The premiere film to kick off the 2007 Los Angeles Film Festival was Talk to Me at the Mann Village Theater in Westwood. The timing is just about perfect: Goons like Don Imus could learn a thing or two about the real power to shock on the radio—in a positive way—from watching the true story of Petey Greene (Don Cheadle), an ex-convict who becomes a Washington DJ. And if you're wondering to yourself, "Who's Petey Greene?" then you've just demonstrated why this film needed to be made.
Speaking his mind in a controversial and entertaining fashion, Petey quickly became a hit with the working-class African-American population and served as a beacon of hope and calm to rally around when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and the city streets literally burned with black rage. The first half of the movie is almost pure comedy, some of it undoubtedly from actual Greene routines, some from screenwriters Michael Genet (She Hate Me) and Rick Famuyiwa (Brown Sugar). The fact that this screenplay is easily the best work for both suggests the influence of Greene's original material. But it stays with you, and only because the movie makes one laugh so hard is it able to threaten to evoke real tears.
Dutch director Theo van Gogh is so identified with political martyrdom—having been murdered by a radical Islamist—that it comes as a bit of a surprise to sit down to a screening of Interview, the American remake of his movie of the same name, and discover that it's a comedy . . . sort of. Like Talk to Me, it uses humor to get you hooked, and then gets a bit more serious later on. It's directed by and stars Steve Buscemi, as Pierre, a hard-news journalist seemingly being punished for unmentioned sins by being assigned to do a puff piece on a vapid blond starlet, the solo-monikered Katya (Sienna Miller). No surprise that Buscemi can carry off this kind of performance, but Miller holds up her end.
Bando Juarez is a documentary about Juarez, a Mexican town near the U.S. border with work opportunities aplenty due to the maquiladoras, but also plagued by an epidemic of teenage girls being abducted, raped and killed. The best working theory so far suggests that rich and powerful families are having the abductions done on their own behalf and that the police are complicit, not only in turning a blind eye, but also in torturing innocent men until they confess and take the rap for the crime. This is the real Hostel, apparently.
Jake Kasten's remake of the Herschell Gordon Lewis film The Wizard of Gore, this time with Crispin Glover as a mad magician who appears to be disemboweling naked tattooed girls onstage (played by the actual Suicide Girls), made for good-bad fun. Glover is great as always, but Kip Pardue is oddly miscast as the noir-style hero.
Prison Town, USA is the best movie at the festival so far, a tale involving several residents of Susanville, California, a small town surrounded by four major prisons. Codirectors Katie Galloway and Po Kutchins spent years living in the town and gaining local trust before they could shoot inside the prison, finally enlisting the help of the Governator, who may be a hardass on crime but is also very friendly to filmmakers.
What can I say about Liberty Kid? To be honest, not a lot, except that I liked it, a streets-of-New-York movie about how it's rough out there, with slim opportunities—but as far as we know, none of the actors is a famous rapper, and there's no gratuitous tragedy at the end of the second act. People just keep on keepin' on and end up more or less where they started.
In a completely different category is The Cat Dancers, a documentary that on the surface looks like "the Siegfried and Roy story." Director/producer Harris Fishman gives us Ron Holiday, a 70-year-old former bodybuilder and dancer in a cheesy Jheri-Curl-style toupee who has quite a story to tell, and tell it he does, about the woman he loved, the man they both loved, and one insane, inbred tiger that brought it all to an end. It's damned moving.
Chasing Ghosts sounds like a really banal title until you realize it's referring to Pac-Man. The original obsessed videogamers are the topic of this documentary; calling these folks a little socially awkward would not be unfair. Some who see this film will laugh at its protagonists, others with them. A little of both feels about right.
Back in the contemporary world, we have Half-Moon, an Iranian film inspired by Mozart's Requiem, in which an aging Iranian Kurdish musician puts together a band and attempts to travel by bus into Iraqi Kurdistan to play at a concert celebrating the death of Saddam Hussein. While perhaps overlong, it has some good laughs (what exactly are "woman-sniffing dogs"?) and moments of odd beauty.
Larry Fessenden's The Last Winter, meanwhile, takes place in a region that George W. Bush merely desires to screw up, rather than one he actually has: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Imagine a talky indie that suddenly turns into a slasher flick in which the killer is the invisible hand of Mother Nature, and you're close.
Luke Y. Thompson has been—and will be—blogging daily from the Los Angeles Film Festival through Sunday at blogs.ocweekly.com/navelgazing/.
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