Film's Rolling: The St. Louis International Film Festival celebrates its seventeenth year

Chasing Birds: I spy three wing nuts.
Chasing Birds: I spy three wing nuts.
Accelerating America: bike fast, learn faster
Accelerating America: bike fast, learn faster
My Mother's Garden: This family has some closets to clean out.
My Mother's Garden: This family has some closets to clean out.
Number One with a Bullet: A loaded-gun complex.
Number One with a Bullet: A loaded-gun complex.
Blessed is the Match: Remembering a true Holocaust heroine.
Blessed is the Match: Remembering a true Holocaust heroine.
Pageant: Backstage at Miss Gay America.
Pageant: Backstage at Miss Gay America.

Now in its seventeenth year, the St. Louis International Film Festival continues to bring fresh ideas and bold story telling from all corners of the world to our front door. More than 200 film events will take place from Thursday, November 13 to Sunday, November 23. We've reviewed a handful of them below; find more online at www.riverfronttimes.com. For more information, including complete show listings as well as venue and ticket information, visit www.cinemastlouis.org.

Yeast
Yeast is the portrait of a bully. Over the course of a long weekend, we watch Rachel, a young woman in her twenties, successfully alienate everyone around her, particularly her two closest friends, Gen and Alice. (Alice, in fact, appears happier stomping on broken glass than she does hanging out with Rachel.) Rachel, we learn, is a second-grade teacher and her bullying tactics approximate those of a seven-year-old. The film never reveals why Rachel insists on terrorizing her friends and, in a way, it doesn't matter. In the odd moments when Rachel is alone, it's clear that she is deeply unhappy, and that may be all we need to know. Yeast is not an easy film to sit through, but Mary Bronstein, who both directs and stars, shows us the sort of woman we rarely see in movies, but do see, unfortunately, all too often in real life.  —Aimee Levitt
Friday, November 14, 7:15 p.m., at the Tivoli Theatre.

Pretty Ugly People
Lucy's the group's fat, gullible, eager-to-please friend. So when she calls on her pal Becky to gather the ol' gang for a trip to Montana, the long-time buds travel from all over the country to reunite — albeit begrudgingly — because Lucy had strongly implied she was near death. But surprise! Lucy's not dying. In fact, she's had gastric-bypass surgery and looks amazing. She's called them together for a four-day hike during which she hopes to lose her last four pounds and meet her goal weight. If the characters in Pretty Ugly People seem familiar, it's because they do and talk about exactly what you'd expect old friends to do and talk about during a hike: They sneak cigarettes, trip on 'shrooms, skinny dip, carry on affairs, smooch, reveal their latent racism and homophobia and have an unfortunate run-in with a bear. "I'm more concerned about getting to wherever it is you're taking us," Becky laments at one point. And that also sums up what viewers might think, too: The characters are often one-dimensional, and their final destination makes you wonder if the trip was ultimately worth it. —Kristie McClanahan
Friday, November 14, 9:30 p.m., at the Tivoli Theatre.

Chasing Birds
Australia's annual Twitchathon is like an off-roading walkabout meets the Audubon Society: Some 30 teams compete in what might be called "extreme bird watching." That is, each team tries to log the most species of bird within 24 hours. The documentary follows three of the teams on the hunt, and they're easy enough to distinguish from one another: The cowboys of the Hunter Home-Brewers swill beer over rock & roll background music, while floppy-hatted scientists compete (rather predictably) to the sound of a string quartet. If only the birds themselves were as simple to identify: A lot of fast talking and cumbersome species' names result in some hard-to-decipher scenes. Chasing Birds is a beautiful, often entertaining, film to watch, yet the filmmakers fail to explore some big questions. Namely, what motivates these observers who're so wildly fascinated with winged things? Ah, this question remains as elusive as a tiny bird nesting deep in the bush. (KM)
Saturday, November 15, 12:30 p.m., at Plaza Frontenac.

Accelerating America
"If America can make it into college, the sky's the limit," says a staffer at Providence, Rhode Island's Urban Collaborative Accelerated Program. In this case, though, America's an "at-risk" foster kid, abandoned by her parents who moved back to the Dominican Republic. In the span of 180 days, UCAP aims to get kids like America through two grade levels and enter high school on schedule. Many of the students have got the mouths of sailors, childlike eyes and gut-wrenching pasts. The staff at UCAP struggles to find the middle ground between viewing these kids as victims and accountable students, all while facing the same crises — funding, retention rates, absentee parents — of other school districts. Accelerating America and its cast of overwhelmed social workers, counselors, mentors, teachers and parents is at turns endearing and heartbreaking, but it's unfailingly inspiring, too. Thanks to this important work, you might find yourself repeating: "Don't let something bad happen to America. Don't let something bad happen to America..." only to realize that you're referring to both the child and the country, a singular entity on the brink. (KM)
Saturday, November 15, 2:15 p.m., at Plaza Frontenac.

Song Sung Blue
The bittersweet Song Sung Blue begins with bracing archival news footage: An out-of-control car has run into Claire Sardina as she's gardening in her yard, severing one of her legs. However, that freak accident isn't even the worst thing to happen to Claire and husband, Mike, who perform as the Neil Diamond tribute act Lightning & Thunder. For every triumph — a chance to perform with Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, a loyal fanbase — the pair faces tragedy: financial woes, nonexistent gigs, marital strife, health problems. Blue addresses these matters in a straightforward way, making the movie often unbearably sad and difficult to watch. The obvious love and devotion that Mike (a dead ringer for "Solitary Man"-era Neil) has for Claire, along with earnest, sweet performance videos, ultimately redeems the film. But those looking for a feel-good snapshot about a hardscrabble cover act would be advised to go elsewhere.—Annie Zaleski
Saturday, November 15, noon, at the Tivoli Theatre.

My Mother's Garden
Eugenia Lester is the crazy lady pushing the overflowing purple shopping cart throughout the neighborhood, foraging her meals from Dumpsters. Only, she isn't: She's not homeless, and in her mind, she's saving the planet from the dangerous repercussions that result from living in a disposable society. But Eugenia's efforts are eclipsed by the mountains of garbage that she compulsively collects and has never gotten around to selling or giving away. Filmed in large part by her daughter, Cynthia, My Mother's Garden follows the journey of Eugenia, a Polish immigrant who suffers from hoarding disorder, and Cynthia's siblings who are trying to heal her. Eugenia's neighbors in her San Fernando Valley subdivision feel "terrorized" by the 60-year-old whose front and back yards are heaped with years worth of junk; the residents have petitioned to have her evicted. Her home is a landfill: She's forced to enter and exit it through a window. She sleeps outside, which she says she prefers because in the beauty of "God's house" she never feels lonely. This insightful film personalizes one family's mission to pull their mother out of the wreckage of this psychological disorder that's said to affect some 2 million people worldwide. (KM)
Saturday, November 15, 7:30 p.m., at Webster University

That All May Be One
The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet have been a continued presence in St. Louis since 1836 when the first six sisters arrived from France. Then, as now, they lived in a motherhouse in Carondelet which has expanded from a log cabin to a large building that, as more than one sister has observed, resembled a prison before its recent renovation. They established and operated the St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf, St. Joseph's Academy and the Nazareth Living Center, a retirement community. Karen Kearns' documentary That All May Be One chronicles this remarkable group of women who have always been self-governing and respectfully defiant of the Church's patriarchy. They were also, as several sisters proudly note, the first order to abandon the habit after Vatican II. Today their numbers are dwindling — 444 sisters remain, and their average age is 71 — but they have vowed, as long as any sisters survive, to continue to serve St. Louis. We, in turn, should be grateful to have them. (AL)
Sunday, November 16, 11:30 a.m., at the Tivoli Theatre.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
During World War II, a Nazi officer (David Thewlis) receives a promotion and moves his wife (Vera Farmiga), teenage daughter (Amber Beattie) and eight-year-old son, Bruno (Asa Butterfield), to a remote country house. Almost immediately, Bruno spies through his bedroom window a nearby "farm" where the workers wear "striped pajamas." Curious and bored, Bruno sneaks out, makes his way through the woods, and comes upon a barbed-wire fence, behind which sits Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a pale, thin, clearly starving boy Bruno's age. Bruno begins visiting Shmuel every day, and slowly — very slowly — comes to realize that strange and possibly terrible things are happening on this farm that his father oversees. In adapting Irishman John Boyne's acclaimed young-adult novel, writer-director Mark Herman (Little Voice) draws beautifully modulated performances from his two child actors, who navigate a full range of emotions from wonder to betrayal to guilt. In the end, their characters meet a fate so absurdly melodramatic that I cringed. A moment later, it occurred to me that the finale might just devastate — and educate — middle- and high-school-age audiences themselves only a little less naive than Bruno, who could do worse than have this earnest, well-made film be their first Holocaust drama.—Chuck Wilson
Sunday, November 16, noon, at the Saint Louis Art Museum.

Number One with a Bullet
At a time when stories about gun violence are peppered throughout the news and hip-hop continues to blow up on radios everywhere, Number One with a Bullet feels especially relevant. This documentary takes viewers through the now long-ago marriage of the mainstream music industry and violent rap, and it touches on many of the consequences of living — and dying — by the gun. In the film, director Jim Dziura (who will be in town for the screening) interviews established rappers — Mos Def, Ice Cube and Young Buck among them — as well as less familiar guys from cities including Philadelphia, Detroit and Mobile, Alabama. While the places change, the problems remain the same: Violence is everywhere in our society, and hope is fleeting in urban communities. This often-bleak film steps into the hospital rooms of gunshot victims and shows the gritty truths of colostomy bags and paralysis, never sensationalizing or glorifying violence, but also not offering any real glimmers of hope.—Alison Sieloff
Sunday, November 16, 4:30 p.m., at the Tivoli Theatre.

Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh
Hannah Senesh was the other Jewish girl diarist of the Holocaust. Born in Hungary, she emigrated to Palestine in 1939 when she was seventeen to help build a Jewish homeland. Five years later, she joined a group of other young Palestinians on a daring mission to rescue the Jews of Hungary, including her mother, who still lived in Budapest. Senesh and her compatriots successfully parachuted into Yugoslavia, but were captured by the Nazis as soon as they crossed the Hungarian border. Senesh was tortured, imprisoned, tried for treason and executed on November 7, 1944. This is all chronicled in Roberta Grossman's moving documentary Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh. But the film is also the story of Hannah's mother, Catherine, and her desperate struggle to save her daughter from the Gestapo. Blessed is the Match is based primarily on Hannah's diary, Catherine's memoirs and, most extraordinarily, interviews with Hannah's fellow parachutists and cellmates who give a human face to the "Jewish Joan of Arc." (AL)
Monday, November 17, 7 p.m., at Plaza Frontenac.

Pageant
Here she is, Miss Gay America: The 34th annual Miss Gay America Pageant in Memphis turns the spotlight on its final 50 contestants who're vying for the crown from a field that began at more than 400. Illusion's the name of the game — the female impersonators must adhere to a strict no hormones, no surgery policy. But specifically, Pageant looks into the lives of five entrants. Some work full-time as professional female impersonators; others hold down mainstream 9-to-5 jobs; all can rock a pair of heels. The men are all likable, their personalities as shiny as a sequin evening gown — maybe too much so. For all the talk about the passion and sacrifices they've made in the hope of becoming Miss Gay America, the film doesn't delve too deeply into any competitor's hardships; all the men featured have the support of their mothers, brothers and friends. But hey, maybe that's not such a bad thing — like the contestants themselves, the directors slick a high-gloss smile on this feel-good picture. (KM)
Monday, November 17, 9 p.m., the Tivoli Theatre.

The Wrecking Crew
Session musicians are a staple of studio recordings, but few groups were as successful — or as prolific and unheralded — as the Wrecking Crew. The Byrds, Frank Sinatra, the Mamas and the Papas, the Beach Boys and most notably Phil Spector (the Crew helped create his iconic "Wall of Sound") utilized the talent of these LA musicians. Denny Tedesco (son of Crew member Tommy) directs the fascinating story of his dad's musical life with loving thoroughness. Crew relies on vintage performance footage and photos, exhaustive interviews (Dick Clark, reclusive Beach Boy Brian Wilson) and (most important) the songs, to illuminate the Crew's greatness. Riveting and smart, Crew has enough musical minutiae to please music geeks but enough broad history to also satisfy novice fans. (AZ)
Tuesday, November 18, 9:30 p.m., at the Tivoli Theatre.

 
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