Pete Hammond

The Los Angeles Film Festival kicked off Thursday night with the North American premiere of Pedro Almodovar’s raunchy screwball comedy I’m So Excited! at LA Live’s Regal Cinemas. And if the jaded opening-night LA crowd did not demonstrably respond (there was just small polite applause at the end) with the enthusiasm past Almodovar films have enjoyed from Cannes to New York, it did send off the 11-day fest on a fun note. In no small part that owes to the fact that the pic is about sex and Almodovar himself explained the film’s title as “like being very horny”. Sony Pictures Classics is releasing the film and was pleased to grab the prestigious opening slot of the Film Independent signature film fest. And of course LA Film Fest was thrilled to get Almodovar.

SPC co-president Michael Barker told me afterwards that this is the first of Almodovar’s films to premiere in North America outside of New York. “The time was right for this one and Pedro was totally on board with coming here with it as well”, he said. In fact an ebullient Almodovar told me he was extremely impressed with the Regal’s massive screen and bright projection even though Sony took him to dinner during the movie. “I actually wanted to stay and watch. I grew up seeing movies in big theatres like this. I love the experience.” According to the two-time Oscar-winning director (All About My Mother, Talk To Her) his latest is the #1 box office attraction this first half of the year in his native Spain. And, as he tells it, that was no easy trick due to the failing economy which has seen double-digit declines and caused a steep downturn in moviegoing. Almodovar suggested people prefer to watch downloads on the Internet rather than pay the money for a moviegoing experience and that saddens him, although he’s glad his film is surviving in Spanish multiplexes despite the hardships. For him this pic was a bit of a lark after the more serious The Skin I Live In, which played in competition in Cannes in 2011. I’m So Excited! is about a jetliner en route to Mexico which encounters technical problems and then all hell ensues — a freewheeling farce that at least one Oscar voter told me later left him with tears running down his face due to laughter. Others were not as enthusiastic. It doesn’t matter. This likely won’t be an awards contender — comedies rarely are — but it returns Almodovar to his initial wild style of humor and that’s always welcome.

In his introductory remarks to the packed crowd, fest director David Ansen introduced Almodovar glowingly: “I can’t think of another director really in the last 30 years who has given us so much pure pleasure than this man who has really re-invented Spanish cinema and has brought a new sensibility with an incredibly generous heart, perverse and dirty mind that we love. He’s irresistible, irreplaceable.” The director then praised his producer-brother Augustin Almodovar and particularly his two-decade relationship with SPC’s Bernard and Michael Barker who have released several of his films. “I don’t come very often to this town but this festival is the best reason to be here,” he said. He noted the catastrophic times in which the comedy is set but said “this movie allowed me to turn the catastrophe into a party, a party to where you are invited.” Almodovar is an irrespressible force of nature and told me he hasn’t abandoned the kind of dramatic films for which he is also known and looks forward to that next outing.

This is the second year in a row that Sony Classics has launched the fest. Last year, Woody Allen’s subpar To Rome With Love was the opening attraction after missing out on Cannes (Woody’s Midnight In Paris had wowed the Croisette the year before). And now another international directing superstar also bypassed Cannes (where it likely would have suffered from its comedic bent) for friendlier Los Angeles. Somehow I managed to get through two weeks of Cannes without running into Barker or Bernard, fixtures on the Croisette. “We were too busy seeing — and buying movies — I guess, ” Barker told me before reeling off a list than included The Past, Only Lovers Left Alive and the Critics Week sensation Lunchbox which he singled out for special kudos and says SPC will likely release in February. If it becomes India’s Foreign Language Oscar nominee, it will get a full-court press from SPC to be sure. But it looks like they could have others, too. Barker said SPC also has yet to announce one other ”smaller” acquisition from Cannes.

On the English-language front, Bernard told me he was especially high on the Jim Jarmusch’s Cannes competition film Only Lovers Left Alive which he liked right from the start and claimed some of his competitors just didn’t get. Barker also gave unsolicited praise to Allen’s new film Blue Jasmine which they open July 26th. He looked liked the cat who swallowed the canary in describing Cate Blanchett’s chances for a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance. “I’ve got the one this time, no matter who else comes along. Wait until you see it,” he said.

Barker also had praise for the LA Film Festival saying programmers Ansen and Stephanie Allain have really stepped up and given what was once considered a lightweight summer fest some real gravitas. With past openers like The Kids Are All Right and fest discovery Bernie, this annual event hopes to take on more of a presence, even though it is clearly outside the margins of awards-season cachet that the AFI Fest enjoys in November.

The festival runs through June 23rd and closes with Fox Searchlight’s Sundance pickup The Way Way Back.

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