Archive for March, 2008

Final Cinequest 18 Thoughts

March 15, 2008

I feel about the same about this year’s festival as I did about last year’s: It was a pretty good festival and very few of the films were bad, but none got my top 4 stars rating either.

Here is my rough ranking of the 17 films I saw, from best to worst:

  1. Bitter Sweetheart—the ending of this Swedish film touched me for some reason I can’t fully explain
  2. Gone with the Woman—lots of fun, from the director of Elling, which almost no one I talk to has seen
  3. Mars & Venus—I would have ranked it somewhat lower right after seeing it, but I’ve thought of it several times since I saw it
  4. Shelter Me—well done Italian drama that covers some important issues
  5. The Substitute—fun though more tense than I expected
  6. Take—well done drama, but really hard to watch
  7. The Village Barbershop—good little slice of life drama/comedy
  8. Empties—bittersweet little Czech comedy
  9. The Trap—I’m sure this is better than I’m rating it, but I wasn’t quite ready for something this depressing on a Saturday morning
  10. Autism: The Musical—to be on HBO soon, I hear
  11. The Aerial—bizarre little black and white Argentinian film
  12. Mardik: From Baghdad to Hollywood—mostly engaging, and fun stories
  13. Butterflies—whimsical little Swedish film
  14. Commit.—interesting premise and mostly good dialog, but merely adequate performances—definitely avoid if you get motion sickness
  15. The Reject—this might have been better if I had a clue what it meant
  16. AFR—bizarre Danish fake documentary
  17. Eden Court—what were they thinking picking this film? it was the second worst opening film in my 8 years of attending Cinequest, with Your Guardian being the worst

I will note that I have a special affinity for Scandinavian films, which served me well this year. I saw all six such films on the schedule, and four of my top five fell into this category.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled movies…

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Cinequest 18 final day: AFR, Empties, and Take

March 11, 2008

The title of AFR refers to the name of the current Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. This drama, made in the style of a documentary (the label mockumentary doesn’t seem right), explores an alternate reality where Rasmussen has been killed with a car bomb by a radical man named Emil who was killed by police during his capture. It blends real news footage with new footage, mostly in the form of interviews with friends and relatives of the two, into a coherent story that does feel like a real documentary.

To be completely honest, I say coherent without complete evidence, since I was tired and missed enough to not be sure, so I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. What I did see was occasionally disturbing but a little too frequently on the boring side.

A previous screening was the North American premiere. I’ll give it a higher 2 stars out of 4 stars.

Empties is a little Czech comedy about a 65 year-old literature teacher who retires because his students stress him out so much he has a nervous tic. But he doesn’t want to sit around at home with his linguist wife, so he tries out a few other jobs. Throughout he maintains a keen appreciation of women, including often having dreams about them. The one woman he does not notice much is his wife, which, though treated lightly, adds a little bit of bittersweetness to the feeling of the film.

The film includes some great cinematography of Prague, and good performances from a large number of minor characters. How they fit into the story I’ll leave vague, since I don’t want to give away much of the story. I would definitely recommend it.

I’ll give it a higher 3 stars out of 4 stars.

Lastly there was the closing night movie, preceded by the festival awards, back at the California Theater. Festival founder Halfdan Hussey kicked it off with a joke about the frequent sound problems of the last couple of years by using a bullhorn as a backup to the apparently non-working microphone.

Then he awarded a Maverick Legacy watch to his brother Jens Hussey, who has been on the Cinequest staff for 9 years, most recently as the head of public relations. He said, “It’s nice to get a prize for quitting.”

Halfdan then invited all the filmmakers who were still in town up onto the stage, and gave out the awards. I wrote most of them down, but they have since been officially announced, so I won’t repeat them here.

The closing film was Take, starring Minnie Driver as Ana, the mother of seven year-old Jesse, who is struggling in school. Their lives intersect with Saul (Jeremy Renner), a small-time criminal. The story is told in a style that’s kind of a combination of the scrambled time-line of 21 Grams with the different perspectives on the same events of Rashômon.

The film was really hard to watch. At times it felt a little too obvious, but on the whole it is well done and affecting. Driver was good, though I can certainly imagine some other actresses being even better (such as Naomi Watts, speaking of 21 Grams). I would definitely recommend the film if you can handle challenging material filled with a sense that even though things suck now, they are likely going to get even worse.

The writer/director (Charles Oliver) and a producer (maybe Chet Thomas) answered questions for quite a while after the screening. Note that there are definitely some significant spoilers in here:

  • The director wanted two strangers, who only see each other for a moment, imaging each other’s lives.
  • “Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”
  • They are currently wrapping up a distribution deal. The release will start with five cities, including San Francisco, with more if the initial cities perform well.
  • The film is not set in a particular time, just sometime in the last 10 years.
  • Can someone really meet with a prisoner just before execution? The director spent several hours at San Quentin and learned that, yes, it is possible, and has even happened.
  • The writer/director wrote the script in the non-sequential order it appears, and then put it in sequential order to make sure that the stories worked. In editing they had to change the earlier pieces to be longer because otherwise people could not get oriented.
  • It was shot in 27 days in 32 locations.
  • The director would love to come back to Cinequest.
  • The darkness of this film make it a hard sell.
  • The original title was Crossing Paths. The director offered people $100 for a better title, and his wife came up with the dual-meaning title.
  • The writer/director thinks Ana left her husband, but isn’t completely sure.
  • The director had worked with the same cinematographer for years, and he (the cinematographer) introduced the producer to the director.
  • The film was shot on 35mm, and there are only three prints.
  • The director had never seen print problems like we saw (big frequent yellow splotches for pretty much an entire reel) before.
  • Different worlds had different looks, created with both in camera and in the digital intermediate.
  • The director intends for us to conclude that the two main characters have imagined each other’s pasts, so much of the film is in that sense not really real. This goes back to the first bullet above.
  • The director worked at a mini storage facility for a while, and was also a teacher.
  • Jesse was based in part on the director’s second son, who isn’t quite as hyperactive as the character or the young actor who played Jesse.
  • They did five takes of the kidnapping scene, the fourth one of which had everyone in tears.

I’ll give Take a higher 3 stars out of 4 stars.

All seen 3/9/2008.

Shelter Me

March 7, 2008

Shelter Me opens with Anna (Maria de Medeiros, who played Bruce Willis‘s girlfriend in Pulp Fiction) and Mara returning from vacation in Tunisia. A Moroccan teenager named Anis is hidden in the trunk of their car, unknown to them. Anna is wealthy, working for her mother and brother in management at an Italian shoe factory, while Mara is a factory worker there. Their daily commute takes them by a giant chair, which is apparently real.

The film deals with the issues of the acceptance (or lack thereof) of homosexuals, and illegal immigration. In general I felt it was a very well done drama. I found myself caring about all three of the main characters, and they all seemed like real, three-dimensional people. There were a few very isolated wrong notes, which keep it from quite making it to the top of my list of Cinequest films so far. But it’s definitely up there.

I’ll give it 3.5 stars out of 4 stars.

Seen 3/6/2008 at Cinequest.

Butterflies with Departure

March 7, 2008

First we saw the short, called Departure. It’s about a Romanian boy who makes money begging on the subway in Sweden with his uncle. I thought it was a pretty good statement on the problems of labeling people as illegal immigrants, and it also covered some other themes fairly well. I’ll give it 3 stars out of 4 stars (graded as a short).

The feature, which was only about twice as long as the short, was Butterflies. The main character is a spacey five year-old girl named Sara, who discovers to her surprise that she can levitate under the right circumstances, namely when she has the feeling of butterflies in her stomach. It’s a sweet little film, though to me it was hurt by some of the minor characters being way too cartoon-like. I know this isn’t a film where you expect realistic performances, but still I found this distracting.

Interestingly, one of those cartoon-like characters was played by Lotta Tejle, who also played a significant role in the short film. There her performance was quite good, but here I suspect that the director asked her to play purely for comic effect.

All in all, I’ll give it a lower 3 stars out of 4 stars. This was the North American premiere.

I’ll note that these films had some projection issues. The short was widescreen (probably 2.35:1), and initially the black borders on the theater’s screen were placed narrower (probably 1.85:1), but they fixed it pretty quickly. Then the feature started with the wrong lens, making everyone look very short and wide, but that was also fixed after a couple of minutes. While it’s too bad these things happened, it’s good that the projectionist was still there to fix the problems promptly. Too often at normal multiplex showings the projectionist is rushing from one screen to another, so by the time a problem is noticed he’s long gone.

Seen 3/5/2008 at Cinequest.

The Aerial

March 5, 2008

The Aerial is a very strange film from Argentina. It’s in black and white, and it’s kind of a silent film, in that most of the dialog appears on the screen in interestingly stylized Spanish words, and also on the bottom of the screen in English subtitles.

But the reason that we are hearing almost all of the characters “speak” in text is that in the world of the film, they cannot speak out loud. The world is run by some all-powerful company, run by Mr. TV. He controls the one person with a voice, a woman named The Voice who does not have a visible face. He also has a key enforcer, who seems to be a cross between a human and a giant rat, complete with tail. And the only food available is some sort of cookie-shaped “TV food” that comes in what look like cereal boxes. And these are only a few of the surprising details of the world in the film.

As I watched it, I really had no idea what I thought of it, and only a few ideas of what the director was trying to say. Clearly corporate power was one of the targets, but I’m sure there were others. The black and white visuals reminded me a bit of The American Astronaut, an obscure little film I saw at the Toronto film festival. Someone I know compared this film to Brazil, and in retrospect I can see that. She loved it, but she sees way more movies than most humans, so anything this different will likely be attractive to her.

Weighing it all, I’ll give it 3 stars out of 4 stars.

Seen 3/3/2008 at Cinequest.

The Village Barbershop, Autism: The Musical, Mardik, and Mars & Venus

March 4, 2008

From the festival write-up, I expected The Village Barbershop to be more about a clash of the sexes, but it was more of a slice of life drama/comedy about people who have lost someone and are struggling to move on in their lives.

John Ratzenberger plays Art, who along with Enzo ran The Village Barbershop, a two chair, no women barbershop in the Reno area. As the film opens, Enzo has just died, and Art is trying to figure out how to get things to keep going on in the same routine as they did before.

We also meet Gloria, a young woman living in an Airstream trailer with a mostly-absent truck-driver boyfriend. She’s just learned that she’s pregnant.

It’s a good movie,and the main characters are well performed. I’ll also put in a good word for George McRae, who plays Art’s friend and reluctant customer, both because he was an interesting character and because he’s a friend of a friend. Some of the other minor characters, such as the landlord, seemed less real and even slightly cartoon-like, but generally not too distracting.

Chris Ford (the director), Shelly Cole (Gloria), Ian Montgomery (the editor), and Jason Newmark (a producer) were at the screening to answer questions. There may be minor spoilers in here:

  • It was mostly filmed in Napa since most of the actors were from San Francisco, but they did shoot 4 or 5 days in Reno
  • The barbershop at the end is the original, where the director got his hair cut as a kid
  • They shot for a total of 19 days
  • The director’s grandfather and some other male relative (I missed who) both more or less died on the couch alone, so he wanted a to imagine a different ending for them
  • The director and editor had done some advertisements together before, but nothing else
  • They took over a year, though not full time, to edit the film on a laptop, with Final Cut Pro (which the editor doesn’t like)
  • The film was shot on HD
  • This is Shelly’s third film, and she started on “Gilmore Girls
  • They are hoping it gets picked up, but have no clear plan
  • It was financed with friends and family, and in a clear sign of being new at this, they revealed an approximate budget ($300,000 as I recall)
  • This is the second screening of three at Cinequest, the first of which was the world premiere

I’ll give it a strong 3 stars out of 4 stars.

Autism: The Musical is kind of what you would expect, since it’s a heartwarming documentary about children with autism exceeding what is expected of them. While I did learn more about what these children are like, the bigger revelation was the parents. The love and devotion on the part of most of them is amazing, and the strain that their relationships are put under is even more so. Infidelity and divorces were not uncommon for them, even during the relatively short period that the documentary was being filmed.

This film is expected to show on HBO relatively soon from what I hear, so watch for it there. I’ll give it 3 stars out of 4 stars.

Mardik: From Baghdad to Hollywood is a documentary about screenwriter Mardik Martin, who is an Armenian who grew up in Baghdad. He loved movies, so when he had a chance to switch from the business school to the film school at NYU, he took it. He connected with Martin Scorsese early on, and wrote or co-wrote several of his movies, including Mean Streets and Raging Bull.

The film includes many talks with Mardik in locations on both coasts. It’s clear that it was filmed over a long period, since there were New York shots that include the World Trade Center. Scorsese and other people you’ve probably heard of also appear in the film talking about working with or learning from Mardik.

The film appears to have been shot on standard definition video, and it includes some simple cartoons, especially to depict Mardik’s early years. It’s pretty interesting, primarily on the strength of Mardik’s stories.

I’ll give it a lower 3 stars out of 4 stars.

The conceit of Mars & Venus is that the main couple’s 5 year-old son picked up a copy of the book “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus” and is reading it. We hear excerpts from it occasionally as the movie progresses. The Man and Woman in question are Mathias and Ida (the latter played by Pia Tjelta from Buddy), who appear to be happily married as this Norwegian film opens. But some problems, like Mathias not finishing household projects and Ida not appreciating how he picks up the parenting slack when she’s working longer hours, start to dominate and get between them, and their Mars/Venus translation skills are not as good as they could be.

When the film ended I thought it was good but not quite as good as I hoped. The production values were very good, and the acting was fine but nothing special. But over the next day I thought of it a few times, and it raised a little in my estimation, so I would definitely highly recommend it.

This was the North American premiere, and I’ll give it a lower 3.5 stars out of 4 stars.

All seen 3/2/2008 at Cinequest.

The Trap, The Reject, and Gone with the Woman

March 3, 2008

The Trap is a Serbian drama/thriller that poses challenging moral questions. What would you do to save the life of someone you love? The main characters are a working class family who don’t have the money for an expensive but critical operation that their health care won’t cover. As is apparently the custom there, they advertise in the paper looking for someone to donate towards their expenses.

The film features some good performances and some very good and interesting camera work. I was glad I saw it, though it was pretty depressing for a Saturday morning.

I’ll give it a solid 3 stars out of 4 stars.

The Reject is a Serbian film in which nothing is real, so far as I could tell. The main character, On, is a scruffy looking man who drinks a lot, sleeps with a lot of women, runs up debts, and, incongruously, works in a bank. The festival program says it’s reminiscent of The Big Lebowski, which is both true and completely wrong at the same time.

From the first shot, of On at the beach, you can tell that it’s a dream, though I can’t point to anything specific that told me that. Other times you wonder if he’s awake and what you’re seeing is supposed to be real. The pace is quite slow, but at least usually engaging, and the visuals are a big part of that engagement. But if you asked me what it all meant, I would have to say I have no idea.

The actor who played On, who also produced the film, was at the screening to answer questions. Note that there may be spoilers in here:

  • The film has gotten a good reception from critics, but not so much from audiences
  • In the U.S. it has been in Palm Springs and here
  • It’s the second part of a planned trilogy—Awaking from the Dead was the first
  • He says it’s about what happened in their nation
  • They want to show that there is beauty there, but you cannot behave like you want to behave or even how you used to
  • It is dedicated to the people who are weak and alone
  • They are working on the third film in the trilogy, and expect to film it next year
  • The film is full of symbolism
  • The dog was the only “person” the main character can communicate with
  • He knows this is not a commercial film
  • There are only 5 prints of the film

I’ll give it 2.5 stars out of 4 stars.

Gone with the Woman is what I would call a relationship comedy. It’s Norwegian and was directed by the same man who directed Elling, which I loved.

The main characters are a young man, labelled only as “him” in the IMDb credits (played by Trond Fausa Aurvaag, the lead actor in last year’s The Bothersome Man), and Marianne, a young woman. He’s an aimless mail room worker who takes up swimming, and she just keeps showing up at his apartment, talking more than enough for both of them, and doing impulsive things that feel right. To her. They become a couple, more or less at random.

The guy gets relationship advice from Glenn (Peter Stormare in the only non-English speaking role I can recall him in—he’s great here) and the other men hanging out in the steam room after swimming. This is a case of the severely nearsighted leading the blind.

The movie is very fun and entertaining, and is definitely a more interesting looking film than Elling, but to me it wasn’t quite as fulfilling as I hoped. I still definitely recommend it, in the unlikely event that it becomes available in this country.

I’ll give it a weak 3.5 stars out of 4 stars.

All three films were seen 3/1/2008 at Cinequest.

The Substitute

March 1, 2008

The festival program called The Substitute science fiction, and I thought IMDb called it primarily a comedy, so I was expecting something with a feel similar to Men in Black. That horror was also on the list of genres this film belongs in was what I missed. Luckily, since I’m not a horror fan, it wasn’t all that gory, though there was quite a bit more tension than I expected. It did have a number of moments that reminded me of MiB, including the opening alien arrival scene.

The top-level plot is that Ulla (played by Dogme queen Paprika Steen) is the new substitute teacher for a sixth grade class, and she’s not from around here. The main non-alien characters are a family consisting of father Jesper, son Carl, and daughter Sophie, who all recently lost their mother.

At some point I noticed that I almost always like the Scandinavian films I see at film festivals. So this Danish film had to go on my list to see. It wasn’t quite what I expected, but I still had a lot of fun and was very glad for this little rule of mine.

I’ll give it a strong 3 stars out of 4 stars.

Seen 2/29/2008 at Cinequest.