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L.A. fest celebrates independent spirits, films

Where the renowned and unknown come together

Edward Burns
Edward Burns, director of "Sidewalks of New York"  

By Paul Clinton
CNN

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- A heady mixture of nervous energy, cautious anticipation and high hopes floats above the lobby of the Los Angeles headquarters of the Director's Guild of America, and that's no surprise.

It's Friday night, April 20, the first night of the seventh annual Los Angeles Film Festival. It's a time for faces new and familiar, names that are household words and those that one day may be. It's a night of possibilities, of shimmering promise.

To borrow a phrase from a renowned film about a tough guy on the trail of a jewel-encrusted falcon, the festival is the "stuff that dreams are made of."

The event, which runs through Saturday, April 28, has grown, drawing more stars and unknowns than ever before.

For the first time, the Independent Feature Project/West (the primary support network for independent filmmakers in Southern California), has put its considerable resources and membership behind the festival, and the result is a rich program presenting more than 90 films.

Many films, topics

The film topics cut a wide swath, encompassing many genres, including movies that detail strip joints in the San Fernando Valley, others that portray adolescent angst and still more that depict New York's avant-garde arts scene.

Another genre, one that might be termed "looking for love in all the wrong places," is exemplified by "Dirt." Independent film veteran Jennifer Tilly, sporting ginger-colored hair and a demure denim dress, appears in the film, which is competing in the dramatic category. She says she's excited about the film and the festival showcasing it.

Tilly's also a little uninformed.

"I think it's really fabulous that we're starting (a film festival) in Los Angeles, because it really does nurture young filmmakers," she says.

Jennifer Tilly shares a laugh with
Jennifer Tilly shares a laugh with "Dirt" co-stars Michael Covert, left, and Trace Fraim  

The fact that Tilly (who also stars in "Dancing At The Blue Iguana," another movie in competition) believes this is the first L.A. Film Festival underscores another fact: The young event has yet to attract the attention that older, more established competitions at Sundance and Cannes have commanded.

As with most festivals, this one showcases some total unknowns -- in front of and behind the camera -- as well as familiar names and faces. Often they share billing in the same movie.

For example, Tilly and Patrick Warburton (perhaps best known as Elaine's on-again, off-again boyfriend on TV's "Seinfeld") appear in "Dirt" along with unknowns Michael Covert (also co-director and screenwriter), and Trace Fraim (co-director, too).

Other familiar names on tap this week include Diane Ladd in "The Law of Enclosures," directed by John Greyson; Harvey Keitel in Joel Silverman's "Nailed"; and Paul Rudd in "The Chateau," a comedy directed by Jesse Peretz. "The Chateau" and "Dancing at the Blue Iguana" were picked up for domestic distribution during the festival.

Big names to start

The L.A. fest, like most film celebrations, wants star power to get things kick-started. "Sidewalks of New York," the opening-night film, features big names and has a distribution deal in place, though it is an independent production.

Directed by Edward Burns and set for a July release by Paramount Classics, the movie co-stars Heather Graham, Dennis Farina and Stanley Tucci.

As with all his films to date, Burns' "Sidewalks" takes place in the director's native New York City.

"I'm trying to create a body of work that sort of represents something, and has something to say," says Burns, 33, who grew up on Long Island. "Hopefully, I'll have a career that, 20 years from now, I'll look back and I'll have told the world about a slice of New York that they wouldn't have known about."

Other names, too

Another festival favorite is "Seven and a Match" starring Heather Donahue ("The Blair Witch Project," 1999). This film, about a meeting of friends in a remote location in Maine three years after they've graduated from Yale, might be characterized as a new millennium version of "The Big Chill" (1983).

It's the creation of writer/director Derek Simonds, who nervously introduces the film as the first time his "hairdresser and therapist have ever attended a screening with me at the same time."

The festival also offers a wide range of documentaries. One getting a lot of buzz is "The Young and the Dead," which tells the story of the Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery -- final resting place for such legends as Rudolph Valentino, Cecil B. DeMille and Tyrone Power -- and how Tyler Cassidy, a young man from the Midwest, saved it from bankruptcy. It will air on HBO in October.

Shorts, feature films, documentaries, workshops and seminars also are part of this event, and organizers say they are optimistic about its future.

For years, they note, studio honchos, agents, and film-distribution companies have traveled film festivals the world over, hoping to discover the next Steven Soderbergh or Laura Linney.

That could change, now that the Los Angeles Film Festival is coming into its own. Or, to take a phrase from another film -- this one about a well-traveled Kansas farm girl who goes to Oz and back -- the film industry may discover that what it sought was in its "very own backyard."



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