On the opening night of the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival at the State Theatre last Friday, former newspaperman Al Milgrom buried the lead. A full hour into a pre-screening sponsor-schmoozing marathon, the director of U Film Society for 40 years announced that he'll accept Oak Street Cinema's longstanding proposal to merge the two organizations.
This unexpected news was startling enough by itself, but even more so in terms of the messenger's ornery refusal to speak on the record about the matter until now. Indeed, if the customary method of telling Milgrom's epic story has been to "print the legend," as John Ford would say, the legendary man himself has often displayed an impatience with journalistic inquiry to rival that of the man who shot The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Which is why it was eerily apt for the evening's other guest of honor to have been none other than Peter Bogdanovich--the man who directed Directed by John Ford.
In that 1971 documentary, the crotchety king of the Western is seen blasting one Bogdanovich question after another. "Mr. Ford, how did you shoot that elaborate land rush in Three Badmen?"
With a camera.
"Mr. Ford, would you agree that the point of Fort Apache is that the tradition of the army was more important than one individual?"
And to Mr. Milgrom: Would you agree that the tradition of U Film Society is more important than one individual? No comment, I'd imagine. And while the potential benefits to the local film community of combining the cities' two most valuable arthouses are without question, this journalist can't help wondering whether Milgrom got a chuckle out of how uncannily Bogdanovich's opening-night movie The Cat's Meow pointed to the potential pitfalls of such an endeavor. That film portrays the grave tragedy that occurs in the wake of William Randolph Hearst's 1924 announcement of a proposal to merge his interests with those of independent film distributor Thomas Ince.
But let us not risk casting the slightest doubt upon such a propitious plan as that announced on Friday. Rather, in this second week of the 20th annual MSPIFF (reviews of its offerings are included below), let's raise a glass to Al Milgrom, and repeat the toast made by Hearst in The Cat's Meow: "Here's to one of the giants of the motion-picture industry."
Breaking the Silence
Metro State University, St. Paul, Thursday, April 11 at 7:00 p.m.; and Oak Street Cinema, Friday, April 12 at 7:30 p.m.
Watching Gong Li in this effective, albeit rote Chinese melodrama is a bit like watching Ingrid Bergman sleepwalk through one of her lesser vehicles from the Sixties. Gong, like Bergman, is an endlessly resourceful performer; but, also like Bergman (whose career and private life Gong's closely parallels), she naturally finds it difficult to play against her image as a screen icon. Gong Li, in other words, is never less than "Gong Li." In casting her as a dumpy prole mother struggling to look after a hearing-impaired son, director Sun Zhou seems to have misunderstood his star's distinct appeal--that is, distinctly not that of an Everywoman. Zhang Yimou, whose period-piece collaborations with Gong cemented her stature as China's favorite celluloid goddess, recognized this magisterial aura and kept her at the center of his compositions. By contrast, Breaking the Silence's modern, naturalistic milieu (the original title is Beautiful Mom) mostly relegates her to the edge of the frame. Perhaps unconsciously, Gong responds by overplaying her character's ordinariness, as if she were trying to convince herself that she belongs here at all. --Peter Ritter
Minnesota Shorts Showcase
Heights Theater, Thursday, April 11 at 7:00 p.m.
Like most shorts compilations, this collection of nine works by Minnesota filmmakers is uneven, but it does offer a few gems. In particular, Michael Kimmel's inventive and appealing "Wake" stands out for its sophis-ticated use of visual metaphor: the way that its multiple modes of presentation (computer-screen readout, Super 8 home movies, etc.) keep you guessing as to what the film is "about" until the jarring end. (Plus, its use of Radiohead on the soundtrack works even for those of us who consider the band to be, ahem, the new Pink Floyd.) Other films in the program are also enjoyable, if more conventional in their visual and narrative approaches. Ryan Wood's "Pitching Mother" features a pretentious filmmaker who tries to explain his ridiculous screenplay to his mom--a hackneyed conceit that's enlivened by Wood's witty dialogue. Scott Ferril and David Moe's parodic noir "Private Eyes" is similarly playful, with a cleverly Freudian denouement. And, if you look closely, you'll spot former Replacements drummer Chris Mars delivering pizza. Other shorts include Steve Eric Larson's "The New Boy," Lewis Weinberg's "Le Pepe," Peter Giebink and Brian Sobaski's "Yummi Yucki," a 15-minute preview of Matt Ehling's forthcoming feature documentary Urban Warrior, and comedies by Emily Goldberg ("Footage") and Eddie Nelson III ("Cheez-Its"). --Derek Nystrom
The Third Wheel
Bell Auditorium, Thursday, April 11 at 7:15 p.m.
In this mainstream Miramax tidbit exec-produced by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (who give themselves cameos), Luke Wilson plays Stanley, a mild-mannered office worker who hasn't had a date in three and a half years. When the gorgeous Diana (Denise Richards) joins the firm, he springs into action...a year later. The perfect date stretches before them, until Stanley drives his car into a homeless guy (Jay Lacopo, who also wrote the screenplay), and the seemingly good-natured victim proceeds to wreak havoc on the evening. (And Stanley's co-workers make bets on what'll happen next. Hey--didn't Miramax use that device last month in 40 Days and 40 Nights?) A sort of After Hours-lite, The Third Wheel is the perfect calling card for Lacopo, who worked with Affleck in 1993 on the uniquely titled I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meat Hook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney. It's also the perfect date movie for the suburban multiplex--but you'll find more edge on your cup-holder. What's it doing in a film festival? (Damon was recently quoted as saying that the movie "didn't come up to expectations." Aha. So that's what it's doing in a film festival.) You may wish you had caught that collection of South African TV episodes at the Walker instead. --Amy Bracken Sparks