ill LYTeracy - Looking at the 2010 Newport Beach Film Festival


Newport Beach, to many in Los Angeles, seems like some distant enclave of rich people; a far-away kingdom of sorts that’s irrelevant to us up here. A film festival there? Rrrrrriiiight, you’re probably it’s all surfing documentaries ‘n’ stuff. And the fact that it’s located in a mall for rich chicks called Fashion Island (nicknamed “Fascist Island” by cynics and hippies) doesn’t help, though let it be noted that there are really cheap cocktails at the upstairs Red Robin, for the benefit of harried husbands and fest-goers.

But to those who live in Orange County and care about movies – a descriptor that applied to me for two years – it is a lifeline. And yes, there generally are surf documentaries, but also a hell of a lot more than that. As they’ll constantly remind everyone, CRASH premiered here before going on to win the Oscar (though seriously, yes, that doesn’t exactly give any street cred). But as they may not necessarily remind everyone, other trends get, if not their Stateside launch, their earliest major push at the fest as well: the live-action DEATH NOTE movies on back-to-back nights, for example, a couple of years ago. Satoshi Kon’s PAPRIKA. BIG MAN JAPAN. CAPTAIN ABU RAED. SON OF RAMBOW. Heather Henson’s Handmade Puppet Dreams.

The fact is that there are lots of film fans in OC, but few people care about giving them any kind of notice. The OC Register’s coverage is generally anemic, as is their coverage of everything else...and that other publication never ceased reminding me that they believed their readership was more interested in stories about elementary school boards than film-makers or festivals (in fairness, many of the readers who wrote letters to the editor reinforced that stereotype).

Selections are more diverse than one might expect, though at the risk of sounding like a typically pompous old-and-out-of-it critic, the foreign-language selections tend to be better than the American independents. This may simply be because there are less to choose from in the latter category that haven’t already been played to death, but in practice that often means the final selections are what I call “nearlies,” films that would seem to have every element in place but are missing one thing that would put them over the top, whether it be a romantic comedy with no laugh-out-loud moments, or a conceptual piece with name actors that simply misfires.

In the former category, this year we can add SEE YOU IN SEPTEMBER to the list, though I have to admit, it was not long ago that I was thinking to myself, “Self, whatever happened to Estella Warren, that model-turned-actress from PLANET OF THE APES and KANGAROO JACK?” Well, here she is, in a movie about what happens when every therapist in New York goes on vacation for a month, and commitment-phobic Estella starts a group of her own. Wacky stuff happens, like a couple of hapless thugs robbing everyone the first night, but eventually things settle into a typical gimmicky groove, with Estella and a sexist-yet-charming guy in the group being challenged to date each other for a month without having sex. Sandra Bernhard, Whoopi Goldberg, and NYPD Blue’s James McDaniel round out the cast, and Estella does appear to have taken acting lessons since last we observed her, but the lack of any actual funny makes this movie missable.

As for conceptual misfires, we have two would-be cult flicks for your consideration. First up, ELEKTRA LUXX, which casts Carla Gugino as a porn star.

I know that got your attention. I know that’ll get asses into seats. But they’ll be bored-asses when they see how lame-ass the movie actually is. Right upfront, let’s note that if you want to see Carla naked, rent SIN CITY instead. And then let us add that movies which try to spoof the porn industry are as tiresome by now as parodies of bad ‘50s sci-fi. With that said, this still could have been something – the cast also includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marley Shelton, Timothy Olyphant, and Gugino’s WATCHMEN daughter Malin Akerman – but first, it needs to know what it wants to be. It seems early on to follow in the footsteps of EXTRACT and CHLOE (low-grossers both, so maybe bad idea) in that a woman tries to hire Elektra (Gugino) to seduce her husband so they can be even in the “having affairs” department, but this is one of many notions that goes nowhere. Elektra is a truly passive protagonist who has stuff just happen to her, and occasionally dreams about singing in a nightclub or talking to the Virgin Mary (Julianne Moore, yep). A subplot about Elektra’s dimbulb costar going to Mexico and learning she’s a lesbian is equally pointless, and the DICK TRACY primary-color production design is nifty but irrelevant.

In the movie’s favor, it’s nowhere near as flat-out annoying as the other big misfire, an aptly named sorta-musical with cult aspirations that is appropriately entitled SUCK. Clearly hoping to follow the trail blazed by THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, and to a lesser extent REPO: THE GENETIC OPERA, it’s a vanity project written, directed, and substantially songwritten for by actor Rob Stefaniuk, about a Canadian rock band whose beautiful female bassist (Jessica Pare) is turned into a vampire. Cameos from the likes of Alice Cooper, Henry Rollins, Moby, Iggy Pop, and Alex Lifeson would seem to indicate that this is something to watch...instead, they clue us in that these no-longer-young rockers will apparently do anything for a buck. The movie isn’t funny, nor is the music much to write home about, though Pare is pretty hot in vampire white-and-red. Edward Cullen might not quite be able to kick the asses of these bloodsuckers, but let’s just say it would be a pretty close match.

More successful, though not totally so on the cult front is DRONES, a comedy codirected by BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER actors Amber Benson and Adam Busch. It wants to be OFFICE SPACE meets HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, and while it doesn’t quite make it, there are moments of triumph to keep the viewer from making a Death Star-like evacuation. Jonathan M. Woodward is Brian, an unexciting white-collar worker who discovers that both his best friend (Samm Levine) and his office crush (Angela Bettis) are aliens, albeit of different species with conflicting plans for the earth. Benson and Busch have clearly listened well to mentor Joss Whedon, and their attempts to balance comedy with existential sci-fi horror, not to mention relationships (platonic and intimate) with alien metaphors are easy enough to understand...the problem is that there never really feels like there’s anything at stake (no pun intended, Buffy-ites). Bettis threatens to blow up the world, yet we never truly get a feel that it will happen, or that if it does, anything will matter in this flyweight, campy world. More menace would have made the humor and the relationships matter more than they do. Full disclosure, though: Angela Bettis is a friend, has been a colleague on several projects, and I could watch her in anything. Certainly, she takes the part here more seriously than the filmmakers seem to.

It’s also standard issue at Newport Beach to have a documentary about some kind of seminal underground artist who became hugely influential, and this year it’s Jean-Michel Basquiat’s turn. Yes, there have been movies about Basquiat, who went from creative graffiti to big gallery shows with Andy Warhol,  before, and yes, the “hook” for this one – unseen interview footage shot by director Tamra Davis some 25 years ago – isn’t that exciting. But so what? Expanded into a full-on doc that remains audience friendly, JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT: THE RADIANT CHILD makes a convincing and fun case for Basquiat as an important artist, and for art itself as a potentially populist thing, relative to how it’s usually represented.

Are you still with me? If so, you’re probably wondering when I’m gonna quit my bitching and get to the good stuff. And good stuff there is. Granted, I am working with a sample of ten films, but I asked for a representative sample, and assume I got something like it. Gone are the days when I could write about 53 movies in one issue (yes, I did that...personal record, and I’d love to see any other critic try to approach it, athankyouverymuch). Gone too are the days when the paper I did that for would actually even want something like that. And while distance now makes it impossible to attend the fest every day, I remember how it was when I lived behind that orange curtain, what it meant, and thus I try to do things like this for the versions of me still stuck in the cultural desert, suddenly placed in front of an all-you-can drink open bar that materializes once a year.

So...let’s give it up for Italian films (and their after-parties)!! If you’re a foreign-language cinephile, you may well have been on the bandwagon last year for GOMORRA. I wasn’t; too non-narrative for my liking, assuming a knowledge of the subject matter that Italians would have but I couldn’t get a solid grasp on while trying to learn them in progress. Still, it put Italy’s recent movies on the radar, and the fest has snapped up two good ones.

SICILIAN GIRL is, for my money, a more accessible and engrossing mafia tale than GOMORRA, and similarly based on a true story, complete with some actual documentary footage at the end just to prove it. We begin with a cute young ten year-old girl and the boy she likes, as they play with baby bats and pledge to marry each other in the future. Yet the girl’s dad is a mafia don, albeit an old-school type with a certain sense of honor (he despises rapists, and won’t deal drugs). When he and his men take care of a local molester, retaliation comes soon thereafter, and our little girl is without a father. Her brother informs her that it was the work of another local Don, and she vows revenge.

Ten years later, the boy she once loved is in the Don’s employ, and her brother thinks the time is right for revenge. Time turns out to be all wrong for him, and he ends up dead in the harbor, at which point the now-teenage Rita decides to rat out everything she knows...and she’s been keeping diaries for years. This puts her into the witness protection program, and an uneasy alliance with a cop she had pelted with food as a child when he had the nerve to threaten her late father.

While I thought Veronica D’Agostino looked a bit older than 17, the story was compelling throughout, with some suitably tense foot chases and cross-cutting. My girlfriend, forced to sit through most of these screeners, liked it by far the best, which bodes well for its accessibility with audiences who may not normally seek out subtitled flicks.

She wasn’t as high on the artier I AM LOVE, but I am. It’s the little things that matter in this film from Luca Guadagnino, who’s currently producing a remake of Dario Argento’s horror classic SUSPIRIA. Whether it be the close shots of small details that build a bigger picture of the setting, or the way he shows you things without showing them, building up to events and then giving you the aftermath while leaving the actual event to your imagination and deduction. This isn’t a process for every viewer, but the interested cinephile should find it fascinating. Tilda Swinton stars as the Russian-born wife of an Italian businessman who inherits the family company (not a criminal enterprise, just so you know) jointly with his son. As tensions between pere et fils rise, Swinton’s Emma finds herself becoming romantically involved with a chef who may or may not be her son’s secret gay lover. Such things simply will not do.

Guadagnino frequently shows us Emma’s state of mind via her daydreams. Through clever cutting and audio fades, he creates several fever-dream moments that feel as authentically subconscious as anything since ROSEMARY’S BABY. The movie isn’t flawless – a bizarre post-credits bit is nigh-impossible to make out – but his skill with visual poetry makes a strong impression.

Oh yeah, and Swinton playing a Russian who is now Italian-ized is a total Oscar bid. I don’t think it will work this early in the year (it’s also not overly showy), but it’s a solid multilingual performance.

[side note: I know how annoying it can be for some guy to totally be dropping references to the fact that he has a girlfriend. I get it. This is my first proper one, and I’m in my 30s, though, so cut me some slack. Besides, I think it can add perspective to say what she thinks.]

CRYING WITH LAUGHTER is technically in English, but it’s so Scottish accented that some of you will have a problem deciphering. It has to be some kind of testament to the lead performance of Stephen McCole that, at first, I had no idea if this was a fiction film or a real-life documentary about a stand-up comic named Joey Frisk, who’s introduced to us swigging booze on the beach while riffing about porn and masturbation. We soon learn that yes, this is fiction, and Joey is a self-destructive drunk and cokehead, who makes personal grudges into part of his routine. The re-entry into his life of a slightly menacing former classmate from boarding school provokes a new routine, but also a series of events that sends Joey spiraling downward, especially when his landlord is found nearly beaten to death, and Joey’s the suspect.

When all is ultimately revealed, some things become a bit absurd, not to mention Tarantino-derivative, but for at least ¾ of its running time, CRYING WITH LAUGHTER is a compelling tale told Scottish style, which means brutality, more brutality, endless profanity, stark poverty, and lots of gray skies (the movie’s black-and-white, which accentuates this trait in particular). Provided you understand it all. I will go out on a limb and say that McCole almost certainly delivers 2010’s best performance of an ogre-like, grumpy fatty with a Scottish accent whose mouth gets him in trouble.

Yes, take that, Mike Myers.

Sweden’s STARRING MAJA is a gem that could easily find a crossover audience, and a U.S. remake, with the right kind of publicity, though much of its charm comes from the appeal of its star, relative newcomer Zandra Andersson, who plays – yep, you guessed it – Maja, a cute but overweight high-schooler with serious acting aspirations. She takes her craft seriously, so much so that even her drama teacher thinks she needs to lighten up. She knows she’s more than just the stereotypical fat girl, and approaches a sympathetic wedding videographer in hopes that they can do something together. A project is born, but what initially starts as a multifaceted portrait changes when the filmmaker realizes she can make more money by portraying Maja as a clumsy trainwreck.

Actresses out here in L.A. are a bit savvier than Maja...hell, if I may name-drop my girlfriend one last time, it would be to mention that she’s a plus-size model who just got cast in a movie playing the world’s most disgusting woman ever. She’s psyched; Maja in the movie is shocked by something similar. I’m going to assume that actress Andersson is a bit more savvy, and will continue to act, because she should; the film within the film may not properly capture Maja’s pain, but Zandra’s performance is something special, and absolutely does.

Finally, there’s SOLOMON KANE, and if you’re reading a site called Geekweek, chances are you’ve heard of this one by now. Set in 1600, which means both swords and pistols, it’s a tale concocted originally by Conan creator Robert E. Howard, and onscreen gives James Purefoy a chance to make like Hugh Jackman in VAN HELSING, which in turn was largely inspire by Japanese hero Vampire Hunter D.

What we’re talking is basically a new-century revamp of the kind of cheesy R-rated fantasy films that dominated secondary markets in the ‘80s. Some Conan, some Willow, some might say that this is the movie Uwe Boll’s been trying to make a few times now, and would have succeeded at if he were remotely as good as he thinks he is. Don’t misunderstand – this is no masterpiece akin to Orson Welles’ similarly named Citizen, but it’s entertaining pulp, cheesy but not campy, with modern CG enhancements that occasionally reminded me of the DEVIL MAY CRY videogames.

Solomon Kane inhabits a historical England in which Satan’s minions rather freely walk the land killing and enslaving, all in the service of Jason Flemyng, who has dreadlocks, and a book written on half of his face. Due to some kind of unwitting deal with the devil that isn’t fully explained until the end of the movie, Kane – a warrior-priest with religious scars and tattoos covering his gym-worn torso – will be damned to hell if he ever once strays from the path of total pacifism.

Needless to say, we wouldn’t have a movie if our hero spent the entire time refusing to fight. And his principal foe is a doozy, a hybrid of Jason, Leatherface, and Kurgan, who goes around in a skin-mask possessing Cockney assholes and making them do his bidding.

Unlike in a Boll joint, the stunt-casting here works: Max von Sydow as a corrupt aristocrat (Hail Ming!), Pete Postlethwaite as That Old Wise Guy, and of course Flemyng as Major Douchebag. Purefoy is no Jackman when it comes to charisma, but that status also comes with a lack of baggage, and my guess is this will not be jeered as VAN HELSING (unfairly) was. But given the Puritan hat on our hero, Quaker Oats jokes are to be expected.

The Newport Beach Film fest website is all Flash, and tough to read or navigate. But I think you can buy tickets HERE. The festival started earlier tonight, and continues through next Thursday.

Maybe I’ll see you there.


Luke Y. Thompson is an actor, writer, and film critic living in Hollywood.

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