EARTHxFilm 2017 and CHASING CORAL

April 21, 2017

EARTHxFilm Opening NightChasing Coral

 The official Opening Night of the inaugural EARTHxFilm event proved to be an evening of hope buoyed by passion, optimism and commitment. Scheduled in conjunction with the seventh annual EARTH Day Texas, the reception, introductions, and opening film Chasing Coral were held at Dallas Music Hall at Fair Park.

EARTHxFilm President Michael Cain, one of the most influential forces on the Dallas film scene for years, expressed that this is a “gift to the city” from philanthropist and businessman Trammell Crow, and that many worked diligently to bring it all together – including Ryan Brown and Dennis Bishop. Notably, Mr. Cain acknowledged the support of both The Dallas International Festival and Dallas Video Fest. This type of support and collaboration is not typical of all cities, but DIFF’s Lee Papert and James Faust, and DVF’s Bart Weiss are all extraordinary ambassadors for the Dallas film industry, and we are quite fortunate to have them working in our city.

Filmmakers in attendance were recognized, and Mr. Cain said the group ranged from 12 year old first-timers to Oscar winners. His stated wish was for everyone in the audience to become EARTHxFilm missionaries and encourage others to join in. Education is a key focus of the organization, and we were shown about 15 one-minute films created around the idea of nature, conservation, environmentalism, etc. It was a very nice way to kick off the evening and prepare us for the featured screening of Chasing Coral.

CHASING CORAL

 Whether you have spent vacation time snorkeling, watched the National Geographic channel, or even paid a bit of attention during high school science class, you likely have some level of understanding of what a vital ecosystem coral reefs are to Ocean life. Director Jeff Orlowski has a track record of important environmental documentaries with his 2012 Chasing Ice. Both of these movies have been well received at Sundance and other film festivals, as well as by scientific experts.

Mr. Orlowski was contacted by underwater photographer Richard Vevers once the Vevers team recognized the accelerated breakdown of corals as the ocean water temperature rose slightly. The film takes us to such places as The Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Florida Keys, American Somoa, Hawaii, Bermuda and the Bahamas. The obvious message is that concern exists around the globe, not just in one particular locale.

The film does an excellent job of defining and explaining the importance of coral, and once Zach Rago is introduced, the energy and passion jump significantly. A charming, self-described “coral nerd”, he is also an extremely knowledgeable and committed scientist dedicated to saving this ecosystem that he worships, and he understands the important role it plays to all life.

Little doubt exists that those involved fully believe carbon emissions are to blame for the warming waters resulting in coral bleaching and finally coral death. They also believe that by reducing said emissions, there is still time to prevent the total global coral destruction predicted for the next quarter century.

If the film has any misguided moments, it would be related to the screen time spent on the challenges and frustrations associated with underwater time-lapse photography, especially from a hardware standpoint. As viewers, we are far more interested in the coral endangerment and the photography shots that do exist … especially some of the stunning before/after looks as coral reefs are quickly destroyed.

A trip to the Coral Convention provides us a glimpse at how research and information is shared by those who are working on this and other environmental issues. With limited resources, it’s crucial that access to information is available to those who need it. Finally, the film leaves us with a reminder that forests, reefs, and other ecosystems are all vital to our lives; and while the current path is quite saddening, there is optimism that we have time to stop the damage if we act now.

For more information: EARTHxFilm.org EARTHDayTX.org


DIFF 2017: Day Ten

April 11, 2017

The Dallas International Film Festival ran March 31 through April 9 (it will return for its 12th year in 2018)

 This is the end. The final day of DIFF 2017. Despite periodically feeling more like a marathon than entertainment, it’s always a bit sad when the closing credits roll on the festival’s final movie. My tally for this year’s festival is 30 films watched, 14 of which were documentaries. Just like every year, the DIFF programming provided a diverse schedule of films from around the globe, and a deep lineup of documentaries that range from biographical to social interest. For a list of the winners, please visit www.dallasfilm.org Below is a recap of the three films I watched on Sunday April 9, 2017:

FRANTZ

Director Francois Ozon won me over as a fan for life with his 2003 writing-mystery Swimming Pool. His latest stands in stark contrast to that gem, as there are no mind games for the viewer, other than those the characters play on each other. Actually, this is quite a straightforward story of romance, loss and hope; and it’s an example of expert filmmaking from a director in full control of story, setting, character and camera.

It’s 1919 in historic and ancient Quedlinburg, Germany. WWI has recently ended and the loss of her soldier fiancé is still so fresh for Anna (an excellent Paula Beer) that she makes daily treks to lay flowers on the grave of Frantz. She spots an unknown foreigner paying respects to Frantz, and since it’s a small town, the two are soon enough sitting together in the parlor of Frantz’ parents’ house where Anna lives. It’s an awkward encounter between a grief-stricken German family and a Frenchman paying respects to the family of a fallen “friend”.

That these folks are so quick to accept and encourage these recollections of Adrien (Pierre Niney) speaks loud and clear to human nature in times of grief – we desperately cling to any connection, positive memory, or new strand of information. Then again, Adrien’s perspective is every bit as interesting as that of the parents and Anna. He seeks forgiveness and inclusion, yet is unable to come clean on his motives and past.

More human nature is on display as we initially see how the Germans treat the (outsider) Frenchman, and then later as Anna travels to France, we see how the French treat this (and presumably all) German. Anger, mistrust and deceit are ever-present amongst this group of people who seemingly only want a touch of happiness, and it’s fun to note the parallels between the initial story in Germany and the later time in France.

Director Ozon flips between black & white and the periodic use of color when hope and new direction exists. It provides a personal and dramatic look to the film, along with visual clues as to what’s really occurring on screen, and is nicely complemented by the flowing score from Phillipe Rombi (Swimming Pool, Joyeux Noel). Ozon also selects one of Manet’s lesser known paintings, Le Suicide, as a link between the past and the terrific ending that reinforces the movie’s message, “life goes on”.

 

STEP (documentary)

Director Amanda Lipitz proves that a documentary can be both inspiring and sad. She takes us inside the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women and introduces us to the senior girls on the Step dance squad known as the “Lethal Ladies”. The school was founded in 2009 with the goal of sending every student to college, in spite of the challenges and barriers faced in this inner city community. This is the school’s first senior class, and everyone – students, teachers, parents, administration – is on edge.

Emotions overflow throughout the film. The normal roller coaster ride that accompanies high school girls is somehow magnified when the pressures of becoming the first one in the family to attend college collide with such harsh realities of poor grades, no food in the fridge, no power in the home, and inconsistent support from parental units. There is also the goal of winning the year-end Step competition against schools that have a more successful track record, and who likely don’t face the extremes of Baltimore street violence and poverty that is normal for these girls each day.

Ms. Lipitz’ film, a Sundance award winner, never backs away from the emotion of the moment and yet still manages to maintain the long-game perspective of trying to get each of these students graduated and accepted into college. She dives into the home lives of a few of these girls and though all of the parents want the best for the kids, it’s quite obvious that the type of home support and structure varies widely even amongst these few we follow.

The real beauty of this environment is that the school provides structure, guidance and support all along the way. The Step coach pushes them hard daily towards being the best they can be going into the competition. The girls push themselves and each other, and overcome some personality conflicts, all for the sake of a stronger team. The school principal has one-on-one meetings to light a fire when necessary, and you’ve likely never seen a more dedicated high school college counselor who doles out hugs and motivation in whatever dosage is necessary.

The key message here is that it takes a combination of inner-strength and drive, and a support system of family, teachers, coaches, administrators and friends for kids to have a chance at finding a way to succeed at life … whether that’s at Johns Hopkins or a local community college program. This is a special film with a real-world case study of students looking for a way up, and of those looking to provide the necessary boost.

ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL (documentary)

We are all sick and tired of the phrase “too big to fail”. The 2008 financial crisis very nearly crippled the United States economy, and regardless of how you feel about the bailout funded by taxpayers, there is no question that some of the participants got off with nary a scratch … and some even received giant bonuses in spite of their fraudulent activities. All of that has been written about and reported on ad nauseam. Highly acclaimed documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interruptors) turns his camera not on “too big to fail”, but rather “small enough to jail”.

The only financial institution to be criminally indicted in the wake of the 2008 crisis was a small community bank in New York’s Chinatown. Thomas Sung founded Abacus Federal Savings Bank and his daughter’s have been running it for years. We learn that Mr. Sung was partly inspired to give up his law profession in order to serve the Chinese community by watching George Bailey (James Stewart) do the same thing in the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life.

Once we see how the 5 year legal process and more than 2 month long trial wrap up, it’s pretty tempting to call this a witch hunt for the purpose of publicity by New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. So much of what occurred seems to have been done for the TV cameras and the newspaper headlines … especially the humiliating and public chain gang walk in shackles that, as one journalist pointed out, has never been done before and could not have been done with another minority group. Mr. Vance clearly needed a conviction as a political stepping stone. His biggest mistake was in choosing the wrong target. Of course he couldn’t attack the numerous giant financial institutions based in NYC, but he was unprepared for the fight and backlash that he received due to the Abacus pride and principles, and beliefs in one’s people.

Director James doesn’t focus so much on the incompetence of the DA office as he does the far more interesting bank owners and family members. Their determination and conviction to having run their business in the right way goes beyond inspiration and dips into reverence. It’s not David vs Goliath but it is a clash of contradictory values. It would have been interesting to hear even more from the journalists who covered the process and trial, but we get enough to understand their surprise at how the case was handled by the government.

We depend on our government to do the right thing, and when it doesn’t, we deserve to get angry. This film is one of those that will generate some fiery post-movie discussions … discussions that need to be had.


DIFF 2017: Day Nine

April 10, 2017

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!

 


DIFF 2017: Day Eight

April 9, 2017

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

 It’s the second Friday of DIFF which means a high profile new release in the prime time slot. This year it’s The Lost City of Z. The epic and historical tale hit theatres nationally next week, so it’s nice to get an early peek. Below is a recap of the 2-and-a-half films I watched on Friday April 7:

 

THE LOST CITY OF Z

We aren’t likely to watch a more beautiful or expertly photographed film this year. Director James Gray’s project looks and feels like a throwback to days of epic filmmaking, and cinematographer Darius Khandji’s (Se7en, Evita, The Immigrant) fills the screen with green and gold hues that deliver both a sense of realism and a touch of romanticism. The quibble here is with the emphasis on the biographical rather than the more interesting and compelling and adventuresome expeditions to the “new” world.

Our hero (and the film’s portrayal provides no other description) is military man and explorer Percy Fawcett played by Charlie Hunnam. Based on the book by David Grann, the film divides focus into three areas: the stuffy, poorly lit backrooms of London power moguls; the 1916 WWI front line where Fawcett proves his mettle; the jungles of Amazonia wherein lies Fawcett’s hope for glory and redemption. It’s the latter of these that are by far the most engaging, and also the segments that leave us wishing for more detail.

The three Fawcett expeditions form the structure for the quite long run time (2 hours, 21 minutes). In 1906 the Royal Geographic Society enlisted Fawcett for a “mapping” journey to distinguish boundaries around Bolivia in what had become a commercially important area due to the black gold known as rubber. Fawcett was not just a manly-man, he was also obsessed with overcoming his “poor choice in ancestors” and gaining a position of status within society. Using his military training and personal mission, that first expedition (with help from a powerful character played by the great Franco Nero) was enough to light Fawcett’s lifelong fixation on proving the existence of Z (Zed) and the earlier advanced society.

Back home, Fawcett’s wife Nina (Sienna Miller) shows flashes of turn-of-the-century feminism, though lacking in judgment when she suggests a ridealong with her husband on his next expedition. Though the couple spends little time together, given the years-long trips, they do manage to produce a hefty brood of kids, the eldest played by Tom Holland (the new Spider-Man).

1912 brings the second Amazonia expedition, the one in which renowned Antarctic explorer James Murray (a snarly Angus Macfayden) joins Fawcett and his by now loyal and expert travel companion Henry Costin (a terrific Robert Pattison). The trip proceeds as one might expect when an ego-driven, unqualified yet wealthy passenger is along for only the glory. Murray’s history is well documented and here receives the treatment he earned.

It’s the third trip in 1925 that Fawcett makes with his son that will be his last, and the one that dealt the unanswered questions inspiring Mr. Grann to research and write his book. It’s also the segment of the film that leaves us wanting more details … more time in the jungle. With the overabundance of information and data available to us these days, the staggering courage and spirit of those willing to jump in a wooden canoe on unchartered waters and trek through lands with no known back story, offer more than enough foundation for compelling filmmaking. It’s this possibility of historical discovery that is the real story, not one man’s lust for medals and confirmation. More jungle could have elevated this from very good to monumental filmmaking.

 

CHEER UP (documentary)

Well I was due for my first major disappointment, and it came courtesy of a documentary with an interesting synopsis. The leader of Finland’s “worst” cheerleading squad travels to Texas to gain tips and training ideas to improve her squad’s performance. I only lasted 40 minutes of the listed 86 minute run time, and I’m still not sure if this is director Christy Garland’s final version of the film, or if this was simply a rough cut rushed for a festival screening. And that’s where I will leave my comments

 

SKY ON FIRE (Chongtiang Huo)

A late night screening of an action movie from China/Hong Kong has a responsibility to the genre to check certain boxes, none of which included thought-provoking or socially conscious issues. Instead, success depends on a visual onslaught of explosions, car chases, helicopter flights, sleek and modern tall building sets, loud and massive gun battles, and confined area martial arts duels.

Writer/director Ringo Lam and his cast (Daniel Wu, Hsiao-chuan Chang, Amber Kuo) subject themselves to all of the violent perils listed above, and even toss in cancer and the battle for revolutionary healing drugs to ensure there is never a moment of peace and quiet during the film.

The “ex-stem cells” are the McGuffin that creates the good guys vs bad guys scen ario. Will this medical breakthrough be used to cure cancer and other diseases, or will they be weaponized for power? So while that’s the question asked in the film, my movie-buddy JJ asked the real question … has Michael Bay already begun work on an Americanized version? Surely that mammoth skyscraper explosion is already on his Bay-splosion radar.


DIFF 2017: Day Seven

April 9, 2017

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.


DIFF 2017: Day Six

April 8, 2017

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

 It’s hump day Wednesday and I’m feeling a bit refreshed after only two movies yesterday. Flashing the wisdom that should accompany my age, I have followed up two-for-Tuesday with another two movie day today. Both films are narratives, so my documentary addiction is on hold until tomorrow. Below is a recap of the two films I watched on Wednesday April 5, 2017:

 

BUSTER’S MAL HEART

A film festival wouldn’t be complete without at least one mind-blowing avant-garde cinematic experience. I’m not the kind that needs every ending neatly bow-wrapped, and I often enjoy having conventional story structure challenged and even dissolved. Writer/director Sarah Adina Smith seems to thrive in such an environment in this twisty psychological thriller covering three timelines (one of which may be a dream) … or a split personality … or two/three men from one … or some combination … or something else entirely that I might have missed. (I’m not too proud to admit this distinct possibility).

When a filmmaker bravely dives into the bizarre, casting becomes crucial. Ms. Smith nails it with Rami Malek, DJ Qualls and Kate Lyn Sheil. Thanks to the popularity of TV’s “Mr. Robot”, Malek is now a leading man – albeit a tad unconventional. Here he plays Jonah, a struggling family man with a wife (Ms. Sheil) and young child. Working as a night Concierge at a hotel, Jonah tries to make the best of the lack of sleep and minimal contact with his family. In addition to Jonah, Malek plays Buster, a slippery and hirsute mountain man who negotiates his way through the Montana mountains by hanging out in the multi-million dollar vacation homes vacated by their owners for the snowy winter months.

The film bounces between 3 periods for Jonah/Buster: the elusive mountain man running from the law, the bleak nights of the family man, and a dream-like sequence where he is adrift at sea in a row boat. Throughout the film, references to “sphincter” and multiple proclamations that “The Inversion is coming” lead us to believe there could be a sci-fi connection or an apocalyptic ending headed our way. Instead, it’s “the belly of the whale” that might unlock the mystery or mysteries serenaded by the thunderous techno-bass bass. It’s a head-scratcher for sure, but one that manages to keep us engaged despite our whirlwind of theories and uncertainly.

 

KATIE SAYS GOODBYE

The latest exciting new filmmaker to burst on the scene is writer/director Wayne Roberts, whose wonderful indie is my favorite narrative of the festival so far. Of course there will be those who decry yet another film exploitation of women as a victim of society. However, there is definitely another way to view the story of Katie, the good-hearted dreamer played beautifully by Olivia Cooke (“Bates Motel”).

Initially, Katie’s unflappable optimism seems unlikely, if not impossible. She walks miles to work along a dusty highway. She lives in a trailer park with her deadbeat mother (Mireille Enos), whom she supports both financially and emotionally. She works double-shifts as a waitress at a truck stop, where she’s known to toss in a couple extra bucks when a particularly frugal customer stiffs the other waitress. She also works a side job as a prostitute for locals and a regular trucker named Bear (Jim Belushi). Despite a life filled with *stuff*, Katie doggedly pursues her dream of saving enough money to move to San Francisco and become a hair stylist. Of course, she has to save enough money for her trip AND for her mother to live on. Her dream seems lofty, yet almost achievable.

When Katie falls for Bruno (Christopher Abbott), the new guy in town, she tries her best to fall in love and pull him into her dreams for a better life. It doesn’t take long before Bruno is made aware of Katie’s side job, and her fantasy world begins to crumble. On a daily basis, Katie happily (of course) drinks up the truck stop wisdom of diner owner Maybelle (Mary Steenburgen), who spouts such gems as “A man with a smile will hurt you”. Good intentions abound here, but we realize … even if Katie doesn’t … that the reality of people’s self-interest is the immovable object that so often tears down the dreamers of the world.

As with much of life, one’s enjoyment of the film is likely contingent upon the perspective you bring. A caustic, cynical view will have you waving off Katie’s lot in life as exploitive movie-making; while those who can share even a spoonful of Katie’s spirit, will find themselves rooting exuberantly for her dreams to come true … or at least to sustain her refreshing outlook on life and people.


DIFF 2017: Day Five

April 6, 2017

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

 

It’s “Two For Tuesday” and I welcome the first of two straight evenings with only two films on my schedule. Addtionally, neither Tuesday nor Wednesday features a documentary, so my odds of re-gaining faith in humanity are increased a bit. The two movies I watched on Tuesday April 4 are recapped below:

 

A QUIET PASSION

We open with a young woman standing strong during a critical moment at seminary school. It’s kind of a clunky start in an overly-dramatic and stagey sense for the film, but Emma Bell sets the standard for the future behavior of Emily Dickinson. What follows is a period drama with minimal costuming effects, but rather a fitting onslaught of language and words – much of which comes courtesy of Ms. Dickinson’s mighty pen.

I’ve often viewed Emily Dickinson as an early feminist whose beliefs and intentions were stifled by the era in which lived, as well as the depression that seemed to cloak most of her days. She clearly stood for women’s equality at a time when her own poems were published anonymously to avoid scandal and backlash for the paper. Writer/director Terence Davies (The Deep Blue Sea, 2011) has no interest in glamorizing either the times or the writer, and Cynthia Nixon seizes the opportunity to capture the essence of a gifted woman who at best, could be described as a societal misfit.

The terrific cast also includes Keith Carradine as Emily’s proud father, Jennifer Ehle as her sister Vinnie, and Duncan Duff as brother Austin. Emily’s rare forays beyond familial boundaries are mostly via garden strolls with her wise-cracking friend Miss Buffum, played with zeal by Catherine Bailey. There is also a tremendous 3:00am scene between Emily and her sister-in-law Susan (Jodhi May), which provides the best possible self-analysis by Ms. Dickinson (outside of her writings). She confesses to her new family member, “You have a life, I have a routine.” This insightful line seems to carry no sadness for Emily.

The first third of the film features some low-key zingers that rival anything from Whit Stillman’s superb Love & Friendship, though the balance of the film takes a turn towards the serious and focuses more on Faith and Death and Emily’s controversial stances. She embraces the description of “no-hoper” and continues on with her observations of a life she barely leads. While the language and words are the stars here (along with Ms. Nixon), there is a very cool effect as the characters seamlessly age before our eyes in a series of portraits, vaulting the timeline headfirst into Emily’s descent into self-imposed isolation. It’s a very well done biopic that requires your ears be in prime form.

MR. ROOSEVELT

The most pleasant surprise of the festival so far comes courtesy of writer/director/actress Noel Wells (“Master of None”). It’s a wonderful little gem filmed in Austin, Texas and it somehow only gets better after an excellent and very funny opening sequence.

Ms. Wells plays Emily, a Los Angeles-based editor who receives an emergency call from her ex-boyfriend Eric (Nick Thune) requiring her to return to Austin. Her lack of liquidity, and still-simmering flame for Eric, result in her accepting an invitation to stay at the home of Eric and his seemingly perfect and passive-aggressive girlfriend Celeste (Britt Lower). Varying situations and interactions lead to some uncomfortable and awkward moments that deliver a new style of humor.

Support work and additional fun is provided by Andre Hyland and Bina Chauhan as Emily’s new friends and support system. Their hijinx include time at Hippie Hollow, a rowdy house party, and some sexual freelancing jumpstarted by the phrase “You’re funny” … Emily’s ultimate turn-on.

The film is shot on 16mm Kodak film (announced pre-credits) and it clearly establishes Ms. Noel as a filmmaker to watch, reminding a bit of the underrated Miranda July. Not only does she have skills as a director and actress, the line “You’re a good person with bad execution” proves she has a real knack as a comedic writer. Good stuff from an exciting new face.