LAFF Succeeds with Thought Provoking Documentaries


Even though I’ve made LA my home for the past thirteen years, like most people who live here, there are many annual events that take place that I’ve never gotten around to experiencing. The LA Film Festival is one of them. But this year is different. After living in San Francisco and never visiting Alcatraz, and living in New York City and never going to the top of the Empire State Building I’ve decided it’s about time I enjoy my surroundings. And so far in regards to the LAFF, I’m really glad I’ve made the effort.

It’s not even that much of an effort really. Now that the Festival is in its second year at LA Live downtown it’s very easy for me to take the Metro from Hollywood for a $3 roundtrip. Granted, finding a place to eat between screenings can be tough when an event at the Staple Center is happening, but the Regal Cinema has turned out to be a real discovery for me. I don’t know about the popcorn, but the screenings I’ve been to so far have all been in great theaters with impressively large screens and incredibly comfortable seats that rival those at the Arclight.

The films themselves have ranged from the well-financed, star-studded, heist job gone terribly wrong, “Drive” to the low budget, lackluster independents attempting to be kooky (I’ll spare giving a title). However, I’ve found that the truly dependable tickets for this year’s fest are the ones for the many thought provoking documentaries, particularly “Once I was a Champion”, “Salaam Dunk” and “Paraiso for Sale” (which screens for the last time tonight at 9:50pm).

Still from from "Once I was a Champion"

“Once I was a Champion” is the story of ultimate fighting champion, Evan Tanner. Many people are familiar with this story, but I was not and do not wish to spoil the many surprises in store for any one who might think this is just another sports bio. It is most certainly not. Granted the title does suggest that this film might just be about the spectacular raise and ignoble fall of an athlete who now bemoans what was and could have been. But there is so much more to this film and its subject than you could possibly imagine.

The thing that interested me the most was the in-depth and personal perspectives the filmmakers were able to obtain from the conflicting accounts of many of Tanner’s closest friends and fellow athletes. In an interview with director Gerard Roxburgh and producer Kirk Porter they made it clear that they wanted to approach the film as a narrative with a clear beginning, middle and end, establishing plot points where the audience would fall in love with the hero, come to dislike him, and fall in love with him all over again, and they succeeded. I fully expect to see Roxburgh at many more festivals in the future with narrative films and look forward to see what his distinctive voice will bring us in the future. “I Once was A Champion” screens two more times during the festival, Thursday the 23rd at 5:30pm and Saturday the 25th at 7:20pm.

Still from "Salaam Dunk"

Likewise, “Salaam Dunk” is another documentary well worth catching on the big screen. All though it also involves a sport, “Salaam Dunk” is most certainly not a sports film. It’s mostly about female empowerment. The YWCA and Girl Scouts of America have been saying it for years, and now “Salaam Dunk” demonstrates how sports can offer young women so much more than just the opportunity to develop athletic skills. Especially if the team is composed of young women who live in a society where playing a game like basketball can provoke violent acts upon the participants. The college students in this film live in a progressive area of Iraq where women are allowed to play sports under certain restrictions. And because it’s unlike anything these women have ever experienced they find new strength in themselves and the multi-ethnic friends they never thought they could have before. Ladies bring your friends, and dads bring your daughters. You’ll be delightfully surprised with the warmth and joy this film inspires. “Salaam Dunk” screens Tuesday the 21st at 7:10pm, Wednesday the 22nd at 4:00pm, and finally on Friday the 24th at 7:40pm.

Still from "Paraiso for Sale"

“Paraiso for Sale” was another well-executed film that had me leaving the theater with my mind reeling a mile a minute. This documentary tells the ongoing tale of an isolated area in Panama which was once an unknown paradise. But now this paradise is under threat from developers as well as individuals who have taken advantage of the near non-existent government in order to participate in what amounts to a land grab. What is particularly maddening is that the natives who have lived on land for generations are being forcibly removed from their homes. Even ex-pats with titled land they bought in good faith are facing an un-winnable battle against corporate giants who wish to build gigantic developments.

It seems almost unfathomable that this could happen and that no one is doing anything about, least of all the local government. Granted, this is an issue as old as time when one thinks of the history of the US, or even Europe. But what is most astonishing and even heartbreakingly demonstrated in this fair and balanced documentary is that we, as humans, haven’t learned our lesson yet, on either side of the battle lines. Come on out tonight and catch “Paraiso for Sale” for its last LAFF screening at 9:50pm. No doubt you will leave the theater discussing the film with fellow audience members whether you know them or not. This film will make you think, and wonder if the rest of the world is right – that there’s just no fighting the guys with the most money.

Whether you catch a documentary or not, there’s plenty to see at this year’s LAFF. And you’ve got practically five whole more days to do it. So no more excuses get out of the house and begin enjoying the many blessings an LA summer has to offer. This could be the beginning of a whole new tradition.

FREE Screening of Important Documentary on Child Bullying

Still Photo from the Documentary "The Bully Project"

“The Bully Project” directed by Lee Hirsch is presented as part of the Free Community Screenings at the Los Angeles Film Festival on Sunday, June 19th at 4:20pm.  The Weinstein Company will open the film to mass release later this year on November 11th, but here’s your chance to come out and see it early. There are no tickets or badges necessary for this free community screening, so bring as many people as you like, just come and see this important film. If you have children, or work with children this film is the must see of the festival.

Forgive me for relying heavily on the press release, but in this case I find the statements made by the filmmakers to be abundantly true. Directed by Sundance and Emmy-award winning filmmaker, Lee Hirsch, “The Bully Project” is a beautifully cinematic, character-driven documentary. At its heart are those with huge stakes in this issue whose stories each represent a different facet of America’s child bullying crisis.

The Bully Project follows five kids and families over the course of a school year. The stories include two families who have already lost children to suicide and a mother awaiting the fate of her 14-year-old daughter who was incarcerated for bringing a gun on to a school bus. The film provides an intimate glimpse into homes, classrooms, cafeterias and principals’ offices, offering a privileged insight into the often-cruel world of the lives of bullied children.

Bullying has always been a part of growing up, but sadly, the latest generation is experiencing a surge in bullying incidences. As teachers, administrators, kids and parents struggle to find answers, “The Bully Project” examines the dire consequences of bullying through the testimony of strong and courageous youth. Through the power of their stories, the film aims to be a catalyst for change in the way we deal with bullying as parents, teachers, children and society as a whole.

The film is showing at the Regal Cinemas at LA Live located at 1000 W Olympic Blvd. in downtown Los Angeles. You can come by Metro and get off at the Pico stop on the Red or Purple lines. Or if you plan on coming with a number of people you’re most economical bet is the inexpensive parking available for $8 for the day in the West Parking Garage. You’ll want to go through Gate B, which has an entrance off of Chick Hearn Ct. It doesn’t matter how you decide to get there, just get there. This is a compelling film with an issue that is important to all those who touch the lives of children. You’ll be very glad you made the effort, and likely to encourage others to do the same once you’ve seen “The Bully Project”.

“Super 8”: All the Best of Spielberg’s 70s and 80s Films Rolled into One, and Yet…

Young friends get caught up in the strange happenings in their town.

From the very beginning of JJ Abrams’ latest film, “Super 8” you are instantly overwhelmed with a terrific sense and feel of the 1970s. The music soundtrack is simply sensational; loaded with so many classic tunes of the era one would almost think this was a Cameron Crowe film. And the wardrobe and production design are just as impressive, never once giving the impression of being anything less than organic. With such genuine surroundings the film does not in the least feel like a period piece, but rather like a film conceived and produced in that culturally precarious time between 1975 and ‘85, just like all the films it seems to be so obviously emulating.

For anyone who is old enough to have experienced the arrival of the first ordained summer blockbuster, “Jaws” (directed by Steven Spielberg) and then have seen for the first time in theaters “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (also directed by Spielberg), “E.T.” (once again, directed by Spielberg), “Poltergeist” (produced and written by Spielberg) and “Goonies” (produced and written by Spielberg), this film will provide a tremendous feeling of nostalgia.

The look and feel of the picture is very Spielberg-ian, with a tremendous use of lens flare and extreme close ups (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Poltergeist”). The story keeps you in suspense wondering just what the creature looks like (“Jaws”, “E.T.”). The world in which we are placed is set in a small isolated town (“Jaws”, “Goonies”), in a neighborhood sprawling with look-a-like houses (“E.T.”, “Poltergeist”), with a bunch of kids on a secret search (“E.T.”, “Goonies”) the government is trying to prevent them from accomplishing (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “E.T.”).

This constant sense of being in another time watching an earlier film by an iconic filmmaker is in no way a bad thing. It’s pretty damn smart actually. By evoking the memories of previous movie watching experiences the audience can’t help but feel as if they are experiencing the same sensations all over again. I did. And as for younger moviegoers who have never seen the early works of the man who is quite possibly the greatest living American film auteur, they’re just going to like “Super 8” for what it is: a terrific summer movie. But one they’re likely to forget about the second they leave the theater. For without the background and history of the older viewer sitting next to them, “Super 8” is not likely to have any sticking power with the younger theater patron.

In fact, “Super 8” hardly had any sticking power with me, let alone the other people with whom I saw it. We left the theater feeling pretty pumped up and shared an overall high level of satisfaction with the film. But we hadn’t gotten very far when we realized we weren’t talking about it any more, mostly because there wasn’t much more to say. “Super 8” is great fun and exactly what a summer film should be, but would we see it again? The answer is not very likely. Will it become one of the all time classic summer blockbusters? Absolutely not. But then again, who cares? If you want to have a good time in a theater this summer you can count on “Super 8”. Just don’t expect too much from it and you’ll be satisfied. After all, it’s not the 1970s. “Super 8” has the distinct disadvantage of having been made in the age of big budgets and computer generated special effects. Let’s not hold that against it.