The 2002 festival (the twelfth one) ran from Feb. 21-Mar. 3. The festival screened over 60 feature films in 12 days. Of those, I saw 35 films in 11 days. Excepting Dirty Harry, the film presentations were fine, though the festival occasionally had trouble sticking to its schedule. The crop of films was a solid one, and the tribute events impressive. The lasting memory of this year's fest will undoubtedly be the McKellen coup, played to a sizeable house at downtown San Jose's Fairmont Hotel.
What follows is my incomplete diary of the festival, annotated with reviews.
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 21
The diary begins, unfortunately, with a rant.
So the publicity director for the festival told me (and others) that our festival passes would be available for pickup at 9 am on opening day. When, around noon, I and fellow critic Steve Rhodes walked over to Cinequest's hospitality suite at the Fairmont Hotel (as directed), we found no one at home. After asking around, calling the suite, and repeatedly ringing and knocking, we gave up. Following our hunch to walk back through the Camera Three theatre, we spoke to a volunteer who told us that the hospitality suite would now be open at 2 pm.
Instead of making a second, and then, third trip into downtown, I decided to swing by and pick up my pass just before the Opening Night film (The Search for Mike Gissing) and gala. When I did so, I discovered that, this year, instead of issuing the festival's Platinum Pass to press, Cinequest had instituted a Press Pass, which would not give admittance to the opening or closing night film or gala. Fair enough, but it would have been nice to know in advance (or to have been informed of the private advance screening of the opening night film offered to the city's dominant film critic). I shed no tears for missing the gala, but I do like to see and review the films. Oh, well.
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 22
For my purposes, opening day of the festival, after a frustrating opening night.
I started the day at the Camera 3 Theatre at 11:30am with Ge Ge (Brother). Billed as the winner of the FIPRESCI (International Film Critics' Federation) Prize at the 25th Hong Kong Film Festival, Ge Ge opens a mixed bag of raw, minimalist travelogue and overreaching thematic aspirations. Writer-director Yan Yan Mak (who served as production manager for Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love) is not as profound as she thinks she is in telling the story of a young man indulging his own wanderlust to understand that of his missing brother. Despite some nicely observed moments and impressive cinematography captured on digital video and Super-8 film, the film lacks dramatic skill (perhaps due to passable, but uninspiring performances by local non-actors). With more cultural context, the film's conceits might resonate, but if the propaganda (defending the National Communist party against foreign imperialism) piped into the train out of Hong Kong was meant as ironic counterpoint to the mostly domestic story which follows, the pieces didn't fit for me. Those seeking a gritty, documentary-style look at a village on the Tibetan border, or those with a taste for a naturalistic (or in this case, painfully slow) rhythm, should jump at any opportunity to see this film; others can live on with no regrets at having missed it.
I walked across the street to the Camera One for Abandoned (Torzók), a Hungarian coming-of-age film that may not read as well as it plays on film. With a style and content reminiscent of Louis Malle's bildungsromans, writer-director Árpád Sopsits makes use of striking imagery and heightened sound to approximate the point of view of Áron, a young boy dumped at an orphanage by his father. Partly autobiographical (the story opens in 1960), the film moves at a good clip through the suffering, dreams, and sexual stirrings of the orphans (in one scene, the boys huddle around a spot of ejaculate while they puzzle, "That's a baby?"). With an emphasis on the emotional sadism of their "captors" and the intense trials of an escape attempt, Abandoned plays a bit like a junior Escape From Sobibor, leavened by the odd humorous moment and one sympathetic teacher who offers Áron impromptu astronomy and life lessons. Most of the dramatic beats here are as old as the hills, but this remains a skillful, affecting, and darkly compelling story.
Then, it was off to the AMC Saratoga 14 for Being Light, the third in a French trilogy (dubbed FREETrilogy) by writer-directors Jean-Marc Barr and Pascal Arnold. The first film, Lovers focused on freedom of love, the second, Too Much Flesh, on freedom of sex. The final film focuses on freedom of spirit. Inspired by Dogme to work in a hit-and-run, inexpensive style, Barr and Arnold have had moderate success with their trilogy, and all three films have a certain idiosyncratic charm. Unfortunately, Being Light, though intermittently amusing, strains beyond the audience's goodwill in its search for laughs and import. Beginning by establishing a friendhip between Jack, a bobo (bourgeois bohemian) business traveller from San Francisco (played by Barr), and Maxime, a hyper-stimulated young man not unlike a French Mr. Bean (Romain Duris), the film finds its way out of France and into India in search of the nun (Elodie Bouchez, the object of affection in each of the three films) Maxime loves. Barr, best known in the U.S. for his leading role in Luc Besson's The Big Blue and roles in many of Lars Von Trier's films, overplays his role and still manages to be upstaged by a silly wig. Duris fares much better, though he wears out his welcome eventually as the script becomes more diffuse. Bouchez can't manage much here, with dialogue doomed to sound like a recited screenplay. A diverting failure.
At this screening, Barr and Arnold were present to speak and field questions. Unfortunately, as soon as the film ended, apparently unattended by a projectionist, the automated AMC sound system began blaring Aimee Mann & Michael Penn's cover of "Two of Us." After smiling uncomfortably for a couple of minutes in front of the expectant audience, Barr tried to speak over the music, to little effect. Eventually, the music was successfully silenced to allow a few minutes of Q+A. Arnold speaks little English, so save for some dialogue in French between him and Barr, Barr did most of the talking. Barr's politically tinged rap spelled out the movie's belabored themes better than the film itself and in much less time. Certainly, Barr and Arnold are an indie success story, and they noted that the humbly-produced trilogy is available on Amazon's international site and should play on most computer DVD-Rom drives.
Next, I stumbled blearily a few feet to the other Cinequest-claimed AMC screen, for the in-progress screening of INerTia, of which, by my estimation, I had missed just a few minutes. It's easy to see why this Canadian film was honored with the Best First Feature Award at the Toronto Film Festival. Writer-director Sean Garrity gives the impression of a filmmaker who could really take off with better financial support and personnel. Here, his film is witty in flashes and resourceful in form, using images of pipes, wires, walls, traffic, and infection to essay the frustrations and dangers of love, obsession, and trying to communicate in a relationship. It's a shame that Garrity keeps stumbling into overstatement, which may be an attempt to smooth out the uneven surface of a script shaped almost entirely from improvisations by the cast. Though the acting is only so-so, INerTia is worth seeing for its underlying cleverness in approaching the age-old message that people must "settle" in love transactions, and it sucks.
Finally, I raced back to the Camera Three for the dumb, sitcom-esque pleasures of Buck Naked Arson, an ensemble comedy featuring Rider Strong of TV's Boy Meets World and his brother Shiloh, and funded by the Strong family production company (producer credits go to mommy and daddy). That aside, Buck Naked Arson is an unchallenging palate cleanser after a long day of independent films. Willam Russ (also of Boy Meets World) plays the arson investigator questioning four daffy Oregon teens on grad night after a fire starts in the woods. In addition to the romantic interests for the Strong boys, Russ's fire is lit by the touchy-feely Gabrielle Fitzpatrick, who assists him in his interviews. Who started the fire? In the harsh light of day, the smooth acting and surprisingly snappy dialogue probably pale compared to the real question of "Who cares?", especially when the soap-opera elements (followed by a tidy resolution) threaten to drown out the comedy (it's a "very special" independent film!). Mostly, it's an unpretentious diversion, with some good chuckles, that will appeal most to the Teen Beat crowd.
After the screening, director Amy Snow discussed the making of the film, which was purportedly shot with the same model of digital camera used by George Lucas to shoot Star Wars: Episode 2. After that, I toddled back across the street to my car, and then off in search of a few hours' sleep.
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23
Missing Allen (C3)
Missing Young Woman (C3)
Mr. In-Between (AMC)
The Devil's Tale (AMC)
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 24
Get a Way (C1)
The Compensation (AMC)
Young Love (AMC)
War Live (AMC)
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 25
The Orphan of Anyang (AMC)
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 26
Pachito Rex (AMC)
Kaaterskill Falls (C3)
Erotic Tales (C1)
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 2
The Sea That Thinks (C3)
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 28
Absolute Hundred (REP)
Lalo Schifrin Tribute Event/Cool Hand Luke (REP)
FRIDAY, MARCH 1
SUMO East and West (REP)
Livermore/Accidental Hero - Room 408 (REP)
David Strathairn Tribute Event/Beyond the Call (REP)
SATURDAY, MARCH 2
Sir Ian McKellen Tribute Event (Fairmont)
Violet Perfume (AMC)
Dirty Harry (AMC)
Yank Tanks (REP)
Missing Persons (REP)
SUNDAY, MARCH 3
The Hellstrom Chronicle (REP)
All You Need (AMC)
Lili Taylor Tribute Event (AMC)
Tribute, directed by Rich Fox and Kris Curry (and executive produced by Stephen Soderbergh), is a sprightly look at tribute bands, which comprise a surprisingly hearty subculture at the lower echelon of the music biz. Fox and Curry follow Bloodstone, a tribute to Judas Priest; Escape, a tribute to Journey; Sheer Heart Attack, a tribute to Queen; Larger Than Life, a tribute to KISS; and The Missing Links, a tribute to the Monkees. This is the sort of documentary that, seemingly, cannot help but mock its subject merely by presenting it. It is possible at times to take these bands seriously (or at least as seriously as they take themselves), with their screaming and devoted fans, but the sometimes low-rent presentations in honkytonk dive bars often inspire chuckles. While the film recalls Christopher Guest's mockumentaries, particularly This is Spinal Tap, Fox and Curry capture achingly pathetic moments even Guest would be hard-pressed to invent. Most of these surround a Queen superfan who seems to worship the tribute band as much if not more than the real thing and the shenanigans of the various incarnations of the Monkees tribute band, whose tense breakups are undoubtedly a more polished tribute than their stage shows. The lows are mitigated by one shocking, almost mythical high: the revelation that a tribute band lead singer stepped up to front the band he was aping (unfortunately, Fox and Curry don't score an interview). Fox edited the film with the help of Soderbergh's Oscar winning editor on Traffic, Stephen Mirrione, and the film's hour-and-a-half pass breezily. The laughs are plentiful (including a twist involving a German production of CATS), but at Tribute's heart, the filmmaker's recognize the importance these bands have to their members and audiences, rescuing them from drudgery.