The massive Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival is running now through April 23. Tickets are $7-$13. All films reviewed here are playing at St. Anthony Main, unless otherwise noted. For the full schedule go to mspfilm.org

FRIDAY

They Will Have to Kill Us First
⋆⋆⋆½
7 p.m. Fri., Uptown Theater; 4:35 p.m. April 14. (Mali) 

How important is music to the life of a community, a culture, a nation? In 2012 Islamic jihadists seized control in northern Mali, banning music outright. That campaign of silence forced some performers into hiding in the still-free south. Others were luckier. The jovial rockers Songhoy Blues, whose guitar-driven style has a remarkable resemblance to American blues, received support from international recording artists including Brian Eno, and big fan followings. This stunningly filmed, at times frightening, wartime documentary builds to a hopeful tone with an infectious dance beat. (105 min.)
COLIN COVERT

Alone
⋆⋆⋆⋆
7:05 p.m. Fri.; 6:55 p.m. Sun. (South Korea)

“This place feels like the inside of my brain,” says Soo-min, a documentary filmmaker readying a shoot in his low-rent Seoul neighborhood. But any project that starts with accidentally filming a group of masked men killing a woman gets … complicated. Especially when the men smash you in the head with a hammer. And you wake up time and again in nightmares putting you in the city’s inescapable alleyway mazes. Director Park Hong-min builds a Caligari-level horror fantasy relying less on plot twists than a deepening sense of dread. Its sleepwalking spell has little pretense of realism, but its hypnotic power held me prisoner for days. (91 min.)
C.C.

The Legend of Swee’ Pea
⋆⋆⋆
7:10 p.m. Fri.; 4:30 p.m. Thu. (USA)

Basketball cognoscenti know of Lloyd “Swee’ Pea” Daniels; this candid documentary is the layperson’s chance to see in action the player heralded on the New York City playgrounds as the second coming of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. What happened to the kid whose “almost mystical understanding of the game” had scouts drooling? Family dysfunction, addiction and gunshot wounds offer a hint. Without a high school diploma, Daniels landed at UNLV (though he never played a game there), bounced around the CBA and had brief, sometimes brilliant, stints with six NBA teams. But in the end, none of his well-meaning mentors, including Jerry Tarkanian, were a match for his demons. (80 min.)
CYNTHIA DICKISON

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You
⋆⋆½
7:15 p.m. Fri. (USA)

Famous for creating some of the most controversial and iconic television shows in the 1970s — “All in the Family,” “Maude” and “Good Times” — writer/creator/producer Norman Lear broke barriers that left a mark on American television forever. The directors of “Jesus Camp” shine a light on Lear’s family life, his enlistment in WWII and his stint in political activism, but never ask the tough questions. The film is nowhere near as groundbreaking as Lear’s work, but nevertheless gives a glimpse of Lear as one of the most original voices in American culture. (91 min.)
JIM BRUNZELL III

Kaili Blues
⋆⋆⋆
9:35 p.m. Fri.; 9:15 p.m. Wed. (China) 

This heady deep dive into a mystical China that’s only slightly left-of-center from everyday reality (echoes of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Carlos Reygadas abound) is a slow burn, but the rewards are ample as the supernatural narrative loops back in on itself in this unique time travel story. It’s gorgeous to look at, with an array of circular pans, slow dissolves, long takes (one near the end lasts more than 35 minutes!) and layering of images to create a truly cinematic piece of work. The heavy reliance on style is pitch-perfect, helping to deepen and in many ways tell the whole story. (110 min.)
ERIK MCCLANAHAN

The Invitation
⋆⋆⋆½
9:45 p.m. Fri.; 9:15 p.m. Mon. Uptown Theatre (USA)

After being invited to a dinner party by his ex-wife, Will (Logan Marshall-Green) gets the notion something seems oft-kilter at his old house. Suspecting the party was set up by her current husband (Michiel Huisman), Will grows paranoid as the evening becomes more mysterious with unexpected guests and strange occurrences, creating the feeling that the evening has deeper meaning than just fine food and a few cocktails. Director Karyn Kusama’s (“Jennifer’s Body”) exceptional twisty thriller fills each scenario with diabolical anxiety and tension, building to a haunting and lethal conclusion. (100 min.)
J.B.

 

SATURDAY

Walnut Tree
⋆⋆⋆½
11:05 a.m. Sat.; 5:15 p.m. Mon.; 9:30 p.m. April 18, Rochester Galaxy 14 Cine (Kazakhstan)

There’s a mischievous wit and wonderful gentleness in this Kazakh story of love and tradition pushing a couple in different directions. Set in a rural village, it shows a good guy and his bride-to-be trying to plan their wedding. Unfortunately, her parents don’t like the idea, and local custom insists that grooms need to steal their intended partner. It gets no simpler when babies arrive. While their way of life is unfamiliar, the tone of social satire crosses all barriers. What’s funnier than a little girl who wants to burn down an annoying grown-up’s house? The film shows that ordinary life is similar across the globe and well-delivered jokes are a universal language. Especially when they involve a shotgun. (81 min.)
C.C.

Ghostland: The View of the Ju’Hoansi
⋆⋆⋆½
12:55 p.m. Sat.; 4:45 p.m. Thu. (Namibia)

This amazing nonfiction charmer follows a group of Namibian bushmen who bid farewell to their eons-old way of life. A German foundation invites four to travel to a new planet: 21st century Europe. The culture clash is priceless, with the travelers having their first encounters with fizzy pop-top drinks and huge passenger airplanes (“Such a big car!” one remarks). Of course, when they encounter a 3-D film they simply crack up. They’re pretty sharp researchers, noting that their new friends are all “mad,” and as we see contemporary life through their eyes, it’s a pretty persuasive diagnosis. (89 min.)
C.C.

Tharlo
⋆⋆⋆
4 p.m. Sat.; 4:40 p.m. April 18 (China)

Beautiful high-contrast black-and-white cinematography and a charming lead performance are the highlights of this effective tale about a sheepherder. Tibetan comedian and poet Shide Nyima gives an adorable performance as the middle-aged Tharlo, who lives in solitude in the mountains. Through bone-dry comedy and striking long takes, the titular character visits the messier modern world he doesn’t know well and goes through levels of bureaucratic nonsense to get an ID card. Simple and quite nice. (123 min.)
E.M.

Chronic
⋆⋆⋆½
5 p.m. Sat.; 11:30 a.m. April 16 (Mexico, France)

I know what you’re thinking, and no, it’s not Dr. Dre’s spinoff sequel for the “Straight Outta Compton” cinematic universe. Instead, this aptly titled (though not the way you’re thinking) and truly devastating character study about an extremely gifted, devoted nurse (a near-perfect Tim Roth) for the terminally ill, is something of a mystery that only reveals half itself to the audience. The other half is up to you to decipher what you will from its coded, clinical perspective. It mostly works, despite the inherently depressing material. Don’t be frightened by the heavy subject matter; it’s worth going through the emotional wreckage on this one. (93 min.)
E.M.

Dheepan
⋆⋆⋆½
5:20 p.m. Sat.; 9:30 p.m. Tue. (France)

French auteur Jacques Audiard (“The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” “A Prophet”) is one of the most talented and exciting filmmakers working today. His latest is an immigration tale about a former Tamil soldier from Sri Lanka given a fake identity and family who flee to France only to find more violence in their new home. The film is very of-the-moment but thankfully never falls into didactic speechifying or lazy melodrama. It may not be Audiard’s best work, but its mix of topicality and his trademark gritty neorealist genre aspirations packs a real punch. The experiential, immersive style plays like Paul Greengrass’ take on “Taxi Driver.” (110 min.)
E.M.

My Big Night
⋆⋆⋆
7:30 p.m. Sat., Uptown; 9:50 p.m. Tue. (Spain)

Firebrand Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia turns a lavish, pretentious but tacky New Year’s TV special into a lampoon of the country’s long-running social, political and economic battles. Raphael, a real life singing star from the old days, plays a parody version of himself, the love child of Barry Manilow and Darth Vader. While he primps before taking the stage for hundreds of extras in formal dress, police and protesters clash outside and the corrupt producer tries to run off with every centavo of the budget. The nutty comedy probably plays best to Hispanic audiences, but the zany dance sequences and pedal to the metal energy is hard to resist. (100 min.)
C.C.

Aferim!
⋆⋆⋆
9:20 p.m. Sat.; 4:55 p.m. April 21 (Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic)

Gorgeously filmed on 35mm black-and-white film, this Romanian western about a father and son looking for a gypsy slave who may have had an affair with a nobleman’s wife is refreshing for appropriating a different look and feel than most modern output from the country (which has been producing vital films for more than a decade now). Also to be commended is the filmmakers’ commitment to the project all the way through; the dialogue is viciously mean and period-accurate racism and xenophobia abounds the entire run time. It can be a tough ride, but also a darkly funny one. (106 min.)
E.M.

Chevalier
⋆⋆⋆
9:50 p.m. Sat.; 9:45 p.m. Tue. (Greece)

When a yacht traveling to Athens has some mechanical issues, six men wonder how to pass the time. They decide to play a game to determine “the best in general,” where the winner will be given the much lauded “chevalier” ring. Once the game starts, the men begin taking notes, adding and subtracting points through various demented and silly contests, leading to a droll outcome. Director Athina Rachel Tsangari (“Attenberg”) cleverly touches on the absurdity and complexity of the male ego and delivers a surreal and memorable journey, which should lead to plenty of debates on its own. (99 min.)
J.B.

The Summer Help
⋆⋆⋆
6:30 p.m. Sat.; 11:30 a.m. Sun. (USA, Bulgaria)

Director/producer Melody Gilbert once again reveals her knack for spotting a subculture with a story that needs to be told. This time it’s Eastern European college students with American stars and stripes in their eyes, coming to the United States for menial summer jobs like hotel maid, pizza-dough tosser and fishmonger’s flunky. Gilbert follows several of them, particularly Bulgarian pals Elena and Nikoleta, from emotional goodbyes to families they’ve never been apart from, through the steep learning curve of American culture and back home again, a little blonder, a little tanner and a lot wiser. (67 min.)
KRISTIN TILLOTSON

 

SUNDAY

600 Miles
⋆⋆⋆
1:30 p.m. Sun., Uptown; 7:15 p.m. Wed. (Mexico, USA)

Tim Roth plays ATF agent Hank Harris, who’s taken hostage by small-time gunrunner Rubio after an arrest attempt gone wrong. As they cross the border toward their fate, a bond grows between the two. Both leads are fantastic, especially Roth’s stoic officer, who truly surprises and reveals very little as a cop who’s more capable and amoral than you might suspect initially. The setting and tone feel familiar to “Sicario” and “Traffic,” but writer/director Gabriel Ripstein has built a strong foundation with his airtight, focused script. Everything builds to a thrilling, briefly violent climax (and a slightly shocking reveal after that), proof that a strong ending can often be a filmmaker’s best special effect. (85 min.)
E.M.

Vore King
⋆⋆⋆6 p.m. Sun. Uptown Theatre; 9 p.m. April 19 (USA)

One of the weirdest Minnesota-made films since the Coens fired up the wood chipper in “Fargo.” And this one is real! Well, real-ish. Raymond P. Whalen is a Midwest legend of sorts, a small-time video auteur specializing in fetish films of imaginary woman-eating sex beasts sold online. There’s a market for everything, right? The film is a portrait of the artist as an odd man, swinging across a bipolar route of intelligence and savant genius. If you have never explored vorarephilia, the form of excitement brought about by monstrous creatures consuming ladies, this is very educational. Did I mention that it’s very peculiar? (93 min.)
C.C.

Above and Below
⋆⋆⋆
7 p.m. Sun.; 6:50 p.m. Mon. (USA, Switzerland, Germany)

Easily one of the best and most cinematic documentaries in the festival this year, this is the rare nonfiction film that demands to be seen on a big screen with a proper sound system. It follows five characters, credited only by their first names — April, Dave, Cindy, Rick and The Godfather. They’re loosely connected (though Rick and Cindy are a couple) by their voluntary off-the-grid lifestyles. There are plenty of documentaries about people living on the fringes, but almost none of them sound this good. Swiss director Nicolas Steiner and his team have crafted a visceral, immersive experience that further blurs the line between fiction and documentary. (110 min.)
E.M.

Dragonfly
⋆⋆½
7:10 p.m. Sun., 4:40 p.m. April 16 in Rochester (USA/ MN)

Films about middle-class artists pursuing their dreams while resolving family issues are well-trod territory and, these days, prone to being tossed into the White People’s Problems wholesale bin. But an understated sweetness, authenticity and relatable characters-- against a backdrop of familiar Twin Cities locations — save this one, although its uneven pacing can cause attention to wander. Cara Greene Epstein, writer, star, producer and co-director, has some great screen moments, like a drunken outburst at an art opening, and Terry Hempleman sets just the right tone as supportive divorced father. (76 min.)
K.T.

Schneider vs. Bax
⋆⋆⋆
9:35 p.m. Sun.; 9:40 p.m. Thu. (Netherlands, Belgium)

Alex van Warmerdam follows up his near-masterpiece “Borgman” with a more brazenly entertaining and pure genre film. His particular brand of doling out pieces of a story is one of the most thrilling aspects of this one, which sees two hit men set up by the same boss to kill each other. Like his previous film, he puts to good use a unique and gorgeous location that serves as the stage for nearly all the action and plot. The penultimate shot in a dilapidated cabin that resolves the story is a head-scratcher, and maybe the movie would be better without it. Then again, it’s still got me thinking about it. (96 min.)
E.M.

The Ardennes
⋆⋆⋆½
9:40 p.m. Sun.; 9:45 p.m. April 22 (Belgium)

A down and dirty Belgian crime story that begins as a family drama and graduates into brutal revenge. Two brothers, separated for four years after a botched robbery, follow different paths when they reunite at Christmas. Kenneth, who took the prison time alone to protect his brother Dave, wants to reconnect with his old girlfriend. Dave, who has been on the straight and narrow, can’t tell his big bro that she’s his girl now. Tension ratchets up at a shocking scale as Kenneth’s violent habits reappear, triggering shocking (and at times absurd) repercussions.C.C.

 

MONDAY

The Sand Box
⋆⋆⋆
7:15 p.m. Mon.; 5:15 p.m. April 22 (USA/MN)

Writer/director/producer Jennifer Kramer filters the wrenching fallout of military PTSD through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy. When a soldier (Mark Collier) returns to his small Minnesota town from Iraq following the horrific event that opens the film, he can’t shake what he has experienced. Watching his disturbing behavior and increased isolation after he moves out to live in a camper, his wife (Hope Cervantes) and son (Sayeed Shahidi) pay their own price, culminating in tragedy on the home front. Kramer, who also produced the well-received “Ghost From the Machine,” uses restraint to great effect to drive home her painful message, as does young Shahidi in an impressively perceptive performance. (45 min.)
K.T.

 

TUESDAY

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
⋆⋆⋆
5:15 p.m. Tue.; 7:20 p.m. April 21 (USA)

Speaking with some of the first pioneers of the Internet, director Werner Herzog’s (“Grizzly Man”) engrossing and informative documentary explores the history of the Internet told through 10 different segments. Starting off in the UCLA classroom where the Internet was born, to Kevin Mitnick (one of the world’s most feared hackers), to scientists building autonomous cars, to people living without the Internet, to the horror stories of Internet addiction. Even when most of the material feels intimidating and revelatory, Herzog’s expansive odyssey feels slightly disjointed, giving some segments less screen time than others. (97 min.)J.B.

How Love Won: The Fight for Marriage Equality in Minnesota
⋆⋆⋆½
7 p.m. Tue.; 1 p.m. April 16, Metropolitan State University (USA)

In 2012, Minnesota became the first state to defeat an amendment to ban same-sex marriage. It’s easy to forget how unlikely that would have seemed only a year earlier, before “Vote No” activists took the conversation straight to voters. Michael McIntee’s doc shows how the hard work of volunteers, brilliant use of empathy, and an emphasis on love over politics produced a historic shift in public opinion. It’s an entirely one-sided account, but its individual stories are heartfelt. Don’t plan on having dry eyes for much of these 81 minutes.
SIMON PETER GROEBNER

 

WEDNESDAY

Eisenstein in Guanajuato
⋆⋆½
4:30 p.m. Wed., 7:10 p.m. April 17 (Netherlands, Mexico, Finland, Belgium)

A kind-of glorious mixed bag. British arthouse filmmaker Peter Greenaway (“The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover”) goes absolutely crazy over the top with style (even for him), throwing all kinds of color, editing, framing and special effects to bring to highly theatrical life the 10 days in Mexico that the famous Russian master filmmaker spent that shook his world. I enjoyed its boldness to a point; then its emphasis on style and provocation wore me down and became rather monotonous. Still, for the film history alone, and the chance to see a singular artist tackle a tired genre like the biopic, this is a must-see for cinephiles. (105 min.)
E.M.

Women He’s Undressed
⋆⋆⋆½
7 p.m. Wed. Uptown Theatre, 11:20 a.m. April 16 (Australia)

Though his name is only remembered by costume designers and cinephiles these days, Orry-Kelly designed gowns for top Hollywood stars like Bette Davis and Ingrid Bergman (those distinctive “Casablanca” suits). Known for his clean lines and deft solutions for difficult figures, the three-time Oscar winner was also flamboyantly, unapologetically out, and had an affair with a young Cary Grant, with whom he shared a Greenwich Village apartment after leaving the Australian backwater of his youth. Director Gillian Armstrong breaks up the monotony of black-and-white footage and stills with quirky, color-saturated segments featuring actors playing the designer (Darren Gilshenan) and his mother back home. Fun fact: Bette Davis refused to wear underwire bras because she thought they would give her cancer. (99 min.)
K.T.

 

THURSDAY

Robert Bly: A Thousand Years of Joy
⋆⋆⋆½
7:05 p.m.; Thu.; 6:15 April 17

This film does a remarkable job of tracing the life and influence of Minnesota’s most important poet. Director Haydn Reiss stitches together the identities of Bly — farm boy, Harvard student, war protester, translator, rabble-rouser. He devotes too much time to “Iron John” (and not enough to “The Fifties”), but Reiss seems determined to rehabilitate Bly’s reputation as a nutball drumming in the woods. The documentary is rich with photos and interviews, punctuated by graceful scenes of silent snowy fields. Bly, 89, has said he is done giving readings, so this film is worth watching if only to hear him read, once again, “Driving Toward the Lac Qui Parle River” and “Snowbanks North of the House.” (81 min.)
LAURIE HERTZEL