Although I wrote "I remain convinced that the film programming at Cinequest best matches my tastes," I did think the 2014 programming was off a skosh compared to the past few years. There were still plenty of films I was mightily impressed with but a large number fell in the "above average category." Some were below average too. Never missing an opportunity to accentuate the negative, I'll list my least favorites films from the 2014 Cinequest Film Festival.
At the bottom of the list were two biopic documentaries: Masterpiece: Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and The Man Behind the Mask. At a crisp 79 minutes, Masterpiece didn't have enough time to make much of an impression. Not being particularly familiar with Frank Miller or his comics, I was anxious to learn more about him. The film was enthusiastic in its praise of Miller. It could have been titled Hagiography: Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. I left the film without much of a change in impression about Miller or The Dark Knight Returns.
The Man Behind the Mask is the story of Mexican wrestler El Hijo del Santo son of El Santo. The film was directed by El Hijo del Santo's wife and it showed. Much like Masterpiece, Man Behind the Mask was far from objective and worse it was kind of boring because chronicling his wresting tours and matches just didn't hold my interest. El Hijo del Santo kept his mask on for the entire film; even during interview and when he was with his family. That indicated that the film was more PR than honest exploration of the man.
Actually, my recollection was that there were more films which I disliked or regretted seeing but now that I look down the list, I see there were only the aforementioned two.
The next category would be films which had enough moments to be enjoyable if not disappointing overall.
Lawrence and Holloman - an over-the-top comedy about two co-workers. One's positive outlook seems to compensate for his lack of competence and ethics. The other is morose and even suicidal...that is until he sabotages the other's life. The film is a bit mean spirited even for my tastes.
Parallel Maze - an indecipherable film with homage to Hitchcock's Psycho. Several people walked out of the screening I attended. This probably had to do with the mind-bending plot structure which made use of alternate or parallel realities. A Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics should have been a pre-requisite for viewing this film.
A is for Alex - a comedy which I didn't find too funny. One good thing about procrastinating in writing these entries is that I have topics which I would not have had if I had written it immediately after the viewing. One of the major plot points in A is for Alex is that Alex's mother accidentally uploads a video to the internet. Unfortunately for Alex, the video is of him having sex as a teenager. This bears a similarity to the Cameron Diaz film Sex Tape. How many people record themselves having sex? Apparently it is not uncommon.
Sex(ed): The Movie - a documentary consisting of clips of Sex Education videos throughout the years. I didn't find the film that interesting or the clips of old movies that funny although much of the audience seemed to appreciate the film.
Funny Money - an overly contrived Vietnamese comedy about a guy whose shady business is making counterfeit money to be burned during funeral ceremonies. He accidentally passes one off to a salesgirl and both their lives get turned upside down. In addition to a plot I couldn't relate to, the actors were over the top in their performances which was annoying for me.
Sold - a tale of child sex trafficking in Nepal and India. Everyone down to the street people speaks English though. There were a few tense moments in the film but I felt the filmmakers were more interested making a statement than telling a story.
The Divorce Party - a couple decides to divorce; the husband is reluctant but agrees. The wife decides to throw a party to celebrate the divorce which everyone else finds odd (including me). This film continues a trend I have noticed of young men being ineffectual and unable to land decent jobs. In this case, the wife had an illness or car accident which required medical attention. Their lack of health insurance coverage creates a financial strain which in turn leads to a marital strain. I particularly disliked the ending where the solution is for the husband to rely on his mother-in-law for financial support.
Unforgiven - who knew cowboys roamed Northern Japan during the 1800s? A very faithful retelling of Clint Eastwood's award winning film of the same title...maybe a little too faithful. This film seemed, at times, to be Japanese actors playing cowboys akin to watching a Japanese stage production of Oklahoma!.
App - I don't have a smart phone so I couldn't download the app. There was an app for App which was timed with the action in the film to do certain things. The film literally involved a killer app with overtones of HAL from Space Odyssey 2001. Maybe I would have enjoyed this Dutch film more if I had the app but it seemed silly to me; not very frightening at all.
That leaves 26 interesting to fabulous films. In the interest of time and given the tardiness of this post, I'll summarize on most of the films.
Hunting Elephants - Patrick Stewart plays a ne'er-do-well British actor who travels to Israel when his sister dies. He gets mixed up in a bank robbery with his brother-in-law and great-nephew. This is a comedy and good one. Hunting Elephants is playing at this year's Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival.
Class Enemy - A Slovenian film about a high school German language teacher who alienates his class to the extreme. I thought interesting that the rigid disciplinarian is German and the characters are a tad too familiar but I definitely recall the teenage angst and can relate to way the kids focused their anger and frustration on their teacher.
Just a Sigh - Gabriel Byrne & Emmanuelle Devos are strangers who meet on a train. They share a very intense afternoon in Paris involving a funeral, sex and long-standing family feuds. This film has a dreamlike quality when Byrne & Devos are together which is interrupted periodically with absurd situations and the reality of their lives. This is a tremendous film which deserves more publicity than it has received.
The Verdict - a Belgian film about a man whose wife is murdered. The killer gets off on a technicality and the widower turns vigilante by killing his wife's killer. The film compelling focuses on the man's trial.
A Squared - (aka Asquared) a modern day love story about two teenagers in Italy. The title refers to the names of the two lead characters - Amanda and Alberto. Alberto has an on-line sex addiction. Deeply in love, Amanda stands by him. Actually standing is not her most interesting position. Their first time having sex (in a classroom during lunch!) is recorded by Alberto and then posted on-line causing shame & other disciplinary actions against them. For my middle-aged sensibilities, the plot seemed to defy belief but it was still fun ride.
White Rabbit - set in Oakland, this is the story of an ex-Army communications specialist who gets pulled into a shady plot by a crooked OPD detective. The ex-GI is a female although that doesn't really figure into the story. In fact, it felt as though the role was originally written for a male actor. It's also set against the time period when there were Occupy protest in Oakland although again that wasn't integral to the story. White Rabbit has elements of film noir which I enjoyed.
East Side Sushi - also set in Oakland. In fact, I think I've been to the Japanese restaurant where much of the film is set. A Latina looks for a better life than selling shaved ice from a pushcart. She applies for and gets a job in the kitchen of a Japanese restaurant where she quickly falls in love with the cuisine as well as the head chef. She aspires to be a sushi chef but is the victim of racial and gender discrimination by the restaurant owner who feels only Japanese males are qualified. He hides this sentiment by saying that the customers expect authentic Japanese food made by authentic Japanese men. Her opportunity comes in the form of a food competition television show. It was fun to see Oakland locations I recognized and the clash of Latino & Japanese cultures.
Eternity: The Movie - the story of Eternity, a faux musical duo from the 1980s who bear a casual resemblance to Hall & Oates. Eternity skewers 1980s music, fashions and the latent homoeroticism which I was largely unaware of at the time. Eternity is a lightweight comedy which is its strength in that its reach doesn't exceed its grasp but also its weakness in that the film feels like a glorified SNL sketch.
Breathe In - a very engaging story about a foreign exchange student who comes to live with a family of three in upstate New York. The father of the family (Guy Pearce who is racking up an impressive filmography) is a frustrated high school music teacher and part-time symphony musician. It turns out the exchange student (Felicity Jones) is musically gifted. Although, that is something they share, their attraction is slow burning and most of the film is restrained. They don't take action until the last third and the impact is devastating on his family. Amy Ryan and Mackenzie Davis as Pearce's wife and daughter round out a strong cast. The plot drags at times and the examination of these characters is largely superficial but Pearce & Jones capture something ineffable in their characters. Interestingly, I didn't think they had great chemistry together.
A Thief A Kid And A Killer - a dark, Filipino comedy about a jewel heist gone sideways in which the thieves hide out in an upscale apartment. However, a young boy is in the apartment and forms a friendship with one of the thieves. I really enjoyed this film.
Victoriana - this was my second favorite film of the festival. A young couple buy a fixer-upper in New York. The wife accidentally kills a tenant and the ensuing cover-up changes their lives. This film touches on gentrification and a perversion of the American Dream. It also nicely explores the shifting power dynamics between the couple.
A Practical Guide to a Spectacular Suicide - a Scottish comedy about a suicidal man, his budding romance and his relationship with his outrageous psychoanalyst. The film was amusing but at times I had a hard time understanding their Scottish brogues.
Confessions of a Womanizer - an outrageous comedy about the dating misadventures of the titular protagonist. The film has many over-the-top performances but is punctuated by Gary Busey's unabashed portrayal as the mentor to the womanize. I can still remember one of the quotes - "You punched the starfish without wearing a Hazmat suit."
The Illiterate - Paulina Garcia (Gloria) stars as the eponymous character in this Chilean. When her "reader" is unavailabe, a young woman offers to substitute which then becomes an effort to teach the older woman to read. The younger woman's professional and sexual frustrations play against Garcia's insecurities.
A Short History of Decay - a failed, thirtysomething NYC writer decamps at his parents' Florida home. When his father's health problems force him to extend his stay, family dynamics and budding romances come to the forefront. Nice performances by Linda Lavin & Harris Yulin as the parents. The film is a bit scattered but comes together nicely by the end.
Zoran, My Idiot Nephew - this seemed to be the darling of the festival goers I chatted with but I found the film not as funny as it was made out to be. A shady Italian slob learns his Slovenian aunt has died. Looking to collect an inheritance, the man is instead saddled with his teenage nephew - an functioning autistic who is a natural at darts. A scheme is hatched and hijinks ensue.
The Hands of Orlac - Orlac (the always exceptional Conrad Veidt) is a concert pianist who loses his hands in an accident. He receives a hand transplant but is disheartened to learn the hands belonged to a murderer. Orlac loses the ability to play the piano and begins to have strange thoughts about a knife which appears in his house. I am finding that my enjoyment of silent films is hit or miss. I am alarmed that there seems to be more misses than hits lately. I was mild about Orlac; I can't quite put my finger on the reason (no pun intended).
Heavenly Shift - this Hungarian film was my favorite film of the festival. Set in Budapest during the Bosnia Civil War, a Serb finds work as an ambulance EMT. Together with the ambulance driver and attending physician, the three men form a close friendship. They need to be close because they are also running a scam. A shady undertaker needs bodies and sometimes the trio decide an accident victim can't be helped or doesn't deserve to be helped. The film mixes absurdist humor with political commentary and Tarantinoesque flourishes with darker tones.
Blood Punch - a horror-comedy about a three people - a dirty cop, the girl and the mark who are forced to live the same day over and over again. Even death doesn't stop the repetition. It just so happens that the day they repeat is the one in which they all double-cross each other. This film was a lot of fun.
Dom Hemingway - a showcase for Jude Law to chew up the scenery as a ex-con looking to collect a payday for keeping his mouth shut. His hot temper and a beautiful woman gets him more trouble than he can handle.
Finsterworld - a German ensemble cast of odd people. I recall the man who likes to dress up like a horse, a pedicurist who makes baked goods from the dead skin shavings from his clients' feet and high-schoolers who visit a concentration camp. With the passage of six months, I find this film to be less interesting than when I viewed it.
Friended to Death - a comedic commentary on modern social media, the film is about LA parking meter cop who is addicted to his Facebook page. Fired from his job and by extension severed from his on-line identity, he decides to fake his own death to see what happens. Manic and ambitious, the film doesn't come close to the level of satire it aspires to be. However, for a smaller budget film, it is adequate.
The Rugby Player - a bio-doc about Mark Bingham, one of the passengers of United Flight 93 on 9/11. Bingham happened to be gay which is the subject of much attention in the film. In fact, his bravery on 9/11 seems to be overshadowed by his bravery in coming out. Far from objective, the film intends to be uplifting but I have a hard time believing anyone is 1/5 as great as Bingham was made out to be in the film. Perhaps my commentary is more of a statement about my own cynicism than Mr. Bingham's life.
It's Only Make Believe - a tense Norwegian film about a woman who gets out of a prison and attempts to reclaim her daughter from foster care. However, she is quickly pulled back into her drug-dealing past by the thugs who killed her boyfriend.
Tempo Girl - the quirky story (with an out-of-place epilogue inspired by Uma Thurman from Pulp Fiction) of a female writer who travels to remote Swiss Alps village to find inspiration but instead finds odd and oddly menacing characters.
Of these films, which I sadly do not have enough time to write more about, I strongly recommend Heavenly Shift, Victoriana, Class Enemy, Just a Sigh, The Verdict, Breathe In, A Short History of Decay, Tempo Girl, Blood Punch and A Thief A Kid And A Killer. With less enthusiasm, I recommend Hunting Elephants, East Side Sushi and It's Only Make Believe.
I have been receiving emails from Cinequest about their next film festival. 2015 will mark their 25th anniversary. The festival will from from February 24 to March 8, 2015 which is week earlier in the year than this year's March 4-16 dates. Maybe it won't conflict with CAAMFest next year.
With the SJ Rep closed, I wonder if they are going to screen films there or in an additional Camera 12 auditorium in 2015. The SJ Rep building (aka The Susan and Phil Hammer Theatre Center) appeared to be vacant the last time I was in the area (a few months ago).
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