Yesterday, and today at Cinequest (March 3 and 4)

Saw a good part of Una Vida Mejor on the grounds that I’d run into Atlanta filmmaker Andrew James at the lounge upstairs at the Hotel Montgomery. He seemed a little perplexed by the reception of his film; there’d been walkouts. His film, which means “A Better Life” in Spanish, is an impressionistic series of vignettes about an illegal alien couple, another couple who is bringing down slightly more money than allowed them to get public assistance, and a hard-working white American couple—all headed on a  collision course.

As Michael S. Gant pointed out in his review, there’s blood when that collision happens. The finale is what James called “symbolic” violence, and I guess it’s similar to the part in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities about the sapling tree that eventually will provide lumber for a guillotine—thing is, I couldn’t make it to the end, partially because of time constraints and partially because of a midsection set at a small Hispanic grocery store where the English subtitles drop out entirely. James and his team had a subject of imperative political importance, and the willingness to go all the way to promote it with fliers and posters, but the film’s hastiness—the one-take looking performances and the glancing exteriors—defied the hard work he took to make this, get it out on the road and challenge an audience with it. I wish the guy better luck next time and I hope there will be a next time, especially if he takes as much attention with the surfaces as he did with the message.

Opening for this short on Monday afternoon was the series of commercials from the sponsors. “I have cancer but it doesn’t have me,” by Kaiser reminds me of the Cheeseman in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“I wear the cheese but it doesn’t wear me.”) The excerpts from remind us that the starting point of so many films is the idea: “Christ, I could so easily make a movie that’s better than this.”

And finally there’s the Intel’s commercial showing a group summing up the majesty of the chip (I mean, they are cute little buggers) with really mundane praise: “This will let me play video games with people in Iceland” and “We can write reports with this!”

How about some more realistic Intel Inside-driven goals: “I can’t wait to crack NORAD with this!,” “All you Beanie Babies on eBay now belong to us” and “Oh, the porn I’m going to download!”

Finally met Charlie Cockey, Cinequest’s man in Eastern Europe, who hits all the trans-Danubian film fests; he’s a droll ex-San Franciscan who can be asked about nightlife in Albania (he’s all for it) and what Grace Slick did with her gold 45 for “Somebody to Love.”

Today at the ‘Quest, Mar. 4:

Call of Cthulhu (see separate posting) 4:45, Cam 12

Around the Bay, if you missed it or want to see it again plays at 4:15pm, at Cam era 12. Since I’m all for this film was very happy to hear it went over well on Saturday’s showing, with a crowd of 400 and the crew from my TV show CinemaScene on hand filming the reception afterwards. Morton Marcus and I interviewed the San Jose-based filmmaker Alejandro Adams ( We’ll also have an interview with him posted tomorrow on metroactive.

Also recommended:

The Silence Before Bach (6:45, C1)

Les Paul (9:15, C12)

Sputnik Mania (9:30, Rep).

64 comments to Yesterday, and today at Cinequest (March 3 and 4)

  • admin

    The violence and blood in A Better Life looked very real and hardly sympbolic.

  • anonymous

    i’m really surprised by the reception of “Around The Bay.” I saw it on March 1st and, i need to say, i don’t get the positive reviews. i thought that the structure of the film was laborious and crudely constructed. i also felt that the film accomplished in 1.5 hrs what it could have accomplished in 1/2 hr. The ending was supposed to be climactic, but instead felt contrived and poorly executed. In other words, the ending felt “unearned.”

    i did like the performances from the actors playing the father and the daughter. The character of the son was overstated, ultimately annoying me to no end. i think one of my main problems with this film is that it regurgitated information throughout the entire film, nailing home the same points over and over again with no new information. This made the film taxing and, ultimately, in my opinion, quite boring.

    The cast and crew seemed like really cool people, and i hope they continue to make films. However, i really disagree with the hype surrounding this film.

  • anonymous

    “Sputnik Mania” is the best film i’ve seen at the festival so far. Very good.

  • Richard von Busack

    Attn: Village Barbershop fans:
    Somehow the local media missed this Ratzenberg related story:

  • Festival Lover

    I agree that Around the Bay doesn’t deserve the hype. It had some redeeming qualities, but was heavy handed and boring. In regard to A Better Life, I also felt that the violence looked very real, but that doesn’t discount the filmmaker’s asserstions regarding the symbolism.

    According to the filmmakers at the Q&A, the violence was meant to be shocking and real, and hats off to them for accomplishing it – no easy task! Again, accoriding to the Q&A, the violent acts are meant to represent a struggle for survival and the over-reaction of our society to the immigration question. This could be perceived as a stretch perhaps, but it worked on a few levels, especially at the onset of the armed robbery and the subsequent chase sequence and its violent aftermath. The symbolism in these spots were powerful and agonizing. Actually, the metaphor seems to carry all the way through the final portion of the film very well.

    There’s been a lot of talk about the violence in this film, but the first half was poetic and impressionistsic and very thoughtful, not to mention that the film does have a worthwhile and emotional catharsis and a somewhat hopeful ending.

    I felt that overall, A Better Life was a very good film with some great camera work, great music, great performances from the two hispanic leads, and an interesting perspective. I would have tackled the subject a bit differently if I were to make a film about immigration, but we come to film festivals to be challenged and to watch gritty films that don’t appeal to the mainstream. Also, this was the director’s first feature film and I look forward to seeing what he does next.

    Other films of note include Sputnik Mania, The Silence Before Bach, and Its Better if Gabriela Doesn’t Die.

  • Anonymous

    “Metaphorical” was actually the word I heard them use, not “symbolic”–not much of a difference. I’m sticking with my first opinion on Around the Bay…moreover I’ve heard that the Saturday night turn out was more like 500 not 400. As for A Better Life, just because it dealt with the problem of illegal immigration, and the desperation of those who take the risk–it’s just not in the same league as Around the Bay, no matter how good the intentions of the filmmakers were, or how important the message was. the shot of the bureaucrat after he denied the food stamps to the two applicants, that was pretty bad for instance–and did the filmmakers justify their decision to suddenly drop out the English subtitles (were we supposed to realize what it was like to be in a place where few people speak your language, or what?
    I don’t want to make these movies compete–all they have in common is low-tech camera work and a limited amount of time to vie for an audience’s attention. The mainstream is the real enemy here…

  • RvB

    Didn’t mean to be anonymous. The previous comment is by me.

  • admin

    Symbolic or metaphoric, the found the violence at the end of A Better Life to be so jarring and over the top that it undercut the rest of the film. It was as if all the nuance went out the story to be replaced by the kind of raw sensation that shlock directors depend on. (MSG)

  • Festival Lover

    Jarring perhaps, but not shlock. There is actually very little blood in the film, with most of the violence happening off screen. The violence was pretty intense, but shlock is just not a fair assesment. I’ve seen shlock films – A Better Life doesn’t even come close.

    What are everyone’s thoughts on Anywhere USA?

  • Michael Gant

    I guess I have to go back to my screener. I saw lots of blood flying in A Better Life. It splattered all over the bedroom where the home invasion came to a bad end.

  • I apologize in advance for the long comment that follows, but I feel it’s warranted.

    It’s funny that these two films (ATB and UVM/ABL) have butted heads here. I have no idea why–it’s totally arbitrary really. There are some superficial similarities, but in substance they are grossly divergent. This little controversy is especially amusing because I have interacted more with Andrew (the director of UVM) and Mike (the composer) than with any other filmmakers at the festival, and my wife and Mike’s wife have sat around gushing about their children for hours on end–this went so far, in fact, that we were all joking about having the UVM folks stay in our San Jose condo with us (provided they don’t bring any shotguns!).

    I’ve fielded my share of personal insults since Saturday’s premiere of Around the Bay. The comments on this blog are comparatively gentle. Someone in the filmmaker’s lounge told me, “Around the Bay is a f*cking disaster!” I stayed and listened to his argument, thinking I would be better person for it. At some point in his vitriolic harangue, I realized that it was simply unacceptable to have to put up with something like that in the filmmakers’ lounge. There was another person there who seconded much of what my detractor had to say, and it was even less appropriate given her professional affiliation (I’ll refrain from naming the organization, but these people should be first and foremost in supporting the filmmaker). In any case, regardless of how much I may dislike a film, we are all here to support each other and be supported. I can’t imagine being able to muster the spite necessary to attack another filmmaker in the lounge.

    On Tuesday afternoon, an “average Joe” pass-holder stood outside the box office telling people in line that Around the Bay was “by far the worst film” he’d ever seen. Not just the worst film at Cinequest, but the worst film ever.

    In addition to these very memorable experiences, I’ve heard generally negative buzz from more than a dozen people at the festival and positive buzz from no one. But I have to confess that none of this really bothers me because backlash creates controversy, and controversy is far more powerful than hype alone. In fact, please come to our final screening on Saturday and walk out. Walkouts reinforce the convictions of those who stay. (See Steve Rhodes’s glowing Rotten Tomatoes review in which he mentions those who walked out of the ATB screening he attended.) If you watch the interview I did on Cinema Scene, you’ll see that I predicted this outcome before anyone had even seen Around the Bay. I said that I was wary of becoming a critics’ darling because that status increases the likelihood that average film-goers will not like your work. (And now I have to clarify that Richard von Busack is like Moses leading me and my film out of Egypt, and this complaint about being a critics’ darling is a cultural critique rather than a lack of gratitude toward the most vocal supporter of the film.)

    At both Q&As I joked about the boringness of Around the Bay. At our premiere, I said I was disappointed that we’d only had seven walkouts out of 500–I was expecting half the crowd to walk out. At our second screening I especially thanked those who’d stayed for the entire thing, noting that Around the Bay is not the sort of film I’d want to watch at four in the afternoon. If you read the interview Richard and I did (in this week’s Metro) you’ll learn that I was brought up on excruciatingly boring films, so I really can’t help it. I’m excited to learn what people think of my second feature, which is much more oblique than Around the Bay, with narrative strands which don’t even vaguely intersect and characters who are far more inscrutable. With any luck, it will be totally unwatchable.

    As for Una Vida Mejor (A Better Life), I want to say that I’ve spoken extensively with Andrew, the director, and he is one of the most earnest and open filmmakers I’ve met. He has immense integrity. It would be indiscreet of me to repeat anything here, but I can assure you he is humble about his film, not at all brash or schlocky. Our personal interaction has been pleasant and rewarding. Best of luck to the entire cast and crew of Una Vida Mejor.

  • Andrew James

    Wow. Just stumbled on this whole conversation today. I’m the writer and director of A Better Life and I appreciate all those who have taken the time to screen the film and to share their thoughts. I can handle constructive criticism and I’d love to be a part of this conversation. I would like to provide some explanations regarding my film.

    Alejandro, thanks for the kind words. I’m sorry that you’ve had to deal with people like that in the lounge. We’ve had some of that too.

    Michael, I appreciate your review and I actually agree with you to a point regarding the violence. If I were to make the film again, it would be a completely different animal – but that is just part of the growing process. In particular, the scene where Sam shoots Hector is borderline sensationalist for me. There were conflicts and disagreements with make-up during the entire shoot. The fact of the matter is, I was constantly trying to tone the blood down while others were trying to tone it up. We only had 5 grand to spend on the film and we just couldn’t do countless re-shoots. That’s just part of making a film. I don’t want to get defensive and downplay my film, but it is always nice to have context.

    If any of you have specific feedback, or questions, please fire away. One thing I do want to clear up is this complaint regarding the subtitles. This is a criticism that I don’t think carries any weight. In the scenes where the subtitles drop out, what is actually being said is not the main focus. I wanted the audience to stop reading and to connect with what the characters were doing instead of having to read subtitles.

    The scenes in question are pretty obvious to follow. Sofia is shopping with her children and interacting with employees at a local market, and Javier and his family are hosting a birthday party for their daughter. What stands out during these scenes is not what is being said, but what is being done. You don’t need subtitles to understand smiling, or clapping, or breaking a pinata. Some of that stuff is just universal and the idea is to get audiences to connect with these human similarities without having to read subtitles. There is something powerful about being able to connect with someone despite obvious language barriers.

    As for the third act, a lot of people really seem to get it and really like it. I’ve had lots of compliments from other filmmakers and today during the screening, there were audience members in tears. So the film seems to be working, at least for some people. It has generated all kinds of interesting discussion and debate during the Q&A’s, so it has been pretty rewarding in that sense as well.

    The film contains several different types of border crossings, the armed robbery being one of them. When Sam chases Omar down and beats him on the roof of the parking garage, the film is trying to capture this vigilante attitude that seems to be escalating among those who oppose immigration. We as a culture and society, are going out of our way to punish people who we perceive as threats. Perceptions play a large role in this film.

    Omar eventually becomes a threat to Sam becuase he is manipluted by circumstance, negative perceptions that have been placed on him by our society, identity questions, and cultural expectations. He participates in the robbery becuase he feels that he has no options. He makes a poor decision, and for a lot of reasons. Desperation is one reason, but so is self-perception. Because Omar is here “illegally,” and he’s already been branded as a “criminal,” petty crime just doesn’t seem like such a big deal anymore. This is where labels and perceptions, both internal and external, become a factor in Omar’s decision. None of this is overtly discussed in the film, but rather exists within the subtext. Perhaps I should have made some of these issues more overt before launching into the highly overt third act.

    However, there are hints and references to these issues all throughout the film. During the second act, Omar and Sofia have a conversation where Omar insists that they are criminals and Sofia compares Omar to a gringo. We’ve screened A Better Life for a lot of Latinos and they really connect with this conversation. Almost across the board, Latinos are picking up on the internal struggle that Omar is facing in the film regarding his identity. Interestingly, anglos have not been picking up on this. Understanding this identity struggle is crucial to the film. I’ve had two different women, who have actually crossed the border illegally, come up to me in tears, thanking me for making this film.

    A Better Life is largely about perceptions. The majority of “Americans” see illegal immigration as a threat and the reaction can be very violent. The third act in particular, tries to represent these perceptions and survival mechanisms on both sides.

    Although I can entertain the idea that some of the violence is borderline sensationalist, I disagree with the word, shlock. The film doesn’t objectify the characters. Shlock films are designed to entertain and to titilate. If you want shlock, go watch Day of the Woman, or an Eli Roth film. The violence in A Better Life was designed to be gritty and repulsive -to shock people out of apathy. To be fair, I think the word shlock has been thrown around unjustly.

    If the film doesn’t work for you, that’s fine. However, I think my perspective on the film can bring insight into this discussion. I’d love to continue this conversation and discuss A Better Life if any of you feel inclined.

    As for Around the Bay, I still haven’t seen it, but I’ll be there this weekend and I’m really, really looking forward to it. Comparing these two films seems silly. It seems to me that both films have something unique to offer and we should discussing each film for what it is.

  • Andrew James

    After much discussion and deliberation, we have decided to cut a new version of A Better Life, using feedback that we have received at this year’s festival. Cinequest was our first chance to screen the film for a large audience in a theater and the feedback has been insightful. We have taken a step back to be truly objective about our film and have decided to make some major changes, especially regarding the third act.

    Michael, thanks for your review. And to all those who have screened the film, thanks for taking the time as well. We look forward to sharing the final cut with you in the near future.

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