Saturday, June 24

What's Up Docs?

Because film festivals should be about more than red carpets and Emmanuelle Chriqui and because my colleague Hanh has been the only one of us to actually see a movie at the LAFF, I spent seven hours at the Westwood Crest theater this afternoon, enjoying the shooting stars on the ceiling and checking out a trio of documentaries, two of which are in the main LAFF competition. Reasserting nonfiction is what the cool kids want to see (with or without penguins), all three films were sold out and the evening's final Crest screening, "Darkon," looked to have a full house as well.

Today's viewing, in order:

"Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater"
directed by Julie Anderson

It will surprise nobody who knows me that the late Republican Senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, and I share very little ideological ground, which left me a bit shocked by how much Anderson's neatly made film moved me. Viewers of a certain generation who only know Goldwater from his lopsided 1964 loss to LBJ and the famous commercial with the girl, the daisy and the nuke may not be swayed by the insight into his politics, but they'll come away finding it hard not to respect a man of such pure and committed principles.

"Mr. Conservative" is produced by Barry's granddaughter CC Goldwater and a straight historical chronology of his political career is intercut with glimpses into his family life that are rarely sentimentalized, despite an often-grating score. The usual assortment of talking heads show up to support Goldwater, including George Will and John McCain. More interesting is the begrudging admiration from people like Al Franken and James Carville. Unfortunately, Hilary Clinton's confession that she was a Goldwater Girl in 1964 comes off as political opportunism. Best of all is the lingering awareness of how corruption and the religious right have corrupted the things that Goldwater stood for and how disgusted he would likely be by the current state of the Republican party.

The audience received the film warmly and the competition entry is set to appear air on HBO in September.

"The Wild Blue Yonder"
written and directed by Werner Herzog

Herzog's impossible-to-describe film -- Brad Dourif plays an alien who narrates a story of space exploration over actual NASA space footage and underwater images from sub-Arctic shelf divers -- isn't in the competition, which may be a good thing. There were a number of walk-outs and I overheard one young lady mutter to her date, "I wish I'd brought a book, but at least you got some sleep," which doesn't bode well for a film that runs under 80 minutes.

Although the film is maddeningly obtuse at times, I found it frequently hypnotic as well and fully understood the closing credit that read, "We thank NASA for its sense of poetry." I think it would be interesting to watch "The Wild Blue Yonder" paired with Chris Marker's seminal "La Jetee."

"Deliver Us From Evil"
directed by Amy Berg

If you're looking for an early favorite to sweep the jury and audience documentary prize, this may be a good bet based on the series of standing ovations for the utterly unflinching look at sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, focusing particularly on Father Oliver O'Grady, who the Church essentially harbored for decades, moving him from congregation to congregation, despite mounting evidence that he molested countless children, boys and girls.

It's a story you probably feel like you've heard too many times before, but what sets this doc apart is the fact that Berg got O'Grady to go on camera and on-the-record about his crimes from his safe haven in Ireland. His testimony -- full of both contrition and cluelessness -- plus interviews with several of the survivors of his abuse, make for a graphic and horrifying record. The film is well structured so that every new revelation feels like an absolute nadir, until things go lower still.

It's not a flawless film. Berg may over-reach in her final act attempts to implicate the Vatican, the Pope and even President Bush in the conspiracy. The film also suffers from some closing heavy-handedness that's unnecessary given how well the story speaks for itself [Cut the final shot of Jesus on the cross, Amy. It's overkill.].

Berg told the appreciative audience that she doesn't have distribution yet. I'd expect that to change soon.