How Am I Not Myself 

Welcome to AFI Fest 2005 — all of them

Thursday, Nov 3 2005

As it enters its 19th year, the American Film Institute’s annual AFI Fest remains mired in a long-running identity crisis. Is it an important local showcase for the best recent offerings of world and American independent cinema? The lap dog of Hollywood, a staging ground for black-tie premieres of soon-to-be-released Oscar hopefuls? Or a gathering of global film-industry professionals on a par with the world’s leading film festivals? AFI Fest tries to be all things to all people, occasionally succeeding but more often resembling some hand-me-down patchwork doll with one leg longer than the other and mismatched-button eyes. If that sounds harsh, I hasten to add that the news isn’t all bad: As the festival preview that follows attests, the next 10 days will bring with them a sampling of worthy films from all corners of the globe, most screening locally for the first time. But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t say that something strikes me as fundamentally wrong-headed about a supposedly international film festival in which 34 of the 92 features are American productions or co-productions; in which the country with the second largest number of films in the program, Germany, hasn’t been a vital player on the world cinema stage in decades; and in which a sidebar of five Johnny Depp films qualifies as a retrospective. (Me, I’ll be opting for the concurrent Naruse Mikio series at the UCLA Film and Television Archive.) Almost none of the best offerings from the recent festival season are here — Hong Sang-Soo’s puzzle-box romantic drama, Tale of Cinema; Singapore director Eric Khoo’s Be With Me, an audience favorite at Telluride and Toronto; Philippe Garrel’s Regular Lovers, which won the best-director prize at Venice; and Cristi Puiu’s razor-sharp gallows comedy The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, which collected the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes. And that is to say nothing of the great films of 2004 and even 2003 — Marco Bellocchio’s Good Morning, Night; Claire Denis’ L’Intrus; Theo Angelopoulos’ The Weeping Meadow; Lisandro Alonso’s Los Muertos — that have yet to receive so much as a single Los Angeles screening. The reasons are legion, and no doubt the AFI Fest organizers would be quick to reply that they have sought out some of these very films only to be rebuffed by distributors and/or sales agents. Granted this is a clear and present dilemma, but so is that of a festival that continues, against all reason, to put quantity — its total number of world and North American premieres — ahead of quality. This whoring-for-premieres syndrome can bedevil the best of festivals. But while the big boys (Berlin, Cannes and Venice — and, for American indies, Sundance), through a combination of longevity, reputation and positioning on the calendar, can rest assured that they’ll always have a ripe crop of titles to choose from, AFI Fest — owing to its relative youth and its early-November timing — serves as little more than a runoff gutter for films rejected by larger outfits. No filmmaker with any knowledge of the festival circuit would turn down an invite to one of those festivals in favor of AFI Fest. Nor does that situation look to change anytime soon, barring some sudden shift in the cabin pressure of the festival universe. Yet, the impulse remains — the lust to be the festival that discovers the next Sex, Lies and Videotape or Pulp Fiction — no matter how compelling the evidence that there simply aren’t that many good films to go around. From Fresno to Frankfurt, the world is now saturated with film festivals, but the most meaningful discoveries continue to be made by Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Toronto, as well as a vital secondary tier of festivals that includes Rotterdam, Karlovy Vary and Locarno. The others, to the extent that they insist on premieres, serve mainly to give false hope to filmmakers who should probably consider other career paths. AFI Fest might do well to take a page (or two) from the playbooks of the New York, Chicago and San Francisco film festivals, which long ago resolved to service their hometown crowds with the best films available at that particular moment — no strings attached — resulting in a festival-of-festivals atmosphere to which no single film event in Los Angeles can lay claim. (And I include the Los Angeles Film Festival in that assessment, despite the leaps and bounds by which it has improved in recent years.) I fear this may be a rhetorical discussion, in that local audiences seem pacified by AFI Fest — at least if festival attendance (which has steadily risen since the event relocated to the ArcLight Cinemas in 2002) is any indication — suggesting that the Los Angeles moviegoer is little more adventurous than the international traveler who heads straight for the nearest McDonald’s rather than sampling the regional cuisine. More on that later. For now, here’s our guide to the good, the bad and the ugly of AFI Fest 2005. Films are listed chronologically, based on the date and time of their first screening. Recommended titles are preceded by an asterisk. Films not premiering until the festival’s second weekend will be reviewed in next week’s issue. *TSOTSI (South Africa/UK) There’s a spine-tingling moment in Tsotsi that knowingly evokes Frankenstein: The title character runs across an open field in the dark of night as lightning streaks the sky; moments later, in silhouette, he lumbers down a suburban street while its inhabitants sleep. What follows is a sublime sleight of hand. We first see Tsotsi (it means “thug”) as the conscience-free, violent leader of a street gang. After assaulting an underling, he carjacks a young mother and inadvertently takes her baby, setting in motion an unraveling of personal history and memory that shows how this “monster” was created. His past glints in wrenching flashback scenes, unearthing long-repressed emotions for Tsotsi while slowly humanizing him for the viewer. Expediting that process is a second young mother whom Tsotsi forces at gunpoint to breastfeed his new “son,” and whose own tragedy sparks empathy in the hard young man. Based on a novel by Athol Fugard, the film moves quickly, packing in a lot of information, but it never feels rushed or overstuffed. Nor is the character’s unraveling anything less than believable, thanks to newcomer Presley Chweneyagae’s intuitive, intelligent grasp of Tsotsi’s gnarled inner life. Director Gavin Hood, who also adapted the screenplay, uses lighting magnificently, veering from dramatic starkness to a honeyed glow; both approaches underline the harshness of the world captured while homing in on shards of beauty. But what makes the film so powerful is its delicate weaving of sociological threads — how home-and-hearth violence can bloom into large-scale chaos, and how those damaged children cast to society’s margins will eventually make their way back to the center. It’s not new information, but in the hands of Hood and his cast, it is wrenching. (ArcLight 11, Fri., Nov. 4, 7:15 p.m.; Sat., Nov. 5, 3 p.m.) (Ernest Hardy) A DIOS MOMO (Uruguay) A magical, mystical mess. Illiterate 11-year-old paperboy Obdulio lives with his spiritualist grandmother and two young sisters. Into his tightly circumscribed world wanders the mysterious Maestro, who teaches him to read and decode the power of language; a troupe of street performers who adopt him as a mascot; and a wise bartender with life lessons on tap. It all takes place against the backdrop of Carnival. What’s meant to be charming, spiritually affirming and surreal is leaden and tedious — and horribly acted. (ArcLight 12, Fri., Nov. 4, 6:45 p.m.; Sat., Nov. 5, 12:30 p.m.) (EH) SOPHIE SCHOLL: THE FINAL DAYS (Germany) It’s easy to see why German filmmakers keep resurrecting the story of Sophie Scholl, a leader of one of the few pockets of student resistance to the Third Reich. But though Marc Rothemund brings long-buried evidence to his re-enactment of Scholl’s last days in prison, his plodding drama, marginally enlivened by fine performances from Julia Jentsch as Sophie and Alexander Held as her interrogator, adds little to what we already know about the forces that shaped this devout young Christian. (ArcLight 14, Fri., Nov. 4, 7 p.m.; Sat., Nov. 5, 3:15 p.m.) (Ella Taylor) *AFTER INNOCENCE (USA) Sometimes “blind” justice may be too blind for its own good, according to Jessica Sanders’ angry and unsettling portrait of seven wrongfully imprisoned men whose convictions were overturned by DNA evidence. Some of Sanders’ subjects nevertheless remain behind bars for years, mired in red tape and the self-serving efforts of local authorities to keep them there. All Sanders’ subjects discover that exoneration is just the beginning of a long and winding road to freedom in a society where the guilty make front-page news and the innocent are, too often, little more than an afterthought. (ArcLight 13, Fri., Nov. 4, 7:15 p.m.; ArcLight 12, Sun., Nov. 6, 12:45 p.m.) (Scott Foundas) THE BIG WHITE (USA) It’s probably apt that this Fargo rip-off — featuring Robin Williams as a desperate man caught up in a grisly insurance fraud scheme — is set in an icy Alaskan outpost, because all director Mark Mylod’s film does is aimlessly slip and slide. The clammy eccentricity on display — Giovanni Ribisi’s nervy claims adjuster, Tim Blake Nelson’s pussycat kidnapper and Holly Hunter’s Tourette’s-afflicted wife — is like a wet blanket, while Colin Friesen’s lazy screenplay has all the wit of a slushball. March of the Penguins was funnier and edgier. (ArcLight 13, Fri., Nov. 4, 9:45 p.m.) (Robert Abele) IN BED (Chile/Germany) Two strangers have sex and talk, talk, talk in this broadly familiar Chilean quickie, set entirely in a motel bedroom. The film is less pretentious than 9 Songs but — despite the heat — not nearly as cathartic as Before Sunrise. (Imagine if Jesse and Celine had screwed on the train and then turned out to be really vapid people.) In Bed works best as a study of two body textures, despite a contrived eleventh-hour twist clearly meant to push it beyond intellectualized softcore. (ArcLight 14, Fri., Nov. 4, 9:45 p.m.; ArcLight 10, Sat., Nov. 5, 2:30 p.m.) (Ben Kenigsberg) 06/05 (Netherlands) Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered in November, 2004, in retaliation against his short film Submission, a coarse condemnation of the misogyny inherent in Islamic fundamentalism. There may be an emotional imperative to look kindly upon van Gogh’s last completed feature, but 06/05 is simply dreadful, seizing on the death of Pim Fortuyn — the right-wing politician who shared van Gogh’s anti-immigration views and, ultimately, his same terrible fate — as the excuse for a glib speculative thriller. (ArcLight 11, Fri., Nov. 4, 10 p.m.; ArcLight 14, Sun., Nov. 6, 1 p.m.) (Jessica Winter) *BURNING MAN: BEYOND BLACK ROCK (USA) For one week annually, a desert lake bed becomes Nevada’s fifth-biggest city as 30,000 artists and citizens hoist their freak-flag at the Burning Man festival. Following several artists as they build odd installations and massive live-in artworks, this documentary is a stirring, hilarious and wise account of smart, witty misfits yearning for release from “the default world” and expending inordinate amounts of creativity and ingenuity to do so. If you’ve ever dismissed Burning Man as a gathering of the unwashed and unemployed, this movie may inspire you to show up next time. (ArcLight 10, Fri., Nov. 4, 10 p.m.; ArcLight 12, Sat., Nov. 5, 3:30 p.m.) (John Patterson) *WRONG SIDE UP (Czech Republic) Woe to be Peter, a morose, Keatonesque Prague airport worker who hasn’t yet gotten over his ex-girlfriend. But whoa to be Peter, whose side job is getting paid by his neighbors to watch them have sex. Adapting his play Tales of Common Insanity, writer-director Petr Zelenka proves himself a small-scale maestro of eccentric humanism. Following the droll adventures of Peter and his father, a former narrator for Communist-era newsreels, the expertly conceived Wrong Side Up bubbles over with warmth and peculiarity. Zelenka’s doing something unique for the Czech Republic, and deserves more credit than he’s usually given for it. (ArcLight 13, Sat., Nov. 5, 6 p.m.; Sun., Nov. 6, 3:15 p.m.) (Mark Peranson) *ANTIBODIES (Germany) A vicious killer of children has been apprehended in Berlin and at first that’s good news for Michael Martens (Wotan Wilke Möhring), a rural farmer and constable haunted by the unsolved murder of a local girl. Yet, the killer (a very creepy André Hennicke) says he didn’t do that particular killing but witnessed who did, and soon manipulates Martens into an unnerving game of cat-and-mouse. There are plot twists aplenty in this thriller from writer-director Christian Alvart, but what makes the film so riveting is Möhring’s moving portrait of a deeply religious, upright man coming face to face with his own darker instincts. The ending alone should inspire some lively walk-to-the-lobby conversation. (ArcLight 13, Sat., Nov. 5, 8:45 p.m.; Mon., Nov. 7, 12:30 p.m.) (Chuck Wilson) SCREAMING MASTERPIECE (Iceland) If your knowledge of Iceland’s trendy music scene is limited to Sigur Rós and Björk, Ari Alexander Ergis Magnússon’s documentary will illuminate the country’s diverse sounds. Unfortunately, because the film crams in so many unheralded bands — everything from rap-rock combos to an all-keyboard outfit — very few of them linger onscreen long enough to make much of an impact. You end up wishing Magnússon had focused more on Iceland’s two flagship artists, whose brief, dynamic live performances are easily the highlight. (ArcLight 14, Sat., Nov. 5, 9 p.m.; ArcLight 11, Sun., Nov. 6, 3:45 p.m.) (Tim Grierson) THE GIGOLOS (U.K.) Co-writer-director Richard Bracewell swathes his portrait of London’s male-escort world in seductive, saxophone-soaked atmosphere, but what he really needs is a sense of humor about his blank, self-obsessed characters. Sacha and his “valet” Trevor move in the twilight world of Versace and aging Grand Dames, while Bracewell insists we take their pouting ennui and lonely pangs seriously. No can do. (ArcLight 14, Sun., Nov. 6, 6:30 p.m.; ArcLight 14, Mon., Nov. 7, 4:15 p.m.) (Paul Malcolm) THE WEDDING PARTY (Germany) It’s not quite the Alamo, but there’s a standoff taking place at a fancy country wedding. The groom’s boorish father has refused to pay for the dinner for 15 that he himself ruined, and so, quite sensibly, the innkeeper has taken the bride and her new mother-in-law as human collateral. While he caps the film with an involving action finale — a flurry of accidental shootings — director Dominique Deruddere’s approach is way too serious to take full comic advantage of such an absurd premise. (ArcLight 11, Sun., Nov. 6, 9 p.m.; ArcLight 12, Mon., Nov. 7, 3:45 p.m.) (CW) THE SUSPECT (Japan) This fourth feature spinoff from the Japanese TV series Bayside Shakedown is an oddly suspense-free police procedural. It gets off to a good, fast start as a tough cop is elaborately framed so as to force him to drop a case, then subsides into lump-in-the-throat hero worship. Director Ryoichi Kimizuka seems to understand the problem: As the accused cop, Toshiro Yanagiba pushes the stoic modern-day samurai act way too far, but just when you start wishing you could slap him, someone does. (ArcLight 14, Sun., Nov. 6, 9:15 p.m.; ArcLight 10, Mon., Nov. 7, noon) (David Chute) *7 VIRGINS (Spain) On 48-hour leave from a Seville reform school, 16-year-old Tano (Juan Jose Ballesta) connects up with his best buddy and they set off to do what street kids in European movies so often do: goof on girls, tussle with rival street gangs and deride the “chumps” who work real jobs. There’s nothing new here, but that shouldn’t distract from director Alberto Rodriguez’s fluid visual style or his deep feeling for the lightning-fast mood shifts that govern a teenager’s day. Tano and his friends keep moving, trying to outrace, as if by instinct, the soul-shifting disappointments that all too often turn sweet boys into mean men. (ArcLight 12, Sun., Nov. 6, 9:30 p.m.; ArcLight 10, Tues., Nov. 8, 4:15 p.m.) (CW) FATELESS (Germany/Hungary/U.K.) A disaffected Hungarian teenager (Marcell Nagy) endures Buchenwald but further loses his sense of identity in this intermittently effective Holocaust film, adapted by Nobel laureate Imre Kertész from his own novel and directed by cinematographer Lajos Koltai. The depiction of Jews as active participants in their survival provides a counterpoint to The Pianist’s portrait of a man buffeted by circumstance, although the theme’s inherent power is often diluted by sepia visuals, prettified snowfalls and composer Ennio Morricone’s jaunty melodic uplift. (ArcLight 12, Mon., Nov. 7, 6:45 p.m.; Wed., Nov. 9, 12:30 p.m.) (BK) *C.R.A.Z.Y. (Canada) An ensemble of deft performances and a kick-ass soundtrack (including Charles Aznavour, Patsy Cline, Pink Floyd and David Bowie) bring vivid life to co-writer-director Jean-Marc Vallée’s coming-of-age/coming-out tale. Born in Quebec on Christmas Day 1960, Zachary begins a search for self that carries him from the narrow confines of his working-class French-Canadian family to Israel’s gay night-club scene and back again. Vallée stirs a few daydreams and visions into the ordinary joys and heartaches that drive the film, edging his sharp eye for period detail with a touch of the fantastic. (ArcLight 14, Mon., Nov. 7, 7 p.m.; ArcLight 11, Tues., Nov. 8, 3:30 p.m.) (PM) *FUCK (USA) Profound and joyously silly at the same time, this documentary about our most potent secular blasphemy comes at its subject from every angle: its awesome power to offend the listener while empowering its speaker; its obscure etymological origins; its centrality to issues of free speech from Lenny Bruce to recent FCC fines; the determination of right-wingers to suppress it and of comedians to shout it from the hilltops. Witnesses from all sides are consulted ­— Pat Boone vs. Kevin Smith; Dennis Prager vs. Ice-T ­— and a mere monosyllable emerges as a heavily disputed cultural totem and taboo. (ArcLight 10, Mon., Nov. 7, 7 p.m.; Wed., Nov. 9, 4 p.m.) (JP) ADDICTION (Finland) Successful mother, wife and advertising executive Jonna (Mi Grönlund) has just one problem with her perfect life — she’s hooked on naughty softcore sex with random strangers! Sorry, guys, this isn’t a guilty-pleasure foreign-language smut film; director Minna Virtanen actually expects us to agonize over Jonna’s downward spiral from pillar of the community to desperate sex addict. The kinky stuff is jammed into the first hour; after that it’s mostly a cold shower of half-baked character drama and tsk-tsk high-mindedness. (ArcLight 13, Mon., Nov. 7, 9:15 p.m.; Tues., Nov. 8, 1 p.m.) (TG) IN MEMORY OF MY FATHER (USA) The aroma of Hollywood hipster-insider chic wafts thickly from this story of a dying, once-powerful producer who enlists one of his sons to film his last days. But Papa kicks the bucket as soon as the opening credits end and Father becomes a look at the spoiled, largely irredeemable inhabitants of Paris Hiltonville, as an impromptu wake brings out the booze, the dope and the trust-fund posse. The film switches gears near the end, swelling into a crescendo of tears and redemption that is almost effective enough to make you forget that the preceding 80 minutes have been near insufferable. Cast with a who’s who (Jeremy Sisto, Matt Keeslar, Judy Greer) of Hollywood hotties. (ArcLight 10, Mon., Nov. 7, 9:30 p.m.; Tues., Nov. 8, 1:30 p.m.) (EH) BUCKLE BROTHERS (USA) Four kids from Compton and South-Central avoid life on the streets by trying their hands at bull riding — which seems an esoteric choice of sport at first and basically still does after 75 minutes. The subjects’ optimism is remarkable, but this superficial doc cries out for more history and social context; a strand involving Jazmine, a cowgirl consistently barred from competing because of possible “gender-specific injuries,” gets a particularly limited treatment. Copious rodeo footage seems mostly like padding. (ArcLight 12, Mon., Nov. 7, 10 p.m.; Tues., Nov. 8, 12:30 p.m.) (BK) HORST BUCHHOLZ ... MEIN PAPA (Germany) There’s something almost comical about actor-director Christopher Buchholz’s futile attempt (with Sandra Hacker) to open up his famously beautiful and recalcitrant actor father shortly before his sudden death in 2003. Frail and grumpy, the senior Buchholz is appalled by introspection, which may be just as well given that his career was derailed by an unerring gift for self-destruction. The movie’s inadvertent and moving subject is the enduring bewilderment of his two grown children, who can only guess at who Dad was, and what that makes them. (ArcLight 14, Mon., Nov. 7, 10 p.m.; ArcLight 14, Tues., Nov. 8, 3:30 p.m.) (ET)

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