The 25th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival runs Thursday, November 3 through Sunday, November 13 with 72 countries represented by 185 narrative and documentary features. There are 419 offerings including the short film programs with screenings of fiction and nonfiction, live action and animation selections at over a dozen St. Louis venues.
For those looking for particular themes or countries of origin, films are listed in the program and on-line under categories including: Asian, Eastern European, French and Italian groupings; the New Filmmakers Forum; a spotlight on women; an interfaith competition; an LGBTQ spotlight and one for Race in America: The Black Experience. The four-year initiative Mean Streets is represented with 15 programs, and the superb African-American director Charles Burnett will receive SLIFF's Lifetime Achievement Award with his To Sleep with Anger and Killer of Sheep screening. There are also special-event programs including master classes on documentary filmmaking and on screenwriting for independent film.
I have time to highlight only a few early standouts. From Guatemala, their 2015 submission for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, Ixcanul tells an anthropologically rich story of Mayan families, the teenage Maria in particular, working in the shadow of a volcano on a coffee plantation as she prepares for her wedding. Beautifully shot with local residents represented in the cast, the story gains momentum and tragic dimensions as it progresses. Equally immersed in its specific moment and based on a true story, The Fencer begins in the early 1950s in Estonia with Endel fleeing under a false identity from certain imprisonment if the Soviet police learn of his WWII military service. In an understated but intense series of events, Endel must decide if he'll support his students at a fencing competition in Leningrad.
Take note also of Manchester by the Sea, Demimonde, local video artist Van McElwee's program of shorts, and too much more to list. All foreign films are in the language of origin with English subtitles. For more complete information, including descriptions, trailers, show times, and ticket links for all the films, you may visit the website at: cinemastlouis.org.
Forget humming the song of the same name from "Hair," and start stamping your feet in the name of justice. That's what Dona Clara would do as she stands in front of her apartment building, defending it against developers, who want to raze it to build The Aquarius.
This is not the dawning of a new age for 65-year-old Clara but the knell of a golden age for the widow of 17 years. She raised her children in her apartment. She worked as a music critic from that building -- and music swirls throughout the film. She could swim in the ocean off the beach fronting her apartment. And she'll be darned if she's going to sell it to unscrupulous developers, who want to turn the two-story building into a skyscraper. They try to sweet talk her into something she knows is wrong.
The building stands in Recife, Brazil, the birthplace of the film's writer and director, Kleber Mendonça Filho. He has a bone to pick with authorities, and he does it with a fierceness befitting his protagonist.
Sonia Braga plays Clara. She covers a range from sweetly adoring gramma to tough momma with chiding children, from a political beast to a woman longing for physical love. Braga raises her voice as Clara rarely, so listen when she does.
Filho cleverly begins the story in 1980 at a birthday party to show that Clara's foremothers would have understood her politics and her perseverance and her sexiness. Filho's use of flashbacks for sex scenes is erotic and unexpected but meet and right especially contrasted with the developers' gaucheness. Aquarius has been controversial for sex and drugs and politics in Brazil and at the Cannes Film Festival.
With the film Certain Women director Kelly Reichardt proves again that she is as much a poet as a storyteller. What I mean is that Reichardt focuses not on events but on the minutiae of everyday life for her characters, here four carefully observed women. Some would argue that her minimalism lacks drama.
In fact, the intensity of Reichardt's scrutiny shows there is more going on in a glance, a slump of shoulders, or a transitory grimace than in all Hollywood's car chases and bomb blasts. The explosions here are emotional and implosive as the women suppress their overt reactions. The four individuals so introspectively captured share the small town of Belfry, Montana but only tangential personal connections. In a strong performance by Laura Dern, lawyer Laura Wells attempts to convince a workman's comp client that his appeals case is over. She treads a fine line between supportive and professional in a world steeped in sexism.
Laura has had an affair with Gina Lewis' husband though that's largely irrelevant to Gina's situation. As Gina, Michelle Williams wordlessly but profoundly registers the tensions among her, her husband and daughter as they work, quite symbolically, to construct a new home. The third act and the relationship most developed involves another lawyer, Beth Travis, who drives four hours each way from Livingston, Montana, to lecture a handful of teachers on education law. Jamie, an isolated woman who tends to horses on a local ranch, wanders in and returns repeatedly, enamored of Beth. The repressed interaction between Jamie (Lily Gladstone) and Beth (Kristen Stewart) is heartbreaking in its overwhelming longing.
Adapted by director and editor Reichardt from three Maile (My Lee) Meloy short stories, the film uses the stark Montana landscape to metaphorically express these isolated women's experiences. Details of dress and décor reinforce the psychological and physical attributes of their lives. Similarly, Jeff Grace's music, used sparingly but well, adds subtle texture to the mood.
Certain Women is a rarity in several respects. It is wholly Reichardt's vision with naturalistic acting that draws you into real lives. I wanted to follow them all and learn more from them even as they prompt insight into our own lives. It's quietly one of the best films of the year. At a Landmark Theatre.
The film simply titled Christine offers an absorbing, at times mesmerizing, and ultimately mystifying character study. How could anyone wholly explain Sarasota television reporter Christine Chubbuck's live, on-air suicide in 1974? But credit to director Antonio Campos who carefully charts the nooks and crannies of Christine's complex, troubled personality and Rebecca Hall in an Oscar worthy performance.
With Christine anchoring every scene with only a few exceptions, Hall must segue convincingly through vulnerability informed by determination, ambition struggling with paralyzing stress, and assertiveness undermined by self-criticism. Hall is pitch perfect: clashing with her unhelpful mother Peg with whom she still lives, arguing with TV station boss Mike who channels his own '70s sexism, attracted to on-air anchor George but incapable of relaxing with him, and cool to her colleague Jean who tries to show support. Hall's stiff body posture, slightly tense jawline, and arrhythmic delivery communicate one aspect of Christine's persona. This contrasts with the calm, relaxed, modulated verbal and nonverbal presentation when Christine performs with her hand puppets for children at local hospitals.
Through a 70s television monitor, director Campos introduces Christine, practicing and questioning her interview technique. And the demands of if-it-bleeds-it-leads journalism is never let off the hook as Christine argues for more than her human interest beat. As the station boss, Tracy Letts expresses a simmering and at times explosive frustration with Christine. Equally good are Michael C. Hall as TV anchor George, Maria Dizzia as colleague Jean, and J. Smith-Cameron as the mother. The art direction expresses Christine's demoralized moods with muted colors from costumes to surroundings.
Most important for this subject, Campos refuses to sensationalize the suicide, focusing instead on effecting an empathetic approach to Christine. He watches the reactions and ineffectiveness of everyone involved up to their shock at Christine's action. I thought of the disbelief and distress expressed repeatedly when individuals act out in violent ways. Christine sheds light on one such person without pretending we can ever quite understand. At Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Theatre.
Footnote: At the 2016 True/False Film Fest, director Robert Greene also took Christine Chubbuck's suicide as his subject matter. From another perspective, in Kate Plays Christine he investigates the event through Kate Lyn Sheil who is playing Christine Chubbuck in his film. Ethical concerns over dramatizing this event and the toll it takes for Sheil to play Christine add more layers to remembering such a horrific event as Chubbuck's suicide. Kate Plays Christine will screen at the St. Louis International Film Festival, held November 3 to 13.
At the center of the Swedish film A Man Called Ove is an unapologetic curmudgeon. He's gruff, uncooperative, even hostile. Moreover, at 59 years of age, forced into early retirement from his warehouse job of 43 years, Ove is not likely to change, nor does he for one second think he should.
Ove has decided it's time to exit this world to join his beloved, recently deceased wife Sonja, and so he plans his suicide, with interruptions from a new family moving into his housing complex, especially from the pregnant wife Parvaneh of Iranian descent. A bit reminiscent of Clint Eastwood's Walt Kowalski in "Gran Torino," Ove will predictably mellow but not before some amusing and sobering events unfold.
Faithfully adapted by director Hannes Holm from Fredrik Backman's hugely popular novel, A Man Called Ove stars Rolf Lassgård as Ove, a role he so perfectly embodies that, as was so often said about Spencer Tracy, it's impossible to see him acting. Director Holm wisely knows exactly where the interest and depths of emotion lie as he lets Ove physically and psychologically dominate the film, his personality driving the drama through every vertiginous twist and turn. We've probably all known someone like him, or, as the director Hannes Holm has written, perhaps, if we're honest, we recognize at least a bit of ourselves.
Unified in every element, all the location and art direction choices enhance the character study. For example, cinematographer Göran Hallberg shoots the film with an unobtrusive camera, that is, he avoids shots calling attention to themselves as opposed to serving the story. And what becomes clear as we come to know Ove is that we, certainly in his case, can't judge a book by its cover. As Ove's backstory unfolds, gradually revealed through nicely interspersed flashbacks, Ove becomes a much more complex and empathetic man than at first glance. In fact, we know this so often to be true as details of an individual's life explain behavior. Here we're greeted with a bracing series of revelations I won't reveal.
A Man Called Ove is Sweden's submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar and has already won Sweden's equivalent of our Academy Award for the film and for Rolf Lassgård as Best Actor, an honor he also won at Seattle's Film Festival. In Swedish with English subtitles, with an exclusive engagement at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Theatre.