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[whitespace] Ian McKellen
Photograph by John Baer

Wizardly Villain: There's more to Ian McKellen than kindly Gandalf, as he proved in 'Apt Pupil.'

Reels Keep A-Rollin'

Cinequest races into second weekend with last-minute Ian McKellen tribute and full slate of movies

LAST WEEK'S intense round of screenings was only the beginning for Cinequest. In a surprise move this week, the film festival announced that it had added a fourth Maverick honoree: Oscar nominee Ian McKellen, who will appear at a special moderated Q&A session this Saturday at noon at the Fairmont Hotel.

McKellen has been a pillar of smart cinema for the last decade, yet the British acting great has finally become a U.S. celebrity thanks to his nomination for Best Supporting Actor for The Lord of the Rings. His wizard Gandalf appears one summer day in the Shire. He's the perfect party guest, until he learns that a weapon of cataclysmic power has been left lying around among creatures who might as well be children.

In his face, we see terror that turns a harmless old duffer into the Wrath of God--or rather, the Wrath of Good. Our movies, which love to lie to us about how war builds character, rarely show us the cost of transforming dreamy youths into frightened soldiers. Those looking for depth in The Lord of the Rings can find it in the way McKellen's Gandalf spits out the line "Save yourselves, you fools!" to his troops before departing this sphere (though, as we know, he'll be back).

Twenty years ago, McKellen was famed only as a Shakespearean, renowned for such much-gossiped-about gestures as his Richard II kissing a male royal favorite. He attributes his particular emotional depth today to having come out of the closet, a situation discussed in his one-man play A Knight Out. Sir Ian McKellen is the first openly gay theatrical knight. Sir John Gielgud, for example, kept his sexuality a public secret.

McKellen grew up in the 1940s as the son of a middle-class civil engineer in Wigan, Lancashire, the Mordorian industrial city described by George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier. In his youth, he was ruthless-looking but with a disarming, sweet smile; as he aged, he was still handsome but able to turn on the sinister elegance, the curdled good manners and emphatic meaning of Vincent Price (though McKellen is a much more careful actor).

It's a mark of McKellen's intensity that playing a wizard isn't his most flamboyant role. Some recent moments: hiding behind a loose easygoing cowboy face, which he turns authentically cowboy cruel, in The Ballad of Little Joe (1993); waxing uproarious as Amos Starkadder, preacher of the Church of the Quivering Brethren, in Cold Comfort Farm (1995); lapsing into English working-class dialect in a distracted moment ("We et drippings") as the haunted, dying director James Whale in Gods and Monsters.

Most recently he was Erik Magnus Lehasher, who later takes the nom de guerre Magneto, a member of the genus Homo superior who has had enough of the human race's iniquity in X-Men. While a tendency to foreign-accented villains occurs in the lives of most distinguished British-accented actors of a certain age, McKellen's irresistible relish for his parts energizes and steals film after film.

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Eleven Days in the Valley: Our critics talk up and run down the highs and lows of this year's Cinequest.

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In addition to McKellen's appearance, the second weekend of Cinequest features two days (Friday-Saturday) of panels devoted to advances in digital filmmaking and a number of noteworthy films reviewed below (the outstanding entries are marked with an arrow --» ).

Feb. 28

Looking Through Lillian
7pm, AMC
The good news is that Jake Torem's film is technically proficient, well photographed and scoots along. Sam Bottoms is not only authoritative as a bilious businessman but also bravely exposes himself to a lot of onscreen kink. The bad news is that this story of a sex worker is none too authentic. Co-writer Jade Henham stars as Lillian, a woman kept by a regular john she knows as "Gene" (Bottoms). At a bar, she finds Luke (Robert Glen Keith), who is supposed to be a poet in the school of Charles Bukowski. Yet Luke supposedly needs protected from Lillian's dire secret: on their dates, she dresses up Gene like a woman and occasionally plays bend-over-boyfriend with him. Not only is this film a bizarre mixture of the cloying and the graphic, but it's also inexplicable: Why does Lillian keep so quiet about being in the "life"? Wasn't it the thing with Bukowski that he didn't mind that his love objects were hookers? --Richard von Busack
Also shows March 1, 3pm, AMC; March 2, 9:15pm, AMC.)

March 1

Get a Way
4:45pm, C3
Didier (Maxine Desmons) is a drifting post-adolescent whose only visible means of support is a pickup job towing rollerbladers from the back of his van. Anne (Agnes Roland) is a free-spirited girl who has just dropped out of school. Together, the two pals fix each other's communication problems with their respective families. Lovely Parisian locations and the likably impetuous Roland make up for the tendency toward after-school-specialdom in the storytelling and the mostly inadequate acting. Like a lot of shot-on-digital films I've seen, Noah Nuer's movie would have to be baked twice as long to officially count as half-baked. 88 min. --RvB

--» Grownups
7PM, AMC
Two guys--best friends, 30s, married and midlife--ponder wife-swapping as a last-minute recoup for being too young for the sexual revolution and hitting sexual prime during the AIDS crisis. John Stamos, in his best Rob Lowe imitation ever, plays a sharky ad man along for the Big Swap nervously proposed by his buddy (Daniel London). The guys' stab at youthful rebellion before submitting to beer guts and baby wipes is amoral, but the movie hits its marks, thoughtfully stepping through the mine field of male/female relationships. Though it's probably sacrilegious to be entertained by a movie starring John Stamos, Grownups adds a decadent twist on Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and is quite funny. 90 min. --Todd Inoue
Also shows March 2, 9pm, REP.)

--» Tribute
9:15PM, C3
Though it touts itself as a comedy rockumentary, Rich Fox and Kris Curry's Tribute paints a rather grim picture of the sad lives of five hungry tribute bands. Blue-collar Joes by day, rock & roll star impersonators by night, these are the wannabes that never got to be. While chronicling the bickering, the inflated egos and the power struggles, Fox and Curry capture some surprisingly candid moments. Unfortunately the film jumps awkwardly from one band to the next without thoroughly exploring the deeper motivations behind its subjects. The most bizarre character is Queen tribute band Sheer Heart Attack's "Superfan," an extreme fanatic whose entire life's happiness seems to be centered around this band's performances. Shows with Crank Calls. 89 min. --Sarah Quelland
(Also shows March 2, 7pm, AMC.)

March 2

--» West 47th Street
4:30PM, C3
It's MTV's The Real World--but with mentally ill people who actually need a place to live. Bill Lichtenstein, who produced and directed this documentary with June Peoples, lost his job as an ABC news producer 10 years ago because of his manic-depression. Now he's on a mission to show what mental illness is really all about. The film shadows four adults who are manic-depressive, schizophrenic or otherwise "incompetent" over three years in New York City's Hell's Kitchen. They wind up at a "mental-health clubhouse" (housing with counseling), on West 47th Street, called Fountain House. We follow Frances Olivero (a cross-dresser whose given name is Kenneth) to a state senator's office while he lobbies for mental-health legislation. We snoop in an elevator as loose-cannon Fitzroy swears belligerently at fragile housemate Zeinab Wali (a woman who hears voices, cries a lot and cooks well). The final scene, starring veteran mental patient Tex Gordon, is a kitschy treat. Shows with Speechless. 109 min. --Allie Gottlieb
(Also shows March 3, 4:15pm, C3.)

Come Together
5PM, REP
Filmed like a Calvin Klein commercial intersected with sex, lies, & videotape, Canadian director Jeff Macpherson's Come Together tells the story of Ewan (Tygh Runyan), a boy/man trapped in a broken heart. When Ewan is invited back home for his ex-girlfriend's wedding--the cause of his broken heart--he decides he needs to go for "closure." Complication in the form of Amy (Eryn Collins), a high schooler with her own heartbreak, appears. A lot of tear-jerking, a few laughs and more hand-held footage than you can shake a tripod at later, Ewan and Amy have found, if not closure, at least some peace with their lots in life. A cute film, with some very cute actors. 78 min. --Traci Vogel
(Also shows March 3, 2:30pm, C3.)

The Dogwalker
7:15PM, C3
Dogs are cute. They're like women, according to The Dogwalker. Oh, ouch. Original and insightful. For the love of God, if you make a movie, don't use dogs as metaphors. Writer/director Jacques Thelemaque makes this miscalculation. His film examines the personal growth of Ellie (Diane Gaidry), a human punching bag who has to learn to express her anger. Dogwalker Betsy (familiar character actor Pamela Gordon) is refreshingly nasty in spite of the weak dialogue and serves as the film's high point. 107 min. --AG
(Also shows March 3, 11:45pm, REP.)

March 3

Written on the Body of the Night
4:30PM, AMC
The statue of limitations should be up on Truffaut tributes. In Mexican director Jaime Humberto Hermosillo's standard coming-of-age tale, a young man who dreams of becoming a film director learns something about love, sex and maturity from his understanding granny, his flamboyant mother and the beautiful young girl (whose alias is Adela H., after Truffaut's The Story of Adele H, for no real reason) who rents a room in their cramped apartment. Some funny moments can't disguise the well-worn material, and strangely enough for a film that is supposedly paying homage to The 400 Blows, Hermosillo's work is extremely stagy. 130 min. --MSG


Cinequest continues through March 3 at Camera 1 (C1), Camera 3 (C3), AMC Saratoga 14 (AMC), San José Repertory Theatre (REP) and the Aquarius Theater in Palo Alto (PA).

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From the February 28-March 6, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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