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!)
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)
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)
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.