SLIFF 2007 Preview | Bowman

sliff20072.gifAs is a tradition of the festival, you can get a peek at some more high-profile film releases before they hit theatres later this year (or, sometimes as is the case with Saint Louis, next year).








Each year, I await the announcement of the Saint Louis International Film Festival’s with much unwarranted excitement. As someone who’s never been to Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, or Venice, I pay close attention to the line-up of each, tallying an unofficial list of what’s suiting my fancy. This year, new films from Catherine Breillat (Une vieille maîtresse), Abel Ferrara (Go Go Tales), Olivier Assayas (Boarding Gate), Gus Van Sant (Paranoid Park), Wong Kar-wai (My Blueberry Nights), and Carlos Reygadas (Silent Night) premiered at Cannes… none of which will be making their Saint Louis premiere at this year’s festival (mind you, it‘s only a coincidence that three of the aforementioned films star Asia Argento, as she appears to work with filmmakers that intrigue me). In fact, only two Cannes entries will be exhibiting this year, Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Art Museum, 11/18, 6 p.m.) and Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s Persepolis (11/17, Plaza Frontenac, 7 p.m.). This would normally be an opportunity for griping on my part, but both were big winners this year: Diving Bell won the Best Director prize and Perespolis took home a Jury Prize and has been selected as France’s Oscar submission this year. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly chronicles the paralysis of the editor of Elle magazine (Mathieu Almaric) from the director of Before Night Falls and co-starring a healthy dose of exceptional French-speaking actors including Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Max von Sydow, Marina Hines, and Issach De Bankolé. Persepolis is a black-and-white animation based on the co-director Satrapi’s childhood in Iran, and the film will be presented in its original French language with Catherine Deneuve, her daughter Chiarra Mastroianni, and Danielle Darrieux providing their voices.awalkintothesea.jpg

As is a tradition of the festival, you can get a peek at some more high-profile film releases before they hit theatres later this year (or, sometimes as is the case with Saint Louis, next year). This year boasts Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (11/11, Plaza Frontenac, 7 p.m.), with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, and Marisa Tomei, about a hold-up gone awry. Though certainly not Network, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is incredibly more successful than anything Lumet’s done in years. Buy your tickets early if you want to catch the Saint Louis-filmed Bill (11/15, Tivoli, 7 p.m.) with Aaron Eckhart, as you can be certain the locals will be flocking to see if they can see the back of their cousin’s neighbor’s head behind Jessica Alba. Let’s just hope it’s better than The Game of Our Lives/The Miracle Match. John Sayles’ (Lone Star) latest, Honeydripper (11/08, Tivoli, 7 p.m.), will also make its Saint Louis premiere at the festival, with the director in attendance for a Lifetime Achievement Award with his longtime producer/companion Maggie Renzi. Juno (11/14, Tivoli, 7 p.m.), from the director of Thank You for Smoking, will likely have a sell-out attendance with its Little Miss Sunshine appeal and exceptional cast, which includes Arrested Development‘s Michael Cera and Jason Bateman, in addition to Jennifer Garner, Allison Janney, the U.S. Office‘s Rainn Wilson, and Ellen Page as a quirky pregnant teen. You can also get a double dose of Philip Seymour Hoffman this year with The Savages (11/15, Tivoli, 9:30 p.m.), a dramedy from Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills) co-starring Laura Linney about a brother and sister caring for their dying father. John Cusack stars in Grace Is Gone (11/09, Tivoli, 7 p.m.), a drama about a man who takes his two daughters on a road trip after his wife is killed in Iraq. Grace Is Gone marks the directorial debut of James Strouse, who wrote the screenplay for Steve Buscemi’s Lonesome Jim. Lynn Hershman Leeson (Teknolust) will receive a special Women in Film award for her film Strange Culture (11/17, Washington University, 6 p.m.), a documentary about how artist Steve Kurtz became suspected of being a "bioterrorist;" Strange Culture features the voices of Tilda Swinton, Thomas Jay Ryan, and Peter Coyote, speaking for what Kurtz can‘t legally say. Also in the documentary program, Warhol enthusiasts might also want to check out A Walk into Sea (11/18, Art Museum, 12:30 p.m.), which chronicles Warhol’s relationship with an aspiring filmmaker named Danny Williams. The film has appearances from some of the Warhol superstars, including Paul Morrissey, Brigid Berlin, The Velvet Underground, and Edie Sedgwick. One of the nice surprises of the line-up is director Paul Schrader’s unassuming The Walker (11/16, Plaza Frontenac, 7 p.m.; 11/17, Plaza Frontenac, 9:30 p.m.). After the disaster surrounding his Exorcist prequel, the director, most famous for writing Taxi Driver and directing the fantastically trashy Cat People remake and American Gigolo among others, goes low-key for a murder mystery involving the socialite class of Washington D.C. as seen through the eyes of a man hired to walk and entertain wealthy women in their daily activities, played by Woody Harrelson. Though it takes a bit of patience getting used to Harrelson as a delicate "southern belle," The Walker‘s supporting cast, which includes Kristin Scott Thomas, Lauren Bacall, Lily Tomlin, Mary Beth Hurt, Moritz Bleibtreu, and an all-to-brief Willem Dafoe, is uniformly astounding. The Walker is a strange mystery that’s never quite riveting, but consistently smart, two things most Hollywood thrillers never come close to, so to see a film as grounded, plausible, and clever as this is an exceptional feat in itself.

Naturally, the beauty of going to really any film festival is uncovering those hidden gems beneath the Junos and Before the Devils, films whose reputation does not proceed them yet spark the "magic of cinema" and can make you feel way cooler for loving a film no one you know has heard of. For me, Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Ploy (11/10, Plaza Frontenac, 9:45 p.m.; 11/12, Plaza Frontenac, 7:15 p.m.) is that film. Ratanruang has always been a favorite of the festival, as just about all of his films from 6ixtynin9 on have screened at the festival (though I heard last year’s Invisible Waves got lost on its way to town), so maybe I won’t be as cool as I think I am. Ratanaruang is an exemplary filmmaker for the growing world of Thai film, a director whose earlier works imitate the works of popular Japanese, Hong Kongese, and American cinema (6ixtynin9 is Tarantino if he ever made a comedy-of-errors) only to grow into more of a cinematic visionary along the lines of Wong Kar-wai or Tsai Ming-liang (2003’s Last Life in the Universe is a fine example of this). Though Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady) ranks as my favorite Thai filmmaker, Ratanaruang is holding strong at second. With Ploy, Ratanaruang creates an almost-jaw-droppingly gorgeous visual landscape, taking place almost entirely in the rooms of a Bangkok hotel during the final hours of night. The film is, at turns, both tender and pensive while also extremely erotic and dangerous, and, best of all, a glorious visual delight which almost demands to be seen on the big screen.

Outside of the Asian film selection, which also includes a romance from Infernal Affairs director Andrew Lau entitled Daisy (11/17, Plaza Frontenac, 7:15 p.m.; 11/18, Plaza Frontenac, 6:30 p.m.) and the latest film from Shower director Zhang Yang, Getting Home (11/09, Plaza Frontenac, 7 p.m.; 11/11, Plaza Frontenac, 4:30 p.m.), SLIFF’s foreign film assortment disappoints, a clusterfuck of socially-relevant docudramas that will likely premiere on DVD in a few years from collections like Film Movement (in fact, the best film I ever saw at SLIFF, Catherine Breillat’s uncompromising Fat Girl, was the second-lowest audience-rated of the 2001 program). Standing out among the crowd is The Sacred Family (11/09, Tivoli, 5 p.m.; 11/13, Tivoli, 5 p.m.), from Chile, a Dogme 95-esque (I’m not sure that the film abides by the entire doctrine) exploration of the unholy unions between a family on the weekend of Easter. There’s a cloud of dread that hovers above the film at all times, as twentysomething architecture student Marco (Néstor Cantillana) introduces his parents to his new girlfriend, an insufferable theatre student (Patricia López) whose obnoxious opinions are only exceeded by her willingness to impose them onto those she’s just met. Certainly, one will spot similarities between Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration and The Sacred Family, but The Sacred Family is considerably more morose and humorless. Though successful in its endeavors, The Sacred Family is one of those gloom-and-doom melodramas that seem all-too-familiar in the international festival circuit. For a change of tone, I wouldn’t suggest visiting Italy’s Manual of Love (11/16, Plaza Frontenac, 9:45 p.m.; 11/17, Plaza Frontenac, 2:15 p.m.), an exercise in post-Amèlie romantic comedy tedium, a film that’s an unsavory reminder of why the term "crowd-pleaser" makes my skin crawl. For fans of Black Book and The Lives of Others, I might suggest Hungary’s Children of Glory (11/10, Plaza Frontenac, 7 p.m.; 11/11, Plaza Frontenac, 9:30 p.m.), a post-WWII tale of the Hungarian resistance against communist Russia that escalated into both the demolition of Budapest and perhaps the most violent water polo match in Olympic history. You might be surprised to see the name Joe Eszterhas, the infamous screenwriter of Basic Instinct and Showgirls, appear in the opening credits. As a native of Hungary, Eszterhas returned to the country for his first screenplay since the epically disastrous Burn Hollywood Burn. With Children of Glory, Eszterhas puts the sleaze on the backburner for this historical drama, a satisfying film, if not nearly as successful as his Basic Instinct director Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book. Rounding out the list of notable foreign-language entries this year are Hiner Saleem’s (Vodka Lemon) Kilometre Zero (11/15, Plaza Frontenac, 2:30 p.m.; 11/17, Plaza Frontenac, 2:30 p.m.), an Iraqi-French co-production about racial tensions between the Kurds and Iraqis; The Method (11/11, Art Museum, 7:15 p.m.), from director Marcelo Piñeyro (Burnt Money) about the cutthroat nature of the corporate business world, starring Eduardo Noriega and Najwa Nimri (both of Open Your Eyes); Leesong Hee-il’s No Regret (11/11, Tivoli, 9:45 p.m.), which tackles the subject of male prostitution in South Korea; Waitor (11/11, Plaza Frontenac, 2 p.m.; 11/12, Plaza Frontenac, 5 p.m.), a Dutch comedy from writer/director/actor Alex van Warmerdam (Little Tony, The Dress); and A Year in My Life (11/11, Art Museum, 5 p.m.; 11/17, Plaza Frontenac, 12:15 p.m.), a period film about a young French boy’s adolescence during the 1950s, directed by actor Daniel Duval (Caché, Changing Times).

Most of my excitement of this year’s festival actually comes from a bunch of old favorites. St. Louis native James Gunn, the screenwriter of the Dawn of the Dead update and a handful of Troma films, will screen his underappreciated horror-comedy Slither (11/09, Webster University, 7:30 p.m.), a film destined for a more expansive cult following in years to come. He’ll also host a screening of one of my all-time faves, Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (11/10, Webster University, 7:30 p.m.), a wonderfully pulpy film noir masterpiece about a bald prostitute’s (the amazing Constance Towers) decision to turn her life around, for better or worse. If you have yet to experience the world of Sam Fuller, reserve your tickets immediately as The Naked Kiss is probably the best starting point in your quest to find out why Fuller is possibly France’s favorite American filmmaker. Also in attendance will be Peter Greenaway, the acclaimed, controversial director of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, who will be screening his equally delicious (any pun related to The Cook, the Thief… was unintentional, I assure you) Drowning by Numbers (11/18, Art Museum, 2:30 p.m.). The film follows the strange and unusual exploits of a mother (Joan Plowright) and her two daughters (Juliet Stevenson, Joely Richardson), all named Cissi Colpitts, and their discontent with, and subsequent murders of, their husbands. If you’re familiar with Greenaway, you are aware of the cinematic delights of his cinematography, peculiar humor, and elaborate set design which is possibly best exemplified in Drowning by Numbers, a film that could also be seen as a filmic seek-and-find as the numbers one through one-hundred all appear hidden inside the frame. I might also note that this is a rare opportunity to see Drowning by Numbers, which is grudgingly unavailable on DVD in almost all the world (though I’m not complaining, I do wonder why Greenaway’s more recent films, several chapters in his chronicle of his cinematic alter-ego Tulse Luper and his portrait of Rembrandt, Nightwatching, were not selected for this year’s fest). Greenaway will be present for a question-and-answer following the screening. Other older films of note playing this year include two rarely seen classics from the 1920s John Ford’s silent The Iron Horse (11/16, Art Museum, 7 p.m.) and the experimental feature Crossroads (11/10, Art Museum, 7 p.m.) from Japan. Happy festival going! | Joe Bowman

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