SLIFF 2008 Preview

film_sliff_sm.jpgThank goodness for events like the St. Louis International Film Festival, which provide the opportunity to go on a multi-day bender, cinematically speaking, without having to leave St. Louis.







The profession of film critic may sound slightly less challenging than that of mattress tester, but I’m here to tell you that a steady diet of big-budget time-wasters can wear anyone down. So thank goodness for events like the St. Louis International Film Festival, which provide the opportunity to go on a multi-day bender, cinematically speaking, without having to leave St. Louis. It’s enough to restore my faith in cinema as an art form. My personal taste runs to foreign films and documentaries, which is reflected in the recommendations below.



Fuel (11/16 Tivoli 7 p.m.) is a persuasive polemic by first-time director Joshua Tickell, who advocates biofuels as the solution to America’s dependence on oil. The film, which won the audience award for documentary at Sundance, is loaded with information and builds an excellent case if you can overlook Tickell’s annoying insistence in appearing on camera. Burning the Future: Coal in America (11/23 SLAM 3 p.m.), in contrast, is almost painfully self-effacing as it focuses on the human and environmental cost of coal mining (coal provides fuel for over half the electricity produced in America), with particular focus on mountaintop removal in West Virginia. Footage of the post-removal landscape provides ironic contrast to the description by Roger Lilly of Walker Machinery (a manufacturer of Caterpillar equipment): "It’s almost an artistic activity to watch the way they sculpt the mountains." At the Edge of the World (11/20 Tivoli 7 p.m.) follows the international eco-warriors of the Sea Shepherd Arctic Campaign as they attempt to thwart Japanese ships whom they claim are illegally killing whales for commerce under the guise of scientific research. Director Dan Stone captures the camaraderie and dedication of these self-proclaimed pirates, and superb cinematography of the Antarctic waters is a bonus.

In Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine (11/23 SLAM noon), directors Marion Cajori and Amei Wallach combine a well-chosen selection of her work with an interesting soundtrack punctuated by the still-formidable Bourgeois (the first woman honored with a major retrospective at the New York’s Museum of Modern Art) delivering firmly stated opinions on everything from her father’s cruelties to the symbolism of the spider in her work. You may not know the name of architectural photographer Julius Shulman, the subject of Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman (11/22 Tivoli 6:15 p.m.), but you’ve almost certainly seen his work. Narrated by Dustin Hoffmann, Visual Acoustics presents a broad selection of Shulman’s work, often contrasted with current footage of the same buildings, with commentary and reminiscences by the genial nonagenarian, peers and family.

The Wrecking Crew (11/18 Tivoli 9:30 p.m.) does for Los Angeles what the Standing in the Shadow of Motown did for Detroit: it highlights a group of studio musicians whose names may not be household words but whose work has been heard all over the world. The nickname "wrecking crew" referred both to their informal attire (in contrast to the more traditional "blue blazer" set) and their willingness to cross genre boundaries and record with everyone from Bing Crosby to Phil Spector to the Tijuana Brass.  Throw Down Your Heart (11/16 Webster 7 p.m.) follows Bela Fleck as he takes the banjo back to Africa to jam and record with traditional and modern African musicians. The film is strongest when Fleck resists the impulse to be the Ry Cooder of Africa and lets us hear the African musicians do what they do best.

Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh (11/17 Frontenac 7 p.m.) presents the biography of Hungarian-Jewish poet and freedom fighter, took part in the only military mission to rescue Jews during World War II. Director Roberta Grossman draws heavily on excerpts from letters and diaries written by Senesh and her mother, re-enactments, along with the usual talking-head interviews and archival materials. Waves of Freedom (11/21 Frontenac 7:15 p.m.) brings a new perspective to issues of illegal immigration through the story (from a Zionist point of view) of Aliyah Bet, which illegally transported Jews to British Palestine after World War II.

That All May Be One (11/16 Tivoli 11:30 am) presents the history and current work of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, whose history in St. Louis began in 1836 when six sisters arrived from France and established their sister house in the Carondelet neighborhood. While along with many religious orders they struggle with declining membership, the Sisters of St. Joseph remain a vital presence in the St. Louis community.

Pageant (11/17 Tivoli 9 p.m.) follows five men competing in the world’s largest cross-dressing beauty pageant, Miss Gay America. Unlike most contestants in the other Miss America competition, they’re old enough to have real lives, represent a variety of body types and personal styles, and are explicitly aware of the constructed nature of the whole enterprise. American Swing (11/15 Tivoli 10:30 p.m.) takes a look at the wild and crazy days of Plato’s Retreat, a New York City sex club (or, as owner Barry Levenson preferred, a "swing club") for straight people whose legend far exceeds the years (1977-1985) it was open.

Of Time and the City (11/15 Tivoli 12:30 p.m.) was commissioned to celebrate Liverpool’s selection as Europe’s Capital of Culture for 2008, and no I’m not making up that second bit. As much a visual poem as a conventional documentary, director Terence Davies mixes newsreel and documentary footage with a wide selection of music and his own narration (with not a talking head in sight!) to create an affectionate but not idealized portrait of the Liverpool of his youth.  In contrast, The Stem Cell Divide (11/16 Tivoli 2 p.m.) is determinedly old school, with lots of talking heads and clips of legislators testifying. It looks at the controversy over stem cell research through the lens of the campaign for/against Missouri’s Amendment 2 in the 2006 election and does an admirable job of presenting many points of view, suggesting its natural home may be high school civics classes.

Feature Films

Skin (11/18 Frontenac 7 p.m.) powerfully dramatizes the true story of Sandra Laing, a South African girl with dark skin and tightly coiled black hair born in 1955 to white Afrikaner parents. A genetic explanation (polygenic inheritance) did nothing to ease Sandra’s path through life in a country where the legal and social system was based on the absurd classification of humans into discrete racial categories. The docudrama More Than Just a Game (11/22 Tivoli 3:30 p.m.) presents the story of the Makana Football Association, a soccer league run by the prisoners on Robben Island where many South African political prisoners including Nelson Mandela were confined. A third film from South Africa, the verité-style black-and-white Bunny Chow (11/19 Frontenac 4:30 p.m. and 11/21 Frontenac 2:30 p.m.) centers follows three aspiring Johannesburg comedians on a road trip to the Oppikoppi music festival. The title refers to a popular fast food, curry in a hollowed-out loaf of bread, which also serves as a metaphor for the multi-racial, multi-cultural mix of the new South Africa.

Ben X (11/21 Frontenac 2 p.m. and 11/22 Frontenac 12:15 p.m.) presents a sympathetic look at an autistic teenager who escapes into computer as a refuge from an unpleasant reality where he feels like "the man who is always wrong." Belgian director Nic Balthazar presents the film from the perspective of the title character, for whom life away from the computer is a minefield with no rewards but many inexplicable punishments. It’s hard to discuss the brilliant Let the Right One In (11/15 Frontenac 9:30 p.m.) without giving too much away, so suffice it to say that it’s about an outsider kid in Sweden who finds a place for himself in a subculture much further from the norm than that of obsessive gamers.

In Used Parts (11/22 Frontenac 9:45 p.m.), the maturation of 14-year-old Ivan is mirrored by his graduation from petty theft to hotwiring cars as he tries to amass the funds required to pay a coyote to smuggle him into the United States. Wealth and poverty are also central to Amal (11/16 Frontenac 2 p.m.), a sweet urban fable set in filmed in New Delhi. The premise is simple: poor auto rickshaw driver Amal one day transports an elderly and wealthy passenger who is so impressed by Amal’s honesty and kindness that he leaves his entire estate to him. Strength and Honor (11/21 Frontenac 9:30 p.m. and 11/23 Frontenac 5:30 p.m.) is also best viewed as a fable analogous to the original Rocky: massive suspension of disbelief will allow you to enjoy an excellent performances by Michael Madsen in this story of an aging Irish boxer who returns to the ring in order to raise money for an operation which can save his dying son.

In Times and Winds (11/18 Frontenac 2:30 p.m.), life is a series of small moments set in the harsh yet beautiful landscape of Northern Turkey. It’s no sentimental portrait-a son plots to kill his father because he favors a young sibling, children and domestic animals alike are violently beaten, a baby is dropped on the stone steps-yet life is as coherent as the five daily calls to prayer in Islam which provide this film’s structure. Son of Lion (11/18 Frontenac 2 p.m. and 9:15 p.m.), shot surreptitiously by Australian director Benjamin Gilmour, takes a similarly low-key look at Pashtun villagers in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province. The story centers on a familiar conflict: 11-year-old Niaz is expected to carry on the family profession (which happens to be dealing in firearms) while he’d rather attend school and see what the larger world has to offer.

The Fish Fall in Love (11/19 Frontenac 2:30 and 7:15) adapts the tale of Shaharazad to modern Iran. Atieh runs a restaurant on the Caspian coast with her daughter and two other women. But Aziz, the building’s owner, returns to town after 20 years to sell off some family property, including the building housing their restaurant. Atieh serves him a series of delicious meals, hoping that anticipation of the next evening’s repast will keep him from forcing the restaurant to close.

In Strangers (11/20 Frontenac 7 p.m.), Israeli Eyal and Palestinian Rana meet cute after mixing up their bags on the Berlin subway. A shortage of hotel rooms leads their sharing an apartment, and romance follows, but is threatened by political complications which dwarf anything faced by Romeo and Juliet. Beaufort (11/21 Frontenac 4 p.m. and 11/23 Frontenac 1 p.m.), Israel’s 2007 nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, follows a group of Israeli soldiers as they prepare to withdraw from a heavily fortified fortress in Lebanon.

John Bergin’s animated From Inside (11/23 Tivoli 3:30 p.m.), based on his graphic novel of the same name, presents the story of a young woman traveling by train through a bleak post-apocalyptic landscape while dealing with a pregnancy and with nightmares which become increasingly difficult to distinguish from reality. Also from the U.S., The Empire State Building Murders (11/22 Webster 4 p.m.) is both a tribute to, and a send-up of, film noir, combining footage from classic Hollywood films with modern "interviews" with stars featured in them.

Fashion Victims (11/15 Frontenac 6:30 p.m. and 11/17 Frontenac 9 p.m.) proves that Germans do have a sense of humor: with a sharp satirical edge in the case of Ingo Rasper’s comedy about a monumentally dysfunctional family whose in-the-closet son finds true love with his father’s business rival (their trade is plus-size women’s fashions, hence the title).

The massive scale of the 1911 L’Inferno (11/16 SLAM 3 p.m.), the first full-length film made in Italy, is equal to the breadth of Dante’s epic poem, with a cast of over 150. It doesn’t hurt that the film precedes censorship: the frontal male nudity in this film predates that in Ken Russell’s Women in Love by 58 years. The SLIFF presentation will feature live musical accompaniment by the New Music Circle. | Sarah Boslaugh

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