St. Louis International Film Festival

Week of November 10, 2004

The Burial Society (R) Nicholas Racz. Delivering a surprisingly fresh twist on the "man on the run from the mob" movie, first-time feature writer-director Nicholas Racz subverts expectations by making every character a nebbishy Jew, up to and including "Jewish mafia" kingpin Seymour Cassel. Still, this isn't Hebrew Hammer 2 -- the humor is there to increase the viewer's empathy and thus pump up the suspense factor. Sheldon (Rob LaBelle, who played Phil Spector in What's Love Got To Do With It) is an accountant on the run from his legally suspect former employers, and he opts to lay low by joining the Chevra Kadisha, a group of older Jewish men who prepare dead bodies for proper religious burial. Sheldon isn't quite as innocent as he initially appears, but he's so far from being a Schwarzenegger that it's easy to build tension around him, since he looks like he could be killed with one punch. The film plays like an old episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, with a resolution that's truly unpredictable. Mazel tov! Screens at 7 p.m. Monday, November 15, at the Hi-Pointe. (Luke Y. Thompson)

Cuba Libre (unrated) Juan Gerard. Reflecting back on his life as a much-loved, spirited eight-year-old, director/co-writer Juan Gerard affectionately, if sometimes awkwardly, relates autobiographical events in 1958 Cuba leading up to Batista's exit. Set amid the rich ambience of Holguín , Cuba Libre meanders for over an hour, digressing into coming-of-age fantasies and subplots with taunting, contentious boys before hitting its stride and capitalizing on the more volatile political milieu waiting to erupt. An international cast provides ample support, led by Harvey Keitel (who championed this film's creation) as a vivacious, enigmatic grandfather and Gael García Bernal as a dedicated revolutionary. Irresistible Cuban music and a wealth of classic movie references buoy weaker scenes, while a cinema and town thrust into darkness establish historical specificity. Balancing that, a nod to the archetypal is woven throughout events via a homeless man serving as a Greek chorus commenting on personal and political dynamics. A warm, suffused glow in several scenes and some effective visual editing nicely capture pleasant remembrances interrupted by startling, violent regime change. Screens at 9:15 p.m. Friday, November 12, and 7 p.m. Saturday, November 13, at the Tivoli. (Diane Carson)

Dear Frankie (PG-13) Shona Auerbach. Shona Auerbach's quiet drama about a deaf nine-year-old (Jack McElhone) in small-town Scotland manages, for the most part, to avoid the usual traps -- emotional manipulation and outright sentimentality. The hanky count will get up there for some, but Auerbach never pushes it. The boy can lip-read, but his real lifeline is a series of letters he writes to his absent father, whom he believes to be away at sea. Truth be told (but not to Frankie), his mother Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) is in retreat from his abusive dad, and she's the one responding to the boy's plaintive letters. The charade cannot last, of course, and when Lizzie concocts a scheme to shield her son from reality, there are useful complications. Happily, the director and writer Andrea Gibb treat little Frankie with as much dramatic respect as the grown-up characters, and he saves the movie from killing sweetness. With Gerard Butler as the anonymous sailor Lizzie hires to stand in as the boy's dad. Screens at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, November 13, at the Tivoli. (Bill Gallo)

Distant (unrated) Nuri Bilge Ceylan. This quietly effective study of isolation and loneliness walked off with the Grand Prize at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival (its two leads shared the top actor prize as well). It concerns Mahmut, a melancholy photographer who is bored with his uninspired commercial assignments and pines for his ex-wife. Lonely and bitter, but seemingly unwilling to change his situation, he finds his solitude invaded by his cousin Yusuf, who has come to Istanbul in the hopes of finding a job. Uncertain how to go about looking for work -- or perhaps too lazy -- Yusuf wanders around aimlessly, his very presence an irritant to Mahmut. Although the two rarely speak, they quickly get on one another's nerves. Told in lengthy, static shots, with little dialogue but much ambient sound, the film beautifully captures the frustration, ennui and despair of two embittered souls who find themselves stuck in life but unable to move forward -- or even to share their sadness with each other. In Turkish with English subtitles. Screens at 9:45 p.m. Wednesday, November 17, and at 5 p.m. Friday, November 19. (Jean Oppenheimer)

Falling Angels (unrated) Scott Smith. Based on Barbara Gowdy's novel, Falling Angels presents three daughters acting out in different ways -- from sexual rebelliousness to overdependency -- as a reaction to their mentally unstable parents. Unfolding through flashbacks initiated during the mother's wake, the rambling story capitalizes cleverly on late-1960s fears and fashions, with a militaristic father tyrannically forcing the family to endure days in his nuclear fallout shelter. Struggling to protect and accept their unhinged lives, the teenage girls dominate discursive, episodic subplots with naturalistic acting expertise beyond their years. This makes the consistently superficial treatment disappointing, since these young women could handle considerably more complex and demanding emotional revelations. So, for that matter, could the accomplished Miranda Richardson, who wanders vacant-eyed and distracted as the mother medicating herself through a mysterious depression, the source of which comes late and feels artificially added. But though Falling Angels never soars, its earnestly empathetic look at the deep-seated consequences of dysfunctional parents does avoid minimizing or sophomorically "solving" the psychological ripple effects of such formative experiences. Screens at 7 p.m. Friday, November 12, and at 5 p.m. Saturday, November 13, at the Hi-Pointe. (Diane Carson)

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