Is ‘Monsters’ this year’s ‘District 9′? A fanboy guide to the Los Angeles Film Festival

June 17, 2010 | 12:34 p.m.

LOS ANGELES FILM FESTIVAL

Monsters 2

The Los Angeles Film Festival strives to be both urban and urbane with its move downtown and its far-ranging program of foreign films and serious documentary fare, but take a closer look and you’ll notice this is an event that covets the Comic-Con crowd as well. If you need proof, take note of the fact that people who dress up as Darth Vader or Yoda get free popcorn — and that’s not even a joke.

The festival, which runs Thursday through June 27 and is sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, closes with a Nokia Theatre screening of “Despicable Me,” the animated superhero farce starring Steve Carrell, and on Wednesday the festival hosts the West Coast premiere of “The People vs. George Lucas,” a documentary that delves into the complicated legacy of the “Star Wars” films and, yes, that’s the outdoor show where anyone in costume gets a free soda and popcorn.

LAFF logo

There’s also a batch of sci-fi and horror movies by new filmmakers, among them “Monsters,” an aliens-on-the-loose tale by British writer-director Gareth Edwards that the festival’s associate director of programming, Doug Jones, call’s “this year’s ‘District 9,’” a reference to the small 2009 South Africa film that wound up with an unlikely Oscar nomination for best picture. [Updated Thurs. 11:45 a.m.: A previous version of this post gave Jones' title as assistant artistic director.]

The festival also features four on-stage “conversations,” and three of them are pure fanboy territory. On Tuesday, John Lithgow will be on stage at Regal Cinemas to discuss the deliriously odd 1984 sci-fi film “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” and George Miller’sTerror at 20,000 Feet” from “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” The next night at the same venue it’s Sylvester Stallone and “The Expendables,” the commando film that he directed and stars in, along with Jason Statham, Mickey RourkeBruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. On June 25 at the Grammy Museum, it’s low-budget horror titan Roger Corman.

There’s also the June 24 red-carpet world premiere of “Twilight: Eclipse,” which isn’t part of the open-to-the-public portion of the festival but does speak to the interest in pop culture’s passionate tribes and fare that is pure buttered popcorn, not film-school syllabus and cocktail-party material.

That all adds up to a festival that is just as beholden to Flash Gordon as it is to Fellini. To understand the fanboy heart that’s beating inside this festival’s cinematic body of work, we ran through the schedule with Jones, a fanboy of the first order — he is, after all, someone who camped out to get prime seats for the 1997 re-release of “Star Wars.” After each section is a clip or trailer for the film…

Monsters

Monsters(Wednesday, 10:15 p.m., Regal Cinemas; June 26, 7 p.m., Downtown Independent)

Jones said this is the must-see moment at the festival for fans of out-of-left-field sci-fi. Written and directed by Gareth Edwards, “this is essentially this year’s ‘District 9.’ It’s coming out of nowhere. Nobody knows this guy and the movie is flying under the radar. I think when people get a look at it they’re going to be super-excited about it.”

He added: “It’s a really small production. He wrote it, directed it, did all the effects for it himself on his computer in his basement. The story is about a space probe that crash landed on the Mexico border with the U.S. and it was carrying spores. Now, six years later there’s this huge swath of land that is off limits, it’s no man’s land because it’s infected with giant, neon squid aliens. There’s a war photographer, a young guy, who is down in Mexico and is given the task of getting his daughter’s boss back up to the States and, for various reasons, they have to go through the infected area. The movie is so smart and intelligent. Instead of making decisions that everyone else would make, Edwards makes surprising choices that are exactly right. What ‘Let the Right One In‘ did for vampire movies, this one does for the ‘boy-meets-girl-meets-alien’ movie.”

The People vs. George Lucas (Wednesday, 8:30 p.m., John Anson Ford Amphitheatre)

Alexandre O. Philippe’s documentary about the inspiring and frustrating pop-culture legacy of the Jedi universe actually includes Jones as one of its voices — he, along with “Star Wars” producer Gary Kurtz, “Coraline” author Neil Gaiman and Darth Vader actor David Prowse are some of the interview subjects who try to frame the true legacy of the wizard of Skywalker Ranch.

It’s about “that cultural legacy, which we’re all carrying around with us and, at this point, it’s safe to say people have a lot of different feelings about that legacy,” Jones said. “He interviewed fans, critics, people who’ve made their own movies, very active bloggers … he’s got the whole spectrum of people. Did Jar Jar Binks ruin the movies? Or does Jar Jar even matter — he wasn’t there when you were 7, so why does he ruin ‘Star Wars’ for you? No matter how people feel, you see how much it matters to them. And it does matter. You see how ingrained it is. There’s a thin line between love and hate.”

The setting sends a message, Jones said. “It’s not a film festival screening. It’s at the Ford, so it’s outdoors and it’ll be fun. We don’t ever want to be dull or boring. We want that element of surprise where you don’t know what’s coming next. If you don’t have that, a festival begins to atrophy.”

Centurion(June 25, 8:30 p.m., John Anson Ford Amphitheatre)

Neil Marshall, the British writer-director of the 2005 horror film The Descent,” goes to the year AD 117 for his new film, “Centurion,” which stars German actor Michael Fassbender as the soldier Quintus, sole survivor of a raid on a Roman frontier fort. He marches north with General Virilus and his legendary Ninth Legion, under orders to find and kill the Pict leader Gorlacon, but that is far easier said than done. In the harsh lands of Northern England, Quintus faces a desperate struggle to keep his small, battle-weary platoon alive behind enemy lines.

“There is a legend about a Roman legion that disappeared after going up against this really, really brutal clan called the Picts and this is Marshall’s version of what might have happened. It’s ‘300’ versus ‘Braveheart,’ in a way, but it’s very much a Neil Marshall film, very sharply written and action-packed.”

Jones said the fangirls might want to take note that, like a leaner, less fantastical version of “300,” this film doesn’t skimp on abs of antiquity. “I make point to tell the ladies,” Jones said, “that he is shirtless and sweaty throughout the movie.”

The Last Exorcism(June 24, 8:30 p.m., John Anson Ford Amphitheatre)

German director Daniel Stamm (“A Necessary Death“) and producer Eli Roth (the director of the “Hostel” films) present the tale of Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a man of the cloth who has spent years practicing deceit — he stages fake exorcisms with tricks like smoke bombs and a hidden iPod. He decides to repent and with a bit of public confession — he will take a camera crew along with him to one last ritual and out himself as a fraud. As you might suspect, the devil is in the details.

“He tells himself through the years that he’s been doing good by easing the minds of these people even though he’s been lying to them,” Jones said. “Naturally, his last job doesn’t go as planned and, of course, it’s on a remote farm and late at night and the electricity goes out.”

“Mandrill” (Tuesday, 7:45 p.m., Regal Cinemas; also, June 26, 10 p.m., Downtown Independent)

Director Ernesto Diaz Espinoza and the Chilean team behind the 2008 superhero film Mirageman — think of a Bruce Wayne who, instead of being a billionaire playboy, was the bouncer at a strip club — are back with this hit man fantasy (which is in Spanish with English subtitles) with a title character (played by martial arts star Marko Zaror) who is suave with the ladies and ruthlessly efficient with his prey. “There’s also a playfulness to it, and there are no wires or padding for the martial arts scenes; it’s the real stuff.”

Tickets for the L.A. Film Festival are now on sale.

– Geoff Boucher

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