Thanks to my good buddy Landon, I’ll be attending the AFI Film Fest this November for the sixth consecutive year, starting (for me anyway) on Halloween. I’m often critical of this particular festival as they seem to routinely squander both their standing as the most prestigious film festival in Los Angeles (FIND’s LA Film Fest has become a joke) as well as the scheduling coup of being the last major film festival of the calendar year. They’ve made a few changes over the years to be more in lock-step with the rest of the festival circuit, namely creating a Midnight Madness forum (this year rechristened “Alt Cinema”), lowered the price of their galas to an acceptable $25 a pop and scaling back on the number of American independent films which, in my experience, are often picked over after having failed to make a splash at Sundance, SxSW and Tribeca.
But this year I really have to take my hat off to the selection committee. In essence, they’ve created a year end Whitman’s Sampler, encapsulating the best titles from Sundance, Cannes, Toronto and NYFF giving those of us on the west coast a chance to catch up with many of the international titles journalists have been going nuts over for months. In fact, I’m so pleased about the job they’ve done cherry picking titles that I’m not going to bitch that they’ve split venues between the Arclight (which has served as the festival’s one-stop-shopping center for better part of the past decade) and the Mann’s Chinese complex at Hollywood and Highland.
I’m going to try and update this on my phone during my festival downtime (wifi signal permitting) so check back for regular updates. Also I’ve included all the leftover pieces that came in the box at the bottom of the page in case anyone sees a title that they think I absolutely should make a point of seeing.
And now in the highly imitable style of Mike D’Angelo, I present.
AFI Fest October 30 – November 9
Friday October 31
Deadgirl (Marcel Sarmiento & Gadi Harel, USA): C- The appeal here is largely built around how gapingly offensive the premise is, when in actuality this is less morally appalling than it is inept at every level. Essentially this is River’s Edge reconceived as a zombie movie, with our loner protagonists inviting all their male friends to come sexually violate a re-animated corpse strapped to a gurney inside an abandoned asylum. But Sarmiento & Harel never land on the right tone, creating a situation that’s toxic to begin with (the two leads seem to have modeled their performances after 1950’s greasers film with a little Dylan & Eric thrown in for flavor) and descending from there, never fully selling its own premise from a situational or character standpoint. As a treatise on sexual politics it lags behind even this past winter’s forgettable Teeth and while it tows the line of Cronenbergian body violation, it ultimately lacks the conviction (or perhaps the special effects budget) to really go where sick young men’s minds will take things.
Saturday Nov 1
Revanche (Götz Spielmann, Austria): B+ Boy is this a hard film to qualify. From a strictly plot standpoint (and this most assuredly is not a film whose strength is derived from its plot) it’s essentially a Coen Brother’ special, with a get-rich scheme that’s destined to go horrifically and the aftermath of which can only lead to more bloodshed (I don’t speak German but even I can deduce what the title means). And the thing is, at no point will you be really surprised where the film arrives as everything is telegraphed by the 50-minute mark. No, the real intangible here is how fully lived in and emotionally sound every choice in the film is and how the consequences of every action taken are explored. In a perverse way it almost reminds me of Crash where we have a bunch of people bumping against one another through sheer contrivance but instead of knee-jerk histrionics and manufactured drama we have desperate people slowly coming to terms with the world they’ve created and their helplessness at escaping it. I’m really failing to convey the film’s loveliness but I take comfort that Mike D’Angelo more or less flailed about as well, although his enthusiasm for the film was enough to get me in the theater. If I can accomplish that as well then mission accomplished.
Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, USA): B Another bullocks to the plot film, great. I wasn’t a fan of Reichardt’s Old Joy which was a little too minimalist for me. This at least has the benefit of external conflict even if it moves to the same aimless rhythms of the earlier film. Having familiarized myself with the premise going in, I was relieved to discover it’s not the exercise in miserablism I’d feared would be, in large part due to Michelle Williams defiantly pragmatic performance and an understated gem of a turn by stunt coordinator turned “where the hell did *he* come from?” character actor Wally Dalton as a sympathetic security guard. It’s also worth noting that as a lifelong dog owner there’s probably no way I wasn’t going to tear up at that ending but that shouldn’t take anything away from the long slow build that earns the moment.
Che (Steven Soderbergh, France/Spain): B
Sunday Nov 2
The Class (Laurent Cantet, France): A
Hunger (Steve McQueen, UK): B
Monday Nov 3
Time Crimes (Nacho Vigalondo, Spain): C+
Tuesday Nov 4
I didn't end up seeing anything. Mid-fest break required as the night's would get much longer and booze-fueled from here on out.
Wednesday Nov 5
Before the Fall (F Javier Gutiérrez, Spain): C-
Thursday Nov 6
Idiots and Angels (Bill Plympton, USA): B-
Two Lovers (James Gray, USA): A
The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, USA): B
Friday Nov 7
Sugar (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, USA): B+
Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, Israel/France/Germany): C-
Afterschool (Antonio Campos, USA): D+ This once announces itself early and often: a theme spending 2 hours in search of a film. Essentially, in case you didn’t know, a generation raised on internet porn and Al Quaeda beheading videos is likely to grow up disaffected and emotionally disconnected from genuine human experience becoming little glass-eyed monsters who regard the death of a couple classmates with the same level of muted interest as hallways slap fight or a viral video of a kitty playing the piano. Campos, who at 24 is bold enough to create a film around this idea, complete with Youtube-ready off-center compositions while at the same time is just immature enough to not realize he’s shot his load in the first 10 minutes and proceeds to beat the same drum with little variance. The film’s payoff is so poorly telegraphed I simply assumed it was accepted fact only to be confronted with shock-cut flashbacks in the closing moments. The film has its fans (or rather one very vocal one) but frankly I’d be amazed if it ever escapes the festival circuit.
Saturday Nov 8
Playing Columbine (Danny Ledonne, USA): C+ The missing element here is critical distance. The title of the film refers to the low-tech computer game Super Columbine Massacre RPG! that was released onto the net a few years ago, serving to comment upon (or exploit depending upon your politics) the 1999 school shooting and the ensuing controversy that predictably followed it. Ledonne chronicles the firestorm of victims rights advocates and media pundits that attacked the game for turning tragedy into entertainment (we see brief glimpses of the game where, for example, you receive certain point values for shooting “Preppy Girl” or lighting propane tanks on fire) as well as the weak-willed gaming establishment that buckled to pressure to bury the game and yank it from media arts conventions. Of even more interest, the film draws the corollary between the game and other “too soon” works such as United 93 and games about the Catholic Church scandals and Darfur, making the case that experiencing these events in a first-person, user-controlled medium is a perfectly acceptable form of processing grief. So what’s the problem? Ledonne also happens to be the creator of the game itself, meaning the film often undermines its own point in failing to truly hold its subject’s feet to the fire regarding his motives. The ratio of subjects who praise Ledonne versus those who indict him is about 5 to 1, meaning the film essentially serves as a self-generated pat on the back to its filmmaker. We’re constantly aware of the artist’s motives and as such everything about the film is rendered suspect.
Adam Resurrected (Paul Schrader, Germany/Israel/USA): C-
Sunday Nov 9
As predicted I hit a wall on the last day of the festival. Nothing left scheduled that day appealed to me and the tickets to the world premiere of Defiance that had been promised to me were withheld until the last possible moment, making it impossible for me to attend. I also flaked out on a screening of Milk that I'm now regretting. Such is life...
Not Getting to This Time Around
Achilles and the Tortoise
Agile, Mobile, Hostile: A Year with Andre Williams
Alone in Four Walls
A Boyfriend for My Wife
The Desert Within
Dim Sum Funeral
Finally, Lillian and Dan
Gachi Boy Wrestling With a Memory
Gogol Bordello Non-Stop
A Good Day to be Black & Sexy
The Good, the Bad & the Weird
The Headless Woman
Hi My Name is Ryan
The Higher Force
I’m Gonna Explode
The Juche Idea
Kassim the Dream
Last Chance Harvey^
The Last Days of Shishmaref
A Necessary Death
Not Quite Hollywood
Of All the Things
Patrik, Age 1.5
Pindorama – The True Story of the Seven Dwarves
A Quiet Little Marriage
The Rest of the Night
Shakespeare and Victor Hugo’s Intimacies
Three Blind Mice
Truth in 24
Until the Light Takes Us
Waiting for Sancho
The World We Want
@ Already Seen