LAFF 2017 Roundup

We were lucky enough to have a chance to cover some of the films from 2017’s Los Angeles Film Festival! Read below to learn our takes.

laff 2017 abu

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Director: Arshad Khan

Genre: Documentary, Autobiographical 

It’s incredibly hard to make an autobiographical documentary that doesn’t feel pretentious or self-indulgent, but luckily, Arshad Khan’s painfully candid new film ABU doesn’t have a self-indulgent note in its entire runtime. Mostly this is because his family’s life genuinely warranted a full documentary, particularly Khan’s relationship with his father, his Abu. Khan is a gay Pakistani-Canadian who found himself resoundingly rejected by his father, and later his mother, for his sexuality. As his father struggled to assimilate into Canadian culture after immigrating from Pakistan, he retreated into Islam as a means of rooting himself in a spiritual identity, which meant that Khan became increasingly estranged from him. Khan mostly does an excellent job laying out his journey from Pakistan to the US and the internal struggles his family faced together. Using a combination of home movie footage, photographs, and brief animated sequences, Khan manages to tell an enriching story despite 60 percent of the narrative being driven by his voice over. There are also a few sequences which use Bollywood films to express the feelings of the moments the family is going through, but these sequences are scant, and confusing when they do appear. Additionally, despite the short runtime, there is a sense that the film could have been constructed more efficiently so that information was not repeated. All that aside, there are revelations in this film that are truly shocking to the point that it’s almost unbelievable that the family was willing to share them, and the fact that they were speaks highly of all of them, not just Khan himself. Furthermore, there is a scene near the very end of the film that is as stunning as it is uplifting; pretty much everyone is guaranteed to feel their heart in their throat. It’s a touching, brutally honest portrait of a modern Muslim family, one that is not afraid to show the nastier sides, but which ultimately humanizes Muslims in a way that is rarely seen in North American media. [Carter Moon]

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Director: Michael Showalter

Genre: Comedy

Despite what you may believe, THE BIG SICK does not draw its title from the feeling you get after hearing “Sundance darling,” “romantic comedy,” and “Apatow” in the same sentence. It suffers from the same shortcomings all Apatow films do (treacly at times, 30 minutes too long, a sneaking suspicion the entire movie was cobbled together in post), but it’s easily the most unique of the bunch. Kumail Nanjiani proves he’s way more than SILICON VALLEY with a knockout emotional performance. His dry humor pervades the film, but when that emotional sucker punch shows up, it hits hard. He demonstrates an incredible dramatic acting ability, as does Zoe Kazan, who I am overjoyed to see back in a leading romantic role after RUBY SPARKS. I am also happy to report that this is not a Nicholas Sparks cancer movie! It tackles the reality of an ailing loved one perfectly without romanticizing illness in the slightest. The fact that the female lead is literally in a coma for three quarters of the film makes this one of the most unconventional romantic comedies I’ve seen. Gluttons for punishment (like myself) may find that the happy ending feels slightly undeserved, but when you see those pictures of Kumail and his real-life wife the film is based on in the credits, you just have to give it a pass. THE BIG SICK isn’t changing the face of cinema, but the hype is certainly real. It’s funny, it’s heartfelt, and it’s different. What more could you ask for? [Kate Brogden]

laff 2017 brigsby

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Director: Dave McCary

Genre: Comedy

When popular YouTube comedy group GoodNeighborStuff, who now populates SNL’s line-up and writing staff, joins forces with The Lonely Island production team, a quirky, heartfelt, feel-good film about the magic of collaboration is born. BRIGSBY BEAR features Kyle Mooney as James, an avid, singular fan of a television show of the same name. Without saying too much about the plot, because it’s fun to feel as naive and innocent as James when watching the movie, James’s world is turned upside down when he is rescued and reunited with his long-lost family. Sheltered for much of his early life, BRIGSBY BEAR provides the only constant during his dramatic change in lifestyle. On top of the hilarious and surprisingly nuanced performance from Kyle Mooney, the extremely solid, all-star cast includes Claire Danes, Mark Hamill, Andy Samberg, Michaela Watkins, Greg Kinnear, and many more. For anyone who finds deep satisfaction and meaning through creative collaboration, you will enjoy this film. BRIGSBY BEAR is a movie that all young artists and creatives should see in order to help nurture the idea that strong, individual vision matters, and only true friends can help fully realize it. [Sam Wall]

laff 2017 butterfly

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Director: Rafael Kapelinski

Genre: Drama

A modern day Humbert Humbert finds himself in a British teenager named Jake in the black and white film BUTTERFLY KISSES. Unlike LOLITA, however, Jake is far removed from both his secret obsession with little girls and his social circle. There is no child pornography found in his browser search history as searched by his friends, or any inappropriate moves towards the young girl he babysits. Yet the film manages to make one feel completely uncomfortable through lack of dialogue alone. He jokes with his friends, has a good relationship with his parents, and takes the new girl next door, Zara, out on a date. Meanwhile, he sees the newspaper headlines depicting a pedophile ring being incarcerated and goes along with his day. It’s as if in his mind, him spending his evenings peering out of his apartment window and looking into the room of a child doesn’t make him one of the men in the paper, so long as he doesn’t act upon anything. His alienation cultivates itself until he finally loses his virginity to Zara, but learns that she was paid by his friends to cooperate. This rejection leads him to trespass into the bedroom of the girl he babysits, and he soon has the cops on his trail. This story is a haunting debut by director Rafael Kapelinski, as it explores the slow, painful rejection and isolation that culminates within Jake until it reaches its disturbing and unsettling resolution. [Michelle Vera]

laff 2017 don't

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Director: Bruce Thierry Cheung

Genre: Drama

DON’T COME BACK FROM THE MOON is a touching drama set in an abandoned lake town, whose remaining inhabitants are most likely to never let the lake out of their line of sight for the remainder of their lives. A predicament occurs wherein fathers notoriously ditch their families to “go to the moon” and never be seen again. There are plenty of unanswered questions surrounding this strange community, as it is never explicitly said where the fathers go. The film proves that no explanation is needed, as the broken families hide behind a metaphor that doesn’t sound as harsh as the truth. James Franco and Rashida Jones turn in remarkable performances that pack a punch in their brief time on screen, but the real talent of the film is Jeffrey Wahlberg. Jeffrey plays the protagonist Mickey, who battles with his own father’s disappearance and struggles with interpreting his manhood in his small hometown, as he showcases the loss of an immaturity that he attempts to hold on to dearly. Bruce Thierry Cheung has successfully adapted a surreal novel into a story that is completely palpable and thrives on its ambiguity. [Michelle Vera]

laff 2017 everything

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Directors: Pete Ohs, Andrea Sisson

Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

In today’s age of action and superhero films, a simple yet effective story can be quite a breath of fresh air, which is something that EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL IS FAR AWAY is happy to provide. With only two characters (okay, three, if you count the robot head Susan) and a simple mission (travel across the desert in search of the mythical Crystal Lake), this film boasts a straightforward yet original concept and truly delightful performances from its two leads (Julia Garner and Joseph Cross). With rich characters in a realistic, alternate-reality-type world, EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL IS FAR AWAY is a success on many counts. However, I think that the film might have benefitted from just an extra kick of something—its social commentary, if present at all, was difficult to determine (despite its setting and the presence of a robot), and I was really half-hoping it would overall just raise the stakes a bit. If you go in merely seeking a well-intentioned and well-made little survival adventure film, however, you’ll be more than satisfied with EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL IS FAR AWAY. [Hayley Bensmiller]

laff 2017 lady macbeth

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Director: William Oldroyd

Genre: Thriller

LADY MACBETH follows the story of young Katherine, who is married off to a much older man in an arranged marriage in rural England in the year 1865. What starts out as a sad story about a young woman who has no say in her own life quickly turns into a cautionary tale about moral corruption and how far a person is willing to go for the sake of self-preservation. Like the Shakespearean character that is the film’s namesake, Katherine’s want for something greater comes at the cost of others, with occasionally grave consequences. Tense and shocking, this film is not for the faint of heart. Those watching with that in mind will enjoy the deliberate, well-crafted filmmaking on display here, in addition to career-making performances by newcomer Florence Pugh (only 21 years old) and singer/songwriter Cosmo Jarvis. [Eden Bailey]

laff 2017 mankiller

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Director: Valerie Red-Horse Mohl

Genre: Documentary

It’s not very often that one gets to see a PBS-funded documentary on a big screen played for a full theater. MANKILLER, a documentary about the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation, offers an in-depth portrait of Wilma Mankiller, an absolutely astounding political figure. Starting as a community organizer building water systems for Cherokee communities, Wilma fell into the politics of the Cherokee Nation as a means to an end of better care for her people. Interview footage with Wilma is haunting; her commitment to her core values as a woman and a member of the Cherokee Nation is astounding in an era where so many of us feel utterly contemptuous of political figures. Wilma is a reminder of what a truly exceptional political leader can look like, what an unwavering dedication to public service can yield in a lifetime. In a time when women were still being regularly excluded from elected office, Wilma’s fiery feminism won her the admiration of feminists the world over, including Gloria Steinem, who gives an insightful interview here. Throughout the screening, there were multiple outbursts of applause; Wilma’s vision of a more just world still resonates today, more than 20 years since she left public office. I can’t guarantee that you’ll be moved to applause when this makes its way to your Netflix cue, but I have to imagine anyone who’s wanting to envision a more ideal political leader would find much to love about this documentary. [Carter Moon]

laff 2017 moko

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Director: Vashti Anderson

Genre: Drama, Romance

One might expect an independent forbidden romance story to be chock-full of cliches and overwrought with cringe-worthy contrived emotion, but Vashti Anderson’s phenomenal debut film MOKO JUMBIE exceeds all expectations of the genre. In fact, its greatest strength is that it never allows itself to be pinned to one genre or plot or theme; rather, as it goes on, the layers of the film unravel and display the deep-seated threads that have been masterfully woven together. All at once, MOKO JUMBIE is romantic, coming-of-age, sad, political, and disturbing. As the director herself stated, MOKO JUMBIE is a film of contrasts, evident in its commentary on culture, race, colonialism, gender, class, and even through its soundtrack and cinematography. The film blends various concepts and ideas seamlessly together, while simultaneously pointing out the differences between them and the hatred and conflict that this can create. Though it can be a bit rough around the edges in some parts (as many first-time filmmakers’ movies are), the writing and performances of MOKO JUMBIE offer truly wonderful subtleties and nuances which can be difficult for any filmmaker (first-timer or not) to achieve. [Hayley Bensmiller]

laff 2017 sway

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Director: Ari Gold

Genre: Drama, Mystery

THE SONG OF SWAY LAKE wraps a tortured family history around a classic record from the days of swing dancing around lake campfires. It is a drama that feels in a sense both timeless and modern, bending the definitions of friendship, relationships, and parenthood. In this film, Rory Culkin plays a young jazz collector named Ollie Sway, who—with the help of his Russian friend Nikolai— attempts to steal the 78 record for the song titled “Sway Lake” from his grandmother, Charlotte Sway. As Ollie’s father committed suicide in the lake, Ollie believes that his father would like for him to have the record. And if you ever wondered if one of your best friends would ever abandon you to have an affair with your grandmother, then look no further than this twisted story. Watching this film is very reminiscent of attending a family reunion gone horribly wrong. It’s a fresh take on the coming-of-age genre, as Ollie’s search for answers leads him to questioning his own agenda. In his second feature to date, Ari Gold paints a unique young adult portrait in Ollie and Nikolai’s romantic encounters and disputes with one another. Surrounded by a lush jazz soundtrack, Ollie’s self-revelation faces a melancholy undertone that resonates throughout the film. [Michelle Vera]

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  1. November 3, 2018

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