Below are reviews from five of the films showing at the Lone Star Film Festival, which runs Nov. 5-9 in downtown Fort Worth. All five of these films are screened at the AMC Palace 9. For complete schedules and more, go here.
9:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 6
Breaking into the film world can be hard. Really hard as a struggling filmmaker finds when he is hired by a cult to make a quirky sci-fi film in Tony Blahd’s Rover (or Beyond Human: The Venusian Future and the Return of the Next Level).
Mark (Jonathan Randell Silver) is trying to break into the film business. His current job as a low-level script reader is unfulfilling so he goes to that bright beacon of guaranteed success—Craigslist—in search of something different. He finds it in a posting for a cult sci-fi film. Oh, those tricky double meanings.
Of course, by “cult,” the ad means an actual cult. Led by the young Elliot Gould-like Dave (Liam Torres), the group has seen better days. Their numbers have dwindled to just four dedicated people, ready for their cosmic trip to Venus…whenever Dave gets the anticipated message that it’s time.
But, that’s taking awhile, and people are losing faith. So he invents a story about needing to make a film to keep everyone interested. This works, because hey, these people are already in a cult. They’re obviously easy to persuade.
This is where Mark, who has big dreams, finds himself. And like so many others struggling to make it, he looks past the odd eccentricities of his cast and crew in the interest of trying to make a great movie. Huzzah!
This is a crazily quirky concept from Blahd, filled with surrealistic imagery, grandiose monologues about space and existence, and just a sprinkling of indie movie schmaltz, complete with an exceedingly indie soundtrack. It wants empathy, but finds a more creative way than most indies to ask for it.
The cult members are all good characters. Mark is not. He’s not written to be. He does what so many wannabe indie filmmakers do, which is use lingo and act super important. There’s a funny scene when the cult members do the same thing, but instead of sounding all self-important, they come off as innocent and naive. It’s a beautiful contrast. Mark is the fake one in contrast to the wholly honest cult members.
A movie like this is naturally going to have a challenging ending. It has introduced supernatural elements and wants to somehow make good so that the whole film doesn’t end up morbid and bleak. The movie Safety Not Guaranteed pulled this off beautifully, but it had a big budget for awesome time travel effects, but also because it was able to get the audience to want it to work.
Rover doesn’t quite get there. Despite the impressive soundtrack and overall good writing, the lead-up to the climactic moment doesn’t quite demand investment. It’s a nice moment, but a little flat.
Surrealism is making a big comeback in the arts, and Rover is a nice example of that. Within the confines of this goofy story, it’s able to make commentary on filmmaking, faith, the nature of relationships and existence, and just life in general. All of which is wrapped in creative low-fi effects and fun camera work by Corey Gegner. This movie wants badly to be meaningful, but unlike others that try to play on our empathy for people on the fringes just trying to find their place in it all, this one kind of succeeds.
7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 7
Gabriel is difficult. That goes for both the film, written and directed by Lou Howe, and the title character of said film. Put simply, it’s a young man’s search for his first love. However, that man suffers from an unspoken mental condition that most aligns with what people would generally call crazy.
Gabriel, played brilliantly by Rory Culkin, has just returned to his family from a stay in a home, of some sort, for people with psychological problems. Before that return, though, he makes an unannounced detour to try and visit his first love, Alice (Emily Meade) at college. She’s not there, and he gets on the bus home.
This is when it becomes obvious that something is wrong. Gabe’s brother, Matthew (David Call) waits for him at the bus station, impatient and frustrated. Gabe is late, and when Matthew questions him about it, he lies.
At home, Gabe’s mother (Deirdre O’Connell) both dotes on her son and plays the role of inquisitor, monitoring every movement and questioning every word. There’s a mistrust that is clearly uncomfortable but necessary, which Gabe justifies by repeatedly trying to manufacture his escape so that he may continue his quest to find Alice.
Mental health is a tricky term because it’s so incredibly broad and subjective. The latest psychological diagnostic manual, the DSM-V, is the thickest edition yet. Gabriel’s specific condition is never actually given, though it involves depression, delusions, pathological lying and suicidal tendencies. Gabe’s father committed suicide when he was younger. He loved his father, and his death clearly contributes to Gabriel’s condition.
Perhaps they don’t define a condition because there isn’t an exact one. Gabriel doesn’t have severe disabilities or abnormalities. He’s in control of his faculties enough that he can get along by himself in society just fine, which he does on several of his ventures. Where it comes apart is when he actually has to interact with people. He has little sense of boundaries or social scripts and routinely makes people feel uncomfortable around him.
This is what makes the story so frustrating, frightening, sad, and great. It truly feels as if there’s a world where Gabriel is okay. And, he very much wants to live in that world. It’s heartbreaking to watch him struggle to just find some sense of normality only to have everyone treat him delicately and awkwardly. It’s almost unbearable the level of empathy both Howe’s writing and Culkin’s performance lend to the role of Gabe.
The cast is generally fantastic, but Culkin is stunning. Credit to a phenomenal script and direction from Howe, but Culkin is so perfect in the role that it’s scary. He’s able to take a clearly troubled young man, who says and does a lot of things that are not okay, and make him sympathetic. But, not sympathetic in a way that the audience just feels sorry for him. It’s more than that. He makes you care about him. He makes you root for him, in an odd kind of way.
Gabriel is difficult. But, he doesn’t want to be. Howe’s film is difficult. There are painfully uncomfortable scenes stacked one right after the other. It wants to be difficult, because in forcing the audience to see this man’s story from his perspective, it pulls back the curtain on a cultural taboo to reveal the humanity inside. Humanity that just wants to be seen and heard and, in whatever way, understood. And mostly, to be loved. You will love Gabriel.
Sometimes I Dream I'm Flying
Noon Saturday, Nov. 8
The arduous life of a ballerina is the subject of Aneta Popiel-Machnicka’s very narrative documentary, Sometimes I Dream I’m Flying. The film gives an inside, real world look at all the hard work, trials, and tribulations that go into creating the beautiful images and movements on stage in a ballet.
The film is documentary only in that it follows the life of a specific ballerina, Weronika Frodyma, from the moment she graduates as the top ballerina from her school in Poland, to a competition to Moscow, and finally to a role in the Berlin ballet. However, Popiel-Machnicka’s style is not that of a traditional documentary. There aren’t a lot of signposts along the way as the film plays much more like a scripted drama. This makes it easy to get into Veronica’s story.
Of course, though, being a documentary, there is little control over the story. So, when Weronika suffers a serious injury shortly before her Berlin debut, it’s easy to imagine the decisions that had to be made in piecing the film together. What Popiel-Machnicka came up with works, but one can imagine the injury was a real damaging blow to the project. Ultimately, though, it might have provided the story with the conflict it lacks otherwise.
Sometimes I Dream I’m Flying is an interesting peek behind the artistic curtain, which can be a bit hackneyed, but Popiel-Machnicka also injects a real stylistic composition with surreal moments that take the audience beyond the physical rigors and the mental ones. For anyone who has ever wondered what it’s like to be on the other side of the stage, this is definitely one of the more intriguing offerings.
2:15 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8
The best movie showing right now places the audience in the near future, when Earth has run out of resources and thus sent a probe and team of explorers into space searching for an answer to their problems. And no, it's not Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. This film is the French Canadian sci-fi thriller Project-M, and it's out of this world awesome.
Earth is running out of water, so the Quebec Space Agency has sent a probe to Europa, a moon of Jupiter, hoping to find it. However, even if the probe finds water, a crew will have to be sent to retrieve it. Therefore, a four-person team has undertaken a mission to live on a space station for 1,000 days, the total time it would take to get to Europa and back, to see if it's possible.
Naturally, the mission is not without its issues. And this one has plenty, mostly regarding what exactly the implications of finding something on Europa are down below on the Earth's surface.
Filmmaker Eric Piccoli skillfully handles the action and thrill of a space set science fiction film with the weighty existential issues and emotional struggles. The crew, comprised of their leader Vincent (Jean-Nicolas Verreault), health officer and second in command Dr. Andrea Sakedaris (Julie Perreault), engineer Justine (Nadia Essadiqi) and scientist Jonathan (Julien Deschamps Jolin), who is also a co-writer on the film, works well together and the tensions and conflicts never fall into the cliché.
Sure, there are some familiar tropes, but for the most part, the film eschews convention, keeping the audience alert and engaged. Which they have to be. Nothing is predictable and everything is a potential disaster. The film is exciting from start to finish, yet also meditative and spiritual, in a way. All this makes it incredibly engrossing and altogether perfect. Don't miss it.
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8
Chaos reins as an anarchic indie rocker heads from Austin to Pittsburgh to fix up her deceased grandfather’s house in Colin Healey’s disruptive and reckless Homemakers.
Irene (Rachel McKeon) lives in Austin and sings in a small indie rock band. She sings quite well, at that. But, she is difficult, to say the least. A Dadaist of sorts, Irene has a destructive streak that prevents her from living what most might call a normal life. In fact, she tends to self-sabotage right when it seems that things are going well for her and/or others. It’s a problem. Why does she do this? A young woman who is clearly smart and talented who constantly, and purposely gets in her own way.
Right after she sabotages an important show for her band, thus pissing off her girlfriend Kicky (Molly Carlisle) and alienating her other friends, she gets a call that her grandfather has passed away and left her his house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Once in the Steel City, she meets a guy who turns out to be her cousin Cam (Jack Culbertson). They spend time together goofing off in a way that is often destructive to the house.
The problem with this is that she’s meant to sell the house. A big reveal is that Irene comes from great wealth. She would clearly be considered the black sheep, but she grew up a child of great privilege. This is what finances her shenanigans, at least for a while. After a bit of a reality check, delivered by her stern father, she seems to get on the right track and transforms the house, with help from Cam, into a cool little pad. It maintains her sense of unhinged playfulness while still being quaint.
Of course, though, it all crashes again.
Eventually, she finds a peace, and the film’s conclusion is solid. It’s probably the best we could hope for dear Irene. She’s an odd bird who dances to the beat of her own, likely LSD-addled, drummer.
To that end, McKeon’s performance is electric and unbridled in the best way. She throws herself, sometimes literally, into the role, and the film is the better for it. Also, she’s an awesomely outstanding singer. I want to buy whatever album she is singing on.
Healey’s film looks at the madness that can birth out of a life of privilege, which provides its own unique structures and boundaries. Boundaries that can drive a person to want to tear all of them down. Irene does that. It’s cathartic for her and the audience, even if it also sometimes maddening when she shoots herself in the foot. The struggle doesn’t feel cheap or contrived. THere’s something very honest about Irene, and thus the film. She is the film, and it is her. Wild, crazy, free, lost, beautiful and mesmerizing. This is what millennial existentialism looks like. Maybe. Who really knows? That’s kind of the point.