.Cinequest Film Festival 2024

Eight films that may or may not make the cut, plus a Q&A with Halfdan Hussey, CEO and Co-founder of Cinequest

This year’s Cinequest Film Fest delivers hope and inspiration across the big screen(s). Set against the backdrop of emerging technologies and AI resources, there’s an air of mystery and suspense as filmmakers learn to create in the ever-changing digital spheres. Here are eight such films that make—or at least come close to—the mark.


And Cut!

The first thing I wanted to find out after watching Arjun Chatterjee’s Mumbai-filmed pilot was whether they had franchised tv’s The Office in India. A: Yes, two seasons worth. 

The problem is that The Office has a perniciously easy to copy format, with a documentary camera zooming in to catch faces we make behind other people’s backs. In the wrong hands, such a style is hasty and blatant. It encourages lazy writing with straight-to-the-camera reveals, and it weighs down punchlines. So And Cut!’s style has been done before. 

The good news is that Chatterjee has a strong cast in this story of a film mini-studio start-up. Our central character Avi (Akash Arora) is your classic go-getter but reverie-drunk film school grad with the standard guitar and Funko menagerie behind his desk. Protecting the young director from his own business excesses is producer Joelle (Nitya Mathur), hollow-eyed with exasperation; the money is handled by the guy with the tie, Aakash Ahuja’s Tarun (“I’m not an accountant–I manage accounts.”). Clumsy but somehow inspired factotum Anshuman (Girish Sharma) does the rest. 

The latter is first seen gathering religious icons and sacrificing  a sacred coconut to bless the new enterprise. I was afraid at first Anshuman was going to turn out to be a one-dimensional bumpkin, but when he turns a glare of wrath on someone calling him an office boy, there’s definitely promise for the character’s growth. There’s an optimistic intern named Ishika who turns up (Riddhi Kumar), bringing hope to the seeming hopelessness of the studio–and suggesting cross-currents that bode well for the series to come.  


Our Hospitality (1923)/The Mark of Zorro (1920)

1831: Willie McKay is a New York City gentleman who might as well be New Yorker mascot Eustace Tilley, complete with the ridiculous top hat. He heads south to receive his inheritance. McKay envisions it as a mansion…unfortunately, it’s a shack in a holler filled with blood-feuding members of the Canfield family, all sworn to kill him, as per the famous Hatfield/McCoy feud. 

Co-director and star Buster Keaton was the most sophisticated of silent comedians. His mask of stoicism, fit to make Marcus Aurelius look like Buddy Hackett, never flinched before every catastrophe…and on screen he met them all. Here, the protocol of hospitality keeps Keaton from being shot while he’s under the roof of the Canfields, which makes for some perilous entrances and exits. 

Worse, McKay falls in love with their daughter (Natalie Talmadge)…in a silent comedy it always comes down to the sequence, and the standout here is a train, something like the first one built in America—the “DeWitt Clinton”—which runs at a speed that can be outrun by a healthy dog. And the waterfall finale still wrings gasps out of the audience. 

Billed with The Mark of Zorro. Batman’s granddad. Don Diego (Douglas Fairbanks Sr) returns from Spain to a California misruled by evil landlords (hard to imagine that) and masquerades as the avenger Zorro the fox, who leaves his Z shaped mark on the faces of oppressors. 

This first and in some ways best version of these populist classics spares us the origin story and goes straight into the action. Before he became the most emulated swashbuckler of the silent cinema, Fairbanks had been a comedian, and in this dual role Fairbanks displays his own gift for comedy; the anemic, inbred looking Don Diego fails to amuse a party with a stupid handkerchief trick, slack jawed as he promises his outraged fiance (Marguerite de la Motte) that he is going down to the Presidio first thing in the morning to rebuke the soldier who insulted her. “I’ll rebuke him!”  

You owe it to yourself to see this in the great 1920s Spanish Colonial California theater, especially since the immortal Dennis James is playing the Wurlitzer organ. 


Tim Travers and the Time Traveler’s Paradox

Some people just want to see the world burn. Such people would be part of the demographic for this consistently witty, audacious and mean-for-the-fun-of-it science fiction comedy. 

Travers is played by Samuel Dunning, who never wears out his welcome no matter how many times he duplicates himself. This young misanthrope has a conjectural technologies lab on the edge of town. Inside, running on plutonium stolen from (apparently) MAGA terrorists, he’s devised a time machine. It can go a minute into the past, which makes it a human duplicator of this world-class solipsist. And no one is impressed: neither the Alex Jones-like podcaster he tells his secrets to, nor the acidic lady (cult multi-media figure Felicia Day) he brings in, who thinks Travers is just one more lunatic. 

This is categorically not a film for everyone. The gunplay comes at the speed of the Rabbit Season Fudd/Daffy shooting, and there’s a megatonnage of f-bombs. Filmmaker Stimson Snead is a talented writer of speeches (he gives that old rockface Danny Trejo the warmest words). And he’s deep enough to provide a pair of Gnostic demiurges for the story: one is the great Keith David. 

The sound, production design and effects have a quality that dwarf the budget. It’s full of  ticklish ideas such as a discussion of multiverse mania in the cinema today. In the end, such stories may be nothing more than “the newest way to convince yourself you matter.” The only thing remotely like this is Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, but Snead is using his considerable talent for humor instead of horror.


The Conqueror: Hollywood Fallout

It should have been a macabre take on this particularly fragrant cinematic disaster, instead it’s dead-dog kicking. 

The Conqueror is a famous $6 million flop with John Wayne starring as Genghis Khan—its notorious awfulness is accurately summed up in the clip where Wayne is declaring that his Mongol blood orders him to take a woman. 

Wayne’s part was one bit of the atrocious yellow-facing back in the day, held up to all due contempt. But this was no ordinary crap epic. Director Dick Powell and producer Howard Hughes shot in a portion of desert in Utah irradiated from the fallout of atomic bomb testing down wind from Nevada’s Mercury site. As historian James V D’Arc notes, 91 of the 220 cast and crew of this stinker ended up cancer-ridden. A bad movie is one thing; a movie so bad that it kills its cast and crew is another. 

The Duke was a loss in himself, but other victims of this horrendous industrial accent included supporting actors Agnes Moorehead—and only cinema illiterates think of her as the mom on Bewitched—and Pedro Armendariz Sr, elsewhere accurately described as “The Clark Gable of Mexico.” (Gringos know him best as the Turkish spy chief Kerim in From Russia With Love, already terminally ill from cancer, Armendariz euthanized himself with a pistol after that Bond adventure was concluded.) 

William Nunez’s is perhaps most valuable in interviews with residents from  St. George, Utah:  clean living, abstemious, heartland Mormons, all unwitting casualties of the Cold War. Quotes from the James Mason-like account of the making of The Conqueror by British scriptwriter Oscar Millard provide a sardonic counterpoint. Michael Medved, who long ago wrote about the story of The Conqueror as if it were a joke, certainly looks more serious about it today. Sophie Okonedo narrates.


Puddysticks

About halfway through this David O. Russell-like examination of group therapy and the need to heal, I wondered: Given the instant success rate of this peculiar guru Sylverster Cromwell (the David Ogden Stiers-like Dan Bakkedahl), how are his patients able to tell their worst secret and immediately do an interpretative dance of joy afterwards—is director/writer/star Megan Seely going to throw the boomerang or what?

She does, but not until you entertain suspicions that things are going to go full-tilt bliss-whipped and stay there. The first half hour is well-delineated high-tech hell. At Braindead Games Elizabeth Satchel (the appealing Seely) is tortured by her colleagues and her boss (James Urbaniak, Prince of Peevishness). After she passes out from stress, Elizabeth learns of a secret refuge called “Puddysticks” held out of a Florida mansion. Part of the appeal of the therapy there is a highly good-looking fellow patient Peter (Mamoudou Athie).

The at-last thrown boomerang itself is that the beaming Cromwell hasn’t been completely honest with the people he’s gathered. Lars von Trier’s The Idiots explored slightly similar grounds, with triple-X results. Here, the characters heal their childhoods with Playdo and infantile behavior. 

There’s interesting passages, such as the story of a gay porn star (Danny Deferrari) who swapped sex for death, so to speak, by becoming a nurse at a hospice. Once, he says, he wore the nurse’s scrubs as a costume, now he wears them in real life. His porn career would have killed his mom if she found out, “but she died anyway.” 

Puddysticks ends irresolutely, with a note of careerist hyper-positivity.


Quixote in New York

Raised in dire poverty—he was one of those cave-dwellers in the south of Spain—the Malaga-born Joaquin Losada, aka “Carette,” was called the gypsy Fred Astaire. His non-traditional flamenco dancing made him a celebrity in Spain, and now he lives in the Costa del Sol. 

At 80, he has been invited to dance in New York City, with all the looking-back such a momentous event entails. While Carlos Saura’s El Amor Bruja is still the best film I’ve seen about flamenco—the performers communicating what it’s like to always be thwarted and yet always be triumphing—this is close to the best. 

Carette’s indomitability is strength of will over a body that’s failing him (his doctor tells him “these feet have sold everything they have to sell”). Quixote in New York gives you a window into a dance that’s both expressive and cryptic. Carette’s self-confidence is such that he allows director Jorge Pena Martin serious access. 

By contrast, the dancer’s accompanist and son (billed as “El Carrelito”) is elegantly circumspect about what it was that caused him to quit playing an already celebrated flamenco guitar. He gave up at a very dangerous age for musicians, 27. 

As for his father, Carette is an artistic success and a scraper-by. As he says, “I don’t like money. That’s why I don’t have it.”


Day Trippers

You can’t go wrong filling up a screen with Amsterdam. Veronica Kedar’s ingratiating comedy-drama concerns a brief encounter between two tourists in that city in early spring—daffodil season. 

A pair of runaways meet on the street. Zoe (Nell Barlow), almost 18, has taken a six hour train from London to buy some magic mushrooms, only to learn that minors cannot purchase them. She asks a spliff-smoking visitor from Tel Aviv, Ruth (Naama Amit) to buy them for her…and soon the two are high as Georgia pines, rolling on the street. 

Amsterdam is an old city, with a long history of suffering; turn a corner, all blazing and airy-fairy and rainbowed, all mermaidy and unicornist, and then you bump into the line for the Anne Frank house. 

This film of gossamer quirkiness, complete with an animated sequence and musical number (Barlow has a good voice and sings a pretty waltz tune) isn’t all superficial. The film shows flashes of Agnes Varda-worthy strength when showing us the reverse angle on the person Ruth ruthlessly abandoned, and their break-up via Skype. The bittersweet finale is clearly everything Kedar was aiming for, complete with earned emotions.


The Mark of Zorro

Friday, March 8, 7:15pm

California Theatre

Our Hospitality

Friday, March 8, 9:30pm

California Theatre

Puddysticks

Saturday, March 9 at 4:30pm

Tuesday, March 12 at 2:30pm

Hammer Theatre Center

Tim Travers and the Time Traveler’s Paradox

Saturday, March 9, 7pm

Wednesday, March 13, 2:20pm

Hammer Theatre Center

And Cut!

Sunday, March 10, 9am

Hammer Theatre Center

Day Trippers

Sunday, March 10, 2:05pm

Thursday, March 14, 2:55pm

Hammer Theatre Center

The Conqueror: Hollywood Fallout

Sunday, March 10, 6:50pm

Hammer Theatre Center

Quixote in New York

Sunday, March 17 at 2:35pm

Hammer Theatre Center


Q&A with Cinequest Film Festival Founder, Halfdan Hussey

Why did you choose “Uplift” as the theme of this year’s festival?

Before we went into the pandemic, one of our long-time patrons came up to me and said, “Cinequest gives me and so many people so much joy.” It really dawned on me that it is such a joyful experience when you get people together from around the globe and in one place.

We think about the time we’re in right now and there’s still a lot of divisiveness. We thought what a great time to really use what we do to give people an uplifting experience. 

The films that deal with tougher issues, they’re going to give you hope and show you a solution to a problem rather than just saying, hey, there’s a problem out there and let’s be miserable about it.

What made you choose “The Island Between Tides” as the Opening Night film this year?

We’re excited about it because the actors are out with us. It’s a world premiere and a really cool mystery thriller. We’ve got a big party and a red carpet because we have numerous world premieres. That adds up and makes the equation come together—the artist, the audience and the new movie or technology.

On March 6, Cinequest is holding an AI (Artificial Intelligence) Day and Town Hall. What’s in store for the day?

Our focus has always been about discovering the technologies that shape and empower film, including the digital filmmaking revolution, streaming and VR. This year we wanted to deal with AI in a way that Cinequest really should because we’re a trusted organization, a trusted brand. We’re not a company with a vested interest in AI, whether it goes big or not, we’re not making any more money. 

We can really look at this as both sides of the equation. From 9:30am to 5:30pm we’ve got an open conference to start things out which lets everybody get together from our community to workshop different ideas and to talk about issues around AI. 

In the afternoon of the formal events, we have two keynote speakers. Ge Wang is a mathematician and a computer scientist. He has degrees from Princeton in Computer Science. He applies computer science and AI to music, providing opportunities to empower people to do their own music. Our closing keynote is Cynthia Teniente-Matson, the president of San José State University. She’s addressing the ethical aspect of AI and how it can affect technology incubators. 

We have a couple of panels. One’s called “Powers and Pitfalls” and the other is “Creativity, Consciousness and AI Panel,” where we really look at what machines can do. Then we have a Mayor Town Hall with Matt Mahan. He’ll be leading an open conversation with the community as well as addressing some of the topics that emerge from the day’s open conferences and panels. 

The focus is about what communities in Santa Clara County should be aware of as AI affects issues related to the workplace, education and security threats. 

Cinequest takes place in the heart of Silicon Valley. How does the location continue to influence your approach to curation?

Silicon Valley has been a big part of our DNA and it’s changed in many ways. We knew early on we wanted to have the festival in Silicon Valley because of the technological environment. Around 1994-95, technology really started to reshape film, democratizing the opportunity with digital. When we started Cinequest, we were showing films in 16 millimeter and 35 millimeter. Nobody was delivering film content through the internet. We were part of the pioneering group that did that. 

What I’m really proud about is what hasn’t changed. Even though it’s grown over time, it’s always been inclusive and welcoming. We’ve always embraced and showcased many perspectives and cultures. We’ve supported communities—sexual and gender orientation, women breaking through in movies—in pioneering ways to get their stories and voices out.

In addition to local filmmakers, Cinequest features from around the world.

We are proud of the fact that 90% of our film programming comes from open submissions. That’s really unheard of in film festivals. We like to discover artists and promote them even if they are not already famous. 

We will always want to make sure that we’re serving the biggest demographics of Silicon Valley. When it comes to world cultures, we’re including Chinese, Indian, Latinx and Vietnamese films in San Jose. 

Cinequest chose Matthew Modine for the Maverick Spirit Award this year and the festival closes with his new film “Hard Miles.”

“Hard Miles” is so powerful. We’re fans of Modine’s work but he also has an affinity with technology. He has a strong voice and opinion about AI so we thought it was a really good year to honor him. Modine fits our internal team definition of a maverick, somebody who’s doing something unique and innovative yet personal that’s coming from his heart. He’s very much that kind of person. 


AI Day and Town Hall

March 6

Cinequest Film Festival

March 7-17

Tickets and information at cinequest.org

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