The Guilty is a riveting Danish narrative drama about a former Copenhagen police officer who is placed in the emergency services department answering emergency phone calls. The filmmaker makes the unusual step of having the entire movie take place in a police station in which the main protagonist is mostly talking on the phone. It is surprisingly gripping after he decides to investigate a particularly disturbing emergency call about a female that is kidnapped. He goes beyond his duties to make further inquiries and even enlists his former partner to figure out who the culprit is and how to rescue the hostage. In the end, there are several dramatic plot twists that make for an even more enjoyable movie-going experience.
The Blessing is a beautifully shot and emotionally powerful documentary about an older Native American man working as a coal miner on an Arizona Navajo reservation and his relationship with his high school daughter going through her own challenges. As a very spiritual Native American who believes nature is sacred, he grapples with the fact that his job is to essentially destroy the local deified mountain for its abundance of coal but argues that it is a necessary job in order to support his family on the economically deprived reservation. The movie also provides insight into the teenage daughter who goes against Native American culture and plays the masculine sport of football and is trying to figure out her sexuality, all activities that her traditional single father is unaware of throughout much of film. It is a meditative story about spirituality and the common Native American struggle with modernity sometimes being incompatible with worshipping the very beautiful nature which is effectively presented in the movie as a result of its beautiful cinematography.
Eighth Grade is a terrific independent narrative feature that tells a very honest and sometimes raw glimpse into the experiences of a middle school girl in contemporary America. Directed by former YouTube star Bo Burnham, the story follows Kayla, played by the phenomenal new young actress Elsie Fisher, as she is about to graduate eighth grade and shows quite vividly the awkwardness that kids go through at that age. The superb script explores her social anxiety the result of peer pressure and her desperate attempts to fit in with the popular crowd all the while coming to terms with her new found pubescent sexuality. There are several uncomfortable moments in which the audience relives some of the trials and tribulations experienced by most middle schoolers. I do not find it surprising at all that it was one of the highlights of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and it is one of the most memorable independent movies I have seen this year.
Eleven Hundred to Lubbock is a low-budget independent Texas narrative that follows a young woman who recently loses her brother and tries to figure out what to do with his remains. After meeting his free-spirited friends who all know each other at a local German bar in Los Angeles, she begrudgingly goes along with the friends’ idea to run together across the United States to spread his remains at his favorite musician Buddy Holly’s grave in Lubbock, Texas. A very reserved person who does not enjoy social situations, the sister is not particularly enthusiastic about hanging out with her brother’s friends, but she develops close relationships with them over the course of the 1100 miles to Lubbock.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a terrific narrative drama that follows a teenager, played by the excellent Chloë Grace Moretz, who is sent to a gay conversion camp after she is discovered in a intimate relationship with another female teenager. It explores the heartbreaking emotional trauma that the young people go through in the name of spiritual help. The brother and sister staff instill in the fragile teenagers that what they are doing is evil and only God can save them by studying the words of the Bible and praying. The movie provides important insight into what happens at these so-called gay conversion camps and how they often cause more problems than help the young people that they are serving.
Blindspotting is a surprisingly powerful independent comedy/drama that explores what it is like to be an African American in a poor neighborhood undergoing gentrification. Written by the stars of the film, comedians and musicians Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, it follows lifelong friends living in Oakland over the course of a few days as Diggs’ character is about to get off probation. Filled with some very funny moments, the movie also delves deep into such timely issues as police brutality, cultural appropriation, gentrification, and other race issues in particular related to poverty. What makes the film so special is the on-screen chemistry between the two protagonists who are real-life friends and the clever writing in which the characters recite slam poetry and evocative ad-lib rap lyrics to discuss the issues. It is definitely a must-see and expect more great things from the extremely talented writing and acting duo.
The Iron Orchard is a surprisingly well-done low-budget Texas independent narrative film based on a popular semi-autobiographical novel at the time of its publication in 1966 about the rise and fall of a wildcatter oilman over three decades around the time of World War II in West Texas. On a shoestring budget shot on location in West Texas, the movie tells a strikingly compelling story that follows the main protagonist as he starts out working on pipeline outside Midland and eventually moving his way up to becoming a millionaire because of his good fortune in striking oil on his own. However, his great success in the petroleum industry catches up to his ego and begins a rapid decline in his personal life amidst a string of bad luck in discovering more oil. The most fascinating part of the film production is that big-time Hollywood talent, including the likes of Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Elvis Presley, and Robert Redford, have attempted to make a movie based on the now out-of-print book. It is only fitting that a film about an up-and-coming Texas oilman finally came to fruition as a small Texas-produced indie that is making its debut at the Dallas International Film Festival.
Three Identical Strangers is a terrific documentary that tells a truly amazing story about triplets separated at birth who are unaware of each other’s existence until two of the brothers’ chance encounter at the age of 19 in 1980. To make the situation even more jaw-dropping, the third brother discovers the others from a national news story about what was only thought to be only a set of identical twins. Through a series of interviews with two of the brothers and other family members, it is quite clear that the triplets had an uncanny resemblance to each other despite never have known one another. For the first few years, they are inseparable as if they grew up as brothers in the same family and enjoy bachelorhood together in wild 1980s New York City. The movie becomes even more riveting with a series of remarkable twists that are not altogether happy. It is a mind-blowing movie that definitely is worth seeing just for the wild turns in such an already truly unbelievable story.
Tejano is a small budget Texas independent narrative film that tells the story of a desperate American citizen farmhand living and working near the Mexican border in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas who becomes a small-time drug smuggler for Mexican drug dealers in order to pay for his sick grandfather’s medical care. He is asked to intentionally break his arm so that cocaine can be molded into a cast and easily evade American authorities. However, things go horribly awry while he is crossing the border, and he ends up on the run from the murderous Mexican cartel headed by a ruthless female leader who only wants to see him dead.
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 2018 Dallas International Film Festival. Check back at the end of every day until May 10th to keep up with the latest in independent and documentary filmmaking at the largest film festival in Dallas.
On Her Shoulders is an emotionally powerful documentary about a 23-year-old refugee and activist fighting for recognition of the 2014 genocide of the Yazidi religious minority in Northern Iraq by ISIS terrorists. The film follows Nadia Murad as she travels the world visiting with government leaders and the United Nations to advocate for her ethnic group to receive the help needed for the vast number of refugees. As a sex slave who lost most of her family to the brutal terrorist organization that took over her community, she becomes the heroic voice of the Yazidi even as the simple retelling of her story causes her great emotional suffering. It is a heartbreaking film that is a must-see for those who want to understand the plight of refugees, and it gives a unique perspective on those who are actively engaged in promoting humanitarianism despite its many challenges and dangers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.