LIGHT FROM LIGHT (2019)

June 12, 2019

2019 Oak Cliff Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. Festivals are often programmed with many films that will never be screened outside of a festival environment … low-budget passion projects to be viewed only by those with an appreciation (bordering on obsession) of deep cut and one-off films. Writer-Director Paul Harrill (SOMETHING, ANYTHING) has possibly bridged the gap with a film that capitalizes on grief, while excelling in quietness and stillness.

Marin Ireland (“Homeland”) stars as Sheila, a single mom who plods through each day at her dead-end job as a rental car agent. We learn from a radio interview that Sheila may also have a connection to the afterlife, and she sometimes works as a ghost hunter or paranormal investigator – although, she has somehow lost her crew. Still, this doesn’t stop a Priest from reaching out to her in hopes that she can help Richard (Jim Gaffigan), a distraught widower who has reported strange occurrences in his farmhouse – occurrences that may or may not be related to his dead wife, and occurrences that he may or may not be imagining.

Sheila takes the job (even though she’s no Zelda Rubinstein) and recruits her teenage son Owen (Josh Wiggins, so good in HELLION, 2014) and his friend-study partner-would be girlfriend Lucy (Athena Frizzell) to help set up cameras and recording devices at Richard’s house. It’s at this point where it should be noted that this is not a horror film. It’s not even a thriller. And even though Gaffigan co-stars, it’s certainly not a comedy. It’s not even really a ghost story or a romantic tale, although those elements do exist.

The intrigue is derived from these four characters. These are not special or extraordinary people – just normal folks trying to figure out life. We learn the inner struggles of each, and as viewers we are joined at the hip with them. It’s been a year since Richard’s wife died in the crash, and he’s still coming to terms with her death, and even more so, the affair she confessed.  Sheila is wondering where she fits in the world, and her advice to Owen proves the level of overprotectiveness she has for emotion. Owen likes Lucy, but doesn’t see the point in starting a relationship that will end when she heads off to school, and Lucy is confused by his reaction to her strong attraction to him.

Ms. Ireland and Mr. Gaffigan are both excellent here, and having recently seen the latter in THEM THAT FOLLOW, I’m not the least bit surprised that he can pull off such a dramatic turn. The film reaches a different level in their scenes together – especially a hike to the crash site located within the Great Smoky Mountains. Not much is said, and there is little action, but the scene solidifies all the emotions hinted at in the preceding scenes.

A film that might be characterized by some as slow and dull, may just strike a chord with enough folks to gain some momentum for an audience. David Lowery, the director of A GHOST STORY, 2017) is an executive producer, so he has a track record of success with stories that are understated and quiet. Are there ghosts among us – possibly even the living? Richard and Sheila come pretty close. Additionally, special recognition goes out for a practical effect that is the film’s crescendo … and it involves Tolstoy! So rather than view this as a bit of a downer, as the title suggests, we should let there be light.

(I couldn’t find an online 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).


CHUCK (2017)

May 9, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. “That guy could take a punch.” It’s supposed to be a compliment and knowing nod to the machismo and toughness so valued in the world of boxing. Instead that trait is responsible for the two claims to fame for heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner: he shockingly went 15 rounds (minus 17 seconds) against Muhammad Ali in 1975, and was the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s Oscar winning movie Rocky.

Director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar) and the four co-writers (Jeff Feuerzeig, Jerry Stahl, Michael Cristopher, Liev Schreiber) spend very little time in the boxing ring or with the usual training montages, and instead focus on how Wepner’s ego and inability to handle fame affected his family, his health and his life. This is a portrait of Chuck the man, and it’s at times more painful than the barrage of punches Ali landed in Round 15.

Liev Schreiber is outstanding as ‘The Bayonne Bleeder’, the disparaging (but accurate) sobriquet that stuck with Wepner – thanks to his propensity to bleed in most bouts. His self-motivation to “Stay up Chuck” against Ali (played here by Schreiber’s “Ray Donovan” brother Pooch Hall) is what became the foundation for Stallone’s Rocky screenplay. There are a few terrific scenes with Wepner and Stallone (a spot on Morgan Spector) as Wepner desperately tries to latch onto the Rocky bandwagon, going so far as to introduce himself as “the real Rocky”. It’s tough for an actor to get Oscar consideration for a performance in the first half of the year, but Schreiber is worthy.

It’s not the first time we have seen the pitfalls of instant fame and celebrity status, and even though it’s a true story, there is a familiarity to it that makes the plight of this lovable lug quite easy to relate to. Wepner’s blue collar narcissism may have been the cause of much of the pain in his life, but it also allowed him to become a folk hero. His connection with Anthony Quinn in Requiem for a Heavyweight provides all the personality profile we require to grasp Wepner’s make-up.

The supporting cast is strong. Ron Perlman plays Wepner’s manager/trainer Al Braverman, Jim Gaffigan is his hero-worshiping corner man and cocaine accomplice, Elisabeth Moss plays wrongly-done first wife Phyllis, Michael Rappaport is estranged brother John, and Naomi Watts (she and Schreiber ended their long-term relationship soon after filming) as his confidant and second wife Linda. Moss and Rappaport each have very strong scenes … scenes that remind us that these are real people and not part of some fairy tale.

Director Falardeau delivers no shortage of 1970’s cheese – wardrobe, facial hair, disco music, party drugs, and night clubs – but there is also enough humor to maintain balance: Wepner explains after the Ali fight how he tried to “wear him down with my face”. By the end we aren’t sure if Wepner was self-destructive or simply lacking in dependable counsel. Either way, the journey of self-discovery is even more interesting than the boxing career, and the film is punctuated with closing credit footage that provides viewers with a sense of relief. A tragic ending has been averted, and Chuck remains a local Bayonne, New Jersey resident – even if he’s no longer a bleeder.

watch the trailer:

 


IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY (2010)

September 30, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Attended a screening last evening and came away a bit surprised. The preview, thanks in part to Ida Maria’s blaring song “Oh My God”, had me convinced this was going to be a typical slapstick teen comedy. Instead, co-writers and co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck deliver a black comedy-drama that has appeal to both teens and grown-ups. (based on the Ned Vizzini novel)

The story revolves around Craig, a 16 year old who is feeling depressed and suicidal given the pressures of a relentless father, looming college entrance exams and a screwed up social life. You are right if you are thinking this sounds like just about every 16 year old on the planet. The difference here is that Craig checks himself into a psych ward … he ends up in the adult wing, since the teen wing is undergoing renovations. Craig is played by Keir Gilchrist (The United States of Tara), who I can best describe as a young Keanu Reeves clone, only too smart rather than too clueless.

Since this is part comedy, you can imagine the characters who fill the ward. Craig bonds with Bobby, played by Zach Galifianakis, who seems happy to play the mentor role (quoting Dylan) for Cool Craig, but just can’t seem to find the strength to live his own life. Of course, we also get the emotionally damaged hot girl played exceptionally well by Emma Roberts (daughter of Eric, niece of Julia; Nancy Drew). The film accepts its own stereotypes for the other characters with labels such as “the schizophrenic”.

The message of the film seems to be that we all go through stages of doubt and uncertainty, and the best “cure” is to somehow remove the stress and discover our real talents and personality. You may end up creating art in the form of a brain map, or even a music video of Bowie/Queen’s “Under Pressure” (an elaborate inset to the film).  Just live.

The filmmakers evidently struggled with where their line was for the direction of the story. With previous serious films Half-Nelson and Sugar, my guess is their vision was a much more complex and darker script rather than the final version which has more mass appeal. The Zach Galifianiakis character specifically, seemed poised to make a real statement. Instead we are left with his reserved, knowing smile as Craig presents him a gift and the hope of getting together for ping pong. Also, not much story is given to Emma Roberts and her penchant for cutting herself. She seems magically cured after a roof top encounter with Craig. Anyway, the comedy sections are more successful than the drama sections, provided you are able to find humor in the illness and weakness of others.

This is certainly not at the level of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but it is an entertaining film from a comedic perspective. It will probably be remembered as Zach Galifianiakis fist role where he flashed some real acting chops, and hopefully as Emma Roberts breakout role.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy humor derived from the darker elements of life OR you want to say “I was there” when Zach Galifianakis proved he could do more than smirk.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you think a movie should be either a comedy or drama, not both OR hearing the opening riff to “Under Pressure” causes flashbacks to Vanilla Ice explaining how he didn’t sample the song.