6 Picks from This Year's St. Louis International Film Festival 

An AI challenges the world's best player of the Japanese game Go in Alpha Go.

COURTESY OF CINEMA ST. LOUIS

An AI challenges the world's best player of the Japanese game Go in Alpha Go.

The Saint Louis International Film Festival returns this Thursday, November 2, with a basketful of new and classic movies. Multiple films are shown daily at venues across the metro area. Tickets are $10 to $13, with select special screenings ranging in price from free to $25.

We've picked out some highlights. Visit www.cinemastlouis.org to view the entire schedule.

Axolotl Overkill

4:30 p.m. Fri., Nov. 3 & noon Thu., Nov. 9

Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema

Watch sixteen-year-old Mifti and her friends as they drink, smoke, get high, have sex, visit clubs, lounge around hotel rooms barely dressed and pose intensely while listening to Gil Scott-Heron records. Then watch them do the same things all over again. And again. Directed by 24-year-old Helene Hegemann and based on a novel she wrote when she was approximately the same age as her protagonist, Axolotl Overkill is loud, meaningless and in love with its own emptiness, wallowing in its random moments of squalor like a spoiled adolescent trying to convince everyone she's the baddest kid on the block. The nicest thing you can say about it is that no axolotls were actually harmed during the making of the film.

Future '38

7:15 p.m. Fri., Nov. 3 & 2 p.m. Sat., Nov. 4

Landmark Tivoli Theatre

The contrived premise behind director Jamie Greenberg's tolerably lightweight comedy is that it's a lost film from the 1930s (introduced by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, no less) about an American agent sent 80 years into the future to keep foreign enemies from developing the Formica isotope. Essex (Nick Westrate) finds the world of 2018 to be a very strange place where people communicate over video phones (the on-line switchboard is manned by Blade Runner's Sean Young) and search for information over a system called the "electro-mesh" (the answers come out on ticker tape). Much of the comedy is of the "weren't-people-in-the past-so-naive?" variety, only slighter more polished than your average local improv show, but it's mostly harmless fun. My favorite part was a barely noticeable visual moment that revealed that people in the future really do eat Dippin' Dots!

The Cinema Travellers

7:30 p.m. Fri., Nov. 3

Webster University's Browning Hall

Less a narrative than a respectful and even a bit enraptured act of observation, The Cinema Travellers follows a group of film exhibitors as they bring their creaky old mobile projection booths into the most rural corners of India. Enduring scratched prints and rusty, antiquated equipment, they find dwindling crowds and technological changes are pulling their livelihood out from under them, yet they persevere. If you've ever spent time in a projection booth, the images of spinning take-up reels and burning carbons will bring back a past that has become — for better or worse — as outdated as the Model T or the 8-track tape. But just as I was wondering if the characters — who include the operators as well as a cantankerous old projector repairman who hopes his new method of rewinding reels will bring him fame — were aware that their machinery had become almost extinct in most of the world, we see one of the subjects take the plunge and make the first steps toward digital conversion. Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya have made a sad and thoughtful film about the very nature of the medium and the strange combination of dedication and technology that brings images to life.

Stormy Weather. - COURTESY OF CINEMA ST. LOUIS
  • COURTESY OF CINEMA ST. LOUIS
  • Stormy Weather.

Stormy Weather

4 p.m. Sat., Nov. 4

Washington University's Brown Hall

The plot of this 1943 film is razor-thin — it's a familiar backstage story about the rise to fame of a talented tap dancer (Bill "Bojangles" Robinson) and a beautiful singer (Lena Horne) — but Stormy Weather could have filled the spaces between its twenty musical numbers with dramatic readings from the 1910 Sears catalog and still rank as one of the best Hollywood musicals ever. Forget the story; the attraction here is the collection of the greatest African American entertainers of its — or all — time. The great Fats Waller performs "Ain't Misbehavin," while Lena Horne delivers the title song in a production number that features local legend Katherine Dunham and her dance troupe. The standout, however, is a segment Fred Astaire called the greatest moment in a movie musical, in which Cab Calloway's "Jumpin' Jive" becomes a vehicle for the Nicholas Brothers to tap, leap and slide across the stage as if the world was their own personal trampoline.

Alpha Go

6 p.m. Sat., Nov. 4

Webster University's Browning Hall

In 2016, an artificial intelligence program called Alpha Go challenged the world's greatest player of the ancient Chinese game Go to a five-game tournament in South Korea. Director Greg Kohs' Alpha Go is an account of the software team that created Alpha Go, the day-to-day drama of the match, and the many people — scientists and players — who got wrapped up in the drama of the game. Alpha Go makes a fatal error, however, by failing to offer even a superficial explanation of the game or its rules. The film has much in common with the crowd-pleasing mechanics of a sports film, but when observers get excited about one player's move or show alarm at a particular play, there's nothing in the film to back up their reaction. It gives some sense of the emotions at stake in the man-vs.-machine conflict, but doesn't provide enough information for the viewer to understand them. We're just expected to go along with their enthusiasm.

All The Rage

1:15 p.m., Sun., Nov. 5

Tivoli

All the Rage is both personal diary and documentary profile, as filmmaker Michael Galinsky (with co-directors David Beilinson and Suki Hawley) tells the story of Dr. John Sarno, whose controversial medical theories involve treating pain by having patients recall emotional trauma from their past, while also documenting how Sarno's practice had helped him personally. Like most subjective filmmaking of this type, much of the project's success relies on how much you can accept Galinsky's first-person style and whether you trust him as a guide. Simple in concept and execution, the film makes a persuasive case for Sarno's views — complete with celebrity endorsements from Larry David and Howard Stern — while also allowing Galinsky's proximity to the center of the story to give it a more personal face. It would be easy to dismiss this as narcissism — that's an inevitable quality of diary-based documentaries — but All the Rage works on both levels, telling an intimate story about the filmmaker and his family, but going beyond the first-person mirror to make a convincing case for Sarno and his ideas.

A family battles a leukemia diagnoses with imagination and joy in When I Was 6, I Killed a Dragon. - COURTESY OF CINEMA ST. LOUIS
  • COURTESY OF CINEMA ST. LOUIS
  • A family battles a leukemia diagnoses with imagination and joy in When I Was 6, I Killed a Dragon.

When I Was 6, I Killed a Dragon

8:30 p.m. Sun., Nov. 5

Webster University's Browning Hall

Bruno Romy was one of the co-directors of The Fairy, a 2011 French comedy with a visual style that some compared to Keaton and Tati, but which I found irritatingly twee. Much of the same whimsical slapstick style is applied to Romy's latest film, but this time the emotional stakes are higher. The result is a deeply felt but profoundly playful celebration of life and courage. The film begins when Romy and his wife Annabelle learn that their six-year-old daughter Mika has leukemia. Romy, a doting father, decides that he and his daughter will collaborate on a film about her medical treatment, recording the family crisis but preserving the comic techniques that come naturally to him. From a worrisome subject, Romy creates a lively jumble of a film, a live-action cartoon with silly costumes, sight gags, animation, musical numbers and, at its heart, a courageous heroine who encapsulates the film's loony spirit even when she's at her weakest. I was reminded of another French child-heroine, the mischievous star of Louis Malle's Zazie in the Metro, but with a sense of gravity and genuine affection. Mika turns the unusual combination of a dark subject and a goofy narrative approach into an emotional triumph.

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