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Critical Quest

[whitespace] Metro's review of the festival's first days

THIS YEAR'S Cinequest fills up a whole week, Feb. 25-March 3, at the Camera 3 and the UA Pavilion Theatres in downtown San Jose. What follows is a selective guide by critics Richard von Busack (RvB) and Michelle Goldberg (MG) to the first four nights of the festival. We've starred the festival's best bets. Next week, we'll catch up to the rest of the screenings.

Opening Night

Angel's Dance
(U.S.; 102 min.)
"One in the heart and one in the head." That's the tip on assassination that hit man Stevie "The Rose" Rosellini (James Belushi) gives to his young student Tony "The Rock" Greco (Kyle Chandler). The completely predictable crime movie Angel's Dance seems to have taken one in the head and one in the heart; it's heartless, and it isn't very bright, either. Belushi, in the middle of a long Steven Seagal parody, shows off his impressive collection of aloha shirts as he gives Tony Nietzsche-flavored lessons in becoming a hit man.

Part of Tony's training is to bump off a total stranger named Angel Chaste (played by chipmunk-cheeked psycho-betty Sheryl "Laura Palmer" Lee). Angel has her problems. She's a mortician who lives in a cemetery, and she long ago went baby-doll-fondling nuts. Plus she likes to tell imaginary dirty stories in the confession booth about men "unveiling the supple curves of my body." But soon after the first attempt on her life, Angel wises up, and gets a blonde wig, a little black dress and a big gun. "Friedrich would be proud," Rosellini says, seeing the Nietzschean transformation in Angel. Directed by David L. Corley. (RvB)

Feb. 25 at 7pm at the UA Pavilion Theatres.

Friday, Feb. 26

American Cowboy
(U.S.; 52 min.)
"Horses don't care if you're straight or gay--they're gonna buck you." Gene Mikulenka, an award-winning rodeo performer, faces the end of his career after his leg is shattered by a Brahma bull. This free-form documentary by Texas' Kyle R. Henry profiles a brave, headstrong and sometimes irritable rider who comes out of the closet on camera. Mikulenka's partner, Stephen Bigelow, is among the interviewees; through him we get an idea of Mikulenka's tenderer side. Graham Parsons' song "One Hundred Years From Now" takes on added poignancy, used here to suggest a future of more acceptance for gay people. It's double billed with Packing Heat, Canadian director Wendy Rowland's documentary on female gun fanciers. (RvB)

Feb. 26 at 5:30pm at Camera 3.

Cleopatra's Second Husband
(U.S.; 92 min.)
The dark tone of director Jon Reiss' work is apparent in Cleopatra's Second Husband, a sometimes intense horror story about a recessive worm named Robert (Paul Hipp). The meek photographer is pushed to desperation by Hallie (Bitty Schram), his castrating wife, and two house sitters who won't leave. Sexual chemistry is provided by Radha Mitchell, memorable as the provocative, blasé culture-vulturette in High Art. (RvB)

Feb. 26 at 9:15pm and Feb. 28 at 7:15pm at the UA Pavilion Theatres.

*Full Moon
(Switzerland-Germany-France; German, English subtitles; 124 min.)
It's odd to call a film about disappeared 10-year-olds whimsical, but the darkly charming Swiss mystery Full Moon has elements of lightness and magic that create a compelling contrast to its sad plot. On the morning after a full moon, a boy named Toni vanishes on his way to school. Gradually, we learn that 12 other children disappeared on the same day. Soon, all the parents receive identical letters, each in their own children's handwriting, with a cryptic message: "We want the earth on earth."

Although it centers on Toni's mother, Irene, and Wasser, the kindly detective who becomes obsessed with the case, Full Moon also spotlights the other parents as they descend into paranoia, mania and bitterness. The climax, a live TV broadcast during which the parents address their children, is utterly surreal, as each uses the camera for pleas, proselytizing and recriminations. One gets the sense that what's at work in Full Moon is supernatural, not criminal, and director Fredi Murer does a wonderful job blending the mystical with the tragicomic. (MG)

Feb. 26 at 7pm and Feb. 28 at 5pm at the UA Pavilion Theatres.

Next Time
(U.S.; 97 min.)
Set in L.A. during the days leading up to the Rodney King riots, Next Time is an incredibly sweet but terribly earnest movie about a friendship between Matt (Christian Campbell), a naive 19-year-old white boy, and Evelyn (Jonelle Allen), a tough, sassy 38-year-old black woman with a lifetime of regrets. They meet in their local laundromat. At first she's wary of his friendly overtures, and his attempts to prove he's not racist are maddeningly awkward. But gradually, over successive Saturdays, the two grow close.

Director/writer Alan L. Faser's film is structured like a play, consisting almost entirely of Matt and Evelyn's laundromat conversations. Both performers are very likable, especially the gorgeous Allen, who plays Evelyn with a wonderful mix of rage and vulnerability, impatience and deep kindness. Everyone who walks into the laundromat and interacts with the two is an example of a type, though: the gun-toting teenage thugs, the abused prostitute, the spaced-out homeless man. Next Time hammers away at its "can't we all just get along?" message with the didacticism of an after-school special, but ultimately its good heart and sympathetic characters make up for its political heavy-handedness. (MG)

Feb. 26 at 1pm and March 2 at 6:15pm at Camera 3.

OK Garage
(U.S.; 86 min.)
What a disappointment! Director Brandon Cole has taken two of the best actors in indie films and done absolutely nothing with them. The usually fabulous Lili Taylor stars as Rachel, a schoolteacher who gets ripped off by the OK Garage when her car breaks down. The owner of the OK Garage, meanwhile, sells copies of his wealthier customers' car keys and addresses to an Irish gangster. In a bizarre, nonsensical performance, Will Patton plays Rachel's neighbor Sean, some kind of writer who carries small lizards in his pockets and mutters and rolls his eyes like a movie-of-the-week serial killer. John Turturro is wasted as Johnny, who falls for Rachel--his character is charmless, mean and neurotic, and Rachel's reciprocation of his meager affections is inconceivable. (MG)

Feb. 26 at 7:15pm and Feb. 28 at noon at the UA Pavilion Theatres.

Running for Bogota
(U.S.; English and Spanish, with English subtitles; 51 min.)
This documentary focuses on the race between two candidates for the Colombian congress. The Christian Democratic, affluent, Europeanized Claudia Vasquez is running her own campaign. Her rival is a famous, ageless 62-year-old singer named Leonor Gonzalez Mina, a.k.a. "La Negra Grande." The format of the documentary is almost like dueling political TV commercials.

The personal styles and histories of the two are contrasted, but neither has strong ideas of how to handle Colombia's violence, poverty and near civil-war conditions in the countryside. Is that the point--that both women are running on their personalities? Director Odile Isralson didn't shape the material; the documentary isn't enlightening. It's billed with Forward, Always Forward, Iris Morales' documentary about the Young Lords, a Latino paramilitary group of 1960s New York that united against crime and injustice. (RvB)

Feb. 26 at 3:15pm and March 1 at 7:15pm at the UA Pavilion Theatres.

The Traveller From the South
(Iran; English subtitles; 90 min.)
In director Parvaz Shahbazi's slowly paced Iranian neo-realist film, a scruffy young man (Reza Moghadam) starts up a friendship with an old widow in uncertain health. Seeing Traveller From the South, it's apparent how some Iranian films groomed for the export market work. Examples: The White Balloon (maybe red would have been too suggestive?) and the as-yet-unreleased Children of Paradise. Poor as the characters are in those lauded films, they have strivings that are satisfied. Traveller From the South is a much less picturesque view of Teheran than anything previously seen here. The incidents show harried, squabbling interactions with authority and property, and the surprisingly unsentimental ending has a wintry, lonely feel to it. (RvB)

Feb. 26 at 3pm and Feb. 28 at 10am at the UA Pavilion Theatres.

*A Turning of the Earth
The Searchers is the most complex John Wayne movie; it X-rays Wayne's persona, just as In a Lonely Place took apart the mask of Bogart. This documentary about the classic John Ford Western is the result of some 20 reels of outtakes from The Searchers compiled into a day-by-day analysis of the film as it was made. Actor Patrick Wayne and screenwriter John Milius are interviewed, and both will be in attendance with director Nick Redman. (RvB)

Feb. 26 at 9:30pm at the UA Pavilion Theatres.

We All Fall Down
(Italy; English subtitles; 88 min.)
Twenty-two-year-old virgin Walter (good-looking Valerio Mastandrea) prowls the boring streets of Turin waiting for something interesting to happen. In quick, jaggedly edited episodes, Walter exhausts his possibilities. He works a refugee center as part of community service to stay out of the army; he attends philosophy classes that he hates; he hits the discos. Drugs aren't an option--"They cost too much." Finally, he hits bottom, wearing a red blazer and patrolling the aisles of an Italian version of a Target store.

We All Fall Down is the modern bildungsroman, Jay McInerney style, complete with the impossible parents (catatonic mom; evil dad who has affairs). Walter makes some witty remarks occasionally. The key word is "occasionally." If you're going to act like Hamlet, have something interesting to say. (RvB)

Feb. 26 at 5:15pm and Feb. 28 at noon at the UA Pavilion Theatres.

Wilbur Falls
(U.S.; 95 min.)
A sweeter, more empathetic (but less funny) Heathers; it's especially impressive because writer/director Juliane Glantz was only 21 years old when she finished it. The film follows the tribulations of Renata Devereaux, a junior high outcast who turns into a confident, smart and gorgeous high schooler seeking revenge on the kids who made her younger life hell. Her first shot at payback, though, goes utterly awry, and a jock named Jeff ends up drowned. Will Renata go to Harvard, or will she go to prison? That question infuses the movies with suspense, but unlike other dark comedies that ask the audience to root for a killer, Renata isn't at all gleeful about getting away with anything--in fact, her persistent guilt is the only thing that implicates her. A sequence in which Renata takes the most popular girl in school, pregnant with Jeff's baby, for an abortion is particularly well done, capturing a whole spectrum of anxiety, pathos, giddiness and unexpected bonding. (MG)

Feb. 26 at 5:15pm and March 1 at 9:45pm at the UA Pavilion Theatres.

*With Friends Like These ...
(U.S.; 93 min.)
Word is out that Martin Scorsese is preparing his version of the Al Capone story; the news electrifies a group of actors who have had nothing but ethnic stereotypes to batten themselves upon for the last few years. (Surveying the ensemble at a party, a cruel TV producer, played by Bill Murray, sums them up: "Every goombah hit man, every Jew lawyer, every Irish mug ... this is an elephants graveyard.") Johnny (Robert Costanzo), Dorian (Jon Tenney), Steve (Adam Arkin) and Armand (David Strathairn) nearly ruin their friendships competing for the Scarface role.

The dramatic part of the finale falls through: although Strathairn has made good money playing slippery people, he certainly doesn't look like the Mafia heir he's suspected of being. The comedy is stretched out, but it's knowing and funny. The cast includes Scorsese (playing himself), Beverly D'Angelo, Elle Macpherson, Michael McKean, Lauren Tom and Laura San Giacomo. Directed by Philip K. Messina. (RvB)

Feb. 26 at 9:15pm at the UA Pavilion Theatres.

Saturday, Feb. 27

*Camp of Fallen Women (Tabor Padlych Zien)
(Slovak Republic; English subtitles; 100 min.)
Czechoslovakia 1949: prostitutes are rounded up and sent to a re-education camp to learn domestic skills. The camp is built on the site of a concentration camp; some of the uniforms still have Stars of David sewn on to them. But the camp has more in common with Stalag 13 than Treblinka. Against the viciousness of a spying, sadistic secret policeman (Jozef Vajda) conspire a gloomy, comical doctor, a grandfatherly commandant and Ria, the smartest of the internees (she's played by a gorgeous actor named Mahuelena Bocanova--sort of a Cool Hand Luca). The film threatens to become a women in prison picture, especially when the Ria starts acting like a predatory lesbian. Fortunately, director Laco Halama is less interested in exploitation than in a richly told story. (RvB)

Feb. 27 at 5:30pm and March 2 at 1pm at the UA Pavilion Theatres.

(Hungary; English subtitles; 136 min.)
If there was ever a surefire movie plot, this is it: a good-looking woman married to lumpish small-businessman; young drifter hired on as assistant; love and murder the inevitable conclusion. Yes, it's The Postman Always Rings Twice, made into two American versions and also filmed by Antonioni and Visconti. Hungarian director Gyorgy Feher helms this adaptation from a script co-written by Bela Tarr, a filmmaker unknown in the west but championed by Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum (see his essay "A Bluffer's Guide to Bela Tarr" in Placing Movies). (RvB)

Feb. 27 at 10am and again March 1 at 9:45pm at the UA Pavilion Theatres.

Sunday, Feb. 28

*In the Navel of the Sea (Sa Pusod Ng Dagat)
(Philippines; Tagalog, English subtitles; 114 min.)
It looks like a tropical paradise, this island in the Philippines that's the subject of In the Navel of the Sea. In the sleepy 1950s, little has changed in decades. But as the narrator, Pepito (Jomari Yllana), says, "The island holds many secrets, secrets that speak of a dark power and people whose wrath, if incurred, is to be feared." Voodoo, lesbianism, abortion and prostitution complicate the picturesque life here. The restless narrator loses his father and is dragged into his mother's business as a midwife. When Pepito falls in love with an Americanized teacher, what's left of his contentment comes to an end. Director Marilou Diaz-Abaya's work is the finest Philippine film ever seen in our area; this vision of a simpler past is never compromised by simpleminded nostalgia. (RvB)

Feb. 28 at 4:45pm at the UA Pavilion Theatres.

The Trio
(Germany; English subtitles; 97 min.)
Zobel (Gotz George) and his daughter, Lizzie (Jeanette Hain), are nomadic pickpockets who roam from city to city in their beat-up Pace Arrow RV. As this gang practices it, picking pockets is a three-handed art, requiring a thief, a distracter and a third person to run off with the wallet. Zobel's boyfriend, Karl (Christian Redl), is the third in this trio, but he's sick of life as a smalltime criminal. After a theft goes wrong, Karl is gravely injured by a car. Since Zobel and Lizzie need a new partner, they recruit a young thief named Rudolf (Felix Eitner), and both father and daughter fall in love with the young man.

Hermine Huntgeburth's film is an uneasy blend of nerve-racking farce, crime story and screwball comedy. George, the son of the famous German actor Heinrich George (of Metropolis), changes his character from smart criminal to mushy, pleading lover with unlikely speed. However, as the elfin thief Lizzie, Hain has her moments, especially necking with a pick-up at the disco and liberating his wallet as she kisses him. (RvB)

Feb. 28 at 10am and March 1 at 5:15pm at the UA Pavilion Theatres.

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From the February 18-24, 1999 issue of Metro.

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