Looking for closure: Minnie Driver features in Charles Oliver's "Take," Cinequest's closing night movie March 9.

Cinequest's surprises

Dennis Harvey March 7, 2008

A “discovery” festival from Day One—meaning they premiere a lot of films, including many other fests might pass over—San Jose’s Cinequest actually adopted “Discover” as motto for this, its 16th year.

A five-day wade into the current program’s early going revealed business as usual: Very appreciative, if not often packed, audiences. Excited young filmmakers easy to distinguish from civilian ticketbuyers (who are generally older, wider, and don’t wear nearly so much black). The greeter guy at the Cinema 12 door who wears a different spangly topcoat every day. The hirsute guy who introduces certain films in a manner suggesting thwarted aspirations as a standup comic. The highly variable quality of what’s on screen.

As the Hitachi convention at my hotel gave way to the Junior Cheerleader convention, Cinequest also shape-shifted into something much more interesting.

Oddly repeating last year’s pattern, the first 36 hours or so were crammed with the kind of stuff that makes you inwardly cry, “Why?” Meaning bad-to-mediocre direct-to-cable or DVD type stuff, lower-end vanity projects, ponderous foreign flops, and way too little actual film—as opposed to digital shooting/projecting. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with the latter. But Cinequest regularly demonstrates how poorly some DV or HD-shot efforts translate to big-screen exhibition.

Cinequest 2008 began inauspiciously with opening night selection Eden Court, a barn-door-broad hick-com drawn from Murphy Guyer’s 1982 play, followed, Thursday, with Juan Patricio Riveroll’s Mexican Opera is a soporific road trip in which a moody, middle-aged writer and pouty, nubile young student carry on their new affair despite no apparent chemistry whatsoever. Ludasz Palkowski’s Preserve is an amiable if formulaically predictable fish-out-of-water comedy about a young photographer forced to move into a notoriously rough Warsaw district.

Fortunately, things started looking up almost immediately the next day. Another Mexican film, Ivan Avila Duenas’ Enlightened Blood, was refreshing for representing that near-extinct species, the Enigmatic Existential Arthouse Puzzle. Aside from such moldy oldies as Raul Ruiz and Manuel de Oliveira, few stray into such rarefied territory these days. The sheer stubborn eccentricity of this tale—in which people keep experiencing nosebleeds, fainting and waking up in somebody else’s skin—made it watchable, if not exactly satisfying.

Being at Cinequest primarily to review films for a trade publication, I unfortunately had very little time to see movies that had already been reviewed. That was too bad indeed, since while the world premieres were inevitably a very mixed bag, films that had already made festival rounds looked to be good-to-excellent on the whole. Friday brought my sole opportunity to check out two of those titles, and perhaps not unexpectedly they turned out to be the best features I saw.

Hella Joof’s Swedish Bitter Sweetheart is the kind of teen flick that could never get made (or possibly even distributed) in the U.S. at present: Its heroine is a 15-year-old appalled that she’s still a virgin. When she takes action (“losing it” to a smitten “hockey hunk”), the movie doesn’t condemn her. She’s made a mistake, yes—by choosing a boy who’s not right for her (as opposed to the uncool 7th grader she has a crush on), rather than by committing the horrible sin of having consensual sex before reaching legal majority. What a shocking viewpoint! (Contrast with Juno, which for all its hip tenor, is as old-school conservative on the matter as possible.) Beyond that, this handsomely crafted, often hilarious but emotionally real seriocomedy is just one immensely enjoyable piece of commercial entertainment.

At the opposite end of the scale from Sweetheart’s visual and tonal warmth is Janos Vecsemyes’ Hungarian Miscalculation, an ingenious Kafkaesque thriller whose color palette is desaturated almost to the point of monochrome. Feeling his privileged existence is empty and hypocritical, the son of a supermarket-chain millionaire tries to join the underground opposition to their totalitarian state. When he finally appears to succeed, the consequences are brutally ironic. Based on a novel by Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertesz (who also wrote the source material for acclaimed concentration camp drama Fateless), Miscalculation is a superb steel trap of a movie.

Attempting something vaguely similar, Cheng Er’s Chinese Unfinished Girl proved more garbled than adroit in its tricky tale of a terminally ill young woman, her concerned brother-in-law, and a suicidal coworker. Halfway through it takes a surprising turn—as the previously wan heroine suddenly becomes a fierce agent of vengeance upon the man she suspects of a terrible past crime—but the melodrama feels arid and contrived, capped by an ending that doesn’t really make sense. Likewise heavy, humorless melodramatics ultimately overwhelm James Cole’s Three Priests, an interesting Montana-shot effort with veterans Wes Studi, Olivia Hussey and Michael Parks as parental elders to a doomed young love triangle.

Several of the best new movies seen last weekend at Cinequest had more modest aspirations—nearly all being Amerindie odd-couple comedies—but executed them with winning confidence and heart. There’s nothing remotely original about Craig Saavedra’s Sherman’s Way, one of those movies in which uptight rich kid (Michael Shulman) gets his screws loosened a bit via some lessons in life, love, et cetera from a ne’er-do-well wildman type (the reliably good James LeGros as an Olympic athlete turned genial bum). But its sheer good-naturedness makes the familiarity pleasant. Likewise Chris Ford’s even better The Village Barbershop, in which a widowed crankypants Reno barber (John Ratzenberger of Cheers) gradually thaws out his emotions under the influence of the pregnant young woman (erstwhile Gilmore Girl Shelly Cole) he’s forced to hire on.

In contrast to those well-worn scenarios, co-directors Arianna De Giorgi and Jason Goodman’s transatlantic The Eternal City is a quirky comedy that feels almost made up as it goes along—resulting in something perilously slight yet disarming and funny. Its protagonist is a Philly youth who’s come to Rome in search of the girl he fell in love with in Paris. When it turns out her attention span has already snapped, he ends up staying with her neighbors, an aspiring concert pianist and her American filmmaker boyfriend (Goodman himself). There’s a vintage-Jarmuschy feel to the proceedings, not least because the film is much enhanced by being in B&W.

Somewhat more serious—though not entirely so—is another odd-couple tale, Glenn Gers’ Disfigured. Here the unlikely friendship develops between two thirtysomething L.A. women, one overweight (Deidra Edwards), the other anorexic (Staci Lawrence). They discover plenty of overlap between their individual insecurities. While Gers’ script sometimes stretches credence, his actors are utterly convincing, and the movie sports a refreshing honesty about difficult subjects that avoids both condescension and P.C.-dom.

Last but not least, the handful of documentaries I was able to catch offered, as usual, some of Cinequest’s best programming. PBS veteran Roger Weisberg’s Critical Condition is blatantly public-television in packaging, but that doesn’t detract from its sobering portrait of lower-income working folk without insurance whose lives are ruined by medical-expense debts. It may not be as zippy as Sicko, but it makes perhaps a more devastating argument for universal health care coverage.

If you’re the sort of person who goes to film festivals, what’s not to like about documentaries that take as their subject film history itself? Certainly no complaints could be lodged against Ramy Kartrib and Evan York’s Mardik: From Baghdad to Hollywood, about the Iraqi-emigre screenwriter who helped create some of Martin Scorsese’s defining movies (including Mean Streets and Raging Bull), then abruptly dropped out of sight. And Nick Redman’s Becoming John Ford is a graceful examination of that legendary director’s life and work up through 1946’s My Darling Clementine. It made me want to run right out and see not only such familiar chestnuts as How Green Was My Valley and Young Mr. Lincoln, but even (gasp!) Wee Willie Winkie, the Shirley Temple vehicle Ford had to be dragged into kicking and screaming.

There’s plenty more still to come at Cinequest, including this weekend’s tribute to Maverick Award winner Danny Glover and a screening with live organ accompaniment of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1928 Soviet classic October at the splendidly restored art deco California Theatre.