2015 SLIFF Preview | Pete Timmermann

SLIFF 2015_poster-wide

It’s looking like a fun eleven days for St. Louis movie lovers.





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In the years I’m not able to attend the Cannes Film Festival, the day they announce their lineup is always one of the most heartbreaking ones of the year for me. I’m happy to know that these new movies from filmmakers I adore exist in the world, but it drives me crazy that I can’t see them in that lovely environment. Worse are the Asian films in any given year’s Cannes lineup, as they often take as much as two years from their Cannes premiere to the point where I can see them legally here in the U.S. I’m impatient!

This past May’s edition of Cannes was a superbummer on this account, as it featured new films from many Asian filmmakers I admire: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor (from Thailand), Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin (from Taiwan), Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart (from China), and Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Unimachi Diary (from Japan). Happily, two of those four films popped up on this year’s lineup for the Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival, and the two I was most anxious to see, no less: The Assassin and Cemetery of Splendor.

It probably comes as no surprise, then, that of the 26 films I’ve seen so far from the 2015 SLIFF lineup, The Assassin and Cemetery of Splendor are among my very favorites. The Assassin (11/13 Tivoli 7:30 p.m.), which won Hou the Best Director prize at Cannes, is about the slowest-paced action movie you’re likely to ever see. It’s a wuxia (a martial arts/swordplay movie set in historical China—think of it as something of an analogue to the Japanese samurai film), and, coming from Hou, who is known for loooong shots, many of which are very still, I expected it to eschew action altogether. There are actually some action scenes in The Assassin, and they’re surprisingly satisfying as such, but for the most part it’s the in-betweens that make the movie. It helps that he’s teaming with regular star Shu Qi (in her third feature with Hou, after 2001’s Millennium Mambo and 2005’s Three Times, the latter of which films I named the best film of the year upon its American release) and Chang Chen, Chinese superstars both, as well as his usual cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing, whom I’d rank as one of the best in the world. You won’t see a more aesthetically gorgeous movie this year than The Assassin.

Cemetery of Splendor (11/14 Frontenac 9:15 p.m.; 11/15 Frontenac 6:50 p.m.) is perhaps lesser Weerasethakul, but he’s one of those filmmakers who has so far never made a bad movie, so that means Cemetery is still a fantastic film all the same. (Like Hou, one of Weerasethakul’s previous features, 2010’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a SLIFF alumnus itself, was named the best film of the year by me when it was released.) If you’re well versed in Weerasethakul you’ll find Cemetery of Splendor to bear a closer similarity to Blissfully Yours or Syndromes and a Century than it does Uncle Boonmee or Tropical Malady. If you’re not versed in Weerasethakul, know that there is no analogue—he’s truly one of the best and most original film artists working right now.

Speaking of Cannes premieres from international filmmakers I love, SLIFF is hosting the first (and presumably only) 3-D screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s 2014 film Goodbye to Language (11/9 Hi-Pointe 7 p.m.), which film I drove to Iowa last year to see in 3-D on the big screen, after which it landed at #3 on my Best Films of 2014 list. Understand that, apart from being a new film from perhaps the greatest-ever filmmaker, this is a film that is not well represented if you just watch it in 2-D on Blu-ray later—seeing on the big screen is a major experience, and one that is not to be missed.


Alongside Godard, many titans of the history of cinema are represented in some form in this year’s festival. Both EadweardMuybridge and Sergei Eisenstein have biopics devoted to them, in Eadweard (11/11 Frontenac 2 p.m.; 11/12 Frontenac 7 p.m.) and Eisenstein in Guanajuato (11/11 Frontenac 2:35 p.m.; 11/13 Frontenac 9:20 p.m.), respectively. Eadweard, about the man whose series photography was a direct ancestor of film technology, is one of the worst films I screened—dopey, poorly acted, irritating. Eisenstein, however, from director Peter Greenaway (The Thief, the Cook, His Wife & Her Lover), is just gonzo enough to drive into your memory pretty hard. It’s super penisy (if you ever wanted to see Eisenstein have fairly graphic sex, this is your film), and also has the benefit of featuring some of Eisenstein’s more advanced methods of montage. Elsewhere we have more staid pictures like Hitchcock/Truffaut (11/10 Webster U/Moore 7 p.m.; part of a double feature with my favorite Hitchcock film, 1946’s Notorious), a documentary ostensibly on the book of that title but more about simply Hitchcock himself, and is agreeable in the exact way you’d expect it to be. Another double feature of classic cinema is the Tod Browning tribute featuring The Unknown and Freaks (11/13 Webster U/Moore 7:30 p.m.), with The Unknown being projected from a 35mm print and featuring live music from the Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra. (The Unknown is a silent film; Freaks is not.) And we have Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (11/15 Hi-Pointe Backlot 4 p.m.), which I sadly was not able to catch up with before press time.

We have late movies from two recently-departed, hugely important documentary filmmakers: Albert Maysles (et al.)’s In Transit and Les Blank (et al)’s How to Smell a Rose, also playing as a double feature (11/11 Webster U/Moore 8:15 p.m.). Both Maysles and Blank came to SLIFF in the past decade, and both have died in the past year. So if you’re a major documenatarian, be afraid to visit St. Louis. If you’re a St. Louisan, go running to the Maysles/Blank double feature—both films are good, with In Transit, a film following people traveling Amtrak’s Empire Builder train from Portland to Chicago, being a particular gem of the festival.

Most of the films I pre-screened from SLIFF 2015 were documentaries, actually, and almost all of them are at least pretty good. Killing Them Safely (11/7 Webster U/Moore 6:30 p.m.) is a very well-made film about whether tasers are a boon to criminal justice or a major impediment to it. In My Father’s House (11/7 Tivoli 12:15 p.m.) follows rapper Che “Rhymefest” Smith, co-writer of Kanye’s “Jesus Walks” and also a co-writer of “Glory” from last year’s Selma, as he reacquaints himself with his long-homeless father. Rhymefest will be in attendance at this screening, which will be a treat. Speaking of people attending the festival, I wasn’t sold on the whole of the film Romeo is Bleeding (11/9 Tivoli 7:10 p.m.), but the man it mostly follows, Donté Clark, a poet from the middle of a turf war in the Richmond, California area, is someone to watch—think Saul Williams from the 1998 SLIFF Audience Award winner Slam, and you’re not too far off. Again, Clark will be in attendance, and that alone makes the film worth seeing. A better film though is the clunkily-titled HBO documentary 3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets (11/6 Wash U/Brown 7:30 p.m., free), about the Jordan Davis case from Jacksonville, Florida a few years back (you know, the one where the white man shot ten bullets at four unarmed black teenagers because they were playing “thug music” too loud, with one of the four, Mr. Davis, dying from the attack). Davis’ parents, Ron Davis and Lucy McBath, will attend.

Still in the documentary realm, The Anthropologist (11/14 Mo. History Museum 7 p.m., free) is a decent movie that follows an anthropologist to Siberia to, among other things, examine the melting of the area’s permafrost—frost below the surface which isn’t supposed to ever melt, until global warming showed it who’s boss. The Champions (11/8 Tivoli 12:30 p.m., free) shows us what happened to Michael Vick’s pit bulls after they were rescued from his dogfighting compound, and it would be a good film if only it weren’t so repetitive. Thank You for Playing (11/14 Frontenac 2:10 p.m.) is about a father of a one-year-old who is diagnosed with cancer, and who makes a video game about caring for a young boy with cancer as a coping mechanism. After a rocky start, this odd premise begins to clarify, thanks in part to the empathy one is able to find for the parents of Joel, the cancerous one-year-old in question. Film critic Gerald Peary (he of the influential three-book series Cult Movies) returns to the festival after 2009’s For the Love of the Movies with Archie’s Betty (11/15 Frontenac 12 p.m.), about finding the inspiration for the Archie comic book setting and characters, which is a perfectly enjoyable but not terribly memorable film. (T)Error (11/7 Tivoli 12 p.m.), an alumnus of Columbia’s True/False Film Festival, is an alarming film where the documentarians were able to get access to both an FBI informant and the person that informant was supposed to be informing on; an ethical quandary, sure, but very good filmmaking all the same. Finally, there are two documentaries about unstereotypical groups gathering to put on a stage production (which description perhaps fits Romeo is Bleeding as well): Hong Kong’s My Voice, My Life (11/8 SLU 3 p.m., free) and the American film Becoming Bulletproof (11/12 Tivoli 5:05 p.m., free). My Voice is about a school for what are generally regarded as troublemakers putting on a show, and is amusing if only for the personalities of some of the students involved. Bulletproof is more outwardly heartwarming, about disabled actors coming together to make a movie, but is still generally well done and not as cloying as one might be afraid it might be.

With all of those documentaries out of the way, that just leaves me with a hodgepodge of mostly international fiction films. The best of them, and one of the best of the festival (of what I’ve seen, at least), is Mélanie Laurent’s French film Breathe (11/6 Frontenac 2 p.m., 11/7 Frontenac 2 p.m.). You probably know Laurent as an actress—she was Shosanna in Inglourious Basterds and Anna in Beginners, among other things, but she’s also a director in her home country, and Breathe is her second film. It centers on a dangerous relationship between two teenage girls, and while it doesn’t exactly break new ground, it’s a very solid and interesting film which I’m looking forward to returning to. Another movie with a recognizable name attached is South Korea’s Sea Fog (11/11 Frontenac 9:10 p.m., 11/12 Frontenac 2:20 p.m.), which was co-written by Bong Joon-ho, of The Host and Snowpiercer fame. Sea Fog is not as good as the affiliation with Bong might lead you to believe, but it’s a pretty solid thriller about a fishing boat that is smuggling many people from China to Korea. The festival is also giving you an early chance to check out Jordan’s Oscar submission for this year, Theeb (11/10 Frontenac 2 p.m., 11/12 Frontenac 9:20 p.m.), which is soon to play the Webster Film Series after SLIFF ends. The film is a rough coming of age story as our main character, Theeb, learns to survive against the brutal backdrop of an early 1900s Bedouin community. Lastly, there’s the American revisionist Western The Keeping Room (11/6 Frontenac 4:45 p.m., 11/8 Frontenac 9:15 p.m.), which stars recognizable people such as Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, and Sam Worthington, and plays much like the first half-hour after the intermission in Gone with the Wind does—lone, strong women defending a household against invading men.

And this isn’t even covering the festival’s big studio movies! I’m dying to see other Cannes alums Carol (11/8 Tivoli 4 p.m.), from director Todd Haynes and starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, and the Grand Prix-winning Hungarian Holocaust film Son of Saul (11/8 Webster U/Moore 6:15 p.m.—a mere 15 minutes after Carol ends, if you want to try to race down there and see it). But, the one film I’m most anticipating which I haven’t been able to catch up with yet is Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s animated film Anamolisa (11/15 Tivoli 6 p.m.), which is Kaufman’s first film project since 2008’s Synecdoche, New York. Word has it that John Crowley’s Brooklyn (11/6 Tivoli 7 p.m.) is a likely Best Picture nominee this year, and the Tom Hardy starrer (in two roles!) Legend (11/14 Tivoli 8:30 p.m.) looks like a winner. The one studio film I have seen as of this writing is Love the Coopers (11/7 Frontenac 7 p.m.), which opens in general release in St. Louis on 11/13, so I’ll review it in full then. For now, suffice it to say that it’s a pleasant enough diversion.

Needless to say, there’s a lot to get excited about in this year’s SLIFF. There always is—the festival environment itself is worth getting excited about—but with a healthy crop of both known good movies and likely good movies, it’s looking like a fun eleven days for St. Louis movie lovers. | Pete Timmermann

The 2015 Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival takes place Nov. 5-15 at numerous locations around St Louis. The Festival includes 97 narrative features, 86 documentary features, 264 shorts, and seven special events. Tickets for most films are $12, or $10 for Cinema St. Louis members and students with current ID, with different prices for several special events, and numerous free events. The festival schedule is available here, with information about tickets and the different venues available here.

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