DIFF 2019 Day 3

April 14, 2019

2019 Dallas International Film Festival 

 Greetings again from the darkness. A stormy Saturday sets up perfectly for a full day of watching movies during a festival. Unfortunately, the DIFF scheduled lineup only allowed me to watch 3 today, which is likely my shortest ever Saturday at any film festival.  A short day would have been even shorter had any of the movies actually started on time. On the bright side, all three played to packed theatres … just the way it should be for a festival; and, I saw two terrific and memorable lead performances from (nearly) first time actors. Remember, DIFF runs through April 18, and you can find more information at www.DallasFilm.org

 

 

Here’s the recap of what I watched Day 3:

 

BEFORE YOU KNOW IT

 The world of cinema has been slow to evolve, but these days we are getting more projects with women telling stories about women … and few have done it better than this one from director Hannah Pearl Utt, who co-wrote the script with Jen Tullock. Both also star in the film, and casting themselves proves very effective at delivering the message.

“Stage Manager” (and writer) Rachel (Ms. Utt) and actress Jackie (Ms. Tullock) are sisters who live a kind of bohemian lifestyle above a community theatre with their playwright dad (Mandy Patinkin) and Jackie’s 12 year old daughter Dodge (Oona Yaffe). There are daily struggles with this family. Money is always scarce. Dodge is growing up fast. Jackie and Rachel have very few career options, and Dad is a stubborn man who had one successful play and many that were, umm, not so successful.

An unexpected development has the grown sisters accidentally discovering their mother is not deceased (as they had lived most of their lives believing), but rather a famous soap opera actress (a terrific Judith Light). The rest of the story has this broken family trying to connect, while overcoming the assumptions that had been made based on a family history created by trying to protect kids from the truth.

Humor is injected to help soften some of the more emotional and dramatic moments, and there is a sense that the story-telling of Woody Allen films was an influence … plus there’s a visual near the end that evokes memories of MANHATTAN. Supporting work is provided by Mike Colter (“Luke Cage”), Alec Baldwin, Tim Daly, Peter Jacobson and newcomer Arica Himmel. The film also tosses in a hilarious ‘caterer’ line in regards to fashion, a singing Manny Patinkin, and most importantly, some terrific insight from two talented filmmakers.

 

PREMATURE

 While watching this latest from writer-director Rashaad Ernesto Green and co-writer Zora Howard, I kept flashing back to the strong reaction I had to IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK. That’s high praise. Co-writer Howard delivers not just a touching and realistic screenplay, but also a stunning debut as a feature length film actress. She plays Ayanna, a sharp young woman with a bright future – she’s headed to university after graduation, a rarity for her community.

Life often throws hurdles in our path, and Ayanna falls hard for handsome Isaiah (Joshua Boone). It’s a whirlwind romance that builds quickly over the summer. The first shoe drops when Isaiah’s ex-girlfriend shows up, which is soon followed by two much bigger and more impactful proverbial shoe drops. Through it all, Ayanna’s reactions come across as so real (and so atypical for Hollywood), and much of that is due to the expressiveness portrayed by Ms. Howard.

Filmed in Harlem, there is an organic quality to the interactions with the girls in this close-knit group. They may bicker and prod, but when support is needed, true friendship reacts quickly. The same is true for Ayanna’s mother (Michelle Wilson). Many parents can relate to their relationship between parent and kid ready to leave home. However, tiger mom emotions rear up at the time of need, and Ms. Wilson and Ms. Howard both have scenes that are seared into my brain.

Isaiah is into music, and Ayanna is a talented writer. Some of her poetry and lyrical philosophy is delivered as narration, and music also plays a key role in the tone of the film. This is an ultra-rare realistic relationship film and it also carries a “my body, my choice” message that rings true. In this community, many young women’s lives are altered by becoming mother’s at an early age, and the words that stick are “we were too young to live this old.”

 

THIS WORLD WON’T BREAK

 It’s easy to believe this is a Texas film through and through; however, it’s incredible to think it was made for only $36,000. Writer-director Josh David Jordan presents his feature film debut as the story of Wes Milligan, a 40 year old troubadour questioning his lot in life. We’ve seen music films about rising stars and we’ve seen them about falling stars, but it’s unusual to see a profile of a guy just plugging along.

Greg Schroeder plays Milligan and it is a terrific acting debut. Yes, he’s a very talented singer-songwriter, but somehow Mr. Schroeder is even more impressive in the humanistic and personal moments in the film. It’s interesting to note that as important as music is to Wes, we never actually see him perform on stage in front of an audience. Each song he sings is a personal moment, usually for just one other person: his fishing buddy Catfish (Mitchell Parrack), young neighborhood boy Sonny (Sonny Jordan), his widower Pops (Matthew Posey), or a local woman performing a hula hoop routine (Roxanna Redfoot). Oh, he also sings a very touching one over an answering machine for Roxanna – it’s his best attempt at flirtation.

The film looks great courtesy of cinematographer Chris Bourke, and it should be noted that director Jordan co-edited the film with his 17 year old son Julian. Kicking off with a couple of quotes from Lightnin’ Hopkins and Townes Van Zandt, many life lessons are served up for those paying attention. We feel Wes’ pain when he states, “I’m still here and nobody knows it”, and when he defines “don’t take any wooden nickels” for Sonny, we understand what he’s saying.

Many Dallas sites and architectural highlights make appearances, as does George Dunham from radio station The Ticket, who plays a country music DJ. Despite all of that, this is mostly about coming to grips with life … how crucial a support network is, and how alcohol (and lots of it) contribute to self-doubt and unclear thinking. Above and beyond, regardless of one’s situation, there is so much truth to the adage, “You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone”.

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DIGGING FOR FIRE (2015)

August 26, 2015

digging for fire Greetings again from the darkness. If one is evaluating the most misleading movie trailers of the year, this one would definitely be a contender. Rather than the carefree, laugh-a-minute, hanging with buddies, offbeat comedy it’s presented to be, it’s actually a rather dramatic observation piece on adult responsibilities and the changes we go through with marriage, kids, jobs, and so on. Think of it as an adult-coming-of-age weekend.

Writer/director Joe Swanberg has become a festival favorite with such previous films as Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas. He co-wrote this script with Jake Johnson, who also stars as Tim, husband to Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt). As the film begins, we quickly realize Tim and Lee are terrific parents to their young son Jude (director Swanberg’s real life son), but are also a bit emotionally-strained with the whole marriage and adult responsibility thing.

A pretty amazing ensemble cast delivers a 90 minute acting seminar based not so much on plot, as two separate spousal adventures. Using a client’s beautiful home as their own family retreat, Lee and Tim quickly decide to spend a weekend apart – so that Tim can finish their taxes, and Lee can hit up her parents for Jude’s pre-school tuition. Of course, watching Tim work on his taxes wouldn’t be much of a movie, so instead, he finds a rusty revolver, and what appears to be a human bone, in the backyard. With Lee and Jude gone, Tim invites his friends over for beer, snacks and help with the gun/bone mystery. This leads to appearances by Sam Rockwell, Chris Messina, Mike Birbiglia, Brie Larson and Anna Kendrick.

Lee’s trip home permits quick exchanges with both of her parents (Judith Light, Sam Elliott), an ego-boosting interlude with Orlando Bloom, and a visit with old friends played by Ron Livingston and Melanie Lynskey. Ms. Lynskey’s appearance seems especially fitting, as the tone of the movie is very much in line with her TV show “Togetherness” with Mark Duplass. The “tone” is related to people who aren’t so much unhappy being married as they are curious as to what they are missing. These people haven’t adjusted to the fact that life isn’t always a party, and it’s not really possible to recapture the carefree days with your old friends. Sam Rockwell’s character is a stark reminder of this.

The book “Passionate Marriage” makes multiple appearances in the movie, and it’s clear that the lead characters believe they are losing their self, rather than evolving. It asks the question about what is “happy”, and just how crucial it is to be open to the changes life brings.

The classic song “Li’l Red Riding Hood” from Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs gets a prime spot during the film and is much more enjoyable than the slightly annoying New Age score that is overused through many scenes. This isn’t really a mystery about the gun and bone, and it’s not really about old friends or saving a marriage. It’s mostly about coming to grips with life and taking joy in the good things … like a cute little boy and a trusted partner with whom to share each day.

watch the trailer: