DIFF 2015 – Days 4 and 5

April 16, 2015

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Days 4 and 5, Monday and Tuesday April 13, 14

My recap of the (only) three movies I watched over these two days (hey, a guy has to earn a living!)

 

DIVINE ACCESS

divine access Greetings again from the darkness. Meet Jack. Thanks to a mother who dragged him around as a kid to a stream of religious events and retreats, he has grown into an adult who has vast knowledge about various religions and approaches to spirituality. Yet, despite this, he is a slacker and self-anointed underachiever … a man living the simple life of fishing, drinking beer and morning skinny dips in the lake.

As a favor to his friend Bob (Patrick Warburton), Jack (Billy Burke) agrees to appear on a cable access show. It turns out Bob wants Jack to humiliate the current host … Reverend Guy Roy Davis (Gary Cole). The stunt works sending Guy Roy off the deep end, and turning Jack into an oddball spiritual leader.

The film balances some extremely funny segments and moments with the drama that typically accompanies anything religious. As the film points out, a great many people are looking for something to believe in. Jack’s simple talks revolve around philosophical bits such as: Believe you are loved. Why are you certain you are right and other are wrong? Tell your story and listen to others tell theirs.

When Jack hits the road to give his talks across Texas, he undergoes a personal transformation that is tied to Marian (Sarah Shahi) who he can’t quite figure out whether she is real or a vision. His travel buddies include Nigel (Joel David Moore) and Amber (Dora Madison Burge). The interaction between these three characters makes for the best scenes in the film.

The casting and acting is superb. Gary Cole is both painful and hilarious to watch as Guy Roy, a man committed to spreading the gospel through his ventriloquism with a creepy “Mini Jesus” doll. Sarah Shahi brings the necessary level of mysticism to her role, and Adrienne Barbeau is spot on as Jack’s mom. Patrick Warburton delivers his deadpan one-liners with aplomb, while Joel David Moore and Dora Madison Burge make for a quirky couple of passengers on the road trip. Even the multi-talented Turk Pipkin has a cameo as the leader of the Esoteric Fellowship. But it’s Billy Burke who owns the movie as the reluctant spiritual leader who is fighting his own transformation. Burke delivers a subtle and nuanced performance while also being downright cynical and funny.

The religious overtones are pretty clear with Jesus, Matthew the Apostle, and Mary Magdalene, but that should in no way lead you to believe this is one of those sneaky Christian message movies. Actually, director Steven Chester Prince and his three co-writers do a nice job at asking “Is everyone doing the best they can?” and “Do you believe what you say?” The message seems to be that we all have doubts, but it’s best to start with yourself before you start trying to fix others.

MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED (documentary)

most likely Greetings again from the darkness. When people discuss the U.S. public education system, most agree (at least to a certain degree) that it’s broken. The impassioned and creative debates occur over how best to “fix” it. The ideas are infinite, but as with any problem in need of a solution, it’s wise to consider the desired end result.  What do we need and expect of our education system?  And who is “we” in that question?  Are we satisfying societal needs or those of the individual … and who decides?

It is not feasible to expect an 86 minute documentary to answer all of these questions and solve one of the biggest issues facing society, but skilled documentarian Greg Whiteley does his best to advance the conversation. “Teach to the test” is the widely accepted curriculum these days, and it’s defined as daily lessons and assignments structured to prepare each student for the standardized tests utilized for determining a student’s knowledge base, grading teacher effectiveness, ranking schools and school districts, and of course, determining the acceptability of certain students at particular colleges.

With a basic structure that has not changed in 124 years, it seems clear that our education system is not properly preparing students for a world that has changed drastically in the past 3 decades. Many make the argument that the future success of students will be determined by what are called “soft skills”: confidence, ability to collaborate, creativity, time management, critical thinking, and decision making. There are interviews from managers at Google and Khan Academy stressing that these are the skills they already seek in new hires.

There are defenders of the current system. They claim it’s all part of the game we play, and that students must survive the grind … just as their parents and their grandparents did. Opponents say students are being treated as data points, not people or future contributors. Whiteley takes us inside of High Tech High in San Diego. It’s an experimental campus committed to finding new ways to teach, so that students learn and retain and accomplish. One of their most impactful evaluation points come from group projects that are presented to faculty, parents and the community. It’s fascinating to watch the students work towards their goal, and equally interesting to hear the parents talk about personal growth of the students.

Whiteley includes the spot on quote from John Dewey: “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow”. Though the film doesn’t touch on the highly charged political landscape or the importance of teacher education and preparation, it is quite effective in generating thought and discussion about what responsibility we have towards students, and how we can improve the odds that they will grow into contributing members of society. For more information on the film, or to schedule a screening at your school or organization, go to www.mltsfilm.org

THE WOLFPACK (documentary)

wolfpack Greetings again from the darkness. In what is one of the oddest real life stories I have ever seen, director Crystal Moselle takes her camera inside the Lower East Side apartment of the Angulo family – 6 brothers, one sister, and their parents. In their spare time, the kids re-enact movies within the apartment using elaborate costumes, sets and props. And no, that’s not the odd part.

Despite being mostly teenagers, these siblings have only left their apartment a few times in their life – a very few times … maybe once or twice a year, and not at all one year. They have been home schooled by their mother and are quite charming and articulate, despite the quasi-prison environment. The kids are not abused in the physical sense, but an argument can be made that mental anguish is in play here.

Their movie scenes are fun to watch, especially given their Tarantino leanings with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Ms. Moselle manages to capture a significant amount within the confines of the apartment. Her interviews with the boys are enlightening, but it’s the mother that provides the most context. Her regrets and dashed dreams for her kids cause her much pain, and it’s quite clear that the dad has some type of psychological vice grip on the family. The dad raises some eyebrows when he states “My power is influencing people”. As viewers, we don’t see this, but there is physical proof to his claim.

With no shortage of powerful moments, there are still two that jump off the screen. The first occurs as the boys head out on their own to watch their first movie in a real theatre, and then have such a fan boy moment after watching The Fighter. The second involves the mom having a conversation with her mother after not speaking for more than two decades. It’s an emotional moment.

We can’t help but like the boys and pull for them to find some normalcy outside the walls of the apartment. Their final film project needs no additional commentary as the lead character watches various emotions travel past his window … fitting since a NYC apartment window provided this family its only glances at the real world for so many years.


ARGO (2012)

October 15, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Based on a true story” is always a bit unsettling to see at the beginning of a movie. There are so many degrees to truth (especially when told by Hollywood), that we are never really sure how big the dosage might be. With this film, we get the inside track on the all-too-familiar Iranian hostage situation that began on November 4, 1979 and ended 444 days later with the release of 52 U.S. Embassy workers. The story within that story is the focus … six escaped as the Embassy was being seized.

The film begins with a Cliff’s Note history lesson on the fall of the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran and the assumption of power by Ayatollah Khomeini. The six who escaped were welcomed into the home of the Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (played with grace by Victor Garber). Of course, this had to be kept secret or a terrible situation could have taken a turned much worse.

 This story really takes off when the CIA gets involved and drums up a scheme to extricate the six in hiding. Ben Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, the real life CIA Agent, who uses the international fascination with movies to create a plan that involves making a fake Star Wars rip-off with the help of award winning make-up artist John Chambers (Planet of the Apes) and a long-time and old school Hollywood producer named Lester Spiegel. These two inject the film with humor and positive energy as played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin. Their levity is much appreciated given the unrelenting tension delivered by the rest of the story.

 This is extraordinary filmmaking thanks to the script from Chris Terrio, realistic camera work from Rodrigo Prieto and top-notch directing by Ben Affleck … yes, the same Ben Affleck who stars in the film. The team creates a period piece that has not just the look and feel of 1979-80, but some of the most gut-wrenching on screen tension since Three Days of the Condor or Munich. Many thrillers utilize car chases and gunfire. Here, we get personal tension thanks to politics and real life unknowns.

The film is perfectly cast and strong support work is provided by Bryan Cranston as the CIA chief, Kyle Chandler as Hamilton Jordan, Bob Gunton as Cyrus Vance, as well as Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Clea DuVall and Tate Donovan. There are also brief appearances by Philip Baker Hall, Adrienne Barbeau and the great Michael Parks.

There are only two negatives to the film. First, Ben Affleck is miscast as Tony Mendez. The closing credits show what a perfect job they did with the rest of the cast, but to have a superhero looking American walking around Iran is certain to draw attention where it’s not wanted. Plus, as director, Affleck suffers from Warren Beatty syndrome. He LOVES seeing his face on screen. The number of Alleck close-ups has to push 20. It’s too much too often. Secondly, the final escape scene at the airport is just a bit too Hollywood and really stands out from the rest of the movie. There was no shortage of tension and the Armageddon style chase just looked cheesy.  However, I will admit, the audience with whom I watched, reacted quite emotionally when the race ended how it must.

 Those two things noted, this is Oscar material for sure. If you remember this era, the yellow ribbons and news clips featuring Cronkite, Koppel and Brokaw will bring back a frustrating time in U.S. history. If you are too young to remember, this acts as a reminder of just how powerful and quiet the CIA can be when it is doing its job properly.  Plus it’s nice to see the CIA doing something right, instead of being the bad guys from the Bourne movies.  Alexandre Desplat delivers a fine score, but the story provided plentiful suspense, so the musical guidance wasn’t as crucial.

Don’t miss the final credits as we hear Jimmy Carter narrate his memories as President, and we see real life photos of the six escapees.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you wish to see one of the finest Political thrillers in years OR you need proof that the CIA can be the good guys

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the Iranian hostage ordeal is still too fresh

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w918Eh3fij0