LA Film Fest part three, by David Bax
The Patience Stone
The title of Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone comes from a fable told to the main character early on. It seems there was a woman, burdened with heartache and a multitude of other tribulations. One day, this woman sat down and told all her troubles to a stone. When she was done, the stone split open and, with that, all of the woman’s unhappiness was gone. It’s an interesting little tale but, if you’ve read between the lines, you’ve realized by now that The Patience Stone mostly consists of a woman soliloquizing to an inanimate object.
That’s not necessarily a bad idea. And given the setting of war-torn, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, it’s not easy to imagine that this could have been a very good movie. Sadly, the screenplay’s self-importance and purple dialogue begin to grate very early on and don’t let up.
As nice as it is to see our lead character develop a proudly autonomous personality while unburdening herself of all the hardships of real women in that place, the process is all too artificial, ultimately doing a disservice to those whose lives it attempts to reflect.
Lesson of the Evil
I wouldn’t be the first to observe that, given just how prolific Takasha Miike is, he must be phoning in at least some of the films he directs. The proof of that accusation lies in Lesson of the Evil.
Lesson starts out – after a violent prologue, at least – by giving us the set-up of a wholesome movie in the inspirational-young-teacher genre. Mr. Seiji is fairly new to the high school where he teaches English but his charm, attractiveness and lack of the air of bullshit that clings to most other authority figures has endeared him to the students. Our director, however, despite giving us a film that is a needless 129 minutes, errs first by pulling the rug out from under us before we’ve even stepped all the way onto it.
This is how we proceed, pinballing through tangential storylines and baffling flashbacks that rob the tale of any intrigue, mystery or momentum that it could have possessed. That’s not the filmmaker’s interest, though.
Like 13 Assassins, Lesson of the Evil culminates in a very long, very bloody massacre. Unlike 13 Assassins, though, it lacks the pervasive sense of adventure or empathy that keeps the narrative moving through half an hour of people getting killed. Instead, it’s just half an hour of people getting killed. Loudly, brutally, sadistically. It’s unpleasant ten minutes in. By 20 minutes, it’s just dull. It seems like the gruesome assault that caps the picture was the only thing Takasha Miike cared about. He just forgot to make us care about it, too.
Ernest and Celestine
Not only is Celestine the mouse an orphan in Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner’s lovely Ernest and Celestine, she’s the least popular orphan. Her distracted, artistic preoccupations and tendency toward quixotic thinking have made her a source of bemusement and frustration among the other orphan mice and orphanage-administrating mice. They also make her immediately sympathetic to us.
Ernestine lives underground, which is where all mice live in the film’s world. Aboveground is the realm of the bears. Both live in perpetually quaint realms of cobblestones and charming houses but the divide is clear. Bears above, mice below. So when Celestine befriends Ernest the bear – who, as a street musician and petty thief, is just as much of an outcast – the town on either side of the earth’s crust is scandalized.
Ernest and Celestine is brisk and kinetic in the way that the best animated films can be. It not only moves fast, zipping around the streets and roads and straying from the laws of physics, it also moves gracefully, sometimes slowing down to the beautiful pace of a leaf tracing arcs through the ether on its unhurried path to the ground. It’s a joy to watch, with as many laughs as lessons about the simple but gargantuan virtue of being kind.
Llyn Foulkes One Man Band
Sometimes a title really is an important element of a film. The name of Llyn Foulkes One Man Band, with its weirdly spelled moniker out front followed by an intriguing lack of punctuation, was the main reason I made it my first stop on the second to last day of the Los Angeles Film Fest.
I may not have picked it otherwise, given that it’s about a guy who makes art. I don’t mean the arts that I love (movies, music, etc.). I mean, like art art, which is something I know very little about. Luckily, Llyn Foulkes is ready to tell us all about his scene, and with a jaded snark that wouldn’t be out of place in an internet recap of a television show, except Foulkes has earned it.
Foulkes has been making a living as an artist in Los Angeles since the 50s but he’s never quite broken through to the art-loving public. Nor has he ever fit in with other artists, mostly because he’s a cranky motherfucker who can’t stand them.
One Man Band is a documentary about the man’s life but also tracks the completion (maybe) of two of his largest and most ambitious pieces of work. Whether or not these will get him the acclaim he deserves and whether or not he desires that acclaim is the main focus of the film.
Llyn Foulkes One Man Band works the man really is a solo performer, both in the literal one man band he’s played in places such as the Tonight Show and in that he is a fascinating loner, railing against the world he aims to impress and entertaining a perpetual, invisible audience whose entertainment he couldn’t care less about.
Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton (This Is Stones Throw Records)
Usually when a movie (or, fittingly in this case, an album) is described as being “for completists only,” it’s not meant as a compliment. It’s a way of saying that you should only spend time and money on this thing if you have a mental illness that compels you to consume everything that is created or produced by its makers. That’s not quite the case with Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton, which is actually a really good, fun documentary, provided you have some familiarity with/interest in the subject it’s documenting.
Stones Throw Records, from its headquarters in Los Angeles’ Highland Park, has been a nexus for groundbreaking, influential music, most of which falls under the hip-hop banner. Director Jeff Broadway tells the story of the label through the life, work and eclectic interests of its founder, Chris Manak, more commonly referred to as Peanut Butter Wolf.
The biggest selling point of a movie about a great record label is that it is stocked wall to wall with great music. If you don’t already know Madlib or J Dilla or Dam-Funk, you will at the very least to get hear their fantastic work. As hard the the film tries, though, to contextualize their greatness in comparison to all the music the average person actually knows, that average person will likely be content to stick to listening to Kanye West, despite his appearance in the film and his comparison of Madlib’s music to “good pussy.” For those who care – and they probably already know who they are – Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton is essential viewing. Anyone else could be a hard sell.
Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction
Veteran character actor Harry Dean Stanton has put together an impressive body of work in his nearly 60 years as a professional actor. In that amount of time, almost anybody would but Stanton’s notoriety is of a particular type. Even at 86 years old (or 87 depending on when you’re reading this – his birthday is July 15th), he has managed to maintain and even grow his coolness, often lending cool credibility to some projects. At this point, a director casting Stanton in a small part – as Joss Whedon did in last year’s The Avengers – is a wink to the hipper audience members. Sophie Huber’s Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction attempts to explain just how this man got and stayed so awesome.
One of the reasons for his unique reputation is that he had a tendency to play the square guy who shared his scenes with the cool guy and ended up fitting right in (think of him with Yaphet Kotto in Alien or with Emilio Estevez in Repo Man). Partly Fiction shows that he displayed the same traits off the screen. Though never a professional singer himself (he has performed in Los Angeles but not in recent months), he has maintained friendships with and borrowed some of the aura from the “outlaw country” crew such as Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, the last is in the movie, playing his guitar and being interviewed alongside Stanton. It’s far from the only musical moment in the film, which can actually be loosely separated into chapters with songs sung by Stanton in between them.
Many of the interviews are carried out the same way Kristofferson’s is, in tandem with Stanton. He smokes cigarettes and talks about coffee with David Lynch in one scene. And, in one of the film’s best moments, he sits on a bench and watches the night traffic go by with the man who has been the bartender at Stanton’s favorite haunt since the mid-60s. This man likely knows Harry Dean as well as, if not better than, the famous friends we see.
Whether we ourselves know the man any better after seeing Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction is debatable but that doesn’t seem to be Huber’s goal. For a little over an hour, we get to click into his essence and cadence and wonder what it will be like it we ever live so long or get so cool.
Between Two Worlds
It’s both disheartening and oddly encouraging to realize that there are great films, perhaps even masterpieces, that you not only haven’t seen but haven’t even heard of. Vimukthi Jayasundara’s Between Two Worlds didn’t get much of a release in the U.S. at all in 2009 so it’s fitting and fortunate that the LA Film Fest chose it as their “Film That Got Away” this year.
Narratively, the film is difficult to describe. At the beginning, a young man appears to fall from the sky into the ocean. He comes ashore into an unspecified city where massive violence has broken out. Fleeing the danger, he hitches a ride to the countryside and begins to either make his way to or merely find himself near a village that it seems may be his home. But that’s leaving out the fishermen and the shirtless minivan driver and the boy trying to dig a cable out of the ground and, oh yeah, the prince who lives in the hollow of a tree.
Maybe the more accurate, if more glib, plot description would be to say that, in Between Two Worlds, a series of weird things happen. Some of them seem to be actually happening in the story and some of them in the protagonist’s mind, though he himself doesn’t always know the difference. Chronology and the passage of time are not concerns. What’s important are the breathtaking, gorgeous shots of rural Sri Lanka and the entrancing oddness of being dropped into a strange, violent world you don’t understand and trying to figure out whether you should become like this place or fight against it or if you even have a choice.