Now in its 24th year, the Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF) continues to impress with its breadth and depth of content. There are films for families, ones that are totally free and others that ask hard questions: Below, we take a closer look at the festival's second week. See the end of this story for ticketing information and a link to the Cinema St. Louis website, where you can find the festival's complete schedule.
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
8 p.m. Wed., Nov. 11, and 8:30 p.m. Sun., Nov. 15
Landmark Tivoli Theatre
6350 Delmar Boulevard
Although Michel Hazanavicius' The Search is based on Fred Zinnemann's 1948 film of the same name, the sheer historical distance between between the two makes any comparison unnecessary. The earlier film took place in Berlin after World War II and concerned a young boy who survived Auschwitz and is looking for his mother. Hazanavicius' film retains the story of a lost child as one of its narrative threads, but takes place 1999 in Chechnya, as Russian troops invade in retaliation for a terrorist attack. The boy, Hadji, watches as his parents are killed by soldiers, then struggles to carry his baby brother to safety. Traumatized and speechless, he leaves his brother on a doorstep and moves on. Carole (Bérénice Bejo), a young woman working for the EU Human Rights Commission, takes Hadji in but is soon frustrated by her inability to communicate with him. Meanwhile, in a parallel but seemingly unrelated story, we see Kolia, a young Russian forced into the army by a fake drug charge and subjected to a brutal training program.
Hazanavicius, whose previous films have been comedies (this is his first feature since winning an Academy Award for The Artist), has created an ambitious film with multiple story lines and a circular structure, showing the Second Chechen War from many positions: through the eyes of the refugees, the humanitarian aid teams and even the invading troops.
The Search might seem like an example of a comedy director feeling the pressure to do something serious, and it is overlong and messy. Some of the stylistic mannerisms that worked for The Artist — The Search has desaturated cinematography that is almost black-and-white — occasionally create a mood of misplaced nostalgia.
Some of the plot threads go nowhere: Annette Bening, as a Red Cross worker, shows up every 30 minutes or so complaining about how tired and busy she is, but we never really see her do anything.
In spite of its many flaws, though, The Search is an admirable piece of work. Though it has been criticized for not simplifying the Chechen conflict, the film shows much of the horror of war and even questions the indifference with which most of the rest of the world responded. The scenes with Kolia and the Russian army (clearly inspired by Full Metal Jacket, but bleaker) are disturbing in their simplicity. The big emotional climaxes are predictable, but moving nonetheless. The Search shows that Hazanavicius is a significant and promising filmmaker: He may overreach, but he does so without embarrassment. — Robert Hunt
Orion: The Man Who Would Be King
Directed by Jeanie Finlay
7:30 p.m. Thu., Nov. 12
Webster University's Moore Auditorium
470 East Lockwood Avenue
Look below the glamour and excess of the entertainment industry and you will find, if you scrape down far enough, a world of no-class bookings in rural American Legion halls and school auditoriums, a world of stale beer, seedy motels and broken-down tour buses. Jeanie Finlay's fascinating documentary Orion: the Man Who Would Be King stares into that world, telling the not-much-success story of an entertainer who dreamed of the big time but never quite made it through the looking glass. Jimmy Ellis was an ambitious country boy whose greatest talent was always his biggest drawback: He sang and spoke exactly like Elvis Presley. Determined to break into a musical career in the early '70s, he found that there was no interest in his Elvis-like act (which included a failed single "I'm Not Trying to Be Like Elvis") as long as the real King was still filling arenas.
Ellis' luck changed (though not, the film argues, necessarily for the better) after the 1977 death of his more famous doppelganger. First, he signed with what little remained of Sun Records, where he recorded new vocal "duets" over old tracks by Sun legends, which were coyly credited to Jerry Lee Lewis or Carl Perkins and their new "partner." After meeting the author of a novel in which a Elvis-like star fakes his own death, Ellis adopted the name of the fictional character (no one in the film seems to agree whose idea this was) and became Orion, the Lone Ranger-masked singer whose promoters were more than happy to hint that he might just be the still-living you-know-who. That he was noticeably taller and younger than the King seemed unimportant to the true believers.
But despite the full exploitation of his record label (seven albums in three years), Orion was never more than a novelty, a Faustian freak show. How could it have been otherwise? What makes Finlay's film so poignant is that she sees past the ludicrousness of her subject and understands Ellis' rural roots and his urge to escape them. Orion is the story of a uniquely American dream doomed to failure. It's the Elvis myth (country boy rises from dirt-poor roots to white-suited glory, through sheer charisma!) turned inside out and given an almost inevitably tragic conclusion. In the 38 years since his death, the Elvis legend and its imitators have become a cartoonish cliché; In Orion, Finlay gives them humanity. (RH)