Mpls./St. Paul International Film Festival Week II: See No Daylight

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the multiplex...

The adventure continues. The ambitious second week of the Mpls./St. Paul International Film Festival features a two-day survey of digitally shot shorts and features, highlighted by the Web doc Home Page; a "Human Rights Sidebar" that examines the impact of war in Vietnam (Regret to Inform), El Salvador (They Come at Night), and Yugoslavia (The Powder Keg); an intense pair of high-profile dramas by Liv Ullmann (Private Confessions) and Volker Schlöndorff (The Ogre); the standout hometown achievement at the most recent Sundance (Los Enchiladas!); a heart-wrenching period piece from China (The King of Masks); the new comedy by former Minnesotan Roger Nygard (Suckers); the final movie to feature the late Marcello Mastroianni (Journey to the Beginning of the World); and a special screening of the Christian Bale and Emily Watson melodrama Metroland, held at Lagoon Cinema. (All of these, along with a half-dozen others, are reviewed below.)

As a reminder of whom we have to thank for this cinematic treasure trove, the annual "Minnesota Shorts Showcase" includes "Al Milgrom: Last of the Red Hot Programmers," a documentary homage to the exhaustingly inexhaustible festival founder. (The "Showcase," sponsored by IFP/North, screens at Bell Auditorium on Friday at 7:00 p.m.) For 20 minutes (roughly the length of Milgrom's average voice mail message), the film observes the man in action: tooling around town in his rusty Volvo station wagon, tacking up flyers, dealing with distributors, dressing down yet another U Film Society volunteer, and banging the ceremonial gong to kick off last year's fest. What makes Al run? you ask. No doubt entire volumes could be written on the subject, but here's the short answer: What makes him run is on view at Bell Auditorium and Oak Street Cinema through May 6.

óRob Nelson

Metroland

Set in England at the dawn of punk rock, Philip Saville's film forefronts the type of man sneered at in the Clash's "Clampdown" and pitied in the Jam's "Smithers-Jones": the raincoated commuter with the bland job, the snippy wife, and the longing for something he lost on the road to suburbia. In the case of Chris (Christian Bale), what he lost suddenly reappears on his doorstep in the person of childhood friend Toni (Lee Ross). All oily hair and ripped jeans, Toni reminds Chris of their collective teenage vow to get out of conservative Metroland, and of his own swinging singles days in '60s Paris. Thanks to Bale's transparent face, these flashbacks of sexual experimentation are endearing and evocative, as Metroland, adapted from a 1981 Julian Barnes novel, uncovers more emotional twists than you'd expect in the common tale of the seven-year itch. The snippy wife (Emily Watson, as sharp as she was soft in Breaking the Waves) turns out to harbor dissatisfactions and secrets of her own. And the usual "other" woman--signifying freedom--is in this case a man: lonely Toni, who wants his playmate back. If the ending seems a bit smug, it's only because the rest of the film does such a good job of questioning bourgeois dreams and countercultural ideals alike. (Terri Sutton) Lagoon Cinema, Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.

 

The Underground Orchestra

Netherlander Heddy Honigmann's 1997 doc takes us into the bowels of the Parisian metro, where commuters hustle and bustle to a running soundtrack of street musicians playing their harps, accordions, violins, and clarinets. Near the start of the film, we're taken into a subway car to watch an African trio joyously jam out a ska version of "Try a Little Tenderness," while the director carefully interposes shots of the train passengers wearing looks of bemused indifference on their faces. (The players turn out to make a healthy chunk of change, although one wonders how many people would be donating if there weren't a camera around.) Honigmann then takes us out of the underground and into the lives of the musicians, most of whom are refugees in exile from Bosnia, Romania, Argentina, and Vietnam, many with family left behind, some living illegally, and others paying exorbitant rent for closet-sized apartments. At times, the film suffers from overkill: How many times do we need to hear someone singing a melancholy song over shots of the Parisian cityscape? Still, the documented stories do not grow old, despite the fact that, with each person's tales of abuse and indifference, the song remains the same. (Anne Ursu) Oak Street Cinema, Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

 

Los Enchiladas!

The standout hometown achievement at the most recent Sundance, this Clerks-like comedy by St. Paul-born writer-director-actor Mitch Hedberg isn't hilarious, but it does manage a goofy, laid-back charm. Shot in 16mm in the Twin Cities area, Los Enchiladas! charts the clock-punching exploits of disgruntled employees at the titular eating establishment--an inauthentic Mexican chain restaurant located on the outskirts of the Maplewood Mall. As this wannabe Chi-Chi's prepares for a perceived rush of customers on Cinco de Mayo, the film's hourly wage-earning characters suffer petty humiliations and live in wait of mañana: There's a good-natured, appetizer-pushing waitress (endearingly played by Minnesota native Jana Johnson, who also co-produced); an underage and gap-toothed hostess (Kimberlee Iblings); and a slow-witted drill sergeant of a chef (Jim Jorgensen) who's responsible for a "Mexican" menu that includes onion rings on a stick. Amid a gaggle of mild indigestion jokes, one of the movie's slapstick highlights has the restaurant's scuzzy manager (Dave Attell) beating up a poor guy in a foam rubber gyro suit from the Greek joint down the road. If Los Enchiladas! has a fault, it's that Hedberg the writer-director gives too few one-liners to Hedberg the comedian, here playing the loosely autobiographical part of a stoner prep cook with a finely honed habit of wandering the country. Nevertheless, the movie's mostly gentle sense of humor is tough to resist--and damned if the whole enchilada doesn't taste a little spicier the second time. (Nelson) Oak Street Cinema, Thursday at 9:30 p.m. and Saturday at 10:00 p.m.

 

Regret to Inform

It's tempting to pour a bucketful of numbing superlatives onto this recently Oscar-nominated film. So let's put it another way: A documentary about Vietnam War widows was the last thing this viewer wanted to watch on a Saturday afternoon, but 72 minutes and 20 Kleenexes later, the world looked different--not more hopeless, nor any clearer, but richer and more mysterious than ever. Filmmaker Barbara Sonneborn travels to Vietnam to see the place where her husband died and, through candid interviews with widows on both sides, she investigates a facet of war that films like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket miss entirely. Vietnam being what it was, these women ask the big questions about war that would seem disloyal in another context: Was my husband a murderer? Did he die in vain? Nevertheless, Sonneborn's mission is emotional, not political. She treats the audience like grownups, using graceful understatement, an artistic eye, and masterful pacing to create a framework in which we're allowed to ponder these questions for ourselves. Regret to Inform screens as part of the festival's "Human Rights Sidebar," which also includes The Powder Keg and They Come at Night (both reviewed below). (Kate Sullivan) Oak Street Cinema, Friday at 7:30 p.m.

 

Suckers

Locally reared writer-director Roger Nygard follows up his geekumentary Trekkies with this low-budget, thoroughly B-grade comedy. Bobby DeLuca (Louis Mandylor) is a well-meaning, underemployed schlub who's desperate for an income. Not only is his wife pregnant, but a pair of shaggy L.A. loan sharks are leaning hard on him to square up a hefty debt. He reluctantly accepts a job as a new car salesman, joining the ranks at a cartoonishly corrupt dealership under the tutelage of a menacing manager named Reggie (Daniel Benzali). What begins as a biting, funny-enough commentary on the very real screw-or-be-screwed covenant of auto sales gradually deflates into a convoluted crime web involving drugs, thugs, and a Mexican standoff--and no real freshness to speak of. Benzali is superb as the heartless ringleader of a ragtag sales team; his evangelical monologues on the art of the deal are memorable and wholly believable. Still, Nygard and co-writer/standup comic Joe Yannetty spoil their own soup with too-familiar plot devices and a weak finale. The film is purportedly based on Yannetty's experiences as a conniving car hawker, which would surely hit harder in a nonfiction format. (James Diers) Bell Auditorium, Friday at 9:00 p.m.

 

Dry Cleaning

Id meets superego when a sibling pair of drag artists (Stanislas Merhar and Mathilde Seigner) seduce a French town's dry cleaners, a highly starched married pair (Miou-Miou and Charles Berling) who have been pressing other people's clothes--and suppressing their own libidinal cravings--for 15 monotonous years of economic malaise and carnal boredom. And sexual transgression collides with rote domesticity when the couple invites the lusty brother into their home as employee and surrogate lover. Call it a ménage à trois plus two, since the fornicating threesome have to negotiate a young son and a suspicious mother-in-law. (This they accomplish by seeking sexual heights in a subterranean basement underneath their pristine business establishment.) Although it begins on a saucy note à la Josiane Balasko's French Twist, Dry Cleaning soon assumes an unsettling, noirish tone, as the film raises the following questions: Has the sexy stranger hustled the Kunstlers, or have these sexual tourists used him? Does stable coupledom necessarily annul erotic and emotional imagination? And does director Anne Fontaine intend to explode the limits of heterosexuality or enshrine them by way of old Freudian formulas? (Leslie Dunlap) Oak Street Cinema, Friday at 9:30 p.m.

 

State of Dogs

In Mongolia, it's bad hoodoo to kill a dog. The canine is just below the human on the karma chain, so to prevent a dog from returning naturally to the earth disrupts the cycle of reincarnation. Thus it is that the stray dog Baasar, the unlucky protagonist of this bewildering and elegant Mongolian docudrama, is left to wander the world in spirit form while waiting to be reborn as a person. In the film's first minutes, poor Baasar is assassinated by a dog catcher and left to rot in a trash dump--which, it bears mentioning, is hardly distinguishable from the rest of the Mongolian landscape. Baasar's journey, filtered through a cryptic narrator and the meandering camera of co-directors Peter Brosens and Dorjkhandyn Turmunkh, takes the Mongolian mongrel past the crumbling monuments of the Soviet era to the dusty steppes where he was born, and through his short, sad life history. As Baasar searches for a glimmer of meaning in the past, his vision becomes a jumble of increasingly exotic images: a traditional Mongolian acrobat, a woman giving birth, machinery grinding and collapsing, and an urban wasteland so cold, empty, and utterly devoid of hope that it could only be the product of the Soviet imagination. It is a state, the film suggests, that is no more conducive to human life than it is to that of a stray dog. And yet Baasar's wandering is also a perfect metaphor for a Mongolia that lingers somewhere between death and rebirth--watching the past warily, and pushing blindly into the future. (Peter Ritter) Bell Auditorium, Saturday at 1:15 p.m.

 

Journey to the Beginning of the World

At age 88, Manoel de Oliveira is perhaps the world's oldest living maker of feature films. Even during this decade, the Portuguese auteur has continued to direct a movie every couple of years or so (e.g., The Convent, Abraham Valley), with this one being his semiautobiographical labor of love. In his final screen performance, the majestic Marcello Mastroianni plays Oliveira's alter ego, a Portuguese director named Manoel. He and three actors meander through the scenic countryside of Portugal in an all-too-modern minivan, stopping at various points of nostalgic and historical interest. Each such cessation sparks somber, near-metaphysical contemplations of love, destiny, and man's place in the universe. About halfway through the film, the plot's focus abruptly (and awkwardly) shifts from Manoel to Afonso (Jean-Yves Gautier), a French actor with genealogical roots in Portugal. The sojourn leads Afonso and crew to a morosely remote village where he unites with his uninviting aunt, and the dark secrets of his heritage are revealed. Journey to the Beginning of the World is a film purposefully built upon dialogue, mood, and the human condition, and while it seems to lack momentum at times, there is no denying Oliveira's hypnotic hybrid of Italian neorealism and Godard. (Tom Meek) Bell Auditorium, Saturday at 5:15 p.m.

 

The Powder Keg

I don't believe that U.S. and NATO military strategists watched this Yugoslavian drama before they started bombing a month ago--which is a shame, really, since they could have saved themselves a few billion dollars and learned a thing or two about the Serbian national character. In Goran Paskaljevic's stunning new film, which tracks the intersecting lives of a dozen disparate characters on a rainy fall night in Belgrade, Serbs appear as the following, in no particular order: reckless drivers, sadistic cops, refugees from Bosnia living in people's basements, demented young men prone to hijacking city buses, widowed young military wives riding trains to nowhere, terrified senior citizens, beer drinkers, and violent thugs, all of them absolutely desperate. Paskaljevic has assembled an outstanding cast of actors (Miki Manojlovic, Lazar Ristovski, and Mira Jokovic are recognizable from Emir Kusturica's Underground) for a film that's ensemble-driven in the finest Altmanesque fashion. The Powder Keg zigzags from uncanny incident to shockingly premeditated act to hopeless accident, until someone finally throws a lit match into a puddle of gasoline. Memo to NATO: You are the lit match. (Jelena Petrovic) Bell Auditorium, Saturday at 7:15 p.m.

 

They Come at Night

Maria Velasquez (Elpidia Carrillo) is a political refugee from El Salvador who sleepwalks through the streets of mid-'80s L.A. Sweaty, disheveled, and distant, she wakes up screaming from the horrible memories of her husband being gunned down by a death squad, her two children being taken away, and her own survival of torture. Director Lindy Laub's debut feature begins awkwardly as a kind of psycho-political horror film--a leftist version of Roman Polanski's Repulsion. But it settles down once Maria comes into contact with Sarah (Barbara Williams), a Wasp-ish therapist and single mother with issues of her own. From here, the film becomes a pas de deux between the women, seemingly set up to explore a variety of race and class issues that contrast poverty, death squads, and missing children with more privileged concerns such as divorce, child care, and career opportunities. Alas, these issues don't go very far, as Sarah seems to function mainly as a great white witness to Maria's plight and a stand-in for Laub's perceived viewership. Still, to the film's credit, Maria is no Madonna of Poverty Row, but rather a well-educated and occasionally brusque woman whose attempt to find her children is both dramatically effective and emotionally affecting. (Chris Herrington) Bell Auditorium, Saturday at 9:15 p.m.

 

Home Page

This documentary begins as a look at the personal Web page phenom--you know, those snoozy sites where so-and-so posts pictures of his nifty trip to Oaxaca. Internet "guru" Justin Hall is the ostensible star here, a twentyish kid who's a rock star among the Wired cult for wearing hippie skirts, posting accounts of his sexual exploits online, and touring the country preaching the gospel of the Internet. Nevertheless, filmmaker Doug Block continually insists on inserting himself into this story with gratuitous explorations of his midlife crisis, his tearful and neglected wife, etc. The focus is too fragmented, and Block's questions feel dated, distinctly Utne Reader circa 1994: How will the Internet affect our communities? What's behind such compulsive self-revelation? Talks with Wired staffers appear poignant by comparison, as these people grasp that the Internet "revolution" ain't happening, while the loneliness of their lives persists (i.e., just because people communicate across borders doesn't mean they understand each other). But Home Page unintentionally mirrors the limitations of the Net: It feeds us too much info, leaving real wisdom somewhere off the screen. Home Page screens as part of the festival's IFP/North-sponsored "OVER.BYTE" sidebar, which also includes a lecture presentation and panel discussion of digital filmmaking at Intermedia Arts on Saturday at noon and 2:00 p.m.; a series of digitally shot shorts screening at Oak Street on Saturday at 6:00 p.m.; and a screening of Rob Nilsson's digital work in progress Singing at Oak Street on Sunday at 4:00 p.m. For more info on "OVER.BYTE," call IFP/North at (612) 338-0871. (Sullivan) Oak Street Cinema, Sunday at 1:30 p.m.

 

True Moments

This thoughtful romantic melodrama from Sweden crosses the Baltic for a story involving Estonian emigration, Nazi occupation, and general Swedish guilt over being too neutral throughout history. A Swedish man of Estonian background (Krister Henriksson) meets an Estonian woman violinist (Lena Endre) at his father's funeral, whereupon they launch into a heated affair that's overshadowed by events. Like many of the best made-for-TV movies, True Moments is a work of edutainment. The fine actors keep their characters memorable as they fumble rapidly into love and then just as quickly face up to the possibility that they could be siblings. Was the Swede's father a fascist killer? Was the Estonian woman's father an underground hero--or a hero by default? The movie digresses into mini-explanations of bygone disputes and lectures on the finer points of Swedish-Estonian relations, which makes it all incredibly earnest. Shot largely in Tallinn, Estonia, which has a suitably unrestored appearance, the film must have been spawned by some high-minded Swedish-Estonian Cultural and Political Exchange Commission. But despite these tendencies (and some sappy music), it remains a well-made and interesting exploration of a hidden history. (Phil Anderson) Bell Auditorium, Sunday at 5:00 p.m.

 

Opera Fanatic

"It remains just beautiful singing and not a soul that sings," says the '50s-era Italian opera star Magda Olivero of current opera styles, highlighting this German documentary's central question: How did postwar Italian opera divas manage to do what no singer can seem to do today--that is, make the audience feel the full range of emotion in the music? In pursuit of an answer, director Jan Schmidt-Garre follows "opera fanatic" Stefan Zucker--a roly-poly Jewish New Yorker with a Mickey Mouse voice--as he travels across Italy interviewing ten divas from back in the day. As much a film about the quirky, passionate Zucker as it is about the performers, Opera Fanatic derives some bizarre humor from watching the music lover in action, as when he confesses to one diva that "this is the first time I've found an interview erotic." Later, Zucker is shown pouting in a corner after the temperamental singer Marcella Pobbe wonders aloud, "Why does he ask such stupid questions?" Indeed, as the film's most beautiful scenes include rare footage of impromptu performances by the now-elderly prima donnas, Zucker's fawning interviews fail to further amplify the talent that comes through loud and clear in the recordings. (Mark Bazer) Oak Street Cinema, Sunday at 5:30 p.m.

 

The King of Masks

With this graceful, gorgeously filmed story of family love set in 1930s Sichuan, director Wu Tianming ended his eight years of political exile in the U.S. and re-established himself as a leading voice of Chinese cinema. The king of the title is Wang (Zhu Xu), an elderly and impoverished street performer determined to pass on the secret of his act, which involves the rapid-fire presentation of delicately hand-painted masks. Since tradition dictates that only a male heir be taught the skill, the master illusionist proceeds to buy a young boy from the child slave market, only to discover that the child, Doggie (Zhou Ren-ying), is actually a girl in disguise. Disgusted by his mistake, the master attempts to discard the girl as her own family did. As these two social outcasts establish a makeshift family and overcome a traumatic break, the acting appears no less spellbinding than the characters' relationship: Zhu Xu won the Best Actor award at the 1996 Tokyo Film Festival, and his eight-year-old partner's supple performance includes stunt work mastered in her previous five years(!) working as an acrobat. (Shannon McLachlan) Bell Auditorium, Sunday at 7:15 p.m.

 

The Ogre

In German, to say "he licked blood" means "he got a taste for it," and so when co-writer-director Volker Schlöndorff's young protagonist puts his tongue to a buddy's injured knee, we know that something has been set in motion. So does Abel (Caspar Salmon) when, not much later, he prays for the school to burn down, watches his dream come true, and sees his friend perish in the flames: "That day I understood that fate was real, that she was cruel, and that she was on my side." The allegories come fast and furious in these first few minutes and they never let up. What about those pigeons the grown Abel (John Malkovich) carries with him into a German POW camp, only to see his fellow prisoners make a feast of them? The black horse he receives from the head forester of Hermann Goering's hunting lodge? And where is Cain? Even more than in The Tin Drum and The Handmaid's Tale, Schlöndorff lets his plot unfold in the style of what you might call German magic realism. Abel, who loves "nothing more than the young boys," ends up assigned to a castle populated by hundreds of blond, blue-eyed adolescents, along with a couple of Nazi archetypes, a forlorn count (Armin Müller-Stahl), and a housekeeper (Marianne Sägebrecht). A tribute to Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia follows, as the camera ogles leaping, flexing, climbing bodies, and for a few minutes it's hard to remember that all this is a prelude to murder. Which is just where Schlöndorff wanted us: This is a film about the allure, even the beauty, of evil, and the danger of innocence. By the end, we, like Abel, wonder where we crossed the line between naiveté and complicity, whether fate is real or just a copout, and whether redemption is anything but a cruel hoax. (Monika Bauerlein) Oak Street Cinema, Monday at 7:30 p.m.

 

Private Confessions

While there's no confessional ritual in the Lutheran Church, there is the "confessional" tradition of the Ingmar Bergman film--a tradition with which this Liv Ullmann-directed drama keeps faith. Written by Bergman as a sequel to his earlier Best Intentions, Private Confessions continues the story of his parents: the high-born Anna (Pernilla August) and the intensely rigid preacher (Samuel Froler) with whom she falls out of love after 12 years of marriage. Seeking salvation, Anna instigates a romance with a theology student and family friend (Thomas Hanzon), and then confesses the whole situation to the older pastor (Max von Sydow) who once confirmed her. Self-effacingly filmed by Ullmann, this is an intimately staged drama about spiritual doubts and the fine line between determination and egotism. It's also a two-hour condensation of a 200-minute television miniseries, and it shows: The plot proceeds through a series of five dialogue scenes shot in closeup, with two characters each. Still, it's well-written by the wordy Bergman's standards, and, as Anna, August proves herself to be a sensitive actress who's full of more subtle surprises than we can expect her to reveal as Darth Vader's mom in The Phantom Menace. (Anderson) Bell Auditorium, Tuesday at 7 p.m.

 

Rivers of Babylon

Set in an unnamed, post-Socialist city in the first years of 1990s "liberation," this dark comedy from Slovakia touches on a few of the ironies covered earlier in Kieslowski's great White: Communism is gone, trust is open for grabs, and the one man who has any real power is the guy who controls the heat. He is Racz (Andrej Hryc), a hotel employee who becomes a metaphor for brutish opportunism as he trades his coveralls for a slick suit and a new life as a gangster entrepreneur. With his shaven head, guttural voice, and questionable prior career, he's a little like a certain governor we know. But the movie isn't into subtlety or even satire of the finer sort, as Racz's story is told by a supporting character--a greasy black marketeer/pimp (Vlado Hajdu) who appears to have higher standards but doesn't quite survive by them. The film is a noisy, raunchy, and none-too-convincing examination of anger over a free-market economy gone nuts; most revealing about its style is the near-fetishization of such material goods as Scotch whiskey, German cars, and Swiss watches. Even though this high-gloss junk expresses the main character's utter selfishness, it seems to be something the filmmakers would like to wallow in as well. (Anderson) Bell Auditorium, Tuesday at 9:30 p.m.

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