What follows is some of what was observed at this year's Newport Beach Film Festival, which ended its eight-day 2015 run Thursday night.
My father, who is in his 80s, suddenly did not feel well at the top of the mountain while skiing but balked when a Ski Patrol member who had come to his aid asked if he needed to take the sled-gurney downhill. Dad decided to ski back to his car on his own and call it a day. Still not feeling well a couple days later, he went to the doctor and discovered he'd suffered a mild heart attack up on the slopes. That, my friend, is NAILS! So was the site of Jake LaMotta on the Balboa Bay Club lanai overlooking Newport Harbor, where 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. NAILS! Indoors was the film festival's invite-only sunset cocktail reception, to be followed a couple hours later by director/co-writer Martin Guigui's feature film LaMotta: The Bronx Bull, which is based on the legend's autobiography, rolling at South Coast Village in Santa Ana. Among the co-stars is Tom Sizemore (Natural Born Killers, Saving Private Ryan), who seemed amped-up at the sunset reception (sunception?), 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 his cinematic extravaganza opened 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 the Sunset Cocktail Series of small receptions. One cocktail table over 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 can confirm that my colleague Aimee Murillo provided a spot-on overview in ("NBFF's Horror 2015 Showcase Gives Love to Indie Films"). I ditched Jake for Saturday's fright night in the other South Coast Village theater. Aimee's piece included the photo above with this caption: "Invaders: Damn, that's creepy." Imagine seeing the masked ax-swingers LIVE, as the audience did after a loud knock on the exit door next to the screen just before the post-showing Q&A with filmmakers. After a little comedic interaction with the crowd, the pair stood by the doorway leading back into the lobby, ensuring audience members would hand ballots rating the "A Nightmare on Short Street" shorts program "excellent." Or else …
Audiences are ushered out of theaters when one film ends so there can be a quick cleaning of the aisles before the next festival entry starts. And so it was between the horror shorts (shorrors?) and director Adam Mason's oh-so-creepy Hangman, which prompted me to grab a popcorn dinner and lean against a wall facing the theater entrance until the next audience could be loaded in. (Press/media enter last. Or else …) While I licked the I-Can't-Believe-It's Butter off my fingers, Sizemore suddenly bolted out of the men's room, shot me a look like I was vice and then continued on to the LaMotta theater. I thought to myself, "Oh, what must have gone on with him in men's rooms back when he was … um … raging … like a bull … in a cocaine shop." The audience Q&A for Hangman (did I mention how goddamn creepy it is?) included its biggest star (and co-editor) Jeremy Sisto, who headed the solid cast playing family members who are unknowingly (and eventually knowingly) tormented by a serial killer whose only facial feature the audience sees is his whiskers-covered chin. Indeed, the world has grown tired of found-footage horror flicks, but Hangman provides a fresh new take with a story shown mostly via the nutjob's hand-held camera and spy cameras he's 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 Q&A. That's because the bulk of the audience'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.
I moderated a fascinating discussion on Orson Welles at the Island Cinemas at Fashion Island Sunday afternoon with panelists: Catherine Benamou, associate professor of Film & Media Studies at UC Irvine; Arthur Taussig, an Orange Coast College professor emeritus whose film analyses I've enjoyed reading over the years; an OCC art professor who spoke about Italy and whose name I sadly did not jot down; and Lee Wisch Gordon, the Welles scholar and OCC business professor who organized the film festival's Orson Welles Centennial Tribute with NBFF's Director of Features Programming Max Naylor. Welles' restored 1952 Shakespeare classic Othello screened in the morning, followed in the early afternoon by the 2006 drama Fade to Black, which stars Danny Huston as Welles in post-war Italy, and then our "Orson in Exile" talk after that. It was this April 15 cover story, "Newport Beach Film Festival Honors Orson Welles' Centennial," that allowed me to F as in Fake my way into the moderator's chair, although I much would have rather been in the audience facing the smarties.
Lee Gordon, who will be off with Benamou to the University of Michigan in June for a weekend of Welles centenary events, had asked me before the chat to tell the crowd how the Weekly cover story came about, something we never got to. Actually, it was spurred by desperation. I'd argued for Aimee's horror story (storror? Oh, never mind) in the cover slot, but alas I drew the short straw. So I started cramming on Welles until inspiration struck two days before the story was due. That's when I received an email informing that filmmaker and longtime Welles friend Peter Bogdanovich has a small part in Scott Ehrlich's "comedic musical" Pearly Gates playing at the same film festival. Why read what I have to say about Welles when you can read my transcription of what someone who knew him says? So I asked the Pearly Gates publicist to set up a phone interview with Mr. B, although it would have to be done right away as the story was due. Unbeknownst to the publicist, Boganovich's agent or manager apparently sat on the request for a day. As I was doing as last read on my "Orsovations" less than 10 minutes before my drop-dead deadline, I got a couple calls on my cell phone from the 818 area code. I let them go to voice mail thinking they were from my editor, who works out that way sometimes, calling to demand I turn the story in. Actually, the calls were from the publicist trying to patch in a waiting Bogdanovich. Alas, I sent the story in before I heard those messages. Se la vie …
As I was leaving the Welles seminar Sunday, I could see in the Island Cinemas lobby that Jared Harris was posing for photos against the NBFF backdrop, like a movie star or something. Gregg Schwenk had just led a separate talk in a different theater with the actor about his amazing career (and being the great Richard Harris' son, one presumes.) As Schwenk and Harris walked outside, I bumped into my young old pal Leslie Feibleman, the NBFF director of special programs & community cinema, who demanded we pose for our annual photo together before the festival backdrop (like we're wannabe movie stars or something). After I broke the camera, I headed outside and unknowingly into Schwenk, who quickly called me over to introduce Harris. I told him 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 moments before that he directed the episode of Mad Men that was airing that night. (The Hollywood Reporter says Harris channeled classic Mad Men episodes in his directing debut, but I did not read any more as that episode remains in my DVR lineup unwatched.) After Harris informed me there are only three episodes of Man Men left, I got nervous and blurted out something about how great he was on the show 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." Max Naylor saved me from further embarrassment by extending a hand to thank me for moderating the Welles panel. He says he's hoping to keep it going next year, and UCI prof Catherine Benamou is already lobbying for Chimes at Midnight.
Sunday night, I attended the Big Newport screening of Gold, which comes from the country of Richard Harris' birth, Ireland, which is a good thing because it was the NBFF's 2015 Irish Spotlight film. 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 as well.
My most satisfying day of 2015 fest film crashing was Monday, which began with an 11:15 a.m. screening of Miss India America at Island Cinemas. I was expecting a cliched teen comedy, a story we've seen a million times before, you know: the beautiful smart girl who hates beauty pageants but must enter one to win back her boyfriend. Guess what: 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 Patel 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 the story being set in Orange County, with some scenes actually shot around here as opposed to, say, The O.C. or Orange County. What I really suspect is the origin of my delight is Kapoor and Simhan's breezy script, which produces some laugh-out-loud lines and situations. Indeed, Miss India America seems to tap into the same multi-culti mojo swirling around ABC comedies Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, breathing fresh air into tired formats.
I stayed at Fashion Island for the twisted "Double-Edged Shorts" program that followed Miss India America. All six were solid, although I was most partial to Luke Spears' Scumbag, which is about an investment banker who gets confronted in his home by someone he burned, and Azerbaijanian director Sergei Pikalov's Sonuncu (The Last One), about an old man living alone with his last surviving friend, a refrigerator that's pooping out. Then it was over to The Triangle in Costa Mesa for the sunny documentary Gone South: How Canada Invented Hollywood. Director Leslie D. Bland confided afterward that the title is a bit hyperbolic, although his film makes a strong case for many of our neighbors to the north having helped in Hollywood's early days when you consider MGM founder Louis B. Mayer, Mack Sennett of Charlie Chaplin and Keystone Cops fame and three of the first four Oscar winners for best actress were all Canadians. Present-day insights into being Canadian in La-La Land come from the likes of David Foster, Alex Trebek, Alan Thicke, Shannon Tweed, Dave Thomas, Tommy Chong, Will Sasso, Neve Campbell, Harland Williams, Monty Hall, Arthur Hiller and Howie Mandel, who pretty much steals the picture. Bland and the film's singer-songwriter host Tracy Thomas fought through SoCal traffic to make the post-screening Q&A, where the director explained the project started as a book by his co-director Ian Ferguson. When the publisher went belly-up, they tried to re-purpose the tome as a multi-part program for Canadian television, which is where the documentary is headed after its festival run.
My night and, due to personal issues, festival was capped Monday night with Oliver Thompson's Welcome to Happiness, which was making its first screening anywhere. While this was a strike-shortened season, I think 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 that I'll get to in a bit. Thompson also wrote the story of children's book author Woody (Kyle Gallner, who looks as if he could portray Jeremy Renner's younger brother). The gatekeeper to a magical door in his apartment closet, Woody cannot enter but only lead pre-selected strangers through to some unknown destination. Ron Swanson, I mean, Nick Offerman is the knowing and mysterious landlord, and others you recognize and who turn up along the way include Frances Conroy, Paget Brewster, Josh Brenner and so-hot-right-now Keegan-Michael Key, who pretty much steals this picture like he's a Canadian or something. Brenner, who is in HBO's Silicon Valley and (here it comes again) IFC's Maron, attended the post-screening Q&A, as did Brendan Sexton III, who gives a tortured performance. Also in the room were just about everyone on the crew and their significant others seeing as how this was the movie's first screening anywhere. (See above.) Thompson explained he was able to get Offerman, Brewster and Key through people he knows who got his fresh and really smart script to people the improvisational acting gods know. You can see why those folks carved some hours out of their very busy schedules to film their relatively small parts. Thompson says he was inspired by ABC's Lost , I Heart Huckabees and Stranger Than Fiction. You can see the through lines. What got in my way were the nods to the films by someone Thompson did not mention: Wes Anderson. At least twice we had Welcome to Happiness characters walking in slow motion to cranked up music, several twinkly little musical interludes and a camera making a quick zoom from actors in a two shot up to a closeup of the face of a third character atop a platform above them. While Thompson did not have the budget to populate his set with assorted retro machines and objects that would create an artistic collage ala Anderson, Welcome to Happiness does include several random close-ups of odd subjects on a mural painted on Woody's apartment walls. Look, I love Wes Anderson as much as the next girl. I discount, but understand, criticisms that many Anderson movies don't really mean much. Thompson's movie means a lot, and he has a singular voice that could be the subject of a homage some day. I wish he'd had enough confidence in his filmmaking to leave out the homages to someone else.
So how does that feeling relate to my overall festival experience? Come on, people, do I have to paint it on an apartment wall for you? It's as clear as the plot to Lost!