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Report On This Year’s LAFF

Report On This Year's LAFF

Occupied last weekend in New York, I haven’t been able to attend the new downtown version of the Los Angeles Film Festival nearly as much as I would have liked. But my limited experiences there have been good, as has been the word on much of the lineup.

New programming director David Ansen’s worst fears—about the Lakers/Celtics NBA final taking place next door at the Staples Center simultaneously with his opening night—were realized, and the battalions of police and traffic barriers made driving there something like running an obstacle course. The celebrity wattage may have been low—neither of the evening’s female stars, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, was on hand in the theater– but otherwise the June 17 bow was just about perfect. Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right,” tightened in minor but entirely productive ways since its January world premiere at Sundance, proved an ideal opener. It’s an audience pleaser that’s also sophisticated and funny, and with a bracingly irreverent attitude toward its own political correctness.

[Above: A scene from Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right.” Photo courtesy of LAFF]

As a middle-aged lesbian couple with two teenage kids, Bening and Moore are in top form—I’m not sure Bening has ever been better onscreen—and Mark Ruffalo reasserts his heartthrob status as the impossibly cool biological father in whom the various family members invest widely divergent, and sometimes competing, expectations and fantasies. Directing a script that shows every sign of having been deepened and enriched many times over, Cholodenko takes a major step beyond her work on “High Art” and “Laurel Canyon” with a film that has as good shot as any other current indie-flavored feature of getting a tenuous foothold in mainstream territory.

Anyone who’s never seen it—and even those who have–should beat a path for the downtown movie palace The Orpheum on Saturday evening to see Luchino Visconti’s masterpiece “The Leopard” in the brilliant restoration I raved about from Cannes last month. There is also one more screening, on Friday, of another Sundance hit, of David Michod’s excellent Australian gangster drama, “Animal Kingdom,” as well as one Saturday night of Ditteke Mensink’s outstanding Graf Zeppelin documentary “Farewell,” about which I recently wrote.

Brett Haley’s “The New Year” looks pretty sharp and professional for a no-budget venture and benefits from the arresting presence of newcomer Trieste Kelly Dunn at its center. Of course, you don’t—or shouldn’t–make a film like this, in which the camera remains fixated on one actor the way a cat stalks a bird, unless you have a performer of sufficient luminosity and ability to carry it, especially when the story is entirely ordinary.

Fortunately, Dunn stands up to the continual scrutiny, revealing in incremental degrees her character’s frustration, fears and paralyzing sense of stasis in a world that presents pathetically few options. Pulled back from school to Pensacola, Florida, when her father contracts cancer, Sunny stands on death watch for an indeterminate period and increasingly feels time slipping away from her as she dates a milquetoasty guy who bonded with her over Jane Austen and works dispensing shoes at a bowling alley whose life expectancy is even shorter than her father’s. She also writes a lot in her journal, but Haley refuses to tempt the viewer with the idea that Sunny is a secret literary genius for whom it’s only a matter of time until she breaks through to recognition and success.

With nothing locally to cling to or provide hope, Sunny very tentatively hitches her wagon, by default, to Isaac, a former high school rival who’s since moved to New York and is taking baby steps as a stand-up comic. Mildly obnoxious but at least humorous and not boring, Isaac isn’t adverse to the attractive young woman’s interest, but Sunny, too confused to make a proper connection, in the end has a very long way to go to getting her life together. An open-faced, clear-eyed, dark-haired girl next door, Dunn is very good indeed, while Haley shows he knows what he’s doing, if not much else. The Florida setting and intimate concentration on a young woman’s self-discovery put one in mind of “Ruby in Paradise,” but “The New Year” doesn’t approach the contemplative serenity and moving undercurrents of Victor Nunez’s fine film. All the same, it will no doubt provide a useful calling card for Haley and Dunn,who have already made another feature together, “A Night Out.”

I wish I were more favorably disposed toward the festival’s closing night attraction, but “Despicable Me,” a French-produced 3D animated feature with big-time Hollywood aspirations, feels like a wannabe rather than the real thing. It’s a Scrooge story informed by James Bond by way of Austin Powers, about an aspiring world-class villain who means to outdo all other pretenders by stealing the moon. Amusingly, he’s a hunched-over, penguin-like figure with an unsightly hooked nose, a Russian accent and a mother complex, one who lords it over countless yellow minions but is undone, or set right, by three orphan girls he adopts.

As expected of any self-respecting animated feature these days, “Despicable Me,” which was directed by Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin, written by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio from a story by Sergio Pablos and produced by former Fox Animation president Chris Meledandri, is antic, smart-mouthed, colorfully designed and fast on its feet. In its preoccupation with overweening evil, it is also rather old hat, even in the way it sends itself up, most notably by having its nasty mastermind experience financial problems in launching his scheme. The central rivalry here is not between good and evil but between two villains trying to top one another and, while this is mirth-inducing for a spell, it’s not enough to sustain the full running time or give the story much weight. Spirited voice work by the likes of Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Will Arnett and Kristen Wiig lifts things to a point, but what buoyancy it does achieve proves impossible to sustain.

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