After opening the 2011 Cannes Film Festival winning raves (and an eventual Oscar for Original Screenplay) for Midnight In Paris, Woody Allen and Sony Pictures Classics dialed it down a bit for the North American premiere of his latest, To Rome With Love. But in a coup for the Los Angeles Film Festival Woody and several female co-stars made the trek to LA for last night’s opening film, and if the movie divided critics there were definitely a few big laughs, some supplied on camera by Woody himself in his first screen role since 2006’s  Scoop.

Now in its 18th year, the festival run by Film Independent is increasingly becoming a go-to place for summer movie premieres and interesting programming. On the down side it is once again taking place mostly at Regal Cinemas at L.A. Live in Downtown making it stressful for many Angelenos and Westsiders in particular — navigating rush hour traffic can be nightmarish (it certainly was for me yesterday). And with some street and freeway on and off ramp closures still in effect due to the King’s Stanley Cup hockey championship parade celebration earlier in the day (and other reasons) you can find yourself driving around aimlessly looking for any way in – or out – for that matter. Plus if you don’t manage to find the single West Garage parking entrance off Chick Hearn Court that offers the LAFF rate of $8 you may wind up paying $25 just to park.

Thank goodness that Woody provided some diversion and a few laughs. Film Independent’s  Sean McManus, who has been through these sports-related traffic snarls previously, told me they asked L.A. Live if there are any other “unexpected” sporting events on the schedule before LAFF 2012 wraps up with the world premiere of Warner Bros. Steven Soderbergh male-stripper drama, Magic Mike on June 24th. Hopefully it’s clear-sailing for the rest of the fest which offers dueling L.A. premieres tonight of DreamWorks’ family drama People Like Us  which will have stars Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks and Michelle Pfeiffer hitting the red carpet and Fox Searchlight’s acclaimed Beasts of the Southern Wild  launching its L.A. debut after award-winning premieres at Sundance and Cannes. There’s increasing Oscar buzz on that one. Monday there will be two more dueling preems with Focus Features’ Steve Carell film, Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World vs. Disney/Pixar’s Brave (down the 101 freeway at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre).

David Smart III
2 years
This is good for Mr. Allen to still be involved with the LAFF. If you will remember...
dman
2 years
all i want with this is a light summer comedy... i think that's what i'll get
Cinesnatch
2 years
Great writeup, Pete.

When asked which of the competing films in narrative and documentary categories should not be missed, LAFF Artistic Director and former Newsweek critic  David Ansen who runs the fest with Director Stephanie Allain said, “It’s impossible to pick just one, how about ten?”, though he added the international films are particularly strong this year citing Switzerland’s Sister as a phenomenal find for the fest. He said it is a banner year for documentaries too.

At the well-attended Opening Night afterparty on the spacious Event Deck Sony Pictures Classics co-Presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard were very upbeat on the commercial prospects for Allen’s comedy as well as their Fall awards bait Amour and Rust & Bone which both premiered in Cannes but won’t be seen at LAFF (Telluride and Toronto seem likely spots though). Barker told me they open To Rome With Love next Friday in L.A. and NY and go wide July 6.  It actually could do well if for no other reason than the paucity of adult-appeal movies this summer. One attendee said “the business has gone to the children”.  Certainly there’s a strong argument for that this summer.

Barker, who missed the first few days of Cannes due to a commencement speech he gave at his Alma Mater the University of Texas (“I almost blacked out I was so nervous” he said),  is very high on the Oscar potential for the Fall films. He says they will aggressively pursue Best Picture, Director,  Screenplay, Foreign-Language Film and actor/actress nominations (Jean Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva) for Michael Haneke’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner Amour, and he thinks there is a very good shot for Marion Cotillard’s lead role, screenplay and foreign film for Rust & Bone which SPC plans to open the Friday before Thanksgiving. He also predicts the latter, a smash hit in France, will be a very commerical import for SPC as well. Bernard also had high praise and hopes for their musical doc, Searching For Sugar Man which is also premiering at LAFF on June 19.

As for Allen he appeared in both theatres the film was playing last night to introduce his female cast members (Penelope Cruz, Alison Pill, Greta Gerwig, Allesandra Mastronardi, Simona Caparrini). “I had a wonderful time making the picture in Rome but that doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy it. But if you like it, pressure Sony so they don’t put us in the witness relocation program. If you like it I’m thrilled but if you hate it and think it was a waste of time don’t let me know. I get depressed easily,” he said. The film has actually been playing in Italy since April and drew some local criticism which might be understandable. This clearly is a view of Rome seen through American eyes. Its musical soundtrack prominently features such tunes as Volare and Arrividerci Roma, both big Italian hits in the U.S. Alec Baldwin, Roberto Begnini, Jesse Eisenberg and Judy Davis are among its co-stars who didn’t make the trek to LA.

Meanwhile the LAFF isn’t the only film festival action taking place this week in Los Angeles. The Telluride Film Festival threw a party at the London Hotel on Sunset the night before the LAFF launch to tout their upcoming Labor Day weekend 39th edition of a fest that grows in importance every year as a key start to awards season. Fest directors Gary Meyer, Tom Luddy and Julie Huntsinger are still putting the program together and, as is the custom, won’t announce it in advance.  But it’s clear this fest which draws Oscar-hopefuls from the likes of SPC, Searchlight, The Weinstein Company, Focus  and others has also attracted the attention of the major studios with eyes on Oscar this year.  At least one of them was busy showing their wares to the Telluride honchos this week in hopes of making the cut. They, like we, will have to wait and see what’s in store when it opens August 31st.  Until then the fest action is Downtown at L.A. Live, not nearly as relaxed as that Colorado mountain town but sure to offer its own intriguing mix of cinema for the next nine days.