(Full disclosure: As a screener I watched 40-50 films for the festival and provided my comments to the programmers. Also, I wrote some of the program guide notes and served as one of the editors for two of the festival publications.)
The AFI Dallas International Film Festival kicks off tonight with Music Within, a bio pic that may, at first blush, sound very familiar.
Ron Livingston stars as Richard Pimental, a man who overcame a troubled childhood only to lose most of his hearing in the Vietnam War. Eventually he found his true calling as a writer, public speaker, and advocate for persons with disabilities. So far, so 'disease movie of the week' -- except that Livingston is exceptionally strong and charming as the feisty yet hardly faultless Pimental, and a host of experienced character actors fill in the spaces with good performances.
That pattern holds true for other films in the festival -- degrees of familiarity rescued by fine acting, good direction, or unexpected story turns.
Amy Talkington's The Night of the White Pants (screening Friday only) is the tale of a dysfunctional Dallas family that falls apart -- and comes back together -- over the course of 12 hours. Tom Wilkinson is the family patriarch; though he may be the least convincing Texan ever, it's fun to watch him embody a very stiff man vainly and disastrously trying to loosen up. The film could stand to loosen up itself; even when it wants to be outrageous, it feels restrained.
Beyond the familiar faces of Selma Blair, Nick Stahl, Frances Fisher, and Janine Turner in that film, look for Jessica McClendon in a tiny role as the girlfriend of Wilkinson's drugged-out son. She has a much bigger part in Bill Sebastian's Midlothia (screening next Monday and following Friday), a rural Texas chamber drama that doesn't always work but features several blistering scenes highlighting Ms. McClendon and the director himself.
I've already written about Ira & Abby (screening Friday and Saturday), a charming romantic comedy featuring actress/writer Jennifer Westfeldt. This is a film that could be marketed as only for an "urban Jewish" audience but has, to my mind, such broad appeal that it should play very well, even here in North Texas.
(Friday also features a retrospective screening of the clever, menacing, superb 1947 drama Dark Passage, starring Bogart and Bacall, as well as ScreenAnarchy fave Linda Linda Linda. Saturday's sold-out Centerpiece Screening is some movie called Inland Empire. A late show has been added.)
For some reason I can't quite fathom, Derek Sieg's Swedish Auto (screening Sunday and Monday) has eluded distribution so far. Again, it may sound familiar: Lukas Haas is a quiet, withdrawn small-town auto mechanic who falls for January Jones, the lovely waitress next door. Yet the distinctive palette -- emphasizing melancholy blues -- and the subtle work of Haas and Ms. Jones, along with the seductive rhythms of the editing and soundtrack, drew me in completely to the world of the film. Highly recommended.
Two other films screening Sunday have gotten plenty of good buzz: the video game doc The King of Kong, which I have yet to see, and Severance, which is a bloody good time, not to mention Harold Lloyd's classic Safety Last!, offered as a free presentation, yet I'd like to draw attention to an unheralded German film.
Thomas Stiller's The Boy Without Qualities (Der Junge ohne Eigenschaften) is a very modest drama. Painfully shy and withdrawn, mid-20s loner Tim (Marek Harloff) lives quietly with his mother and her rough-hewn boyfriend, Rolf, imagining conversations with his long-gone father and waiting for the right moment to leave home. He meets Claudia (Lisa Martinek), an aspiring costume designer who’s working temporarily at a local snack bar, and their developing relationship eventually forces Tim to confront deep-seated issues. Stiller tells Tim’s story gently but with bracing honesty.
That covers the first few days. And I didn't even mention the two "Midnight Specials" showing this weekend -- Beings and Snuffed -- because I haven't seen them yet. As we like to say, more to come.
Here are more links regarding the festival and the films covered - trailers can be found at the official web sites:
THE NIGHT OF THE WHITE PANTS
IRA & ABBY
LINDA LINDA LINDA
THE BOY WITHOUT QUALITIES / Der Junge ohne Eigenschaften