Sad Is the New Funny

Amusing movies about depressed young men are in at the Los Angeles Film Festival

You think, or maybe hope, that people who see films at a film festival are more likely to be genuine cinema lovers than most. You assume that means they have a little respect for the moviegoing experience, and their fellow film fans.

In the case of the Los Angeles Film Festival, though, you aren't necessarily right about that.

If you're going to talk during a movie, really do it. I'm talking like they do at the Magic Johnson theater. Yell out something like, "Oh no you didn't!" or "Bitch, don't go in there!" That can be fun.

Bad omen: Joshua and family. Photo by JoJo Whilden
Bad omen: Joshua and family. Photo by JoJo Whilden

Don'tsit down beside me, and spend the movie murmuring stuff just loudly enough to annoy me, especially if your observations are such gems as, "He did something to her," or "I like the score." Thanks, dummy, we were all on pins and needles wondering if some random jerk thinks the music is effective. This was the guy to the right of me during the screening of Joshua; I told him to shut up, and that lasted maybe 30 minutes. To my left, a bald Persian dude who complained about my companion's text messaging (which is fair game to complain about) only to engage a running commentary throughout, at one point even kinda dancing in his seat, or something.

None of this would have been a problem if the festival people had simply let us sit where we wanted to sit, but even though the theater was maybe half-full at best, they still had to herd us into little designated areas just so the volunteers "can keep track." I opted to forgo the critics' row near the very back, and apparently therefore got the "Obnoxious a-holes who imagine they're hot shit just because they purchased a Film Independent membership" row.

Joshua, as it happens, is pretty ridiculous, and could have used a few loud audience rejoinders, despite solid efforts from acting deities Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga. The filmmakers are apparently attempting to re-position it as a "black comedy," even though it was conceived as straight horror. We call this the Tommy Wiseau strategy. (Congratulate yourself if you get that reference; rent The Room on DVD if you don't.)

I don't know who the two people behind me were who kept muttering throughout What We Do Is Secret—when they weren't getting up and going to the lobby, or coming back from the lobby—but they were in lead actor Shane West's reserved row, so you'd think they'd do their best to make sure people enjoy his movie. I'd have moved, but for having snagged one of the few seats in the house with great legroom.

Shane stars as punk rocker Darby Crash, and presumably Germs fans will know what that title means, because the film never says. It's tough to review a movie about a band I don't know much about, but what can be said with certainty is that West's performance evokes an all-too-recognizable mix of ambition and crushing depression. He nails that emotional tone—whether it's what Darby was like, I know not; but boy, do I know that mood.

In other movies about depressed young dudes, we have Charlie Bartlett, a comedy in which the title character, a mix of Ferris Bueller and Max Fischer, gets kicked out of a fancy private school and ends up going to regular old high school, where he becomes hugely popular by dealing drugs of the prescription variety and running afoul of the alcoholic principal, played by Robert Downey Jr. Former Groundlings member Scott Prendergast wrote, directed, and stars in the hilarious Kabluey, about an aimless thirtysomething who moves in with his sister-in-law (Lisa Kudrow) to help her mind two monstrous children while hubby's away in Iraq. To gain some extra income, he finds a job inside a padded foam suit, playing the giant blue mascot for a nearly defunct dot-com.

Remember in the movie version of Silent Hill, how the haunted town was a rural coal-mining community where coal fires burned nonstop underground? That was partially inspired by Centralia, Pennsylvania, subject of Chris Perkel and Georgie Roland's documentary The Town That Was. In 1962, the townspeople started a "controlled" fire to burn up the local trash heap, but seams of anthracite coal down below caught fire, and have been burning ever since—eleven people are left, mostly old men, but one is a 33-year-old named John who has a strong sense of tradition, and a pretty good sense of denial regarding the harm that living on top of a seeping bed of carbon monoxide can cause.

And on the subject of haunting rural spaces with sparse populations, we also have Ti West's Trigger Man. Ti is a friend of mine, so take that for what it's worth, but his follow-up to the killer bat movie The Roost is superior in almost every way, and cheaper, too! Give the man a quarter and he might be able to shoot something out of it. Basically, three New York friends drive upstate to hunt deer in the woods. They don't find much, or talk much... but an unseen sniper finds them. Next up for Ti is Cabin Fever 2.

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