The following are staff-chosen highlights from the second week of the St. Louis International Film Festival. For a complete list of films and special events, visit www.cinemastlouis.org.
The Aura (Fabián Bielinsky ). The nameless recluse at the center of this noirish thriller is a mass of contradictions. An epileptic taxidermist with a photographic memory, he is so emotionally detached from the world around him that he never smiles and barely speaks, yet he harbors a pronounced superiority complex. He shrinks from guns and hunting, but watches impassively as men are shot dead. Convinced that he can commit the perfect robbery, the taxidermist takes advantage of a criminal opportunity that soon spirals out of control. A hypnotic unease hangs over the film, owing partly to Checco Varese's wide-screen lensing, which dwarfs the characters against their bucolic but menacing woodland surroundings; partly to the constant hum of Lucio Godoy's murmuring piano-driven score; and partly to the unsettling central performance of Ricardo Darin as a character both off-putting and sympathetic and impossible to read. The late Argentine writer-director Fabián Bielinsky (Nine Queens) earns high marks for atmospheric intensity and some inventive narrative devices, but the protagonist proves so opaque that the viewer never really gets drawn into his plight. Screens at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, November 18, at the Plaza Frontenac.
Beautiful Daughters (Josh Aronson). For those tired of watching the same Vagina Monologues every V-Day, there is now a thought-provoking alternative. Presented under the direction of playwright Eve Ensler, Beautiful Daughters is a behind-the-scenes look at an all-transgendered Monologues cast. The cast members weave a broad tapestry of stories ranging from hate crimes (one cast member's boyfriend was beaten to death upon discovery of her trans- identity) to marriage (keeping the groom's family in the transsexual dark) to awkward family picnics. As Ensler interviews the cast, she has a moment of catharsis that inspires her to add a transgendered monologue to the script. The film's title echoes the sentiment of parents who've accepted their transgendered children, and Daughters allows the audience to accept the gray reality of third genderism. Screens at 5 p.m. Saturday, November 18, at the Tivoli.
Candy (Neil Armfield). If you didn't get your fill of Halloween treats, the beginning of Candy, an Australian film based on Luke Davies' novel of the same name, should satisfy you. This cavity-sweet portrayal of the start of the love affair between Dan (Heath Ledger) and Candy (Abbie Cornish) and heroin, dubbed the "Heaven" portion of the film, makes believe that hard-core drug use is all hot sex, hand-holding and even light prostitution, just for some extra money no big deal. But, hey, you get to see Ledger's ass (heaven, indeed!), so we're not exactly complaining. When the film descends to the "Earth" segment, things get a little more real. The lovers quarrel, Candy finds out she's preggers (warning: What we're going to call the "Trainspotting effect" is, well, in effect with this portion of the plotline), and the pair decides to get clean. Eventually, they fall further down into " Hell," where things aren't fabulous at all. The couple's love is pushed to the limits, and, in the end, you may want to hold your significant other a little closer and thank your lucky stars your relationship doesn't have these kinds of challenges (hopefully). Screens at 9:30 p.m. Friday, November 17, at the Tivoli.
Changing Times (André Téchiné). If the title, knee-jerk cast, pop-song intro and schmaltzy plot of his new film are any indication, once-cutting-edge director André Téchiné is now the French mainstream the premier pilot of conventional, high-toned soap opera. Still, he's a master at texture, and Times is rich with thoughtful messiness, from the autumnal angst darkening the visage of Gérard Depardieu, to the stormy evocation of post-colonial life. Set in Tangier almost entirely among bourgeois French émigrés, Téchiné's film obsessively detours toward the background of the oppressed Arab poor, day workers, refugees, rampant Euro-development and pious Muslim women forced to work at a Moroccan McDonald's. These contemplations almost form a second movie, upstaged by the dramatics caused by Depardieu's unhappy suit, who is actually in country to woo Catherine Deneuve's radio host, for whom he's held a candle for 30 years. The screenplay never coalesces, the political subtext is impotent, and the romance climaxes with a deus ex machina that shoots the film's credibility out of the water. Screens at 7 p.m. Thursday, November 16, at the Plaza Frontenac.
Cocaine Cowboys (Billy Corben). Recounting the true events that inspired Miami Vice and Brian De Palma's Scarface, Billy Corben's documentary one-ups the recent big-screen Vice by actually getting the TV show's composer, Jan Hammer, to do his soundtrack (see, Michael Mann, that shouldn't have been so hard!). Corben's so intent on getting the whole story that he devotes perhaps a bit too much time to the early traffickers, who ferried bricks of cocaine from Colombia on small private planes. But about halfway through the movie, the focus shifts to a convicted killer named Rivi, who began as a small-time car thief and eventually found himself in the employ of "Godmother" Griselda Blanco, a fascinating and temperamental character whose moods jacked up the violence levels in Miami during the '80s. Much of the archival footage is from old TV news, and the transfer to the big screen does the image quality no favors, but the story is fascinating, if a little overlong, and makes you want to see a high-profile, big-name Griselda Blanco movie happen, like, tomorrow. Screens at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, November 18, at the Tivoli.
Luke Y. Thompson
From Subway with Love (Filip Renc). If that plucky seeker of bliss Bridget Jones lived in the Czech Republic, she might be something like Laura (Zuzana Kanoczova), the 23-year-old heroine of Filip Renc's spirited comedy. When Laura discovers that the billboards on her train to work have been replaced by overheated love letters to an unnamed woman from someone called Oliver, Laura reveals to friends that she and she alone is the object of the mystery man's affections. Enter some vivid complications and some revealing flashbacks: 40-year-old Oliver (Marek Vasut) has not only conducted an affair with Laura; he was also the one true love of her difficult mother more than 20 years ago. Satirical and sharply observant, Renc's work represents another indication that filmmakers in Central and Eastern Europe continue to expand their horizons in the post-Soviet era. Screens at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, November 19, at the Plaza Frontenac.
Man Push Cart (Ramin Bahrani). Shaped like a relentless blues chant, Ramin Bahrani's hand-size film casts a watchful eye on an overlooked New York ubiquity: the street-corner coffee-and-bagel vendor. Whatever else happens in the life of Bahrani's Pakistani hero Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi), the rhythmic routine of stocking, pulling and tending the massive snack cart dominates his foreground. Shooting in a tiny unit on 35mm, Bahrani scans the treadmill so carefully we could do the job ourselves. Occurring largely during the underslept, four-to-eight urban graveyard shift, Ahmad's situation is dished out in small, teasing servings: He was once a budding pop star in Lahore, he has a son currently kept with his bitter in-laws, he's a widower. More vitally to him, he's $500 away from owning his cart, and the Bicycle Thieves schema of fragile subsistence economics hovers over his days. Coming armed with a small battery of festival awards, Man Push Cart is a diminutive film, finally vying for a neorealist vibe, it lacks the Italian history makers' narrative urgency. Screens at 5 p.m. Friday, November 17, at the Plaza Frontenac.