A still from 'Chasing Portraits'.
November 8, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

2018 / USA, Canada, Israel, Poland / 88 min. / Dir. by Elizabeth Rynecki / U.S. release data TBA

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

Early in her melancholy, unnervingly personal documentary feature, Chasing Portraits, filmmaker Elizbaeth Rynecki makes a pivotal decision with respect to the artwork of her late great-grandfather, Moshe, a victim of the Holocaust. Working mostly in oil on paper, Moshe Rynecki created striking paintings of intimate domestic and religious moments in Polish Jewish life, realizing everyday scenes in a markedly modern style that reflected the influences of French Impressionism and German Expressionism. Director Rynecki thought her ancestor’s artistic legacy to be somewhat obscure prior to her efforts to uncover more information about Moshe, whose works decorated the walls of her childhood home. When she eventually learns to her astonishment that not only do numerous other Moshe Rynecki paintings exist, but that they are held in high regard by museums and collectors, the filmmaker finds herself at a strategic and moral crossroads. Should she pursue her great-grandfather’s war-scattered works as a descendent seeking their repatriation? Or should she assume the stance of a historian who merely wishes to bring a neglected artist into the sunlight?

Rynecki elects to take the latter approach, and that choice informs the tone of Chasing Portraits. Unexpectedly, however, rather than turning her search into a detached academic endeavor, the director’s decision to abandon her family’s potential ownership claims has the effect of intensifying the personal dimension of her mission. By putting to rest suspicions that she seeks to wrest the paintings from the current owners, Rynecki eschews the legal thriller elements that are often pushed to forefront in stories of repatriated Jewish art (e.g., Woman in Gold [2015]). Chasing Portraits thereby attains a more affecting and emotionally thorny character, as the desire to see Moshe’s lost paintings with her own eyes becomes an end in itself for the filmmaker. This yearning takes on an almost religious dimension as Rynecki winds her way through a labyrinth of fragmentary records and crisscrosses the world, often based on slender clues and vague assurances.

It eventually becomes apparent that Chasing Portraits is not a traditional biodoc-by-proxy of Rynecki’s ancestor, or even a delve into the annals of pre-War Jewish art history. Instead, the documentary is revealed as a fraught procedural about the filmmaker’s search for the physical art objects themselves; about said objects’ meaning (or lack thereof) to the myriad institutions and private individuals who possess them; and about Rynecki’s understanding of her family and her own place in history. The film is accordingly nothing so prosaic as "entertaining" or "interesting" in the manner of many documentaries about historical mysteries. This is a work of sorrowful passion, a pilgrimage to put white-gloved hand to painted paper and thereby achieve spiritual communion with the past.

It’s an undeniably potent approach – and perhaps the only one that makes sense for a tale so entangled with the filmmaker’s own story. Rynecki is commendably open in her voiceover narration about the conflicting emotions she contends with during her odyssey. She doesn’t present herself as a righteous champion so much as a humble seeker, her hunger entwined with questions and uncertainties. At times, the director’s cinematic instincts bend towards the self-indulgent – as when she visits the concentration camp where her great-grandfather was murdered, only to lean distractingly on clichéd visuals – but such minor missteps are counterbalanced by the startlingly honest pathos that prevails throughout the film. Rynecki’s own father is at the center of much of the film’s troubled ambiguity. Good-natured but emotionally walled-off, the man is visibly reluctant to discuss his wartime memories, and the filmmaker wrestles with how far to push her father in the interest of exhuming their family’s history. The director’s fiery investigative instincts are often set in opposition to her empathy, deference, and diplomacy. The film’s self-consciousness about that tension is one of its most refreshing features.

Indeed, what most distinguishes Chasing Portraits is this bruised unease that discolors Rynecki’s ostensibly straightforward story of righteous truth-seeking. It’s discernable in modern Warsaw’s glib fetishization of its decimated Polish Jewish culture, epitomized in the cutesy and faintly anti-Semitic tourist tchotchkes that startle the director when she encounters them on the street. It’s uncomfortably close to the surface in the inexplicable evasions and recalcitrance from one painting’s present-day owner, who seems determined to go to her grave with the artwork hidden away in her possession, unseen even by scholars. It’s these scribblings of imperfect justice and unsettled history that give Chasing Portraits its jolt of credibility, amplifying the power of the film’s achingly personal character.

Chasing Portraits screens Friday, Nov. 9 at 7:15 p.m. at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema. Buy tickets now.


Tags: SLIFF Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Support the Girls'.
November 7, 2018
By Joshua Ray

2018 / USA / 90 min. / Dir. by Andrew Bujalski / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Aug. 24, 2018

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

[Note: Critic Joshua Ray previously reviewed Support the Girls here.]

Andrew Bujalski’s cinema is not one of grandiosity and bombast. He’s the forefather of the “mumblecore” movement — a current of early-to-mid-aughts indie films filled with low-key performances and concerned with low-key life. In the years, since Bujalski has moved outward into more experimental territory, making 2012’s Computer Chess, an Altman-esque sprawl shot on low-grade consumer home video. That was a supreme step forward, but now, Support the Girls is his crowning achievement. On its gleeful surface, it retains the low-stakes sitcom setup of the movement Buljaski helped to create. Roiling below that, though, the film contains deep reserves of humanity: moments of spiritual grace under pressure, moral and ethical consideration, and the purest expressions of understanding and platonic love. 

“Let’s go straight to number two,” suggests Maci (the apparently chameleonic Haley Lu Richardson), the superstar server with a permanent smile and a shining personality to match, skipping past the first work rule of “No Drama!” By the time Lisa and Maci welcome a group interview of potential new hires to their Texas bar and grill, the former has had a complete emotional meltdown in her car before discovering that a burglar is currently stuck in the restaurant’s air vents. Remarkably, there are far more taxing tests of faith to follow. Set almost entirely during a single day — save for a gorgeously wrought coda — Support the Girls works on a small scale to present a snapshot of the lives of these women.

The film is also an impressively concise portrait of the United States during these turbulent times, as well as a celebration of the empathy and decisiveness required to navigate such an era. Bulijaski doesn’t shy away from exploring gender and sexual politics in America, but his feature is never pedantic or polemical about these topics. “Do they grab you?” asks one of the potential new hires early in the film, and although Support the Girls doesn’t have an answer to the problem of imposed masculine power, it deftly explores the intricacies of that power. The women of Double Whammies are obliged to wade through complex waters: subject to the leering eyes and groping hands of men, while working out how to use such invasions to their benefit. 

The film is also slyly ripe with overtones about race. Lisa, Danyelle, and Nika (Nicole Onyeje) are the only people of color working the front of the house. Danyelle makes a point that Lisa isn’t allowed to schedule her and Nika during the same shifts because the white conservative owner, played with smarmy machismo by James LeGros, forbids it. The kitchen, however, is largely staffed by people of color. When Lisa identifies the cousin of her fry cook, Arturo, as the vent-trapped burglar, she asks him to resign, but acknowledges the day-to-day strife they endure by refusing to get the police involved. “I do my best to be generous,” she says, to which he replies, “You’re always generous.” She still asks him to finish his shift, however, given that she’s short-handed.

Moments like these uphold early reactions to the film as a kind of continuation of the late Jonathan Demme's output, a filmmaker whose features reverberate with the joy and pain of being human. It also recalls the work of the Dardennes — Bujalski’s film can be thought of as Two Days, One Night (2014) by way of the best of the American The Office (2005-13) — in exploring complex notions of work, morality, and ethics, all while being simultaneously gut-busting and tear-inducing. The film eventually and inevitably devolves — nay, evolves — into Hawksian screwball comedy when the workers of Double Whammies stage a coup during the restaurant’s proverbial Big Night, here corresponding to a pay-per-view boxing match. It’s an exhilarating act of self-reclamation that, on the outside, may seem like the smallest of rebellions. However, for these women who center their lives on their work, well-being, and makeshift family, it’s a daring and necessary act.

The cast is roundly magical, and at the center of the film are three spectacularly alive performances: Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, and Shayna McHayle (also known by her rapper stage name Junglepussy). Richardson is effervescent, radiating an energy completely opposite to her tremendous, more downplayed turn at the heart of kogonada’s Columbus (2017). McHayle’s strutting, gives-no-fucks attitude lends the film some of its finest moments of feminine clapbacks. And as everyone’s mother, best friend, boss, and mentor, Hall bests her Girls Trip (2017) performance, showcasing the role’s heartbreak and humor while doubling down on both Lisa’s optimism and resignation. Her turn is an easy contender for the most magnetic of the year, and just one of the myriad reasons Support the Girls is one of the year’s best films.

Support the Girls screens Thursday, Nov. 8 at 7:15 p.m. at the Tivoli Theatre. Buy tickets now.

Tags: SLIFF Joshua Ray

A still from 'The House, the Hand and the Hatchet'.
November 7, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

2016 / USA / 91 min. / Dir. by Austin and Maitland Lottimer / U.S. release date TBA

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

Even if the name of sculptor James Surls is unfamiliar – indeed, even if one knows virtually nothing about the landscape of contemporary American art – the man’s pieces possess a primal resonance that often strikes a rumbling chord in anyone who lays eyes on them. Massive works in wood and metal, they typically incorporate hard, masculine shapes such as blades, prisms, and blocks, while also reflecting more organic macro-forms: tendrils, branches, and floral whorls. Surl’s work – which includes not only sculptures, but also prints, rubbings, and hallucinatory line drawings – has the uncommon luster of art that has forced its way into the world out of sheer necessity, rather than because the artist has “something to say.” While Surl’s sculptures are hardly denuded of cultural or political voice, they nonetheless seem to thrum with the same unmistakable atavistic energy that radiates from Paleolithic cave paintings.

The impressively prolific Surls resists categorization: Loosely identifiable as a modernist, he belongs to no definitive artistic tradition, movement, or “school”. Brothers Austin and Maitland Lottimer have crafted a fittingly distinctive vehicle for this under-appreciated American original with their absorbing new documentary feature, The House, the Hand and the Hatchet. A different sort of film might have taken a more prosaic biographical approach, endeavoring to correct Surls’ relative pop obscurity by unearthing the nitty-gritty details of his life for wider examination. The Lottimers, however, employ a method more akin to true portraiture, presenting a snapshot of the seventy-something artist as he is now, while also privileging the imposing tangibility of the sculptures themselves.

The traditional biodoc elements aren’t wholly neglected in House. Surls’ personal story – particularly his early life with his wife and young daughters in the woodlands of East Texas – deeply informs his work, and the Lottimers periodically reference that past through archival VHS footage and vintage news clips. In the main, however, their documentary is focused on the present day. Indeed, House is best described as a fly-on-the-wall film, following Surls in 2015 as he lives the life of a veteran artist with no intention of slowing down: laboring diligently on new pieces in his Colorado studio; lecturing to enthralled art students; overseeing new installations and exhibitions of his work; and sitting for a frank (if friendly) retrospective interview.

Shadowing the sculptor in this fashion provides a vérité immediacy, but House is as interested in Surls’ worldview as in the procedural minutiae of his artistic process. To that end, the film provides the man with the space to expound freely on his life and work, revealing a personality that is thoughtful and poetic, and yet also admirably no-bullshit. Surls cuts a contradictory but clearly-defined figure, and it’s easy to see why the Lottimers find him so compelling. He boasts the education, erudition, and staggering resume of an artist’s artist – he has a MFA from Michigan’s prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art – but also the down-to-earth, curmudgeonly streak of a Western straight-shooter. Pointedly, Surls is widely dismissive of much of the contemporary art world. He is, in almost every respect, as independent and incomparable as they come.

That said, other people with a significant role in Surls’ day-to-day routine appear prominently in the film, including his wife, daughter and assistant. However, these individuals are not afforded much opportunity to discuss themselves, beyond some cursory talking-head footage. Instead, Surls talks about them, illuminating their essential role in his artistic process and their cherished presence in his life. This is in keeping with House’s focus on the artist as individual, an ambition that is further reflected in the film’s fascination with the physical aspects of his distinctive work: the planes, curves, textures, colors, and shadows. Above all, the Lottimers convey the daunting solidity and weight of Surls’ sculptures, traits that have intrinsic meaning in an era when American culture seems driven principally by digital ephemera.

The sheer, unwieldy bulk of Surls’ more massive sculptures even becomes a plot point late in the film, when the artist travels to Singapore to oversee the installation of a piece at that island nation’s renowned Botanic Gardens. As absurd, unforeseen bureaucratic and engineering complications arise surrounding the installation, Surls’ mounting, exhausted annoyance becomes palpable. This frustrating episode highlights the weary cynicism that occasionally peeks through the unflagging creative diligence that has produced a body of work that now encompasses some 350 pieces. That subtle undercurrent of fatigue is essential to the wistful tone that the Lottimers strike in their film, which skillfully conveys the spirit of a septuagenarian artist who remains bracingly vital yet can’t resist ruminating on his legacy. It’s this low-key litheness that distinguishes the engaging The House, the Hand and the Hatchet overall, marking it as an ideal introduction to a vigorous, essential American figure.

The House, the Hand and the Hatchet screens Thursday, Nov. 8 at 7:30 p.m. at .ZACK. Buy tickets now.

Tags: SLIFF Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'In the Aisles'.
November 6, 2018
By Joshua Ray

2018 / Germany / 125 min. / Dir. by Thomas Stuber / U.S. release date TBA

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) is one of the oddest films to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. A bleak comedy about the moral depths to which one lowly data entry office worker (Jack Lemmon) will descend in order to climb the corporate ladder, the film is a far cry from the populist Important Films that are so often associated with that most coveted of prizes in American filmmaking. Nevertheless, due to its pitch-perfect equipoise of cynicism and optimism, the film has endured, taking its rightful spot in the canon of great American motion pictures. 

That said, it has rarely served as an urtext for other filmmakers in the manner of Wilder’s oft-imitated Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). No more: With his new film In the Aisles, German director Thomas Stuber has taken The Apartment’s unrequited workplace love story and painted its white collar blue. While not a direct remake, the inspiration is clear, and this new portrait of yearning and angst among the working class contains the same threads of comedic grace as its forbear. 

In lieu of the condemnation of the American bootstrap myth in The Apartment, Stuber’s film is more interested in reconstruction and second chances — a reconfiguration logical to its Germanic setting. Christian (Franz Rogowski, star of another great SLIFF selection, Christian Petzold’s Transit) is a brooding ex-con who’s granted a fresh start as a beverage stocker in a Costco-like wholesale warehouse somewhere in rural Germany. He’s forced to wear long-sleeve shirts while on the clock, starting each day by strategically tugging at his clothing to hide the tattoos that are a symbol of his previous life. Throughout Aisles, the director uses rapid montages of Christian readying himself for work to depict the monotony of labor — a routine that, while soul-sucking for some, represents stability for Christian. 

Christian’s curmudgeon ally and teammate, Bruno (Peter Kurth), notices his trainee’s lingering eye on the effusive and charming Marion (Sandra Hüller, lead of Toni Erdmann [2016]), and fills him on her rocky marriage. Christian doesn’t necessarily heed that warning, presenting her with a vending machine brownie topped with a candle as a birthday surprise. Their attraction is palpable yet hushed, with clandestine meetings as deliberate as the film’s narrative and mood. Stuber lays out carefully placed breadcrumbs in revealing his characters’ motives and histories, similar to the way minute acts of personal disclosure gradually inform any worker of the inner lives of the strangers with which they’re obliged to co-exist.

The director is as interested in the ecosystem of the cavernous warehouse and its inhabitants as he is with the specifics of their narratives. Stuber glides his camera within and along the towering aisles, as the audience — like Christian — is given a tour of the space's nooks and crannies. These not only represent operational functions for the warehouse, but also reflect the personalities of the workers within them — such as the desserts and baked goods section “Sweet Marion” inhabits. 

Tati-esque man-versus-machine scenes further detail the travails of warehouse work as Christian struggles with his forklift, evoking Sisyphus and his rock. This becomes a kind of existential struggle for him, paralleling his quest for meaning and human connection as the film moves into a more soulful and somber mood in its second half. The shift isn’t necessarily jarring, as the seeds for the transition are sown early in the film. That delicate balance of light and dark that Stuber endeavors to navigate could have caused In the Aisles to come crashing down like a pallet of boxes of wine. Instead, the feature is executed as gracefully as the mechanized balletic confidence exhibited by the film’s veteran forklift operator.

In the Aisles screens Wednesday, Nov. 7 at 2:10 p.m. and Friday, Nov. 9 at 12:30 p.m., both days at Plaza Frontenac Cinema. Buy tickets now.

Tags: SLIFF Joshua Ray

A still from 'Bisbee '17'.
November 6, 2018
By Cait Lore

2018 / USA / 102 min. / Dir. by Robert Greene / Opened in select cities on Sept. 5, 2018

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

Everybody dies twice. That is, if the Sarasota, Fla. historian featured in director Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine (2016) is to be believed. Death first occurs when someone leaves the physical world, he explains, and then again the last time someone utters the deceased’s name. Greene lets this comment hang in Kate, but it’s in his latest feature, Bisbee ‘17, that the filmmaker investigates what that might actually mean.

Not far from the Mexican border is the small town of Bisbee, Ariz. The events that unfolded in this place in the summer of 1917 are specifically what has caught Greene’s interest. That is when a major mining corporation orchestrated the illegal arrest of over 1,300 union workers on strike. The company’s enforcers harded the strikers — nearly all of them immigrant workers — into cattle cars, starved them for 16 hours, transported them across state lines, and then dumped them in New Mexico. History remembers this day as The Bisbee Deportation. This episode, which essentially comprised a kidnapping as executed by a corporation, was plainly criminal. Even President Woodrow Wilson knew this, calling the even “wholly illegal and without authority,” although none of the mining company perpetrators were ever charged for their crimes.

Greene’s Bisbee ‘17 documents the arrival of the filmmaker and his team in the Arizona town, on the heels of the Bisbee Deportation centennial. Blurring the lines between performance and lived experience, the filmmaker collaborates with historians and townfolk to perform a reenactment of the grim events. Greene’s feature functions as an ode to the collective acts of filmmaking, storytelling, and conceptual art in the vein of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Running Fence. Or, it would, that is, if the film weren’t unearthing decades of generational trauma, exploring Derrida’s “hauntology” and the constructed nature of history.

Divided into six chapters, Greene’s documentary film (and staged event) uses storytelling techniques from myriad genres and mediums — including musicals, Westerns, and even podcasts like Serial — to perform an exorcism of sorts. Manifestly, the film’s real interests lie in events that are unfolding 100 years after the Bisbee Deportation; namely, the political and cultural convulsions of Donald Trump’s America, although the President's name is never mentioned. (Greene was filming Bisbee ‘17 when the man was elected.) The present-day climate in America is subject to a pitiless close-up as Bisbee’s citizens, from radical leftists to the Christian right, reenact their town’s collective past. Throughout the weeks of preparations, things prove to be more difficult than anyone anticipated. To watch as a descendant of Lee Leslie Cook “arrests” and “deports” his own brother proves to be one of the more uncomfortable viewing experiences of the year.  

Bisbee ‘17 has obvious parallels with the similarly haunted docu-hybrid The Act of Killing (2012), but Greene does something far more radical and fresh with the form than the comparison might suggest. The director uses his film to “write” about the present through the past. In this way, his documentary functions like one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1970s melodramas, with their critique of German Cinema. Without softening its radical edges, Bisbee '17 employs the big swells of a Hollywood genre film to present an American ghost story. Like Fassbinder, Greene understands that artifice, when approached forthrightly as a distinct mode of expression, has special access to the truth.

In Jean Luc Godard’s The Image Book (2018), which is also screening at this year’s SLIFF, the director intones: “The act of representation almost always involves an act of violence against the subject of the representation.” Bisbee ‘17 makes good on Godard’s insights, as the viewer is captive to Greene's historical and political flame-stoking. It’s a career high for the director, but also a landmark in the landscape of 21st-century documentary film. The hindsight of years is not necessary to confirm Bisbee ‘17 as one of the most challenging and astute films about America today.

Bisbee '17 screens Wednesday, Nov. 7 at 7:30 p.m. at .ZACK. Buy tickets now.

Tags: SLIFF Cait Lore

A still from 'I Am Not a Witch'.
November 5, 2018
By Cait Lore

2017 / UK, France, Germany, Zambia / 93 min. / Dir. by Rungano Nyoni / Opened in select cities on Sep. 7, 2018

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

Rungano Nyoni’s debut feature I Am Not A Witch is one that SLIFF audiences have likely heard of, largely due to the enthusiastic embrace it has seen across Europe. Partly funded by Cannes, but also the British Film Institute and Berliane’s World Cinema Fund, I Am Not A Witch is perhaps the most "international" of all the films screening at this year’s SLIFF. However, it is also one of the most accomplished, having won the BAFTA award for Outstanding Debut, and securing a submission, on behalf of the United Kingdom, for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2019 Academy Awards. All of these should be sufficient reasons to make I Am Not a Witch a priority at this year’s festival. Even on its own textual merits, however, the film is one of the year’s most ambitious features, a razor-sharp satire of fear and subjugation, both in Nyoni’s native Zambia and on the global stage.

The film’s story focuses on a young Zambian girl, Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), whose enigmatic expression betrays her youth. That inscrutability also seems to get her into trouble with her community; the other villagers have accused the 8-year-old of being a witch. Children so young aren’t usually deemed witches, but Shula’s fate feels predestined, like a fairy tale gone wrong. Resigned to her situation, or maybe just baffled by it all, Shula refuses to confirm or deny the charges leveled against her. In fact, she says very little over the film’s duration, suggesting a lack of agency or perhaps disillusionment; Nyoni is smart enough to leave certain aspects of her film ambiguous.

The charges against Shula range from petty to obscure, but the accounts are uniformly absurd, almost farcical in nature. Take for instance the able-bodied man who tells a crowd of onlookers that Shula used magic to sever his arm from his body, blood spraying everywhere. Moments later, he admits that it was just a dream. This seems to be a knowing reference to the ‘She turned me into a newt!’ sequence from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). Which is to say, I Am Not A Witch is like Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943), if it was played for laughs  – somber laughs, but laughs all the same.

The local leaders banish Shula to a state-run settlement, where long white ribbons hang from the trees. Attached to these ribbons are older women, also accused of witchcraft and now confined to the camp, just as Shula has been exiled there. People warn the young girl that, if she cuts the ribbon, she’ll become a goat. They assure her that a life as an indentured laborer is better for her own well-being and for the community. Non-African tourists flush with cash come to gawk the witch camp, for example. However, some specially chosen witches, perhaps including Shula, work more closely with the state. They can even become small-scale celebrities, helping with court cases and the like. It is up to Shula to decide what she wants to be – goat or slave – but that seems to be the only choice that is hers alone.

Notably, witch camps are, in fact, quite real and still in use today in Ghana. Rungano Nyoni spent a month visiting one, prior to making her film, but the feature does not position itself as a public service announcement about the plight of these camps. Instead, I Am Not A Witch actively places its conflicts in a global context. The politics of power are what’s on trial here – not just the curious phenomenon of witch camps – and Nyoni’s wry satire cuts to the bone.

I Am Not a Witch screens Tuesday, Nov. 6 at 2:00 p.m. and Saturday, Nov 10 at 5:00 p.m., both days at the Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema. Buy tickets now.

Tags: SLIFF Cait Lore

A still from 'Zama'.
November 5, 2018
By Joshua Ray

2017 / Argentina / 115 min. / Dir. by Lucrecia Martel / Opened in select cities on Apr. 13, 2018

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

It’s unsurprising that the colonists in Lucrecia Martel’s Zama would be in awe of the spider wasp, an insect that hunts arachnids and uses their bodies as hosts for its developing eggs. This metaphor for the Spanish who invade and inhabit a South American territory sometime during the 18th century may seem obvious at first pass, but Martel also extends it to include the film’s central figure, corregidor Don Diego de Zama. Played by Daniel Giménez Cacho, an actor with a such a sculpturally stately profile that it’s all the more satisfying to see it twist in pathetic anguish, Zama is a man whose entitlement and estrangement in a foreign land begins to rupture his futile existence. (Cacho may be familiar to audiences from Bad Education, a 2004 film by Pedro Almodovar, who also has a producing credit here.) These fissures manifest in the aural and visual fantasia that is Martel’s wickedly funny and beguiling film.

Zama begins in medias res as Don Diego sneakily leers at a group of nude indigenous women who then discover and chastise him. Is this an act of perversion or curiosity? Martel purposely withholds narrative information and directorial hand-holding as if to suspend the audience in a dizzying existential crisis similar to the one the protagonist is undergoing. The joke is that as the central figure of this Age of Discovery narrative, Zama is the ineffectual opposite of the strong-willed men in this film’s forebears: Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and Terrence Malick’s The New World (2004). 

In adapting the postmodern novel of the same name by Antonio di Benedetto, the director eschews grandiosity and instead employs surreal comedy of bourgeois hubris à la Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1961). In that film, a sacrificial lamb signals the absurdity of its players’ entrapment. Here, a wandering llama invades the frame and the narrative, as oblivious to the humans’ follies as they are to the animal itself. In addition, much like the dinner party in Buñuel’s apocalyptic missive, Don Diego is perpetually stuck. He vainly attempts to relieve himself of his middle-management post and return to his family in Spain, while also failing miserably to seduce a local courtesan (Lola Dueñas, another Almodovar alum). There’s comic pleasure in watching Zama’s impotent desperation, but as the film boldy shifts from his life of bureaucracy to one of faceless militarism, Martel ratchets up the violence and aggression to deepen her condemnation of the masculine need for conquest and acclaim. 

Throughout the film, however, Martel’s impressionistic, slow-burn approach to filmmaking weaves an entrancing spell. The director’s trademark vertiginous sonic design envelops the viewer in a foreign land and a man’s existential flux, but it also includes the anachronistic 1950s Argentine surf rock that Benedetto was said to enjoy while writing the film’s source novel – a possible nod from the director about the futility of adaptation. Frames decapitate people (Martel did make The Headless Woman [2008], after all), forcing focus on movement, behavior, and environment rather than narrative. The film’s characters often wander around like ghosts – sometimes even appearing as literal specters – in a perfectly realized depiction of burgeoning modernism overtaking the jungle landscape. As wildly adventurous as any eager voyager, Martel is a filmmaker whose all-too-infrequent features –  just four over the past 17 years –  are often niche cause célèbres for cinephiles, but Zama firmly places her as a supreme master of the art, one worthy of widespread attention. 

Zama screens Tuesday, Nov. 6 at 9:00 p.m. and Friday, Nov 9 at 9:30 p.m., both days at the Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema. Buy tickets now.

Tags: SLIFF Joshua Ray

A still from 'Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story'.
November 4, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

2017 / USA / 102 min. / Dir by Tiffany Bartok / U.S. release date TBA

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

Far too often, biographical documentaries end up as mere delivery devices for drowsy, unedifying banality. Perhaps it’s simply that the nine out of ten biodocs all seem to follow the same playbook, spinning a neat and tidy narrative from a chronological overview of the subject’s life, usually by relying on archival footage and talking-head reminisces. The more memorable biographical films are often those that break this well-worn mold. Just this year, Sophie Fiennes’ Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami interrogated its subject almost entirely through present-day concert footage and intimate, vérité video. Meanwhile, Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney adopted a vivid exposé approach, reminding the viewer of forgotten facts and digging (sometimes uncomfortably) into the Queen of Pop’s hazy complexities. And Eugene Jarecki’s The King turned the biodoc inside out and took it on the road, using Elvis Presley’s life to cross-examine the American experience itself.

Director Tiffany Bartok’s Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story isn’t daring or questioning in the manner of those films, but it discovers a comparable forcefulness simply by doing the biodoc fundamentals exceptionally well. She doesn’t reinvent the wheel so much as reaffirm the reliable robustness of its familiar shape. In recounting the striking accomplishments of the late American makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin, Larger relies on all the usual hallmarks of the subgenre: the unlikely Horatio Alger tale, distilled and neatly arranged; the plethora of vintage photos, press clippings, and home videos; the parade of family, friends, and colleagues who wistfully share their cherished anecdotes. However, Bartok shapes these standard raw materials into a vivacious, authentically touching portrait of a man who, in his mere 40 years on Earth, changed the landscape of beauty, fashion, and celebrity in sneakily profound ways.

In 2018, YouTube is a repository of countless how-to makeup videos, a resource that enables eager viewers (women, men, and anyone else) to soak up thousands of hours of accumulated professional and DIY wisdom on the art of beauty. Arguably, this dazzling, streamable compendium of knowledge would not exist at its present scale without the influence of Kevyn Aucoin, a gangly boy from Lafayette, La. who adored cosmetics and photography. Perhaps as repayment for the tribulations he suffered growing up gay in the small-town South, the universe smiled on Aucoin when he moved to New York, as he landed himself a gig making up models at Vogue just eight months after his arrival. Over the ensuing years, Acouin established himself as a coveted corner-man for models, actors, and other celebrities. His technique was peerless, his passion infectious, and his giant yet nimble hands a curious source of comfort in the frenetic backstage world. At the height of his renown, he had the sort of professional caché that was unheard of for makeup artists – Cindy Crawford could bring a European photo shoot to a halt to have Aucoin flown to her side.

A fluffier sort of biodoc might have leaned overwhelmingly into the film’s cavalcade of glowing testimonials from seemingly dozens of famous faces – which are, admittedly, a pleasure. (A marvelous detail: Regardless of fame, all the talking heads are identified onscreen as “Actor”, “Model”, “Designer”, and the like, with one exception. Cher is simply "Cher", because she needs no further introduction.) It’s obvious that not only Aucoin’s talents but also his warm, lively personality left a deep impression on the people with whom he worked. However, Bartok also pushes deeper into the man’s cultural legacy, showing how his innovations shaped the way that millions of people view and approach their own beauty. It was Aucoin who developed and popularized the highly sculpted contouring that came to dominate the makeup world in the early 21st century, and it was Aucoin who pioneered more natural cosmetic shades that could accommodate the broad swath of human skin tones. More intangibly but just as essentially, he proffered an actual ethos in his three best-selilng makeup books, one that valued radical self-love and sought to tease each person’s inherent beauty to the surface.

Aurcoin was an almost obsessive self-documenter, and as such Bartok is blessed with an enviable wealth of letters, mementos, photos, and home movies to draw on. These reveal her subject’s unselfconscious private joys, but also his dogged insecurities, not to mention the unthinkable pain he endured as his tumor-associated acromegaly – the same characteristic that made him tower over a room and bestowed him with those colossal hands – took its toll on his body. Bartok strikes a careful balance in addressing Aucoin’s addiction to painkillers and his eventual death in 2002 due to an overdose of the same. Larger Than Life is not needlessly coy about this ugly, heartbreaking aspect of his life, nor does the film gloss over it as though it were inessential to an understanding of the man. However, Bartok emphasizes – modestly but firmly – that Aucoin is worthy of wider recognition primarily due to his resounding professional achievements, rather than because he represents some tragic case study in disability or addiction. Even viewers who know nothing about cosmetics, fashion, and beauty will find Larger edifying and inspiring, an illustration that raw, revolutionary talent paired with an earnest, generous soul can make the world a little less ugly.

Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story screens Monday, Nov. 5 at 7:30 p.m. at .ZACK. Buy tickets now.

Tags: SLIFF Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'
November 2, 2018
By Cait Lore

Sorry, Not Sorry

2018 / USA / 106 min. / Dir. by Marielle Heller / Opened in select cities on Oct. 19, 2018; locally on Nov. 2, 2018

In today’s New York, West Village is one of the city’s most expensive neighborhoods. It wasn’t always that way, as Marielle Heller’s new film, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, will remind audiences. This is the neighborhood where the Stonewall riots took place, and where Max Gordon founded the Village Vanguard, a haven for poets and jazz musicians alike. Even as late as the 1990s, a freelance writer could still live there (very) modestly. Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy, never better) is such a wordsmith – or, that is, she would be, if her publisher would only give her a deadline.

Having written biographies on the likes of Tallulah Bankhead, Katharine Hepburn, and Estée Lauder, Israel isn’t entirely without success. “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,” she touts. The problem with being a good biographer, as Lee sees it, is that the writer disappears behind their subject matter.

Glowering through the better part of two decades, Lee hasn’t seen a new book deal in a long time. The tell-all biography she’s penning on Fanny Brice isn’t going to pay the rent. No one’s interested in reading about vaudeville actors whose stars have long faded, especially in the case of her publisher, who won’t even take Lee’s calls anymore. (Unless, that is, she pretends to be Nora Ephron.) Lee needs money and she needs it quick, but in a world where no one seems to respect history, let alone the written word, what’s a incipiently homeless biographer to do? Turn to a life of crime, of course!

Adapted from the real Lee Israel’s memoir, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the story of a writer's mid-career swerve into the narrow criminal niche of literary letter forgery, all for the prosaic purpose of keeping a roof over her head. Lee just might be a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker, as it turns out; she can’t write the letters fast enough to keep up with demand from collectors. Her silver-tongued drinking buddy Jack (a pitch-perfect Richard E. Grant) is just the person to peddle these forgeries. “Who says crime doesn’t pay?” the real-life Lee wrote, and Heller’s cinematic version of the biographer agrees, drinking away her ill-gotten gains as fast as she can earn them.

As Jack and Lee run amok in New York’s bookstores, their work starts catching the attention of everyone, including the FBI. However, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not that interested in being the mini-heist film it initially might appear to be on paper. Heller’s camera is far more interested in documenting the physical spaces – a not-so-long-ago vision of New York that no longer exists – than in focusing on the crimes Lee and Jack commit. Through Heller's lens, all of West Village looks like a musty old bookshop, washed in rich browns and golds. It always seems to be raining, and it’s always the same shops, empty bar stools, and lonely faces staring back Lee. New York has never looked so small. 

As smart as Heller’s direction is, the film undoubtedly belongs to Melissa McCarthy’s career-salvaging performance. It’s no easy task to endear an audience to a boorish writer with a caustic wit, but there’s something faintly wistful about McCarthy’s Lee. It’s a subtle performance, which does occasionally break into the physical comedy she’s known for. Watching the way McCarthy’s face crinkles into disgust when someone suggests she perform community service is worth the price of admission alone.

Despite a richly empathetic performance from the film’s lead actor, viewers may not find Isreal as endearing as the film does; if only Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s script could keep up with McCarthy’s nuanced conception of the writer. The picture seems to lose its way during its later scenes, as the artist-in-decline character study fades into the background. Instead, audiences are stuck watching the same con games played over and over again, waiting for the other shoe to drop. 

By the film’s end, audiences are likely to grow weary of Lee’s malfeasance. Indeed, they may begin to wonder why exactly they considered forgiving her in the first place. It’s a disappointing turn, as the film ultimately leaves most of its psychological insights unexcavated. That said, it seems likely the Can You Ever Forgive Me? will net McCarthy some well-deserved attention during the imminent awards season – including a possible second Oscar nomination.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Cait Lore

A still from 'The Great Buddha+'.
November 2, 2018
By Joshua Ray

2017 / Taiwan / 102 min. / Dir. by Hsin-yao Huang / Opened in select cities on Jan. 29, 2018

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

The Great Buddha+ is so indebted to many cinematic influences – the deadpan comedy of Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and its varied emulations, the early meta-movies of Jean-Luc Godard, to name a few – the fact that it coheres together so brilliantly is something of a miracle. Director Hsin-yao Huang adapted his own prize-winning short, The Great Buddha, adding the “+” to his feature version to cheekily acknowledge the role technology plays in his condemnation of class structures in his native Taiwan. 

The narrative proper centers on Pickle (Cres Chuang) and Belly Button (Bamboo Chu-Sheng Chen), two perverted members of the proletariat who become embroiled in a murder plot after entertaining themselves with dashcam footage from Pickle’s supremely rich “artist” boss Kevin Huang (Leon Dai). Buddha+ could have easily been approached as a stylish genre exercise, but the filmmaker enriches it with endless cinematic invention. The first is his voiceover announcement that he, Hsin-yao Huang the director, will serve as a guide to the film. The narrative and thematic digressions he voices throughout the film are just a few of the rich Brechtian distancing techniques he freely deploys. 

Another innovative choice is the blown-out color of the dashcam footage that interrupts the film’s sumptuous black-and-white digital cinematography – the best this side of Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) – that captures the natural beauty of rural Taiwan alongside the rotted-out hovels for its forgotten inhabitants. Like Amirpour’s subversive genre-bender, The Great Buddha+ also contains threads of political commentary, here about the widening chasm between rich and poor. Pickle and Bell often talk about their financial aspirations, hilariously undercooked to the point that director Huang points out their laughable futility. "Birth is eight-tenths of destiny," Pickle declares at one point. 

The film gets its title from a towering Buddha statue Kevin is constructing in his residence-cum-art-factory compound. During the film’s funniest scene – Buddha+ indeed expertly balances potent satire with vulgar comedy – Kevin’s clients pray to the statue while simultaneously criticizing its wonky features. Its makers and those who brokered the deal then awkwardly attempt to sell the work’s shortcomings, and the moment reveals itself as the filmmaker’s condemnation of the intersection of art, religion, and commerce. 

What they don’t know is that their ultimate religious icon has become a vessel for a nefarious activity, and soon the director announces that the film is at its midpoint. The change is palpable as gears shift from a nose-thumbing missive that is nevertheless creatively engaging to a somber tale about the abuses of power that oppress the underprivileged. Kevin’s easy evasion of police interrogation thanks to his public persona, along with Belly Button’s violent roadside arrest – the latter shown through dashcam footage and later in an audience-privileging bird’s-eye shot – are reminders that these imbalances are universal problems. In its graceful and mysterious final act, though, The Great Buddha+ suggests that higher forces may be working to realign the injustices. It’s a hopeful move for a film that has already portrayed humanity at both its best and worst. 

The Great Buddha+ screens Saturday, Nov. 3 at 7:00 p.m. and Wednesday, Nov. 7 at 6:35 p.m., both days at the Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema. Buy tickets now.

Tags: SLIFF Joshua Ray