Saturday, April 24, 2010

Film Festival News

The 28th annual Mpls/St.Paul Film Festival is now in full swing. It’s the most interesting cultural event of the year, I think, with films from every corner of the world being shown on five screens at a single multiplex theater on the banks of the Mississippi in the oldest part of the city. On the weekends the place is packed with people, often standing patiently in line to see tomorrow’s masterpiece (or soon-to-be-forgotten piece of junk.) Between shows you can wander down the river to Vic’s open-air terrace, where many of the wines on the list are below retail, or head up to NE Hennepin for the Happy Hour at Ginger Hop or a top-flight pizza at Pizza Nea. (Save your ticket stub and they’ll give you a free pizza.)

We’ve seen five films thus far, and they’ve all been worth the time. They and also give some indication of what a diverse array of films are being offered.

The best of the lot was the Thai film Agrarian Utopia, which depicts a family’s attempt to escape from debt by moving onto a farm in the northern part of Thailand. They live in a hut on stilts and plant rice, knock down bee hives, scour the countryside for mushrooms and grill an occasional snake or rat. It’s a quiet, outdoorsy life and the people themselves are also mild-mannered, though there are scenes of urban unrest at both ends of the film that could have been ripped from yesterday’s headlines.

Equally good, but at the other end of the spectrum, Pink Taxi is set entirely amid the garish streets and run-down utilitarian apartment blocks of Moscow. It follows the lives of three divorced women who drive taxis for the city’s only female taxi service. These three are friends, and we accompany them as they drink vodka at a dascha and cheerily discuss their problems with men; we ride shotgun as they make their rounds and listen in as they engage in very personal conversations with their female passengers. We meet their children and share their radio favorites as the sprawling gray city whizzes by. The women are warm, melancholic, perhaps alcoholic, and very likeable, like your best friend's mother in high school, and we leave the theater feeling we’ve seen an unusual and authentic slice of Moscow life.

Today’s Special received a good deal of pre-festival hype, and the Friday night line was a long one, but it turned out to be an entirely conventional romantic comedy in which every turn of the plot could be predicted well in advance. A young chef (Aasif Mandvi) whose family hails from India quits his job when he’s passed over for a promotion. His father has a heart attack soon afterward and he finds himself managing the family restaurant. Clueless as to how to proceed, he solicits the help of a taxi driver (Naseerrudin Shah) who has been everywhere, done everything, and knows all the inner secrets of Indian food preparation.

I found it had to believe that someone of Indian origin with a decade of experience as a sous-chef would know nothing about Indian cooking, but in the end, the creeky plot served as an adequate vehicle around which to drape the ample cast of eccentric characters and to hang various pratfalls, jokes and fortune-cookie bits of wisdom about “trusting your heart.” Aasif’s mother was charming, and she looked familiar. The producer (who was present at the screening) reminded us after the show (many people in the audience already knew it) that she was played by the famous Indian chef Madhur Jaffrey. And indeed, the mystique of India shines through in the film, overcoming every cliche. It isn't Big Night, or Babette's Feast, or Monsoon Wedding, but it's a thoroughly fun film to watch.

No More Smoke Signals, a worthy Swiss film about a radio station on the Pine Ridge Reservation, had interesting interviews, expansive scenery, and a few live performances of Dakota hip-hop. It also had flashbacks to the Wounded Knee standoff of 1975, but didn’t delve as deeply into the complex history of that era as the events require.

For the Love of Movies, an affectionate look at the history of popular film criticism, touches on the careers of Bosley Crowther, James Agee, Vincent Canby, Siskel and Ebert, Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Molly Haskell, and many other film reviewers. It seems to be asking the question whether film critics can tell us anything we don’t already know about the films we’re about to see, but really need to know. However, it doesn’t provide a satisfactory answer, because there is no film criticism in the film. Nor is there any criticism of the critics. It’s just an exposé of personalities.

The closest we come to criticism is when two reviewers offer different views of the French film Amelie, one loving it, the other hating it. Both reviewers are commenting on the same qualities but apprising them differently. (I think Adam Gopnik’s one-liner is right on the mark: “The clearest sign of the general decline in French culture is that even they liked Amelie.”)

We caught a glimpse down another interesting unexplored avenue when Richard Schickel remarked about Bonny and Clyde, “We didn’t care about the morality. We were just excited by the violence and turmoil of the film.” Or something to that effect. Another critic brought up the fact, evident to nearly all film buffs who have lived long enough, that American film took a nose-dive during the 1980s (with the arrival of Spielberg, Lucas, et. al.) from which it hasn’t yet recovered.

Which is one of many reasons why we may be thankful for the Twin Cities Film Festival, which got started in 1982.

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