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SLIFF brings Icelandic improv, French rom-com, a Civil War spoof and more through November 21

Click here for a link to all St. Louis International Film Festival content.

127 Hours
Directed by Danny Boyle
7 p.m. Sunday, November 14 at the Hi-Pointe
Watch what James Franco — actor/sleepy grad student/tepid writer/viral video comedian/ conceptual artist/aficionado of gender fuckery — can accomplish when he actually focuses for a couple of weeks. In Danny Boyle's latest, Franco plays Aron Ralston, who in 2003 cut off his own arm after being stuck for five days under a rock in a Utah canyon. The boulder drops about twenty minutes into 127 Hours. Ralston begins devising clever systems of survival and, he hopes, mechanisms of freedom, all the while narrating his predicament into the video camera he's brought along, a device that seems awfully blunt at first, but becomes a fascinating window into how a smart, funny, non-action-hero guy might behave as he tries to think his way out of a catastrophe. Soon enough, the descent into delirium begins. As Boyle's film flits from the real world — the heavy reality of a man in a canyon, pinned, near death — to the world of hallucinations and memories, so Franco's performance transforms, encompassing both universes. Unlike Boyle's flashback-dependent Slumdog Millionaire, we're not meant to draw explicit lines from past to present — there's no scene of a young Ralston, like, learning to tie a double overhand stopper knot. Instead, the glimpses of his past build an impressionistic picture of a young man so devoted to the pursuit of experience that he's left human connection behind. It's fitting that the film likely to turn Franco — dilettante, enigma, artistic adventurer — into an unapproachable celebrity is itself a passionate, bloody argument for engagement with the world.
Dan Kois

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector
Directed by Vikram Jayanti
9:30 p.m. Saturday November 13 at the Tivoli
A portrait of a pop music genius as (pre-)convicted murderer, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector lives up to its grandiose title. Vikram Jayanti's BBC production is culled from 50 hours of interviews made during the reclusive Spector's first trial — he was accused of sticking one of his many guns in actress Lana Clarkson's mouth and blowing out her brains — but it's less a documentary than a Top 40 opera. The Agony begins with Spector bitching about the jury and the judge (not fair that he keeps reminding the court that somebody died). Then Jayanti segues — bang! — to a vintage kinescope of the Ronettes performing songwriter Spector's infectiously plaintive "Be My Baby." Pure ecstasy! And so it goes for the next 100 minutes, as Spector's discourse is interwoven with his greatest hits, often played in their glorious entirety. Spector's rage is constant, his grudges are boundless (Tony Bennett seems to be a particular bête noire), and his paranoia (persecuted because he created the '60s) is indistinguishable from his self-importance. The artist refers to his early-'60s hits as "little symphonies for the kids" — hardly an exaggeration. To have been in junior high school when rhapsodic fugues of yearning like "Uptown" or "Be My Baby" first poured from the radio is to have a sensibility, if not a fantasy life, in some way molded by this monster of self-absorption. To see The Agony and the Ecstasy is to be haunted by the specter of that long-ago innocence.
— J. Hoberman

Bag It
Directed by Suzan Beraza
3:30 p.m. Sunday, November 21, at the Tivoli
Most of us are guilty of shoving plastic bags into other plastic bags while our (well-intentioned!) eco-friendly ones sit forgotten in the car. This is how it began for "average guy" Jeb Berrier, too, until he decided to dramatically decrease his dependence on plastic. Interspersed with cartoon graphics, interviews and an awful lot of shots of Berrier looking into the camera, smirking and shrugging (á la Jim from The Office), Bag It takes an exhaustive look at how plastic has become something of an invasive species itself: Plastic bags float in the oceans like algae, plastic caps are found in the stomachs of dead fish and birds, and some research even points to its negative impacts on human health. It's an admittedly one-sided look at the plastics industry that sometimes intentionally (and sometimes not) lapses into preachy filmstrip-speak. But if its creators' intent was to entertain and educate consumers while dispensing a healthy amount of guilt, then they've got it, er, in the bag.
Kristie McClanahan
Matthew Ludwinski as Jonathan Franklin Hale.
Matthew Ludwinski as Jonathan Franklin Hale.
Country Wedding
Country Wedding

The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek
Directed by Wendy Jo Cohen
2 p.m. Saturday, November 13, at the Tivoli
A Civil War "documentary" of the Ken Burns school — lots of pan and scan photos set to folksy music, melodramatic recitations of old letters and a host of talking heads — Wendy Jo Cohen's The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek uncovers a forgotten battle that was won by Jonathan Franklin Hale, the Union Army's only openly gay officer. This skirmish was forgotten not only because of Hale's sexuality, but also because his cohorts include an aged Chinese general/laundry magnate, a nerdy escaped slave and a vengeful one-armed teen prostitute disguised as a drummer boy — not your typical (white, male, heterosexual) soldiers by any means. The subtlety with which Cohen weaves these elements together slips away so gradually that it's difficult to determine when the film veers into anarchic silliness. Is it the photo of a Civil War pimp or the moment when history expert Sheeba Lejeune is revealed to be a prostitute herself or when the battle is fought with hot air balloons armed with laundry-detergent bombs? A delightfully wry film that satirizes Civil War fetishists, history buffs, PBS-type programming and America's lingering racial and gender issues.
Paul Friswold

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