It’s hard to say whether it’s been the stifling heat or former Warner Independent chief Mark Gill’s much-talked about “the sky really is falling” speech (published in full at indieWire here) that gave attendees of this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival a sense of their own mortality. Then again, it could just be the way in which the effects of life-altering events have been examined in several of the festival’s films, particularly in the narrative section.
When Gill, now heading up the indie shingle The Film Department, spoke at the adjoining film financing conference on the first Saturday of the festival, he decried the indie film marketplace as standing on the brink of oblivion, saying, “if you decide to make a movie budgeted under $10 million on your own tomorrow, you have a 99.9% chance of failure.” On that basis, it’s possible that “Winged Creatures,” an ensemble drama that made its world premiere at a secret screening, might have a chance. With a cast that reads like the list of 2007 Oscar nominees Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, Jackie Earle Haley, not to mention Guy Pearce, Dakota Fanning and Kate Beckinsale it’s the type of high-profile and high-minded indie production that audiences have been seeing a lot of lately, whether it was Whitaker’s own recent ensemble drama “The Air I Breathe” or the film “Creatures” clearly aspires to be, “Crash.”
The film follows the aftermath of a shooting in a Los Angeles diner through the people who were there to witness it. Director Rowan Woods, who last helmed the underrated Cate Blanchett drama “Little Fish,” and writer Roy Freirich, who based the screenplay on his own novel, resist the urge to oversentimentalize the characters’ grief, which manifests itself in a variety of ways. Whitaker’s driver instructor discovers a lucky streak and heads to the Morongo Casino after being treated for being shot; Pearce’s doctor tests his mettle by poisoning his wife in small doses; Beckinsale’s waitress starts to lose track of her young son; and Dakota Fanning’s character suddenly finds religion after her father dies in the massacre. None of them talk about what happen that day, even though the film not-so-subtly positions a nosy psychologist (Troy Garity) to visit each of them, but while “Winged Creatures” aims for something more complex than rehashing a guide to grieving, it falls short when its disparate storylines don’t actually come together in a meaningful way and the characters’ quirks become more of a distraction than an insight into who they are. (Fanning’s proselytizing teen is a particular frustration, as evidenced by some giggles in the audience at her deadly serious calls for prayer, despite a payoff for her character that’s rewarding against all odds.)
Yet if “Winged Creatures” might be part of the future of indie films that Gill is suggesting, it’s still worth reveling in the present for films like Spencer Parsons’s equally frustrating but nonetheless intriguing drama “I’ll Come Running,” which also made its world premiere at the festival. Although the film is incredibly difficult to discuss without spoilers, it’s perhaps fitting that “I’ll Come Running”‘s best attribute is actually what isn’t said by the characters as they deal with a tragedy on two sides of the world. Melonie Diaz stars as Veronica, a Texas waitress who meets Pelle, a Dane (Jon Lange) passing through Austin on vacation. Within hours of meeting each other, nicknames are given and clothes are discarded, but when the unexpected occurs, Veronica finds herself headed to Denmark with unresolved emotions towards Pelle when she meets his family and his friend SÃ¸ren (Christian Tafdrup).
The geographical shift sees Parsons’ first feature not only changing continents, but tones the romantic romp of American half (complete with one quite effective and quite literal dick joke) is supplanted by the ennui of the Danish half, filled with the fears and uncertainties that accompany any brief romance, but are unusually pronounced in Veronica’s case. Ultimately, the film bridges the gap once Parsons finds his footing in Denmark and Diaz, who is quickly becoming a film festival queen of Parker Posey-stature (she could be found in three films at this year’s Sundance), emerges as “Running”‘s anchor, conveying both the film’s rough edges and its warmth.
And the festival hasn’t been short on warmth, whether one’s speaking about the weather or some of the events at the week in Westwood. “Hot Fuzz” director Edgar Wright enjoyed a virtual lovefest when he came out to talk about his beloved British cult TV hit “Spaced,” finally making its American DVD debut in July. Before screening three of his favorite episodes of the series that paired Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson Hynes as flatmates who pretended to be married, Wright schooled the L.A. crowd on some of the things that might not translate, such as “Twiglets,” the British snack that the director said “looked like a twig” and tasted like one, covered in Vegemite. (Despite the conversation that followed the episodes between Wright and “South Park”‘s Matt Stone, one of the more amusing moments of the evening was that in the packed Regent Theatre, “Death Proof” star and stuntwoman ZoÃ« Bell appeared to be the one fending off all comers for Wright’s reserved seat, though no one was hurt.)
There also wasn’t a seat empty for a conversation between “Juno” director Jason Reitman and his father Ivan, who dominated the evening by talking about everything from being arrested for his first production, “Columbus of Sex,” in 1969 (for which he and his partner Dan Goldberg were the first Canadians convicted on obscenity charges) to having to pass on directing “Rain Man” when the late Sydney Pollack had the script and stalled long enough for Ivan to decide to move onto another brother movie, “Twins.” (The punchline was that Pollack told a frustrated Reitman about his decision not to make “Rain Man” when both were sitting in their cars at an intersection waiting for the stop light to change.) It wasn’t the older Reitman’s fault that the night focused on him, since the younger Reitman initially demurred when questions came his way, but with a little prodding, the “Juno” director talked about how “Slacker” inspired him to become a filmmaker with its lack of pretense, and how he raised the funds to direct his first short by creating desk calendars to sell advertisements in while he was at USC Film School. As the two closed out the night by recalling “Juno”‘s eight-minute standing ovation at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, it was a touching and appropriate moment for a festival that is so often an odd mix of Hollywood and Indiewood and a reminder that the future may not be so bleak. (After all, “Juno” only cost $6.5 million.)
[Photos: “Winged Creatures,” Columbia Pictures, 2008; “I’ll Come Running,” Film Science, 2008; “Spaced,” BBC Warner, 2008]