Penelope Cruz (left) in Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love, the LA Film Festival opening night film

It’s almost summer which must mean that the Los Angeles Film Festival is upon us once again. That’s right, LAFF kicks off its 18th year on Thursday, June 14th at LA Live with the North American Premiere of Woody Allen’s highly anticipated To Rome With Love starring Allen, Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Roberto Benigni, Ellen Page, Judy Davis and the lovely Penelope Cruz. Steven Soderbergh will close the festival doors on Sunday, June 24th with the World Premiere of his new film Magic Mike starring Channing Tatum as a male stripper. In between there will be all manner of cinematic goodness which I’ll get to in a moment, but first I’m happy to report that the boundlessly energetic Jackson Truax will be helping me with my festival coverage this year. In addition to nabbing interviews with as many of the filmmakers as we can get our hands on and hopefully daily reports of what we’ve been seeing, Jackson’s already got boots on the ground and he’s seen a number of the films which he’s previewed below. A number of the higher profile films playing the festival (including the above) are still under embargo so I’ll roll out reviews of those later on, but in the mean I think we’ve got plenty for you to chew on here.

In between the exciting opening and closing night films (and in addition to the usual documentary and narrative feature competition entries), there’s a boat load of great stuff on tap at LAFF this year. I’m not kidding. There’s an actual boat parked on the sidewalk jam packed with movie fun. Ok, no. I’m just being a goof. There’s no boat. There is, however, a lot going on. For starters, there’s the World Premiere of Disney/Pixar’s Brave on June 18th for pass holders. There will be an additional screening on 6/19 for everyone else. Also on tap is one of the more highly buzzed films to come out of this year’s Sundance and Cannes film festivals, Beasts of the Southern Wild (Friday 6/15). On that same night, William Friedkin will be presenting his latest film, Killer Joe starring Matthew McConaughey and Emile Hirsch, over at the LA County Museum of Art (hit the museum website for tickets and more details) while Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks and Michelle Pfeiffer star in the World Premiere of the surprisingly moving family drama People Like Us. On 6/18, Steve Carell and Keira Knightley are Seeking a Friend For the End of the World and the third collaboration between Jonathan Demme and Neil Young, Neil Young’s Journeys, will unspool for LA audiences. Meanwhile, on 6/21 and 6/22, keep your eye out for Rashida Jones and Adam Samberg in Celeste and Jesse Forever.

On Sunday, June 17th, there’s a super secret sneak preview of a “much-buzzed-about, soon-to-be-released movie.” They’ve been dropping hints through LAFF’s official Twitter feed (@LAFilmFest) all week and I’m pretty sure I have it figured out, but I’m not telling. You’ll just have to show up and find out for yourself. On Saturday, June 16th, Danny Elfman will be presenting clips of some of his favorite film scores. On June 15th, celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s beloved E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial at the free “Bike-In” complete with a bike valet, a food truck and prizes. Also free: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan with special guest Leonard Nimoy and prizes for dorks, er I mean Star Trek fans who show up in costume. For those of you less sci-fi oriented, don’t forget the Dirty Dancing dance-along featuring live dance performances by Contra-Tiempo, LA’s urban Latin dance ensemble. Why, because nobody puts Baby in a corner, damnit.

As always with LAFF, there is much more this year than movies. Be sure to check out this year’s lineup of talks and conversations with movie people both in front of and behind the camera. The biggest highlight for me is a chat with the folks behind AMC’s wonderful Breaking Bad moderated by critic Robert Abele on June 16th. Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Dean Norris, Jonathan Banks and Bob Odenkirk join series creator Vince Gilligan to talk about the best show on TV. This is a golden age for Television and shows like Breaking Bad are a big part of the reason why.

So, that’s a quick rundown on some of the festivals higher profile goings on, but be sure to hit the LAFF website for a full listing of what’s happening including info on tickets, passes, venues, parking etc. Also of course stay tuned to Living in Cinema in the days to come for interviews and reviews. I’m confident that with Jackson’s help, it’s going to be the best year yet.

And speaking of Mr. Truax, here’s his take on a bunch of the films he’s gotten an advance look at. Enjoy and we’ll see you at the festival. If you see us, be sure to come up and say hi.

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Searching for Sugar Man is the one truly must-see film of the LA Film Festival, and the best film of 2012 so far. The film won the Audience Award for Documentary along with a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, and was the 2nd place Audience Award winner for Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival. The reception at the LA film festival is likely to be similar, and you’ll be well-served to get an early look at this gem before its theatrical release on July 27th. Searching for Sugar Man begins on the streets of Detroit in the late sixties, where an enigmatic singer/songwriter named Rodriguez emerges from the back alleys to play his folk songs in smoke-filled bars. A truly blue collar, working-class poet, Rodriguez was immediately considered a “Chicano Bob Dylan.” He garnered the attention of established producers and made two albums, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, that earned rave reviews and were considered masterpieces, despite poor record sales. Rodriguez was dumped by his record label and faded into obscurity. By pure serendipity, in the early 1970s, a copy of Cold Fact found its way to South Africa and Rodriguez’s anti-establishment, Viet Nam era street poetry and his urban outsider-ness made his songs ideal anthems for victims of Apartheid. He became a legend over the course of two decades, despite no actual proof of his existence, and rumors of his death and suicide growing ever more grandiose. With the boycotts of Apartheid finally lifted, two fans from South Africa embark on a quest to find Rodriguez and see if their hero really exists. What ensues is a meditation on creativity and fame, a gripping detective story, a indictment of the label-centric music industry, and a bittersweet tale of musical genius that calls to mind the legacy of Brian Wilson’s Smile album. First-time filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul balanced all of these elements to create a film that’s gripping from beginning to end, and feels as poignant and unforgettable as much of Rodriguez’s music. Once you leave the theater, your next stop will likely be to pick up the soundtrack, which is being released on July 24th.

Breakfast with Curtis is a true surprise and delight, and the best narrative film showing at the 2012 LA Film Festival. The film portends to be “loosely based on fiction” which makes perfect sense. The events in the film tell of a universal reality, but filtered through the nostalgic and evocative lens of filmmaker Laura Colella. Breakfast with Curtis is the coming-of-age tale of a teenager who is socially awkward to the point of being a near shut-in. One summer he gets brought into the semi-commune of his bohemian neighbors. As Curtis helps them with various art projects, he finds his confidence, bringing his family closer together and healing years-old wounds. Although the events that take place in the film could easily take place in present day (and likely do), Colella makes the narrative feel completely timeless, so that any given audience member may see in it something of their own family and their own seminal summers and stories. Collella infuses great heart and humor, creating the rare breed of movie that will appeal to film festival audiences, as well as have true crossover appeal. If your family and friends live within shouting distance of the LA Film Festival, don’t miss the opportunity to share this wonderful film with them.

When The Invisible War premiered this year at Sundance, it won the Audience Award for Documentary, earned national media coverage, broke a major news story and cover-up, and was later screened for Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. The Invisible War, the latest film from Oscar-nominated documentarian Kirby Dick (Twist of Faith, This Film is Not Yet Rated, Outrage), is an investigative documentary about the epidemic of rape within the U.S. military, and the systematic cover-ups of the crimes. The film is centered around the narratives of several rape victims, with whom producer Amy Ziering conducted a series of interviews among the most emotional and impactful as any seen in recent documentary filmmaking. Dick and Ziering also present interviews with high-level Pentagon personnel, many of which are equal parts insightful and damning, along with interviews with members of Congress who are struggling to create a shift where there has been decades of inertia. What The Invisible War presents that is truly earth-shattering is the large number of sexual assaults at Marine Barracks Washington, the most prestigious Marine base in the country, and the cover-up that’s been taking place over the past five years. In what is shaping up to be a remarkable year for documentaries, The Invisible War stands out as being the early frontrunner for next year’s Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

David Fenster’s Pincus serves as a shining beacon of truly independent filmmaking, and what film festivals celebrate when at their best. Pincus Finster (David Nordstrom) is a character of remarkable complexity. He’s taken over the parenting role in his house, acting as sole caregiver to his Dad, Paul, whose health is deteriorating from Parkinson’s Disease. As the entirety of Pincus’ maturity is used up at home, he lets the family business suffer and proves to be equally lost in his relationships and in his personal life. With Pincus, Fenster establishes himself as an important voice in independent film. While Fenster’s camerawork and use of score may engender uses of the term, “minimalist,” Fenster’s focus on having his characters and their narratives drive the film makes for a rich cinematic experience that’s always gripping, compelling and multi-dimensional. Audiences may remember Nordstrom from his directorial debut Sawdust City, which showed at last year’s Los Angeles Film Festival. Nordstrom’s return to the festival is a triumphant one, as his ability to inhabit the complexities of Pincus with apparent ease make his performance a revelation, and signals an actor coming into his own. Paul is played by Fenster’s real Dad (also named Paul), which adds a remarkable intimacy to the film. There’s a real beauty in spending eighty minutes with Pincus and following him on his journey. There’s a rich emotional experience to be had here, especially for anyone who’s ever been on either side of a complicated parent/child relationship.

One of the best documentaries of the past twenty years is Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, directed by Freida Mock who won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1995. Mock crafts an equally captivating documentary with G-Dog, which examines the work of Father Greg Boyle aka G-Dog. Boyle founded Homeboy Industries to try and help solve the problem of gang violence in the toughest parts of East LA. With the motto of, “Nothing Stops a Bullet like a Job,” Boyle offers former gang members newly-released from prison job opportunities in Homeboy businesses and free services including job training, tattoo removal, counseling, and classes for yoga, substance abuse, and parenting. G-Dog offers a look into the lives of Boyle and the thousands of people whose lives he’s changed. The film also chronicles the rollercoaster year that was 2010 for Homeboy Industries. At the same time Boyle is a celebrated guest on Dr. Phil and his program is gaining traction as a model for the nation, Boyle faces having to lay off hundreds of employees due to lack of funding. G-Dog is presented as part of the LA Film Festival’s “Community Screenings Section” of free screenings. As the headquarters of Homeboy Industries is only three miles from the free screening at LA Live, this promises to be one of the truly robust events of this year’s festival.

Some of the best performances of the Los Angeles Film Festival are in the film Four, which is a must-see for fans of character studies and performance-driven films. Based on the play of the same name by Pulitzer Prize Finalist Christopher Shinn, Four follows two interweaving couples through one steamy Fourth of July night, as their boundaries are challenged and their desires are tested. Wendell Pierce (TV’s The Wire) plays Joe, an African-American, middle-aged family man on an internet date with June (Emory Cohen of TV’s Smash), a white teenage boy struggling with his identity. Meanwhile, Joe’s daughter Abigayle (Aja Naomi King) is on a date with a Latino basketball player named Dexter (E.J. Bonilla), that could have unforeseen consequences. As the stories and the characters within them begin to unravel, issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality come into play, and the remedies for isolation seem more and more desperate. First time feature filmmaker Joshua Sanchez displays a passion for the material and a great empathy for the characters, and his bold choices displayed throughout the film make him a talent to watch. Any of the performers here, or the cast as a whole, are strong contenders for the festivals’ award for Best Performance in the Narrative Competition.

The House I Live In, the latest documentary from award-winning documentarian Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight, The Trials of Henry Kissinger), is coming to the LA Film Festival after winning the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film examines the history of America’s War on Drugs and how the drug war of the past forty years has targeted and destroyed impoverished communities and families, and turned American incarceration into a major business interest. Jarecki interviews an impressive list of individuals who have seen and interacted with the War on Drugs on every possible level, including judges, litigators, professors, and current and former dealers and inmates. Just as Why We Fight did over the past seven years, Jarecki’s latest film deserves become to mandatory viewing in high school and college civics classes. Also like Why We Fight, The House I Live In presents information and statistics in a manner and woven with narratives that craft a film that feels gripping and truly cinematic. The House I Live In is a must-see film for lovers of politically-conscious films in the highest order of documentary filmmaking.

Call Me Kuchu documents the experience of being gay in Uganda in recent years, during which members of the government have been trying to bring about government-endorsed genocide of the LGBT community, and members of the press have been outing members of the community and calling for witch hunts. The story centers on the life and murder of David Kato, Uganda’s first openly gay activist. What’s most shocking here is that filmmakers Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worall actually give ample screen time to anti-LGBT activists and let them plead their case, without much editorializing, if any. Although hearing the incendiary and violent language is profoundly unsettling, it helps show the audience the beliefs of those running the government and the media, and what the LGBT community in Uganda faces on a daily basis. This approach also helps Call Me Kuchu feel like a piece of unbiased documentary filmmaking, in which filmmakers let subjects either win an audiences over, or talk themselves into their own damnation. The filmmakers also show American citizens and politicians who attempt to influence events in Uganda either from America or on the ground in Uganda. Footage of President Obama shown in the film shines a new light on his recent support of gay marriage, making this excellent film more vital and timely in the US and wherever the LGBT community is still fighting for equal rights.

Beauty is Embarrassing is a look at the life and work of the remarkable and influential artist Wayne White, who as a designer, puppeteer, and voice-over artist, helped craft the look and feel of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. White won three Emmys for the show, before enjoying a prolific career in television and music videos, including The Weird Al Show, Shining Time Station, and his award-winning Art Direction of The Smashing Pumpkins music video, “Tonight, Tonight.” Beauty is Embarrassing chronicles White’s meteoric rise, followed by a burnout and mid-life crisis of sorts, which gave way to an intense period of self-reflection. This led to White’s celebrated and controversial entries into the art world and his publishing a book of his artwork, followed by the staging of an autobiographical one-man stage show. First-time filmmaker Neil Berkeley is clearly having the time of his life filming the eccentric White, and Berkeley’s sense of joy is contagious to the audience. Berkeley embraced the spirit of his subject, making the film as endearing and as innovative as White himself. Beauty is Embarrassing is made-up of equal parts biography and stage show, as takes the audience deep into White’s creative process and seemingly endless imagination. Festival-goers will likely recognize Largo at the Coronet, where White’s show held a residency in February 2010.

In his song “Helpless” from the seminal Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young album Déjà vu, Neil Young sings, “There is a town in North Ontario/With dreams, comfort memories to spare/In my mind, when I still need a place to go/All my changes were there.” The beginning of Neil Young Journeys, the latest film in the “Neil Young trilogy from Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) finds Neil and his brother Bob Young driving through that very town, Omemee, Ontario. They recount their idyllic childhood memories before driving to Toronto’s iconic Massey Hall, where Neil Young played the two shows in May 2011 that concluded his solo world tour in support of his album Le Noise. Neil Young Journeys, at 87 minutes, doesn’t include everything from those two shows, but does include thirteen of the seventeen songs Young played each night. Young classics “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue),” “Helpless,” “Down By the River,” “Ohio,” “After the Gold Rush,” and “I Believe in You” all appear, along with six songs from Le Noise, and the previously unreleased “Leia.” Young has always been an innovator, and Young plays all these songs solo, but most of them plugged in and cranked up, as if on the legendary 1991 Ragged Glory tour albeit sans Crazy Horse. Demme captures Young as he reaches a new peak as a guitar player, and keeps Rockin’ In the Free World into his mid-sixties. Unlike the far more approachable and universal Demme-Young collaboration Heart of Gold, Neil Young Journeys is very much a film made by and for great Neil Young fans, for whom the film should be considered essential viewing.

When American point guard Kevin Sheppard was passed over by the NBA, he became a “journeyman,” playing basketball for various countries overseas, often one season at a time. Sheppard was offered a contract to play basketball in Iran in 2008 that would potentially violate a US embargo, and was slated to leave shortly after president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for the destruction of Israel. Sheppard went to Iran, followed by documentarian Till Schauder, who made The Iran Job, a film chronicling Sheppard’s first year in Iran. Although the sense of fear felt by Sheppard and Schauder is palpable, it slowly fades away throughout the film as Sheppard begins to make a life for himself in Iran, and experiences a country filled with humanity never shown on the nightly news. Sheppard also becomes a local sports hero, as he inspires his team to work as a unit to pull themselves up from their low-ranking status into the playoffs. Schauder draws the audience deeper and deeper into the culture of Iran and Sheppard’s conflict. His new friendships are making Iran feel like home, just as political uprising and violence are escalating. Schauder deserves a special prize for putting himself at so much risk to make this film, including being detained on his last trip to Iran. Film festival audiences are often eager for films that show us different cultures, hold mirrors up to our own, and challenge perceptions of all of the above. The Iran Job does all of that beautifully.

After premiering Sundance, Celeste and Jesse Forever makes a stop at the LA Film Festival before opening theatrically later this summer. The film follows the two title characters (played by Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg) as they approach thirty, and have decided to end their six-year marriage. They struggle to remain best friends, which ultimately leads to them questioning whether or not they should be apart. Although Celeste and Jesse Forever is by no means flawless, there is real appeal to a film that focuses on characters and situations that feel very real. Jones has a certain movie star charm, yet always feels relatable as someone you would want to be your best friend. Though the films feels like it’s more or less a “dramedy” Andy Samberg stars in what could be called his first dramatic role, and succeeds admirably. As good as Samberg is and as likeable as Jones is, the film suffers from being filled with supporting characters that are far more interesting than either of the two leads. Emma Roberts  (Aquamarine) deserves a new level of respect for her work here. Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings movies) serves as the film’s comedy relief, and his work is so brilliantly realized, one wishes he had more screen time. Twenty-somethings who have spent the past decade growing up with Jones on The Office and Parks and Recreation and Samburg on Saturday Night Live and are now having relationship troubles of their own may relish spending ninety minutes with this likeable but troubled couple.

La Camioneta: The Journey of One American School Bus follows the journey of a decommissioned American school bus, as it travels south of the border to be turned into a Guatemalan “camioneta.” Documentarian Mark Kendall presents the journey of the camioneta with incredible grace and elegance, exposing what is remarkable in the mundane and the tediousness in every day life. Although the journey of the camioneta begins as one filled with a quiet sense of wonder, that slowly shifts as the bus journeys further into South America. Since 2006, nearly one thousand camioneta drivers and fare collectors have been killed in Guatemala, for being either unwilling or unable to pay the extortion money demanded by local gang members. The journey of Kendall’s camioneta soon becomes one in which blue collar workers risks their lives daily in order to make a meager living. Although this is Kendall’s first feature, he demonstrates an expert hand at cinema verite documentary filmmaking. Kendall succeeds in making a film that feels more about a tragic side of the human experience then about countries or politics. He also makes La Camioneta: The Journey of One American School Bus feel not like a documentary expose, but rather an experience that is deeply poetic, filled with equal parts bloodshed and beauty.

Words of Witness provides viewers with an in-depth yet personal look at the Egyptian Revolution, as shown from the literal and figurative lens of 22-year-old journalist Heba Afify. Afify is one of the youngest journalists at the English online edition of Almasry Alyoum, Egypt’s leading independent newspaper. In covering the revolution and the Egyptian’s struggle for democracy, Afify serves as a model for bridging the gap between the new and old schools of journalism. While Afify has an insatiable desire for truth and a desire to present the most balanced reporting, she also uses facebook and twitter to try and expose Egypt’s ruling military and organize peaceful protests. Award-winning documentarian Mai Iskander (Garbage Dreams) successfully balances a number of powerful themes, and packs a great deal of information and storytelling into mere 68 minutes. Iskander’s greatest achievement as director and cinematographer is the intensity that fills each frame, fueled by the remarkable intimacy she has with her subjects. With former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak recently sentenced to life in prison, as a result of the killings on which Afify was reporting, and with Egypt’s presidential elections underway, Words of Witness promises to give rise to some unique screenings at discussions at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

Maya Stark and Adi Lavy’s documentary Sun Kissed begins following Dorey and Yolanda Nez, two parents on a Navajo Reservation whose children have been stricken with XP, a terminal pediatric disorder that literally affects one in a million people. Upon a child’s first exposure to sunlight, XP causes their skin to be affected by a rare form of cancer, and their brain to begin deteriorating as they live out their few short years. Stark and Lavy craft a multi-layered narrative out a family’s quest for answers. What’s revealed is a meditation on relationship between age-old spiritual truth and modern medical science, with neither seeming infallible. A deeper, more tragic level of meaning is also discovered, one that examines a shameful part of America’s past, and how the Long Walk that was inflicted upon the Navajo centuries ago may be at the root of this mysterious illness. Stark and Lavy present a great deal of information in way that’s also accessible and memorable, and deeply compelling without ever feeling maudlin.

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