My 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival screening schedule was all set. Then I talked to film critic Robert Koehler. Veteran writer for such distinguished outlets as Cinema Scope, Film Comment, and Arts Meme, Koehler is a harbinger of cold hard wisdom, a straight shooter whose passion is only matched by his ability to spot a bogus film a mile away. When a group of us were catching up on day one of LAFF, discussing the many pronunciations of Lisandro Alonso’s excellent Jauja, Bob noted that he had seen nearly half the selection already thanks to press screenings and online links. Naturally I asked for his opinion on my slate of viewings. “Trash,” he classically scoffed of one high profile entry. Others he was more excited about. Then the recommendations came at a furious rate. I started taking notes. What’s the moral of the story? Sometimes a little guidance can be welcome when facing down a wacky film festival like LAFF, so consistently hit or miss that it’s hard to know which direction to look. 10 Minutes, a film I had marked down much to Koehler’s delight, turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Directed by Lee Yong-seung, this probing South Korean drama plunges a young professional into the contradictory and demoralizing environment of office life. First excited about his opportunity to work for a low-level government agency, and in turn make a living and support his financially vulnerable parents, Ho-chan (Baek Jong-Hwan) slowly realizes that hard work does not equate to success. Water cooler politicking spreads like a disease, and eventually the once vibrant glow of idealism is left rotted by compromise and weakness. Despite being attuned to the cultural and societal patterns of South Korean business practices, there’s a universal sense of suffocating monotony to 10 Minutes, which makes it all the more unsettling.
A different kind of boredom plays a pivotal role in Fernando Eimbcke’s Club Sandwich, a deceptively powerful coming-of-age story that creates a sun-drenched limbo for characters stunted by their own repression. Fifteen-year-old Hector (Lucio Gimenez Cacho Goded) arrives at an empty resort with his mother Paloma (Maria Renee Prudencio), taking advantage of cheap rates during the off-season. They sunbath, read, and perform cannon balls while jumping into the pool. Right when the film lulls us into a proper haze, Hector befriends one of the only other tenants, a slightly older teenager named Jazmin (Danae Reynaud) who stokes his inner fire. Whether it’s hormones or genuine attraction, the kids spend the rest of the film grasping for the opportunity to explore their sexual desires. But the process proves to be awkward and strangely poetic, like watching two people experiment with touch and smell until their instincts overwhelm all sense of logic. Eimbcke handles the progression gracefully, paying equal respect to the heightened emotional state of youthful lust and the desperate uncertainty of parental angst personified by Paloma. When she finally admits Hector’s boyhood has ended, we realize it has already been gone for some time.
Children have to grow up much faster in Damian John Harper’s Los Angeles, a multi-plot line drama about members of a rural Mexican community in Oaxaca grappling with the consequences and realities of migrating north to the United States. Unfortunately, the hand-held visuals feel stock in trade, while the serpentine overlapping narrative echoes countless other frontera stories ranging from Sin Nombre to El Norte. On the documentary side of things, a celebratory thread rang through multiple entries at LAFF 2014. Song of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story crafts a winning talking-heads style jubilee in honor of the legendary saxophone player mentored under the tutelage of Charlie “Bird” Parker before battling a lifelong addition to heroin. For the uninitiated, N.C. Heiken’s balanced portrait is a great introduction to a conflicted man and a great artist. The brothers Way (Chapman and Maclain) introduced their documentary, The Battered Bastards of Baseball, to rousing applause from friends and family members. It was a fitting introduction to a slice of joyous historiography that peels back the onion of professional baseball to reveal a moment in time where independent spirit triumphed over corporate doctrine. Hollywood actor Bing Russell (father of Kurt), a devout student of the game who brought independent baseball to Portland, Oregon with rousing and controversial results, provides the film a central force of nature.
Finally, two distinct works of non-fiction challenge the conventional wisdom of what it means to work hard. Farida Pacha’s My Name is Salt charts the rigorous eight-month process of Indian salt farmers braving the harsh desert landscape to create their product from the ground up. In the vein of Sweetgrass, the camera watches from a poetic distance as each step is documented in meticulous order. Lingering on mud-covered limbs and expansive horizons, the film communicates the beauty and exhaustion of creating art from the spoils of nature. The madman at the center of Giuseppe Makes a Movie can’t stop producing content. Once a Hollywood actor with credits in films like Independence Day and Detroit Rock City, Giuseppe Andrews now lives in a trailer outside of Ventura, CA where he makes super-low budget genre films with his company of eccentric actors. Director Adam Rifkin dives into Giuseppe’s world by using VHS cameras and other amateur equipment to document the artistic process, matching the rough and vital feel of his subject’s work. All in all, 2014 was one of the more pleasurable years at LAFF, thanks in large part to the films. Were they necessarily that much stronger than previous editions? No. I just had a better idea of where to look.