DIFF 2019: The End

After watching 21 narrative and documentary features with a cumulative runtime of 32 hours and 25 minutes over the course of seven days, that’s a wrap on the 13th annual Dallas International Film Festival of 2019! It was yet another great film festival thanks to the tremendous efforts of the festival staff members, volunteers, and filmmakers! Fueled by countless Diet Cokes, concession food, late nights of watching and reviewing films, and getting to know theater staff, I survived DIFF 2019!

DIFF 2019: Day 8

The Day I Lost My Shadow is a powerful and unique Middle Eastern drama that follows a Syrian woman living during the still ongoing brutal Syrian Civil War who finds herself deep in a disputed territory ravaged by violence after trying to find gas for cooking. The beginning of the film shows her caring relationship with her young son and her desire for him to have a semblance of a normal life despite living in an active war zone in which gunfire and shelling is a daily occurrence; with the constant power outages and lack of basic necessities, she ends up with a brother and sister who, like her, are looking to fill their gas cylinders. To vividly illustrate the horrors felt by the Syrian civilians and thereby their loss of humanity, the filmmaker uses the brilliant metaphor of people most affected by the war literally losing their shadows, and eventually the protagonist slowly loses her own after witnessing so much death and the possibility of never seeing her son again. I found it to be a very fascinating and heart-wrenching movie that uses cinematography and creative imagery to give greater insight into the human toll that the horrific Syrian War has had on innocents simply trying to survive.

Jump Shot is a terrific documentary about the inventor of the modern basketball technique of the jump shot and surprisingly tell us a much more inspiring story that goes beyond sports and should be known by both lovers and non-lovers of basketball. Through an impressive amount of archival footage and contemporary interviews with the main subject as well as famous basketball stars from today, the filmmaker exposes the audience to the humble Kenny Sailors who developed the commonly used jump shot while he was a college basketball star at the University of Wyoming in the 1940s, leading them to a remarkable championship season. Although he did not see himself particularly important in the interviews just taken a few years ago when he was in his nineties, his unique skill in the early days of basketball revolutionized the sport but sadly has never been fully recognized to this day, evident by the fact he still has not been inducted into the prestigious Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. This engrossing film, even for those who do not like sports, is an important human interest story that is both a basketball documentary as well as a bittersweet glimpse into a remarkable human being epitomizing the human spirit.

The Fall of the American Empire is a wonderfully entertaining French Canadian crime caper comedy about a philosophy-loving delivery man in Montreal who finds himself in the mix with major Canadian crime bosses after unwittingly ending up with millions of Canadian dollars in cash. As he is investigated by a duo of zealous police detectives, he unexpectedly befriends a beautiful escort and a former leader of a biker gang just released from prison, both of whom help him in his elaborate plan to evade taxes and protect his identity from some dangerous criminals. The Oscar-winning French Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand crafts a Hollywood-caliber movie that has its moments of hilarity as a result of the absurdity that the main characters find themselves in a seemingly straightforward heist that quickly develops into something over-their-heads. The film’s quick pace and brilliant script elevate it into a highly rewarding and entertaining cinematic experience that rivals the big budget Hollywood blockbuster comedies.

Them That Follow is a melodramatic and sometimes very intense drama that takes a rather straightforward story and is made infinitely more fascinating by having the film set in the notorious snake-handling Pentecostal movement in Appalachia. Packed with an all-star cast, including recent Oscar winner Olivia Colman, comedian Jim Gaffigan, and character actor Walton Goggins, the story revolves around a young woman, the daughter of the extremely religious pastor of the cult-like rural church, who is keeping a potentially disastrous secret right before she is to get married off to her father’s protégé. Against the bleak and depressing backdrop of an impoverished religious community living off the back roads of North Carolina, the tight-knit group are shown in some rather tense sequences of testing their fanatical religious faith by allowing extremely poisonous snakes to slither across their bodies, with one episode ending horrifically for the true love interest of the main female protagonist. I found the movie to be especially enthralling with its use of snake-handling churches, which are based on real ones that still exist, to help elevate a rather typical story of forbidden young love.

DIFF 2019: Day 7

Non-Fiction is a highbrow French comedy that explores book publishing in the digital age as well as sexual dynamics and is marked by a talented French cast and a intellectually witty script. It follows two couples living in Paris in which some of the partners are involved in extramarital affairs that complicate their married and professional lives, and they are linked through the world of writing and the book publishing industry. One of the main characters is a fairly controversial novelist who often incorporates elements of his personal life, especially his affairs, and he is struggling to get his latest work published by his publisher who is married to a character played by the legendary French actress Juliette Binoche. The movie feels very French with its emphasis on fast-paced and smart dialogue and not being afraid to explore human sexuality through a typically well-acted cast.

Screwdriver is a gripping and highly emotional drama that follows a Palestinian man recently released after fifteen years in Israeli prison as he tries to cope with post-traumatic stress developed as a direct result of his torture and imprisonment. With an almost entire Palestinian production crew and filmed in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the movie is very much focused on the Palestinian perspective of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and it paints a very harsh picture of those living in the Palestinian territories and the refugee camp in Ramallah. The film presents a more personal story of the decades-long dispute and vividly portrays the physical and mental toll of a man obviously broken by being a political prisoner. It is a very intense cinematic experience that often wears down the audience as a result of its realistic and deeply intimate account of the Palestinian struggle brought to life by the extremely talented filmmaker and actors.

Brian Banks tells the incredible true story of a young African-American man wrongly convicted of raping a fellow student when he was in high school and his fight for exoneration so that he can pursue his dream of playing professional football. At the time of his imprisonment as a juvenile, he had a very promising football career and was personally recruited by USC to play as a linebacker, but all of that potential was ruined after he was coerced to take a plea bargain pleading no contest to sexual assault that led to five years in prison and several years of parole. Eventually, after discovering that his felony conviction makes it extremely difficult to get a job and possibly return to the football field, Brian wants a second chance at justice by deciding to take his case to the California Innocence Project led by a passionate lawyer played by Greg Kinnear. Although the production value itself could have been enhanced, the movie is remarkable for its inspiring story of redemption and justice as well as bringing to light just one example of the amazing work done by the real California Innocence Project.

DIFF 2019: Day 6

Hurdle is a powerfully evocative documentary that attempts to dive deep into the extremely complicated conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and, instead of pointedly taking sides, the film focuses much of its attention on two Palestinian young men living in the occupied territories of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. One of the men does not too much care about politics but simply has the desire to teach other Palestinian youth the relatively new sport of parkour, which is essentially a combination of gymnastics and dance practiced on the streets, while the other is more of an activist who teaches photography and filmmaking to young Palestinians to help raise awareness about their daily lives. The filmmaker, a Dallas native who spent many months in Israel, quite effectively uses the symbolism of parkour, an athletic act to overcome physical obstacles, to draw a comparison to the Palestinian situation in which they live behind literal barriers and must mentally overcome them to live a relatively normal life. However, since it is such a hot-button issue around the world, the documentary tries to avoid confronting the issues head-on but rather tries to show a personal side of the conflict and thereby allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions.

Sister Aimee is an intriguing low-budget fictionalized account of the still mysterious disappearance of evangelical superstar Aimee Semple McPherson during the 1920s at the height of her celebrity status in Los Angeles. Since nobody knows what happened to her during those weeks that she vanished, the filmmakers decide to use their own creative license to create a creative and somewhat fanciful story of what could have happened to Sister Aimee. The movie shows her running away with a married man obsessed with Mexican revolutionaries and taking a wild road trip along the border to eventually reach Mexico City to meet associates of the famous revolutionary Pancho Villa; on the way, they encounter lonely stretches of desert and dangerous bandits with their Mexican-American female guide. It may have not had the highest production value or the best acting, but I found the plot unique enough to make for an entertaining movie that also subtly incorporates elements of feminism by depicting strong female characters.

American Factory is a thought-provoking and unexpectedly enjoyable documentary about the extreme culture clashes that occur between the Chinese owners and workers of a large Chinese automotive glass factory and their American counterparts working at a newly-opened factory in Dayton, Ohio. The film is a complicated case study of what happens when the very different Chinese work ethic directly interacts with American ideals of getting a job in order to live a life outside of work with family; as a result of the often heated conflicts, the factory does not reach its full profitability potential set out by the overconfident Chinese management. To help illustrate the differences and similarities between the workers, the filmmaker introduces the audience to several Chinese and American characters who give their personal perspective to the situation and discuss how their lives have been affected by the ever-changing work environment of the American economy. Rather surprisingly for a movie that explores such complex issues as culture clashes, the rapid growth of the Chinese economy, and the merits of unionization, the documentary is full of cringe-worthy moments of humor and irony that make a rather ordinary documentary into something more entertaining.

DIFF 2019: Day 5

The Disappearance of My Mother is a rather unusual documentary that takes an unorthodox approach to storytelling by having the filmmaker film his own famous mother even against her wishes so that he can create something of artistic value as she ages. The documentary explores the personal and professional life of Benedetta Barzini who was one of the top supermodels of the 1960s and inspired many photographers, including Andy Warhol, and eventually became a feminist activist questioning the merits of fashion. In addition to archival footage and photographs of her modeling career, the film is mostly comprised of contemporary casual interviewing and filmed slices of her daily life, all from the unique perspective of her son the filmmaker who is often confronted by her to stop filming because she wants to disappear from the public eye. It is a very unique documentary that discusses a wide range of issues as well as simply revealing the mother-son relationship that can be complicated at times.

Ode to Joy is a charming romantic comedy based on the true life experiences of a man who suffers from a unusual form of narcolepsy in which he passes out when he experiences powerful emotions, especially joy. Played by the British actor Martin Freeman, Charlie leads a quiet and simple life as a Brooklyn librarian who wants a personal and perhaps romantic relationship with somebody but is afraid to due to his rare health condition. He eventually cautiously falls in love with a beautiful and smart woman and shares his experiences, in an increasingly intimate fashion, with his brother who serves as a form of comic relief for the film. I found it to be an entertaining film with a fascinating storyline that really brings out the humor from the gifted cast and puts a creative twist on the generic romantic comedy.

The Tomorrow Man is a first-rate romantic drama that explores falling in love and intimacy in a much older demographic and is anchored by brilliant performances from the incomparable John Lithgow and Blythe Danner. The movie follows John Lithgow’s character who is a paranoid prepper always getting ready for the end of civilization and unexpectedly begins to fall for a similarly peculiar person played by Blythe Danner. Set in a small town somewhere in America, the two odd birds begin a fairly rapid romantic relationship in which they mostly look past each other’s flaws out of love for one another; the filmmaker emphasizes that exciting teenage-like love can happen to anyone even at a much later stage in life. I found it to be a very tender movie that has its moments of laughter and drama reflecting a typical love story, albeit a strange one in which both characters exhibit eccentricities that do not usually appear in romantic films.

DIFF 2019: Day 4

Running With Beto is a fascinating documentary that provides a more intimate glimpse into the insurgent 2018 campaign of Beto O’Rourke as he travels across the state of Texas over the course of 12 months leading up to election day. The filmmaker has unprecedented access into the daily life of Beto and members of his campaign staff and family as his campaign begins rather unnoticed and all the way through his remarkably close race that catches the nation’s attention. What makes the documentary particularly noteworthy is that it provides the seemingly more authentic side of the charismatic congressman and does not shy away from showing his personal interactions, including the occasional curse word. Despite Beto O’Rourke’s loss, the film is still an important and unvarnished depiction of a real life modern-day political campaign and particularly its effects on a candidate’s family life.

J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius is a fascinating and entertaining documentary with one of the most unusual subjects that you will encounter in a film: it follows the creation and rise of a satirical cult known as the Church of the SubGenius established by a pair of self-professed weirdos in Dallas, Texas. With the intention of making fun of and revealing the absurdities of religious cults that began to form in the 1970s, the group was initially a very small gathering of comic book nerds who published a comical religious manifesto but became a unexpected sensation that was talked about in the national media, especially throughout the 1980s. The filmmaker is able to explore the group by incorporating interviews with the truly extraordinary founders with footage of the outlandish ceremonies and conventions eventually attended by hundreds of people. Although the subject matter is definitely not for everyone, the documentary is a wacky and sometimes disturbing sociological study of the truly bizarre things that humans will do and the hypocrisies of fringe religious organizations.

Midnight Family is a very intense and compelling documentary about a family who run a private ambulance service in Mexico City, a city of 9 million people with only 45 government ambulances available. It is a cinema verite glimpse into the nightly operation as they drive to the streets in hopes of finding a patient who they often take to a private hospital and are often given very little money for their services. Besides exploring the lack of services in Mexico, the film is also a personal story about this particular family in which the father is the owner of the operation while his younger sons, including a young adolescent, help run the ambulance at his side. The documentary shows the often complicated nature of their work by revealing that they depend on commissions from the private hospital and also must bribe police officers in order to get patients, and they do all this to make a barely manageable living.

DIFF 2019: Day 3

Her Smell tells the story of an out-of-control rock musician whose career and life is on the decline and is often in manic states caused by drugs and alcohol; the movie is a terrific showcase for the highly talented actress Elisabeth Moss best known for her television work. She plays a rock musician named Becky who is the lead singer of an all-female group and is constantly at odds with her bandmates even though they have been friends since they started the band in the early 90s. The filmmaker makes the effective decision to split the movie up into several chapters that focus on a particular moment in Becky’s life, with the first parts showing her vicious and erratic behavior while the latter part of the movie shows her trying to become sober and be a better mother to her younger daughter. Elisabeth Moss’s performance is the main draw of the film and helps cement her status as one of the best actors working today.

Seadrift is a powerful documentary about a largely forgotten story of a tragedy that took place in the very small Texas coastal town of Seadrift in the 1970s with the influx of Vietnamese refugees from the war in Vietnam. The interviewees, who were alive at the time of the violent incident, talk about the rapidly escalating hostilities between the local white community, including some who were veterans of the Vietnam War, and the newly-arrived Vietnamese refugees resettled by the American government. The largest point of contention was the Vietnamese fishermen who were seen as a threat to the local fishermen’s livelihood and way of life, and things rapidly go out of control after a fight breaks out in which a native white man is fatally shot by a young Vietnamese fisherman. I found it to be a particularly moving documentary because it shows how racial intolerance and xenophobia can practically destroy a small community, but the filmmaker also makes the point of showing that the community has largely reconciled and even the daughter of the white fisherman that was killed has come to terms with her father’s death and the Vietnamese community.

Ms. Purple is a beautifully crafted family drama about a Korean-American sister and brother who have led fairly traumatic lives but come together to help care for their dying father. After their mother left them when they were young kids, the fractured family was never the same and the brother wanted nothing to do with his sister or father until his sister finally convinces him to help out with their father. The sister has always been there for her father, and, to pay for his medical care, she has been working as an escort at a local karaoke bar while the brother has been living on the streets of their Los Angeles neighborhood of Koreatown. Over the course of the film, the relationship between the siblings and the comatose father becomes very tender with moments of levity, including the brother wheeling his father’s bed around the neighborhood; it is a very bittersweet movie about the importance of family even in the face of tragedy.

DIFF 2019: Day 2

It’s that time of year again…the Dallas International Film Festival! Over the course of the next week, I will post short reviews after each day of screenings. So to keep up with the latest and greatest of the 2019 Dallas International Film Festival, please be sure to check back often!

Manta Ray is a very art-house film from Thailand about a poor Thai fisherman who discovers a mysterious man dying in the forest near the coast. It is never entirely clear who exactly this unusual character is and, like the rest of the film, the plot is rather murky. The major emphasis of the movie is the brilliant cinematography and the use of often bizarre colorful imagery. It also indirectly refers to the horrific massacres perpetrated against the Muslim minority population of the Rohingya living in Myanmar and Thailand.

Before You Know It is a funny and bittersweet comedy written and directed by the comedic actress Hannah Pearl Utt in her brilliant directorial debut and is marked by a terrific cast of small-time actors as well as such acting heavyweights as Mandy Patinkin, Alec Baldwin, and Judith Light. It follows two rather different sisters living and working in their small family-owned theater in New York City and how they cope with family tragedy and the shocking discovery that their mother who they thought was dead is actually very much alive and a soap opera actress. I was pleasantly surprised by the often hilarious script that is also balanced with some heartfelt moments about the importance of family especially in times of difficulty. The movie shows that the filmmaker has amazing potential and will no doubt continue on to even greater comedic success.

Schindler’s List (25th Anniversary Theatrical Release)

Directed by critically-acclaimed filmmaker Steven Spielberg who won several Oscars for this particular film that is considered one of the greatest of the 20th century, Schindler’s List was recently remastered and released on the big screen for its 25th anniversary, and I found it to be extremely relevant in today’s divisive times in which hate crimes have risen. Although I saw it many years ago, simply watching it at a movie theater had an even greater emotional impact on an already extremely powerful film exploring the evils of the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis. Based on a true story, the plot follows Oskar Schindler, played by Liam Neeson who was nominated for his extraordinary role, who was an industrialist working alongside the Nazi party in Krakow, Poland and went on to save up to 1,200 Jewish people from extermination by the end of World War II. The almost three and a half hour long film with its potent black-and-white cinematography and intense attention to detail still stands the test of time as probably the most important artistic representation of the Holocaust. In addition to the nuanced performance given by the great Liam Neeson, the movie is full of beautiful and very memorable acting performances, especially Ben Kingsley who gives a remarkably tender performance as Schindler’s Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern and a young Ralph Fiennes who gives a horrifyingly realistic performance as the truly evil Nazi officer Amon Göth. In retrospect, Liam Neeson wholeheartedly deserved the Oscar for Best Actor as well as the other lead actors deserving awards in their respective Oscar categories. As was the case at the time of its release, the most indelible image from the entire movie is the appearance of a little girl wearing a red coat, the only color amongst the symbolically stark black-and-white imagery. The film was correctly recognized for the astounding directorial vision of Steven Spielberg who quite effectively captures the horrors of the labor and death camps of the Holocaust without showing a gratuitous amount of blood and gore. Overall, I found it to remain one of the most profound cinematic experiences of my life as a result of the stupendous directing, writing, acting, musical composition, and cinematography; the movie is truly worthy of its seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score. If you ever get the chance to see this extraordinary cinematic piece of history on the big screen, it is definitely worth your time and money and will leave you even more in awe than viewing it on the small screen and before the beautiful restoration done for the 25th anniversary.

DIFF 2018: Day 8

After watching a total of 13 films, the 2018 version of the Dallas International Film Festival is officially over! It has been a a week-long blur of terrific narrative films and documentaries, and I definitely look forward to next year!

Dead Pigs is an intriguing Chinese foreign language narrative that explores the confluence of traditional China with the rapid modernization of the society by dividing the film into five different story lines revolve around distinct characters that eventually overlap. We follow a desperate traditional pig farmer, a stubborn middle-aged woman who refuses to sell her family house to a developer, an American expatriate trying to make means as an architect, a struggling busboy who falls in love, and a rich spoiled girl who is the subject of the busboy’s affection. All of the stories are intertwined because of a rather unusual crisis that actually took place around 2013 in which thousands of pigs mysteriously died and ended up in the rivers of Shanghai. Although sometimes only tangentially connected to the events in the movie, the dead pigs situation is a larger metaphor for the complex issues facing a rapidly modern China while also putting a dark comedic and satirical spin on the rather remarkable film.

Madeline’s Madeline is a very avant-garde narrative drama directed by cutting-edge filmmaker Josephine Decker who has become a film festival favorite as a result of her rather bizarre yet artistic films. At times hard to follow and completely understand, the movie involves a young up-and-coming actress, played by brilliant newcomer Helena Howard, in the contemporary theater world who suffers from a mental illness and confuses her unusual dramatic performances with her own reality. The highly respected theater director, played by Molly Parker known for her role in the TV series House of Cards, pushes the boundaries by forcing the obviously disturbed protagonist to reenact her neuroses in order to make for a brutally honest theatrical production. It often feels like the viewer is themselves descending into madness just like the main character. Madeline’s Madeline is definitely the most quintessential indie film festival movie as a result of its creatively edgy vision that may not appeal to a majority of casual moviegoers.

McQueen is a terrific and mesmerizing documentary about the British fashion designer Alexander McQueen who was one of the brightest stars in the fashion industry in recent memory. Through a wide range of interviews with family members, those who worked with him, and other highly respected fashion designers, the film provides a comprehensive study of the notoriously provocative McQueen who embodied the rags-to-riches stereotype as he moved from being a young designer living on welfare to rapidly rising in the ranks of the haute couture fashion world where he would found one of the most influential fashion labels in the world. The film also illuminates his troubled personal life in which he was truly a tortured genius, suffering most of his life from depression, anxiety, and eventually substance abuse, which all lead to his tragic suicide in 2010 at the age of forty. The beautifully crafted documentary does an excellent job of presenting the truly remarkable designs that most often had elements of the Gothic and macabre and McQueen’s game-changing runway spectacles that were more than just fashion shows. Even if you are familiar with his biography, the film is a must-see simply for the footage showing his truly extraordinary runway shows enticing even for those who are not into fashion.