It's a Wrap

The Mpls/St. Paul International Film Festival swaddles the Cities in cinema

 

The Volcano

Oak Street Cinema, Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.

Handsome, well-manicured, and rather dull, this admiring portrait of anti-Nazi émigrés in 1937 Paris is generously dedicated to anyone who has ever been exiled or left homeless by the brutal imperatives of nationalism. Focusing on the travails of a cabaret singer named Marion von Kammer, whose left-leaning songs have gotten her Berlin theater burned and herself forced into exile, German director Ottokar Runze wants to ponder huge abstractions such as Identity and Freedom. Yet only when Marion faces down some thuggish hecklers with a taunting ditty about the pathetic untermenschen who are Hitler's fiercest loyalists does the film muster much anti-fascist juice. For the most part, we spend far too much time living la vida bohèmienne. Marion and her comrades--poets, musicians, critics--briefly air forbidden agitprop before their radio station is shut down, but generally they spend their days swapping the aphorisms (e.g., "the aggression of fascism exists a priori") that cropped up in intellectual journals of the time. Fine sentiments, those, but since they're intoned during endless bouts of philosophizing, they never come close to stirring the heart. (And I adore endless philosophizing--really I do.) In the end, this movie is probably best appreciated by those who read Arthur Koestler for fun. Jesse Berrett

 

Kikujiro

Oak Street Cinema, Wednesday, April 19 at 9:30 p.m.

Writer-director-actor Takeshi Kitano's gentlest movie since A Scene at the Sea bears distinct traces of Life Is Beautiful, as a middle-aged man with a comic side strains to divert the attentions of a cute young boy (and the viewer?) away from a darker reality. At Cannes last year, countless Takeshi fans read Kikujiro as a talent-squandering sellout from a director best known for his artfully fractured yakuza thrillers (Sonatine, Fireworks)--whereas this fan found it to be a charming, near-Chaplinesque comedy of surrogate fatherhood, not to mention a well-timed departure from a dead-end genre. Call it How I Spent My Summer Vacation With an Unpredictable Thug: Through a plot contrivance that's best left unexplained, a lonely, sullen nine-year-old orphan (Yusuke Sekiguchi) hitchhikes cross-country, seeking his long-lost mother under the initially negligible care of Takeshi's titular tough guy. In between scrounging for food and waiting for rides, the two mismatched partners buy Hawaiian shirts, bet on bike races, set up a roadside sweet-corn stand, and, meeting a pair of good-natured Harley enthusiasts, play endless games of elaborate make-believe. As one might guess, this rather mainstream adventure is kept regularly off-kilter by Takeshi's trademark minimalist style, his elliptical editing and eye-popping primary color palette further brightening what amounts to two hours of blissful playtime. Rob Nelson CP

East is East

Historic State Theatre, Friday at 7:30 p.m.

Where last year's My Son the Fanatic found Om Puri playing an accommodating cabbie struggling to understand his oldest son's headlong tumble into fundamentalism, this latest dramedy of Pakistanis in Britain puts the pudgy, pock-marked actor on the opposite side of the generational chasm. Still, the situation is remarkably similar: Puri plays George "Genghis" Khan, a Pakistani immigrant to some dreary borough in the north of England circa 1971; and the plot once again hinges on the question of arranged marriage. (In the earlier film, it was a marriage "up" into Anglo society, while here it's a lateral union with a family of traditional but comically ugly immigrants.) In East is East, however, it's Puri's character who's the fanatic; although he himself has taken an English wife (the excellent stage actress Linda Bassett), he now sees his children drifting away from their culture. Plenty of crowd-pleasing high jinks ensue--e.g., a detailed sculpture of the female anatomy dropping into the lap of a sari-clad matriarch during marriage negotiations (this is the fest's opening-night movie, after all). But the film also has a solemn edge, owing largely to Puri's performance as an essentially impotent man who senses the last vestiges of his patriarchal power slipping away. Peter Ritter

Where the Sky Meets the Land

Bell Auditorium, Saturday at 3:15 p.m.

Throughout this iridescent documentary about Kirghiz nomads and their struggle to maintain tradition, the view is so gentle and subdued that it often seems as if we're seeing these strangers as their friends and family might. German filmmaker Frank Mueller focuses on a family of nomads--an old widow and her extended kin--who go about their daily lives with a minimum of reserve. It's a particular pleasure to watch them eat together--sitting cross-legged inside a tent, digging into greasy mutton chops without napkins or cutlery. Their way of life is fast disappearing, and Mueller soon introduces the culprit: a giant, Canadian-owned gold mine. In keeping with its inconspicuous approach, Where the Sky Meets the Land works hard at showing us the facts while steering clear of didacticism. Those facts are put in stark contrast, though, by the lingering shots of Kirghisztan's landscapes, their natural beauty frequently interrupted by the detonations of gold diggers ever-expanding their domain. Jelena Petrovic

Throne of Death

Oak Street Cinema, Saturday at 5:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 23 at 3:30 p.m.

It is entirely too tempting to make an allegory out of Murali Nair's minimalist debut (which took the Camera d'Or at Cannes) by deciding that the story of an island villager's execution is a cautionary tale about the danger of turning people into symbols--or, perhaps, an object lesson about the human expense that results when progress takes precedence over people. It is also entirely beside the point. Neither this film nor life itself comes with built-in decoder rings, and Throne of Death, largely silent and populated with inscrutable characters (mostly nonprofessional actors pressed into service), is a poor breeding ground for theories. Ultimately, the story is what it is: Krishnan, a day laborer who steals coconuts to feed his family, is caught and then framed for an unsolved murder. At first, other islanders lobby for his release. Then, when they learn of plans to assign an American-made electric chair to each region of the country, they lobby instead for the honor of hosting the first death. In the end, the innocent accused becomes a celebrated martyr, but for the wrong reasons. Now here's the hard question: Is he actually worse off? Kirsten Marcum

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