The 11th St. Louis International Film Festival

11th St. Louis International Film Festival
at The Tivoli, Hi-Pointe, & Webster University’s Moore Auditorium
November 14-24

OUR WRITERS:
PETE TIMMERMANN
ROB LEVY
RICK EUBANKS
JESSICA GLUCKMAN
STEVEN VANCE
ROSS TODD

PETE TIMMERMANN

PERSONAL VELOCITY (11/23)
Right about now, in other parts of the U.S., Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity is opening for its regular run. It has been receiving amazingly good reviews (it won the Grand Jury Prize for drama and the Cinematography award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, among other things), and looks to be quite a success.

Velocity consists of three more-or-less unrelated stories of three girls, played by Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey, and Fairuza Balk. Each story lasts a mere 30 minutes, doesn’t overlap with any other stories (Sedgwick’s is first, then Posey’s, then Balk’s), and ends kind of abruptly. Miller (the daughter of Arthur Miller) adapted the screenplay from a book of her short stories, and it shows. Velocity works as kind of a visual essay to accompany the reading of her stories. Most of the talking in the film is done by a narrator who speaks like he’s reading from a book. The characters that are actually on screen hardly speak at all.

Sedgwick’s story explores the later life of the high school slut. Sedgwick seems miscast at first, but later it becomes apparent that she is perfect for the role (she’s a nice balance between pretty and grizzled). Posey’s is about a cookbook editor who gets an opportunity to edit a real book. This thread was the most interesting, and it is nice to see Posey in a good role for once. Balk’s is about a saved runaway who encounters a runaway and feels that she needs to save him.

Anyway, Personal Velocity is pretty good, but not great. —Pete Timmermann

BRIEF CROSSING (11/18)
My favorite film that I saw in last year’s festival was Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl, so I was really excited to see the new Breillat film at this year’s fest, Brief Crossing. Crossing is the story of a chance encounter between a teenaged French boy and an older English girl on a ship, where their time together has a very definite end right from the start. It felt a lot like Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, had the latter been written and directed by someone like, well, Breillat (she’s best known for her pseudo-pornographic 1999 film, Romance). Anyway, Brief Crossing will not be the best film I see at this year’s festival, but it was a really good one, and, unlike many of the other movies I’ve been seeing, the festival will probably be the only time it sees the big screen in St. Louis. —Pete Timmermann

THE BACKYARD (11/16)
One of the few documentaries at SLIFF this year that is not showing at Webster University is Paul Hough’s The Backyard, which screened at midnight last night and tonight at the Hi-Pointe. The Backyard is a rather unfocused bit about rather unfocused kids who have taken to hitting each other with fluorescent light bulbs, baseballs bats wrapped in barbed wire, trash cans, etc., for sport. Also included in the phenomenon of backyard wrestling is the slamming of people into tables, metal trays filled with thumb tacks, flaming barbed wire, and whatever else cringe-inducing things the little sickos can dream up to throw someone into. The only redeeming thing about this film is that it is funny to watch stupid people hurt themselves and each other. Hough takes a stab at a dramatic arc by following a singularly idiotic man—who has christened himself “The Lizard”—try to break into professional wrestling. Apparently, Hough had the misconception that he might get something incendiary. He didn’t.

TALK TO HER (11/15)
One of the two biggest-ticket screenings at SLIFF this year, Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her, screened at the Tivoli earlier tonight. Talk involves two men who are watching two separate comatose women, and become friends in the process. The concept would seem idiotic and forced if not for the Almodovar pedigree but, justifying his seed, Talk will be hard to beat for the title of The Best Film I Saw at SLIFF 2002. Maybe it was the Personaish waiting for the mutes to respond to the monologue-friendly protagonists (and not missing much of the rare sexual dynamic Persona possesses). Regardless, Talk to Her stands among the best films Pedro Almodovar has ever made. Look for its regular run later this year. —Pete Timmermann

ROGER DODGER (11/15)
Also opening soon after the festival ends is Dylan Kidd’s Roger Dodger, starring Campbell Scott. Scott plays Roger, who is notorious for being a womanizer in both his office and among his family members, and, as a result of this, his 16-year-old nephew seeks him out for some advice on how to realize his run-of-the-mill 16-year-old fantasies. Roger takes him out for a night of clubbing, partying, and harassing of all kinds, resulting in many comical situations (what a surprise). A lot of the dialogue and jerky-ass camera work is over the top, distracting, and pretty much completely unnecessary, but on the whole, Roger makes for some good light entertainment for which festivals are generally not known. —Pete Timmermann

ST. LOUIS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL DAY 10

Winding down a film festival is always hard. The attendees are battered and jarred from sensory overload and bloated on popcorn and caffeine. The staff is beaten and has lost its swagger. Days of schmoozing, boozing, and endlessly being barraged by questions, suggestions, and general miscellany have taken a toll. The various venue staffs just want everyone to go home and leave them in peace.

That’s how it usually goes down. But on this final day of the 11th Annual St. Louis International Film Festival, things are different. Curator Chris Clark is still excited and beaming. The Tivoli staff are working, but appear to have not aged a thousand years. The West County brigade of attendees is being well behaved. The usual suspects are leaving well enough alone and doing their thing. Everyone is in a great mood; it has been a great run.

To plan a 10-day-plus event is the culmination of an almost Herculean feat; to pull it off with few glitches is astounding. This year, the Fest had minimal problems and a return of a younger, hipper, less-gentrified clientele. This led to a broader film audience and a more passionate viewing experience for those involved.

For years now, I thought the Fest was turning away from college kids, the indie set, and non-$35k incomers. But the recent guard has taken great pains to be all-inclusive. They have diversified the cultures involved. They have added more films that simply don’t play here. They have done a lot to make this Festival representative of the St. Louis film community.

With that said, the programming today was not a letdown. There were several interesting seminars on film criticism, filmmaking, and film shorts. These are great because people get to network and learn form those fighting the same battle in the trenches.

WATERBOYS (11/24)
Waterboys is a hilarious Japanese film about misfit hooligans who learn the nuansced art of synchronized swimming.

SPIDER (11/24)
David Cronenberg’s Spider has opened on the coasts and features a big cast led by Gabriel Byrne and Ralph Fiennes. It is a pretty bleak, pretty dark tale of family strife and schizophrenia. It tugs and batters the viewer at times—mainly because Fiennes is really good.

The Festival came to an end tonight with its award ceremony and closing party at the Sheraton in Clayton. There was excitement; there was booze. Wherever these two are, there is also an undulating air of pretension. This time, though, it wreaked of it. Filmmakers and honchos mingled with those they deemed fit. Fest attendees did their own thing and had a nice time, as well. It was interesting to see the SLIFF staff slip between the many environs represented here without alienating anyone. They really are good at pressing the flesh and being sincere about it.

A great film, Autumn Spring, was the audience favorite this year. It was terrific. I must not be cool because it is the only award-winning film I actually got to see.

The party was a good time. There was Finlandia and friendliness. But the real happening was at the Sheraton bar where the average Joes just talked about the films they liked. All in all, everyone had a good time. It was a shindig where everyone got what they wanted. Those who just wanted to drink got their drink on; film industry types got to schmooze; festival planners got a great sendoff. It was a nice ending to a great ten days.

In conclusion, it takes a lot to run a film festival. This year, all the parties involved went above and beyond to make it go. The Hi-Pointe and Tivoli staffs were friendly and informative. The venue captains were great at suggesting films. The Fest staff was always excited to introduce films and spread the gospel. Lastly, the attendees themselves showed up with reverence, curiosity, and a zeal to see some great “flicks.” —Rob Levy

ST. LOUIS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL DAY NINE

So we are near the end. Despite the length and breadth of this year’s Festival, the staff manages to introduce the films without causing a ruckus or appearing haggard. They are quite chipper, really. I also would like to take a moment to say that the Tiv’s John Thompson is every bit of a St. Louis icon as Beatle Bob…rxcept he is much nicer and serves the denizens of our metropolis. He is welcoming and warming to all attendees. He also remembers everyone’s name, which is no mean feat. It would not be the Tivoli if Thompson were not there to talk shop, as they say.

DISCO PIGS (11/22)
First up was Disco Pigs. This is the first film from Irish director Kirsten Sheridan. It is about Darren and Sinead, two Irish adolescents who were born in the same hospital, hours apart, and have become almost Siamese in their connectedness with one another. Darren is an angry roustabout and Sinead is playful and wistful. Together they are jokers, ruffians, and hooligans. This is the story of how they feed off of each other and eventually confront their emotions, futures, and inevitable separation. Elaine Cassidy breaks out in this film with a great deal of solid, nonverbal acting. She also manages to combine innocence and despair beautifully. Cillian Murphy is the off-kilter and out of control Darren, who is only calmed by his “runt,” Sinead. This is a wonderful film about the anger and agony of adolescence. It also is about empowerment and the power of friendship. Beneath everything it is also a very disturbing g film about people out of control. Sheridan has crafted a fine picture with a good cast.

Hi! Dharma! is a masterpiece from South Korea. So much so, in fact, that MGM bought the film and its American rights for their own use. What begins as a Tarantino-esque film slowly turns into something more warm and friendly. A gang of Korean criminals hides out in a Buddhist monastery. This results in cultural clashes about respect, religion, individuality, and inner peace. At first, the two factions have an uneasy collaboration; slowly, though, the parties involved mingle and all is right in the universe.

This film really gets its legs about 20 minutes in. There is a certain degree of uncertainty in the beginning. Once it gets going, it goes all out for laughs and emotion. Hi! Dharma! was shot in south Korea and features some beautiful backdrop cinematography. It is a well-put-together film with the right doses of comedy, warmth, and sincerity—something that everyone can relate to.

TRIBUTE (11/22)
Next up was the much talked about doc, Tribute. This is a film that follows the psychotic world of tribute bands and their fans. Hey, imitating art is not as easy as it looks. Several tribute bands and their fans are profiled, providing interesting characters for us to watch. We follow a batch of tribute bands for the Monkees, Journey, Kiss, queen, and Judas Priest. The most startling tale here is of a young 20-something’s morbid obsession with Queen and the local (Albany) tribute band. The film works because there are so many dimwits and misguided freaks to choose from. We encounter dueling Monkees bands, a Journey tribute band, and an overzealous Kiss tribute band that is more exuberant than their fans. There also are some really clever moments with a Judas Priest tribute band during which most of the audience at the Hi-Pointe was howling with laughter. Some of the followers of tribute bands are nutty and gone, but this film manages to walk the lines between respect, decency, and the absurd.

ST. LOUIS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL DAY EIGHT

Following a two-day break for a sojourn to Chicago, I returned to this year’s SLIFF festivities. The big buzz tonight surrounded a few films, the first being Hong Kong’s See You Off To The Edge Of The World and the sold out Hi! Dharma! There were a lot of people at the Tivoli theater. Because of a weird customs snafu, the film I was anxious to see, Bangkok Haunted, was replaced by Killer Tattoo. —Rob Levy

ST. LOUIS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
DAY FIVE

I think it would be good to start off by saying a word about one of my favorite actors, James Coburn, who passed on yesterday. Though too ill to attend in person, Coburn was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Festival. He has left a body of great work behind him, including Our Man Flint, Affliction, The Great Escape, and The Magnificent Seven. He was an amazing actor and a wild character who always did it his own way. He will be missed

MONRAK TRANSISTOR (11/19)
I decided to only see one film today, Monrak Transistor. This is the latest film from Thai director, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, who had an amazing film in last year’s festival, 6ixtynin9. Like its predecessor, this is an incredible work. It is an absolutely gorgeously filmed epic. The settings are ideal backdrops for the story as it unfolds.

The film centers around Pan and Sadaw, two young lovers separated and torn apart by strange events. Pan, a rising star and singer, leaves his wife and village for what he believes to be a short time. However, he tumbles and falls into mishap after mishap along the way: the army, a sugar cane plantation, and, eventually, prison. During these troublesome times, Pan is kicked around, beaten, overworked, and generally beaten down by the jackboot of bad luck. Eventually, it all gets sorted out, and destinies are aligned and all is right with the world…sort of.

What is interesting, though, about Monrak Transistor is that it always remains a tender love story enmeshed in comedy and tragedy. It runs the table of emotions. Anguish and frustration have seldom been as well filmed, written, or acted. Ratanaruang has made a wonderful film. —Rob Levy

ST LOUIS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
DAY FOUR

A lot of people saw a lot of films this weekend, resulting in a more subdued enthusiasm for tonight’s programs. It definitely has been the least pretentious movie night out so far. The mall goblins and West Countiers appear to be hibernating until later in the week.

A change of pace was in order. Tonight’s festivities for the 11th annual St. Louis International film Festival were more musicallythemed. With that in mind, the Hi-Pointe featured two great music documentaries: one of Willie Nelson and one on They Might Be Giants.

WILLIE NELSON: STILL IS STILL MOVING (11/18)
Nelson is the subject of a new doc by Steven Cantor. Nelson has seen and done everything possible, so it is only fair that he gets a proper documentary. However, it is a bummer that this film is only being screened once.

GIGANTIC: A TALE OF TWO JOHNS (11/18)
Edwardsville’s AJ Schnack returned to the Hi-Pointe tonight to screen his film, Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns. This film follows the 20-plus-year career of They Might Be Giants. It’s all here, their rise as indie geek art rockers to college radio juggernauts to their current status as DIY, blue-collar think rockers. Schnack covers a lot of ground: he touches upon their roots and formation, he sashays into their development as East Village icons and performance art heroes, he chronicles the Dial-A-Song phenomenon and the band’s initial success with college radio and MTV. He also allows the band to clarify their fallout with Elektra Records.
The popularity of They Might Be Giants is explained in some detail. Intellectuals, kids, geeks, bookworms, mathematicians, and the everyday guy love They Might Be Giants. They have tapped into something very few bands have before. They have, as we see here, diversified and grown with their audience. They are showmen and craftsmen.

After the screening, Schnack fielded questions about the band and his film. He is currently trying to get Gigantic in art houses and on DVD.

I do want to take a moment to mention that this year’s SLIFF features two films from Hsiao-hsien Hou, a great filmmaker from Taiwan. His first film, Flowers of Shanghai, and newest film, Millennium Mambo, are both being screened this Wednesday at the Tivoli. Do not miss them. This is the week for Asian films at the Festival and, admittedly, there is a lot to see. But starting off with these two films would be ideal.

ST. LOUIS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
DAY 3

It is the third day of the 11th annual St. Louis International Film Festival. It has proved to be the most grueling yet. It wasn’t just the throngs of crowds; it wasn’t just the hustle and bustle of the Loop on a Sunday; it was simply another day with a great array of film.

It is easier to see films at a festival like this during the week. Your options are smaller and the schedule is more flexible. Yet weekends are just unbearable. There is so much to do. You must establish a game plan if you expect to see several films. Establishing this plan is essential to enjoying a day of cinema. With that in mind, I set out with the daunting task of squeezing four films into the day.

BRIEF CROSSING (11/17)
First up was Brief Crossing from French auteur Catherine Breillat, a director known for the controversial films Romance and Fat Girl.

Her films always tug and pull on moviegoers. Her main themes continue to be gender roles, relationships, and sexuality, and this film is no different. We meet Thomas, a 16-year-old French teen, who becomes entangled in intrigue with an older British woman. This is a talk film; there is a lot of discourse going on. We experience gratuitous coy conversation, meditation on popular relationships, tirades on the evil of men. and conversations on the meaning of gender roles. Love is brought up as a theme, then casually discarded as the two passengers romp and roll on the English Channel. However, we do see these characters cautiously grow closer to each other in such a short time. We see the full gamut of their experience and senses as the hormones rise and the sky darkens.

The fact that the two lovers are from opposite sides in every way is not a coincidence. We see a clash of morals, cultures, sexes, and temperaments. There is friction, there is tension, and there are boundaries. The whole film is a spiraling battle over fate, love, passion, and sexual morays.

The film is well acted, well paced, and beautifully choreographed. The drama is in your face. It is in front of you. The claustrophobic setting of an ocean liner means the characters must interact. They must confront each other, react to each other, and subsequently crash and burn. This end result is a confrontational, knock-down, drag-out battle of the sexes that works as the focus of a film.

After this film I, ventured into the lobby where the talk was turning to forthcoming films. There is a great deal of interest in the Senegalese version of Carmen, Karmen Gai, and the Japanese animation doc, Invasion Anime. There is also a great deal of interest in The Spanish Woman. It was also interesting to note that there were no fewer than five people toting around copies of Love in the Time of Cholera in the lobby. It was a weird coincidence to see so many people reading the same book.

AN ANGEL IN CRACOW (11/17)
My epic day in the Tivoli’s third theater continued with Poland’s An Angel in Cracow, which was presented by the director, Artur Wiecek, and the producer, Witold Beres. These guys were extremely fun and pleasant and took a great deal of time to discuss their film before departing home. Their film is a comedy about Giordano, an angel assigned to perform good deeds on earth. His destination, Holland, is misdirected and he ends up in Poland with hilarious results. This was a fun film that falls a little flat toward the end but, nonetheless, delivers on a previously used film angle. Part Heaven Can Wait, part Kolya, and part Highway to Heaven, this is an uplifting film.

After this film I had a break of about 45 minutes. This enabled me to get some food, relax, and scope out the scene. There were so many people at the Tivoli, it appears as though last year’s record attendance could be toppled by midweek SLIFF has benefited from diversity this year. All sorts of people are seeing all sorts of films. There is still a really good vibe going on.

AUTUMN SPRING (11/17)
Next up was the lauded Czech film, Autumn Spring. It was nominated for nine Czech Lion Awards, of which it won two: one each for the leads, Vlastimil Brodsky and Stella Zazvorkova. This is a film about many things: death, family, enjoying life, and friendship. Brodsky plays Fanda, a feisty senior who plays practical jokes and schemes, and plots funny gags and generally drives his wife frantic with his irascible playfulness. She, alternately, is ready to plan their funerals. She is ready to call it a day and get life over with. Her husband is anxious to get on with his next big plan. The ensuing hilarity propels the film. What is interesting here, though, is the fact that the film turns slightly, becoming a tale of family strife, friendships, and facing mortality. Fanda must face his own mortality as well as that of his partner in crime, Ed. He must face his scheming womanizing son, Jara. He must also adjust to his wife’s nontoleration of his antics and cons. He decides to knuckle under and make their marriage continue.

Autumn Spring is a winding journey. We see a man in the twilight of his life enjoying the streets of Prague and seizing the best in life. We see a family facing divorce, death, and reality. We encounter characters that travail tragedy with comedy.
This has been one of the best films I have seen at the Fest so far. It is vibrant, funny, moving, and enjoyable; in other words, there is something for everyone. However, it is ironic that a film about facing death and laughing at it would be the final role for Brodsky, a Czech cinema legend.

If I had one beef about this year’s festival, it would be that they are sorely in need of more Czech and Eastern European film. These regions are creating some amazing films right now and there is hardly enough of it trickling over to the States.
If I had a second beef about the fest, it would be that they could do more business with student rates for films. Buying the festival pass locks people into a set number of films (six), which is great, but if students only want to see three or four films, they will be less inclined to explore more films. I came across this dilemma outside the theater as I saw kids crossing out films they couldn’t see because they were skint.

I noticed two people reading copies of High Fidelity during my next break and observed other kids reading copies of the awful Movieline. Why anyone gets that dreadful magazine is beyond me. It lacks scope, as they say.

KIRA’S REASON: A LOVE STORY (11/17)
After a few good belts of alcohol and some snacks I delved into the always cheerful and uplifting world of Denmark’s Dogme. Their latest offering is Kira’s Reason: A Love Story.

Kira and her husband, Mads, have a nice marriage until Kira falls apart because of mental illness. Their happy home is destroyed. He has an affair, she’s locked up. Everyone is miserable; everyone is tense; everyone is leering and scowling and sulking.

The plot revolves around two damaged people and their struggles to cope. This spawns the conflict that is centrifugal to the story: Kira’s recovery and its correlation to the recovery of her marriage. The film deals with the weighty subject matters of fidelity, mental illness, and overcoming personal conflict. Technically, director Ole Christian Madsen does some interesting things. He makes the audience feel boxed in and confined. Madsen manipulates the camera in such a way that his close-ups convey so much potency and expression. His moving camera angles show the delirium and fragility of Kira; the editing is also superb. It was interesting to note the general collective sigh of relief in the audience as this film finally concluded. It is not for the faint of heart or disgustingly cheerful.

SHORT FILMS: ANOTHER LIFE, 1000 MARYS, LOCKED DOWN SYNDROME, SCENES FROM CHILDHOOD (11/17)
Finally, before most of today’s features were short films. These are usually welcome breaks from the tenseness of some films. But many of today’s were really quite good. Another Life was scripted by Star Trek writer Ronald D. Moore. It is a dark, twisted tale of a woman and daughter trapped by a crazy nutjob (a creepy performance by William Sadler).

1000 Marys featured a three-minute crushed collage of images of the Virgin Mary in art throughout the ages.

Locked Down Syndrome is a brilliant and sadistic French short film about a disabled man whose dog, electronic world, and caregivier all let him down. It was a well-shot black comedy piece.

Scenes From Childhood, however, was an 11-minute trip into “why short films should be mercifully short” hell. Yes, the cinematography was nice. Yes, it looked crisp. But technically, it was a disaster. It made no sense and just kept on going. I wished I could be like Orpheus and have my head lopped off after seeing this. It was scary.

My point is this: go see the shorts programming. There are some great things being attempted. Not all of these films are great, but not all of them are bad, either. You will be surprised. Besides, experimentalism is a good thing.

I left my almost 11-hour day at the Tivoli battered and weary. It was a triumphant day of film. It was a glorious day of film, but a taxing one that featured every possible emotion and touched on almost every aspect of sensory perception. –Rob Levy

ST. LOUIS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL DAY TWO—A Festival Diary

The second full day of programming for the 11th annual St. Louis International Film Festival has begun. Bear in mind that it is absolutely impossible to get everything in and see every film…yet people are trying.

With the second day, the vibe has stepped up a notch. Today featured more people of all varieties descending on the three venues. The theaters have been full. For example, the turnout for Man From Elysian Fields, Shopping, and Standing In The Shadow Of Motown was tremendous. The crowds were moving and mingling all night. I had a difficult time selecting what to see today.

LOVE IN THE TIME OF MONEY (11/16)
I began my filmic adventures with Love in the Time of Money. This is the feature debut of STL expat Peter Mattei. It has gotten mixed reviews from critics and film fans alike, so I was curious to check it out. It features a nine-character ensemble cast ducking and weaving through intermingling stories set amid the backdrop of New York in the 1990s. Why is it that almost every new filmmaker at some point contemplates filming a sleazy, seedy, character-driven homage to the Big Apple?? Regardless, Mattei has crafted a film. His use of digital film technology has made the film gritty, grainy, and rough. This is a nice framing for the stories contained therein.

Steve Buscemi is always amazing to watch; here, he plays a hapless artist trying to get his career going. His scenes pursuing Rosario Dawson are well-scripted and crafted to be both tender and funny. The Sopranos star Michael Imperioli plays another dirtbag who meets his demise, but his acting and skill are really heavy here. You can tell he is longing to break out and use his chops beyond television. Jill Hennessy, playing a wife lost in a bad marriage, is pretty good here, too. What hurts this film, however, is the pacing. It takes awhile to get going; it sort of goes a little flat in the middle; it is murky in places. On the whole, though, as a first film, Love in the Time of Money has some great bright spots. Mantei obviously has a passion for New York and a fondness for the material that he has scripted and directed.

But I think the film may suffer from over involvement. Maybe he worked too much on tinkering with the film. Simply put, there is a lot going on and a lot to keep track of. Some of the best characters are underused. This results in things being a bit off in places. I was, though, extremely pleased to see his Q&A after the film. Mantei was gracious and appreciative and generally nice. He also spent a lot of time in the lobby afterwards talking to people, and that is what this is all about: access and self-promotion. I hope his does well because he’s a nice guy.

By 8:30 p.m., the Tivoli lobby was in full gear. People were everywhere, they were excited. There was a diverse section of people, as well. There were students, middle-aged couples, hipsters, and, of course, the usual Frontenac and Ladue riff-raff who never venture to the Loop and are terrified to leave their car. But even they calmed down and saw some cinema.

So far, the Festival appears to be younger again. In previous years, the SLIFF has had an older, wealthier audience base. During the past several years, festival organizers have taken great pains to diversify their audience and expand outward to new crowds of filmgoers.

STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN (11/16)
The next film I saw this evening was Standing in the Shadow of Motown. This is director Paul Justman’s documentary about the Funk Brothers, session musicians on almost every great Motown hit. The Funk Brothers have never really gotten their props as artists. They never got the accolades or carried the financial swagger of the artists on the label. Nevertheless, they were the backbone of Motown. This film gives them human forms.

The Funk Brothers have had an indelible impact on contemporary pop music. The best part is they never really tried to. They are a collection of jazz and blues session musicians who can jam and wail together like nobody’s business.

The film intersperses a Detroit tribute concert with interviews, photos, and commentary for the band and their cohorts. Artists like Bootsy Collins, Ben Harper, and Meshell Ndegeocello all perform with the Funk Brothers. Joan Osborne is there, too, getting way too much face time and being incomparably overdoting and annoying..

Yet the point is that these guys changed music. Justman has taken Allan Slutsky’s book of the same name and given it skin. He has crafted a riveting and interesting documentary about not only the music, but the era in which these performers worked. Obviously, 1960s Detroit was not a fun place. But it was a fertile and creative music environment that changed American and music popular culture. It would be mere semantics to debate their merit to pop music. It would be pointless to overlook these guys. This film makes you feel for them and appreciate their craft. They made Hitsville USA. They made it all look so easy and simple, just by being in a small room together, jamming and being friends. Justman really exploits this.

There are many Funk Brothers interviewed here. Joe Turner steps up and is interesting and lively. He gives the film an endearing center early on. Justman then moves on to the various sections and interviews the bands. He also throws in great anecdotes about Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson, for good measure.

Tragically, Funk Brother Johnny Griffith died this week at 66. This casts its own dark shadow over a wonderful film. Griffith’s legacy as a Funk Brother is also chronicled here.

Lastly, this is a finely edited and paced documentary. It manages to encapsulate both an era and a group of musicians. It is also worth mentioning that Justman has taken previously written material and made it more lively and relevant. Andre Braugher’s narration is respectful and not overbearing.

When I left the theater a little before midnight there still was a buzz. People were still interested. This is a great thing, because a lengthy endeavor like this needs legs. —Rob Levy

ST. LOUIS INTERNTIONAL FILM FESTIVAL DAY ONE —A Festival Diary

The 11th annual St. Louis International Film Festival is now underway. The first day is always exciting, new, and flashy, with a mixed bag of people: lots of film geeks, hipsters, filmmakers, judges, press lotharios, and the generally-interested-in-broadening-themselves types. Still, this is always a good thing. The melange of people bearing down upon the three venues to experience something new is great at building community and developing new cultural understandings.

But how does one really go to these things? It is so daunting. There is a big grid of films to choose from, and then they play so many that pinpoinitng the films you wish to see can, indeed, be maddening. I think it is best to try and see films you know may never come to a cinema here.

I also try to select films that seem interesting by directors with whom I am familiar. There are so many intangibles in this process that explaining the essence of selecting films to view at a festival can be both grueling and excruciating. This subject alone could be a discourse at Harvard or the Sorbonne.

ABSOLUTE HUNDRED (11/15)
On this first day, there were some amazing films. I love Eastern European films, so it is fitting that I began the Fest with Absolute Hundred. This is a powerful, eerily timed film from Yugoslavia about a sniper, Sasa, who must save his down and beaten junkie ex-sniper brother, Igor, from gangsters, drug addiction, and the malaise of recent wars. Although this film features one of the worst subtitle jobs of recent memory, the acting was top-notch and the direction was solid. The street scenes of Yugoslavia could easily have been anywhere, yet setting this film there makes it resonate louder to the international community.

After this film, I had about 20 minutes to kill before my next one. It began to get exciting: the lobby was full, people were buying lots of tickets, the Festival and Tivoli staff were really hustling. It is great to see so many people excited, invigorated, and generally inspired to see great film.

I went across the street to Riddle’s to get some downtime and meet up with friends. They had a band, yes, but a great deal of their clientele for the night was filmgoers. You could see them with their alcohol, pens, and festival schedules. It was like a war room, in many ways.

ROGER DODGER (11/15)
I resettled at the Tivoli to see the very much-hyped Roger Dodger. This film has already opened on the coasts and in bigger markets, to a great deal of hype. Everyone likes to follow the hype once in awhile, so I checked it out. Plus I was frighteningly attracted to the notion that someone let two thespian starlets of infantecimile talent and depth, Jennifer Beals (Flashdance) and Elizabeth Berkeley (Showgirls), act in a film together, at the same time. It could be brilliant or a train wreck. Then there is Campbell Scott, who is always underused but extremely talented. This is a weird buddy film about a neophyte, virgin teen and his night on the town with his deceitful, bitter, petty, and arrogant ad exec uncle. Campbell Scott is dead-on as a sleazy, lost, broken New Yorker out for some action. Jesse Eisenberg is pretty good as his Ohio nephew, Nick. Berkeley and Beals are two hip chicks out on the town; both are pretty good here in their scenes together.

Director Dylan Kidd does not overuse them or expect them to do too much. Beals is pretty good; she gives a nice performance full of emotion and sympathy. The pair have short screen time, but they manage to work into the texture of the film without collapsing it. Isabelle Rossellini also has a smaller part in the film as Roger’s boss and ex-paramour. She is compassionate and professional yet icy cold and compelling. It is good to see her get some good material to work with. This is a really good film and Campbell Scott’s performance is something to see. When this film opens here in a few weeks, check it out for his magnetic performance alone.

There was also a Day One buzz going for the new Pedro Almodavor’s Talk to Her. It screened earlier at the Tivoli. I ran into some friends who saw it and loved it. Almodavor always makes amazingly stunning films, but I want to wait and see this one when it opens here in a few weeks. I know it will be a spectacle, and by that time, the commercial drek out there will have me jonesin’ to see something amazing.

After the films, a bunch of us set off for a private Film Party. These are always fun or extremely terrifying. I love the whole, “And you are whom and your are here why” sort of aristocratic punk rock snobbery at these things. We got there too late but managed to meet some uber-snobby people who dutifully notified us of our place in the lower class of noncool. But that’s OK because we saw some good films. SLIFF RULE #1: Do not let the film snobs ruin your fun!

Finally, we headed off to the Delmar, looking to meet some folks and suss out what other films people were excited about. It was scary as hell. It was like a cross pollination of Loop regulars and a Carson Daly convention. The place was packed, the hip hop was playing, and you could barely move. I get sort of territorial about this place because I love it so much, so it is mindboggling to see the “newbies” try to fit in and be all dope. But I did have some engaging conversations with folks about other films in the Festival this year.

It is always hard to meet people and talk about film. Everyone has different tastes. Yet one of the best things about going to a film festival is the diversity, community, and general excitement and passion displayed by everyone. In the case of this year’s event, everyone seems to be having a great time and enjoying themselves. From 5:00 p.m. to 1:25 a.m., I noticed a buzz in the air. This is great stuff. Get out there and get involved! —Rob Levy

RICK EUBANKS

HELL HOUSE (11/23)
Hell House does not come off as the shocking documentary that it is billed to be. This is surprising considering it is a look at a Texas Pentecostal church that constructs an annual Halloween haunted house. What is, so unusual is the themes that are played out in this haunted house, they range from date rape to AIDS and suicide. It was rather depressing that it did not live up its billing. The people who run the haunted house come off as conservatives, but not over zealous religious freaks. Overall this was a documentary that was more hype than substance. —Rick Eubanks

FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI (11/21)
Flowers of Shanghai by the Hsiao-hsien Hou of Taiwan may be one the best films in the film festival. This is definitely an art house film. Most Hollywood blockbusters contain between 400-600 shots; Flowers of Shanghai has 41 shots in its entirety. The pace for this film is very slow; however, it never detracts from the telling of the story. The moving takes place in the brothels of late 19th century Shanghai. The film is shot in probably no more than five different rooms and chronicles the lives of the flower girls whose duty it is to attract and hold on to wealthy callers. This is a world of highly ritualized codes of behavior.

Flowers of Shanghai is a highly cerebral work. One striking feature of the film is how Hou has removed the overt sexuality of a brothel and concentrated more on emotional relationships that can develop between the women of the flower houses and their gentlemen callers. Also admirable is how each scene seems to be lit by only candles and oil lamps, the rooms awash in reds and golds. Watching this film, you get the feeling that you are viewing life as it is. As a viewer, you do not feel like you are interfering. This is a movie that requires patience of the viewer, only to reward that patience with beauty and artistry not seen very often in films. Let’s not forget the strong acting, either. Overall this was a joy to watch; I hope I get the chance to see it again. —Rick Eubanks

STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN (11/16)
By the time you leave the movie Standing in the Shadows of Motown, you will be humming your favorite Motown classic. Creating the music for most of the hits at Motown was a group of musicians known as the Funk Brothers. This documentary stands out as a tribute to the unsung and under-recognized group of musicians the world has ever heard. Standing in the Shadows of Motown works because it is a celebration of the past and present. Throughout the film, stories are told as the history of how some of the classic sounds created by the Funk Brothers is shared.

Like old friends meeting at the tavern, the tales from the past come alive. Besides presenting the past, the documentary also shows us the present. We have artists, young and old—such as Steve Jordan, Bootsy Collins, and Meshell Ndegeocello—chatting and performing with the Funk Brothers. This blending of the past and the present works well to establish how important the Funk Brothers are in the history of American music. The only drawback to this documentary is how little time was spent on James Jamerson, the legendary and eccentric bass player of the Funk Brothers. I am sure that, in time, he will get his own documentary. Overall, though, this is a must-see for any fan of Motown or for all who want a better understanding of the music around them. —Rick Eubanks

JESSICA GLUCKMAN

KIRA’S REASON: A LOVE STORY (EN KAERLIGHEDSHISTORIE) (11/16)
Directed by Ole Christian Madsen.
A Danish film following the Dogme 95 Vow of Chastity, the film features Stine Stengade as Kira, a suburban housewife and mother in her 30s recently discharged from a psychiatric ward and trying to fit back into her family. Her husband, Mads (Lars Mikkelsen), attempts to reconcile the woman he loves with the mental illness that seems to have removed her from him. Kira throws fits in public places, withdraws from her own welcome-home party, and even sleeps with another man, only to call the next day and have her husband pick her up from his apartment, all the while recovering from a secret tragedy. Given the strict guidelines of Dogme films, the movie relies upon the actors, along with close shots and occasionally shaky hand-held camera work, to carry the emotional impact of the film, rather than a dramatic soundtrack or visual effects. The dialogue and actions are intense but realistic. Both Mikkelson, as the loving yet philandering, patient yet stern husband, and Stinegard, as a woman struggling for control of her emotions and actions, give excellent and convincing performances in a deeply affecting, intelligent film. –Jessica Gluckman

STEVEN VANCE

MILLENNIUM MAMBO (11/20)
Millennium Mambo is a pretty film that left me wanting to go home and chew on aluminum foil. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for the pace, which is tectonic (despite the rave beat that pulses through much of it). Maybe it was the subtitles, which somehow didn’t capture something in there that I’ll never know about. It seemed like these people didn’t talk much, and when they did, what they had to say was mostly incidental. When I’m left with no subtitles for a phone conversation that goes on for a minute or two, I have to presume that what was said is incidental chatter; in that case, I am left wondering why they didn’t just skip the subtitles on half of the rest of the dialogue in the film.

Perhaps I wasn’t in the mood to sit and watch a slice of damaged life. If the point was to illustrate a sense of absolute rudderlessness, then the film is an overwhelming success. I’m just not sure why I would want to watch that for two hours. I’m not a big fan of contrived drama, and I don’t require a dramatic arc jerking me around to be engaged, but I’m still not sure there was a story here. The basis of a story, yes. This made Sid and Nancy look like an anthem about a pair of movers and shakers. I still have no idea what, if anything, was important to the main character. Maybe that’s the point. But it makes it hard to get any sort of hook into the film.—Steven Vance

INTERSTATE 60 (11/16)
Beautiful heads talking with all the subtlety of a brick. Tries hard, doesn’t get there. Can be worth watching, though, because you can see the fault lines and think about why things don’t (quite) work. —Steven Vance

SISTER HELEN (11/16)
Documentary about a hard-nosed Irish mom who became a Benedictine nun at 56 and ran a house for recovering addicts in the Bronx. An intriguing, complex glimpse of lives on a tightrope between mean streets and personal demons. —Steven Vance

ROSS TODD

DEMON OF THE DERBY (11/23)
Demon of the Derby tells the all-American tale of Ann Calvello, roller derby’s only active 70-year-old. Filmmakers Sharon Marie Rutter, Christine Murray, and Elizabeth Pike pair interviews of family, friends, and fans with footage of Calvello’s past and present on the derby oval. The resulting film neatly captures issues of class, gender, and age in the package of Calvello’s life story.

The narrative brings together a lively cast of characters, from a fan who collects and covets sweat-stained jerseys to an aging competitor who still skates with a modified walker. However, in this piece the Demon is clearly the star. Calvello, a grocery bagger by trade, finds celebrity and her calling on the track. Though she looks like a cross between the over-tanned neighbor in There’s Something About Mary and Hank’s dad on King of the Hill, Ms. Calvello’s spirit lights up the screen. She speaks candidly about an abusive husband, a daughter she was forced to abandon, and the pain of living for work that comes and goes at the whim of penny-pinching promoters. All the while, it is evident that the sport and the people it has brought Calvello into contact with make her life worth living. Demon of the Derby confronts the absurdity of the roller derby universe with the profundity of the real world…and vice versa.

I wish I had seen this film at its previous showing so I could have urged more people to go see it. Cheers to SLIFF for bringing this piece to St. Louis. Check out more on the film at www.demonofthederby.com —Ross Todd

AMY’S ORGASM (11/21)
Julie Davis’s film, Amy’s Orgasm, got the Sundance Channel New Filmmakers Forum off with a moan. Davis’s romantic comedy about a self-help author seems more dated than its 2001 release would suggest. Characters scream for development, the plot begs to be less convoluted, and the audience cries for another trip to the cutting room. The story revolves around Amy, a writer who preaches self-actualization and independence to women; however, she ends up falling for a misogynist shock-jock. Their relationship provides the backdrop for and endless stream of “What is love?” psychobabble and Amy’s neurotic rants.

To her credit, Davis wrote, directed, and acted this piece for a mere $500,000. There are a number of amusing asides where the audience gets a peek into Amy’s mind. However witty it might be at its peak, Amy’s Orgasm comes off like a hopped up Ally McBeal episode, or a tame Sex in the City. The Sundance Channels will release on DVD as Amy’s O later this winter. —Ross Todd

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