THE LOS ANGELES INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL enters its fifth year as a resolutely exciting, untidy and formidable work in progress. Although founder Robert Faust and programming director Thomas Ethan Harris have nimbly avoided turning it into Sundance redux, they are clearly still struggling to define their festival — not only in relation to the older, entrenched indie festival, but in relation to that other behemoth, Hollywood. To that end, while the LAIFF is increasingly a must-see (and must-to-be-seen-at) event, it's less clear whether the films themselves are. For all its good vibes and great intentions, by its fourth year the festival had yet to consistently premiere the sort of breakout talent that makes Sundance and Toronto essential.
Caveats notwithstanding, that doesn't mean that this weekend I won't be lined up with the rest of Los Angeles to check out what has unquestionably become one of the hottest games in town. There is a lot to look forward to, including 29 features and 35 short films, retrospective screenings, a music-video showcase and more than a dozen workshops. And it's with pleasure that I point out that the closing-night feature, The Big Brass Ring, was co-written by our own F.X. Feeney, who shares writing credit with the film's director, George Hickenlooper. All festival screenings and workshops will be held at the Directors Guild, Harmony Gold Preview House, Laemmle's Sunset 5 and the Laugh Factory. For tickets call (888) ETM-TIXS, or log onto www.etm.com.
The Films (partial list)
BY HAZEL-DAWN DUMPERT, JOHN PATTERSON and CHUCK WILSON
Bellyfruit comes on like an After-School Special about the terrors of teenage pregnancy: Three girls — white, black, Latino — wander into pregnancy through naiveté, adolescent foolishness or exploitation at the hands of feckless males. Much tribulation ensues. It should be dire to watch, but despite the film's overschematized structure and dutifully enforced warnings and options, the three interlocking stories have a freshness and vitality that take the film into another realm entirely. This is largely thanks to gritty performances by Kelly Vint, Tamara LeSeon Bass and Tonatzin Mondragon as the luckless trio, and to director and co-writer Kerri Lee Green, whose steady hand ensures that the potentially didactic material stays honest. (Screening with Debutante; Friday, April 16, 1:30 p.m., DGA 2; Saturday, April 17, 3 p.m., Harmony Gold) (JP)
SOMETIME IN AUGUST
Director Caio Ribeiro poses the question “Would you go out with yourself?” and comes up with — well, not very many interesting answers. A brokenhearted woman hires a private detective (who's in fact a drunken poet) to follow her, just to find out how others regard her. And naturally they start falling for each other, or for each other's public selves. Sometime in August is a windily whimsical tragicomedy made by people with precious little sense of either tragedy or comedy, and belongs in that self-regarding genre of independent film that should be called “Movies With Doleful Cellos on the Soundtrack.” Sure enough, the cellos yowl, and the viewer's heart plummets. (Screening with Sound Sleep; Friday, April 16, 4:05 p.m., DGA 2; Sunday, April 18, 6:45 p.m., DGA 2) (JP)
Billy (Johnny Zander), a smalltime thief, steals a bag of cash from Bob the Hitman (Seymour Cassel), who pursues Billy to his East Hampton, New York, hometown. Unaware that he's being tracked, Billy hangs out and then hangs out some more with his old girlfriend Tara (Gaby Hoffman) and his new friend Shane (David Wheir), who has a crush on Tara. Of the three, only Shane has a backstory, a family tragedy that is hinted at but never fully explored by writer-director Jesse Feigelman. Well made and nicely acted, Snapped nevertheless gets too caught up in its own East Hampton languor to really get its hooks into an audience, and consequently slides right out of the mind as soon as the lights come up. This is a promising debut from a young director who will, hopefully, aim for a fuller, richer story the next time around. (Screening with Bubblepac; Friday, April 16, 6:30 p.m., DGA 2; Monday, April 19, 4 p.m., DGA 2) (CW)
Rip Torn plays Glassman, a married psychiatrist who's moved into a studio apartment in the building where his ex-lover (Viveca Lindfors) and her new man also live. With a hidden, static camera pointed almost exclusively at a mirror mounted above the sofa (allowing for a view of the entire room), Glassman films the sex, drugs and rock & roll with which he increasingly fills his life. Influenced a little by Bertolucci, a lot by Cassavetes and blatantly, almost absurdly, by his own life, writer-director Milton Moses Ginsberg painted a portrait of the sickly comedown that was the end of the '60s. This notorious 1969 rarity is everything The Ice Storm thought it was: uninhibited, monumentally self-absorbed, and thrillingly acted by Torn and, as Glassman's unstable patient/lover, a young, beautiful, dazzlingly lunatic Sally Kirkland. (Friday, April 16, 7:30 p.m., Harmony Gold) (H-DD)
Another oddly uninvolving ride on the merry-go-round of subterranean Hollywood, featuring a number of marginal characters on the run from the straight life — a singer, a middle-class hooker and two guys who take care of elderly junkies. The production values in Dorsay Alavi's Sweet Underground are excellent, given the apparent budgetary constraints (especially the cinematography, in both color and B&W for reasons I can't divine), and the actors all do what they can with the pseudo-world-weary script, which is all fighting, shooting up and energetic cussin'. Sleazy clubs, flophouses, mean streets thronging with human detritus . . . Sweet Underground treads an awfully familiar path but leaves no discernible boot prints of its own, no matter how much stomping goes on. (Screening with Seven Days Til Sunday; Friday, April 16, 9 p.m., DGA 2; Sunday, April 18, 9:30 p.m., DGA2) (JP)
For the past 25 years, Joseph Lovett has grabbed every opportunity to sit his sister, brother and aunts down in front of a camera to quiz them about the relationship between his beautiful mother and difficult father. All children wonder about their parents, but for Lovett those questions took on added power when, at age 13, he witnessed his mother's death in a bizarre car accident. He has re-created that accident in painstaking detail, and while the accident footage is compelling, it feels separate from the story of his parents' life together. That may be because Lovett holds himself back, never pressing himself to reveal his own pain with the same candor he comes to expect of his cancer-ridden sister and emotionally scarred older brother. It's a telling imbalance. (Saturday, April 17, 11 a.m., Laemmle 2) (CW)
COME UNTO ME: THE FACES OF TYREE GUYTON
Nicole Cattell's Come Unto Me is the story of artist Tyree Guyton, who spent years transforming the street he was raised on, in one of Detroit's most desolate, impoverished neighborhoods, into a vibrant piece of public art. Trawling junkyards, used-car lots and local garbage cans, Guyton used the resulting trash trouvé to transform several derelict houses into a beguiling oasis of color and grace. Metaphors of abandonment and reclamation abound in the Heidelberg Street Art Project — salvage to salvation, recycling as redemption — reflecting the religious underpinnings of Guyton's work. When the city bulldozes the project, every idea underpinning Guyton's artistic urges is confirmed. Admirably compact, Come Unto Me is both delightful and depressing. (Screening with Hot Irons; Saturday, April 17, 11 a.m., DGA 2) (JP)
Notwithstanding the claims that John Waters used to make for Baltimore, lately Detroit has emerged as the true Hairdo Capital of America, with ambitious stylists setting up shop all over the city's black neighborhoods. Many, like Jonathan the Hair Tamer, are former auto workers who, in teasing, curling and weaving, found a powerful creative outlet unavailable to them on the Big Three's assembly lines. Andrew Dosunmu's Hot Irons introduces several such sculptors as they prepare for the “Black Hair Extravaganza” known as “Hair Wars,” where some of their most inventive and vibrantly bizarre 'dos will be on display. Forget the Conk, the Wet Look and the Jheri curl, and instead picture peacocks in flames — or exploding birthday cakes. Hair-raising indeed. (Screening with Come Unto Me: The Faces of Tyree Guyton; Saturday, April 17, 11 a.m., DGA 2) (JP)
The suburbs of America are alive with the sound of sportfucking in David Schisgall's eye-opening look at the “swinging” subculture, known to its adherents as “The Lifestyle.” These longtime sexual insurgents, some in their 70s, consider themselves liberated from the shame associated with group sex, and they do radiate an undeniable contentment and self-assurance. The eldest were '50s Levittowners with Hefnerian libidos who, after taming the crabgrass frontier and putting the kids through college, dreamed of building a benign, noncoercive sexual utopia behind drawn shades. Schisgall's refusal to moralize lets the swingers speak freely, and the result is an affectionate look at people just like our moms and grandpas, only bare-ass naked and blissfully happy. (Screening with Love Story; Saturday, April 17, 3:40 p.m., DGA 2; Sunday, April 18, 5:15 p.m., Harmony Gold) (JP)
Indian-American lesbian Reena lives with her pretty white girlfriend, takes photos and does Mehndi henna designs for a living, all to the dismay of her mother, who can't help comparing Reena to her perfect, just-married sister, Sarita. When Sarita discovers she's unable to have children, however, Reena decides to become a surrogate mother, and upsets the lives of all around her. This feature debut from writer-director Nisha Ganatra (she also plays Reena) is pleasantly entertaining, with fine performances and a hearty dose of smart-mouthed wisecracking. But for all her allusions to touchy subjects — the push and pull between lesbian lifestyles and traditional hetero roles, immigrant families suspended between two cultures — there's not much that disrupts the film's urban-lite setting and undercurrent of middle-class comfort. The film's title is dead on. (Screening with The Mischievous Ravi; Saturday, April 17, 9 p.m., Harmony Gold; Sunday, April 18, 11 a.m., Laemmle 2) (H-DD)