LAFF's biggest "get" in terms of a world premiere from a name filmmaker, Richard Linklater's opening-night selection Bernie, was not screened for us before the festival; what follows is our guide to 30-something films that we were able to preview. In next week's Film section, we'll take a closer look at a few highlights from the festival's second weekend. —Karina Longworth
Reviews are by Phil Coldiron, Doug Cummings, Ernest Hardy, Aaron Hillis, Sarah LaBrie, Karina Longworth and Michael Nordine. For screening locations and times, go to lafilmfest.com.
108 Attempting to unravel the secrets around her uncle's mysterious death and even more mysterious life, documentarian Renate Costa finds herself plunged into the hidden history of Paraguay's queer community, including the intense brutality it suffered under dictator Alfredo Stroessner. It's less a matter of official obfuscation, however, than that of familial homophobia that shrouds her uncle's brief, painful life. Costa is tenacious but also repetitive; her badgering of her father, especially, is pointless to the audience long before it is to her. And though she clearly means well, her own views on the queer struggle can be incredibly naïve. Still, as a window into Paraguay's not-so-distant past — with her family's tale serving as a microcosm of the larger arch toward LGBT visibility and equality — 108 is a useful thread in the global conversation about queerness. (E.H.)
A BETTER LIFE Carlos Galindo, the undocumented Mexican father who's half this movie's center (his surly teen son being the other), is trying hard not only to support his boy materially but to show, by example, that hardship doesn't have to rob you of compassion or basic human decency. In the hands of director Chris Weitz and screenwriter Eric Eason, that means the father edges close to sainthood, in stark contrast to L.A. gang culture pulling at his son in school and on street corners. In arguing their case for tolerance and understanding of the immigrant struggle, they even extend saintly sheen to the fellow immigrant whose betrayal sets tragedy in motion. What makes the film worthwhile is the beautifully examined dynamic of the complex father-son relationship. By the tearjerker ending, you won't quibble about the film's minor flaws. (E.H.)
AN ORDINARY FAMILY An Ordinary Family is one of those well-meaning films whose core politics are laudably progressive, but whose execution is flat and unsophisticated. When Seth shows up at a family gathering with his (kind of obnoxious) boyfriend, his older brother Thomas — a man of the cloth — struggles to reconcile religion-based homophobia with his love for his queer brother. Over the course of several days, the siblings and their extended family are put through paces that juxtapose sugary family outings with teary confrontations. None of it really goes beyond surface-deep psychological examination, however, and, from the faux-ribald comments of the women in a "girls only" sit-down to the final emotional showdown between Seth and Thomas, the dialogue is largely boilerplate. (E.H.)
THE ARCANE ENCHANTER It's easy to guess one reason why LAFF guest director Guillermo del Toro — who offers an exuberant commentary on the U.K. DVD of Carl Dreyer's classic Vampyr — might be excited about presenting Pupi Avati's 1994 horror film, unreleased in the U.S. Its slow-burning gothic setup about a defrocked priest residing in a rustic castle is filmed in unusually strong atmospheric terms; every sky is stained with ominous clouds and each passing character oozes subterfuge. Avati has a gift for portentous visuals, but the film loses considerable steam when it slowly becomes clear that creaky doors and indigo twilights are pretty much the main act. The plot invokes conspiracies and the occult, but the ideas never fully materialize, the protagonist is kept at an emotional distance, and the central "mystery" is obvious long before the movie ends. What might have been commendable restraint ultimately feels like undernourished ambition. (D.C.)
GO ATTACK THE BLOCK Unlike Shaun of the Dead and the other cheekily self-aware genre mash-ups of Edgar Wright (who serves here as an executive producer), writer-director Joe Cornish's charmingly zippy debut — a funny-scary thriller about an alien invasion within a South London council tower block — wants to be taken seriously while evoking a childlike sense of marvel, or at least early-blockbuster nostalgia. (Is this the inner-city companion to Super 8?) Wryly wisecracking in a sometimes hard-to-follow Brit vernacular, a racially mixed rabble of teen delinquents redeem themselves with the nurse they've previously mugged after intergalactic beasties with glow-in-the-dark chompers come crashing down like meteorites. Classes, races and morally opposing forces must unite to survive, but the Ealingesque social satire gets forgivably whitewashed by all the techno-thumpin' frights and fantastic action. (A.H.)
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes