Cinequest 2002

Cinequest 12 took place in Silicon Valley, CA from February 21 to March 3, 2002. I found that the films this year were generally of higher quality than last year, with few if any really bad films, but perhaps also with fewer excellent films. There were several very good documentaries, which generally haven't been an interest of mine before now. I considered ranking them separately, but as you will see they all clustered together in the upper half of the list below.

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The feature films I saw were as follows, in approximate descending order of preference:

  1. Torzók (3.5 stars, CQ Link, English title: Abandoned, 2001, seen 2/22/2002, 1:40, in Hungarian with subtitles):
    This film is set in an orphanage in Hungary in 1960. Aaron is left there by his father. At first he is abused by the other boys, but soon he is accepted by them. Unfortunately, the man who runs the orphanage is sadistic and cruel. While the film feels manipulative at times and seems to have the basic message that life sucks, the one word I would use to describe the film is "haunting." The performances are very good, especially considering the young age of most of the actors. The cinematography and direction are also quite good, especially in the arresting dream sequences near the beginning and end of the film. Most people will probably never have a chance to see this, but I highly recommend it if you do.
  2. Manito (3.5 stars, CQ Link, 2002, seen 2/24/2002, 1:18):
    This is the story of two brothers in a Latino area of a big city. The older brother has just been released from prison and is determined not to let his younger brother, Manny (the title is an affectionate nickname), follow the same path. Manny has excelled in school and is graduating from high school, but he is not home free yet. The film takes place over 48 hours, and was filmed in 25 days in a gritty, documentary style. The actors were mostly new to film, which probably added to the realism. It's the performances that make this film, which won a Special Jury Prize for ensemble acting at Sundance. As is often the case, it's not an easy film to watch, but it's worth it.
  3. Detektor (3.5 stars, CQ Link, English title: Detector, 2000, seen 2/24/2002, 1:42, in Norwegian with subtitles):
    The main character and his friend like to find things with metal detectors (hence the title). One day they find a locket with an inscription. His friend talks about this on the radio, and the owner shows up to claim it. She and the main character fall in love, but then things get strange. To avoid giving too much away, I'll stop there. I thought the acting was very good, the camera angles interesting, and the story engaging. I simply enjoyed this film more than any other I saw at the festival.
  4. Zee die denkt, De (3.5 stars, CQ Link, English title: The Sea that Thinks, 2000, seen 2/25/2002, 1:40, in Dutch with subtitles):
    The plot doesn't begin to describe the film: a man is writing a film, or rather, this film. It's totally self referential to the point that you think it's going to fold in on itself like a black hole. The writer writes something and it happens, or something happens and he writes about it. It's very philosophical, like Waking Life but more Zen oriented and for that matter, much better, in my opinion. At one point there are person-on-the-street interviews and then you see shots of these people being filmed, and then you discover that their responses are scripted when one keeps flubbing her lines. There is beautiful scenery and optical illusions. I hope it comes out on DVD so I can watch it again more carefully.
  5. Perfume de violetas, nadie te oye (3.5 stars, CQ Link, English title: Violet Perfume: Nobody Hears You, 2001, seen 2/27/2002, 1:30, in Spanish with subtitles):
    The main character, Yessica, is a tomboy who is often in trouble. As a result, she is transferred to a new school, where she meets Miriam, who lives with her mother in what seems to Yessica like luxury. While Miriam's mother's main concern is saving enough money to get a better television, Yessica doesn't even have a bedroom to sleep in or money for the most basic school supplies. When Yessica's step-brother arranges for her to be raped, things go from bad to worse. In her environment she doesn't feel like there is anyone she can tell, so she must suffer silently, which reminded me of how the women in Missing Young Woman were often not missed. This film, which was Mexico's nomination for best foreign language film of 2001, is difficult to watch, but it's worth the effort. My notes also indicate that I liked the soundtrack.
  6. Family Affair, A (3.5 stars, CQ Link, 2001, seen 3/1/2002, 1:47):
    Rachel is a Jewish lesbian. Her parents are initially shocked by this revelation (the lesbian part, that is), but have come around so far that they are now leaders of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays). After a long, on again, off again relationship with a woman named Reggie in New York, Rachel moves to southern California and meets Christine. This romantic comedy stars Helen Lesnick, who also wrote and directed it. Her character breaks the fourth wall frequently, speaking to the camera on and off from the very beginning of the film. While I really enjoyed the film, a couple of minor problems stood out: the actress/writer/director looks much closer to the age of the actress playing her mother than to that of her love interest, and the dialog seemed stilted and occasionally badly overdubbed. I can't help but compare this to Kissing Jessica Stein, which I saw in Toronto last year but is only now being released in theaters. This film is more real, but is not as inventive or as well delivered, so I would have to give the edge to KJS.
  7. Execution of Wanda Jean, The (3.5 stars, CQ Link, 2002, seen 2/28/2002, 1:28):
    As someone who is opposed to capital punishment, I found this story of a somewhat retarded black lesbian woman on death row in Oklahoma very difficult to watch. The lawyer who originally defended her was, by his own admission, unqualified, and was only paid $800 for his work. He totally botched the case, and the efforts documented in this film to introduce evidence of her retardation and brain damage which was inexplicably omitted by the original attorney were blocked at every turn. The filmmakers originally got involved to make a tape for Wanda Jean's clemency hearing, but continued to document the case after that failed. The main investigator working for Wanda Jean was at the screening, and he said that based on the evidence he heard when he first became involved, he never expected to lose. Some of his scenes in the film are heartbreaking to watch. Wanda Jean, meanwhile, remains upbeat and highly religious to the very end. This film is scheduled to air on HBO starting on 3/17/2002. At Cinequest it was preceded by tHE tower oF BaBBle, which was narrated by Kevin Spacey. It is based on the concept that enough monkeys typing randomly on typewriters will eventually type every literary work and more, and it used the interesting technique of having interlocking stories all using the same dialog (although often with different sentence breaks; 3 stars)
  8. Livermore (3 stars, CQ Link, 2002, seen 2/23/2002, 1:00):
    This documentary about Livermore, California weaves together film from a 1969 documentary made for the city's centennial with more recent video footage and still photos taken by Bill Owens (who has a website here). It talks about the longest burning light bulb, a lost time capsule, and a cursed totem pole. While the production values are very low, this documentary is consistently fun, well paced, and had good music. It won the jury prize for best documentary feature, and this was the world premiere screening.
  9. Accidental Hero: Room 408 (3 stars, CQ Link, 2001, seen 2/23/2002, 0:48):
    The makers of this documentary set out to make a film about Logan High School in Union City, California because it was identified as the most racially diverse high school in the state. What they found was a teacher running a forensics program and regularly turning out state and even national champions from the most unlikely environment. I feared this film would be too "special," but it greatly exceeded my expectations. My understanding is that it will air on PBS at some point.
  10. Yank Tanks (3 stars, CQ Link, 2002, seen 3/2/2002, 1:11, in Spanish with subtitles):
    When the U.S. embargo of Cuba began in 1961, 150,000 American cars were in the country. Cut off from a supply of parts and with insufficient money to replace these cars, the people of Cuba have been remarkably inventive in keeping these cars running. With humor and great music, this film tells the story of the owners, the mechanics, and of course the cars. It tied for the audience award for best documentary, and this was the world premiere screening. I hadn't originally intended to see this film, but on the opening night of the festival I was accosted by the director outside of a nearby bookstore. The film was preceded by Running Time (with Sam Rockwell), which was fun but not particularly memorable (2 stars).
  11. Tribute (3 stars, CQ Link, 2001, seen 3/1/2002, 1:30):
    This documentary tells the story of several cover bands. The bands in question include Sheer Heart Attack (Queen), Larger than Life (KISS), and Missing Links (The Monkeys). One fan of Sheer Heart Attack, dubbed the "Superfan," was particularly interesting and scary. He saw everything in his life through Queen-colored glasses, had an extensive set of T-shirts with a long story behind each one, and even had a set routine for show nights. One was reminded of another documentary about obsessive fans: Trekkies (which I just noticed was directed by the editor of The Search for John Gissing). Larger than Life came out after the film in full KISS costumes and makeup. The film was preceded by a short called Crank Calls, which was fairly funny (2.5 stars).
  12. Zadnja vecerja (3 stars, CQ Link, English title: Last Supper, 2001, seen 2/22/2002, 1:34, in Slovenian with subtitles):
    Two men escape from a mental institution with a camcorder, planning to make a film. One of them hardly says two words during the whole film, while the other gives an extended comedic performance (including a brief sequence of him bent over facing away from the camera, without pants, "speaking" through his, well, you get the idea). As the film progresses, it gradually moves into drama, with the addition of a suicidal prostitute and her abusive pimp. While this film is not nearly as good as Elling, which also features two mental patients attempting to make their way in the real world, it is recommended unless shaky hand-held camerawork makes you nauseous. This was the U.S. premiere screening.
  13. Design (3 stars, CQ Link, 2002, seen 3/3/2002, 1:52):
    This film is about a set of interconnected characters and their fates. It is very dark, as the characters all seem to be doomed, disturbed, or both. The performances are all very good, with Daniel J Travanti standing out as the alcoholic father/salesman. It is also visually very striking, including the use of flash frames. The look is also partly the result of it being shot on a type of film which is close to obsolete, called Super 16 reversal. The story was apparently inspired by a poem of the same name by Robert Frost. [The cinematographer is the infamous Pete Biagi of HBO "Project Greenlight" fame, although the director of this film (who also wrote the film and played one of the main characters) swears that Pete was great to work with and plans to continue to work with him.]
  14. Search for John Gissing, The (3 stars, CQ Link, 2001, seen 2/21/2002, 1:31):
    In this film, Mike Binder (who also directed) is an American businessman named Matthew Barnes who just arrived in London with his wife (played by Janeane Garofalo), where Matthew is supposed to take over the final negotiations for a big merger with a German firm. Unfortunately, all of the arrangements were made by John Gissing (Alan Rickman), who feels passed over for the job and sabotages Matthew at every turn. Another key character is their boss, Francois (played by Allan Corduner, who played Sullivan in Topsy-Turvy). All of the characters are interesting, as are the direction and editing (which features lots of jump cuts). All in all I was pleasantly surprised given the poor review I had read in the local newspaper.
  15. Laundry (3 stars, CQ Link, 2001, seen 2/25/2002, 2:06, in Japanese with subtitles):
    The main character is a 20-year-old who works in his grandmother's coin laundry, ostensibly to keep people from stealing clothes but probably really to give him something to do. We learn that he wears a knit cap to cover the scar of a childhood wound which rendered him mentally very slow. He meets a beautiful young woman who has problems of her own. The film actually covers a fair amount of ground beyond what I have described, including some unexpected twists, but it does so at a very deliberate pace which might be a problem for some people. The acting seems quite good, especially by the two leads, and the story is, in a word, sweet.
  16. Ichiban utsukushii natsu (3 stars, CQ Link, English title: Firefly Dreams, 2001, seen 2/26/2002, 1:45, in Japanese with subtitles):
    The plot of this film reminded me of On Golden Pond. In this case a teenage girl who is somewhat troubled is sent off to the country when her parent separate. She becomes reacquainted with an elderly relative who is suffering from Alzheimer's. The pace of the film is slow, but the scenery is spectacularly beautiful, which most of us would not have expected from Japan as most films there are set in the big cities. The sounds of the cicadas made my wife very homesick for the country where she grew up. The film tied for the audience award for best dramatic feature.
  17. Buck Naked Arson (3 stars, CQ Link, 2001, seen 2/23/2002, 1:25):
    Four teenagers who just graduated from high school decide to spend the night in a forest. A fire starts, and the authorities take all of them in for questioning. Each of them is questioned in turn, and we see the night unfold four times on screen, once from each perspective. The eventual answer to the question of who started the fire is unexpected, there is good humor throughout, and in general this turned out to be a sweeter story that I had expected based on the title and the description. The acting seemed merely acceptable, however, and the ending was unfortunately a little too Hollywood. The short which preceded the film, The Man Who Loved Elevators, was stylish but not memorable (1.5 stars).
  18. Come Together (2.5 stars, CQ Link, 2001, seen 3/2/2002, 1:18):
    The main character is a 28-year-old greeting-card writer named Ewan who is in town for the wedding of his ex-girlfriend to a much more successful man. Ewan unexpectedly meets Amy, a high school girl who doesn't even know how to drive. Despite their age difference, some romance develops, so perhaps it is good that Ewan seems younger than his age. The film makes good use of video, which was nominally taken by the main character when he was dating his ex-girlfriend, to fill in some of the backstory. The relationships become more complex as the film progresses, and on the whole this was better than I expected.
  19. Corazones rotos (2.5 stars, CQ Link, English title: Broken Hearts, 2001, seen 3/3/2002, 2:00, in Spanish with subtitles):
    This film takes place in a large apartment building in Mexico City. Many of the occupants are struggling financially, leading to them being behind in paying their dues and therefore leading to possible imminent eviction. A few are well off. One family was quite wealthy but has recently fallen on hard times, and the teenage children seem utterly incapable of understanding why they should suffer. The large cast is easier to keep straight than I would have expected, but still there were times of confusion. The camera work was interesting in that the camera sometimes would do a slow roll (not a pan or a tilt), resulting in skewed angles. When the film did not arrive, the first screening was canceled and the second was shown on video using the screener that the festival programmer had available, but luckily the film did arrive in time for an added screening on the last day.
  20. Otilia (2.5 stars, CQ Link, 2001, seen 2/22/2002, 1:50, in Spanish with subtitles):
    A woman with a beautiful body but also with a large birthmark on her face is spurned by everyone in her village except one man, who is kind but mentally backward. Her father marries her off to an older man who gives her a venereal disease, which makes her sterile, so she sleeps with a variety of men to spite him. The title actress's performance is brave and very good, but the film moved quite slowly and on the whole disappointed me.
  21. Kaaterskill Falls (2.5 stars, CQ Link, 2001, seen 2/25/2002, 1:26):
    A young married couple is going away for a romantic weekend, when on a whim they pick up a hitchhiker. Things go from good to bad to worse in a plot that is fairly predictable until near the end when there is a twist that saved it for me. The other factor was a very strange editing technique which at first looked like a mistake: you hear a person speaking and the camera is showing that person, but not talking. After this happens several times it becomes clear that it was not a mistake and you wonder why it was done. I thought perhaps the idea was to make the person seem emotionally cold, while another idea I heard was that it made the person seem like two people. I would love to hear others' opinions.
  22. On_Line (2.5 stars, CQ Link, 2002, seen 3/3/2002, 1:37):
    This film, which won the jury prize for best narrative feature, is nominally about two roommates who start an internet sex site. But happily the film is about more than that. It is also about real life interactions, and about the confusing lines of public vs. private on the internet. The director was there to answer questions, and the story behind the film was also pretty interesting. Most of the online interactions really did happen in real-time, although often over local network connections between people in nearby rooms rather than over the internet. In one case people who were supposedly in different states were actually in rooms on adjacent floors of a dilapidated building, and they had to take care to make sure that the one on the upper floor didn't cause dust to rain down on the other person. The film was shot in 18 days on digital video, and it appears that it will likely get distributed.
  23. Being Light (2.5 stars, CQ Link, 2001, seen 2/23/2002, 1:35, in French with subtitles):
    This is the third in a trilogy of Dogme95 films, with the other two being Lovers and Too Much Flesh. In this one, Maxime arrives in Paris and demonstrates himself to be a very simple man who does not seem to have even a basic grasp of normal societal customs. His goal is to go to India to find Justine (played by Élodie Bouchez, who has much less screen time here than she did in the other two films). Maxime's unlikely companion in this quest is Jack, an American businessman (played by the co-director, Jean-Marc Barr, who played the main character in Too Much Flesh). This film's naive story reminded me a bit of Being There, with the simple character providing much of the wisdom. It was entertaining throughout and was well paced. As is often the case with Dogme95 films, the production values were quite low.
  24. Rat uzivo (2.5 stars, CQ Link, English title: War Live, 2000, seen 2/22/2002, 1:41, in Serbian and English with subtitles):
    This film, which was Yugoslavia's nomination for best foreign language film of 2001, starts as an entertaining comedy about the making of an underfunded independent film in Yugoslavia. Later it turns into more of a drama, but somehow I was left behind at the transition. The acting is probably better than I realized at the time, because the actors were convincingly bad actors in the film within the film, which is likely harder than it looks.
  25. Grownups (2.5 stars, CQ Link, 2001, seen 3/2/2002, 1:30):
    Two childhood best friends grow up and are still best friends at age 30, but now are both married, one to his first girlfriend. Their lives have become far more boring than they would like, and what were once jokes about wife swapping begin to be taken seriously, first by the men and eventually by the women, as a last act of wildness before becoming grownups. The comedy works fairly well, but the actors are not good enough to make the premise believable or to carry off the dramatic scenes. To the writers' credit, the complications that ensue are not simply the obvious ones. The film has high production values and it tied for the audience award for best dramatic feature, so perhaps it has a chance of getting distribution.
  26. Apsolutnih sto (2 stars, CQ Link, English title: Absolute Hundred, 2001, seen 2/28/2002, 1:33, in Serbo-Croatian with subtitles):
    This film is about a family of marksmen. The father was famous, and the older brother (who reminded me of David Spade) was a world champion in his day, but has become a junkie since the war. The younger brother (who reminded me a bit of Wes Bentley) is training for a big tournament, but external events such as his brother selling the shooting range are making this increasingly difficult. This is a film with a very energetic style, including pounding music and an injection scene that reminded me a bit of Requiem for a Dream, but it didn't connect for me.
  27. GeGe (2 stars, CQ Link, 2001, seen 2/27/2002, 1:30, in Mandarin with subtitles):
    The story, such as it is, is of a pair of brothers from Hong Kong. The older brother disappeared three years ago while traveling in mainland China. The younger brother goes to find him in the village from which he last sent a postcard. If I hadn't taken a class in recent Chinese cinema, this film would likely have been rated a little lower, but this background helped me look for symbolism. The woman in the film obviously represented mainland China, because she was from there, was a woman (this is fairly typical), and was always wearing red. The younger brother presumably represented Hong Kong. It occurred to me that the older brother disappeared close to the time (1997) when Hong Kong was returned to mainland Chinese rule, which probably means something. But despite these detailed clues, I wasn't sure what the film's overall message was supposed to be, and there was little else to engage me.
  28. Aswesuma (2 stars, CQ Link, English title: The Compensation, 2001?, seen 2/24/2002, 1:52, in Sinhala with subtitles):
    This Sri Lankan film begins in the present with a recently widowed man asking to be arrested for murders committed over 50 years previously. The overwhelming bulk of the film is told as a flashback, as he tells the police officers about how the murders took place. That story begins with the main character trying to get care for his very ill son. The son dies, and while digging the grave, the man finds a large gem. Others hear of his find, and will stop at nothing in their efforts to take the gem from him. My problem with this film is that the acting felt seriously overdone, in a style like what I have seen in some films from India. It had some good cinematography, and some of the tense scenes worked well, but it never really grabbed me.
  29. Misanthrope, The (1.5 stars, CQ Link, 2002, seen 2/28/2002, 1:25):
    This nominal comedy is about a sixth grade teacher who fails to get a part in a local theater production of The Misanthrope, and, when forced to direct the school play, decides to put on the same play. It had some interesting touches, like the use of silent movie-esque organ music and camera irises, but it never engaged me. Perhaps I would have liked it better if I had known anything about the play within the film or ever been a part of a school play, but frankly I wasn't even awake for the whole film. Based on the audience questions for the director after this world premiere screening, several of them liked it a great deal, so your mileage may vary. The unscheduled short shown before the film was Papal Cab, which was quite entertaining (3 stars).
Also seen but not reviewed: In preparation for the festival I created a list of the feature films with whatever information that I could find about them. This list can be found here.

Filmography links courtesy of IMDb and Cinequest.

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Copyright © 2002-2003 by Michael S. Weston. All rights reserved.