Over the years, we've seen some true masterpieces at the Newport Beach Film Festival, along with pleasant mediocrities and a whole lot of drek—some of it sadly unforgettable. While the festival can be a great showcase for up-and-coming talent, it can also be the kiss of death for a more established star. There is something genuinely depressing about seeing once-high-watt celebrities—such as Roy Scheider, Michael York and Teri Garr—humiliating themselves in the awful, amateurish little movies that sometimes cloud the festival's screens. These sad stars give it their all, but you can see the pain in their eyes; it's like they're soldiering on through a bout of intense gastric distress.
This year's fest does feature Soleil Moon Frye (the onetime Punky Brewster) and Wil Wheaton (once a regular on Star Trek: The Next Generation, which shall forever endear him to geekboys like me) in Irene Turner's very not-good collegiate drama The Girl's Room. But the lineup is otherwise unusually, blessedly low on the celebrity cringe factor.
On paper, Rob Morrow's Maze certainly looked like it had the potential to be our last glimpse of a falling star before he came crashing to earth. Morrow, you may recall, was once the star of the long-running, vastly popular and often annoyingly quirky, early '90s Alaskan dramedy Northern Exposure. He left the show just as it was getting completely dopey and seemed to be on his way to finer things with dandy performances in Quiz Show and Albert Brooks' Mother. And then his career slipped off the tracks somehow, and the next thing anybody knew, he was writing, directing and starring in Maze, this little indie about a sensitive artist with Tourette's syndrome in a romantic triangle with his best friend's girl. The bare-bones outline makes this sound like the most grossly self-indulgent project ever made, and to say I approached this film with reservations is an understatement. Actually, I approached it from under my chair, wearing a helmet, elbow pads and thick protective lenses. So I was quite stunned by Maze's excellence. Morrow was obviously aiming to prove himself a triple threat here, and damn if he didn't succeed. His performance as the afflicted artist is subtle and effective, completely avoiding the over-the-top theatrics such a role could have brought out, and his writing and directing have real confidence and style. Laura Linney is also quite good as the woman he loves, and if Craig Sheffer feels flat as the third part of the triangle, it's only because his performance is merely average in an otherwise remarkably above-average film. The copyright date in the closing credits is 1999, suggesting the picture has been languishing on the shelf for some time. If so, that's unfortunate; Maze is a picture that will stick with you for years—and in a good way.
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Debra Eisenstadt's Daydream Believer is hardly the sunny enterprise one would expect from a film using the Monkees' most cheerfully vacuous hit single for its title. It follows poor Valerie Woodbury (Sibyl Kempson), a small-town girl with dreams of making it big as an actress in New York. When a returning local celeb "discovers" her in a community-theater production, she drops everything and heads for da Big Apple. Unfortunately, when she gets there, she finds herself surrounded by neurotics, grinning predators and con artists so self-deluded they don't even realize they're running cons—in short, the usual players in a young actor's life. Anybody who has ever chased a dream right down the rabbit hole will find much of the film chillingly and often hilariously true-to-life. Kempson is charming in the lead, although she's just stiff enough that we can never really be sure if Valerie is supposed to be a talented actress. From the evidence, she seems like nothing special, but we know how badly she wants to be special, and we keep hoping to spot some glimmer of greatness in her. If I have any criticism, it's that the film's ending seems weirdly abrupt—about five minutes before a true resolution. Just go in prepared for the curtain to come down before you're expecting it, and you'll have a fine time.
You won't, however, have a fine time at acclaimed but difficult-to-spell Polish director's Krzysztof Zanussi's Life As a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease. Actually, you'll have a miserable time. You'll cry. You'll skulk out with your head hung low, questioning the point of existence. You'll endure sleepless nights. Your tummy will hurt. Nonetheless, I'm recommending you see the film. A glum but thoughtful and unflinching look at the last days of an embittered old doctor dying of cancer, Life is the kind of thing you can't say you enjoyed much, but you still feel glad for having experienced it. Not unlike life itself, really. The film begins with a naughty fake-out (I won't spoil the surprise) that's absolutely the last bit of fun you'll have for the entire running time. Like a wet slap across the chops, Life doesn't feel good, but it does wake you up.
In mainstream entertainments —even sleazy ones—we get used to a certain decorum. In a typical erotic thriller, for instance, it's a safe bet we'll be treated to plenty of lesbian flirtations, the threat of rape will hang in the air for a scene or two (not real-life, traumatic rape, of course, but Hollywood-style, Rhett-Butler-carrying-Scarlett-O'Hara-up-the-stairs rape), and there will be some thugs hanging around seething homoerotically at one another. Donald Cammel's Wild Side is in some respects not so different from a typical erotic thriller of the Joe (Showgirls) Eszterhas school. But it's different in its willingness to push far past the bounds of pop-cultural manners. In this movie, the stuff that normally boils beneath the surface comes bursting across the screen at completely inappropriate moments. The film features Anne Heche enthusiastically exploring the possibilities of Sapphic love several years before she met Ellen DeGeneres. With Joan Chen. Yowza. Running around Long Beach in various states of undress and occasionally sporting a cute little black wig, Heche's sex appeal comes as quite a shock for those of us who are used to thinking she looks like a 14-year-old Boy Scout. I never before realized what a lucky woman Ellen was. Christopher Walken is also on hand in quite possibly the most disquieting role of his career, and if you've followed this guy, you know he can do disquieting like nobody else. Originally released straight to video in 1995, Wild Side was so drastically re-cut by the studio that Cammel took his name off the credits. He shot himself soon after, and the print screening at the festival is a new director's cut that restores all of Cammel's wonderfully horrible intent. Seeing this movie won't make you a better person, but it just might make you interestingly worse.
The Newport Beach Film Festival begins at Edwards Big Newport, 300 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 644-0760. Thurs., March 29. Call for time; the festival continues at Edwards Island Cinemas, 999 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 640-1780. Through April 5. Information on screenings and seminars: (949) 253-2880; www.newportbeachfilmfest.com or www.tickets.com.