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No Laffing Matter 

Los Angeles Film Festival finally comes of age

Wednesday, Jun 20 2007
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{mosimage} Once upon a time, Film Independent executive director Dawn Hudson never fails to remind me, I wrote a scathing assessment of the Los Angeles Film Festival in which I said (among other things) that if a great hole opened up in the earth and consumed the festival entire, L.A. moviegoers would be none the worse for it. That was 2001, the seventh year for LAFF and its first under the aegis of Film Independent (then called the Independent Feature Project/West). If you went back and looked at the list of films screened that year, you’d find that most of them were (quite deservedly) never seen or heard from again.

A half decade later, no great sinkholes have plagued LAFF, although the 2007 lineup does include a sidebar of L.A.-centric disaster movies, as well as the world premiere of Transformers — the latest work by a director, Michael Bay, with a seemingly insatiable appetite for destruction. Meanwhile, I have been forced — quite happily — to swallow my words. In the space of six short years, what was once just another undistinguished voice in the local cacophony of film festivals and screening series has undergone an extreme makeover to rival those of Bay’s titular anthropomorphic robots, emerging as our most intelligent and ambitiously programmed — indeed, our most essential — annual film event. It’s also the one with the greatest sense of connection to the city itself.

The move last year to Westwood Village and its classic, single-screen movie palaces gave LAFF a feeling of permanence and a warm, communal atmosphere all too rarely encountered in these parts. (People were actually walking from theater to theater!) This year, LAFF returns there, with the addition of the Westside Pavilion’s new Landmark theater and the Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Theater as primary venues, plus a lineup that once again exemplifies the commitment of festival director Rich Raddon and programming director Rachel Rosen to challenging and expanding the audience’s horizons.

While LAFF’s eagerness to compete with Sundance, Toronto and other “discovery” festivals is evident in the presence of 14 world-premiere titles in the narrative and documentary competition sections, the 2007 selection is fleshed out by some of the best movies to have surfaced during the past year on the international festival circuit, plus a series of revival and retrospective programs devoted to films and filmmakers from the past in need of rediscovery. There are few places where one can see Transformers, vanguard new films from Spain, Thailand and Indonesia, plus Paul Mazursky’s 1974 human-feline road-trip movie Harry and Tonto all under the same roof, but LAFF is one of them. If some of those choices seem incongruous for a festival produced by an organization called Film Independent, it’s worth remembering that there is no shortage of independently financed films today that are veritable facsimiles of the worst studio-produced dreck, while there are filmmakers working at the studios (like Clint Eastwood, who will receive LAFF’s annual Spirit of Independence award on June 28) who are as iconoclastic as they come. So LAFF stands as a celebration of independent visions, from wherever in the world they may hail. Doubtless, you will love some and hate others. With any luck, they will spark conversations that will spill out of the cinemas and into the Westwood night.

LAFF 2007, From A to Y

Prisons, Punks and Don Quixote: Our critics’ guide to the very best of LAFF


MUSIC VIDEOS

{mosimage}In MTV’s halcyon days, before pimped rides, real worlds and big-budget awards shows, the videos they programmed often gleamed with a joyful ineptitude. Music-clip formula was far on the horizon, and naiveté was conjoined with a gleeful raiding of experimental-film history and art-student precocity. Though the “ineptitude” and “naiveté” showcased in the Los Angeles Film Festival’s “Eclectic Mix” programs are more tongue-in-cheek and coolly studied, what these more than three dozen music shorts have in common is a palpable sense of individuality and indifference to the reigning templates of expression. Highlights include Fluorescent Hill’s surreal, acid-trippy “12 Days of Christmas” for the band Taking Back Sunday, in which a gift-giver’s obsession with fowl is drolly illustrated, and then punctuated with non sequitur riffs on Danny Bonaduce; Jon Watts’ crinkly, weathered homage to silent movies and the horror genre in his clip “Wolf Like Me” for indie darlings TV on the Radio; and Daniel Levi’s work on Plan B’s “No Good,” a claymation and stop-motion nod to Peter Gabriel’s classic “Sledgehammer” video. Big-name directors like Joseph Kahn, Roman Coppola and Michel Gondry all have new work here, as does Melodie McDaniel, who was the next big thing a few years ago (she directed Madonna’s “Secret” video) before vanishing. What’s especially refreshing are the representations of black folk: Asif Mian’s politically charged “Trilogy” for the Roots; the aforementioned TV on the Radio; the spoofing of Dick Cheney in Jurassic 5’s “Work It Out”; and two clips from Canadian rapper k-os, who, in “ElectriK Heat: The Seekwill,” is a skater boy/bike dude roaming through suburbia as b-boying and deejaying take place around him, while in “Sunday Morning,” Afro-punks, white and black hipsters, and ghetto prom queens all gyrate to the same pounding beat.

Eclectic Mix 1” screens Sun., June 24, 1 p.m., and Thurs., June 28, 7:30 p.m., at the Italian Cultural Institute. “Eclectic Mix 2” screens Sat., June 23, 12:45 p.m., at Landmark’s Regent and Sun., July 1, 3 p.m., at the Italian Cultural Institute. “Turn Into: The Music Videos of Patrick Daughters”screens Sun., June 24, 3:30 p.m., at the Italian Cultural Institute and Mon., June 25, 9:45 p.m., at the Landmark.

—Ernest Hardy
click to flip through (6) Prison Town, USA (L.A. FILM FESTIVAL)
  • Prison Town, USA (L.A. FILM FESTIVAL)
 

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LARRY FESSENDEN X 3

{mosimage}If this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival has an unofficial poster boy, it’s the New York–based writer-director Larry Fessenden, who may not be a household name (even in houses with a Fangoria subscription), but who is nevertheless the most gifted American horror auteur to emerge since the g(l)ory days of John Carpenter and George Romero. Fessenden’s specialty lies in putting a highly contemporary and sociopolitical spin on the most immortal horror-fantasy myths: In No Telling (1991), he used the architecture of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to comment on animal testing and the morality of science; in the Independent Spirit Award–winning Habit (1997), vampirism functioned as a metaphor for the alienation of modern life in the big city; and in Wendigo (2001), the eponymous creature was a werewolflike Native American spirit, but the more destructive force was the clash between civilized man and his primal, animalistic nature. Much the same holds true for Fessenden’s latest, The Last Winter, in which the employees of a U.S. oil company embark on a top-secret Alaskan drilling project that will bring “energy independence” to the American people while wreaking irreparable havoc on the delicate environment of the Arctic tundra. Until, that is, some unseen, primordial force bubbles up from the ground along with the black gold, infecting everyone and everything with which it comes into contact. Could it be the spirit of the Wendigo come back to haunt again? Perhaps. But as usual in a Fessenden film, in The Last Winter mankind is its own worst enemy. Call it the first green horror picture — punctuated by ample doses of red. In between directing his own films and acting in others (recently, he could be seen sucker-punching Bill Murray in a memorable scene from Broken Flowers), Fessenden has amassed a prolific career as an indie-film producer, including River of Grass (the 1994 debut feature of Old Joy director Kelly Reichardt) and two new works that screen alongside The Last Winter in LAFF. In the first, writer-director Ilya Chaiken’s sensitively drawn Liberty Kid, two food-service workers at New York’s Liberty Island — fast-talking hustler Tico (Kareem Savinon) and wide-eyed dreamer Derrick (Al Thompson) — find the job opportunities scarce after they’re laid off in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Recruiters of both the military and criminal-life variety soon appear, as the story ventures into that familiar territory of urban youths waylaid by ghetto realities. The strong performances and Chaiken’s vivid NYC locations, however, lend the film unexpected resonance. Old Joy reconceived as a horror movie is the simplest way to describe Trigger Man, the stunning sophomore feature by 26-year-old writer-director Ti West, whose Fessenden-produced vampire-bat epic The Roost earned a brief local release back in 2005. Working from the purportedly true story of three buddies on a Delaware hunting trip attacked by an unseen sniper, West fashions an uncommonly naturalistic terror tale in which the emphasis on landscape and the gradual passage of time have less to do with cut-and-run splatter-cinema hallmarks like Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave than with the work of experimental filmmakers like Michael Snow and Chantal Akerman. Rife with intentional echoes of the 9/11 attacks and unintentional ones of the Virginia Tech shootings, Trigger Man denies its audience conventional narrative satisfactions while creating an almost unbearable atmosphere of voyeurism and random violence, right up to a final scene that teases us with resolution only to devolve into yet another enigma. Who’s gunning whom in Trigger Man? The point is that it scarcely matters in a world where everyday life is a deadly contact sport.

The Last Winter screens Fri., June 22, at 9:30 p.m. at the Majestic Crest and Sun., June 24, at 2 p.m. at the Mann Festival; Liberty Kid screens Sat., June 23, at 7:45 p.m. at the Landmark Regent and Mon., June 25, at 7:30 p.m. at the Landmark. Trigger Man screens Mon., June 25, at 10 p.m. at the Landmark Regent and Tues., June 26, at 7:30 p.m. at the Landmark.

—Scott Foundas

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MOVIES & MORE

{mosimage}When the trailblazing “new Hollywood cinema” of the 1970s is nostalgically evoked, two names too infrequently mentioned in the hallowed company of Altman, Cassavetes, Rafelson, et al. are those of Paul Mazursky and Ulu Grosbard. This year, the Los Angeles Film Festival sets about correcting that oversight in a sidebar program titled “Movies & More,” the “more” referring to the fact that all films in the series will be preceded or followed by onstage conversations with their makers. Chances are you’ve at least heard of Mazursky, if not for his recurring appearances on Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Sopranos, then for the fact that he weathered the grim moviemaking decade of the 1980s more successfully than most of his more lionized contemporaries, emerging with two popular hits, Moscow on the Hudson (1984) and Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986). Mazursky’s heyday, though, was the ’70s, during which he presided over a series of indelible tragicomedies (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice [actually 1969], Blume in Love, An Unmarried Woman) about modern American marriage and the pursuit of something like happiness. In 1974, Mazursky took time out for a love story of a different sort, this one between an elderly widower (Art Carney, in his Oscar-winning role) and his trusty feline companion, who, upon being evicted from their New York apartment, take to the highways, destination unknown. The movie is called Harry and Tonto, and from an era rich with road movies (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Vanishing Point), it is one of the most lyrical and picaresque, as man and beast encounter a succession of relatives and eccentric strangers (played by the likes of Ellen Burstyn, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Chief Dan George) who form a mosaic of hopeful and bottomed-out possibilities.

Now to the more pressing question: Ulu who? A Belgian-born former diamond cutter whose Broadway credits far outnumber his film ones, Grosbard was nevertheless responsible for one of the best and least-heralded American movies of the decade: 1978’s Straight Time. In probably his greatest, least mannered performance, Dustin Hoffman stars as a recently paroled petty thief who flirts briefly with the idea of living legit, only to quickly fall back into old habits. Adapted from the novel No Beast So Fierce by real-life ex-con Edward Bunker, Straight Time sees the criminal life less as a choice than as a predisposition, and it bristles with the terse street poetry and solemn philosophizing associated with the later films of Michael Mann (who worked uncredited on the script). Also on tap, an ultrarare revival of Jospeh Sargent’s The Man (1972), which was originally produced for television but released to theaters instead and returns to the big screen at what could hardly seem a more prescient moment: It stars James Earl Jones as the first black president of these United States.

The Man screens Fri., June 22, at 9:30 p.m. at the Billy Wilder Theater; Straight Time screens Sat., June 23, at 6:30 p.m. at the Billy Wilder Theater; Harry and Tonto screens Fri., June 29, at 8:30 p.m. at the Billy Wilder Theater.

—Scott Foundas

THE FILMS THAT GOT AWAY

{mosimage}I’d like to blame the recall election and the fervor of the Bush vs. Kerry campaign for the fact that two provocative and artfully made political films from 2003 and 2004 have never before screened in Los Angeles. It seems like new documentaries on hot-button issues were opening every week back then, so perhaps there simply wasn’t room for a chamber drama about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact or an operatic account of the Achille Lauro hijacking. More likely, distributors didn’t see a buck to be made. Whatever the reason, this situation is finally being corrected by the Los Angeles Film Festival, which has again partnered with the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the UCLA Film and Television Archive to give two long-undistributed films — Eric Rohmer’s Triple Agent and Penny Woolcock’s The Death of Klinghoffer — their belated local premieres. Triple Agent has many of Rohmer’s hallmarks: beautiful Continental women, lots of intellectual banter and, of course, even more that’s left unsaid. But like only a few of his films (L’Anglaise et le Duc, La Marquise d’O), it’s also a period piece — complete with Pathé newsreel footage — set in Paris during the lead-up to WWII. One can see the influence of Notorious on Rohmer (who wrote an early book about Hitchcock) in this tale of love and espionage shot in the old-style, full-frame aspect ratio. Triple Agent boasts Nazis, sustained suspense and a sudden, twist ending, all handled in Rohmer’s slow, transparent, seemingly effortless style (no memorable tracking shots here). Woolcock’s film adaptation of John Adams’ 1991 opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, also has effortless moments in its mixture of oratorio and cinema. Klinghoffer has often been called a “CNN opera,” and indeed Woolcock uses news-style editing and hand-held cameras to make this stagy work seem surprisingly natural onscreen. Unfortunately, her grasp of politics is shakier than her camera. She hijacks Adams’ controversial work and makes it unambiguously (and often naively) pro-Palestinian. What could have been a watershed for filmed opera is instead an ambitious, if often cringe-inducing, curiosity.

The Death of Klinghoffer screens Mon., June 25, 9:30 p.m., at the Billy Wilder Theater. Triple Agent screens Tues., June 26, 7:30 p.m., at the Billy Wilder Theater.

–James C.Taylor


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INTERNATIONAL SPOTLIGHT: ROMANIA

Though critics cry “New Wave” all too easily when a national cinema starts popping up at all the right film festivals, there’s definitely something in the water when it comes to contemporary Romanian film. And I’m not just talking about Cristian Mungiu’s lauded abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which carried off the Palme D’Or at Cannes last month and was due to play the Los Angeles Film Festival until it was pulled by its distributor. From Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu to Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest, Romania is taking a sardonic yet loving ax to its autocratic past and chaotic present. In LAFF’s spotlight on Romanian film, Radu Muntean’s excellent The Paper Will Be Blue plays like a prequel to 12:08, which focused on a provincial TV talk show host 16 years after the revolution, trying to get a bead on what happened in his town the day Ceausescu was ousted. Muntean takes us back to the night of the revolution itself, December 22, 1989, and follows a militia unit assigned to peace-keeping duties on the anarchic streets of Bucharest as it tries to track down a conscript who’s defected. A deft impassive comedy laced with looming tragedy, the movie addresses both the confusion of cataclysmic social change and its consequences for innocent lives. Less successful is Cristian Nemescu’s 45-minute Marina From P7, a drama about a boy in love with a hooker on the mean streets of Bucharest that takes its stylistic cues from Italian neo-realism and methodically converts them into cliché. Better to stick with the accompanying short, The Tube With a Hat, a delightful 23-minute piece about a father trying to get the ancient family TV fixed for his stolid little boy, which suggests the benefits of capitalism haven’t quite made it to Romania.

The Paper Will Be Blue screens Sun., June 24, 4:45 p.m. at The Landmark & Wed., June 27, 9:45 p.m., at the Italian Cultural Center. Marilena From P7 and The Tube With a Hat screens Sat., June 30, 10 p.m., & Sun., July 1, 5:15 p.m., at the Italian Cultural Institute.

–EllaTaylor

L.A. DESTROYS ITSELF

“This used to be a helluva town,” says Lloyd Nolan of the broken down palace that is Los Angeles at the end of 1974’s Earthquake. If the line doesn’t resonate quite like the parting words of that year’s other, more subtly apocalyptic L.A. story — Chinatown — it’s still a perfect capper to a movie that (pace Thom Andersen) smirks at its host city through crocodile tears: glittering environs ground down so as to remind us of their glory. A few toppled landmarks and — voilà — instant nostalgia! Earthquake is probably the most fatuous entry in the Los Angeles Film Festival’s program of homegrown disaster movies. For an example of a movie that’s funny on purpose, look no further than Thom Eberhart’s 1984 Night of the Comet, which kicks the series off with a free outdoor screening. This bent horror-comedy confection centers on two Valley-gal sisters (Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney) who survive an extinction-level event only to be beset by some stray irradiated zombies in its aftermath. Spunky and resourceful, the big-haired pair are, like, totally legend, until their hormones kick in and they redirect their attentions toward hooking up with the last man in Los Angeles (inevitably played by Robert Beltran). A more earnest strain of end-of-days anxiety runs through Steve de Jarnatt’s Miracle Mile, a lost 1988 gem that suggests Fail-Safe as told from the ground up. A pre-ER Anthony Edwards stars as a regular guy who turns Chicken Little after getting his lines crossed during a pay-phone call; newly convinced that there are missiles en route, he tries to rally the folks around him — including winsome new girlfriend Mare Winningham — into getting the hell out of town. The film works its frighteningly fixed perspective (it sets down in Johnnie’s Coffee Shop on Fairfax and refuses to leave) and near-real-time pacing for maximum anxiety. Moreover, it tingles with a sense of impending loss for its eccentric yet palpably human characters rarely attempted by glib all-star destruction derbies à la Earthquake.

Night of the Comet screens Sat., June 23, 8:30 p.m., at the Festival Promenade on Broxton; Escape From L.A. screens Sun., June 24, 9:30 p.m., at the Billy Wilder Theatre; Earthquake screens Sat., June 30, 7:30 p.m., at the UCLA James Bridges Theatre; Them! screens Sun., July 1, noon, at the Billy Wilder Theatre; Miracle Mile screens Sun., July 1, 7:30 p.m., at the Italian Cultural Institute.

—Adam Nayman

NEW CROWNED HOPE

{mosimage}When the Los Angeles–based opera director Peter Sellars accepted the Austrian government’s invitation to stage a massive arts festival in honor of Mozart’s 250th birthday, he commissioned an ambitious series of films for the occasion, each to be made by a director from the developing world. The results now come to L.A., making for one of the undeniable highlights of this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival. At first glance, these six features and one short, all said to be inspired by ideas and emotional themes from Mozart’s final major works (the operas The Magic Flute and La Clemenza di Tito, and the unfinished Requiem Mass), could hardly bear less connection to the composer, or one another. Upon closer scrutiny, they reveal surprising bonds, particularly in their recurring notions of war and remembrance, mourning and forgiveness, and the basic human yearning for the company of others. Those sentiments are especially pronounced in West African director Mahmat-Saleh Haroun’s stark and powerful Dry Season, which follows a vindictive teenager from Chad’s rugged countryside to the bustling capital of N’Djamena as he searches for the man who killed his father in that nation’s decades-long civil war. A different armed conflict — the 1930s Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia — rages far from the characters in Paz Encina’s Paraguayan Hammock, in which an elderly couple living in a remote jungle go about their daily chores while pondering the fate of their soldier son. Little of note happens in Encina’s debut feature, and yet we are left with an indelible sense of these quiet, ordinary people living at the other end of the world. The appeal of the New Crowned Hope films, however, is hardly ethnographic or cheaply exotic. The great Malaysian filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone would be an achingly beautiful dream of human togetherness no matter where in the world it were set. Likewise, though the young director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century ostensibly takes place in its maker’s native Thailand, its true setting is the same gloriously knotty head space occupied by Weerasethakul’s two earlier features, Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady. Like those movies, Syndromes starts out along one relatively straight narrative path, then doubles back on itself, giving the impression of two asymmetrical half movies — one past, one present; one rural, one urban — regarding each other through a wonderfully distorted looking glass. Of course, a Mozart-inspired film series would be nothing if it didn’t offer audiences something to sing about. Hence, there’s Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi’s tragicomic musical Half Moon, in which a famed Kurdish musician gets the old band back together — in this case, his 10 sons and a banished female singer — and embarks on a perilous journey toward a concert booking in newly “liberated” Iraq. Best of all is Indonesian director Garin Nugroho’s scintillating Opera Jawa, which draws upon nearly every known form of art and storytelling — painting, dance, puppetry, song, sculpture — to tell the tale of four dancers whose lives parallel the events in an ancient Javanese myth they once performed together. Sung through, danced by dancers with majestically malleable bodies and sporting an eye-popping production design courtesy of several Indonesian installation artists, Opera Jawa is that rare film that can accurately be said to be unlike anything you have ever seen or heard (unless you are Javanese). There is indeed “hope” in these movies — not only for the world at large, but for the future of film itself.

Opera Jawa screens Sun., June 24, 1 p.m., at the Billy Wilder Theatre; Half Moon screens Sun., June 24, 4 p.m., at the Billy Wilder Theatre and Wed., June 27, 2:15 p.m., at the Italian Cultural Institute; Syndromes and a Century screens Sun., June 24, 7 p.m., at the Billy Wilder Theatre and Tues., June 26, 9:45 p.m., at The Landmark; I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone screens Mon., June 25, 7 p.m., at the Billy Wilder Theatre and Tues., June 26, 4:30 p.m., at the Regent; Dry Season (preceded by Meokgo and the Stickfighter) screens Fri., June 29, 6 p.m., at the Billy Wilder Theatre; Paraguayan Hammock screens Sun., July 1, 2:30 p.m., at the Billy Wilder Theatre.

–Scott Foundas

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