DIFF 2017: Day Nine


The Dallas International Film Festival ran March 31 – April 9

 The penultimate day of the festival has arrived. It’s second Saturday and the end is in sight. Today also means the category winners have been announced and most will receive another screening during one of the TBA slots from the original programming schedule. This gives festival attendees a chance to catch up on any must-see films they might have missed during the week. Below is a recap of the two films I watched on Saturday April 8, 2017:

BEFORE I FALL

A middle-aged man is probably not the best choice to comment on the film version of a popular YA novel. In fact, there may be no more tortuous sound to male ears than the first 10 to 15 minutes of incessant teen girl jabbering served up here during the carpool ride to school. Lauren Oliver’s novel is adapted by Maria Maggenti, and Ry Russo-Young directs this mash-up of Groundhog Day, Mean Girls and Heathers. Even though not much new ground is covered with this one, it’s handled in a way that the message isn’t lost, and even comes across as quite sincere.

Zoey Deutch delivers a strong and forthright lead performance as Samantha, and it’s on her shoulders which the success of most scenes rest. Ms. Deutch is the daughter of actress Lea Thompson (Back to the Future) and director Howard Deutch (Pretty in Pink), and appeared recently in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some! She is a star in the making and has the ability to come across as likeable, even when playing a character who isn’t.

Samantha is part of a four girl squad perched atop the social pyramid at their “Pacific northwest” high school. Filling out the royal panel are Cynthy Wu as Ally, Medalion Rahimi as Elody, and Halston Sage (Paper Towns) as Lindsay the evil Queen of the full-of-themselves quadrangle. These girls spend most of each day congratulating each other on their perfections and scalding other high schoolers who they view as less-worthy. Elena Kampouris, as Juliet the “psycho”, endures especially harsh comments and treatment … finally peaking at a keg party where she ends up in a scene reminiscent of Carrie, only with Solo cup booze in place of pig blood.

Of course, if this were a full movie about how poorly teenage girls treat each other, there would be no need for cameras to roll. The hook is that after that keg party, Samantha is killed in a car crash. But rather than go sadly and quietly into the grave, she ends up re-living the day over and over until she completes her self-analysis personality adjustment.

Supporting actors include Jennifer Beals as Samantha’s mother, Erica Tremblay (her brother Jacob starred in Room) as Samantha’s little sister, Logan Miller and Kian Lawley as the secret admirer and jerky boyfriend, Liv Hewson with nice boots and a key bathroom scene, and Diego Boneta (Rock of Ages) as the teacher whose Sisyphus lesson provides the obvious literary reference for Samantha’s again and again week.

The film easily slides into the Me and Earl and the Dying Girl sub-genre, and we should all be in complete support of any project that encourages teenagers to re-evaluate their daily choices and make the changes necessary to become a better person. The message to “be nice” is something worth rooting for.

 

I AM NOT MADAME BOVARY (Wo bu shi Pan Jim Liam)

Have you ever watched a movie through a telescope? How about a porthole? Such is the effect of the highly unusual circular aspect utilized by Director Xiaogang Feng and cinematographer Pan Luo. Most of the movie is delivered through a round view using maybe one-third of the screen, and is meant to position us with the same restricted view of the world as the small town villagers. The exceptions are a couple of larger square/rectangle scenes in Beijing and the widescreen wrap-up at the end.

Bingbing Fan stars as Lian, and we follow her quest for what she views as justice in her decade-long battle with Chinese bureaucracy. Here is my attempt at explaining the set-up: She and her husband agreed to get a “fake” divorce so that they could obtain a better apartment through public housing distribution. During this time, her husband met and married another woman, and now she wants the original divorce overturned so that they can get a “real” divorce. It’s a matter of principle and justice. Her 10 year legal positioning leaves a wake of mayors, politicians, judges, and officials.

While Lian’s pursuit of justice may seem a bit confusing and not the least bit humorous, the reactions of the bureaucrats provide many comical exchanges as it becomes quite clear that self-preservation and saving their own jobs and positions are what matters most. Over the years, many take their best shot at reasoning, tricking and even threatening Lian in an effort to get her to give up the cause. She remains resolute. An example of the humor includes the snowball effect where one of the Chinese officials asks if “you have ever wondered how a sesame seed becomes a watermelon”. Whether this is brilliant philosophy or poorly translated subtitles matters little – the meaning is clear and fitting.

Writer Zhenyun Liu makes a risky choice in holding back the true motivation of Lian’s battle until near the end. Knowing this earlier likely would have made us more supportive of Lian, but instead the decision leaves us as confused as the bureaucrats … the likely reason for this decision. The score features terrific use of drums and percussion, and the film provides the best yet description of marriage: tolerate until it hurts. The widescreen epilogue reminds us that even the most painful parts of the past may fade … but not without a good fight!

 

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