DIFF 2017: Day Seven


The Dallas International Film Festival runs March 31 – April 9, 2017

 It’s Thursday and we are in the home stretch for the festival. Only four days remain, and a second wave of new films and filmmakers has hit the schedule. By the end of today, I will have watched 22 DIFF movies with 3 full and exciting days to go. Below is a recap of the three movies I watched on Thursday April 6, 2017:

 

 

IT’S ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD (Juste la fin du monde)

All it takes is either Vincent Cassel or Marion Cotillard in the cast, and a movie becomes a must-see for me. Combine both of them with some other terrific French actors: Lea Seydoux, Nathalie Baye and rising star Gaspard Ulliel, and then have the project directed by daring young filmmaker Xavier Dolan (Mommy, 2014), and the pieces are in place for an important and stimulating cinematic experience. Then again, sometimes having the pieces just isn’t quite enough.

Based on the play from Jean-Luc Lagarce, the film begins with Louis (Mr. Ulliel) on a flight back home for the first visit with his family in 12 years. Louis is now a successful writer, and the reason for his trip home is to deliver some important news … news that requires a face-to-face gathering. As he enters the home, it’s obvious there are significant underlying issues with these folks. The family dynamics are light-years beyond strained, and what follows is 99 minutes of yelling, bickering and blaming. It’s a miserable experience for Louis, and unfortunately for us viewers as well.

Ms. Cotillard’s Catherine is subservient wife to Mr. Cassel’s Antoine, the bitter brother who doesn’t seem overly joyous that Louis has finally decided to visit. Ms. Seydoux is the little sis who barely has memories of Louis living at home, but desperately wants to form a bond while he’s present. The matriarch is played by Ms. Baye who has the best and most honest line of the film. She tells Louis: “I don’t understand you. But I love you.” That line could have been the title of the film as it seems that none of these people have any understanding or empathy for the other family members, though there is a connection that only relatives can share.

Mr. Dolan films everyone up close creating a sense of claustrophobia and annoyance that takes the dialogue to near breaking point on a few occasions. He also employs some extremely creative camera angles with some of these ultra-tight shots. Lastly, you aren’t likely to see a more fitting or effective use of a cuckoo clock in any movie this year. Its role as a metaphor is clear, and just as clear … these people are themselves cuckoo!

 

ELLA BRENNAN: COMMANDING THE TABLE (documentary)

Actress Patricia Clarkson narrates this profile of restaurateur-extraordinaire and incredibly dedicated, successful and influential businesswoman Ella Brennan. For anyone who has eaten at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, the flavorful impact of Ms. Brennan is surely known. However, there is so much more to her story and documentarian Leslie Iwerks does a thorough and entertaining job of serving up the details.

Whether or not you consider yourself a “foodie”, you’ve likely heard of Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme – two of the first celebrity chefs. Both got their start thanks to Ms. Brennan, and both still credit her for much of their success. The story begins in the 1940’s when Ella was just out of high school and her much older brother Owen put her to work in his restaurant. She studied vigorously, both through books and observation.

To fully appreciate this amazing woman, the era must be considered. Women in business were rarely provided opportunities, and from an industry perspective, food was not yet a national obsession. Ms. Brennan bucked both by building a business and generating national interest in various types of food, flavors and meals.

When a family feud caused a split and the loss of Brennan’s restaurant on Royal, Ella opened Commander’s Palace, a now globally famous eatery that is must-dining for locals and tourists alike. Director Iwerks chronicles changes in menus and chefs, and focuses on Ms. Brennan’s commitment to running a business the right way, and being a vital part of the community. Never is this more evident than in the aftermath of Katrina in 2005. Her story is the ultimate success story of a self-made woman who preserved through good times and bad, and her legacy is not likely to be forgotten in the culinary world.

 

SPETTACOLO (documentary)

For those of us a little rusty on our Italian, it’s pronounced spe-TAK-ola and it means “the show” or “the play”. That is the perfect title for a documentary on the Tuscany region farming town of Monticchiello. On April 6, 1944, the townspeople took a stand against the German invasion during WWII, and for more than 50 years the town has staged a live presentation to maintain their bravely-earned voice.

More than an annual tradition, the play is a lifelong commitment that proves how art and participation can connect those within a community. Co-directors Jeff Malmberg (Marwencol) and Chris Shellen take us through the early stages of planning where discussions are held to determine this year’s “hot topic”. This determines the focus of the play and what will be discussed and presented. What follows is script writing from long time director Andrea Cresti, stage building, and hours upon hours of rehearsal. Along the way, we learn how the younger generation is showing little interest in the tradition, casting doubt on not just the future of the play, but also the identity of the town.

In an effort to help us better understand the folks involved and just what it means to the community, the film moves at a very deliberate … ok, pretty darn slow place. Of course, this is Tuscany, so the topography and landscape are breathtaking – including one stunning shot of summer’s sunflowers. The film captures the difficulty in maintaining tradition, and as Mr. Cresti states, it might be better if the play ends before losing all meaning.

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