Tuesday, November 09, 2010

AFI Fest, day three

On Sunday I ended up missing a few things I wanted to see, and my alternate choices were a little disappointing. But this was a strong festival overall, and even the movies I wasn't crazy about were far from terrible. Probably the least impressive movie I saw was Chico & Rita, an innocuous but bland animated movie about the decades-long love story between two Cuban jazz musicians. It's filled with excellent music, but the story is predictable and simplistic, the dialogue is flat, and the animation is shapeless and kind of sloppy.

Also disappointing was the exploitation-style goof Norwegian Ninja, a sort of fanciful take on a real-life Norwegian government official who was arrested for being a Soviet spy. Director Thomas Cappelen Malling reimagines the man as the leader of an elite squad of, yes, Norwegian ninjas, and he shoots the movie like an old martial-arts movie or straight-to-video action cheapie. That makes for a few laughs, but mostly Norwegian Ninja is just confusing and scattered, a collection of empty pastiches. Merely copying the style of a type of movie generally known for being amusingly terrible isn't enough if you can't add something to it.

Much better was Diego Luna's Abel, a touching and funny family comedy/drama about a mentally disturbed young boy who convinces himself he's the patriarch of his family after his actual father runs off. Luna mostly avoids excessive sentiment even when dealing with some very sensitive issues, and he balances humor with poignancy very well. Young actor Christopher Ruíz-Esparza is excellent as the boy, giving a convincing performance as a child pretending to be an adult (that's a lot of layers to navigate). Some of it is a little cutesy and melodramatic, but it wraps up in a melancholy way without offering any easy answers. Given Luna's fame as an actor, I expect this will end up with at least a limited theatrical release in the U.S. before too long.

I also managed to catch a pretty strong shorts program, with only one piece that didn't really work (an Israeli film about a soldier on leave). It included the funny and unexpectedly affecting Successful Alcoholics (right), written by and starring T.J. Miller, previously known as an annoying supporting player in movies like Get Him to the Greek and She's Out of My League. Miller and the always excellent Lizzy Caplan play a pair of highly functioning alcoholics who are hilarious and carefree until reality sets in, and that transition is played incredibly well by the two actors and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. I also enjoyed the goofy time-travel lark Time Freak; the backstage theatre comedy The Savage Canvas; the surprisingly sweet British comedy I Love Luci, about a pair of drug addicts; and the innovative documentary Photograph of Jesus. Basically everything except that one Israeli movie. Shorts are always underappreciated, and I was glad I got to catch at least one program, and that the theater was mostly full for it.

And that was it. I wish I could have stayed longer (the event runs through this Thursday), but other work beckoned. If you live in the L.A. area, though, you should absolutely get down to this festival, even if you have no tickets. It was remarkably easy to get into screenings that I didn't have tickets for (the aforementioned missed screenings were only because I showed up very late and didn't want to sit in the front row). The staff was friendly and helpful and just as accommodating to random members of the public as they were to press and industry people. Even the fancy gala premieres of studio films had plenty of room for average fans. I hope to be able to cover the festival for more than just this blog next year, but even if I can't get a press pass, I'll definitely return.

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