The Greatest Shows on Earth

Grace Maksimik

Which of the world's film festivals could include "a cinematic bildungsroman that magically mixes comedy and sadness" and "a movie that suggests a Nora Ephron screenplay directed by Sergeant Schultz of Hogan's Heroes"? A fest in which one film offers "a cautionary exemplar of Poland's currently uneasy moment" while another "doesn't move much beyond the standard-issue tourist trash you'd find at the local all-things-Irish novelty store"? A showcase for the "acerbically funny yet disarmingly tender" and a movie that is "to be fled like a mad-cow Whopper with Cheese"? Why, it's the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, of course--or at least according to our crew of opinionated world-cinema taste-testers, whose highly diverse assessments (collected below) reflect the split personality of the festival itself.

On the one hand, the massive MSPIFF--which presents more than 100 features from 49 countries on seven screens over the course of three weeks this month--provides a rare and excellent service as an alternative to the largely ethnocentric state of local "art-film" exhibition. And, in the process, it turns up countless wonders that may never again see light in this city--or on this continent, even. On the other hand, stemming in part from the meager resources allotted to such a commercially unorthodox venture, the festival's chaos theory of curatorial practice too often seems to allow the inclusion of unpreviewed esoterica from hinterland environs on the basis of being available immediately, and for free.

Interpretations of our coverage are apt to be split as well. No doubt festival director Al Milgrom will again find ample evidence of "reviewers who are not familiar in handling the unwonted titles," as he writes in this year's festival program. But since we've never once heard him (or any exhibitor) complain about an uninformed rave, we prefer to take the programmer's pans of our pans as a perverse form of praise. As distinct from the enthusiastically undiscriminating plot summaries that one finds in festival catalogs (how to distinguish between the "fascinating and gorgeous" and the "highly touted and beautiful"?), the capsule reviews below aim to increase the ticket buyer's odds of winning a game that's a crapshoot by design. Perhaps even our more flagrant defiance of critical etiquette ("like a mad-cow Whopper with Cheese"!) is appropriate to a festival that has always stood in opposition to the predictable and the practical--a state-of-the-world survey that, being at once thrillingly expansive and frustratingly uneven, has never lacked for personality.

To cut to the chase: Here's what we think of the first week's offerings (alongside a similarly unexpurgated profile of the organization that's providing it), which we'll follow in subsequent issues with coverage of the films screening in weeks two and three. A word of gentle warning: Given U Film's singular devotion to screening prints that rely on Moldavian air-freight companies for delivery, the dates and times included with the capsule reviews below (and even on schedules) should be double-checked by calling the society hotline at (612) 627-4430, or clicking on Happy hunting.

--Rob Nelson



Herman, USA


The first MSPIFF opener with local credentials since Spark lit up the joint in 1998, this fact-based, fully Minnesota-made indie follows suit with the national media stories that turned the titular town's plea for fertile womenfolk into run-of-the-mill Capra-corn. Must have been a slow news week in 1994 when the highly eligible bachelors of Herman, Minnesota (pop. 485), caught the attention of Katie Couric et al. But you wouldn't know for certain from the movie, in which one eagle-eyed junior editor's human-interest pitch leads instantaneously to busloads of prospective brides chanting, "Herman! Herman!"--not to mention the four upscale black women from Chicago who inexplicably make the trek to farm country in order to sample "the other white meat." Just as miraculously making a $3.5 million movie without a single star (unless you count a thin-haired Michael O'Keefe), writer-director Bill Semans does afford several helicopter shots of sunlit farmland accompanied by the most majestic musical score since Saving Private Ryan's. Although Semans's New Morning in America proffers a view of courtship that's scarcely more modern than the one in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, it does culminate in a very 21st-century vision of racial integration in Prairieville--which may or may not be based on a true story. Rob Nelson


Seven Songs from the Tundra


Minimalist ethnography writ small, this Finnish film presents seven historical tales of the Nenets, the most numerous indigenous peoples of the none too densely populated frozen outback of Siberia. Bookended by two documentary slices of life, Seven Songs progresses forward through the seasons (at least I think so--it's hard to tell when winter lets up in Siberia), examining the pressures upon the natives' independent mindset. The threats come mostly from the rise of Soviet communism, and the changes are best captured through the juxtaposition of the first "narrative" song, wherein a woman refuses to marry her arranged husband, and the last, in which a child refuses to attend school and is dragged away by commie thugs. Seven Songs is the first film ever written in the Nenets' native tongue--one of the two directors, Anastasia Lapsui, based the stories on her family's experiences--and performed by Nenets, whose nonprofessional acting helps yield the feeling of historical reconstruction. The film is at times fragile and compassionate but, as a whole, its flirtations with storytelling are merely tolerable side trips on a long trudge through two-foot-deep slush. Mark Peranson  


The Legend of Teddy Edwards


In this doting documentary on the life of jazz saxophonist Teddy Edwards, director Don McGlynn highlights yet another oversight in Ken Burns's oft-criticized Jazz behemoth. It's familiar territory for McGlynn, whose previous films have included portraits of other legends snubbed by Burns, such as Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon, Art Pepper, Louis Prima, and Horace Parlan. (The Parlan doc is also screening at the MSPIFF, and is reviewed below.) Judging from The Legend of Teddy Edwards, it would seem that the director has the formula down pat. Even if some of the long musical segments of Edwards with his current band go flat at times, it's still refreshing to see a music doc in which the music is more than an interlude. And Williams himself (now in his 70s) is uniquely engaging: With unmistakable wisdom and an instructive tone, he talks about the dangers of heroin, the benefits of hard work and "repetition," and his younger days as a ladies' man ("I was just doin' what any red-blooded man in my position would have!"). Overall, the film has a melancholy air, as we're told of how Edwards, despite his abundant talent, never had the career that many had foreseen at its outset. McGlynn will appear in person to introduce the film. Jonathan Kaminsky


The Natural History of the Chicken


The rhetorical point of this quirky, hourlong doc is that the feathered creature that clucks has a life beyond sitting in batter and hot grease at the bottom of a red-and-white cardboard bucket. Director Mark Lewis (Cane Toads) has two different methods for establishing that fowl is fair and fair is fowl. First, he trains the camera on human lovers of Gallus domesticus: a loopy Florida senior who swaddles her tame cock in handmade diapers, and a minister who witnessed divine virtue in a hen sacrificing her life for her chicks. These segments verge on the precious, as the floating camerawork and chirping score make the speakers seem like rejects from an Errol Morris open casting call. Lewis has better luck with his second cinematic technique: handsome close-ups and field recordings of chickens following the impulses of their tiny lizard brains. These natural scenes are juxtaposed with eerie footage from the metal bowels of a hatching factory (the sight of a few hundred thousand rotating eggs suggests nothing so much as science fiction) and a laying "farm" (which more closely resembles PETA porn). The failure to get inside a slaughterhouse can only be attributed to a lack of access--or a lack of nerve. Michael Tortorello



AT 5:30 P.M. AND SUNDAY AT 1:30 P.M.

This could have been a conventional documentary about UN peacekeepers had Dutch director Heddy Honigmann not come up with a brilliant conceit. Structuring her film around home movies and present-day interviews, Honigmann asked her subjects to pick songs that either reminded them of their experiences or that meant something to them while stationed in troubled spots such as Lebanon, Cambodia, and Bosnia. Then she filmed each person in close-up as he or she listened to the chosen song safe at home in the Netherlands. The selections range from Guns N' Roses to Puccini and Korean folk music and includes both Seal's "Crazy" and Patsy Cline's "Crazy." The result is fascinating on many levels. Beginning without an explicit political agenda, Crazy slowly and carefully develops an indictment of the ineffectiveness of UN humanitarianism (particularly in the former Yugoslavia), and an exploration of the long-term psychological scars of war. Additionally, Honigmann delves into the malleability of music and its Proustian ability to invoke memory. Although the director includes only about 30 seconds of gory atrocity footage (taken from a BBC-made "music video" about Sarajevo, set to Seal's "Crazy"), her film is all the more wrenching for its restraint. In fact, I haven't seen a better documentary in a year. (Note: Honigmann's Crazy is not to be confused with another festival film called Crazy, which is from Germany and is reviewed below.) Steve Erickson  


Marshall Tito's Spirit

7:15 P.M. AND SUNDAY AT 3:00 P.M.

In the broad stretch of the world formerly known as the Evil Empire, communism has mostly become either an embarrassing memory or the punch line to a bitter joke. Free markets have, as the Great Communicator predicted, created free people. And if the residents of the former Soviet satellite states choose to express that new freedom by conducting ethnic pogroms or engaging in perpetual internecine conflict...well, at least they're not red anymore. Such is the subtext of this darkly comic satire by Croatian director Vinko Bresan. The film's setting--a tiny, bleak Adriatic island off the coast of Croatia--is a crumbling outpost of communism, where aged partisans still hold Worker's Day parades and dream of socialism's second coming. The old men (imagine the charmingly eccentric yokels of Waking Ned Devine as dour Eastern Europeans) see their chance when the ghost of Tito, Yugoslavia's own Teddy Roosevelt, appears in the village graveyard. Bresan gets a lot of comic mileage from the farcical situation--there's a running debate, for instance, over whether a Marxist can have a ghost--but there's a point to the silliness. In the film, as in modern Yugoslavia, tradition, signified by Tito's spirit, is running full bore into modernity, symbolized by the tourist industry that springs up around the apparition's presence. Given the area's current dysfunction, Bresan suggests, residents of the Balkans now view communism with rosy nostalgia: The state's repressive tactics at least kept anarchy in check. Hard as it may be to believe, Tito's spirit might actually represent Croatia's good old days. Peter Ritter


This Is My Moon


In Sri Lanka's northern war zone, a Tamil woman takes refuge in a bunker inhabited by a deserting Sinhalese soldier. The rape that ensues seems less an atrocity than a foregone act of hopelessness. Having lost everything, the woman stoically follows the soldier home to his impoverished rural border village, where he soon finds tilling the reluctant soil to be even more futile than winning the war. Writer-director Asoka Handagama explores the churning emotions that roil beneath this poverty-induced fatalism. Two young men tussle like lions over the village's one beauty; the dagger-eyed Tamil woman inspires jealousy and awe; a pregnant war widow weeps over her dead husband's pyre; a young pacifist farmer rages at the cheap sheen of his friend's sudden, soldierly cache. The Tamil woman is always at the center, a fetishized foreign object, mostly mute and thoroughly transfixing. Her loneliness is offset by an incendiary sense of justice that explodes in shocking symbolic acts and rare spates of speech. At one point, after following her disinclined captor to the work field, she responds to his exasperation by calmly grasping a thorny branch, running its spikes through her hand. The film's own expression of frustration is enhanced by Handagama's lingering views of the expansive landscape: The big sky, low vegetation, monastic crags, and enormous ocean provide a rich symbolic palette of ocher, olive, and vermilion, and a rich backdrop for an exploration of the personal politics of war. Handagama will appear in person to introduce both screenings. Laura Sinagra


With a Friend Like Harry


A minor hit at Cannes last year, this très amusant French thriller proceeds from the premise that, like Norman Bates impersonating Mother, a clever director can still make a killing by dressing up as the Master of Suspense. In the Jimmy Stewart role, the perpetually mussed Michel (Laurent Lucas) is a professional who's hobbled by infirmity--in this case, by a couple of screaming young kids and a pair of equally trying parents. Won't anyone help fulfill this poor author's dream of having a few quiet moments to write? Enter Harry (Sergi Lopez), the stranger at a roadside rest stop who claims to be Michel's old high school friend, and his ticket to creativity. Permeating nearly every scene with casual menace, co-writer/director Dominik Moll (a beleaguered parent himself) adds a little of the old French ambiguïté to the Hitchcock formula: The stranger may be offering to "swap murders," but not out loud. And who does he want taken care of in return? (And: Is our passive hero an artist who's worth patronage of any kind?) The trouble with Harry is that, like Harry, it overstays its welcome. Still, the movie is enlivened by an acerbic wit that's pointedly directed at the yuppie breeder: Could it be that all Michel needs to make him happy and productive is an SUV with air conditioning? Rob Nelson  


L'Amour, L'Argent, L'Amour

AT 11:00 P.M. AND SATURDAY, APRIL 14 AT 11:15 P.M.

Actually, this German road movie is more like Sex, ATMs, Sex. Yes, there is a love story here, and a quite moving one at times. But, as befits the tale of a young prostitute and her boyfriend, the material circumstances of the former's profession keep returning the romance to its more depressing constraints. David falls for fellow Berliner Marie after seeing her streetwalking, and he convinces her to quit and go on the road with him. Soon, however, they run out of money, and she returns to sex work to support them. If you're like me, you don't need yet another movie that rubs your face in the awfulness and degradation of such work, and the film bats only .500 in its attempts to use prostitution as a metaphor for other forms of human activity. Still, many elements of L'Amour, L'Argent, L'Amour make the often difficult-to-watch aspects of the story worth the effort--or almost, anyway. In particular, Sabine Timoteo gives a raw performance that shifts without warning between kittenish playfulness and body-wrenching anguish. And director Philip Gröning's jump cuts work as jump cuts are supposed to, suggesting the disjunctive and unpredictable nature of the characters' lives. Meanwhile, the often poetic deployment of superimposed images (and Velvet Underground and Yo La Tengo songs) give many sequences a welcome, hushed beauty. Derek Nystrom


Poles Apart


Winner of the D.L. Mabery Award for the best local feature of the year 2000, this documentary by Minnesota-based director Greg Stiever follows Ann Bancroft--leader of the AWE (American Women's Expedition), and the first woman ever to reach the North Pole--along with three other adventurers on the first all-gal trek across the tundra of Antarctica. Most of us couldn't make it across a frozen Lake Harriet, let alone 600 miles of ice, but Bancroft, Anne Dal Vera, Sue Giller, and Sunniva Sorby prove plenty fierce under pressure, each pulling at least twice her own weight on sleds. Although much of the film is devoted to the daily hardships of working as a team in order to survive and then succeed, Poles Apart falls short in explaining the reasons behind a dramatic breakdown of group dynamics that causes tensions to run high. In any case, the guilty pleasure of a hot bath after this movie would seem well in order. The film screens along with the Mabery Award winner for best local short, "The Quiet Storm," based on the true story of a young woman who struggles to escape a violent relationship. Caroline Palmer


The Debt


This coolly efficient slice of film noir by Polish director Krzysztof Krauze begins with police fishing gruesomely disfigured corpses out of the lead-gray Vistula River. And the outward similarities to The Usual Suspects don't end there: Krauze also employs a tricky flashback structure, a labyrinthine con worthy of David Mamet, and a character who fakes a limp to allay suspicions. Whereas Suspects took masochistic glee in its bait-and-switch con of the audience, though, The Debt strikes a decidedly sourer note: The story, a cat-and-mouse game involving small-time Polish hoods and a vicious Russian mobster, becomes like a noose tightening around our necks. Krauze builds an atmosphere of pervasive dread with nervous, darting camera movements and an almost Dogme-like austerity (i.e., no music or car chases to leaven the mood). The vérité approach is justified, certainly, since the story is based in fact. But Krauze is aiming for something more than just a stylish true-crime thriller: He turns The Debt into a dark parable about the price of ambition, as well as a cautionary exemplar of Poland's currently uneasy moment. In this true story of laissez-faire capitalism gone insane, Krauze finds a metaphor for a nation that has lost its moral balance. Peter Ritter


From Opium to Chrysanthemums


In 1969, while taking pictures in the Thai Mountains near war-ravaged Laos, Swedish filmmaker Peå Holmquist came upon the courageous Hmong people of Maetho, a fertile farming village that staked its livelihood on the opium trade. Business was booming, but at a devastating price from without and within: When they weren't fending off violent drug dealers and Thai military raids, the Hmong were seized by their own crippling addiction. Thirty years later, Holmquist returned to find the village transformed under the charismatic leadership of Lao Tong, the serene hero of this compassionate and illuminating documentary. Quieted by old age and health ailments, Tong proves a disappointingly elusive interview subject, but the expansive fields of vegetables and flowers speak to his accomplishments. Other details are filled in by Holmquist and his wife, co-director Suzanne Khardalian, who weave autobiographical elements and voiceovers into an episodic look at Hmong in Southeast Asia and America, including a brief detour to their annual Spring Festival in Minneapolis. Touching on issues stemming from their torn allegiances during the war and the diminishment of women in their fiercely patriarchal society, the film covers a lot of ground geographically and thematically, which makes it seem shambling and diffuse at times. But Holmquist, who examined other persecuted and exiled peoples in Gaza Ghetto (about the plight of a Palestinian family) and Back to Ararat (about Armenian genocide during World War I), still conveys a deep respect for their unlikely triumphs and steadfast cultural integrity. Scott Tobias  




If your only previous exposure to contemporary Greek cinema has been the rarefied, Antonioniesque work of Theo Angelopoulos (Ulysses' Gaze, Landscape in the Mist), this determinedly lightweight childhood reminiscence will come as a surprise. Closer to such recent (and middling) kid-centric Spanish films as José Luis Garci's The Grandfather and José Luis Cuerda's Butterfly, writer-director Costas Kapakas's semiautobiographical debut effort is perfect festival fare for undemanding audiences who don't necessarily like to do a lot of work in order to get their cultural fix. En route to a party thrown by a boyhood friend, aviation engineer Stefanos experiences a series of rueful flashbacks to his youth in 1960s Greece. Trifling stuff like Stefanos losing his first tooth is given the same dramatic weight as a star-crossed demi-romance with cousin Marina. Not until the final act, however, does the film exert any real emotional pull, as Kapakas reverts to the present-day narrative and forces his protagonist to address how past events--and missed opportunities--have affected Stefanos's current life and made him into the glum workaholic he is today. Kapakas does a nice job of re-creating the early Sixties period (and he draws excellent performances from his child actors), but an overriding sense of déjà vu prevents this wisp of a film from ever truly sparking the imagination. Milan Paurich


His Wife's Diary


The talented-artist-as-asshole genre goes down easy with a few shots of vodka in this speculative, muckracking domestic drama about the last decades of the first Russian Nobel laureate, Ivan Bunin. It's seen through the alternately rose- and bile-colored eyes of his devoted wife Vera, who began writing a diary to prevent herself from going mad. The story begins in the pre-Nobel 1930s, as Vera, Ivan, and his mistress Galina loll about as rich, self-imposed exiles in the sunny south of France, swimming and having picnics. Galina, who is framed and photographed to appear more beautiful than Vera, provides the inspiration, while the wife cooks, cleans, and ignores the advances of another émigré author. The film is generating some controversy in Russia for portraying the choleric Bunin as a lecherous bastard who constantly mistreats his wife and descends into drunken madness after Galina leaves the ménage and takes up with a worldly lesbian in Paris. Director Alexei Uchitel does deal solely with the author's personal life--we hear little of his writing, and what we do hear isn't impressive--but in as scandalous a manner as Henry and June, with a lot less skin. More troublesome is how Uchitel uses history as background fodder, as the outside world assumes importance only when World War II turns the characters into idle poor. At this point the filmmaker's bright canvas predictably darkens, and the petty bourgeois behavior of the whole entourage becomes as crudely frustrating as his subject's has been all along. Mark Peranson


Calle 54


This beautifully shot documentary on Latin jazz in America is made up of live, private performances from a series of Latin jazz luminaries and mortared with short biographical introductions. Saxophonist Gato Barbieri crustily explains how European cinema and jazz were once symbiotic; Tito Puente gives a quick overview of Latin jazz's pillars; Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés has a five-year reunion with his brilliant son, Chucho, and their father-son piano "conversation" is the film's sweetest moment. Calle 54 has a sexy, leisurely pace, and teaches its history lessons mostly through music. For example, the African foundations of both jazz and Latin music are explained eloquently in concert: Tribal drums blend with European instruments (and two African-based dancers) in one section, while, in another, Spanish flamenco meets bebop on common rhythmic ground--magnified, again, by dancers. The film is obviously similar to Buena Vista Social Club in some ways, but certainly not in its production values, which are polished to a high sheen. The rhythmic camerawork and quick cuts can be hypnotic or distracting, depending on your tastes, but the personal interludes, narrated by director Fernando Trueba, are poetic and fascinating--and all too brief. Kate Sullivan  




What a bunch of blarney. After a young Berliner divorces, he heads west in search of greener lands and lost love. When he finds his old Irish flame, Maria, living comfortably with husband and daughter in rural Ireland, he moves in with her uncle next door, aiming to win over her family with his oddball charm and then seduce her. He even sweet-talks her husband into starting a tourist business with him and sleeps with her best friend. Then Maria's world begins to collapse as she falls for the sly German. The film itself shouldn't dupe us so easily. Connemara moves at the lax pace of its west Irish setting, its poor production values actually complimenting the depiction of an authentic old-fashioned community. Still, while the movie endeavors to capture the quaintness of Irish culture (plenty of peat digging, stout drinking, and Gaelic speaking included), it doesn't move much beyond the standard-issue tourist trash you'd find at the local all-things-Irish novelty store. Jeremy Swanson


Mummy III


The title of this Iranian Naked Gun might call to mind Brendan Fraser and some high-priced digital effects, but the movie itself suggests what a homegrown Soviet comedy circa 1975 might have looked like had it been specially tailored to the tastes of Mr. and Mrs. Brezhnev. Despite the comic potential of attempts to hijack a newly unearthed mummy, it seems the only kind of zany farce Iran's mullahs will allow involves a big-nosed cop walking into a glass door, flattening his schnozz like pizza dough. Oh yeah, and there's one other gag: A detective squeaks, "The thought of losing that mummy makes my hair stand on end!"--whereupon his hair stands on end. The rest of the movie records long scenes of dopey bumblers bumbling and pompous cops pontificating, without a comic point in sight. This Mummy is to be fled like a mad-cow Whopper with Cheese. Matthew Wilder


Angels of the Universe


If nothing else, this largely facile treatment of mental illness offers a surprising tourist's tip: The president of Iceland is so accessible, you can actually walk right up to his front door and pay him an unscheduled visit--even if you're temporarily on leave from an institution. The rest of Fridrik Thor Fridriksson's stylish melodrama, from its assortment of quirky nutcases to its indictment of psychiatric medicine and its society-as-real-asylum metaphors, is familiar from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and countless other films on the subject. The movie begins with promise, detailing a young man's tenuous grasp on reality and the slippery clinical distinctions between sanity and madness. Its hero, a gifted painter who lives with his working-class parents in Reykjavik, shows signs of unraveling when his girlfriend's bourgeois mother forces her to abruptly end their relationship. His erratic, often violent behavior lands him in a local psychiatric hospital, where he befriends a number of high-concept inmates, including a man who sends hit singles to the Beatles via telepathy, and another who believes he's Hitler. Other than the impromptu presidential visit, the film's only truly inspired scene finds the trio taking canny advantage of their institutionalized status for a luxuriant night on the town. Fridriksson, who showed a talent for the deadpan in 1994's Cold Fever, could have used more episodes like these to break from the predictable story. Then again, the less said about the film's supernatural elements, the better. Scott Tobias




Bad American films and bad European films are usually bad in very different (and possibly instructive) ways. American hack movie producers at least have the courage of their convictions--even when said convictions are limited to the inherent values of car crashes and bare tits--and their failures tend to be grandly, extravagantly awful, making no pretense to art. Their European counterparts, meanwhile, tend to labor under the impression that they're artists, and their films are, consequently, airless and dull, without even the redeeming value of lively trash entertainment. Such is the case, anyway, with this ponderous Danish entry, which, if it had any sense of humor, could almost play as a parody of European art cinema. The director, Eric Wedersøe, is an occasional collaborator of the Euro cinema's number one killjoy, Lars von Trier. His lead, Pernilla August, who plays an angst-ridden expatriate with more going on between her thighs than between her ears, is a favorite of the Grandfather of Weltschmerz, Ingmar Bergman. (August's appearance as Mother Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode I proved that she can be uninteresting on either side of the Atlantic.) The marriage of von Trier's stylistic asceticism and Bergman's navel-gazing pomposity produces, as might be expected, one very dull Dane. Some pretty European scenery can't disguise the fact that, if Anna were an American film, it would be playing on Lifetime rather than at film festivals. Peter Ritter  


Waiting for the Messiah


This Argentinean drama unfolds like some beginner's guide to being Jewish, complete with a lavish wedding, funeral, bar mitzvah, Hanukkah celebration, and even a discussion about the intricacies of circumcision. The film's lead character, Ariel Goldstein, struggles with living in an isolated Jewish community in Buenos Aires. After his mother dies, he feels as if his fate is set: He'll be expected to marry his Jewish girlfriend, to take over his father's Jewish restaurant and reception center, and to start making babies. But Ariel is determined to become a filmmaker and escape these rigid cultural confines--and falling in love with a lesbian gentile makes for a fine start. Others of the film's interesting story lines and characters, including one middle-aged banker who becomes something of a professional dumpster, can't help getting subsumed by the multiple "this is Judaism" segments. Such remedial explanations, however, take on a whole new meaning in a country such as Argentina, where many Jews were persecuted in the Seventies, and where cultural ignorance still exists. Come to think of it, maybe the film's explanations aren't so remedial in the Midwest, either. Shalom. Jeremy Swanson


Little Sister


This unfortunately titled Finnish film is nothing short of fantastic in one important and increasingly rare sense: Its lead, Vera Kiiskinen, is a true actress. She's not a star in the way we think of Julia Roberts in full Brockovich glow, or in the delectable manner of that confection Juliette Binoche. Kiiskinen is not a mouthpiece, and she's certainly not window dressing, her great beauty aside. Rather: She's a pro. One can easily imagine her fine features and quiet strength taking charge in a stage production of Sophie Treadwell's Machinal. Indeed, Kiiskinen's portrayal of Katri Ruuska, a Helsinki nurse serving the wounded in the Soviet/Finnish continuation war of the early Forties, allows Little Sister to transcend even a thin plot and an underwhelming finale. Although the story of a young widow who must choose between her soldier lover and an embittered patient is familiar to anyone who has ever seen a daytime soap opera, it's truly thrilling to watch how meticulously Kiiskinen conveys a woman's sense of need along with her equal desire for dignity and duty--and without a touch of irony. Amy Borden


ID Swiss


A kind of Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Swiss, this collection of short films by young, "New Generation" Swiss directors amounts to a fascinating consideration of the possibilities for--and difficulties of--national identity. Mostly conveying the perspectives of foreign-born, or children of foreign-born, Swiss (one-fifth of Switzerland's population is made up of foreign-born residents without citizenship), the shorts include both straight documentaries and cinematic essays that mix fictional and nonfictional modes in inventive and entertaining ways. For example, Kamal Musale's "Raclette Curry," about a mixed-race (Indian and Swiss) man's desire for a woman whose "white skin reminds me of my mother's," is a clever meditation on cross-racial desire, one that makes more of the erotic valences of food in its brief ten minutes than Chocolat does in its entire running time. The shorts are interspersed with telling statistics about the country's demographic and economic changes: After "Raclette Curry," we're told that the divorce rate for marriages between foreign-born men and Swiss women is 80 percent. These factoids make the film more than the sum of its parts and demonstrate the thoughtfulness its producers. Indeed, by employing filmmakers whose connection to Swiss identity is complicated by some other cultural affiliation, ID Swiss succeeds in denaturalizing Swiss identity itself--and, in so doing, it offers a vision of multiracial, post-national identity that's more than relevant to the U.S. experience as well. Derek Nystrom


Flowers From Another World


In this pleasant Spanish drama directed by Iciar Bollain, three women from different walks of life find love and sorrow among the men of a rural Spanish village. They arrive as part of a large caravan of single ladies who are there for the annual bachelor festival, an event created by the mayor to deal with the lack of eligible women for the town's many widowed and otherwise available men. (The plot is almost identical to that of Herman, USA.) The film follows the three women's ensuing relationships over the course of a year: Patricia, a Dominican immigrant with two children, marries Alfonso, who still lives with his hostile mother; Milady, a flirtatious young Cuban, hooks up with a jealous older man who's having a hard time accepting his advancing age; and Marirrosi, an urban professional, carries on a long-distance relationship with the festival's organizer. This could easily have turned into cloying, romantic fluff, but it doesn't, thanks to the nicely understated script (co-written by Bollain and novelist Julio Llamazares) and the fine ensemble performances. Under Bollain's direction, the movie attains a natural, bittersweet quality without resorting to forced sentimentality--an approach undoubtedly influenced by her experiences as an actress with directors such as Ken Loach and the great Victor Erice. Reece Pendleton  




Boys will be boys and girls will be mysterious objects of desire in this overly familiar school-days dramedy from Germany (not to be confused with the Dutch Crazy, reviewed above)--a film that should appeal to former frat boys who still remember those carefree days when their innocence was on the brink of being sullied. Benni, the handicapped hero who narrates in voiceover, is bad at math and has always been unpopular with both sexes. Attending a new countryside boarding school, the sullen boy perks up once his punkish roommate Janosch accepts him into a ridiculously individuated clique that also includes a fat kid, a budding homosexual dandy, and a mute bedwetter. With his touchy-feely bonhomie and constant opportunities for reckless adventures (sexy sex-ed teacher, strip clubs, tequila, rock 'n' roll--yeah!), Benni experiences the school as "a beautiful cage with bars of gold." His parents go through a messy separation, and he and Janosch fall for the same leggy girl, foreshadowing their even more complicated future. I'd have considered this simplistic story and its lame, earnest telling to be deeply profound if I had written it when I was 16--so it's no surprise that Crazy is based on a best-selling autobiographical novel. Mark Peranson


Porno Film


The collected works of Dirk Diggler have more professionalism per inch than this Slovene slide into the skin trade: There may be an ickier romantic comedy on record, but damned if I can think of it. A bunch of Slovene hooligans decide that the way out of their rut is to make a porno flick; they hold auditions, and the sensitive guy of the bunch, who resembles "Weird" Al Yankovic with a worse coiffure, falls in love with a Russian "actress." The movie consists largely of the Weird Al guy mooning at the Russian girl, who smiles at him uncomprehendingly. Those who are extremely lenient may see a kinship between Porno Film and the bleaksville comedies of the Finnish Aki Kaurismaki. Those who are less lenient may note that, probably because of a shortage of money and time, this may be the only romantic comedy assembled entirely out of master shots. (Suffice it to say that the stylistic palettes of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Sleepless in Seattle don't really work in conjunction.) Like an actual porno film, Porno Film features a static camera grinding away as amateur actors take long pauses and look frightened. In its loutish literalness, it's a movie that suggests a Nora Ephron screenplay directed by Sergeant Schultz of Hogan's Heroes. Matthew Wilder


Little Cheung


Completing Hong Kong director Fruit Chan's 1997-set "handover trilogy" (which also includes Made in Hong Kong and The Longest Summer--not to mention the semi-sequel Durian Durian), this riff on the hardships of lower-class living in HK's Triad-spotted slum of Mongkok is the filmmaker's most laid-back and finest accomplishment to date. It follows the cocky seven-year-old restaurant delivery boy of the title as he hangs out with his Filipina housemaid, a young dishwasher who's an illegal immigrant from the mainland, and his grandmother, who loves to watch old films starring the boy's namesake, Cantonese opera star Brother Cheung. As the eponymous ne'er-do-well hero, Yiu Yeut-Ming gives a truly courageous performance, one that peaks when Little Cheung is forced by his tyrannical father to stand perched on a pillar in the rain, sans pants, as punishment for trying to run away from home. While urinating, he belts out a song popularized by Brother Cheung, as the scene finalizes the restlessness of the city's population around the imminent territorial handover to China. Plaintive nods to political questions of Chinese identity notwithstanding, Chan's range of focus is narrower than usual--and this may be exactly what he needed to make his most holistic film: a cinematic bildungsroman that magically mixes comedy and sadness and hangs together for supremely touching effect. Mark Peranson  


Women's Paradise


Resembling a Muslim City of Women, this Uzbek comedy opens with a writer, academic, and notorious womanizer dangling on the ledge of an apartment complex, while, inside his mistress's room, his wife gives birth to their son to the strains of Beethoven's Ninth. The death of his oldest, closest friend reawakens the writer's conflicted and tormented feelings toward his friend's widow, whom he sees while caught in an exotic dream world of beautiful, available women. First-time director Yusup Rasykov alternates between beguiling landscapes that invoke Sergei Paradjanov and the cramped, surreal entrapment of Federico Fellini. Like his protagonist, the director has an eye for beauty, and the movie is studded with spellbinding images. Unfortunately, Women's Paradise doesn't work as well in narrative terms: Rasykov lacks the sense of rhythm, space, and movement to deepen the action and the characterizations. But as the illustration of a time, place, and culture unknown to most of us, the film has moments of both subtlety and trenchant observation. Rasykov will appear in person to introduce each of the two screenings. Patrick McGavin


Horace Parlan by Horace Parlan


The premise of this hourlong documentary is simple: Jazz pianist Horace Parlan--who, in addition to compiling his own distinguished catalog, has played with the likes of Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon, Archie Shepp, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk--performs some original compositions at his Danish country home and talks about his life and his music. Both subjects are fascinating. Polio struck Parlan when he was five years old, leaving his right hand paralyzed at an awkward angle from the wrist and restricting the use of his fingers; a creative piano instructor taught him how to compensate with unorthodox left-hand techniques. But instead of diving into a de rigueur account of an artist conquering a disability, Parlan merely cites the facts and moves on--his physical limitations obviously aren't a big deal to him, and thus they aren't to the film, either. He'd rather reflect on the influence of Vladimir Horowitz and Bud Powell; the genesis of Blue Note Records; and memories of the New York jazz scene of the Fifties and Sixties, where he and Mingus once interrupted a set and began playing chess onstage in order to reclaim the attention of a particularly distracted audience. Best of all, there's Parlan's playing: precise, subtle, and inventive, with more than a few nods to the blues. Director (and Minneapolis native) Don McGlynn will appear in person to introduce the film, which will be followed by another McGlynn doc, The Legend of Teddy Edwards (reviewed on p. 15). John Pribek


The Atlas Moth


Comparisons to Spin¨al Tap notwithstanding, Dark Horse frontman Dan Cleveland has no foil-wrapped cucumber to unzip for us--just a delusional optimism that we could all use as a survival tool. About halfway through this moving and hilarious sequel to the nonfiction heavy-metal portrait Driver 23, Cleveland offhandedly remarks that his singing is better than Madonna's, his point being that successful songwriting involves something more than talent. The comparison is interesting, and not only because Truth or Dare ranked right above Driver 23 in this paper's all-time rockumentary Top 10. Madonna's creative mania derives from an acute awareness of her spectacle; Cleveland's spectacle derives from an acute lack of awareness of his creative mania. He knows he has problems, at least. And the hobbies of his sidemen--bassist Sean Cassidy breeds moths, drummer Jonathan Mortenson photographs nature--indicate the reserves of patience required to follow an obsessive-compulsive visionary. (When Cleveland fusses interminably over a recording glitch, the sleepy-eyed Mortenson deadpans to the camera: "Sooner or later we'll work this out.") Credit the similar persistence of director Rolf Belgum for giving us a "II" worthy of Led Zeppelin or The Godfather--for offering, to quote the best Dark Horse song, "Variations on an Ancient Theme." Peter S. Scholtes




A richly textured human comedy about counterculture hangover in mid-Seventies Stockholm, director Lukas Moodysson's followup to his exceptionally sweet Show Me Love could be the Swedish cousin to The Ice Storm, only without that film's heavy moral foreboding. Acerbically funny yet disarmingly tender and generous in spirit, Together takes place in a hippie commune long after such utopian endeavors have fallen out of fashion. But being fashionable was never the point for its vaguely Marxist residents, who forsake their individual needs for the good of the patchwork collective. Sharing everything from domestic chores and vegetarian meals to sexual partners, these Swedish peaceniks have the noblest of intentions, although human nature dictates an opposing agenda. Long-gestating tensions begin to bubble over when the de facto leader adds his sister and her two children to the already teeming household. As in The Ice Storm, the kids are left to fend for themselves, and they're markedly more mature than the adults, not to mention more politically savvy: Fed up with the living conditions, they draw up placards and protest for their right to consume meat and television. Poking holes in rigid ideology seems too easy and even a little cruel, but Moodysson isn't a misanthrope; on the contrary, he embraces his characters in all their fallibility. With warmth and bracing humor, Together suggests that healthy families of any variety are built on compromised values. Scott Tobias  


101 Reykjavik


To call this scroungy, sexy black comedy the funniest movie to come out of Iceland all year sounds like a flip dismissal. But 101 Reykjavik is a worthy addition to slackers-of-other-lands cinema, thanks largely to Hilmir Snaer Gudnason's lead performance as Hlynur, a perpetual dweeb who collects disability checks so that he can beat off to workout tapes in his mom's apartment. (Slack transcends all cultures.) For the Christmas holidays, his mother's friend (played by Almodóvar hottie Victoria Abril) shows up to stay, and the resulting one-night stand jolts Hlynur out of his stupor. But to the defrosted Icelander's dismay, the houseguest also stirs the passions of a far more alluring rival: his own mom. An actor making his directorial debut, Baltasar Kormakur has a wicked sense of the time-killing debauchery of Reykjavik nightlife, as well as familial tension: The mother's coming-out scene, played off Hlynur's dumbfounded incomprehension, is a real beaut. And as a bonus, the engagingly odd score by Blur's Damon Albarn and the Sugarcubes' Einar Orn Benediktsson features what sounds like the Kinks' "Lola" played on a security alarm. Jim Ridley

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