The less is more strategy to improve overall quality and fill houses seems to be working at the halfway mark of the 2013 Newport Beach Film Festival.
Based on the screenings I've attended, you can't swing your elbows without hitting someone like you could in the past. Crowds seem to be digging it all over. The always-popular Irish Spotlight screening was more than sold out Sunday night.
Folks with tickets had to be turned away from the 5:30 p.m. world premiere of the quirky family dysfunction comedy The O'Brien's at Regal's Newport Cinemas, so NBFF CEO Gregg Schwenck on the spot announced to the crowd a second screening at 5:30 tonight at The Triangle in Costa Mesa.
No need flirting with fire code regulations, especially since there's a good chance those enforcing them are Irish.
What those making it out tonight will be in for is an engaging little picture filled with more than a couple laugh-out-loud moments. The patriach (Tommy O'Neill) of a family that lost its beloved matriarch a couple years earlier summons his grown children to his Galway-area farm for unspecified reasons.
The kids fear the worst, but when they discover the reason they react in different ways. The oldest son, Fionn (Liam McMahon), who jetted in from New York with his American bimbette Lauren (Amber Jean Rowan), is happy with the news. Middle daughter Una (Slaine Kelly, who co-wrote the script and you may know from The Tudors) is less pleased, but she's less pleased about just about everything due to the rigors of motherhood and the collapse of her husband Brendan's (Lochlainn O'Mearain) business. Downright hostile to dad's revelation is youngest son Gareth (Emmett Hughes, the other co-writer).
You pretty much know where this is headed, but it is an enjoyable ride getting there thanks to nice pacing from first-time director Richard Waters. It always amazes me how indie filmmakers with no budgets can produce visually stunning shots. Waters is not guilty of that. This film is more performance-driven. On that note, Kelly, O'Neill, Hughes and Paddy C. Courtney, as the town's everyman (literally) who provides welcome comic relief, are the standouts.
The O'Brien's was warmly received by the Newport Beach audience, and Kelly told me at the post-party a few steps away at Muldoon's Irish Pub how surprised and gratified she was by the positive reception she was getting from Irish Americans in particular. Of course, her mood going into the world premiere was uplifted by the picture postcard weather in Newport this past weekend, quite different than the damp, dreary soup she left behind.
Click here for tickets to The O'Brien's tonight. You never know, there may still be some cast and crew members still partying afterward at Muldoon's.
The funniest film I have seen at the festival so far was part of the OCC Shorts program earlier Sunday at the Lido Theatre in Newport Beach. Wangled is from father/son, producer/director-writer Richard and Alastair Purvis, who both hail from the Orange Coast College Film/Video program (the son before the father).
The script is smart, the direction is tight and the actresses playing scheming women are believable. But it is their target, played brilliantly by Alan Santini, who really propels this little sucker. Those who live in the beach city surrounding this festival should recognize him by his perfect appearance, expensive car and love affair with himself.
There are no repeat showings scheduled for Wangled at NBFF so search for it online.
The best film I saw at the festival through Monday night (and so far this year, come to think of it) is What Maisie Knew, the latest from the directing team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel of Bee Season, The Deep End and Uncertainty fame. (More on them in "NBFF: Smaller, Shorter & Uncut.").
Maisie, which was a Friday night festival Spotlight film and is opening this weekend in New York and Los Angeles, is a modern retelling of the Henry James novel, with Julianne Moore as a fading, second-tier rock star married to an international art dealer played by Steve Coogan.
Their careers are all-encompassing and keep them apart, and we are introduced to them as their marriage is crumbling. But these Wangled-worthy narcissists brought into this world an adorable girl named Maisie (Onata Aprile), who despite her young years is probably the most adult member of the family.
It becomes clear as the heartbreaking story progresses that the couple does not deserve this child, an improbably paired one does. Let's leave it at that other than to note Alexander Skarsgård and Joanna Vanderham fill these adult roles brilliantly.
As you expect from a McGehee/Siegel film, it is beautifully shot and they are still really into using reflections as story devices. Remember when Tilda Swinton was trapped in a droplet of water coming out of the kitchen faucet in The Deep End? In Maisie, a passenger-less taxicab seen against a glass entrance represents the dashed hopes of a neglected child.
And when it comes to that child, just as the Bay Area-based filmmakers did with Flora Cross in Bee Season, they have found another young actress who can carry an entire picture with Aprile–who is even younger! Her face is a blank slate as it takes in what Maisie sees. What's going on inside that brain? Does she grasp what is happening around her? Is that sadness in her eyes? Perhaps that's just another manipulative reflection.
And now for a conversation plucked from the line heading into What Maisie Knew at The Triangle:
OLDER LADY [standing behind me, to woman across the way]: CAR-OL!
OLDER LADY: What did you see?
CAROL [looking at sign indicating What Maisie Knew is the next picture playing in the theater she just left, which had shown Blood Type: Unknown]: What Maisie Knew.
OLDER LADY: What?
CAROL: What Maisie Knew.
OLDER LADY: It played earlier than 8:30?
OLDER LADY: What did you see?
CAROL: What Maisie Knew.
OLDER LADY: Oh, I didn't know there was an earlier showing.
OLDER LADY: Was it good?
CAROL: Yes. It was good.
[She is now joined by her husband.]
HUSBAND: Was what good?
HUSBAND: What are you talking about?
CAROL: The movie we saw. [Glances again at the sign.] What Maisie Knew.
HUSBAND: We didn't see What Maisie Knew.
CAROL: What'd we see?
HUSBAND: Something with blood. … A blood count … This is the line for What Maisie Knew.
OLDER LADY: I know.
I've never heard a collective audience gasp like I did when the NBFF Mandible trailer flashed its most graphic, horrific image Saturday night. The lady sitting next to me was having conniptions, burying her face in her hands, rocking back and forth. She'd been to the dentist that day. Some nervous laughter from the crowd greeted the "particles of light" payoff, but no one else was willing to join a lone clapper in the far reaches of the sold-out theater at The Triangle.
Keep in mind this was before an NBFF Spotlight showing of the blood-splattered The Iceman, director/co-writer Ariel Vromen's take on the true-life story of devoted husband, father and mob assassin/serial killer Richard Kuklinski. It was if Mandible was Novacane, deadening the senses to the carnage that was to come in the picture, which is scheduled to open in limited release Friday.
Michael Shannon, one of the best actors going right now, thoroughly inhabits the monster, no doubt helped by the size and stoic expression he has at his disposal. Richie's zeal to do the right thing (provide for his family) despite a mad violent streak is very reminiscent of Shannon's Nelson Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire.
Strong support comes from three actors audiences have largely taken for granted at this point in their respective careers: Ray Liotta, Winona Ryder and David Schwimmer, who would be the most unrecognizable actor in the production were it not for Chris Evans' Mr. Freezy, Kuklinski's sidekick in dismemberment.
Vromen gets the look of the mid-'60s to mid-'70s down, although I believe the actual Iceman's reign of terror started earlier and ended later. The stark contrast between the innocence of a family meal or day at the roller rink and men getting whacked is effective, although when you reach the three-quarter mark the ultra-violence has made its point and you wish the filmmaker would, too.
I was shocked, SHOCKED! to hear that someone who tried to order tickets online for The Searchers showing at Fashion Island Cinemas Saturday was informed the John Wayne Retrospective presentation was sold out. From my perch in front of the screen looking out at the audience, it sure appeared as if there were plenty of empty seats..
Perhaps ticket holders stayed home when they discovered Ethan Wayne would not be there, something I did not discover until I arrived to moderate the pre-screening discussion with him and Glenn Frankel, whose new book The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend just came out.
Frankel gave an informative talk about how the John Ford classic came together and why it is regarded as not only one of the best (if not the best) American westerns ever made but is on many lists as one of the top 10 pictures of any genre.
As I informed the audience, Frankel's book received a rave review from Martin Scorsese in The Hollywood Reporter, and I'd told the author before the talk that I would have just quit after receiving that gold stamp of approval. His publisher ran out of copies of the first printing after that.
Frankel, who heads the journalism department at the University of Texas at Austin, told me that after writing books based on his international reporting–something that won him the Pulitzer Prize while with the Washington Post–he decided he wanted to plunge into an American subject. Incredibly, he discovered there was no "making of" book written about The Searchers, so that became his topic.
More than our discussion, I wish young filmmakers had filled some of those seats to learn something about Ford's use of perspective. For all his legendary bluster (and booziness), Ford was a true artist who I believe these whippersnappers could learn a thing or three from–like Scorsese, Spielberg and Coppola did before them. Pilgrim.