Reel Two

The Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival spins into its second week

Skirty Winner

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

Like novels about the writer's lot or songs about playing in a rock 'n' roll band, films about actors betray a selfish unwillingness to look beyond one's immediate experience for artistic insight, or even a good story. In director Jeffrey Blair's exhumation of the commonplace, erstwhile Minnesotan Karen Samuelson plays erstwhile Minnesotan Skirty Winner, a paragon of cloying Midwestern naiveté who'll do whatever it takes to make it to Broadway, even if it means (gasp!) working a day job. (Why is it supposedly more demeaning to endure temp work in support of your acting habit than to suffer such indignities in support of your family?) When Skirty catches the eye of a big-talking filmmaker, however, the dream part he offers isn't quite the big break she has imagined. And, of course, no such movie would be complete without the charming yet uncommitted boyfriend who needs to grow up, or the bitchy yet understanding roommate who's there when the heroine really needs her. Parading attitudes in place of characterization, and stupefyingly obvious quotations from The Graduate and Taxi Driver in place of one-liners, Blair has Skirty and her pals milling about listlessly, wondering if their dreams are merely illusions, and discovering that sometimes life is complex and ambiguous--even if the flick they inhabit is not. Keith Harris


Red Ribbon

Bell Auditorium, Saturday at 7:15 p.m., Sunday at 1:15 p.m.

Although I can't honestly recommend this Iranian film, it is one of the most accomplished failures I've seen in a year. Director Ebrahim Hatamikia and cinematographer Hassan Pooya make the most of their desolate setting: an Iranian desert 30 miles from the Afghan border, filled with uncleared mines and decaying tanks. Pivoting around a mere three characters (a mine sweeper, a tank dealer, and a woman who wants to claim her family farm despite the minefields surrounding it), Red Ribbon turns into an unconventional love triangle, at its best coming close to the menacing austerity of Harold Pinter's plays or Monte Hellman's Sixties Westerns. While I can't fault Hatamikia's direction, his pacing is labored and his dialogue leans toward the pretentious (although this may be the fault of some remarkably poor subtitles). Furthermore, the film's allegorical intent--using the desert as a metaphor for the long-term scars inflicted by Iran's lengthy war with Iraq--becomes increasingly transparent. Hatamikia certainly has an original vision, but his movie shows that inventiveness alone isn't always sufficient to create compelling art. Steve Erickson


Breaking Out

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

Since you'll no doubt make the comparison once Steve Zahn and Ving Rhames appear in the inevitable American remake, let's admit that this sweet-natured Swedish comedy doffs more than its hat to The Full Monty. The plot doesn't throw many new ingredients into the formula: Forced by circumstances to fill in as recreation director for a maximum-security prison, an earnest, out-of-work actor leads a motley array of inmates (who see their roles only as future escapees) through rehearsals of a play that he hopes to have them perform in public. (As a side note, the "grim" prisons depicted here, complete with cheery murals and in-room TVs, suggest the average American dorm.) Every putting-on-a-show cliché makes an appearance: group lip-synching, cutesy bits where hardened cons learn the Method, conflicts with authority, last-minute replacements, and so on. Yet the utter familiarity of the narrative is offset by director Daniel Lind Lagerlöf's charming and humane interest in his makeshift thespians. The inmates may be no more than types, but Breaking Out never treats them as such, offering generosity and respect for their struggles while the movie's tone navigates smartly between camp and schmaltz. Jesse Berrett

The Unwanted

Heights Theater, Sunday at 2:00 p.m.

Winner of the festival's "Emerging Filmmaker" grand prize for Best Documentary, this hourlong Turkish-Bulgarian co-production leaves us with more questions than answers. What we do learn without a doubt is that the mid-Eighties exodus of thousands of Turks from Bulgaria to Turkey, and the subsequent closing of the Turkish border without warning, left hundreds of family members separated from one another--resulting in a lucrative trade of child-smuggling over the border, and a string of ghost towns with just a few lonely residents remaining to discuss the old times. But director Adela Peeva scarcely touches on the reasons Communist authorities had enforced this exodus, leaving those unaware of the particulars of Bulgarian politics and history grasping at straws. About 40 minutes into the film, the Turkish subjects describe having been beaten by soldiers, forced to hide their religious practices, discriminated against for their traditional dress, and coerced into changing their names to Bulgarian ones. The tragic plight of these people certainly makes for compelling material, but Peeva would have done well to sketch the historical context more clearly for the international audience. Melissa Christensen


Steps of Mindfulness

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

Thich Nhat Hanh became a Buddhist monk in Vietnam in 1942, at age 16; by the 1960s, he was in Saigon leading a youth peace-and-justice group that rebuilt bombed villages, set up schools, and organized agricultural co-ops. He took the case for peace in Indochina to the likes of Robert McNamara and Martin Luther King, led the Buddhist delegation to the Paris peace talks, and founded an "exile Buddhist community" in France. He still lives there today, teaching meditation, writing poetry, and gardening; and he occasionally travels the world in support of his books, spreading the notion of "engaged Buddhism," a concept that turns what is often seen as a primarily introspective philosophy into a social--dare we say radical--force. Unfortunately, you don't learn any of this from Swiss filmmaker Thomas Lüchinger's documentary, an 85-minute montage chronicling its subject's pilgrimage to India. The master does get plenty of time to (compellingly) explain his ideas, and there's lots of wide-eyed, we're-not-in-Zurich-anymore footage of rivers, palm fronds, and bustling street scenes. So what if the juxtapositions are sometimes forced and sometimes painfully obvious? It's enough to whet your appetite, both for a trip to India and a closer reading of this extraordinary monk's work. Monika Bauerlein

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