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FRIDAY 4.18

The World Unseen

St. Anthony Main, Friday at 9:40 p.m. and Monday at 9:15 p.m.

British author Shamim Sarif takes her award-winning debut novel to the screen with mixed results. Set in the early days of South African apartheid, The World Unseen takes a refreshing, street-level look at its effects while also merging it with other societal straightjackets, including the traditional roles of women and same-sex relationships. The story centers on Miriam (Lisa Ray) and Amina (Sheetal Sheth), two Indian women living in a small town in the early 1950s. Miriam is a traditional housewife, though she has begun to realize that the bond between her and her husband is not strong. Amina is an independent woman who—horrors—wears trousers and runs a local café with a black man. All of this set up, however, doesn't make for a particularly engaging film. The efforts of first-time director Sarif bear most of the blame. The film is dull to look at and moves with a leaden pace that offers no real surprises or insight along the way. Some of the actors show some chemistry—Ray and Sheth especially have some good tender moments—but none of The World Unseen rises to the subject matter. —Ed Huyck

SATURDAY 4.19

Callas Assouluta

St. Anthony Main, Saturday at 5:05 p.m.

Bearing more in common with an A&E Biography than a feature documentary, Phillipe Kohly's Callas Assouluta hits the ground in an aimless sprint and doesn't stop until the credits roll. Kohly makes quick and messy work of Maria Callas, the most complex and tragic diva of 20th-century opera, cataloging her affair with Aristotle Onasis, her struggle with bulimia, and her eventual suicide with all the haste and exactness of a forensic examiner. Kohly's uneven, indecisive doc lingers where it should hurry (lengthy shots of costumed mannequins rotate for the camera like game hens on a spit) and hurries where it should linger (Callas's abrupt and permanent estrangement from her mother is glossed over in a single line of narration). Despite his efforts to keep Callas dripping in jewels and haughty perfectionism, Kohly selected footage that paints Callas as a retiring, almost modest woman. The footage would be poignant were it part of a campaign to expose the human bones of the vaunted diva, but Kohly is not so adventurous. He takes her diva status as read and seems uninterested in unearthing the complexities and risks of such a persona, and the footage undermines the concept of celebrity with which Kohly is clearly intoxicated. This paint-by-numbers biography still produces arresting scenes of Callas performing, but these moments are fleeting and far between. More informative than illustrative, Kohly's largely inanimate bio drains Callas's life of all its blood, an unfortunate mishandling of subject matter that should be as indulgently sensory as an opium dream. —David Hansen

La Fine del Mare

St. Anthony Main, Saturday at 4:45 p.m. and Monday at 9:20 p.m.

"Everybody's lost, and nobody has nobody." So goes the most profound line muttered by Yugoslav smuggler Todor (Miki Manojlovic) to Nilofar (Diana Dobreva), the woman he was hired to move as cargo, but now decides to help smuggle to Paris. The line also perfectly embodies this staggeringly dull, often wordless film. The bulk of its screen time is devoted to Todor smoking on the docks of the Italian border town of Trieste, drinking with his blind friend Aurelio (Luigi Maria Burrliano, giving the movie much needed life), or sitting sullenly in his dank apartment with Nilofar. Manojlovic's haggard face, suggesting Walter Matthau by the Seine, is mesmerizing, but director Nora Hoppe undersells a potentially intriguing character and premise with inert pacing, washed-out photography, and about a hundred shots of the sea. —John Ervin

Tuya's Marriage

St. Anthony Main, Saturday at 4:50 p.m. and Sunday at 6:15 p.m.

Like The Story of the Weeping Camel and Mongolian Ping Pong, Tuya's Marriage is partly an anthropological survey of Inner Mongolia's grasslands, though director Wang Quan An shuns the allegorical and the fanciful for a more straightforward look at community. Wang's articulation of a vanishing way of life centers on young Tuya (Yu Nan), whose injured herder husband encourages her to take a new mate after she suffers a lumbar dislocation and is unable to care for their children. Around them, people booze and smoke to get by, and as the pinch of modernity tightens, suicide emerges as an exit strategy. Wang maintains an emotional remove from his subject, tracing the encroaching capitalism—as in the evolution from horses to motorcycles to cars—more clinically than poetically. Maybe because of Weeping Camel and Ping Pong, a frame chockablock with sheep is beginning to feel like dull visual shorthand for untainted primitivism. Maybe Tuya's Marriage would disappoint less if its pathos were more fearless and less contrived.

 

—Ed Gonzalez

The Yacoubian Building

St. Anthony Main, Saturday at 1:30 p.m.

An examination of class, politics, religion, and sexuality through several tenants of an apartment building in Cairo, Egypt, this sprawling panorama feels like several movies in one. No surprise, since it's two hours and 40 minutes long! Despite the film's contemporary subjects—Islamic militancy, corporate corruption, drug use, abortion, etc.—director Marawan Hamed's sensibility is distinctly from the era of Casablanca. Though the film ultimately drowns in so many characters and stories, it is worth seeing for the enormous sets, lush photography, and impressive cast, led by Adel Imam as a wealthy, lonely bar hound, who looks like he actually was in Casablanca. Besides, how many chances are you going to get to see movies from Egypt, let alone ones with gay characters? —John Ervin

Yella

St. Anthony Main, Saturday at 9:10 p.m. and Friday, April 25, at 9:20 p.m.

Christian Petzold crafts a world so cold you wonder how Germans manage to procreate. In it, we follow Yella (Nina Hoss), a young woman trying to escape a dead-end life and possessive husband by moving from the east to Hanover. Nothing goes as planned in the big city, however, as her job disappears on the first day. Salvation seems to come in the form of a young banker, Philipp (Devid Striesow), who befriends Yella. They discover a mutual love of the hard-edged deal and delight in driving the toughest bargains they can. All the while, Yella is haunted by her past—and the realization that Philipp may be using her for his own gains. There's a twist here, one that should be obvious to anyone who's watched an M. Night Shyamalan film or any psychological thriller made in the last decade. However, both Hoss and Striesow give solid performances that show some passion behind all the ice, and Petzold delights in the tense boardroom scenes as Philipp and Yella spar with an assortment of business ventures looking for capital. Yes, leave it to the Germans to make spreadsheets exciting. —Ed Huyck

SUNDAY 4.20

London to Brighton

St. Anthony Main, Sunday at 9:45 p.m. and Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.

Someone smacked the shit out of Kelly (Lorraine Stanley), a hooker with a heart of gold, and something nasty happened to Joanne (Georgia Groome), a precocious 12-year-old runaway. Who did the smacking? What type of nasty? How did the ladies meet and come to be cowering in a London public toilet, licking their wounds and wolfing down French fries? And why do they flee to Brighton, where trouble awaits them? This is the tense, white-knuckle stuff of London to Brighton. The debut feature of writer-director Paul Andrew Williams is a grim, efficient affair, neatly packed into 83 punishing minutes. Stanley and Groome uplift the miserabilism with their raw, credible performances, and Williams shows uncommon confidence as a storyteller. But what, you may ask, have we done to deserve this? LTB offers a fresh (if grimy) contribution to kitchen-sink realism but little to the tiresome persistence of vicious British gangster chic. —Nathan Lee

Poisoned by Polonium

St. Anthony Main, Sunday at 5:05 p.m. and Monday at 5 p.m.

Andrei Nekrasov's documentary indictment of the Putin regime is inelegantly structured, flops when it goes "gonzo," and gets uncomfortably indulgent, but it does have morbid credibility to spare. Two of Nekrasov's primary interviewees—the regime-antagonistic journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the whistleblower exile Alexander Litvinenko—were killed, very possibly in politically motivated assassinations, during the time this material was shot. The latter's death by radioactive contamination begins and ends the film, with a concluding montage identifying Litvinenko as one corpse among thousands produced by the New Russia. Nekrasov doesn't seem to anticipate having an audience in his homeland: His film's early chapters give a remedial history lesson in Russia's grand tradition of informers, political imprisonment, and graft. Special focus is placed on the KGB, which, in the post-Soviet years, morphed into the state-security organization FSB. Nekrasov keeps Putin in the crosshairs while enumerating the allegations: The bombing attacks in Russia attributed to Chechen separatists were sacrificial inside jobs. Fronting "a regime of profiteers," Putin has managed to hush up his history in money laundering and the misappropriation of relief funds. "Vertical power" is a synonym for czarism. So at best this is a serviceable pamphlet in contemporary Russian dissent for the uninitiated. —Nick Pinkerton

Tell No One

St. Anthony Main, Sunday at 7:20 p.m. and Wednesday, April 23, at 8 p.m.

Guillaume Canet's feature does what a crime film is supposed to do: get us so caught up in the hero's predicaments that we don't pay attention to how implausible some of them are. Eight years after pediatrician Dr. Beck (François Cluzet) is cleared in the murder of his wife in a forest, he is once again a suspect when two other bodies are found in the same area. Beck, who is as unsure of whether it was the culprit who went to jail for the crime as the police are, begins his own investigation and finds himself not only hounded by the cops but pursued by some delightfully perverse thugs (including a woman whose specialty is squeezing victims' vital organs). Unlike many French thrillers, which get bogged down in talk, this one moves, and includes a great chase on foot down a busy freeway. See this before they come out with the lousy Hollywood remake! —John Ervin

MONDAY 4.21

Irina Palm

 

St. Anthony Main, Monday at 7:10 p.m. and Friday, April 25, at 9:25 p.m.

Nobody can reduce tawdry material to doddering quaintness like the British, but this staggeringly inane joint effort by U.K., Belgian, French, German, and Luxembourgian film financing represents a true coalition of the witless. With her dying grandson unable to afford life-saving treatment in Australia—so much for Michael Moore's miracles of socialized medicine—a matronly, middle-aged widow (Marianne Faithfull!) timidly answers a London sex club's job posting. Dutifully divested of diva-hood, Faithfull is stationed at a glory hole with enough lotion to capsize Eliot Spitzer, instructed to polish every knob that pokes through. Voila! She finds mad money, likely romance, and newfound self-esteem, as so often happens with aging sex workers in the anonymous coin-op jerk-off trade. The whole ridiculous thing could serve as one of Lars von Trier's lurid melodramas of female abasement, if director Sam Garbarski's tone didn't fluctuate between kitchen-sink miserabilism and the smirky archness of a Very Special Are You Being Served?—and if it weren't such a pack of cozily sanitized lies. Except, of course, for the movie's urgent warning about the hazards of "penis elbow." —Jim Ridley

My Father, My Lord

St. Anthony Main, Monday at 7:15 p.m. and Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.

David Volach's debut feature opens with five nearly wordless minutes of paper shuffling, seat shifting, and reproachful glances, and then the director opts to take things down a notch. This interminable slice of devout life tracks a young Israeli boy's first stirrings of disillusionment with his rabbi father with an exasperating attention to detail, fully capturing the tedium of being an eight-year-old stuck in Torah class on a beautiful day. The glacial pacing is a bit of a shame, as the film is peppered with fine performances, nicely observed scenes of family life, and some lovely camera work, particularly during a sequence filmed on a Dead Sea beach. Volach eventually builds to a genuinely shocking, if heavy-handed, plot twist, but by that point only the most devoted Torah scholars in the audience will be alert enough to care about his metaphors. —Ira Brooker

The Way I Spent the End of the World

St. Anthony Main, Monday at 7:30 p.m. and Tuesday at 5:10 p.m.

The final year of Ceausescu's dictatorship in Romania is chronicled in The Way I Spent the End of the World, a heartwarming feature debut from writer-director Catalin Mitulescu. It tells the story of a schoolgirl on the verge of womanhood (Dorotheea Petre) living with her parents and young brother (Timotei Duma). When she and her boyfriend accidentally break a bust of the dictator, she is sent to reform school, where she meets a man and decides to flee the country with him. Meanwhile, her brother becomes convinced that the dictator is the reason his sister wants to flee, so he decides to bring the system down. The tragicomic nature of the film suits it well; the life of the family is far more important than the constraints of communist rule. Thanks to the charismatic performances from Petre and Duma, The Way I Spent the End of the World is a genuinely touching depiction of a family surviving under duress. —Andrew Newman

TUESDAY 4.22

Alexandra

St. Anthony Main, Tuesday at 5:20 p.m. and Tuesday, April 29, at 7:45 p.m.

Spare yet tactile, a mysterious mixture of lightness and gravity, Alexander Sokurov's Alexandra is founded on contradiction. Musing on war in general and the Russian occupation of Chechnya in particular, this is a movie in which combat is never shown. The star, octogenarian Galina Vishnevskaya, is an opera diva who never sings. Sokurov, who has more than once attempted to document the Russian soul, may be a visionary, but his eponymous protagonist is resolutely down-to-earth. An instant anomaly, Alexandra clambers out from a transport train into a dusty station—presumably at some point during the second Chechen war. Stern and stolid, when not sighing with annoyance, the old lady is surrounded by Russian troops and a swirl of whispers, laughs, and faint melody. Alexandra has come to see her grandson, an army captain in his late 20s, and is escorted to the base, at one point riding in a tank. The son of a Soviet military officer, Sokurov spent his childhood moving from base to base, and there's a mascot quality to Alexandra as she makes her tour of inspection. The movie has no shortage of incident, but it's less a narrative than a situation: The emphasis is on boredom and routine. Sokurov may not clarify the situation in Chechnya but, in chronicling Alexandra's trip to the front, he illuminates its reality. —J. Hoberman

FRIDAY 4.25

Boarding Gate

 

St. Anthony Main, April 25 at 9:15 p.m.

There's basically one reason to see Olivier Assayas's self-consciously meta-sleazy English/French/Chinese-language globo-thriller Boarding Gate, and her name is Asia Argento. Argento's Sandra—a Paris-based ex-hooker, erstwhile industrial spy, freelance drug dealer, and eventual hit lady—is introduced with her back to the camera and hair piled up, the better to display the "23" tattooed on the nape of her neck: She's hot stuff. Sandra's former lover, the capitalist swine Miles (beefy Michael Madsen), wants out of his import-export racket, and he wants Sandra back in his life. The pair embark on a long conversation on who got off on what, during the course of which Sandra, being Argento, pokes the finger of one hand into her mouth while idly exploring her crotch with the other. There hasn't been so insolent a bad girl since the late-'70s punk queen Lydia Lunch, nor so bizarre a femme fatale since the pre-humanitarian Angelina Jolie. Boarding Gate has a jagged yet posh faux-vérité style; it's a mélange of suave jump cuts, confusing close-ups, and light-smearing action pans. But Assayas's attempt to hijack and import a strobe-lit, glass-shattering, Hong Kong-style chase-cum-shootout, complete with drugged drinks and interpolated karaoke, is disappointingly mediocre. —J. Hoberman

The Grocer's Son

St. Anthony Main, Friday, April 25, at 6:30 p.m. and Saturday, April 26, at 12:45 p.m.

Documentarian Eric Guidrado plays with familiar themes throughout his second feature, but The Grocer's Son is told with such disarming charm that it's easy to forgive any sins. Nicolas Cazale plays the bitter Antoine, who left his rural home a decade before for the allure of the big city. His father's heart attack—and the need to run the family's mobile grocery business—draws him back to Provence. There, with the aid of artist friend Claire (Clotilde Hesme) and the rustic, aging souls, he slowly sheds his hard exterior. Nothing earth-shattering, but Guidrado doesn't treat the material that way. Instead, we get a languid ride through the French countryside, as Antoine gets to know his clients, then his family, and finally Claire and himself. There is rarely a forced moment in the film (though some of the scenes between father and son come close) and the entire cast gives understated performances that help to keep the gossamer strands of the film's plot from flying apart on the summer breeze. —Ed Huyck

The Tracey Fragments

St. Anthony Main, Friday, April 25 at 8:30 p.m. and Monday, April 28, at 9:45 p.m.

"Shrill" is the operative word for director Bruce McDonald's depiction of a hellish night for tomboy Tracey Berkowitz (Ellen Page of Juno), as she searches the city streets for her missing little brother (who for some inexplicable reason acts like a dog). All the boilerplate items from troubled teen flicks are here: abusive Dad, psycho Mom, bullying supermodel classmates, plus horses, crows, and clowns. All this and more is flung at us through a nonstop stream of video fragments and audio clips—Timecode as imagined by Oliver Stone. On a sensory-overload level, the film never bores for its brisk 77 minutes, and Page is terrific as Tracey. But for all its technical virtuosity, The Tracey Fragments has nothing new to say about disaffected youth. And what's with the transgender psychiatrist who looks like Stephen D'Ambrose in drag? —John Ervin

SATURDAY 4.26

Darling

St. Anthony Main, Saturday, April 26, at 2:45 p.m. and Thursday, May 1, at 7:35 p.m.

Few recent films handle the shopworn subject of depressing Scandinavian lives with as much grace and good humor as Darling. Johan Kling's understated debut feature sets up a predictable story arc and then refuses to unfold in quite the way the audience is led to expect. When the lives of spoiled young shopgirl Eva (Michelle Meadows) and sixtysomething schlub Bernard (Michael Segerström) intersect behind the counter of a Stockholm McDonald's, she believes life owes her better while he's just happy to have the work. What could have been a trite tale of redemption and self-discovery instead emerges as a much more realistic celebration of smaller victories, buoyed by strong performances from the two leads. Meadows's icy ennui and Segerström's dogged optimism complement each other beautifully, particularly in a touching scene extolling the restorative power of a late-night cup of coffee from 7-11. —Ira Brooker

Dean and Me

 

St. Anthony Main, Saturday, April 26, at 5:10 p.m.

Nostalgic and endearing but ultimately ineffectual, Heath Eiden's documentary Dean and Me feels something like a love letter from a forgotten romance. Long on observation and short on commentary, the doc is a worm's-eye view of Howard Dean's meteoric rise and fall along the 2004 campaign trail, as witnessed by Eiden, a diligent Dean booster, blogger, and, as several midstream asides suggest, devoted family man. Beginning as a highly personal account of Eiden's hot pursuit of Dean's campaign progress, the film becomes increasingly reliant on national news footage as demand and hope for Dean as a candidate clearly limit Eiden's access to the major players. Rather than intensify his presence with personal reflections, Eiden allows himself to be shuffled to the rear of numerous convention halls and council meetings, and by the film's second half, he is but a mute, invisible specter as Dean, Kerry, Sharpton, and other heavy hitters are hastily herded past him, too harried to give a quote. Eiden's numerous and engaging run-ins with Crossfire's Tucker Carlson, a grand unmasking of other Dean bloggers, and a hard-earned but squandered meeting with Dean himself are high points, but they can't wash away the taste of impertinence. Despite his earnestness and affability, Eiden is not nearly present enough to make this his memoir, and with the 2008 elections on the horizon, most of this film's intended audience will be too busy with the imminent future to concern themselves with the distant past. —David Hansen

Pageant

St. Anthony Main, Saturday, April 26, at 9:30 p.m.

A cross-dressing beauty pageant is hardly the controversy it once was, and Ron Davis and Stewart Halpern's Pageant, a look at the annual Miss Gay America contest, indicates that there's nothing to get upset about in the first place. The documentary follows a number of female impersonators gathering in Memphis for the annual event: a Disney World employee who specializes in swing dance, a celebrity impersonator once hired by Reba McEntire, etc. The film chronicles the events seen in any beauty pageant (evening gown competition, talent competition, interviews), ultimately culminating in the final show to crown the new Miss Gay America. However, there is no real sense of drama to the proceedings, and the contestants show almost none of the ruthless determination that often makes beauty pageant films so fascinating. When the biggest snafus are CDs that skip and one contestant bruising a shin walking offstage, anyone looking for a glimpse into the supposedly high-stakes world of cross-dressing beauty pageants will be sorely disappointed. —Andrew Newman

SUNDAY 4.27

Fugitive Pieces

St. Anthony Main, Sunday, April 27, at 8 p.m. and Monday, April 28, at 7:30 p.m.

Give Fugitive Pieces credit for taking a somewhat novel view of the unfortunately familiar Holocaust film. By focusing on a survivor who avoided most of the ravages of war, Jeremy Podeswa's adaptation of Anne Michaels's novel explores the topic from a rarely seen angle, but the result isn't nearly as compelling as it might have been. The film's most involving storyline follows Jakob, an orphaned Polish Jew (Robbie Kay) hiding out in a Mediterranean villa after being rescued from the Nazis by a saintly Greek archaeologist. The scenes of bonding between the haunted child and his surrogate father sometimes verge on saccharine, but they're much more effective than later sequences featuring grownup Jakob (Stephen Dillane) and his budding career as a memoirist. Jakob's guilt over his relatively happy childhood could be fertile ground, but Fugitive Pieces spends too much time muddling through dull side stories and murky prose to ever let the audience care much about him one way or the other. —Ira Brooker

WEDNESDAY 4.30

The Galilee Eskimos

St. Anthony Main, Wednesday, April 30, at 5:20 p.m.

The residents of an old kibbutz on the hills of Galilee are forced to abandon their homes when the creditors come calling. In their haste, they leave the residents of the senior citizens' home behind. Yet as the new owners of the property soon discover, these oldsters are not fossils—they are the nation's tough pioneers, and they don't want to give up without a fight. In the hands of a Hollywood director, you could probably guess where it would go from here. Thankfully, director Jonathan Paz has a different story he wants to tell than "old folks stick it to the youngsters." Instead, his tale focuses on the inside, as the dozen or so remaining residents attempt to rekindle the socialist, communal spirit that fueled the kibbutz in the first place. They also know that this is most likely their last stab at "life"—only another old-folks' home awaits them outside of the kibbutz's gates. Paz mixes humor and pathos throughout, while the veteran cast smoothes over any of the protruding edges of the story (are there no newspapers in Israel? Their plight would cause a sensation) to let us focus on the characters. Through their performances, you feel as if these characters have been fighting, bickering, and loving for the past six decades, and now they can't imagine a life outside of their longstanding home. —Ed Huyck

SATURDAY 5.3

Witnesses to a Secret War

 

Oak Street Cinema, Saturday, May 3, at 2:30 p.m.

Laos's fall to Communism after the Vietnam War and the story of Hmong resettlement in America are chronicled in Deborah Dickson's affecting documentary Witnesses to a Secret War. After the U.S. evacuated Vietnam, many Hmong families fled to Thailand refugee camps, waiting for the situation to improve. But 30 years after the war, many were still living in the camps. The film follows a family relocating to St. Paul after the government allowed 15,000 Hmong refugees to resettle in America in 2003. Dickson contrasts the emotional, affecting stories of the soldiers who were deserted by the government and threatened by the Communist regime with the anxiety and sadness felt by those who went to America. But Dickson wisely examines the most affecting element of the piece: the sense of displacement felt by all. When the refugees realize they can never return to their homeland, the immense pride they had for Laos turns in equal measure to grief. —Andrew Newman

For more reviews, visit our Short Movie Reviews. Visit the MSPIFF website, www.mspfilmfest.org, for film descriptions, show times, and venues.


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