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LYT’s L.A. Film Fest Wrap-Up, Part 2: Quests, Dream Girls and Funny Disasters

Note: Read part 1 of Luke’s L.A. Film Festival coverage by clicking here

The Compass is Carried by the Dead Man might have been more enjoyable had I not been sitting, in a packed house, next to a bratty kid who insisted on checking his glowing phone every few minutes, and telling me to “relax” because “I’m not texting.” Film festivals being places where audiences are more respectful? Yeah, that’s a myth. Fortunately, the movie has enough of the goods to survive even a difficult viewing experience.

A group of Mexican emigrants looking to illegally cross the U.S. border are driven part way by the border-crossers who do such things, then given a crappy car to drive the rest of the way, which promptly breaks down. Confronted by a border patrol agent, the only English one of them can muster is “Squeeze me.” They are busted, but the youngest boy in the group, Ino Cencio a.k.a. “Chencho” (because he’s, y’know, innocent), makes a run for it. Across a desert landscape of cattle bones, he comes to the border fence, and meets that magic Indian character from the Oliver Stone school of recycled visions. Looking to find the part of the border that’s open, he grabs a ride with an old man driving a donkey cart that moves slower than the Indian walks. The old man has a compass, and soon enough the title becomes meaningful when he’s accidentally shot dead as a police chase speeds by. The compass remains stuck in his hand.

It sounds very Weekend at Bernie’s, but what ensues is more Wizard of Oz – a child on a journey with a goal in mind that may or may not solve anything, who gradually accumulates strange characters along the way. The desert’s no place for scarecrows and lions, so we get an incompetent soldier who accidentally shoots his own general, a  professional mourner who hopes somebody else will pay her to cry, a man being chased by a herd of goats, a boy carrying a battery who will sell you an electric shock for ten pesos, and a man with a shopping cart full of rocks he has tripped over but never will again now that they’re safely collected.

The journey often seems to be going in circles, but also passes through near-abandoned train stations and towns, as the filmmakers spoof Mexican governmental procedures while offering an empty wasteland as paradoxically alive as that of Mad Max or The Walking Dead. My only significant complaint is the indulgent shot of sunset that ends the film, as well as what it signifies – in what will be a spoiler only to the hardcore cinephiles reading, this goes more in the direction of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar, narratively speaking, than, say, Wild at Heart. Yeahhh! Decipher that one, movie fanboys! Or just see the movie when you can.

A similarly oddball odyssey is at the heart of Alex Karpovsky’s Red Flag, though the border Alex (playing himself, more or less) has to cross is getting over the girl who just dumped him, right before heading off on a low-key tour to support his documentary film about a thought-extinct species of woodpecker. One of the first things he does on the road is hop in the sack with enthusiastic fan River (Jennifer Predeger); their sex scene – in which almost everything onscreen is dark save Karpovsky’s pale, thrusting buttocks – is probably not something one can justifiably call a thing of beauty, but it’s arguably some kind of art, and pretty much sums up the thesis of the movie as a whole, in its stylistic self-flagellation for the amusement of others. There are also multiple shots of nose-hair plucking, which have less appeal.

Anyway, immediately after figuring out that River is actually boring and pretentious, Alex casts her aside, then is later joined by his friend Henry (Onur Tukel), who has the look of a film critic about him (Devin Faraci now, or Andy Klein years ago – I can’t decide) but is actually a children’s book writer, having issues with his publisher because he wants to kill off the young protagonist of his latest ghostly tome Henry and the Haunted Piano. They have largely irrelevant conversations about things like cat penises. I guess this is “mumblecore,” though I’ve never liked that term, since characters in such films often speak clearly; “navelcore” would be better.

When River shows up again, Henry, who doesn’t know Alex is newly single, hooks up with her. This makes things extra complicated when Alex lures his ex down to meet them, hoping to propose and fix everything (he plans his big “I’m sorry” speech out on index cards). Then there’s a running gag about late checkouts, and a really nasty ingrown toenail.

Red Flag is a good example of how sometimes it doesn’t pay to know too much about a movie’s creation. As an original story, this is quite the amusing predicament. Then you learn that Alex really was on tour for a woodpecker movie, Onur really did write that children’s book, and it was improvised on the road. That the final product works well is a testament to the skills of those involved, but I confess it seemed more inspirational when I imagined the story to be cut from whole cloth. Regardless, your tolerance for Karpovsky himself, who has appeared in several Lena Dunham projects, will determine your appreciation; based on an informal survey, I find him more amusing than most.

Another interesting multihyphenate to watch is Zoe Kazan, who wrote, produced and stars in Ruby Sparks, the fest’s “secret” screening and the directorial followup to Little Miss Sunshine of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. In a weird way, this is a movie akin to Seth MacFarlane’s Ted, in that it depicts what would happen if the perfect friend actually came to life – only this perfect friend is the woman of your dreams, created in a novelist’s first draft and based on a dream. It’s also a little like a post-ironic Weird Science, and would fit easily on the same bill as numerous other indie-style sci-fi comedies that seem to be in right now (Safety Not Guaranteed, Sound of My Voice, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, etc.). It’s a mini-trend that hasn’t yielded big bucks yet, and may not last. Certainly, don’t expect Ruby Sparks to be the breakout. Kazan’s performance in it is pretty tremendous, and yet…

There’s no nice way to say this. But let’s put it this way: I live with an aspiring actress. I see what she goes through, and I know what Hollywood’s unrealistic standards are. Kazan, frankly, is not the type who would normally get cast as the dream girl; however, as the granddaughter of Elia Kazan, does she get an extra foot up? She is very good at playing the dream girl, in a role that would normally be the annoying hallmark of someone else named Zoe(y); it’s deeper than “manic pixie whatever,” more emotional. But do I buy that she’s Paul Dano’s imaginary image of perfection? Okay, now that I know she and Dano are dating, I do. But I don’t know that I did before. I’d like to see other actresses get opportunities to play these kinds of roles, yet can’t help but feel they only will if they have pre-known names. Because script-wise, I don’t think this movie fully works, and it’s there that Kazan definitely got some kind of pass.

Dano, finally looking like an adult, is Calvin, a hugely popular author who complains that “girls only wanna sleep with me because they read my book in high school.” His dog Scottie is named after F. Scott Fitzgerald, and his shrink is Elliott Gould, who is the first to suggest he write a deliberately bad story to fool his writer’s block. The story Calvin writes is based on recent dreams of a woman… and once he writes her down, he finds that she has become real and is living in his house. She’s no mental delusion – everyone else can see her too. Calvin’s brother, played by Chris Messina, quite rightly advises that “quirky, messy women whose problems make them endearing are not real,” and suggests the relationship with this newly created “Ruby” is either incest or masturbation. Calvin, naturally, thinks his perfect woman is flawless, until she isn’t, at which point he tries to rewrite her at every turn, with unexpected, exaggerated consequences. Then Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas show up in some really odd cameos.

The theme here is solid – you think you want a “perfect” woman, but real-life relationships work in part because of imperfections – and Kazan plays every rewritten aspect nicely. But I’m sorry, movie; would you mind giving us even a token explanation of why this fictional character came to be? Even Ted has a shooting star – it’s not a great literal explanation, but it’s something. This movie is too realistic in tone to not give us anything; David Lynch could maybe get away with an unexplained origin for Ruby, but these directors aren’t interesting or weird enough to pull that off. And the ending, when you think about its logical ramifications, makes no sense at all.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and It’s A Disaster both feature high-concept apocalypses, while being about the characters rather than the big events, yet they prove that a token explanation is enough. Seeking a Friend has a giant meteor set to wipe out all life on earth, while Disaster has four couples meeting for a dysfunctional brunch as a WMD event of some kind goes down in Los Angeles. The former film has been out a week already in Los Angeles, and if you haven’t seen it, you really don’t need to. Replete with some funny cameos by the likes of Rob Corddry and Patton Oswalt, it nonetheless ends up casting its eye over the least interesting characters onscreen in Steve Carell and Keira Knightley, who, yep, you guessed it, wind up falling for each other (and as a bonus, Carell has daddy issues he resolves). Carell is really starting to get boring in movies – he needs to recapture his edge, and with a bit of luck Anchorman 2 might be the movie to do it.

It’s A Disaster, however, is one worth checking out, in which four couples, one of which is Julia Stiles and David Cross, finally lay out all their emotional baggage (some serious, but much of it petty) while sealing themselves inside with plastic sheeting and duct tape. Like its opening shot – an image of a beach where we gradually pull back to reveal an atomic bomb test – this is fun that turns destructive.

My stepfather-to-be, who has worked in disaster preparedness, once told me that the best thing to do in a radiation event is “get naked and party,” which he broke down thusly: get naked because there’s radiation on your clothes, shower together to get it off your skin, and drink liquor to bond the free radicals in your system to give them less chance of irradiation mutation. This may be the first apocalypse movie I’ve seen that thematically rolls with his advice, in a weird way. It also stands in opposition to Red Flag as a movie that improves the more you know about it, like when director Todd Berger mentioned at the Q&A that each character is based on one of the different stages of grief (look for a future Q&A with Berger and Cross right here at Nerdist). It also delivers a scene which offers an ironclad argument for why you should always show up to parties on time… I’m talking to you, Angelenos!

And as long as we’re talking disasters: avoid Saturday Morning Massacre like the plague. While it has a brilliant hook – Scooby-Doo as a slasher – the execution utterly fails to take advantage, resulting in a lot of dimly lit blue close-ups in rooms that all look the same.

My previous LAFF review post was here. In the next and final installment: robots, cartoons, Ed Wood and Andy Samberg!

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