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Cinequest '97

Metroactive's Cinequest reviews, sorted alphabetically by movie title


Cinequest takes place Jan. 30­Feb. 5 at the UA Pavilion and Camera 3 in San Jose. Tickets available through BASS.

Afro Promo
Feb. 4, 9:30pm, UA
A selection of coming-attraction reels assembled by archivists Jenni Olson and Karl Bruce Knapper provides a crash course in images of African Americans in mainstream movies. The trailers progress from Uncle Remus to the staid Sidney Portier, introduced in previews that always reassured whites by showing off a film's awards ("This isn't a mere movie, this is going to church"), to the berserk era of vintage blaxploitation--cheer once again for William Marshall, the most organ-voiced vampire ever to wear fangs, in Blacula. There are lots of discoveries here even for people who though they knew their '70s exploitation. One I'd never heard of was the Fred Williamson/D'Uberville Martin Western Boss Nigger, sort of a serious version of Blazing Saddles. (The ultimate white nightmare: a black sheriff hauling off a gray miscreant with the admonishment "That's two days in jail or a $20 fine for using the word 'nigger!'" Rush warned us this could happen, but we didn't listen.) (Richard von Busack)

Bitches
Feb. 3, 9:15pm; Feb. 4, 3:15pm; UA
Ildikó Szabó's take on love and war between the sexes focuses less on the women than on the jerks they put up with. Not that these shrews are angels: Eniko (Eniko Eszenyi) thrusts a phallic finger through her panties and marches around in army boots while her husband does the housework; Dorka (Dorottya Udvaros) gets falling-down drunk, tears off her clothes in public, vomits in her husband's hand and flaunts her youthful lover at her husband's bar; Barbara (Mariann Szalay) forces a confrontation between her alcoholic boyfriend (a philandering artist who paints "with my dick, not a brush") and the fiercely mustachioed leader of a (musical) band of Gypsies. Although a lot was apparently untranslatable in this often grim Hungarian import, it's peppered with wild and funny vignettes that make it easy to watch. For extra fun, try to guess the sex of the filmmaker. (Broos Campbell)

Black to the Promised Land
Jan. 31, 5:15pm, UA; Feb. 1, 7:30pm, C3
A group of teenage African American students from New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant district travel to Israel. There they do agricultural work in exchange for room and board in accordance with the maxim "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" (when the head of the kibbutz, or communal farm, explains this idea, he doesn't cite Karl Marx). At first, the dozen or so kids have a horrible time adjusting; to her vast humiliation, one of them actually ends up assigned to a cotton field ("Kunta Kinte is dead, but I'm here," she says disgustedly). But by the end of the trip, most have come to love the spirit of cooperation on the commune and respect themselves for the new strength they've found. Wholesome, yes, but as touching as it is subversive, and the documentary ends on a diminuendo. At the beginning, director Madeleine Ali polls the students, getting the opinion that Bed-Stuy's terrible reputation is due to the fact that strangers in the neighborhood have a hard time. After their travels, the students themselves are strangers of a sort. Their adjustment to the hopelessness back home makes the ending serious and poignant. (Richard von Busack)

Blue Mountain
It Takes Two: Melanie (Sabrina Luthi) and Sonia (Chandra Gotz) stick together in 'Blue Mountain.'

Blue Mountain
Feb. 1, 4:45pm; Feb. 3, 7:15pm; both at UA
In his feature directorial debut, Thomas Tanner has crafted a powerful story about the friendship forged between two young girls who are both struggling with some very real demons. Usually bright and motivated, Sonia begins failing at school and becomes increasingly despondent as she shoulders a destructive family secret. But she is heartened by the arrival of the vivacious Melanie, who, despite troubles of her own, becomes Sonia's champion. Inescapably, as the girls come to rely on each other for support and survival, the film takes on a hint of teenage Thelma & Louise, but Blue Mountain has a darker, more nightmarish aspect to it, in part because it focuses on two children who must ultimately act as adults to protect themselves. Tanner effectively reinforces this drama with a subtle but insistent use of the contrast between peaceful, pastoral outdoor scenes and staid, floorboard-creaking interiors. (Heather Zimmerman)

Changing Habits
Jan. 30, 6:30pm, UA
Director Lynn Roth's drama struggles with the inner conflict of its heroine, Soosh (Moira Kelly), a young woman who, after seeking shelter at the local convent, ends up confronting her disturbing past. The film attempts to explore issues of honesty--the truths and lies we tell ourselves and others--but doesn't always do so honestly, often shrinking back into predictable plot points and dialogue. Fortunately, when the characters stray from their generally too-coy patter, the appealing and genuine moments that result are worth the wait. Most intriguing are the scenes between Soosh and her estranged father (Christopher Lloyd in a dark but touching performance). Kelly's intuitive, thoughtful interpretation makes Soosh a consistently likable, sympathetic character even when she pulls off some relatively bratty--and dishonest--behavior. This opening-night feature will be preceded by Women Without Implants, and followed by a party with music (by Lady Bo) at Kismet Art Gallery. (Heather Zimmerman)

The Closest Thing to Heaven
Dixie Digs: Howard (Michael Mattison) extols the virtues of the New South in 'The Closest Thing to Heaven.'

The Closest Thing to Heaven
Jan. 31, 5:15pm; Feb. 1, 3:30pm; both at UA
Working the territory between the picaresqueness of Slacker and the psychodrama of Short Cuts, Dorne Pentes' feature tracks the fortunes of a grab bag of Charlotte, N.C., folks during a long, lazy afternoon. A lovelorn drunk tries to win back his wife; a brother and sister confront the death of their mother; another pair of siblings cope with their aging father; two stoners concoct futile money-making schemes. The various vignettes are tied together by a white-suit-clad narrator who imparts lightly sardonic facts about the new South and introduces an excruciating rendition of "Dixie" by the world's worst Elvis imitator. The stories all tend toward overly sentimental resolutions, but the film manages to sustain a congenial touch throughout, avoiding the too-easy trap of condescending to its characters' flaws. (Michael S. Gant)

The Delicate Art of the Rifle
Feb. 2, 9pm; Feb. 3, 3:30pm; UA
When will student filmmakers learn that student life is interesting only to students? The first 30 minutes of The Delicate Art of the Rifle track the solipsistic musings (in voice-over) of a University of North Carolina nerd named Jay (David Grant) up to a satiric turning point when the nerd's roommate, who claims to hail from a long line of famous snipers, takes a rifle to a rooftop and starts shooting ("This, too, can be a learning experience," announces a fatuously optimistic school official over the loudspeaker as bloody bodies fly through the quad). Too bad that director D.W. Harper doesn't really have anything to say about the American penchant for violence that he didn't learn from Oliver Stone. Bonus points for the very funny sorority fashion show with the sisters modeling ensembles inspired by Hamlet. (Michael S. Gant)

Fiesta
Feb. 2, 7:45pm; Feb. 4, 9pm, UA
An idealistic young man joins the fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War, only to be stunned into an amoral funk by a series of ritualistic executions presided over by the seductively cruel Col. Masagual (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Director/writer Pierre Boutron scores some effective--if easy--points about class warfare (the rich take no prisoners when their money is threatened), but Fiesta suffers from a serious narrative elision when the protagonist inexplicably takes a fancy to a condemned young woman and develops a conscience. As a further distraction, Boutron makes Col. Masagual an old queen with a bitchy young aide--their scenes together look like outtakes from Kiss of the Spider Woman. Holding the rapidly disintegrating pieces together is French film veteran Trintignant (My Night at Maud's, The Conformist), who revels in the colonel's unapologetic speeches in defense of class and privilege. His face practically melting into his dressing gown, Trintignant is the perfect picture of the decadence spawned by social hierarchies. (Michael S. Gant)

Follow the Bitch (Feb. 1, 9:30pm, C3; and Feb. 3, 11pm, UA Pavilion)

The Goat Horn
Feb. 3, 1:30pm; Feb. 4, 9:15pm; UA
We certainly don't get many Bulgarian films around these parts. This melodrama by director/producer/writer Nikolai Volev starts out cheap but becomes more complex as it goes along. It's set about 100 years ago. Avenging the death of his wife, raped and murdered by Turks, a farmer turns vigilante; his cropped-haired daughter Maria, mute from having witnessed the assault, accompanies him on his missions of revenge. Not everything goes as planned. Incestuous tensions and the softening of Maria's heart complicate what might have been an ordinary rape/retribution movie. Often quite strange, but always action-packed and sometimes touching; Elena Petrova (as Maria) is certainly an unusual presence: half Harpo Marx, half Benicio del Toro. (Richard von Busack)

Herbert's Hippopotamus
Feb. 1, 12:15pm; Feb. 3, 4:30pm; both at UA
At UC-San Diego in the late 1960s, German philosopher Herbert Marcuse (One-Dimensional Man) galvanized student activists with his analysis of capitalist discontent and drove conservatives (who couldn't even agree on how to pronounce his name) to frothing rage with his unique blend of Marx and Freud. This Danish documentary traces the uproar over Marcuse during the Vietnam War protests, when everyone from the VFW to Gov. Ronald Reagan wanted the elderly professor sacked. Director Paul Alexander has assembled some fascinating period footage and interviewed many of the participants, but the film never really succeeds at explicating Marcuse's message. Overly fascinated with Southern California's "exoticness," director Paul Alexander Juutilainen doesn't seem to see that Marcuse's notion of revolution proceeding from the marginalized rather than the working class fomented some of the worst tendencies (elitism and self-absorption) of the student New Left. (Michael S. Gant)

Jennifer Jason Leigh (Jan. 31, 7pm, UA Pavilion)
Last Exit to Brooklyn (Jan. 31, 7 p.m, UA Pavilion)
Georgia (Feb. 1, 12:30pm, UA Pavilion)
Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (Feb. 2, 9:15pm, UA Pavilion)

Koyla
Feb. 1, 7pm, UA
This late addition to the Cinequest schedule just won the Golden Globe award for best foreign film.

Lost in Mississippi
Jan. 31, 5pm; Feb. 1, 2:45pm; both at UA
A loose "mondo Mississippi"-style documentary that investigates the story of a rash of prison suicides. Director Jim Chambers talks to a series of penal authorities in Mississippi--one of whom claims that a prisoner under his care killed himself to make the prison look bad. Chambers' subjects are either genuinely innocent or among the smoothest-faced liars in North America. Apart from the main story, the documentary is marred by trendy camerawork and intrusive, obvious narration--typically, when Chambers gets footage of something interesting, like an 11-year-old kid who claims to worship Satan, he'll underscore what we've just seen: "An 11-year-old devil worshipper." (Richard von Busack)

Luna e l'altra (Jan. 30, 7:15 pm, UA Pavilion)

Madagascar Skin
Feb. 1, 7:30pm; Feb. 4, 5:15pm; both at UA
A droll and surreal story of a marked man with a spectacular port-wine birthmark--"stain" isn't the word; it's more as if someone had doused him with an entire bottle of Sandeman's. Rejected at the gay discos, lonely Harry (John Hannah) flees to a remote coast to be seen no more by man. Beachcombing after a storm, Harry finds some human flotsam: Flint (the affable but devilish Bernard Hill), a sort of tattooed mer-man, found buried up to his neck in the sand. Chris Newby's tale of the courtship could have used a little more narrative tension, but it's a very peculiar love story, one that has enough weight to keep from evaporating. Newby, whose handsome, strange Anchoress played at the 1994 Cinequest, here demonstrates a sensibility you'd love to see more of. (Richard von Busack)

Mary Paradox and Grace
Feb. 4, 5:30pm, UA
A documentary about Mary Holmes, artist and UC-Santa Cruz professor emeritus who, deep into old age, completed the building of a chapel in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz director Karen Watson breaks up various of Holmes' pronouncements on the subject of art and religion with animation and quotes on title cards, but the film is static, composed mostly of Holmes in tight close-up discussing notions like meekness, love and hope. A devoted but terribly vague film. (Richard von Busack)

Never, Again, Forever
Feb. 1, 12:30pm, C3 and Feb. 4, 5pm, C3
"So, the Italians pushed the Hasidim onto the sidewalk, and the JDL were all over them--WHAM," said a schoolmate of mine in 1970 in New York City, relating a story his older brother told him about the two-year old paramilitary cadre from Brooklyn. Then, the JDL (Jewish Defense League) seemed like a thuggish kid brother to the ADL (Jewish Anti-Defamation League); through my schoolboy's eyes, they seemed nobler than the other JDs (Juvenile Delinquents); their violence was purposeful. First-time director/producers Danae Elon and Pierre Chainet, both a few years younger than the JDL itself, dispel such illusions in their riveting document. Members of the JDL tell their own story, from the group's founding as a neighborhood vigilante group in 1968 by Rabbi Meir Kahane to shooting at the Soviet embassy in 1971 to protest the oppression of Soviet Jews. The JDL members' fanatical actions sound pragmatic as they tell their own stories. One of the many émigrés to the occupied West Bank deplores the 1994 slaughter of 30 Moslems in Hebron, because JDL member Dr. Goldstein machine-gunned the Moslems during prayer--that's a no-no. But I could still see why his children could see him as a hero. This unforgettable documentary drips Old Testament blood vengeance onto Jean Renoir's rueful observation that the tragedy of this world is that everyone has their reasons. (Don Hines)

Partners for Life
Jan. 31, midnight, UA
Long-time friends and small-time criminals Brad (Ryan Haynes) and Tommy (local director/writer/co-producer Pete Anderson) clash when Tommy falls in love with a poet (Alice-Gray Lewis). Besides a few commendable ideas (such as using black-and-white stills for a flashback), Partners for Life is mostly a lot of talk and not very much action. It can be summed up by the end title, directed toward people who told Anderson he couldn't make the movie: "We did it, so eat fatt [sic] dick." Shouldn't that be "phat"? Filmed locally at such locations as the Ajax Lounge and Coconut Willies, and featuring a gangsta-rap soundtrack by Francis H. (Richard von Busack)

Pin Gods
Jan. 31, 7:15pm; Feb. 2, 8:45pm; both at C3
With cool, calm and collected reigning champion Walter Ray Williams pacing the way, newcomers Tony, Sonny and Bob learn why only a handful of bowlers make a living at the sport. In this absorbing documentary, filmmakers Jan Grznar and Larry Locke keep a straight face while their subjects wax lyrical about their dreams, but Pin Gods slowly takes on the weight of a genuine drama. By the time Sonny starts quarreling on camera with his impossibly critical father (who makes the dad in Shine look like Jimmy Carter), the stakes are genuinely affecting. As an added bonus, legendary pin god Carmen Salvino offers a running (make that racing) commentary on the "nature of the beast." (Michael S. Gant)

Riding the Rails
Feb. 2, 12:30pm; Feb. 4, 5pm; both at C3
During the hard times of the Depression, legions of displaced teenagers hopped freights in search of work. For some, it was an adventure; for others, a dangerous slide into desperate poverty. Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell's documentary combines historical newsreel clips with some marvelous reminiscences of hard times (including one very resourceful woman's) is often awe-inspiring; indeed, one Bob "Guitar Whitey" Symmonds still jumps aboard a beckoning freight. Face into the wind, he's a figure worthy of London or Kerouac. Riding the Rails provides a useful reminder of what happens when a country neglects the economic well-being of the many in favor of the few, although the narration tends toward the annoyingly overearnest. (Michael S. Gant)

Saint Clara
Jan. 31, 7pm; Feb. 3, 7:15pm; both at UA
In Israel in 1999, Clara, "a weird Russian girl with purple eyes" (Lucy Dubinchik, who outdoes even Natalie Portman in chipmunkhood), evinces a gift of prophecy and telepathy. Slow and uneven but quite funny in spots: Clara's teacher has a great and highly unlikely story to tell about the best day of his life. You wonder why more futuristic films aren't made in Israel. It is the land of the future--because there's lots of terrorism and alienating architecture there. (Richard von Busack)

The Scottish Tale

The Scottish Tale
Feb. 3, 5pm, UA
Two-thirds of this locally made comedy by Mackinley Polhemus are hilarious. The Scottish Tale is a melodrama of Mac, an expatriate Scots poet in Inverness, Calif., suffering under the weight of a prophecy. His three witchly aunts have read in their tea leaves that he will be married to his brother's wife. The best parts are the appealing comedic acting by Joshua Polhemus as the melancholy Scot and an inspired sequence about the revenger's tragedy of a ghostly dead skunk (played by an inexpensive-looking puppet). First feature films are so often inevitably awash with self-love or drunk on Quentin Tarantino; by contrast, The Scottish Tale has wit and imagination. Even with an ending that traffics in far too much sweetness, it's clear that the brothers Polhemus are talents to watch. (Richard von Busack)

Tierra
Jan. 31, 7pm; Feb. 3, 7:15pm; both at UA
Angel is a man whose utter confusion about the meaning of life has led him to believe that he is half man and half angel. He comes to a small farming settlement for the pedestrian task of eradicating a plague of lice from the local vineyards and discovers a close-knit rural community that inhabits a dramatic land of rolling clouds and sweeping vistas of red earth where fatal lightning strikes occur with unsettling regularity. Defining Angel's quandary about spiritual and earthly existence are two women: Angela, his intellectual ideal, and Mari, his sexual counterpart. Complicating Angel's unswerving attraction to both women is the volatile Patricio, Angela's husband and Mari's lover. The clashes between Angel and Patricio are far more interesting than Angel's relationships with either of the women, for as dangerous and dark as Patricio is, he represents the kind of swift and determined action that the confused Angel is not capable of. More often than not, Angela and Mari are just two among the many biblically inspired symbols that define Angel's perspective. In fact, with its ubiquitous symbolism, Tierra vacillates between a bold, effective study of the human condition and mere melodrama. (Heather Zimmerman)

Timeless
Feb. 1, 5pm; Feb. 2, 11am; both at UA
The title unfortunately describes the experience of sitting through this mysteriously acclaimed independent feature. Jean-Luc Godard by way of Martin Scorsese, Timeless uses a panoply of flashy visual techniques to dress up a tired tale of iconic young losers who run afoul of criminal types and must grasp at doomed romance in the few days left to them. The acting is so uniformly flat and uncharismatic that Melissa Duge sticks in the memory only because she's the sole woman in the film. (Michael S. Gant)

Village of Dreams
Feb. 1, 6:45pm; Feb. 2, 2:30pm; both at UA
Based on a picture book by artists and twin brothers Seizo and Yukihiko Tashima, this quiet yet generally engaging film offers a subtle retelling of the coming-of-age tale. Set against striking scenery and infused with Japanese mythology, Village of Dreams recounts the Tashima brothers' idyllic childhood in a small village in post-WWII Japan. Visually faithful to the fact that it takes inspiration from the lives of two illustrators, the film relies heavily on picturesque detail with lush, lingering cinematography. Through the misadventures of Seizo and Yukihiko, Village of Dreams both recreates a microcosm of society and creates a unique world that combines nature and children's imagination. As out-of-towners, the Tashima family finds its urban sensibilities pitted against the rural way of thinking, a conflict that the young brothers' penchant for mischief only exacerbates. In their forays into the natural world around them, Seizo and Yukihiko do get into more harmless trouble, but they also create a fantastic world of their own, populated by wood sprites, mysterious voices and three watchful old women from Japanese mythology who seem at once to denounce and encourage the mischievous boys. (Heather Zimmerman)

Wild Bill
Feb. 5, 7pm, UA
This superlative documentary looks at the live and work of one of Hollywood's most underrated directors, William Wellman. After winning the very first Academy Award for Wings (which is represented in some breathtaking clips of the aerial ballet scenes), Wellman made a successful transition to talkies. Everyone is familiar with the famous shot of Jimmy Cagney shoving a grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face in Public Enemy, but the few clips from Wild Boys of the Road make the viewer long for a revival of what looks to be one of the best social-issues films of the 1930s. In the 1940s and '50s, Wellman often ran afoul of studio-dictated nonsense, and his work became, sadly, somewhat erratic. Wild Bill screens with The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage, a short feature about Sam Peckinpah and the making of The Wild Bunch. The black-and-white behind-the-scenes footage will be of interest mostly to dedicated fans. (Michael S. Gant)

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From the January 23-29 and January 30-February 5, 1997 issue of Metro

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