After the Crash

2006 Newport Beach Film Festival has a tough act to follow

Revised for the Web!

It's unclear whether the rest of the free world has figured out that there is a yearly film festival in Newport Beach, but Hollywood certainly knows. And isn't that what really counts? It is to the army of anonymous filmmakers who'll converge on pricey Orange County real estate April 20-30 for the festival's seventh run.

Hollywood's keen interest this go-round stems from the film that made its U.S. premiere while opening last year's Newport Beach Film Festival (NBFF): Crash. The only buzz going for the low-budget, racial-profiling fable at that time was that it starred and was co-produced by Sandra Bullock and Don Cheadle, and it was co-written and directed by Paul Haggis, who'd adapted a novel into the then-reigning, Oscar-winning Best Picture Million Dollar Baby. No one could have predicted that Crash would go on to spark a national debate on race relations, raise the profiles of (and award nominations for) journeyman actors Matt Dillon and Terrence Howard, and grab three Academy Awards, including a Best Picture of its own. Crashhas been vehemently embraced/damned in the city it's set in, Los Angeles, and by film critics, even here at the Weekly. Ella Taylor penned a rave when the movie hit theaters, while Scott Foundas damned it as the worst film of the year.

Naturally, NBFF organizers capitalized on their hosting the Crash premiere and the resulting avalanche of awards and media attention while planning and promoting their 2006 filmstravaganza. Hollywood came calling to NBFF for a change, not the other way around. And this is the first time we here at the Weekly recall film companies sending us announcements that their titles won NBFF selection nods—making sure to mention the festival having premiered Crash. It's like they're admitting guilt by association.

Dillon in the 2005 opener Crash
Dillon in the 2005 opener Crash

Newport programmers and audiences are the big winners. But please feel some sympathy for those behind this year's opening- and closing-night films, both of which make their West Coast premieres at NBFF. Talk about unsolicited pressure!

Opener Neverwas, like Crash a "modern-day fable," stars Aaron Eckhart, who is currently lighting up OC theaters in Thank You for Smoking, as a psychiatric professor who leaves academia to work at an institution where his novelist father (Nick Nolte) lived before writing a renowned children's book. A schizophrenic (Ian McKellen) helps Eckhart discover the book's secrets and his place in the story. The Weekly did not get to prescreen the film, but the comments we've heard from those who have ranged from "great" to "god-awful." Hey, just like Crash!

Meanwhile, Foundas is already on the record about closer The Illusionist. Reporting from the Sundance Film Festival 10 weeks ago for our sister paper LA Weekly, Foundas could not understand why Neil Burger's film was "a hot ticket," calling it "a period romantic thriller not half as tricky as it thinks it is, about a master magician whose love for the fiancťe of the Austrian crown prince causes him to be fingered as a government subversive. Discussing the film afterward with a colleague, I discovered that it had kept us both pinned to the edge of our seats—him wondering what was going to happen next, me wondering how stars Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti could have possibly thought this piece of junk was a good career move."

While pondering the odds of the same critic hating the 2005 NBFF opener and 2006 NBFF closer, keep in mind that Neverwas and The Illusionist are just two of the more than 350 features, documentaries, shorts and animation from around the world that will be screened here. Most have played at other festivals around the globe, but a sizable number are making their Southern California, West Coast, North American and even world premieres. Art really does mirror the culture: war, terrorism and world poverty are all reflected in truth and fiction. America's hot-button issue of the day—immigration—is a recurring theme at this NBFF, with five features and documentaries using the plight of and/or fight against Mexican border crossers as their themes.

The Weekly runs down everything we've seen in The Good, the Sorta Bad and the Gott-Damn Youse Ugly. Filmmaker Ham Tran explains to R. Scott Moxley that Journey From the Fall seeks to correct a major cinematic slight against South Vietnamese people. Alice Ellingson, 77, tells Matt Coker why her first-ever starring role in Apart From That will also be her last. Theo Douglas follows the rise and fall of skateboarder Jason Jessee, a documentary about whom was going to play at Newport, but now it's not.

We pay special attention to some films and events we believe warrant your time (although not necessarily Best Picture Oscars). African-American actor/author/filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles gets the documentary treatment in How to Eat Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It), which Joshua Land enthusiastically recommends, while Greg Tate interviews the original Baadasssss. Greg Stacy hopes Muppet creator Jim Henson—and puppeteers in general—gets more credit for adult-themed work as NBFF presents a day of Puppetry in Film events at two theaters. And Stacy wonders if Quentin Tarantino, and not the program-listed director Scott Storm, should get the credit for Ten 'Til Noon, which is about a jet-lagged guy who awakens to find two strangers in his bedroom. There's a whole bunch of strangelings ringing a sadly decaying cesspool at the center of Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea. Theo Douglas gives the lowdown on the flick, narrated with relish by John Waters. Matt Coker weighs in on a first time writer/director/star's surprisingly well-written, -directed and -acted Self Medicated. And Coker urges all Americans to get down to Fuck: The Fuckumentary, a fun-loving look at a serious topic: the clashing promotion and erosion of freedom of speech in America. Fuck director Steve Anderson explains how his project did not . . . wait for it . . . crash.

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