Opening Night: Crash. (United States/Germany) This year's Newport Beach Film Festival kicks off with the world premiere of the much-anticipated directorial debut of MillionDollarBabyscreenwriter Paul Haggis. Featuring an A-list cast (Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Brendan Fraser, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe, Nona Gaye, etc., etc.), the film tells a sprawling story of racial discord over the course of 36 hours in Los Angeles.

Australian Spotlight: BlackandWhite. (South Australia) This 2002 drama, making its West Coast premiere, was spun from a true story that occurred in Australia in 1958, when Max Stuart, a young aboriginal man, was convicted of murdering a little white girl based on some questionable evidence. Rupert Murdoch (Ben Mendelsohn), today the international Fox media baron but back then the publisher of the AdelaideNews,persuaded authorities to take another look at the case and give Stuart a retrial. Fine, so Murdoch did one decent thing, half a century ago. Still won't save his soul from the fires of hell.

French Spotlight: ApresVous(After You). (France) In Pierre Salvadori's 2003 comedy, making its Southern California premiere, Antoine (Daniel Auteuil), the headwaiter at a Parisian restaurant, saves Louis (Jose Garcia) from hanging himself, though in his attempt to get Louis back on his feet, Antoine finds himself caught in a romantic triangle.

Friday Night Spotlight: LayerCake. (United Kingdom) Daniel Craig stars as X, a pro drug dealer who has decided to quit the business and go straight. His boss just wants a few more favors, and X readily agrees. But what should be a simple operation turns deadly serious, and X soon realizes that it will take a miracle for him to see the bright future he was planning. In fact, he'll be lucky to have any future at all. Director Matthew Vaughn previously produced Guy Ritchie's crime pictures, and on the strength of this film he's been handed the reins of the next X-Menpicture.

Irish Spotlight: TheBoysandGirlfromCountyClare. (Ireland/U.K./Germany) Three estranged brothers from County Clare, Ireland, put their considerable differences aside and reunite after 30 years to play in Ireland's biggest Ceili music competition. But their fragile bond is put to the test when their prodigies meet outside the competition and old secrets are revealed. If you guessed that Colm Meaney is in this thing, you are correct. Of course, Irish law prohibits any director from making a film without Colm.

Italian Spotlight: Caterinavaincitt(Caterina intheBigCity). (Italy) A coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old girl who moves to Rome and faces the crumbling of her parents' marriage at the same time she's trying to find her own way in a private school that's sharply split along political lines.

Jim Henson Company 50th Anniversary: Featured screenings of Labyrinth(United Kingdom) and TheDark Crystal (United Kingdom). We're not proud to admit how enthused we are about Labyrinth! We know what you're thinking: “Jesus Christ, with dozens of indie features and documentaries screening in this festival, you're wasting precious space writing about some fluffy little goddamn Muppet movie from the '80s?” Well, screw you, too. Labyrinth may have bombed big on its initial 1986 release, and it may have been almost forgotten in the years since, and, yes, it may be a Muppet movie, but it's a Muppet movie unlike any before or since, combining some of the most baroquely odd puppets you'll ever see with a surreal, bittersweet and funny script by Monty Python alum Terry Jones. David Bowie is terrific, if typecast, as Jared the king of the Goblins, turning in a performance of such otherworldly grandeur that at times you manage to tear your eyes off what must surely be the ugliest wig of his career. An astonishingly young Jennifer Connelly is also great as the film's whiny heroine, but the real star is arguably Brian Froud's eye-popping production design. Fluffy little Muppet movie or no, Labyrinth is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Quit giving us that look.

The 1982 Muppet project The Dark Crystal is a lot like Labyrinth if you beat all the funny out of it. All the funny. Sure, it's gorgeous to look upon, but wow, these are some weird, grim, scary puppets here. You have to see it once if you want to have lived a full life, but if you have seen it before, you've probably had all you'll ever need of the thing.

Saturday Spotlight: If you're looking for some more upbeat geekery, head over to the West Coast premiere of Ringers:Lord of the Fans (United States). Sure, there are some who believe that Peter Jackson's epic Lord of the Rings trilogy would have worked a hell of a lot better with copious bathroom breaks (not to mention a lot more Gollum and a lot less of the big crashing battle scenes that lasted longer than the first Gulf War). Impressive though they were, sitting through one of these pictures in an unbroken session often felt like an endurance test. For some. But there are millions of people around the world who simply cannot get enough of all things Middle Earth, and this new documentary has fans and film stars alike speculating on the seemingly endless popularity of Tolkien's books. These people are at least as interesting as anything Tolkien ever dreamed up. Also interesting is Ringers' director, Carlene Cordova, who you can get to know in the story “Can't Break the Hobbit.”

Spotlight: MonsterTorsdag(MonsterThursday). (Norway) This idiosyncratic romantic drama, making its West Coast premiere, is set in a remote Norwegian town where a slacker takes up surfing in hopes of impressing his friend's fiance.

Closing Night Spotlight: MadHotBallroom. (United States) The West Coast premiere of Marilyn Agrelo's documentary that follows a group of 11-year-old New York City public school kids as they journey into the world of ballroom dancing and learn the merengue, rumba, tango, fox trot, and swing and eventually compete in a final citywide competition.

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