Los Angeles Film Festival rebounded (no basketball pun intended) and made ten days in a controversial new location an exciting celebration of independent movies.
The fest began on June 17 (which was also the night the LA Lakers won their second straight championship at the neighboring Staples Center) with the Los Angeles premiere of Lisa Cholodenko's lesbian dramedy The Kids Are All Right. Stars Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo attended, as well as Jane Lynch (Glee) and other celebs. Conspicuously absent was co-star Annette Bening, who also cancelled a press conference I was scheduled to attend the following day without explanation. Several online sources reported on June 18 that Bening's and Warren Beatty's oldest daughter had announced she was planning to have gender reassignment surgery, and that Bening and Beatty were "devastated." May they get over it soon.
Apart from The Kids Are All Right, only a few movies screened during the fest were specified as being of GLBT interest: Eyes Wide Open, the extraordinary Israeli story of two orthodox Jewish men who fall in love with each other (previously reviewed here); Dog Sweat, an illegally-shot Iranian film detailing the romantic/sexual travails of six young people, including a gay man; and Family Tree, which explores a dysfunctional French clan gathered at a sprawling country estate for a funeral.
However, other GLBT-friendly screenings included the LA premiere of All About Evil, a campy horror spoof starring Joshua Grannell (a.k.a. drag diva Peaches Christ), Mink Stole and Cassandra "Elvira" Peterson, and Pee-Wee Herman himself, Paul Reubens, presenting a 25th anniversary edition of his now-classic Pee-Wee's Big Adventure as well as a film he defined as most inspirational to him, 1938's You Can't Take It With You.
The standout film of the festival for me, though, was the eye-opening, heart-wrenching documentary, Lost Angels. Director Thomas Napper follows a number of inhabitants of downtown LA's Skid Row, composed of approximately fifty city blocks (ironically, the festival took place just a stone's throw away). As narrator Catherine Keener informs viewers, "About 11,000 people live on Skid Row, and two-thirds of them have mental illness." Another speaker pointedly states, "We don't institutionalize the mentally ill (in the United States); we criminalize them." Late ex-President Ronald Reagan receives special condemnation for cutting funding to hospitals and other mental illness treatment facilities.
One of the subjects of Lost Angels is Albert "Bam Bam" Olson, an honest and outspoken inhabitant of Skid Row who also happens to be transgender, bipolar and living with HIV. Bam Bam was in attendance at the film's June 25 world premiere (as was Keener, who is gracious and lovely in person) and told the sold-out crowd, "Making the movie gave me a purpose." Napper treats all those he caught on film with respect and dignity, and the result is most affecting.
As I'm a sucker for movies about animals, I also found the festival doc One Lucky Elephant fascinating. Ten years in the making, it recounts the saga of circus producer and ringmaster David Balding to find a suitable home for his aging pachyderm star, Flora. Balding adopted the orphaned baby elephant and cared for her for 16 years. But as she matured, Flora lost interest in performing and Balding was compelled to search for a place where she could live more freely with other elephants.
This proved to be no easy task. After numerous safari programs and zoos fell through, Balding found what seemed to be the perfect sanctuary for Flora in Tennessee. No sooner did Balding leave Flora then she became increasingly anti-social and violent. A self-professed elephant psychologist declared Flora suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder related to the violent separation from her mother and her subsequent circus training. The baffled Balding was barred from ever visiting Flora again, and the film raises interesting questions and concerns not only about the ethical treatment of animals but of the people who devote themselves to their care.
Another standout movie about animals at the fest was Cane Toads: The Conquest. Presented in 3-D, no less, it is director-producer Mark Lewis' follow up to his acclaimed 1988 short film about Australia's non-native amphibians. Introduced from South America in the 1930's in an effort to control sugar cane-destroying beetles, the poisonous toads have multiplied from an initial 100 to nearly 2 billion today. They continue to march their way west across Australia, and no attempt to halt their progress has been successful.
The film takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to what is apparently a serious problem, and one can't help but fall in love with the doggedly persistent creatures of the title. The 3-D effects are unnecessary but fun. Lewis proudly announced during the Q & A after the screening that his film had been dubbed "Avatoad" after its US premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
One other movie at this year's LA Film Fest made a significant impression on me: Hello Lonesome. A semi-autobiographical story by writer-director Adam Reid, it conveys six unique individuals' struggles to make a connection with someone else. The relationships forged are surprising, amusing and ultimately moving. One of the characters is based on Reid's sister, who died of breast cancer in 2003.
The cast of Hello Lonesome (which includes James Urbaniak, who voices Dr. Venture on the campy cartoon The Venture Brothers) is excellent, and they were deservedly honored with the festival's Jury Award for Best Ensemble Performance. Other award-winning films were Denmark's A Family (Best Narrative Film), Make Believe (Best Documentary) and Wonder Hospital (Best Animated Short).
This was the first year that the LA Film Festival was moved from its traditional, trendy Westwood location to the new LA Live complex downtown. Despite a few logistical bumps and a bit of initial culture shock (especially for opening night attendees), I thought the new venue worked very well. Also, the film selection, largely overseen by former Newsweek film critic David Ansen, was diverse and of almost-uniformly high quality. I'm already looking forward to what next year will bring!
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.