When you pick up the brochure with the programming for the Charter Communications 10th Annual St. Louis International Film Festival, you'd better pick up a red pen, too, so you can circle all the films, parties, panel discussions and coffeehouses you want to attend. With about 100 features and short films and a bonanza of related events over the course of 11 days, Nov. 8-18, the fest is a banquet of cool activities.
The films include local writer James Gunn's comedy The Specials, concerning the adventures of a team of down-at-the-heels superheroes; Drive-In Movie Memories, a documentary about the vanishing drive-in theater; The Don and Bill Show: Slightly Bent, a retrospective of outré animation by Don Hertzfeldt and Bill Plympton; Almost Elvis, a hilarious documentary on Elvis imitators; Pornstar: The Legend of Ron Jeremy, a documentary on the porn actor known as "The Hedgehog"; the latest films from Spike Lee (A Huey P. Newton Story) and Peter Bogdanovich (The Cat's Meow); and local director Bill Boll's long-awaited coming-of-age tale April Is My Religion.
The fest offers loads of comedies, dramas and documentaries, as well as sidebar programming on Mark Twain, African-Americans, the STARZ! Super Pak New Filmmakers Forum, the Sundance Channel Asian Focus and the Short Film and Interfaith Sidebars. The Whitaker Foundation Celebration of Cinema in St. Louis features films old and new with local connections, such as Before They Fall Off the Cliff, a documentary by area newscaster Art Holliday on a schizophrenic who killed his parents; King of the Hill, penned by A.E. Hotchner; The Low Life, produced by Michael Beugg; and Silkwood, produced by Buzz Hirsch.
The fest is also an occasion for schmoozing with famous filmmakers and actors who'll be in town to discuss their work. The two biggies are documentarian Ken Burns, who will screen his new four-hour film, Mark Twain, and Bob Gale, the University City native who co-wrote the Back to the Future films with Robert Zemeckis and also wrote 1980's uproariously funny Used Cars. Burns and Gale will be honored with awards, and Bob Costas will interview and fête Burns onstage at several events.
Other notable guests include Film Threat editor Chris Gore, Spinal Tapper and Simpsons voice Harry Shearer, humorist Roy Blount Jr. and Election actress Jessica Campbell.
What follows is a glance at a few of the countless festival offerings. For a complete schedule of films, see p. 44. Reviews are written by Diane Carson, John Hodge and Robert Hunt. (BK)
At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul. This inspired bit of cinematic brutalism from writer/ director/star José Mojica Marins was Brazil's first homegrown horror show. Lacking an indigenous analogue, Marins built At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul from scratch as an introduction to Coffin Joe, the sadistic cemetery agent in search of the "perfect woman" with whom to extend his bloodline. Terrorizing some South American backwater with murder, mutilation and a leg of lamb, Coffin Joe is a craven bully, calling out the dead with eye-bulging fervor, then cowering in terror of what he's invoked. Ignore his apparent comeuppance; the character returns in the even more outlandish This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse before being relegated to repurposed footage and substance-abuse warnings. At Midnight is a murky concoction of primitivist gore and psycho-delic effects, bound up in Joe/José's loopy ontology. Films don't get much more foreign. In Portuguese with English subtitles. (JH)
Attack the Gas Station. Four bored losers decide to rob a gas station (twice), setting in motion a delirious mix of hostage melodrama, theater-of-the-absurd cruelty and social critique. Mounted with ridiculous abandon, Sang-Jin Kim's Attack the Gas Station is an insta-classic of new Korean cinema. Think of it as a gone-wrong heist movie in the anarcho-slapstick mode. After a long night of remodeled social relations and serial telephone abuse, Attack the Gas Station devolves finally into a triangulated stalemate between the delivery-boy Mafia, a protection-racket goon squad and our dopily intrepid gang of four. By the time the proverbial kitchen sink arrives in the form of a squad of telegenic cops, the place is a riot of close-quarters kineticism. The resultant zippo showdown provides the most hilariously shaggy denouement in recent screen history. In Korean with English subtitles. (JH)
Betelnut Beauty. Writer/director Cheng-sheng Lin's stylistic, forward momentum and Taipei's dynamic energy intensify, by contrast, the dead-end lives of Fei Fei and Xiao Feng. Their primal screams connecting them early in the plot accurately vent their shared emotional and physical frustrations, ones haltingly relieved through each other. In a transparent booth on the city's streets, wearing revealing tops and miniskirts, Fei and friend Yili hawk betelnuts, for the nuts' stimulant jolt, to passing motorists. Enmeshed in gambling, sex and fights with rival thugs, Feng doesn't want his job as a poor baker in a rich man's city. Fei, awash in high-tech gadgets, longs only to connect with her absent father and to pursue some elusive version of happiness with Feng. Betelnut Beauty contrasts surreal visual brightness with the details of a meandering, aimless, lost generation. In Hokkien and Mandarin with English subtitles. (DC)
Coffin Joe: The Strange World of José Mojica Marins. A defiantly underground Brazilian filmmaker whose 40-year oeuvre includes -- no, wallows in -- sadism, (sometimes real), gore, bestiality, blasphemy and a noticeable touch of narcissism, sometimes tarted up with a nod to Buñuel, José Mojica Marins, better known by his onscreen persona "Coffin Joe," comes across as a kind of shock-artist savant, part David Lynch, part Herschell Gordon Lewis ... and just a little bit of a sociopath. There's not a wealth of detail in this documentary; directors André Barcinski and Ivan Finotti are fans, pure and simple, and they want no more than to provide a lively anthology of Coffin Joe's most outrageous and tasteless moments. Some viewers may share his gross-out fervor; for others, let the buyer beware. In Portuguese with English subtitles. (RH)
Dog Food. Touching and painful, Carlos Siguion-Reyna's Dog Food empathizes with the bright, wonderful 12-year-old Lily, becoming a woman under the roof of her abusive father and dysfunctional stepmother. When Lily's 11-year-old dog is sold for slaughter to veteran dog butcher Teban, Lily fights for her pet and wins Teban's respect and friendship, even as recently passed animal-welfare laws threaten his marginal livelihood. Teban emerges as the most complex of the otherwise clearly delineated compassionate versus cruel individuals. But Dog Food (an ambivalent title) is convincing and brave in its honest depiction of the frustration of lower-class life in a Filipino culture of corruption, sexism, gambling and incest. In Filipino with English subtitles. (DC)
Hybrid. In an astonishingly creative homage, director Monteith McCollum documents the life's work of his grandfather, Milford Beeghly. Through nostalgic, highly manipulated black-and-white film, contemplative shots of deserted farms in Pierson, Iowa; time-lapse and stop-motion effects; unusual (even bird's-eye) camera angles; '30s archival film footage and '50s commercials; and a complex interweaving of eclectic music, studied silence and voiceover interview clips, this emotionally remote man takes full-bodied shape. Determined to resist those in the '30s who believed it sinful to cross-fertilize corn, Beeghly spent years developing his own hardy hybrid. Though he never connected with his first wife and children, he loved corn -- and hog calling. His macabre laughter as he grotesquely sings about "those poor drowned kittens" (a repeated, creepy scene) deepens his repressed personality, which was perhaps influenced by his mother's dressing him as a girl until his early school years. Whatever the reasons, after watching Beeghly (who died at 102, just after the film's completion) and after watching Beeghly's hybrids dancing, mating, germinating and ripening, you'll never again look so naïvely at an ear of corn. (DC)
In July. The first five minutes of Fatih Akin's In July set the tone for a wildly imaginative road film from Hamburg to Istanbul: A corpse rots in a car trunk, a solar eclipse occurs and a driver repeatedly rams a hitchhiker on a deserted road "somewhere in Bulgaria." In flashback, July, a young German woman, predicts that staid physics teacher Daniel will find his love that day. When Daniel mistakenly fixates on a Turkish woman instead of July, as she'd intended, the race begins to reach the Bosporus by noon Friday. Alternately comic, touching and delightfully outrageous; by car, van and boat and on foot; in urban and rural settings across Central Europe; through natural and altered states that come visually alive, Daniel and July win our and each other's hearts as amusing, adventurous, star-crossed lovers. In German with English subtitles. (DC)
Nang Nak. True lovers Nak and Mak lose and find and lose each other in Nonzee Nimibutr's eerily romantic Nang Nak. Drawn from a Thai folk tale, Nang Nak is imbued with archetypal gravity. Mak goes to war and is grievously wounded; Nak stays behind and dies in childbirth. When Mak returns, no one can convince him that his beloved wife and son are ghosts. By turns coarse and sumptuous, Nang Nak comes off like a more contemplative version of one of Film Workshop's period ghost stories. And although much could be made of the film's anachronisms, those are the least of its oddities. Performances tend to the fevered; subtitling ("I am so afraid that I don't have a face to go out") approaches poetry; effects are genuinely unsettling. As Mak's delusion wears away, so does Nang Nak's romanticism, leaving a trace of dread and disquiet. In Thai with English subtitles. (JH)
6ixtynin9. Pen-ek Ratanaruang's 6ixtynin9 probably deserves to be shorthanded as another "stylish thriller," albeit one animated by the sort of black good humor that employs a recurrent pattern of blood spray as a punchline. In the gap between the narrative rudiments -- salarywoman Tum loses her job, finds a box of money, tries to do something with all the bodies -- and a raft of subplotted misapprehensions, 6ixtynin9 proceeds by way of a series of sanguinary consonances: Tum is forever mopping blood from the floor, feathers drift through gunsmoke into pools of the stuff, the stain from a dream shows up in the aftermath of an interrupted standoff. Through it all, Tum furrows her brow and radiates a disconcerted beauty. Motivated by the twin engines of poor decision-making and accumulating corpses, 6ixtynin9's deadpan excessiveness winds down to a perfectly sensible condition of narrative irresolution. In Thai with English subtitles. (JH)
Song of Tibet. Veteran Chinese director Xie Fei's Song of Tibet animates vast, gorgeous landscapes and sweeping, fierce emotions in a heartbreaking tale stretching across three generations. The lovelorn young Dawa flies to "the roof of the world," Lhasa, to find solace from romantic disappointment and her very modern existence -- e-mails, laptop computers and phone calls. In Lhasa, she finds another world. As her grandfather lies dying, her grandmother, famous for her entrancing singing, reveals the heartbreaks of her life. Dazzling music, strong color design, unusual camera angles and movement make the stories of a husband, a lover and a lost son transcend cultural specificity, particularly belief in immutable fate. Shot on location, Tibetan actors deliver passionate performances as individuals clash and love is defined anew. In Mandarin and Tibetan with English subtitles. (DC)