Not all the noteworthy films in any festival are available for advance screening, but as usual, previews for this year's Los Angeles International Film Festival yielded some gems.
AFI Fest opens tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard with theworld premiere of Beeban Kidron's "Swept From the Sea," starring Rachel Weisz and Vincent Perez and inspired by a Joseph Conrad story, and closes with Alan Rudolph's romantic comedy drama "Afterglow," starring Nick Nolte and Julie Christie, on Oct. 30 at 8 p.m. at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
(In addition to the Chinese, the festival will hold a few screenings at the Galaxy and the Monica 4-Plex in Santa Monica.)
In between are some stunners. Zhang Yuan's "East Palace, West Palace" (Monica 4-Plex Wednesday at 9:15 p.m. and Chinese Thursday at 5 p.m.) is a powerful and elegant two-character psychological drama. In it, a young, slender gay man (Si Han), arrested in a cruising area on the vast park-like grounds of Beijing's Forbidden City, begins a battle of wits with the macho arresting officer (Hu Jun) detaining him in park headquarters. Zhang makes an all-out assault on homophobia as he builds suspense and tension. "East Palace, West Palace" is a brave and audacious film and, not surprisingly, was made outside the official Chinese motion picture industry.
Zhang Yimou, one of China's most famous directors, offers a radical departure with his "Keep Cool" (Chinese Saturday at 10:30 p.m. and Monica 4-Plex Monday at 10 p.m.), set in present-day Beijing and filmed entirely with a hand-held camera. A jolting departure for the maker of such classically elegant period pieces as "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Shanghai Triad," "Keep Cool" centers on the pursuit of a sexy, free-spirited young woman (Qu Ying) by a Beijing bookseller (Jiang Wen).
There is also an overly protracted wrangle between the bookseller and an elderly scholar (Li Baotian) whose laptop computer is destroyed when he comes to the aid of the bookseller who is attacked by thugs. The scholar feels the bookseller owes him a new laptop.
The film is a subtle commentary on changing times in China--hence the film's cautionary title--but it doesn't travel nearly as well as Zhang's epic masterpieces.
Based on the classic Dutch novel by F. Bordewijk, Mike van Diem's "Character" (Chinese Sunday at 10:15 p.m. and Monica 4-Plex Tuesday at 3:30 p.m.) is a superb period piece, set in Amsterdam in the '20s. Its hero (Fedja van Hue^t) has the most forbidding parents imaginable: an implacable court bailiff (Jan Decleir), also a banker and entrepreneur, who in a one-time sexual encounter, leaves his stoic young maid (Betty Schuurman) pregnant.
Defiantly independent, this near-silent woman refuses to marry him or to accept any financial aid. Their son grows up determined to be a success in law and banking, which only inflames his father's rage at having been rejected by his mother. There is a Dickensian sense of passion and obsessiveness to "Character," a tale of emotion strangled by pride.
Joe Gayton's "Sweet Jane" (Monica 4-Plex Friday at 10:45 p.m. and Sunday at 6 p.m.) is a knockout. What could so easily be shamelessly sentimental becomes an overwhelming emotional experience, thanks to Gayton's total dedication to his people, their story and his greatly gifted actors.
In a role worthy of a Michelle Pfeiffer, Samantha Mathis glows as a pretty but wasted prostitute-junkie--"junkette," in her own flip self-description--who attracts a 15-year-old runaway (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). What ensues is as familiar as the meaner streets of L.A. in which it is filmed, but "Sweet Jane" has such unexpected impact it's as if we never before had ever seen a picture about a hooker with a heart of gold or a savagely abused orphan.
Michael Davis "Eight Days a Week" (Monica 4-Plex Saturday at 5:20 p.m. and Wednesday at 9:30 p.m.) is overly talky, but the dialogue is so good you may not mind. Joshua Schaefer stars as Peter, a scrawny 17-year-old with glasses who's so enamored of the gorgeous girl (Keri Schaefer) across the street he decides to camp on her front lawn until she hopefully capitulates.
Davis brings to Peter's predicament compassion, imagination and much raunchy humor. This kid and his best pal (R.D. Robb) talk about sex like the teenage males they are. Davis charts Peter's growing awareness of the other neighbors, allowing him to become gradually aware of how little he knows about them. This aspect of the picture, one of its strongest, might have been developed a tad more to offset the inherent static quality of Peter's front-yard stakeout.