It might not be as glamorous as Cannes or as cool as Sundance, but the Los Angeles Film Festival has just as much to offer as its larger counterparts. Between high-profile premieres of blockbuster films, international competition entries and some of the most exciting indies around all premiering at LAFF every year, there's plenty to pay attention to. But if you were unfortunate enough to let the this year's fest — which ran from June 11 to 19 — we've got you covered with a rundown of the most talked-about films to premiere at LAFF, and what the critics are saying about them. Now you can make all of your friends think you're cooler than you actually are.
They Came Together The Amy Poehler/Paul Rudd romantic comedy you’ve been waiting for is less about the relationship between the central couple, Joel (Rudd) and Molly (Poehler), and more about skewering every last trope of the genre. Written and directed by Wet Hot American Summer’s David Wain, the film lovingly parodies the traits, characters, conversations, and comically large apartments that appear in every rom com ever made, while allowing two funny, good looking people to fall in love in an entertaining way.
“The script’s on-the-nose descriptions of each character (as described by the characters themselves) actually works to frame them as self-aware people forced to play out roles we have seen before and allows the hilarious cast to play within those lines. Poehler and Rudd have a natural chemistry that makes them believable as the two leads in love, but their comedy also blends well making it clear they are having fun with each other and the characters they are playing.” – Allison Loring, Film School Rejects
"Wain leads his well-known cast through spoofs of such classics as When Harry Met Sally, Annie Hall, The Graduate and the sharp-elbowed comedies of Tracy and Hepburn. Each gag makes you wish you were watching the original, although a clench between Joel and his grandmother (Lynn Cohen) that almost leads to incestuous coupling deserves credit for sheer audacity. Most of the time, however, the actors on the screen seem to be having much more fun than the audience will." - David D'Arcy, Screen Daily
Cut Bank A small town crime drama set in Cut Bank, Montana that centers on a former high school football star (Liam Hemsworth) desperate to find a way out of his town. After he accidentally films the murder of the town mailman, he is offered a reward that would give him enough money to leave for good, but things aren't a simple as they seem, and he finds himself caught in a tangled web of deception and danger.
"...Shakman lets the scenes unfurl with a clunky pace and little verve, simply exaggerating the irony and naivety in the town as his main go-to points. It only makes sense that [John] Malkovich’s sheriff has never fired his gun and carries an aversion to violence; likewise with Palmer, who itches non-stop after a Miss Cut Bank pageant title even while she wants nothing more than to skip town. Thankfully humor seeps in through the edges of the film and its characters, sometimes on purpose and other times not." - Charlie Schmidlin, The Playlist
Dear White People A satire of college movies that tackles race relations and privilege in society, Dear White People follows four students as an Ivy League university — golden boy Troy (Brandon P. Bell), activist radio host Samantha (Tessa Thompson), Colendra "Coco" Conners (Teyona Parris), who has dreams of being a reality TV star, and shy misfit Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) — after a planned "African American"-themed party thrown by a group of white students starts a riot on campus.
"If it ultimately feels modestly edgy rather than shocking or dangerous, 'Dear White People' nonetheless provokes admiration for having bothered to ask some of the hard questions without pretending to know any of the answers. It also works as a fine showcase for its actors: Fleshing out characters that could have been little more than one-note mouthpieces, Williams, Thompson, Parris and Bell all make strong, distinctive impressions, with Thompson perhaps the standout as the film’s sharpest and most enigmatic figure." - Justin Chang, Variety
The Last Time You Had Fun With a cast full of comedians and sitcom alums, The Last Time You Had Fun puts a grown-up twist on the standard "wild night out" comedy. After Ida (Eliza Coupe) forces her sister Alison (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) to blow off some steam with her, they find themselves bickering and partying with Clark (Kyle Bornheimer) and the sweatpants-clad Will (Demetri Martin), as the four of them attempt to have the most fun that four older, dysfunctional adults could possibly have.
"Granted, the excesses of Bridesmaids or The Hangover are not essential to sparkling relationship comedy, but Fun lacks an edge, or even much of an attitude. Blandly risqué situations, featherweight banter and a hint of implied sexual impropriety have all the heft of an extended cable sitcom episode. Or maybe it’s the casting, which draws extensively on the TV comedy background of the four leads, who all acquit themselves adequately but can’t achieve sufficient character differentiation within the ensemble. Undistinguished locations, flat lighting and primarily static setups perpetuate the small-screen aesthetic, which at least bodes well for the film’s transition to home entertainment formats." - Justin Lowe, The Hollywood Reporter
Echo Park The debut film from photographer Amanda Marsalis, Echo Park is a story about two people who come together "across cultural, economic and racial boundaries." Sophie (Mamie Gummer) is an unhappy housewife who moves from her Beverly Hills home to the up-and-coming neighborhood of Echo Park in order to shake up her predictable boring life, who finds herself drawn to Alex (Tony Okungbowa) after she buys his couch. But their burgeoning relationship might have to be put on hold, since he's about to leave for London...
"It’s Marsalis’ direction, and the fine performances from Gummer and Okungbowa that elevate the film above what it might have been, given the issues with the script and story that hover around the edges of cliché and stereotype (the worst offender: Sophie’s mother). While the dialogue, especially the scenes between Sophie and Alex, works well, the story beats are oddly laid out, rushing through some important character and relationship establishing moments, and dwelling too long in moments where the characters are making frustrating, selfish choices. Still, the end of the film avoids falling into the traditional romantic film trap, leading to a message that’s a bit more complicated and nuanced than expected." - Katie Walsh, IndieWire
The genesis of Universal's 47 Ronin is almost as tragic as the actual history that the movie is culling from. As the story goes, Universal saw the sprigs of talent sprouting from fresh faced director Carl Rinsch, whose previous experience was limited to just a couple of commercials and a nifty short film. The studio decided to ease the new director into feature filmmaking by cutting him what amounts to virtually a blank check, and giving him charge over a multi-national samurai fantasy epic. Almost impossibly, the film isn't a complete disaster. It's just a minor one.
47 Ronin follows the classic story of the titular team of warriors, a group of disgraced samurai who band together to seek revenge against a merciless warlord that betrayed and killed their master. But this isn't your grandfather's version of the story. 47 Ronin is an international affair, and it's covered with a veneer of Japanese mysticism and a thick coating of Hollywood lacquer, but east meets west rather uncomfortably, and it's mostly due to Keanu Reeves. Reeves' character is clearly crowbarred into the story that has no room for him, and it's plainly obvious where the seams of the story were stretched in order to patch him into the narrative. Reeves plays Kai, a half Japanese, half English orphan who is adopted by the samurai clan. His character serves no real purpose beyond being white, slicing things until they die, and playing the male lead of the most superfluous love story of the year. Rinsch simply can't make the inclusion of the character feel organic in any way, and "Kai" ends up feeling like a calculated studio move. It's a shame that the film spends so much time on Reeves when the real star is clearly Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays off the stoic samurai most believably among the rest of the cast.
It's also shame that with all the mysticism pumped into the story, there's no magic in the actual center of the film, the ronin themselves. The only personality trait a samurai is allowed to possess seems to be unerring stoicism, and between all 47 ronin, there are probably only three distinct samurai with any discernible character traits beyond an intense need to brood, and you'll probably only remember those three by the time the credits roll, only to promptly forget about them only a few hours later. Thankfully, Rinko Kikuchi's slinky and treacherous witch adds some much needed camp and personality to the mostly forgettable human characters.
And that's the issue with 47 Ronin. It's largely forgettable. When your film takes on a historical legend like the tale of the 47 ronin, a story that has been told and told again ad nauseum over the years, you really need to justify your own version. There are reels and reels of film dedicated to this story, and 47 Ronin doesn't manage to add anything significant to the canon. It promises to weld myth and history together, but does so clumsily, and while some of the action scenes are exciting, especially a particularly inspired set piece that involves the ronin noiselessly breaking into a heavily guarded fortress, the film is a bore when it's not clanking swords together.
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47 Ronin is a film with many stories. As much as it is a tale about the revenge of four dozen masterless samurai, it's also the tale of an inexperienced filmmaker swallowed up by the enormity of blockbuster filmmaking. Most of all though, It's proof that you shouldn't cram Keanu Reeves into a movie that doesn't really need Keanu Reeves. What you're left with is a dull and bloated samurai epic that has its moments, but feels largely unnecessary.
20th Century Fox
Geoffrey Rush is best known for playing larger-than-life characters like the pirate Captain Barbossa in the Pirates of the Carribean series. His character in The Book Thief, however, is markedly quieter and more restrained, a change of pace that the actor relished. In the adaptation of Markus Zusak's novel, the Oscar winner plays Hans Hubermann, a German man who, along with his wife Rosa (Emily Watson) fosters a young girl called Leisel Meminger (Sophie Nèlisse) and shelters a Jewish man, Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), at the start of World War II.
We sat down with Rush ahead of The Book Thief's November 8 release to talk about why Hans is so different than his previous roles, his long histroy with Emily Watson and how Sophie Nèlisse is like a "heat-seeking missile."
What was your first introduction to the story of The Book Thief? Were you at all familiar with the novel? No. Shamefully, because it’s a great Australian novel – or Australian author’s novel – I never heard of it. But I certainly got onto it very quickly once I read the screenplay because the storytelling in the screenplay, I thought “This is very good film writing.” And then to discover that the novel had, on its own novelistic levels, a certain rare brilliance, it was really good and [also] good to have that there as a reference work.
What is it about Hans as a character that appealed to you, and made you want to be a part of this project? For me, compared to what else is on my CV or what I’ve just been doing – I’ve been doing some theater in Australia, playing Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest or playing Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a big, bold, slapstick-y kind of show – so relative to that, when I then read The Book Thief, I though “This is a really nice challenge and creative contrast” to have something that’s not so obvious how to do it. And the fact that as the course of the story goes one, the character reveals greater and you know, for an actor, many more interesting quirks and depth.
You’ve worked with Emily once before, did your relationship with her help you to create that bond between Hans and Rosa? Not specifically on this relationship, because, you know, being husband and wife as Peter Sellers and his wife is completely different set of circumstances to Rosa and Hans. But you know, we had enjoyed that experience in 2003 and also I’d shared, in my and probably for her, we were sort of on the promotional circuit back in ’96-’97, she was in Breaking the Waves when I was in Shine and we were in tandem on Secrets and Lies and The English Patient and Sling Blade and everything. You tend to run into people in corridors in the hotel, or at some event, or a BAFTA afternoon tea or something, and we had many, many enjoyable conversations during that period. So, I feel like I’ve known Emily forever. She was great, because I tend to have a gallery of characters that are fairly boisterous or flamboyant or crazy or a little colorful – I don’t know how to describe them. But she’s certainly got a great repertoire of very finely etched, exquisite, dramatic roles with a rich inner life. I would describe her as one of those people who doesn’t go out to the camera, she lets the camera come in and discover the secrets that are going on beautifully inside of her performance. I was excited by the fact that she really wanted to play, warts and all, this rather mean-spirited, downtrodden, tough housefrau and not let any vanity get in the way of that, because it’s very late in the film that her particular onion gets unpeeled and you get a glimpse of the richness of her humanity, and that’s the whole mark of the people who live on Himmel Straße.
Even the woman who was playing Rudy’s mum, you know, not the biggest role in the world, but I thought it had a wonderful, rich, emotional intensity of being torn between “Do we help Herr Lehman on the street or not?” or even when she’s saying goodbye to her husband, Rudy’s dad, “Don’t cry in front of the children. Don’t make this [worse]." Heartbreaking stuff. You know, life on Himmel Straße was really being battered and the natural sense of community was really being battered and bruised by the fanatical ideology of the National Socialist sense of control. It doesn’t want people to be human; it doesn’t want people to have fascinating social connections.
There are so many newcomers in this cast. What’s it like as a veteran actor to work with so many new faces? Well, Ben was relatively new. I mean, I didn’t really know of him and we spent a lot of time together in Berlin. I only had certain key scenes in relationship, it was really Sophie that worked with him. But yeah, I think it’s great when there are fresh faces in parts like that because it introduces a new talent, and interesting talent to people. But you know, out of the 20-25 German actors, I mean, we had people in the roles of other community members of Himmel Street or Nazi members or various roles, who were all the cream of German stage and screen, all really keen to contribute to the making of this film.
Was there anything about Sophie or her performance that particularly surprised or impressed you? All of it. She’s prodigiously gifted and has a natural gift. She’s like a heat seeking missile, she just kind of goes in on the pure emotional requirements and necessities that are in a scene and does them in a very unpredictable, very arresting way. She engages an audience’s imagination so strongly, and the thing I loved about her is that in between takes, she was just a great clown. We found our friendship not by so much discussing what Hans and Leisel would do together, just by Geoffrey and Sophie goofing off. Became a good way to break the ice and find a rapport and somehow I hope that’s found it was into the specifics of the plight of their relationship and the pressures that it’s under.