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25 micro reviews for 25 years of the St. Louis International Film Fest

War without the gore, self-help gurus who can’t seem to help themselves, take-downs of late-stage capitalism, and a buddy movie about a duck that might make you run for the nearest tissue.  From domestic films to foreign films, features and documentaries, the St. Louis International Film Festival has something for just about everyone's taste.

For the St. Louis International Film Fest,  which starts with an opening reception Thursday evening, St. Louis Public Radio is bringing you our take on 25 key films.


American Zealot (89 min) | Narrative

Director: James Mackenzie

Showtime: 3 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 13 | Tivoli Theatre

It’s a philosophical prompt we’ve all heard before: a train is coming and there are two tracks it could take: One would kill all five train passengers and the other would kill a stray hiker on the tracks. Which would you choose? That question fixates and obsesses a devout Catholic schoolgirl as she tries to write her valedictorian essay and, at the same time, grapple with the news of her best friend’s abortion. Her obsession leads her on a mission to kill her friend’s abortion doctor. The writing is a bit clunky with this one and the dialogue struggles to sound realistic, but the central concept lingers: What do you do when abiding by stringent, religious morality leads you down an altogether different path of sin? Which is less righteous? An important question to ponder in today’s world.

— Kelly Moffitt

Autumn Fall (98 min) | Narrative (Norway)
Director: Jan Vardøen

Showtimes: 8:45 p.m., Monday, Nov. 7 ; 4 p.m., Tues., Nov. 8 | Plaza Frontenac Cinema

An intimate introduction to Oslo in the fall, this Norwegian film from writer/director Jar Vardoen breathes the intimacy, mystery and dark humor of the season. While the story may seem overdone at first — a young lighting technician at the National Theatre falls for a washed-up, older, well-known star of the stage with a drinking problem — the characters are warm and funny. There are some truly laugh-out-loud moments and some poignant ones that will remind you of that crossroads in your life when some of your worst decisions were also your best ones.

— Kelly Moffitt

Birds of Passage (84 min) | Narrative (France)

Director: Olivier Ringer

Showtime:  1 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 13 | Brown Hall at Washington University

A girl named Cathy is given an egg to hatch, but the little duck imprints on the first thing he sees: her best friend, Margaux. But Margaux’s movement is limited due to a muscle illness, and her parents refuse to let her keep it. Instead, they send the duck to a farm that produces pâté. So the girls take the duck and run away to find “bird paradise,” sleeping along riverbeds and dodging a rescue mission sent to find them. This pensive, French-Belgian film acts as a buddy movie for young girls. But it might make you cry.

— Durrie Bouscaren

Blush (81 min) |Narrative (Israel)

Director:  Michal Vinik

Showtimes: 5 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 8; 1:30 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 13 | Hi-Pointe Backlot

If you like coming of age movies about discontented teens who have difficult relationships with their parents and then fall under the influence of someone with questionable moral character, then maybe you’ll like "Blush." But if you want a coming of age film where you can actually understand why the teenage main character has a difficult relationship with her parents or why she feels out of place in her social circles, then you probably don’t want to waste your time. It’s a shame that this film was so unfulfilling. The actress who plays the protagonist, Naama, is engaging to watch, but there is no clear explanation for why she is so discontent. Are her parents abusive? No. Is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict weighing on her? Not really. Is she friendless? Not at all. In the end, I think this film was an excuse for the filmmaker to have a few titillating lesbian kissing scenes at the expense of any real plot or character development.

— Shula Neuman

Demimonde (Felvilag) (88 min) | Narrative (Hungary)

Director: Attila Szász

Showtimes: 7 p.m., Friday, Nov. 4; 9 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 9 | Hi-Pointe Backlot

Film noir may describe a genre of film that is laden with menace, but this goes beyond that to having lighting that is flat out dark. The film begins with the discovery of a murdered courtesan. But then it flashes back four days, compressing her loves and passions into a tight frame. Viewers can fill in the gaps with their own imagination, which is especially needed to try to understand the young housemaid through whom much of the story is told.

— Donna Korando

Despite the Falling Snow (94 min) | Narrative (Canada & Serbia/Montenegro)
Director: Shamim Sarif

Showtime: 5:45 p.m., Monday, Nov. 12 | Tivoli Theatre

Onerous is the word that jumps to mind after watching “Despite the Falling Snow.” This Cold War genre film is hefty and overwrought. But it also manages to remain deeply unsurprising, even with all the spies and intrigue. Set in Moscow, a female spy for the other side sets out to steal secrets from a Russian diplomat but makes the mistake of (agh!) falling in love with him. The film may only run an hour and 30 minutes, but 10 minutes of painful color grading, teary eyes and slowly-falling snowflakes will cover you for life. Perhaps the highlight of this one was seeing Charles Dance come back to life after his turn as Tywin Lannister in “Game of Thrones,” but even that is a stretch.

— Kelly Moffitt

Home Care (92 min) | Narrative (Czeck Republic & Slovakia)
Director: Slávek Horák

Showtimes: 4:30 p.m., Monday, Nov. 7 ; 2:15  p.m., Thursday, Nov. 10 | Plaza Frontenac Cinema

What happens when someone who devotes her life to taking care of other people needs to be cared for herself? That’s the premise of "Home Care," a melancholy and touching movie from the Czech Republic. The main character, Vlasta, travels the countryside caring for chronically ill people. She loves her husband, even though he’s a bit of a brute, and her adult daughter, who doesn’t quite love her back. When Vlasta is diagnosed with cancer, she seeks guidance from alternative medicine — which  works. Kind of. The movie isn’t perfect, but its portrayal of the complicated relationships between family and friends is refreshingly realistic. And, even though the final scene is one of those clichés where the family overcomes their mixed emotions to come together for a romping party, it doesn’t leave you feeling as if all is right in the world and all their difficulties have been overcome.

— Shula Neuman

House of Time (86 min) | Narrative (France)

Director: Jonathan Helpert

Showtimes: 5:15 p.m., Friday, Nov. 4 and 8:30 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 5 | Plaza Frontenac Cinema

This film is billed as comedy, science fiction, and thriller, and if you find that group of descriptors an odd and confusing mix, you’ll likely find the movie fulfills expectations. It begins with an eccentric (scientist?) gathering several acquaintances together at his stately mansion in order to travel back in time to 1944 and German-occupied France. The movie’s central tension stems from the characters continual question “is it real or an elaborate staging?” as they seem pulled ever deeper into the local conflicts arising from WWII.  It’s somewhat interesting to ponder one’s own hypothetical reaction as you watch characters try to talk themselves in and out of believing in time travel, but any ability to lose oneself in the plot is undercut by a film shot like a mix of A Very Long Engagement, Suspira, and Clue.

— Willis Ryder Arnold

How to Tell You're a Douchebag (80 min) | Narrative    

Director: Tahir Jetter

Showtime: 7 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. | Tivoli Theatre

Look in the mirror. That’s how to tell you’re a douchebag. And you’re probably a blogger. That’s what we’re lead to believe as we watch Ray Livingston, ostensibly recovering from a broken heart by being a jerk to as many one-night stands and side chicks as possible. As in most romantic comedies, Ray meets his match in a woman who’s as attractive as he is — and more successful. But unlike other rom-coms, the upwardly mobile African-Americans in this film bring race, class and gender baggage that’s thoughtful but also amusing. How to Tell You’re a Douchebag is a coming-of-age story for 20-somethings and a missed opportunity love story for us all.

— Kimberly Springer

Neither Heaven Nor Earth (100 min) | Narrative (France)
Director: Clément Cogitore

Showtimes: 2 p.m., Friday, Nov. 4; 8:45 p.m., Monday, Nov. 7 | Plaza Frontenac Cinema

"Neither Heaven Nor Earth" turns the unexplained disappearance of soldiers stationed in a remote Afghan valley into an ethereal meditation on the real life horrors and tensions of war. Director Clément Cogitore, 33, and his crew accomplish this feat by appealing to the basic human fear of the unknown. The film supplants the crude blood and explosions of most contemporary war movies with character’s palpable anxiety and an obsessive inability to reckon with the loss of comrades.  The viewer is left with the inescapable truth that all sides of a war are equally damned. The haunting success of the movie could only be improved by an additional trip through the editing process as some unnecessary shots extend certain scenes past the point of interest.

— Willis Ryder Arnold

No Good Heroes (91 min) | Narrative

Director: Johnny Xeno

Showtimes: 9:30 p.m., Friday, Nov. 4 |Tivoli Theatre

No Good Heroes is kind of warped morality play masquerading as an alien encounters movie. After an initially violent encounter, a young Wyatt befriends a group of pacifist aliens. Later he becomes head of the local police department and self-appointed protector of the aliens. Throughout the film the aliens and Wyatt must reckon with the terms of their relationship as external pressures force all parties to abandon their previous “heroic” behavior. Although predictable, the film tries to provoke viewers into question what are “good” and “bad” decisions made by each character when pushed into a corner.   

— Willis Ryder Arnold

Old Stone (80 min) | Narrative (China & Canada)

Director: Johnny Ma

Showtimes: 6:45 p.m., Monday, Nov. 7 ; 2:10 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 8 | Plaza Frontenac Cinema

In Old Stone, a taxi driver hits a motorcyclist, brings him to the hospital, and becomes liable for the injured man’s hospital fees — which in turn threaten to swallow the driver’s savings. While attempting to engage insurance companies, his own employer, family and friends, the main character encounters bureaucratic roadblock after roadblock that keep him from moving out from under colossal debt. Through simple shots, excellent acting, and a growing escalating atmosphere of doom, the crew and first-time director Johnny Ma highlight the compounding anxiety that can drive a person to consider solving the problem of an accident through an intentionally extreme act.  Although the film is fiction, it explores a pathos symptomatic of real-life Chinese society.

— Willis Ryder Arnold

The Holly Kane Experiment (103 min) | Narrative  

Director: Tom Sands

Showtime: 9:30 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 8 | Tivoli Theatre

Pretty quickly into the action of "The Holly Kane Experiment," you’ll agree with Holly Kane’s best friend when she says, “You’ve got to learn to chill out, Holly.” But it’s hard for Holly. She’s a psychologist attempting to recuperate the reputation of mind-control by using herself as guinea pig. A history of family mental illness, a creepy benefactor, and an ill-advised dating situation with a security analyst make Holly Kane’s life far from chill. Despite some attempts at technical gee whizzery, most of the time "The Holly Kane Experiment" is a boring Jason Bourne film set by the English seaside.

— Kimberly Springer

The Measure of a Man (93 min) | Narrative (France)

Director: Stéphane Brizé

Showtimes: 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 8; 5 p.m., Friday, Nov. 11 | Tivoli Theatre

"Measure of a Man" is excruciating if you’ve experienced being laid off or know someone who has been sacked. The indignities of state-mandated “job training” and critiques of one’s presentation style after being a worker for 25-plus years are written all over our protagonist’s face. Theirry Taugourdeau (Vincent Lindon) has been laid off for several months, but is still trying to find a job equivalent to the machinist work he’s lost. We spend several days with Theirry as he talks with job guidance counselors and loan officers who ask intrusive questions and make daft suggestions about how to keep his head above water. Theirry pushes back against a level of surveillance and chastisement only possible in late-stage capitalism. At the same time, we see Theirry enacting the same types of behaviors in his position as a loss prevention officer at a grocery store against shoplifters and his own co-workers. The film’s saving graces are moments we see Theirry, his wife and his son, who is developmentally disabled but an aspiring engineer, continuing to be a family despite their financial circumstances. The man is he when no one is watching is the same one who still wants to work and provide for his family.

— Kimberly Springer


#Sugarwater (55 min) | Documentary (England)
Director: Jo Lewis, 2016

Showtime: 1 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 5 | Hi-Pointe Backlot

For the first time in its 35-year existence, the Graeae Theatre Company launched an accessible performance at London’s National Theatre.  This worthwhile documentary teases apart the intricacies of balancing creativity and access for performers and theater-goers. Set against the backdrop of the U.K.’s austerity cuts to Independent Living and Access to Work funds for people with disabilities, the play’s staging is a statement about the importance of increasing the visibility of disabled actors on stage. Once you remove the barriers to access, what does it mean to create theater that resonates with our emotional and psychic experiences?  "#Sugarwater" also shines a light on the importance of providing opportunities for disabled theater patrons to see works produced by one of the most accomplished theater scenes in the world.

— Kimberly Springer

A Family Affair (116 min) | Documentary

Director: Tom Fassaert

Showtime: 3:30 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 6 | Hi-Pointe Backlot

Docs with a big reveal always manage to catch me by surprise. But why shouldn’t life be as full of secrets and weird, weird twists as dramas or thrillers? Marianne Hertz was a fabulously famous fashion model in the Netherlands in the 1950s. At 95 she’s still fabulous and fashionable, but she’s also feeling like the end is near. Hertz wants to say goodbye to her family — most of whom want nothing to do with her. "A Family Affair" wants to find out why everyone is so angry with this largely absent matriarch and why she left everyone she was supposed to care for in another country while she pursued a career. There’s plenty to take in: a possible narcissistic personality disorder, abandonment issues, the sexism inherent in assuming that all women want to be mothers, and misguided unrequited love.

— Kimberly Springer

Bang! The Bert Berns Story (95 min) | Documentary
Director: Bob Sarles & Brett Berns

Showtime: 6 p.m., Saturday Nov. 12 | Stage at KDHX

I wondered as I watched this how many people who really knew music — Dan Durchholz or Steve Pick, say? — would find as many interesting nuggets in this film about a songwriter and record producer from the 1960s as I did. The promo photo features Neil Diamond, and that part of the Berns’ story showed off the producer’s brilliance and his underworld connections. That one of the directors is Bert Berns’ son may explain why the latter is treated carefully. And the family tie may explain the over-long attention to the early years before “A Little Bit of Soap” washed away any self doubt. Diamond isn’t heard from, but another discovery, Van Morrison, is. Also adding praise are Solomon Burke (in archival footage) and Keith Richards, whose recordings of Berns’ “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” are both memorable. The film leaves little doubt that Berns, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, deserved the honor.

— Donna Korando

Bob’s Tour: Understanding What We See (79 min) | Documentary

Director: Jun Bae

Showtime: 4 p.m., Saturday Nov. 5 | Brown Hall at Washington University

The blurb on the SLIFF website says Bob Hansman is “a beloved architecture professor” at Washington University. That’s true, but it’s not nearly enough. Hansman is a walking, talking passionate advocate for fixing St. Louis and its divides. He’s a cancer survivor and father of a young man who asked the then-artist to adopt him. His church is in the shadow of the Pruitt-Igoe site. All of this personal information is shared with his students who are challenged to make relationships with people out of their comfort zone and to listen. People from throughout the area would be well served to see this film and be prompted to learn even more about Mill Creek Valley or Rodney McAllister or the lasting damage of the city’s divorce from St. Louis County.

— Donna Korando

Bogdan’s Journey (90 min) | Documentary (Poland & U.S.)
Director: Michal Jaskulski & Lawrence Loewinger

Showtime: 3 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 13 | Missouri History Museum

This documentary runs with the pacing of a feature film. The cinematography and editing are superb. But technical excellence merely serves as a platform upon which to build a story that needs to be heard today: how to approach dialogue, guilt, forgiveness and reconciliation when our hackles are immediately raised in defense of our ancestors’ actions. "Bogdan’s Journey" follows a Christian resident of Kielce, Poland, as he tries to uncover the truth about an ugly part of Kielce’s history. In 1946, a year after the end of World War II, Polish soldiers, police and civilians undertook a pogrom against Jewish refugees living in the city, killing 42 Jews and wounding more than 40 others. During communist times, the crime was never spoken of. The film delves into central questions with a patient and tolerant brush: How rampant was and is Polish anti-Semitism and who should bear the guilt of it today? While the answer is anything but simple, it teaches an important question about how other countries with a history of ethnic and racial violence could approach the conversation. Very moving. A must-see.

— Kelly Moffitt

Enlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray (93 min) | Documentary    

Director: Jenny Carchman

Showtime: 3 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 5  | .ZACK

In the pantheon of fallen hero documentaries — "The Armstrong Lie" and "Weiner" — none should be asking for forgiveness from the people he hurt more than self-help James Arthur Ray. But if that’s why you’re watching this documentary, you’ll be waiting quite a while. Because an apology never comes. Ray sticks to his hagiography, which is probably why he was an immensely successful motivational speaker of The Secret ilk. That is until three people died, and 18 others were hospitalized,  in a pseudo-sweat lodge made out of old sleeping bags in the desert near Sedona, Arizona. When the filmmaker asks Ray, “Where are we and what’s the situation here?” Ray launches into an explanation of why they’re standing in his dream home and how painful the process of liquidation is ... for him. Ray’s unrepentance is as infuriating as the brazen cultural appropriation on which he built his empire, and that eventually led to his (short) imprisonment and downfall.

— Kimberly Springer

Feral Love (71 min) | Documentary

Director: Markie Hancock

Showtime: 7:30 p.m., Friday, Nov. 11 | Moore Auditorium, Webster University

The idea of crazy cat lady by day and accomplished classical musician by night appealed to me on its face. But this goes deeper, back to a demanding childhood in a small Oklahoma town, up to unconditional love — slowly given — by cats. The feral animals we meet are a pair of older felines whose perilous existence is threatened by an extremely cold winter and an upcoming concert tour. Violist Dorian Rence succeeds in capturing them and doing what her conscience commits her to do: Once you’ve named an animal you’ve assumed a responsibility for it. We learn of a more abiding commitment as well.

— Donna Korando

Men in the Arena (87 min)|Documentary (Kenya & Somalia & U.S.)
Director: J.R. Biersmith

Showtime: 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 12 | Brown Hall at Washington University

A true underdog story with a happy, local ending. This Kickstarter-funded documentary directed by St. Louis native J.R. Biersmith tracks the story of two Somali soccer stars trying to make it to the big time despite the looming threat of terrorist group Al-Shabab and without ever winning a game. It is a heartwarming story that both speaks to international power of soccer-as-language and brotherhood. Although the film is distracting with corollary information at some points, it also gives some much-need insight into the refugee plight of Somalis, the second largest group trying to make the deadly journey across the Mediterranean.

— Kelly Moffitt

Requiem for a Running Back (89 min) | Documentary

Director: Rebecca Carpenter

Showtime: 7:35 p.m. , Saturday Nov. 5 | Center for Global Citizenship at Saint Louis University

Earlier this year, the last group of retired players signed onto a so-called concussion agreement with the National Football League, which admitted no fault. The league did estimate, however, that 6,000 former players, or nearly three in 10, could develop Alzheimer's disease or moderate dementia. This film puts a personal face on that story. It’s set before the league acknowledged a connection between the assault on the brain that’s part of a hard-contact sport and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Lew Carpenter, a running back for the Green Bay Packers, had no record of ever having had a concussion. But then, players of his era (1953-1963) wouldn’t have admitted to one. Through the years, though, he grew increasingly unable to cope with family and domestic demands. His daughter, the film’s director, goes on a journey of discovery and finds many families who suffered worse collateral damage than hers because of football. And the players’ testimony is poignant. Mike Ditka’s reflection alone should make parents of prospective players think.

— Donna Korando

The Man Who Saw Too Much | Documentary  (Mexico)
Director: Trisha Ziff

Showtime: 3:30 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 12 | .ZACK

“Dismembered, burned, hung, chopped up, stabbed,” are just a few of the words you could use to describe the many bodies pictured printed in Mexico City’s La Prensa newspaper. The man behind the camera for many of these grisly images since the late 1940s becomes the focus of this thoughtfully framed documentary. Enrique Metinides has been capturing images of accidents — car crashes, crime scenes, natural disasters — since he was 9 years old. It’s an intimate look into the life of a man who witnessed and captured more tragedy in a single day of work than most people experience in a lifetime. Moving beyond the obvious questions of the mental and emotional taxes on a man who has “seen too much,” this film offers a dialogue about graphic imagery in news and what can be said about a country that chooses to hide or showcase its violence. Director Trisha Ziff brings audiences through Metinides’ haunting, elegant, and often bloody images in conversation with people who were there, fellow “accident photographers” — and one very large collection of lucky frogs.

— Jenny Simeone