Howdy, film fans! Houston Cinema Arts Festival 2016 kicked off on November 10th and wrapped up on the 17th. For 8 days, in venues such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and Sundance Cinemas, Houston’s most diverse film festival treated attendees to a smorgasbord of offerings, including Houston premieres of a handful of awards contenders, and screenings for a wide variety of narrative features, short films, and docs.
Among the hot tickets were the following gems: Damien Chazelle’s much anticipated and buzzed about follow up to Whiplash, the candy-coated musical La La Land starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling; Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s quirky and poetic Adam Driver vehicle; Lion, the moving story of a 5 year old Indian boy who gets separated from his family and is transported cross-country by train, starring Dev Patel, Rooney Mara and Nicole Kidman; and a one, two punch from Chilean sensation Pablo Larraín applying unconventional approaches to real-life subjects in both Jackie and Neruda (starring Natalie Portman as the former first lady, and Gael García Bernal as the famed poet/politician, respectively).
HCAF 2016 marked the return of the CineSpace short film competition, Houston Cinema Arts Society’s collaboration with NASA. Contestants creatively mixed their own footage with video clips and images from NASA’s vast archives and the results are diverse and fascinating. 459 submissions poured in from around the world and 15 of them were chosen to be screened. 3 winners were selected by director Richard Linklater, reprising his role as judge. This year’s ceremony was held at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
Legendary cinematographer Frederick Elmes, frequent collaborator with David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, and Ang Lee, was in attendance for Paterson and a 30th anniversary screening of Blue Velvet (he shot both). Each screening was followed by an insightful Q&A. Elmes also taught a master class on Sunday at The Brandon at Brasil. Cinephiles and aspiring cinematographers and filmmakers gathered and Elmes offered his advice and presented film clips to inspire discussion among the participants.
HCAS artistic director and festival curator, Richard Herskowitz continues to bring the goods in the programming department. Houston Cinema Arts Festival is devoted to films by and about artists in the visual
Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table was one of the most enjoyable screenings of the festival and it was the only one I attended that received a rousing standing ovation. People turned out en masse to catch a first glimpse of the documentary about the matriarch of Southern cooking. Ella Brennan was a celebrity restaurateur before celebrity chefs were a thing and she is a delightful subject, both informative and entertaining. Her matter-of-fact demeanor and endless string of anecdotes, paired with decades of wisdom, propel the compelling story behind New Orlean’s culinary Meccas, Brennan’s and Commander’s Palace. Director Leslie Iwerks compiles old footage and home video, delectable images of their Creole creations, and interviews of the Brennan family and the renowned chefs who bloomed in their kitchens, including Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme. Leslie Iwerks was in the house to introduce the film and Ella Brennan’s son and daughter, Alex Brennan-Martin and Ti Adelade Martin were on hand to answer questions and tell stories about ‘growing up Brennan.’
HCAF 2016 put women directors on the forefront with nearly half of the films directed or co-directed by women. The AFI Directing Workshop for Women: Screening and Panel Discussion featured 3 works by emerging directors of the AFI Workshop and a panel discussion featuring several of the women directors with films at the festival.
Director Cheryl Nichols and special guest, actress Judith Ivey co-presented Cortez. The film is a beautiful relationship drama about Jesse, a semi-famous musician, and Anne, a former lover with whom he reconnects.
Choreographer/filmmaker Celia Rowlson-Hall presented her first feature, MA, a modern silent film, and a program of her short dance, music, and fashion videos, in collaboration with Aurora Picture Show.
Writer-director-actor Amber Tamblyn and producer Amy Hobby presented Paint It Black, which was co-presented by Southwest Alternative Media Project. Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander and the novel on which Tamblyn’s film is based, accompanied the duo.
Director Katherine Dieckman was in attendance at Sundance Cinemas for a screening of her film, Strange Weather, starring Holly Hunter. Dieckman participated in a post-screening Q&A with Regina Scruggs of the Houston Film Critics Society.
As a longtime fan of Jim Jarmusch’s work, Paterson was one of my most anticipated films of the festival and it did not disappoint. Jarmusch wrote and directed the feature, and he’s in fine form, delivering a unique film full of quirky characters (think Mystery Train) and moments that are oddly beautiful. Adam Driver, best known as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and as the ‘outer space’ guy from Inside Llewyn Davis, stars as Paterson, a bus driver/poet in Paterson, New Jersey. The movie shows one week in his life. There’s a theme of repetition and the film is structured like a poem. Each day starts with an overhead shot of Paterson and his eccentric wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) laying in bed. Before he starts his shift, he works on his latest poem. Throughout the day, Paterson observes and listens to the passengers and after work he returns home for dinner. Each night, Paterson takes his dog out for a walk and stops by the local bar which is gorgeously lit/shot and filled with authentic characters. Rinse and repeat. His dog is played by Nellie, a scene-stealing, crowd-pleasing English Bulldog who now rests in puppy heaven. RIP Nellie.
Paterson’s poetry walks the fine line between absurd and deep and it’s often awkwardly funny. He recites the poems through voice-over narration and the words appear on screen (in a type made from Driver’s actual writing). Paterson encounters other poets throughout the movie; Method Man has a brief appearance as an emcee constructing a rhyme, a young student shares her latest poem, and a Japanese man pops up at Paterson’s favorite spot, holding a book by his favorite poet, William Carlos William. There are multiple occasions when twins appear on screen, and in true Jarmusch fashion, they’re never really explained. The movie feels fresh and unpredictable and uninhibited by formula. It’s light and positive and it finds art and poetry in the ordinary — even on a bus in Jersey.
Notes I jotted down during cinematographer Frederick Elmes’ Q&A:
-Jarmusch likes the camera to be an observer. He prefers a pedestrian approach until he’s ready to make a move and accentuate the drama or make a point.
-Jarmusch writes his scripts by hand before typing them.
-Paterson wasn’t shot on film because there wasn’t a lab on the East coast to develop it and it would’ve been too costly to ship back and forth.
-The movie was filmed on an Arri Alexa camera. Elmes took some of the sharpness off and added some diffusion to make it look more like film.
-This was Elmes’ 4th collaboration with Jim Jarmusch.
La La Land is a joyous cinematic experience. The modern day musical starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone has enough style and charm to make a thick-skinned cynic smile. Before the screening, I asked the millennial couple next to me if they were excited for the film. The young lady was, but her date was none too pleased to discover that it was a musical. He said he liked Damien Chazelle’s first film, Whiplash, however. When the cast enthusiastically sung and danced their way through the opening number on top of, inside of, and in between rows of cars stuck in gridlock on the L.A. freeway, the young lad, so hesitant before, bust into a feverish applause along with the rest of the audience. It was a boisterous screening with lots of laughing and clapping.
La La Land‘s positive vibe is contagious and it comes at a time when people are in need of an escape. The songs integrate into the story with ease and the stars twinkle and shine through the dance numbers with a chemistry that feels effortless. Chazelle’s gumball color infused lighting makes every frame a pleasure to look at, and composer Justin Hurwitz’ recurring piano theme is both catchy and moving. His score was recorded by a 90 piece orchestra on the same sound stage where Singin’ in the Rain and several other classic MGM musicals were recorded. John Legend and J.K. Simmons are solid in small roles, and Legend co-wrote one of the songs (“Start a Fire”).
Each year, there are more and more desirable screenings at the HCAF and my only complaint is that there’s no way to see them all. Almost all of the movies looked intriguing and I ran into a few log jam issues where I had to choose between two or even three enticing options that were playing at the same time in different venues. Such is life. I’m happy with my choices, and once again, I had a blast at the best film festival in Space City. Complements to the staff, thanks to the sponsors for supporting the arts, and cheers to the volunteers who helped make it happen. Check out the full schedule here and make plans to attend in 2017. See you next year!
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Check out the Critics Circle on Radio Brave, the Houston Film Critics Society’s weekly program.
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