Published at: Nov. 3, 2008, 6:46 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
Is it really time for the AFI Film Festival in Hollywood again? I thought these things were only once a year.
Oh... they are?
Damn, that year went fast. It seems like I just spent ten days or so mainlining movies at the Arclight very recently, but starting tomorrow, Oct. 30th, with the gala premiere screening of John Patrick Shanley’s DOUBT, the festival is back in full swing and offering up one of its strongest overall line-ups yet.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, one of my great frustrations was that there was no world-class film festival here. It’s Los Angeles... how can it be that a city that lives and dies based on the movie industry doesn’t find itself home to a festival that features the best of filmmaking from around the world? It’s a question I continues to ask myself for the first decade I was here.
But in the last five years or so, the AFI Fest has made huge progress in terms of programming. And covering the festival has become one of my favorite moments of the year, because I can finally enjoy a fest with a truly strong and exciting line-up, and I don’t have to leave home to do it. Which is sort of the point. The AFI team has worked hard to cull the films from all the festivals this year, the films that people have been talking about and writing about, allowing Angelenos to jump into the conversation now, as well as featuring some premieres exclusive to this fest. I’ll be seeing DOUBT tomorrow night, and I’m thrilled. I think John Patrick Shanley’s a damn good writer, and JOE VS. THE VOLCANO, which he wrote and directed, has grown in esteem ever since its original release, and for good reason. Shanley’s fond of the big gesture, and that’s true for his stage work as well as his screen work. Now, with DOUBT, he’s adapting his own acclaimed play, and when your cast includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, you’re probably doing something right. We’ll certainly see, and I’m actually more excited about this film than THE SOLOIST, which originally was set for the opening night gala.
The gala screenings are the cornerstones that the festival is built on, the big-ticket items. For example, DOUBT opens the fest and the closing night gala is Ed Zwick’s DEFIANCE, starring Daniel Craig, and between those two titles, there’s an onslaught of movies worth catching, including Saturday night’s Chinese theater screening of CHE, Steven Soderbergh’s latest, which will be screening both halves with a brief intermission. That’s almost four and a half hours of revolutionary rhetoric, and I’d be able to share my impressions of the film with you now if yesterday’s screening hadn’t hit a bizarre snag an hour in when the subtitles just stopped working. I’ll definitely see the film again as soon as possible, though, and if the rest of it is as strong as the start, I would imagine it’s one of the absolute must-sees of the fest. LAST CHANCE HARVEY, the new film starring Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, is going be next Saturday’s gala screening, while Darren Aronofsky’s THE WRESTLER gets the gala treatment next Thursday night, an event I absolutely cannot miss.
There are a number of special screenings scheduled as well. Paul Schrader’s new film, ADAM RESURRECTED, stars Jeff Goldblum as a Holocaust survivor who struggles to make sense of why he lived when so many died. I’ve heard great things about Goldblum’s performance, and it sounds like a real switch for him, one I’m excited to see. I’ve seen Rian Johnson’s THE BROTHERS BLOOM, and I love it. It’s showing twice during the fest, and it’s absolutely worth checking out for fans of quirky comedies or con man movies. A CHRISTMAS TALE is the latest effort from Arnaud Desplechin, who is being honored with a special retrospective of several of his films during the fest. This time out, he’s working with Cahterine Deneuve and Mathieu Amalric, among others, in what sounds like a vicious Gallic spin on the home-for-the-holidays template of a dysfunctional family trying to survive a little Christmas togetherness. Bill Plympton, the great indie animator, premieres his new feature IDIOTS AND ANGELS, and you’ll see it paired with HOT DOG, one of his earlier shorts. This Saturday night, there’s a screening of NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD, the ridiculously entertaining documentary about the history of Australian exploitation, and I’d encourage you to check it out. SUGAR, the new film from the creative team behind HALF NELSON, tells the story of a Dominican baseball player trying to make it to the minor leagues, while TOKYO!, an anthology film featuring the work of Michel Gondry and Bong Joon-ho, also screens.
James Gray’s TWO LOVERS may be your last chance to see Joaquin Phoenix in a film, if we believe the announcement he made about retiring from acting so he can pursue his music career. It’s the story of a guy caught between two women, Gwenyth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw. Yeah... tough life, dude. And WENDY & LUCY is a chance to see if Kelly Reichardt can follow up the critical acclaim of her last outing as a director, OLD JOY, and it’s also a chance to see Michelle Williams in a lead role that has been garnering her some of the best reviews of her career.
If just the galas and the special screenings were all they had programmed, that would be an exciting line-up already, but the calendar’s packed with even more gems, both big and small. As a documentary freak, I’m excited about the variety of titles on display. AGILE, MOBILE, HOSTILE: A YEAR WITH ANDRE WILLIAMS is alternately harrowing and hilarious, a portrait of an aging R&B artist whose songs like “Shake A Tail Feather” and “Jail Bait” are more famous than he is, a guy who spent the ‘60s influencing all of Motown but who now finds himself struggling with poverty, age, and a slow slide into alcoholic dementia. It’s a nice bookend to OF ALL THE THINGS, a portrait of Dennis Lambert, who is a real-estate agent from Florida who used to be a songwriter/producer with a string of megahits in the ‘70s and ‘80s, including “Baby Come Back,” “We Built This City,” “Rhinestone Cowboy,” and “Ain’t No Woman Like The One I’ve Got.” For some reason, Lambert’s huge in the Philippines, and he decides at the age of 60 to travel there and tour for the first time ever. The documentary was shot by his son, who had never seen his father perform, and there’s a real warmth to the discovery of this talent, long since locked away. PLAYING COLUMBINE is the story of Danny Ledonne, who programmed the game SUPER COLUMBINE MASSACRE RPG!, a lightning rod for controversy from the moment it arrived online. I dismissed the game automatically when I first heard of it, sure it was a tasteless little exercise in stupidity, but after seeing this movie, it looks more like Ledonne is part of a movement of people pushing to see video games break free of the idea that all games are about pleasure. Can a video game be used to explore a big idea? Can it push you to have a negative reaction, and still be successful in doing so? Can a game legitimately be called art? The film may start by focusing on the reaction to this one game, but it eventually, it makes much larger points that are absolutely vital to how we live and play.
And those are just the docs I’ve already seen. There’s a piece about kids living in a Russian reform school called ALONE IN FOUR WALLS, a look at life on the road for one of the strangest and coolest bands around today, GOGOL BORDELLO NON-STOP, a piece about outsider art and a very particular young performance artist called HI MY NAME IS RYAN, and a film that explores the comic book culture of Argentina called IMAGINADORES. KASSIM THE DREAM tells the life story of world champion fighter Kassim Ouma, while THE LAST DAYS OF SHISHMAREF takes us to the actual battle front of global warming where an Inuit tribe is watching their ancestral home island sink. PINDORAMA – THE TRUE STORY OF THE SEVEN DWARVES looks at a family of dwarves, all born to the same father who was a legendary Brazilian clown, as they travel together in a circus. PRODIGAL SONS sounds like a wild exploration of the definitions of family and identity, and somehow involves Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, while SHAKESPEARE AND VICTOR HUGO’S INTIMACIES looks into a string of unsolved murders in Mexico City and whether or not a lonely woman and her boarder might have had something to do with them. UNTIL THE LIGHT TAKES US is an exploration of the “black metal” scene and delves into the use of violence in art as a way of expression, while WITCH HUNT sounds terrifying to me. It’s amazing how little it takes to convict someone in public opinion these days, especially when making accusations of improper conduct with children, and this film looks at a harrowing miscarriage of justice in Bakersfield, CA.
ALT_Cinema is the name of the programming section where some of the harder-to-define films are playing this year, and it doesn’t surprise me to see DEADGIRL scheduled there. I’ll have a full review for this one soon, but the short version is it’s RIVER’S EDGE with a disgusting supernatural twist. What happens if you find a dead girl who still moves? What happens if no one knows she exists, no one has any claim on her, and you’re just lonely and fucked up enough to appreciate the value of someone who has even less power than you do? Well, DEADGIRL happens, and the film manages to be more stylish and emotionally affecting than its “too-sick-to-be-believed” reputation would indicate. BEFORE THE FALL is a Spanish sci-fi film about a small village coming to terms with the impending end of the world thanks to a meteorite. And Japan’s GACHI BOY WRESTLING WITH A MEMORY sounds wild, a ROCKY-like story of amnesia, accidents, and dreams come true.
I’ve read the synopsis for THE JUCHE IDEA three times, and I still don’t get it, always a sign that you’ve left the mainstream behind completely. Michael Almereyda’s new film PARADISE is playing the ALT_Cinema section as well, a free-form documentary about “the nature of creativity, and what it means to be beautiful or exceptional in the world.” STILL ORANGUTANS is a one-continuous-take 81 minute feature film from Brazil that offers up a crazy carnival funhouse portrait of life in Porto Alegre on the hottest day of the year. This sounds sort of one-of-a-kind to me, and I think I’m going to have to go out of my way to see it. And there’s no way I’m missing a chance to see Nacho Vigalondo’s TIME CRIMES, another of the films that Magnolia’s Magnet label is releasing in the Six-Shooter Films series. It’s a crazy looking little SF film about time travel that has inspired rabid loyalty from my friends who have seen it. It sounds outrageous, and I’m glad to finally catch up with it.
Not enough for you yet? There’s a special Argentinian showcase of five films showing a range of what’s going on in cinema right there right now, and a three-film sidebar of films from Kazakhstan as well. There’s a sidebar celebration of Arnaud Desplechin’s films, centered around the showcase premiere of A CHRISTMAS TALE. They have tributes planned for people we’ve lost this year, showing films to say goodbye, like THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY for Minghella or THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? for Pollack. I’m not sure I would have picked NED KELLY for Heath Ledger or MAJOR DUNDEE for Charlton Heston, but they’re both certainly interesting films. THE HUSTLER should be a fitting tribute to Newman, and I may try to catch that one in particular.
The Narrative Competition features 12 titles, and I haven’t seen a single one of them yet. Films from Iran, the UK, Mexico, Iceland, Sweden, and Russia are all competing, and there are some that jump out at me. INVOLUNTARY looks like a fascinating companion piece to AFTERSCHOOL, which I have seen, and which I think is one of the most assured debut pictures in recent memory. There’s a strong selections of films about disaffected youth this year, and I like that both humor and drama seem to be mining this familiar but fertile ground. ACNE, a co-production from Uruguay/Argentina/Spain, sounds like a hypersexualized looks at adolescence, for example.
When the AFI synopsis compares BETTER THINGS to the work of Alan Clarke, that’s a pretty big gauntlet to be thrown down, so I hope the film delivers. THE HIGHER FORCE is an Icelandic comedy, and if those two words seem odd to you together, then maybe that’s reason enough to check it out. THE DESERT WITHIN, THREE WOMEN, NILOOFAR, and PROPER EYES all sound like films that are sober, provocative dissections of their particular cultures, films that sort of typify what I think of as world cinema. THE REST OF THE NIGHT sounds like it’s more of a thriller from Italy, while POUNDCAKE looks like a very stylized indie American comedy. The Russian film NIRVANA also looks long on style in telling the story of the underground punk scene in St. Petersburg. And finally, the director of the charming black-and-white comedy DUCK SEASON is back with a new film called LAKE TAHOE that sounds more serious than his first film.
There’s a Danny Boyle tribute planned next Friday that I’ve got to go to, since that’s my chance to finally catch up to SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, which sounds fantastic. I really like Boyle’s work, and I am pleased that it sounds like he’s made a film that really connects with audiences for the first time in a while. Maybe he should only make films with “million” in the title, since that’s worked out pretty well for him so far. There’s also a Tilda Swinton tribute one night, and a screening of her new film JULIA on another.
And after all that... as if all of that isn’t enough... the world cinema section, the final of the programming sections, is probably the broadest and most interesting of all of them, including a film that is one of my very favorite movies of the year so far, and a fairly broad selection of genres, styles, and experiences.
THE GOOD THE BAD THE WEIRD is the “kimci western” from the director of A TALE OF TWO SISTERS and A BITTERSWEET LIFE, a Korean spin on the Leone archetypes that is as pure a piece of entertainment as any country has produced this year. Ridiculous fun for every one of its 130 minutes, and a must-see for anyone in LA who hasn’t had the chance yet. It screens twice, one this Saturday night and once next Thursday during the day. Make the effort. You’ll be glad you did.
Up above, I mentioned AFTERSCHOOL, and it’s a pretty amazing discovery in its own right. Antonio Campos’s story about an accident on the campus of a boarding school weaves a powerful spell, and it would be easy to compare this to David Gordon Green’s GEORGE WASHINGTON or to Gus Van Sant’s ELEPHANT, and there are a few stylistic echoes here, but Campos has a real voice, and there are some remarkable provocations built into this film. I saw it a week ago and it’s really stuck with me since. I also just saw Steve McQueen’s debut feature, HUNGER, and it’s another shocker, an ugly-natured film wrapped in a gorgeous aesthetic, a look at the way torture works, a political movie about the personal consequences of certain types of policies being played out. It’s a harrowing film at times, and it’s brutally ugly at times. But McQueen has an painter’s eye, and he has a way of devastating with detail. And it’s hard to describe Jared Drake’s VISIONEERS, but it’s like a more emotionally complete version of all the stuff about the married couple in Steve Soderbergh’s SCHIZOPOLIS. It’s absurdity in the way Ionesco used absurdity, and Zach Galifianakis and Judy Greer make an oddly affecting perfect couple for the reality that Drake has created here. I think Galifianakis is one of the funniest guys in stand-up comedy today, but now, I also have to acknowledge him as a genuine force to be reckoned with in front of the camera. He takes this bizarre comedy and surreality of this piece and his character, and he gives it a bruised soul. He reminds me of a young Richard Dreyfuss, and Greer really plays well off of him. Mia Maestro, James LeGros, and Missy Pyle all make appearances in the film, and although it looks like it cost about $17.38 to make, it’s an effective use of the limited budget, just heightened enough to work.
I’m not going to get to see even half of what I want to. Beat Takeshi’s new film ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE is playing, and the South Korean cop thriller THE CHASER is supposed to be outstanding. THE CLASS won the Palme d’Or this year at Cannes, so I’m at least a little curious. DIVIZIONZ sounds like a South African riff on Alan Parker’s THE COMMITMENTS or Tom Hanks’s THAT THING YOU DO, and I’m sort of a sucker for that basic model for a movie. EVERLASTING MOMENTS is Sweden’s official entry for the Academy Awards this year, Jan Troell’s story of a woman, a lottery, a camera, and a hard goddamn life where taking pictures helps make sense of what otherwise might be too much to bear.
There are love stories like FINALLY, LILLIAN AND DAN and I’M GONNA EXPLODE and KISSES and A QUIET LITTLE MARRIAGE and WORLDS APART, or the unconventional animation of WALTZ WITH BASHIR, or the one-two punch of Albert Serra’s BIRDSONG and the documentary WAITING FOR SANCHO which is about the making of BIRDSONG. There’s a satire about life as a salesman called WELLNESS, a much-buzzed-about gangster film from Italy called GOMORRAH, a sketch comedy of sorts called A GOOD DAY TO BE BLACK & SEXY, and a potentially provocative theme about just how far entertainment has to go to hold an audience called A NECESSARY DEATH. O’HORTEN, REVANCHE, and SKIN all sound like very human, very adult films about people who society pushes to the side, while SUMMER HOURS features a collaboration between Olivier Assayas (director of the great IRMA VEP) and Juliette Binoche, who I pretty much always love. THREE BLIND MICE looks like Australia’s answer to THE LAST DETAIL, a movie about naval officers on shore leave before shipping out to Iraq. And finally, there’s TWO-LEGGED HORSE, an Iranian film from Samira Makhmalbaf about the relationship between the very rich and the absolutely poor, told through the relationship between a disabled rich boy who can’t walk and the street urchin who is hired to become, in essence, his legs. It sounds like a hell of a way into the metaphor, and I hope I’m able to squeeze it into my schedule.
Eleven days hardly seems like enough time, but I’m sure if they added more days, that would only mean that they’d work even more films onto the schedule. As it is, I’m looking forward to catching as much of it as I can, a perfect way to get revved up for the fall movie season that’s kicking into high gear right about now. I’ll have more for you as the festival gets underway, including my report on DOUBT tomorrow night.
Here's my coverage of my first full day at the festival.