SLIFF 2008 Preview

film_sliff_sm.jpgIt looks to be a pretty strong year for the festival, so don’t feel bad about exhausting either yourself or your wallet.







It’s always best to know what you’re getting into before attending a film festival of any kind. You’ve likely heard of at least a few films playing, but hopefully I can draw your attention toward (or maybe against) some of the other films showcasing at this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival, now in its 17th year.

Though I’ve never been fond of Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream), his latest The Wrestler (11/23, 6:30 p.m., Plaza Frontenac), which closes the festival, has been touted as being a vast change for the director, abandoning the highly (maybe overly) stylized nature of his previous works. Starring Mickey Rourke as an aging professional wrestler, Marisa Tomei as his stripper girlfriend and Evan Rachel Wood as his daughter, The Wrestler won the top honor at this year’s Venice Film Festival, the same festival which nearly ripped him apart when he presented his ludicrous The Fountain two years ago. I can barely contain my excitement for The Class (11/22, 6:30 p.m., Frontenac), this year’s recipient of the Palme d’Or, from director Laurent Cantet (Heading South, Time Out). Adapted from the novel Entre les murs by François Bégaudeau, the film chronicles the classroom life of a literature teacher, played by Bégaudeau, in a racially-mixed high school; The Class is also France’s official submission for the foreign language Academy Awards this year. Other potential nominees for next year’s foreign film Oscar include Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (11/23, 3:15 p.m., Frontenac) from Israel and Bent Hamer’s surreal O’Horten (11/22, 4:30 p.m., Frontenac) from Norway, both of which premiered at Cannes this year. I didn’t get a chance to catch The Heartbeat Detector (11/18, 6:30 p.m., Frontenac; 11/19, 1:30 p.m., Frontenac), a French corporate mystery starring the wonderful Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, A Christmas Tale). There are two documentaries I also hope to catch this year. The first is Terence Davies’ "love song to Liverpool," Of Time and the City (11/15, 12:30 p.m., Tivoli), which Geoff Andrew of Time Out called "the only truly great movie to emerge [from Cannes this year]." The other is Tom Donahue and Paul Hasegawa-Overacker’s Guest of Cindy Sherman (11/22, 9 p.m., Tivoli), which follows the directors as they go one-on-one with renowned photographic artist Cindy Sherman.

Rounding out the list of the big name films I have yet to see this year, Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom (11/22, 7:15 p.m., Frontenac), which stars Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz, Mark Ruffalo and Rinko Kikuchi (best known as the deaf girl from Babel), takes a comedic change from the noir-ish high school of his first feature, Brick. Danny Boyle, the chameleon-like director of such films as Trainspotting, 28 Days Later and The Beach, continues his unpredictable cinematic path with Slumdog Millionaire (11/15, 8 p.m., Tivoli), a crowd-pleaser about a young boy who becomes a contestant on the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. In writer/director Mark Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (11/16, noon, Art Museum), two of my favorite contemporary actors, David Thewlis and Vera Farmiga, play a married couple in this Holocaust drama. And finally, Paul Schrader will be in attendance to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award and perform a Q&A after a screening of his wonderful Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (11/15, 2:15 p.m., Tivoli). Schrader will also be showing his latest, Adam Resurrected (11/14, 7 p.m., Tivoli), starring Jeff Goldblum as a Holocaust survivor.

The only major studio release I had a chance to see beforehand was Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long (11/23, 6:15 p.m., Frontenac). Though I was notably more underwhelmed than a lot of critics seem to be about the film, it does feature a career-best performance from Kristin Scott Thomas, who is a more-than-likely candidate for a Best Actress Oscar as long as the Academy isn’t scared about awarding another francophone performance (even though Scott Thomas is British) after Marion Cotillard’s win earlier this year. Another Best Actress possibility comes from Michelle Williams as a down-on-her-luck young woman in Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (11/17, 7 p.m., Tivoli), one of the high points of this year’s selection. Williams, stripped of make-up and Hollywood lighting, allows her face to beautifully mirror Wendy’s collapsing life, constantly at her breaking point, particularly when her only companion, her dog Lucy, goes missing in an unfamiliar town. Wendy and Lucy is an arresting follow-up to Reichardt’s spellbinding Old Joy.

Though one of the main attractions of SLIFF is to see what local filmmakers or locally-shot films have to offer, there’s always a wave of disappointment in the selection (did you see Bill last year?). Despite assembling an impressive cast that includes Six Feet Under alums Frances Conroy and Chris Messina, as well as Fairuza Balk, Peter Bogdanovich and Brad Dourif, there isn’t much to like in Humboldt County (11/13, 7 p.m., Tivoli), the directorial debut of St. Louis-born Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs. After being abandoned by a one night stand (Balk), a prudish med student (Jeremy Strong) learns to shed his skin, predictably, with her bohemian family. With a weak central performance from Strong, who’s outshined by nearly every supporting cast member (with the exception of the directors, who play a useless duo in the film), Humboldt County is a standard case of textbook screenwriting, which only makes Strong’s character more irritating with the audience always two steps ahead of his own revelations. Other films with St. Louis ties include a double-feature from local director Jim Finn, The Juche Idea and Interkosmos (11/13, 7:30 p.m., Webster University); a free screening of Steven Soderbergh’s King of the Hill (11/22, 7:30 p.m., Brown Hall at Washington University), which was filmed and set in St. Louis (and still is mysteriously not on DVD); a low-budget crime drama, partially filmed in town, called Mosquito Kingdom (11/23, 5:45 p.m., Tivoli); a romantic comedy called Say Goodnight (11/20, 9:45 p.m., Tivoli); a thriller called Shadowland (11/14, 10:30 p.m., Tivoli); a sports drama entitled Streetballers (11/15, 2:30 p.m., Tivoli); and Webster University grad Brian Jun’s follow-up to Steel City, The Thacker Case (11/21, 7:15 p.m., Tivoli), among others.

For those with an interest in DIY filmmaking, Mary Bronstein, who had a small role in her husband’s Frownland which played at the Webster Film Series this summer, will be on hand for the screening of her directorial debut Yeast (11/14, 7:15 p.m., Tivoli) as well as a Micro-Budget Filmmaking seminar the following day at 11 a.m. at the Tivoli. Yeast stars Bronstein as one of the most insufferable bitches you’ll ever see onscreen, a girl clueless of her own disposition when trying to connect with her two best friends (Greta Gerwig, Amy Judd). Though certainly not a joy to watch, Bronstein creates such an exquisite tone to the mostly improvised film, tackling challenging emotions in a way I’ve likely never seen, outside of her husband Ronald’s similarly frustrating film. Once coming to terms with the film’s uncomfortable confrontations, Yeast is hypnotizing. Considerably less successful is Yeast co-star Gerwig and Joe Swanberg’s Nights and Weekends (11/21, 9:45 p.m., Tivoli) which depicts the crumble of a relationship between two people, played by the directors, who live in different cities. In continuing to prove their status as the least interesting of the so-called mumblecore movement, the directors whine and fuck their way through their post-graduate existence. When placed alongside Swanberg’s previous Kissing on the Mouth, LOL and Hannah Takes the Stairs, Nights and Weekends becomes nearly indistinguishable from the three, showing no advancement in maturity, insight or, most importantly, vision.

From Magnolia Pictures’ genre division, Magnet Releasing, you can catch two of the better examples of international horror/sci-fi at SLIFF this year. Your best bet is Let the Right One In (11/15, 9:30 p.m., Frontenac), a Swedish vampire flick with a surprisingly effective coming-of-age tale weaved in. Like HBO’s True Blood, Let the Right One In adheres to the standard rules of vampires, adding a fresh spin that’s smart instead of pompous. Less engaging, but still enjoyable, is Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes (11/22, 9:15 p.m., Frontenac), a Spanish science-fiction film about a man (Karra Elejalde) who accidentally slips back in time while running from a bandaged killer. Both films, according to the guide, are on their way to American remakes, the latter of which from David Cronenberg. Though it isn’t mentioned in the press kit, the Internet Movie Database also has a remake lined up for Ben X (11/21, 2 p.m., Frontanac; 11/22, 12:15 p.m., Frontenac), a Belgian film about a teenager (Ben Timmermans) with a form of Asperger’s who finds his escape from bully tormenting in a Warcraft-esque video game. Though the film has garnered a small cult following since it’s premiere last year at the Montréal World Film Festival, Ben X‘s appeal is mostly found through fans of Donnie Darko to which it pales in comparison, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t really give a shit about Darko in the first place.

Thai art cinema has always been a staple at SLIFF. This year features Wonderful Town (11/18, 7:15 p.m., Frontenac), a slow-burn romance about an architect’s relationship with a pretty hotel clerk. Though visually attractive, Wonderful Town isn’t the strongest film to come out of Thailand in recent years; instead, it’s another example of the rest of Asia trying to emulate the finer work of Wong Kar-wai. If the absence of romance is more your fancy, Yang Li’s Blind Mountain (11/14, 7 p.m., Frontenac) exposes the devastating effects on a young educated woman tricked into marital slavery in rural China. Hard to watch at times, Blind Mountain is an excellent tragedy of civil liberties in contemporary China.

The worst film I got a chance to see beforehand was easily Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Unknown Woman (11/14, 9:30 p.m., Frontenac; 11/15, 6:45 p.m., Frontenac), an outrageously over-the-top mystery from the director of Cinema Paradiso and Malèna. Tornatore appears ill at ease mixing a Eurotrash "sensibility" to the earnestness of Irena’s (Xenia Rappoport) quest to become the nanny of a wealthy jeweler and his family, even allowing her to resort to some of the same techniques Elizabeth Berkley did in Paul Verhoeven’s wonderful/awful Showgirls to get her way. I can’t exactly say you shouldn’t see The Unknown Woman, as it’s at least worth a laugh or two. Also from the second tier of historically notable Italian filmmakers is The Wedding Director (11/20, 7:15 p.m., Frontenac; 11/22, 2:15 p.m., Frontenac), the latest from Marco Bellocchio (Fists in the Pocket, Good Morning, Night). Working again with actor Sergio Castellitto after My Mother’s Smile, which played at the fest a few years back, The Wedding Director is decidedly Felliniesquse. I almost hate to use the term, but it comes off as a more grounded 8½, and I don’t mean that favorably. Try not to get too distracted by the awful dubbing of actor Sami Frey (Band of Outsiders, Sweet Movie), because it nearly drove me up the wall.

There are four better options from the International Sidebar: two from France, one from Argentina and one from Turkey. Eric Guirado’s The Grocer’s Son (11/16, 6:30 p.m., Frontenac; 11/17, 7 p.m., Frontenac) is a quaint slice-of-life film about a young man’s (Nicolas Cazalé of Three Dancing Slaves and Le Grand Voyage) return to his hometown with his platonic crush (Clotilde Hesme of Love Songs) to take over the family grocery business after his distant father (Daniel Duval of Caché and Time to Leave) falls ill. The Grocer’s Son is never overly precious or obvious even if it’s not completely remarkable. Slightly more effective if not totally memorable is Olivier Peyon’s Stolen Holidays (11/15, 4:45 p.m., Frontenac; 11/16, 1:30 p.m., Frontenac), which stars Bernadette Lafont (Les Mistons, Broken English) as an older woman who takes her reluctant grandkids on holiday. The invented English title (the actual French translation is The Little Holidays) gives away one of the film’s contained secrets, but the relationships between Lafont and her grandchildren are refreshingly authentic. Also starring Claude Brasseur (Band of Outsiders) and Eric Savin (Tell No One, Happenstance), Stolen Holidays is sure to be a hit with the older Plaza Frontenac crowd. From Argentina, Rodrigo Moreno’s The Custodian (11/20, 9 p.m., Frontenac; 11/21, 4:45 p.m., Frontenac) is a sophisticated examination of an important politician’s bodyguard (Julio Chávez of Red Bear). Often wordless and beautifully still, the film perfectly reduces its lead to minimalist décor, a thankless puppet to his employer and family. And from Turkey, Reha Erdem’s Times and Winds (11/15, 2:30 p.m., Frontenac) is a lush depiction of a rural community and its restless youth.

Finally, you’ll be sorry if you miss Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (11/15, 5:15 p.m., Tivoli), the most devastating and emotionally resonant documentary I’ve seen all year. I’d prefer to speak only in my own praise of the film, instead of in description, as part of the joy of Dear Zachary is going into it with a blank slate. The film’s director, Kurt Kuenne, will be in attendance at the screening along with David and Kathleen Bagby, who are featured in the film.

In summation, your three best bets this year (out of all the films I’ve seen thus far) are Wendy and Lucy, Let the Right One In and Dear Zachary, with a special mention to Yeast for those craving difficult cinema or for those who might mistakenly think they want to see Nights and Weekends. It looks to be a pretty strong year for the festival, so don’t feel bad about exhausting either yourself or your wallet; you’ll probably see me doing the exact same. | Joe Bowman

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