With the open bar at the filmmaker's lounge closing its taps, and the jury announcing its winners, the Los Angles Film Festival has at last sadly come to a close.
Not surprisingly, Sundance favorite hippie love-child Beasts of the Southern Wild took the audience award for best narrative feature. Its lead's magical realist child-like eyes and those mytho-poetic fireworks are clearly ready to charm audiences across the country with faints whiffs of Oscar hanging in the summer air.
Film Independent also handed out the best narrative award to Pocas Pascoal's All Is Well and Best Documentary to Everardo Gonzalez's Drought, while the best performance award went to the cast of Joshua Sanchez's Four. (The rest of the winners are here.) Of course, I somehow managed to miss most all of the winners -- damn you, open bar -- though I caught Four.
Anchored by the tremendous presence of Wendell Pierce, the he-muse of David Simon in The Wire and Treme, it follows the separate sexual confusion/collisions of a father and daughter over the fourth of July. In true indie spirit, Four focuses less on plot than character dynamics and again, assuming it was shot on a Canon 5D or 7D which it looks to be, shows how such DSLR's have become the essential sketch pencil for cinematic artists these days -- with some gifted actors, night lighting and shallow depth of field, young directors can draw out some compelling observations with an intimacy that film proper, i.e. that weird strip of stuff you're not supposed to load in the light -- requires a whole apparatus of technicians and crew to duplicate. Just you wait one of these days, the next Godard, probably already born brooding and smoking somewhere in Silverlake, will take these possibilities to the next level.
Of course, one of the species of film that often falls through the cracks, even at festivals, is the short documentary category. Frankly, in our ADD-age, I'm surprised short docs haven't had their moment of vogue yet; they're often a perfect appetizer for the bored brain. Given our propensity to click on links of puppies playing scrabble, why isn't there a YouTube channel dedicated to mini-docs for the afternoon office break at work? Shorting of founding a start-up, I'll ameliorate that travesty by a) listing LA Film Fest's winner in that category right now -- Josh Gibson's Southern flora lyric Kudzu Vine -- and b) I'll sing the praises of a short I have seen (Sorry, Kudzu Vine but you got that prize you sound like you'll be good). Nadav Kurtz's Paraiso won best short doc at Tribeca and the Seattle International Film Festival and hopefully will find its way into a theater or your laptop somehow, someway.
It's a beautiful little gem about the immigrant window washers of Chicago -- Mexican immigrants who daily strap themselves to the tops of the Windy City's most totemic skyscrapers and dangle precariously over the edge, all so you can look out your corner office with just a little less grime obscuring that Masters-of-the-Universe view. Delightful, probing, insightful, and most importantly, ennobling its subjects without the least trace of condescension, Kurtz takes you on a 10 minute ride to the top of the world with men who face death on a daily basis just to feed their families-- and then joke about catching people having sex in their offices. It's enough to make John Steinbeck cry.
Equally delightful and touching is Jake Schreier's Robot and Frank, essentially a robot, buddy, heist comedy with Frank Langella, words I never thought I'd string together in one sentence. It's been on the tips of industry cognoscenti tongues since Sundance and finally, I got to understand why. Frank Langella plays a retired cat burglar in near-future upstate New York whose son gets tired of enduring his dad's cantankerous fits and fading memory, and so he buys him a medical robot companion to monitor his health and keep him active. Looking like a cross between Nintendo's R.O.B. and a Mac Performa 6115 on human growth hormone, Robot's constant medical attention and low sodium meals infuriate Frank. That is, until he realizes his transistor-based buddy has no concept of the law and thus makes for the perfect companion to a geriatric cat burglar itching to pull one last job -- and get revenge on the 21st century pampered Brooklyn hipsters co-opting his mountain retreat with their retro-chic vibe.
Of course, Frank ends up with an all-too-human attachment to his new appliance, whose emptiness reflects hard truths that Frank has been unable to face up to. Now, there's a great deal to admire about the film -- Schreier's thoughtful brush strokes of near-future prognostication, like battered Priuses and translucent iPhone X's, as well as its touching, grounded script that finds a good balance between sentiment and schmaltz. (And Schreier displays a commercial sensibility and human heart with his high-concept that studios used to seek out before falling back on sarcastic comic book re-boots and... what else do they do now?) But it's Frank Langella, truly one of our greatest living actors, who steals the show.
Not only does he knock this out of the park without batting an eyelid, his ability to project human empathy animates Robot as well as the best crew of Pixar pixel-monkeys can with all their textured-code; the mechanoid's blank visage becomes a mirror that amplifies Langella's gruff, poignant humanity. It's an astounding feat of acting, and if Robot and Frank gets any traction this year, perhaps Langella will at least be rewarded with that Oscar he's so dearly overdue for.
I also caught Todd Berger's It's a Disaster -- a sarcastic and surprisingly realistic look at what would happen if the world happened to go to pieces over a strained Sunday brunch. It takes its cues from what I'd call the "throw-the-kitchen-sink" school of comedy, another prime example of taking a high-concept premise that a studio would add CGI-aliens and a Hans Zimmer score to, and transplanting it to the living room.
America Ferrera, Rachel Boston, Erinn Hayes, and Julia Stiles play the womenfolk, and David Cross, Kevin Brennan, Blaise Miller and Jeff Grace the men in a creative imagining of the only way a noxious couples brunches could get any worse -- (hint, terrorist attack.) To me, it was surprisingly realistic for all the quips and hysterics, and more than anything highlights the quivering jelly of fear, neuroses, and confusion vacuum-packed inside the dutifully repressed packaging of civilization that's just waiting for a power outage and loss-of-Internet to emerge.
It made me wonder, in a world where we've become accustomed to constant connection, what would happen if that connection was suddenly now cut off. I propose after 24 hours of no Internet, a brutal Mad-Max world would emerge where we check each other's status updates with a two-by-four full of nails after being forced out of our digital cocoons into dealing with other human beings. For more on the the unique dynamics of disasters, check out my conversation with the brilliant David Cross to come shortly.
So on that glib, glum note, I must bid adieu to the Los Angeles Film Festival, pre-order my Dark Knight Rises tickets and brace myself for a summer of exploding film, if not exploding minds.