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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LIFE ITSELF (2018)

September 21, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The theory is that heavy dramas find it challenging to attract an audience during times when real life and newscasts are filled with daily downers. One need only tune in to the local news to see that we are in just such a “downer” period right now, and it would be difficult to argue that this latest from writer/director Dan Fogelman (“This is Us”) is anything but the weightiest of heavy dramas – with an emphasis on the preciousness of time and life.

It’s highly likely that this film will fall into the love it or hate it category. It’s a sure bet that many critics will bash it as pretentious and overly melodramatic. It will be labeled a manipulative tear-jerker with outlandish coincidences. I won’t debate the merits of that criticism, and instead will remind all that creative fictional storytelling can often seem fantastical and improbable, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be entertaining, thought-provoking, and carry a worthwhile message.

Because of the overlapping and intertwining stories, characters and timelines, filmmaker Fogelman breaks the film into 5 chapters. This should allow most viewers to keep track. Chapter 1 is entitled “The Hero” and features Samuel L Jackson as the unreliable narrator – a recurring theme throughout. It’s also in this chapter that we meet Will and Abby. Will (Oscar Isaac) is an emotionally unstable man who has been in a mental institute for the 6 months since his wife Abby (Olivia Wilde) left him. He is despondent and attending required sessions with a therapist played by Annette Bening, and we get cutesy flashbacks to the Will and Abby courtship. See, Abby and Will are the kind of couple who see themselves as Tarantino characters, argue about the merits of Bob Dylan (poet or Chewbacca noises?), and come up with the worst dog name in cinematic history.

Chapter 2 is where we meet Dylan Dempster, daughter of Will and Abby, and granddaughter of Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart. She is named after the poet songwriter, not the Star Wars character. There is a cool effect that evolves Dylan’s face from a child surrounded by death and tragedy to a just-turned-21 year old played by Olivia Cooke (THOROUGHBREDS), who also happens to front an atrocious punk rock band and flashes quite the temper. Chapter 3 shifts from New York City to Carmona, Spain where we are introduced to “The Gonzalez Family” of Javier (an outstanding Sergio Peris-Mencheta), his wife Isabel (another excellent performance from Laia Costa, VICTORIA), and Javier’s boss Saccione (Antonio Banderas). Javier works Saccione’s olive orchard, as he and Isabel start a family. Chapter 4 focuses on their son Rodrigo (Alex Monner) as he grows into a talented young man while his beloved mother suffers with a debilitating disease. Finally, in Chapter 5 we meet Elena Dempsey-Gonzalez (Lorenza Izzo) and the story comes full circle … or all the dots are connected. Even the identity of the narrator who took Samuel L Jackson’s place after Chapter 1 is revealed.

Filmmaker Fogelman seems to be better suited as a writer (CRAZY STUPID LOVE) than as a director (DANNY COLLINS), and his script here is extraordinary in its ambition. While there may be some developments that seem contrived, there are also some terrific moments throughout. We see a cross-continent ripple effect that makes this the CRASH of family dramas (the 2004 movie, not the one from 1996). Who is a hero and who is a villain is one of the key elements here, but Fogelman seems intent on making the point that traumatic events and tragedy shape who we are as people. The message is that our ability to bounce back – to “stand up” after being knocked down, is really what defines the human experience. For those who keep an open mind, the emotional jolts provided here will likely resonate.

watch the trailer:


WONDER (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. What a pleasant surprise and crowd-pleasing treat from director Stephen Chbosky! Ordinarily, if you tell me a Julia RobertsOwen Wilson movie is opening, I would experience nightmares of Malcolm McDowell in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE with his eyelids forced open by metal prongs attached to a head immobilizer (Don’t expect any other reviews of this film to reference the Kubrick classic). It’s based on the New York Times bestseller and it’s a throwback to the days of sweet message films that don’t require explanations before recommending.

I can’t wait for Halloween!” exclaims Auggie. While it’s not difficult to imagine any kid looking forward to this big day, very few would share Auggie’s reason. Through narration, he informs us that he’s “not an ordinary kid”. After a startling birth, he’s been through 27 surgeries. Auggie has genetic facial deformities, and it’s not the Halloween candy he anticipates; it’s the one day with a level-playing field for him, as other kids wear their costume masks and he can simply blend in. Feel the tug on the heartstrings yet? You will.

Jacob Tremblay (ROOM) plays Auggie, and Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson play his loving parents. Until now, he’s been home-schooled by Mom, but it’s 5th grade and time for “real” school. Auggie’s older sister Via is played beautifully by Izabela Vidovic. This is very much her story as well. She carries a burden that few understand, and even briefly finds peace in her fabricated time as an “only child”. Previously, she had described Auggie as the sun, and the rest of the family as orbiting planets. Not only is it a wonderful performance from Miss Vidovic, but kudos to the filmmakers for casting a 16 year old actress as a high schooler. Typically these roles go to actors in their mid-20’s (a pet peeve of mine).

The film kicks into gear, and we really begin to get to know Auggie, once school starts. Mandy Patinkin plays the principal Mr. Tushman (a name he embraces), and we get the expected nice kid Jack Will (Noah Jupe), the rich bully Julian (Bryce Gheisar), and the popular girl Charlotte (Elle McKinnon). Some of the characters have various segments of the film named after them, and though these are quite loosely told, they do provide some semblance of structure to the film and keep viewers focused on the diverse personalities. A Science Fair, field trip and school play (Our Town) each provide critical turning points, and of course, most of the film is based on Auggie’s impact on those whose path he crosses.

Although we are subjected to one of Julia Roberts’ patented cackles, it doesn’t ruin the sentiment or message that Auggie delivers. Daveed Diggs has a nice turn as a teacher, and the always wonderful Sonia Braga makes a much-too-brief appearance. Director Chbosky previously gave us the gem THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, and this time out he allows us to explore the fragility of friendship and family, and the importance of toughness in an individual. The ending is pure Hollywood, but we should accept the crowd-pleasing cheesiness and be thankful for a pleasant, entertaining family movie.

“We need a renaissance of wonder. We need to renew, in our hearts and in our souls, the deathless dream, the eternal poetry, the perennial sense that life is miracle and magic.”

– E. Merrill Root (1895 – 1973)

American Writer

watch the trailer: