Films Without Borders

The fourteenth annual St. Louis International Film Festival gets off to a great start

FEATURE FILMS:

Beyond the Rocks(unrated) Sam Wood. Beyond the Rocks was presumed lost for more than 80 years. But then, in April 2004, the Netherlands Film Museum received a copy of the 1922 silent film from a private Dutch collection. Celebration ensued — and with good reason. Based on Elinor Glyn's novel, this lavishly presented melodrama, starring Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino in their only cinematic pairing, begins thrillingly, with Theodora Fitzgerald (Swanson) saved from drowning off the English Dorset Coast by Lord Hector Bracondale (Valentino). Unhappily married to a staid millionaire to restore her family's fortunes, Theodora falls passionately in love with the dashing Hector, and he with her. Smoldering and yearning for one another other, Swanson and Valentino give luminous performances in this tale of social propriety and betrayal. Another legend, organist Stan Kann, provides live musical accompaniment.Screens at 5 p.m. Sunday, November 13, at the Tivoli. (Diane Carson)

Bitter Dream(unrated) Mohsen Amiryoussefi. As we all learned from Poltergeist, one should not communicate with otherworldly forces via television set. Especially not when said otherworldly force is Angel of Death Azrael, as is the case for Esfandiar, a prick of an Iranian mortician who receives omens of his impending demise and vows to make up 40 years of jerkitude to his employees. The subtitled religious commentary on TV, tradition, mortality and the need to not be a douchebag is a bit off, timing-wise, though the awkwardness serves well to heighten the darker moments. How much more black could this Farsi comedy be? None. None more comedically black. Screens at noon Sunday, November 13, and 5 p.m. Tuesday, November 15, at the Tivoli. (Julie Seabaugh)

Black Wine (unrated) Ryan Rossell. What Psycho did for women contemplating a nice hot shower, Black Wine might do for cocky law students taking a bath — although this particular law student, Trevor Taylor, is already dead. But not dead enough for his soon-to-be-fiancée, who decides a tub full of piranhas is the only way to wash that man right out of her life. Directed, produced and written by Ryan Rossell, this noir thriller begins innocently enough. Trevor, played by Anson Scoville, makes well-rehearsed plans to pop the question to sweet young Ashley (Jennifer Marlowe). Then two gun-toting robbers intervene on a cold New York City night to wreck the couple's lives. A control-freak with a volcanic temper that will prove his undoing, Trevor goes overboard in killing the hoodlums. Soon, everything goes overboard, as Trevor and Ashley make an inexplicable descent into madness. With solid acting and shocking Hitchcockian twists and turns, this dark tale will stick with you, like the long kitchen knife that — oops. See for yourself. Screens at 9:45 p.m., Saturday, November 12, at the Tivoli. (Ellis E. Conklin)

Bombón (El Perro)(unrated) Carlos Sorin. The tale of a man and his dog is as old as both species, but here it's imbued with so much beauty and humor that it seems a new genre altogether. The man is Patagonian mechanic Juan Villegas, and the dog is Bombón, an impeccably pedigreed dogo argentino with the build of a Buick and the temperament of a happy toddler. Both man and beast defy Latin-machismo stereotypes: Villegas is gentle and humble (in one of the film's most charming moments, he tells an unemployment agent that he knows mechanics — "well, simple mechanics"); Bombón (Spanish for "chocolate candy" and "adorable," much to the chagrin of the film's dudely dog-breeders) prefers riding in the car to trotting around the show ring, and is downright bashful about providing his "stud services" to ready-and-willing lady dogs. Bombón is heartwarming without ever once being sappy, and cinematographer Hugo Colace's bleak, beautiful portrayal of the Argentine landscape is more than worth the ticket price. If only more modern films were this lovely, this inspired, this simple and good. Screens at 7 p.m. Monday, November 14, and 9:45 p.m. Tuesday, November 15, at the Tivoli. (Brooke Foster)

Buffalo Boy (unrated) Minh Nguyen-Vô. Apocalypse Now, with water buffalo. Set in 1940s Vietnam, Buffalo Boy traces the coming of age of Kim, the teenage son of poor farmers along the country's coastal lowlands. During the annual floods, Kim takes his family's two water buffalos and, with an unsavory gang of buffalo herders, searches upriver for high ground on which to feed. The quest fails, but it is merely the beginning of Kim's transformation from an obedient boy into a restless, angry and lustful adolescent. A slow, quiet film — its pacing, especially at the outset, is almost lethargic, and the water buffalo have the best lines throughout — but it ultimately rewards patience: Buffalo Boy's power comes not from its more or less predictable plot twists, nor its flirtations with sentiment, but from the gradual accumulation of subtle characterization and its refreshingly imperfect hero. Screens at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, November 12, and 4:30 p.m. Sunday, November 13, at the Tivoli. (Ian Froeb)

Formosa(unrated) Noah Kadner. Remember those black-and-white 8-mm films from high school, the ones that taught you how to brush your teeth, be a safe driver and say no to alcohol, drugs and premarital relations? If so, wow, you're really old. For those born after the advent of the wheel, the concept of youth-guidance films are primed for hipster revival. Set in 1950s Albuquerque, Formosa's winkingly whimsical plot revolves around a troubled studio president, his dutiful daughter, a gay leading man, a crooked bank president, a shadowy bounty hunter and the charming con man who brings them all together. It's part Cecil B. Demented (without the violence) part Singin' in the Rain (without the musical numbers) and part Pleasantville (without Don Knotts), but most of all Formosa is a smirking salute to those of us who grew up just fine without all the edumacational celluloids, thank you very much. Now excuse us while we chase basketballs into the street and go parking with marijuana-cigarette-smoking greasers. Screens at 5 p.m. Saturday, November 12, at the Tivoli.(JS)

Fuse (unrated) Pjer Zalica. A brilliant black comedy, biting, often hilarious and, in the end, quite moving. A few years after the end of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the small town of Tesanj is chosen to host a visit by President Clinton, forcing the mayor and the chief of police to hide the ample evidence of their involvement with the local black market, and the residents to endure a pompous U.N. official's efforts to reconcile them with their Serb neighbors. Director Pjer Zalica moves deftly through a series of Altmanesque overlapping plots, most of which involve Faruk, a young painter working as a firefighter, and his father, whose mourning for his other son — killed during the war, but still unrecovered — seems to have pushed him over the edge. Fine performances all around elevate the characters above mere caricature, and the ending, although it is telegraphed rather early on, turns what could have been an entertaining farce into a poignant work of art. If Fuse is not named the best film at this year's festival, it will surely be a crowd favorite. (IF)

Go West (unrated) Ahmed Imamovic. Director Ahmed Imamovic tries to cram too much into this well-meaning film: It is, at various points, a harrowing study of war's inexorable madness, a dark, gender-bending sex farce and an operatic melodrama with a hint of magical realism. Lovers Kenan, a Muslim, and Milan, a Serb, flee Sarajevo for Milan's rural hometown at the outbreak of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. To hide the fact that Kenan is circumcised (i.e., a Muslim), and to disguise both men's sexuality in the deeply homophobic Balkans, Kenan pretends to be Milan's wife — a pretense Kenan must uphold by himself when Milan is conscripted into the army and sent to the front lines. For the film's many faults, none is so troubling as this: Kenan and Milan's love is explored so slightly that Milan's departure, which should be the film's emotional turning point, is flat, and all that follows feels more academic than moving. Still, Mario Drmac's performance as the young, adrift and terrified Kenan is riveting. It softens the film's tonal lurches and adds emotional heft to its somewhat ridiculous climax. A noble failure. Screens at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, November 12, and 7 p.m. Sunday, November 13, at the Tivoli. (IF)

Johanna (unrated) Kornél Mundruczó. Interpreting Zofia Taller's avant-garde opera Johanna, composed explicitly for filmic interpretation, Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó offers a unique but unengaging experience in his surrealistic reinterpretation of the Joan of Arc legend. In a Budapest hospital, a drug-addicted amnesiac, Johanna, revives from a coma induced by a briefly depicted traffic accident. After an enamored doctor trains her as a nurse, Johanna becomes a ministering angel who heals other patients through sexual means. Her self-sacrifice engenders betrayal by the domineering, jealous doctor and a good-versus-evil struggle among other staff. Mundruczó' s coherent, but not terribly progressive vision, shot in drab greens and grays punctuated by periodic halos of light on Johanna, relies on long dolly shots and requires a forgiving love of experimental cinema. In Hungarian with English subtitles. Screens at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, November 12, and 5 p.m. Monday, November 14, at the Tivoli. (DC)

Missing in America (unrated) Gabrielle Savage Dockterman. This film, the story of a pack of emotionally damaged Vietnam vets gutting out their lives in seclusion in the woods of Washington State, is set up to be critic-proof. It's written by a novice screenwriter who's a Vietnam vet himself. It casts a cute female child actress in one of its lead roles. It has the infinitely likable Danny Glover in another, and features the similarly affable David (Good Night & Good Luck) Straithairn and Ron Perlman in prominent supporting roles. And, against all odds, it absolutely blows. This is a hackneyed, seventh-rate Deer Hunter-Rambo mash-up destined to end up on the USA Network or worse; the thing that rings truest about Ken Miller's screenwriting is that he's never done it before — the dialogue is horribly simplistic, the plot super-melodramatic and the pacing clumsy. The child actress, fourteen-year-old Zoë Weizenbaum, is also atrocious. This is supposed to be a dreary, somber film, and Weizenbaum is way, way too chipper in spots when it's totally uncalled for. The lone redeeming component of this movie is a classily understated performance from Linda Hamilton as a deep-woods shopkeeper, actively seeking to cure her post-Terminatorhangover. Screens at 7:15 p.m. Saturday, November 12, at the Tivoli. (MS)

Nothing Lasts Forever(unrated) Tom Schiller. Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans, have we got a film for you! It's a social commentary about a future New York City ran by the communist Port Authority! It's a coming-of-age fantasy about a young artist on an otherworldly quest to discover both his medium and his muse! It's a hokey romance in black and white...and color...and black and white...and color... by the creator of the Schiller's Reel shorts from the early days of Saturday Night Live! (Check out Dan Ackroyd as a traffic cop and Bill Murray as a tour guide of a city bus...headed to the moon!) And above all, it's a film for SNL-history buffs, the very, very drunk and smart-mouthed gumball machines only. Screens at 8 p.m. Saturday, November 12, at Webster University's Moore Auditorium. (JS) The Sisters(unrated) Arthur Allan Seidelman. The emphasis is on "acting" in this adaptation of Chekhov's play The Three Sisters. Possibly because of the ensemble cast, several of them with hit-television-series credentials (ER, Desperate Housewives, Will & Grace), it has the vaguely claustrophobic feel of an overdressed TV drama. Set mostly during various family gatherings at an Ivy League faculty lounge, the Prior sisters — Marcia (Maria Bello), Olga (Mary Stuart Masterson) and Irene (Erika Christensen) — hash out their emotional breakdowns. They struggle with being the offspring of the deceased Professor August, an overbearing figure who's left deep wounds that only lots of overwrought dialogue can salve. It's hard to tell which character is most tragic, although Marcia, the Beautiful One, seems damned to the core. Bello's performance is the stand-out here; she is virtually taut with damage. (Karen Tedesco)

Stress, Orgasms and Salvation (unrated) Carlos Alberto Riccelli. Orgasm-deficient Rachel has had a rough day: Her boyfriend cheated on her with her best friend, a skeezy guy in a pineapple shirt sexually assaulted her, and she ended up in the bed of a mystery seventeen-year-old. Um, ship to shore, this lady needs an S.O.S.! Coincidentally enough, the acronym that defines Rachel's life is also the name of a, ah, "self-help" service she sees advertised on TV — a masturbation mentorship, if you will. She enrolls with the hope that the ability to orgasm will relieve her stressors and improve her quality of life. But can orgasms actually lead to salvation? Screens at 9:45 p.m. Friday, November 11, at the Tivoli. (Kristyn Pomranz) Women's Prison (unrated) Manijeh Hekmat. A fictionalized account of a very real, very underexposed subculture, Manijeh Hekmat's Farsi film (with English subtitles) is based on her fieldwork among women's prisons in Iran. Commencing with the introduction of a new warden and spanning eighteen years behind the bars, this exposé examines Iran's "lost generation"— the people of the two decades since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Using the women's prisons as a symbol of the society as a whole and the new warden's emotional evolution to represent the winds of change, Hekmat paints a dark portrait revealing the politics of prison, society and the mentality of oppressed women. Screens at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday, November 15, and 7 p.m. Wednesday, November 16, at the Tivoli. (KP)



DOCUMENTARIES:

Goodnight, We Love You(unrated) Gregg Barson. Right around the time she lent her improv skills and raucous cackle to The Aristocrats, St. Louis native Phyllis Diller was also retiring from the world of stand-up. In this intimate documentary, Gregg Barson forgoes a retrospective of her professional career to intersperse interviews with peers and members of her inner circle with footage from 2002's final, star-studded Las Vegas performances. But it's once the camera enters Diller's personal turf that things get emotional. We leisurely trail the world's most influential female comedian through her two (!) decadent closets, sidle up beside her in the kitchen, follow her into her art studio, sit down to jam at her harpsichord and even reverently behold her Holiest of Holies, the Wig Room. Who would have guessed that the world's most scathingly self-deprecating housewife is happiest when she's at home? Screens at 8 p.m. Sunday, November 13, at the Moore Auditorium on the campus of Webster University. (JS)

HairKutt(unrated) Curtis Elliott and Ben Scholle. Plays like a more grounded, Afrocentric companion piece to Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, a drug disaster flick that depicts heroin abuse as a one-way ticket to prison and/or sexual slavery. But while Requiem took stereotypes involving the oft-injected drug and sprinted with them — the main addict's arm is ultimately amputated — HairKutt's strength lies in its ability to debunk these very stereotypes. Its central character, a cuddly and poetic doorbelling barber from south St. Louis named Bryant "HairKutt" Johnson, snorts the drug and is highly functional and well manicured. Tired of his own abuse, his lust for heroin is the hardly hedonistic: He's been using for so long (eighteen years at the time of filming) that he literally needs it to get out of bed in the morning. Johnson's introspective, vulnerable nature makes him the most sympathetic deadbeat dad to hit the silver screen in years, and the care afforded him by his boyhood friends during a cold-turkey cessation attempt in a remote cabin in Tennessee's Smokey Mountains make this film a small miracle, thanks in no small part to co-producer Ben Scholle's ability to whittle a week's worth of hand-held shit and vomit into a dynamic and moving 60-minute narrative. Screens at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, November 15, at the Tivoli. (MS)

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