My schedule the last couple of days has prohibited my seeing more than two festival movies in a given day so far. I plan to correct this injustice over the weekend – and maybe even into next week – but for now I am satisfied with showing up at the Regal Cinema at LA Live after work, and picking up a free ticket to whatever screening I can make it to.
Today I had to choose between Stray Dog, the new documentary from Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik, or Recommended By Enrique, a less concrete film about a small Texas town. I was already set to see a doc later tonight, so I decided to keep things interesting by pairing it with a trippy-sounding narrative feature. But Recommended By Enrique wasn’t set to start until 7:25 pm. So I had a couple of hours on my hand. What to do?
Well, see another movie, of course. The Regal LA Live is still a functioning theater for non-fest-goers during the duration, so more mainstream films are still screening regularly throughout the week. So I took the opportunity at hand to see a movie I had been anticipating: How to Train Your Dragon 2. Now HtTYD2 isn’t technically a festival film (though it did feature at one of the fest’s pre-screenings), so I won’t spend too much time on it, but some aspects of it fit very well with where I’m headed tonight.
You may remember (or more likely, you don’t) that I reviewed the original film back in January. I was very impressed with the animation quality and with the emotional heart of the film, which concerned the relationship between scrawny young Viking Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his hulking father, Stoick (Gerard Butler). The look of the sequel is just as strong, particularly one standout scene in a cave where the shadows are perfectly rendered. Writer/director Dean DeBlois makes the decision to double down on the emotional impact here, and while it works really well at times, during others it falls flat.
The movie stumbles through a storyline that is pretty similar to its predecessor’s, but it soars (pun so intended) in the excellent flying sequences and in the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless, his dragon. The film’s central conflict revolves around the source of strength. The villain of the piece (Djimon Hounsou) finds strength in power and brute force, while Hiccup stresses that true strength comes from within. It’s a good debate in a mostly good movie.
But now it was time to get to the Fest. First up was Recommended By Enrique, an entrant in the narrative competition at this year’s festival. The movie follows two concurrent stories set in Del Rio, Texas, a town that seems to be stuck in the 90’s. The two unnamed main characters, credited only as Actress (Sarah Swinwood) and Cowboy (Lino Varela), are both stuck in Del Rio out of necessity. Actress is starring in an oddly low-fi B movie that seems to be run completely by incompetent teenagers, while Cowboy kills time in town awaiting the arrival of a business associate so that he may complete a vague task. The characters are connected only by a shared view of the motel parking lot and the mariachi band that seemingly live there.
The movie is somewhat abstract, cutting between the two disparate storylines indiscriminately but creatively, and including a couple interesting dream sequences. Writer/directors Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia also act as the editors on their film, and they make some really cool choices.
However, the strange feature only works as well as it does because of its two leads. Swinwood’s actress is terrible at her craft, but she possesses this air of pretension and expertise that makes her scenes incredibly humorous, especially compared to Varela’s alcoholic cowboy, who is so full of remorse and sadness that we don’t mind following him to even the most boring of activities. Just to see what – if anything – happens! Ultimately we learn that Cowboy, much like Hounsou’s villain character, is the type to take solace in power. Meanwhile, Actress – the annoyingly superstitious spiritualist that she is – finds her strength within. Neither character comes out of the picture unscathed, but one approach certainly does more damage than the other.
That all-important inner strength and fortitude is one of the few possessions still held by Mark DeFriest, the subject of documentary award competitor The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest, from director Gabriel London. DeFriest has been in prison for over 30 years for a seemingly negligible crime, but a good 26+ of those years were due to his multiple escape attempts and discipline reports, which collectively earned him the nickname “Houdini.”
The recounting of DeFriest’s escape attempts is incredibly smart and impressive, and at first it seems as though this is what the film will be: a championing of bad behavior, but then London takes on a much greater topic: the prison system in general.
While DeFriest tells us about his many escapes (accompanied by some not-great animation), actor Scoot McNairy reads the letters and transcripts from DeFriest that detail just how horrifying things have been for him, especially during his stay at the Florida State Penitentiary. Interesting quirks in DeFriest’s thought process come up in these moments, and it is quickly made apparent to us that Mark’s wife, his lawyer, and a doctor who once accused him of malingering are now working together to try to find a way for him to get out of the torture chamber that has been his life for the majority of his life.
The documentary is strongest as a whole when Mark is on-camera. The scenes that abandon him suffer for his absence. He is a dynamic and layered human being, and London undermines that a little by trying to take on a greater cause outside of DeFriest himself. As a whole, though, The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest is a very strong film.
Hiccup’s life philosophy hits a roadblock in Mark DeFriest. This man possesses a genius-level intellect, but something compels him to use it in ways that actively harm him in the long run. But Mark has no choice. He cannot find strength in power, because in prison he has no power. So he uses what strength he has left – his mind – in order to survive the experience however he can manage.
As I drove home (no crazy bikers this time) I once again pondered the dichotomy present in all of the films I saw tonight, and I wondered if the newly re-crowned Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings won based on power or on self-confidence (it certainly wasn’t the power play, if you know what I’m saying). It’s a hard question to answer – maybe impossible. Perhaps true strength comes from a combination of the two. Don’t believe me, Hiccup? Ask your freakin’ dragon!