DIFF 2017: Day Three

April 4, 2017

The Dallas International Film Festival runs from March 31 – April 9, 2017

 This was my first 5 movie day since last year’s festival, and it comes on the heels of the four from yesterday. Sometimes a film festival can be an endurance challenge, but the Dallas International Film Festival offers such a diverse selection of films, it feels like a mistake to miss an opportunity to view unique films, some of which might struggle to get distribution. Below is a recap of the five films I watched on Sunday April 2, 2017:


Admittedly, this is one of the films that jumped off the schedule when first going through the programming for this year’s DIFF. The magic of music in movies has always fascinated me, and many movies and their scores are so inter-connected that you simply can’t think of one without the other: Jaws; Star Wars; The Magnificent Seven; The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly; Psycho; Gone with the Wind; James Bond; Batman; Titanic; Chariots of Fire; Jurassic Park … chances are, just reading that list caused you to hear the themes!

Director Matt Schrader, in his directorial debut, takes us back to the beginning to explain that silent films weren’t ever really silent. There was invariably live or recorded musical accompaniment to help muffle the sound of the projector. But it was Max Steiner’s score for King Kong in 1933 that really changed the game. His music transformed the film from schlocky special effects B-movie into a tense, thrilling cinematic experience.

This is so much more than a history of important and beautifully written scores. Director Schrader interviews most of the well-known film composers working today. He gains insight into their writing process, commentary on the ground-breakers who came before them, and a look at how technology, new instruments, new styles, and a different approach are always in the works.

Some of those interviewed include Rachel Portman (the only female included here), Randy Newman, Danny Elfman, Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, and Thomas Newman (son of Alfred). There is also a well-deserved segment reserved entirely for the great John Williams, and we get reminders of the revolutionary composers like Jerry Goldsmith (Planet of the Apes, Chinatown) and Bernard Hermann (Psycho), as well as Henry Mancini (The Pink Panther), Monty Norman (Bond), and Ennio Morricone (westerns). A quick segment that proves quite entertaining is Mark Mothersbaugh (formerly of Devo) telling the story of how he used a toy piano for the score of Rugrats, but somehow no longer has possession of the little piano anymore.

Oscar winning composer Hans Zimmer is a recurring voice throughout and provides some structure to the numerous interviews and segments. It’s pretty funny to see this highly accomplished, world-renowned composer in his early days as a keyboardist for The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” (the first video played on MTV). More importantly, Mr. Zimmer discusses the insecurities and pressures that go along with the job, and how change (such as his aggressive sounds) isn’t always welcomed openly.

The technical aspects of creating the score are certainly not ignored. We get a glimpse inside Abbey Road Studios, and how thrilling it is for the composer to hear the live orchestra bring the music to life that first time. It also serves as a reminder that film composing employs a significant number of the live orchestral musicians working today, and that we all hope technology doesn’t replace that imperfect beauty of the real thing.

If there is a disappointment in the film, it’s that the recently deceased James Horner seems woefully short-changed, with only a brief post credits segment featuring director James Cameron who, as usual, spends the time talking more about himself than the impact of Horner. Adding a scientific perspective was a nice touch. Hearing that our brains respond to movie music in a similar manner to chocolate and sex made a great deal of sense; as I’ve often wondered if film scores are more manipulative or complementary in nature. This documentary is a must for movie lovers, and on a personal note, made me miss my friend Adam very much. He would have certainly enjoyed this one and had a great deal to say about it.



Most documentaries with an artist as the subject offer little more than a retrospective of the work. It’s rare that we get to explore the mind and creative process in a way that brings us a little closer to their world, while also magnifying the gap. This is Sandra Adair’s first foray into directing, though she is an Oscar nominated Film Editor (Boyhood), and she works wonders in getting Lance Letscher to open up and share his ideas, insecurities and reactions.

The first question we might ask is, why does he do this? Working in solitude with an Exacto knife and surrounded by piles of books, album covers, board games, signs and magazine pages, Mr. Letscher creates some amazingly detailed collages out of everyday materials – most of which have been discarded by previous owners.

Much of the film revolves around a commissioned project for a large outdoor piece to hang on the building that houses a book store on South Congress Avenue in Austin. Having not typically worked with metal, Letscher lets us in on some of the frustrations he has – which leads to a form of artistic procrastination. When things do finally click, it’s enthralling to see how quickly his vision comes to life.

Also fascinating is seeing how his right brain and left brain work in conjunction to create these diagrams of thought. He claims his subconscious mind is responsible for much of his creations, but we slowly come to realize Letscher is a rare blend of art and engineering. This blend results in such unusual projects as gliders/planes and motorcycles, in addition to his customary collage work.

Director Adair does not limit the framework to art. We get to know part of what makes Letscher the man tick. He jokes about his childhood nickname “Trance”, while later coming clean on his father’s depression and suicide – and how that has impacted him as a father, husband and artist. He acknowledges his tendency to take the “path of greater resistance” even during the process of layout-revision-glue-press. The use of music and intimate camera work create a polished documentary on a man who is doing more than keeping Austin weird – he is keeping it beautiful and interesting.



With all of the documentaries I have scheduled during the festival, it was important to mix in a comedy here and there. This little indie shot in Ft Worth is directed by Jason Headley and stars Matt Jones (“Breaking Bad”), Will Rogers, and Eleanore Pierta. It’s a pretty humorous look at a couple of bumbling house burglars with different objectives, who find themselves in what looks like a no-win situation.

Mr. Jones has a certain stoner quality that makes most everything he says seem like a punchline – even when it’s kind of brilliant. Mr. Rogers captures the essence of guy who is stuck holding on to a past relationship and being unable/unwilling to let go. He finds meaning to seemingly innocuous details that lead him to believe his ex-fiancé still pines for him.

The real fun begins when these two doofuses manage to set the house alarm that effectively locks them in the house they are robbing. Oh, and then they stumble on sleeping Darcy, the housesitter/pet taxi driver who may or may not be as welcome in the home as are the boys themselves.

Niagara Falls and a hide-a-key rock are key players in this comedy that’s good for a few laughs, while also providing a bit of romance-under-stress.



A well-made intense, suspense-filled thriller is about as much fun as one can have watching a movie. Director Cate Shortland (Lore, 2012) delivers just that with this hostage-psychopath saga based on the novel from Melanie Joosten. It also features a best-yet performance from Teresa Palmer.

Clare (Ms. Palmer) is touring Berlin alone (with her camera and backpack) as she seeks life experiences away from her Australian homeland. She spends her days enjoying the culture and architecture of the city and one day crosses paths with Andi (Max Riemelt). He charms her through broken English and they end up with a passion-filled evening. Of course, thanks to the film score, we know something is rotten in Berlin – and in particular with Andi. His innocent looks mask a true psychopath, and he ends up imprisoning Clare in the remote apartment while he goes about his daily life as a teacher. In fact, his outside-the-apartment life could have used a bit more definition. How does this guy fit in? We get only glimpses.

If this sounds like Brie Larson’s Room without the kid, you would be on the right path. The difference being, Clare has only herself to think of – along with survival and escape. In Room, the mother had the well-being of her son to consider. This makes for a more mano y mano situation – a true battle of wits. It’s brutal to watch at times, and is one of those films that forces you to ask, what would you do? At what point do you give up hope of escaping and concentrate on making the best of a situation? The frustrations and anger are palpable, and it shows how difficult it is to use rational thought when combating psychotic behavior.



This low budget Texas indie from director Craig Elrod is based on his 2014 short film Molly. The unorthodox pacing and deadpan delivery provide some quirky and funny moments, in spite of what seems to be a film full of sad characters.

Bookend close-up shots of the two female characters who are key to the story open and close the film. What happens in between probably seemed kind of lame on the written page, but actually works in the hands of a cast that executes most every scene.

Macon Blair plays Bill, and when we first see him, he’s crying while driving his car right into a parked boat. Bill’s a bit of a sad sack and there isn’t much grace to how he handles Molly (Molly Karrasch) breaking up with him. In fact, he’s a bit irrational when he talks his brother John (John Merriman) and simpleton friend Travis (Jason Newman) into tracking Molly to her family beach house on Mustang Island.

Of course, Molly isn’t there, so the boys break in and make themselves at home. What follows is more wrecks, a stolen truck, and an encounter with a bizarre and hilarious “Dance Party” dude (Byron Brown). More importantly, a connection between Bill and a local waitress named Lee (an excellent Lee Eddy) helps him forget the original reason for the trip … at least until Molly shows up!

The movie is plodding at times, but the good parts make up for it – provided you are a fan of deadpan humor and offbeat pacing. Shot in Galveston rather than Mustang Island, the local feel of the beach community is evident and crucial to the tone of the film – as is the spot on score from composer Benjamin Prosser.


November 3, 2016

hacksaw-ridge Greetings again from the darkness. Why doesn’t every high school student learn about Desmond Doss in History class? Beyond that, why isn’t Desmond Doss profiled in every Psychology and Philosophy class? It’s inexplicable that more Americans aren’t familiar with his story, much less failing to honor his legacy with a well deserved tribute. Fortunately director Mel Gibson (Braveheart) and screenwriters Andrew Knight (The Water Diviner) and Robert Schenkkan (“The Pacific”) bring us a spirited look at this underappreciated American war hero.

Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) plays Desmond Doss and perfectly embodies the conviction and dedication of this extraordinary (not hyperbole in this case) man. See, Desmond Doss was one of the first conscientious objectors in the U.S. Army. His religious beliefs (Seventh Day Adventist) prohibited him from using a weapon or killing another person … two things that don’t go over well with fellow soldiers or commanding officers. Yet, Doss was committed to serving his country as a medic and saving lives, rather than taking them.

Unbelievable may be the best description even though his story is absolutely true. Credited with saving the lives of at least 75 wounded soldiers, Doss and his fellow soldiers are depicted in the film fighting the Battle of Okinawa at Hacksaw Ridge … a topographical challenge punctuated by the need to climb a rope wall in order to scale the face of the cliff. Their reward was facing thousands of Japanese hiding in tunnels and bunkers, waiting patiently to kill in mass. There will be no spoilers here on the courageous actions of Doss … you should see for yourself.

The early part of the film features a heart-warming first love story involving Desmond Doss and Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer, The Choice). Watching young love bloom is precious and provides a stark contrast to the battle scenes. The two make a lovely couple and we can’t help but root for them. Once Doss hits basic training, we find Vince Vaughn in the role of Sergeant Howell, Sam Worthington (failing to hide his Aussie accent) as Captain Glover, and Luke Bracey (Point Break, 2015) as Smitty, one of the soldiers who initially has no interest in serving with Doss. The Army Psychologist is played by Richard Roxburgh, whom movies lovers will recognize as The Duke from Moulin Rouge! (2001).

Some of the best scenes involve Desmond’s parents played by screen vets Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths. Both are excellent in roles requiring very different and extreme emotional moments. It’s a credit to Gibson’s filmmaking expertise that he is able to add depth to all aspects – family turmoil, a classic love story, the brutality of war, and the deep religious convictions. There are a few moments of “artistic license” and some of the CGI is inconsistent and even over-produced at times, but the intensity of the battle scenes rival that of Saving Private Ryan and the landing at Omaha Beach. It’s a passionate piece of filmmaking centered on a most passionate man. You may disagree with much of what Mel Gibson has said and done in his personal life (and I hope you do), but as a film director he has earned much respect. And speaking of respect … Desmond Doss. Enough said.

watch the trailer:



March 19, 2016

knight of cups Greetings again from the darkness. Some are calling this the third segment of a Terrence Malick trilogy – in conjunction with The Tree of Life (2011) and To The Wonder (2012). While the first of these three movies is considered an artful thought-inducing commentary on parenting and growing up, the third might just prove director Malick is the ultimate prankster … or maybe this is his grand social experiment to see just how far he can push his viewers.

Let’s start with the positive elements, as that won’t take long. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is an eight time Oscar nominee and three time winner (The Revenant, Birdman, Gravity), and has been the Director of Photography on these three Malick movies. He is a master with the camera, and truly creates art whether he is shooting nature, an isolated figure, or even the convoluted party scene in this latest. All three films are beautiful to look at … which doesn’t necessarily translate to being a pleasure to watch. OK, that’s the end of the good stuff.

The movie title, as well as the chapter titles flashed during the film, originates from Tarot cards. Unfortunately, the in-film titles seem to have little (or no) connection to the scenes that follow, nor those that precede. My guess is that Malick was playing truth or dare, and his opponent dared him to include Tarot cards in his next film … a worthy challenge for any director.

If you are looking for a story or anything approaching coherency or character development, Mr. Malick would have you believe that the trite tradition of beginning/middle/end is dead, and its replacement is a mosaic of barely related fragments with no need for such frivolity as conversation. Sure, the characters move their lips, but mostly what’s heard is whispered narration and mood music.

If somehow you aren’t yet excited to rush out to the theatre, perhaps you may be enticed by the random stream of empty or nearly empty buildings, odd angles of Los Angeles architecture, Christian Bale roaming the rocky desert, Las Vegas (just because), lots of fancy swimming pools, and family members apparently arguing (without us hearing most of their words, of course).

Here is what we know. Christian Bale plays a screenwriter apparently experiencing some type of writer’s block. While blocked, he reflects on his life and the six women with whom he had relationships (Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Frieda Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Isabel Lucas). We know nothing of his character’s writing ability, but it’s obvious he has been successful in attracting beautiful women to his bed – and then, like most guys, screwing things up beyond repair. Bale’s character also has an angry (and perhaps ill) brother (Wes Bentley) and an angry (and perhaps ill) father (Brian Dennehy). At times, they are all angry together and angry at each other, and it’s apparently over the suicide of the youngest brother/son … though we are never clear on who blames who, or if they all blame each other and themselves.

To be sure, Terrence Malick is the only director making movies like this. His films attract the best actors working … even though no script exists. He may be the painter who paints like no other painter, and thereby appeals to the smallest possible audience. What I do know is that I counted 32 fellow movie goers walk out of the theatre during the movie, not to return. It’s possible the popcorn was somehow tainted, but more likely they value their time on Earth.

It’s certainly possible that my mental capacity falls substantially short of what’s required to comprehend the metaphysical Malick message. Or perhaps the project is as pretentious as it seems. Or perhaps I’m just not in on the joke. There is one line from the film that does make a point, “To suffer binds you to something higher than yourself”. Perhaps Malick is providing a service to those of us who suffer through this movie … if only we knew to what we were being bound.

Oh, and what’s with the helicopters?

watch the trailer … try muting the sound and closing your eyes for the full experience.



February 4, 2016

the choice Greetings again from the darkness. When the word formulaic is used to describe a movie or book, it’s typically meant as a disparagement. We must admit, however, that if the formula works, it only makes sense (and dollars) to stick with it. Most Hollywood blockbuster franchises are built around a basic formula – superheroes, romantic-comedies, alien invasions, etc. Author Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook) has taken his tragic-romance novel formula and turned it into big screen gold. This is the eleventh film developed from his writing, and it’s likely to be another successful entry into the Sparks canon.

Director Ross Katz (Adult Beginners, 2015) is at the helm of the screenplay by Bryan Sipe (upcoming Demolition) and many of the familiar Sparks features are present. First off, the key players are all exceedingly attractive – Ralph Lauren model attractive. Secondly, there is a will they/won’t they romance that will of course happen and then may fall apart, but probably won’t. And third, some type of tragedy will occur that will kick off a stream of tears from a certain segment of the audience.

This one begins with a narrator’s humble-brag promising to tell us the “secret of life”. That narrator is Travis, played with an over-flowing abundance of southern charm by Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, 2012). His main vices are a tendency to use “damn” to the point of overkill in most every conversation, and his natural ability to attract the ladies. Oh, and he has a rescue dog and a lake house and he is a veterinarian. See, in the Sparks universe, everyone is beautiful and successful. Travis has his eye on his new neighbor, who is pretending to be annoyed but mostly admits to playing a game of hard-to-get. This is Gabby (Teresa Palmer, Warm Bodies 2013), and she is beautiful and a doctor-to-be. Gabby’s current boyfriend is, of course, a handsome doctor. Ryan is played by Tom Welling (a bit heftier than his days as Clark Kent/Superman in “Smallville”).

The beautiful Maggie Grace (Taken) plays Travis’ sister, and Alexandra Daddario (San Andreas) plays Monica … she is not only beautiful, but she is also the nicest, most understanding and supportive “other” woman ever seen on screen. Tom Wilkinson plays Travis’ veterinarian dad, and Sharon Blackwood plays the wise-cracking and match-making assistant Cora. If that’s not enough beauty and success for you, we also get “puppies in a basket”!

Come for the chuckles and tears … just not twists or surprises. Fans of this genre will get exactly what they want. It’s a romantic fantasy set in the somewhat realistic world of doctors, veterinarians, and equestrians. The faces are perfect. The dialogue is snappy without being demanding (even in the God discussion).  Many scenes feature loyal dogs, or a serene lake, or the “moon and stars”. Even the difficult parts of life – raising kids, health issues, etc – are given the ‘yada, yada, yada’ treatment. While Travis claims over and over that Gabby “bothers him”, it’s the kind of bother that creates a cryfest in the theatre … whether things go right or wrong.  It’s also the reason that all eleven Sparks films feature a couple of lovers on the poster. Just remember, if that formula works ….

watch the trailer (or just guess how it ends):



February 3, 2013

warm2 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been 45 years since George Romero introduced us to Night of the Living Dead, which he followed 10 years later with Dawn of the Dead. In 2004, humor was injected into the zombie genre by Shaun of the Dead, and then in 2009 Zombieland kept it alive, so to speak. Now, thanks to the success of “The Walking Dead”, zombies are the new vampires in Hollywood. Writer/director Jonathan Levine (50/50, The Wackness) turns Isaac Marion’s young adult novel into the first true Zombie Rom-Com … or Zom-Com, if you will.

Many of us were introduced to Nicholas Hoult a decade ago when he was the youngster alongside Hugh Grant in About a Boy. In his latest, Mr. Hoult plays “R”, a self-admitted conflicted zombie in a post-apocalyptic society. In this new world order, there are three distinct groups: Humans, Corpses, and Bonies. Humans are the paranoid types who build a wall and aggressively hunt down the two non-human groups. Corpses are the traditional zombie types who sniff and slog their way through warm3while trying to avoid deadly shots to the head. Bonies are those corpses who have given up all hope and now are indiscriminate in their search for meals.

So all of that sounds quite typical and expected, but what gives this movie its charm is the manner in which we as the viewer connect with R the zombie. His narration provides insight into his ever-present optimism, despite his need to feed on humans. In the film’s turning point, he actually rescues Julie (Teresa Palmer) during a corpse-human battle. Taking her back to his jet liner-condo, they communicate through simple gestures and R’s vintage vinyl collection.

A romantic comedy through the POV of a zombie is a bit unusual, and so is the wit and humor displayed by R. There is minimal warm4actual gore in the film, though you should be prepared for R’s keeping a brain-snack in his pocket in a manner not unlike Napoleon Dynamite’s tot stash. The tip of the cap to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is obvious in the character names, and the similarities to Twilight are inescapable. Still, there is quite a bit new here and most of it is quite enjoyable.

Hoult and Palmer’s on screen dynamics are key to the story, and there is excellent support work from Rob Corddry, John Malkovich and Analeigh Tipton. It would be easy to give away too much here, but instead let’s say that it is surprisingly clever, funny, witty, sweet and entertaining … especially for a Zom-Com that features tunes from Springsteen and Dylan.

**NOTE: despite my surprisingly favorable reaction to this movie, I was a bit shocked by the poor CGI on the Bonies. It’s probably due to budget constraints, but special effects that look outmoded by two decades are tough to overlook.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t mind a surprisingly entertaining romantic comedy half populated by zombies.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: suspension of disbelief is not your strong suit.

watch the trailer: