Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival begins: The best films so far, and picks for the rest of the fest

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MSPIFF is off to a rousing start. The sold-out opening night film, The Intouchables, a French comedy, had people chatting at the post-party, with many commenting that it was a definite crowd-pleaser and wondering when the film will return to the Twin Cities. The Intouchables opens in New York and Los Angeles in late May, so a return to the Twin Cities would probably happen in early to mid-June, but will it play at a Landmark Theatre or can the Film Society bring back the hit film for a weeklong run at St. Anthony Main?

That is only one of the many questions about the 250+ films at MSPIFF: “Will this be my only opportunity to see this film during MSPIFF, or will this film show up later in the year or after the festival is over?” It’s different with each title, but I’d say about 75% of these films will not return to the Twin Cities again. Many will find homes on the festival circuit for the next year or two, before slowly making their ways back to their respective producers, directors, and/or distributors and will neve be seen or heard from again. So if there is a title you want to see and you’re a bit indecisive about going or not, go. Chances are, you may never see it again.

One of the titles I caught during MSPIFF’s opening weekend, the horror omnibus feature V/H/S, will be returning to the Twin Cities—but not until October, and I hope I never lay eyes on the film or another VHS cassette tape ever again. It was reported at the world premiere screening at Sundance this past January that a woman passed out during the movie, but I’m not positive whether she fainted because she was truly scared or because the shaky camera/strobe light effect throughout the entire film had something to do with it. But after the screening, I thought I needed my eyes checked after the constant flickering, dizziness, and frankly, annoying aesthetic of cutting, fading, interjecting different grainy VHS sequences into the hi-def footage, and shooting the actual scenes in mostly herky-jerky style. The movie doesn’t bring anything terrifying to the found-footage genre, and slowly I went from being unimpressed to being bored to, finally, just finding the whole thing tedious. I did go in with high expectations of V/H/S, and the film has earned some decent reviews since its Sundance premiere, so why I didn’t like it? I like most of the young-blood directors involved with the omnibus set-up, including Ti West (The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers) and Adam Wingard (the little-seen and underrated A Horrible Way to Die). Bringing eight directors to the project might have created a “too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrome, but the film never got its hooks in me and I left unscathed—unlike most of the cast.

The charming if somewhat repetitive French animated film Tales of the Night was a nice change of pace; having the “Childish” film in the festival was a perfect touch. The Childish part of the program always offers some nice surprises, with titles that mostly travel on the festival circuit and rarely find any type of DVD/video deals after years on the road. The good news for Tales of the Night is that it does have an American distributor and will most likely come back to the Twin Cities upon its national theatrical release. That’s TBD at the moment, but director Michel Ocelot, making six short films wrapped into one, features enough adventure, romance, and thrills for anyone to enjoy. With its lush art designs and blooming colors, Ocelot’s signature shadow-puppet animation style works as many of the segments take place in different locations—from the Far East to Africa back to a Paris cinema, and each story comes to life with transporting the viewer into a delightful world each time. The film loses some punch due to its heavy dialogue, where the animation could have done more by way of speaking to the viewers than any actual words do. This Thursday, April 19 at 7 p.m., Tales of the Night will have its last screening and will feature a post-screening discussion with Jack Zipes, an internationally-known expert on fairy tales on film. For anyone interested in seeing Tales of the Night and/or in fairy tales and mythology generally, I highly recommend catching this screening.

But nothing could have prepared me or anyone who got a rare opportunity to participate in what was easily the highlight of my opening weekend: “Milgrom Day.” Celebrating 50 years of bringing international and independent films to Minnesota, artistic director Al Milgrom received a surprisingly heartwarming and hilarious tribute in a 30-minute video that was shown to fewer than 100 people Saturday afternoon, feturing old colleagues, friends (and perhaps at some point enemies), current staff members and film buffs from the past 50 years. (There are rumblings that MSPIFF may set up an additional screening of the 30-minute video; if that is the case, I’d go again. The video includes a PBS segment entitled, Al Milgrom’s Obsession from 1981; after watching it, I decided on the spot to write a full post on Milgrom’s celebration day once the festival concludes.

Speaking of the art of writing the “short blurb,” Milgrom told me Thursday night, when I asked him how he was doing and his thoughts on how opening night was going, “We’ve got to work on getting the short blurbs out.” Milgrom said that even despite selling out the opening night film, he knows there’s always more work that needs to get done in promoting the festival; that part of Milgrom hasn’t changed over the past 50 years.

Looking over this week’s upcoming titles, I’ve seen around a dozen of them already. Here are a few I recommend. 

Compliance is easily the most challenging film I’ve seen this year and still my favorite in this young 2012 season. Compliance will ignite anger, heavy debates, and torrid conversations—and probably a few walkouts, in this case a good sign. Based on true events, a young employee of a fast food restaurant follows ridiculous and shocking orders by not only her manager, but also by a suspicious caller over the phone, leading to horrific events. Original and daring, Compliance defies what an American independent film can be (a kind of daring that’s becoming more rare each year) and features a tour de force performance by Ann Dowd. (Friday, April 20 at 9:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 22 at 9:45 p.m.) 

Michael is another tough sell: a working-class man has a 10-year-old boy locked up in his basement. This Austrian film will make the hair on the back of your neck stand straight up. First time director Markus Schleinzer tackles a subject matter few do, the “p” word, and brings suspense and intrigue in virtually every scene, leaving much of its distributing action off-screen or implied through mannerisms and dialogue. Michael also has an out-of-left-field twist, which only complicates matters but opens a new door into a whole different idea of “comfort level.”  (Last screening, Thursday, April 19 at 9:30 p.m.) 

The Sound of Small Things, fresh from its world premiere Slamdance screening this past January, is a locally-made feature by first-time director Peter McLarnan that will draw comparisons to the “mumblecore” genre, but offers more danger and subtext than most of those films. The film depicts a young couple struggling with making their recent marriage work, which becomes increasingly harder once visiting buddies come to stay with the couple. Making interesting use of space, sound, music, and camera technique, McLarnan may split audiences with his film’s slow pacing but should find others—myself included—looking forward to his follow-up plans. (Only screening: Tuesday, April 24 at 7 p.m.)


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