Today at the Dallas International Film Fest (4/6/11)

Today’s reviews include OK Buckaroos, Elevate, Surrogate Valentine, Jess + Moss, and If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

Reviews From Yesterday

OK Buckaroos (Repeats Today, 4:30 p.m – Magnolia 4): For Jerry Jeff Walker fans, OK Buckaroos is everything a fan could want: partyin’, drinkin’, smokin’, and songs about partyin’, drinkin’, and smokin’. It’s a concert film labeled as a documentary, and fans throughout Tuesday’s screening were singing along, tapping their feet on the backs of one reporter’s chair while he tried to write notes, and clapping at the end of “Mr. Bojangles” as if Jerry Jeff had just stepped off the stage at the Gaslight. But for the average viewer — someone with knowledge of the performer but not fervor — the film leaves a hole. Where did all the money go? Why did Walker’s career nosedive when Willie Nelson’s was taking off? And how did Walker feel about that?

While an entertaining film, it creates more questions in its 82 minutes than it answers.  That said, the technique and tempo are unique. The director, Patrick Tourville, mixes old concert footage with footage from a 2009 show in Round Rock, often beginning a song during footage from the ’70s or ’80s and ending it during the 2009 show. It provides a historical perspective, showing how Walker has aged and mellowed with his years. Fans of Jerry Jeff Walker will be thrilled with OK Buckaroos. Their hero is as alive, and funny as ever. Moviegoers, however, will wonder how it all slipped away. —Bradford Pearson

Elevate (Repeats Today, 5 p.m. – Magnolia 5): This feel-good documentary follows four Senegalese boys as they make their way from western Africa to the United States thanks to their abilities on the basketball court. Each of them is recruited out of a boarding school in their home country that was established by a former Dallas Mavericks scout and Senegal native to give his countrymen a shot at an American college education, or even a career in the NBA. Coaches from elite American prep schools travel to Senegal to find the best players to join their teams. Obviously the subject matter will invite comparisons to the masterful Hoop Dreams, but Elevate doesn’t contain the wrenching human drama of that film about two inner-city Chicago kids. There are far more happy endings here, and there’s much laughter mined from watching the African teenagers as fish out of water adapting to life in the U.S.

Director Anne Buford doesn’t probe deeply into the material. There’s a more complex story that I wish had been addressed: why do American high schools offer opportunities to these foreign players? What happens to a typical student at the school in Senegal who’s not good enough to make it to the U.S., where does his life go? Addressing these matters could have added texture and depth to what is otherwise just a pleasant little story about boys driven to succeed not just for themselves, but for their families and for their country. — Jason Heid

If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (Does not repeat): The Environmental Visions Competition has been this year’s Dallas International Film Festival surprising standout for me. Yesterday I wrote about the wonderful BHOPALI. In the preview I gushed over The Pipe. Yesterday’s screening of If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front equally impressed. The movie, directed by Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman, tells the story of Daniel McGowan, a regular, middle-class American kid from Rockaway, NY, who eventually became wrapped up with the E.L.F., a radical eco-terrorist group that went on a rampage of arsons attacks in the late-1990s, early-2000s.

The film begins with Curry’s introduction to the story. McGowan was working with the director’s sister at the time when he was arrested. What is so intriguing about McGowan’s story for Curry was just how normal, docile, and sweet this co-worker was, and yet he was suddenly sitting at a trial as a terrorist. The film peels back the layers of the mystery, diving back into the history of the emergence of the E.L.F., exploring some of the group’s major players, and eventually following McGowan through the emotional drama of his court battle and his struggle with a decision to take a plea bargain with federal officials.

If A Tree Falls neither glorifies nor dismisses the environmental activists, carefully blending interviews for former members, federal agents, and victims of E.L.F. to create a complex picture of social frustration. The movie’s strength lies in its ability to question the nature of justice in an American society dominated by corporate interests without devolving into an all-out didactic diatribe against organized society. — Peter Simek

Reviews of Movies Showing Today

Jess + Moss ( 9 p.m., Magnolia 4; Repeats April 7, 7 p.m. – Magnolia 4): Jess + Moss is one of those lovely, ambitious little lyric films that is so emotionally sincere and visually compelling that you really want to like it. Unfortunately, the movie’s poetics and dabbling in memory and adolescent angst leave it feeling unsatisfying and dramatically inconclusive — more of an urge than a movie. Opening in a lush Kentucky countryside, the movie explores the relationship between two young friends, a boy and a girl, who retreat from the harsh reality of their home life. Jess’s single-parent father is abusive drunk; Moss’s parents have died, and he lives with his cold, Bible-thumping grandparents. Most of the movie takes place in and around a decrepit, abandoned house that is slowly being taken back by the fecund countryside. We never quite know what the house’s story is, but as the film progresses we wonder if it was once one of their family’s homes. Regardless, in the house the two children create a kind of play-family life, whiling away hours through parental mimicking.

Jess + Moss’s strength and weakness is its narrative ambition. Confounding a chronological timeline, the movie creates a montage of moments, memories, flashbacks, and narrations, lending the film a poetic feel that is as moving as it is muddy. Precedents here include Days Of Heaven director Terrence Malick. Central to the movie’s dramatic conceit are a series of audio recordings, which play back ghostly conversations between the children and a monologue by Jess mom. There are also a few seemingly important scenes of sexual exploration, which punctuate the melancholic tone with an overlying sexual tension. We rattle through the collected memories of these two friends, pushed to participate in the meditative melancholia, but never quite finding enough character in them to sweep us up.

Surrogate Valentine Read our review here.

Today’s movies with good buzz

Shorts Program 2 (7 p.m., Angelika 6): We enjoyed a number of films in the first shorts program. Tonight the competition continues with a Australian movie about three men submerged for three months underwater, a German-South African co-production about a young boy, and Charles Son’s reconstruction of a man’s experience of a seizure.

Wuss (10:30 p.m., Angelika 8): The film with local ties has been a crowd favorite thus far.

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