Los Angeles Film Festival Recap: The Movies, part 1

Absent any actual movie news bombshells (not the quite possibly fake or misleading nuggets that you might have heard about), for the next day or so I’ll be posting with thoughts about the just completed Los Angeles Film Festival. There will be some kvetching later, but first I’m going to concentrate on the more positive aspect of the festival, which are the films themselves, even if most of them already screened at other festivals. I’ll be going in random order over what I saw, ignoring a few films I walked out on which may or may not be an accurate reflection of their quality.

* No one walked out on “Four Lions” which got an uproarious reaction from the crowd I saw it with and won the audience prize. It might well have been the best film I saw at the festival. However, I can’t be sure because I was very late to it and probably missed at least 15 or 20 minutes, which was partly my own fault/bad habit but mostly the result of…oh, yeah, I promised to save the kvetching for later.

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Getting back to “Four Lions,” it’s a very ballsy English ultra-black comedy about an Islamist terrorist cell in need of a bit more cells of the gray variety if it’s going to rack up the kind of body count every suicide bomber dreams of. It makes a fit companion piece to the equally dark and zany, and really quite similar in style and manner, “In the Loop.” It’s director, interestingly, is best known here as one of the stars of the popular BBC America series, “The IT Crowd,” Christopher Morris.

* “Animal Kingdom” is a sharp witted, muted Australian crime thriller and a cautionary tale about really bad surrogate parenting, made much worse when cops start pulling extra-judicial executions. (Has this been a common problem in Australia?)  Though there are definite but subtle echoes of “Goodfellas” and “Sexy Beast,” this film has a style and story all its own from talented first-timer David Michôd. Even so, it nearly lost me during its middle portion, it’s a bit too dour, even for the subject matter, and features a dull, annoying music score that strives way too hard to underline the seriousness of the story. Still, the seeds are being planted throughout for a last act that is character driven crime suspense of the best kind.

The film is anchored by three outstanding performances from three actors of varying ages who are essentially unknown here — Jacki Weaver, who is sweetly chilling as the underage grandmother hen of the group, hasn’t been seen in the States since she appeared in Peter Weir’s 1975 “Picnic at Hanging Rock” — but they won’t stay that way for long. The one known face in the film, Guy Pearce, is almost as good, playing essentially the Australian cousin of his morally compromised, not entirely likable cop from “L.A. Confidential.”

* “Monsters” — Ever wonder what would happen if an old fifties monster movie like the George Pal “War of the Worlds” decided to concentrate on characterization and its romantic subplot, and kind of let the rest of the story take care of itself? This mostly improvised film from effects guy/writer/director Gareth Edwards is actually a lot more like ur-rom-com “It Happened One Night” than the film it’s most frequently compared to, “District 9,” as it focuses on a tough-guy news photographer (Scoot McNairy) escorting the beautiful-but-engaged daughter of his media mogul boss (Whitney Able) across a Mexico plagued by giant squid monsters. It’s not nearly as funny as it sounds — it’s not really meant to be, nor is it as compelling as Newsweek critic-turned-programmer David Ansen was claiming, though there are some interesting political echoes.

It is, however, gorgeously imagined and, including the somewhat comically old-school squid monsters, something of a visual miracle considering what appears to have been a minimal budget. Nevertheless, Edwards concept of basically filming where he could and then trying to shoehorn those stolen locations into a storyline with entirely improvised dialogue, doesn’t even come close to flying dramatically. His shoehorning of effects worked better.

More to come.

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