LAFF 2007: Westside Ain't the Best Side

Friday at the fest was a little bit different -- all the interesting-looking films were playing at the Landmark Westside, that new fancy art-house 12-plex at the Westside Pavilion. Parking there is free, unlike in Westwood, where everything else is happening. The trade-off you make is that beer is not free. I tried a $12 Avant-Garde Ale at the theaters beer and wine bar -- it came in a big bottle and was worth $12. A bit French-tasting, so probably not recommended for Republicans.

Likewise, the new Michael Moore movie. Nope, haven’t seen it, but Constantine’s Sword director Oren Jacoby told us that, because Sicko is doing boffo, Michael’s movie got added into another big auditorium, with LAFF wedged into one of the littler places. I have no independent confirmation of this -- but feel pretty certain that the LAFF screen was not the size any festival organizer would pick, given the choice.

This would cause some trouble later on.

But first, MOLIERE. If you were expecting an ultra-serious biopic of the French farceuer extraordinaire, don’t. This is the foreign-language version of Shakespeare in Love -- a hypothetical comedy that wonders “what if” Moliere’s greatest plays were all based on true farcical events in his life. Romain Duris plays the rascally ‘riter, then merely an actor, freed from jail by an eccentric man of wealth named Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini) who wants to learn how to act so that he can stage a one-act play in hopes of wooing a beautiful young thing (Ludivine Sagnier); this despite the fact that he’s married, and in fact the object of his desire is likewise being courted by Jourdain’s best friend Dorante (Edouard Baer) who wants to marry his son to Jourdain’s daughter in order to gain access to the family funds. Moliere pretends to be a priest, and ends up falling in love with Mrs. Jourdain (Laura Morante).

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All of which ultimately teaches the master thespian how to write farce that actually has meaningful themes to it. It’s hard to imagine this being quite the hit Shakespeare in Love was -- for one thing, Moliere simply isn’t as familiar. I mean, even someone who has read none of the Bard probably knows, at minimum, lines like “To be or not to be” or “Romeo, Romeo!” They’re embedded in the culture. But Moliere is likely familiar in these shores primarily to drama geeks; I remember reading two of his plays in high school and enjoying them, but damned if I could tell you the details, though a few flooded back during the viewing of this film.

I’m no expert in French -- not even close -- but one thing that was clear to me is that the subtitles were not given a skillful translation. A pun involving the name “Agnes” becoming “age” wasn’t translated at all, and there’s at least one scene where it’s clearly written in rhyme, and no effort was made to style the English version similarly. Where’s Neil Gaiman when you need him?

Bottom line, though: 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.

I’d have loved it more if we hadn’t heard construction noises from upstairs throughout. Additionally, many of these theaters are poorly designed seating-wise -- in the front row, the screen is seven feet above you. When I attended the opening of this theater, employees assured me they don’t even sell tickets for the first two rows, that those are just for the Q&A. That may be -- but LAFF for damn sure DID sell tickets to ALL seats. And people sat in those front rows because they had no choice, but in a regular-run movie one suspects they’d be calling for refunds.

I love front rows, ask anyone; but those front rows are inhumane.

Second movie of the day was RESOLVED, which has been getting great word-of-mouth. Yet another in the ever-growing documentary category of Schoolkids Doing the Darndest Things, it’s a film about high school debate, and if you don’t actually know firsthand how high school debates go down nowadays, you will be surprised.

Back when I was 8 years old, my family moved house for the first time, and I ended up in a rural Catholic school, heavy on the discipline. One of the things we had to do there that I’ve never heard of before or since was to say multiplication tables in less than 20 seconds. I was terrible at it, though it always came out like incomprehensible gibberish and I wonder in hindsight how the teacher even knew if we got it right or not.

High school debate is like that -- people in it talk so fast that 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. Events that transpire tend to prove them right.

Richard and Louis are also fond of crying racism, and to the film’s credit, it challenges them on that. Yes, it’s a technique that often works, but sometimes it comes off as an excuse too. Still, nobody wants to make that the whole issue, and it isn’t -- though apparently screening audiences almost always end up debating themselves on this particular aspect of the film.

Talking-heads bits by Jane Pauley, Josh Lucas, and Samuel Alito are superfluous, but overall, a very fun piece, with some cool stop-motion interstitials.

Now, when it came time for CONSTANTINE’S SWORD, this was where trouble happened. Remember, this was a small theater -- I’d estimate maybe 100 seats, but that’s probably high. Anyway, when we get inside, a couple of rows are reserved and not available. People who were at the front of the line start getting pissed that the best seats are being held, and that they have to take some of the sucky front rows.

The director was holding seats for himself and his wife, and trying to hold some for his friends, though the staff eventually made him give them up. But here’s the thing -- this movie already played the festival once, so why does director-man have to sit and watch it again? He doesn’t. He should have waited outside and hung out, maybe have a $12 beer, then come in at the end to talk. As it was, seemed like paying customers got turned away. I considered giving up my seat and leaving, but nothing else good was showing, and they pay me to write about this stuff. Mean time, some woman who was also press was standing in the aisle, unable to find a seat, and refusing to leave, insisting she had to write about it. When the festival guy asked her to leave, she wouldn’t. He asked if he could talk to her in private, but she wouldn’t budge, and dared him to call security. He gave up for a while, then eventually recruited the director to talk her out of the auditorium -- I hope he offered to give her a DVD.

The film starts late, and it’s on a digital file that skips. They stop it, start again. Still skips. Time for a system reboot, and five minutes of waiting. Finally they get it right.

The movie’s a documentary loosely based on the autobiography of James Carroll, a former Catholic priest who quit the profession after deciding that religion was too militaristic. Whether the arguments that the film makes should be considered his or Jacoby’s, I know not. One thing I do know is they’re not well-made arguments.

The hook for the movie is a good, current, controversial issue -- that of excessive evangelical proselytizing in military academies, especially when it involves anti-Semitism. Mikey Weinstein, a Jew with two sons in a Colorado Air Force Academy must decide if his alma mater is really the same one he knew and loved, and what to do about it. This prompts Carroll to investigate the origins of militaristic Christianity, which he traces back to Roman Emperor Constantine, apparently the first to actually use the cross as a symbol of Christianity, and wield it in battle. Carroll also traces his own loss of faith in Catholicism, especially as relates to the church’s lack of backbone in condemning certain wars.

The problem is that it all comes across as very simplistic. Early on, Carroll states that he doesn’t think it’s possible to read the Gospels and not find them anti-Semitic; many Christians would disagree, but why let them talk? Mel Gibson’s Jesus movie is derided, but that’s kind of ironic considering that the thesis here could be summed up as “The Catholics are responsible for all the wars in the world.” The Crusades, the Inquisition, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Holocaust, Iraq -- all seem to be caused by religion as far as Carroll is concerned, and specifically Christianity (primarily Catholic, but not always). Poor blameless Muslims and Commies! I don’t disagree with the notion that wars in the name of fundamentalist religion are fundamentally wrong, or that the Catholic hierarchy tend to come off as useless hypocrites, but rather than building a case for peace, or even a working strategy for same, Carroll moves from one argument to the next without a lot of back up. First-hand accounts from people who were in Auschwitz are moving and all, but unless you were on the fence about the Holocaust being bad, they’re irrelevant to the thesis -- the fact that people died in the camps doesn’t prove it was the Pope’s fault.

More tenuous still is connecting Carroll’s Catholicism to the evangelicals of today. Guess what -- some of those Protestant fundies actually do think the Pope started both world wars! Ever read any Jack Chick pamphlets? And not that any documentary is obligated to be fair and balanced, but the only person speaking for the opposition in this film is Ted flippin’ Haggard, who comes off as a deranged goof even if you don’t know that he’s also secretly a pill-popping homosexual. By the end credits, which pan across Arlington cemetery as an Aaron Neville song plays, you’ll long for the subtlety, focus, and journalistic accuracy of Michael Moore.

The damnedest thing is I like theology debates, and I agree with the basic idea -- war is bad, fundies in charge of war is worse, calling Jews “Christ-killers” is stupid and offensive. Be nice if the case were made more effectively, but all we have here is the lefty equivalent of those loaded documentaries that screen at the David Horowitz-backed Liberty Film Festival, then nowhere else.

If you’re really interested in the movie -- buy a book by Bishop John Shelby Spong instead. He actually has some constructive solutions in mind.


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