DIFF 2017: Day 11

Bomb City tells the true story of Brian Deneke who was viciously killed during a brawl between punk rockers and high school jocks in Amarillo, Texas in 1997. The narrative film explores the often misunderstood punk scene and how Brian was a relatively normal 17-year-old underneath what most people consider to be the vulgar and scary appearance of punks. We witness his genuine love for his “normal” parents and that the people he hangs out with are his friends that understand each other’s lifestyles. As a large fight breaks out with an group of bullying, predominantly wealthy football players, one of the jocks goes out of his way to run over and kill Brian who is running away from the vehicle. The murderer who goes by a different name in the movie, Dustin Camp is tried for murder but is eventually acquitted and charged with voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to ten years probation and a $10,000 fine which would be overturned later. The killing and trial made national headlines and divided the generally conservative town of Amarillo for years. The movie powerfully shows that people should not be judged by their outward appearance and that the justice system is sometimes flawed in favor of people who act “normal” and detrimental to widely misunderstood subcultures, particularly punk rockers.

Patti Cake$ is a dramatic indie film filled with funny and endearing moments about a young overweight woman named Patricia, a.k.a. Killa P or Patti Cake$, living in working-class New Jersey with the lifelong dream of becoming a rap star. Her depressed and lonely mother who also once had a promising music career discourages her from pursuing a career that she says is only for black people, but her ailing grandmother and Middle Eastern American best friend, both characters that provide great comic relief, help her to create a rap demo. Eventually, she runs into a self-proclaimed black anarchist living in a shed by himself and has the recording equipment necessary for Patricia to record a few songs under the group name PBNJ with her best friend who also wants to become a rapper. Throughout the movie, she is looking for a break from having to work several jobs, including as a bartender and caterer, to support her mother and sick grandmother. At one point, she does get discouraged after being rejected by her black rap idol, but over time she receives the chance of a lifetime to participate in a rap contest held in Newark. Because of its infectious charm and creativity, the film was unsurprisingly a breakout success at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, especially for the main actress Danielle Macdonald who is actually from Australia and has never rapped before in her life.


DIFF 2017: Day 10

City of Ghosts is a powerful documentary about a group of Syrian citizen journalists and activists calling themselves “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently” who courageously report on the atrocities of ISIS in their hometown and ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, Syria. The movie follows a few members who were forced to leave Syria and are coordinating from Turkey and Germany with other anonymous citizen journalists back home. It shows the agony of these brave men who are witnessing unfathomable atrocities and whose work has resulted in ISIS executing their own family members. By disseminating the unseen human rights abuses of this horrific terrorist organization, their hope is to promote international awareness about the situation and force the international community to do something to destroy ISIS and their hateful ideology. The documentary helps humanize the innocent civilians and reporters who live through the horrors of Syria every single day of their lives, but it also provides hope that there are people out there willing to risk their lives to make a difference.

DIFF 2017: Day 7

Mine is a war thriller that takes a different spin on the genre by focusing on a singular soldier instead of elaborate battle sequences. Armie Hammer plays a Marine sniper who, along with his spotter and good friend Tommy, is on a mission to assassinate a terrorist in the middle of the North African desert, but it ultimately fails and the two soldiers are forced to walk many hours to join the rest of the American troops. Hammer’s character Mike ends up stepping on a land mine and must survive by himself without removing his foot or risk death for over two days until backup can arrive to rescue him. Through a series of hallucinations, Mike recollects his troubled past, especially with his abusive father and dying mother, and his relationship with his girlfriend back home. It feels very much like a traditional survival movie, such as 127 Hours with James Franco who is also stuck in the desert, and tries to give a message of hope and reflection during times of desperation.

Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table is a fascinating documentary about the grande dame of New Orleans cuisine, Ella Brennan, and chronicles her personal life along with her very successful career as the premier restauranteur in a city famous for its culinary arts. She first became involved in the restaurant business when her older brother Owen took over a failing French Quarter restaurant that would later become the famed Brennan’s, but she really became well-known after some of the family split off from the members that owned Brennan’s and helped revitalize a decaying restaurant and former mansion in the Garden District named Commander’s Palace. Ella is a particularly intriguing personality in a city full of personality because she was the first truly successful female restauranteur in the nation before the rise of celebrity chefs and internationally acclaimed restaurants. She has always had a commanding presence in now the most famous culinary institution in New Orleans and the South and is greatly respected for kickstarting the careers of celebrity chefs Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. The movie also discusses her life outside the restaurant, particularly the struggle she had with raising two children after divorcing her alcoholic husband and the public fissure within the larger Brennan family.

DIFF 2017: Day 6

A Quiet Passion is a subdued and deeply poetic glimpse into the great American poet Emily Dickinson’s enigmatic and deeply private life in 19th-century Massachusetts. Directed by renowned English filmmaker Terence Davies, it is a beautifully crafted film that effectively mimics the magnificence and often miserable emotional gravitas of Dickinson’s poems. For instance, it relies heavily on her actual prose to help transition her life phases and underscore her mental disposition during the key moments of the movie, instead of the conventional use of a musical score. In addition, the dialogue is very formal and feels as if it could come straight from a 19th-century novel or poem. Cynthia Nixon, best known for her role in the HBO series Sex and the City, delves deep into Emily Dickinson’s persona to give a terrifically nuanced performance, authentically conveying the personal struggles that beset her difficult and eventually reclusive life. She lived a very lonely existence who mostly kept her genius hidden and was dependent on her father and mother whose deaths greatly affected her mental and physical health.

DIFF 2017: Day 5

Unrest is a powerfully personal documentary about a woman suffering from a mysterious debilitating disease and her search for figuring out the root causes of her disorder while connecting with others suffering from the same disability. Jennifer Brea was studying at Harvard for a PhD and about to marry her husband Omar when suddenly her life changed after discovering she suffers from myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), commonly referred to as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which made doing everyday tasks practically impossible and forced her to be bedridden for most of the time. Through interviewing doctors, families, and others, primarily women, with the same condition, she learns that no one in the medical community really understands the disorder and patients are often stigmatized as making up the symptoms in their minds. The film is also very personal because it shows her at her darkest points in her life and explores her sometimes stressed relationship with her loving husband who must take care of her through her emotional and physical suffering. It is a heartbreaking documentary that provides an intimate look into the lives of those suffering severe disabilities and helps to raise awareness of such a tragic and misunderstood disease.

Buster’s Mal Heart is a very strange yet beautifully acted movie about an emotionally disturbed man as he descends into sheer madness and lives as a mountain man called Buster who survives by breaking into empty houses in Montana. The main character who was once known as Jonah had a relatively normal life working the night shift at a hotel while taking care of his wife and young daughter. Throughout the film, we meet mysterious figures, including a drifter played by the peculiar-looking DJ Qualls, that we are never really sure if they are real or figments of Jonah’s warped imagination. Eventually, we learn the reason why Jonah went completely mad and disappeared into the wilderness, but, again, it is not entirely clear whether the tragic event was his fault or not. Jonah is terrifically cast by the creepy-looking and brooding Rami Malek, best known for playing a similar character in the TV show Mr. Robot, who gives an amazing performance that makes the character’s insanity feel very real. The bizarre nature of the movie is definitely not for everyone, but I would recommend it just for the acting performances as well as the filmmaker’s brilliant ability to convey madness.

DIFF 2017: Day 4

Menashe is an intimate family drama about a troubled widower and his adolescent son, with the distinction of taking place within the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community in New York. With the entire dialogue spoken in Yiddish, the viewer gets a glimpse into a largely unseen and misunderstood deeply religious group, and how their traditions dictate practically every aspect of life, things that would be considered antiquated by most people. It follows the main character as he tries to bond with his son who is forcibly adopted by his uncle, and he struggles throughout the movie to have his son live with him despite his difficult life as a working-class single father. Despite their unusual circumstances and living very strictly, the ultra-Orthodox community is in some ways just like the rest of us, complete with family trauma and other human troubles.

What Lies Upstream is an investigative documentary that shines a spotlight on the terrifying reality of the widespread contamination of drinking water throughout the United States. The filmmaker dives deep into the issues surrounding the 2014 West Virginia chemical spill that made the drinking water toxic for hundreds of thousands of people, particularly the metropolitan area of Charleston. In his pursuit of what really happened and how it could have happened, the filmmaker interviews officials from state government, state and federal regulatory agencies, health experts, and environmental activists. The movie reveals that economically-distressed West Virginia is not the only community impacted by the polluting manufacturers and chemical companies: the filmmaker even updates the documentary to include the highly publicized Flint, Michigan water crisis in which drinking water was contaminated by lead. The problem is so systemic that even the the EPA and CDC who are tasked with protecting Americans are not doing all they can to ensure that America drinking water is safe largely as a result of them being beholden to politicians and lobbyists.

Berlin Syndrome is a riveting thriller about a beautiful young Australian tourist who travels to Berlin and begins an intimate relationship with a handsome and charismatic German schoolteacher. Eventually, the main character, portrayed terrifically by Teresa Palmer, discovers that he is not as he seems and has a very sinister side to himself. She realizes that she is being held hostage in his apartment and may never be let go alive; he subjects her to psychological torture and sexual violence while pretending that they can have a normal relationship. Echoing the Stockholm Syndrome in which hostages develop affection towards the hostage-takers, she is seduced by him and engages in a very sexual relationship before she becomes the obvious victim of a kidnapping. They continue to engage in intimate acts during her captivity; however, it is not entirely clear whether she is just playing along or has some bizarre affection towards him. I thought the film did a excellent job of presenting a slow burn thriller about a horrifying situation that could happen to any susceptible tourist or person traveling alone.

DIFF 2017: Day 3

As I have done in years past, I will be posting short reviews of the movies that I will be watching over the course of the Dallas International Film Festival. Check back at the end of every day until April 9th to keep up with the latest in independent and documentary filmmaking at the largest film festival in Dallas.

Score: A Film Music Documentary is a fascinating documentary about an integral aspect of cinema that is often overlooked by movie audiences despite be present in every single movie you watch. Through a series of interviews with composers of movie scores whether little known or such titans as Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, and Quincy Jones, we are given a previously unseen glimpse into the process of creating the art form known as film music. The filmmaker also underscores the significance of music by showing clips of some of the most famous scores along with some background information from film historians and filmmakers, including James Cameron and Steven Spielberg. It is a much more complex technical and artistic procedure than most people realize; it involves many hours writing compositions, collaborating with the filmmakers, and conducting a live studio orchestra.

Heartstone is a beautifully shot and emotionally powerful coming-of-age Icelandic movie about a young teenager named Thor as he experiences the difficult transition from boyhood to manhood, particularly his relationships with his best friend and girls while coping with his sexuality. Although he lives in a very rural community on the coast of Iceland, a place foreign from our own, the film shows him doing what typical adolescents do: breaking things, horsing around, dealing with bullies and family, experiencing a first crush, and exploring sex. However, the story delves deeper and deeper into more complicated and depressing subjects. For instance, his best friend is dealing with the possibility that he may be a homosexual, and he must confront his abusive father and distant mother. After things turn for the worse, Thor’s bond with his friend and family grows stronger, which leads him on a path to true manhood. All this drama is set against the breathtaking landscape of the remote Icelandic mountains and coast, underscoring the beauty and dangers of adolescence and the emotional isolation of the characters.