Support Local Journalism. Join Riverfront Times Press Club.

Seven Selections from the St. Louis International Film Festival's First Weekend 

click to enlarge A still from Breathe.

Courtesy SLIFF

A still from Breathe.

Now in its 24th year, the Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival​ (SLIFF)​ continues to impress with its breadth and depth of content. From November 5 through 15, nearly 450 films will be shown — to say nothing of the special-event programming, master classes and parties that will also take place. There are films for families, ones that are totally free and others that ask hard questions: Below, we take a closer look at seven of them. See the end of this story for ticketing information and a link to the Cinema St. Louis website, where you can find the festival's complete schedule.

Deep Web
Directed by Alex Winter
7:30 p.m. Thursday, November 5
Landmark Tivoli Theatre
6350 Delmar Boulevard

Deep Web is a straightforward documentary about a subject so timely that, unfortunately, it has already been rendered out of date by more recent events. Alex Winter's film tells the story of the dark-net website Silk Road, the dark net being the untraceable twin of the more benign Internet that brings you your daily dose of kitten pictures and George Takei quotes. Silk Road was the Amazon of illegal drugs, a place where, for a period of slightly more than two years starting in 2011, anything could be purchased as long as the user could come up with enough Bitcoin to buy it. Silk Road's fortunes changed with the arrest of Ross Ulbricht, who founded the site and ran it using the Princess Bride-derived handle "Dread Pirate Roberts." Winters looks at Ulbricht's prosecution from a distance — there are interviews with his parents and a Silk Road dealer, but not with Ulbricht himself — and seems largely sympathetic to the case, but offers little more than mentions of his supporters' arguments. These include the claim that Ulbricht sold the website and was framed by his successor, and charges that the FBI illegally gained access to the site's servers. Ulbricht was convicted earlier this year, just weeks before the film premiered, and in subsequent statements appears to have more or less admitted guilt on some of his charges. Narrated by Keanu Reeves, Deep Web makes for an interesting story, but more recent events (including a lengthy and far less sympathetic account of Silk Road in Wired last spring) make it seem incomplete.

Breathe
Directed by Mélanie Laurent
2 p.m. Friday and Saturday (November 6 and 7)
Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema
1701 South Lindbergh Boulevard

Based on a young-adult novel, Mélanie Laurent's Breathe is best when it simply documents the unpretentious behavior of young French teenagers mapping out their own social connections, or more often trying to stay out of the way of the adult world. The story — the on-and-off friendship between a bored teenaged girl and a mysterious, rebellious new classmate — offers few surprises. It disappointingly wanders into the YA equivalent of the New Brutality at the end, but the performers (Joséphine Japy and Lou de Laâge) are charming, and the direction makes often inspired use of wide-screen compositions that are unexpectedly intimate.

click to enlarge Longwave. - COURTESY SLIFF
  • Courtesy SLIFF
  • Longwave.

Longwave [Les grandes ondes (à l'ouest)]
Directed by Lionel Baier
2:45 p.m. Friday and 12:15 p.m. Monday (November 6 and 9)
Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema
1701 South Lindbergh Boulevard

Longwave, a slight but appealing comedy inspired (if that's not too strong a word) by historical events, is about a team of Swiss radio journalists who are sent to Portugal to prepare a puff piece about good relations between the two countries. They happen to land in the center of the April 1974 Carnation Revolution, when a military coup brought a peaceful end to the regime that had ruled for 40 years. It's short, simple and fun in a loopy deadpan way, although occasionally the humor overreaches and misfires (as when characters spontaneously break into a West Side Story-inspired dance-off set to Gershwin's "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing"). Despite the largely irrelevant political setting, Longwave works best when it plays off the friction between an ambitious feminist reporter and an older, egotistic and battle-worn veteran, played respectively by Valérie Donzelli and Michel Vuillermoz. The '70s setting may justify some of Vuillermoz's old-school macho, but the rivalry between the two is timeless: Think of it as Anchorman Lite.

click to enlarge Who Am I. - COURTESY SLIFF
  • Courtesy SLIFF
  • Who Am I.

Who Am I — No System Is Safe
Directed by Baran bo Odar
9:30 p.m. Saturday and 9:40 p.m. Tuesday (November 7 and 10)
Landmark Tivoli Theatre
6350 Delmar Boulevard

Flashy, fast-paced and mostly ridiculous, Who Am I presents its creators with the increasingly common problem of finding a visual method for a generally stationary behavior — computer hacking. Their solution — staging the uploading of a file as if it were a physical confrontation between two individuals wearing Guy Fawkes-like masks — is more silly than satisfying, and the overall ambience of chest-beating hackers sticking it to the (unnamed, unidentified) man is tiresome. The film would like to raise its heroes to the level of Occupy-inspired anarchists, but its view of social activism comes off more like a boorish frat party.

click to enlarge The King and the Mockingbird. - COURTESY SLIFF
  • Courtesy SLIFF
  • The King and the Mockingbird.

The King and the Mockingbird
Directed by Paul Grimault
12:05 p.m. Sunday, November 8
Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema
1701 South Lindbergh Boulevard

I had never heard of Paul Grimault's The King and the Mockingbird until about eighteen months ago, even though the film has a production history going back more than 60 years. Given the international market for animation and the home-video explosion of the 1980s, it seems unthinkable that some version of Grimault's film wouldn't have reached America. And given the quality of the film itself, it's even more remarkable that the French film industry hasn't been touting it as proof that a European animator could produce an animated feature every bit as inventive and attractive as a Disney film.

And yet, that's exactly what happened: A film made under difficult circumstances, taken from its director and released in an incomplete form, restored and re-assembled (or more accurately, remade) years later, but almost completely unknown outside of France. Grimault, France's most prominent animator, began his film in 1948, only to have the unfinished work taken out of his control; a hastily edited version falling far short of Grimault's original conception was released in 1953 as The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep (the title of the Hans Christian Andersen story that inspired only a small section of the film). An English-dubbed version was released as The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird and featured a vocal performance by Peter Ustinov. That unofficial and truncated version — you can watch it on YouTube — is not without interest, but it falls short of the ambitious design Grimault had in mind. Twenty-five years after it was released, Grimault acquired the rights to the film, restored sections and prepared new sequences to create The King and the Mockingbird as he had originally planned it. His version opened in France in 1980 but evidently remained unreleased the rest of the world.

It's a strange and beautiful film, reminiscent of the earliest Disney features — if Uncle Walt had dropped his homespun Midwestern values and let surrealist art and political satire filter into his films. I won't spoil the story except to note that it includes a talking bird, a Metropolis-like kingdom, paintings coming to life, underground cities, a giant robot, and an ineffectual king whose thoughts are as wicked as his eyes are crossed. The design ranges from understated modernism to storybook simplicity, and the screenplay by Jacques Prévért is at times poetic and fanciful, just as you might expect from the author of Children of Paradise. There's hardly a moment which doesn't reach fairy-tale perfection, which perhaps makes its troubled production history all the more appropriate: It's like a buried treasure suddenly popping up after a six-decade sleep.

Hitchcock/Truffaut
Directed by Kent Jones
7 p.m. Tuesday, November 10
Webster University's Moore Auditorium
470 East Lockwood Avenue

click to enlarge Hitchcock/Truffaut. - COURTESY SLIFF
  • Courtesy SLIFF
  • Hitchcock/Truffaut.

Andrew Sarris once said that the very first review he published was also the one that generated the most hate mail: The sophisticated Village Voice readers of 1960 couldn't believe that such an uber-hip publication would waste ink on, let alone actually praise, shameless trash like Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Sarris' review was the first American shot in an international cultural war that had been started in France by the critics of Cahiers du Cinema (many of whom — Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol — were starting to make names for themselves as leaders of the Nouvelle Vague) and would soon change how movies — especially American ones — were understood. Though it may not have seemed obvious at the time, the 1966 (1967 in the U.S.) publication of Francois Truffaut's Hitchcock, an in-depth and meticulously illustrated interview with the director, was concrete proof that the critical war was over and that the auteur theory — the idea that filmmakers expressed themselves as much through the style and composition of their work as through the subject or theme — had won the day. The product of a week of conversation between two major film artists, Truffaut's Hitchcock was a rarity, a book about movies that contained instead in-depth discussions of technique rather than anecdotes and gossip.

Kent Jones' Hitchcock/Truffaut is both an appreciation and a recreation of the book and the critical method it championed. Jones, a leading critic in his own right, working with Truffaut biographer Serge Toubiana as cowriter, lets filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich and Olivier Assayas describe the influence that both directors had on their work, while scenes from films such as Notorious and The Birds duplicate the shot-by-shot analysis that made Truffaut's book so unique. Most effectively, Jones gives Hitchcock and Truffaut their own voices, using excerpts from the original interview recordings and adding a new level of intimacy to the print material.

Five decades later, the idea that Hitchcock deserves to be taken seriously is no longer a radical one, and the young turks of the Nouvelle Vague have become Old Masters. Hitchcock/Truffaut offers a refresher course in a now-established critical approach and a tribute to what became one of its key artifacts.

click to enlarge Einstein in Guanajuato. - COURTESY SLIFF
  • Courtesy SLIFF
  • Einstein in Guanajuato.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato
Directed by Peter Greenaway
2:35 p.m. Wednesday and 9:20 p.m. Friday (November 13 and 15)
Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema
1701 South Lindbergh Boulevard

Sergei Eisenstein, one of the most celebrated artists in the world thanks to the international acclaim for his film Battleship Potemkin, went to Mexico in 1931 to make a loosely planned film called Que Viva Mexico, to be produced by novelist/activist Upton Sinclair. After shooting nearly 50 hours of film Eisenstein had alienated his producer, come under suspicion by the Mexican authorities, and provoked rumors of ideological impurity in his home country. He returned to Russia and was never allowed to edit the Mexican project, nor would he ever quite return to the good graces of the Stalinist regime.

For director Peter Greenaway (still best known for The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover), Eisenstein's year of freedom is the subject of a homo-erotic slapstick fantasy, with the fright-wigged Russian director driven into a frenzy by the freedom of the decadent West. Like most of Greenaway's work, it's visually luxurious, but atypically playful. Greenaway experiments with split screens, multiple images and digital effects, but even the most impressive of these are overshadowed by Finnish actor Elmer Back's relentlessly kinetic performance as Eisenstein, a heavily accented, manic tour de force. Greenaway has a lot of fun at the expense of Eisenstein's leftist American supporters and plays fast and loose with history ­­— we hardly ever see Eisenstein working on his film, yet somehow those fifty unedited hours were produced. But Greenaway balances his inventions with lots of name-dropping and one lengthy scene cleverly drawn from actual letters and telegrams exchanged between Sinclair and Stalin. As a biography of the great Soviet director, Eisenstein in Guanajuato is unreliable, but as a fanciful account of a major cultural clash between the spirit of high modernism and the heavy hand of totalitarianism, it's an unexpected treat.

The 24th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival runs from November 5 through 15. Tickets for individual films are $12 to $15 and can be purchased through each theater’s box office in advance or the day of show. Festival passes good for six tickets ($65) or ten tickets ($100) are available through the Hi-Pointe, Landmark Plaza Frontenac and Landmark Tivoli Theatre box offices in advance. An all-access pass good for two tickets to every film in the festival is available through Cinema St. Louis at 314-289-4153. For more information and the complete schedule, visit www.cinemastlouis.org.

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.

Tags:

Read the Digital Print Issue

July 21, 2021

View more issues

Newsletters

Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

Best Things to Do In St. Louis

© 2021 Riverfront Times

Website powered by Foundation