BIG-SCREEN EPIC

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

8:30 p.m.: The Other Conquest (La Otra Conquista). Salvador Carrasco, Mexico, 1998, 110 min. In 1520, the Spanish conquered Mexico, and the Aztecs who had thrived there suffered extreme violence, degradation and forced conversion to Christianity. The Other Conquest -- a heavy, laden, painful movie -- tells that story through the life of Topiltzin, a scribe and son of Emperor Moctezuma. Once a respected and vital member of Aztec society, Topiltzin is imprisoned, tortured and forced to take up vows as a Christian monk. The head friar has made it his personal mission to, as he says, save the Indian's soul, and the two do battle over what they share as much as what they don't. It's not so much that this film is bad as it is unendurable -- scene after scene of violence and pain with no relief. Some of the photography is gorgeous, but it's not enough to lift this tragic saga from its own depths. In Spanish with English subtitles. (ML)

Tivoli

12:30 p.m.: AA: A Raisin in the Sun. Daniel Petrie, U.S., 1961, 128 min. A black family confronts racism in the suburbs in this adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry's play. With Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Ivan Dixon. NR.

1:15 p.m.: Boys Don't Cry. Introduced by director Kimberly Peirce. See Oct. 30, Tivoli.

3:30 p.m.: AA: Drylongso. Cauleen Smith, U.S., 1998, 86 min. The story of a friendship between two African-American women with vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds. NR.

4 p.m.: Via Satellite. Anthony McCarten, New Zealand, 1998, 90 min. New Zealand has contributed some fine films to the world -- Smash Palace, Utu, Once Were Warriors -- but Via Satellite will not be added to the list. This labor of love (it's adapted from McCarten's stage play) was a labor to sit through. The film is about the dysfunctional family of an Olympic swimming medalist: The Dunn household is preparing for a satellite linkup that will broadcast their reactions simultaneously as daughter Carol takes the gold she seems certain to win. The Dunns bicker, reveal and react to icky revelations, survive a near-electrocution, make the TV director's job hell, etc. But, by golly, they'll pull together for that glorious televised moment with Olympic star Carol, won't they? After all the neurotic unpleasantness, though, will you care? Although the film is billed as a comedy, you'll probably sit mute throughout. The awful closing song, "See What Love Can Do," features the unintentionally funny lyric "When you tell your story, make sure the story's right." Note to McCarten: Heed this advice next time out, because Via Satellite is ponderous and, um, over-Dunn. (KR)

5:30 p.m.: The Emperor and the Assassin. Chen Kaige, China, 1999, 161 min. A $10 million Chinese epic showcasing director Chen Kaige's artistic expertise in every scene, The Emperor and the Assassin intensely dramatizes attempts by Shi Huangdi in 221 B.C. to conquer and to unite all seven dominant kingdoms under himself as China's first emperor. Obsessed, ambitious and ruthless, Shi, leader of the Qin, brutally murders known and potential enemies, including babies, children and close advisers merely suspected of treachery. Shi's unprincipled violence changes his turbulent relationship with confidante and lover Zhou (Gong Li), a former servant. Zhou conspires to lure veteran assassin Jing Ke, another of Shi's childhood friends, to end the reign of terror. Though historically streamlined, the many twists and turns of The Emperor and the Assassin are still occasionally difficult to follow. Never mind. The breathtaking images and grotesque tyranny propel us through this thrilling, fierce masterpiece with an energy seldom equaled. In Mandarin with English subtitles. (DC)

6:15 p.m.: Wicked. Michael Steinberg, U.S., 1998, 96 min. Ellie Christianson's (Julia Stiles) particular teenage wasteland is a gated community called Casa del Norte. She doesn't care much for her mother, and a little too much for her father, so when mom's found bludgeoned to death, the plot thickens. When Ellie takes to wearing Mom's slinkiest and asking Dad to kiss her "like a movie star," it curdles. Directed with demo-reel effusiveness by Steinberg, the dark and intermittently comic Wicked is not without its guilty pleasures, derived mostly from its excesses. At once slight and ponderous, the film manages to "succeed" by dint of sheer perversity, juicing its suburban gothicism to the point of genuine discomfort. Still, the style-to-substance ratio is so rich that by the time Wicked's plot exhausts itself in a final ridiculous twist, the viewer is left less satisfied than queasy. (JH)

8:30 p.m.: You or Me. See Oct. 30, Tivoli.

9:30 p.m.: The Phantom of the Opera. Rupert Julian, U.S., 1925, 90 min. Better than any successor, the 1925 The Phantom of the Opera soars with Lon Chaney's incomparable performance and startling makeup. Based on Gaston Leroux's 1908 novel, the familiar tale of love lost and painful revenge unfolds backstage and in the bowels of the Paris Opera House. As the Beast to singer Christine's Beauty, Chaney lurks in the shadows, kills challengers, unleashes chandeliers that crash into the opera audience, arrives as the Red Death to spy at the Masked Ball and navigates his underground labyrinth with confidence. The greatest moment comes as Christine sneaks up from behind and tears the Phantom's mask off his grotesque face. The opportunity to watch a classic silent film with live musical accompaniment, provided by the New Music Circle, is a rare treat. This way, as these works were meant to be seen, sound and image synergistically interact to transform the screening into a sublime, gothic experience. (DC)

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