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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Dallas International Film Festival 2010

I had a whirlwind couple days at the Dallas International Film Festival; I arrived in Dallas Wednesday afternoon, did a somewhat ironic panel on the relevance of film criticism at film festivals on Thursday, and then headed back to the airport just after noon on Friday. The briefness of the trip, unfortunately, limited my ability to see and write about a lot of films from the fest as I would have liked to, but I did manage to squeeze a couple in: Kick in Iran (a Sundance pickup for the fest) and the closing night film, A Solitary Man.
The former is a documentary that follows Sarah Khoshjamal, the first female athlete from Iran to ever qualify for the Olympic Games. Khoshjamal is charismatic, tough and imminently likable, but her story begs to be better dramatized, perhaps as a narrative feature. As a film, Fatima Abdollahyan‘s doc tends to slip into that realm of documentary films with fascinating subjects that don’t play quite as well theatrically as they might on a smaller screen, but Khoshjamal’s story is so interesting that it almost doesn’t matter.

Kick in Iran shows the film shows the challenges faced by female athletes in Iran through the lens of Khoshjamal’s attempts to train to compete at the Olympic level: her bravery in taking on a sport that’s been primarily for men; the struggles faced by the young female athletes who have to make due with training facilities far inferior to those provided to the men; the hindrance to female athletes of wearning headscarves and keeping ankles from showing, while the male athletes work out in regular athletic wear. Aspects of the story — particularly with regard to the oppression of women in Iran — pissed me off, but then the way in which it showed Khoshjamal and her female coach challenging those conventions, and, ultimately, the influence of their ground-breaking on girls growing up in Iran heartened and inspired me.
Kick in Iran made me appreciate that much more the freedoms women take for granted and enjoy in our culture; it can be easy for us to forget, living here, that in many other parts of the world women are still very much an underclass subject to the whims and wills of the men who keep tight-fisted control over cultural mores. While headscarves can be pretty, and I respect the religious reasons why some women choose to wear them even here in America where they don’t have to out of fear for their lives and safety, I’m glad I don’t have to wear one. And my independent spirit would chafe over some man telling me I couldn’t work out in an empty gym without explicit permission from some other man, or the need to keep my ankles covered. I didn’t spend three hours getting that tattoo around my ankle to keep it covered up.
I caught the closing night film, A Solitary Man (not sure why they call it the closing night film when it screened on Thursday night, and there were still films playing through the 18th, but such are the oddnesses of film film fests) at the Magnolia. The film stars Michael Douglas, one of my favorite actors, as Ben Kalmen, a smooth-talking salesman and wealthy owner of multiple BMW dealerships, who gets the word from his doctor that there might be a problem with his heart, after which he morphs into the reprehensible sort of guy I pretty much despise. Always known as the “honest” car dealer, Ben does some illegal things (what, exactly, is never spelled out, but they’re the sort of things that can cost a guy his fortune, his freedom and his reputation). Once a faithful husband to stalwart wife Nancy (Susan Sarandon), Ben also leaves his marriage in favor of a string of affairs with ever-younger girls.
The single biggest problem with this film is that it needed to do one of two things: establish up front that Ben has the lack of moral compass to have the inate propensity for a mere warning from his doctor about a possible (not even confirmed, mind you) problem with his heart to completely change his entire character, or show us the moral landslide that brings him down. Instead, the screenwriter (Brian Koppelman, who also co-directed) skimp on the character arc, starting us out at the doctor’s appointment that’s the catalyst for change and then leaping ahead with a storyboard telling us it’s some six-and-a-half-years later.
While it’s a good thing, of course, to start your story off with a major change happening in your character’s life, it’s not a good thing to brush right past the more interesting part of your story, which in this case would have been showing us Ben’s backslide into the moral gray zone as it happened. As it’s written, we never really see Ben as the good man he was prior to that moment in the doctor’s office.
We see glimpses of who he was through his daughter’s staunch love for him, his ex-wife’s emotional support, the library at his alma mater he funded. Problem is, bad people as well as good can have daughters who love them in spite of them being terrible fathers, ex-wives who still love and support men who treated them shoddily, and libraries funded in the name of ego rather than altruism; none of these things, therefore, really shows us anything that would indicate that Ben is, or was, a good man. And the choices he makes that we do see would seem more indicative of a person who had very little in the way of a moral compass to begin with, the kind of man who can sell people on how honest or loving or responsible he is while he’s really embezzling from the company and screwing the nanny, his secretary and the barista at his regular coffee shop on the side.
What the film does have going for it is a very solid lead performance by Michael Douglas, who in spite of the script’s flaws does manage to imbue Ben with a sense of sorrow and regret even as he comes onto college girls and tries to make deals while attempting to polish the tarnish off his crown. There’s something subtle in the lines of Douglas’ face and depth of his eyes that give the character more depth than was written on the page. sarandon is believable enough as Ben’s ex-wife, who’s managed to move on with her life through Ben’s betrayal of all she thought he was and still retain enough love for him to comfort and advise him through all the messes he gets himself into.
Solid back-up performances by the supporting cast include Jesse Eisenberg as a college kid who falls under Ben’s spell, Mary-Louise Parker as Jordan, the girlfriend Ben’s using to rebuild his reputation, Jenna Fischer as Ben’s daughter Susan, and Imogen Poots as Allyson, Jordan’s spiteful, lovely, college-bound daughter. A Solitary Man is a decent enough film, but the problems with its character and story arc keep it from rising to the level of being the intricate look at a moral man’s fall from grace that it might have been.
As for the fest itself, the transition from AFI Dallas to the Dallas International Film Festival that followed the fest’s decision last year not to renew its contract with AFI seemed to be a fairly smooth one. The fest was obviously facing the same budgetary constraints every other fest is dealing, but nonetheless managed to put on a good show, bringing in plenty of guests and throwing some swell parties. If folks in Dallas cared about the name “AFI” being affiliated with their film festival, it didn’t seem to show in attendance at the two screenings I went to, and word from other folks I asked was that screenings were generally well-attended.
Programming-wise, the fest had a pretty solid slate, though I really wish they’d have screenings earlier in the day through the week; having screenings not start until after 4PM really inhibited my own ability to catch as many films as I otherwise would have, and Dallas has to have enough older folks and college students that the fest could offer “early bird” screenings, maybe even a discounted “early bird” pass good only for screenings starting before, say, 6PM. Just a thought.
There certainly wasn’t any issue with a liquor sponsor, as the drinks were flowing pretty much non-stop in the Filmmaker Lounge at the Palomar Hotel, the fests’ headquarters. And speaking of the Palomar, I have to add that I really liked the change of having everything fest-wise (press check-in, panels, the Filmmaker Lounge) in one central hotel right across the street from the Angelika, one of the fest’s two main venues. Shuttles (seemingly way fewer than in previous years, but this didn’t seem to be a problem with the location change) made it easy to get between the hotel, the Angelika and the Magnolia without too much of a wait, and I was delighted that the fest wasn’t screening this year at the pain-in-the-ass-to-get-to Northpark Center Mall.
The Palomar, in case you’re in Dallas in the near future yourself, has a restaurant run by The Naughty Kitchen’s Chef Blythe Beck. For the fine quality of the food, the menu is reasonably priced, and the service was impeccable every time I ate there. I myself was particularly partial to Chef Blythe’s Naughty Cream Corn (oh sweet Mary, it’s both naughty and good), the delicious sauteed spinach and arugula (it has a slight tang and brown-sugar sweetness to it that knocked my socks off) and the apple-thyme bread pudding, which reminded me of my great-grandmother’s Thanksgiving stuffing. Good stuff, yes indeed.
Overall, great job by the fest’s hardworking team of staff and volunteers, and nice job in this transitory year. Here’s hoping folks in Dallas continue to support the fest and independent film with their butts in seats, their wallets, and that famous Texas charm and hospitality.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon