AFI LOS ANGELES FILM FEST
Doghead (Spain) directed by Santi Amodeo
The Living Wake (US) directed by Sol Tryon
Operation Filmmaker (US) directed by Nina Davenport
There simply is not enough time to complete the cinematic world tour that the AFI Los Angeles Film Festival offers. Rather than opting for some of the bigger releases, including Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs and the Nicole Kidman starrer, Margot at the Beach, directed by Noah Baumbach, this writer made a decision to catch some of the edgier fare offered.
Spanish writer and director Santi Amodeo turns the idea of meet cute, romantic dramedies on its fuzzy head with his feature Doghead. Slang for one who is un poco loco, the titular doghead is 18-year-old Samuel (Juan Jose Ballesta). A neurological impairment has rendered him, at times, unable to speak or move. Sick of the stultifying protection he receives at home, Samuel chooses to vacation with a relative, inexplicably finds himself in Madrid and rather than calling home for help, he bumbles through a series of mishaps, including nearly being seduced by a homely, aggressive bank teller, caretaking an elderly man who insists Samuel is his son and, inevitably, falling in love with a tough, young waitress (Adriana Ugarte), who learns to accept his puzzlingly spacy behavior and who begrudgingly falls in love with him.
Amodeo not only has a quirky but realistic style of shooting, he creates touching moments that never lay on the sentiment too thick. The nimble cast is led by Ballesta, whose innocence and diminished cognition are also keenly performed. Amodeo tricks us into thinking the end will be tragic and his unpredictable, upside-down ending caps a delightful film.
The Living Wake, directed by Sol Tryon and written by Mike O’Connell and Peter Kline, is the offbeat story of a grandiose loser, K. Roth Binew (O’Connell) who announces cheerfully to those in his country town that he will be dying that night and all are invited to his “living wake.” Using young Joquin (Jesse Eisenberg from The Squid and the Whale) to ferry him around in a rickshaw and attend to all the messes he drunkenly creates, Binew’s pomposity eventually gives way to self-revelation at film’s end. Along the bumpy ride, the snappy dialogue yields some laughs, and there is evocative music from multi-hyphenate O’Connell and Carter Little.
Ironically, it is the stentorian approach O’Connell takes in his acting for most of the film that prevents one from fully enjoying this uneven but ingratiating fable. Eisenberg plays it close to the vest a lot of the way but thankfully, there is room for a bit of dramatic work from the two of them during a wacky performance-wake at night that reaches some grace notes.
Nina Davenport’s documentary about Iraqi filmmaker-in-the-making Muthana Momed, Operation Filmmaker, does what great docs do: capture lightning in a bottle. When Liev Schreiber, directing the adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated in Prague, sees Muthana on MTV, he gets the idea of bringing him onto his crew and out of the living hell that is modern day, occupied Iraq. But Muthana’s youth and lack of a work ethic creates tension of the set of the film and Davenport, against her own wishes, is pulled into maelstrom, loaning Muthana money and trying to finish her film, while Muthana tries to decide whether to return to Iraq—despite his friends back home dissuading him—or attempt a career as an actor.
In fact, working on an action movie in Prague for star “The Rock,” Muthana convinces that muscular softy to send him to film school in London. Davenport has found in her subject a young man whose resentment and appreciation constantly shift and the complexity of his decision-making is utterly fascinating to watch. It is an affecting reminder that even taken from war zones, survivors must still struggle with the battle inside themselves.