This is the last day of the Cinequest film festival and is the day they have encore screenings of films deemed particularly good. I managed to exceed my goal of 30 films. The express line pass (which costs an extra $100) was really useful for only two screenings this year, and three last year, so I’m not sure I’ll make that investment next year.
Film #29: “Factory Boss” tells the story of a factory owner and his workers in China. I worked in the Asia-Pacific region for 19 months almost 20 years ago. That included three trips totaling five weeks to mainland China. I did not visit any factories in China but did visit many factories elsewhere in the region (Malaysia, Singapore, India). So I was not surprised by the images of life in a major city in China or factory conditions. As a “far-left liberal” (the epithet people like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh apply as a pejorative to people like me) I expected, and did, identify with the factory workers. What surprised me was the empathy I felt for the owner of the toy factory as he struggled to keep his business in operation despite the pressures put on him by the American multi-national corporation. I rate this 4 of 5 stars.
Film #30: “For Here Or To Go?” focuses on the challenges faced by high-tech workers who come to work in America. In this case software engineers from India who come to work in Silicon Valley. I’m an American software-engineer who has been working in Silicon Valley the past seven years and in the field for thirty-five years. Thus I’ve worked with many people in the situation explored by this film (including other countries like Britain and Russia) and could readily relate to the core issue of the film. I also spent nineteen months working in Asia-Pacific and saw many Bollywood films during that time. Yet I found myself unable to really like this film for two reasons. First, the chemistry between the primary male and female characters just isn’t there. Second, and a more serious flaw, is the film has too many sub-plots. Including one having to do with the homosexuality of one character that seemed to be included simply because it is topical. I rate this 3 of 5 stars.
Film #31: “No Evidence Of Disease” is the phrase everyone wants to hear on follow up to treatment for cancer. This is a documentary about a group of doctors who specialize in trying to make that phrase a reality for women afflicted by cancers unique to women. As someone who underwent surgery for stage two skin cancer a few years ago (including having two lymph nodes removed in addition to excision of the primary site) I know how powerful that phrase is. I think the main failing of the film was its inability to explain why female gynecological cancers deserve extra attention above and beyond what any other cancer receives. The closest it comes is literally at the end of the movie when it states that male prostrate cancer research receives 50% more funding than female GYN cancer research. That was it. No details or supporting evidence for the assertion. Nor were the implications of that disparity explored. Sorry but I can’t rate this more than 3 of 5 stars.
If you’re an atheist read my review of film #28 at the bottom of this article.
This is the last day of regularly scheduled screenings. Tomorrow is encore day where the films deemed especially good get an additional screening. This year has been fantastic. I’ve heard a few people give negative reviews of some films but as I mentioned in my previous article I’ve been fortunate this year to have seen only two films I would not recommend seeing.
Film #26: “The Life After” portrays two brothers who grow up with a mother who suffers mental disabilities (probably manic-depression). The younger brother retains an optimistic outlook on life and is the easier to like. The older brother shows early signs of his own mental problems when he kills his brother’s small turtle after finding his turtle dead upon returning from the funeral for their grandfather. As an 18 year old he is sullen and angry far out of proportion to the usual teenage angst. There are several scenes which focus on a birthmark on his lower back that is seemingly identical to that on the mother. Thus reinforcing the idea that he may share the same genetic problem that causes the mother’s mental problems. This is a thoughtful exploration of familial bonds in the face of self-destructive behavior. I rate it 4 of 5 stars.
Film #27: “Zemene” follows a shy ten year old Ethiopian girl as she has a chance encounter with an American doctor who is able to arrange for her severe curvature of the spine to be treated. Thus giving her an opportunity at a normal life. It’s a heartwarming tale. Everyone in the movie is clearly a good person. And clearly modern medicine and secular morals are the reason sole reason Zemene has a chance at a normal life. So I was annoyed by all the attestations that “God” was the reason for Zemene’s good fortune. Especially by the American doctor working in Ethiopia who is a devout, borderline orthodox, Jew and attributes what he manages to achieve to his imaginary sky faerie. Most people will leave the film thinking, yes, God worked yet another miracle. To which I say: If you’re giving God the credit rather than the medical professionals and scientists then why did Zemene have to be operated on in a US hospital? For that matter didn’t God cause her suffering in the first place? This film would have been much better had it left God out of the story. I rate it only 3 of 5 stars.
Film #28: “The Mask You Live In” is a marvelous documentary about male gender stereotypes. Specifically, how we’re failing boys and young men by not allowing them to express a more realistic attitude, both emotional and intellectual, about what it means to be a man. This is a film that should be seen by every male teenager and adult (it has a lot of material not suitable for young boys). One of the prominent doctors and the screenwriter were available for Q&A after the screening. Not surprisingly a theocrat sitting within one meter of me asked why the film didn’t stress the need for more Christianity as the solution. Only he didn’t just ask the question he went on at length about how the removal of God and “good Christian values” from our schools is the reason for all the problems portrayed in the film. I told him, loud enough for most of the audience to hear, that his Christian family values are a big reason for those problems. This was clearly someone who holds people like Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family in high regard. Mr. Dobson is the same “doctor” who recommended in a book he wrote that a father should shower with his son so the son can seen an example of what a real man looks like (obvious reference to the father’s genitalia). Unsurprisingly for the San Jose area several people thanked me for telling the smug theocrat to fuck off. Not a single person (other than the aforementioned theocrat) told me to find Jebus. I believe that one way to make the attitude of my neighbors the norm for the entire USA is to do what I did and vocally tell the theocrats that their viewpoint is not shared by everyone else and is not welcome. I rate this 5 of 5 stars.
What a fantastic film festival. Perhaps I’ve simply been lucky because by this time last year I had seen two movies I should have walked out on (1 of 5 stars) and several more that were merely bad (2 of 5 stars). Yet this year I’ve only seen two disappointing movies and none that I would walk out on. In fact I’m surprised at the number I’ve rated 5 of 5 stars that deserve broad release.
Film #24: “In the Company of Women” contrasts the approach to relationships of two distinctly different men. One is an elderly professor who is hoping to learn how to date after several decades of marriage by engaging the services of a male escort for $20,000. The other is a young suave escort (i.e., gigolo). But are they really as different as initial impressions suggest? The interaction between the two male protagonists is very believable and both actors provide very good performances. However, I found the younger males performance to be just a trifle too slick and obviously manipulative. Also, the premise is frankly absurd. Nonetheless I enjoyed the movie and rate it 3 of 5 stars.
Film #25: “Halfway” was an immense surprise. I only watched this film because there wasn’t anything else scheduled in that time block that I found more enticing. I didn’t expect to like the film. I am overjoyed that I made the choice to see it. This is a delightful comedy that explores loss, sorrow, and moving on. A recently divorced man moves into a house whose previous owner died in the house (suicide or accident?) and is now haunting the home. Neither the new (living) or prior (dead) owner is willing to give up the home to the other. This provides for many comedic scenes as each owner tries to convince the other that they won’t retreat. Closure is ultimately reached when they decide to help each other. I rate this 5 of 5 stars.
It had to eventually happen: Today a self-centered asshole sat in front of me and decided he absolutely had to listen to something with his phone screen lit after the lights dimmed right up to the moment the film started. After I threatened to have him ejected from the theatre he called me a couple of names but turned off his phone. Sigh. Some people really need a proctology exam conducted using their phone.
Film #21: “WAX: We Are The X” explores the frustrations and dreams of three members of “Generation X” — the generation born roughly between 1970 and 2000. It does so in a unique fashion using images captured by one of the protagonists, an aspiring film maker, as the trio goes about their lives. Set in Italy and France the imagery is lush and the chemistry between the protagonists is marvelous. I rate it 4 of 5 stars.
Film #22: “Killswitch” is a documentary about privacy in the Internet era. This film should be mandatory viewing for every citizen who uses a computer (which includes the “smart” phone almost everyone owns). It focuses primarily on Aaron Swartz and Edward Snowden. It also features noted law professors Tim Wu and Lawrence Lessig who have been writing and speaking about issues such as net neutrality and Internet privacy for many years. I rate it 5 of 5 stars.
Film #23: “Operation Arctic” tells the story of three children who stowaway on a helicopter to travel to their father but end up stranded on an island near the North Pole. The oldest child is only 13 and her brother and sister are 8 years old. They make many mistakes and nearly die on multiple occasions. What makes this a far better film than the preceding description would suggest are the child actors and the Arctic environment. I was sorely tempted to rate it 5 of 5 stars solely on the basis of the marvelous performances by the children. Yet the relatively predictable story only deserves a rating of 4 of 5 stars.
Wow! More than halfway through this film festival. Of twenty films only one disappointed me and even that one didn’t make we think about walking out before the end of the movie. This is a very different experience from last year.
Film #18: “Crescendo! The Power Of Music” tells how a music education program started in Venezuela in 1976 has affected the lives of USA students in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New York, New York. This is similar to the move “One Day In April” that I wrote about on day six. Unlike that movie which failed to make you care about the characters this one succeeds in a glorious fashion. Specifically by focusing on three students and a handful of teachers and mentors. I was especially moved by the youngest student, Raven, who undergoes a massive transformation after finding that she has a gift for playing the violin. She is a young woman who clearly has the ability to change the world if she can manage to keep some perspective regarding her abilities. Sadly this was its last showing in the festival unless it gains a spot on the Sunday encore screening schedule. I rate this 5 of 5 stars.
Film #19: “Aspie Seeks Love” tells the story of a middle-age male (only a few years younger than myself) who has Aspergers syndrome (a relatively mild form of Autism) as he attempts to seek a soul-mate. It’s a touching and honest look at the challenges faced by all of us in finding someone to love and grow old with. That the protagonist has Aspergers simply allows a level of honesty not usually available when discussing this topic. I rate this 4 of 5 stars.
Film #20: “Shorts Program 7 – Something Funny” is a collection of comedic short films. Only one film was a disappointment that resulted in no applause: “The Lord of Catan”. Which isn’t fair since it was a pretty good short; just not a comedy. It really belongs in one of the other shorts collections. All of the other films were either good or excellent examples of comedic shorts. In particular the two shortest, “firstworldproblems” and “How Guys’ Thoughts Ruin Perfect Relationships”, at two minutes each garnered the greatest laughter and applause. I rate this 5 of 5 stars.
Film #16: “Shorts 3 – Lessons Learned” contained several short films that were disquieting. But that’s not only okay it’s what I want from this type of collection of short films. There was only one real clunker in the collection (“Piss & Vinegar”), a couple that are okay, and several gems (“Dead Hearts”, “Itsy Bitsy Spiders”, “Slap”). I rate it 4 of 5 stars.
Film #17: “Dirty Beautiful” is “Pretty Woman” as interpreted by the same dude who wrote the Bible’s “Book of Revelation”. Let me start by saying the main female protagonist has a voice that makes nails on a chalkboard seem like the sweetest music. She also seems to have taken acting lessons by watching William Shatner in the original Star Trek TV series. Having said that the movie is actually quite good. The core idea is that two obviously incompatible individuals can learn to love each other by simply communicating (even if that often involves screaming). It’s not a great film but probably deserves an encore screening on the last day of the festival. I rate it 4 of 5 stars.
Film #14: “How To Lose Jobs & Alienate Girlfriends” is an unusual documentary. It is ostensibly about the careers of two musicians. One is the boss and mentor of the film maker. The other is his girlfriend. In reality it is about the film maker’s relationship to those individuals and his desire to attain his goal of creating a movie seen by someone other than himself. Surprisingly the movie is better than that description suggests. I rate it 3 of 5 stars.
Film #15: “One Day In April” is a documentary about the “Little 500” bicycle race. The 1979 fictional movie about that race, “Breaking Away” is a classic and superior to this documentary. I loved the 1979 movie and wanted to like this one. Unfortunately this documentary has too many flaws. Starting with the fact that it doesn’t explain what “Little 500” means or the backstory for the team known as the “Cutters”. It gives all of twenty seconds to mentioning that woman were allowed to compete for the first time in 1988, thirty-seven years after the race was founded. The ending drags on for five+ minutes with irrelevant footage of the home life of one of the coaches and the 2014 race (the film focuses on the 2013 race). The film tries mightily to personalize the college age contestants but is only partially successful. I rate it only 2 of 5 stars.
One of the great things about attending a film festival is the opportunity to speak to the people involved in the making of the film. Like the conversation I had with lead actor Jessica Cummings about the movie “Astraea” and why its departure from the typical post-apocalypse survival story made it so special. I was able to spend five minutes with her talking about speculative fiction and why this movie feels so different from all the other movies that use the same premise. It’s this type of opportunity that will have me attending Cinequest next year.
Film #11: “Astraea” tells the story of a brother and sister as they make their way in a apocalyptic post-plague world to where their last known surviving family might be. On their journey they meet a woman and man who at first appear to be husband and wife but are in fact cousins. Yet it eschews all of the tropes that this genre typically employs. In reality it is a meditation on the human condition. I rate it 5 of 5 stars.
Film #12: “Milwaukee” is interesting. For the first ten minutes I was convinced I was going to dislike the movie. The opening scenes show a lot of superficial behavior and emotions and leave you wondering if there will be any substance to make you think. Then, thanks to the outsider, things take a turn that could have lead to a predictable screwball sex farce. Instead it becomes an engaging exploration of societal constraints on sex and relationships. The actors explained in the Q&A why this works far better than you might think: all the actors except the “outsider” were in real-life close friends. The “outsider” character was therefore able to make what would have otherwise been an unthinkable proposal while the remainder of the cast was able to convincingly portray who it affected their relationships with each other. I rate it 4 of 5 stars.
Film #13: “Barco Escape: Shorts” is a look at a new way to tell stories via the “film” medium. It employees the usual screen plus two additional screens attached at an angle to the primary frontal screen. The additional screens can be used to provide a wide-angle panorama effect or show distinct scenes. This series of shorts provided many examples of both techniques. Only two of the shorts, “Burning Man” and “Withdrawal”, made really effective use of the concept. Also, when in panorama mode the transitions between the screens wasn’t nearly seamless enough. This may have been (and probably was) mostly due to adapting an existing theatre in a matter of a few hours with the screens and projectors needed for the effect. Still, it is an intriguing glimpse at what may lie in our future. I think this is more likely to succeed than the so far mostly lame attempts at 3D. Nonetheless because most of the shorts shown were uninspiring I rate this only 2 of 5 stars.
I’m amazed that after ten movies there have been no major-league assholes who insist on fondling their phone during a movie. I’ve only had to ask someone to turn their phone off three times and in each instance they did so promptly with no backtalk. This is an improvement over last year.
Film #8: “Clew” explores the topic of synthetic humans who do not have full human rights. This topic has been used in many films; most notably “Blade Runner”. This is one of the few films in the festival from the United States and I’m happy to say was interesting and not predictable (even for someone like myself who is an avowed S.F. fan). I rate it 4 of 5 stars.
Film #9: “Eadweard” explores the life of Eadward Muybridge an early photography pioneer. He is known primarily for his studies of motion using still cameras in a manner similar to that of the Wachowski’s in “The Matrix”. He also laid the groundwork for motion pictures and created the first device that we would recognize as a movie projector. The cinematography and performances are outstanding. This is my second movie in the festival to receive a 5 of 5 stars rating (the first being “Apples From The Desert”).
You can learn more about Eadward Muybridge at artsy.net which I highly recommend if you have even a passing interest in how photography became film making.
Film #10: “Drift” is from Switzerland and explores the aftermath of a tragic accident. An automobile street racer kills a young girl and spends four years in prison. Upon release his path crosses that of the mother of the girl he killed. The film explores the feelings of remorse by the driver and the feelings of loss and vengeance by the mother and what happens when their paths cross. Again, a theme that has been explored many times in film. This film does so in a unique way. I rate it 4 of 5 stars.
Film #5: “For Some Inexplicable Reason” uses the well trodden story of a thirty year old male, Aron, who has been drifting through life and loses his girlfriend. Yet this film from Hungary manages to make the story feel fresh. This was mostly due to the imaginative ways used to show the tension between Aron’s desire to move on from the old relationship while still longing for his old girlfriend. It was a delightful 90 minutes. A strong 4 of 5 stars.
Film #6: “Three Windows and a Hanging” is from, and set in, Kosovo and explores the aftermath of the rape of four women in a small village by enemy soldiers. The cinematography is magnificent. It was submitted for an Oscar and deservedly so. The behavior of most of the men in the film is shameful on multiple levels. First is the fact that several of them knew the rapes were taking place yet hid and did nothing. Second, after the crime they pretend it never happened. Third, once one brave woman tells the world what happened (without naming the other three women) all of the men in the town spurn her for “bringing shame on the town”. This film deserves an encore screening on the last day of the festival. I’m giving it a rating of 4 of 5 stars rather than 5 of 5 because certain aspects such as the behavior of the husband of the primary female protagonist wasn’t sufficiently developed.
Film #7: “The Hamsters” explores the secrets of a dysfunctional family. The husband is 50 years old and has lost his job and is desperately seeking a new one yet hasn’t told his wife or family. Which doesn’t fool the wife since creditors are now calling the home about unpaid debts. The wife is afraid her youthful beauty is fading and longs for an affair with her personal trainer at the gym. Yet as soon as the trainer makes a pass she chickens out. The son will soon be a father and after telling his family in a moment of mutual stress says “just kidding”. The daughter is regularly skipping school and is bi-sexual. I enjoyed it but rate it only 3 of 5 stars.