For those who've wondered what the point is of covering a film festival that isn't immediately local, here's the thing: Cannes and Sundance aren't immediately local either. There is a distinct possibility you'll be seeing most, if not all, of these movies in theaters, on TV, or via DVD somewhere a whole lot nearer to you within the next 12 months. Don't you want a sneak peek?
One Los Angeles Film Festival entry that seems especially likely to play your local multiplex eventually is Andrews Jenkins' How to Rob a Bank, dedicated to anyone who has ever been pissed-off about paying a $1.50 surcharge for withdrawing their own money from an ATM. In an unlikely turn of events, it features a strong performance from Mr. Gwen Stefani himself, Gavin Rossdale, as a pill-popping bank robber named Simon (after Duran Duran singer Simon Le Bon, it turns out) whose bank-robbery plans are frustrated when a young good-for-nothing (Nick Stahl) accidentally locks himself in the vault with Simon's babe-alicious associate Jessica (Erika Christensen). Shot using three sets, it's a film that looks much bigger budget than it is, and it never feels stagy despite the confining premise.
Definitely coming your way this fall is Moliere, basically the foreign-language version of Shakespeare in Love—a hypothetical comedy that wonders "what if" the French playwright known for The Miser and Tartuffe had actually lived through farcical events like those in his plays. Romain Duris plays the rascally writer, then merely an actor, freed from jail by an eccentric, wealthy man named Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini) who wants to learn how to act so he can stage a one-act play in hopes of wooing a beautiful young thing (Ludivine Sagnier). The subtitles aren't as slickly punny as the actual French dialogue, but bottom line: This is going to be the date movie of the fall for dudes who want to impress their dates. A romantic comedy in French with sophisticated literary references and a touch of heartbreak? Guys, she'll love it. Trust me. And if you're gay, he'll love it, too.
The crowd-pleasing documentary Resolved reveals things about high school debate you probably don't know, notably that people in it talk so fast a casual listener cannot keep up, and the movie needs to subtitle the events within. Director Greg Whitely initially follows a conventional pair who are experts, one of whom is quite hilariously an obvious pothead (hey, it can't be easy winding down from all that information). But then he becomes enamored of an unlikely pair of debaters from Long Beach named Richard and Louis, two black kids who basically offer up a big "oh, hell no" to the conventional format. While they are no slouches for speed, both decide that actually being comprehensible, saying what you believe and improvising rather than merely memorizing are the real way to go.
Resolved teaches us that the No. 1 fear Americans have is public speaking, with No. 2 being death. Dare we suggest that No. 3 might be confinement in a room with a deathly dull public speaker? Festival tip: You don't have to stay for the Q&A sessions afterward. Most of the time, it's probably a better use of your time not to.
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Anyway, high school debate may be the next big trend: In addition to Resolved, there was the fictional comedy Rocket Science, which may be the most realistic high school underdog comedy since Welcome to the Dollhouse, if you consider that a comedy. Set in the suburbs of Trenton, New Jersey, it's about a shy high schooler named Hal (Reece Thompson) with a stuttering problem who is recruited by cutie Ginny (Anna Kendrick) to join the debating team after her previous hunky partner Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D'Agosto) mysteriously cracks up and runs away. Turns out she's setting him up for a fall—about to transfer to a new school, she wants to weaken her soon-to-be opposition.
There are two things about Rocket Sciencethat are fantastic—and almost unprecedented—in American cinema: The kids actually look high-school age, and the underdog does not become the big campus hero at the end. Somewhat less realistic is Flight of the Living Dead, about zombies on a plane. Though there isn't a potty-mouthed black celebrity in sight to take them on, this one-ups the recent similar flick about serpents, primarily by being cheaper and more unabashedly B-level campy, while not skimping on gore and shocks.
Not every festival movie is a winner—Oren Jacoby's Constantine's Sword most likely won't be playing your local theater any time soon, and unless you're especially fond of poorly argued diatribes suggesting that Catholics despise Jews and are responsible for all the wars in the world, it isn't really worth seeking out.
The closing-night gala was Danny Boyle's Sunshine, a dark piece of science fiction about an ill-fated mission to kick-start a dying sun by lobbing a city-sized nuclear bomb into its center. Boyle cribs heavily from Alien—and to lesser degrees 2001 and Solaris—but he does it well. Don't look for 100 percent originality with this one, but you can still find yourself a fun time with it.