But in time, Hatley's fortunes would run dry—so too those of his adopted boys, chief among them Dominic Littleton and Big Greg Corbin. The years tick by: 2002 and '03 and '04, all potential; '05 and '06, nothing but tragedy; '07 and '08, the fingers-crossed, hold-your-breath comeback. The film, at two hours, wears on you only because of all the body blows; Howell lets the story unfold organically and earns every emotion. He started editing the movie in 2005 but thankfully let it keep playing out; his patience is our reward.

Speaking of, there's no filmmaker in the fest more patient than Fort Worth's Tom Huckabee, who spent 26 years between his debut (1983's William Burroughs adaptation Taking Tiger Mountain) and sophomore film (Carried Away). Time and again he had other filmmakers lined up to make his movie, but in the end wound up shooting his own semi-autobio about a struggling actor-writer-director (played by Gabriel Horn) who comes back to Texas from Los Angeles to break his semi-senile Granny (Juli Erickson) out of her nursing home. The mood swings are a bit violent as the movie jolts from the wacky to the unsettling to the heartbreaking. But perhaps that's to be expected: Huckabee's packed a lot of pent-up frustrations into his first shot in a long while at moviemaking. Still, it's never less than sincere.

Perhaps no film's more anticipated in this year's fest, though, than Earthling by Dallas writer-director Clay Liford. The premise seems simple enough: A space seed encounters an orbiting U.S. space station, causing one of its crew to murder his fellow shipmates; meanwhile, on Earth, a handful of humans "awaken" to the slow-dawning reality that they're aliens themselves—or, at the very least, hosts to E.T.s who just want to go home. But Liford lays on heavy the mood and the menace, and when things threaten to go too ooey-gooey, he has Rebecca Spence to fall back on—a very good thing.

The ’70s, when even band nerds could get funky
The ’70s, when even band nerds could get funky

She plays a teacher stuck in a funk—she's haunted by dreams of an astronaut she's never met (or has she?) and the pregnancy she lost (or did she?) during a brownout caused by the pod's arrival on Earth. Spence roots the movie in a recognizable reality; perhaps she's only on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In every way, Liford's feature debut, after several well-received fest-circuit shorts, is perfect for a Dallas International Film Festival coming-out party: It's in his hometown, and Earthling plays like a heartfelt compendium of cinema itself—it's equal parts campy Cold War horror, weary domestic drama and groovy '70s existential sci-fi. In other words, a film fest unto itself.

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