The first—or close to the first—filmmakers I ever interviewed were these two guys who had made a couple of short films and were just then breaking out their first feature. We were all around the same age; one fellow had gone to high school in Newport Beach while the other graduated in Laguna Beach, but they had not met until college, at UC Berkeley, if memory serves.
Anyway, Scott McGehee and David Siegel were nice guys, intelligent, articulate and very serious about their little indie, black-and-white, mistaken-identity thriller Suture, which hit the festival circuit in 1993. It was about a luckless fellow who agrees to assume his wealthy half-brother's identity, but then loses his memory and is disfigured after his bro tries to blow him up (so the villain, who'd already murdered his father, could essentially kill himself off).
The plot had all the great elements of modern noir, but the greatest twist of all involved the casting. The bad half-brother was played by Caucasian actor Michael White; Dennis Haysbert, before he was cast as the first African-American president on 24 and the Allstate Insurance pitchman, gave a hauntingly tortured performance as the good half-brother. None of the other characters, including the blast victim's doctor, played by thirtysomething's Mel Harris, notice that Haysbert is black and White is, uh, white. It was up to the audience to watch colorblind to appreciate a ripping good yarn.
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McGehee and Siegel would go on to make better-known pictures that unfold slowly, just as the films of the European masters who no doubt still influence them. Their next film, 2001's The Deep End, is a murky gem with Tilda Swinton playing a Tahoe City mother who tries to cover up what she believes to be her high-school-senior son's murder of his gay lover. That was followed in 2005 by the filmmakers' much-lauded Bee Season, in which the marriage of Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche falls apart while their daughter, played by an amazing young actress named Flora Cross, competes in a spelling bee.
Compared with Suture, The Deep End and Bee Season were fairly traditional, but McGehee and Siegel's next project, 2008's Uncertainty, returned them to unusual storytelling form: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lynn Collins are a young couple with a child on the way who run off in different directions on the Brooklyn Bridge. Each reach separate realities, with one having them visiting her family in Brooklyn, and the other getting them involved with a criminal in Manhattan.
What Maisie Knew, McGehee and Siegel's latest, is a modern retelling of the Henry James novel, starring Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgård and Steve Coogan. It's also a Spotlight selection on April 26 at the 14th annual Newport Beach Film Festival (NBFF). I haven't seen it, but I am confident it's the kind of uncompromising work the fest and filmmakers are known for. (Festival programming director Amanda Salazar told me it's "challenging.") What Maisie Knew is also the kind of film that rose to the top when programmers of the April 25-May 2 NBFF made their final selections based on this cue from previous audiences: Give us less.
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Years of growing what's become one of Orange County's top cultural events since its 1999 founding—out of the ashes of the Newport Beach International Film Festival—led to more and more short and full-length feature, documentary, and/or foreign films being programmed, until the 400-film mark routinely appeared in the festival's rearview mirror.
This year, there will be about 350 films from more than 50 countries. The reduced count is not because of a poorer quality of submissions—quite the opposite, according to Salazar. She explains that in the past, finding screen time for 400-plus films required multiple showings at earlier weekday hours over the multiday event. Those were, frankly, hard to sell and lightly attended. Showing that many films at several different venues—Fashion Island, Edwards Big Newport, Triangle Square, Orange County Museum of Art, Sage Hill High School, the Port, the Lido—also presented technical problems, as finished (or nearly so) entries arrived at the festival office in various formats. Not all venues were open before the 2012 festival to test the flicks on the various projectors. Despite crossed fingers at the public screenings, glitches wound up canceling some showings.
Then came the customer surveys, which indicated a desire for more screenings on weekdays, when people can actually make them: after 5 p.m. In recent years, the festival had at least four screens showing films beginning around 3 p.m. on weekdays. So, for 2013, the decision was made to take this baby step toward a brave, new, less-is-more world: Nothing is being shown before 5:30 p.m. on the opening Friday (April 26); the weekend stays the same (programming begins at 11 a.m. both days); April 29 and 30 have three films going off sometime in the 3 o'clock hour. Then on May 1 and 2, it's back up to four, although some are repeats of films that screened earlier in the week.
"We're trying it out," said Salazar, who has assumed the director's role previously occupied by her colleague Erik Forssell. He became the all-new director of operations to ensure (fingers crossed until numb) each showing goes off without a hitch. Forssell told me his first order of business was to ban projector-munching Blu-rays.
The narrower window of screen time cut the number of full-length feature films from 167 last year to 120 for 2013, but to hear associate programming director Max Naylor tell it, that produced an unintended Easter egg: improved overall cinematic quality. Looking over the lineup, Salazar said she was struck by how the festival has returned to its indie-cinema-celebrating roots.
Not that it was easy. Staffers and volunteers who screen the thousands and thousands of submissions made it to April with scars from the battles they waged to ensure their favorite films made the cut. And they weren't always winning battles.
Dennis Baker, the director of short-film programming, says he and his minions cut back a thousand submissions to what they believed to be a solid slate of 280. They were then told to keep whittling. The list is now down to 176 shorts, but Baker confides many that were tossed would have easily made the cut in previous years. "It was very tough," he says, still shaking his head.
Don't worry, cinephiles. There will still be the same number of weekend Spotlight films and weekday international Spotlights and the Disney rarities and the Chuck Jones 'toons and Muppet movies and MacGillivray Freeman shorts and perhaps the best-ever John Wayne film (The Searchers), as well as the youth, high school and collegiate showcases; the seminars with industry insiders; the music-film series; the action-sports series; the art and architectural series; the environmental films—and on and on. Though fewer, there will still be various shorts programs, but debuting this year are music videos through a new partnership with OC Music Awards.
And don't worry, hearty partiers. Reducing the number of overall screenings did not lead to scaling back the galas, Spotlight parties, other special events or the closing-night blowout.
It is, in other words, pretty much the same. Only less.
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Most years, the festival opened with a feature-length drama or comedy, but for 2013, we get director Doug Hamilton's documentary Broadway Idiot, which follows the four-years-in-the-making Great White Way musical based on neo-punk band Green Day's album American Idiot. There is now a touring production of the double Tony winner. (Speaking of Green Day albums, NBFF 2013 also includes as part of its music series ¡Cuatro!, Tim Wheeler's doc on the creation and recording of the band's musical trilogy Uno!, Dos! and Tre!)
Billie Joe Armstrong is expected on the red carpet before the film rolls April 25 at 7:30 p.m. (well, that's always the goal) at Edwards Big Newport in Newport Center. The opening-night gala afterward in the Fashion Island courtyard across the way won't feature a special performance by Armstrong, but instead his Bizarro World counterpart, Taylor Hicks. The oldest-looking American Idol winner's show is said to go down even more smoothly with complimentary Absolut Vodka with Stella chasers and of small-plate samplings from 35 Orange County restaurants.
Tickets to the opening-night screening and gala are a steep $175, and you have to be 21 to get into the party, which is $100 to enter if you blow off Broadway Idiot. For $500, you can get into everything through May 2 with an all-access pass. But there are plenty of more affordable options for us peons, too.
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Seeing the festival's Spotlight films is pricier than taking in non-Spotlight titles—$18 vs. $14—and each has a post-party that costs even more to enter. But the Spotlights also invariably sell out, and though you can find some selections further down the festival program that will blow your mind, Spotlights are usually (but not always) the better fest films.
It begins April 26 with the aforementioned What Maisie Knew, which Millennium Films opens in New York on May 3 and Los Angeles on May 17. There's also A Single Shot, which was directed by David M. Rosenthal (Janie Jones), from the novel and screenplay by Matthew F. Jones, and stars Sam Rockwell as a hunter who mistakenly kills a young beauty in the woods, finds a stash of money while hiding the body, and then plays armed cat-and-mouse with criminals out for his blood. In Security, a dark comedy directed by first-time feature helmers Evan and Adam Beamer from their script with Craig Hildebrand, features an intriguing cast (Cary Elwes, Ving Rhames, Ed Begley Jr., and Adam and Alan Arkin, included) and a premise filled with potential: owners of a failing home-security company burglarize houses to drum up more business. Writer/director Larry Brand's thriller The Girl On the Train follows a documentary filmmaker (Henry Ian Cusick) boarding a train bound for Upstate New York to interview the subjects of his newest project, but an encounter with a mysterious woman takes him on a stranger trip.
Someone picking festival films either has a thing for Jason Ritter or the actor works enough that he just happens to pop up in multiple NBFF selections this year and last; he's in the cast of the April 27 Spotlight film I Am I, writer/director/star Jocelyn Towne's drama about a young woman who meets her father at her mother's funeral and discovers he suffers from a disease that makes him so delusional he thinks he's still 33 and his daughter is his wife.
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.
The May 2 Closing Night Spotlight returns us back to the States with the buzzed-about The Way, Way Back, the directorial debut of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who also co-wrote the screenplay (as well as that 2012 Oscar-winning one, with Alexander Payne, for The Descendants). The Way, Way Back is about the unlikely friendship that develops between a laidback water-park manager (Sam Rockwell) and a 14-year-old boy (Liam James) experiencing a difficult summer. Said to be an homage to Meatballs, the comedy boasts supporting players with Little Miss Sunshine/Juno/Bridesmaids cred (Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Allison Janney, Maya Rudolph). If you want to see this, you'd be advised to step away from this story to score your tickets now because the fest closers invariably sell out fast.
The best part about seeing the closer at the historic Lido in Newport Beach is you can stumble right into the Closing Night Gala that overtakes Via Lido Plaza, just as Coachella does to tumbleweed land. These are the second-steepest tickets ($70 for film and party). All the above-referenced Spotlight films have associated parties, generally at Fashion Island or a nearby restaurant. In some instances, you have to drive or take a taxi from the theater to the affair.
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There is not enough room in this print edition/virtual receptacle to blab on about the rest of the festival features, documentaries and shorts. So here's a quick rundown of 19 titles that caught my eye (with fest categories in parentheses). Missing are local films, which are covered in the Film section.
After Tiller (documentary): Before the 2009 assassination of Dr. George Tiller, four American physicians provided third-trimester abortions. Martha Shane and Lana Wilson look at the other three.
And Now a Word From Our Sponsor (feature): Bruce Greenwood is an advertising CEO who wakes up in a hospital speaking only adspeak. Fest fave Parker Posey co-stars in Zack Bernbaum's comedy.
B-Side (music): Amos Posner's small indie has a radio DJ wisecracking about a second-tier pop songstress, who hears the broadcast, confronts the putz and sparks an unlikely romance.
Cavedigger (art/architecture): Jeffrey Karoff's Best Non-European Documentary winner at the 2013 European Independent Film Festival is about an artist who carves caves into New Mexico cliffs.
Critical Mass (environmental): Mike Freedman calls on authors, academics and scientists to tell us how fucked the Earth will get thanks to human overpopulation.
The East (feature): Zaj Batmanglij has Brit Marling playing a corporate sleuth infiltrating an anarchist collective, where she finds Ellen Page, Jason Ritter, Alexander Skarsgård and conflicted feelings.
Gauchos del mar—Surfeando el pacifico americano (Ocean Cowboys—Surfing the American Pacific) (action sports): Two Argentinean brothers surf the coast from LA to Buenos Aires in Julian Azulay's doc.
Greetings From Tim Buckley (music): Daniel Algrant's drama re-creates Anaheim-born Jeff Buckley's (Penn Badgley) staging of a 1991 tribute concert to his late folky father, Tim Buckley (Ben Rosenfeld, in flashbacks).
Gus (feature): Jessie McCormack's comedy has a gal (Radha Mitchell) wanting a baby with her husband (John Dore). She gets her chance when her bestie (Michelle Monaghan) gets knocked up.
How to Make Money Selling Drugs (documentary): Just as the title suggests, 50 Cent, The Wire producer David Simon and "Freeway" Rick Ross show you how.
I Declare War (feature): From Canada comes Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson's quirky ditty that has a backyard game of army among 12-year-olds devolving into something out of Lord of the Flies.
Isolated (action sports): Justin Le Pera follows surfers and modern-day explorers to the last undiscovered waves in a New Guinea teeming with cannibals, genocide and unethical gold mining.
The Secret Disco Revolution (music): Jamie Kastner grooves with a tongue-in-cheek cultural exhumation of the 1970s craze.
Some Girl(s) (feature): Adam Brody (shout out to The O.C.!) travels the country to make amends to past flames on the eve of his wedding in Daisy von Scherler Mayer's take on Neil LaBute's script.
Space Milkshake (feature): Blue-collar astronauts stuck on a sanitation station try to figure out where Earth went and why a rubber duck is attacking them in Armen Evrensel's intentionally very-B sci-fi.
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The Suicide Shop (animated feature): From Belgium/Canada/France comes Patrice Leconte's musical tale of a dark city where a family-run suicide-accessory shop thrives—until a happy baby arrives.
Terms and Conditions May Apply (documentary): Cullen Hoback actually reads the fine print we ignore to discover we won't like what we've signed. (Screens with NSFW; see the Film section.)
Viva Cuba Libre: Rap Is War (music): Jesse Acevedo follows two Havana brothers beaten and imprisoned for listening to Cuban underground rappers Los Aldeanos, exposing a brewing revolution.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (retrospective): See if the effects that amazed us 25 years ago hold up in this CGI world as the Roger Zemeckis, Disney half-animated flick returns to the big screen.