Saturday, May 30

LA Film Festival Review: ‘In a World…’ and ‘The Act of Killing’

Drafthouse Films

The Los Angeles Film Festival, set near Hollywood, is a 10-day festival featuring independent film from all over the world. Daily Bruin A&E columist Tony Huang will review movies from the festival throughout the week.

“In a World…”
Director: Lake Bell
Studio: Roadside Attractions
Release Date: Aug. 9, 2013

Unambitious but pleasant, “In a World…,” directed-acted-written by Lake Bell, is a template industry film, replete with L.A. locales and Hollywood inside jokes. It follows Carol Soloman, a 31-year-old voice actress trying to break into the movie trailer game, which, for those who don’t know, is a bit of a boys club. Worse is that her dad, Sam Sotto (Fred Melamed), legendary second-best voice-over artist (first-best was real-life legend Don LaFontaine) is something like president of that club. Struggles ensue: laughs are abundant and one-liners abound, but there’s ultimately not much keeping it together.

It doesn’t help that the film is wading occupied waters – the “troubled-20s” genre (or, in this case, troubled-30s) is fairly oversaturated, and the hipster quirky girl archetype is starting to become irritating. Thankfully Bell has a killer sense of humor, especially if you’re into the current wave of tumblr-esque feminist comedy – her female characters are top-notch, especially the atypically sympathetic trophy wife. Everything works just as it should – chuckle here, laugh there, all wrapped into a slightly askew bow, solid and enjoyable.

Regrettably, solid and enjoyable is as good as it gets with “In a World…,” which suffers in comparison to fellow troubled-20s film “Frances Ha.” Both very funny films about struggling female artists, the latter simply holds together better; Bell’s film is a joke machine, but it’s scattered, with a romantic interest and sister subplot thrown in for no real reason. There’s little gestalt or ultimate import, and the somewhat ambivalent ending doesn’t quite hit the way it wants to. Props to Bell for trying to shift gears in the late-game into a rather nuanced take on feminism, but “In a World…” ultimately remains a trifle rather than a statement.

“The Act of Killing”
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Studio: Drafthouse Films
Release Date: July 19, 2013

“The Act of Killing,” by Joshua Oppenheimer, is a deeply, deeply troubling documentary. It follows Anwar Congo, former leader of a notorious Indonesian death squad, responsible for around 2.5 million deaths from 1965-1966, who personally killed about 1000 people. And though that’s harrowing enough, what gets under your skin is exactly how we follow him: The film premises that to understand how he and his comrades feel about the killings, they should make a film about the experience.

So Anwar and his friends re-enact scenes and explain themselves, always with a mixture of nostalgia and strange seriousness. Anwar is especially happy to demonstrate his patented bloodless strangling technique, barbed wire and all. When asked, he explains that he picked up the method from the movies; He used to extort cinema patrons with his gangster buddies, and frequented the cineplex. He loves American movies, especially the violent ones.

But “The Act of Killing” isn’t saying that violent movies create mass murderers. What it is saying, though, is that the power of fiction – suspension of disbelief – enables violence, which is a statement much less banal and much more disturbing. Many of the re-enactments in the film go far beyond re-enacting; real emotions are stirred, and real cruelty flickers onto the screen. Strictly speaking, I’m not sure it’s even ethical for Oppenheimer to allow this to happen; but it’s startlingly effective. Children cry. Grown men, too. And everyone plays along because this isn’t real.

Might it be, then, that Anwar didn’t quite think his killings real? That by using movie violence he coped with his guilt? At the end of the film he nearly breaks down into tears. Is this mass murderer merely human too, just a pawn of society? Oppenheimer walks a dangerous line here, and the effect is mesmerizing: There can’t be an ethical way to sympathize with a murderer, but there can’t be a moral way for an audience suspend empathy. The question is almost impossible to resolve. I walked out of the movie emotionally shell-shocked – this is a movie that can shift worldviews.

Email Huang at [email protected].

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