Writing in these very pages one year ago, on the occasion of its 10th anniversary, I suggested that the Los Angeles Film Festival was really only 4 years old — its rebirth marked by the moment when the Independent Feature Project/Los Angeles took control of the erstwhile Los Angeles Independent Film Festival and began a fruitful process of reinvention. One year later, it’s the IFP/L.A. itself that has been born again, having recently broken rank with the five other national IFP chapters and re-christened itself Film INDependent (or FIND for short). Though little change will be evident to the outside observer — the IFP/L.A. staff remains in place, as does its involvement in both LAFF and the Independent Spirit Awards — the move speaks to the maverick attitude of an organization that has consistently and diligently sought to expand our definition of “independent” film. To wit, the imaginatively programmed lineup of this year’s LAFF (which runs today through June 26) juxtaposes new films from the far corners of the globe against those made right here in our own back yard, music videos against short films, and the favorite movies of veteran director Sydney Pollack against those of hip-hop wizard The RZA. And that’s just for starters! Also on tap: sneak peeks at some of the summer’s most anticipated art-house films (including Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 and Jim Jarmusch’s direct-from-Cannes Broken Flowers), posthumous tributes to three seminal figures of the American independent cinema (Morris Engel, Ossie Davis and Stan Brakhage) and an in-depth discussion with legendary screenwriter Robert Towne. You can FIND out more at www.lafilmfest.com. In the meantime, our critics offer their takes on those films and special events made available for preview.
A list of the films and their showtimes can be found here.
This enlightening documentary chronicling the Vietnam War era’s GI protest movement has, by accident or design, a homegrown, cut-and-paste quality, much like the movement itself, which was spurred along by mimeographed newspapers secretly distributed from base to base, and by GIs in the war zone itself. Such rebellion within the ranks stunned military brass and got more than one soldier court-martialed or sentenced to hard labor. Director David Zeiger brings to fresh light all manner of half-forgotten events, from brave on-base protests that date as far back as 1965, to cultural minutiae such as the wittily elaborate handshakes black soldiers devised to distinguish their units. Only ostensibly a primer for Vietnam-era recruits, including an onscreen glossary of slang words like “Charlie” and “grunt,” Sir! No Sir — which probably doesn’t have a Fox News Channel airing in its future — offers rare footage of the antiwar stage shows organized (by Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, among others) as counterpoint to Bob Hope’s boost-the-troops extravaganzas. Fonda’s actor son Troy Garity narrates, and the Lightning Rod herself, clearly delighted at being quizzed, for once, by friendly inquisitors, shakes her head in wonder that men fierce in their unity and free in their hearts once dared to lay down their guns and say “No.” (DGA1, Sun., June 19, 7 p.m.; DGA2, Thurs., June 23, 5 p.m.)
Few in either Hollywood or the world of hip-hop have demonstrated as strong and smart a grasp on the deep blood ties between rap/hip-hop and movies as has the Wu-Tang Clan’s sonic architect, the RZA. His music production has always had a cinematic scope to it: the meticulous yet organic layering of beats, samples and studio wizardry that underscores the imagery of their accompanying rhymes; the evocative way his grooves build in emotional power, then fall away to let the vocals and lyrics hold sway. Even Wu Tang’s very construction is lifted from martial-arts films that the RZA and his cohorts consumed as kids. Having scored Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: the Way of the Samurai to critical acclaim, and become Quentin Tarantino’s favorite musical go-to guy (Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2), the RZA is now appearing in front of the camera as well — his segment with Bill Murray was one of the highlights of Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, and he’ll soon appear with Clive Owen in Derailed. As this year’s LAFF artist in residence, he’s programmed two films that were huge influences on him (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and one where he flexes his own creative muscle (Ghost Dog). But the don’t-miss ticket is Toon Time With the RZA, where he will deejay live to a lineup of offbeat animated shorts.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin screens at DGA 1 on Tues., June 21, at 10 p.m. and at Sunset 5 on Fri., June 24, at 11:45 p.m.
Toon Time With the RZA screens at Ford Amphitheater on Wed., June 22, at 8:30 p.m.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly screens at Sunset 5 on Sat., June 25, at 10 p.m.
Ghost Dog screens at Sunset 5 on Sun., June 26, at noon.
If ever a life was defined by Sisyphean struggle it’s that of Carmelo, an itinerant mariachi who works San Francisco’s Mission District, cranking out melancholy love songs with his beloved but sporadically drunk partner, Arturo. Caught between dire poverty and the desire to keep his suffering family together, the 57-year-old Carmelo must choose between making $100 on a good night in an American city and 30 pesos a day — an improvement on his hardscrabble childhood — servicing weddings in his down-at-heel Mexican town. Mark Becker spent more than three years following Carmelo back and forth, and the result is a rich, devastating portrait of a man gifted with great charm and burdened by the painful combination of determination and fatalism that so often comes with adversity. Inventively shot on 16mm, Romántico echoes the changing rhythms of Carmelo’s world. If this terrific documentary doesn’t adjust your idea of what it means to have a hard life and a good attitude, you haven’t been paying attention. (Sunset 5, Fri., June 17, 7 p.m.; Sunset 5, Fri., June 24, 10 p.m.)
A troubled woman (Lisa Gay Hamilton) who was abused by her father as a child revisits the home where she grew up and, for a moment, recaptures her lost innocence; an ex-wife (Amy Brenneman) finds herself falling back in love with her ex-husband (William Fichtner) on the occasion of his second wife’s funeral; and a mother (Glenn Close) spends the afternoon visiting a family cemetery plot in the company of her precocious young daughter. Those are but three of the Nine Lives canvassed by writer-director Rodrigo García over the course of his new ensemble drama. As with his 2002 debut feature, Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, García (the son of Gabriel García Márquez) adopts a cinematic form less novelistic than it is a collection of short stories — some interrelated, others stand-alone, and each is filmed as a single unedited tracking shot. Though a few of García’s tales — which range from melodrama to farce, and yes, even magic realism- — are inevitably more compelling than the rest, the nine female characters who form the stories’ centers are all remarkable creations, as are the gifted (and largely under-appreciated) actresses who play them. (In addition to those mentioned: Kathy Baker, Holly Hunter, Molly Parker and Mary Kay Place are also onboard.) In the film’s most plangent scene, two old flames (Robin Wright Penn and Jason Isaacs) reminisce about a relationship that was “lovely in fits and starts” as they traverse the aisles of a grocery store — its shelves seemingly stocked not with dry goods, but with the emotional ramparts of their shared past. (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Tues., June 21, 7 p.m.)
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The two Eclectic Mix programs in LAFF’s inspired festival sidebar represent a carefully assembled buffet of artists, genres and visual styles. The collections work in tandem to highlight the fact that — contrary to the looped formulas you see on MTV — some very inventive work is being done in the field of music videos, among it Badly Drawn Boy’s “Year of the Rat,” Orisha’s “Naci Orishas,” the unedited version of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” and Los Abandoned’s “Van Nuys (Es Very Nice),” which subversively placates fears about the Latinization of L.A. by placing the Latino alterna-rock outfit (clad in Silver Lake–hipster thrift-store chic) in the midst of a high school cheerleading practice full of charmingly bumbling young Latinas, then interspersing the performance footage with images of Latino families performing all-American acts of shopping, eating and just chilling in the market square. But if you can only catch one video showcase, make it She Said: The Music Videos of Floria Sigismondi, a retrospective of the work of the celebrated visual artist who brings her interests in surrealism and the avant-garde to the music clips she helms. In particular, Sigismondi’s fascination with the remnants of beauty that cling to decay and destruction (as found in devastated landscapes and bombed-out buildings) marks the minifilms she makes. Marilyn Manson’s “Beautiful People” and Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter” are probably the best-known examples of her work (and proof of the extremes within which she’s comfortable working), but there’s also exquisite imagery in clips she’s done for Tricky, Leonard Cohen, The Cure and underground R&B cult goddess Amel Larrieux. A highlight is her “( )” video for Sigur Ros, in which the viewer is slowly transported from what seems like the interior of a boarding school for young, solemn-faced kids to a barren, otherworldly landscape where the kids trash a burned-out old car in slow motion. As we’re slowly drawn into an unfamiliar setting of despair and violence, the effect is simultaneously discomfiting and oddly soothing.
Eclectic Mix Program #2 (featuring “Year of the Rat,” “Naci Orishas,” “99 Problems” and “Van Nuys (Es Very Nice)”) screens at DGA 2 on Sun., June 19, at 1:45 p.m. and Sat., June 25, at 9:45 p.m.
She Said: The Music Videos of Floria Sigismondi screens at DGA 2 on Fri., June 24, at 7 p.m. and Sat., June 25, at 2:45 p.m.