Newport Beach Film Fest: Halftime Report

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UPDATED WITH EYEWITNESS REPORT ON DJ MOM PANTS!

Johnny Cash, the revenge-minded father of a dead teen porn star, Bijou Phillips, Julius Shulman, Kelly Lynch, "Kevin" from The Office, Vilmos Zsigmond and a sour-faced Kristen Scott Thomas. No, these are not my ideal players in the perfect poker game but just some figures who have rocked my world so far at the Newport Beach Film Festival, which has reached the halfway point and continues through Thursday.

Friday began with a bout of deja vu all over again. About midway through the excellent documentary Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, I realized I had seen much of this footage before on public television. Sure enough, a quick check of Google revealed that KCET/Channel 28 in December showed Bestor Cram's documentary on the country music legend's 1968 concert at Folsom State Prison. But there were animated sequences and the recurring story of one Folsom inmate I don't recall in the PBS version. I hung around to the end hoping to ask someone associated with the film about this but, alas, there was no post-screening Q&A. You can catch Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Edwards Island 6. It'll be the best $8 you've spent on a movie ticket in a long time.
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The documentary reveals how this was a make-or-break concert in Cash's musical career, the somber walk participants made into the gloomy prison and the rollicking good time everyone soon shared. Archival footage, live Folsom songs playing over clever animated video and heart-wrenching stories about many forever touched by the event make the Man in Black's fans appreciate him even more, while likely winning him some new ones.

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Speaking of deja vu all over again, I almost walked out of that picture and into the feature film The Horseman. But then I re-read the film's description in the festival program more closely and realized that, yes, I had already seen that one, too. In fact, I pre-screened it for readers' viewing pleasure before the festival but totally forgot to write about it.

Writer/director/editor/co-producer Steven Kastrissios' The Horseman is an ultra-violent, Australian revenge drama. Peter Marshall plays divorced father Christian, who learns there was more to his troubled teen-age daughter's death than a drug overdose and plunges himself into the seedy world of underground pornography for answers. While on his mission, he picks up a young female hitchhiker (Caroline Marohasy) and eventually supplies the gentle nurturing his daughter obviously missed. It's an interesting story and there are solid performances. My problem was with the violence: it is so gory and over-the-top that it seems out of place in this film. Where a Quentin Tarantino movie would have enough humor laced in to make such horrific images seem cartoonish, The Horseman is so dark and grim that by the time it comes to the ultra-violence, it plays like snuff porn. Perhaps that was Kastrissios' intent.

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Instead of subjecting myself to The Horseman again, I ducked into Wake, which strives to do to funerals what The Wedding Crashers did to nuptials--complete with Jane Seymour (sans flashing tits). Bijou Phillips plays Carys Reitman, a young woman who fills a void created by her inability to feel anything emotionally by attending strangers' funerals. A mortuary worker who pines for her (Yes Man's Danny Masterson) reluctantly tips Carys to a young woman's funeral, where she is moved by the eulogy of the deceased's fiance Tyler (Ian Somerhalder of TV's Lost). Through the wonders of Lennox Wisely's unbelievable script, Carys manages to wind up with the dead woman's engagement ring. Extremely quickly (and unsuprisingly) Tyler has the hots for Carys, who must fake having been a friend of his former fiancee because she's got the hots for him. But the dead girl's family believes Tyler killed her, and, by the time Carys is alone with him in a remote cabin, she begins to have her suspicions, too. It all comes to a head in monumentally lame fashion.

The screening was followed by a Q&A with director Ellie Kanner, Phillips, Masterson, Wisely, producer Hal Schwartz and no doubt someone else I am forgetting. Many audience members remarked how much they loved Wake, although there was some chuckling in the back of the room as Phillips went on and on about how much she appreciated being in a comedy without all the death and torture associated with some of her previous films. Uh, I believe this whole movie centered on death. Or was that The Horseman? All I know is at least one viewer found both to be torture to sit through.

Am told that the Weekly was associated with a post-party for Wake that featured Masterson (a.k.a. DJ DonkeyPunch and DJ Mom Jeans) on the turntables.

UPDATE!!! Clockwork could not attend the p-p due to undergoing a hipster replacement at the time, but at least one Weekling was there and filed this report: "DJ Mom Pants, aka Danny Masterson (That 70's Show), spun at the party and did an amazing job. . . . Absolut hosted the bar featuring an array of vodkas, a Coke bar and food.  . . . There was an array of celebrity appearances, including Christopher Masterson (Malcolm in the Middle), Adam Gregory (90210), Michael Welch (Twilight), and Bijou Phillips. Some say that Seth Green was there as well, but I cannot confirm that. . . . The party started at 10 p.m. and ended at 1 a.m. . . . Valet parking was a nightmare and some people had to wait over an hour to get their cars.  Some resorted to walking and retrieving it themselves."

Walking? In Nouvea Riche? How gauche.

There was also a party atmosphere the following night when former Santa Ana resident Drake Doremus' Spooner packed the Lido. I previously went on and on and on about the film, which, stars former Tustin resident Matthew Lillard. In that post, Doremus indicated he had appeared on stage at the prompting of his mother, Orange County Crazies improv troupe founder Cherie Kerr. That brought this clarification from momma: "For the record I just want to (laughingly) say: I didn't push Drake onto the stage, the truth is I couldn't get him off the damn thing!!!"

I had remarked to someone with the festival that there seemed to be a lot of Los Angeles-centric stories this year. But Sunday I found myself playing Six Degress of Minnesota.
 
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The documentary love letter Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman is not about a Minnesotan. Born in Brooklyn on 10/10/10, Shulman is a transplanted Angeleno who got into the ground floor of architectural modernism that sprang up in California in the 1930s by photographing the creations of Richard Neutra, Rudolh Schindler, Frank Lloyd Wright, Harwell Hamilton Harris and even some architects you haven't heard of. Besides a shooter's eye, Shulman possesses an ecyclopedic knowledge of the Los Angeles basin and a profound distaste for the cultural, architectual and environmental havoc that has been wreaked on it. On top of that, he's just a character, spewing one-liners and witticisms throughout Eric Bricker's impressive, important and eye-opening motion picture debut.

Shulman could not make the trip, but Bricker was there for a post-screening Q&A alongside the photographer's best friend Rose Nielsen of the Woodbury Institute and Minnesota-born actress Kelly Lynch, who hosted Shulman's 95th birthday in her Neutra home and appeared in the doc. Bricker, who has an art consulting background, revealed he fell into making the film when he was searching for still photographs of San Francisco for a project 10 years ago. He was given Shulman's phone number by his next-door neighbor. Meeting the photographer he had never heard of, Bricker was blown away by the work and a bond that led to a decade-in-the-making doc was formed. The passion Shulman demonstrates in his work and life "is what we all yearn for," Bricker said. "He has an amazing mind," added Nielsen. "He's like a walking history book of LA."

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Next up was the world premiere of second-time writer-director Patrick Coyle's Into Temptation, which stars Law & Order's Jeremy Sisto as a Roman Catholic priest Father John Buerlein, who learns in the confessional booth that high-end prostitute Linda (Kristin Chenoweth of Pushing Daisies, musical theater and now memoir-writing fame) is going to commit suicide on her birthday. Set in Coyle's hometown of Minneapolis, Minn., the picture tracks the race by the pastor to prevent the stranger from carrying through with her plan. Unlike many other small budget flicks I've seen this year, Into Temptation does have a cohesive script, and unlike many other multi-million-dollar behemoths, the film strikes just the right chord of reverence for the Catholic faith. Father John battles temptation throughout, but this is no Monsignor or The Thorn Birds. There are heavy moments involving what led Linda to prostitution, but there is also comic relief in the situations the priest from a poor parish finds himself in and, especially, the scenes with his best friend, Father Ralph (Brian Baumgartner of The Office), whose better-off congregants afford him the lifestyle to which he is accustomed.

"That's a great movie" and "now my mascara is running" were heard when the lights came up, just before Coyle, Sisto, Baumgartner and producer Ann Luster made their way to the stage for a Q&A. But the first audience question was not a question but an emotional monologue from a man standing right behind my seat saying he's been knocking around the Newport Beach area for five years and has seen many young girls head in the direction of Chenoweth's character. Singling out fathers, he said, "You give them the love they need at home so they don't end up like that." Sisto and Baumgartner explained that while looking for projects when their respective shows were on hiatus, they were drawn to Coyle's script. "For nine months we basically do the same episode over and over," Sisto said of Law & Order. "This came out of nowhere." He found himself "inspired by the script, the gentleness of it, the magic of it." Coyle said he was inspired by the revelation that his father once entertained entering seminary, something that made him wonder what kind of priest his dad would have been. Compassionate, conflicted Father John was his answer. He said his wife read the script and said, "If you get a good Father John, you'll have a good movie. We got a great Father John." As Baumgartner looked over at Coyle with his boo-boo lip, the director also added, "And a great Father Ralph, too." Asked what his favorite scene in the picture was, Baumgartner joked, "Every one I was in."

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Vilmos Zsigmond (pictured) had something to do with every scene of pictures he has involved in, which include Deliverance, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter and possibly one shot in Minnesota. Zsigmond is a longtime Hollywood cinematographer and the co-subject of Philadelphian James Chressanthis' documentary No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos. Laszlo would be Zsigmond's late friend and fellow Hungarian cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, whose credits included Shampoo, New York, New York and Mask. (Kovacs was also feted at the 2004 NBFF, which featured a 20th anniversary screening of another of his films, Ghostbusters.) At the post-screening Q&A with Chressanthis, who worked as an intern under Zsigmond on The Witches of Eastwick, the cinematographer said he loved everyone he worked with in the movie business and advised a young woman seeking advice from a pro, "If you love something, you can do it. If you don't love it, you can't." He said he's "only" made 70 pictures, but out of those there are "at least 35 I really love." Those in his profession have less to fear about a loss of quality from digital photography than they do from poor lighting, he said. Zsigmond recalled his opening McCabe and Mrs. Miller by "flushing" the exposure, which is also known as "controlled fogging." "Someone said I was a very courageous to do that, and it looked very bad in those days, but it looks like a piece of art today."

Chressanthis revealed that the last project Kovacs worked on, the documentary Torn From the Flag, was completed posthumously. It's about a subject dear to Kovacs and Zsigmond: the Hungarian revolution of 1956. But Zsigmond predicted it will not be shown in his native country because leaders there "don't like to mention 1956."

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The star of writer-director Stephan Elliott's adaptation of Noel Coward's Easy Virtue indeed hails from Ely, Minnesota. Jessica Biel plays Larita, a sexy American fireball (quite a stretch), who gets swooped up by young Englishman of breeding John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) as the Roaring Twenties limps into the Depressed Thirties. They quickly marry and return to jolly-old-you-know-where to meet mumsy (Kristen Scott Thomas), whose face is so tight you fret about her fiber intake. The two Mrs. Whittakers don't exactly get along, and the story's juice is watching the pair battle each other for the young man's heart and loyalty. Elliott's lines and sight gags are ably handled by a game cast that includes Colin Firth, Kimberly Nixon and especially Kris Marshall as take-no-shit butler Furber. Get this on Netflix if you don't catch it in the theaters. Actually, you may have to do both; people were laughing so loud at my viewing I missed much dialogue.

It appeared the most difficult job for cinematographer Martin Kenzie was making the beautiful English estate and grounds appear soon headed for disrepair. I'm betting he used controlled fogging. See what you learn at these deals?
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