The Greatest Shows on Earth

Uzbek beauties! Swedish peaceniks! Iranian mummies! A guide to the high-wire act otherwise known as the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.

 

The Debt

OAK STREET CINEMA, SUNDAY AT 3:30 P.M.; AND HEIGHTS THEATER, WEDNESDAY, APRIL 11 AT 9:00 P.M.

Grace Maksimik

This coolly efficient slice of film noir by Polish director Krzysztof Krauze begins with police fishing gruesomely disfigured corpses out of the lead-gray Vistula River. And the outward similarities to The Usual Suspects don't end there: Krauze also employs a tricky flashback structure, a labyrinthine con worthy of David Mamet, and a character who fakes a limp to allay suspicions. Whereas Suspects took masochistic glee in its bait-and-switch con of the audience, though, The Debt strikes a decidedly sourer note: The story, a cat-and-mouse game involving small-time Polish hoods and a vicious Russian mobster, becomes like a noose tightening around our necks. Krauze builds an atmosphere of pervasive dread with nervous, darting camera movements and an almost Dogme-like austerity (i.e., no music or car chases to leaven the mood). The vérité approach is justified, certainly, since the story is based in fact. But Krauze is aiming for something more than just a stylish true-crime thriller: He turns The Debt into a dark parable about the price of ambition, as well as a cautionary exemplar of Poland's currently uneasy moment. In this true story of laissez-faire capitalism gone insane, Krauze finds a metaphor for a nation that has lost its moral balance. Peter Ritter

 

From Opium to Chrysanthemums

GALTIER PLAZA CINEMA, SUNDAY AT 5:15 P.M.;
AND HEIGHTS THEATER, SATURDAY, APRIL 14 AT 5:00 P.M.

In 1969, while taking pictures in the Thai Mountains near war-ravaged Laos, Swedish filmmaker Peå Holmquist came upon the courageous Hmong people of Maetho, a fertile farming village that staked its livelihood on the opium trade. Business was booming, but at a devastating price from without and within: When they weren't fending off violent drug dealers and Thai military raids, the Hmong were seized by their own crippling addiction. Thirty years later, Holmquist returned to find the village transformed under the charismatic leadership of Lao Tong, the serene hero of this compassionate and illuminating documentary. Quieted by old age and health ailments, Tong proves a disappointingly elusive interview subject, but the expansive fields of vegetables and flowers speak to his accomplishments. Other details are filled in by Holmquist and his wife, co-director Suzanne Khardalian, who weave autobiographical elements and voiceovers into an episodic look at Hmong in Southeast Asia and America, including a brief detour to their annual Spring Festival in Minneapolis. Touching on issues stemming from their torn allegiances during the war and the diminishment of women in their fiercely patriarchal society, the film covers a lot of ground geographically and thematically, which makes it seem shambling and diffuse at times. But Holmquist, who examined other persecuted and exiled peoples in Gaza Ghetto (about the plight of a Palestinian family) and Back to Ararat (about Armenian genocide during World War I), still conveys a deep respect for their unlikely triumphs and steadfast cultural integrity. Scott Tobias

 

Peppermint

BELL AUDITORIUM, SUNDAY AT 5:15 P.M.

If your only previous exposure to contemporary Greek cinema has been the rarefied, Antonioniesque work of Theo Angelopoulos (Ulysses' Gaze, Landscape in the Mist), this determinedly lightweight childhood reminiscence will come as a surprise. Closer to such recent (and middling) kid-centric Spanish films as José Luis Garci's The Grandfather and José Luis Cuerda's Butterfly, writer-director Costas Kapakas's semiautobiographical debut effort is perfect festival fare for undemanding audiences who don't necessarily like to do a lot of work in order to get their cultural fix. En route to a party thrown by a boyhood friend, aviation engineer Stefanos experiences a series of rueful flashbacks to his youth in 1960s Greece. Trifling stuff like Stefanos losing his first tooth is given the same dramatic weight as a star-crossed demi-romance with cousin Marina. Not until the final act, however, does the film exert any real emotional pull, as Kapakas reverts to the present-day narrative and forces his protagonist to address how past events--and missed opportunities--have affected Stefanos's current life and made him into the glum workaholic he is today. Kapakas does a nice job of re-creating the early Sixties period (and he draws excellent performances from his child actors), but an overriding sense of déjà vu prevents this wisp of a film from ever truly sparking the imagination. Milan Paurich

 

His Wife's Diary

HEIGHTS THEATER, SUNDAY AT 7:00 P.M.; AND OAK STREET CINEMA, THURSDAY, APRIL 12 AT 9:30 P.M.

The talented-artist-as-asshole genre goes down easy with a few shots of vodka in this speculative, muckracking domestic drama about the last decades of the first Russian Nobel laureate, Ivan Bunin. It's seen through the alternately rose- and bile-colored eyes of his devoted wife Vera, who began writing a diary to prevent herself from going mad. The story begins in the pre-Nobel 1930s, as Vera, Ivan, and his mistress Galina loll about as rich, self-imposed exiles in the sunny south of France, swimming and having picnics. Galina, who is framed and photographed to appear more beautiful than Vera, provides the inspiration, while the wife cooks, cleans, and ignores the advances of another émigré author. The film is generating some controversy in Russia for portraying the choleric Bunin as a lecherous bastard who constantly mistreats his wife and descends into drunken madness after Galina leaves the ménage and takes up with a worldly lesbian in Paris. Director Alexei Uchitel does deal solely with the author's personal life--we hear little of his writing, and what we do hear isn't impressive--but in as scandalous a manner as Henry and June, with a lot less skin. More troublesome is how Uchitel uses history as background fodder, as the outside world assumes importance only when World War II turns the characters into idle poor. At this point the filmmaker's bright canvas predictably darkens, and the petty bourgeois behavior of the whole entourage becomes as crudely frustrating as his subject's has been all along. Mark Peranson

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