'Waiting for Superman,' Gay Orthodox Jews & US Military Lies: Los Angeles Film Festival

Pat Tillman, The Pat Tillman Story
One Lucky Elephant, Flora, Lisa Leeman
Jesper Christensen, A Family
Pat Tillman as shown in Amir Bar-Lev's The Tillman Story (top); Flora and David in Lisa Leeman's One Lucky Elephant (middle); Jesper Christensen in Pernille Fischer Christensen's A Family (bottom)

The documentaries One Lucky Elephant and The Tillman Story, Pernille Fischer Christensen's A Family, and Hossein Keshavarz's Dog Sweat are a few of the highlights at the Los Angeles Film Festival on Saturday evening, June 19.

Lisa Leeman's One Lucky Elephant portrays the heartfelt relationship between a circus owner and an elephant named Flora. Flora, ready to retire, must get used to living among other elephants after spending her life in a circus surrounded by another type of animal (human beings).

Amir Bar-Lev's The Tillman Story examines the exploitation of National Football League player Pat Tillman as a red-white-and-blue poster boy for the American military, whose powers-that-be later decided to lie about Tillman's death – telling the world that Tillman died while fighting the Taliban, instead of revealing that the former football player had been killed by one of his fellow comrades in arms.

A Family revolves around a woman's choice between living her own life and perpetuating her family's business legacy, while Dog Sweat follows several Teheran denizens at odds with the repressive social mores imposed on them by religious freaks.

Synopses from the LAFF website. For more information/buy tickets, click here.

One Lucky Elephant

Directed By: Lisa Leeman

What happens to a circus elephant when it's time to retire? After 16 years in the spotlight, Flora, an African elephant living in St. Louis, must find a new home, and David, the circus owner who has cared for her all these years, must say goodbye to the animal he thinks of as a “daughter.” The road to Flora's retirement, however, is a difficult and emotional one. While David finds himself drawn into the current debate in the animal rights community over the ethical treatment of elephants, Flora must adjust to living among other elephants for the first time ever.

Ten years in the making, One Lucky Elephant is a remarkable achievement. Eschewing easy sentimentality, the film beautifully captures the delicate love between David and Flora, but it also doesn't shy away from examining the problems and mysteries posed by keeping wild animals in captivity. It's a complicated, fascinating issue, and there are no clear answers for anyone involved, least of all David and Flora, two extraordinary individuals you'll never forget. Doug Jones


A Family

Directed By: Pernille Fischer Christensen

Ditte has been a dutiful and adoring daughter all her life, the darling of her charismatic father's eye. It's been a privileged life too, for the Rheinwald family has built its fortune as master bakers—selected by the royal family as purveyors of bread to the Danish crown. In this intimate and powerful family saga, Ditte's devotion to her father is tested when she's offered her dream job as a curator for a New York art gallery just as her recently remarried father falls ill and asks her to take over the family business.

A Family is dominated by the staggering performance of Jesper Christensen as the proud patriarch, whose charm and urbanity masks a steely will. Confronted with mortality, he rages against his fate with the ferocity and terror of a haute bourgeois King Lear. Pernille Fischer Christensen's fluid, superbly shot film captures every nuance of feeling (and of class) that ricochets through the Rheinwald household. It has the emotional honesty one associates with Ingmar Bergman, but Christensen views her large cast of characters with a warmer, more forgiving eye. David Ansen


Dog Sweat

Directed By: Hossein Keshavarz

Invoking the subversive urgency of cinema vérité, filmmaker Hossein Keshavarz interweaves the lives of seven young people in contemporary Iran. Misunderstood by their families and oppressed by conservative Islamic society, they act out their personal desires behind closed doors. A feminist finds herself in an affair with a married man; new lovers search for a place to be physically intimate; a gay man is pressured to leave his partner for an arranged marriage; a female pop singer risks exposure; and a grief-stricken son lashes out at fundamentalists.

Keshavarz's film debut is certain to trigger conversation about the contradictions brewing within contemporary Iran, where two-thirds of the population is under thirty. This covert society, forced to operate without government sanctions, is bravely brought into the sunlight by Dog Sweat, which displays a side of Iranian life virtually unseen by the outside world. Shot clandestinely in Tehran—a risky endeavor for the cast and crew—this provocative film provides the new generation of Iranians a fervent voice of rebellion. Jonathan Wysocki


The Tillman Story

Directed By: Amir Bar-Lev

In life, the government tried to turn NFL star Pat Tillman into a one-dimensional patriotic symbol. In death, the Pentagon concocted a headline-ready myth about his heroic demise by Taliban fire. It was all spin, a cynical fabrication. In the powerful, probing The Tillman Story, filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev looks behind the propaganda to reveal the complex, private man who kept to himself his motives for enlisting at the height of his football career. Digging deeper, Bar-Lev also reveals the true story behind Tillman's death on the battlefield and the military's dogged cover-up of what really happened.

In addition to the men who fought alongside Tillman and were subsequently told to hold their tongues after his death, Bar-Lev introduces us to Tillman's tenacious, loving, and righteously angry family, who refused to accept the official lies they were fed at every turn, as witnessed in the startling footage of Tillman's younger brother's unvarnished speech at the funeral. Both an expose of the military's deceptions and a portrait of the tireless efforts of his family to speak truth to power, The Tillman Story will move, outrage, and enlighten you. David Ansen

Photos: Los Angeles Film Festival

Zohar Strauss, Ran Danker, Eyes Wide Open
Cafe Noir
Eliza Triana in Hilda Hidalgo's Of Love and Other Demons (top); Samuel Maoz's Lebanon (upper middle); Zohar Strauss, Ran Danker in Haim Tabakman's Eyes Wide Open (lower middle); Jung Sung-Il's Cafe Noir (bottom)

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World director Edgar Wright will be present to talk about his career at the Los Angeles Film Festival on Sunday evening, June 20. Star Trek's J.J. Abrams will be Wright's conversation partner.

Other Sunday highlights at the LAFF include Samuel Maoz's Lebanon, Jung Sung-Il's Cafe Noir, Haim Tabakman's Eyes Wide Open, and Hilda Hidalgo's Del amor y otros demonios / Of Love and Other Demons.

Winner of the Golden Lion at last year's Venice Film Festival and of four Ophir Awards from the Israeli Film Academy, Lebanon takes place inside an Israeli tank on the first day of Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, while Cafe Noir is an homage of sorts to recent Korean cinema and movies in general.

In Eyes Wide Open, two Orthodox Jewish men fall in love and must deal with the consequences of living within the confines of intolerant religiosity.

Religion and repressive traditions are also at the core of Of Love and Other Demons, a Colombian-Costa Rican period drama set during colonial times. Based on a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the film chronicles the passion that blossoms between a young priest (Pablo Derqui) and a 13-year-old (Eliza Triana) believed to have been possessed by the devil.

Also, Norma Aleandro is one of the stars of Leopoldo Torre Nilsson's Los Siete locos / The Seven Madmen, a 1973 Argentinean drama set among a group of underground subversives in 1920s Buenos Aires. The Seven Madmen was based on a novel by Roberto Arlt.

And finally, Jaak Kilmi and Kiur Aarma's Disko ja tuumasõda / Disco and Atomic War shows how Estonians were more concerned about who killed Dallas' J.R. than with Communist ideology, having become fascinated with “Western” (trash) culture. Too bad they weren't exposed to Mexican soap operas – Communism would have fallen decades earlier.

Synopses from the LAFF website. For more information/buy tickets, click here.


Directed By: Samuel Maoz

Cast: Yoav Donat, Itay Tiran, Oshri Cohen, Michael Moshonov, Zohar Strauss, Dudu Tasa, Ashraf Barhom, Reymonde Amsellem

Exploring the brutality of combat while simultaneously constructing a tense chamber-piece thriller, writer-director Samuel Maoz's Lebanon chronicles the first day of the 1982 Lebanon War from the perspective of four young Israeli soldiers manning a tank. Their initial mission—provide backup for a paratrooper unit in a seemingly resistance-free Lebanese village—soon turns deadly, forcing these inexperienced men to work together to stay alive.

The top prizewinner at last year's Venice Film Festival, the visceral Lebanon was inspired by Maoz's nightmarish experience as a novice tank gunner during the '82 conflict. Compressing the drama within the confines of an armored military vehicle, Maoz's film greatly benefits from its claustrophobic setting, but Lebanon's structural masterstroke comes from its limiting what the audience sees outside the tank to the gunner's viewfinder, not only enhancing the suspense but also calling into question how we “"view"” the physical and psychological damage of the battlefield. Emphasizing the personal over the political, Lebanon emerges as one of the new century's most revelatory war films, one that insists that we look at combat with fresh eyes. Tim Grierson


Disco and Atomic War

Directed By: Jaak Kilmi, Kiur Aarma

For young Estonians growing up under the repressive thumb of Soviet ideology, the only images of the West they saw came in the form of pirated television signals from powerful transmitters in Finland. But the impact of these images was life-changing. Once Estonians beheld Dallas, disco dancing, and Knight Rider, not to mention supermarkets full of goods unavailable to them, there was no turning back.

Spanning the mid-1950s to the fall of Communism, the wild and original Disco & Atomic War offers a provocative and playful counter-history of the Cold War. It documents the increasingly paranoid efforts of the Estonian puppet government to block these subversive transmissions and the ever more imaginative ways the citizens found to get around the blockades. Director Jaak Kilmi mixes rich archival footage with droll recreations that show us a nation more obsessed with “Who killed J.R.?” than Communist doctrine. Tongue in impassioned cheek, this mile-a-minute documentary vividly demonstrates how the “soft power” of pop culture toppled a totalitarian regime. David Ansen


Cafe Noir

Directed By: Jung Sung-Il

Cast: Shin Ha-kyun, Kim Hye-na, Jung Yu-mi

Writer-director Jung Sung-il may prove to be contemporary Korean cinema's answer to Jean-Luc Godard, an adventurous film critic turned auteur with an audacious vision. Witness Café Noir, his ambitious, subversively funny film debut that references literature, leftist politics, Bollywood, and Christianity while paying loving homage to the last decade of Korean cinema.

This formally rigorous, but sprawling and endlessly playful examination of unrequited love trails Young-soo, a heartsick music teacher, as he wanders the lonely streets of Seoul. In what its creator calls a “musical variation” on Johann Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther and Fyodor Dostoevsky's “White Nights,” this diptych begins with Young-soo being unceremoniously dumped by his married lover on Christmas Eve and then struggling to win her back. In its second half, he finds himself drawn to a young woman in her own state of romantic purgatory. Young-soo's digressive journey takes us through an uncanny cityscape that's both “reel” and unreal—teasingly populated with characters and images from Old Boy, The Host, and films too numerous to mention. Matt Cornell

Photos: LAFF

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Vlast Power, Cathryn Collins
Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim
R, Michael Noer, Tobias Lindholm
Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Cathryn Collins' Vlast / Power, (top); Davis Guggenheim's Waiting for Superman, (middle); Michael Noer, Tobias Lindholm's R (bottom)

The omnibus feature Revolución, Davis Guggenheim's Waiting for Superman, Cathryn Collins' Vlast / Power, Tobias Lindholm and Michael Noer's R, and “Over the Top: An Evening with John Lithgow” are some of the highlights at the Los Angeles Film Festival on Tuesday, June 22.

Fernando Eimbcke, Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Carlos Reygadas are some of the directors of several short films found in Revolución, about the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

Vlast shows how Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky became a threat to Vladimir Putin's power, while R follows life behind bars for two inmates in a Danish prison: one a local Dane; the other a Muslim.

“Why,” asks Davis Guggenheim's Waiting for Superman, “does one of the richest nations in the world do such a poor job educating its children?” Film critic David Ansen, for one, praises the An Inconvenient Truth Academy Award-winning filmmaker's take on the broken American educational system.

John Lithgow will be present to explain the “art of Acting Big” following a screening of the 1984 comedy-adventure-sci-fier The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, co-starring Jeff Goldblum, Peter Weller, and Ellen Barkin.

Below are a few synopses from the LAFF website. For more information or to buy tickets, click here.

Vlast / Power

Directed By: Cathryn Collins

The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a volatile but highly advantageous environment for young Russian businessmen eager to build the fledgling market economy by any means necessary. Striking extraordinary deals with the government to acquire newly privatized industries, a small group of men became phenomenally rich almost overnight. The most successful of these oligarchs was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who quickly became the wealthiest man in Russia. But Khodorkovsky was invested not only in business, but also in true social reform and a new ideal of an open society, an attitude that ran afoul of the absolute rule of Vladimir Putin. Within months of announcing a deal which would have opened the formerly state-controlled Russian oil industry to investment by Western corporations, Khodorkovsky and his business partners were arrested and jailed for fraud and tax evasion.

Tracing Khodorkovsky's dramatic, ambiguous rise to power and subsequent fall at the hands of Putin's KGB-infested government, this probing, deeply troubling documentary reveals a nation still unsure of its commitment to economic and social liberties. Travis Miles


Hello Lonesome

Directed By: Adam Reid

Lonely since his wife left him and alienated from his daughter, a cantankerous voice-over artist (played by the instantly aurally recognizable Harry Chase in his first on-screen role) strikes up an unlikely friendship with his regular deliveryman. Many suburbs away, an elderly widow loses her license to drive and turns to her wry younger neighbor for nostalgic cuddles and comfort. Meanwhile, a young urban sports fanatic meets a girl online and unexpectedly falls in love, though the trials the couple endure prove even more unexpected.

Adam Reid's enchanting, compassionate debut weaves together the worlds of six lonely individuals as they negotiate the age-old process of giving and receiving love. It isn't easy, and it never happens the way they expect it, but for these isolated souls, there's an oddball magic in the way they make connections they never imagined. Wonderfully acted and written, the intimate exchanges in this triptych of tales percolate with laughter and longing. As the film itself says, “A little hello can go a long way.” Jonathan Wysocki



Directed By: Isao Yukisada

The stylish Parade could easily be mistaken, at first glance, for a Japanese sitcom, as it gathers four twenty-somethings together in a small Tokyo apartment. Roommates for convenience, they don't have a lot in common. One's a driven yuppie who works for a film distribution company. Another's a naïve college boy who carries a torch for a more wordly classmate. Then there's the aspiring actress, hopelessly pining for a self-absorbed TV star, and the hard-drinking young woman who works as an illustrator and hangs out in gay bars. They don't question each other's comings and goings, so no one raises an eyebrow when a streetwise male teen hustler suddenly appears in their living room. How he got there is a mystery, but he becomes a staple in their household. But suspicions and paranoia arise among the group with each new report of a woman brutally attacked in the neighborhood.

Isao Yukisada's intriguing drama is full of deceptions. Neither the characters nor the movie itself are quite what they first seem. Underneath the pop energy and gentle comedy lie darker undercurrents and unexpected twists. Parade asks us to ponder just how well we know the strangers we call friends, and what, in the name of getting along, we are willing to tolerate. David Ansen

Photos: LAFF

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