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February 28-March 6, 2007

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Cinequest 2007:
Mira Nair | Christine Vachon | Silent film music | Capsule reviews | Week 1 guide | Schedule


'The General'

'The General'

Cinequest 2007: The Films

Our eagle-eyed critics have taken a close, hard look at many of the features coming to Cinequest.

By Jeffrey M. Anderson (JMA); Jimmy Aquino (JA); Mike Connor (MC); Michael S. Gant (MSG); Stett Holbrook (SH); Laura Mattingly (LM); Najeeb Hasan (NH); Steve Palopoli (SP); Claire Taylor (CT); Richard von Busack (RvB)


Cinequest runs Feb. 28-Mar. 11 in San Jose at Camera 12, 201 S. First St.; the San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio; and the California Theatre, 345 S. First St.

For ticket information, see www.cinequest.org or call 408.295.FEST. Click here for longer versions of some of the capsules below. Stay tuned next week for even more reviews.

* = Recommended

Special Events

* The General
(1927) Time for you so-called cutting-edge mavericks to see what a real movie looks like! (he shouted in a quavering voice, shaking his cane). Buster Keaton, as the engineer Johnny Gray, is tricked out with a feathery coiffure and a huge cravat, like a caricature of a romantic poet. Johnny has two loves in his life. One is a girl, Annabelle (Marion Mack); the other is his locomotive, the General, which is stolen and hauled across the border. In retrieving the engine, Johnny gets to become what he wanted to be: a hero in Annabelle's eyes. The comedy of war is Keaton's theme here—the gun that misfires and kills the wrong man, the sword that flies off the handle—ideas all summed up in the sequence in which Buster is chased by a huge, snub-nosed cannon that has almost-human intelligence. Chris Elliot at the Wurlitzer. (RvB) (Mar 2, 7pm, CAL)

Documentaries

American Losers
(Denmark; 58 min.) A documentary following two New Yorkers: Kimberle, a spindly member of a punk band in the city, and Kevin, a hermetic, aspiring poet in the sticks. The title never achieves its desired irony, because the filmic techniques approach cruelty. Between deadpan shots of the subjects rambling, unedited, about their unique and diluted feng shui spiritualism, and long close-ups of Whopper-chewing, the camera does not treat these people kindly, giving viewers the sensation that the documentary's result, whether intended or not, was to make a complete mockery of their lives, all accompanied by a soundtrack achieving maximum emo-ocity, featuring a selection of acoustic, whispery tunes by Devendra Banhart. Shown with short Marrying God. (LM) (Mar 6, 6:45pm, C12; Mar 7, 7pm, C12; Mar 8, 9:30pm, C12)

* The Ghost Mountain Experiment/ Cotton-Eye Joe
(U.S.; 76 min.) John McDonald gives us splendid desertscapes in his documentary about Marshal South and Tany Lehrer, who sold an image of the pure and simple life in California decades before hippies. (Read the full-length review). It shows with Cotton-Eyed Joe. Thirty-five years before making The Ghost Mountain Experiment, then USC film student John MacDonald demonstrated his remarkable eye for the landscape in this 11-minute short. It's a wordless story of a day in the life of a tramp (Cal Bellini) squatting near Chavez Ravine. He makes his ablutions, goes to sell his plasma on skid row and comes back to find his camp vandalized. It's more than just the shot of Bellini crossing the same railway bridge used in the finale of King Vidor's The Crowd that made me think this short has the purity of the best silent films. Bellini is so soulful that even the season of the film—Christmas—doesn't feel like piling it on. The cityscapes demonstrate how a truly smoggy city can diffuse light into Henri Rousseau colors. (RvB) (Mar 4, 4:15pm, C12; Mar 5, 7:15pm, C12; Mar 8, 2pm, C12)

Holes in My Shoes
(U.S.; 90 min.) They don't come any more colorful than Jack Beers, a 94-year-old New Yorker who looks like a Drew Friedman caricature of Popeye. The son of Jewish immigrants, Beers was a bodybuilder (he can still tear a phone book in half with his bare hands), a steelworker on some of Gotham's most famous landmarks (including Radio City Music Hall), a dog whisperer before the term became popular and a character actor in scores of movies (often as a Hassidic Jew). Beers' reminiscences, interspersed with old-time stills and movie reels, are priceless. Unfortunately, director David Wachs intrudes a bit too much in the documentary, and the music veers toward the maudlin. And, at 90 minutes, we learn about some personal tragedies in Beers' life that probably should have stayed personal. (MSG) (Mar 7, 9:15pm, C12; Mar 8, 6:45pm, C12; Mar 9, 4pm, SJ-Rep)

I Fought the Law
(U.S.; 87 min.) This documentary follows the New York hip-hop community's efforts to repeal the state's ineffective and racist Rockefeller drug laws (15-to-life sentences for those caught with illegal drugs). Hip-hop and fashion mogul Russell Simmons appoints himself the mouthpiece of the anti-Rockefeller movement and uses his celebrity connections to bring the issue to a younger, not-so-politicized audience, the same ones affected by the drug laws. Though the movie isn't afraid to address the flaws of the politically inexperienced Simmons' leadership, time that's spent doting over Simmons' crib could have been used to show a few more examples of the lives who have really been destroyed by Rockefeller—the ones who don't have closets full of designer sweaters or a staff of chefs at their beck and call. (JA) (Mar 4, 4:45pm, SJ-Rep; Mar 6, 7pm, SJ-Rep; Mar 8, 11:45am, C12)

Out of Balance
(U.S.; 65 min.) Try to endure the faux-naive narration at the beginning of Tom Jackson's film ("I'd been hearing a lot about Exxon-Mobil ... I've always been involved in the world"), and you get to a reasoned, if one-sided, argument about the world's largest and most truculent corporation. Here is a quick history of Exxon-Mobil's ducking the tab at Prince Edward Sound and of the actions of its CEO Lee Raymond (1993-2005), likened to a James Bond villain by one subject interviewed. Raymond's regime fattened think tanks that labored to find holes in an increasingly airtight argument that global warming is real. Jackson retells how oil lobbyist Phil Cooney was exposed as editing EPA documents to conceal the smoking-tailpipe evidence. Experts interviewed include Rob Gelbspan (Boiling Point) and Bill McKibben (The End of Nature). Plays with short The Sparky Book. (RvB) (Mar 3, 1:30pm, C12; Mar 4, 6:45pm, C12; Mar 7, 2:30pm, C12)

Shoot Down
(U.S.; 93 min.) At the beginning of this documentary about the 1996 downing of two planes by Cuban MiGs, director Christina Kuhly says that, before making it, she was warned that no matter what she did, the movie would upset a lot of people. "I thought I would be safe," she says, "if I just told the truth." Wrong! People are just so insane in their views about Cuba that the film has, in its short life, already set off a firestorm of controversy. Ironically, it comes across as pretty solidly anti-Castro, and yet right-wingers have already been ranting about how it's not anti-Castro enough. Kuhly does try to present as rounded a story as she can manage, but you can expect only so much balance from a relative of one of the four people who lost their lives in the shoot down (Armando Alejandre was her uncle). The 13-minute re-creation of the actual incident is the part that'll really make you think, but on the downside, there's only so much blathering you can take from Cuban exiles and Clinton administration bureaucrats. (SP) (Mar 3, 4pm, C12; Mar 4, 11:45am, C12; Mar 9, 1:45pm, C12)

* The Third Monday in October
(U.S.; 90 min.) Director Vanessa Roth examines the anxious world of student-council presidential elections and offers an entertaining and thought-provoking view of democracy in America, or at least on school campuses. Set against the 2004 campaign, the film follows the elections at middle schools in Austin, San Francisco, Marin County and Atlanta. While elections at all levels are often written off as hollow popularity contests, it's encouraging to see how seriously these students take their presidential campaigns and that more often than not it's the most qualified candidate and not just the most popular student that wins. The teachers get caught up in the drama, too. The way one Marin County teacher sells out a wise-ass but well-meaning student to an indifferent principle will rile you up almost as much as the outcome of Bush vs. Gore. (SH) (Mar 5, 7pm, C12; Mar 7, 7pm, C12)

Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness
(U.S.; 88 min.) There's something really cool about the word catacomb. It conjures up images of secret, subterranean places long hidden from the world above. Melody Gilbert's documentary Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness shines a light into a little-known subculture that's bent on seeking out these dark, forbidden places—sewers, abandoned buildings, mothballed rocket silos and underground rivers. Trespassing with abandon and often risking their lives, these thrill seekers boldly go where few have gone before—or would want to go. Urban Explorers follows this international underground movement as they find beauty and excitement in a demimonde of urban detritus. While the film is probably too long by a third, the lively soundtrack and haunting still photography and cinematography keep you watching until the end. (SH) (Mar 3, 7pm, C12; Mar 4, 4:45pm, C12; Mar 9, 11:30am, C12)

Features

All the Days Before Tomorrow
(U.S.; 100 min.) Apparently, the elegant child magus Reggie in What the Bleep ... got old. Now he seems to be Richard Roundtree. Dream sequences starring Roundtree punctuate this new-physics-flavored story of a pair of should-be lovers who can never find equilibrium. Meanwhile, in black-and-white sequences, Roundtree dream-counsels the male half of the couple, Wes (Joey Kern), on the limitless potential of the human, even as they are both trapped on some desert playa. Roundtree is dressed in a top hat and running shoes; our hero turns up in a cow costume or in drag. Most of the film is a disjointed romance between our diffident hero and Alison (Alexandra Holden). They travel together on a slow-speed tour of Monument Valley, and get ready to tryst again like they did last summer in Montreal—or did that really happen? Director François Dompierre is inspired and competent, but these characters are covert with a capital C. (RvB) (Mar 2, 7pm, C12; Mar 3, 7pm, C12; Mar 6, 9pm, C12)

Analog Days
(U.S.; 80 min.) In the tradition of Dazed and Confused, director Mike Ott explores the lives of some community college students in a small Southern California city. When they aren't driving around aimlessly, arguing about Beck or getting stoned, they try to figure out what to do with their lives beyond working at, naturally, the video store. The best scenes take place in a filmmaking class full of fatuous future auteurs. In an overdetermined subplot, a local political campaign by a rabid right-winger unfolds as a way to pit the apathetic students against the activists. The actors look and behave convincingly like the real thing—slackers alternating between braggadocio and bafflement. The most convincing is Ivy Khan's sensitive if sullen Tammy, whose documentary is dissed by her fellow students: "Are you familiar with the artist Michael Carne? He was doing this type of thing years and years ago." (MSG) (Mar 1, 9:15pm, C12; Mar 3, 11am, C12; Mar 6, 4:15pm, C12)

* Batad
(Philippines; 90 min.) Fourteen-year-old Ag-Ap is torn between two worlds. As the only son of a traditional rice-terrace farmer high in the mountains of the Philippines, he catches glimpses of the modern world as educated, well-dressed tourists trek into his village of Batad and as he walks barefoot each week into a nearby town to sell the produce his poor family grows. He becomes obsessed with owning a pair of hiking boots, a quest that's aimed at impressing a pretty village girl but is also a metaphor for the lure of material comforts and modernity. The boy ultimately has to choose between village life and the world beyond. At once funny and poignant, the film is beautiful to look at with its stunning images of the verdant rice terraces, and Al Chris Galura's strong performance as Ag-Ap is the driving force of this exotic yet familiar tale. (SH) (Mar 1, 12:30pm, C12; Mar 6, 2:30pm, C12; Mar 7, 6:30pm, C12; Mar 9, 9:30pm, C12)

Blood Car
(U.S.; 75 min.) In some ways, my favorite film at Cinequest. Is there anything worse than a filmmaker who goes in for violence and neglects the sex? Fortunately, Atlanta maniac Alex Orr's Little Shop of Horrors-ish midnight-movie gives his audience both barrels. In the near future, gasoline is $38 a gallon. Archie Andrews (Mike Brune) is a gentle vegan school teacher who is trying to solve our fossil fuel addiction. Aided by Lorraine (Anna Chlumsky) at the wheat-grass stand, he's just about perfected an engine that runs on chlorophyll, but it turns out that human blood is the only catalyst that makes the fuel work. Archie descends into a one-way spiral of madness as he feeds innocent humans into his car. And his conscience is numbed by the sexual excesses of Lorraine's rival, the hot-pantsed female butcher Denise (Kate Rowlett). And then the government finds out about the blood-powered automobile. Believe it or not, Orr makes the murders and the love triangle so diverting that the no-blood-for-oil message is never as obvious as it might seem. Rowlett and Chlumsky are so much fun—savor the vegetarian girl's batty flirting, in contrast with Rowlett's old-time bad-girl dialogue: "I'm sick of stalkers. Damn sick of them. And if I don't let you buy me food or let you [unprintable sexual act] me, you'll be in the bushes with the rest of them, crying and whacking off every time you get two beers in you." Plays with short If I See Randy... (RvB) (Mar 2, 10:30pm, SJ-Rep; Mar 4, 8:30pm, C12, Mar 10, 1:30pm, C12)

Border Post
(Serbia; 94 min.) A military presence on the Yugoslav-Albanian border. A venereal disease. Evidence pointing toward adultery. In Border Post, a Rajko Grlic film set in 1987 during the height of sectarian tensions in what was formerly Yugoslavia, these three plot lines combine to result in a comedy of war games between the Yugoslavs and the Albanians. An officer in the Yugoslavian army discovers he has contracted a sexually transmitted disease and, in an effort to prevent his wife from discovering the disease, claims that Yugoslavia is under attack from Albania, which results in a call to arms from both sides. The comedy that results is distinctly European in flavor, and the story suffers somewhat from too many side plots. In the end though, the film provides an antidote to the seriousness of our current warlike age. (NH) (Mar 2, 9:30pm, CAL; Mar 5, 6:45pm, CAL; Mar 7, 2pm, C12)

* Courthouse on Horseback
(China; 105 min.) This feature is set in Niglang on the frontier of China, an area that still contains rural villages with traditionally costumed ethnics. An aging circuit court judge, Feng (Li Baotian), and his assistant, Yang, voyage long distances on foot to settle trifling disputes between the country people. For circumspect reasons—something about a "visiting marriage" in Yang's past—Yang never found a mate, and part of what keeps you watching is seeing the sturdy partnership between the pair and wondering whether it will develop into something deeper. The trip we follow is Yang's last journey; she's about to lose her job to the college-educated (but not very wise) Ah-Luo, a young kid who is also going to be married on the trip. Director Liu Jie creates a film that's like the best and the worst of John Ford; he has the vistas that stretch out forever, the beauty and loneliness of the frontier as well as the occasionally broad acting among the amateurs in the village scenes. (RvB) (Mar 1, 4pm, C12; Mar 2, 4:45pm, C12; Mar 6, 7pm, C12)

Dimension
(U.S.; 111 min.) Chicago director Matthew Scott Harris' inspiration might have been the famous William Blake illustration of God wielding an arc and compass. God and Satan, chummy like they are in the Book of Job, are here called "Ivan" and "Joe Bad" and played by Harlan Hogan and Michael McIntyre. They entrust the power to give three inches of anything to a group of mortals. This can be anything from three extra inches of penis to a three-inch stack of hundred-dollar bills. The gift giver is the numbed, alcoholic hardware store owner Chance (Paul Turner), who is still grieving from the death of his family in an automobile accident. Harris uses titles, instead of a narrator, to hold his unwieldy cast together, but it's the same oversimplifying effect of having a narrator breathe down your neck. Harris' eye for his city is excellent, but the deadly pace makes Dimension hard to recommend: it just inches along. (RvB) (Mar 1, 9pm, C12; Mar 3, 1:15pm, C12; Mar 6, 6:30pm, C12; Mar 8, 1:15pm, C12)

* A Dog's Breakfast
(Canada; 88 min.) David Hewlitt (Dr. Rodney McKay on Stargate: Atlantis) wrote, directed and stars in a three-way comedy about a nervous loner named Patrick, who freaks out when his sister, Marilyn (Hewlitt's real-life sibling Kate), shows up with her new fiance, Ryan (Paul McGillion, also of Stargate: Atlantis), who plays a spaceship hero on a bad TV show not unlike, well, Stargate: Atlantis. Patrick schemes to do in Ryan in various imaginative ways, while his ever-practical sis keeps wondering why her betrothed has suddenly disappeared and Mars the family dog enjoys an unusual change of diet. The black comedy is expertly handled by the leads, especially Kate Hewlitt, who is a dead ringer for Elisabeth Shue. Think of it as a kinder, gentler version of Sleuth. (MSG) (Mar 3, 7:30pm, SJ-Rep; Mar 4, 2:15pm, SJ-Rep; Mar 6, 4:30pm, SJ-Rep; Mar 10, 4pm, CAL)

The Doorman
(U.S.; 79 min.) What hath Borat wrought? Wayne Price's mockumentary introduces America to Trevor W. (Lucas Akoskin), a supremely confident, supremely clueless club doorman with a comic South American accent. A low-budget crew follows Trevor's daily rounds as "a famous person who does things for famous people," while various "real" personalities—Peter Bogdanovitch, Miss Universe Denise Quinones—comment on Trevor's impact on the scene. "He can do abrasive things if he doesn't approve of your shoes," admits one trendoid. When he's not working the door, Trevor auditions for a rock album (performing "Ave Maria") and attends fashion week. The humor, unlike in Borat, is almost entirely self-deprecating—Trevor himself can't get into an exclusive club, and the tabloid stars he claims to know never recognize him. The conceit wears out before the 79 minutes are up, but Akoskin proves to be wonderfully adept at the high art of self-delusion. A party follows the screening on March 3, at the Paragon—just make sure you're on the list. (MSG) (Mar 1, 7:15pm, C12; Mar 3, 9:15pm, C12; Mar 4, 2:15pm, C12)

* Frozen Days
(Israel; 91 min.) Director Danny Lerner starts right out with a title sequence that looks and sounds like Hitchcock's Vertigo, so that we know we're in for an extreme makeover. Low-level Tel Aviv dealer Miao (Anat Klausner, like a young Ashley Judd) chats with a sympathetic guy online, but before they can really meet, a suicide bomb at a club leaves him burned and totally covered in bandages. Miao, slowly estranged from her own disaffected life, moves into the mystery man's apartment, dons his clothes and starts to answer to his name, until she cracks up like Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion. The film doesn't delve too deep into issues of psychological transference, but it does have a satisfyingly tricky ending, and the black-and-white photography (with one color interlude for a rave) is superlative. (MSG) (Mar 5, 7pm, SJ-Rep; Mar 6, 7pm, CAL)

Full Grown Men
(U.S.; 80 min.) Alby (Matt McGrath) is an unemployed, action figure-collecting 35-year-old whose refusal to let go of his childhood causes a rift in his marriage. Exiled from his household, Alby embarks on a road trip to his favorite theme park. Will Alby learn to grow up or at least find a middle ground between adolescence and maturity? (Answer: Does Michael Jackson like little boys?) Luckily, director David Munro's road movie doesn't turn into another Jack (that maudlin Francis Ford Coppola movie with Robin Williams as an abnormally oversized kid). Munro opts for a less treacly, less slapsticky tone. Trucker cap-loving comedian Judah Friedlander (American Splendor) is a standout in a rare dramatic role as Alby's more responsible childhood pal. You almost won't recognize Friedlander without the trucker cap. (JA) (Mar 3, 3:45pm, C12; Mar 4, 1:45pm, C12; Mar 5, 12:45pm, CAL)

Just Sex and Nothing Else
(Hungary; 97 min.) Dora (Judith Schell) is 32, and her biological clock is gonging like a fire alarm. It's rattling so loud that she can barely pay attention to her job as a dramaturge at a Budapest theater. They're staging Les Liaisons Dangereous, and Tamas (Sándor Csányi), the actor playing Valmont the French scoundrel, is the object of much ribald derision because he just showed his tattooed rump on a billboard ad. Certainly a man like that wouldn't be a proper father for Dora's child? This one-pistoned farce climbs its steep, steep hill by inches. Schell's underwear scenes—some staged with all the Lubitschian delicacy of a Benny Hill sketch—aren't nearly frequent enough to justify the film. I thought they had frillier lingerie in Hungary. And turkey basters, too. (RvB) (Mar 2, 1:30pm, C12; Mar 4, 6:45pm, C12; Mar 6, 7pm, C12)

Maskot
(Indonesia; 118 min.) Robin Moran's comedy proudly takes its template from Hollywood, celebrating its old-fashioned sensibility. A klutzy engineering student, Dennis (Ariyo Wahab), is the heir to a successful soy sauce factory started by his grandfather. Everyone believes that the company's success is owed to its magical mascot, a rooster. When the fowl dies, Dennis must find another. Of course, the movie comes complete with a sneaky villain (Butet Kartaredjasa), a pretty girl (Uli Auliani) and a jealous rival (Epy Kusnandar). Moran demonstrates a sure hand, utilizing deadpan wide shots rather than frantic close-ups. This cheerful tone might have been enough, but Moran spends too much time underlining and emphasizing each joke in favor of the slowest audience members. (JMA) (Mar 7, 9:15pm, C12; Mar 9, 1:30pm, C12; Mar 11, 11:30am, C12)

* Outsourced
(U.S.; 98 min.) A good-natured, yet tart and open-eyed comedy about a hapless Seattleite called Todd Anderson (Josh Hamilton), who works for a company selling patriotic gewgaws and novelties. His company sends him overseas to whip an Indian customer-service center into shape. "Mr. Toad," as the locals call him, adjusts to India and befriends a vivacious employee (the bewitching Ayesha Dharker). Films about Westerners coming to India usually concern spiritual awakenings; what makes Outsourced different from all of those is its deep appreciation for the tangible India: the polychrome Holi festival (as seen recently in Water), the unbelievable euphoniousness of Indian speech—surely that nation is a language lab, where the future of the English tongue is being created. Director John Jeffcoat knows his corporate world: how the word "offshore" is used as a verb, and what's meant by "improving the minutes-per-incident." But the incidents per minute here seem so fresh that they might have come from a sensitive and observant person's travel diary. Only a director who met India halfway could have made this movie. The bittersweet finale is a reminder of how fine it was to see Bill Forsyth's Local Hero for the first time. (RvB) (Mar 3, 8pm, CAL; Mar 4, 6:30pm, CAL; Mar 8, 7pm, C12)

Pao's Story
(Vietnam; 98 min.) It's a safe bet the hills and fields of Vietnam have never looked quite like they do bathed in the stunning black-and-white cinematography of Cordelia Beresford and Hung Tran in Pao's Story. Based on true events, the film tells a story of family secrets that start falling like dominos after one tragic incident. It takes a search by young Pao (Do Thi Hai Yen, seen in The Quiet American) for her real mother to peel back generations of deception and uncover the truth about who she is. The only downside is remarkably poor subtitling that makes watching difficult at times for English speakers; this film deserves better. (SP) (Mar 4, 2:15pm, CA; Mar 7, 2pm, C12)

The Pacific and Eddy
(U.S.; 87 min.) Matthew Nourse's drama about young people lost in their late 20s falls into the same category as recent art-house hits as Old Joy and Mutual Appreciation but lacks their spontaneity. A vagabond musician, Eddy (Ryan Donowho, from TV's The O.C.) returns home a year after one of his best friends has died. Eddy discovers that, during his wandering limbo, his other friends have changed and moved on. The film vainly struggles against its traditional story arc, attempting moments of naturalism and purity and every so often slowing the action down for a dreamy, indie pop song. There are vivid touches throughout, however, such as a character who gives hot-air balloon rides. Dominique Swain (from 1997's Lolita) and James Duval (Donnie Darko) co-star. Screens with the short film The Heart Collector. (JMA) (Mar 1, 9:30pm, SJ-Rep; Mar 4, 9pm, C12; Mar 6, 9:15pm, SJ-Rep)

Pingpong
(Germany; 90 min.) Sort of like Michael (Funny Games) Haneke's answer to Ordinary People (a film that seems like a natural name to drop, considering Cinequest guest J.J. Abrams seems to hold that movie in reverence). Adolescent Paul (Sebastian Urzendowsky) turns up at upper-class aunt and uncle's place without warning, shortly after the suicide of his father. Seeking an oasis in the countryside, he finds a nest of barbed feelings. His provocative but straight-laced Aunt Anna (Marion Mitterhammer) is pushing her son, Robert, to ready him for his audition as a classical pianist. No one in the family is especially overjoyed to see Paul, who offers his keep by doing some handyman work tiling the family's swimming pool. The sexual tension between aunt and nephew simmers; meanwhile Robert turns to alcohol as a way to deal with his mother's Teutonic temper. It's a perceptive and promising first-time drama by Matthias Luthardt; Mitterhammer gives us all sides of a desperate housewife. (RvB) (Mar 8, 4:30pm, C12)

* The Prince of Soap
(Finland; 97 min.) Making fun of soap operas is like mocking George W. Bush—fun as hell but not all that challenging. Nonetheless, Janne Kuusi's Finnish feature delivers a ripe comedy about the on- and off-camera antics at Burning Hearts, a drama about a hunky fireman named Antero (Mikko Leppilampi). When Ilona (an adorably spunky Pamela Tola) gets a job as a scriptwriter, she starts competing for Antero's affections with producer Raakel (Outi Mäenpää), a whiskey-tonsiled blonde in the mold of Joanna Lumley's Patsy on Absolutely Fabulous. The action sometimes goes too frantic, but the plot twists are clever and the actors appealing in their broad eccentricities. The funniest scenes take place at the avant-garde theater where Ilona sometimes performs, and the radical director orders her hapless cast to perform painful psychodramas: "Ants, build the mound of society on top of him." (MSG) (Mar 1, 1:45pm, C12; Mar 5, 9:30pm, C12; Mar 8, 9:15pm, CAL)

Rail Yard Blues
(Czechoslovakia; 90 min.) A few months in the lives of the employees at a railroad switching terminal. Handsome Alex is sleeping with three girls. The beautiful young daughter of the stationmaster wants to be the first female signal worker. Hearty Franta (Ricky Gervais look-alike Roman Slovák) goes missing but turns up again. The story is negligible, but the intricate web of familiarity and camaraderie that binds the characters makes a turn into tragedy at the end all the more affecting. As one character says, "Even a station has a spirit" with "spontaneous chaos inside and clear boundaries outside." The setting, with its commuter trains, errant box cars and accidental derailments, is downright exotic to automobile-besotted Americans. (MSG) (Mar 1, 2:30pm, C12; Mar 3, 4:45pm, C12; Mar 5, 2:15pm, C12)

* Seven and a Half
(Serbia; 110 min.) David Fincher's film about the seven deadly sins was so very American, wasn't it? All punishment and self-righteousness, with a whiff of endorsement for a serial killer obsessed with religious purity. Serbian writer-director Miroslav Momcilovic's take on the concept couldn't be more different—not only is his look at pride, lust, anger, envy, gluttony, greed and sloth downright funny, he actually sort of makes fun of the idea that these things would be considered "deadly," or even "sins." His much more humanist approach to the characters in these seven often ironic stories—a roid-rage bodybuilder, two lying Internet Romeos, lazy thieves and more—makes fun of their weaknesses and foolishness, for sure. But the film also holds out hope for redemption and meaning. It's not hard to imagine why the people of Belgrade would have no use for Hollywood's underlying "cleansing" fantasy. (SP) (Mar 2, 4:30pm, C12; Mar 3, noon, 9:30pm, CAL)

Slumming
(Austria, Switzerland and Germany; 96 min.) Two arrogant yuppie pranksters (August Diehl and Michael Ostrowski) ride around categorizing and pigeonholing others, essentially making playthings out of them. Meanwhile, a drunken, derelict poet (Paulus Manker) wanders the streets alternately cajoling or ranting at people. When the pranksters find the poet passed out on a bus station bench, they decide to transport him to a similar bus station bench, across the border, without a passport. Director Michael Glawogger and co-writer Barbara Albert achieve a pleasurable quirky quality with their black comedy, carefully guiding it between the precious and the preachy. Amusingly, they sometimes even present the payoff to jokes before the setup. The film passes easily between immaculate cafes and slush-covered highways, but at its center is Manker's remarkable performance. (JMA) (Mar 1, 4:30pm, C12; Mar 5, 2:30pm, C12; Mar 7, 4:30pm, C12)

Swedish Auto
(U.S.; 97 min.) Cars and stalking are the themes in this film by first-time screenwriter and director Derek Sieg. Lukas Haas (the young boy in Witness, and also in another Cinequest film, Who Loves the Sun) has a knack for playing mellow characters, here taking on the role of Carter, a socially inept auto mechanic whose monotonous life revolves around work and regularly following home a college violinist to ogle and listen to her play. A quiet man makes for a quiet film until the stalker becomes stalkee, and that's when we truly begin to learn about Carter. Though it is revealed that a car crash killed his family, Carter's love of perfecting a job is shown through his work as a mechanic, and cars also act as the catalyst for Carter's transformations from the peripheral player to one who enacts change in his own life and the lives of those around him. Look for Vanessa Williams' brother, Chris, in a supporting role as fellow mechanic Bobby. (CT) (Mar 1, 9:15pm, C12; Mar 4, 9:15pm, CAL; Mar 8, 9:30pm, C12)

Tick Tock Lullaby
(U.K.; 73 min.) In Lisa Gornick's digital video feature, four women make plans to get pregnant. A lesbian couple (Gornick and Raquel Cassidy) ponder the various options available to them; a neurotic wife, Fiona (Jo Bending), brings her neuroses to bed with her henpecked husband; and Fiona's sister (Sarah Patterson) takes to sleeping with a series of younger men. The characters also talk about getting pregnant, all the time, and about nothing else. Gornick, a cartoonist, divides up the talk with hand-drawn comic strips, also about pregnancy. It all wears thin pretty fast, but patience pays off; as the film approaches its final turn, Gornick allows refreshingly messy moments to creep in. The skilled, amiable cast also deserves credit for holding things together. Screens with the short film On a Tuesday. (JMA) (Mar 1, 7pm, C12; Mar 3, 2pm, C12; Mar 5, 9:15pm, C12)

The Trouble With Romance
(U.S.; 88 min.) Each of the four segments in director Gene Rhee's talky and sometimes dull ensemble rom-com focuses on a different couple in the same L.A. high-rise hotel. The most comedic segments are the best. In segment three, a man (Roger Fan) becomes torn between his girlfriend (Emily Liu) and his stoner buddies. Fan also starred in Rhee's previous work, the superior penis-enlargement mockumentary The Quest for Length. Fan's segment is closest in spirit to the irreverent Quest for Length. The Better Luck Tomorrow star's intense crying jag while on the toilet is a riot. It is to bathroom crying jags what the French Connection car chase is to car chases. (JA) (Mar 2, 8pm, SJ-Rep; Mar 3, 6:45pm, C12; Mar 4, 7:15pm, SJ-Rep)

Who Loves the Sun
(Canada; 94 min.) After catching his wife, Maggie (Molly Parker, Deadwood), and best friend, Daniel (Santa Cruz native Adam Scott), having sex, Will (Lukas Haas, Brick) runs away for five years. When Will shows up at Daniel's parents', he stirs up a hornet's nest of drama. The thing is, there's drama, and then there's drama. For writer and director Matt Bissonnette, the tension between Will, Daniel and Maggie isn't enough, and he has to dredge up deep, dark secrets from Daniel's parents' past, turning this story of three confused young adults into one of general chaos. What begins as a drama sandwich, neat and tidy and ready to eat, turns into a drama Sloppy Joe. In the end, it's just too much and far too messy. Sit back and enjoy the beauty of the lakeside setting, as this film's pace is slower than the calm waters. Plays with short Dorme. (CT) (Mar 3, 9:30pm, C12; Mar 4, 4:30pm, C12; Mar 5, 7pm, C12)

Shorts

Shorts Program 1: Mirror, Mirror
It is apparent that there are two different kinds of short films: the ones that are perfection on their own and the ones that seem to be calling cards for longer works. In the first category in this program, the best short comes first, Mathieu Robin's tiny but precise Ars Longa, in which an aged lady (Nadine Alari) gets a sudden and terrible shock of recognition. Of the latter category, Water Moccasin by Lisa Cole comes to its climax all too suddenly in its account of a fancy daughter's exasperation with her gauche mom. Aundre Johnson's 4 1/2 is exhaustively art directed, yes, and these days when a director goes to the effort of parodying Fellini, you practically want to embrace him for just knowing who Fellini was. However, a brief look at the calendar informs us that it has been more than 20 years since the SCTV troupe did the definitive version: Rome, Italian Style. Skinheads is Michael Voss' ultra-deadpan comedy of a modest Canadian neighborhood under siege by pesky yet strangely inert skins. (RvB) (Mar 1, 9:30pm, C12; Mar 3, 11:15am, C12; Mar 7, 1:30pm, C12)

Shorts Program 2: Ties and Expectations
Ian Olds' Bomb is the best by such a long chalk that it hardly pays to mention anything else in this program. Against a deeply convincing background—a rural road evolving back to dirt, on which some shambly houses stand—a boy's first date goes good, then horrible, then bad in a good way. Olds uses symbolic violence to contrast with the playful spatting of a couple of adolescents, who toy with discarded ordnance in a field once used for bombing runs. Bomb coalesces at a midday needle party, capping it all with the disturbing flare of a puddle of gasoline. This novice director has such obvious talent that other talents got drawn to him, such as the incredible Melissa Leo as the protagonist's junkie mom. There was another very good one in this section: Men Understand Each Other by Marjan Alizadeh. It is a superior example of the art of inference, but that's Iranian film for you. It's a one-set story of sexual betrayal in which the most sensual image is a lady cooling her face with the breeze from rotary fan. (RvB) (Mar 1, 6:15pm, C12; Mar 3, 4:15pm, C12; Mar 8, 2pm, C12)

Shorts Program 3: Escape
Outstanding in this selection: a pair of antagonistic boy-meets-girl stories. Lilah Vandenburgh's Bitch declares, yes, fat chicks! Ornery Venice Beach record-store clerk (Keira Leverton) seeks shoplifting skinhead to pound into ground round: object, domestic blisters. Punk's not dead, it just smells that way. Still, it's cause for nostalgia to see that grimy L.A. shoreline still inhabited by the same wretched refuse that hunkered down there 30 years ago. And, from the Promised Land of verbal abuse, Great Britain: Daniel Outram's A Supermarket Love Song: Venus in about 10 minutes, without O'Toole but a damned sight more real. A decrepit bachelor encounters an adenoidal slag assigned to him as community service; to the surprise of both, bonding ensues. It practically needs Ken Loach-style subtitles, but what words you can catch are razorish. Not quite as sharp, but two others with the same boy-vs.-girl motif: Love & Insecticide, rather like a Jane Campion remake of The Wasp Woman by Evan McNary. And then there's the enthusiasm-killing Carjacking. Crime causes an L.A. woman to have a moment of clarity about her upcoming marriage. It is a challenge to play a person who ought to be hit over the head with a tire iron, without making the audience want to get out the tire iron themselves. While director Danny Passman elides a little too much, lead actress Shiri Appleby might go places someday. (RvB) (Mar 2, 9:30pm, C12; Mar 4, 11:30am, C12; Mar 9, 4:45pm, C12)

Shorts Program 6: Mindbenders
The most extreme short films—which is what these are—are always going to be a mixed bag. Horror fans will probably be the happiest with the offerings here, since all but one entry could loosely be grouped in that genre. The best ones tweak the audience in some audacious way—the Spanish film Maquina is a bizarre tribute to Japanese horror that really disturbs; Criticized seems like a dumb director-gets-revenge-on-critic story, but the ending turns the whole concept upside-down (and is the wittiest twist here, to boot); Venom is visually stunning; and Room to Breathe is an interesting tribute to Alfred Hitchcock Presents. (SP) (Mar 2, 10:15pm, C12; Mar 3, midnight, C12; Mar 5, 3:15pm, C12)


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