There are some obvious highlights at the first Oak Cliff Film Festival:
— The screening of the only 35 mm print in existence of the Renee Zellweger, Dallas-shot Love and a .45, with director and plenty of cast in attendance. (Saturday, 8 p.m.)
— The Cinema 16 program, featuring adventurous shorts from filmmakers like Matt Lenski, Ben Steinbauer, Alexander Lan, Chris Howell, and artists like Matthew Cusick, Ross Meckfessel, and Danielle Georgiou. The program will be followed by a screening of Film Is A Subversive Art, a documentary about Cinema 16 founder, Amos Vogel. (Saturday, 3:30 p.m.)
— The Turin Horse (2011), by reclusive and challenging Hungarian director Bela Tarr, his last film, an existential reflection centered around an encounter between Nietzsche and a stubborn horse. The film won the Jury Grand Prize at the 61st Berlin International Film Festival. (Sunday, 2:30 p.m.)
— A screening of F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise with a new soundtrack to the silent film performed live byAustin band My Education. (Friday, 9 p.m.)
— A music video program at El Sibil Studio followed by a late night music party featuring Texas Theatre mainstay George Quartz. (Saturday, 9 p.m.)
— A screening of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox at the Dallas Zoo. (Sunday, 8:30 p.m.)
In addition, here are reviews of other movies showing at this weekend’s Oak Cliff Film Festival:
Rating: Worth A Shot
Jérôme de Missolz’s documentary, Kids of Today, opens with a flickering mess of images set over the pounding soundtrack of Canadian electro punk outfit, Crystal Castles. The blur gives way to clips from the classic silent expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the prophetic somnambulist, Cesare, emerging from his stage show coffin. Then, more schizophrenic visuals, singer Alice Glass writhing on stage before the screen becomes a montage of media – from television news to tennis to pornography to advertisements. When we finally arrive at a static image, we are hardly any more oriented in the film’s world: a French youth, standing on his unmade bed in his boxer shorts, poking at a remote control that is controlling a television hidden from the shot.
Missolz’s Kids of Today is a music documentary that doubles as a meandering, open-ended rumination on youth and music, culture and generation, pleasure and death. The boy in the shot is the new youth, a musician or music-lover (for those of us unfamiliar with the Parisian bands featured in Missolz’s film, keeping track of the throbbing mass of a cast proves difficult), who’s connected to culture through media: television, Facebook, Myspace, IM. “We are the media,” one young man argues later on when hashing out the state of youth culture with famed French rock critic Yves Adrien. The comment is a layered one, betraying not only the next generation’s comfort and fluency with new and social media, but also the extent of the impact such media have had on how the youth engages with the wider world.
It is difficult to put a finger on Kids of Today, whose structure and energy is more effective in conjuring an elusive sense of mood than any straight-forward plot cohesiveness. Adrien hovers over the action. The aging rock critic from the 1970s is an influence on the young counter-culturists who spend their nights and days submerged in music and booze, gabbing and loving. But there is also a generational tension, Adrien prodding and provoking the youths with his condemnations of their mediated existence and his exultation of classic French acts from the 1960s and late 1970s. What the youth today can’t handle is the reality of the here and now, Adrien says. Beauty is where pain begins, he pontificates. If the musicians of the French New Wave lived today, they’d probably not write songs, just check their emails, Adrien scolds.
There is another figure that hovers over Kids of Today: William S. Burroughs, the beat writer/artist’s experimental film editing technique and stream of consciousness narrative style is a ready inspiration for Missolz’s documentary. We encounter, but never quite come to know figures of French pop culture from today and yesterday, including the musician Lio and the iconic French model Edwige. We watch and listen to these people and others at New York parties, in hotel rooms, in smoky apartments, often sharing space with Adrien, whose active, fizzy mind churns out a seamless commentary on music, life, and culture. Sometimes the film’s commentators are more drunk and incoherent than others, while at other times Adrien proves eerily premonitory. But Kids of Today isn’t a film making a point, rather it wants to defiantly kick a multiplicity of points in the air like unsettled dust in a basement club. The challenge with this style of documentary is that its moody meanderings can feel aimlessness at times. Appreciation of the film, then, rests on the viewer. You can sit back and let its musical quality sweep you up in all its sweet-horror romantic visions. Or you can turn off. – Peter Simek
Rating: Go See It
Why do normal people do horrible things? It’s a question that fascinates everyone from reality-TV addicts to Holocaust historians. The answer, of course, is context-dependent. Sometimes it’s for money. Sometimes it’s for pride. For writer-director Alex Karpovsky, the answer is obsession. Paul Harris (Karpovsky) is a meek lab rat of a man, a lonely guy who nonetheless comes off as well-adjusted, if fragile. He and a coworker named Danielle Jenkins (Jaime Ray Newman) drink a little too much at an office party and spend the night together. She moves on; he doesn’t. When, eight months later, Jenkins begins flirting with a new employee (Dennis Staroselsky), Harris begins to slowly unravel, his moral fiber pulling apart under the pressure of his infatuation.
This is a thriller, so you know something shocking is going to happen, and Karpovsky plays off this expectation nicely. Removed from the knowledge of the film’s genre, it’d be easy to mistake the first few minutes of Rubberneck for a drama, but you know that it isn’t, so you watch Harris suffer in solitude not necessarily wondering how he feels but rather what he’s going to do. This keeps the movie clicking along despite a relative dearth of explosive moments. I say “relative” because the modern thriller, by and large, is a roller coaster, a breakneck ride of twists and turns that get your pulse pounding but can easily leave you exhausted. Rubberneck, though, harkens back to the genre’s roots with Hitchcock-esque restraint. Much like its protagonist, most of Rubberneck has a placid surface—but without warning it tosses in huge boulders of shock and terror that make your fists clench and your heart race before you know what’s happening.
Because so much of the film is spent observing Harris being rather than doing, it’d be easy to write off Rubberneck as boring—but that’d be missing the point. The score, chilling in its Social Network-like sense of poignant, digital loneliness, and the cinematography, frequently featuring distant shots and transitional cuts of lab equipment, make you feel a bit like Harris must feel as he watches his rats run through their cages before he dissects them. The slower parts of the film let you warm up to Harris, so that you never lose sympathy for him, even when he’s descended to the utmost depths of inhumanity. It’s a risky gambit to spread out the thrills, but the film succeeds because of, not in spite of, its slow-burn approach to suspense. Rubberneck is a nuanced, haunting portrayal of an ordinary man’s spiral into insanity—and it’s a spectacle you won’t be able to look away from. – Matt Watson
Rating: Worth A Shot
There’s not much to laugh at in The Comedy. True, the film does open with a shockingly hilarious slow-motion clip of very drunk, very naked men throwing beer on each other. But as far as outright laughs go, it’s downhill from there.
That The Comedy is really a drama indicates a film that’s steeped in irony. But it’s not lighthearted irony, it’s laugh-to-keep-from-crying irony. The film follows Swanson, an apathetic, lazy thirty-something who lives in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, better known to outsiders as the hipster capital of the universe. Swanson is played by Tim Heidecker, most famous for the surrealist comedy sketch show Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job! The inclusion of supporting cast members Eric Wareheim, also of Awesome Show fame, Australian comedian Gregg Turkington, and LCD Soundsystem lead singer James Murphy all contribute to the perception that the film should be funny, but isn’t. That seems to be the point—isn’t it ironic that all these people got together and made a film that was actually pretty sad?
There’s not much in the way of a narrative arc, but that doesn’t seem like an accident—the plot drifts around unmoored, much like the boat that Swanson calls home. It’s more of a character study of a man who exists as an exaggerated symptom of an aimless generation. And it also has a lot to say about the distinction between growing up and maturing, in a way that’s genuinely thought-provoking.
But too often these messages get bogged down in a way that’s, well, ironic. There are plenty of frustrating moments that feel added in for the sole purpose of angering the viewer. And there are some scenes, such as the minute-long close up of Swanson sweating while riding a bike, that feel added in to make you think, but end up feeling forced and pointless—but, wait, is that the point? Is the writer trying to satirize our impulse to analyze every moment of the film? Am I analyzing this too much? Why does my head hurt?
So the film is at its most effective when it’s at its most straightforward. For instance, one of the opening scenes, in which Swanson visits his dying father and can’t manage to say anything sincere, even though you can tell he desperately wants to, is simultaneously touching and revolting. There’s a lot of heart here, and it doesn’t poke through the layers of irony and self-awareness very often. When it does, it’s remarkably moving. – Matt Watson
Rating: Worth A Shot
Mike Malloy’s cinema doc, Eurocrime! The Italian Cop and Gangster Films That Ruled the ‘70s, is an occasionally perfunctory essay-film that explores an overlooked, but alluring genre movement with a style reminiscent of the kinds of film buff video essay that have been popping up on website like Press Play. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Often tangential and running a little long at over two hours, Eurocrime! is still a fantastic introduction into the genre that more or less became the 1970s version of the Spaghetti Western, only more blood- and sex-drenched.
Malloy’s approach is almost archival, systematically moving through the influences and political and economic underpinnings of the camp crime flicks. The 1970s saw a glut of the campy poliziotteschi thanks to an Italian market with an appetite for milking a successful idea for all its worth, matched with a cheap production system and a social-political environment that didn’t look too far off the over-the-top action that crammed the screen in the Euro crime flicks. And as much as the genre was dominated by cheaply-made, derivative filmmaking, there is a boldness to the style born of the reckless environment of their production.
From boundary-pushing raunch and gore, to incredible real-life stunts, I found Eurocrime! to be something of a filmmaking inspiration. There’s a natural appeal to the films which combine an Italian visual sensibility to a extreme taste for action that is more often associated with Asian genre filmmaking. Eurocrime! makes you want to dig deeper (if not pick up a camera and stage your own car chase). Luckily, the Oak Cliff Film Festival has also programmed a classic of the genre, The Cynic, The Rat and the Fist, which will be screened after the Eurocrime! doc. – Peter Simek
Rating: Go See It
You probably already know who “Dahmer” refers to, and you probably already know what he did. But just in case: over two decades ago, Jeffrey Dahmer was charged inWisconsinwith the murders of 17 people and sentenced to 957 years in prison. Details of his crimes and trial saturated the media. Three years later, in 1994, he was murdered in jail by another inmate.
Now, twenty-one years later, a group of filmmakers has revisited the Dahmer case in a documentary called Jeff. The decision to call the film Jeff — rather than, say, Dahmer — says a lot about their approach. The first-name treatment is not so much an attempt to humanize him—to do so would be inappropriate and, at any rate, impossible—but rather to explore the human effects of incomprehensible horror.
Jeff ties together actual footage of Dahmer’s arrest and trial with reenactments of his time inMilwaukee, with Dahmer played by Andrew Swant. Most gripping, though, are the interviews with Ted Kennedy, the detective on Dahmer’s case; Jeffrey Jentzen, the medical examiner charged with processing the extensive amount of human remains found in Dahmer’s apartment; and Pamela Bass, one of Dahmer’s neighbors.
Bass’s testimony is especially interesting. She details what it was like to interact with Dahmer on a day-to-day basis—again, not in an effort to arouse sympathy but to show how disturbed she and the other tenants were when police discovered the source of the smells leaking out of his apartment. Twenty years later, the people closest to the case are still processing the horror, and that, rather than the murders themselves, is the subject of Jeff.
There is no violence shown in this film, no white-knuckle suspense, no screams. You keep watching after each little cliffhanger not because you want to know what happens—you already do—but because you want to see the effects of what happened still etched into the interviewees’ faces twenty years later. The chills roll over you slowly, but they’re all the more disturbing for it. Like all good documentaries, Jeff is a film that does a lot more showing than telling. Sure, you’ll come away from the film knowing the grisly details of a serial killer’s crimes. But you’ll also come away with a better grasp of how people deal with unspeakable acts of inhumanity. – Matt Watson
Rating: Go See It
Perhaps no other filmmaker has a more appropriate name than Danish documentarian Mads Brügger. Brügger is completely, utterly, bat-stinking mad. In his feature documentary debut, Red Chapel, Brügger brought a Danish-Korean comedy troupe on a tour ofNorth Korea, risking life and limb – and personally sanity – to obtain unprecedented access deep behind the tight-borders of North Korean. Brügger managed to penetrate the closed-off country with a combination of a steely, gutsy constitution and a deadpanned, Sasha Baron Cohen-style comedic rouse.
But in Brügger’s new film, The Ambassador, the filmmaker goes further still, pulling off a stunt so incredible it is nearly impossible to believe. The idea began a few years ago, Brügger says in interviews, when surfing the web he stumbled on a site advertising the brokerage of diplomatic credentials. In short, there are a handful of shady middlemen wheel and deal diplomatic positions in third world countries at a hefty price to wealthy, and often equally shady European businessmen who want to take advantage of the freedom afforded by a diplomatic passport: diplomatic immunity, the ability to carry large sums of cash through customs, etc. In Brügger’s ingeniously warped mind, the idea of taking on a diplomatic persona became the ideal way to make a film aboutAfrica today, a continent still tossed and turned by competing geo-political powers competing for the continent’s valuable resources.
Shot primarily with hidden cameras, Brügger becomes the Liberian ambassador to the Central African Republic, taking advantage of two particularly corruption-ravaged countries. In the CAR, Brügger impersonates a diplomat and businessman who seeks to open a match factory as a front for getting into the diamond smuggling business. That effort brings Brügger into contact with mine owners and top government officials, as well as African pigmies and mercenaries. “There is the underworld (the criminals), and the over world, the world of businessmen,” Brügger’s diplomatic broker tells him at a confidential meeting the filmmaker nonetheless covertly records. “Then there is the back world, the string pullers.” Perhaps what is most remarkable about The Ambassador is just how far Brügger is able to pull back the curtain on this “back world,” and how much he reveals about the murkier corners of international politics.
One of the more dynamic characters comes in the form of a corpulent, European, a former French foreign legion officer whose French passport was revoked when he was under suspicion for “mercenary activities.” Now he is the head of security in the CAR, a particularly dangerous post, not merely because his predecessor was poisoned to death (perhaps by his own employers). But the frank security officer illuminates the operations of foreign nations, particularly France and China, who conspire, allegedly, to keep the country in political disarray so as to make extracting its rich resources easier for the hungry political powers. There is a new cold war being fought between China and the West, Brügger posits at one point.
In addition to the unprecedented glimpses into the strange world that is politics and business in the CAR, Brügger ropes us into his film with a combination of tension and humor. He lands in the African country before his diplomatic papers are fully in order, which lends to paranoia that he is vulnerable and may be picked up and thrown in jail by government officials at any moment. When things get really hot (after he has landed a paper envelope full of blood diamonds), Brügger isolates himself in his penthouse suite overlooking the Congo River, playing whale songs on a small tape recorder for his two pigmy assistants. It is a scene as strange and unexpected, as it is dryly hilarious.
Brügger’s eccentricities are as much a subject of the film as are the geopolitical mechanisms. The filmmaker admits his motivations for making The Ambassador were two-fold. He wanted to make a film about Africa, but he also wanted to live out his personally colonialist fantasies and fetches, “theAfricaof my youth, or the 1970s,” he explained, a lawless wild west populated with eccentric dandies skirting mortal danger for the promise of riches. Dressed in a beige suit, black tie, aviator glasses, knee-high leather riding boots, and fingering a long cigarette holder, Brügger looks every bit the part. And perhaps what is most unsettling about the film is that the filmmaker ends up having success with his nefarious activities. When he finally lands diamonds, an essential moral question raises its head: how far will Brügger take this play acting? Will he smuggle diamonds out of the country?
“What happened from here?” Brügger asks our question in an overdub. “Diamonds thrive on discretion and secrecy, so let’s leave it like that.”
Like the characters and world he captures, Brügger himself seems to always stay just out of reach. – Peter Simek
Rating: Don’t Bother
Richard’s Wedding is, of course, about a wedding. But you wouldn’t get that from the entire first half of the film. For three quarters of an hour, two friends, Tuna (writer-director Onur Tukel) and Alex (Jennifer Prediger), walk and talk on the way to their friend Russell’s (Darrill Rosen) apartment, where they continue talking as more friends arrive. Only at the 47-minute mark, when Richard (Lawrence Michael Levine) arrives at Russell’s apartment, does the movie begin to go anywhere.
That Wedding’s plot is spare would not, in itself, be an indictment of the film—it just means that the dialogue demands much more attention than the action. But the problem is the dialogue is the weakest part of the film. When the mostly young, middle-class, white cast isn’t offending gays, Muslims, women, Asian people, black people, disabled people — pretty much everyone who isn’t young, middle-class, and white — they’re busy talking themselves in circles. They toss around lines that try very hard to appeal to the average indie filmgoer’s penchant for snappy repartee, but the lines themselves lean into their punchlines so heavily (and the punchlines themselves are so achingly weak) that you are much more likely to wince than you are to laugh.
Given how flat most of the film’s jokes fall, you could potentially view Wedding as a satirical excoriation of theNew York City yuppie stereotype, were there any trace of self-awareness in the script. But there isn’t, so you end up just hating everyone when you’re not feeling sorry for them. Tuna is overbearing and insensitive. Russell is melodramatically misanthropic, but there’s no depth to it. Even Richard is vaguely annoying.
If there is a bright spot here, it is the acting, which is decent. As unpleasant as his character is, Tuna at least manages to avoid caricature thanks to Tukel’s warmth. The lovely couple, Richard and Phoebe (Josephine Decker), demonstrate genuine chemistry, sharing an exchange at the reception (spoiler alert: they get married) that’s actually pretty adorable. And the back half of the film has some genuinely funny moments, most of them the work of Randy Gambill, who plays Alex’s junkie-cousin-turned-ordained-minister, or Theresa Lu, who plays Tuna’s one-night-stand-cum-wedding-photographer.
Unfortunately, though, the few laughs garnered by Wedding only make the film as a whole look like a missed opportunity. – Matt Watson
Kirby Warnock’s short, “When Dallas Rocked,” has a point to make. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Austinwas getting street cred as the “Live Music Capitol of the World,” Dallaswas where it was really going on. Collecting photographs shot by Warnock and Stoney Burns from their Buddy Magazine days, the nine minute compilation of images shows that Dallas’ lauded combination of business and big market pull meant that the city was both a must-stop for legendary acts of the day making their tour of the region (Billy Joel, U2, Bruce Springsteen), as well as Texas artists looking to record. Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger was recorded in Garland, TX, Warnock tells us, in a tone that can feel admonishing at times. But the images provide the proof in the pudding. Dallaswas a rocking place, and if you lived through those times, “When Dallas Rocked” will aid and abet your feelings of local nostalgia. – Peter Simek