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[whitespace] 'North Beach'
Wastrel Not, Want Not: The denizens of 'North Beach' glide through a comic day of slackerdom in Jed Mortenson and Richard Speight Jr.'s film.

Cineful Delight

Our critics get a head start on this year's screenings

IN A TIDY if trivial coincidence, Cinequest 11 runs for 11 days (Feb. 22-March 4) this year, from the opening-night world premiere of local director Kari Nevil's Your Guardian to the closing-night presentation of Amores Perros. Our critics have gotten a jump on the crowded schedule thanks to the rapidly dating miracle of videotape, and offer their capsule opinions below--with many more to follow next week.

In addition to the films, Cinequest features a number of special presentations (again, to be featured in next week's edition of our continuing coverage of the festival), most notably personal appearances by Billy Bob Thornton (Feb. 24) and Spike Lee (March 2-4) along with a conference on advances in filmmaking called Digital by Digital (March 2-4).

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Sprocket To Me: Local filmmakers turn their cameras on themselves in movies about movies.

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CINEQUEST runs Feb. 22-March 4 at the Camera Cinemas, Second and San Carlos streets, San Jose; the AMC Saratoga 14, 700 El Paseo de Saratoga; and the Aquarius Theatre, 420 Emerson St., Palo Alto. Full festival passes are $195. The opening-night gala (including a party at Scott's) and the closing-night screening (with a party at A.P. Stump's) are $35 each. Tributes are $10-$25. The DXD seminar's are $20 each. Individual screenings are $7 students and seniors/$8 general. Call 408.295.FEST for ticket information. (Full Disclosure: Metro is one of the executive sponsors of the festival.)


Winner's Circle

Alcatraz Is Not an Island
1/2 (U.S.; 70 min.)

James M. Fortier's engrossing account of a largely unheard story: how the American Indian movement literally regained ground after the seizure of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, 1969-72. The story begins with the history of 1953's HR 108 bill, titled "Relocation and Termination," which tried to assimilate Indians with the eventual aim of the closing of the reservations. This bill had the effect of relocating Native Americans to the Bay Area, and when San Francisco and Berkeley went radical, so did the exiled Native Americans.

Under the terms of a treaty with the Sioux, the federal government decreed that abandoned land could be reclaimed by Indian nations. When the federal prison on Alcatraz closed, an ever-growing community of Indians took over the Rock--a location that, as artist Adam Fortunate Eagle comments, looked like most reservations anyway: "Removed from society, no running water, lots of unemployment and not enough game to survive on."

This well-researched film tells how Alcatraz became a symbol of resistance, and how the occupation disintegrated into factionalization from within and succumbed to pressure from without. It also reintroduces a forgotten figure: Richard Oaks, the charismatic Mohawk spokesman who withdrew from the occupation because of personal tragedy. Among other things, Oaks appears to be the inspiration for the movie hero Billy Jack. (RvB)

(Screens with Popcorn! Feb. 24 at 7:30pm and Feb. 25 at 7pm at Camera 3.)


Amargosa
(U.S.; 93 min.)

Amargosa, by Todd Robinson, is a mesmerizing cinematic surprise; an offbeat, often-moving tale of a singularly odd woman. Marta Becket, age 74, is a semireclusive painter and ballet dancer who resides in a remote ghost town, Death Valley Junction, population 10. For decades, Becket's been out there in the middle of nowhere, performing inexplicable "dance-mime." Her venue is the grandly named Amargosa Opera House, a once-deteriorating meeting hall that Becket named the Amargosa after the former mining town's original name. Amargosa is a story of loss and redemption in which an eccentric dreamer attempts to lose her demons in the desert and half-succeeds; an inspirational tale in which a lone soul bravely pursues her art for the sheer pleasure and blissful salvation of the artistic act. If this were fiction--if Marta Becket were not a real person--then the whole oddball-in-the-desert scenario might seem like something dreamed up by David Lynch. But Becket is very much the real thing. Robinson's respectful, knowingly tangential documentary explores Becket's enigmatic existence with equal parts affection and amusement. To some, these tangents might seem like a bit too much, but others will recognize that their value--the life of a person or a place, cannot be understood by focusing on a single point of interest. These goofy side-trips into What-the-hell Land allow us to see a little bit of what Becket sees and loves about living in this barren but magical environment. (DT)

(Feb. 24 at 6:15pm and Feb. 25 at 2:30pm at Camera 1 and March 3 at 4:45pm at AMC Saratoga 14.)


Comrades
1/2 (U.S.; 106 min.)

"Time has come that a man will burn down his brother's house... the war did its job. Like a bad habit, it enters people." The words are from a Kosovo farmer who, we learn, was later to lose everything he had during the most recent stages of the civil war in the Balkans. Director Mitko Panov, from Macedonia, served his one-year stint in Marshal Tito's federal army in 1981 and then went to New York to live. Almost two decades later, Panov returned to his homeland with a video camera to look up the men who had been in his barracks. They were soldiers from all over the country--Croat, Serb and Muslim--and Panov finds them--when he can find them--scattered all over the map, each with his own tale of loss, and of homes and families destroyed. You couldn't ask for a better or more poignant set of "before" and "after" pictures of Yugoslavia than Panov shows in this story of his search for the men he once knew. (RvB)

(Feb. 25 at 11:30am and Feb. 26 at 7pm at Camera 3.)


Down Time
(U.S.; 90 min.)

Newly incarcerated with a drug problem, Slim has got to learn the ropes on the inside fast if he's going to navigate furtive prison protocol and the trafficking gang system. Penitentiary warfare is as subtle as any Victorian drawing room. Oakland-based writer/director Sean Wilson drew from his own jail-time experience to give the film a ring of authenticity as he orchestrates fear, boredom, and hopelessness amid an atmosphere of impending violence and casual chats around a card table. Much of Down Time is just that: an inner-city crime lord and an old-fashioned hillbilly bank robber playing pinochle, or grousing about the lousy food. Slim, the "new meat" behind bars, has his own story of betrayal and addiction, but the film's raison d'être is its social-realist portrayal of life inside. Shot at San Quentin, Alcatraz and the Alameda County Jail with ex-cons for extras, Wilson's raw, black-and-white debut is sometimes funny, sometimes empathetic, but mostly tense. (PC)

(Feb. 28 at 7:45pm at Camera 3.)


Hotel Splendide
(U.K.; 105 min.)

Writer/director Terence Gross shows a Terry Gilliam-like visual flair in this charming little 1999 comedy from England about free-spirited chef Kath (Toni Collette) and her return to her old place of employment, the decrepit island health resort of the title. Founded by Mrs. Blanche, a now-deceased health guru whose notoriously uptight personality makes Martha Stewart look laid-back, the hotel is currently run by Blanche's three grownup children: staff manager and ultimate mama's boy Dezmond (Stephen Tompkinson), physical therapist Cora (Katrin Cartlidge) and head cook Ronald (Daniel Craig), whose secret romance with Kath caused his repressive mother to fire her years before.

Kath's presence unsettles Dezmond, who will stop at nothing to maintain his mother's harsh regimen for the guests, as well as her strict rules about her children falling in love with other staffers or residents. I wonder why Hotel Splendide hasn't reached American shores until now; distributors are probably scared away either by the depressing-looking setting or the Road to Wellville-ish shit jokes, which Gross actually keeps to a minimum. Don't let those stop you from checking into Hotel Splendide. (JA)

(Feb. 23 at 7:30pm at Camera 3, Feb. 28 at 7pm at the Aquarius in Palo Alto Square and March 3 at 7pm at the AMC Saratoga 14.)


Nasty Neighbours
(U.K.; 87 min.)

Director/writer Debbie Isitt tells the mean, brashly entertaining story of war in a two-family house. Lancashire's answer to Willy Lohman is Harold Peach (Ricky Tomlinson), a homely, failing door-to-door salesman who is a keen fanatic on the subject of Australia. His drab, sex-starved wife Jean (Marion Bailey) works in an industrial kitchen. The pair's new neighbors are the flashy creep Robert Chapman (Phil Daniels) and his sleek but snarky wife, Ellen (Rachel Fielding). This story of the long-running brawl is infused with old-fashioned British loathing of the new and modern, represented by the moneyed, sinister Chapmans and their posh ways. Isitt contrasts the two sides musically, with two versions of the Burt Bacharach song "Walk on By"--Dionne Warwick's original and the Stranglers' obscenely raspy cover version. The film doesn't take the Peaches' side of the quarrel that seriously--the director has their nosy type pegged, or, rather, impaled. Nasty Neighbours is as broad as it is cruel; I expect Isitt's made a living at TV commercials from what we see here. Still, when toward the end, Mr. Peach is on the top of his roof raving and brandishing a Union Jack, the film successfully makes its transition from anarchic comedy to social satire. (RvB)

(Feb. 23 at 7:45pm and Feb. 24 at 5pm at the AMC Saratoga 14, and Feb. 26 at 7:30pm at the Aquarius.)


See Jane Run
(U.S.; 90 min.)

Jane (Clea DuVall) is a miserable twentysomething L.A. diner waitress who's a failure at everything, from her nightmare of a job to her frequent suicide attempts. Like John Cazale in Dog Day Afternoon, she has a strange longing to visit Wyoming. The only person who seems to understand Jane is Kevin Corrigan's philosophical, if a bit dim, exterminator (he has a great dimwit line: "My motto is: If you're gonna exterminate cockroaches, exterminate them dead.") Then one day, after witnessing a liquor store robbery (and, of course, failing to get herself killed during the holdup), Jane realizes maybe she has a future as a criminal. But this aspiring bandit is an odd one: whatever she steals is irrelevant to her--she gets more of a kick out of ordering people around with a gun, finding a self-confidence she never had before. This dark comedy from first-time writer/director Sarah Thorp is a slight but diverting slice of L.A. loser life, like everything else with filmmaker Doug Liman's name attached to it (he's See Jane Run's executive producer). Terry Kiser has an amusing little turn as the most loathsome diner manager since Bud Cort in Heat. (JA)

(March 2 at 7:15pm, March 3 at 2:15pm and March 4 at 1:45pm at the AMC Saratoga 14.)


For Better or Worse

El Rey de Rock 'n' Roll
1/2 (U.S.; 66 min.)

Man of Grease
(Canada; 48 min.)

Director Marjorie Chodorov on the subject of local fave El Vez, the Mexican Elvis (a.k.a. Robert Lopez of Chula Vista), an ex-surfer, member of the L.A. punk band the Zeros (yeah!) and the former curator of Melrose Boulevard's swellegant La Luz de Jesus Gallery. Lopez turned a one-time joke dressing up as Elvis into a popular art statement as "a translator."

We go along on visits to "Graciasland," El Vez's lair, and get to see performances of some of his hits, including "In the Barrio" and "You Ain't Nothing but a Chihuahua." El Vez is a grand guy who used to perform at the Ajax Lounge (RIP) in San Jose, and Chodorov does try to provide a cultural context for El Vez by interviewing academics, but even at 66 minutes, the film grows repetitive. It's billed with a documentary about a renowned Toronto breakfast joint--the kind of place that serves a one-a-day meal, loaded with eggs, potatoes, sausage and toast. The proprietor "Tony" gets a visit to his ancestral homeland in Crete for the first time in 30 years. (RvB)

(Feb. 27 7:15pm at Camera 3, March 1 at 7pm and March 3 at 12:45pm at Camera 1.)


Elvis Took a Bullet
(U.S.; 90 min.)

The upcoming Kevin Costner/Kurt Russell caper 3000 Miles to Graceland is most likely going to be an overpainted hussy of a B-picture, but it will probably be more fun than writer/director Jerry Eeten's lifeless noir homage Elvis Took a Bullet. A struggling young doctor (Gregg Binkley), who's a fan of "scuzz"--his term for late-night cable B-movies--becomes the roommate of a weird, manipulative Elvis worshiper (Eeten) and begins finding himself in messy situations straight out of a "scuzz" picture. The low point is a clunkily written Tarantino-style discussion about Tarantino flicks that's intended to show how smart and knowing this would-be satire is. Elvis Took a Bullet is a spoof without any smidgen of wit or fun. The score is atrocious too--it's a rip-off of David Holmes' great big-beat score to Out of Sight. (JA)

(Feb. 23 at 10pm, Feb. 24 at 5:30pm and Feb. 26 at 5pm at Camera 3.)


The Friggin' Mafia Movie
1/2 (U.S.; 86 min.)

Local director/writer Shawn Flanagan stars as Vance Gordon, a hapless movie director trying to construct a "strong, stereotypical" Mafia movie out of some abandoned vacant-lot locations, deferred payments and the grudging appearance of Richard Lynch (who also served as executive producer), playing himself, a Los Angeles-based actor known for villain parts who has never worked under such slipshod conditions before. What Gordon fails to anticipate is that Lynch has had it with indie productions and has brought a group of gunmen to end the joke once and for all. Rich Amooi, who starred in Flanagan's The Bald Witch Project, faces down the camera as a dolt of a crafts-services person who calls himself Chicago. Amooi occasionally bursts into badass moments that would be a credit to the likes of Richard Jaekel or John Turturro. The problem is in the pacing and self-indulgence; the well-filmed shoot-out ending at an abandoned radar station in the Santa Cruz Mountains seems a long time coming. (RvB)

(Feb. 24 at 9:15pm at Camera 1 and Feb. 27 at 5:15pm at Camera 3.)


North Beach
(U.S.; 85 min.)

This film takes the name of San Francisco's great wastrel neighborhood, a place so pungent with beer, dead poets, whores, lost causes and wealthy smugness that you could easily restage Joyce's Ulysses there. And yet North Beach is far from the ultimate version of such a story. It's a lost opportunity. The hero, Tyler (writer/co-producer Casey Peterson), starts off a Stephen Daedelus-type day after a sleepless night with a stripper. Everyone in the neighborhood knows and has thoughtfully passed on the news to Tyler's lady-love, Paige (Jennifer Milmore). Much wastrely follows: Tyler is hauled to a poolside party (shot in Los Gatos). Later, he shows up to sing at a rock gig (Tyler's band Binge is played by the Uninvited). All the while, our hero tries to track down Paige long enough to make peace with her.

Directors Jed Mortenson and Richard Speight Jr. have a good eye for off-the-bias life in San Francisco, making fine comic effect of the 45-degree-angle hills; and the photography by Mark Herzig is better than the budget would have suggested. Gabrielle Anwar (Scent of a Woman) has a small part as a waitress, and Barrow Davis shows promise as an easy-going girl named Veronica. What's aggravating is the film's backtracking: first claiming that Tyler screwed up and then claiming that he's justified in harassing Paige for dating another man. It's also depressing to see how judgmental these would-be urban sophisticates are about Tyler's fling, when they might well see two sides to that story. Paige, described as "the sweetest girl ever," punishes Tyler with a studious nastiness that lost her my sympathy. (RvB)

(Feb. 24 at 4:15pm at Camera 1 and Feb. 26 at 4:30pm at Camera 1.)


Popcorn!
1/2 (U.S.; 55 min.)

An account of the true-life assembly of the world's largest popcorn bucket (18 feet, 12 tons) in an Oakland warehouse by the film's director, Aaron Fischer. It's a deed best summed up by camera person Jeanne Hoffman: "It's not saving the world." This modestly entertaining piece shows the different steps along the way: hours of toil, dealing with a joker from the popcorn company and negotiating with frosty appliance-store salespeople, who aren't fooled by Fischer's warranty-bending tricks about "dud" popcorn makers run beyond their endurance 12 hours a day.

The film also stars Channel 2's reporter Bob MacKenzie, who loses his keys in a drift of kernels, and some gloomy knob-nose from the Guinness Book of Records office who sadly measures the cornpile for the sake of posterity. In the light of recent power crunches, the making of this popcorn mountain may seem a little wasteful, but the documentary is basically as lightweight as popcorn itself. (RvB)

(Screens with Alcatraz Is Not an Island, Feb. 24 at 7:30pm at Camera 3 and Feb. 25 at 7pm at Camera 3.)


Shoe Shine Boys
(U.S.; 90 min.)

Two disaffected, fame-starved boys snatch the Olympic torch and the famous runner who refuses to let go of it. Most of the bungled caper unfolds in monologue form in front of the pair's video camera. The occasional jokes that work cut through the general screaming, head shaving and overwrought media satire. For the most part, however, director/writer Mikki Allek Willis thinks that just saying the word "tampon" will evoke peals of laughter. (MSG)

(Feb. 24 at 3pm, Feb. 25 at 2pm and March 2 at 9:45pm at the AMC Saratoga; Feb. 28 at 5pm at the Aquarius.)


3 Days ... 3 Hours ... 3 Minutes ... 3 Seconds
(U.S.; 76 min.)

Producer/director/writer M. David Lee's nice-try of a neorealistic film about the lower depths in San Jose is filmed in black-and-white Beta and set mostly around the environs of the late lamented Café Leviticus. A hustler named Randy (Michael Kinsella) turns a pair of tricks and meets a pretty blonde coffee-shop waitress named Leslie (Amy Watt), who doesn't know about his line of work. This burgeoning friendship is sabotaged by Randy's live-in, Lex (Renee Smith), a neurotic addict who realizes all too well that it's almost over between her and her boyfriend. Smith's the best actor in the movie. Her scene of toying with the visiting Randy has the tension missing in the rest of the film. Unfortunately, it's hard to believe that the waitress would fall so fast and so hard, and the voiceovers and melodramatic inter-titles dilute such power as the film can rally. (RvB)

(Feb. 25 at 9:45pm at Camera 3 and Feb. 26 at 9:45pm at Camera 1.)


Your Guardian
(U.S.; 83 min.)

This debut by Redwood City director Kari Nevil follows rootless Kat (Irene Bedard) and her friend, a plaster mannequin named Manny, to the small town of Princeton (near Half Moon Bay) on a wander that seems to be unconsciously inspired by a search for her mother, whom she never knew. Is Kat's mother the town's primary landlady and employer, Tanna (Leann Hunley)? Or is she the hard-drinking Lillian (Jeanetta Arnette)? The narrator tells us the rest of the story without showing it. Said narrator, a self-proclaimed wind goddess called Madeleine (Jodean Lawrence), also introduces the film in a Gypsy accent and turns up to twirl a few dance steps in front of the camera. (RvB)

(Feb. 22, 7:15pm at Camera 1, opening night gala, and Feb. 22 at 7pm at Camera 3.)


Our critics are Jim Aquino (JA), Peter Crimmins (PC), Michael S. Gant (MSG) and David Templeton (DT). Our star system runs the gamut from one to four big ones.

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From the February 15-21, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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