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LYT’s L.A. Film Fest Wrap-Up, Part 1: Beasts, Zombies and Oversimplifications

Much of the chatter among regular filmgoers at the recent Los Angeles Film Festival involved the “identity” of the fest, something that is apparently of great importance to those in the media who identify trends. Sundance is the first biggie of the year and the place where things get discovered (often having been somewhat preordained to begin with, but whatevs), Cannes is the big international one friendly to outspoken auteurs, AFI Fest has decided to become the “Best of” every fest prior with galas of whatever Weinstein is pushing for Oscars that year, Fantastic Fest is the one we care about the most… what’s LAFF? To me, that answer would be that it’s the cinematic version of “Summer’s here! It’s party time!” But if you’re not an attendee, that doesn’t work so well. The more obvious answer is that it wants to be the festival that has something for everyone. In practice, however, this year felt resoundingly middle-of-the-road, perhaps as a result of that kind of thinking.

Opening with Woody Allen and closing with Steven Soderbergh makes sense – art-house cred guys making crowd-pleasing films can lure crossover audiences into appreciating the offbeat, if only by a little. Pixar’s Brave as the big premiere was a safe call, and having additional screenings for those with fest badges a nice additional bonus. But the “big” movies other than that – Seeking a Friend for the End of the World? People Like Us? – had the smell of mediocrity from the get-go. “The Beyond” series of late-night horror and exploitation fare focused on jokiness and at least one all-out stinker. The atmosphere of the festival remains a charmer, with the rooftop party tents and oft-adjacent food trucks. But it’s telling that as often as not, the decision to hang with colleagues there rather than actually see a movie wasn’t as tough as it ought to have been.

Show me someone who has the time to see everything at LAFF, and I’ll show you someone independently wealthy with no family commitments. It’s entirely possible I missed some of the truest gems. But when it comes to what I did see, here are some general impressions. Many of these will be coming eventually to a theater near you.

Beasts of the Southern Wild was a great kick-off event for those who couldn’t make the Woody Allen opener, despite the live “opening act” of a boring jazz combo called the Oakwood Quartet (thankfully, nothing like any of the music in the film itself). The show started late, we were told, because of traffic problems, which apparently could not possibly have been anticipated in Los Angeles on a Friday night. Still, forgiveness is divine, as was the movie.

If David Gordon Green could put down the bong for a moment and realize that things you say when you’re stoned only sound funny right then, he might still be making these kinds of meditative, atmospheric portraits of the stranger corners of the South. Though technically, this isn’t a real place; It’s an imagined part of the Gulf Coast called the Bathtub (because it floods), where boats made of junk carry the poorest of the poor downriver to catch catfish by punching them, while factories in the background belch out lord-knows-what into the atmosphere. Houses are built of throwaway scrap metal on high stilts, and liable to come apart in storms. In lighter times, the inhabitants of the area – united in poverty and not divided along race lines at all – have “more holidays than the rest of the world,” one of which includes letting their babies have crawl-races.

Our guide through all this is Hushpuppy, a young girl who says things like, “If daddy don’t get back soon, it’s gonna be time for me to start eating my pets.” Daddy is absent more than normal, while mom has passed on; When we do see dad, it’s likely as not that he’ll be in a hospital robe, his veins blackening from blood poisoning.

Global warming looms as a villain, taught in schools and visualized as a flock of giant prehistoric wild boars, freed from melting polar ice (are they metaphors, or meta-boars? You call it) and representing the floods of Hurricane Katrina and the like. Sure enough, the flood waters and the imaginary boars come calling, which brings in the federal government, as well as Ronald Reagan’s admonition that the scariest words in the English language are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

And here is where one could make political hay – these scrappy poor people rely on each other, take care of each other in their junkyard-like home, and the big bad FEMA folks don’t understand and screw it all up. That’s not a bad libertarian argument, except that these people are a fictional community. Not to mention the inconvenience of Dad’s blood-poisoning having gone untreated so long. No matter. The resolution between father and daughter (she thinks he’s abandoning her, he merely doesn’t want her to see him die) is wrenching and beautiful, and the little girl, who comes with the spellcheck-busting name of Quvenzhané Wallis, could have a bright future indeed. The meta-boars are the furthest thing from a mega-bore.

I cannot properly and fairly review the Cuban zombie movie Juan of the Dead, as it had been a long day and I fell asleep in the middle through no fault of the film’s. Sometimes you just feel that coming on, even in a movie you like, and you try to fight it, but there’s just no way to stay alert, unless you can disrupt the entire audience and get an energy drink in the lobby, where they don’t sell them anyway (probably a good idea overall – imagine seat-kicking kids on Red Bull). I will say the short that preceded it, “3113,” was an example of how technology can democratize the medium of film but not compensate for poor storytelling ability: An alien soldier encounters a Donnie Darko-like bunny on a strange world, and…well, that’s about it. Nice graphics, shame about the nothing else.

Juan, in which two Cubans, Juan and Lazaro, try to make money as zombie exterminators, has some very funny moments. One in which they’re trying to figure out exactly what the plague is (the government claims the undead are a dissident group funded by the U.S.), and while arguing over whether one old man is a zombie or vampire, they keep impaling him through various appendages just to be sure. Later, when the two friends may be watching their last sunrise together, Lazaro confesses he’s always been gay and wants a blowjob from Juan as his last request (I won’t spoil how that one resolves). For a movie implicitly satirizing communism, it surprisingly ends on a very strongly patriotic note, which may explain how the Castro government is letting director Alejandro Brugués travel with it. “I think they’re hoping I will stay away!” he told the LAFF crowd, adding that he sees Juan as “a movie about doing business while things are tough, like Ghostbusters and Schindler’s List.”

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty is an interesting case. On the one hand, its multiple postmodernist levels and medium shifts make it one of the most original movies of the year. On the other, its relative lack of substance – overthinking, rather than oversimplification, is really what’s at play here – is frustrating and causes the film to run out of juice about halfway through. Six years in the making from filmmaker Terence Nance, who does pretty much everything in the movie except a lot of the voice-over narration, which is vaguely Orson Welles-ian, it initially plays a lot like Tristram Shandy, where the plot keeps backing up right when you want it to progress, adding different shades to things that have already happened. It seems to have begun life as a short film called “How Would You Feel?,” in which Nance tries to put the viewer in his shoes regarding an expected rendezvous that ends up not happening with a woman. Complete with comically ominous narration, we keep revisiting this point with new information.

The second act moves forward by going further back, using animation to spell out Nance’s previous relationship history (he sometimes gets friend-zoned, and other times just won’t commit). He watches Purple Rain, because why not. Then we realize his current fixation, the girl he was hoping to meet with, whom he loves but isn’t sure she loves him back, is named Namik. He shows her the film so far. He encourages her to respond. At this point it’s getting as painful as a real-life friend-zoning. Granted, it’s done with a ton of style, but it really does come down to “Dude wants a date, and ain’t getting one.” Besides, his day job appears to be as a busker – not the world’s sexiest occupation.

In my next installment, we’ll discuss pointless journeys and a magical friend who isn’t named Ted. Stay tuned.

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