St. Louis International Film Festival

Week of November 10, 2004

Tarnation (unrated) Jonathan Caouette. Essentially a work of editing, Tarnation was crafted by Jonathan Caouette, a man who has been filming his difficult life ever since he was eleven. At 31, he culled 160 hours of footage for the essential 1.5, to tell the story of his childhood, his family and his consciousness. Caouette's mother suffered from severe mental illness, so Jonathan was raised by his grandparents, which did not protect him from witnessing his mother's rape. He also spent time in foster care, where he was beaten. Amid this wreckage, Jonathan developed a glamorous world of make-believe as well as depersonalization disorder, an affliction that makes everything seem like a dream. Tarnation's most notable aspect is its form -- a jumbled montage of Super8, video, stills and digital video with titles. Caouette is replicating his disorder, showing what the world looks like to him. But there's too much text, and it's too explanatory. Also, the film often feels like a music video, running into a blur of images and sound. Screens at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, November 16, and at 9:45 p.m. Thursday, November 18, at the Tivoli. (Melissa Levine)

Unknown Soldier (unrated) Ferenc Tóth. Director Ferenc Tóth's protagonist, Ellison Jones (Carl Louis), is neither trigger-happy gangster nor debonair corporate lawyer. All he wants right now is to make enough money to eat and get an apartment with his girlfriend. After his father dies unexpectedly, Ellison is thrust into the streets of Harlem and forced to work odd jobs, sell bootlegged CDs and find a different place to sleep every night, which sometimes means the street. Basically: hustle. At his wit's end, Ellison follows the advice of neighbors and walks into an Army recruiting office to enlist, thinking it's a guaranteed gig -- only to find out that Uncle Sam doesn't want soldiers like him with chronic asthma. Ouch! He winds up working for a local hood as his driver/personal assistant. Nevertheless, because of the values his father instilled in him, Ellison walks -- runs for his life, really -- away from a bleak, criminalistic future. Screens at 9:30 p.m. Thursday, November 18, at the Tivoli. (R.L. Nave)

Up for Grabs (unrated) Michael Wranovics. In the final game of the 2001 baseball season, San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds hit his record-setting 73rd home run. That is undeniable. Patrick Hayashi emerged from the scrum in the right-field stands holding the potentially lucrative souvenir. That was recorded by a local television cameraman standing only a few feet away. Whether Hayashi took the ball fair and square or stole it from Alex Popov, whom the aforementioned recording seems to show catching the ball, is the subject of Mike Wranovics' stranger-than-fiction documentary. Popov has more than a dozen witnesses who claim that he had control of the ball, and in the recording Hayashi apparently bites a teenage boy's leg to get to the ball. Wait, though! Seems there may also be a second ball in the grassy kno -- er, Popov's glove, a ball with "SUCKER" written on it in black felt-tip pen. Wranovics doesn't reinvent the documentary telling this zany story. The film is mostly file footage intercut with interviews. But that's part of the film's attraction: Every key part of the story just happened to be filmed, and Popov, for one, never met a camera he didn't like. Sorry, Bull Durham and Major League. This is the funniest baseball film ever made. Screens at 3 p.m. Saturday, November 13, and at 5 p.m. Monday, November 15, at the Tivoli. (Ian Froeb)

Vodka Lemon (unrated) Hiner Saleem. This slow, stark and visually arresting movie isn't going to get any pulses racing, but it just might cast you under its chilly spell. Set in the bleak badlands of post-Soviet Armenia, Vodka Lemon portrays a frigid, snowed-in community of survivors trying to make the best of a barren world. Protagonist Hamo (Romen Avinian) visits his wife's grave to keep her abreast of the news, such as it is; meanwhile, he awaits a letter from his son in Paris, his only hope for income. (The letter comes; the income doesn't.) At the cemetery, Hamo meets Nina (Lala Sarkissian), a widow grieving the loss of her husband. The two move toward each other with shy and halting steps, all while attempting to scavenge an existence by selling their meager possessions. The cinematography is gorgeous, with wide shots of snowy banks and starry skies, and an occasional random element of quirky humor. The total dialogue must amount to fewer than 1,000 words, which feels right for the people and the landscape. Screens at 9:30 p.m. Sunday, November 14, and at 9:45 p.m. Tuesday, November 16, at the Tivoli. (Melissa Levine)

Word Wars (unrated) Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo. This charming, hilarious and brisk documentary traces the fates of four Scrabble hopefuls as they journey toward (and through) the National Championships. Like other obsessives who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of a single thing, the players are by turns quixotic, dogged, alarming, admirable and lovable. And like other disciplines requiring obsessive devotion, Scrabble exposes both the best and the worst in its subjects. From the three-time champion who uses Zen and tai chi to facilitate energy flow to the spliff-smoking Black Power advocate who resents the fact that he has to speak English at all, these "word freaks" far surpass any self-respecting grandmother with their outrageous skills, anagramming endless strings of letters and forming word after word you've never heard. It's too bad that all four protagonists are men, though this seems more the nature of the beast (no women in the top ranks) than the fault of director Eric Chaikin. Finally, check out the excellent, humorous graphics: They serve as a gently teasing voice of reason amid the madness. Screens at 9 p.m. Tuesday, November 16, and at 7 p.m. Wednesday, November 17, at Webster University's Moore Auditorium. (Melissa Levine)

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