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LA Film Festival Focuses On Independent Films

(Left) Mark Ruffalo, (Right) Marie Paquim. The small independent films are of course also a chance for recognizable stars to break out of their perceived “types”, and expand their range.  Paquim offered hearty congratulations to Oliver Platt, for taking on the lead role of the burned out, but strangely loveable aging rock star Frank in the biopic “Frank and Cindy”.
Mark Ruffalo and Marie Paquim at the LA Film Fest.

By Peter Barent Lewis

There was not one Hollywood blockbuster among the choices at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival. The biggest budgets, both at about $6 million, came from Forest Whitaker’s Significant Productions’ “Dope”, and “Infinitely Polar Bear”, starring Mark Ruffalo.

Film Independent, organizer of the festival, decided to veer away from that direction this year, to, as Festival director Stephanie Allain put it, “be the change we seek”. The wide variety included more female directors, more projects by people of color and foreign entries, with ample room given L.A. -based filmmakers to showcase their films.

Though previous years may have sported more current A-list star power, this year in fact broke previous box office records for the festival. Sell-outs were common.

Santa Monican actress Marie Paquim, a supporting Arts Circle member of Film Independent, attended, and supplied some candid photos of the artists, all of whom, she said, were just as approachable and engaging as the eager new talent.

“And it was refreshing to see some of the great stars acting in, and being supportive of independent film,” said Paquim, noting the participation of icons such as Lilly Tomlin and Sam Elliott (in Paul Weitz’ opening night gala “Grandma”) and Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Zaldana, who’ve both done their share of super hero/blockbuster fare, in the moving family drama about manic depression “Infinitely Polar Bear”.

The small independent films are of course also a chance for recognizable stars to break out of their perceived “types”, and expand their range. Paquim offered hearty congratulations to Oliver Platt, for taking on the lead role of the burned out, but strangely loveable aging rock star Frank in the biopic “Frank and Cindy”.   Rene Russo was also spectacular as his opposite, transforming from her glamorous niche into the dowdy, frizzy haired eccentric Cindy. Director G.J. Echternkamp also broke out somewhat, as the feature was a narrative remake of the documentary he did by the same name in 2007. And what will be the sequel? We shall see – his low-key, authentic style definitely promises more to come.

But this year, the spotlight was truly on the unknowns. Liberia, a country with virtually no history in filmmaking, was the backdrop for the first act of US Fiction category winner “Out Of My Hand”, by N.Y. -based director Takeshi Fukunaga. The tale of an African immigrant struggling to make a new life for himself in New York City touched Paquim, who understands the immigrant experience, and the need to reinvent oneself. Noting the poetic ending employing the simple changing of a tire, Paquim mused: “For me, it was the circle, symbolizing the cycle of life. The past is gone, now you move on.”

Another highlight was the Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn modern-spin comedy “Band of Robbers”, by the on the rise directing team of Aaron and Adam Nee (Adam also acted, with a fun John Ritter-esque portrayal of Tom Sawyer). The film truly evoked the mischievious innocence of the namesakes , with a little “Reno 911!” sans the bad language thrown in. All the eccentric characters were played with delightful gusto by the close-knit ensemble. Special nods to Stephen Lang as the “white” Injun Joe who’s “not racist, just appreciates their culture”, “Cooper Huckabee” as Muff Potter, and Hannibal Buress as the slow-witted Ben Rogers.

Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions acquired first time filmmaker Branden Kramer’s “Ratter”, a truly unnerving thriller involving stalker voyeurism through internet hacking and other films were picked up as well. So the LA Film Festivals’ large plate of newcomers definitely went beyond polite recognition from independent film fans to closing real business.

Closing night’s star studded event evoked the very basic of filmmaking: a live read. The choice was an earlier draft of “Fast Times At Ridgemont High”, which launched screenwriter Cameron Crowe’s career. (And Santa Monica’s own Marie Paquim would later work with Cameron Crowe in Vanilla Sky, with Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruze). Eli Roth directed the read, and went outside the box to cast, among others, Courtney Love in the role of Mr. Hand, and rising young star/social media celebrity Logan Paul in the iconic Sean Penn role, stoner Jeff Spicoli.

New scripts will certainly be seen on the screen next year. Paquim, for instance, who was a supporter this year, looks to her September shoot in Utah of her action thriller drama “Land of the Free, Except for Me”, and possible inclusion in next year’s festival. “If we stay on schedule and get through post, we already have distribution through Archstone, so it’s a good possibility,” noted Paquim. So stay tuned – see you at next year’s LA Film Festival!

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