Days of war, nights of film

Nothing to do in the Twin Cities?The 21st annual Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival reminds us how good we’ve got it here.

IBy Gabriel Shapiro and Niels Strandskov

I am often amazed at the number of complaints I hear about the Twin Cities and the lack of free-time options available. I’ve heard complaints about live music, decent bars, theater: You name it and someone’s complaining about it for sure. Snobby West Coast-o-philes and homesick New Yorkers drone endlessly about the profound lack that sucks their souls here. But it’s not some essential quality of the Twin Cities that renders certain people lifeless, it’s the people themselves. There are bands galore of all stripes and levels, places to drink and bowl and whatever else nightlife demands. OK, so the early bartime sucks, but that’s life. The theater options are outstanding, and internationally regarded directors, writers and actors live and work here. Complain if you must, but don’t be surprised if one of us jolly locals suggests that you pack off back to haughty ol’ Gotham, or better yet to the wasteland by the sea of Los Angeles.

But if there’s one thing even these party-poopers can’t complain about it’s the movies. We get boatloads of movies, and well ahead of most other fly-over metropolises. And the jewel in the Twin Cities cinema crown is the annual international festival. This year’s crop is a bumper harvest including films from around the world and around the emotional and genre spectrums showing daily from April 4-19.

Some of these films are making their U.S. debuts, and some are just hard to find outside the festival circuit. Whatever the movie and whatever your taste, getting out to see one, two or 10 of these movies will be worth the time and the coin. You will get to see a movie you might not have seen otherwise, and you’ll have a little more ammunition to shoot down the criticism of these fair cities.

A festival of this size can be a bit hard to navigate, but there are plenty of resources to help you find your way to the right place at the right time. For complete festival details and a full schedule you can pick up a festival program from the Oak Street Cinema in Stadium Village, the Bell Auditorium on campus, Dinkytown News or Ruminator Books in Saint Paul. The City Pages will also run a complete schedule. Online there is information at www.ufilm.org and www.oakstreetcinema.org. Finally, you can call the 24 hour festival hotline at (612) 627-4430.

Festival passes are available in advance and priced from $32 to $150. There is a wide variety to choose from, all of which offer good savings over single ticket prices ($8, general; $7, students/seniors; $6, Walker/MFA members). Passes are available from the same outlets as programs listed above. You can also join Minnesota Film Arts for $30 (student price) and share the love all year long with movie discounts and a T-shirt.

The following is part one of the Daily’s survey of the festival (part two will be published April 10) and features some definite hits. Put on your movie-watching shoes and get out to the cinema!

“Assassination Tango”
USA, 2003
Dir. Robert Duvall

At this year’s opening night gala Robert Duvall will appear with his newest project, which finds him in the roles of director, writer and star. He will also receive a lifetime achievement award.

Among the achievements being recognized are Duvall’s three other directorial outings, including “The Apostle” (1998) which was nominated for a best picture Academy Award, ultimately losing to “Titanic.”

Duvall has received a great deal of acclaim for his films, and “Assassination Tango” is no exception. In the character of John J., a New York City-based hitman, he produces the dissection of one man’s mind – carried out graphically and completely on screen.

Given the task of murdering a retired Argentine general, John J. travels to Buenos Aires and waits, confronted with precisely what he didn’t want: time to sit and think alone. In an effort to escape his externally imposed introspective moments, John makes his way to the distraction he enjoyed back at home, dancing. But he finds a more exciting and seductive beat than he ever knew in Brooklyn, the Tango, and a new muse, Manuela (Luciana Pedraza).

The story is interesting, but the real draw of this movie is Duvall’s meticulous character study, which is pulled off so masterfully that every facet of John becomes completely readable without being shoved in your face or dumbed down and dry. There are no grandiose proclamations here, just the investigation of a fascinating character. In fact, the character study, strange self-consciousness and “real” feeling of everything almost encumbers the story and seems to prevent any catharsis. But perhaps that’s just as well; John doesn’t get off the hook easily and maybe we shouldn’t either. The movie brings up plenty worth dwelling on for a while.

“Assassination Tango” screens as part of the opening night gala, which means tickets are a bit more costly at $12. But you’ll get more, like cocktails before the show, a chance to see Duvall receive his award, and entry to the gala following at the Millennium Hotel (elegant attire encouraged). Cocktails 6:30 p.m., screening 7:30 p.m., Friday, gala follows.

“Bollywood/Hollywood”
India/Canada, 2002
Dir. Deepa Mehta

After “Fire,” which sparked riots, and “Earth” which was about riots, posters for this movie could have rightly sported the tagline “Deepa Mehta lightens up, way up!” I’m not exactly sure why this movie is billed as coming from India at all. Of course, Mehta herself is from India (although she’s lived in Toronto since ’73), and true, “Bollywood” is in Mumbai, (just like “Hollywood” is in California), and all right, the cast are Indian-Canadians or Indians and Canadians, or whatever, but the movie was made entirely in Toronto. It leads to a question: “Are movies about immigrants about the places they’re from or the places they’ve ended up?” The Indian diaspora is ongoing, with waves of people leaving that country for Europe, the United States, and everywhere else, even the great white north, especially Toronto.

In “Bollywood/Hollywood,” a family of devout Hindu stereotypes, featuring sobbing mom and wise grandma, have been trying to get their children married off, especially their son, millionaire dot-commer Rahul.

Mehta takes stereotypes to the extreme and twists them pretty severely (for example, grandma’s wisdom finds its form through constant quoting of Shakespeare, not the Gita) which leads to a movie that has both Mehta’s usual social commentary and a great deal of light-hearted humor.

This is, perhaps, the only movie Mehta could have made after her sets, permits and budget to film “Water” the third film in her trilogy (“Fire” and “Earth” were the first two) went up in smoke, literally and figuratively, in Varanasi. Luckily, she came home to Toronto and laughed for a while. We benefit by getting to laugh along with her. It shows at 9:30 p.m. Saturday at the Oak Street Cinema.

“Power Trip”
Republic of Georgia/USA, 2002
Dir. Paul Devlin

This is what neocolonialism looks like: an affable young longhaired Brit giggling about cutting the electricity at a major airport due to nonpayment of a bill. Hundreds of refugees, forgotten by the world, living a hardscrabble existence in the half-completed shells of Soviet apartment buildings. A dead man, dragged out of an electrical substation from which he was trying to hijack power.

“Power Trip,” a documentary by Paul Devlin, examines the current energy crisis in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia from multiple angles. In the foreground are the consumers, the citizens of Georgia who’ve been bounced out of the frying pan of bureaucratic state communism to the fire of late-stage cyber-capitalism. A multinational power company called AES has taken over the old state electric utility, and the average home electric bill has jumped to $24 a month, this in a country where most people make about $15 to $75 per month. Also shown are the AES executives and workers, mostly American and British, who want to squeeze the Georgian consumer until the pips squeak – or until they collect 90 percent of their past-due bills, whichever comes first.

“Power Trip” provides an insight into a nightmare world not covered by CNN. All around the planet, this kind of drama, with its mundane roots and low body count, unfolds quietly, crushing the life out of people with no means to resist. It shows at 9 p.m. Sunday, Bell Auditorium.

“Reno: Rebel Without A Pause”
Canada/USA, 2002
Dir. Nancy Savoca

When Public Enemy sang “911 Is A Joke,” it’s hardly likely that they ever imagined their clever lyric would come to represent such a gruesome irony. Of course, they probably also didn’t expect that their title “Rebel Without A Pause” would be recycled as the title of a concert film about lesbian comic Reno’s post-Sept. 11, 2001 show either.

Reno, the quintessential loud New Yorker (well, maybe Chuck D. could out-loud her on a good day) started telling a humorous version of her experience of the attacks almost before the dust had settled. As a lower Manhattan resident, she had a terrifyingly close vantage on the disaster. Reno doesn’t sugarcoat her experiences on that day. Nor does she resort to cheap schmaltz. All of the bits are bitingly sarcastic and typically New York.

It’s important to remember in these new dark ages that there’s still room in the margins and the basements for unrestrained criticism, radicalism and laughter. Reno’s bits won’t have the same impact as Bill Maher’s notorious comments on cowardice, but they are relevant nonetheless.

Directed by fellow New Yorker Nancy Savoca, “Reno: Rebel Without A Pause” attacks silence and fear with more force than a thousand bunker busters. Reno will attend the screening. It shows at 9:45 p.m. Tuesday, Oak Street Cinema.

“Shadow Kill”
India/France, 2002
Dir. Adoor Gopalakrishnan

This movie was produced as part of the Hubert Bals Fund’s initiative to support filmmakers from developing countries and is presented in conjunction with the Walker’s “Hubert Bals Fund at 15: Making a Reel Difference” exhibition. Set in pre-independence Kerala, one of the most beautiful states in the far south of India, (there might be no more picturesque place on earth), “Shadow Kill” (“Nizhalkkuthu” in Malayalam, the language in which the movie was filmed) tries to get underneath the skin of a hangman and discover what it is that allows empathy to exist between strangers. Kaliyappan the elderly executioner is called upon to hang a man accused of the rape and murder of a village girl. Racked by guilt over what he is certain was the killing of an innocent man in his last execution, Kaliyappan turns to the bottle and spends most of his time drunk. When he is again summoned by the Raja to do his duty, for which the Raja provides him with a home and clothing and food, Kaliyappan questions his orders briefly before being put in his place by the Raja’s representative.

Kaliyappan’s own son is an anti-hanging advocate and part of Mahatma Gandhi’s independence movement, and as such his character functions both as an understanding son, whose father’s difficulties are not lost on him, and a counter-argument to the Raja’s system of capital punishment and his father’s just-following-orders mentality.

“Shadow Kill” is one response to those who ask what, other than Bollywood, is coming out of India lately. Far from the glitz and fluff that typifies Bollywood’s flashy showtunes-and-a-love-story format, this will leave many in the audience with a lasting question of how to assert their own free will and not just do as they’re told. It shows at 8 p.m. April 10 at the Walker Art Center.

“Ten”
Iran, 2002
Dir. Abbas Kiarostami

Movies don’t come anymore intimate than this. Intense, revealing and at points even claustrophobic, Kiarostami’s latest work reaffirms his position among the most original and deservedly renowned filmmakers in the world.

Set entirely in a car with cameras mounted to the dashboard, we see ten vignettes, all featuring the same driver. As she navigates Tehran the driver picks up and converses with passengers – all of whom, with the exception of her obnoxious, yet strangely observant son, are women. Pilgrims to prostitutes, young and old, all of these women have so much to say, you feel as if you’ve learned more about the lives of Iranian women in this hour and a half than you might have almost anywhere else.

This description tells part of the story, but as any good story does, “Ten” draws you into its world and then shows you your own life, your world and yourself. Love, attachment, desire, survival, discovery and so much more comes up in the most frank discussions seen in recent movie memory, documentary or otherwise.

It is often said Americans have special relationships with their cars, but spending as much time as we do these days hurtling down highways half brain-dead, it is interesting to study the relationships going on in cars. We spend hours talking to people, thinking and daydreaming, or even working in our cars, and Kiarostami finds it the perfect setting for this intense character study. Say “no way” to big-budget eye candy and learn a thing or two (maybe even 10). It shows at 5 p.m. Sunday at the Riverview Theater.

“Havana Mi Amor”
Cuba/USA, 2000
Dir. Uli Gaulke

You have to watch out when you go to Cuba. Lots of folks go down with some liberal church mission and come back as godless Communists, quoting Mao and utterly devoid of petit-bourgeois leanings. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Of course the reality of life in Havana is a little bit different that the romantic Red ideal. “Havana Mi Amor” chronicles the lives and loves of real working-class Cubans. A single mother, sometimes homeless, joins her adult daughter in a kitchen-table chat about the perfidy of men. A TV repairman calls his ex-wife in Canada, spending a month’s pay for a conversation that ultimately proves fruitless in convincing her to take him back. Two lovers lounge around, teasing each other about which of them is the more jealous.

There is not much time for politics within these peoples’ lives. In one surprising scene, a man corrects his ex-wife about the date of their first meeting. “It was 1959,” she says. He counters, “1960,” and she agrees. The idea that life in Cuba has come to such a point that people in their 60s can’t remember whether they met before or after the revolution seems a little bizarre.

Also strange is the lack of concern for the future displayed by these men and women. Here they are, working-class Cubans, many of whom will no doubt sink beneath the surface once Castro dies and the gangsters take over. Yet this impending doom doesn’t seem to alter their sometimes balmy, sometimes fatalistic outlook on life. It shows at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Crown Theatres.

“Schmelvis: The Search for
the King’s Jewish Roots”
Canada, 2001
Dir. Max Wallace

Wow. Rarely has the title of a movie been more strangely misleading. If this had been called “Six Jews and a Gentile: Roadtrippin’ ” or “How not to make your documentary” or even “Stereotyping for fun and (maybe) profit” we’d have been a lot closer.

Now let’s look at the facts. Fact one: This movie is hilarious, absolutely. If you’re Jewish, you’re going to laugh. If you’re a gentile, you’re going to laugh. If you’re Canadian, you’re going to laugh. Fact two: This is a fantastic look at how a movie is made within a movie, a documentary about a documentary as it were.

A group of a few filmmakers, a Rabbi and an Elvis impersonator from Montreal get together, ostensibly to make a documentary about Elvis Presley’s convoluted relationship with Judaism. When we first encounter this rag-tag group, they have no budget, no plan and no Winnebago. Let’s just say they got two of the three and ended up with a big RV and some cash. There is another fact, without which the movie doesn’t even start, namely that Elvis’s maternal great-great grandmother was Jewish, which makes the King, according to Jewish law anyway, a Jew. That snowball develops into an avalanche of utter zaniness. They even ask, “What kind of movie did we set out to make? A documentary about Elvis? A portrait of a Hasidic Elvis impersonator? A guide to what not to do for young filmmakers?”

It’s a bit of all of these and more ,but mainly it’s just plain funny in its complete failure to do anything related to its initial goal. Self-conscious about its uses of stereotyping and confrontation, but all in the name of a good time, “Schmelvis” is a film the King himself would have been proud to be associated with. It shows at 7:15 p.m. April 9 at the Bell Auditorium.

“Zona Zamfirova”

Serbia, 2002 (U.S. Premiere)

Dir. Zdravko Sotra

Based on a 1968 Stevan Sremac novel set at the end of the 19th century, this movie has been terrifically successful in its native country. Now that it is making its U.S. debut here at the Festival, there is no reason to believe U.S. audiences will be any less charmed.

Centered on a romance between a lowly goldsmith and a wealthy businessman’s daughter, the story uncoils not entirely unlike a somewhat more colorful and raucous Jane Austen novel. Full of over-the-top characters (keep your eye out for the man in blue, he’s truly outrageous) and situations, this movie has some hilarious moments. It shares Austen’s penchant for exposing the absurdity of formalities and social graces through caricature.

Wild situations and intrigues abound, and lead to a somewhat unique look at the old-fashioned boy meets girl but the world says no variety of love story.

Complete with period costumes, great musical scenes and some images of southern Slavic culture that many people might not be familiar with, this movie presents a sort of Merchant-Ivory style period piece with a pulse and a great sense of humor and fun. It shows at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Crown Block E theaters.

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