SLIFF 2008 Reviews from Day 1

December 3, 2008 at 4:43 pm | Posted in Brian Vacek, Movies, Review, SLIFF | 1 Comment

Day 1: Friday 11/14

Vanaja, Interkosmos, The Juche Idea and Shadowland

Title: Vanaja
Director: Rajnesh Domalpalli
Country: India
Score: 7.0
After already playing in almost every other festival in the world (it seems) and getting a DVD release, “Vanaja” finally made its way to St. Louis. It tells a the coming of age story of Vanaja in a rural Indian village, who hopes to overcome her poverty, low-caste status and poor prospects by learning traditional dance in the home of her rich landlady. While working as a servant girl, she wins the approval of the landlady and sets about becoming an accomplished dancer.

This familiar arc is soon disrupted both by her father’s increasingly lethal drunkenness and the arrival of the landlady’s attractive, politically ambitious son. Despite early flirtations, any chance of a storybook romance is foiled by age and class, resulting in a painful relationship that includes rape, a contentious pregnancy, blackmail and difficult choices about motherhood.

For some reason I felt hard to please while watching “Vanaja,” both during it predictable plucky-hero dances towards her dreams first half and it’s more complicated young-mother making tough decisions second half. Perhaps it’s because both plotlines are such perennial festival scenarios. Yet what they lack in originality they make up for in delivery. There’s a great deal of well-earned emotional moments and enough time and nuance to gather honest sympathy for Vanaja and her situation.

The acting, particularly the 15-year-old lead Mamatha Bhukya and Urmila Dammannagari’s curmudgeonly landlady, is where the film really shines. Director Domalpalli deserves credit for his unassuming sunlit photography, which captures the rustic dustiness and colorful highlights of rural India. Working on a small budget, the film nevertheless has just the right atmosphere to intensify the drama without overwhelming it.


Title: Interkosmos
Director: Jim Finn
Country: USA
Score: 4.0
Part of a double-feature by experimental director Jim Finn, “Interkosmos” is a mishmash of appropriated documentary footage transformed into a fictional history of a lost East German space program. A mixed crew from assorted communist nations attempts to establish mining and refueling stations on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, but spends most of their time chatting aimless by radio. Their greatest success is in positioning orbiting libraries of communist material, which later conspiracy theories suggest was the real mission goal all along. When the budget disappears, the manned ships go silent and the government covers up the program.

Finn’s premise and his unusual style of integrating archival footage with artificially-aged fiction are certainly interesting, but this first feature by the director suffers from a fatal lack of focus. Monologues about dolphins, minimalist space exercise routines, an all-girls Marxist hockey match, a hamster in a space suit, NASA videos of Earth and a lot more are loosely fitted into place, but they amount to a fairly arbitrary collection of things that Finn found amusing more than a story or even a compelling overview of a story (which is probably closer to his intention).

Even with the short ~70 minute run-time, the film feels far too long and drawn out. It’s hurt by a lack of editing discretion and abundant repetition, revisiting low-interest imagery with minor variations of what we’ve already seen and digested. The overextended intro and end credits are perhaps the clearest examples of indulging at the audience’s expense. Even the best set designs, like a spaceship cockpit and two moving models of the moon stations, are given too much time to sink in while we listen to mildly informative monotone voice-overs. The film is at its best when it plays the narration for bone-dry humor, as in the radio transmission conversations with their blend of bored small talk and Marxist rhetoric.

Title: The Juche Idea
Director: Jim Finn
Country: USA
Score: 6.0
Much more successful than his previous film is Finn’s “The Juche Idea,” a rough retrospective of fictional propaganda films created by an enthusiastic North Korean director. The director once again appropriates a disparate assemblage of archival footage including media coverage of national celebrations, internal theatrical releases and corporate training videos.

Not only is it clear that Finn has matured as a director and polished his style since the former film, he also seems to have homed in on his strong suit: humor. Laughs are stitched from all sorts of unexpected resources, rather from juxtaposing Kim Jong-il’s ideological tenets with laughably lame film clips, mocking language-training videos with badly green-screened backgrounds and heavily-accented ludicrous conversations or just from spouting inappropriately convoluted metaphors.

One still finds too much repetition, a lack of visual stimuli and the unsatisfying feeling that no cogent movie really forms from the individual scenes, but the pacing is more stable, the rhythm tighter and the themes better realized. For those who are interested, I’d recommend sampling this film first before giving “Interkosmos” a try.


Title: Shadowland (2008)
Director: Wyatt Weed
Country: USA
Score: 1.5
“Shadowland” looks to be an early frontrunner for my least favorite film of the festival. The SLIFF website describes it as an amnesiac mystery. It leaves out any reference to vampirism, which is odd, because this is a vampire movie. I would have seen it anyway (in fact, I would have been more interested). My primary motivation for checking it out wasn’t the plot, but that it was made locally and I wanted to try and see more native St. Louis films this year.

The scraggly story involves a young woman who emerges from a hidden churchyard grave with no memories, but a desire to head towards “main street.” She meets a friendly diner waiter, a pushy hobo and a snobby retro clothing clerk along the way. A professional vampire hunter named Julian and eventually the police are on her trail. Meanwhile, she struggles to remember the circumstances that led to her “death.”

Despite a surprising amount of production polish for a local film, “Shadowland” is ultimately closer to the Sci-Fi channel’s original programming than something you might want to see even for throwaway thrills. The acting is consistently embarrassing, especially the “period” flashbacks (signaled, of course, by overused streak-blur transitions). The writing is unimaginative and devoid of personality, exacerbated by over-earnest performances.

The special effects are of the quaint TV variety. I think the film really should have gone the less-is-more route, since the conventional fake fangs and bad contact lenses were bad enough without the fast-motion running and CG wings.

Ultimately, the main pleasure came from spotting the familiar locations. I got to see my street on a sign and a scene set at a diner where I tried to eat right before the film. Sadly, this wasn’t enough to make the movie legitimately good (pay attention, New Yorkers reviewing NYC films) and I can’t recommend it to anyone.


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