on as Jack’s mom. Patrick Warburton delivers his deadpan one-liners with aplomb, while Joel David Moore and Dora Madison Burge make for a quirky couple of passengers on the road trip. Even the multi-talented Turk Pipkin has a cameo as the leader of the Esoteric Fellowship. But it’s Billy Burke who owns the movie as the reluctant spiritual leader who is fighting his own transformation. Burke delivers a subtle and nuanced performance while also being downright cynical and funny.

The religious overtones are pretty clear with Jesus, Matthew the Apostle, and Mary Magdalene, but that should in no way lead you to believe this is one of those sneaky Christian message movies. Actually, director Steven Chester Prince and his three co-writers do a nice job at asking “Is everyone doing the best they can?” and “Do you believe what you say?” The message seems to be that we all have doubts, but it’s best to start with yourself before you start trying to fix others.

MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED (documentary)

most likely Greetings again from the darkness. When people discuss the U.S. public education system, most agree (at least to a certain degree) that it’s broken. The impassioned and creative debates occur over how best to “fix” it. The ideas are infinite, but as with any problem in need of a solution, it’s wise to consider the desired end result.  What do we need and expect of our education system?  And who is “we” in that question?  Are we satisfying societal needs or those of the individual … and who decides?

It is not feasible to expect an 86 minute documentary to answer all of these questions and solve one of the biggest issues facing society, but skilled documentarian Greg Whiteley does his best to advance the conversation. “Teach to the test” is the widely accepted curriculum these days, and it’s defined as daily lessons and assignments structured to prepare each student for the standardized tests utilized for determining a student’s knowledge base, grading teacher effectiveness, ranking schools and school districts, and of course, determining the acceptability of certain students at particular colleges.

With a basic structure that has not changed in 124 years, it seems clear that our education system is not properly preparing students for a world that has changed drastically in the past 3 decades. Many make the argument that the future success of students will be determined by what are called “soft skills”: confidence, ability to collaborate, creativity, time management, critical thinking, and decision making. There are interviews from managers at Google and Khan Academy stressing that these are the skills they already seek in new hires.

There are defenders of the current system. They claim it’s all part of the game we play, and that students must survive the grind … just as their parents and their grandparents did. Opponents say students are being treated as data points, not people or future contributors. Whiteley takes us inside of High Tech High in San Diego. It’s an experimental campus committed to finding new ways to teach, so that students learn and retain and accomplish. One of their most impactful evaluation points come from group projects that are presented to faculty, parents and the community. It’s fascinating to watch the students work towards their goal, and equally interesting to hear the parents talk about personal growth of the students.

Whiteley includes the spot on quote from John Dewey: “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow”. Though the film doesn’t touch on the highly charged political landscape or the importance of teacher education and preparation, it is quite effective in generating thought and discussion about what responsibility we have towards students, and how we can improve the odds that they will grow into contributing members of society. For more information on the film, or to schedule a screening at your school or organization, go to www.mltsfilm.org

THE WOLFPACK (documentary)

wolfpack Greetings again from the darkness. In what is one of the oddest real life stories I have ever seen, director Crystal Moselle takes her camera inside the Lower East Side apartment of the Angulo family – 6 brothers, one sister, and their parents. In their spare time, the kids re-enact movies within the apartment using elaborate costumes, sets and props. And no, that’s not the odd part.

Despite being mostly teenagers, these siblings have only left their apartment a few times in their life – a very few times … maybe once or twice a year, and not at all one year. They have been home schooled by their mother and are quite charming and articulate, despite the quasi-prison environment. The kids are not abused in the physical sense, but an argument can be made that mental anguish is in play here.

Their movie scenes are fun to watch, especially given their Tarantino leanings with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Ms. Moselle manages to capture a significant amount within the confines of the apartment. Her interviews with the boys are enlightening, but it’s the mother that provides the most context. Her regrets and dashed dreams for her kids cause her much pain, and it’s quite clear that the dad has some type of psychological vice grip on the family. The dad raises some eyebrows when he states “My power is influencing people”. As viewers, we don’t see this, but there is physical proof to his claim.

With no shortage of powerful moments, there are still two that jump off the screen. The first occurs as the boys head out on their own to watch their first movie in a real theatre, and then have such a fan boy moment after watching The Fighter. The second involves the mom having a conversation with her mother after not speaking for more than two decades. It’s an emotional moment.

We can’t help but like the boys and pull for them to find some normalcy outside the walls of the apartment. Their final film project needs no additional commentary as the lead character watches various emotions travel past his window … fitting since a NYC apartment window provided this family its only glances at the real world for so many years.


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