Break out the linen shirts and slightly-too-sweet sangria: lazy summer is here. Right after Memorial Day all that drive, hustle and bustle seem to evaporate into thin air; which can be nice, except that with Mad Men and Game of Thrones over, interesting entertainment options are about as rare as Don Draper at an AA meeting. You can only re-watch The Avengers and Prometheus so many times until The Dark Knight Rises, and after the American Cinematheque's Fassbinder retrospective is over, your indie-cred tooth may still be yearning for some intellectual sugar. Fortunately, the Los Angeles Film Festival kicks off this week downtown with an eclectic slate of alternative stimulation. In fact, LAFF may be the perfect casual way to inaugurate lazy summer -- start off surveying the downtown skyline with a cocktail at Perch and then amble over to L.A. Live when you're sufficiently soused to appreciate Woody Allen's Boccaccio-esque vignettes of wry nihilism in To Rome With Love, which opens the festival tomorrow.
Run by Film Independent, the LAFF has a more chill, familial air than Sundance -- and unlike Sundance, you can usually get tickets. In fact, LAFF is a great place to check out those noteworthy Sundance titles that have trickled down from Robert Redford's Mt. Olympus, if you didn't make it to Park City for the first go (or made it but missed'em thanks to Park City's faith-in-God-testing shuttle system). This year, the big post-Sundance catch is Beasts of the Southern Wild, which arrives after winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and playing in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes. If you haven't seen its firework-filled, Malik-miming feel-good trailer showcasing the world's most adorable orphan careening around a post-flood city (read: New Orleans) the word is that Beasts is so magically real, you'll need to read three Edith Wharton novels just to recover your sense of cynicism. Other Sundance second-chances include The Queen of Versailles, a housing-bust-era documentary that made waves in Park City for its tale of lives lost in the real estate bubble; Celeste and Jesse Forever with the incomparably lovely Rashida Jones; and Robot and Frank, an off-beat buddy comedy with Frank Langella and, well, a robot. After twice being thwarted by Sundance's shuttle system, I'm most excited to see Robot and Frank, because it apparently boasts the most powerfully sarcastic relationship between a man and his appliance since Steve Jobs gave us Siri.
Of course, LAFF is its own festival with its own selections and everything! And since it lacks the surfeit of hype and glamour that can overwhelm the filmmaking in Park City, downtown L.A. may, ironically, be a more likely place to have the kind of casual encounter with personal filmmaking that's at the core of the festival experience. For example, although I have yet to see David Fenster's Trona, apparently he is the keeper of the Wim Wenders/Jim Jarmusch flame. So, I'm putting his follow-up feature Pincus on my LAFF playlist besides Dead Man's Burden and Crazy and Thief (the latter, an LAFF friend assures me, rivals Beasts for its nostalgia-inducing lost and wondrous child POV). On the lower-fi segment of the spectrum, you often also have the most heart, and Breakfast With Curtis, turns out to be one of those surprises. Honestly, nothing can make my eyes glaze over faster than the words, "meandering, plot-less, coming-of-age story." However, if you give yourself a beat to adjust to its DIY aesthetic, Curtis and its cast of backyard hippie burn-outs redeem that cliché with a mellowed-out, jazzy free-form riff of eccentricity that is the perfect thing to stumble on after a handful of brunch-time Bloody Marys when you're in need of a cool place to wait out the mid-day heat. Documentary-wise, LAFF also has some interesting gems: The Iran Job follows an almost-made-it basketball player who picks up a contract to play in Iran's Super League. The film satisfied both my inner geopolitics geek with its inside look at Iran in the lead-up to the Green Revolution, as well scratched my Hoop Dreams itch with its inspiring sports story. Also of note and worth checking out, according to friends, is the rockumentary A Band Called Death, which follows punk band Death (if you're in need of a Sid-and-Nancy fix); as well as, Vampira and Me, about the local late-night horror host legend who inspired Elvira and plenty of lonely-midnight nerd fantasies.
You might have a hard time scoring a ticket to the gala Seeking a Friend For the End of The World, or the closer Magic Mike now that Channing Tatum has proven his comedy chops in the funniest movie of the year so far, 21 Jump Street, but those are getting their wide-release soon enough, and LAFF has plenty of other events: after parties, panels, discussions, Q&As and yes, free screenings. Now free outdoor screenings usually fall on the category of solar panels and sock-drawer organizing: great idea, but who's going to take the time? However, between the Academy's new open air screening venue, and the Hollywood Forever movie schedule, outdoor movies are having a heyday in L.A.; to boot, the plaza at 7th and Figueroa is screening gratis two films that I would gladly pay (and have paid) to see on the big screen again: E.T. and The Wrath of Khan. Michael Fassbender notwithstanding, Prometheus kind of fizzled when it came to "screams in space that no one can hear" -- but there is one scream in space that I love hearing every time, and that's William Shatner's gloriously hamfisted crie-de-coeur: Khaaaannnn! Chase that with a shot of tequila and Ricardo Montalban quoting Moby Dick and I'm all set cinematically for the next 10 days.