Now in its 25th year, the St. Louis International Film Festival kicks off November 3 with nearly two weeks chock-full of interesting movies. For a complete listing of films, see www.cinemastlouis.org. [Full disclosure: Critic Robert Hunt serves as a judge in the narrative film competition.]
Directed by Boo Junfeng
2:45 p.m. Fri., Nov. 4; 8:45 p.m. Sun., Nov. 6.
Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema
Irony and frustration suffuse this dark drama from Singapore, which tells the story of Aiman, a prison guard assigned to assist the institution's long-serving executioner Rahim. The no-nonsense Rahim casually instructs his charge on the moral necessity of his job and the finer points of proper noose positioning. Aiman is carrying a secret — his father was executed by Rahim — though he doesn't seem to have any plan for revenge or even confrontation. To his disgust, he's drawn into his apprenticeship almost unwillingly, fascinated by the discipline of the job but appalled by his passive acceptance of his duties. Boo Junfeng's quietly subtle film sets traps for both Aiman and the viewer, establishing his inner character even as each new shift in his professional fortunes pushes him deeper into personal shame. This is a carefully measured drama, simultaneously nightmarish and calm. The title, with its hints of a traditional success story, must surely be ironic; in this apprenticeship, the path to success is lined with quicksand.
Directed by Attila Szász
7 p.m. Fri., Nov. 4; 9 p.m. Wed., Nov. 9.
Set in 1914, Demimonde begins with discovery of the body of Eliza Mágnás (Patricia Kovács) in the Danube, then jumps back to four days earlier to show how she got there. Eliza is the kind of woman usually described in stories like this as a courtesan (it sounds nicer than "prostitute," if slightly less organized) and as the film shows, there was no shortage of potential murderers in her circle: the men she entertained, her long-suffering housemaid, and a new young servant who Eliza begins to groom for a life of sin. The film is gorgeously photographed, well-acted (especially by Kovács) and completely predictable, its formulaic decadence playing like a highly sanitized imitation of Eyes Wide Shut.
Directed by Klaus Härö
7:15 p.m. Fri., Nov. 4; 6:30 p.m. Sun. Nov. 6
Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema
It's 1953 Estonia, and portraits of Josef Stalin stare down from the office walls of every petty-minded bureaucrat. A young man named Endel Nelis (Mart Avandi), on the run from the Soviet authorities, takes a job as a school teacher in a rural town. He's expected to run a sports program, despite a complete lack of equipment. He does, however, have a background in fencing, and despite the complaints from his party-line boss that he's indulging in a feudal, decadent game, Nelis soon has all the children in the school thrusting and parrying with home-made épées. Though somewhat old-fashioned (this is the kind of film where you can tell that two characters are falling in love because there's a montage sequence where they ride bicycles together), the Estonian-Finnish co-production The Fencer is a lively entertainment, reliant on familiar sports-movie emotional build-up (not unlike the recent Queen of Katye), but with a more restrained sensibility and a strong performance from Avandi. While its American equivalent would have cheering crowds and over-blown power ballads, The Fencer earns its feel-good charm by striking a balance between the drab oppression of its period setting and the mannered traditions of the sport it celebrates.
Gypsy: Rock & Roll Nomads
Directed by Aaron Goodyear
2 p.m. Sat., Nov. 5.
Landmark Tivoli Theatre
There's a lot of myth-making in the rock & roll world. Gypsy: Rock and Roll Nomads offers a musical version of Icarus, a band that took flight but never really gained altitude. The eponymous band started out as the Underbeats, working its way through the Minnesota clubs before loading up the bus in 1968 and moving to Los Angeles. There the band changed its name, got high a lot and developed a complex multi-harmonic sound. In less than a year, Gypsy was at the top of its game, working as the house band at the Whisky a Go Go and hanging out with the biggest names in the business; Jimi Hendrix even dropped by one afternoon to apologize for not-quite-stealing its name when he formed Band of Gypsies.
Being the biggest fish in the good-sized pond of the Sunset Strip was fine, but Gypsy had its eyes on more oceanic territory. The members wanted the big tours, fame and fortune, and big hits, so they weighed offers from two record companies — one an established powerhouse, the other a small but growing label — and made the wrong choice. An ambitious two-disc debut album appeared in 1970 with lots of advertising support but few sales. Other albums followed, along with years of touring, but the band's moment had passed. The group slowly dissolved, with some members retreating to Minnesota, occasionally trying to put the pieces back together.
Aaron Goodyear's film is a warm collection of talking heads recollecting old war stories of what might have been, but there's an odd sense of fatigue in it, a feeling that the one thing that the members of Gypsy share today is disappointment. That feeling is dispelled a bit at the end — because rock & roll needs a happy ending — when we see keyboardist James "Owl" Walsh plugging away with new bands, but still leaves the sense that the original band (none of whom are ever interviewed together) is irreparably broken.
But there's also something of an alternate ending, a "what if?" story in which the band finds the fame that eluded it. While most of the world ignored Gypsy and its self-titled first album, here in St. Louis its lengthy prog-rock ballads became a staple in the early days of FM radio, getting played long after the album became a collector's item. Rock & Roll Nomads turns to the St. Louis fanbase throughout the film, most notably with footage of the 1977 Super Jam at Busch Stadium and a more recent concert at the Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville. Whatever your opinion of the music, these scenes have an almost heroic quality: The members may be old and out of shape and they may have missed their best shot nearly 50 years ago, but given the right place at the right time, they finally get to shine.