News Column

Los Angeles Film Festival rewards curiosity

June 22, 2013

YellowBrix

June 22--It's L.A.: We're spoiled and we know it.

Just about any night of the week, and certainly any weekend, there is a de facto film festival happening in Los Angeles. With the city's revitalized, astonishing rep house scene, commercial first-run cinemas and smaller-scale series and one-off events, any Angeleno can always find a great selection of films new and old throughout the city with minimal effort.

So naturally that puts a lot of pressure on the Los Angeles Film Festival. The 19th edition of the festival opened last week with Pedro Almodovar's bawdy throwback "I'm So Excited" and heads toward its conclusion this weekend with a closing night screening of the conventional, lukewarm comedy "The Way, Way Back."

With this edition of the festival, LAFF seems to have firmed up its current identity as something at once specific and diverse, purposefully difficult to pin down. Approached with an open-minded curiosity, it works.

Within the festival calendar, the Los Angeles event holds a uniquely difficult spot, after Sundance, South by Southwest and Cannes, which x's-out certain titles as premieres and possibilities, while also placing films waiting for the fall fest circuit out of reach. The city's other major annual festival, autumn's AFI Fest, sits in an easier slot by comparison.

Since the arrival of David Ansen, in his fourth year as artistic director, there has been a shift toward emphasizing international films in the narrative and documentary competition sections just as much as American independent films. At the same time, in her second year as festival director Stephanie Allain seems to have brought a newfound emphasis toward highlighting the interconnected work of the larger organization of Film Independent, which includes the festival, the Spirit Awards, film programming at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and year-round support for filmmakers.

The most-talked-about film to emerge from the festival this year was "Code Black," a documentary on the emergency room at Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center made by Ryan McGarry, a doctor who works there. A world premiere at LAFF and a far more handsome and better-constructed film than one might expect -- it also doesn't hurt that McGarry and his colleagues are central-casting good-looking -- the film is an up-close exploration of the specifics of a transition in how the hospital's emergency room is run and a big-picture look at the business of modern medicine. Somehow provocative without being divisive, "Code Black" has proved so popular with LAFF audiences that additional screenings were added to meet demand.

On the narrative side, "Goodbye World," an apocalypse-themed drama that starts off as "The Big Chill" and winds up as "Lord of the Flies," and the downbeat L.A.-set comedy "Four Dogs" both emerged as among the most distinctive of the festival's premieres.

LAFF has seen the first local screenings of a number of the most notable films from other recent festivals, including "Fruitvale Station," "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," "Crystal Fairy" and "In A World ..." from Sundance and "Short Term 12" and "Our Nixon" from South by Southwest. Seeing those movies play to strong responses here too proved that out-of-town festivals are not entirely false-indicator hothouses and that the titles all have potential to connect when they hit theaters later in the year.

Thursday night saw the North American premiere of the controversial "Only God Forgives," which rode in on a wave of harsh responses following its world premiere at the recent Cannes Film Festival. The film reteams Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn with his "Drive" star Ryan Gosling, but it is as if the filmmaker has skipped over that popular success and followed up instead on the dry, psychedelic death-trip vibes of his earlier Mads Mikkelsen-starring "Valhalla Rising."

The screening here at LAFF, the North American premiere, was a vital one for distributor Radius-TWC in trying to shift the prevailing opinion on the Thai-set drama, something of an anti-revenge, anti-action film, away from the negative air of Cannes to something more accepting of the film's spare weirdness, at once elemental and baroque.

Without Gosling or costar Kristin Scott Thomas in attendance, it was up to the droll, quietly outrageous Refn to win over the audience. Introducing the film, he described "Only God Forgives" as like "old-school college acid" in distinction from the experience of "Drive" being akin to "the best cocaine." He added that the drug references seemed apt since "this is L.A.," and that framework actually did seem to help prepare the crowd for the languid malevolence of the film.

The final few days of the festival have seen the North American premieres of the latest from South Korea's Hong Sang-soo with "Nobody's Daughter Haewon" and Japan's Takashi Miike with "Lesson of the Evil," prolific filmmakers whose work does not always receive U.S. distribution. There has also been the world premiere of the vividly emotional documentary "Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton (This Is Stones Throw Records)," the story of the influential L.A.-based music label. Not to mention a talk on Saturday evening between the unpredictable filmmakers Spike Jonze and David O. Russell. Unlike festivals that frontload their schedules, there are films and events here worth seeing right up to the last day.

It's hard not to feel this year's festival is maybe just one or two films away from being something more truly revelatory. It's always easy to start armchair quarterbacking when talking about film festivals, what about this or that movie, why aren't they showing x or y, but that's the same as seeing a movie and complaining that the characters didn't behave the way you would. That's not always what it's about.

So LAFF may not be exactly the festival everyone would want it to be, but it has been full of surprises, often turning a corner into the unexpected with its mix of large and small, foreign and local. And though it's easy to complain about and even dismiss, it also richly rewards a little effort put toward deeper exploration. Sounds a lot like our city itself.

mark.olsen@latimes.com

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