St. Louis International Film Festival
I write this Sunday morning at Meshuggah Coffee Shop on the Loop, high on coffee and low on sleep. It’s two days into the St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF) and it’s shaping up to be a great week. I’ve jammed in six films so far, but there are many more to go.
Cinema St. Louis (CSL) presents the fifteenth-annual International Film Festival with a lineup from 30 countries, including 75 features, 26 documentaries and 118 shorts. The festival extends until this Sunday (Nov. 19) with the Tivoli, Plaza Frontenac, St. Louis Art Museum and Webster University serving as venue hosts.
I should state outright that I’ve been a volunteer for CSL for the last two years and a member on-and-off. I have no personal stake in the success of the organization or the festival. I’ve volunteered my time because the festival is a rare cultural gem in this city. SLIFF has gained particular recognition for its short programs and its inclusion of regional filmmakers. CSL Executive Director Cliff Froehlich likes to stress the fact that SLIFF is not a “destination festival” like Toronto, Cannes or Telluride, but a regional festival that offers world-class films that wouldn’t be easily found in St. Louis otherwise.
While attending several films can be costly to your student budget, reduced-price student tickets are available, and a diverse selection of films ensure you’ll find something of interest no matter what genre you enjoy. The short films are particularly useful for the budget-minded student. Pick your genre of interest, whether it be animation, comedy, romance or experimental, and you can see a handful of stories for the price of one feature.
By the time you read this, half the festival will have passed, but there are some big films coming up in the closing days. I hope you’ll be able to take advantage of the festival’s offerings during your years at Wash. U. Here are my highlights of the 2006 festival.
My SLIFF so far
My week began with two of my favorite types of film, cult and classic. (It’s even better when the two go together.) On the cult side, I’ve caught “Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon,” “Severance,” “Intellectual Property” and “Apocalypse and the Beauty Queen.” For the classics, I went to see the Academy Award winning shorts of Charles Guggenheim and the 1914 silent “Cabiria.”
If your tastes differ widely from what I’ve gotten to see so far, skip ahead to the next section for the titles of a more diverse selection of films that merit note, or simply check out the CSL Web site listed below.
“Behind the Mask” envisions an absurd world where supernatural serial killers like Freddy, Jason and Chucky are real, where a young grad student decides to film a documentary on an up-and-coming slasher, Leslie Vernon. The film is a refreshingly funny commentary/homage on classic horror films from the 1970s and ’80s, featuring Nathan Baesel in an excellent performance as Vernon. Director Scott Glosserman likens Baesel’s debut to Johnny Depp’s in the original “Nightmare on Elm Street,” and it’s easy to see Basel’s potential. It’s one of my favorite picks so far.
“Severance” is a new British horror/comedy about a group of business people from a large military/industrial firm that go on a teamwork retreat in the backwoods of Eastern Europe. They quickly discover someone is out to kill them, and they wonder if the horror has something to do with their role as weapons dealers to world governments. The film is quite funny with some scenes of intense gore, but I wouldn’t call it anything special in the genre.
A festival organizer described “Intellectual Property” as “Pi” meets “Good Night and Good Luck.” The film takes place in the midst of McCarthyism, and it is about a young, naive inventor and prodigy whose entire corpus of designs is stolen by his mentor and by his father. Grown up, he begins working on his masterpiece, but he becomes increasingly paranoid that the world is out to get him and to steal his ideas, just like the Reds. The idea of the film is great, and it works on several levels, including keeping the audience guessing at what is going to come. Yet, while the male lead is good, the supporting cast seems oddly wooden, and they make the absurdities and the descent into paranoia within the film even harder to swallow.
“Apocalypse and the Beauty Queen” had me sold with the first word of the title. As it suggests, the film is B-movie cheese at its finest. The plot is simple and based (I surmise) on the historical Elizabeth Barthory, a Transylvanian countess who inspired the creation of Dracula. “Apocalypse” is about Sylvie (Courtney Kocak), a young woman in a post-apocalyptic America who is kidnapped into the court of Amber (Beverly Hynds), a former beauty queen and present ruler of a local county, who tortures and kills girls in her obsession to stay young, and in her jealousy of other beauties. The film is what I would call the perfect “good, bad movie.” The plot and characters made it an entertaining treat, and Kocak is exceptional in bringing acting talent, unique beauty and a willingness to shed clothes for her role, a rare combination in the genre. The film was made here in St. Louis and will be getting a DVD release in the upcoming months.
Guggenheim’s daughter introduced her father’s films, and it was the first time all Oscar winners were shown together. “Nine from Little Rock” is about the lives of the nine students affected by the landmark desegregation, seven years after. “Robert Kennedy Remembered” is a short, powerful biography commissioned after his assassination. It is stunning how relevant his words are now and sad to see how far political rhetoric has regressed. If only politicians today could speak half as elegantly or passionately. “The Johnstown Flood” recreates the tragic events that affected my home state last century and contrasts sharply with the aftermaths of modern disasters such as Katrina, both in the governmental response and the community’s pride and willingness to sacrifice, to brush off and to rebuild. “The Shadow of Hate” was my least favorite of them all. The film discusses the violence that has stemmed from racism and the nonviolent commitments of Civil Rights activists. I found this one the weakest simply, because the topic was too grandiose for a brief feature.
Giovanni Pastrone’s “Cabiria” is a 1914 epic masterpiece that inspired many American film directors, including Griffith and DeMille. It is amazing to see what directors were able to capture on camera in that day, including both special effects and powerfully conveyed emotion, without words. The screening of the film was aided by a live performance by local pianist Curt Landes. The festival is offering some more older films to come, including another silent picture. They may be old, but they look better than most new things they put on the screens these days.
And the SLIFF to come…
I’ve already had to miss some great shows, including “Steel City” (the award winner for the Sundance Channel New Filmmakers Forum), “Venus,” “Beowulf & Grendel,” “Son of Man,” a game show called “Gimme Truth” and an appearance by Terry Zwigoff. The festival has it all, but you just can’t do everything.
In the upcoming days I look forward to the many Q&A sessions with directors and stars and will be heading to see films like “Piano Tuner of Eathquakes” by the brothers Quay, Iranian “Border Cafâ€š,” Terry Gilliam’s “Tideland,” King Vidor’s classic “Show People” with accompaniment by the incomparable Stan Kann, “Small Town Gay Bar,” the talented Abbie Cornish in “Candy,” the Korean monster film “The Host,” “Cocaine Cowboys” (how can you turn down a title like that?), Werner Herzog’s “Rescue Dawn,” “From Subway with Love” and a treasure trove of short programs.
The full schedule can be found at www.cinemastlouis.org, which includes details on what these and other movies are about, and what will still be playing by the time you read this.
Day-of and advance tickets are available at each venue’s box office. Tivoli, Plaza Frontenac and Webster University’s box offices open a half-hour before the first show; Saint Louis Art Museum box office opens one hour before the first show. Tickets are $10 each, $8 for students with valid ID.
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