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MOVIE SPECIAL: 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival

Must See Films


Hard to believe that LOS ANGELES FILM FESTIVAL is entering its third decade as one of the crown jewels of film festivals but, officially running June 10th through 18th after a couple pre-fest sneak peaks at DOPE and Pixar's upcoming INSIDE OUT, that's exactly what's happening. And right along with LAFF, is my 21st year of bringing you opening day "Must See Festival Films" coverage.

Kicking off the 21st LOS ANGELES FILM FESTIVAL is none other than Lily Tomlin and her latest film GRANDMA. Tomlin, this year's Spirit of Independence recipient, is always a thrill to see and here is no different. Written and Directed by Paul Weitz, GRANDMA will undoubtedly get Los Angeles Film Festival off to a riotous start!

And where there is a beginning, there must be an ending and Los Angeles Film Festival is no exception. Capping off the Festival on June 18th, for the first time in its 21 year history, LAFF will include a Live Read presentation when writer/director/producer/actor Eli Roth directs a Live Read of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." Although the cast has not yet been announced, check Twitter and @LAFilmFest for the surprise announcements during the Fest. (How fun would it be to have a surprise appearance by Sean Penn?)

But before we get to the end, there's plenty of things to see and do, so let's head to Downtown Los Angeles. For the sixth year the LAFF main venue is at the Regal Cinemas L.A. Live Stadium 14, with events once again held "off campus" throughout Los Angeles, making this a truly LA-centric event. And hand-in-hand with that is the returning LA Muse Section focusing on the heartbeat of Los Angeles with its eclectic and diverse cultural and ethnic fabric and the filmmakers it inspires.

This year, the Festival has stirred the pot a bit, realigning cinematic categories for competition, introducing new ones, and shifting its focus to also include the burgeoning digital media platform. New this year are the U.S. Fiction and World Fiction Competitions, as well as Launch, Buzz, Nightfall and Zeitgeist programs which join old friends LA Muse and Documentary categories. All told, Los Angeles Film Festival 2015 shines with a truly international slate of 74 feature films, 60 short films and over 50 new media works. Just to show you how universal the language of film is, Los Angeles Film Festival is presenting films spanning 35 countries around the globe, including but not limited to, Cuba, the Russian Federation, Iran, Colombia, South Korea, Japan, a joint venture film between Palestine, Israel and the United Kingdom, Sweden, Mexico, Senegal, Australia and Norway!

Returning this year is the ever popular Coffee Talks. With four sessions on Saturday, June 13th, you'll hear from some of the best and brightest in the film industry today, including director Colin Trevorrow, actors Kathryn Hahn, David Koechner, Bryce Dallas Howard and Alfre Woodard, writers David S. Goyer, Meg LeFauve and Melisa Wallack. Having interviewed all of these panelists but for one over the years, I can honestly say the Coffee Talks are "Must See" events!

And be on the lookout for those Centerpiece Galas which include the World Premiere of THE FINAL GIRLS, the premiere of the new MTV and Dimension TV's SCREAM based on the horror film franchise of the same name, and SEOUL SEARCHING.

Of course, who doesn't like free stuff! (Just ask any press person out there!) Los Angeles Film Festival knows you do and fills that hunger with some terrific FREE programming. A top pick is on Saturday, June 13th, head on over to FIG at 7th for an 8pm screening of LOVE & BASKETBALL. Filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood will be on hand along with her cast for this 15th anniversary screening. And who doesn't love Roger Rabbit? Relive all the fun and frolic of Roger, Jessica Rabbit, Eddie Valiant and Judge Doom with a free screening of WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? at Union Station on Friday, June 12th at 8pm. Fun for the whole family! But a real "Must See" for Angelenos is BRIDGING THE DIVIDE: TOM BRADLEY AND THE POLITICS OF RACE. Making its World Premiere on Sunday, June 14th at 1:30 at the Regal Cinemas at L.A. Live, director Lyn Goldfarb traces the history of Tom Bradley and his bridging of the racial divide by becoming the first black mayor elected by an overwhelming white voting population. A panel discussion on police and citizen relations follows. In these politically and racially charged times, you can count on this being a full house!

A category often overlooked is that of the Future Filmmakers Showcase. This year LAFF will be screening 27 short films from high school students from around the country. Key to the continuance of cinematic excellence in future generations, it's these budding filmmakers that will be the Spielbergs, Scorseses, Lucases and Hitchcocks of tomorrow. Making Future Filmmakers particularly dear to me is that this year marks the first awarding of the Ed Elias Future Filmmaker Awards. Created in honor of my father, a 60 year broadcast television veteran whose work dates back to the late 1940's, and who was an untold source of support and hands-on instruction throughout my career, both behind the camera and as a film critic, this is my way of paying it forward with support to a new generation. Three high school filmmakers will be the recipients of these awards on Saturday, June 13th following a day of Future Filmmaker screenings.

A standout "Must See" in the World Fiction Competition is AYANDA AND THE MECHANIC. Directed by Sara Blecher from script by Trish Malone, this is the story of a young Afro-hipster in Johannesburg, South Africa. Gifted in restoration and turning old things or junk into something of value by "bringing them back to love", Ayanda eventually decides to focus her attention on saving her deceased father's beloved auto garage and fulfill her dreams of auto restoration while preserving her father's legacy. With singular focus, she plows forward enlisting the help of two trusted friends while ignoring those around her, including her mother, who holds the key to Ayanda's future if Ayanda will only take time to look at the past.

A beautifully lensed film courtesy of cinematographer Jonathan Kovel, AYANDA celebrates and captures the cultural and regional vibrancy while infusing the film with a unique and infectious energy. Whimsical touches of animated Ayanda's "design boards" serve as charming flashback and scene transitions. Malone delivers a nuanced script with strongly detailed characters that come to life through some well oiled, fresh performances. Fulo Moguvhani is nothing short of luminous. in the title role with strong supporting performances.

This year's Buzz Section spotlights Los Angeles premieres of celebrated and award-winning favorites from around the world. One of my "Must See" faves in Buzz is the soon to be released THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL from director Marielle Heller. Written by Heller from Phoebe Gloeckner's novel of the same name, this is a unique coming of age story circa 1976. 16-year old Minnie is in lust and having an affair with her mom's boyfriend; and she's keeping a daily cassette taped diary of her adventures - in a box - under her bed.

Boasting a strong cast with Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgard and as the "teenage girl" Minnie, Bel Powley, Powley is the heart of the film and carries its weight well. An emotional powerhouse, with a gift for emotive expressiveness, Powley can turn on a dime from a childish, coquettish uncertain innocence to self-perceived maturity without missing a beat. Skarsgard is simply divine while Wiig, as Minnie's mother Charlotte, adds a welcoming depth and layering to her performance we have only recently started to see from her.

Reminiscent in some respects of "Fish Tank", an indie film which helped launch Michael Fassbender, Heller avoids the pitfalls of thematic darkness and adds a layer of lightness thanks to fantasy animations and dreamlike diary entries that enchant and entertain. Brandon Trost's cinematography is period perfect while embracing Jonah Markowitz' production design and flawless hair, make-up and costuming.

One diary you definitely want to "read", check out THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL.

There's also a lot of "buzz" about Ken Loach's JIMMY'S HALL. James Gralton remains to this day the only Irishman ever deported from Ireland. An Irish communist/socialist leader, an activist, Gralton originally traveled to the United States in 1909 where he worked a variety of jobs and learned much of the world. On his return to Ireland in 1921, he built a dance hall for his rural community hometown. The Pearse-Connolly Hall. It became a place where the youth of the rural rolling hills could come to talk, to read, to learn the arts, to socialize and dance. Unfortunately, the more popular the Hall became, the more the elders of the community wanted it closed. Eventually the Hall was closed and Gralton forced to flee the country for America.

Returning home to Ireland a decade later, at the urging of the young people and seeing a need for it, Gralton reopened the Hall. And once again, he faced the wrath of the opposing politicians and the church who deemed the Hall "dangerous". Determined to close the Hall once and for all, the local priest, and all those in opposition would stop at nothing to destroy the happiness and freedoms found with JIMMY'S HALL.

Written by Paul Laverty based on Donal O'Kelly's play and the life of James Gralton, JIMMY'S HALL features indelible performances by Barry Ward and Simone Kirby. As comes as no surprise, the lush greenery bucolic nature of early 20th century rural Ireland is captured in all its rustic beauty both visually and emotionally under the guiding hands of Loach and Laverty.

And catch the delightfully buzzworthy PEOPLE PLACES THINGS now before it releases later this summer. An absolute charmer, PPT bodes a new level of performance for Jemaine Clement who stars as Will Henry, a struggling graphic novelist and college professor. Celebrating his twin daughters' 5th birthday, the atmosphere becomes anything but happy when longtime girlfriend Charlie is caught cheating on Will with their friend Gary, whom she now wants over Will. Fast forward one year and Will, while alone, has an incredible father-daughter relationship with his girls. Pushed by one of his students to "move on", she fixes Will up with her mother Diane. As Will tries to navigate the uncharted waters of dating, fatherhood, and fulfilling his own dreams as a graphic novelist, heartfelt humor ensues to delightful result.

Written and directed by Jim Strouse, Jemaine Clement stars as Will and delivers one of the most thoughtful and engaging performances of his career. With strongly nuanced comedic chemistry, Regina Hall proves a delight as Diane, as we watch the relationship dynamic of Will and Diane, while Stephanie Allyne adds her own comedic notes to Charlie. Sweet whimsy is found from beginning to end, starting with the opening titles and continuing through the film as peppered throughout are charming "comic book" drawings and panels done by Gray Williams which serve as Will's artwork and storytelling tools. Icing on the cake is Mark Orton's score which captures the lighter whimsy of Will.

Are you ready for some football? IN FOOTBALL WE TRUST is another part of the Buzz line-up. First time feature filmmakers Tony Vainuku and Erika Cohn were given unprecedented access to the Polynesian community in Salt Lake City, Utah to tell the story of what is known in the football world as the "Polynesian Pipeline". Despite only 240,000 Samoans and Tongans in the United States, they are 28 times more likely to play in the NFL. Seeing themselves as "a line of warriors", football is taken very seriously in the Polynesian community as it often serves as a gateway out of a somewhat impoverished community and into a better life, particularly in the eyes of the parents.

Shot over the course of four years, Vainuku and Cohn honed in on four high school players - Harvey Langi, brothers Leva and Vita Bloomfield, and Fihi Kaufusi - and tackled not only their individual journeys, but that of the community, the culture and the individual families.

A fascinating mix of game and locker room footage, candid interviews with the players and their families, coaches and NFL professionals, we see the unvarnished truth of unfolding events that impact the boys' futures, making IN FOOTBALL WE TRUST is a "Must See Festival Film." And definitely, stay for the credits for some post-script follow-up on the boys.

If football's not your thing, how about basketball with THE DREW: NO EXCUSE, JUST PRODUCE? One of my top five "Must See Festival Films", THE DREW is quintessential Los Angeles and a hot contender in the LA Muse competition.

Produced, written and directed by former NBA player and Emmy nominated producer Baron Davis and co-directed by Chad Gordon, THE DREW: NO EXCUSE, JUST PRODUCE chronicles the story of one of the most famous pro-am basketball showcases in the country. Founded in South L.A. in 1973, and helmed for decades by Dino Smiley, a ball boy turned commissioner and a pillar in the Los Angeles community, the league has long served not only as a means to hone the skills of players, but it has long given the people of South Central, and particularly the youth, an alternative to gang life and crime.

THE DREW is a documentary that touches the very core of heart, family, community. Filled with archival footage on and off the court meshed with that of present day, the history of the league and the significance of the recent NBA lockout which served as a league turning point are succinctly interwoven. Interviews with players, community members and even some members from "The Original Six" are interesting, passionate and compassionate.

Sanctuary. Redemption. Family. Community. Basketball. That is what THE DREW is all about.

How about a little politics to make your film festival? LAFF has two exceptional ones this year. First up, SWEET MICKY FOR PRESIDENT. From its opening titles of vintage travel reels for Haiti, we are swept into the tropical paradise but then quickly shaken from nostalgic slumber with archival news footage of the collapse of democracy with the reign of "Papa Doc" Duvalier and then shaken again with the devastation of the country on January 12, 2010. Enter Pras Michel of The Fugees, a Haitian native whose parents emigrated to the United States when he was child.

10 months after that January earthquake, Michel is concerned for his native country. The country is still in ruins and only the third presidential election in the history of the country is around the country. Due to the ongoing chaos, Michel fears nothing positive will come of the election. That fear serves as the impetus for Michel to get involved and we are introduced to "Sweet Micky" aka Michel Martelly, Haiti's answer to Michael Jackson.

Joining forces, Michel and Martelly mobilize a presidential campaign for Martelly. With no political experience, a country in turmoil, corrupt government in place, the two face an uphill battle. With additional support from Hollywood powerhouses like Sean Penn and Ben Stiller, Martelly gains traction only to falter in the final days leading up to the election thanks to a new hat thrown in the ring, that of Wyclef Jean, former bandmate of Pras Michel. And then Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the beloved former Haitian president removed from office in a coup d'etat and who has been in exile in Africa for 7 years, appears.

Directed by Ben Patterson, Pras Michel handles narration of the film. With an effective and engaging ease, Michel personalizes the story while Patterson's camera mirrors the intimacy. A fascinating documentary that sheds more light on Haiti than just being the benefactor of a post-earthquake George Clooney relief telethon, SWEET MICKY FOR PRESIDENT is an enlightening journey.

But it's not just Haiti with an electoral story. Senegal has an equally volatile political tale that grabbed the attention of the world stage in 2012 with the presidential campaigns of incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade and the strongest of 14 opponents, Macky Sall. Competing in the Documentary category, INCORRUPTIBLE lifts the story right from the headlines, creating a clear and cogent timeline of a battle for democracy in an ever increasingly corrupt political machine. With the country's youth (70% of Senegalese are under age 30) mobilized as Y'en a Marre ("Enough Is Enough") , protests waged against 12 years of Wade's corruption. With Sall claiming to want a return to true democracy and various factions and supporters of all concerned pleading their respective cases, director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and her cameras capture it all, including the military brutality of Wade's regimen.

Raw visceral footage rocks you to the core as the camera shakes when the police throw bombs into mosques during prayer time or randomly shoot and kill citizens attending a political rally. Bombings become commonplace during rallies and candidate appearances with all believed at the direction of Wade. Campaign promises are at the ready, but can or will, anyone deliver on them. Thoughtful crafting of the documentary lays out the history, the politics and the socio-economic concerns of the country to give an understanding of the unfolding madness. Particularly effective is the tension felt on election night as votes are coming in. The cries for a return to democracy ring loud in what was once one of Africa's oldest and most stable democracies.

Addressing questions that confront the country as a whole, INCORRUPTIBLE shows us the unvarnished process of the power of the people and asks today's question - Where do we go from here?

An exceedingly strong category, another "Must See" documentary is eco-activist Shalini Kantayya's CATCHING THE SUN. Premised on the need - and race - for clean energy, and positing the question can the US shift to clean energy with solar power AND create jobs for the middle class work force in the process, Kantayya focuses on individuals daring to make a difference in this challenging transition. With everyone from a college dropout turned solar installer to a Green Tea Party activist taking on corporate America deep in the heart of Georgia to a Japanese CEO looking towards the future of global solar markets to the town of Richmond, California in the throes of solar conversion, Kantayya opens our eyes to a brighter - and cleaner future of renewable solar energy, putting the "power" in the hands of the people.

One of the most fascinating documentaries of the fest (and you may be surprised by this) is all about love; well, LOVE BETWEEN THE COVERS, the covers of books that is. A real page turner, director Laurie Kahn takes us into the world of the romance novel. From writing to publishing, art to production, titling to cover direction, writers to fans to the billion dollar a year business of romance and the importance of social media to the process, Kahn leaves no page unturned. Engaging interviews and discussions from romance novelists Nora Roberts, Mary Bly, Beverly Jenkins, Jayen Anne Krentz and others, LOVE BETWEEN THE COVERS trace the enduring appeal of the 1000 year old archetypes that spawn the H.E.A. (Happily Ever After) and the writers' keys to the "love conquers all" = reader expectation formula. And we meet the readers and learn of their voracity for the genre as well as readers turned writers through the ages. Music is catchy and adds its own layer of fun to the mix.

If you get a chance to check out some of the short films this year, two are absolute "Must See." The first is SHEVENGE. Fresh off a sold-out performance at Dances With Films, SHEVENGE is killer! Directed by "Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Amber Benson, the script is written by David Greenman from a story by Megan Lee Joy and Jessica Sherif. Talk about a fun premise, SHEVENGE follows BFF's - Sam, Taylor and Charley - as they fantasize and plot revenge on their boyfriends during a wine-laden slumber party. A genre mash-up of horror, fantasy and action, the girls jump in and out of favorite genres through notable tv and film fantasy touchstones. And fear not. It's clear that Benson learned much from being a player in the World of Whedon.

Thanks to hilarious tongue-in-cheek dialogue and cinematographer Eric Petersen's fluidity and creative dutching with eye-popping saturated visuals, the stakes get higher and the laughter greater when you see "General Hospital's" own Emme Rylan (aka Lulu Spencer) fantasize SHEVENGE on her significant other played by "Bones" squintern Eugene Byrd (aka Dr. Clark Addison) in a hilarious vintage send-up. Icing on the cake are some nice scoring notes from Greg Butler.

Also keep your eye out for the Morgan Spurlock produced CRAFTED. A culinary exploration of the craftsmanship of not only food, but of the instruments used in preparation thereto. Focusing on the chefs of Bar Tartine in San Francisco with food preparation, the craftsmen behind Georgia's Bloodroot Blades and Japan's Nagatani-en, we are taken around the world and treated to sumptuous visuals lensed with as much care as the painstaking laborious processes of making things one cares about by hand. Harkening to days of yore when everything was made by hand and pride went into every meal cooked, every ceramic pot baked and every knife forged, CRAFTED opens the eyes to "perfection".

One of my top "Must See Festival Films" is found in the Documentary Competition. MAIKO: DANCING CHILD leaps off the screen with visual and emotional beauty and texture, thanks not only to the story of prima ballerina Maiko, but the music of Tchaikovsky and luxurious rich cinematography, particularly during renowned ballet performances.

Maiko Neshino is the prima ballerina of the Norwegian National Ballet. As a small child, her dream was to dance Swan Lake. Her mother, seeing Maiko's talent and feeling her passion, sacrificed everything to make Maiko's dreams come true. Now, as Maiko hears her biological clock ticking, she must decide where her future lies. Will she pay the ultimate sacrifice? Will she forego her dream to dance "Swan Lake"? Or give up her dream of becoming a mother? And an even greater question, can she make the kind of sacrifices her own mother made?

First time documentarians Åse Svenheim-Drivenes and Anita Rehoff Larsen delve into Maiko's Japanese upbringing with home videos of her childhood in Japan, and explore its impact on the training and dedication which formed the core of her life, making her the prima ballerina she is today. A tacit study of mother and daughter provides a strong subtext to Maiko's own values and thought process, shedding light on an insecurity hidden beneath a strong facade. With just snippets of conversations interspersed throughout and no voiceover or narration, the filmmakers allow the music heard during performances and Maiko's rigorous training to flow and set the pacing and tone of the film. Interesting camera work diverts attention beyond the expected, drawing your eye visually while auditory senses become almost hypnotic as the familiar familiar orchestral strains of "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" and "Swan Lake" crescendos speak to the soul.

So let's not keep you in suspense any longer. My #1 Must See Festival Film for the 21st Annual Los Angeles Film Festival. But there's a catch to this one. This is a Members Only Screening! You must be a member of Film Independent to attend. Not a problem though because you still have time to become a member. Just go to and join and you can see my #1 pick of LAFF - FAN GIRL!!! Directed by Paul Jarret, in his feature debut, from a script by Gina O'Brien in her sophomore outing, FAN GIRL stars Kiernan Shipka who continues on her meteoric on screen rise. Joining her are up and comers Josh Boone, Kara Hayward, Nicole Coulon and Beanie Feldstein along with veterans Meg Ryan and - wait for it - Scott Adsit (better known as "Baymax") as the high school film teacher everyone of us wishes they had!! A real bonus is the indie rock band All Time Low who deliver some killer performances and a soundtrack that is a "must have".

The story of 15-year old Telulah Farrow obsessed with punk music and making movies, FAN GIRL captures the very spirit of a film festival, culminating in celebratory joy, elation and youthful exuberance. Ironically, Telulah spends the film working towards a final film project that could end up in a film festival AND be judged by none other than Tina Fey. As so many filmmakers do, Telulah tries to meld her loves into her film, with the aid of friends and frenemies, and a perpetual high school senior film partner named Darvan.

Garcia delivers a smart and witty script perfectly melding high school life, music and film, that is only elevated further with whip smart, fast-talking, rapier performances by Shipka and Josh Boone as Darvan. And it's not often we get to see Scott Adsit as animated in live action as he is here, but he is not to be missed! From Alexandra Kaucher's production design to some eye-catching cinematography (and nicely done film-within-a-film moments) from Brian Burgoyne highlighted with Phyllis Housen's well-paced editing, trust me when I say, you'll be a huge fan of FAN GIRL by film's end!

There are plenty of films at Los Angeles Film Festival that I am still looking forward to, among them, THE CONFINES with Jason Patric, the modern retelling of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn with BAND OF ROBBERS, A BEAUTIFUL NOW with LAFF alum Abigail Breslin. And yes, while some of the films screened didn't make the "Must See" list, they have some standout elements. For example, IN THE TREETOPS has some lovely unfettered sound design while OUT OF MY HAND bodes a strong performance from Bishop Blay as well as a cast of newcomers from Liberia. And POCHA (MANIFEST DESTINY) is a powerful emotional thriller.

Los Angeles Film Festival 2015 runs from June 10th to 18th 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

Happy Festing!


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