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From Stars to Slackers

[whitespace] Road Ends
Hello, May I Help You?: Dennis Hopper plays a bumbling small-town sheriff in 'Road Ends.'

Cinequest runs the gamut of filmmakers at annual festival in San Jose

By Richard von Busack

Jackie Chan has just been added to the roster of names appearing at this week's Cinequest (Jan. 29-Feb. 4 at Camera 3 and the UA Pavilion in downtown San Jose), along with Phil Kaufman, Walter Hill, John Schlesinger, Kevin Spacey, Ron Shelton and Barry Sonnenfeld. The internationally known action star will appear Wednesday (Feb. 4 at 5pm at the UA) in conjunction with a screening of his film First Strike.

The festival boasts a similar range of local filmmaking, heavy, as usual, on the documentary features. My favorite nondocumentary local film is the somewhat deliberately provoking Joe Flies (Jan. 30, midnight, UA; and Feb. 3, 2:45pm, UA), whose director, Griffin Lamachy, looks a lot like the Gen-Xer on the cover of the Cinequest catalog.

It's a fine line between self-indulgence and self-expression, and Lamachy walks all over that line in Joe Flies. It's the story of a young ne'er-do-well who inherits some money from an uncle and decides to make a film to "dethumb himself"--that is, to pull his thumb out of his ass. "The story's been done, in the past three years, oh, say, 10 times," Lamachy says. "There's even another movie in Cinequest, The Size of Watermelons [Jan. 31, 3:15pm, UA; Feb. 2, 5:30pm, Camera 3] on the subject. I just tried to take the devil's-advocate approach. Our goal was to make a good two-and-a-half-star movie."

Joe Flies is a subtitled docudrama on the early career of the acclaimed (but imaginary) filmmaker Eddie Villanova (played by Lamachy), who succeeds despite having a talent only for drinking coffee, writing bad poetry and playing chess with his homeless buddies. The film's characters speak in nearly a dozen languages, making the movie look more literate while avoiding the expense of looping dialogue.

Lamachy claims never to have seen a Godard movie, which means that on his own he came up on his own with the scene of a Contempt -like spat at a breakfast table, tracking from one set of hands to another in that Godardian ping-pong accompanied by the doleful drone of a leaf blower off screen. The grouchy Villanova, given to such proclamations as "I say to you, not as boyfriend to girlfriend, but as person to person, if you're not for me, you're against me," is the richest cinematic portrayal of San Jose slackerdom to date.

This year's Cinequest is as full of revivals and imports as it is of local films. At its best, it not only brings the greats here, but it gives Griffin Lamachy the chance to appear in the same venue as Jackie Chan himself.

Size of Watermelons
Dethumbing: Paul Rudd and Marissa Ribisi in Kari Skogland's 'The Size of Watermelons.'

Picks and Pans

Bloodsucking Freaks
Feb. 3, 9:45pm, Camera 3
This unwatchable, repulsive, completely unfunny 1978 horror-comedy by Joel M. Reed (a.k.a. The Incredible Torture Show ) is the story of a shock-theater troupe that keeps a torture dungeon full of naked women in its basement. It was picketed by Women Against Pornography in 1982. Those protesters had a right to be angry--you will be too if you accidentally stumble into this pig. (RvB)

Feb 1, 5pm, UA
Impressionable young filmgoers (men, anyway) of 1965 never did get over Julie Christie as an English model rising through a succession of lovers until she reached an aristocrat. The swinging-'60s style sometimes feels dated, but Christie's performance is indelible--she is a creature of verve and vulnerability, with a face that you can't turn away form. This screening is part of a tribute to director John Schlesinger. (Michael S. Gant)

Forbidden City Cop
Jan. 30, 11:45pm, Camera 3
From the hilarious fake Maurice Binder titles to the last shot, taken from the end of Thunderball, it's obvious that director Vincent Kok loves 007. The peculiar thing is that this isn't a spy parody, but a satire of costume kung-fu movies. Ling Ling Fat, security guard for a lame-brained emperor, is more interested in his Ronco-style gadgets than in his career; fortunately, his wife loves him. Forbidden City Cop is episodic but one of a kind: there are masked demons, an attempted alien autopsy and the King of No-Face. The martial-arts styles revealed include magnet fu, helicopter fu and the not very intimidating (but ultimately a little scary) flying-fairy kung fu. (RvB)

Fudoh: The New Generation
Jan. 30, 11:15pm, Camera 3
Thoroughly bizarre, maniacally violent and confusing--I loved every minute. Ricki Fudoh's father is part of the old yakuza (gangster) elite, and Ricki wants to ascend the throne. Ricki's gang includes a shaggy-haired giant, two devious schoolchildren and a schoolgirl temptress who shoots darts from her ... Put it this way: Jim Rose would be impressed. Throw in some John Woo-style slo-mo action scenes, a hermaphrodite and buckets of blood, and Fudoh will haunt viewers for a long time. (Todd S. Inoue)

Green Chimneys
Jan. 30, 7:30pm, Camera 3; Feb. 2, 3:15pm, Camera 3
A very tough documentary about a home for children with behavioral disorders. While the facility profiled is as pleasant as such places can be, the three children who are the focus of the film have naturally been unable to get over things they saw growing up in the slums. Mike, an 11-year-old, is the child of a rape; he fears that his mother remembers what happened to her every time she looks at him. Constance Marks and Bob Eisenhardt's documentary is grim but never mawkish. (RvB)

Gutter Punks
Jan. 30, 1pm, UA; Jan. 31, 7:45pm, UA
Well-intentioned filmmaker Brent Sims stamps New Orleans homeless punk-rock kids with one moniker (see title) and films them talking about their lives, bumming for change, sometimes tagging benches. At 110 minutes, Gutter Punks is 45 minutes too long. There are junctions where a fade-out would have sealed the point and saved the film. Instead, Sims waffles on, and the "rebels without a cause" veneer becomes painfully transparent. Gutter Punks first leaves audiences sympathetic to the kids' plight, then appalled at their hypocrisy and lack of common sense. (TSI)

Henry & June
Feb. 1, 10am, UA
Phil Kaufman's 1990 Henry & June honors the bravery of Tropic of Cancer author Henry Miller (Fred Ward) while gently mocking his bombast. The story covers Miller's years in Paris and his early friendship and affair with Anaïs Nin (Maria de Medeiros); Miller's wild, bisexual wife, June (Uma Thurman), adds to the author's confusion. Given a hard time by both prudish critics and the MPAA rating board (it was the first film to get an NC-17 rating), Henry & June never gets the mention it deserves as an intelligent and erotic film. (RvB)

Labyrinth of Dreams
Jan. 30, 7:45pm, UA; Jan. 31, 1pm, UA
Tomiko (Rena Komine), a shy young bus conductor in 1930s Japan, becomes infatuated with a handsome bus driver, Niitaka (Tadanobu Asano), who may be a serial killer. Torn between a need to expose Niitaka and a desire to be seduced, Tomiko follows what she calls "the footsteps of foolishness" into a "truly fatal romance." This compelling l'amour fou is beautifully rendered in Norimichi Kasamatsu's rapturous black-and-white photography, and director Sogo Ishii makes canny use of silence to build erotic suspense. (MSG)

Forbidden City Cop
Martial-Arts Mirth: A scene from 'Forbidden City Cop.'

Jan. 30, 3:30pm, UA; Feb. 3, 7:15pm, Camera 3
A sort of variation on The Piano, about a psychologically mute woman who is sold by her foster parents to a violent man. Filmed in the chilliest, muddiest parts of central Europe, the movie has a cool, austere look, and leads Lenka Vlasakova and Christian Redl are believable. But Director/writer Ivan Fila lays it on too thick--we know that Lea is traumatized and sensitive, but does she also have to be able paint, build shrines and play the violin, not to mention being able to chop wood and skin rabbits like a humble daughter of the soil? Some comic relief is supplied by the supernaturally youthful Udo Kier, "the Dennis Hopper of Deutschland," who seems to be hatching some sort of sinister plot before he vanishes without a trace. (RvB)

Local Documentary Showcase
Feb. 2, 1pm, UA
Headlining the program is Dreams of a City: Creating East Palo Alto, director/producer Michael Levin and writer/editor Nancy Brink's entertaining, inspiring study of the city with as much history as an ordinary-sized state. East Palo Alto began as a utopian chicken-farmer's dream community and almost ended as the murder capital of the country; in the 1960s, the town was a major center for Afrocentric experimentation. Also on the bill: The Return of Sarah's Daughter, Marcia Jarmel's study of Hassidic Jewish life; Diversion, Vietnam, Laura K. Almo's real-life story of three women who served in Vietnam; and Lewis Hine: Fighting Child Labor, an impressive documentary made by local students about the pioneer photojournalist. (RvB)

Madame Sousatzka
Feb. 3, 5pm, UA
How one reacts to John Schlesinger's 1988 drama about an oddball piano teacher (Shirley MacLaine) and her headstrong young pupil (Mavin Chowdhry) depends on one's feelings about MacLaine, who either gives a bravura, Oscar-worthy performance or destroys all the scenery in sight in an orgy of mannered overacting. (MSG)

The Man With the Golden Arm
Feb. 4, 7:30pm, UA
An interesting, bare-bones production from 1955 by Otto Preminger of Nelson Algren's novel about the jazz drummer and junkie Frankie Machine. It shines on three fronts: it has one of Sinatra's best performances; it has Kim Novak, very authentic as a broke Chicago Polish girl; and it has a score by Elmer Bernstein. The berserk, furious title theme is played by Shorty Rogers and His Giants. (RvB)

My America (...or Honk If You Love Buddha)
Jan. 31, 4:45pm, Camera 3
What is Tom Vu's three-word mantra for success? Is Chung King food really Chinese? What going on with Korean-American hip-hop? These questions and more are tackled by Renee Tajima-Peña's chatty ride across a diverse plain of Asian America. In New Orleans, we meet the eighth-generation Burtanog sisters. In San Francisco, Tajima-Peña introduces us to Victor Wong, who broke away from his traditional Chinese family to hang with the Beats. Tajima-Peña skillfully presents the diversity of a widely understood (and misrepresented) populace and imparts a lesson begun by Carlos Bulosan: America is in the heart. (TSI)

Neptune's Rocking Horse
Jan. 30, 7:30pm, UA
Directors/producers Robert Roznowski and Robert Tate were attempting what looks like a gay version of Do the Right Thing, and in some ways, they succeeded. The bloody arrest of a transvestite affects the lives of five witnesses, strangers to each other. The incident is a snapshot of the different types of prejudice that help keep New York angry and divided. Roznowski and Tate have a good eye for the streets, but they took on too many characters to make them all live, and the magical-realist elements seem coy. (RvB)

Return to Oz
Feb. 3, 10pm, UA
Director Walter Murch risked treading on a lot of people's dreams with his 1985 live-action, music-free follow-up to The Wizard of Oz. Predictably, Return to Oz was derided as an insult to a classic and deemed too dark for family viewing. The tale starts on a poignant note: Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) is headed for a quack doctor who wants to "cure" her of her fantasies. The girl is rescued by a storm that transports her back to Oz, where she finds the kingdom in thrall to a magician made of stone, the Nome King (Nicol Williamson, with animation by Will Vinton). Though it was produced by Disney, it has the full-blooded strangeness of old fairy tales. (RvB)

Road Ends
Jan. 31, 3:15pm, UA
Informant Chris Sarandon, on the run from a drug dealer (Miguel Najera) and a DEA agent (Peter Coyote), takes refuge in a nearly deserted town where he meets a hotelier (Mariel Hemingway), a sheriff (Dennis Hopper) and a hamburger-joint proprietor (Robert Altman regular Bert Remsen). Several shootouts later, a sense of rough justice is restored in director Rick (Kickboxer 3: The Art of War) King's seriocomic chase film. The cast provides a high fun factor, but the story is forced at best, and downright ludicrous when Sarandon steps into a deserted packing plant and flips on the lights (who's been paying the electric bill all those years?). (MSG)

The Story of X
Jan. 31, 11:30pm, UA
Chuck Workman, whose montages of scenes from classic movies are the usual highlight of the Oscar broadcasts, here assembles a history of pornography from the 1915 A Free Ride to today's cybersmut. The result is a balanced, impressively researched study. The many interviewees include Russ Meyer and early porn-star Candy Barr, who, like Linda Lovelace, says that her films were made under duress. Anti-pornography activists also get their say. Porn's great virtue, then and now, is its efficiency, but excerpts from Behind the Green Door and others indicate that there is still hope that real artists can leach the tedium and the viciousness out of the genre. It is a very sexually explicit film--be warned. (RvB)

Jan. 29, 7:30pm, UA; Feb. 1, 11:30am, Camera 3
There are moments watching this documentary in which you wonder if you can actually die of embarrassment. And yet, Roger Nygard's persuasive, funny documentary about the thousands of fans who revere the Star Trek franchise does inspire you to get beyond mockery. The passion of the trekkies is sometimes even moving. Consider the guy who translates Hamlet into Klingon. (Did he actually think Klingons would sit through Hamlet ?) James "Scotty" Doohan tells a touching story about a suicidal fan he was corresponding with, and Denise Crosby (who hosts) unearths stuff from her garage that devoted fans sent her. When all our fields are barren and all our mines our empty, we'll still have a vast reservoir of American lunacy with which to nourish the world. (RvB)

Cinequest schedule details are available at 408/295-FEST or on the Web site.

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