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LAIFF’s Future Looks Bright; A Festival Wrap-up

LAIFF's Future Looks Bright; A Festival Wrap-up

LAIFF's Future Looks Bright; A Festival Wrap-up

by Anthony Kaufman and Tom Cunha

It’s covered in concrete rather than snow. It blazes a hazy desert sun
instead of freezing to a near-zero mountainous chill, and spreading out
for miles upon miles unlike a particular fabricated mini-mecca in Park
City, Utah, Los Angeles has the advantage (or disadvantage) of already
being the movie capital of the world. No one had to call TWA to make
sure they got to their screenings, only check that some Jeep didn’t roll
over on the freeway. No one had to lure the industry in; they’ve
probably already seen half the films during their lunch breaks. As
probably the most sought after second spot to premiere American
independent films (unless one is shooting for that Texas crowd at SXSW a
month earlier), this year’s LA fest was a strong one, continuing to give
an apt cross-section of the Amer-indie scene: with films that “work,”
those that don’t, and a few you just can’t pin down (which in this
fickle industry gets grouped in the latter undistributable category.)

Two of the more astounding debuts at the LAIFF prove how diverse the
best of indie film can be: a digital video documentary about a lonely,
genius New York tour guide (“The Cruise“) and a glossy, narrative about
the downward spiral of drug use (“Broken Vessels“). Miller’s “The
Cruise” (see Monday’s indieWIRE) has an intimacy and profundity that has
the ability to touch a lot of people and at the LAIFF, it indeed did.
Although the movie might never make it to smaller markets because of its
uniquely New York intellectual angle, outcasts in Ohio might just find
something in “Speed” Levich that resonates just as powerfully. Scott
Ziehl’s “Broken Vessels” which deservedly won the audience’s top kudos
is a tightly scripted, well-acted, and studiously shot feature debut.
Although distribs are circling and producer’s rep John Sloss assured
indieWIRE that “we’ll definitely sell it,” the question remains as to
what kind of deal the badly-titled “Vessels” will get. “It’s got a lot
of commercial potential,” says Ziehl, a first-time festival goer, “but
at the same time, it’s a review-driven type of film that could play on a
smaller output.” After a film like “Seven” seduced audiences to the dark
side, Ziehl’s film has a good chance in today’s market. “I really
believe it’s got an audience,” he continued “and I even more believe
that now that I’ve seen the response here. . . I just hope the right
people get behind the film and give it a chance.” When one audience
member asked what he thought of the film, the response was, “I’m not
sure, but it was powerful,” and another claimed it was the best thing
they saw at the festival. “Broken Vessels”‘s next stop will be the
Seattle International Film Festival next month.

Zeihl’s film was just one of a few dark and devilish works to be found
at the festival, a testament to indie’s ability to tackle issues that
contemporary Hollywood strays away from. Otto Preminger was depicting
drug addiction back in the 50’s, but what was the last mainstream movie
you can remember that had a heroin scene. The buzz around Ziehl’s film
was, “oh, it’s so dark,” but frankly, “dark” is not the word. Why not
say “real”? Indie film has the unique ability to say what other’s
don’t, and so we should laud those films that provoke (rather than
placate) and depict our harsh world (rather than prettify it). Other
“real” films were Abel Ferrara’s “The Blackout” an equally exceptional
and poetically postmodern riff on addiction. With Matthew Modine,
Claudia Schiffer, and Dennis Hopper, some distributor with an eye for
stars, art, and edge should really smarten up and pick this film up.

Another favored twisted tale, Jon Reiss’s “Cleopatra’s Second Husband
played to a couple of responsive houses. Although the film suffers from
an uneven middle, Reiss, an experienced music video and documentary
director, has a talent for imagery, color, character and the shifts of
storytelling. While the film begins as a Polanski-like invasion of
one sexy couple into the house of two repressed newlyweds, the women are
soon out of the picture, and it twists into a power-play between the
males. With strong performances from its leads, Paul Hipp and Boyd
Kestner, Reiss’s feature film is a potentially commercial first outing.
Reiss, who wrote the screenplay in a single month after an epiphany at a
Target parking lot, did a little script-shopping at the studios, but
after going through “a couple of development hell situations,” he opted
for low-budget independence.

With the same freedom of independence, but the unique fortune of having
friends like Steve Buscemi or John Turturro, two features at the LAIFF
by film veterans provided the festival with some well-orchestrated
comedies. Alexandre Rockwell (“In the Soup“) joined in with his latest
Louis and Frank” a charming vaudevillian ode about a middle-aged
Italian-American singing duo (with cameos by Tony Curtis, Sam Rockwell,
and Steven Buscemi). Shot for under a million dollars, but with a heart
and comedic touch that is truly unique to Rockwell, his latest is
deserving of U.S. distribution (it is slated for foreign release this
summer). He admits, “I don’t know if this film will come out. But I’d
really love to see it here.” A friend and collaborator of Rockwell’s,
writer Brandon Cole turns to direction in “OK Garage,” another
well-attended comedy, most likely because it stars John Turturro, Lili
Taylor and Will Patton. “Garage” also has international distribution
secured (by J & M Entertainment).

Another film of note was “Claudine’s Return” from director Antonio
Tibaldi (“Little Boy Blue”) which benefits from some beautiful
cinematography by Luca Bigazzi, but deserves special mention because of
its amazing performance from Christina Applegate in the title role of a
stripper. Festival buzz was strong on Applegate, who spent the last
decade playing dimbulb, sexpot Kelly Bundy on TV’s “Married…With
.” A second film that focused on a self-destructive woman,
Bongwater” was a more comedic, Gen X, pot-smoking, sofa-lounging kind
of film. It featured a strong turn from the always wonderful Alicia
Witt (from “Citizen Ruth” and TV’s “Cybill“). The film holds
similarities to another provocatively titled festival entry,
Starf*cker.” Both follow twentysomethings who engage in drug use and
become involved with self-destructive, pseudo-friend sociopaths. (Oh,
and they both star Jamie Kennedy.) When “Starf*cker” finally played,
all the buzz that had been building up, due largely to its title, quickly
fizzled to a murmur.)

Rory Kelly’s “Some Girls” may seem like yet another one of those aimless
twentysomething films, but comes out above the fray in revealing a witty
portrait of love, sex and friendship. While Kelly’s direction was
honored at the fest (he has evolved quite a bit from his previous
effort, the similarly themed “Sleep With Me”), the film is brought to
life by lead actress and co-writer Marisa Ribisi. Writer/director Tony
Barbieri announced “It’s for people who don’t watch MTV” when
introducing his Sundance screened and well-respected “one,” which
generated positive word of mouth. The film centers around a young man
who is released from a stint in prison, where he was placed for an act
of mercy-killing. While the film is slow at times, it introduces
Barbieri as a talent for capturing realistic and vivid performances.

To veterans of the now four-year old LA fest, most would agreed that
this year’s organizational situation was better than ever before. The
theaters were close together. Informative conversational panels on
directing, writing, acting, distribution, new media, financing,
cinematography, production design and music videos were all located
either inside the screening-venue itself or across the street at the
Laugh Factory. And, although films ran consistently at least 15 minutes
late, Q & A’s were smartly moved to an atrium to keep the screenings as
close to schedule as possible. Still, ushering audiences out of the
theater and into the Q & A room sometimes resembled a cattle run with
event staff shouting rancher-style.

The compact nature of the essentially a two and half day event made for some
occasionally harrowing movie-going. Although many praised the festival
for being micro-manageable, overlapping screenings pissed off many — for
instance, it was a mathematical impossibility to see these
three films: “The Blackout”, “OK Garage” and “Cleopatra’s 2nd Husband”
because of scheduling conflicts. Other trios exist (“Restaurant,”
hundred percent,” and “The Cruise”) et cetera, et cetera. Even Robert
Faust agreed in Monday’s indieWIRE that some of the films needed more
venues. So an extra day of second screenings wouldn’t hurt. One other
complaint overheard at the festival was a lack of social networking,
underscored by the scarcely populated V.I.P. room that was relegated
to a sunny patio outside of the DGA. On Saturday and Sunday nights without any
organized parties, festivity-hungry attendees were left unsatiated. But
really who cares about organized parties, it’s LA for god’s sake —
fest-goers should have found something to do (at least up until 2 am).

This year’s LAIFF proves its placement on the indie map. Beyond
anything else, it is its eclectic collection of “the latest in
independent cinema,” says programming director Thomas Ethan Harris, that
makes LA shine. Not distracted by sidebars or international sections or
tributes, LA is a hearty, exacting dose of American indies. If you
don’t want to brave the cold and crowds of Sundance and you want to
remain in your Mazda, the LAIFF is the place to be, having achieved a
level of programming that cuts an accurate swath of what American
independent cinema is today.

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