Reviews From Cinequest 30

by on March 24, 2020

A picture from film "Owners"

The 30th Cinequest became one of many local film festivals to have a Coronavirus-related cancellation.  Cinequest 30 will still happen, but during the dog days of August. Fortunately, before the cancellation decision came down, attendees had a chance to see some of the festival’s offerings.  What follows are thoughts on some of the films and virtual reality events seen at this so far truncated festival.

***

If democracy means all voices deserve to have a say, then the GOP has actively undermined that political principle to mean that only their supporters deserve a voice.  This attitude of enshrining “personal selfishness over the common good” gets a nice satirical razzing in Jiri Havelka’s uncomfortable comedy “Owners.” An adaptation of Havelka’s play “The Society Of Owners,” this film takes a personal “if this goes on” approach to illustrate its point about the practical dangers of the “I’ve got mine” attitude.

The film may be set during the winter holiday season.  But for a housing cooperative’s monthly HOA meeting, peace on Earth and good will towards one’s fellow man are the farthest things from any of the attendees’ minds.  Meeting chair Mrs. Zahradkova in particular is near wit’s end. There are urgent repairs which need to be made to the shared building, but prior discussions of the issue have resulted in continually punting any action to a later meeting.  The chair and her husband Mr. Zahradka hope this meeting will end differently.

But as the meeting progresses and the viewer gets to understand the other owners, that hope starts to feel increasingly distant.  Gay Mr. Nitransky III seems most simpatico with Mrs. Zahradkova. There’s a new young interracial couple who are completely lost regarding the HOA’s internal dynamics.  Another pair of newbies, the Cermak brothers, have inherited an apartment from the recently deceased Mr. Cermak and just want to help out. Simple-minded Mr. Svec is acting as a proxy for his elderly mother, who’s in the hospital.  Ms. Horvatova (played by Vaclav Havel’s last wife) just enjoys gossiping about the neighbors. Mrs. Prochazkova, accompanied by the hustling businessman Mr. Novak, rents out her unit to Ghanian students and sees nothing wrong with sticking her fellow HOA members with the extra water costs.  Mrs. Roubickova fanatically insists on following the HOA meeting rules to the letter. Old Mr. Kubat not only opposes any and all physical changes to the shared building, but openly longs for the good old days of Communist rule.

Despite having the majority of the film’s action set in the HOA meeting room, Havelka’s film never looks claustrophobic or static.  The meeting is visually bookended by long looks at the world outside the meeting, whether it’s snapshots of the owners’ individual lives or metaphorical descriptions of rising tempers at the meeting or even a long post-meeting sequence that will make the moral implications of the HOA meeting’s end feel ambiguous.  Inside the meeting itself, Havelka’s camera doesn’t always focus on keeping a speaker in the center of the frame. Instead, the viewer’s attention also gets directed to small telling actions happening during the meeting. For example, a piece of the healthy low-sugar cake Mrs. Zharadkova brings along gets drowned in sweetener by Mr. Svec.

If claustrophobia permeates the film, it comes from the inflexibility displayed by way too many of the owners.  Mrs Roubickova’s unbending insistence on following the rules goes beyond absurdity the moment Mrs. Zharadkova’s frustrations reach the ultimate breaking point.  Mr. Kubat’s refusal to consider any physical changes which would keep the building habitable for years to come would match the inflexible shortsightedness of a typical GOP politician.  As a result, the viewer has a horrifying sense that mutually agreed-upon change is impossible in this environment.

An emergency during the meeting does show the HOA members are indeed capable of working together to achieve a common goal.  But once the emergency passes, too many of the owners are happy to return to their default position of prizing being left alone over sharing responsibility for solving common problems.  Can the viewer pity these owners when someone sees an opportunity in such a communal attitude?

The Washington Post famously claims that democracy dies in darkness.  But Havelka’s film and play ably shows that democracy can also die from excess shortsighted inflexibility…and that the only sane way to avoid crying from despair is to find ways to laugh about it.

***

Nadja Andrasev’s animated short “Symbiosis” might be called semi-enigmatic voyeurism.  A middle-aged wife lives with a man who’s lost sexual interest in her. Instead, the man has been having clandestine affairs with a number of younger mistresses.  But rather than throw the man out on his ear, the woman observes these other women from afar or even follows them. Occasionally, she secretly collects mementos from these other women.  The most unusual of these mementos is probably a tissue containing some pubic hairs removed from one lover.

The film leaves its principal character’s motivations ambiguous.  Does the woman privately lust after her rivals but feels uncomfortable acting on her desires?  Does the woman see these other women as muses to show her how to regain her lover’s affections?  It could definitely be said the principal character may possess her lover’s body but not his heart…while her lover’s one night stands possess his heart but not his body.

It’s also obvious that this short relies on more than just drawn animation.  Photographs of one or two of the other women flash by. The accumulated hair mementos become a softly luxuriant pelt.

How a viewer will ultimately feel about “Symbiosis” will depend on their tolerance for unexplained ambiguity.  For those who require some emotional investment before making the mental effort to unpack the film’s symbolism, this short will prove unsatisfying.

***

Ben Guez and Sasha Kulak’s documentary “Quicksilver Chronicles” takes viewers to New Idria.  This Central California ghost town is located a few miles from Hollister. Up until the 1970s, this former silver mining town had been the U.S.’ second largest producer of mercury.  After the town was abandoned, it would eventually be declared a Superfund site in 2011.

But the central focus of “Quicksilver Chronicles” turns out to be something other than the town’s abandoned and slowly decaying buildings.  Kate and Kemp Woods, aka New Idria’s only inhabitants, turn out to be that focus. Joined by photographer friend Tom Chargin, the trio provides the film’s human element.

Viewers who come to Guez and Kulak’s film expecting a beginning, middle, and end structure will frankly grow quickly restless with its spur of the moment approach to depicting the Woods’ lives.  Yet what “Quicksilver Chronicles” may lack in easily followed storyline is compensated by the capturing of natural yet unexpected moments.

A bravura example of the documentary’s unique moments comes during an evening conversation in the Woods’ small dining room.  In the visual background, Kemp is talking with Chargin. But on the film’s soundtrack, their conversation has been reduced to something a step up from background noise where an occasional intelligible word comes through.  In the foreground, Kate is trying to explain an astronomical theory to the offscreen filmmakers using a stick with what looks like a paper cup attached to one end. Yet the onscreen results don’t come across as confusing babble.  Instead, the viewer is given the close cinematic equivalent of actually being in the same room with the film’s subjects.

Curious viewers may wonder why the Woods choose to live in a town that seems, in crude terms, to be located in the butt crack of Nowhere.  Quite a few buildings have weathered exteriors of peeling paint. The silences and fog-shrouded vistas of the land around New Idria feels otherworldly compared to a typical urban enclave.

Yet the Woods have already tasted urban life.  They were originally born and raised in San Jose.  When they were in high school in 1968, they visited New Idria for the first time and saw the town on its last legs.  The viewer will rightly suspect that given the era of dropping out, New Idria looked like a perfect place for eventually starting over.

But it would be a mistake to call the Woods’ life in New Idria a rejection of all human contact.  Chargin is a good friend who’s known Kate for literal decades. The Woods have Internet access, which allows Kate to write on and argue about such subjects as astronomy and politics.  The 2016 election of the Orange Skull, though, probably made the couple’s decision to absent themselves from the mainstream of American society seem a wise one.

Guez and Kulak’s film doesn’t romanticize their subjects’ lives in this ghost town.  They’re still dependent on the outside world for such things as headache medicine, which comes only via mail order.  A kitten may easily escape into the woods. But there’s little doubt he won’t be permanently lost and that he’ll eventually grow big enough to kick the asses of the Woods’ bigger dogs.

Despite capturing some nicely observed moments, though, “Quicksilver Chronicles” ultimately fails to deliver any sort of satisfying resolution.  Having one of the film’s subjects die without clarifying the manner of that subject’s death doesn’t help. But aside from suggesting that the Woods’ presence provided a temporary halting of New Idria’s slow disappearance from the earth, it’s hard to find any real ending here beyond “life goes on, until it doesn’t.”

***

Caroline Williams’ short film “Lovely” concerns a young woman and a medical procedure.  In her case, it appears to be some sort of cosmetic surgery, one which requires the numbing of her facial muscles.  Neither the song which plays on the soundtrack nor the images of the woman’s life offer clues to why this woman is electing to undergo this procedure.  In short, “Lovely” comes across as a quickly forgettable music video.

***

The condition of males has been the frequent baseline for evaluating society’s ills.  But Tricia Regan’s documentary “Ms. Diagnosed” shows how in medicine that standard results in literal life and death medical complications.

Regan’s film spins out of a simple question: why do women under 30 die of heart attacks at a greater rate than men of a similar age?  The director finds the answer to that question in such things as systemic sexism in medical research and the practice of treating men and women as having similar symptoms for the same disease.

Showing the real world consequences of such medical misdiagnoses are a collection of fascinating women.  Kelsey Dunn’s Navy career ended abruptly thanks to the doctors’ failure to detect her heart problems. Housewife Katherine Leon’s physical agonies during her second pregnancy led her to create a movement to draw medical attention to the supposedly “rare and exotic” heart disease known as SCAD.  Misdiagnoses of Iipa representative Brandie Taylor’s weakness and pain during her pregnancy eventually required her to get a heart transplant. Nechelle, a Guyana immigrant living in Brooklyn, had her concerns about abnormally rapid heartbeat and an inability to sleep dismissed as simple stress…until her chest felt as if it was burning.

Interviewee Dr. Sharonne Hayes damningly notes that heart disease is an under-diagnosed phenomenon for women.  Taylor and Leon tell anecdotes about how their (male) doctors greeted their heart disease concerns by condescendingly telling them to “get over it.”  Unsurprisingly, when Leon later needed an emergency bypass and Taylor later required a heart transplant, the doctors who dismissed their concerns never apologized or tried to make amends for their misdiagnoses.

Regan shows throughout the film the real-life problems with taking male symptoms of heart disease as the baseline for determining whether a patient suffers from that illness.  For women with the disease, they don’t get the preventive care that might arrest the worsening of their coronary problems. The simple truth is that male and female physiological reactions to the same disease can be vastly different.  SCAD is a coronary disease which primarily affects women. If heart researchers consider SCAD a rare disease, that might be because current cardiac research design defaults to a male physiological perspective.

The more disturbing question raised by “Ms. Diagnosed” is what other life-threatening diseases have unnecessarily claimed women’s lives thanks to this faulty “male physiology as baseline” attitude.  Regan recognizes that correcting the lack of information about the effects of well-known diseases on female physiology matters more than settling scores regarding medical institutional blindness regarding women’s health.  That doesn’t mean institutionalized sexism in the medical profession gets a free pass. Alyson McGregor’s anecdote about how her convention presentation on “Sex and Gender In Emergency Medicine” was ignored by her male colleagues will likely spark an involuntary cringe.

By the film’s end, there is a sense that steps are being taken to correct the effects of accepted or unconscious sexism on the medical treatment of women.  Yet given the literal life and death stakes involved in this issue, incremental baby steps feel dismissive of the problem’s urgency.

***

Cinequest is the Bay Area film festival that immediately springs to mind when a viewer seeks a local showcase for Virtual Reality shorts.  Unashamedly falling into the crowd pleasing category is Mathias Chelebourg’s Virtual Reality game “Doctor Who: The Runaway.” The viewer here becomes The Doctor’s companion.  The object is to return runaway child Volta to his parents on his home planet. There are of course a couple of complications. Volta happens to be an energy being whose partial instability can be worsened by emotional stress.  Get him too stressed out and he’ll explode, taking out anybody unfortunate enough to be in his vicinity, such as The Doctor…and you. Getting in the way of the mission are a group of trigger happy aliens who consider Volta a threat and want to kill him on the spot.

Fans of Jodie Whittaker’s iteration of The Doctor will be happy to hear that she provides the voice for the character in this game.  Whittaker plays her character in entertainingly kooky weirdo mode here. Her comforting voice does lessen viewer anxiety about the play situation.  But the device used to keep Volta relatively stable still looks as if it’s highly jerry-rigged and liable to break down at the wrong moment.

Child fans of The Doctor will definitely enjoy performing various tasks to help get Volta home before he explodes.  But adult fans in touch with their inner child will also enjoy doing such things as piloting The Doctor’s TARDIS through an asteroid field.  The latter class of fans will be particularly thankful worrying about repeated collision damage is a non-issue.

Whittaker’s cheery delivery of the game’s last lines will probably lead many players to enthusiastically answer her character’s question with a loud “Yes.”

***

A relatively more grounded trip into the future is the VR Experience known as “Future Dreaming.”  In this VR program, the viewer joins four teenage aborigines as they dream about what their various futures will look like.  These four teens have dreams ranging from celebrating a birthday with family and friends to driving a train through the Australian Outback to even becoming an incredibly popular interstellar singer who uses VR in her acts.

The film is structured as looks at their dreams at different periods of their life, from a week to ten years into the future.  The later dreams in particular show a spectacular imaginative wildness as they involve a private planet or space travel to a habitat powered by emus on treadmills.

Part whimsy, part dire considerations (one teen deals with paternity accusations from half a dozen girls), the film itself shows that when one is allowed to dream as freely as possible, the directions those dreams take can be entertainingly unexpected.

***

Establishing the right mood and using the power of suggestion can terrify moviegoers just as effectively as the best gore effects.  Val Lewton showed it could be done in the 1940s films he produced or directed. There are a few moments in Kourosh Ahari’s feature film debut “The Night” that reach for Lewton-like moments.  But if it doesn’t succeed in achieving such effects as often as a viewer may hope, it does at least satisfy the base need to make the viewer care about the fate of the young family that’s the focus of the film.

Husband Babak, wife Neda, and baby Sabnam are a young Iranian family living in the Los Angeles area.  A late departure from a friend’s dinner party plus Babak’s intoxicated state makes an overnight stay at the first hotel they find a necessity.  Yet if the 1940s style Hotel Normandie proves an opportune discovery, a restful evening is something the young couple isn’t getting. A mysterious boy noisily runs outside their room.  A mysterious woman appears at random moments. And why does it seem as if there’s nobody else in the hotel except the increasingly creepy night clerk?

Ahari deserves plaudits for helming the first U.S.-Iran cinematic co-production in these  increasingly tense political times. There’s no political message in the film. Indeed, “The Night”’s only message concerns the cost in relationship trust of keeping secrets from a significant other.

As the film’s prologue shows, Babak and Neda’s marriage is already on shaky ground.  She’s frequently short-tempered with him. He drinks and smokes to slight excess out of what seems like “You’re not the boss of me” spite towards Neda.  The only reason they’re still together is for the sake of Sabnam.

The film doesn’t blame either husband or wife for the supernatural peril they wind up in.  An early moment with Sabnam alone in her crib suggests that supernatural forces had their figurative eyes on the family and were already lurking in the shadows.  Indeed, no motivation or ultimate aim is attributed to these paranormal beings tormenting this small family. The best that might be said is that the torments these beings inflict provide these otherworldly creatures with a perverse sort of amusement.

Babak in particular doesn’t help matters by not truly realizing how much trouble the family is in.  The defective GPS and a room phone that mysteriously prevents calling outside doesn’t ring any alarm bells.  Thus, Babak fails to realize that the supernatural beings might control his smartphone as well. Other missed warning signs include a stray black cat whose growl would make an economy sized feline relative swell with pride as well as the night clerk’s appearing to be the Forrest Gump of public tragedies,  Missing a reference to Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination by Sirhan Sirhan might be excused as it happened before Babak and Neda were born. But why didn’t the reference to the Ghost Ship Fire fail to set off any alarm bells?

Whether the Hotel Normandie becomes the Hotel California for this young family ultimately depends on Babak’s acknowledgment of his prior relationship with the now dead Sophia.  Yet the husband’s pride and reluctance to discuss his role In Sophia’s death may well doom all three of them forever.

What definitely haunts “The Night”’s effectiveness as a horror film is a nagging sense of one too many missed opportunities.  Not enough is done to create a sense that this family’s trapped in a seemingly endless night. Nor does the Hotel Normandie ever become a completely  threatening character in its own right. However, to be fair, a couple of jump scares (which won’t be spoiled here) are successfully pulled off and the viewer does wind up caring whether the young family will eventually escape the hotel.  Most importantly, the chilling note the film ends on proves well earned.

***

Does a film merit the appellation of heartwarming even when it possesses such dark story elements as drug addiction, domestic violence, and abandonment of one’s elders?  Naysayers who say such a film doesn’t exist have obviously not seen director Pradip Kurbah’s drama “Market.” The above-described social ills are seen during the course of the film’s running time.  But what earns “Market” its heartwarming appellation is in its showing how the flame of hope can be everything from a warm campfire to a weak flickering flame that will not go out.

Kurbah’s setting may seem an unlikely place for hope to exist.  It’s an open air market called Iewduh, located in northeastern India.  Here, the viewer can see vegetable sellers, butchers, clothing sellers, and even a tea seller.  What unites the small businesses in the market is a shared sense of barely scraping by, a view reconfirmed by both aerial and street-level shots of Iewduh.

“Market”’s principal character is Mike.  He runs a pay toilet which, one friend jokes, never has to worry about customers.   Mike’s roommate is Hep, who grew up abandoned in Iewduh and got into drugs for a while.  Now he’s studying in hopes of ultimately achieving a better life.

Other Iewduh characters seen in the film are Lamare, a senile old man who doesn’t realize his son David and his daughter-in-law have abandoned him; Edwina, the tea seller who Mike carries a torch for; Khambor, the street musician with a cowboy hat; Priya, the clothing seller regularly beaten by her drunken husband; and Navin, the dream interpreter and lottery ticket seller.

Contrary to the Western “every man for himself” ethos of their markets, Mike and the other Iewduh residents the viewer sees don’t leave their fellow humans to their fates.  Not being related to Lamare does not stop Mike and his neighbors from doing what they can to look after the old man. If the worst befalls a character seen in the film, that dire fate generally cannot be blamed on someone’s failure to offer help.

Despite the film’s occasional grim turns, though, Kurbah finds and captures small moments of sweet joy.  Hearing Khambor sing throughout the film is always a treat. But the film’s most joyful moment belongs to Mike.  He’s happily singing the song “Corinna,” and the camera does a 360-degree pan as it follows Mike’s genial spin. It doesn’t matter that Mike is singing a little off-key.  What matters is the viewer’s sharing in this good-hearted character’s small happiness.

“Market” is a film which shows that optimism doesn’t involve denying people’s shortcomings.  Rather, the only denial recognized is the hope that such character flaws do not totally define a person.

(Cinequest 30 is tentatively scheduled for a summer repeat from August 16-30.  For further information, go to www.cinequest.org .)

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