LAFF tvln 061606Despite the comparative lack of banners in Westwood and its environs (have there not been hundreds in previous years?) the 15th Los Angeles Film Festival starts this Thursday, and runs from June 18th to 28th. It may not be in the top rank, but it made it onto Variety’s top 50 unmissable international festivals last year, and has no need to be bashful.

This year’s centerpiece gala, for example, is Michael Mann’s latest Public Enemies (Tuesday 23, 7.30, Mann Village Theatre). At least the fifth crack at the Dillinger story  − see Warren Oates in 1973, Mark Harmon (!) in 1991 and, best of all, Lawrence Tierney in 1945 – this at least bodes well with the casting of Johnny Depp as Public Enemy no.1, and Marion Cotillard, Rory Cochran, Billy Crudup and Lily Taylor (amongst many others) in support. Less promising is the terminally dull Christian Bale as Dillinger’s cop nemesis, which will presumably cover well-worn Heat territory. Expect impeccable period design and exciting action, though at 143 minutes it may well be yet another Mann film that takes itself rather too seriously.

35 shots of rum tvln061609Public Enemies is assured a wide release, as are the the various selections of the Summer Showcase, but there’s nothing like seeing them first in the festival atmosphere. I am most excited by Claire Denis’s latest, 35 Shots of Rum. Trailing great word of mouth from the European circuit it is a small father-daughter family drama with racial undertones and suffused with Denis’s distinctive brand of gentle poeticism. Also a festival hit elsewhere is Still Walking from Kore-eda Hirokazu (whose 1998 After Life remains a firm favourite of mine). This focuses on a larger family, gathered to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of the eldest son’s death with, by all accounts, a perfectly judged bittersweet tone, rather more bitter than sweet.

paper heart tvln160609Reality-blurring remains popular: another Summer Showcase is Cold Souls starring Paul Giamatti as actor Paul Giamatti who, to help in his stage role as Uncle Vanya, decides to patronize a storage facility which specializes in soul extraction. Much post-Kaufman hilarity doubtless ensues. Less certain of wide release despite Sundance acclaim are Paper Heart and We Live in Public, both heady mixes of performance and reality. In the former, actress Charlyne Yi falls for actor Michael Cera in a sort of improvised documentary; the latter tells the rather sad story of Internet TV pioneer Josh Harris who, over the millennium, invited 100 people to live with him in an underground bunker and stream their existence non-stop over the web. Mental breakdown resulted.

bronson tvln160609There’s a tiny narrative competition, most of which seems staggeringly unadventurous, but slightly further from the beaten track, the International Showcase strand has plenty to offer: I’m most intrigued by Calimucho, a Dutch film about a travelling circus; Los Bastardos, a pulpy crime flick about Mexican day labourers in LA; and by another European festival hit, the Portuguese form-expanding experiment  Our Beloved Month of August. I’m also excited by and dreading in equal measure Extraordinary Stories, a four hour-long tapestry of crime, mystery and loose ends from Argentina that won top honours at last year’s Buenos Aires festival; Unmade Beds, the portrait of a 20-something East London couple (expect asymmetrical haircuts galore and painfully hip electro-rock); and the acclaimed (in some quarters) Bronson, from Pusher director Nicholas Refn, a violent and hallucinatory biopic of Britain’s self-proclaimed and self-named “most dangerous prisoner” Charles Bronson.

embodiment of evil tvln160609There’s an appealing horror strand this year, featuring 18th-Century grave-robbing comedy (there’s surely not enough of those) I Sell The Dead starring hobbit/castaway Dominic Monaghan, as well the similarly light-hearted ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction, wherein a zombie outbreak makes life in a small conservative island town even more difficult for an Iranian-American woman and a not-quite-out gay couple. Most fantastic, however, is the return of Coffin Joe, in José Mojica Marins long-overdue comeback, Embodiment of Evil. Joe’s still after a suitable mate to bear his demonic spawn so boobs and blood are once again on the agenda. Advance word has it that aged 73 Mojica is now an even more perfect embodiment of his anti-Christ anti-hero, but that the modern color and increased budget transform the kitschy enjoyment of the sixties’ installments into a rather nasty piece of work. There’s only one way to find out..

As a late addition, the opening gala is Paper Man, a US indy by tyro directing/writing team Michele and Kieran (brother of Dermot) Mulroney. It’s a premier, and so something of an unknown quantity. It stars Jeff Daniels as a washed-up Long Island writer and Ryan Reynolds as the superhero Captain Excellent he created in second grade. Lisa Kudrow plays his long-suffering wife and the cat-like (not in a good way) Emma Stone is a teenager who befriends him. I fear unbearable whimsy. Which is also likely for the closing gala, Ponyo, the latest from Miyazaki Hayao. It is the tale of an adventurous goldfish and a five year-old boy, based on Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. I have no doubt the animation will be impeccable but since I seem to have been far less taken with Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle than everyone else was, I will venture no opinionated guesses as to its cloying emotional stunted-ness.

night tide tvln160609And on the subject of stunted-ness, the film I am most keen to see is, for once, a documentary. Born Without focuses on José Flores, the diminutive armless Mexican street musician who has been such a memorable presence in the films of Alexandro Jodorowsky. Also top of my list are two more films that made a strong impression at European festivals: Pere “I will never release my films on DVD” Portobella’s The Silence Before Bach, an episodic epoch-spanning celebration of Bach and his influence, suffused with a mischievous wit (Portabella produced Buñuel’s Viridiana); and Wakamatsu Koji’s United Red Army, an epic recreation of the 1972 police siege of a radical student group (with Jim O’Rourke soundtrack). Another must-see is the restoration of Curtis Harrington’s dreamy 1961 debut, Night Tide, starring Dennis Hopper as a sailor who encounters a possibly murderous mermaid.

edie tvln160609Apart from the features, there’s plenty of good music to be seen and heard also: special open-air screenings at the Ford Amphitheatre include All Tomorrow’s Parties, a compilation of filmed performances from the likes of Belle and Sebastian and Sonic Youth at the fantastic annual festival on the south coast of England (curators have included Shellac, the Flaming Lips and Belle and Sebastian themselves, and reunions of such legends as Slint and My Bloody Valentine have become commonplace). Perhaps more captivating, however, will be the Amphitheatre’s 13 Most Beautiful event (Sat. 20th), an east coast success in recent months featuring Dean & Britta (Wareham & Phillips, ex-Luna, he also of the much-missed Galaxie 500) playing along to Warhol screen-tests of Nico, Lou Reed and Edie Sedgwick. Given Wareham’s long-standing Velvet Underground obsession, I expect a perfect marriage self-indulgent image and sound. Also somewhat self-indulgent I’d have thought, but doubtless just as thrilling, is It Might Get Loud: Jimmy Page, the Edge and Jack White sit around talking about electric guitars and jamming. There’s just no way it can be bad, really.

More music pops up in various video compilation screenings, featuring artists as diverse as Kanye West, Death Cab For Cutie and Peaches, and a special program dedicated to Propaganda and Satellite films who facilitated the promos for such classics as “Devil’s Haircut”, “It’s Oh So Quiet” and “Welcome To The Jungle”. Then there’s the usual menagerie of shorts and two potentially interesting programmes of short films from high school kids. Other non-feature events include various poolside chats at the W, “Festival Conversations” with the likes of Robert Rodriguez, Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal and an intensive film- financing conference. And for relaxing in between all this, there’s the excessively-named ZonePerfect  live.create lounge next to the festival office. It’s going to be a busy fortnight in Westwood.

Most movies apart from Galas and Ford Amphitheatre screenings show twice, at various venues around Westwood – for schedule, ticket and location information, see the official website: lafilmfest.com/2009.

All images courtesy LAFF