L.A. Film Fest, Declaring Independence

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[The Girl Cut in Half, directed by Claude Chabrol] 

Film Independent’s Los Angeles Film Festival, which ran June 19-29 at a variety of theatres throughout Westwood, also included a number of panels, poolside chats and a film financing conference, scattered about the its West Los Angeles radius.

The Girl Cut in Half, dir. Claude Chabrol

Not at all a cheesy grindhouse flick, this generally breezy ménage-a-trois, directed by French director Chabrol, and co-written with his former assistant, Cecile Maistre, has assured pacing and some clever editing that accentuates the dark humor. A cute, attractive TV weatherwoman (Ludivine Sagnier), falls madly in love with a respected author (Francois Berleand) who is old enough to be her father. An effete and arrogant, rich young man (Benoit Magimel) not only obsesses about winning her, but when he does, he cannot let go of her previous dalliance and the fear that she cannot truly love another. The briskly told story keeps one smiling, and the somewhat violent twist near the end is topped off with a melancholic irony that is most pleasing and fitting for this clever work.

Choke, dir. Clark Gregg

Actor-turned-director-screenwriter Clark Gregg has done justice to novelist Chuck Palahniuk, whose anti-establishment, pro-support group prose yielded the eccentric and brilliant Fight Club. Here, Victor Mancini (perfectly cast Sam Rockwell) is an utter loser, part of a sex addiction program and a colonial America recreator at some lame tourist trap. His mother (Angelica Huston) is an Alzheimer’s patient and Mancini pays for her debts, barely, by purposely choking on food in restaurants and relying on the largesse of those who save him. The marvelously whacko story goes into hyperspace as an attractive female doctor (Kelly MacDonald from No Country for Old Men) agrees to help Mancini and winds up bedding him, mostly because a historic text suggests he has divine lineage to Jesus Christ. Flashbacks to his too-bohemian upbringing help bring a nice depth to this charmingly twisted tale, which Gregg handles with just the right sense of ironic detachment.

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, dir. Stefan Forbes

From a poor Southern boy who loved the blues, Lee Atwater climbed to the highest rungs of political power in America, ably shown by this attractively made documentary by Stefan Forbes. It follows the charming but cold-blooded Atwater, as his smear campaigns destroy Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign. The man who taught Karl Rove dirty tricks also loved playing guitar and this doc has the coolest blues soundtrack you will ever hear on a political documentary. Forbes did miss the opportunity to explain more fully the complex relationship Atwater had with Ed Rollins, Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager who gave Atwater his big break. But with on-camera interviews with Dukakis, Sam Donaldson, Mary Matalin, Joe Conason, Eric Alterman and others, it’s hard to quibble with a film that captures the elevation of no-holds-barred politics and the illness, swift downfall and strange legacy of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Man on a Wire, dir. James Marsh

Winning an audience award at the L.A. Film Fest, Man on a Wire follows the illegal but stunning high wire walk of French aerialist Philippe Petit, between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. Petit is clearly an antic, fun-loving character who is quite engaging on camera, as well as in an audience, as he handled a Q&A after the screening. But director James Marsh spends a bit too much time with the logistics of the planning of this death-defying act. By the time these pranksters are about to let Petit take his life into his hands, the film certainly has us where it wants us. Significantly, though, Petit on camera talks of his love relationship dissolving, as well as the friendship with his best friend and planning cohort. The staggering dare that Petit took has been described as “the artistic crime of the century,” but it is fair to say there is a crime in Marsh not digging deeper into the psychological after affects of Petit’s high wire act.

The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale, dir. Jeff Stimmel

Suffering a similar lack of depth is this upcoming HBO doc. It follows New York visual artist Chuck Connelly, who soared high along with names like Schnabel and Basquiat, only to hit rock bottom in marketability. His drunken rages and childish behavior are amusing, even endearing for a while. And the breadth of his artistic vision is most impressive. Where the documentary itself fails, though, is in showing us a deeper and darker place in this artist’s psyche, one that is only hinted at after his love relationship breaks up. While not wholly satisfying, the film does show a great variety of Connelly’s considerable work. But shedding a tear at the grave of your family is no substitute for a more soul-searching investigation of a great artist and his demise.

 [Choke, directed by Clark Gregg]

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