Your guide to the 2009 Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival (Part 1 of 2)


This year’s Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival is almost upon us. What’s worth seeing and what should be avoided? This year’s festival has more than 150 films, so if you look closely enough, you’ll no doubt find something of interest. Don’t be afraid to try a film you know absolutely nothing about—you may find a hidden gem. That’s what film festivals are all about. Here are my takes on some of the most notable films in MSPIFF 2009; Jim Brunzell has another set of previews for you in a separate article.

Tokyo Sonata
Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa departs from his usual horror films here, with great success. His excellent 2001 film Kairo (Pulse) was of course remade in America as a PG-13 teen horror flick. His original proves how talented a filmmaker Kurosawa is, and Sonata proves he can do more than frighten an audience. The film is about a Japanese man who loses his job, but decides to lie to his family and pretend to go work every day. The ending is beautiful, and I really had no idea where the film was heading right up to the conclusion. What looks like another family melodrama is given depth, harsh truth, and dark humor by Kurosawa. A great film.

Who will like it: Fans of Kurosawa and Japanese family dramas in the vein of Yasujiro Ozu. If you liked The Ice Storm and American Beauty, Tokyo Sonata may be for you.

I’m more familiar with director James Toback’s name than with his work. In fact, I’ve never seen any of his previous films (except for Bugsy, which he wrote; I wasn’t a big fan). I can glean from Tyson that he is a filmmaker who cares about his subjects and characters. That is perhaps the biggest flaw in Tyson, though, as he so clearly admires the infamous former heavyweight-boxing champion of the world that he misses out on a great opportunity for insight into a broken, despicable man. Toback gets full access to Tyson, but never asks the tough questions. He never pushes his interviewee; he simply allows Tyson to tell his own version of his story. This could have been much more interesting had Toback interviewed other important people in Tyson’s sad life (why not talk to Don King? Or rape victim Desiree Washington?). What we get is a maddening, though at times fascinating, one-man show.

Who will like it: Moviegoers looking for a good post-screening chat, as this one is much more fun to discuss afterward then to actually sit through. Also, fans of Toback, Tyson, and boxing.

Rudo y Cursi
Mexican director Carlos Cuaron, sceenwriter of and actor in the fantastic coming-of-age film Y Tu Mama Tambien (for which he was nominated for an Oscar in 2001 along with his brother Alfonso, director of the incredible Children of Men, one of the best films in recent years) will be on hand for his Venice-acclaimed debut as a feature director with Rudo y Cursi, reuniting Tambien favorites Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna as rival brothers in a comedy about a hick soccer family. This film is a blast. While Cuaron may not have the chops of his brother, his confidence behind the camera shows in this thoroughly entertaining piece of work. Luna and Bernal are great together as brothers, the story is breezy and the script very funny. Carlos Cuaron is another great addition to the recent Mexican New Wave; add him to the list along with his brother, Guillermo del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy), Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) and Carlos Reygadas (Japon, Battle in Heaven, Silent Light).

Who will like it: Soccer fans. Fans of stories about brothers. Fans of modern Mexican cinema.

First-time director Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie, has concocted a very nice sci-fi film. This is a great example of what can be done on a low budget in the genre. The effects are great, effectively putting the audience on the titular satellite. Nearing the end of a three-year contract with Lunar Industries, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is counting the days until his return to Earth. The lone occupant of a lunar mining base (the movie never explains why he’s stationed alone), Sam monitors the tractors that harvest the moon’s surface for helium energy. It’s best if you know little going in to this one, but suffice to say some weird stuff goes down. I really liked the way Jones handles the material, harking back to some of the greats like 2001: A Space Odyssey (the robot here is called Gerty 3000 and is voiced successfully by Kevin Spacey) but not merely ripping them off. Moon also features a brilliant score from Clint Mansell (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain), who creates yet another haunting theme to accentuate the score; the original music adds scope to the whole story and helps balance some of the overliteral song selections (Katrina and the Waves’ “I’m Walking on Sunshine” and Chesney Hawkes’s “I Am the One and Only” were a bit too on-the-nose).

Who will like it: Sci-fi fans looking for a really good, serious entry in the genre will be pleased. Fans of puzzles, who will like to put the movie’s pieces together and discuss it afterward. On par with Danny Boyle’s Sunshine from 2007 and Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain from 2006.

Il Divo
This one took me by surprise. Here I thought this was going to be a dry history lesson or biopic about former Italian Prime Minister, author and journalist Giulio Andreotti. What I got was something Martin Scorsese or Paul Thomas Anderson would make—think Casino and Boogie Nights. Director Paolo Sorrentino crafts a stylish, very flashy look at Andreotti (played nicely and convincingly by Toni Servillo). His direction makes for an entertaining, if not totally perplexing examination of the mob ties Andreotti shared. A lot of real-life players are thrown at the audience, a lot of historical moments occur, but even when things are confusing there’s a lot to admire: the pitch-perfect pacing, the cinematography (like the story, DP Luca Bigazzi’s camera almost never stops moving) the soundtrack and the opening credits, which boldly announce what kind of film this is going to be.

Who will like it: Political history buffs. Gangster movie fans. Fans of Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson.

Somers Town
British filmmaker Shane Meadows has been on my radar ever since his 2006 film This is England. I’ve also seen Dead Man’s Shoes, which is a nasty little deconstruction of the revenge movie horror genre. He is a gifted filmmaker. Somers Town sees his reuniting with England star Thomas Turgoose, who’s noticeably grown up since that film. Here Turgoose plays a runaway who comes to London and strikes up a touching friendship with a Polish immigrant. Meadows is a fan of slow motion and acoustic tunes, giving the montages a nice melancholic touch. At under 70 minutes, Meadows trims the fat off his story completely, paring it down to its bare essentials.

Who will like it: Fans of Meadows’s work (especially This is England) and Independent British cinema.

School Play
Following a group of suburban New York City fifth graders as they put together a school play of The Wizard of Oz, the audience is introduced to five students with five very different personalities. There’s Jeffrey, the social outcast of the class; Joey, the wannabe actor; Elizabeth, the competitive leader; Nick, the class clown; and Isabel, the unique artist. The filmmakers try a bit too hard at labeling and narrowing the kids into their respective roles, and the story goes from beat to beat as expected. This is not an example of a documentary taking on its own life as the filming went on; the story is so-so. The movie is steeped in nostalgia, but who really misses being in 5th grade? Co-director Rick Velleu is from Minnesota.

Who will like it: Fans of American Teen and reality television.

Food, Inc.
This documentary, though not exactly groundbreaking or revolutionary, is yet another in a string of food- and environment-themed documentaries that have been all the rage of late: green docs are almost as common as Iraq docs these days. So while Food, Inc. is a bit late to the dance, it does feature great interviews with writers Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma). I love the clever and stylish opening credits, appearing throughout a grocery store. Produced by William Pohlad (son of Twins owner Carl). Not incredibly revealing, but I learned some new facts and have a better understanding of where our food comes from.

Who will like it: Foodies, or anyone interested in our country’s food industry and animal treatment.

ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction
The title of this one says it all. Sort of. This is a fun midnight movie (though it’s screening at 11 p.m. at the Fest—close enough, I guess), but overall it’s a lame attempt at allegory. Yes, the island of Port Gamble represents the division of our country, and it’s all shown clumsily as zombies take over and begin to wreak havoc. I had fun with this, but I couldn’t get over director Kevin Hamedani’s misguided attempts at subversion and satire. He’s trying a bit too hard here (what works for George Romero doesn’t for all), and the awful melodrama, though a staple of the genre, is not necessary. It’s difficult to enjoy the film when the actors are spouting lines like “You gotta find your flavor, girl” and “Kuwait a minute.” While there are a few great shocks (one moment in particular, involving a little girl crossing the street will either disgust you or make you laugh hysterically; my reaction was the latter), the film’s depiction of homosexuals is as over-the-top as its gore, and just as unrealistic. At last we finally have a horror movie where the lead heroes are two gay guys and an Iranian-American college dropout, but that’s the only original thing about ZMD. Every time the movie has a chance to be interesting, Hamedani blows it. I couldn’t help but feel uneasy about seeing a bloodthirsty Iranian-American man ripping heads off as he yells to the sky. Sometimes a zombie movie is better as just a zombie movie.

Who will like it: Midnight movie fans. Zombie fans. Horror fans. Maybe.

Lion’s Den
Lion’s Den plays like a spiffed-up version of a 70s women-in-prison exploitation movie, but with an intriguing story. The opening sequence sees a pregnant young woman, Julia, waking in her apartment beside the bloodied bodies of two men, Ramiro and Nahuel. Ramiro is still alive, Nahuel is dead, and Julia herself is badly beaten. The night’s events are unclear (they’re never satisfyingly made clear, an annoying flaw in the film that could have easily been remedied). When Julia is eventually convicted, she faces the prospect of raising her son in jail, with the knowledge that when he is four he will be taken away from her. Shooting on location in a Buenos Aires prison and using many staff and inmates as extras, director Pablo Trapero (Born and Bred, El Bonaerense) has fashioned a solid drama about one woman’s determination to recover her freedom and that of her son.

Who will like it: Fans of gritty prison dramas and updated, glossy takes on exploitation movies—such as Black Snake Moan.

Trust Us, This Is All Made Up
Tj Jagodowksi and Dave Pasquesi have become living legends in their field. For the past six years, their performances of entirely improvised, character-driven, often hilarious and wholly original one-hour plays have mesmerized audiences worldwide. This is a very funny look at improv and how these two do it. Though the film descends into cheesy self-seriousness and relies too much on split-screen during its bookends, the middle section is a full performance that’s as fascinating as it is entertaining. Of course, you may just rather see the show live instead, and I’m sure that would be the ideal way to see this great comedic duo. The highlight is worth the price of admission: Jagodowski and Pasquesi riffing on situations where the expression “cover all our bases” would be used literally.

Who will like it: Fans of improv and stand-up comedy. SNL fans.

I’m Gonna Explode
A very cool Mexican film in the vein of the French New Wave of the 60’s, Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut are paid homage throughout this tale of young, irresponsible love. It’s mostly successful, if not very original. I love the energy in this film and its love of a certain kind of cinema, even if the ending is frustrating and unnecessary. Perfect for the rebellious teenager looking for something outside of the multiplex in this genre.

Who will like it: Fans of Jules and Jim and Breathless. Fans of stories about outsiders and misfits.

Brothers Bloom
The closing film of the festival is a lot of fun, but man is it frustrating. I think it will play well as the closing film, but fans of Rian Johnson’s first film, Brick, should be prepared for disappointment. Shot like a Wes Anderson film (to an annoying degree), this is a breezy tale about con brothers (Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody) trying at one last job. This is really a love story more than a straight-up crime or heist movie, and none of the parts coalesce to make for a wholly satisfying final product. The normally superb Rachel Weisz is wasted as a quirky rich girl the brothers are attempting to swindle. Brothers Bloom suffers from familiarity: this is something you’ve seen before, done much better.

Who will like it: Fans of the Ocean’s (11, 12, 13) movies and con men stories.

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