Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Jason goes to Cinequest--Day 12

And this is the end of Cinequest 2008. I'm going through a bit of withdrawals. Luckily the SF International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF or Asianfest) starts tomorrow. Anyway, here's the rundown on the final day:

First up was the sci-fi thriller "Suspension", which does a surprising amount with a simple premise and a very low budget. Daniel had a pretty good life, until his wife and son died in a car crash. Sarah had the start of a good life, until her husband died in the same accident (arguably caused by her, since he was distracted by a cell phone call from her). During the accident, Daniel distinctly sees time freeze, but he can't do anything about it. His wife and child still die, and he's stuck in a pit of depression. However, Daniel has always been into repairing things, and he makes it a little project to repair his sons video camera, damaged in the crash. The repaired camera has the magical ability to stop time when he presses the pause button. This power becomes his way of dealing with his grief and controlling the world around him. And when he meets Sarah and becomes infatuated, it becomes his way to anonymously help her with a few things. That is, until he crosses a line and things get really creepy. I'm particularly impressed with how the film deals with the logistics of stopping time. You can still mechanically move things, but you can't engage any automatic or electronic controls. So you can ride a bike, but not drive a car. You can open a lock with a key, but not an electronic key card. I'm also impressed with the special effects, which were not as CGI as you'd expect. Most of them are practical (including the frozen car crash) and overlaying multiple takes with a locked-off camera. Then a little touch-up to paint out fishing line and add spice like bits of flying broken glass, etc. Very impressive, and seamless. And a really well told story. The title can have multiple meanings--suspension of time, suspension of disbelief, suspension of moral boundaries, even suspending objects by fishing line to make them look like time stopped (okay, that last one is a bit of a stretch). Here's a pic of writer/producer Aris Blevins and director Ethan Shaftel:


Then I wandered over to the Vuze audience choice for the short "Sharp Cookies". It's a hilarious little story about a young cop and his pot-dealing granny. Loads of fun.

But then I didn't stick around for the feature because I wanted to catch "Goodbye Baby", the coming-of-age comedy about stand-up comedy. Melissa Brooks comes from a comedy-loving family (she was named after Mel Brooks). The movie starts with her and her friends at a post-high school graduation get-together, talking about their plans. Although she talks of going to NYU, the fact is she doesn't have the money for college, so she decides to stay with her gay brother in New York for a while. She really wants to be a standup comedian, but her open mic performance (entirety of the performance: awkward silence..."thank you"...run off stage) shows she's more suited to be a waitress. But a little friendly advice from the club manager, who tells her he learned to speak in public by going to AA (not for the speaking experience, because he was an alcoholic), and she's on a brighter path. But then her brother's boyfriend, an up-and-coming actor who wants to use her as a beard (which gets her into cool premiere parties) complicates her life further. As does the fact that she goes to AA to learn to speak in public, and then meets a nice guy who can easily tell she's not addicted to drugs as she claims. Ultimately, this movie rides on the charming, winning, vulnerable performance by Christine Evangelista, and although there's plenty of laughs, the story is more about her taking control of her life than about the comedy. Here's a pic of writer/director Daniel Schechter and producer Tim Duff:


Next up was "Karl Rove, I Love You" which honest to god I believed was a documentary for about half the movie. Well done, guys. Director Phil Lierness starts the movie by completely lying about not knowing who Dan Butler is. He sees Dan Butler as a supporting actor on stage (with Alec Baldwin) doesn't know who he is, then finds out he's been a supporting actor in many of his favorite shows and movies (including "Frasier" and "Silence of the Lambs"). So Phil gets a great idea to make a documentary about the life of a supporting actor, and make it by following Dan Butler around. Dan's hesitant at first, but finally agrees, if for no other reason than to be the star of a movie. Phil also impresses/frightens Dan by interviewing Dan's family and showing him the footage. So they have a movie. The movie's not necessarily going anywhere, since he has no roles coming up, but things take a turn at a party when his politically active friend starts talking about Karl Rove. He doesn't know who Karl Rove is, so she explains a bit about the ruthless political power-broker sometimes called Bush's Brain. And they idly speculate that he'd be a perfect role for Dan. Well, the next morning Dan gets it into his head to run with that idea and make a one-man show, starring himself, about Karl Rove. So he sets out writing it with his co-writer/coach Julia Miranda. They're both politically liberal (at least in the movie, no comment on if his real politics match that), and so they set out skewering and mocking Karl. But Dan's acting coach encourages him to embody Karl Rove rather than just mock him. Make him a real person on stage. And Dan takes that way too far, developing a crush on him (oh yeah, Dan's openly gay, and his partner Richard appears in the movie) and then wanting to actually be Karl Rove. Then things get really really weird. And it was about this time that I started thinking 'this is probably fake, not a real documentary'. And at the point where Dan disappears, apparently to commit suicide, I know it's fake since I saw him introduce the movie. It's absolutely wonderful how this movie kept me guessing all the time what would happen next. And it gets all its political points in early, so turning them on the side and having Dan defend/embody Karl Rove is a strange twist. It suddenly becomes less about politics and more about an actor losing his freakin' mind.

Oh yeah, and they mention a few times that Karl Rove's birthday is Christmas, so I'm counting it as part of the festival birthday theme.

Here's a picture of Richard Waterhouse (actor, Dan's life partner, and coincidentally the director of "Young, Single, and Angry"), Phil Lierness (director), Julia Miranda (co-writer), and Dan Butler (writer/producer/director/star):


Then the penultimate film (have I mentioned that I like the word "penultimate") of the festival was the charming Czech retirement comedy "Empties". I've noticed another theme of the festival--old people. That fits, apparently if you celebrate enough birthdays, you become old. Writer Zdeněk Svěrák (father of Academy Award winning director Jan Svěrák), stars as Josef. He's old (but his libido is still young) and he no longer has the patience to teach literature, so he quits. But retired life doesn't agree with him, he's too restless. A short stint as a bike messenger doesn't fit him either, but a job at the supermarket reimbursing people for returning empty bottles is just the thing. He's a people person, and he meets all sorts of interesting people there, from his grouchy, quiet co-worker (nicknamed "Chatty", he allegedly tried to kill his wife) to the drunk who returns whole cases at a time, to the lonely woman, to the hot sexy young woman with pen marks on her lower belly, and all other types. Meanwhile, his wife is going nuts that he's not around (she knows full well his predilection to stray). It's a charming, funny, and exciting ride, complete with a ballooning adventure at the end.

Then it was back, one last time, to the fabulous California Theater for the closing night event. Cinequest co-founder and executive director Halfdan Hussey got out to say a few words, but as happens far too often the microphone didn't work right away. So he went back to the lectern and pulled out a megaphone. Good gag, Halfdan!


A Cinequest closing night tradition is to get all the remaining filmmakers up on stage. Here's a shot of most of them (there were a lot!)


Jury awards were announced at the time. Audience awards were still being tabulated (and closing night is eligible for the audience award). I agree with the Cinequest ethic that all their films are great in one way or another, so who really cares who won, but in any case if you want to see the winners, click here. One little difference this year. In past years, if the winning filmmakers were still present, they'd give a little speech. This year, we simply applauded them and got on with the closing night film.

And so here we are, finally, the closing night film was kind of a downer but very well made. "Take" stars Minnie Driver and Jeremy Renner. We start in the present, with Saul (Renner) in prison, awaiting execution. Cut to Ana (Driver) going to meet Saul. Actually, going to meet him for the second time. The first was the fateful moment seven years ago when Saul robbed a store and killed Ana's little boy. We then go back in time to both their pasts. Saul in trouble for gambling debts while also trying to take care of his sick father. Ana desperately trying to make a living as a maid while struggling with her unruly son (who's not dumb, but is so bad at paying attention that the school wants to put him in special ed). Their respective lives move towards a tragic intersection. Again, this is a depressing subject but it's very well told. The editing is superb, moving from Saul's present to Ana's past to Saul's past to Ana's present fairly nimbly. And the title (which took a long time to arrive at) has multiple meanings--what we take from others, what's been taken from us, and most importantly our take on other people, especially people we meet for only a brief, tragic moment. It's a stretch to say that redemption is reached in this movie--there's still a hell of a lot of ambiguity. But there is a powerful conclusion. I just wish they had chosen to end the festival on a bit of a happier note. Anyway, here's producer Chet Thomas and director Charles Oliver at the final Q&A of Cinequest:


And then it was all over but the drinking, staying out until 2 am, catching a cab home, and coming in to work late on Monday (that was prearranged with my boss, but I didn't volunteer why I'd be late).

And that's it, thank you to all the people who made Cinequest so awesome this year. The staff, the volunteers, the filmmakers, and all the great people I met. I guess it's because a few people actually read this blog, but this was the first time I actually felt famous instead of just well-known at Cinequest. And that really brought the whole experience to the next level.

I suppose I should say something about my favorite films this year. Again, I loved nearly all the films I saw, but by the end my mind was fixating on the really weird ones--"The End", "The Aerial", "Anywhere, U.S.A.", "Suspension". And there's also the ones from early on that stuck in my mind through the whole festival--"The Art of Travel", "Eternal City". Even the depressing or freaky ones that impressed me--"Dear Zachary" (I still mean to write that letter to the Canadian AG), "The Trap" (congratulations on the Global Vision award), "The Case". Or the ones that made me laugh the most--"Sherman's Way", "The Village Barbershop", "Speed Dating", "Young People Fucking", "Who Is K. K. Downey?". And I know there are others I'm forgetting at the moment. Weeks or even years from now someone might say something that reminds me of a film I saw in the past week and a half. I know when that happens, that was a great film, because it stuck with me.
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