Let's jump right into the films of the 2013 Cinequest.
Two films I was interested in but skipped were Emperor and The Sapphires. I was aware that both films were going to be play at Landmark Theaters. The Sapphires is currently playing at the Aquarius in Palo Alto and Camera 7 Pruneyard. Emperor, which I subsequently saw at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas, has come and gone from Landmark Theaters in the Bay Area but is still playing at CinéArts Theaters in Mill Valley & Pleasant Hill.
Hard pressed to name my favorite film of th festival, I offer the folowing dozen as my favorites.
Solace - structured like a three act play, this dialogue heavy drama explored the relationship between three pairs. 1) a WASPish middle aged guy setting up a murder-for-hire with a black guy who sounds like Chris Rock, 2) a wealthy married couple with a troubled marriage and 3) a young woman and a hit man in an abandoned building. The film ties all three segment together but chemistry & dialog between the actors is incredible - funny, dramatic, painful, hopeful, etc. The six actors were all tremendous.
One Small Hitch - a contrived romantic comedy about a man pretending to marry his best friend's younger sister in order to satisfy his dying father's final wish to attend his son's wedding. Despite the predictability of the plot, the actors played their roles perfectly. I am reminded of Vince Lombardi's comments on the Green Bay Packers Power Sweep. He said that even when the defense knew it was coming, they couldn't stop it. Same with this film, even though I knew where the plot was going, I couldn't stop from laughing. Nice performance by Shane McRae & Aubrey Dollar as the faux couple and Heidi Johanningmeier as the "other woman."
Sweet Talk - another film that looked more like a play. Natalie Zea plays a phone sex operator who connects with Jeffrey Vincent Parise, a writer with a severe case of writer's block. As they banter back & forth, they both discover the person on the other side of the stereotype. She discovers her long repressed romantic tendencies and he regains his creativity. Much of the film consists of Zea & Parise portraying their characters' fantasy characters so part of the film is a Zhivago-esque romance.
Molly Maxwell - this film reminded me of Anna Pacquin's Margeret. Lola Tash is the title character, a likeable 16 year old in a progressive school. An infatuation with one of her teachers (Charlie Carrick) leads to a crush to romance to statutory rape. The film has a gentleness to it so the creepiness of the relationship is never front and center. I actually came to sympathize with the teacher who deluded hmself into thinking Molly was as emotionally mature as she pretended. Krista Bridges & Rob Stewart as Molly's parents provided solid supporting acting. Nominally a comedy, Molly Maxwell deftly explores teenage angst, confusion and sexuality.
Aftermath - Chris Penn's memorable final role, the film follows the escalating feud between construction mogul Anthony Michael Hall (looking unrecognizable from his youth) and ex-convict Penn. Darkly humorous, violent, stylish, full of memorable supporting roles including Leo Burmester as a dyspeptic sheriff and Tony Danza as a tough talking candy ass gun dealer.
The Hunt - Mads Mikkelsen is incredible as a school teacher falsely accused of molesting his best friend's daughter in a small Danish town. The film provides a textbook case of how easily a vague and hesitant accusation can snowball into criminal charges and ruination. The film presents the criminal charges as secondary to the hostility and sense of betrayal Mikkelsen encounters by his former colleagues and friends. I can't say enough of Mikkelsen's performance.
The Scar - I had a little difficulty sorting out the three timelines in the film but once I figured out they were the same person at the three different junctures, I was engrossed by this tale of childhood bullying and its long term impacts. Marc Béland delivers a powerful turn as the bearer of the titular scar. The Scar was a disturbing film.
Eden - Jamie Chung shines as a Korean American teenager who is kidnapped, held captive and forced into prostitution. Over the course of years, she survives by become the "bottom bitch" (I learned that from Iceberg Slim's book). Her character goes from frightened victim to helping exploit the other women to hard fought freedom. Matt O'Leary is memorable as her captor/savior/pseudo-boyfriend. Based on a true story.
Chaos - outlandish French tale of revenge is redeemed by great performances by Sonia Rolland as bored concert pianist forced to live a small town, Isaach De Bankolé as her school teacher husband and Niels Schneider as one of his troubled students. Rolland is spectacular as a woman wrecked by guilt and passion.
Mon Ami - I missed this at Another Hole in the Head so I was glad to see it on the schedule. Mike Kovac and Scott Wallis are a pair of knuckleheads who hatch a kidnap-for-ransom scheme involving their boss' daughter. Things go horribly wrong from there. A severed toe scene is particularly memorable. Honorable mention for having "bromance sensibilities" brush up against homoeroticism at times.
The Almost Man - Henrik (Henrik Rafaelsen) is an immature man who feels dissatisfied with his life which is includes his pregnant live-in girlfriend. Trying to behave as an adult, Henrik can't let go of his frat boy and juvenile ways but comes to realize he can't continue them either. A funny & sad portrait of a man belatedly trying to learn to be a man. Rafaelsen shines in the lead role.
In the Shadow - set in 1953 Prague, Police Inspector Hakl (Ivan Trojan) investigates a robbery which runs him afoul of the state security apparatus. Trojan is terrific as a cop trying to navigate the uncertainty of the Communist regime, secret police and threats against his family. While keeping the narrative personal and interesting, this film is a damning indictment of the totalitarian regimes of the Eastern Bloc.
The following films were quite good if not as entertaining, memorable or moving as the aforementioned films.
Welcome Home - Lila returns to Brussels after an extended and, from her boyfriend's perspective, unexplained absence. The action shifts from Lila & her boyfriend arguing, Lila helping an Iranian visitor explore the city of his youth and Lila and her bike confronting young, wealthy multinationals.
White Lies - a young writer plot revenge against his mentor, an author who plagiarized the younger man's work. His girlfriend and the older man's wife get in the way of his plan. Olivia Ross as the girlfriend and Belinda Lowe as the wife were memorable.
Leave of Absence - in some ways a companion piece to The Almost Man, Jason Thompson is man who gets a 30 day disability leave of absence. He plans to use the time to redirect his life but his aimlessness, lack of ambition and immaturity threaten to wreck his life instead.
Twenty Million People - Michael Ferrell (who sounds just like Seth Myers) is a bored barista who loses his job and the girl he might love if he can bring himself to admit it. A sharp edged romantic comedy, Twenty Million People serves double duty as a critique on modern slacker mentality.
Detonator - despite a mumblecore pedigree, this film seemed more tightly scripted. Lawrence Michael Levine is Sully, a former punk rocker who has gone legit with a wife and son. He can't quite let go of his youthful dreams so when an ex-bandmate (Michael Ellis Fine in a great performance) turns up, Sully unexpectedly finds himself pulled back into a wild night.
Girl Shaped Love Drug - a difficult to characterize love story. The characters don't even get names. Him (Sacha Dhawan) and Her (Rachel Austin) are strangers who meet on the streets of Manchester, England. They fall in love over the course of a day. I recall one remarkable exchange between Dhawan and Dean Andrews as Her's Father.
Made in China - The Mexican owner of a Chinese restaurant takes a road trip (from Mexico City to Monterrey, I believe) to attend the wedding of a long lost love. One of his workers tags along to escape the Chinese Mafia (there is Chinese Mafia in Mexico?). This lighthearted film is part buddy film, part road trip movie & part farce.
Old Stock - Stock, a young man in his early 20s retreats from life by living in his father's retirement home. Circumstances force him to leave the old folks home and confront the woman who was paralyzed in a car accident while he was driving. Innovative & quirky comedy with moments of seriousness.
Offline - Rudy (Wim Willaert) is fresh out of prison and wants to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Anemone Valcke). Since she is unwilling to meet him, Rudy decides to contact her at work. However, she works as sex worker on a chat and video-on-demand website. Rudy assumes an alias in order to interact with her and he quickly becomes her favorite client.
Goldfish Go Home - fairy tale like story set in modern Japan about a Brazilian boy who captures a magical gold fish. Nice comedic performances by Kana Mikura as the kind hearted bureaucrat and Takashi Sasano as the corrupt mayor.
The Dead Man and Being Happy - a minimalist tale of an Argentinean hitman (Jose Sacristan) dying of cancer who picks up a 40something woman for road trip. Some literal narration provides irony and a pastiche of scenes maintained my interest despite the lack of narrative.
Oh Boy - evocative of 1960s films, Tom Schilling is a college dropout who drifts from one comic encounter to another in Berlin. Nice performance by Schilling and the episodic nature of the scenes make for a breezy comedy.
The Playback Singer - an Indian man visits his daughter and her husband in Los Angeles. Intending to start a US singing tour, Ashok (Piyush Mishra) finds he has been cheated and encamps at his daughter's house to much consternation from his son-in-law Ray (Ross Partridge). Ashok's presence exposes tensions in the marriage of Priya (Navi Rawa) and Ray. The Playback Singer is an amusing film that entertained me more than it probably should have. Nice performances by the three leads.
Habanastation - Mayito (Ernesto Escalona) is a 12 year old from a wealthy family in Cuba. He is doted upon by his parents. On May Day, he takes the wrong bus and ends up far from home in a slum. He encounters Carlos (Andy Fornaris), one of his classmates. Carlos goes to Mayito's prestigious school on scholarship and is picked upon by his classmates and made to feel small because of his social status. As the day progresses, the two boys form a friendship in the shanytown that they could never form at school. The title is a portmanteau of Habana and Playstation which Mayito possesses and Carlos is ignorant of. This was the most heartwarming of films at this year's Cinequest.
I can recommend the 26 films I've mentioned so far. Most of the rest of the films I saw Cinequest were more uneven or in some cases boring. In several cases, my opinion did not agree with the audience balloting.
An Inaccurate Memoir - a Chinese action film about a plot to kidnap the Japanese Emperor's brother during WWII. Like many Chinese action films, there were a few too many plot twists for this films own good.
Dose of Reality - an audience favorite. Nice performance by Fairuza Balk. I thought the plot tipped its hand too early such that the premise was called into question from the very start. I just didn't think it was as clever as it took itself or as other Cinequesters.
The Pretty Time Bomb - rambling, nonsensical Japanese absurdist comedy.
Sparks - superhero story adapted from a comic book; low budget but it never caught my interest and I ended falling asleep for much of the film.
Congratulations! - another audience favorite. This absurdist comedy about a "missing" child that would have worked well as a 20 minute short film but overstayed its welcome at 90 minutes.
The Kitchen - Laura Preppon is turning 30 and her housemates throw her a birthday party. The party turns into a comedy of errors and emotional confrontations. The sound was bad at the sceening I attended (the director apologized for it during the Q&A) so maybe I missed some of the jokes but I didn't laugh much throughout the film.
The Believers - the best of the "also rans." This documentary about cold fusion has a fascinating topic and compelling subjects in Fleischmann & Pons, the University of Utah researchers who flamed out after making the startling announcement about cold fusion in 1989. It seemed like the directors were biased towards the "believers" because considerable data against it exists.
We Went to War - a follow-up to Michael Grisby's 1970 documentary I Was a Soldier. Director Rebekah Tolley reconnects with the subjects and family of the original film with unsurprising and uninteresting results.
Mystery - a Chinese love triangle that had a few surprises and interesting moments but ultimately couldn't sustain its energy throughout the film.
Loveless Zorista - another audience favorite. A sometimes amusing comedy about a Serbian woman who is cursed to inadvertently kill the men who love her. It had its moments but it was far from satisfying.
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