MSPIFF Hit List: Wolf, Jerichow, Buick at the Rivera make Minnesota proud
THE SECRET OF THE GRAIN
St. Anthony Main, April 21 at 6:45 p.m. and April 23 at 9:15 p.m.
In this remarkable third feature by the French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche, a 61-year-old shipyard worker in the port city of Sète is laid off after four decades of service and sets about opening a couscous restaurant aboard the decrepit boat he buys with his severance pay. For Slimane Beiji, played with quiet, solitary force by screen newcomer Habib Boufares, the restaurant is both a folie de grandeur and a final testament—a way, he hopes, to unite the disparate members of his family (including his ex-wife, his four grown children, his current mistress, and her daughter) and restore his own bruised dignity. Yet the more Beiji devotes himself to the project, the further it seems to drift out of reach. I'm almost afraid to say how highly I think of The Secret of the Grain, for there is something so fragile about what Kechiche does that it risks crumbling under the weight of inflated expectations. Kechiche favors casual observation over dramatic obviousness—a lively family-dinner scene goes on for close to 20 minutes before we fully realize who all the characters are and how they relate to one another. Never do we feel the hand of the filmmaker forcing us from here to there, telling us how to think or what to feel. Then, gradually, a story of considerable narrative complexity emerges, and by the time The Secret of the Grain reaches its breathtaking final act, our pulses are racing and our hearts are in our throats. —Scott Foundas
A WALK TO BEAUTIFUL
St. Anthony Main, April 23 at 7:15 p.m.
Five women, isolated in their own corners of the Ethiopian hinterland, undertake a pilgrimage to a free hospital in Addis Ababa. All have long suffered from obstetric fistulas—tissue tears from pregnancy trauma leading to an unceasing drip of incontinence. In the context of village life, this means ostracism (a clinician: "These are the modern-day lepers"). The women, five among tens of thousands suffering the same affliction, offer a terrible privilege in opening up their private abjection—a more complete shame would be difficult to imagine. That confidence isn't betrayed. Aside from a few casual digs at the loutishness of the rural Ethiopian male, documentarians Mary Olive Smith and Amy Bucher feel no need to overlay this health-care calamity with pious outrage; any editorial is implied in the immutable facts from overworked gynecologists and the camera's testament. (What could be more eloquent than a pan across one room to reveal four reparative operations underway simultaneously? It's like battlefield surgery.) This is emotionally arduous stuff, and there's something rarefied here in the commiseration these refugees find with their fellow patients: "Everyone here is sick. I thought it was only me." —Nick Pinkerton
St. Anthony Main, April 18 at 12:45 p.m. and April 19 at 12:15 p.m.
Bleak coldness emanates from every frame of Wolf, from the frozen landscapes of northern Sweden to the harsh faces in a courtroom. A troubled young herder (Robin Lundberg) kills a legally protected wolf that has been preying on his family's reindeer. When police uncover the crime, the young man's uncle Klemens (Peter Stormare) takes the blame and sets off a legal battle that pits local Sami herders against modern Swedish society. Finely crafted performances and beautifully restrained filmmaking offer thought-provoking and universal insights about what can arise when two cultures collide. The film is quiet, unafraid of the power of silence. Stormare shines as a man weathered by the world—someone whose life and work are dwindling to nothing. When his young nephew puts his future at risk in a vicious act of violence, he finds a new purpose in life, and this heavy responsibility weighs on Stormare's weary face. Director Daniel Alfredson expertly transforms the snowy hills of Sweden into a desolate wasteland where people living on the edge must struggle against an outside world that cannot understand. —Andrew Newman
St. Anthony Main, April 25 at 9:20 p.m. and April 26 at 7:35 p.m.
While Yella, Christian Petzold's film from last year's festival, left me largely cold, Jerichow delivers the goods. Yella was hamstrung by a sub-M. Night Shyamalan plot that was obvious from the first minutes of the film, which in turn obscured an excellent performance by Nina Hoss as the icy main character. In this German update of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Hoss stars as Laura, who sits at the center of the film's love triangle. She is married to jealous-on-the-verge-of-paranoid Ali, who runs a snack-bar empire in the eastern half of the country. The "postman" here is Thomas, a local with a dark past and troubled future. An act of kindness connects him to the pair, and the sparks between Thomas and Laura fly from the start. Through it all, Petzold keeps things taut, with every stray glance and piece of small talk carrying plenty of underlying tension. Hoss is again terrific here, presenting a damaged character who wants to do good but is unable to shake the darkness in her past. Even better is Hilmi Sozer as Ali, whose jealousy masks a deep fear about his place in the world and his eventual legacy. Benno Furmann completes the trio, masking his character's secrets—which we never truly learn—behind brooding eyes. Though Petzold has made a noir-ish thriller, it's the central character studies that make the film memorable. —Ed Huyck
St. Anthony Main, April 21 at 9:45 p.m. and April 25 at 9 p.m.
On its surface, Somers Town might be mistaken for the kind of standard-issue coming-of-age story that frequently fills space on festival programs, but this impeccably observed slice of life is much more interested in being-of-age. The plot, such as it is, centers on an unexpected friendship struck between two teens in lower-middle-class London: shy, Polish-born photography buff Marek (Piotr Jagiello) and brash-talking suburban runaway Tomo (Thomas Turgoose). As director Shane Meadows's naturalistic, black-and-white camera follows the boys on a rambling series of moneymaking schemes and attempts at wooing a gorgeous coffee-shop waitress, the storyline takes a backseat to the players' personalities. Turgoose (who also starred in Meadows's well-received This Is England) turns in an indelible performance as a damaged young man whose foul-mouthed bluster doesn't come close to covering up his vulnerability. His pairing with the lanky, bright-eyed Jagiello sometimes brings to mind Superbad played straight and directed by Mike Leigh. Buoyed by some fine supporting work by Ireneusz Czop as Marek's embattled single father and Perry Benson as a soft-hearted junk dealer, Somers Town emerges as an unfiltered, universal portrait of all the angst, joy, passion, and pain that comes with being 16 in the city. —Ira Brooker
St. Anthony Main, April 18 at 7 p.m. and April 19 at 5 p.m.
It doesn't matter how far away one travels—physically or emotionally—to escape the troubles of his or her homeland. There will always be painful reminders, and some come in the form of other people. Such is the central premise in Croatian writer-director Goran Rusinovic's spare yet compelling 2008 film about two men—a Bosnian and a Serb—who cross paths in a small Midwestern American town. Although it's been 17 years since he left Sarajevo, Hasan (Slavko Stimac) remains traumatized, unable to work or open up to his wife Angela (Aimee Klein). Hasan's refuge is his 1970s Buick Riviera, the only place he feels at home. When the car gets stuck in the snow, Hasan hitches a ride from Vuko (Leon Lucev), a big talker who has just left his wife. Their conversation is amicable enough at first but soon old resentments come to the surface, culminating in a shocking exchange that ultimately liberates Hasan from the past. The actors offer striking and nuanced performances: Stimac movingly battles his repressed sorrow while Vuko fully embraces his role as a grifter with a hint of mischief—or perhaps something more nefarious—in his eye. In many overt and subtle ways, Rusinovic shows us that the war continues between these men and the cultures they represent, but in a new century and a new country, the war also takes on new meaning. —Caroline Palmer
KING OF PING PONG
St. Anthony Main, April 18 at 6:30 p.m. and April 23 at 5:25
Absolutely fascinating. Rille (Jerry Johansson) is a brilliant, overweight adolescent ping-pong champion in a desolate, snowy mountain area of Sweden. Rille is the object of admiration and scorn by his younger, much smaller brother Erik (Hampus Johansson). The two spar at a youth center over a ping-pong table; at home under the eyes of their indulgent, overweight divorcee mother; and for the affections of their thrill-seeking, utterly irresponsible father. Jerry Johansson gives a controlled yet affecting performance as the calm, almost Zen-like boy genius who maintains his composure in the face of the usual school bullies as well as his impulsive, hotheaded brother. An incredible scene toward the end involves an ice-fishing hole, a dangerous stunt—and a continuous shot proving the stunt is real. It's a beautiful study in sibling dynamics; the film's only flaw is the inappropriate soundtrack music, which sounds like one of the recently departed Maurice Jarre's thundering scores for David Lean. —John Ervin
THE CHASER (CHUGYEOGJA)
St. Anthony Main, April 29 at 9:15 p.m. and April 30 at 6:30 p.m.
A hard-boiled thriller, done Korean style. Former cop turned escort-agency head Jun-Ho (Yung-seok Kim) goes on a desperate hunt when the latest of several of his "girls" to go missing is tied to a serial killer. Stymied by culture, incompetent police, and his own growing guilt, Jun-Ho races the clock to save Young-Min See (Jung-woo Ha). Like other recent Korean films, The Chaser wears it edge like a badge, with the proceedings never quite following the Hollywood pattern. Director Na Hong-Jin makes an impressive debut here, showing both a fine eye for gritty action and unexpected moments of humor. The creators also breathe some life into the serial killer genre, presenting neither a crazed genius nor slobbering maniac, but the quintessential "quiet neighbor." By the end, the film more resembles a Greek tragedy than a run-of-the-mill action film, with the main character literally staring his failure in the eyes. Definitely not for the faint of heart, The Chaser shows that you can still make an intelligent thriller—even if it has to come from half a world away. —Ed Huyck
St. Anthony Main, April 18 at 5:15 p.m. and April 19 at 1:15 p.m.
In Argentinean Carlos Sorin's latest film, author Antonio (Antonio Laretta) knows his life is nearing the end—he is nearly bedridden, always connected to an IV, and often lost in his memories. Still, today is a special day, as his estranged son has finally come back from Europe for a visit to the family home. In the meantime, there are routine, special visitors, and, above all, a desire to free himself from the confines of his room. Sorin's film meditates on what it means to be at a moment when nearly all has faded and gone, but life continues to go on. The film's centerpiece is a solitary ramble in the fields by Antonio—holding a cane in one hand, his IV in the other—as he surveys his sun-baked land. By the end of the day, his son's visit almost seems anticlimactic. Laretta gives a tremendous performance as Antonio, using the slightest of movements and changes in tone to show the character's ever-shifting thoughts. —Ed Huyck
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