SLIFF 2010 Preview | Sarah Boslaugh

The don’t-miss-it film of the festival is the guerilla-filmed My Tehran for Sale (11/16 Tivoli 7:00 pm), directed by avant-garde poet Granaz Moussavi.

OK, St. Louis, it’s mid-November and that means it’s time for your annual binge on all things cinematic. You can find the full schedule for the St. Louis International Film Festival along with information about tickets and other practicalities at the Festival web site: I haven’t seen any of the big-buzz films (Black Swan, 127 Hours, Casino Jack, etc.) but I can offer some recommendations for some worthy but lesser-known films I was able to preview.
The don’t-miss-it film of the festival is the guerilla-filmed My Tehran for Sale (11/16 Tivoli 7:00 pm), directed by avant-garde poet Granaz Moussavi. It offers a view of the underground culture of young, educated Iranians (their parties could be taking place in Greenwich Village) that you’ll never get from officially sanctioned films. The central figure is Marzieh, an actress and director who attempts to emigrate to Australia after her work is banned by the authorities, but the film’s greatest achievement is its collective portrait of a world that exists under the official radar.
If you like foreign films but hate reading subtitles, you’ll love Summer in Genoa (11/19 Frontenac 9:15 pm; 11/21 Frontenac 4:00 pm). Colin Firth stars as Joe, an American professor who accepts a post in Geneva to try to get away from painful memories after his wife’s (Hope Davis) death. Come for the travelogue courtesy of cinematographer Marcel Zyskind, stay for director Michael Winterbottom’s sensitive treatment of the differing ways Joe’s daughters deal with their grief; teenage Kelly retreats into sullenness at home and risky behavior with her peers while 10-year-old Mary is haunted by the ghost of her mother.
Nicolas Winding Refn, director of Valhalla Rising (11/14 Hi-Pointe 9:15 pm), seems to have taken to heart the declaration by Thomas Hobbes that the natural state of mankind is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Set in 1000 CE, the film focuses on a mute gladiator-slave named One Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) who escapes with the assistance of the child slave Are (Maarten Stevenson) and ends up on a surreal journey with a pack of Christian crusaders who think they’re traveling to Jerusalem to reclaim the Holy Land. There’s a minimum of dialogue and a maximum of visual splendor thanks to cinematographer Morten Soborg, regularly punctuated by really gruesome outbursts of violence. Centurion is kid’s stuff by comparison.
The Milk of Sorrow (11/19 Frontenac 2:30 pm; 11/20 Frontenac 8:30 pm), winner of multiple international awards, wastes no time putting its cards on the table. The subject is the lingering effects of cruelty and violence, as personified in the character of Fausta (Magaly Solier) whose life is stunted by the bitter heritage of her mother’s gang rape by soldiers. Director’s Claudia Llosa’s (niece of Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa) film is also an allegory for the violent colonial history of Peru that continues to distort relations among Peruvians today.
Two modern horrors, civil war and unrestrained capitalism, combine to distort and destroy human relationships in Cannes Jury Prize winner A Screaming Man (11/18 Frontenac 2:30 pm; 11/19 Frontenac 2:15 pm). Former swimming champion Adam (the name is not accidental) works as a pool attendant at a swanky hotel in Chad which at first seems to be a refuge from the country’s civil war. Then the hotel is sold and the new owner reassigns Adam to work the front gate while making Adam’s son Abdel the pool manager. Meanwhile Adam is being shaken down for contributions to the war effort and, trapped in an impossible situation, sees a way to solve two problems at once.
The Valkarkai Polar Station, located on an island in the Bering Sea, provides the location for the beautifully shot How I Ended This Summer (11/18 Frontenac 7:00 pm; 11/21 Frontenac 8:30 pm). The film begins as a study of the relationship between two men working at the station: Sergei is an experienced metereologist who regards recent college grad Pavel as a holiday-maker who doesn’t take the work seriously. Inevitable tensions between the two men, combined with the repercussions of an unwise decision by Pavel, turn the story into a tense thriller with the suspense heightened by the fact given the isolated location they might as well be the last two men on earth.
The Wind Journeys follows an elderly accordion player and his would-be apprentice through the rural expanses of Northern Columbia. Ignacio, depressed after his wife’s death, decides to return his accordion to his mentor and Femin insists on accompanying him in order to learn how to play. The film is a celebration of traditional music and village life as their trip is punctuated by sometimes cutthroat music contests in which rivals step into the ring like boxers to battle for cash prizes and popular acclaim.
Director Oliver Hermanus achieves a rare intimacy in Shirley Adams (11/17 Frontenac 4:45 pm) which features Denise Newman as a determined mother caring for her paralyzed son in a flat on the outskirts of Cape Town. Extremely close framings with a handheld camera and a focus on the minutiae of daily life produce a documentary feel while also allowing the viewer to appreciate the multiple versions of truth which exist even in the most narrowly focused story.
The real and imagined memories of Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky take on Wagnerian proportions in A Room and a Half (11/15 Hi-Pointe 9:15 pm; 11/18 Hi-Pointe 7:00 pm). The line between the real and the fanciful is frequently transgressed as director Andrey Khrzhanovskiy mixes animations with documentary footage and re-enactments in a variety of styles to create a Guy Maddin-like collage of Brodsky’s real and imagined life.
If you’ve always wondered what Footloose would look like if set in 1960’s Hungary, you need seek no further than Made in Hungaria (11/16 Frontenac 6:45 pm; 11/17 Frontenac 8:30 pm). Miki (based loosely on pop idol Miklos Fenyo) returns to Budapest with his parents after four years of living in America and his taste for loud shirts and rock n’ roll sets him in conflict with his surroundings. Can you guess you guess who wins this culture war? There’s not much original in this film but it can be fun if you overlook the pervasive sexism and concentrate on the lively soundtrack and dance routines.
If you’re in the mood for a documentary about a celebrity murderer you can choose between The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector by Vikram Jayanti (11/13 Tivoli 9:30 pm) and Anne Perry: Interiors (11/16 Frontenac 7:00 pm) directed by Dana Linkiewicz. The Spector film, produced for the BBC, offers plenty of Schadenfreude as it feasts on the sight of crazy Phil in a dreadful blonde wig comparing himself to Galileo and Bach and bragging that he once held the careers of both Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro in his hand. These interviews are intercut with footage from Spector’s first trial for the murder of Lana Clarkson (cameras were not allowed in the courtroom for the second, which resulted in a conviction and 19-year sentence) and the film is saturated with Spector-produced songs performed by the likes of Ike and Tina Turner, The Ronettes, and The Beatles which provide an ironic counterpoint to the sordid events of Spector’s later life.
In contrast the Anne Perry documentary makes its points by suggestion and understatement and would be positively dull were it not for the added spice of knowing that the grey-haired, grandmotherly figure we observe in her writing studio is also a convicted murder. Anne Perry is the pseudonym of Juliet Hulme who as a teenager in 1954 conspired with Pauline Parker to murder Parker’s mother. Today Perry is a successful writer of genre fiction and convert to the LDS church who lives in a small town in Scotland where she seems surrounded by people determined to love, serve and protect her. The Parker/Hulme murder (which provided the basis for Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures: the role of the teenage Juliet was played by Kate Winslet) is the elephant in the room: on-screen text spells out the basic facts of the case but those interviewed prefer to refer to the murder indirectly and in the passive voice. Given the adult Perry’s apparent ability to get people to do what she wants you have to wonder if she didn’t also have that power as a 15-year-old. Shown with the short Notes on the Other by Serio Oksman which intertwines a Hemingway look-alike contest with Pamplona’s running of the bulls.
The father of the skyscraper (and coiner of the phrase “form ever follows function”) get an appropriately uplifting treatment in Mark Richard Smith’s Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture (11/14 Hi-Pointe 2:00 pm). It’s a celebration not only of Sullivan’s work but also of the art of architectural photography as Peter Biagi’s cinematography makes Chicago’s Auditorium look like a royal palace and the Stock Exchange trading room like a transplanted Moorish garden. The visual delights of this film offer more than enough to offset its occasional lapses into a sentimental, made-for-PBS tone. If you need a local connection, the Sullivan-designed Wainwright Building in downtown St. Louis is one of many buildings featured in this film. Director Smith will be present and the film will be shown with the short Up There by Malcolm Murray which looks at the disappearing art of hand-painted wall advertising.
Another view of skyscrapers is presented in Gabriel Mascaro’s documentary High Rise (11/13 Frontenac 9:30 pm). Mascaro interviews eight penthouse owners in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paolo and Recife who hold forth on a variety of topics—among them, solitude, security, power and how different the city looks from 30 stories up. Director of Photography Pedro Sotero offers a great selection of views of live inside and outside of these luxury buildings (which in this multi-ethnic South American country bear names as European as their inhabitants: Rembrandt, Cannes, Stradivarius, Versailles, etc.) making the film a meditation on how sometimes location really is everything. Shown with the short Saving Lieb House by James Venturi, which chronicles the 75-mile barge journey of the pop art landmark from New Jersey to Long Island.
In her book The Shock Doctrine (2007) Naomi Klein argues that unrestrained capitalism of the type advocated by University of Chicago professor Milton Friedman has spread throughout the world aided by political or militaristic “shocks,” sometimes deliberately manufactured to make individuals and national economies vulnerable to so-called free market reforms. Too bad Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom’s film of the same name (11/20 Webster 3:00 pm) does not better explicate this concept (Klein removed her name from the film): it relies far too much on lengthy excerpts from archival footage and a hammering voice-over telling us things any reasonable educated adult already knows. But if you’re interested the film may still be worth seeing if only as a simplified introduction to Klein’s ideas.
William Least Heat-Moon anticipated the now-trendy concept of Slow Travel with his best-sellers Blue Highways (1982) and PrairyErth (A Deep Map): An Epic History of the Tallgrass Prairie Country (1991) which celebrates the land and people of Chase County, Kansas. In Return to PrairyErth (11/14 Brown Hall 4:00 pm; free) director John O’Hara captures the natural beauty of the region while investigating the influence of PrairyErth and how Chase County has changed in the years following its publication. O’Hara and Heat-Moon will attend the screening.
Outsourcing is a common money-saving tactic today so why not use it for the most intimate service of all: bearing a child? In Made in India (11/20 Frontenac 1:15 pm) directors Rebecca Haimowitz and Vaishali Sinha follow an American couple who hire an Indian surrogate to bear their child. It seems a fair exchange: the American wife is unable to carry a child to term, and the surrogate mother wants money to help her family, and the cost is one-fourth what it would be in the U.S. However reproductive tourism in India is largely unregulated leaving plenty of opportunity for corruption and blackmail. | Sarah Boslaugh

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