Cinequest 2011

Comments about films screened at Cinequest 2011.

Potiche:  This delightful French farce of feminist self-discovery is the funniest movie in over a year, and another showcase for Catherine Deneuve (as if she needs one).   DeNeuve plays a 1977 potiche, French for “trophy housewife”, married to a guy who is a male chauvinist pig both by choice and cluelessness.  He is also the meanest industrialist in France – Ebenezer Scrooge would be a softie next to this guy – and the workers in his factories are about to explode.  He becomes incapacitated, and she must run the factory.

Now, this is a familiar story line for gender comedy – why is it so damn funny?  It starts with the screenplay, which is smart and quick like the classic screwball comedy that American filmmakers don’t make anymore.  And the cast is filled with proven actors who play each comic situation with complete earnestness, no matter how absurd.

Director Francois Ozon, best known in the US for Swimming Pool and 8 Women, adapted the screenplay from a play and has a blast skewering late-70s gender roles and both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.  Gerard Depardieu plays the Communist mayor, who is both the husband’s nemesis and the wife’s former fling.   Two of the very best French comic players, Fabrice Luchini and Karen Viard, shine in co-starring roles as the husband and his secretary.



The biggest surprise at San Jose’s Cinequest film festival was the indie comedy Here’s the Kicker, written by its star, Ian Michaels.  The relationship of a prematurely retired football player and his girlfriend is being battered by their dead-end jobs in LA; (she is a make up artist – in porn films).  To save their relationship, he agrees to move back to her hometown in Texas where they can open a salon/saloon: a combo beauty parlor and sports bar.  Just as they are leaving on the road trip, he is offered his dream job as a football scout.  When is he going to get the nerve to tell her?  Along the way, they pick up his obnoxious former teammate and, most hilariously, his dad, who does NOT want to return to alcohol rehab.  Many guffaws ensue in this all too rare occurrence – a satisfying American film comedy.

It’s hard to write comedy.  Otherwise, we’d be seeing lots of good comedies.  So Ian Michaels deserves some recognition, and, above all, to get more screenplays greenlighted.

As the girlfriend, Sarah Smick succeeds in remaining sympathetic despite being continually aggrieved – no easy accomplishment.  Luce Rains is great as the drunk dad.

According to Ian Michaels at the screening, Director/Cinematographer/Editor Chris Harris made the key decision to cut some early scenes so the road trip could commence sooner. Obviously, that move worked.  Here’s the Kicker deserves a wide release.



A Little Help is a Jenna Fischer vehicle that illustrates the depth that Fischer can bring to even a shallow character.  In this dramedy, Fischer is suddenly widowed and must reassemble her life and support her quirky 12-year-old son despite the intrusions of her shrill, micro-controlling sister (Brooke Smith) and their chilly mother (Leslie Anne Warren).  Fischer’s biggest challenge is helping her son navigate social life at his new school, where he has told a preposterous lie on his first day.

Kim Coates steals every scene as a medical malpractice attorney.  Ron Liebman sparkles as the blowhard father.

Writer/Director Michael J. Weithorn made the very smart decision to hold Fischer’s character accountable for the bad choices she has made in her life.  If she were instead written as a completely innocent victim, the story would have lapsed into cliche.  Instead, it’s a pretty good movie and a fine showcase for Jenna Fischer.

War Games and the Man Who Stopped Them:  This documentary tells the remarkable Cold War spy story of Army Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski.  In his service on the Polish General Staff, Kuklinski saw that the Warsaw Pact’s war plans for an invasion of Western Europe would inevitably lead to the nuclear obliteration of Poland.  To avoid that horror, he passed on the Warsaw Pact war plans to the West so NATO could strengthen its stance and thereby deter the invasion by making it a less attractive option for the Soviets..

Kuklinshi passed over 40,000 pages of secret Warsaw Pact documents to the CIA – the largest espionage in world history.  After the screening, Director Dariusz Jabloński said that Kuklinski considered himself a Polish soldier doing his duty, not a spy for the West.

Kuklinski died just before he could be interviewed for this documentary.  However, Jabloński did secure interviews with the senior commanders of the Soviet and Polish militaries, former Polish heads of state, CIA officers and Kuklinski’s widow, as well as screen shots from Warsaw Pact war simulations.  At 110 minutes, it’s a little long, but the story is compelling.



Question in Details: In this unassuming Hungarian film, a man and a woman recognize that their first date is a disaster and decide to keep talking as acquaintances – without the first date tension.  They go back to her apartment, and he meets her brother.  The three talk, bantering at first and then probing.  A previously unknown connection between them surfaces – and it’s a big one.  The audience cares about the characters (at least two of them) so much that it’s easy to forgive a highly unlikely coincidence in the plot.   It’s a satisfying little movie.



Small Town Murder Songs: So there’s part of a good film in here somewhere.  Peter Stormare (the hulking brute in Fargo) plays the local cop in a rural Canadian community with German-speaking Mennonites.  The cop comes from the traditional Mennonites, but he is ostracized by them (including his father and brother) for a previous act of violence.  Now he has adopted a personal religiosity himself.  Then there is a murder, and the suspect is the new boyfriend of the cop’s ex (Jill Hennessy – very good here).  Stormare gives a fine performance as the cop.  So far so good.

But the movie drags.  It’s at only 75 minutes, but feels like two hours.    Indeed, there are some completely superfluous scenes with Stormare’s partner and the partner’s 12-year-old daughter.

One of the of the film’s potential assets is the unfamiliar setting.   But after some old Protestant hymns and some stark scenes of northern nothingness, the audience is jarred by very loud and distracting call-and-response music that is completely inappropriate to the time and place.  Disappointingly, the story relies on that hackneyed gimmick of using TV and radio newscasts to advance the plot.  Finally, writer-director Ed Gass-Donnelly climaxes the story with a Christ-like sacrifice that doesn’t fit this heretofore realistic movie.  Overall, not a success.



3 Backyards: This unbearably pretentious and self-indulgent wannabe art film is constructed around three completely unconnected plot threads.  In the best written and acted of the three, Edie Falco plays a woman excited about driving her new celebrity neighbor (Embeth Davidtz) to the ferry.  The celebrity is having a personal crisis and deigns not to share her innermost turmoil with the new acquaintance.  Because Falco’s character had fantasized about gaining a celebrity BFF, she is disappointed.   Unless petty disappointment counts as a major theme, this segment is pointless.

In the second thread, Elias Koteas plays a man unhappy at home whose business trip is aborted.  He wanders around waiting for the unexplained catharsis at the 87-minute mark of the movie.  Koteas proves once more that he  can furrow his brow and mumble at the same time.

The third thread is about a little girl who plays with her mother’s precious new bracelet and loses it.  By this time, we almost expect  the random appearances of a mystical unicorn, but we have to make do with a white poodle instead.  Plus there’s a masturbating dog killer.  In between the three plot threads, there are odd transitional shots of caterpillers and the like.

Somehow 3 Backyards won Eric Mendelsohn his second Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival.  I like to think that good directors tell stories and make them compelling, so I am baffled by this “achievement”.   I hated this movie – and it is still pissing me off.

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