Festival Files: 2018 Dallas International Film Festival, Dispatch #4

It’s the small victories in life that matter. One of the hottest post-weekend tickets fell to Carlos Lopez Estrada’s Blindspotting. Finding my comfortable seat fairly close in a jam-packed and energized house, it wasn’t long before Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliot sauntered in and settled in the first row. Neck breaking territory, to say the least. It was then the gentleman sitting next to me leaned over and murmured, “Hey, at least we got better seats than an NFL star.” Small victories, indeed.

As for the film itself, it’s also a small victory of independent filmmaking. Part raucous buddy comedy and part simmering social commentary/protest, Blindspotting contains all the elements of being a huge breakout hit this summer.

The buddy comedy aspect comes as Estrada observes two lifelong friends — newly released ex convict Collin (Daveed Diggs) and short tempered Miles (Rafael Casal) — over the course of three days. Collin just wants to survive his halfway house existence and be freed from probation while Miles seems to be trying everything he can to land his buddy back in the slammer: carrying guns; getting in fights; smoking joints. Most of the humor derives from this updated Laurel and Hardy-esque dynamic. The ease with which actors Diggs and Casal interact is startling, and since they also wrote the script, their magnetism seems honed over a period of time.

Things do get tense, though. While driving home one night, Collin witnesses the police shooting of an unarmed man by a white police officer. Initially just part of the racial strife happening in the increasingly gentrified West Oakland neighborhood, it’s an act that will haunt Collin for the rest of the film.

What director Estrada has done is manufacture a timely film that deals with an epidemic in a surprisingly fleet footed way. Seamlessly blending several types of genre into one hugely entertaining film is not an easy thing to do. The shifts and starts Blindspotting makes reminds me of early Tarantino or especially Spike Lee. That the film can have you laughing endlessly one moment and then cringing over the image of a young child playing with a loaded gun the next exemplifies the assured hand that Estrada, Diggs and Casal exert.

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Going into Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline, I was feeling a bit lethargic. Ninety-four minutes later I emerged frazzled and unnerved by the film’s manic and unique vision.

Imagine a psychologically distressed John Cassavetes film on acid. That’s the perfect description I can give it. And this may be actress Helena Howard’s debut film, but it’s a performance for the ages and one that deservedly won the jury acting prize at the festival this year.

Filmed in disorienting, jagged handheld style that rarely leaves the faces of its characters or the unkempt twisted hair of young Madeline, it’s probably best that the outside world is limited. An extremely interior film about the emotionally twisted relationship between troubled teenager Madeline and her “immersive acting” coach Evangeline (Molly Parker), Madeline’s Madeline is more of an experience rather than a straightforward narrative. The mechanics of a story are there but Decker has stripped her third feature film of any recognizable three-act structure and infused the film with a whirlwind of abstract images and difficult emotions. It’s not a matter of when young Madeline will break under the passive aggressive (and not so passive) will of the adults in her life, but how crazy things will get once she does.

Deconstructive one moment and meta-meta the next, Madeline’s Madeline is emotionally bruising, harrowingly funny and oddly moving. It’s disheartening that it remained one of the most coolly received and non-talked about films of the festival.

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The internet is a great thing. The development onto new frontiers in cyberspace and its virtual shadow will be a lively discussion for decades to come. Great media, both literal and visual, have already been produced about the limits and excess of this unknown platform of virtual reality existence.

Hao Wu’s People’s Republic of Desire makes a damning case that we already exist there. Following the lives and fabricated world of two popular Chinese streaming “hosts” on the popular webchat site YY.com, the documentary just made me feel sad for humanity, regardless of the groundbreaking fabrication of life the site produces.

Basically, it’s a streaming service (sans nakedness, surprisingly) that has millions of users watching their favorite people singing, eating, and cheering on the more wealthy “fans” who spend hundreds of thousands buying gifts and votes for their favorites. Culminating in a virtual popularity contest at the end of each year that seems to ultimately define the actual self-worth of these people, Wu’s film focuses on a male, Big Li, and female, Shen Man, as they navigate through their lives both online and off. Honestly, there’s no difference in either, since their whole world is focused on maintaining their status on YY.

For Shen Man, life seems especially stressful since she’s supporting her entire family, including bankrupt father and stepmother who live with her. For Big Li, his marriage suffers from the demands of his online profile, wherein his shock-jock styled loudness seems to be the only thing he cares for in life, besides laying in bed and checking his cell phone.

Some time is spent with poor, lowly “fans” who incessantly follow their favorites and pay money no matter how broke they are, which only deepens the unspoken recklessness of a society losing sight of what’s real and what’s not. Further explanation of people and deep pockets known as “agencies” supporting “hosts” and pushing their popularity through the roof for advantageous profits establishes a ruthless order of bureaucracy not far removed from any other business model.

Slowly, a fractured, lonely and awkward picture of our modern world emerges where everything is based on x and o programmed lies and false stability. I’m sure this was the point to Wu’s Sundance award-winning documentary, but it made it no more enjoyable to see such a vacuum of time and energy. Call it VR-exhaustion, but I couldn’t wait to get out of the theater and into the real world fast enough.

 

 

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