Houston Cinema Arts Festival 2017


Houston Cinema Arts Festival 2017 took place from November 9th – 13th at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Rice Media Center, Diverseworks, and a few other locations in close proximity to downtown H-Town. HCAF continues to be my favorite film festival in Houston thanks to a tradition of excellent programming by Artistic Director, Richard Herskowitz. It was another fun year featuring a variety of interesting films and documentaries celebrating the arts.

With the city still recovering from the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey, it was fitting that HCAF 2017 featured a screening of Singin’ in the Rain. This wasn’t your typical showing of the 1952 Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds musical classic, however. It was a hybrid movie musical/concert that paired the film on screen with live performances on stage at White Oak Music Hall. Houston artists including hip-hop legend Bun B, critically acclaimed jazz vocalist/songwriter Kat Edmonson, blues musician Carolyn Wonderland, Broadway veteran Courtney Markowitz, and Season 12 “The Voice” finalist Stephanie Rice, all blessed the audience with unique renditions of songs from the movie and the proceeds were donated to Harvey relief efforts.

Bun B’s completely original take on “Good Morning” featured a DJ and a pair of breakdancers. At one point they spun on their heads in unison as Bun mentioned the Astros’ recent World Series win. It was a cool moment. Thanks to the Houston Cinema Arts Society, you can check it out:

The final performance of the evening featured dancers from the Houston Ballet covering Glee’s rendition of “Umbrella/Singin’ in the Rain” with choreography by Oliver Halkowich. The crowd loved it and afterwards Bun B brought all the performers on stage and said a few words.

While the performances were the highlights, the overall event would’ve been a touch more cohesive if they played the audio from the movie instead of having a DJ spin rain-themed music while the film played between musical acts. Some folks mingled, but most attendees continued to watch the screen, and the dialogue (or even just subtitles) would’ve added to the experience and helped to follow along. This is the type of judgment that’s easily made after the event, but harder to determine beforehand, especially considering the venue and the lack of traditional seating arrangements. All in all, it was an ambitious event and I applaud the effort it must’ve taken to put together. It was a special way to celebrate the 65th anniversary of a beloved movie and support/represent a city that can’t be drowned. “Houston Strong” indeed.

You can see more of the performances on the Houston Cinema Arts Society Facebook page. Just scroll down to November 11th.

One recurring event that is unique to the Houston Cinema Arts Festival is the CineSpace short film competition. This is the third year the HCAS has teamed up with NASA and I hope the partnership continues for years to come. The competition is open to everybody and CineSpace 2017 had over 650 submissions from countries all around the world. NASA has a massive database of audio and video footage that’s available to the public. Contestants utilize the imagery of stars, planets, space ships, etc., and incorporate it into their short films as they see fit. The resulting films are judged by legendary director Richard Linklater and the finalists and winners are screened at the festival.

This year’s First Place winner was Austria’s Christian Stangl with his gorgeous animated collage, Lunar.

Second Place went to Hungary’s Pedro de Felippis for his ultra-hypnotic short, Nadir. You can watch it and other CineSpace short film winners here.

One of HCAF 2017’s pleasant surprises was a duo of tap dancing documentaries that screened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. No Maps on My Taps (1979) and About Tap (1985) were recently restored and they’re full of vintage tap dancing footage and charming personalities such as tap dancing legends Bunny Briggs, Chuck Green, Harold “Sandman” Sims, and Gregory Hines. Director George T. Nierenberg was in attendance and participated in a Q&A after the movies.

No Maps on My Taps

Other festival favorites include awards contenders I, Tonya, Call Me by Your Name, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. 

I, Tonya is a comedy of errors with a great performance by Margot Robbie that will have you feeling for skating’s most notorious villain. Allison Janney is heartless and hilarious as Livona Harding, Tonya’s mother. The movie is fun and the crowd at the MFAH was into it.

I, Tonya

Call Me by Your Name is probably the most human movie of 2017. It’s the touching story of Oliver (Armie Hammer) and Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and their blossoming friendship over the course of a summer in Italy in 1983. The movie takes its time, but it brings it home in the end and Michael Stuhlbarg delivers the best scene of his career.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is supposed to be one of the year’s best. I didn’t get to see it because it played at a time and location that conflicted with CineSpace and I knew that I’d have another chance to see it soon after. It was still hard to pass up though; I’ve been itching to see Three Billboards since it was scheduled to play at Fantastic Fest and dropped out after the Faraci debacle. It’s now playing all over town and I plan on watching it this week.

Verbal assault in progress at Rice Media Center

I’ll wrap up this wrap-up by jumping back to the HCAF opening night film, Bodied. Joseph Khan’s brilliant battle rap movie screened at Rice Media Center and it was followed by a Q&A with the director and a surprise, uncut, no-holds-barred rap battle. The movie was produced by Eminem and it features several known rappers from the real-world battle rap scene and it’s fun to see them pop up in the movie; some play themselves and some play characters. Bodied was written by a battle rapper (Alex Larsen aka Kid Twist) and when it comes to the details and the bars (lyrics) it knows what’s up.

Props to HCAS for never shying away from any art form or culture, including hip hop. Whether it’s Kid ‘n Play performing after the House Party screening, Bun B on stage spittin’ in the rain, or Scotty Raps and Liven Learn displaying their verbal mastery in a whirlwind exchange of complex insults, it’s always cool to see the culture properly represented.

Overall, it was another memorable Houston Cinema Arts Festival with a diverse lineup of quality films. Thanks to the sponsors, the volunteers, and the HCAS team for making it happen. Lets do it again next year! (Minus the rain.)

Follow me on twitter: @saltywinters

Check out the Critics Circle on Radio Brave, the Houston Film Critics Society’s weekly program.

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Salty Winters

Salty Winters once said, "Everything I learned I learned from the movies." He was quoting Audrey Hepburn.