Archive for the “Uncategorized” Category

FATELESS
2005

April 5, 2008
Netflix DVD
Hungary / Germany / UK
Hungarian / English / German / Hebrew
140 Minutes
Drama
Lajos Koltai
Music by Ennio Morricone

You Can Close Your Eyes. You Can Turn Away. But You Will Never Forget.

Absolutely remarkable true story about a Hungarian teenager sent from Budapest to a series of concentration camps. The teenager-in-Holocaust story has been told before. The Holocaust story has been told before in both fictional accounts and in the annual documentary Oscar race. But something about FATELESS and the way it tells its story makes it at least as good as any of the most highly regarded films of its kind. I will remember particular scenes for the rest of my life.

Gyorgy is 14 1/2 at the start of the film. His father is leaving in the morning for a work camp. His neighbors and family enjoy a last supper, with the understanding, though never verbalized, that he won’t be coming home. One of the major differences in this film than in all the other Holocaust-themed ones is that both we the audience, as well as the characters on screen, already have some prior knowledge about what is going on in these Polish camps. I can’t stress how important this fact is. The small Hungarian Jewish community has heard tales of attrocities in the camps and responded with varying degrees of disbelief, rumor spreading, and fear. They know that people leave Budapest never to return. They know that Jewish men are being called to labor. And the infrequent letters which arrive from loved ones are non-specific about the treatment. It remains unsaid mostly at the start of the war.

Gyorgy’s father leaves and he continues to work in a brickworks until one day he is taken off a city bus along with several dozen other teenage boys, all of whom are wearing yellow stars. The man who takes them off is a Hungarian city police officer. Several hours and many more men later, the group is put on a train and sent to the first of many work facilities. The men work pretty well together, organizing the box cars that will take them to the camps. They make some choices of their own before the Nazis can decide for them. The boxcars are crowded, but not unbearable. Men looking out the window try to figure out where they are. They go first through Germany and then into Poland.

The film’s plot is about survival, friendship, and even joy surrounded by the horror of life in a concentration camp. Yes, we’ve seen all this before. But not the way FATELESS shows us.

There are long passages which are wordless. There is incredibly emotional music by my favorite film composer which probably could have brought tears to my eyes even if not coupled with the images I was seeing. These wordless passages seem much more realistic. The prisoners don’t explain what is going on for two reasons, I think. One, at the camps themselves, no one would say each time, “that guy’s headed for the showers” or “we only get one slice of bread”. And secondly, and uniquely for this type of film, the audience already knows the story. And this gives the filmmakers great leeway in describing what goes on during the day to day monotony of the camp life. This starts immediately. The teenage boys who have sort of stayed together after being taken off the city bus show up in a scene, which is obviously a few days after we last saw them, with their heads shaved. There is no “head shaving scene” or explanation about Jews having their heads shaved. We already know. This happens dozens of times, and while it doesn’t sound like it’d be that important to the success of the film, it can’t be over-emphasized. The main characters don’t explain that they’re incredibly hungry. We watch them as they watch the fat guard eat his chicken, we see prisoners pretend that their dead bedmates are alive so they can have extra rations, we see scenes of piles of bodies lined up by the ovens, we watch as friendships are made in camps, only to have them break as prisoners are moved from camp to camp. There are no sad farewells or happy reunions as prisoners recognize each other. There is no Hungarian posse of prisoners explaining their love of country to prisoners from other places.

We see the kindness of prisoners for each other. There is typically a 20-something “rebel” who helps a kid like our protagonist, and this film has one as well. But he is a harsh friend dispensing advice on food rationing and hygiene, but also slapping Gyorgy’s face when he does something that might get all of them killed or cause them to starve to death.

When an old man falls, others rush to help him up. When a younger boy faints, an older man (who happens to be gay, though nothing important is made of this-hurrah) whispers to him heartbreakingly, “just hang on a little longer” while helping him up. Loyalties are formed and broken. People are hustling, helping, hurting, and surviving in the camps.

The photography is amazing, the mud looks like the coldest, wettest mud ever. The sky is grayer than any sky ever, the prisoners’ eyes are darker than we’ve ever seen. And, most strikingly, the camps look colder than you can imagine.

Tiny moments are spectacular in their understatement. A woman says “they said we won’t need anything where we’re going” while on the train car. A young boy continues to find and smoke cigarette butts. A young woman applies makeup before getting off the train at Auschwitz, her intentions known to us through such a small act. The lineup in front of the Nazi soldier who determines what line the prisoners go into. The helpful man who teaches them how to say their number in German. The long-term prisoner who instructs the boys to say that they’re 16 in order to be kept alive to work. The SS officer staring into a boy’s eyes as he waits for the next heavy sack of flour to be placed on his hunched shoulders.

I could go on and on with the memories of these snippets of the whole 140 minutes film.

This film is different in other ways as well. Our lead character is not a good Jew. He doesn’t know Hebrew–he simply mimics his elders during prayers. He is looked down upon by other prisoners who say he’s “not a true Jew”. In turn, he looks at the small group of Orthodox Jews who lead Friday prayers in the camps as misguided strangers.

He also describes his surroundings in a matter-of-fact way that isn’t so different than what the Nazis would say. “This camp is a smaller, less impressive facility than Buchenwald, with no ovens.” And he continually downplays the misery he finds himself surround by.

I need to mention, before ending this rave, that there is a four-minute scene that is etched in my brain. The prisoners are lined up before dawn in their tidy rows. No words, just a grid of men in stripes. The sun comes up, they remain in their rows. It begins to rain, they are standing in puddles–wordlessly still in rows. The front row corner faints, others pick him up. The men weave back and forth as they begin their fifth hour of standing. No water, no food. One says to another “I bet he’s hiding.” Another says “He’s probably dead.” It becomes clear to us that they’re being punished for being one prisoner short. But it isn’t explained to us until several minutes in. The camera moves down row after row and shows us face after face of men at the edge of their ability to survive. The music swells, we crane-shot above the lines, we watch as old and young men struggle to simply remain standing. The score comes in more loudly now and the combination of haunting angelic music and men struggling to stay in line and remain conscious is almost more than can be taken. It happens around the 1:14 mark, if you rent the DVD. I’ve watched these four minutes several times over and over. I will never forget it.

We may have reached a saturation point in Holocaust films, but FATELESS finds a new way to tell the tale. With far fewer words, more faith in the knowledge of its audience, and a depiction of the minute-by-minute life of a prisoner.

Go see it.

***^ Wilmington
A- Schwarzbaum
A- Murray
8.7 Metacritic
7.4 IMDB

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1957

April 4, 2008
Netflix DVD
USA
English / German
87 Minutes
Drama / History / War
Stanley Kubrick [Lolita; Dr. Strangelove; 2001: A Space Odyssey; A Clockwork Orange; Barry Lyndon; The Shining; Full Metal Jacket; Eyes Wide Shut]

Never Has The Screen Thrust So Deeply Into The Guts Of War!

In 1916 in the French trenches, three soldiers are court-martialled for cowardice.

I watched this on the recommendation of David Simon, the creator of THE WIRE (the best television show in the history of the medium) who said in interviews as The Wire was finishing it’s five year run, that the film that most closely relates to his feelings about the failure of institutions was Stanley Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY.

The story takes place in the trenches of World War I. We are following the French side, though all of the actors speak English. In an incredibly lavish estate a higher-ranking general asks a lower-ranking general to take an impenetrable hill on the German side called “The Ant Hill.” Then he invites him to stay for lunch in a four-story ballroom. The lower-ranking man knows the hill can’t be taken and says as much. The higher-ranking man appeals to the man’s vanity, sense of duty, and gets him to agree “as a personal favor.”

This general will now tell the next in line, who knows the hill is an impossible goal, but will dutifully follow orders. Kirk Douglas plays Colonel Dax, who seems to be the one man who is both brave and has a brain in his head. The offensive will go horribly wrong and the bumbling general will call for the court martial of 100 men who failed in their mission. The number who actually stand trial is brought down to three, picked completely at random (or to settle a score), tried before a military court where the judge doesn’t pay attention and sentenced to a firing squad. “One way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man now and then” says the embarrassed general.

The shots in the trenches are spectacular will all the hallmarks we now know to be Kubrick’s. Everything is in focus, there are long tracking shots, Douglas is buffed and heroic.

The dangers of blind allegiance. The lack of connection between the men who follow the orders (muddy, bloody, exhausted) and those who give them (far away from the action, looking at maps rather than actual terrain).

Budget: $935,000
National Film Registry 1992
***^ Videohound’s War Movies
**** Maltin
#169 Halliwell’s Top 1000
#43 IMDB Top 250
8.6 IMDB

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2008

April 1, 2008
San Jose CA — Santana Row
USA
English
113 Minutes
Drama / War
Kimberly Peirce [Boys Don't Cry]

After you’ve seen STOP-LOSS, listen to our Cinebanter podcast, which can be found here.

6.2 Metacritic
6.4 IMDB
6.1 Critical Consensus

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STORY OF A PROSTITUTE
1965

March 24, 2008
Netflix Criterion DVD
Japan
Japanese
96 Minutes
Drama
Seijun Suzuki [Tokyo Drifter; Branded To Kill]

Not really what it sounds like. The story is mostly based around the comparison of a woman who gives herself to men willingly, and men who give themselves to Country willingly. It’s from the mid-60s so don’t expect content that you’d get if a 2008 version were made.

A woman, upset over the breakup of a love affair, travels with the Japanese army into China during World War II to act as a “comfort woman.” In actuality, comfort women were typically non-Japanese women kidnapped and forced into prostitution after their villages or towns were invaded by the powerful Japanese army. This woman, however, goes because “I want to press against many men” to forget her true love who left her. She travels to a country outpost and begins working immediately. The women become a tentative group of girlfriends, none of whom is overly upset about their fate. She falls for a quiet “perfect soldier” who bows to every whim of his superior, a drunken buffoon, who ironically becomes smitten with our heroine, Harumi.

Falling for the prostitute would be tantamount to disobeying the orders of his superior. What’s an ambitious soldier to do?

The hookers are looked down upon, and our heroine, in kind, looks down upon men who blindly follow the orders of their superiors. There is a strong feeling of Japanese pride throughout. Or is it Japanese ridicule in how a soldier acts during times of war? Especially important is the Japanese idea of surrender v. suicide.

Suzuki went on to make Yakuza pictures and this is considered his Kubrickian masterpiece. There are freeze-frames, whiteout lighting effects, and an incredible scene where Harumi runs through a battlefield in search of her lover who is thought to be dead in a foxhole. She’s wearing full Japanese gear, sandals, kimono and running over and through debris while bombs go off all around her in brilliant white flashes. The camera tracks her for what seems like a full mile.

The film is a bit experimental for modern audiences and assumes that the viewer knows where Japanese social norms diverge from western ones.

7.5 IMDB

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2008

March 19, 2008
Campbell CA — Camera 7
UK / USA
English
115 Minutes
Drama / History / Romance
Justin Chadwick

After you’ve seen THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, listen to our Cinebanter podcast, which can be found here .

The only thing that could come between these sisters… is a kingdom.

5.0 Metacritic

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My 11th Cinequest is now over. My final count was 22 films and four shorts. I thought it was a pretty good lineup. The exhibitions were not marred by technical difficulties. My final film had the subtitles too low, but if that’s the only issue for the whole 11 days, I really can’t complain. It wasn’t that long ago that you were lucky if the projector worked at CQ. Nevermind having the right lens on the projector.

The crowd was obnoxious, rude, loud, and messy. But then again, I’m not a big fan of people. I had the girl on her boyfriend’s lap next to me, the makeout middle-agers on the other side of me, the girl who sent and received texts without turning of her notification sound, the other multiple texters who brightened up the darkened theater, and every other issue that comes up when ever seat is filled.

I also saw some great films.

Best fiction:

1-KLOPKA (THE TRAP) — Serbia — Father needs $30,000 for his son’s life-saving operation and needs to adjust his morals in order to earn it
2-OPERA — Mexico — Older man and younger girl travel around the Mexican countryside while he writes a book and she figures out her place in his world
3-DIE STILLE VOR BACH (THE SILENCE BEFORE BACH) — Spain — Non-narrative film about the wonder of Bach’s music
4-VRATNE LAHVE (EMPTIES) — Czech Republic — Retired teacher gets job in supermarket and dispenses advice to townspeople there while enjoying a rich fantasy life
5-TAJNOSTI (LITTLE GIRL BLUE) — Czech Republic — Day in the life of woman having mid-life crisis on the morning that Nina Simone dies
6-LUO YE GUI GEN (GETTING HOME) — China — Man takes his best friend back to his village for burial
7-AUFTAUCHEN (BREAKING THE SURFACE) — Germany — Young photographer enjoys nights in clubs and explicit sex with her younger boyfriend
8-NADZIEJA (HOPE) — Poland — Boy catches art theft and finds a way to get the painting back
9-DISFIGURED — USA — People with body image issues meet and make their way in the world
10-RUBY BLUE — UK — Grumpy widower’s life is brightened by young girl and French widow who have moved into his neighborhood
11-RIPARO – ANIS TRA DI NOI (SHELTER) — Italy — Lesbian couple unwittingly bring stowaway back from North Africa
12-MARS & VENUS — Norway — Young couple break up over the usual issues

[Avoid the ones below here]

13-YOUNG PEOPLE FUCKING — Canada — Different couples approach sex differently
14-ODBACEN (THE REJECT) — Serbia — Dying man puts affairs in order while being followed by black-clad demons
15-UNFINISHED GIRL — China — Woman with cancer tries to avenge her parents’ death before dying herself
16-THREE PRIESTS — USA — Brothers grow up in small western town
17-ANYWHERE, USA — USA — Three semi-related stories of Carolinians
18-SPEED DATING — Ireland — Unlucky-in-love millionaire gets amnesia

Documentaries:

1-NACIDO SIN (BORN WITHOUT) — Mexico — Story of musician, actor, and father of six who was born without arms
2-THIS DUST OF WORDS — USA — Story of genius who became homeless and was found dead
3-D TOUR: A TENACIOUS DOCUMENTARY — USA — Story of the tour and movie release by Tenacious D.
4-CHINA: A WILL TO RISE — USA — Travelogue of China

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HOPE
2007

March 9, 2008
San Jose Cinequest Film Festival 18
Germany / Poland
Polish
101 Minutes
Crime / Drama / Mystery
Stanislaw Mucha

This one was highly anticipated as my last film of the festival. Movie Number 22. And I was disappointed. The story revolves around a 20ish Polish man who catches a well-connected politician steal a painting from the church his father plays music in. This kid, sets about getting the painting back using cocky methods, surveillance cameras, and confusing phone calls. “Call me at this number in exactly 15 minutes.” The boy’s older brother is in a prison mental ward after killing two men. Their father is still saddened by the loss of their mother in an accident which opens the film.

Here’s the good: the kid is excellent, the script is by Kieslowski’s partner in crime, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, and has some of the same nice shots and long takes. The love interest is cute and nice, but we’re not really sure what their relationship is. We don’t see them as a long-term couple, and she clearly adores him more than he likes her. We don’t have any backstory on who or why the brother killed two men. And we don’t know how the boy knew that the politician would turn out to be a thief.

I’m all for not having everything answered. In fact, that is typically the best kind of film. The problem with most Hollywood stuff is that they assume the audience is full of half-wits. But this one didn’t explain anything. Nothing at all. And while I enjoyed trying to figure out the mystery, it turns out that there was nothing to figure out. We end up exactly where we started in terms of motivation. Why characters do what they do onscreen. The boy has a room with a laptop and hundreds of post-its on the wall but we never see what they say or what they tell him or how they help his caper.

It’s as if there’s no there there. I watched to see if the kid was as smart as he thought he was and he was and I don’t know if I should care. There’s a chance I missed whatever this film was trying to say, but it seemed to be convoluted for the sake of “depth.” Not to make a more compelling story.

And an almost inexcusable scene involved young lovers succoming to their passions on, under, and behind a bunch of parachutes. Just like that cinema classic, PEARL HARBOR.

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2007

March 9, 2008
San Jose Cinequest Film Festival 18
Norway
Norwegian
92 Minutes
Comedy
Eva Dahr

Supernaturally hot mom and dad can’t communicate. Dad wants a sailboat, which mom ridicules. Mom is working late on architecture projects more and more. Can they get over their differences? They have two small children and a happy life. The mom looks like no mother you’ve ever seen. The argument that splits them up doesn’t seem serious enough to cause such a decision. We see them stumble back into the dating scene, argue, say bad things about each other, bond over their children, and finally, in the least surprising ending in history, end up one big happy family again. Cue the music and sailboat heading into the sunset.

It’s funny and Norwegian. A crowd pleaser. Light and fluffy.

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2007

March 8, 2008
San Jose Cinequest Film Festival 18
Mexico
Spanish
87 Minutes
Drama
Juan Patricio Riveroll

One of my favorites of the festival. The film opens on an incredibly gorgeous young woman lying on her stomach in bed. She is topless, the room is bright and airy, the sheets white. We stay on her for longer than a glimpse. She gets dressed, answers the phone, and calls offscreen to Pablo, her lover. She is about 20. He is about 50. There is silence that speaks of a lengthy relationship. He begins talking on the phone and it becomes clear that he is speaking to his wife and that the lovers have only just met recently.

The silences, where nothing is said, are what make this film special.

We follow the two as they travel around Mexico while Pablo writes a travel book. He is a college professor and an author of some renown, but “family things got in the way” of his writing a second book. He is handsome and educated and has friends who are wealthy. She has barely formed as a person, but is almost disarmingly attractive. What can they get from each other?

Pablo’s family is breaking up, his phone calls home get more and more tense. His wife doesn’t allow him to speak with his daughters, one of whom is scarcely younger than his bedmate. The style of the film is slow and meandering, in the best possible ways. There are long passages with no dialogue. They travel to a town, we see one of them speak with someone who lives there, the other is off doing something else. The conversations don’t try to move the plot along, they are just conversations. Just like real life.

There are long shots of Pablo’s ’65 Mustang driving through the countryside of Mexico on two-lane unpopular roads. The film is divided up into “Acts”, and each act begins with a roman numeral, followed by the girl waking up in a different hotel bed, looking gorgeous and wearing a different cute t-shirt. We hear opera throughout these long passages.

There are several memorable scenes, including one where they stop for a break in a dusty town’s outdoor cafe. He sets about jotting down notes while enjoying a beer, and then we follow the girl (I don’t know her character’s name) as she begins speaking with the ancient woman who runs the place. It’s like they stumbled upon this woman working there. Do you want something to drink? Beer? We have something stronger, tequila? Sure. Join me in a glass? I’m too old young lady. Then we learn the old woman’s story. She isn’t the slightest bit put off by the age difference, discusses with pride her business and her numerous grandchildren, the girl continuously refills her glass, and it seems like a great way to spend a lazy afternoon.

The photography is stunning. Long wide shots of towns and hotel rooms and Mexico City marches and countryside and the greatest beach house I’ve ever seen. The framing is perfect, the camera movement slow and steady. I can’t say enough about the vibe of this thing. The girl calls her angry mother from time to time without explaining who she’s with or what she’s doing. Pablo constantly tries to get her to stay with him. Friends of his remark on his “friend” and her incredible youth. And the two of them are terrible and perfect for each other. The girl often acts like a spoiled teenager, the man like a cold, boring old man. We see them cuddle, but don’t see any actual lovemaking and that might make the whole thing a bit easier to buy. “Is this your daughter, Pablo?” one man asks. “No, she’s a friend.”

Later scenes show the growing awareness that the girl has in her station, her uncomfortableness with his fancy friends, and the possibility of a future with this man.

Pablo is played by Arturo Rios who was also in my favorite film of 2001, Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN. The girl is played by, I believe, a woman named Marina Magro and this is her only listing on IMDB. I hope to see more of her as I’ll probably never get over my crush. But more importantly, I want to see what director Juan Patricio Riveroll does next.

My seatmates and I heard all kinds of grumbling when the film ended. Nothing happened, the plot meandered, I didn’t get it. That type of commentary. There were the chuckles of people who weren’t sure how to feel when the lights came up. Just let it sweep over you. We are spending time with these characters. For about a week. Marvel in the beautiful shot selection, watch the actors’ faces for signs of feeling for each other, listen to the natural language. And I dare you not to fall in love with the girl.

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SHELTER
2007

March 8, 2008
San Jose Cinquest Film Festival 18
France / Italy
Italian
98 Minutes
Drama
Marco S. Puccioni

Anna and Mara, two Italian women, coming back from holiday from Morocco, find that along with their bags, their hotel has packed a teenage stowaway in their SUV. Do they turn him in or call the police? Anna is the more tender-hearted of the two and gives him train fare to visit his uncle in Rome. Mara, whose had a much tougher life, doesn’t trust Anis from the minute she sees him. Anna’s family runs a clothing factory and department store, Mara works in the store and has become Anna’s lover. This sits well with neither Anna’s mother, nor Anis in whose country women do not love other women openly. Anis’ uncle has moved on and finds his way back to the small town where the women share a nice home. They become an uneasy three person family. Anis gets a job in the warehouse of the store and Anna brings Mara to family events more often. Anis speaks to each woman, in his broken Italian, about the need for a husband and children. He can’t figure out how the two women could be happy without a man. As a red-blooded teenager, he also can’t rectify his feelings of both disgust and sexual fantasy due to living with two attractive lesbians. This living situation can’t last, but who will mess up first?

HENRY & JUNE’s Maria de Medeiros plays Anna, smart and seemingly fragile, but confident in what she wants and needs. Antonia Liskova is Mara, who is much butchier than Anna, has been married in the past, has a dying father, and is much less sure of herself. They are both excellent. The boy is played by a kid named Mounir Ouadi, and this is his only film credit, apparently.

This film isn’t perfect–the ending is insufficiently left up in the air, but you’ll see a part of Italy not normally depicted in film.

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2007

March 8, 2008
San Jose Cinequest Film Festival 18
Ireland
English
85 Minutes
Comedy / Drama / Romance
Tony Herbert

Terrible. Simply, terrible. How does someone at the Irish Film Board, or whatever governing body is in charge decide that this is the script that should be made into a finished film? Guy who is heir to an unexplained fortune is unlucky with the ladies, visits the worst shrink in Ireland, spends his time with two losers in a pub, and attends speed dating events over and over again, changing his profession each time. Then while stalking a girl who comes into the pub once in awhile, he is hit by a car and wakes up with amnesia. That’s right, amnesia. Seriously. The jokes are obvious and not funny. I didn’t laugh once. The love interest is obvious immediately and way too perfect. The misunderstanding that will keep them apart is weak even by this genre’s standards. The caper portion, whereby the cute nurse and the amnesiac try to discover who he is goes nowhere for no reason. For a brief moment, I thought the cute nurse would be enough to sustain my interest, but even she’s not enough. It’s one of those independent films where shots last several beats too long on reaction shots. Stay away from this one.

Incidentally, the “speed dating” of the title, was done to much greater effect in the two-minute scene in 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN. I’d rather watch that scene over and over 40 times than watch this 85 minutes again.

Winner of Indianapolis and Malibu Film Festival Best Picture Awards? Ugh. Cross those two off my list of potential festivals to visit.

Amnesia? I want it after watching this.

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BREAKING THE SURFACE
2006

March 8, 2008
San Jose Cinequest Film Festival 18
Germany
German
96 Minutes
Drama
Felicitas Korn

I’ve been attending Cinequest since 1998. I’ve seen more than 170 films in that time and this one has, hands down, the most on screen sex of any of them. Does that make it good or bad? I can’t rightly decide. I just saw a fellow film buff who asked, “besides that, was it good?” My response was, “I can’t get past it yet.”

The story is about a 20ish photography student who is beginning to get her work published. She favors outcast girls and is developing a series of photos about skatergirls in her neighborhood. Nadja spends her days shooting pictures, rarely goes to her classes, and spends her nights at incredibly loud techno clubs where she sweats, dances, flirts, and occasionally hooks up with people. She meets Darius “two minutes past his 20th birthday” and is immediately attracted to his messy hair and semi-shy demeanor. They begin their relationship slower than she’d like, but it soon builds to one of those passionate affairs that seem perfectly reasonable if you’re 20 and have few responsibilities. The relationship is honest and out there for the world (and the audience) to see.

Does love like this ever last? They have sex on the grass during a nighttime downpour, sex in the shower, on her photography equipment, in a pool, in a public restroom stall, etc. Cinematic sex which looks hot, but is probably better in theory than in practice (how will she get the grass and mud out of her hair?) The viewer isn’t shown explicit sex without also getting explicit blood and vomit either. All the body fluids are represented. The camera does not blink while watching Nadja–whether masturbating with the showerhead or vomiting.

The film’s sense of style and music is pretty good. The offices of the photo magazine are sufficiently trendy and youthful. The music in the club is played at deafening volume–it’s no wonder that looks are so important while dancing, it’s impossible to hear a conversation. Nadja looks incredibly happy while dancing and while having sex and even while shooting photos.

The naturalness of the two attractive leads’ bodies are fun to watch, but is the film saying anything deeper? We get sex scene after sex scene to prove that these two care about each other? I will say that the sex scenes were acted very well. Much like LUST, CAUTION, there is acting going on here. Watch as the boy keeps his eyes open to see what the girl is doing with her eyes closed. The boy is nervous, the girl pretends to be tough, but is really just as fragile as we all are.

I truly don’t know what to make of this one.

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GETTING HOME
2007

March 7, 2008
San Jose Cinequest Film Festival 18
China / Hong Kong
Mandarin
110 Minutes
Comedy
Yang Zhang

Much like Tommy Lee Jones did in Three Burials…, Zhoa, a poor construction worker tries to fulfill a promise made to his best friend. Return him to his home for burial. What could go wrong?

Two buddies are drinking. One puts his head down on the table while the other one questions his manhood. The guy isn’t drunk, he’s dead. With $5000 from his construction foreman for burial expenses, Zhoa sets about getting his buddy all the way across China to the Three Gorges area. People respond in many ways to a man piggybacking a dead guy across China. Passengers on a bus are saved by the dead man then repulsed by him, thugs are impressed with the loyalty shown by a friend, truckers are sympathetic and welcome any company, even if one of the travelers is dead. Zhoa, and his rapidly lightening pal, come into contact with all kinds of people as they work there way through cities, towns, farms, construction sights, all the while trying to find a place to sleep that won’t upset those around them.

Zhoa never once loses faith in his mission. He never complains, though he wears the same clothes and ratty sneakers on the whole journey. He is robbed, tricked, and ignored, but also helped and cared for. He has an impossible task and many people respond to his refusal to give up. He is carrying a dead guy thousands of miles.

More than just a funny (and it is very funny) travelogue of China, we see the different ways of life there and how they differ from America as well. I noticed an oxcart in every location–getting passed by buses in the city, being used as transportation in the country, plowing on farms. And we definitely see the beauty in both countryside and the people. And we see the determination on Zhoa’s face.

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LITTLE GIRL BLUE
2007

March 7, 2008
San Jose Cinequest Film Festival 18
Czech Republic
Czech
93 Minutes
Drama
Alice Nellis

One day in the life of a 40ish woman whose life is changing in dozens of ways, apparently spurned on by the death of Nina Simone. It walks a fine line between serious drama and whimsy. There are several scenes where extras break into dance routines for no reason. She looks around her city and sees order and precise steps. On the public transportation, everyone sways to and fro in syncopation. This is a fabulous performance by the lead actress, Iva Bittova, who is incredibly beautiful, but whose face shows all of her years of life. Her bright eyes and mischievous smile hint at the teenage girl she must have been. She wakes up early, is rejected sexually by her husband, and gets the idea in her head that she needs a piano, even though she hasn’t played in 25 years. In the course of this day she breaks up with a younger, needy lover, visits a healer, connects with her teenage daughter, gets her car towed, and visits a music shop several times to secure the piano she needs. In a memorable and beautiful scene, the music shop owner, an anti-social man in his 20s with perfect emo hair watches Julie blossom while pretending to be a saleswoman. Shafts of light hit her, he hears music, and she begins dancing in slow motion, her beautiful hair spinning. In another scene she quietly sneaks into the store to watch him tear another piano up with some incredible classical music–what he lacks in people skill he more than makes up for on the keyboard.

They make quite a pair, the sexy older woman, and the shy musical genius. But are they a pair? She is at a crossroads in her life. New luxury apartment for the family, cold relationship with her husband, monogamy at risk, daughter about to head out on her own, age beginning to creep in. And the music is always there.

~~

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2007

March 7, 2008
San Jose Cinequest Film Festival 18
UK
English
112 Minutes
Drama
Jan Dunn

Bob Hoskins rises above the material in this film about man whose wife has just died. He is known around his English seaside town as “grumpy Jack” even before becoming a widower. He stops showering and cleaning his house, his son can’t forgive him for his years of drinking and neglect, he’s even lost faith and pleasure in his former joy, raising homing pigeons. He wants to be left alone until a precocious girl moves in next door and she isn’t privy to social mores. She comes and goes from his garden as she pleases. His grumpiness has no effect on her. Jack also at first yells at, threatens, and then mentors a teenage boy who is holding court with the wrong kind of friends. The new residents of his neighborhood are uneasy about a widower with so many children as friends. Tongues wag.

Jack’s heart is being thawed by a French widow who lives next door. Can this combination of brave little girl, improving teenager, and home-cooking Frenchwoman make Jack enjoy life again? What do you think?

The last ten minutes tie everything up in a nice bow. Way too easily. And this is one of those films with a surprising shocking twist that’s neither shocking, nor in any way surprising.

Again, Mr. Hoskins makes you believe that the story is deeper than it actually is. But I didn’t mind spending time with any of these characters, except the mother of the teenager who must have read a parenting how-to book, and then set about doing the complete opposite. Littering? Check. Swearing? Check. Not believing in children? Check. Illiteracy? Check. Perhaps some nuance might have helped here.

~~

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EMPTIES
2007

March 7, 2008
San Jose Cinequest Film Festival 18
Czech Republic / UK
Czech / German
100 Minutes
Comedy / Drama
Jan Sverak

Very sweet and entertaining story. Much better than expected. This will probably turn out to be the slickest film at the festival this year. An aging schoolteacher, after losing his temper a 4th time, realizes that he’s no longer happy teaching and tenders his resignation. However, he can’t stand staying home all day, and sets about finding something to do. While sitting in a park, a group of retired men ask him to join their walking group, but he refuses. He doesn’t want to be retired. He gets a job as a bike messenger but doesn’t have the speed, balance, or ability to work the walkie talkie and after a crash, he decides to find another means of employment. Meanwhile, his wife fears that he’s fallen out of love with her, or at the very least, out of lust. Would it be so bad to spend his days reading all those books he planned on while sitting next to her? He counters by saying that he’s a “greeter of people” but in order for him to be happy to greet his wife at the end of the day, he first has to leave her in the morning. He can’t stand watching his wife watch soap operas. “How can you watch that garbage?” “Have you ever ironed anything in your life?” she counters while working the iron.

Joseph also has a rich sexual fantasy life. Affairs are alluded to and any woman of seemingly any age and appearance is eligible for inclusion into his vast fantasy life. These fantasies often take place on trains.

While returning his empty beer bottles to the store, he sees that they need a new worker to help sort them and give out the vouchers to customers. He signs up. His window becomes a place where people can get advice, be asked about their day, enjoy some sort of interaction. He flirts with women of all ages, offers dating tips to his coworkers, foils the plot of a thief, and pretty much has a good life.

His fantasies grow richer as customers, including the idiotic girl in the belly shirt now find their way into his train fantasy. In one memorable scene, Joseph is wearing a heart monitor on his doctor’s advice and everywhere he looks, beautiful women of all ages are walking through shafts of light in slow motion, exposing legs, lingerie, cleavage…it’s almost too much to take.

His daughter is lonely, his grandson cute, his wife impatient.

It is so hard to look away from the actor who plays Joseph, Zdenek Sverak, who was also in the terrific film KOLYA. He plays a smart, funny, curmudgeon perfectly. He is sweet to elderly people, respectful to men, loving to women, nice to his grandson. He’s the uncle we all wish we had.

~~

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NACIDO SIN
2007

March 5, 2008
San Jose Cinequest Film Festival 18
Mexico
Spanish
86 Minutes
Documentary
Eva Norvind

Documentary about a Mexican musician/actor/father born without arms. Inspiring in a different way than most of these types of films. We aren’t asked to feel sorry for him at all. The filmmaker does an interesting thing. We feel automatic pity when first introduced and by the time the film ends, he’s just another guy who needs help getting dressed.

We first meet Jose in a shaky camera opening as he has his harmonica strapped to his mouth by an out-of-frame helper. We see crowded streets, and we assume that he’ll play a few notes and beg a little and pesos will be thrown into his hat. Then he speaks on camera and we realize that he’s thoughtful, caring, really knows music, and doesn’t need our pity. His wife or a son helps him out when he performs. He talks with the other performers who move from festival to circus to parade. They form a close-knit family of sorts. But Jose has his own family. During the course of the film, his sixth child is born. Jose has appeared in films, traveled, helped with the design and construction of a house large enough to hold his family and even his children’s families. He has taken numerous lovers, once getting permission for his wife to visit a film set and then getting permission for his mistress to also visit. We travel with him back to his childhood home where old-timers talk about Jose as a baby. We see him play soccer with his sons. When he takes a tumble, someone is there to pick him back up. He’s on a horse, he’s on a boat. He’s randy, he flirts, he tells jokes. He is a man.

And if that weren’t enough to make heads turn, either towards or away from him, we find out that his beloved wife is also his much younger niece–something that sits well with neither some family members or the Catholic Church.

Well done basic documentary about a life.

~~

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2008

March 2, 2008
San Jose Cinequest Film Festival 18
USA
English
123 Minutes
Comedy
Chusy Haney-Jardine

Three semi-related vignettes: Penance, Loss, Ignorance. Crystal-clear digital video stories which take place in the Carolinas. The first story is about a red-neck trailer trash guy who loses his girlfriend and becomes convinced that she’s being both romanced and brainwashed by a member of Al Queda. After all, she keeps eating pistachio nuts, and everyone knows that pistachios are “the official nut of the Jihad!” The second story is about a girl who loses a tooth and doesn’t want to know that the money she finds under her pillow is from anyone else besides the tooth fairy. The final, and weakest story, is about a privileged white man who sets out to meet his first black person.

The film is Carolina-based hicky and redneck, but surprisingly not pandering or better-than-thou. I think it started strong and incredibly wacky, and slowly went downhill. My film companions thought the highlight was the tooth fairy story. No one liked the final, weak section. I was bored by the end.

Best use of a racist midget in the festival so far. So there’s that.

~~

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THE REJECT
2007

March 2, 2008
San Jose Cinequest Film Festival 18
Serbia
Serbo-Croatian
103 Minutes
Drama
Milos Radivojevic

Sometimes people call a film “challenging” if its not obviously good at first but is worthwhile sticking with until the credits roll. This film appears to be challenging simply for sake of being challenging. Heads nor tails can be made of this dark, dreary, head-scratching film about a lady’s man’s final days. At least I think that’s what it’s about. Old-school Serbian bank manager, who enjoys the finer things the black market can bring him, like booze and cigars, is chased by black-clad semi-demonic, semi-matrixy beings. He’s fired from his job by his incredibly sexy boss who tells him he’s too honest to make it in modern day Serbia. (One compelling reason (er, the only compelling reason) to sit through this film at all is to see this woman in all her glory during their sex scene.) The main character begins to win at the casino, win his estranged daughter’s heart back, pay back debts, find a sense of clarity, and all of these things put together can only mean he’s dying or already dead. Or can it mean something completely different? I have no clue. The music doesn’t help. It’s full of Serbia’s answer to Daft Punk, and never matches the story or pacing on screen.

Dark and dreary, THE REJECT’s story may be “too Serbian” for this American to figure out. Or it might just suck.

~~

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2008

March 2, 2008
San Jose Cinequest Film Festival
USA
English
99 Minutes
Drama / Comedy
Glenn Gers

Are You Happy With Your Body?

This one hit me pretty hard. It is the fantastic story of an anorexic woman and an obese woman who become uneasy friends. What can either of them know about the hardships of the other? Can they come to any understanding? Can they teach each other anything? How to eat more. How to stop eating. Sexuality plays an important part in this film as the fat girl is allowed to be sexy and fragile and smart and an emotional mess. She also gets a tender and explicit love scene which is nothing short of monumental in worldwide film. An obese man and obese woman are shown pleasing each other sexually in a loving and honest way. Think about every movie you’ve ever seen. Now how many love scenes have you seen? Now how many of those involved non-perfect bodies? It’s easy to throw around a term like “brave” at actresses who expose body and soul for a role, but Deidra Edwards as Lydia really earns that moniker.

The “recovering anorexic” is played by Staci Lawrence who has her own body-exposing scene. My own bias, and experiences of formerly being a huge person, make Darcy’s concerns about not being able to gain weight make her sound a bit like a whiner. Darcy has a lengthy scene where she stares at herself in the mirror and pinches herself all over looking for fat. She is a very thin actress and there is absolutely no fat to be found, but we’re not inside her head. If her body image is as bad as she says it is, who are we (am I) to say she’s being ridiculous? Which is the point of this film.

There is one main male character, Bob, who comes across pretty poorly. Viewers will marvel at Director Gers ability to write as if he was a fat woman, but there are two scenes involving Bob that floored me. One will be familiar to anyone who is huge where he explains while frustrated, exactly why he’s fat and why he’s opted to get gastric bypass surgery. “I eat too much candy and soda and starch, I live with big people, I’ve been big my whole life, my parents are big”, etc. Fat people who are honest will give some of the “blame” for their size to genetics, but know that they simply eat more food than they burn off. They will also admit that they don’t want to be the size they are. The Fat Acceptance Support Group in the film discusses this very subject. Should fat people try to lose weight or is that a surrender to the way the world wants people (mostly women) to look? Is it giving up to diet?

The other scene with the fat guy was a quick scene where he’s in a motel room and there’s a knock on the door and it’s a hooker and she looks at him in a disgusted manner and as she’s getting undressed she says “you can’t be on top” and he nods his head as if he’s heard this his whole life. Where can fat people express their sexuality? Why can’t they have random, embarrassing hookups like everyone else? Bob figures his only chance at momentary pleasure is with a paid partner. And even though he’s paying, she sets the rules. He can’t even forget his size while having sex.

Some of the dialogue when the two women argue or watch the sun set is incredibly melodramatic, but I’ll look past that for a story like this that is rarely told. There is also quite a lot of humor. Lydia is a warm-hearted and attractive big girl who is quick with a joke, and Darcy is funny in a more sarcastic way. They make a funny team. The scene where Darcy cleans out Lydia’s kitchen cupboards is hilarious, probably more so for anyone who’s tried to get rid of all the food that’s bad for them from their own kitchen.

Glenn Gers has really done something here. He and Deidra and Staci appeared for a Q & A and damn if Gers wasn’t a tall thin man. How he wrote as a fat woman I’ll never know. Very touching. Very honest. Very well done.

Look around you. There are more people in movie theater audiences who look like Lydia than there are people who look like Jessica Alba.

~~

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A TENACIOUS DOCUMENTARY
2008

March 1, 2008
San Jose Cinequest Film Festival
USA
English
71 Minutes
Documentary / Musical
Jeremy Konner
World Premiere

The way Mr. Konner tells it, he was working as the assistant to Jack Black, when he discussed with Mr. Black his need to further his career and begin his filmmaking life. Mr. Black suggested he continue as his assistant while filming a documentary about the Tenacious D tour and the release of the sure-to-be-a-hit TENACIOUS D AND THE PICK OF DESTINY. So Konner began filming everything he could as the tour began.

Your enjoyment of this film probably depends on your love of the D. I claimed my D bandwagon seat way back when Mr. Show debuted on HBO and I’ve been a Jack Black fan since BOB ROBERTS. To this day, when I’m pissed at someone, I still mutter-sing under my breath, “with karate I’ll kick your ass, take you Tiananmen Square…” If you don’t like their pothead doofus humor, you probably won’t go see this, but that would be your loss. There is little performance footage, little big star schmoozing and little groupie bonghit material. And that is its strength.

These two guys Jack Black and Kyle Gass (JB and KG) really are hard-working comedians who have developed the personas of musicians who think they’re much, much bigger and more popular than they really are. They have no illusions about their attractiveness or musical prowess or rank on the showbiz ladder. But they want to succeed. And we see that drive show up on surprising scenes.

JB is a new father and he looks forward to the tour as a way of bringing his wife and son and he closer together. They’ll travel the world and hang out and be one big happy family. JB’s dressing room sign says “Family Room” on it. But as you might expect, traveling from arena to arena is not exactly good for the family dynamic. We hear Mrs. Black talk about trying to raise her son in basement after basement in each new town they visit.

KG is usually referred to as “the other guy in Tenacious D”. JB got the School Of Rock and Margot At The Wedding gigs. KG is the other guy. If you’ve ever wondered if Kyle gets fed up with this, witness the scene at the Letterman Show when Dave’s introduction had no mention of Kyle at all. It seems only Jack would be invited onto the couch for an interview. It’s more than Kyle can take. In a sweet, yet awkward show of solidarity, Jack refuses to go on without Kyle. They pack up to go. Kyle’s mother later recounts an article about the film whereby Kyle isn’t even mentioned. “It’s almost like you don’t exist.” How does Kyle cope? He has his own loud band that tours the small clubs all over the USA. Train Wreck.

The film opens as the big TD movie is about to open and the band is doing press and concerts to support it. Both of them predict (on the studio’s private plane) the final grosses. Jack says 60 Mil, Kyle a bit lower. There is a star-studded premiere at Mann’s Chinese Theater. And then they nervously await the first weekend’s grosses. It is worse than they could have imagined. James Bond took most of the money and the TD film (which absolutely sucked and I’m a fan) didn’t even crack the top ten. JB remarks, “it didn’t rank high enough to qualify as a bomb–it’s like it never opened.” This truly messes with the boys who want to give up on the tour, but there are new countries to hit and concert dates scheduled.

There is no narration, no title cards. Just the behind-the-scenes of a concert tour / film press junket. These guys seem mostly normal when the public isn’t around. You will be surprised at what was captured on film. Jack Black wondering if the world is sick of him. Kyle cracking under the invisibility of playing guitar next to Jack. The both of them wondering what they got themselves into.

~~

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2008

March 1, 2008
San Jose Cinequest Film Festival
USA
English
90 Minutes
Drama / Western
Jim Comas Cole
World Premiere.

Oh boy. Let’s see. Overwrought. Proud of itself. Look-at-me artsy shades of brown palette. Oh yeah, and perhaps the least subtle soundtrack I may have ever heard.

But let’s find some good here. Ok. All of the actors were first-rate. We have six of them and I look forward to whatever they do from now on. There is a father, his second wife, and his two sons. And the dad’s best friend is the sheriff of the town whose own beautiful daughter has just returned to live for the summer. One son is good with the ladies, works a ranch, and rides broncos in a rodeo. The younger son is either mildly retarded, or lives in such a dark shadow of the other brother that he never gets to speak. The father and his wife are very cute together and obviously love their sons.

The sheriff is nervous around his sexually blossoming daughter and we’re never told why she went to live with her mother or even why she chose to return for the summer.

Again, the Sheriff and the Father are such good pals that we see them patching a roof together and sharing dinner several times. This closeness makes the ending ridiculous. But not so fast.

The daughter sleeps with the cocky brother and is saddened to learn that he’s also seeing other women. The father has a secret about accidentally shooting his own young brother when they were kids. The sheriff might have something in his past with his ex-wife that he doesn’t verbalize. Everyone has a secret, but none of them were compelling enough for me to want to know what that secret was.

Brothers will compete for the love of Abby, who is played by a former model named Julia Jones who must be at least partially Native American and is gorgeous enough to make this film almost bearable. It is so rare to see an Indian female as a love interest who doesn’t need to be saved by the white man.

And by the way, a huge prairie fire is heading towards their homes. And a mountain cliff where three priests were thrown off by Natives is in the background of most shots and has mythical status in the town. So there’s that.

Here’s the issue. The director decided to use a washed out color scheme which reminded me of nothing as much as last summer’s “300″ where everything in the background was brown. Daytime or night, the background was brown. Sunny or cloudy or smokey, the screen was brown. This was used to harken back to old westerns but it just made we wonder when Xerxes was going to attack.

But the music, holy crap, the music. When there is a fumbling sex scene in a pickup truck my seat was vibrating from the war path drums that were shooting out of the speakers along with howling that was supposed to sound southwestern. There was scoring that hit me over the head so loudly that I couldn’t hear what the characters were saying. There’s a chance that the mix wasn’t yet completed, but even quieter, the choices in background music were soap-opera subtle. When the fire comes near, the music swells, when there’s a bar fight, the music swells. When any combination of lovers hug, the music swells.

There is also a strange late-scene edit between a 19-year-old girl kissing her father a bit too familiarly on the lips and a 19-year-old boy sitting in a bathtub being washed by his mother. Not sure what was going on there. The girl sexualized every man? Besides her crush on both brothers, we hadn’t seen proof of that previously. The boy was being babied by his mother? Perhaps. But it’s a whole other issue to be given a bath once you’re past draft age.

Listen, it’s clear that Mr. Cole can place a camera, edit a scene, and work with actors. I’ll probably see whatever he does next. But this was a bit of a mess, though in true film festival fashion, much of the audience heaped praise on this thing like John Ford himself had directed it.

~~

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2008

March 1, 2008
San Jose Cinequest Film Festival
USA
English
60 Minutes
Documentary
Bill Rose
World Premiere

One of those documentaries where you know someone is dead at the very beginning and then you go back to figure out why. A woman named Elizabeth Wiltsee is one of three children of an international businessman. The children went to school and traveled all over the world in the 50s and 60s. As she is growing up, it becomes clear that Elizabeth is a genius. Not like, kinda smart, but like a 200 IQ score. She is reading Henry Miller at the age of 8. She can’t seem to get enough of literature, in nearly any language. She learns Greek so that she can read Homer in its original form.

She graduates from Stanford at the top of her class in 1969. We meet her favorite professor, who has kept her thesis, which is densely-typed with no footnotes or quotation marks. Sort of a 40 page collection of thoughts. She bums around a bit, travels to Europe, and makes her way back to the US. She submits plays and other writing but none of it gets published. She keeps the rejection letters. She writes often to family and friends. She doesn’t feel like part of society.

And then one day, a homeless person turns up on the steps of a Catholic church in Watsonville, California. And little by little, this genius becomes part of the town’s community. People befriend her, she stops by mass once in a while, she eats at the same soup kitchen every day, she spends most of her daytime hours in the public library. She writes to her parents not to help her and not to commit her into a hospital for help.

She wanted to live life on her terms. She wasn’t unhappy and didn’t ask for handouts. But handouts came her way all the same. While homeless she taught herself Mandarin and was translating Chinese poems.

She is clearly too smart for the world and this slowly makes her go insane. She begins talking and arguing with herself. She writes letters to an intellectual whom she believes she is having an affair with.

This film has a lot of wonderful things going for it. It has a compelling character whom audiences can identify with. How many of us, on our worst days, feel like we’re one step away from being a crazy homeless person ourselves? It has a mystery in we need to know how she died. It has someone who was so fiercely independent that she’d rather be homeless and a writer than be offered help from a society she didn’t much care for. And realistically, a film like this needs archival footage. Fortunately, Elizabeth’s young life was captured in home movie made all over the world. Elizabeth made a student film at Stanford (which also starred and pre-Sopranos David Chase). Elizabeth kept all of her writing and correspondence. Elizabeth was so impressive to her professor at Stanford that he not only kept her work, but began writing a book about her. After her body was found, she became the front page subject for a Santa Cruz Sentinel story.

It makes you wonder about all the other stories out there without so much documentary material. THIS DUST OF WORDS has been compared to INTO THE WILD in its depiction of a real-life person who turned their back on society, but Elizabeth didn’t appear to have any need for other people. She just needed her books.

This is a great one and it moves quickly.

~~

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2008

March 1, 2008
San Jose Cinequest Film Festival
USA
English
Documentary

Looks like someone learned how to use iMovie. Travelogue of a province of China where a group of US photography students traveled and documented their trip. Just a collection of photos really. With some voiceover by an interpreter. A few videoshots, but mostly “Ken Burns” movements on photos. No maps were offered to the audience to help them figure out where we were. Not sure why this needed to be a film at all.

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2008

March 1, 2008
San Jose Cinequest Film Festival
China
Mandarin
90 Minutes
Drama / Thriller
Cheng Er
United States Premiere

Sleep-inducing and way longer-seeming than its 90 minute running time. There are long, drawn out takes, in closeup, whereby a character delivers a sort of monologue to another character. But we see no reaction shots of this other character and we are left staring at every nuance of the speaker’s face. Gao Yuanyuan certainly has an attractive enough face to stare at, but as she’s speaking, quickly, staccato, I’d forgotten how she started her speech. The time frame goes backwards and forwards. There is a young girl on a bicycle who is hit by a car. As she’s checked out, it is discovered that she has a brain tumor which never would have been caught had the guy not fallen asleep behind the wheel. I’m still not sure, but I think this young girl becomes the same 20ish woman who takes the driver that hit her all those years ago hostage because she believes he killed her parents when he was 12 years old. And by the way, this same man is now married to her sister. So I’m not sure what that all means. The performances are all very good. A ten minute static take requires some awesome skill and the actors cry and rage and ACT right before our eyes. Why did she suspect the man as her parents’ killer?

Good luck with this one.

~~

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THE TRAP
2007

March 1, 2008
The San Jose Cinequest Film Festival
Serbia / Germany / Hungary
Serbo-Croatian
106 Minutes
Crime / Drama / Thriller
Srdjan Golubovic

Very well-made morality tale in the guise of a thriller as told in a confession to an unknown listener. Well-adjusted and creative only son of young loving couple has a seizure and is rushed to the hospital. A life-saving operation is needed. It will cost the young family $30,000, something out of the question for a construction foreman husband and schoolteacher wife. Friends are asked for donations and try to help, but it’s clear they have nowhere near enough money. They place a plea/advertisement in the newspaper. The phone rings. A man asks to meet. “I’ll give you the money if you do this one thing for me.”

“I need this man to disappear. A man no one will miss. An evil man.”

What could go wrong? How much is the life of your only child worth? What if you knew the target’s family?

Tense and quiet and well-shot and acted. Surprisingly touching. This is not a bad man, but he’s forced to make a terrible decision and then live with whatever his decision is.

8.0 IMDB

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2007

February 29, 2008
San Jose Cinequest Film Festival
Canada
English
90 Minutes
Comedy
Martin Gero

Five combinations of young, attractive, and way too skinny, blonde, and Caucasian people have a night of relative passion and sexual discussion. And the categories are:

“The Couple”–boring, repetitious, mechanical.
“The Ex’s”–who were always good in the sack, but terrible everywhere else.
“The Friends”–who had crushes on each other at the wrong times growing up.
“The First Date”–whereby two incredibly attractive people pretend like they’ve never done this before.
“The Roommates”–where the only realistic-looking guy and his beanpole girlfriend invite the roommate to join in for misunderstood reasons.

Yes, there is sex. Yes, there is frank talk–most enjoyably by the two friends all but daring each other to finally do the nasty. There isn’t a surprise in the 90 minutes and, though I may have seen this with an especially prudish audience, I think what you get out of this film, is how you feel about the whole huge topic of sex. My audience snickered at every suggestive comment or position. They nervously laughed at each twist in the gender roles. They applauded when a woman achieved orgasm by, er, non-traditional means.

And whenever something sexually non-vanilla was shown on screen, you’d think that the world was going to end. It’s not fair judging a film based on an audience of film festival viewers, but my enjoyment of some truly funny scenes and some honest truths about heterosexual coupling was lessened by those around me who have clearly never grasped the full spectrum of the sexual continuum. Or perhaps, were just giddy about the topic.

Not sure who I’d recommend this film to. The actors are all very attractive. And watching attractive people coupling is an enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes.

5.6 IMDB

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THE SILENCE BEFORE BACH
2007

March 8, 2008
February 29, 2008
San Jose Cinequest Film Festival 18
Spain
Spanish / German / Catalan
102 Minutes
Musical
Pere Portabella

Hard to classify film about, I suppose, the genius of Bach’s music. We open and close with silence. There is no plot, not really. An empty studio space suddenly comes alive with a robotic player piano that moves on remote-control wheels as the camera backs up. We will hear the whole song (sorry, my knowledge of individual pieces is not good enough to remember them) while watching this piano turn around and around on its wheels. We’ll listen to a truck driver tell his co-driver how important music is to him and then that co-driver will play a fast Bach piece on his harmonica as the countryside goes by. We’ll watch a woman take a shower and the camera will linger on her back and hips which we can then compare to the cellos we also see in this film. A subway is full of cellists playing furiously over the sound of the train–the camera will pull back showing us more and more players, somehow fitting between their feet and the train car poles, and then quickly return forward as the song ends. We watch these young, attractive musicians exit the train and walk away carrying their instruments. This same type of scene will happen again, but with pianos in a shop. We hear the most remarkable boy’s choir in a static shot. The truth is, we don’t need the camera to move. Our ears are doing all the work for us.

There is some “acting” I suppose. We see someone portray Mr. Bach, and Mr. Mendelssohn, and then we see someone portray a modern-day re-enacted Mr. Bach for a tour. A blind man will painstakingly tune a grand piano while his dog sits beneath it. A bookseller will remark that after Bach, everything else sounded like crap.

There is something deep within me that responds to a pipe organ. So my favorite scene involved a man, dressed as Bach, playing the most remarkable and beautiful organ I’ve ever seen. We watch him furiously use the keys and foot pedals all the while feeling the vibrations in our chest that would happen if we were there. I remember touring Ireland and stopping into a church for a little tour and the organist was warming up. I had no interest in the architecture of the ancient building, I just wanted to feel the notes.

There is a scene etched on my brain where a woman, who works in the same church Bach did, appears to be about to take a lunch break, or perhaps a nap. She looks across the room, and we shift perspective and see a player-piano paper begin to move. And the camera never moves. On the paper roll, we can see the patterns and skipping and melody and speed that Bach wrote into this piece of music. We can follow along, watching the parts come up quickly before being played by the piano. It is played so fast that surely no human could keep up, could they?

The final scene is a chorus and the camera pans from left to right as we follow the sheet music. As a former and hope to be again choral performer, it was like being invited to be part of the greatest choir I’ll ever hear. I’m not pretending that I followed along with the music perfectly (my sight-reading isn’t exactly flawless), but I feel like I got the idea. Then the sheet music ends and we are left with a white screen and silence.

“Without Bach, God would be diminished.”

Truly a remarkable movie experience.

Second Viewing:

I caught the first 2/3 again before another screening and I have to say I liked it even better. I’ve been recommending this film to other festivalgoers with limited success. Most people say the same thing: too slow, no plot. Exactly why it’s so good. As I watched the second time, I did more eye-closing. You know when you need to hear every note so you concentrate by cutting out visual clues? That was me in the front row. I also knew not to expect a narrative in any way and could concentrate on the music more fully. Bach is the narrative. Not the man so much, but his music. The choir sounded better, the cellos on the subway more magical. The truck driving harmonica player sounded even more superhuman. And that organ. Wow. The audience was completely silent and mesmerized. Or were they asleep. I now know I need this for my personal collection. It could act as background music, playing on a continuous loop. The woman taking a shower and then drying her hair completely nude, I’m not sure about. I first thought it showed the similarity between the shape of the cello she plays and the shape of her hips. Or the sensuality of her beauty and the sensuality of the music. Or the fact that the closest we see to a love scene is she playing cello in a loose-fitting robe. I guess I need to see it a third time now, don’t I?

7.0 Metacritic
7.6 IMDB

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2007

February 23, 2008
Netflix DVD
USA
English
121 Minutes
Crime / Drama / Mystery / Thriller
Paul Haggis

Sometimes Finding The Truth Is Easier Than Facing It.

From the man who hit us over the head with CRASH, comes a fictionalized account of a real-life murder of a just-returned-from-Iraq soldier in New Mexico. This film sways between importance and ridiculousness. Tommy Lee Jones got an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the father of the missing soldier, himself a veteran. Susan Sarandon is the mom, Charlize Theron again dresses down as a small-town detective not taken seriously by the men on the force.

Jones takes it upon himself to investigate the whereabouts of his son. No son of hims would ever go AWOL, or use drugs, or mistreat a prisoner, or be less than chivalrous to women. Or would he?

There are a bunch of problems with this film. Theron is all but spit on in her station. Jones acquires a cellphone camera that no one in the military has thought to inspect for video. This video is saved by a guy in a van and e-mailed one at a time to Jones. It’s shakiness is supposed to make us feel the anarchy of war, but only serves to make us squint to make out what’s going on.

Probably the biggest problem is that Jones is too smart. He is a gravel seller by trade. Yes, a man who sells and delivers gravel. And yet as he matches wits with army investigators and a whole precinct of cops, there is no doubt whatsoever about who will end up on top.

There are some positives. Josh Brolin completes his trifecta of mustache roles as the police commander. Jason Patric is a welcome sight as the army investigator. And the There Will Be Blood reunion is complete with Barry Corbin’s short appearance. Big props to 56-year-old Frances Fisher for appearing as a topless bartender.

Haggis found several real-life gulf war vets to play pretty sizeable roles here. The documentary extras on the DVD were better in just about every way to the feature film.

Oh, yeah, War Is Hell. Thank you, Mr. Haggis.

6.5 Metacritic
7.6 IMDB
**** Ebert

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1980

February 21, 2008
DVD
USA
English
85 Minutes
Documentary
Errol Morris

There are no two ways about it, Errol Morris is a genius.

Not in the framing or editing (well, maybe in his lack of editing). But perhaps in his choice of subjects–the subjects of his films and the subjects who appear in them. He takes stories that on their surface hold no interest and turn them into riveting accounts that can’t be ignored.

This story is about two pet cemeteries in California. Before Silicon Valley was the high tech area I now see outside my window, it was a bit more rustic and farmish. A man’s dog dies and he can’t stand to have it put in the garbage can and taken to a dump so he sets about finding partners who can help him open a pet cemetery–right on the freeway. It is clear that this guy has a special kind of love of animals. He’s an old man by the time he recounts his efforts. He will do whatever it takes to have a respectable resting place for pets of all shapes and sizes. He tells the story of racing the rendering truck to a nearby farm to take a beloved horse away for proper burial.

But his love of animals does not make him a business genius and the partners start wanting to see some financial results which aren’t coming. The plot of land is sold and hundreds of local pet owners worry about where their beloved animals will end up. It makes the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Meanwhile, a businessman north of San Francisco is running a high-end respectable pet cemetery of his own, with wide vistas of the Napa Valley.

But the story here isn’t the story. It’s the way that incredibly ordinary people speak about things important to them. And that’s where Morris’ genius comes in, in two ways. One, he gets men, women, rich, poor, conceited, and humble people to speak openly into a camera. This is a skill he’s kept throughout his career. Even in an inconsistent project like TV’s FIRST PERSON. The subjects are so at ease that they talk about things with no internal filter. Secondly, Morris is the king of the non-edit. There is a static camera shot of what appears to be the front door of a mobile home and an elderly woman is talking about the dog she loved which is about to be moved out of the closed-down cemetery. She is on topic for about two minutes. We are still with her seven minutes later after she’s told us about her no good son, her neighborhood, her thoughts on the world–everything.

The Napa Valley man has two sons who are complete opposites of each other. One scarcely wears a shirt, spews self-help talk, speaks of his business triumphs and goals for the future. The other plays his guitar at the top of a mountain, sits in a ratty chair surrounded by window-box pot, and speaks of the woman who got away.

Absolutely fascinating. And quite touching. No pet owner who appears is just pretending to miss their dead pet. I found myself choking up as they recounted stories. Both overseers of the cemeteries were truly pet people. They don’t ridicule or patronize people who feel the need to bury their pets in such an extravagant manner. And more importantly, Morris doesn’t ridicule or patronize anyone appearing on camera.

That’s the essence of why he’s remained perhaps our greatest “small story” documentarian. Oh yeah, and he got that guy off death row with THE THIN BLUE LINE.

**** Ebert (he’s wrongly states in his original review that the film takes place in Southern California–”One of the ten best films of all time”)
7.6 IMDB
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Written by Michael W. Cummins