MOVIES | Idiots, angels, and a (very) big man in Japan: Beyond Borders Film Festival highlights


From March 25, through March 29, the Beyond Borders Film Festival will showcase a variety of international films, many not yet screened in the Twin Cities, at the recently renovated Parkway Theater. Here are seven of the most interesting.

Big Man Japan

My father had this funny way of describing movies that he didn’t quite get. “That was just bizarre,” he would say. The Japanese film Big Man Japan (part of Magnet’s Six Shooter Series, would have left my father speechless. To call it bizarre wouldn’t do this film justice. It’s playing Saturday at 11:30—a perfect midnight movie.

also in the daily planet, read ellen frazel’s feature on the beyond borders film festival. once you’ve seen the films, come back to rate them and share your thoughts.

I can’t remember laughing this hard in a long time. The weirdly hilarious mockumentary is about Daisato, speaking to a documentary film crew about his mundane life. He complains about his salary, his estrangement from his wife and daughter, and his aging, Alzheimer-afflicted grandfather. His life would seem unremarkable, save for the fact that his job involves transforming into a giant and battling the many monsters out to destroy Japan.

Full of many terrific gags—one of which involves Daisato’s agent branding him with sponsor advertisements all over his body—and an assortment of memorable creatures (two words: stink monster), this deadpan spin on the giant Japanese superhero and Japanese monster movie classics is directed by and starring one of Japan’s superstar comedians. The final 10 minutes alone are worth the price of admission. It’s just bizarre.

Idiots and Angels / Hot Dog

Hot Dog is a funny short; it’s Bill Plympton’s second sequel to his 2003 Oscar-nominated animated short, Guard Dog. Here the hero dog goes to work for the fire department, and chaos, as always, ensues. It will directly follow the 10:30 p.m. Friday screening of Idiots and Angels, Plympton’s fifth feature.

Idiots and Angels is a cool little cartoon noir/black comedy featuring wonderful music from Tom Waits and Pink Martini. I love the Web site’s one-line description for the film: this asshole guy wakes up one morning to find wings sprouting out of his back that make him do good deeds, and he doesn’t like it.

About the film’s origin, Plympton has said: “The first recollection I have of the concept was an event in 2005, when I was walking with a student at the Lille Short Film Festival in France, and he asked me what my next feature would be about. I declared, off-handedly, that it would be about an angel who didn’t want his wings, and as we discussed the idea, I really got to like the concept. That night, in my hotel room, I started to explore the dramatic possibilities of a reluctant angel.

Idiots would only have music and sound effects, no dialogue at all. My new short film Shuteye Hotel was a short rehearsal, an experiment done in the new style of Idiots and Angels. Because this film has no dialogue, I wanted music to play throughout—almost like a long opera, or an extended string of music videos. The look of the film is very Eastern European—something like what Jan Svankmayer might make, or David Lynch if he made animation. Very dark and surreal.”

Plympton’s artwork is awesome, like some kind of deranged moving Edward Hopper painting. I noticed similar animation styles in the French animated short compilation Fears of the Dark and the Kill Bill Vol.1 anime chapter. The shading and texture looks like a combination of rough pencil sketching with watercolors. I also love the details in the close-ups.

Sita Sings the Blues

Sita is a goddess separated from her beloved Lord and husband Rama. Nina is an animator whose husband moves to India, then dumps her by e-mail. Three hilarious shadow puppets narrate both ancient tragedy and modern comedy in this beautifully animated interpretation of the Indian epic Ramayana. Set to the 1920s jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw, Sita Sings the Blues is a gem.

The use of the jazz songs is the real stroke of genius here, but I love Paley’s use of form as well. She juggles three separate narrative strands wonderfully, telling a story that is obviously personal and yet wholly universal. The different animation styles help separate the stories and also add to the film’s immense charm.

Art & Copy

Documentarian Doug Pray’s most recent effort, Art & Copy, screened at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. His subjects are typically people in creative fields, and this entertaining documentary is no different.

Art & Copy reveals the stories behind and the personal odysseys of some of the most influential advertising visionaries of our time and their campaigns, including Lee Clow (Apple Computer 1984, and today’s iPod); Dan Wieden (“Just Do It”); Phyllis K. Robinson (who invented the “me generation” with Clairol); Hal Riney (who helped President Reagan get re-elected); and George Lois (who saved MTV and launched Tommy Hilfiger overnight).

Pray captures the creative energy and passion behind the iconic campaigns that have had a profound impact on American culture. I personally wanted a more insightful and probing look at advertising, but nonetheless, I enjoyed the film, which seeks to identify the elements that transform a slogan into a pop culture catch phrase. This is essentially an ad for advertising, and I guess that’s fine.

The only other work I’ve seen from Pray is Scratch, and I gather he’s good at interviewing his subjects even if he’s more interested in celebrating them than asking tougher, more interesting questions. I do like how Pray fashions the film’s style according to the subject matter—here he manipulates the viewer and segues between scenes like the 30-second commercials being discussed. The film is a well-timed rally for what’s great about advertising in this most dire of times for the industry.


I saw this fantastic Austrian film way back in September 2008 at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was quite possibly the best film I saw there, and one of the best of 2008 (though it narrowly missed my Top 10). Since then, Revanche has gone on to be nominated for an Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film, though it lost out to Japanese entry Departures. The film will have its Twin Cities premiere at the Beyond Borders Film Festival. This was the real grab of this festival, not to be missed.

The opening shot is of a calm pond reflecting the woods. This calm is disturbed as something splashes in the water, a hint of what is to come. Revanche (a French/German term meaning both revenge and second chance) is a complex film that asks us to change sympathies with several characters and question who is doing the right thing. There are no easy answers, but the questions are fascinating, realistic, and engrossing.

Writer/director Spielmann tells the story of Tamara (Irina Potapenko), a Ukrainian prostitute, and Alex (Johannes Krisch), her boss’s errand boy. They are in love, but must keep their relationship a secret, as employees are forbidden from romantic involvement. Believing life has more to offer, they want out of their difficult work situation. Alex devises a plan to rob a small bank, but Tamara refuses to let him do it alone. She insists on coming along and sitting in the car while Alex pulls it off. Suffice it to say, the robbery does not go as planned and the film’s true narrative and themes arise during the 45-minute setup.

This is a film that works best if you know very little about it going in. The setup might seem a bit long, but the payoff makes clear that it’s all necessary. The best comparison I can think of is Todd Field’s In the Bedroom. Like that film, the narrative takes a sharp turn to a completely different place after a lengthy buildup and a big event that changes the lives of the main characters. This is a film of two halves.

With almost every detail of plot and character, Spielmann avoids going the obvious route. He takes what has become a tired trend in recent cinema and takes it to a new level. With its character overlapping and coincidences, I was worried this would be another Babel or Crash—but no, Revanche does not go down those roads. It’s amazing how bad this film could have been in the wrong hands, but Spielmann makes it all work. I look forward to discovering more of his work.


The festival’s finale will close out BBFF with a real treat. Sugar, the new film from Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck—the directors of the 2006 hit Half Nelson, a wonderful film in which star Ryan Gosling received and Oscar nomination for his performance as a crack-addicted junior high teacher—will be present for a Q&A following the film.

The film is about Miguel “Sugar” Santos, a talented baseball hopeful who journeys from a poverty-stricken village in the Dominican Republic to a minor league farm team in rural Iowa. Once there, he struggles with the language barrier, cultural differences and a growing sense of isolation, despite the well-meaning efforts of his host family. When he starts to falter on the mound, Santos questions the single-mindedness of his ambition, something that began as a drive to lift his family out of poverty. Shot on location in the Dominican Republic, Arizona, Iowa, and New York City, the film is an unconventional look at one immigrant’s story and a refreshing take on the baseball movie.

If you’re a baseball fan you’ll love the story and the way Boden and Fleck nail most of the details of the sport and the struggles of the minor league hierarchy. Most of the game action looks legit. It’s very refreshing to see a sports film that cast actors who actually look like they’ve played before. The directors also steer clear of the melodramatic trappings inherent in nearly all baseball movies. As in Half Nelson, they avoid the potential after-school-specialness of the subject matter. This is another film at BBFF where the final shot is a real winner, though it pulls no punches.

“We were less interested in the stories of the superstar Dominican players we’ve all heard of,” says Fleck in the press notes. “We wanted to know the stories of the guys that you’ve never heard of and you never will hear of.”

“It’s not a typical story about someone trying to make good and lead the team to a championship,” adds Boden. “It’s about a person trying to adjust to a totally new world. It’s a new take on the immigrant experience.”

Erik McClanahan is a freelance film journalist and critic in Minneapolis. He is also co-host of KFAI’s Movie Talk.

The Twin Cities Daily Planet is a media sponsor of the Beyond Borders Film Festival.