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2009 Film Festival - Branson, Up in the Air, Precious and more

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 13, 2009 - Branson!, Directed by Brent Meeske. Documentary filmmakers shoot a ton of footage, and sometimes, through perseverance and/or luck, they come up with a gem that makes all the work worthwhile. That's clearly what happened to Brent Meeske, who spent a year or so, off and on, down in Branson, going backstage in the show clubs with performers who are desperately hanging on to their show-biz dreams. They once aspired to Broadway or Hollywood or Nashville but now are in southwest Missouri, still, remarkably, passionate about their vocations.

The movie is a touching portrait of people, families and individuals, who feel that they were born to entertain, and who refuse to get discouraged even when the show doesn't go on. In a sense, "Branson!" is essentially about the same kind of people as "A Chorus Line," although they may be a little further down in the entertainment pecking order.

"Branson!" would be little more than a modestly entertaining and informative documentary about a quaint little backwater of entertainment - one of the big shows is hosted by ex-convict evangelist Jim Bakker - if it were not for Jackson Cash, a Johnny Cash impersonator whose story is a remarkable one. I'll leave it at that, except to say that Jackson Cash will perform after the screening, and he's well worth your time. He's the gem Meeske found in all that footage.   -- Reviewed by Harper Barnes | Special to the Beacon 

Cat City

Directed by Brent Huff
95 minutes | U.S.
9:30 p.m. Tivoli
(Also 7:15 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15)

Except for Rebecca Pidgeon, Julian Sands and Brian Dennehy, most of the people involved in this movie are from TV and trying to break out, but it doesn’t quite work. Supposedly a murder mystery, the entire project looks like a slow pitch for Palm Springs, where all the houses are hugely modern, all the cars are spotless and expensive, all the men think they’re ruthless, and all the women are ready. Much could be said against this tepid movie and its pacing, editing, script, casting, costuming, even the hair styling. Let it pass.  -- Reviewed by Nick Otten | Special to the Beacon

Cloud Nine

Directed by Andreas Dresen
93 minutes | German
9:30 p.m., Sat., Nov. 14, Frontenac
3 p.m., Sun., Nov. 15, Frontenac

The opening of Cloud Nine is an unabashed, in-your-face introduction to "senior" sensuality. Inge (an astonishing Ursula Werner), a frumpy, 67-year-old seamstress, delivers some trousers she's repaired to 76-year-old Klaus (Horst Westphal). Suddenly, almost wordlessly, in a scene that's both explicit and unsentimental, they find themselves in the grip of a surprising sexual passion. Afterward, Inge hurries off home to her husband, the somewhat taciturn Werner (Horst Rehberg). It's not that Inge has a bad or unsatisfying marriage. She does love Werner, and he her -- and we see their tender intimacy in another explicit sex scene.

The shock of the sex scenes (and full frontal nudity) gives way to a sensitive exploration of this triangle, especially Inge's awakening. And were it not for the impact on Werner, one might cheer -- as Inge's daughter does -- Inge's giddy happiness. There are no villains in this film, just ordinary people in a complicated situation. Indeed, with a few exceptions, the filmmaking seems almost as plain and direct as its characters, which somehow makes it all more achingly real.   -- Reviewed by Susan Hegger | Beacon staff

Lake Tahoe

Directed by Fernando Eimbcke
81 minutes | Mexico
1:15 p.m. Frontenac
(Also 2:15 p.m., Monday, Nov. 16, Frontenac)

This kind of movie is why people go to film festivals. You won’t see it at any multiplex. With utterly strange and unique pacing, the movie is first confusing, then frustrating, then mesmerizing, at least for me. It slows life down to a transfixing meditation. Why? That’s the secret of the story, not revealed for a long time. If you’re ready to see something entirely new, try this one. You must be willing to endure many blank moments. By the way, the original Spanish title (¿Te acuerdas de Lake Tahoe?) means, “You remember Lake Tahoe?”  -- Reviewed by Nick Otten

Made in China

Directed by Judi Krant
87 minutes | U.S.
5 p.m. Tivoli

This goofy, chaotic little comedy is so original, your mouth will hang open. A boyish inventor of novelty gags is unappreciated and under-capitalized at home in Texas so he goes to China to make it on his own. He is soon all but Shanghai-ed in Shanghai, but the long complex joke of the movie delivers its snappy punchline literally in the last moments and all confusion is happily resolved. A true indie movie is built by friends and family and this one’s a classic example. Dan Sumpter, the actor who plays the villain and gets second billing, is also listed as co-writer, sound operator, editor, color corrector — and works the website.  -- Reviewed by Nick Otten


Directed by Lee Daniels
109 minutes | U.S.
7:30 p.m. Hi-Pointe

Subtitled "Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," "Precious" is the shattering story of a bright but essentially illiterate teenage girl in Harlem, abused by both her mother and her father, with one child already born and another on the way. Young Gabourey Sidibe gives a courageous, compelling performance as Precious Jones, and the comedian Mo'Nique is remarkable as her mother, who responds to a life of poverty and abuse by verbally and physically assaulting her daughter on a daily basis.

Precious, who hides within layers of fat and shields the terror and fury inside her behind stubborn silences and frowns, gets a chance to escape from the painful cycle of her life when she stumbles into an alternative school. She is placed in a class with other bright, troubled, underachieving girls, who deal with their pain through wisecracks. Director Lee Daniels has given us a heartbreaking portrait of the daily life of a victim of familial and societal abuse.   -- Reviewed by Harper Barnes

The Rink

Directed by Ron “G Whiz” Butts
60 minutes | U.S.
Noon Hi-Pointe

In the late '80s through much of the '90s, my children went regularly to Saints Roller Rink in Olivette. There I saw kids being kids, zooming around the rink or gingerly hugging the wall. But I also watched people who glided and danced their way across the boards. For anyone who ever had a chance to marvel at the skills of good roller skaters, or for those, largely in the African-American community, who skated at the Palace, Chrystal or Skate King back in the day, “The Rink” will be a marvelous hour.

Butts talks with many of the skaters and makes good use of archival photos to bring back the glory days of St. Louis' smooth, crazy legs style. There's nothing fancy in the movie making – and the film doesn't look beyond the St. Louis style – but that's quite enough. -- Reviewed by Donna Korando | Beacon staff

Saint Misbehavin'

Directed by Michelle Esrick
86 minutes | U.S.
3:30 p.m. Tivoli

Wavy Gravy's charms have always eluded me - tireless self-promotion without observable talent seems unseemly in a hippie. But my wife adores him. I generally trust her judgments, and the documentary "Saint Misbehavin'" makes me look more favorably upon the activities of the former Beat poet, Dylan roommate, rider on the Magic Bus, founder of the Hog Farm commune, feeder of the multitudes at Woodstock and now, it turns out, international humanitarian. Besides, Bonnie Raitt adores him, too, and it's hard to dismiss someone adored by both my wife and Bonnie Raitt.

For her documentary portrait of the former Hugh Romney - he changed his name to Wavy Gravy many years ago after one of numerous Acid trips -- filmmaker Michelle Esrick came up with a lot of previously obscure film footage of the hippie era, which in Wavy's case still goes on. And she interviews Wavy, usually dressed in clown or jester garb, in the context of the current evocation of the Hog Farm, a sprawling communal home in Berkeley, Calif.

The movie may give you more of Wavy (and his vaguely spiritual pronouncements) than you want, but his work in recent years raising money for an international organization that restores eyesight in impoverished regions is inspiring. Like the late Jerry Garcia, he has a Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor named after him, and he get free ice cream. A lucky man.  -- Reviewed by Harper Barnes

Stolen Lives

Directed by Anders Anderson
90 minutes | U.S.
7:15 p.m., Sat., Nov. 14, Frontenac 1
7 p.m., Sun., Nov. 15, Frontenac 1

When children are murdered, their lives aren't the only ones stolen. For parents, a child's death can create a black hole so powerful that their grief can't escape. Their lives are over, and they're left to go through the motions.

"Stolen Lives" tells the story of a detective, Tom (Jon Hamm), emotionally frozen by the disappearance of his son eight years previously. When a boy's body is found buried at a construction site, Tom hopes and fears it's his son. It turns out to be the body of a boy murdered 50 years earlier, but Tom takes on the case and pursues it relentlessly.

The movie follows two parallel tracks -- the investigation and the story of the "boy in the box" -- that eventually converge.

Hamm, a St. Louis native, is eminently watchable, and does his best conjuring up Tom Adkins, but the characters, including his, in this one-note drama lack much complexity or nuance. Neither mystery is particularly riveting, and the filmmaker seems so determined to tie up the loose plot strings that the ending feels contrived. The audience might feel robbed.  -- Reviewed by Susan Hegger

Up In The Air

Directed by Jason Reitman
108 minutes | U.S.
7 p.m. Tivoli SOLD OUT

George Clooney stars as a corporate downsizer, a unmarried traveling man who flies into town, fires longtime employees of job-cutting corporations and is on his way to the next city before the stunned victims of his services have fully cleaned out their desks.

Vera Farmigia, who is terrific, co-stars as a fellow traveler, a woman who appears to be as free of entanglements as Clooney and is happy to hook up with him when fate flies them into the same airport on the same day. Anna Kendrick gives a fine performance as a recent college graduate, a perky mix of insecurity and over-confidences, who has a money-saving idea - fire people by tele-conference and save the airfare.

"Up in the Air," directed by Jason Reitman ("Juno"), is engaging and sometimes quite funny, although it skips too lightly over the ramifications of what Clooney does for a living and lacks the bite to be considered really successful as a social satire. -- Reviewed by Harper Barnes