By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Chris Packham
By David Kipen
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Caira LaVelle
SLIFF's eighteenth installment will come to a close with a free party and awards ceremony at the Moonrise Hotel at 8 p.m. on Sunday, November 22. But read on for a small sample of what else is in store for this week. Plus, click here for information about a triple bill playing at Webster University that includes Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood, and click here for a sneak peek at two films about legendary local bands Mama's Pride and Pavlov's Dog.Munyurangabo
The Wonder of It All
Just last week, the NASA probe LCROSS found a "significant amount" of water on the moon. Significant enough to earn a breaking-news tag on the MSNBC, FOX and CNN websites, anyway. That big ball o' green cheese continues to make headlines, evoke emotion and even inspire debate about its place in our nation's future. The Wonder of It All talks to seven astronauts from the Apollo missions — Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Eugene Cernan, Charles Duke, Edgar Mitchell, Harrison Schmitt and John Young — as they reflect on their experiences leading up to, and finally setting foot upon, the moon. Here, they're portrayed not as brainy, stoic science types, but as humble, appreciative (and sometimes downright giddy) men recounting their lives' most far-out trip. Instead of calculating incomprehensible numbers and miles between here and there, the film focuses on the humanness of their incredible journeys and the reactions to them here on Earth. Mostly comprised of straight-on shots of the former astronauts interspersed with footage from the moon landings, The Wonder of It All is not the festival's most action-packed offering, but indeed fulfills its mission of being a genuine, spirited look into the vastness of space and the human soul. Wednesday, November 18, 5 p.m. at the Tivoli.
Pop Star On Ice
Like a lot of figure skaters, Johnny Weir has a soft spot for tight-fitting clothes and all things Russian. Unlike a lot of figure skaters, Weir's sashayed down a runway in New York's Fashion Week, answered questions from the press peppered with drug references and has a gaggle of fans who call themselves "Johnny's Angels." (Or, yes, "Archangels.") While some of skating's biggest names gush over his natural (if late-blooming) talent, others are less impressed with his flip comments and perceived take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward the sport and the country he represents. But Pop Star On Ice also suggests that Weir is perhaps more concerned with the artistic-expression side of figure skating than the average athlete — one that seems to have become lost in skating's new points system that rewards artless, formulaic programs. The film mostly avoids the montages typical of a sports-centered movie and instead proves a surprisingly funny and personal look at one of figure skating's most colorful phenoms. Wednesday, November 18, 7 p.m. at the Tivoli.
Retooled noir with less pulp than its original source, Christian Petzold's Jerichow wryly riffs on The Postman Always Rings Twice for late-capitalist Deutschland. Mostly cool where James M. Cain's 1934 novel and the 1946 and 1981 film versions run hot, Jerichow is interested less in the frictions of bodies rubbing up against each other than in the static of class and cultural tensions as wads of euros exchange hands. As in Petzold's previous movie, Yella, the dehumanizing qualities of commerce drive the narrative. But where the earlier film lost some of its punch to a cheap plot contrivance, the tight twists and turns of Jerichow suggest that Petzold has become a far more robust storyteller. The players in Jerichow's love triangle — Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a Turkish snack-shop proprietor; his wife, Laura (Petzold regular Nina Hoss); and Thomas (Benno Fürmann), the ex-soldier Ali hires as a driver — are consistently excellent, with Sözer's broken, pathetic magnate starting out pitiful before becoming contemptible and, finally, human, as his tentative swagger is constantly undermined by his outsider status. Petzold's film forgoes the prolonged double-crosses of The Postman Always Rings Twice, its simpler ending made all the more powerful—and a little heartbreaking. Wednesday, November 18, 9:30 p.m. at Plaza Frontenac.
We Live in Public
Documentarian Ondi Timoner lends her credulity and camera to swollen, damaged egos who believe themselves visionaries. We Live in Public documents ten years in the life of dot-com multimillionaire-cum-installation artist Josh Harris, a clammy-looking loaf with none of the schizo firing-synapse spark that made musician Anton Newcombe a suitable study for her 2004 DiG! "One of the first great artists of the 21st century" (self-proclaimed), Harris' primary claim to fame was "Quiet," a locked-down scopophilic millennial commune for which he footed the bill in exchange for the rights to tape and live-broadcast every intimate moment of the participants, all interwired in a web of constant mutual surveillance, presented as a model of the post-privacy online future. Harris' canard, which Timoner echo-chambers, is to insist that the behavior of a flawed test sample — trend-susceptible extrovert extended-adolescent "artists" — observed under this unique set of circumstances has any relation to how most people use computers. Like with DiG!, Timoner cuts her material to fit preconceptions. Incapable of separating bluster from inspiration, she excludes any dissenting voice that might suggest that Harris' "Quiet," a spasm of manic profligacy born of short-circuiting megalomania, isn't artistically significant (it isn't). Thursday, November 19, 7 p.m. at the Tivoli.
Say My Name
Although men dominate the history of rap and hip-hop, a small (but fierce) cadre of females also helped the genres evolve. The absorbing Say My Name touches on these spunky matriarchs — Monie Love, who's now a radio DJ in New York, is an engaging voice — but devotes more attention to the ordinary women trying to build a career. The stories these ladies tell make Name heartbreaking and all too real: Hip-hop activist Invincible shows off downtrodden Detroit, even as she's trying to improve it by working with a multiracial artist collective; Trinie, a low-voiced Brooklyn resident, high school dropout and protégé of Wyclef Jean, discusses seeing her father murdered in Trinidad; and Shanika, an artist from London, shows off her fast, aggressive flow as part of the country's hard-edged grime movement. Interspersing these portraits with interviews from modern artists such as Jean Grae, Estelle and Rah Digga reveals universal truths: The struggle to release music, be respected as an artist and make ends meet isn't easy for ambitious female artists at any level. Thursday, November 19, 9 p.m. at the Tivoli.
Winner of the Sterling U.S. Feature Award at the 2009 Silverdocs festival in Washington D.C., October Country is an honest, heartbreaking portrayal of the Mosher family over a one-year period. The members of the Mohawk Valley, New York, clan struggle to break a multi-generational cycle of poverty, neglect, crime and abuse. Daneal is a teen mom dealing with an abusive ex-husband while taking care of their daughter, Ruby. In Country, she's facing the realities of her absent (and also abusive) father, gives up custody of her child and gets involved with another suspect character — all as her biological mother rues that Danael is repeating the same mistakes she made. Grandparents Don and Dottie are weary and sympathetic, but it's spitfire Desi who's the movie's most bittersweet character. The preteen is wise beyond her years when she assesses how much she dislikes her town and what's going on in her family. The stark, clear-eyed and never-pitying glimpses into the Mosher family's lives separate Country from other docs with this theme — and make it worthy of the kudos it's received. Thursday, November 19, 9:30 p.m. at the Tivoli.
35 Shots of Rum
35 Shots of Rum is a slow, deliberate tale about yearning. At first blush you think it has everything to do with being a member of France's second-class: the immigrants and minorities aching to claw their way out of the grimy Parisian banlieues and into the gilded capital. But gradually, oh so gradually, you begin to realize that the extremely understated melancholy depicted here derives from more universal conditions: the loss of a beloved, the desire to be loved. A little unique is the longing a widower has for his dutiful daughter: Ably played by Alex Descas, Lionel wishes his baby would fly the coop and tend to a man her own age. (How French.) In what has to be the most poignant cinematic portrayal of flatulence (or, perhaps the first ever), Lionel's own desire is summed up. I finished my viewing feeling like 35 Shots of Rum was above all a moody picture that badly wanted to feel momentous. It's not like anything was lost in translation (I speak French). It's that for all of the 100 minutes it took to reach the bar lined with 35 shots — well, I wanted more. Friday, November 20, 7 p.m. at Plaza Frontenac.
— Kristen Hinman
Saving Grace B. Jones
Tatum O'Neal plays one hell of a psychotic in this tearjerker from writer-director Connie Stevens. It's 1955, and O'Neal's character, Grace B. Jones, comes home to Boonville, Missouri, after nearly twenty years in the cuckoo factory. At first everybody's chirping with excitement. That includes a quartet of tow-headed tweens whose ebullience borders on annoying in the first half-hour of the movie. (Harsh? I don't watch Lifetime dramas, and I don't have kids. Maybe I just can't relate.) But as the Missouri River waters begin to rise, well, so does the town's level of wariness about poor crazy Gracie. Unfortunately, the people she needs most are overcome with naivété. Here's what I can say about that: You'll see. The movie was filmed in rural Missouri, and the lushness of the resulting cinematography will make city slickers want to run for the cornfields. Anybody who's ever sandbagged 'round these parts will appreciate the flood story line. Stevens captures its inherent drama quite well and does a decent job of marrying the natural disaster with human-created chaos. Even with its horrors, though, the picture has an overall quaintness to it. Perhaps that's why O'Neal looks so good. In the end, she's the only truly compelling character in an otherwise pretty set piece. Friday, November 20, 7 p.m. at the Saint Louis Art Museum.
— Kristen Hinman
Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love
Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour can't have expected his 2004 album Egypt — proudly devout, musically uncharacteristic, and released during Ramadan—to pass without some comment among Muslim compatriots, yet the hagiographic Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love reads like a kind of defense. Playing up the religious opposition to the record, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi's first documentary feature follows N'Dour on tour (powerfully compelling, muezzin-like) and on message (platitudinous and repetitive). The performance excerpts, starting with the head-clearing invocational introduction, are by far the most interesting part of the show, besides sumptuous photographed prayer calls at the holy Touba mosque and affecting moments with N'Dour's grandmother and shadow-casting father. For all the singer's sincere intentions to build secular-religious bridges, a straight-up concert film might have been a better approach, especially given viewer fatigue with those musicians and their causes. Indeed, the star's avowal of noble intentions and surprise at the controversy tends, through repetition, to convey an air of entitlement to a positive reaction from fans. Still, N'Dour, who annually headlines the festive Great African Ball in New York, may be the only singer who can mesmerize Senegalese and Western audiences alike with a paean to a nineteenth-century Sufi hero. Friday, November 20, 7 p.m. at Webster University.
Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam: These are the places Americans tend to think of when they hear about child-sex tourism. But Atlanta, Georgia, ranks No. 13 in the world. Playground challenges conventional thinking about child prostitution and pornography — that it's not a big problem in the U.S., that it's nonexistent in the middle class, that effective systems are in place to help its victims. Even the director of the FBI admits that — thanks in no small part to the Internet and its 6 million child-porn images — the Unites States is losing the war on child pornography. And though sex-offender registries are widely available online, experts estimate some 100,000 perpetrators remain unaccounted for; at the other extreme, as written, laws could imprison grade-schoolers for decades who smack a classmate on the butt. Playground also searches for Michelle, a foster child lured into child prostitution by the time she was fourteen. She personifies just how far this country is from enacting laws that are both sensible in punishment and sensitive to victims. Saturday, November 21, 1:30 p.m. at the Tivoli.
See What I'm Saying
Bands, actors and comedians have enough trouble finding success, but for the performers in See What I'm Saying — all of whom have varying degrees of a hearing disability — being in the creative arts poses multiple challenges. This raw, sometimes devastating, documentary features four people as they try to pursue their artistic goals in the mainstream creative community. The setbacks many of them face — especially CJ, a rubbery-limbed comedian and actor with a social-activism streak — is disheartening. Saying's most affecting character, however, is theatrical Robert. Trying to make ends meet and avoid eviction, he teaches stage interpreting at Juilliard and tries to find work as an actor. The scenes where he tells how his mom refused to learn how to sign — so he's unable to communicate with her — leave him feeling frustrated and very alone. And even TL — a doe-eyed, flamboyant rock star with a giant voice who signs as she performs and earns a production deal to make a record — has to rail against being pigeonholed. Her scenes acting in the play Children of a Lesser God, where she feels rejected by the hearing and deaf worlds after playing a character who's deaf, illuminate the casual discrimination still evident in our world. With director Hilari Scarl. Saturday, November 21, 2 p.m. at the Tivoli.
— Annie Zaleski
Belleville native A.J. Schnack follows up his music documentary, Kurt Cobain: About a Son, by directing an eye-opening look at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. Unlike other political movies, however, this documentary is focused less on the issues and more on how these issues were reported and conveyed. Convention switches between the newsroom of the Denver Post (and in particular tenacious reporter Allison Sherry, a newbie on the political journalism front) and the challenges it faces — i.e., filing stories on deadline, working around motorcades, gaining access — and scenes of negotiations and clashes between protesters and police. Convention superbly captures the chaos, confusion and pressure of the event, while not sugarcoating anything: Most harrowing are the scenes juxtaposing speakers such as Michelle Obama with grim SWAT team members watching demonstrators spew harsh protests. For an event that attracted so much attention and press coverage last year, it's amazing that Convention is still so compelling. With director Schnack. Saturday, November 21, 7:15 p.m. at the Tivoli.
West of Pluto
West of Pluto follows a group of suburban Quebec teenagers through one very long day and night. Nothing extraordinary happens. They fight with their parents, fall hopelessly into painfully unrequited love, get busted trying to buy beer, get high, ponder the meaning of life, trash other people's houses, argue about politics, endure the counsel of well-meaning adults, eat greasy fast food at 2 a.m., have sex and get ditched immediately after, watch too much TV, and mourn their lost childhoods and Pluto's loss of its planetary status. Unlike their counterparts in American films such as American Pie or Fast Times at Ridgemont High, these kids have zits and, at the end of the night (and the movie), not a hell of a lot changes. But the film is oddly touching, particularly at the beginning when the kids each give a school presentation about what matters most to them (astronomy, skateboarding, peanut butter, Ben Affleck — but only because someone else took Matt Damon) and in the different and unexpected ways the characters manage to connect. Saturday, November 21, 5 p.m. at Washington University's Brown Hall.
Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country
How we view the relationship between traditional and new media should forever be changed by Danish filmmaker Anders Østergaard's terrific documentary about a loosely organized network of scrappy underground videographers who risked their lives photographing the abortive 2007 uprising against Myanmar's military dictatorship. Spooked by memories of a similar rebellion in 1988, the government shut down the Internet and local media, and banned foreign journalists from covering the demonstrations, which were led by Buddhist monks and students with growing support from an emboldened public. Burma VJ takes us on a roller coaster of alternating hope and despair as the young guerrilla reporters, always on the lookout for ubiquitous informers, wade into the thick of the struggle with Handycams hidden in bags, then transmit the footage to a hidden colleague, who smuggles it out of the country via satellite. The raw, shocking images of courage and brutal backlash, here enhanced by added voiceover from two anguished young cameramen, were then broadcast, uncanned and unpolished, by the mainstream media. There was no happy ending, but if Burma VJ's account of the efficacy of dictatorship threatens to crush you, the sight of a sturdy young back disappearing into the mountains, returning from a Thailand hideout for another round of bearing witness, should make your heart burst. Sunday, November 22, 6 p.m. at Plaza Frontenac.
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