Thursday, June 30, 2011

Reverend's Report: Going Independent at LA Film Fest 2011

Even as the annual Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF) primarily champions movies made outside the studio system, the 2011 edition — held June 16-26 — wasn't above showcasing such would-be blockbusters as Green Lantern, Winnie the Pooh and Guillermo del Toro's remake of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. 25th anniversary screenings of 1986's Hollywood hits Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Stand By Me were also shown. Still, it is the fest's indie offerings that stoke most attendees' devotion. This was the fest's second year at the downtown LA Live complex and, based on the obviously increased number of attendees over 2010, it is proving to be a good fit.

A healthy number of GLBT-interest films were featured, and I appreciate the festival organizers' continued dedication to including our community's stories. Wish Me Away, which details the tumultuous coming-out experience of country-western singer Chely Wright, even ended up winning the fest's Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary. The jurors remarked that Wish Me Away was noteworthy for its "honesty, humor and potential to change minds and even save lives." (The Canadian comedy Familiar Ground won the jury's Narrative Award, while Attack the Block, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest and Senna won Audience Awards.) Here's my take on a few of the festival's memorable offerings, gay and otherwise.

Man of letters James Franco was on hand to introduce the world premiere of his latest exploration of literature and liberation, The Broken Tower. Having portrayed Allen Ginsberg in last year's Howl to great acclaim, Franco now directs, writes and stars as another gay poet, the lesser-known Hart Crane. Unfortunately, I couldn't get into the sold-out event but I was informed after that our love of all things Franco should remain intact. Next up for the GLBT-friendly star: raising Caesar, the hyper-intelligent chimpanzee, and bedding Frieda Pinto in August's Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Theatre and film director Julie Taymor wisely traded NYC for LA the very week that the much-delayed, injury-inducing musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark finally premiered on the Great White Way. Taymor spoke to an adoring audience the night of June 19 at the Grammy Museum about her dual careers on film and stage. Even more unexpected, however, was the on-stage pairing of Jack Black and Oscar-winner Shirley MacLaine on June 23. The pair entertainingly discussed their diverse approaches to acting as well as working together on the festival's Opening Night selection, Richard Linklater's unusual Bernie.

The GLBT component of this year's festival really kicked in, though, on June 18 with the World Premiere of Leave It On the Floor, a spectacular musical-on-a-budget by director Sheldon Larry and screenwriter/lyricist Glenn Gaylord (with music by BeyoncĂ© collaborator Kimberly Bursa). Set in Los Angeles, it focuses on local "dynasties" of GLBT young people who perform in weekly drag balls. It combines elements of the 1991 documentary Paris is Burning as well as Dreamgirls and features the best (only?) dance number set in a bowling alley since Grease 2, the latter choreographed to the great, instantly memorable song "Knock The Mother F***er Down"! The sold-out crowd loved it, and the VIP after party/ball was the fest's best fĂȘte.

I am not only happy but grateful to have caught the North American premiere of Tomboy, an exquisite new film by French writer-director Celine Sciamma. It depicts a transgender girl's efforts to fit into a new community by presenting herself as a boy, which naturally leads to complications. Young lead actress Zoe Heran gives one of several beautifully-nuanced performances in this sensitive, compassionate movie. Rocket Releasing acquired the US rights to Tomboy, so watch for it later this year.

Also making its North American debut during LAFF was Christopher and His Kind, a feature-length distillation of the 2010 BBC miniseries about gay writer Christopher Isherwood. Best known for the autobiographical I Am A Camera, based on his years in pre-World War II Berlin and later musicalized as Cabaret, Isherwood pushed social and political barriers as he explored his family, his romances and the rise of the Nazi party. Christopher and His Kind — which features fine performances by Doctor Who's Matt Smith (as Isherwood), Toby Jones and Imogen Poots — also boasts gorgeous settings and male supporting players. As Isherwood is quoted in one of the voiceovers that opens the film, "To me, Berlin meant boys." Screenwriter Kevin Elyot and director Geoffrey Sax effectively take the author at his word. (Christopher and His Kind was released on DVD this week and is now available from

Alas, I was disappointed by another gay-themed production having its much-ballyhooed World Premiere in Los Angeles, Mike Akel's An Ordinary Family. A serio-comic take on religious and moral tensions within a "typical" American family, its central dispute between an Episcopal priest and his gay brother (who brings his new partner along for a week at their parents' lake house) seemed unnecessarily strained to the point of feeling dated. First, mainstream Episcopalians are hardly as conservative as they are made to look here and, second, no self-respecting 21st-century gay man would put up with the criticism he and his partner are made to put up with. Despite a good cast led by Troy Schremmer (who starred in Akel's acclaimed Chalk) and Greg Wise as the feuding brothers, An Ordinary Family suffers from a lack of authenticity.

There is no way to catch all of the nearly 200 LAFF selections, despite multiple showings and advance press screenings of some of them. That made it especially critical, then, to be on the lookout for those non-GLBT films that came with some pedigree. To that end, I was most intrigued by actress Vera Farmiga's directorial debut, Higher Ground, which was well-received at January's Sundance Film Festival. That it deals with religion and spirituality naturally piqued my interest as well.

Farmiga plays a life-long Christian who, at midlife, begins to experience doubts and tensions with her faith. The fact that she and her family live in a commune-like, fundamentalist environment with fellow devotees makes her discernment all the more difficult. The actress-director was able to assemble a stellar cast that includes Broadway stalwarts and Tony Award-winners Norbert Leo Butz, Donna Murphy and Bill Irwin as well as recent Oscar nominee John Hawkes (Winter's Bone). Joshua Leonard (The Blair Witch Project, Humpday) is also excellent as Farmiga's husband. The standout performance in the film, though, may well be Dagmara Dominczyk's heartbreaking turn as Farmiga's earthy, doomed best friend. I love the movie's haunting final shot. Higher Ground will be released nationally later this summer and could easily emerge a 2011 awards contender.

Another LAFF has come and gone, but the festival only gets better each year as a celebration of movies... independently made and otherwise.

Report by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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