The first few days of MSPIFF delivered in promising fashion; a few great movies down, a lot more to come this week and next. Since moving back to MN it's my first year attending as a paying customer instead of a volunteer, so I'm having to be a little more selective...or at least that's what I tell myself, though I'll spend close to $200 before this is over with.
Friday night's Film Goat gathering was a great way to kick-start the festival, so thanks to all those who showed up, including local media notables and also Louis Lapat, director of Win or Lose (which I will be reviewing soon). The Pracna patio was packed and the lines were out the door on what felt like a warm summer evening. I think we're on again for this coming Friday night, but as I'm hoping to see Letters to the President at 5:10 PM, I've got to talk to Kathie about maybe doing this one post instead of pre. More details to come on Thursday, when I'll make my recommendations for Week 2.
In the meantime, here's a quick rundown on the four that I saw over the weekend (none of which were on Friday; I made sure to see Hunger at the Walker before it's gone).
Munyurangabo (Liberation Day) (A-)
Rwanda (2007); Directed by Lee Isaac Chung
Somewhere in the second half of this movie I thought, "Man, this really feels familiar." A young teen in a war-torn African country who is seeking to avenge his father's death? Ah yes, it was the Chadian film Dry Season, reviewed in this space as part of MSPIFF last year. It's terrible that these stories are so prevalent in African cinema, but they reflect the reality of many of the continent's cultures struggling to recover from atrocities like the Rwandan genocide, and if nothing else they should serve as urgent reminders to those still involved with similar acts these days. Interestingly, Munyurangabo was not made by a Rwandan but by an American (who I found out later on Saturday is an acquaintance of my sister), and for his debut feature, Lee Isaac Chung appears to have been a deserving 2008 Independent Spirit Award nominee for the Someone to Watch award (that went to Ramin Bahrani - it's bizarre to think he was so unknown just a year ago). I'm considering a full review of Munyurangabo so I haven't said much here, but needless to say, I recommend catching it its second showing, Thursday, 4/30 at 5:45 PM. (Tickets)
Belgium/France (2008); Directed by Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, & Bruno Romy
The only film from the weekend that didn't live up to my expectations was this tragi-comedy about a pair of schoolteachers/moonlighting Latin dancers. A few set pieces are terrific and the stars/co-directors Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon are perfectly wacky in their roles. But too many of the silent scenes dragged on for 10, 15, even 30 seconds too long, and the comedic momentum really never carried me from one gag to the next. It seemed as if they were short on jokes so they just stretched out each one they had as long as possible. Don't let this deter you from seeing it, however, if you appreciate physical comedy in the style of Mr. Bean. Rumba is light, harmless fun, but even at 77 minutes it seems a bit thin. One of the few comedies at MSPIFF, it will have its second showing Monday, 4/20, at 9:00 PM. (Tickets)
Blind Loves (A-)
Slovakia (2008); Directed by Juraj Lehotsky
One of the most utterly absorbing documentaries I've seen in recent years, Blind Loves is a fascinating profile of blind Slovakians and their experiences with love, life, and family. It won the C.I.C.A.E. Award at Cannes last year, and though I don't know what that means, let's assume it just means "excellent work". Describing this film is a challenge for a few reasons, but suffice to say it was not what I expected and it I'm glad for that. There is no narration or explanation; just observation, made incredibly engrossing because it's done with a steady camera, not the shaky hand-held video utilized in most documentaries. Were some scenes thus staged? Possibly, probably, but these four vignettes aren't meant to be records of events so much as they're meant to be character studies. I think Blind Loves deserves a full review, so watch this space, and in the meantime make sure to see it at its second showing, Sunday, 4/26, at 10:15 PM. That's pretty late, but it's only 77 minutes long and I'm not sure if this will have a wider release, so best see it while you can. (Tickets)
Lion's Den (A-)
Argentina (2008); Directed by Pablo Trapero
Argentina's Oscar submission from last year is a taut and emotionally charged drama boasting an incredible performance by Martina Gusman, who, shockingly, has only one other screen credit to her name. Gusman plays Julia, a twenty-something woman sent to prison on a murder charge following a bloody fight at the the apartment she shared with two men. She's pregnant by one of them, a fact not made clear until we realize that she has been placed in a cell block with other women and, disturbingly, their young children (unless mine eyes deceive me, it's evident Gusman was actually pregnant and had a child during production). It's a horrifying sight to see toddlers using prison cell doors as a jungle gym, but eventually it becomes a new normal both for them and for us. To that end, one of my two complaints is that I felt like a voyeur peering in at the situation, instead of a character actually experiencing it. Nonetheless it was still tense throughout, even through an ending that I didn't particularly care for. Lion's Den does not play again at the festival, but due to the positive reactions to both screenings over the weekend, try to see if it's chosen as one of the "Best of the Fest" held over to the first week of May.