Bigger Than Life: Our Exclusive Preview of the Best (and Worst) at the Newport Beach Film Festival
During the eight days of the Newport Beach Film Festival, you’ll be lucky to see even a small fraction of the more than 150 feature selections culled from all over the world and other festivals. But over the past few weeks—doing practically nothing but eating, sleeping, letting a beard grow, and watching movies non-stop—this critic has managed to see 54 of them, approximately a third of what’ll be on display, in the hopes of helping you make the most educated choices at our biggest area film festival of the year.
In keeping with the odd juxtaposition of this eclectic, populist festival at highbrow Fashion Island, many of this year’s selections center on the idea of the unlikely hero: From the out-of-shape failure who rises to face a mighty foe (305, Big Man Japan) to unheralded real-life heroes like Max Lesnik and Barney Rosset, this is the year of protagonists who are more than they seem to be at first glance.
Not unlike the fest itself.
NOT TO BE MISSED
About Crying (Lo Bueno de Llorar). In a series of long takes and uncomfortable silences, a couple walks the near-empty streets of Barcelona at night, searching for a party and the right things to say to each other. Matías Bize’s film is artsy with a capital “A,” but also kind of brilliant. Very minimalist, though, so avoid it if that scares you.
Accuracy of Death. A Grim Reaper named Chiba (Takeshi Kaneshiro), tasked with deciding whether mortals destined for premature death merit a reprieve or not, roams Japan in the past, present, and future while judging a mousy office worker with superstar potential, a yakuza thug who cares for a helpless protegee, and an aging hairdresser with a robotic assistant. A bit sappy, but totally compelling.
Adjust Your Color: The Truth of Petey Greene. Don Cheadle gave an acclaimed performance as groundbreaking Washington, D.C., radio/TV host Petey Greene in last year’s Talk to Me, but even Cheadle is no substitute for the man himself. Built around archival TV footage thought to be long-lost, Loren Mendell’s documentary tells Petey’s story through the eyes of those who knew him best, and captivating clips of the man at his best, including a noteworthy one-on-one with a young Howard Stern in blackface.
Amal. A humble rickshaw driver (Rupinder Nagra) in India is bequeathed a fortune by an eccentric millionaire, but doesn’t know it yet. Will the dead man’s family, who have debts and problems of their own, do the right thing and inform the lucky beneficiary? And if so, what will he do with his sudden windfall? Probably not what you think.
American Teen. Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Nanette Burstein chronicles a year in the life of a handful of high school seniors in Indiana: an insecure jock, a glamorous and popular student council president, an aspiring filmmaker, and a girl-crazy gamer geek. Billed as a real-life Breakfast Club (which it isn’t at all—no Judd Nelson character, or any bullies whatsoever, are to be found), it is instead a sign of both the changing times and the things that never change, as well as a refreshing antidote to the overly beautified “teenagers” and excessively clean buildings that populate Hollywood’s phony high school stories.
Big Man Japan. The giant monster movie has been the subject of much reinvention lately, from the social satire of The Host to the hand-held stylings of Cloverfield. Now it’s time for the mockumentary, as we follow middle-aged bachelor Dai (writer-director Hitoshi Matsumoto) around Tokyo while he feeds his cat, rides the subway, and periodically transforms into a 50-foot tall tattooed wrestler who battles giant monsters. The ending is completely batshit insane.
Captain Abu Raed. The first feature film from Jordan in 50 years is as crowd-pleasing as family melodramas get. Aging airport janitor Abu Raed (Nadim Sawalha) finds a captain’s hat in the trash and is soon delighting the neighborhood children with his stories of glorious traveling adventures. But when he learns that one of the kids is being abused, he has the chance to be a real hero. If there’s a flaw to the film, it’s that the hero has none—he’s such a saint that this sometimes feels like a scripture lesson.
The Caterpillar Wish. In a small Australian town, a teenage photographer (Victoria Thaine)—whose mother (Susie Porter) works as a topless barmaid—uncovers some unpleasant truths about her past while trying to discover herself and play matchmaker for mom. A well-done movie all-around—but what teenager today uses film in her camera?
The Edge of Heaven. Germany’s official entry for last year’s Oscars is an international affair in three languages. Turkish widower Ali (Tuncel Turkiz) lives in Bremen, Germany, and falls for a prostitute who’s also Turkish. When the relationship takes a tragic turn, Ali is deported; Meanwhile, the woman’s daughter Ayten (Nurgul Yesilcay) searches Bremen for her mother, while Ali’s son Nejat (Baki Davrak) searches Turkey for Ayten, unaware of his father’s current whereabouts. And you thought you had trouble connecting with your parents!
Fix. Aspiring documentarian Milo (director Tao Ruspoli) and his girlfriend Bella (Olivia Wilde) have to put prior plans aside when Milo’s junkie brother Leo (Dazed and Confused’s Shawn Andrews) gets arrested again, and has to be driven to rehab by 8 p.m. with a $5,000 admittance fee or be sent to prison. Andrews is masterful as Leo, the perfect mix of endearing, flaky, and ever-so-subtle guilt-tripping. Points off, though, for excessive self-reflexivity—it adds nothing to the story to have it be Milo’s “actual” footage, save for way too many “Why are you filming this?” moments.
Heather Henson Presents Handmade Puppet Dreams. Always a highlight of the festival, Henson’s collection of the best puppet shorts from around the world is again divided into one selection for kids and one for adults, though the “adult” program is thankfully less about scatological humor and more about existential angst. Not every short was available for preview, but Genevieve Anderson’s “Too Loud A Solitude,” based on an Eastern European novel about a book-burner, features a voice-over performance by Paul Giamatti that may be the best work he’s ever done.
The Last Lullaby. A hitman (Tom Sizemore) falls in love with the woman he’s supposed to assassinate. A bare-bones and timeworn premise, perhaps, but director Jeffrey Goodman gives it just the right amount of style, and Sizemore is better than he’s been in years. Based on a short story by Max Allan Collins (Road to Perdition).
Man of Two Havanas. Vivien Lesnik Weisman is the daughter of Max Lesnik, a left-wing Cuban activist in Miami who advocates for an end to the U.S. embargo while simultaneously condemning communism. During the course of making this documentary about him, Vivien—who had planned to stay apolitical—tries to clarify the issue for casual audiences and ends up crystallizing her own feelings. An excellent primer on the subject.
Mardik: Baghdad to Hollywood. Bet you didn’t know the screenwriter of Raging Bull was from Iraq! Now a teacher at USC, Mardik Martin proves to be every bit as engaging a storyteller as pal Martin Scorsese, and even casual fans of the two will enjoy the rare footage and humorous anecdotes on display. There are some poorly drawn animated bits (obligatory in documentaries these days—thank you Michael Moore), but they don’t kill the fun.
Obscene. With a title like that, and a lineup of talking heads that includes Gore Vidal, John Waters and Al Goldstein, you might expect a tediously obvious defense of pornography. Not so: This is a fascinating documentary about Barney Rosset, publisher of Grove Press and the Evergreen Review, who distributed such works as Tropic of Cancer, Waiting for Godot and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, fighting for them every step of the way. Archival film footage of Rosset at nearly every stage of his life also makes for a riveting time capsule.
Son of Rambow. Last year’s fest-closer makes a repeat engagement due to popular acclaim. During the ‘80s, two English boys—one the sheltered child of religious cultists, the other a rambunctious latchkey bully—bond over their shared love of First Blood, and decide to film a Rambo sequel in their spare time. Some of the dialogue is overly cinema-savvy for naive kids (“We’re losing light!”), but Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy director Garth Jennings gives the proceedings a charmingly surreal and imaginative tone.
Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story. Gone are the days when you could rig a movie theater’s seats with electric buzzers to simulate a monster attack, or have an inflatable skeleton fly over the audience’s head, but you can relive them via this exuberant tribute to filmmaker and showman William Castle (The House on Haunted Hill). Best known for his promotional gimmicks, he’s rarely given his due as the producer of Rosemary’s Baby.
305. A mockumentary-style faux-sequel to 300, this low-budget comedy by Daniel and David Holechek tells the story of the five Spartans who ran away from the battle of Thermopylae, instead of defending the goat path that became Xerxes’ key to victory. Starring the Costa Mesa comedy troupe Market Fresh Produce.
The Tracey Fragments. Based on a series of monologues by Maureen Medved that later became a novel, Bruce McDonald’s amazing head-trip of a movie explores the mind of Tracey Berkowitz (Ellen Page), as she tries to piece together the events leading up to the traumatic loss of her brother, even as her mind tries to disassociate itself in a free-flowing array of multiple cinematic panels and floating boxes. Likely to overwhelm and annoy viewers hoping for Juno Part II, it is nonetheless an audacious and imaginative work that’s sure to remain one of the year’s best.
NOT TOO BAD
Always: Sunset on Third Street 2. A follow-up to last year’s festival hit, focusing on the people who live on a small street in the shadow of Tokyo Tower in 1959. The main characters are an aspiring writer who adopts a gifted child, and a family of mechanics who take care of a spoiled bratty girl when her father’s business fails and he has to find work elsewhere. Agreeable enough, but has more overly sentimental false endings than Return of the King.
Disappearing in America. An IRA bomber (David Polcyn) flees Belfast for a safe house in San Francisco, where he is forcibly debriefed and stripped of his identity, a situation that becomes increasingly intolerable. A textbook example of how to tell a story on a tiny budget, hampered by some occasional plot missteps.
Eastern State: Living Behind the Walls. Sounds like a Communist story, but in fact it’s a documentary about Philadelphia’s most notorious prison (now defunct), founded by Quakers who thought solitary confinement would be good for the soul, only to find that instead it drove many inmates crazy. Learn lots of strange trivia about prisons in general, and this one in particular.
Elvis and Anabelle. Normally it’s a good idea to stay away from any movie with “Elvis” in the title, but this unlikely love story between a brooding mortician’s son (Max Minghella) and a runaway beauty pageant winner (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants’ Blake Lively) is worth a look, especially for Joe Mantegna playing waaaay against type as a lisping, mentally challenged, Texas-accented hunchback.
Em4Jay. Em (Laura Gordon) and Jay (Nick Barkla) are young, beautiful, madly in love, and serious drug addicts. See them fuck, and then fuck up their lives further and further. Both leads are definitely easy on the eyes, but their descent into tragedy is too inevitable to generate much narrative tension, or empathy.
Frost. A self-destructive, spoiled playboy in New York City with the unlikely name of Jack Frost (Jason Behr) falls for a reporter (Lucy Gordon) who’s doing a story on him. In other words, it’s kind of like Van Wilder with fewer laughs and a really horrible soundtrack. Behr’s performance keeps things watchable, though.
Fugitive Pieces. A history teacher (Stephen Dillane) is haunted by his memories of escaping Nazi Germany as a child, and particularly by visions of his sister, whose final fate remains unknown. Rade Sherbedgia plays the father figure who helped him escape and raised him in Greece before moving to Canada. If you haven’t had enough of Holocaust-related tales onscreen, this is a perfectly serviceable one, though some of the narration is uncalled for.
Garage. In rural Ireland, a simpleton named Josie (Pat Shortt) runs the day-to-day operations at a small gas station, and when the owner decides to expand the hours of operation, Josie must train a taciturn teen (Conor Ryan) to be his assistant. A wonderfully knowing portrait of the fading small-town lifestyle in the Emerald Isle, Garage doesn’t quite make the “must-see” list because of its ending, which feels like a gratuitous kick in the balls. Not to be confused with last year’s American small-town snorer The Garage.
Goodbye Baby. A beautiful high school graduate (Christine Evangelista, who looks like Katie Holmes’ younger, cuter sister) heads for the big city, where she moves in with her gay brother, tries to become a standup comic, and falls for an ex-junkie when she attends an AA meeting to overcome her fear of public speaking. Enjoyable, but plotless enough that writer-director Daniel Schechter has to contrive a tragedy or two to force an ending.
The Good Life. An awkward, hairless Nebraska teen (Mark Webber) hooks up with one of those only-in-the-movies, free-spirited beautiful girls who instantly fall for defensive introverts. And she’s played by Zooey Deschanel, who’s swiftly making a habit of such roles. As a director, Stephen Berra makes this all quite palatable, but as a writer, he frequently mistakes platitudes for profundity. The strong supporting cast includes Chris Klein, Bill Paxton, Harry Dean Stanton, Drea DeMatteo, Patrick Fugit and Donal Logue.
Google Me. Filmmaker Jim Killeen did an online search of his own name, and set out to meet and interview every other Jim Killeen he could find. He doesn’t exactly learn the meaning of life in the process, but thankfully every Jim Killeen turns out to be an entertaining character . . . save, perhaps, the filmmaker himself, whose story takes an odd tonal detour when he starts getting into his own family’s psychiatric problems, which belong in a different film.
Hollywood Singing and Dancing. This movie is for you, Mr. Musical Hater. You’d rather stick needles under your fingernails than watch The Sound of Music, and think Chicago’s totally gay. But after you watch this collection of highlights spanning the entire history of musical cinema from Busby Berkeley to Bill Condon, you will respect the form, if you have any love of film whatsoever. Except maybe for Chicago—it still seems pretty gay.
Lie to Me. A couple with an open relationship (Steve Sandvoss and Courtney Ford) run into trouble when she hooks up with a super ex-boyfriend (recent Man of Steel Brandon Routh), and he deflowers the barely legal sister (Shoshana Bush) of his literary agent (Nick Wechsler). It’s like an Edward Burns-directed romantic dramedy without the actual presence of Burns . . . a definite improvement.
Mister Foe. After the apparent suicide of his mother, Hallam Foe (Jamie Bell) flees his family’s country estate to Edinburgh and starts spying on a young woman (Sophia Myles) who looks remarkably like mom. Presented as a sort of romantic neo-fairy-tale, the movie rarely acknowledges the inherent creepiness of its premise.
Night. If R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming” were a movie, this would be it. Lawrence Johnston’s documentary offers up stunning images of Australia at night, while various ordinary people expound upon what night means to them, and an orchestral score swells. A brief detour into 9/11 and terrorism is weirdly incongruous, but overall, this is a real beauty to watch, though potentially fidget-inducing.
The Project. In this inner-city drama, a team of documentary filmmakers attempt to chronicle the life of an at-risk black kid on one hand, and a local police officer on the other. What they don’t realize is the manner in which the two are connected, and the way that connection will send everything into a dark downward spiral. Think of it as The Blair Projects Project.
Radio Corazon. An anthology of three stories of sexual indiscretion, based on actual phone calls to a popular Chilean radio station. A teenager blackmails her stepdad into taking her virginity, a mother falls for her son’s bride-to-be, and a terminally ill woman pressures her servant into sleeping with her husband. Fun stuff, but not nearly as steamy as it needs to be.
Red Like the Sky. Biopic of acclaimed Italian sound editor Mirco Mencacci (inexplicably renamed Mirco Balleri here), who, as a child in the ‘70s, was accidentally blinded while handling his father’s gun. As per Italian law at that time, he was removed from the public schools to attend a religiously run boarding institute for blind children, and it was here that he apparently learned—in spite of his strict headmaster—to create soundscapes. So terminally heartwarming, you might want to pop an extra Zantac.
Take. A grieving mother (Minnie Driver) goes on a journey to confront the man (Jeremy Renner), now on death row, who has caused her so much pain. Writer-director Charles Oliver has made a striking debut that’s almost perfectly cast. Unfortunately, the kid (Martian Child’s Bobby Coleman) is so annoying that it’s hard to get worked up over his loss.
Time Crimes. In one of the best movie opening sequences in recent memory, a peeping Tom (Karra Elejalde) tries to get a closer look at a naked woman in the woods, only to be stabbed in the arm by a man with a bandaged face. Fleeing to a nearby silo, he accidentally ends up in a time machine that sends him an hour into the past. The rest, unfortunately, is a bit more predictable.
To Touch the Soul. Documentary in which a group of students from Cal State Long Beach travel to Cambodia to teach HIV-positive children how to paint. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the students bonded with the kids, and that conditions over there are harsh. Well done for what it is, but better suited to the small screen.
Trying to Get Good: The Jazz Odyssey of Jack Sheldon. Most people probably know Jack Sheldon best as the voice of Schoolhouse Rock’s “Bill on Capitol Hill,” but he had a long and storied career before that. Directed by talk-radio host Doug McIntyre and his wife Penny Peyser, this documentary has the feel of an all-star call-in show, with the likes of Merv Griffin, Clint Eastwood, Billy Crystal and more all offering anecdotes and opinions. A must-see for jazz fans.
Under the Sun. Mostly set around the Gold Coast of Australia, this surfing documentary focuses on the divide between competitive surfers and more Zen-like hobbyists. The filmmakers, however, seem more affiliated with the latter, as they use different film stocks, filters, speeds, and forms of animation to create an almost-non-narrative cinematic trance. Damned if I can remember any of the interviews, but it sure is pretty.
What We Do Is Secret. Shane West stars as Germs lead singer Darby Crash in this energetic biopic that mostly rocks, up until a poorly sketched-out ending that does little to clarify Darby’s demise. West nails the emotional tone of raw ambition mixed with crushing depression, though, and the music is great.
NOT WORTH YOUR $$
The Art of Travel. An uptight, wealthy city boy (Christopher Masterson) gets cheated on by his fiancee and decides to travel the world. When he bushwhacks in Panama alongside James Duval and Johnny Messner, it’s kind of fun. The rest is cloying and a structural mess, despite scenic locations.
Camille. A white-trash loser (James Franco) is pressured into marrying a beautiful but annoying loudmouth (Sienna Miller) who wants to honeymoon at Niagara Falls. Along the way, their motorcycle crashes and she dies, but inexplicably won’t stay dead. With hubby being accused of her murder, and the still-lively body starting to decompose, it’s a race against time to get to Niagara and rekindle their relationship. The bizarre premise is never properly explained or exploited; you’ll feel like the undead watching it.
El Brindis. A Mexican photographer (Ana Serradilla) travels to Chile to meet her terminally ill estranged father (José Soriano) and the family she barely knows, all of whom are Orthodox Jews. While there, she falls for the rabbi (Francisco Melo). If you were expecting fireworks or drama to ensue, don’t.
Familiar Strangers. Casting Shawn Hatosy and DJ Qualls as brothers is a stroke of brilliance. Unfortunately, it’s the only one in this listless dramedy about (sigh) a family get-together over Thanksgiving. Mostly, the characters debate whether or not to poison dad’s cancer-stricken dog, and in one scene, play basketball while riding on donkeys, which sounds more interesting than it is.
The King of Ping Pong. Swedish drama about an inexpressive fat kid who can’t swim, isn’t as popular as his handsome little brother, and gets his jollies by dominating younger kids at Ping-Pong. When family secrets are revealed, his relationship with his brother changes drastically, and suddenly, after a whole movie of not much happening, crazy shit goes down. If this kid were your classmate in school, you’d avoid him. Doing likewise with the movie won’t hurt.
Leaving Barstow. A high school senior (Kevin Sheridan) in Barstow weighs whether to go to college or take care of his hopeless single mother (Michelle Clunie), who has a penchant for hooking up with all the wrong guys. This could have been something, but the casting is all wrong: Sheridan is 26 and looks it, and Clunie’s a mere 12 and a half years older than he is.
Man Maid. A schlub (Phillip Vaden) who also happens to be the only male maid at a small-town hotel asks his beautiful boss (Sara Rue) out on a date in order to try to make the actual object of his affections jealous, all while trying to organize a benefit concert to save the town from evil developers. A story this clichéd really needs to push the envelope in other ways—going either more absurd or more tragic—but this just lies there, inert.
Sherman’s Way. Yet another uptight, wealthy city boy (Michael Shulman) gets ditched by his girlfriend and ends up hitching a ride from a burned-out ex-athlete country boy (James LeGros). Together, they learn Valuable Life Lessons, with the aid of a de rigeur free-spirited small-town girl who looks like a model and just happens to be single and horny for nerds. Not an uncontrived moment goes by.
The Stone Angel. Think The Notebook divided by two. Ellen Burstyn plays a feisty senior losing both her mind and her health; as her put-upon son (Dylan Baker) tries to get her into a home, she remembers her entire life story, starting in childhood and all the way through divorce and the death of her ex. Good acting from the leads, and Cole Hauser and Ellen Page show up along the way, but it’s stultifyingly by-the-numbers.
32A. Aidan Quinn’s sister Marian wrote and directed this female coming-of-age story (the title refers to bra size) set in 1970s Ireland. When 13-year-old Maeve (Ailish McCarthy) starts developing breasts, she catches the eye of a hunky boy, but his affections prove fickle. Quinn has a great ear for dialogue, but an unfocused story that ultimately doesn’t satisfy.
The Universe of Keith Haring. You probably know Haring’s art: those thickly outlined figures that look like they stepped off a traffic signal, and appear on an album cover or two. His work is fun and dynamic, but this documentary isn’t: The late artist himself isn’t compelling as an onscreen presence. For fans only, though they know all this stuff already.
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