Category Archives: Perspectives

Features, festival coverage and historical perspective.

Dallas VideoFest33 Docufest: ‘The First Film,’ ‘Texas Trip,’ ‘Proof’

David Wilkinson’s The First Film fits snuggly into an avenue of programming Dallas VideoFest often champions, which is the inward exploration of film itself, either through a certain filmmaker or a unique tangent of its long history. I’d dare say this film probably extends back into cinematic history as far as one possibly can.

As an actor, writer and producer since the early 1970s, Wilkinson has struggled to gain acceptance of his idea that an early technological pioneer named Louis LePrince is the man responsible for the very first film images taken in the British town of Leeds. Not Paris. Not New York. But Leeds.

Fortunately for him, very small snippets of three LePrince moving pictures still exist. One of them is of a busy street in the center of Leeds’ square. The second documents an employee of LePrince as he slowly skulks around a concrete building corner. And the third (and most impressive) is a seemingly carefree parade of bodies (namely his family) as they pose and have fun on the lawn.

From these seconds of almost deteriorated film, Wilkinson spins a documentary that borders on the conspiratorial. He examines the war of technology being waged around the world, identifying at least 11 other figures who could also be called the fathers of cinema. He visits museums where original cameras belonging to LePrince are housed, giving the viewer a clinic on how they work. He chases down great-great relatives of the man in Memphis and rummages through old letters for clues. He even interviews an attorney to explain how patents are generated.

And did I mention that all of this becomes clouded by the fact that, not long after completing these indelible images in late 1888, LePrince boarded a train and disappeared, never to be seen again? It’s enough to make your head spin, or at least heavily induce the myth that Edison really was a shred businessman with tentacles that could dissect his competition across the ocean.

And Wilkinson does just enough head-spinning and myth-making as he proceeds down various rabbit holes, piecing together tiny strands of long-lost information and inferring what he can from them. And while that can be interesting at times, it also creates a sense of lethargy. Because he follows so many possibilities, The First Film loses its energy in the middle. It’s scholarly, but rigid. It’s determined, then scattershot, especially in the inclusion of certain interviews. It presents too much information, and then not enough. It’s clear Wilkinson is passionate about his life’s project, but it could have used a more incisive thoroughfare to the heart of its subject.

All of this aside, there are piercing moments of cinema history that deserve to be discussed. The full truth of LePrince’s hand in the formation of movies may never be reckoned, but Wilkinson is doing the noble thing by asking questions.


Whether it’s their choice of subject matter or the expansive and chameleon-like landscape of the country, America often looks different when confronted by European filmmakers. Think of the American films of Wim Wenders (especially Paris, Texas) or Jacques Demy’s Model Shop, one of the best films of the 60s for how it elevated the usual California backdrop into a golden playground of vistas for its main characters.

Well, Texas looks downright otherworldly in Steve Balestreri and Maxime Lachaud’s Texas Trip, A Carnival of Ghosts, a free-floating exploration of both dilapidated drive-in theaters and the Texas noise-music scene. An odd combination, yes, but one that works.

We’re first introduced to Mother Fakir, an artist in the Austin area whose voice-over lends a poetic tinge to the film. He talks about his art and the pain that he’s able to block out on stage while performing acts of body horror, which will later get its full due, alongside his droning, pulsating music. Also observed is the band Attic Ted, known for the painted, over sized masks they wear while performing … and apparently while grocery shopping as well.

Interspersed between these bands and their creative-filled days, Balestreri and Lachaud’s film becomes a lament for the weed-infested parcels of land once known to house bustling drive-in movie theaters. Sometimes, the bands take over the space for a concert. Most times they lay dormant and forgotten. There’s no grand statement on how these two tangents of the film intersect. Texas Trip, A Carnival of Ghosts doesn’t seem overly interested in making anything other than a document of a select few people and their environment. This is especially true in the staged tableaux of people in Attic Ted masks standing motionless against a hectic backdrop, most often I-35 or a Wal-Mart parking lot. Hints of a Harmony Korine vibe infest the film, but rest assured, Texas Trip is its own unique beast.

As their debut film, Balestreri and Lachaud have a keen eye for landscapes. They way they capture a seemingly winter Texas sky or the care in which they situate their camera to observe the ruins of once-loved cinema hot spots display an understanding (and even reverence) of time and place. They also seem to have a deep affection for the types of films that used to play here. Lachaud has written a book called Redneck Movies (available only in French) and Texas Trip deploys horror movie clips at just the right time, reminding us of the fringe culture being observed here and how these musicians spin their own horror shows. It’s almost as if Lachaud has made his own redneck movie finally. And seen at an actual drive-in at DocuFest is the most perfect homage imaginable.


Crisp black and white images that capture moments from the past are my bag. I follow several Twitter accounts devoted to images of Texas history. They’re never less than jaw-dropping, freezing people, faces and places that stir the imagination and challenge our understanding of the non-modern world.

Mark Birnbaum’s Proof takes such images as its starting point. His subject, Fort Worth’s own Byrd Williams IV, has taken it upon himself to excavate and preserve three generations worth of his family’s photographic history. The film is also an exploration of Byrd himself, reconciling some violent moments in his family’s past as well as the conflicting thoughts that race through his mind as we all deal with an ongoing pandemic and how art reflects those times.

Following a fairly routine documentary set-up, Proof is only as good as its subject. Fortunately, in Williams IV and his restless sense of archival research, the film has a good anchor.

DallasVideoFest33 DocuFest: ‘Finding Yingying’ and ‘For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close’

One tenet of Chinese culture is the strong reliance on dream interpretation and the ability of past souls to visit their families in this neuro-netherworld. As haunting as the disappearance of a young girl can be, the full force of devastation is felt when one family member explains her belief that the girl in question is still alive because she hasn’t visited her in dreams yet. It’s this state of purgatorial hell that shrouds a majority of Jiayan “Jenny” Shi’s remarkably moving new documentary Finding Yingying as a family struggles to understand and then come to terms with the sudden disappearance of their only daughter while she attends a Chicago college in 2017.

Shi spells out the bright personality of missing Yingying early on, reading portions of her diary to reveal a curious but culturally frightened academic as she tries to adapt to her new life in America. The words and thoughts spelled out make her extraordinarily human, full of hope, love and childish ramblings that drip from the mind of every young person looking ahead to their dreamed life.

But then, she disappears, and Finding Yingying becomes a true-crime exploration of the last minutes anyone saw her, pieced together through CCTV footage and the eventual world-wide media explosion on both sides of the ocean that detail a widening gulf between the families who trust their sons and daughters to come to America and the painfully turgid law process that governs our land. Shi balances the political with the personal seamlessly, rightfully giving a majority of the film’s run time to Yingying’s committed family and boyfriend as they refuse to give up hope … even after it seems painfully clear there’s a monster in their midst.

Gaining traction earlier this year at South By Southwest, Finding Yingying is a tough watch and reminds us that the world is not always a dreamed life experience. But the way Shi remains fixed on the humanity of Yingying’s family and the small spotlight given to Yingying’s effervescent nature through her very personal hopes and dreams, she’s reclaimed some of that dream. Here’s hoping she visits her family in their dreams soon.

Finding Yingying screens virtually on Saturday, October 3.


Heather Ross’ For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close wisely doesn’t try to dissect the man completely. That could be an impossible feat. Or at least one not fit for a 90-minute foray. Here’s a man who largely embellished the stories around the suicide of his father. Here’s a man with a lifelong addiction to hard drugs and committals into psychiatric hospitals. Here’s a man booted out of both Second City and its Canadian cousin, SCTV for being too radical and/or unconventional.

But all of these troublesome aspects aside, Del Close was also an actor/graphic novelist/teaching guru who established “The Harold,” an improvisational method that has since become hugely influential in the acting world and touched the lives of many greats. Think “Whose Line Is It Anyway” and that (sort of) defines the loose intelligence of what Del was going after. Whatever shards of his manic style that contemporaries such as John Belushi, Tim Meadows, Jon Favreau, Chris Farley, Tina Fey and Bill Murray gleaned and carried forward, many of them are on-hand in Ross’ film to cast praise on Del the man. And that respect to a largely unsung pop culture mover-and-shaker bleeds through every scene of this enjoyable film.

Rarely seen onscreen — his acting credits on IMDB include a mere 26 mentions in small roles in films as diverse as The Blob (1988), The Untouchables (1987) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) — Close’s midas touch is most felt in the resonance of others. Although his major breakthrough in teaching came late in life alongside his partner Charna Halpern and their ImprovOlympic theater, For Madmen Only shows a wired genius from the very beginning of his life when he picked up flame eating and joined various carnivals at a young age.

Drifting to San Francisco in the late 1960s and then finding his manic edge in comedy with Chicago’s highly influential Second City, it seemed Close was on his way to something big. But drugs, a volatile temper, and a sense of genuine madness never allowed him to reach the heights of others. Actor Bob Odenkirk reveals a telling story of Del’s insouciance when, as a young college reporter, he runs into Del by accident and asks for an interview. Back in Del’s cramped apartment, Odenkirk inquires about a broken window allowing a frigid February wind inside. Del tells him a jealous husband broke it a month earlier and he’s just never gotten around to fixing it.

For Madmen Only is littered with these asides about Del, but also buttressed with the moments of greatness he so heartily shared with his students and peers. It’s a precarious back and forth that reveal so many shades to a complex, secondary giant in the world of comedy. Genius or madness? Even after seeing the film, I’m not sure. But it’s fun taking the journey.

For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close screens Saturday, October 3, at the Tin Star Drive In.

See for schedule and ticketing.

Dallas VideoFest DocuFest33: ‘Miracle Fishing’, ‘Herb Alpert Is’, ‘Chuck Berry: King of Rock and Roll’

Embracing and adapting to the change of a world reeling with new social distance protocols, Dallas’ longest running film festival opened last night in a hybrid form, mixing selections that can still be enjoyed with a crowd (via with those that can be streamed in the comfort of one’s own home (through It’s a new frontier for cultural events around the globe, but one that’s proven successful so far.

And if the opening night film, Miles Hargrove’s Miracle Fishing, is any indication, this year’s slate of documentaries will be a dynamic and persuasive bunch. A true crime story completely filtered through the home videos of the family who experienced the terror, Miracle Fishing is a heart-pounding personal diary cultivated from over a year’s worth of footage.

What begins as a simple series of travelogue home movies captured by young Miles as his ex-patriot family lives in Colombia soon morphs into a life and death negotiation for the life of his father, Tom, after his kidnapping and extortion by guerilla army forces in 1994. For the next 10 months, the film charts the day-to-day of the family and their small nucleus of associates. Part spy-thriller and part ensemble family drama, Miracle Fishing (which is the term the terrorists use in pulling over and taking people for financial gain) is edited with sly precision and driven by pulsating rhythms of mounting tension as the negotiations ebb and flow. And it’s all right there on camera as it happens, detailing the exhaustive efforts of the family and outside assistants to procure the freedom of their father. We get to witness the radio conversations between the family and the hostage-takers. We cringe alongside them as ‘proof of life’ episodes disappoint. And we get to admire the way everyone balances the grim with the goofy as they struggle to maintain their composure as a family.

More than the high-wire tight walk of life and death, Miracle Fishing is most memorable for these fleeting moments weaved together by filmmaker Hargrove as the family, neighbors and negotiators bond as a resolute unit of people working towards a common goal. The large dinners…. the moments of lighthearted ribaldry…. and the precarious acts that stall Miles’ mother (Susan) from doing something quite dangerous….. all compound into a dynamic portrait of a clustered family holding it together in the most trying of times. It’s here that the film, and Miles’ extreme forethought to observe even the mundane things during a momentous time, really pulls the viewer into the stratosphere of a lived experience. Miracle Fishing is a film that reveals, especially in our own clustered times, that human resolution can shine through even when it seems darkest.


As a record collector since my early teens, I must confess a bias. Go into any second-hand store and the easy listening/instrumental bin will assuredly hold several dozen copies of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. The whipped cream and other delights cover. The lonely bull cover. The other one with a lady in a very 60s yellow dress. I always sigh and pass right by them, aware only of his tinkering trumpet piercings that sound like the music behind the soundtrack of every television show produced in the 60s.

But mining beneath the populist surface, John Scheinfeld’s new documentary on the musician, entitled Herb Alpert Is, made me not only admire the man, but actually stirred a desire to dig deeper into his music… especially his very funky late 70s and early 80s output that even finds diverse talents such as Questlove pontificating on the trumpeter’s musical legacy today.

Following most of the beats of a standard talking-head film about its subject, what makes Herb Alpert Is so much more fascinating is Alpert himself, still alive and kicking at the ripe age of 83 and continuing to challenge himself daily via his passion of sculpting (!!?) and playing with longtime wife Lana. He gets alot of screen time to reflect on his blessed life, some of it good and some of it troubling, generating a full-bodied assessment of his life without pandering or sounding falsely humble. He comes across as a genuine musician, producer and benefactor of the arts. The film is also highly informative, charting his progress through the volatile musical landscape of California in the late 60s and early 70s as the founder of A&M records. As the film roundly makes clear, Alpert was an incisive musical guru and knew talent when he heard it.

One of the most fascinating parts of the industry is the alchemy of the scene in the way writers, session musicians and producers bounced their talents back and forth until they came up with a winning formula, such as the incredible story of how Alpert helped The Carpenters score big, and Scheinfeld doesn’t gloss over this generosity. Herb Alpert Is is illuminating, moving, entertaining and, perhaps, it’ll even broaden your horizons to a strain of music once scoffed at. If that’s not the signpost of a good documentary, then I don’t know what is.


Less illuminating is Jon Brewer’s Chuck Berry: King of Rock and Roll. Featuring portions from an even earlier documentary on the legendary guitarist (Chuck Berry, Hail Hail Rock and Roll from 1987), Brewer’s glimpse at the hard-driving musician feels inferior to that one, both in capturing Berry’s magnetic stage presence and the paths that led him there.

As the author of such paramount hits that have shaped the boundaries of rock and roll, Brewer staggers his way through Berry’s life with some snazzy visual recreations, however, the film never really pulses with the energy of his music. Some asides about the disastrous events at a large parcel of land he owned called Berry Farm are given inordinate amounts of time in the hopes of raising metaphorical comparisons to his life and career. There are plenty of well-hued rock stars on hand to throw rightful praise on him, but the film feels more in awe of Berry the musician rather than peeling back the layers of Berry the man. Introductory fans of the music may gain something from it, but anyone looking for a deeper exploration of his well documented flaws and social rowdiness in a turbulent time of race relations will need to look elsewhere.

Miracle Fishing kicked off the festival at the Tin Star Drive-In on October 1.

Herb Alpert Is will premiere virtually on Friday October 2, at 7 p.m.

Chuck Berry: King of Rock and Roll will premiere at the Tin Star Drive In on Friday, October 2, at 10 p.m.

Visit for ordering and ticketing.

My Favorite Films of 2019

15. Peterloo (Mike Leigh)

Imagining Mike Leigh tackle a historical act of massacre seems like an oblique fit for his intensely talky and introspective human nature dramas. I’m so glad he made this film, and yes, it does fit nicely as a very talky effort that exhaustively examines and discusses the swirling politics and history leading up to the event. The first 2 hours can be head-spinning for how many characters are introduced and have their say about the divisive lines between laymen and the governing body. And the final half hour, spent in an explosive  deconstruction of soldiers marching and killing scores of innocent protesters, is enough to make one’s blood boil. Peterloo is an immaculately rendered film of time and place (oh the locations and settings just reek of nineteenth century miserablism) whose distorted, complicated history is made quite clear by Leigh’s unending craftmanship.

14. Non Fiction (Olivier Assayas)

For a film largely concerned with the marching evolution of technology, Olivier Assayas Non Fiction remains grounded in a very traditional framework of simple mood and antiquated tempo. Another talky like he’s been making for over 20 years now, his latest film crackles with intelligence and sinewy humor as several couples are having affairs with each other, smoking cigarettes and talking around the sadness in their married lives. It also helps the film stars Juliette Binoche, Guillame Canet and Vincent Macaigne as said couples. In the background of it all, Assayas also touches on prescient topics such as the disappearance of the written word and our world’s dedication (or lack thereof) to its production. In my original review of the film, I called this film the next continuation in the life of the harried teenagers from Cold Water (1994). I look forward to however else Assayas wants to shape this universe of people.

13. Little Women (Greta Gerwig)

Greta Gerwig’s latest adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel has stuck with me for days. Incredible acting, a sly sense of opening up the tale with a thrilling sense of editing, and an atmosphere that perfectly captures the alternatively freewheeling and morose swaths of fate that affect the four sisters, the film is a triumph of small emotions and gentle passage of time. No matter how minor the part, each and every character is rendered as a vivid and indelible person. And it only further cements the talents of all involved as defining artists for what will be decades to come.

12. Motherless Brooklyn (Edward Norton)

I have to begin by asking why it’s taken someone 20 years to allow actor Edward Norton to write and direct again after his sweetly affectionate and witty debut film Keeping the Faith. I fell in love upon seeing it in the theater all those years ago and it remains one of the best films of the 90’s. A far cry in mood and tone than that previous ode to Lubitsch-like romance-comedy, his latest film, Motherless Brooklyn still retains his affection for people and relationships even when said relationships involve extortion, bribery, corruption and murder in 50’s set New York where the sky’s the limit for powerful men slicing up chunks of the city. Trying to unravel the mystery is Lionel (Norton), the adopted associate of a slain snooper (Bruce Willis) whose nose gets them all involved in some hefty affairs. Complicating maters is Lionel’s tourette’s disorder, which serves more as a compass for the nervousness he feels when things get heady, calmed only in moments after Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who may or may not be fully involved in the affair he’s investigating. While the narrative of Motherless Brooklyn ultimately leans into noir-tinged familiarity, what’s not pedestrian is Norton’s supreme handling of the film’s pace and composure. Lots of secondary characters (played by famous faces from Willem DaFoe to Michael K. Williams) provide a sprawling canvas of depth, but they’re never allowed to overwhelm the carefully constructed atmosphere. Attuned to the beauty of the world around his concrete-bound characters, Norton continually cuts to things around them as they talk, such as golden blades of grass or the sun-lit dusted items on a bedroom dresser. For a film often caught inside the scrambled head of a man desperately trying to fit together the disjointed pieces, Motherless Brooklyn is a magnificently contemplative work and a seriously overlooked gem from 2019.

11. The Last Black Man In San Francisco (Joe Talbot)

It’s not very hard to make San Francisco look dreamy and romantic on screen, but what director Joe Talbot does with The Last Black Man In San Francisco — besides a fully realized and heartfelt relationship between two best friends — is create a film of otherworldly beauty and quirky sentiments that feels wholly original. Actors Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors are revelations as marginal personalities in a gentrified San Francisco who make it their mission to save and restore a large house that once belonged to one of their grandfathers. A beautiful soundtrack, a host of memorable secondary characters and a complete control of mood situates The Last Black Man in San Francisco as a breakout effort from all involved.

10. Dolemite Is My Name (Craig Brewer)

There was no better movie-going experience in 2019 than the Texas premiere of Eddie Murphy’s affectionate ode to 70s filmmaking and maverick-outsider status than Dolemite Is My Name. An audience rolling with every joke and riding the wave of every emotion elicited the exact same reaction I’m sure the original Dolemite did for African-American audiences in the early 70s desperate for a film idol who wasn’t James Bond or Dirty Harry. Profane and uproariously funny, Dolemite Is My Name is everything a crowd pleasing film is designed to do. Toss in a whiz-bang cast of associates such as Wesley Snipes and DaVine Joy Randolph, and the film far outstretches its modest Netflix designed small-screen ambitions into an expansive comedy whose main intention is bawdy reverence for a true cinematic pioneer.

9. Booksmart (Olivia Wilde)

About two-thirds of the way through — and once the film’s teenage friends played wonderfully by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever finally make it to the graduation party they so desperately want to attend — Booksmart affirms its creeping signs of greatness and attains something quite terrific. The film’s patchwork assortment of outrageous characters and high school crudeness coalesces into an achingly honest and masterful examination about the crushing facade of teenage life and its very thin margins of identity/acceptance. First time actor-turned-director Olivia Wilde balances the pieces together brilliantly, manifesting all the strengths of her film in one long shot that turns a shattering underwater discovery into an equally shattering composition of two young women trying to compose themselves in the uncertainties of adulthood.

8. Ad Astra (James Gray)

Even though it resides in a loopy science fiction template that features ghost ships, nerve-jangling space walks and knife fights inside a cockpit, James Gray’s Ad Astra is a lot closer to his morose studies of male psychosis and obsessive choices than it first appears. In fact, it makes for a nice double feature with his previous masterpiece The Lost City of Z in which pioneers of terrain and courage venture farther out into the unknown than anyone before them. In Ad Astra, that explorer is astronaut Brad Pitt, chosen to travel to Mars (a planet that houses the last stable outpost of humanity in near future of colonization) in order to hopefully coax his lost father (also an astronaut) to stop sending chaotic micro bursts of energy from a failed mission decades ago. I know, it does preposterous when explained, but Gray manages to create a moody and introspective work of art that challenges science fiction conventions in its quiet remorselessness.

7. Destroyer (Karyn Kusama)

There’s a trend in modern crime films I like to call “New American Miserablism.” I suppose the grandfathers were David Fincher and Michael Mann, now carried forward by any young filmmaker treading into the noir tinged waters. Even the small screen isn’t immune, specifically behind the grandiose darkness inherent in Nic Pizzaloto’s True Detective series. Granted, even I’m worn down by the heaviness permeating these efforts. So why is Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer — a crime film especially miserable, right down to the grizzled makeup coated across Nicole Kidman’s face to exemplify the haggard weight of her world bending upon her — different? Well, it is and isn’t. The film trades in so many themes and situations that have dotted the noir landscape in the past, however Kusama and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi resuscitate their effort into something special because of the layered storytelling whose timelines slowly reveal a painful tendency to protect only the best things from a very bad time. In addition, Kusama’s crisp style renders a ubiquitous Los Angeles with new eyes, portraying viaducts and side street banks with just as much underlying ferocity as many other films have treated the beaches and Pacific Palisades mansions. Destroyer is a tough, meandering and ultimately a fragile personification of ‘miserablism’ done with grace and, well, heart.

6. Parasite (Bong Joon Ho)

Although it’s not quite a horror film, one of the most horrific moments of the year on-screen happens in Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite as a set of crazed-white eyes slowly peers up from the darkness from a set of basement level steps, igniting a child’s nightmarish imagination and sending the second half of the film into a frenzy of drastic action and numbing consequence. It’s what Bong does best: wringing recognizable genres until they twist into a morass of social commentary and obfuscated styles. What begins as ant act of greedy infiltration by a lower class family into the personal spaces of the upper class starts out simply enough before the screws are tightened and every shot, feeling and mood is controlled masterfully by Bong. There are stretches in this film where I held my breath for what seemed like an eternity, hoping I’d soon be given permission to breathe. Caustically funny and whip-smart tense, Parasite is a master firing on all cylinders.

5. Waves (Trey Edward Shults)

A film of two distinct halves. First, an untethered camera floating with a boisterous soundtrack and histrionic emotions with a story that feels right at home in any young adult/teen fiction novel as athletic Kelvin Harrison Jr. deals with a diminishing body, an inebriated state of mind and a relationship that wrecks havoc on everyone involved. It almost all seems like too much. But that’s the point of Shults’ magnificent work as it pivots in the second half to younger sister Taylor Russell and how the somber reckoning of her family settles around her delicate shoulders. With Waves, Shults has confirmed himself as a towering voice in modern independent cinema, enraging some and bewitching others. I look forward to whatever he does next.

4. Climax (Gaspar Now)

Noe’s latest is a delirious concoction of New Wave musical and Euro freak-out horror film, fire branded by his swerving aesthetic and provocative sound design that feels more like an assault rather than a viewing. I loved every propulsive moment. Watching Noe’s young and seriously tripping men and woman wander around their own cloistered psychedelic wonderland is something no other filmmaker would probably try, but Noe (the enfant terrible of French provocations for over 20 years now) does and it spoke directly to my punk rock soul.

3. A Hidden Life (Terence Malick)

I can’t even count how many times I gasped at the visual beauty present in Terence Malick’s latest work of cinematic poetry. And then those visuals were overtaken by the emotional gut punch in its story of faithful farmer Franz (August Diehl) and his refusal to serve for Germany in World War II, choosing to stand his ground and be a conscientious objector. I’ve been out on the last few Malick films (his last great one being The New World in 2005), but A Hidden Life struck me as something staggering, heartbreaking and completely worthy of Malick’s re-anointment as cinema’s most purely spiritual guide. It’s one of the few films whose passionate inner resolve of its protagonist seems to melt through the screen into our own hearts.

2. Transit (Christian Petzold)

On another given day, this could easily slide into the top spot. Adapted from a novel by Anna Seghers, Transit is a masterwork adapted (and updated) by Petzold from the novel’s original World War II set intentions into a metropolitan anti-thriller in which the vehicles, dress and locale of today are juxtaposed with the occupational fears of yesteryear (or are they so long ago?). Like Petzold’s previous, Phoenix, he gets to play with the notions of a society simultaneously crumbling and rebuilding at the same time, leaving its droll protagonists with the arduous task of picking up the pieces. Also like Phoenix, Petzold fashions a final scene so ripe with meaning and so crushing in emotional complexity that the idea of purgatory spoken about earlier in the film comes into stinging focus.

1. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)

With his previous film Silence (2016) and now The Irishman, Scorsese has certainly entered his pensive period and, as a filmmaker whose lifelong investments have been people struggling with the cause and effect of inner turmoil (both spiritually and non), The Irishman may be his crowning reflection on the matter. As a sweeping tapestry of mid-century gangsterism and unionist history, it’s a completely enveloping recreation of the stalwart loud mouths (Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa) and powerfully quiet sea changers (Joe Pesci as mob boss Russell Bufalino) who had their fingers on the pulse. And as a character study of one man (Robert DeNiro as Frank Sheeran) along for the turbulent and violent ride, it’s a meditative masterpiece that ends on such a somber, devastating image that even after 3 and a half hours, I was still stunned it was over.


Honorable mentions (the 16-20 if you will): Pain and Glory, Tigers Are Not Afraid, Caballerango, Shadow, Uncut Gems.



North Texas Film Festival: ‘Dolemite Is My Name’ and ‘Clemency’

It’s a wonderful experience when a film just gels with an audience and the laughter rolls across like a large wave, or its infectious energy seems to be reverberating through every seat in the house. That was the feeling I got while watching Craig Brewer’s Dolemite Is My Name, in which an able cast re-enacts the trials and tribulations of cult film star Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) propel himself from record store stand-up comedian to the echelon of 1970’s exploitation fame.

Naturally based on real events, it wouldn’t be out of the question to subtitle this film “Hustle and Flow” in genuflection to the breakout success first experienced by director Brewer. But unlike his previous films, this one feels owned, bought and sold by Eddie Murphy with a ferocious performance and a supporting cast who all contribute jewels of hilarity and humanity as the rag-tag cast of associates Moore chooses to go along for the ride in achieving breakout success with his Dolemite film series. Profane, bawdy and side-achingly funny, everything about this film is designed to be a ‘crowd pleaser,’ and please it does.

As Moore, Murphy isn’t doing a complete method-acting turn here. More often than not, it’s simply Eddie Murphy up there doing what he’s done best on our screens for 35 years and counting. What he brings to the role is heartfelt self-belief in the role of a man chasing stardom/manifest destiny. Moore himself could have stopped after achieving local success as a comedian with a handful of profitable record albums. But this is a man who wanted something else. And when the film shows this epiphany — as Moore becomes enamored with the projector light and believes he can produce and deliver a better product than what he’s watching on the big screen at one momentous moment in his life — both Murphy and the film sells this belief.

From there, Dolemite Is My Name pivots in telling Moore’s story from hard-scrabbled self-promotion as a raunchy regional celebrity to star-struck independent filmmaker at all costs. More than once, I was reminded of the other great Eddie Murphy comedy, Bowfinger (1999). Both films share a childlike glee in movie-making, celebrating the renegade spirit of Hollywood, where personal art for the masses can be culminated beneath its jaded palm tree exclusivity, despite what history often tells us. And both films treat their representations of low-brow art as something just as magnificently (and honestly) idealized as the Oscar hopeful shooting across town … with large casts, working equipment and certainly a bigger budget.

Assembling a whiz-bang cast of supporting characters from Keegan Michael Key to Wesley Snipes, Dolemite Is My Name is rambunctious, kinetic and wholly entertaining. It not only proves that Netflix is continually attuned to financing projects other studios might not touch these days, but that both artist and studio believe in the power of personal vision and the possibility that both can achieve mainstream success.

Dolemite Is My Name will open in limited release in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, October 4 before debuting on its streaming platform later that month.


In the opening of Chinonye Chukwu’s award winning debut Clemency, the film methodically walks us through the arduous process of subjecting an inmate on death row to his final moments via lethal injection. It’s all completed under the stoic, watchful eye of warden Bernadine Williams (played by Alfre Woodward). Not only is this scene important for the logistics that’ll come into play later, but it does an outstanding job of mapping the conflicted emotional terrain that will haunt her for the remainder of the film.

Also suffering, but in a much different manner, is inmate Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge). As the next one due up for the chopping block in her prison, Clemency doesn’t tackle the big issue of innocence versus guilt or the hot-button topic of corporeal punishment. There are snippets of his possible false conviction talked about along the periphery, and the small but vocal group of protesters outside the prison sure make life hell for those inside, but Clemency shies away from the last-minute courtroom heroics that populate most films dealing with the prison system. Instead, it resonates in quiet conversations, soul searching revelations and each person’s acceptance of having to endure (or carry out) the somber task at hand. For a film full of such loud topics, it’s surprisingly quiet.

As the convicted killer Woods, Hodge matches Woodard blow for blow in believability. His performance, modulating from quiet reserve to frustrated outrage, is carefully live in and humanistic. But the star here is Woodard. Powerful but not preachy, Clemency really stands out for her interior performance. In one scene, after trying to be comforted by her husband (the always welcome Wendell Pierce), her response is so simple and heartbreaking that one becomes completely won over by her wounded persona. It’s a great performance that hopefully will get some late-season awards traction.

Clemency will open in theaters later this year and is being distributed by Neon Films.

North Texas Film Festival: ‘The Laundromat’ and ‘The Lodge’

Kicking things off with a bit of star power, Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat injected the inaugural North Texas Film Festival’s Opening Night with a unique energy. As an entity largely sponsored by the financial institution Capital One, it seemed a bit daring to open the festival with a film such as The Laundromat that skewers the financial system around the world with bristling humor. Then again, I suppose Capital One isn’t a purveyor of tax avoidance or shell company creation, so it’s all in jest.

Still firmly planted in the breezy, jazz-tinged vein of his previous films since hitting the mainstream with Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and Logan Lucky (2017), The Laundromat finds Soderbergh in full-on arch mode. Cresting from one stomach churning vignette of voracious wealth to the next, there’s only two constants in the film — the first is grandmother Meryl Streep in a wonderfully comedic role as a middle-class widow hoping for someone to pay for the tragic loss sustained by her husband in a boating accident. The second is the Greek chorus of financiers played by Gary Oldman (doing his best Udo Kier impersonation) and Antonio Banderas, who pop in from time to time to mordantly comment on the film’s machinations, which are ironically of their own Machiavellian doing.

In between these two, The Laundromat is a cameo-infested comedy of broad intentions and globe-trotting excess. Matthias Schoenaerts, Sharon Stone, Jeffrey Wright, David Schwimmer and Larry Wilmore all show up at some point as multi-faceted pawns in a corrupt and predatory chessboard of avarice and greed. It’s all funny as hell, even when people are dying or left broke and miserable.

Although comedies built around the black hole of financial corruption in the past two decades seems quite easy to pull off these days (just ask Adam McKay), there’s also an undertone of humanity that’s more striking in The Laundromat than those others. Perhaps it’s the performance of Meryl Streep … or Scott Burn’s caustic screenplay … or the carefully tinged cloak of anger that hovers around every scene, no matter how straightforwardly enamored it appears to be over the golden lifestyles envisioned. Rightfully so, the anger comes into full fruition in the final scene when Soderbergh and Streep step outside the lines of fiction and cast a direct plea to the audience, challenging the whole process we’ve just witnessed. It may not land quite as galvanizing as they want it, but it’s still a timely message that needs to be heard.

The Laundromat will premier on Netflix in mid-October.


With atmosphere to burn and a shadowy aesthetic lit mostly by natural light and the halos of flashlights, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s The Lodge establishes an eerie aura right from the outset. Add in Riley Keogh as a woman slowly going mad in the confines of a frigid landscape with two younger children (Jaeden Martell and Lia McHugh) in her care and the ingredients are tailor made for something special.

Unfortunately, The Lodge missteps fairly often. Extremely hollow in its cruelty and repetitive in its narrative, the film is a sort of companion piece to the filmmakers’ previous psychological horror film Goodnight Mommy (2014). Both films portray the decomposition of trust and familial bond between the nuclear family in a single environment. Both films ratchet up the atmosphere to, at times, unbearable tension and both films are torturous in the way they expand and contract the usual horror movie tropes. The Lodge, however, is less successful because it neglects any tangible connection to its characters. A shocking suicide … the rigors of guilt and loss … religious suppression … all of this is introduced in one way or another throughout the film to explain the very-horrible-things-going-on. None of it resonates outside of the filmmakers’ own commitment in crafting a very repulsive and suffocating effort in which not even the dog escapes unscathed.

The North Texas Film Festival was held at the Cinemark West Plano. For more information, visit