LAFF: Day #1

June 18, 2010

The Los Angeles Film Festival, which runs a nicely paced 11 days from June 17-27, rests on the border between Hollywood extravagance and independent filmmaking spirit. There’s an obvious need to impress with visual splendor and gloss, but this well organized arena of films, retrospectives, guest speakers, and galas has a very real sense of the modern cinematic pulse. As expected, you have the mainstream opening and closing night films of The Kids Are Alright and Despicable Me respectively, but there’s also a devout connection with the fringes of Cinema, best on display in the great Documentary category and sidebar sections highlighting neglected films from a range of different national cinemas. Argentine master Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, Indian icon Satyajit Ray, and American actor Robert Culp are just a few of the auteurs being recognized with screenings.

Like almost any worthy film festival, it’s difficult to pin down a completely satisfactory screening schedule because there’s simply too many interesting films to see. But over the course of the next week, I’ll be do my best to cover the most important and engaging films from the festival. Schedule permitting, I’ll also be conducting filmmaker interviews with a wide array of interesting artists, so stayed tuned for special feature examinations of especially worthy films. Special thanks to EInsiders.com for making this coverage possible.

THE TWO ESCOBARS (dirs. Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, 2010)

Produced for ESPN’s 30th anniversary documentary series “30 For 30”, The Two Escobars charts the rise and fall of narco-soccer in Colombia, focusing on the role national corruption, public perception, and mass violence had on the social, political, and economic ramifications of the sport. In an expansive mosaic of archival footage and first person interviews, directors Jeff and Michael Zimbalist weave together a detailed look at the reign and influence of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar with the humble life and tragic murder of soccer player Andres Escobar (no relation) after his own goal solidified the sudden collapse of the Colombian national soccer team during 1994 World Cup.

From the opening credits, the filmmakers juxtapose their densely intricate story with a bombastic soundtrack of musical cues. While this aesthetic builds tension by laying down a strong stylistic foundation for key information and testimonials, it also suffocates the gripping story during moments of reflection, rage, and deep loss. The humanity becomes somewhat skewed by the thumping bass, the slow motion freeze frames, and the onslaught of flashy dissolves. Yet a key moment late in the film exemplifies the filmmakers at their most reserved and poignant. After nearly 90 minutes of breakneck documentary filmmaking, the film slows down to an eerie calm, watching Andres’ face as his accidental mistake slowly destroys his team’s chances of reaching the next round. We feel his epic internal pain, but also the agony of entire country attempting to crawl out of the shadow of its international image of violence and corruption through the positive imagery of soccer.

The Two Escobars describes a lengthy cause and effect timeline, dipping into many different wells of emotional and political resonance. The only element keeping it from being great is it’s desire to wow the viewer with style and sensationalistic aesthetic devices. The story consistently develops as a terrifying slice of historiography, while the film itself sometimes delves into the realm of music video. Still, the very talented Zimbalist brothers have crafted an in depth examination of a country eroding from the inside out by crime and punishment, and the only hope for redemption rests on the shoulders of great sportsmen. In that sense, Colombians and documentary lovers everywhere should be thankful.

LIFE WITH MURDER (dir. John Kastner, 2010)

A complete stylistic reversal from The Two Escobars, John Kastner’s gripping examination of familial trauma in Life With Murder is the epitome of restrained horror. In 1998, the Jenkins family changed forever after 18 year old daughter Jennifer was brutally killed and 20 year old son Mason was arrested for her murder. Kastner charts the impossible decision faced by parents Brian and Leslie after their son is convicted of the crime – accept him as the last remnant of their family or disavow his existence.

Life With Murder begins as a focused crime documentary, contextualizing the murder with talking head interviews from family members and detectives, grainy archival footage, and few clumsy reenactments. Kastner unveils damning interrogation footage from directly after Mason’s arrest, putting the harsh realities of the situation into perspective. We also witness the slow degeneration of Bill as he and his wife stand by their son during the long trail and appeal attempts. Kastner positions these visual memories with the present day relationship between Mason and his parents, one built around strange and uncomfortable supervised family visits at his prison institution.

But Life With Murder slowly churns into something deeply fascinating, building these personal relationships into a brilliant analysis of the many layers of desperation in a family fraught with uncertainty. Kastner allows the subjects to develop without impeding their responses with overwhelming stylistics. The menacing score and haunting camera movements create an overall feeling of distress, a theme that comes to fruition during the film’s terrifying final act. By the end, Life With Murder forces the audience to consider the evil truths residing underneath the surface level facade. Judgement and heartbreak coexist as the film fades from the screen but not from our subconscious. The small shards of devastation are palpable, unsettling, and unexplainable, yet undeniably complex in scope and worthy of debate.

Four films scheduled for tomorrow so stay tuned.

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