Los Angeles Film Festival: Reviews, A to Z 

Our critics weigh in on what — and what not — to see

Wednesday, Jun 17 2009

AFTER THE STORM (USA) Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, actor and writer James Lecesne wanted to go to New Orleans to help but was well aware of his limitations in such vital fields as manual labor. Instead, he and several other New York artist friends opted to use their stage skills to help some of the newly displaced teens in staging a musical (Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ Once on This Island) with themes relevant to rebounding from a storm. The play was for charity, the kids clearly got a lot of benefit out of it ... so is it churlish to complain that the movie simply isn’t very engrossing? (Mann Festival, Sun., June 21, 4:30 p.m.; Regent, Thurs., June 25, 7 p.m.) (Luke Y. Thompson)

CRITIC’S PICK  ALL TOMORROW’S PARTIES (U.K.) Part concert film, part rebel manifesto, this toe-tapping document covers several years in the life of a marvelous off-season music festival that’s been staged in the English countryside every year since 2002. The participants include musical iconoclasts at every level of fame: Nick Cave, Sonic Youth, Iggy Pop and Patti Smith share stages with Belle & Sebastian, Portishead, Slint, Mogwai, Roscoe Mitchell, the Boredoms and Seasick Steve, to name but a few. The atmospheric settings are deserted seaside “holiday camps” (shades of The Who’s Tommy). Director Jonathan Caouette weaves in a wealth of oddball news and home-movie footage from the 1950s and ’60s, which emphasizes the time-capsule flavor, and grounds the music in a pop continuum that spans 40 years. The late Jerry Garcia speaks to this from the archives, envisioning a concert-utopia in which “there would be no headliners. There would only be music.” One handycam-bearing interviewer asks ponderously: “When youth culture becomes monopolized by big business, what are youth to do?” Music itself is the film’s answer, as are these concerts, whose artists and fans mingle together with a friendly, homespun freedom. Caouette, who made the heartrending and unforgettable film-memoir Tarnation (2003), is 180 degrees more lighthearted here. He restricts himself to a “co-director” credit; his collaborators are billed as “All Tomorrow’s People,” and by this critic’s count are 152 strong — music fans with video cameras. The film thus pleasurably embodies the interactive generosity of talents whose confluence it describes. (Ford Amphitheatre, Wed., June 24, 8:30 p.m.) (F.X. Feeney)

AUTUMN (Turkey) Director Özcan Alper’s aptly titled debut stews in the consumptive juices of defanged activist Yusuf (Onur Saylak), a beaten man returned home after a decade in prison. The eponymous season slides into winter, as Yusuf settles into a dead-end existence with his aged, long-suffering mother, fails to connect with a gold-hearted hooker with a taste for Russian literature, and dedicates a whole lot of time to staring glumly into the middle distance. The brooding is relentless, the images of rural Turkey evocative, but the film doesn’t quite convince us of the existential weight it strives for. (Landmark, Thurs., June 25, 9:30 p.m. & Sat., June 27, 7 p.m.) (Lance Goldenberg)

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  • All Tomorrow's Parties

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BANANAS!* (Sweden) Swede Fredrik Gertten’s documentary about an L.A. trial alleging that Dole Food Corporation’s use of U.S.-banned pesticide DBCP sterilized generations of Nicaraguan banana workers has generated controversy prior to its LAFF unveiling, now that bus-ad mainstay Juan “Accidentes” Dominguez is being accused of fraud in his recruiting of plaintiffs. Dominguez is the unquestioned man-of-the-people hero of Gertten’s film, which means an opportunity to explore the complicated personalities of a thorny case — one that easily proves Dole acted sketchily — is lost. Gertten stuck with what he shot rather than updating his film, but even as it stands now, Bananas!* hews too drearily to courtroom footage and crusader worship to have any real impact as a screed against the abuse of multinationals. (James Bridges Theater, Sat., June 20, 7:30 p.m.; Landmark, Tues., June 23, 9:15 p.m.) (Robert Abele)

BIG RIVER MAN (USA) A wearying air of Boratic minstrelsy and Jackass heedlessness sinks this eager-to-please doc about beer-bellied Slovenian swimmer Martin Strel. Narrated in accented monotone by Strel’s wrangler/son, the middle-aged record-holder’s attempt to swim down the Amazon yields a surreal exercise in rubbernecking, with much manufactured gonzo. Director John Maringouin’s urge to surprise and entertain feels cynical as the expedition flirts with being a death trip and Strel often goes unheard. The tell comes when the son mentions doing Dad’s press interviews for him because he “knows what media likes.” (Majestic Crest, Sat., June 20, 10 p.m.; Landmark, Wed., June 24, 2:15 p.m.) (Nicolas Rapold)

CRITIC’S PICK  BORN WITHOUT (Mexico) Jose Flores is an armless dwarf who supports his large family as an itinerant street musician. He performs at outside fairs, bullfighting arenas and cockfighting pits throughout Mexico, and admits that his most generous patrons are drug traffickers. His irregular appearance once led to roles in films by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Nicolás Echevarría (clips included here show him to be an actor of undeniable depth). In this provocative documentary from the late Eva Norvind, Flores is at first presented as an object of pity, a lonely figure ignored by passersby and hassled by authorities as he blows jaunty folk tunes on his harmonica outside a fair; later, as a proud family man who has overcome extreme adversity to raise seven children with his adoring wife, Gracie. Norvind then brings forth some alarming revelations that place Flores in an entirely new light and raise some ticklish moral questions. It turns out that this seriously handicapped ladies’ man, who physically can’t hold a woman, refuses to allow his disability to stop him from practicing some rather unorthodox approaches to connubiality. Flores emerges as a complex, admirable and perplexing character in this unflinching portrait, which challenges prevailing perceptions of the disabled while completely avoiding sentimentality. (Landmark, Sun., June 21, 2 p.m.; Billy Wilder Theater, Wed., June 24, 9 p.m.) (John Tottenham)

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