Bigger Than Life: Our Exclusive Preview of the Best (and Worst) at the Newport Beach Film Festival

During the eight days of the Newport Beach Film Festival, you’ll be lucky to see even a small fraction of the more than 150 feature selections culled from all over the world and other festivals. But over the past few weeks—doing practically nothing but eating, sleeping, letting a beard grow, and watching movies non-stop—this critic has managed to see 54 of them, approximately a third of what’ll be on display, in the hopes of helping you make the most educated choices at our biggest area film festival of the year.

In keeping with the odd juxtaposition of this eclectic, populist festival at highbrow Fashion Island, many of this year’s selections center on the idea of the unlikely hero: From the out-of-shape failure who rises to face a mighty foe (305, Big Man Japan) to unheralded real-life heroes like Max Lesnik and Barney Rosset, this is the year of protagonists who are more than they seem to be at first glance.

Not unlike the fest itself.

For show times and tickets, visit And starting April 24, stay tuned to our staff blog, Navel Gazing, for ongoing festival coverage.

Not to be missed:  Big Man Japan
Not to be missed: Big Man Japan
Not too bad:  Garage
Not too bad: Garage


About Crying (Lo Bueno de Llorar)
. In a series of long takes and uncomfortable silences, a couple walks the near-empty streets of Barcelona at night, searching for a party and the right things to say to each other. Matías Bize’s film is artsy with a capital “A,” but also kind of brilliant. Very minimalist, though, so avoid it if that scares you.

Accuracy of Death
. A Grim Reaper named Chiba (Takeshi Kaneshiro), tasked with deciding whether mortals destined for premature death merit a reprieve or not, roams Japan in the past, present, and future while judging a mousy office worker with superstar potential, a yakuza thug who cares for a helpless protegee, and an aging hairdresser with a robotic assistant. A bit sappy, but totally compelling.

Adjust Your Color: The Truth of Petey Greene. Don Cheadle gave an acclaimed performance as groundbreaking Washington, D.C., radio/TV host Petey Greene in last year’s Talk to Me, but even Cheadle is no substitute for the man himself. Built around archival TV footage thought to be long-lost, Loren Mendell’s documentary tells Petey’s story through the eyes of those who knew him best, and captivating clips of the man at his best, including a noteworthy one-on-one with a young Howard Stern in blackface.

Amal. A humble rickshaw driver (Rupinder Nagra) in India is bequeathed a fortune by an eccentric millionaire, but doesn’t know it yet. Will the dead man’s family, who have debts and problems of their own, do the right thing and inform the lucky beneficiary? And if so, what will he do with his sudden windfall? Probably not what you think.

American Teen. Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Nanette Burstein chronicles a year in the life of a handful of high school seniors in Indiana: an insecure jock, a glamorous and popular student council president, an aspiring filmmaker, and a girl-crazy gamer geek. Billed as a real-life Breakfast Club (which it isn’t at all—no Judd Nelson character, or any bullies whatsoever, are to be found), it is instead a sign of both the changing times and the things that never change, as well as a refreshing antidote to the overly beautified “teenagers” and excessively clean buildings that populate Hollywood’s phony high school stories.

Big Man Japan. The giant monster movie has been the subject of much reinvention lately, from the social satire of The Host to the hand-held stylings of Cloverfield. Now it’s time for the mockumentary, as we follow middle-aged bachelor Dai (writer-director Hitoshi Matsumoto) around Tokyo while he feeds his cat, rides the subway, and periodically transforms into a 50-foot tall tattooed wrestler who battles giant monsters. The ending is completely batshit insane.

Captain Abu Raed. The first feature film from Jordan in 50 years is as crowd-pleasing as family melodramas get. Aging airport janitor Abu Raed (Nadim Sawalha) finds a captain’s hat in the trash and is soon delighting the neighborhood children with his stories of glorious traveling adventures. But when he learns that one of the kids is being abused, he has the chance to be a real hero. If there’s a flaw to the film, it’s that the hero has none—he’s such a saint that this sometimes feels like a scripture lesson.

The Caterpillar Wish. In a small Australian town, a teenage photographer (Victoria Thaine)—whose mother (Susie Porter) works as a topless barmaid—uncovers some unpleasant truths about her past while trying to discover herself and play matchmaker for mom. A well-done movie all-around—but what teenager today uses film in her camera?

The Edge of Heaven. Germany’s official entry for last year’s Oscars is an international affair in three languages. Turkish widower Ali (Tuncel Turkiz) lives in Bremen, Germany, and falls for a prostitute who’s also Turkish. When the relationship takes a tragic turn, Ali is deported; Meanwhile, the woman’s daughter Ayten (Nurgul Yesilcay) searches Bremen for her mother, while Ali’s son Nejat (Baki Davrak) searches Turkey for Ayten, unaware of his father’s current whereabouts. And you thought you had trouble connecting with your parents!

Fix. Aspiring documentarian Milo (director Tao Ruspoli) and his girlfriend Bella (Olivia Wilde) have to put prior plans aside when Milo’s junkie brother Leo (Dazed and Confused’s Shawn Andrews) gets arrested again, and has to be driven to rehab by 8 p.m. with a $5,000 admittance fee or be sent to prison. Andrews is masterful as Leo, the perfect mix of endearing, flaky, and ever-so-subtle guilt-tripping. Points off, though, for excessive self-reflexivity—it adds nothing to the story to have it be Milo’s “actual” footage, save for way too many “Why are you filming this?” moments.

Heather Henson Presents Handmade Puppet Dreams. Always a highlight of the festival, Henson’s collection of the best puppet shorts from around the world is again divided into one selection for kids and one for adults, though the “adult” program is thankfully less about scatological humor and more about existential angst. Not every short was available for preview, but Genevieve Anderson’s “Too Loud A Solitude,” based on an Eastern European novel about a book-burner, features a voice-over performance by Paul Giamatti that may be the best work he’s ever done.

The Last Lullaby. A hitman (Tom Sizemore) falls in love with the woman he’s supposed to assassinate. A bare-bones and timeworn premise, perhaps, but director Jeffrey Goodman gives it just the right amount of style, and Sizemore is better than he’s been in years. Based on a short story by Max Allan Collins (Road to Perdition).

Man of Two Havanas. Vivien Lesnik Weisman is the daughter of Max Lesnik, a left-wing Cuban activist in Miami who advocates for an end to the U.S. embargo while simultaneously condemning communism. During the course of making this documentary about him, Vivien—who had planned to stay apolitical—tries to clarify the issue for casual audiences and ends up crystallizing her own feelings. An excellent primer on the subject.

Mardik: Baghdad to Hollywood. Bet you didn’t know the screenwriter of Raging Bull was from Iraq! Now a teacher at USC, Mardik Martin proves to be every bit as engaging a storyteller as pal Martin Scorsese, and even casual fans of the two will enjoy the rare footage and humorous anecdotes on display. There are some poorly drawn animated bits (obligatory in documentaries these days—thank you Michael Moore), but they don’t kill the fun.

Obscene. With a title like that, and a lineup of talking heads that includes Gore Vidal, John Waters and Al Goldstein, you might expect a tediously obvious defense of pornography. Not so: This is a fascinating documentary about Barney Rosset, publisher of Grove Press and the Evergreen Review, who distributed such works as Tropic of Cancer, Waiting for Godot and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, fighting for them every step of the way. Archival film footage of Rosset at nearly every stage of his life also makes for a riveting time capsule.

Son of Rambow. Last year’s fest-closer makes a repeat engagement due to popular acclaim. During the ‘80s, two English boys—one the sheltered child of religious cultists, the other a rambunctious latchkey bully—bond over their shared love of First Blood, and decide to film a Rambo sequel in their spare time. Some of the dialogue is overly cinema-savvy for naive kids (“We’re losing light!”), but Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy director Garth Jennings gives the proceedings a charmingly surreal and imaginative tone.

Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story. Gone are the days when you could rig a movie theater’s seats with electric buzzers to simulate a monster attack, or have an inflatable skeleton fly over the audience’s head, but you can relive them via this exuberant tribute to filmmaker and showman William Castle (The House on Haunted Hill). Best known for his promotional gimmicks, he’s rarely given his due as the producer of Rosemary’s Baby.

305. A mockumentary-style faux-sequel to 300, this low-budget comedy by Daniel and David Holechek tells the story of the five Spartans who ran away from the battle of Thermopylae, instead of defending the goat path that became Xerxes’ key to victory. Starring the Costa Mesa comedy troupe Market Fresh Produce.

The Tracey Fragments. Based on a series of monologues by Maureen Medved that later became a novel, Bruce McDonald’s amazing head-trip of a movie explores the mind of Tracey Berkowitz (Ellen Page), as she tries to piece together the events leading up to the traumatic loss of her brother, even as her mind tries to disassociate itself in a free-flowing array of multiple cinematic panels and floating boxes. Likely to overwhelm and annoy viewers hoping for Juno Part II, it is nonetheless an audacious and imaginative work that’s sure to remain one of the year’s best.

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