Dallas International Film Festival Capsules

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In our never-ending quest to keep you informed of as many film festivals as possible, Paste covered the Dallas International Film Festival this year. Here’s a look at a few of the features that epitomize this year’s diverse lineup.

Alps
By now it’s clear that Greek auteur Giorgos Lanthimos has a thing for identity. In his bizarre and brilliant tour-de-force Dogtooth, he examined identity formation. In his latest feat, Alps, he examines identity crisis. Starring a sad-eyed Aggeliki Papoulia (also of Dogtooth), Alps centers on an underground company whose four employees impersonate the recently deceased to help loved ones mourn. Papoulia plays an unnamed nurse who works for the troupe but merely as a means of self-therapy. Because she can’t find contentment in her own life, she takes on the lives of others. Showing total control of his vision, Lanthimos creates the same scenario visually. All throughout Alps, he shoots his characters from behind. This approach doesn’t just reestablish a dark and deadpan mood; it makes a pointed conclusion about us as viewers. It suggests that we’re all just playing the part of actor in our own identity crisis&#8212 — a strong and shocking revelation.

Cinema Six
To put Cinema Six into perspective, imagine a lesser Clerks set in the lone movie theatre of a small Texas town. The film, written and directed by Mark Potts and Cole Selix, follows three of the theatre’s loser employees as they look to sort out their miserable lives. Given these crazy characters and their ridiculous circumstances, the talky comedy naturally delivers a few good laughs. Whether scenes with an enraged customer who demands to see a movie called Kane or the awkward moves of Gabe, an overweight projectionist who lives in the projection booth, a number of moments prove quite memorable. In trying to mimic the works of Kevin Smith, though, Cinema Six’s humor unfortunately relies too heavily on profanity. This approach won’t just be frustrating for prudes but, really, for anyone who cares about creativity.

Cowgirls n’ Angels
Cowgirls n’ Angels may be made up of cast members from Friday Night Lights—Alicia Witt and Dora Madison Burge who played mother and daughter—and may be set in Oklahoma, a neighbor of the Lone Star State. But it fails to capture local color like the hit TV show—not to mention its basic technical standards—specifically in its relationship to faith and family. Interestingly, the film actually makes a conscious effort to hone in on such themes through the redeeming story of a young cowgirl looking to meet her father, but the attempt comes up short, leading to a cluster of cliches and cheese—and even a downright rip-off True Grit (2010) with country narration over “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Of all the films at the Dallas International Film Festival, Cowgirls is one of few to already be picked up for distribution. Samuel Goldwyn Films bought the family affair, and it will fit nicely next to Facing the Giants and Fireproof.

The Elect
If you find yourself pissed at news stories surrounding the Westboro Baptists, the picketers who travel around the United States and hold signs with statements such as “God hates fags,” prepare yourself to be saddened by this short documentary about the hate group. Debut directors Dan Moore and Erin Zacek take us into the everyday lives of the bigots, specifically the group’s zealous spokeswoman and her children—yes, children; 25 of the 80 members are children. Through personal interviews and inside footage—and a provocative, verite style—Moore and Zacek challenge us to not just become angry with the Westboro Baptist Church but, instead, to feel sympathy for them, especially these children who have little choice in the matter. More than anything, though, they ask us to consider what went wrong theologically, as the congregation believes wholeheartedly they’re being faithful to Scripture. Even, evidently, to what Jesus said were the two greatest commandments: love God and love people.

Elena
Around the midpoint in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Elena, a cutting conversation stems between the title character and her dying husband. When she asks him to support her freeloading son’s impoverished family, the godless and wealthy old man tells his wife that social equality only exists within her “biblical fairytales.” It’s a bleak view of life—and one that fills every shot and scene of this Russian thriller. From Elena’s brutal answer to a family crisis to a violent brawl in the slums, Zvyagintsev expresses no optimism for his country or this world—only perpetual desecration. While this hopeless worldview, alas, takes us through the wringer, Zvyagintsev somehow manages to find beauty in it, particularly in his slow and still melancholic visuals and the humanity realized in the characters. He also makes a convincing case against capitalism as a mere arrangement of survival of the fittest.

Faith, Love and Whiskey
Given its title, this Bulgarian drama evokes another recent three-word-title film called Eat, Pray, Love. On the surface, the two films actually couldn’t be any more different. One is about a young woman caught between two men—her successful American fiance and drunkard ex-boyfriend from Bulgaria. The other is about a recent divorcee and her spiritual journey. In addition, they’re both made on entirely different-sized budgets by different directors from different countries. Interestingly enough, however, they both offer up the same superficial solutions for their female protagonists: “Do whatever makes you happy.” “Life is all about you.” Such shallow ideas, though not as overtly stated, stand front and center of Kristina Nikolova’s Faith, Love and Whiskey. At times, the young writer-director almost tricks us into thinking she’s made something different—something smarter—with her hip soundtrack and stylized visuals, but ultimately the illusion doesn’t work.

Father’s Chair
Brazilian writer-director Luciano Moura intentionally throws us right in the middle of drama in his first feature film, Father’s Chair. In an intense early sequence, we watch a family argument break out between a middle-aged man, Theo, his wife and teenage son, Pedro, due to an impending divorce. From this chaotic moment, after which Pedro suddenly disappears and Theo goes searching for him, the tension never thins, and the film hardly slows down. This swift, suspenseful plot, and great performances across the board, make Father’s Chair incredibly watchable for a while. But it eventually leaves us wanting, as we never learn about Theo, his family and the deeper dilemma at hand. If Moura built Father’s Chair to be a thriller, such problems wouldn’t matter, but the story hinges on relationships, character and the human condition.

I Wish
In many ways, Hirokazu Koreeda’s I Wish parallels The Kid with a Bike. The story, written by Koreeda, centers on a young boy who wants his father, and focuses more on observing characters than telling a story. Unlike the Dardennes’ film, though, the approach here doesn’t totally work, at times making I Wish move unbearably slowly. That’s until the second half, when it transforms into a road movie and finally finds a rhythm. In hopes of reconciling their family, the protagonist and his younger brother, along with friends, make their way to Japan’s new Kyushu Bullet Trains cross, a place of spiritual significance—where miracles happen. Their experience gives the film a sense of wonder and hope, as the talented child actors fill it with life. By the time they arrive at their destiny, though, it becomes clear that Koreeda isn’t asking us to believe in dreams and wishes—no, that’s for children, he says. Koreeda is asking us to grow up—to accept reality and find fulfillment in the world as it is.

Maya
Of all the foreign films at the Dallas International Film Festival, Maya may be the most foreign of them all. That’s not because it comes from Albania, Europe’s poorest nation, where the entertainment industry hasn’t exactly thrived. It’s because, according to another definition of the word “foreign,” the film couldn’t be less germane or pertinent. Director Pluton Vasi’s second feature, Mayacenters on a confident and handsome man named Sam who travels to rural Albania. There, he gives his father a proper burial but, after suddenly falling in love, extends his visit. The problem, though, is that the woman he falls in love with is married — and to his distant cousin,causing a resentful stir in the town. Upon this premise, the film tries to become an erotic, suspenseful thriller, but it doesn’t create tension or romance. Sam and his lover, Maya, never transcend their one-dimensional personas—and, thus, we never care about them and their affair—and Vasi paces the film without momentum, resulting in a detached, stagnate vision.

My Way
It may be pretentious to compare Je-kyu Kang to Steven Spielberg—as critics continually do—because, well, they’re not on the same level. But after seeing My Way, Kang’s new World War II film about two enemies—one Korean, one Japanese— who end up fighting together in the Japanese army, the comparison makes sense now. From the opening sequence of an Olympic marathon in the 1940s, Spielbergian sensibilities emerge—the grand scope and scale, the sense of optimism, the John Williams-esque score. Such characteristics fill the film all throughout, but they shine brightest in the action, which we get plenty of. Like Spielberg, Kang boasts a true director’s eye in how he shoots an action sequence. As immense and cluttered as the big battles become, he always shows control, framing each scene with space and detail. Unfortunately, Kang doesn’t effectively steal all of Spielberg’s moves, particularly moments of high drama. Instead of creating genuine sentiment, these moments often create contrived sentimentality— but they don’t stop the film from being an epic feat.

Punch
After bringing in big numbers at the South Korean box office, Punch has finally made its way across the world and to America. It’s easy to see why the coming-of-age drama by director Han Lee found such success in its home country. From the talented cast to a multifaceted story that weaves together family, religion and politics, Lee’s film comes to the screen in the spirit of Slumdog Millionaire. Based on a novel by Kim Ryeo-Ryeong, Punch follows a poor and troubled student named Wan-deuk who lives with his hunchbacked father and mentally challenged uncle. When he forms a relationship with his oddball teacher and, eventually, his unknown mother, and begins to let out his anger in the sport of kickboxing, Wan-deuk finds hope for the first time in his life. This hope, though, doesn’t just end with him—it spreads to everyone around him, affecting numerous lives. While the film sometimes settles into sap and plunges into a few plot holes, it’s impossible to avoid falling for its energy and buoyancy.

Qwerty
There’s an undeniable appeal about Bill Sebastian’s second feature film Qwerty, and it has everything to do with the two main characters, Zoe and Marty—they couldn’t be more original and quirky. Played by newcomer Dana Pupkin, Zoe works for the State of Illinois translating vanity license plates to make sure they’re appropriate, but her real passion is Scrabble—to become the world’s second female National Scrabble Champion. She’s an oddball full of sass and sarcasm, similar to Aubrey Plaza in Parks and Recreation. Marty, played by another newcomer Eric Hailey, proves just as interesting. He’s lonely, depressed and recently unemployed after losing his cool about $55 underwear in a department store. When these two eccentrics meet, they make a perfect match, and Pupkin and Hailey validate it with convincing chemistry. Unfortunately, as the couple falls in love and a romantic comedy emerges, the film eventually loses steam. While Zoe and Marty remain comical, they’re never sustained by a moving story or engaging visual aesthetic—Sebastian creates unique characters while leaving everything else mundane.

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