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Reel World: Sridhar Reddy's Indian indie feature '19 Revolutions' shows Cinequest's international side.

Cinequest Cascade

This year's Cinequest film festival in San Jose boasts more than 175 features and shorts

By Richard von Busack

THAT thundering in the distance? It's the preliminary hubbub over one of the largest events to hit downtown San Jose: the film festival known as Cinequest. At 15, the festival has grown in both size and reputation, heading for international status.

From March 2 to 13, the sprawling festival combines visiting stars, rising American independents and powwowing of digital CEOs. Cinequest spreads all over at central San Jose, including the Camera 12, the California Theatre, San Jose Repertory Theatre and the University Theater at San Jose State.

The red-letter names aren't yet signed in. At this stage, conversations with Cinequest spokesperson Jens Hussey can be parsed to something like "Gov. Schwarzenegger will be definitely be returning this year, unless he isn't." The festival that brought everyone from Kevin Spacey to William H. Macy to San Jose will definitely be drawing some big-name stars. Says Hussey: "There will be celebrity events, but we did marketing research last year, and what we found overwhelmingly was that what people wanted was movies, movies, movies, movies."

Indeed, it will be just that many movies. Out of a Niagara of foreign and indie films, judges selected the finalists. Hussey counts 1,777 films that were submitted and 1,202 shorts. This unthinkable mass of disks and cassettes has been winnowed down to 179 programs in both categories, including 80 U.S. or world premieres from 37 countries. Latino and Asian cinemas have their own "certain regard" categories. But documentaries—always a Bay Area specialty—are always the first to be penciled in. One sure standout is Amazing Grace: Jeff Buckley, a piece about the ill-fated folk singer produced by Los Altosans Laurie Trombley and Nyla Bialek Adams. Emmanuel's Gift concerns a legless Ghanian who made himself a mobile plea for peace by riding his bicycle across his native country.

From Cuba comes Boxer and Ballerina by Mike Cahill and Brit Marling, which looks at the two disciplines as practiced in Cuba. Director and author Laura Kightlinger, who plays nurse Sheila on TV's Will and Grace, is bringing 60 Spins Around the Sun. This documentary, exec-produced by Jack Black, concerns the medical-marijuana activists Randy Credilo. Among other things, Credilo helped get several people wrongly imprisoned out of a jail in Tulia, Texas.

Similar hot-button issues occur in Missionary Position, a documentary about the website xxxchurch.com and its creators: a pair of Christians who try to lure porn-surfers to repent when they stumble onto their URL. Check their site and find testimonials like "I fully believe a person could walk into an adult bookstore blindfolded and still feel a strong, sensuous spirit in the air. ... [They are] a gathering place of demonic spirits that affect people. That's why Paul warned believers to "make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts." Touring with an inflatable 25-foot penis they've nicknamed "Wally," these two evangelicals—or are they deadpan pranksters?—try to save souls by showing skin. (There's nothing new; around 300 C.E., the Phibionite sect of Gnostics used orgies as part of their Christian rituals. They were excommunicated, sadly enough.)

Accordion Tribe, the Swiss-made profile of some squeeze-box all-stars, shows the co-existence of an ensemble of different nationalities—Baltic, Balkan and American alike. Director Stefan Schwietert previously did the tale of a klezmer band in A Tickle in the Heart, seen at the San Jose Jewish Film Fest.

The opening and closing nights at the newly revived California Theatre feature two crowd-pleasers. José Roberto Torero's Manual for Love Stories from Brazil is an A-Z guide on how to find romance, or how to squelch it good. "It floored the audience at the Montreal Film Festival," says Cinequest programmer Mike Rabehl. The afterparty takes place at the Paragon Restaurant and Bar.

The closing-night film is a Norse comedy by Annette Sjursen, My Jealous Barber. It is a love triangle set in the high-stakes, thrill-packed world of haircutting; viewers can catch their breath at Blake's Steakhouse and O'Flaherty's Irish Pub for the gala afterward.

Roger Evan Larry's Crossing is likely the world's first Mafia transvestite story. It co-stars chantootsy Bif Naked, whose performance of her song "The Lucky Ones" on the soundtrack of Buffy the Vampire Slayer added tang to an already tangy werewolf-human-werewolf ménage.

As always, Cinequest focuses on the development of movies, not just the watching of them. "We're known as a very filmmaker-friendly film festival," says Cinequest co-founder Halfdan Hussey. More than 634 screenplays were submitted for this year's screenplay contest—up from 271 the previous year. The judges narrowed down the flood to 10 finalists who got notes from the jury and a two-week deadline to rewrite them.

"In only one case did the rewriting make it worse," Jens Hussey informs me enigmatically. Box-office viability wasn't the ruling criterion: "We didn't discount them because they were too big budget or too small budget." Special Day of the Writer and Day of the Producer installments will help local moviemakers hone their skills.

This year, Cinequest retains its niche as the most cyber-enabled of all film festivals. Cinequest, which began 15 years ago with films done on 16 mm, now has a huge selection of digital films. "Nobody has this level of tech," boasts Hussey. Copy-protected trailers for all shows will be available online at www.cinequest.org. Each day of the fest, the site will include a short webcast about what's screening. In addition, a Viewer's Choice segment allows visitors to the site to pick their three favorite features and three favorite shorts, which will be brought back for encore performance.

Personnel from Adobe, Canon, Kinoma and PalmSource will attend panels and workshops. Mike Homer, chairman of Kontiki, as well as execs from Netflix, will meet for public discussions about online exhibition that will allow alternative filmmakers to get their work out—without getting their work stolen.

Within about five years, the idea of a shot-on-digital film will be as unremarkable as the once-radical idea of a film without studio financing. For example, Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation was noteworthy for being the first movie composed on iMovie. Yet it was Caouette's portrait of his troubled mother that kept viewers coming back.

At this point, Cinequest's digital showcase, DXD, is still a separate venue for nonfilm film. This year's edition includes Able Edwards, Graham Robertson's home-brewed sci-fi epic, exec-produced by a Mr. Soderbergh and shot with a green Mini-DV with digital sets composed on a Mac.

Dark Arc is a high-tech love triangle. Matt Lopin's Impulse offers a dystopic view of instant communications. Losing Ground, by Bryan Wisemann, profiles a half-dozen addicts, and On the Outs is an urban docudrama about life in rotting Jersey City. Robert Brinkmann's Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party profiles the actor's life and hard times.

Finally, Chris Gore's My Big Fat Independent Movie lampoons the idea of getting a camera and starting shooting—this from the founder of Film Threat, whose public praise of Cinequest has helped it along during the first 15 years. On March 6, Gore will host a discussion titled "Digital Effects on a Dime." Ironically, the panel costs $10.

Cinequest's role in bringing the world to the valley only seems more impressive as the fest turns 15. Watch this space for details of screenings, celebrities and special events, as well as accounts of clashing egos, egregious attempted art and public meltdowns.

Cinequest takes place March 2-13 at Camera 12 and other theaters in downtown San Jose. (Full Disclosure: Metro is a major sponsor of Cinequest.)

Wigging Out: Maverick Spirit Award recipient Ben Kingsley, in a still from the 2002 movie 'Triumph of Love.'

Cinequest Mavericks Announced

And when, exactly, is James Garner, TV's Bret Maverick, going to be invited to be one of Cinequest's featured mavericks? Not this year. But the mavericks turning up at the San Jose Film Festival have just been announced.

It occurs to me that I've never read an interview with Akim Tamiroff—that reliable Russian actor who played all nationalities east of Suez. (Tamiroff's Slavic croak survives in the public's memory, thanks to Paul Frees' imitation of the actor in the cartoon form of Boris Badanov.)

Tamiroff probably worked for more directors than many stars: Stanislavsky in the theater, and then in the cinema with Lubitsch, Mamoulian, Welles, Lewis Milestone, de Sica, Godard—what a fountain of anecdotes Tamiroff must have been.

And the two announced mavericks, Sir Ben Kinglsey and Jon Polito take up where Tamiroff left off, experts at playing men from everywhere on the map.

Polito is more directly like the sinister Tamiroff. Local director Scott Smith's Charlie the Ox—featured at the film fest—turns up for a special program titled "Polito: American Dynamo" (March 5 at 5:15pm at the San Jose Rep Theater).

Polito is an ace at playing trans-Danubian weirdoes, loudmouths, perverts and volcanically tempered New York apartment superintendents. As the latter, Jon Polito had a tasty tidbit on Seinfeld—standing on a sidewalk, deriding the hero's "fancy-boy" leather European carryall (infamous as the "man purse.")

Capped with a frightful toupee and sprawling on a bed, Polito minces words with Billy Bob Thornton in The Man Who Wasn't There. It's possible that he is the key to the character's mystery, at least if The Nation's critic Stuart Klawans is right in his hunch.

And Lebowskists will want to be in the presence of Polito, who was the detective in the Volkswagen following the intrepid Dude in hopes of picking up shamus tips.

Ben Kingsley, recently knighted for his acting, turns up Saturday, March 5 at 2pm at the California Theatre for a discussion of his life and art.

Kingsley won his Oscar for a part that some hoped would be played by a flashlight. Richard Attenborough, director of Gandhi, had been urged to depict the liberator of India as a spot of holy light on screen.

Attenborough replied, "I'm not directing bloody Tinkerbell."

Kingsley's Gandhi was a success: everything Hollywood ever wanted to be, went the joke, tan, thin and moral.

Through resilience, this Yorkshireman broke out of sanctity, winning much praise as the punishing, truculent gangster in Sexy Beast. I preferred him as a Dr. Watson who longed to be dreaded in the underworld as "The Crime Doctor" in Without a Clue, and I remember how brilliant he was as the is-he-or-isn't-he war criminal in Polanski's hackles-raising Death and the Maiden. He wasn't half-bad as Feste in Trevor Nunn's underrated Twelfth Night: just as Feste sings, Kinglsey strives to please every day, just as the first-class, all-purpose extra-strength actor ought.

Richard von Busack

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From the February 2-8, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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