DIFF 2019 Day 8

April 20, 2019

2019 Dallas International Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. And now, the end is near … well, it’s actually over … at least as it pertains to the 2019 Dallas International Film Festival. I watched 22 feature films over the 7 days I attended (I missed opening night), and though bleary-eyed, I certainly recommend every movie lover experience the film festival life at least once. If you happen to be travel-averse, there is assuredly one held not too far from home. Of course, the quality of festivals varies greatly, as do the themes and approach to programming.

The final three movies on the final day delivered a very pleasant surprise, a second French comedy in as many days, and a cultish-thriller that was also a mini-reunion for a couple of “Justified” actors.

 

Here is my recap of Day 8 movies:

JUMPSHOT: THE KENNY SAILORS STORY (doc)

 Having played high school basketball, I can honestly say that I never once gave thought to who, when or how the jump shot might have been “invented”. It was ubiquitous to the game … the same as blocking out on defense or coaches yelling from the sideline. Having read the synopsis for this film, I felt a twinge of guilt in not giving any previous thought to the origins of the jump shot. However, since director Jacob Hamilton includes interviews with such hoops luminaries as Stephen Curry (also a producer on the film), Kevin Durant, Bobby Knight, and Dirk Nowitzki, each equally clueless on jump shot history, my ignorance doesn’t seem quite so burdensome.

Of course I had seen the clips of how the game was once played, and director Hamilton includes a fair amount here. Other than the ball, the hoops, and the floor, the old game from the 30’s and 40’s bears little resemblance to what is played today. Although the rules haven’t changed much, the pace of the game and the techniques certainly have.

We are introduced to Kenny Sailors, the man who many credit with originating the modern day jump shot. Mr. Sailors talks of playing his older, much taller brother in games of one-on-one and rarely being able to even get off a shot … at least until that one day when, off the dribble, he rose up and released the ball at the height of his jump – and the ball swished through the basket. A turning point in the sport occurred in Sailors’ front yard.

Included are some photos and clips of Sailors’ high school and college teams – including his having (future Hall of Fame sports announcer) Curt Gowdy as a teammate. There is a bit of Wyoming basketball history detailed, including Sailors’ University of Wyoming national collegiate basketball championship in 1943 at Madison Square Garden. It’s noted that Sailors’ jump shot was nearly indefensible at the time, but he was also an expert ball-handler, tough defender, and above all, a respected team leader.

So yes, this is a basketball story; but it’s even more the story of a very interesting and downright cool gentleman. After college, Sailors left Wyoming as part of the Marines and served in the war. He married and his wife was pregnant when he set out to serve his country – admitting that he assumed he wouldn’t be coming back. Director Hamilton includes interviews with Sailors’ 3 grandchildren and his son, but the most engaging segments of the film allow us to hear directly from the man himself – at the time, well into his 90’s.

Humble, yet proud, Mr. Sailors recounts moving to Alaska as a precaution against his wife’s severe asthma. They lived there 35 years, and he served as both a big game hunting scout and a high school basketball coach. Having two daughters, Sailors worked diligently to develop girls basketball, and he did it not for personal glory (they won a lot of games), but rather for the life lessons the games teaches. He was intent on his daughters having access to the discipline, teamwork and dedication required for a successful team.

We see the iconic Life Magazine photo of Sailors shooting his jump shot, as 9 other players on the court had both feet on the ground, and we understand the impact he had on the game. But it’s the passion he speaks of in regards to life that sticks with us after the film. A very fine athlete who left his mark on the sport, but an even better man who lived a humble and respected life. Director Hamilton’s film uses animation to fill the gaps where no clips or photos are available, and he’s wise enough to know that the greatest impact comes from allowing Mr. Sailors’ smile to light up the screen and our lives. Anyone for a game of H-O-R-S-E?

 

THE FALL OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE

 French-Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand won the Best Foreign Language Oscar for THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS (2003), and has a very loyal group of followers for his films. It should be noted that, despite the title, this is not a sequel to Arcand’s 1986 film THE DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE. This one is a comedy-crime drama that is as cynical as it is witty, and perhaps as much social commentary as satire. It’s yet another rip on capitalism while showing that idealism can work wonders (at least if it’s well funded).

“Intelligence is a handicap.” That’s what Pierre-Paul Daoust (played by Alexandre Landry) tells his girlfriend as he breaks up with her in a café. When she points out that he’s a delivery driver (similar to UPS), Pierre-Paul riffs on a number of famous writers and philosophers who he claims were dumb as rocks. Her inquiry into Trump being elected President leads to his conclusion, “imbeciles worship cretins”. He is the kind of guy that has an answer for everything, and possesses a type of oratory expertise that makes his excuses sound like scientific explanations.

One day while on his route, he stumbles into a robbery gone way wrong. Two thieves were in the process of stealing gang/mob money (and lots of it) when a shooting broke out. In the immediate aftermath, Pierre-Paul makes the snap decision to toss the two huge bags of cash into the back of his truck and take off. This kicks off a chain of events that includes his crossing paths with Aspasie/Camille (Maripier Morin) a high dollar escort whose website features a quote from “Racine”. Pierre-Paul is a Ph.D. in Philosophy, so he takes this as a sign.

Shortly after, Pierre-Paul is meeting with Sylvain “the brain” (Arcand regular Remy Girard), a recently released from prison biker who has become an expert on money laundering. The three form an odd partnership and are followed wherever they go by a couple of police detectives. Camille introduces Sylvain and Pierre-Paul to Mr. Taschereau (Pierre Curzi), her dapper former lover who also happens to be the foremost authority on international tax evasion and high finance.

The running joke here is that Pierre-Paul is an upright citizen who has never done anything remotely illegal in his life. In fact, he regularly doles out money to Quebec’s homeless and those down on their luck. He also volunteers regularly at a shelter that feeds those in need. The obvious statement here is pointing out the great divide between the wealthy and the poor.

Arcand’s film is close to being very good, but falls short in too many areas to reach the height it desires. There is a torture scene that seems totally out of place compared to the tone of the rest of the film, and I refuse to make the link to PRETTY WOMAN – another film where the rich guy wins over the good-hearted sex worker. This film talks about “providence” and just rewards that rarely happen. Is it acceptable to do the wrong thing for the right reasons? Does doing good correct a wrong? Heck, is it even wrong to steal from criminals? What the film actually does is serve up obvious targets with no real solutions offered. The self-congratulatory ending with close-up shots of Quebec’s homeless doesn’t help.

 

THEM THAT FOLLOW

 My final film of the festival was listed as a “thriller”, but is realistically more of a drama set in the harshness of Appalachia. A small community of people are devoted followers of the Pastor Lemuel played by Walton Goggins, and snake-handling is key to their interpretative Pentecostal religion. Co-directors and co-writers Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage offer up a too-familiar story that tries to walk the line between cult and religious fanaticism. It’s always fascinating to see folks who have somehow become entrenched in such an environment.

Alice Englert is the daughter of Oscar winning director Jane Campion and she stars as Mara, the Pastor’s daughter who tries to fall in line with her father’s preachings, but an independent streak and an attraction to Augie (Thomas Mann) really complicate things for her. Reigning Best Actress Oscar winner Olivia Colman (THE FAVOURITE) co-stars as Augie’s mother, Kaitlyn Dever (“Justified”) is Dilly, local girl and friend to Mara, Jim Gaffigan plays Ms. Colman’s true-believer husband and Augie’s dad, and Lewis Pullman is Garrett, the boy selected as Mara’s husband-to-be.

Those of us on the outside always look on bewildered at how any person ever builds a following such as this Pastor or any other cult leader. How does any parent lose the inherent protective gene they have for their child, and have it overridden by a Pastor who uses serpents to cleanse sin from the believers … some of which make life decisions based on a quilting group. The movie looks great and has terrific performances, but for whatever reason, we are never really drawn into this world – left instead to observe from a distance (which is fine by me as long as snakes are present).

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DIFF 2019 Day 7

April 20, 2019

2019 Dallas International Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. The penultimate day of the festival and my eyes are tired and my rear end is sore from sitting … not complaining, just explaining the reality of so many movies over so many days. This day was the oddest mixture of films and one that could only happen at a film festival. I started with a prestigious French farce, followed by a hardcore international business documentary, and ended the evening with a quirky independent comedy on a topic that’s typically off-limits. What a fun day!

 

 

Here is my recap of the films from Day 7:

 

NON-FICTION (France)

 Kids today (shake your head while saying it). No one reads anymore, and when they do, it’s only e-books and blogs. Such is the ongoing discussion throughout this latest from writer-director Olivier Assayas (PERSONAL SHOPPER 2016, CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA 2015). Lest you think the debate between traditional hardback books and digital literature takes up the full run time, you should know that such serious discussion is wrapped in a more traditional French sex farce … and a quite entertaining one at that.

Guillaume Canet (the excellent TELL NO ONE, 2006) stars as publisher Alain Danielson. He has a lunch meeting with his client and friend, author Leonard Spiegel (a very funny Vincent Macaigne) where he declines to publish Leonard’s latest manuscript. Alain claims it’s too easily to identify the real people mentioned in the story, despite the name changes. Leonard says it’s “auto-fiction”, meaning his writing takes inspiration from his life. One of the ongoing gags (no pun intended) revolves around an inappropriate act in the theatre during a screening of Michael Haneke’s WHITE RIBBON – or was it during STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS? Such is Leonard’s sly way of disguising his characters and life.

Juliette Binoche co-stars as Alain’s wife Selena, and Ms. Binoche takes full advantage of one of the few films where she is part of a comedy. Nora Hamzawi plays Valerie, Leonard’s wife – and she is wonderful as the spouse who refuses to build up Leonard’s ego or provide any boost to his confidence. Instead she spends a great deal of time reminding him of what his critics are saying. The final piece to this puzzle is Christa Theret, who plays the Head of Digital Transformation for Alain’s publishing house, and is the constant instigator in the push towards digital.

Quintessentially French may be the best description for the film and these characters. At the dinner party, the conversation is stimulating and intellectually, while in their personal lives, it seems everyone is sleeping with someone else. Most every characters worries about infidelities, while it’s a part of their own life. Even Twitter is treated as “very French” in that it consists of ‘4 very witty lines’. Clever lines are spoken frequently, especially from Leonard who says he writes “feel-bad books” rather than the usual “feel good” ones. And Alain refers to Leonard’s last book as “a worst seller”.

Fewer readers, books vs digital, and the popularity of blogs all play into the generational debate of change/progress vs traditional ways. Whether books and libraries are a relic of the past is certainly a viable topic, but the comedy-infused relationships keeps the film from every feeling too heavy. Ms. Binoche has a recurring bit where her TV role is misidentified as a cop, and she (in character) plays along with what may be the first ever Juliette Binoche on screen joke.

Filmmaker Assayas previously tackled art appreciation, or the lack thereof in modern times, with his 2008 film SUMMER HOURS. This time he turns his attention to literature and we can’t help but notice some similarities to the works of Woody Allen and Eric Rohmer with the heavy dialogue and awkward relationships. The French title translates to “Double Lives” which is not only a better title, but also a more descriptive one. However, by the time the ‘Martian Martian’ song plays over the final credits, you will likely feel entertained … in a mostly French manner.

 

AMERICAN FACTORY (doc)

 In December 2008, General Motors shut down the truck plant in Dayton, Ohio, putting approximately 2000 folks out of work. Six years later, Chairman Cao Dewang, the founder of Fuyao Glass, invested millions to turn the shell of the plant into a retro-fitted factory and the first U.S. operation for his company – a company he claims owns 70% of the auto glass market. In doing so, the factory hired approximately 1000 locals, many of whom had not had consistent work since the GM plant closed years prior.

Co-directors Steven Bognar and Julie Reichert share an Oscar nomination (she has 3 total) for their 2009 documentary short, THE LAST TRUCK: CLOSING OF A GM PLANT. This time out, they have impressive access to a remarkable situation: a successful Chinese company opening a factory in the United States, and attempting to merge two distinctly different cultures. We hear much these days about globalization, and by the end of the film, you’ll likely be re-defining the word.

While there were good intentions on both sides, the differences that start out as kind of funny turn into hurdles that are nearly impossible to manage. Fuyao ships many workers from China to Dayton for the training of U.S. workers. These folks must spend two years away from their family, as they try to make sense of a land far different from home. Workshops are held for the Chinese workers as they are lectured on what makes Americans different … they don’t work as hard, they don’t dress well, they talk too much on the job, they won’t work overtime, etc. The Chinese blatantly state that they are superior to American workers – a point that’s difficult to argue against when it comes to dedication, quality, and efficiency. We soon learn there is more to the picture.

U.S. labor and safety laws exist for a reason, and the Chinese company neither understands these, nor is very willing to abide by them. Additionally, since this is the ‘rust belt’, the shadow of unionization hovers from day one. While China’s Workers’ Union works in sync with companies, U.S. labor unions are regularly in conflict with companies here. When the U.S. supervisors make a training and observation trip to China to see the Fuyao factory, the differences become even more obvious. The mostly overweight Americans show up casual – one even in a JAWS tshirt – while the lean Chinese are all in fine suits and ties. Morning shift routines are also contrasted to point out the gaps in discipline and attention to details.

What the filmmakers do best is allow us to see both sides of the issue. Surely the right thing to do is obvious when it comes to safety, and when Chairman Cao says the real purpose in life is one’s work, well, we realize these two cultures are farther apart than the 7000 miles that separate them. It’s a very fair look at both sides, but for those who say U.S. companies are too focused on profit, they’ll likely be surprised to learn that Chinese factory workers typically get 1 or 2 days off from work each month!  As one of the dismissed American managers states, you can’t spell Fuyao with “fu”. The film seems to present a debate with lines drawn via citizenship.

 

FRANCES FERGUSON

 We can usually assume some movie topics are off-limits for comedy material. For instance, the reception for a comedy about the Holocaust would likely be less than positive. Well brace yourself, because director Bob Byington (SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME, 2012) delivers a very funny and offbeat movie about a sexual predator. Having the sex offender be a very pretty mid-20’s woman takes some of the edge off, but the film never lets us forget her crime.

The very talented Kaley Wheless (recently seen as Woody Harrelson’s daughter in THE HIGHWAYMEN on Netflix) stars as Frances, a woman who specializes in bad decisions. The narrator – an always excellent Nick Offerman – explains that Frances married Nick (Keith Poulson) and immediately thought it was the best thing. And then she thought it was the worst thing. And then she wondered, what’s the difference? Next came having a baby – daughter Parfait (is that a real name these days?). And finally, came her worst decision of all.

As a substitute teacher at the high school, Frances sets sight on hunky senior Jake, and then turns the fantasy into reality … a reality that ends with her arrest and time in jail. We do see some of her time while incarcerated, but most of the film occurs once she is released and on probation. Spending time with her mom (Jennifer Prediger) is of little help to her, but group therapy led by David Krumholtz does allow her think through some things.

Director Byington and lead actress Wheless are credited with the story, while Scott King wrote the screenplay. Ms. Wheless’ deadpan delivery and acidic nature while seemingly surrendering to life is a key to why the comedy works, and we must tip our cap to the script as well. There’s a bit of NAPOLEAN DYNAMITE awkwardness on display, and filming in North Platte, Nebraska, seems like the perfect call.

 


DIFF 2019 Day 6

April 17, 2019

2019 Dallas International Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. The best way I can describe my Day 6 movies is quirky – oddball- unique indie filmmaking at its most deep-cut festival level. It’s doubtful any of the three will receive widespread distribution, yet all three are entertaining in their own special way.

 

 

 

 

Here is my recap of Day 6 movies:

 

INTERNATIONAL FALLS

 It’s so cold!  That’s a running joke in a movie based in International Falls, Minnesota (one of the coldest spots in the U.S.) during the dead of winter time. There are plenty of other jokes included since it’s the story of a local woman who dreams of being a stand-up comedian. We first see Dee (Rachael Harris) greeting Tim (Rob Huebel) as he checks into the hotel where she works. He’s there for a 2 night gig as a stand-up comedian and the two of them immediately clash.

Amber McGinnis directs the script from Thomas Ward, and as you might imagine with a number of stand-up sets shown, there is also a good bit of improvisation. Surprisingly, the comedian sets are the weakest part of the movie. Where it excels is with the self-evaluation that occurs with Dee, Tim and Dee’s husband Gary (Matthew Glove). Rather than a laugh-a-minute approach, there is a heavy dose of introspection as Dee comes to grips with a disintegrating marriage, and learning the ups and downs of stand-up courtesy of her tryst with Tim … yes, they get over that initial clash as soon as Dee figures out she can learn from him.

The film does a nice job of demonstrating how most comedy stems from pain, sadness and disappointment. Many comedians struggle with depression or at least the challenges of being mocked or found unfunny. Tim and Dee spend a good amount of time together over his two days, and he states on multiple occasions that the second show will be his final show. This is all going on as Dee evaluates the stand-up gig as a career, and whether she wants to continue her marriage. There is a terrific scene where Dee and Tim walk around town (yes, it’s cold) to see the sites … including the Bronco Nagurski museum (unfortunately, it’s closed).

The supporting cast is talented and familiar and includes comedian Erik Griffin, Kevin Nealon, Mindy Sterling (AUSTIN POWERS), and Jessie Sherman. Mr. Ward’s script began as his own 2-person play, and it’s easy to see how it benefits cinematically from expanding outside the walls of a hotel room. Sure it’s a bit of a downer, but sometimes that’s the way life goes … the question is what do we make of those down times?

 

SISTER AIMEE

 In 1926 Sister Aimee Semple McPherson was one of the most famous people in the world. If you are like most of us these days, you’ve never even heard of her. She was an evangelist – healer – entertainer – swindler – celebrity and built one of the most popular radio shows of the era. Co-directors and co-writers Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann begin by telling us that 5 ½ percent of their film is true, and the rest is imagination … speculation on one of the most bizarre mysteries ever reported on the front page of most newspapers.

Anna Margaret Hollyman delivers a fun performance as Sister Aimee, though unfortunately, the other 94 ½ percent isn’t quite as much fun as we hope for – but it’s enough to keep us engaged. See, Sister Aimee faked her own death/disappearance and then reappeared at the Mexico border a few weeks later, claiming she had been abducted and held hostage. Of course, it took very little investigation for her story to fall apart, but somehow the actual details were never pieced together. This is the re-imagining of her “lost” time.

Tired of her fame and the pressure that comes with being a faith-based healer, we watch as Sister Aimee runs off with Kenny (Michael Mosley, “Ozark”). They secure a guide named Rey (a terrific Andrea Suarez Paz) to take them through the backroads in order to cross the border unseen. Rey has a pretty tall tale backstory herself and might be a nice subject of her own film … the hero with no name.

Supporting actors include Lee Eddy as Hazel, Sister Aimee’s handler and assistant; Julie White as Aimee’s mother Minnie Kennedy; and Amy Hargreaves as Sister Semple. There is a full-scale song-and-dance number that takes place in a Mexico jail that Ms. Hollyman performs quite beautifully. The story involves one famous woman searching for anonymity and one anonymous woman looking for attention. It’s surely the first throat-slitting musical western road trip dramatic mystery comedy arms-dealing adventure film I’ve ever seen.

 

SHOOT THE MOON RIGHT BETWEEN THE EYES

 When you attend the Dallas International Film Festival and you see a feature film debut from a writer/director who was influenced by legendary Austin filmmaker Eagle Pennell, and stars cult favorite Sonny Carl Davis, and the film is based on a song by the even more legendary John Prine and a short story (“Two Gallants”) by the great James Joyce … well, it becomes a must-see and a film that you simply schedule other films around (yes, that run-on sentence was intentional).

Jerry (David Kendrick) and Carl (Sonny Carl Davis) are a couple of elderly con men making their way through small Texas towns scamming women out of money. Hot on their trail is a lovesick Private Investigator named Les (Frank Mosley). He’s lovesick for his current client, who happens to be his ex-wife as well as Jerry’s and Carl’s latest victim. Les hopes to catch up to the con men, get the money back and win back the affections of his ex. While Les bumbles his way through the investigation, Jerry messes up the latest scam by falling hard for torch singer Maureen (Morgana Shaw), their current target.

We are told the film is based in Texas during 2016, and anyone familiar with Austin will recognize Deep Eddy Cabaret, where just about everyone in the film has a drink (or more) at some point, and we hear a few Waylon Jennings songs from the jukebox. However, that’s not the music that will stick with you. All of the key characters get to sing a John Prine song, including one of the strangest versions of “The Late John Garfield Blues” you’ll ever hear. Most of the vocals from the leads are somewhat strained, but it fits with the tone and adds to the charm.

Filmmaker Graham Carter proves to be a worthy successor to the beloved and late Eagle Pennell (check out his classic LAST NIGHT AT THE ALAMO) with this ultra low-budget offering filled with songs and fun characters … and a narrator that guides us through. This one is perfect for late night viewing and a taste of John Prine lyrics.


DIFF 2019 Day 5

April 17, 2019

2019 Dallas International Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. Day 5 means we are now past the halfway mark for this year’s festival. Originally I had 4 films scheduled for today, but I opted out of the late movie since it would have required more than a 90 minute wait after the end of the third movie. It’s that kind of situation that makes festival scheduling a bit frustrating. Despite that, all 3 movies were worth the time: a documentary profile of an Italian model, a low budget quirky comedy, and a masterclass from two veteran screen actors.

 

 

Here is my recap of Day 5 films:

 

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF MY MOTHER (doc)

 Caution is usually the best policy when choosing a biographical documentary shot by the subject’s family member. Often objectivity is sacrificed in the pursuit of a worthy tribute film. Oddly enough, it’s the mother-son relationship that provides the necessary spark as cinematographer Beniamino Barrese turns the lense on his mother Benedetta Barzini, a fashion model icon in the 1960’s and feminist spokesperson in the 1970’s.

We see photographs and flashbacks that prove what a stunning beauty Benedetta Barzini was at the peak of her modeling days. We also see clips of her appearances as a feminist spokesperson, and it’s in these that we see the fiery personality that is so prevalent in the current day exchanges with her director-son as he coaxes her through the process. There are also segments where she is mentoring younger girls and a return to the catwalk during Fashion Week.

She’s now in her 70’s, and remains physically striking with a lithe body that defies her age. But it’s the words coming out of her mouth – many pushing this to an “R” rating – that define the woman of today. The title of the movie refers to her preference to ‘disappear’ rather than ‘appear’ in the images of photos, film or social media.  When discussing the obsession society has with youth, she explains that Youth equates to Life, while Old age is associated with Death. That philosophy is a bit of a downer, but is an example of the insight she brings. In describing today’s marketing, she says women are usually associated with nature, while men represent thought and reason. The outspoken and wise feminist lives on.

Home clips from 1999 and a visit with long-time friend Lauren Hutton offer up more bits of what makes the woman tick, as does her listening to Leonard Cohen and smoking cigs and vaping at an alarming rate. In her mid-70’s, whether she likes it or not, her smile still lights up the screen and any room she is in. Still, we understand she has earned her own liberation from the camera, even as she puts a cap on it. Fin.

 

ODE TO JOY

 You might be familiar with the disease narcolepsy, but unless you or someone close to you suffers from it, you’re likely unfamiliar with cataplexy – a symptom of narcolepsy that causes sudden and extreme muscle weakness typically brought on by severe emotions such as sadness, anger or excitement. For Charlie, the trigger is happiness, so he has learned to (mostly) cope by avoiding his triggers: puppies, weddings, random acts of kindness, kids playing, and relationships. What he couldn’t avoid was being a groomsman in his sister’s wedding, which is how director Jason Winer and co-writers Max Werner and Chris Higgins choose to begin the film. We see the full effects and fallout (no pun intended) of Charlie’s disease.

Charlie works a calm job (out of necessity) at the public library, and his co-workers have mastered the art of assisting in keeping Charlie thinking non-happy thoughts. As tends to happen, love finds a way. Charlie crosses paths with Francesca (Morena Baccarin), a lively woman who appears to be Charlie’s opposite in most ways … making the attraction even stronger. A first date to a community theatre where a one-man show titled “Great Depression” is playing, we get the full effect of the challenges Charlie faces.

Cooper (Jake Lacy), Charlie’s younger brother, has been his main support system for most of his life – which is even more remarkable when we get the story of how Cooper got his name. When things fizzle between Francesca and Charlie, Cooper swoops in to date her and they set up Charlie with Bethany (a wonderful Melissa Rauch). Bethany’s own quirks seem to be a good fit, even if Charlie’s torch for Francesca still flickers. Surely you’ve never seen an oboe sing-a-long to the Cranberries “Zombie”, and if somehow you have, it likely pales in comparison to the one Ms. Rauch performs.

The laughs are many, yet the script and Freeman’s performance remain respectful to the disease and those who suffer from it. Jane Curtin appears as Francesca’s Aunt who is cancer-stricken, and no, the purpose wasn’t to show a disease worse than cataplexy, but rather to show we all have challenges in life – and how we deal determines the type of person we are. The story was inspired by a story on Chicago TV’s “This American Life”, and it’s a nice little gem that hopefully will find distribution.

 

THE TOMORROW MAN

 Noble Jones worked as the second unit director on David Fincher’s award-winning film THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010), and he has made quite a name for himself in music videos and commercials. This is his first feature film as director and he also wrote this interesting script. On top of that, he cast two top-notch veteran actors to bring the story to life: John Lithgow and Blythe Danner. At times it feels like we are watching a masterclass in acting and many of their scenes together have a live theatre feel.

Ed (Lithgow) and Ronnie (Danner) cross paths at the local grocery store where they each shop at an alarmingly frequent rate. It turns out Ed is preparing for doomsday and Ronnie is hoarder. As they spend time together, their fondness for each other grows, but we are never really sure if it’s loneliness or connection that inspires the relationship.

Despite both having a very serious approach to life, there are many moments of levity and sweetness, but also doses of reality that keep us off-balanced – just as life does. Ed proclaims the world would be such a disaster with ball bearings … of course his view is a bit skewed since he spent 17 years on the business. Ronnie is brave enough to attend Thanksgiving dinner with Ed at his son’s house, and the explosive family dynamics drive home the challenges of co-existing with others at any age.

Ed tells the new checkout clerk that it’s “good to know your neighbor. You never know when you’ll need them.” His preparations for doom and gloom … or as he calls it, SHTF … are offset by Ronnie’s sweetness, and a yard sale leads to the surprise ending. As a bonus, filmmaker Noble has finally found a good use for the song “Muskrat Love”.


DIFF 2019 Day 2

April 13, 2019

2019 Dallas International Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. I missed yesterday’s Opening Night Gala and feature film, but paid my penance today by taking in 5 films on Day 2 of this year’s Dallas International Film Festival. Changes have come to the festival this year, including reserved seats, and a shorter run that omits the encore screenings of award winners on the final weekend (there is no final weekend). The reserved seats policy is especially challenging for those of us who try to catch a couple of dozen films during the festival, but if it helps things run a bit smoother, then it’s something we will work around.

As with other years covering the festival, I will recap the films I see each day. Due to the time involved and the quick turnaround required, these will not be the usual full reviews, but rather an overview of the films and my initial reactions. If you are in the Dallas area, the festival runs through Thursday April 18, and more info can be found at http://www.DallasFilm.org

 

MS. PURPLE

 Kasie (an excellent Tiffany Chu) lives with her father, who has an unidentified terminal illness and is in an extended coma with no real chance for recovery. Kasie is the primary caregiver, and out of duty, refuses to put him in hospice for professional care. She also works as a Hostess/Escort at a popular Karaoke bar and has a rich boyfriend, although there seems to be no love between the two – it’s more of a business relationship.

Out of necessity, Kasie re-connects with her older brother Carey (Teddy Lee) who bolted from home many years ago after disputes with the father. He seems to have done little with his life, and frequently gets booted from an internet café for lack of cash. Carrying guilt for deserting his sister and father years ago, especially since the mother/wife left home when the kids were very young, he agrees to help Kasie with caregiving, and even takes dad for “road trips” in the neighborhood by pushing the bed through town (a comical sight).

Director and writer Justin Chon (co-written with Chris Dinh) was behind the critically acclaimed GOOK in 2017 (a Korean DO THE RIGHT THING). Here he uses Kasie’s flashbacks to childhood with her dad and brother as a framing device, demonstrating how the father dealt with his wife leaving, and laying out the responsibilities and burdens that family can bring. There are recurring shots of lone palm trees whose significance to Kasie is only explained late in the film … but does provide more insight into the bond with her father. A nice young valet (the car parking type) offers Kasie a taste of normalcy and it slowly brings her back towards center. The film has a terrific score of violin music from Roger Suen, and lets us know that finding one’s self while caring for another can be a breakthrough that may sometimes be loud, and may sometimes be quiet.

 

LEAVE THE BUS THROUGH THE BROKEN WINDOW (doc)

 Most documentaries explore a topic or an event, or provide a profile of a person or organization. Not this one. It’s an unusual … OK, very odd … documentary that follows Andrew Hevia, a Cuban-American photographer/filmmaker on his trip to Hong Kong to cover the Art Basel fair. His motivation in heading to Hong Kong from the United States is a nasty break-up in a long-term relationship with his girlfriend. It seems more likely that he’s running from rather than towards, and he is described as having a camera and little else.

Mr. Hevia admits to having no real knowledge of Hong Kong art and the initial culture shock he experiences includes securing lodging that can best be describes as “cozy” – a 40 square foot “apartment” that would be a tight closet and inhumane prison cell. Once he has a roof over his head, he hits the street with his camera. It’s at this point where we realize he has no real plan.

On his trek through the city, he crosses paths with fish balls, art galleries, jumpers, a street riot, artists, art collectors, expats, tourists, students, and a ferry ride. People come and go during his days and nights as he interacts with all sorts … often showing us a part of the city we wouldn’t likely see. He searches out different artistic outlets, attractive girls, and just about any party he can crash. The film plays like a travel video-diary narrated by electronic voice that’s a blend of Alexa and the computer voice from WAR GAMES. It’s an unusual viewing experience and one that leaves us feeling a bit empty. Fortunately, its run time is a brisk 68 minutes.

 

TREASURE ISLAND (doc) L’ile Au Tresor

 Yet another atypical documentary, this one from French director Guillaume Brac, who turns his lens on a water park in suburban Paris. The park is beautiful and wrapped in nature, as the lake offers many differing areas of attraction depending on one’s interests.

Brac presents various segments, some quite short, based on various groups visiting the park. We might be watching a group of underage adolescent boys trying to sneak in, and once caught, try to talk their way out of trouble. In a few segments we see the challenges facing the security guards who have to balance the park’s goal of fun with the need for safety. Of course this is France, so we also get the teenagers flirting and trying to impress each other (“Life is great”). There are families – large and small – enjoying a picnic in the bucolic setting, while young kids splash and frolic during their carefree days. Brac even takes us behind the scenes where park managers work on logistics based on weather, staff, and resources.

This is really more of a social project than a cinematic one, and we sometimes feel like we are snooping on people just having fun or doing their job. One segment with a 10 year old boy and his 3 year old brother is particularly sweet. The beauty of the park setting is contrasted with the pylon jumpers and the after-hours staff partying, but mostly it shows that people are pretty similar no matter the location.

 

WILD ROSE

 Quick … name all of the female Country music singers from Glasgow, Scotland! That’s the premise for this film from director Tom Harper and writer Nicole Taylor, both best known for their British TV work. Rose-Lynn Harlan is being released after a year in jail on drug charges. She uncomfortably adjusts her white boots over the ankle monitor and sets off to conquer Nashville with her singing.

Of course there are a few problems with her Music City dream. See, she’s a single mother with two kids, and she’s from a working class area where putting food on the table and paying the bills is a significant achievement. Jessie Buckley stars as Rose-Lynn, and by stars I mean she carries the film and flashes great promise as an actress. Her no-nonsense mother Marion is played by 2-time Oscar nominee Julie Walters, and while Rose-Lynn has stars in her eyes, mother Marion pushes her to take a housekeeping job and focus on her kids.

We know where all of this is headed, and it’s a credit to Ms. Buckley and Ms. Taylor’s script that we care enough to follow along. Rose-Lynn is employed by the wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), and we get one of the funniest vacuum cleaner scenes ever. Susannah soon takes on Rose-Lynn as a pet project with the goal of helping her get to Nashville for her shot.

Some rough language is peppered throughout and it’s spouted with the heaviest of Scottish accents, so much of it sounds a bit comical rather than threatening. The film is a bit uneven, but the mainstream approach keeps it from going too far off track. “Three chords and the truth” is used to describe country music, and if that’s your musical taste, you’ll likely enjoy the songs. However, if you prefer ‘Country and Western’, you’re flat out of luck.

 

THE DEATH OF DICK LONG

 “It’s been awhile” by Staind is the song we first hear from Pink Freud, a garage band formed by buddies Zeke, Earl and Dick. The music is awful, but “band practice” seems to exist solely for the purpose of getting these slackers together, hanging out, and drinking beer. Daniel Scheinert also directed SWISS ARMY MAN (2016) and this is the first screenplay from Billy Chew. Mr. Scheinert also plays the titular Mr. Long.

One evening, band practice takes a wrong turn, and Dick ends up dead … dumped in a hospital parking lot by his bandmates. If we previously had any doubts as to the intelligence of Zeke and Earl, all of that is cleared up as these two bumbling idiots try to cover up their involvement and what actually happened that night. The cause of death is slow to unfold, but once it does, it surely is the only one of its kind. The Sheriff (Janelle Cochrane) and her deputy (Sarah Baker) prove equally clueless in their attempts to solve the crime, and much of the film’s humor revolves around folks just not asking quite the right question in any situation.

Michael Abbott Jr plays Zeke and Andre Hyland plays Earl, and there scenes together will have you laughing and questioning human existence. Virginia Newcomb plays Lydia (Zeke’s wife), Jess Weixler is the perplexed wife of Dick, and Sunita Mani is hilarious as Earl’s friend Lake Travis (a name nearly as much of a punchline as the film’s titular character).  While the film has many funny and awkward moments, it can also be taken as a statement on testosterone-driven bad decisions and actions with consequences. If nothing else, we learn how to quickly answer when someone asks, “Y’all wanna get weird?”


STOCKHOLM (2019)

April 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The film opens with a title card informing us that it is “based on an absurd but true story”. In 1973 the Kreditbanken of Stockholm Sweden was held up by an armed man. The ordeal was unusual for low-crime Sweden and it was broadcast live on TV. It has also been credited as being the origin for the term “Stockholm Syndrome” – a term to describe the bonding that sometimes occurs between a hostage and their captor.

Writer-director Robert Budreau wisely wastes little time with setting the stage. Lars (Ethan Hawke) dons a disguise meant to trick the police, and storms the bank lobby armed with a sub-machine gun. Wearing a cowboy hat and a leather jacket with a Texas flag, he proclaims “Remember the Alamo” as he secures some hostages and presents himself as Kaj Hansson, a well-known criminal. Of course, Mr. Hawke is certainly an American, and the actual robbery/hostage event was conducted by a Swede.

Lars is loud and boisterous to the cops, while simultaneously being sympathetic and understanding to the hostages – especially Bianca (Noomi Rapace), a married woman with two kids. Christopher Heyerdahl plays Police Chief Mattison, and he employs some unexpected psychological gamesmanship with Lars that gets even more convoluted when Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme becomes involved. Lars’ real goal here is to spring his buddy Gunnar Sorensson (Mark Strong) from jail and have them both ride off to freedom in a mustang like the one Steve McQueen drove in BULLITT.

Yes, I should mention that although guns are fired and hostages are held, this is really an offbeat comedic bank heist. It focuses on how the hostages bond with their captors and how Bianca quickly realizes that not only is she smarter than Lars and Gunnar, but that the cops are more of a threat to her than the criminals. She strategizes better than either side, and Ms. Rapace (from the original Millennium Trilogy) is the standout performer in the film.

Filmmaker Budreau and Mr. Hawke previously collaborated on an intimate look at jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in BORN TO BE BLUE (2015), and they prove again that they work well together. The other two hostages are played by Bea Santos as Clara and Mark Rendall as Elov. When Prime Minister Palme refuses to negotiate or allow Lars to leave with hostages, we can sense the emotional tide turn as Clara, Elov and Bianca realize they are safest remaining with the hostages.

Of course there are some liberties with history taken for cinematic reasons, and since most of the filming takes place within the confines of the bank, we do get to know each of the participants pretty well. The similarities to Sidney Lumet’s DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975) are unmistakable, and one of the reporters covering the story even comments that it’s “almost like watching an American movie.” The odd ending works for the film, and thanks to Ms. Rapace, there is enough heft to the characters to prevent the humor for taking over.

watch the trailer:


CASTING COUCH (2019, short film)

March 2, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s always a bit dangerous to poke fun at something that has caused so much pain to so many people, but the reality is that the proverbial casting couch has been used as an unfortunate punchline for many years. Late last year I reviewed the Barry Avrich documentary THE RECKONING: HOLLYWOOD’S WORST KEPT SECRET, which provided an in-depth history of what went on behind closed doors in Hollywood. While that film left me with a feeling of nausea, SiniSisters Productions have used their distinct talents in addressing the same topic in a more redemptive manner.

In what can be described as a Comedy-Horror film highlighted with social commentary, co-directors Justin Lee and Matt Thiesen present a script from Milly Sanders that tells the story of a casting couch demon that has been literally feeding on the flesh of aspiring actors for decades. We see “old” clips of auditions before cutting to a modern day audition of two actresses and that same “icky” velour sofa. The actresses are played by Ms. Sanders (the screenwriter) and Jessee Foudray, while the new age director is played by David Stanbra. By new age, I’m referring to the next generation of directors who have undertaken new methods of manipulating actresses in an attempt to achieve the same results as the slimy buzzards of old Hollywood.

The script is quite clever and the low budget short film (10 minutes) even features an impactful effect. Harassment and power plays have no place in any industry, and SiniSisters willingness to make a point through such a creative outlet is quite impressive … and entertaining. Any filmmakers who somehow believe the old ways are ok, should beware of the ‘couch hunters’!

***CAUTION: although this short film is not yet rated, it is not recommended for young children

Watch the movie at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kALyJUV-EWQ&feature=youtu.be