A Grab Bag of Reels

The spring weather seems overrated in light of this year's Mpls./St. Paul International Film Festival: As in the 15 years past, U Film Society director Al Milgrom is preparing--at the 12th hour, of course--to throw the whole wide world up on the screen.

Befitting a fest whose m.o. has always been to think global and act local, the '98 MSPIFF walks the earth but ends up in our own backyard. So while the dizzying schedule of 85 films represents the little-seen likes of Tunisia, Macedonia, Israel, Finland, and the Congo, it also includes a program of Minnesota-made shorts in addition to new features by current Twin Citians such as Eric Tretbar (Snow) and Rolf Belgum (Driver 23), and former ones such as Sarah Jacobson (Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore), David Mackay (The Lesser Evil), and an enigmatic third whose portrait of a certain final frontier must remain the fest's first-ever "mystery film" (screening at Bell Auditorium on Friday, April 24 at 9 p.m.).

For the next two and a half weeks, Milgrom's unique brand of community outreach will spread the cinema all over town, with screenings at Bell Auditorium, Oak Street Cinema, Suburban World, the Edina Theater, the Skyway, the Knollwood, the State, and St. Anthony Main. The latter two venues play host to opening night and closing night, respectively, providing the year's most remarkable examples of local boys made good: Garret Williams's Spark (reviewed below) and Wendell Jon Andersson's With or Without You, both of which hit us where we live.

--Rob Nelson

Spark

Brilliantly directed by former Minneapolitan Garret Williams, this intense and ambitious road movie drives home the complexity of racism both real and perceived. Shot in the California desert in a mere 22 days, on a modest budget that included Williams's grant money from a Blockbuster Film Fund award, the film follows a harrowing week in the life of Nina and Byron (Nicole Ari Parker, Terrence Howard), a young African American couple whose BMW hits a dog on the way from Chicago to L.A., forcing them to hole up in a sinister small town while their car is fixed by a weird and possibly racist white boy (Brendan Sexton III). Call it a road-movie noir with an unusual degree of substance--or an insightful study of race relations that also works extremely well as a bare-bones thriller. Either way, Williams seems to have paved the road to a long career. (Nelson) State Theatre, Friday at 7:30 p.m.

Barbara

Set in the weather-beaten harbor town of Torshavn circa 1760, this rather wild Danish costume drama is especially recommended to those with a weakness for stories of doomed lovers dressed in tight corsets and pastors' collars. Interestingly, Barbara also carries intimations of film noir, as the mysterious title character (Anneke von der Lippe) meets the town's new vicar (Lars Simonsen) and, being the happy widow of two previous vicars, proceeds to make his life miserable. Co-writer/director Nils Malmros based the screenplay on a classic of Danish literature from 1939, evidently finding in it the material for a dozen lurid melodramas. To wit: While boatloads of French soldiers take advantage of the town's compliant women, it takes only a fireside glimpse of Barbara's naked body for the vicar to ignore the advice of his religious elders, marry her, and enjoy a few rounds of hot sex. But soon her attention begins to drift to Andreas (Peter Reichhardt), a student from the University of Copenhagen, and then the vicar starts to feel that God is torturing him, and then the weather turns bad, and on and on. To the extent that this long movie mirrors the vicar's interminable angst, it's quite effective. (Nelson) Bell Auditorium, Friday at 7 p.m.

Kayla

It might sound a bit harsh to say that the most compelling performance in this Canadian tearjerker about a boy and his dog is given by the dog. But what a dog! Eager to befriend a fatherless young farm lad steeped in self-pity, the lone wolf of the title agrees to wear a leash, become the lead in a sled race, and save a girl with a broken leg while risking his own health. Director Nicholas Kendall should give the dog a bone: Without the canine's charisma, Kayla would have been all bark and no bite. As with any period piece--this one's set in the rural Canada of the mid-'20s--the packaging is everything. So it's all the more amazing that, amid the burden of bad French-Canadian accents, Martha Stewart-style fashion spreads, an overdone plot, and a predictable ending, the titular husky still manages to pull the narrative load. (Christina Schmitt) Edina Theater, Saturday at 11:30 a.m.; and Oak Street Cinema, Sunday at 1:15 p.m.

Riding the Rails

This vivid documentary about Depression-era trainhopping chugs along a 72-minute stretch of short stories culled from the testimonies of some 3,000 surviving "rail hoboes." Talking-head interviews with the now-elderly riders, evocative archival footage, searing folk songs by Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers, and a well-placed clip from the social-problem melodrama Wild Boys of the Road (1933) flesh out a decade in which 4 million Americans--including 250,000 teenagers--took to the tracks looking for odd jobs across a barren landscape of hunger strikes, riots, and laws punishing vagrancy with hard labor or prison time. One man explains how his family "went from middle-class gentility right down to scrabble-ass poor overnight." A rare female rider tells of how she left her Wyoming farm at age 15 after an ornery cow hit her in the face with its dirty tail. And a septuagenarian gent who continues riding to this day calls it "the last free, red-blooded adventure available to Americans." The film's own mood travels from the teenage exhilaration of escape to the adult reality of complete despair, eventually bringing it all back home in the weathered faces of those who remember a time when this was clearly not the land of opportunity. (Nelson) Bell Auditorium, Saturday at 1 p.m.

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