NON-FICTION (Doubles vies, France, 2019)

May 2, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. 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 easy 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 can flash her comedic chops. Nora Hamzawi plays Valerie, Leonard’s wife, and she is delightful as the spouse who refuses to build up Leonard’s ego or provide any boost whatsoever 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 intellectual, while in their personal lives, it seems everyone is sleeping with someone else. Most every character 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 keep the film from ever 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 vibrant 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.

initially screened at 2019 Dallas International Film Festival

watch the trailer:

 

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TELL IT TO THE BEES (2019)

May 2, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Secrets and lies become a tangled web of messiness that impacts lives and relationships in this story adapted from Fiona Shaw’s 2009 novel. Annabel Jankel (known for her music videos and as a creator of Max Headroom) directs the script from sisters Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth, and we learn that this rural community in 1952 Scotland is filled with judgmental and close-minded folks unable to accept that some don’t live and love according to society’s general rules of the time.

Holliday Grainger (“The Borgias”) stars as Lydia, mother to young Charlie (Gregor Selkirk), and the two have recently been abandoned by husband -father Robert (Emun Elliott). Charlie is a sensitive boy – in touch with nature, and observant to his mother’s emotional strains. After a schoolyard scuffle, Charlie is treated by the town’s new doctor, Dr. Markham (Anna Paquin, “True Blood”), who not only treats his bruises, but also teaches him about the bees and hives in her garden. She lets him know that telling your secrets to the bees keeps them from flying away.

Dr. Markham has returned to the community where she grew up, and the rumors of her teenage years have not faded. Her father recently passed and she has returned to her roots to take his place as the local doctor. When Lydia gets sacked at the factory where she works (by Kate Dickie’s Pam, her spinster sister-in-law/supervisor), Dr. Markham hires Lydia as a housekeeper and invites her and Charlie to move into the house left to her by her father.

“This town is too small for secrets” is not simply a line of dialogue, but easily could have been the title of the films. As Charlie tells his secrets to the bees, Lydia and Dr. Markham grow closer … creating confusion for Charlie, challenges for the two women, and disgust within the community. Robert is a brut of a man, and threatens Lydia in every way a simple man might. There is also a subplot around Lydia’s younger sister-in-law Annie (Lauren Lyle), who is pregnant from a secretive interracial relationship. What follows is a vicious response from the close-minded folks previously mentioned.

An older Charlie is our narrator, and most of the story is told from his point of view. Secrets kept by children are contrasted by those of adults, and it’s clear that both cause harm. The first part of the movie is beautifully filmed, though the story structure wobbles a bit in the second half. There are many fascinating close-ups of bees and hives, although a mystical/supernatural sequence is difficult to buy. Excellent acting is on display throughout, especially by young Gregor Selkirk and Ms. Grainger, whose face the camera loves. The film is quite tastefully done, and focused as much on the small-minded town folks reaction as the blossoming relationship between the two leads. A stronger third act would have elevated the film, though the first half hour is well done.

watch the trailer:


THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE (2019)

April 22, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. When watching, discussing or reviewing a movie from filmmaker Terry Gilliam, it’s often best to relax one’s expectations for a linear story line, and maybe even the hope for a coherent one. He’s the creative force behind such diverse and divisive films as THE FISHER KING (1991), THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1988), BRAZIL (1985), TIME BANDITS (1981), and of course, comedy classic MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975). We’ve seen his movies described as crazy, confusing, and messy – and also brilliant, unique, and creative. Mr. Gilliam himself would likely agree with all of those descriptions, while adding a few colorful terms of his own.

Despite the oddball career he’s had, none of his movies have had the topsy-turvy, on-again/off-again path to production as THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE. Gilliam’s first attempts at getting the movie made date back to 1989 (yes, 30 years ago), and the first round of financing was secured in 1998 with Johnny Depp in a lead role. By 2002, there was a fascinating documentary, LOST IN LA MANCHA, which chronicled the reasons the film failed to get made and would never be finished. Mr. Gilliam has proven, 17 years later, that he should never be counted out.

Gilliam co-wrote the screenplay with Tony Grisoni, and the two have previously collaborated on TIDELAND (2005) and FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998). As you might guess, it’s not a typical screenplay or story, and one certainly need not be an expert on the original Cervantes book or character to find value (or not) in this tale.

“I am Don Quixote de la Mancha.” There is something distinctly prideful about the proclamation, but it’s also used somewhat ironically at least once in this film. Adam Driver plays hotshot and cynical filmmaker Toby, and things change abruptly for him when he returns to the Spanish town where he shot his student film ten years prior. In that film, he had cast locals, including the town cobbler as Don Quixote. A bootleg DVD of the film drags Toby into the fallout that has occurred over the past decade.

Jonathan Pryce co-stars as Javier, the former cobbler who now lives his life believing he is actually Don Quixote. He then sees Toby, and “recognizes” (mistakes) him as Sancho Panza, his trusty and loyal sidekick. This kicks off a series of adventures/misadventures that is a blend of fantasy, reality and imagination. Paths are crossed with Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko), Angelica (Joana Ribeira), and the head of the studio (Stellan Skarsgard). At times, it’s a movie within a movie, and a key is the name of the town: Suenos means dreams. Dreamlike or surreal is the best description for many of the best sequences.

Mr. Gilliam dedicates the film to Jean Rochefort and John Hurt, both cast in early versions and both now deceased. Somehow the film is simultaneously smart and goofy; thought-provoking and confusing. It’s definitely not for everyone – more for those who enjoy digging in to philosophical meanings, and less for those who prefer to kick back and be entertained. There is a lot here about how we see ourselves, how our dreams impact us, and of course, the lost art of chivalry. Above all, we admire the outlook: “This is a marvelous day for an adventure. I feel it in my bones.”

watch the trailer:


RED JOAN (2019)

April 20, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Sir Trevor Nunn is a Tony Award winner best known for his stage productions, and for being director of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1968 through 1986. The film is “inspired by a true story”, and Lindsay Shapero has adapted Jennie Rooney’s 2013 novel, which was a blend of history and fiction taken from the life of Melita Norwood … the longest serving British KGB spy.

Dame Judi Dench plays Joan Stanley (the movie version of the aforementioned Ms. Norwood) whom we first meet as she is being arrested for treason by MI5 agents in May 2000. Most of the film consists of Joan being interrogated while having flashbacks to her earlier life, beginning in 1938 at Cambridge University. She was a hard-working nose-to-the grindstone Physics student who is drawn in to the fascinating world of Sonja (Tereza Srbova) and her brother Leo (Tom Hughes), who are supporters of the Soviet party. In the flashback scenes, young Joan is played by Sophie Cookson (who reminds of a young Faye Dunaway).

The film spends most of its time in flashback mode, and Ms. Cookson excels as the idealistic Joan first in her scenes with Sonja and Leo, and later with Stephen Campbell Moore who plays Professor Max Davies. Joan is recruited to work in the lab with Davies, as the secretly work to create the Atom bomb. It’s Sonja and Leo who coerce Joan into passing along secret documents that allow Stalin’s Russia to keep pace on bomb development. She easily flies under the radar since, as Sonja tells her, “Nobody would suspect us. We are women.”

From a historical perspective, the film kind of falls flat. It also doesn’t qualify as a British spy thriller since there are really no thrills to be found. “The Americans” TV show was infinitely better at the spy genre than this one; however, if the film works on any level, it’s as moral debate fodder. Joan clearly has her reasons for doing what she thought was right … leveling the playing field between super powers, so that none had an advantage. The question is, what is right and who is to decide? During this time, alliances were quite fluid between Russia, Britain and the United States, and she believed her actions saved lives.

Dame Judi is really not on screen much, and when she is, there’s little for her to do except play innocent and dream of years gone by. She was labeled “Granny spy”, and though her story is interesting, and does provide yet another aspect from WWII, the film itself never really grabs us as viewers. The early periods are well filmed with beautiful costumes and sets, but we are never as dumbstruck as Joan’s son (Ben Miles) when he admits he thought his mum was merely an over-educated librarian. As a character study, there’s something here … but as entertainment, it’s a bit lacking.

watch the trailer:


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).


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 easy 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 can flash her comedic chops. Nora Hamzawi plays Valerie, Leonard’s wife – and she is delightful as the spouse who refuses to build up Leonard’s ego or provide any boost whatsoever 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 intellectual, while in their personal lives, it seems everyone is sleeping with someone else. Most every character 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 keep the film from ever 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.