First half of MSPIFF – Recap + Reviews: ‘Have a Nice Day’ + ‘Anna Karenina: Vronsky’s Story’ + ‘Risking Light’ doc

Wow, time flies when you’re having fun! Despite the initial weather snafu in its first few days of MSPIFF37 (freakin’ blizzard in April!!), the largest film festival in the Twin Cities keeps going strong. I did miss a few events and films last weekend and some films were postponed to the Best of Fest period after the official film fest is done due to poor weather. But fortunately I did get screeners to some of them (nice perk of getting a press pass 😀 )

I also got a chance to interview some filmmakers (best part of being a film blogger!), thanks to MSPIFF Publicity/Outreach Coordinator Peter Schilling and Nemer Fieger. I’ll post the interviews once I’m done transcribing them.

It was so inspiring to chat with Debra Granik, an Oscar-nominated writer/director (for Winter’s Bone) who’s all about the craft of filmmaking and lives ‘off the grid’ from the Hollywood hustle and bustle. Her latest narrative feature Leave No Trace brings to life the story of a young girl, Tom (newcomer Thomasin Mckenzie) and her war-vet father, Will (Ben Foster). The two live off the grid, led by Will’s PTSD, which has rendered him incapable of rejoining civilian life. Instead they spend their days in the wilderness, practicing survivalist skills and keeping away from the crowds.

I have to hold off the review for it but let me just say it’s an astounding film that once again feature a phenomenal young talent (not unlike Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone) in New Zealander Thomasin Mckenzie.

Here are some reviews from the first half of MSPIFF, starting w/ one from FlixChatter’s blog contributor Laura S.:


Have a Nice Day is an animated film about a young man named Xiao Zhang (Changlong Zhu) steals a bag containing a million yen in order to pay to fix his fiance’s botched plastic surgery. Unfortunately for him, the bag belongs to local mobster, Liu Shu (Siming Yang), who, of course, sends some of his people after Xiao Zhang to retrieve the bag. Liu Shu and his team aren’t the only ones Xiao Zhang has to watch out for, as he encounters several people on his journey just as desperate to get the bag from him.

For the most part, this is an enjoyable film. The score is fantastic. Making a gritty film noir-style movie as an animated feature makes for a visually interesting experience; the animation uses striking colors, and the backgrounds are beautifully detailed while the characters are very simply designed, creating a unique contrast. The one problem with the simple character design is that they have very little movement, especially facially, which makes it hard to connect what the characters are saying with what they’re feeling. This isn’t helped by the fact that, according to IMDB, the voice cast is made up by non-professional friends of writer/director Jian Liu, and the lack of voice acting experience is evident, although, to be fair, it brings a more genuine feel to the dialogue at times.

My one other gripe has to do with the movie’s tone. Overall, Have a Nice Day is a straightforward mobster thriller, but there is one “what the hell?” moment that is pretty jarring. There’s a musical number that comes out of nowhere halfway through the movie that is never addressed afterward. It’s clearly supposed to be a fantasy sequence/daydream for a couple of the characters trying to get the money, but it’s the only one like it in the film. If they were going for a more surreal feel, they could have included a few more unusual scenes like this (not even necessarily musical numbers, but fantasy sequences). But because it’s just the one, it feels confusing and out of place.

Despite my couple issues with this movie, I would still recommend it, if only for the aesthetic value. The animation is great, the music is gorgeous, and the plot keeps you on the edge of your seat.

You have one more chance to catch Have a Nice Day at MSPIFF on
Sunday, April 22 at 9:50 PM at St. Anthony Main Theatre 2
Get tickets »


I’m a sucker for tragic romance and it doesn’t get more harrowing than Leo Tolstoy’s classic. This time it’s told from Count Vronsky’s perspective, and made by the filmmakers from Tolstoy’s own homeland of Russia.

Set in Manchuria in the midst of Russian-Japanese War in 1904, the film opens in a makeshift hospital led by Sergei Karenin. One of the patients Karenin encountered turns out to be Count Vronsky, and this unexpected meet-up is what intrigues me most about this adaptation. At 138 min, this is sumptuous, lush drama that’s told in flashback. It traces back to how Anna and Vronsky first met, their tumultuous affair, up until 30 years later when Vronsky finds himself under the care of Anna’s son. Visually-stunning with meticulous details to its gorgeous set pieces and costumes, it’s fun to be transported to the opulent world of aristocratic Russia for a couple of hours.

However, the film often feels too indulgent, director Karen Shakhnazarov‘s filmed the scene of Anna in a carriage on the way to the train station with such slo-mo style, as he did with the horse race sequence where Vronsky is thrown from his horse. As a fan of romantic period dramas, I enjoyed many aspects of the film, but wish it offers more than just Vronsky’s remembrance. I also wish Vronsky displayed more emotion as he tells his story.

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The fragment of scenes of Anna/Vronsky’s romance isn’t always captivating, especially as Anna becomes such a nag the more her distrust continue to smother Vronsky and doom their affair. But that first meet-up on the train and the dance at the ball is the stuff epic romance is made of. They barely spoke but their physical chemistry sucks the air out of the room. Elizaveta Boyarskaya (Anna) and Maksim Matveyev (Vronsky) are absolutely stunning as the doomed lovers, though Anna comes across as a mentally-unhinged woman here. I was also quite taken by Kirill Grebenshchikov‘s soulful performance as Sergei, which made me wish there’s more to his interaction with Vronsky. Their story, which sets it apart from other Anna Karenina‘s adaptation, seems like a missed opportunity overall, down to its rather anticlimactic ending.

In the end, this Russian literary adaptation proved to be too melodramatic, but not as emotional as it could’ve been. Apparently there’s also a Russian TV series version of this adaptation, and perhaps this lavish story is best told in a miniseries format. Despite its flaws, I’d still recommend this to fans of Tolstoy’s classic and those who enjoy elegant period dramas.


As MSPIFF says on their documentary promos, few genres have the raw emotional power of documentaries. Facts are often stranger than fiction, and in many ways, real life stories can be more powerful than narratives, especially when they deal with sensitive subject matter as those presented in Risking Light.

MN filmmaker Dawn Mikkelson’s beautifully-shot documentary is a meditation on forgiveness, layered with a theme that is rarely seen on the screen—forgiving the unforgivable. The film featured three stories from Cambodia, Australia and here in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Out of the three stories, the story of Mary Johnson and O’Shea Israel absolutely took my breath away. A story that made headlines as they both ended up being on The View and featured on People magazine, it’s one that definitely made you reflect on what you would do if it happened to you. As with the other two stories dealing with those who were part of Australia’s Aboriginal “Lost Generation” and a survivor of the Cambodian genocide Khmer Rouge, how does one forgive such evil being done not just to them but their entire family?

Forgiveness, compassion, kindness… all universal themes that everyone from every background can relate to and learn about. I love that the documentary also transport us into three different worlds that couldn’t be more different from each other, but yet carry a similar thread. On top of being substantially profound, this is also a visually-stunning film shot on location in three different continents. Definitely a feast for the eyes and nourishment for the soul. Bravo Dawn Mikkelson and team!

Risking Light has two more screening times at MSPIFF at St. Anthony Main Theatre:

Sunday, Apr 22 9:30 AM
Sat, Apr 28 7:05 PM
Get your tickets »


7 thoughts on “First half of MSPIFF – Recap + Reviews: ‘Have a Nice Day’ + ‘Anna Karenina: Vronsky’s Story’ + ‘Risking Light’ doc

  1. I’m eagerly looking forward to your interview with Debra Granik, it sounds like a fun one.
    As for the movies, I have been thinking about Have A Nice Day for so long now, I still don’t know whether I want to give it my time or not. Might do it eventually!
    I did not know about Risking Light until now but I cannot wait to make some time out for this documentary.
    Lastly, I feel that 90% of classic novels (you know, most of the novels) adaptations could do so much better if turned into mini-series or something like that. Films hardly ever get it right, even 4 hours seem less with them. I hope producers start considering that format, especially right now – the tv renaissance!

    1. Hi Shivani! Yeah it’ll be fun transcribing the interview with Debra Granik!

      Risking Light is such a good doc, hope you get to see it soon. As for the Tolstoy’s Russian adaptation, y’know, since I already know the story, it just felt a tad long as a feature film. But as a miniseries I think it’d be ok and they can go in depth into the socio-political aspects of the story. Still it’s a gorgeous film!

  2. Look forward to your interview with Debra Granik, I’ve always wonder why she hasn’t done another film since Winter’s Bone, which I thought was a excellent drama/thriller. And Lawrence was pretty great in it, probably her best role before she became the big star that she is now.

    I’ll check out Leave No Trace once it opens in wide release, not a fan of Ben Foster but maybe he’s actually a better actor now that he’s older.

    1. Hi Ted! Well I think female filmmakers simply have a tougher time convincing studios to hire them. I haven’t seen Winter’s Bone actually but no doubt it’s a good film based on what I’ve seen in Leave No Trace. Ben Foster is very good here though the young actress is the scene stealer all around.

      1. Oh yeah, I don’t doubt that she’s having a hard time getting work at the big studios since it’s still mostly boys club. Not sure if you asked her but maybe she likes doing smaller movies, some directors just don’t like dealing with studio people.

        I do recommend Winter’s Bone, I think it came out a couple of years before Lawrence exploded into stardom with the first Hunger Games film. It’s tight little thriller and I thought for sure Granik would be a household name after it got so many good reviews. I guess she just knows how to get good performance out of young actresses, I’m sure that young actress in Leave No Trace would be a star after it gets a wide release.

  3. Pingback: MSPIFF37 – Quick Recap + Reviews: ‘Montparnasse Bienvenue’ + ‘Les Affames’ + ‘Room 213’ – FlixChatter Film Blog

  4. Pingback: 10 non-English language romance films to watch on Valentine’s Weekend – FlixChatter Film Blog

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