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20th ANNUAL LOS ANGELES FILM FESTIVAL 2014: MUST SEE FESTIVAL FILMS

 

June 19, 2014



Yep. You read it right. This is the 20th Annual Los Angeles Film Festival. Running from June 11th to 19th, this is a big anniversary for LA’s favorite and biggest film fest. 20 years. When I look over the list of filmmakers and actors presenting films this year, I can’t help but think that some were in diapers when the festival first started and others, not even born yet. Technological advances over the past 20 years have opened up filmmaking, making it more accessible and more economically feasible to all, thus ever enhancing and expanding the cinematic spectrum, something that LAFF encourages and embraces not only with its festival programming, but through special festival events and year long activities and programs through parent sponsor, Film Independent.

The 20th Annual Los Angeles Film Festival hits the ground rocking and rolling with the North American premiere of Bong Joon-Ho’s masterful SNOWPIERCER. A post-apocalyptic thriller where Earth is frozen beyond being capable of sustaining any life, thanks to the genius of one man, a rattling, clattering super-train carries not only the last survivors of the human race, but life itself, endlessly circling the planet, just waiting for the day when the world will thaw and man can once again reclaim and rebuild the Earth. Implementing a class system within the structure of the train, delineating the haves from the have-nots, director Bong Joon-Ho delivers an electrifying, Oscar-worthy, visual stunner that will have you on the edge of your seat, fraught with white-knuckling tension, excitement and heart pounding action. Even more powerful than the film’s visuals however, is the underlying environmental, socio-political and geopolitical subtext and tacit commentary.

A beautiful metaphor for our world as we know it, SNOWPIERCER warms the soul, blending Biblical end of the world elements of Noah and his two by two survivalist tactics, “2012" and climate shifting tidal waves with select people placed on floating arks, a world frozen over as in “The Day After Tomorrow”, all converging within Bong Joon-Ho’s visionary design where visuals meet history meet theology meet politics meet science meet the unpredictability of free will. Boasting an Oscar caliber and winning cast, among them, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, Octavia Spencer (who gets to kick some ass!), Jamie Bell, John Hurt and one of the world’s favorite super-heroes, Chris Evans, SNOWPIERCER pierces the senses with Oscar-worthy stylization and performances while opening the eyes to a clarity of thought about the world around us. Wow!

With almost 200 feature films from more than 40 countries, 35 premieres of which 23 are World Premieres, a terrific assortment of short films and music videos plus special events galore, SNOWPIERCER is only the beginning. In celebration of LAFF’s 20th anniversary, taking center stage this year is the LA Muse programming section focusing on the heartbeat of Los Angeles with its eclectic and diverse cultural and ethnic fabric and the filmmakers it inspires.

No doubt about it, LAFF is one of the “Must See” Events of the year!

One of the crown jewels of Film Independent (of which you should be a member), LAFF returns to Downtown Los Angeles with its main venue at the Regal Cinemas L.A. Live Stadium 14 but making this a true “Los Angeles Experience”, special events and screenings will light up the nights - and days - at Nokia Plaza, The Grammy Museum at L.A. Live with the always popular “Music In Film” celebration, Bing Theater at LACMA, California Plaza, and for a real treat this year, Union Station. In addition to an exceptional slate of competition films in the both the documentary and narrative categories, the Summer Showcase features are something you don’t want to miss (I know how you love those sneak peek screenings!). And how about those Coffee Talks! Always entertaining, informative and inspiring. While I thought 2013 was a powerhouse year with the International Showcase and Documentary Competition films, the bar is raised even higher for 2014, just making this 20th anniversary all the more special and exceptional.

With LAFF’s program highlight, a Celebration of Women Filmmakers featuring conversations with Debra Granik, Nicole Holofcener, Marta Kauffman and Gina Prince-Bythewood, it’s only fitting that serving as the 20th anniversary Guest Director is the award-winning Lisa Cholodenko. Honored with the Spirit of Independent Award this year are Tom Bernard and Michael Barker of Sony Pictures Classics following which will be a special screening of the surprise hit of 2000, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. The fest is also screening some upcoming releases of Sony Pictures Classics, including the Centerpiece Gala LOVE IS STRANGE starring Alfred Molina and John Lithgow.

Leave it to LAFF to have Clint Eastwood make your day on June 19th with the festival’s Closing Night Gala and his much anticipated JERSEY BOYS. Starring Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Vincent Piazza, Christopher Walken and John Lloyd Young reprising his Tony award winning performance as the legendary Frankie Valli, big girls will only be crying for more once they see Eastwood’s telling of the triumphs and tragedies of The Four Seasons. Four of New Jersey’s favorite sons, The Four Seasons helped define the music of a generation and lives on to this day.

Always a fan favorite, the LAFF Summer Showcase boasts some early sneak peeks again this year and none more anticipated than THE BATTERED BASTARDS OF BASEBALL. A documentary based on one chapter in the life of character actor Bing Russell who, in the 1970's, brought independent baseball back into the limelight with the Minor League Portland Mavericks. A true “Rocky” underdog story, THE BATTERED BASTARDS OF BASEBALL shines a light on the independent spirit and energy of Russell and his team, which included his own son, actor Kurt Russell who was both a player and vice-president, and the fight to buck the Major League Baseball system for love of the game.

And what would Los Angeles Film Festival be without Family Day! This year on Saturday, June 14, Family Day has some every special family-friendly events planned, including a screening of Relativity’s upcoming release, EARTH TO ECHO. Easily one of my favorite “Must See Festival Films”, EARTH TO ECHO is a story of friendship that brings best friends Tuck, Munch and Alex to the aid of a wayward little alien named Echo who is stranded on Earth. The feel good family film of the summer, EARTH TO ECHO melds the beauty, fun and awe of classics like “Stand By Me”, “Wall-E” and “E.T.” into a film guaranteed to make your heart smile. Personally, I want my own little “Echo.” Just wait until you see him on screen. You’ll want one, too!

Getting Family Day off to a rousing start though is my pal Jason Ritter who, together with Kristen Schaal and series creator/executive producer Alex Hirsch, who will do a live table reading of a scene from their hit animated Disney Channel show GRAVITY FALLS, not to mention a look at what’s coming up in season two. (There’s those sneak peeks again!) The trio will also do a Q&A with you, the audience, and divulge some of those behind-the-scenes stories we always want to hear about!

As has now become tradition, LAFF 2014 is gonna have you dancing in the streets with a special screening of LA BAMBA. Held at Union Station on Friday, June 13th at 7:30 p.m ., get ready to stroll down memory lane with the cast and filmmakers of LA BAMBA as we celebrate the life and career of Ritchie Valens with this incredible film and Valens’ indelible musical legacy.

Always popular, be on the lookout for the FREE COMMUNITY SCREENINGS. Not only can you catch LA BAMBA free, but Buster Keaton’s COPS and SHERLOCK JR, the latter two which will be at California Plaza on Friday, Jun 13th starting at 8:30 pm. Now, I know what some of you are asking - Aren’t the Buster Keaton movies “silent movies”? Indeed they are, but in keeping with the true spirit of silent movies, an original score to each film will be performed live by the French garage rockers Magnetix. It’s never too early to start your love of classic films and the comedy of Buster Keaton at LAFF is a great way to do it. Two of not only my Keaton faves but those of my dad who introduced me to Buster Keaton and the “silents” at a very young age, with COPS and SHERLOCK JR, kids and adults like will be rolling in the aisles with laughter.

As wonderful as these FREE COMMUNITY SCREENINGS and Family Day events are, however, there is one film that combines the two prongs and tops them all and is, in fact, my #1 Must See Festival Film and Event out of the entire 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival. I AM BIG BIRD. Who doesn’t love Big Bird? Who doesn’t love the heart, the kindness, the joy of our big yellow friend, or the smile in your heart or the smile on a child’s face or sparkle in his/her eyes on seeing Big Bird? My own heart swelled, my spirit soared and my eyes were wet with tears of joy watching the story of Caroll Spinney, the man inside Big Bird AND Oscar the Grouch. Taking us down memory lane to Spinney’s childhood at the age of 8 when his mom made a puppet theater for him and into the early days of “Sesame Street” and the magic of Jim Henson’s visions, we hear from Spinney himself and quickly learn that he’s not just playing Big Bird, he IS Big Bird. A magical delight that takes us around the world with home movies, interviews, some behind the scenes Muppet magic, do not let LAFF go by without seeing I AM BIG BIRD.

To paraphrase a favorite song of generations of kids the world, the doors will open wide to happy people like you when you head on down the street to where the air is sweet - California Plaza at 4th & Grand on Saturday, June 14th at 8:30 pm for I AM BIG BIRD!

Instead of a single “centerpiece gala”, LAFF 2014 once again bodes three - DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY, and one of my “Must See Festival Films”, Ira Sachs’ LOVE IS STRANGE. An absolutely charming film, LOVE IS STRANGE is filled with tenderness and sweet moments thanks not only to Sachs’ story but the richly textured and light visual tone employed by cinematographer Christos Voudouris. As Ben and George, partners in life and love, John Lithgow and Alfred Molina do a masterful dance of soft nuance and emotion, facing the challenges of life and love but never losing the love and respect at the heart of the characters’ relationship, the performances themselves and the message to us all about the power of love. A beautiful film indeed.

Since LAFF 2014 is celebrating Los Angeles with the LA Muse films, let’s take a look at some of the highlights in this eclectic category.

A noteworthy film that truly celebrates the diversity and eclectic nature of Los Angeles is Amanda Marsalis’ ECHO PARK. Starring Mamie Gummer, Anthony Okungbawa and a delightful new young talent in Ricky Rico, ECHO PARK explores the life of Sophie. With a perfect life and perfect boyfriend in Beverly Hills, you’d think she’d be content and satisfied, but she’s not. Desperate for a change, she leaves her boyfriend and uproots herself, moving to ECHO PARK.

A whole new world for Sophie, she finds a connection with her neighbor Alex. A British ex-pat who is moving back to London at the end of the summer, Alex is the ideal for Sophie. Out-going, fun, interesting, intelligent, and willing to put up with her moodiness and uncertainties, their connection blossoms into a romance filled with a love of vinyl records and the artsy, community closeness of the neighborhood. But can their relationship continue if Alex leaves and the even bigger question, is this more casual and engaging life what Sophie wants.

Cinematographer Jason McCormick’s lens has a life of its own. Capturing the seemingly mundane and lacing it with interesting framing and cooler, often dreamy visual tones, color comes into play metaphorically mirroring Sophie’s moods and journey of self-exploration. But as much as the camera helps tell the story of Sophie, it tells the story of ECHO PARK with a subtle, eclectic beauty that is enticing and welcoming.

With the look and feel that captures the independent spirit of filmmaking and Los Angeles, ECHO PARK lights up the screen.

Another “Must See” in the LA Muse section is INNER DEMONS. Director Seth Grossman, working with a script by Glenn Gers, explores the world of intervention reality tv with a horror tinged mash-up of topical issues of insanity, drug addiction and, of course, demonic possession. Effectively and creatively using the reality show format as the narrative structure, while focusing more on psychological horror as opposed to hack and slash, Grossman goes beyond the typical reality formula by blurring the lines between a film crew’s observation of the subjects and involvement in the familial relationships and dynamics.

Carson is a straight-A student in a devoutly religious family. Unfortunately, she has become addicted turns to heroin and her parents, in an effort to “cure” her, agree to allow a reality tv crew to film a familial intervention and Carson’s recovery. Escaping the notice of all but one of the crew members, Jason, Carson has turned to drugs as a means to deal with what she believes is an evil inside her. Agreeing to enter rehab and go “cold turkey”, although drug free, the demonic presence within Carson becomes stronger. While great for the tv show rating, it’s not great for Carson or for Jason who is the one person who sees the truth beyond.

Lara Vosbergh delivers a captivating and commanding performance while Morgan McClellan’s Jason provides a sensitivity and grounding, serving as another lens for the audience. Judicious use of visual effects fuel the psychological complexities of characters and the fear and horror that is exposed.

It’s a real treat for me to be able to include TROUBLE DOLLS as a “Must See” Festival Film as it marks the directorial debut of an actress whom I have had the pleasure of knowing since her first leading film role in “Teeth” over seven years ago. Watching her growth as an actress has been a privilege as she has acted opposite talents like Jason Ritter, Joshua Leonard, Jane Adams, Nick Offerman, Mark Webber and yes, the legendary Tippi Hedren. To see her now bring TROUBLE DOLLS to life as a writer/director is a joy.

Co-writing and directing with Jennifer Prediger, the two also star in the film as Nicole and Olivia, respectively. Co-dependent best friends and roommates, Olivia is a wannabe actress while Nicole is a wannabe artist. On the verge of eviction from their NY apartment by their landlord and Nicole’s much older ex-boyfriend, and with no income to pay the rent in sight, the girls decide they need a vacation and head to Los Angeles to visit Nicole’s Aunt Kimberley.

Aunt Kimberly lives a lush life in Beverly Hills thanks to her successful reality talent show a change of scenery and time with her may be just what the girls need to jump start their lives. Laugh out loud comedy abounds as the lusty, libidinous and inebriated Kimberley takes a shine to Olivia, Nicole’s illusions about her family are crushed and vulnerabilities test the bounds of friendship.

Well written characters give TROUBLE DOLLS a strong foundation on which Weixler and Predinger build style and technique, complimenting sharp dialogue and performances with superb production values. With a good eye for framing, the two work with cinematographer Daniel Sharnoff to create a tonal bandwidth that melds visuals and emotion while capturing some true money shots. Casting is impeccable thanks to fun turns by Jeffrey Tambor and Will Forte and an unforgettable “shades of Karen Walker” showstopper by Megan Mullally.

One camera, one actor, one house. One helluva great film. I’m talking about NIGHTINGALE. Another “Must See” that we find in the LA Muse category, NIGHTINGALE is spellbinding. A tour de force performance by David Oyelowo as the psychologically fractured veteran Peter Snowden, Oyelowo plunges us into the staircase of hell in which Peter’s psyche resides. Vacillating between rage, sadness, sensitive fragility, arrogance, defiance and heartbreaking longing for an unrequited love, Oyelowo is spellbinding and gives the performance of the festival filled with rich furious and even frenzied monologues.

Thanks to director Elliot Lester and cinematographer Pieter Vermeer, visuals are rich, saturated with a surrealistic color scheme that fuels the psychological frenzy. Using mirrors, phones and computers to give effect of conversation, the outside world and to build the complexities of story and character even further, NIGHTINGALE is unfaltering with its level of excellence on every level.

Hands down the most powerful film in this year’s LAFF and one of my top five “Must See Festival Films” across the board is SUPREMACY. Based on a true story with a script by Eric J. Adams, director Deon Taylor explores the dividing lines of race, family and the hate that fuels those lines with an intensity that at times is almost overwhelming with explosive emotion.

Garrett Tully, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, had just been released from the maximum security Pelican Bay State Prison not 15 hours earlier when he kills a state trooper. Now a fugitive and on the run, with the help of Doreen, a friend to the Brotherhood, the two go into hiding by breaking into what they believe is an empty home. On the contrary, this is the home of the Walker family who, as luck would have it, are the only black family in the neighborhood.

Taking the family hostage, it falls on Mr. Walker to convince Tully and Doreen that killing him and his family is not the answer to his problems. Walker, himself an ex-con, has no love loss for the cops, so much so he has all but disowned his own son who became one. Using this connective tissue, Walker hopes to reach Tully and resolve the volatile situation without interference by the police. With race and rage fueled debates among the Walker family, we see how divisive the issues are between generations with perceptions of wisdom and patience sometimes taking a back seat to fear and false bravura.

With a cast led by Danny Glover as Mr. Walker and Joe Anderson as Garrett Tully and buoyed by strong performances by Evan Ross, Derek Luke and Dawn Olivieri, by film’s end we are as breathless and spent from the unfurling onslaught of emotion witnessed. One of the best performances of Glover’s career, he is electrifying, encapsulating the mores of society and wisdom of experience with clarity of conviction.

Richard Molina’s editing is rapier, bobbing and weaving with the story, building tension at every turn and never moreso that in a climactic kitchen scene that will make your heart stop.

A Summer Showcase “Must See”, for some real fun, pull out your passports and come along with Colin and Mitch for an Icelandic adventure in LAND HO! An archetypical pairing, former heart surgeon Mitch, ignores his advanced AARP age and flirts with every woman he sees. He also likes to spend spend spend the money he earned during his years practicing medicine, using it as much to look important as to make himself feel important. Colin, who was married to Mitch’s wife’s sister, is now widowed, down on his luck, lonely, feeling his age and feeling forgotten. So what do you do when a friend like Mitch buys you a plane ticket on the spur of the movement to fly to Iceland for an adventure? You go!

Veteran Australian actor Paul Eenhoorn charms with a thoughtful caring performance as Colin while non-actor Earl Lynn Nelson is just as gregarious, outgoing, happy-go-lucky as his character Mitch. They are The Odd Couple for the AARP generation and I love it! The sense of energy and adventure of the two characters is infectious and inspiring, not to mention the undiscovered beauty of Iceland which proves to provide some of the most celebrated moments of the film thanks to Mother Nature and cinematographer Andrew Reed.

Lensing with a purity and naturalism, from waterfalls to geysers to the solitude and emptiness to the hot springs, the beauty not only showcases the wonders of Mother Nature, but instills an indescribable awe for the amazing world around us. Moments of silence during a hike in solitude or swimming alone in a quiet pool against grassy hillsides bathed in a pure sunlight, or even driving across rugged terrain on a misty and rainy day is all a welcome respite that visually recharges and revitalizes.

For a more introspective and reflective movie-going experience look no further than EVOLUTION OF A CRIMINAL. An autobiographical documentary infused with stylized recreations, this is the story of Darius Clark Monroe who, in 1998 at age 16, robbed a Bank of America in Houston, Texas. An honors student and never having been in any kind of trouble, Monroe saw the crime as the only means to help his impoverished family.

Serving three years of a five-year sentence, Monroe, now an NYU film student, looks back not only his crime, but comes face-to-face with people who were in the bank during the robbery, capturing raw pure emotion in interviews not only with them, but with his family and the two friends that aided and abetted in the crime. Revealing are commentaries by Monroe’s professors and particularly his mother when asked why she didn’t turn Monroe into the police when he handed her all of his ill-gotten gains.

Taking full responsibility for his actions, making apologies and addressing his own moral compass, Darius Clark Monroe delivers a brave and telling documentary that is as cathartic for him and his victims as it is cautionary to the audience.

I need see nothing more than Seamus Tierney as the cinematographer on a film and I’m along for the ride. From his crystalline visuals in the vignette styled “Burning Palms” for first time director Chris Landon to developing a tonal bandwidth along with actor Josh Radnor when Radnor moved into the director’s chair with “Happythankyoumoreplease” and “Liberal Arts” to the gritty emotional texture and world of John Gray’s “White Irish Drinkers” and most recently, his work with another first-time director, Lake Bell and her debut feature “In A World”, Seamus Tierney has a level of excellence and storytelling in his lighting and lensing that captivates, enhances and enthralls. With THE WELL, his use of light and shadow and saturation of with hollow barren horror that in today’s world of climate change and global warming is all too real. And that’s exactly what he brings to Thomas Hammock’s debut feature, THE WELL.

From an original script by Jacob Forman that blends horror, sci-fi and post-apocalyptic terror with a show down at the OK Corral vibe, director Hammock calls on his own vast experience in production design (most recently, the visually stunning and terrifying “You’re Next”) and paints an engrossing and indelible world where water is non-existent and rain hasn’t fallen in more than a decade (sounds like California now). Few survive. At Wallace Farm for the Wayward Youth, the lush green valley that once surrounded it is now dry, brittle dust. From what Kendal knows, it’s like that everywhere yet she and a few others dream of the day when they can escape the acrid grit and dog-eat-dog world they face at Wallace Farm. But dreams won’t fill the taps or their water bottles or hydrate them. Eeking out survival by drawing whatever water remains underground from a well on the farm, there is no more precious commodity and the battle for water has long been a battle with much spilled blood.

As fragile as Kendal’s world is, it gets rocked even more when the ruthless Carson tries to run Kendal and her friends off the land as a means to gain sole control and access to the only well left in the valley and what underground water lies beneath it. They are now the last ones standing. Does she stay and fight or succumb to the fate of the world at the hands of Carson?

In one of two films in which she appears at LAFF this year (the other being THE YOUNG KIESLOWSKI), here as Kendal, Haley Lu Richardson brings an intensity and determination that resonates, adding yet another strong female protagonist to the cinematic horizon. Matching veteran actor John Gries note for note with his performance as the evil Carson, Richardson is one actress to keep an eye on. Fast becoming one of my favorite young actors is Max Charles who is a delight as the young Alby, showing off some serious dramatic acting chops. A familiar face to “Twilight” fans as Seth, in THE WELL, Booboo Stewart shows growth as an actor while giving a strong turn as Dean.

Adding further technical polish to THE WELL, editors Sarah Broshar and Adam Wingard is keenly paced, keeping the suspense at rapier levels. A standout in The Beyond programming, with THE WELL, director Thomas Hammock and company go well beyond the expected making this one of my top “Must See” films.

The International Showcase is jam-packed with outstanding work, not the least of which is STREAM OF LOVE, a documentary from Hungarian director Agnes Sos.

Don’t think for a minute that Old Country octogenarians and nonagenarians don’t think about love, sex and desire because as we quickly see through engaging interviews and day in the life looks at nine villagers in this Transylvanian village (which boasts 25 widows), that’s a daily part of life and laughter. With a beautiful lyricism fueled by laughter and the lilting melodies of the accordion, you can’t watch STREAM OF LOVE and not smile with each of the nine wonderful villagers we meet. As the camera captures them during their daily chores still harvesting grain, kneading mounds of dough, tending wood burning stoves or driving a horse driven cart down the cobblestone Main Street, they enchant us. But when talk turns to love and sex, look out!

As women like Tercsi and Julianna recall their wedding nights, you laugh with them as they regale tales of simple wooden beds with straw mattresses that collapsed under the weight of connubial bliss 75 years ago, or describing sex “like being stabbed in the back with a knife” or being so shy they kept climbing or rolling out bed away from their husbands. And just wait until they describe orgasms at 80. Societal observations of days gone by are told with a waggling finger, “they didn’t moan [during sex]” while tales of being chased by the master in homes were they once worked as cooks and housekeepers are rollicking. Now imagine it’s your grandparents telling you these stories!

But as astutely told by some of the men, “I wish my ability would last as long as my desire”, another brags that at 90+ he “can still handle women, just one by one”. As humorous as are some of the tales, others are touching and telling of days gone by and an era gone with the wind. One widower speaks of caring for his paralyzed wife for 2 years; “I would gather red forest strawberries in a little box for her and come home and make her chicken soup.” Despite the devotion, one night the wife tells him “I could never stand you.” You see the pain in his face, but the “this is life” tone in his voice.

As deftly as the camera captures a toothless smile, it captures snippets of the past with embroidered table clothes and chair covers, boxes of yellowed photos giving us a deeper understanding of these elders. Showcasing the green grass, tall trees and blue skies of this still vibrant village hidden in the Carpathian Mountains, we are transported through time, imbued and invigorated with the vitality of these people and this life. This is joy personified. Perhaps summing up the documentary itself is the philosophy of Veronka who opines, “No matter how old I am, I’ve always loved what’s good and beautiful.” Trust me when I say, STREAM OF LOVE is good and beautiful.

Turning our attention to the Competition Films, I am astounded at the ever-expanding level of excellence of films in competition. In the Narrative section, with 7 World Premieres and 2 North American Premieres, there are 9 films vying for not only the Filmmaker Award, but which are also eligible for the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature. Eight films are in competition for the Documentary Award, consisting of 4 World Premieres, 1 North American Premieres and 3 U.S. Premieres, all of which are also eligible for the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature.

How can you have a film festival without a film that has the theme of a film within a film? Simple. You can’t. If there was ever a film to include as a “Must See” it’s RECOMMENDED BY ENRIQUE. Our young starlet is in the dusty border town of Del Rio, Texas working on her first feature. Of course it’s a lo-budget/no budget indie horror entitled “Return of the Phantom Guards” complete with vintage 70-esque effects. But, there’s no director in sight as he is allegedly in Hollywood getting financing and taking meetings for bigger and better things leaving a crew consisting of some local teens imbued with the whole idea of “Gee kids! Let’s put on a show” to “make a movie”. Having found our Star on YouTube where she posts daily video blogs of herself, the teen crew and AD-cum-director continually applaud her performances and stare in wide-eyed amazement and awe at her scene preparation techniques to “get in the moment”. No moment though is more inspiring than showing fear at a dead goat hanging from a tree.

Staying at the same motel as our Star, is a weathered old Cowboy who himself has some to Del Rio for a job. He appears to be a gardener or landscaper waiting to deliver and plant two beautiful palms at someone’s home. Carrying them everywhere, including sleeping between them in his hotel room, one-sided mysterious phone calls and his quiet loner qualities make you look twice at this kindly polite man.

Written and directed by Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia, RECOMMENDED BY ENRIQUE is a fun witty romp, showing the potential of these filmmakers to take out us out of the moment and asking the question, “Is it real or is it fantasy?” A polished look making great use of color saturation, the most engaging, interesting and fun footage that begs for its own film are the “all that is left” snippets of “The Return of the Phantom Guards” which serve the end credits well. Some great technical effects add to the mix while newcomer Sarah Swinwood brings her own brand of quirkiness to our Star.

A contender in the Narrative Competition, take my recommendation and catch RECOMMENDED BY ENRIQUE.

Also in the Narrative Competition and a definite “Honorable Mention” as a “Must See” is Kimberly Levin’s RUNOFF. With an underlying theme of environmental responsibility, toxic disposals and familial survival, what sets RUNOFF apart is the stunning cinematography by Hermes Marco. Lush and rich, Marco’s lens captures both the serenity and beauty of nature as well as her rage. Extensively lensed imagery of water, be it rills, rivers, rain, a single droplet of water metaphorically rippling outward analogous to the thematic elements of story, or even a raging storm, each shot is impactful, indelible and precious. Warm breath in cold night air plays against moonlight creating tonal texture. Furthering the visual imagery is the sound design. Led by supervising sound editor Paul Hsu, the sound design stuns with the sounds of nature. Every droplet, every pebble, every whisper of the wind or rustle of a leaf. RUNOFF celebrates all the beauty of Kentucky’s landscape and then some.

A pleasant surprise to me is MAN FROM RENO. With his feature debut in 2006, “Big Dreams Little Tokyo”, writer/director Dave Boyle was a fresh, new, fun voice in film. But with each of his next three films, while having charm, the freshness eroded with the films took on a slightly cookie cutter feel. But now he completely shifts thematic tone and is a new, reinvigorated Dave Boyle bringing us the riveting neo-noir MAN FROM RENO.

Filled with MacGuffins, shadowy characters and shrouded in mood and mystery, we meet crime novelist Aki who has “disappeared” from her recent American book tour in San Francisco. In a rural suburb, we meet Sheriff Del Moral investigating first, a man’s disappearance, and then a murder. Alone in San Francisco, Aki meets an extremely handsome man in her hotel lobby, spends the night and then he disappears. Sheriff Del Moral has his own problems with disappearing bodies. Through carefully crafted and often deliberately ambiguous twists and turns, events and characters intersect, leading to a tension-filled story by Boyle and writing partners Joel Clark and Michael Lerman that is suspenseful and riveting.

Ayako Fujitani is a delight as the Nancy Drewish Aki and never moreso than when engaging with Pepe Serna’s Sheriff Del Moral. A familiar face to Boyle films, Hiroshi Watanabe does his usual solid work as Hitoshi while Kazuki Kitamura is delicious as Aki’s mysterious one-night stand, Akira.

Lighting and lensing is fluid, calculated, mysterious yet vibrant, telling its own story thanks to the gorgeous cinematography of Richard Wong. Those familiar with Wong may know him best for the breathtaking beauty and texture he brought to “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”. Wong proves he is equally at home with the moodiness of polished noir.

A dynamic contender in the Narrative Competition, don’t let MAN FROM RENO go missing from your “Must See” list.

There’s something about Danish filmmakers that never disappoints. From story to visuals to casting and performance, Danish films dazzle and dazzling me as my #1 Must See Festival Film in the Narrative Competition is SOMEONE YOU LOVE.

Thomas Jacob is a world famous Danish singer-songwriter. A loner by definition, after many hard years of performing and hard partying, he has sobered up and needs some time for himself. Leaving Los Angeles and heading back to Denmark, he seeks the solitude and comfort music brings and he holes up in his country estate to work on a new album with his long-time producer/friend/support system “Molly”. But Thomas’ plans go awry when his estranged daughter Julie shows up on his doorstep with her son Noa in tow. A surprise to Thomas that he even has a grandson, it’s an even bigger surprise when Julie leaves Noa with him.

Mesmerizing is the word for Mikael Persbrandt’s performance. As Thomas he infuses a superbly indifferent arrogance that we see transform and shift through a myriad of emotions that reflect not only Thomas’s growth and ever changing arc but that of his relationship with Noa which is at times heartbreaking and frightening. Persbrandt’s eyes speak volumes, telling their own story, often belying that which Thomas is hiding. Trine Dyrholm is luminous as Molly, a perfect balance to the darker persona of Thomas. And Sofus Ronnov is a scene stealer as Noa.

Mikael Persbrandt is extraordinary as the gravel-voiced egotist forced to rediscover his deeply buried humanity in award-winning Danish director Pernille Fischer Christensen's moving, immaculately crafted family drama.

Visually, SOMEONE YOU LOVE is lush, polished, luxurious with richness and saturation. Cinematographer Laust Trier-Mork dabbles in negative space with textured hues and darkness that stun. Emotional shifts are expertly felt through performance and visuals thanks to appropriate use of close-ups, wide angle, expansive sequencing, contrasting lighting and meticulous framing. And whatever you do, stay through the credits and the hauntingly beautiful musical performance by Persbrandt that has a golden purity that’s magical.

Fall in love with SOMEONE YOU LOVE.

Turning to some “Must See” films in the Documentary Competition, first up is WALKING UNDER WATER. If there was an award being handed out for best underwater photography, underwater camera operator Lisa Strohmayer would win it hands down for her work here. Working with writer/director Eliza Kubarska, this is the story of the Sea Nomads, the last compressor divers and free divers from the Badjao tribe. A people that live on Mabul Island amidst the ocean between Borneo, the Philippines and Indonesia, they have no country, no form of documentation or government. They live in the sea and for the sea in a culture that celebrates generational lore and tradition, passed from father to son through the centuries.

Focusing on the story of Sari and his uncle Alexan, through the surreptitious eye of the camera, we learn as he learns; we learn the lore of the man called “Asangan” who lived in the Underwater Kingdom and who had gills like fish and could move between the land and the sea; we learn of the tree spirits and the Underwater People to whom you pray for permission to dive and who will keep you safe; we learn how to dive and fish and to build breathing tubes an underwater torches from simple natural items. We also learn about the clash with modern day cultures and the outsiders that come to dive in these waters the Sea Nomads call home and the destruction of their underwater way of life. But will Sari embrace the old ways or be lured by promises of easy money from tourists.

Immersed in the magic of this underwater world and way of life, the beauty and simplicity of WALKING UNDER WATER flows with the easy lull of the nighttime tides and the tranquil sounds of the sea.

My #1 Must See Festival Film in the Documentary Competition will probably not come as a surprise to many who know as it set in the legal arena and touches on issues of constitutional violations and failures of the correctional system, this time in Florida - THE LIFE AND MIND OF MARK DEFRIEST.

Mark DeFriest is known in the legal community and beyond as the “Houdini of high security prisons.” Initially convicted and sentenced to four years in jail as the result of taking mechanic’s tools bequeathed to him by his father before probate of his father’s estate was completely resolved. For what may seem like a relatively minor infraction stemming from the needy greedy events that happen among family during probate, DeFriest was essentially coerced into a plea deal that he didn’t fully understand. More than 30 years later, DeFriest still sits in jail.

Clearly a man with a high intellect, over the years DeFriest has made 18 escape attempts, not to mention additional sentencing for things like making handmade zip guns out of toothpaste tubes keys from plastic food trays, and hundreds of other infraction reportings that only increased his jail time and his being placed in inhuman and unconstitutional living conditions within the prison system. Beatings, the victim of goon squads and all manner of physical harm have come to DeFriest during his incarceration, so much so that his attorney has finally reviewed his entire file with an eye towards review by the Parole Board, calling on the most surprising person to aid in the battle; the psychiatrist who misdiagnosed DeFriest all those decades ago, placing an unstable boy into a dangerous and perhaps inappropriate situation.

Employing graphic novel animation a la Brett Morgan’s “Chicago 10" of some years back, director Gabriel London creates an exciting and engaging platform for not only DeFriest’s story but more importantly, that of the horrendous correctional system in place in Florida. Complete with audio recordings, live Parole Board hearings, live interviews with former wardens and DeFriest himself, as well as voicing re-enactments by Shea Wigham and Scoot McNairy to accompany animated portions, THE LIFE AND MIND OF MARK DEFRIEST fascinates and disturbs. The icing on the cake is a vibrant, often funky score, by Ronan Coleman.

Like many of you, there are still a few films on my radar that are on my “As Yet To Be Seen List”, starting with Mo Perkins’ sophomore feature THE LAST TIME YOU HAD FUN. Proving her mettle with “A Quiet Little Marriage”, it’s been a long time coming for her follow-up feature and I, for one, can’t wait to see it. Also high on my list is THE EVER AFTER which comes to us from my fellow Philadelphian Mark Webber. Already solidifying himself as a very personal and intuitive storyteller and filmmaker, Webber once again attracts a stellar cast, including real life wife actress Teresa Palmer, Josh Leonard and Oscar winner Melissa Leo in this tale of a fractured Hollywood marriage. And then there’s HOLBROOK/TWAIN: AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY which explores, what else, the electrifying Hal Holbrook through his acclaimed one-man show. Seeing Holbrook perform Twain on stage, mandates this as a yet to be seen “Must See” for me.

As I bring this year’s “Must See” column to a close, I can’t help but reflect on the past 20 years that I have covered the Los Angeles Film Festival. Yes, I’ve been there every step of the way with the festival. Looking back over the years at all of the wonderful (and sometimes not so wonderful) films and filmmakers that I have had the privilege to introduce to all of you and in many cases, to travel along with in their filmmaking journeys, it makes this anniversary fest even more special as next year we move ahead into a new decade of technology and talent with the hope the next 20 years will be as spectacular as the first 20.

Los Angeles Film Festival 2014 runs from June 11th to19th with the majority of screenings and events taking place at Regal Cinemas in the L.A. Live complex in Downtown Los Angeles. Parking is at a special reduced festival rate ($10.00 per day) and tickets and passes are still available!! For complete information on the festival line up and to purchase tickets, go to the festival website at http://www.lafilmfest.com.

As always, look for my full reviews of these films and many more, as well as my exclusive 1:1 interviews with the filmmakers, in print and online at, among others, http://www.moviesharkdeblore.com. http://www.moviesharkdeblore.com/ And until next time, Happy Festing!

 

Reader Comments

(1)

PaulE writes:

Thanks Debbie. Nice critique. I am happy you and others are getting into this film. Paul