The AFI Dallas International Film Festival opened last week with Helen Hunt's directorial debut, "Then She Found Me," a warm account of aging femininity. If the title were altered to "Then They Found Me," it might make a suitable tagline for the festival's lively second year, which has attracted quite a crowd to eastern Texas. The city's motto, "Live Large. Think Big," fits the bloated program, a sprawling lineup that plays like the greatest hits of the festival circuit.
With 260 features and short films, it's not easy to find the entries that haven't already received notices at the likes of Sundance: Everything from Stuart Gordon's hilariously schlocky entrapment narrative "Stuck" to Tom McCarthy's quiet immigration study "The Visitor" has wound up at AFI Dallas, but even with such a vast arrangement, room remains for a handful of premieres and small discoveries.
Among the premieres, "The Last Lullaby," first-timer Jeffrey Goodman's adaptation of a Max Allen Collins short story, takes a patient approach to the noir genre. We've all seen the sympathetic hitman story needlessly overdone and redone in trite comic format, but Goodman recognizes the superior appeal of playing it straight. Tom Sizemore plays Price, a burnt out killer-for-hire asked to accomplish one last job for a hefty sum. Once he locates the target, however, things get difficult. She's a kindhearted librarian (Sasha Alexander) set to testify in a case related to her interpersonal family drama, and he feels for her.
Goodman's script is dry and only slightly stylized, driven more by dialogue than bullet ballets. That occasionally leads to a monotonous tone, but Sizemore and Alexander maintain the pace with credible performances as two dissonant personalities equally plagued by desperation. Their resolute unhappiness keeps the genre boundaries intact.
Speaking of genres, it's become increasingly clear over the past year that a new one has emerged in the documentary realm. Videogame players, now a multi-generation phenomenon with a subculture as dense as any other, are held under the anthropological microscope of the camera lens in a flurry of strong works. Last year's Slamdance Film Festival surveyed arcade champions in "King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters," this year's South by Southwest Film Festival contained the RPG profile "Second Skin," and now AFI Dallas brings the world premiere of "Frag," quite possibly the best of the bunch.
A jumpy overview of professional gaming tournaments--specifically first person shooter competitions--and the raucous scene swirling around them, "Frag" essentially functions as a sequel to "King of Kong." It opens with footage and interviews recapping the original Twin Galaxy organization that began keeping track of videogame scores in the early 1980s, helping talented gamers become stars. The seminal Life magazine photo shoot of 1982, when the top scorers became niche celebrities, received major attention in "King of Kong," but in "Frag" it's merely a means of introduction. In the multiplayer mayhem of today's videogame world, there are very few success stories but a lot of people expending all their energy trying to thrive at it. With the right sponsorship and a penchant for difficult hand-eye coordination, some manage to make a living--and a select few attain superstardom. "Fatal1ty" (nee Johnathan Wendel), for example, has blossomed into "the most widely known gamer in the western hemisphere," as the film's narration explains. But his triumph has lead countless other young folks to throw away all other ambitions in order to emulate him.
The professional gaming world is a chaotic, somewhat frightening place; director Mike Pasley includes peaks at behind-the-scenes parties where drugged-out gamers take aim at living the high life. It's a far cry from the geek image that once plagued the hobby. Many participants live intense, hardcore lifestyles, and there are more than a few addicted to speed. The deeper Pasley takes us, the more we learn about the sport's clandestine agendas and corporate greed. The most shocking story he uncovers finds an African American player excluded from a gaming team due to the color of his skin.
Another documentary that premiered at AFI Dallas grapples with a different form of contemporary racism--namely, European anti-Semitism. In "The Monster Among Us," filmmakers Allen and Cynthia Mondell take a comprehensive look at the modern state of Jew hatred in Paris, London, and everywhere in between. Speaking exclusively to Jewish subjects using an opinion-driven structure, "Monster" asks the right questions (Is another Holocaust possible? Has Europe owned up to its Jew problem?), but it suffers from the directors' admitted bias. Jews themselves, they chose only to speak with members of their religion. Needless to say, the movie would play well in synagogues but raise ire in mosques. At Wednesday's screening, the couple said they don't want a theatrical release, hoping instead for an international television deal. They've got the right idea, because "Monster" only belongs with its intended audience.
As a quasi-alternative, consider the narrative entry "The Little Traitor," which studies the related Semitic drama of Middle Eastern turmoil through the lens of nostalgia. Starring Alfred Molina as a British Sergeant stationed in 1947 Palestine who befriends an Israeli boy (Ido Port), "Traitor" views history from a child's perspective in a manner similar to "Blame it On Fidel," although in this case, writer-director Lynn Roth allows sappiness to triumph over the darker themes at work in this cross-national conflict. Still, "Traitor" has a gentle storybook appeal that played well to Dallas audiences, suggesting that density isn't always essential to an immersive experience. Then again, the festival probably disagrees with that assessment.