The Newport Beach Film Festival has rolled into town once more, and this year's lineup boasts so many delights that we can only briefly note one terrific picture before moving on to the next.
For those of you who've never been exposed to the twisted genius of Bill Plympton, he creates animation in which the human form becomes as malleable as Play-Doh, with horribly hilarious results. Ghastly things happen to eyes, mouths wander off and have adventures of their own, torsos twist into impossible pretzels. His animation was seemingly everywhere for a time in the early to mid-'90s, but in recent years, he lost some career momentum as he concentrated on making his own feature films, freaky little gems that don't get the attention they deserve. Using a paltry staff and budgets that wouldn't pay for the mousepads on a Pixar feature, Plympton accomplishes miracles. His latest, Mutant Aliens, has an even more grisly tone than the other Plympton work I've seen, featuring fingers bitten off, people being eaten by giant noses and copious sloppy boinkage, some of it interspecies. It doesn't hold together as well as The Tune, Plympton's debut feature and a joy for all time, but it does feature his unstoppable imagination on ample display and the most unforgettable tongue-lashing you will ever see. It screens with Eat, a Plympton short that won't do much for your appetite.
This won't score me any street cred with fellow critics, but I've always been a huge admirer of the Back to the Future pictures, especially the flawlessly scripted first one. Few other high-concept franchises so reward repeated viewing; you could watch the three pictures 20 times and draw new connections every time, noticing how throwaway lines in the first film pay off in whole sequences in the second and third. So I was particularly intrigued by Bob Gale's latest effort, Interstate 60. Gale was Robert Zemeckis' writing partner on the Future flicks, and his name has also graced the credits of such agreeable Zemeckis films as Used Cars and I Wanna Hold Your Hand. But following a rumored falling-out sometime in the early '90s, Zemeckis has gone on to directorial superstardom, while Gale has just sort of gone on. He's worked on a few lousy pictures, but Interstate 60 is his first serious attempt to strike out on his own. It possesses some of that fiendish Future cleverness, and several of Future's stars are on hand (along with James Marsden and Gary Oldman; Gale is a well-connected guy), but Interstate 60 is its own freaky animal, perhaps unique unto itself.
Looking at Interstate 60, it's immediately obvious why Zemeckis' output has sobered-up so much since he and Gale parted ways. Clearly, it was Gale's job to think up the crazier shit. Gale's new picture rather reminded me of Being John Malkovich, in the sense that I could never be sure if I was watching a work of genius or a pile of crap. I can't say I recommend it wholeheartedly, but it did somehow delight me.
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I may as well secure my nerdboy status by admitting how thoroughly charmed I was by Mind Meld: Secrets Behind the Voyage of a Lifetime, a documentary that sits William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy down in Nimoy's Bel Air back yard and sets them gabbing about whatever comes to mind. Star Trek inevitably dominates the conversation, although the film has more to offer than behind-the-scenes Trekkie dirt. Sure, these are two major stars, familiar to pretty much everybody in the world. But they're also two crumbling old guys, looking back at the triumphs and disappointments of their lives with perception and sometimes amazing candor. The affection between them is obvious and touching, and late in the film, when Nimoy tells Shatner that the whole bizarre Trek phenomenon would have been worth it if only to bring them together as friends, even the franchise's most ardent detractors will be forced to agree with him.
If all this strikes you as too frothy, how about a pitch-black satire about cancer? The Medicine Showis like no other cancer movie, concerning itself with a guy who is a sarcastic ball of hate before he gets sick and only rises to new heights of nastiness as his prognosis worsens. Jonathan Silverman (perhaps best-known for the Weekend at Bernie's films) is surprisingly superb in the lead, managing to bring some sorely needed sympathy to his character while wrenching laughs out of grim scenes that shouldn't be funny at all. The script occasionally sinks into gags that wouldn't pass muster on even the most sub-par sitcom, such as one jarringly awful bit about a bimbo with a cancer fetish, but most of the picture feels so true to life you have to assume somebody with the production must have gone a few rounds with the big C. The nurses are keenly observed, the drab horror of hospital life is caricatured expertly, and there is one poor, well-meaning soul called the Strolling Minstrel who is too wonderfully wretched to have come from anywhere but real life. Oh, and there's a touchingly effective romance thanks to Natasha Gregson Wagner, who serves as an effective antidote to all the saintly sickies who have prettily perished in a thousand bad love stories. If you've ever endured a serious illness or stood by as a loved one struggled to survive, this honestly hilarious, hilariously honest film will probably speak to you as few others have. It's funny because it's true; but that's also why it's so sad.
Jack Nance remains best-known for his starring role in Eraserhead, but following his appearance in that film, he carved out a niche for himself in Hollywood as an eccentric, compelling character actor in films good (Blue Velvet), bad (The Hot Spot) and ugly (Meatballs 4). He also was a recurring—and quirky—character in David Lynch's surreally kooky ABC series Twin Peaks. The new documentary, I Don't Know Jack, reveals Nance to have been even more fascinatingly odd offscreen than he was on. The actor's friends recount his many bizarre ups and downs before his luck ran out altogether, and he died following a beating in a doughnut shop, an ending as tragic as it was, well, downright Lynchian. He was a moody, difficult man, but his pals were clearly glad to have met him, and after this film, you will be, too.
Finally, we come to the absolute gem of the festival, easily one of the best films I've seen in a long time. Kytice (Wild Flowers) is a breathtaking collection of Czech fairy tales that are as compellingly dark as anything from the Bros. Grimm. Each tale begins with archetypal young maids giggling innocently, usually while twirling through a meadow with flowers in their hair. Rest assured they don't giggle for long. Old bedtime stories were designed to give kids nightmares—even the original Cinderella ended with the wicked stepsisters getting their eyes plucked out by birds, a touch that never made it into the Disney version. Kytice is all too faithful to the spirit of these ancient tales. It's a wondrously stylized collection of stories that feels like those nightmares you can't shake off the next day. Certain sections of the film, such as a sequence in which an enraged merman attacks a house where his bride is being held prisoner, aren't simply effective filmmaking; they're black magic.