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By Allen White | March 15, 1999

Cinequest ’99, like many film festivals, is a well-meaning event put on by an enthusiastic group of film fans and connoisseurs in bed with a massive cotillion of big-business sponsors (because we live in a society that refuses to spend public funds on the arts), and is San Jose’s bid to add its two cents to the ever-growing world of the film festival circuit. This year’s program, while varied, was marred by mediocrity, and what solid pieces there were often came as hand-me-downs from other festivals.
Cinequest’s tribute events are what helped differentiate it from others of its ilk. Hollywood legend Rod Steiger (“On the Waterfront,” “The Pawnbroker”) was presented with a Maverick Spirit award. Steiger’s crusty, larger-than-life star persona was a work of clockwork precision. His anecdotes were funny, if polished, and presented to the audience as nuggets of old-school wisdom: “The mentality of a lot of people who are trying to make money — agents and whatever have you — if you went by it, you’d probably be doing the third version of ‘The Crucifixion of Mickey Mouse.'”
Actor Gabriel Byrne (“Miller’s Crossing,” “The Usual Suspects”, noted cinematographer Vilmos Zgismond (“McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” “Close Encounters”) and actress Jennifer Beals (“Flashdance,” “Twilight of the Golds”) were also given tribute. In extreme contrast to Steiger’s bravado, when Byrne speaks, he is not only quietly charming but also extremely real: “It’s very important to remember who you are, especially in a business that pays you to be someone else.”
When I asked Zgismond what he thought of recent changes in American cinematic style, such as lack of long takes, and the prevalence of closeups and handheld camera, he cannily replied, “I think watching less television probably would improve those directors.”
A Digital Cinematography presentation featured lovely displays of video high-tech, and featured a panel of experts moderated by Laurence J. Thorpe, VP of Aquisition Systems for Sony. Thorpe was one of the developers of the telecine, the device that transfers film to video, and he is one of the foremost minds in the field of video technology. He had many intelligent insights into coming technological changes, including how DV and HDTV standards will affect film and TV production.
Although my hotel accommodations were quite satisfactory (thanks to the generosity of Cinequest), downtown San Jose is a graveyard after 6pm. Festival parties were low-key affairs, and although libations flowed freely, food was on the stingy side. The opening night event was hyped as being “fully catered,” yet hors d’oeuvres were seemingly prepared for fifty persons, and did not satisfy the hungry crowd of three hundred. I heartily toast the continuing sponsorship of festivals by the ubiquitous Absolut Vodka, which insures an endless supply of cosmopolitans and vodka martinis for liquor-sucking freeloaders such as those of the journalistic stripe. More importantly, the hospitality tent had free coffee on tap at all hours of the day.
San Jose’s cinema crowd is somewhat on the starchy side for my taste. A streak of daring film programming (and late-night binge-drinking) might loosen the intellectual chastity belts of this crowd, and add much-needed festivity. I will never forget the forlorn disappointment on the face of Christopher Coppola, Robert Carradine, and much of the “Palmer’s PickUp” crew as they realized that as far as post-screening parties went, Cinequest was no Sundance. Perhaps it’s time for a “Cineslam” to add some needed punk-rock counterpoint to thicken the dry Silicon Valley air.
ANGEL’S DANCE ^ * * * 1/2 ^ An entertaining film about a Mafia goon sent to train as a hit man with the best assassin in the field, this films reads almost as if “La Femme Nikita” were populated with Zen surfers and Mafiosi. James Belushi plays master killer Stevie “The Rose” Rosellini as one of his signature cool but eccentric regular guys, and Sheryl Lee (“Fire Walk With Me”) shines as the shy mortician who is the random practice target of the assassin’s training program. Not memorable, but amusing.
BUTTONERS ^ * * * 1/2 ^ What do one of the pilots of the Enola Gay, a cab driver, a group of Japanese men swearing in English, and a man with a unique fetish involving dentures have in common? This is a fun sextet of segments that loosely tie together according to an overarching theme of coincidence. This Czech film has strong echoes of Jim Jarmusch’s “Night on Earth.” Not only does a cab driver play an important role, but the interweaving free-for-all playfulness and love of the oddball everyman shows a close kinship with Jarmusch’s work. “Buttoners” strives to make the extraordinary ordinary, and vice-versa. Its best segment concerns that of a quarrelling husband and wife, whose debate begins while watching a show that describes a project to send the sperm of 4,000 men into space to assure preservation of the species. Sweetly nutty and charmingly engaging, this film was never deep, but often funny.
CAMP OF FALLEN WOMEN ^ * * 1/2 ^ Instead of a film of great depth about how revolutionary ideals are undermined by the relentless forces of totalitarianism, this was a light, unremarkable piece about Czechoslovakian prostitutes sent to a re-education camp. The film’s subject matter is fraught with dark potential, yet the film leaves one wishing for that bleak edge to be explored more fully. There have been many films made that touch upon the subject of survival under the repression of communist rule, and this film adds nothing new to the subject. The filmmaker’s heart was in the right place, but his aesthetic goals were not of the depth that they needed to be to truly pull this story off.
THE COMMISSIONER ^ * * 1/2 ^ This is a slow-paced story of political intrigue in the halls of the headquarters of the European Economic Union of Brussels. Its plot centers on Machiavellian maneuvers and industrial espionage surrounding the potential merger of a German chemical corporation with a British firm. Once the film descends into a legal skirmish, it loses what small momentum it has, and cannot compare in scope to even moderately successful films like “A Civil Action.” Its character development is thin, and we never really get inside the head of the title character, played by John Hurt. Not bad, just not engaging.
THE DISTRACTION ^ * * ^ The director dropped the ball on this film, in that he lacks a fundamental understanding of dramatic principle; conflict is drama. All of the characters get along moderately well. A husband and wife, two sides of the triangle in this film, constantly work to understand each other. What I wanted was more struggle and less understanding. This film has a slow, uncomplicated approach to storytelling that although logical and even realistic, nevertheless created a piece that meanders and shuffles its feet in indecision instead of taking strong dramatic strides. If every character in every story always got along so well, we’d never have drama. The title female character, instead of a femme fatale or a real threat to the main character’s marriage, is merely a mild annoyance. How dull.
ELLES ^ * * * 1/2 ^ This was a very likeable film with an irresistible cast of note. The cast included Carmen Maura (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”), Miou-Miou (“La Lectrice”), and Guesch Patti, a popular French singer in a marvelous debut performance. Shot in Portugal with a French-speaking cast, the story is an examination of female middle age, and the meaning and roles these women play in each other’s lives and the lives of those around them. All gradually realize that in some ways their lives did not meet their expectations, and their dreams of the past collide with the conflicts of the present and their hopes for the future. The film is beautifully acted, and is surprising in that male writer-director Luis Galvao Teles has so effectively and realistically captured the minds and hearts of his female characters.
GOODBYE 20TH CENTURY ^ * * ^ This film ostensibly discusses the apocalypse in metaphorical terms, but degenerates into pointless lunatic violence. The directorial team of Popovski and Mitrevski have previously worked in commercials, and like many directors who have taken this path, their work is extremely well-lit and photgraphed. Yet with conscious visual influences of Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton, their work looks like a pastiche of other people’s ideas, and falls far short of saying anything of meaning or purpose. The work is notable for being one of the first all-Macedonian feature productions.
IN THE NAVEL OF THE SEA ^ * * * * ^ This film was the Phillipines’ official entry into this year’s foreign film category of the Oscars. Although not selected as a nominee, it was nevertheless a lovely film about life in a small village upon a tiny island. Main character Pepito is forced by circumstance to learn his mother’s trade, that of midwifery. Gradually, as he grows older, the job begins to seem awkward to him, being as he is a man doing what is traditionally a woman’s job. The story is a simple, straightforward exploration of ordinary people, and how their dreams do not always meet their expectations. The lush views of the ocean-surrounded island life add a unique atmosphere to this quiet and charming film.
LOUIS & FRANK ^ * * * ^ A moderately entertaining piece about two bickering brothers, who decide to embark upon an ill-advised lounge singing career, this film is not as satisfying as it could have been. Notable is a flamboyant appearance by Tony Curtis as the brothers’ wacky booking agent. Curtis just gets weirder and better in his old age, and is probably destined for further great roles in indie films as the mainstream leaves him behind.
NEXT TIME ^ * * * 1/2 ^ Why can’t blacks and whites just get along? asks this film, set just before the turmoil of the LA riots following the Rodney King beating verdicts. The entire film is a study in low-budget filmmaking. Set almost entirely inside a laundromat, the story involves an evolving dialogue between a well-meaning but na•ve young white artist and a cynical middle-aged black woman who has seen and experienced too much of the hardship that life has to offer. The problem with such a one-note format is that while cheap to make, it comes off like a filmed theatrical play. Static camera and a dialogue-based film do not make for interesting cinema. In addition, the film’s direct approach to its dialectic between the two characters lacked subtlety. While the issue of communication difficulties between the races is an important one, aesthetically, I prefer to see film that explores issues through action and not words.
NIGHT OF DESTINY ^ * * 1/2 ^ A mystery that takes place in the Algerian Moslem community in Paris, this film suffers from slow pacing and minimal character development. Its most interesting facet is that of the contradictions of Algerian identity in French culture, and it is a subject that is only touched upon, and not really explored with the depth that the story required. Instead of having a main character be a French cop sympathetic to Algerians, what I would have rather seen is an Algerian-French cop who encounters racism within the department and distrust and feelings of betrayal from his own community.
PALMER’S PICKUP ^ * * * ^ While telling a story about the apocalypse, director Christopher Coppola has also assembled a travelogue of roadside Americana. The film uses such locations as the World’s largest Office chair, upon which is staged a ritual involving a sacrificial lamb. This kind of conscious weirdness might have been cool fifteen years ago, but REAL weirdness is impossible to fake, and requires much more effort on the part of the participants. This film seems too much as if it was made on a lark, and is thus a shallow, although often entertaining road movie. Notably, Coppola’s aunt Talia Shire (of the Godfather Trilogy and all five Rocky films) plays a weirdly bearded Satan, and Rosanna Arquette has a hilarious, gritty cameo as a tough-as-nails, sexually predatory female trucker.
THE PARTY CRASHERS ^ * 1/2 ^ Ennui. That’s what I felt while exposed to this pointless exercise in furthering the cause of entropy. Why is it that fledgling filmmakers think that simply having a couple of guys wave around guns at a roomful of people makes a story? According to the director, the script was written very quickly; that would have been my guess, seeing as how it screams “first draft!” This film epitomizes a new crisis in cinema; it is now easier than ever before to make a feature film. The result is the same as in any saturated medium; an excess of ill-conceived product. Listen, kids — just because you CAN make a film, doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Learn the craft before you make the rest of us suffer through your freshman efforts.
SURRENDER DOROTHY ^ * * * * 1/2 ^ This film’s premise is simple, but brilliant; a busboy, Trevor, works a deal with his junkie friend, Lanh — Trevor will keep Lanh supplied with heroin as long as he does his bidding. Gradually, Trevor makes Lanh over into his ideal woman. By far the best film at the festival, this is one of the more brilliant, original, edgy, and disturbing films I’ve seen this year. The film won the 1998 Slamdance Jury Prize, a well-deserved honor. Rarely does a film so successfully portray the intricacies and mechanics of power. The film’s subtext is a scathing statement of women’s treatment by men, and the submissive role in which men seek to keep them. The result reads like a feminist film made by a man.
TRAVELER FROM THE SOUTH ^ * * * 1/2 ^ This Iranian film is about a 14-year-old boy who meets an old woman on a train to Teheran. Is has the engaging simplicity of such films made in the tradition of “The Bicycle Thief,” in that the entire story is told though straightforward actions. This movie could have almost been silent, and the characters’ motivations would have still been crystal clear, interesting, and truthful. The film is like many examples of quality foreign cinema, in that it is grounded in an aesthetic of image and action, rather than of excess dialogue and thin psychological motivation. Character needs are basic, compelling, and relate to the larger human condition. American filmmakers, especially independents, have much to learn from abroad. If U.S. film students admired and studied foreign film as assiduously as they did Hollywood blockbusters, the quality of domestic cinema would improve dramatically.
WILBUR FALLS ^ * * 1/2 ^ A directorial effort by 21-year-old Juliane Glantz, this film was marred by her obvious inexperience. The project got the go-ahead because apparently via personal connections Glantz was able to cast Danny Aiello. Producer David Delman was on hand, and cagily mentioned dark hints of behind-the-scenes conflict and a falling out between himself and Glantz. What the film needed was a strong dose of humor. Instead, this film opted for a watery broth of teen-angst lite, and shied away from saying anything startling or original about life in high school.
SHORT PROGRAMS ^ ELECTRIC CINEMA ^ In a town so closely identified with the computer industry, I expected to see Silicon Valley’s best in the program, a series of computer shorts. What a letdown! The two best were:
GODZILLA VS. DISCO LANDO ^ * * * * ^ Not including the price of a Macintosh and software, this film’s budget looked to be about $7.99. Yet Evan Mather’s work is a low-res tour-de-force involving Kenner Star Wars action figures, a boxing Godzilla doll, and yes, disco. This is a brilliant deconstruction of the Lucas trilogy, and reveals that percolating just beneath the surface sparkle of gee-whiz futurism lies barely suppressed homoeroticism, religion, violence, and bad dancing. Yoda explodes – what more could you want?
WOOD TECHNOLGY IN THE DESING OF STRUCTURES ^ * * * * ^ This film’s thesis might be stated as; how much wood would you eat if you could eat wood? Beautifully and artfully done examination of man’s quest to compete with termites.
MINDBENDERS ^ An amusing program of shorts that featured more or less surreal subject matter, the best pieces included the following: ^
FLYING SAUCER ROCK ‘N’ ROLL ^ * * * * ^ This was an Irish parody of 1950’s horror films. Shot in black and white, it featured the requisite low-budget aliens, hepcat dialogue, and leather-jacketed greasy-haired rock ‘n’ roll blended with Irish farmer gags to make for an effective and funny combination.
HUMAN REMAINS ^ * * * 1/2 ^ This film was entirely composed of archival footage of the five greatest dictators of the twentieth century; Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, and Franco. It was accompanied by voice-over that represented the words of the dictators themselves. This narration was a mixture of fact and speculation, and attempted to portray these noted political bullies as men who were for the most part neurotic, egotistical, petty, and shockingly mundane. Ultimately the film was a fascinating, disturbing, and memorable overview of these figures.
THE LEAK ^ * * * * ^ This piece starred Dominique Pinon of “City of Lost Children” and “Alien 4” fame, and is a silly and entertaining bit of surreal humor involving falling bodies.
LITTLE FISH KILLER ^ * * * 1/2 ^ This French short highlights the fact that thanks to generous government support of the arts, films of that country, no matter how small, are often shot with decent budgets on glorious 35mm. The movie thus looked as good as feature film, and had some well-done, detailed gross-out effects.
PO MO KNOCK KNOCK ^ * * * * ^ A hilarious parody of art-wank experimental film with a strong wink at Ingmar Bergman, this piece is sure to delight anyone who has sat through pretentious student film finals or humorless deconstructive pomposities made by nose-in-the-air academics.
SHADOWS & LIGHT ^ This short program was loosely themed on altered perception and shifting point of view, yet despite such a grand theme, only paid off via the following: ^
THE BLOODY OLIVE ^ * * * * 1/2 ^ One of the better shorts at the entire festival, this Dutch piece’s unique feature was constantly shifting plot-twist madness, as reversal after reversal changes the outcome of the story. Shot in noir-esque black and white, not only was this film wonderfully funny, but inventive as well. This was everything I wanted in a short film, and more!
PAUSA ^ * * * 1/2 ^ This Italian piece creates tension with the barest of elements – two sweating guys balanced upon a board that perches at the edge of a cliff – then cleverly and humorously defeats your expectations.

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