2015 SLIFF Preview | Cait Lore

SLIFF 2015_poster-wideThere are two films playing at the festival that I really wanted to like, but am stuck with having nothing good to say about them.

 

 

 

 

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This year’s Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival opens with St. Louis-raised Alex Winter’s (Bill from Bill & Ted) newest documentary Deep Web (11/5 Tivoli 6 pm), which is narrated by Keanu Reeves. Although I’m not really a Bill & Ted fan, I find myself to be quite excited by the opening to this year’s festival as the Silk Road (not the historic trade route, but the online black market where people buy drugs) and the deep web as a whole are two topics of great fascination to me. The Silk Road is a site that exists on the deep web (you may also hear it incorrectly referred to as “the dark web”), which is a term used to describe the parts of the web that are not indexed by search engines. So as you probably expect, a lot of illegal activity goes on in the realm of the internet. What occurs on the deep web could possibly lead to the censoring of the internet or the total loss of online anonymity—two scenarios that could drastically change our digital rights— making it safe to say that Winter’s documentary is quite deserving of your time. Plus, Winter will be in attendance to receive the Charles Guggenheim Cinema St. Louis Award. He’ll also be at both the screenings of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (11/6 Tivoli 9:45 p.m.) and his first documentary Downloaded (11/7 Tivoli 4:30 p.m.).

Although I have yet to see Deep Web, I was able to preview Alex Winter’s first documentary Downloaded. It mostly focuses on Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, their company Napster, and how the music industry was affected by it. It’s hugely informative, and there are plenty of fun cameos from music artists (Billy Corgan, Henry Rollins, and Mike D, to name a few) that weigh in on all sides of the matter. I’m what they call a digital native (anyone born after 1980), and when I was working on my degree in media studies I was taught mainly by digital immigrants (everyone alive in 1979 and earlier). I spent a lot of my time writing on how the internet was changing the distribution of the arts, and if this was a good thing or not. When bringing this topic up in class discussion, it often resulted in heated discussion. Once, I made a media ethics professor so angry at the way I presented downloading music that he snatched my purse from my desk and stormed into the front of the room equating the action was the same. Well, Alex Winter does all he can to assure you that looking at it that way is simplifying it. Although it is very refreshing to hear about this topic from a digital native’s perspective (Alex Winter is technically not, but his subjects are), there are a few things I find problematic about the documentary. The film’s pacing is weak as it really drags on in some places. Also, Parker and Fanning are put on a pedestal so much so that at times it’s almost cringe-worthy. It altogether ignores piracy in relation to the film industry, where it is much more devastating. Still, it’s worth seeing just to understand downloading from a young person’s point of view and to challenge those who just think of it in terms of morality.

I was only able to see one other documentary that will be playing at SLIFF, Welcome to Leith (11/12 Tivoli 7:15 p.m). It’s a documentary about white supremacist Craig Cobb’s attempt to populate the very small town of Leith, North Dakota with other white supremacists in an attempt to take over their local government. It plays like a horror film, but directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker have the good sense to act as passive observers when it could have been easy to overdramatize the evil that Cobb represents.

Band of Robbers (11/9 Tivoli 7 p.m.) is a film probably no one saw coming, but boy am I glad it’s here. It’s a charming take on Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, but with a twist. In this version, Tom and Huck race Injun Joe in search of the treasure as adults. It feels true to Twain’s classic characters. Tom’s a self-serving policeman looking to be a hero for all the wrong reasons, and Huck is fresh out of jail searching for a new beginning. Band of Robbers brings the whole “bromantic” comedy movies of today to Mark Twain’s classic, opening the story to a new audience.

There are two films playing at the festival that I really wanted to like, but am stuck with having nothing good to say about them. The first is Driving While Black (11/10 Tivoli 7:10 p.m.), which attempts to comment on racial profiling and the police through the experiences of its main character, an African-American named Dimitri. Unfortunately, it fails to work as a comedy, mostly because Dimitri comes off like an asshole. Also, it grows tiring to see the same scene over and over again. The other film couldn’t be more different from Driving While Black: Satellite Girl and Milk Cow (11/15 Wash U/Brown 3:30 p.m., free) is a animated film from Korea that I desperately hoped to enjoy, as it’s one of the only animated features to come out of Korea (ignoring all the stuff they animate for American productions, like Family Guy and The Simpsons). Given that Korean animation has no real history to pull from, Satellite Girl and Milk Cow borrows from Japanese anime (such as the works of Hayao Miyazaki) but without any of the imagination or grace. It features incredibly boring characters, and terribly uninspired narrative. If you want something to fill the Miyazaki-sized hole in your life, this won’t cut it.

Henri Henri (11/13 Frontenac 7 p.m.; 11/15 Frontenac 7:10 p.m.) is an ambitious debut film by Canadian director Martin Talbot. It is a fantastical-realist type of film, and feels much like a Canadian take on Amelie. For the first third of the film I was smitten with it, but it totally lost me by the end. Without going into spoilers, the film’s conclusion feels quite unearned, so much so that I felt thoroughly annoyed by its conclusion. Jasmine (11/7 Tivoli 5:15 p.m.), a revenge film shot in Hong Kong but produced by Americans, brings similar mixed feelings in me as Henri Henri does. I didn’t grow as irritated with it, but here is another film with a conclusion that feels unearned. Yet another film that left me unsatisfied was Yoko the Cherry Blossom (11/13 Frontenac 2:15 p.m.; 11/15 Frontenac 9:25 p.m.), which isn’t really a bad film, but it really left no impression on me whatsoever.

Onto the films I thoroughly enjoyed. The Fool (11/9 Frontenac 8:40 p.m.; 11/11 Frontenac 4:50 p.m.) is a Russian film whose title invites a comparison to Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece The Idiot. Though this film doesn’t reach the same heights (what can?), it is a very much on the same vein serving as social commentary on today’s Russia. Artyom Bystrov plays the lead here, and out of all I saw in preparation for this SLIFF preview his performance stands out. The Kindergarten Teacher (11/13 Frontenac 4:15 p.m., 11/15 Frontenac 4:30 p.m.) is both beautifully shot, and becomes a very disturbing picture as the narrative slowly unravels.

Of all that I previewed I have two clear favorites, which I’m certain I’ll return to again and again once I have a chance to own them. The first is Backgammon (11/14 Hi-Pointe Backlot 6:30 p.m.; 11/15 Hi-Pointe Backlot 6:30 p.m.) which is tough to talk about it. It’s one of those films that’s best to know nothing about going in. What I will say is that it’s an excellently cast thriller from director Francisco Orvañanos. The titular characters are a pretentious artist that won’t stop quoting Baudelaire, his histrionic muse, and a young man who is equal parts sensitive and impressionable. They are thoroughly convincing personalities, as I feel like I’ve met people like each one of them in my own life. The young man gets drawn into the web of those two slightly older aristocrats, and the results are catastrophic.

My other favorite is a Spanish claymation film called Possessed (11/10 Hi-Pointe Backlot 9:20 p.m.; 11/11 Hi-Pointe Backlot 7:00 pm) directed by Samuel Orti Marti, or, as he prefers, Sam. Possessed has a deviant humor style that I often find myself attracted to. It’s much like South Park, honestly, as it pokes fun at all things you definitely aren’t supposed to if you want to be considered decent. Also, Sam really shows off his talents in stop-motion animation; I’ve never seen claymation look so gross. There is no shortage of vomit and guts here—after all, it is an exorcism film. This is one with high re-watch value too, as there are plenty of references to other films. All the obvious ones are there like The Omen and The Exorcist, but there are even some surprising ones like A Trip to the Moon. Although I saw this one already through a screener link, I’ll be hard-pressed to miss this one when it shows at SLIFF. This is one you definitely want to see in a crowded theater full of other horror movie nerds and stop-motion enthusiasts. If you can swing for the later showing on the 10th, do so as it feels like a midnight movie. Honestly, I can’t think of a better way to spend a Wednesday night. | Cait Lore

The 2015 Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival takes place Nov. 5-15 at numerous locations around St Louis. The Festival includes 97 narrative features, 86 documentary features, 264 shorts, and seven special events. Tickets for most films are $12, or $10 for Cinema St. Louis members and students with current ID, with different prices for several special events, and numerous free events. The festival schedule is available here, with information about tickets and the different venues available here.

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