LYT at LAFF: Some of the Best For Last

As the party winds down, and the Leblon actually seems to start seeping out of my pores (I am probably never drinking that particular spirit again, until they sponsor another film festival) I have time to muse on a few general observations before catching the last of the LAFF screenings. First, I am generally impressed with the volunteers. There was one night where they seemed clueless about which auditorium was playing which movie, but generally, they seemed to know what was where beyond their immediate sphere of responsibility. Second, I hardly recognize any of the outlets listed on the other press passes I encounter. It seems like few hometown publications are caring to cover this thing, which is a damned shame, but may also be symptomatic of the fact that many of these films previously played other festivals.

Or, to put it another way: I think I blogged this mofo more thoroughly than any other single individual. Y’all are welcome, and if I got you interested in any movies you weren’t otherwise excited about, I did an okay job.

Despicableme
 

I’m going to round up the final few as I did the previews – with individual capsules. There’s more fast food and Twilight stupidity awaiting my keypad this week, so I will be somewhat brief, but, I hope, to the point.

GOLDEN SLUMBER

Described in the catalogue as PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE meets THE FUGITIVE (more the latter than the former, but that’s not saying much), this suspense-comedy begins strongly, with goofball delivery man Aoyagi, who briefly had his 15 minutes of fame when he saved a pop diva from assault by utilizing the only judo move he knows. Invited on a fishing trip by an old friend, Aoyagi gets into the car with him, and they stop near a parade. Gradually it dawns on Aoyagi that there isn’t going to be any fishing, as his friend admits he’s been hired to set Aoyagi up as the next Lee Harvey Oswald. A couple of explosions later, and both their car and the prime minister’s nearby are destroyed. He must flee for his life while trying to prove his innocence, but the feds have footage which seemingly show him caught in the act. Reconstructive plastic surgery is a key plot point, as is a serial killer named “Kill-O,” and some other former college friends of Aoyagi’s who used to hang out together and…review fast food joints? Hey I like this guy!

For a while, the story is a bit difficult for a westerner to get into – many of the main characters look quite similar, and flashbacks are sometimes given clear visual cues but not always…thus the major characters are also seen in varying looks and outfits. And the mechanics of the plot get really convoluted, with all manner of players involved. In other festival movies, like the Iranian DOG SWEAT, this was a real issue, but GOLDEN SLUMBER’s length works in its favor; by the time you’ve gotten things reasonably straight, you’re ready, willing, and able to follow the big climax.

Even if the guy sitting next to you snores through much of the film.

FOUR LIONS

A very, very well-deserved audience-choice award-winner, FOUR LIONS is brilliantly, bitingly hilarious, in a similar manner to last year’s IN THE LOOP. Loosely inspired by a true story of Islamic terrorists who planned on ramming a US battleship with a dinghy full of explosives, only to have the dinghy sink immediately, it’s a verite-style look at a group of extremely stupid British Muslims who aspire to become suicide bombers. Barry, who looks like an English version of Sid Haig, is determined to bomb a mosque in order to inspire blowback, having previously baked a cake in the shape of the World Trade Center and left it at a synagogue on the anniversary of 9-11. Faisal, who pretends to be a woman while buying hair bleach, despite the fact that he has a thick beard and doesn’t sound feminine in any way, is trying to train crows to be suicide bombers. Hassan Malik “The Mal” is an aspiring Muslim rapper, with lyrics like (imagine English accent to get the proper rhyming scheme): “We are the martyrs/You’re all squashed tomatoes!” Waj is a complete idiot, who doesn’t understand that once you’re in Afghanistan, Mecca is no longer to the east. Omar, a family man who enjoys the fruits of capitalism while railing against it and retelling his kid the story of THE LION KING as a jihadi, is the only one of the group with a lick of sense, though even he can get a rocket launcher backwards sometimes. (Yes, if you’re counting, that’s five major characters rather than four; explaining that discrepancy would be spoiling.)

But it isn’t just Muslims who get mocked; everyone is fair game, from thick-headed police snipers who argue about the difference between a Wookiee and a bear, to government employees and their elaborate, convoluted explanations of rendition. One could compare this to SOUTH PARK, but at the risk of hyperbole, this may also be the War on terror’s very own DR. STRANGELOVE – a water-pistol fight between passive and militant Muslims at one point recalls the originally proposed pie-fight finale for the Kubrick film. The next time you read some right-wing blowhard blogger going on about how England cowers under to the terrorist threat, show ‘em this, and point out that no studio here would have the balls to make something this dangerously funny…certainly not Comedy Central. A classic example, perhaps, of man laughing so as not to cry. And thus far it’s been a big hit in the UK, while three distributors here are apparently bidding. Definite best of 2010 so far for me.

WELCOME TO THE RILEYS

First thought I had entering this screening: Kristen Stewart was promised for a Q&A, and looking around, I would profile a good half of this crowd as Twi-hards who couldn’t care less about a James Gandolfini movie. Second thought: When it’s announced upfront that there will be no talent appearances, I’m amazed more people don’t walk out and demand refunds.

Third thought, as movie begins: Dear God, Gandolfini’s attempting a Southern accent? This isn’t good. And his character lives in Indiana, so why? As it will turn out, the accent comes and goes throughout the movie, and isn’t too distracting an issue.

Fourth thought: why does the festival program call this Jake (son of Ridley) Scott’s first feature, since he’s made two prior, and I’m pretty sure PLUNKETT & MACLEANE, which came out a decade ago, was made first.

Fifth thought: this numbering gimmick of mine is getting tiresome, but I’m locked into it now, and must fully commit, as they taught me in improv classes. Drat. Maybe should make rest of review one big run-on sentence to keep it at what could technically be considered a sole thought. Okay, so…

Sixth thought: Kristen Stewart is a much better actress in this than she was in NEW MOON, and I’m not saying that because she plays a scantily clad stripper in high heels, though foot fetishists (which I ain’t, but Quentin Tarantino and “LexG” are) will dig that, and maybe she’s better at this character because she’s a grown up child star, and that’s a path fraught with the same kind of potential degradation suffered here, and oh yeah, the plot’s about Gandolfini as a guy who’s teenage daughter is dead, so when he encounters Stewart at a convention in New Orleans, he decides to stick around and be a surrogate father; meanwhile, wife Melissa Leo back in Indiana is an agoraphobe, and Leo’s physical bits in this are freakin’ excellent; a scene where she tries to figure out the automated controls in her own car ran very true to me, as I’ve only ever driven old-school stick-shift non-electric-everything vehicle since that’s what my dad buys…also, this movie was pretty good, and the fact that Leo’s character was named Lois made me think Gandolfini could star in a live-action FAMILY GUY movie, probably with Leo again.

LIFE WITH MURDER

This one I actually watched on DVD after the festival, having missed the advance screening, and I’m glad I was able to watch it at my leisure rather than a 10 a.m. showing in the SAG screening room. It’s a strong documentary, depicting the kind of thing fiction just cannot do: a true-crime story so strange and an individual so twisted that they must be seen for real to be believed. In 1998, in the small Canadian town of Chatham, an 18 year-old girl named Jennifer Jenkins was shot five times and killed in her own home. The man who was tried and convicted for the crime was her own brother, Mason, who initially claimed that four strange men had done it, then changed his story to the far more fantastical notion that he fired the first shot by accident, then subsequently loaded and shot four more to make it look like four strangers did it.

Meanwhile, parents Brian and Leslie continued to embrace and support their son, the only child they had left. Refusing to move from their small town, they became stigmatized for this, and only once the documentary cameras started rolling did all three Jenkinses start talking to each other about the night of the murder. The revelations are shocking, as are their reactions…or uncanny lack thereof in some cases. A reminder that real-life evil is often more banal than an outlaw in a black hat, but no less frightening.

DESPICABLE ME

Universal seemed to have a really rough time trying to sell this film at first. The initial teaser, actually the first couple minutes of the movie, with its deflating pyramid, made it look like a poorly animated heist flick. Later, every poster seemed to focus on the minions, a bunch of gibbering, goggled, grinning things that look like peeled Mr. Potato Heads. And then there was a campaign that seemed to be advertising yet another movie, one about a father and three daughters.

The latest campaign is finally somewhat on track – while previous clips featured elements of the story, they are now pushing the main narrative of two super-rich, megalomaniacal ultra-villains battling each other for control of a shrink ray that will allow either one to literally shoot for the moon…then steal it. You hear a lot of action movies compared to Wile E. Coyote versus the Roadrunner, but this is two Wile E. Coyotes against each other, which leads to much more over-the-top showdowns, thankfully ones that appear to be actually conceived for 3-D (the end credits bits in particular utilize the format to the fullest).

Caught in the middle of the battle are three orphan girls, adopted by bald, penguinesque Gru (Steve Carell) in order that they may infiltrate the super-sleek hideout of uber-nerdy, tracksuit-wearing Vector (Jason Segel), who’s the new big baddie on the block. Initially a means to an end, the girls ultimately thaw the heart of the master of the freeze gun, and give the movie a slight cuteness factor that’s appropriate but thankfully not overwhelming. Minions add additional Three Stooges-style humor, and the kids will come away wanting one of their own.

Though it utilizes the latest visual technology, the cartoon comedy sensibility of DESPICABLE ME is old-school all the way, a fun ride that my girlfriend already wants to see again. Can’t say I’d be averse myself.

And with that, Geekweekers, I close the book on the 2010 LA Film Festival. Much-needed slumber awaits.

 

Luke Y. Thompson is an actor, writer, and film critic living in Hollywood.

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