Your M-SPIFF 12-Pack

A dozen discerning film fest picks

Conventioneers

OAK STREET CINEMA, FRIDAY AT 7:15 P.M.

Inspired by Haskell Wexler's epochal Medium Cool, this Amerindie docudrama sets the fictional affair of a red-state man and a blue-state woman against the real backdrop of protestors and panderers in the run-up to the 2004 Republican National Convention. Seven years after they were friends at Dartmouth, Texas delegate David (Matthew Mabe) and New York protestor Lea (Woodwyn Koons) meet for lunch and begin trading political barbs; a few drinks later, they're in bed together. The film asks: At what cost do we forgo personal needs for political causes (and vice versa)? Speaking of which: For the heinous crime of creating a historical record, director Mora Stephens and crew were placed in detention by the NYPD. But the movie's indelible climax, in particular, shows that their effort was worth it.

John Behling

 

Man Push Cart

RIVERVIEW THEATER, FRIDAY AT 7:30 P.M.; AND BLOCK E 15, SUNDAY AT 7:00 P.M.

This subtly resonant character portrait from Iranian-American writer-director Ramin Bahrani applies a rapt focus to the daily routine of its protagonist (Ahmad Razvi), a former rock star from Lahore who now works a coffee-and-pastry pushcart in New York City. Set largely between sunset and dawn, the movie illuminates the murky beauty—and hardscrabble economics—of the city's all-night shadowland. And while it's not overtly political, Man Push Cart's matter-of-fact look at the daily trials of assimilation for a young Muslim man reads clearly in terms of post-9/11 America. By the end, the repeated images of man pushing cart have merged into an infinite loop, a visually eloquent summation of the stoic hero's existential plight.

Dennis Lim

 

John & Jane Toll-Free

BLOCK E 15, SATURDAY AT 5:15 P.M.

Cheerily selling "America" to Americans by phone from Mumbai, the Indian call-center workers in this stunning documentary peek behind globalization's veil appear just as eager to buy in. Albeit mandatory, the shadow corporation's U.S.-culture seminar ("the pursuit of happiness") registers for the attendees as an American-style opportunity. Off-duty (that is, during the day), the service reps get stoned, go shopping, swap shit-talk about the unseen boss, eat at McDonald's, sing along with Elvis, and dream of making billions. Shot like fiction from tripods in 35mm, director Ashim Ahluwalia's stylized anti-vérité chills to the bone. The mood is wired but numb, the reps soothed by an almost religious belief that those phone lines lead to freedom. HBO, believe it or not, has bought the movie and will air it next year.

Rob Nelson

 

The Forest for the Trees

OAK STREET CINEMA, SUNDAY AT 5:00 P.M.

Simple, patient, and at times uncomfortably intimate, this highly acclaimed student film from German director Maren Ade follows Melanie (Eva Löbau), a young and lonely schoolteacher whose students are out of control. Melanie tries to make friends with her stylish neighbor (Daniela Holz), but her social skills lack subtlety, and she eventually starts following the poor woman around, snooping and interfering to the point of stalking. Löbau delivers a haunting performance: Her character is a quivering bundle of nerves, false bravado, and poor instincts, a woman we can't help but empathize with. Winner of a Special Jury Award at Sundance, The Forest for the Trees articulates the very human condition of being left out and not knowing how to find a way in.

Caroline Palmer

 

Iron Island

OAK STREET CINEMA, SUNDAY AT 7:00 P.M.; AND THE BELL, WEDNESDAY, APRIL 26 AT 5:00 P.M.

In this abstract rhetorical movie from Iran, a group of Iranian Arabs led by the stern Captain Nemat (Alis Nassirian) find their already tenuous existence threatened when the oil tanker on which they live begins to sink into the Persian Gulf. Tied to the mainland by cell phones and memories, the unmoored refugees scramble for a new home, all the while insisting, "Where we are now is part of the world. We're in the world." Nemat rules his floating diaspora with an iron fist, subjecting a lovelorn runaway to repeated near-drowning in a scene whose unvarnished aesthetics only make it more harrowing. Director Mohammad Rasoulof uses the ship's sun-bleached exterior as the setting for bare-stage allegory; if his vehicle is sometimes rusty and slow to turn, it carries its hefty cargo securely to the end.

Sam Adams

 

4

THE BELL, MONDAY AT 7:00 P.M.; AND OAK STREET CINEMA, FRIDAY, APRIL 28 AT 7:15 P.M.

Artfully sordid and calculatedly obscure, this Russian bacchanalia from first-time director Ilya Khrzhanovsky is provocative enough to have incensed the authorities in its nation of origin. But it isn't likely to go down any easier with most American audiences, who aren't exactly used to seeing Mother Russia as one big, drunken orgy, a mud bath heaving with surreally comic grotesqueries. (Get ready to watch an old grandmother strip bare in preparation for kinky sex.) If Khrzhanovsky sometimes suggests the illegitimate offspring of Andrei Tarkovsky and Jan Svankmajer, 4 is nothing like an art-film clone. Hard to like, but impossible not to admire, the movie overflows with ideas about science, nature, and social breakdown. The director is on to something—and he means to rub our noses in it.

Tom Charity

 

Mountain Patrol: Kekexili

THE BELL, WEDNESDAY, APRIL 26 AT 7:00 P.M.

A film of startling textural power, this Chinese adventure epic takes on the poaching of the endangered Tibetan antelope and the volunteer force that struggled to stop it. Director Lu Chuan, shooting on location in the Kekexili highlands, has an unerring eye and a knack for remorseless realism. Alas, for all of its well-schooled orthodoxy and visual splendor, the movie remains somewhat off-kilter: The passionate wartime camaraderie and doomed sense of martyrdom seem misplaced, and the real villains—the government that provides the west-China populace few other options for sustenance, and the international consumers who pony up for pelts—are left unaddressed. Nevertheless, no film in the last decade—not even Terrence Malick's The New World—has displayed such a ferocious intimacy with extreme landscape.

Michael Atkinson

 

Mongolian Ping Pong

RIVERVIEW THEATER, WEDNESDAY, APRIL 26 AT 7:30 P.M.

The most magnificent rainbow the movies have ever seen touches ground in a place scarcely seen by the art-house demographic: the magnificent grasslands of Mongolia, across which a group of young boys volley for a ping-pong ball that floats into their lives from destinations unknown. Scarcely changed since the days of Genghis Kahn, this terrain exists simply and purely, mystically resisting media saturation. A child's Mets cap sticks out in one scene, but then you remember that it could have been made in Beijing, the city where the film's troupe of naive younglings wishes to return the "national ball of China." Director Ning Hao snaps a pretty picture, tinged with bittersweet growing pains. His stunning capper to the film is the visual equivalent of a familiar spiritual axiom: To thine own self be true.

Ed Gonzalez

 

I Am a Sex Addict

THE BELL, FRIDAY, APRIL 28 AT 9:15 P.M.; AND OAK STREET CINEMA, SATURDAY, APRIL 29 AT 11:00 P.M.

A micro-epic autobiography of broken relationships and sexual hang-ups, encapsulating 20 years of its maker's life, this one-of-a-kind movie from San Francisco writer-director-actor Caveh Zahedi (A Little Stiff) aims for truth by wrecking its own verisimilitude. Juxtaposing the admittedly fake with the appallingly intimate, Zahedi casts himself as a guy who ducks into confessional booths to masturbate and compulsively gets himself sucked until he looks like he's going to yodel. If the film had been played as melodrama, its sexual politics would have been risible. But as Zahedi bravely lays open his libido, the guiding spirit of this funny, inventive, ground-shifting hybrid of a movie is Jonathan Richman, whose impish love ballad helps give our horny hero a new kind of happy ending.

Jim Ridley

 

Street Fight

THE BELL, SATURDAY, APRIL 29 AT 5:30 P.M.

This engrossing documentary by first-time filmmaker Marshall Curry follows Newark, New Jersey's 2002 mayoral race between longtime incumbent Sharpe James and City Councilman Cory Booker, whom Curry supported. Both candidates are African American Democrats, but they're portrayed as near opposites. James is an up-from-poverty Newark native; he's also a mendacious creep and a dirty campaigner who runs the city with a Boss Tweed-style iron fist. The suburban-raised Booker has Clintonian charisma and confidence, but no apparent Clintonian vices; he lives in the city's poorest housing project in order to be closer to his constituents, though some voters are suspicious of his inspiring, even presidential brand of ambition. While Curry's examination of the city's economic deficiency comes up short itself, Street Fight is vividly rendered and hugely entertaining.

Dylan Hicks

 

The Hole Story

THE BELL, SATURDAY, APRIL 29 AT 9:15 P.M.

And you thought Unknown White Male was a snow job. Here, wintry Brainerd plays host to a low-budget riff on Albert Brooks's Real Life, with Bostonian writer-director-actor Alex Karpovsky ingeniously fictionalizing his own formerly pitiable filmmaking career and shooting it as a mock-doc based on the Blair Witchy phenom of a "wound" in North Long Lake. Karpovsky is hilarious in the role of a narcissistic karaoke-video editor who arrives too late in Paul Bunyanville, where he had hoped the lake's legendary hole would allow him to make and sell a TV pilot called Provincial Puzzlers. Alas, the nonexistent hole becomes a metaphor for zilch, our desperate hero eventually reduced to whispering drunken, depressive, pseudo-philosophical confessions on the motel toilet. Increasingly existential, at once melancholic and gut-busting, this triumphant indie gets more from nothing than any in years.

—Rob Nelson

 

My Dad Is 100 Years Old

THE BELL, SUNDAY, APRIL 30 AT 4:00 P.M.

A brilliant marriage of convenience between Isabella Rossellini and her Saddest Music in the World director Guy Maddin, this 15-minute short uses all of the Winnipeg auteur's magic to conjure up the star's highly subjective memories of her father, the great Roberto Rossellini, an anti-Hollywood idealist who renounced entertainment in favor of realism and morality. (He appears here as a talking belly.) Of course Isabella plays her own mom Ingrid Bergman; in fact, she plays all the characters, including Hitchcock, Selznick, Fellini, and Chaplin, who memorably ascends to the heavens brandishing wings. If her dad was a visionary, Rossellini wonders, why isn't his model of cinematic austerity being followed today? A hundred years after the birth of a director who believed that cinema would eradicate ignorance in the world, this question has never been more relevant.

—Mark Peranson

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