Tuesday, April 5, 2011

2011 Cinequest

On a bit of an impulse, I purchaed a Film Lover Pass to the 2011 Cinequest Film Festival in downtown San Jose. Cinequest ran from March 1 to 10.

There are a number of features about Cinequest which are unique and most of them beneficial. The Film Lover Passs is self-explanatory. It allows the wearer access to all "regular" film screenings which basically excludes Opening and Closing Night films. However, it does not give the Film Lover preferential seating or early seating. The Film Lover Pass holder stands in line with other ticket holders. That's typically not the case at festivals I've gone to but Cinequest sells a higher level Marericks Pass and highest level VIP All Access Pass.

The part that feels like gouging to me is that Cinequest also sells an Express Line Pass which does not entitle the holder admission to any film but only access to the express admission line or early seating. In other words, Express Line Pass holders would need a Film Lover Pass (or higher) or individual ticket to gain admission. The cost of the Film Lover Pass is $145 and the cost of the Express Line Pass is $100.

Another unique aspect of Cinequest is that on the final day of the festival, they have Award-Winning Film Screenings or encore screenings. These screenings are open to Pass holders although they sell Rush Tickets to non-Pass Holders. I would think that reduces attendance although it may not given the number of people I saw walking around downtown San Jose with Cinequest passes around their necks. It's very impressive the way dowtown San Jose is plastered with Cinequest advertisements including the pedestrians. There are also street pole banners and most of the downtwon businesses have a Cinequest sign in their window. Cinequest's main venues are the California Theater, Camera 12 and San Jose Rep.

I also notice that Cinequest has a lot more changes to their published schedules than other festivals. On weekends, I believe they were screening on four screens at the Camera 12 and one each at the SJ Rep and California. Some of the films I wanted to see were pulled from the festival and new ones added. The venues also changed which was probably in response to ticket sales. Not to worry, Cinequest has widescreen LCD monitors set up at various locations to display the "real time" screening schedule. The monitors also display real-time tweets with the Cinequest hashtags.

As for San Jose, I was amazed at how easy parking was downtown. I took a day off from work and went on a workday afternoon. I was able to get unmetered street parking within three blocks of the theater. I drove to Cinequest on eight days and paid a grand total of 75 cents for parking.

Parking isn't the only thing that is easy in downtown San Jose. One night, I got out of a Camera 12 screening around 11:30 PM. It was raining so I crossed 2nd St. to walk under the covered walkway of the state Board of Equalization building. It was deserted on the streets. As I was walking, a young woman popped out of the doorway or vestibule. She startled me but I kept walking. As I walked away, I thought she was wearing a very short skirt for a cold & rainy night but that's not unusual. There are many dance clubs and lounges in downtown SJ and I saw many women dressed similarly throughout the run of the festival. Still, I thought it odd that the woman was by herself and waiting in that doorway.

Two nights later, my suspicions were confirmed. Once again, I got out of a Camera 12 screening around 11:30 PM. It was drizzling so I retraced my previous path. Sure enough, the woman was there again. I recognized her because she was wearing the same outfit! I should stop walking on that side of the street. I wonder if she recognized me. I was wearing the same jacket. Regardless, I kept walking but heard a car splash water behind me so I turned around and that woman was bent over at the waist speaking to the driver. It's ironic that across the street from the BOE building is the US District Courthouse with a guardhouse at the parking entrance. I think the guardhouse is manned 24 hours per day. I could make a joke about receiving similar treatment from courthouses, the California BOE and streetwalkers but it's too easy.

San Jose, I'm not saying you're like Vallejo but you may want to patrol that block of 2nd Street more often at night.


I saw 20 films at this year's Cinequest. I would have seen at least two more but in the late evening of March 9, I had a flat tire while driving back home from Cinequest. I didn't have a chance to get the tire repaired on the 10th and I felt uncomfortable driving to San Jose and back without a spare. Otherwise, I would have driven down there after work on the 10th and I was toying with the idea of taking a half day off that day to see a couple more screenings that afternoon.

2011 Cinequest was perhaps the "best" film festival I've ever been to. "Best" being defined as consistently enjoyable and compelling films. Of the 20 films I watched, I would recommend 18 of them.

The Little Room; French with subtitles; (2010)
Copacabana starring Isabelle Huppert; French with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Here's the Kicker; with Dan Lauria; (2011) - Official Website
A Little Help starring Jenna Fischer & Chris O'Donnell; with Lesley Ann Warren & Rob Leibman; (2010) - Official Website
Make a Movie Like Spike; directed and starring Jamil Walker Smith; (2011) - Official Facebook
Marrow starring Frances Hearn; (2011) - Official Website
War Games and the Man Who Stopped Them; documentary; Polish with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
America starring Lymari Nadal; with Yancey Arias, Tony Plana & Edward James Olmos; English & Spanish with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Samuel Bleak; directed by and starring Dustin Schuetter; (2011) - Official Website
Second-Story Man starring Christopher Domig & Danny Hoskins; (2010) - Official Website
Piran-Pirano; Slovenian with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Desert Rain starring Daniel Van Hart & Alexandria Morrow; (2011) - Official Website
Midnight Son starring Zak Kilberg & Maya Parish; (2011) - Official Website
The Blind starring Jonas Ball & Josette Barchilon; directed by Nathan Silver; (2009) - Official Website
Trouble Maker starring Pranidhi Varshney; (2010) - Official Website
A Kiss and a Promise starring Mark Rossi, Natasha Gregson Wagner & Sean Power; directed by Phillip Guzman; (2010) - Official Website
22nd of May; Dutch & French with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Bad Behaviour with John Jarrett; (2010) - Official Website
Medal of Honor starring Victor Rebenjuic; Romanian with subtitles; (2009) - Official Facebook
The Glass Slipper; directed by Jarrod Whaley; (2011)

All of the above films were feature length. A few had short films preceding them.

The Twin Girls of Sunset Street; stop-motion animation; (2010) - Offical Website
Daisy Cutter; animation; (2010) - Official Website
3 Hours; Arabic with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website

I recall another short film which preceded America. I cannot recall the title or find it on Cinequest's website. It was documentary set in Colombia and involved some young people who formed a non-violent organization. I would usually use the word "paramilitary" but that is a loaded phrase in Colombia. It was Spanish language with subtitles.


My favorite film of the festival was a quirky, uncharacterizable film called The Blind. Shot in 12 days on a microbudget with a cast and crew of unknowns, the film reminded me a little of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). The crew did include one notable member - cinematographer Rain Li (not to be confused with an actress of the same name) has also served in the same capacity on Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park and Neil Jordan's Ondine. Li's work in The Blind has a flat, monochromatic feel which perfectly from the story which could be described with the same adjective.

The film chronicles the relationship of Marcus and Kate. Marcus is an self-employed architect. Kate is his live-in girlfriend or more accurately, his stand-in wife. Both of them speak in measured, unemotional tones as they go about their lives which is anything but normal by cinematic standards although if you believe director Nathan Silver, sadly commonplace in the real world.

Let me recap the plot - Marcus and Kate move to a new town and house, Marcus rents an apartment and writes note to Kate that it would be best if she moved out, Kate moves out and Marcus is not discernibly better or worse off, Kate & Marcus reconcile, Kate moves back in, Marcus writes a note that it would be best if she moves out, Kate moves into a house across the street, Marcus rapes Kate, Marcus proposes marriage, Kate accepts, the end.

The interesting part of The Blind is that actors plays their roles with as much emotion as the previous paragraph. This creates a detached and absurd feel to the film which is all the better to deconstruct this dysfunctional relationship. The repetitive nature of the film reminded me of Jeanne Diehlman. In The Blind, the repetition gives the impression that the characters are unable or unwilling to recognize their destructive behavior much less change it. Silver describes the tale as a suburban horror film. Indeed it would be horrific if there are two people actually like Marcus and Kate...I suspect there is. Jonas Ball & Josette Barchilon as Marcus and Kate are outstanding but Jacob Reynolds steals the show as Raymond, Marcus's incessantly talkative and unbelievably irritating assistant.


Another film I enjoyed was Troublemaker about a troubled, young, Indian-American woman. Seeing her friends advance to graduate school while she can't pay the rent and gets fired from her job in a Mexican restaurant, Rekha (Pranidhi Varshney) embarks on a journey to find her father. Abandoned by him since youth, Rekha doesn't know his exact whereabouts but follows some clues which point her to Seattle. She ends up hitching a ride with he ex-boyfriend who still harbors feelings (even he dosn't know it himself). As they say, she is looking for her father but really searching for herself.

Part road movie, part romance, part coming of age, part comedy, Troublemaker is carried along by the Varsheny's performance and director Geeta Malik's script which could done away with a few cliches (such as the inevitable coupling of Rehka and her ex). Still the script was a cut above most.


The Glass Slipper was filmed in Palo Alto by local director Jarrod Whaley. The synopsis in the program guide looked interesting enough but I had planned on seeing another film at that time. However, I ran into Jason Wiener a few days earlier and he told me that he was a producer of the film. Not only was he a producer but his "production company," Puppymeat Productions, had an above-the-title credit. Puppymeat is Jason's nom de guerre on Twitter. After telling me how much he contributed to receive the Puppymeat credit, I was a little concerned about the quality of the film. I don't know the entire budget for the film but Jason's contribution seemed to be to small to merit an above the title credit in a reputable production.

I read some favorable reviews so I decided to go to The Glass Slipper. Let me also say that throughout the festival, I saw Ira Emsig around. I frequently see him at film festivals although typically Indiefest productions. A few minutes into the film, I'll be damned if Ira Emsig doesn't show up on the screen in a speaking part! I think he had two extended scenes with dialog where he played a bookie looking to collect on the main character's gambling debts. Ira wasn't bad either.

The film was pretty good; even more so given the obviously small budget. The film follows Felicity Maxwell (Kelly Lou Dennis), a recent arrival to the Bay Area. She has a job as a live-in maid/nanny to a woman in Palo Alto. The woman (Maria Fagan) is divorced and still quite bitter towards her ex. She has a daughter (K. Paige Burns) who is fairly well adjusted; particularly when compared to her mother and Ermir, (Vahe Katros) her father.

Katros's performance is absolutely amazing. He seemingly never stops talking and sleaze oozes out of every pore of his body but somehow evokes the tiniest bit of empathy. He's failed venture capitalist cum huckster. He's constantly on the make but living in a sleazy motel (in Palo Alto?) queers the deal each time. Eventually he turns his attention to the younger, church-going and slighly naive Felicity. When Felicity rejects his advances, he makes a scene at his ex-wife's house and hints that he & Felicity have been intimate. This infuriates his ex-wife who sends Felicity packing without anywhere to go. The film ends on that bleak note.

The plot is fairly threadbare but Whaley coaxes these incredible performances from Katros and Dennis and to a lesser extent, Fagan who plays her character like a harpy. At its core, the film is about Ermir and how he pulls everyone around him into this emotional sinkhole. The beauty is that he does it in such a passive agressive manner that you don't realize it until it's too late. I thought Denise and Felicity were the same character separated by 10 years of marriage to Ermir.


A Kiss and a Promise was a Canadian film about three dysfunctional people who live at a bed & breakfast. David & Samantha Beck (Nick Rossi and Natasha Gregson Wagner) play the couple who owns the B&B in a small town in Ontario. Sean Power plays Charlie their permanent and non-paying guest. For reasons which are vague, David feels a responsibility towards Charlie and lets him stay there for free much to the consternation of Samantha. Charlie doesn't do much to ingratiate himself as he is an alcoholic and long ago published author.

The dynamics of that situation are enough to build a drama but A Kiss and a Promise ratchets up the conflict to 11. David and Samantha have some issues in the bedroom. David likes to choke Samantha during sex and frankly, Samantha seems to enjoy it. However, David cannot (or will not) climax with Samantha. Instead, during the height of arousal, David goes across the hallway to Charlie's room for satisfaction. Samantha is understandably peaved by this and it feeds into her resentment of Charlie's presence.

The tension doesn't end there. Unbeknownst to both Samantha and Charlie, David is also a serial rapist and murderer. Most of the film focuses on the police investigation which closes in one David. The subplot involves Charlie and his newfound ability to pay the rent...at quite a high cost to his body and dignity.

A film about kinky sex and a serial killer living a double life sounds like a sure fire winner but this film easily could have veered towards any number of self indulgences by the director. However, Philip Guzman keeps the story focused with an appropriate number surprises. The film was "inspired" by a true story; whatever that means. All three lead actors give strong performances. Natasha Gregson Wagner is Natalie Woods' daughter and Robert Wagner's stepdaughter.


I think I'll end the synopses there. The enjoyed the other films but they were a step below the aforementioned. Copacabana merits a mention. It would have been first rate if they toned down Isabelle Huppert's character. She ends the film by dancing in a samba corps (complete with her own headdress) at her daughter's wedding.

The two films I disliked were War Games and the Man Who Stopped Them and Samuel Bleak. War Games took a fascinating subject and put me to sleep. Somehow, the makers of War Games ruined the true story of a Polish colonel who smuggled classified Warwaw Pact documents to the US and thus potentially avoiding WWIII. The film was poorly made, scattershot and the director inserted himself into the storyline.

Samuel Bleak was not nearly as bad. It was predictable to a fault and much of the plot didn't really make sense. It looked and felt low budget so I doubt many people will even have the opportunity to see the film. What is notable about Samuel Bleak is the invective Jason Wiener piled upon it. The normally cinematically forgiving Jason wrote "[Going to Samuel Bleak was the] worst last minute decision of my life. It's a veritable crap-ucopia of cliched drivel that's as emotionally empty as it is manipulative...Awful, awful, awful!!! I have seen so many movies at Cinequest (this year and others) where the writer, director, and actors put in tons of effort to make sure the emotional reactions are true. Writer/director/actor Dustin Schuetter takes a giant crap over the very thought of putting in such work."

Unaware of his posts on matter, I asked Jason which films stood out for him at Cinequest and he launched into a criticism of Samuel Bleak. Although I agreed that the film was not very good, my reaction was not nearly as intense as Jason's. Jason's reaction was so unusual that he felt the need to post an explanation of his original reaction.

After reading all that and seeing Samuel Bleak, I'm still not sure what makes the film singularly horrible enough to warrant his tongue lashing.

Speaking of tongue lashings and intense reactions, I have to get ready for an appointment on 2nd Street in San Jose.

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