Newport Beach Film Fest Ends on Some Strong Notes

UPDATED WITH THE EMOTIONAL LA MILAGROSA Q&A!
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The final Newport Beach Film Festival entries viewed by yours truly on closing day Thursday were solid efforts. Denied access to former San Clemente resident Rian Johnson's The Brothers Bloom Tuesday night, Clockwork joined a decent-sized crowd the following noon for a rollicking good time. Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo played the title characters, con artists since they were boys who by their mid-30s were at the top of their game. Stephen (Ruffalo) was the brains of the operation devising elaborate stings that included twists, characters and references pulled from dime-store novels. Bloom (Brody) was the heart of the scheming, but he wanted out because his heart was no longer in it. Stephen convinced Bloom to hit one last mark, eccentric New Jersey heiress Penelope (Rachel Weisz).

The brothers' plot involved bouncing around the globe by ship and train and employing the logistics, acquisition and explosive expertise of their longtime partner in crime Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi, who spoke Japanese in her Academy Award-nominated performance in Babel and barely spoke anything here). The trick was for the trio to make Penelope, who was lonely and seeking adventure, believe she was part of the scamming rather than the one being scammed. Unfortunately, Bloom's heart got in the way, and audiences were left to figure out if the double-crosses and triple-crosses that propelled the story through the close were part of his quest to end his scamming career, Stephen's attempt to keep him in the fold or their estranged mentor's deadly revenge. Needless to say, Johnson, who also wrote the smart script, kept this viewer engrossed.

The attention to detail when it came to what filled the shots, the sweeping views overlayed with text identifying chapters of the string that were to follow and the costuming that had present-day characters appear like throwbacks from their grandparents' eras were reminiscent of Wes Anderson movies, and The Brothers Bloom rivaled those when it came to the quirky. But this was darker, bloodier and bang-bangier than Anderson flicks. One thing I would like to know is how the filmmakers got away with what they did in downtown Prague. 

The Brothers Bloom certainly showed Johnson was no one-trick pony with his excellent 2005 debut Brick. Incidentially, Nora Zehetner, Brick's Laura, had a tiny part in The Brothers Bloom. She had a larger one opposite former Tustin resident Matthew Lillard in another festival film, Spooner, from director Drake Doremus, formerly of Santa Ana. Keep up, people. The Brothers Bloom is scheduled to open May 15 in Los Angeles and New York, May 22 at select theaters and May 29 nationwide.

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Keep an eye out also in art housey theaters for Mexican director Rafa Lara's powerful La Milagrosa, which was based on a true story and brought to life the sad story of Colombia's history with kidnapping as the country's military, leftist guerillas and right-wing paramilitary forces wage war in the jungles that often spills into major city streets. Upper-class party boy Eduardo (Antonio Merlano, who co-wrote the script with Lara) had quit law school and was taking off with a friend for a year of partying in 1999 when they were stopped at a military checkpoint. But the pair had actually driven into a kidnapping plot by guerillas, who took their victims to a remote camp. There began Eduardo's horrifying months in captivity, an experience marked by danger, hunger and near madness that forever changed him. 

Foreshadowing had established Eduardo and some of the people holding him had been innocent children caught up in the country's violence and assigned by others the ideologies that would determine who would be the captor and who would be the captive. As a result, you could of course sympathize with Eduardo but also guerillas he warmed up to like Lagarto (Guillermo Ivan). For in the end, all Colombians are prisoners, to this day.

Come back to this for a rundown on The post-screening Q&A with Lara, Melano and Ivan:

The original story idea was brought to Lara by Melano, and the pair "tried since the beginning to make a film we could be proud of," said the director. The film was shot in 9 1/2 weeks in HD, and though it is essentially a war picture complete with much gunfire and explosions, it cost $2 million to make. Lara estimated the tab would have been $15 million-$20 million had La Milagrosa been made in the U.S. "If you don't have much money," Lara said, "you have to use your imagination." Their goal was to use their imaginations "to tell a good and powerful story and make it better."

Getting the backing to do that was difficult, Lara later confided. "One of the biggest problems was getting people to believe it could be done. They said, 'We're Latin America, we don't do war films, that's for Hollywood. Too many times we Latin Americans do not believe in ourselves."

That elicted loud applause from the sparse audience. A woman behind me had earlier produced tears. Rising to address the filmmakers, she mentioned she had just returned from the country La Milagrosa was set in. "You depicted Colombia so real . . ." she said before her voice started breaking up. Through sobs she said she had family in the same situation as the kidnapped Eduardo character's. "You made it very realistic," she said before apologizing and saying she would speak with Lara afterward. Getting the "sad story" of what's happening to Colombian families out to the rest of the world motivated the project, said Melano. "We wanted to make a film that mattered," Lara added.

La Milagrosa is the first of three Lara films being released this year, the others being a psychological thriller and a romantic-comedy. He is also working on a fourth, a horror film, and fielding offers to helm a Hollywood film. Ivan, who Lara called "the best young actor in Mexico now," had parts in all three of the filmmaker's '09 projects, playing a serial killer in the thriller and a gay hairdresser in the rom-com. The hardest part about La Milagrosa for him, the actor said, was wrapping his tongue around a Colombian accent. He said he leaned heavily on a vocal coach. "It was a lot of fun," Ivan said, ". . . [and] it was a lot of work."

The production also utilized the expertise of technical advisers who had been former guerillas and paramilitary generals, according to Melano, who also put himself and Lara through a crash-course in Colombian conflict research. "I had to know the reality," said Lara. "I'm Mexican. Colombia is a beautiful country that has been through so much. . . . All the time we would shoot these scenes and [advisors] would say, 'It was exactly like that.'"

Melano experienced not only the complete emotional arc of his character, but a physical transformation as well. His Eduardo loses his beer belly, wallows in filth and sees the hair on his head and face grow wild. "I'd go out on the street and people would say, 'Who is that crazy guy there,'" recalled Melano, who said he felt a "big responsibility" to create a real-life person. "I felt like I was carrying a chain," he explained, "and each chain-[link] was a person left in the jungle."


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