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June 27, 2007 1:55 AM
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LAFF '07 CRITICS NOTEBOOK | Mingling the Trashy and the Pop & Going High Profile

Vera Farmiga and Sam Rockwell in a scene from George Ratliff's "Joshua." Photo by Jojo Whilden, courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

With two midnight sections and horror films for both the centerpiece and closing night selections, the 2007 Los Angeles Film Festival certainly loves its genre film. Cleverly placing the more serious, truly terrifying films in the festival's "Dark Wave" section and the trashier, pure pop sensations in "Guilty Pleasures," LAFF has, as they do with much of their other programming, declared their devotion to both the entertaining and artistic side of filmmaking. With George Ratliff's "Joshua" and Danny Boyle's "Sunshine" at play in the larger slots, it becomes clear that the two can blend nicely.

"Joshua," prepping for its US release after building up quite a controversy at this year's Sundance, certainly exemplifies the confluence of art and entertainment. A throwback to the terror of the '70s paying homage to films like Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" and Richard Donner's "The Omen," Ratliff's narrative debut carries itself with class and creativity as it tells the story of a dysfunctional family who is about to learn just how special their creepy son really is.

The film begins with a slow-burning structure, only to throw caution to the wind about half way through when Ratliff, no stranger to harmonizing complex tones and ambiguity as he did in his documentary "Hell House," becomes aware that the classic tropes he is employing may not play to same effect with a contemporary audience and, instead, adopts a more modern sense of irony that carries the film to its climax. "Joshua" is a work of deep thought, worthy of note in the most prestigious festivals and sneaking into a commercial realm through the narrow margin of classic genre that it blends into its intelligence.

The closing night is no shabby piece of work either. Despite a few missteps in the third act, Danny Boyle's spaceshuttle-adventure-to-save-the-world-gone-wrong flick captures the best moments of Stanley Kubrick's "2001" and adds Boyle's own brand of post-apocalyptic fear that he first discussed in "28 Days Later." Leaning on the more conventional side of Ratliff's balancing act, Boyle's film discusses something far more timely: a fear of humanity's reaction when the world falls apart.

But who needs references when you are looking for fun? One of the best theatrical experiences of the 2007 LAFF has to be watching Chalerm Wongpim's "Dynamite Warrior" on a big screen with a packed house. A no-holds barred Thai action flick that delivers on all of its small promises, "Warrior" embodies all that the "Guilty Pleasures" section of the festival was created for. Though not the jaw-dropping circus that recent counterparts like "Ong Bak" have been, "Warrior" certainly packs in the rip-roaring trash, featuring a laughable plot and enough action to put "Transformers" to shame. Set your sights low and the bar will be cleared by miles.

The "Dark Wave" section is a bit less fruitful in its attempts to be allusive, especially with the world premiere of Jeremy Kasten's "Wizard of Gore." A remake of Herschell Gordon Lewis' bizarre gorefest, this Suicide Girls' produced piece of direct-to-video stars Crispin Glover as a mysterious magician who performs violent tricks in which they seem to come out unharmed, but leaves his volunteers massacred the following day. "Gore" suffers perhaps the most from the choice of source material. Clearly made on a decent budget, the film's art direction seems to have more in common with a porno from 1990 than a slasher film from 1970. Efforts from famous faces including Kip Pardue and Bijou Phillips seem secondary to displaying the naked bodies of Suicide Girls in the most grotesque manner, and the predictable plot runs stale after about ten minutes.

A notch above that is Pavel Ruminov's highly anticipated Russian version of a J-Horror entitled "Dead Daughters." This beautifully shot mess follows a group of 20-somethings as they attempt to keep away from morally reprehensible activities to ward off two ghosts. Desperately in need of a professional editor, Ruminov charges forward with no idea how to accent his moments of genius by placing them correctly into the narrative. The film, which was supposedly truncated from an even more unwieldy 3-plus hours and now boasts a still formidable 2:05 running time, does not support the standard framework indicative of so many "Ring" rip-offs that have come before it. Some sequences come off scary, others confusingly referential--apparently to ideas built up in the longer cut. Basically the film comes off as an overlong abstract exercise that displays lots of directorial promise but offers nothing to a genre that has been tired for about two years now.

On the other hand, Ti West's sophomore effort, a low-budget tension-fest entitled "Trigger Man" successfully flips genre on its head in the simplest way possible. West made a splash on the underground horror scene in 2005 with his first film, "The Roost," a throwback to '70s B-horror that satisfies on the visceral levels. Changing gears here, West creates something close to a mumblecore set-up and then, shockingly and without mercy, knocks it down with sudden bursts of violence. One insightful viewer described it to me as "[Kelly Reichardt's] 'Old Joy'...with guns." This description is not too far off from the truth. One of the best examples of five-dollars-and-a-dream genre filmmaking I've seen perhaps, ever, "Trigger Man" manages to keep the viewer on the edge of his seat with an intentional lack of stylization, relying purely on timing and events to create mood. It shows just how talented West's direction really is, and provides a great send-off to this chapter of his indie career as he heads into the final stages of editing the latest installment of the Lionsgate produced franchise "Cabin Fever," which he wrote himself.

But even for all its insightful initiative, the intelligence of "Trigger Man" cannot touch the referential polish of Johnnie To's masterpiece, "Exiled." Featured in a plethora of festivals around the country and making its last stop here in the "Summer Previews" program before its theatrical release, To's film is simply the best Hong Kong action has to offer. A remake of his 1999 film "The Mission," "Exiled" follows a group of five renegade hit men trying to escape to a better life after four of them disobey their boss out of loyalty to the fifth. Fantastic gun fights, beautiful choreography, razor sharp shifts in tone and smart characterizations aside, the film delves deep into the history of noir as the main players dream of a better place while they revel in the darkness of their current life.

Like "Joshua" and "Sunshine", "Exiled" works best when it is drawing upon a very strong lineage, giving winks to masters like Sergio Leone. Still, at its core, To is stealing from himself, only to bring it back ten times better than before. The film is constructed with such care and precision, as if To was the conductor of the most complex piece of music--and every note is perfect.

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