Ten for the Money

There are more than 182 features at the Newport Beach Film Festival. Here are 10 weve seen

BICKFORD SCHMECKLER'S COOL IDEAS. Geeky shut-in Bickford (Patrick Fugit) would rather contemplate infinity than communicate with his college housemates, and he writes down his cosmic observations in a large metal-bound notebook. Never would he suspect that his ideas might appeal to the hoi polloi, but as a toga kegger rages through the domicile, a beautiful blond nympho/klepto named Sarah (The O.C.'s Olivia Wilde) finds the book (which is simply titled The Book) and orgasms just from reading it. She absconds with the tome, and Bickford's tightly insulated life falls apart as he's forced to confront the real world, tracking the path of The Book as it's handed from person to person and becomes a sensation. Chris and Paul Weitz, who brought you the American Pie series, produced this comedy, and it has an '80s John Hughes-ish vibe, though not, alas, the same sense of story. Director Scott Lew is not without his own cool ideas (having Reno 911's Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon play campus cops is genius), but his focus is all over the place, and when Bickford begins to bare his soul toward movie's end, it doesn't feel like he's earned the moment. Also: it's cool they got Matthew Lillard to be in the movie, but he's extraordinarily miscast as a clean-shaven, crazy homeless guy. (Sat., 8:30 p.m. at Edwards Island)

BIG DREAMS LITTLE TOKYO. Former Mormon missionary David Boyle has put the Japanese-language skills he learned on assignment to good use, directing and starring in this comedy about a nerdy white guy named Boyd who just happens to be fluent in Japanese and desperately tries to make a living peddling the English-for-Asians textbook he's written. His roommate Jerome (Jayson Watabe) is an Asian-American taking language lessons from Boyd while training to be a sumo wrestler, a process that mostly consists of eating everything in sight. As a fish-out-of-water comedy, the movie is kind of a one-joke premise—people sometimes adopt cultures other than their own!—but fortunately it's a good joke, and the novelty of seeing Boyle acting and speaking like a Japanese businessman never gets old. His poker face and seeming unflappability make a second-act meltdown feel somewhat unconvincing—only now does he question his life?—but as a director, Boyle's key strength is he never loses compassion for all his characters, nor does he display a hint of condescension for their wacky dreams, no matter how ridiculous they may seem. (Fri., 1:30 p.m. at Edwards Island)

DANTE'S INFERNO. In 2004, artist Sandow Birk collaborated with author Marcus Sanders to create an illustrated retelling of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy using hallmarks of contemporary America rather than Dante's Italy. Now, with the help of writer/actor/puppeteer Paul Zaloom and director Sean Meredith, Birk has adapted the first part of it into a movie with sets and characters made entirely from cardboard cutouts, all of which are elaborately hand-drawn. Not just anybody could pull off a movie laden with characters who are quite literally two-dimensional and inexpressive, but the vocal talents of Dermot Mulroney as Dante and James Cromwell as his spirit guide Virgil go a long way—both sound like they're having more fun than they've enjoyed in ages. The overall effect is like seeing a gigantic Jack Chick tract come to life, albeit one with a deliberate sense of irony rather than the accidental kind so often found in the infamous religious pamphleteer's handiwork. Much of the satire sounds thuddingly obvious on paper—gay people being forced to dance to house music for eternity, say, or Ulysses talking Bush-speak about "liberating" Troy—but the sheer level of artistry involved is immersive and like nothing you've ever seen on the big screen. Easily one of the most original films of the year, and probably one of the best, too. Here's hoping the team has it in them to adapt the rest of Dante's trilogy. And locals may be amused to know that the entirety of Orange County is condemned to the same level of hell as Enron and Halliburton. (Sat., 6 p.m. at Edwards Island)

Eagle Vs. Shark.
Eagle Vs. Shark.

EAGLE VS. SHARK. If Napoleon Dynamite were a little older, had a libido and lived in New Zealand, he'd be Jarrod (Jermaine Clement), a mouth-breathing, extremely passive-aggressive video-game-store clerk who has somehow convinced himself that he has sufficient (self-taught) nunchaku skills to beat a former childhood bully into submission. ("He's gonna reap what he's sown, and it sure ain't corn . . . or wheat.") But as he waits for his foe to return to their childhood hometown, an odd romance begins to blossom when a mousy fast-food employee named Lily (Loren Horsley) shows up to a party and proves to be almost Jarrod's equal at a hilariously cheesy fighting game that might best be described as a Dogme 95 version of Mortal Kombat. Since Jarrod doesn't have a car, Lily persuades her brother to drive them both to Jarrod's hometown to stay with his bizarrely dysfunctional family as Jarrod prepares for what he imagines will be an epic battle of revenge. It's pretty flippin' clear where writer/director Taika Waititi got his inspiration—I mean gosh!,the main character's even kinda-sorta named after Napoleon director Jared Hess—but the key addition to the formula is to paint a picture of underlying tragedy and miscommunication that has caused these characters to be as weird as they are, retreating into strange worlds of their own making. That said, it's hardly maudlin, and the climax is likely to catch a lot of viewers pleasantly off-guard. (Tues., 7:30 p.m. at Edwards Island)

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