Nerd's Eye on the Los Angeles Film Fest: Three I Recommend, 11 to Watch

By Luke Y. Thompson in Daily Lists, Movies
Thursday, June 12, 2014 at 6:00 am

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It isn't truly summer in Los Angeles until the L.A. Film Festival hits, but what the hell does that mean to you if you don't live in L.A.? The short answer is that means I write about movies you'll theoretically be talking about a couple months down the line - last year's fest featured the likes of You're Next (which maybe should be retitled, "You're welcome, WWE's Wyatt family, for the sheep mask gimmick we practically handed you"), Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, and of course My Little Pony: Equestria Girls.

This year's edition kicked of last night with the director's cut of the long-delayed Snowpiercer, and kicks off in full today. If you're in or around Los Angeles, consider this a guide to our picks seen and unseen. If you aren't, consider it a cheat-sheet for things to keep an eye open for the rest of the year...and a brief respite from reading about all the obvious blockbusters.



SEEN:

1. Snowpiercer.

When you see it, you'll understand why Harvey Weinstein was nervous. Think Wizard of Oz meets Oldboy while trying to be Brazil, and I mean trying so hard that one of the major characters is actually named Gilliam. A parable of class-struggle and control set on an advanced, essentially magic train that circumnavigates the cold, dead globe once a year, Snowpiercer stars Chris Evans as Curtis, hero-to-be of the train's dirty, slum-like tail section where people survive on gelatinous protein bars and must occasionally give up their children to be taken to the rich, elitist, heavily armed front section, never to be seen again.

But when Curtis manages to bust out a master locksmith from cryoprison, and it turns out to be Song Kang Ho, well...can anybody stand against the combined forces of Captain America and Mr. Vengeance?

If I were Harvey, I'd have trimmed only the first minute of the film, in which we learn how our modern world became this one. Yet because this new reality has a tendency to follow dream logic, there's a disconnect - if this is our world, how can we so cavalierly accept that the train essentially runs on magic science, and that each carriage is basically a TARDIS, each a different shape from the next and bigger on the inside? It would be easier to accept as a fable, and so you should - a fairy tale of sorts with darker motives, more violence than the Grimms would envision, and some nasty things to say about libertarianism versus control.

Based on a French comic, this is exactly the sort of movie that bolsters the argument that comic-book movies need not stop being made, nor all fit the Marvel mold. Unfortunately, it does bolster Chris Evans' case that retiring from acting isn't a bad plan - outside of the Cap costume, he's a bit lost. On the other hand, Tilda Swinton's dentures deserve a Best Supporting Oscar nomination all their own.

2. Inner Demons.

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Many of the objections I've heard to this film center on a general feeling that found-footage movies are over, and tiresome. I don't accept that premise - good stories can be told in any medium and genre, and just because the Paranormal Activity series is starting to have issues doesn't mean we should cancel every idea that features protagonists filming themselves.

Besides, it's tough to make an exorcism horror movie knowing that you will automatically draw comparisons to a film many people consider the scariest of all time, but Inner Demons has two twists going for it. One is that we are ostensibly watching a Dr. Drew-style intervention reality show, and the other is that the young, cute heroin addict in the picture is the way she is because the needle is the only way to subdue a demon that has possessed her. It's a great metaphor, but it pretty quickly becomes literal.

Newcomer Lara Vosburgh makes a strong impression as the victimized Carson, whom you can understand the filmmakers-within-the-film crushing on even as she ultimately becomes terrifying. And quite unlike the endless franchise that I'll stop naming now, this film does not cop out at the end, but really sticks the landing with a finale you'll remember.

3. I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story.

Who here doesn't love Big Bird? BOOOOOO if you raise your hand. You'll probably be happy to know that, as per this Kickstarter-funded documentary, the man in the puffy yellow suit is just as kind and loving as the overgrown fowl he portrays (he's also Oscar the Grouch, whom he based on a New York cab driver, and ended up playing far more kind-heartedly than what was envisioned).

If you're looking for dirt, there isn't any - Caroll Spinney, we are told, is a loving husband, liked by everyone who knows him; the worst thing he ever did was hire a stone mason who later murdered somebody, but the victim's family totally forgave Spinney and they all hugged it out, because you just can't hate the man.

So I'd have to say the usual rules of drama don't apply - conflict is essential for narrative tension as a rule, but when you're watching the history of Big Bird - just like when you watched Big Bird as a kid - you want to be reassured. And this film does that in spades.

Now, onto those I haven't seen, but (mostly) cannot wait to (and believe me, you'll see why)..


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