Today At The Dallas International Film Festival (4/17/12)

Here are reviews of movies from yesterday and reviews of films showing today at the festival. For all our Dallas IFF coverage, go here.


Maya (Repeats Today, April 17 at 4 p.m. Angelika 6)

Rating: Worth A Shot

Albanian director Pluton Vasi’s second film, Maya, takes place in a remote Albanian town, which Sam returns to rebury his father’s remains. After arriving, he stays, opening up a hair salon and falling for the voluptuous and buxom Maya, the wife of one of Sam’s distant cousins. While the affair carries on, some of residents begin to resent the outsider’s presence. Sam wins over the women of the town by introducing a little style and pizzazz to their hairdos, but his salon is vandalized with racist graffiti, which accuses the outsider, a Muslim, of being a terrorist. We know everything eventually forces Sam out; Vasi intercuts shots of the glum man pensively staring out a window in an airplane with accompanying overdub.

Those cutaways aren’t the only stylistically obscure elements of Maya, which is quirky and upbeat, if a little off-kilter. The movie has difficulty establishing a depth of connection to either of the story’s lovers, and despite its efforts to draw-out the xenophobic tension of its small town life, it never feels like more than a sketch. — Peter Simek


Last Call at the Oasis (Repeats Today, Apr. 17 at 7 p.m. Magnolia 4)

Rating: Worth A Shot

Last Call at the Oasis isn’t sure what kind of documentary it wants to be. It starts out as a discussion about the impending water shortage in Nevada and California, transitions that argument to the current drought in Australia, then boomerangs back to the United States to mention contaminated drinking water in Michigan and Texas. While it’s an entertaining (and discouraging, shocking, terrifying, etc.)  film, its lack of focus takes away from the final message: we need to be more cognizant of our water supply. Still, it’s a beautifully crafted film that will at least make the viewer head to their computer when they get home for more research. — Bradford Pearson


Animation Competition (Repeats Today, April 17 at 9:45 p.m. Angelika 7) 

Rating: Worth A Shot

Among the seven films in the animated shorts program, I was looking forward most to the third chapter of Don Hertzfeldt’s “Everything will be OK” triptych, “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” which concludes the off-beat, morose story of Bill, the afflicted, stick-figure everyman. Though I really like the first two chapters, I was disappointed in the third short, which feels like it succumbs to the pressures of having to create an ending to a story whose power is derived precisely from its acute sense of open-ended, Kafkaesque agnosticism. That disappointment set the tone for a rather lack-luster shorts program, highlighted by two films that were already theatrically released as part of the 2012 Oscar-nominated shorts block, the still-hilariously weird “A Morning Stroll,” and the Canadian, tongue-in-check “western,” “Wild Life,” which I actually enjoyed more the second time seeing it.

“Moxie,” a bizarre and wicked rapid-fire comedy about a self-mutilating and despairing bear borrows a stylistic page from Hertzfeldt’s book, and offers up an enjoyable, if forgettable spray of head-spinning humor. “Dr. Breakfast” feels like SpongeBob SquarePants on crack, and its pure hallucinatory nonsensicalness is fun enough until the short peters into out into the ordinary. Dan Ojari’s “Slow Derek,” about a man losing his grip on the rotation of the earth, is lovelier to look at than it is meaningful. If pushed for a favorite, it would be Isamu Hirabayashi’s cryptic “663114,” a beautifully color-washed, two dimensional parable about a cicada that doubles as an expression of anxiety about the lingering impact of the tsunami on Japan. — Peter Simek


I Wish (Repeats April 20 at 10:15 p.m. Angelika 7)

Rating: Go See It

Two young boys are separated when their parents’ marriage falls apart in Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda’s beautiful new film, I Wish. One ends up with his mother and grandparents, living in a sleepy town that is towered-over by an ever-erupting, ash-spewing volcano. The other lives with his father, the front man of a modestly popular, but by no means successful rock band. Apart, the older boy, Goichi Oosako, is sad and withdrawn, while his cheerful, amenable brother, Ryoonosuke Kinami, adjusts to his life alone, finding a group of girls for playmates. When Oosako learns about a local legend that claims that seeing two bullet trains passing each other will grant a wish, he and his friends begin raising money for a trip that will lead them to the miraculous passing. Soon both brothers and their cohorts are off on a childhood-defining road adventure.

“The world needs wasteful things,” the boys’ father says at one point. “What if everything in the world was full of meaning?” That question seems to guide Koreeda’s meandering, documentary-like style that revels in the small details – from cakes and ash, to the human touch – creating wistful passages that infuse the story with an infectious sentimentality. There is a sweetness to the shape of life in I Wish, and what convinces us is Koreeda’s ability to shoot the film through children’s eyes, patient and observant, clouding out the loss and loneliness that linger on the periphery of the story. There is something undeniable about watching an older woman stroke the hair of a young girl, remembering her own lost daughter, or seeing a group of children climb a hill baring a white flat that lists their lives’ wishes, scribbled out in marker. For Koreeda, hope is rooted in the possibility of beauty, and the director manages to capture heaps of it. — Peter Simek


Booker T. Washington Showcase (Does not repeat)

I’m not going to waste my time debating the merits of films by high schoolers for two reasons. One: if I’m too harsh, people will rag on me for being cruel to children. Two: if I’m too light, someone will say I’m being unfair, and that by entering their movies in the festival they should be held to the same level of scrutiny as the other filmmakers. I see both points, I just know both of them are wrong. There are some terrible films, some average films, and one that made me smile. That film is called “New Year’s Eve,” and by all accounts it’s just a single girl shooting the kids she babysits for, on a night that may or may not be New Year’s Eve. It’s two minutes long, and I grinned the whole time. — Bradford Pearson



Qwerty (Today, Apr 17  at 1:30 p.m. Angelika 7)

Rating: Worth A Shot

To say Qwerty is a movie about Scrabble is a misstatement. But to say it isn’t a movie about Scrabble would be a bit disingenuous. Let’s just say it’s a movie where Scrabble is maybe the, eh, fourth lead.

Word nerd Zoe meets Marty in an unlikely scenario: while he’s getting fired from his security guard gig for screaming at customers, asking why they’d ever spend $55 on underwear. It’s a legitimate complaint, I think, and one that makes Marty’s disheveled, hobo-esque character loveable. The two loners begin a whirlwind romance, topped off by the National Scrabble Championship. Zoe’s a competitor; Marty’s just there to watch.

It’s a pretty standard love story, but rarely do romances focus on characters so alone. Marty is a recluse by choice; Zoe by circumstance. Within each others’ flaws they find a way to step out together, or at least step away from the threat of suicide.

The film could use a bit of editing — including the complete removal of a homeless man who lives outside of Marty’s house, who serves little purpose other than to remind the viewer, “Hey, at least Marty has a job.”— but is an otherwise warm, endearing look at love. — Bradford Pearson


Let Me Out (Today, April 17 at 4 p.m. Magnolia 4)

Rating: Don’t Bother

Either something is lost in the translation of this cartoonish South Korean comedy, or it’s just plain not funny. It’s the story of a film student who’s full of criticism of other people’s work but has never actually made a movie himself. Finally, in his senior year, he’s required to take the helm of his own work: a zombie melodrama. He’s got to deal with diva actresses, the demands of his sponsors’ product placements, and compromising when he can’t afford to shoot his original vision. Surprise: making a movie is tough. Let Me Out has the tenor and look of a low-budget late-night basic-cable comedy from which all the titillating scenes have been excised. — Jason Heid


The Salt of Life (Today, April 17 at 10:45 p.m. Magnolia 5) 

Rating: Go See It

In his second film, Italian filmmaker Gianni Di Gregorio plays a middle-aged man taking one last chance at a zesty, extramarital affair. He comes on to his mother’s endowed caretaker, lunches blondes with his licentious lawyer friend, and sips drinks with his hard-partying downstairs neighbor. Literally “Gianni and the women,” in Italian, The Salt of Life feels like a cousin to Di Gregorio’s debut (at age 59, no less), Mid-August Lunch. It is rich in the colors of lackadaisicalRome and salted by the details of life in the contemporary Italian city: young men are out of work, old men are taking their pensions early. You can’t help but root for the poor sap, whose romantic escapades seem doomed to fail, but at least churn up a series of buffo moments rounded out by a softly smirking existential malaise. — Peter Simek


Sironia (Today, April 17 at 7 p.m. Angelika 6)

Rating: Worth a Shot

Singer Wes Cunningham plays Thomas, a talented musician who’s never quite gotten his big break in Los Angeles and decides to move with his pregnant wife (played by Dallas native Amy Acker) to a small city in Texas so that he can experience “a real place, with real people, just raising a family.” Of course, he learns that the grass is never quite as green as it seems to be from afar, and that finding where you belong in this world has much more to do with whom you’re with than it does the physical place you’re in. Much like Cunningham’s music (featured throughout the film),Sironia is an agreeable enough entertainment, if not terribly original or insightful.  — Jason Heid


Escape Fire: The Fight To Rescue American Healthcare (Today, April 17 at 4:30 p.m. Magnolia 8)

Rating: Go See It

Taking a careful look at the American health care system with a desire to uncover real possibilities for solutions, Escape Fire: The Fight To Rescue American Healthcare feels like the documentary the American health care industry needs right now. Lacking the publicized ire of Michael Moore’sSickoEscape Fire is a more sober assessment, and it systematically picks away at the incongruities in the system that warp American health care. One of the movie’s chief complaints is the way doctors are compensated on per-procedure basis, which drives up the overall costs of health care, while economically crippling doctors who specialize in general care, the frontlines in real disease prevention. Some of the film’s most moving moments come when it looks at a pilot program in the U.S. military which uses alternative techniques, such as acupuncture and mental therapy, in treating pain and post-combat psychological disorders in lieu of freezer bags full of prescription drugs. Escape Fire doesn’t have all the answers, and it doesn’t gloss over the fact that there are powerful forces and systematic dysfunctions preventing reform. But at least it offers a glimmer of hope. — Peter Simek


My Way (Today, April 17 at 7:30 p.m. Magnolia 5)

Rating: Worth A Shot

Je-kyu Kang’s bloated, nationalistic World War II man-love melodrama feels like the child of Chariots of Fire and Steven Spielberg’s War Horse. There’s lots of Spielberg in My Way, in fact, down to the reshot Saving Private Ryan D-Day sequences that flip the perspective from the Allies to the Nazis. How we got there comprises the rest of My Way’s often hackneyed narrative, which tells the tale of two star runners, one Korean (Jun-shik Kim, Dong-gun Jang), and one Japanese (Tatsuo Hasegawa, Jo Odagiri), who end up in the throws of the world war. When Kim is forced into the Japanese army after a disputed marathon win sparks a riot in Japanese-occupied Korea, he begins his lily pad hop from conscripted soldier to Soviet POW, to Nazi soldier. He continues to encounter his arch sporting rival, Tatsuo, who is a ruthless Japanese officer, but softens through the struggles of the survival through the war.

The storyline is patchy, with director Kang offering his full attention to the bombastic war scenes, which are as baroquely orchestrated as they are dull. There are handful of signature shots that are neat to look at, bodies bouncing off tanks, cameras falling with bombs, and tank shells setting soldiers a-fly. But My Way is an American-style blockbuster that unfortunately likewise mimics the Yankee preference for spectacle over substance. — Peter Simek


Andrew Bird: Fever Year (Today, April 17 at 7:30 p.m. Magnolia 8)

Rating: Worth a Shot

In a world of AutoTune and saxophone solos, Andrew Bird is a welcome respite. Beautiful and meandering, Bird’s orchestral pop transports the listener to a parallel place, one where Katy Perry has no place. That same conceit, however, also makes falling asleep during a movie pretty easy.Fever Year follows Bird on tour for a year — “I’m either sweating bullets or freezing all the time,” he admits, without seeking medical help — from the stages of Chicago to his family farm. It’s beautifully shot, with a built-in soundtrack.

The problem is it doesn’t go anywhere. Moviegoers unfamiliar with Bird may love or hate the film, but it’s entirely based on whether or not they like his music. Unlike the tension that builds in 2002’s Wilco documentary I Am Trying To Break Your HeartFever Year serves as little more than a concert film with snippets of interviews interspersed. And, as that, it’s fantastic. The intricacies of Bird’s recording and performing styles are explored, but at only surface level. A welcome cameo by St. Vincent lets the viewer explore Bird’s collaborative side, but director Xan Aranda leaves plenty of Bird unearthed. I found myself nodding off during Fever Year, because Aranda left me nothing to do but listen to Bird’s music, which I could just do with my iPod. — Bradford Pearson


Still Life (Today, April 17 at 10:45 p.m. Magnolia 5)

Rating: Go See It

Stillleben, the first feature film from Austrian writer/director Sebastian Meise unfolds slowly through a series of slow, meditative shots (still lives, if you will), opening with the drafting of a letter which describes sexual acts and solicited role-playing. We then see a woodshop in the countryside outside Vienna; an apartment in the city where an older man (Fritz Hörtenhuber) is finishing floors with his adult son, Bernhard (Christoph Luser); and a prostitute standing on a busy street. The father hands the letter to the prostitute, and Bernhard trails her. We’re are not sure what it all means, but when Bernhard gets his hands on the letter, the film sinks into the nightmare we reluctantly expected, an insinuation of incest, which, when discovered, shatters the family’s tenuous ties.

Still Life fits in somewhere in between two other movies at this year’s Dallas IFF, North Texas director Ya’Ke Smith’s drowning drama about child abuse,Wolf, and Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos’ Alps, an absurdist drama about grief, role-playing, and elusive identity.  Meise’s film may be the best of the three in that it achieves its tightly wound moral and emotional tension with an economy of effort, creating a quietly ponderous and troubling film that is never brutal, obscure, or forced. – Peter Simek



Filmmakers will join FrontRow’s movie writers for interviews on a stage adjacent to the Magnolia Theater in the West Village each night of the festival, between 6:30 and 7 p.m. Here’s a list of upcomming guests. Come out and join us, and watch videos of the interviews here.

Tuesday, April 17

My Way

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel

Wednesday, April 18


Biba! One Island, 879 Votes

Thursday, April 19

The Other Dream Team



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