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Gripping narrative films from the U.S. to South Korea to Syria. Documentaries about some legendary creators and critics. The proverbial “everything in between.” The 38th annual Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival (through April 20) has it all, with 150-plus features and over 100 short films from more than 100 countries and cultures. It all spirals out of St. Anthony Main Theatre, plus other venues in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Rochester. Here’s a look at noteworthy films from the lineup. (All screenings at St. Anthony Main unless noted.)

Hotel by the River
★★★ out of four stars
2 p.m. April 5, 5 p.m. April 8 (South Korea)

“I know what he’s trying to do but he doesn’t appeal to the masses,” one character says of a film director with whom she crosses paths. She’s not talking about director Hong Sang-soo but that line plays like a sly little joke about the elliptical nature of his movies. This one’s set at a hotel where a poet, his estranged sons and two young women wander, trying to find each other and barely connecting when they do. Shot in creamy black-and-white and often eavesdropping on the poet’s thoughts, “Hotel” has an eerie quality, as if the characters are ghosts who drift in and out of each others’ lives.
CHRIS HEWITT

For Sama
★★★★
4:40 p.m. April 5, 2:30 p.m. April 11, 9:20 a.m. April 13 (Syria)

Waad Al-Kateab’s documentary is equally an homage to Aleppo as it is to her daughter Sama, whose infancy reminds the filmmaker of Syria’s nascent relationship with freedom. Living and working alongside her physician husband in Aleppo’s only remaining hospital, 26-year-old Waad offers an unparalleled glimpse into the human toll of Syria’s ongoing civil war. Aleppo transforms from vibrance to decay. Images linger: regime forces shooting an ambulance, doctors reviving a newborn, mothers despondent with grief. Even as death closes in on her young family, Al-Kateab keeps filming. It’s the only way she can explain to her daughter why she stayed. (96 min.)
SABRINA CREWS

Eugen Tsvetkow

Core of the World
★★★
9:30 p.m. April 5, 9:45 p.m. April 13, 1:40 p.m. April 19 (Russia)

There’s no easy moral to this moody meditation on animal rights and human cycles of violence. Egor is a young veterinarian on a muddy farm (in what could pass for northern Wisconsin) that trains hunting dogs. His human relationships are strained, but he’s a natural with the dogs, goats and foxes. His life is upended when animal activists start investigating, with tragic results. Director Nataliya Meshchaninova is as brilliant with beasts as Egor, capturing realistic images of animal carnage (trigger warning) as well as a beautiful signature shot of Egor carrying a wounded dog on his shoulders. (124 min.)
SIMON PETER GROEBNER

The Day I Lost My Shadow
★★★
11:40 a.m. April 6, 9:40 p.m. April 8, 9:30 a.m. April 20 (Syria)

With her debut feature, Syrian writer/director Soudade Kaadan delivers a beautifully observed portrait of everyday life in war-torn Damascus. In the bitter cold winter of 2012, a single mother takes a big risk to provide home-cooked meals for her son. The film’s strongest quality is its sharp eye (and ear) for the civil war’s darker details: The sclerotic branches of an olive grove. A sudden knock at the door. The distinct crashing of bombs as an ordinary family prepares supper. Rich with dreamlike metaphors and domestic interiors, the film offers a distinctly feminine perspective on a testosterone-fueled conflict. (94 min.)
CHRISTY DeSMITH

MSPIFF

Singin’ in the Grain: A Minnesota Czech Story
★★★
2 p.m. April 6, 4:15 p.m. April 17 at St. Anthony Main; 12:15 p.m. April 18 at Marcus Rochester (U.S.)

– one of the founders of MSPIFF – and Dan Geiger follow a New Prague polka band through three generations, making wonderful use of black-and-white 16 mm footage from 45 years ago to set the stage for today’s musical climate. The film shows how the modern-day Czech community still comes together to sing and dance to the music of their ancestors. (Filmmaker attending; 111 min.)
JEFF STRICKLER

At War

4:30 p.m. April 6 & 9:50 p.m. April 8, St. Anthony Main; 4:45 p.m. April 17, Marcus Rochester (France)

Literally 113 minutes of nonstop yelling, “At War” is not a movie anyone will accuse of nuance. The drama about an increasingly violent dispute at a French factory is highlighted by Vincent Lindon’s passionate performance as a labor organizer and lowlighted by a shock-value ending that practically begs festgoers to give “At War” a zero rating. The ending is based on an actual incident but the Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne film “Two Days, One Night” already covered a workers’ strike with more intelligence and heart.
C.H.

The Cake General
★★★
4:40 p.m. April 6, 4:10 p.m. April 12, 7 p.m. April 13 (Sweden)

The townsfolk of Köping — “the most boring town in Sweden” (they even lost their Ikea!) — have had it. Chief among this disgruntled hamlet of oddballs is Hasse, a man with big dreams and a bigger legacy of divorces, disasters and general disappointments. His half-baked vision to bring the town some respect with the world’s biggest smorgastarta — or sandwich cake — earns bemused scorn, but when Guinness comes to call, the neighbors rally to Hasse’s side. Corny and predictable, but leavened with gentle Scandinavian humor, this true tale delights. (100 min.)
CYNTHIA J. DICKINSON

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool
★★★½
6:30 p.m. April 6 at Capri Theater; 7:10 p.m. April 18 at St. Anthony Main (U.S.)

If you were disappointed by Don Cheadle’s biopic “Miles Ahead” (and if you saw it, you were), this documentary will be music to your ears. Not only is Davis fascinating and complicated, which his mistreated ex-wives are sharp at illuminating, but Stanley Nelson directs with the muscle and style his subject deserves. Davis’ distinctive rasp, culled from a variety of interviews, provides narration that zips us through his collaborations with fellow legends such as Gil Evans and John Coltrane, his embrace of jazz/rock fusion (money was a factor) and his kinda blue personal life. (Filmmaker attending; 115 min.)
C.H.

Simon Groebner

Volcano
★★★★
9:10 a.m. April 7, 9:55 p.m. April 9, and 9:20 p.m. April 18 (Ukraine)

A lost international peacekeeper stumbles into a remote Ukrainian town and quickly finds himself a prisoner of circumstance. There’s a rich vein of Buñuel and Kafka running through Roman Bondarchuk’s dark comedy, with lead actor Serhiy Stepansky turning in a stoically horrified performance as a well-meaning unfortunate trapped in a fitfully violent purgatory where chaos is the only constant. Never joyful but frequently very funny, the aptly named “Volcano” delights in tormenting its characters and viewers with the threat of cataclysm, never granting us the release of an eruption. (106 min.)
IRA BOOKER

Simon Groebner

Tito and the Birds
★★★
10 a.m. April 7, 12:10 p.m. April 20 (Brazil)

This dark children’s tale is one of the most visually exciting films of the festival, a trippy wash of oil paintings and stylized figures set against a dystopian nightmare. As society succumbs to a mysterious plague that leaves victims literally paralyzed with fear, a young boy strives to save the day by building a human-to-pigeon translation device. “Tito and the Birds” has its heart and a good number of ideas in the right place, but the storytelling feels rushed, and the central metaphor, though well-considered, is unsubtle enough to hurt its own cause. (73 min.)
I.B.

Seder-Masochism
★★★
9:25 p.m. April 7, 9:30 a.m. April 14, 9:45 a.m. April 20 (U.S.)

Don’t let the morning showtimes or the animation fool you; “Seder-Masochism” is not a children’s movie. There’s plenty of violence and nudity in the latest from Nina Paley (“Sita Sings the Blues”). “Seder” is driven by Paley’s conversation with her father about Passover rituals but it plays like a series of colorful, provocative music videos, set to beloved songs by artists such as Louis Armstrong, the Four Tops and Herb Alpert. It’s a spoonful-of-sugar sort of movie, with fun stuff like a tap-dancing Moses countered by a segment about the creation of Israel, accompanied by images of terrorism and destruction.
C.H.

Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins
★★★
4:30 p.m. April 7 (U.S.)

– including a stint at the Minneapolis Tribune, where Ivins drew ire with a 1969 series on the Twin Cities’ “young radicals.” Thanks to a wealth of archival TV interviews, Engel’s documentary pleasingly bounces along, serving plenty of Ivins’ sharp wit and brilliance with words. What a treasure she was! (Filmmaker attending; 91 min.)
C.D.

The Realm
★★★½
6:40 p.m. April 7 & 9:20 p.m. April 10, St. Anthony Main; 9 p.m. April 20, Marcus Rochester (Spain)

This lickety-split thriller depicts the collapse of a political party whose (male and female) leaders are basically gangsters who will stop at nothing to grab power or retaliate against enemies. Antonio de la Torre plays a man who is fighting for his political life at such a breakneck pace that his features are often a blur. He’s not a good guy but he’s also not the worst of the bad guys, a gray area writer/director Rodrigo Sorogoyen explores in the astonishing final scenes, which end “Realm” on a perfect note of ambiguity and loss.
C.H.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael
★★
4:40 p.m. April 8, 7:15 p.m. Apr 14 (U.S.)

The late, great Pauline Kael deserves better than this documentary. Filmmaker Rob Garver attempts to honor one of history’s most important movie critics. But his approach is dull and conventional, with too many talking heads and movie montages. Sure, it’s fun to see line edits from famously proper New Yorker editor William Shawn; he didn’t much care for a Kael review that included the words “horny” and “latrine.” Watching Kael breeze through vintage TV interviews is a kick. And it’s illuminating to hear various men (including Norman Mailer) pathologize the tough-minded critic. The film certainly renews a fan’s appreciation for Kael’s commitment and fearlessness. Too bad it isn’t half as entertaining as she was. (96 min.)
C.D.

Simon Groebner

Working Woman
★★★
4:50 p.m. April 8, 9:35 p.m. April 10 at St. Anthony Main (Israel)

Orna Haviv, young wife and mother, has found the perfect job as a sales associate for a wealthy Tel Aviv developer. She also finds herself plunged into the #MeToo maelstrom, as her boss segues from suggestive comments and loaded “jokes” to assault. Reluctant to leave a job she both needs — her husband runs a struggling restaurant — and is good at, Orna (a tenderly appealing Liron Ben-Shlush) faces mounting desperation and dread. This tale, at once age-old and newly relevant, has a surprisingly satisfying resolution born of Orna’s resourcefulness — and an unforeseen ally. (93 min.)
C.J.D.

"The Wild Pear Tree"

The Wild Pear Tree
★★★
7:30 p.m. April 8, 9 a.m. April 20 (Turkey)

Nuri Bilge Ceylan is a giant of world cinema but his movies mostly live on the festival circuit here. “Wild Pear Tree” shows why — it’s three hours long, the pace is slow and not a lot happens — but its mordant humor could earn Ceylan a larger audience. Sinan returns from college to his tiny hometown with plans to make a living as a novelist. But, in Turkey as in everywhere, “novelist” isn’t the most lucrative career. Highlighted by an extended scene in which Sinan awkwardly sucks up to a famous writer and ends up getting a spectacular telling-off, the film follows the boastful hero’s gradual comeuppance.
C.H.

Simon Groebner

Let Me Fall
★★★½
7 p.m. April 9, 9:35 p.m. April 13, 9:50 p.m. April 16 (Iceland)

Iceland may be the fourth-happiest country on Earth (per the UN), but its film-fest entries of late have been outright bleak. More than an Nordic “Trainspotting” for girls, this Reykjavik hit follows teenaged Magnea and her drug buddy/enabler Stella, abruptly shifting the chronology over 20 years as the two lovers experience very different but ironic outcomes. The jumping narrative is effective, as characters (often played by multiple actresses) transform in devastating ways. The film indicts a society where family and friends passively “let them fall” to rock-bottom. (135 min.)
S.P.G.

Stalag Luft III — One Man’s Story
★★★
7 p.m. April 9 at Parkway, 4:15 p.m. April 14 at St. Anthony Main; 7 p.m. April 19 at Marcus Rochester (U.S.)

It’s your basic “American Experience”-style portrait, but the late Charles Woehrle’s story is gripping and he’s a calm, detail-oriented storyteller. His niece, Louise Woehrle, interviewed him when he was 93 and his is mostly the only voice we hear other than actor Sally Wingert reading letters from Charles’ mom back home in Pine City, Minn. She wrote to her son at the titular WWII prison camp, also the setting for the classic movie, “The Great Escape.” Although Woehrle wasn’t one of the Great Escapees, he relates parts of that story, as well as his own battle to survive. (Filmmaker attending; 105 min.)
C.H.

Chained for Life
★★★½
7:10 p.m. April 10 and 7:05 p.m. April 11 (U.S.)

There are multiple “tions” in play in “Chained for Life” — representation, exploitation and appropriation among them — but this wry tragicomedy is more than just a message movie. Set during the filming of a throwback B-movie and starring a cast of disabled and abled actors, the film subverts cinematic disability tropes at every turn. Director Aaron Schimberg, who identifies as disfigured himself, doesn’t always keep the satire subtle, and the acting is choppy at times (though Adam Pearson’s lead turn is phenomenal), but on the whole it’s an affecting, unforgettable experience. (91 min.)
I.B.

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin
★★★
9:45 p.m. April 10, 4:30 p.m. April 19 and 2:30 p.m. April 20 (U.S.)

A lovely tribute to a beloved science-fiction and fantasy author. Interviews with Le Guin as well as authors such as Neil Gaiman, Adrienne Maree Brown and Margaret Atwood shed light on the ways that Le Guin reshaped what genre-fiction could do as a literary form. Besides a reflection on her remarkable life as an author, mentor, activist and public intellectual, Arwen Curry’s film aptly weaves in critical analysis of the books and Le Guin’s artistic trajectory, with the help of mesmerizing animation by Em Cooper and Molly Schwartz. (68 min.)
SHEILA REGAN

Botero
★★★½
4:40 p.m. April 12 and 5 p.m. April 20 at St. Anthony Main; 5 p.m. April 19 at Marcus Rochester (Canada)

Fernando Botero, known for his sensual figurative paintings and sculptures, has ardent fans all over the world. Director Don Millar shows us the ambitious Colombian artist’s evolution and inspirations, tracing his life from an impoverished childhood in Medellin. He has overcome tragedies including the premature death of his father and his young son, and a serious hand injury. We hear from Botero’s three loving adult children, gallerists, professors and critics and see a lot of fantastic art, including some surprisingly political subjects. (83 min.)
MARCI SCHMITT

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché
★★★½
6:30 p.m. April 12, 2:45 p.m. April 18 (U.S./France)

Frenchwoman Alice Guy-Blaché pioneered narrative films in the late 19th century. But then she was pushed to the margins, with her movies and even her production house credited to various men in her orbit. “She was more or less forgotten by the industry she helped create,” is how one observer put it. Filmmaker Pamela B. Green makes it her mission to reclaim Guy’s rightful legacy. She unearths proof that Guy-Blaché’s “Consequences of Feminism” (1906) influenced a young “Battleship Potemkin” filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein with its smart take on gender roles. Jodie Foster narrates. (Filmmaker attending; 103 min.)
C.D.

Simon Groebner

Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out in America
★★½
6:45 p.m. April 12 & 1:50 p.m. April 13 at St. Anthony Main; 7 p.m. April 14 at Marcus Rochester (Canada)

“Speaking Out” uses two Hugh Hefner TV series — “Playboy’s Penthouse” (1959-60) and “Playboy After Dark” (1969-70) — as bookends for understanding the counterculture era. The film posits that the two shows pushed forward-thinking ideas as they brought on racially diverse musical acts, provocateur comedians, civil rights leaders and anti-war activists, all appearing as if at a party in Hefner’s swanky apartment. German-Canadian filmmaker Brigitte Berman glosses over Hefner’s propensity to treat young women like sex objects, though the archival footage shows plenty of that in and of itself. (Filmmaker attending; 100 min.)
S.R.

The Deposit
★★★½
7:10 p.m. April 12, 4:30 p.m. April 13, 4:10 p.m. April 14 (Iceland)

After Reykjavik writer Gísella (Elma Lísa Gunnarsdóttir) quits her job, she starts researching a piece about immigrants. She meets Colombian Marisol and Ugandan Abeda and her daughter Luna. She invites them to rent rooms from her and, with generosity proportional to her wine consumption, urges them to make themselves at home. As they do, she grows increasingly unhinged. Director Ásthildur Kjartansdóttir offers a tensely compelling parable about immigration, based on the 2006 novel by Auður Jónsdóttir. (Filmmaker attending; 90 min.)
M.S.

Simon Groebner

Love Them First: Lessons From Lucy Laney Elementary
★★★½
3 p.m. April 13, 4:30 p.m. April 18 at Capri Theater; 1:30 p.m. April 14, 6:30 p.m. April 25 at St. Anthony Main (U.S.)

In north Minneapolis, Lucy Laney Elementary School has more than 90 percent of its students living in poverty and struggles to meet state and federal education standards each year. Principal Mauri Friestlben is determined to change the school’s narrative. Filmmakers Lindsey Seavert and Ben Garvin of KARE 11 chronicle the lives of students, families and educators for over a year as they try a new approach to improving student test scores and supporting students with problems at home. The film is an uplifting yet heartbreaking look into the public school system in this Minneapolis community (Filmmaker attending; 89 min).
ALEXANDRA SMITH

Land of Hope
★★★½
4 p.m. April 13, 2:30 p.m. April 14 (Finland)
The acreage of the title is a hardscrabble parcel in far-north Finland given to young WWII veteran Veikko for his service. To keep it, he needs a wife; and the spirited Anni, daughter of a prosperous baker, is game for the adventure and challenge of transforming the rugged land. Through a hard winter and a near death, with the kindness of neighbors, a little farmstead emerges. But Anni (fresh-faced Oona Airola) proves the stronger partner, understanding that love alone can’t sustain them. An earthy and life-affirming film that lives up to its name. (107 min.)
C.J.D.

Simon Groebner

Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl
★★★½
7:05 p.m. April 13 at St. Anthony Main; 4:30 p.m. April 14 at Parkway Theater (U.S.)

You may not know Kate Nash, but you’ll be on her side by the time you finish watching this documentary about her rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches story. The pop/rock singer turned actress on Netflix’s “Glow” sure has been through the ringer in the music industry, and this documentary handles the twists and turns of her journey ably, with a mix of backstage antics, social-media engagement, and a few stylishly shot interviews that highlight part of what her fans are drawn to: her vulnerability, humor and grace. (Filmmaker attending; 89 min.)
S.R.

Crystal Swan
★★★½
9 p.m. April 13 at Marcus Rochester; 7 p.m. April 19 & 6:15 p.m. April 20 at St. Anthony Main (Belarus)

Anchored by Alina Nassibulina’s utterly charming lead performance, “Crystal Swan” is a familiar story of disaffected youth in revolt, infused with festering gallows humor that makes it a singular creation. Nassibulina is indelible as a sullen twentysomething determined to ditch Minsk for the Chicago house-music scene. When a farcical error forces her to cozy up to an oafish factory-town family, her self-reliant cunning is put to the test. Some viewers may be put off by a late tragic turn, but the steely honesty of Darya Zhuk’s filmmaking is undeniable. (Filmmaker attending; 93 min.)
I.B.

Eating Up Easter
★★★
4:40 p.m. April 14 at St. Anthony Main; 7 p.m. April 17 at Film Space; 4:45 p.m. April 20 at Marcus Rochester (USA/Chile)

Twin Cities filmmaker Sergio M. Rapu shows the effects of tourism, materialism and globalization on his homeland of Easter Island, a.k.a. the Chilean province of Rapa Nui. His archaeologist/politician/entrepreneur father, Sergio Rapu Haoa, believes in modernization. Beautiful young couple Enrique Icka and Mahani Teave struggle to create a free and sustainable music school. Ida “Mama Piru” Huke, who worked in Paris with UNESCO to repatriate Rapanui artifacts, toils to deal with garbage on the island. This is the Rapa Nui tourists don’t see. (Filmmaker attending. 76 min.)
M.S.

Harvest Season
★★★½
7 p.m. April 15 at Parkway Theater; 7:05 p.m. April 16 at St. Anthony Main (U.S./Mexico)

“Harvest Season” straighforwardly looks into the lives of Mexican-Americans working in California’s bucolic wine country, ranging from vineyard owners to management to field laborers. If that sounds like a recipe for a political statement, director Bernardo Ruiz seldom underlines points or takes stances, letting the camera do the work as it drinks in the vineyard’s complexities and contradictions. Crisp, colorful and gorgeous, “Harvest Season” is indeed profoundly political, but mostly because of the politics our era imposes on it. (Filmmaker attending; 83 min.)
I.B.

Whispering Truth to Power
★★★
4:15 p.m. April 18, 11:45 a.m. April 20 (South Africa)

“You have to be inhuman not to feel the pain of the other person,” says Thuli Madonsela, former public protector of South Africa and the focus of this fast-paced political documentary. For seven years, she worked as an advocate for poor people who have complaints against public officials. Despite two decades having gone by since apartheid, the film reveals that inequality and corruption remain prevalent. Filmmaker Shameela Seedat tackles the complex story of Madonsela’s last year in office admirably as the politician faces protests, corruption and other challenges. (86 min.)
A.S.

Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival

When: April 4-20. • Where: St. Anthony Main, 115 SE. Main St., Mpls.; Capri Theater, 2027 W. Broadway, Mpls.; Parkway Theater, 4818 Chicago Av. S., Mpls.; Film Space, 400 Maria Av., St. Paul; Marcus Rochester Cinema, 4340 Maine Av. SE., Rochester. • Tickets: $15; discounts and packages available. Info: mspfilm.org/festivals/mspiff.