Filmmakers look for any attention their movies can get at festivals around the country. (If it’s attention from a potential distributor, all the better!) However, as an audience member, I often wonder why the festival film I am consuming is up on a big theater screen as opposed to a family-room flat-screen, a computer monitor or a cellphone screen.
This is particularly the case for socially conscious documentaries, which often seem to have been shot directly for boxy TV screens. I kept this in mind while looking over the schedule for the seventh-annual Irvine Film Festival, which opens Thursday, Jan. 25, and continues daily through Jan. 31—not in Irvine, but in Costa Mesa.
Fortunately, I came across a feature film that most definitely must be seen on a big screen: Polish director Mariusz Palej’s Behind the Blue Door, a family adventure fantasy about a young recovering car-accident victim discovering a portal to a new reality. Based on a best-selling Polish children’s book, the gorgeously shot and imagined movie has a story told from the point of view of 11-year-old Lukasz (Dominik Kowalczyk), who is in a car on the way to a holiday with his mother (Magdalena Niec) when a violent accident places both in a hospital.
Lukasz is put into a coma, and Palej has explained that the audience, like the boy, are unaware he is actually dreaming his waking moments that will follow. Believing his mother is still unconscious at the hospital, Lukasz is taken to a guest house called “High Cliff,” which appears to have been plucked from a classic Anglo-Saxon horror film. There he finds a mysterious blue door, behind which is a surreal world. The changing realities can be compared to the black-and-white Kansas and multicolored Land of Oz in The Wizard of Oz, which, like Behind the Blue Door, is best experienced on the biggest possible movie screen to inflate the drama and shallow the viewer.
Jack Kaprielian says the 70 films at this year’s festival were chosen from 1,400 submissions. Other narrative features over the seven days include: Lovers, Italian director Matteo Vicino’s romantic dramedy that centers on five characters and four connected stories; The Isle, Matthew Butler Hart’s horror flick about three sailors surviving a crash into a nearly deserted Scottish island, only to discover their new home has a strange past; Lasso, Evan Cecil’s slasher flick set at a remote rodeo; and Flitzer (Streaker), Swiss-born German director Peter Luisi’s comedy about a high-school teacher trying to get out of a financial fix by recruiting nude competitors for illegal sports betting.
The festival also includes these feature-length documentaries: The Iconoclast, King Adz’s harrowing look at art smuggler Michel van Rijn; ET Contact: They Are Here, actress/filmmaker Caroline Cory’s long-form debut based on people’s alien encounters; Out of State, Ciara Lacy’s sober study of native Hawaiian inmates shipped to an Arizona for-profit prison; Becoming Iconic, in which Neal Thibedeau shoots actor/filmmaker/entrepreneur Jonathan Baker talking with such directors as Jodie Foster, Taylor Hackford and Adrian Lyne; Poisoning Paradise, in which Teresa Tico and Keely Shaye Brosnan (wife of actor/executive producer Pierce) chronicle native Hawaiians struggling with environmental damage to their islands; and State of Exception, for which Canadian documentarian Jason O’Hara embedded himself with Rio de Janeiro “urban Indians” for six years as they fought forced evictions before the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics.
Short films open some feature film programs. There are also 17 separate programs with collections of multiple fictional and documentary shorts. Three that sound intriguing are:
• The Prince, UC Irvine Claire Trevor School of Arts MFA alum Kyra Zagorsky’s directorial debut from her own story, based on an incident of Islamic profiling that hit her own family. “I wrote the first draft of this script before the 2016 presidential election, and it was relevant,” Zagorsky explains. “Post-election, it’s not only relevant, but also necessary.” The Prince rolls during the later Thursday, Jan. 25, shorts program.
• Benilla Ice: Break the Ice (Be Nice), Lake Arrowhead director Ben Beitzel’s novelty music video, which he also produced and co-wrote. Parodying old-school rappers and ’90s music videos, the piece was made “with virtually no budget and an entirely volunteer crew,” says Beitzel. “[It] delivers a simple but important message to just be kind to one another.” It’s shown during the noon Jan. 27 shorts program.
• Knife Skills, from Emmy- and Academy Award-winning documentarian Thomas Lennon, who arrived at his latest film’s subject after he met Brandon Chrostowski. About to open “the greatest French restaurant in the United States” in Cleveland, Chrostowski would fully staff what was eventually named Edwins with recent prison parolees. “I knew within five or 10 seconds,” Lennon says, “that there was a potential film there.” Longer than most shorts at 40 minutes, Knife Skills is part of the late program Jan. 29.
Cecil, Beitzel, Tico, Brosnan, Hart and Cory are among the many filmmakers expected to attend their screenings for audience Q&As.
Irvine Film Festival at Starlight Triangle Square Cinemas, 1870 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, (949) 800-6163; www.irvinefilmfest.com. Opens Thurs., Jan. 25, 4 p.m. (shorts program); 6 p.m. (Lovers); and 8 p.m. (shorts program). Continues daily through Jan. 31; see website for show times. $10 per program; all-day pass, $30; seven-day pass, $200.
OC Weekly Editor-in-Chief 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 alternative newsweekly’s first calendar editor.