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Cinequest 14 (Mar. 3-14, 2004)

Cinequest 14 opens March 3 with a gala screening and reception for the Norse film United, in its U.S. premiere (at the San Jose Repertory Theatre), followed by a gala reception (with special festival guests) in the San Jose Ballroom at the San Jose Marriott. Closing night will round out the festival with The Conscientious Objector. The evening will include a discussion with Desmond T. Doss, the extraordinary subject of this world premiere documentary (the devout Doss refused to fight in World War II, but served as an army medic and received the Medal of Honor). Following the film and festival awards presentation (at the Morris Dailey Auditorium on the San Jose State University campus), you can hobnob with Doss and other festival guests in San Pedro Square at Blake's Steakhouse and O'Flaherty's Irish Pub.

In between these gala presentations, the festival will roll out over 60 feature screenings, as well as nine shorts programs, five digital media forums, two movie-making forums, and a partridge in a pear tree (I kid about the last one). Above all, Cinequest prides itself on its Maverick Tribute events. The mother of them all this year will be an audience with the Governator entitled "Life of a Maverick: The Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger." This benefit event is certainly be a hot ticket, for Wednesday, March 10th, 6pm at the Morris Dailey Auditorium (San Jose State University Campus); tickets are $35 for pass-holders and $70 dollars general. Cinequest will also honor the great, Berkeley-based screenwriting team of David and Janet Webb Peoples (Unforgiven, Twelve Monkeys) on March 12 at Morris Dailey Auditorium (regular attendees may remember that the Peoples attended Stephen Frears's Tribute Event last year). Also on the schedule: extreme filmmaker Kurt Miller (son of Warren); the Millers are known for their legacy of movies on skiing and snowboarding. Cinequest is also expected to announce another movie star tributee this week, but we shall have to wait and see.

For complete information about Cinequest or to order tickets or festival passes, visit


1 (screens 3/5, 3/6 at the Rep) This sweet and scrupulous documentary about De La Salle High School's seemingly unbeatable football squad (a streak of over 150 straight games and a #1 national ranking stand testament) lacks dramatic structure but gives a strong impression of what the teams dedicated coaches are doing right. Besides strategic excellence and top-notch physical training, head coach Bob Ladouceur and assistant coach Terry Eidson impart life lessons in self-motivation, pride in doing one's best, teamwork, and personal faith. Though the incredible streak remains unbroken, you'll no doubt believe the coaches (and the students following their examples) when they insist that winning and losing matter not at all; it's the performance of the young men, as people and as players, that matters. Recommended.

Aging Out (screens 3/6, 3/7 at SJSU University Theater and 3/12 at Camera 3). A smoothly produced feature-length documentary which follows three teenagers on the threshold of "aging out" of the foster care system, Aging Out jangles raw nerves. David's a Pasadena wild child prone to going AWOL from foster homes, dodging warrants, and landing back in the institutional system which has largely raised him. Risa, upon her high school graduation, faces an uncertain future on scholarship at a challenging university. Daniella's a pregnant New Yorker eager to leave the stifling system but struggling for financial independence. Victims of neglect and abuse and heirs to mental illness and addiction, the three face their own out-of-control self-destructive behaviors, moments of devastating despair, and a palpable frustration and confusion about what to do and where to go while breaking from the system they've come to resent. Roger Weisberg and Vanessa Roth display practiced expertise by being at the right places at the right times to record each hairy plot turn. For all the trying situations they observe, Weisberg and Roth duly note that love, support, and hope can make a difference in every life. Highly recommended.

August Sun (screens 3/4 at the Rep, 3/5 at Camera One, and 3/9 at Camera 3). Set in 1996, this ambitious Sri Lankan film explores the effect the clash between the government and Tamil insurgents has on three sets of individuals. Each story is a literal and figurative journey: one an uneasy collaboration between a reporter able to breach rebel territory and the wife of a government pilot captured by the Tamils, another a family migration necessitated by Tamil persecution of Muslims, and a third a soldier's story of woe as he prays for his family's well-being. While heartfelt, the film is poky, often stilted, and overly reliant on sentimental beats, even if they turn out to be red herrings by the only just hopeful conclusion. A toss-up.

Awful Normal (screens 3/5, 3/7, and 3/12 at SJSU University Theater). This deceptively simple documentary--a video diary with a few home movie clips--packs a powerful punch. Two sisters with vivid memories of childhood molestations by a family friend, and their tortured mother, face up to their past by confronting the abuser. The film strips raw the feelings of all three women, and the candor of director Celesta Davis (who took the worst of the abuse) in presenting the story is both bold and praiseworthy. The "get" interview with the abuser makes for high drama, and the film acknowledges the horrible complexity of the humanity of someone who could commit such an inhumane act. Highly recommended.

Dorian Blues (screens 3/12 at Camera 3 and 3/13 at SJSU University Theater). This umpteenth well-meaning seriocomedy about a teenager coming out to his family as a gay man does its job with a mostly light heart, a sprinkling of wit, and enough skill to avoid embarrassment. But it's also not unique enough to recommend, except to teenage audiences and families living out the issue, who should find it a warm effort with its heart in the right place. A toss-up.

The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam (screens 3/4, 3/6 at Camera 3). This video memoir tells the story of "Long Tack Sam" (1885-1961), the Chinese star of American vaudeville who made his name with magic and acrobatic stunts, but also owned theatres in China and restaurants in London while holding his family (an Austrian wife and three mixed-blood children) together. This is a story of family, told by Sam's great-granddaughter Ann Marie Fleming. Fleming took a digital video camera around the world to interview those who knew Sam, including far-flung family. The film's publicity teases Sam's brushes with celebrity (the Marx Brothers had Sam's troupe as an opening act, George Burns called him the greatest, Orson Welles studied with him, and contemporary magician Harry Houdini monopolized the needle-swallowing trick, forcing Sam to remove it from his act), but the film offers no detail about any of these episodes. Sam's story is certainly interesting: he was a pioneer objector to Hollywood's stereotyping of Asians (which explains the almost total lack of film footage of the man), he nurtured his daughters into the act to the eventual exclusion of himself, and he reshaped his own origin story continuously. Still, Fleming's approach of telling the story in personal terms--her own journey to discovery of her great-grandfather--arguably makes the story less interesting than a straight biography would have been. The film's most memorable sequences are the colorfully computer-animated sequences, which render Sam's origin stories in a comic-book-panel motif; by contrast, the cheap-looking video interviews feel amateurish. They are invariably poorly lit and often out of focus or plagued by bad audio; in some interviews, Fleming even sits her subjects down to a meal, and lets them talk with their mouths full! Nevertheless, Fleming's closing bit of reflection goes some way to justifying her video-diary approach. A toss-up.

The Man Who Loved Haugesund (screens 3/4 and 3/5 at Camera 3). This one-hour documentary tells the story of Polish Jew Moritz Rabinowitz who, as the title says, loved the Norwegian fishing village of Haugesund, before and during the rise of Nazism. Though forgotten by many, this garment industry entrepeneur is responsible for many a wooden hanger still swinging in Haugesund's closets. More importantly, Rabinowitz stood up--even as he was persecuted by much of the town--against Hitler and all for which he stood; naturally, Rabinowitz became the Nazi's public enemy number one in Norway. Jon Haukeland & Tore Vollan interviewed many of those who knew Rabinowitz or worked for his clothing stores, and the resulting film paints an intriguing picture of a remarkable man, flawed but undeniably heroic. Recommended.

One Man Show: A Musical Documentary (screens 3/12 and 3/13 at SJSU University Theater). A documentary about the price of financial success and fame, One Man Show has style to spare in its star, New York Lottery winner John Falcon. The openly gay Falcon, who struggled through a few jobs as he dreamed of telling his own story through song, got his chance when his numbers came through to the tune of $45 million. Ira Rosensweig's documentary weaves songs from Falcon's one-man show (produced here especially for Rosensweig's camera) and interviews with Falcon's current and former friends (offering insights into his gregarious, egotistical, shifting personality), while tracing Falcon's progression from rags to fabulous riches. The story which emerges will provoke viewers to search themselves about how so much money could change their lives irrevocably, for better and worse. Recommended.

Rhapsody in White (screens 3/6 at Camera One and 3/10 at Camera 3). The lovely, absurd Bulgarian film Rhapsody in White uses the beloved black and white of comedic silent films as a metaphor for lost innocence. As much as Chaplin and Keaton, Maya Novoselska channels Giuletta Masina; as the moon-faced Dana, Novoselska twirls and bounces her way through comic interludes with joyous abandon, but also grounds her character in a deep-rooted longing for more freedom, more respect, more love. Dana's a puppeteer tired of living "behind the screen," so she begins to test her city limits. In one truth-telling and funny scene that alone justifies this quirky gem, Dana walks into an audition for Romeo and Juliet to discover that the director--who must justify his Ph.D.--plays so much by the arbitrary book in his head that he makes the actresses pose inside a standup cut-out to see if they "fit" his narrow dimensions for the part; Novoselska further elevates the scene with her deft physical comedy. Overriding Dana, director Teddy Moskov's omniscient narrator reflects on the creation of art (is he leading the character or is she leading him?) and the meaning of color in a world that badly needs artful meaning. Highly recommended.

The Man Who Copied (screens 3/6 at Camera One, 3/8 at Camera 3, and 3/9 at SJSU University Theater). This Brazilian romantic comedy/film noir from Jorge Furtado ranks among the best Cinequest entries ever. Alongside Fernando Meirelles's City of God, Furtado's film signifies an explosion of adventurous talent in Brazil's film community. Lázaro Ramos plays André, a late-teenage copy clerk with artistic talent, low self-esteem, and empty pockets. Gabbing away on the soundtrack, André fills us in on his best laid plans (or best plans to get laid, as the case may be), but each hinges on money he doesn't have. So André begins planning how to get--or make--money. What follows is an unconventional romance between the peeping-tom André and his neighbor Sílvia (Leandra Leal), a complex crime movie, and a jaunty comedy with some of the richest laugh lines I've heard in some time. It all comes down to credible characterization, and though many may blanch at the film's moral relativism (some drastic measures may be too easily excused), few will leave this stylish, adventurous film unentertained. Highly recommended.

Sheriff (screens 3/13 and 3/14 at Camera 3). Daniel Kraus's documentary Sheriff--about rural North Carolina top cop Ronald E. Hewett--plays like a satirical episode of Cops. We can imagine a much worse fellow to rest atop a regional police food chain, but Hewett's self-importance and political oiliness give pause. Preaching to a congregation of church-going constituents, meeting the press, or accepting an award, Hewett is prone to puff himself up or let loose questionable soundbites about elements he considers undesirable. His capacity for stepping outside of himself is obviously limited; he may need to see this documentary more than anyone. Still, Hewett appears to do his job well enough, sending the message to his men and women that things are done a certain way. In the end, Hewett's machinery brings satisfactory resolution to a manhunt, though the prisoner's initial escape is certainly someone's embarrassment. Sheriff, then, captures our own ambivalent attitudes toward the police upon whom he rely so heavily even as we regard them suspiciously. Recommended.

Silence Between Two Thoughts (screens 3/4 at the Rep and 3/5 and 3/7 at SJSU University Theater). In a situation intentionally reminiscent of the Taliban's cruelly absurd rule in Afghanistan, a fundamentalist Haji demands that a young man retained as an executioner marry a convicted woman so she will not be a heavenly virgin sacrifice but a properly damned criminal when she dies. Only the most hardy film freaks should brave Babak Payami's follow-up to the much more successful Secret Ballot. The act of seeing the film is in itself a sort of social protest, as the original, unfinished camera negatives remain in the hands of the Iranian authorities. Payami recreated the film from computer files and whatever else remained: the result can only be screened by video projection. Surprisingly, such a presentation (including an occasional time code) does little to rob the film of its power, but the film's stagnant pace makes the story dramatically inefficient. Still, some will get into Payami's groove, which is disturbingly like spending a day in the frighteningly chaotic landscape of a rural Middle-Eastern village torn between fundamentalism and individual will. A toss-up.

Spectres (screens 3/6 at the Camera 3, 3/7 at the SJSU University Theater). Genre fans won't want to miss Spectres, if only to see Marina Sirtis (Deanna Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation), Dean Haglund (Lone Gunman "Langly" on The X-Files), Linda Park (Hoshi on Star Trek: Enterprise), Tucker Smallwood (a regular on Space: Above and Beyond and prominent guest star on Star Trek: Enterprise, Star Trek: Voyager, and The X-Files), and David Hedison (the only actor to play James Bond's CIA peer Felix Leiter more than once>. Sirtis plays the mother of a troubled 16-year-old named Kelly (Lauren Birkell, soon to be seen with Bruce Campbell and Patricia Clarkson in The Woods). After a suicide attempt, Kelly grudgingly follows her mother on summer vacation, but the summer home also hosts a few ghosts. Only Kelly can see them, to the dismay of her psychiatrist (Haglund) and mother, but when Haglund's psychic buddy (Smallwood) catches the scent, the adults pitch in to help exorcise their demons (literally and metaphorically). For a low-budget indie, Spectres sports a strong cast and effective special effects. Dramatically, the film is sort of Touched by an Angel hokey, but sci-fi fans will forgive and forget as they watch their favorite performers chew the exotic scenery of living rooms and kitchens. Recommended.

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