I overdosed on earnest, confessional dramas at this festival. Another one waited in store for me on Saturday afternoon with Laura Gets a Cat, Michael Ferrell’s dramedy about an unsuccessful novelist who sees her college pals find success in their lives and tries to keep up. Lead actress Dana Brooke has a keen sense of comic timing, and there’s a nifty idea behind a sequence with her and a barista (played by Ferrell himself) reciting in rapid-fire manner all the conversational cliches of people saying what they want out of life. That joke gets beaten into the dirt, though, and the rest turns squishy and uninvolving. The movie proves how tough it is to pull off a comedy about a flawed person who only gets a glint of insight at film’s end. It was still more palatable, however, than the film I saw before it, Chasing the Blues, a dark comedy about two unsavory record collectors (Grant Rosenmeyer and Ronald L. Conner) competing to con an old lady (Anna Maria Horsford) out of a legendary blues record that’s supposed to be cursed. The guys at the center are highly unpleasant company, and why the filmmakers think we’re going to find amusement in their attempts to swindle a harmless senior, I’m sure I don’t know.
The best documentary I saw at this year’s festival is Jack C. Newell’s documentary 42 Grams, about Jake Bickelhaupt and Alexa Welsh, a married Chicago couple. He trained as a chef at distinguished restaurants like Charlie Trotter’s and Alinea before becoming disenchanted with the restaurant business and starting up an underground dining spot out of their house. The film follows the couple as they decide to take the business into a brick-and-mortar place, converting a defunct fried chicken joint into a homey spot (sharing the film’s name) that serves innovative cuisine, with Jake hellbent on winning two Michelin stars in his first year of business, something that almost never happens. We see how the business takes a toll on the couple’s marriage, but the movie still doesn’t adequately prepare us for the final title card informing us that they divorced and closed down the restaurant despite getting those stars. Even so, I am a sucker for watching great chefs at work, and the giant collage of wine corks that Alexa makes out of years’ worth of empties is worth seeing the movie for alone.
I previously wrote about Grant Moore’s Pickle and Jason Headley’s A Bad Idea Gone Wrong on this site, so I went elsewhere when they screened at the festival, but by all means check out my past articles about them.
Projection problems delayed the start of 42 Grams, so I was late to the screening of Edward Varnie’s Release. I spent 45 minutes watching it and couldn’t make sense out of what was going on, so I bailed and got some food. I wound up the evening with John Burr’s Muse, a fable about an artist (Riley Egan) who meets a leannán si (Elle Evans), a demonic spirit that’s like an Irish version of a muse, except that she kills the man she falls for after giving him a brief explosion of creativity. Before he dies, she kills anybody who’s a threat to him, so the movie’s main character first sees her take out his drug-dealing bully of a neighbor and then a greedy landlord who discovers the first guy’s body. This is a unique premise, but the protagonist’s behavior makes no sense, and even if you take the leannán si as a manifestation of his murderous creative id, there’s still Egan’s wooden acting to contend with. The artist’s ferociously erotic nude paintings are the most convincing thing here, and they’re by Jennifer Lauren Friedman (who’s also an effects artist on The Dark Tower and the upcoming Jumanji sequel).
The festival’s last day began with Ascencion, a biography of Ascencion “Cinch” Buñuelos, the Mexican cowboy who emigrated to America and became a champion cutting horse rider at the Fort Worth Stock Show and other rodeos. As someone who isn’t a horse person, I was happy to hear his story, but first-time filmmaker Dustin Leaver kept interspersing that biography with the history of Latin vaqueros, the particulars of what cutting horses do, the pressures of the Fort Worth Stock Show, and a look at the contributions America has gotten from undocumented immigrants like Buñuelos. Welcome as the latter is, the story lacks focus even though it only runs 75 minutes. Leaver should have put Cinch’s story front and center and let the other material work in support.
This was followed by Amanda & Jack Go Glamping, which is also currently playing at AMC Mesquite, if you fancy a trip out there. The comedy stars David Arquette (considerably heavier than he was in the Scream movies) as a one-hit wonder novelist who tries to save his marriage by going on a retreat with his wife (Amy Acker) to a crunchy farm in Texas, “glamorous camping” in a luxurious yurt on the property. I’m always happy to watch Acker, but it seems incredible that her character wouldn’t immediately see through the property’s owner (Adan Canto), who never misses an opportunity to remove his shirt or spout his neo-hippie philosophy. Arquette is charmless as the mopey, anxiety-ridden author, so much so that you wonder how his wife puts up with him for 15 years when we can’t stand him for 15 minutes. The various characters’ habits of quoting old movie lines gets old fast, too.
I was going to end this blog post with an angry screed about how this festival has gone downhill in quality, but then I saw the final film, Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town, which features a f*cking amazing comic performance by Mackenzie Davis. She plays a creatively blocked musician who wakes up one afternoon in a strange house with a strange guy and learns that her ex-boyfriend plans to his announce his engagement to her ex-best friend in five hours. Despite having no money and a car that’s in the shop, she’s determined to make her way across L.A. wearing her catering outfit (stained with wine and blood from the previous night) to break them up. The material by writer-director Christian Papierniak sometimes flags, but Davis is mesmerizing as a hot mess begging for transport from random people (some of whom want her to participate in felonies), her eyes pooling with delusion as she thinks that if she just wants this enough, she can have the fairy-tale love that she’s dreaming of. There’s a great scene, too, when she gets blackmailed into singing a duet at a party with her sister and former musical partner (Carrie Coon), and all their grief and bitter feelings come out. The film has a terrific supporting cast (Alia Shawkat, Haley Joel Osment, LaKeith Stanfield) and some original songs by Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker, and Davis should be headlining major films. Of all the films about starving or has-been artists this year, this is the one I can get behind.
Let’s not split hairs here: A lot of the movies I saw at this year’s festival sucked. I’m still worried that the Lone Star Film Festival no longer does any one thing well, whereas the previous management had some clearly defined strengths. Still, as long as it can provide me with just one movie like Izzy per year, I’ll keep going. If it can give me more than one, even better.