THE BIG EMPTY
Starving actor John Person (Jon Favreau) is holed up in a California desert town, waiting for a mysterious stranger known as Cowboy (Sean Bean), who's supposed to give him 24 grand in exchange for a bright-blue suitcase, contents unknown. John keeps missing the rendezvous, though, because he's distracted by the colorful local citizenry, particularly the voluptuous Ruthie (Rachael Leigh Cook), her jealous boyfriend (a scene-stealing Adam Beach) and a couple of sunbaked UFO-conspiracy nuts. Writer-director Steve Anderson, a CNN cameraman making his feature debut, has a flair for sweet-hearted, love-starved characters, which may be what convinced reliable vets such as Daryl Hannah, Bud Cort and Kelsey Grammer to take small roles. More amiable than laugh-out-loud funny, the film pokes along, buoyed by the motel's bright Hawaiian color scheme, and a moonlit desert finale that's awfully pretty, even if it doesn't satisfactorily explain that blue bag. As for Favreau, it's a good thing he's recently hit the big time as a director (Elf), because as an actor he's not exactly energizing—John remains a dullard, even after the blue-bag aliens (or whatever) have infused his inner emptiness with soul. (Chuck Wilson) (Regency Lido, Sun., 8 p.m.)
BREAKFAST WITH HUNTER
If the world of hipster celebrities is a box of chocolates, Hunter S. Thompson is one of those orange cream things that you inevitably find mixed in with the stuff that you actually want. If you follow the careers of interesting people like, say, Terry Gilliam, Alex Cox, Gary Trudeau or Johnny Depp, you just have to accept that Thompson will turn up in their adventures again and again. The problem isn't that Thompson is untalented. On the contrary, when the man isn't too screwed up on drugs he can be a funny, absorbing and occasionally brilliant writer. But alongside his increasingly incoherent writing, Thompson has made a whole other career out of being publicly obnoxious--waving guns around, vomiting on people's carpets, etc. His wildman persona got old long before he did and just gets more pitiful as the decades go by. The documentary Breakfast with Hunter chronicles the lengthy process involved in adapting Thompson's classic memoir Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas into a film, and along the way we see him making life hell for just about everybody he comes into contact with (a list that includes such notables as Depp, Gilliam, Benicio Del Toro, John Cusack, songwriter Warren Zevon, artist Ralph Steadman and journalists George Plimpton and P.J. O'Rourke). As a traveling spectacle Thompson makes for fascinating viewing, but lord knows he would better serve his talent and the rest of us by checking himself into a good detox program. (Greg Stacy) (Regency Lido, Sat., 6 p.m.)
Since his mother and sister died years ago, sullen teen Adam Sheppard (Evan Peters) has refused to cut his hair and now has goofy, Peter Frampton locks cascading down his shoulders. Adam's boozer dad (Chris Eigeman) is at least as messed up as Adam is and provides no real guidance, so when Adam responds violently to some schoolyard bullying, his concerned grandmother (Louise Fletcher) arranges for him to seek counseling once a week with a hip neighborhood priest (Kevin Sorbo). Written, directed, produced and presumably catered by Michael Picchiottino, Clipping Adam is perched precariously on the brink between genuine, affecting Catcher In the Rye coming-of-age tale and Afterschool Specialschmaltz. Picchiottino's dialogue is natural and he handles his actors well; Sorbo, for instance, is surprisingly adept in his smallish but pivotal role, with an understated, world-weary charm he never had much call to use back on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. The film generally captures the low-key despair of disaffected teendom quite well and it's suffused with the kind of quirky details that only come from real-life experience, but some aspects of the story (such as a lengthy chase scene) ring terribly false and feel like they've been tacked on in a misguided attempt to "spice up" the action. Make no mistake, Clipping Adam is a good film and worth seeking out . . . but frankly it could have used a little trimming in the editing room. (GS) (Edwards Island, Fri., 6:15 p.m.)
DEVILS ARE DREAMING
Michael Sladek's strange and irritating but potent directorial debut follows Joseph (Stephan Donovan), a 30-year-old, wannabe artist who finds himself ping-ponging around in various alternate realities, getting glimpses of other paths his life could have taken. Devils are Dreaming is a clumsy and off-putting film, but it has a strange power that sneaks up on you. For the first few reels I dismissed it as simply amateurish and paid more active attention to the affecting mope-rock soundtrack by the New York band Stupid, but gradually I was drawn in to poor Joseph's plight. Donovan starts the film as a charmless lump but his performance just seems to get better and better the more frantic Joseph becomes; by the film's conclusion, you may be surprised how much you've grown to worry about where Joseph will eventually wind up. He can't seem to find contentment in any of these realities, and there is something genuine and affecting about the plight of this schlubby, depressed everyman adrift in a potentially infinite number of suburban hells. Joseph's story is a perfect sci-fi allegory for the dilemmas faced by many men of a certain age: What happened to my dreams? How did I get this crappy job? How did I end up married to this strange woman? Where the hell did these kids come from? For a while Joseph is allowed to just ride each scenario out, safe in the knowledge that at least a new reality will probably come along soon. But, as with all of us, as time goes by it becomes more difficult for Joseph to pick up and start his life over. What strange forces are toying with Joseph this way? What strange forces are guiding your life? (GS) (Regency Lido, Mon., 3 p.m.)
DRAGNUNS IN TINSEL TOWN
This documentary by Ren Blood reveals the secular sexual ministering and personal backgrounds of the Los Angeles Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. It's a moderately interesting and entertaining trip through the fundraisers and outings of an eclectic group of men and women whose makeup is a cross between Marcel Marceau and KISS. But if you're not a drag queen or a big fan of drag queens, the endless scenes and commentary on Drag Nun fashion makes this 92-minute film, well, drag. The sisters, with names such as Sister Sedusa Mann, Sister Unity Divine Techno-Nun, and biological female Sister Vibrata Electra of the Flaming Labia are sincere in their efforts to raise money for gay charities and distribute condoms, and adamantly proclaim they are not making fun of the Catholic church (although one sister finally admits: "fuck the Catholic church, I'm going to hell anyway according to those people.") Justifiable bitterness aside, the sisters love of their collective shines through in the film, and there's no question they take their organization seriously—even adopting a firm set of postulate rules such as no glitter-wearing for six months for wannabe drag nuns. Although they're all frightfully freakish looking, they believe strongly in their mantra of "expiating stigmatic guilt and spread universal joy," but the documentary runs out of enticing nun gas quickly and would have been much more effective paired down to 30-40 minutes of pure nun fun. (Stacy Davies) (Regency Lido, Wed., 5:30 p.m.)
THE EMPTY BUILDING
A real head scratcher, this one. There's this rundown building, see, and people who enter it are compelled by some mysterious, Twilight Zone-ish force to confront the great traumas of their pasts. It seems like the set-up for an anthology picture, but instead we only get a quick glimpse of one poor lady's private grief and then we spend the rest of the picture with one guy's abstract tale of childhood abuse. Giovanni Sanseviero directs as well as stars and his talent in both arenas is undeniable; his performance is memorably intense and the film looks absolutely fantastic, with sweeping camerawork, artful compositions and the kind of production values most directors couldn't manage on nine times the budget. But for all Sanseviero's obvious talents, there is still something rather "student film" about the whole affair. Sanseviero has a ways to go as a storyteller and some aspects of the story are needlessly confusing. The film is also too arty by half, and there are a few modern dance interludes that rather unfortunately resemble bits from Mike Meyer's old Sprockets sketches on SNL. I don't mean to slight Sanseviero; it's obvious a lot of work went into this picture and he has every right to be proud of what he's accomplished. But it feels like he's trying for his masterpiece his first time out, and the strain shows. Ten years from now Sanseviero will almost certainly have a few interesting studio pictures behind him, and a handful of his most devoted fans will dig up this curio and see the first inklings of what he would later become. (GS) (Edwards Island, Sat., 11 a.m.)
HAM & CHEESE
Christopher Guest's mockumentary Waiting for Guffmanfollowed the petty squabbles within a small, woefully untalented, amateur theatrical troupe, and while there were those who said Guest was cruel for setting up these hapless, bumpkin characters and mocking their dreams, Warren P. Sonada's Ham & Cheese shows what happens when a satire really goes after wannabe actors and doesn't stop until there's nothing left of them but a bloody puddle and a few clumps of hair. Mike Beaver and Jason Jones bring ghastly conviction to the lead roles in this tale of two dopey, aspiring thespians who are each strikingly untalented in their own way. Richard (Beaver) is a large, shambling manchild who may not be retarded but who is clearly close enough to it that we have no business laughing at his misfortunes. Barry (Jones) is a superbly irritating comic creation, an insufferably smug, thirtysomething telemarketer who is willing to sacrifice whatever it takes (including his long-suffering spouse) in pursuit of fame. While Ham & Cheese is admittedly side-splitting, it heaps such an endless deluge of shit upon these poor guys that eventually every laugh becomes a very guilty pleasure indeed. Kids in the Hallvets Scott Thompson and Dave Foley both turn up for memorable turns as sleazy showbiz types who treat Richard and Barry with sneering contempt, and Foley has one scene so hideously, hilariously cruel that you may well end up straining to watch it from a fetal position beneath your seat. Compared to the twisted minds behind this film, Christopher Guest is a softie. (GS) (Edwards Island, Wed., 6:15 p.m.)
MY WIFE MAURICE
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Directed and co-adapted by Jean-Marie Poir, My Wife Maurice is not literally a gay film, although it's billed as one. A cross-dressing situational comedy more akin to the sitcom Bosom Buddies than the film The Birdcage—although it has elements of both--Maurice is one wild, hilarious and original piece of buffoonery. A smarmy middle-aged businessman (Philippe Chevallier) coerces a simple-minded charity worker Maurice (Rgis Laspals) to pose as his evil wife so the businessman can dump his gorgeous but psycho mistress who is on a rampage--wielding a chainsaw--just minutes away from his elegant penthouse, intent on exposing the affair to the man's real wife. Laspales as the forthright and mentally inept Maurice Lappin is exceptional, sincerely unaware of his own freakishness, and he carries the picture. The fast paced directing and original writing are top notch, creating a wealth of absurdity in which all of the actors flourish. (SD) (Regency Lido, Fri., 11 a.m.)
THE NIGHTOWLS OF COVENTRY
Writer/director Laura C. Paglin's first feature has a lot going for it: bountiful charm; well-defined characters and solid acting, her largely unknown actors doing a much better job of disappearing into their roles than many of their Hollywood A-list counterparts. Unfortunately, it's never really made clear why we should care about a dilapidated deli in Cleveland Heights' Coventry Road neighborhood during the early 1970s. Press clips from previous festival stops mention that Irv's Deli, which Nightowls' fictional Marv's Deli was based on, operated as an always-open, bohemian hangout until its 1989 closing. You could argue that the film educates generations of young people weened on Denny's Grand Slams, Chili's babyback ribs and similar robot food about the virtues of indie greasy spoons where food and service were less important than the dysfunctional family bonds that grew between oddballs in need of someplace to go. But that message is hard to make out amid poor sound and weak opening scenes by Donna Casey as the innocent young waitress who is supposed to serve as the audience's eyes and ears. Meanwhile, Seymour Horowitz is so adept at nailing his Marv character as a schemer and adulterer and health-code violator that you root for the forces that eventually shut him down. With a little more dough, a few more takes and a stronger emphasis on one or two main characters, Paglin might've dished up the special of the day. (Matt Coker) (Edwards Island, Thurs., April 22, 5:30 p.m.)
EDWARDS ISLAND CINEMAS, 999 NEWPORT CENTER DRIVE, NEWPORT BEACH; REGENCY LIDO THEATER, 3459 VIA LIDO, NEWPORT BEACH. (949) 253-2880; NEWPORTBEACHFILMFEST.COM. MOST SCREENINGS, $10.