Today at the Dallas International Film Festival (4/3/11)

Here are reviews of movies from last night that will repeat today and this week, reviews of other films showing today, and a few picks that have generated good buzz coming into the Dallas International Film Festival.

REVIEWS FROM YESTERDAY

Littlerock (Repeats Today at 12:30 p.m. – Angelika 8): After a while, the world of subtle, low-key, mumbling, emotion wringing, wandering, lost in youth, beautifully photographed, easy-rolling, slow-paced, meandering, meditative, mollycoddling, bike riding indie films feels like one long music video for Ben Gibbard’s latest musical side project. Littlerock is another youthful film that has little wrong with it and little interesting. First off, don’t think Arkansas. The movie takes place in a tiny town on the other side of the Angeles National Forest from L.A. It is a California setting of purgatorial youths, wayword/no-word young men (it is a mostly male cast) who smoke pot, host parties, owe each other money, ride bikes, and talk about leaving town, starting out on life, but can hardly find the energy to take the first step. Into this world lands — as if from outer space — Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka) and her brother Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto), two Japanese backpackers on their way to San Francisco who are momentarily sidetracked in Littlerock. A noisy party at the motel they are staying at unexpectedly ropes them into a circle of friends, and the next few days serve as an easy going break from reality, the travelers — and particularly Atsuko — enjoying the experience of life in an unconnected world, free of responsibility, personal history, life goals, and, for the non-English speaking Atsuko, actual communication.

The language barrier proves to be Littlerock’s most compelling tool in studying the essentiality of friendship —what it is that satisfies and comforts in human relationships. Atsuko begins sleeping with a boy she is attracted to and taking long bike rides with a boy who is attracted to her, even though they only pretend to understand each other. This world is comfort enough for Atsuko to shove off the planned trip to San Francisco, her brother leaving her to Littlerock for a few days. But a few days is all it takes for this complacent dream to unravel. Director Mike Ott has a good ear for melancholy, and his movie is a curtailed drama that nonetheless sticks with you like a well-written, three minute love song. – Peter Simek

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (Does not repeat at Dallas IFF; wide release on April 29): Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock makes movies that feel like highbrow Jackass stunts. He is a sacrificial victim to his own explorations of communistic American culture. In Super Size Me, Spurlock subjected himself to a month of McDonald’s — much to the detriment of his physical health. Now, in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Spurlock completely sells out to make point, making a movie that is stuffed full of advertisements, product placement, and corporate promotion.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is an ingenious spoof on the creeping power of commercial interests in movies and on television. In it, Spurlock opens the doors wide for all the corporate sponsorship he can swallow, and the movie itself tells the story of how he was able to attain the sponsorships to make the movie happen. Like last year’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold generates its power through a head-spinning self-reflection: making the movie is the subject of the movie, and the commercials and product placement in the movie are also the means through which the movie was able to made. The result is a sophisticated inside joke, in which we are bombarded by advertising in a way in which we are aware that we are bombarded by advertising. That self-consciousness makes the super-sized sell-out palatable and amusing, even if the commercials for the products in the film are no less effective at coercing us into brand recognition and desirability. The after-effects of the movie are curiously two-fold: an increased awareness and suspicion of ever-advancing prevalence of manipulating corporate interests, and the a deep thirst for a bottle of POM pomegranate juice. — Peter Simek

Cooper and the Castle Hills Gang (Does not repeat): It’s probably not necessary to do much more than explain that this 50-minute film was produced by a real estate company as a way to market a “master-planned community” in Lewisville. Through the eyes of its 11-year-old title character and his gang of mischievous sidekicks, we learn that Castle Hills is the Greatest Neighborhood in Human History — complete with huge homes with big lawns, uniformly friendly neighbors, its own golf course and garden labyrinth, and plans for a beautiful new “European-style mixed-use center with lots of foot traffic” on the horizon. Cooper spends much of the movie talking to the retired Mr. Wilson, but Cooper is no Dennis the Menace. He’s the way Mr. Wilson’s Realtor would have portrayed Dennis to potential buyers if the old man had ever just gotten fed up and decided to move. But, of course, it would be ridiculous to move out of a place as idyllic as Castle Hills. Anyway, this Mr. Wilson turns to Cooper and the gang for help in tracking down his missing wedding ring. Don’t worry, the kids don’t let him down. And don’t worry, the movie may seem like it’s going to development a smidgeon of dramatic tension (say the level of your typical Full Houseepisode), but the script will quickly diffuse the issue with a ridiculously polite conversation. There’s no time for misunderstandings in Castle Hills. No sir. The movie can be viewed at CastleHills.com. I imagine you can check out their open house schedule while you’re there, come to think of it. — Jason Heid

High School Showcase (Does not repeat): There was a lot of unbridled creativity on display in this collection of 15 shorts produced by local students. TXU sponsored a contest calling specifically for films about the future of energy and energy efficiency, and about a third of those screened at DIFF were official contest entries. Given those subject-matter restrictions, the teenagers still managed to inject a lot of charm into their projects. I particularly enjoyed the contest winner, “I Want to Make You Happy,” from Booker T. Washington. My two favorites, however, were non-contest entries and veered into the comically bizarre: “Catch Up” from Garland High School (about a girl terrorized by a condiment) and “Mr. Owl” from Greenhill School in Addison (a spoof of a famous Tootsie Pop ad). Throughout the two-hour presentation, I was impressed by the quality of much of the editing and camerawork. One standout on this front from “Reversion,” from New Tech High at Coppell, which was beautifully shot and a real pleasure to look at. I couldn’t track down all of the films online but here are links to those that are available. —   Jason Heid

“The Aftermath” from Garland High School

“The Power of Wind” from Parish Episcopal School

“Thank You” from Parish Episcopal School

“Looking Out For Texas” from Richardson High School

“I Watch You Sleep” from Garland High School

“Breaking the Speed of Life” from Wylie High School

Movies Showing Today

Norman Mailer: The American (Today, 12 p.m. – Angelika ; April 4, 4:15 p.m. – Angelika 7): I belong to a generation largely unaware of the giant personality that was writer and novelist Norman Mailer, and so for me, Joseph Mantegna’s documentary is less a reminiscent homage than a eye-opening introduction to a protagonist who feels like a malignant physical manifestation of the tumultuous, contradictory energy that defined the 1960s. There is nothing extraordinary about the form and style of Norman Mailer: The American, and there hardly needs to be. The sensational man at its center provides all the vigor the film needs: from recounting the madcap episode in which he drunkenly stabbed his wife (one of the six wives he took) to the insane filming of Maidstone, the 1970s film that seems injected with the same diabolic underbelly of hippiedom for which the hellish free concert at Alatmont in December 1969 stands as an icon.

Perhaps the most compelling element of the film are the interviews with Mailer’s many wives, women who subjected themselves physically and emotionally (Mailer, we discover, was a sexual sadist), and yet all these years later stand by their man like the loyal women of a sultan’s harem. It speaks to the allure of Mailer, a man you want to despise, and yet his insight, brilliance, and powerfully seductive allure make him undeniable.

Wild Horse, Wild Ride (Today, 5 p.m. – Angelika 6; April 4, 7 p.m. – Angelika 6): Each year the United States Department of the Interior helps organize a contest, rounding up hundreds of feral horses in the wild, and handing these mustangs over to the best horse trainers in the world. The trainers have 100 days to take the animals, which have never been touched by human hands, and turn them into domesticated exemplars. The finale is a competition showcase in Fort Worth. Wild Horse, Wild Ride is structured like any post-Spellbound sports movie, following a handful of trainers from around the U.S. who undertake the challenge. We learn about some of these individuals lives and watch their different approaches to horse breaking, but most of all, the documentary captures that special bond horse lovers have with their animals. The finale in Fort Worth is a thrill to watch, but it is the post showcase auction, in which the trainers must part with their horses, that is sincerely moving. Horse lovers will not want to miss this one, but even those who have never touched a mane will find themselves draw to the almost magical connection between horse and human.

The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan (Today, 2:30 p.m. – Angelika 8; April 4, 9:30 p.m. – Angelika 6): The movie follows the efforts of a Texan family to track down the last MIA soldier in Vietnam, McKinley Nolan, a defector from the United States army who may or may not have been spotted by a Vietnam vet traveling in a remote location in Vietnam. Nolan’s story is complicated one. He left the military and joined the other side, making him a traitor to his native land. But interviews with the Vietnamese people who befriended behind enemy lines point to conflicted character who couldn’t take the violence inflicted upon civilians by the U.S. The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan is a sad, complex tale that ultimately raises more questions than it answers.

Goodbye Cruel World (Today, 5:45 p.m. – Magnolia; April 4, 10 p.m. – Magnolia 4): Read about the film in our festival preview.

Rainbows End (Today, 12 p.m. – Magnolia 4): Read about the film in our festival preview.

The Perfect Game (Today, 12:30 p.m. – Magnolia 5): Read about the film in our festival preview.

Soul Surfer(Today, 5 p.m. – Northpark AMC 5): Read about the film in our festival preview.

Today’s Movies With Good Buzz

Documentary Shorts (Today, 7:30 p.m. – Angelika 7): Six movies from four countries, the movies explore as diverse subjects as a former terrorist, an aging Japanese porn star, and found footage.

Latino Showcase (Today, 2:15 p.m., 4:30 p.m., and 7:30 p.m. — Magnolia 4): Three of the films from the Dallas IFF’s Latino Showcase will screen today at the Magnolia Theater. These include By Day and By Night; Lovoe, The Untold Story; and Hermano.

Image at top: From Littlerock

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