SLIFF 2008 Preview

film_sliff_sm.jpgFrom the experimental to the mainstream, the SLIFF can introduce you to some of the best in the cinema.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every year the St. Louis International Film Festival affords the inquisitive film lover the opportunity to have their horizons broadened with outstanding foreign and domestic fare. From the experimental to the mainstream, the SLIFF can introduce you to some of the best in the cinema. At past SLIFFs I was fortunate to be introduced to the works of Guillermo del Toro, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Don Hertzfeldt, among many others, relatively early in their creative careers. Perhaps this year will lead to a similar discovery.

Audiences should not miss the 2007 Best Foreign Film nominee from Israel, Beaufort (Bufor) as it is gripping cinema, reminiscent of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, and its sweeping, rocky vistas benefit from the big screen. The film chronicles the halting withdrawal of an Israeli army unit holding an ancient fort in Lebanese territory. Under erratic fire but in constant danger, the men make desultory patrols while trying to pack up their command and slip out. Hopelessness and confusion reign. No one is sure who gave the original order to take the fort, and, as casualties mount, the men rage against their pointless and conflicted mission. Remarkably, this fort and others like it still exist and are pawns in the modern Middle Eastern chess game. Built by the Crusaders almost a thousand years ago, one can feel the weight of hopelessness cast a shadow over the centuries: soldiers, far from home, always under threat, but with no visible enemy to shoot at to relieve the tension. This despair must have been a constant presence at this place from its construction through the rise and fall of the Ottomans, British colonial troops, now the Israelis.

One of this year’s SLIFF’s emerging talents may prove to be Spain‘s Nacho Vigalondo, who makes the transition from intriguing (and Oscar-nominated) shorts with Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes). Worn out from moving into his spacious new home, frumpled, middle-aged, Hector (Karra Elejalde) sees a naked girl in the woods behind his backyard and goes to investigate. Attacked by a mysterious assailant, he seeks refuge in a neighboring scientific compound, where he stumbles into a time machine. Transported to immediately before his encounter with the naked girl and the assailant, he must simultaneously keep away from his past self while ensuring that he makes exactly the same decisions that will catch his past self up with his future self. Confusing? The film is not; it is a gripping and mind-bending exercise in time travel mechanics and personal relationships. While not as elaborate as the excellent Primer, the simple, well-executed film is an engrossing 90 minutes.

They are called "heavies" or "goons" when they are villains; when they the good guys, they are usually the first to die. They are the security for the rich, famous and powerful. And in The Custodian (El Custodio), director Rodrigo Moreno puts one of them center stage. The balding, baggy-pantsed Ruben (a brilliant performance by Julio Chavez) serves as part of the security detail for a high-profile minister in Argentina. Ruben irons his shirts and slicks back his hair and slides into the background as surely as if he was the wallpaper. Director Moreno exquisitely captures the endless waiting involved in such a job, the aimless conversations with other hired guns, trips to the water cooler, wistful stares out the window at exotic locations. Of course, most films focus on the minister, not his hired help. Surely each of those background characters around the rich and powerful has their own story: unstable relatives, unfulfilled dreams, lonely attempts to extract happiness. To go with this existential angst, the film also showcases the less flattering side of the powerful, arbitrary orders, dehumanizing tasks. However, slights are one thing; intentional embarrassment is quite something else. Ruben has some artistic ability and a great affinity for it. One afternoon, the minister asks Ruben to quickly sketch a powerful visiting UN official. While it is unclear if Ruben realizes he’s been made a fool of, later in the evening, he overhears the minister’s wife berating him for embarrassing Ruben. He increasingly comes to know that his life is meaningless and it is only a matter of time before the minister is rid of him. An accident late in the film is offhandedly laid at an increasingly frustrated Ruben’s feet and things do not end well. The moral of this effecting drama is, be kind to the help.

The grandest in scope of the films I saw, The Heartbeat Detector (La Question Humaine) is a sprawling look a politics, psychology and corporate greed across the 20th century. Simon Kessler (Mathieu Amalric) is the psychologist for a European chemical giant. All is well until menacing manager, Karl Rose (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) taps him to secretly look into the actions of the CEO, Mathias Just (Michael Lonsdale). Sure enough, to the manager’s consternation, the CEO is growing concerned with his company and its increasingly inhumane practices. From a novel by Francois Emmanuel, the film draws a direct connection between the corporation’s current actions in the name of efficiency and shareholder equity and those followed by the Nazis in the name of racial purity (the fictional firm is SC Farb, a cipher for the German firm IG Farben whose chemicals drove the Nazi war machine and the Holocaust and whose leadership was prosecuted for war crimes). The deeper he goes into the psychology of the firm and its leaders, and the more he has to simultaneously serve Rose and his own conscience, the more Kessler begins to come apart under the strain. While there may be too much for the ambitious filmmakers to handle ("sprawling" can easily become bloated and unwieldy), The Heartbeat Detector is gripping and well worth the time.

Looking for a scare on Saturday night at the Tivoli? You will find it with well-constructed genre film, Alone (Faet) from Thailand. A survivor of a botched conjoined twin separation, Pim (Marsha Wattanapanich, a minor Thai pop star and model) tries to find a new life in Korea. Pulled back to Thailand by her mother’s illness, Pim’s dead sister Ploy re-inserts herself into Pim’s life with predictably horrific consequences. It is elevated above traditional genre fare by its focus on the girls’ emotional life and by concentrating on the fine line that separates a close, loving bond, from a suffocating garrote.

Among the domestic films I reviewed, the stand out was the dreamy Half-Life. A hyper-real account of a family’s disintegration set against the world’s slowly worsening political and environmental situation. Daughter Pamela (the excellent Sanoe Lake) drifts between infatuations with her gay neighbor and her mother’s new, much younger boyfriend, Wendell (the menacing Ben Redgrave). Son Timothy (a stand-out performance from Alexander Agate) is totally adrift, relying on fantasy (rendered in fantastic, evocative animation) to come to grips with his father’s sudden and probably intentional disappearance in a small plane. And, as she admits halfway through the film, their mother (Julia Nickson-Soul)—the lone, semi-functional "grown-up" in the film—is unequipped to "deal" with any of it. Punctuated by ominous news bulletins (from background newscasts and in conversation—which could have been more smoothly woven into the film) about increasing random violence and environmental decay, the film draws the provocative link between the macro and the micro. Do political turmoil and environmental disaster create the pressures that drive people to irrational acts and cruelty, or simply give them a convenient excuse for acting on their base desires?

Among the more memorable scenes is one where Timothy cuts his finger opening a can of fruit. Boyfriend Wendell helpfully tells Timothy that the boy can use his mind to not just overcome the pain, but actually heal the cut. When this does not work, Wendell shrugs and says, "Never worked for me either," and then walks away, failing to even get the boy a band-aid. This scene and the film’s denouement rely upon a quick, but not unforeseen dose of the supernatural. While this might be seen as being a shortcut, it may be the filmmaker’s way of positing that this family—and perhaps the world—is too far gone to be saved by anything but magic. Well-crafted, buoyed by strong performances and some shots of black humor, Half-Life is a must-see and writer/director Jennifer Phang is an emerging talent to watch.

An old "talent to watch"—Daniel Myrick, one of the co-creators of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project—is back making the rounds with a new horror film, The Objective. A squad of U.S. soldiers is dispatched with a CIA operative ostensibly to find and gain the cooperation of a key Muslim cleric in the hinterlands of Afghanistan in the early stages of the US invasion. However, their objective is not what it appears to be as only the CIA man knows. Mixing elements of Blair Witch‘s minimalist scares and the mounting dread that follows becoming increasingly lost, with the meditative narration of the CIA agent (a la Apocalypse Now), results in a largely dull trek across a barren landscape. While not wholly without merit, do not waste a precious festival time slot on this trip.

You may not have heard the word "mumblecore" but you’ve probably seen a film made by its rules or influenced by them: low budgets, hand-held cameras, lots of improvisation, and an obsession with twentysomethings and their dreams and relationships. Nights and Weekends is among the latest entries (one of two in the festival—the other being Yeast) in the movement’s catalogue. It chronicles the rise and fall of a relationship that begins passionately but ultimately destroys itself; its triggering event being a transition to a long-distance romance. Co-writers, co-directors and principal actors Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig leave it all on the screen as their impetuous passion and dreams gradually fall apart across time and distance, a victim of emotional entropy.

John Bergin brings his stark, post-Apocalyptic graphic novel From Inside to the screen as a series of brilliantly rendered, if occasionally monotonous, visions of hell on Earth that would do Hieronymus Bosch proud. Cee, a pregnant woman, is trapped (or saved?) with the last of Earth’s surviving population on a train to nowhere. Fueled by anything that can burn and run by terrifying engineers that may, or may not be human, the train runs through a nightmare landscape, though things on board are only marginally better. Bergin did much of the animation himself and it is impressive, if unendingly grim. Even at only 71 minutes, it feels a little long.

One of the more ultimately disappointing films was the coming-of-age story, The Flyboys. It begins as a pleasant tale of an unpopular kid with a family legacy of flying who befriends his small town’s tough new loner. Throw in some mobsters, a classic plane, and a daring heist, and you have an enjoyable 90 minutes or so highlighted by Stephen Baldwin and Tom Sizemore as Mafioso brothers who are taught a thing or two about friendship and brotherhood by the two boys. Then, after pleasantly playing out genre conventions and obeying the laws of physics, the film’s climactic scene blows any credibility and goodwill that the film has generated. One could sooner believe Indiana Jones’ preposterous escape from an atomic blast in a lead-lined refrigerator than Flyboys‘ death-defying aerial stunt performed by a backwoods pilot as he saves the boys’ lives. This is a shame as it is otherwise, a well-made film and pleasant time at the movies. | Joe Hodes

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