DIFF 2017 Day 3: Score, The Secret Life Of Lance Letscher, A Bad Idea Gone Wrong, Berlin Syndrome And Mustang Island

This was my first 5 movie day since last year’s festival, and it comes on the heels of the four from yesterday. Sometimes a film festival can be an endurance challenge, but the Dallas International Film Festival offers such a diverse selection of films, it feels like a mistake to miss an opportunity to view unique films, some of which might struggle to get distribution. Below is a recap of the five films I watched on Sunday April 2, 2017:

Admittedly, this is one of the films that jumped off the schedule when first going through the programming for this year’s DIFF. The magic of music in movies has always fascinated me, and many movies and their scores are so inter-connected that you simply can’t think of one without the other: Jaws; Star Wars; The Magnificent Seven; The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly; Psycho; Gone with the Wind; James Bond; Batman; Titanic; Chariots of Fire; Jurassic Park … chances are, just reading that list caused you to hear the themes!

Director Matt Schrader, in his directorial debut, takes us back to the beginning to explain that silent films weren’t ever really silent. There was invariably live or recorded musical accompaniment to help muffle the sound of the projector. But it was Max Steiner’s score for King Kong in 1933 that really changed the game. His music transformed the film from schlocky special effects B-movie into a tense, thrilling cinematic experience.

This is so much more than a history of important and beautifully written scores. Director Schrader interviews most of the well-known film composers working today. He gains insight into their writing process, commentary on the ground-breakers who came before them, and a look at how technology, new instruments, new styles, and a different approach are always in the works.

Some of those interviewed include Rachel Portman (the only female included here), Randy Newman, Danny Elfman, Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, and Thomas Newman (son of Alfred). There is also a well-deserved segment reserved entirely for the great John Williams, and we get reminders of the revolutionary composers like Jerry Goldsmith (Planet of the Apes, Chinatown) and Bernard Hermann (Psycho), as well as Henry Mancini (The Pink Panther), Monty Norman (Bond), and Ennio Morricone (westerns). A quick segment that proves quite entertaining is Mark Mothersbaugh (formerly of Devo) telling the story of how he used a toy piano for the score of Rugrats, but somehow no longer has possession of the little piano anymore.

Oscar winning composer Hans Zimmer is a recurring voice throughout and provides some structure to the numerous interviews and segments. It’s pretty funny to see this highly accomplished, world-renowned composer in his early days as a keyboardist for The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” (the first video played on MTV). More importantly, Mr. Zimmer discusses the insecurities and pressures that go along with the job, and how change (such as his aggressive sounds) isn’t always welcomed openly.

The technical aspects of creating the score are certainly not ignored. We get a glimpse inside Abbey Road Studios, and how thrilling it is for the composer to hear the live orchestra bring the music to life that first time. It also serves as a reminder that film composing employs a significant number of the live orchestral musicians working today, and that we all hope technology doesn’t replace that imperfect beauty of the real thing.

If there is a disappointment in the film, it’s that the recently deceased James Horner seems woefully short-changed, with only a brief post credits segment featuring director James Cameron who, as usual, spends the time talking more about himself than the impact of Horner. Adding a scientific perspective was a nice touch. Hearing that our brains respond to movie music in a similar manner to chocolate and sex made a great deal of sense; as I’ve often wondered if film scores are more manipulative or complementary in nature. This documentary is a must for movie lovers, and on a personal note, made me miss my friend Adam very much. He would have certainly enjoyed this one and had a great deal to say about it.

Most documentaries with an artist as the subject offer little more than a retrospective of the work. It’s rare that we get to explore the mind and creative process in a way that brings us a little closer to their world, while also magnifying the gap. This is Sandra Adair’s first foray into directing, though she is an Oscar nominated Film Editor (Boyhood), and she works wonders in getting Lance Letscher to open up and share his ideas, insecurities and reactions.

The first question we might ask is, why does he do this? Working in solitude with an Exacto knife and surrounded by piles of books, album covers, board games, signs and magazine pages, Mr. Letscher creates some amazingly detailed collages out of everyday materials – most of which have been discarded by previous owners.

Much of the film revolves around a commissioned project for a large outdoor piece to hang on the building that houses a book store on South Congress Avenue in Austin. Having not typically worked with metal, Letscher lets us in on some of the frustrations he has – which leads to a form of artistic procrastination. When things do finally click, it’s enthralling to see how quickly his vision comes to life.

Also fascinating is seeing how his right brain and left brain work in conjunction to create these diagrams of thought. He claims his subconscious mind is responsible for much of his creations, but we slowly come to realize Letscher is a rare blend of art and engineering. This blend results in such unusual projects as gliders/planes and motorcycles, in addition to his customary collage work.

Director Adair does not limit the framework to art. We get to know part of what makes Letscher the man tick. He jokes about his childhood nickname “Trance”, while later coming clean on his father’s depression and suicide – and how that has impacted him as a father, husband and artist. He acknowledges his tendency to take the “path of greater resistance” even during the process of layout-revision-glue-press. The use of music and intimate camera work create a polished documentary on a man who is doing more than keeping Austin weird – he is keeping it beautiful and interesting.

With all of the documentaries I have scheduled during the festival, it was important to mix in a comedy here and there. This little indie shot in Ft Worth is directed by Jason Headley and stars Matt Jones (“Breaking Bad”), Will Rogers, and Eleanore Pierta. It’s a pretty humorous look at a couple of bumbling house burglars with different objectives, who find themselves in what looks like a no-win situation.

Mr. Jones has a certain stoner quality that makes most everything he says seem like a punchline – even when it’s kind of brilliant. Mr. Rogers captures the essence of guy who is stuck holding on to a past relationship and being unable/unwilling to let go. He finds meaning to seemingly innocuous details that lead him to believe his ex-fiancé still pines for him.

The real fun begins when these two doofuses manage to set the house alarm that effectively locks them in the house they are robbing. Oh, and then they stumble on sleeping Darcy, the housesitter/pet taxi driver who may or may not be as welcome in the home as are the boys themselves.

Niagara Falls and a hide-a-key rock are key players in this comedy that’s good for a few laughs, while also providing a bit of romance-under-stress.

A well-made intense, suspense-filled thriller is about as much fun as one can have watching a movie. Director Cate Shortland (Lore, 2012) delivers just that with this hostage-psychopath saga based on the novel from Melanie Joosten. It also features a best-yet performance from Teresa Palmer.

Clare (Ms. Palmer) is touring Berlin alone (with her camera and backpack) as she seeks life experiences away from her Australian homeland. She spends her days enjoying the culture and architecture of the city and one day crosses paths with Andi (Max Riemelt). He charms her through broken English and they end up with a passion-filled evening. Of course, thanks to the film score, we know something is rotten in Berlin – and in particular with Andi. His innocent looks mask a true psychopath, and he ends up imprisoning Clare in the remote apartment while he goes about his daily life as a teacher. In fact, his outside-the-apartment life could have used a bit more definition. How does this guy fit in? We get only glimpses.

If this sounds like Brie Larson’s Room without the kid, you would be on the right path. The difference being, Clare has only herself to think of – along with survival and escape. In Room, the mother had the well-being of her son to consider. This makes for a more mano y mano situation – a true battle of wits. It’s brutal to watch at times, and is one of those films that forces you to ask, what would you do? At what point do you give up hope of escaping and concentrate on making the best of a situation? The frustrations and anger are palpable, and it shows how difficult it is to use rational thought when combating psychotic behavior.

This low budget Texas indie from director Craig Elrod is based on his 2014 short film Molly. The unorthodox pacing and deadpan delivery provide some quirky and funny moments, in spite of what seems to be a film full of sad characters.

Bookend close-up shots of the two female characters who are key to the story open and close the film. What happens in between probably seemed kind of lame on the written page, but actually works in the hands of a cast that executes most every scene.

Macon Blair plays Bill, and when we first see him, he’s crying while driving his car right into a parked boat. Bill’s a bit of a sad sack and there isn’t much grace to how he handles Molly (Molly Karrasch) breaking up with him. In fact, he’s a bit irrational when he talks his brother John (John Merriman) and simpleton friend Travis (Jason Newman) into tracking Molly to her family beach house on Mustang Island.
Of course, Molly isn’t there, so the boys break in and make themselves at home. What follows is more wrecks, a stolen truck, and an encounter with a bizarre and hilarious “Dance Party” dude (Byron Brown). More importantly, a connection between Bill and a local waitress named Lee (an excellent Lee Eddy) helps him forget the original reason for the trip … at least until Molly shows up!

The movie is plodding at times, but the good parts make up for it – provided you are a fan of deadpan humor and offbeat pacing. Shot in Galveston rather than Mustang Island, the local feel of the beach community is evident and crucial to the tone of the film – as is the spot on score from composer Benjamin Prosser.

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