Today At The Dallas International Film Festival (4/5/11)

Reviewed in today’s edition: The Ward, BHOPALI, Among Us, Gun Hill Road, Hermano, Animated Shorts Competition, and the North Texas College Showcase.


Animated Shorts Competition (Repeats Today, 10 p.m. – Angelika 6): The word “animation” has a much broader definition than I’d realized, as evidenced by this collection of seven short films that address love, hate, and lots and lots of death. Truly, it seems that either whoever assembled this festival program, or all the world’s best animators, have a fixation on the morbid. The best of the bunch is Stanley Pickle, which has a look unlike anything I’ve seen before. Its claim to be considered animation might be challenged by some, since it’s really just a live-action piece that’s been shot to look like stop-motion. The characters’ jerky movements serve well a simple story about a young boy and his mechanical parents. Paths of Hate, with its tale of two fighter pilots engaged in combat to the death, and even beyond, had me thinking back to the bleak landscape and unrelenting violence of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. It’s a powerful reminder that messages of hate have a way of taking on a life of their own, even when they’ve become entirely disassociated from their root cause.

Something Left, Something Taken is the funniest of the shorts, showing two young people on a Zodiac Killer-inspired trip to San Francisco. You’ve never before seen a love triangle like the one in Love Patate — between a man, a woman, and a tuber. Lipsett Diaries, about a famed Canadian filmmaker, begins with beautifully conceived visuals that mimic the way memories paint pictures in our mind. Unfortunately, it then bogs down in the depressive babbling of its narration. The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Lion defies our expectations that we’re seeing a happy, fantastical tale, with the jolting realism of its conclusion. And Jupiter Elicius, the shortest of these shorts at six minutes, is slightly amusing with its maniacal meteorologist narration, but I found its visual style muddled. Regardless, it’s a collection well worth seeing. — Jason Heid

Gun Hill Road (Repeats Today, 10:30 p.m. – Magnolia 5): At first glance, Gun Hill Road seemed like it was fighting an uphill battle. A story about a transgender teen in the Bronx confronting his family and society’s ideals of manhood almost seemed too out-there, too “look at me.” The people I know from the Bronx wouldn’t have wanted to see this, would’ve said this world doesn’t exist. And that’s why it’s so important.

Gun Hill Road confronts the question that lives in every community, Latino, black, Ukrainian, whatever: what do you do when your family disappoints you? Do you pack it in? Or do you fight? The question of how and when you fight, and for what, takes this film from a cookie-cutter drama to a gut-wrenching look at love and its sometimes inescapable obstacles. It’s a complex film, and one that probably requires multiple viewings to parse out each stunning detail from Rashaad Green’s script. It’s a shame this theater was only half-full; a film like this deserves a broader audience. — Bradford Pearson

Hermano (Doesn’t repeat): This affecting drama is the story of two brothers, unrelated by blood but raised as family, looking to escape the limited opportunities of life in their Venezuelan barrio. Julio is older, gregarious, and works for the local crime lord to help pay the family’s bills. Daniel is timid and strait-laced, with a single-minded focus on his goal of becoming a professional soccer player. More than that, Daniel wants Julio forever on the pitch by his side. Both are among the best youth players in the country and invited to try out for the Caracas club, but a wrenching tragedy threatens to derail their plans. Obligations to their mother, to their team, and to their friends in the local gang confuse loyalties and cause conflict between the brothers. In the end — as a soccer game is played to determine the future for Julio and Daniel — the film suggests that it’s those who are prepared to make any sacrifice to ensure our happiness who truly deserve to be called our “family.” — Jason Heid

The Ward (Does not repeat): The Ward, a thriller about a group of teenage girls in the psychopathic ward of a hospital in 1966 (think the era of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Titicut Follies), delivers exactly what audiences want from legendary cult director John Carpenter (Halloween, Big Trouble in Little China): a full platter of jolts and jumps punctuated with teenage camp. The movie opens with Kristen (Amanda Heard, last year’s Dallas IFF Shining Star Award recipient) taking a match to a farm house, getting caught by police, and then being hauled off to the hospital. In the ward, she meets the other patients, a collection of attractive young girls with similar body types and unexplained eccentricities. Her first night in the hospital, her blanket is mysteriously pulled off her and hidden under her bed. A little later, she sees a scary figure in the communal showers (yes, a horror movie populated with this many young beauties can’t resist the requisite PG-13 shower scene). We soon realize the ward is haunted by a mystery girl, probably a dead patient.

To its credit, Carpenter’s movie moves at a brisk pace. The lean, barebones filmmaking that establishes the story’s background is so effective that it alone makes The Ward stand out. What Carpenter is really interested in is staging the scarier moments, which come in elevators, electroshock therapy rooms, and an in-house morgue. Most of these spooks you see coming, and there are probably not as many as many horror-seekers would like, but the soundtrack and quick cutting provokes seat-jumping like a reflex. Then Carpenter tosses in a Shutter Island-style psychological twist to bump his stimulus-response joy ride a little further along. The sum total isn’t the best thing the director has touched, but at a clean 88 minutes, it provides a nice dose of the familiar stuff. — Peter Simek

BHOPALI (Does not repeat): BHOPALI is a documentary that looks into the aftermath of an industrial disaster that took place in India more than 25 years ago. The catastrophe began one night in 1984 when a gas plant owned by American transnational Union Carbide leaked an unthinkable amount of poisonous gas into the atmosphere, blanketing the neighboring town in gas and killing upwards of 20,000 people. The gas also seeped into the groundwater supply and soil, creating a lingering, generational aftereffect of birth defects, early deaths, and inestimable suffering. The documentary spends much of its first act measuring this suffering, visiting clinics and homes where the sight of childhood misery is almost unbearable to watch. The filmmakers seem to understand how difficult it is to watch these scenes, and so they bring about a kind of relief by focusing the latter part of the film on the efforts to bring about justice and compensation for the victims of the disaster.

BHOPALI excels at everything you expect from an environmental documentary. It states its case strongly, roots it in an impassioned call for human justice, and frames its story in drop-dead gorgeous cinematography. But BHOPALI also transcends its activist genre by poignantly capturing both human suffering and the human will for life by focusing on the magnetic personalities who live at the heart of this disaster. — Peter Simek

Among Us (Does not repeat): The star of The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo, Michael Nyqvist, returns in the Swedish film Among Us. In the movie, Nyqvist’s character, Ernst, has a happy marriage, a successful career as an insurance adjuster, and a beautiful son. But when an accident leaves his son in a coma, rifts appear in his relationships. Despite the likelihood that her son will die, Ernst’s wife, Cecilia (Izabella Scorupco) retreats to a sense of hope and faith. The pragmatic Ernst, meanwhile, becomes cold and unmoved. Enter Walter (Tchéky Karyo), an odd Frenchman whom Cecilia helps when she stumbles upon him being car-jacked in a parking garage. With no identification and no straight story, the mysterious man forces himself into his life, bewildering them with ambiguous stories about his past and a premonition for knowing the couple’s intimate details. Soon Walter emerges as some sort of mystical figure sent into the life of the couple to teach them how to bear their suffering.

What follows is something of a cross between Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with, unfortunately, a bit too much of the German director’s penchant for effusive, philosophical voice narration overdubs. By the movie’s end, Among Us has managed to push Ernst on an emotional journey that hits a few notes that resonate with the audience as well. But the film’s rather worthy wrestling with concepts of faith, hope, chance, and love is underserved by an overbearing sentimentality. — Peter Simek

North Texas College Showcase (Doesn’t Repeat): Judging a student film is like heading to a high school auditorium and reviewing a ninth-grade production of Death of a Salesman: it’s unnecessary, and often cruel. In that spirit, we won’t touch upon the clunkers from last night’s screening because, well, let’s consider them a work in progress. Instead we’ll highlight some of the best short films, the ones that were followed by genuine, “Wow, that was actually good” applause.

The brightest stars to peek out last night were from Baylor and SMU’s film programs, and the supernova of that bunch was Baylor’s Jordan Bellamy. Playhouse, a film centered on a brother and sister playing house, was the funniest film I’ve seen during DIFF. That is, until the last two minutes, when Bellamy flips the script completely, making the viewer wonder how they didn’t recognize the obviousness of the comedy. It’s a delightful bait and switch. Bellamy’s other film, Excercise — not a typo — follows a fairly basic horror plotline, but does so with restraint and poise, building suspense like every horror movie should. Bellamy’s films showcased a deft cinematographic touch; he focuses on the character’s faces, allowing the viewer to become immersed in the film.

Later in the night, SMU student Juan Vargas’ Judas took the viewer through a revenge killing decades in the making. It’s shot beautifully in black and white, reminiscent of the short films of the Spanish New Wave. — Bradford Pearson

Other Reviews of Movies Showing Today

October (4 p.m. — Angelika 6): Read our review here.

By Day and By Night (4 p.m. — Magnolia 4): Read our review here.

A Kiss and A Promise (5 p.m. – Angelika 7): Read our review here.

The Pipe (10 p.m. – Magnolia 5): Read our review here.

Apart (7:15 p.m. — Angelika 7): Read our review here.

Today’s Movies With Good Buzz

OK Buckaroos (7:30 p.m – Magnolia 5): Jerry Jeff Walker will be at tonight’s screening of Patrick Tourville’s documentary about the road-worn country legend.

Blood Of Eagles (7 p.m. – Angelika 6): The buzz surrounding this movie is that it was written by former Dallas political mover and shaker Rob Allyn. Full disclosure: I started watching this movie before the fest. It was about the fourth or fifth screener I was trying to get through that day. When it started, I saw that it was a historical war drama set in Indonesia. The production value seemed low (it felt a bit like a war-time episode of the old A-Team TV show); the Dutch colonialist villains were a bit cartoonish; and when the bad guy Dutch were raping a poor Indonesian peasant girl within the film’s first five minutes, I gave up. I was burnt out. I couldn’t do another movie, especially one that reeked of cheesy, emotional propaganda from the opening few scenes. I’ve since found out that the movie was a produced by a former public relations politico.

Now maybe Blood of Eagles is an amazing movie. Maybe I was delirious after a movie binge. Maybe it got better. I don’t know. I haven’t seen enough to be able to really review it.

Image: From The Pipe


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