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Curtain rises on L.A. film fest

Features and shorts from around the globe will be seen beginning Thursday in a sprawling annual event that uses 16 venues.

June 13, 2005|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

The variety of offerings in the 11th annual Los Angeles Film Festival is dramatic, stretching from two strikingly different silent classics, "The Son of the Shiek," with a Rudolph Valentino at his most romantic, and F.W. Murnau's haunting "The Last Laugh," with Emil Jannings as a proud hotel major-domo reduced to men's room attendant, to the gritty documentaries "La Sierra" and "Pilgrimage" that focus on the perils and anguish of border crossings -- from Mexico to the U.S., from Iran to Iraq. The grungy, surreal quality of the Russian "4" offers a bold contrast to the neo-realist poignancy of the late Morris Engel's unforgettable "The Little Fugitive."

Amid the 11-day festival, crammed with more than 70 features and 50 shorts in 16 venues, the LAFF, which began as a weekend event at the Raleigh Studios, even manages to work in Julia Sweeney in her new one-woman live show, "Letting Go of God." Festival headquarters will again be on the floor above the Sunset 5, the festival's principal venue along with the nearby Directors Guild of America.

Thursday's opening-night attraction, at the Cinerama Dome, will be David Jacobson's "Down in the Valley," starring Edward Norton and set in San Fernando Valley. Kathy Baker stars as a woman desperate to speak to her daughter in Rodrigo Garcia's "Nine Lives," this year's Centerpiece Premiere, screening June 21 at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The festival closes at the National Theater in Westwood with Don Roos' "Happy Endings," composed of vignettes of modern life and featuring an ensemble cast that includes Lisa Kudrow, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Laura Dern, Tom Arnold, Bobby Cannavale, Steve Coogan and Jason Ritter.

The festival is produced by Film Independent (FIND), the new name for the Independent Feature Project, and will also present several special events, including such treats as an evening with writer-director Robert Towne reflecting on his relationship with his hometown, Los Angeles, and a program of the final work of major experimentalist Stan Brakhage.

The festival's concern for variety is revealed in this year's choices for guest director, director Sydney Pollack, and its artist-in-residence, THE RZA, chief producer and founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan -- each of whom will be presenting three films.

Eight of the films available for preview, mostly documentaries, set a high standard for the festival. Written by Vladimir Sorokin from an idea of its director Ilya Khrzhanofsky, "4" (Sunset 5 Friday at 9 p.m. and Monday at 9:45 p.m.) exemplifies the high-risk filmmaking that tests a festival's daring. Demanding and mysterious, appalling yet intriguing, "4" brings together three deceptive characters in a Moscow bar.

The film focuses mainly upon Marina, who treks across a long stretch of the most desolate countryside imaginable to the funeral of Zoya, another young woman, who is perhaps her sister and with whom she had a falling out and who died under circumstances of descriptiondefying bizarreness. "4" is an implacable film whose images, many of them frankly revolting and crude, suggest that a relentlessly degraded humanity is devouring itself; for what it's worth, Khrzhanofsky has said he wanted to express the individual's feeling of loss in an increasingly globalized world..

"Romantico" (Sunset 5 Friday at 7 p.m. and June 24 at 10 p.m.) refers to the songs that Carmelo Munoz Sanchez sings as he accompanies himself on his guitar rather than to the 57-year-old's solemn spirit. In following Carmelo and his lifelong friend and fellow troubadour Arturo as they serenade customers in San Francisco's Mexican restaurants and to their native Salvatierra, Mexico, Becker brings into sharp focus the plight of illegal immigrants. Carmelo and his family are much happier when he's home, but it takes two weeks in Salvatierra to make the $100 he can make on a good weekend night in San Francisco -- and he would like to give his two daughters a better chance in life than he had.

"La Sierra" (Sunset 5 Saturday at noon and Sunday at 9:30 p.m.) takes its title from one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the hillsides overlooking Medellin, Colombia. Scott Dalton and Margarita Martinez at one point have to dodge bullets themselves to focus on Edison, the charismatic 22-year-old leader of Bloque Metro, affiliated with Colombia's illegal paramilitary armies who have fought with left-wing guerrillas for 40 years. The filmmakers capture the fatalism of Edison and the cycle of violence in which he and his friends are caught up but are short on information.

Margaret Brown's "Be Here to Love Me" (DGA 1 June 25 at 7 p.m.) is an extraordinary documentary about an extraordinary man, Townes Van Zandt (1944-97), known as the songwriter's songwriter, a man who toured and recorded for nearly 30 years but never came near having a hit on his own. His "Pancho & Lefty" took Willie Nelson to the top of country charts and his "If I Needed You" did the same for Don Wilson and Emmylou Harris.

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