Diary of a Mad Festival

I spied with my little eye Jake LaMotta on a Balboa Bay Club lanai overlooking Newport Harbor; the 92-year-old smoked a cigar or cigarette and gazed at the lovelies drifting by. The thing is, the 1949-51 middleweight champ and subject of Marty Scorsese's brutally brilliant 1980 Raging Bull looks as if he could still kick my ass. He was taking a break from the 2015 Newport Beach Film Festival's invite-only sunset cocktail reception on April 25, hours before director/co-writer Martin Guigui's feature film LaMotta: The Bronx Bull, based on the legend's autobiography, rolled at South Coast Village in Santa Ana.

Among the LaMotta co-stars is Tom Sizemore (Natural Born Killers, Saving Private Ryan), who seemed amped-up at the party where Stellas, Tito's Vodka, and delicious appetizers from the private Bay Club's Waterline and A&O Kitchen+Bar restaurants were served. (NBFF sponsors, all.) Festival CEO Gregg Schwenk had said before the cinematic extravaganza opened this year that the sprawling opening-night galas and nightly Spotlight parties, while great, don't lend themselves to intimate interactions between filmmakers and industry insiders. So this year, he introduced these small receptions. One cocktail table from the one Sizemore lorded over was Schwenk's pal Jared Harris (Mad Men's Lane Pryce and Lincoln's Ulysses S. Grant). The body language of the two actors at their respective posts certainly legitimized the stereotypes of loud Americans and reserved Englishmen.

I ditched LaMotta for director Adam Mason's oh-so-creepy Hangman in the other South Coast Village theater. Jeremy Sisto, who also co-edits, heads the solid cast of family members who are tormented by a serial killer whose only facial feature the audience sees is his whiskers-covered chin. Hangman provides a fresh new take on found-footage flicks with a story shown mostly via the nutjob's hand-held camera and spy cameras he has hidden throughout the family's two-story LA home. Sisto held his own camera on Mason and the other cast and crew members who stood in front of the movie screen for the post-screening audience Q&A. The bulk of the crowd's questions were directed not at the star of ABC's Suburgatory and A&E's American remake of the excellent French series The Returned. They didn't even mostly go to director Mason. No, everyone wanted to know what was going on with the shy actor who played the dialogue-less hangman, Eric Michael Cole, who truly seemed to squirm at the attention.

At Island Cinemas the next afternoon, I could see in the lobby that Harris was posing for photos against the NBFF backdrop, as though a movie star or something. Schwenk had just led a separate talk in a different theater with the actor about his amazing career (as well as being the great Richard Harris' son, one presumes). After Schwenk introduced me, I told Harris how much I enjoyed his interview on the WTF With Marc Maron podcast, which was recorded in the garage of the veteran standup comedian's home in Highland Park. The actor replied that the Maron of IFC's Maron was a rather “strange fellow” who seemed shy and withdrawn in his kitchen before the interview, but once the mics were hot, he lit up. I then told Harris I had just learned he directed the episode of Mad Men that was airing that night, that it was actually his directing debut. When he informed me there are only three episodes of Man Men left, I got nervous about what to say next and blurted out something like, “Remember when you were hanging on the door? That was awesome!” That caused a look of “Oh, no, fanboy” to come over Harris' face as I heard Schwenk remark, “Jared needs to get to his room.”

That night, I attended the Big Newport screening of Gold, which comes from the country of Richard Harris' birth, Ireland. Director/co-writer Niall Heery's quirky dramedy is about a once-suicidal man (David Wilmot) who comes back into the life of his former sweetheart (Kerry Condon), 12 years after she dumped him and took their daughter (Maisie Williams) with her. Gold is worth catching if you missed it, although I must confess that better than the film were the films-within-the-film of Frank the track coach, played by James Nesbitt, who you know more from dramas but obviously has solid comedy chops.

My Monday began with an 11:15 a.m. screening of Miss India America at Island Cinemas. I expected a clich├ęd teen comedy we've seen a million times before, and husband-and-wife filmmaking team Ravi Kapoor and Meera Simhan did not . . . um . . . disappoint? No, they most certainly did not! Maybe it was the talented young cast headed by Tiya Sircar and her partner in crime (literally), Kosha Patel, who had great comic timing and believability as friends. It could have been the game support of Hannah Simone, a stunning beauty (and former U.N. human rights and refugee officer!) you may recognize from Fox's New Girl. Or perhaps what roped me in was a story that was not only set in Orange County but, unlike The O.C. or Orange County, shot here. What I really suspect is the origin of my delight is Kapoor and Simhan's breezy and confident script. Miss India America taps into the same winning multiculti mojo swirling around ABC comedies Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat.

I was still stuck inside the Triangle Monday night for Oliver Thompson's Welcome to Happiness, which was making its first screening anywhere. The existential dramedy summed up my 2015 festival experience. It was mostly brilliant; actually, it could have been totally brilliant were it not for the moments that took me out of the picture. Thompson also wrote the story of children's-book author Woody (Kyle Gallner), who is also the gatekeeper to a magical door in his apartment closet that he cannot enter but only lead preselected strangers through to some unknown destination. Nick Offerman is the knowing and mysterious landlord, and others you recognize in the cast include Frances Conroy, Paget Brewster, Josh Brener and so-hot-right-now Keegan-Michael Key (who pretty much steals the picture). Brener, who is in HBO's Silicon Valley and (here it comes again) IFC's Maron, attended the post-screening Q&A, where Thompson explained he was able to get the actor as well as Offerman, Brewster and Key through people he knows who know people who know them. You can see why those folks carved some hours out of their very busy schedules to participate. Thompson was inspired by ABC's Lost, I Heart Huckabees and Stranger Than Fiction, but his is a truly original story. What got in my way were the nods to Wes Anderson. At least twice, we had Happiness characters walking in slow motion to cranked-up music, several twinkly and whimsical musical interludes, and a camera making a quick zoom from actors on the ground to a closeup of the face of a different character looking down on them from above. Look, I love Anderson as much as the next girl, but Thompson's un-Andersonized scenes revealed a singular voice and vision that did not deserve to be blurred by homage. I wish the first-timer trusted his filmmaking more.

So what does that have to do with my overall festival experience? Come on, people, it's as clear as the plot to Lost!

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