April 27, 2009

MSPIFF Weekend #2 Roundup

After seeing some good to great movies at MSPIFF last weekend, I hit Il Divo and Heart of Fire (review likely forthcoming) on Monday and A Walk to Beautiful on Thursday. I had a tough time following Il Divo due to either confusion or exhaustion (or both), but I still appreciated it and on balance I've yet to see anything resembling a "bad" film at this festival.

I know it seems like I'm being overly generous with praise, but I'm not surprised that I've enjoyed most of these movies because I've been selective in only seeing the most promising ones (highly recommended international award winners). Sure, it may take away from the adventure of just randomly picking movies, but if I'm paying for all of these I'm going to do my best to make sure it's worth it. As it's happened, then, a number of them really have been among the best films that I've seen in 2009 thus far.

Letters to the President (B+)
Iran (2009); Directed by Petr Lom

In one way, the most surprising thing about this documentary was the fact that it was made at all. Filmmaker Petr Lom somehow gained behind-the-scenes access to the nerve center of Iran’s public relations department (and yes, they have a busy one), ironic because of the number of times when someone is told to not speak to the cameras. Taking the popular practice of sending letters to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Lom ultimately focuses on the differing political attitudes between the rural and urban populations of Iran. What he finds is perhaps not surprising for Americans, but it nonetheless casts serious doubt on Ahmadinejad’s genuine desire to be a man of the people. His khaki jacket in place of a suit appears to be for show only, and a few interviews (in particular with two incredible mural painters) really drive home the message that true democracy is not alive nor well in Iran. Letters to the President is a good primer for those wanting a look at the situation ahead of the country’s presidential election this summer. It does not play again at MSPIFF but should probably get some limited distribution in 2009.

The Song of Sparrows (A)
Iran (2008); Directed by Majid Majidi

I followed up Letters to the President with the richly layered film that Iran submitted to last year’s Oscars. (With every submission I see I become more convinced 2008 was an amazing year for foreign films.) The Song of Sparrows, from acclaimed director Majid Majidi (Children of Heaven), is the kind of movie that lures you in with lighthearted comedy and sympathetic characters, making its necessary tragedies both unexpected and emotionally turbulent (the sold-out theater audience let loose with anguished cries more than once). As the film’s main character, an ostrich farmer turned motorbike cabbie, Reza Naji delivers a perfectly nuanced performance. A second screening was added because a reported 150 people were turned away from this showing on Friday; watch for a more thought-out review before The Song of Sparrows arrives in Minneapolis on May 29th.

Three Monkeys (A)
Turkey (2008); Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan

A brooding, exceptionally crafted thriller, Three Monkeys was another highly acclaimed addition in this year’s festival. Following a year in the life of a Turkish family mixed up in some very bad things, it builds an almost unbearable amount of tension in the last 20 minutes. Delicately shot in a washed-out sepia tone, it simply doesn’t allow you to look away from the screen; any and every detail is important (not surprisingly, Ceylan won the Best Director award at Cannes 2008). I haven’t Ceylan’s Distant or Climates, but the latter is now playing for free through May 3 on the The Auteurs website, where Three Monkeys also premiered for a 24 hour period yesterday. If you missed it and you’re not seeing Moon, get your tickets now for it’s second showing TONIGHT at 7:15 PM.

Jerichow (A-)
Germany (2008); Directed by Christian Petzold

I was on the fence about Jerichow until about five minutes before its showtime, but when I realized it was by the director of Yella (which I regrettably missed last year) and starred Benno F├╝rmann (The Princess and the Warrior), it was an easy decision. Wow, was that worth it. It's the impossibly simple story of three deceptively complex characters (the suspense comes easily as we learn about their backstories at the same time they do) who just want a little something more in their lives. If not for a convenient plot device in the last few minutes, Jerichow would have been nearly perfect, but even that flaw doesn't significantly take away from it. I don't know why it's so hard for American directors to make suspense thrillers like this. Get rid of the manipulative music and memorable quotes; all that's needed are believable characters making questionable - but not unreasonable - decisions. Jerichow doesn't play again at MSPIFF but it will receive limited distribution later this spring/summer.

Tokyo Sonata (A-)
Japan/Netherlands/China (2008); Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Winner of the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes last year, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's meditative drama about an unhappy family reminded me of American Beauty set in Tokyo. They're moody, unfulfilled, and don't particularly like or trust each other. Taken in context it's a pretty powerful illustration of what may be happening in many cities as the unemployment numbers rise, but even without the topical urgency it provides a fascinating look at contemporary Japanese culture. A fair amount of patience is required on the part of the viewer, but I found it worth the wait as Tokyo Sonata boasts my favorite ending scene of any movie so far this year. It also does not play again at MSPIFF, but is definitely recommended on its return to Minneapolis on May 15.

Yep, it was a high-quality weekend at MSPIFF, and the four on my list for this week (Moon, Tyson, Oblivion, The Infinite Border) look pretty promising. I cannot take this festival for granted.


  1. Glad you liked "Three Monkeys" Daniel!

    It just took home the jury prize for Best Narrative Feature at RiverRun, and a Best Actress prize Hatice Aslan.

    Right now "Tokyo Sonata" is my #2 film of the year, after "Goodbye Solo," and I definitely agree about the ending.

  2. Yes, your recommendations have been right on so far, Matthew. I'm actually glad Three Monkeys only played online for the one day because it really deserves to be seen theatrically. Hatice Aslan looked very familiar to me throughout - she did a great job.

    One major mark of embarrassment for MSPIFF is that there are no awards. It's outrageous, really. Actually I should say they do have a Best Narrative Feature but it's only among 9 of the smallest films, and it's not mentioned during the festival at all. I don't understand why it would be so hard to organize an audience award at the very least. Anyway, like I said at the end here, I have to be happy with what we do have.

  3. Saw "Heart of Fire" earlier this week, and just...wow. It's amazing. This may stay in my top ten till the end of the year, who knows? It's damn close to the best thing I've seen all year.

    I really hope it gets US distribution. Just talked to it's PR people today and they said it was still up in the air. Nothing nailed down yet because of limited budget and marketability. Which is a shame, it's incredible.

  4. Also, I was the same way about "Il Divo" at first...probably what I get for trying to watch it at 2 AM. But after watching it again I really appreciated it more.

  5. Wow, Matthew, that's incredibly high praise for Heart of Fire. I did give it 4/4 stars, but I didn't think it was quite perfect for those who don't know anything about the Ethiopian-Eritrean war. As a study of this one girl's story it was quite good, but being based on a book and true story I would have liked to get a little more of an update on her. The little girl was amazing, that can't be denied. And it would be great if it gets a wider release.

    Il Divo comes back here in a couple of weeks for a short run, and though I owe it another look, it probably won't happen right now.

  6. I actually knew nothing about the Eritrea/Ethiopia conflict going it. I didn't even know there was a conflict there, so I went in blind and it didn't hamper my enjoyment of the story at all.

    Aesthetically, emotionally...it really blew me away.

  7. Well it definitely surprised me quality-wise, but I still would have liked a little more historical insight. Here's the book it was inspired by, which sounds ready-made for a movie. I think showing her now, in real life, would have been a more powerful conclusion. But I still really liked it.


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