The Los Angeles Film Fest is in full-swing this week, turning the little corner of L.A. Live around the Regal Cinemas into a mini-Sundance -- albeit without the snow. There's a slightly more relaxed and casual vibe despite the towering Ritz Carlton next door and plenty of indie filmmakers properly pickled in free Stella Artois. Of course, the L.A. Film Fest will never be Sundance, but is that such a bad thing? The scenester quotient is far lower, which lets you actually focus on seeing films, and the filmmaker Q&As afterward feel less like late-night talk show interviews and more like a casual coffee chat with a new friend. It's definitely not a bad way to spend a summer weeknight, especially if your choice is between that and an after work slog on the 10/101/any freeway anywhere in L.A.
So have I found any hidden gems so far? Well, I'm not sure a new film by Pedro Almodovar counts as hidden by any measure, but I'm So Excited, which opened the festival, is certainly a lusty little petit four of a film. I'll admit I'm a sucker for Almodovar. You never go into his films expecting Lawrence of Arabia, but no other filmmaker since Fellini has so consistently crafted a unique, surprising and pleasing feel for all his films, even when the underlying material is slender as a reed. I'm So Excited might not resonate far beyond Almodovar's core art house fan base but the premiere audience certainly enjoyed the flying orgy of exuberance that was what you would technically call an Almodovar chamber piece. There's not much to it: a group of disparate passengers awake to flamboyant flight attendants who spill the beans that the plane's landing gear is stuck. Eventually the plane will have to attempt a dangerous landing at an abandoned airfield, but until then, there's plenty of sex, drugs, and Spanish-repartee to go around. It's the right kind of small, arty movie you might catch some Sunday when you get tired of CGI explosions and want to indulge in some vicarious culture hopping.
I did however fall head over heels in love with Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Lucy Walker's The Crash Reel. Granted, I'd heard great things out of Sundance and SXSW, so I was thankful to LAFF for giving me a chance to see it without fear of being caught in a snow flurry. Now, I know as much about snowboarding as I do particle physics -- that is, both exist and both blow my mind. But Walker's look at once-and-future-star Kevin Pearce, whose career was ended by a tragic traumatic brain injury, transcends being a mere cautionary tale about the price of extreme sports and becomes a film both morally grand and heart-wrenchingly intimate. She starts you off with a breezy jolt, quickly sketching a portrait of invincible friends that imparts a sense of the invigorating thrill only catching 20 feet of air off a half-pipe amid crystalline mountain beauty can give you. Pearce was the rising star of the sport, someone who excelled by boarding for love of the snow and found himself within a stone's throw of overtaking snow-god Shaun White (who comes off as a dull, mono-focus robot with only incidental humanity despite Walker's polite editing.) Then comes Pearce's accident, so quick and so stomach churning: out of context it could be a blooper reel highlight. In the full, emotion-draining context that follows, Lucy provides a stunningly open view on Pearce, his family and his friends as he battles a massive, life-altering injury that is as insidious as it is invisible. He must learn to walk and speak again while he hides depression behind his omnipresent smile and burns with the desire to return to a sport that could kill him should he have even the slightest spill.
Walker succeeds beautifully in capturing the long, grueling, soul-testing slog that true battles with adversity (and brain trauma in particular) are, even for those gifted with natural talent and/or irrepressible spirit. And implicit in her story and its view of White is a subtle critique of the American obsession with absolute, self-dominating success: when you look at life as something to be won, that's when you risk truly losing it. But Kevin presents an alternative idea of the champion -- not just the kind who can win medals, but one who can come back from life's most existentially crushing blows -- which when you think about it, is probably more useful for the rest of us who will never stand on top of an Olympic podium either. In short, Walker tells a masterful story about one young man who lost his world and had to re-gain himself. The Crash Reel will get a small theatrical release in July and after that it will be featured on HBO; so, if you don't live that bi-coastal life style, sign up for HBO or steal someone's HBO Go password. It's worth it, as is the attendant "#LoveYourBrain campaign promoting traumatic brain injury awareness.
Finally, I checked out Four Dogs purely motivated by fanhood for Dan Bakkedahl. Directed by Joe Burke and written by Burke with lead Oliver Cooper, Four Dogs is a low-pulse film that follows a twenty-something acting school drop out who spends the days walking his aunt's dogs and eating Indian food with a middle-aged actor buddy (Bakkedahl). Their lives aren't even in first gear, and in truth, the movie goes close to nowhere, although it stirs up some chuckles and an undeniable humanity by its end. Four Dogs clearly wants to be a slice-of-life film that captures a sense of everyday existence's essential nothingness. At this it succeeds. However, when you watch the on-screen chemistry between Bakkedahl and Cooper, you wish the script had given them something -- anything -- more to do. But the story focuses more on Cooper, which causes it to lose sight of the essential ingredient that lets really good slice-of-life films chart the nooks and crannies of boredom without collapsing into solipsistic navel-gazing: human relationships. Talking with a colleague afterward, we both agreed that even on the level of movies that rarely make it beyond the festival circuit, such modest films can nonetheless be endlessly intriguing and oddly intoxicating. Case in point was another LAFF film from last year Breakfast with Curtis. Nothing really happened in that film either, but the personalities and relationships kept you engaged despite the nothingness of it all. Rarely do films capture that feeling of interminable summer days while holding your gaze as well as Breakfast With Curtis did. Four Dogs doesn't quite hit that bar. But my admiration for Bakkedahl grew -- his loping tufts of side-hair hint at a well of comic pathos and embattled decency that could anchor the right film one day soon -- and with a little more time, perhaps Cooper and Burke can push themselves to the next level.