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THE EIGHTH ANNUAL ST. LOUIS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

The eighth annual St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF) continues Nov. 7 at the Plaza Frontenac (210 Plaza Frontenac, Lindbergh Boulevard and Clayton Road), Tivoli (6350 Delmar Blvd.) and West Olive (12657 Olive Blvd.) theaters. Tickets for fest events (including seminars and coffees) are $7 each and available at the venues one hour before the event. A variety of passes are also available: a six-film pass for $36; a 12-film pass for $72; and a gold pass, which includes all films and special events, for $300. (Discounted passes are available to Friends of SLIFF.) New Filmmakers Forum (NFF) passes, which include all NFF films, seminars and special events, cost $50 for the general public and $30 for students. Passes are available throughout the fest at the three main venues.

Special events include an Alliance Française-sponsored happy hour before the Nov. 4 Tivoli screening of Train of Life at Brandt's Market & Cafe (6525 Delmar Blvd.); an NFF opening-night party at Blueberry Hill (6504 Delmar Blvd.) on Nov. 5 (cost is $20); four NFF seminars at the Tivoli on Nov. 5; coffee and conversation with NFF filmmakers at Blueberry Hill on Nov. 6 and 7; a screening of The Brian Epstein Story at St. Louis University High School (4970 Oakland Ave.) on Nov. 6; and a free closing-night awards party at the Sheraton Clayton Plaza Hotel (7730 Bonhomme Ave.) on Nov. 7.

Sidebars to the festival include the New Filmmakers Forum (NFF), a juried competition showcasing work by emerging directors; the Documentary Sidebar (DS), an audience-vote competition of nonfiction films; the African- American Sidebar (AA), a selection of films focusing on the theme of "Sights and Sounds of Urban Realism"; and the Critic's Choice Showcase (CC), selections by area reviewers of underappreciated or underseen films of the past 15 years. Films appearing in these sidebars are noted by an acronym preceding the movie's name.

For more information, call the festival hotline at 367-FEST (3378).

Capsule reviews are written by Safir Ahmed, Diane Carson, Cliff Froehlich, Bill Gallo, Glenn Gaslin, Frank Grady, John Hodge, Brian Hohlfeld, Robert Hunt, Chris King, Andy Klein, Melissa Levine, Kevin Renick, Randall Roberts, Joseph M. Schuster, Eddie Silva, Luke Y. Thompson and R D Zurick. "NR" indicates the film is not reviewed.

Wednesday, Nov. 3

Plaza Frontenac

7:30 p.m.: DS: Speaking in Strings. Paola di Florio, U.S., 1999, 73 min. Whoever first thought of the metaphor "heartstrings" must have had the violin in mind, and after viewing this portrait of the tempestuous Nadja Salerno- Sonnenberg, it is the violin manipulated by her frenetically precise hands that most graphically expresses that image. Salerno-Sonnenberg appears possessed by spirits when she plays -- a singularly compelling, and frightening, figure. Musical purists find her mannerisms affected -- a criticism that follows exuberance around, it seems. But those willing to enter into her passion in the concert hall are mesmerized, as those who take in this intimate documentary will be as well. This performance is sold out. (ES)

9:30 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.

Tivoli

7 p.m.: CC: Down by Law. Jim Jarmusch, U.S., 1986, 106 min. Jarmusch's minimalist comedy pares its jokes -- a slightly raised eyebrow, a contemptuously repeated phrase, a shock of hair left uncombed, an empty-eyed stare -- to the funny bone, inducing both laughter and pain. The film's troika of stars -- out-of-work DJ Zack (Tom Waits), goodtime pimp Jack (John Lurie) and happy-puppy Italian tourist "Bob" (Roberto Benigni) -- land, through setups and mishaps, in a Louisiana prison cell, where they form a grudging union and eventually escape into the surrounding swamp country. After much backbiting and circular trudging, the trio miraculously happens on a safe haven in an Italian diner glowing warmly on a backwater road. The film not only traces a journey but arrives at a destination: Without promising a better existence for its protagonists, it strongly implies that their lot has improved through trial and mutual trust. As its open-ended conclusion indicates, Down by Law -- for both heroes and audience -- doesn't dramatically alter but enhances our perceptions. Presented by Joe Holleman. (CF)

7:30 p.m.: DS: American Movie. Chris Smith, U.S., 1999, 104 min. With the success of The Blair Witch Project leaving the vogue for "indie" product with nowhere to go but down, the latest trend in independent chic appears to be the self-reflexive documentary in which struggling young filmmakers film other struggling young filmmakers as they speak earnestly and/or ironically about the long, hard road to Sundance. Mark Borchardt, the subject of the sad, funny American Movie, is no less earnest, but somehow the motivational speeches come out scrambled. Borchardt wants to make movies in the worst way, as the joke goes. Living in Menomonee Falls, Wis., where he drinks, piles up debts and works at the local cemetery, he refuses to let these or any other obstacles -- his apparent lack of talent, for example -- get in his way. With a cast of characters that resembles a live-action episode of Beavis and Butt-head, American Movie follows Mark over several years as he struggles to finish his horror featurette Coven (which he pronounces "koe-ven"; when a cast member corrects him, he thinks it's a joke) ... and a struggle it is. As absurd as Mark and his friends are, American Movie never seems to ridicule them (though some would argue that its exploits their dull-wittedness). So what is it saying? Although the film lacks a coherent point and drags in spots, behind the low comedy and spectacle it offers a glimpse of -- to use one of Borchardt's favorite clichés -- the American Dream, but wrecked and abandoned in a trailer park. Unfortunately, the joke becomes strained if you've actually seen Coven, which accompanies American Movie at both festival screenings. Although Smith's film holds out the possibility that Mark might actually make a worthwhile film, Coven shatters that promise. For all of Borchardt's pretensions, he proves to be so totally inept and his film so misguidedly awful on every level that I began to wonder how Smith resisted the urge to step in and take over. Introduced and discussed by Smith, Borchardt and American Movie producer Sarah Price. (RH)

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