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Smart Alec: Cinequest's tributes to the mavericks of filmmaking include an evening devoted to actor Alec Baldwin.

Eleven Days In the Valley

Our critics pick out the highs and lows at this year's Cinequest festival

By Richard von Busack

CINEQUEST, THE SAN JOSE FILM FESTIVAL, brings big names in independent filmmaking to the valley Feb. 24-March 5. This year, the festival will host tributes for actor/director Peter Fonda and actor and producer Alec Baldwin. Wes Craven--father of the Scream franchise--is also coming to town, as is Italy's answer to Alfred Hitchcock, Dario Argento.

Spread out like the valley itself, the festival takes place downtown at the Camera Cinemas and also at the AMC Saratoga (an as-yet-to-be-determined shuttle service will cover the five-plus miles between the two locations) and the Towne Theater. The festival, which devotes part of its focus to emerging film technology, includes a closing-day panel on the future of digital film and the premieres of two digital films: Brent Florence's Solid Ones (March 5 at 7:30m at Camera 3) and Christopher Coppola's Bel Air (March 3 at 7:30pm and March 5 at 5pm at Camera 3). On March 5, Industrial Light and Magic's Alex Laurant will discuss his art direction on the recent version of The Mummy. Cinequest is also hosting a panel discussion by a scad of film executives, including the Artist's Colony's Ian Jessel, Sony's Laurence J. Thorpe and Robert Miller, director of the first all-digital film, Mail Bonding.

For those who are satisfied with analog projection (when it works, that is, as it doesn't always, especially when Cinequest time comes along--remember the out-of-focus first 15 minutes of Deliverance last year?), Cinequest is primarily a film festival with everything that entails: a chance to see fellow film fiends, to risk conjunctivitis by watching six month's worth of movies in a few days. It's the chance to discover some brilliant pieces that fell through the cracks; it's also a chance to endure some movies so inept and prolix you wonder how they got a screening instead of a summary burning. (There's never a film so bad that someone doesn't love it, though.)

This week, we've highlighted some of the festival's can't-miss features, followed by a selective run-down of the first weekend's films. In next week's issue, look for more in-depth coverage of the tributes and a capsule guide to the second week's features.

Best Bets

Not That Little Joe: Joe Dallesandro achieved at least 15 minutes of fame in 'Trash.'

Andy Warhol's Trash
(U.S.; 110 min.)

When Andy Warhol started making movies, his pop aesthetic ran long--very long--with hours and hours of unwavering footage of kisses and skyscrapers. Paul Morrissey, a production assistant and cameraman promoted to director, provided an injection of narrative and humor to Warhol's films. Trash (has it really been 30 years? It seems like a century or more ago) offers a languorous look at Manhattan heroin chic in the waning days of the '60s. Joe Dallesandro plays a junked-up addict Adonis who receives the sexual attentions of various women (including female impersonator Holly Woodlawn) with deadpan nonchalance. No matter how hard they try, he can't get hard--the '60s had every drug but Viagra. (Michael S. Gant)

Plays March 3 at midnight at Camera 3.

Dumbarton Bridge
(U.S.; 98 min.)

In 1994, an alcoholic Vietnam vet named John Shed (sensitively played by Tom Wright) is forced into an encounter with the daughter he left behind in 'Nam. It's one thing to see the South Bay appreciated, through Barry Stone's fine widescreen photography of the salt ponds, sloughs and marshes of Alameda Country. It's another to see how cleverly director Charles Koppleman matched the waterland locations with the antihero's memories of the rice paddies in Vietnam. Thus the hallucination of a female farmer in conical hat makes sense, even when juxtaposed against the morning traffic on Highway 92. The film ends a little patly, which is a shame, but Wright's performance is strong and believable. (Richard von Busack)

Plays Feb. 25 at 10pm at the AMC Saratoga; March 1 at 5pm at the Towne 3; and March 2 at 9:30pm at the Towne 3.

Call to Witness
(U.S.; 57 min.)

Full text review.

Plays Feb. 27 at 7pm and Feb 28 at 8pm--both at Camera 3. Also plays March 3 at 5:15pm at the Towne.

(U.S.; 56 min.)

Like the heroine in the Ed's Redeeming Qualities song "Spoken Word," Melanie (Alethea Allen) is so lonely that she chats with the telephone solicitor. She has a sponging boyfriend and a house that overlooks the freeway, but the possibility of romance enlivens her. What Melanie doesn't know is that her new suitor, Lewis, is currently incarcerated and doing telephone polls as his work assignment. Director Kelly Anderson smartly contrasts the minimum-security prison with the institutional architecture of the airport where Melanie works as a waitress. Allen's attractive, oval-faced melancholy reminds you of the young Joan Baez, and the film has a strong, tough-minded ending. Except in a passing mention in the Michael Moore film The Big One, this is the first cinematic reference to the practice of putting convicts to work in ultra-low-wage jobs for private profit. Authentic and intelligent, Shift functions smartly as not just romance but also as a well-researched political exposé. (RvB)

Plays Feb. 26 at 6:45pm; Feb. 28 at 3pm; March 4 at 3pm--all at the Towne Theater.

Specters of the Spectrum
(U.S.; 88 min.)

"This is media archeology," says one of the characters in Craig Baldwin's found-footage extravaganza. Set in 2017, the film is a heartwarming story of a pair of telepathic epileptic mutants, father and daughter, who are rebelling against the New Electronic Order (NEO), the military/industrial/entertainment complex that has literally zombified the world. Boo Boo, the riot-grrl daughter, spends her time in hell-rants about the blighted earth; Yogi, the father, broadcasts forbidden television communiqués in the fashion of Dr. Gene Scott and Dave Emory. The old educational films pirated and woven into text include data on renegade scientists Reich and Tesla (the latter images expropriated from a forgotten, badly made fictional film with Orson Welles as J.P. Morgan). Here also are remembrances of the scarier U.S. military experiments, including Edward Teller's Project Chariot, which sought to dig a new harbor out of the Aleutian islands using six synchronized atomic bombs as the shovels. Spectres of the Spectrum drops in other arcana about the course of space/time that makes silliness out of the proclamations of government and religions. Call it punk-physics, or whatever--it's uncanny. (RvB)

Plays Feb. 25 at 11:30pm and March 1 at 7:30pm--both at the Towne 3.

Buy Low, Sell High: Daniel Benzali exhorts his fleet of car salesmen to new lows in customer browbeating in Roger Nygard's 'Suckers'.

(U.S.; 87 min.)

Anyone who's ever sweated through a session with a car salesman will wince at the only slightly exaggerated hard-sell techniques on display in Suckers. Director Roger Nygard's top-notch comedy follows a diverse crew of salesmen through one month of high-pressure wheeling and grinding ("If I said only $9,750 down, would we have a deal right now?") at a big-city dealership. Lording over the lot is a bald-headed master/monster of motivational invective--"The customer wants you to fuck him!"--played by Daniel Benzali (the scary defense lawyer from TV's Murder One a few seasons back). Benzali's bellowing and bullying alternate with vignettes of hapless boobs being escorted into the living hell known as "leasing." The film's snappy comedic verve more than makes up for the gimmicky Tarantino-esque twist at the end. (MSG)

Plays March 2 at 7:30pm; March 3 at 7:45pm; and March 4 at 4:30pm--all at the AMC Saratoga.

For Better or Worse

The Big Kahuna
(U.S.; 96 min.)

Danny DeVito has a terrific speech about the nature of honesty at the end of this on-again, off-again film. A trio of industrial-lubrication salesmen--Phil (DeVito), Larry (Kevin Spacey) and young Bob (Peter Facinelli)--meet at a hospitality suite at the best hotel in Wichita for a reception. Unfortunately, their would-be client gets away when it turns out that Bob is more interested in witnessing as a Christian than bringing home the sale. Director John Swanbeck adapts Roger Hueff's Hospitality Suite for what is essentially a filmed play. The problem? The play is uneven, stunted from growing in the shadow of David Mamet. The coarseness of the salesmen's talk seems all the more gratuitous when the play gets pious, and it gets very pious indeed. How pious? So pious that it obscures the unignorable fact that evangelical Christianity has been used as a sales technique for decades. Thus young Bob's qualms about mixing sales and religion seem hard to believe. Spacey, looking gaunt, coasts through this morality play on star power. (RvB)

Plays Feb. 24 at 7:30pm at Camera 3 and Towne 3. An opening-night party follows at Blake's Steakhouse and Bar.

Dominick and Eugene
(U.S.; 111 min.)

This 1988 film concerns a pair of twin brothers in Pittsburgh--a mentally challenged young man (Tom Hulce) and his caretaker older sibling, a med student (Ray Liotta as an uncomplicated nice guy for a change). It is well-intentioned and has parts of that city I've never seen in a film. Yet the finale tries to wring every tear-duct in the audience with a horrified close-up of one of the leads, an instant that goes on for what seems like hours. Dominick and Eugene, which co-stars Jamie Lee Curtis and David Strathairn, is part of a tribute to director Robert M. Young, and it certainly exemplifies one bad quality of the man's work: his career-long habit of not letting the audience meet him halfway. Still, he's had a long and honorable career as a politically progressive filmmaker, with such films as Nothing but a Man (reputedly Malcolm X's favorite movie) and the rape-drama Extremities (his best film, in my opinion.) (RvB)

Plays Feb. 27 at 2pm at the AMC Saratoga.

(Iran; subtitled; 90 min.)

A 9-year-old Tehranian boy (Farhad Bahremand) is pressed into the adult work world to support his family, left destitute by their drug-addicted father. He picks his way through the detritus of a land still wrecked by revolution and war; he cleans rusted cars and shovels glass. In one scene, a series of boys addresses the camera to ask an offscreen employer for work, like children re-enacting a scene from the Great Depression film Our Daily Bread. The grainy 35mm photography gives a matter-of-fact documentary look to an ostensibly heartbreaking situation. The kids seem more stoical than the adults. Deprivation is the only life they've known, so they make the best of it. (Don Hines)

Plays Feb. 27 at 4:30pm; and March 1 at 7:15pm--both at AMC Saratoga.

Green Desert
(Germany; subtitled; 93 min.)

Despite fine performances and moody photography, this young German girl's coming-of-age story is as warm as a Bavarian winter. Katja (Tatjana Trieb), ignored by her self-absorbed parents, finds emotional sustenance playing with her friend Johann in the ruins of a medieval castle (the title's Green Desert). Katja's Jungian imaginings (including a knight on a white horse) provide her--and the audience's--only relief from her family's Protestant lack of feeling. The film's inspiring ending proves that director Anno Saul is an adequate surveyor of Ingmar Bergman's harsh terrain. (DH)

Plays Feb. 26 at 12:30pm; Feb. 27 at 6:45pm; March 1 at 5pm; and March 4 at 12:45pm--all at the AMC Saratoga. Also plays March 5 at 2:45pm at the Towne.

Up in the Sky: An unlikely superhero flies through the short 'Hete-Roy,' by J.J. Sedelmaier.

(U.S.; 2 min.)

An animated short by J.J. Sedelmaier of White Plains, N.Y., whose animation has been seen on Saturday Night Live. Roy Fletcher, member of an ex-gay Christian ministry, becomes inflated with the power of the Lord and turns into the superhero Hete-Roy. Some of the cruder homo jokes seem placed to make sure the audience has it both ways, but Sedelmaier (also represented at the festival with his short "Conspiracy Theory Rock") really has nailed down that cheese-paring Filmation style of the cruddy DC superhero animation of the late '70s (and he tops the inside joke by getting a Ted Knight sound-alike to narrate). (RvB)

Plays as part of the Mindbenders program, Feb. 25 at 1pm at Camera 3; Feb. 27 at 9:45pm at Camera 3; Feb. 29 at 10:15pm at Camera 3; and March 3 at 10pm at Towne 3.

Janice Beard: 45 WPM
(England; 82 min.)

Being a temp gives you exposure to the underside of the business world, including the cruelty and snobbery. Thus it could be expected that English comedy about the temp world could be mordant. Far from it--it's candy-coated comedy on the lines of the adventures of Cathy in the funny papers. Janice Beard: 45 WPM is all about a zany, toothy Scots temp named Janice (Eileen Walsh), who foils industrial spies in the midst of her company. Patsy Kensit, who played the spoiled, pale queen-bee in Angels and Insects, stars as the office meanie who turns out to have a heart as soft as tiramisu. (RvB)

Plays Feb. 26 at 7:15pm; Feb. 29 at 7:30pm; March 4 at 6:45pm; March 5 at noon--all at the AMC Saratoga.

Making Contact
(U.S.; 90 min.)

Avoid it. A group of aging actors meets for a 1999 New Year's Eve party in Palm Springs to discuss their careers and wait for the promised arrival of Kevin Costner. At midnight, a "cosmic alignment" is to order the planets in a magic configuration, guaranteed to lead earthlings into a new age. Before that happens, matters degenerate at a Truth or Dare game where the real personalities of these shallow Angelenos are revealed as lecherous and backbiting. Mary (Robin Curtis), one of the main characters, is especially badly written. At one point, she is lamenting her career as a porn star--tearfully quoting the famous Bogart poem about the transitory nature of love from In a Lonely Place--but soon she's doing a striptease and enjoying it so much she has to be forcibly interrupted. Written by former Valleyites David P. Schrieber and John Walcutt (who co-produced.) (RvB)

Plays Feb. 26 at 11:30am; Feb. 28 at 3:30pm; and Feb. 29 at 5:15pm--all at Camera 3.

Ordinary Madness
(U.S.; 94 min.)

There is good pacing and technique in this debut film by ex-San Joseans and producers Paula Keane and James J. Smythe. The story is of a knot of disaffected Los Angelenos, including a moody, unhappily married woman named Fay (Denise Gentile, who is very good), her husband and a young drifter who comes to lodge with the couple. The story is most interesting as a character tale of lonely souls and of lackadaisical musician types (including the adventures of a pair of inept country musicians who call themselves the Funk Brothers). But the framing plot about a murder lost me from the beginning. (RvB)

Plays Feb. 25 at 10:30pm and Feb. 29 at 3pm--both at Camera 3.

(U.S.; 88 min.)

The too-aptly named Dick (Tim Orr) is a pet-supplies salesman who takes advantage of a competitor's retirement by turning customers against the rival's replacement, Ken (Kurt Bodden). For his smear campaign, Dick enlists fellow salesman Alan (Dan Donovan), who is having an affair with Dick's cold-blooded wife, Elizabeth (Gerri Lawlor). Writer/director Brien Burroughs offers a less-than-shocking look at the underbelly of what is, after all, a business that relies on the hard sell. With good reason, nobody likes anybody in this film; the salesmen don't even like pets, and Burroughs clearly doesn't care much for any of his characters. Elizabeth is such a particularly nasty cold fish, it's a wonder we don't see her afloat over fluorescent fish-tank gravel, gleefully ripping the innards out of creatures she senses are weaker. (Heather Zimmerman)

Plays Feb. 25 at 7:15pm; Feb. 28 at 1pm; Feb. 29 at 7pm; and March 2 at 7:15pm--all at the Towne 3.

Under the Sun
(Sweden; subtitled; 118 min.)

The title comes from Ecclesiastes, which shows the Biblical simplicity Swedish director Colin Nutley is aiming for. But the real roots of this film lie in old-fashioned naturalistic dramas about powerful but innocent farmers, their tempting womenfolk (one of them played by Helena Bergstrom, a pornographer's dream of a servant girl) and a young male snake in the grass (Johan Widerberg). The widescreen visuals of country life in Sweden during the 1950s are pretty in a glossy way, even though the visuals go against what we're being told: namely, that Olaf's farm is poor and hardscrabble. Erik (Widerberg), who plays the duck-tail-wearing Iago in this drama, is so patently a creep that you think the old farmer (Rolf Lassgard) must be blind not to suspect him. And the punishment Nutley deals out for Erik is superlatively clumsy. Lovely finale, though. (Under the Sun was nominated this week for an Oscar for best foreign film.) (RvB)

Plays Feb. 25 at 9:45pm; Feb. 28 at 7:30pm; and Feb. 29 at 5pm--all at the AMC Saratoga. Also plays March 4 at 12:15pm at Camera 3.

Cinequest runs Feb. 24-March 5 at the Camera Cinemas, Second and San Carlos streets, San Jose; the Towne Theater, 1433 The Alameda, San Jose; and the AMC Saratoga, Saratoga Avenue and Prospect. Full festival passes are $195. The opening-night gala is $35; the closing-night screening is $30. Tributes are $10-$25. Individual screens are $7 students/$8 general. Call 408.295.FEST for ticket information. (Full Disclosure: Metro is one of the executive sponsors of the festival.)

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From the February 17-23, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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