2016 SLIFF Preview | Nic Champion | 11.03.16–11.13.16

There’s something for everyone in terms of content.

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I screened seven of the films to premiere at this year’s Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), and most all of them were chosen by me out of sheer curiosity. This year’s festival has many unheard voices and contains a lot of diversity, and there’s something for everyone in terms of content.

I started off with a selection from Italy, Arianna (11/04 Hi-Pointe 5:00 p.m.; 11/08 Hi-Pointe 7:00 p.m.), which concerns a hormonally imbalanced 19-year-old girl on vacation with her family in their summer home. It’s one of the better films I got to see and also one of the most informative. The issues it deals with in the lives of gender-atypical adolescents were things I’ve heard about before but nothing that has been revealed to me in such compelling terms. Part coming-of-age, part mystery, the journey is Arianna’s attempt to find herself and to unravel the secrets her parents seem to be keeping in order to truly come to terms with who she is. Since it’s playing relatively early in the week to come, it helps kick-start what will be the LGBT-centered series of films playing at the festival, many of them documentaries and many paying special attention to trans and gender issues.

As for the documentary section, I only had the time to screen one, The Art of the Prank (11/05 .ZACK 5:30 p.m.), which was very good. The film looks at the life and works of notorious New York prankster and performance artist Joey Skaggs. Delving into personal interviews, archival footage, and documentation of his latest project, the film offers us a fascinating artistic philosophy, attitude towards media, and a look into what it takes to trick people in order to make them think. Some other good documentaries I’m hoping to catch are Kate Plays Christine (11/06 .ZACK 1:00 p.m.), a blend of fiction and documentary that looks at the now-famous case of Christine Chubbuck’s on-air suicide and the journey of the actress playing her. Having premiered at this past True/False in Columbia and receiving a lot of attention, the excitement is ramped up for me and likely many other festival goers. There are also several civil rights centered films, such as The Prison in 12 Landscapes (11/12 SLU Center for Global Citizenship 4:30 p.m.), which was, unfortunately, unavailable for me to screen. It deals with 12 different cities where the inmates of the local prison do work in the community, and how the combination of heavy U.S. incarceration and inmate jobs affects the prisoners and the areas that contain them.

If you’re still in the mood for spookiness even though Halloween is behind us, a couple of horror films made their way into the lineup. The one I saw, Enclosure (11/05 Tivoli 3:20 p.m.), takes a very interesting supernatural path, but unfortunately, the originality in the threat and premise gets a bit squandered by the conventional storyline. An adventurous couple goes deep into the wilderness for a camping trip, but soon a supernatural entity kills some nearby hunters, and the two of them plus one mysterious survivor from the hunting party are trapped in their tent. The makeup design is absolutely exquisite, and the mythology that comes out about the monster that stalks them is very interesting, making for a very original and chilling idea. But the plot is reduced to a simple cat-and-mouse story because it unfolds all in one location. Some more variety in location and obstacles other than trying to escape their tent would have made the entire film a lot more engaging. One horror-related film I didn’t get to screen was Body (11/10 Frontenac 12:10 p.m.; 11/12 Frontenac 2:30 p.m.), which seems to be a mix of surrealism and art-house horror paranoia. For those looking for something more substantial than a canned thriller with good monster effects, Body looks like it’s up to task.

If I had to group a couple of movies together, it would be Creedmoria (11/12 Tivoli 7:00 p.m.) and The Fitzroy (11/07 Tivoli 7:00 p.m.). While totally different in terms of story content, there’s a whimsical feeling to both as well as a great deal of past cinematic influence. Creedmoria, which deals with the life of a dysfunctional family in ‘80s Queens, seems to borrow a lot of the vivid color palette and quirky characters from filmmakers such as Wes Anderson and Sophia Coppola. A lot of the film spirals off into random and aimless indie-movie whimsy but ascends to significant emotional ground as the story reaches its conclusion. While being so meticulously and economically shot and decorated, the story isn’t very economical, but it’s a visually interesting work nonetheless.

The same goes for The Fitzroy, about a submarine hotel that lodges permanent residents in an alternative 1950s post-apocalyptic dystopia where natural air can no longer be breathed. The style is heavily reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose great film, Delicatessen (11/06 Tivoli 9:30 p.m.), will have a repertory screening at the festival. The style is wholly fitting for the type of story it tells, and it sure is fun to watch. But it’s sort of a dud, story wise. Certainly energetic and fun but also not too captivating, it’s really just a murder-mystery dark comedy, but the laughs are few and far between and the suspense is completely absent, as the film is told from the point of view of the individuals committing crimes.

Easily the best two films I screened were Harmonium (11/04 Frontenac 12:15 p.m.; 11/07 Frontenac 12:15 p.m.) and Staying Vertical (11/04 Frontenac 9:30 p.m.; 11/05 Frontenac 4:15 p.m.), which both competed at Cannes (Harmonium winning the Prix Un Certain Regard). Harmonium concerns a husband, wife, and their pre-teen daughter in Japan. An old friend of the husband is released from prison and is given a job in their workshop and a room in the family home. The husband’s uncertain involvement with the crime that landed his friend in prison begins to bubble to the surface, and tragic events loom in the near future as the mysterious friend’s involvement with his wife and daughter takes an unsettling turn. Told in an astute and understated fashion, Harmonium is a devastating story about the haunting life of past mistakes and the weak spots in a family that can cause it to crumble.

Equally as brutal but much harder to understand was Staying Vertical, described as one of the most shocking and puzzling films to play at Cannes. While that description has made its way around early festival press, it isn’t quite as transgressive as one would expect. It’s just that the highly graphic sexual nature is so jarring given the rural backwoods setting and the restrained nature of the rest of the film. A struggling screenwriter stops in a prairie to talk to a strange girl herding sheep and protecting them from wolves. In quick succession, we see them fornicate, get pregnant, and move in together with the child. Soon, the mother abandons both of them, and the mystified and desperate screenwriter struggles to take care of his son and find money as he runs away from every conceivable responsibility, instead, finding himself in the most strange and erotic situations with the last people you’d ever imagine. While definitely impactful and captivating, I still am having trouble wrapping my head around it, although I know many people who say a mixed reaction to a film is indicative of it being great in your mind later on. If there’s one film I want to revisit the most when it plays at SLIFF, it will be this one.

A couple of the studio movies that weren’t available for me to see are Elle (11/13 Frontenac 5:00 p.m.), the erotic thriller directed by Paul Verhoeven, who you may know as the director of Starship Troopers and Showgirls, and Jackie (11/13 Frontenac 6:00 p.m.), starring Natalie Portman. An often schlocky and exploitative filmmaker, Verhoeven’s work and style are interesting to say the least. And with Michael Hanneke regular Isabelle Huppert starring, I’m very excited to see what Elle is all about. Jackie is a biopic of the life of first lady Jackie Kennedy shortly before and after the assassination of her husband, and Portman looks the role and hopefully will match her best work. Some very promising repertory screenings are hitting the festival as well, most notably a string of films from black filmmakers: Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (11/06 St. Louis Public Library 1:30 p.m.), Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (11/13 Tivoli 8:00 p.m.—the first film by a black woman to find distribution in the U.S.), and Within Our Gates (11/12 Webster University, 7:00 p.m.), a silent film from one of America’s first black filmmakers, Oscar Micheaux. Also, for a must-see special event, Rats and the People Motion Picture Orchestra will perform a live score for Fritz Lang’s Destiny (11/05 Webster University 8:00 p.m.).

It’s going to be a very eventful and diverse festival this year, and from the looks of it, maybe one of the best. | Nic Champion

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