Never mind the "international" part of the moniker Dallas International Film Festival, formerly known as AFI Dallas International Film Festival. It's the homegrowns with which you should concern yourself as you fill out your movie-going schedule. Eat local, dig?
This is what Michael Cain had in mind way back when he first started the Deep Ellum Film Festival 11 years ago—widescreen proof that anything they can do we can do better. And now that Cain's been kicked upstairs to the chairman's title, to help find sponsors and donors following the American Film Institute's adios, head programmer-turned-artistic director James Faust picks up the torch and the pace with a varied, exhilarating lineup that doesn't grade on a curve. The Texas-made and Texas-set movies—among them Skateland, a dazed and confused '80s flashback set in East Texas; El Paso-born Ryan Piers Williams' The Dry Land, another Sundancer about a soldier back on small-town soil after a stint in Iraq; or Fort Worth-raised Chad Feehan's Shining-inspired Wake, set in a last-chance motel—hold up against any exotic comer or star-stocked indie on the 10-day schedule, which kicks off with an orgy spread across every screen at the Angelika Film Center in Mockingbird Station Thursday night.
From the stack it's difficult to pick one or two essentials made in Texas. So, then, a favorite with which to begin: Thunder Soul, Mark Landsman's danceable doc about the Kashmere High School Stage Band of the 1970s. It was a band with its own theme song: "Kashmere," a thunderstorm of drum breaks and horn bursts penned by band director Conrad O. Johnson and not long ago resurrected from obscurity by DJ Shadow for his "Holy Calamity" single. After that came the 2006 compilation Texas Thunder Soul: 1968-1974 on a tiny collectors' label; a National Public Radio feature on the record, and its makers, blew its cover.
Landsman wonders: When high-school stage bands were small-time big bands a la the Dorsey downers of the 1950s, how did some kids from Houston manage to come on like the Family Stone? The answer: band director Johnson, known as "Prof," whose love for soul and funk, combined with his demands that his children play like professional grown-ups, turned kids into vinyl-groove immortals.
The film begins with a reunion and a resurrection. The Kashmere Stage Band members of the early '70s have come back home to play for Prof, now 92 and frail as a whisper. They're older and thicker and out of tune and decades out of practice. Landsman cuts back and forth between vibrant vintage footage and the present-day stumbles of middle-aged men and women trying to get their grooves back. You worry they can't go home again. Meanwhile, Prof flickers in and out. The movie becomes a rush against time—a thriller with a soundtrack to match.
Thunder Soul is among three musical docs making this year's fest a can't-miss. There's also A Surprise in Texas, Peter Rosen's exquisite doc about the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth—specifically, last year's thrilling showdown between a blind 20-year-old from Japan (Nobuyuki Tsujii), a 19-year-old former prodigy from China (Haochen Zhang) and the 27 other international competitors vying for the once-every-four-years prize. Rosen divides his time between the contenders and the jurors tasked with selecting the best among the best, and though the outcome was determined last June, the doc's no less exciting—and crushing when favorites fail to place among the medalists. That's in stark contract to the rock-and-roll grin of Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski's Lemmy about the Motörhead frontman, his days as a prog-rocker and his fascination with Nazi memorabilia. Says Lemmy, hey, if the Israelis had cool unis, he'd collect those too.
Another son of Houston is the subject of another of the fest's best docs: comedian Bill Hicks, the American in the title of Matt Harlock's and Paul Thomas' film. Hicks' was a rather conventional tale: wise-ass genius becomes underage stand-up becomes overnight star becomes drunken dope becomes sober sage of rage till his untimely death of pancreatic cancer at age 32. The filmmakers, though, tell it unconventionally: with chopped-and-screwed family photos that have been animated and with friends and family narrating the story till, finally, it gives way to home-video-taped performances and cable-TV concert specials. It's a best-of full of context done with just the right hint of self-awareness.
Closer to home, Chris Howell's documentary Sweet Science, about the Oak Cliff Boxing Club, is a thing of perfection—the result of nearly a decade spent tracking the modest highs and pulverizing lows of young men chasing the Olympic dream and the former Dallas firefighter trying like hell to keep them on track. (It's reminiscent of Hoop Dreams by Steve James, whose riveting made-for-ESPN No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson—about the then-high school basketball star's role in a 1993 bowling-alley brawl that resulted in a trial and controversially commuted sentence—is also playing the fest.)
At the center of Sweet Science is Greg Hatley, father of two (Charles and Greg Jr., otherwise known as Rabbit) and father figure to dozens more in the southern sector who would have been lost without him. For a while, Hatley had his angels, chief among them Todd Wagner, whose foundation funded his complex in Lancaster and allowed Hatley to turn boys into men into boxers racking up Golden Gloves titles from here to Bakersfield.
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.
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.