Reeling In the Mpls./St. Paul International Film Festival

Ninety-three films, three projectors, and the whole wide world

At nearly every film festival around the world, audiences encounter the same sight: bleary-eyed programmers proudly introducing the fruits of their labor to the most eager audience a particular movie might ever have. Yet what exactly it is they're proud of can be hard to tell in advance, given the anxiously alliterative and hastily hyperbolic language used to describe just about every film in a festival catalog. Take the most recent Sundance program, for example: Does Jawbreaker really represent "the dazzling directing debut from Darren Stein" and "an ingenious tale as tough and as tasty as its namesake"? Could A Walk on the Moon be "romantic yet very authentic" as well as "charmingly comic but intense"? Faced with a hundred or so unknown titles, how does the time-crunched ticket buyer possibly distinguish between what is "wonderfully realized" and what's "superbly rendered"?

Enter the critic, whose option to provide an opinionated consumer guide--rather than, say, a 2,000-word treatise on the prevalence of serial sexual infidelity in world cinema--becomes a civic duty around this time of year. Fortunately, and as usual, the latest installment of U Film Society's massive Mpls./St. Paul International Film Festival is a pleasure to peruse, as it includes a carefully curated 93 films from 35 countries, among them such far-flung destinations as South Africa, Lebanon, Vietnam, and Yugoslavia, just to name a few. (This not counting, of course, whatever festival director Al Milgrom decides to toss in at the last minute.)

The marathon begins Friday with Run Lola Run, director Tom Tykwer's breathless German hit about a Berlin woman's race to save her beau, which headlines an opening-night gala at the Historic State Theatre. Then, for the next three weeks, the action continues across the river with screenings at Bell Auditorium and Oak Street Cinema, plus a few off-campus locations to be announced as the fest progresses.

One of the rare adventures of this project is discovering new wonders of the world--movies that have often never played in this country, and may never again. While Iran's The May Lady and Yugoslavia's Wounds have cultivated a buzz on the international fest circuit, local audiences can establish their own word of mouth for such rarely seen work. One steadfast pair of Twin Cities fans who've spent the past 17 years reeling in the U Film festival are profiled below in "Taking it All In."

A word to the wise: Given U Film's singular devotion to throwing the whole wide world up on the screen, the dates and times included with the capsule reviews below should be double-checked by calling the society hotline at (612) 627-4430. Happy hunting.

óRob Nelson

Run Lola Run

An indie smash in its native Germany, Run Lola Run is Pulp Fiction on foot. It's also further evidence that a new generation has abandoned intellectual German filmmaking (read: slow and boring) in favor of the American post-Pulp approach to telling a story through hyped-up action and a really loud soundtrack. With a pace that makes Speed seem like My Dinner with Andre, the film follows a young punker's attempts to save her boyfriend from certain death by literally running all over Berlin. As it opens, Lola (Franka Potente) receives a call from her flipped-out boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu), who's in deep Scheisse. He has bungled his audition as a bagman for local mobsters, and he's history if he can't produce 50,000 D-marks by high noon--which happens to be in, ahem, less than 15 minutes. Lola immediately dashes to her father's office--a bank!--and then tries a few other desperate methods to raise the cash, until she arrives at the designated meeting spot, where Manni is in the midst of a holdup while simultaneously dueling with the police. To divulge any more of the plot would be to spoil Lola's central gimmick, which basically involves an inventive series of structural twists, each one cranking up the suspense. Hot young Berlin director Tom Twyker made this movie as a fun exercise, and the anything-goes spirit of it shines through in his use of animated sequences, whimsical photo montages of his characters' futures, and a mute cameo appearance by a top German actor as a bearded bum. Enjoy. (Clark Parsons) Historic State Theatre, Friday at 7:30 p.m.

 

Menage à Trois

Not French, despite the name, and not nearly as sexy as it sounds, this droll Russian farce twists the titular love triangle into a charmingly square romance. Indeed, this two-guys-and-a-girl movie is so stringently unhip and old-fashioned as to resemble silent comedy. In a contemporary Moscow fantasy world whose streets are filled with smiling shopkeepers and kissing couples, an unemployed actor (Sergei Makovetsky) who has just left his wife arrives without warning on the doorstep of his married friend (Yevgeni Sidikhin), whose photographer spouse (Elena Yakovleva) immediately returns the visitor's hungry gazes. Before long, the two strangers are talking intimately and the wife is sneaking around the apartment late at night; then, when the naive, soon-to-be-cuckolded hubby goes away on a business trip, the budding lovers are free to obsess further about whether they'll consummate the attraction. Director Pyotr Todorovsky (Wartime Romance) hints occasionally at film noir, but the old screwball vibe prevails, helped by a succession of antique dance records that sound like they're being spun on a Victrola, and by Makovetsky's vaguely Tatiesque turn as the rumpled dork of an actor whose idea of flirtation involves pulling himself along by his necktie in the manner of a vintage comic. (Nelson) Oak Street Cinema, Friday at 7:30 p.m.

 

Welcome to Woop Woop

Like director Stephan Elliott's previous film, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, this bawdy hoot boasts an unexpectedly resonant emotional oomph. In the Australian outback, a petty con man (Jonathon Schaech) on the lam from the Mob shags a cheeky (in more ways than one) hitchhiker and wakes up drugged and betrothed in a pigsty in Woop Woop, a desert town that has literally been wiped off the map. While some of the human grotesquerie and gross-out imagery is reminiscent of the Farrelly Brothers (for instance, the motley Woop Woopians make their living turning kangaroo roadkill into dog food), the integrity of the narrative and the quirks of the characters are attuned sharply enough for Woop Woop to avoid outright caricature. But Elliott's greatest triumph stems from the casting of '60s leading man Rod Taylor as the debauched Daddy-O, the town leader who tap-dances with jumper cables on his heels and guns down any person trying to scale the hill leading out of town. Looking like Joe Cocker on his third morning-after, Taylor delivers the performance of his career. His speech describing how his ragtag crew took back the town after it was condemned as a toxic asbestos mine is the sort of preposterously gorgeous soliloquy that crystallizes why a good indie is such a durable delight. (Britt Robson) Oak Street Cinema, Friday at 9:30 p.m.

 

World's Best Commercials 1998

I counted no fewer than five nude, bald, heavy white guys featured in this year's Best Commercials collection (all modeled along the lines of Miller Lite's popular "Twist" dude), plus a good eight ads poking fun at macho men in the service of Volkswagen, "Bachelors' Noodles," the Weather Channel, and Japp candy ("more energy, more balls")--not to mention two cross-dressers employed to promote an Animal Placement Service ("That's the great thing about pets. They really don't care") and a wet-vac(!). Does this signal the dawning of a new gender-bending era for advertising? Hardly, since the dumpy male butts of ad men's jokes embody a class-at-a-glance technique designed to assuage viewers' own body complexes while reminding them of their "weight" as consumers. And family-friendly, class-happy ads directed at Visa cardholders and Hallmark card buyers trump the hip spots in any event. Perhaps that's what's most disappointing about the '98 crop: While the "world's best" ads promise to undermine traditional expectations, they use the likes of Muhammad Ali and Bob Dylan (Apple), Cat Stevens (Telecom), and Beck (Volvo), together with the cinematic tricks of Spike Lee (HBO) and Quentin Tarantino (Pillsbury Pizza Pops), to sell some awfully familiar formulas. (Leslie Dunlap) Bell Auditorium, Saturday at 3:15 p.m. and Tuesday at 9:40 p.m.

 

The Man Who Drove with Mandela

"I got out with the help of my gay networks...and the diamonds in my underwear," recalls the title character of his flight from South Africa in 1962. No, it's not a scene from a sexy spy thriller, but a moment in the life of Cecil Williams, a gay Communist, theater director, and freedom fighter who posed as Nelson Mandela's white "boss" in order to smuggle the black revolutionary back into South Africa. Directed by Greta Schiller (Paris Was a Woman, Before Stonewall), this exhilarating docudrama recounts Williams's story via interviews with lovers and comrades, in addition to rare home movies, newsreels, apartheid propaganda films, and fictionalized monologues drawn from his diary entries and letters (enacted here by Corin Redgrave). At a time when gay sex was as politically dangerous as anti-apartheid activity, Williams combined the two, struggling to close the distance between black comrades and wealthy white queers. For its part, the film offers some stunning glimpses into South Africa's gay underground of the '50s, as well as a subtle history lesson on the mechanics of apartheid and its destruction. (Dunlap) Bell Auditorium, Saturday at 5:15 p.m., Sunday at 1:00 and 5:00 p.m.

 

Desert Blue

If you can't say anything nice, a film's distributor is wont to argue, then don't say anything until after the movie opens its official run. But that's always sounded like censorship to us--so how 'bout if we bury the lead instead? Fair enough. Moving on, what we can report is that with this feature-length followup to his rigorously urban Hurricane Streets, writer-director Morgan J. Freeman reveals that he can make a film set in the opposite sort of environment--that is, the fictional desert town of Baxter, California (pop. 89), renowned for the giant pink ice-cream cone erected at its border. And as further proof of his range, Freeman has cast some pretty cool actors this time out, including Brendan Sexton III (who wasn't quite as cool back when Freeman cast him in Hurricane Streets), Christina Ricci (who was cool before she was cast in this), and the evidently emerging comedy team of Kate Hudson and Casey Affleck (who were cool mainly for being related to other cool actors when they were both cast in 200 Cigarettes). These four performers, along with John Heard and Sara Gilbert, appear as highly eccentric characters in an independent motion picture that...um, opens in June. (Nelson) Bell Auditorium, Saturday at 7:15 p.m.

 

Chile: The Obstinate Memory

You'll need a better-than-average understanding of Chilean history in order to grasp the subtleties of this documentary about post-Pinochet Chile. Filmmaker Patricio Guzman (who documented Pinochet's 1973 coup in The Battle for Chile) has said that he's interested in the vagaries of memory and the costs of both embracing and forgetting an ugly past. Toward that end, he interviews former comrades of Communist president Allende, supporters of Pinochet, family members of "the disappeared," and bourgeois students who have grown up being taught that the coup was a necessary evil. Film footage and still photographs from the coup are juxtaposed with peaceful shots of now-prosperous Santiago, as the documentary's subjects deliver conflicting versions of history. Except for one former Allende supporter, a Tai Chi-practicing professor, no one seems to have reached a clear understanding of where they stand in relation to their history. That includes the filmmaker, who sometimes muddles the story further by expressing a poetic-romantic view of Allende and of his own task as a documentarian. (Kate Sullivan) Oak Street Cinema, Saturday at 3:30 p.m.

 

Rabbit in the Moon

Emiko Omori's documentary portrait of Japanese Americans' internment during World War II is replete with images of shattered ruin: desolate barracks, gray memorial stones, damaged photos of proud families, shards of cups and saucers. These remnants are a testament to lives torn asunder in 1942 when Japanese Americans were taken from their communities to concentration camps in the barren West. The film begins with an eloquent summation of how this horror was internalized by its victims, as Omori, whose mother died soon after her release from one of the camps, ponders her decision not to have children: "Like me, my child would be an American trapped in the body of an unwanted alien race. Could I conceal from my child how I wished he or she were more white, so as not to suffer the rejection I had just because of my face?" The shame and silence surrounding the internment era, both in the director's family and the larger community, gives the film its main subject as well as its purpose. Interviews with internees reveal a painful history of division--from family disintegration to strife between those who cooperated with the authorities and resisters. Rabbit in the Moon offers an instructive perspective on this sad history, one that, having been overshadowed by the atrocities of the Holocaust, continues to be neglected by our government and the internees themselves, many of whom have chosen silence as a way to try to piece their lives back together. (Jim MacTavish) Oak Street Cinema, Saturday at 8:00 p.m.

 

Suzie Washington

"What do you do when your country commits suicide?" asks Nana (Birgit Doll), the heroine of Austrian director Florian Flicker's 1998 refugee travelogue and an émigré from one of the chaotic Eastern European provinces into which we're probably lobbing bombs right at this moment. To answer her question: If you can, you run like hell. After getting caught with a fake American visa en route to Los Angeles, Nana slips through customs in Vienna, appropriates the name of a dumpy American tourist named Suzie, and sets off into the purgatorial playland of Austria. Like a latter-day Alice, she wanders through postcard-perfect mountains and quaint lake resorts, interacting with eccentric locals and barely eluding police. It's the stuff of a fugitive-on-the-lam thriller, but Flicker renders Nana's journey in such a sluggish, offbeat haze that the tension rarely builds beyond that of a technically adept vacation video. In a laudable attempt to capture the psychic state of a stranger in a strange land, Flicker keeps his camera focused on Nana's weary, impassive face throughout the film. In turn, Doll delivers a performance so understated that she is routinely upstaged by fence posts and sheep. (Peter Ritter) Oak Street Cinema, Saturday at 9:45 p.m., Sunday at 7:15 p.m.

 

Wounds

Thanks in part to the success of Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (featured in the fest two years ago), Srdjan Dragojevic is currently Yugoslavia's hottest young filmmaker and arguably its bleakest visionary. As with Pretty Village, the humor in Dragojevic's latest endeavor--about a pair of adolescent criminals in contemporary Belgrade--is so doggedly black as to make even Happiness seem joyful. Wounds takes place between 1991 and 1996, an unsavory five years during which Yugoslavia went to war in Croatia and Bosnia; withstood the second worst hyperinflation in world history; watched its economy collapse; and nearly toppled Slobodan Milosevic. Pinki (Milan Maric) and Kraut (Dusan Pekic) are a couple of rebellious but harmless teens who, over the course of two years, become Belgrade's youngest and most bloodthirsty gangsters. The transformation, under the guidance of local smuggler Dickie (Dragan Bjelogrlic), starts with lessons in how to get laid and graduates quickly to cocaine abuse, extortion, robbery, and the use of heavy weapons. Yugoslavia's political and military mess is always in the background, playing on the television set of Pinki's baffled, Milosevic-idolizing parents. In Dragojevic's view, Belgrade is a giant cesspool of deprivation and violence, with the road to delinquency being one of the few remaining ways out of it. Although Wounds suffers from less-than-adequate translation, the director's intense visual style mostly makes up for it. (Jelena Petrovic) Bell Auditorium, Sunday at 7:00 p.m.; and Oak Street Cinema, Monday at 9:30 p.m.

 

The Reckoning

This four-part British documentary about Radovan Karadzic, one of the main architects of the Bosnian war, is hard to stomach if you've been following the news lately. The sense of déjà vu comes not just from the eerie archival footage of burnt villages and Yugoslav army convoys, but from the desolate notion that just weeks ago war in the Balkans could still be spoken of in the past tense. Following the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord, Radovan Karadzic and general Ratko Mladic were indicted by the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague, and although their whereabouts aren't unknown, the two villains have yet to be arrested. Kevin Sims's documentary focuses mostly on Karadzic, a mediocre poet and former psychiatrist who, via the customary nationalism route, mutated into a mass murderer. There are heart-wrenching interviews with his mother, a proud Montenegrin widow who raised her son to be loyal and good, as well as with Karadzic's former friends, all of whom now loathe him. Sims often simplifies the historical and political background of the war, casting what was a murky, grizzly conflict as a clear-cut tale of victims and villains. It's a tolerable transgression if you don't take sides; otherwise, it might well infuriate you. (Petrovic) Bell Auditorium, Sunday at 9:00 p.m.

 

Kisangani Diary

"This is a story about a people on the run. By the time you see it, most of those in the film will be dead." So begins French director Hubert Sauper's devastating 45-minute documentary, which follows a 1997 U.N. expedition as it "discovers" thousands of Rwandan refugees on the shores of the Congo River, organizes relief camps, and watches while so-called liberators gun down the survivors. Appearing somewhere between an unholy, greenish-yellow home video and a moving UNICEF ad, Sauper's diary also evokes the timeless, placeless spirit of John Sayles's recent Men with Guns, especially when one of the refugees explains that they've been attacked by "the military. We don't know which." Sauper describes his own mission: "Against my will, I became witness to an indescribable apocalypse," an experience he replicates here to shocking effect. Still, the question remains whether the pain Sauper documents in such excruciating, even intrusive detail--combined with the documentary's curious lack of historical context--might just as likely immobilize benumbed onlookers as radicalize them. (Dunlap) Oak Street Cinema, Sunday at 3:30 p.m.

 

The Stowaway

This dramatic import from the Netherlands is a sweet, if visually uninspired, story of cross-cultural kismet in post-Soviet Europe. The first half takes place in Uzbekistan, in a bleak fishing village whose lake has dried up. Orazbaj (the sexy Bekzod Mukhamedkarimov) is a fisherman with nothing to do but comfort his aging father as the old man works compulsively to restore the family fishing boat--which sits like a dinosaur skeleton on the sand. Continuing a story line so universal it's almost mythic, Orazbaj leaves home, stowing away on a cargo boat that lands him in Rotterdam. There, he is taken in by the wife of a crew member (Ariane Schluter) and, with the help of her young son (Rick van Castel), he begins to learn the language and ways of the Dutch. The relationship between Orazbaj and his new family develops with such organic delicacy that, forgetting how unlikely this story is, we feel compelled to ponder deeper questions. Can a person just walk away from his past? Can one overcome his or her nationality and claim citizenship of the world? Such questions are especially pertinent in this age of instant mobility--and, thankfully, the film doesn't attempt to answer them for us. (Sullivan) Oak Street Cinema, Sunday at 5:45 p.m.

 

Burnt by Frost

Using voiceover narration, many long spells of silence, and the dark, icy blue sea off the northern coast of Norway, director Knut Erik Jensen paints a powerful portrait of a country--and one couple in particular--uncomfortably caught and essentially frozen in the middle of the Cold War. But Jensen is so concerned with creating a haunting mood of irretrievable loss that he forgoes both a coherent narrative and knowable characters, too often settling for lengthy shots of people staring off into the distance. The film's first 25 minutes are especially off-putting, darting as they do from one scene and time period to another. Eventually, we learn that Simon (Stig Henrik Hoff), a Russian sympathizer in Nazi-controlled Norway during the war, has become a Soviet agent, spying on a NATO base in Norway. The now-permanently stonefaced Simon is honored for his work by the Russians but estranged from his homeland, save for the undying but distant love of lonely Lillian (Gorild Mauseuth), his girlfriend from when he was a fisherman before the war. Angling plays a central role throughout: In one effective scene, Simon and Lillian make love on a boat covered with fish; and later, at a party, Simon is told that he's a man caught in his own net. Moments like these occasionally pop up to clue us in, but for the most part Jensen leaves us as lost as his protagonist. (Mark Bazer) Oak Street Cinema, Sunday at 9:15 p.m. and Wednesday, April 21 at 7:30 p.m.

 

The May Lady

Like many recent Iranian imports, this latest work by director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad (Nargess) is a subtle, self-reflexive portrait of filmmaking that alternates between modes of documentary and narrative while remaining fully accessible as a story. Here, however, the writer-director is a woman (and a feminist) whose script deals with the classic women's picture double-bind of career and family obligations--complicated further in this case by the fact that the filmmaking protagonist (Minoo Farshschi), a divorcée with a rebellious teenage son (Mani Kasraiyan), has been assigned to make a doc about "the ideal mother." Owing to the outspokenness of the (real-life) female subjects of said doc ("all the judges are men," declares the daughter of a former Iranian president), the project becomes more of an indictment of sexism in Islamic Iran than another reactionary call for good mothers. The irony, though, is that the doc-maker's professional duties and difficulty with her son compel her to pay more attention to what's happening at home. Hardly a minimalist piece in the manner of Abbas Kiarostami, The May Lady is something of a three-hanky soaper--which would represent a breakthrough for Iranian cinema even without the director's bold interrogation of the roles written for women in both the movies and the real world. (Nelson) Bell Auditorium, Monday at 7:15 p.m.

 

Cards of Identity

When an African king sets out to visit the land of his former colonizers in Belgium, one might expect a journey to the heart of darkness, if not an all-out apocalypse. But Congolese filmmaker Mweze Ngangura is no Coppola, as he opts to turn this potentially intense tale into a lighthearted farce. Ngangura's film (a.k.a. I.D.) centers on the attempt of Bakongo's aging ruler, Mani Kongo (Gerard Essomba), to retain his identity--that is, his "id," which, wrapped in his ceremonial wear, no woman has ever been allowed to touch. As Kongo leaves his tribal village to search for his prodigal daughter in Brussels, he's forced to see the symbol of his soul through Western eyes: A group of European barflies thinks it's a ridiculous costume, and a Belgian antique dealer views it as a priceless "fetish." Fortunately, the king is a formidable and charismatic man who's too wise to carry a fragile ego. As cops, clergy, and crooks alike try to help him find his child (Dominique Mesa), who has gotten into trouble with a pimp (Muanza Goutier), Mani Kongo comes through a series of absurd coincidences and romantic sideplots with his pride intact, even proving that an old polygamist can learn a little feminism. (Christina Schmitt) Bell Auditorium, Tuesday at 7:15 p.m.

 

Wrestling with Alligators

This pleasantly quirky coming-of-age tale takes us to late-'50s New Jersey, where young Maddy (Aleksa Palladino), a tough-talking runaway, lives in a boarding house owned by the eccentric Lulu (Claire Bloom), an aging silent-film star. Despite this rather conventional setup, director Laurie Weltz saves her movie from cliché hell through some inventive character quirks: Lulu, for instance, carries around a pet parrot that she's convinced is her reincarnated husband; and aspiring bankrobber Maddy likes to tell people that she was raised by alligators. And then there's Claire (Joely Richardson), a French war bride who, being newly pregnant and widowed, is forced to walk with Maddy to the abortionist's office through a gauntlet of suspicious faces and decrepit houses. (The ensuing scene in a crusty old cellar makes one of the most persuasive pro-choice arguments imaginable.) Understandably, Claire can't go through with the abortion and announces plans to marry noodle-brained bowling aficionado Rick (Jay O. Sanders) on account of how they just don't have single mothers in late-'50s New Jersey--but damned if that plucky Maddy doesn't come up with another solution anyway. The ending is ambiguous but appropriately so, leaving us with the sense that the entire world is about to change. (Anne Ursu) Oak Street Cinema, Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.

 

Song of Bosa--A Town in Sardinia

Almost all of the characters in this documentary--and almost all of them are characters of one sort or another--smile as they describe the economic stagnation of their southern Italian town. "People have no money. And they don't come here," says Antonio Addis, an old tavern owner of considerable charm. Likewise, one Simone Sechi gives a grin while describing how he lost half his finger and part of his thumb in a mill accident in Germany. A relative gloom is cast by the local DJ, Angelo, who doesn't smile while reading Sardinian newspapers on the air, setting up debates between the current and former mayors on how to improve tourism and create jobs. At 27, Angelo is the youngest Bosa resident in the film; most others are ancient folks who move at a pace as slow and deliberate as the documentary's own. Song of Bosa goes on to follow the local nuns who run a printing shop; a fisherman for whom the seas have dried up; and a winemaker who extols the virtues of his aunts. "They are active and add to the overall energy of the family," he says--as the director cuts to a shot of the aunts reading the newspaper. When we finally see some kids in warm-up suits riding bicycles, it almost seems like we've entered a different world. Bring your patience to this one. (Erik Lundegaard) Oak Street Cinema, Tuesday at 9:30 p.m.

 

Amazing Women by the Sea

Put on your sepia-colored glasses and enjoy the bittersweet Scandinavian ethos that remains Minnesota's cultural common denominator. A modest story of two Swedish women's burgeoning friendship over three summers spent in the Finnish isles, this 1998 film by Claes Olsson is actually a subtle sort of ensemble piece in which the women, their husbands, and their children are given sufficient room to wiggle about and reveal just how complicated competing roles and relationships can be. Both Bella and Rosa are free-spirited young mothers who are beginning to feel the constraints of family life--Rosa because her husband, though charming, is a repeat philanderer, and Bella because her solid mate is a bit of a bore. Bella's short fling with Rosa's Gabbe is somewhat predictable, but the way their friendship changes as a result is anything but. The children are granted a rare degree of emotional range and depth of character here, particularly Bella's son Thomas, whose voiceover narration begins and ends the film. Not surprisingly, it's the kids who seem to bear the brunt of painful family decisions, but they're neither infantilized nor valorized in the process. In other words, this is the kind of movie that Hollywood rarely delivers--and precisely the stuff of a strong film festival. (Shannon McLachlan) Bell Auditorium, Wednesday, April 21 at 7:15 p.m.

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