St. Louis International Film Festival. Cinema St. Louis presents the eleventh annual St. Louis International Film Festival, which continues through November 24 multiple locations. Below are reviews of some of the scheduled films. For a complete schedule, refer to the festival Web site at www.sliff.org
Anita Takes a Chance. Ventura Pons. Anita has just turned 50, has worked for 34 years as a cinema box office clerk, and has a 15-day vacation urged upon her. Ongoing construction for a huge new cineplex greets a stunned Anita upon her return -- but no job. She doesn't fit the modern image. From habit and a mild state of panic, Anita becomes an invited fixture at the site and soon thereafter involved with the bulldozer operator. Through a captivating range of nuanced emotions, the delightful Rosa Maria Sarda conveys Anita's surprise, embarrassment, and feisty determination to enjoy this affair. Eschewing sentimentality, finding comedy in bittersweet exchanges, veteran director Ventura Pons uses bright colors, a brisk pace and intermittent direct address to the camera to invigorate his sly and charming film. Anita Takes a Chance describes Anita's decision to pursue her heart and win ours along the way. In Spanish with subtitles. Plays at 9:15 p.m., Thursday, November 21 at the Hi-Pointe and 4:30 p.m., Saturday, November 23 at the Tivoli. (DC)
The Business of Fancydancing. Sherman Alexie. Reviewed this issue.
Disco Pigs. Kirsten Sheridan. "Runt" and "Pig" are born on the same day, form an intense bond while growing up and , threatened by separation as teenagers, seal their love by embarking on a minor crime spree. They're also one of the most annoying screen couples in recent memory, and this throwback to the doomed-teenagers-in-love sub-genre lays the self-pity on extra thick. Director Kirsten Sheridan, the daughter of screenwriter Jim Sheridan, seems to be trying for a Badlands meets Trainspotting quality, simultaneously poetic and trendy, but despite valiant efforts by Elaine Cassidy, the film never escapes from a curious combination of the cloying and the misanthropic. Plays at 7:15 p.m, Friday, November 22 and 3:45 p.m., Saturday, November 23 at the Tivoli. (RH)
Hi! Dharma!. Cheol-kwan Park. Subtlety and believability have nothing to do with the riotous pleasure of Hi! Dharma! which sends five on-the-run gangsters on a journey to a mountainous monastery retreat. The often frenetic, callous criminals clash emotionally and physically with the spiritual, contemplative Buddhist monks. But over the weeks of proximity, their charged interaction involves contests that test strength and riddles that challenge intellect. The variety of events (a diving match to see who can hold his breath longest, a 3,000-bow ritual, the answer to how a "broken vase overflows with water") provides exhilarating -- albeit some manufactured and heavy-handed -- encounters. Disagreements within each group, plus eventual discovery, culminate in a climactic martial arts showdown. Director Park knows to ignore motivation in favor of mayhem and mirth, and Hi! Dharma! clips along with its over-the-top explosion of predicaments and slapstick clowning. In Korean with subtitles. Plays at 9:45 p.m., Friday, November 22 and 6:45 p.m., Saturday, November 23 at the Tivoli. (DC)
Hell House. George Ratliff. You might expect a touch of condescension in a documentary about Texas fundamentalists creating a religious themed haunted house for Halloween -- a series of dramatic tableaux in which the horrors include abortion, drunk driving and raves, and don't really bother to distinguish levels of evil between the kid who opens fire on his classmates and the one who reads "Harry Potter" - but the makers of the fascinating Hell House , a front-line report on a minor skirmish in the never-ending Culture War, keep a refreshingly objective stance toward their subject, That's not to say that there isn't something just a little odd going on here: Aren't these church folk having a bit more fun playing at sin than they should? Funny as well as fair, the film provides an amazing grass-roots level commentary on the continuing efforts of conservative Christianity's struggle to co-opt a secular pop culture it claims to despise. Plays at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m., Saturday, November 23, at Webster University's Moore Auditorium. (RH)
Killer Tattoo. Yuthlert Sippapak. Take a violent hard-boiled crime plot. Filter it through the kinetic cut-for-cutting's-sake aesthetic of Asian action films. Then press it through a post-Tarantino sieve of pop-culture asides and oh-so-cool (and oh-so-forced) detached irony (Yes, we are even subjected to that sadly overworked signifier of postmodern Americana, the Elvis impersonator), then send it over to Thailand for one last round of montage-via-Mixmaster, and you might end up with something like Killer Tattoo, a pastiche/parody that some Western audiences may find palatable, as long as they don't miss niceties like narrative coherence. Play at midnight, Saturday, November 23 and 6 p.m., Sunday, November 24, at the Tivoli. (RH)
Nowhere in Africa. Caroline Link. Writer/director Link's beautifully shot Nowhere in Africa translates Stephanie Zweig's autobiographical novel into a masterfully orchestrated film. Told from an adult perspective with periodic voiceover narration, the story's anchor is Regina, five years old in 1938 when her parents, Jettel and Walter Redlich, flee snowy, increasingly dangerous Nazi Germany for the sunny but barren expanses in Kenya. Over the next decade, they struggle to adjust to dramatically different circumstances with varying degrees of acceptance -- their own as well as that of others. As the mother -- the character with the greatest character arc -- Juliane Kohler transforms herself from fear and subservience to joy and independence. The family's experiences involve struggles with nature, themselves, each other and life as enemy aliens interned in a comfortable but still imprisoning British compound. Africa benefits from beautiful location-shooting and the presence in the cast of African actors and extras and is partially why this multi-award-winning work is immensely engaging. Primarily in German with subtitles. Plays at 7 p.m. on Saturday, November 23 at the Hi-Pointe, and 3:15 p.m., Sunday, November 24 at the Tivoli. (DC)
Personal Velocity. Rebecca Miller. Reviewed this issue.
The Princess Blade. Shinsuke Sato. If you really want to know what's going on in this pseudo-science fiction samurai story, you'd better pay attention during the exposition-heavy opening. From that point on, the film has little more to offer than swordplay, which can be fun at times. The heroine, Yuki, is a trained assassin who rebels against her leader after she learns that he was responsible for her mother's death. Or something like that. Unfortunately, the filmmakers seem to presume that the viewer is so familiar with the characters (the film is based on a comic book and was the source for an earlier film) that they don't have to do anything to make them interesting. Sadly, for those of us joining in late, the well-staged mayhem is stretched a bit thin. Plays at 10 p.m., Saturday, November 23 at the Tivoli. (RH)
Shorts Program 4: Drama. This uneven collection of short dramatic films focuses, sometimes a bit obtusely, on individual memories and unrealized possibilities as characters negotiate difficult relationships. All present an imaginative set of circumstances, characters, or narrative organization, though a few feel too manufactured, too artificially devised. The program opens with "The Car Kid," showcasing James Franco's killer smile and a curious event. "Katherine" is hard to follow but intriguing while "Morning Breath" has an eye-catching style and rhythmic flow that deliver a serious message. "Side Effects" entertains rather superficially while "Tower of Babble" invites the viewer to consider identical dialogue in different, and a bit disjointed, contexts. "The Yard Sale" presents a touching convergence with a few unusual, albeit unconvincing, choices. The six works nicely complement each other in a package that, by extension, invites the viewer to decide what they themselves value. Plays at 9:45 p.m., Saturday, November 23 at the Tivoli. (DC)