Archive for March, 2009

Final Cinequest 19 Thoughts

March 26, 2009

This was a good year at Cinequest for me. I didn’t see anything bad, and my favorite film beat anything from the last several years of Cinequest film festivals.

Here is my rough ranking of the 17 feature films I saw,
from best to worst (the links go to my reviews):

  1. Truffe4 stars
  2. The Man Who Loved Yngve3.5 stars
  3. Gotta Dance3.5 stars
  4. Dancers3.5 stars
  5. Witch Hunt3.5 stars
  6. The Investigator3.5 stars
  7. The Necessities of Life3 stars
  8. Heart of Stone3 stars
  9. The Nature of Existence3 stars
  10. Crude Independence3 stars
  11. The Market3 stars
  12. Firaaq3 stars
  13. Fallen Angel2.5 stars
  14. Rock Paper Scissors2.5 stars
  15. Canary2.5 stars
  16. Wake2.5 stars
  17. The Tour2 stars

Gotta Dance, Rock Paper Scissors, and The Nature of Existence

March 19, 2009

Gotta Dance is a documentary about an experiment the New Jersey Nets (that’s an NBA basketball team) did by forming a hip hop dance team out of senior citizens, with a minimum age of 60. The film shows the initial tryouts, various practices, and some of their actual performances. But even better, it shows the team members and their families in their normal lives, and you get a picture of how the experience is challenging them and changing them.

This was a great documentary, and I thought it was both great fun and often touching as well. I’ll give it 3.5 stars out of 4 stars, and I feel guilty about this, but I might have to rate it higher than the far more important Witch Hunt.

If you don’t want to know anything more, including who makes the team, you should stop reading this review here.

My favorite person in the auditions was Fanny, an 80-year-old Filipino woman who is just adorable. She does make the team. But probably my favorite character turned out to be Betsy, who is an elementary (probably first or second grade) school teacher. She didn’t feel that she could relax enough to do the dancing, so she invented an alter ego named Betty, and she really changed her whole image of herself during the film, allowing herself the freedom to be herself rather than what she thinks people expect of her. Hmmm. Maybe this really is an important film.

The dancer named Claire from the team (the name on her jersey was Blond-E, #62) was at the screening to answer questions. There may be more spoilers below, if a documentary can have spoilers:

  • There are a few other senior NBA dancer groups, but this group is the only one doing hip-hop
  • They are now in their third season, with six of the original dancers (Edie, Dianna, Audrey, Betty/Betsy, Joe, and Claire)
  • There is a DVD coming this summer, and also a theatrical release (at least in San Francisco)
  • The filmmaker had planned to come, but asked Claire to come at the last minute
  • Claire does still do ballroom dance
  • She found out about the auditions from her sister, who agreed to drive her, since Claire didn’t have a car–her sister read about it in a gossip column in the newspaper
  • There is a second man on the team this year (Roger)
  • The filmmaker has done at least two other documentaries
  • The dancers are still in touch with those who are not on the team anymore
  • Claire injured herself and missed part of the season that was shot (2006-7)
  • 35 auditioned the first year, then 60, then around 100 this most recent year

Rock Paper Scissors was my second of three documentaries of the day. I hadn’t initially planned to see it since the Metro newspaper gave it a pretty poor review, but I was hearing much better things about it from others, and it fit my schedule, so I went.

I was surprised that it mostly covered the first few years of the Rock Paper Scissors (RPS) world championship, put on in Toronto by a couple of brothers (Douglas and Graham Walker) who founded the World RPS Society online. These were in 2002, 2003, and 2004, though the 2002 tournament was only covered superficially in retrospect. Some more recent events were covered, but not very thoroughly, as if the filmmaker ran out of money and/or enthusiasm at some point.

Of course RPS is a pretty silly game, so much of the fun was seeing how seriously some people take the game, or sport as they sometimes call it, complete with training and tapering in the final days before a tournament to avoid injuries. Besides the Walker brothers, the film covers a few players in some depth, though to me I never felt like I got a feel for anyone as real people except for the Walkers. I suspect that these aren’t particularly three dimensional people even to their friends, though I could well be wrong.

Overall I did enjoy the film, but I’ll give it only about 2.5 stars out of 4 stars. An earlier showing at Cinequest was the U.S. premiere.

The Nature of Existence was the Cinequest closing night film, and it was the film’s world premiere. Before the film there were the sponsor trailers, the art contest participants, and all of the filmmakers still in town were invited up on stage. And then there were the festival awards, though at the time the audience awards were still being tabulated.

The film is a documentary that talks to a wide variety of people from all around the world about what they think about religion, the meaning of life, and related questions. It was directed by the director of Trekkies, which is a very good documentary about extreme fans of the TV show. This one is more “important,” but perhaps a little less entertaining. I’m not sure that I changed any of my beliefs or perspectives at all, but it was good to both see some different views and some that align with my own. I’ll give the film 3 stars out of 4 stars.

After the film there was a question and answer session with the director and the editor (Paul Tarantino) of the film (there may be spoilers here, if this kind of film can have spoilers):

  • The director said that everyone needs to arrive at their own answers
  • Many of the general questions and categories were pre-determined, but new questions came up during the process
  • Many of the interviews were 2 to 5 hours long, and there was a total of 450 hours of material (wow!)
  • They didn’t really try to balance the male/female ratio up front, but did a little more during editing
  • They started every interview with the biggest question: Why do we exist? And they ended with the question about whether the universe is better for our existence
  • “Making documentaries is a series of missed opportunities”
  • The physicists were the most philosophical
  • Every interview had at least one moment where Paul heard something that he hadn’t thought about that way before

After the Q&A there was a debate between Brother Jed and Steve (Fromstein, I think, who compared God and Jesus to the mafia at one point). It was really more of a series of questions put to Brother Jed than a debate. And at one point Jed said “God is the causeless cause.”

All seen on 3/8/2009 at Cinequest.

Crude Independence, Canary, Witch Hunt, and more

March 12, 2009

Crude Independence is a documentary about the town of Stanley, North Dakota. It starts with some background on the town’s history and people, and then concentrates on the ways that the discovery of oil has changed the town (actually, reading a bit more I see that the oil was discovered quite a while ago, but was not economically worth extracting until oil prices rose). Both long-time town residents and the oil workers who now spend substantial time there are given screen time. While there is some mention of then President Bush and the then presidential candidates McCain and Obama, this is a remarkably politically agnostic film, considering the political energy around, well, energy.

I thought the film was well made and quite neutral. The production values seemed good for a documentary not made by an established filmmaker. I’ll give it 3 stars out of 4 stars.

The director and editor were both at the screening to answer questions (there may be minor spoilers here, if a documentary can have spoilers):

  • The director and editor are both in school still, at Wesleyan in Connecticut, and are graduating this year
  • They filmed in January 2008 for a week, and then 5 weeks that summer
  • Oil prices were very high when they were filming, but are now much lower, so the wells are still running but they are doing very little new drilling
  • There was no outcry about the environmental impact, except for the one reference by the teacher to there being lots of trucks on the road where she jogged
  • The director has sent DVDs of the film to the town in the last month, but hasn’t heard any reaction yet
  • An audience member grew up in Stanley in the 1950s and was back last summer, and he thinks the film captures the town and the situation very well
  • This is the film’s third festival–SXSW is next
  • The film was made for under $10,000
  • An economist and former EPA person said the film is good since it’s so neutral
  • The director sold popcorn at a film center where Jonathan Demme goes, which is how Demme ended up as an executive producer and one of the investors
  • It was shot primarily on a prosumer HD camera, with some use of a smaller HD camera
  • The total crew was 3 people
  • They shot about 45 hours of footage, and the director helped with the editing
  • The director also wrote the score
  • The surface land owner cannot stop the drilling if they don’t have the mineral rights (or at best it’s really hard)
  • The town people were really ready to gossip, but the filmmakers pretty much left that footage out of the film
  • Those residents who did make significant amounts of money mostly kept quiet about it
  • The director learned about the town and their situation in the New York Times on New Year’s Day 2008–he had also just seen There Will Be Blood
  • The flames are from the natural gas, which at least as of when they were filming was not being captured

[This is the “and more” part from the post title.] There weren’t any films I really wanted to see right after Crude Independence, so I went to the Film and Innovation Forum called The Business of Art. There was a broad panel, covering finance, technology, producing, film packaging, and more. I can’t say I learned all that much, though one story from the moderator (a media academic from Monterey, whose name I did not catch because I arrived a few minutes late) stood out. Her 15-year-old daughter was temporarily living in a room with a large television, yet the daughter preferred to watch a movie on her laptop, while her friends watched it simultaneously wherever they were and they all interacted online. As an old fashioned “watch the film and give it your full attention” person, this was rather striking.

Canary is a very strange film. It opens with some scenes of people talking in other languages and no subtitles. I still don’t know what these scenes were about. And there were plenty of other scenes that seemed impenetrable as well.

The story that did seem slightly understandable was about a company called Canary Industries, which is in the so-called organ redistribution business, which seems to be organ transplants with serious strings attached. There is an early scene of what seems like a focus group trying to figure out how to market the company better, and not make it seem too creepy.

The main character was a mute woman wearing a Canary Industries jumpsuit, who seemed to be doing the organ repossession, but who also seemed to be invisible to everyone around her. The process involved some blue-green Jello and small coolers.

The film was apparently shot within blocks of where I saw it (at the San Jose Rep), including seeing the Camera 3 theater in one shot (about a block away). It was clearly very low budget, though I suspect many would say that the biggest cost cutting measure was not bothering to hire a writer. I should also note that many people walked out. But I actually enjoyed the puzzle of trying to figure it out, and some of the intriguing concepts embodied in the parts I could figure out. I’ll give it a strong 2.5 stars out of 4 stars. An earlier showing at Cinequest was the world premiere.

The director was at the screening and answered (and asked) questions briefly, but there just weren’t many questions. The following may include minor spoilers, and definitely includes some observations from audience members:

  • The film is amorphous, and each person might see it differently
  • The last scene could be seen as training the next generation of organ repossessor
  • The mute woman seemed to be invisible–one audience member took her to be metaphorical
  • Is the director on a mission to see how difficult he can make a film to understand? [Apparently the director had another film at Cinequest in a previous year, and it was almost as hard to understand. This was asked by Steve Rhodes.]
  • Some scenes were carefully scripted, and others much less so

If you’ve been to film festivals, you’ve seen lots of postcards on tables, advertising the films. Instead of a postcard, Canary had a tri-fold brochure for Canary Industries, written as if it were a real company, except for the URL on the back (www.canarymovie.com). Here are a couple of quotes from the brochure:

  • If you are fortunate enough to have all of your original organs, please remember that those organs don’t belong to you. They are the property of the community.
  • In the event that someone needs one of your organs more than you do, you will be required to relinquish the organ. Whether you are living or dead, Canary Industries ensures that your organs get to the people who need them most.

Finishing my day, I saw Witch Hunt, a documentary about some falsely accused child molesters from Bakersfield, CA in the early 1980’s. It covers the story of the accusations against them, their trials, and their fights to be exonerated. It’s not an easy film to watch, but it’s very well done, and I think that the idea that accused criminals might sometimes be innocent and that the system is not perfect is an important one to cover. The film is narrated by Sean Penn, and it occurs to me to possibly connect his roles in Dead Man Walking and this film through the topic of the death penalty, which is the ultimate legal decision to avoid getting wrong. [Or to just avoid altogether, I would say, as someone who believes that the death penalty should be abolished.]

The film is very good and also important, though it didn’t affect me quite as much as I expected, which is always the danger of sky high expectations. I’ll still give it 3.5 stars out of 4 stars.

The two directors (Don and Dana) and Jill Kent from the Innocence Project were at the screening to answer questions (as usual, there may be spoilers here):

  • They started on the story before John Stoll got out
  • The film will play on MSNBC soon (I missed the date)
  • A commission recommended changes to laws to reduce these kinds of problems–it passed but was vetoed by the Governor
  • Tainted Trials, Stolen Justice is a San Jose Mercury News series of articles about 700+ cases in Santa Clara County
  • Sometimes there is actual molestation, but the wrong person is convicted
  • Most of the accusations started with custody cases
  • A belief that kids don’t lie is behind many of the problems
  • One thing used against the Kniffens was that there was nothing incriminating in their house, so they must have cleaned it up to hide something–amazing!
  • No one has been running against Kern County District Attorney Ed Jagels, so he still has that position, but the Innocence Project person believes that he will be defeated in 2010
  • The California Attorney General didn’t feel that was his role to do more than he did, especially since his investigation was into the satanic ritual cases, which were not directly applicable to the pure molestation cases
  • Nothing happened to the investigator who hid evidence in his garage (but the Innocence Project is suing him)
  • The Innocence Project is working with district attorneys’ offices, and they may see the film

All seen on 3/7/2009 at Cinequest.

The Investigator

March 9, 2009

The Investigator is a Hungarian whodunit film. The main character is a coroner named Tibor. We initially meet him examining a body, and he doesn’t seem fazed by the blood involved, as I suppose would be expected for someone in that profession. His total lack of emotion seemed slightly extreme, however.

Tibor’s mother is in the hospital, and he expects that she will die soon, though if he had more money there might be options. Then he is approached by a man who asks Tibor to kill someone in exchange for enough money to give his mother that chance. That Tibor has no connection to the victim is a key point in his chances of getting away with the crime.

I don’t want to say too much more. The twists and turns of the plot are many, and are all fun to follow. The various characters around Tibor are interesting, and even though they don’t seem fully real, they seem real enough for this kind of film. The production values are first-rate, and I was really glad that I chose this film to see. I’ll give it a lower 3.5 stars out of 4 stars. An earlier showing at Cinequest was the U.S. premiere.

Seen on 3/6/2009 at Cinequest.

Firaaq

March 9, 2009

Firaaq is a fictional film about the very real and often violent struggle between the Hindus and the Muslims in India. It’s set in 2002 during the later stages of the riots in Gujarat, and it has a large number of characters who this non-Indian viewer had trouble keeping 100% straight until perhaps halfway through. There is a mixed religion couple who are planning to leave the area for Delhi, a Muslim couple returning to their house to find it has been burned by rioters, a woman with post traumatic stress disorder who sees and hears things that are not there, a small orphan boy, and several others. I suspect that those who know the history and culture better would have an easier time of keeping track of who’s who, though the fact that I had trouble distinguishing the Hindus from the Muslims is perhaps a lesson in itself.

This is the directing debut for Nandita Das, who was the lead actress in a film called Sandstorm from the first year I attended Cinequest. She doesn’t do a bad job, though it felt a little heavy handed at times to me. On the whole I will give it 3 stars out of 4 stars, with perhaps 1/2 a star of that because it’s important for people to know about senseless tragedies like this, to perhaps make repeating them just a little less likely.

Seen on 3/5/2009 at Cinequest.

Maverick Spirit Event: Kevin Pollack

March 5, 2009

I went to this event since none of the movies playing at Cinequest at the same time seemed interesting. I was actually kind of surprised how few of Kevin Pollack’s films I have seen (maybe four, plus some episodes of “Project Greenlight” when he was in the movie being made), and at the same time how familiar he seemed.

After a montage of some of his film work, he came out for a personal history/standup routine. I particularly enjoyed the fact that his first experience creating comedy was lip syncing to a Bill Cosby album. The album in question must have been Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow Right! (1963), but the particular segment that Kevin mentioned was also on The Best of Bill Cosby (1969). And that is the very first record I bought as a kid. But I digress.

Kevin’s stories about the impersonations he has done (a high school coach, Peter Falk, Alan Arkin, William Shatner, etc.) and the trouble he has caused doing them were definitely worth hearing. He’s a very good story teller, and he especially likes talking about himself.

Later there was a Q&A, and finally the presentation of the Maverick Spirit Award itself.

All in all it was a very fun couple of hours. He’s playing at the San Jose Improv during the last weekend of the month, if you missed him and you’re local. My wife and I will be out of town, or I would consider taking her to see him.

Seen on 3/4/2009 at Cinequest.

The Tour and Truffe

March 5, 2009

The Tour is a Serbian comedy/drama set in 1993. The main characters are all actors from a theater company in Belgrade, but they don’t seem very serious about their work. They miss their curtain calls during rehearsal because they’re too busy gambling. To make a little extra money, they decide to take a quick trip to perform for the troops and people in a town near the front lines. They are assured that despite the ongoing war, things are safe these days, and they don’t seem too concerned about making sure they know what play they’ll perform or even if they have enough people to fill the roles.

Things are not as promised, of course. Bombs drop very near the road they’re traveling on, and the hotel they thought they would be staying at doesn’t have space. And that’s just for starters.

I had problems with this film. The characters seem slapstick and cartoonish, and the music invokes thoughts of a court jester. But the war violence is real, and even though it is mostly off-screen, that combination made it impossible for me to enjoy the comedy most of the time. It seemed well-made, and from the Cinequest program I gather that some scenes were filmed in the director’s bombed out grade school, so I feel bad rating it low. But I can’t give it more than 2 stars out of 4 stars.

Truffe is… really hard to categorize. It’s a black and white French Canadian film about truffles—the kind that grow underground, not the chocolate kind. Global warming has caused them to become plentiful in Montreal, and lots of people are making a living digging them up in tunnels under the city. Charles has an especially good nose for them, which keeps his wife Alice’s diner stocked and their customers happy.

Other characters include Charles’ parents (his father is played by Pierre Lebeau, who was the voice of the fish in Maelström, for you Camera Cinema Club members), who drive a Hummer H2 (what global warming?). There is a fur collar with a surprise. And more.

This film had me grinning like an idiot for most of its running time, trying to figure out what drugs the writer/director/producer must have been on to dream this stuff up. It was a little tense at times (I’m a bit of a wimp in that regard), but incredibly enjoyable throughout. I was reminded of many other films as I watched it, but I won’t list them to avoid spoiling the surprises. The acting fit the style of the film, and the black and white cinematography had a striking noir feel. In case you can’t tell, I loved it.

I’ll give it 4 stars out of 4 stars. It’s my favorite film of this and the previous several Cinequests. An earlier showing at Cinequest was the U.S. premiere.

Both seen 3/2/2009 at Cinequest.

The Necessities of Life, Fallen Angel, and Heart of Stone

March 3, 2009

The Necessities of Life opens in a desolate but beautiful landscape, with an Inuit man, his family, and his simple dwelling. It looks like a hard life, but perhaps a good one. Tivii, the Inuit man, coughs occasionally as he is hunting geese.

Tivii sees a large ship coming in, and he and his wife and two daughters go to it. It’s a hospital ship, and it becomes apparent that Tivii is the one who is sick. He is taken away to the Quebec to be treated. My favorite moment early in the film is when he arrives and his biggest amazement, instead of the buildings and other man-made things, is the trees. Where he lives, there is only tundra.

This is a gorgeous, wide screen film, though that’s most apparent in the nature scenes. The performances are very good, especially from Tivii (Natar Ungalaaq, from The Fast Runner), the nurse, and one or two of the other patients. It is a little slow, though that’s intentional. I’ll give it a strong 3 stars out of 4 stars.

Fallen Angel is a documentary about Larry Norman, an early born again Christian rock figure. It covers pretty much his whole career, with interviews with many of the people involved, and a few short but really goofy (one might say amateur) animations.

The director was at the screening, which was the world premiere, with Randy Stonehill, Dennis Fridkin from the band People, Ray Ware, and Pamela Ahlquist, to answer questions. There are some spoilers (if a documentary can have spoilers) below:

  • There was a question about a possible discrepancy about whether Larry was or was not open about his Christianity when he was in the band People–the director answered by reiterating what was stated in the film
  • Some of the “questions” were really more about defending Larry by trying to poke holes in the film
  • The director, David Di Sabatino, also made a film about a hippie preacher named Frisbee that was shown at Camera Cinema Club
  • The director was trained as a theologian
  • There is no distribution yet, but the director and Randy Stonehill will take it on the road to seminaries and colleges this year
  • Pamela, Larry’s ex-wife, talked about when Larry was inducted into the San Jose Rocks Hall of Fame–she came and talked to him for an hour beforehand after not seeing him for 30 years–Larry apologized and asked her to forgive him, which she did–she plans to write a book
  • Larry’s unacknowledged son from Australia was also at the screening

From the questions, I got the impression that I may have been the only member of the audience who had never heard of Larry Norman before I read about the film in the program. Add in that I’m an atheist (or at least a strong agnostic), and I was at best a tiny minority.

The film kept my interest, though to someone disconnected from the subject matter like me, could probably been edited down a bit. It seemed like it might have been biased towards Randy Stonehill’s perspective, so I was not surprised to see that he was connected with the film. That said, his emotion in some of his interview segments seemed very real and compelling. I’ll give it 2.5 stars out of 4 stars.

Heart of Stone is a documentary about a Newark, NJ high school, and specifically about their principal, Mr. Stone. The school was once a great one, with good interracial relations, perhaps especially between the Jews and the African-Americans. But in more recent years, violence between rival gangs has plagued the school and made academic achievement a distant memory. The film is about efforts by Mr. Stone and the alumni association to reverse that slide.

The film was chosen by Kaiser Permanente to receive their “Thrive” award. The representative handing out the award said that the lesson is to teach, but also to listen deeply, coach, etc. Thriving is more than just fruits and vegetables and exercise. The director said that she believes that Mr. Stone really exemplifies the word “thrive.”

The director and other people associated with the film, including Stone’s wife and several members of the alumni association, were at the screening to answer questions (there are some spoilers below):

  • He was principal for six years–at first, no one wanted to go there, but by the end everyone did
  • The director was from the suburbs nearby, and her father was an alumnus of the school
  • The transition was been difficult–the conflict resolution team has taken on a bigger role–the new principal was a math teacher
  • The filmmakers do plan to show the film to the students–originally they were going to show it in a nearby theater, but that would have required the students to cross gang lines, so they’ll show it at the school
  • The film premiered at Slamdance and won the audience award there–this is the film’s second festival
  • Philip Roth is an alumnus, but does not participate in the alumni association
  • The director is actually more a fan of narrative film, which may have influenced her style
  • The three primary student subjects were chosen by Mr. Stone, mostly because they were leaders, and he hoped if they moved forward, others would follow
  • There are really no women in the film, but that would be another interesting story
  • Part of the mission of the film is to inspire more alumni associations and community organizations to help their schools
  • Many of the students have never met anyone who had benefited from studying, which was one of the reasons for the trips to France, which were paid for by the alumni association–every kid who went to on that trip went on to college

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

All seen on 3/1/2009 at Cinequest.