Here’s some of what I’ve seen and done at the LA Film Fest!
Most films are screened at least twice, so if something sounds good, go check it out!
And for real-time reports from LAFF, follow me @kcrw_matt!
Sunday, June 22nd
Congrats to all the LAFF award winners!
Saturday, June 21st
Well, I screwed up the time so I didn’t make it to “Expedition to the End of the World.” But I did manage to squeeze into the packed final screening of “Code Black,” a riveting, not-for-the-squeamish documentary about doctors in LA County Hospital’s Emergency Room (“code black” refers to the terrible overcrowding of our public ER’s). It’s a terrific film, but as a documentary I also found it problematic.
Let me be clear – I hope everyone will see this movie. As Billy Mallon, one of the tough-as-nails ER doctors featured the film said in the Q&A following the screening, when people talk about “it” (referring the role of public hospital ER’s as the last best hope for many uninsured) they should know what “it” is. And this film really does take you there. That’s largely because it was directed by the one of the main characters in the film, ER doctor Ryan McGarry. But that fact is also one of the most troubling things about it.
It is really an issue when a documentary is made by and at least funded in part by its subject(s) (Billy Mallon and two other County ER docs are listed as executive producers and the American College of Emergency Physicians, the trade organization for ER doctors, is listed as a “sponsor”), especially when those connections are not made painfully clear. Yes, McGarry is credited as director, but if I had been a regular moviegoer, would I have put two and two together? I think it would have avoided ethical issues (and added a certain cache’ to the film) if it had started with a card that read “A number of doctors of County ER felt so strongly about the health care issue in this country that we decided to make this film.”
I have other issues with the movie as well, though I’ll admit that these are much more open to debate. First, you can’t help blush at the superhero portrayals of the doctors. Again, this is not to take anything away from these men and women who are indeed heroic and all truly quite impressive (the shot of one swimming amongst icebergs is particularly arresting), but the depictions are really so immodest as to be slightly embarrassing. The ER is a dirty business even in the best of circumstances. Are we to believe that these doctors are really that pure of word and deed? How does a hagiography help move the conversation about health care forward? And, if in fact it’s all about the patients (as we are told by these humanitarians in scrubs time and again), why do we hear from so few of them?
There is also a confusing kind of nostalgia that underlies the movie, which claims (and I have no reason to doubt) that the concept of the modern Emergency Room was largely born at County Hospital. The central trauma area of that ER, called the “C-Booth,” was like a war zone – filled with a pulsating sea of doctors and patients and blood and adrenaline. But when the County was forced to build a gleaming new hospital because of structural concerns, many Federal and State rules that had been waved in the old ER facility suddenly came into effect. These include standards of privacy established by HIPA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.
The doctors in the film now claim that they are separated from their patients by an avalanche of paperwork and the new physical arrangement of the ER which provides patients with more privacy. And I think these things are true and an absolute problem. But when I asked the panel after the film if the old ER was a symbol of a better, more personal way of doing medicine or if indeed the doctors actually preferred that crazy old ER, Dr. Mallon was quite clear that he missed things as they were.
Now, I have no doubt that the old trauma center was incredibly effective in saving the lives of the most deeply distressed patients like people in car wrecks or drive-by shootings. But the crowded, dirty old hospital was also a nightmare for patients. In one scene in the film, you see a woman sitting up on a gurney right next to the doctors and nurses trying frantically (and horrifically) to save another patient’s life. One nurse emotionally describes how he had to show the body of a dead patient to the next of kin in a space where they stored urinals while a psychotic patient yelled “shit! piss! cunt!” nearby. To be nostalgic for those days is to show a lack of empathy for what it means to be a patient, and perhaps reveals the gung-ho adrenaline junkie nature of ER doctors – particularly those who sought out the legendarily hard core C-Booth as their training ground.
I want to reiterate that these thoughts do not take away from the film’s quality nor its basic message. But it’s not the scenes of doctors that bring that message home most succinctly – it’s a shot of the inscription on the old hospital that commemorates the financial sacrifice made by Angelenos in building the facility. It was a moment in time when we, as a people, took responsibility for each other’s welfare. Underneath the self-serving bravado, “Code Black” exhorts us to return to that mindset as we plan for the future of health care in this country.
Friday, June 20th
Both “Concussion” and “The Spectacular Now” have much to recommend them, though they certainly weren’t my fave films of the fest so far. The latter is a surprisingly self-assured debut by writer and director Stacie Passon. The story of a beautiful, 40-something (gay) housewife who turns to (high-end) prostitution to deal with ennui and sexless marriage, I guess I just have issues when sex for money (even lesbian sex for lots of money) seems so pleasant, intriguing and emotionally-wrought. Frankly, I think it’s the lightest parts of the film – the banter between upper middle class housewives in the spin class, at lunch and at parties – where this filmmaker really shines.
“The Spectacular Now” is not all that spectacular, though it’s certainly entertaining, with wonderful performances that shine (somewhat like “Concussion”) during moments that aren’t necessarily central to the tale of a boy who goes through life making jokes, giving-pats-on-the-back and taking swigs-from-a-flask…all while dying inside.
Thursday, June 19th
Wow, a tough, emotional night at the festival with “Purgatorio” and “The Fifth Season.” The former is a meditation on the hell that is the Mexican/American border. I’m not sure there is anything particularly new here, but the words and images were arresting. The latter is a stark, surreal film about a rural farming village where everything begins to die. This is one of those movies that should be followed by drinks (many) and debate (heated) over what it means. Though everyone would certainly agree that it features some of the most striking set pieces ever, including the opening “dialogue” (pictured) between a man and his chicken Fred.
Correction! It seems I was incorrect to rant about boxing promoter Lou DiBella and “rapper-entrepreneur” Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson yesterday. I am told by reliable sources that the director was totally fine with how things went down. I’m guessing he was just psyched that these big-time guys picked up the movie.
Wednesday, June 18th
Well, tonight I was supposed to see “Tapia” and “Forev.” Unfortunately, “Tapia” started so late I had to miss “Forev.” Turns out the doc, about fighter Johnny Tapia, has been acquired by boxing promoter Lou DiBella and “rapper-entrepreneur” Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson…and after they (and their entourages) sauntered in 15 minutes late, the two held up the screening with long, sappy speeches about themselves while director Eddie Alcazar and producer Andrea Monier stood by awkwardly. Neither got to speak, which was particularly egregious considering (as DiBella acknowledged in his speech) they had nothing to do with making the film – they just bought it after the fact. I think the audience, who had no idea who promoter Lou DiBella is and don’t care a lick about Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, was appalled. I know I was. I hope Sugar Ray Leonard, who was in the audience, gave them a little lesson about being classy afterwards. Hey – I think that was the second rant of this festival!
Tuesday, June 17th
For the most part, the more obscure works by the masters are obscure for a reason, and “Two Men in Manhattan” (Jean-Pierre Melville’s rarely seen 1958 film) is no exception. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its pleasures. In this case, it’s seeing the doleful-eyed director star in his own film, a ripping jazz score and New York playing itself in all its noire, 1959 glory (this was the only film Melville shot in the states).
I didn’t know what to expect from “Workers” before I saw it and I’m not sure what to make of it now that I have. A quiet, dark comedy of sorts about two people in Tijuana living lives of silenciosa desesperación, it doesn’t go out of it’s way to tell you how to think or feel about the characters – and keeps you deeply engrossed as you search for clues. Minimal in the extreme and yet deeply satisfying, there is no doubt that director José Luis Valle is an artist with a vision; seeing the work of a master-to-be is why we go to film festivals!
My first (and hopefully only!) bitter rant from the LAFF! I have to say that I had my first really bad experience tonight, thought it was no fault of the festival except that it is a festival. Before the Melville movie started, a critic and film writer who will go unnamed was sitting near me, holding court with a couple of sycophants, talking endlessly (and in his mind fascinatingly) about film this, that and the other. But besides being a pretentious boor, he was also terribly, terribly negative about the festival, the films in it and the people who run it. Now, my experience is that, contrary to popular belief, talented critics are not wanna-be filmmakers. They are not bitter, angry people who attempt to show their intelligence by tearing things down. They are film lovers who’ll do anything to build film up. Which I think says something more about this person (and the many like him you’re liable to encounter at a festival) than anything else. Don’t know why it bugged me so much, but I feel better. Thanks for listening.
Oh – to end on a positive note – I ran in KCRW’s Michael Silverblatt (there to see the Melville movie) talking to evil genius Bruce Vilanch in the hallway. I didn’t have the nerve to say hi to Bruce or take a picture with him. #missedarareopportunitybecauseImsuchapussy.
Sunday, June 15th
Grace Lee Boggs is an activist and philosopher who’s been preaching a message of “revolution and evolution” for 60 years. Now in her ’90′s, this Chinese-American and former black power revolutionary (along with husband Jimmy Boggs) has lived a fascinating life, literately and intellectually, and the wonderful new doc “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs” delves deeply into both worlds. She – and this fine doc – are an inspiration to do more for change – both in our community and within ourselves.
Kevin Pearce was one of the best snowboarders in the world when a horrific accident caused a traumatic brain injury. With the support of his incredible family, he managed to return to some sense of normality. But then – against everyone’s protestations – his injured brain told him he should go back to competing even though one more good fall could cost him is life. Lucy Walker captures all the drama in the taut doc “The Crash Reel” – and you can bet it was emotional when “KP” took the stage afterwards for the Q&A. Though I got a little chuckle when he said (unironically) “Wear a helmet. It’s a no-brainer.”
After the movie, I really felt drained - and not just because it was so emotional. I think it’s because a really great festival like this one keeps immersing you in new worlds, introducing you to new people, taking you on an emotional ride and then two hours later, before you have time to catch your breath, plunges into a whole new situation, with a whole new set of people. And that happens over and over. I feel like I have made a lot of friends – and then lost them – in just a few days!
Tomorrow night, I won’t be downtown – I’ll be interviewing documentary maven Morgan Spurlock at the Cinefamily on Fairfax for one the IDA’s “Doc U” terrific events. Click HERE for more info! I’ll be back downtown for “Two Men in Manhattan” on Tuesday!
Saturday, June 14th
You could spend $200 million (and the studios have) and you still probably wouldn’t make a sci-fi thriller as well, thrilling, as “Europa Report.” Amazing, innovative filmmaking that stays satisfyingly within the tropes of the genre while seemingly rewriting them. When you really think about it, nothing really happens for the first 60 minutes of this film, and yet you’ll be on the edge of your seat the whole time.
“In A World” is the cliche’ movie trailer intro, and also the name of fresh, light comedy directed, written and starring the lovely and talented Lake Bell. Graced by some of the hippest funny people working today – Nick Offerman, Dmitri Martin, Tig Notaro – the movie shines brightest during the easy banter between Bell and her movie-sister Michaela Watkins.
Friday, June 13th
Started my first evening at the taco truck across from the Regal Theaters downtown and ran into the Meerkat Collective, the group responsible for the doc “Brasslands.” They tell me to show up early for their screening tomorrow night…there will be live Serbian music…sounds like a hoot!
Ran into the Ecuadorian director of “Europa Report.” The actors were locked inside a small pod for hours at a time for the filming of what sounds like an amazing sci-fi film. The director’s excited for the first screening…and so am I!
“Short Term 12” is my first movie of the fest and the theater is packed and filled with excitement. And with good reason. This is an incredibly fun film with a terribly serious story. Only indie films can combine those two elements so amazingly well. Don’t miss this one when it screens next.
Then: “The Act of Killing.” This is one of the absolutely do-not-miss films of this fest, but do not expect to walk out of the theater necessarily feeling glad you saw it. You’ll have a head spinning with thoughts and emotions. Me and my friends sat in the theater afterwards until they kicked us out talking about it. We were all deeply bummed that there was no Q&A – this movie begs 1,000 questions.
Walking down the hall in the Regal Cinemas after “Killing,” “Crystal Fairy” had just let out as well. Star Michael Cera was there hanging with Juno Temple, Natasha Lyonne, (I think) Mamie Gummer and their coterie. They looked like they were having a grand old time!
More to come!