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.


OAK CLIFF FILM FESTIVAL 2017 preview

June 7, 2017

The 6th annual Oak Cliff Film Festival kicks off Thursday evening (June 8, 2017) at the historic Texas Theatre on Jefferson Blvd in Dallas. The festival has grown each year and is now nationally recognized for its unique and vibrant melding of film, music, workshops, and parties, along with live interactions and insight from writers, directors, producers and actors. And if that’s not enough to entice you, the festival takes advantage of various local venues … each with its own personality and flavor.

Full details and ticket information is available at http://oakclifffilmfestival.com/ and here’s a quick look at some of the most intriguing events:

Thursday June 8: Director Janicza Bravo will be joined by her writer/actor Brett Gelman to present the opening night feature LEMON, an absurdist comedy starring Michael Cera. The evening’s second feature film is one of Anton Yelchin’s final screen appearances in the Dallas premiere of director Gabe Klinger’s PROTO.

Friday June 9: The Texas premiere of GOLDEN EXITS from filmmaker Alex Ross Perry. The cast includes: Emily Browning, Jason Schwartzman, Mary-Louise Parker, and Adam Horovitz. Immediately following the evening’s second film A LIFE IN WAVES will be a Texas Theatre musical special event ‘behind the screen’.

Saturday June 10: A full 13 hours of events start at 11:00 am and involves 8 different venues, making this the most interesting and difficult to plan day of the festival. The schedule includes workshops, happy hours, short films, live music, and feature films such as back-to-back screenings from iconic director Alejandro Jodorowsky and his son Adan.

Sunday June 11: The Alamo Drafthouse Cedars has a screening of director John Carroll Lynch’s film LUCKY with legendary character actor (90 year old) Harry Dean Stanton. There is also a block of documentary short films, as well as the Texas premiere of director Jeff Baena’s THE LITTLE HOURS – another absurdist comedy, though this one features Aubrey Plaza and Alison Brie as nuns. The festival’s final spotlight feature is A GHOST STORY from acclaimed director David Lowery (AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS) featuring Rooney Mara and the reigning Academy Award winning Best Actor Casey Affleck.

This only covers a few of the movies and events that are options over the four days, and it’s also a reminder of how exciting and innovative a film festival can be. An added bonus is the local flavor of a Dallas neighborhood that has much to discover.


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.