Thirty bucks. It's what you might pay for dinner at a decent restaurant or a good night's bar tab. At an event like the AFI Fest, it wouldn't even be enough to get you into the opening-night show. But at the SoCal Independent Film Festival, which starts Wednesday and runs till Sept. 9 at the Huntington Beach Central Library and Cultural Center, $30 gets you everything. All the shorts, all the features, two parties, a panel discussion on publicizing your film . . . and you might even run into David Carradine, too! You don't have to go for the full 30 if you can't stretch the budget that far because individual events only run $4 to $6, and in most cases, you get at least two films for that—either a feature plus one short, or a grouping of similarly themed shorts (Stories of War, Drama, Off-Beat, Suspense & Thriller, Drama & Tragedy, Relationship/Comedy, Comedy & More).
Now in its third year, the fest boasts nearly 80 films, though the bulk of those are shorts. But of the 10 features being highlighted, most were available for preview, save one that isn't in competition: Zombie Farm, a movie in which "inbred cannibal farmers are turned into zombies after terrorists poison the local water supply." Well, you probably don't need a review to determine whether or not that strikes your fancy. But as for the rest, here's a rundown:
Float. Yet another indie comedy about how hard it is to break into the motion picture business, this one manages to be more endearing than most, thanks to a dedicated lead performance by Paul Kolsby as a semi-delusional would-be writer-director determined to make an art movie about a prison boat full of sexy babes, and strong support from Spanish actress Marian Zapico as his aspiring starlet girlfriend. It's hard to imagine he'd have any trouble getting that pitch over in Hollywood, or that the person pitching such a thing would complain that it's becoming too sleazy and exploitative in the hands of horn-dog producers. Still, director Calvin Simmons gets a lot of things right about the pre-production process, and the rest of it works if you don't take it too seriously. After all, there's a big wet T-shirt sequence at the end. Wed., 7:30 p.m.
Famous Monster: Forrest J Ackerman. The patron saint of geeky collectors and genre film fans the world over, Ackerman was collecting horror and sci-fi movie props back when the studios were simply throwing them away, and managed to make a life and career out of being the ultimate fanboy. Now 90 years old, he still has a level of enthusiasm and vigor that would put many comic collectors to shame. This documentary on him is far from complete—nary a mention of Vampirella, his most famous creation—but while hardly the definitive chronicle, you can't ever have a bad time spending Tuesday with Forry. Sept. 6, 2:15 p.m.
The Sweet Lady With the Nasty Voice: Wanda Jackson. After watching this documentary, you'll wonder how it is that Wanda Jackson isn't a household name, considering that it seems like everyone from Elvis Presley to Courtney Love is in some way a musical descendant. The "first lady of rockabilly" got her big break from Hank Thompson, dated Elvis, came up alongside Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, and was the first female country star to both dress in a sexy feminine manner and growl like a wildcat in song. Oh, and she's still touring, making new music (on the predominantly Goth label Cleopatra, of all companies), and looking a damn sight better than any senior citizen I know. She is also still not yet in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a sorry state of affairs which this movie should go a long way toward remedying. With testimonies from fans as diverse as Elvis Costello and Lemmy Kilmister, and lots of concert footage both vintage and new, The Sweet Lady With the Nasty Voice is a barn-burnin', toe-tappin' good time. Sept. 6, 5:45 p.m.
I Love Hip-Hop in Morocco. Two things the far-right can't stand—hip-hop and Muslims—come together in this documentary that suggests there may yet be a chance for music to bring about world peace. Long seen as the gateway to the Islamic world from the West, with its mixture of Arabic and French cultures, the North African nation is now the site of a burgeoning crop of multilingual, multicultural rappers, some of whom incorporate their own traditional music into the mix, while others are more Americanized (there's some debate as to whether or not it's okay for Arabic-Africans to refer to themselves as "niggas"). One slightly bemused father suggests it's all just a fad that'll die out "like soul music," but these kids really seem to know their stuff, delivering some insightful critiques of the state of American hip-hop today, while trying to push it forward in their own way, gradually breaking a few of the cultural taboos of Islam in the process. Sept. 6, 7:30 p.m.
Permanent Vacation. The highest-profile of the films in competition, Scott Peake's work is also the most disappointing. It begins promisingly enough, as a sad-sack, overworked English businessman (Frank Harper) is forced to take some time off and decides to go camping in Florida with his family. Once there, he immediately falls for a rather obvious con that lands him in a stolen car and on the shit-list of a deranged cop (Michael Bowen). Above and beyond all that, the cabin he's rented turns out to be a shambles, and everyone in the area appears to be insane, including his own family. Based on a novel by English author Geoff Nicholson entitled What We Did On Our Holidays, this seems like the type of premise that may have worked a lot better on the page. The way it plays out onscreen, these characters feel like the worst caricatures of the American South as imagined by someone who's never been there. Too cartoonish to be as disturbing as the filmmakers appear to have intended, it even cheats us of a cathartic climax by editing the action to death. Only lead actor Harper and David Carradine (as a man who advocates violent punishments, but only "theoretically") treat their characters with a level of reality sorely missing everywhere else. Sept. 8, 5 p.m.
The Elephant King. If you only see one film at the festival, make it this one. Seth Grossman's second feature as a director is beautiful to look at, solidly acted, unpredictable and sexy as hell. Plus, it has actual elephants! It's a lot like that Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach thematically, but doesn't fall flat on its face like that one did. Depressed writer Oliver (Tate Ellington) travels to Thailand to find his brother Jake (Jonno Roberts), who has fled a pending court case in the U.S. and left his parents (Josef Sommer and Ellen Burstyn) to deal with the resultant mess. Ostensibly there to persuade Jake to come home and face the music, Oliver also imagines that his brother has become some sort of Indiana Jones-type hero, as opposed to the pill-popping, hard-drinking hustler he actually turns out to be. Yet Oliver is still smitten with the Far East, and particularly the beautiful bartender (Thai model Florence Faivre) who seems to fall for him the moment they meet. Thailand, however, is not Disneyland, and the tourists will not be welcome forever. And taking care of a pet pachyderm? Harder than it looks. Grossman sustains a hypnotic tone that sucks you into the fantasy world, and thanks in large part to the casting of Burstyn and Sommer, manages to sustain interest in the real-world troubles back home. Special credit also for Faivre's sex scenes with Ellington, which are hotter than anything in Hollywood this year so far. Sept. 8, 7 p.m.
The Garage.As he stops for a fill-up at a service station and stares at old photos, Matt (Martin Donovan) remembers his youthful days working at his father's garage—back when the character's voice was deeper and played by younger actor Gabriel Marantz. Alongside his best friend Schulz (Mark Johnson), he plans to run away when the timing is right, though he seems to be the only one who doesn't see just how reckless and irresponsible Schulz is. Meanwhile, Matt's ties to the town become stronger as his struggling family become more dependent on his contributions, and a perfect girlfriend (hilariously named "B.J.," of all things) suddenly materializes to become an instant plot device. It's easy to mock only because the film is sooooo earnest—it would be a fine fit for the Hallmark or Family Channel. Nothing wrong with good old-fashioned, utterly predictable, small-town stories, if you're into that; the movie is what it is, and it's one of the few features here that's totally family friendly. But it's also kinda dull, and has almost as many false endings as a Peter Jackson movie. Sept. 8, 9 p.m.
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I Wanna Be Like Mike: The Story of the New NBA. You've got to hand it to festival organizers Brian Barsuglia and Vince Lara when it comes to documentary selection—with Moroccan hip-hop, rockabilly and geek docs alongside this one about basketball, they may have finally found a way to make the form seem cool and appealing to the kids. This one looks primarily at the pros and cons of basketball recruitment—it's less about the NBA than the auxiliary culture that springs up around it, full of unscrupulous recruiters, barely authorized clubs and smaller leagues where those who don't make it the first time can practice for another shot. Most interviewed here seem to agree that kids should go to college first, but acknowledge that kids who are really good can make a lot more money if they go straight from high school. It's more talking-head than full-court action, but a lively debate even for non-fans. Too bad, though, that a movie which exists in the shadow of Michael Jordan couldn't get him to actually make any kind of appearance or on-record comment. Sept. 9, 2 p.m.
There wasn't time to catch up with all the shorts, but some that sound interesting include Don Hertzfeldt's animated everything will be ok; Zeth Willie's The Needful Head, in which a man becomes tired of his head and removes it; Bodybagman, about a man who suddenly wakes up inside a body bag in a strange house; The Deadening, a tale of a man too self-absorbed to notice that zombies are taking over the world; and of course, Gay Zombie, a powerful metaphoric struggle that . . .
Nahhh, just kidding. It's about a gay zombie.
The SoCal Independent Film Festival at the Huntington Beach Central Library and Cultural Center, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach; www.socalfilmfest.com . Opens Wed. Check website for additional show times. Through Sept. 9. Individual screenings, $4-$6; five-day pass, $30.