Do That to Me One More Time
You've got to love the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, where Gold Pass-holding VIPs wait out in the rain for another late-starting show (and eventually enter the theater unchecked), preceded by a friendly reminder to consult "festogram" flyers for inevitable screening cancelations and a promotional trailer for the 2001...South by Southwest Film Festival! Where almost an entire reel of a new Swedish comedy runs slightly out of focus and the audience loves it anyway, the laughter of Swedes in the house alerting the rest of us to the presence of in-jokes. Where viewers clog the lobby on their way out of the screening, so eager are they to fill out the audience surveys that may or may not have a bearing on the selection of "Best of the Fest" titles that appear in week three. (The red-hot Swedish comedy, currently awaiting release through the upstart IFC Films, isn't likely to enjoy another festival screening no matter what the feedback.)
Like I said: You've got to love it. After all, anyone with healthy corporate interests and a Park City ski pass could assemble the longed-for "Midwest Sundance," whereas the particular charms of the MSPIFF would be nigh on impossible to emulate. And yet the fest's second week sports a fair number of pre-established "buzz" titles, too, including the allegorical Chinese epic Platform; the first American film by committed lefty Ken Loach, Bread and Roses; the so-called Mexican Pulp Fiction, Amores Perros; the belated comeback of New German Cinema pioneer Volker Schlöndorff, The Legend of Rita; and the world premiere of the newly completed final cut of Bill's Gun Shop, the most nationally recognized homegrown indie since Driver 23.
All of these, along with 28 other films screening in week two, are reviewed below. (Note: We'll deal with the fest's final days in the Film Clips section of next week's issue.) Still, as one of the rare pleasures of a film festival is the possibility of discovering an unreviewed masterpiece with your own eyes, who knows what treasures you may unearth without our help?
Juan, I Forgot I Can't Remember
Bell Auditorium, Wednesday at 7:15 p.m.
Clocking in at a little more than an hour, Juan Carlos Rulfo's spare, desert-dry documentary pays fitting tribute to his father, noted Mexican writer Juan Rulfo, and ponders the heart's wanderings more generally. Stitching together footage of his mother recounting her courtship, interviews with friends and neighbors, and contemplative tracking shots, the director meanders through past and present in a style made famous by his father. Juan Rulfo's masterpiece, the novel Pedro Páramo, presented a surreal vision of a village dominated day and night by the title character's spirit, one in which dreams, reality, and even death seemed bent to his will. Following his mother down the streets on which she met her husband, Rulfo suggests that all such meetings are both common and special, everyday flirtations and something more. "Just by looking at me," Mom recalls, "he had already done everything." But the real star here is the scenery, both natural and human. Shooting his subjects in their homes or against endless desert, Rulfo lingers on cracked, seamed campesino faces with generosity and real warmth. Quietly celebrating the dignity and wit that keeps them vigorous, he aptly lets them have the last word. "Everything finishes," remarks one man. "But there isn't another life that will be as pretty." Jesse Berrett
Fallen Angels' Paradise
Oak Street Cinema, Wednesday at 9:30 p.m.
In the latest issue of Cineaste, New Yorker reviewer David Denby uses the very notion of taking Egyptian cinema seriously as an example of arty film critics' snobbish excesses. Alas, this Egyptian comedy would only confirm his worst prejudices. Adapting a short story by Brazilian author Jorge Amado, director Ossama Fawzi transplants it to Egypt. There, its portrayal of a low-life subculture may have come as a real shock, but in our more jaded milieu, it's rather ho-hum. Fallen Angels' Paradise kicks off with the death of a homeless man from a drug overdose before revealing that he used to be a respectable middle-class family man. The movie proceeds to bring the deceased's two worlds into contact, as both lay claim to his body: His friends from the underworld refuse to accept his death, hauling his corpse around (à la Weekend at Bernie's) and continuing to party all night; while the "solid citizens" prove just as venal but far more pompous. Fawzi yearns to express his obvious preference for the gamblers and hookers, but all the actors are directed to be as shrill as possible; each character seems equally obnoxious. Perhaps Emir Kusturica or Shohei Imamura could have handled the movie's over-the-top tone with more finesse. As it is, Fawzi's Paradise looks a lot like hell. Steve Erickson
Lagoon Cinema, Thursday at 7:00 p.m.
Boasting the highest canine mortality rate since Verhoeven's Hollow Man, Alejandro González Iñárritu's audacious tripartite thriller opens with a cautionary note that no animals were harmed in the movie's making--no doubt to allay the usual gringo fears that life is cheap south of the border. But violence against animals on film seems more shocking and taboo than violence against humans--a foible this trio of intertwined stories exploits to disturbing (and frequently dazzling) effect. Set in modern-day Mexico City, Amores Perros opens with a spectacularly jarring car crash and flips back and forth to show how the victims and onlookers collided at the scene. The three stories involve a lovesick dogfighter looking for a last big score; a model who prompts a literal homewrecking; and a hired gun whose bloody deeds come back to bite those closest to him. Shot in a gritty, all-caps style not unlike the Mexican scenes in Traffic, the first third whips up a lurid fury, awash in lust and the blood of mangled dogs and lovers, while the subsequent stories work to maintain the momentum with rhyming plots and ballsy jolts of violence. The movie's most novel aspect is the linking device of the dogs, which function as reflections of their owners, only stripped of self-delusion. If love, to Bukowski, was a dog from hell, then love in Amores Perros is a dog that chews up its rivals--or is chewed upon by the nasty things hiding under the floorboards. Jim Ridley
Half Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks
Heights Theater, Thursday and Friday at 7:00 p.m.
Four decades before directing The Learning Tree and Shaft, the multi-talented Gordon Parks spent a pivotal period living in the Twin Cities, where he endured extreme poverty and freezing cold to present his first-ever exhibit of photography. So it's fitting that this biographical documentary should itself have been conjured by a multi-talented Minneapolitan: commercial director and music-video veteran Craig Rice, here making his feature debut. Skirting the outer edges of hagiography, Half Past Autumn pays quiet homage to the octogenarian Parks's fierce survivalism and copious productivity as a photographer, novelist, poet, musician, and filmmaker, leaving a vivid impression of an artist whose pioneering message is his own longevity. Although race remains an understated component of the film (seemingly in deference to Parks's "apolitical" commitment to his muse), Rice's investigative zeal regarding his subject's lifelong love affair with his art--a romance that came at the expense of his three wives--does give Half Past Autumn a number of discomfiting and poignant moments. Indeed, the scene in which Parks ruefully recalls his first wife's response to an invitation to join him in Venice for the performance of his first piano concerto--"I'm frying potatoes for your children; have a ball"--takes as precise a measure of the male artist's workaholic vanity as anything in Pollock. Rice will appear in person to introduce both screenings and answer questions afterward. Rob Nelson
My Mother Had Fourteen Children
Oak Street Cinema, Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; and Bell Auditorium, Sunday at 12:30 p.m.
When Swedish documentarian Lars-Lennart Forsberg's mother died 20 years ago, she left behind a collection of photographs--and 14 grown children. From his siblings' conflicted memories, his mother's poetry, and a stack of pictures bearing both truth and illusion, Forsberg constructed a minimalist, almost masochistic investigation into why his mother would undertake the arduous project of raising such a large family. A certain amount of believable psychologizing goes a long way. A lonely child, Forsberg's mother was destined to be a missionary but left Bible school when she met Forsberg's father-to-be, who was branded a seducer. Ironically, their marriage ended up bleak and loveless, and this lack of affection was felt in turn by each of the children. Quite wisely, Forsberg keeps his siblings (except for his epileptic brother) undifferentiated throughout; they're only seen together once they're grown, in the last of many newspaper articles about the family. As Forsberg drones in voiceover like an outcast from a late-period Bergman film, the same plangent piano chords are plunged, and the cumulative effect is one of monumental melancholia. It's almost all too "Swedish," but it's intensely effective as well. Mark Peranson
The Big Animal
Heights Theater, Thursday at 9:00 p.m.; Galtier Plaza Cinema, Friday at 7:15 p.m.; and Oak Street Cinema, Saturday at 1:30 p.m.
Directed by actor Jerzy Stuhr, this short Polish feature is based on an unfinished 1973 screenplay by European cinema giant Krzysztof Kieslowski, who died in 1996. Unfortunately, the key word here is unfinished. The story itself is promising: Left behind by a traveling circus, a large, two-humped camel ambles into the yard of a startled couple, Zygmunt and Marysia Sawicki, who gradually develop a fondness for their new guest. Zygmunt revels in the attention he gets as he walks the camel through the town market, while Marysia entertains her elementary school students with the animal, asking them to come up with a name for it. Yet the kids refuse to "cash in" on the beast--either by selling it or by allowing others to exploit it for their own purposes--and before long the town has turned on the Sawickis and their pet. The allegorical impulses of the story are fairly straightforward: It's about the pressure to conform to "community standards," and the petty jealousy and self-interest that often shapes these standards. But the movie's listless, flat-footed approach keeps the messages inert, and such shortcomings aren't helped by the often muffled dialogue and bleary cinematography. The camel, however, is quite endearing. Derek Nystrom
Bell Auditorium, Thursday at 9:15 p.m.; and Heights Theater, Saturday at 1:00 p.m.
It's a question that plagues all cities: How can a petty hoodlum be kept from becoming a hardcore criminal? No need to look for answers in this coming-of-age film from Ecuador, which offers a cynical depiction of two reckless, drug-addled cousins. Before his older cousin Angel is released from prison, Salvador is just another high school dropout on the streets of Quito. Not long after Angel joins him, however, he gets caught up in a series of robberies, carjackings, assaults, and killings. As if that's not enough, Salvador begins to suffer from frequent epileptic seizures, a physical sickness that's linked to Angel's moral one, as the two young thugs struggle to elude the police and various gangsters. Like its scurrying characters, Little Rats seems to run endlessly in circles: By matching nearly every dramatic scene with a trio of chase sequences, it never allows any relief from the carnage, or any opportunity to connect with Salvador's plight. The end result is a muddled film, its message reduced to yet another quasi-glamorized spectacle of street life. Jeremy Swanson
The Legend of Rita
Bell Auditorium, Friday at 7:15 p.m.
In the heyday of the New German Cinema, director Volker Schlöndorff lurked in the shadow of his peers until making a splash with The Tin Drum; then he wasted most of the next 20 years making Europudding. Now that his colleagues have either died (Rainer Werner Fassbinder), lost their spark (Wim Wenders), or wound up marginalized (Werner Herzog), his work's less appreciated virtues--especially its political intelligence--seem easier to appreciate. Similarly Schlöndorff's latest, The Legend of Rita, takes a thoughtful look back at two subjects--communism and the wave of left-wing terrorism that swept West Germany in the 1970s--that may be easier to view clearly with the passage of time. Rita is a member of an unnamed radical West German organization that takes refuge in East Germany after she kills a man while trying to free their leader from prison. Despite her hippie trappings, Rita takes to ordinary working-class life because she truly believes the ideals behind communism, while her co-workers realize how little the system actually lives up to those ideals. The Legend of Rita is that rare film about the counterculture that's neither a nostalgia piece nor a conservative critique: It's well aware that Rita's violent actions are counterproductive, yet it still finds her naive dreams of improving the world worth honoring. Rather than lamenting our inability to grasp the past, Schlöndorff shines a clear light on recent history, and urges our reexamination of it. Steve Erickson
Heights Theater, Friday at 9:00 p.m.
Pity the police-academy grad assigned to service in the small East German city of Rostock; pity her even more when she's the only woman in the squad, and a pathetically lonely one at that. More concerned with finding a lover than rolling drunks or returning old women to their nursing homes, officer Anna slyly hits on her corpulent, slovenly beat partner, and an immigrant perp who happens to be the birth father of a kid she befriends after investigating a domestic dispute. (She later catches the kid shoplifting. Are there only four criminals in this place?) The shaky handheld camerawork can be described as either doc-like or Dogme-influenced; I prefer the latter, as director Andreas Dresden's view of women is about as unenlightened as Lars von Trier's. Anna puts on makeup before work, peeps on her partner in the shower, and is downright awful at her job. If anything, the film's message is that the police force needs a woman's touch, as seen in the unbelievable dedication that Anna displays even among the lowlifes she encounters, professional competence be damned. We're supposed to feel for her when she uncuffs a familiar suspect out of compassion--and he takes her hostage. Rather than joining the force, Anna would have been better off scouring the personals. Mark Peranson
Walker Art Center, Friday at 9:15 p.m.; and Oak Street Cinema, Saturday at 3:00 p.m.
On an elevated platform in an isolated Bengali outpost, two erstwhile railway switchmen engage in an eternal battle of wrasslin' and rubbin' down. The sun rises and sets, and still the wrestling continues. Cracks in their idyllic relationship begin when beefy wrestler Balaram weds Uttara, a somewhat naive earth-mother figure who's watched over by a funky troupe of masked, traveling players. The wrestling stops being a passion in and of itself, and becomes a battle for the fair maiden's body. Meanwhile, the colony of dwarfs--yes, dwarfs--across the river is the home of the train conductor, who responds when three Hindu extremists threaten the local Christian priest, his adopted son Matthew, and that paragon of innocence, Uttara. Director Buddhadeb Dasgupta's poetic, extremely odd cosmological parable of religious intolerance is dipped in surrealistic symbolism derived from Indian folklore. Its chronicle of frustrated-male jealousy is both sublime (in its stunning deep-focus photography, shot largely around dawn and dusk) and irritating (in its poorly dubbed dialogue and sound). It's also unlike anything else you're likely to see anytime soon, unless you happen to own a multi-disc DVD player and can randomly shuffle between scenes of films by Herzog, Bergman, Jodorowsky, and Mizoguchi. Dasgupta was awarded the Best Director prize at last year's Venice Film Festival, and his message is painfully blatant: In all extremist struggles, both personal and political, there are no winners. So: Are you ready to rumble? Can you afford not to? Mark Peranson
Bell Auditorium, Saturday at 1:15 p.m.
Fans of previous high-toned kid-lit adaptations such as Agnieszka Holland's The Secret Garden and Alfonso Cuaron's A Little Princess will enjoy this minor pleasure from Dutch filmmaker Maria Peters. Based on a Benelux children's classic by Chris van Abkoude, the film might have made the perfect introduction to subtitled fare for younger audiences were it not for a somewhat excessive two-hour running time. Chronicling the spirited adventures of the titular urchin, Little Crumb quotes both Dickens (grubby orphans living hand-to-mouth on the mean streets of Amsterdam in the 1920s) and Little Orphan Annie (Crumb has a mutt for a best friend, suffers at the hand of a Mrs. Hannigan, and winds up living in Daddy Warbucks-style splendor). A few sweet touches, such as having Crumb pine for a Chaplin-type father figure after seeing The Kid, make the movie well-nigh irresistible for sentimentalists--although it's hardly edge-of-the-seat entertainment for everyone. The dichotomy between the narrative's sometimes overheated melodrama and van Abkoude's highly refined aestheticism is a leap that some of us simply won't be willing to make. Milan Paurich
Odd Little Man
Heights Theater, Saturday at 3:00 p.m.; and Oak Street Cinema, Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.
Though the young boy in this Norwegian movie doesn't want to grow up, there's no gut-wrenching rebellion à la The Tin Drum. The sunny world little Oddemann witnesses is much rosier, and his thoughts on childhood, Jesus, growing up, communists ("They are wrapping up Norway to sell to the Russians"), and making sense of the adults around him are simply charming. Set outside Oslo in the late 1930s, the film has Oddemann learning the "Pillar of Power" from his older brother: On top is Mother, then Father, then God, then Jesus, then his older brother. Somewhere in the middle are Norwegian adventurers Nansen and Amundsen, while Oddemann is somewhere below, watching and waiting. With a shock of blond hair, large protruding ears, and a pouty mouth, Oddemann is both wise and naive in the way that adults love to characterize children. After all, his thoughts are based on the memoirs of Norway's beloved writer, Odd Borretzen, from which first-time director Stein Leikanger wrote the gentle script. Too gentle, perhaps: The movie skims over the dark parts we know to exist, remaining buoyant throughout. Perhaps Leikanger would be welcome in Hollywood. Amy Bracken Sparks
Galtier Plaza Cinema, Saturday at 7:15 p.m.; and Oak Street Cinema, Monday at 9:15 p.m.
Everything old is new again in the Czech Republic, where post-Velvet Revolution filmmakers have set about envisioning a populist cinema that builds on past styles to tackle present-day concerns. This solidly performed observational comedy is deliberately evocative of the Czech New Wave (including the work of Ivan Passer and Milos Forman) in the way that it places ordinary characters in wryly humorous situations to make broader statements about contemporary Czech life. Eeny Meeny is set in a small town on the day of the first democratic elections in 40 years, and focuses on one family: an overly enthusiastic, faux politically active mother; her daughter, a cynical college girl home from Prague; and a post-stroke paterfamilias, who's irked by Mom's slavish devotion to one candidate. As the day draws nigh, the daughter's long-distance affair with a professor and the injection of alcohol into the polling station move the tone from light to overly whimsical to hysterical--but voter apathy reigns supreme. This makes for interesting cross-cultural comparison: Post-communism has a lot in common with current American life, as Dad would rather watch TV all day than participate in the process. Still, it's kind of hard to get enthusiastic about a film in which most of the characters are so profoundly bored. Mark Peranson
Mysterious Object at Noon
Walker Art Center, Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; and Bell Auditorium, Sunday at 5:15 p.m.
This rare Thai export takes a unique, rather loony, and always startling approach to "factual" storytelling. On the one hand, it's a rough-and-ready documentary; on the other, it's a breathless work of narrative improvisation. First-time director Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul studied experimental cinema at the Art Institute of Chicago and, one day while ditching class, felicitously wandered into a surrealist exhibition. Mysterious Object is the fruit of that side trip. Ostensibly a road movie that combs the countryside in a tuna-hawking car, it eventually melds Thai song and dance with some very moving real-life anecdotes; along the way, regular folks get the chance to add threads to the tale of a disabled kid and the alien that rolled out from under his teacher's skirt, while the whole thing gets reenacted by a set of actors. By the time the alien becomes a clone of the aforementioned teacher and then grows bigger than the universe, this attack on easy fiction has become even more surreal. Dreamlike yet gritty and naturalistic, Mysterious Object at Noon gives the impression of devouring genres as it trolls along. The result is both baffling and beautiful. Edward Crouse
Pani e Tulipani
Oak Street Cinema, Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
After being stranded at a rest stop during a boring family vacation, Rosalba (Licia Maglietta), mother of two and dutiful wife to a bathroom-fittings magnate, flits off for her first visit to the magical city of Venice. There she pals around with a holistic beautician and masseuse; works for an anarchist florist; rediscovers her love for the accordion; and falls for an urbane, suicidal waiter (Bruno Ganz). Yes, she lives life anew. Silvio Soldini's multiple Donatelli-winning romantic fantasy is little more than Shirley Valentine, Italian Style--a paean to spontaneous imagination over deadening normalcy, heavy on the charm but light on innovation. The movie excessively relies on one's admiration for the romantic charms of both Venice and Maglietta, as well as a thoughtless empathy for the heroine's "horrific plight." For his part, the not-untalented (nor unaware) Soldini predictably stacks the deck by making Rosalba's husband into a shouting, philandering buffoon--a parody of Italian machismo that's typical of all Italian films that mildly subvert such national values while aiming for popular entertainment. Mark Peranson
Bell Auditorium, Saturday at 9:15 p.m.; and Heights Theater, Monday at 9:00 p.m.
Apparently this comedy has had the kind of generation-galvanizing effect in the Czech Republic that, say, Slacker did here. And yet, divorced of that context, the movie feels more like an Eastern European Singles--which isn't all bad, I suppose. Like that right-place-at-the-right-time Cameron Crowe film, Loners features the intertwined stories of a group of attractive twentysomethings as they flounder through that awkward period after college but before their "real" lives kick in. And it manages to capture--or at least not mess up--much of the offhanded humor and bittersweet romance that this stage of life tends to generate. Just as often, however, the film's charm feels forced, and the rhythm of the scenes seems clumsy and awkward. (The subplot involving a family-man neurosurgeon's descent into obsessive stalkerdom is especially ill-suited to the predominantly light tone.) And, as in Singles, the central romance--between a pretentious radio DJ and his crush--is unconvincing. Still, it should be said that at no point are we forced to listen to Alice in Chains. Derek Nystrom
Oak Street Cinema, Saturday at 9:45 p.m.
"Humanity doesn't like me," says Mark Brandon Read, a.k.a. Chopper, the ruthless criminal and real-life bestselling author from Down Under. A notorious figure even before he chopped off his own ears in a Melbourne prison, the tattoo-strewn Chopper is fearless and paranoid, charismatic and despicable, bright enough to play mind games with other outlaws but not enough so to stay out of trouble. Well-known Aussie comedian Eric Bana delivers a fascinatingly dark performance as the titular sociopath who only knows how to operate within the enclosed environment of prison. First-time director Andrew Dominik wrote the screenplay based on Chopper's own writing, and he punches up the film with harsh, stylized lighting. The prison scenes--in which Chopper violently stabs a jailhouse kingpin, and in turn is brutalized by his own mate--are awash in cool blue. On the outside, Chopper's life is lived at night, in claustrophobic rooms and in situations where no one is watching his back. His prostitute girlfriend cheats on him, and his father is a bitter old wanker. Working as a police informer and self-styled vigilante, Chopper becomes a popular antihero both in Australia and the U.S. His exploits and personality, of course, attract the media, and the film ends on a surprisingly poignant note, making this car wreck of a biopic worth ogling all the way through. Amy Bracken Sparks
Clouds of May
Oak Street Cinema, Sunday at 1:00 p.m.
Albeit dedicated to Anton Chekhov, this Turkish drama could win the "I can't believe it's not Iranian!" sweepstakes. Abbas Kiarostami may not get a shout-out in the end credits, but his influence is at least as apparent as the Russian playwright's--in the premise (an Istanbul-based director returns to his rural hometown to make his latest film), the casting of nonprofessional actors, and the use of extreme long shots of landscapes for punctuation. While director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's vision may not be original, he shows a real sensitivity to his pastoral setting, building the film's rhythm around the lazy feel of a Sunday in the countryside. His gradual development of characters--Muzaffer, the filmmaker; his father Emin, who wants to prevent the government from cutting down trees on the land he owns; and his friend Saffet, who wants Muzaffer to give him a job and help him move to Istanbul--feels spontaneous and casual even though the stories interlock in genuinely surprising ways. Unfortunately, the realism extends to plenty of longueurs, as Ceylan's pace is a bit too relaxed for his 130-minute running time. Nevertheless, Clouds of May keeps springing back to life with enough lovely images to suggest that this director is one to watch. Steve Erickson
Who Is Albert Woo?
Heights Theater, Sunday at 1:30 p.m.
In this hourlong documentary, filmmaker Hunt Hoe simultaneously searches for his own identity as an Asian man living in Canada and that of Asian men in general within Western culture. ("Albert Woo" refers to a fictional Asian character in one of Hoe's other films.) Through interviews with Asian descendants all across Canada, he takes up such diverse topics as humor, homosexuality, romance, and discipline within Asian cultures. He also tries to disband the stereotypes of the eroticized, ultrafeminine Asian woman and the strict authoritarian/martial-arts-master Asian man, including an enlightening interview with Jackie Chan. As a first-time documentarian, Hoe reveals his inexperience by attempting to explore more ground than he can adequately cover in an hour. Some of the best moments in the film, which concern Asian dating and marriage, leave the viewer craving further investigation, while other sequences, including some of Hoe's sluggish personal reflections, come off as pure filler material in place of credible transitions. With a little more focus and time, Who Is Albert Woo? could have offered a biting commentary on a subject in need of rigorous discussion in both Canada and the United States. Hoe will be present at the screening. Jeremy Swanson
Come and See
Bell Auditorium, Sunday at 2:30 p.m.
British novelist and former prisoner of war J.G. Ballard has called this the greatest war film ever made. Set in 1943 Belarus (and made in 1985), it's certainly among the most harrowing of the genre, hammering home its war-is-hell message with relentless ferocity. Like Ballard, director Elem Klimov (who adapted a story based on the real massacres of Byelorussian villages by German soldiers) explores the impact of war on a shell-shocked teenager, who gets far more than he bargained for when he decides to join the partisans. Piling atrocity upon atrocity, Klimov delivers an effective antiwar statement, but his film grows so bombastic over the course of 142 minutes that it turns numbing. Light moments are nonexistent, while the depiction of Germans as gibbering beasts skirts propaganda. Come and See hardly qualifies as entertainment, but it is an anti-recruitment movie if there ever was one. If you have any friends or relatives whom you'd like to dissuade from joining the army, bring them along--and maybe bring some tranquilizers for yourself. Steve Erickson
Heights Theater, Sunday at 3:00 p.m.
Macedonia-born Mitko Panov's first-person exploration of the state of the former Yugoslavia begins with a photograph of immature, grimy faces, including his own. Members of a platoon in the federal army circa 1981, these are young men whose entire lives lay ahead of them--or so they thought. Panov's friendships helped him through the otherwise intolerable experience of army tenure, but he lost touch with them since. And then came the war. But what became of the former comrades? Did they have to fight each other? Interspersing snippets of historical footage with the details of his own search, Panov leaves his adopted home of New York and spends what truly feels like years searching for his onetime colleagues in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and the neighboring countries. On his quest, the filmmaker discovers embargo-inspired economic strife and massive dislocations of the ethnic population--leading to a series of returned letters marked "address unknown," particularly in the once racially mixed areas of present-day Bosnia. More than usual, the dramatic imperatives behind documentary filmmaking are made apparent: When Panov inevitably discovers that one of his comrades has died, the revelation is regrettably milked for maximum sentimentality. Mark Peranson
Oak Street Cinema, Sunday at 3:30 p.m.
The architect of Pakistan's individuality, and the inflexible representative of India's Muslims, Muhammad Ali Jinnah is a perverse subject for an epic biopic--even one that follows the fashion of Oliver Stone revisionism. A rigid and mirthless martinet, Jinnah is depicted here as a starchy nationalist who's fiercely protective of his people, and as an adherent to principles even when millions of lives hang in the balance. The movie's Jinnah is the opposite of a visionary--more Ariel Sharon or George Wallace than Gandhi or Malcolm X. If Paul Schrader were essaying the man's unlovable life, the results might be explosive. Instead, this Pakistani production tries to rewrite Richard Attenborough's Gandhi and winds up, like that film, manufacturing a plaster saint. As Jinnah, a dour and elocutionary Christopher Lee seems wishing to be elsewhere; and as Lord Mountbatten, James Fox looks as if he were praying that the film would be seen only on Bangladeshi TV. The most loathsome aspect of the movie is its sniggering exposé of a sort of three-way between Lord and Lady Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru: We're encouraged to tsk-tsk at this arrangement, then respond with awe when Jinnah declines to use his knowledge of the tryst to his political advantage. The one note of comedy is inadvertent: the resemblance of the movie's Gandhi to Peter Sellers in his "birdie num-num" guise in The Party. Matthew Wilder
Oak Street Cinema, Sunday at 7:30 p.m.; and Heights Theater, Monday at 7:00 p.m.
Despite being an Italian who was born in Austria and who studied film in Germany, director Edoardo Winspeare makes movies that are explicitly, stubbornly regional. In fact, they're bound so closely to a specific culture that even most Italians who live outside of the Salento, the southern area in which the director was raised, may have difficulty discerning certain aspects of his films. Winspeare's Live Blood follows a middle-aged man as he attempts to pay his debts, by smuggling black-market cigarettes, and to reconcile with his younger, cocaine-addicted brother. While much of the film is reminiscent of classic Italian cinema, some elements remain inscrutable, such as the metaphoric presence of music in the protagonist's life. Ultimately, we seem to be left with a universal message, but, as with any translation of a foreign film, can we really be sure? Jeremy Swanson
Heights Theater, Sunday at 9:00 p.m.
Oranges and scallions are all that Sagi, a small island off the coast of Hiroshima, has to offer. Ryuki, a Sagi native, is sick and tired of this insular agrarian world, yet he cannot find a way to make himself board the ferry for Tokyo, where a better life seems to await. So he broods--a lot. He quotes poetry by Basho, a wandering 17th-century poet, and he bides his time, enduring an inconsequential life with his pregnant wife Kaori. Tour groups offer a fine distraction, and soon Ryuki finds himself attracted to a journalist, Hinako, who has come to cover an orange festival that doesn't actually exist. Director Rob Nilsson, who has assembled a body of work known for its radical edge (and whose Stroke also graces the MSPIFF), takes a dramatic turn with this spare, introspective film. He takes considerable interest in Ryuki's claustrophobia and simultaneous refusal to find relief. At the same time, the audience endures a lot of self-indulgent whining on Ryuki's part. Couldn't he take the ferry to the mainland just once? Ryuki is no victim of circumstance, but he believes he is, and this is where Nilsson finds a nugget of emotional complexity to hold on to. Can an individual render his senses immobile? The result of this question is an alternately compelling and appalling glimpse into one man's clumsy attempt to find his own version of freedom. Nilsson will be present at the screening. Caroline Palmer
My Mother Frank
Oak Street Cinema, Sunday at 9:30 p.m.; and Bell Auditorium, Tuesday at 9:15 p.m.
From the opening dream sequence, wherein nubile women in Hawaiian leis beckon young David (Mathew Thornton) to dance, we are intermittently privy to a series of Ally McBeal-esque fantasies that playfully punctuate an otherwise torpid comedy from Down Under. David's mother (Sinéad Cusack), known affectionately by the acronym FRANK for the initials of her full name, is a recent widow who one-ups her son's suggestion to take a poetry-appreciation class by enrolling full-time. A predictable series of gaffes places Frank at risk of expulsion for having kindly loaned her essay on T.S. Eliot's "Prufrock" to a struggling fellow student, invoking the ire of the dashing, principled professor (Sam Neill). However, an accident soon reveals that Frank is suffering from Alzheimer's, and the film joins the fight for her reinstatement of dignity. Unsure of whether to embrace the kind of crude Aussie humor that made Muriel's Wedding a hit or head directly for the Kleenex, My Mother Frank unwittingly opts to go nowhere. Fionn Meade
Bell Auditorium, Monday at 7:00 p.m.
This Iranian film must have struck the fancy of the MSPIFF curators because, unlike most of the cinema from its native land, it traffics in the rough stuff: The protagonist moves from nanny to hoodlum's moll to tragic heroine in two long, tonally erratic hours. Similarly shocking are the movie's allusions to present-day politics: Overt references to police corruption, and scenes of protesters shouting for "freedom of thought," are enough to make one gasp. This is, after all, a cinema in which even innocent shots of a husband and wife sitting fully dressed in their bedroom are verboten. Whatever the film's superficial resemblance to early-Thirties good-girl-gone-bad soapers (indeed, that tale is as old as the hand-cranked camera), the genre this Generation most resembles is the berserk Hong Kong melodrama of the late Eighties. From scenes of Sound of Music nannydom, the movie segues into images of eyeballs being scorched out with hot pokers, old ladies being shoved off balconies, diamond heists, car crashes, and (my favorite) a cabdriver who sobs, "It is written by God that I must endure the stink of my wife's armpit!" Afflicted Generation leaves you with a weird flavor in your mouth, but the taste of cherry it ain't. Matthew Wilder
Oak Street Cinema, Monday at 7:00 p.m. and Tuesday at 9:30 p.m.
It's a unique challenge for the average U.S. moviegoer to interpret films that are rooted in specific national contexts far removed from the American experience. Is this the power of the MSPIFF? Are we obliged to suspend our critical judgments and defer to those contexts unconditionally? If so, this second feature by Finnish director Olli Saarela wouldn't appear to suffer from, say, its languid exposition and overly austere style. Set amid the advancing Russian front during the Soviet/Finnish continuation war of the early Forties, Saarela's saga of men confronted with the ugly realities of war is told through the story of Eero Perkol, a young Finnish soldier whose fiancée is believed to have been killed as an unfortunate byproduct of his efforts to keep her safe. Now, I can appreciate tales of heroes struggling with their humanity in the face of chaos as much as the next person, but I cannot abide the lifeless pall that hangs over every scene in Ambush, accentuating Saarela's uncertainty of how to deal with real emotion. Granted, the image of young Finnish soldiers riding their bicycles to the front is tinged with impending tragedy, but the film more closely resembles a diagram being drawn than a story of human dimensions. Amy Borden
Heights Theater, Tuesday at 9:00 p.m.
Based on the novel by Karen Fossum, this somewhat prototypical book-to-film production relies heavily on narrative style and rich characterizations to provide the intensity expected of a classic suspense story. While on a walk with her daughter, Eva sees a corpse floating in the river but neglects to report her sighting to the police. We soon learn that Eva's longing to pursue her passion for painting and raise her daughter at the same time have propelled her down a path of deceit and danger. As the series of events leading up to the body's discovery are made known, it is difficult to come to terms with the possibility that the ever-endearing Eva could be the culprit. Sharing in our sympathy is a compassionate detective who turns to his dog for moral support during Eva's unfortunate situation. Though awkwardly filmed action scenes keep this Norwegian whodunit at the tame end of the thrill scale, it's the protagonist's impulsive behavior that perpetuates a sense of unease and a lack of trust. It's no wonder that director Berit Nesheim studied psychology at the University of Oslo: Eva's Eye has enough emotional appeal to make any would-be criminal weep. Claire Adamsick
Walker Art Center, Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
China's Sixth Generation of filmmakers has generally favored rebelling against its precursors by exploring bohemian or criminal subcultures in urban environments. But with Jia Zhang Ke, it has finally produced a great director, one whose second feature, Platform, stakes out new territory for mainland Chinese cinema. It's the first Sixth Generation film to pick up the mantle of the historical epic from the Fifth Generation (including Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige) while sticking to the radical ethos of Jia's masterful 1997 debut, Xiao Wu. This time around, Jia describes the changes occurring in his country during the 1980s--particularly China's opening to capitalism--through the ten-year travels of a music and dance troupe that begins as a Maoist propaganda outfit and ends up performing hilariously inept new wave as the All-Star Rock 'N' Breakdance Electronic Band. (The performing allegory recalls Theo Angelopoulos's The Travelling Players and Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Puppetmaster.) In Platform and Xiao Wu, Jia's main subject is the impact of globalization on backwaters like the provincial city of Fenyang, where both movies are set. In the new film, life always seems to be happening just around the corner, and change winds up marginalizing most of the characters--even if that change is an improvement on the deadening atmosphere of the Mao era. Focusing intently on the local, Platform is a news bulletin with global ramifications. Steve Erickson
Bill's Gun Shop
Heights Theater, Saturday at 7:00 p.m.
Making like the men-with-guns indie ain't yet out of ammo, this trigger-happy noir shot entirely in Minnesota gets off a few rounds indeed. The opening-credit sequence hits the bull's-eye with Super 8 home-movie images of kids playing with toy pistols (would Hollywood dare to pack this sort of heat nowadays?), establishing the protagonist's gun fetish right from the get-go. Twenty-some years later, our fresh-faced collegiate hero Dillon (Scott Cooper) is taking a date (Jacy Dumermuth) to a double-feature of Taxi Driver and Breathless, wearing a holster under his army-green jacket and dreaming of a job at the titular emporium--employee discount included. Working from a snappy script by no-budget Amerindie icon Rob Nilsson, director Dean Lincoln Hyers maintains a palpable fascination with the instant privileges of firepower, one that turns to revulsion once the new gun clerk lands on the other end of the barrel during a taut confrontation with young African-American hoods. While the depiction of racial tension is the movie's most effectively gritty element, it's tempting to blame Minnesota Nice for some of the more unconvincingly staged rough stuff--not to mention the tidy coming-of-age denouement. Still, much to its credit, the film isn't meant to blow you away so much as hold you captive for 90 minutes--which it does. And in a movie that's fully loaded with fine performances, the standout is given by Cooper, who displays the boyish smolder of the young Bill Pullman. Hyers and members of his cast will be present at the screening. Rob Nelson
Bread and Roses
Oak Street Cinema, Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Citing both aesthetic and economic reasons, the socially conscious British director Ken Loach is on record calling Los Angeles "the most horrible city in the world." So it makes sense that he has set (and shot) his latest film in the city of soiled angels. Bread and Roses is a sardonically humane fictionalization of the Justice for Janitors campaign, an early 1990s labor movement that resulted in wage increases (bread) and a modicum of dignity (roses) for thousands of disenfranchised, Mexican-born high-rise cleaners. Following the Saving Private Ryan of illegal-border-crossing scenes, Loach charts the consciousness-raising of one building's janitors through the efforts of a passionate radical organizer (Adrien Brody, who aptly resembles an upside-down mop) and his flirtatious relationship with a headstrong custodian (Pilar Padilla). We also get one standout tête-à-tête between sisters; an awkward collection of painfully unfunny slapstick set pieces; and a general stickin'-it-to-the-man vibe that's old-school enough to earn Loach some slack for being less subtle in his attachment to the common man's plight than in recent triumphs such as My Name Is Joe. The film is heavy-handed, even for the socialist Oliver Stone--but perhaps the American class system deserves the harshest denunciation possible. In any case, trade unionists needn't check their cards at the door. Mark Peranson
Croatia 2000: A Winter to Remember
Heights Theater, Sunday at 5:00 p.m.
Dr. Franjo Tudman, Croatia's first post-Tito leader and the kind of crypto-royalist eminence U.S. newspapers used to describe with the word strongman, finally expires, creating room for the birth of real democracy. This superb documentary records the process of that birth through unprecedented access to the players: Codirectors Rajko Grlic and Igor Mirkovic follow all the splintered opposition parties and their candidates, revealing a primary season and a general election mashed together and held at triple speed. The comedy for American audiences, of course, comes in our recognition of the universality of glad-handing, spin-mongering politics--and in the sadness of the pasty-faced progressive candidates complaining, "The people want a father--someone who's likable, not responsible." (The winner, Stipe Mesic, bears more than a passing resemblance to the governor of Minnesota.) The filmmakers grab some amazing material on the fly: a pseudo-Iggy Pop rocker defending his far-right benefit concert; Tudman's minister of finance sneaking a bottle of vodka into a state function. Hardly dry and C-SPANish, Croatia 2000 is a funny and hair-raising kick. Matthew Wilder
Heights Theater, Sunday at 7:00 p.m.
A stroke can rob a person of many things--the ability to move about, certainly, but also the power to express thoughts and feelings that may remain fully intact. For Phil (Teddy Weiler), newly felled by a stroke yet committed to regaining his identity as a poet, the tragedy is all the more complete because he can no longer command his art and must rely on his only friend (Edwin Johnson) to survive. Director Rob Nilsson shot Stroke in black-and-white digital video with his Bay Area-based Tenderloin Group of homeless and inner-city residents, and the reality of experiences gained on the jagged edges of society allows a fine example of the filmmaker's mandate to challenge American cultural fears. All of the movie's characters--including a heartsick waitress who used to be a call girl, and a skin merchant in search of his next payoff--are forced either to live with fear or to cease to live at all. These people would be hard to forget in any context, but Nilsson makes certain that we recognize them as ourselves. Caroline Palmer
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