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.

Paul Monette: The Brink of Summer's End

As activist author Paul Monette (1945-1995) embraced joy and rage, transforming grief into lamentation and pleasure into praise, this unflinching chronicle of the AIDS epidemic becomes a paean to his life. Where Monette's famed memoir, Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story, explored his 25-year struggle to come out, writer-director Monte Bramer here records the fruits of that labor on film, documenting his odyssey as a writer and, even more importantly, as a lover. The Brink of Summer's End is at once a collective biography of the gay-rights movement and an intimate portrait of Monette and his lovers (Roger Horwitz, Steven Kolzak, and Winston Wilde); based on snapshots and home movies (and narrated by Linda Hunt), it strikes a poignant balance between the epic and the mundane. Considering Monette's bid to create an inspiring mythology for gays and lesbians, the film's hagiographic style seems entirely apt. (Leslie Dunlap) Bell Auditorium, Saturday at 3 p.m.

Idiot Box

Three separate plots unfold in this Australian comedy, the obvious question being: How will they all converge? In the main story, Mick (Jeremy Sims) is a hopeless romantic and a dreadful poet, while his pal Kev (Ben Mendelsohn) is a violent anarchist with a screw loose. Together they make a silly pair of unemployed blokes who sit around all day drinking beer, watching TV, and squabbling with Kev's mom and each other. While broke Kev cooks up a half-baked scheme to rob a bank, the film's second story has two police detectives investigating another string of robberies in the area. Then, just when the movie seems about to become an obvious farce of mistaken identity, a third story tells of a married couple trying to cope with the wife's drug addiction. Director David Caesar's method of cutting between these disparate plots keeps Idiot Box fully packed, even though its payoff comes up empty. (Mark Bazer) Oak Street Cinema, Saturday at 5:30 p.m.

Minnesota Shorts Showcase

Sponsored by the locally based IFP/North, this third annual collection of homegrown shorts has a potent hour-long doc at its center. Twin Cities producer-director John Whitehead's "Wannabe: Life and Death in a Small Town Gang" explores the 1995 murder/suicide that claimed the lives of four teenage gang members--three white, one black--in the filmmaker's mostly white middle-class hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin. Narrating in voiceover, Whitehead begins his film with the premise that such shocking violence couldn't possibly have occurred in a town of "quiet neighborhoods and leafy parks" where "ethnic diversity meant either Catholic or Lutheran"; then, through a series of unsettling interviews with the boys' friends and parents, he begins to uncover the gang's roots. In particular, two of the boys' well-meaning but dangerously clueless single moms unwittingly reveal their influence on the events, having refused to accept responsibility or put the gang's behavior in context. In turn, Whitehead treads a bit lightly on the racial dimensions of the case, but his final conclusion that the tragedy stems mainly from parental neglect--with the gang representing its "wannabe"s' desperate attempt at a reconstituted family--is persuasively argued. The "Minnesota Shorts Showcase" also includes the previously screened "Male Bonding" by T. J. Larson and "Forbidden City" by Matt Ehling; a reception for the filmmakers at the Minneapolis Town Hall Brewing Pub follows the screening. (Nelson) Bell Auditorium, Saturday at 7 p.m.

La vie de Jesus

Not the Christ story, thank God, but it is a passion play of sorts. Just a hair away from being a skinhead, Freddy (David Douche) is an unemployed and epileptic 20-year-old in the northern French town of Bailleul, alternately hanging out with his crew of biker buddies and pressuring his girlfriend Marie (Marjorie Cottreel) for sex. And that's about the extent of plot in this snail-paced piece of naturalist melodrama, a kind of rural Kids cast entirely with nonactors whose blank stares convey an impending outbreak of mischief. Accordingly, first-time director Bruno Dumont favors endless shots of the kids idly cruising the vacant countryside and a sex scene of such clinical explicitness as to suggest that what Freddy and Marie are sharing isn't love. Still, like an overrevved scooter, the film gathers an aching momentum as the protagonist stews in his jealousy over Marie's Arab suitor (Kader Chaatouf) and quietly plots an un-Christlike revenge. Highly recommended. (Nelson) Oak Street Cinema, Saturday at 7:15 p.m. and Sunday at 3:15 p.m.

Let's Get Lost

Not to be confused with the Chet Baker doc of the same name, this Danish comedy-(melo)drama jazzes up its own picture of youthful depression with stylistic allusions to Truffaut's early films of the French New Wave. Shot none-too-well with handheld cameras in low-contrast black and white, it follows the newly jilted young Julie (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and three of her layabout male buddies who, much to her chagrin, like to hang around her apartment drinking beer and watching soccer games on TV. Julie is also bummed that her ex (Martin Kongstad) is now practicing the sexual skills she'd taught him on someone else; in the film's rawest scene, she breaks into the guy's apartment and starts sniffing his pillows for the scent of a woman. Otherwise, to borrow a title from Truffaut, it's never quite clear how "such a gorgeous kid" like her could be so blue. Just as its slacker protagonists seem stuck in an inexplicable holding pattern, Let's Get Lost appears caught somewhere between a traditional character study and a vérité portrait of a new Danish youth culture--neither of which rings altogether true. (Nelson) Oak Street Cinema, Saturday at 9:15 p.m.

World's Best Commercials 1997

An annual package comes better wrapped than ever this year, resulting in a wholly satisfying experience despite the episodic nature of the thing. This time around, the 30-second to two-minute spots are grouped thematically (for a total of 75 minutes), as if to create a lesson for novice advertising students. The "Make 'Em Laugh" chapter gets the show off to a comical start, while "Demonstrate the Product...Creatively" features Levi's, the English laundry soap Persil, and a South African hands-free car phone that's put to use in a potentially embarrassing scenario. (The other sections are titled "Make 'Em Think," "Hire a Celebrity," and "Keep It Simple.") While many of the ads are familiar not only from our own airwaves but also last December's British Advertising Awards, there are sufficient other clips from unlikely and interesting locales, including Thailand, Khyrgyzistan, New Zealand, and Argentina. Better yet is this program's evidence that at least some advertisers understand how genuine silence and a great storyboard can be more effective than a noisy jingle: Many of the strongest ads here are little stories of few words, such as the one in which a Danish guy wakes up his wife by spraying for bugs, only to discover that his "insecticide" is actually paint. (Phil Anderson) Bell Auditorium, Sunday at 1 p.m. and Tuesday at 9:30 p.m.

A Self-Made Hero

This offbeat parable from French director Jacques Audiard (Baxter) is refreshingly playful for being about graft, cowardice, and deceit during World War II. Mathieu Kassovitz (who worked behind the camera as the writer-director of Hate) is well-cast here as Albert Dehousse, a mousy civilian in northern France who resolves to shake off his naive and spineless past, literally reinventing himself as a heroic veteran of the Resistance. As he lies and connives his way from destitution in Paris to a high-ranking post in French-occupied Germany, a string of faux interviews and modern-day commentaries engage a slick satirical subtext. It's startling, actually, that this deft blend of mock-umentary, childhood fantasy, and broad satire never once trips over its own clever laces. Just as the films of R.W. Fassbinder offer a coded critique of Germany's postwar cultural amnesia, this artful adaptation of a Jean-Francois Deniau novel raises sharp questions (and eyebrows) about the selective memory of France after the last liberation. (James Diers) Bell Auditorium, Monday at 7 p.m.

Germans

Based on a play by Leon Kruczkowski, this anti-Nazi diatribe--replete as it is with uninteresting stock characters, didactic dialogue, and unintentionally comic overacting--feels just like an evening of bad community theater. Hunger's Per Oscarsson plays a biology professor in Hitler's Germany who, despite his agreement to accept a government award for his work, displays physical discomfort at any mention of the Third Reich. This good guy is cast in high relief against his wife and daughter-in-law, two shrill witches who bear no distinguishable traits beyond their blind devotion to the mother country. As bad as they are, though, these ladies don't hold a candle to the professor's maniacally evil son, an SS officer who starts a typical day by blowing the head off a defenseless prisoner, and who reaches near-orgasmic heights of pleasure while saluting the Nazi flag. His sister Ruth, a free-spirited actress who provides the opportunity for a gratuitous sex scene, rounds out the cast of characters faced with the film's central dilemma: whether to help a Jewish refugee who lands on their front door. The film is full of unclear motivations, and an overdone, all-string musical score (imagine the shower scene from Psycho played ad infinitum) just makes it more unbearable. (Carolyn Petrie) Bell Auditorium, Tuesday at 7 p.m.

Chiapas

It's quite the class reunion when a real-life Irish couple travels to the Mexican province of Chiapas to visit their old college friend, a former student radical now working with the Zapatista rebels. With two small children in tow, the couple moves in with an indigenous Mayan family under the protection of the Zapatistas, and this documentary records the details of their lives together. As the film nearly fell prey to its funders' view that "Mexican rebels are out of fashion," the end product shows the strain of its last-minute preparation on the parents' worried faces and in the crew's naïveté about the scorching conditions in an area 600 miles south of Mexico City. There's the unvarying diet of refried beans and corn tortillas, the slavish fieldwork, the unrelenting June rains, and the unbelievable mud. There's the inevitable way in which poverty limits one's activities to working, eating, and sleeping. There's the Mexican army, which remains a silent, ever-present threat, and the ski-masked rebels who won't grant in-depth interviews. Amid these realities, Chiapas's strength lies in its sobering honesty: When the Irishman's daughter becomes sick the family considers retreating to the Emerald Isle, while the Zapatista family has no choice but to continue dealing bravely with its own sick child. (Schmitt) Oak Street Cinema, Tuesday at 7:15 p.m.

Lou Reed: Rock & Roll Heart

Not a bad little treatment, this hour-long deification doc finds ways to make Lou Reed look like a punk-rock Martin Scorsese. The plot: Reed reads Joyce with Delmore Schwartz as a college student at Syracuse U and then invents oppositional rock 'n' roll. The film features tons of wonderful VU footage, including a glimpse or two of Andy Warhol, the spectral figure in Lou's fledgling career. The '70s and '80s fly by with nary a shake of the doc's talking heads and then, before you can say "Sweet Jane," we're back with the Velvets circa 1993. A slew of New York rock-world royalty--from Jim Carroll and Patti Smith to drones like Thurston Moore and Rolling Stone's obsequious David Fricke--pitches in neat anecdotes and semi-insightful conjecture while the film successfully dresses up sweet Lou in the same myth VH-1 might reserve for, say, Eric Clapton. No mean feat for one of the most intransigent semipopulists in all of rock 'n' roll. (Jon Dolan) Oak Street Cinema, Thursday, April 23 at 7:30 p.m.

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