SPECIAL EVENT: 2009 LOS ANGELES FILM FESTIVAL

Foreword by Stan Lerner: the blog you are about to read is simply the best and most comprehensive guide for this years Los Angeles Film Festival–see you at the movies!

 

MUST SEE FESTIVAL FILMS

 

Okay folks!  I’ve been waiting all year for it and so have many of you.  It’s time for the Los Angeles Film Festival!!  Now in its 15th year, LAFF 2009 promises to be one of the best festivals ever.  Running from June 18th to 28th, with screening venues located in Westwood as well as the Ford Amphitheatre, LAFF is world renowned for its level of excellence and the quality of its festival programming and films, and promises to show us once again why LAFF is one of the leaders among film festivals.  I, for one, am always amazed at the consistency and quality of films at LAFF and this year is no different.   The slate of films is as diverse as it gets, showcasing some old friends as well as the new wave of insightful, visionary and entertaining filmmakers.  Always with its pulse on the beat of the world, this year you can expect controversy, political commentary, humor, drama and as always, entertainment.

 

Important to note is that not only does LAFF shine a light on new and emerging filmmakers while providing the audience with top flight entertainment, but it awards the filmmakers with Jury and Audience Prizes in four categories, as well as a $50,000 Target Filmmaker Award for Best Narrative Feature AND a $50,000 unrestricted cash prize provided by Target, both of which are the largest cash prizes bestowed by a U.S. Film Festival, which we hope these talented filmmakers will use for their next project or, to pay off their debts from funding the winning films.

 

Over the years, LAFF has debuted or showcased some rather notable films – 2005 brought us the Oscar winning “March of the Penguins”,  2006 gave us  “Little Miss Sunshine” and the world premiere of “The Devil Wears Prada” starring Anne Hathaway who skyrocketed to stardom with this film.   LAFF 2007 made us jump for joy with 2007 Jury Award Winner “Young @ Heart” by the wonderful Stephen Walker, Helen Hood Scheer’s jumpin’ look at the world of competition jump-roping with “JUMP!”,  Stephane Gauger’s exquisite 2007 Audience Award Winner and Spirit Award nominee  “The Owl and the Sparrow” which hits theatres this Spring and 2007 Jury Award Winner and Spirit Award Winner “August Evening” by Chris Eska, plus the world of “Transformers” and that quiet little Oscar winning film “An Inconvenient Truth”.  And last year, 2008 left us all wanting more after seeing Angelina Jolie kick ass in Timur Bekmambetov’s “Wanted” while “Hellboy” stopped a Golden Army, not to mention, a foray into the world of renowned artist Chuck Connelly with Jeff Stimmel’s “The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale” (now on DVD), a turn in the kitchen with “Pressure Cooker” (in theatres now), Darius Mardur’s 2008 Jury Award Winner “Loot”, 2008 Audience Award Winner “The Wackness”, a look into the high pressure world (not to mention instructional course for a new career) of grocery bagging with Justine Jacob’s and Alex de Silva’s, “Paper or Plastic?” and, what is one of my favorite films of 2009 and in theatres now, LAFF 2008 Audience Award Winner “Anvil! The Story of Anvil.”   How do you top all of that?  Well, let’s take a look.

 

This year LAFF brings us over 70 feature films, 70 shorts and 50 music videos representing over 30 countries, not to mention the always well-received Coffee Talks, Festival Conversations with Artists in Residence, Poolside Chats, FREE SCREENINGS, anniversary special screenings and for all you filmmakers out there, an indispensable seminar on film financing.

 

Kicking off LAFF 2009, is the world premiere of what looks to become an audience favorite right out of the box, PAPER MAN.  With an all star cast that includes Jeff Daniels, the always handsome and ever funny Ryan Reynolds, and the even funnier (and festival favorite) Lisa Kudrow, writers Kieran and Michele Mulroney make their directorial debut with this little charmer about a writer caught between a rock and a hard place (deadlines, a wife, a superhero who lives inside his head and the desire to never grow up).  Adding to the mix is a teenage girl who turns his world inside out.   Now with a combo like that going on , it’s a good thing that legendary outlaw John Dillinger makes an appearance at the fest with PUBLIC ENEMIES.  The true story of  J. Edgar Hoover’s Public Enemy #1 and the rise of the FBI and its top agent Melvin Purvis, Johnny Depp and Christian Bale take control of LAFF’s Centerpiece Premiere with guns blazing and charm and good looks flowing.  And take note, this duo is so lethal, the film needs two showings! One of the most anticipated releases of the summer, catch this sure fire winner at LAFF before it hits theatres! 

 

And as if that’s not enough for headliners, how about TRANSFORMERS 2: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN?  Taking the world by storm with its world premiere at LAFF in 2007, TRANSFORMERS, became a blockbuster of global proportion, launching the career of Shia LaBeouf as an action hero and Megan Fox as, well, as the dream girl for every guy out there.   They’re both back at LAFF along with Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson joining forces with everyone’s favorite Opticon, Optimus Prime, as they battle to save the world from the Decepticons and the always evil, Megatron.  Closing out all the fun and excitement this year on June 28th  will be PONYO, Hayao Miyazaki’s animated magical tale of Ponyo, inspired by the legendary Hans Christian Anderson tale, “The Little Mermaid.”  A beauteous and enchanting film, PONYO will be the perfect end to a perfect festival.

 

So, I’ve told you about the beginning, a few special parts in the middle, and a beautiful happily ever after end, but what happens the rest of the time?   Well, it’s filled with film, fun and more film and to help you decide what to see, here it is, what you always ask for and look for, my annual picks of LAFF 2009 MUST SEE FESTIVAL FILMS.

 

A definite must see is none other than Lynn Shelton’s hysterical HUMPDAY.   Now, I know, when you hear the word “humpday” you think of Wednesday, that day in the middle of the week.  Well, Shelton now gives new meaning to the word with the story of Ben and Andrew.  Ben is a responsible man.  Married to the lovely Anna, they are living the once-upon-a-time-pre-recession American Dream. Andrew, on the other hand, is still stuck in frat boy land, living only to party, and I do mean party, especially since he lives in some of the most fertile pot-growing areas of the United States.   But, you know guys.  While they may appear to be “men” on the outside, they never quite lose that frat boy mentality which makes it particularly easy for Andrew to weave his magical spell on Ben, by one night getting Ben to cast away responsibility and re-enter Andrew’s world of fun and frolic.  Thanks to the consumption of a lot of alcohol and even more weed, it doesn’t take long for Ben and Andrew to turn their attention to Seattle’s porn film festival.  (Down boys, down!  Yes, there are many porn festivals out there.)    But for our boys, the discussion takes on new meaning as they opine that the only worthwhile award winning film would be one starring them as two straight friends having sex.  And while this idea may be the result of drunken ramblings, the introspective thoughts it provokes cause each to take pause and look at the lives they are leading.  

 

Mark Duplass, the acting half of the filmmaking Duplass Brothers who brought us “The Puffy Chair” and recently “Baghead”, stars as the straight-laced Ben while veteran Joshua Leonard tackles the party hearty Andrew.  Relying on what appears to be a good deal of ad-lib and non-sensical mumbo jumbo, writer/director Shelton captures the true essence and humor of the characters and the situation, further solidifying for all women out there that men are morons; maybe cute and adorable, but still morons.

 

HUMPDAY screen on Friday, June 19th at 10:00 p.m. at the Mann Festival Theatre and Monday, June 22nd at 4:45 p.m. at the Landmark.

 

As part of the Summer Showcase series, another “Must See” is PAPER HEART, a heartfelt, funny look at comedienne Charlyne Yi’s search for love in this improvisational movie-within-a- movie docuromance written by Yi and director Nicholas Jasenovec.    Believing herself incapable of love, Yi travels the country interviewing anyone and everyone she can find, intent on finding an answer to her quest.  As with any reality show or documentary, it’s the director that makes the show click – especially when something clicks on screen – and with PAPER HEART, both director Jasenovec and the fictional on-screen director find those clicks when Yi finds “the perfect man”, Michael Cera, and starts dating.   Truth and fiction become inexplicably intertwined as this the film goes off into unexplored emotional cuteness complete with paper dolls.  

 

Already a winner at Sundance Film Festival 2009, make PAPER HEART a “Must See” here in LA on Wednesday, June 24th at 7:00 p.m. at the Mann Festival Theatre and Friday, June 26th at 5:00 p.m. at The Landmark. 

 

Taking on a serious tone is one of the most controversial films in the festival this year – BANANAS!.  Originally slated as a competitor in the Documentary Category, due to pressure from the Dole Food Company, the film was pulled from competition but still included in the fest as a special screening.  Special is an understatement.  Directed by Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten, BANANAS! is an expose on the multi-million dollar international agribusiness of bananas and the alleged poisoning of the banana farm workers due to use of pesticides.  Filmed in pure documentary style, the events are chronicled through narration.

 

There have been multiple lawsuits going for a number of years against Dole Food Co. and various pesticide companies who manufacture, sell, distribute and/or use dibromochloropropane (DBCP), a toxic chemical that causes sterility as a result of prolonged exposure.  In court documents, Dole Food Co. has even admitted to “prior” use of pesticides in its cultivation of bananas, thus exposing thousands of workers in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, among others, to the toxins.  Verdicts awarded in Nicaragua have now been brought to the US for enforcement against the U.S. based defendant, Dole Food Co.  The result of one such lawsuit was a substantial 2007 jury verdict in favor of numerous Nicaraguan laborers, many of whose stories are told in this film.  And as comes as no surprise, the matter is currently up on appeal.  

 

However, several months after completion of BANANAS!, new developments arose when two other lawsuits filed by the same attorney on behalf of even more workers, were thrown out of Court based on evidence that the plaintiffs’ attorneys, including L.A. attorney Juan Dominguez, allegedly fabricated the entire situation by “hiring” plaintiffs, falsifying evidence and promising payoffs.  Dominguez may now face contempt charges and potential disciplinary actions by the California State Bar. 

 

Already accepted at LAFF, however, in light of the recent developments at the end of April 2009, BANANAS! was removed from competition, despite an addenda and disclaimer by Gertten to the film setting forth the latest Court developments and Dole’s position.  Dissatisfied with Gertten’s disclaimers, and seemingly ignorant to a filmmaker’s First Amendment rights and artistic expression, Dole has persisted in its attempts to remove the film from festival competition and movie screens, threatening litigation at every turn on allegations of fraud and defamation.  

 

I recently learned that neither Dole Food Co. nor Dole attorney, Scott Edelman, have screened the film, yet already have their “preconceived” notions of fraud, lies and untruths which have manifested into communications to LAFF sponsors .    According to Dole attorney Edelman, it is not Dole’s intention to not have the film shown yet, Dole has threatened to sue if the film is shown at the Festival.  Edelman has further stated that Dole disputes the events depicted in Gertten’s film, again without benefit of seeing the film.  Filmmakers tell a story based on what is put before them, what they see.  Did Dole assist in the making of the film or provide information to dispute that set forth in the documentary, the filming of which ended in 2007 prior to the latest barrage of allegations against plaintiffs’ attorney Dominguez?  Is it not just possible that the events in the film are true and that Dole has made subsequent remedial corrections or, perish the thought, that some sort of fraud was perpetrated in subsequent lawsuits?   If Dole was using DBCP and laborers were harmed, shouldn’t those laborers be entitled to recompense?  And the even bigger question that arises, if DBCP was and/or is being used, what harm is causing to the world population who eat these fruits?   And if Dole has nothing to hide and is so certain the film contains falsehoods, do they not have enough faith in the public to ascertain for themselves what is fact and what is fiction?  Better yet, counter it with their own film setting forth their position.   These are questions that should be raised and that moviegoers should be allowed to ask for themselves.

 

BANANAS! is a “Must See” festival film. Screening on Saturday, June 20 at 7:30 at the James Bridges Theater with a special panel discussion immediately following thereafter, a second screening is set for Tuesday, June 23 at 9:15 p.m. at the Landmark.  There is also a lunchtime talk with Fredrik Gertten on June 22 at 12:20 at the Zone Perfect.live.create.lounge.

 

Looking for a change in the weather, then WEATHER GIRL is in the forecast for you.  One of LAFF’s “Guilty Pleasures”, “Sassy” Sylvia Miller is Seattle’s cute, perky and sassy weather girl.  Beloved by all, and most particularly co-anchor Dale Waters, Sylvia’s entire life falls apart one morning on camera after she discovers a pair of bright pink lace panties in Dale’s dressing room. Sadly, the panties are not Sylvia’s.   But, what better way to call out your cheating rat boyfriend than to do it on live tv.  Of course, a meltdown on live tv also means a meltdown in life as not only does Sylvia no longer have her main squeeze Dale, she loses her job, loses her apartment, loses her friends and loses her dignity.    On the flip said, one does get instant fame on YouTube thanks to all the viewings of the tv meltdown.

 

But, does someone as sassy as Sylvia just give up, crawl in a hole and call it quits?  Naw.  She takes refuge in her baby  brother Walt’s apartment which is also shared by his friend, Byron.  She pulls herself together after having the door slammed in her face by every tv and radio station in Seattle, by finally grabbing the job of the century, or not – a waitress at a local restaurant for a tyrant of a gum-chomping manager whose main grounds for employment termination is the failure to bring your own wine key to work.  And she jumps back into the dating pool starting with the egomaniacal, Charles. But while Sylvia is out looking for a new life, it looks like life may be right on her doorstep in the form of Byron. Or not.

 

Written and directed by Blayne Weaver, the seeds for WEATHER GIRL came from his own relationship some years back and the societal pressures placed on women to “hurry up” and find the right guy, right job and settle down.  With the character of Sylvia, he takes a woman who has it all and then loses it all, thus being forced to “start all over” and still with the societal pressures looming like black rain clouds overhead.  The story is steeped in life and thanks to the well crafted full bodied and complete characterization and plotlines, connects to something within each of us.

 

Each actor defines each character to a tee starting with Tricia O’Kelley as Sylvia.  O’Kelley is a joy to watch.  She has depth, excellent comedic timing and a dead pan delivery to die for.  Her emotional range is fun to watch. Can’t do much better than Mark Harmon who easily slides into the role of Dale Waters.  I swear that Harmon modeled Dan’s on camera demeanor after none other than KTLA’s own debonair weatherman, Mark Kriski.  Jon Cryer tackles the egotist Charlie with a humorous pompous insecurity.   A familiar face to all is Patrick J. Adams who makes Byron the kind of guy every gal wants – as a best friend, confidante, annoyance, lover.  Likeable, funny, entertaining.  And his chemistry with O’Kelley is smooth as silk.  Ryan Devlin takes it up a notch as Sylvia’s brother Walt.  Going for the laugh at every turn, he is a typical younger brother.  (And his torments remind me so much of my own dear brother, Ed.)    The familiar faces of Blair Underwood, Jane Lynch, Marin Hinkle and Enrico Colantoni are all that’s needed to complete the picture.

 

Cinematographer Brandon Trost provides a saturated color palette which compliments the eclectic, hit-the-nail-on-the-head production design of Michael Fitzgerald.

 

It may be raining in Seattle, but the sun will be shining at LAFF for WEATHER GIRL.  Screening Friday, June 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the Majestic Crest and Wednesday, June 24 at 9:30 p.m. in The Landmark.

 

Every film festival needs some satiric, acrid, vitriolic, profanity ridden  mockumentary told with the flair of “The Office” and the delicious wry humor of British, particularly when aimed at politicians and the political system.  Never one to disappoint, LAFF gives us IN THE LOOP, a slick, riotous, laugh out loud (at the absurdity of politics) funny film that makes the Watergate break-in, Iran Contra, the Bush Administration, rumors of WMD and the hanging chads look like child’s play.  Sticking its neck out once again, the U.S. is spearheading military engagement in the Middle East – allegedly; well, at least that appears that way when British government minister Simon Foster inadvertently has a slight slip of the tongue during a tv interview describing a rumored U.S. War effort in the Middle east as “unenforceable.”  Hmmm.  Not one to stand on ceremony and believing himself to be almighty and powerful, Chief Communications Officer Malcolm Tucker begins his own verbal war packing plenty of profanity and vulgarity against not only poor Foster, but everyone who crosses his path, from his assistant Judy to United States Army General Miller and Karen Clark, US Secretary of Diplomacy.  Escalating into a new brand of Machiavellian political spin, it doesn’t take long for a U.S. contingent in London to feel the brunt of Tucker’s angst and the ineffectiveness of Foster (who always seems to be the “meat” in a meet and greet) and for the Brits to wander across the pond with Tucker in hot pusuit trying to gatecrash a super secret War Committee aka Future Planning Committee helmed by Senator Linton Barwick.  And through it all, standing on the sidelines of history (and helping to fuel them) is Foster’s new assistant Toby, who thanks to well connected present and former girlfriends, gets a leg up for both himself and Foster.  Sub-plots abound involving Karen Clark and General Miller, not to mention Clark’s bright-eyed assistant and voice of reason, intern Liza Weld who had the audacity to author a paper on “Post War Planning: Parameters, Implications and Possibilities”, which in boils down to war is not healthy for people and other living creatures. 

 

With a rapid staccato whisper-down-the-lane efficiency, secrets are spilled, rumors are spun and idiocy and lunacy reign supreme, albeit in the somewhat restrained formality of the British.  And through it all, you won’t stop laughing.

 

Casting is sterling.  Tom Hollander, who American audiences may best recognize as Cutler Beckett in “Pirates of the Caribbean” is a delight as the seemingly lost Simon Foster while Peter Capaldi, a 25 year veteran of British tv and film jumps into the fray with what can only be described as an unforgettable performance as the vitriolic histrionic Malcolm Tucker.   Easily handling the role of toby, Chris Addison is a talent that I sincerely hope American directors try and nab.  He is priceless.  Very much has a Rainn Wilson quality to his performance.  I would be remiss not to mention one of my favorite actresses, Gina McKee who is formidable as Tucker’s assistant Judy.  And as good as the Brits are, we Americans have a strong contingent here starting with David Rasche who is at his most arrogant obnoxious best as Senator Linton Barwick.  Following close behind him is James Gandolfini as General Miller who brings new meaning to the terms snide and oil slick. He oozes slimy slickness.  Mimi Kennedy is a gem as Karen Clark but it is the freshness and innocent honesty of Anna Chlumsky’s Liza that strikes a chord amongst chaos.  And did I mention a wonderful appearance by none other than Steve Coogan?

 

One of the best political spin films bar none has always been Barry Levinson’s  “Wag the Dog”.  With IN THE LOOP, writer/director Armando Iannucci and his writing team of Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Ian Martin and Tony Roshe, comes in a close second, while Tom Hollander’s Foster and Peter Capaldi’s Tucker strike gold with performances that echo those of DeNiro and Hoffman, albeit DeNiro and Hoffman with an infusion of over-the-top vulgarity and profanity.  With a story that unfolds on both sides of the Atlantic, IN THE LOOP is essentially an extension of Iannucci’s very successful British television comedy, “The Thick Of It”, or in the words of producer Kevin Loader,  “The Thick of It Goes to Washington.”  For those of you that have never seen the tv series, you are in the ride of your life with IN THE LOOP.

 

Raucous and ribald with delicious dialogue, an over-the-top cast and enough spin to make your head spin, IN THE LOOP is one of my top five Must See Festival Films.  IN THE LOOP screens Saturday, June 20 at 7:00 p.m. at the most beautiful theatre in Westwood, The Majestic Crest.

 

Things will definitely get a little bit loud with the rockumentary IT MIGHT GET LOUD, a sit down with three generations of rock legends, guitarists Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), The Edge (U2) and Jack White (White Stripes).  Three very different gentlemen.  Three very different backrounds.  Three very different styles.  One common passion.   This is one room in rock ‘n roll heaven.

 

Directed by Oscar winner David Guggenheim, who graced LAFF a few years back with a little project called “An Inconvenient Truth” , IT MIGHT GET LOUD is the stuff that dreams are made of.  Giving us an up close and personal look at each of these virtuosos, we are privy to the intimate details of their childhoods (did you know Jack White was an upholsterer or that Page was a studio musician and a painter) and chronicle their careers from child to adult to legend.

 

Fascinating is a look at the technical achievements and developments each has brought not only to music but to the guitar.  For Page, it’s the double neck guitar which was initially designed and developed for the first tour following the release of Zeppelin IV with the classic, “Stairway to Heaven.”   The Edge, one of the most techno savvy guys out there, proudly displays and demonstrates his pedal sound effects designs.  White is the father of invention.  Give him a few nails, a piece of wood, an empty Coca Cola bottle and a steel string and he will give you an amplified guitar.  White is also credited with the innovative design of a hand mic custom placed inside his guitar.

 

Watching the three together, the camera captures their shared passion, love and appreciation.  You see what drives them, moves them, inspires them now and inspired them then.  Page has an elegance and grace about him.  The elder statesman, if you will.  You note his long slender fingers as he not only solos, but jams with The Edge and White, and even when doing an air guitar solo to Link Wray’s “Rumble.”  The Edge is your average guy in the street but goes inside of himself when he starts to play.  You see the emotional transformation as he becomes one with the guitar.  White has an intensity and earthiness all his own which we see not only through footage of fingers and guitar strings bloodied from his furious play, but from the bluesy vibe he puts forth.  Each is oblivious to the everyone and everything around them when they play.  Each has a relationship with the guitar that rivals all others.

 

Travelling from Headley Grange where “Stairway to Heaven” and “Black Dog” were written and Page’s private tour and personal insight and recollections into his experiences there, to The Edge’s small studio in Dublin where he is laying down tracks and to his high school where he hooked up with a guy now known as Bono oh so many years ago, to an old farmhouse in Tennessee where White actually pens a tune while on camera, your hairs will stand on end with awe and excitement at watching history unfold before you.  Adding to the experience is the knowledge that never before have these stories been told in this fashion.  Never before has a camera been welcomed into the home of Jimmy Page or the kitchen of The Edge.  We even get to see Jack White’s first electric guitar; plastic, purchased in the long-defunct Montgomery Ward’s Department Store.    I had goosebumps throughout most of this film.  It’s that special.  (Of course, now I get to actually interview Page and White, which you will be able to check out at www.moviesharkdeblore.com later this week.  I’m still pinching myself over this one!)

 

Crisply edited with an enormous amount of vintage footage of classic performances not only from Page, The Edge and White but their idols, interwoven with “the summit” meeting of our heroes and their individual stories, this is THE film for anyone that appreciates music.  And if you are a fan of any of the three, this is beyond must see. 

 

IT MIGHT GET LOUD… oh yeah.  It’s gonna get real loud.  This is the penultimate intimate rock experience and your own little piece of rick ‘n roll heaven. 

 

IT MIGHT GET LOUD plays Friday, June 19 at 7:00 p.m. at the Mann Festival Theatre with an encore on Monday, June 22 at 2:00 p.m. at The Landmark.  Rock on!!!

 

Well, we’ve made it.  We are down to my final three must see films and my #1 picks the Narrative and Documentary Competitions as well as #1 pick of the entire festival.  So, without any further ado, coming at #1 in the Documentary Competition is. . . BRANSON, a story that chronicles the lives of performers, wanna be performers, wannabe rock stars and frustrated limelight seeking individuals trying to make ends meet just to pursue their dreams of stardom, all playing out in Branson, Missouri, one of the entertainment capitals of the USA.  

 

And lordee, lordee, lordee!  I have to say it.  I was just awaitin’ for the collection plate to get passed around!   BRANSON is a hoot and a holler.   The Devil certainly is setting up his workshop in good ol’ Branson, MO because no matter how much you pray to the Lord and look for his guidance and help in making you a star, the Devil is right in there tempting you to shoot yourself in the foot (which in the case of some of the film’s subjects would be an improvement).  And I just knew we were all goin’ to hell in a hand basket when Jim Bakker showed up on the scene. 

 

Focusing on Johnny Cash impersonator, Jackson Cash, writer/director Brent Meeske follows Cash’s tale of rags to riches to rags, drugs and alcohol, and hopefully, back to riches as he appears on the Branson scene living out of his car, hand-to-mouth.  When we first meet Cash he is either peddling his CD’s on foot at gas stations hawking to people filling up, or singing for his supper at the mall.  Concurrently, we meet up with single mother Amber Campbell, frustrated waitress by day, at night a singer in an out-dated 60′s legend tribute show produced by Terry and Nita Wayne.  Then there’s Geoff Hastings Haberer and his wife Peggy Lee.  Geoff left a six figure salary at the St. Regis Hotel in NYC to move to Branson to “make it” as a performer with his wife Peggy Lee.  For Peggy Lee, Branson is God’s country; the place she wants to raise their daughter; the place that God sent them to, to do his work and follow their path.  Angela and Blake Walker love nothing better than to perform but due to the need to put a roof over their daughter’s head, in addition to pursuing their dreams, they make ends meet doing whatever jobs they can get in the local mall.

 

Jackson Cash is the focal centerpiece of this film and folks, he truly is a talent, so much so, in fact, that within a short time in Branson he lucked out in meeting father and son Jim and Jim, Jr. Mocke, owners of one of the larger more respectable theaters in Branson.  But Meeske’s camera catches not only the talent but the pitfalls of having such talent and the temptations of the devil to which Cash succumbs – cocaine, meth and alcohol.   Meeske draws you into Cash’s story and evokes both sympathy and disgust for Cash, his fortunes and his foibles.  Likewise, Meeske provides depth to Cash’s saga through the Mockes.  Dad and son come across as two of the most genuine nice guys one could ever hope to meet and prove to be Cash’s salvation.   But the icing on the cake with Cash’s story comes from none other than Johnny Cash’s sister Joanne Cash and none other than Jim Bakker (Yes folks, that Jim Bakker), as they have Cash bear witness to Christ the savior.  But, as I said, Branson is the Devil’s workshop so watch closely to see what befalls Cash.

 

Notable also is Amber Campbell, another piece of work for whom you develop great admiration for her tenacity and sticktuitiveness.   But again, Meeske provides a very balanced portrayal her talent, her situation and how she evolves over the course of the filming, particularly with changing performance situations.

 

Selecting personalities that are in and of themselves quite intriguing (not to mention some of their “productions”), Meeske hones in on the crux of the Branson experience – the drive that each of these people have and what they are willing to sacrifice to “be a star”.  (But I have to seriously question Geoff Haberer and his decision to walk away from $100K a year.)   The whole Branson experience is something to watch, particularly from this “lower end” of the spectrum. These aren’t the headline theatres or headliners/”stars”.   And take note of the mall experiences.  Gives new meaning to “singing for your supper.”   Technically, the lensing is solid and editing is exceptional and establishes tone and pacing of the film.

 

Not just a documentary about Branson’s entertainment scene, we also get a lesson in history from the spokesman for the Branson Chamber of Commerce.  Brimming with information on the history of Branson, did you know that Branson became a “showcase” thanks to a hole in the ground that someone decided to charge admission to see? 

 

Real highlights in the production are Cash’s performances.  You would swear that the Man in Black himself had risen from the grave.  Cash alone is worth the price of admission.

 

My #1 Must See Festival Film in the Documentary Competition, BRANSON, is definitely worth more than a looksee.   Besides, I’d be afraid that lightening would come down from above and strike me down if I didn’t go see it.  BRANSON is proof that God does work in very mysterious ways.

 

BRANSON hits town on Sunday, June 21 at 7:00 p.m. at the Regent theater with a repeat performance on Thursday, June 23 at 4:30 p.m. at the Regent.  And, as an added bonus, following in the footsteps of those rock gods, Anvil, rumor has it that Jackson Cash may be performing after Sunday’s screening.

 

What would LAFF be without a film that you can’t help but fall in love with.  This year, that film is DEAR LEMON LIMA, my #1 Must See Festival Film in the Narrative Competition.  I can’t be effusive enough in my praise about this film.

 

DEAR LEMON LIMA is the most charming, genuine, cute, sweet and utterly adorable film!!!!!! Cotton candy colored joy.  As soon as the film ended, I wanted to see it again.  The film makes your heart smile.   

 

DEAR LEMON LIMA is the story of Vanessa Lemor, a lonely 13 year old living in Alaska.  Her father is from the Yup’ik Eskimo tribe and her mother a plain old Caucasian, making Vanessa somewhat of a halfbreed and the brunt of jokes by the kids at school.  Her Eskimo heritage is also something that she chooses to ignore.  A girly girl, My Little Pony, rainbows, pinks, purples, beads, hearts, flowers, and a 14 year old boy named Philip (complete with pages and pages of the requisite “I love Philip” doodles) fill her life.  Every day she writes in her diary to her imaginary friend, DEAR LEMON LIMA.  In the summer, she runs an ice cream store in the middle of a park.  Intelligent but unathletic, she is always the last person picked for any team in sports but the first one people may go to for homework help.  But despite this, Vanessa is her own woman.  She stands up for her beliefs and for her true love, at least until she gets dumped because a “man” of Philip’s experience can’t be bothered with a childhood friend and must move on to more adult relationships.  

 

Determined to win back her true love, Vanessa spends the summer plotting and planning. Luckily, she is awarded a minority scholarship at the private academy Philip attends.   Unfortunately, however, she is relegated to classification as a “FUBAR” which makes her lower than dirt in the eyes of her schoolmates.  And even worse, Philip is anything less than kind to her.  But, an opportunity presents itself that just may be Vanessa’s ticket to love – the Snowstorm Survivor Championship, an event inspired by Native events in the World Eskimo Indian Olympics.  Unfortunately, or not,  despite her lack of athletic skills, Vanessa is not only appointed a team captain but is the only freshman team captain.

 

Believing that winning the Championship will win back her true love, Vanessa assembles the most unlikely of teammates – the adorable little weakling and socially inept Hercules Howard , pathological liar Samantha who insists that her father is rapper Puff Daddy, Madeline Amigone aka Nothing, a slightly overweight intellectual whose parents own the local funeral parlor, and Emmeline and Lynne Chin.   As training begins, friendships develop, allegiances and loyalties are tested, and 13 year old Vanessa gets some valuable lessons in life, love and knowing yourself.

 

With the opening frame, your heart just jumps for joy.  Writer/director Suzi Yoonessi captivates and captures with bright, vivid girly animation, setting the color palette of the film and tenor of the characters in one fell swoop.  You immediately have to go “awww, how adorable.”  And you are hooked.  Shot in Alaska, key to the success of this film and its characters is the incorporation and authenticity of Alaskan Native elements for which assistance was given by the 13 tribal councils in Alaska, and particularly as to native Yup’ik dances and customs which are an integral part of the film.  

 

The story itself is enchanting. Every girl and female out there should be flocking to see this film. I don’t think there isn’t one of us that can relate to that puppy love crush with the doodling and flowery writing and the blend of teenage angst.  Perfectly priceless.

 

As for casting…impeccable, starting with Savanah Wiltfong as Vanessa.  Half Yuk’ip, Samantha came into this production after she posted an audition of herself on YouTube which made its way onto the computer screens of Yoonessi.  With only a few small local junior high school productions to her credit, Samantha wowed Yoonessi and one look at her on screen and you can see why.  She is luminous.  At this early age, she has dead pan delivery and comedic timing and a sincerity and warmth that is infectious.  Further complimenting her performance here is the fact that she was familiar not only with Yuk’ip dances but the WEOI games and the events which are detailed and extremely specific.   Zane Huett will steal your heart as little Hercules.  For those of you that aren’t familiar with Zane’s work, pop in a DVD of “Desperate Housewives” where Zane plays Parker Scavo.

 

As for the adults, DEAR LEMON LIMA is a pantheon of talent starting with Elaine Hendrix as gym Coach Roach.  Absolutely HYSTERICAL!!!!!!  Looking as unglamorous as I have ever seen her, Hendrix puts a brusk, brutish, gung-ho take on Coach Roach and nevermoreso then when demonstrating a two man carry, Eskimo style.  You won’t stop laughing each time she comes on screen.  And how about Independent Spirit Award winner and Best Actress Oscar nominee, Melissa Leo.  As Hercules’ mother, “Mrs. Howard,” she is the embodiment of dowdy, old, frustrated, annoying and always obedient wife and mother.  Again, the minute she appears on screen, you have to laugh.  Not to be outdone, Beth Grant steps in as by the book Principal Applebomb who just happens to be the faculty sponsor of Vanessa’s team in competition.  Of the adult actors, Grant is the one with an almost complete 180 degree character evolution filled with comedy and heart that is a joy to watch.

 

Technically, DEAR LEMON LIMA is so above par not only for most fest films, but films as a whole. Solid production values. Impeccable blend of animation and live action. Colors are rich, vibrant and just pop – like being in a candy store. Balancing that look are the pastels of valentine heart candies which is used in walls and clothing. A lot of thought went into creating this beautiful palette.

 

Make DEAR LEMON LIMA your film friend and #1 Must See Narrative Feature.  It will make your heart smile.  Screenings are Saturday, June 20 at 7:15 p.m. at Mann Festival Theatre and Tuesday, June 23, at 4:30 p.m. at The Landmark.

 

And of course, I saved the best for last – my 31 Must See Festival film of the entire festival. If you can only see one film at LAFF 2009, make it THE COVE.

 

Powerful. Visceral. Heartbreaking. Humbling. Inspiring.    

 

You all probably remember, or at least know of, the beloved television series “Flipper.”  An integral part of the success of “Flipper” was Richard O’Barry who, in the 1960′s was the world’s leading authority on dolphin training.    The Flipper lagoon, dock and house was actually O’Barry’s and it’s where he trained and cared for the dolphins who took turns playing Flipper.  Free to swim in the water and well cared for, all of that came to a screeching halt with the cancellation of the tv show and the dolphins were sent to a seaquarium.  It was there that O’Barry’s special and I believe, favorite dolphin, Kathy, died in his arms.  Contained in a small tank, unable to swim free, engage with humans and exercise properly, according to O’Barry, he truly believes that Kathy finally just gave up from depression.   And in that one moment, O’Barry knew what his life’s calling would now be – making certain that cestaceans (whales, dolphins) be kept free.

 

Over the years, O’Barry has become one of the most vocal advocates against dolphin captivity and particularly when it comes to Taiji, Japan.   Taiji is known for its annual herding of dolphins by local fisherman wherein the dolphins are funneled into a lagoon by disorienting them with noise which not only affects their sonar capabilities but instills fear in them.  (According to O’Barry, dolphins do have emotions and after listening to him for only a few minutes, you yourself will have no doubts either.)   Once the dolphins are in the lagoon, the sales begin as Taiji is where seaquariums, private individuals and aquatic show producers go to buy their dolphins, some of which go for as much as $150,000 apiece.  As you can imagine though, not all the dolphins are sold.  So what happens with the those left behind.

 

Around the corner from the lagoon exists a cove protected by rocky cliffs on three sides, described by director Louis Psihoyos as a “natural fortress.”.  There is only one clear way in and that is from the sea.  The access to the cliffs from the land is blocked by fencing and guarded.  Why?

 

For years it was known but never documented due to the inaccessibility of the cove,  that the Taiji fisherman would herd the unsold dolphins into the cove, then bludgeon them to death and sell and/or donate the meat to stores, restaurants and even local schools throughout Japan, often times disguising it as “whale meat.”  Officials with knowledge of this goes high on the political food chain.   How many dolphins are killed each year for this?  Approximately 23, 000. 

 

Enter first time director Louis Psihoyos who was attending a conference of 2000 of the world’s top marine mammal scientists at which O’Barry was to speak.  At the last minute, O’Barry was pulled from the dais and banned from speaking by conference sponsor Sea World.   Intrigued, Psihoyos wanted to know why and connected with O’Barry who told him the story of Taiji.  In that one moment, both Psyihoyos life, and now ours, would forever change.

 

Accompanying O’Barry to Taiji, Psihoyos wanted to get to the truth and tell the story – a balanced story with the cooperation of the government and citizens of Tiaji.  But that wasn’t to be the case.  Describing it as a town “like out a Stephen King novel”, outwardly appearing normal but reeking of harboring some dirty secret, Psihoyos determined to penetrate the cove and see what was going on.  But that would require military precision.

 

Documenting the operation step by step, we follow Psihoyos as he puts his team of the best-of-the-best together for what could prove to be a mission as dangerous as that executed by any military.  Calling on champion freedivers, Industrial Light and Magic, an electronics expert formerly with the Canadian Air Force and even “pirates”, Psihoyos assembled his “Ocean’s 11″ team and proceeded with the operation which included surveillance, use of remote controlled helicopters, blimps and drones, military grade thermal cameras and exacting work performed almost exclusively at night so as to elude the Taiji guards.

 

No one can prepare you for what you will see in this footage.  Needless to say, it may make you want to go to Taiji, grab one of those harpoons and harpoon each one of those fisherman in the same inhumane way they are killing dolphins. 

 

Shot in high definition, the imagery is beyond vivid and will blow you out of the water.  Unsettling, distressing and horrifying, what you see on screen are not Cecil B. DeMille special effects performed by the hand of God or the staff of Moses.  What you will see comes by the cruelty of man. 

 

There are no holds barred, no stone left unturned, no image left unfilmed.  The filmmakers really push the envelope with this one. The editing is top notch and keeps you on the edge of your seat, building to the moment when the secret film footage of the cove is finally shown. There is as much tension building in this documentary as in any Hitchcock film.    And as for Ric O’Barry……awesome, fearless guy.  I’ll be interviewing O’Barry in the coming weeks about this film and his work, so check my website www.moviesharkdeblore.com often as the interview will be posted.

 

I’ve seen many documentaries on tragedy and the inhumanity of man around the globe – Darfur, in particular; the war, African starvation, water/drought, etc. but nothing – nothing – compares with the force with which THE COVE affected me and which I believe, will affect you.  It’s one thing to see tragedy with people as the victims. But people allegedly do have brain power and the capability of voicing their complaints, taking a stand and doing something to try and resolve their problems or conditions. Animals do not.  Ironically, though, dolphins have the intelligence to “voice” their concerns and ask for help, and if given the chance, they could convey their emotion (as they do in this film with their sounds).  But, because of man’s backward thinking and ego believing no creature can be as intelligent as humans, man refuses to learn and grow and communicate with these incredible creatures and in the case of Taiji, looks at them only as a meal ticket. 

 

Watching THE COVE makes you wonder exactly who is the intelligent species – man or the dolphins.   My vote is on the dolphins and on people like Ric O’Barry and Louis Psihoyos.

 

THE COVE.  The #1 Must See Festival Film of 2009.  THE COVE is a FREE SCREENING playing Sunday, June 28 at 1:00 p.m. at the Majestic Crest.

 

Now, if none of these picks tickle your fancy, there are plenty more films from which to choose.  Always a favorite is the Dark Wave Series which this year includes EMBODIMENT OF EVIL and I SELL THE DEAD, not to mention ZMD: ZOMBIES OF MASS DESTRUCTION.   For all you hot rodders out there, how about a trip down memory lane with classics liked HOT ROD GIRL and HOT RODS TO HELL?    A wonderful family film is THE PANDA DIARY, a documentary that follows the life of pandas Shu Hin and her twin brother as they move from Japan to a panda reserve in China.   Told through the eyes of Shu Hin, THE PANDA DIARY is adorable to a fault.  And two films that I myself am still looking forward to seeing, COLD SOULS and the irreverently funny BLACK DYNAMITE.

 

Look for my full reviews of these films and more, as well as interviews with the filmmakers, in print and on line.  And until next year, I’ll see you at the movies.

 

Los Angeles Film Festival 2009 runs from June 18th to 28th with the majority of screenings and events taking place in Westwood.  For more information on the festival line up and tickets, go to the festival website at www.lafilmfest.com.

 

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