BIG-SCREEN EPIC

Comprehensive coverage of the Eighth Annual St. Louis International Film Festival

6:45 p.m.: The Buttoners (Knoflikari). Petr Zelenka, Czech Republic, 1997, 102 min. Six short stories -- the first starting Aug. 6, 1945, and the rest taking place exactly 50 years later -- address themes of chance, consequence, coincidence and destiny. In Czech, English and Japanese with English subtitles. NR.

7 p.m.: Deterrence. Rod Lurie, U.S., 1999, 101 min. A snowy night in the middle of Colorado, early in 2008. A blizzard forces campaigning U.S. President Walter Emerson (Kevin Pollak) to take refuge in a roadside diner ... just as an international crisis hits the colloquial fan, courtesy of Iraqi dictator Uday Hussein (Saddam's son). Working with only two advisors (Timothy Hutton and Sheryl Lee Ralph), a batch of telephones and a TV-news crew, Emerson issues a nuclear ultimatum to Baghdad: Back down or be blown up. Lurie's one-act/one-set drama aspires to the tension and topicality of Fail Safe but never amounts to more than a juvenile game of "what if?" Lurie, a former film critic for Los Angeles magazine, has loaded his plot with so many coincidences, red herrings and catches that any claims to relevance slip away, and not even the reliable Pollak can bring it to life. Credit Lurie with a bit of foresight in speculating a candidate named Trump for the 2008 elections, as well as Vice President Buchanan, who left office in disgrace. Sadly, nothing else in the film matches even that slight bit of humor. (RH)

9:15 p.m.: Dreaming of Joseph Lees. Eric Styles, U.K., 1998, 92 min. In the pale, damp climate of Somerset, England, in 1958, Eva (Samantha Morton) pines for sensitive, cultured geologist Joseph Lees (Rupert Graves), who has lost his leg in an accident in Italy. Closer to home is Harry (Lee Ross), a laborer in the lumber mill where Eva is a bookkeeper. Harry is smitten by her and doesn't lack charm in his wooing. Eva begins to warm to him slowly, pleasurably, until she's sharing his bed. But Joseph becomes more than a dream, returning to Eva's life and her heart. What follows is an agonizing love triangle worthy of Thomas Hardy. The performances of the principals are stunning, and before Harry's psychological instability becomes evident and the horrors ensue, the frequent temptations of the flesh are well drawn and inordinately sexy. The splendid Morton shows why, in another age, intercourse was referred to as "knowing." (ES)

Noah Fleiss and Val Kilmer in Joe the King
Noah Fleiss and Val Kilmer in Joe the King
Don McKellar and Sandra Oh in  Last Night
Don McKellar and Sandra Oh in Last Night

9:30 p.m.: The Wisdom of Crocodiles. Po Chih Leong, U.K., 1999, 99 min. In Po Chih Leong's post-Bram Stoker, post-George Hamilton, post- Coppola view of vampirism, it's high time for Vlad the Impaler to go completely postmodern in the '90s. Steven Grslcz (Jude Law) has ditched the black cloak for designer threads. He sacks out not in a musty coffin but in a decorator-furnished London flat. He's playboy-slick, and he speaks in dense, ironic riddles that not even he seems to understand half the time. Self-conscious and tormented about good and evil, he bamboozles a trusting cop (Timothy Spall) but not the plucky heroine (Elina Löwensohn). She's no swooning Victorian maiden but -- we're not kidding -- an asthmatic structural engineer who's developing a new kind of waterproof concrete. One day, maybe she can start patching up Dracula's unsightly castle with the stuff. Meantime, this pompous and dispassionate movie leaves you longing for something besides a grandiose philosophical construct to sink your teeth into. (BG)

Sunday, Oct. 31

Plaza Frontenac

1 p.m.: DS: My Best Fiend (Mein Liebster Feind). Werner Herzog, Germany/U.K., 1999, 95 min. When Herzog and Klaus Kinski made Aguirre, the Wrath of God in 1972, it was an inspired collaboration that sealed both of their reputations forever: Kinski's as a ferocious, untamable actor whose performances fed on personal madness; Herzog's as a romantic adventurer who seemed to enjoy placing obstacles in the way of his films more than making them. The two made four more films together (five, if you count both versions of Nosferatu) and fought battles that became legends, but rarely did either man live up to the genius of their first joint effort. Revisiting the sets of their films and borrowing heavily from Les Blank's documentary Burden of Dreams, Herzog's My Best Fiend is both an affectionate tribute to the actor, who died in 1991, and a rebuttal to the outrageous things he said about the director in his autobiography. It's also surprisingly touching on both levels, recalling the best moments of their work together and revealing -- even reveling in -- just how difficult the ruthless, mean-spirited and probably insane actor could be. My Best Fiend is a much-needed reminder of just how talented both men were before their reputations got in the way. In German with English subtitles. (RH)

3:30 p.m.: P. Tinto's Miracle (El Milagro de P. Tinto). Javier Fesser, Spain, 1998, 109 min. Producing Communion wafers and raising large families are P. Tinto family traditions. But the youngest P. Tinto, now 70, and his wife, Olivia, have yet to produce a child after 50 years of marriage. In Spanish with English subtitles. NR.

6 p.m.: Streetheart (Le Coeur au Poing). Charles Binamé, Canada, 1998, 97 min. Good films frequently begin with an interesting premise, and this French-Canadian offering posits a doozy: What if an attractive but disconnected young woman named Louise (Pascale Montpetit) were to invent a game in which she offered one hour of her time to strangers on the street at random? For that hour, people could do whatever they wanted with her. Naturally, one expects the sexual possibilities of this scenario to dominate, but Streetheart has much broader designs: to explore the responses of the surprised recipients of the offer (they range from stunned disbelief and rejection to curious choices for utilizing "Rose," the name Louise adopts for the game); the diverse character of modern society, from the innocent to the malevolent; and, ultimately, the soul and character of Louise herself, a complex woman longing for transcendence and deeper meaning than what her sheltered life offers. Her forays into the lives of myriad strangers give her life an exciting dimension but ultimately lead to emotional turmoil, grave risk and a climactic existential confrontation. Montpetit, a striking cinematic presence, gives a remarkable performance as the tormented Louise, and the film seizes on a truly compelling premise and sends it down all sorts of interesting side streets. In French with English subtitles. (KR)

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