St. Louis International Film Festival

Week of November 10, 2004

 Alila (unrated) Amos Gitai. Co-writer, producer and director Amos Gitai captures an intriguing, though at times too leisurely, snapshot of a working-class Tel Aviv apartment building undergoing needed expansion as the dozen or so inhabitants conflict and collide. One divorced couple debates the necessity of their son's army service just before he intensifies the issue by deserting. Another man and woman carry on a torrid but dysfunctional affair while an increasingly bewildered, elderly Holocaust survivor fears showers, among other unnerving daily elements. Illegal Chinese laborers and their boss clash with officials while a Filipino maid provides the only consistent relief and joy, via her music. Alila translates as "story plot," and the disparate lives interrelated only by location loosely hang together with too much time spent dawdling on repetitive details instead of advancing insights, which, when provided, carry weight. Gitai, who based his film on Yenoshua Knaz's Returning Lost Loves, offers a decidedly unromantic glimpse of contemporary struggle and self-indulgence against a backdrop of periodic, but always grim, news reports of bombings and unrest. In Hebrew with English subtitles. Screens at 4 p.m. Sunday, November 14, and at 5 p.m. Tuesday, November 16, at the Tivoli. (Diane Carson)

Bad Education (unrated) Pedro Almodóvar. A movie within a movie by Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, who displays his usual strengths -- zest, humor, visual beauty -- and weaknesses, including the failure to acknowledge the gravity of his subject. A young actor (Gael García Bernal) appears at the home of a childhood friend, now a film director (Fele Martinez), with a manuscript. The director reads the manuscript and discovers that it tells the tale of the two men as boys, at school, where they fell in love. But the actor is not what he seems, and a tale of sexual abuse by a priest morphs into a twisted plot of identity deception and manipulation. Bad Education sees itself as noir, but the material knows better, persisting in emotional depth despite the stylized trappings foisted upon it. The movie begins as a comedy, morphs into drama and only belatedly introduces its noirish subterfuge, cunning and death -- none of which is necessary or welcome. There is a great deal of life in Bad Education, and also promise, but its creepy ending betrays its emotional core. Screens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, November 19, at the Tivoli. (Melissa Levine)

Blind Shaft (unrated) Li Yang. This film, about a pair of itinerant miners who profit from a gruesome extortion scheme, is a noble endeavor. Producer-writer-director Li Yang, a man committed to telling the story of China's desperate underclass, risked his life (and a ban in China) to do it, logging countless hours deep below the earth in illegal and dangerous mines, and facing down armed policemen accusing him of journalism. As a film, it is a tidy piece of work: well crafted and spare, with an impeccable plot and a sharp central conflict, involving two protagonists whose unsavory relationship is triangulated by the arrival of a third. Unfortunately, Blind Shaft is also miserably bleak, with portrayals of poverty, corruption and icy violence delivered in a near-constant stream of grays and blacks. Made with obvious integrity and the power of purpose, it's the kind of film that's easy to appreciate -- and one hopes that it will bring the appropriate amount of attention to the crisis of poverty in China. But it's hard to imagine anyone actually enjoying it. Screens at 3 p.m. Sunday, November 14, and at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, November 16, at the Hi-Pointe. (Melissa Levine)

Bluegrass Journey (unrated) Ruth Oxenberg. Ruth Oxenberg's documentary, set mainly at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in New York state, serves as a more yeomanlike, informative musical primer than 2000's Down from the Mountain, an homage to the breakaway success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. While megastars like Emmylou Harris, the Cox family and Alison Krauss are nowhere to be found in Oxenberg's spare, lovely film, heavyweights such as Peter Rowan, Nickel Creek, Dolly Parton and the Del McCoury Band are -- whether it be on the stage of the Grey Fox or jamming at 3:30 a.m. in a Louisville hotel room for a couple dozen lucky conventioneers. Like punk, bluegrass is music made for the people, by the people -- something Oxenberg encapsulates brilliantly in her last sequence. Unlike punk, bluegrass is an art form that is humble, traditional and meticulous, qualities that resonate in every frame of this beautiful little film. Screens at 1 p.m. Saturday, November 13, at the Tivoli. (Mike Seely)

Built for Speed: The Coral Court Motel (unrated) Bill Boll and Shellee Graham. Way before its 1993 closure and subsequent demolition, the Coral Court Motel on Watson Road had it all: great American road-trippers, kidnappings, nostalgia, mob shenanigans, architectural renown, hourly rates, shades-drawn decadence, noontime boss-secretary philandering -- and a secret underground entrance to boot. If ever there was an expired edifice round these parts that merited its own documentary film, it's this one. And seasoned local filmmaker Bill Boll and Route 66 archivist/producer Shellee Graham have meticulously and brilliantly captured the goods in their engrossing feature Built for Speed: The Coral Court Motel. Boll's collaboration with Graham -- financed through a Committee for Access and Local Origination Programming (CALOP) grant from the University City municipal government -- has given Boll, a close friend and frequent collaborator of Mayor of the Sunset Strip director George Hickenlooper, a newfound understanding of Route 66 fanatics. "Before I got involved in this, I never got it," the 39-year-old Boll says of mother-road enthusiasts. "Now I still think they're out of their minds, but I get it. To understand Route 66 is to understand that the pace of change is going so rapidly that we're not preserving history anymore. History is being paved and painted over before it can be recognized as being history." Screens with the short film "Pushin' Ink" at 4 p.m. Sunday, November 14, at the Tivoli. (Mike Seely)

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