DIFF 2017: Day Two


The DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL runs March 31- April 9, 2017

It’s the first weekend of the festival and that means two full days of movie watching, and a breakfast that must hold me all day. It also means very little writing time, so the updates will be slightly delayed. Below is a recap of the four movies I watched on Saturday April 1 (no April Fools jokes here):

 

 

44 PAGES (documentary)

Most of us were first introduced to Goofus and Gallant while trying to mind our parents stern direction to “be still” as we sat in the sterile doctor or dentist waiting room as kids. Highlights Magazine was our only tangible hope for entertainment in a world before smart phones ipads. Filmmaker Tony Shaff captures the vital role played by this publication as he documents the 9 month process of putting together the magazine’s 70th anniversary edition.

The first surprise is that filming doesn’t take place in some Madison Avenue skyscraper, but instead in a turn of the century mansion in tiny Honesdale, Pennsylvania (pop 5000). That’s right, the creative folks work in the same little town where the Myers founded Highlights so many years ago … and some of those in the bloodlines remain involved with the business.

If you are imagining a scene that’s a throwback to a Norman Rockwell painting, you wouldn’t be far off. Their mission is: For the benefit of children, and the motto is “Fun with purpose”. The job of the staff is to think like kids, and I challenge you to avoid even a touch of envy as you feel the spirit of editor Judy Burke and her ever-present smile as she enthusiastically tackles every task of every day.

No Santa Claus and no witches are just some of the parameters that give structure to the general content aimed at ages 6 to 12. You won’t find a single advertisement in an issue, and that brings up the viability of a publication business that is dying on the vine in many market segments. We see how the Highlights group is evolving into apps and the digital world, and even a new Robotics section, while still holding tight to the paper page.

The music was a bit loud and distracting at times, but mostly director Shaff succeeds at providing a blend of nostalgia and contemporary as we get to know the staff and witness their efforts to stay relevant and true to their belief that the magazine does indeed matter.

 

DEALT (documentary)

One of the sub-genres of film documentaries involves profiling those folks who are doing extraordinary things in life. Sometimes these people are changing the world, sometimes they are sharing their talents, and other times they are overcoming challenges that most of us don’t have. Richard Turner of San Antonio, Texas is one of those who checks all three boxes.

Mr. Turner is the world’s best card mechanic … a magician, if you will – although he doesn’t much like that word. Now you might be asking how a card trickster is changing the world, and it’s a fair question. The answer becomes clear when we see him sharing some card secrets with a young visually-impaired girl late in the film. That’s correct, Mr. Turner is himself blind, and if you assume that a blind man cannot possibly execute highly complex and entertaining card tricks, you are encouraged to learn more about this remarkable man.

Director Luke Korem expertly provides the necessary background for us to understand how Turner has become the star he is, and equally fascinating is how he simultaneously delivers a personal profile of the family man – the flawed man – who has slowly, but surely come to accept his weaknesses after a life of denial. “Blind” was another word he spurned for years, as he was driven to let his skills stand on their own against all others. So while we “ooh and ahh” and gape in amazement at his card skills, our hearts are touched by the relationships he has with his wife Kim, his son Asa, and his self-reflective drive that allowed him to reach 5th degree black belt. Mr. Turner likely practiced his card skills for 16 hours today … how was your day?

 

CITY OF JOY (documentary)

Bukuvu in the Democratic Republic of Congo is an area you may or may not be familiar with. Would you be surprised to learn that the area is among the richest in the world for highly sought-after natural resources (conflict metals) for use in many global products such as computers and smart phones? This peaceful and happy community was rocked in 1996 when the war over these resources began.

Filmmaker (and Editor-extraordinaire) Madeleine Gavin takes us inside a brutal and horrifying world that is controlled by militias hired by governments and multi-national governments in an effort to protect territories and resources. These local militias are the local power and care little for the citizens of these areas. Their strategy is too much to watch: they move into a village and rape the women of all ages, thereby breaking down the family structure, causing locals to move out, leaving the village to the militia to patrol.

Rape is the main weapon of this economic war, and these survivors are broken women. Enter a remarkable woman named Christine Schuler-Deschryver and a courageous Dr. Mukinege. In 2007, the City of Joy organization was founded and the compound opened in 2011. Their mission is to turn these rape survivors into community leaders.

Dr. Mukinege runs the Panzi hospital where the women come to get healed physically. Ms. Schuler-Deschryver is the director of the City of Joy where the women stay for 6 months to gain emotional strength by telling their stories and transforming the pain into leadership. We learn of Christine’s ambivalence towards celebrity photo opps, and contrast that with Eve Ensler (The Vagina Monologues) who is actively involved with the center. This is an incredibly important and powerful documentary that educates us on the horrible atrocities, as well as the inspirational side. By the end of 2017, more than 1000 women will have graduated from City of Joy. The real hope is that one day the center is not needed.

 

THE RELATIONTRIP

I just need to simply accept the fact that I’m too old to ever really understand the new world of hipster relationships and dating. Getting to really know someone, and all the nuances and time and effort that go with that, has been replaced by speed-dating events and apps designed for swiping away any connection based on a profile pic. Still, I should be able to find the humor in this bass-ackwards new world of courting.

Co-directors C.A. Smith and his real life partner Renee’ Felice Smith open up the film with a clearly disgruntled and discombobulated couple in a car – and without a word, we flashback to “four days earlier”. Beck (Ms. Smith) and Liam (Matt Bush) are seemingly proud independent loaners who have their meet-cute at a late night concert of Liam’s band named The F*** Dragons. What follows is a hyper-speed relationship development that starts out as a ‘friendship friend trip’ and ends according to the film’s title.

Along the way, the audience shares the discovery of personal baggage with Liam and Beck. Liam is weighed down by past girlfriends, a devotion to video games, and mommy issues taking directly from a Woody Allen movie (kind of funny thanks to massive Sally Struthers ankles). Beck has body-insecurity and lacks personal confidence, personified through a funky, wise-cracking muppet and a swimsuit habit that is a bit extreme.

The film uses some surreal elements and effects to make some interesting points, and a creative peanut butter and jelly metaphor that provides hope that this is the beginning of a filmmaking partnership to keep an eye on. In the meantime, I’ll try to view this new relationship world as evolution and not disappointment.

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