DUNKIRK (2017)

July 19, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Even for us frequent movie-goers, a truly great film is a rare and emotional experience. Leave it to Christopher Nolan, one of the finest film makers working today, to deliver a World War II masterpiece centered on a remarkable and historic evacuation, rather than one of the epic battles that more directly led to an Allied victory. The result is a spectacular, stunning and relentlessly intense assault on our eyes, ears and emotions … it’s a horrific thing of artistic beauty.

Mr. Nolan chooses a triptych approach to tell the May/June 1940 Dunkirk story from three distinctly different perspectives: The Mole, The Sea, and The Air. The Mole (term for protective sea walls) is the “by land” segment, and it shows nearly 400,000 soldiers lined up on the beach – nervously waiting to be either rescued or massacred. The Sea puts us not on the deck of the Navy destroyers, but rather alongside the citizen volunteers who answered the call to ferry men off the beach with own pleasure vessels. The Air plops us inside the Spitfire cockpits of two Royal Air Force pilots battling low fuel as they attempt to protect their fellow soldiers below. This 3-part film harmony expertly captures the disorientation of war by shuffling between the three segments, and varying the timelines and sequence of each.

This all happened pretty early in the war, as Winston Churchill had only become Prime Minister a few weeks prior. It should be noted that Mr. Nolan purposefully avoids the usual war room blustery (we see neither Churchill nor Hitler, and there is little mention of the infamous Halt Order) and allows the action to tell the story. Instead, his focus on the (very) young men being sent to battle makes a clear political statement on the absurdity of war. One of “The Sea” volunteers (an excellent Mark Rylance) delivers the message when he states it’s the old men running the war, so he can’t be expected to just sit back as young sons are sent to fight and die.

Despite the epic look, feel and sound of the film and the massive scale of the event, this film is surprisingly at its best in the small moments of heroism and the dogged determination of individuals to survive. Minimal dialogue allows the horrors of war to take center screen. Danger and death are at every turn – bombings, torpedoes, drowning, gunfire, and most any imaginable peril is ever-present. We witness PTSD (shell-shock) in the form of Cillian Murphy’s shivering rescued soldier, and are reminded that every young man present will be either dead or scarred for life. No one escapes war unscathed.

The opening sequence finds young Fionn Whitehead and his squad being targeted with gunfire as German leaflets fall from the sky. The leaflets are maps outlining the hopelessness as German forces have them surrounded. The film is meticulously researched and historically based, though the few characters we get to know are fictionalized accounts. The practical effects throughout are breath-taking and much of it was filmed on location at the Dunkirk beach. There will likely be some complaints regarding the scarcity of female characters and those of color, but the technical aspects of the film are beyond reproach – although the French might have preferred their military receive a bit more attention. Hans Zimmer’s score is unique and searing as it perfectly captures the intensity of the film. His use of a ticking watch only perpetuates the constant feeling of running out of time. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and Editor Lee Smith prove why they are among the best at their profession.

Given the spectacle of the action (if possible, see it in IMAX or 70mm), it’s remarkable how we still manage to get to know some of the characters. From The Mole segment, Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles represent the young soldiers, while Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy play officers. Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden are piloting the Spitfires, while Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Cillian Murphy are aboard the rescue yacht. Nolan regular and good luck charm Michael Caine can be recognized as the voice on Air Force radio. There is a 1958 film with the same title, and it stars John Mills and Richard Attenborough. The connection (other than the Dunkirk title) is Sir Attenborough’s grandson Will appears in this current film.

The horrors and impact of World War II continue to be an abundant garden – ripe for the picking when it comes to movies. Over the past 70 years there have been numerous approaches to telling part of the story that redefined the world: Judgment at Nuremberg (legal aftermath), Casablanca (romance), I Was a Male War Bride (comedy), Tora! Tora! Tora! and From Here to Eternity (Pearl Harbor), Shoah (documentary), Schindler’s List and Son of Saul (holocaust), Downfall (Hitler), The Great Escape (entertainment), Patton (bio), The Pianist (personal), Saving Private Ryan (Normandy), Das Boot (U-boat), The Thin Red Line (Guadalcanal), and Letter From Iwo Jima (two opposing perspectives). Each of these, and many others, have their place in War movie history, and now Christopher Nolan’s film belongs among the best.

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FOOTNOTES (Sur qued piel danser, France, 2017)

July 16, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. On the heels of success experienced by LA LA Land, and “inspired by the films of Jacques Demy and Stanley Donen”, co-writers and co-directors Paul Calori and Kostia Testut find the right fit with this whimsical musical-comedy that puts coming-of-age and social commentary on equal footing.

Pauline Etienne stars as Julie, an eager, hardworking young lady who flip-flops between odd jobs (McJobs) just trying to make ends meet in a tough French economy. When she secures a job as a stocker in a high-profile shoe (not footwear) factory, Julie is determined to buckle down, not step on toes, win over her stern supervisor (Clementine Yelnik), and finally get her life in order. Unfortunately, there are rumors of an upgrade, which in the world of corporate management double-speak means downsizing, or even closing the factory. Julie then spends most of the movie treading lightly between romance, a gruff boss, and her activist co-workers.

This is not the kind of musical where the singing voices, original songs or dancing will knock your socks off, but it all relates to the story and nothing seems forced. Feeling threatened, the factory ladies step up their game by singing “Let’s Fight Back” with some creative choreography that makes good use of the warehouse space. One of the delivery drivers (Olivier Chantreau) takes a shine to Julie, even though the boss assumes she is behind the workers’ strike and tries to boot her from the job.

Luic Corbery plays the smarmy CEO whose polished misleading statements are laced with charm as he attempts to re-buff the angry protests from the factory workers; all the while scheming to move operations to lower-cost China. With female solidarity and empowerment around her, Julie must decide if she will be the sole outlier, or if this is her chance to find her true self. It’s in these scenes where Ms. Etienne’s real-person screen presence spikes the story with the well-meaning persona that makes us care.

The working class dream of a better life is a constant throughout, though the ending is a bit disappointing given what we have watched Julie trudge through. The choreography is not flashy or polished, but rather low key and meaningful. There is a touch of the classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (including a song/dance featuring multi-colored umbrellas), and although it’s not at that level, it nonetheless is an admirable and enjoyable film. It should be noted that the original title Julie and the Shoe Factory does not quite take advantage of the wordplay offered by the English title.

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MAUDIE (2017)

July 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. As the saying goes, “opposites attract”. It seems the bond between Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis and her reclusive employer/husband Everett Lewis prove this so – at least at first glance. However, digging deeper, as director Aisling Walsh and writer Sherry White do so expertly here, we discover an abundance of subtle similarities and life events that connect these two … showing yet again that real life is often stranger than fiction.

Sally Hawkins delivers her best performance to date (and a slam dunk Oscar nomination awaits) as Maud. She somehow manages to look even smaller on screen and capture the twisted, painful posture and movements of one stricken with severe arthritis. Ethan Hawke is Everett, the local fish peddler who lives like a hermit in his one-and-a-half room shack on the outskirts of town. Our first glimpse of Maude has her sneaking a cigarette on her Aunt’s porch while she listens to family members argue about who has to care for her. We first see Everett has he stomps into the general store demanding the shopkeeper write out and post his job opening for domestic help.

Filmed in Canada and Ireland, cinematographer Guy Godfree captures the harshness of the seasons and, more impressively, the claustrophobic and sparse living conditions of Maud and Everett’s tiny home (nothing like the HGTV segments). Maud’s sweetness and never-ending ability to find joy in the moment contrasts with Everett’s cantankerous and even initially cruel approach. These polar opposites are both societal outcasts, but eventually develop respect and yes, even love (though such a word would never be exchanged between the two). Hawkins and Hawke share two especially fabulous scenes – their initial meeting in his house, and a many-years-later emotional exchange on a bench. Hawke’s character is a bit challenging for the audience, but Hawkins captures our heart immediately.

Supporting work is minimal, yet effective, as Zachary Bennett plays Maud’s brother Charles, Gabrielle Rose is her Aunt Ida, and Kari Matchett is Sandra – the New Yorker with the fancy shoes who first spots Maud’s talent. Much of the story focuses on Everett’s pride and Maud’s joy/spirit, while slowly they both gain a bit of fame thanks to her artistic talent and their living arrangement.

Ms. Hawkins has long been an underrated actress (despite last year’s Oscar nomination), and her turn in Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) was proof she could carry the lead. Here, seeing her hoist such a real life character and story on her hunched back is a thing of beauty and is not to be missed. It’s an artful movie about an artist and making the best of life. The film’s music is perfectly understated and features acoustic guitar, violin and piano. It should be noted that the end of the film features a clip of the real Maud and Everett, and their house has been preserved and displayed at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

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THE BIG SICK (2017)

June 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Those of us who tend to avoid Hollywood Romantic Comedies honestly have nothing against them in theory (no really, it’s true). The problems with the genre stem from (years of) cringe-inducing clichés, story structure re-treads, and inane dialogue – all of which is usually accompanied by acting that comes across as significantly short of believable. So when a rom-com (like this one) hits the silver screen and it provides emotionally dramatic moments, organically generated laughter, and multiple characters that we genuinely care about … expect the accolades to start flowing.

Real life husband and wife Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”) and Emily Gordon have collaborated on the script; an autobiographical re-telling of the saga known as the beginning of their relationship. It’s a story that starts simply enough with a meet-cute in a Chicago comedy club where Pakistani-American Kumail is performing his stand-up routine (in between Uber-driving shifts), and Emily is in the audience firing off some mild heckling which progresses to flirting and then … well, activity that leads to both saying “this can’t happen again”.

Director Michael Showalter continues to prove that he doesn’t mind breaking the mold for relationship movies. Hello, My Name is Doris was one of last year’s more creative films in this genre, and now Showalter has taken another step forward with this true life script. Kumail plays himself, and rather than a larger-than-life presence, he comes across as exactly life size. Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of legendary director Elia Kazan) plays Emily. The two actors are believable together (and apart) and allow us to buy in to them as a couple – and as not a couple. Their relationship shines a spotlight on religious and cultural challenges, and family pressures that those from a traditional Muslim family carry. For some, moving to the U.S. doesn’t override religious and cultural traditions such as arranged marriages and preferred professions. The script addresses this beautifully and without pulling punches – although some humor does help.

The supporting cast is excellent and plays a substantial role in the story, especially as Emily (Kazan) lay quite ill in the hospital. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano play her parents, and deliver an emotional wallop, even while dealing with their own marital issues – one of which allows Romano and Kumail to bond a bit. Kumail’s parents are played by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff, while his brother is played by Adeel Akhtar. They each capture the shock and disappointment that follows when Kumail seems to choose Emily over the family. Since this is a rare multi-dimensional script where characters can’t just be labeled “boyfriend” or “best friend”, Kumail’s cohorts at the comedy club are played by Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler, and David Alan Grier – each bringing more depth to the story.

Expect the best giraffe and 9/11 jokes you’ve likely ever heard, but mostly rejoice in the graceful balance between life and death, comedy found in daily life, and the real relationship struggles. It’s not even the first coma-centric romantic-comedy (While You Were Sleeping, 1995), but here, the human feelings on screen remind us that most decisions in life are complex, and we all make mistakes of the heart. Kumail is caught in “no man’s land” between family obligations and his own identity. Hopefully life hasn’t stuck you in Kumail’s spot – hanging out in the hospital waiting room with the parents of your ex as she lay comatose down the hall as you slowly come to realize that she’s the girl of your dreams (and your parents’ nightmare). It may not sound like the makings of a traditional rom-com, but that’s what makes it so exceptional.

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BABY DRIVER (2017)

June 29, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. If his movies are any indication, writer/director Edgar Wright would be fun to hang out with. He thrives on action and humor, and seems committed to making movies that are entertaining, rather than philosophical life statements. Many know his work from Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End), while others are fans of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. High concept, high energy and a creative use of music are identifiable traits within Mr. Wright’s films, all of which are crucial to the success of his latest.

Ansel Elgort (excellent in The Fault in Our Stars) stars as Baby, a freakishly talented getaway driver paying off a debt to a no-nonsense crime boss Doc played by Kevin Spacey. Baby has an unusual movie affliction – a childhood accident killed his parents and left him with tinnitus. He compensates for the constant ringing in his ear by listening to music through ear buds attached to one of his many iPods (depending on his mood). In fact, his insistence on finding just the right song for the moment adds a colorful element to each escape route.

The film opens with what may be its best car chase scene and the hyper-kinetic approach sets the stage for something a bit different than what we usually see. There are no car drops from airplanes or train-jumping (I’m looking at you Fast and Furious franchise). Instead these are old school chases in the mode of Bullitt, or more precisely, Walter Hill’s 1978 The Driver (Mr. Hill appears briefly here as a courtroom reporter). A heist-romance-chase film with a diverse and truly remarkable selection of songs, high energy, more than a few comedic moments (the Mike Myers mask sequence is brilliant) and a recurring Monsters, Inc quote requires a strong lead, and young Mr. Elgort aces the test. Baby is the DJ to his own life, and possesses a moral compass that others on his jobs can’t comprehend. It’s a heart of gold in a bad spot.

Spacey plays Doc with his chilling dead-eyed stare, and even has his own moment of action sporting an automatic weapon during a violent shootout. Spacey’s various crime teams (he varies the pairings) include psycho-lovebirds Buddy (Jon Hamm in his continuing effort to distance from Don Draper) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), Jon Bernthal, Flea, and an aptly named Bats (Jamie Foxx), who is not the clearest thinker of the bunch. Other supporting work comes courtesy of the rarely seen songwriter/actor Paul Williams, musician Sky Ferreira (as Baby’s beloved mother), young Brogan Hall as Doc’s talented nephew, and CJ Jones as Baby’s foster father. Mr. Jones is one of the few deaf movie actors and he adds much to Baby’s life outside of crime.

The crucial role of Baby’s love interest goes to the very talented and likable Lily James (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) as singing waitress Debora, who introduces him to Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” song, while he plays “Debora” from T.Rex for her. She and Baby share the not overly ambitious life plan: “to head west in a car I can’t afford and a plan I don’t have”. They are good together and that helps make up for the always cringe-inducing red flag of “one last job” prior to the lovers running away together.

Buried in the Miscellaneous Crew is Choreographer Ryan Heffington, who deserves at least some of the credit for the most unique and creative aspect of the presentation. This appears to be a movie fit to the music, rather than music fit to the movie. There are some astounding sequences where the drum/bass beats are right on cue with the action – gunfire, driving, and character movements. “Harlem Shuffle” plays as Baby playfully dances past graffiti and sidewalk obstacles that perfectly match the beat and lyrics. We see what is likely the best ever movie use of “Bellbottoms”, and without question, the most creatively brilliant use of “Hocus Pocus” by Focus. At times exhilarating to the senses, the infusion of comedy shots and new love help offset the tension of crime jobs and the thrill of the chase.

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THE WOMEN’S BALCONY (Ismach Hatani, Israel, 2017)

June 23, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Religious conflict is not often the source of cinematic comedy, but this Israeli film from director Emil Ben-Shimon and writer Shlomit Nehama provides many laughs to go along with its commentary on religious traditions and the power of women.

It’s tempting to say the film kicks off with bar mitzvah and ends with a wedding, but it’s more accurate to say the bookend community celebrations provide the foundation of meaning for everything else that occurs. The people in this village of Jerusalem are close-knit and mostly happy. They are also religious, though perhaps had become a bit complacent until a near tragic event rattles the core of the congregation.

A young, charismatic Rabbi brings his views that conflict with how the folks in this village have lived and worshipped. A division occurs between the men and women based on such things as scarves covering heads, and women not being allowed in the main area of the synagogue. The backlash has men unable to confront the new Rabbi based on their trust in holy authority, and women banding together for their cause. Understand that the cause is not equality – they aren’t asking to sit with men in the synagogue, only to re-gain their own section. This is a percipient example of the crippling effects of religious beliefs and traditions that lack logical sense.

Is a collapsed balcony a sign from God (as the young Rabbi would have them believe) or an indication of a poorly maintained synagogue (like a long unrepaired broken window)? The Women for Women cause provides humor when they are tag-team negotiating with a contractor, and profundity when they are protesting or conducting an old-fashioned kickstarter – knocking on doors asking for donations.

What makes up religious beliefs? Is it the rituals and traditions, or is it the attitude that builds a close-knit community? The film reminds us to beware of false prophets – a concern that crosses all religions and political standards. The script is stellar and the performances are believable. We care about these people and want their happiness to return … even if it’s in the form of a fruit salad.

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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.