Film-Fest Pick Hits

He shoots, he scores: Djolof Mbengwe in 'L'Afrance'
Cine Classic

On the opening night of the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival at the State Theatre last Friday, the mayors of the Twin Cities addressed the near-capacity crowd with a pair of speeches that seemed to separate them by more than just a river. Which is as it should be: If politicians generally refuse to disagree about the war, they might as well disagree about the movies.

Film is more vital now than ever, claimed Randy Kelly, because times are tough and we Minnesotans deserve the chance to sit in the dark and turn off our brains. (For the St. Paul mayor, that pleasure would appear to come even before the lights go down.) Begging to differ, R.T. Rybak courted the MSPIFF constituency. Movies from around the world, he argued, offer not only escapism, but the potential to further our understanding of other cultures. Judging from the volume of applause, I'd guess that Rybak boosted his approval rating among Twin Cities cineastes by a hundred percent.

Believe it or not, we at City Pages have only cheers ourselves this week, as all ten of the MSPIFF reviews that follow are enthusiastic raves. This actually isn't another case of embedded journalism, even though the paper happens to be a major sponsor of the festival. Want proof of our impartiality? Wait a month and ask U Film Society veteran Al Milgrom--whose irate phone calls to City Pages have spanned decades--whether our MSPIFF coverage represented peace or just a temporary cease-fire.

--Rob Nelson


Oak Street Cinema, Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.; and Bell Auditorium, Friday at 7:15 p.m.

A true festival film, this Hungarian genre-buster from first-time director György Pálfi yanks us into an inventive, self-sustained cinematic world and refuses to let us go. Made as Pálfi's thesis project in film school, Hukkle is set in a small, rural Hungarian village, and begins with the relentless hiccuping of an old peasant by the side of the road. The rhythm of the hiccup--which remains exceedingly annoying for the duration of this wordless film--eventually comes to seem part of a creative depiction of rural life. Pálfi's roving, omniscient camera observes both large and small, even pausing for close-ups of growing plants and crawling bugs as if the film were a Slavic cross between Microcosmos and Berlin, Symphony of a City. But the hiccup that won't go away isn't the only thing gone awry in this serene town. Somehow, long after the director begins dropping hints, a murder mystery begins to unfold: A dead body surfaces from the depths of a muddy swamp; a policeman begins to investigate; and the sense develops that there may be a serial killer on the loose--with accomplices everywhere. (The movie's Lynchian echoes are surely intentional.) Taking full advantage of his layered soundtrack, Pálfi pitches even more curveballs, including a number of special effects that, like everything else in this elaborately structured yet thoroughly unclassifiable film, come out of nowhere and stick in the mind. --Mark Peranson


Lagoon Cinema, Thursday at 7:15 p.m.

This latest social-realist drama from writer-director Ken Loach could be seen as a corrective coda to the embarrassment of Guy Ritchie, et al. that tore out of Cool Britannia several years back. When Loach's characters exit the straight life, he doesn't hand out the usual parting gifts: retro-hip soundtrack, ADD-enhanced editing, et cetera. Crime pays here, but just enough to, say, buy a trailer for your mom once she's sprung from prison on the eve of your 16th birthday. Impulsive, wary-eyed Liam (remarkably played by newcomer Martin Compston) knows that his mother is taking the rap for her boyfriend Stan, a menacing drug dealer. So the kid exacts a rough justice when he pinches Stan's heroin stash and hawks it around his hometown of Greenock, a bleak former shipbuilding village in west Scotland. Liam breaches the territorial pissings of the local don, who absorbs the boy into his minions, but not Liam's mate Pinball, whose insanely enacted jealousy forces the young protagonist into an impossible decision between loyalty and self-interest. As always, Loach plumbs the consequences of personal choice in a context where most decisions are foreclosed by cruel socioeconomic constraints, and people's well-earned anger only turns upon themselves. The path from youth to adulthood hardens into a vise for Liam (who evokes Antoine in The 400 Blows and Billy in Loach's own Kes), gripped by an Oedipal crisis beyond his understanding or control. Indeed, this convincing whiff of Greek tragedy allows Sweet Sixteen to sustain Loach's familiar weakness for the Big Ending--which at this point can be interpreted either as a tiresome habit or a scathing motif. --Jessica Winter


Oak Street Cinema, Friday at 7:30 p.m.

Filmed over the course of seven months, this documentary portrait of a one-room schoolhouse conveys the sensation of a faraway but tangible world that's slowly slipping through one's fingers. It begins in the midst of a severe winter in the rural French region of Auvergne; the lone teacher, Georges Lopez, will retire at the end of the year, and so a cloud of gentle melancholy begins to form over his deft handling of the four-to-eleven-year-old students. He mediates quarrels, demystifies addition and subtraction, and moderates a peer review on beginners' penmanship. (Renderings of "Maman" draw notices ranging from "It's a little bit good" to "It's lots of good.") Sometimes we step outside the school's walls: A knuckle-cracking bully gains extra dimension when he's glimpsed struggling with math homework at his fly-ridden kitchen table, distracted by the clamor of family members. To Be and to Have doesn't hesitate to break the letter, if not the spirit, of the vérité laws set down by Frederick Wiseman, to whom director Nicolas Philibert (In the Land of the Deaf) is often compared; the film makes restrained use of piano accompaniment, and the enormously admirable Lopez sometimes addresses the camera directly. But the two documentarians share an uncanny knack for an empathic, near-invisible immersion in their chosen communities. Radiating the tranquil watchfulness of an attentive pupil, Philibert's improbably riveting chronicle of becoming takes on an ethereal glow. The director is quietly thrilled by the everyday yet extraordinary passages of childhood, and his fascination is contagious. --Jessica Winter


Oak Street Cinema, Saturday at 2:00 p.m.; and Block E 15, Sunday at 7:30 p.m.

Turns out taking apart a family is a messy and painful operation. In this Swedish divorce drama, 12-year-old Alice (Natalie Björk) is the closest thing the Lindberg family has to a sane center. Her father (Mikael Persbrandt) has embarked on an affair with a woman (Lena Endre) down the street. Her mother (Marie Richardson) has gone temporarily crazy with rage and grief. Suddenly there's a new stepmother who's too eager to please, a stepbrother her own age, and a mother who cries all night. Alice, who sees much more than she should, is old enough to recognize what's happening, but not old enough to understand it; she copes by pretending that everything is fine, and by switching loyalties to whichever parent happens to be nearby. It's only later that we realize how melodramatic this could have been. All of the adults act badly and selfishly. Children are put in peril. And yet director Richard Hobert's methodical, measured, and unblinking approach makes the events seem true rather than forced. The film is driven by characters, not situations, and instead of making points, it simply makes observations: how desperately children love their parents, how empty and awful it can be when a family member turns his face away, how many varieties of heartbreak there are in the world, how often the same story plays out over and over, how many millions of people this must have happened to, how raw it remains for those facing it for the first time. --Kirsten Marcum


Riverview Theater, Saturday at 5:00 p.m.

Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki has drawn attention in recent months for his purposeful snubbing of high-profile American film events--including the Oscars--in protest of the Bush administration's folly. Therefore his latest comedy, a triumph of deadpan absurdism that doesn't even bother to name its main character, seems all the more deserving of a political interpretation. While its story follows the gradual rehabilitation of a blue-collar worker (Markku Peltola) beaten into amnesia by roaming thugs shortly after stepping off the train in Helsinki, its sympathies lie with the shanty community that nurses him back to productiveness on the outskirts of town. Casualties of Finland's brutal recession (close to one-fifth of the population was unemployed in the early '90s), these scruffy people living in abandoned shipping containers seem to have been forgotten by a society with its own amnesia. Their universe is, for the most part, self-contained and governed by an unspoken contract of stubborn dignity. What Kaurismäki seems to be suggesting (in a vaguely postapocalyptic fashion) is that mankind could be spiritually rejuvenated--could thrive, even--under such conditions. Little of this is sentimentalized, due in large part to the director's tight control over the performances and the mise en scène: Even after the man dons a garish blue-tie-and-red-shirt combo and begins courting an equally handsome Salvation Army worker (the superb Kati Outinen), their exchanges remain frosty and weird, their connection sweetly humane despite (or perhaps because of) its awkwardness. Kaurismäki's proudly uncool sense of humor isn't for everyone (Jim Jarmusch is a huge fan), though his message ought to make the film required viewing. --Joshua Rothkopf  


Riverview Theater, Saturday at 9:45 p.m.

The first fully Minnesotan feature to screen at Sundance, this slyly resonant neo-noir is indeed a mystery--but not exactly in the manner that its title suggests. Casting himself as an uninspired husband and recovering alcoholic who pounds out pages of a hardboiled novel while struggling not to pound back drinks, Minneapolis-based writer-director-actor Patrick Coyle has made a film about so many things at once that isolating the drama's independent variable requires some sleuthing. Is Detective Fiction a movie about marriage? Is it about the equally tricky relationship between a writer and his self-esteem? Is it about how not drinking can be as poisonous for the addict as getting soused? Is it about fiction's function as an anesthetizing agent in the face of real pain (and in the absence of booze)? Answer: Yes, it is. Just as The Shining sheds light on male alcoholism, authorship, and rage by disguising such dark issues as "supernatural," Detective Fiction investigates whether those issues can be resolved within the generic conventions of noir--as practiced by the afflicted protagonist himself. But the difference is that Coyle displays a far more playful sense of humor about this stuff than Stanley Kubrick. Practically hissing his absurd tough-guy narration ("Humidity hung around like a drunk at closing time...") over scenes that could be said to represent the novelist's bad dreams or his rough draft or both, the stage-trained Coyle pulls off a discomfiting form of anti-charisma--which is funny in part because it's hardly the typical thing for an actor directing himself to do. As for MADtv's Mo Collins (a Minnesota native), who plays the Coyle character's estranged wife: If she utterly fails to generate sparks with her costar, is that not perfectly appropriate to the portrayal of a marriage that's...uh, as dead as poor, poisoned Jonesy in The Big Sleep? --Rob Nelson


Walker Art Center, Sunday at 8:00 p.m.; and Oak Street Cinema, Monday at 9:30 p.m.

One of the de facto leaders of a nascent Argentinean New Wave is Pablo Trapero, whose low-key, neo-neorealist debut Crane World set the terms for a type of filmmaking grounded in the everyday realities of greater Buenos Aires. His gritty, blackly comedic follow-up, El bonaerense, examines a naïf's outrageous fortunes in the big city as he witnesses the ugliness of foreign surroundings while missing the simple pleasures of home. A dim rural locksmith, 35-year-old Zapa (Jorge Roman, effectively taciturn) is going nowhere fast when he's caught red-handed for a crime he didn't even know he was committing. Lucky (or "lucky") for him, his well-connected uncle ships him off to the country's capital, where he finds himself in over his head as a recruit in Argentina's most notorious and corrupt police force: the bonaerense. Too old to be going through training school, the country bumpkin learns how to shoot a gun (just barely), how to seduce his superior officer (pretty well), and how to take a bribe. Yet El bonaerense is no exposé: Its drunken cops suggest Police Academy more than Training Day. An absorbing and entertaining journey of innocence betrayed, El bonaerense contains numerous grace notes, confirming the love that Trapero holds for his characters regardless of the wrong choices they might make en route to understanding their less-than-historic places in the world. --Mark Peranson


Bell Auditorium, Monday at 9:30 p.m.; and Oak Street Cinema, Friday, April 18 at 9:30 p.m.

In the opening match of last year's World Cup, Senegal defeated the defending champion, France, by a score of 1-0. For a moment, a single goal united all of Africa in celebration of one of the most momentous upsets in soccer history--and, more important, of the triumph of an African nation over its old colonial master. In L'Afrance, El Hadj (Djolof Mbengwe), a Senegalese graduate student in Paris, longs for such a moment as he struggles with feeling alienated from both France and his homeland, and with being under constant threat of deportation. While his fellow expatriates risk everything just to remain expatriates, the no-nonsense Senegalese nationalist continues researching his dissertation in colonial history, quoting such African liberators as Guinea's Sékou Touré and the Congo's great martyr Patrice Lumumba. After he falls in love with a self-reliant French woman (Delphine Zingg), however, El Hadj--whose Arabic-derived name translates as "the pilgrim"--begins to question his commitment to returning to West Africa. Though the split identity of the immigrant is among the most familiar themes in international film and art, L'Afrance makes its mark on that legacy through the exploration of interracial love and patriarchal anxieties. As with the victory of the Senegalese soccer players, who would promptly return to their homes and club teams in France, the freedom portrayed in the film inevitably gives way to neocolonial reality. --Jeremy O'Kasick  


Riverview Theater, Wednesday, April 16 at 7:00 p.m.

Setting a comedy amidst the early '90s gas attack on Iraq's Kurds carries all the immediate appeal of making a slapstick farce out of Serbia's ethnic massacres. Yet just as Emir Kusturica unearthed a dark humor in Underground, his Bosnian war movie from 1995, Iranian Kurd Bahman Ghobadi (A Time for Drunken Horses) careens between family follies and genocide in his wonderful, odd odyssey Marooned in Iraq. The resemblance between the two films doesn't stop there. In Iraq, traveling musician Mirza (Shahab Ebrahimi) and his adult sons Audeh (Allah-Morad Rashtian) and Barat (Faegh Mohammadi) play listing and swooning Kurdish folk songs that recall Kusturica's drunken brass bands. Grown men heap physical abuse on each other like cartoon characters over episodes of punctured pride. And most of the actors have moustaches of heroic proportions. In fact, foolhardy displays of manliness are the wellspring for much of the comedy here. Mirza gang-presses his reluctant sons into a journey to find the wife who ran off to Iraqi Kurdistan after he refused to let her perform with his band. Whining Audeh, meanwhile, is searching for an eighth wife to give him a son to go with his 13 daughters. And bachelor Barat has a breakdown over his loss of honor after border bandits swipe his motorcycle (and his gold teeth). Providing the ballast for these little indignities is the massive insult to humanity represented by Saddam's planes delivering death from above. With each scene, our luckless searchers make their way through snowy smugglers' camps and refugee convoys and outdoor orphanages. The ultimate irony of this highly recommended film is that it is in the most beautifully photographed, sun-swept highlands where the ugliest of acts have been perpetrated. --Michael Tortorello


Oak Street Cinema, Wednesday, April 16 at 7:30 p.m.

"Without a drink and a woman, I can't hold a brush," insists the legendary Korean painter and de facto patriot Ohwon. (I happen to have the same mantra when it comes to film reviewing.) In the Ohwon biopic Chi-hwa-seon, the life and complicated times of this dipsomaniacal genius unfold in lush natural tableaux, deft brush strokes, and Lear-caliber shouting fits; it's a portrait of the artist as the last innocent man in tumultuous 19th-century Korea. Amazingly embodied by Choi Min-sik, Ohwon becomes the acknowledged master of his craft, to the envy of more scholarly daubers; regarding words as superfluous (paintings traditionally included poems), he even eschews a signature, spawning a cottage industry of fakes. Devoted to art for art's sake, he bristles at any co-option--by Korea's China-kowtowing royals, by its Japanese-abetted reformers, even by those who would make him rich. (One winces as he destroys reams of what only he can discern as his lesser works.) Summoned to the king's painting chamber to execute a piece for a powerful Chinese general, he balks: "I should paint for a foreigner who invades us?" An instinctive national pride emerges, 1882 shading into 2003 brinkmanship. "Fire dictates all," a pottery glazer tells Ohwon, musing on fate as they gaze into the hypnotic inferno of the kiln. When veteran filmmaker Im Kwon-taek (Chunhyang) won a best-director prize for Chi-hwa-seon at Cannes last year, few would have guessed that the next nine months would make his work so additionally compelling. But in addition to rehumanizing a near-mythical figure, the film now appears to provide a refresher course in Korea's long history of domination by outside forces. --Ed Park

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