Do you hear that? It’s coming from behind you. You’ve perked up in your seat as your eyes have adjusted to the lights dimming in the dark theater and the film projector has just been turned on. It’s the sound of a 35mm film print being lassoed onto a platter, and soon enough, images and music will be seen and heard as the words will appear on screen welcoming you to the 28th annual Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF).
From April 15-30, Minnesota Film Arts will be presenting 140+ films from 50 countries at its new year-round venue, St. Anthony Main Theatre. The films’ countries of origin range from Albania to Uruguay (sorry, no Yugoslavia or Zimbabwe, but there’s always next year). MSPIFF has been bringing films to the Twin Cities that may never again be seen in multiplexes, second-run theaters, Netflix, Redbox, Hulu, or DVD—and for that, every cinephile and film buff should appreciate. Festival Director Al Milgrom has always had a good eye for film—not only for the past 28 years of MSPIFF, but since 1962 when the University Film Society first began.
Needless to say, Milgrom has done another damn fine job, along with co-programmer Linda Blackaby, festival coordinator/late-night programmer Ryan Oestriech, publicist Dan Murphy, print traffic coordinator Jesse Bishop, and the countless others in MFA’s office. Milgrom told me, “After weeks and months of hard work from a dedicated staff, I hope it all pays off because I feel we have one of the all-around strongest programs, internationally, in years, not to mention the Minnesota-made shorts and features. This is a chance for once-in-a-lifetime enlightenment, and fun is here for the asking.” So with the 28th annual festival this year, MSPIFF will be showcasing some of the top-flight films making the festival circuit: films that you’ll remember seeing at MSPIFF, films that you’ll always have the memory of seeing on the big screen and not on your computer.
Speaking of watching films on your computer, it’s always a pleasure watching and reviewing films for the Twin Cities Daily Planet, but many of the 35 films I’ve seen prior to the opening night film (the Norwegian historical epic Max Manus) being projected at MSPIFF, I had to watch on my computer. Not that I’m complaining, but nothing beats being transfixed looking at a big screen. Over the next fifteen days, there is plenty to feast the senses, and here is a sample of some of the films screening during the first week. (For another take on the first week’s films, see Erik McClanahan’s preview feature.)
The Spanish prison drama Cell 211 is a riveting piece of filmmaking with a contemporary story about prisoners revolting against the man. The story is as old as fire, with a clever twist: as new prison guard Juan (Alberto Ammann) is getting a tour of the prison, the day before he is supposed to start working there, when a prison riot breaks out and Juan is thrown into the recently unoccupied cell 211. When the riot turns into a hostage situation, Juan must pose as an inmate in order to help the men who have been held hostage. When Marmalade, or “Badass” (Luis Tosar), the so-called leader of the prison, takes a shine to Juan, the two work together to form an alliance to helping the prisoners get their demands. The first half of Cell 211 explores a new way of looking at the correctional system and questions what rights prisoners have, no matter what they have done. The film comes close to becoming a solid masterpiece, but a few farfetched scenarios are thrown in, making it a bit implausible toward the end. Nevertheless, the camera work is flawless and there are terrific performances from both leads, especially Tosar’s hyperkinetic Marmalade. As the ringleader of this motley crew, Tosar is a funny and frightening overlord whose voice alone is scary; he’s a believable anti-hero and you almost ending up rooting for him, even though he’d cut you at the first opportunity.
From Iceland, Oskar Jonasson’s suspense thriller Reykjavik-Rotterdam keeps you on the edge of your seat with its pacing and superb intrigue. Kristofer (Baltasar Kormakur, normally a director, in the lead role and co-writing) is trying to leave behind his criminal career and lead a normal life with his wife and kids. However, Kristofer is roped back into a smuggling expedition by his friend Steingrimur (Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson from Jar City), who knows more then he’s letting on. On the way to Rotterdam, things go amiss and Kristofer gets deeper into an involving mystery that seems to be put together by Steingrimur. Reykjavik-Rotterdam has the standard thriller elements of double crossings, misdirection, shady characters (especially in Rotterdam), and even has time to throw in a brilliant heist scene for good measure. After a slow start, Reykjavik-Rotterdam turns up the suspense in the second half, including a wonderfully executed diversion involving members of the cargo ship and the ship’s captain. A U.S. remake of the film is already in the works with Mark Wahlberg attached and Kormakur writing and directing the U.S. version, so catch the original first.
From one form of transportation to another, Canadian/Chinese director Lixin Fin’s cinema verite film Last Train Home shot is an eye-opening documentary of epic proportions. Every spring over 130 million migrant workers in China travel home, taking trains, boats, and buses, during Chinese New Year to visit their families. The beautiful opening shot of hundreds of people standing in the rain with different colored umbrellas is something out of a 60s musical, and seeing these people rush to the train terminals in what is considered the world’s largest human migration is mesmerizing. With no narration setting up the story, we follow the Zhang family who had to leave behind their daughter and son 16 years earlier to go work in the city as garment workers, but we also follow daughter Qin, now a teenager, who has some hostility toward her parents for leaving her with their elderly parents. Really not knowing her own parents, Qin has no interest in following her parents in leaving home to work and following family tradition. Last Train Home is a visual stunner (give credit to Fix, who also served as editor and cinematographer) with its natural beauty from the outdoors of the city to the village of the Zhang elders, giving us a provocative fly-on-the-wall perspective. Few documentaries these days invite viewers in to such a delicate setting; the haunting feeling of a family’s triumphs and struggles hits close to home.
The theme of leaving behind loved ones comes to the forefront in writer/director Tanya Hamilton’s exceptional debut feature Night Catches Us, which features two of the best performances in early 2010. Marcus (Anthony Mackie from The Hurt Locker) and Patricia (the always underrated Kerry Washington) have been reunited in 1976 Philadelphia as Marcus has returned to bury his father and to make peace with his past. He left under strange circumstances, yet everyone in town knows exactly why he left. Marcus was part of the Black Panthers movement and wants to reconnect with Patricia, who now has a daughter and wants to move on. The story progresses as Patricia’s brother Jimmy gets in trouble with local hood “DoRight” (Jamie Hector, who magnificently portrayed Marlo Stanfield on HBO’s The Wire), who still follows the Black Panthers code and is far from a friend of Marcus’s. Hamilton’s story flows naturally, capturing a time not far removed from ours; it has the courage to bring us back in time to settle a score that slowly reveals its true nature. With a musical score from the Roots, Night Catches Us ignites into a thought-provoking film about ghosts from the past and what lies ahead.
The title of Zero hits it right on the head. This Polish Slacker/Crash clone follows an endless number of characters who are all interlinked within multiple storylines; unfortunately, none of them really gel or give you much reason to care for any of them. While many may like the idea of following numerous people with overlapping storylines, Zero wore me down by dragging its sliver of an idea far too long. Although Zero has some interesting camera shots and editing choices, the main reason to go check out the film is the fact that director Pawel Borowski and Producer Lukasz Dzieciol will be present at both screenings; apparently, they are driving across the country bringing the film to different festivals this spring. Personally, I think putting a camera on these two and following them around the country would make for a more fascinating story than following secretaries, doctors, criminals, and couples acting in a film with no real purpose other than to continually bump into others.
A few other films I’ve seen that are worth your time and money during the opening week are:
The Wind Journeys from Columbia, about a man and young boy traveling together to return an accordion to its original owner; it features outstanding music and weaves a tender friendship between the two leads. Air Doll by the great Japanese director Hirokazu Kor-reda (Still Walking, Nobody Knows, After Life) is a sci-fi romance as a Japanese man’s sex doll comes to life and explores the world herself. It sounds strange but is eerily beautiful and gives a new meaning to the word “love.” In the late-night series, the UK/USA co-production Red, White & Blue is not for everyone but left an impression on me. Director Simon Rumley’s moody take on the American malaise deserves points for its audacity and for Noah Taylor’s creepy performance of a man who falls for an unstable woman and what risks he is willing to take, going off the deep end to protect her. There is some extreme sexual material and graphic violence that does qualify as shocking in my book and should be taken into consideration. You’ve been warned!
The soon-to-be sleeper hit of the festival, Mid-August Lunch, which I’ve been enthusiastically vocal about since I saw it last May in Seattle, finally reaches the Twin Cities. Writer/director/star Gianni Di Gregorio’s charming film where he is responsible for watching four elderly women during the big holiday celebration is incredibly funny and never slows down during its all-too-short 75-minute running time. This is a must-see, and it’s only screening once.
Here are a few titles I’ve not seen but are looking forward to over the first week.
- The Forbidden Door, from Indonesia, is part of the late-night series and it’s advertised as being for “admirers of director David Cronenberg…a homage to thrillers from [the] 1950s.” Sounds like a winning combination to me.
- The Square, from Australia, has had nothing but great reviews since last year’s SXSW. It’s a twist-filled neo-noir that Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain would be proud of. Writer and Star Joel Edgerton will be present at its only screening.
- From Oscar nominee Laura Poitras (My Country, My Country) comes her latest documentary, The Oath, focusing on two brothers-in-law who discuss their involvement in Al-Qaeda in the mid-90’s and their connection to Osama bin Laden.
- Lastly, you can’t go wrong with the two Minnesota shorts programs featuring new work from local directors Sam Thompson, Melody Gilbert, Dominic Howes, Justin Pierre, Philip Harder, and Eric D. Howell—represented by his prize-winning short Ana’s Playground.
Well, that concludes the list of first-week offerings but in a few days I’ll be writing about some of the highlights in the second week of the festival including: The Bone Man from Austria, Northless from Mexico, The Revenant from USA, and The Misfortunates from Belgium.