Dispatches from the MSPIFF—Part Four

This year’s MSPIFF has been a richer experience for me than last year’s. One of the reasons I was prompted to see more movies at this year’s festival was partly due to having hand-picked all of the films I saw last year, only to find almost none of them particularly noteworthy. They weren’t exactly bad—a few were, actually—but I’d hoped they would have been better. This year there has been an abundance of worthwhile-to-excellent movies, and I haven’t yet seen Boyhood or The Unknown Known, two films I’m really looking forward to seeing that are scheduled later this week.

If Saturday, the longest day I’ve had at the festival so far, starting before noon and going on until eleven at night with only one break, for lunch, had a number of underwhelming movies, it still included Alive Inside, a film that was a surprise to me and was a last minute substitution for Dear White People, which was pulled from the film festival schedule so the Walker Art Center could premiere it in May.

I will say this: aside from the excellent programming this year, I’m appreciative of how the festival has been scheduled: breaks are actually built into it. I couldn’t have seen a film around supper time on Saturday had I wanted to. While leaving spaces in the schedule makes for a longer film festival than I suppose many are—over two weeks with another week afterward featuring festival-goer favorites—it means the schedule is fairly sane. I’ve had lots of other commitments to tend to during the festival, but with that third week, I still think I can make my goal of thirty films. Here’s what I saw on Saturday:


The Auction
**1/2 (out of 4 stars)

Gabriel Arcand as Gaby Gagnon in THE AUCTION

Gabriel Arcand as Gaby Gagnon in THE AUCTION

It does not bode well for Gaby, a sixty-three year old sheep farmer from Quebec, warmly portrayed by Gabriel Arcand, when fairly late in The Auction, we see his youngest daughter memorizing her lines as Cordelia for a production of King Lear that she is in. Like Lear, Gagnon rids himself of his property to better his daughters, and we know how that turned out for Lear. While the plot of a father sacrificing his life for seemingly ungrateful children can get soapy pretty easily, it’s to the credit of The Auction that it refuses to turn the heat up too high—most of the story’s dramatic action occurs in moments not represented in the film. Unfortunately, in doing so, the film is left showing us not much more than melancholy. I would have preferred a film that dramatized the part of his life when Gaby comes to the realization about himself that allows him to sell his farm or one that laid bare the devastating consequences of his decision that are intimated in The Auction. What lifts The Auction out of being too undramatic for its own good are the nicely textured scenes of Gaby working on the farm. We see Gaby attentively mending a fence and watching over his flock. But we could have used a scene of him working through the anger and disappointment he tells us that he feels but that rarely surfaces to The Auction’s bucolic surface.

** (out of 4 stars)

From Jean-Luc Godard's THREE DISASTERS

From Jean-Luc Godard’s THREE DISASTERS

Three short movies in 3D by three great filmmakers. What could go wrong? In 3X3D things don’t exactly go wrong, but things don’t exactly go right, either. The filmmakers are Peter Greenaway, Edgar Pêra, and Jean-Luc Godard. Greenaway’s segment, Just in Time,opens the film and it’s visually stunning. But the frame is so packed with sumptuous images, including text, that it begins to feel more like an app one might use when strolling through Guimares, the Portuguese city whose history is the film’s subject. I gave up trying to pay attention to the content and just reveled in the pretty pictures and the movement of the ever-roaming camera. Cinesapiens, Pêra’s contribution, is a cinematic manifesto of some sort, but one that never cohered into a idea I could rally behind. I’ll admit that I liked the line, “Cinema has betrayed its vocation by sacrificing the fraternity of metaphors to the business of stories,” and I seem to hold “realism” with the same contempt as Pêra, but there was too much nonsense to wade through for his argument to be inspiring and his use of 3D was fairly insipid, relegated largely to characters reaching out into the audience. Godard closed things with Three Disasters,a film about film that is aesthetically in line with his most recent features, including the use of digital video employing super-saturated color. I don’t mind this phase of Godard’s career, but it’s definitely not for everyone. Still, even though I didn’t understand how the collage of images related to the crypto-poetic phrases whispered by Godard ala 2 or 3 Things I Know about Her, I liked his segment, which could be beautiful at times, and he did have a scene from a movie in which somebody explodes, so that’s cool.

Alive Inside
**** (out of 4 stars)

Henry, one of the patients featured in ALIVE INSIDE, who had become a sensation on youtube

Henry, one of the patients featured in ALIVE INSIDE, who had become a sensation on youtube

Alive Inside is a moving documentary about social worker Dan Cohen’s experiences sharing music with people suffering from dementia, how it wakes them up not just to the joy of music, but, as Oliver Sacks points out in the film, even to memories and parts of their personalities long submerged beneath their disorders and the problems they cause. It is touching to watch those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s, whose affects range from slightly baffled to nearly catatonic, come to life when Cohen hands them an iPod loaded with their favorite music and slips the headphones over their ears. If that is all the film showed us, it would have been enough to make an emotionally satisfying documentary. However, Alive Inside also reflects on aging and how our culture (mis)treats elderly people, and it shows us Cohen’s struggles to implement his Music and Memory program in nursing homes across the country, facing structural intransigence against non-traditional approaches to caring for the elderly (for “traditional,” substitute “pharmaceutical”), especially those suffering from serious neurological disorders, who are often disoriented and lonely after being institutionalized. It is frustrating to see how a simple and effective way to help address these difficulties has been gaining ground so slowly.

A Wolf at the Door
** (out of 4 stars)
a_wolf_at_the_doorAt the end of the seventeenth century, the British playwright William Congreve wrote, “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” Bernardo, the protagonist of A Wolf at the Door, suffers greatly learning this lesson for himself. A Wolf at the Door starts promisingly. A husband and wife go to the police. Their young daughter is missing, apparently abducted by a mysterious woman posing as their neighbor. Worse, Bernardo knows something, as he storms from the police station fuming that he thinks he knows who took their daughter. It’s a friend pulling a not-so-funny joke to get back at him. The police get suspicious and quickly learn that Bernardo was having an affair, which was just the beginning of his problems. Unfortunately, as the story unfolds, what had seemed like a tricky mystery—just who did what, exactly?—becomes something much more straightforward. What few twists screenwriter (and director) Fernando Coimbra gives the story aren’t particularly compelling nor do they contribute to the tension of the film so much as prolong the answer to the questions of who did what, and why. What contributes to the dissipation of the tension is the film’s structure, which largely enacts three statements given to the police, the third a correction of one given earlier. Making portion of a film really a “lie,” is always a dicey proposition—for many it absolutely ruins Alfred Hitchcock’s suspenseful Stage Fright—and A Wolf at the Door does nothing interesting with it. The film’s story has promise: once we see what’s going on, we wonder if the wolf at the door is trying to get in or out. Had it made that ambiguity more of its focus, it could have been a more potent film.

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