The Lone Star Film Festival is benefiting from the renovations that the AMC Palace movie theater completed just before last year’s fest. The reduced seating means that even the shorts programs play to houses that are more than half full. That does help with the atmosphere.
Saturday started with a kids’ movie made in Texas, Aria Appleton, which I found I liked better than any of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies. That seems like a proper comparison, too, since the 11-year-old title character (who attends a performing arts school) has much in common with Greg Heffley. She’s bratty, selfish, always demanding to be the center of attention, and quite a bit of fun to be around. A newcomer named Sara Grace Prejean plays Aria, and I have to commend the filmmakers for finding such a talented actress. As Aria tries to finagle the lead role in the school musical for herself, first-time director Nathan D. Myers winds up doing set pieces in a bewildering variety of styles ranging from 1930s comedy of manners to 1970s TV cop show to an over-the-top music video when Aria sings “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” to herself. Usually, switching styles like this is a sign of desperation, but the majority of them actually work without outstaying their welcome. Myers does lose control, though, during the pileup of plotlines near the end, with Aria causing so much chaos that the momentum stops. Still, I’ve seen much worse family movies from the Hollywood studios. Myers needs to improve, but he’s good enough that he should keep making films.
Covering the Lone Star Film Festival is preventing me from attending Q Cinema, but I did catch some of the LGBT short films, programmed in conjunction with Q Cinema. Paige Gratland and Sam McWilliams’ BOOTWMN is an informative documentary about Deana McGuffin, a third-generation New Mexico bootmaker and lesbian who has won prizes for her footwear in a male-dominated field. I was even more absorbed by Toby Fell-Holden’s Balcony, which won a prize at the Berlinale. This British film is about a girl (Charlotte Beaumont) living in council flats housing — that’s public housing to us Americans — who suddenly falls in love with an Afghan refugee (Genevieve Dunne). This is no warm and touching tale of cross-cultural romance, though, as foreshadowed by the heroine’s line, “When you’re surrounded by bad things, you get the urge to destroy anything that’s good.” The way this short film plays out is just crushing. As far as shorts outside the LGBT block go, I liked Irene Marco’s Quetzal, a story of a Central American indigenous boy going through a manhood ritual by himself when he has an unfortunate encounter with a British birdwatcher.
My favorite film on Saturday was Lotte, a German drama by first-time feature filmmaker Julius Schultheiß (or Schultheiss, as the name is billed in the final credits). Karin Hanczewski gives a terrific performance as the title character, a hospital nurse whose continued employment is tenuous given her hard lifestyle. She’s taken aback when she’s called to stitch up a drunk guy in a bar and discovers that it’s Marcel (Paul Matzke), the ex-boyfriend whom she hasn’t seen in 15 years. Then she treats Greta (Zita Aretz), a teenager brought into the hospital after falling off her bike. When Lotte later checks on Greta and sees Marcel with her, she deduces that this girl is the daughter whom she abandoned many years ago. Greta winds up crashing with Lotte in her new place, and her mom introduces her to cigarettes, alcohol, cocaine, Ecstasy, and having sex with strange men. Somehow, through all that, you don’t think, “What a terrible mother!”, although Lotte’s parenting is assuredly bad. Maybe it’s because the two actresses are so well-matched, or because Hanczewski (whose previous performances have largely been on German TV) is so good at depicting this closed-off hard case being forced to confront her issues. The climax of the film is an epic drinking contest between Greta and Lotte, as the girl tries to wangle her mother into a long-delayed meeting with her own parents. It’s an appalling, funny, and urgent way to bring the proceedings to a head.
The biggest prestige item of the whole festival was Lion, a biography of Saroo Brierley, who was a 6-year-old boy in Khandwa, India when an accident separated him from his family, dragged him 1,000 miles away, and led him to be adopted by an Australian couple. When he grew up and Google invented Google Earth, he embarked on an obsessive search for the family he lost. Besides its amazing story, the movie has Dev Patel doing good work as Brierley and some breathtakingly beautiful visuals by cinematographer Greig Fraser. It’s too bad that first-time feature director Garth Davis hammers home all the emotional beats, especially in the latter going. It’s also a shame that the movie doesn’t make better use of Nicole Kidman as Saroo’s mom and Rooney Mara as the American student whom he dates. I wish this story had been treated better.
The comic talent and snazzy look of Nerdland had me all excited, but before too long, the movie itself had made me thoroughly depressed. Paul Rudd and Patton Oswalt are the voices of John and Elliott, two struggling Hollywood types and best friends who become so frustrated with their lives that they resolve to become famous before the end of the day, when John turns 30. Everybody and everything is relentlessly unattractive in Chris Prynoski’s animation and the script by Andrew Kevin Walker (who wrote Se7en once). The satire of celebrity culture manages not to score a single hit, John and Elliott are pretty malignant guys willing to kill people to get some attention, and Los Angeles is made to look like a giant pile of crap. Worst of all is that for all the funny actors in the voice cast (Hannibal Buress, Mike Judge, Laraine Newman, Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci), they raise barely a single genuine laugh among them. What a stinking heap this turned out to be. Well, we’ve got one more day of the festival. I’ll have a wrap-up tomorrow.