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2009 LA FILM FESTIVAL coverage

Kate Erbland

by:
July 20th, 2009

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LA Film Festival Review: DEAR LEMON LIMA

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The opening credits of DEAR LEMON LIMA might lead you astray. They overflow with sugary graphics and drawings that recall the worst of high school notebook doodles. Director Suzi Yoonessi, in her feature debut, peppers the rest of the film with these sweet little sketches, but they never overtake the film, and never allow DEAR LEMON LIMA to sink into cutesy hell. Eventually, the candyland of imagination created by our leading little lady, Vanessa Lemor, is shattered, and the cupcake-y art that’s previously enveloped her is the only thing keeping her and her misfit friends afloat. But before all that can happen, Vanessa has to get her heart broken.

Vanessa works at an ice cream stand in the middle of a field. It’s called “The Sweetest Bean,” and it’s decorated with all sort of paraphernalia documenting her love story with “human rights activist” Philip Georgie. Philip is great, until he dumps Vanessa, simultaneously dumping a soda on her, and leaving her marooned.  Particularly marooned because she’s about to start at his high school, which she’s only attending because of Philip. Thanks, Philip.

At Nichols High, Vanessa falls in with a motley crew of other misfits, while Philip flits around with the popular kids, occasionally throwing her a wink or a nod or a sign language sentence. When Vanessa finally wakes up to the fact that Philip is not only not charming, but actually a total chode, she starts to find herself. In her very first role, Savanah Wiltfong infuses Vanessa with a strange sweetness, never letting her seem weak, even when she’s making desperate collages consisting of destroyed love letters to Philip or bleaching out her hair. Vanessa is the sort of girl that, watching on screen ten years after high school, you can’t help but think, “ohh, I wanted to be her in high school.” Except, you didn’t. You wanted to be someone like blond mental lightweight Megan Kennedy. Ten years later, yeah, you want to be Vanessa.

In the third act, DEAR LEMON LIMA takes a risk. It’s shocking and somewhat maddening and very sad. The fact that a previously fluffy film doesn’t fall flat on its face after such a switcheroo proves that Yoonessi knew along what she was doing. DEAR LEMON LIMA was never fluff – fluff couldn’t hold this up. In the end, DEAR LEMON LIMA is not airy cotton candy, sweet and unsatisfying. It’s a hot fudge sundae, hot and cold and sweet and salty and soft and hard, all at once, all delicious.

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LA Film Festival Review: IT MIGHT GET LOUD

It Might Get Loud

It used to be that the rock documentary genre was reserved for hard-core music wonks who wanted a closer look at their favorite bands. But rock docs have been steadily improving in the past few years – films like SHINE A LIGHT and SOME KIND OF MONSTER proved to appeal to fans and non-fans alike. So a doc like IT MIGHT GET LOUD seems like the next natural progression – a rock documentary not just about one band, or even one man – but a rock doc about an instrument, about a three men who have dedicated their lives to it. IT MIGHT GET LOUD is ostensibly about the electric guitar, but it’s also very much about the passion, desire, and drive it has instilled in some of its fiercest devotees.

IT MIGHT GET LOUD is an instant classic for many reasons. Guggenheim and crew wisely chose not only three very talented guitarists, but three guitarists that span generations and musical tastes. Hardcore U2 fans will walk out of the theater seriously digging Jack White and wanting to put some White Stripes on rotation ASAP. Kiddos who idolize Jack will raid their parents’ vinyl to get their hot little hands on some Zep, because could Jimmy Page be any cooler?

Guggenheim crafted his film wisely, it’s beautifully edited to have a distinct flow. Segments are divided up by theme (a personal favorite is “Suddenly Everything Changed”), but nothing ever feels forced to fit. Page, the Edge, and White all had different stories and lives that led them to the electric guitar, even if those stories all boil down to one essential element – they couldn’t not play the guitar. IT MIGHT GET LOUD is peppered with interesting anecdotes, rare archival footage, and deeply personal ruminations. But, basically, it’s a love story.

The only problem I had with IT MIGHT GET LOUD was that I craved more jam session segments. Some of the best scenes in the film were when Page, the Edge, and White truly allowed their guitars to talk to each other. There’s a moment when Page cuts into “Whole Lotta Love,” and instead of joining in with him (as the three previously had when rocking out), White and the Edge just sit back in wonder. They can’t hide their smiles and amazement, and the audience can’t help but feel the exact same way. Don’t leave until the credits are totally over, or you’ll miss an epic jam to The Band’s “The Weight” that would make even a music novice tingle.

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LA Film Festival Review: ALL TOMORROW'S PARTIES

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Less than a week after taking in IT MIGHT GET LOUD at the Los Angeles Film Festival, seeing ALL TOMORROW’S PARTIES made me feel as if I had, in just two films, run the gamut of what a rock and roll documentary could be. ALL TOMORROW’S PARTIES tosses out exposition in favor of immersion. It’s a rock doc that focuses a hell of a lot more on the “rock” than the “doc.” Shunning copious informational history regarding the origin of ATP or serving up some staid facts on how the whole thing comes together, the film instead focuses on making the audience feel as they are actually there. And it works. Holy hell, does it work.

Some of the best parts of the film involve the fans, doing what fans at rock festivals do best – rocking out totally, being inebriated utterly. Music fans fall off of buildings, bang pots and pans, harass David Cross (“you were dissing on the J Man, baby” – a life motto if I’ve ever heard one), make out anywhere and everywhere, search for parties, fall out of grocery carts, trot along the beach. Music fans look for the next buzz in an already buzz-filled environment. And as totally insane as some of these people seem, you can’t help but want to be there with them. Everyone looks sweaty and drunk and maddeningly alive. Damn them and their dizzy dances, why can’t we be there, too, screaming for more and getting it? But ALL TOMORROW’S PARTIES is put together in such an over-stimulated way that, after awhile, you might as well be there, too. You’re just a little less sweaty than everyone else.

ALL TOMORROW’S PARTIES features all manner of footage of all manner of bands – some of the best are jams from Animal Collective and Akron/Family, Sonic Youth turns in a performance for the ages, and Nick Cave is wickedly funny as ever. But what’s most striking about the performances we see is that every single performance seems completely, totally, wholly flat-out. No one, it seems, comes to an ATP weekend to go at it half-assed. Not the fans, not the performers. It’s what a music festival should be, equally as fancy-free as it is sponsorship-free.

As much as I enjoyed getting rocked, the true nerd in me desired a bit more background info on the festival, particularly the “curating” process itself. Who knew Portishead were big GZA fans? Who got Mudhoney to curate with The Yeah Yeah Yeahs? Who facilitated ATP expanding out of the UK?  Eh, who cares, when you can see filmed performances so rich that, for a moment, you completely forget you’re not actually there?

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LA Film Festival Review: HARMONY & ME

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When Jessica dumps Harmony, Harmony feels his feelings. He gets pretty standard with his relationship mourning – he morosely hangs around places they used to go together, aimlessly wanders by other places he think she might be, and is completely deaf to other women. Harmony also wears a locket around his neck that contains a picture of Jessica. He has a speech he uses to explain the locket and the girl in it to anyone who even looks at it sideways. The first time we hear Harmony’s little heartbreak schpiel, it’s actually very sad. Kudos to Justin Rice for making the line, “my heart is a snack” actually resonant with an audience. But, as the film continues on, and we hear Harmony’s speech over and over, to all sorts of people with all sorts of reactions, it becomes incredibly funny. There’s something to be said about going through the motions of heartbreak, and how the repetition of such acts might actually help heal someone up, and that’s what ultimately happens to Harmony.

Harmony certainly has a “motley crew of friends” in his life, and a wacky group of co-workers at his nondescript job, and a mother and younger brother who absolutely march to their own drummer. But no characters are so outrageous that they’re unbelievable, HARMONY & ME doesn’t go for whiz-bang giggles with outlandish characters. Everyone’s life is populated by weirdos, Harmony’s is no different. It’s obvious that everyone loves him, from his equally as heartbroken piano teacher to his slightly deranged neighbor. It’s also obvious that everyone hates Jessica, who definitely doesn’t earn any points with the audience as she continually humiliates Harmony every chance she gets. We all know Harmony deserves better, but no one with a broken (snacked on?) heart wants to hear that about their breaker.

HARMONY & ME is filmed in such a way that it often feels like a documentary, like we’re stalking Harmony on his journey out of heartbreak. Because of this, it’s hard to not feel close to Harmony, even when we’re laughing hysterically at the next curveball thrown at him – Jessica on a date with his boss, a funeral that breeds total honesty, pondering the meaning of marriage, comas, and his little brother’s increasingly inappropriate wardrobe choices. HARMONY & ME is about simultaneously finding humor and reason in life, even when it seems impossible, even when your heart is breaking. It’s 75 minutes made up of the real stuff of life, just a little funnier, just carrying a better tune.

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LA Film Festival Review: COLD SOULS

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We are going to get this out of the way right now, okay? COLD SOULS is not ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. Get it? ETERNAL SUNSHINE is a modern masterpiece, but it is also so deeply sad that I can’t stand to watch it in its entirety more than once a year; it’s physically painful for me to get through. COLD SOULS is a wicked little indie that is absolutely rooted in the more humorous side of removing questioningly tangible items from your body. The fall out from Paul Giamatti (as Paul Giamatti!)’s decision to temporarily remove his soul is bizarre and dream-like and achingly funny.

Paul’s greatest fear is that his soul is empty, so when David Strathairn’s soul-removing Dr. Flintstein asks Paul if he wants to see inside his soul while they remove it, he balks spectacularly. No, no, he does not want to see inside it, thankyouverymuch. His reaction to seeing his actual soul once it’s been removed is the same, but he eventually relents, and his soul is revealed. It’s utterly hilarious. The soul-reveal scene in COLD SOULS is easily one of my favorite scenes in film from the last year – it’s insanely funny, and so very weird, and I refuse to spoil for anyone what exactly Paul’s soul looks like. It’s a tangible item, I’ll tell you that, and it’s edible (later, we meet a soul that looks like a pink jelly bean).

Paul’s main reason for having his soul removed and stored (albeit, temporarily) is to relieve the pressure and pain from playing Uncle Vanya on stage. He’s taken the role too much to heart, and it’s impaired his ability to act properly, on stage or in life. Once his soul is removed, Paul vacillates between a disinterested boredom and misplaced confidence. His new takes on Vanya are exceptional, nearly slapstick in their amusement. But, as it turns out, not having a soul sort of sucks for Paul, and it negatively effects, you guessed it, his performance on stage and in life. That’s when we find out about the flipside of soul removal – soul rental – and that’s when the fuzzy subplot about Russians that’s been sliced into Paul’s story finally makes sense.

It’s not important how exactly Paul’s soul ends up in Russia, or whose soul Paul rents while he tries to retrieve his soul, this is all stuff left up to Barthes’ witty script and Giamatti’s deeply expressive face. The film deflates a bit in the transition from Paul’s acquiring a rented soul to his trip to Russia to get his back. We eventually pick back up when Paul finds himself on track to getting his soul back, while also realizing that maybe it was a good soul the whole time, maybe there was never a reason to take it out and store it in a jar.

COLD SOULS is special because it takes a wildly imaginative plot that could easily slide into overwrought drivel and makes it sharp, witty, and clever. It’s not a film for everyone, but is a film for anyone who has ever wondered how much their soul could possibly weigh, considered it deeply for a moment, and then laughed.

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LA Film Festival Review: WE WERE ONCE A FAIRYTALE

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Last night, the Los Angeles Film Festival hosted the world premiere of Spike Jonze’s new short WE WERE ONCE A FAIRYTALE, starring Kanye West as…Kanye West? Well, sort of.

The film opens with flashing lights, bumping jams, and stand-out camerawork that handily approximates the mindset of our inebriated star. Kanye (or, should it be “Kanye”?) is in a club, sans poor sunglasses choice and any sort of hulking entourage, and he is drrrrrrunk. Kanye is so drunk that he’s convinced everything is cool, while the audience immediately recognizes what’s really going on – Kanye is drunk and everyone around him thinks he’s a tool. The waitresses think he’s a tool, the ladies he tries to holler at by the bar think he’s a tool, his two friends think he’s a tool, that guy whose girlfriend Kanye is bear-hugging into oblivion? He definitely thinks he’s a tool. I even think Farnsworth Bentley showed up, and he thinks Kanye is a tool, and that’s a guy who got his big break by holding Diddy’s umbrellas for him. And as Kanye zooms through all of these quick-cut interactions, they bounce back and forth between being incredibly funny and deeply sad. Is there anything more pathetic than yelling, “this is my song!” in a club when it actually is your song, and no one even remotely cares?

And then things get a little weird. We go from a brain-squeezing meta-exercise in considering Kanye West as “Kanye West” to a straight shot into an alternate reality that should inevitably lead to at least half the audience thinking, “dang, I’ve never been that drunk.” If this was a different film, what happens next could probably be described as “whimsical.” But once Jonze has fully committed to taking this unreal route, it all becomes strangely edge-of-your-seat. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and you’re so uncomfortable that it’s possible you’re just going to slip off your seat and right onto your ass.

WE WERE ONCE A FAIRYTALE is a brief meditation on fantasy versus reality. It’s no coincidence that Jonze chose West to play himself or “Kanye West,” this is not a film that works with some unknown actor. As an audience, we need to think we know who we’re dealing with, and then not know, and then maybe know again, and then probably have to lay down for a bit, because what the hell just happened?

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LA Film Festival Review: WEATHER GIRL

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The problem is not that “sassy weather girl” Sylvia has had a meltdown on air, or that her “walking haircut” of a boyfriend has dumped her for his alcoholic and unhinged co-anchor, or even that she’s now homeless and jobless. The problem is how Sylvia’s life has been allowed to get to this point. Sylvia is untethered and unknown to just about everyone in her life, including herself. Her friends don’t remember her little brother’s name. She doesn’t own anything she can’t fit into a box and a suitase. And it’s totally possible she’s spent the last years of her life in a relationship with a man she doesn’t even love. So maybe losing all of that isn’t the worst thing that could happen.

WEATHER GIRL, though ostensibly rooted in formulaic rom-com (girl meets boy, girl isn’t into boy, boy is into girl, boy and girl get down, someone develops feelings, oops), is really a film about being brutally honest with yourself. Sylvia’s younger brother, Walt, admonishes her early in the film, essentially telling her that we don’t all get to be what we want to be in life. Sylvia doesn’t just want to be a “broadcast journalist,” she sees herself that way, even though she is a 35 year old “weather girl” (and sassy to boot!). Despite the fact that she loses everything within the first five minutes of the film, the real secret is that Sylvia never really had anything to lose, she has to find everything for the first time.

WEATHER GIRL is a darker film than I was expecting, because despite often being very funny, writer and director Blayne Weaver doesn’t back down when the going gets rough. Sylvia and Walt’s relationship isn’t all sweet-sunny big sis/little bro understanding; these are two very different people who struggle to put aside their personal issues in order to truly be there for each other. Sylvia’s romantic entanglement with Walt’s best friend Byron works in much the same way – two different people who have to make a realistic decision about where they’re going, and if it’s going to be together. WEATHER GIRL is about growing up, no matter how old you are, and learning that being happy is a choice, that love isn’t just a feeling, it’s verb, and a verb needs action to work.

At a certain point, Sylvia backpedals on many of the decisions that first brought her to the loveless/homeless/jobless state we first found her in. WEATHER GIRL starts to falter a bit then, as the audience gets regaled with all manner of “they’re sad because they’re not together, but, OH HOW CUTE, they are mourning in the exact same way, awww, they do belong together” shots. Bad times aren’t gotten through by standing on a ferry and staring at the ocean, people, they’re gotten through by wearing the same pajamas eight days in a row and subsisting on full-fat Ben and Jerry’s. Sad people don’t leave the house to sketch things. Sad people write bad poetry, at home, alone. But Weaver recaptures much of WEATHER GIRL’s charm as it wraps up, reminding us how happiness can often be the hardest choice of all.

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LA Film Festival Review: ZMD: ZOMBIES OF MASS DESTRUCTION

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Zombie movies are (easily) my favorite genre of horror. Some horror junkies are vampire kids, some like their gorefests filled with masked men with shady reasons, but I need pasty, moaning undead to really get me going. Zombie movies run the gamut between deadly serious (the 28 DAYS LATER trilogy, Romero’s …OF THE LIVING DEAD series), and wickedly funny (DANCE OF THE DEAD, the upcoming ZOMBIELAND). ZMD: ZOMBIES OF MASS DESTRUCTION falls into the latter category, with a generous gash of political reverb running through the entire thing.

Judging the film purely on the Awesome Zombie Scale (a sliding scale that is continually being revamped), ZMD gives us some pretty sweet traditional zombies: slow-moving, groaning, hungry. The media in the film blame the appearance of the zombies on biological warfare from terrorists in the Middle East (a nebulous geographical area to just about everyone in the film), but there is (hilariously) never any basis for these claims. Zombie status is achieved by getting bitten by a zombie, slowly falling into gray illness, and emerging hungry and pissed. When one character refuses to believe that his bitten wife is going to become a zombie, their son even asks, “haven’t you ever seen a zombie movie?!” That’s how you roll with your classic zombiedom – you acknowledge that’s precisely what it is.

Though ZMD doesn’t reinvent the zombie wheel, it is filled with some hilarious and truly inventive zombie moments. These zombies don’t just want your brains, they want your entrails and your face, hell, they’ll have settle for snack from their own body in the meantime. They are not necessarily scary zombies, but there are a lot of them, and they certainly are go-getters. As is the traditional route, we don’t get to know the zombies, but we do get to know a motley crew of live ones who are dedicated to not getting bitten and turned. The best characters in ZMD are zesty fighters with bite (kidding!), people who have no issue picking up a gun or a weed-wacker and plowing their way through the chomping mobs. And, despite the dire situation we find our main characters in, ZMD is often very, very funny. It firmly nods to the fact that it is a zombie movie, and it revels in magnifying cliches for maximum hilarity.

But after awhile, ZMD ceases to be sly and proceeds to beat you over the head with its political slant, so much like a zombie with a severed limb. The break between the ease of a clever zombie flick and the grind of a preachy zombie film comes courtesy of a gratuitous torture scene. For a film that, at one point, features a man getting the skin of his face pulled off by a zombie, the word “gratutious” might seem unusable, but it’s really the only one that’s applicable. “A political zomedy” can absolutely work, but not when one half of that equation suddenly consumes the other.

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LA Film Festival Review: HOLLYWOOD, JE T'AIME

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Director Jason Bushman introduced HOLLYWOOD, JE T’AIME to the premiere’s packed house as “a love letter to his adopted hometown of Los Angeles.” His familiarity with the city is obvious, as he never sticks to the typical Hollywood locations audiences are so used to seeing on screen. The film instead takes place in the grittier parts of Hollywood, the gentrified streets of Silver Lake, the boring parts of West Hollywood, and a dismal Santa Monica beach. It’s real Los Angeles, not a glittery shot of the HOLLYWOOD sign in sight, and it makes a slightly flimsy film seem stronger than it is.

HOLLYWOOD, JE T’AIME occasionally suffers under some stiff acting. The film is Eric Debets’ first feature (he has previously starred in two of Bushman’s shorts), and I often wondered how far Jerome as a character is from Eric as a person – a concern that eats at me. Michael Airington, as Norma Desire, has an overall uneven performance. He has a lot of funny lines, but he often seems so eager to get to them that other exposition is stomped on in order to get them out faster. Diarra Kilpatrick is quite lovely as Kaleesha, but I wished she wouldn’t disappear off our screen quite so much. Chad Allen is the real strength in the supporting cast – his Ross could have been a flat caricature of an LA drug dealer with a secret, but Allen layers his performance in such a way that makes him compelling to watch.

Some of the best scenes in the film involve the wayward Jerome trying to half-heartedly break into Hollywood as an actor. He has two hilarious auditions that are both scathingly funny and scarily true to life. Jerome’s music video casting call is one of the best depictions of the absurdity of Hollywood put to film in awhile, and it serves to show that Bushman does have a real eye for truth and humor.

But HOLLYWOOD, JE T’AIME never seems to figure out what it wants to say. Is it a film about heartbreak? About finding yourself? About forming a “family” of your own making? About the meaning of “home”? About the pratfalls of seeking a Hollywood career? All of these elements are touched on throughout the film, but nothing feels fully formed or satisfyingly developed. It’s not jumpy or jarring, it’s just unfocused and muddled, too many ends to tie up, too quickly tied.

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LA Film Festival Review: WAH DO DEM

Wah-Do-Dem

WAH DO DEM starts off strong, making quick work of giving the audience its “here Max goes on a cruise all by himself and it’s pretty weird” set up. Within five minutes, Max (Sean Bones) loses his girl, finds out all of his friends hated her, finds out all of his friends are flakes, and ends up on alone on a cruise ship populated by blue hairs. This would be enough – Max playing stranger in a strange land, a tight-panted American Apparel devotee kicking it with oldies during the day and partying with the cruise employees at night. It’s funny without being cloying. Chace and Fleichner let Max’s face and reactions tell the story, and it’s certainly fun enough.

Then Max de-boats in Jamaica to check the scene, and things all go to hell. Through his own staggering lack of clarity (the kid is pumped full of Red Stripes and weed, so we do have to give him some wiggle room), Max ends up stripped of just about everything that should be most valuable to someone traveling alone out of the country. It’s a traveler’s worst nightmare, and Max can only watch from the outside, disbelieving that it’s real. This, too, would have been enough – a fine, funny, dark little story, with Max at the center of it, trudging around with only a vague sense of purpose.

But then we hit the final third, and WAH DO DEM falters, and falters spectacularly. Max has kept relatively level regarding the increasingly insane events unfolding before him, so when we veer straight into some misplaced mysticism, it’s no surprise that Max approaches even that with the sleepy-eyed acceptance of a stoner. Max might not realize the problem, but we do – he’s not going to change. He hasn’t learned anything from his journey. He probably didn’t even want to. He’s been hit over the head with all sorts of new people and new situations, but his eyes aren’t opened, they are still at half-mast.

I’d be remiss to not give WAH DO DEM credit for experimental chutzpah. Despite being made on the cheap and the fly, it all looks pretty good. And Bones, despite not being a professional actor (he’s a singer), is fun and interesting to watch. But the letdown of the last third is palatable and obvious, compared to the subtle hilarity and promise of the first two acts.

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