LAFF Opens: Superheroes, Violent Action, Whimsical Murder

Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Ryan Gosling, Richard Linklater, Matthew McConaughey add the requisite star power to the downtown L.A. Film Festival


The 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival began with a low-key, whimsical comedy about murder, and continued with a violent action film about making connections.

And over the course of the first two days, the downtown L.A. fest also saw one big-budget superhero flick, "Green Lantern," and a bunch of lower-budget indie dramas and documentaries.

Richard Linklater's "Bernie" kicked off the fest on Thursday night in the premiere theater at the Regal Cinemas at L.A. Live, with the director in attendance along with his stars Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey.

Also read: L.A. Film Fest Preview: Events Heads Downtown Sans Lakers Game

The goofy retelling of a true story about a well-liked small-town Texas funeral director (Black), the disagreeable elderly widow he befriends (MacLaine) and the town district attorney who goes against widespread sentiment when he tries to convict the man of murder, Linklater's film mixes narrative scenes with abundant talking-head interviews with townspeople (some real, others actors) running throughout the entire film.

For the most part "Bernie" pleased the capacity crowd with its homespun witticisms, particularly when the residents were scathing in their scorn for a nearby burg where the trial was moved: "They've got more tattoos then teeth" was one typical remark.

Gentle and good-natured, the film is unlikely to have the continued life of last year's LAFF opener, the Oscar Best-Picture nominee "The Kids Are All Right." But while some grumbled about its light, surface treatment of what is undoubtedly a more complex story, it drew big applause and seems positioned to pick up a distributor in short order.

(By delaying its first public or trade unveiling until LAFF, the filmmakers and the festival have moved to help bolster the trade presence of a festival that typically has not focused on acquisitions.)

The marquee screening on night two of the festival was the L.A.-set action film "Drive," which won Nicolas Winding Refn a Best Director award from the Cannes Film Festival jury.

Refn brought along a large contingent from his cast, including star Ryan Gosling, who plays a taciturn stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver and finds himself caught between comedy neighbor Carey Mulligan and a slew of nasty criminals.

Gosling says little but does lots, much of it involving acts of brutality so cartoonishly violent as to draw uneasy laughs from the crowd –- which, of course, was probably Refn's goal.

Afterwards, Refn and Gosling and co-stars Christina Hendricks, Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston adjourned to the Standard hotel for a rooftop after-party, just one of many soirees that dotted the first two days of the festival.

At another reception earlier in the day, the talk often turned to other festivals: Susan Saladoff, the director of the eye-opening documentary "Hot Coffee," talked about how she's taken her film to between 15 and 20 festivals so far, "not counting the ones where the film went and I didn't."

And Rachael Harris, star of the SXSW award winner "Natural Selection," said she was delighted that the film had been included in Roger Ebert's film festival -– popularly dubbed the Ebertfest – because it meant her parents, who live in a small town in Ohio and rarely travel, could come see the film on a big screen.