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Moriarty @ AFI Fest! German ANTIBODIES, Robin Williams In THE BIG WHITE, And A Trip To BURNING MAN!!

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

I confess, I haven’t paid the proper attention to the AFI Film Festival here in Hollywood over the last few years. It’s my fault. Fall’s always busy. This fall’s no different, but the fest’s line-up this year makes it hard to ignore. Say you’re like me... you love reading about the line-ups at Toronto or Venice or Telluride, but there’s no way you can spend that long out of town. You were stuck here in LA. Much of this year’s AFI Fest feels like a very careful, canny repackaging of other festival’s line-ups. But if you dig deeper into the screening list, you’ll see a lot of original thinking as well, and it’s that combination that made the festival so interesting to me this year.

They’ve started press screenings for many of the films. Last Friday morning, I saw THE BIG WHITE, a dark comedy directed by Mark Mylod, whose last movie was ALI G INDAHOUSE. This played at Harry’s Fantastic Fest a few weeks ago, and I’m not sure what genre it snuck into, because I wouldn’t call this horror, sci-fi, or fantasy. Instead, it’s vaguely similar to FARGO or TV’s NORTHERN EXPOSURE, quirky character comedy set against a frozen landscape.

In this case, Alaska. Paul Barnell (Robin Williams) runs a crummy little travel agency, and slowly but surely, he’s drowning. Debt is actually the least of his problems. He’s more consumed by what’s happening to his wife Margaret (Holly Hunter). She’s suffering from self-diagnosed Tourette’s Symdrome, and Paul has exhausted their meager resources trying to get her help. He sees salvation in a life-insurance policy he took out on his long-missing brother Raymond (Woody Harrelson). Unfortunately, Raymond isn’t quite long-missing enough, according to the insurance company, and if Paul wants the money, he’s going to have to come up with a body.

And of course, you know it’s not going to be that easy. It’s a good set-up, and the test of the film is in how they spin that set-up into something that satisfies on many levels. Or how they don’t.

Sure enough, a body drops into Paul’s lap, and he sets a plan into motion that eventually involves two first-time hit men (Tim Blake Nelson and Earl Brown), the real-and-no-longer-missing Raymond, a dogged young insurance fraud investigator (a very funny Giovanni Ribisi), his psychic-hotline-operator wife (Alison Lohman), and a whole bunch of double-crosses. If all of that sounds a little precious, it plays a little precious, too. Colin Friesen’s script is good, but a little on the obvious side.

What really rescues the film is the work by the large ensemble cast. Robin Williams and Holly Hunter bounce well off each other, and for once, he’s the restrained one. Hunter doesn’t quite nail the mania or the sadness of Tourette’s, but one of the running ideas in the movie is that she might be faking the whole thing. In a way, that makes her illness whatever she wants it to be, and Hunter certainly makes you feel for the pain that Margaret’s going through, imagined or otherwise. Woody Harrelson’s suitably scary when he shows up, and it’s downnight shocking to see how good he is at rolling a joint in one scene. It’s almost like he’s done it before. Ahem. Alison Lohman is adorable and sexy and very vulnerable in her scenes, and she’s lucky enough to play most of them with Ribisi, who’s really surprising. He’s the one I sympathized with most in the film, and he’s the one character who seems to have an operating moral compass. Because the film is ultimately a study of two couples and how they define love within their relationships, I can forgive any of the quirks that don’t quite sit right with me. It makes its points powerfully in the last act, and that’s what I walked away with.

The weak link, for me, was pretty much everything involving Tim Blake Nelson and Earl Brown, best known for his work on DEADWOOD. They don’t do bad work. I just don’t like their characters, and there’s nothing new or interesting done with them. Still, enough of this one works that I’d definitely say give it a try. Mylod’s a good director, and it’s the sort of little film you end up rooting for as you watch. James Glennon’s photography of Alaska is frequently breathtaking, and it creates a great atmosphere for the particular sensibility that the film possesses. It’s being released by the now-Weinstein-free Miramax, and it’ll play the AFI Fest on Friday, Nov. 4th, at 9:30 PM.

On Monday morning, I braved the rain for an early screening of the German film ANTIBODIES. Perfect mood-setter for the film, which was called a “Psycho Thriller” on the press notes we were given for it.

First impression? I really liked the film, and I think it’s an impressive feature debut for director Christian Alvart. He’s got an excellent eye for composition, and a great sense of energy inside a scene. There’s an elegance to his shooting and his cutting, and it makes his film stand out from the sort of hyperactive kinetic style that has been overindulged in recent years. The film’s a very dark thriller that plays like a cross between SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and BREAKING THE WAVES. It’s a film like this that puts lie to the idea that there’s nothing fresh you can do with the serial killer genre. In this case, the film opens with the moment where Gabriel Engel, a twisted pedophile who paints using the blood of his victims, finally screws up and gets caught. Norman Reedus (CIGARETTE BURNS, BOONDOCK SAINTS) shows up as one of the first two cops to arrive on the scene, and he manages to last fifteen minutes without saying a word, giving an entirely silent performance that really works. In the days that follow Engel’s capture, police try to coax confessions out of him so they can close out a whole stack of cases.

Meanwhile, in a small village outside Berlin, a local cop named Michael Martens finds himself wondering if he can finally put a case of his own to rest. A local girl was killed in such a terrible, ugly manner that Martens was convinced one of the locals had gone insane. Now, as he watches the news, he allows himself to hope that Engels was the one who did it. He travels to Berlin to meet Engels face-to-face, hopeing to get him to confess to visiting the town and killing the girl. Instead, Engels lures Martens into a dangerous head game. It may sound like a big cliché, but it’s the way Christian Alvert put the film together that makes it stand out. The opening titles, for example... very simple, but strangely engrossing. There’s a great sense of mood from the very start. The film’s very frank about sex and violence, and there’s some unsettling full-frontal male nudity early on that makes sense and lets you know that Alvert isn’t going to flinch away from anything. In one disquieting moment, Engels describes one of his rape/murders of a young boy to the police, until they realize he’s masturbating while retelling it.

What the film does best is illustrate the corrosive qualities of paranoia on a community, whether it’s a country, a city, a village, or even a family. Because Marters believes it was one of his neighbors who killed the girl, he’s created a feeling of unease in the village. He’s eaten up by doubt and guilt. Some of his neighbors are actively angry at him because of what he’s done to everyone. Engels plays off of that beautifully, pushing Marters even farther. So often, thrillers fail to really thrill at the end because you know the movie star will triumph over the bad guy. Here, there’s a sense that anything can happen by the end of the film, making it much more tense than I would have expected. At 127 minutes, the film’s a little long, but it’s really well-made, and I urge you to check it out at the Arclight on Saturday, Nov. 5th at 8:45 PM, or on Monday, Nov. 7th, at 12:30 PM.

Finally, I went back to the AFI on Monday night to see a documentary called BURNING MAN: BEYOND BLACK ROCK. This one was a bit of a grab bag for me. I liked most of the actual content of the film; it’s the technique that seems a little shaky. Director Damon Brown shot over a period of 18 months to capture the experience of Burning Man, trying to make some sense of it and extract a larger meaning. He’s got quite a bit of footage of Larry Harvey, the guy who founded the thing in the first place, but the point’s made repeatedly that Burning Man is much bigger than anyone one person at this point. Personally, I think Harvey comes off as a bit of a con artist, but that may just be his personality. He seems like Brian Doyle Murray doing a character more than he does like the father of this amazing annual experiment in art and culture. I was far more interested in the story of David Best, an artist who constructs these elaborate paper Temples each year, these stunning temporary cathedrals that are almost more impressive than the Burning Man itself. He’s the kind of guy you’d never guess was a Burning Man regular just by looking at him. Based on the interviews with him and the footage of him at the festival, he comes across as deeply committed and passionate about his work, a family man who is spiritual and centered. Watching his annual ritual of walking around and simply telling people, “It’s not your fault,” something that sounds cheesy becomes transformative. He’s the one who convinced me that Burning Man is more than just some excuse to trip balls in the desert while overindulging your inner child.

The most interesting stuff deals with the infrastructure of Burning Man, something that seems to be a year-round process involving hundreds of people and dozens of meetings and thousands of man-hours. This is the Burning Man story I’ve never seen, and it makes me respect the tenacity it takes to assmble “the fifth largest city in Nevada” for one week every year.

Rob Van Alkemade did a nice job as director of photography. All of the digital video looks great, even when shot under conditions that seem less than ideal. My big problem with the film is how Brown seems overimpressed with basic video editing tricks. I think he wants the film’s structure and style to match the freewheeling artistic anarchy of Burning Man, but instead, it all just feels a little too “film student.” There’s some great material here, and the film does a nice job of deconstructing some of the myths that surround this unique event. You can see the film Friday, Nov. 4th, at the Arclight, with a preshow in the courtyard outside at 9 PM and the screening at 10 PM. There’s also another screening the next day, Saturday, Nov. 5th, at 5:30 PM.

One of the things they emphasize in the film is the importance of volunteerism, and the AFI still needs volunteers to help with this festival. I’ll say this... if you’ve got time and you want great experience, volunteering for any film festival at least once is a good idea. Volunteering for this year’s AFI Fest in particular? Great idea. CLICK HERE TO SEE HOW!

I’ve got a lot more stuff I’m working on, and just a few hours ago, I saw a film that I think is my favorite of the year so far. I want to go think it over and maybe try a review for you, and I’ll definitely be back with some thoughts on DOOM and GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK for you later this evening. Good thing my baby never lets me sleep, eh? Until then...

"Moriarty" out.

Readers Talkback
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  • Oct. 20, 2005, 11:49 p.m. CST

    Good Robin Williams Movie

    by DanielKurland

    World According to Garp. Fuck of a book too.

  • Oct. 21, 2005, 12:45 a.m. CST


    by 1crazyguy

  • Oct. 21, 2005, 2:36 a.m. CST

    Cheers, Mori...

    by Julius Dithers

    ...for the recommendations. I scored passes to this fest and didn't know which would be the stand-outs. Looking forward to anymore reviews you have of the films screening this fest.

  • Oct. 21, 2005, 3:34 a.m. CST

    can anybody else not see

    by speed

    the news stories? it's just one big blank white space...mmm...maybe i need to reinstall safari. i can see everything else though...very odd. sorry for the off topic post.

  • Oct. 21, 2005, 4:23 a.m. CST

    "fifth largest city in Nevada..."

    by JackRabbitSlim


  • Oct. 21, 2005, 7:16 a.m. CST


    by mocky_puppet

    you're right, safari is not showing the center column of story titles.

  • Oct. 21, 2005, 7:55 a.m. CST

    "And Daniel Kurland is indeed that man.."

    by DanielKurland

    It took so much self control not to I ended up cutting off my arm. Don't worry. It was my left one.

  • Oct. 21, 2005, 8:08 a.m. CST

    mocky puppet thanks for the info

    by speed

    Really not sure what is going on. I'm using firefox at the moment. My airport extreme has also decided to not work as well.

  • Oct. 21, 2005, 10:28 a.m. CST

    Anyone else read "Robin Williams" and run screaming?

    by scrumdiddly

  • Oct. 21, 2005, 12:15 p.m. CST

    A true review of "Antibodies"

    by DerLanghaarige

    Not a masterpiece, but one of the better serial-killer-thrillers!

  • Oct. 22, 2005, 1:37 a.m. CST

    He directed INDAHOUSE?

    by fabfunk

    Fuck that.

  • Oct. 22, 2005, 10:17 a.m. CST

    Classy as always Moriarty!

    by DarthNameless

    Burning Man sounds like a giant wank to me(and I've done the research)But The Big White sounds good.