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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: 2017 DFW South Asian Film Fest

Celebrating its third year, the Dallas/Fort Worth Asian Film Festival (DFW SAFF) kicks off this weekend. With an impressive slate of shorts, documentaries and feature films, the festival will also feature a variety of Q&A sessions with stars and directors. All access festival passes can be purchased for $175 and individual film passes can be purchased on the day of the selected film. Visit their website here for further information and ticketing info. Stay tuned to coverage all weekend at Dallas Film Now.

From the SAFF press release:

Now in its third year, the Dallas/Fort Worth South Asian Film Festival (DFW SAFF), taking place from March 3rd to 5th at the Perot Museum (downtown Dallas) and AMC Village on the Parkway 9 (Addison), will showcase 19 shorts, documentaries and feature films, over a three-day-period.

The closing night film will be the North American premiere of Ananth Mahadevan’s Marathi biopic “Doctor Rakhmabai,” starring Tannishtha Chatterjee, the queen of independent cinema, in the title role. It is the story of India’s first practicing lady doctor, social rebel and medical pioneer who paved the way for a fight against gender discrimination. “Not only will this be our closing night film, it will also nicely round out the women’s programming at our festival,” said founder and director, Jitin Hingorani.

The entire festival schedule is as follows:

Friday, March 3rd – Opening Night Screening, Red Carpet & VIP Reception
Perot Museum (downtown Dallas) from 6 p.m. to midnight:

Yellow Tin Can Telephone” (short) followed by
A Billion Colour Story” (Opening Night Film)
*Followed by Q&A with director Padmakumar Narasimhamurthy &
producer Satish Kaushik

Saturday, March 4th – Shorts, Documentaries, Centerpiece Programming
AMC Village on the Parkway 9 (Addison) from 11 a.m. to midnight:

11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Youth Programming
India in a Day” (documentary)
*Followed by winning videos of Parish School’s
“One Minute Smartphone Video” contest & scholarships

1:15 to 3 p.m.
Khoya” (feature)
*Followed by Q&A with director Sami Khan & actor Rupak Ginn

3:15 to 6 p.m.
Indo-Pak Programing (Zeal for Unity Films)
Silvat” (short)
Lala Begum” (short)
Guddu Engineer” (short)
*Followed by Q&A with director Mehreen Jabbar

6:15 to 9:15 p.m.
Men’s Programming
Mochi” (short)
Babu’s Dilemma” (short)
Azaad” (short)
Lathe Joshi” (Centerpiece Film)

9:30 p.m. to midnight
Centerpiece VIP Party (ticketed event)
Saffron House – Village on the Parkway

Sunday, March 6th – Children’s & Women’s Programming, Closing Night Film
AMC Village on the Parkway 9 (Addison) from noon to 10 p.m.

Noon to 1 p.m.
Children’s Programming
Priyanth” (short)
Jacob’s Pond” (short)
Mast Qalandar” (short)
Syaahi” (short)

1:15 to 3 p.m.
The Journey Within” (documentary)
*Followed by Q&A with director Mian Adnan Ahmed

3:15 to 6:15 p.m.
Women’s Programming
Amishi” (short)
Leeches” (short)
Doctor Rakhmabai” (Closing Night Film)
*Followed by Q&A with actresses Tannishtha Chatterjee and Sayani Gupta

6:15 to 10 p.m.
Closing Night Party (private event)
W Hotel Penthouse – 28th floor (downtown Dallas)

“The highlights of our programming this year are a focus on Marathi regional cinema with one short and two feature films in that language,” said Ambica Dev, the festival’s artistic director. “You’ll also notice themes of Indo-Pak (Hindu/Muslim) programming sprinkled throughout, given that 2017 is the 70th anniversary of India and Pakistan’s independence. Finally, we are proud to say that almost one-third of our films have a child as the central or prominent character.”

Actors, Directors & Producers in attendance at the festival include:

Satish Kaushik – actor/producer/writer/director

Viveck Vaswani – actor/producer/writer

Tannishtha Chatterjee – actor

Sayani Gupta – actor

Rupak Ginn- actor

Mehreen Jabbar – director

Padmakumar Narasimhamurthy – director

Mian Adnan Ahmed – director

Sami Khan – director

Festival Files: Dallas VideoFest29 #3

dfn-full-court-poster-300The weekend at Dallas VideoFest29 brought a bit of star wattage to the festival in the form of NBA legend and Olympic winner Spencer Haywood, promoting his new documentary entitled Full Court: The Spencer Haywood Story.

Directed by Martin Spirit, the film has been a labor of love for Haywood since his retirement from the league in 1984. His story, like so many other caveats of life and history that documentary films strive to expose, is a hushed one. Supremely relevant today because of his fight in the court system to allow him to play basketball after just a couple of years at the high school and junior college level, Full Court is a terrific film that charts the age old sojourn from dirt-poor existence to ‘superstardom’ before crashing back to Earth. It’s a familiar one, but one that sustained added gravitas by having the subject himself in the room.

Born in Mississippi and raised there with his widowed mother picking cotton by day and playing basketball by night, Haywood’s memory of that tumultuous time is vivid. While talking to him about the effect the previous day’s film, Two Trains Runnin’ had on me, he commented that he certainly remembered seeing the buses of the Freedom Movement rumbling through his town. He remembered their “smiling faces” heading into a hostile environment. He was witnessing history being made right in front of him, unsure of the impact he himself would have on history as well.

Coming of age during the Civil Rights Movement and quickly ascending to basketball mythology among high schools and colleges around the country, Full Court spends a lot of time on his early days. Establishing his uncanny ability, describing the support systems that were provided to him as he shifted from city to city along the way, and developing Haywood as the larger-than-life figure he was on the court is solidly built. All of which makes his eventual fights against the court, his dishonest contract treatment by the (American Basketball Association team) Denver Rockets and his slow dissolve into drug addiction that much more raw. Add to the fact it took the NBA so long to make amends and Full Court rallies around the idea that Haywood is one of the true martyrs with a happy ending. And what about all those players who’ve benefited from his fight to enter the league when and where they want?

“This whole history for the young players, it’s not their fault [that they don’t know the full story]. It’s been pushed down and avoided and now that we’ve done this film….. getting it out to them, then guys like Lebron [James], now they get it,” Haywood said. “Man, I thought you were just a dude that went to the Supreme Court. You were deeper than that. You were a baller.”

In between the carefully cultivated archival footage, Full Court has assembled an impressive roster of interviews, ranging from childhood friends and mentors to the cream of the NBA crop, including Charles Barkley and Pat Riley, who provide important outsider context to Haywood’s life.

Haywood calls the film a “spiritual” one. I tend to agree. Like the best documentaries, it begins with one thing and twists and veers its way through time, place and memory to reveal a much deeper truth, ending on an emotional beat that hearkens back to his simple roots in the Mississippi Delta.

“It’s been years sitting and waiting and if I stay healthy and God doesn’t take me off this Earth, it will come on God’s time and not on my time,” Haywood told me. It certainly looks like the time has come.


I’ll only say a few words on Anna Biller’s The Love Witch now, saving a more fleshed-out (hehe) blurb when it opens here in Dallas later this year, but its midnight time slot certainly suggests its cult status and actress Samantha Robinson is, like, the perfect embodiment of carnal treachery, perfectly sculptured cheekbones and all.

Denton’s Thin Line Film Festival Starts Tonight: 11 Days of Docs!

Patricio Guzman's 'Nostalgia for the Light' (Thin Line Film Fest)

Our very own all-documentary film festival — to be fair, Denton deserves the credit — starts tonight. Here’s the article I wrote for Twitch:

North of Dallas, Texas, lies the college town of Denton, where more than 100,000 people go to sleep at night, wondering if Bonnie and Clyde will ever return. The 1967 film version of their lives was partially shot in Denton, where the outlaws once hid out. Nowadays, film buffs who are fascinated by real life stories gravitate toward documentaries, and Denton’s own Thin Line Film Fest has a dandy, 11-day program that’s filled with nothing but documentaries. It’s set to start rolling out tomorrow.

To quote from the press release, the fest kicks off Friday night “with the Texas premiere of Battle for Brooklyn with Director and Producer Suki Hawley in attendance. …

“On Saturday, February 11, 2012 at 12:30 pm at the Square Donut Theater, the film Kaziah the Goat Woman will screen. The film is about a woman (Kaziah) who for the last few years has painted works of fallen soldiers to give to their families. Three paintings for two DFW families, who will be in attendance, will be presented to them during the screening on behalf of the artist.

“On Saturday, February 18, 2012 at 7:00p, Brilliant Life tells the story of Barry Weatherall, a plumber who was completely blinded when a chemical mixture exploded in his face. After years of darkness and depression, he discovers new delight in life through outdoor adventure. Both the film’s director, Marilyn Bright, and star will be in attendance.”

The picture above is from Patricio Guzman’s Nostalgia for the Light, which screens on February 16. The doc, from Chile, has received some great reviews; it “travels 10,000 feet above sea level to the driest place on earth, the Atacama Desert, where atop the mountains astronomers from all over the world gather to observe the stars. The sky is so translucent that it allows them to see right to the boundaries of the universe.” Nostalgia for the Light also received a Honorable Mention from our own Ben Umstead as part of his “Best of 2011” review.

Now in its fifth year, the festival has been steadily growing, expanding its program over more and more days. I’ve had to beg off from attending again this year, due to personal schedule conflicts, but what I like about the fest is that they don’t program the same films that everyone else is programming. There’s a greater focus on films from around the world, instead of just American-centric docs, which also adds to the variety on tap.

The Thin Line Film Fest is a wonderful example of a local festival that seeks to improve and expand every year. It runs through Monday, February 20, with more than 20 filmmakers scheduled to be in attendance, and deserves to be on your radar.

The Thin Line Film Festival starts tonight at various venues; check the official site for much more information.

Dallas IFF: Wednesday (4/14) – ‘Lemmy’

DIFF begins down the final stretch, and it just gets better every day.

“I’m not qualified to do anything else.”

Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski’s documentary on Motorhead front man Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister is not so much a fully-realized personal history or detailed portrait as much as an intense love fest.  Lemmy takes a tour of the heavy metal driving force’s more mundane routines – shopping, doing interviews, playing his favorite games at local bars and casinos – before diving into a brief look at former bands he played with and current concert footage.  But most of its runtime is filled with musicians, singers, actors, roadies and fans telling us how great he is and what an influence he’s been.  At 63, Lemmy has outlived most of his friends and continues to provide a raw honesty that blows away nearly everyone else in the business.

Continue reading Dallas IFF: Wednesday (4/14) – ‘Lemmy’

Dallas IFF: Tuesday (4/13) – ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child’

Director Tamra Davis’ early works may have included music videos and films like Billy Madison and Half-Baked, but it turns out her passion project was always nearby, tucked away in a drawer:  a feature-length interview with her friend, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.  Just months before his death, Davis filmed the painter in a casual setting, talking with him about his life, influences and his perceptions of the art world.  After his passing, she put the film away and forgot about it.  20 years later, we have Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, a documentary that incorporates that earlier footage of the soft-spoken iconoclast with new and archival interviews with the people that surrounded Basquiat from as far back as his beginnings as a homeless graffiti artist.

Continue reading Dallas IFF: Tuesday (4/13) – ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child’