Cinequesting: Opening night at Cinequest featured "Wake," whose cast/crew joined crowds at the after-party. From left, producer Hal Schwartz, director Ellie Kanner, actors Danny Masterson and Marguerite Moreau.

Cinequest, Transforming

Dennis Harvey March 1, 2009

Think you felt relieved when Obama won? Imagine the feelings at Cinequest—San Jose’s annual film festival has championed "maverick" cinema and makers for years, only to have their signature term hijacked by a Republican candidate who couldn’t have been more representative of the status quo. (I doubt McCain has ever seen an independent film—though I’m sure Sarah Palin is a secret sucker for the works of Chantal Akerman and Bruce LaBruce.) That damage has been done, although at least now nobody else will be touching the word with a ten-foot-pole for some time.

Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that Cinequest 2009 is in the mood to "Transform: Mind, Body, Soul," as their slogan puts it. Aren’t we all?

Not much has really transformed at Cinequest this year, however, and that’s not a bad thing. What you’ll get through March 8 at three downtown SJ venues within three blocks of each other is the same mix of tributes, seminars, parties and, of course, a whole lot of movies—including no fewer than 18 world premiere features.

Two of those bookend the festival: Last week’s opening nighter selection was Ellie Kanner’s offbeat romantic comedy Wake, starring Bijou Phillips as a young woman whose habit of attending strangers’ funerals leads to unexpected complications. Ian Somerhalder, Danny Masterson and Jane Seymour co-star. Official closer is Roger Nygard’s doc The Nature of Existence, in which he trots the globe asking various experts and ordinary folk their thoughts on life’s Big Questions.

You can ask your own big questions at a number of live events. Both weekends feature "Film & Innovation Forums" featuring industry panels and presentations. They include spotlights on "The Marriage of TV and the Internet," "The Business of Art," and Panasonic’s new P2 high-def technologies. Then on Friday the 6th there’s "World of the Writer," a daytime series of seminars highlighted by the tribute to Maverick Spirit Award winner Diablo Cody, the precocious author of Juno and new Showtime series The United States of Tara.

This year’s other Maverick winners are two veteran male actors. Louis Gossett, Jr. of An Officer and a Gentleman, the Iron Eagle movies and a zillion other things (since the late 1950s!) will appear after the March 3 screening of The Least Among You, a new drama about the 1965 Watts riots. It co-stars Lauren Holly, William Devane and newcomer Cedric Sanders.

The following night spotlights diminutive San Francisco-born standup comic turned Hollywood thesp Kevin Pollak, whom you may recall from The Usual Suspects and myriad other TV and film projects.

This year the body of Cinequest’s programming has been divided into high concept categories, including "Celebration," "Humor," "Innovation," "Inspiration," "Love" and "Provocation." This makes for a rather confusing catalog to leaf through, so we’ll just stick to ye olden categories of U.S./foreign narrative and documentary in picking a few highlights.

The U.S. fictions encompass a great number of premieres that were not previewed, including the return of Mark Tran’s All About Dad, a Catholic-vs.-Buddhist dysfunctional family comedy that was shown here in a preliminary cut last year. One non-premiere that comes with great advance buzz is Jeff Balsmeyer’s Lightbulb, with Dallas Roberts as a man in dire straits who comes up with one saving, brilliant, very odd idea.

I’m particularly looking forward to The Skeptic, a second feature by Tennyson Bardwell, whose Dorian Blues was a big Cinequest hit four years ago. Where that was a gay coming-of-age comedy, this is something else entirely—a supernatural thriller with Tim Daly, Tom Arnold and Zoe Saldana. Likewise there’s reason to anticipate Canary by local director Alejandro Adams, whose Around the Bay made a quietly impressive bow here last year.

Documentary features encompass a wide array of subjects: A North Dakota town’s drastic changes after an oil boom (Crude Independence); an influential, somewhat notorious early Christian rocker (Fallen Angel: The Outlaw Larry Norman); a literary lion with a very dark secret (Killer Poet); an infamous California case of mass false-accusation child abuse arrests (Witch Hunt); one very strange competitive "sport" to take seriously (Rock Paper Scissors: A Geek Tragedy); geriatric hiphop dancing (Gotta Dance); geriatric activism (Raging Grannies); and reining a violent urban high school back under control (Heart of Stone). Then there’s the self-explanatory likes of Garrison Keillor: The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes and Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.

Among foreign films that come particularly recommended after prior festival showings are Ozcan Alper’s German-Turkish romance Autumn; twisted family tale Tokyo Sonata from horror-famed Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa; Pernille Fischer Christensen’s Danish drama Dancers; Seyed Reza Mir Karimi’s Iranian day-in-the-life slice As Simple as That; Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog, about child soldiers (and starring real ex-ones) in Liberia’s civil war; Jan Verheyen’s Belgian comedy Cut Loose; and Mariano Llinas’ Argentine epic Historias Extraordinarias, whose four-hour-plus length comes with a midway break.

Three I’ve already seen myself happen to all be French-Canadian, and all well worth seeing—none more so than Benoit Pilon’s beautiful The Necessities of Life, a seriocomic culture-shock tale of an Inuit fisherman taken from his Far North to 1950s Quebec City for tuberculosis treatment. Lea Pool’s Mommy is at the Hairdresser’s is a quite funny yet astutely observed portrait of a mid-1960s suburban family that struggles to avoid complete domestic meltdown after a fed-up mom simply leaves the country for an indeterminate length of time. Kim Nguyen’s Truffe is a goofy, near-indescribable B&W black comedy mixing sci-fi and surrealism. If you’ve ever thought, "Gee, they don’t make ‘em like Eraserhead anymore," you’ll be happy to know that somebody does.

Last but not least, the festival’s annual dose of silent cinema at the historic California Theatre brings a whopping double dose of epic D.W. Griffith: This Friday his racist but historically important 1915 The Birth of a Nation, whose ambition and enormous success changed the course of cinema. Friday the 5th it’s his 1916 Intolerance, an enormous (and enormously expensive at the time) treatise set in four different time periods that by contrast was a financial disaster. Dennis James will accompany both at the Wurlitzer organ, and will surely need toweling off after each three-hour workout.

If three hours of anything is too much for you, Cinequest offers no less than eight thematically grouped shorts programs scattered throughout the schedule.

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