The Los Angeles Film Festival continues to be a focused progression of independent thinking though a good part of the structure contains already distributed product. “Europa Report” (wonderfully realized) had been previously picked up by Magnet and central gala “Fruitvale Station” (very much an independent) had been scooped up by The Weinstein Company from Sundance on a well-deserved pitch for an Oscar base.
The blend however between independent and mainstream sensibilities continue to percolate as filmmakers and their influences continue to shift.
“I.D.” which takes place between the well-to-do section of Mumbai as well as its slums shows a young woman trying to unravel a mystery of a male painter who dropped dead in her kitchen. The use of extreme paradox works well here as it tries to shift the reasoning of poverty and the jarring progression of something as simple as an iPhone in a world different than ours. Ultimately the resolution is expected but the organic quality with which this reluctant woman makes her journey reflects well.
“Drug War”, from international favorite Johnnie To, is a complicated mass of work but really gets into the mind of a cop vs. drug lord in terms of thinking and loyalty. It reflects very solidly with something like Michael Mann’s “Heat” because there is the necessity of becoming something you don’t want to be when coming to an end game. The specific idea of a captain having to do cocaine in order to convince other dealers of his possibilities and then having to utterly destroy his body with ice water in order to bring it back from the high is distinctly visceral. The tension builds up which explains how most of the movie is every bit as energetic as the final shootout which is one of the better gunfights in recent memory.
“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”, even though picked up by IFC Films, definitely retains its independent flavor with a story of love separated, not unlike Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” in many respects. Casey Affleck takes on a more mature grizzled function than we have seen from him before while still resonating his stark turn in “The Assassination Of Jesse James”. Rooney Mara, best known as the title character in “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” gives an understated performance as a woman drawn into the violence of her husband’s world and who still pines for him when he goes off to prison. Rooney’s portrayal is interesting since it reflects her both as a person before her titular role but also shows the impact it had on her. Ben Foster plays a local policeman she once shot by accident and his relaxation into the role is unprecedented as he is much more known for jittery characters waiting to explode. The film is a study in stillness where life goes on despite tragedy inherent.
While the LAFF/Inside Reel interaction was brief this year with a couple other indies including “The House That Jack Built” and “Boxing Day” being reserved for TV interviews, the essence of the character base continues to shine on the streets of Downtown Los Angeles.
Finding different textures of independent cinema has always been the balance of the Los Angeles Film Festival equating this in equilibrium with its studio galas that permeate the middle of summer. While genre structures do play constructive, the influx of real impact documentaries continues to intersperse notions of social consciousness within the confab.
Late night always begets horror. “Saturday Morning Massacre” takes into account the notions of those friends and a dog who find themselves in trouble that might not work out. Using the “Scooby” satire mode without truly saying the inspiration seems to suggest an idea of over-the-top comedy and some good scares moving into a more “Evil Dead” arena. Instead the inflection plays at times more psychological with “Blair Witch” and the more recent “Citadel” [SxSW 2012] considered which includes the overdone texture of feral children. While the stoner mentality (especially with the happenstance structure of ectasy thrown into the mix) has a bit of fun, the eventual dismemberment sends the tone into a slightly different realm that is in-between at best.
Doing a movie on the notion of promoting a movie (and the ego that goes along with it) plays a tad lazy. From there, the idea of making a film about a film tends to become self fulfilling if one works in the business. The resulting genre tends to know itself a little too well because one simply takes experiences from real life and applies it. Here, in the example of “Red Flag”, the director (played by the director in question) experiences a breakup right before a tour. While on tour, he is approached by a seemingly obsessed fan who he quickly has sex with. His friend, a children’s book writer (in real life as well) falls in love with said girl as the director in question shirks her. While the film does express some of the interesting verite elements possible with the 5D, it still doesn’t offset that some movies just shouldn’t be made simply because they can. While some of the psychology can ring true, the dialogue itself was improvised from an outline which points to a lack of structure hoping for lightning in a bottle.
In contrast, taking a documentary where life simply reflects the drama that comes with it can seem almost as effortless. “Drought” however wills it to be and, by contrast, wants it to be (though it is by no means the absolute truth). This examination here of families in Northeastern Mexico points to the beauty of a cowboy existence when electricity, internet and such luxuries are not givens in life. The ideas of morality and survival interplayed by myths (at many times spoken by children on their own accord) give the progression a weight, especially when the entire clans have to pack up everything on their trucks and move away from barely completed shacks when the water dries up. The animals who interplay with their lives feed into this completely. While the brutality against the horses and cows can be unrelenting at certain points, it functions as a fact of life which paints the humans simply as functional animals continuing on their way to protect their young and fight another day.
The advent of the zombie movie may have run its course but the aspect of using Cuba from the inside out as a springboard creates a slightly different dynamic. While missed at the Miami International Film Festival, the buzz “Juan Of The Dead” created points to an interesting play on politics within the movie. While the comedy functions with inherent charm and the team that Juan, a father who doesn’t want to leave his country, puts together rocks, there is a thread of dread just hanging below the surface. Whether it treads on the basis of a juicehead that is afraid of blood, a transvestite with more cahones than half the guys in the bunch or a Romeo & Juliet coupling involving Juan’s daughter that he definitely doesn’t want happening, the movie knows it balance. While the storyline itself is wobbly at best, this haphazard crew figures itself out time and again creating a strong backbone. While the ending of the film points to a more cinematic finale than eventually plays out, it is still by all means entertaining. Like “Black Lightning” [Fantasia 2010], it takes mainstream US movie tropes and does its best with their abilities to fulfill them (though the CG is comparatively primitive) but this is without a studio involved and flying under the radar (though it is uncertain whether local or government help was offered with this production). In doing the Q&A, the director, whose wife and co-producer couldn’t get her visa to come to the US from Cuba in time, expressed interesting sentiments (albeit after a couple drinks) of what specifically the film can represent.
Using this aspect of politically charged motivation, the arena progresses from Cuba to the US/Mexico border with “Reportero”, a documentary backed by PBS’ POV program series. This specific inlay focuses on the history of the newspaper “Zuma”, a below-the-border periodical which, in attacking the notions of corruption and narco trafficking through the vista of Tijuana, pulls no punches. Like “Page One”, which examined the less life-threatening but still engaging plight of The New York Times, “Reportero” understands, even in making the film, that the battle continues on. The assassination of different journalists, who exposed traffickers and their organizations lived and died by their principles, definitely shows the stakes involved. Using older news footage and interviews of journalists since killed (sometimes on VHS quality), the intensity shows an issue, especially with the recent increase in violent killings on the border, that the problem is yet without balance or solution.
Intently, this notion of identity continues with the intersection of “P-047”. Unlike a film like “Mystery” [Cannes 2012] or even some of the documentaries showcased at LAFF 2012, this narrative, built in Thailand, points to a story of ambitious people who have no idea what they want to be or where they want to go. Following the notion of a locksmith who becomes a home invader who takes nothing, the idea explores the idea of ignoring the world while still wanting to be part of it. While the disjointed structure (probably interrelating to different parts of the lead character’s mind) plays with a certain kind of focus, the only true element of the film that works is within a hospital sequence. Here, the character in question meets up with a girl committed who under lock and key, simply likes to engage in the scents of the world wherever they may be, whether from a trashcan or a dilapidated building) providing a portal of senses. The resolution points to lives changing right around the corner but one that requires an action of some sort.
Moving simply to a more promotional structure, “The History Of Future Folk” as a basis of origin story for the NY based folk duo uses some interesting ideas of sci-fi while not needing to really push the boundaries as far as effects too far. What supremely helps along the entire process (which I would think is their doing) is the great aspect of scoring which gives the progression a needed sense of pacing. What is undeniably strong is using this as an inter-cutting mechanism between a fight on a roof and a tango with the two main characters. While distinctly a homage to “True Lies” in a way, the intention of what the film shows and the way it is presented makes it stick in your mind. Not to be discounted is the marketing hook of the red bucketheads of “Future Folk” which repeat with dexterous frequency through the entire film make sure that the point is not missed.
LAFF decided also with more frequency this year to include shorts as precursors to films, especially when the subject matter proved very continuous. Four specific shorts stood out for various reasons. The best in terms of overall function because of its grand chemistry both dramatically and with bouts of humor was “92 Skybox Alonzo Mourning Rookie Card” which follows the incessant story of two brothers trying to outdo each and ruining a family gathering. Its balance works in figuring out the humor and physical timing with genuine moments of heart which is not the easiest angle to accomplish.
Both “3113” and “Thumbsnatchers From The Moon Cocoon” show a dexterity of creativity from both the CG and stop motion textures respective simply because of the ambition of what was attempted. While “Cocoon” was more done in jest closer to a music video perception of say Alice In Chains’ “I Stay Away“, “3113” was purveyed more as a teaser, hinting at a larger meaning.
“Once It’s Started, It Could Not End Otherwise” as a short, by comparison is all about mood and mixed media. While the texture of its overall tendency for narrative is unexplained, its paradoxical placement of images was intense visually and, overall, affecting.
Examining different ideas of life and politics through less than conventional methods always sparks interesting conversation. Whether through the bleak but aspirational “Drought”, the political bloodletting of “Juan Of The Dead” or the real life war of words of “Reportero”, the Los Angeles Film Festival continues to program with a texture of thought and creation.