Two Out of Three Ain't Bad

The Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival's Middle Week Has Hits, Sleepers, and Snoozers

 

Nine Queens
Oak Street Cinema, Saturday, April 13 at 9:30 p.m.

Albeit far less formally adventurous than recent Argentine works such as La Libertad and La Cienaga, this Mametian con-game drama is surely one of the most enjoyable products of Argentina's New Wave. One night, Juan (Gaston Pauls) tries to scam a delicatessen by switching bills on the clerk, claiming that he had been bilked out of the proper change. When he gets caught, Marcos (Ricardo Darin), an older, seemingly more experienced con man, gets him out of one difficult situation and pulls him into another, even more dangerous one: a scheme to steal nine rare stamps--the "nine queens" of the title. Given Argentina's history of tyranny, the film's paranoid atmosphere--in which it seems as though everyone has an ulterior motive--appears politically motivated. Yet it soon becomes clear that first-time director Fabian Bielinsky is more interested in delivering a work of pure entertainment. (The usual Mametian subtexts having to do with masculinity and the nature of corporate greed are nowhere to be found.) Bielinsky's final plot twists have generally divided viewers, but in a film like this, one should take for granted that nothing is exactly as it seems. Nine Queens might not offer anything particularly daring or substantial, but it's an awfully stylish ride. --Steve Erickson

 

The Miles Davis Story
Oak Street Cinema, Sunday, April 14 at 1:00 p.m.

Made for British television, this unflinching biopic justifies its two-hour running time through a comprehensive, grade-school-to-grave examination of the titular trumpeter's tumultuous, doggedly creative existence. Producer-director Mike Dibb unearths a bounty of intimate sources--girlfriends, wives, children, producers, musicians--who move beyond Davis's iconic persona and legendary music to show the degree to which drugs and egocentrism fueled his relentless desire to renew and reinvent himself. It's not a pretty picture. Davis's high school sweetheart and the mother of his first three children describes how drugs destroyed their relationship and forced her to put him in jail for neglecting to pay child support. Trumpeter Clark Terry, Davis's mentor from East St. Louis, good-naturedly tells of picking a strung-out Davis off the street, only to find him later ransacking Terry's apartment out of the need to support his habit. Davis's first wife says she fled the relationship fearing for her life. And yet the depth of the musician's charm and magnetism is apparent in the affection that suffuses the voices of everyone interviewed (his two eldest, estranged sons declined to talk), even as they detail the man's many transgressions. Die-hard fans will have some quibbles. Musical solos are invariably truncated into maddening snippets, and Davis's innumerable incarnations are accorded uneven and occasionally inappropriate emphasis (a necessary byproduct of the material available to Dibb). But with the possible exception of Miles: The Autobiography, Dibb's film represents the best single source for a nuanced understanding of this genuine genius. --Britt Robson

 

Yellow Asphalt
Bell Auditorium, Sunday, April 14 at 1:15 p.m.; and Oak Street Cinema, Wednesday, April 17 at 7:30 p.m.

Shot in the desolate Judea Desert, this three-part Israeli drama approaches the Arab/Israeli conflict from a fresh perspective, examining its impact on the Jahalin Bedouin tribe. All three of the film's segments consist of encounters between Jews and Bedouins. In the first, "Black Spot," an Israeli driver runs over a Bedouin boy; in the second, "Here Is Not There," a German woman tries to escape her Bedouin husband; and in the third, "Red Roots," a Bedouin maid is impregnated by her Jewish employer. Directed by Danny Vereté, Yellow Asphalt suffers from the awkward pacing that one might expect of a feature stitched together from three short films made over a seven-year period. ("Red Roots," which is about as long as the other two segments combined, contains enough material for a full-length film.) But Vereté, to his credit, doesn't take sides: The Bedouins' traditions seem rigid and misogynistic, while the Israelis' modernity appears casually racist and irresponsible; communication between the two groups is almost impossible. Given recent events in the Middle East, Vereté's bleak view of Israeli life may be tragically accurate. --Steve Erickson

 

Women in Jazz
Oak Street Cinema, Sunday, April 14 at 3:15 p.m.

This documentary endeavors to be all things to all viewers: a socio-historical treatise on sexism; a behind-the-scenes snapshot of New York's club scene; a primer on improvisational music; and, if you believe the film's promotional material, a showcase for a "superb" soundtrack, featuring 20 of today's best female performers. It's an ambitious feat that, in the hands of an accomplished aural aesthete or musical scholar, could have functioned either as a recruiting film for new listeners or as an archival treasure for fans--or, better yet, as both. But French director Gilles Corre rarely if ever affords his subjects enough time to plumb their depths, either on the stand or when addressing the camera. We're told time and again that jazz is a male-dominated genre (no surprise there), but we're given little more than a cursory feel for the root of the problem, how deep it cuts, or how the music will sound if and when the problem is corrected. And we hear more than a few mind-bending notes from the likes of pianist Myra Melford, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, and soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, but their solos are inexplicably chopped into sound bites, the drama so central to jazz left tapping its feet on the cutting-room floor. --David Schimke

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