Monday, November 16, 2009

Closing Thoughts

I forgot to mention that the AMC Palace theater, where most of these screenings were held, has upgraded to digital projection especially for this festival. I saw the results a week before, when the theater showed A Christmas Carol in 3-D. No doubt they were feeling left out at not being able to show all the movies that came out in 3-D earlier this year.

I returned on Sunday to watch Spooner, the winner of the festival's Best Dramatic Feature award. It's a romantic piece that stars Matthew Lillard as a sad-sack used car salesman who still lives with his parents in an unfashionable part of California. His life changes when he stops to help a girl (Nora Zehetner) who's broken down on the side of the road. I always thought Matthew Lillard was an underappreciated actor, and there's quite a bit of chemistry between him and Zehetner. There's hardly any material to this movie, though. Compared to this, a film as slight as Management, which has a similar theme, looks as dense as a Russian novel. It has its minor charms, though. Interesting note: Christopher McDonald plays Lillard's dad, 10 years after they played father and son in SLC Punk!, and rock 'n' roll film that I liked a lot.

Well, that wraps up the third iteration of the Lone Star International Film Festival. As I mentioned before, the inclusion of The Messenger ensured that there wasn't any slippage in quality between last year and this year. There's always an initial burst of energy in getting a festival like this off the ground, but it's a different matter maintaining people's interest once the new event is firmly established. What we need to keep our eye on for next year is what the festival will do to keep itself fresh. These are tricky times to be running any sort of cultural institution, but especially for one that's in that delicate phase. In light of the success that the festival's been able to maintain, let's wish it the best. As always, thanks to everyone who's been keeping up with this blog. -- Kristian Lin

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Saturday films

Again, I return to the LSIFF to partake in much foreign and domestic treats of cinema!

Artois the Goat was a funny if somewhat overlong comedy directed by Austinites Cliff and Kyle Bogart, starring Dan Braverman as Virgil, an unsatisfied taste test lab worker who one day decides to pursue his dream of…making the world’s best goat cheese. A comedic take on the “follow your passion” genre, the movie was still a lot of fun. Good acting and fun characters, like Virgil’s german baker friend Yens played by Stephen Taylor Fry, who is paranoid a homeless guy outside his store is actually an undercover FDA agent. The movie still has that unmistakable college student/indie feel, but in this case that adds to its earnest charm, as does its offbeat sense of humor (the inspirational talking goat vision comes to mind.) It could use a little editing to tighten it up and cut about 10 minutes off the run time, but still this was a good funny surprise.

Documentary Severe Clear was next. Directed by Kristian Fraga, the movie takes videos shot by First Lieutenant Mike Scotti during the initial invasion of Iraq, and provides and honest, warts and all view of marine and military life. There are few stoic soldiers, mostly just guys acting like guys in high school; pulling pranks, cussing like sailors, and most of all trying to kill the boredom, which seems to be the main enemy next to the Iraqis. I have a friend in the army go through two tours in Iraq, and this movie definitely helped me understand what he went through over there. Funny and brutally honest, this doc should be viewed by anyone hoping to have an idea of what American troops go through, in this or any war.

Lastly on Saturday came the German film Distance, about quiet botanical worker Daniel (Ken Duken) who falls in love a woman who also works there, the sweet Jana (Franziska Weisz). Also, Daniel is a serial killer. Though very quiet and deliberately paced, the movie is captivating, as Daniel is never given a reason for why he kills (which produer Michael Frenschkowski says was intentional) so you never know when he’ll kill next, if Jana is safe, which makes the obvious love they feel that much sadder. This movie hit me in my soft “outsider looking in” spot (though I’ve never had a problem with homicidal urges…I think), and made for a pretty captivating, but also a little too slow, character drama/thriller. Heavily recommended.

Now to just see what Sunday holds!

-Cole Williams

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Bad News Brings Good News

So far the festival hadn't had any buzz-creating movies like it did the previous two years, and I was starting to get worried that there wouldn't be one. Luckily, The Messenger stepped in on the last night of the festival and did the job.

First things first: The block of shorts at Four Day Weekend served up one highlight in Alex Dron's Fot: The Next Big Thing, an animated film from New Zealand that features a running monologue by the runty title character, who thinks he's destined to be a great soccer player when he isn't strong enough to lift a bag of soccer balls. The short went on a bit too long, and a little bit of that character goes a long way. Still, Fot is voiced by The Flight of the Conchords' Rhys Darby, and it was a kick to see this film on the same day that New Zealand qualified for the World Cup soccer tournament.

I cut out on the awards ceremony in favor of The Greatest, and was repaid with a rather shameless example of a standard-issue Hollywood-style tearjerker. Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon play parents whose son is killed just before he goes off to college, and then, in the midst of their grief, meet the girl their son made pregnant (Carey Mulligan). The reason I saw this movie was Carey Mulligan, who seems likely to land an Oscar nomination for her amazing performance in An Education, which is playing this weekend at the Modern and is slated to start playing at AMC Grapevine Mills this coming Friday. (I'll have a review later this week.) She reminds me quite a bit of Michelle Williams, but she couldn't rescue this film from its heavy-handedness, and her American accent kept slipping.

I was there for the beginning of the awards ceremony. In previous years the festival gave out its awards at a ritzy Sunday brunch at the Worthington. This year they had a much smaller nighttime affair at the Norris Conference Center, though I did like the mashed potato bar. The foreign film competition was won by China's Petition, while the documentary honors went to Egypt's Garbage Dreams. The narrative competition was won by an American film, Spooner. I regret to say I didn't see any of them, but I'll get the chance to catch up with Spooner tomorrow afternoon.

The Messenger stars Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster as two soldiers assigned to the U.S. Army's casualty notification unit, which dispatches uniformed officers to do the emotionally draining work of informing American civilians that their loved ones have been killed in Iraq. In one respect, the movie compares with The Hurt Locker, which is also about a soldier with an unusual job. On the other hand, the better comparison might be Up in the Air (which comes out in early December and is also something to watch for), since both movies are about people whose job is to break bad news in the gentlest way possible. The film was co-written and directed by Oren Moverman, who served in the Israeli military and spent some time doing this same job. (This New York Times article has some fascinating details of the research he had to do.) The movie is a bit scattered, and I have some issues with the climactic scene, but it's powerful and unsentimental stuff, and it has some terrific acting by Harrelson, Foster, and Samantha Morton as a war widow who contemplates having an affair with Foster's character. Good to see Morton back on the screen.

It seems like a no-brainer to say that a festival should play at least one of the year's best movies, and yet that's difficult to pull off unless you're Sundance or Toronto or some other well-established fest. The Lone Star Festival needed a movie of this caliber as a point of prestige. If it hadn't been for The Messenger, the festival might well have lost some steam. Now we can point to that movie like we pointed to Let the Right One In and Sunshine Cleaning and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Those movies all prove that the festival is bringing us Oscar-worthy work and not just interesting curiosities from obscure corners of the world, as valuable as that is. The Messenger is proof that the festival is not slipping, but rather remains one of the city's great annual cultural events.

I'll be back tomorrow with some closing thoughts. -- Kristian Lin

Come Saturday Morning

Such a beautiful day outside, I almost wish I didn't have all these movies to watch. For me, movie-watching weather is when it's blazing hot or pouring rain. Well, at least all the people visiting Fort Worth for the festival are enjoying this.

The highlight of the early morning shorts program was a spooky Australian short film called Miracle Fish, about a bullied boarding-school kid who hides out in the school's sick bay for a few hours and then emerges to find that everybody has mysteriously vanished. I like the way the movie resists throwing the kid into a hackneyed thriller plot; the boy reacts to it all by eating candy and drawing on the chalkboard. Other than that, the program also had City of Cranes, which I took note of when it played at last year's festival.

Then I headed over to the Kimbell for Ry Russo-Young's You Won't Miss Me, which our presenter aptly said was "probably the grungiest movie that's ever been shown at the Kimbell." Russo-Young is affiliated with the "mumblecore" movement, having acted in Hannah Takes the Stairs and directed the feature film Orphans, plus a short called Nude Descending Stairs that, if my memory serves me, played at the first LSIFF. (Also, movement regulars Aaron Katz, Joe Swanberg, and Greta Gerwig all appear in You Won't Miss Me.) I put the word "mumblecore" in quotes because many filmmakers associated with it don't like the term, and I really don't see what they're doing as all that different from Richard Linklater's early films, or indeed from My Dinner With Andre.

Enough about that. What about the movie itself? It stars Stella Schnabel (the daughter of painter/filmmaker Julian Schnabel, and the granddaughter of pianist Artur Schnabel) as a mentally unstable 23-year-old named Shelly who, when she isn't doing drugs and having sex with all manner of shaggy-haired artistes (male and female), is pursuing acting not because she really wants a career but rather so that she can get away from herself for a while. The movie is aimless, sometimes maddeningly so, but it's a deliberate strategy to capture the directionless quality of this young woman's life. The skeezy New York City apartments that the movie plays out in are evoked pretty well, and there's some vinegary stuff when Shelly has a big falling out with one of her friends in a hotel room. You Won't Miss Me has some flat stretches, and it's not a very likable piece, but it has some interesting things to say from a viewpoint you don't get from most other films. -- Kristian Lin

Friday, November 13, 2009

Stopping and Starting

I feel like a slacker for only seeing two films today, though I actually saw a bit more. I went out to the Modern to see Dancing Across Borders, Anne Bass' documentary about a boy she met in 2000 while traveling to Angkor Wat. His name is Sokvannara Sar, though his nickname is "Sy" (pronounced "see"). Bass saw him perform in a Cambodian dance troupe and was sufficiently struck by his grace that she encouraged him to study classical ballet in America, even though at 16 he was supposedly too old. Now he's a professional ballet dancer, and finding one of those in Cambodia is apparently like finding a great NASCAR driver in Ethiopia. Once you get past this intriguing setup, the film doesn't have a whole lot of drama. Sy just makes the same adjustments to a strange land that so many other immigrants make. It does have a lot of well-edited dance footage (it's the first filmmaking effort by Bass, who's better known as a Manhattan socialite and ballet patron), and Sy himself is an engaging subject with a charming sense of humor. He has a great natural stage presence as a dancer, too. The auditorium at the Modern was pretty full. I just wish I had seen this with the Weekly's Leonard Eureka, who knows much more about ballet than I do and could give a much more in-depth assessment of Sy's talents.

I got back to the AMC Palace just in time to catch the end of Andrew Disney's presentation of short films, which concluded with a terrifically funny short film by the comedy team calling themselves BriTANicK about a guy who has his friends play an absurdly convoluted practical joke just so he can dump his girlfriend. (I didn't get the title of the short, unfortunately.) The screening room was packed and Disney was leading the cheers for developing a film industry in Fort Worth. He knows how to galvanize a room, too. Who knows? Maybe he can make it happen. The atmosphere in that theater was easily the best I've experienced at this year's festival so far.

My day ended with Breaking Upwards, a romantic comedy by Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones. The two actors not only starred in the film but also co-wrote the script, while Lister-Jones provided lyrics to most of the songs on the soundtrack and Wein directed. If this sounds like a vanity project, well, it plays like one, too. (Wein previously directed a documentary called Sex Positive, which played in Fort Worth as part of last year's Q Cinema festival.) The main characters, who are named Daryl and Zoe, are a disintegrating couple who try to ease into their breakup by "taking days off" from each other. Not surprisingly, it doesn't go as planned. Also not surprisingly, these characters are incredibly self-absorbed who engage in all sorts of unfunny banter. There was one scene I missed because the DVD kept freezing at the same point, forcing the projectionist to go back several times before eventually deciding to skip over it. It didn't impact my nonenjoyment of the film. Juno's Olivia Thirlby turns up as a girl who meets Daryl at a party. She couldn't make this any less of a dud. Hope the movies I see tomorrow turn out better. -- Kristian Lin


If you wanted to see Vanished Empire, a Russian movie about kid trying to impress girl in early 1970s Soviet Union, but didn't go because you didn't want to go downtown at 5 pm on a Friday, you're totally in luck--due to technical difficulties, the subtitles didn't work, so they're going to show it again tomorrow around 2 pm.

While the film still ran, I ducked out in favor of waiting for tomorrow afternoon. I'm sure people watch foreign films with the subtitles off all the time, but I'll bet they do it in the comfort of their homes, sitting in their shorts and eating chips. You know, because they're totally high.

Anyway, I'm going to watch Tenure. I kind of wish it were also in Russian.--Steve Steward

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ups and Downs on Day 2

Whew! I spent the early part of this day conducting interviews in Plano for an upcoming cover story, and then attending a screening of Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox. (You can get my thoughts on that in two weeks.) All that was before I got back to Fort Worth for the second day of the festival.

I went to Serious Moonlight and was sorely disappointed. As I wrote in my preview piece, it was directed by Cheryl Hines (better known as the lead actress in Curb Your Enthusiasm), who carried the torch for the project after Adrienne Shelly's murder, so much so that a studio executive suggested that Hines direct it herself. Well, her inexperience shows in the piece's wobbly tone and overall staginess. Granted, it's tricky material, and the entire movie takes place in one location when a lawyer (Meg Ryan) ties up her husband (Timothy Hutton) rather than let him leave her for another woman. But the script seems to frame the main character as a romantic when her behavior is psychotic, and Meg Ryan looks totally lost as to how to play her. The violence that comes when a thief (Justin Long) shows up to rob the place jars with what's come before, and the ending is really weak. Kristen Bell pops in as the other woman. She will always hold a place in my heart for starring in Veronica Mars, and she's really good at being mean. Some of the funniest stuff was some slapstick bits late in the film she joins her boyfriend in being tied up on the bathroom floor, but it's not enough to overcome all the problems here.

After that was over, I attended the shorts program, which was entirely made up of films made in Texas. Dig Deep is a documentary that features the eye-catching art of Deep Ellum fixture Frank Campagna, while Sam Lerma's Trash Day strikes exactly the right comic mood in telling the story of a woman with a creepy crush on her garbageman. I was cringing at the synopsis of Sukwon Shin's Unbelievable4, expecting a lot of stale satire in its story about George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and Donald Rumsfeld protecting the earth from space aliens. However, this animated film scores because its action sequences actually look good, because it shows the four White House officials singing Europe's "The Final Countdown" like they're in an old MTV rock video, and because it's all done so straightforwardly that it would be a Republican rally staple if you took out the last shot. You can watch the whole film here. My favorite shot is the one early on of Condi Rice in a leather catsuit crouching Angelina Jolie-style on top of a skyscraper. Even funnier was Jenny Goddard's Weight of the World, with some delicately scripted and well-acted banter between two boys who've been hung from a tree by their underwear and are now wondering what the impact will be on their adult lives. Hope the other shorts programs will have this many highlights. -- Kristian Lin

By the way

I did enjoy Excuse Me, the short shown prior to The Scenesters, made by the same guys. They're not hacks or anything; I think their feature just sort of fizzled in its execution.--Steve Steward

The Scenesters

From what I read about this movie, I assumed it would be something completely different. For all the name dropping (for example, one guy says of his band, "We had a residency at Spaceland..."), I found the promised L.A. hipster-skewering to be at best toothless and obvious and at worst cumbersome and unfunny. Like Kristian pointed out, it's a jumble of forms ranging from handheld-camera veritae (when is this going to peter out, by the way?) to deliberately hammy noir--that didn't bother me. What perturbed me most was why just about every joke or stinger that should have elicited a laugh or even a chuckle clumped to the ground in a humorless piles of failed punchlines.

The characters deliver these ripostes in an earnest deadpan, the sort of thing that works in a Judd Apatow movie or on The Office. Or, geez, I suppose Entourage. For all the popular precedents, the director can't quite pull it off. The acting isn't terrible, but I think the actors timing is off, like watching a video where out-of-synch sound is on that precise mark between tolerable and unwatchable. Eh, that's charitable. I caught myself heaving several sighs of annoyance.

Speaking of annoyance, I'd say the characters are patently unlikeable, even Charlie, who is supposed to be the hero. Kristian enumerated the plot well enough, so I won't bother. It's amusing that the most repellent of them (the producer character--I forget his name, but he's the one who looks like a blonde Seth Green) talks about character arcs at one point, because his remains the same throughout. I suppose this irony is intentional, the point being to tell us how many stupid, unscrupulous wannabes fill the shallow end of the indie filmmaking pool, but I thought it was too heavy-handed and irritating. I mean, most people know someone like this guy; if you're into books, it's the girl at the party who gets a little drunk and makes sure you know she's read one by someone who won a Booker prize. If you're into music, it's the guy who talks about "industry people" or says stuff like, "Oh, well my friends in The Bronx..." meaning the hardcore band rather than the borough. In this case, it's the self-described "movie geek" who mentions Truffaut or Fellini while you're speedeating chips at Chili's, who also says of any movie he enjoyed, "I think they did a good job." So these two are familiar, but if you don't like those characters in real life, you probably won't like them in this film.

And actually, the super deadpan guy (Wallace Cotten) who plays the director of the film within the film (I guess he is the actual director, though this movie's obsession with its own meta-ness made me too tired to figure out) is just as irritating, for the same reason as the producer character. And while Charlie, the hero, is a comparative saint relative to the Producer's and Cotten's amorality, he seems to be as big a douche as everyone else. There's a point, however, where he seems to become hypnotized with the fake movie's hardboiled noir so much that it spills into his life outside of the fake-movie's frames, trying to solve the actual murders that drive the plot. This would have made the movie way more interesting, a character study about a real person who turns into a character because he's surrounded by idiots who convince him to become as two-dimensional as they are. And as for why he goes along with them... who knows? There's no convincing reason why he doesn't go to the police, and he never seems as vain or unscrupulous (or even as stupid) as the two filmmakers. And actually, he doesn't even seem to be interested in becoming a player or a star like everyone he has to associate with. I never bought his resignation to go along with the plan for hiding evidence from the police in favor of unmasking the killer on his own. This guy is aimless and a little lazy, and letting someone else take care of a problem seems like his character's default setting. The only motivation that makes sense to me is that he doesn't seem to have anything better to do.

So I was disappointed in this movie, but I think the festival is even better than last year. Why The Scenesters is a centerpiece is a mystery to me, other than that two of its creators are from Keller and Grand Praire. I'm really looking forward to Ichi.--Steve Steward

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Opening Scenesters

How do you pick the opening night selection for one of these festivals? I was talking with Q Cinema's Todd Camp after the end of The Scenesters, this year's LSIFF opener. Todd pointed out that last year's opening night pick (Sunshine Cleaning) was an enjoyable film with big names, but no one from the film had appeared at the premiere. This year had the opposite problem, with lots of people from the film at the premiere, but no big names on the screen. Maybe that's why I left feeling like I would have enjoyed the movie more as a regular festival selection instead as the opener.

The Scenesters is by a comedy troupe calling themselves The Vacationeers: writer-director Todd Berger and his co-stars Kevin Brennan, Jeff Grace, and Blaise Miller. For a movie by a comedy troupe, this is an ambitious piece. It's about two ethically challenged documentary filmmakers who initially find a subject in Charlie, a guy who cleans up crime scenes (shades of Sunshine Cleaning!) but then shift their focus when Charlie discovers evidence that the murder scenes he's cleaning up are the work of a single serial killer. The film is like a Chinese box; I spent the first 20 minutes or so trying to disentangle the framing device from the flashbacks. Berger shoots much of the film like a fake documentary, but he also inserts parodies of everything from instructional films to music videos to mumblecore movies. Some of it is very funny, but things turn serious when Charlie tries to figure out the killer's identity while the documentarians manipulate reality to make Charlie into their hero. This is a tough trick to pull off, and Berger doesn't quite get the balance right between showbiz satire and David Lynch-style paranoia.

Side notes: Anthony Mariani already took note of the Vacationeers' local ties. Suzanne May, who plays Charlie's TV reporter ex-girlfriend, can also be seen in Gentlemen Broncos, which opens Friday in Dallas. The feature was preceded by an amusing short film by the Vacationeers called Excuse Me, in which Julia Stiles plays herself as an annoying celebrity who goes up to four guys in a restaurant and pesters them, trying to give them her autograph while they try to give her the brush-off. Nice comic reversal.

Hello Again!

Hard to believe it's been almost a full year, but the Lone Star International Film Festival is ready to start up again for its third running. Jimmy Fowler, Anthony Mariani, Steve Steward, Cole Williams, and I will all have updates from this year's event, starting with tonight's screening of The Scenesters, so stay tuned. -- Kristian Lin