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Closing Thoughts on the 2010 Newport Beach Film Festival

Weeks have passed since the Newport Beach Film Festival came to a close. It was a fun, new experience for me. It does kind of suck the life out of you trying to catch up with as many films as you can. What follows are my thoughts on some of the films I saw on the last day of the festival.

“The Elephant in the Living Room” is a documentary by Michael Webber that shows us the underground world of exotic animal ownership in the U.S. This documentary is the best thing I saw at the Newport Beach Film Festival. The documentary was informative, interesting and touching as well. The film follows Tim Harrison, a man who makes it his job to protect exotic animals living in the country. The other person the film follows is a man named Terry who keeps a male and female lion in his backyard.

I found the film an incredibly fascinating look at an entire society of people who keep wild, exotic animals as pets. It could have been easy for the filmmakers to condemn these people, but instead it gives people like Terry a fair chance to state their opinion. Even though I think that people like him are nuts, we do learn that he does genuinely care for his animals. There are some really beautiful, touching moments involving the lions in the film. Everyone should definitely catch up with this film. I can’t recommend it enough.

I also caught up with “True Adolescents” from director Craig Johnson. I caught up with this film because of the film’s star, Mark Duplass. Duplass made a splash last year with “Humpday”. I really liked that film and was impressed with his performance. In this film Duplass plays a 30-something wannabe rock star who is not going anywhere in life. When his girlfriend dumps him, he has no choice but to move in with his Aunt, played by Melissa Leo. Duplass ends up getting stuck taking his cousin and his friend on a camping trip, which doesn’t go according to plan.

I wasn’t sure what the film wanted to be at first. Some of the humor in the beginning of the film didn’t work for me or the audience. I think everyone expected the film to be more of a comedy than it was. I wasn’t sure if I could accept Duplass playing a semi-serious role after his great comedic turn in “Humpday”. But by the end of the film I was impressed with the dramatic chops that he was able to deliver. Duplass delivers a great moment where he takes a hard look at himself in the mirror. Issues of belonging, and sexual identity are handled extremely well in the film. This is a coming of age film for both the young kids and the Duplass character.

The last film I saw at the festival was the premiere of a film called “Tug” directed by Abram Makowka. The film is a nice little picture, that is a bit unfocused. Sam Huntington plays the film’s unnamed lead character, who is a wannabe screenwriter living in Michigan. He has a good relationship with his girlfriend, played by Sarah Drew, but his relationship is threatened by an ex-girlfriend who won’t leave him alone. This crazy ex-girlfriend only increases Huntington’s  uncertain life and the film follows him as he tries to gets his life in order.

The best thing about the film is the performance of Sam Huntington. He is a very relatable presence on-screen. You do feel like you could be his character. Zachary King also delivers a good comedic performance as Huntington’s best friend in the film. One problem with the film is that I didn’t feel that there were any life changing stakes involved in the story. Some of the major plot changing scenes in the film are tired out; we have seen these scenes before in other films done better. Towards the end of the film I grew frustrated and just wanted this guy to make a decision and move on with his life. I liked the performances better than the film’s story.

I had a very enjoyable time at the Newport Beach Film Festival. My only regret is that I wish I was able to catch more films that were of better quality.

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Newport Beach Film Festival Interview: Justin Hogan, Producer of Climate Refugees

“Climate Refugees” was a documentary that played at the recent Newport Beach Film Festival. The film is a look at the people around the world who are being displaced due to climate change. Too many times the debate about climate change gets bogged down in politics. This documentary is worth a watch because it puts a human face on the consequences of climate change. Below is an interview with the documentary’s producer Justin Hogan:

Can you tell us about your documentary “Climate Refugees”?

CLIMATE REFUGEES is a documentary film that uncovers the unbelievable plight of people around the world displaced by climatically induced environmental disasters. The documentary illuminates for the first time the human face of climate change as civilization now finds itself facing the confluence of overpopulation, lack of resources and a changing climate. Traveling the world and interviewing several of the 25 million climate refugees now on the run, along with scholars, politicians and the like, CLIMATE REFUGEES brings to light the heart-wrenching truth of what is quickly becoming mankind’s greatest challenge. This documentary examines the creation—and migration—of hundreds of millions of climate refugees that will be displaced as a result of climate change. A cautionary tale, the film demonstrates that climate change isn’t a political issue; it’s a geopolitical one, one that literally transcends the concepts of nationhood and ethnicity .In this situation, we truly are all one people.

What was the geniuses of this documentary?

Three year ago Michael Nash (director) read an article published by the United Nations University.  It stated that the world had over 25 million climate refugees.  More refugees then caused by war or political persecution.  Michael started to investigate this further.  He asked me to join him on this journey after a month of research proving that this article had merit and a documentary could be made about it.  Michael and I had worked together before and are good friends.

How much research went into the film?

Years and years of research went into  making this film.  Because the concept of Climate Refugees is so new, there was almost no information that had been complied.  People through-out the world were working on the subject matter but were scattered everywhere.  Basically we would meet people who would lead us to other people or tell us about literature written on the subject but was obscure.  It was like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the final picture looked like.

What do you want people to take from this documentary?

It’s funny because people always ask us if they can give money to the cause. We tell them no. We say what we want is their will, their desire to change. To live a greener life. To buy from corporation that are environmentally friendly. To drive hybrid or electric cars. To use their energy differently but most important to become politically active and bring about a change to our world that is necessary for it’s and our survival. America is the only country where a debate is still going on about climate change. It is so sad and pathetic at the same time. Hopefully future generation will look back on us with praise not sorrow and pain.

Do you have a distributor yet? Do you plans to show the film at any other film festivals?

We are currently in negotiations with two distributors on the rights of this film. If everything goes as planned, Climate Refugees will be in theater this fall and at a college near you. We have so many more festivals that we going to. The biggest event planned will be with The Los Angeles Film Festival on June 25th. It will be a free community screening in downtown Los Angeles with special musical guests and VIP’s. All information on future climate refugees events and screenings can be found at http://www.climaterefugees.com

Is there a web site that people can find out more about the documentary?

http://www.climaterefugees.com and join us on Facebook.

Can you tell us about any future projects that you or Michael P. Nash have in the works?

Michael and I made a small feature film about alternative energy and magnetism called FUEL. It is a project we are actively working on to re-do with a much bigger budget and named cast.

Newport Beach Film Festival Day 5

On Tuesday I first caught up with the documentary “Warrior Champions” from directors Brent Renaud and Craig Renaud. The documentary follows four paraplegic Iraq War veterans who are training to compete in the 2008 Paralympic games in Beijing. Each of the four different athletes have a distinct personality, which makes them come compelling people to watch.

The documentary is an interesting look at a process that I never knew existed. I’m sure we have all heard of the Olympic games, but I bet most people have never heard of the Paralympic. The filmmakers follow the four former soldiers through their training to making it to the Paralympic games in Beijing. You can see the real happiness and pride these soldiers are feeling in representing their country at the Olympics. The documentary makes you feel like you really can do anything in your life.

“NoNames” from writer-director Kathy Lindboe is a well-intentioned, but mess of a directorial debut. The film follows Kevin (James Badge Dale), a young man stuck in a small, rural Wisconsin town. He is deeply connected to a group of friends, but they are holding him back. Kevin is at a cross roads in his life and he has to make a choice whether to move on or stay in town with his life long loyal friends.

The film wants us to connect with these group of friends that Kevin relies on. But I’m afraid there are far too many of them for us to really care about them. Many are poorly sketched out as characters and some are given useless subplots that go nowhere. There were so many characters that I don’t even think some of these characters names are even mentioned. Some of these friends and their subplots should have been eliminated and the director should have concentrated on a smaller group of friends and given them some depth.

Many of the scenes are poorly paced and awkwardly staged. After Kevin beats up the man who raped his girlfriend, CJ (Gillian Jacobs), the intensity that the scene is supposed to carry just falls flat. The rapist is a poorly conceived antagonist who only appears in the film when it’s convenient to move the story along. The scene that propels the film to its climax is so ridiculous and unbelievable, I couldn’t believe what I was watching.

I understand that the director was trying to show us a realistic, touching tale of friendship, but the script needed another pass in order for it to be just that.

“Docuhebag” from director Drake Doremus first caught my attention when it played earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. This is a very funny film that surprises you. You think the story is going somewhere when it first starts, but ends up going somewhere else. Funny performances from the two leads, Andrew Dickler and Ben York Jones, playing estranged brothers. I’ll have a full review up later in the week.

Newport Beach Film Festival Day 4

On Monday I caught up with a documentary from Chico Colvard called “Family Affair.” The documentary opens with a story of a young Colvard accidently shooting his sister with a shot-gun while he was trying to imitate the TV show “The Rifleman”. As it turns out, this act of violence would probably be the least damaging thing to happen to Colvard’s family.

Colvard films this documentary using home video camera’s, so the documentary has the feel of a very intimate home movie. Colvard films his three sisters who were sexually and physical abused by their father. When he sees how his three sisters react warmly to their father at a family event, it sets Colvard off on a quest to fully flesh out the troubled past of his family.

The film documents how each of the three sisters are facing problems even in their adult age. One sister is going through cancer and loses custody of her child. Another one is a diagnosed schizophrenic, and the sister who was shot by Colvard at young age, is still facing medical troubles to this day due to the shooting. What makes each of these stories interesting and engaging is how real the sisters come across on-screen. They are not playing to the camera, when they talk about their abuse we feel it comes from a very real and disturbing place within them.

The documentary doesn’t give us any easy answers about why their father sexually abused them, except for one scene of a psychiatrist offering an explanation, which seems unnecessary. Whatever answers we get out of this documentary are not easy ones for us to understand. One of the daughters says she use to enjoy when her father would molest her. It is these kinds of reveals that surprises the viewer as the film moves toward its conclusion. This is a personal documentary that shows us the real life consequences of living with abuse within a family.

The other film I caught on Monday was an intriguing film from Russia, “House of Sun.” The film is set in the height of the hippie movement in the 60’s and 70’s. Sasha (Svetlana Ivanova) is a child of Russian diplomats who becomes entranced by the hippie lifestyle. Instead of going on a trip her parents set up, she ends up running away with the hippies and ends up falling in love with the leader of the hippies, who is known as The Sun.

Let me first say that I’m not sure exactly what happened in the film. This may have to do with the poorly colored subtitles that at time made it difficult to read the subtitles. The ending of the film is a bit of mystery, but I think the director, Garik Sukachyov, intentionally does this. The plot of the film is really second to the style. The film has a great energy to it that represents the spirit of the times. Though the film is in Russian, the film uses a soundtrack made up of American pop and rock songs from the 60’s and 70’s that instills a lot of energy into a given scene.

The strength of the film is the visceral experience it gives the viewers. I was sitting back in the theater and just went along with some beautifully stylized scenes, like when Sasha and The Sun are about to make love, a ray of light comes shining down on them. The film defiantly captures the crazy spirit of the times, but I don’t know exactly what was going on up on-screen.

Newport Beach Film Festival 2010 Day 1

Yesterday was the first full day of the 11th annual Newport Beach Film Festival. This was also my first film festival so I was very excited to attend. The first stop of the day was a collection of short films from Canada, named Oh Canada. This wasn’t my first choice, I had trouble finding the place to get my press pass, and this collection of shorts was the only playing right away.

Oh Canada was a series of six short films from Canada, though I was bit disappointed that not a single one was uniquely Canadian. I found the collection of shorts to be fine, none of them blew me away. One of the more interesting shorts was one called “Remote” by filmmaker Marc Roussel. The story focuses on a man finding out his television is a link to 30 years in the past. The premise is intriguing, but the short is almost ruined by the male lead, who is a bore to watch.

“Letter Home” by director Ken Pak is a story about the Iraq war and its connections to the past. It starts off absorbingly enough with a voice over reading a letter over an old super 8 millimeter film footage of a family. The filmmaker needed to pick a better voice over actor because the southern accent that narrates the first half of the short is obviously bad. The bad music choice of an acoustic guitar song at the end kind of ruins whatever pathos the story was going for.

“Man v. Minivan” by Spencer Maybee, is about groom having seconds thoughts an hour before his wedding. The lead played by Marc Bendavid is very good, but whatever catharsis the story was going for at the end was not earned. It feels false.

“American Jihadist” from director Mark Claywell is a documentary about Isa Abdullah Ali, an African-American man who converted to Islam and fought around the world for Islāmic causes. The story traces Ali’s life story and the recent history of Islāmic turmoil around the world. As a result of his actions around the world, Ali has has been wanted by the U.S Government.

Isa Abdullah Ali is a fascinating person to watch. The director first introduces him as this menacing fixture, and by the end Ali is telling us that he really doesn’t hate anyone. He comes across as to preachy by the end of the film spouting these obviously rehearsed phrases. I did feel that Ali’s personal story gets lost at times when the documentary cuts to telling the history of Islāmic turmoil.

During the Q & A period the director said the documentary was going to be cut down to fit a hour broadcast on television. When thinking back on the film, it does feel like one of those one hour documentaries that airs on the History Channel. The film did give me a new perspective on how one views the term Jihadist. It’s a good history lesson as well.

“Solitary Man” from directors Brian Koppleman and David Levien is Michael Douglas’ best performance since 2000’s “Wonder Boys.” Michael Douglas is playing the Michael Douglas part that we have become familiar with, a smooth womanizer type. But he is so skilled at playing this role we just sit back and entertained. Douglas is great playing this man who just wont change. I’ll have a full review up later, but this is terrific vehicle to remind us how great Michael Douglas can be.