2002 St. Louis International Film Festival

Reviews by Thomas Crone, Stefene Russell and Pamela Lowney
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See the complete schedule for this year's festival.

"Amy's Orgasm"
Julie Davis, U.S., 2001, 85 min.
Thursday, Nov. 21, 7 p.m., Tivoli

The director of "Amy's Orgasm," Julie Davis, will be at this screening. So will the star, Julie Davis. The producer, Julie Davis. And the editor, Julie Davis. Hers will be a fitting visit, really, as the film serves an hour-and-a-half love letter to its creator and lead. Certainly, she'll expect roses and a rousing ovation at the conclusion of this narcissistic curiosity, though I'd personally prefer to pack a switch and a rotten egg.

The short version of the plot: Amy Mandell (Davis), a hip, young, self-help author with serious neuroses meets and falls for Matthew Starr (Nick Chinlund, doing his best impersonation of a young Charlton Heston), an "edgy" radio shock jock. This odd coupling, of course, means immediate sexual sparks. Of course, no film of this sort would be complete without a bevy of complementary side players, all passing judgment on Amy's decisions towards the relationship: the loving-but-quarreling best friends, the befuddled parents, and, of course, the overbearing, lesbian publicist. Together, they quip lively, as they tool around Los Angeles, yapping into their cell phones, from behind the wheels of oversized SUVs.

The bulk of characters, ultimately, reflect the vapidity of the thin script. They are so broadly drawn as to be cartoonish, particularly Caroline Aaron's obnoxious press agent and pals Don and Elizabeth (Mitchell Whitfield and Jennifer Bransford), who are carbon copies of "When Harry Met Sally" sidekicks Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher. The only character who gets some separation from cliché is the Priest (Jeff Cesario), who draws the unenviable task of taking the Jewish Amy's mock confessions; though even he, by film's end, is reduced to stupidity, with an unneeded plot twist.

That scene, which we won't but mention in passing, is indicative of the entire film. Every scene is intended to bring us closer to Amy, though each makes her behavior and personality more repellent. Not content to simply stage conversation after conversation (backed with suitably tepid folk-rock from a stable of hack, female singer-songwriters) that confirm her fabulousness, Davis' megalomania is so complete that her Amy is nearly assassinated not once, but twice, in the course of the film. (The actions come, apparently, because her Oprah-lite pronouncements incite men to violence — those men, of course, who don't immediately fall for her beauty.) Oh, the horror of being famous!

Our protestations aside, this film will surely find an audience: the same people who made indie hits out of such stereotypical fare as "Kissing Jessica Stein" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." If that's you, then you'll eagerly buy the breezy, predictable swill that Davis dishes up here. (TC)

"Demon of the Derby"
Sharon Rutter, U.S., 2001, 74 min.
Thursday, Nov. 21, 7 p.m., Webster U.
Friday, Nov. 22, 9 p.m., Webster U.

The production qualities of the shot-to-video "Demon of the Derby" are often rudimentary. And the first third of this cult-hero-themed documentary seems to revolve around one simple theme: Ann Calvello was extreme before the word became co-opted by every soda and car company in America. (She was a rebel then; she's still a rebel. Yes, yes, we understand.)

But somewhere in the middle of the film, the low-budget quirks begin to fade and, more importantly, Calvello's humanity begins to shine through. By then, we've seen her as an unconventionally beautiful bombshell, one of the early stars of the national craze of professional, co-ed roller derby. And we've seen her in recent years, a 69-year-old who tans incessantly, bags groceries for money, and dreams of a comeback in a faded sport that's pushing her to the wayside.

Bold and brassy, Calvello's obviously the star of her own story, chewing up every scene she's in. At times, she seems a frustrating character, a woman unable to come to grips with aging and slipped celebrity; even her friends make those opinions known. At other points, she's a more sympathetic character: an athlete, who chooses to fight through injury; a feminist, who'd probably never use the term; a dreamer, who still thinks of herself as a star, even though her best days on the track are long since gone.

While her own footage is key, some of the cameos are scene-stealers, as well, as director Rutter points her camera at the various characters that populate the weird world of contemporary roller derby. The superfans who worship Calvello. The promoters who'd rather see her in the stands than in the thick of the action. And the other skaters, who idolize her, yet openly wonder if there's a real life for Calvello outside of the oval.

Director Rutter follows Calvello through two years of professional and personal soul-searching, finding a salty-tongued American original in the process. Taking in this document to her colorful, scrappy life is well worth 74 minutes of your own. (TC)

"Disco Pigs"
Kirsten Sheridan, Ireland, 2001, 94 min.
Friday, Nov. 22, 7:15, Tivoli
Saturday, Nov. 23, 3:45 p.m., Tivoli

This Irish film is being shown twice during the SLIFF, once in the afternoon, once in the evening. It's recommended that you give you give this at shot. At night.

A taut, quirky, understated thriller, "Disco Pigs" chronicles the last days of being 16 for two unique personalities in Cork, Ireland, two teens trapped perilously between childhood and adulthood. Born on the same day and living next door to one another since childhood, Darren ("Pig") and Sinead ("Runt") go through life joined (almost literally) at the hip. Their language is singular to them, and their daily actions set them apart from the rest of their schoolmates — as does their tendency towards bizarre, violent pranks.

Obviously, to drive the plot, there needs to be a threat to their relationship. And there is, but to say (or even suggest) more would be to ruin the film. Instead, know that you're going into a different kind of movie. Not a perfect one, but one that features a handful of riveting performances and an opening sequence that's almost worth the price of admission alone.

Cast as Pig, Cillian Murphy provides the film's sense of impending mayhem; his energy is intense and seems ready to explode at any moment. Elaine Cassidy, meanwhile, is more subdued, but a deeper character altogether. (She also looks, uncannily, like a younger version of Parker Posey. Freaky.) Having been adapted from a play, you can tell that Pig and Runt carried the load onstage, and they do so again on the screen. Few other characters are drawn with any detail.

Odd and overtly sinister, "Disco Pigs" reminds of such quirky, sexual-tension infused, mid-90s offerings as "Sister, My Sister" and "Heavenly Creatures." If you know and admire the creepy tension of those films, then this, too, will be a film for you. (TC)

"Jalla! Jalla!"
Josef Fares, Sweden, 2000, 88 min.
Monday, Nov. 18, 9:30 p.m., Tivoli
Wednesday, Nov. 20, 9:45 p.m., Tivoli

What does love have to do with it? In the world of arranged marriages, apparently nothing. Which is just the conundrum faced by Roro, the hapless, kind-hearted protagonist in director Josef Fares' debut film.

Translating into "Hurry! Hurry!", "Jalla! Jalla!" provides a light-hearted look at the clash between mainstream Swedish culture and the traditions of its Arabic immigrants. (The movie is in Swedish and Arabic with English subtitles.)

Resettled in Sweden, Roro and his extended Lebanese family have kept their heritage alive and well within the close-knit bounds of their family life. Twenty-something son Roro, played by Fares, spends his time working as a park groundskeeper and obeying the wishes of his father and grandmother.

Well for the most part. There is the fact he's madly in love with his secret Swedish girlfriend, Lisa (Tuva Novotny), who herself wonders why she's yet to meet Roro's family. This oversight doesn't become a problem, though, until Roro's family ambushes him with an arranged marriage.

Upon meeting his bride-to-be Yasmin (Laleh Pourkarim), Roro learns she too is under the gun. Yasmin's family will send her back to Lebanon if she doesn't marry post haste. To buy her some time and to get his own family off his back, Roro agrees to go along with a fake engagement. An innocuous enough gesture, he thinks, until Yasmin's hotheaded brother Paul starts barreling ahead with the wedding plans.

A second story line in the film centers around a different sort of love problem faced by Roro's coworker Mans (Torkel Petersson). Suddenly finding himself impotent, Mans desperately searches for a cure. Meanwhile his relationship with his girlfriend crumbles.

At first, these two narrative threads are loosely joined by the fact Mans and Roro work together. But as the film progresses, they do find themselves increasingly entwined until well, it doesn't take much to spot the movie's end from a mile away.

Predictability aside, the endearing characters home to "Jalla! Jalla!" make getting to this end an overall charming and at times funny trip. (PL)

Jeff Blitz, U.S., 2002, 95 min.
Saturday, Nov. 16, 2:15, Tivoli
Sunday, Nov. 17, 5 p.m., Hi-Pointe

It's proper, really, that ESPN broadcasts the final rounds of the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee. By that point, only the elite contestants are left and the drama is as high as any finale in baseball, basketball, football or hockey. Granted, it might not be a sport, but it is unbelievably compelling.

Director Jeff Blitz and producer Sean Welch decided to track some of the top contenders for the 1999 Spelling Bee title, catching them after they've won their regional bees, following them through their training and then tracking them through the competition itself. Though a few extra kids become part of the film at the Washington D.C. finals (including St. Louis homeschooler Georgie Thampy), the bulk of the project follows the trials and tribulations of eight kids, drawn from a variety of ethnicities and educational backgrounds.

Located from coast-to-coast, the Elite Eight become personalities in their own right, more than able to carry the storytelling weight of the film, which avoids any narration. Though it's been rightly noted that some of the kids seem like "madly exaggerated incarnations of ethnic and regional stereotypes," they're fascinating characters, coming from wildly different families, who also factor heavily into the tale.

You've got Angela, born to Mexican immigrants and living in a bleak border town in Texas. You've got Harry, a precocious lad who's given to extreme bouts of hyperactivity. You've got Neil, whose Indian-born father has hired multi-lingual specialists to tutor him. And you've got Ted, a big, Rolla, MO, farm kid who's painfully shy and uncomfortable in his own body. Along with April, Emily, Nupur and Ashley, these kids are truly a mixed group, and mostly likable. Watching them as they drop out of the competition is a surprisingly painful thing to watch; Blitz has clearly been able to hook you on their stories by the time that the ESPN cameras catch up to them.

Skillfully mixing in comments from prior winners, moms and dads, and the staff of the National Bee, Blitz (and editor Yana Gorskaya) are able to give a well-drawn sense of the commitment that's driven these kids so far into the tourney. They're quirky, funny, multi-talented kids, deserving of whatever praise comes their way. Rather than passing judgment on the tourney and the pressures affiliated with it, Blitz and Welch allow the kids to tell their own stories. And they do that, remarkably well. (TC)

Kris Curry & Rich Fox, U.S., 2001, 89 min.
Friday, Nov. 22, Midnight, Hi-Pointe
Saturday, Nov. 23, 10:30 p.m., Hi-Pointe

Producers-directors Kris Curry and Rich Fox take aim at a subculture ripe for ridicule with this lively, spunky documentary about the strange and hilarious world of the rock'n'roll tribute band. They happen across groups keeping the flame alive for Queen, Judas Priest, Journey and KISS, among others. And what they find makes this is one of SLIFF's easy-to-spot audience favorites.

Not content to simply capture a group for a few concerts and rehearsals, Curry and Fox follow these odd bands over time — in some cases, years. For example, we find the KISS cover band Larger Than Life early on, as they "perfect" the legendary band's stage show. We check back, after the founder (and stand-in for bassist Gene Simmons) loses his sanity, apparently after becoming too close to his character. Then we see his Simmons-replacement, a veteran rocker who begins to talk about his troubled childhood at the merest sign of a camera.

If any personality in the film, though, steals the show, it's Mark "Superfan" Eldridge, who not only worships the original Queen, but even the Queen impersonators, Sheer Heart Attack. In his apartment, behind the wheel of a car (aimed towards Queen drummer Roger Taylor's house) and at the gigs, we learn of Eldridge's deep, rather frightening devotion to all things Queen. As nutty as some of the bands are, none symbolize the fringe quality of these groups as neatly as Eldridge, who initially appears as sane and clean-cut as that nice, young computer programmer down the hall. His bits are the keepers, especially when he's philosophizing outside of Taylor's L.A. mansion. Wonderful stuff.

Even as Curry and Fox would no doubt try to convince you that they're not out to mock with this work, some of these groups are clearly worthy of the needling. The pomposity of two splintered groups attempting to recreate the Monkees, after all, is ridiculous on its face. But they also show a deft touch in pulling back and showing these players' humanity. For instance, a guitarist in the Judas Priest-inspired Bloodstone simply wants to put his life back together through playing music. Any music.

Though slightly rough around the edges, "Tribute" is a truly amusing addition to the canon of rock'n'roll documentaries. Cleverly edited and well-paced, its 90 minutes go by far too quickly. (TC)

Shinobu Yaguchi, Japan, 2001, 90 min.
Friday, Nov. 22, 7:30 p.m., Tivoli
Sunday, Nov. 24, 1:30 p.m., Tivoli

This is a strange film.

For starters, it's hard to get a read on who this work is intended for... young teens? International fans of Japanese pop culture? The gay community? After all, the world's synchronized swimming community has got to be fairly small. And that's what this movie's about, synchronized swimming. It's also about love, following your dreams, teamwork and dozens of lithe, young fellas in Speedos.

Set in an all-boys' high school (and, later, a roadside aquarium, of course), the movie follows five mismatched, misfit kids as they attempt to learn synchro swimming, in order to compete at a back-to-school festival (the significance of which is never fully explained). Along the way, the peculiarities of each character slowly emerge, though never enough to fully grasp why these kids stick with their program against all odds. And, as you might guess, there are plenty of trials along the way, including the mockery of other students, the lack of a coach and a pool that's alternately empty or full of fish.

Some of the movie's best moments are the wacky, predictable pratfalls to which characters are subjected. Pure, physical comedy is well played by the young cast. Running over, around and through the plot's holes, the main fivesome are funny, goofy, young actors with sense enough to camp-up the proceedings, especially during the half of the film that's spent in the water. A handful of recurring side characters make amusing foils, as well, particularly dolphin trainer Takenaka Naoto (a veteran character actor who'll be familiar to fans of Japanese cinema).

This is a fun movie, overall, though a tad long at 90 minutes. After seeing it, what might strike you is this: why is a Japanese high-school movie so nutty with such tame material? And why are American high-school movies so lame with so much obscenity, nudity and violence? A good-natured romp, apparently based on a true story of young guys taking to the pool, "Waterboys" is a difficult film to peg. It is, though, bright, breezy and summery, maybe the perfect antidote for a cold, November night in St. Louis. (TC)

The Ballad of Bering Strait
Nina Gilden Seavey, USA, 98 minutes
Saturday, Nov. 16, 5 p.m., Tivoli

A Russian Country-Western band: though it sounds funny, the teenagers who make up Bering Strait could give the most grizzled honky-tonk stars a run for their money. Which is why when Russian art dealer and Nashville resident Roy Johnson saw the band in a Moscow bar in the late '90s, he petitioned his pals in the country-music business to bring the kids to America to cut a record.

Of course, it wasn't that easy. Even with talent and skill to spare, a personal manager, a record-label exec and a record producer on their side, the sharky waters of the modern country music business provided the band with plenty of ups and downs. And Nina Seavey, a veteran Emmy-award winning documentary filmmaker, was there to capture it all on film.

Seavey has been making documentaries for twenty years, and her skills and experience are more than apparent in "The Ballad of Bering Strait." She spent four years on the project, and her dedication shines through. The pacing, cinematography and flow of the film are flawless, but even more than that, Seavey respected her subjects enough to get out of the way and let them do all the talking. By the end of the film, you feel like you know all the members of the band intimately — all seven of them (actually eight, if you count bass player Sergei "Spooky" Olkhovsky, who is replaced by Andrei Misikhin halfway through the course of the film).

The centerpiece of the movie, as in the band, is lead singer Natasha Borzilova, who has nary a trace of a Russian accent and seems to be the most Americanized of the troupe. By the end of the film, she's shaved off her dark, waist-length hair and bleached it blonde; she talks about losing her father, a government official appointed to clean up the Chernobyl disaster, to cancer; using the computer to stay in touch with her mom back home; and about how she's come to feel more like a musician and an adult than starry-eyed kid who just wanted to be famous. Her throaty cough-drop voice is often used for voice-overs, and she is a fine tour guide on this trip. But the other members of the band, including banjo virtuoso Ilya Toshinsky, (who can play Bela Fleck and Earl Scruggs with equal skill and panache), and drummer Alexander Arzamastsev, (who never speaks a word of English during the film), are no less compelling or sympathetic. Indeed, during the opening scenes of the film, we're introduced to dobro player Sasha Ostrovsky back in his hometown of Omsk. He describes waking up at 5 a.m. every morning to take the train to Moscow, where the music academy is located, and explains that music training in Russia involves more than a decade of schooling.

His dedication to his art, as with all of the members of the band, is admirable, and it keeps the audience rooting for Bering Strait throughout the film both in bad times (record deals fall through; claustrophobia sets in) and good (a record deal is signed; they play the Grand Ole Opry). Seavey has an even-handed but artful touch, including local news footage of fiddle player Sergei Passov recounting how he and two other band members escaped their first apartment in America as it burned to the ground, jumping out of windows with their instruments, the only personal property they were able to save.

Though there are no assurances by the end of the film that the band will succeed, it nevertheless is a wonderful, satisfying trip because we watch all seven of these kids become, as Borzilova put it, grown-ups and musicians, rather than just talented kids who want to be famous. Bering Strait is actually preparing to release their first disc this month, and though opinions of the locals Seavey interviewed as Bering Strait's demo played on a local radio station were both good and bad, their reception at Lisman Auditorium certainly was enthusiastic, even if they are Russian. The trick, as more than one person points out in the film, is for the band to transcend mere "novelty" status, because as even their impromptu jams on the tour bus reveal, they're so much better than that. Luckily for Bering Strait, Seavey's masterful documetary is powerful enough to show American audiences that the band is far more than just a quirky foreign phenomenon. (SR)

Benjamin Meade, Hungary/USA, 2002, 86 minutes
Friday, Nov. 15, 9 p.m., Webster U.

The Hungarian title loosely translates to "dead end" (literally "train tracks no longer in use"), and it's an apt title here, for a variety of reasons. Director Benjamin Meade, who is a film professor at Avila University in Kansas City, also teaches at the University of Pecs' in Hungary. On one of his visits there, a colleague told him of some remarkable home movie footage stolen by a mover who had helped a pair of siblings transport their belongings out of a collapsing house. Meade bought the films and returned to the States to watch them, where he decided that they were just "too good not to do something with them."

The stars of these home movies are the Locsei family, circa 1948-1964: a brutal-looking father with hooded eyes; a pretty mom who grows larger and more disheveled with every passing year; and a little boy and his younger sister, who stare into the camera with the blank eyes of baby dolls.

We see Mama Locsei sitting on a park bench, applying lipstick and powder. Then Papa Locsei is on the bench, with his wife's purse near his side, pretending to powder his own face. Unidentified government officials mill around at an unnamed train stations. Locsei is at his office, is aided by his employees, who sort gold dental fillings, gold ingots, gold watches, and gold wedding rings into piles and tag them. The mother bathes and changes her baby son, but the camera seems fixated on the baby's private parts. Later in the film, we see Mama Locsei holding her son's genitals while he relieves himself, though he appears to be at least five years old.

What struck Meade (and everyone else who watched the movies) was not only the surreal, disturbing quality of the films but the fact that they were just too professionally shot to be merely "home movies." Filmmaker Stan Brakhage, who comments on the home movie footage throughout the film (along with author James Ellroy and psychiatrists Dr. Roy Menninger), notes that the cameraman has one of the steadiest hands he's ever seen. Meade says that all edits at that time had to be made while the film stock was still in the camera, and that the editing is not the work of an amateur.

Meade, understandably intrigued, went back to Hungary to find out more about the footage. However, no one in Budapest wanted to talk about the Locseis. It's impossible to watch these movies and not realize that something very dark was afoot, not only in the professional life of Dad Locsei (who Meade discovers worked for the Hungarian government re-distributing confiscated jewelry and valuables back to the families of Jews that perished in the Holocaust, but more likely pocketed it for himself), but within his family as well.

In fact, when Meade finally locates the two Locsei children, Erno and Lazla, it's clear that whatever happened in the Locsei household, it has produced two profoundly damaged adults. Erno, an alcoholic, is employed through a government agency for the mentally disabled, and spends his days picking up trash off the streets of Budapest. He is more than happy to talk, reporting how his parents died (mother, cirrhosis; father due to "a bad heart and bad guts"), that both parents drank, though his dad drank more than his mom. Dad also encouraged the kids to drink, and beat them on a regular basis, though Erno adds it wasn't that bad because he always had his pants and coat on and "so it didn't hurt that much."

However, sister Etruska has no patience for the camera. She refuses to come out of the house to speak with the film crew when they show up with Erno, despite the fact that he calls woefully to her from the other side of the gate. Neighbors report that they haven't seen her in a long time, and have no idea whether she's still alive. Which is why, Meade says, he broke into Etruska's house. Erno was worried. However, his camera says otherwise. It pans up and down every wall, zeroes in on the filthy sink, the stacked-up dishes, the cracking walls, a dusty teapot set in a corner. He even goes up to her glass-paned bedroom doors, and films her curled up, hiding from the film crew. The way the camera drinks in every lurid detail (and the fact that all the footage is included in the final film) suggests that all along, Meade's concern was with the well-being of his documentary, rather than the subjects of it. Eventually, Etruska Locsei charged the film crew and chased them out of her house — and you can hardly blame her.

In the yard, Etruska screams at Meade and his crew, finally pulling her black sweatshirt over her head to hide her face, screaming at them, "why are you making this film?"

Good question — and you get the sense that Meade doesn't quite know either, other than the fact that the initial footage was so compelling. While it may be true that the home movie footage was "too good not to use," it's also true no matter how good it was, it's the stuff of other people's private lives (even if it was professionally filmed to make the Locseis appear more "normal" to the outside world, as Meade speculates) and some integrity and respect is called for when turning it into a film for public viewing. The fact that Meade didn't hesitate to break into the house of a clearly mentally anguished woman (who did not want him there) is almost as disturbing as some of the old Locsei family footage. Though Erno agreed to be filmed, Meade shoots between his legs in order to mimic the style of his father's home movies, which seems just as disturbing as it was the first time around; he also includes a petty, mean-spirited comment by Ellroy about Erno's weight and appearance; and seems indifferent to the fact that these two human beings are genuinely suffering.

And that's where "Vakvagany" fails — its subjects are presented as tragic caricatures rather than real human beings. If Meade had just made a movie about running into dead ends, that would have been fine. It would have been honest. Instead, one gets the sense that when Meade's project failed to gel after he returned to Hungary, he covered up his lack of material by blurring it around the edges and labeling it "experimental," finding people he knew back in Kansas to comment on the film to hold the spotty Hungarian footage together. (Another question: why is there no one here who can address — rather than wildly speculate — on post-war Hungarian politics and culture?)

"Vakvagany" is not the kind of film that makes you wish for those two hours of your life back; it's definitely worth a watch. However, it's a shame that the compelling components are mostly restricted to the original footage and the score, provided by Boston's Alloy Orchestra. What's really too bad is that you sense that if Meade had spent a little more time on this film, or just taken things from a different angle, it might've been a real masterpiece. (SR)