I have sat through so many films while on the Newport Beach Film Festival (NBFF) beat. Because so many friends and family members know that, I am invariably asked to name my favorite NBFF film. It beats the hell out of me; that would be like choosing a favorite toe.
However, to deal with the oft-asked question concerning Orange County’s premier cultural event, I foist a stock answer: Rafa Lara’s suffocating drama La Milagrosa, which rolled at the fest in April 2009.
Based on a true story, La Milagrosa is about a young upper-class man who is kidnapped by a guerrilla group in Colombia. It may not be the best film NBFF has screened, but it is the one that still gives me flashbacks. It’s sparse, gritty and unsettling, just like so many other fest flicks I have caught, so why not give it the honors?
Well, because comedy is actually my favorite movie genre, and there have been several worthy comedies (dark and otherwise) at NBFF over the years. For example, I really dug Matt Walsh’s High Road in 2011. As with the Oscars, funny films, no matter how worthy, just don’t achieve favorite status because sobering dramas say something about the human condition, maaaan.
This is being brought up because, for the Newport Beach Film Festival that runs Thursday to Thursday, April 26 through May 3, the co-founders and programmers told me in separate conversations that they believe they have come up with the funniest fest lineup in 19 years, which is how old I was when I saw what is truly my favorite movie seen anywhere of all time, Airplane! Coincidence?
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Gregg Schwenk, the CEO, executive director and co-founder of NBFF, is sitting across from me in one of the fest’s large offices near John Wayne Airport, where he repeats something he has told me before previous opening nights: this is one of the strongest programs he and his staff has ever put together. But then he mentions something new.
“Looking at the entire festival, one of the through lines I see are fantastic, exceptionally well-done comedies,” he says. “That’s one of the things we talked about early on: It’s usually extremely hard to find good comedies.”
To demonstrate how pervasive the laugh-factor phenomenon is this year, Schwenk points to a 2018 festival film that comes from a place not normally associated with comedy, unless Mel Brooks or Hogan’s Heroes is mocking it. “The German Spotlight film, My Blind Date With Life, is very funny, which is unusual given that the country is not exactly known for producing great comedies,” the CEO says.
Moments earlier, as she sat in the same office chair, Sarah Sleeger, the festival’s director of programming, also mentioned that. “In the comedy genre,” she said, “we’ve really got a treasure trove.”
That likely is thanks to our awful times. Art imitates life, but cinema also lets you escape it. Which explains how a particular year’s collection of more than 350 films from around the world can organically include a large chunk seeking hearty belly laughs to exorcise audiences’ existential funk.
Or, as Sleeger more simply put it, “People are really looking for comedies these days.”
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American Animals, the festival’s opening-night film, is based on a true story and labeling such an original cinematic hybrid a comedy would be inaccurate. Written and directed by Bart Layton, who similarly blended documentary and subjective storytelling for 2012’s The Imposter, American Animals is about four Kentucky college students’ attempted heist of books worth millions of dollars from their own Transylvania University library in 2004.
A hit at the most recent Sundance and South By Southwest film festivals, Layton’s film stars Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner as the students—with the actual men they play also popping up onscreen to comment on what is shown, including whether they remember events the same way the film depicts them. While Layton did not make a straight comedy—Sleeger calls it “very unusual” and “very fun”—the filmmaker obviously amuses himself by starting American Animals with a title card that reads, “This is not based on a true story” before removing the words “not based on.” See what he did there?
Comedy more squarely applies to the festival’s closing-night picture, John Hyams’ All Square, in which Michael Kelly (Frank Underwood’s fixer Doug Stamper on House of Cards) plays a small-town bookie having trouble collecting on bets. He befriends the son (Jesse Ray Sheps) of his ex-girlfriend, begins taking bets on Little League games to recoup his losses and throws the community into chaos. “It’s really, really funny,” according to Sleeger.
In the interest of full disclosure, it must be reported here that any opening- and closing-night laughs come at steep prices. American Animals is tied in with NBFF’s Opening Night Gala, where food from several of Orange County’s top restaurants; drinks from Lagunitas, Tito’s Vodka and Tequila Herradura; and entertainment from the rock band Side Deal and dance troupe Academy of Villains are served to attendees who paid $225 for the movie and cocktail party or $175 for the soiree alone.
Tickets for the official closing-night screening of All Square and accompanying party—which features more grub from local premier restaurants and a hosted bar by Guinness, Tito’s Vodka and Oban Whiskey—are $95 or $65 for the gala alone.
You have to be 21 or older to attend any festival party, including the opening- and closing-night galas, and it is requested that you don’t dress like a slob. Also know that opening and closing nights generally sell out.
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Fret not, paycheck-to-paycheckers: It does not take nearly as much scratch to see the festival’s Showcase, Centerpiece or Spotlight films. Tickets for those are $5 to $10 more than the regular $15 festival films, although it’s another $45 if you also want to attend their associated parties. Tickets for these categories of films, which are often a cut above, quality-wise, often sell out, so many times the staff schedules repeat screenings later in the festival.
Friday- and Saturday-night Showcases and Saturday-night Centerpieces can be films made anywhere, but Spotlight nights are dedicated to movies from these specific places: Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Pacific Rim (Australia, China, the Philippines, Japan and South Korea), Europe (Italy, France, Germany and Sweden) and Latin America (Chile, Brazil and Mexico). As with opening and closing night, the Spotlight films have associated parties with free-flowing food and drink, although they are more intimate than the blowouts.
Here are some Showcase, Centerpiece or Spotlight comedies (or films with strong comedic elements) I am hoping to see:
Happy Birthday, Toby Simpson. Patrick “Paddy” Makin, who pivoted from war correspondent to television-series writer, makes his feature-directing debut with this rom-dramedy that he also wrote. The NBFF U.K. Spotlight film is about an uptight businessman (Alexander Perkins of Britain’s original The Office) sneaking into a music festival to retrieve stolen items but finding love and freedom. (April 27 and May 1)
Never Goin’ Back. Augustine Frizzell, an actress who is the granddaughter of the late Country Music Hall of Fame singer/songwriter Lefty Frizzell, makes her feature-directing debut with this dramedy she also wrote about two young waitresses (Maia Mitchell and Camila Morrone) in desperate need of a beach vacation. Their plans seem to be spoiled when their house gets robbed, but the pair vows to do whatever it takes to hit the beach. “It’s a great comedy,” vows Sleeger. “It’s as raunchy as male-centered comedies.” (April 27)
Boundaries. Shana Feste, who wrote and directed The Greatest, Country Strong and Endless Love, does the same here in a dramedy about a mom (Vera Farmiga) who intends to take her bullied son (Lewis MacDougall) across country to a private school, but she can’t afford it. Her father (Christopher Plummer), who gets kicked out of his nursing home for dealing pot, offers to pay for the kid’s school if they take him with them. (April 28)
The Long Dumb Road. Jason Mantzoukas cracks me up in everything I see him in, and I have seen him in a lot of things, including The League, Transparent, Kroll Show, The House, Lady Dynamite, No Activity, The Good Place and multiple episodes of Drunk History. Here, he plays a Texas mechanic who agrees to fix the car of an art student (Tony Revolori) if he can ride shotgun on a road trip to Los Angeles. According to Riki Kucheck, NBFF festival director, and Matt Keyser, programming coordinator, a “comedy of errors” ensues. By the way, this is our third film in a row from a female filmmaker (Hannah Fidell of 6 Years, We’re Glad You’re Here and A Teacher). Am I hyping the wrong NBFF trend? (April 28 and May 1)
The Unicorn. An engaged couple (Lauren Lapkus and Nicholas Rutherford) celebrate her parents renewing their vows in Palm Springs, where the younger ones learn the secret to the older ones’ lasting marriage: threesomes. This was directed, co-produced and co-written not by a woman, but by Robert Schwartzman, who is Jason’s brother, Talia Shire’s son and Francis Ford Coppola’s nephew. (April 28 and May 2)
Another Time. Writer/director Thomas Hennessey follows up his 2014 rom-dramedy What We Can’t Have with another. Justin Hartley (This Is Us, Smallville, Revenge) falls hard for a woman (played by the leading man’s real-life wife, Chrishell Stause Hartley, who appeared with him on the CBS soap The Young and the Restless). The rub: She is engaged to someone else. So, he pays a guy to send him back in time—stay with me here, people; I’m assured this works despite the far-fetched plot—to meet her before she meets the other dude. (April 28)
The Pretend One. The Australian Spotlight has a lonely girl growing up with an imaginary friend in the Outback. He (Michael Whalley) is still with her when she (Geraldine Hakewill) is an adult, but his existence is threatened when she meets a real-life love interest. (April 30)
My Blind Date With Life. Coming in with the highly sought recommendation of NBFF CEO Schwenk is the German Spotlight about a guy losing his vision just as he receives a prestigious internship at a hotel. With the help of a friend, the new intern tries to fool the world into believing he sees just fine. (May 1)
Wife and Husband. The Italian Spotlight is about a neurosurgeon and his TV-host wife with a crumbling marriage that takes an odd turn when a scientific experiment has them switching bodies. “It’s very funny and very well done,” says Sleeger. “There are interesting insights about what your perceptions are.” (May 1)
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From the meat and potatoes of the festival schedule, here are the comedies I’m itching to see:
A Swinger’s Weekend. Co-writer Jon E. Cohen makes his feature-directing debut with this comedy about a seemingly perfect couple (Randal Edwards and Erin Karpluk) that decides to celebrate their birthdays by swinging with a co-worker and his wife. But their wild weekend is spoiled when a third couple enters the picture. (April 27 and April 30)
When Jeff Tried to Save the World. Napoleon Dynamite himself, Jon Heder, stars as a bowling-alley manager trying to save the place he calls home in this comedy from yet another female filmmaker, producer/co-writer/director Kendall Goldberg. (April 27 and May 2)
Adventures in Public School. Actor Kyle Rideout follows his 2015 feature-directing debut (the psychological drama Eadweard, about turn-of-the-century British photographer Eadweard Muybridge) with this comedy making its world premiere at NBFF. It’s about the relationship of a smothering mother (Judy Greer of Ant-Man, Arrested Development and Married) and her son (Daniel Doheny) who is socially awkward thanks to home schooling. He must take a test on a campus, where he falls for a girl and purposely flunks so he’ll have to continue his studies there. (April 28 and May 2)
Better Start Running. Brett Simon’s action-comedy has an eclectic band of misfits fleeing from an overzealous FBI duo who wants them dead or alive. But preferably dead. (April 28 and April 30)
The Bill Murray Stories. The lone documentary on this list is about the legendary comedic actor’s penchant for crashing weddings, house parties and other gatherings. Director Tommy Avallone catches up with the strangers who were treated to once-in-a-lifetime encounters with the star. (April 28 and May 1)
The Ranger. Who says women can’t direct horror? After an impressive career producing mostly horror films, Jenn Wexler makes her feature-directing debut with what Sleeger described as “a punk-rock horror thriller.” Teen punkers run from the law and into the forest, where they are confronted by a ranger (Jeremy Holm of Mr. Robot and House of Cards) with an ax to grind. “It’s a horror movie but with funny, comedic elements,” says Sleeger. “Gore is ever present as well.” (April 28)
Zoo. Toby Jones (The Girl, Wayward Pines, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) plays security guard Charlie in this Irish family film that is based on the true story of a boy (Art Parkinson) and his misfit pals removing an elephant from the Belfast Zoo to protect him as German bombs fall from the sky during World War II. (April 28 and May 2)
Another Kind of Wedding. It’s the U.S. premiere of writer/director Pat Kiely’s dramedy about a fractured family forced to confront what tore them apart at the eldest son’s wedding. The cast includes Jessica Paré, who you’ll recall as Mrs. Megan Draper on Mad Men, Frances Fisher (Unforgiven, Titanic, Masters of Sex), Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride, My Dinner With Andre, The Haunted Mansion) and Kathleen Turner. (Yes, THE Kathleen Turner). (April 29)
The California No. Writer/director Ned Ehrbar’s comedy is about a listless LA writer (Noah Segan) who discovers during couple’s therapy that he is in an open marriage, a revelation that forces him to reconsider everything about himself. (April 29)
Chasing the Blues. Whatever happened to Steve Guttenberg, Tim Kazurinsky and Jon Lovitz? They somehow landed on the call sheet for this comedy from Scott Smith, who directs commercials and indie films. Two rival record collectors (Grant Rosenmeyer and Ronald L. Conner) land in jail after trying to con an old lady out of a rare but cursed 1930s blues record. Once free, the bitter rivals join forces to get the licorice pizza from a more formidable foe now possessing it. (April 29 and April 30)
Destination: Dewsbury. In Jack Spring’s dramedy, witty banter and crude boyhood humor accompany four middle-aged men on a road trip across the English countryside to see a dying childhood friend. (April 29)
Most Likely to Murder. Dan Gregor has appeared on and written episodes for the TV series starring his wife Rachel Bloom, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. They team up again for his feature-directing debut, which he also co-wrote. Adam Pally (The Mindy Project, The President Show, Happy Endings) plays Billy, a former high-school stud who left home for Las Vegas, where he has convinced his former classmates he is a high roller even though he is really a janitor. He returns to his hometown thinking he can pick up where he left off, but everyone has moved on, including the girl who got away (Bloom). She’s now married to the high-school outcast (Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser), whom Billy is convinced is a killer. (April 29)
Wild Honey. In writer/director Francis Stokes’ offbeat rom-com, a down-on-her-luck phone-sex operator (The Perfect Storm’s Rusty Schwimmer) falls for one of her clients (Psych’s Timothy Omundson), travels to LA to be with him and discovers all is not what it seems. (April 29 and May 1)
2018 Newport Beach Film Festival at various locations in Newport Beach and Costa Mesa; www.newportbeachfilmfest.com. Thurs., April 26 through Thurs., May 3. Show times and ticket prices vary.
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.