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.

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.

In other news involving horror movies that aren't scary, Russia apparently hasn't yet received the news that the "J-horror" films as a trend are over, hence Dead Daughters, a rip-off of The Ring/Ringu in which the ghosts of three drowned girls will kill you three days after you encounter their last victim. There's a Hollywood remake in the works, because a remake of a ripoff of a dead trend is just what we need.

Build a Ship, Sail to Sadnessplays like Borat crossed with The Brown Bunny, minus any nudity. Got that? Now imagine the worst visual quality imaginable—the movie was actually shot on Hi-8 and transferred to 16mm, but it looks like it was shot on VHS and left unplayed in a closet for ten years. This is deliberate, but ugly as hell, and a major gamble with jaded audiences.

Magnus Aronson, apparently a Scandinavian musician in real life, is Vincent, a young man traveling through small mountain towns in Scotland trying to sell the locals on the idea of a mobile disco, which he thinks will be a cure for loneliness. The locals are real, and in their tight-knit community don't feel lonely at all, so they don't get it at all. Vincent also treats us to some of his absurdly pathos-laden songs, which were apparently the original inspiration for the movie. Writer-director Laurin Federlein claims he originally intended to make a tragic, moving piece about finding beauty in the pathetic, but Magnus took it in a whole other direction. Despite the apparent ugliness and sloppiness of the piece, there's a real gem of inspiration at the core, and the character of Vincent is wonderful.

Also somewhat Borat-inspired is Great Wall of Sound, a movie about "music producers" who hold auditions for their record label that are a total scam. Though most of the film is scripted, the bulk of the auditions are real—ads were placed, bands were heard, and the two lead actors tried to hustle them and get them to sign. Afterwards, told what was up, the musicians pretty much got it and agreed to be in the movie anyway. What's striking is that they could just as easily all be character actors, since they hit the same acting tone as the actual cast.

And to show that film festivals aren't all about artsiness and depression—Dynamite Warrior, from Thailand, is an old-school styled kung-fu flick in which the main character happens to be a master of high-yield fireworks, occasionally even riding around on one, Wile E. Coyote style. Nothing too deep there, just cool stuff.

For more detailed reports from the LAFF, check out Luke Y. Thompson blog posts at blogs.ocweekly.com/navelgazing/.

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