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. 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)

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 naïve 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)

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 clichés about rediscovering one's roots. (Sat., 8 p.m. at Regency Lido; Tues., 9 p.m. at Edwards Island)

SINNER. As the opening credits of Sinner unfurl, we hear audio snippets from numerous clergy-abuse scandals, including that of Oliver O'Grady, profiled in the documentary Deliver Us From Evil. But this isn't a pedo-priest flick at all, really; the intro seems designed purely so that when we first catch sight of Father Romano (Nick Chinlund) jerking off under the bed sheets, we're immediately inclined to hate him, and his oily demeanor certainly doesn't alleviate those emotions. His straight-arrow colleague Stephen (Michael E. Rodgers) seems by far the better bet, though both are exiled in a church with no parishioners. But when a scantily clad and obviously quite damaged young lady (Georgina Cates) drives into town and starts pushing a few buttons, director Marc Bernardout engages in some neat sleight of hand to gradually shift our sympathies around, which wouldn't be possible if not for the layered, standout performance by Chinlund that gets better and better as the movie goes along. It's unfortunate, then, that the storytelling is so awkward—whether by error of scripting or editing, it frequently seems like there are scenes missing, with time sometimes substantially passing or key moments only alluded to. What initially feels like deliberate ambiguity ultimately only frustrates. Still, David Kerr's moody cinematography and Chinlund's work are reason enough to love the Sinner—even while we hate its sins. (Tues., 5:30 p.m. at Edwards Island)

THE WONDER OF IT ALL. You all know the name of Neil Armstrong and maybe even Alan Shepard, but what about the other guys who went to the moon? They're all here, on camera and still full of life, having, as they put it, lived the achievements of several lifetimes already. Some, like John Young, regret we haven't done more since, as he was hoping for a moon base, which he surmises might have increased the chances for world peace somehow. Buzz Aldrin talks about his family struggle with depression and his own post-mission alcoholism. An impressive collection of color and black-and-white photos from the era serve as transitions, along with actual moon-walk footage you probably haven't seen all of before. This isn't fancy filmmaking, but it gets the job done, and you could learn something—the real reason to see it at the Newport Beach Film Festival, however, is that some of the astronauts will be in attendance. Meet the men who made history and pick their brains; judging by the movie, that's what they're hoping for. (Fri., 6:30 p.m. at Edwards Island)

EDWARDS ISLAND CINEMAS, 999 NEWPORT CENTER DR., NEWPORT BEACH; REGENCY LIDO, 3459 VIA LIDO, NEWPORT BEACH, (866) NBFF-TIX; NEWPORTBEACHFILMFEST.COM. $10 PER SCREENING.

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