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John James Audubon's work takes center stage in "Rara Avis."

Here we go with our coverage of the 10th annual Lone Star Film Festival. As I mentioned in my item for the Night & Day page, this is the first full year for the fest under its new management team, so I’ll be looking closely at what’s on offer and comparing it (perhaps unfairly) to what came before.

I started off on Thursday evening with Rara Avis: John James Audubon and the Birds of America, a sedate but informative and comprehensive documentary about the man. Al Reinert’s film was funded largely by our own Fort Worth Zoo, which is prominently billed in the opening credits. The movie sure seems to cover every aspect of the man: the French immigrant who made a fortune in Kentucky and lost it on reckless investments; the maniac who decided to paint all the birds he saw without quite knowing how to make money from that; the naturalist who carefully observed the creatures in their habitat; the technically skilled artist who used a variety of media to depict the birds with unprecedented vividness; the showman who tirelessly sold his work in Europe; the devoted husband who tried to keep his marriage afloat during his long absences from his wife; and the conservationist who observed humans’ impact on the wildlife in his own lifetime. As I mentioned, the movie is a bit slow in spots, and you’ll be able to see a one-hour version of the film on public TV next spring. (So said executive producer Cina Forgason, who answered questions afterward.) Still, I have a hard time seeing how this 93-minute film could be cut down without shortchanging all those different sides of Audubon, that rare man taken seriously as both a scientist and an artist. The film is something that its makers and Fort Worth Zoo can take pride in.

The late show I caught on Thursday was Concealed, an Australian thriller with some interesting things. Simon Lyndon stars as Max, a struggling actor living in South Africa who returns to Australia after a long absence for some auditions. His girlfriend Sallie (Nadia Townsend) suddenly vanishes while they’re there, and his investigation into her disappearance reveals all sorts of buried secrets about her and her family, which turns out to be a hell of a mess that Max contributed to. I’m not sure whether director Shane T. Hall meant to make sunlit Sydney look grimy and dismal, but it does afford a different sort of look for the film. The bigger question I have is how an unsuccessful actor has the wherewithal to illegally buy a gun off the street and then pull it on a bunch of hardened gangsters, as Max does. He commits more felonies with the gun before we’re through, and his physics-teacher friend (Paul Tassone) is by his side for much of it, at one point saying, “Before this, the most excitement I had was having my wisdom teeth out!” Hall does this up seriously for the most part, but he can’t quite strike the proper balance between the family drama and the action-movie stuff that Max gets into. The domestic stuff seems more convincing overall than the criminal plot involving smuggled conflict diamonds. 

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Friday’s lineup started with Sea Gypsies: The Far Side of the World, a documentary about an itinerant group of sailors in a 120-foot gypsy boat called the Infinity making an 8,000-mile journey from New Zealand south to Antarctica and from there to Chile. On one hand, advances in technology mean that polar exploration is now open to people who aren’t rich, like the owner of the boat, but the same forces driving that are also responsible for the erosion of Antarctica itself and the depletion of wildlife, as the crew notes that they have a much tougher time catching fish for eating than previously. Between this and the Audubon documentary, I appreciated the environmental thrust of the films I’ve seen at this festival so far, especially since the incoming administration has me so worried about the environment. (Then again, it has me worried about many, many things, so I probably would have found something that chimed with that no matter what I picked to see.)

Killing Poe is one of those classic bad feature films that would have made a terrific short film. Nathan Jacobs’ black comedy centers around a collegiate literature class being taught by a professor (Rick Plastina) who’s completely unqualified and doesn’t give a crap, as well as being a racist and a sexual predator. That combination inspires the five students of his who haven’t dropped the course to plot revenge on him, only for their prank to work too well. That setup might have been deliciously perverse over the course of 20 minutes, but since this is 92 minutes, all the students have to work through their own set of issues because of the hijinks gone wrong, and it doesn’t come close to working.

Neither does Bear With Us, another dark farce about a guy (Mark Jude Sullivan) who looks to save his foundering relationship with his girlfriend (Christy Carlson Romano) by taking her on a vacation to a cabin in the woods. He plans to fake a bear attack and get her to overcome her fear of bears, only for an actual man-eating bear to trap them in the cabin. There are some tasty comic performances (especially from Cheyenne Jackson as an overly intense bear hunter), but they can’t paper over how labored the farce becomes, as the characters have to resort to increasingly psychotic behavior to stay in the woods with the bear to work out their relationship squabbles. By the time everybody accidentally ingests a big pile of cocaine, I had checked out.

The best comedy I saw was in the short films. I caught a dramatic short that I liked called Guidance, about a jaded and secretly gay guidance counselor at a Catholic school (Ryan Kitley) who’s at an alcoholic nadir in his life when he chances to run into a student (Amy Frazzini) who’s having some boyfriend troubles of her own. The late program of humorous shorts was well-chosen with two items from Australia: Stuart Bowen’s Twisted, a Scott Pilgrim-inspired dialogue-free film about two guys trying to impress a woman at a class reunion by blowing up increasingly elaborate balloon sculptures, and Megan Chambers’ Arcade, convincingly evoking a young woman stuck in a job from hell at a dingy video arcade where a sign on the employees’ restroom reads “BYO Toilet Paper!” Max Machado’s ultra-brief Switch makes the most out of a simple concept, where a guy finds himself in a different location each time he clicks on the light. My favorite, though, was Veronica Rodriguez’ compellingly weird Hummingbird & Crane, which follows a newbie (played by co-writer Pam Covington) as she takes part for the first time at an unexpectedly cutthroat bird-calling competition in Santa Fe. The contestants’ utmost seriousness recalls Christopher Guest’s comedies, while there’s a Pitch Perfect-esque set of TV commentators breathlessly reporting on the action. The New Mexico setting is funny, too, as the antics play out against barren desert landscapes and cheesy Western-decorated rooms. So far, the shorts have outshone the features, but historically, the festival tends to save its biggest hitters for Saturday, so we’ll see what that day brings.

John James Audubon's work takes center stage in "Rara Avis."
John James Audubon’s work takes center stage in “Rara Avis.”

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