The Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival is officially upon us and if you’re anything like me, at first, that news makes the inner movie enthusiast in you super excited. Then you glance at the 200-movie-strong lineup full of titles you’ve never heard, panic, close your computer, and go back to watching New Girl. Good cinema can wait until next year.
Well, this year guilt prevailed and I vowed not to let my paralyzing fear of long lists of obscure movies (some with subtitles!) scare me away from enjoying the fact that one of the nation’s premiere independent film festivals happens in my town. Thus, inspired yet still slightly too lazy to actually research and apply myself, I did the filmic equivalent of judging a book by its cover and circled all of the movies that featured major stars. I was left with a list of impressive and decidedly un-film-festivalian names such as Nic Cage, Jude Law, Johnny Depp, and Kristin Wiig, and I was excited.
That is, until I submitted my list to MSPIFF’s publicist and was informed that, strangely, the flicks with the biggest stars are often the hardest to acquire screeners for, which meant my hopes of telling you about Jude Law as a vengeful safe-cracker in Dom Hemingway, Johnny Depp further indulging his Hunter S. Thompson/ Ralph Steadman fixation in For No Good Reason, Nic Cage as a hard-living ex con in Joe, and Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig taking a dramatic turn as estranged twin siblings in The Skeleton Twins were dashed.
Four stragglers from my queue remained, however; a sort of movie star b-sqad list that included films featuring Guy Pearce, Amy Ryan, Thomas Haden Church, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Thandie Newton, plus one outlier, Japanese arthouse flick R100, which starred nobody famous whatsoever but caught my eye because the press still is a Kill Bill-looking lady karate-kicking a guy in the head. Turns out they were all worth seeing, but maybe not for the reasons I thought.
BREATHE IN | St. Anthony Main | April 4 @ 9:55 p.m., April 7 @ 7:20 p.m.
In case you forgot, Guy Pearce is that guy from Memento and also played Ed Exley in LA Confidential. Here he’s Keith Reynolds; a vaguely old-ish musician who saw fringe success in NYC’s rock club scene before he and his eventual wife Megan (played by Amy Ryan who you’ll remember as the one Michael Scott left Scranton for in The Office) unexpectedly had a kid that prompted a move to outstate New York and all the requisite melancholy of abandoned dreams that lies therein. Keith becomes a high school music teacher, Megan a domineering, seemingly joyless cookie jar dealer (logically, right?), and their teen daughter a champion swimmer. All is right with their passively-dysfunctional existence until foreign exchange Sophie (Felicity Jones) comes to stay with them for a semester and, well, their world unfurls in a way that only a whistful 18-year-old British exchange student who just so happens to be a prodigy in the very subject of her discontented host can inspire. The implicit understanding when you receive a screener is that you can’t review the film or give away the major plot points so I’ll stop there . . . But not before telling you that Breathe In's even some uncredited Kyle MacLachlan happening.
WHITEWASH | St. Anthony Main | April 11 @ 10:15 p.m., April 16 @ 9:40 p.m.
I reckon Thomas Haden Church (Lowell in TV’s Wings and Jack in Sideways) is one of the more underrated actors in Hollywood, and if you don’t agree then you should stay far, far away from Whitewash as he’s is alone on screen for no less than 85 percent of the movie. He plays Bruce, an a unemployed snowplow operator and widower in rural Quebec where his existence amounts to hanging out at the A&P during the day, eating chips, and drinking beer. That is until he inadvertently befriends a bizarre stranger, at which point his already threadbare life unravels the rest of the way. All that backstory and more—like that his now-deceased wife made a living painting/ selling eyeballs for baby dolls—you find out in flashbacks as the film begins en media res as a hammered Bruce hits and kills a pedestrian with his snowplow during a snowstorm, hides the body, and drives the plow deep into the wilderness. He awakens from the stupor freezing and hopelessly stuck, and the stage for the entire film is set: it's just Bruce, a broken-down plow, snowy wilderness, and mountains of regret, remorse, and confusion. It's kinda like Castaway but with the opposite climate, more booze, a snow plow instead of a volleyball, and, I think, a much more compelling actor at the reins.
HALF OF A YELLOW SUN | Varied | April 12 @ 12:30 p.m., April 14 @ 7:30 p.m., April 18 @ 4:45 p.m.
I, like you, am a closeted fan of Love Actually, which was my first foray into actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose ever-promising career I’ve followed since. (He just crushed 12 Years A Slave, FYI.) So when I saw that he was in HOAYS I added it to my list and felt super cultured and proud of myself. Based on the novel of the same name by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I haven’t read but have been told is exceptional by someone who listened to it on tape (for real), the story follows a group of people through the Nigerian Civil War. Easily the film with the grandest scope of any I watched (the action unfolds over the course of a decade), Ejiofor was superb as activist/professor/intellectual Odenigbo and Thandie Newton as his embattled eventual-wife Olanna managed to stand up to Ejiofor’s depth pretty well. On the whole, though, the sheer scope of the movie might’ve proved too much for me as the the sub-two-hour running time as the sweeping tale of romance, marriage, and family set into the backdrop of country-shifting revolution and displacement was forced to move too fast through time to ever really let me acclimatize to any of the people as they were. That said, it's pretty startling as a historical document if nothing else.
R100 | St. Anthony Main | April 5 @ 11 p.m., April 13 @ 10:15 p.m.
If picking which movies I wanted to screen were a grocery store, choosing R100 was an impulse buy. The equivalent of a Slim Jim tossed in at the end—not in the bag, please, I’ll be devouring that in the car—simply because all that shopping made me hungry. As I said earlier, from the movie still on the MSPIFF website, I expected nothing less than an old-school kung fu grindhouse flick wherein everyone’s literally kicking the crap out of everyone else from credits to credits. What I got was, well, a lesson in researching the movies you watch before you watch them. It turns out R100 is actually about a middle-class Japanese father who raises his adolescent son with the help of his father-in-law while his wife withers in the hospital in a permanent coma. The rub (because, dammit, would that movie ever be boring), is that, looking to escape the the work/kid/comatose wife grind, the protagonist signs up for an S&M club wherein the dominatrixes inexplicably attack you without warning in public settings. Oh, and there's a catch: to join, you must sign a contract that forbids you from quitting for a year. As you might expect of the darkly funny film, at first the man enjoys his punishment, but as it escalates, he tries to escape it. Before you know it, he’s on the run from one of the more ragtag and multi-talented groups of dominatrixes imaginable. Good fun for the whole family, this.
So there you have it. My take on four random movies from a pool of more than 200. And, while it didn't necessarily go as I'd hoped—I wanted to see Jude Law and Nic Cage, but I ended up with Guy Pearce and Thomas Hayden Church—that's totally fine. If nothing else, that's what MSPIFF is: a vehicle to leave your comfort zone without having to actually go anywhere.