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Arts

SLIFF: Check out 'Vanaja,' 'Late Bloomers,' 'The Bet Collector' and 'The Unknown Woman'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 12, 2008 - Updated Nov. 14, 2008

'Vanaja'

Reviewed by Nick Otten | Special to the Beacon

Vanaja is a picture into another culture. The upstairs/downstairs story is as old as caste distinctions, but as always, the drama is in the details. When beautiful 15-year-old Vanaja, a simple fisherman's daughter, wants to work in the home of the local great lady and study dance with her, you know the girl's ambition is towering and dangerous.

When she quickly succeeds in studying and developing with her dance guru, you know her talent is exceptional. When the mistress' handsome son arrives from America, you know her danger.

And that's the end of what you are likely to know. The story soon takes off into a cultural unknown you are unlikely to predict, a comic, tragic and complex picture of life in rural India.

Countering the cold world of caste distinctions are the vivid natural colors of life in southern India -- not Hollywood-vivid but the ripe, ageless colors you might see in Mexico or Tibet. And punctuating the story are Vanaja's sweet dances, interwoven with songs of the gods.

Technically, this is a student film (an MFA project at Columbia University), but the accomplished result is a movie for anybody ready to see a completely surprising story fully realized.

Note: While this is the story of a girl-child and and presented as part of the "Family" sidebar, the movie looks politely but squarely into issues of sex, drunkenness and death.

'Late Bloomers'

Reviewed by Susan Hegger | Issues and Politics editor at the Beacon 

"Late Bloomers" is hardly ground-breaking cinema. It tells a familiar story of elderly women whose lives blossom when they decide to follow their dreams even in the face of community opposition. But it does so with such charm and light-heartedness that it's hard to resist.

For starters, it's set in Trub, a picture-postcard Alpine village with a men's choir -- the hills are alive! -- hosting a choir competition. The soundtrack, complete with oom-pah-pah music, lightens the mood. And the direction and screenplay keep to the sunny side, with only occasional lapses.

So, from the very beginning, when recently widowed Martha, a white-haired Oma, puts on her dirndl, lies in bed and waits to give up the ghost, we're smiling. We know that she'll soon have a reason to live, and she does. With the help of her friends, Martha opens a sexy lingerie shop, all exquisitely handmade, in her conservative town.

Martha's son, the hypocritical village vicar, is one of the most scandalized. As is the mayor, who panders to the senior vote while trying to shove his parents out of their home. They're small-minded and priggish -- determined to enforce a narrow conformity, no matter how suffocating, on these four older women.

But, of course, they're outmaneuvered and our lovely late bloomers eventually reap the happiness they've sown.

'The Bet Collector'

Reviewed by Nick Otten | Special to the Beacon

Halfway through The Bet Collector, I couldn't find any reason to like it. The movie looks raw and simple, a mostly straightforward story about Amy (pronounced AH-MEE), a Manila grandmother who runs numbers in the the illegal betting game calledjueteng, which seems to be a Filipino national sport.

Amy is not an attractive woman. She looks young for a granny (maybe 50?), fat, slovenly, constantly smoking long cigarettes, constantly coughing as a result. Manila weather gets hot, and when Amy goes out she wears a towel inside the neck of her blouse, so she can reach in at will and wipe the sweat away from her face.

All day long, even at night if necessary, she flops along through the serpentine back alleys of Manila collecting bets. As she wanders, stiff-legged and uncomfortable, huffing and coughing, the camera almost never lets her out of its sight. Frankly, I couldn't take my eyes off her, either, although I found the experience unappealing.

She's so real.

She's like some vital relative who is intensely physical but only in wrong ways, stinking up the room she's in with cigarette ashes and smoke, hacking and moaning. She's miserable most of the time and even steps in fresh dog droppings, walking her route.

The woman is constantly bumping into people, being pushed from behind, being blindsided with new problems. I kept expecting her to drop dead from lung cancer right on the screen. I was all prepared to be disgusted with the movie for making me watch her go.

But that's not who Amy is. Deep in her heart of hearts, she is not merely stepping in it, she is not merely hustling policemen even while they arrest her. Her wretchedness is counterpointed by some secret love and pain. That's right, she's sustained by the comfort of her pain. If you don't understand that right now, you will, sooner or later.

Oh, and I will add one final piece of information that I withheld from you, just as the movie does -- it's the confusing key to Amy: She seems to have a kind of guardian angel.

I honestly couldn't understand why I should like The Bet Collector while I was watching it, but afterward, I still couldn't take my mind off Amy. I also started thinking that maybe I would call my mother, just to see if she's OK.

'The Unknown Woman'

Reviewed by Nick Otten | Special to the Beacon

This movie starts straight-out kinky and then quickly turns into what seems to be a murder mystery. The experience is something like watching Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo with nearly subliminal flashbacks to The Story of O. We're not allowed to figure out exactly what's happening until near the end when the script mercifully relents and just tells us.

The essence of the story is that the unknown woman of the title, actually a Ukrainian named Irena (Xenia Rappoport), worms her way into the family life of an ideal young couple with a little girl. As their perfect maid/cook/nanny, Irena does not so much stalk the family as haunt them with (mostly) good intentions. But we know from the beginning that she has been grotesquely brutalized by some kind of sexual slavery. The constant tension for the viewer is to discover how the sex slavery relates to the sweet family. Several deep disasters will strike before we learn the strange details of the woman's past.

The movie has so many artfully designed money shots of goodlooking women, you'd think it was made in France. And learning that the same director made Cinema Paradiso can be somewhat startling. But, yes, the lush (and somewhat calculating) music of Ennio Morricone is here again and another deeply charming child. Even the frightening scenes of half-closed doors and half-darkened rooms are offset by a kind of cool serenity in the visuals.

By the end I felt a bit stunned. How could a movie that starts so psycho-sexually turn the viewer around so completely to face what amounts to a secret love story and a wry smiling redemption? This is one tricky movie, for sure.

No doubt the title is partly lost in translation. While la sconosciuta can mean "the unknown one (female)," it can also mean "the stranger" or "the unappreciated."

The movie won numerous awards in Italy.

Short takes:

Adam Resurrected
Jeff Goldblum gives an acclaimed performance -- described by the Hollywood Reporter as "the role of a career" -- as Adam Stein, a charismatic patient at a mental institution for Holocaust survivors in early-'60s Israel.

Shadowland

Laura crawls from a pit at a construction site, beaten and bloody, apparently left for dead. With no memory, she sets off into the night, looking for answers and a way home. Does a mysterious young man intend to help her or kill her.

Yeast

Director Mary Bronstein stars in a bravely unsympathetic role as a maddeningly un-self-aware, tyrannical and emotionally stunted young woman engaged in toxic relationships with two exasperated friends (Greta Gerwig and Amy Judd).

Pretty Ugly People

After gastric-bypass surgery, Lucy (Missy Pyle) fakes a serious illness to trick her estranged college friends into gathering in the Montana wilderness. Lucy wants to show off her slim figure, hoping she'll finally "feel like one of them." Faced with the rigors of the outdoors, these pretty people turn ugly.

The Bet Collector (Kubrador)

Amy runs a small convenience store out of her home. But customers are scarce, and without the help of her husband or pregnant daughter, she must supplement the family income and collects bets for a popular but illegal numbers game.

Kept & Dreamless (Las Mantenidas Sin Suenos)

During Argentina's economic crisis of the '90s, 9-year-old Eugenia and her mother live a seemingly colorful life. But Eugenia must deal with her mother's dysfunctional and drug-addled lifestyle.

Blind Mountain (Mang shan)

In his first film since the acclaimed and equally devastating "Blind Shaft" (2003), director Yang Li turns from the corruption of China's illegal mining to the even more horrifying illegal trade in women.

The Juche Idea 

With Interkosmos

In "The Juche Idea," St. Louisan Jim Finn presents a deadpan comedy that follows the efforts of a South Korean video artist to revitalize North Korean cinema. In "Interkosmos," Finn chronicles a failed German space-colonization mission.

Mishima (A Life in Four Chapters)

Lifetime Achievement Award honoree Paul Schrader considers this his finest work. Visually stunning and structurally audacious - featuring John Bailey's cinematography, Philip Glass' score and Eiko Ishioka's sets and costumes - the film offers a portrait of acclaimed Japanese author and playwright Yukio Mishima (Ken Ogata).

Slumdog Millionaire

Jamal, an 18-year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai, is one question away from winning 20 million rupees on India's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" But he's arrested on suspicion of cheating. How does he prove he's not?

Of Time and the City

SLIFF alum Terence Davies - widely regarded as one of Britain's (and the world's) greatest filmmakers - provides a love song and eulogy to his birthplace, Liverpool.

Streetballers

Two junior-college students find release and therapy while playing on one of the most competitive street courts in the U.S. Written and directed by local hero Matt Krentz, who co-stars, "Streetballers" reveals unexpected aspects of St. Louis.

The Last Lullaby

Price (Tom Sizemore) is a former hitman struggling with the boredom and restlessness of retirement. He returns to his old life for a major payout, but the job turns complicated when he develops unexpected feelings for his target.

Half-Life

Reflective, subversive and gorgeously photographed - with bursts of animation - "Half-Life" takes place after global warming has passed the tipping point. The air around the Wu family crackles with strangeness and unpredictability.

Alone (Faet)

This hard-edged supernatural thriller tells the story of Pim, who moves from Thailand to Korea to escape the guilt of being the surviving half of a conjoined twin.

Chasing Birds

Australia is home to more than 800 species of birds. It is also home to a unique species of bird lover - "twitchers" is the commonly used name - who take their ornithological enthusiasm to the extreme.

Accelerating America

This film tells the story of a revolutionary school in Providence, R.I., that gives inner-city youths who are at risk of dropping out a second chance by accelerating their studies.

Fashion Victims (Reine Geschmacksache)

In this madcap comedy, a middle-aged traveling salesman of ladies' fashion loses his driver's license just as a young competitor threatens to steal his best customers.

Under the Bombs (Sous les bombes)

During a ceasefire in the Lebanon-Israel conflict, a Christian taxi driver transports a Shiite woman from Beirut to the heart of the conflict to find her son. They discover a common bond despite their very different backgrounds.

Times and Winds (Bes vakit)

This intensely lyrical film depicts the bumpy emotional lives of three preteen friends - Omer, Yakup and Yaldiz - and the ways their families curb their dreams and desires.

Stolen Holidays (Les Petites vacances)

Each school holiday, Daniele accompanies her grandchildren on the train that takes them to the south of France, where her daughter's ex-husband lives. When the father isn't there, she takes them on a "stolen holiday."

Let the Right One In (Lat den raette komma in)

The movie tells a darkly atmospheric and surprisingly tender story of adolescence and vampirism. Fragile, 12-year-old Oskar, bullied by his stronger classmates, finds protection and friendship when 12-year-old Eli moves next door.

St. Benedict's Rule

Founded in 1881, Conception Abbey in northwest Missouri is an apparent refuge, serving as home to Benedictine monks. But on June 2002, a gunman walked into the abbey, killing two monks and seriously wounding two others.

My Mother's Garden

The movie follows the tortured path taken by 61-year-old Eugenia Lester, whose hoarding disorder has entered a dangerous and life-threatening stage, and how her children try to correct it.

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