St. Louis International Film Festival. Cinema St. Louis presents the eleventh annual St. Louis International Film Festival, which runs from November 14-24 at multiple locations. What follows are reviews of some of the offered films. For more reviews, see pages 38-39, and for a full schedule of the festival refer to the SLIFF pullout section of this paper.
American Gun. Alan Jacobs. Part movie-of-the-week soap opera, part socially conscious problem drama, American Gun offers an unexpectedly avuncular James Coburn, a New England factory worker trying to come to terms with the shooting death of his daughter (Virginia Madsen) by tracking the history of the weapon that killed her. If the only things wrong with the film were the mawkish voice-over narration (Coburn's letters to the deceased) and the excessive, overdone flashbacks, you could dismiss this as a well-intentioned but fatally awkward melodrama. Unfortunately, the whole story turns out to rest on an unconvincing trick ending that insults the audience and essentially deflates the 85 minutes or so that precede it. Plays at 4 p.m. November 16 at the Hi-Pointe and 4 p.m. November 17 at the Tivoli. (RH)
Autumn Spring. Vladimír Michálek. Beautifully acted and strikingly original, Autumn Spring proves that the landscape of the human face and the impenetrable depths of the soul have more impact than a thousand car chases. Seventy-five-year-old Fanda and his former theater (and still theatrical) pal Ed impersonate subway-ticket inspectors and hard-to-remember old friends, filthy-rich ex-opera stars shopping for a palace and philanthropists. Their playful inventions run from charming to cheeky, amusing to insulting, depending on our perspective. Fanda's wife, not amused after years with her monetarily and emotionally irresponsible husband, takes decisive action when one impetuous trick leaves her stunned. Ultimately, veteran director Vladimir Michalek invites us to consider what makes life worth living and what keeps an individual at eighteen or 80 eager to head out the door in the morning. The performances and easy rhythm create the feel of reality effortlessly, skillfully captured. In Czech with subtitles. Plays at 6:15 p.m. November 17 and 7:30 p.m. November 20 at the Tivoli. (DC)
Flowers of Shanghai. Hou Hsiao-hsien. When social structure severely restricts control of one's destiny, interpersonal power plays produce maximum damage. In the late nineteenth century in Shanghai's most elegant brothels, called "flower houses," strict rules of etiquette and ritualized courtship hold sway. The golden hue that suffuses every scene in in Flowers of Shanghai beautifully masks the truth that a barbed tongue effects destruction as surely as any other weapon. Five "flower girls" and their "auntie" madams vilify the competition and manipulate the male elite who frequent their enclave to gamble, eat and drink. Again Hou Hsiao-hsien uses his mesmerizing minimalist style to convey the feel of suffocating, restrictive relationships. The camera never does more than pan across the dimly lit rooms as relationships progress toward freedom or erupt in jealous conflict. Flowers requires patience but rewards all who enter this fascinating, devious world. In Mandarin (Shanghainese) with subtitles. Plays at 6:30 p.m. November 20 at the Tivoli. (DC)
G. Christopher Scott Cherot. He's a solemn hip-hop entrepreneur nursing some private sorrow; she's the woman who left him for a richer man ten years earlier. The central premise of G -- The Great Gatsby set in a contemporary Long Island whose luxurious mansions are now owned by newly rich rap stars with names like B. Mo Smoov -- is hard to resist, at least by those of us who consider Fitzgerald's novel the definitive romance of American literature. Not everything fits perfectly -- the ending doesn't quite do justice to the bitter climax of the novel -- but for the most part G is an intriguing variation on Fitzgerald's themes, peppered with a few satiric swipes of hip-hop culture, attractively filmed in widescreen and with Chenoa Maxwell making a fine modern version of Daisy Buchanan. Director Cherot wisely avoids playing up the anachronistic potential of his adaptation and offers a subtle reconsideration of the novel as an archetypal modern tragedy. Plays at 7 p.m. November 18 at the Tivoli. (RH)
In the Bosom of the Enemy. Gil M. Portes. Set in the Philippines during World War II, In the Bosom of the Enemy charts the dangerous, shifting affections of the Japanese Captain Hiroshi and the Filipino Pilar, wife of guerilla fighter Diego. After Hiroshi's wife dies in childbirth, Pilar saves her captive husband and becomes wet nurse to Hiroshi's son. The complicated, conflicted relationship exposes the suppressed humanity of the occupier and the defiant brutality of the occupied. Events gain impact through director Portes' frequent cross-cutting between the Japanese compound and the insurgent community. Technically efficient rather than elegant, scenes often play out in long shots and long takes instead of more conventional editing. Entertaining but unconvincing, the narrative works better metaphorically than literally as circumstances push Pilar to make impossible choices, pressured by the impending showdown between Japanese soldiers and Filipino guerillas. In Tagalog with subtitles. Plays at 4 p.m. November 16 and 9 p.m. November 18 at the Tivoli. (DC)
K3G (Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham). Koran Johar.Year after year, India's film production, called Bollywood, outproduces Hollywood as it engenders audience fanaticism. K3G (Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Ghan) epitomizes its theatrical appeal: lavish costumes and locations, dramatic camera movement, energetic editing, vivacious singing and dancing (often music-video style) -- all packaged in a heartbreaking melodrama with an explicit message about class, decorum and cultural dictates. K3G kicks off with a mother and father addressing the camera to proclaim their love of their very different sons -- one adopted, one natural, both dearly loved. Forget believability and surrender to the film's mantra, "It's all about loving your parents." This marathon film (clocking in at three hours and 40 minutes) never drags, delivering melodramatic entertainment with high production values. K3G presents the perfect initiation into Bollywood's charms. Primarily in Hindi with subtitles. Plays at 6:30 p.m. November 16 and 3:30 p.m. November 17 at the Tivoli. (DC)
Markova: Comfort Gay. Gil M. Portes. Though he's adamantly told to forget the past and though he certainly prefers not to remember it, Markova (Dolphy Quizon) reacts to a documentary on the tragic fate of World War II comfort women so profoundly that he must reveal to a reporter his own sad tale, that of a comfort gay. Told in intermittent flashbacks, with Dolphy's two sons portraying him in earlier years, a young Markova suffers unprovoked abuse at the hands of his older brother in particular and through societal prejudice in general. During WWII, with brief snippets of newsreel footage used to chart the war, the Japanese imprison and brutalize Markova and his friends, using them as sexual slaves. As Markova, the immensely popular and animated Filipino performer Dolphy uses his expressive face and graceful body to convey the true story of Walter Dempster Jr. A strong color palette and nicely paced plot overcome the lack of technical flair. Plays at 9:30 p.m. November 19 and 9:45 p.m. November 21 at the Tivoli. (DC)
Millennium Mambo. Hsiao-hsien Hou. Taiwanese director Hsiao-hsien opens Millennium Mambo with a mesmerizing, slow motion shot following the central character, Vicky, who works as a nightclub's PR representative -- and narrates this tale from ten years in the future. Hou's unique minimalist style conveys Vicky's conflicted relationship with her obsessively jealous boyfriend, observing them in dramatic as well as monotonous moments through long takes with little action. As Vicky considers the chilly appeal of Jack, a shady business investor, Mambo connects one vignette perplexingly to another. But the apparent aimlessness alternating with brief outbursts perfectly captures the postmodern world of contemporary urban youth. Vibrant colors, pulsating music and ambiguous, but never unimportant, connections penetrate the viewer's sensibility in a peripheral way, with powerful images seeping into, rather than assaulting, consciousness. In Mandarin with subtitles. Plays at 9:30 p.m. November 18 and 21 at the Tivoli. (DC)
Shorts Program 1: Comedy and Animation. Compilation programs benefit from the variety of topics and styles, from the rhythm of succinct works juxtaposed to enhance each other -- most of the time. But SLIFF's Shorts Program 1: Comedy and Animation combines an astonishingly unappealing collection that drones along with self-consciously cute children acting like dull adults and moronic adults acting like pseudo-children. Heavy-handed, mean-spirited, badly acted and boring -- it's all on display in the dozen here. "Timmy's Wish" is for his parents to die, and a slovenly Jesus delivers. "Kid Protocol" makes the familiar mistake of narcissistically thinking we care about aspiring directors trying to crash the system. "Who Slew" unreels a vacuous idea in bad verse, and "Hamlet" condenses the play with little imagination. And these typify the group. Instead of our wanting each to linger longer on the screen, this "shorts" program delivers a narcotizing knockout blow. Plays at 3:30 p.m. November 16 at Webster University. (DC)
Shorts Program 3: Drama. The Shorts Program 3: Drama collects a strong mix of ironic and earnest works, with many stories focusing on functional and dysfunctional (even deadly) interpersonal relationships. Most deliver their stories through effective understatement and impressive restraint, knowing and showing that less is often more, that indirectly revealing ideas proves much more engaging to the audience than aggressive advocacy. The overall feel is of a group of mature filmmakers with a sure grasp of cinematic technique and a decisive handle on the delicacy of the human psyche. My personal favorite, delightfully unusual and fresh, is "Traveler," about a 92-year-old woman, played by a wonderful Marie Kalish. Told she's "a danger to the community" and must give up her car, she's driven around by Flash, her punkish teenage "partner in crime." But fine performances and imaginative approaches characterize all these shorts to make for a rich program. Plays at 4:30 p.m. November 17 at Webster University. (DC)
Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Story of the Funk Brothers. Paul Justman. You can't argue with the central purpose of this film, a long-overdue appreciation of the Funk Brothers, the Detroit musicians who provided the essential and inimitable rhythm behind the Motown sound, only to be unceremoniously dumped by the label when it relocated to LA in 1971. The film overreaches, making a few clumsy stabs at the usual music-documentary models from The Last Waltz to Buena Vista Social Club as it strains to provide a historical context in which to place its subject; there are even some ill-advised dramatization of scenes from the past. It's more than redeemed, however, by the musical performances, augmented by guest vocalists that include Chaka Khan and Joan Osborne. One might wonder why only one real Motown artist -- Martha Reeves -- is on hand, but the absence of Smokey, Stevie, Diana et al only makes the significance of the studio musicians, flawlessly re-creating the original arrangements, all the more obvious. By the time the film serves up Bootsy Collins' take on the Contours' "Do You Love Me?", it's made its point. You may never listen to those old records in the same way again. Plays at 9:45 p.m. November 16 at the Tivoli. (RH)
Willie Nelson: Still is Still Moving. Steven Cantor. Filmed for PBS' American Masters series -- and with a subject fully deserving of that heading -- Still Is Still Moving is an admiring look at the indefatigable musician/singer whose records are invariably labeled "country" but who owes at least as much to Django Reinhardt and Frank Sinatra as he does to Hank Williams. But what is there to say about Willie Nelson? He's amazingly persistent, touring and recording constantly, working with same band for more than 30 years, and aside from his publicized bout with the IRS and the usual stories of ex-wives and good times gone bad, there's not much to be said about his personal life. He's gracious to the filmmakers, shows them around his childhood home, lets them on his tour bus, but the film never gets particularly close to man himself -- which may very well be the point. Onstage, Nelson turns his soft-spokenness into a unique vocal style, his modesty into inspired jazzlike guitar lines. If there's a "real" Willie Nelson, he's hiding comfortably in the music. Plays at 7 p.m. November 18 at the Hi-Pointe. (RH)
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