Cinema Paradiso

MSPIFF’s world-wise film kaleidoscope shifts attention from the multiplex (for the moment)

With America’s status as undisputed titan of global film export—Transformers was released in more than 60 countries, according to IMDb—it’s easy to forget the rest of the world is dreaming for the big screen as well. The Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, a welcome reminder of that fact, is a gourmand’s delight on par with the State Fair and the Fringe Festival—experiences almost impossible to curate with any objectivity. Of course I can’t help trying. Keep in mind, though, that I was able to catch advance screenings of a paltry handful of the roughly 200 titles on offer during this two-plus-weeks—which will inevitably offer up greatness, the odd stinker, the offbeat triumph, and a few head-scratchers as well.

Two documentaries preoccupied with technology open windows onto very different conceptual landscapes, one reacting to the web’s capacity for infinite escape and the other its possibilities for nearly limitless information. Web Junkie takes place at the Daxing boot camp outside Beijing, where young adolescent men are involuntarily admitted by their parents for Internet addiction and compulsive video-game playing. The film is as much a poignant look at teenage alienation in contemporary China as a sometimes harrowing depiction of measures taken to address it. As in most countries, insights here into the teenage mind are less than groundbreaking. “They have a bias toward the virtual reality,” a psychiatrist says about teens as one point—yeah, well, what else is new?

Google and the World Brain suffers a bit at times from Portentous Documentary Syndrome—ominous music over anodyne footage, old film of a speechifying H.G. Wells repurposed as gloomily prophetic—but it’s also a lively and entertaining meditation on Google Books as an update on the concept of the universal library that we’ve tried to build since the burning of ancient Alexandria. Throw in Google itself, and the sum of all our knowledge may well be in reach—the question of what it amounts to follows, of course.

On the much-lighter side, Le Chef is one of the most delightful films I’ve seen in ages. Originally released in 2012, it follows a famous and stuffy chef as he tries to hang onto his kitchen and cooking show amid pressure from changing times and corporate weasels, with the help of a self-taught protégé who can recite back to him details of his own forgotten recipes. The movie is breezy, funny, and in love with the art of food—like all the best people.

And that leaves only about 197 movies to talk about—more than most of us watch over the course of years (Netflix not factored in)—including The Trip to Italy, a follow-up to the offhand Steve Coogan charmer The Trip, and the Minnesota-made The Starfish Throwers. Sorting through the full lineup yields matches for a galaxy of tastes, and it’s more than worth it to connect with films outside the multiplex treadmill. New Transformers, Planet of the Apes, and Marvel Comics films are coming this year, after all, with ambitions that can often erase smaller footprints in the world’s cultural sand.