SLIFF 2010 Preview | Pete Timmermann

I feel safe in saying that Natalie Portman’s performance in Black Swan is the best yet of her young and already much-celebrated career (though, unlike Aronofsky, her best work is still hopefully in front of her).

Though he’s all but unknown in America, there’s a young, modern filmmaker whose name doesn’t seem out of place when mentioned alongside your Bergmans, your Antonionis, your Godards. He is Thailand’s Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, the 40-year-old wunderkind director of five and a half feature films, all of which can be called masterpieces without stretching the term, especially 2004’s flabbergastingly good Tropical Malady. (The feature I’m counting as a half is the never-released-in-America The Adventures of Iron Pussy, a musical about a transvestite secret agent, which Joe co-directed.) His newest film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (11/12 Frontenac 9:45 pm; 11/13 Frontenac 8:15 pm), has been getting the most praise of any of his films yet. It won the coveted Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, marking the first time the award was given to a Thai film. And while Uncle Boonmee is as good (maybe even better) than we have come to expect from Joe’s films, I think a lot of the praise it’s been getting stems from people getting used to Weerasethakul’s unique mentality and filmmaking style—there certainly is no one else like him, and in the best possible way. Uncle Boonmee is easily one of the best films of the last several years; cherish the opportunity to see its gorgeousness from a film print on the big screen.
If you can’t tell, Uncle Boonmee is the big film for me at this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival. As per usual, there are a handful of what most of the festival’s attendees consider “big films” as well—those films that are contenders for year-end awards and are making their local premieres in the festival—and I’ve seen a handful of those, too. Both Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours (11/14 Hi-Pointe 7:00 pm) and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (11/19 Hi-Pointe 7:00 pm) are good additions to the directors’ respective oeuvres. While I love 1995’s Trainspotting, the rest of Boyle’s films have struck me as mostly okay at best, and sometimes outright awful (I hated Slumdog Millionaire, for example, which also made its St. Louis premiere at SLIFF). I’m happy to report that 127 Hours is his first film since Trainspotting that I feel like I can recommend without qualifications.
Black Swan, on the other hand, is trickier. Let’s be clear, though—it is absolutely worth seeing. Aronofsky is another of our young, exciting directors, and his direction of Black Swan is masterful as always. Also, I feel safe in saying that Natalie Portman’s performance in Black Swan is the best yet of her young and already much-celebrated career (though, unlike Aronofsky, her best work is still hopefully in front of her). Between Aronofsky’s direction and Natalie’s performance, and of course with the usual smattering of excellent supporting performances and behind-the-scenes players in Aronofsky’s stable, Black Swan becomes a thoroughly enjoyable affair. My one hesitation is that the script veers toward bad a little too often, and one can’t help but wonder why such a talented group of people got together to film a script that was anything short of excellent.
Of course, this being a film festival, there are a lot of smaller, less immediately obvious gems. My two favorites from this category (excepting Uncle Boonmee, of course) are the new fiction film from François Ozon, Hideaway (11/12 Frontenac 9:30 pm; 11/15 Frontenac 9:00 PM), and the new David Byrne concert documentary Ride Rise Roar (11/14 Tivoli 8:45 pm). Hideaway (the subtitles to which refer to the film’s title as The Refuge, so don’t think you’re in the wrong movie when this comes up) is a companion piece to Ozon’s underseen 2005 film Time to Leave. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Ozon’s films have by and large been underseen his entire career, at least in America. He’s best known over here for 2003’s very good and naked-boobs-filled Swimming Pool, and I guess our country collectively lost interest in him when he stopped packing every other frame with breasts. He’s a very reliable filmmaker, though, and Hideaway is another solid effort. It’s a drama that concerns a young pregnant woman who is a drug addict and who lost the baby-daddy to drugs.
I was kind of wary of watching Ride Rise Roar, due to the fact that what is maybe the single best concert documentary of all time, Jonathan Demme’s 1984 film of the Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense, also covers a Byrne concert, and there’s no way that RRR could live up to SMS’s impossible standard. And of course it doesn’t, but that in no way means that it is bad. Byrne is a gifted enough musician and stage performer that it would be really hard to mess up a concert documentary of him. And while Roar falls into some traps that Sense neatly avoided—most noticeably breaking up the music with not always necessary interviews with band members/dancers/choreographers/etc.—enough of it is sufficiently fresh and vital to make you gladly overlook the film’s scant faults. Be warned that it will make you curse yourself for not seeing him when he came to town in late 2008 (or to feel smart if you were there).
On the other end of the spectrum is the atrociously awful Do It Again (11/20 Tivoli 8:15 pm), which follows Boston Globe journalist Geoff Edgers as he tries to get The Kinks back together. This seems like a noble enough cause, and if you have good taste in music you’re probably thinking that this film sounds okay, but trust me, it’s not. I love The Kinks and would have been happy to watch a celebration of their music, if that’s what this was, but really it is a celebration of Edgers’ ego. Edgers manages to score a handful of big interviews with prominent Kinks fans for the film (Sting, Robyn Hitchcock, Zooey Deschanel, etc.), and he makes a habit of trying to get these people to play Kinks songs with him—he conspicuously brings a guitar or some other instrument to the interviews. (Makes one wonder what he might have tried if this were a film about the porn industry.) And that’s what this film is about—it is essentially an excuse for Edgers to do a ridiculous form of starfucking, be it of the Kinks or of the people he’s interviewing. It’s insulting to both his interviewees and to the audience that he thinks it’s appropriate to put these people in the awkward position of playing out his fantasy of being in a band with them, and that we care to watch it. And maybe, maybe if this were the only problem with the film it wouldn’t have been so miserable, but really Edgers is so grating on the whole that by the end of it you’ll never want to hear the Kinks again, because you’ll always associate them with this insufferable buffoon. (Edgers himself is attending the screening to field questions after the film, so if you don’t get your fill of him in the movie, which seems an impossibility, he’ll be there to finish the job.)
And while we’re still on concert documentaries, I previewed one last offering that’s not like the former two discussed; Steven Soderbergh’s And Everything is Going Fine (11/13 Hi-Pointe 8:30 pm). In it, Soderbergh creates a “new” Spalding Gray monologue from pre-existing recorded footage. Soderbergh and Gray worked together in this form (albeit in a more straightforward way) in 1996’s Gray’s Anatomy (not to mention his performance in Soderbergh’s 1993 narrative film King of the Hill), and this seems like a logical, graceful step on Soderbergh’s part after Gray’s 2004 suicide. And while And Everything is Going Fine is ably made and entertaining enough, frankly I’ve never understood what people see in Spalding Gray. He’s not boring or annoying, but he doesn’t exactly hold my interest, either, and by extension neither does this film.
Another film that didn’t hold my interest was the French film I Killed My Mother (11/14 Frontenac 7:00 pm), which is about a gay 16-year old artist and his inability to get along with his mom. After watching and being thoroughly bored by the film I did a little research on it, and was amazed to find out that it was written and directed by and starring the then-20-year old Xavier Dolan (who also served as producer and art director). This fact made me retroactively a lot more interested in the movie. All of my problems with the movie stemmed from the characters: both Dolan’s Hubert and his mother (Anne Dorval) are entirely unlikeable, presumably intentionally so, but in a way that didn’t work for me. That said, it is well acted, written and directed, and it boggles the mind that it was crafted so seamlessly by someone so young.
Other staples of the St. Louis International Film Festival are present this year as well, most notably films from local filmmakers and short film programs, both of which are hard to see theatrically outside of the festival. I always love the animated shorts programs, and this year we have two: “Shorts 3: Animated Shorts 1” (11/13 Tivoli 9:30 pm) and “Shorts 11: Animated Shorts 2” (11/19 Tivoli 9:45 pm). While I have yet to see these two shorts programs, I can say that SLIFF is coming off of a particularly strong animated slate last year, including the film that went on to win the Best Animated Short Oscar, “Logorama.” Hopefully this year’s is as good.
Even after all of this stuff there’s still a ton I haven’t seen yet and can’t wait to: the NC-17 baiting Blue Valentine (11/12 Hi-Pointe 7:00 pm—let’s not forget that before the NC-17 scandal the loudest buzz surrounding the film was that everyone who had seen it loved it), the tribute to Harry Shearer (11/12 Hi-Pointe 9:30 pm), the uncut, four-hour version of Taiwanese master Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer’s Day (11/21 Frontenac 6:30 pm) and countless others. Most of all I’m looking forward to the things that I don’t know to look forward to, though; those are always the best parts of a good film festival. | Pete Timmermann

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