Though I have no chips in the game, I am filled with pride when I see in the Netflix queue a past Newport Beach Film Festival (NBFF) entry that I enjoyed. What feels even better is discovering that now streaming is an entry that I wanted to watch but could not because of a scheduling conflict, full auditorium or free Tito's Vodka blackout. So, as a service to you, here are some 2017 NBFF films that I did catch, but you should seek out when they eventually hit mainstream theaters and/or arrive on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, VOD or wherever else movies stream these days.
The Long Way Back: The Story of Todd "Z-Man" Zalkins
Already an award winner before arriving in Orange County, this documentary is about the addiction spiral that nearly killed Todd Zalkins—as it previously did Z-Man's longtime buddy and Sublime front man Bradley Nowell. Written by Zalkins and directed by Richard Yelland, The Long Way Back is that rare film that will delight hardcore fans of a band (in this case Sublime), locals (because of all the Long Beach and Orange County touchstones) and everyone else (because it's just so fucking compelling). The now-sober Zalkins talks to anyone who'll listen about the evils of substance abuse, a message he wound up having to deliver to Nowell's son, Jakob. It's a truly powerful documentary that locals will get another chance to see on the big screen during the Long Beach International Film Festival's Aug. 1-4 run.
There have been several movies and television programs over the years with plots that would have worked as half-hour episodes on the original Twilight Zone. Writer/director/editor Nathaniel Atcheson's Domain story fits that bill, but at 97 minutes, there is no bloat. Half a dozen or so survivors of a deadly virus that has wiped out much of humanity live alone in underground bunkers and communicate with one another via computer screens à la Skype. Love, jealousy and acrimony bloom despite the lack of physical contact. Tension builds and builds to a twist near the end that is also worthy of a Rod Serling's Golden Age of Television classic. Credit goes to a smart script, tight direction and a talented ensemble cast of actors you have seen before, though mostly in less prominent roles.
I'll Push You
Usually, when an NBFF entry sells out its first screening, it's booked for two more showings that also totally fill the theaters, and then gets a rare fourth slot on closing night, there is a strong local hook (such as it stars or was made by Orange Countians). That was not the case with co-directors Terry Parish and Chris Karcher's documentary about an Idaho man confined to a wheelchair being pushed by his best friend along the 500-mile Camino de Santiago in Spain. No doubt helping to stoke the initial interest was a segment about I'll Push You's subjects Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray on NBC's Today six days before the NBFF's April 20 opening. But the movie would not have done the kind of repeat business it did at the festival if it were crap. No, this generated buzz because it is something the world really needs right now: an apolitical, humanistic, life-affirming love story.
Brave New Jersey
It's too bad this little comedy was not finished in time for the 2015 NBFF because it would have fit in well with that year's Orson Welles centennial celebration. Several people know about the national shitstorm kicked up from Welles' Mercury Theater On Air radio broadcast on Oct. 30, 1938, that was based on H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds and led many listeners to believe they were hearing an actual news report about a Martian invasion. Jody Lambert, who directed documentaries on his songwriter/producer father Dennis ("Rhinestone Cowboy," "Ain't No Woman Like the One I Got") and former Weekly Hollywood reporter Nikki Finke, makes his narrative feature debut by focusing on folks in a small New Jersey town girded for an alien attack. It's obvious the filmmaker, who also co-wrote the script, took huge literary license, but believability is nonetheless achieved thanks to a fine stable of comedic actors, including Tony Hale (Veep, Arrested Development), Heather Burns (Bored to Death, Manchester By the Sea) and Dan Bakkedahl (Veep, Life In Pieces).
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When I Was 6, I Killed a Dragon and A Family Man
This was weird: I just wanted to see the first thing screening on April 24, and not knowing a thing about what I was walking into, I took in Bruno Romy's documentary that is known in his native France as Quand j'avais 6 ans, j'ai tué un dragon. Romy, who normally makes fictional movies, used his camera as a diversion while his daughter Mika battled leukemia. Mixing animation, sight gags and a funny little girl the lens can't help but drink up, the director has achieved the most effective movie about dealing with a deadly disease I have ever seen. I walked out of that screening to a repeat showing of the Friday Night Spotlight film, A Family Man—without knowing it also centers on a child with leukemia. Director Mark Williams also mines unexpected humor as Gerard Butler's Chicago headhunter confronts his work-before-family attitude after his boy (Max Jenkins) takes sick. Alison Brie, Willem Dafoe and Gretchen Mol give fine performances, but it was Alfred Molina who had me reaching for the hanky. It wasn't the character of a kid with cancer that got to me, it was an out-of-work fiftysomething.
I'm out of room, but also hunt down: Zen Dog; The Scent of Rain & Lightning; and especially Horn From the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story (and play it LOUD!).