Hollywood Blvd. continues to heroically resist Disneyfication; despite the newish mall and a smattering of exclaves like Gap and Zara, the vibe is still cheapness and glamor, grime and decay, with head shops, wig emporiums, hookerwear, pizza, punk rock runaways, and odd little businesses lost in time, alongside the landmark movie palaces and the eternal Musso & Frank’s. Every November at the west end of the strip, right behind the swarm of tourists and the not-so-fresh Spidermen and Jack Sparrows grinding out a living from tips, Angelenos are treated to heaping helpings of recent auteur films from the international festival circuit in state-of-the-art theaters, with free tickets, courtesy of AFI Fest.
This year’s festival — which is running now through November 17 — features a number of selections that play with form, including several fantastic and fantastical films that revolve around mythical creatures that visit delicious terror on the humans who dare to play with them. Here are a few highly-recommended favorites.
A Dragon Arrives! (dir. Mani Haghighi)
With its layered narrative and vivid, idiosyncratic characters, A Dragon Arrives has the depth and panoramic sweep of a great novel. Its investigation into the supernatural doesn’t rely on special effects; director Mani Haghighi creates a world in which fantastical occurrences are plausible, cleverly interweaving the powers of the unknown into a narrative involving arcane political maneuvering in Mad Men-era Iran. With stunningly handsome leads caught up in a dangerous and romantic love affair, with a sound man intent on capturing the unique quality of silence in different parts of the world, it’s a gorgeous film that explores the realities of the physical, emotional, and spiritual worlds with a playful intelligence, heart, and humor.
Buster’s Mal Heart (dir. Sarah Adina Smith)
Tragedy is at the core of Sarah Adina Smith’s daring second film Buster’s Mal Heart, but the film is miles away from you typical dirgey indie realism, nimbly cutting back and forth in time and into a third dimension — a kind of physical manifestation of its lead character’s emotional state. Rami Malek’s getting well-deserved props for his beyond-intense performance as Jonah, a hotel worker in a billowy 90s dress shirt and tie who grapples with his sanity as he sees his dream of escaping the capitalist system slowly slipping away. But the cast is brilliant across the board, in particular DJ Qualls, a drifter/self-described visionary who warns Jonah about the impending doom of Y2K, and Sukha Belle Potter, who takes cute-core to a new level as Jonah’s young daughter.
Fraud (dir. Dean Fleischer-Camp)
There’s been controversy about the authenticity of its footage, but real or not, Fraud is a fast, brilliant snapshot of twenty-teens America where life is all about buying cool stuff and going faster and having fun fun fun — until the bills come and life is sad for a minute. According to director Dean Fleischer-Camp, the footage came from YouTube, over 100 hours of home movie footage posted by a family as they gradually got in over their heads with debt, and blithely committed insurance fraud. The rapid-fire editing style gives the narrative a crunchy, sugary rush; the parents are like irrepressible big kids determined to never leave their personal Disneyland. It’s social satire in a dizzying new form, whether or not it’s documentary, and it’s a lot of fun to watch even as it takes you into a kind of abyss.
The Future Perfect (dir. Nele Wohlatz)
An unexpected gem in the lineup is The Future Perfect by Nele Wohlatz, a German expat living in Argentina. The script, which is set in the Chinese immigrant community of Buenos Aires, is built from the kind of short phrases you learn in a language class, creating a fascinating interplay between the bare-bones packets of Spanish dialogue and the dramatically complex and intense situations that the lead character, Xiaobing, has to negotiate. The intricacies of Xiaobing’s love affair with an Indian man with cultural expectations of his own are reduced to blunt, back-and-forth statements that become oddly poetic. Wohlatz finds a totally unique tone, clipped and mannered and yet plausible for characters trying to express themselves in a new language in a foreign country.
The Lure (dir. Agnieszka Smoczynska)
Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure, much like fellow Pole Kuba Czekaj’s recent Baby Bump, is a sharp departure from the dark and restrained mystic humanism of Kieslowski toward a very different strain of Polish cinema — still digging deep into the sinew of its characters and of Polish society in general, but giving the whole enterprise a day-glo candy coating. Smoczynska’s mermaids-in-the-city story is playful, violent, and sexy, and at its core it’s a sly commentary on the exploitation of women, a fable on the need for empowerment. But on its surface, it’s a disco ball ride through a fun zone of modern and retro pop culture, brought to life by a brilliant ensemble cast led by Marta Mazurek and Michalina Olszanska as the lovely, innocent and ruthless mermaids Silver and Golden.
The Eyes of My Mother (dir. Nicolas Pesce)
Director Nicolas Pesce draws from the classic horror/suspense films of Hitchcock and Franju for his deeply disturbing The Eyes of My Mother. While the actual violence happens almost entirely off-screen, the intensity of the scenario is particularly horrific because it involves fully rendered, dimensional characters and a believable if extreme storyline; Pesce amps up the conventions of classic horror while steering clear of clichés. It’s steeped in a uniquely gothic sensibility, from the Portuguese-descended lead character Francisca’s beloved Fado torch ballads to the exquisite bold strokes and delicate filigree of Zach Kuperstein’s black and white cinematography.
Actor Martinez (dirs. Mike Ott, Nathan Silver)
Getting meta is nothing new, but in Actor Martinez, meta-ness is just the point of departure for a narrative that spills over into delightful explorations and exploitations of its characters, their motivations and ethics. The story around the story centers on the matter of how far a computer repairman and struggling actor in Denver (of all places) will go to star in a movie about himself. The comedy is served very dry, as co-directors Mike Ott and Nathan Silver conspire (onscreen, of course) to get their subject “out of his comfort zone.” They push him to a squirm-inducing extreme in a scene involving the actress they cast as his girlfriend. What really makes it all gel is Martinez himself, a man with a fascinating mind who is heroically willing to remain exposed and vulnerable, even as he’s allowing himself to be used as an indie film guinea pig.
The Untamed (dir. Amat Escalante)
Amat Escalante’s The Untamed (“La región salvaje” is its much better Spanish-language title) opens with a woman being brought to orgasm by someone or something; as the camera pulls back, we get a glimpse of a retracting tentacle. The woman, Alejandra, is subsequently drawn into the sexual intrigue between a married couple and a gay brother-in-law; soon she involves them with the violent, sexual creature. What sounds like a jacked-up 50s B-movie plot is actually deeply sensitive, nuanced and poetic. Escalante shines a light on hypocrisy, sexism, and homophobia in Mexican culture, while an outstanding cast portrays the reality of sexually-fluid habits behind closed doors. What’s interesting and unusual about Escalante’s beautifully-rendered beast is that, although it’s ripe for interpretation, it can’t be reduced to a simple metaphor.