DIFF 2015 – Day 2

April 12, 2015

 

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Day 2 – Saturday April 11

Below is my recap of the three films I caught on Day 2 of this year’s festival:

 

THE AMINA PROFILE (2015, doc)

DIFF 2015

Social Media has changed so much about society: how information is dispersed, how we present ourselves, how we argue points of view, and even how relationships are structured. This documentary from Sophie Deraspe explores each of these points by dissecting a real world chain of events.

With events taking place during Syria’s Arab Spring of 2011, Amina Arraf started a blog entitled “A Gay Girl in Demascus”, where she wrote about both the dangers of being a lesbian in Syria, and the larger societal issues being faced by the populace living in the shadows of a dominating government regime. Her brave words garnered many followers, while also instigating an online romance with Sandra from Canada.

A few months later, Amina’s blog entries suddenly halt and the concern from Sandra and other readers spreads to international media outlets. Ms. Deraspe offers an interesting blend of styles in her approach. On one hand, some of the first images we see come across as a deep artsy film; and then next thing we are getting is talking head interviews with reporters and other concerned followers mixed with actual TV newscasts from the period.

In order to avoid any spoilers, suffice to say that the story comes in two distinct parts. The second half provides some fascinating psychological studies in regards to trust and narcissism, while also forcing us to further question the complacency of news outlets in this new age of readily available information. As the proverbial onion layers are peeled back, we can’t help but wonder who can be trusted and what steps are sufficient for verification.

Probably the biggest takeaway stems from the realization of just how easily we are manipulated and distracted by media outlets who determine what is “news” (what brings ratings) and what can be overlooked … the often more serious topics such as the Syrians who are still “dying in the dark”. This excellent documentary will provide no shortage of material for discussion and soul-searching.

 

THUNDER BROKE THE HEAVENS (2015)

DIFF 2015

thunder Very few things in life bother me more than seeing kids mistreated. It seems so simple: if we want productive caring adults, it’s our responsibility to raise, train, and treat kids accordingly.

In writer/director Tim Skousen’s film, 13 year old Sam (Alexandra Peters) and her 6 year old brother William Paul (Gavin Howe) manage to escape an unthinkable and violent family tragedy that leaves them without parents. This of course leads to foster parents, and though we have seen worse, it’s clear that Sam and William Paul are viewed as little more than a paycheck in their new home. The two kids are never allowed to work through their devastating loss, and instead cling to each other for security.

In fear of being split from her brother and suffering another unbearable loss, Sam takes charge and leads her brother into the woods where she believes she can take care of him and protect him. As smart as she is, 13 year olds have limited survival skills and soon enough the siblings are in need of food and medicine. They cross paths with an understanding bar owner played by Tom Nowicki, and his kindness can be questioned by viewers – is he doing the right thing?

The spirit of the story is alive in each scene thanks to a remarkable performance from Alexandra Peters as Sam. She is stunning in the strength and vulnerability she displays, while also maintaining a childlike curiosity that perfectly captures the notion that every child “deserves a life”. Mr. Skousen has a keen eye for camera work, and it’s especially effective during the Thanksgiving Day in-home tragedy.  And with his heavenly approach to good (and never ending) parenting, it’s a reminder for us to constantly ask if we as parents are making things better or worse for kids.

 

SHE’S THE BEST THING IN IT (2015, doc)

DIFF 2015

shes the best thing If you follow the live theatre, you are likely familiar with Tony winner Mary Louise Wilson. Everyone else will likely recognize her face (not her name) from various TV and movie appearances – ranging from “One Day at a Time” to Nebraska (2013). Ms. Wilson is one of the very few who have enjoyed a fifty plus year career as a character actor. Her own differentiation between a star and an actor: Stars are themselves playing others, while character actors disappear into the role. For her, this is heart of acting.

Director Ron Nyswaner is a well known writer (Philadelphia, The Painted Veil), and this is his first documentary. It would be incorrect to label this as a biopic. Though Ms. Wilson is the main focus of the project, it seems more accurate to call this a portrait of acting … especially female actors. How and why do actors do what they do? What makes them keep going? Mr. Nyswaner admitted during the Q&A that he “loves” and appreciates actors … not something we always hear from writers.

The cameras follow Ms. Wilson to her first teaching gig in New Orleans (where she was raised). Watching this energetic and passionate octogenarian work so hard to connect with a class of twenty year olds is intriguing, and as frustrating at times for the viewer as it is for her pupils. They struggle to comprehend her directions and critiques, as do we. She brings her 50 years experience and the knowledge of her legendary acting mentor Sanford Meisner to a group who mostly seem more in love with the idea of stardom, rather than a desire to develop a craft.

The real insight here comes courtesy of interviews with such actresses as Tyne Daly, Frances McDormand, Valerie Harper, Estelle Parson, and Melissa Leo. These extremely successful people come clean on the hard work, dedication, insecurities and the pain (“That’s the point” according to Ms. McDormand). Though they touch on the topic, I was anxious for more discussion on the challenges women face in the industry. One thing was clear for each … they LOVE acting.

Another enjoyable piece revolves around the reuniting of Ms. Wilson with her sister, a local playhouse actress herself. The two ladies reminisce about their childhood, and what motivated them to escape into “play pretend”. They both agree that being peculiar and feeling inadequate provided the natural desire to escape into roles.

This is one of the best looks at acting that you will find. The struggles, the motivation, the ups and downs, are all captured here in a perfectly titled film.

 


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.