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2012 SLIFF Film Festival capsule reviews

SLIFF Picks Up Speed: the Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival has never looked better

2012 SLIFF Film Festival capsule reviews
Ballplayer: Pelotero.

When the first St. Louis International Film Festival was held back in April of 1992, movies were way different: projectors were powered by generators powered by yaks, and tickets were chiseled onto concrete slabs, making them all but impossible to tear in half. All right, so maybe things weren't quite so unrecognizable. Then, as now, the fest was committed to bringing us the most interesting, intriguing films to the big screen. But those venues have grown in number to include concert halls (the Sheldon) and universities (Webster and Wash. U.) and newly restored theaters on the other side of the river (the Wildey in Edwardsville), as well as the time-tested, much-loved venues of the Hi-Pointe, the Tivoli, Plaza Frontenac and more. In the early '90s, SLIFF brought with it a few dozen films and awards. These days, it packs in events by the hundreds — docs, shorts, feature films, children's films, musical performances, seminars, Q&As with screenwriters...oh, and did we mention that lots of these events are free? Below, we share a few of the many, many offerings between Friday, November 9, and Wednesday, November 14 (more to come next week). A complete guide to SLIFF events around town and ticket information can be found online at cinemastlouis.org.


Ballplayer: Pelotero. (Not Rated) One of out every five professional baseball players in the U.S. comes from the Dominican Republic. Take a second with that stat. Here's another: Every big-league team runs a baseball academy on the island. Unless you follow baseball, you probably had little idea how important signing young Dominican players is to Major League Baseball. And unless you follow MLB, you probably can't imagine what a mess it has been to make of the whole process. Ballplayer: Pelotero, a documentary narrated by John Leguizamo, follows two of the country's hot prospects of 2009-- shortstops Jean Carlos Batista and Miguel Angel Sano-- in the months leading up to July 2, MLB's "singing day." An unexpectedly gripping portrait of how MLB's sausage gets made, the film pits the frustration of the young players and their families, who see baseball as a way out of poverty, against the inflexibility of MLB, which battles age and identity fraud among players—and which declined to be interviewed for the film. Indeed, one family member calls MLB "a Mafia." A rebuttal might have served the sport well. (Michael Leaverton) 3:30 p.m. Saturday, November 10, at the Tivoli.


Bullhead. (R) In Bullhead, Michael R. Roskam's first feature, thirtyish Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a cattle-farming hulk who keeps his mini fridge stocked with Testoviron and other steroids. The brute gobbles pills and plunges syringes into his flesh to compensate for what happened 20 years earlier, when young Jacky was gelded by a teenage psychopath, who does to the lad what Charlotte Gainsbourg did to Willem Dafoe in Antichrist. Although a hazily sketched-out story line involving a dead cop, beef traders, and "the hormone Mafia underworld," with which Jacky is loosely connected, propels the movie, it inevitably circles back to his ever-present trauma from this act of savagery (and cues more ill-advised flashbacks). Bullhead, an Oscar contender in the foreign-language-film category, sets out to prove exactly what is spelled out in the opening voiceover: "One thing is certain: You're always fucked." The sentiment, just like the repeated shots of Jacky lying in fetal position in the tub, shadowboxing, and erupting into a bestial 'roid rage, typifies the film's habit of flattening an idea rather than developing it. (Melissa Anderson) 8:45 p.m. Friday, November 9, at Plaza Frontenac.


Found Memories. (Not Rated) There's no electricity in the Brazilian village where Found Memories is set, and trains no longer heat up the tracks. For the remaining dozen or so inhabitants, there is just a kind of ritualized waiting, something director Júlia Murat lingers over for the film's first half-hour or so, depicting seemingly small lives with big, slightly color-faded frames and long takes. In particular, Murat establishes the rhythm of the life of Madalena (Sonia Guedes), an old woman with a strict, mostly silent routine who saves all of her warmth for the letters she writes to her dead husband each night. Found Memories draws the viewer into that rhythm—from pre-dawn bread baking to Madalena's prickly interactions with defunct café owner Antonio (Luiz Serra), to their post-squabble coffee and mass—so that when a young woman appears on Madalena's doorstep, she seems to have entered this suspended world along with us. Rita (Lisa E. Fávero) is a backpacking photographer in search of aesthetic bliss. Initially treated like the parasite she appears to be, over the course of this crisp, gracefully inflected meditation on time's passage, Rita develops the interest in her subjects that turns an image into more than stolen light. (Michelle Orange) 2 p.m. Monday, November 12, at Plaza Frontenac.


Grassroots. (R) You can tell outsiders from the establishment by the quality of their facial hair in Grassroots, an adaptation of Phil Campbell's nonfiction book about scruffy Grant Cogswell's (Joel David Moore) upstart July 2001 campaign-- managed by scraggly bearded ex-reporter Campbell (Jason Biggs-- to unseat the dapper, mustached Richard McIver (Cedric the Entertainer) on Seattle's city council. Director Stephen Gyllenhaal, despite celebrating by-the-people activism (which apparently involves lots of heavy metal and vandalism), hews to a rather standard us-versus-them template. Gyllenhaal's shaky-cam cinematography doesn't amplify the material's DIY spirit, and both Biggs and Moore argue, preach, and ramble on with affected fervor. Meanwhile, by ultimately softening its stance toward McIver, Grassroots disingenuously has it both ways, reducing politics first to a David-versus-Goliath adventure, and then to an everyone-is-cool bowl of mush. (Schager) 8:45 p.m. Saturday, November 10, at Plaza Frontenac.


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