Highlights of the St. Louis International Film Fest's First Week

Highlights of the St. Louis International Film Fest's First Week
Marcus and Michele Bachmann hit the campaign trail in AJ Schnack's Caucus.

On Thursday, November 14, the Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival rolls in for the 22nd time, bringing with it two weeks of engaging films (documentary and fiction, shorts and full-length features), upclose discussions with filmmakers, awards ceremonies, children's activities, parties and even a free master class in independent filmmaking led by Jon Jost and Blake Eckard. Below you'll find reviews for a small sampling of the films that will be screening in the coming week, but it hardly begins to scratch the suface of the dozens and dozens more that truly offer something for everyone, from Paraguayan thrillers to documentaries about life in small-town Missouri. To find out more about special events, how to buy tickets and punch-card passes, a complete list of films and much, much more, visit

Despite the presence of some Occupy agitators, nobody shouts "This is what democracy looks like!" in the irresistible politicians-meet-the-people documentary Caucus, probably because to do so would be to risk inviting despair. AJ Schnack's film follows one of the great humiliations of American life: the slow, soiling ritual of presidential hopefuls pressing the flesh in preparation for the Iowa Caucus — and often discovering that much of that flesh has already been pressed, persuasively, by some other candidate. "If you change your mind, we'd love your help," we see Rick Santorum tell a Michele Bachmann supporter, one of the fifteen folks who bothered to schlub into a Days Inn to hear Santorum speak with just days left before the 2012 caucus. Facing a similar situation, Bachmann's husband, the jolly and theatrical Marcus, somehow charms a fellow into a thumb-wrestling match, all while candidate Michele, just feet away, declaims her plans to the smallish crowd: building a wall with Mexico, abolishing the tax code, shuttering multiple government agencies. The film's subject determines the form: This is a gently dispirited farce, a spectacle of also-rans and why-did-they-runs desperate to prove their fealty to every qualm and misapprehension of one small slice of an already homogenous population. It's lively, hilarious, upsetting and at times revelatory, especially in a long scene of Romney awkwardly engaging rural Iowans in a town-hall setting. The candidate gets asked about whether this is now a nation of "givers" and "takers." Romney responds with the same boilerplate answer that would ensure his loss in November: There's 47 percent of us who just don't contribute — quite unlike the good people of Iowa, of course. — Alan Scherstuhl
Screens Friday, November 15, at 6:45 p.m. at Plaza Frontenac, and Sunday, November 17, at 4:30 p.m. at the Wildey.

Computer Chess
So far the funniest, headiest, most playfully eccentric American indie of the year, Andrew Bujalski's perceptive avant-garde comedy Computer Chess — set circa 1980 with an Anytown, America's worth of terrible moustaches and embarrassing pants — teases out unanswered existential and behavioral questions about mankind's curious obsession with artificial intelligence and automation. (Shouldn't some interactions remain analog, including games of chess?) Fitting to the period, cinematographer Matthias Grunsky offers the cruddiest, security-grade monochrome image conceivable from a vintage video-tube camera that predates the PortaPak. That's less an arthouse stunt than an evocative, nostalgic patina. Remember when the future seemed a casual climb to utopian invention, not the doomsday vortex we now race toward? "This is a very odd, weird, strange, idiosyncratic game. I don't know how many ways I can say it," stammers arrogant chess wizard Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary), hosting a weekend tournament at a nondescript hotel. Among the influx of tucked-in, white-collared conquista-dorks ready to affably battle each other — or rather, each other's not-yet-portable mainframes — one winner's software will face off against Henderson on the final day. There is no third-act "who will win?" underdog tension because this isn't a sports movie. If anything, the bigger fight is "who will get the conference room?" between the gamers and a couples-therapy seminar led by an African guru. The improvisational feel might read as haphazard to some, but Bujalski's script and seemingly paradoxical stylizations are actually quite formal (the deliriously clipped editing and intermittently out-of-sync dialogue are calculated decisions, not human errors — get it?). This is a very odd, weird, strange, idiosyncratic film. I don't know how many ways I can say it.— Aaron Hillis
Screens Saturday, November 16, at 6:30 p.m. at the Tivoli.

The great sins of the 20th century are already too many to list, but let us note one more: the abduction of infants from mothers deemed unworthy or undesirable by governments and religious institutions. Thousands of children were kidnapped from leftist parents during Argentina's and Spain's dictatorships. Based on actual events, Stephen Frears' Philomena adds another country to that list, Ireland, where the Catholic Church carried out the theft and trade of children born to unwed mothers. This affecting, impressively intelligent drama follows one elderly woman's search for her biological son, who was sold without her permission five decades earlier. Given that grim premise, Philomena is remarkably funny. Steve Coogan plays Martin, a Labour party aide to the Blair administration who gets sacked for describing 9/11 as "a good day to bury bad news." He slums it for a while as a journalist and eventually meets Philomena (Judi Dench), who has kept silent about her stolen firstborn, Tony, until now. Already reluctant to speak ill of the Church, she bristles when Martin tries to pigeonhole her into victimhood. Philomena agrees to have her story told on the condition that Martin help her find Tony. With her Edith Bunker haircut and granny glasses, Philomena might well be in the same sewing circle as the "bigoted woman" who asked Gordon Brown where all the immigrants were suddenly coming from. But it becomes clear that "Phil" sits on a stockpile of wisdom that she squirrels away for a rainy day. The grande dame's performance, alternately goofy and grave, is an absolute tour de force. — Inkoo Kang
Screens Sunday, November 17, at 3:15 p.m. at the Tivoli.

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