Living for Cinema 

Art reflects life at this year's St. Louis International Film Festival

Last year, at the very last minute, a stunning Scottish film festival favorite tore into my studio-saturated best-of-year list and launched itself to the top. It was called Morvern Callar, and it's available now on video. It's worth mentioning because at this year's St. Louis International Film Festival, there's a wonderful new indie from Scotland that plays like a less-artsy, more humane and subtly wry treatise on the same subject: the subject being suicide and its aftermath.

Come again? Suicide? Wonderful? Well, actually, yes. Rather than being typically dismissive of mortality, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself dives right into the funk of the flippantly despondent Wilbur (Jamie Sives), his more responsible older brother Harbour (Adrian Rawlins) and the hapless young mother (Shirley Henderson, a.k.a. Grooviest Actress on the Planet) who sends both their lives spiraling into unexpected trajectories. It's sweet, sad, funny, sexy and, above all, smart. Director Lone Scherfig has topped her art-house hit Italian for Beginners with this Danish-British-Swedish-French co-production, wherein supporting player Julia Davis evinces outstanding passions for ear-licking and thoughtful regulation of buttock-girth, while the plot twists leave you reappraising -- and actually appreciating -- life. A subtle gem.

Being already in the general region of the North Sea, you may also take an interest in a short hop across the North Atlantic to Iceland. Heck, you've probably been saying to yourself lately, "What I'm hankering for is a Baltasar Kormákur double bill." You're in luck! You can check out ol' Balty twice this year in St. Louis, starring in Angels of the Universe (Englar alheimsins) from director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson (Falcons) and as screenwriter, director and one of the stars of 101 Reykjavik.

The latter is a strange delight, based on the novel by Hallgrimur Helgason, sort of an Icelandic Trainspotting or Slacker with a bit more charm. The ennui's still there, the sad abandon, the ever-so-chic modern detachment -- but there's also a heck of a lot of heart. Hilmir Snaer Gudnason stars as Hlynur, pushing 30, still crashing with Mom and despairing for an alky Dad, and absolutely lacking in the clues department. Sex, drugs and rock & roll have made their tawdry way to his literal and metaphorical island, leaving him -- sensing repeat theme here -- suicidal. However, he pretty much sucks at offing himself, and when both he and his mother fall for a saucy flamenco instructor (Victoria Abril of Pedro Almodóvar fame), things heat up on the icy isle. Hipsters of both the '60s and the '90s, take note: The project includes music by Blur's Damon Albarn and has an obsession with the Kinks' "Lola," which you may find difficult to get out of your head, for better or worse.

Angels, on the other hand, an Icelandic-Norwegian-German-Swedish-Danish co-production, turns more toward bitter than sweet, but in an equally impressive manner. Just don't expect to emerge feeling flush with joy -- rather than the spry Kinks, this movie finds a pop-song soulmate in the Animals' "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," which, of course, is exactly how the main character Páll (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson) feels throughout. Sensitive, affectionate, creative and shat-upon, Páll (in the subtitles: Paul) gets no traction out of looking almost exactly like young Sting, and when his love life, family life and future as an artist/musician all fail him, he pops in and out of a mental institution.

In truth, Fridriksson's movie is not "enjoyable" in any conventional sense, but it's definitely intriguing and cathartic. Based on the novel by Einar Gudmundsson, it has been likened to Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, yet while it bears some surface similarities, its style is its own. There is some noteworthy amusement and pseudo-philosophy when Páll falls in with the semi-loony li (that crafty Kormákur), who believes he's sending hits to the Beatles via telepathy, plus crazy Viktor (Björn Jörundur Fridbjörnsson), who thinks he's Hitler and really knows how to blitzkrieg a posh restaurant, but don't attend for yuks. (Things get surprisingly moving when a random passerby declares to Páll, "You haven't looked after your angels.") The project wears its spiritually heavy heart on its sleeve right through Páll asking flatly, "Do you suppose Jesus was mentally ill?"

And hey, speaking of Christ, if you zoom back down to Ireland for Marion Comer's Boxed, you'll get to watch terrorists and priests discussing Him over murder victims. Wait -- despite being yet another tale of self-sacrifice, it's much better than it sounds. The project, "inspired by written accounts of actual events," presents a very tender dilemma: What if a dedicated young priest (Tom Murphy) is hijacked by terrorists (Joe Gallagher, Catherine Cusack, Darragh Kelly, etc.) to hear a final confession, then refuses to let the terrorists kill their informant? This Irish stew quickly thickens, especially since we're observing a relative anomaly for motion pictures: a Catholic hero. Comer's script is a tad verbose, but her direction is tight and the intense, claustrophobic setting well sustains the tension.

Speaking of all things holy -- not -- you can also cruise a bit south and check out the latest from Spanish director Álex de la Iglesia (or Álex of the Church). The wild man behind the cult hit Dance With the Devil (Perdita Durango) returns with the anything-but-moralistic 800 Bullets (800 Balas). This outrageously cheeky movie features young Luis Castro as a Spanish lad on the lam to find his haggard grandfather (Sancho Gracia), a stuntman from the glory days of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood who now scrapes by as a sort of theme-park goof. The result is as sprawling as Boxed is tight; perhaps an ideal double-feature.

Last -- for the purposes of this small summation, anyway -- cross the Pyrenees to France (by way of China) and you may discover Dai Sijie's elegant and touching Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise). Based on the director's autobiographical novel, it concerns two sophisticated lads (Ye Liu and Kun Chen) dispatched to the rugged Chinese countryside to be re-educated for the state via Chairman Mao's 1970s Cultural Revolution. To woo the pretty title character (Xun Zhou), the boys bust out the Western lit, in particular the "subversive" prose of Balzac. Here's another of many reasons to catch a jewel you simply won't find at the multiplex. Don't kill yourself getting there, but do your best to attend.

St. Louis International Film Festival

Before They Fall Off the Cliff: The Ripple Effect of Schizophrenia (NR) Art Holliday. Before They Fall Off the Cliff: The Ripple Effect of Schizophrenia chronicles St. Louisan Matt McBride's horrific murder of his parents on September 19, 1994, the morning after his release from a psychiatric hospital. Rather than exploit the lurid details, St. Louis writer/director/producer Art Holliday offers multifaceted insights, exploring the impact of the crime on Matt's siblings, on the mental health support community (Matt's psychiatrist committed suicide) and on well-intentioned but often ineffective legislation. As a result, this heartbreaking tragedy becomes an occasion for education about the stigma of paranoid schizophrenia, its present and past treatment, and Missouri's 1996 revisions to involuntary commitment laws. With exceptional access to Fulton State Hospital, to evaluation sessions, to relatives and even to Matt himself, Holliday packs this hour-long documentary with footage as rare as it is revealing. Before They Fall Off the Cliff, though not technically elegant, makes a powerful appeal to our hearts as well as our minds. Screens at 7 p.m. Friday, November 14, at the Tivoli, with director Art Holliday in attendance. (Diane Carson)

The Butterfly (NR) Philippe Muyl. The story is an old and familiar one: A grouchy old man breaks out of his self-absorbed world (represented in this case by his interest in butterflies -- you don't have to be Nabokov to get the symbolism here) through a grandfatherly relationship with a child. Michel Serrault, one of the great French film actors and a veteran of more than a hundred movies, doesn't have to do much to fit comfortably into the role of the cocooned old man, and while reliability and familiarity may be recommendable traits for a performer, whether they extend to the film itself is a matter of taste. Screens at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. Tuesday, November 18, at the Tivoli. (Robert Hunt)

Chinese Odyssey 2002 (NR) Jeffrey Lau. The third installment in a series of films that treats traditional Hong Kong costume dramas with the reverence that the Marx Brothers showed to Il Trovatore, this comic kung-fu epic, produced by Wong Kar-Wai, takes off from its first scene with enough kinetic energy and narrative-shredding imagination to give any film this side of Kill Bill a serious run for its money. The plot -- what's left of it -- involves two sets of siblings (one of royal birth, the other poor) who are clearly destined to fall in love with each other once they get their identities and genders sorted out. Along the way, characters with names like King Bully and Solid Gold Love offer sword fights and pratfalls, wade through hysterical anachronisms (at one point a character adopts an Afro as a disguise, stating that he's going to create a vogue for platform shoes) and keep every moment of the film hovering safely above most standards of realism. If you see only one gender-bending martial-arts-epic farce this year, make it Chinese Odyssey 2002. Screens at 7 p.m. Tuesday, November 18, and 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, November 19, at the Hi-Pointe. (Robert Hunt)

Cinerama Adventure (NR) David Strohmaier. David Strohmaier first saw a Cinerama film in the 1950s (at St. Louis' own now-defunct Ambassador Theatre). Like many people, he has fond memories of the experience and feels that contemporary large-screen processes like Imax and Omnimax, admirable though they might be, don't hold a candle to it. Those sentiments sum up Cinerama Adventure, an affectionate if slight exercise in film history/nostalgia. The original Cinerama process, which few people under 40 are likely to have seen (there are currently only three theatres in the world equipped to use it), consisted of three images projected side-by-side on a curved screen, creating a picture that was four times as wide as its height. (By comparison, most films shown in theatres today are 1.85 times as wide; the most common widescreen processes currently in use are still only slightly more than half the width of Cinerama.) The early Cinerama films were essentially oversized travelogues, putting the audience behind the camera as it flew into canyons, rode rapids and, in the still-famous opening of This Is Cinerama, hurled along the rails of a roller coaster. When the company decided to move into narrative films (The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, How the West Was Won), the technical flaws and limitations of the process suddenly became more intrusive and led to Cinerama's quick demise. Strohmaier interviews the major players and presents many behind-the-scenes anecdotes, but his most impressive moments are the excerpts from Cinerama films, for which he uses an ingenious concave-shaped frame to reveal the system's amazing sense of depth -- as well as its drawbacks. Too impressive to be pigeonholed as a Hollywood gimmick, yet too gimmicky to overcome its own gigantic proportions, Cinerama remains a fantastic novelty. Screens at 7 p.m. Friday, November 14, and 4:30 p.m. Saturday, November 15, at the Hi-Pointe. (Robert Hunt)

The Embalmer (NR) Matteo Garrone. Miss this, and you may have to forfeit your right to complain that all movies these days are the same. Where else can you experience the story of a dwarf taxidermist with mob ties and an unfortunate tendency to fall in love with sexy guys he can't have? Diminutive dealer-in-death Peppino (Ernesto Mahieux) falls for hunky waiter Valerio (Valerio Foglia Manzillo) and makes him his apprentice, with an eye to possibly being more than friends -- whether or not Valerio realizes this isn't clear at first. When gorgeous woman Deborah (Elisabetta Rocchetti) comes into the picture, though, Peppino gets pissed, and Valerio finds himself more torn than perhaps he could even admit to himself. And the little guy's pretty scary when he gets upset. Those squeamish about dead animals may wish to miss this film, but thanks to talented cinematographer Marco Ornato, they're the most beautiful deceased critters you've ever seen. It's a twisted flick, all right, but one with copious pleasures. Screens at 9:30 p.m. Friday, November 14, and 8:30 p.m. Sunday, November 16, at the Tivoli. (Luke Y. Thompson)

The Event (R) Thom Fitzgerald. Back in 1996, Randal Kleiser was mining new territory when he made It's My Party, a drama about a terminal AIDS-sufferer who elects to end his life following a final celebratory get-together with friends. Now such assisted-suicide parties are called "events," and they have become increasingly common as the antiviral "cocktail" hits the wall for increasing numbers of people. Thom Fitzgerald's film featuring an all-indie-star cast (Brent Carver, Olympia Dukakis, Sarah Polley and the hardest-working woman in show business, Parker Posey) moves one to tears without jerking them. Beautifully made and sensitively performed, The Event is no free-spirited night at the movies, but it's a morally and aesthetically necessary one. Screens at 9:30 p.m. Friday, November 14, and 8:30 Sunday, November 16, at the Tivoli. (David Ehrenstein)

The Flower of Evil (NR) Claude Chabrol. French director Claude Chabrol's latest film -- his 50th -- is a jauntier affair than his usual cool, sophisticated suspense thrillers. It's a melodrama more than a drama, a light thriller -- which is not to say that it is not wonderfully entertaining and satisfying. In fact, it is both. The story centers on the Charpin-Vasseur family, an upper-middle-class clan with a penchant for intermarrying and an unusually high mortality rate. The household includes Aunt Line, her niece Anne, Anne's second husband Gérard, a college-aged daughter from Anne's first marriage and a young lawyer son from Gérard's. Past tragedies include the plane crash deaths of Anne's parents, the car accident death of both Anne's and Gérard's first spouses, the murder of Aunt Line's Nazi-sympathizing father, possibly by Line herself, and the execution of Line's older brother by the Nazis. Succeeding generations form many of the same questionable relationships and repeat many of the same indiscretions. Is it the curse or the decadence of the bourgeoisie? Screens at 5 p.m. Friday, November 21, and 3:30 p.m. Saturday, November 22, at the Tivoli. (Jean Oppenheimer)

Madame Brouette (NR) Moussa Sene Absa. Part melodrama, part feminist lament and part Brechtian allegory, Madame Brouette begins with the absurd image of n violent, drunken man in women's clothing shot dead, presumably by his angry wife, then works backward to tell a slice-of-life story about oppression and ambition in the streets of Senegal. It's a broad tale of success and failure, taking its heroine, a divorced and defiantly independent street vendor ("brouette" means "wheelbarrow"), on a breathtaking journey that includes a doomed romance with a seemingly generous policeman, a brief career as a smuggler, family conflicts, pregnancy and political corruption, frequently augmented by the musical commentary of a conveniently placed street chorus. Though the climax is predictable, director Absa keeps the film moving with a steady flow of formal surprises; just when you think he's strayed into tame soap-opera turf, he pushes the film into some sharp new riff on love or power or family politics. Screens at 6:15 p.m. Saturday, November 15, and 5 p.m. Tuesday, November 18, at the Tivoli. (Robert Hunt)

Melvin Goes to Dinner (R) Bob Odenkirk. It's hard to resist calling Melvin Goes to Dinner a My Dinner With Andre for the rapidly aging slacker generation, with the earnest mysticism of Louis Malle's 1981 film replaced by no-less-earnest psychobabble about unsteady relationships. Michael Bleiden (who originally wrote this for the stage) plays the unmotivated Melvin, who joins a friend and two women in a restaurant where the four exchange anecdotes, woolly theories about life and, ultimately, Deep Secrets. Director Odenkirk, better known as one of the stars of HBO's brilliantly rude Mr. Show (co-star David Cross and frequent guest Jack Black make small appearances here), opts for understatement this time; he lets the story meander through a catalogue of oblique effects, with flashbacks and flash-forwards that are sometimes left hanging. The film never quite gets to the big summation that one suspects was Bleiden's intent, but it's no less likeable for the omission, thanks largely to the appealing cast, who know how to give their post-yuppie trials an air of sincerity without taking themselves too seriously. Screens at 9:15 p.m. Saturday, November 22, at the Tivoli. (Robert Hunt)

Noi the Albino (NR) Dagur Kári. Isolated both physically and emotionally, Icelandic seventeen-year-old Noi models rebellion and peculiar behavior, filling out a form to withdraw money from the fjord village's only bank immediately after his attempt to rob it fails. But Noi is far from the strangest person on town. His father offers consistently perplexing advice and a lousy example -- he drinks too much and asks Noi to cover his taxi-driving shifts. Noi's grandmother awakens him for school with a shotgun blast, and the new, antisocial clerk at the gas station café resents her controlling, smothering father. A clairvoyant auto mechanic sees only death, and a priest on a snowmobile directs Noi's grave-digging work. Alienated from this socially -- and literally -- frozen world, Noi retreats further, choosing to spend time in his private burrow under the basement floor. Ideas of escape evolve at a languid pace, complementing the slow shifts of ice and snow emitting the environment's eerie blue light. Tomas Lemarquis convincingly brings Noi to life, providing an absorbing anchor in this offbeat tale. In Icelandic with English subtitles. Screens at 7 p.m. Wednesday, November 19, and Friday, November 21, at Webster University. (Diane Carson)

Oasis (NR) Lee Chang-Dong. Hong Jong-Du returns after two and a half years in prison for a hit-and-run death to find South Korean society indifferent at best and hostile at worst. Feeling guilty, Hong attempts to make amends with the victim's relatives, most significantly the adult daughter with whom he becomes involved to the dismay of those who dismiss, ignore, or prefer not to deal with her because of her cerebral palsy. Extended family and community services, including social workers and the police, should support and rehabilitate, but instead they exploit. Apt but obvious metaphors dominate: A lovely white dove precedes Hong into the victim's apartment, a "Danger" sign is prominent at one juncture; even the disabled woman and Jong-Du's slow-witted natures telegraph their difficulties negotiating a world of mercenary, alienated individuals. A mélange of ironically humorous and touching events relieve the slow, meandering plot that captures many nuances of South Korean culture. At its own unhurried pace, depicting a dysfunctional microcosm, Oasis implicitly encourages us to reevaluate priorities and reconnect with our own humanity. In Korean with English subtitles. Screens at 9 p.m. Friday, November 14, and 9:30 p.m. Monday, November 17, at the Tivoli. (Diane Carson)

Robot Stories (NR) Greg Pak. Its science-fiction elements less significant than the title suggests, Robot Stories offers a quartet of light, even quaint, short stories that are as much about human nature as they are about technology, filtered through a sensibility that was clearly formed under the influence of 1980s pop culture and the Spielberg/Lucas canon (one episode even involves a mother trying to save her comatose son by restoring his collection of robot action figures). The best qualities of the film are decidedly low-tech, resting on director Pak's excellent work with a largely Asian-American cast, including Pak himself as a frustrated android trapped in a boring office job. Screens at 7 p.m. Friday, November 21, at the Tivoli. (Robert Hunt)

Sunrise (NR) F.W. Murnau. Considered by many to be the greatest silent film ever made, the extraordinary Sunrise (1927) showcases director F.W. Murnau's unlimited budget and unbridled imagination. Lured from Germany by Fox Studios, Murnau utilizes matte shots, superimposed images, expressionistic set design and forced perspective. The director's fluid camera movement rivals contemporary work, and it all adds up to an astonishingly gorgeous film. The moral fable -- a farmer seduced by a devilish city vamp schemes to drown his angelic wife -- moves from temptation to exuberant relief to joyful abandon before it collides with a calamitous, dramatically staged storm. George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor and Margaret Livingstone use nonverbal gestures and facial expressions to translate abstract attributes into memorable characterizations. Before the screening, Fox Theatre organist Stan Kann will receive the 2003 Cinema St. Louis Award for his decades of stellar accompaniment work. Kann will then play for Sunrise. Screens at 7 p.m. Saturday, November 15, at the Tivoli. (Diane Carson)

The Triplets of Belleville (PG-13) Sylvain Chomet. Wildly inventive in its animated style and its madcap story, The Triplets of Belleville unreels with a French accent and a protective, globetrotting grandmother heroine. She dotes on Bruno, her overweight, food-loving canine, and her on grandson. Aptly named Champion, this otherwise unfocused young boy becomes obsessed with bicycles and, of course, with the ultimate accomplishment: winning the Tour de France. Champion is ferocious in his training, and he's aided and abetted by his equally intense, resourceful grandmother. Poised to win the race, Champion is kidnapped by gangsters and secreted to New York. Detective work and bizarre events follow, with the legendary Triplets of Belleville in riotous singing form. Belleville exuberantly careens through inventive, loving homages to Josephine Baker, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Stomp (!). Just as impressive, director Sylvain Chomet and designer Evgeni Tomov prove that sketch animation artists still have ingenious, previously untapped ideas devoid of romanticism. Unabashedly gritty and great, scenes have so many visual jokes, we race to keep up with the brash humor. Screens at 7 p.m. Thursday, November 13, at the Hi-Pointe. (Diane Carson)

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