Final Reviews From Cinequest Film And Creativity Festival 2019

by on March 19, 2019

The “Mindbenders” short films program brought together stories utilizing tropes from the fantastic genres.  Only one or two shorts distinguished themselves from this general assemblage of cinematic mediocrities.

            Kicking things off was Joshua Dawson’s “Loa’s Promise.”  This futuristic travelogue took viewers through the near future of the abandoned copper and nitrate mining towns of Chile’s Atacama plain.  Data centers now provide what passes for these towns’ heartbeat. Yet Dawson’s narrator definitely couldn’t be called a cheerleader for this development. 

            The Catholic Church’s homophobia gets the EC Comics treatement in “Penance” from Kayden Phoenix.  A ceremony bringing a group of gay and lesbian Catholics together seems to be a spiritual accounting.  But homophobic Catholics will deservedly hate the horrifying poetic justice being administered.

            In Adam Salinas’ “Taken From Me,” a man’s outside smoke break gets transformed into a home invasion/burglary.  However, the reversal of the predator and prey roles fails to be accompanied by sufficient catharsis to be entertaining. 

Jorge Malpica’s “Ulysses” pitted an elderly fisherman against a mermaid singng a hypnotic song.  Don’t watch this film if you made plans for a seafood meal.

Vampires get targeted for capture and eventual destruction in Ashlea Wessel’s “TICK.”  But the reason why remained unclear. Were the vampires providing rejuvenation juices or spare body parts?  Coupling that uncertainty with a too abrupt ending condemned the film to “enh” status. 

The Anthony Nikolchev short “Your Friend” relied on the familiar theme of technology going badly wrong.  The title referenced the brand name for robotic companions for lonely people. The protagonist, who lived alone in the woods, soon regretted his desire to upgrade his Your Friend Ted with predictive tech to be a better companion.  However, the film took too long to reach a trite ending. 

Dreams revealed the friction points in a couple’s relationship in Mary Dauterman’s dark comedy “Wakey Wakey.”  But an unwillingness to acknowledge these truths led to disastrous consequences…or was this yet another dream?    Confusion on this point robbed the film of some of its impact. 

Solidly flying its “say what” flag was Hassaan Islam’s “Your Order Has Arrived.”  In this short from Pakistan, an office drone with a rapidly unraveling life constantly received messages notifying him of an order delivery he had no knowledge of.  Viewers seeking explanations regarding what the order was for or even its allegorical meaning will be left frustrated by the short’s ending.

In the U.A.E. short “MAKR” from Hana Kazim, scam exorcist Sheikh found his routine exorcism complicated by a domestic abuse drama.  However, Sheikh’s ultimate problem turned out to be something a lot less earthbound.  

A frayed relationship between two roommates provided the takeoff point for Aaron Pagniano’s farcical supernatural short “We Got A Monkey’s Paw.”   Zack collected supernatural paraphernalia ranging from a cursed Ouija board to a rotary phone that will tell listeners the date and manner of their demise.  When he and roommate Jakki accidentally discovered a monkey’s paw, their evening became filled with time travel, a zombie mother siege, and some uncomfortable truths about their relationship.  The comic steam ran a little thin before the wishing chaos got resolved. Still, Pagniano’s film entertained enough to be one of the program’s stronger entries.

The program’s other strong entry was the Lael Rogers short “I See Through You.”  It was set in two time periods in the same place. One involved a fashionable 1960s-style cocktail party where a handsome but single young man met an attractive blonde woman.  The other involved a very old man and the woman he lived with. The titular song played through the short yet its meaning appeared elusive at first. A major clue was realizing both the old man and the young man were the same person.   But if the woman in both sequences was also the same person, why had her youthful beauty not faded? The disturbing answer relied on viewers’ imaginations supplying some very unsettling information.

***

Can traveling through the Great Plains take you far enough to outrun your grief?  That’s the question at the core of Chandler Ryd’s heartfelt short “Into The Plains.”  For Grand Junction, CO journalist Anna (Maggie Alexander), it’s been nine long months.  Husband Jeremy has accepted the accident that left him with a broken leg. But the reporter still grieves over the death of their child in that same accident.  Emotional pressures push her to go on an unannounced Great Plains road trip without telling Jeremy. Will the road bring Anna her long-sought emotional peace?

            Ryd doesn’t oversell the irony of having somebody whose job depends on verbal expression be unable to voice her tumultuous feelings.  Alexander’s performance conveys a mix of internal numbness and a tremendous guilt. Recent triggers in Anna’s life including a story on a wave of local suicides and work friction.  These things cumulatively prove enough to make taking to the road seem like a reasonable option.

 

            When the film introduces Anna, she’s contemplating suicide.  The swiftness with which she abandons the idea leads to the viewer eventually understanding her inner directionlessness clashes with her hunger for an answer to her personal trauma.  Visual cues and hinted at tension conveys story information in a nicely organic manner. An encounter with a stranger feels less like a deus ex machina than an underscoring of the preciousness of the right human connection.   But Ryd doesn’t quite convince this viewer that beauty can be found in the Great Plains.

***

            Ex-yak herding basketball players is not the punchline of a joke.  In Ruby Yang’s wildly entertaining documentary “Ritoma,” they’re the subjects of a film which uses sports to look at an unusual path to cultural preservation in the 21st century.

Former nomadic yak herders live in the Tibetan plateau village of Ritoma.  Chinese TV broadcasts of NBA games turned these ex-herders into avid basketball fans.  However, when they got the chance to actually play basketball, their games turned out to be little better than rough-housing with a ball.  Enter former assistant coach for the MIT Engineers Men’s Basketball Team Willard “Bill” Johnson. The ex-coach originally planned to train the Norlha team headed by poet Jampa Dhundup in the finer points of basketball strategy.  Now he plans to put together a basketball tournament with eight local plateau teams.

            The background behind Yang’s documentary proves as fascinating as the basketball story.  Climate change and schooling requirements have caused the traditional nomadic career of yak herding to slowly die out.  Lack of job opportunities would normally result in these Tibetan nomads breaking up their families, moving to the big cities to find work, and eventually losing their culture.  But Dechen and Kim Yeshi opened the Norlha textile workshop in Ritoma and created an alternative. The workshop allows ex-nomads to stay in the village and earn a living making yak wool scarves.  Providing a basketball court proved a popular employee perk for the Norlha men, who played lunch hour games regardless of weather.

  

Yang’s film takes an even-handed approach regarding preserving Tibetan nomadic culture.  Seeing a traditional ceremony involving large hand-crafted painted arrows will leave Western viewers awestruck.  But the story of intelligent 9-year-old girl Lhamo shows how such traditional attitudes towards the handicapped as false hopes for cures or permanent home sequestration are not things worth retaining.

Basketball allows a point of empathy between Western viewers and the Tibetan players.  Dhundup and his teammates dream of becoming as skilled as American players and setting up an American regulation basketball court feels like a big step.  Hearing the Norlha team praise Steph Curry will warm the hearts of Golden State Warriors fans.

When the tournament takes place, the film’s cinematography is so wonderfully kinetic that this viewer cheered whenever the Norlha team scored.  Seeing these Tibetan fans of American basketball feel the pressures of a game proves one of the film’s magic moments.

Yang’s film leaves the viewer feeling optimistic about Ritoma’s transition to modernity.  The creation of a Norlha women’s basketball team offers hope at seeing nomadic patriarchal practices eventually getting pushed into the dustbin.

***

            “Shadow” marks Zhang Yimou (“Hero”)’s welcome return to Chinese historical action and intrigue.  Commander Yu of Pei plans to re-take the city of Jingzhou from the forces of Yang despite the mentally unstable King of Pei’s opposition.  The Commander’s secret weapon is his shadow Jing, a man who’s the military leader’s exact duplicate. When loyalty proves far more fungible than expected and people have trouble distinguishing between truth and falsehood, Jing worries whether he’ll become the real Commander’s sacrificial pawn.  Intrigue, both court and interpersonal, prove just as enthralling as the beautifully symbolic martial arts setpieces.

(“Shadow” will be eventually distributed by Well Go USA.)

(“Loa’s Promise” won the festival award for Best Horror, Thriller, Sci-Fi Short Film.  “Nazi VR” won the festival award for Best Documentary Short Film.  “A Shelter Among The Clouds” won Cinequest’s Global Vision Award.  “The Public” tied for the Audience Award for Best Drama.)

 

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