Newport Beach Film Festival preview: “Colby”

Stephanie Brait in "Colby."
Stephanie Brait in “Colby.”

The Newport Beach Film Festival, which opens tonight, screens something like 100 feature-length narrative films. It’s a global grab bag of indies and studio flicks in every conceivable genre. Among the films this writer has previewed is “Colby” (showing Apr. 25), a strong and compelling first feature for its creators, Jake Fuller and Alex Markman, who collaborated on both screenplay and direction.

Colby is an attractive young lady who’s clearly Trouble with a capital T from the first moment of the film onward. She’s a liar and a manipulator looking for a free ride, conning her way through life using everyone she meets. She’s not a very likeable individual, and one who would seemingly get little sympathy from an audience. But Stephanie Brait, the actress who plays the part, is something of a con artist herself; she pulls you into this character-driven film and keeps you tuned in, rarely letting you catch your breath.

Viewers may or may not find a bit of empathy with George (Matthew Dixon), a guy whose beach house she breaks into before proceeding to worm her way into his family’s good graces. His teenage daughter, Samantha (Miranda Levitt), is likely to elicit a protective feeling from the audience when Colby offers her a rare taste of freedom from the parental cocoon. Both actors succeed in sustaining credibility in supporting but key roles.

Milos Jacimovic’s cinematography is exceptional; much of the picture is lit like a classic film noir, but he knows what a sunrise at the beach should look and feel like. The look is cold and gritty to heighten the suspense but warm and inviting when it needs to be, not unlike John Rankin’s score. They both follow the directors’ lead, working with a firm but unobtrusive hand.

At the finish we see the fragility behind Colby’s tough exterior. The film ends abruptly however, leaving it up to the viewer to write the story’s last chapter. That turn in the road didn’t quite work for me but in their favor the filmmakers stop short of preaching or moralizing, a path so often taken.

2016 Newport Beach Film Festival, “Rwanda & Juliet” preview

More than 350 films from 50 countries are slated for the 16th annual Newport Beach Film Festival, Apr. 21-Apr. 28. Special events, red carpet galas, conversations with filmmakers, international spotlight events and seminars are all part of the mix.

The popular Collegiate Showcase screenings, including student films from USC, Chapman University, UC Irvine, Cal State Fullerton and Cal State Long Beach, are slated for Apr. 23-24, most at The Studio at Sage Hill in Newport Coast.

This writer has already had the chance to preview “Rwanda & Juliet,” a mesmerizing documentary (showing Apr. 23 & 27) about what happens when a retired college professor journeys to Rwanda to direct a production of “Romeo and Juliet.” At the outset we meet Prof. Andrew Garrod, co-founder of Youth Bridge Global, a non-profit aimed at providing theater opportunities to young people in challenged parts of the planet; he wants to feel he’s “still relevant…doing something to benefit humanity.”

With high hopes Garrod casts Hutu and Tutsi high school and college students—orphans of the 1994 genocide that took the lives of nearly 1,000,000 Tutsis within 100 days—in the Bard’s famed tragedy. “How do they go on with their lives? Make art,” suggests the play’s associate director, James Rice. But the film doesn’t shy away from controversy when things don’t go according to plan: Tété Umulisa (Juliet), whose father and siblings were victims of the mass murder, nearly derails the production when she raises last-minute concerns.

It’s a promising first feature for director Ben Proudfoot, whose short films have already won awards. Sub-titles would be helpful when he interviews some of the cast members who are often a little hard to understand, but ultimately he captures the hopes and dreams of the participants—perhaps with the greatest impact when an actor holds hand to heart to express how he feels about being cast in the play.