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Colin Farrell! Michael Moore! Scary German ET! 7 Films From L.A.’s AFI Fest 2015 to Look Out For

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Last year at Los Angeles’ AFI Fest Presented By Audi (as they like you to refer to it at least once in every article), we discovered for you the creepy Austrian drama Goodnight Mommy, the cult horror hit It Follows, and the stunning crime drama in Ukrainian sign language called The Tribe, which is still one of my favorite flicks of 2015. This year, as we focused on the sci-fi, horror, fantasy and action entries as best we could, some even bigger, badder and weirder movies revealed themselves.

Given the talent involved in some of these, from Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan to Rachel Weisz and Larry Fessenden, you’re sure to see them hit theaters in the months ahead. Others were just so striking that it’s pretty clear we haven’t heard the last of them. In no particular order, these are the seven entries I believe will be of most interest to TRV readers, and possibly available near you (or your cable box) soon.

1. The Lobster

Imagine a world in which the sanctity of marriage – hetero OR same-sex – is so important that you aren’t allowed to be single. Instead, the moment a breakup is finalized, you are sent to a hotel by the sea, stripped of all your possessions, and given 45 days to find a match based on your primary defining characteristic. Should you fail to do so, you’ll be turned into a lobster.

Who says there are no original movies any more? Actually, the lobster part is semi-optional – you get turned into any animal you choose, but Colin Farrell’s David is the first to select a lobster, based on his perception that they live to be 100 years old and have blue blood, like royalty. And when a match doesn’t immediately materialize, he has to consider the option of faking a relationship – as his best friend does by banging his nose against the wall to induce bleeding, so as to match up with a pretty young girl prone to the natural sort of nosebleed. However, when David tries to fake love for a sociopath, the lengths to which she’ll go to catch him in a lie prove terrifying.

And that’s just the first half of the movie, narrated in the past tense by Rachel Weisz, whose character is simply billed as Short-Sighted Woman. She eventually meets David, and things become present-tense, when he goes to the opposite extreme and finds a group of defiantly single people hiding out in the woods. Their punishments for straying are just as extreme, however, slicing open the mouths of people who dare to kiss.

As in his more aggressively unlikable Dogtooth, writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos has created a hermetically sealed world with arbitrarily bizarre rules, only this time they extend beyond the whims of an insane patriarch and to an entire society. It’s all pretty deadpan and frequently very funny – punctuated, as is Lanthimos’ wont, with brutal violence towards animals (the movie opens with a donkey being repeatedly shot in the head).

Farrell feels like he has been freed up by becoming paunchy and middle-aged (albeit still a pretty damn handsome paunchy, middle-aged guy) – this low-key sad-sack talks as if he just discovered language for the first time, and conveys the fact that indeed, sometimes lack of confidence and not looks is what makes the difference in a coupling situation. Lea Seydoux is also a standout in a complete 180 from her recent James Bond role, as the leader of the militant singles.

Where the movie falters is in pacing – it’s like there are three distinct movies here that want their own space. The hotel in and of itself could have been the whole story, as could the time in the woods – then there’s a third act that appears to have an entirely new point to make. Thematically, the whole thing can be summed up as “dating and singlehood sucks, but just slightly more than the alternative,” but each part of the whole seems to pursue that point for different reasons. That’s not an unacceptable approach, but it does make the film feel long, as we break out of one rhythm and have to settle into a new one each time.

It’s also odd that Lanthimos specifically sets this in the real world, by having one character choose to watch Stand By Me on her last day as a human. I can understand not wanting to give us an escape hatch, but what are we to make of the uncoupled adult characters in said film?

2. Der Nachtmar

Imagine if, instead of being about a young boy in the American suburbs, E.T. were about a teenage German girl into rave culture, and instead of an alien, she had a delusion inspired by images of an embryo her friend photographed from biology class. You’d have Der Nachtmar, meaning The Nightmare, which wears its influence so solidly on its sleeve that our heroine even has an E.T. action figure on her desk.

Tina (Carolyn Genzkow) is having a bad time, following a recent on-again, off-again breakup with her singer boyfriend, and a bad drug trip. So it doesn’t much help matters when the embryo creature shows up in her house at night to raid the fridge, mess up her stuff, and accidentally cut itself (since they share a weirdly empathic bond, the creature getting cut results in Tina getting cut too). Worse, just when she’s about to show it to somebody and prove it exists, the thing disappears (that she NEVER ONCE thinks to take a photo of it with her ever-present smartphone is the story’s biggest lapse in narrative logic). Meanwhile, her parents consider having Tina committed to a psychiatric facility.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to have been a lot of thought put into things beyond, “E.T., but scary and German” (or as Rob Bricken might call it, E.T.). What is the creature an allegory for, or a manifestation of? Besides the rave drugs, why is Tina having a breakdown? What concerned her parents prior to the creature showing up? Is that really Kim Gordon cameoing as the English teacher? (Yes.)

The visuals are pretty cool, but the film they enhance is a premise in search of further depth.

3. A War

From a nerd perspective, one major reason to check out this Danish film was to get a first look at lead actor Pilou Asbaek, who just got cast as Batou in the American Ghost in the Shell remake. All evidence here suggests he’ll be fine, as he capably and humanly plays a commanding officer in Afghanistan determined to keep his men alive, and a father of three who must account for his action when he returns home.

The war of the title is vague – on the one hand, it most obviously refers to the fight against the Taliban that Asbaek’s Claus Pedersen wages. But this is cross-cut with the “battle” back home, as his wife struggles to keep the household and children on track, and situations can indeed become life-or-death when the youngest swallows a bottle of pills, or the eldest gets in a vicious fistfight and starts biting. Then there’s the third war, a court case in which Pedersen is forced to answer for an airstrike he called in that killed civilians. If he takes the punishment like a good soldier, he’ll be away from his kids four more years, and who knows how much more they’ll start acting out?

Writer-director Tobias Lindholm keeps things nicely balanced – whether you’re a dyed-in-the-wool troop supporter no matter what, or a hardcore anti-warrior, you can watch and understand why Pedersen does what he feels he has to do, while still recoiling at the notion that children anywhere need to die under rubble in an unending conflict with no resolution in sight. Pedersen will spiritually be at war with himself no matter what he does next, and the film brings that dilemma home both literally and emotionally. While Hollywood movies tend to break down along political lines –  In the Valley of Elah is promoted (and derided) as “anti-war” while Lone Survivor is “pro-war,” for example – A War feels like one for all sides, as a call to see human frailty everywhere.

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