LA Film Festival Pt. 1

| June 19, 2012

Highlights of the 2012 The Los Angeles Film Festival PART 1
By Paul Fischer in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Film Festival, put together by Film Independent, is shaping up as one of the country’s most popular film festivals. Based in the now happening LA Live in Downtown Los Angeles, the festival highlights the best in American and international indie cinema with a sprinkling of Hollywood’s mainstream for good measure. Based on what I have seen thus far, there is a lot of promise with emerging filmmakers on the horizon. The first three films I’ve seen are as different as one can imagine, from an animated Scottish fable to a Western and a coming of age story that merges with a crime drama.

Dead Man’s Burden is a slow burning and engrossing western drama in the classic tradition. The film opens with a young woman shooting a man on horseback. It is soon revealed that the man turns out to be her father. The woman, Martha Kirkland, [Clare Bowen] is the last remaining member of the McCurry Family or so she thinks. The American civil war has taken its toll on the South and all her brothers are dead. Married to the disillusioned Heck [David Call], she is saddled with a desolate ranch she’s desperate to sell. When a Northerner banker offers to buy things go sour when long lost brother Wade [Barlow Jacobs] returns suspicious that his once estranged father was in fact murdered.

Dead Man’s Burden is an impressive first feature by the talented Jared Moshe, beautifully shot with its earthy brown textures that so encapsulate the barrenness of the agrarian south, and featuring subtle performances by all three principals, in particular the luminous Clare Bowen, who will be seen on TV this Fall in Nashville. This is a deliberately paced work with minimalist dialogue that works superbly with this type of gritty and uncompromising western. It’s a tough genre to make-work these days but director Moshe pulls it off with expert precision. It’s not an easy sell but deserves a big screen release.

The Los Angeles film festival is known for its support of independent films, so it’s a bit odd to see mainstream studio films sprinkled throughout the festival. The new Disney Pixar animated feature Brave is something of an anomaly at LAFF, but having said that it’s a fine piece of work, one of the best of the recent spate of Pixar films, and more than makes up for the woeful Cars 2. With Brave, the studio has outdone itself with another female driven masterpiece that is not only visually breathtaking but a wonderful example of narrative cinema and storytelling in the classic tradition of animation.

In Brave, the setting is medieval Scotland. Merida (Kelly Macdonald), a versed archer and princess to King Fergus (a delightful Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), lives a stable, yet somewhat imprisoned life within her family’s kingdom of DunBroch. When she becomes older and more free-spirited, she inadvertently defies an ancient custom her mother forces upon her. Finding herself banished due to her erratic behavior, she visits a mischievous witch (Julie Walters) and asks her for a potion to make her domineering mother well, less so. Instead mum becomes a bear and to undo the spells he needs to look iside herself and find forgiveness.

Brave is pure Pixar. A story about characters defined by their actions who need to grow and learn. A fabulous tale of redemption, the film is full of visual imagery that enhances and at times redefines the genre. With spectacular animated effects and lush backgrounds, the film is a visual cinematic tapestry, a rich and gorgeous piece of storytelling that is thematically evocative. The vocal performances are all great, with Scottish actress Kelly McDonald proving how strong and emotionally diverse she is. Punctuated with droll humor, Brave is a great example of how to tell a fable and do so with style and originality. Perhaps because of Merida’s own independent spirit, it may be a fit for an independent film festival after all.

Another impressive directorial debut is that of Sheldon Candis whose film Luv originally screened at Sundance. A road movie of sorts combined with a gritty urban crime drama set and shot in Baltimore, Luv is the story of a young boy whose innocence is quickly shattered as he embarks on a dangerous journey with ex-con uncle trying to make a go of his life. An ordinary trip to school turns into something else altogether for 11-year-old Woody (Michael Rainey Jr). Living at home with his grandma (Lonette Mackee) because his absentee mum is, according to gran, away in North Carolina, and without any male role model to speak of, Woody sees the arrival of his fresh-from-jail and charismatic Uncle Vincent (Common) as something truly special. Driving the youngster to school, ends with Vincent pledging to “show him what it takes to be a man across the board” – Vincent fully intends to go straight, but his plans of opening a seafood restaurant don’t go as planned resulting in him being reluctantly drawn in the world he’d hoped he had left behind a arid run by former mentor Mr Fish (a deliciously sardonic and hypnotic turn by Dennis Haysbert).

There’s nothing overly original about Luv. We know the ending fairly early on, but it’s such a polished film from co-writer/director Candis that one cannot help but be transfixed. The film owes much to its central performances and from rapper Common, who’s terrific, to the mesmerizing work of young newcomer Michael Rainey Jr who has a tough job of making the transition from naive child to mature emotional adult and does so with effortless grace and authenticity. The film is beautifully shot and shows a diverse side of Baltimore. Luv is an evocative beautifully told crime drama that is rich and alive in character thanks to the film’s two compelling performances.

About the Author:

Paul Fischer I've been an entertainment writer going on for three decades. Born in Australia, I began writing for Australian papers and was the first Australian journalist ever to interview both Woody Allen and Mel Gibson. I moved to Los Angeles at the end of 1999, and apart from my teaching career, have written for Film Monthly and Dark Horizons.

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