Los Angeles Film Festival

Alex Karpovsky

Editor’s Note: This review originally ran during the 2012 LAFF, but we’re re-running it now as the film opens in limited theatrical release. There are few things that navel-gazing filmmakers like gazing at more than, well, their own navels, which is why independent cinema is flooded with vaguely veiled stories that are obviously about their makers and little else. In Red Flag, writer/director/producer/star Alex Karpovsky embraces this mini-genre (to the point that his character is named “Alex Karpovsky” and he’s on the road showing his film Woodpecker, a film Karpovsky actually made and a trip he really did take) to characteristically witty and dry effect. But it’s Karpovsky’s willingness to make his own character not look like a sensitive genius (or “a charismatic mega-fauna” as a deranged fan calls him or even “an adroit filmmaker” as he eventually tries to tout himself as) that frees the film from ego and opens it up to actual humor and significant proficiency. For the sake of clarity, this review will refer to the character of “Alex Karpovksy” as “Alex” and Alex Karpovksy the filmmaker as “Karpovsky,” because this could get a bit confusing (fortunately for Karpovsky, his final film is not).

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Editor’s note: Celeste and Jesse Forever opens in limited release this Friday, but back in June, we saw the film at LAFF and positively loved it (so much that we’d marry it). This review was originally published on June 22, 2012. You’d be correct in mistaking Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) for a happy couple. All the signs are there – inside jokes, Celeste’s shiny “C & J Forever” pendant, dinners with friends, professions of love, even a special sign language – but, alas, you’d be wrong. Celeste and Jesse are not forever, in fact, they’re getting a divorce. The opening credits of Lee Toland Krieger’s Celeste and Jesse Forever (penned by Jones and co-star Will McCormack) zip us through Celeste and Jesse’s relationship – from shy happiness in high school, to high stakes sexual chemistry in college, to blissful young marriage, to now (and now is exactly when things get messy). When we meet Celeste and Jesse, the pair are still acting as if they are romantically involved – and that’s the problem. Jesse has taken up residence in the couple’s backyard cottage (his studio), but other than that, everything else is status quo – the affection, the bond, the connection – and while the two of them seem content with the situation, it unquestionably needs to change. And fast.

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The jokes write themselves – It’s a Disaster is, in fact, not a disaster at all (though a brief glitch during the film’s final screening at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival did result in half of the audience tittering “it’s a disaster!” to a temporarily blank screen). Todd Berger‘s film takes some familiar ingredients – an end-of-the-world plot, a cast of characters who are stuck with each other, suburban brunch at its absolute worst – and mixes them up into one heck of a funny and acutely realized comedy stew (quiche?). Amusingly acted, incredibly well-written, and surprisingly adept at mixing and mingling disparate tones, It’s a Disaster is the exact kind of fresh comedy that audiences hope to find at film festivals. The film centers on a Sunday brunch that is already going to get a bit weird – hosts Pete (Blaise Miller) and Emma (Erinn Hayes) have an ulterior motive for bringing together their best pals for their traditional couples brunch, and it’s not just to meet Tracy’s (Julia Stiles) latest boyfriend, Glenn (David Cross). Likewise, it’s also not watch the Kivels (Kevin M. Brennan and Rachel Boston) go at it when they’re not talking about their latest adventures with drugs and music. And it’s not even to dance around the delicate topic of just when Hedy (America Ferrara) and Shane (Jeff Grace) are going to tie the knot. Of course, all that will happen – along with the most unplanned event of all: a decidedly unnatural disaster […]

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Documentaries are tricky beasts – while true stories come with their very own special cinematic weight (especially the ones that would be deemed “too fake” or “too strange” in a narrative form, such as something like Bart Layton’s tremendous The Imposter), it’s often the very subjects of compelling stories that derail their respective films excitement or cohesion. Not everyone has the spark or charm to light up a big screen, no matter how interesting their real life experiences might be. A good story isn’t the only thing that a documentary needs – they also need a good subject. Fortunately for Till Schauder and his The Iran Job, the filmmaker has Kevin Sheppard, one of the most instantly likable and effortlessly charismatic documentary subjects to hit the genre in quite some time. Schauder and his producer (and wife) Sara Nodjoumi conceived of the basic subject matter of The Iran Job before they found Sheppard – they wanted to use the experience of an American basketball player competing in Iran and for an Iranian team as a non-political entry point in shedding light on the embattled country. The pair searched for months and were almost ready to scrap the project when they found Sheppard, and how very lucky for them that they did, because it’s not only Sheppard’s personality that drives the emotion of the film, it’s also one of the major factors in The Iran Job‘s unexpected and surprisingly critical secondary storyline.

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It’s not impossible for lauded animation house Pixar to make a mistake (or two, in the case of Cars, which does still pull in great affection from the younger set), and setting up their first film led by a female protagonist and with a brand new fairy tale as plot backbone in no way sounded like a mistake from conception. But despite a checklist of elements that should mark Brave as a bold new classic for both Pixar and Disney, the film instead diverges spectacularly -  it is both a middling example of Pixar innovation and wit and a beautiful introduction to one of Disney’s most compelling Princesses yet. Simply put, Brave is a poor Pixar feature, but it’s a wonderful Disney Princess film. What Brave has to offer is twofold: a bold new Princess and an exciting new world for her to live and play in. Still better, it appears as if Disney, Pixar, writers and directors Brenda Chapman, Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, and additional writer Irene Mecchi set out to accomplish those exact aims when crafting Brave. That sort of praise might not exactly seem like the kind worth singing, but when it comes to Brave, a film that was conceived of and written by Chapman before she was eventually ousted as the director in 2010, it’s important to note. The aims of Brave are true, but its methodology in getting in there doesn’t quite hit the mark.

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The “Coffee Talk: Composers” panel is always a highlight of my LAFF-ing each year and this year may haven taken the cake as it not only featured my number one composer from last year (Mr. Cliff Martinez, thanks to his outstanding scores for Drive, Contagion and The Lincoln Lawyer), but it also began with panelists Martinez, Rolfe Kent (Young Adult), and Michael Penn (Girls) breaking out into an impromptu performance of the Lawrence of Arabia theme with Martinez on djembe, Kent on ukulele, and Penn on theremin. These odd instrument choices made it clear from the start that this was a lively group and the discussion would prove to be just as unpredictable. Moderated by BMI’s Doreen Ringer-Ross, it was apparent from the start that this trio all have a great deal of respect for one another, but it was hard not to notice the good-natured competitive tinge to their respective relationships as well. Read on for the ten things I learned during this year’s composer panel.

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There is literally nothing more natural than for a human being (or, really, any mammal on Earth) to give birth – it’s ostensibly the exact thing that the body was made to do. Yet, over time, the modern birthing process has turned into something rooted in fear – all that screaming, all that blood, all those terrified demands for doctors to “give me the juice!” – and the joy of having a child has been usurped by the presumed inevitable pain of delivery. Yet, in Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore‘s tremendous documentary, Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and The Farm Midwives, the pair present a different way of thinking about and actually giving birth, and while those specific techniques may not be for everyone, their film does provide a very satisfying takeaway for the masses.

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Before screening The Queen of Versailles at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, the film’s director (Lauren Greenfield) described the film as a story about dreams and what it means to strive for, achieve and potentially lose those dreams. The American dream is built on the idea that you rise past where you began in life and The Queen of Versailles dives head first into this idea taking us inside the lives of Jackie and David Siegel as their incredible wealth affords them the opportunity to build their dream house. Both Jackie and David came from humble beginnings and grew into the owners of the biggest single-family home in America (not that they planned it that way.) David found financial success through his Westgate Resorts timeshare business while Jackie parlayed her good looks into a successful modeling career, eventually winning the Miss Florida title (and David’s heart.) Their dream home, named “Versailles” for its grander and the palace it was modeled after, encapsulated what you give the couple who has everything – a home with a bowling alley, a stadium sized tennis court, a stadium sized baseball field, a health spa (to name just a few of its expansive amenities) and ended up with a home covering enough square footage to be considered a new “land” in the center of dreams and fantasy, Disney World.

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Perhaps we were spoiled with last year’s Midnight in Paris, auteur Woody Allen‘s return to (delightful) form after a few years of basically forgettable, minor efforts like Whatever Works, Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream, and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Suffice to say, Allen’s next cinematic trip to a classic, romantic European city has come complete with heightened expectations, and while his To Rome With Love occasionally harnesses some of the charm and ease of Paris, it’s a wholly different film experience, and a less enjoyable one to boot. Much like Paris, Allen has lined up a sizable and talented cast for his latest outing, though he’s chosen Rome as his own spin on throwaway rom-coms like New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day and the far superior Love, Actually, instead of focusing on a single leading character. Allen uses the city of Rome as the (often only) link between all manner of people – Italians, Americans, young, old, famous, common, talented, sexy, unsexy, ambitious, bored, confused, the list goes on – and lets them play out their theatrically-tinged trials and tribulations against a gorgeous Roman backdrop. It’s frothy and fizzy enough, but To Rome With Love isn’t the sort of film that is likely to leave a lasting impact on its audience. It’s popcorn entertainment for the indie set.

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Fans of indie darling (dudeling?) Alex Karpovsky and his brand of wry, dry humor are probably going to flip the hell out over the multi-hyphenate’s latest feature. Karpovsky wrote, directed, and produced the feature, which he also starred in as a loose-ish version of himself. Red Flag centers on a filmmaker named, err, Alex Karpovsky, who sets out on a mini tour to pimp his latest film while in the midst of a total emotional breakdown, thanks to his unfeeling now-ex-girlfriend. The film’s new trailer is Karpovsky through and through, and Red Flag looks to be unflaggingly (tee hee) hilarious and creative. Check out the first trailer from Red Flag after the break, along with screening information for the film, which will have its World Premiere at LAFF this week.

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Neighbors, man, amirite? Can’t live near ‘em, can’t just crush their skulls. In Laura Colella‘s lo-fi charmer, Breakfast With Curtis, young Curtis finds some unexpected friends in his hippie neighbors over the course of one summer. Of course, the exclusive clip from the film that we’ve got for you below happens to take place before those friendships come together, but it can only serve to show just how remarkable the eventual bonds truly are. Yeah, they’re not quite pals yet, but we’ll just have to see how that all hashes out. Colella’s film is a true indie film, one that was filmed in her own house and uses her own friends, neighbors, and housemates to make up most of her cast. That sort of love just has to flow into the finished product. Check out our exclusive clip and poster from Breakfast With Curtis after the break, along with screening information for the film, which will have its World Premiere at LAFF this week.

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In Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worral‘s stirring Call Me Kuchu, we meet soft-spoken activist David Kato, a former teacher fighting for something very dear to his heart – the repeal of Uganda’s stunningly homophobic laws and the blocking of their “Anti-Homosexuality Bill,” which proposed no less than death for HIV-positive gay men, and prison for anyone who fails to turn in a known homosexual. While the simplest of Google searches for information on the film will likely turn up news on some of its most heartbreaking narrative twists and turns, the film is better experienced fresh. However, this trailer for Call Me Kuchu effectively telegraphs the aims and spirit of the film without spoiling some of its more wrenching emotional moments. Check out the film’s trailer after the break, along with screening information for the film, which will be having its U.S. Premiere at LAFF this week.

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Earlier this week, we got a look at David Fenster‘s Pincus in the form of a funny and insightful little trailer, and now we get a chance to see lead actor David Nordstrom in costume as the eponymous Pincus. Well, “costume” in the sense that he’s not wearing a shirt and has decided to accessorize with a weirdly shiny cowboy hat and one heck of an axe. Wait, Pincus isn’t a Deliverance remake…is it? No, no, it’s not! Fenster’s film blends together narrative and documentary styles to tell the tale of two Pincus men – Nordstrom’s lovable loser David and his ailing father (played by Fenster’s own dad, Paul Fenster). It’s an emotional and personal story, but hey, it’s also one that involves an axe and questionable head apparel, so we’re likely in for some chuckles, too. Check out our exclusive still after the break, along with screening information for Pincus, which will premiere at LAFF this week.

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Welcome to one of the most moving and technically beautiful trailers we’ve ever had the pleasure of posting in the name of film festival coverage. Mark Kendall‘s La Camioneta: The Journey of One American School Bus is just that – a documentary that charts the “retirement” of a decommissioned school bus sent to Guatemala to be reinvented as a “camioneta,” the most common public transportation vehicle in the country. But being a camioneta is not easy, and neither is being a camioneta driver, as Kendall’s film teaches us that in the past six years alone nearly one thousand drives and and fare collectors have been murdered due to vicious demands by local gangs. Kendall’s film weaves together the camioneta’s tale with that of five men who either make or drive the vehicle, and if the final film is even half as visually interesting and emotionally stirring as this trailer, La Camioneta will be one of the finest docs to play at the festival. The film had its World Premiere at SXSW in March, won the NAHCC Award at the Nashville Film Festival in April, and was supported by the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, the Jerome Foundation, IFP, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Check out the film’s trailer after the break, along with screening information for LAFF.

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Much like another LAFF film we profiled earlier this week (that would be Sun Kissed), Til Schauder‘s The Iran Job is, on the surface, a story focused on a singular personal story that grows and changes into a film with national (and even global) repercussions. The film centers on American basketball player Kevin Sheppard, an endlessly charming guy who makes the somewhat offbeat and possibly dangerous decision to accept a gig playing ball in Iran. Sheppard is pleasantly surprised to find that his worst fears were unfounded – he’s welcomed to the country and the sport, and he ends up forming some tight bonds with some most unexpected new pals. But despite the beauty that Sheppard finds in Iran, it is still a country in crisis and a people on the edge, and The Iran Job also documents the uprising and suppression of the Green Movement. And though that certainly sounds like heavy stuff, what this first trailer for The Iran Job shows us is a lively, energetic, and rousing glimpse at a film that could end up being one of the festival’s biggest crowd-pleasers. Is it the human drama, the unexpected friendships, or the awesome Iranian rap and hip-hop playing over the action that look and sound so good? It just might be all of it. Check out the trailer for The Iran Job after the break, along with screening information for the film, which will premiere at LAFF this week.

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Austin Cinematic Limits

I know, I know. A modern day, live action reinterpretation of Scooby Doo sounds like a really horrible Hollywood pitch. But, c’mon just hear me out… Because if any film community would be able to spin this particular pitch into gold, it would be Austin. The idea was originally hatched by Jonny Mars and Jason Wheling. They eventually brought Spencer Parsons (I’ll Come Running) on board as the director. Next, Aaron Leggett and Jory Balsimo were hired to flesh out the idea into a fully realized script. Then, the true moment of genius came — the casting. The slightly-skewed Scooby gang became embodied by Ashley Rae Spillers, Josephine Decker, Jonny Mars and Adam Tate, with masterful supporting turns by Chris Doubek, Paul Gordon, and Heather Kafka. The end result is Saturday Morning Massacre, a film that plays in dutiful homage to 1980s horror films with gory practical effects and boatloads of blood. Though known for being a dramatic director, it is quite obvious that Parsons has studiously memorized the unabridged history of horror films. He understands the importance of sound, lighting and framing in developing spine-tingling horror; but Saturday Morning Massacre really showcases Parsons’ inherent knack for timing, both in terms of comedy and frights. As the Saturday Morning Massacre cast and crew prepare for the film’s world premiere at the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival, we chatted with Parsons and Spillers about the making of the film.

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Independent cinema is not lacking for stories about lovable losers who still live at home, but David Fenster‘s Pincus is an indie slacker story of a very different color. The film stars David Nordstrom (who eagle-eyed indie lovers might recognize from a SXSW favorite of mine, Leave Me Like You Found Me) as the eponymous Pincus, who may or may not be Fenster in a fictional form. Pincus has returned home not because he’s some kind of drop-out, but to assist his father Paul, who is suffering from Parkinson’s disease and slowly wasting away. Of course, that all sounds a bit heavy, but Fenster sweetens the Pincus pot with a filmmaking technique that straddles narrative and documentary, a cast of supporting characters to ease both Pincus and Paul, and what can only be described as a lingering sense of mystery that transcends earthly problems. The film is also a true labor of love for Fenster, who not only wrote and directed it, but also edited it, lensed it, and produced it. Oh, and Pincus’s dad? That’s Paul Fenster, David’s dad, who has been living with Parkinson’s for thirteen years. Check out the film’s trailer after the break, along with screening information for the film, which will premiere at LAFF this week.

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The plotline for Maya Stark and Adi Lavy‘s documentary Sun Kissed is compelling enough on a microcosmic level – the film centers on a Native American couple whose two children both have a rare disorder that essentially makes them allergic to the sun – but it’s made all the more powerful by the film ultimately encompassing something far greater than just one family’s personal tragedy. With the disease (XP) at the center of the film, Sun Kissed explores the treatment of the Navajo people by the U.S. government and how the Navajo nation’s greatest historical tragedy may have impacted the startlingly high number of instances of XP in their community today. The film’s first trailer effectively weaves together the different portions of Sun Kissed‘s plot, all while leaving viewers hungry for still more information. It is also, in the simplest terms, one hell of a tearjerker. Check out the trailer for Sun Kissed after the break, along with screening information for the film, which will premiere at LAFF this week.

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Making a first feature is hard enough already without adding in the period garb, historical accuracy, and horses (oh, the horses) that a classic-feeling Western demands, but filmmaker Jared Moshe doesn’t back down from those challenges with his Dead Man’s Burden. Premiering at this month’s Los Angeles Film Festival, the film centers on the trials of the McCurry family, hardscrabble homesteaders who are not only trying to survive the elements, but internal strife at its very worst. When a long-thought-dead member of the McCurry family returns after the passing of the patriarch of the family, things come to a startling head. Beautifully lensed, Dead Man’s Burden looks to be a modern story that lassoes a classic feel quite handily. The film features two saddlebags full of rising talent, including Barlow Jacobs (Shotgun Stories), Clare Bowen (Nashville), and David Call (Tiny Furniture). The film also includes cinematography by Robert Hauer and production design by Ruth De Jong (There Will Be Blood, The Master, The Tree of Life, To The Wonder). Check out the film’s first trailer after the break.

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Gird your loins, Los Angeles, the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival is coming, and this time, the fest is bringing strippers with them. Lots and lots of (cinematic) strippers. The festival has already announced four titles, which include the North American Premiere of Woody Allen‘s To Rome With Love as the festival’s Opening Night Film, along with Gala screenings for Benh Zeitlin‘s Beasts of the Southern Wild, Lorene Scafaria‘s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, and Ava DuVernay‘s Middle of Nowhere, but it’s high time LAFF unveiled their full slate. And what a slate! As announced today, the festival will close with the World Premiere of Steven Soderbergh‘s Magic Mike and will also feature the World Premiere of Alex Kurtzman‘s People Like Us. Other titles announced today of note include Sundance favorites The Queen of Versailles, Teddy Bear, The House I Live In, Celeste and Jesse Forever, Robot and Frank, and Searching for Sugar Man. Additional titles that pop out include Emmett Malloy’s Big Easy Express, Alejandro Brugués‘ Juan of the Dead, Adam Leon’s Gimme the Loot, and Joshua Sanchez’s Four. LAFF also runs a variety of special programs, including Community and Retro Screenings, a crammed slate of short films, and their trademark “Eclectic Mix” of music videos. After the break, you can check out the full line-up for this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, along with synopses for all features and a full list of all shorts and music videos playing at the fest. LAFF runs from Thursday, June 14 to Sunday, June 24. Passes […]

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