SLIFF 2010 Preview | Joe Hodes

Exhuming the past is a dangerous business in another excellent pair of films: Hong Kong’s Prince of Tears and the Czech Republic’s Kawasaki’s Rose.

It’s time for SLIFF again, a time to catch up on film trends around the world, see what’s new in American indie cinema and get up close and personal with real, live, working filmmakers.
You can see two examples of the self-financed, DIY filmmaking trend on display in St. Louis native Ryan Eslinger’s Daniel and Abraham (11/14 Tivoli 1:15 pm) and Matthew Porterfield’s Putty Hill (11/21 Tivoli 1:30 pm). In Eslinger’s two-man drama, Daniel sets out to dispose of his father’s ashes in the mountains his dad loved so much. There he encounters a mysterious stranger and begins a fraught contest of wills over his undertaking and his very survival. It is a quiet, brooding film and one that will resonate with both fathers and sons on their respective sides of that divide. I did not enjoy Putty Hill nearly as much. A slice of life story featuring amateur actors, the film unites disparate groups of friends and families prior to a young man’s wake. Unfortunately, not a lot happens. There is some drama as the younger members of the family try to escape the fate of the deceased, and all wonder if they could have done something differently, or should, from there on, choose a different path for their lives. The film failed to spend sufficient time on any single character or to imaginatively connect the story lines, so the action had very little effect on the audience. Where Daniel and Abraham manages to be much more than the sum of its parts, Putty Hill falls short.
Similar in concept to Putty Hill but vastly different in execution is the Romanian drama If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle(11/17 Frontenac 7:00 pm; 11/18 Frontenac 9:30 pm).Filmmaker Florin Serban takes a stage play and adapts it using juvenile offenders at a Romanian prison. Protagonist Silviu is about to be released from a several-year stint when he discovers his estranged mother has returned and intends to take his younger brother—who Silviu has raised as a son—away from him to live with her in Italy. Distraught, he flounders about for some way to survive this loss, some plan for his future. Ultimately, he does something desperate and foolhardy to escape both from prison—on the eve of his release, but before his brother disappears—and escape to a new life. Though this film is as raw and uneven as Putty Hill and suffers similarly from a small budget and non-professional actors, the stage play at the backbone of If I Want to Whistle elevates the film, driving home an emotional punch.
You can indulge in two modern French takes on the romantic comedy: Valérie Donzelli’s The Queen of Hearts (11/16 Frontenac 9:15 pm; 11/17 Frontenac 6:30 pm) and Caroline Bottaro’s Queen to Play (11/19 Frontenac 7:00 pm; 11/20 Frontenac 3:30 pm). Queen of Hearts features a heroine who is anything but regal. Bereft after her boyfriend dumps her (when asked what she wanted to do with her life, she responds with the name of her boyfriend), she is taken under the wing of her eccentric cousin, who tries to coax her back into the dating scene and help her find an independent life. Written and directed by its leading lady, Donzelli, this sexual farce features a lead actor playing multiple roles, to emphasize the interchangeable and unsatisfactory men in the heroine’s life. It also includes a few musical numbers and a dénouement dreamed up by a naughty Shakespeare. The film keeps your interest through the largely happy ending. A much more conventional and probably more satisfying film is Queen to Play. Bored with her job as a maid and looking for a spark to shake her from a domestic funk, the heroine takes up playing chess. She gets tips from an American whose house she cleans (Kevin Kline, in a French-speaking role). Mastering the game gets under her skin and makes her shrewder at home and in her relationships. As a former high school chess team member, I enjoyed seeing the game put center stage in the life of a “normal” person, and not placed on high as a game only for intellectuals and the obtuse. Excellent leading ladies drive both films, albeit in very different types of roles.
Exhuming the past is a dangerous business in another excellent pair of films: Hong Kong’s Prince of Tears (11/17 Hi-Pointe 9:15 pm; 11/20 Hi-Pointe 1:00 pm) and the Czech Republic’s Kawasaki’s Rose(11/12 Frontenac 7:15 pm; 11/15 Frontenac 4:30 pm). After the fall of mainland China to the communists, the remnant of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists fled to Taiwan where they established a state in exile. Hell-bent on rooting out communist spies and sympathizers, an air force officer, his wife and two daughters are caught in the web. Events tear the family apart and draw in old loves and friends as all fight for survival during the witch-hunt. Lusciously shot, the film is a shade melodramatic and there are plenty of tears. More subtle and affecting is Kawasaki’s Rose from Jan Hrebejk (director of the Oscar-nominated Divided We Fall). A prominent psychiatrist and communist resister is about to be recognized by the Czech Republic for his heroism during the Soviet era, when a documentary team uncovers evidence of his collaboration. Rich performances from the cast and crew and a tight plot keep this film from veering into melodrama, and it should not be missed.
Finally, the two remaining dramatic films I got a chance to preview were guilty pleasures and will seem very familiar to American audiences, although both bring foreign twists to the material. Stellan Skårsgaard is A Somewhat Gentle Man (11/15 Frontenac 7:00 pm; 11/16 Frontenac 4:15 pm), a gangster just returning from a 12-year prison sentence and torn between foreswearing his former life and getting revenge. This dark comedy gets a lot of mileage from some effective set pieces and its engaging, quirky cast. Why do we continue to love to see Chinese men with guns? In the vein of Hong Kong actioners from the ‘80s and ‘90s is Vengeance (11/17 Hi-Pointe 7:00 pm). Shoot’em up veteran director Johnnie To casts “the Elvis Presley of France” (Johnny Hallyday) as a grieving French chef who hires a trio of hit men to avenge the death of his son-in-law and two grandchildren. Nifty touches—again, some excellent set pieces, the protagonist’s rapidly disappearing memory and his devices for compensating—and To’s deft touch with the camera make this an enjoyable action romp.
With dozens of cable channels pumping out non-fiction content, lovers of documentaries are no longer reliant on PBS and occasional film festivals to get their fix. Even with this everyday competition, the SLIFF’s documentaries do not disappoint. Of particular interest is St. Louis documentarian Jay Kanzler’s piece on the career of comedian Bob Zany (Close But No Cigar: Bob Zany). Familiar to many, but not quite a household name, Zany makes a very appealing subject for a documentary that is part detailing of his career and close brushes with major success and part meditation on the pursuit of fame itself. When has a performer “arrived”? What is success? Despite national media attention in venues ranging from Star Search to the Tonight Show, Zany never feels he has made it. The film is filled with interviews with friends and fellow comedians (Kathleen Madigan, Carrot Top, Frank Caliendo and many more), some of whom agree that Zany is not there yet, and others who think he should just get over himself and enjoy the ride. If the Jerry Seinfeld documentary Comedian was an exploration of a comedian’s act, then this doc is an exploration of the travails of a working comedian, from his debut and the honing of his act to the weekly slog of gig after gig. Often hilarious and occasionally poignant, Close But No Cigar stands with the very best in the entertainment documentary genre. Filmmaker Kanzler and comedian Zany will be at the Thursday, November 18 show at 7 p.m. at Plaza Frontenac.
A very different documentary, Enemies of the People (11/17 Tivoli 9:30 pm) details one journalist’s efforts to find the reason behind Cambodia’s “killing fields” of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Unlike those of the Nazis, the unfathomable crimes of the Khmer Rouge have not been well documented, especially with respect to their motives. Indeed, unlike the Allies after World War II, the Vietnamese who deposed the Khmer Rouge in 1979 explicitly discouraged prosecution of any crimes, and so most leaders and front line killers simply disappeared back into the populace. Incredibly, newspaper reporter Thet Sambath, who lost his family to the Khmer Rouge, gets killers to open up about the atrocities they committed. One even demonstrates (with a plastic knife) how he used to kill dozens of people, one after the other—describing how he changed the way he held the knife because his hand got tired. Sambath also gets access to “Brother Number 2”—Nuon Chea—and finds that Pol Pot’s chief deputy is unrepentant and still convinced that he needed to save the regime from “enemies of the people,” (causing the death of around 1.5 million people along the way). These remarkable interviews make this a mesmerizing, primary source of history.
Harry Shearer takes a very different approach in detailing the flooding of New Orleans in 2005 in The Big Uneasy (11/13 Hi-Pointe 3:00 pm). The film mixes in equal parts whodunit and science exposé, along with some snarky asides from residents. Shearer lays the blame squarely at the feet of the Army Corps of Engineers and decades of haphazard, politically-motivated economic development carried out without consideration of the harm being done to the local ecology or the safety of the city’s stormwater management system. The science and politics are extremely compelling and well presented. The film meticulously details what actually happened to cause the levee system to fail so catastrophically, as well as the cover-ups and backstabbing that followed in the disaster’s wake.
However, the doc is weakened by the “Ask a New Orleanian” segments interspersed throughout the narrative. In each bit, Shearer sets up a simple-minded question from outsiders (“Is the town still under water?” “Why should my tax dollars go to rebuild New Orleans?”), which is then knocked down by a panel of locals. The segments highlight the fact that not a single average citizen appears in the film—all locals interviewed are business owners, politicians or non-profit heads. Plus, Shearer never asks the most important questions. Lots of disasters involve massive property damage (hurricanes and Midwestern tornadoes, etc.). Lots of disasters involve the outlay of federal tax dollars for assistance to locals (California earthquakes and wildfires, our own 1993 flood, etc.). But never before did the 24-hour news cycle repeat images of the bodies of Americans floating, untended, down flooded city streets. Never before did thousands of people huddle in unspeakable conditions in the heart of a major American city, where somehow the press, but not any responsible governmental or charitable entity, could get to them. These are the images that are seared into our memories. The questions of “How could we let that happen?” and “Who is responsible?” are the ones that make Katrina such an indelible catastrophe; these same questions Shearer’s documentary leaves not only unanswered, but wholly unconsidered. | Joe Hodes

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