LAFF Saturday Highlight: Vampira and Me

Yesterday was full of films and festivities at the Los Angeles Film Festival site at Regal LA Live 14. Yet the day took on a slightly different air than the previous two. Without any Gala/red carpet events, or preview screenings of studio offerings, festival-goers relished in the experience of seeking out and discovering films from far off the beaten path. Spending a day venturing from one festival auditorium to another often calls to mind the old adage about how “You pay your money and you take your chances.” Yesterday, I experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly of what the festival had to offer. Here’s how it went down:

My day began with the truly ugly Summer Games from Swiss filmmaker Rolando Colla. What begins as a potentially poignant and lovely coming-of-age tale quickly descends into a group of kids and pre-teens engaging in psychosexual activity, acts of violence, and cruelty toward animals. I spent most of the film trying to give Colla the benefit of the doubt, but could find no artistic merit in the brutality of the material. Any filmmaker who shot this in America would have been arrested, and with good reason. I can’t remember the last time a film ended and I felt that I so desperately needed a shower.

After Summer Games I attended the festival’s mixer for filmmakers and press. It’s always a great thrill to take some time to foster a sense of community among those who love and support these unique films. I was able to finally meet in person a number of the filmmakers whose films I’ve been watching and writing about over the past several weeks. I got some advance heads-up on who will be popping in for Q&As and other events throughout the festival. I’ll be posting that information throughout the week, so make sure to keep checking back for the latest updates.

After the mixer I saw Thursday Till Sunday, which so far wins the Los Angeles Film Festival 2012 prize for Movie I Wanted to Love But Couldn’t. This coming-of-age tale from first-time filmmaker Dominga Sotomayor Castillo shows how the issues of a troubled family play out over a weekend getaway. Castillo’s approach of using a handheld camera placed in the backseat and letting individual shots last for minutes at a time would have been great if it centered around a story and characters worth caring out. Sadly, the characters are one-dimensionally written to the point of completely forgettable. The final result is a movie that feels more like a film school project driven by style then substantive storytelling. While the movie isn’t offensive enough to be considered “ugly,” it certainly falls into the “bad” segment of my day.

While the narrative films disappointed, two excellent documentaries made for a wonderful night. A Band Called Death was one of the hot tickets for the night, playing to a nearly full house in one of the largest auditoriums at Regal LA Live 14. A Band Called Death chronicles the history of Death, now credited as being the first black punk band. Although Death was literally unheard of in the seventies when their recordings were made, they were discovered thirty-five years later and have since enjoyed an impassioned cult following. To a certain degree, A Band Called Death feels all too reminiscent of Searching for Sugar Man, another film from this year’s festival line-up about a would-be legendary musician getting his due decades too late. What makes A Band Called Death unique is that it’s also a family saga, with the original line-up being made up of three brothers whose bond is more than unbreakable. Although I’ve been known to be a softy in the past, this was the first film of the festival the drove me to tears, and an important reminder about the importance of family on the eve of Father’s Day.

My last film for the day was Vampira and Me from documentarian R.H. Greene, best known for making Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies. For that film, Greene conducted a 90-minute interview with Maila Nurmi, the woman who created and was better known as Vampira. Following that interview in 1997, Greene and Nurmi became good friends, and with Vampira and Me, Greene realized his long-held dream of utilizing more of that interview to tell her story in full. Nurmi’s life story is a tragic one, of creating a character that networks, imitators, and deranged fans spent decades trying to steal from her, as Nurmi and those around her had a harder and harder time distinguishing the woman from the character she created. Greene immense passion and love for Nurmi is strongly felt throughout the film, and Greene makes that contagious to the audience. After the film the festival’s artistic director David Ansen moderated a Q&A with Greene. This was a truly moving Q&A, with Greene’s passion for his friend and subject once again obvious, and from where I was sitting he seemed almost moved to tears when talking about her. The film shows again on Saturday, June 23rd at 7:30 pm.

The festival has much on offer today. The festival’s signature Coffee Talk series promises freewheeling discussions with some of our industries most respected talents. Documentaries showing include Words of Witness, G-Dog, and The Iran Job, all of which I reviewed earlier in the week. The Iran Job and G-Dog both promise to be can’t miss events. I met up yesterday with The Iran Job director Till Schauder and subject Kevin Sheppard, and both will be on hand for what promises to be an unforgettable Q&A. As I mentioned earlier in the week, LA Live is only about three miles from the headquarters of Homeboy Industries, so the subjects G-Dog are also likely to be out en masse. On the narrative side, Breakfast with Curtis is still the best narrative I’ve seen at the festival, and has its festival premiere tonight. My itinerary for the day includes Without Gorky, Red Flag, Crazy and Thief, A Night Too Young and An Oversimplification of Her Beauty. I’ll also try and make whatever Coffee Talks I can, and hopefully see you there.

As today is Father’s Day, let me take this opportunity to express my unquantifiable gratitude to and love for the venerable and wonderful Ed Truax. I know every parent dreams of their kid someday being the best at something, and I also know that an aspiration to be the best at watching and writing about films and the film industry is a unique one. It is in large part because of my Dad’s unwavering encouragement and support that any of this has been and continues and to be possible. For that, I wish him the happiest Father’s Day, and the most fulfilling Fatherhood imaginable. Thanks Dad!

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All material copyright 2007-2012 by Craig Kennedy unless otherwise stated