15 Mini Reviews For The St. Louis International Film Festival | St. Louis Public Radio

15 Mini Reviews For The St. Louis International Film Festival

Updated 5:30 p.m. Nov. 14 with new review.

The St. Louis International Film Festival is underway with enough options to ensure that almost everyone can find something of interest.

Some of us in the newsroom of St. Louis Public Radio checked out the list of offerings and asked to review films that caught our interest. As you check out our mini reviews, you should know that several of the movies we requested were not available and that some of us asked for more than time permitted. These are just a taste of what is available.

For a full schedule and tickets, go to www.cinemastlouis.org/about-festival

The Congress

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U.S., 2013, 122 min.

Feature | Director Ari Folman
Nov. 14, 9:45 p.m. | Tivoli Theatre

Aging and washed-up actress “Robin Wright” (played by Robin Wright) has made a lifetime of “lousy choices” — “lousy movies, lousy men” — so what is one more lousy decision? With few real options and a very sick child, Robin agrees to allow herself to be scanned, creating a new, permanently young, digital Robin Wright to replace the obsolescent real one.

What starts out, though, as a bitter parody of Hollywood — with delicious turns from Danny Huston and Harvey Keitel — soon veers into a more cosmic direction when Robin attends a futurological congress. That’s when Robin enters the “animated zone” and the film becomes a hallucinogenic, psychodelic riff on identity, authenticity, happiness and love.

Does it make sense? Does it hang together? No, but neither do dreams. Maybe that’s why “The Congress” gets my vote.  (Susan Hegger)

The Homestretch

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U.S., 2014, 90 min.

Documentary | Directors Kirsten Kelly, Anne de Mare
Nov. 14, 7 p.m. | Washington University, Brown Hall Auditorium

Every night, between 2,000 and 3,000 Chicago youth are homeless. More than 19,000 students in the Chicago Public Schools have no permanent place to call their own. “The Homestretch” follows three of them — Roque, Kasey and Anthony — as they try to make the tricky transition from high school to whatever might come next.

Directors Kirsten Kelly and Anne de Mare effectively use handheld cameras and other devices to get inside the three teens’ world, where a patchwork of underfunded, overcrowded agencies with names like Teen Living Programs and Students In Temporary Living Situations do their best to provide some sense of continuity and safety in an unstable environment. Too often, the teens have all of their possessions in backpacks and carts, moving from place to place.

The well-meaning, overworked helpers in the film do their best to guide the teens along. As one high school liaison to homeless students puts it, “Each name represents a story and a person who is going to be awesome someday.” By the end of the film, the three teens have reached destinations of sorts — college, independent living, job training. But after “The Homestretch” comes the finish line, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that the road ahead is going to be filled with potholes that they may not have acquired the skills to avoid. (Dale Singer)

Traitors

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Morocco, 2013, 83 min., Arabic, French & English

Feature | Director Sean Gullette
Nov. 14, 2 p.m. | Plaza Frontenac Cinema
Nov. 20, 12:15 pm | Plaza Frontenac Cinema

We know the set-up from movies before. A good person, an innocent person finds herself in desperate financial straits. She needs money and she needs it fast — to save her family from eviction, to schedule a studio for her demo, to get her life going. A drug dealer makes her an offer — of course with lots of money — just to drive a car into the mountains and back. It’s a simple plan. What could possibly go wrong?

What saves “Traitors” from being just another formulaic thriller is its lead character and setting. Malika (an engaging Chaimae Ben Acha) is the rebellious leader of an all-female punk rock band named Traitors in Tangiers. (Her punk anthem is “I hate Morocco.”) A clever, young woman, Malika chafes against the confines of her world, and the scenes of the cafes and night-time streets filled only with men show just how out of place she is. But she is also just as contemptuous of her fellow mule, a “street girl,” who seems a little too cozy with the drug-dealing life.

Director Sean Gullette never lingers, though, on these details. Instead, he’s built a brisk, taut movie that keeps moving and keeps us wondering who is going to be betrayed. (Susan Hegger)

Elegy to Connie

Credit website | art by Sarah Paulsen

U.S., 2014 60 minutes

Documentary | Director Sarah Paulsen
Nov. 15, 6:30 p.m. | Saint Louis University

When Cookie Thorton stormed into a Kirkwood City Council meeting and killed five city officials, before police killed him, the region was shocked. But for friends of the people killed,  the impact was intensely personal.

Sarah Paulsen is an artist and her mother was a close friend of Council Member Connie Karr. Seven friends of Connie join with Paulsen’s art to tell the story of Kirkwood and Thornton and Meacham Park and Karr. The collage, puzzles and stop-motion animation are effective media to relate the personal and the horrific.

While the film is called “Elegy to Connie,” it uses the personal grief to look at many issues — race, representation, community — and as such expands its potential reach far beyond one suburb. It is, in fact, a useful film to see in light of the unrest in Ferguson. Also see an earlier St. Louis Public Radio story. (Donna Korando)

In the Turn

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U.S. 2014, 103 min

Documentary | Director Erica Tremblay
Nov. 15 4:30 p.m. | Tivoli Theatre

“In The Turn” is about 10-year-old Crystal, a transgender girl living in Canada, and her quest to find peer-group acceptance through roller derby. Although the film starts and ends on that premise, the film expands to broad portrait of transgender and queer acceptance in the sport as a whole.

Crystal is accepted at church, but faces bullying and discrimination at school. Her mother precisely articulates the emotional challenges Crystal experiences in the struggle to be herself without ridicule. She helps her daughter discover The Vagine Regime, a queer identified group within the roller derby community. At this point, the film falls into a chapter-like pattern, as other transgender and queer roller derby women share their personal narratives and roller derby stories. 

The film’s editing is somewhat awkward, but the interwoven narratives of identity and acceptance are too powerful to be tripped up by formal concerns. The women and men portrayed onscreen open their lives and community for the viewer with honesty and conviction. They’re dedicated to personal empowerment, no matter someone’s background, and to sharing the stories that helped them find strength in their own lives. As trans acceptance continues to grow, this film provides an honest look into one support structure within that community. (Willis Ryder Arnold)

Abuse of Weakness

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France, 2013, 105 min., French

Feature | Director Catherine Breillat
Nov. 15  9:25 p.m. | Plaza Frontenac Cinema
Nov. 16 9 p.m. | Plaza Frontenac Cinema

“It was me; it wasn’t me.” That’s how filmmaker Maud Shainberg (the brilliant and icy Isabelle Huppert) calmly and matter of factly explains to her adult children how she let herself be swindled out of her fortune by a con man.

And, indeed, Maud has practically invited Vilko (the menacing Kool Shen) to be her Svengali. Recovering from a debilitating stroke, Maud first sees Vilko on TV, plugging his autobiography glamorizing his life as a swindler. Fascinated, she asks him to star in her next movie, a film about a rich actress in love with a lower-class thug who abuses and debases her. The movie isn’t made, but Maud herself travels a similar downward spiral, even as Vilko teases her about becoming her slave as he asks for another check.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the film’s cool and dispassionate tone, it builds in power and horror. One can hardly believe that a woman as sophisticated and worldly as Maud could be manipulated so easily -- until you learn that “Abuse of Weakness” is a thinly veiled account of an incident in director Breillat’s real life. (Susan Hegger)

Walking Man

Credit website

U.S. 2014, 68 min.

Documentary | Director Josh Salzberg
Nov. 17, 5 p.m. | The Tivoli

When Mark Norwine of St. Charles heard that three high school students in St. Clair in Franklin County had committed suicide, he knew he wanted to do something to bring attention to the problem of teen depression. A former teacher, he too had tried to kill himself as he dealt with decades of bipolar disease.

To dramatize support for the problem, and spread the message that talking about mental health and issues like bullying are the best way to fight back, Norwine decided to walk the Katy Trail, 200 miles from Kansas City to Creve Coeur Park, in 15 days in the spring of 2013. His son, Eric, joined him for most of the trip. The result is “Walking Man,” which Eric produced after graduating from USC film school. It shows the pair getting to know each other, with Mark talking about frankly about how his mental illness made his life unbearable and Eric disclosing to the world that he too has been diagnosed as bipolar.

Director Josh Salzberg skillfully intercuts their candid discussions with narrative from Mark’s wife as well as news coverage of his walk and school assemblies where Mark gives his pitch for compassion and understanding, followed by one-on-one meetings with students. And there are a lot of shots of feet — walking feet, sore feet, blisters — that help bring home the basic message that medication and other treatment may not be able to cure mental illness on their own, but reaching out is a good start, and no one does it alone. The film is free. (Dale Singer)

Honey

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Italy, 2013, 96 min

Director: Valeria Golino
Nov. 18 7 p.m., Nov. 20 4:45 p.m. | Plaza Frontenac Cinema

“Honey” examines the life of a young woman named Irene who travels internationally to help terminally ill patients end their lives. The story unfolds slowly, giving the viewer a chance to get acquainted with the ritual of death the main character brings before complicating the story.

The film is wonderfully wrought. Shots are intentional but not heavy handed. The pacing is deliberate, slower than a blockbuster or romantic comedy, but never glacial. The weight of the subject matter is occasionally disrupted with moments of wry humor as when Irene walks through a cloud of adolescent dancers in tutus on her way to administer a lethal dose of barbiturates.

Throughout the film, we see Irene running on treadmills, swimming in the ocean, biking through the city. In another movie these shots could be filler, but in “Honey,” Irene’s embrace of her young physicality contrasts with the wasting bodies of the people she helps to end their lives.

Irene’s patterns are interrupted with the appearance of a single middle-aged male patient who requests to administer the life-ending drugs himself. He doesn’t suffer from a terminal illness, and the request conflicts with Irene’s personal ethics about her work.

For the past month news outlets featured Brittany Maynard, a 29 year old with terminal brain cancer who moved to Portland, Ore., so she would end her life when she chose. ”Honey” gives viewers a chance to examine that choice, for the terminally ill and not, through the perspective of the person assisting in the suicide. (Willis Ryder Arnold)

Advanced Style

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U.S., 2014, 72 minutes

Director: Lina Plioplyte
Nov. 18, noon | Plaza Frontenac Cinema

Blogger Ari Seth Cohen is obsessed with older women.

It all started with a fondness for his grandmothers but now he’s after women on the street. With his camera, Cohen scours New York City for fashionable women older than 50. Some are way over 50, a few are older than 100.

What started as a blog became a book and then this movie.

The film is honest and sweet, but never cloying. Audiences will meet Jacquie, an original Apollo Theatre dancer, who’s 81 and still has the moves. They’ll get to know 93-year-old Ilona, who’s still teaching art and also practicing the art of fashion. They’ll be treated to a couple of cameos of fabled interior designer Iris Apfel .

But most of all, they’ll come away with a growing sense that old age doesn’t have to go out of style. (Nancy Fowler)

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night 

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Iran, 2014, 99 min., Farsi

Feature | Director Ana Lily Amirpour
Nov. 18, 7:05 p.m. | Tivoli Theatre

In Bad City, a grim Iranian outpost, no one has much of a reason to live. They are deadened by addiction, prostitution, alienation and a pervasive melancholia. That may be why no one sees anything strange in the young Iranian woman shrouded in her chador who glides along the streets at night. She’s a vampire — and avenging angel.

In this bleak world, two lost souls do find a kind of strange connection. In a poignantly humorous scene, the girl out at night comes across a handsome young man, high on Ecstasy, and decked out in his Dracula costume. “You’re cold,” he says after he touches her skin and then envelopes her in his cape to try to warm her.

Shot in an expressionist black and white, and set mostly at night, “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” may be one of the most unusual vampire films ever — vaguely sad where the lust for life seems to have been extinguished in both the living and the undead.  (Susan Hegger)

I’m Not Racist … am I?

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U.S., 2014, 90 min.

Documentary | Director Catherine Wigginton Greene
Nov. 19, 7:30 p.m. | St. Louis University
Nov. 20, 7 p.m. | Tivoli Theatre

Before she entered the “Deconstructing Race” program, Martha had it all figured out. “I thought I knew everything because I’m a white girl who lives in Harlem.”

But as the film “I’m Not Racist … Am I?” reveals, Martha’s in for a big awakening, as are the other New York City-area participants including African-American teens like Kahleek, who sadly acknowledges that “Everyone expects me to be violent.”

If the problem is diagnosed simply as “individual racism,” then the solution is that “everyone needs to be nice to each other.” But it’s much deeper than that, the film explains. It’s about collective power, woven tightly into the institutional fabric of America. And so the answer is much more complex.

Both showings are free, as part of the festival’s “Race in America: The Black Experience” program. (Nancy Fowler)

The Age of Love

Credit website

U.S., 2014, 78 min.

Documentary | Director Steven Loring
Nov. 19, at noon | Plaza Frontenac

Director Steven Loring chose a very appropriate old-time song to be played at intervals during his poignant look at speed dating for the 70-to-90 age bracket: “Taking a Chance on Love.”

The men and women who show up at Mario’s restaurant in Rochester, N.Y., for five-minute sessions with strangers before the men move on to the next table, are ready to take that chance. They’re world travelers, champion body builders and folks with more ordinary backgrounds who don’t necessarily like getting older but definitely don’t want to spend their time alone. As one of them puts it: “Everybody needs somebody in this world.”

Whether any of them will find that special someone gives “The Age of Love” a narrative thread and a bit of suspense that makes it more than just a glimpse of what speed dating at an advanced age is like. Will anyone be matched up with the person they found interesting? If they do get together again, will the pairing take root or just fizzle? Will the women find that “hot sexy guy” that one of them hopes is a possibility? How many dates should they have before they wind up in the bedroom? Most participants signed up with realistic expectations – “I didn’t go into this expecting to find Prince Charming on a white horse,” one woman says – but no matter how their experience comes out, Loring’s portrayal of older hopefuls using a new style of dating is worth viewing, by anyone at any age. (Dale Singer)

Beginning With the End

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U.S., 2014, 64 min.
Documentary | Director David B. Marshall
Nov. 19 6:45 p.m. | Plaza Frontenac Cinema

If you want to see another side of the millennial generation than the typical characterizations of a self- and technology-obsessed youth, watch the documentary "Beginning With the End." 

The film's central juxtaposition is a group of high school students taking a class on hospice care and volunteering to care for the dying. The end-of-life subject matter naturally offers an emotional ride (Warning: you may only get about six minutes in before the room starts to get dusty). Viewers are immediately connected to these everyday young people, voyeuristically sitting in on their first intense classes, in which students share their own stories of loss, and, later, as they start their first, nervous shifts.

But what's surprising is that, rather than playing for trite profundity, the film shows a real sweetness and offers rare, lovely glimpses of human connection. The viewer gets a wonderful treat in watching young hands that might otherwise be engaged in texting gently rubbing patients' feet or applying lotion. But of course, neither the students, the patients nor the viewer can forget the limited time frame on which these relationship will unfold. But the film shines in exploring how these students confront our death-averse, youth-obsessed culture and grow in a way comfortable with that insecurity, enjoying what time they have with the patients. As one young man says, “They are going to be here for a short time. As long as they are here, they are going to be with you, and if they are not here, that’s it. It’s going to be very hard, but you will find a way to deal with it.”

At a scant 60 minutes, the film leaves the viewer to ask the "big questions" and instead focuses on capturing the grace in these small, shared moments and the subtle changes they make in the young protagonists. 

I Believe in Unicorns

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U.S., 2014, 80 min.

Feature | Director Leah Meyerhoff
Nov. 21, 7:15 p.m. | Tivoli Theatre

“I Believe in Unicorns” attempts to tackle the concerns of suburban ennui and coping with disability through a variety of film techniques. The film chronicles the exploits of an introverted suburban girl who escapes her frustration with adolescence and her mother’s illness through her imagination and first romantic entanglement.

Director Leah Meyerhoff follows in the footsteps of Michele Gondry’s 2006 film, “The Science of Sleep,” using stop motion and homemade props to illustrate the main character’s daydream world. The technique is intermittently successful and cloying. Meyerhoff finds more consistent success creating the feeling of disassociated adolescence through a technique of editing dialogue over nonverbal images.

The film is whimsical and dark, pointing to the impulses and unique trauma of American adolescence characterized by Southern California’ skate parks and palm trees. The romantic love interest is punk, interested in skating and underage drinking. He drives a car at least two decades old. Davina’s gifted a polaroid by her friend who is the “only one” to remember Davina’s birthday. But too often the film becomes mired in succ tropes instead of transcending them.

These characters have appeared in other forms, especially in indie teen dramas. Viewers are left unsure whether characters are intended to be a little flat in order to appeal to anyone who’s been a teenager in the ‘80s, ‘90s, or aughts. The film grows stronger when it leans into darker impulses. The films depiction of awkward oral sex and the slide into an increasingly abusive relationship likely mirror the experience of many American teens. The film is a solid depiction of a desperation to discover new experiences that lead to larger consequences than we’d ever expect. (Willis Ryder Arnold)

Rubber Soul

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U.S., 2014, 84 min

Documentary | Director Jon Lefkovitz
Nov. 22 4 p.m. | KDHX

It's a documentary, but you are not seeing John Lennon or Yoko Ono or the two journalists who interviewed them 10 years apart. But you are hearing the words. And the words tell what Lennon himself says: Ask him the same question another time and you might or might not get the same answer.

Director Lefkovitz took the words from interviews done for Rolling Stone and Playboy and cut between a Lennon who had aged and mellowed. The variations in the way he tells his own history is fascinating, and the anger over the way the boys treated Ono remains. Beatles' fans take note. (Donna Korando)

Also: David Edelstein talks about Foxcatcher on NPR. The film plays Nov. 14 at Plaza Frontenac.