Cinequest - 2004 San Jose Film Festival

WEDNSDAY March 3

ALL IN ALL (Torbjørn Skårild)
R 2003
A great opening to the festival; a short film in which relatively little happens (basically a guy jumps off a diving board) but the film is put together with such incredible crafty editing that this one action becomes in turns funny, hypnotic and scary.  Through hip-hop editing rhythms, Skårild keeps the film from ever becoming the least bit tedious (which is an obvious pitfall with this sort of thing) and he knows when to change up the images.  Highly recommended if you ever get the chance to see it, this is the kind of short that argues for always putting shorts in front of features.  If only the following feature had as much creative energy running through it…

UNITED (Magnus Martens)
Grade
37 2003
A mixture of whimsical romantic comedy and sports film, the film opens with a televised narrator giving us the central couple’s history together including a greatest kisses montage – and I sunk in my chair cursing the plague that Amelie inflicted upon us.  The film takes wild leaps in character motivation (I don’t understand why the protagonist left the soccer game after scoring the goal – wouldn’t that mean he has a chance at turning pro?) and fills the screen with way too many colorful supporting characters who are all given their little moments (the spunky coach, the eccentric bank teller, and the worst is the Heavy Metal friend who I had completely forgotten when he turned back up in the second half).  A lot of the character relationships just don’t make sense: like the protagonist hanging out with that precocious kid but not ever letting him play in the soccer games and protagonist’s girl going with that romantic rival dude even after she knows he is a scumbag (the fact that the romantic rival is also the protagonists boss makes his character even more insulting).  My grade should probably be lower but the film is really too innocuous to hate, i.e. the film never worked but I never wished death upon the characters onscreen.

THURSDAY March 4

CONFECTION (Eva Saks)
NR 2003
Cute but unmemorable short film probably works better with female viewers who can relate to dreams of ballet dancing.

THE MAGICAL LIFE OF LONG TACK SAM (Ann Marie Fleming)
Grade
67 2003
Personal documentary narrated by a lady trying to find information about her grandfather Long Tack Sam, a famous vaudevillian/ magician.  The story is visualized in an interesting way: with the old photo’s tinkered with in post-production so that they come back to life and have more dimensionality (a la The Kid Stays in the Picture).  Only problem with that is Fleming sometimes seems over reliant on her post-production effects to keep the viewer interested, showing Long Tack Sam wink or crane his head for very little reason for Fleming to use this movement.  Also, I think the film would have been more affecting had Fleming used herself onscreen more often, not to say she needs to pull a Michael Moore here and appear in every scene, but this is basically her story of family discovery and it sometimes feels like she is giving herself the shaft in telling the story.  For instance, the film employs a comic book style when telling Long Tack Sam’s various back-stories and in Q&A after the film Fleming revealed that she is an animator by trade and that she considers animation the descendent of magic.  Since tying her with Long Tack Sam is helpful for the overall emotional arc of the film, why is this information not in the film?  A good film, but you often get the sense that it could have been even more effective with just the slightest changes.

CALA, MY DOG (Xuechang Lu)
Grade
41 2003
The obvious comparison point here is Cédric Klapisch’s film When the Cat’s Away, in that film the cat’s disappearance enabled a lonely woman to open up to her neighbors and improve her personal life.  This film basically uses the dog’s absence to show the disintegration of the family unit, but here the journey trying to get the dog back doesn’t add much to the theme of the family but rather represent the odd twists of fate that the character’s encounter.  The film rambles on for too long and the open ending reeks of desperation.  A nice performance by Ge You and a few nice moments (I particularly like the sound distortion when the dead dogs are unloaded off the truck) but they are in service of a film that just doesn’t work.

FRIDAY March 5

SOLID AIR (May Miles Thomas)
Grade
27 2003
A beautifully shot film that makes very good use of glass opaque surfaces (one shot in particular with the father in front of scratched glass with red lights smeared behind him is awesome) but the film never even began to work for me.  Many reasons for the film not working: first off is the dialect is fairly incomprehensible without subtitles, more importantly still though is the deadness of the emotions and staleness of the thematic content.  Even the impressive visual style starts to come across as very shallow after a while, like a collection of work for a cinematographer’s reel.

A BUS CAME... (A bunch of dudes co-direct)
Grade
50 2003
These anthology films always seem to be pretty mediocre; this film basically only has one really standout film among the film shorts and it is the very last one Joan of Arc of the Night Bus which takes a violent bus accident and twists the hospital aftermath into a very abstract opera.  I would suggest coming just for the last film alone, but there are some very decent shorts earlier in the film (although none as successful): the second short Shoes is very impressive since it plays out with a lot of characters and works on a story level without any dialogue (it also seems to be the work of a foot fetishist) and the third short is the wackiest one with buses flying through space and superhero montage sequences.  Not a good film overall, but ideal for festivals (especially if you have a pass) or dvd release because you can simply browse your way through until you find a short you like.

THE SILENCE BETWEEN TWO THOUGHTS (Babak Payami)
W/O 2003
I walked out mostly because the screening room smelled of paint and I started to get a headache as soon as I stepped into the room.  The film is incredibly slowly paced and punishing at times (the first shot is about ten minutes and very little happens) and the print they were showing was reconstructed from computer files, since the film was seized by the Iran government.

WALKENTALK (Tim Merrill)
R 2003
A one joke short film (a guy embodies Christopher Walken and speaks exclusively with Walkenisms) but told well and stays fresh and funny for ten minutes or so.

DOUBLE DARE (Amanda Micheli)
Grade
71 2003
A
look at the life of two stunt women: one near the end of her career (60 years old) and the other near the beginning of her career.  Through these two stunt women, Micheli is able to suggest the lifespan of the occupation without being heavy-handed about it (the film never dwells on the injustice of aging in Hollywood) and Jeannie provides a 25 year mirror for what Zoe may become if she lives up to her promise.  There are a lot of good moments here that show the humanity of both of the subjects, and also a good deal of humor (Zoe telling that she gives good blowjobs with her lipring – temporarily forgetting the camera – is probably the comedic highlight).  Also, Zoe helps the film go down easy with her charisma and charm.  Shot of Digital Beta but given the magic bullet treatment and it sure helps make the film look more like film than other films in competition (for instance The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan – see below).

REWIND (Hak-Soon Kim)
Grade
57 2003
A warm and nicely detailed character piece that had a bunch of lovely moments but loses its way a bit towards the end.  The beginning is particularly good at setting up the central character’s isolation: with the snow falling outside dissolving to the static on the screen in front of him sleeping alone on his couch.  I also particularly liked a shot where the protagonist rides his bike around road-kill on the street, which adds very little to the narrative but adds a lot of human recognition to the film.

APOTHEOSIS (Janet Wondra)
NR 2003
Silent film parody doesn’t really work, the fluttering of film, oatmeal box and whistling on the soundtrack really grates after a (short) while.

POL POT'S BORTHDAY (Taimage Cooley)
R 2003
Another one-joke short (surprise party for a Cambodian military dictator) and it gets by because it is actually pretty darn funny.

TACKLE BOX (Matthew Mebane)
NR 2003
Longer than the other shorts (or it seems to be) and it seems to be mismatched: the first half of it is nostalgic and the second half is weird.  Doesn’t really work, but nicely shot on DV.

WHAT ABOUT THE BODIES? (Simon Ellis)
R 2004
A black comedy about body disposal, is very funny and twisted – perfect for the mindbenders series.

ELEGY (Jeffrey Travis)
NR 2003
Short horror film doesn’t work at all and clowns are usually either scary or not – in this case, not so much.

BIG NOSE BABY (Lee Miller)
No Grade 2004
A film by my film professor (hence the no grade), this is the shortest film of the bunch and pretty funny.  It reminds me of the music by The Minutemen, get in and get out before you run out of inspiration – no need to dwell.

SATURDAY March 6

RHAPSODY IN WHITE (Teddy Moscov)
W/O 2002
A good general idea (director as author literally walking you through his creative process) quickly becomes totally exhausted because of the spastic pluckiness of the world he decides to create.  Probably not bad enough to warrant a walk out but the irritating protagonist gave me a headache the moment I saw her and I knew I could do better for myself.

DAY OFF THE DEAD (Lee Lanier)
R 2003
A series of nicely (computer) animated sketches that don’t really add up to much, but I was pretty consistently amused by them.  I have no clue however as to why this short was in front of The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan, and considering the poverty and hunger in that feature it seems like a sick joke in retrospect.

THE BOY WHO PLAYS ON THE BUDDHAS OF BAMIYAN (Phil Grabsky)
Grade
47 2004
Feels more like a long commercial trying to shed light on the insane poverty and starvation faced by those living under Taliban rule in Bamiyan.  It is hard not to have a lot of sympathy for their plight but the film seems to go for the throat of the viewer rather than give concrete information about what life is like under Taliban rule or the gravity of the statues that were torn down; which we are shown by the boy of the title instead of one of his elders who could give us more information about what value these statues had for their society.  The whole film seemed like it should have had a 800 number running across the bottom for us to donate money.

CABALLE BEYOND MUSIC (Antonio A. Farre
Grade
44 2003
Caballe Beyond Music is a fluff, love letter to Caballe that never really gripped me or convinced me of Caballe’s exceptional brilliance as a performer.  I’m pretty sure this is a case of mileage may vary: for instance, if you already think Caballe is so totally awesome or if you are listening to Opera as you read this review, then chances are good that you will like this film – even though it is utterly lightweight and unchallenging.  Also it is very unfortunate that the Opera performances are filmed in such a bland, lifeless way -although I suspect this is not really the director’s fault since it was undoubtedly archive.

DOWN BY LOVE (Tamás Sas)
Grade
78 2003

LOVE HURTS (Fernando Sariñana)
W/O 2002
This is basically another re-telling of Romeo and Juliet but with visual "style" that makes Baz Luhrmann look like a comatose bore.  It also makes Luhrmann look like a bloody genius, since he at least knew how to use his style to form some kind of consistency.  This film is all style and all incompetently integrated to tell a story that has been told too many times already.  Basically the director just looked like he had foolishly been watching Oliver Stone films, shouting "That's a great idea!" to ever change in style and format and then decides to make a film with all these techniques with no sense or purpose.  I was really pissed and I only spent 40 minutes with this film-illiterate bastard child.

1 (Tim O'Hara)
Grade
62 2004
The smart version of Go Tigers! with a nice warm respect for its subjects but still questioning of what they are doing.  I do wish O'Hara had posed some harder questions to the coaches (for instance, it is a religious school but do the coaches have no problem wearing T-Shirts that say "Give Em Hell"?) and the film could probably be tightened up a bit since it is all character building and very little dramatic payoff.  Extra-cinematic note: I saw the film with pretty much all the subjects in attendance and they clapped and hooted whenever someone they knew came on screen, but instead of annoying me (as I suspected it might) it actually accentuated how warm the film really was.

THE LAST HORROR MOVIE (Julian Richards)
Grade
34 2003
A horror film in the tradition of Funny Games, Man Bites Dog and sometimes even Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer; and you might even enjoy it if you have never seen or heard of any of those films.  If you have seen those films you will long for a filmmaker with a better balance between comedy and horror.  You will also long for a film that isn't so blatant and on the nose about trying to provoke a reaction from its viewers.  It's too bad Richards messed this up so badly because his lead Kevin Howarth does have a smarmy charm that would have been so perfect for this film.

SUNDAY March 7

JONNY VANG (Jens Lien)
Grade
54 2003
This film looks on paper to be another one of those quirky foreign films that portray small town life as a rambling comedy of social misfits but luckily it often escapes that territory.  In fact I had a lot of affection for this film and the hapless title character who is having his boundless ambition put to the test by a string of awful luck and general badwill from other town folk.  I knew where a lot of the individual threads of the story were going well before they went there but I didn't have a bad time watching the whole thing unfold.

BUDDY (Morten Tyldum)
Grade
52 2003
I will cut Buddy some slack as far as general believability goes: questions like would the footage really generate a following and how does the protagonist afford hundreds of DV tapes on his banner-hanging salary are not really very distracting while watching the film.  Instead I had larger problems with the way the female characters are treated in the narrative, with the protagonist's ex-girlfriend basically becoming a mean-spirited force only when it is convenient for the narrative and the other love interest basically always on the verge of going away on a boating trip just to raise a false conflict in the plot.  These problems aside, this is still a very easy film to like with its ruthless alternating pulling on the heartstrings and successful comedy working in tandem and usually working pretty effectively.  Sometimes the film reminded me of the underrated 1993 film Watch It, with its practical joking of the men played off against their more serious personal problems, but in this film the personal problems never seemed as genuine as they should have.

MONDAY March 8

LIFE LEAVES MARKS (Enrique Urbizu)
Grade
70 2003
A lot of cinematic misdirection and mysteries built into the first half of this film: following the feet of a female character for awhile before taking up the stride of a character who is important to the film or a piece of paper read by a character and then another character without showing it to the audience, only to reveal the paper's message a few scenes later in conversational dialogue.  The film also has a very good sense of establishing characters and continuity in their personalities through small details and little bits of dialogue.  Strengths of the films first half fall away a bit in the second half as the story starts to take a more conventional approach to telling the story and the viewer is given more information upfront, like a mystery solved at the half way point with the rest of the time allotted to watching the conclusion work itself out.  Late blooming melodrama works itself out in some interesting visual terms but there is no getting around how much more interesting the first half of this film is then the second half (if fact I joked later that had they separated this film into two volumes [a la Kill Bill] I would probably be high 70s on the first volume and mid 50s on the second volume).

Friday March 12


SLIM SUSIE (Ulf Malmros)
Grade
17 2003
I guess we are still feeling the results of Tarantino's breakthrough films but this film (like so many of the post-Tarantino crime films) is all style and no sense or substance.  As far as the style goes, this film is pretty much dead in the water with a pointless wide lens overuse and playing around with the linearity of the storytelling doesn't add anything.  The structure of interviews leading back to flashback doesn't make much sense at all: with the interrogator not really motivated for his questions and the interrogated weaving lines of parallel stories that don't even really add to the main story often times.  A waste of time.

SECURITY (Brien Burroughs)
Grade
44 2003
Cheap, low budget comedy has some charm to it but also has some very awkward continuity mistakes and a very flat visual look to it.  Some of the small moments between Bill and the woman he is falling in love with have a nice feel to them but the human warmth of those scenes is undermined by the broad comedy and absurd touches that surround the characters.  The film was all improvised, which is a partial explanation to why the whole film meanders so much and why so much of the comedy seems to hit the same not too often.

GRAVEYARD ALIVE: A ZOMBIE NURSE IN LOVE (Elza Kephart)
Grade
39 2003
"One brief note: I'm from Canada." said director Elza Kephart in her brief introduction to the film, which was more random and funny than anything that she was able to capture in her film.  The comedy and horror are both pretty stale here, which is a real shame because the film is very nicely shot and seems to have a good visual sense to it (shot on Kodak film which helps a good deal).  Why are we suddenly getting all these horror/sci fi throwbacks that are intended merely as camp and how do I get this sub-genre to go away?