Notes From the LA Film Festival

Here are a few thoughts on the first couple days of the Los Angeles Film Festival:

The Year After The Year After (L’Année suivante). France 2006. Isabelle Czajka’s debut film stars Anaïs Demoustier as Emmanuelle, a 17-year-old girl whose life goes into a slow, year long tailspin following the death of her father. Trapped in the spiritual vacuum of a bland Paris suburb filled with shopping centers and fast food joints, Emmanuelle’s support mechanisms fall away one by one until she is left with nothing; not even a sense of what she wants to do with her life. Demoustier is very good as the slowly unraveling Emmanuelle. Her disintegration is equal parts heartbreaking and frustrating. We’re spared the histrionics and fireworks of a sudden human train wreck and instead get the gradual decline of a bright and beautiful girl. Not a bad first effort from Ms. Czajka though it’s often slow and not completely rewarding. In French with English Subtitles. (June 23)

The Last WinterThe Last Winter. USA 2006. Creepy, unsettling, ecologically themed horror story from Larry Fessenden (Wendigo, Habit). Set in the remote Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the story revolves around the members of a prep team working for an oil drilling company. James Le Gros (Living in Oblivion) is an outsider, an unwelcome environmental scientist assigned to the team to investigate the mysterious melting of the permafrost. Ron Perlman (The City of Lost Children, Hellboy) is the gung-ho team leader, wary of Le Gros’ motives and eager to get the operation up and running on time and at any cost. With the melting permafrost however, the ground is too soft to move in the drilling equipment and, with little to keep them busy, some members of the team start to go a little crazy. One of them starts seeing ghosts and comes to believe that the warming temperatures are a sign that the earth is about to rise up and take revenge on the human species. Owing much to The Thing, the early part of the film develops a nice sense of dread, suspense and foreboding by implying much and showing little. Ultimately however, the film overplays its hand with some awkward computerized effects. Interestingly, the ending returns to the film’s early form by implying more than it shows. I wonder if the choice was artistic or budgetary. Overall a pretty interesting little horror film though I couldn’t help but feel it could’ve been better. (June 24)

Honor of the KnightsHonor of the Knights (Honor de cavalleria). Spain 2006. This Minimalist retelling of the Don Quixote story makes Robert Bresson look like Michael friggin’ Bay. Brutally slow. Sparse dialogue. Even less action. I’ve never wanted to see monkeys with jet packs and laser guns show up in a movie so badly in my life. Quixote lectures Sancho about the Golden Age when people were more civilized. He scolds him for snoring. They bathe in a river. They eat walnuts. Quixote shouts into the wind. They’re separated. They’re reunited. This goes on for a grueling hour and 50 minutes. Members of the audience started heading for the exits roughly 15 minutes in and the exodus didn’t stop until maybe 1/3 of the people who came were left. I almost walked out myself, but after a certain point it became a challenge to see how long I could endure. Ultimately I found the whole thing to be spectacularly boring and yet oddly compelling at the same time. I doubt this one will ever see the light of day in the US either in theaters or on DVD. In Catalan with English subtitles. (June 24)

Elvis Mitchell and Robert BentonAn Evening with Robert Benton. The good thing about Honor of the Knights is that it caused me to pick up a last minute ticket for this chat between Elvis Mitchell and Robert Benton (writer of Bonnie and Clyde, director of The Late Show and Kramer vs. Kramer). Benton talked about how Bonnie and Clyde, an attempt to inject the life of the French New Wave into American moviemaking, kicked around for 4 years and finally got off the ground when eventual director Arthur Penn (originally they wanted Truffaut or Godard) convinced them to lose the ménage à trois angle between Bonnie, Clyde and C.W. He also talked about how he learned from Robert Altman to find good actors and to trust them because they’ll find things in the character the director and even the writer don’t see. As an example he offered the scene in Kramer vs. Kramer where Meryl Streep is on the witness stand explaining why she deserves custody of her child. Benton said he instructed her to hit certain points, but to basically rewrite the scene herself since he felt she could better capture a mother’s feelings. That’s what she did and it’s a great scene. One thing that struck me about Benton is how, unlike most people in the film industry today, he sort of seemed to just fall into it. Originally a magazine writer, he fell into screenwriting because movies were what people talked about and from there he just kind of gravitated into directing. He’s had an amazing and varied career and he loves what he does, but didn’t necessarily plan it to happen that way. (June 24)

LAFF part 2

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3 thoughts on “Notes From the LA Film Festival

  1. The Year After and The Last Winter both sound interesting to me although I think I could also just as easily see them on DVD. Thanks for surviving Honor of the Knights.

  2. I saw Fessenden’s Wendigo back when it just hit DVD and have to say I didn’t really get the appeal. It seemed to generate mild culty acclaim based on respect of intention more than actual execution. Haven’t seen Habit, which actually sounds more interesting than Wendigo.

    I love Bonnie and Clyde, and I think one of the reasons its so fascinating is that (besides the violence) the film is so schizophrenic in sensibility. Yes, its want to be New Wave, and against the grain, and life like, but it also wants to revel in movie star studio conventions (the stars are MUCH better looking than their real life counterparts, and more sympathetic.) The unusual blend of the two gives the film a live wire friction that is unforgettable.

    I also love Benton’s underseen Nobody’s Fool, which has, I think, one Newman’s very best performances. It’s a lovely movie, and twists tears from this movie stuffed cynic every time he sees it. Ditto Kramer Vs. Kramer, I’m a child of divorce myself (who isn’t?) and I find that film very near unwatchable in poignance. Hoffman has rarely been so free of ego (I say that lovingly, as a major fan.)

  3. The festival got off to a pretty weak start and I was beginning to regret my selection methodology (one step removed from throwing darts at a dartboard). Both of the first couple of films had a lot of potential, but I’m probably being nicer to them than I’d be if I’d seen them out of the context of the festival. Does that make any sense?

    I’ve never seen Wendigo or Habit, but I mostly like what Fessenden was doing with The Last Winter. The environmental message was a little heavy handed, but when he just concentrated on ratcheting up the tension it was pretty good stuff. Le Gros and Perlman were both good. The main flaw was ultimately showing more than the budget could really allow for.

    Benton was a pretty good storyteller. I wish I could convey more of that.

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