DIFF 2015 – Day 1

April 11, 2015

 

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2015

Day 1 – Friday April 10

I missed the Opening Night Gala at the Majestic Theatre last night, but took in three films on the first full day of this year’s festival.

Below is the day’s recap, and a reminder that I seek out the deep cut indies and documentaries that may or may not gain mass market distribution.

 

RED ON YELLA, KILL A FELLA (2015)

DIFF – Texas film series

Red on yella Co-writers and co-directors Duane Graves (from San Antonio) and Justin Meeks manage to hit all extremes with comedy, violence and drama as they trek across some of the roughest Texas terrain. Tongue-in-cheek westerns are rare, and this one never falls into true parody, but instead uses hyper-dramatic music and dialogue delivery to balance the gun play and hardened outlaw activities.

Mr. Meeks also stars as Claude “Sweet Tooth” Barbee, who is leading his band of outlaws across Texas in an attempt to re-claim the gold from a previously botched train robbery. The character name is from a real life outlaw and the actions are loosely based on real life train robber Sam Bass. Meeks is clearly having a ball playing the type of colorful bad guy that actors dream about.

Screen veteran Pepe Serna has a brief but memorable role, and one that is crucial to story development. He too, seems to relish the chance to play a nasty guy. The rest of the cast, many of whom were present at the screening, all seem to have bought into the vision … whether their character is quickly filled with lead or manages to eke out a line or two or three. Every movie lover will quickly recognize the actor playing the Doc as Michael Berryman from The Hills Have Eyes (1972).

The ringing of a bell, a young ventriloquist, twins, prairie land nightmares, a hooker with an ulterior motive, and family revenge all play a role as this group of outlaws is hunted by more than just the Sheriff as they make their way to the coast. With unusual lines of dialogue such as “Shut that puppet up”, and a misleading sign that reads “Lodgers Welcome”, Graves and Meeks deliver an unusual look at the old west and those that inhabited this rugged land.

 

RAIDERS! THE STORY OF THE GREATEST FAN FILM EVER MADE (2015, doc)

DIFF 2015

raiders! Most documentaries are pretty simple to recap: A filmmaker makes a movie about a topic or person. However, simplicity just doesn’t fit here. Filmmakers Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen made a movie about the making of a movie that is a movie re-made in honor of a movie that was already made.  This isn’t Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness which portrays his difficulty in making Apocalypse Now. Far from it. This is a modern day look back at two/three geeky eleven year old boys making a shot-for-shot remake of Steven Spielberg’s classic Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Coon and Skousen catch up with forty-somethings Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos and Jayson Lamb as they are trying to put together the financing and logistics to film the final scene of their unfinished movie Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation. These are the same boy that started the process in 1982 and filmed each of the next seven summers until they graduated from high school.

If you are a total film geek, you have probably heard of their film and know that it has been an underground film favorite for years. But you may not know the real life details behind it and certainly not the modern day drama of Eric and Chris as they try to complete it. How about some interviews with their mothers? How about the real world possibility that Eric risks losing his job to complete this thirty plus year old kid’s summer project? How about the personal struggles of Chris over the years, or the fallout with Jayson as he is left out of this final chapter?

Director Eli Roth was instrumental in spreading the word of this film project throughout Hollywood, and the boys even got invited to meet with Spielberg. Mostly we are left with the fascination that young boys can have such passion and persistence over so many years. When asked about whether they missed out on their childhood, Chris responds “We filmed childhood”. A true and fitting response, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Fortunately, Coon and Skousen do.

 

THIS ISN’T FUNNY (2015)

DIFF 2015

Yes, it is funny. And it’s also not funny. This little relationship gem breaks down into 3 chapters … conveniently and obviously noted with title placards: Before, Together, After.

The story follows Juice Bar manager Jamie and stand-up comedian Eliot as their worlds literally collide in a chance meeting that doesn’t, on the surface, set the stage for love ever after. Director and co-writer Paul Ashton plays Jamie and co-writer Katie Page plays Eliot, and their natural onscreen rapport comes courtesy of their real life relationship (as they disclosed in the post screen Q&A).

Don’t mistake this for some simple rom-com. There is a lot going on here and it swirls around not just their budding romance, but also their individual lives. It’s very interesting how the story offers commentary on such topics as how young adults still use their parents as an excuse for their own lack of career success and/or happiness. In an interesting twist, it also allows us to view those same parents (including Mimi Rogers and David Pasquesi) as real people with their own issues, rather than just a drag on the “kids”. And speaking of parenting, Jamie and Eliot go through some rather unique soul-searching on the topic.

If that’s still not enough subject matter for you, we also witness Eliot’s struggles with anxiety. Her trips to a therapist are a battleground for medication levels – Eliot wants to be free of them, and wonders if they are a crutch or actually help. No judgments here, just wonderful material for further discussion.

On top of all that, we are treated to some sterling stand-up from Beth Stelling and Ahmed Bharoocha who are both extraordinarily talented comics. Plus Ms. Page more than holds her own at the microphone, as she brings Eliot’s personal life (and poor Jamie’s mishaps) to her material.  You should also be prepared for the most outrageous performance of Anthony LaPaglia’s career. He’s a riot.

It’s a joy to see an indie with such depth, insight and commentary on what relationships are like in today’s ever-changing world.


THE WEDDING RINGER (2015)

February 14, 2015

wedding ringer Greetings again from the darkness. The only real determination of success for a comedy … does it make you laugh? If it makes you laugh, the movie has served its purpose for you. These movies are made for audiences, not film critics, which is why so few mainstream comedies play the film festival circuit.

Comedian Kevin Hart has seemingly been EVERYWHERE the past five years. He is funny, hard-working and talented. Unfortunately, most of his film projects are elevated by his talent rather than the other way around. This first feature film from director and co-writer Jeremy Garelick has an interesting premise … a much better premise than HITCH … and benefits from an on screen connection between Hart and Josh Gad, despite scene after scene taking the cheap laugh rather than the smart one.

Gad plays Doug, a socially inept nice guy who is marrying well above his pay grade. Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting (“The Big Bang Theory“) plays his fiancé – the rich girl forcing Doug to come up with 7 groomsmen for their wedding. Since poor Doug has no real friends, he jumps at the chance to capitalize on the services of Hart’s Best Man, Inc. Evidently there are so many men without friends that it’s necessary to have a business of best men and groomsmen-for-hire.

There is nothing subtle or smart about the approach here, and the story line and ending are absolutely predictable if you watch the two minute trailer. Still, there are some very funny moments courtesy of Hart and Gad, and my guess is most viewers will enjoy a few laughs, even if they forget most of this once they leave the theatre.

Supporting work is provided by Ken Howard, an on-fire Cloris Leachman, Mimi Rogers, Jorge Garcia and Josh Peck. Olivia Thirlby (Juno) plays sister to the bride, and it’s yet another example of a film wasting the talent of this terrific actress. Why is she always the friend, the sister or some other second fiddle role? In a bizarre football sequence, there are cameos from Joe Namath, Ed “Too Tall” Jones and John Riggins. Where the film missed a huge opportunity was in the casting of the “groomsmen”.  Think back to Michael Keaton’s The Dream Team (1989) where Christopher Lloyd, Peter Boyle and Stephen Furst contributed laughter, rather than just the absurdity we get here from the groomsmen.

The film is content hanging out in the middle as a no-apologies mainstream comedy, and has no aspiration for comedic greatness, or social commentary on the differing ideas of friendship between men and women. Still, the moments of laughter courtesy of Hart and Gad prove that making people laugh is a valuable talent, and laughter is good medicine … no matter how short-lived.

watch the trailer:

 


HOPE SRINGS (2012)

August 17, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. I often give extra credit to filmmakers for trying something challenging and different, even if the final product might fall a bit short. What I refuse to do is ignore the opposite … a lazy attempt by a filmmaker who thinks they can skate by simply because they picked a interesting topic. Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) takes the screenplay from Vanessa Taylor and then seems to sit back and bank on the strength of three lead actors to make a statement.

Meryl Streep is the greatest living actress and maybe the greatest of all-time. She can turn any character into a subject of interest and doesn’t disappoint here as Kay, the disenchanted wife of Arnold, played by Tommy Lee Jones (himself an excellent actor). In an effort to save a marriage gone stale after 31 years, she books a week of intensive marriage counseling with Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carell). Grumpy Arnold reluctantly agrees to attend despite his belief that all is “fine” with their marriage for the singular reason that it’s lasted 31 years.  Besides that, he has golf to watch on TV … well, “watch” with his eyes closed.

What follows is not the laugh-fest promised by the trailer, but rather a semi-serious look at marriage for the over-60 generation. I say semi-serious because intense and thoughtful topics are raised, but the film continually makes U-Turns at each fork in the road so as to avoid coming up with any real solution or digging deeper into cause/effect. Instead, some prime opportunity is wasted for this to be either a riotous look at marital frustration or an intriguing dive into what makes men and women of this generation unable to communicate.

My contention is that just because this is a movie about marriage for 60-somethings, we shouldn’t give the filmmakers a gold star for effort. The great John Wooden said, “Never mistake effort for results“. There are some humorous moments … some laugh out-loud moments, but not very many. There are some serious topics broached, but only by skimming the surface. Mostly, the scenes are obvious and predictable and Streep and Jones carry the burden of lifting the material.  As a movie lover, I demand more.

 The three leads are excellent. Mr. Carell does a nice job of playing the understated counselor role. He is smart enough to know that this film belongs to Streep and Jones. There is also minor support work from Ben Rappaport, Marin Ireland, Mimi Rogers and Elisabeth Shue. All of these characters seem tossed in for variety only. None really drive the story. though it seems either one more or one less scene with with Shue in the bar would have made sense. The first 20 minutes of the film has three songs that just overpower the scenes.  I guess this is to ensure that every viewer recognizes the mood of the characters.  It’s as if the director recognized the material was lightweight.

I have labeled this genre Gray Cinema, and have previously stated that I expect we are on the front end of this trend as baby boomers demand more movies about themselves. The trend is commendable, but again I say, we should demand more and better.  Showing up is half the battle … now let’s see the other half.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy watching the great Meryl Streep brilliantly craft another of her cinematic characters

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you find the raising of issues to be a starting point, not a finish line for a story

watch the trailer: