The headline movie in the inaugural Coeur d'Alene Film Festival this weekend has a local connection: CdA actress Ellen Travolta was instrumental in bringing the film here. Her brother John appears in it. And Lonely Hearts features plenty of sex and violence.

That ought to pack in the Kootenai County crowds.

In the late 1940s in Michigan and New York, Ray Fernandez (Jared Leto) preyed on war widows by posing as a sexy Latin lover and answering Lonely Hearts letters. Martha Beck -- historically pudgy and insecure, but here played by Salma Hayek, who is neither -- was at first one of Fernandez's dupes. But the pair decided to team up, with Beck posing as lover boy's sister and both of them working to swindle desolate women out of their savings. Eventually, the excitement of financial conquest alone wasn't enough: Beck and Fernandez decided to escalate their act to include murders -- a dozen of them at least, perhaps as many as 20. John Travolta and James Gandolfini play the detectives who figure out that they're dealing with a pair of serial killers. Along the way, Leto and Hayek make it abundantly clear that they derive sexual gratification from -- their crime spree, sure, but mostly from each other. (MB)

"Undressing My Mother"

This short from Irish filmmaker Ken Wardrop flies in the face of Hollywood's overwhelming bias toward young, beautiful female bodies. Here, he treats his 70-ish mother like a great film beauty, complimenting her aging, rounded body with lighting and camera angles, as she talks about her own body with the kind of realism, love and respect that younger screen beauties can only hope for. But we're not used to seeing aging rounded female bodies on the movie screen unless they're objects of scorn, pity or humor. Wardrop challenges viewers to see his mother as she sees herself -- and, most touchingly, as her late husband saw her. It's a beautiful set piece on aging with dignity. (AC)

Fire on the Mountain

In the early years of World War II, the U.S. Army established the 10th Mountain Division, an elite group of soldiers trained specifically for combat in the mountains and in the extremes of winter weather. In this 1995 documentary, filmmakers Beth and George Gage combined period/vintage/archival footage and then-current interviews with early members of the 10th to tell its story, from the creation of the National Ski Patrol before the war to the accomplishments of 10th Mountain veterans in the postwar years.

Created around the 50th anniversary of the war's end, Fire on the Mountain has a celebratory tone similar to The Greatest Generation and other contemporary tributes to World War II survivors. And yet it's hard to argue with either the tributes paid to the veterans or with their own somber assessments of how the experience of combat changed them.

War history buffs will enjoy the story of how the soldiers of the 10th captured Riva Ridge in northern Italy, a crucial battle early in 1945. But for me, the most interesting aspect of the story came after the war, when vets from the 10th virtually built the American ski industry. From coast to coast, many of the country's long-standing ski resorts (Vail, Aspen, Snowmass) and outdoor recreation companies (Nike) grew from the desire of this select group of veterans to bring their outdoor experiences to a broader audience. (AC)

"Fumi and the Bad Luck Foot"

Feeling sorry for yourself? You've got nothing on Fumi. Airplanes and meteors tend to find her left foot and crash into it. When she wears bunny slippers, rabbit hunters assume her foot's a good target.

With just seven minutes and simple animation at their disposal, the San Jose State filmmakers who created "Fumi" manage to suggest how self-pity can be transformed. Poor Fumi, you see, could go on feeling sorry for herself, what with the trucks running over her foot all the time. Or she could make another choice. In a funny yet thoughtful conclusion, she does. (MB)

Forgiving Dr. Mengele

Forgiving Dr. Mengele is the story of Eva Kor, one of the twin children that Mengele used for experiments at Auschwitz. Kor and her sister survived the camp largely due to Eva's determination not to die when injected with a disease. If she had expired, she knew her sister would have been killed for a comparative autopsy. Later, long after the war and shortly after the death of her sister due to complications caused by Mengele's experiments, Kor decides to forgive Mengele and all the Nazis for the deaths of her family and her own incarceration.

Kor's simple act of forgiveness touches off a storm of controversy. She patiently participates in fiery debates among Jewish scholars, many of whom are too young to have experienced the Holocaust. Challenged to see if forgiveness could be reached with a group of Palestinians, Kor endures a lecture from them about the difficulties they have endured to reach the meeting.

Kor went on to found two Holocaust museums (in Indiana, no less), and the personal vitality she gained through forgiveness is made explicit in Forgiving. When other Auschwitz twin survivors criticize her actions, they end up shaking in fear and anger at the deeds committed against them, veering the discussion back to their pain. Kor indefatigably looks forward to a less painful future. (MD)

'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris

Why do some artists become famous while others, equally talented, remain obscure? "Jackie coulda been another Mel Torm & eacute;," says one of the jazz-scene talking heads in this documentary. "He coulda been another Johnny Mathis."

Those guys, you've heard of. But Jackie Paris -- while it sounds like a made-up name, it's real -- made only a handful of recordings. When jazz musician Raymond De Felitta came across one of them one day, he hauled out some reference books and read that Paris had died in 1977. Imagine De Felitta's surprise then, nearly 30 years later, to find Paris alive and singing in a New York jazz club.

'Tis Autumn displays Paris' talent: The snippets we hear of his signature song, "Skylark," really do put him in the major leagues of vocal jazz. With De Felitta in attendance this weekend, you can ask directly about the personal problems and bad luck that caused Jackie's star to fade.

At one point in 'Tis Autumn, we see Paris in his late 70s, shuffling past Central Park as the documentarians' sound boom barely picks up his wizened voice. He thinks maybe Buick could use his song in a commercial: Didn't they make a Skylark too? (MB)

The Guatemalan Handshake

There's a generation of filmmakers intent about depicting the alienation of growing up urbane in redneck America. It leads them to craft exaggerated depictions of childhood and home as though such exaggerated forms were reality. Then these filmmakers seek to make sense of their exaggerations. Call it Cinema Absurdit & eacute;.

If their tendency's tenderest representation is Junebug and its most facile is Napoleon Dynamite, The Guatemalan Handshake is its most expressionistic. Less a narrative (though it has one of those, I guess) than a palette of characters and actions brushed in exaggerated forms, the film is full of the elemental representations of actual hick life skewed to invoke not the characters' proximity to their reality, but the filmmaker's estrangement from it.

There's this demolition derby, this power surge, this dude disappears, this dog dies, this girl is pregnant. They're all linked at least temporally, and often emotionally, but each exists in its own world of need, striving and disappointment. Faced with this kind of rural isolation, suggests writer/director Todd Rohal, people wring meaning from the oddest things. Like making a film about the place you're from just to demonstrate how divorced you are from it all. (LB)

The Empire of Africa

A decade of embroiled civil war and atrocity in Sierra Leone is the focus of Philippe Diaz' harrowing documentary, The Empire of Africa.

The war began in the early 1990s after a rebel force, the RUF, got tired of dictators allowing foreign corporations to rape the land. In response to the government's political propaganda slogan, "The future is in your hands," however, the RUF began indiscriminately hacking off civilian limbs. After a decade of atrocities on either side (some committed by UN-backed Nigerian forces), the innocent civilians are trapped between warring factions. The narration and interviews ham-handedly parse this for us, leaving us more confused about guilt than we were at the beginning.

The visuals do a better job, though, of drawing us backward into the violence. Images of limbless children and men pressing cigarettes between forearm stumps gradually give way to more graphic butchery. Arms are shown half-severed. An unarmed, nearly naked man is blithely shot in the stomach, then the side, then, eventually, the back of the head, his skull emptying its contents as it splits.

This isn't a great movie. I don't even know if it's a good one. As a document of pure suffering, though, The Empire of Africa may be required watching. (LB)

For details about the inaugural Coeur d'Alene Film Festival, see the ad on pages 30-31 or visit or call (208) 964-4469.