The 26th Annual Whitaker Saint Louis International Film Festival kicks off Thursday night, November 2, and runs through Sunday, November 12. As always, the Festival presents an overwhelming feast of 372 films with 82 narrative features, 63 documentary ones, and 227 short films. What's particularly exciting is that the selections represent 64 countries.

Of particular note, four outstanding individuals will receive awards. They are: Pam Grier accepting a Women in Film Award at a tribute to her before a screening of Jackie Brown on Friday, November 3. She stars in Bad Grandmas, shot in St. Louis, which will open the festival Thursday, November 2, with a reception before the screening. 

Represented by Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me and ACORN and the Firestorm, Sam Pollard receives the Lifetime Achievement Award.

Marco Williams with Tell Them We Are Rising accepts the Contemporary Cinema Award and Dan Mirvish of Bernard and Huey the Charles Guggenheim Cinema St. Louis Award. All these awards and screenings of the awardees' films make the first weekend an exceptional one with incredible talent on display in person and on the screen. 

The first Sunday, I must recognize a sure-fire Academy Award contender I saw at Telluride's film festival: Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool. In a performance that merits an Oscar, Annette Bening plays Hollywood film noir star Gloria Grahame in her final days, with Jamie Bell in a marvelous supporting role and Julie Walters and Vanessa Redgrave. And there isn't a bad entry in the handful of documentary films I've also seen. 

To help with difficult choices, the schedule includes a listing of films in Chinese, Animation, American Indie, Human Rights, Women in Film, and Music categories. There's also a breakout calendar for Asian, Environmental, Eastern European, Middle Eastern, French, Spanish, and Italian films, among other categories such as Oscar contenders, the Interfaith competition, and master classes held during the festival as well. 

All foreign-language films have English subtitles. Venues include Landmark's Plaza Frontenac and Tivoli Cinemas, Webster University and Washington University, the Stage at KDHX, the Missouri History Museum, and more. Go to or call 314-289-4150 for a full schedule and event details.

The Coen Brothers' latest offering is complicated to say the least, unsubtle to say the most. Suburbicon floods blood. It pounds with violence. It exploits mid-century modern -- and a child actor. It disregards its effects, which may or may not have been the ones the bros had in mind. 

Suburbicon opens with an advertising brochure brought to filmic life to sell a suburb of pasty white people in ticky-tacky houses on a plat. Everything in mid-twentieth century looks so normal -- the finny cars are clean, lawns are push-mowed, and residents are white -- until the Myerses move in. The whites' reactions range from gossip to fencing to fires. That's the macrocosm. The microcosm is over at the Lodges' lodge where two thugs come into the house and chloroform its residents: the man of the house, his boy in crinkle-crepe PJs, a brunette, her blonde sister in a wheelchair, the man's wife. She was hurt in a car accident. She suffers more in the robbery.

The boy, played so attentively by Noah Jupe, watches all this. He also watches his father's betrayal and his father's fiddling around with his aunt, and his aunt's brother's attempts to love him. He is sent out to play catch with the new neighbor boy, whom he can track from his bedroom window. The boys represent, if the Coens can be parsed, the next generation, the one that comes after all the racists and sexists die off. That might be the message, but to get to it, viewers have to swim through the blood and the bombast.

George Clooney directs, very steadily, a pedestrian pace through fire to that idyllic end. As the lead actor -- not Clooney this time -- Matt Damon is robotic, which is the very character of the Dad as written by the Coens, Clooney, and Grant Heslov. Julianne Moore is mother and aunt. Suburbicon may be more than it seems -- or less. Discuss.


It is entirely possible that you've never heard of Chavela Vargas, but the excellent documentary, Chavela will introduce you to this remarkable woman. She sang, not like a bird but like the earth. She sang ranchera, literally "a farmer's song," but figuratively, songs of love and loss, lots of loss.

Chavela knew loss. She was born in 1919, but her parents did not love her. They hid their man-like daughter when company came. So she dreamed of leaving Costa Rica, the land of her birth. When she arrived in Mexico City, she found a welcoming place to sing, mostly in cabarets and bars. She became famous singing the songs of José Alfredo Jimenez. The two of them drank tequilas until Jimenez died of alcoholism.

Chavela's alcoholism drove her to poverty, more loneliness, and obscurity. When her lawyer and lover helped her to dry out, Chavela returned to singing to audiences swearing that she could not be on stage as the great Chavela had died, hadn't she?

Directors Catherine Fund and Daresha Kyi skillfully interwove newsreels and a long interview reel with interviews with the people in Chavela's world, including Jimenez's son. Frida Kahlo, her eyebrows a swallow and her breast bared, appears in old forties' home movies as a lover of Chavela's. The director Pedro Almodovar appears as the fan who applied Chavela's singing to the background of his early films and promoted her longed-for concert at the Olympia in Paris. She called him her husband.

Chavela tells the story of a strong, serious singer, a macha in a macho society. She sang not, as one interviewee declares, like a "little fountain." On stage, she draped her body in a serape, the same garment that cloaked her coffin in 2012.


Imagine being the very alive child known to hundreds, yea, thousands of children as the main character in books written by your very own father. Such was the life of the real Christopher Robin. The stories by A.A. Milne began in 1925 with "The Wrong Sort of Bees" and included "Winnie-the-Pooh" and "Now We Are Six."

Milne returned from Great War broken in pieces, no longer able to write the frothy plays from his antebellum days. His shell shock made him short-tempered and unfocused. His wife Daphne wanted the high life of London, but Alan wanted the quiet of the country. She went to The City and he stayed home -- with his boy, whom he barely knew. During that motherless time, Milne came to know his son, baptized as Christopher Robin but called Billy Moon from a mispronunciation of his last name. And during that time, Milne, with his friend, the illustrator Ernest Shepard, developed the Christopher Robin stories with Pooh and Roo and Tigger. The film's valedictory title holds great truth to this story.

Domhall Gleeson plays Milne with all the complexity and confusion inherent in the walking wounded and the artist. He's scary and believable. Margo Robbie plays Daphne, the flibbertigibbet wife, and the fine actress Kelly MacDonald plays Billy's nanny. Two actors portray Christopher Robin. Will Tilston pulls heart-strings as the 8-year-old, and Alex Lawther is so terribly real as the betrayed lad who comes late to understand what Christopher Robin means. Incidentally, Christopher Milne never took a cent from the tremendous sales of these books.

Among the great successes of this film is the production design by David Roger, a cottage appeal to all Anglophiles. Under the direction of Simon Curtis, Goodbye Christopher Robin plays on heartfelt sentiments without sinking to the sentimental.


Director Sean Baker's film The Florida Project exposes the chaotic, unsettling world of the hidden homeless, that is, those families, usually with one parent, living week to week in budget motels. That's where six-year-old Moonee, her mother Halley, motel manager Bobby, and several of Moonee's friends live. Over the course of a summer, life is rowdy, joyful and increasingly distressing. 

The title The Florida Project comes from Walt Disney's working name for EPCOT which he envisioned as a utopian world. But right down the road from Orlando's Disney World, along Highway 192, run-down motels house numerous children. Ironically, what once passed for tourist housing still bears fanciful names and vibrant colors; for example, Moonee's home is a flamboyantly purple place called the Magic Castle.    

From the child's perspective from which the film unfolds, many of the days are magical as the young girls and boys run wild, absent adult supervision beyond periodic intervention by Bobby. When around, Moonee's mother adds to the mayhem. Director/co-writer Baker says he likes to describe his and co-writer Chris Bergoch's project as "a modern day 'Our Gang aka The Little Rascals.'" It also focused on children's adventures against a backdrop of poverty. 

The plot consists of loosely linked events in Moonee's days, full of wildly energetic play, with the camera adding momentum as it races to keep up with the children or to track alongside them. Cinematographer Alexis Zabé's color scheme adds even more energy with an aesthetic he calls "blueberry ice cream with a sour twist." That sour twist comes from the adult world that inevitably intrudes, through a pedophile who ambles in, the security guard who runs Halley away from the nice hotel where she's hawking perfume at a discount, or the investigators after Halley steals from one of her Johns. Fantasy can be indulged only so long before the real world insists on attention.

Superb acting by the children, Bria Vinatie as Halley, and a terrific Willem Dafoe as Bobby makes a difficult film engaging. It takes courage to present this tragic struggle with poverty -- and some fortitude for the audience to confront it. At Landmark's Tivoli and Plaza Frontenac cinemas.

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