SLIFF 2007 Preview

Son of Rambow

ST. LOUIS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL | November 8-18, 2007 Film Editor Pete Timmernann gives his highlights for the St. Louis International Film Festival. You can also see what the rest of our critics have to say about their choice picks in the Film Festival section.







sliff20071.gifAs someone who is super anal about seeing the films I want to see as soon as humanly possible, film festivals are the best things in the world. In my pre-film critic days, I used to ask off of my crappy minimum wage job the day a movie I wanted to see came out (meaning that I almost never worked Fridays) and see the first screening that day (I even would ditch friends and see the movie alone if it meant seeing it a few hours sooner), and then the world of press screenings opened up to me, and, much to my enjoyment, international film festivals came around soon thereafter, where I am often the first person in the world to see the year’s best movies, before my expectations are dickied with by hearing too many plot points, reading too many reviews, seeing too many trailers, and all of that other crap that keeps me from seeing movies in a complete vacuum, which is what I ultimately desire. And, while the St. Louis International Film Festival isn’t where most of the greatest movies screen for the first time (the best world premiere I ever saw there was the then not-so-famous Jenna Fischer’s Lollilove back in 2004), it is where a good deal of the year’s best films screen locally for the first time. And really, there’s no more intellectually fertile environment for film lovers than a good film festival.

Since I am so privileged as to get to go to places like Sundance and Cannes, I have already seen the lion’s share of SLIFF 2007’s high-profile screenings, which is both sort of disappointing as I don’t have as much to look forward to and handy in terms of writing this piece. Of the ones that I’ve seen, Son of Rambow (11/10, St. Louis Art Museum, 3:00 p.m.) is probably my favorite. Rambow was directed by Garth Jennings, who did the underrated The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a couple of years back, and is about a young boy named Will whose mother shelters him from all of the great things in life (namely movies), and who meets and befriends the school troublemaker Carter, who shows him Rambo: First Blood, which blows his mind (of course-remember the first time you saw an R-rated movie?  Now imagine if that was the first movie you ever saw.  And it was really violent.), and they set out to remake it on their own and do their own stunts. Jennings has a lot of flair as a director (I said in my Sundance wrap-up that Rambow plays like Rushmore if it had been directed by Michel Gondry, and I stand by that), and there are all sorts of fun surprises to be had in Rambow. It was one of the biggest acquisitions at Sundance (Paramount Vantage bought it for $8 million, which is Little Miss Sunshine money), but they haven’t done the best job since keeping it in the public eye. You’ll be lucky to see it here under relatively low-key circumstances-this one will likely blow up.

Aside from Rambow, Julian Schnabel’s (Basquiat) The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (11/18, St. Louis Art Museum, 6:00 p.m.) is quite good-its first half implies that it could be a masterpiece, and only in the second half does it devolve into the typical tropes of a biopic, albeit an above average one. Diving Bell is based on the memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby (played by Kings & Queen‘s Mathieu Amalric), who was the editor of the French version of Elle magazine, but who had a stroke at a very young age that left him completely paralyzed save the ability to blink his one remaining eye. The aforementioned first half has lots of expressionistic camerawork from seasoned DP Janusz Kaminski, which has people framed from Bauby’s skewed, immobile point of view, lots of things out of focus, and one memorable POV shot of his unusable eye being stitched over. Plus, it has the lovely Marie-Josée Croze and Bauby’s nurse Henriette Durand leaning down and talking into the camera for a substantial part of the movie, which makes it endlessly hypnotic, and almost makes you wish that you were paralyzed, if only so that you could have a nurse like her.

If it’s reputable, not-too-calculated Oscar bait that you like to chase after at the festival, Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages (11/15, Tivoli, 9:30savages.jpg p.m.) is a good choice, as I won’t be surprised to see Philip Seymour Hoffman or Laura Linney get a nomination for their work in this film when the time comes, and besides, the movie’s not bad either. Linney and Hoffman play siblings who are charged with putting their father in a nursing home after he’s been causing trouble with his wife’s caretaker back at home. The film strikes a nice balance between comedies both broad and subtle and also the outright dramatic, and is certainly one of the highlights of this year’s festival.

Also good but maybe not quite as great are Chicago 10 (11/17, Plaza Frontenac, 4:45 p.m.), which is an animated docudrama thing from The Kid Stays In the Picture‘s Brett Morgan, which has actors such as Mark Ruffalo and Hank Azaria speak the actual recorded testimonies from the trial related to the commotion at the 1968 Democratic convention. The result falls a little short of its intended purpose, but is both stirring and entertaining nonetheless. Another good animated choice is Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s Persepolis (11/17, Plaza Frontenac, 7:00 p.m.), which is based on Satrapi’s graphic novels of the same name, and is also stirring and entertaining, this time based on Satrapi’s childhood as an outspoken and troublemaking girl during the Islamic Revolution.

There’s also good stuff like Thai auteur Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Ploy (11/10, Plaza Frontenac, 9:45 p.m. and 11/12, Plaza Frontenac, 7:15 p.m.), which is very good but not quite his best work (that title belongs to Last Life in the Universe), or bad stuff like the disappointing Kilometre Zero (11/15, Plaza Frontenac, 2:30 p.m. and 11/17, Plaza Frontenac, 2:30 p.m.) from Hiner Saleem, who directed the pretty cool SLIFF alumnus Vodka Lemon. The John Cusack vehicle Grace is Gone (11/9, Tivoli, 7:00 p.m.) sounds unpleasantly schmaltzy and awful if you read its plot synopsis in the program guide (it’s about a father who can’t bring himself to tell his young daughters that their mother just died in Iraq, so he takes them to a theme park instead), it isn’t as bad as it could have been, even if it isn’t great. Besides, that’s another one that I won’t be too surprised to see come up come Oscar season. The William Castle documentary Spine Tingler (11/14, Tivoli, 7:15 p.m.) is also pretty fun, but marred by two things. One, I’ve read and loved Castle’s now out-of-print autobiography Step Right Up! I’m Going to Scare the Pants Off America, and Tingler doesn’t offer anything near the insights or fun Step Right Up! does. The other problem is that Tingler is showing opposite (and in the same venue) as one of the most anticipated film of the festival (if not the most anticipated-it’s far and away the film I’m most looking forward to seeing), Jason Reitman’s Juno (11/14, Tivoli, 7:00 p.m.), but it will be a nice consolation prize for those who show up and get sold out of Juno (which I got tickets for a week in advance of its screening, and learned that seats to the screening were already about 80% sold-the point is, for these higher profile screenings you plan to attend, get your tickets fast, if you haven’t already). Besides, word has it that there will be some kind of gimmick involved in Tingler‘s screening, in true Castle fashion. Even if it’s just nurses who offer life insurance policies in case of death by fright, that’d be more than enough for me.

Juno aside, of course there is some other stuff that I’m looking forward to seeing in this year’s festival, but can’t really weigh in on regarding its quality yet, on account of not having seen them. Everything from the locally shot Bill (11/15, Tivoli, 7:00 p.m.), which many locals might recall as it brought Jessica Alba and Aaron Eckhart to town for a few days last year to the documentaries A Walk Into the Sea (11/18, St. Louis Art Museum, 12:30 p.m.), Strange Culture (11/17, Steinberg Auditorium at Washington University, 6:00 p.m.) and Taxi to the Dark Side (11/17, Steinberg Auditorium, 8:15 p.m.) is looking pretty good, and while I’ve seen most of the stuff in it, I’m also terribly excited about the shorts program of Aardman Animation’s work (11/18, Webster University, 6:00 p.m.), if only because it includes my favorite of jamesgunn.jpgthe three original Wallace & Gromit shorts, "A Close Shave."

Regarding filmmakers present at this year’s festival, the opening night screening of Honeydripper (11/8, Tivoli, 7:00 p.m.) brings John Sayles, and also Peter Greenaway is coming and will appear at a screening of short works called "Water Films" (11/17, Pulitzer, 7:00 p.m.) as well as the screening of his 1988 film Drowning By Numbers (11/18, St. Louis Art Museum, 2:30 p.m.), who combined make up the two biggest names coming to the festival. While the Sayles and Greenaway events are sure to be interesting, I’m personally more excited for the presence of native St. Louisan James Gunn, who wrote my favorite Troma film of all time, Tromeo & Juliet, and who is appearing at three different events: a screening of Slither, which he wrote and directed last year (11/9, Webster University, 7:30 p.m.), a screening of Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss, which he loves (11/10, Webster University, 7:30 p.m.), and in an interview with L.A. Weekly‘s film editor Scott Foundas (11/11, Tivoli, 12:45 p.m.).

Overall, it should work out to be a pretty good festival, not to imply that they ever aren’t very good. Any excuse I can take to go back to my old days of asking off of work and watching movies all day doesn’t have to be sold too hard on me. | Pete Timmermann

St. Louis International Film Festival Web Site

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