LA FILM FEST ’14: RECOMMENDED BY ENRIQUE

A young actress and an older Mexican man both venture to Del Rio, Texas for the first time. The actress is there to shoot a micro-budget horror flick by a perennially absent director, a gig she got by posting Youtube videos about her craft and her penchant for reading tarot cards. The man is there for some sort of criminal endeavor, one which becomes more obvious as time goes on. Problem is, his contacts are nowhere to be found, and he’s stuck passing his time with local activities like karaoke and shopping.

Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia’s movie is basically a collection of scenes depicting these two passing time in Del Rio, fighting off their boredom and insecurity while vaguely hoping for a positive outcome to their respective situations. As a portrait of the town, which the directors claimed was a big motivation for making the movie, it’s something of a success; using largely real-life denizens and personalities from the area, Attieh and Garcia do a great job of evoking what it would be like to live there, or at least visit for as long as the two leads do.

Also, mention must be made of Sarah Swinwood’s performance as the amateur actress. In a role partially modeled after her own persona (the directors indeed “discovered” her via her Youtube channel), Swinwood does some really honest, brave work as the wannabe starlet, desperately going along with the ramshackle production despite her misgivings and the fact that she’s never even met the film’s director. There’s a sad, lost quality to her performance that is familiar to anyone who’s ever worked with actors trying to make an impression and break through to the industry. She creates a unique, memorable character out of very little material, and the movie would have been better off simply focusing on her.

The film claims that it’s “based on a true story,” and half of it is. The directors really did venture to Del Rio to help out on a dinky horror movie, only to find that its director was a no-show and the budget was quite literally non-existent. Thus, the section about the production of a similar horror film contains more truth than the “crime” half. Not to say its perfect, or even particularly engaging; the long, loose scenes of Swinwood trying to perform on camera or dealing with her deep insecurity in her motel room often end up grating and redundant. But at least it all comes from somewhere honest and real. That much can’t be said about the other half.

There’s absolutely nothing redeeming about the pseudo-BLAST OF SILENCE “criminal waiting for his marching orders” half of the film. Nothing at all. Not one interesting moment, not one clever spin on the old noir archetypes clearly being emulated, just an old guy rambling around this town aimlessly while narrating (from beyond the grave) about how he never made it out of Del Rio. Example: “I stayed in and drank beer. Had I known I was going to die in two days, I might’ve gone out.” His story never intersects with the actress’ in any meaningful way, and it’s a non-starter of plotline that not only lacks anything of substance, but ends up detracting from the stronger, richer side of the film.

I applaud Attieh and Garcia for their ambitious, low-key approach to this film, but it’s so nonchalant that it ends up feeling like nothing’s there. There’s not enough going on to give it the kind of watchability of similarly drawn-out stuff like some of Jim Jarmusch’s slower films, and the intentional “nothing ever happens” plotting ends up backfiring and sinking the film. Aside from Swinwood’s lived-in performance and a great use of the town of Del Rio, I’m sorry to say that I found nothing else here to make this film worth recommending.

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LA FILM FEST ’14: HARMONTOWN

Dan Harmon is a fascinating individual. But we already knew that. The legends of his on-set demeanor while serving as showrunner on COMMUNITY are known far and wide by savvy denizens of the web. His podcast, also titled Harmontown, has developed a reputation for its honesty, nerdiness, and Harmon’s tendency to cavort drunkenly amongst his rapturous audiences. He is just as willing to expose his co-stars flaws (particularly legendarily jerky Chevy Chase) as he is to devote whole episodes to public games of Dungeons and Dragons. When he was fired off of his own show in 2012, Harmon toured with his podcast across the U.S. while Neil Berkeley filmed him, his girlfriend, and his companions.

As someone who’s watched every produced episode of COMMUNITY and RICK AND MORTY, but who’s never listened to Mr. Harmon’s infamous podcast, I was curious to get a glimpse into the writer’s conflicted, intelligent mind. The behind-the-scenes drama on COMMUNITY, with Chevy Chase in particular, was so widely reported that I had an image of the guy as this sort of uncontrollable hellion, a dude so into his fans and his own sense of self-expression that he was willing to burn bridges with people HE WAS STILL WORKING WITH. Inevitably, Harmon’s more complicated than that, especially at the time the doc was shot when two new showrunners were brought in to handle his baby: the big question he asks himself in this doc is, “Now that I have everything I want, what do I do now?” Or, as he puts it, “Am I Joss Whedon or Kevin Smith, or am I working the counter at Pizza Hut?”

The other interesting subject of Berkeley’s doc is Spencer, Harmon’s requisite Dungeon Master, and a traveling companion with the podcast. A 23-ish guy with a long beard who lives with his parents, Spencer is proclaimed to be the “hero” of the film, as we watch him become more extroverted as he’s forced to interact with giddily loving fans on the road. He’s a soft-spoken gent, the kind of guy who never expected to be in the limelight of any sort, but his onstage demeanor contains an effortless charm, and he often gets in the best jokes of the three main podcasters.

These guys are very likable, interesting guys, but that’s kind of all the doc’s got in its chamber, and it’s not enough for 90-some-odd minutes. So Berkeley splits his focus between the two personalities and the fans of the podcast, and the latter makes for boring, redundant, self-congratulatory tripe. Imagine the beginning of RAW, with all the Eddie Murphy fans expressing their excitement over seeing his show and their love for his comedy, except dragged out for basically half a feature film. It seems like it’s supposed to be surprising that in every town Harmon and his buddies go to, they’re greeted with a warm reception and adulation from their fans. Sorry, Berkeley: it’s not.

That stuff becomes like the lesser side of COMMUNITY, where cool, handsome, charming, and revered Jeff Winger condescends to the weirdness of his surroundings by talking about how “cool” and “brave” it is to be unconventional and bizarre while wearing fashionable clothing and douchebag hair week in and week out. That superficial, wannabe-REVENGE OF THE NERDS stuff didn’t work in 2-minute third-act speeches on COMMUNITY, and it certainly doesn’t work as one of the main focuses of this picture. Sure, it’s cute to see a UT Austin film student geek out after a tete-a-tete with Harmon. But is it informative of anything beyond the fact that that kid was a big fan? Compared to something like Morgan Spurlock’s great COMIC-CON: EPISODE IV – A FAN’S HOPE, it reveals next to nothing about Harmon’s writing or what type of people tend to gravitate towards it, aside from very broad, hokey generalizations about the “outcasts” and the “misunderstood”. Also, while a subplot deals with Harmon’s inability to meet his deadlines to write pilots for CBS and FOX, there’s not a single mention of RICK AND MORTY, which Harmon co-created with Justin Roiland and which is far less schmaltzy and faux-sincere than COMMUNITY or this documentary. As someone who looks at that as the crowning achievement of Harmon’s writing career thus far (including the excellent HEAT WAVE AND JACK and his SARAH SILVERMAN SHOW episodes), I was a little disappointed to see it passed over so completely.

Despite the pleasure of seeing Harmon and Spencer on stage, mingling with fans, and just hanging out behind-the-scenes, HARMONTOWN is a misfire, a DVD special feature injected with schmaltz and redundancy to pad out its running time. Only for diehard Harmon fans.

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LA FILM FEST ’14: THE MAN FROM RENO

A famous Japanese author comes to San Francisco to dodge publicity surrounding her recent detective novel. She has a one-night-stand with a handsome stranger, who promptly disappears. A San Marcos cop drives through fog as thick as smoke and hits a guy with his car. Unable to ID the fellow, he digs around to try and figure out who he almost killed out there in the desert, and why evidence shows that he was already close to beaten-to-death when the collision occurred. These two stories take a while to intersect, but when they do, THE MAN FROM RENO becomes a direct, pointed mystery tale with two unconventional leads and a strong sense of bitterness and moral ambiguity.

Dave Boyle’s psuedo-noir is not the tightest film in the world, nor do its payoffs satisfy its lofty ambitions, but it at the very least hacks out an identity for itself amidst the cluttered library of cinematic mysteries. The biggest way it does this is my favorite thing about the whole film: even though not a stitch of the narrative takes place outside the U.S., both leads are ethnic, yet very little is made of that fact. Though both Sheriff Del Moral (Pepe Serna) and Aki Akahori (Ayako Fujitani) are both non-white, they speak perfect English and do nothing to call attention to their respective origins. Seeing that writer/director is a dorky young white guy just makes it more impressive that he chose to make this mismatched pair his protagonists.

However, aside from that wonderfully contemporary twist, the tale is fairly by-the-numbers. There’s the rich, sick old man with secrets (played by character actor and murderer of Mrs. Riggs Derrick O’Connor), the beautiful stranger (who, in another novel twist, is a guy), the dimestore-novel red herrings (including, I swear to God, a matchbook with a phone number on it), and the flawed, compromised protagonist. Aki is revealed to be more duplicitous than she initially makes herself out to be, but her transgressions are harmless and don’t bury her in the audiences eyes as much as Boyle may have hoped for. The biggest problem with the film is that we really don’t care that much about either character, or what happens to them. I was kept at a distance for the length of the film, and only appreciated its strengths from an objective, unconcerned point of view. It doesn’t help that a ton of characters pop in and out, with none of their contributions amounting to much more than getting our protagonists from point A to point B.

I see what Boyle was going for, and I applaud him for his efforts. I just wish the film lived up to the benchmarks of the noir that he was clearly trying to emulate and one-up with his particular contributions to the crime genre.

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LA FILM FEST ’14: LAND HO!

Two senior citizens and former brothers-in-law, Mitch and Colin, are at Mitch’s Kentucky house eating a nice dinner and having some drinks. Mitch is a rambunctious good ol’ boy, an aging doctor who refuses to retire: “They’ll have me buried and my hand will be sticking out of my grave, still trying to operate.” Colin’s more of a soft-spoken introvert, getting over his second divorce after dumping the last of his emotional and financial resources into the failed marriage. Like he was discussing something he saw on TV, Mitch casually mentions that he’s bought two tickets to a flight to Iceland departing that very night. Colin instinctively balks at the idea, but he realizes that as a retired divorcee, he’s got nowhere better to be. So they go to Iceland. Continue reading

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LA FILM FEST ’14: THE BATTERED BASTARDS OF BASEBALL

Right off the bat (no pun intended), let me just say I’m not a big baseball (or sports) guy. I played Little League as a babe, but my view of the plate was always from either left field or the bench because I was last on the roster. Living around New York, I enjoyed my fair share of Mets and Yankees games over the years, but I couldn’t tell you one statistic, record, or factoid that wasn’t highlighted in EIGHT MEN OUT, *61, or A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN.

And yet, this documentary managed to get to me. Continue reading

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