Cinequest Dispatch #1: Fox Hunt Drive / Slits / Disco
Due to concerns over COVID-19, San Jose’s Cinequest has rescheduled the second week of the festival to the summer, when hopefully some of the outbreak will have been contained and festival-goers will be able to safely and confidently enjoy the cinematic offerings on display. As our Cinequest correspondent, I will have seen a number of films playing at the festival by the time it closes tomorrow and will post reviews as planned: most films will receive shorter, capsule reviews in the form of Cinequest Dispatches, like the one you're reading now, while a select few will have a more traditional published review. We here at Rough Cut hope that everyone is keeping themselves healthy and we send our best regards to anyone affected by the outbreak. From a non-health-related perspective, this does include the folks who were excited to have the opportunity to use Cinequest to share their films with the public — often for the first time. As you read our reactions, we encourage you to seek out these and other smaller films if and when they become available and support the hard work put in by the creative teams in bringing these stories to the screen, wherever they eventually may be seen. Fox Hunt Drive
Ten minutes into Fox Hunt Drive, I was convinced it was nothing more than a rip-off of Michael Mann’s Collateral — the premise of a down-on-their-luck driver picking up a menacing passenger with seemingly violent motives had my pale-imitation alarm bells going off almost immediately. But director Drew Walkup and screenwriters Adam Armstrong and Marcus DeVivo fortunately have a lot more on their minds than that, crafting a thrillingly twisty tale of the risks inherent in the current gig economy in which we all barely think twice about participating. The feature debut of both Walkup and Armstrong and DeVivo is rough around the edges — supporting characters read as distractingly broad caricatures and dialogue is too often eye-rollingly stilted — but leads Lizzie Zerebko and Michael Olavson have a natural chemistry, and the film’s visual stylings are impressive, especially given the low-budget nature of the shoot. Walkup has a keen eye, orchestrating several menacing setpieces with an abundance of flair — helped in no small part by Anthony C. Kuhnz’ admirable nighttime photography — that makes it easy to forgive the few unnecessarily obvious flourishes (a too-cute third act dolly zoom is the most egregious offender). But in the end, a film of this ilk lives and dies on whether it can engross and surprise its audience, and by this metric Fox Hunt Drive clears the bar with room to spare — tight plotting and smart direction make this creative team one to watch moving forward. Slits
I unfortunately can’t say much about the plot of Carlos Segundo’s Slits. Not because there are spoilers to avoid (though there very well may be), but because the print shown at my screening was missing the subtitle file and I — to my great discredit — am monolingual and couldn’t understand a word of the Brazilian film’s Portuguese. As such, my viewing experience became a test of cinema as sensory experience, a reaffirmation of a screenplay as more than merely dialogue. This was more difficult than I anticipated. I could recognize that my brain kept trying to make sense of the dialogue because that’s what it has been trained to do while watching a movie — whether the movie is in English or has English subtitles, I’ve never before encountered an entire feature that I simply could not comprehend on the basis of language. Complicating matters, Slits’ brief 80-minute runtime includes a handful of scenes that each play out over the course of several minutes by way of a static shot of two characters sitting and having a conversation; I would be lying if I said this didn’t try my patience, but I have a feeling that says much more about me as a viewer than it does about the film. But despite these frustrations, my experience was mostly positive: shots of landscapes and architectural feats were striking and evocative, the sound design impressively conveyed emotional beats for me that the dialogue couldn’t, and star Roberta Rangel’s naturalistic tendencies helped anchor the narrative despite my confusion. While I wouldn’t recommend this as the best way to watch a movie you’ve never seen before, it’s ultimately not the worst idea to on occasion to see what happens if you try to merely feel a film rather than understand it — you might learn something about yourself in the process. Disco
Is religion the cure for all ails? Most of the characters in Jorunn Myklebust Syversen’s Disco sure act like it, but the film itself — at least implicitly — seems pretty confident that not only is religion not the solution, but in many cases it may very well be the cause of one’s troubles. At the center of the story is Mirjam (Josefine Frida Pettersen), a teen competitive disco champion becoming increasingly uncomfortable with her home life — especially given the presence of her stepfather, the minister of a “cool” church where Mirjam is a frequent musical performer. Unresolved trauma and competitive stumblings send Mirjam into a downwards spiral as she searches for meaning and belonging among a variety of Christian sects, each with their own questionable motives and methods. Syverson’s film is understated by design, lingering in uncomfortable silences and refusing to explicitly condemn the parties engaging in a contest for Mirjam’s soul (and attendance). Shot with a hazy and soft-lit aesthetic reminiscent of the afterschool specials of yesteryear, Disco is a deeply unsettling viewing experience, made even more so by Pettersen’s heartbreakingly quiet performance as a young woman struggling to find something to believe in despite a culture insistent on controlling her mind and her body. There’s no catharsis to be had here, just the unease that comes from wanting the best for Mirjam and knowing that she isn’t positioned to find it — an unease that exemplifies the film’s true power.