Archive for the “Cinequest” Category

2009

March 1, 2009
Cinequest 19
USA
English / Vietnamese / Russian / German
91 Minutes
Sci-Fi
Alejandro Adams

The most talked about film of Cinequest 19.

CANARY

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2007

March 1, 2009
Cinequest 19
Costa Rica
Spanish
90 Minutes
Drama
Ishtar Yasin Gutierrez

Girl and boy leave abusive Grandpa and their life of picking over trash in a dump in order to hop the Nicaraguan border into Costa Rica. They are in search of their mother. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Symbolism all over the place. Two guys find a table at the huge Nicaraguan dump and we see them in the background carrying the thing along the same trail that the girl and boy use to cross illegally into Costa Rica. As the group is led by their coyote, one guy calmly walks back towards Nicaragua carrying a bottle or jar of some kind. The boy, who is mute, stumbles into a posh home where a woman is swearing at an empty rocking chair as if yelling at her invisible husband. We leave the home and there is no further explanation. There are butterflies pinned to walls which obviously mean that the pretty girl we’ve been following has few, if any, choices she can make for survival. She is constantly reminded that men will pay for girls of her age. She’ll be given nice dresses, but it’s not a life to be envied.

7.3 IMDB (49 Votes)

EL CAMINO

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THE MARKET: A TALE OF TRADE
2008

March 1, 2009
Cinequest 19
Germany / Turkey / UK / Kazakhstan
Turkish
93 Minutes
Drama
Ben Hopkins

Notes:
Clearly has a Turkish sensibility. “God-willing, I’ll make a lot of money on this deal.” Everyone wants a deal. Gambling and drinking man doesn’t want to be part of any larger group of shady businessmen. His wife is supportive of most of his business efforts, though she shakes her head at the gambling and drinking. When a local doctor asks him to find some much needed medicine, he is off across the border in search of it. He is embarrassed to tell his wife of the no-profit deal. She tells him heaven will reward him for his good deed.

He risks his life to go get the medicine. And he hopes that when he gets back he can open the mobile phone story which he feels will be his ticket to wealth.

7.1 IMDB (41 Votes)

THE MARKET

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FINNISH TANGO
2008

March 1, 2009
Cinequest 19
Germany
German
90 Minutes
Comedy
Buket Alakus

Notes:
This film could never be made in the USA. Is it exploiting the disabled or empowering them? There’s a fine line. Downs Syndrome woman wants sex and offers to pay. A man with MS play-acts his own suicide. Our “hero” steals and ID from a guy at a bus stop with no arms. We know our guy will come to love this motley crew of special needs adults, but how long will it take and what about the cutie who runs the group home?

A young man, in love with his accordion, suffers the death of his band mate, becomes homeless, and has no job until a headhunter tells him that if he were somehow disabled he could get a job right away. He’ll need a disabled ID, which is why he steals one from the armless man at the bus stop.

Even though our protagonist is a total dick at the beginning (including saving his accordion from a car crash instead of a second buddy), we can’t help but feel like he’ll be redeemable by the end of the film.

6.4 IMDB (42 Votes)

FINNISH TANGO

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ESTHER’S INHERITANCE
2008

February 28, 2009
Cinequest 19
Hungary
Hungarian
90 Minutes
Drama
Jozsef Sipos

Notes:
The photography is milky–like a 1970s porno from France or Sweden. The location is a vineyard house kept in the family and wanted by an unmarried daughter and son-in-law Lajos who everyone agrees is a scoundrel. In fact, words like “scoundrel” come up often in this film. There is a lot of angsty conversations between characters. All centered around the pure or impure heart of Lajos. Did he marry who he loved? Did our heroine, Eszter, commit the sin of not following her heart truthfully or did the late sister really steal the love letters without Eszter or Lajos’ knowledge?

Before Lajos shows up, no one has a kind word to say about him. He preys on women’s hearts and men’s wallets. He owes the whole town money, it seems. He “borrowed” one man’s watch for five years. He switched a family heirloom ring with a cheap immitation. By the time we see him, he’d better be charming. Once he arrives, we see him fall into old patterns, but he in now way deserves the kind of worship that he’s been given. No way.

Lajos will cross a room to stand by Eszter as she gazes out the window in contemplation of her life. She’ll emote and then move to a different window while Lajos tries to woo her all these years later. Beautifully shot, but doesn’t amount to much.

6.9 IMDB (69 Votes)

ESTHER’S INHERITANCE

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FOR MY FATHER
2008

February 28, 2009
Cinequest 19
Germany / Israel
Hebrew
98 Minutes
Drama
Dror Zahavi

Notes:
Wow. Powerful and hopeful and about Israeli-Palestinian relations. It doesn’t solve anything, but it does personalize the conflict, right down to one young man. Tarek straps on a bomb belt in the first scene. He is asked questions by his conspirators. Are you ready? Yes. Eight o’clock in the morning in a crowded market. Then, since they don’t completely trust him, they attach a cellphone so they can remotely blow him up if he loses his nerve. He is young, good-looking, well-spoken, and a soccer prospect of some note. But his father is in a jam with an extremist gang.

Meanwhile, over on the Jewish side, things aren’t so great either. A gorgeous young woman with pink hair and tattoos and a short skirt runs a shopping kiosk. Keren and Tarek strike up a tenuous friendship. She is estranged from her father–Tarek is far from his father. She is threatened by a group of ultra-traditional Jews who don’t approve of her lifestyle. Meanwhile, an old man named Katz runs the local hardware store and when Tarek’s bomb switch doesn’t work, he goes there to get a new one. In exchange, he’ll fix the leak in the roof that Katz has neglected. Tarek is invited to stay for dinner at his home. Everyone is connected. Tarek is the only Arab in the story, but he begins to see the vast cornucopia of Jews as he comes into contact with them. The sad girl, the bitter old man, the orthodox gang, the community safety inspector.

The relationship doesn’t go where you think it will. The tension of the bomb belt is constantly felt. I was most impressed and when the two young people share headphones on the beach, your heart will break into a million pieces.

7.4 IMDB (43 Votes)

FOR MY FATHER

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A POLICE ROMANCE
2008

February 28, 2009
Cinequest 19
France
French
95 Minutes
Stephanie Duvivier

Notes:
Female police chief of average at best looks falls for young trainee and confuses her work life with her personal life. After a particularly harrowing gunpoint situation, a messy hookup takes place. The chief is married. The recruit is highly sought after by women. Drug dealer plot isn’t really clear. Bad cops and bumbling cocky head of narcotics unit. Teenager is afraid to talk to cops. His mother is attractive lover of narcotics head. Grandma tries to get cops to stop the drug trafficking in the projects where they live. The film tries to do too many things at once.
Chief’s home life isn’t great. Her husband doesn’t find her attractive. The young recruit reignites a passion in her. The drug story is hard to follow. At first no one cares about the projects being overrun by dealers until, suddenly, they do care. They shoot a guy at the public pool and piss everyone off, but later they shoot a different guy at the public pool and everyone’s a hero. Narcotics guy is bad, then he’s good. Well-acted and nice use of Arab-French relationships. The entire film takes place during the night shift. We never see the town in the daytime.

7.4 IMDB (15 Votes)

A POLICE ROMANCE

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2008

February 28, 2009
Cinequest 19
Argentina
Spanish / English
252 Minutes
Miriano Llinas

252 Minutes long. Get your head around that. What would you expect from a more-than-4 hour film in Spanish which takes place mostly in Argentina? Here’s the thing: there isn’t a single moment that drags. It’s the most amazing thing. We basically follow three different stories. The characters’ names are H, Y, Z. The fact that we don’t know their full names is just one of the charms. But what makes this film a particularly fulfilling experience is an almost perfect use of narration. And the use of time. Which is hard to explain. We’ve all seen films that use length of shots to their advantage. We’ve all been programmed to expect shots of a certain length. We notice when a filmmaker holds a shot longer than expected. Wong Kar Wai and Gus Van Sant to name a few. But director Miriano Llinas goes us one better. He holds a static shot for a long period of time, but he also films the shot from way, way back. So far away in fact that we can’t really tell who’s who. So in comes the narrator to tell us. “The farmer’s name is Rey.” [pause]. “He will hide a briefcase in a hay-bale” [pause where nothing happens and Rey doesn’t do anything]. “Here he goes.” [finally, Rey moves towards the hay bale]. This happens over and over. The narrator tells us what’s about to happen, nothing does, then the narrator says, okay now it’s going to happen. It’s a type of narration whereby the person could be sitting next to us and showing us a story that he filmed. This is hard to explain but a pleasure to experience. “The fat one will go to the truck and get a shotgun”. We wait from far away for what seems like five minutes “There he goes.” Then we see the fat guy go to the truck to get the gun. The narrator tells us what’s happening, sometimes WHILE it’s happening. This could seem simplistic, but for some reason it works pretty well. He also will explain a huge story about a minor character, with backstory, dreams, dark and happy experiences. We’ll spend ten or 15 minutes on these characters and at the end of the vignette, the narrator will say “this had nothing to do with what we’ve just seen” or, in a particularly funny scene, after a man has gone on and on about his theory of a crime, the narrator comes on to say “Every word he just said was wrong, he was correct about this crime in no way whatsoever.” So the narrator (and there are a half dozen) is there to correct wrongs, clarify plot moves, and explain what we’re seeing. The script for this film (setting aside it’s length, even) must have been much longer than usual. There is so much voiceover. Plot-wise, H is on a boat going up a river to settle another man’s bet. X witnessed a farmer’s murder, and is holding a stolen briefcase while holed up in a motel. Z is new in a management position and begins investigating the man who held his position for the previous 20 years. But those plot points in no way go far enough in explaining what’s going on, because with all the time we’re given to get to know these people, we can watch them do things slowly, in real time. A man watching the world outside his window; a man explaining the personalities of his co-workers; a man who is ridiculed by his colleagues but sets out for revenge; a woman who can easily manipulate the men in her life; the story of a gold heist gone wrong—each of these is given the time and energy they deserve. There are few loose ends.

Notes:
Perhaps the find of the festival. Nothing dull. I needed to see what happens next. Fantastic storytelling. Never dragging. Narration is perfect storytelling. “Nothing much happens”…long scene…”then it does”…long scene. Or “The fat man will go to his truck.” But on the screen nothing changes for a long 45 seconds. Then we see the man go to the truck. Narrator: “there he goes.” The scene is five minutes long with the narrator telling us what is about to happen just before it does, sometimes way before it does. The director tells us through narration and shows us through action. Hard to explain how well this works. Action sequences are done with a series of still photos. This is probably to save money. Rumors of a $50,000 budget were thrown around before the show started. It was more than four hours long. We got a break near the middle. Will the stories come together at the end? Will they go off in tangents that don’t mean anything? Which character should we most care about? This film has perhaps the best use of a narrator in movie history. It was like sitting next to someone late at night while they spin a yarn.

If you get a chance to see it, do.

8.5 IMDB (66 Votes)

HISTORIAS EXTRAORDINARIAS

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NIGHT TRAIN
2007

February 27, 2009
Cinequest 19
China / France
Mandarin
94 Minutes
Drama
Yi’nan Diao

Washed out colors. Darkness. Executions. Abusive relationship. I was exhausted. I dozed. I was told later it was great.

6.5 IMDB (126 votes)

NIGHT TRAIN

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ANOTHER MAN
2008

Cinequest 19 Screener
Switzerland
French
89 Minutes
Drama
Lionel Baier

Black and White. Stark. Covered with snow. Francois and his girlfriend, Christine have recently moved to a sort of backwards hamlet in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. He took writing classes in college and carries around a resume to show the printer of the local weekly paper. The man doesn’t need to see a resume. As long as Francois can write, he gets the job. One of his duties for the paper is to attend the weekly screenings held at the town’s only movie theater.

First up: LAST DAYS, the Gus Van Sant film based upon the final few days in Kurt Cobain’s life. Francois has no idea how to feel about the film. Does he like it or hate it or is he indifferent? He simply can’t answer. To be fair, LAST DAYS is not exactly and easy film to quantify. My first words about it in the summer of 2005: “I’ve had nearly a week to digest this. And I’m still not sure if it’s merely good or fantastic. It’s like watching a dream. People move about and do things without needing to push the plot along.

He comes across a magazine called “Travelling”, which is an incredibly high-fallutin cinema journal along the lines of FILM COMMENT or CASHIERS DU CINEMA. Rather than figure out his own thoughts on the film, he copies the published review word for word and turns it in as his own.

Luckily, not many of the townspeople are cinephiles and none of them have read “Travelling” so his secret is safe. However, the high-minded magazine doesn’t like any of the films that the single theater has chosen to show. He refuses to lower the bar on “his” reviews and is subsequently banned from the weekly screenings. So he takes it upon himself to drive into the cosmopolitan town of Lausanne where he attends press screenings with all the local critics. He begins believing that he is a great critic. There is an incredibly sexy critic named Rosa Rouge who is on to his game immediately, but would rather sleep with him and demean him than let his secret out of the bag.

Cue the Swiss-French sex scenes–in a theater, and hotel room, complete with chopsticks.

Francois at one point says, “I have no opinion on anything–I haven’t been taught to.” And that is the essence of the film. Francois is surrounded by critics with opinions and when he appears on an NPR-type radio show, the entire panel speaks except for him. Do the professionals really know more than the man who has nothing to say?

Robin Harsch (Francois) and Natacha Koutchoumov (Rosa) are a charismatic pair. She’s bratty and know-it-all. He’s a puppy dog with nary a thought in his head.

ANOTHER MAN (UN AUTRE HOMME) will be shown at Cinequest 19. Details here: http://www.cinequest.org/event_view.php?eid=457

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ANOTHER MAN

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THE NECESSITIES OF LIFE
2008

Cinequest 19 Screener
Canada
French / Inuktitut
102 Minutes
Drama
Benoit Pilon

Tiivii (you’ll recognize Natar Ungalaaq’s angular face from THE FAST RUNNER) is an Eskimo living on a rushing river in the far north of Canada with his wife and two daughters. It is 1952. A French medical ship anchors and the natives board it for a check-up. Tiivii is found to have a lung disease. His family is sent away as he is taken on a two month boat ride to Quebec City for treatment. His biggest worry is that his family won’t have enough to eat. “Who will hunt food for them?”

Upon arrival at the modern hospital, it becomes clear that no one on the staff speaks his language and he doesn’t know any French. His hair is cut and his native clothes are disposed of. The doctors can’t explain to him what his sickness is, but through some pantomime and the use of a calendar, Tiivii is told that he may need to stay in the hospital for two years. He is placed in a ward full of coughers, who look at him in wonder. The first meal he’s supposed to eat while in the hospital? Spaghetti. For a man who’s never used utensils.

This fish-out-of water story continues until, after missing his family terribly, he makes a break for it. He sleeps in barns, sings traditional songs to himself, and tries not to freeze to death. He is brought back and mounts a hunger strike. His dismal life in the hospital becomes much better when a kind nurse transfers a native orphan to his hospital. He is fluent in both French (“you know the White language? Yes, it’s easy”) and Inuktitut. The boy teaches him about modern life and he teaches the boy hunting techniques and tells him stories passed down from generation to generation.

There isn’t a whole lot more to the plot than that. There is two-way culture shock. A piece of raw salmon is almost giggled over, while a Christmas feast barely registers. Male-female social conventions are tested. And a strong bond is formed between the man and boy, who are both unsure of their place in a large, French-speaking city in Canada.

The incredible face of Ungalaaq is so expressive and honest that not much more needs to happen. When he says he misses his family, there isn’t a doubt in our minds. This film tells a unique story. There are no good or bad guys. Everyone is trying to help Tiivii. But he wants to get back to his tent and his family.

THE NECESSITIES OF LIFE will be shown at Cinequest 19. Details here: http://www.cinequest.org/event_view.php?eid=511

IMDB

THE NECESSITIES OF LIFE

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2008

February 17, 2009
Cinequest 19 Screener
USA
English
102 Minutes
Comedy / Drama
John-Michael Thomas

A group of good-looking, but geeky, 20somethings meet in a warehouse loft to play online video games. To say they take these games seriously would be quite an understatement. Right away, the jargon is going to be tough for those of us outside the target age group. But before we throw up our hands in frustration, the screen freezes and two of the characters explain to us what the hell they’re talking about. Characters speaking directly to us is just one of the ways that CORPSE RUN tells its story.

This group is plugged in. They live in Los Angeles, they pursue their dreams in the daytime–singer, actress, investor, management trainee–but they only feel alive when they gather with each other (and beer, junk food, extremely fast computers) to defeat other teams in an online universe. They are the self-described “second best team online.”

Much like people you know in real life, everyone in the movie has an online handle. Adama, Liberty, Chucky, MichaelVox. Just kidding about that last one. When not playing videogames (reasons come up–the online universe is down for maintenance, the electricity is out, the sun is out) the group sits around and tries to explain and solve the problems of the world. Which would be grating in most movie instances, but isn’t in this film. That’s mostly due to the extremely capable cast of unknowns (at least to me). Another thing that keeps this introspection from being excruciating is that the characters themselves realize that they’re full of shit.

The musician knows he’s probably not much better than the other thousand bands in Los Angeles at any given time. The actress, while attractive, can’t perform in auditions and begins looking for another job. A young videogame magnate realizes that he’s stopped calling games art and begun calling them business. In one memorable scene, one character explains to his boss at what appears to be every single office job I’ve ever held, that what his boss thinks is 3 weeks of work, can be completed by a halfway intelligent young person in three hours. And then he goes off on a rant about “his generation” being able to multi-task and figure things out and they are better equipped and smarter and have access to more information and all the rest of the things that people born in the 1980s sometimes say in online essays (or their blogs). The result of this character’s inspiring story about how much different the new boss is from the old boss is that he is fired. He is no good at his office job. He talks an extremely good game, but can’t execute that gameplan.

The film has video game theory, style, and music throughout. When a kid is told that the Challenger disaster will be the defining moment of his generation, his voiceover counters with “Fuck the Challenger, my generation was defined by the Nintendo Entertainment System.” Scenes begin with quotes from the guys who brought us Pac Man and Donkey Kong.

Two characters have a meet-cute in a diner after one uses an obscure anime reference and the other answers back with a different, though equally obscure, anime reference. Love is born.

For computer geeks, this group seems relatively well-adjusted. They are no more messed up than any other 20s group. They get outside. They play poker, they aren’t rendered mute around attractive women. In fact, they are probably substantially better looking as a group than any real group of kids gathering in the dark to play games on a LAN. The main love interest (the anime twins) have a sweet and realistic courtship. They talk about ice cream and movies and games and their dreams. They walk on the beach and pretend they’re superheroes. Each of the couples in the film (there are two others) are sweet and awkward and realistic. The larger group has become a sort of family for all of these kids who have come to Los Angeles from other places, mostly.

There is a very well done scene which takes place in one of the canyons where a Myspace alert has brought other gamers out of their homes for a kegger. There is drinking and a bonfire and laughter. And then there is a game of capture the flag. Sega v. Ninetendo. And the Hatfields and McCoys never had so much unbridled hatred for each other. This is just another example of videogames permeating the lives of these characters. A diatribe against John Madden for somehow becoming the most powerful person in videogame history is also particularly funny.

As a filmmaker, director John-Michael Thomas (who appears in the film as anime boy / aspiring singer) tries all kinds of things to prove that we’re not watching a normal narrative. There are quotes on the screen, the characters speak directly to the camera, in several scenes a videogame arrow appears above a character denoting his importance, there is text on the screen instead of filmed footage (EXT — Characters walk into bar), and there is a Zelda-type quest that three characters take to a mysterious cave where they play in a live-action text-based videogame from back in the day.

In terms of plot from A to B to C, it’s not really there. A few of the characters change, but in most cases we don’t know what happens to them. Life goes on. Online life goes on online. Characters pontificate about their place in the world, but aside from the technology at their disposal, generations of humans have been arguing about their place in the world since we left the cave. They are no different.

If I were 15 years younger, this would probably be one of my favorite films ever. I cheered when I saw an actor playing Nolan Bushnell, I oohed at the Atari 2600, I swooned at the fake DOOM screen showing a character attempt to fix the electrical grid. But the rest of the gaming stuff was a bit over my head–which is exactly where it should be. I’m too old to be worried about my generation’s place in the world. I’m simply trying to live in it.

CORPSE RUN will be shown at Cinequest 19. Details here: http://www.cinequest.org/event_view.php?eid=472

IMDB

CORPSE RUN

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2008

February 14, 2009
Cinequest 19 Screener
USA
English
86 Minutes
Comedy / Crime
Julian M. Kheel

Three devious schemes; three badly executed heists; and a pawnshop with one surprising treasure.

Every year that Cinequest comes around, I sort of have to split my personality as a viewer. Half of me remains the snobby holier-than-thou viewer, seeking out the darkest Ukrainian dramas about life’s futility and documentaries whose sole purpose is to anger or delight me enough to physically pull others into the theater to experience what I just experienced.

But the other half of me at Cinequest (this will be my 13th year), when dealing with ultra-independent American films, has come to realize what the festival is here for. Cinequest looks for fresh faces–filmmakers who will go on to greater things. We get early exposure to them and can remember future superstars when they could barely hold a camera straight or keep a narrative flowing to save their lives. There is also the whole social aspect of the festival–there are parties and the chance to see and meet semi-famous people, there are casual movie fans who are looking to impress their dates, there are dinners and cocktails before and after the screenings–and this is where I differ from the crowd.

I have rarely, if ever, enjoyed a dinner and cocktails, and then headed to a movie. Or at least any movie where any thought was involved. Spiderman? Yes. Frozen River? No. However, on those rare occasions when I venture to the movies on a Friday or Saturday night, I am typically surrounded by buzzed audience members who insist on continuing their dinner conversations in the darkened theater. I personally need to be alert, sober, and ready to be taken wherever the filmmaker wants to take me.

But Cinequest is different for me. I still don’t drink-first-view-later, but I understand that there are parties and people are spending their money in a down economy at one of the many fine San Ho restaurants. There are also first dates being planned whereby one party will prove to the other party just how much of a film buff they are by taking a chance on a movie none of their friends have heard of. There are aspiring young people filmmakers and artsy seniors who finally feel like the Camera 12 is their venue–at least for the 11 days of Cinequest. For some filmmakers with movies in the fest, this will be the furthest they get. For others, it’s merely a stepping-stone on the way to greatness. People will come into theaters late and leave early. People will get texts, answer them, and then go to the next-door screen where a friend has told them genius is unspooling. People will sit in aisles, stand against walls, laugh at jokes that they’d never laugh at in a normal multiplex, and ask questions of filmmakers which have no basis in the reality of the film they just experienced. That’s become a bit of a sport for me. Watching something I hated and then waiting for someone to attempt to impress his or her companion by asking a question about the director’s influence from Bunuel or Ozu or Kiarostami. It’s all I can do to not laugh out loud. At Cinequest 18 I sat next to a girlfriend sitting on her boyfriend’s lap for a 130 minute film. By the end, I thought she was at least half mine. Needless to say, she went home with lap number one leaving me, lap number two to enjoy the next film uncovered.

What all that means above is that I have come to realize that there are certain films which appear to be made especially for this kind of melting pot of an audience. Snobs, hipsters, old folks, wise-beyond-their-years teens, NYU grads, and people who wandered into the wrong theater by mistake make up quite a schizophrenic group of viewers.

But CAPERS should make almost all of them happy. It’s a perfect Cinequest comedy. It tries new things, it stars people who you think you’ve seen before, it looks good, but not too good, it’s plot is easy to sum up in both a Tweet and in the big program with the woman putting on (taking off) her face. There are a lot of laughs, some minor girl-on-girl action, hip hop rhymes, and stone-faced Soviets.

CAPERS has four easy-to-remember sets of characters. Connie is an over-the-top racist mafia widow who runs a pawnshop with her semi-retarded grandson. The Amateurs are over-the-top robbers who dress and act like they’re from a 70s movie, down to the Popeye Doyle hat on Danny Masterson’s head. The Moolies (I didn’t realize that it was okay to name a gang after an Italian insult directed at black people, but this film claims that it is) are over-the-top small-time crooks who dress and act like they’re filming a rap video. All the time. They wear colorful outfits, carry a huge boom box, and hold their guns sideways. Every time they enter a scene, music plays loudly and the familiar MTV font appears at the lower left of the screen. The third group of crooks are referred to as the Sputniks who act as if the cold war hasn’t ended, wear drab clothes and live in drab surroundings, and have no discernible sense of humor. Each of the gangs has had interactions with Connie, each has noticed that she keeps a safe in her shop, and each has decided that the safe must contain something incredibly valuable. Each gang plans a can’t-fail robbery of the place.

Here’s the cool and unique thing about CAPERS: whenever the Amateurs are on screen, the film uses lenses, film exposures, angles, clothing, and language as if it were filmed in 1974. This same idea was tried, less successfully, by Tarantino and Rodriguez for their Grindhouse experiment a few years back. The Amateur scenes have poor splicing, a 70s soundtrack, hairs on the camera, and long, grainy shots. It is actually quite a feat.

Whenever the Moolies are onscreen, the picture is razor-sharp, the music is loud (so loud that in one scene two characters continually yell louder than the music until one of them gets out of bed to turn it down), the clothes are loud, and the style changes to the slow-motion, fast-motion scenes we’ve come to expect from rap videos. There are slow-motion house party dances for no reason, the language is street, there is a blacked-out SUV, the beverages are all Diddy-approved.

Finally, the Sputniks are kept in black and white. Sparse language, spoken with a Rocky and Bullwinkle accent, a robot-like woman trying to be sexy, and static camera shots.

Somehow, director Julian M. Kheel keeps all the balls in the air. The Amateurs try to gather a team together (“you need a tall guy and an oriental for computer skills and karate”), the Moolies shop for weapons at a Hassidic plastic explosives store (“we’re open until sundown every day but Saturday”), and the Sputniks try to buy Uranium at their local hardware store. Each time we join one of the teams, the entire frame is changed to suit the style of the group. This works to fantastic effect, but it’s more than simply a visual gimmick. The editing changes, the pacing changes, the soundtrack changes. Eventually, all three teams will have to be in the same place at the same time–what will that look like?

Plot-wise, CAPERS is nothing to shout about. There are enough jokes to keep us laughing, none of these teams are Oceans Eleven quality brain trusts. The object of their planning doesn’t seem like much, and many of the characters are complete cartoons. But sometimes cartoons are funny and can keep your interest for 90 minutes.

CAPERS is sure to be a Cinequest hit. The theater will be full of laughter and people will talk about it when the lights come up.

And there is nary a whisper about the futility of life in the entire film.

CAPERS will be shown at Cinequest 19. Details here: http://www.cinequest.org/event_view.php?eid=470

IMDB

CAPERS

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2008

February 11, 2009
Cinequest 19 Screener
USA
English
87 Minutes
Documentary
Bestor Cram

Out Of Darkness, Comes Light.

When the “Man In Black”, Johnny Cash was stationed at an Air Force Base in West Germany, he watched a movie from 1951 called “Inside The Walls Of Folsom Prison,” which so inspired him that he later wrote a song about the prison, located just outside of Sacramento, California. The song, of course, is “Folsom Prison Blues”, which was released on December 15, 1955.

The documentary JOHNNY CASH AT FOLSOM PRISON will make the case that Mr. Cash may have heard an album by a songwriter named Gordon Jenkins who’s song “Seven Dreams” has verses which are a bit too similar to be coincidental. Regardless of Mr. Cash’s influences, the song became a hit, Mr. Cash began performing within the walls of prisons, and it was only a matter of time before he’d perform “Folsom Prison Blues” inside the actual Folsom Prison. He first performed there in 1966, and then on January 13, 1968, he returned with his band, the Tennessee Three, his wife, June Carter, Carl Perkins, The Statler Brothers, a photographer, and a sound recording engineer. There is no filmed footage of the event.

In 1968, Cash was just getting over his drug addiction and was looking for a comeback opportunity. He had been performing at different prisons around the country and writing songs written from an inmate’s perspective. For the Folsom show, he and his band spent the day before learning a song that one of the Folsom inmates had written called “Greystone Chapel.” It was written by a singer-songwriter named Glen Sherley, whose children appear in this film. Sherley was given a seat in the front row and was shocked when the famous singer began strumming the song that he had written.

The parallel stories of Sherley and Cash are quite compelling. One man lived a life in prison and the other got credit for singing as if he knew what it was like on the inside. Cash once told country star Merle Haggard, who spent several years in the late 50s at San Quentin, “people think I’ve lived the life that you actually have.”

The film is fascinating. We hear interviews with Cash’s bandmates, his children, former guards and two former inmates who were there that day. There is rare footage taken inside the present-day walls of Folsom. There are dozens of photographs of the event and some songs that weren’t released on the 1968 album. And somehow, though he died in 2003, we hear audio of an interview that Cash did about the concert.

The album, “At Folsom Prison” was an instant success, quickly selling half a million copies. It resurrected Cash’s career and increased his fan base. If you saw WALK THE LINE, you’ll probably remember the scenes that took place at Folsom as the most exciting of the film. I mentioned above that there is no footage of the show, so director Bestor Cram, finds images for us to see while hearing the fantastic songs.

One that sticks out for me is “25 Minutes To Go” where a condemned man headed to death row is recounting his last 25 minutes. The film uses black and white animation which depicts the words of the song. It’s an exciting song to begin with, that excitement is intensified by hearing it sung in front of inmates who whoop and cheer specific lyrics, and the animation only adds to the power as a man eats his last meal, is visited by a preacher, and begins walking up the steps of the gallows.

Then the sheriff said boy, I’m gonna watch you die;
Got 19 minutes to go;
So I laughed in his face and I spit in his eye;
Got 18 minutes to go.

The inmates go crazy as the song gets louder and louder, and faster and faster, leading to the execution of the character.

Now here comes the preacher for to save my soul;
With 13 minutes to go;
And he’s talking bout burnin but I’m so cold;
I’ve got 12 more minutes to go.

This clip has been posted on youtube, and if it’s still there, the link is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ey3-Rq9p5A

The film is full of these performances and insightful interviews. After 40 years, the impact of this live album is still being felt. When you think of other live albums and how they changed a band or singer’s career, the list really isn’t that long. U2 at Red Rocks. The Who Live At Leeds. Cheap Trick at Budokan. Led Zeppelin, Queen, and Bruce Springsteen had to compile several dates and several venues to gather the right material for their live releases.

Live At Folsom Prison can be held up among the best live albums of all time. Cash needed a hit after reaching rock bottom. The prisoners were excited that anyone, let alone country music royalty was performing for them and Cash chose songs that appealed deeply to the inmates. The film adds interviews with major players, the story of the other musician, inmate Glen Sherley, and we see how these concerts cause Cash to become an advocate for prisoner’s rights. There is footage of him testifying before Congress.

I can’t wait to see this again on a big screen with big speakers.

Johnny Cast At Folsom Prison will be shown at Cinequest 19. Details here: http://www.cinequest.org/event_view.php?eid=497

JOHNNY CASH AT FOLSOM PRISON

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2008

January 31, 2009
Cinequest 19
USA
English
91 Minutes
Documentary
Don Hardy & Dana Nachman

Some Convictions Are Criminal.

In 1983, in Manhattan Beach, California, the mother of a young boy went to police with a story so repulsive (involving sex, torture, Satan, and the kitchen sink), that the media couldn’t help but take notice. The case became known as the McMartin Preschool Trial and it lasted for seven years, becoming the most expensive criminal trial in American history. The word “McMartin” has now become shorthand for any type of overzealous prosecution using coached witnesses, many of whom are too young to know what they’re saying.

WITCH HUNT is a documentary about a similar set of trials which took place in Bakersfield, California in 1984. A new “tough on crime” District Attorney had just taken office (where, sadly, he remains to this day), and he brought with him bravado and mandatory minimum sentencing. John Stoll was one of the first to be accused. He was a hard-working divorced man who had a swimming pool which his son enjoyed on hot summer days, sometimes with his friends. He is woken up by police and taken to jail, where he is told that his son has accused him of sexual abuse. By the time he is arraigned, two other boys have allegedly come forward and told police the same story.

When something like this happens in a documentary, we find ourselves trying to “read” the man’s face as he explains his ordeal. Does he look like a molester? What exactly does a molester look like? Why would his son say such things if they weren’t true? Isn’t there a child molester behind every tree and broadband internet hookup?

When Stoll gets to prison he finds himself sharing a cell with another accused pedophile whose photo had been plastered all over the newspapers. Looking the other man in the eye, a man Stoll assumed to be guilty, he begins to see a pattern. What makes this pattern different from other molestation accusations, is that the initial accusation came from their very own children. A son accuses his father. Two girls accuse their father. Two boys accuse both their mother and father. Over and over again. Regular, normal, young couples are dragged in front of TV cameras and shown as examples of the molestation wave that appeared to be sweeping the town of Bakersfield, the State of California, and the country at large.

Is there a worse crime than child molestation? While in prison, all of the accused are held away from the rest of the prisoners for their own safety. Children are placed in foster homes, estranged spouses leave town, whispers turn to yelling. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, right?

If this were a film about a single man who was wrongly accused, you might come to the “better safe than sorry” conclusion and feel that a prison sentence is probably a good thing. But we see couple after couple after couple being sentenced to hundreds of years in prison and it’s obvious that something else is going on here. Judges are routinely disallowing evidence for the defense, child witnesses are testifying one way, then after court recesses, coming back to testify exactly the opposite way. The press can’t get enough. Husbands and wives are separated permanently. Prosecutors tell juries about photos of acts, which are never seen. Houses are lost, communities broken up.

It is incredibly hard to watch.

The talking heads collected by WITCH HUNT involve most of the accused, and a handful of the children who made the original accusations. One couple, who have moved away from Bakersfield, refuse to show their faces this many years later. The rest of them speak about their legal ordeal with pained eyes as if it happened yesterday. The children, all approaching 30 now, bravely talk about how the trial changed their lives. We hear from former California Attorney General John Van De Kamp whose office was brought in due to the overwhelming workload in Kern County. He begins to see problems with the prosecution’s cases.

We hear over and over again how these working-class men and women believed at every step, the truth would come out and they’d be headed home. One of the couples, during the deliberation, plan to have a victory dinner at a local restaurant. We are as shocked as they are when they are instead sentenced to several hundred years in prison. Surely, someone will come to their aid, the children will recant, the prosecutors will drop the charges, the judge will come to his senses. Not so much.

Every moment we spend with one of the couples, the Kniffens is heartbreaking. There is plenty of footage from the trial, both of them in fashionable 1984 haircuts, both of them looking as normal as the waitress at Dennys and the guy who fixes your car. Mrs. Kniffen, when accused of sodomy, has to have the act itself explained to her by her husband. They were in love in 1984 and continue to be in love in 2008. They sit next to each other during the interview and finish each other’s sentences. There is footage of Brenda fainting to the floor after her sentence is handed down. Scott speaks in the quiet tones of someone who has seen parts of life the rest of us don’t want to visit. After their victory dinner is denied them, they head off to separate prisons. At one point, Scott ends up at San Quentin, surrounded by the most violent offenders California has to offer. Being a convicted child molester is a quick way to a shanking, and he feared for his life every day until his appeal letter was finally read and he was transferred to a less-violent prison.

Thanks to the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara Law School (http://law.scu.edu/ncip/), some of these cases began being reviewed. When a retrial is held after six years of prison, the Kniffens see each other for the first time. Brenda says to Scott that he should be using rogaine, as the years in prison have not been kind to his hairline. The appeal goes on and on–tapes of children being questioned are listened to proving their obvious coaching by both prosecutor and Child Protective Services employees. One by one, they are released. Mr. Stoll was arrested at the age of 41. He is released at the age of 61. He never saw his son again.

I’ve often told people that I have an unnatural fear of being wrongly accused. It makes films like THIN BLUE LINE and TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE and THE VERDICT that much more frightening for me. This film had me shaking my head with worry. Some will argue that it’s better to err on the side of caution. If there’s even the slimmest chance that that person could have been a terrorist or touched a child, isn’t it better to lock them up for the greater good?

I subscribe to the better ten guilty men go free than one innocent man go to jail idea. (See origins of that law school cornerstone here: http://www.law.ucla.edu/volokh/guilty.htm) Part of my public school teacher training in our modern post-Letourneau, post-priest-scandal world (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Kay_Letourneau) stresses the boundaries between children and trusted authority figures. As a teacher, I need to be conscious every day that a few words from a young person could not only change my life, but effectively end it. I hear personal stories from students about the most atrocious things imaginable. The problems exist, but at some point we began to believe that everyone was a predator. A now-ridiculed recent statistic was that something like 40% of teenagers have been propositioned online by a sexual predator. I have taught close to 700 teenagers in my career and not one has ever been the target of one of these people.

The topic makes for compelling television. To Catch A Predator, the NBC entrapment-case-study-in-the-making causes us to cheer as man after man is dressed down by the camera-ready host.

This environment of fear has some side-effects and they are on frank display in WITCH HUNT.

The film is narrated by Sean Penn and perfectly uses Pearl Jam’s Long Road towards the end. There are two ways to review a documentary: the story it tells and the way it tells the story it tells. The story of WITCH HUNT is compelling, scary, sad, and maddening. The way it tells the story is a bit static. Old TV news footage is mixed with modern-day talking heads. There are old family photos which seem to me to look haunting even in upbeat documentaries. I wonder what filmmakers will do 20 years from now when there are no printed photos from which to choose. There is a five-minute portion at the very end, showing us Mr. Stoll’s life since prison, that is creative and powerful and completely different than the sober 85 minutes that came before.

The film breaks no new technical ground (as THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE or WALTZ WITH BASHIR do), but with a story like this, it doesn’t need to.

And how have the lives of the young accusers changed? Drugs, mental health issues, the guilt of sending people to prison.

Surrounded by the sadness of the film, perhaps the saddest moment is when one of the young accusers tearfully admits that he never gave his own son a bath for the first year of his life, so afraid was he of being accused himself of inappropriate touching.

More info on the cases: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kern_County_child_abuse_cases

WITCH HUNT will be shown at Cinequest 19. Details here: http://www.cinequest.org/detail.php?m=1619

WITCH HUNT

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Written by Michael W. Cummins