Ten for the Money

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

THE HIGH ROLLERS (TAZZA). After losing all of his sister's alimony in a crooked card game, ne'er-do-well Goni (Cho Seung-woo) initially turns to violence, but when his competitive spirit impresses veteran card shark Mr. Pyung (Baek Yun-shik), he decides to become a master of the craft in order to win all the money back. Badgering Pyung until he caves and takes him as an apprentice, Goni becomes a sort of demented Karate Kid of the cards, learning all of the tricks of the trade before heading into the dangerous high-level contests in which bodily appendages are the stakes. Based on a Korean comic book, High Rollers is nothing deep and perhaps a little overlong at over two hours—Asian audiences more familiar with the game of hwatu will likely have a greater appreciation for the nuances of the story—but Cho's madcap performance in the lead keeps things mostly lively, and female lead Kim Hye-su looks wonderful naked. The international English title is apparently The War of Flower—for reasons that aren't apparent. (Mon., 7 p.m. at Edwards Island)

MOJAVE PHONE BOOTH. On the face of it, this movie shouldn't work—it looks cheap, seems like it was filmed in the houses of the people involved, is made up of four short stories, and features a few actors who look like actors rather than real people. And yet it's not just good but great, with a haunting atmosphere that rivals the Polish brothers at their best. Though it was torn down in 2000, there used to be a working phone booth in the middle of the Mojave, and director/cowriter John Putch imagines an unseen elderly English lady who calls in several times to see who answers. Four people do—Beth (Annabeth Gish), who tells of being torn between two men; Mary (Tinarie Van Wyk-Loots), a beautiful young woman who is only perceived as a sex object; Alex (Christine Elise), a lesbian whose girlfriend believes a little too strongly in aliens; and Richard (Fast Times at Ridgemont High's Robert Romanus, who hasn't aged well), the man whose story ties all the others together. Putch, son of Jean Stapleton, has come a long way as a director since the idiotic BachelorMan, showing a gift for mood and character that's near-transcendent. Magnetic tape is a frequent motif throughout, a medium we once used to record permanent memories that is now becoming obsolete, just as life itself eventually does. But lest any of this sound too ponderous, consider that Putch also casts Steve Guttenberg as a slimy john who likes to videotape illicit three-ways. So there's something for everyone. (Tues., 3 p.m. at Edwards Island)

MOOLA. Those who know William Mapother only as the evil Ethan Rom on Lostmay be surprised by this change of pace, a comedy allegedly based on true events in which he plays a harried businessman who's part-owner (along with Daniel Baldwin, Charlotte Ross and Curtis Armstrong) of a company that manufactures glow sticks. When a couple of local farmers realize that attaching the sticks to the rear ends of dairy cows makes the livestock easier to track, a large agricultural conglomerate suddenly becomes interested in the small business. But while a lucrative offer is made, excessive celebration just might be premature. You know the drill in movies like this. Success is bad; family life is good. Not to mention, glow sticks on cows' asses are funny. The cast keeps things eminently watchable, especially Doug Hutchison (Eugene Tooms from The X-Files) as a devious corporate asshole, but the premise is extremely thin, and the lead characters so hopelessly naÔve and careless that it's hard to feel bad for them when they make some major missteps. This movie is the second offering from Don Most, a.k.a. Ralph Malph on Happy Days, following 1999's The Last Best Sunday, which is primarily known as the Angela Bettis Nude Scene Movie. (Fri., 8 p.m. at Regency Lido)

Eagle Vs. Shark.
Eagle Vs. Shark.

SHANGHAI KISS. Before she made a name for herself as Heroes' indestructible cheerleader, Hayden Panettiere appeared in a little-seen cinematic gem called The Dust Factory, in which she played the role of effervescent muse to a young boy who finds himself stuck in purgatory. In Shanghai Kiss, she sort of does the same thing again, only this movie's purgatory is Los Angeles and the "boy" is a bitter Chinese-American named Liam (Ken Leung) who's pushing 30, hates his family and struggles in his chosen career field of acting. Panettiere is Adi, a 16-year-old he meets on the bus who sees the world as full of possibilities and actually manages to coax a smile from the angry young man. An odd relationship ensues—the age difference keeps things chaste, but she insists on calling him her boyfriend. Then Liam's grandmother dies, forcing him to take a trip to China, where he has inherited the family home. Planning to make a quick sale, Liam instead finds himself drawn to a more age-appropriate babe, Micki, played by former model Kelly Hu; he also runs afoul of a local thug played by Byron Mann, who was Ryu in the live-action Street Fighter movie. Though Liam is a total drag as a human being, he's witty enough that we never totally get tired of watching of him, though the story works best when it sticks to Lost in Translation-style alienation, rather than Sweet Home Alabama-type clichťs about rediscovering one's roots. (Sat., 8 p.m. at Regency Lido; Tues., 9 p.m. at Edwards Island)

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