"This is great. I'm going to geek out here for a second," muttered Los Angeles Film Festival director Richard Raddon last Thursday night as an aside in his introduction for the soon-to-be-famous Russian sci-fi maestro Timur Bekmambetov. It was just an offhanded quip, but truer words could not have spoken for the official opening ceremonies for the 2008 LAFF, a movie geek's paradise. Boasting an extremely diverse slate with everything from big studio blockbusters like Bekmambetov's stunning "Wanted" to low-budget, non-SAG narratives like Seth Packard's adorably indulgent "HottieBoombaLottie" to important documentaries like Sarah Friedland's beautifully composed "Thing with No Name," the fest has something for the film geek within.
"Our mission is to celebrate cinema in its entirety," exclaimed director of programming Rachel Rosen during the event's first weekend.
Featured in the main competition line-up was Spencer Parsons' smartly crafted melodrama, "I'll Come Running" starring Melonie Diaz and Jon Lange. Following the aftermath of a short-lived, intense romantic encounter between a Danish tourist and a local Austin waitress, the film features strong performances and direction. A puzzle to many members of the film community, "Running" was originally scheduled to premiere at this year's SXSW Film Conference and Festival, but then mysteriously disappeared. "We were stuck between two great choices," Parsons explained last Friday night, "and the reason we were still in the lineup when it was announced was that SXSW is a great festival. But, in the end, it came down to not having that stigma against you of being a local film." Far from home, in the city of Los Angeles, "Running" received an incredibly warm welcome at its premiere Saturday night.
Also vying for a narrtive award is actress Lori Petty's directorial debut, "The Poker House," a haphazard autobiographical piece that follows a day in the life of Agnes, a young girl who is struggling through adolescence with a drug addicted mother and a pimp for a father figure. Overshadowing many of the missteps in the filmmaking, the film's greatest asset is easily up-and-coming young actress Jennifer Lawrence, who's performance as Agnes - or, as it is revealed in the end title card, the young Petty - is truly stirring. "So many people play a version of themselves," marveled Petty in the Q & A at the Friday night premiere, "and she did not at all."
When speaking of the incredibly personal nature of the film, co-writer David Alan Grier got choked up recalling how he got involved in the project. "Lori sent me some of the scenes she had, and one of them was the rape scene... I called her and asked, 'did this really happen to you?' I was driving," he forces out, as he begins to cry, "and I had to pull my car over because I've known Lori for many years and I never knew this. It was like finding out your best friend - this isn't my real name, etc."
But Grier wasn't the only one who shed tears. At an emotional Q & A for a free screening of the incredibly moving activist documentary, "The Garden," director Scott Hamilton Kennedy welled up when speaking about his subjects. "I promised myself I was going to try not to cry," he said under his breath.
The powerful documentary follows the story of the political struggle that ensued in 2004 over a 14-acre plot of public farm in the middle of South Central Los Angeles that a group of struggling farmers were using to feed their families. The film shows that corruption runs deep in city offices and the issue blows up into a larger story about environmentalism and community pride. LAFF's free screening of the film was, appropriately, one of the biggest events of the weekend. The impassioned 40-minute Q & A included many emotional recollections. "I think that the lesson here is that no one is born with political power," commented Tezozomoc, one of the farmers profiled in the film, "You all constitute your own political power."
The last big event for the weekend, and perhaps the biggest, was Sunday night's world premiere of Andrew van Baal and Mark Flanagan's documentary, "Largo." A performance film cobbled together from six months of footage from the famous Hollywood nightclub that the film draws its title from, "Largo," both the screening and the film itself, included appearances from music and comedy greats like John C. Reily, Jon Brion, Fiona Apple, Patton Oswald and Flight of the Conchords.
Kicking off the festivities for one of the most enthusiastic audiences Los Angeles has seen in a long time, frequent Largo opening act David Gruber Allen (aka The Naked Trucker) read down the rules of the screening and playfully mocked the festival sponsors. Things only turned a bit more serious when Flanagan, the club's long-time owner and booker, took the mic, said a few quick words and the wonderfully nostalgic film began to roll.
During the post-screening Q & A, it was revealed to the few audience members that Largo closed after the film wrapped. When asked if he anticipated the closure when they began making the film, Lanagan said "no." "I know it's a little sad when the lights go off at Largo," Flanagan contemplated, "but I'm not sad at all." Then, as if speaking for the entire audience, he added, "I feel really lucky to be alive in this place and time." The geeks walking up and down Westwood for LAFF this year may feel the same.
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