New Reviews From Cinequest 2018

by on March 6, 2018

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“The Sopranos” may be cited as the closest American analog to Peter Bebjak’s Cinequest offering “The Line.”  Yet this Ukrainian/Slovakian drama/comedy/thriller entertainingly mixes in everything from international politics to subtly rebuking the “crime as a moral deficiency” mentality.

Central character Adam Krajnak can hardly be called a success as either a father or a smuggler.  Eldest daughter Lucia has reached the age where defying Adam feels as easy as breathing.  Despite being fairly good at smuggling cigarettes over the Slovakia-Ukraine border and keeping his men in line, the leader of the smuggling gang barely gets by financially.  Still, Adam displays sufficient adeptness to keep his two life roles separate.

However, several events throw Adam’s carefully ordered life into chaos.  Border security is being seriously upgraded to make the Slovakian border the iron edge of the European Union.  The local police might no longer be amenable to being bribed to help Adam’s gang.  Supplier Krull secretly undermines Adam’s leadership because there’s more profit in drug smuggling.  Finally, the passionate relationship between eldest daughter Lucia and Ivor (brother-in-law to Adam’s second-in-command Jona) moves too quickly to the next level for Adam’s comfort.

The titular line refers to several different divisions seen in the film.  The pending tightened border will separate European Union territory from non-European Union turf.  Adam’s previously mentioned separation between his father and gang leader roles is another line.  But as the film progresses, the other emotional lines Adam maintains in his life get slowly revealed.  The gang leader may enjoy having the police chief sing at his party, but that doesn’t mean he’ll trust the cop.  His awareness of being a family man and the fear of his daughters getting addicted fuels his opposition to smuggling drugs.  Ironically, Krull’s being a family man doesn’t stop him from seeing drug smuggling as a business opportunity.  Also, Adam may reject producing future drug addicts but he sees nothing wrong with increasing peoples’ risk of lung cancer.

Bebjak’s film rejects the idea that criminal activity is solely the product of moral defect.  As the local priest makes clear, the border area is an inhospitable venue for making a legitimate living.  Survival requires ingenuity, even if it means breaking the law.  Tightened Slovakian border security means either leaving the smuggling business or being sneakier in continuing the illegal trade.

Adam’s efforts to be a good father lift “The Line” well outside crime genre territory.  Hearing one of Adam’s daughters complaining about adults hogging the bathroom when she needs to pee provides an early moment of viewer empathy.  But the best timed moment comes with Ivor’s clumsy request to marry Lucia, which comes mere minutes after Adam has used hedge clippers to sever a man’s finger joint.

That juxtaposition gets to the greatest strength of “The Line,” its deft turning of tone on the proverbial dime.  Rather than deliver lazy and gratuitously abrupt shocks, “The Line”’s unexpected moments are products of subtly laid dramatic groundwork.  The darkly comic consequences of a smuggling job gone wrong imply the depth of Adam’s inability to remedy the situation.  American audiences may not easily relate to life near the Slovakia-Ukraine border.  But they will relate to this gripping story of a man who ultimately finds he can’t be both a good father and a good head of a criminal gang.


Lukas Augustin’s short documentary “Evidence Of Things Unseen” is one of those basic cinematic portraits done for Time’s Red Border Films.  It delivers its information professionally without personally providing any emotional heart.

Augustin’s central subject is Iraq War veteran Richard Casper.  Formerly part of the Marine security detail protecting President George W. Bush at Camp David, Casper ultimately opted to serve in Iraq.  The legacies of Casper’s service include the death of good friend Luke Gibson, memory-damaging brain injury, and PTSD.  Yet words proved for Casper a wholly inadequate medium for conveying his feelings about his experiences.  It would ultimately take a stay at the Art Institute of Chicago to show Casper a path forward.

The short film’s “just the facts” approach works well to painlessly present a central subject who’s better at showing his feelings through art than deeply articulating those feelings.  This is not a knock at Casper.   Not everyone is gifted with the proverbial silver tongue.  But even loquaciousness doesn’t guarantee an ability to truly convey the emotions and experiences of fighting a war.

Augustin definitely deserves credit for showing how Casper applies what he’s learned to help other Iraq War veterans.  However, his film contents itself with firmly planting its feet on “feel good news” turf.   This approach avoids critically examining the relationship between ex-President Bush and the war veterans he created by his military mistake.  Is Bush giving back in his way to Marines like Casper who protected his family?  Is Bush’s veteran-inspired artwork his form of atonement?  The only certainty is the obvious respect the former president has for his former Marine security guard.


The documentary “Adios Amor: The Search For Maria Moreno” delivers a cinematic detective story reconstructing the life of a forgotten labor organizer.   While researching the life of the legendary Cesar Chavez, director and filmmaker Laurie Coyle had seen photographer George Ballis’ pictures of a forceful yet unknown woman involved in labor organizing.  Coyle embarked on what would become a seven year quest to identify this woman and learn about her life.  What the director found would be a woman involved in organizing migrant agricultural workers before Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and others started up what would become the United Farm Workers.  Yet this same woman was also one neglected by history until now.

Coyle doesn’t sugarcoat the barriers that made her search for Moreno so difficult.  Maria Moreno may not be as common a name as John Smith.  But determining which of the two hundred possible Maria Morenos is the one sought by Coyle would be an expensive undertaking for a private detective.  Even when a strong lead comes in the form of Moreno’s Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee co-worker Henry Anderson, the records Anderson still possesses provides only a picture of Moreno the organizer.  It would take the very lucky receipt of a small package from one of the surviving Moreno children before the director’s search starts bearing real fruit.

“Adios Amor” certainly deserves credit for bringing back to public attention the late 1950s efforts of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee.  It sought better working conditions for migrant laborers.  The group’s attempt to unite agricultural workers of different ethnic backgrounds made it the migrant worker version of the Wobblies.

The film also deserves plaudits for telling the life story of this ignored charismatic woman.  Moreno may have only had a 2nd grade education.   But recordings of Moreno’s speeches show her strong awareness of the unjust living and working conditions facing migrant workers like her.  These rediscovered audio reel recordings also demonstrate that Moreno could communicate these existing injustices to lay audiences.

Why was Moreno’s name forgotten?  Part of the reason is labor politics.  The AFL-CIO heads disliked Moreno’s aggressive independence and used a technical excuse to get rid of her.  Cesar Chavez to his discredit treated Moreno as competition.  The other part of the problem, which the film doesn’t really discuss, is the American cultural tendency to denigrate the achievements of those who are neither white males nor part of the accepted capitalist power structure.  Were things otherwise, Greta Gerwig would have been nominated for a Best Director Oscar and labor news coverage would share the media importance accorded Trump’s most flatulent Tweets.

Coyle’s offscreen narration doesn’t increase viewer interest in her subject.  It fails to communicate the obsession and urgency that fueled Coyle’s seven year search.

The emotional heart of the documentary winds up coming from the appearances of Martha Moreno Dominguez, Lilly DeLaTorre, Abel Moreno, and Olivia “Libby” Portugal.  They are four of Moreno’s twelve children, and they recall with affection the semi-dismal places that their mother turned into homes.  A particular highlight involves the years the Moreno family lived near a desert water tank.

To unfavorably compare Coyle’s film to the classic Edward R. Murrow documentary “Harvest Of Shame” undercuts the necessity of “Adios Amor”’s existence.  Coyle’s film may ultimately be good but not great.  But given that Moreno’s story would otherwise have remained untold, an insistence on aesthetic perfection needs to yield to the value of satisfyingly recovering a piece of previously lost history.


Entertainingly delightful romantic comedy/drama “You Can’t Say No” also begins from a place of banked passion.  In the case of Paul Kramer’ film, it’s the currently listless state of Hank (producer/writer Hus Miller) and Alexandra “Alex” (Marguerite Moreau) Murphy’s marriage.  The couple is on the verge of filing for divorce.  But an accidental encounter and Hank’s surprising admission inspires Alex to propose spending their last married weekend together playing a pre-divorce version of Truth or Dare.  Basically, each of them will ask the other to do something or answer any question asked.  The only rule is “You Can’t Say No.”  The results wind up surprising both Alex and Hank.

The film’s setup works because acrimony isn’t fueling the couple’s desire to divorce.  Both of them are still amicable towards each other.  But they’re approaching middle age and have run out of ideas for keeping their marriage fun.  Hank’s depression at his prolonged unemployment and Alex’s still lingering anger at an earlier betrayal by Hank makes divorce seem like a halfway reasonable solution.

The lack of mutual anger explains why neither partner challenges the other to do a punitively extreme challenge involving (for example) a greased iron poker, half a dozen cans of whipped cream, and a couple of ski masks soaked in kerosene.  Instead, the game gives its central characters the opportunity to gently let down their emotional barriers and slowly rebuild trust in each other.  The fact that Alex and Hank sometimes arouse each other’s jealousy with a particular action shows the process is a bumpy one.

Setting the bulk of the film in Sonoma wine country makes Hank and Alex’s game playfully idyllic.  Besides winery owner Miles’ lavish house, there’s a gorgeous treehouse that will make viewers hope that a) it wasn’t built just for Kramer’s film and b) that they can afford to do a weekend stay in the treehouse too.

Adding to the joyousness of “You Can’t Say No” are performances by several supporting players.  Hamish Linklater’s lovably eccentric Miles embodies the type of fun Alex hopes to rediscover.  Ingrid Vollset, who bears some resemblance to Gwyneth Paltrow, makes her footloose wanderer Allison a charming temptation.

But it is Peter Fonda’s lovably crusty supporting turn as Hank’s father Buck Murphy that will stick in viewers’ minds best.  A pot-smoking amicable old hippie with an educated wine palate, he provides wisdom and love to Alex and Hank even if he’s sometimes lacking in the epigram-creation department.  It’s a mark of Fonda’s performance that even when his character does such gross things as greet a visitor while essentially wearing his underwear, the viewer still loves him anyway.   Admittedly, Julie Carmen’s nice Matilda winds up getting short-changed by the film’s events.  But in Miller’s defense, this story is Alex and Hank’s to tell.

It would be unfair to intelligent audiences if “You Can’t Say No” still remains in film festival purgatory.  Catch this charmer at Cinequest.

(“The Line” screens at 9:30 PM on March 6, 2018 at the California Theatre (345 S. 1st Street, San Jose) and 9:45 PM on March 10, 2018 at the Century Downtown 20 (825 Middlefield Road, Redwood City).  “Evidence of Things Unseen” and “Adios Amor: The Search For Maria Moreno” screens at 3 PM on March 9, 2018 at the Century Downtown 20 and 10:00 AM on March 11, 2018 at 3 Below Theaters (288 S. 2nd Street, San Jose). “You Can’t Say No” screens at 5:00 PM on March 6, 2018 and 4:15 PM on March 9, 2018.  Both screenings take place at the Century Downtown 20.)

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