Tag Archives: DIFF

Festival Files: 2018 Dallas International Film Festival, Dispatch #3

If Saturday in the sport of golf is known as moving day, then Saturday at DIFF was known as premier day. Bringing a variety of mid-level studio titles to the festival certainly drew in the crowds and murmur. I skipped the Mister Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, since it opens in just a few weeks hence. By all accounts, I missed a communal theater experience awash in tears and feelgood euphoria in these dark times. Two other big premiers were on my radar, however.

One of these was Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. Probably the polar opposite of euphoric and feelgood — although some decipher its delirious finale as something close to soul redeeming — the auteur writer and director’s film comes completely “as advertised,” which is to say very challenging and quite heavy, man. I suppose I could petulantly blame my late showing after a long day of three other films as the reason I didn’t totally connect with its wavelength, but that would be disingenuous.

There’s much to like in Schrader’s stringent vision of a priest (Ethan Hawke) having a major crisis of faith after coming in contact with a young couple. The wife (played wonderfully by Amanda Seyfried) asks Hawke to speak with her husband about his recent depression. With a baby on the way, she’s naturally concerned, especially after he expresses the wish to have the baby aborted, since his experience with environmental activist groups has left him hopeless and lost about the Earth’s future. You know, global warming and all.

It doesn’t take long to enlist Hawke’s conflicted priest to the husband’s point of view, even after the husband takes drastic measures. Hawke’s Reverend Toller spirals further into doubt, alcoholism and confused sentiments. Add to the fact he may have terminal cancer and is recording all his thoughts in a disturbing stream of consciousness voice-over narration, and Hawke delivers a mesmerizing performance, rife with angst and twitching body language. Portraying someone sliding into a dark mirror image of himself is always tricky, but he makes it believable and his voice-over, which serves as the anchor of the film’s mordant view, lulls one into a state of slight identifiable agreement. Even when things go off the rails, we sort of understand.

Firmly rooted in Schrader’s lifelong exploration of man’s tortured rhetoric with his spirituality, it also comes the closest to Schrader cribbing a Robert Bresson film. Call this his Diary of a Country Priest (1951). If Schrader has been mimicking Bresson’s transcendental style for decades now, First Reformed is almost a distillation of everything from the cancer Travis Bickle believes he has in Taxi Driver (1976) to the simple “man in a room” idea Schrader has often curated most of his scripts around. If nothing else, First Reformed is exciting for the way in which he’s been working out the Bresson kinks since the mid-70’s.

Shot in the same austere style as the film’s tone, I think repeat viewings will only enrich this film. Getting through the first half, which is basically a series of very dense conversations about God, free will, man’s place in nature and other theories of relationships, can be exhausting. And wow, the conversations after the screening definitely skewed the spectrum from virulent hatred to shaken admiration. I fell pretty much in between both.


The other big star-studded event of the day included Susanna White’s Woman Walks Ahead. Boasting the most recognizable cast of the festival, including Jessica Chastain, Sam Rockwell, Bill Camp, Ciaran Hinds and Michael Greyeyes, the film is an interesting history lesson wrapped in a very cliched and uninteresting film.

Following the travails of a widowed East Coast woman who bravely travels to the West in order to paint the portrait of Sitting Bull (and becoming an activist in the process), the film features solid acting, but it’s so acute in hitting all the right beats and playing out the traditional themes of expansionist guilt and staunchly-drawn lines of good and evil that it loses sight of any originality. The largely middle-aged crowd ate it up, though, so summer arthouse box office prospects look promising.


Another rare misfire at the festival so far has been Anthony Pedone’s An American In Texas. A mosaic of life in the small coastal Texas town of Victoria in 1990, it’s a film that achieves a strong command of time and place around its ensemble cast. What doesn’t work is its jumble of ideas, ranging from anti war sentiments to small town dead-end-drive malaise that becomes overbearing as the film winds down.

The malaise comes largely from its group of punk rock bandmates, each struggling with their own throttled existence and levels of parental disinterest. A romance develops between Chad (James Paxton) and new girl in town Kara (Charlotte Best). Chad’s other friends in the band, including Paul (J.R. Villareal), Zac (Sam Dillon), and Billy (Tony Cavelero), spend most of their days avoiding the looming spectre of the oil refineries that their parents work at, choosing to drop acid and play unique games of smashing up the interiors of houses. Of course, it’s all fun and games until real consequences enter the picture.

Being a labor of love for writer-director Pedone for years and arising from his own experiences in the city of Victoria, it’s justifiable to see An American In Texas as the unwieldy picture it is because the sheer amount of exorcising Pedone has done for his youthful time there. I just wish it honed some of the raggedness into stronger characterizations.

The 2018 Dallas International Festival runs from May 3-10 at the Landmark Magnolia in the West Village. Check http://www.dallasfilm.org for schedule and tickets.





Festival Files: Dallas International 2017, Dispatch #3 – ‘Unrest,’ ‘Katie Says Goodbye,’ ‘Los Presentes’

While physical fatigue is yet to set in, mental fatigue is nestling into my brain. Perhaps its the viewing choices I’ve made the last couple of days, but I find myself increasingly pining for glimmers of hope in a docket full of pretty morose subjects. Maybe that’s why I’m scheduling lighter fare in the upcoming days.

But before those moments of levity, one of the highlights of the fest so far tunnels down that morose hole like no other. Jennifer Brea’s Unrest is an unflinching and harrowing first person documentary about ME-CFS (myalgic encephalopathy or chronic fatigue syndrome) and the devastating effects it wrecks on the human body. Opening with grainy camera footage as Brea pulls her limp body onto her bed, the film charts both her personal struggle with the disease and its complicated and misunderstood history.

Gradually bringing other sufferers into the film through her Errol Morris-like interview technique, Unrest becomes a medical procedural as doctors, scientists and others lobby for more research and open dialogue. One of the more shocking episodes in Brea’s work details the case of a young Danish girl named Karina who was abruptly taken away from her family and institutionalized because her physician truly believed her illness was a psychosomatic result of her home life. Another portion deals with the varying degrees of illness (85% being female) and possible genetic links between mothers who suffer and the eventual diagnosis of their children.

Never too far removed from the center, though, are Jennifer and her stoic, faithful husband Omar as they provide an emotional foundation to the film. Watching some of her more private moments, with the camera poised inches from her face, almost become too personal to bear. As Brea describes the invisibility she and so many other sufferers feel, Unrest is a first person testimonial that bravely speaks for all the invisible.


A film whose bleak, unrelenting sadness did not fully win me over was Wayne Roberts’ Katie Says Goodbye. Packing the most star wattage on-screen yet (including supporting roles by Mary Steenburgen, Jim Belushi and Christopher Abbott), the film settles on the young, plucky but misguided Katie (Olivia Cooke). Promiscuous with any fella in the wind-swept Arizona town who gives her a ride home from her diner job, she socks away their money in hopes of getting to San Francisco one day. Then she meets new guy Bruno (Abbott) and falls head over heels in love …. although she doesn’t quite understand that her side job for money could complicate their relationship.

As Katie, Cooke (from Me, Earl and the Dying Girl) owns the film. And writer-director Roberts is wise to allow the camera to hold on her magically expressive face several times throughout the film, especially during the final touching moments. She gives a magnanimous heart to a confused young girl we care about, but at times the film feels utterly misogynistic and excessive. If the point is to create a modern, desert-fried Joan of Arc in Katie, then mission accomplished. Otherwise, Katie Says Goodbye is dour to the point of abstraction.


Even more perplexing, Alejandro Molina’s Los Presentes (The Present Ones) juggles a lot of ideas, but not many of them land successfully. Essentially a psychological thriller about the bifurcated mind of an actress named Ana working through rehearsals of Hamlet and playing Ophelia, the film desperately wants to be Persona (1966) or Mulholland Drive (2001).

Even though she seems to maintain the perfect life, with an attractive, wealthy husband and precocious kid, Ana allows something into her psyche and she gradually pushes her normal life away, choosing adulterous flings instead. Portrayed by two actresses (Marianna Burelli as the initially normal Ana and Camila Selser as the intruder Ana), Los Presentes casually flips between both women to explore the dichotomy in her personality.

On top of that psychological minefield, the idea of Ana playing Ophelia in Hamlet and the centuries-old dialogue about that character’s role as a dynamic female lends a meta-text to the film. If that’s not enough, Molina interjects a fairy tale over the entire film about warriors turning into mountains and unrequited love.

Clearly influenced by masters of Spanish cinema such as Raul Ruiz in its portmanteau narrative, Los Presentes ultimately becomes too obvious in its ‘artiness’ and too earnest in its desire to achieve a ‘wow’ ending.

The Dallas International Film Festival runs through Sunday, April 9.

Festival Files: Dallas International 2017, Dispatch #2 – ‘The Void,’ ‘City of Joy,’ ‘Gook’

Growing lines and excited chatter are just par for the course on a Saturday afternoon at the DIFF. Part of the communal fun of such an event is the weaving dialogue between volunteer staff, organizers and ticket holders: “Did you see so and so?” “I’m hoping to get into tonight’s screening.” “You have to see {blank}.” The possibilities and cinematic connections are endless.

With those endless possibilities in mind, I went into Madeleine Gavin’s City of Joy with no advance knowledge in hand. The first documentary I’ve seen at the festival so far, it certainly held up as the perfect type of film to discover at the festival. As a socialist-activist documentary, it’s purposeful. As a plaintive exposure to the horrors and genocide of an entire swath of Congolese women at the hands of soldiers fighting for multi-nationalist controlled mining operations, it’s just heartbreaking.

Deriving its title from the self-proclaimed “leadership center” created by Dr. Mukwege Mukengere, the place is essentially a halfway house for women raped and abused by the marauding hordes of soldiers who use violence and sexual assault as a weapon of terrorism. Their aim is simple. Enter a town and either kill everyone or rape all the women in front of their families so the village is abandoned and left to their mining operations. What Dr. Mukwege and activist Christine Schuler-Deschryver (a magnanimous woman present for a Q&A after the film) have done is try to reconcile a generation of women not only with themselves, but to rebuild their self-worth and give them the inner strength to go out and help others.

The film slowly focuses on several women in the center’s first graduating class, while also spiraling out to examine the larger historical and cultural clash of ideals and political skullduggery that’s led to the violence. Through modest strokes and simply allowing the women and their experiences to speak for themselves,  City of Joy is a redemptive journey through hell and back.

And just when we hope and wonder if brighter days are on the horizon, Schuler-Deschryver lamented the fact that Trump may be about to reverse so many of the steps towards peace that have been established within the last few years through his non renewal of certain agreements with corporations driving the madness for coltan. This off-hand comment made everyone’s heart sink in the theater and prompted people to quickly ask for the website and how they can help. The activism is alive and well.


Always a good time, one of the “Midnight Special” presentations included SXSW favorite The Void (pictured at top). Written and directed by Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski, one can’t deny its gross-out effects and seamless monster design, but what I found most affecting beyond all the gore-hound window dressing was its simpler moments, such as the eerie and wordless things that appear towards the beginning of the film.

As local sheriff (Aaron Poole) and a variety of rural townsfolk become holed up in a half-deserted hospital, the “things,”  with their ominous presence and lurking-at-the-seams-movement, spell out a decidedly unnerving vibe. And did I mention they’re dressed from head to toe in white hooded outfits donning a black triangle over their eyes? Yes, that’s eerie.

Unfortunately, this low-fi and disturbing atmosphere is quickly replaced with nightmarish images and buckets of blood that coincide with Hellraiser-like satanic innuendo. My taste in horror films tends to veer with the less-is-more attitude. The Void opts for more-is-more.


Next to Jameson Brooks’ Bomb City (detailed in this previous post), the second best find of the festival is Justin Chon’s Gook. Also written by and starring Chon, the film takes place during the momentous 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. As if that coastal, festering city needed any more contention to set off its powder-keg foundation, Gook clearly establishes the inherent racism and violence from the very opening when Eli (Chon) is jumped by Latino gang members as he tries to buy several boxes of shoes for his fledgling store.

Compounding his problems is young Kamillah (a breakout performance by newcomer Simone Baker), an African-American neighborhood kid who routinely hangs around the store despite her brother’s threats against the Asian-American Eli. As the film builds towards the infamous night of riots, Gook is alternatively sweet and knowing about its milieu. Also like Bomb City, it culminates in a shocking act of violence that casts a light on the needless reverberations of pig-headed racism and deep-seated inabilities to accept others despite the color of their skin.

Gook moves effortlessly and looks terrific in its monochrome black and white images, shot by cinematographer Ante Cheng… who is actually still in film school at USC. Harboring all the earmarks of true independent cinema like the ones that can’t be found at Sundance anymore, Gook signals grassroots ambition from a talented set of newcomers and I look forward to whatever they do next.

The Dallas International Film Festival continues through Sunday, April 9.

Festival Files: Dallas International 2017, Dispatch #1 – ‘Bomb City,’ ‘Berlin Syndrome’

Now in its eleventh year and spanning numerous locations throughout Dallas (including the Angelika, Magnolia, Dallas City Performance Hall and others), the 2017 edition of the Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF) kicked off on March 30 with a special screening of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), before unspooling an impressive slate of films that will run through Sunday, April 9.

With a tagline of “See things DIFFerently,” I took that mantra to heart, hewing close to regional film making and world cinema … otherwise known as films whose distributive future is in limbo but, quite often, pack the most imagination, ambition and heart. Films like James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, Francois Ozon’s Frantz and Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion have already secured upcoming releases here in DFW, so what’s the rush to see them? Instead, I focused on the marginalized, and it’s paid off terrific dividends so far.

Jameson Brooks’ Bomb City is exhibit A. I initially called it a grungy, true-crime Texas tale, but that doesn’t quite do it justice. It is based on a true story about the violent collision between Amarillo punks and football jocks in 1997, but Brooks’ film is about much more than that. Highly reminiscent of 1980s lost-and-confused-teenager-films such as Over the Edge (actually 1979 but close enough) or early Nick Gomez films (Laws of Gravity especially) Bomb City charts the simmering adolescent tension between two specific milieu of kids as their hatred slowly festers and eventually explodes into raw displays of violence.

Expertly made, scored and shot, Bomb City also toys with our expectations as the film cuts back and forth in time and then re-orientates our anger and confusion. Starring a predominately unknown cast (with the exception of well-known character actor Glenn Morshower), it’s a film that feels as fresh and electric as anything I’ve seen at the festival so far. And judging by the energetic crowds that exited the second and (possibly) final showing of the film on Saturday night, I’d say it has a real and deserved shot to win the Audience Award.


As a huge fan of filmmaker Cate Shortland’s 2012 masterpiece Lore, her entry here, titled Berlin Syndrome, was a bit of a letdown. Utilizing the same queasy aesthetic that made Lore all the more bracing, such as her very short depth of field and a probing camera style that’s at once tactile and obscured, Berlin Syndrome could be described as suffocating. I imagine that may be Shortland’s point.

Starring Teresa Palmer as a tourist visiting Germany on a sort of artistic sabbatical, she quickly meets and falls for smart and charming Andi (Max Riemelt). The problem is, Andi is quite a sadistic monster and wants Teresa to be much more than a simple girlfriend.

Staying close to the thriller genre- including an ending that would fit right at home in a Hitchcock thriller- Berlin Syndrome has its narrative shortfalls, but its still interesting to see the kinks that a female director like Shortland provides to a kidnapping drama usually reserved for the masochistic male filmmaker. She certainly doesn’t hold back any punches, literally and metaphorically. It’s as if she’s seeing things differently as well.

Dallas IFF: 2010 Dallas International Film Festival Starts This Week!

Dallas Film Now is pleased to provide you with a link to the Dallas International Film Festival’s 2010 film guide.  We are very excited about the festival, which runs from ThursdayApril 8th through Sunday 18th.  There is a terrific selection of features, documentaries, shorts and more.  So go take a look and get your tickets fast!  Check out our running reviews and comments  here at DFN as the festival week proceeds.