I’m back with my annual blog recounting my experiences at the Lone Star Film Festival. This year’s event looks even lighter on star power than usual, but I’m keeping an open mind. The promotional “bumpers” preceding this year’s films are preceded by snippets of Bill Paxton acting in Titanic, True Lies, and other films. There isn’t any mention so far of Johnny Langdon, the former chairman of the Lone Star Film Society, but then he only died earlier this week, so there wasn’t time to get his name into the programs. Surely this will be addressed next year.
Also new this year is the use of the sunken pit on the lower floor of the AMC Palace. (I’m tempted to reference Get Out and call it “The Sunken Place.”) The pit held arcade video games before the theater was remodeled some years ago. Now, it mostly goes unused, but for this weekend, it’s being used as a place to screen trailers for the films being shown at the festival. The audio is somewhat hard to hear if you’re not close to the speakers, but I could have definitely used an advance look at the films in years past.
One negative development is the number of screenings that have started late, while others like my 10:30 screening on Friday night started a few minutes after 10:30, but the sign outside the auditorium said 11:00. The confusion over times has caused me to walk into the wrong theater more than once. Also, I heard some disturbing notes from the Frailty screening that same night.
The festival began on Thursday afternoon with a block of kid-oriented short films. An awful lot of them came from the Ringling College of Art and Design, making me wonder whether any other film school teaches their student directors to make shorts for kids. I did particularly like Zhang Wenli’s Wishing Box, an animated film about a pirate who finds a magical treasure chest that produces whatever the person reaching into it wants to have, but it only works for the pirate’s pet monkey, so he tries to draw gold and jewelry for the monkey and the animal misinterprets his renderings. Another animated short called The Wishgranter did some creative things with a bored elf running a fountain that grants wishes. The most distinctive film was a live-action piece called Intrepid, featuring a notable performance by Valerie Rose Lohman as a student going to a college for witches and some impressive special effects considering the film’s low budget.
After dinner, I attended I Hate the Man in My Basement, which I’ll admit I saw based purely on the title. Dustin Cook’s film stars Chris Marquette as a guy named Claude who seems constipated and for whom the company of his fellow office workers seems downright oppressive. We’re not immediately sure why he’s secretly keeping a man (Manny Montana) chained up in his basement, occasionally punching him and giving him electric shocks, but we suspect it has something to do with the recent death of Claude’s wife. The other half of the film concerns Claude’s hesitant attempts to date a dance instructor (Nora-Jane Noone from Brooklyn and The Descent). It feels like these halves are from completely different films entirely, and Cook does not know how to control the tone. I give the filmmaker points for his ambition, but he can’t make this contraption fly.
With Cybill Shepherd here, the festival screened her 1985 comedy Chances Are. I saw that movie on TV in the mid-1990s, and I remember thinking back then that Robert Downey Jr. was really good in such an insubstantial film. I wondered what happened to him. Of course, I’d find out later that he was in the throes of a pretty bad drug addiction, which he didn’t kick until a decade later.
I’d already seen it before, so I checked out Inheritance instead, which disappointed me because it started out so well. Chase Joliet stars as a construction worker and adopted kid whose biological father dies and leaves him a $2.5 million dream house on the California coast with a breathtaking view of the Pacific. However, while staying in the house with his pregnant fiancée (Sara Montez), he starts to see people who aren’t there committing murders and other crimes. Writer-director Tyler Savage makes the movie looks terrific, casts Dale Dickey effectively against type as a cheery realtor, and directs a great, tense dinner conversation in which the protagonist and his sister (Ashley Spillers) let all the sibling ugliness between them spill out. Yet Savage shows his cards too slowly and obliquely, and he gets a theme of white people’s genocide against Native Americans tangled with a history of mental illness in the main character’s bloodline. The movie winds up saying nothing coherent, which is a terrible waste of a great premise.
I was looking forward to the short films on Friday, since some of the best stuff I saw at last year’s festival was shorts, but the afternoon’s selection was rather pallid. Garry Crystal’s The Fox and the Rabbit and Brian Robau’s It’s Just a Gun featured some worthy acting, but Jeannie Donohoe’s Game and Tessa Ribitsch’s Unbuckled squandered some good points.
This gave way to a lot of inert drama with substandard actors standing around talking about their feelings. Both the British drama Waking David and Elena Beuca’s D-Love were built around buried family secrets, played out in scenes of domestic drama that dragged on interminably. D-Love in particular could have nimbler comic playing to flesh out its story of a woman who carries her alcoholic husband until his life is changed by his meeting with a Danish hippie named Ditlev. The Romanian director plays the lead role herself, and her acting is a particular liability.
These were sandwiched around Shawn Christensen’s Sidney Hall, which offered up the most star power we’ve seen so far in the festival. Logan Lerman stars as a writer who penned a Catcher in the Rye-like generational novel while he was still in high school, then suddenly disappeared after some time in the spotlight. The movie looks beautiful, and the cast runs deep with Elle Fanning, Michelle Monaghan, Blake Jenner, Nathan Lane, and Tim Blake Nelson, and there’s a beautiful little turn by Kyle Chandler as a mysterious investigator who tracks the writer down. Still, too often it feels like Christensen and co-writer Jason Dolan are just heaping one misery after another on top of the protagonist, and the whole affair reminded me of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a better movie on similar lines that also starred Lerman. I had higher hopes for this because it was put out by A24 Films, a small label with excellent taste that put out last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner. Yet they seem to be sending us mostly their duds; in late 2015 we got Mojave and The Adderall Diaries from them when we could have had The Witch. This year, we get Sidney Hall instead of The Disaster Artist or Lady Bird. We did get Krisha from them two years ago, but that’s the only winner they’ve bestowed on us.
I wound up my Friday night with the good-enough-to-be-frustrating thriller Midnighters. Alex Essoe stars as a lawyer who’s coming home from a New Year’s Eve party with her construction-worker husband (Dylan McTee) when their car hits a man on a lonely country road. Since he’s dead and they’re both drunk, they initially decide to take him back home so they can sober up before taking him in, but then the man comes to and attacks her younger sister (Perla Haney-Jardine from Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Steve Jobs), and she kills him. This leads to a cache of money and a visit from a killer (Ward Horton) who’s determined to get it. I’ll admit I was rooting for the killer, partly because he’s smarter than the other three combined and partly because he’s played by the best actor, but the script by former U.S. Defense Department speechwriter Alston Ramsey does a great job at shifting the loyalties among these four characters, as the killer intuits that the main character is being dragged down by her husband and sister and could use being freed of them. The trouble is the acting isn’t up to scratch, and I kept imagining better actors in these roles.