Get Your Geek On

If there's a common denominator in my picks for the best of this year's Newport Beach Film Festival, it's that they're all what we might charitably call hard sells: they're weird and kind of icky, or they're about less-than-glamorous subjects, or they're retro in a way that will baffle most of you under 30. These aren't the movies that dazzle you with a flashy smile, good manners and a nice rack; these are movies with zits and glasses and a bit of a stutter, movies you could easily overlook in a crowd. But give them a chance, and you just might make a love connection.

I'm not proud to admit how enthused I am about the movie that kicks off Friday's show: Labyrinth!I 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? What the hell kind of film critic are you? I mean, really.” 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, but what can I say, it just happens to be one of my favorite movies ever. Labyrinth is 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, Labyrinthis a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Quit giving me that look.

Labyrinthis followed by the 1982 Muppet project TheDarkCrystal,which 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.

If you're looking for some more upbeat geekery, skip Crystaland head straight from Labyrinthto the screening of the new doc Ringers,TheLordoftheFans.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.

The Catcher in the Rye, The 400 Blows, Freaks and Geeks, Napoleon Dynamite. . . there have been many worthy depictions of the pimply purgatory that is male adolescence, but Bryan Poyser's DearPillowis the first movie I've seen that effectively captures the frustrated, greasy, confused, self-hating horninessthat so many young men know all too well. Rusty Kelley stars as Wes, a 17-year-old supermarket bag boy who finds a surprising comradeship with Dusty (Gary Chason), an old, gay porn writer who lives in his apartment complex. Kelley looks and acts like a real kid, and that means he is not a type we're used to seeing in the movies. He's not Jason Schwartzman funky-cute; he's schlubby and slumpy and looks like he stinks. He's fantastic. As for Chason, in 35 years of acting, this is the first time he's played a character with an actual name, and here's hoping he doesn't have to wait 35 years for the next one. The film is not without humor, but it does take us to some very dark, disturbing places; no, it doesn't venture into NAMBLA territory, but let's just say that it's rather startling that this movie is screening in W's America at all, let alone in Newport Beach. While its truths may be ugly ones, they're truths worth saying.

After that, perhaps you'll feel all shameful and twisted up inside . . . sinful, even. If so, perhaps you should spend a couple of hours with OC pastors Mike Foster and Craig Gross. Christians have taken a variety of tacks to bring the message to us heathens. We have been preached at by vegetables (Veggie Tales),puppet dogs (Davey and Goliath) and even Spinal Tap-esque heavy-metal bands (Stryper). But out of all the freaky attempts to bring us the Word of God so far, perhaps none are so strange as the efforts chronicled in Bill Day's new documentary, MissionaryPositions.Far from being drawling, big-haired, CBN-style televangelists, Mike and Craig are two young guys who use the language of the Jackassgeneration to get their regressive message across, with midgets and puppets and smirky, pranky commercials you can't believe really exist. They've even enlisted the talents of porn auteur Jimmy D; clearly, this is not your grandma's anti-sex league. The documentary follows the boys as they head out on “porn patrol,” hitting the fleshpots of Amsterdam, Las Vegas and elsewhere in an attempt to investigate and harass pornographers and all those who would jerk off in peace. Are these two annoying? You bet! Kinda tragic? Indeed! Absolutely fascinating? And how! Trust me, after you've seen these two in action, you'll thank God you're a heathen. Damnation's never sounded so good.

Now that you're ready to come over to the dark side, check out Edgeplay:AFilmabouttheRunaways,a long-overdue documentary feature about the, er, seminal all-girl 1970s rock band. When the group hit the scene in '75, nobody had seen or heard anything quite like them: loud, angry, proudly skanky teenage chicks who could rock as hard as any fella. The press dubbed them “jailbait rock,” and they enjoyed an all-too-brief spell as media darlings before they noisily imploded. Of the band's members, Lita Ford spent a few years belting out memorably awful heavy metal before fading into obscurity in the late '80s, Joan Jett would carry on rocking into the new millennium, while bassist Victory Tischler-Blue would go on to direct this uncompromising look back at the band that blazed the trails later trod by the likes of L7, Hole and the Donnas. The Runaways crowned themselves the Queens of Noise; you'll agree if you know what's good for you because these old broads could probably stillkick your butt.

There are still roughly a bajillion other movies screening at the fest, so dig into the following pages and start planning your week. Come on, if you've read this far, it's not like you had any hot dates planned or anything.


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