Your guide to the 2009 Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival (Part 2 of 2)

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With spring well into full bloom, the sun staying out longer, fitness enthusiasts hitting the pavement harder and faster, and restaurants pulling out their patio chairs and tables on Main Street down by the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, excited audiences will soon be waiting in the St. Anthony Main theater lobby awaiting more than 150 films that are scheduled for the mammoth 27th annual Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival (or MSPIFF). The festival kicks off this Thursday at Kerasotes Block E downtown Minneapolis with the opening night film, 500 Days of Summer, a Sundance favorite that is—surprisingly—even better than advertised.

Even in an economy hit hard and people loses their jobs at a record pace, and taxes right around the corner, many will still flock to the spring’s biggest cultural event, running for two weeks primarily at the five-screen St. Anthony Main Theaters—not including an added third week, called “Best of Fest,” which features some of the more popular titles from the fest at the Oak Street Cinema. 60+ countries represented in the festival with picks that festival director Al Milgrom has found at numerous international festivals he’s attended around the world, including Karlovy Vary (in the Czech Republic), Montreal, Toronto, and Berlin. MSPIFF will be bringing in a handful of American and International filmmakers to present their work—including James Toback (Tyson), Duncan Jones (Moon), and Carlos Cuaron (Rudo y Cursi), Alex Karpovsky (Trust Us, This is All Made Up). Norwegian director Nils Gaup, Oscar-nominated for his 1987 film Pathfinder, will be present for The Kautokeino Rebellion.

I’ve seen 28 (!) of the films so far; many of them were featured at various international festivals, but many are from top US festivals including Telluride, Sundance, Tribeca, and SXSW—not to mention some features, docs, and shorts from Minnesota, most of which are having their world premieres at MSPIFF. Trying to weave my way through all these films, can be a joy at times; at other times, it can be as strenuous as doing taxes. This year’s festival seems more ambitious than years past; it’s loaded with many films (the phrase “bigger doesn’t always mean better” comes to mind), and sometimes great films are subjected to awful scheduling times (i.e. the engaging Mexican film I’m Gonna Explode at 10:10 p.m. on a Sunday!), but it’s still unmissable. Here’s a guide to some of the highlighted films, some of the ones to skip, and the ever-intriguing unseen films. In a separate article, Erik McClanahan previews some of the films I mention as well as several others.

The best film in the bunch is the ferocious South Korean film The Chaser, which unfortunately doesn’t play until the last two days of the festival. It’s even going up against the closing night film The Brothers Bloom, but it is not to be missed. Think Seven without the deadly sins attached, and you’ll be in the right ballpark. The Chaser is an original, sinister, violent, and unforgettable film that follows a former detective who has become a pimp to help himself out of some financial debt. When some of the pimp’s girls go missing, he is soon on the track of who is responsible for their disappearance, with some help from his former police crew. When he does find out whom the perpetrator is, the second half of the film becomes something much more than your regular cops-and-robbers routine. Director Hong-jin Na’s fast-paced thriller keeps you guessing right until the last five minutes, which will satisfy any genre fan. The American remake is well in the works (with Leonardo DiCaprio in talks to play the ex-cop turned pimp)—by all means, go see the original.

The Argentinean film Lion’s Den centers on an incarcerated woman who has been in prison for a few years, perhaps for the murder of her boyfriend and lover, while caring for a newborn child. The film takes us deep into the Argentinean prison system and isn’t always easy to wach, but has easily the best payoff of any of the 28 MSPIFF films I’ve seen. It doesn’t hurt that it features a knockout performance from lead actress (and co-producer) Martina Gusman as Julia; it’s written and directed by her husband Pablo Trapero and features exquisite cinematography from Guillermo Nieto.

The documentary Burma VJ is a riveting account of undercover reporters working for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) using video cameras smuggled into bags filming behind the closed country (Burma has been under a dictatorship for over 40 years). The footage gets sent via Internet to Oslo, Norway to be transmitted across the world. While risking torture and/or death, a man code-named “Joshua”—who narrates the film through voiceover and by telephone and e-mail messages—and his team of reporters cover the 2007 protest of thousands of Buddhist monks leading one of the largest protests ever captured on video. The film has been racking up awards at major film festivals since its premiere at IDFA; most recently, it won an audience award at the Full Frame Documentary fest just a few weeks ago. Take note: Burma VJ is only screening once!

Other films worth seeing: The Swedish coming-of-age tale Ciao Bella does seem a bit sophomoric at times, but has its heart in the right place; I loved the creative energy of The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle, which had me in hysterics more often than any other MSPIFF film; the charming Irish film Kisses still has a spell on me; and the magical Polish film Tricks is the best family film I’ve seen since last summer’s Wall-E.

Now the films on my avoid-at-all-costs list: I’ve endured these so you don’t have to. Jennifer Lynch’s Surveillance looked attractive enough, but was so ridiculous from start to finish and the big twist was so transparent that I blame poor writing and lazy directing. Moon features a great performance from Sam Rockwell and looks beautiful, but its staging and plot have been pulled from dozens of other better sci-fi films and it left me as empty as Sam’s space home—but David Bowie’s son, director Duncan Jones, will be present at the screening. The generic French film The Girl from Monaco is emotionally one-note and can’t decide what it wants to be. What starts out as a romantic comedy, turns quickly into a melodrama and then turns into a serious movie, for no good reason. The annoying Russian film The Mermaid features a young girl who believes she has powers to make things come true. It also has a gimmick of a running clock popping up every five seconds. The film wants to be an Amelie, but it’s just a copycat in the worst way.

Much as it pains me to say this, the worst of the bunch is the Minnesota-made Four Boxes, which is coming straight from sellout shows at SXSW. What this pretentious thriller is supposed to mean, I have no idea. Even reading the synopsis on the MSPIFF website alone should be enough indication of the mess ahead, with its references to characters like “Bill Zill.” It has eerie similarities to the 1993 Sharon Stone film Sliver, which didn’t make any sense either.

There are a few films that I have my eye on, and you should too. (These three films all premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year; they were all nominated or won prizes there.) The lone film representing Japan, screening only once, is Tokyo Sonata from horror master Kiyoshi Kurosawa. In Sonata, Kurosawa turns his attention to a family drama of a man losing his job, who decides not to tell his family; it’s been getting rave reviews. The Palestinian film Salt of This Sea has an American-born Palestinian woman returning to Israeli-occupied Palestine to retrieve money her grandfather left for her in an Israeli bank; she finds out the bank will not give it to her, and things proceed from there. The Slovakian documentary Blind Loves tells four fascinating stories about people falling in love who all have with one thing in common: they’re all blind.

Jim Brunzell III (djguamwins@yahoo.com) writes on film for the Daily Planet and hosts KFAI’s Movie Talk. He is film programmer for the Beyond Borders Film Festival and was formerly a programmer for MSPIFF.

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