Moriarty Kicks Off His AFI Fest Coverage!! Quick Reviews Of 2:37, FISSURES, FROZEN DAYS, BACK HOME And Many More!!
Published at: Nov. 1, 2006, 6:31 a.m. CST by Moriarty
It’s always struck me as odd that Los Angeles doesn’t have a defining film festival. I know that there have been attempts over the years, but when people think of destination festivals, they think of Toronto... Telluride... Venice... Sundance... even Berlin. It’s sort of embarrassing to live in the city that is the center of the film industry and realize that we don’t have a festival that can compete with those.
In 1971, Filmex was founded in LA, a festival that lasted eleven days and that seemed incredibly promising. The first film ever shown at Filmex was Peter Bogdanovich’s THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, and that first year offered some awesome programming. Los Angeles didn’t support the festival, though, and in 1983, it celebrated its last year.
There are two offshoots of Filmex that still exist today. One is the American Cinematheque, now permanently housed at the Egyptian Theater. The other is the AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival, which kicked off in 1986. In the last few years, the AFI Fest has started to really come into its own, and although I think it serves as a sort of mirror of other festivals, that’s not a bad thing per se. As they celebrate their 20th anniversary, they’ll kick things off tonight with the gala premiere of BOBBY, the new film by Emilio Estevez. The other gala presentations will include David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE, Darren Aronofsky’s THE FOUNTAIN, Almodovar’s VOLVER, and the closing night world premiere of Zhang Yimou’s CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER, which I’m dying to see.
A festival lives and dies based on its programming, and in the last few years, I’ve enjoyed a lot of what I’ve seen at the AFI Fest. Getting exclusive premieres of high-profile titles is certainly one way to put your festival on the map, but it’s the overall line-up that really counts. I’ve had a chance to preview about fifteen films so far, and I plan to try to see another 30 or so during the twelve days of the festival. That’ll just barely make a dent in the overall programming available, but that’s because there’s so much available this year.
Let’s run down what I’ve seen so far:
2:37 is an Australian film making its US premiere here. Writer/director Murali K. Thalluri starts his film with the discovery of the dead body of the teenager in a pool of blood in a high school bathroom. Flashing back, he lays out a number of possible candidates to be that dead body, and he gives each of them a backstory that could lead to that tragic conclusion. The film is solid but doesn’t quite land all its punches. Thalluri is really good at creating a mounting sense of dread, and he’s got a hell of an eye for cute Australian girls. It gets a little out of control with the melodrama, though, and some of its biggest moments don’t quite connect properly. Still, it’s a better-than-average debut.
The Canadian film WHO LOVES THE SUN is unspectacular, but it demonstrates some real mastery of mood and character by writer/director Matt Bissonnette. It’s the story of two childhood friends who spent their entire lives together until an act of infidelity destroys a marriage and leads Will (Lukas Haas) to disappear, abandoning his wife Maggie (Molly Parker) and his friend Daniel (Adam Scott). After five years, Will finally reappears, and old secrets are dragged out into the light, and everyone’s forced to deal with what tore them apart in the first place. The performances are strong and overcome the somewhat familiar material. Parker, for example, plays the walking wounded well, and she also happens to be smoking hot. Seriously. If you’re like me and DEADWOOD’s been your primary recent exposure to her, it seems almost scandalous to see her in a bikini. Adam Scott, a familiar face who hasn’t really had a defining role yet, does a wicked drunk and gives a really focused, specific performance, playing well off the understated Lukas Haas.
BACK HOME is a powerful documentary about the genocide in Rwanda that was directed by J.B. Rutagarama, an actual survivor of the genocide who escaped the country as a child. It’s incredibly disturbing, but it’s also a film that overflows with hope. The notion of the forgiveness policy that the Rwandans have in place, the way the focus is on “restoring the humanity” of the perpetrators of the genocide... that seems to me to be a fantastic sign that the capacity to forgive is surprisingly deep. The film has its world premiere here, and it’s a must-see.
Writer/director Alante Kavaite contributes one of the grooviest films I’ve seen this year. FISSURES is a cross between THE CONVERSATION and PRIMER. It’s a French film about a girl (Emilie Dequenne) who works as a sound engineer on movies, specializing in recording natural sounds on location. When her mother is murdered, the girl returns to her mother’s home in a small village, determined to sort out what happened and who did it. The twist comes when she begins to pick up the past on her audio equipment. She realizes that her house, by some fluke, has become a sort of echo chamber, and that she can decide what moment in time to listen to by moving her microphone. Each point in space is a different point in time. So she begins a crazy, obsessive race to find the moment of her mother’s murder in the house, so she can identify who did it. In the process of listening to her mother’s private life, though, she rediscovers this woman who raised her, and she hears what her mother really thinks of her, and she flashes on happy times and hard ones, too. There’s no pseudo-scientific explanation for what happens in the house, and there’s no magic one offered up, either. It just occurs, and it drives her a little crazy for a while, but it also helps heal her in regards to her relationship with her mother. It’s good stuff.
As with FISSURES, the influence of Polanski can be felt quite clearly in the Israeli film FROZEN DAYS, which plays like a mix between REPULSION and THE TENANT, but in a post-MATRIX world. In the end, it’s a long way to go for a slight payoff, but this is a case where the ride is more impressive than the actual destination, and as long as you’re okay with that, FROZEN DAYS has a lot to offer. Not the least of which is Anat Klausner, the lead actress, who is fascinating enough to merit watching closely for the full running time. She’s in every scene, and she’s magnetic. It’s like the first time you saw AMELIE or RUN LOLA RUN. She’s an actress I hope we see much more of in days to come, and writer/director Danny Lerner deserves credit for shooting a micro-budget DV feature that is as striking and visually complex as anything I’ve seen shot on film this year.
Not everything I’ve seen so far has been great. Maybe I’m spoiled by seeing so many good documentaries in recent years, but I think you have to really bring your A-game if you want to make an impression in the genre.
That’s not the case with NO SWEAT, which runs just under an hour. It’s a too-slight documentary about the garment industry in LA. When the film starts, it looks like it’s going to be a lacerating piece contrasting two companies, SweatX and American Apparel. One is an experiment in co-op ownership set up in part by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s. The other is a built-from-scratch business owned by Dov Charney, this crazy eccentric superfreak. And while the film is bouncing back and forth between the two, it works fairly well, and it’s interesting stuff. Dov helps, because he’s so effortlessly lunatic that you can’t look away, but there’s no real resolution to the film. By about mid-way into the film, SweatX goes under and American Apparel doesn’t, and the rest of the movie seems fairly aimless. There’s no sense of a larger story at American Apparel or the garment industry at large. Ultimately, there are some interesting pieces, but it’s not much of a whole.
BIG DREAMS LITTLE TOKYO is a charming little film, a sort of Asian-flavored NAPOLEON DYNAMITE. Written and directed by David Boyle, who also stars in the film, it’s the story of a young man named Boyd who is fixated on the Japanese language. He’s as white as white can be, but he is incredibly fluent. He wants to be a successful businessman, but he hasn’t really figured himself out yet. He hawks a self-published book on speaking Japanese everywhere he goes and offers English lessons for native speakers. At the start of the film, he has exactly one customer, Jerome (Jayson Watabe), who spends his whole day eating in hopes of becoming a sumo wrestler. I think Jerome’s my favorite character, but he remains frustratingly underdeveloped at the end of the movie. I know Boyle is the star as well as the writer/director, but the key to making your film really work is making sure that we learn about more than just your character as we watch. The film’s making its world premiere during the festival.
SPECIAL has had a pretty healthy festival life so far. Written and directed by Jeremy Passmore and Hal Haberman, this one would seem to be a home run for fans of superhero movies who crave something a little left of center, but in execution, it comes off as frustratingly one-note. Michael Rappaport stars here as a young man who agrees to participate in a trial for a new drug, and he comes to believe that he’s gained super powers as a result.
I wish the film delivered on that concept, but if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the movie. It never goes any deeper than that, and it wears out its welcome long before it wraps up. LIFE AFTER TOMORROW, by contrast, actually sounded to me like it would be the same thing over and over, and instead, it takes a simple premise and wrings some real emotion and power from it. The film, directed and produced by Julie Stevens and Gil Cates Jr., is a collection of interviews with dozens of former child actors who appeared onstage in ANNIE over the years. Considering the size of the young cast and the way the show seemed to run forever, it’s no surprise that they went through as many kids as they did. What is surprising is the way each of the girls seems to have had a unique experience. For some, this was the start of a long career in the business. For others, this was a dream that turned out to not be what they wanted at all. And for some, it’s just a fun memory from the distant past. Stevens herself played one of the orphans, so she knows what she’s talking about with the film, and overall, it turns out to be a really wonderful little documentary that makes some cogent points about the entire notion of child performers and the way it changes their lives to be part of something so big at such a young age.
TV JUNKIE is probably the toughest sit I’ve had so far out of all the films I’ve seen from this festival, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Directors Michael Cain and Matt Radecki use the home video footage of Rick Kirkham to weave a disturbing, upsetting film that speaks to an entire generation that grew up with video cameras in hand, taping every insignificant moment of their lives. I realized recently that there are more photos of my son already that I think have been taken of me in my whole life thanks to the ease of digital photography, and we have hours and hours and hours of video of him. It’s easy these days and cheap to document everything you do. But at what point does it cross from simple recording to obsessive behavior? Kirkham was given a video camera at the age of 14. Since then, pretty much everything he’s done has ended up on camera. He was an on-air correspondent for INSIDE EDITION for many years, but this film shows the hell that was his private life that entire time, and there are moments here where I just wanted to knock the camera out of his hand and shake him. It’s maddening, and Kirkham must be impervious to any sort of criticism to allow this sort of intimate footage to be turned into a film. It reminds me a little of TARNATION, but this is an unpleasant, even oppressive film. It’s obviously been cut with enormous skill, and it’s hard to look away, but be warned... this is a rough ride.
If you’re here in LA and you want to try something really challenging, can I suggest buying a ticket for the 24-hour-movie-marathon that is part of the festival? Celebrating the entire history of the fest, the line-up is pretty cool. Starting Saturday, November 11th at noon, you can sit in the Mark Goodson screening room on the AFI campus and see THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, TURKISH DELIGHT, THE LAST WAVE, ERASERHEAD, THE WIZ, FLASH GORDON (the crazy ‘80s version with the kickass Queen soundtrack), THE RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS 7, CAT PEOPLE (the Paul Schrader version), EATING RAOUL, STRANGER THAN PARADISE, I’M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA, and the Burt Reynolds dark comedy THE END. I’ve never seen most of these in a theater, and I’d love to see THE LAST WAVE or ERASERHEAD on a bigscreen. I doubt I’ll be able to get away from the regular programming, though, and I’ve already got a 24-hour marathon scheduled for early December, but it’s one of the cooler parts of this year’s AFI programming, in my opinion.
Looking at the full list of festival programming, I’m going to be ambitious about trying to catch as much as possible. Will I actually make it to MEMORIES OF TOMORROW, SCREAMERS, FORGIVEN, CASHBACK, MOTHERLAND AFGHANI, THE HOST, THE BANQUET, THE ART OF CRYING, TEN CANOES, THE SECRET LIFE OF HAPPY PEOPLE, THE HISTORY BOYS, AFTER, WHITE PALMS, THE ROAD, SHOOT THE MESSENGER, COMIC EVANGELISTS, THE YACOUBIAN BUILDING, DISAPPEARANCES, BLINDSIGHT, AIR GUITAR NATION, THE DEAD GIRL, WRISTCUTTERS: A LOVE STORY, NOISE, Kim Ki-Duk’s TIME, THE TRAVELING CINEMA, BROKEN, VENUS, COME EARLY MORNING, RE-CYCLE, SHAME, FAMILY LAW, THE BOTHERSOME MAN, BEAUTIFUL OHIO, THE FOUNTAIN, BUG, and CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER?
Check in over the next 12 days, and we’ll find out together. For now, I’ve got to catch some shut-eye. I’ll have the DVD Shelf ready tomorrow (sorry, but Halloween and some family obligations cockblocked me for the Tuesday morning publication), and then it’s off to the gala opening night screening of BOBBY to get this whole thing started.
Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles