After running for 10 days and showing over 200 feature films, shorts, and music videos, this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival finally came to a close on Sunday. In my final write up you can read which films won the major prizes and my thoughts on the festival along with my mini-reviews on a couple of films including the Australian crime film Animal Kingdom, the documentary Freakonomics, the Chilean martial arts film Mandrill, the British comedy about suicide bombers Four Lions, the recently much buzzed about Monsters, and Welcome to the Rileys starring James Gandolfini and Kristen Stewart. My write up after the jump:
Jury Prize for Best Narrative film – A Family (En Familie) directed by Pernille Fischer
Jury Prize for Best Documentary – Make Believe directed by J. Clay Tweel
Jury Prize for Best Ensemble Performance in a Narrative – the ensemble cast of Hello Lonesome directed by Adam Reid
Jury Prize for Best Narrative Short Film – My Invisible Friend by Pablo Larcuen
Jury Prize for Best Documentary Short Film – The Lucky Ones by Tomasz Wolski
Jury Prize for Best Animated Short Film – Wonder Hospital by Beomsik Shimbe Shim
Audience Award for Best Narrative Film – Four Lions directed by Chris Morris
Audience Award for Best Documentary – Thunder Soul directed by Mark Landsman
Audience Award for Best International Feature – Presumed Guilty by Roberto Hernandez and Geoffrey Smith
Audience Award for Best Short Film – Dock Ellis and the LSD No-No by James Blagden
Audience Award for Best Music Video – This Too Shall Pass by OK Go
Animal Kingdom is an Australian crime film about a 17 year old named Joshua who goes off to live with his distant relatives, who happen to be criminals, after his mother dies of a heroin overdose. He soon finds himself in the middle of a war between the cops and his newly found family and it doesn’t take long before he is forced to take a side.
The film has been gaining a lot of buzz ever since winning this year’s dramatic jury prize for world cinema at the Sundance Film Festival. I went into the film wanting to love it, but was sadly disappointed in it. Director David Michod’s debut film is a good one that is filled with some excellent performances and suspenseful scenes, but I thought that the lead character was rather boring when compared to everyone else around him. Always passive and mostly unexpressive, Joshua is a hard character to relate to too much and even harder to care about because of this. When the film reaches its climax I wanted to be biting my nails and sweating in my seat but I just couldn’t care too much about anything. I can and do admire the film from a distance, though. I just don’t think that it deserves the comparisons it has gotten to the best films of its genre like Goodfellas.
The S from Hell
The S From Hell is a short 9 minute documentary that explores the trauma caused by the 1964 Screen Gems logo, aka “the s from hell”. This interesting and hilarious film is luckily on youtube and I think it’s best for you to just watch it below. You’ll never think of a logo in the same way.
One Lucky Elephant
One Lucky Elephant is a documentary that follows the life of a circus elephant named Flora and her owner David. After owning Flora for many years and using her as his circus’ main attraction, David decides that it’s time for Flora to retire and go back to her natural habitat. However, things become complicated and the documentary explores the 10 years spent on trying to find a proper home for Flora.
Director Lisa Leeman could’ve made a fluffy cutesy documentary that makes you go “awh”, but instead she has made a film which really explores the ripple effect that occurs when we take an animal out of its natural setting. The film presents various issues and is wise to leave them all up for the viewer to think about and decide on. It’s certainly sure to provoke some discussion while opening your eyes to a problem which we know about but don’t really think about all too much.
Based on the bestselling 2005 non-fiction book by economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics is a documentary film which explores different theories on how statistics and economy changes and shapes our culture. The film is told in a series of vignettes from various directors including Seth Gordon (King of Kong), Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me), Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight), Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), Heidi Ewing, and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp).
Each director chooses a chapter to explore from the book and presents it in his or her own style. This makes the film suffer from the same problem that most omnibus films do. Some segments are better than others and because of this the overall film isn’t as great as it possibly could have been. No segment is truly bad and all of them are interesting, but the film is just too uneven to be truly excellent.
Filmed on a tiny budget and only featuring a small cast, Monsters presents a world where half of Mexico has been quarantined due to being infected by giant monsters after a space probe containing samples of alien life from outer space crashed landed there. The film follows an American photojournalist who finds himself having to escort his bosses’ daughter back to America via a dangerous route that goes through a high risk zone.
Monsters has been gaining a ton of buzz due to word of mouth after its recent screenings at SXSW and Cannes and it’s easy to see why. Director Gareth Edwards has crafted a film which really is “characters first, monsters second”. By this I mean that a lot of time is dedicated to seeing these two characters talk, interact, and develop before the monster attacks begin to happen. If you are expecting a true “monster film” then you will probably be bored and let down since the first attack doesn’t happen until about an hour in. However, the few scenes that do feature the giant monsters manage to be extremely suspenseful and are fascinating to watch.
I personally loved the film but I find it hard to recommend without setting the expectations towards it at the right level. I can see the film getting a lot of backlash after it comes out in theaters in the fall but if you want to see a really great small film, which just happens to be set in a world where monster attacks happen, then keep your eyes on this one. If anything, the film proves that Gareth Edwards is a director with a lot of promise.
Mandrill tells the story of a hitman named Mandrill who is on a quest to kill the man who murdered his parents. Mandrill is simply ridiculous. I mean that in the best way too. Always with its tongue firmly placed in its cheek, the film plays up every single scene and line to the most self consciously bad ass way it can to the point where it’s clearly in on the joke and wants you to be in on it too. By doing this and playing it as straight faced as it can, Mandrill becomes a action-comedy and it’s easily the best one we have had since Hot Fuzz.
The film manages to balance this tone just right for most the film and when it does, it really is a ton of fun to watch. Its energy is contagious and it’s hard to not love its goofy charm. However, I did think that the film does become a little bit too over the top when a new villain is introduced in the final 20 minutes which makes the tone become too unbalanced. Still, though, Mandrill is an insane amount of fun and if you are a fan of action films, then you will dig it for sure.
Four Lions is a comedy about suicide bombers who are in the final stages of planning their attack. Just from reading that short plot description you can already imagine just how extremely dark the humor is in the film and it really does go into some places that might shock you. If you can get behind the film and get past the “this is so wrong” feeling, you will find one of the funniest films from the past couple of years.
Endlessly quotable and always hilarious, Four Lions really is the kind of film that will make people who loved last year’s In the Loop find a new favorite film when the film hopefully gets a release later on this year. The film won the LAFF audience award and it’s easy to see why. During my screening of the film some jokes were hard to hear because of the loud laughter from previous jokes carrying over. If you are a fan of all things funny: keep this film in your radar. Also, the trailer is horrible and does a terrible job of selling the film but here it is anyways:
Welcome to the Rileys
Jake Scott’s directorial debut about a friendship that begins to develop between a man (James Gandolfini) and a young stripper (Kristen Stewart) in New Orleans is a pretty good film that is made great thanks to some very strong performances by Gandolfini, Stewart, and Melissa Leo (Frozen River). It also helps that Scott has filled his film with a lot of excellent character moments and humor that makes watching these characters interact on screen a fun thing to see by the films final act. I also admire that Scott decided to ditch the indie sensibilities that are associated with most “indie dramas” now and instead opted for some gorgeous cinematography for his film. The cinematography, direction, performances, and screenplay do elevate an otherwise cringe inducing premise into one of the better dramas I’ve seen recently.
My Thoughts on the Festival
I was over all very impressed by this year’s LAFF with the standout films for me being Cold Weather, Four Lions, Life With Murder, Monsters, and Mandrill. While I miss its old location at Westwood Villiage, its new home at L.A. Live was nice and everything ran smoothly every day even if there was a ton of Twilight madness going on because of its premier at the fest. I wasn’t that big of a fan of the traffic involved but then again that is to be expected if you are driving in L.A. The festival is still struggling to be as popular as Sundance, SXSW, or the Toronto Film Festival, bur it was still able to have a really strong line-up of films and events and it gives me hope that the festival will only continue to get bigger and better in the following years. I also just love any festival that is able to have an event where J.J. Abrams can interview Edgar Wright.