MOVIES | Your guide to the 2010 Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival (Part 1)


The festival is upon us. Just when the weather is getting good, MSPIFF pulls me back in! To the dark, cavernous recesses of St. Anthony Main, that is.

If you haven’t listened to the interviews Jim Brunzell and I conducted with MSPIFF programmers Ryan Oestreich and Linda Blackaby, do so. After you’ve had your fill of audio interviews, please allow me to perhaps make your moviegoing decisions a tad easier. With more than 140 films for this year’s festival to choose from, there’s something for everyone.

There’s already been some debate about what makes a good festival, and whether or not screening such a vast number of films in a relatively small film community is a good or bad thing. Colin Colvert, over at the Star Tribune, asked several people close to the local film scene: what makes a good festival? I second Daniel Getahun’s opinions on his blog and appreciated Kathie Smith’s thoughts as well. Also, make sure to check out some more reviews over at Switchblade Comb.

The following concerns all films playing in week one of the festival (April 15 to April 22). My guide to week two will be out next week. (Jim Brunzell has another take on the week one offerings.) Before I get in to my wordier reviews, though, a few films I’ve yet to see but plan to check out on the big screen this week:

The opening night film, Max Manus, looks epic and thrilling; the Indonesian film The Forbidden Door will be the first of the late-night film screenings, which all seem to fall under the banner of genre mash-up; For the Love of Movies is the perfect film for me, a documentary about the history of film criticism; Australian thriller The Square, accompanied by the funny and tense short film Spider from the same filmmaker; Ken Loach’s latest Looking for Eric, which looks more lighthearted and fun than his typical fare. Rounding out the rest of week one, I want to see The Oath, Mid-August Lunch, Leo’s Room, and Skeletons.

I also want to mention some films I’ve seen, but won’t review in full for various reasons. Some I reviewed for the Star Tribune or other publications, and others Jim is taking care of. The best film I’ve seen so far from the festival is the beautiful and poetic Alamar (To the Sea), a film you have to see on the big screen for the visuals alone. Cooking History is a wonderful documentary that plays like an extended episode of This American Life; I love how cinematic this film is. Claire Denis’s moving and simple ode to family and moving on, 35 Shots of Rum, is required viewing for lovers of French cinema—actually, for lovers of all cinema. If you missed Garbage Dreams at last month’s Arab Film Festival, you can make up for that. Last, but certainly not least, is the wonderfully low-budget musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, a film so alive with cinematic verve and DIY spirit it made me forget I typically hate musicals. If you missed it at last year’s Sound Unseen Film Festival, remedy that mistake. Make sure to check out my interview with the filmmaker Damien Chazelle.

More information and tickets are available for all the films at the MSPIFF Web site.

Go Go 70s
I love South Korean cinema, but this one just didn’t do it for me. It’s not terrible, but it suffers from a problem typical of many South Korean films: it’s way too long. Director Ho Choi clearly loves his subject, the Devils, a real-life 70s rock band that made it big after entering a contest in Seoul, but he needs an editor to make some tough cuts. The musical scenes are fun, but again, there’s way too many. After a while, they begin to blend in to one another, becoming indistinguishable and exhausting when they should be fun and electric.

The Secret of Kells
This tiny Irish animated gem found itself in the limelight after receiving a surprising Oscar nomination this year for Best Animated Feature alongside such titans as Up, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Coraline, and The Princess and the Frog. Ultimately it lost to Up (not exactly a shocker, given the consistently high quality of Pixar films), but the nomination should be seen as a victory in itself. Tomm Moore does what any good filmmaker should with a children’s story: make it quality viewing for people of any age. He also steeps the film in ancient Irish folklore and mythology. The story is about a young boy on a quest to gather green berries to complete the Book of Kells. Apparently a sequel is already in the works, called The Song of the Sea.

Red, White & Blue
British director Simon Rumley looks like a promising talent. This film, another of the late-night selections, is a slow burn. Is the journey worth the destination? I’m not totally sure, but I am curious to see the film again to see if it works on multiple viewings, which I suspect it will. Either way, it will play well in the later show time. Following two story lines—a promiscuous woman (played with the right amount of coldness and not-too-pretty looks by Amanda Fuller) sleeps around with seemingly anyone willing; an indie rock band on the cusp of some success—that we know will come together even if they appear disparate for most of the running time. (The opening scene is a huge clue, though.) Rumley’s great sense of location is key in the city of Austin, providing the right backdrop for this grungy tale. I can’t forget to mention character actor Noah Taylor, who you may or may not remember from Almost Famous. He’s creepy as hell here as the neighbor who takes an interest in Fuller’s character. Rumley also soaks the film in a sense of oncoming dread. We know the shit’s going to hit the fan eventually, and when it does, be prepared to avert your eyes once or twice. As I write this I already like the film more, so take that for what it’s worth.

Air Doll
I’ve heard for years now about director Hirokazu Koreeda. His film Still Walking made many top ten lists for 2009. He’s one of Japan’s top directors, but Air Doll is the first film of his I’ve seen. I shouldn’t have waited so long. We all have our cinematic blind spots. Koreeda is no longer on mine. After Air Doll, I’m queuing up all his available works on Netflix to go through his oeuvre (some of which are available on Watch Instant). Koreeda has a wonderful eye and unique sensibility, giving the film a touch of whimsy and delight while also exploring the harsh realities of loneliness and what it means to be alive. Part fantasy, part science fiction, and also tragedy; all of the parts work. The film is about a lifesize sex doll that suddenly and inexplicably becomes alive, with a soul. The surreal images and plot are handled so smoothly that you may forget you’re watching a fantasy. Koreeda treats his characters fairly, showing them realistically for who they are without making fun. A wonderful film.

The Taqwacores
Eyad Zahra’s fish-out-of-water tale has its heart in the right place, but is too didactic too much of the time. I give it points for telling a story I’ve never seen before. While studying in Buffalo, straight-as-an-arrow Yusef moves in to a party house full of Muslim misfits. They are part of Taqwacore, the hardcore Muslim punk rock scene. The film works when it’s showing this subculture in all its filth and fury. Not so much when the characters tell us what Zahra clearly wants the audience to think (on-the-nose lines like these are in abundance: “I’m too wrapped up in my mix-matching of disenfranchised subcultures”). The passion to tell a new story is there, but the final result is melodramatic and preachy.

The Good Heart
Wow. This is the kind of film that can turn you off to film festivals altogether. I rarely say this, especially when it comes to independent cinema, but I have to in this case: avoid this film at all costs. It’s pure hokum. If you’re a film student researching your dissertation on the most annoying tropes in American independent cinema of the last decade, then see it. Maybe. But you’ve been warned. I can’t believe that two well-respected actors (Paul Dano, Brian Cox) got tricked in to being in this thing. Why did I hate this film so much? There’s not enough space in this post for that, so I’ll list a few of the most glaring pieces of nonsense: Cox’s speech about broccoli being the incarnation of a fart (yep you read that right); storylines and characters that show up out of nowhere and for no good reason; the entire tired, clichéd plotline of an old cranky man wanting to leave his bar to a down-on-his-luck street urchin; the relationships aren’t developed at all; the characters are two-dimensional pieces of cardboard; and the ending. Oh my God, the ending! Predictable and sentimental crap! I guess I can recommend this film to masochists. Prepare for a head-slapping good time.