Cinequest: UNA



The psychological suspense movie Una revolves around two twisted people, one of whom has been damaged by trauma.  Here’s what the audience can be confident really happened: at age 14, Una (Rooney Mara) was seduced by a much older man, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn); she became infatuated with Ray and they carried on a sexual relationship for three months until he was caught and imprisoned for four years.  Upon leaving prison, he changed his name and started a new life.  It’s now fifteen years after the original crime and Una has tracked him down.

We can tell that Una is obsessed with Ray.  What we don’t know is whether Una is seeking vengeance or whether she is in love with him – or both.  She’s so messed up that even she may not know.

Lolita was a novel with a famously unreliable narrator.  Una presents us with TWO unreliable narrators.  Almost every statement made by Ray COULD be true, but probably isn’t.  He was in love with her, he came back for her, she was his only underage lover, he’s not “one of them”, he’s told his wife about his past – we just can’t know for sure.  Ben Mendelsohn delivers a performance that tries to conceal whatever Ray is thinking and feeling but allows his desperation to leak out.

The excellent actor Riz Ahmed (Four Lions, The Reluctant Terrorist) is very good as Ray’s work buddy, who must deal with one totally unforeseeable surprise after another.

Una really relies on Rooney Mara to portray a wholly unpredictable character in every scene, and she succeeds in carrying the movie.  Mara’s face is particularly well-suited when she plays a haunting and/or haunted character, and it serves her well here.

I watched Una at Cinequest, where it was a Spotlight Film.  Its theatrical release is expected later this year.


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The adventure romance The Ottoman Lieutenant, which had its world premiere at Cinequest and is now playing in theaters, is SO bad, so LAUGHABLY bad, that it’s hard to predict whether it will be quickly forgotten or linger in our memories as a benchmark in badness.

Just before World War I, a willful and affluent young American (Hera Hillmar), runs off to remote Turkey to deliver a truck-full of medical supplies to a dreamy young doc (Josh Hartnett), who is running a Protestant mission in an Armenian area of Anatolia.  She encounters the title character (Michael Huisman) and sparks fly.  The natural political conflict between the two men escalates in a fit of sexual jealousy.  Since the title is “The Ottoman Lieutenant” instead of “The American Missionary Doctor”, we know where things are headed…In fact, anyone who has ever seen a movie knows where EVERYTHING is headed in what must be the year’s most predictable movie

The blame starts with the unimaginative story and leaden dialogue from writer Jeff Stockwell.   Director Joseph Ruben contributes the cliché of horse-riding across a grassy plain, bodies rocking in the saddles and bouncing up and down rhythmically, accompanied by SWELLING music.  Not once.  Not twice.  But three times.  The kisses erupt into industrial-scale heavy breathing after precisely two counts (“one-thousand-one, one-thousand two, now let’s hear heavy breathing!”).  There’s even some bad CGI of a passenger ship – kind of Titanic Lite.

The Ottoman Lieutenant also features a dreadful performance by its lead.  Hera Hillmar, known for 25 episodes of Davinci’s Demons, misreads lines and generally fails to interest us at all.  She’s not even interesting when losing her virginity.  Would a better actress elevate this material?  Perhaps, but not all the way into an even mediocre film.  It doesn’t help when Stockwell has Hillmar utter the most obvious observation, “Jude, you’re angry!”, drawing unintended chuckles from the audience.

But it’s Hartnett who leaves us with the most memorable moment of The Ottoman Lieutenant.  He embraces Hillmar after her character’s deflowering and then shoves her back, bellowing, “I can smell him!”.  At my screening, fully one-third of the audience erupted into hearty laughter – an LOL moment unintended by the filmmakers.  Later, I realized that this line was the only unpredictable moment in the film.

The one appealing aspect of The Ottoman Lieutenant is Michael Huisman’s performance.  Huisman (Treme, Game of Thrones) is a very charismatic actor, and, if this movie could have been saved, he would have been up to it.  The Turkish actor Haluk Bilginer is pretty good as the lieutenant’s commander.  Ben Kingsley gets to emote as an older doctor made irascible by personal loss.

While watching a movie, I scribble notes in the dark; this time, The Wife snatched my notebook and wrote, “This is the worst movie ever”.  Tossing multiple millions of dollars at the budget for this movie was like over-inflating a used condom.

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Movies to See Right Now

Charlotte Rampling and Jim Broadbent in THE SENSE OF AN ENDING at CINEQUEST on Sunday

Charlotte Rampling and Jim Broadbent in THE SENSE OF AN ENDING at CINEQUEST on Sunday

Silicon Valley’s own major film festival, Cinequest heads into its final weekend.  I strongly recommend the indie dramedy Quality Problems, screening at 9:30 tomight at the Hammer theater in downtown San Jose; if you’re going to see one Cinequest film, make it this one.  I’ll be linking more festival coverage to my Cinequest 2017 page, including both features and movie recommendations. Follow me on Twitter for the very latest coverage.

Because Cinequest is underway, my video pick is from the 2013 festival: in the documentary Meet the Hitlers, we are introduced to those few people who choose NOT to change their birth name of “Hitler”. Meet the Hitlers is available for streaming rental from Amazon Video and Vudu and for streaming purchase from iTunes.

In theaters:

  • La La Land: the extraordinarily vivid romantic musical staring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.
  • Lion: an emotionally affecting family drama that makes the audience weep (in a good way).
  • Hidden Figures: a true life story from the 1960s space program – a triumph of human spirit and brainpower over sexism and racism; the audience applauded.
  • Winner of the Best Picture Oscar, the remarkably sensitive and realistic indie drama Moonlight is at once a coming of age tale, an exploration of addicted parenting and a story of gay awakening. It’s almost universally praised, but I thought that the last act petered out.
  • The Salesman is another searing and authentic psychological family thriller from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, The Past). It won the Best Foreign Language Oscar.

On March 14, Turner Classic Movies is airing the 1975 character-driven neo-noir Night Moves, with Gene Hackman as an LA private eye who follows a trail of evidence to steamy Florida. Hackman shines in the role – the detective is deeply in love with his estranged wife, but unsuited for marriage. Night Moves also features Melanie Griffith’s breakthrough role as the highly sexualized teen daughter in the Florida family; Griffith was eighteen or nineteen when this was filmed, and had already been living with Don Johnson for three years.  (That night TCM will also present two even better 1970s neo-noir thrillers – Klute and The French Connection.)

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DVD/Stream of the Week: MEET THE HITLERS



Because Cinequest is underway, my video pick is from the 2015 festival: in the documentary Meet the Hitlers, we are introduced to those few people who choose NOT to change their birth name of “Hitler”. And it’s a varied bunch. We meet a delightfully confident Missouri teen girl, a workaday Ecuadorian whose parents didn’t know who Hitler was and an affable Utah oldster who might be the most jovial fellow ever to brighten up a chain restaurant. And there’s an Austrian odd duck burdened with enough personal baggage that he surely didn’t need this name. Do they see the name as a curse, and how has it affected them? It’s a theoretical question to us in the audience, but it’s compelling to see the real world responses of the film’s subjects.

And then there’s a mystery about three Americans who HAVE changed the name – because they are the last living relatives of Adolph Hitler. We follow the journalist who has been tracking them down for over a decade. (Documentarian Matt Ogens makes a great editorial choice as to whether to reveal their current names.)

Finally, there’s the disturbing saga of a New Jersey neo-Nazi who is NOT named Adolph Hitler but WANTS to be. Of course, anybody can choose to adorn themselves with a Hitler mustache and swastika tattoos and spew hatespeech, but his choices are affecting not just himself, but his children.

Some of these threads are light-hearted and some are very dark. Meet the Hitlers works so well because Ogens weaves them together so seamlessly. It’s a very successful documentary.

I first reviewed Meet the Hitlers for its premiere at Cinequest 2015. Now Meet the Hitlers is available for streaming rental from Amazon Video and Vudu and for streaming purchase from iTunes.

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Cinequest: THE VALLEY



In The Valley, a wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur seeks an explanation for the suicide of his college student daughter.  The entrepreneur and his wife were born in India and raised their American-born daughters in the US.   Cinequest hosted The Valley’s world premiere.

The Valley gets much about Silicon Valley essentially right; (one guy shows up to a party wearing a necktie, but that’s quibbling).   The Valley captures the Valley’s diversity especially well.  38% of Silicon Valley residents were born in a foreign country. Significantly under 50% are white, and over 50% speak a language other than English at home.  And it’s impossible to round-up a posse of engineers around here without collecting some Indians and Indo-Americans.

The phenomenon of parents putting extreme and unhealthy academic pressure on kids is common here, and even frequent among immigrant families (and not isolated to Indo-Americans by any means).

Unfortunately, the clunky story is clichéd and predictable.  The soapy dialogue is worse, so there’s really not much opportunity for the actors to look like they are behaving instead of acting.  This hyper-emo screenplay might have worked on a daytime TV serial, but as a movie, it’s an overwrought mess.

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Cinequest at mid-fest



Cinequest 2017 opened with the Shirley MacLaine comedy The Last Word, which was well-received by the festival audience, as was the adapted-from-best-seller comedy Carrie Pilby. The Australian crime drama Goldstone was another strong entry, leaving the laughably wretched The Ottoman Lieutenant as the only misfire among the Spotlight Films.

By far the most successful of the indies was the world premiere of the dramedy Quality Problems (which reprises in San Jose on Friday night at the Hammer).  The crowd-pleasing For Grace will come to San Jose’s California Theatre on Tuesday night.

World cinema has been particularly strong:

  • The Slovak Iron Curtain drama The Teacher may be the best film in the festival, but it has flown under the radar and will screen only more time: Sunday in Redwood City.
  • The Norwegian drama All the Beauty offers a novel construction and an exploration of female sexuality from a first time woman director. Plays Cinequest again Thursday and Friday in Redwood City.
  • The Hungarian sci-fi thriller Loop is an intellectually provocative – and malevolent – Groundhog’s Day. It plays Cinequest again Thursday night in San Jose.
  • The Norwegian suspense thriller Revenge is another first film from a woman director and plays again Friday at Santa Row and Sunday in Redwood City.
  • The smart Uruguayan dramedy The Moderns has been completely overlooked and plays Cinequest just one more time: Saturday in Redwood City.
  • Other striking world cinema entries include the Swiss thriller Aloys (Tuesay at the Hammer), the Moldovan art film Anishoara (Wednesday in Redwood City), the cinematically brilliant Latvian drama Exiled (Tuesday and Wednesday in Redwood City) and the deadpan comedy King of the Belgians (Sunday at the Hammer).

Among the documentaries, New Chefs on the Block has emerged as popular. The final screening is Saturday morning at the Hammer.   If you want to see my favorite Cinequest doc, you’ll need to chase down The Twinning Reaction in Redwood City today, Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.

The Virtual Reality segment of the fest is well-organized. Just show up at the California Theatre any time and follow the signs to the VR Theater. You can get a taste of the medium (but I’m not a fan myself).

Best bets to come:

  • MONDAY: Thomas Vinterburg’s The Commune.
  • TUESDAY: The psychological thriller Una, with Rooney Mara.
  • THURSDAY: The period drama The Promise, with Oscar Isaac and Cristian Bale.
  • FRIDAY: The silent classic Flesh and the Devil with the Wurlitzer Organ at the period movie palace California Theatre; the second San Jose appearance of the world premiere indie Quality Problems at the Hammer.
  • SATURDAY: New Chefs on the Block in the morning; celebrity appearance by Jane Lynch in the afternoon, and then what looks like a trashy guilty pleasure in (re)Assignment (to be released soon as The Assignment).
  • SUNDAY: The Sense of an Ending (Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling); the Closing night extravaganza built around The Zookeeper’s Wife, starring Jessica Chastain.

Bookmark my Cinequest 2017 page, with links to all my coverage. Follow me on Twitter for the latest.

Andrew Keatley and Jacob Casselden in FOR GRACE


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Cinequest: LOOP



In the trippy Hungarian thriller Loop, Adam, a jumpy small-timer, and his inconveniently pregnant girlfriend Anna seek One Last Big Score by double-crossing a ruthless and merciless bad cop, who is stealing the hormone oxytocin from a hospital and flipping it on the black market. At first, it seems like we are watching a heist-gone-wrong neo-noir. But very soon (and before Adam himself figures it out), we start to notice that time and sequence are jumbled. Different realities are sometimes lagging, sometimes jumping ahead, and sometimes concurrent. For example, Adam fast-forwards a contemporaneous video of himself and sees himself murdered!

It all becomes a malevolent Groundhog Day as Adam’s story keeps replaying itself in a loop. He keeps learning from each replay and seeks to relive the sequence to get better results. How many loops will it take for Adam to survive with Anna?

Adam is personally transformed by the threat of losing Anna, and his character gets more sympathetic as the movie goes on.

We become pretty sure that Adam will figure out the puzzle. Ultimately, Loop is more intellectually interesting than thrilling. But it’s worth it just to appreciate Loop’s brilliant construction by writer-director Isti Madarász.

The final scene is very, very clever. Loop’s North American premiere was hosted by Cinequest.

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In the Norwegian drama All the Beauty, David, a successful Swedish writer, has invited his old girlfriend, the Danish gynecologist Sarah, to help him finish his new play, which is about their decades-long, off-and-on relationship. Given that David’s biggest bestseller was a tell-all that revealed Sarah’s sex life in every intimate detail, Sarah is understandably wary.

As Sarah reads each act of David’s play, we see the two in vignettes at the ages of 23, 33 and 43. At 23, they meet and jump in bed in the full flush of a new romance – and Sarah sets a pivotal ground rule for their relationship. At 33, there is another defining moment when they have the chance for a reset. At 43, the two face another crossroad. And we are our choices (and the choices of those we love).



Different sets of actors play David and Sarah at the ages of 23, 33, 43 and 53. Cinequest fans will recognize the 43-year-old David – Kristoffer Joner, who starred in The Wave at last year’s festival.

It’s not all Scandinavian darkness. Some very funny jokes about yoga, of all things, get the audience engaged right away. And then there’s the awkwardly naked jogger, too.

All the Beauty is the first feature director and co-writer Aasne Vaa Greibrokk and her co-writer Hilde Susan Jægtnes. The two have crafted an insightful exploration of female sexuality and the power within relationships – all with a very novel story structure. The Wife enjoyed it, too, at Cinequest. Recommended.

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Cinequest: REVENGE


Siren Jørgensen in REVENGE

In the Norwegian suspense thriller Revenge, the slightly creepy Rebekka (Siren Jørgensen) appears at a hotel on a remote fjord under the false pretense that she is a travel writer.  The hotel is otherwise empty because it is off-season (think The Shining).  She ingratiates herself with the hotel’s owner Morten, the most economically and socially significant person in town, and his wife (Maria Bock).  It turns out that twenty years before, Morten date-raped Rebekka’s little sister, leading to her suicide.  Now Rebekka wants to exact vengeance.

Revenge becomes a tick-tock suspenser as Rebekka deliberately lays her trap.  We’re able to see some, but not all, of the web that she spins, which will put in jeopardy Morten’s reputation, marriage, business and his very health and survival.  Can she pull it off?  And how lethal will her revenge be?

It’s the first feature for Kjersti Steinsbø, who adapted the screenplay and directed.  She has created a real page-turner here.  In one very effective touch, it turns out that one of the characters knows FAR more than we initially suspect.


Anders Baasmo Christian in REVENGE

Revenge is uniformly well-acted, but Anders Baasmo Christian, as Bimbo the bartender, is exceptionally good.  Just keep your focus on Bimbo.  There’s more there than initially meets the eye.  And Bimbo’s relationships with both Rebekka and Morten are very conflicted and complicated.

The ending is satisfying, and Morten’s ultimate fate is unexpected.  Revenge is one of the world cinema high points at Cinequest.

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Cinequest: THE LAST WORD



In the comedy The Last Word, Shirley MacLaine plays a control freak of absolutely unstoppable will. This is a person who is obsessed with getting her own way on even the most inconsequential detail. She is living a wealthy retirement, having been forced out of the company she founded when her behavior becomes too unbearable for everyone else. Facing her mortality, she decides to employ an obituary writer (Amanda Seyfried) to favorably pre-write her obit. The challenge, of course, is that no one – family members, former co-workers, anyone – has anything nice to say. This sets up an Odd Couple comedy until it becomes an Odd Trio when Harriet seeks to improve her obit profile by mentoring a disadvantaged nine-year-old (AnnJewel Lee Dixon).

Often contrived, The Last Word isn’t a masterpiece, but it has three things going for it:

  • Shirley MacLaine is in full willful grandeur, and her performance is tour de force.
  • Supporting players: Anne Heche is priceless in a “she is your daughter” scene. AnnJewel Lee Dixon is a force of nature herself, kind of a Shirley Mini-Me. Philip Baker Hall is a wonderful match for Maclaine. Thomas Sodoski is always appealing.
  • The remarkably smart soundtrack, which almost becomes a character of its own.

I did also appreciate the brief homage to Reservoir Dogs, the slo-mo power stride with sunglasses (pictured above).

I saw The Last Word at Cinequest at a screening with director Mark Pellington, who noted that The Last Word took 25 days to film. Crediting his music supervisor for finding obscure and affordable songs, he said, “the music works on an infectious level”. Describing the scene where the three actresses take a moonlit dip in a pond, he said, “I love that their laugh deflates the symbolism of it”. His favorite scene was the obne when Philip Baker Hall tells Shirley MacLaine, “I knew what I was getting when I married you”, which inspired Pellington’s next movie Nostalgia (now in post-production).

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