Surf City Celluloid

The SoCal Independent Film Fest goes big

The Elephant King. If you only see one film at the festival, make it this one. Seth Grossman's second feature as a director is beautiful to look at, solidly acted, unpredictable and sexy as hell. Plus, it has actual elephants! It's a lot like that Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach thematically, but doesn't fall flat on its face like that one did. Depressed writer Oliver (Tate Ellington) travels to Thailand to find his brother Jake (Jonno Roberts), who has fled a pending court case in the U.S. and left his parents (Josef Sommer and Ellen Burstyn) to deal with the resultant mess. Ostensibly there to persuade Jake to come home and face the music, Oliver also imagines that his brother has become some sort of Indiana Jones-type hero, as opposed to the pill-popping, hard-drinking hustler he actually turns out to be. Yet Oliver is still smitten with the Far East, and particularly the beautiful bartender (Thai model Florence Faivre) who seems to fall for him the moment they meet. Thailand, however, is not Disneyland, and the tourists will not be welcome forever. And taking care of a pet pachyderm? Harder than it looks. Grossman sustains a hypnotic tone that sucks you into the fantasy world, and thanks in large part to the casting of Burstyn and Sommer, manages to sustain interest in the real-world troubles back home. Special credit also for Faivre's sex scenes with Ellington, which are hotter than anything in Hollywood this year so far. Sept. 8, 7 p.m.

The Garage.As he stops for a fill-up at a service station and stares at old photos, Matt (Martin Donovan) remembers his youthful days working at his father's garage—back when the character's voice was deeper and played by younger actor Gabriel Marantz. Alongside his best friend Schulz (Mark Johnson), he plans to run away when the timing is right, though he seems to be the only one who doesn't see just how reckless and irresponsible Schulz is. Meanwhile, Matt's ties to the town become stronger as his struggling family become more dependent on his contributions, and a perfect girlfriend (hilariously named "B.J.," of all things) suddenly materializes to become an instant plot device. It's easy to mock only because the film is sooooo earnest—it would be a fine fit for the Hallmark or Family Channel. Nothing wrong with good old-fashioned, utterly predictable, small-town stories, if you're into that; the movie is what it is, and it's one of the few features here that's totally family friendly. But it's also kinda dull, and has almost as many false endings as a Peter Jackson movie. Sept. 8, 9 p.m.

I Wanna Be Like Mike: The Story of the New NBA. You've got to hand it to festival organizers Brian Barsuglia and Vince Lara when it comes to documentary selection—with Moroccan hip-hop, rockabilly and geek docs alongside this one about basketball, they may have finally found a way to make the form seem cool and appealing to the kids. This one looks primarily at the pros and cons of basketball recruitment—it's less about the NBA than the auxiliary culture that springs up around it, full of unscrupulous recruiters, barely authorized clubs and smaller leagues where those who don't make it the first time can practice for another shot. Most interviewed here seem to agree that kids should go to college first, but acknowledge that kids who are really good can make a lot more money if they go straight from high school. It's more talking-head than full-court action, but a lively debate even for non-fans. Too bad, though, that a movie which exists in the shadow of Michael Jordan couldn't get him to actually make any kind of appearance or on-record comment. Sept. 9, 2 p.m.

There wasn't time to catch up with all the shorts, but some that sound interesting include Don Hertzfeldt's animated everything will be ok; Zeth Willie's The Needful Head, in which a man becomes tired of his head and removes it; Bodybagman, about a man who suddenly wakes up inside a body bag in a strange house; The Deadening, a tale of a man too self-absorbed to notice that zombies are taking over the world; and of course, Gay Zombie, a powerful metaphoric struggle that . . .

Nahhh, just kidding. It's about a gay zombie.

The SoCal Independent Film Festival at the Huntington Beach Central Library and Cultural Center, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach; www.socalfilmfest.com . Opens Wed. Check website for additional show times. Through Sept. 9. Individual screenings, $4-$6; five-day pass, $30.

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