By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Charles Taylor
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Brian Feinzimer
By CAROLINA DEL BUSTO
By AMY NICHOLSON
By Amy Nicholson
Director Rob Meltzer's previous gig in the chair was the short film I Am Stamos. His feature debut, from a script by first-timer Jeff Kauffmann, is the comedy Welcome to the Jungle, which has a character played by Jean-Claude Van Damme (yep, that one) leading a company retreat into the jungle, where things go quite awry. The cast includes not only the aforementioned Dennis Haysbert, but also solid comic actors Adam Brody, Rob Huebel and Kristen Schaal. First-time writer/director Josh Boone's Stuck In Love has a family of writers struggling with romance: The writer-blocked patriarch (Greg Kinnear) spies on his ex-wife (Jennifer Connelly) while getting some on the side with his married neighbor (Kristen Bell). His aspiring-writer daughter is trying to avoid love at all costs, while his wannabe-sci-fi writer son sets himself up for heartbreak. Rounding out the Saturday Spotlight program is The Iceman from director Ariel Vroman, who wrote the screenplay with Morgan Land, his co-writer on 2005's Rx. It's the story of true-life contract killer Richard Kuklinski (played by the amazing Michael Shannon), whose wife and kids had no clue what he was up to before he was arrested in 1986. Co-stars include Chris Evans, James Franco, Ray Liotta, Robert Davi, Winona Ryder and David Schwimmer, whom Salazar believes deserves an Oscar nomination for his performance. "We're very excited to play this," she says of the mob picture.
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The Spotlights Sunday through Wednesday are named for the foreign regions or countries that produced the films. Up first, on April 28, is the Irish Spotlight, The O'Brien's by first-time directors Emma Gahan Seale and Richard Waters from a script by Emmett Hughes and Slaine Kelly, who co-star. A father summons his daughter and two sons home; they fear the worst, and secrets are revealed.
You usually can't go wrong with the Pacific Rim Spotlights. April 29 unlocks Key of Life, from Japanese writer/director Kenji Uchida, about an out-of-work actor meeting a prosperous man who conks himself on the head and develops amnesia, allowing the actor to step into a new role . . . without realizing it's that of a killer. Korean writer/director Jo Sung-hee brings us A Werewolf Boy, which also played at the March Busan West festival at Chapman University. It's about an elderly woman thinking back to when she was a girl and took in a feral, orphan boy who proved to be oh-so-much more. Ben Nott and Morgan O'Neill directed the Australian documentary Drift, which is not about speedy sedans sliding sideways, but rather big-wave surfing brothers who succeed in the action-sports business in the 1970s—until they get mixed up with a drug lord. The cast includes Sam Worthington (Avatar, Clash of the Titans). "It's beautiful, very well-acted," Salazar observes. From China comes Jiayi Du's One Mile Above, which is based on the true story of a young man from Taiwan who takes up his deceased brother's quest to ride a bicycle from Southern China up to Lhasa. He takes off unprepared to scale eight major peaks of the Himalayas, but at least he has his bro's journal along for inspiration.
April 30 brings the European Spotlight films. Those snail-eating French are represented by the rom-com Un Plan Parfait (Fly Me to the Moon) from director Pascal Chaumeil (Heartbreaker). You just know this plot will be strip-mined by Hollywood: A woman (Diana Kruger of Inglourious Basterds) tries to break a family curse of all first marriages ending in divorce by dragging a random stranger (Dany Boon of Welcome to the Sticks) down the aisle before her nuptials to her boyfriend. Producers are hoping legendary Swedish director Lasse Hallström (whose Hollywood résumé includes Cider House Rules, Chocolat and the recent Safe Haven) can mirror the cinematic success of the adaptations of Stieg Larrson's Millennium series with Lars Kepler's Detective Joona Linna novels. Festival audiences will find out with The Hypnotist, Sweden's foreign Oscar submission, in which the detective teams up with a psychologist to draw information from a boy whose family was wiped out by assassins. Italian director Paolo Genovese's Immaturi—Il viaggio is actually a follow-up to the 2012 NBFF Italian Spotlight Immaturi (The Immature). In the first flick, high-school pals rekindle their friendship in adulthood when an error forces them to return to re-take final exams. The sequel has them vacationing in Greece, where twisted personal webs are woven.
The NBFF Latino Spotlight films roll on May 1, and the festival concludes the following day. Otherwise, there may have been a move to hold out four more days before running 5 de Mayo, La Batalla (May 5: The Battle) from Mexican writer/director Rafa Lara (Labios rojos, La Milagrosa). It's a massive war epic re-enacting the French invasion of Mexico in December 1861; the destruction of the Oaxaca Battalions through a huge explosion; and, of course, the May 5, 1862, Battle of Puebla responsible for the unlikely defeat of what was then one of the world's more lethal armed forces. (The battle's also responsible, 150 years later, for a night of cheap Cadillac margaritas.) From Brazil comes Marcelo Machado's documentary Tropicália, whose title references the revolutionary artistic movement of the 1960s that clashed with traditional Brazilian music. NBFF's Naylor calls it "phenomenal." It screens with Paulo Miranda's short De Outros Carnavais (Of Other Carnivals), which is about a couple that meets, falls in love and grows older over the course of several carnivals, with each all the while maintaining colorful costumes. From Chilean writer/director Elisa Eliash, it's Aquí Estoy, Aquí No (Here I Am, Here I'm Not), a "simmering, slow burner," as Naylor puts it, about a journalist who deals with PTSD from a near-death car accident through writing an unauthorized biography of a rock queen he falls hard for. Then tragedy strikes and he must find another muse. "It's a fantastic, nice exploration of how to live a life well," Naylor promises.
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