New Reviews From Cinequest 2016

by on March 9, 2016

Walter Tournier’s stop-motion animated short “Chatarra” (Junk) delivers visual invention with undertones of melancholy.  Seeing hinges or other metal parts used to form the bodies of cows and an energetic dog makes the story a whimsical “Frankenstein.”  Giving large expressive eyes to the inventor character and the dog brings a smile.  Enjoyment at seeing these cute stop-motion creations in action leaves the viewer unprepared for the short’s final disquieting shot.


Clair Carre’s devastating yet moving “Embers” is set nearly ten years after an Alzheimer’s-like plague struck all of human society.

There are three types of survivors in “Embers.”  An inarticulate boy and the impulse control-free Chaos grew up with the plague but developed social impairments.  The second class of survivors lives with flawed protections against the plague.  Miranda Sandoval (Greta Fernandez) and her rich father live disease-free in an underground bunker, but the girl’s going stir crazy.  A former academic’s isolated forest cabin doesn’t prevent its owner from mentally deteriorating so badly he fails to recognize his name.  Finally, people like the unnamed lovers (Jason Ritter, Iva Gocheva) face a daily struggle to remember such essentials as their emotional connection.

Carre avoids the bane of infodumping for plot advancement purposes.  Bits and pieces of what happened to the world are slowly revealed.   A character may speak or behave oddly.  A briefly glanced journal entry provides some clues.  What Carre shows about her fictional post-apocalyptic world doesn’t mean “Embers”’ dramatic focus will be on finding the plague’s cure.  This basic working knowledge pushes the film in the more intriguing direction of seeing various characters’ adjustments to living with the disease.  The lovers mix pragmatism (e.g. wearing matching bracelets to remind them of their intimate bond) with foolish hopes such as deterring memory loss by attempting an all-nighter.

The film’s visual milieu of ruined buildings and empty swimming pools may suggest “Embers” is mired in bleakness.  Horrible things do happen, such as the killing of one character for a can of food.  Yet things like the old man’s “Singing In The Rain”-style dance or the couple having sex in an abandoned church offer moments of joy amid the ruins.

The guarded optimism ultimately displayed in “Embers” definitely doesn’t count as a betrayal of its premise.  Carre explained in a post-screening Q&A that the title referenced the idea of something still essentially human remaining after a person’s fiery individual vitality has died down.  It’ll be interesting to see if Alzheimer’s caregivers agree with Carre’s view.


Sean Mc Ging and Mary Anne Rothberg’s short documentary “Trashing History” asks whether there are limits to efforts to preserving past artifacts.  Its subjects tackle the question from two different perspectives: preserving historic Atomic Age equipment and finding rarities in 40,000 boxes of paper ephemera.  Despite its intriguing theme, the film falls short twice.  The fate of a historic artifact never feels gut-wrenching despite a bow to difficult realities.  More importantly, the film’s length feels too short to discuss the sometimes difficult balancing act associated with preservation efforts.  Mc Ging and Rothberg’s short delivers an adequate but unsatisfying treatment of its complex theme.


Documentarian Jen Senko would seriously disagree with Rush Limbaugh’s innocuously characterizing himself as a humble entertainer.   As her very timely documentary “The Brainwashing Of My Dad” shows, Limbaugh’s glorified hate-mongering is entertainment in the same way a black man getting lynched entertained Southern whites.

Senko’s apolitical father used to be a kind and funny guy.  Repeated exposure to Limbaugh’s regular broadcasts of audio venom became Mr. Senko’s gateway drug into the world of right-wing media.  After prolonged immersion in right-wing e-mail lists and Faux News, the filmmaker’s father became the political equivalent of the rageaholic Incredible Hulk.  The perpetually angry man Mr. Senko became inspired Senko to make this partly-personal documentary to understand what happened to him.

Faux News and other right-wing media apologists will probably dismiss Senko’s film.  They will claim nobody forced Mr. Senko to listen to Rush Limbaugh or constantly watch Faux News.  Therefore, no alleged brainwashing occurred.

However, force is just one method of brainwashing.   Right-wing media regularly and effectively uses the second method of brainwashing to cause its victims to become angry and intolerant of different viewpoints.  The precise details of that method as used by Faux News and its ilk will not be described here.  What can be said is that the political-emotional transformation resulting from right-wing media brainwashing isn’t just limited to Mr. Senko.  Having at least half-a-dozen Skype interviewees talk about the same phenomenon also happening to their loved ones indicates a major problem exists.

It becomes clear in the film’s tracing of the path of American right-wing media’s ascension to power that the ideal audience for Senko’s film will be utterly lay viewers.  Such touchstones as the elimination of The Fairness Doctrine and the 1996 “Telecommunications Reform Bill” will not be surprising to leftists familiar with American media politics.  Nor will interviews with FAIR’s Jeff Cohen or Media Matters founder David Brock bring utterly new insights to those already in the know.

The sequences concerning Senko’s father do momentarily instill in viewers the tempting thought that Mr. Senko’s life might be improved by being knocked over the head and carted off to a cult deprogrammer.  Senko’s film offers more practical tools such as developing viewer awareness of such right-wing media propaganda techniques as “lie and skew” and “the politics of division.”  Bill Plympton’s animation sequences provide visual metaphors for the principles described, such as one of right-wing media blaring at a hapless viewer.

Shaming such political sociopaths as Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity into publicly admitting their lies will happen two weeks after Hell freezes over.  Americans would do better to assume anything they say is false absent independent verification.

(“The Brainwashing Of My Dad” screens at 4:30 PM on March 9, 2016 at the Camera 12 Cinemas (201 S. Second Street, San Jose).  It will also be made available via VOD on March 18 and eventual theatrical screenings.)

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