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FILM FESTIVALS OF THE WORLD #7: AFI Film Festival, Los Angeles CA
by Paul Zimmerman

DATELINE: HOLLYWOOD - I’m standing on the roof of the Henry Fonda Theater, site of the opening and closing parties for the 22nd AFI festival. The night air is crisp, the drinks are flowing and the crowd is filing in from the opening night screening of the British comedy Calendar Girls. Off to the west arc lights light up the clear skies. The fires that threatened to turn LA into in Hell West have all but abated. Sure the flames are still licking old trees a few hours away in the mountains of resort areas like Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead but down below in the Hollywood Hills it’s back to business as usual. Which means movie making, movie talking and movie festivals. LA has several, none of which make a big dent in the social scene around here.

For all intensive purposes there are only two of real note: The Los Angeles Independent Film Festival (LAFF) and the American Film Institute Film Festival (AFI). And the AFI is the real keeper. It’s no wonder a few years ago someone, oh yeah, it was me, wrote that AFI is “the new fall classic.” That would have been in 2000 when the Coen Brother’s O Brother, Where Art Thou kicked off a fine docket of flicks that also marked Christian Gaines becoming the fest’s new director. To understand how AFI went from ok fest to big time fun you need look no further than Gaines. Transplanted from Hawaii’s Film Festival Gaines quickly brought some much-needed glitz and pizzazz to a festival that had frankly gone arch and stale. He brought in stars, landed some big unknown films and by 2001 he had bragging rights that films like Monsters Ball had world premiered as the closing night film.

What it is: American Film Institute (AFI) Film Festival
Where: El-Aye, AKA La-La Land, AKA L-Alien, AKA Los Angeles, CA
When: November 6-16th
Locale: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood
Films screening: 134, inclduing 26 World premieres, 24 North American premieres, and 24 U.S. premieres

What you'll see: Traditional wisdom is a big festival’s opening night film is usually three things: safe, PC, inoffensive. If you’re talking Sundance the emphasis is on feel good films laced with a heavy dose of PC. If you’re talking Toronto all you have to know is they reserve the opening night for Canadian films of the safe sort. That said, AFI is known for opening with nice but interesting films (Life is Beautiful, Cider House Rules) and closing with dark critical favorites (Quills, All About My Mother, Monster’s Ball). Which means this year they opened with the likable U.K. comedy Calendar Girls starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, a Full Monty for the ladies true story about some over 50 ladies who pose for a calendar to raise funds for Leukemia Research and closes with the dark drama Monster starring a down and dirty Charlize Theron as real life lesbian serial killer Aileen Wournos. Oscar bait anyone?

Highlights this year: As the throng passed through the newly renovated deco masterpiece called the Henry Fonda Theater toward chi-chi snacks and vodka cocktails with names like Key Lime Pie (pass!), the talk quickly went right from Calendar Girls to bad girl Wournos. Double representing, Wournos, who was recently executed in Florida for killing six men, is also the subject of the Nick Broomfield documentary Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer playing around mid-fest. Other buzzed about films included Afterlife a gritty Scottish drama, Japanese Story an Australian version of Lost in Translation, Robert Altman’s all dancing, no singing drama The Company and Errol Morris’ documentary about the reviled and somewhat repentant Viet Nam War era Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (a man so hated and well known he’s even in my computer’s spell check). Talk also turned to the goofiest event of the fest: a 20 minute preview reel from Anthony Minghella’s long awaited Civil War drama starring Nicole Kidman and Jude Law, Cold Mountain. 20 minutes?!? Longer than a trailer and less than a film, even with Minghella personally whetting festival goers' appetites it smacks of being a tease and a cheat.

Celeb-watching: It's LA, so you'll see people who work in them thar moving pitchers but plenty. One good example of such a meeting might be my little encounter with Udo Kier (pictured, above) at this year's fest.

ME: May I take your picture?
UDO: Do you even know who we are?
ME: I know you. I just sold Warhol's Blood for Dracula with you in it on eBay!
UDO: Very nice.
ME: And you are...?

Best screens: In past years AFI, like an unwanted stepchild, had bounced around LA. One year it could be found at the Lemme Theaters on Sunset Boulevard, another year in Beverly Hills. The good news is since last year AFI has settled comfortably in the snazzy ArcLight Cinemas. The proper screening arena LA wants and deserves, ArcLight is the new breed of cinema. Namely high tech (all theaters EXCEED THX standards), high profile (individual seats can be reserved), and high price (several more bucks than the average). Ah, but what a swell venue it is. Architecturally attached to the historic Cineramadome like plankton to a great whale, ArcLight looks like a bad sci-fi movie - it’s all giant glass, steel and confusing walkways. Fortunately it also plays like a dream. Clean aisles. Good food. Real butter! Ushers. Valet parking. Coat check. Need I go on?

As is my habit, I usually skip the opening night film and go straight to the party. And since it is also my habit even when seeing a film to not give to much away, I instead enlist unsuspecting party goers to give you, the reader, anonymous one line reviews. Here’s what a sampling said about Calendar Girls:

“It’s better than The Full Monty.”
“It was very sweet.”
“I love the British and European celebration of older women being women. Not like in America with 50 year old women trying to look like they’re 20 and looking pathetic.”
“A broad comedy. And I mean that in every sense of the word.”
“I liked it for what it wasn’t. It wasn’t sarcastic. It wasn’t mean.”
“It’s great to see women over 50 looking so lovely and comfortable in their own skin.”

Aw, great. A movie you can take mom, sis and grandma to and not feel bad about later. Me? I’m off to the dark stuff.

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originally posted: 11/11/03 13:53:08
last updated: 12/31/03 13:19:36
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