OSCARS 2018 recap

March 5, 2018

 Given the confluence of high profile issues, expectations and predictions for this year’s Academy Awards ceremony ranged from “revolutionary” to “off the rails”. Racial and gender diversity, the history of sexual abuse, and a room that tilts heavily to the left on the political scale, had the stage set for an out-of-the-ordinary program – or at least one worthy of next day watercooler exchanges. Instead, we were treated to a mostly benign nearly four hours of celebrities on their best public behavior. While the expectations were likely responsible for the significant (19%) drop in viewership over last year, those of us who did watch were rewarded with the awkward transition that accompanies a tradition-based organization’s attempt to change with the times.

After all five Best Actress nominees skipped the Ryan Seacrest E! stop on the Red Carpet in protest of the recent allegations against him, a retro-newsreel style opening revealed host Jimmy Kimmel as the voice on the microphone behind the early jabs. In his second consecutive year as Oscar host, Mr. Kimmel then took the stage and shot through a monologue of jokes that covered: last year’s Best Picture gaffe, Fox News, Harvey Weinstein, young/old Timothy Chalamet vs. Christopher Plummer, Meryl Streep’s 21 nominations, and “a wonderful man” named Guillermo Del Toro. Kimmel kicked off the presentations by offering a brand new Jet Ski to the winner with the shortest acceptance speech, complete with Helen Mirren in the Carol Merrill role as fawning model.

There were very few (if any?) surprises among the coveted statuettes that were handed out, and maybe most noticeable was, other than host Kimmel, the only white male presenters to take the stage alone were previous Oscar winners Christopher Walken and Matthew McConaughey. The other three that I recall all co-presented: Armie Hammer with Gal Gadot, Mark Hamill with his Star Wars co-stars, and Warren Beatty in a do-over with Faye Dunaway. Instead the lineup of presenters was filled with women and people of color. The Academy always tries to honor its history, and since this year was the 90th anniversary, there were some stellar montages utilized, as well as appearances from previous Oscar winners Eva Marie Saint (who cracked “I’m older than the Academy”) and the always entertaining Rita Moreno (age 86).

Speaking of white males, two of my long-time favorite actors – Sam Rockwell (THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI) and Gary Oldman (DARKEST HOUR) – both won their first Oscars after three decades of consistently fine work, and another hardworking screen vet, Allison Janney also won her first. In what may have been the most tightly-contested category, BLADE RUNNER 2049 bested the film I was quietly rooting for in Best Visual Effects, WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. Keala Settle owned the stage and the audience with a fantastic live performance of “This is Me” from THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, but neither her voice nor Sufjan Stevens’ choice in jacket, could overcome the catchy and melancholic “Remember Me” from COCO in the Best Song category.

History was made when Rachel Morrison (MUDBOUND) became the first female cinematographer nominated for an Oscar, but it was the great Roger Deakins who was rewarded for his excellent work on BLADE RUNNER 2049, his 14th nomination. Jordan Peele also made history as the first African-American winner for Best Original Screenplay for his influential GET OUT. Another first was Chile’s A FANTASTIC WOMAN winning for Best Foreign Language film, featuring trans actress Daniela Vega, who also introduced Sufjan Stevens’ live performance of “Mystery of Love” from CALL ME BY YOUR NAME.

A personal favorite, THE SILENT CHILD, won Best Narrative Short while Christopher Nolan’s WWII masterpiece DUNKIRK quietly won three Oscars (Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Editing). More of the attention went to presenters like Ashley Judd, Annabella Sciorra and Salma Hayek (Weinstein victims); Chadwick Boseman (star of the box office dominant BLACK PANTHER); and the wicked comedy of Tiffany Haddish, Maya Rudolph, and Dave Chappelle. Most interesting of the bunch though was Kumail Nanjani (THE BIG SICK), who made his case as a potential replacement when Jimmy Kimmel decides to no longer host. Mr. Nanjani is funny, intelligent and engaging.

After three nominations for Best Director, 89 year old James Ivory won his first Oscar for his adapted screenplay of CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, while the very talented composer Alexandre Desplat won his second (nine nominations) for the score to THE SHAPE OF WATER. The director category was filled with auteurs of the  industry, and the only one over age 50, Guillermo Del Toro, emerged as the winner – a very popular choice. The insanely likeable film nerd Del Toro had a great night, as his creative amphibious tale also won Best Picture, and he even quoted screen legend James Cagney in his acceptance speech.

One of the most powerful montages was a tribute to cinematic soldiers, fighters for freedom, and war movies over the years. Presenting this segment was Vietnam veteran, and terrific and underrated actor Wes Studi, a Native American, who seemed to purposefully poke the privileged audience when he asked “who else?” served their country … a cause that often seems undervalued in that room.

The roster of other presenters included Nicole Kidman, Sandra Bullock, (Capital One spokesperson) Jennifer Garner, Margot Robbie, Emily Blunt, Jennifer Lawrence, Jodie Foster, and the duo of Jane Fonda and Helen Mirren (filling in for Casey Affleck who wisely backed out) to present the Best Actor award. Someone more cynical than I might notice some similar traits in this group of presenters, but we were told this was the year of diversity and empowerment. And on that note, it was Frances McDormand who found a way to unite a segment when she encouraged ALL nominated women to stand up and be noticed … it was a fun and well-deserved moment.

Falling in the “not fun” category was Kimmel’s road (across the street) trip to Mann’s Chinese Theatre to surprise an auditorium of movie watchers with snacks from formally dressed celebrities. Perhaps this was a memorable moment for that group of folks, but for billions of others, it simply added 15 minutes to the ceremony’s run time … and provided no laughs.

The main stage sets seemed exceedingly ornate and intricate this year, with one of the main sets being a take on BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and another looking like an abundance of rare gems. Perhaps both, though beautiful, were a bit over-the-top given the tone of this year’s ceremony. Costume Designer Mark Bridges (PHANTOM THREAD) won the Jet Ski, and NBA legend Kobe Bryant is now an Oscar winner. It was a transition year and the ceremony showed that, though it came off with nary a glitch (nor an accountant on stage) this time. We will now see if the industry has self-policed to the point where the focus can return to the art.

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Confession of a Movie Reviewer (January 2018)

January 25, 2018

 Over the years, I’ve been diligent in my efforts to keep my writing focused on the movies I watch, rather than the personalities and politics of the film industry. In a world that bombards us with daily (seemingly non-stop) irrational, illogical and downright inexplicable occurrences, I’ve attempted to maintain a sense of separation. I strive to consider each film as a self-contained work of art, irrespective of the collective noise and attention that might surround it.

It’s for this reason that I consistently turn down industry interview opportunities and press junkets.  It’s important to me that my viewing experience and analysis of a movie not be influenced by where the lead actor (or actress, or director, or writer) ranks on my personal scale of virtue … or even how tasty the pre-screening buffet and free drinks might be.

A movie should stand – or fall – on its own merits. Perhaps in these times, striving to assess a film as an unencumbered work of art is a near-impossible task. I could simply admit defeat and fall in formation with many who (often unwittingly) allow themselves to be influenced by outside (off-screen) factors. However, this would only rob myself of the one escape from reality I enjoy, and more significantly, would undermine the art form of cinema and what it contributes as societal commentary and pure entertainment.

This is my public confession of acceptance that no ‘bubble’ exists. Movies are made by good folks and bad – just like everything else in life. That’s not something that should be ignored in today’s environment of full disclosure and admirable and necessary movements toward a more civil industry.  However, a line of demarcation can be drawn. My movie reviews and comments will continue to focus on what we see on screen, even though the external noise sometimes deserves to be heard.  While I support the causes and movements towards industry improvements, I also believe that by periodically fighting through that noise, we can still find beauty and grace in the cinematic art form. And that’s a cause I also believe is important.

 

 


Best of 2017

January 3, 2018

Just posted: the BEST OF 2017 film list!

This year’s post has MANY recommendations for those of you willing to step outside of your movie watching comfort zone! Hopefully you can find something on the list that interests you.  Check it out:

https://moviereviewsfromthedark.com/annual-bests-2/best-of-2017/

 


DR. SEUSS’ HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS! THE MUSICAL

December 7, 2017

Opening Night December 5, 2017

Winspear Opera House – Dallas, TX

 

 It’s pretty easy to tell if a stage production is “working”. For a tragedy, we hear sniffles emanating from the audience, and for a comedy we hear laughter. When it comes to the re-telling of a family Christmas classic, we watch to see if the kids are engaged. Near the end of this touring version of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical”, most every kid in the theatre is yelling “Christmas” at the stage in a desperate attempt to feed the floundering Grinch the correct line. Of course, Philip Bryan as The Grinch knows exactly what he’s doing, and it’s a brilliant gesture to allow the kids in the audience to believe they are participating … just as we believe The Grinch’s heart has grown as he learns the true meaning of Christmas.

The Dr. Seuss book was first published in 1957, and the iconic animated TV short first aired in 1966. In 2000, director Ron Howard delivered his live-action feature film, and Broadway was home to a hit run in both 2006 and 2007. Since then, there have been numerous tours of the hit stage musical, and many kids and families have been entertained by seeing The Grinch, his dog Max and the Whoville residents brought to life on stage.

“Welcome, Christmas” and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” are the two songs familiar from the TV show, and both were written by Albert Hague and Dr. Seuss. There are new elements to the story, and seven new songs with music by Mel Marvin and Timothy Mason (book and lyrics), including “Who Likes Christmas?”, “One of a Kind”, and “It’s the Thought that Counts”. All the songs contribute to the story-telling, but none are especially memorable on their own. There is a twist in approach, as we first meet Max the dog … a much older Max. He acts as our narrator recalling his days with The Grinch, as they are acted out around him. Bob Lauder stars as Old Max, and has a wonderful voice for narration and singing.

Little Cindy-Lou Who and the rest of the Whoville folks are decked out in a pink, red, and white color scheme compounding the chaotic feel created by the holiday season and by having Christmas stolen while they sleep. The Whoville songs are often difficult to understand, despite being performed energetically. The sets (designed by John Lee Beatty) remain true to the original Dr. Seuss book and the centerpiece Christmas tree is especially wonderful.

Of course, what everyone comes to see is The Grinch. His green costume (designed by Robert Morgan) with creepy long fingers is a sight to behold, and Mr. Bryan takes full advantage of the spotlight, both with his physicality and his wide-ranging voice. At various times he reminds of Michael Keaton in BEETLEJUICE (1988), Jim Carrey from the 2000 film, and even The Joker from THE DARK NIGHT (2008). The kids are especially attentive while The Grinch is on stage, as are the much older kids (known as adults) in the audience.

Any production of The Grinch is challenged to overcome the iconic voices of Boris Karloff and Thurl Ravenscroft from the TV version, as these men possessed two of the most recognizable and iconic voices in entertainment history. Director Matt August has been behind both Broadway productions and numerous national tours, and he certainly puts on an entertaining show – assisted here by the live orchestra conducted by Peter Nilson, and some contemporary touches including a laugh-inducing belch, and a hashtag for the milennials. It’s been 60 years since the book was published, and the mean old Grinch and his dog Max can still entertain us.


CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) revisited

September 17, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Despite my fascination and quasi-obsession with movies, the Science Fiction genre has never really appealed to me. Sure, there have been a few dozen exceptions over the years (and it depends how you categorize certain movies), but it’s the non-classics in the genre that just never seem to connect with my love of film. So when Steven Spielberg states that he doesn’t consider his beloved CLOSE ENCOUNTER OF THE THIRD KIND (CE3K) to be a “sci-fi” film, you won’t see me get offended, or even offer a contrary argument. Of course, the difference is that Mr. Spielberg makes his claim based on his belief of life “out there”, while I simply have no desire to defend the category label.

For its 40th anniversary, the film is making the rounds in selected theatres, and the big screen is a must for this gem. Released in the same year and just a few months after George Lucas’ groundbreaking STAR WARS, Spielberg’s follow-up to JAWS confirmed his status as a revolutionary filmmaker, and cemented 1977 as one of the finest movie years of all-time (including ANNIE HALL, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, A BRIDGE TOO FAR, JULIA). CE3K would become the first of 7 Best Director Oscar nominations for Spielberg (inexplicably only one win to date).

Spielberg is credited as the writer, though many contributors are “uncredited”: Hal Barwood (now known for video games), Jerry Belson (Emmy winner for “The Odd Couple” and his work with Tracey Ullman), and John Hill (QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER), and Matthew Robbins (CRIMSON PEAK). Paul Schrader and Walter Hill also contributed to the script, making this the veritable vegetable soup of screenplays. The film came at a time when Columbia Pictures was struggling, so in order to remain under budget, Spielberg had to make some compromises on the final version. In a highly unusual development in the movie industry, Spielberg was able to revise, re-edit, and add new scenes to a 1980 re-release of the film – realizing his original vision.

Richard Dreyfuss stars as Roy Neary, a blue collar family man from Muncie, Indiana. With an acting career spanning more than 50 years (many recognize his baby face in THE GRADUATE as he offers to call the cops), it was AMERICAN GRAFFITI that caused his career to take off, leading to JAWS in 1975, and his stellar 1977 with both CE3K and THE GOODBYE GIRL. He later overcame a severe drug habit to star in such crowd favorites as WHAT ABOUT BOB?, MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS and “Madoff”. His wife Ronnie in CE3K is played by Teri Garr, whose acting career also covers more than 50 years, including small roles in five different Elvis movies in the 1960’s and her best known roles in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and TOOTSIE (for which she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination). In recent years, she has had to turn her energy and attention to health issues.

Melinda Dillon stars as Jillian, mother to young Barry (Cary Guffey) who is abducted by the aliens. Ms. Dillon received her first (of two) Oscar nomination for her work in the film, and is still seen annually breaking a leg lamp in the holiday favorite A CHRISTMAS STORY, although she retired from acting ten years ago. Young Mr. Guffey is now 45 years old and hasn’t acted since 1985. Director Stanley Kubrick considered him for the role of Danny in THE SHINING, but ultimately decided on Danny Lloyd, another youngster who decided against remaining in showbiz.

 Francois Truffaut was an Oscar nominated director known for kicking off the French New Wave of Cinema with his all-time classics THE 400 BLOWS and JULES AND JIM, and it was quite surprising to see him cast in the role of UFO expert Claude Lecombe. It’s likely that cinephile Spielberg loved the idea of working with a peer whose work he so admired. Truffaut is a significant screen presence despite his challenges with the English language (which led to “dialogue cheat sheets” throughout filming). Bob Balaban, so familiar to “Seinfeld” fans, plays the translator, while Justin Dreyfuss (Richard’s real life nephew) is the noisy and obnoxious son during the hectic family scene. Roberts Blossom is the one in the film who admits to spotting Bigfoot, and is best known as Kevin’s neighbor in HOME ALONE and the braced-up car seller in CHRISTINE. He was also a well-respected poet before passing away in 2011. Other familiar faces include Lance Henrikson (ALIENS), George DiCenzo (BACK TO THE FUTURE), Carl Weathers (ROCKY), CY YOUNG (OK, more a name than a face), Bill Thurman (Coach Popper from THE LAST PICTURE SHOW), and gas mask salesman Gene Rader, who hails from Paris, Texas.

 Desert discoveries are a key here, and offer more insight into Spielberg’s attention to history. The “lost” plane is a tribute to real life Flight 19 which disappeared in 1945, and The Cotopaxi was a real cargo ship that sunk … both becoming part of Bermuda Triangle lore. Devil’s Tower in Wyoming is also significant here, and it’s Spielberg’s nod to John Ford’s frequent use of Monument Valley in his westerns. Spielberg has admitted to watching Ford’s THE SEARCHERS dozens of times while filming CE3K. Another tribute comes in the form of a wind-up monkey with cymbals. It was previously seen in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, and can also be viewed as a precursor to the infamous clown in POLTERGEIST.

Spielberg acknowledges being inspired by President Nixon and the Watergate scandal. He wondered what else the government might be hiding from us. Remarkably, he gets his point across with a total absence of modern day cynicism. As opposed to what we usually see these days, the military isn’t trying to bomb the mothership and citizens aren’t retreating in a panic to bunkers. Instead, the military is working to keep the public safe (albeit through some sneaky strategy), the scientists are approaching communication through a protocol steeped in research and data gathering, and Dreyfuss and Dillon are trying to figure out why they were “chosen”. Spielberg delivers sweetness and warmth rather than a show of power and might. It’s such a pleasant viewing experience to watch people we like and to whom we can relate.

Some points of interest related to the film include a cameo from famed UFOologist J Allen Hynek, who is seen smoking a pipe as the abductees are released from the mothership. Mr. Hynek actually created the phrases Close Encounters of the First, Second, and Third Kinds. ABC news anchor Howard K Smith is seen since CBS would not grant permission for Walter Cronkite to appear. The film’s stunning visual effects come courtesy of Douglas Trumball, who also collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Of course, the Visual Effects Oscar that year went to STAR WARS, and that speaks to the contrast between the films. STAR WARS is clearly a special effects movie, while CE3K is much more of a character study … a study of human emotions.

 As for other Oscar categories, the film was nominated for 9 total, with the only win going to Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, though it was also awarded a Special Achievement Oscar for Sound Effects Editing. Spielberg was nominated, but Woody Allen won Best Director for ANNIE HALL, and Richard Dreyfuss actually won the Best Actor Oscar that year for THE GOODBYE GIRL. The great John Williams was of course nominated for his iconic 5 note melody (following up his immortal JAWS theme), and he instead won the Oscar that year for … repeat after me … STAR WARS. A quirky note on the music – the “voice” of the mothership was a tuba, not an instrument that typically gets much publicity.

While Stanley Kubrick opted not to show aliens in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, this film not only puts the aliens front and center, it reminds us to keep an open mind to those unfamiliar to us … a lesson that is still important today. The film was named to the National Film Registry in 2007, and seeing it on the big screen allows for the full impact of awe and wonderment. It’s rated PG and can be enjoyed by most ages. Spielberg only asks that you leave the cynicism at home.

watch the trailer:


BEST OF FIRST HALF 2017

July 5, 2017

It’s time for a quick mid-year look back at my favorite movies from the first six months of 2017. We all understand that most movies vying for Oscar attention are released in the 4th quarter, but every year there are some terrific movies released early in the year that deserve a bit more attention and a bigger audience. Below is a breakdown of my favorites from the 118 (new release) movies I watched between January 1 and June 30, 2017. These are listed alphabetically by genre so as not to spoil the year-end Iist.

DOCUMENTARY

 Abacus: Small Enough to Jail – rather than “too big to fail”, this is the story of the only financial institution indicted for their role in the 2008 mortgage crisis.

City of Ghosts – RBSS (Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently) is a faction of citizen journalists risking their lives to report on ISIS activities.

Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table – tracing the fifty year path to success of a determined New Orleans restaurateur

Score: A Film Music Documentary – renowned film composers offer insight into the process of creating effective and beloved film scores

True Conviction – three wrongly convicted ex-cons create a kind of detective agency to serve and assist others who are in the same situation

 

INDIES and/or QUIRKY COMEDIES

 Band Aid – a husband and wife try to save their marriage by communicating, laughing, and arguing through their musical jams

Katie Says Goodbye – a nice girl in a small dusty town does what she thinks she has to do in order to escape to the west coast and start over

La Barracuda – Half sisters, both daughters of a dead music legend, struggle to bond and find peace or satisfaction in their father’s legacy

Mr. Roosevelt – Austin based comedy centered on a pet tragedy and one woman’s desperate attempt to make peace with the past

 

ROM-COM/DRAMA

The Big Sick – a true relationship story filled with laughter and drama that brings something new to a genre where quality stands out.

 

WIDE RELEASES

Baby Driver – it’s funny, charming, and a little odd, but mostly it’s a wild ride featuring old school car chases and a lead-footed savant

War for the Planet of the Apes – the best of the most recent trilogy cementing Caesar (Andy Serkis) as one of the best recurring characters in movie history

Wonder Woman – some terrific Act One sequences, tributes to 1978 Superman, a couple of stellar action sets, and a likeable hero. The movie that saved DC comics.

 

BIO

A Quiet Passion – while there is nothing quiet about Cynthia Nixon’s portrayal of Emily Dickinson, the film helps explain her life and what inspired her writing.

Chuck – the real life inspiration for Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, Chuck Wepner (The Bayonee Bleeder) was known for taking a punch. The movie delivers one.

 

DRAMA

The Hero – it could be seen as a tribute to Sam Elliott’s career … or a glance at the challenges of finding one’s place as the years advance.

The Lost City of Z – beautiful photography and sustained tension make for a wonderful adventure film based on the explorations of Col. Percival Fawcett.

Wakefield – if you’ve ever thought about putting your life on hold, or just enjoy commentary on suburban living and career pressures, this one is for you.

 

HORROR

Split – a return to form for M. Night Shyamalan, and a nightmarish look at what it would be like to be kidnapped by someone with 23 personalities.

 

WORLD CINEMA

 Frantz – Francois Ozon’s version of one man’s quest for a clear conscience after WWII left him burdened with guilt. His trip is not a simple one.

Julieta – An estranged daughter, recollections of her life, and painful self-evaluation provide the palate for this latest from Almodovar.

Toni Erdmann – the comical shenanigans of a prankster father as he attempts to inject life lessons into the stressful daily career life of his daughter. Oscar nom last year

Truman – a terrific script and one of the most realistic films ever about long-term male friendship and being there when it matters

 

Underrated: Free Fire

Overrated: John Wick 2

 


OAK CLIFF FILM FESTIVAL 2017 recap

June 19, 2017

OAK CLIFF FILM FESTIVAL 2017 recap

 The 6th annual Oak Cliff Film Festival ran June 8-11 and included even more local venues this year … further proof of the organizers’ commitment to spotlighting this unique neighborhood within the monstrosity known as the Dallas-Ft Worth metroplex. Despite the challenging schedule (much overlap, and only one screening per movie), the programming is a gift for true film lovers. I saw ten movies over the four days (it would have been 11 if not for the cluster of Sunday evening – more on that later) and not a single clunker in the bunch. For a festival that prides itself on unusual films and deep cuts, that’s quite a tribute to those responsible.

Below are quick comments on each of the films I watched, and at the end you’ll find some closing commentary on the OCFF.

Thursday June 8 – Opening Night

LEMON – When introducing the festival’s opening night spotlight feature, director Janicza Bravo described her finished project as “a bummer, but not a bummer”. She and her co-writer and lead actor (and real life spouse) Brett Gelman clearly had a great time with the film that took 5 years to complete. It’s an unconventional look at Isaac (played by Gelman), a guy so severely socially awkward that he might lose a two man race for “most likely to succeed” to Napoleon Dynamite.

Isaac’s girlfriend of 10 years (Judy Greer) is blind, and has lost all interest in their relationship. When she dumps him, Isaac’s life somehow becomes even more bizarre thanks to two Tiger finches, his job as an acting teacher, an attempt to get close with an actor (Michael Cera, sporting Gene Wilder tribute hair) and his near-criminal bonding moment with the elderly grandmother (Marla Gibbs) of his new romantic interest (a terrifically confounded Nia Long).

The cast is exceptionally deep for a low-budget indie and also includes Gillian Jacobs, Rhea Perlman, Fred Melamed, Martin Starr, David Paymer, Jeff Garlin, Jon Daly and Megan Mullally. Each of these talented folks offers up a dose of eccentricity to keep us viewers on our toes. There are many laughs to be had, and Mr. Gelman somehow delivers a performance that is a step backwards from deadpan. His walk alone is worth the price of admission, as is the use of such unusual music as “A Million Matzoh Balls”. The film is quite funny, but also a bit sad. Ms. Bravo’s description of her film is spot-on.

PORTO – Last year’s tragic death of Anton Yelchin becomes more heart-breaking every time we see him on screen. This is one of his final films and director Gabe Klinger and writer Larry Gross deliver a Portugal-based quasi-Before Sunrise story that mercifully chooses a much different path than the incessant babbling of that film.

Rather than narcissistic meanderings, this film explores how we deal with memories, as well as the fallout of an intense and short-lived connection formed mostly through a (prolonged and extended) sexual encounter between two otherwise broken people.

The film is divided into 3 sections: Jake, Mati, and Mati and Jake. In addition to the perspectives, the filmmaker utilizes multiple aspects and film formats (8mm, 16mm, 35mm), and we were fortunate to see it presented in 35mm. In addition to the human observations and insight, this is a film techie’s dream come true. So many various looks for a beautifully shot (by Wyatt Garfield) film is extremely rare for a low-budget indie. There is both a retro look and stunning shots such as those with Mati and the red umbrella, and the couple on a bench in the late night fog.

The splendid Lucie Lucas makes her feature film debut as Mati and the camera loves her, as does Jake … or at least he believes he does. She manages to capture both the flirtatious sparkle of the girl who first encounters Jake, and the less-energetic, more resigned to the future look of the woman who has made her life choice.

Toss in a Proust quote, some wonderful piano work, and the beauty of coastal town Porto Portugal, and the result is a piercing look at the fragility of humanity and passion of star-crossed connections.

Friday June 9

GOLDEN EXITS – Director Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Phillip) conjures up an odd blending of Woody Allen classics Interiors (itself a tribute to Bergman) and Hannah and Her Sisters (with the funny parts removed). The paths of families and characters cross sometimes organically, and sometimes by force. The film was nominated for a Grand Jury award at Sundance, and it features all of the usual relationship traits – insecurity and mistrust, and anything else that leads to disenchantment and unhappiness. Yet somehow voices are never raised and anger seems (mostly) a distant emotion.

Naomi (Emily Browning, Sucker Punch) arrives from Australia and begins working for Nick (Adam Horovitz, former Beastie Boy) on a project to archive his deceased father-in-law’s documents/materials. Nick was hired by the estate trustee and his bitter sister-in-law Gwendolyn (Mary-Louise Parker), and she seems to be less miserable whenever she is busting his chops about the pace of his work – and anything else she can target. Nick receives little support from his wife and Gwendolyn’s sister Alyssa (Chloe Sevigny), who has plenty of reasons to lack faith in her husband. Nick has unpure thoughts regarding Naomi, but she is focused on Buddy (Jason Schwartzman) despite his marriage to Jess (Analeigh Tipton, Crazy Stupid Love).

If it sounds like a mess, it surely is … but it’s also an intricate tapestry of lies, love, jealousy and deficiencies of those in relationships. The film opens with Emily Browning singing “New York Groove”, which perfectly sets the stage for this strong ensemble cast playing cold, reserved characters who talk about seeing films with “normal” people in them – much like this one.

A LIFE IN WAVES (doc) – By opening this documentary with footage of Suzanne Ciani’s appearance on an early David Letterman show, it’s as if director Brett Whitcomb is trying to convince us that she is a celebrity and someone whose story is worth learning. Of course he’s correct, even if her story and career require no added publicity or marketing.

Ms. Ciani is a talented musician known best for her synth music featured in numerous commercials (Coca Cola) and video games. Her innovative sound design and effects may be difficult to categorize (New Age?), but the effectiveness is beyond question. We learn about her mentor Don Buchla (inventor of a 1963 synthesizer), her Wellesley alumni award, and her battle with breast cancer that led to her relocation from NYC to California in 1992. Some amazing archival footage takes us full circle through the three stages of career, and by the end, we are in awe of her talent, and fully admire her as a person.

Saturday June 10

LA BARRACUDA – Stuck with the festival’s least desirable time slot, co-directors Julia Halperin and Jason Cortland still managed to walk away as the Grand Jury Prize Winner – Narrative Feature. Filmed in Austin with Texas Hill Country pacing, the unconventional editing displays the messy legacy left behind by a deceased Country & Western singer of some fame.

The singer’s daughter Merle (Allison Tolman) is living her life of quiet desperation when she is surprised on her own front porch by Sinaloa (Sophie Reid), who claims to be Merle’s half-sister from England. Adding to the mess is Merle’s mother played by JoBeth Williams, who understandably wants little to do with Sinaloa. Ms. Reid plays Sinaloa in such a way that no one ever really knows whether her motivations are pure or vengeful. She’s quite creepy at times.

Musical director Colin Gilmore (son of Jimmie Dale Gilmore) ensures that the music throughout is spot on and crucial to telling the story. A campfire sing-a-long is a real ice-breaker for the sisters who share various mommy issues and daddy issues. Tack on Merle’s fiancé issues and work issues, and Sinaloa’s chip on the shoulder, and the scorpion line (it’ll come back to sting you) proves quite the foreshadowing. The rage within can rise up at any time and within any of us. The only questions are when, by whom and how severe.

TRUE CONVICTION (doc) – The people we tend to pull for in life are those who seemingly always find a way to turn the proverbial lemons into lemonade. Chris, Steven and Johnnie are the ultimate example of this. The three ex-convicts have decades of time served between them, and they also share exoneration after being wrongly convicted.

A Special Award winner at Tribeca, Jamie Meltzer’s film also took home this year’s OCFF Grand Jury prize – Documentary feature. These three gentlemen refuse to lash out at the system that did them wrong, and instead have formed an organization that researches and assists those in the same situation which they once found themselves in – behind bars and wrongly convicted. It’s an admirable cause and a career designed to turn a negative into a positive. We follow different cases as the men meet with a “false confession consultant”, as well as a prosecutor and detective from an old case gone bad. They acknowledge the danger in playing with the hope of convicts, and the film doesn’t shy away from the personal travails of all three. Steve and Chris face severe challenges, while Johnnie looks to start over in life. We never doubt the frustration these men have over the system that favors quick closure over accuracy, and more impressively, we are certain of their passion for their mission.

SANTA SANGRE (1989) – I typically avoid reparatory films at festivals, but made an exception in order to experience an Alejandro Jodorowsky double feature. At its core, this classic from almost 30 years ago is a horror film – and a very good one with the darkest of humor and surreal elements. But it’s also a psychological look at how childhood experiences form our character in life, and that’s not always a pretty sight.

Adan Jodorowsky plays boy magician Fenix, the son of a circus knife thrower (Guy Stockwell) and trapeze performer mother (Blanca Guerra). He befriends a young mute understudy Alma (Faviola Elenka Tapia in her only screen performance) who is horribly mistreated by the Tattooed Lady (a terrific Thelma Tixou). A particularly gruesome scene leaves Fenix traumatized and we then catch up with him some 15 years later (now played by Adan brother Axel Jodorowsky). Linked by witnessing the vivid violence, Alma tracks down Fenix in an effort to make things right for both of them.

Jodorowsky’s visuals are remarkable and are often tributes to those filmmakers he most admires. It’s certainly a movie for adults, but only those adults who are willing to dig in and follow the psychology of events that may seem cruel and meaningless – but often mean a great deal.

ENDLESS POETRY – The second half of the Jodorowsky double feature is the newest film from the famed director and it’s offered as a surreal autobiography – a story of his family and specifically, his time in Chile prior to leaving for Paris. The surreal part comes courtesy of his mother who operatically sings her every line, the head of a water buffalo perched above his parents’ headboard, an ultra modern bar that defies description – outside of the wakes held for customers/staff, and the inclusion of dwarfs and clowns (recurring in numerous Jodorowsky projects).

This is a continuation piece to Jodorowsky’s 2014 Dance of Reality, and features Adan Jodorowsky as the son (and also the film’s composer), and Brontis Jodorowsky as the father. Additionally, Alejandro himself periodically appears on screen in what works as kind of a live narration of his own thoughts during some segments of his life.

Life philosophy permeates every scene and every character. The mother experiences a run of frustration for every good-intentioned cake she bakes. There is an “ultrapianist” to showcase why you never want to invite one to your own party. The red-headed muse is a powerful character that seems to both make and break our protagonist, as does a relationship with a fellow poet, and life in an artist commune. All of these play into Jodorowsky’s apparent ideals of being fully engaged in youth, and then detaching in old age … making up what he calls “the sad joy of living”.

Sunday June 11

INFINITY BABY – Sometimes at film festivals we get a “work in progress”, and at only 71 minutes run time, it’s entirely possible that’s what we saw here – although director Bob Byington made no such claim in his pre or post screening comments. However, his comments and his films make it obvious he very much values comedy and laughter.

Filmed in Austin, two story lines intersect at a company run by Nick Offerman. His nephew and marketing representative is played (exceedingly well) by Kieran Culkin, who is the ultimate example of a shallow, self-centered millennial with commitment issues. His love life is a vicious circle that we witness: he falls quickly and hard for a woman, and then immediately begins finding reasons the relationship won’t work. In what’s supposed to be a test, he has them meet his “mother” (an awesome Megan Mullally) who proceeds to destroy their confidence and belittle their personality – putting an end to any further plans with her “son”. The other story revolves around two lackeys (Martin Starr, Kevin Corrigan) who report to Culkin. Their job is to deliver babies to the customers. What babies, you ask? Well, therein lies the hook.

In the not-too-distant-future, a stem cell experiment has gone awry and resulted in a batch of “infinity babies” that don’t age. Now anyone who has ever been a parent knows full well how frightening the concept of having a perpetual infant seems, so to think anyone would take on this duty for a mere $20,000 is absurd at best. And absurdity seems to be director Byington’s and writer Onur Tukel main objective, especially when we learn the truth behind Culkin’s momma scheme, and as it relates to the two lackeys making what they decide is a wise financial decision.

Also joining the terrific comedy ensemble cast is Noel Wells, Stephen Root and Trieste Kelly Dunn, who is a standout as one of Culkin’s girlfriends. The black and white look plays into the futuristic tale, and having Culkin’s character as one who is stuck in never-grow-up mode finely parallels the infinity baby story. Plenty of laughs here, but just be careful the next time a significant other invites you to “meet my mother”.

THE LITTLE HOURS – It’s not often when the obvious comparison to a movie is the classic 1975 comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and it’s even more unusual for such a film to be making the rounds at festivals where schedules tend to be loaded with serious and dark subject matter. Proving yet again that its programmers aren’t tied to convention, this was the third outlandish comedy I watched at this year’s Oak Cliff Film Festival.

The year is 1347 when writer/director Jeff Baena’s story kicks off outside a convent where it takes less than a couple of minutes to realize that these aren’t your usual nuns. Profanity spews forth, as does laughter from the audience. Dave Franco plays a servant who has a good reason to flee from his King (Nick Offerman) and agree to a cockamamie plan suggested by the local priest (John C Riley). The plan has Franco working at the convent pretending to be deaf mute, while struggling to decline the advances from the aforementioned nuns played by Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, Kate Micucci (Unleashed).

Plot is barely an after-thought here, and most of the movie plays like interrelated Saturday Night Live skits. In fact, Fred Armisen and Molly Shannon are part of the ensemble, along with Paul Reiser and Adam Pally. Raunchy medieval comedies filled with debauchery and outrageously misdirected nuns could be classified as a bit of a stretch; however, Mr. Baena has adapted this from Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron”, and his use of modern day dialogue and attitudes, delivered by an ultra talented comedic cast, makes this one to watch after a particularly rough day or week of work. You’ll surely laugh and enjoy the temporary reprieve from real life … even without any killer rabbits or Knights who say “ni”.

A GHOST STORY – though this was #1 on my list of films to see during the festival, an extremely long line penalized those of us who watched the movie immediately preceding the screening. So even though I’ll have to catch this one later, the crush of humanity awaiting entry was a reminder that the OCFF has arrived.

Conclusion

This year’s Oak Cliff Film Festival gave every indication that the previously little-known neighborhood event had officially grown into a full-fledged nationally recognized festival. Of course, with that comes the good and the bad. In the positive column, a diverse and sought-after programming schedule now includes some films from large festivals (Sundance, Toronto), and also ensures the attendance of many writers, directors and producers. The challenges brought by success include crowd size that is difficult to manage … long lines for drinks, concessions and theatre entry, and of course, the cluster brought on by the closing night film and the penalty for those in the previous screening. On the whole, it’s wonderful to see such devoted folks finally receiving the recognition they deserve for building this dynamic event from scratch in a neighborhood they have helped revitalize.