AFIFEST 2015: Festival Diary

I'm back at the biggest fall season film festival in the world after missing it last year due to a last-minute flight to Chicago to celebrate a very good friend's birthday. This year, I made sure my schedule from November 5 thru November 12 would be free and that my time would only be spent at my day job and my life's passion: watching great films from great directors and filmmakers from great film-making countries all over the world.

AFIFEST 2015 opened with Angelina Jolie's 3rd directorial effort "By The Sea" on Thursday to a decidedly mixed critical reception. Some kinder critics declared it as Angelina's art film effort and lauded her decision to veer away from contending for the Oscars.

On Friday, the highly anticipated Los Angeles debut of "The Lobster", Yorgos Lanthimos' follow-up to his Oscar-nominated film "Dogtooth", took place and a very good friend who loved both Yorgos and Colin Farrell raved about the film and it made me so envious to have missed the film. I will just have to wait for its later screenings in town.

Saturday, Nov 7, was my official first day at the festival. It felt so good to be back! I love to be in the company of fellow film buffs. To be listening in to their conversations about the movies and occasionally butting in with my two cents are some of the best 30 minutes to 1 hour one could ever spend while queuing in line.

I saw 4 films on my first day though I attempted and did not finish 2 others. I saw 4 great films on Sunday, 1 on Monday, skipped Tuesday screenings for work and other commitments and went back yesterday to catch Gabriel Mascaro's latest feature "Neon Bull."

Below are my quick reviews of the films.

(Note: The Festival concludes today with the announcement of the award winners. You will find the list of winners here: AFIFEST 2015 Winners!)

Dir. Ida Panahandeh (Iran)
Rating: 5 Stars

This film tells the story of a woman in modern-day Iran who must thread her roles as a single mother, a divorcee and a woman in love with a new man. It's a gripping film that examines what life is like when you are forced to choose between your happiness and your child, between what society expects from you and what you can sacrifice to hold on to some perceived good reputation. A very insightful film filled with superlative perfs and great writing. An outstanding film!

Dir. Athina Rachel Tsangari (Greece)
Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

This is a ridiculously funny movie about a group of friends, all men, who spent a few days together on a boat engaging in various male-bonding activities including a game they concocted called "chevalier" where they measure each other's worth as a friend, as a person, as a man. If you've ever wondered what men really do when they are closely huddled together and have nothing better to do, this film tells us that they surprisingly do things common and superficial like every other person. Excellent film!

Dir. Matteo Garrone (France/UK/Italy)
Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

Finally got to see acclaimed Italian director Matteo Garrone's latest film! The film premiered at Cannes this year and it's a visually sumptuous fantasy film filled with exceptional costume, make-up and production design. This is an adaptation of a collection of fairy tales by Italian poet Giambattista Basile and tells the story of three kingdoms whose rulers and heirs are having issues typical in fairy tale stories -- some are interesting but unfortunately a good portion of the film proved to be uninteresting. The film failed to offer much excitement and was not able to sustain the wonderful opening tale of a barren queen who bore a child after eating the heart of a sea monster.

Dir. Can Evrenol (Turkey)
Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

This film is a horrifying mash-up of classic horror (think of Eli Roth) and psychological thriller. It tells the story of a squad of Turkish cops who are called to provide back-up to their fellow officers who are engaged with some criminals only to find themselves in an abandoned mansion where they will be later trapped in the basement with a group of devil-worshipping amputees! This is a bloody and gory film with copious amounts of violence and body mutilations that would excite hardcore fans of the genre. For those looking for an allegorical meaning of the film you can start your analysis with the cop characters and the cannibal amputees but this is a midnight movie selection at the festival and I expected this kind of film and I was not disappointed so I will stop there.

Dir. Marco Bellocchio (Italy)
No Rating

This is a movie with an ambiguous plot and an ambiguous storytelling structure. At least, that's what i got after watching the first half of this dual narrative film set 300 years apart but set in the same village and populated by the same kind of people with various levels of questionable sanity. Don't get me wrong. The movie is gloriously shot but I just couldn't last. I barely contained myself from dozing off over the extended witch-hunt story of the first half and I thought the search for a modern-day vampire, which makes up the second half of the narrative, would be too much to bear and I would just disturb everyone in the theater if I started snoring. So I left.

Dir. Alice Winocour (France)
No Rating

This is what disappointed me the most on my first day. This film is about an ex-soldier with PTSD who gets assigned to protect the wife and child of a wealthy Arab businessman. It's supposed to be a thriller but nearly one hour into the movie, nothing happens except for numerous slow-motion sequences. I went into the theater expecting some high-octane thriller based on the synopsis provided but I spent the first hour waiting for some real action. This is a classic case of Expectation-Versus-Reality conflict -- in this case, the reality did not meet the hype. I feel too bad about not finishing the movie because it stars Diane Kruger and Matthias Schoenaerts. But there are 80 more films to choose from and we only get 8 days.

Dir. Chantal Akerman (Belgium)
Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

My heart still aches in pain. I just saw Chantal Akerman's final film, the somber and meditative docudrama "No Home Movie", and I felt this connection to her and the mother she lost as if i knew them very well. I am not familiar with the filmmaker's work but a fellow film buff educated me of her work and her contribution to the rise of feminist filmmaking as well as her tragic passing last month when she took her own life in Paris. The film is the filmmaker's love letter to her mother and a document of her finals days. Her mom is a Polish immigrant who survived Auschwitz. The filmmaker's visual compositions, a series of beautifully constructed master shots, reminded me a lot of Haneke's "Amour". One scene where i found myself sobbing, with the rest of the audience, was one of the conversations the filmmaker and her mother had over Skype covering mundane topics but which took on a different, deeper meaning now that both are gone. This film is a must-see for students of film.

Dir. Cesar Augusto Acevedo (Colombia)
Rating: 5 Stars

This is a heart-wrenching film about a family struggling with poverty and the threat of losing their last piece of property, their land, from being completely usurped by sugarcane plantation owners. The story is a sad reflection of the state of poor farmers and laborers today and how they are being left behind by the apparent growth in wealth being touted by the optimists in the world. It's quite sad to see a mother and a father wash the body of their dead son who they couldn't send to a hospital for proper treatment because they couldn't afford it. And it's heartbreaking to see birds ignore your offering of humble food because they feel like you need it more. This film does not tell us a new story but it reminds us that the stories of struggles of poor families in the past continue on today and they may even be multiplying.

Dir. Jayro Bustamante (Guatemala)
Rating: 5 Stars

Finally! Finally! I have been waiting for this film to reach Los Angeles since its award-winning debut at Berlin in February. And it did not disappoint. It is amazing, incredible, masterful! This is the strongest of the Oscar submissions I have seen so far. It tells the story of a poor Mayan family who lives on the foot of an active volcano and whose daughter has been arranged to marry the landowner whom they owe their livelihood from. But the seeming simplicity and ordinariness of the arrangement would have complications later when the daughter suddenly becomes pregnant. The film is an insightful look into the lives of the Mayan people who live on the fringes of Guatemalan society and it touches on several social and economic issues affecting the community. It also offers striking visuals and extraordinary performances from a cast of mostly non-actors.

(Note: The screening I attended was presented to the audience by the the film's very young and talented director Jayro Bustamante and by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu. I rarely witness films receiving a standing ovation prior to its screening and it happened tonight at the packed screening of "Ixcanul." Fearless forecast: This film will be shortlisted and could win.)

"A WAR (Krigen)"
Dir. Tobias Lindholm (Denmark)
Rating; 5 Stars

This is the official submission of Denmark to the 88th Academy Awards and it tells the story of a company commander stationed in Afghanistan who must make hard decisions everyday for the young men under his command and for the citizens of the country they are trying to protect while his wife is left to raising their three very young kids back home. Highly acclaimed writer/director Tobias Lindholm ("A Hijacking") shows us the duality and hypocrisy of every war in his powerful new film, which proposes that a soldier must set aside his compassion, harden his heart and turn a blind eye in order to serve right the cause of any war. "A War" starts out as riveting action film filled with impressive combat sequences in the first act and transitions to a gripping morality tale in the second. Actor Pilou Asbæk delivers a haunting performance as soldier torn and conflicted with the decisions he made, could have made and didn't make.

Dir. Pablo Larrain (Chile)
Rating 4 1/2 Stars

I had to compose myself before writing a quick review in my FB account of Pablo Larrain's Berlin-winning follow-up to his Oscar-nominated film "No" because I thought "El Club", a movie about priests with criminal pasts, was vicious, vile and offensive and I was so ready to rip it apart but I realized that it was the exact reaction the filmmaker was aiming for when he made this film and I have to respect  that because in all objectivity his film is a powerful indictment and an eye-opening expose of the apparent hypocrisy of the catholic church... read full review here: "El Club" Full Review

Dir. Gabriel Mascaro (Brazil)
Rating: 4 Stars

This is a very divisive film from the very young Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro, whose previous film "August Winds" i did not particularly enjoy. But fortunately, this film, his 2nd feature is something i did enjoy and thoroughly liked. It's plotless and can feel very slow at times but it's a fascinating look into the Brazilian rodeo subculture and I like how in their world no one has a predefined role. A cowboy can wrangle bulls during the day and sew bikinis at night and dream of becoming a fashion designer. A woman can sell cologne during daytime and moonlight as a security guard at night. A man can spend hours in front of the mirror to straighten his hair but his masculinity is never doubted and a woman can sleep in a shack with other men and never fear of being raped -- she gets to call who gets to fuck her. Very interesting world. Very interesting film!

It was a great 8 days of AFIFEST. Can't wait for next year. Meantime, next stop for festival junkies are the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January and the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in February. Oscar screenings and select festivals from various countries are also going on in LA. Happy times!

Raymond Lo

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