It's a Wrap

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

Here's a brief rundown of what you won't be seeing in this year's Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival: Raffish tykes piloting space capsules in intergalactic road rallies; frightened tykes who see dead people; dead people rising from sandy Egyptian graves; fledgling filmmakers rising from their tents to meet arboreal boogeymen; animated arboreal odes to cultural diversity and Toys "R" Us (music by Elton John); inanimate dilettantes witnessing upscale orgies from digitally bowdlerized angles--and all the other cinematic wonders we embrace every week of the year.

For 17 consecutive Aprils, U Film Society's MSPIFF (still known to some stubborn veterans by its former, more colorful name of Rivertown) has bravely defied such beloved Hollywood conventions. In fact, it has defied convention simply by existing. Indeed, its bold counterprogramming-- more than 100 films from 49 countries, spread over 20 days at 7 local venues--flies in the face of spring weather, TV sweeps season, and, not least, the ticket buyer's ongoing relationship to known commodities. As this year's massive MSPIFF includes not only the requisite "Scandinavian Screenings" but new films from South Korea, Argentina, Egypt, Cuba, Bosnia, Poland, and, yes, Tajikistan, U Film certainly shows up the ethnocentrism of other venues, where "foreign cinema," if it exists at all, too often connotes another American starlet du jour trying out a cockney accent.

At the same time, those who've been put off in the past by the fest's preponderance of esoterica (which, of course, is also its strength) will be pleased to note that this year's roster includes a number of proven hits: the Belgian winner of last year's Palme d'Or at Cannes (Rosetta); the latest works by world-cinema stalwarts Raul Ruiz (Time Regained), Takeshi Kitano (Kikujiro) and Aki Kaurismäki (Juha); an Iranian crowd-pleaser by the director of Children of Heaven (The Color of Paradise); a Spanish sneak preview courtesy of the cineastes at Miramax (The Butterfly); an adaptation of the Seventies cultish history tome Wisconsin Death Trip; and, if you like, Kevin Spacey's first performance since winning the Oscar for American Beauty (The Big Kahuna). And did I mention that the charming opening-nighter (East Is East) screened in the Director's Fortnight at Cannes alongside Blair Witch and The Virgin Suicides? Or that the local-film roster includes three feature-length collections of shorts?

What follows is an in-depth consumer guide to the first week's offerings (alongside a profile of the man who provides it), which we'll follow up in subsequent issues with coverage of the films screening in weeks two and three. A word of gentle warning: 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 (and even on schedules) should be double-checked by calling the society hotline at (612) 627-4430, or clicking on www.ufilm.org. Happy hunting. --Rob Nelson

MSPIFF screening locations:
Historic State Theatre, 805 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.
Bell Auditorium, U of M, University Avenue and 17th Street Southeast, Mpls.
Oak Street Cinema, 309 Oak St. SE, Mpls.
Heights Theater, 3951 Central Ave. NE, Columbia Hts.

Admission prices:
Opening Night Screening and Gala: $12.
General admission: $7 ($6 seniors/students, $5 U Film Society members)

Festival passes:
Gold Pass (admission to all films and events): $100 ($80 U Film members)
Green Pass (admission to all films except opening and closing night screenings): $85 ($60 U Film members)
Cheaper by the Dozen (admission to 12 films): $55 ($45 U Film members)
Five Film Discount Pass (admission to five films): $25 ($21 U Film members)

24-Hour Festival Hotline: (612) 627-4430
Festival Web Site: www.ufilm.org

Note: The festival schedule is subject to change; call the festival hotline to confirm screenings.

Barracks

Oak Street Cinema, Friday at 7:15 p.m.; and Heights Theater, Sunday at 9:30 p.m.

Based on Victor Petrov's novel Olga Lodokhod, this bittersweet portrait of 1950s Russia centers on communal life in the "barracks," an outpost of Leningrad, where families live in scant apartment housing and work at a local foundry. Keeping tabs on the citizens is a live-in comrade leader and an affable, uncharacteristically humanist KGB agent, but mostly the residents' bawdy gaiety goes unchecked. Among the barracks' many eclectic denizens is an impotent mute, a nefarious German tartar who enjoys deflowering others' wives, and a drunken night nurse. Most notable of all, though, is the one-legged porn photographer who, after plying his subjects with alcohol, tells them that he needs to frame them in the "classic" sense, and then shows them a Rubens print. And did I mention that this guy also dabbles in child labor and entertains by igniting his farts? Director Valeri Ogorodnikov rambles on with a subtly political languor not unlike Bertolucci's in The Conformist, and while his style is impressively operatic, Barracks' focus on the minutiae of life leaves bigger issues such as Stalinism and the Cold War curiously off the map. Tom Meek

 

Sàngó--the Legendary Afrikan King

Bell Auditorium, Friday at 7:15 p.m.

Shot entirely on video, Femi Lasode's ambitious translation of a Nigerian epic recounts a series of loosely connected tales about Sángò (Wale Adebayo), a Yoruban warrior prince who gains first a throne and then godhood. Combining voiceovers with song, dance, and mythic plotting on what appears to be a very low budget, it's an admirable if not entirely successful attempt to negotiate and reconfigure an oral tradition for new audiences. At its best, Lasode's film connects story to its telling in a way that confidently manifests the style of the original form; the events leading to and culminating in Sángò's coronation are depicted in loosely defined images, chants, and ritual, allowing the narrative to speak a new language. Too often, though, the film stutters and stumbles: When, for example, Sángò tracks his intended bride Oya (Bunmi Sanya), who shifts between human and antelope form, the scenes not only lack energy but appear cartoonish. Still, I'm reluctant to dismiss this rare import out of hand: Name the last Yoruban epic you saw. Mike Reynolds

Groove

Oak Street Cinema, Friday at 9:30 p.m.

Every generation deserves its Rock Around the Clock, I suppose. But does the MSPIFF deserve this trendy ode to San Francisco's underground rave culture, snapped up by Sony Classics for $1.5 million at Sundance and therefore foisted upon regional fest coordinators as "this year's Run Lola Run"? Make that this year's Roller Boogie. The cookie-cutter crew of Gen Y specimens here includes David (Hamish Linklater), a native Midwestern geek who takes a hit of Ecstasy at a warehouse rave and instantly falls for a New York hipster (Lola Glaudini); a pair of bitchy gay men who drive around for hours in search of the party's semisecret location (which, per the film's restricted guest list, they'll never find); and David's cooler brother Colin (Denny Kirkwood), who gives an engagement ring to his pigtailed girlfriend (MacKenzie Firgens) before she discovers him in the "chill room" kissing...a boy! (This must be what director Greg Harrison means in the press kit when he describes the rave scene's "ambiguous morality surrounding relationships.") The movie's final few shots cleverly disguise the narcissistic heterosexuality of the milieu, but in any case, it seems unlikely that even Groove's rave reviewers will remember this bad trip in a year. Rob Nelson

 

Idle Running

Oak Street Cinema, Saturday at 1:30 p.m.; and Bell Auditorium, Tuesday at 9:15 p.m.

This Slovenian comedy-drama succeeds in bringing a likable and wholly engaging loser to the screen, but it fails to create a compelling plot around him. Befitting its title, Idle Running muddles along at the pace of our hero, Dizi (Jan Cvitcovic)--that is, at a virtual standstill. In 90 minutes, we watch as he accomplishes little more than smoking cigarettes, getting dumped by his girlfriend, and hoarding shelf space from his newly acquired roommate. Make no mistake: Dizi is entertaining and at times downright witty, as when, during a foosball game, he offers the following soliloquy about his hatred of Greenpeace activists: "I'd make them camp under a huge ozone hole and grill asbestos steaks every day. I guarantee it: In six months, they'd be fixed." As Dizi doesn't see the point in attempting to accomplish even so much as a shower, however, he keeps Idle Running running idle, and the viewer waiting in vain for a shift in gears. Jonathan Kaminsky

The Shoe

Oak Street Cinema, Saturday at 3:30 p.m.

In this pointedly ungratifying film set at the height of the Cold War, three red-army soldiers and their dog are sent on a mission to find the owner of a woman's shoe that has been discovered near the "secure" Latvian border. As these men wander around occupied Latvia for most of the film's 83 minutes, the lack of narrative drive quickly threatens to turn maddening. Yet the soldiers' utter lack of influence over the citizens, who ignore these stumbling musketeers on their would-be Cinderella mission, seems central to the film's political commentary. And come to think of it, the frustration felt by the captive audience is perhaps not unlike that of an occupied citizenry made to witness the absurd incompetence of their invaders. On the one hand, The Shoe offers a worthy reminder that art isn't necessarily created to make one feel good; on the other, its intricately gorgeous cinematography has its own rewards. Melissa Christensen

 

The Hymens Parable

Heights Theater, Saturday at 4:30 p.m.

This locally made indie begins as a Catholic confessional and heads from there into a heavy-hitting examination of rape, hereditary alcoholism, and institutional religious morality. The protagonist is Jason (Shane Barach), a 30-year-old seminary student--and yet another disillusioned Catholic. Even though he's on his way to becoming ordained a priest, Jason cannot reconcile his strong dislike for his sister Cassandra (Melissa Lewis), a woman who's epileptic, prone to divine visions, and fixated on the Eucharist to the point of stealing consecrated wine and consuming it in mass quantities. Jason is also disturbed by having witnessed his father rape Cassandra when she was 12, a memory he refuses to accept. This debut feature by St. Paul director Jon Springer boasts all local talent and a number of familiar Twin Cities locations. Although the filmmaker's inexperience is revealed in several scenes that appear rigid and stale, his ambition more than makes up for it. Aside from Kevin Smith's Dogma, few American films these days even attempt to tackle a subject as cumbersome as Catholic morality. Springer and his cast will be present at the screening. Jeremy Swanson

 

Beresina or The Last Days of Switzerland

Bell Auditorium, Saturday at 5:15 p.m.; and Heights Theater, Tuesday, April 25 at 7:00 p.m.

If there is such a thing as Swiss humor, it's either far too cryptic or simply nonexistent in this, Swiss director Daniel Schmid's charmless German-language film posing as a no-holds-barred political farce. Even the general plot is difficult to pin down for the first half-hour. Eventually we discern that a Betty Boop-type Russian call girl (Elena Panova), keen on becoming a citizen of snow-white, Nestlé-nourished, punctual, and prosperous Switzerland, performs kinky sexual favors for all manner of Zurich power brokers. What this woman doesn't realize, however, is that all the kinky sex in the world won't get her a coveted maroon passport, even if she supplements her S&M theatrics with studies of Swiss history on the side. Or rather, she does realize it toward the end of the movie, when she gets mad and glad, as they say. There's a coup d'état, lots of silly assassinations of powerful bankers and government officials, and a general cacophony of dumb comedic clichés. I mustered one chuckle in 108 minutes. Jelena Petrovic

 

Minnesota Short Film/Video Showcase I

Heights Theater, Saturday at 7:00 p.m.

In an underwhelming year for local features, this first of the fest's three Minnesota shorts packages (cosponsored by IFP/North and Intermedia Arts) contains the most promising new homegrown work I've seen in 12 months. As a hypercaffeinated meditation on the similitude between a battlefield and a French bakery in St. Paul, writer-director Tim McCusker's "Napoleons" may be the most outrageously verbose local movie ever made--and it runs only 20:15. "The redeeming roll is sweet, it's true," says the pastry-loving, clock-punching protagonist (played by McCusker) to the cabbie who whisks him away to a long lunch hour at the titular bakery, "yet so balanced in its attack of toothsome flavors [that] it's hard to know what to appreciate most: the cinnamon-dusted dough, baked to almost-golden perfection, or the tray-fresh roasted walnuts, strewn with decadent abandon atop the glistening surface of rich and plentiful caramel--caramel that trails in long, stretching strands, photogenically, as the hefty confections are lovingly selected by the rare, polite teenagers who..." Obviously, this guy is wound a little tight. Yet the film itself is a clear-eyed satire of the consumer culture that renders every cash transaction as akin to a power play, not least in our fair state. Between this and his stark, seasonally affected "Winter" from 1996, I'd say McCusker is emerging as our most articulate cinematic chronicler of Minnesota Mean. Among the other noteworthy works in the showcase are James Stanger's and Ace Allgood's comedic mock-doc (and D.L. Mabery award-winner) "The Chromium Hook"; Darren Roark's cleverly conceived and extremely funny mock-educational film circa 1955, "A Young Man's Guide to Dating"; and Peter Giebink's and Brian Sobaski's "Dick Franks' 'Talking Out Loud,'" a seriously perverse riff on the kids' puppet show, index finger included. Rob Nelson

 

The Big Kahuna

Bell Auditorium, Saturday at 9:15 p.m.

Rarely going beyond a serviceable form of Mamet-lite, this Glengarry Glen Ross by way of Stephen R. Covey is nonetheless notable for giving red-hot Kevin Spacey his first lead role since American Beauty. Yet another noble sufferer of male midlife syndrome, Spacey's Larry is the brashest of three industrial-lubricant salesmen ensconced in a shabby hospitality suite. Here Larry and his partners, the morose Phil (Danny DeVito) and the neophyte Bob (Peter Facinelli), endlessly philosophize the ABCs of business ("always be closing," per Glengarry) while awaiting fresh leads from an imminent manufacturers' convention. The swaggering alpha-male dialogue is incessant without being terribly snappy, until a more sober sort of drama emerges out of the salesmen's differing strategies for landing the titular kingpin, a.k.a. Dick Fuller. Near the climax, the twentysomething Bob imparts some steadfastly held religious beliefs that seem to mirror the movie's own. The best thing about this claustrophobic equivalent of a filmed play is DeVito's emotionally strangulated performance; the worst is its overearnest moral posturing, which extends to the end-credit use of Baz Luhrmann's excruciating "Everybody's Free (to Wear Sunscreen)"--as if to give any immoral power players in the audience something to think about. Rob Nelson

 

Mulligan

Heights Theater, Saturday at 9:15 p.m.

Walk up to any white heterosexual North American male around the age of 30 and utter these words: "Gambling is illegal in this state and I never slice!" Or: "Nice hat...looks good on you, though!" Caddyshack (1980), beamed into millions of adolescent brains on the crest of that new invention known as cable TV, is a coming-of-age fetish object for Gen X and -Y guys--including locally based writer-director-impresario Tim VandeSteeg (known as "Vandy" throughout the credits), whose Subway-financed debut feature is a sort of indie rip on that secret handshake. In it, a quartet of aging high school jocks (Steve Lattery, Joshua Will, Trei Christian Michaels, Cedric Yarbrough) who collectively look like Hootie and the Blowfish swing their nine irons, encounter the Fairy of the Green (guess what that entails), ogle the asses of some would-be hotties, pontificate on relationships, and scratch their nuts. I can see Vandy bolting awake in the middle of the night: "I got it! Kevin Smith's sloppiness! Ed Burns's maudlin-frat-boy shtick! All of it wrapped around...Caddyshack!" The one and only oddity of Mulligan is the way it treats one of its twentysomething crew's born-again Christianity as wholly normal. After hearing MTV's Carson Daly and the members of Blink-182 spout off this way, it makes me wonder: Aren't personal relationships with Jesus frowned on anymore? VandeSteeg will be present at this IFP/North-sponsored screening. Matthew Wilder

 

Eternal Memory: Voices From the
Great Terror

Heights Theater, Sunday at 3:00 p.m.

Narrated in appropriately somber tones by Meryl Streep, this 1997 documentary begins with the exhumation of an unmarked grave near a Ukrainian village. The remains, Streep informs us, are those of three peasants murdered during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. The Soviets will never be accused of thinking small: Their en masse pogrom, which lasted until the beginning of World War II, claimed the lives of roughly 20 million people, 1.5 million of whom were executed by secret police and plowed into unmarked pits around the countryside. Yet, perhaps because of the vast scale of this atrocity, Eternal Memory relies far too heavily on statistical and anecdotal evidence for its emotional effect: We are told that millions were tortured and shot to death, but without knowing the history of even one of these anonymous victims, the fact becomes as dry and distant as a history textbook. It doesn't help, either, that the documentary is constructed in the overly familiar PBS style--a pastiche of grainy archival footage and talking-head sound bites, mostly from American academics. Stalin himself famously said that one death is a tragedy and a million deaths a statistic. Eternal Memory demonstrates that unhappy truth. Peter Ritter

 

Poles Apart

Heights Theater, Sunday at 5:00 p.m.

This documentary by Minnesota-based director Greg Stiever follows Ann Bancroft--leader of the AWE (American Women's Expedition), and the first woman ever to reach the North Pole--along with three other adventurers on the first all-gal trek across the tundra of Antarctica. Most of us couldn't make it across a frozen Lake Harriet, let alone 600 miles of ice, but Bancroft, Anne Dal Vera, Sue Giller, and Sunniva Sorby prove plenty fierce under pressure, each pulling at least twice her own weight on sleds. Although much of the film is devoted to the daily hardships of working as a team in order to survive and then succeed, Poles Apart falls short in explaining the reasons behind a dramatic breakdown of group dynamics that causes tensions to run high. In any case, the guilty pleasure of a hot bath after this movie would seem well in order. Both Stiever and Bancroft will be present at the screening, which will be preceded by "Grandfather's Birthday," a 17-minute dramatic short by Minnesota filmmaker Gayle Knutson. Caroline Palmer

 

Somewhere Over the Rainbow:
Harold Arlen

Bell Auditorium, Sunday at 5:15 p.m.

Although Harold Arlen wrote the songs for The Wizard of Oz, as well as such standards as "Stormy Weather" and "Accentuate the Positive," his name doesn't ring as many bells as those of Gershwin, Porter, or Berlin--a situation that this documentary by Minneapolis native Don McGlynn seeks to remedy. Compiled mostly from interviews (including archival footage of Arlen, as well as present-day talks with his family members and his biographer, among others), the film also features a star-studded array of talent--Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand--performing Arlen's songs. Rainbow also discusses the roots of the composer's style, tracing it to his father's career as a cantor, and to the wide range of milieus (the Cotton Club, Broadway, and Hollywood) in which he worked. Although McGlynn initially avoids delving too deeply into his subject's personal life, he does eventually deal with the devastating mental problems and early demise of Arlen's wife. Unfortunately, the film is no more cinematic than the average episode of Biography on A&E, which won't do much to attract those who aren't already interested in Tin Pan Alley pop. McGlynn will be present at this "Jazz Showcase" screening sponsored by the Dakota Bar and Grill. Steve Erickson

 

Honour of the House

Oak Street Cinema, Sunday at 7:00 p.m.

Imagine that Ingmar Bergman and Anton Chekhov are locked in a room together, forced to collaborate on a story. Then, let's say an ancient Greek--Euripedes, for instance--stops by to add his two cents' worth of family betrayal and tragedy. The result would be not unlike this costume drama by Icelandic director Gudny Halldórsdóttir (Under the Glacier). In a tiny seaside town where everyone seems to know everyone else's business, Thuríd (played to teeth-gnashing perfection by Tinna Gunnlaugsdóttir) is preoccupied with preserving her family's image. But her spinster sister Rannveig (Ragnhildur Gísladóttir) threatens the family name by shirking marriage in favor of her needlepoint and handmade lace. Undaunted, Thurid convinces her father to send the reluctant Rannveig to Copenhagen, with the secret intention of gathering news about an old lover. All of her best-laid plans are dashed, however, as Rannveig returns pregnant (by the very same lover). Halldórsdótttir adapted this bleak story by her father, Halldór Laxness, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. The film moves at a quick pace, and the actors fully embody their parts--especially Gunnlaugsdóttir, who evinces absolutely no pity in her conscience-free role. Honor of the House also provides a fine opportunity to view the rustic Flatey Island off Iceland's west coast, a barren yet appropriate locale for this old-world comeuppance tale. Caroline Palmer

 

Louis Prima: The Wildest!

Bell Auditorium, Sunday at 7:15 p.m.

Minneapolis native Don McGlynn's other new documentary (besides Somewhere Over the Rainbow, reviewed above) teasingly provokes a fascination with the life and times of its "wild" subject while ultimately failing to deliver the goods. Louis Prima does find a hook in tracing the singer/trumpeter's childhood in New Orleans's French Quarter (which was actually more of an Italian Quarter in the early 20th Century). The talents of the budding musician became as diverse as the stew of styles that surrounded him: Italian opera, New Orleans jazz, rhythm and blues, black gospel, and more, not to mention the enterprising musicians who sold their talents "for all occasions." No wonder he became part of the vanguard that took swing to the borders of rock 'n' roll, and almost singlehandedly pioneered Vegas-style entertainment--all this while promoting his ethnicity in the Forties and Fifties, when assimilation was the rule. Prima's talent and charisma are made evident through plentiful footage, and McGlynn interviews writers, academics, and two of Prima's five wives, as well as various other family and band members. Yet there remains little insight into what made Prima tick, either as a musical wild man or a legendary womanizer. Rather than enlightening viewers, Louis Prima: The Wildest! settles for merely informing them. McGlynn will be present at this "Jazz Showcase" screening sponsored by the Dakota Bar and Grill. Julie Caniglia

 

Into the White

Heights Theater, Sunday at 7:30 p.m.

Co-written and -directed by Hinckley native Steve Kroschel, and billed as "the true story of a snow job," this opportunistic cross between Everest and The Blair Witch Project is an obvious consequence of those new, product-starved suburban gigaplexes, two of which have seen fit to open it for exclusive runs. (The film is also playing once at the Heights as part of the Mpls./St. Paul International Film Festival.) Set in the avalanche-prone mountains of New Zealand and the Canadian Rockies, it’s a torturously fictionalized documentary of Kroschel’s experiences shooting nature footage for other films and TV commercials while falling for one of his loyal crew members (Carrie Paulson, now engaged to the auteur and credited here as his collaborator). In between shamelessly staged scenes of the filmmakers reacting in mock panic to "life-threatening" polar bears and avalanches (often filmed in close-up by another, evidently safer documentarian), Paulson delivers the sort of cheesy diaristic voiceovers that would give even Ed Wood pause. "Some of the memories of this place are so poignant," she says at one point, "I can’t even tell you." (No, really—do tell!) The Colorado-set final reel, in which Kroschel (or his character?) orchestrates a passive-aggressive ploy for Paulson while recovering from injuries real or imagined, climaxes with the heroine’s sorely needed housekeeping efforts and selfless trip to the ATM. A snow job it is, indeed. Rob Nelson

 

Enthusiasm

Bell Auditorium, Monday at 7:15 p.m.

The recurring visual motif of this Chilean drama is a panoramic sweep across the sunbaked desert of Arica, a landscape so forbidding that human inhabitants end up looking like travelers on the face of the moon. Judging from the rest of the film, one might also venture a guess that the image sums up director Ricardo Larrain's view of Chilean modernity as at once alluring and achingly desolate. That paradox is personified in Larrain's relentlessly enthusiastic protagonist, Fernando (Alvaro Escobar), a Gatsbyesque schemer who hatches a plan to build an "independent republic"--a resort-cum-commune--along the barren Chilean shoreline. His optimism is counterbalanced on one side by a gloomy, gorgeous woman (Maribel Verdu) who has trouble keeping her clothes on; and on the other by a childhood friend (Alvaro Rudolphy) who has chosen a life of quiet longing rather than plunging into Fernando's ill-fated entrepreneurialism. There's a strong whiff of political allegory here, but Larrain (La Frontera) doesn't push for either narrative cohesion or surrealist dystopia. The result is, like Fernando's republic, a grand idea that's dwarfed by the scenery--nice to look at, but as flat as the Arican wasteland. Peter Ritter

 

Welcome to Alaska

Heights Theater, Monday at 7:15 p.m.

Jumping on Mulligan-maker Tim "Vandy" VandeSteeg's Park City bandwagon in January, Little Canada-based identical twins Roger and Rodney Johnson screened an S-VHS tape of this 50-minute, semiautobiographical comedy before the hotel conference-room showings of Vandy's epic, and even found an appreciative audience in one of the closet-sized "theaters" at the declassé No Dance Film Festival on Main Street. Co-produced by Vandy, directed by Rodney, and co-written by Roger, the film stars the lanky Roger as a man obsessed--as Roger was in real life--with completing a collection of photos that reveal him standing before the Welcome signs in all 50 states. As it opens, only the Alaska sign remains unphotographed. But, as bad luck would have it, the governor of the state is planning to have it dismantled as part of a "highway beautification project," and the klutzy protagonist, who's further waylaid by a fanatic Sasquatch scout, remains a few cards shy of a full deck. Handsomely photographed on location, highly good-natured, and impossible to dislike, this comedic Blair Witch bears out its makers' modest wishes as expressed in Park City: "We want people to leave with a smile on their face." Both Johnsons will be present at the screening. Rob Nelson

 

Enigma

Oak Street Cinema, Monday at 9:30 p.m.

Touted as an unofficial entry in the gleefully subversive Dogme 95 movement, this Dutch effort is a thoroughly modern bit of satire that inventively takes the piss out of both independent and commercial filmmaking. At its center is Max (Jack Wouterse), an obsessively overbearing actor who, in the process of shooting a "spontaneous" pitch for a stilted, action-packed feature debut, winds up documenting his own half-baked careerism and deep disdain for the American movie machine. A quippy mix of Dutch and English dialogue, as well as some dizzying handheld-camcorder work, bolster the surrealism of this Enigma, suggesting a witty, somewhat cynical cross between Bowfinger, Blair Witch, and The Kingdom. Granted, the film is a bit preoccupied with its own unconventionality, but it reads even better on repeat viewings, with Wouterse and costar Ariane Schluter delivering deceptively complex turns. James Diers

 

A Summer by the River

Bell Auditorium, Tuesday at 7:15 p.m.; and Heights Theater, Wednesday, April 19 at 7:00 p.m.

This drama set in Fifties-era Finland amounts to Disneyesque fare for Finns seeking a glimpse of their homeland in the days before cell phones. The story begins when ten-year-old Topi, following the death of his mother, leaves Finland's urban south in the company of his distraught laborer father Tenho, and the two head north to seek employment on a log-rolling squad. Based on the director's personal experience, A Summer by the River is less an exploration of the pathos of loss and reinvention than a rollicking vehicle to showcase the time-honored, colorful, and dangerous profession of log rolling. The northland is, as you might suspect, rife with lovably dotty characters, from the kindly old foreman who takes Topi under his wing to the rough, provincial log men who give klutzy Tenho a hard time. The river, serving as all-purpose metaphor, does an exemplary job of churning--diverting logs into jammed coves, dragging men and boys nearly to their deaths (this is Disneyesque fare, remember?), and radiantly reflecting sunlight as Tenho and his new love Hikka splash away their loneliness and swim into an easily assumed happy ending. Laura Sinagra

 

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

The Girl of
Your Dreams

Oak Street Cinema, Saturday at 9:30 p.m.; and Heights Theater, Tuesday at 7:00 p.m.

After the bawdy, Oscar-winning Belle Epoque and the ill-fated Antonio Banderas/Melanie Griffith vehicle Two Much, director Fernando Trueba returns to Spain for another sprawling melodrama set against world-shaping events. It's 1938, the Spanish Civil War is at its apex, and the Nazi war machine is gearing up for its notorious blitz through Europe. Hitler and Franco have made a reciprocal agreement, which allows for a troupe of actors to travel to Berlin to film the cheesy musical of the title. Once there, a famous Spanish star (the red-hot Penelope Cruz) becomes involved with the movie's director, and tries to protect a Jewish companion from persecution--while a strapping Teutonic actor (a dead ringer for Dolph Lundgren) comes out of the closet in the most menacing manner. Sweeping and handsomely filmed, The Girl of Your Dreams is an intelligent and wholly original rendering of a Holocaust story. It's no Life Is Beautiful, and yet its microcosmic treatment of a much larger evil is similarly arresting. Tom Meek

Juha

Oak Street Cinema, Sunday at 5:30 p.m.

Talk about time out of joint: This 1999 silent film by Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki (The Match Factory Girl) takes a 1911 story by Juhani Aho, previously filmed in 1920, 1937, and 1950, and sets it...when? In one scene, the movie's lame-legged farmer, Juha (Sakari Kuosmanen), and his younger, orphaned wife Marja (Kati Outinen), are living out a bucolic marriage, picking cabbage by hand--"happy as children," as the intertitle puts it. Next, a vulpine city slicker named Shmeikka (Andre Wilms) shows up in a broken Sixties roadster, trying to seduce Marja away to the city. For a spell she stays at the farm, but she soon grows surly and restless--smoking, reading magazines, and microwaving meals. Then the lecher returns, cuckolds Juha, and installs Marja in his sister's brothel. To call any part of this endeavor an anachronism would be to miss the point, as an early modernist fable here receives a truly quirky, expressionist treatment. Visually compelling and wonderfully scored, Kaurismäki's silent movie proves as unreliable as seedy Shmeikka--tricking the viewer into an age that never was. Michael Tortorello

The Dream Catcher

Oak Street Cinema, Sunday at 9:30 p.m., Monday at 7:30 p.m.

Despite some awkward and obvious passages, this scruffy tale of two teenage drifters is the kind of sharply observed regional feature that makes the festival circuit a necessity. Freddy (Maurice Compte, a young actor with a hint of Vincent Gallo's crazed stare and gonzo volatility) is a juvenile parolee who has walked out on his pregnant girlfriend in Philadelphia. Hopping trains and hitchhiking toward Oklahoma City, where he hopes to reunite with his just-released ex-con dad, he crosses paths with Albert (Paddy Connor), a scrawny, motor-mouthed delinquent who's bound for his estranged mom's diner outside Reno. Their journey by thumb, truck, and stolen car cuts through Middle America like a needle skipping across a record, and, as eloquently directed by Ohio filmmaker Edward Rathke, the movie becomes a blur of bummed cigarettes, hitched rides, and indistinguishable roadside shrubbery. Alas, the script has a tendency to plant details on its characters instead of allowing them to emerge, but the movie's portrait of damaged kids attempting to forge a makeshift family unit remains unexpectedly affecting. Director Rathke and co-screenwriter Marc Nieson will be present at both screenings of The Dream Catcher, which has won the fest's "Emerging Filmmaker" prize for Best Narrative Feature. Jim Ridley

Rosetta

Bell Auditorium, Monday at 9:30 p.m.

Following a tenacious 17-year-old girl (Emilie Dequenne) through the endless struggles of her life in Belgium, the Dardenne brothers (Luc and Jean-Pierre, whose equally tough La Promesse graced U Film in 1998) bring their 15 years of documentary experience to bear on a narrative feature that possesses all the aching force of the best nonfiction films about labor. The heroine of the title fights to fend off poverty in the film's every frame, yearning for a job that will keep her and her alcoholic mother (Anne Yernaux) living uncomfortably in their trailer-park home. The Dardennes train their roving camera on Rosetta's hands as she baits the hook on a bottle fish trap, mixes waffle batter, peels a hard-boiled egg, or carries a heavy canister of propane back to her house: Every action is an effort. Recalling the great tradition of neorealist world-cinema classics about poor children, from Los Olvidados to Pixote, this controversial Palme d'Or winner at Cannes displays an astute class consciousness that's never reducible to platitudes about the courage of the impoverished. In her debut, the young Dequenne holds the screen all the way to the end of the film, at which point the Dardennes pull off a brilliant transference of energy that puts her fate in another's hands, and perhaps the viewer's as well. I'd be thrilled if the MSPIFF contained a stronger feature than this--and thoroughly surprised. Rob Nelson

 

The World Is Not Enough

Al Milgrom's quest for an audience takes him to Armenian churches, Hungarian grocery stores--and anywhere else a ticket buyer might be hiding

 

by Kirsten Marcum

If you're a recent immigrant to the United States, chances are Al Milgrom knows where you live. He knows where you shop, eat out, go to church, and polka. This time of year, as he prepares to unleash his annual cavalcade of cinema hailing from countries such as Macedonia, Lithuania, Denmark, India, and Tajikistan, chances are there's a movie he thinks you should see. Chances are he's coming your way to tell you so.

"He's everywhere," reports Jan McElfish, a publicist for the American Swedish Institute. "I was having lunch at Kramarczuk's one day during the film festival a couple of years ago, and he was there, passing out flyers to the customers and the women behind the counter. He saw me, and he said, 'Come with me to my car. I've got some brochures for you.'"

Despite the advent of such things as fax machines, e-mail, and Web pages in the 18 years since the beginning of the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, U Film czar Milgrom remains a staunch practitioner of what might be called person-to-person marketing. Milgrom himself flatly rejects the term ("You make it sound like I'm McCann Erickson or something"), but the fact remains that his methods of conjuring an audience rest in: 1) figuring out where to find various ethnic constituencies; and 2) going there, or getting as close as possible. After decades of canvassing various pockets of both recent and established immigrants, he views the process as both obvious and unremarkable--as though everyone would think to hunt down Hungarian grocery stores, Armenian churches, and Czech mayors.

"I don't think there's any trick or secret," he says. "You think it takes a Harvard Business School type to figure out that if you've got a Czech film, you call the mayors of the Czech towns in Minnesota? No. Minneapolis is a small town. It's not that hard to hit ten churches on Northeast University Avenue on a Sunday morning."

Like any apostle, he remains firmly convinced that people want what he has to offer, even if they don't know it yet. "There's a public out there that likes to hear its language and be reminded of the old-country culture it left," he says. And so ensues what appears to be the Sisyphean task of calling and leafleting an endless roster of ethnic newsletters, radio programs, fraternal organizations, and the like.

Czeslaw (Chester) Rog, who edits Pol-Am, a newsletter for Minnesota's Polish Americans, has known Milgrom since at least 1970 and regularly includes notices about U Film movies in his newsletter. This January, Rog attended several of the films in the Krzysztof Kieslowski series The Decalogue shown at the Walker Art Center. "It's a famous Polish film series," he says. "The area churches sponsored it together with the Walker, and each showing was a sellout. After the show, when we walked out, there was Al, passing out flyers on other Polish movies the U Film Society was showing."

Other regular contacts include the American Swedish Institute, Pramod Chopra's Manoranjan Movies (which screens Hindi films at Oak Street Cinema and boasts a mailing list of about 1,100), various KFAI Radio (90.3 FM/106.7 FM) programs, U of M student organizations, and the University's Austrian Center. Such a list is only a fraction of Milgrom's rough database, the true measure of which perhaps no one but Al Milgrom truly knows--and even his assessment may be only an estimate.

"Al has so many different lists and so many different filing systems that it's impossible to know where he's getting his information from, or, more importantly, where you're supposed to get your information from," says former U Film staffer Toby Sauer (who reports finding such chaos "fun"). "Plus, his idea of an 'ethnic group' ranges from one guy from Croatia to an actual Chinese or Mexican population."

To observe Al Milgrom is to conclude that the task of filling seats is roughly equivalent to bailing a leaky boat: A moment's rest might mean disaster. In this way, a successful screening is less a reason for celebration than yet another marketing opportunity. Recently, Rog lobbied Milgrom to bring Pan Tadeusz--the film version of an epic poem every Polish child learns in school--to the U Film Society, which he did in March. Rog reports that the Sunday afternoon screening was full, and the audience was predominantly Polish. "One family brought their four teenagers. They thought it was very important for their youngsters to get a handle on this snapshot of Polish history," he says. The board of the Pol-Am Institute was also in attendance, and because it was the birthday of one of the board members, Rog stood before the film began and led the audience in singing "Stolat," the Polish birthday song.

After the film ended, Milgrom (whom Rog calls "really kind of a gem as far as the Polish community is concerned") approached him. "He said: 'You know, I didn't see the Mayslack's polka crowd here.'"

Skeptics may occasionally question whether keeping track of the polka crowd is the most effective way to program an annual festival with some 120 selections--and then a year-round program, as well. "Occasionally, Al has more faith in a film and in his tactics than either his film or the tactics deserve," says Sauer, who worked with Milgrom for a year. "But it's amazing--the fact he can do it this way for 40 years and still have utter faith in his methods. It's really kind of wonderful."

Indeed, Milgrom remains indefatigable in his methods, and committed to hunting the elusive ticket buyer and roping her into a seat. He believes nothing less than this kind of effort will work. If you leave a flyer on a ledge, Milgrom explains, it doesn't always get picked up. Statistics on newspaper reviews demonstrate that you can't rely on press alone to build an audience. Local radio coverage of the cultural scene is, in his opinion, poor. In short, absent any radical shift in the public appetite for foreign films or a sudden infusion of cash for a promotional budget, Milgrom is likely to continue exactly as he has for decades.

"We owe a lot of money," he says. "And if I didn't do [what I do], we wouldn't get an audience. I don't do it for exercise."

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