The Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF): A Nerd’s-Eye View



The Los Angeles Film Fest, which had it’s opening night yesterday and kicks off in full swing today, has been the true kick-off of summer for me every year for a good decade or so, since its days at an arthouse 5-plex to its new incarnation at the home of the biggest non-Imax movie screen in town. In the early days, I used to automatically get sent a pass, and back then, the passholder lounge had an open bar that got started around 2 p.m. (it’s now 6 p.m.), so some days I’d do little besides down free vodkas for ten hours – Absolut’s newest flavor of the moment would typically debut around that time. It may be surprising to hear that I had brain cells enough to remember the movies, but experiences over the years have included watching what I thought was a docudrama about a genuinely passive aggressive martial-arts instructor, only to learn it was some North Carolina actor named Danny McBride, who struck me as being too authentically redneck (in a good way) to ever work again. I remember seeing my friend Lucky McKee’s first solo directorial feature May on the big screen, and scoring extra tickets for some guy named Drew McWeeny, who at the time was pretending to be Sherlock Holmes’ arch-enemy online.

I’m pretty sure it was there that I first saw Fahrenheit 9/11, with Samuel L. Jackson in attendance, and the director of the Walking Tall remake sitting beside me. I know there was a big-time shift in size when they went with big summer movies for opening and closing for the first time, and tried to disguise it by saying they were selections from acclaimed international directors – which was true, but misleading. Those movies were Hellboy II and Wanted.

So why should you care if you don’t live in my neck of the woods? Basically, because you can be among the first to know about some of the movies that will come to festivals and theaters near you in the coming months and even years (The Foot Fist Way took a while). And I’m not going to waste your time with the equivalent of “gay cowboys eatin’ puddin'” flicks – sorry, Abraxas! – because there’s plenty of stuff that’s of nerd interest without trying to shoehorn in the more traditional festival fare. One cool innovation this year is that they’re selling passes to JUST the free booze lounge and nothing else – it’s $150, but you can get it in eight evenings of unlimited drunkenness, so that’s at least a break-even deal if you have a journalist’s tolerance.

Including that new My Little Pony movie some of y’all are so worked up about. Yes, you wanted me to attempt to review it, and that is precisely what I shall do.

Some of my picks, in alphabetical order (I hope – it’s been a long day), are after the jump. I will try to see and review as many of these as my schedule allows.


The Act of Killing
Premise: Actual participants in global genocides are invited to reenact their own atrocities – many of which are considered heroic in their home countries – in stylized tableaux based on classic movie genres. They start to have second thoughts about what they did.
Why it could rule: It’s provocative, twisted, and might cast a light on genuine human evil.
Why it could suck: Same reason, if the tone feels off in any way.

Casting By
Premise: A documentary about casting director Marion Dougherty, who among other things teamed up Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon.
Why it could rule: Casting is one of those fascinating areas of movie production that remains little-explored onscreen. And yet it’s something we all do in our heads…and on website comments.
Why it could suck: If it focuses more on talking heads telling us how great Dougherty was, rather than looking at the ins and outs of her actual work, it’ll be a bore.


The Conjuring
Premise: Vera Farmiga runs afoul of a supernatural presence that occasionally manifests as ghostly clapping hands.
Why it could rule: It’s based on “the case files of married demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren.” Married demonologists. What are the odds that you choose that line of work and find another person in it at all, let alone one you love? This may be a scary movie, but it indirectly proves that there’s someone for everyone, even if your obsession is creepy and strange. That should hearten everybody reading this.
Why it could suck: When a supernatural horror movie is “based on a true story,” there’s little to no chance of a satisfactory resolution if they stick to the facts. Probably they will not.

Premise: A found-footage horror movie about a pregnant woman who’s convinced something’s very wrong with her unborn child. Too bad she’s being filmed for a reality show!
Why it could rule: The reality show producers might meet a horrifying end.
Why it could suck: Depends. How much did you like the demon baby in The Last Exorcism?

Ernest & Celestine
Premise: A mouse and a bear are friends.
Why this could rule: It’s animation from the crazy French filmmakers who did A Town Called Panic, which featured the insane adventures of a toy cowboy and Indian.
Why this could suck: It’s about a fucking mouse and a bear who are friends.


Europa Report
Premise: A mission to the moon of Jupiter has clearly not included a briefing on the works of Arthur C. Clarke, and the crew encounters mysterious danger there.
Why it could rule: Star Sharlto Copley, whose performance in District 9 went from pathetic to powerful, all while wearing heavy makeup and acting against imaginary costars
Why it could suck: For all the talk of it taking the science very seriously, the trailer appears to be hewing to found-footage conventions in a manner that detracts from the seriousness.

The Fifth Season
Premise: The apocalypse is coming. How do we know? Because the cows have stopped producing milk. Yes, really.
Why it could rule: It’s a German-French-Dutch take on End Times, which will make it weird.
Why it could suck: That’s a pretty lame sign of the apocalypse. Wouldn’t Germans just bust out some beer if the milk ran out?

Goodbye World
Premise: A couple and their young daughter live their lives “off the grid,” but when a cyber-attack cripples the nation, they suddenly find a whole lot of old friends and family deciding to visit. First they all party, but then the reality of a nation falling apart seeps in.
Why it could rule: Apocalypse movies usually do.
Why it could suck: If it’s not ABOUT the apocalypse, but about who the characters really ARE, man!


Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction
Premise: Harry Dean Stanton. Any questions?
Why it could rule: Because from Repo Man to Alien to Red Dawn to The Avengers – and his odd take on the Apostle Paul in The Last Temptation of Christ – Stanton is the man. I’ve even forgiven him for The Care Bears Movie.
Why it could suck: It would take a really shitty director to make Harry Dean Stanton suck, but I suppose it’s possible. He was in You, Me and Dupree, after all.


In A World
Premise: When a famous trailer-narrator dies, the competition to fill that slot gets fierce. But does a woman (Lake Bell) have a shot at such a traditionally male profession? No, this is not a documentary about the late Don LaFontaine, but a comedy directed by Lake Bell that costars the likes of Demetri Martin, Nick Offerman, Tig Notaro and Rob Corddry.
Why it could rule: Like Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries, this sounds like the kind of comedy where the joke is the high stakes surrounding a seemingly trivial thing.
Why it could suck: Lake Bell is the director also. Then again, Guest was in all his own movies and that worked out.

Lesson of the Evil

Premise: Insanely prolific – and just insane, period – Japanese director Takashi Miike (Audition), who probably wrapped two new movies while you were reading this, delivers a tale of a hardass high-school teacher who also happens to be psychotic.
Why it could rule: We all imagined at least one of our instructors to be like this for real, didn’t we?
Why it could suck: The director works so quickly that he can often be sloppy, in more ways than one.

Monsters University
Premise: A prequel to Monsters Inc., in which Mike and Sulley go to college, where they initially hate each other.
Why it could rule: It doesn’t. I’ve seen it. It’s a so-so sequel, but if you like these characters (I never got into them) it is at least not too annoying. And Nathan Fillion’s the bad guy.
Why it could suck: It’s a college movie with no nudity, sex, drinking, profanity or anything that much resembles real college.


My Little Pony Equestria Girls

Premise: Pony Twilight Sparkle enters another dimension in which she becomes a human (albeit one with purple skin), teenage girl with classmates who somehow remind her of all her pony friends back home. Quite possibly an excuse to launch a new toy line.
Why it could rule: Maybe I will figure out what it is that makes other grown males adore a cartoon that features a horse named Pinkie Pie (I have no problem with it, but I no comprendes). I know from asking that LAFF programmers are well aware of the cartoon’s dual fan base – and haven’t yet gotten entirely past the “creeped out” phase.
Why it could suck: Oh, must you ask? Even Bronies have been bitching about this one from the getgo.

Only God Forgives

Premise: Drive director Nicholas Winding Refn sends Ryan Gosling to Thailand, where he runs afoul of a bad dude with a machete. Bad things happen.
Why it could rule: You know what Drive was missing? A Thai dude with a machete. Also, Thailand.
Why it could suck: By not being as cool as Drive. Admittedly, many things are not as cool as Drive…but those things are not from the people who made Drive.


The Spectacular Now
Premise: It’s about a high-schooler who’s a big sci-fi fan and never gets any dates. So what’s new? It’s a girl, and the future Mary Jane Watson at that, Shailene Woodley. (I know that’s not new in reality, but for a movie, this is practically groundbreaking.)
Why it could rule: to quote our own Fred Topel, “There could be a whole movie about a cute girl collecting manga, and there should be – get on that, Hollywood! – but least when Aimee shows off her collection she gets it right. She teaches Sutter (Miles Teller) to read them right to left.”
Why it could suck: Formula is formula, and there’s still a chance the story might not soar.

You’re Next
Premise: Nutjobs wearing masks break into a house and start killing the family within, or trying to. Said family must quit arguing long enough to kill the intruders first.
Why it could rule: Good buzz so far, as early reviewers have said the mix of horror and humor works.
Why it could suck: It looks like a rip-off of The Strangers, which was no great shakes to being with.

For tickets, showtimes and other stuff, hit up the official website of LAFF.