Newport Beach Film Fest: Final Stretch Report

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The big question on the mind of anyone amid the crowds at Edwards Island Cinema at Fashion Island in Newport Beach Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday nights was: My God, don't these people work? And a second: Don't they know we're teetering on Depression? Finally: Buddy, can you spare a ticket?

 

The masses were expected at the Newport Beach Film Festival over the weekend, but Monday night's healthy crowd became Tuesday night's packed house which became Wednesday night's mob scene. Bet your house (if it hasn't gone into foreclosure) that the 2009 festival will be the biggest in the event's 10-year history.


Bounced out of other movies Monday night because paying moviegoers take precedence over those with press credentials dangling around their necks, I wound up finding an open seat for the Korea Spotlight film. Thanks to the generosity of the newish, Garden Grove-based Korean Cultural Center Orange County, my seat came with swag: an '09 day planner courtesy of the center's CEO Dr. Francis S. Lee, who noted Korean cinema is getting better and better.


Ji-Woo Jung's Modern Boy proved his point.

 
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It tells the story of dapper young hedonistic civil servant Lee Hae Myung (Park Hae-Il), who was too busy partying in 1937 to get worked up about Japan's colonization of his native Gyeongseong (old Seoul). He even hung out with brutal Japanese detective Shinsuke (Kim Nam-gil). When Hae Myung set his eyes on beautiful and mysterious lounge singer Laura (Kim Hye-Su), he fell head over spats. But Laura was really revolutionary Cho Nan-sil, who used and abused Hae Myung, repeatedly, to strike deadly blows against the occupiers. That wasn't enough to stop the love struck modern boy from pursuing his dream girl, however.

 

The music, costumes and production design transported viewers back to the 1930s, and you couldn't take your eyes off the leads. Park had the slim, rubbery body and expressive face of a silent film comedian, and Kim smoldered through the sceen as the vixen. Jung, who also wrote the script, moved the action along impressively, although his story did get tedious near the end, when you wished the inevitable would happen already. But all in all, Modern Boy was a clever and engaging look at a difficult time in Korea's history.

 

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Edwards Island was much mellower late afternoon Tuesday, when I ducked in for Chris Taylor's heavy handed though ultimately satisfying documentary Food Fight, which was about the battle royale between sustainable farming and Big Agriculture over what winds up on our dinner plates. Wolfgang Puck, The Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollan and recent 60 Minutes interviewee Alice Waters were among the talking heads who made the case that the organic food grown on small farms as close to consumers as possible looks better, tastes better and is better for you than the robot food cranked out by massive agribusiness operations. Indeed, Waters has been saying that since before 1971, when she opened Chez Panisse, the original California cuisine restaurant in Berkeley. Unfortunately, it was also around this time that Richard Nixon's agriculture secretary Earl Butz pushed a policy that rewarded the over growing of certain foods at the expense of variety, nutrition and the family farm. The doc therefore lays the blame for America's current obesity dilemma at the feet of Orange County's favorite son Nixon.

 

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Since he's the director, Toshifumi Matsushita received the ultimate credit for El regalo de la Pachamama, a spiritual tale about a family living the traditional way near the salt lake of Uyuni in Bolivia. But cinematographer Gustavo Soto deserved accolades for the picture's beautiful look. It was obvious he must have held out for the optimum times to shoot scenes with orange and yellow-layered skies, glimmering green lakes and miles of bright white lake beds as backdrops. Interesting lighting techniques were also used to illuminate just enough of the actors in darkened huts and caves. There was something magical about Pachamama, which followed 13-year-old Kunturi and his father leading a team of llamas with salt strapped to their backs along the Andes to trade for other products. But this . . . was . . . a . . . sloooooow . . . journey. God must've invented espressos because of movies like this.

 

In the lobby afterward, there was a huge convergence of moviegoers for the documentary The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story--which was about the Academy Award-winning songwriting team that wrote more musical scores than anyone in film history, most notably in Disney films like Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book and The Aristocats--and the pride of San Clemente High Rian Johnson's The Brothers Bloom. Before the long lines of people outside for those films were allowed through the doors, about a half dozen of us already in from previous films approached the entrance to the theater that would show Bloom, where a festival rep informed the movie had been oversold. Sizing up our respective tickets and credentials, she said ticket holders got second priority when it came to entering, filmmakers were fourth and, looking at my pink press badge, "You're sixth priority." Needless to say, I did not get in.

 

I would have run into the same across town at the Lido, which was showing the Newport Beach surf documentary Echo Beach. With various professional surfers, action-sports company founders and Sugar Ray's Mark McGrath in attendance, that screening was way sold out. Even guests that some of those luminaries brought with them could not get in, and there were so many disappointed people outside looking in that a second screening was hastily added. Of course, since I wore a pink press credential that apparently put me between "Wall Street swindler" and "child predator" in the festival pecking order, I no doubt would have been forbidden to enter that one, too.

 

Ah, well, after dodging the gatekeepers at Edwards Island, I treated myself instead to "How Low Can You Go," a most excellent program of shorts featuring solid performances by known and unknown actors playing some pretty fucked up people. Paul Leyden's Bye Bye Sally, which is based on Lisa Mannetti's short story "Everybody Wins," told the tale of a depressed young woman (Malin Akerman) who was about to end it all when she come across a service that allowed her to take one of humanity's scumbags with her. That adage about everyone being good at something proved true. From Chapman University's Dodge College of Film and Media Arts came Nils Taylor's Head Above Water, the dreary story of a junkie prostitute (Abbi Butler) struggling to be a good mother to her newborn child, and Sean O'Brien's The Show Must Go On, which mediated on fame through the rebounding career of a clown (Joe Lorenzo) who entertained crowds by playing Russian Roulette. It was fun spotting the Orange County stages O'Brien filmed. Liliana Greenfield-Sanders' equally dark comedy Adelaide saddled the title character (Anna Margaret Hollyman) with Munchausen's Syndrome, but her quest to get the attention of caregivers got tossed asunder by true love. Rounding things out was Diane Namm's The Sacrifice, which held the dual distinction of featuring the most recognizable actors and being the weakest film on the program. A cult leader (veteran TV character actor Chris Mulkey) came to the home of a couple (Jon Lindstrom, currently Craig Montgomery on As the World Turns, and Darby Stanchfield of Mad Men) to take as his wife their 13-year-old granddaughter (Molly Quinn of Castle). The Sacrifice was better polygamy drama than another festival entry, the feature-length Follow the Prophet, but neither were anywhere near as good as the worst episode of HBO's Big Love.

 

After the shorts, I caught the end of one of the best festival films I pre-screened, Punching the Clown, just so I could stick around for star, composer and co-screenwriter Henry Phillips' audience Q&A. Another meditation on fickle fame, the comedy told the story of a modern day American troubadour whose big Hollywood shot--which was based on a misunderstanding--was derailed by another set of misunderstandings, one that had Henry labeled a neo-Nazi. Filled with Phillips' original, witty songs, the film was based on his real experiences, only greatly exaggerated, and written around the time of the racial controversies surrounding Michael Richards, Mel Gibson and Dog the Bounty Hunter.


The thing the singing comic told the audience he most wanted to avoid was making another film that piled on the clich├ęs about Los Angeles, wanting to instead expose the little dives, promoters, record labels, radio stations and barely working actors of the "small LA" he knows. Sadly, Phillips said there have been no offers for distribution of Punching the Clown and that an attempt to turn it into a episodic television show (ala Flight of the Conchords) fell through. That's a shame, especially to director Gregori Viens, who sunk his own money into the project. "To me, it's all about the art, and I don't care if he ever gets his money," joked Phillips. 

 

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The last audience Q&A I had been to was for the documentary No Subtitles Necessary: Lazlo & Vilmos, whose director James Chressanthis dragged me to as the end credits rolled after hearing me inform a festival gatekeeper that I was trying to get past her and into theater 6. Chressanthis, who also had one of his film's subjects, A-list Hollywood cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, in tow, thought I was there to cover his the Q&A. Actually, I was trying to get into the film after No Subtitles Necessary. But, after "covering" the Q&A, I was curious about the doc, so I hit its second festival screening early Wednesday afternoon--and now that Q&A makes a whole lot more sense, especially the parts about the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. Zsigmond and his fellow cinematographer, the late Laszlo Kovacs, learned their craft on the fly shooting the invasion and smuggling their footage and themselves out of the country and into America, where they would knock around the East Coast briefly before arriving in Hollywood as total unknowns. They went on to become Academy Award winners, of course.

 

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A film I wished I'd seen earlier so I could recommend people go out and see it was Jeffrey Balsmeyer's Lightbulb, which was about two friends--small-time inventor Matt (Dallas Roberts of 3:10 to Yuma and Showtime's The L Word) and his fast-talking salesman partner Sam (Jeremy Renner of ABC's new cop show The Unusuals)--who struck out with everything they tried to sell until a lightbulb went off in Matt's mind at his most desperate hour.


Lightbulb was helped by some beautiful desert landscapes as backdrops and a fun story from screenwriter Mike Cram. It was even somewhat life affirming in these recessionary times. However, it was doubtful the pictured would have soared without its strong cast. Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer is a talent to keep an eye on, as is Marguerite Moreau, who recovered nicely after an appearance in Wake, a far crappier festival entry.


(Interesting side note: I believe I have received every variation of the pair's winning product.)

 

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Afterward, I hung around for Nancy Montuori Stein's All Ages Night because the story is set in Anaheim and centers around a show at the all-ages music spot Chain Reaction. Sort of a That Jonas Degrassi Thing You Do!, the teen dramedy is uneven, predictable and packs every ABC Afterschool Special problem afflicting our nation's youth in 93 short minutes. But that doesn't mean the kids won't love it. Dylan (Django Stewart), a teen from Great Britain, came to stay with his band leader cousin Sean (Billy Evans) in Anaheim. The Brit was a genius at the bass. The band needed a bass player hours before its breakout gig. Guess who got the call? Throw in the usual band leader douche-baggery, a slumming Grant Show, a confounding cameo by Gedde "Long Duk Dong" Wantanabe, a bizarre story thread about a live living room cam and a shy lad's inevitable movie dilemma of having to choose either the shallow hot girl (Elizabeth Nicole) or the damaged Ally Sheedy type (Holly Markham), and you've got All Ages Night.

 

At the post-screening Q&A for this puppy, it was revealed that the only local associated with the production was director of photography Jeff McCoy, who hails from Newport Beach. The LA-based filmmakers just happened upon Chain Reaction while scouting for locations and loved it. "It's really fitting that we showed it here because it was shot in Orange County," Stein said. Her film took 24 days to shoot in high definition at a cost of under $1 million and the addition of one marriage. Apparently, there were a number of on-set romances, including one among two crew members who later wound up walking down the aisle. Stein, who has a background in the music business, was able to lace her film with the songs of Green Day, Iggy Pop and My Chemical Romance--in addition to the indie musicians who sub for the actors or play competing bands. She said if the picture gets picked up for distribution, a soundtrack should be forthcoming.

 

I left Edwards Island to the largest mob I had yet to encounter at the festival. Lines to enter that began just beyond the glass entry doors extended all the way to the elevators next to parking lot. Fighting my way to my car, I discovered most were waiting to get into Gigantic, a quirky rom-com starring Paul Dano, Zooey Deschanel and John Goodman that the Weekly panned before the festival even began. Go figure. I just pray none of those poor souls in line was wearing a pink press badge.

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