Two Out of Three Ain't Bad

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."

Cheers, Al.

--Rob Nelson


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


The Believer
Lagoon Cinema, Thursday, April 11 at 7:30 p.m.; and Bell Auditorium, Friday, April 19 at 7:15 p.m.

Moviegoers will likely be seeing a lot of young Ryan Gosling in the coming years. But they won't be seeing him in this Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning film about a self-hating Jew who embraces Nazi ideology and a neo-fascist underground: After being found anathema by U.S. distributors, The Believer was relegated to Showtime. More difficult to shelve is the nasty, smirking sentience that Gosling brings to his performance as Danny Balint. Notice the deliberative way he slips off his jacket before jumping a pair of black motorists. Or the reedy Yiddish sing-song that creeps into his voice in the middle of a virulent rant against the imagined cultural crimes of the Jewish race. Just as sneaky and smart is the screenplay--a wonder of intellectual and spiritual torment played out on a social stage. Equating faith with sexual masochism, and positing anti-Semitism as a means to self-knowledge, the story is basically a romance of Nietzschean individualism. ("You're not like the others, are you?" purrs Danny's love interest. "With you there's a tragic dimension.") This compulsively watchable movie probably won't lead to more swastikas on temple walls. But it does threaten to make the outer edges of nihilism look dangerously sexy. --Michael Tortorello


Yizo Yizo (Program I)
Walker Art Center, Thursday, April 11 at 8:00 p.m.

Sure, those kids on Boston Public have it hard, what with all those fatal wrestling matches and such. But the students on Yizo Yizo, a South African public-TV series (whose 13-episode season has been edited into this feature and another that's screening on Saturday at 5:00 p.m.), make Boston's brood seem as sweetly naive as 90210's blondes. The show, whose title is township slang for "the way it is," tries to capture the problems faced by South African schoolchildren--bullying, poverty, sexual harassment--in a realistic and educational way. Good thing it often feels more like a soap opera than a high school health-class assignment: Indeed, the dramatic immediacy of its characters' feelings is probably what made Yizo the highest-rated series in its homeland. Then again, its appeal could also be found in the same thing that makes viewers salivate in the States: good old-fashioned sensationalism. After its first episode was broadcast, many parents wanted the show banned. Still, it's telling that many of the most controversial scenes--those involving rape and gang violence--also feel the most realistic. As Yizo writer Teboho Mahtlatsi's mother--a teacher--told the South African Daily Mail and Guardian: "The crisis is not on our television screens, but in our schools." --Melissa Maerz


I Hate Babysitting!
Heights Theater, Thursday, April 11 at 9:00 p.m.

This fiendishly creative, girl-centered coming-of-age farce by Twin Cities-based writer-producer-director Tara Spartz begins with a borderline obscene vignette linking babysitting to prostitution and just builds from there. Drawn from Spartz's own experiences looking after little brats for insultingly low pay, I Hate Babysitting! is a classic comedy of adolescent pain and humiliation, awash in bodily fluids and set, appropriately, during the ass-end of summer vacation in lovely suburban Coon Rapids. Struggling to save for back-to-school clothes on a part-time baby sitter's budget, and desperate to attend her best friend Crystal's first kegger despite Mom's fierce objections, our endlessly put-upon heroine Brigit (Amanda Benolkin) suffers her own private hell with truly Minnesotan stoicism...up to a point. Spartz achieves nearly everything she attempts here: Her superb direction of actors young and old is clearly rooted in her firsthand knowledge of the milieu; her astute camera placement flaunts her innate feel for the front yard, the front seat, the public swimming pool, and the basement rec room; her characters, even the minor ones, are believably eccentric (the near-catatonic "Grammy" is a particular riot); and the hilariously vulgar dialogue remains simultaneously true to age, gender, and region. Find a baby sitter, if you must, and go. --Rob Nelson  


The Dream Factory
Metro State University, St. Paul, Thursday, April 11 at 9:15 p.m.

Feng Xiaogang, China's top-grossing director, isn't worried about what people think of his films, least of all film critics. A populist who bases his reputation on the premise that movies ought to earn big money, Feng demonstrates his penchant for absurd comedy in this odd cross between Fantasy Island and the Make-a-Wish Foundation's recruitment video. Four friends run a business designed to make clients' dreams come true. A shopkeeper yearns to become a World War II general, so the group stages an entire battlefield drama for his benefit. A gossipy cook wants to be entrusted with a secret--a desire the quartet happily obliges. Other times, clients seek life lessons, as in the case of a husband who becomes a slave for the day in order to understand his wife's hard labors. Throughout their adventures, the group members never ridicule the clients; they stay in character and go along with the story line until they're told to stop. It's a difficult task to realize another person's dream, and the stakes are potentially perilous: What happens when a fantasy is realized? Do unattainable goals keep us from getting bored? Feng doesn't answer these questions directly, but allows us, with each vignette, to ponder the clients' true fates: to question whether they're better people for these experiences. --Caroline Palmer


Take Care of My Cat
Oak Street Cinema, Thursday, April 11 at 9:30 p.m.

Hello, kitty! Set in the South Korean port town of Inchon during a drab winter, this engaging, heartfelt film takes a breezily realist look at five ordinary girls in an ordinary situation: making the uncertain transition from innocent high school friendship to the mysteries to follow. For whatever reason, these girls aren't headed to college, and are instead taking their first small steps into the workplace. The film eventually zeroes in on three of them, each with very different goals: rebellious dreamer Tae-hee; smart but poor Ji-young, who owns the titular feline (which passes from girl to girl as a sign of their trust); and vain Hye-joo, an aspiring businesswoman who moves to Seoul and changes everything. (A pair of half-Chinese twins, seemingly around for comic relief, gets lost in the shuffle.) Take Care of My Cat has all the makings of a surprise hit, as first-time director Jeong Jae-eun examines the lives of 20-year-olds with a leisurely seriousness that evades most North American youth-film makers; she also believably accents the individuality of each of these girls, while at the same time illuminating the class divisions between them. The vivid attention to detail involves giving extra-special care to the girls' ubiquitous cell-phone use, which culminates in--what else?--a charming five-way/split-screen conversation. --Mark Peranson


Spirits of Havana
Heights Theater, Friday, April 12 at 5:15 p.m. and Tuesday, April 16 at 7:00 p.m.

White people journey into the depths of darkest Cuba seeking steamy, exotic music--and if it sounds like you've booked this tour already, you're only half right. Jane Bunnet and Larry Cramer are at once humbler tourists and funkier players than Ry Cooder: In particular, we get to watch Bunnet learning to ride the precise rhythmic nuances of Cuban jazz on her horn. The film captures the laid-back pace of a Havana recording session--with breaks in between each number for the players to flirt and banter, eat and drink--in a style that's neither patronizing nor overly chummy and familiar. From their opening shot of huddled tenement buildings, with laundry fluttering on the lines strung between them, the filmmakers suggest an idyllic land whose people are dedicated solely to the polyrhythms they play in the streets, and the baseball they debate there. Then they undercut that utopian view by bemoaning a TV blackout of the World Series, and explaining that musicians, owing to the extreme scarcity of instruments, must enter a time-share (e.g., ten to a flute!). And the music is inarguably great--assuming that fickle world-music dilettantes haven't already deemed Cuban music "over," and flitted off to gamelan ensembles or Estonian peasant dances or whale moans set to didgeridoo accompaniment. --Keith Harris  


Patti Rocks
Heights Theater, Friday, April 12 at 7:00 p.m.

Editor's note: The following is excerpted from Phil Anderson's review, originally published in 1988. Patti Rocks is screening on the occasion of its 15th anniversary.

Like it or loathe it, the world needs this independent comedy-drama made in Minnesota by co-writer/director David Burton Morris: Irritation so clever and ardently sustained, along with a take on testosterone overdose that's so extreme itself, is bound to raise the right kind of hackles. The story is simple. Billy (Chris Mulkey), a married man who has found out that his girlfriend Patti (Karen Landry) is pregnant, drives through the night from St. Paul to La Crosse to nudge her toward having an abortion. He takes with him his old and semi-estranged buddy Eddie (John Jenkins), who provides a captive audience for Billy's wide-open mouth--and the fulcrum for the movie's grand turn. Raunchy and opinionated as hell (he calls sex "choppin' beef"), Billy is a rare anthropological specimen: the man who lives only for the chase, the wolf who wears only his own clothing. He dreams of being able to vanish from the point of coitus immediately upon orgasm--"like in Star Trek!"--and materialize back at the bar, ready for another conquest. Patti is more than just the antidote to Billy's brand of sexism; she's practically a secular saint. If the script (co-written by the three actors) has a flaw, it's in giving Patti too much will and virtue. Yet Patti Rocks (a sequel of sorts to Loose Ends, co-directed by Morris and Victoria Wozniak in 1975) asks us to see beyond the language, the anecdotes, the adolescent pratfalls, and the semi-saintliness to the larger project behind. It's outrageous, incredibly descriptive, and funny to the max--and, eventually, more than a little sad. --Phil Anderson


Bell Auditorium, Friday, April 12 at 7:15 p.m.; and Oak Street Cinema, Saturday, April 13 at 1:30 p.m.

If the UN ever takes a vote to determine the World's Coolest Country, I'm going to have to nominate Iceland. I mean, Björk didn't come out of a vacuum, people. Indeed, there's an entire tribe of Björks up there in the land of boiled sheep's heads and strange poetry. (I'm betting that George Clinton is part Icelandic as well.) Now, on the Icelandic spectrum of weirdness, this comic drama only scores about a 5--but it's still pretty fun. It centers on one nutty Reykjavik household shared by a romantic old pensioner (Robert Arnfinnsson), a loose-hipped young woman (Silja Hauksdóttir), and her mom Margrét Ákadóttir), who wears a horrible blond wig and is in love with a charismatic preacher. Of course, each of them leads a secret life--and in one fateful night, their stories magically intertwine. (They never realize it, but we do.) You've seen this narrative trick a million times by now, from Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino to their countless imitators--so whatever point the filmmakers are trying to make about interconnectedness isn't all that surprising. The real fun is in discovering how funky these people's hearts are, and in witnessing the bizarre choices they make in order to keep them beating. --Kate Sullivan


Bell Auditorium, Friday, April 12 at 9:15 p.m.

The second film in a proposed trilogy from Vancouverite Carl Bessai (the first, Johnny, was Canada's first Dogme film), this psychological mood piece-cum-road movie marks an artistic step forward for the young director. It's a character study of a somewhat flighty thirtysomething woman--the titular anti-heroine, played by the beguiling Sabrina Grdevich--who flees her dead-end relationship with a controlling older man (Colm Feore) and hooks up with Sandra, a streetwise beauty played by the lovely Joanna Going. After a confrontation with a vicious loan shark leaves Sandra dead, the fragile Lola assumes Sandra's identity and hits the road. The first part of the film shows the underbelly of Vancouver to disturbing effect (few people know that it's the heroin capital of North America) while creating a nicely judged undercurrent of eroticism between Lola and Sandra. The road-movie section takes us into Canada's only desert climate in the interior of British Columbia--a desolate, sparsely populated area that provides a perfect objective correlative to Lola's state of mind. A modest film with modest ambitions that are largely fulfilled, Lola boasts some fine, understated performances, and an alternately airy and aggressive Miles Davis-like score from Vince Mai. --Jack Vermee  


Oak Street Cinema, Friday, April 12 at 9:30 p.m.; and Heights Theater, Saturday, April 13 at 9:00 p.m.

James Joyce and Nora Barnacle were a couple for the ages: He was the struggling young writer, and she was the chambermaid who became his muse. They met in 1904, when Joyce was still some time away from recognition as one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, and Barnacle was a newcomer to Dublin, having fled Galway to avoid being forced into the convent. The attraction was instantaneous; the fiery and very physical relationship--mined by Joyce for some of the more graphic portions of his classics--became a boon and a bane for both of them. The fierce Susan Lynch and the ubiquitous Ewan McGregor (who's almost fatally miscast) star as the couple in this occasionally worthy feature, based on Brenda Maddox's widely acclaimed biography. Following the couple from Ireland to Trieste, director Pat Murphy captures the raw physicality of their mutual attraction but blows it when it comes to rendering the more intellectual aspects of their love/hate relationship. Beautifully shot, frank on the sexual front, but hampered by frequent bouts of bad dialogue, Nora does at least provide a welcome antidote to stereotypical views of a woman who was the model for Molly Bloom in Ulysses. --Jack Vermee


School Trip
Bell Auditorium, Saturday, April 13 at 1:15 p.m.; and Heights Theater, Tuesday, April 16 at 9:00 p.m.

With the reticent grace of the young Claire Danes, Sophie Kemp moves through this low-key but affecting German-Polish co-production, in which Kemp's gawky gamine Isa--not a girl, not yet a woman--becomes desirable to two admirers--not boys, not yet men--while on a school trip from Berlin to the Polish Baltic shore. Isa's friend Ronny (Bartek Baszczyk) is a laconic loner who's obviously pained by her fluctuations: When she brings a new friend, a Polish resort worker named Marek, into the mix, Marek is unnerved by Ronny's glowering reception. In the days that follow, the two boys awkwardly clash, accepting each other's tacit challenges until one of those challenges ends in hazy tragedy. But School Trip never has the feel of a morality play: It's more of a meditation on the surreal surge of self-consciousness and hormonal kinesis that comes with the first blush of adolescence. Director Henner Winckler (who'll forever be mistaken for the guy who played the Fonz) accomplishes a slow burn of exquisitely rendered hotel-room parties, coded dance-club conversations, personality-shifting, and skittish sexuality in the cascading days before clocking time. --Laura Sinagra


Treading Water
Heights Theater, Saturday, April 13 at 3:00 p.m.

Elizabeth McCracken once said that she wrote the novel Niagara Falls All Over Again in response to a single question: So, there were Jews in Iowa? In the case of this engaging documentary, the instigating question was: You mean there are gay people in northern Minnesota? The answer is yes--all over the place, in fact. The first stop is Duluth, where the gay bar the Main was founded in the early Eighties with a grant from the Catholic Church (that is, if you can call a fine for employment discrimination a grant). We also visit Eveleth, Grand Marais, and other nearby Iron Range towns, where the winter is hard, populations are small, and LGBT folk are a tiny minority. ("You can't be," one transgendered man recalls his family saying. "There's no such thing!") Directors Jamie A. Lee and Dawn Mikkelson achieve both breadth and intimacy here: We come to know more than a dozen people quite well, from a pair of women who helped bring gender equity to the taconite mines to a male couple struggling with AIDS. Their reception up north is varied, and so are they; indeed, Treading Water is a warm reminder that there are as many ways to be gay as there are gay people. --Kirsten Marcum


Like Father
Bell Auditorium, Saturday, April 13 at 3:15 p.m. and Monday, April 22 at 9:15 p.m.

Let us now praise should-be famous men and women: The Amber Production Team from Newcastle was established in 1968 and has been quietly making films about the people and problems of England's northeastern coast ever since. Along with Ken Loach, the collective serves as the conscience of British cinema (needed now, in these doublespeak times of "New Labour," as much as ever)--and with Like Father, they've fashioned a work of profound humanism. As moving as it is politically trenchant, as grounded in the gritty details of day-to-day life as it is universal in its "sins of the father, visited upon the sons" theme, the film looks at three generations of Elliots: crotchety 70-year-old ex-miner Arthur (Ned Kelly), who resists a council plan to move him off his allotment; Arthur's portly, besieged 40-year-old musician son Joe (Joe Armstrong), whose wife throws him out with some justification; and Joe's 12-year-old son Michael, the ultimate victim of the flawed adults around him. What the Amber team has done could serve as a template for humanist filmmakers everywhere: They manage to open a window onto a hitherto unseen way of life, illuminating the peculiarities, foibles, and quiet talents of a deeply human group of characters in the process. Bravo. --Jack Vermee  


Virginia's Run
Oak Street Cinema, Saturday, April 13 at 3:30 p.m.

More like an Afterschool Special than cinema, this latest feature by former Minnesotan Peter Markle (The Personals) qualifies as wholesome family fare in the most predictable sense. In an unnamed Canadian Maritime province, Ford Lofton (Gabriel Byrne) is a stoic lobster trapper trying to raise two daughters after their mother is killed in a horse-riding accident. One dark and stormy night, preadolescent Virginia (Lindze Letherman) helps to deliver the foal of the horse responsible for her mother's death (not surprisingly, Virginia names the foal Stormy--see what I mean by predictable?), and an obsession is born. What follows--Virginia comes to terms with grief, goes against her father's wishes by raising the horse on the sly, deals with the obnoxious rich boy whose family actually owns the animal, and prepares for the big race--isn't really all that bad; it's just completely devoid of interest for anyone over the age of 12. Markle does manage to film the Maritime locations evocatively, giving the movie a nice sense of place--even though he doesn't bother to let us know where that place actually is. --Jack Vermee


Victory Square
Heights Theater, Saturday, April 13 at 5:00 p.m.

Directed by MCAD graduate Liza Davitch, this bleak and intimate documentary spotlights a Minsk family that unhappily proves Tolstoy correct amid post-Soviet squalor and discontent. The central conflict is between Tara and her daughter Nastia, whose disdain for each other's taste in men would seem to have more than a little to do with the glaring similarity of their romantic choices. Tara despises Sleva, a shifty shyster who's convinced that his ill-defined moneymaking schemes are the surest way to succeed in the new environment. And Nastia loathes her stepfather Igor: Bearded, aging, charismatic, and sly, he struts through the frame, guitar slung over his back, embodying the ultimate nightmare of any father who has ever forbidden his daughter to date a musician. The film rides the irony of its setting a little hard: Victory Square was once a monument of state-sponsored luxury where notables like Tara's actress mother were honored; now it looks grainy and washed-out, a few paychecks above a slum. But the candor of the people here is striking. Unlike average Americans, these people aren't all that excited about the chance to tell their story or achieve a flimsy moment of reflected fame. They speak their minds, it seems, simply because they're too tired to put up a front. --Keith Harris


Oak Street Cinema, Saturday, April 13 at 5:30 p.m.; and Heights Theater, Sunday, April 14 at 7:00 p.m.

How's that for an awesome title? (Shouldn't there be an exclamation point at the end of it?) Yet this Finnish film is a lot more sober than the name suggests: It's a delicate, romantic drama about three teenagers--two boys and the girl they both love--who are fanatical about bikes. They're not only competitive racers; they're also bike couriers by day. And not the stoner/Phish-head couriers we all know and love, but hard-ass sportos who can't seem to stop exercising, even when they're going on dates. With their perfect bodies and perfect skin, these three are always at the pool, or kayaking, or some such nonsense. As the movie begins, it seems that K (Lauri Nurkse) is the less-adept cyclist, until he beats his best friend Eetu (Tommi Mujunen) in a race, and reveals that he has been secretly training for a year. The two start to prepare together for national competition, while simultaneously falling for the same girl courier (Elena Leeve). Things turn extra-serious when K discovers a heart condition that could end his career (or his life). Cyclomania isn't Breaking Away, but it's surprisingly touching nonetheless, with a sweet reverence for young love and the tenderness of young hearts. --Kate Sullivan


Heights Theater, Saturday, April 13 at 7:00 p.m.

The title appears on the screen as Cher-ish--a perfect adjective, it turns out, for a batty, cheerfully crass, shape-shifting farce that, like the pop star, simply refuses to go away. Director Finn Taylor's followup to the angsty buddy movie Dream With the Fishes (1997) stars Robin Tunney as Zoe, a San Francisco shrinking violet who finds solace in the Eighties nostalgia pumping out of her headphones. A surprise date with the office sleazeball (Jason Priestley) goes horribly wrong when she's carjacked by a dusky stranger, and the ensuing hit-and-run leaves a police officer dead. Zoe winds up under house arrest, a modern-day Rapunzel peering wistfully out of her second-floor window. As the tireless heroine gamely battles cabin fever, the film itself settles into a fatiguing manic-room scenario, barely assuaged by Tim Blake Nelson's gawky, privately smitten SFPD official, who pays weekly visits to check on Zoe's electronic ankle bracelet. The plotting is alternately labored and distracted, and so inconsequential that the last-ditch Run Lola Run-esque beat-the-clock finale plays out with zero suspense. The only flicker of thematic interest--AM-radio obsession as psychopathology--is duly subsumed into a sea of desperate soundtrack come-ons. Bonus (half-)point: title song not by Kool & the Gang or Madonna, but the Association. --Dennis Lim  


The Way We Laughed
Bell Auditorium, Saturday, April 13 at 7:15 p.m.; and Heights Theater, Thursday, April 18 at 9:00 p.m.

Following his successful Italian neo-neorealist epics Open City (1990), Stolen Children (1992), and Lamerica (1994), writer- director Gianni Amelio wrapped up a fruitful decade with this 1998 film about the circulation-slowing bond between brothers. Pietro (Francesco Giuffrida) is a mediocre student on the verge of becoming a teenage hoodlum in the streets of the northern Italian city of Turin. Giovanni (Enrico Lo Verso) is his older brother who travels from their family home in Sicily to ensure that Pietro completes his education. The film takes place over six years, in six daylong slices of life that show the ways in which Pietro deceives and mooches off of Giovanni, and the ways in which Giovanni's childlike faith in his kin leads him to make money on the fringes of organized crime. Amelio plops the viewer into each new chapter with no information about what has gone on in the preceding year--and he doesn't invent a character to wander onscreen and ask leading questions to fill us all in. He's less concerned with the what than the why, focusing on the brothers' tangle of lies, responsibilities, and delusions. The Way We Laughed is absorbing and ultimately heartrending, building to an act of violence that's prompted in part by a lack of honest communication. --Noel Murray


Jalla! Jalla!
Oak Street Cinema, Saturday, April 13 at 7:45 p.m. and Monday, April 15 at 7:30 p.m.

Written and directed by Josef Fares, who was born in Lebanon and moved to Sweden at age ten, this feeble romantic comedy celebrates the happy union of both cultures, just so long as certain outdated customs are rudely shown the door. Its scenario being virtually identical to that of the 1999 Pakistanis-in-England comedy East Is East, the film concerns the younger generation of immigrants, and the arranged marriages that keep them from fitting in and falling in love. Roro (Fares Fares), a charming and attractive Lebanese park custodian, keeps a secret of his affair with a blond Swede, but the pressure mounts as she grows impatient and his family negotiates for a hasty marriage with the beautiful Yasmin (Laleh Pourkarim). Equally unwilling partners, the two buy time by feigning the engagement--a sitcom charade that leads them through apartment hunting, dress fittings, and several close calls. Meanwhile, Roro's best friend (Torkel Petersson) tries everything to inflate his stubborn half-loaf (a penis pump, S/M, etc.), but only a pat resolution can cure what ails. Fares makes no attempt to understand, much less respect, why this tradition is so important to the families involved. His message: Either get with the times or get an earful from a profane parrot. --Scott Tobias


Temporary Registration
Walker Art Center, Saturday, April 13 at 8:00 p.m.

Given that the strengths of this down-to-earth, ultra-naturalistic drama lie in the way that actor-director Gahité Fofana serves up the essentially aimless details of everyday life in the African coastal country of Guinea, it's not surprising to learn that the man has a background in documentaries. Having spent almost all of his life in France, young Guinean Mathias (Fofana) returns to his native country in search of the father he has never known. Upon arrival, he is promptly robbed of everything he owns. Needing help, he falls in with a shady character named John Tra (Yves Guichard Traoré) and soon finds himself enmeshed in a cockamamie crime caper that's just destined to go wrong. Portraying a lost generation of Guineans (most of the young are unemployed, with no hope of ever getting a decent job), the film makes plain that crime is inevitable when youths have nothing more to do than hang around bars, drinking, bored, and broke. Using nonprofessional actors in most of the peripheral roles, and directing the action in a way that makes it seem observed rather than staged, Fofana eschews narrative drive in favor of quiet authenticity. That nothing much happens at times might annoy the average moviegoer, but it oughtn't to deter the dedicated cinephile. --Jack Vermee  


The Journey to Kafiristan
Bell Auditorium, Saturday, April 13 at 9:30 p.m.; and Oak Street Cinema, Sunday, April 14 at 7:30 p.m.

Rambling between Europe and Asia without arriving anywhere in particular, this existential travelogue by Swiss filmmakers Fosco and Donatello Dubini takes as its point of departure the true story of ethnologist Ella Maillart and writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach's 1939 overland trip from Switzerland to Afghanistan. These being the days before WorldPerks and Lonely Planet, the two women drove most of the way in a Ford, navigating the dusty byways of central Asia toward a destination that, as portrayed here, was apparently a pile of rubble long before Soviet MiGs and U.S. daisy cutters did a number on it. Though it's never entirely clear from the film, the pair's expedition was scientific in nature (Schwarzenbach was also a well-known photojournalist). But whatever the case, the trip's purpose is largely overshadowed by the ambiguous romance that develops along the way: a vague advance-and-retreat with Nina Petri's self-reliant Maillart (imagine a cross between Margaret Mead and Sally Bowles) as the demure quarry, and Jeanette Hain's androgynous, heroin-addicted Schwarzenbach as the seducer. Shot in a spare documentary style, The Journey to Kafiristan has awe-inspiring vistas and Weimar-era world-weariness to spare. But it plays so coy with its meaning that it sometimes feels as narcotized as Schwarzenbach herself. --Peter Ritter


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


Daughter From Danang
Heights Theater, Sunday, April 14 at 5:00 p.m.

Great documentary filmmaking clearly owes as much to life's uncontrollable narrative as to any stylistic considerations. As the latest proof, codirectors Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco follow a war baby's belated return to her birth mother in Vietnam, and discover something infinitely more complicated than a teary reunion. Indeed, of any nonfiction film I've ever seen, this one comes closest to mirroring the knotted cluster of race/class/ gender tension, daughterly petulance, and archetypal mamadrama that is Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life. (In case you don't know, that's my highest praise.) How to identify all the forces at work here? The illegitimate offspring of a Vietnamese mother and an American GI stationed in Danang during the war, young Mai Thi Hiep narrowly avoids falling prey to the Viet Cong's abuse of mixed-race children. Her unlikely savior: Gerald Ford and his politically convenient Operation Babylift, which enables her adoption at age seven by an emotionally distant woman living in the small-town Tennessee birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. After more than two decades of passing for white (at the insistence of her adoptive mom, who eventually disowns her), the fully assimilated Heidi Bub, as she's now known, decides to trace her roots. But, in the American way, she draws the line at providing financial support for her long-lost relatives in Danang. "I didn't come here to be anybody's salvation," says Heidi after her poor half-sister asks for money. "I came here to be reunited." The film's stark scenes of familial discord--the result of a cultural gulf as vast as the ocean--would be harrowing enough as pure soap opera. (At one point, the camera finds Heidi wiping her mother's kiss from her cheek as if she were swatting a fly.) But once we recognize Daughter From Danang as the story in microcosm of the war's endurance, with the communal interests of a peasant population still locked in combat with American self-interest more than 25 years after the fall of Saigon, the film becomes positively devastating. The United States may have lost the decadelong battle of Vietnam, but it remains committed to winning the war. --Rob Nelson  


Bell Auditorium, Sunday, April 14 at 7:15 p.m.

With an appropriate mixture of anger, humor, and sadness, this second feature by Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals) examines the complicated emotional interactions of two Native American brothers positioned at opposite ends of responsibility. Rudy (Eric Schweig) is a criminal investigator on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation who discovers a blood-covered body and a liquor store in flames; his older brother Mogie (Graham Greene) is a bitter Vietnam veteran who spends much of his day in a drunken haze. The movie drifts, too, scouring its story (based on the like-titled novel by Adrian C. Louis) in search of a cohesive framework, and struggling to locate a consistent tone. It works best in impressionistic terms, bracketing its contemporary portrait of squalor and desperation with staggering documentary images of a culture on the verge of collapse, as members of the Oglala Sioux try to maintain their way of life on the Pine Ridge rez, in the poorest county in the United States. In the dramatic segments, characters move in and out of the frame too abruptly to make a full impression, resulting in a film that occasionally feels remote and indistinct. But in its best moments, Skins conveys the internal tug-of-war waged by assimilation, and the persistent haunting of the present by the past. --Patrick Z. McGavin


Sweet Dreams
Bell Auditorium, Sunday, April 14 at 9:15 p.m.; and Heights Theater, Monday, April 15 at 9:00 p.m.

A typical "film festival film," this alternately dyspeptic and nostalgic (but not realistic) look at a 13-year-old's quest for a turntable in early Seventies Yugoslavia snared best-feature awards at recent fests in Slovenia and Valencia. Young Egon (Janko Mandic) is a nerdy lad who's saddled with an abusive and hysterical mom, and in thrall to his womanizing uncle, the Slovenian equivalent of the swinging single. As Western goods and influence become more pervasive, Egon's longing ends up fuelling a fairly standard "rite of passage" tale. Like so many movies told from the point of view of an adolescent protagonist, Sweet Dreams falls into the trap of turning every adult into a cheap caricature. Egon's mother makes Joan Crawford look like the winner of the Good Housekeeping Mom of the Year Award; Grandma's religious fanaticism borders on insanity; and Egon's gym teacher is, of course, sexually abusive. One wishes that director Saso Podgorsek had taken note of how, for example, Lasse Hallström handled similar material in My Life as a Dog: By treating adults and their predicaments in a more truthful manner, Hallström made his young protagonist's problems even more affecting. Nevertheless, Sweet Dreams' goofy period costumes and quirky supporting characters will likely make it a MSPIFF crowd-pleaser. --Jack Vermee


Violet Perfume
Heights Theater, Sunday, April 14 at 9:15 p.m.

Few national cinemas besides the French have seemed much interested in exploring the consciousness of girls--who, when they appear in movies at all, are generally treated as ethnographic subjects, mysterious and ineffable. This Mexican film takes a valiant step in the opposite direction. Set in Mexico City (and based on a true story), it centers on the relationship between two outcast girls who attempt to come to terms with their need for freedom and self-expression. From the moment they first meet, Yessica (Ximena Ayala) and Miriam (Nancy Gutierrez) sense that there's a strong connection between them--a shared knowledge of pain and frustration--and they soon become inseparable. The film's camerawork is subtle and precise, charting the flow of the girls' friendship and mirroring their inquiries into the world around them. But if the first half of Violet Perfume amounts to a kind of dual investigation, a study of girls in search of themselves, the second half becomes abrasive and then even exploitative, as if director Maryse Sistach felt the need to compensate for the transgression of creating a distaff character study by unleashing a cheap and sensational denouement. --Patrick Z. McGavin


The River
Heights Theater, Monday, April 15 at 7:00 p.m.; and Oak Street Cinema, Tuesday, April 16 at 7:30 p.m.

On a Saturday morning punctuated by the sound of a plane breaking the sound barrier, the residents of a small Finnish town struggle with crises and secrets in their daily lives: an extramarital affair, a troublesome family function, a dying old man, closeted teen sexuality, bungee jumping...the works. Edited into seven mostly self-contained pieces, and framed by a story of two boys trying to save a woman who's drowning herself and her baby, Jarmo Lampela's well-made film is modest to a fault, failing even to merit the requisite comparison to Short Cuts. As is always the case in a film where the writer-director can't make up his mind, certain stories hold more interest than others: Standouts include the tale of an aging folk musician's return home for his alcoholic father's 60th birthday, while a sketch about a matchmaking, sex-crazed pizza waitress occupies the bottom of the barrel. In one sense, the fact that every story line is left unresolved leads the viewer to ponder the characters' futures; in another, more immediate and troublesome sense, far too much is left on a limb. While The River is adeptly made (and probably nowhere near as salacious as I've made it sound), it leaves you wanting less and more at the same time. --Mark Peranson  


The Lawless Heart
Bell Auditorium, Tuesday, April 16 at 7:15 p.m.

In this undernourished British melodrama, writer-directors Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter couch the modest destinies of three funeral-goers in a gimmicky structure reminiscent of Pulp Fiction, hiccuping back to the same events from multiple perspectives. Set in a glum British coastal town with optimal conditions for navel-gazing, The Lawless Heart charts the romantic follies of the brother-in-law, cousin, and lover of the deceased, a beloved local restaurateur who accidentally drowned. Dan (Bill Nighy), a middle-aged malcontent who feels like he's suffocating in a loving marriage, makes an amusingly awkward effort to get in touch with today's youth. While he and his wife consider what to do with the estate, Nick (Tom Hollander) hangs in limbo at his lover's home, taking unexpected comfort from an ebullient grocery-store cashier. Nick's uninvited houseguest, the lovably raffish Tim (Douglas Henshall), looks to settle down after eight years of drifting, but he overstays his welcome in more ways than one. Taken individually, each story fragment has flashes of poignancy and charm; together, they're needlessly precious and thin, strapped to a conceit that springs few revelations and prevents many. --Scott Tobias

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