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

Nov 14, 2013 at 4:00 am
Marcus and Michele Bachmann hit the campaign trail in AJ Schnack's Caucus.
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 www.cinemastlouis.org.

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.

First Comes Love
Tell enough guys the premise of auteur-of-the-self Nina Davenport's HBO doc First Comes Love, and at least a couple will confirm through their reactions just why First Comes Love matters. The inevitable carping: "Two hours about this unmarried woman's decision to have a baby? How narcissistic!" In the film — which is wise, warm, funny, open and interested in life as it's actually lived — that sort of "Why bother?" is trumped by her own father. "Send for the abortionist!" he cries after Davenport tells him she's pregnant. A couple of seconds later, it becomes clear he's not joking. No more narcissistic than Proust and concerned with nothing less than why the drive to mother surges with such power even in women who have built lives fully removed from what earlier generations would have dubbed proper, First Comes Love is, before anything else, a portrait of a longing so deep that even the commandingly articulate Davenport struggles to put it into words. "I have this biological compulsion to have a kid, and I don't know why," she says. Still, as we watch her become a mother, it's clear she's made the right decision. We hear her pee on a pregnancy test, see her body swell up, even witness the baby plop right out of her, followed by a splash of rich fluid. That image of live birth, so often glossed over by a media that presumes it horrific, here is quick and revelatory. Through this mother's tears and pain, a new self comes squalling out, another regular person whose story, if captured by a journalist/artist/whatever as certain as Davenport, might one day mean the world to us.— Alan Scherstuhl
Screens Sunday, November 17, at 3:30 p.m. at Plaza Frontenac.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali
The Trials of Muhammad Ali opens with two contrasting bits of archival footage: a 1968 television appearance by the eponymous boxer in which David Susskind calls him "[in]tolerable," and a later clip of the Parkinsons-riddled legend about to receive the Presidential Citizens Medal from George W. Bush. With its subject now canonized and rendered safe for white America, Bill Siegel's breezy doc takes us back to the days when the media — and much of the country — didn't know what to do with the outspoken champion. Evincing little interest in Ali's in-the-ring feats, the film focuses instead on his involvement with the Nation of Islam, his political activism and his legal troubles, reminding us that athletes once stood for something larger than their ability to overcome personal adversity. With his inspired use of archival footage, Siegel not only bolsters his case with vintage clips of Ali's famous pronouncements and his detractors' counterclaims, but mixes in some surprises as well (the champ acting in a Broadway musical about the Middle Passage). Still, the film never lingers too long on any one thing, instead functioning as a survey in which several fascinating cultural moments are vividly evoked, but then left insufficiently probed.— Andrew Schenker
Screens Monday, November 18, at 7 p.m. at the Tivoli.

Chasing Ice
If you recently had a close encounter with the howling demon known as Hurricane Sandy, you might have a renewed belief in global warming. If not, consider yourself lucky, then see Chasing Ice, director Jeff Orlowski's beautiful yet sobering documentary about the world's rapidly melting ice caps. His guide is James Balog, a renowned nature photographer who has become obsessed with documenting the staggering speed with which the icebergs of Greenland, Iceland and Alaska are crumbling into the sea. Orlowski films as Balog and a small team of young scientists go on a mad mission to embed dozens of time-lapse cameras into the rock walls above various ice fields. Those cameras take one image every hour, and when Balog and his team, known as the Extreme Ice Survey, assemble the footage, they discover that glacier fields the size of Lower Manhattan are receding at an astonishing rate. Still and live-action footage captures the ice sliding into the sea with exquisite grace, which makes it all the more wrenching. Are such images enough to convince the naysayers that something unnatural is occurring? Doubtful. After all, when the weatherman says a hurricane is coming, aren't there always those who refuse to leave their cozy dens?— Chuck Wilson
Screens Wednesday, November 20, at 4 p.m. at Plaza Frontenac.

The Broken Circle Breakdown
Blending cliché-prone genres — disease-of-the-week tearjerker, marital melodrama, musical — into an unwieldy but distinctive hybrid, Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen's The Broken Circle Breakdown holds you even as it flies off the tracks. The Flemish-language film revolves around banjo player Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens), who fall in love, make music together (the actors do their own singing, delivering soulful performances of bluegrass classics and original compositions) and lead a happy life with their daughter — until tragedy strikes. As in his previous feature, The Misfortunates, the story darts around in time, and the jumbled chronology works; the contrast between the couple's initial exuberance and the sorrow that follows is devastating, while the leads convey careening emotions with rawness and nuance. The director pulls you in close to the physical and psychological spaces these people inhabit — sometimes too close. In one sequence, as a character drifts in and out of consciousness, we get a breakneck montage of flashbacks shot through colored filters, leading me to wonder if Danny Boyle had momentarily grabbed the camera. Van Groeningen has not yet mastered the adage of less is more. That's especially evident in the film's second half, when tasteless narrative motifs involving George W. Bush, stem-cell research, and a symbolic bird make repeat appearances, and a stirring concert scene is punctuated by a tirade so unnecessary I literally smacked my forehead. Still, buried beneath the movie's excesses is a deeply lived-in portrait of passion (artistic, romantic, parental) and grief. The Broken Circle Breakdown crashes as frequently as it soars, but the ache at its center feels real. — Jon Frosch
Screens Wednesday, November 20, at 6:45 p.m. at the Tivoli.