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Arts and Entertainment

The Los Angeles Film Festival - The Big Preview

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The 15th annual Los Angeles Film Festival kicks off tonight at 7:30 pm with the premiere screening of Paper Man at the Mann Village Theater. The full festival begins in earnest the following morning as over 80 documentary and narrative features unspool in venues across the Westside. In addition to that, the festival features panels and seminars, coffee talks and poolside chats, short-film programs, music video showcases, live concerts and free screenings of such beloved films as Ghostbusters, Election and The Muppet Movie.

With so many films to choose from, it's difficult to determine what's worth seeing. Unfortunately, in the early days of the festival, what you end up seeing mostly depends on what film still has tickets available. As the week progresses, though, availability becomes less of an issue and you can typically get into all but the most high-profile screenings (e.g. Public Enemies, Transformers 2: Stupid Sequel). Of course, if you are feeling a little frisky you can still buy a pass to the festival that will get you into virtually anything.

Since the LA Film Festival isn't considered one of the marquee festivals in the U.S., they don't get as many world premieres as festivals like Sundance and Toronto do. Because of that, plenty of films that screened elsewhere first are landing here now. But this is a good thing! Trekking all the way up to Park City and waiting in long lines and freezing weather for a movie that you ultimately get closed out of isn't everyone's idea of a good time. For many (not me!), it's much nicer to cruise into Westwood, valet your car and see your movie.

As for those movies, below you will find several that you should definitely try to catch. For sake of expedience, I'm cheating a little and including the capsule reviews from the festival guide. As the festival progresses, I'll be back with full reviews of all the films I see. If you can see only three films this year, then go to The Cove, Humpday and When You're Strange. I saw all three of them at Sundance this year and can't recommend them highly enough (especially The Cove). Enjoy the festival!!

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35 Shots of Rum (France)

A father and daughter’s love for one another is at the heart of this intimate drama of friends and family dealing with the gentle passage of time and the ever-shifting bonds that hold them all together.

(500) Days of Summer

"This is a story of boy meets girl,” begins the wry, probing narrator of (500) Days of Summer, and with that the film takes off at breakneck speed into a funny, true-to-life and unique dissection of the unruly and unpredictable year-and-a-half of one young man’s no-holds-barred love affair.

All Tomorrow's Parties

In 1999, cult band Belle and Sebastian staged a festival at a British seaside holiday camp in an attempt to wed the vacation experience with a series of musical performances. The event was a generational Woodstock for indie geeks, and the idea was soon transformed by promoter Barry Hogan into All Tomorrow’s Parties, a yearly artist-curated concert series by the sea featuring the titans of contemporary alternative music.

Constructed of footage shot over the course of seven years by over 200 concertgoers and musicians on Super 8, camcorders, and cell phones, this uniquely immersive film captures the sights and sounds of ATP from its inception to recent years, aiming not for a comprehensive document so much as a taste of the festival experience itself. The dizzying array of performances and celebrity sightings includes Sonic Youth, Patti Smith, Iggy and the Stooges, Animal Collective, The Dirty Three, Mogwai, and more, but, it’s the odd moments that are most memorable: a Lightning Bolt performance busted by the camp administration; the boys from Grizzly Bear singing on the beach at dusk; a house band formed by drunken revelers.

Autumn (Turkey)

After enduring ten years in a Turkish prison, former university student Yusuf has returned to his childhood home in a remote mountainous village. There, he finds his father dead and his sister gone and married, with only his frail mother left to mend his broken body and spirit.

Unmoored by his lengthy absence, Yusuf attempts to assimilate back into society, aided by his cynical old friend Mikail as well as Eka, a young prostitute and single mother from Georgia, who identifies Yusuf as a fellow lost soul. Yusuf, however, is unable to build a future without understanding the present or reconciling the past. Trapped in time, he struggles to find purpose in a life that seems to have passed him by.

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Filmmaker Özcan Alper's gorgeous and intelligent debut intimately maps Yusuf's interior journey against the backdrop of the spectacular mountains and Black Sea of eastern Turkey. Tracking the changes from autumn to winter, Alper tragically etches the march of time that Yusuf is out of step with, a march that every human must endure without incurring regret.

Big River Man

This hallucinatory odyssey follows a middle-aged, pot-bellied, hard-drinking Slovenian—the endurance swimmer Martin Strel—stroke by stroke into the heart of darkness as he attempts to swim the long and perilous Amazon River. The film plays like a mash up of a Werner Herzog epic and a Saturday Night Live skit starting from Strel’s preparations which include everything from power breathing to spending time in a cave in order to think like an animal. Once the trip begins, the relentless sun, daily exposure to innumerable parasites, and Strel’s unadjusted alcohol consumption begin to take their physical and mental toll.

Maringouin, who captured his father’s corrosive marriage in Running Stumbled, has a gift for evoking hellish situations and mental turmoil on screen. Here, he uses expressionistic sound, camerawork, and editing to make something mysterious, monumental, but still a little bit absurd out of Strel’s deteriorating psychological state. Many of the film’s peculiarities strain belief: The horseburgers? The puppet-wielding Brazilin priest? You may not be convinced of the veracity of each detail, but you will likely be very happy to be along on the journey.

Black Dynamite

Let me tell you a story about Black Dynamite. He’s an irresistible silky smooth brother who can turn stone-cold, kung fu fighting machine in a hot second. Ghetto godfather, he keeps the thugs and low-lifes in check on the streets and the lovely ladies and honeys mad with heat. You just know when he hears the devastating news that some hustlers iced his younger brother, someone’s going to pay. But then he stumbles on an even bigger travesty — someone is slanging smack to the neighborhood orphanage! With a strong sexy revolutionary sister at his side, he embodies the mythical bad-ass legend and turns his dynamite toward saving the crumbling ’hood in the grips of “the man.”

Somewhere between homage and send-up of the sweet blaxploitation films of the ’70s, Black Dynamite is right on the money in reconstructing the groovy aesthetic and flare. It revels in delivering the swagger, funkadelic soundtrack and titillating action that made these films memorable, while also highlighting the social and political subtext from which the genre was born. Can you dig it?


Born Michael Gordon Peterson, the man who would become “Britain’s most violent prisoner” discovered himself in the created persona of Charlie Bronson: an idealist committed to the extremes of personal freedom who needed the opposing pressure of prison to realize his calling. To others, he was simply a dangerous sociopath.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s ecstatic, dramatized portrait of Bronson presents him as a joyful, intentional monkey wrench in the machine of the British penal system. Embodied with total commitment by Tom Hardy (who shed his pretty-boy image by gaining 35 pounds of muscle), Bronson combines devastating physical prowess with an unusually articulate formality, often giving the impression of a high-class waiter ready to explode.

Jailed for stealing roughly $40 in 1974, Bronson, who is currently in solitary confinement at a high-security prison in West Yorkshire, has extended his sentence countless times through violent actions in prison, spending a total of 131 days in freedom since his original incarceration. The cleverness of Refn’s film is to postulate this endless violence as a series of performances, staged by Bronson as a means to express his God-given gifts of a well-built body and an indomitable spirit.

Carmen Meets Borat (Netherlands)

Ionela has dreams of getting out of Glod, the poor Roma village where she lives with her family. Inspired by her middle name, Carmen, she longs for Spain and escape from the neighbors who call her “granny” because she’s still unmarried at age seventeen. Everything changes in the aftermath of a visit by a Hollywood movie crew when the townspeople realize that they have been portrayed as backward Kazakhs in Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat. Soon, TV crews arrive followed by lawyers who raise the town’s hopes of a lawsuit payday.

Documentarian Mercedes Stalenhoef skillfully walks the line of showing what’s funny about village life and its characters without condescending to her subjects. Although the Borat affair gives the film remarkable twists and turns, Stalenhoef’s real concern is with the daily life of the village and the relationship between Ionela and her father. Behind the larger drama of greed and jealousy, the film is an intimate, funny, and insightful portrait of a free spirit trying to decide whether to spread her wings or build a nest.

Cold Souls

Imagine life’s stress is weighing you down. You find an advertisement for a business that offers to extract and store your soul with the promise it will temporarily alleviate your suffering. Would you do it? As an actor in the middle of taking on a grueling role, Paul Giammatti, in true-to-life pathological form, reluctantly gives it a try—his only caveat that his soul not be stored in Jersey. Unfortunately, as with so many trades dealing in precious valuables, a thriving black market has arisen, so it’s almost expected—and amusingly surreal—when Giammati discovers his soul has been smuggled into Russia for a lackluster soap actress, no less, who suddenly displays Giammati’s fine acting chops.

With excellent pseudo-future production design that sustains credibility in the seemingly absurd plot, Sophie Barthes' first feature film is wildly original and telling. Along with being a stark satire full of wit, the existentially layered film also cautions against society’s egregious hunger for quick fixes and the dangers of treating ourselves as the ultimate commodity.

The Cove

Richard O’Barry, dolphin trainer for television’s beloved Flipper, and photographer turned filmmaker Louie Psihoyos lead the audience on a suspenseful voyage of discovery in this activist documentary that plays like an espionage thriller. O’Barry has long been convinced of the cruelty of domesticating these highly intelligent animals and feels responsibility for the growth of an economy of sea parks and swim-along programs. Leading a crack team—including skilled divers and a clandestine operations expert—and equipped with everything from high-tech cameras to ILM scenic-designed props, O’Barry and Psihoyos set out to capture evidence of wrongdoing in the heart of the dolphin trade: Taiji, Japan. Here, in a heavily guarded ocean inlet, an annual roundup supplies most of the world’s commercial dolphin needs, and there are disturbing rumors about what happens to those that don’t make the Sea World cut.

The films’ lensing mirrors the high-tech brio of the fact-finding mission; night vision and hidden camera footage add to the suspenseful atmosphere. Equally exciting and thought provoking, The Cove is a passionate call to change the way we think about our oceans and the creatures that live in them.

Dear Lemon Lima,

When 13-year-old Vanessa experiences her first breakup, she rebounds by following the boy to his stifling prep school, where she receives the only minority scholarship for her Yup’ik background. Landing at the bottom of the school’s social ladder and confined to the weight room during P.E., she begins to rally with the other school misfits, including an animal-loving boy with overbearing parents, a girl named Nothing, and a pathological liar claiming Puff Daddy is her father. Vanessa’s attempts to find herself and win back the love of her life flounder, until she’s presented with an opportunity to captain the oddball team for the school’s bastardized version of the World Eskimo Indian Olympics—the Snowstorm Survivor competition.

Suzi Yoonessi’s delicious debut makes the life of her Alaskan teenage heroine as colorful and sweet as a snow cone. Confected with heartbreak and humor, Vanessa journeys from the fantastical world of unicorns, rainbows, and shadow puppets to the uncertain reality of adult complications, discovering that real friends can be just as fantastic as imaginary ones. A true underdog story, Yoonessi’s tale of compassion and camaraderie is certain to recall one’s own bittersweet memories of the delicate transition to adolescence.

Embodiment of Evil (Brazil)

"I will conceive my perfect son even if it means imploding the cosmos!" vows murderer Coffin Joe, the dramatically caped and fingernailed antihero of Brazilian director/star Jose Mojica Marins four decade-spanning trilogy. After 40 years in the pen, he's set loose in the favelas where the local gangsters' kill-or-be-killed bravado is woefully inadequate. As Coffin Joe, still haunted by his exes, gobbles up the neighborhood virgins on his quest for fatherhood.

With its anything-goes gore, Embodiment of Evil is a midnight movie for cineastes, who will take as much delight from Marins' classic horror references as his imaginative tortures, including a nasty scene that might spoil your appetite for melted cheese. Marins' slashers are the wicked spawn of Guy Maddin and Mario Bava -- their look is artificial high camp, their blood thick and flowing, in one scene spilling in heavy sheets over the aged Coffin Joe as he deflowers a beauty literally under her aunts' dead bodies. While it serves up a buffet of topless cuties, the main course is Marins' demonic Coffin Joe. Petulant, self-pitying, and vengeful, he's as hilarious as he is cruel.

Facing Ali

Gorgeously shot against the rich reds and browns of boxing rings, gyms and arenas, Facing Ali tells the stories of ten men who faced the charismatic, fast-talking dynamo some believe was the greatest fighter of all time: Muhammad Ali.

Using dynamic graphics and gorgeous archival footage to quickly set down the facts of Ali’s life and career, McCormick delves into the history of each contest and the boxer who fought it. Forgoing testimony from sportswriters and celebrity fans, McCormack lets these ten men tell their story and Ali’s entirely in their own words.

The history they reveal is unexpectedly moving. The chance to fight Ali was life changing, and many acknowledge that boxing is a profession of last resort for the poor. The film also reveals the darker side of the confidence and drive that helped made Ali the hero he is but also may have kept him in the ring longer than he should have stayed. As one of his opponents notes, “You can lose your life giving the people what they want to see.”

I Sell the Dead

In 18th century England, Arthur Blake is a day away from the blade of the guillotine. Charged with a lifetime of grave robbing, Blake confesses his past crimes, but his stories quickly turn from standard cadaver thefts for science to peculiar things that go bump in the night. Juggling a mad doctor, a nefarious rival gang, a beautiful but ambitious apprentice, and a scary spectrum of creatures, Blake and his partner Willie Grimes somehow always lived to tell the tale . . . that is, until the pesky death sentence was served.

Filmmaker Glenn McQuaid's gleeful period comedy horror romp portrays its heroes as two average men simply trying to make a living by trafficking the undead. A marvelous cast of veterans skillfully treads between laughs and cries, including Ron Perlman, Dominic Monaghan, Larry Fessenden, and even Phantasm's Angus Scrimm. Meanwhile, McQuaid pays homage to Hammer Horror with foggy graveyards, bustling taverns, and creepy characters, while comic book flourishes recall the eerie delights of 'Tales from the Crypt' in this film that is certain to thrill boys and ghouls alike.


Nostalgia for the good ol' days crashes into the white picket fence of Ben's married life when his old buddy Andrew, a vagabond artist, unexpectedly shows up. Ben eagerly relives the carefree youth with his bro while trying to be sensitive to his wife who is more concerned with procreation than recreation these days. Drunk and stoned at a party, the dudes challenge themselves to do each other on film to enter an amateur "art" porn festival. The next morning the idea, far from being dismissed, actually transforms into something bigger. For Ben it's one last hurrah before he puts on father square pants for good, while Andrew simply needs to follow through with something for once in his life.

A bold comedy sporting a premise with depth, Humpday is as honest as it is hilarious. The immature but hysterical double-dare set-up is the perfect vantage point from which to explore the ever-puzzling hetero-male psyche, as writer/director Lynn Shelton takes the idea of bromance to its inevitable climax.

In the Loop (England)

This deliciously dark comedy about the state of politics on both sides of “the pond” charts the skirmishes between political underlings during the lead-up to military action in the Middle East. The whole mess starts when Simon Foster, a British Minister for International Development, gets himself into trouble by saying that war is “unforeseeable.” Soon, he ends up included in a delegation to Washington where the Brits will be seduced, spun, and scrapped over by a group of Beltway backroom sharps that quickly demonstrate that in politics, both hawks and doves can be birds of prey.

A cousin to his television series The Thick of It, Amando Iannucci’s scorching satire leaves no political type un-singed. The performances are all spot-on, with each variety of unpleasant politico nailed down to the last detail. But, it’s the dialogue that really stings; the film is thick with the crossfire of outrageous tirades and invectives. and features some of the most creative and colorful cursing to be found on either side of the Atlantic.

It Might Get Loud

Davis Guggenheim gives audiences a front row seat to a rock summit of three generations of awesome guitar musicians, represented by Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, U2's The Edge, and the White Stripes' Jack White.

Before the highly anticipated meeting, this electric documentary traces each man's musical roots and the fateful paths they traveled to forge their own distinct sounds. Their struggles are fascinating, a sacrosanct glimpse into the history of the electric guitar. The hardcore passion, dedication, and unbridled glee the artists exude for their craft is undeniable as they share riffs, inspirations, and trade secrets with each other. The energy of the philosophical mash up of soul, blues, electric, and folk buzzes and builds to a to-die-for backstage crescendo.

Humbly extolling the mysteries of life's winding road that led them to discover their talent, these icons pontificate whether they found the music or the music found them. Whichever the case may be, legions of music fans the world over have benefited from their momentous journeys.

My Dear Enemy (South Korea)

When the tightly wound Hee-su demands that her former lover Byeong-woon repay a long-standing debt, he happily agrees, setting in motion this understated comedy from director Lee Yoon-ki. Refusing to let Byeong-woon out of her sight, Hee-su insists on accompanying him as he calls in a variety of favors—mostly from women—in order to repay her. As the two embark on a daytrip through Seoul and their own rocky history, they come to realize that sometimes the most interesting time in a relationship is after it’s over.

For his leads, who are in nearly every scene in the film together, Lee could not have found two actors more suited to their roles than Jeon Do-yeon and He Jung-woo. In her first role since winning Best Actress for her performance in Secret Sunshine at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, Jeon brings a remarkable depth to her portrayal of Hee-su, finding the vulnerability lurking behind her harsh facade, while rising star He brings a fresh brio to his turn as the relentlessly outgoing and charming ex in this delightful film of restitution and reconciliation.

Panda Diary (Japan)

In this irresistible family-friendly documentary from Japan, a four-year-old panda narrates her own story, as she and her brother journey from the only home they have ever known to a new one in a far-off land.

Shu Hin and her twin brother Ryu Hin have lived all their lives in a Japanese amusement park, but they are soon moving to China, homeland to all pandas and a country she has only seen “in her dreams.” As Shu Hin introduces us to her new friends—both human and ursine—at the Chengdu Panda Base, we learn about their lives in this protective refuge, from the mother pandas in the maternity ward, lovingly caring for newborns no bigger than their paw, to the four adults, nicknamed “the goofy quartet,” who spend all their time eating, sleeping, and playing.

Although they remain an endangered species, Shu Hin remains hopeful for the future of her kind. “Maybe the day will come when the forests are again filled,” she imagines at the end of the film, a sentiment surely shared with audience members of all ages.

Ponyo (Japan)

In Ponyo, a young and overeager goldfish named Ponyo decides to leave her underwater world behind after making friends with a five-year-old boy who lives in a small coastal village. Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” Ponyo comes to the big screen as imagined by legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, whose credits include films Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle.

Ponyo has the classic storytelling sensibilities of a timeless fairy tale, and the visuals—entirely hand drawn—reflect the Academy Award®-winning Miyazaki’s signature and unmistakable style. The director’s attention to detail is what makes Ponyo yet another Miyazaki masterpiece.

With its child's view of an enchanting world and a voice cast that includes Cate Blanchett, Noah Cyrus, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Cloris Leachman, Liam Neeson, Lily Tomlin, Betty White, and Frankie Jonas, Ponyo is an absolute delight for all ages.

Public Enemies

In Public Enemies, Michael Mann directs Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, and Marion Cotillard in the story of legendary Depression-era outlaw John Dillinger, the charismatic bank robber whose raids made him the No. 1 target of J. Edgar Hoover’s fledgling FBI and its top agent, Melvin Purvis, and a folk hero to much of the public.

No one could stop Dillinger and his gang. No jail could hold him. His charm and audacious jailbreaks endeared him to his girlfriend Billie Frechette and a public who had no sympathy for banks that had plunged the country into the Depression. But while the adventures of Dillinger’s gang—later including Baby Face Nelson and Alvin Karpis—thrilled many, Hoover hit on the idea of exploiting the outlaw’s capture as a way to elevate his bureau into the national police force that became the FBI. He made Dillinger America’s first Public Enemy No. 1 and sent in Purvis, the dashing “Clark Gable of the FBI.’’

However, Dillinger and his gang outwitted and outgunned Purvis’ men in wild chases and shootouts. Only after importing a crew of Western ex-lawmen and orchestrating epic betrayals—from the infamous “Lady in Red’’ to the Chicago crime boss Frank Nitti—were Purvis, the FBI, and their crew of gunfighters able to close in on Dillinger.

Turistas (Chile)

On a much-needed road trip, 37-year-old Carla casually tells her husband she made a major decision without consulting him. Subconsciously, she's hoping to escape their miserable marriage and its paralyzing maturity. It works. Abandoned (and quietly exhilarated) in the Chilean countryside, Carla camps with a young Norwegian stranger who takes her to a national park where the local residents are two gossipy teenagers and a retired pop singer. Surrounded by youth, wisdom, and natural splendor, Carla is forced to ask herself what age she wants to be -- and admit that she'd rather destroy life's gifts than grow worthy of them.

Writer/director Alicia Scherson is too smart for simple answers or happy endings. Carla can't outrun her problems—she is the problem—but Aline Kuppenheim's performance is so honest that we both judge Carla and recognize her in ourselves. Turistas is a patient study of the line between self-discovery and selfish distraction, where the secret star of the film is cinematographer Ricardo de Angelis' fascination with the birds, bugs, and trees of the lush Chilean landscape.

We Live in Public

If Al Gore invented the Internet, dot-com millionaire Josh Harris embodied it. As a lonely child, his personality was shaped by TV -- he loved Gilligan more than his mother. "I've been programmed by someone else's dream," he says, and the '90s web boom gave him the cash, power and audience to share his public isolation. Before 'Survivor', he crammed 100 extroverts into a Manhattan warehouse and recorded the chaos; he celebrated his first girlfriend by lining their loft with cameras and streaming their life online. Broke and humiliated by 2001, he eventually unplugged his web cams and vanished.

Director Ondi Timoner uses Harris' astonishing rise and crash to plug into the white noise of communal voyeurism that Harris predicted a decade before Twitter. When nothing is private, nothing is special -- a lesson Timoner learned firsthand in a Harris experiment which ended in guns, tears, and rote orgies. This disturbing documentary argues that, like Harris, we're headed for a breakdown on a mass scale as we realize his warning that "Big Brother isn't a person. It's a collective consciousness."

When You're Strange: A Film about The Doors

Fans of the iconic Los Angeles band The Doors will find much to love in this time capsule, composed entirely of footage shot between the group’s formation in 1965 and mercurial frontman Jim Morrison’s untimely death in 1971. Tom DiCillo’s revealing documentary is a treasure trove of live performances, TV appearances, home movies, studio footage, and a never-before-seen independent film made by and starring Morrison.

DiCillo, a veteran director of independent narrative films, avoids the cliché of nostalgic “talking head” interviews, immersing us in the band’s rise from the clubs of Hollywood to America’s living rooms. With narration by Johnny Depp, When You’re Strange offers a rare glimpse of Morrison and bandmates John Densmore, Robby Krieger, and Ray Manzarek discovering their art and their place within a time of great political and cultural turbulence.

For all and any information about the Los Angeles Film Festival, click here!