SLIFF 2014 Preview | Sarah Boslaugh

filmfest sliff-2014_75The performance of Vilma Santos-Recto alone is reason enough to see The Bit Player.




filmfest sliff-2014_the-bit-player

It’s been my experience that the most memorable films in a festival are often those you’ve heard least about: no Hollywood stars, no Oscar campaign, just a unique take on some facet of our world that you’ll remember long after the marquee names have gone through their publicity cycle. To give an example, at the recent Virginia Film Festival, in consecutive screenings I was entranced by Céline Sciamma’s relatively unheralded Girlhood but left underwhelmed by Xavier Dolan’s Cannes-winning Mommy. I was glad to have seen both films, but Girlhood is the one I’m still thinking about, and the one I might have easily missed.

I haven’t come close to seeing everything playing at the St. Louis International Film Festival, but I have seen enough to recommend a few films you might otherwise overlook. One is the Filipino comedy-drama The Bit Player (11/18 Frontenac 4:30 p.m.; 11/20 Frontenac 2:15 p.m.); in fact, the performance of Vilma Santos-Recto alone is reason enough to see this film. Even better, it’s a backstager, offering a look at television production from the point of view of the many underpaid, underappreciated extras who play a vital role in making the programs happen. Santos-Recto is a huge star in her native country (fun fact: she’s also the governor of Batangas province) but perfectly inhabits the life of a middle-aged single mother whose best efforts are required just to stay employed and keep her family afloat.

Another great find that delivers more than a simple plot summary can convey is Honey (11/18 Frontenac 7:00 p.m.; 11/20 Frontenac 4:45 p.m.), a beautifully paced and exquisitely shot film by Valeria Golina. It’s about a young Italian woman (Jamine Trinca) who specializes in helping terminal patients use illegally-obtained drugs to end their lives, but finds her assumptions challenged when one of her customers turns out not to have quite a different motivation than she expected. Honey is no issue-of-the-week film but a complex, unsentimental exploration of inevitably complex issues surrounding life and death.

filmfest sliff-2014_Uzumasa-Limelight-RThis is a good year for backstagers at SLIFF, and another film in this genre worth seeing is Uzumasa Limelight (11/14 Frontenac 4 p.m.; 11/17 Frontenac 3 p.m.). As the title suggests, director Ken Ochiai draws on the sensibility of Chaplin’s 1952 film, in this case focusing on an experienced actor whose time in the spotlight has passed. Kamiyama Seiichi (Fukomoto Seizo) is a master of a distinct specialty: being killed in spectacular fashion in chanbara productions (period dramas with swordfighting). Unfortunately, Uzumasa Studios cancels his long-running television program as part of an effort to go after a younger audience demographic, leaving Kamiyama wondering if the world has a place for him anymore.

Also a backstager, although in a more meta sort of way, is Life of Riley (11/20 Frontenac 4 p.m.; 11/22 Frontenac 2:15 p.m.). Real life and rehearsals intermingle in a story about six amateur thespians who, upon learning that a mutual friend has received a terminal diagnosis, invite him to appear in their next production (also an Ayckbourn play). Life of Riley is beautiful to look at, directed by Alain Resnais (whose 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour is also showing at SLIFF, at Frontenac on 11/15 at 12 p.m.), and is an adaptation of a play by one of the more successful contemporary British playwrights, Alan Ayckbourn. And yet, watching it seemed like way too much like work even for an arthouse maven such as myself. This is a real YMMV film—if you go for clever contrivances, you may love it, but if your taste runs runs toward more straightforward storytelling, you’ll probably want to run screaming from the auditorium.

Keeping with the show business theme, Cupcakes (11/21 Frontenac 2:10 p.m.; 11/23 Frontenac 9:15 p.m.) is a frothy comedy that would not seem out of place on an MGM soundstage of some 70 years ago. Except, that is, for the presence of a drag queen kindergarten teacher as one of the central characters. A group of Tel Aviv friends find themselves competing as the Israeli entry in the “Universong” contest (and yes, the music is as lame as in the Eurovision song contest), but they’re really on the road to self-acceptance and understanding. Cupcakes is aggressively innocuous: the central characters are all attractive, conform to familiar types (indie girl, buttoned-up career gal, stressed-out Mom), have only first world problems, and generally live in a bubble far more protective than those of the characters in Fox’s 2006 film of that name. So don’t come looking for social commentary with this film, but it’s lots of fun if you want to escape the problems of the real world for 90 minutes.

There’s a good lineup of children’s films at this year’s SLIFF, but I only had a chance to screen one. Windstorm (11/21 Washington U./Brown 7:30 p.m.) is a beautifully shot coming-of-age story about a rebellious German teenager who fails her end-of-year exams and is packed off to grandmother’s farm to study. Worst summer ever, right? No, because Windstorm is basically The Karate Kid (1974 version) for girls, so you get no points for guessing that this city gal discovers a strong affinity for horses and makes it her cause to save one considered too wild to be of use (the parallel with her own temperament is not accidental). Windstorm is less a kid’s film than it is a family film, and it’s particularly enjoyable if you were ever a horse-loving girl yourself.

filmfest sliff-2014_windstorm-RRun Boy Run (11/21 Frontenac 2:15 p.m.; 11/23 Frontenac 2:15 p.m.) also features a young protagonist, but in a far grimmer context. Twin brothers Andrez and Kamil Tkacz play Srulik, a 9-year-old Jewish boy who escapes from the Warsaw ghetto and survives as best he can in the Polish countryside. Run Boy Run looks great (it picked up three technical award nominations at the German Film Awards) but is too simplistic and derivative to satisfy adults and too scary for kids, coming off at times like a twisted video game with a series of stock obstacles for the hero to overcome.

Acting out and not being sure of your place in the world is normal for 14-year-olds, but it’s tedious when it extends well past the college years, as has become the norm in a particular type of American comedy. Case in point: Warren (11/18 Frontenac 6:15 p.m.), an amiable and utterly conventional first feature directed by comedian Alex Beh, who also wrote the script and plays the leading role. It’s a total bro show (Sexual harassment is just so funny! So is abusing customers when you hold a customer service job!) and will appeal primarily to young adults who identify with the central character, a pleasant fellow trying to work out what to do next now that his big dreams of comedy stardom haven’t panned out. Warren features a strong cast including John Heard, Jean Smart, and Sarah Habel, and has lots of postcard-pretty shots of Chicago, but if you’re female or an actual employed adult, you may, like me, find it more annoying than entertaining.

Like many film industry notables, Jonatham Demme got his start working for Roger Corman. The result, Caged Heat (11/22 KDHX 8 p.m.) is an exploitation film of the women’s prison variety that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s no Orange Is the New Black, in other words, but then it’s not trying to be. Caged Heat is appearing at SLIFF as part of the tribute to Roberta Collins, and the screening includes a concert by Stace England and Screen Syndicate playing songs inspired by Collins.

At least Caged Heat knows what it is. Demme’s latest, A Master Builder (11/22 Tivoli 2:30 p.m.), doesn’t, and that makes for two hours of tedium. Worse, it’s pretentious tedium, with the involvement of all-star talent (an Ibsen play adapted by Wallace Shawn, directed by Demme, and starring Andre Gregory and Shawn) only underlining how much this film represents an opportunity squandered.

The Ambassador to Bern (11/14 Frontenac 2:15 p.m.; 11/17 Frontenac 2 p.m.) is a straightforward recreation of a real event that may not be familiar to most Americans: A break-in at the Hungarian embassy in Switzerland in 1958. Or rather it is, as a title card acknowledges, a possible version of the event, because so much remains unknown. It works well as a political thriller, with the imagination of director Attila Szász and screenwriter Norbert Köbli expertly filling in many blanks, and this film will particularly resonate among those with an interest in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 or Cold War politics in general.

In Vinko Bresan’s dark comedy The Priest’s Children (11/21 Frontenac 12 p.m.; 11/22 Frontenac 12 p.m.), the parish priest of a small Adriatic island, Father Fabijan (Kresimir Mikic), is faced with an ever-dwindling congregation. What’s going on? It seems his parishioners are defying the Church’s ban on birth control, and have no intention of changing their ways. In response, Fabijan enters into a conspiracy with a pharmacist and newsstand owner to sabotage the condoms and birth control pills available on the island, with predictable and not always comic results. I have to tip my hat to Bresan, because I was ready to hate this film (unintended pregnancy—what a funny joke!), but he’s an expert judge of tone, and I ended up enjoying this sharp satire. | Sarah Boslaugh

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