Los Angeles Film Festival


REVIEWS by Willard Manus

Film festivals were bustin' out all over L.A. recently--Balkan, Israeli and Greek, to name but a few. The biggie was the Los Angeles Film Festival, which drew upwards of a hundred thousand fans to its ten-day offerings. The opening-night attraction was Universal's cartoonish, hyper-violent Wanted, starring Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie. The closing-night feature was yet another kick-ass movie, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, director Guillermo del Toro's follow-up to his 2004 hit.


More than 230 feature films, shorts and music videos were on display at the fest, which took place at various venues in Westwood, L.A. and Hollywood. LAFF also offered special evenings with Rob Reiner and Antonio Banderas; a panel on film financing; a series of poolside talks with various actors, screenwriters and composers; and a conversation between father-and-son filmmakers Ivan and Jason Reitman.

A personal favorite of mine was THE PRINCE OF BROADWAY, a low-budget but high-quality feature about Manhattan street hustlers written and directed by recent NYU film-school grad, Sean Baker. Baker focused his story on Lucky (Prince Adu), a West African immigrant shucking and jiving at 27th & Broadway, desperately trying to entice passersby to a nearby shop selling knockoffs of boutique handbags, clothes and shoes.

Baker gets deep inside that underground world, capturing its unique flavor, language and business practices (cash only, lots of joking, bargaining and playacting) made urgent by an ever-present fear of the police. Lucky lights up the screen with his charismatic personality and smile, qualities that are put to the test when his ex-girlfriend suddenly shows up and dumps a baby on him, insisting that he's the father.

Lucky denies responsibility but is obliged by circumstances (and fear of the authorities) to start caring for "the little prince" on his own. His battle for survival becomes more and more desperate--and comic--with a baby burbling by his side out on the streets. On top of that, his precarious hold on life takes a hit when he gets robbed, beaten up and almost arrested. Still, Lucky is, like the human race itself, nothing if not indomitable: he can be defeated but not destroyed.

First-time actor Adu is remarkable as Lucky, likewise Karren Karagulian as the hot-tempered Armenian shopowner. Victoria Tate and the quartet of the other young actresses in this largely improvised film register impressively as well.

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Among the highlights of the second-annual Greek Film Festival were an opening-night showing of a newly-remastered print of Zorba the Greek, starring Anthony Quinn, Alan Bates and Irene Pappas. First released to much acclaim in 1964, the black and white film holds up beautifully, thanks to Quinn and Bates' robust performances, and to Michael Cacoyannis' assured script and direction. Theodorakis' music was a big plus as well.

A Tribute Night Gala celebrating the work of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands came a day later. The evening commenced with a panel discussion by Seymour Cassel, Phedon Papamichael Sr. and Al Ruban, with a screening of the late Cassavetes' indie classic, Faces.

Topping the list of features at LAGFF was Little Greek Godfather, a comedy written by director Olga Malea and Nicholas C. Papandreou, son of Greece's late prime minister, Andreas Papandreou.

LITTLE GREEK GODFATHER is based on Nicholas' autobiographical novel, A Crowded Heart, which was shortlisted for the 1999 L.A. Times' First Fiction Award and was a runaway bestseller in Greece. The story, set in the 60s, deals with the 12-year-old son of a famous Greek politician who is sent to the Cretan mountains to baptize a local bigwig's newborn baby. Standing in for his father (in order to secure much-needed votes in the upcoming national election) is no easy matter for the kid, who must deliver rousing speeches to the villagers, promising them a rosy future if they mark their ballots correctly.

LITTLE GREEK GODFATHER not only satirizes politics but pokes fun at village life in Crete, where sheep-stealing and tribal-infighting are commonplace, not to speak of bridal kidnappings, macho posturing and raki-fueled rhyming-couplet competitions. The kid must cope with all of this unruly adult behavior while obligingly scarfing down endless homemade tiropates, dolmathakia and jellied fruit. His stomach holds out reasonably well, until an unavoidable confrontation with a plate of boiled snails sends him bolting.

The light-hearted, coming-of-age LITTLE GREEK GODFATHER was a festival favorite. Ditto SALONICA, a Swiss-made documentary, directed by Paolo Poloni, which delved into the fabled history of Greece's "second city." In the early part of the last century, Salonica (now known as Thessaloniki) was a thriving and cosmopolitan port town that was home to a dozen different nationalities, including some 70,000 Sephardic Jews whose influence and importance caused the city to be known as "the Jerusalem of the West."

WW II changed all that, brutally and irrevocably. The 450-year-old Jewish presence in Salonika was destroyed by the Nazis, except for a handful of people who managed to survive the Holocaust. SALONICA interviews some of these aged and infirm folk, who talk about the city in personal and moving ways, recalling the good and bad things they lived through. SALONICA avoids "travelogue" techniques and stays focused on the human dimensions of the story. Introduced are a cross-section of the city's residents: a famous photo-journalist, a kiosk owner, students, even a poverty-stricken Gypsy family.

SALONICA's poetic and intimate qualities are enhanced by its hypnotic musical score, composed by Minos Matsas.