Sunday, April 19, 2015

Film Fest 2015

You can learn a lot about the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival just by striking up a conversation with the person standing beside you in line. That's because people who go to the fest usually go often. (If you wanted to see just one movie, you'd go to your local cineplex. No?)  So it isn't uncommon for a stranger standing next to you to ask, "What have you seen? What have you liked?"

That's how I found out about Tangerine, the best of the eight films I've seen at the festival thus far. It's a war film, but also an intimate drama. It takes place in a wooden valley in Abkhazia, a sub-region of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Georgia is now an independent state, but some of the residents of lower Abkhazia consider themselves more Russian that Georgian, and during the time the film takes place, they're fighting for their independence.

To complicate matters, the film's central character, Ivo,  is Estonian. Estonia is 1700 miles from Abkhazia, but during the nineteenth century many Estonians settled in Georgia. Now that Estonia is no longer part of the USSR, many Estonians are inclined to go home, and the fighting in Georgia provides an added incentive. But Ivo and his friend Margus have decided to stay on until they've harvested the tangerines. Ivo makes the crates, Margus picks the fruit. They've arranged for a local militia to escort the produce to the market, and even, perhaps, help them pick the fruit.

Their tranquil agricultural pursuits are shattered when a firefight takes place on the country road outside their farms, and Ivo finds himself taking care of two wounded soldiers, one Georgian, the other a Chechnian mercenary fighting on the side of Abkasia and Russia.

The Chechnian, Ahmed, vows to kill the Georgian, Niko, once he recovers from his wounds, but Ivo gets him to swear that he will kill no one within the house. Ivo is a man of his word, and so is Ahmed. Thus we witness two soldiers gaining strength day by day as they hurl insults (and sometimes hot tea) at one another at the kitchen table, waiting for the moment when they'll finally have it out.

Ivo is determined to bring these two soldiers back to health and defuse their animosity to one another.  And in time the situation within the house mellows, but things get more complicated as military patrols begin to show up, sometimes Georgian, sometimes Russian. "Who are these invalids?" they want to know.  Which one is the enemy?

Tangerines has been described as an anti-war film, but that's not the case. It's a drama about men getting to know each other in the context of homeland and religion, bravado and incipient violence, where the most thoughtful people seldom call the shots, and who gets hurt bears little relation to justice or right and wrong. 

La Sapienza

Oppositions abound in this didactic film set largely in Italy: male/female, rational/mystical, Bernini/Borromini, young/old. They're the stuff of drama, but also of cliché.

Here director Eugene Green keeps the drama to a minimum by forcing his actors to remain wooden in their actions and robotic in their speech. Every remark and gesture is followed by a long pause, people often look head-on into the camera. It might serve as a good instruction film for those learning to speak Italian or French. In short, the film is ridiculously stylized...but it's also sort of fun to watch. 

And moments of comic relief also crop up from time to time. The characters learn from one another, absorb the lessons of Renaissance Italian architecture, and loosen up, so that by the end of the film they're almost behaving like normal humans.

Green is better known for directing Baroque operas, where stylization is the norm. Seeing such things on the big screen without arias or orchestral accompaniment throws us out of our comfort zone and forces us to reflect a little more carefully on the few things that are being said, and the many things passing slowly in front of our eyes.
Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story

Heralded as "the next Charlie Parker" in the early 50s, alto saxophonist Frank Morgan took the path of heroin, bank-robbery, and thirty-years in prison. Here director N. C. Heikin tells Morgan's  story in jazzy style, with interviews of wives, fellow-inmates, family members, and fellow musicians.

Morgan comes across as a gifted musician and an irresponsible charmer who never believed he was as good as people seemed to think he was.    

A concert held in St. Quentin prison to honor Morgan's memory acts as the backbone to the narrative. Anyone who likes Bebop will like this film. Anyone who doesn't know what Bebop is should see it.

The director was present at the screening we attended, and also Frank Morgan's niece. Frank spent his last few years in Minneapolis, and she told us stories of how he would spend his days wandering the backyard, playing his saxophone.


Behavior is a sprawling Cuban film about a young boy in Havana, life on the streets, dog-fighting, academic bureaucracy, and the challenges teachers face bringing along students whose home lives are a shambles. The tale is moving. The cinematography is stunning.  

Every Face Has a Name

The Swedish creators of this film, a sequel to Harbor of Hope, once again succeed in tracking down the people who arrived in Malmo at the end of WWII to start new lives. In comparison to the earlier film, it seems a little tired, a little uninspired. The stories are sadder, not because of the war, but because of who the individuals are.

Operation Popcorn

A documentary about Hmong leaders in Fresno, California, including General Vang Pao, who try to buy armaments to send to Laos. The dealings seem a little amateurish, the Hmong leaders don't seem to know what they're doing, and the film itself is short on visuals, but it's a mildly interesting story that exposes how loyalty to a home halfway around the world can really mix things up.

Medicine of the Wolf

Images of cuddly wolves and the eloquence of Jim Brandenberg cannot altogether obscure the fact that Julie Huffman, the woman who created Medicine of the Wolf, hasn't done much research on wolf management. Nevertheless, wolves are fun to watch and viewers may be inspired by the film to look more deeply into all the things that were never mentioned in the film.


Competition films abound—spelling bees, opera try-outs, wine-tasting, dance contests. Here young  contestants in the Van Cliburn Competition in Ft. Worth, Texas, rehearse at the piano and discuss various aspects of their lives and music. These artists from Italy, China, Russia, and other places already know a great deal about career development and arts management, but their back-stories are only intermittently interesting. Fei Fei Dong, the young Chinese pianist, didn't come close to winning the trials, but she steals the show as the most sincere, sweet, and winsome personality in the group. 

As luck would have it, Fei Fei was in the audience for the event, and she and the film's producer shared some further anecdotes about making the film after the screening.

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