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260 films from 77 nations coming our way in April

ALSO: Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” at the Cowles; the 4th Annual Black & Funny Improv Fest; and more.

A still from MSPIFF’s opening night film, "Yuli," about the life of Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta.
Courtesy of the Film Society of Minneapolis/St. Paul

The 38th Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival is just over two weeks away. Tickets go on sale to the general public tomorrow (Thursday, March 21) at 11 a.m. The complete lineup is already online, including dates, times, venues, descriptions and trailers.

We stopped by the Film Society’s offices Tuesday for some tips and insights from executive director Susan Smoluchowski, programing director Jesse Bishop and publicity manager Kelly Nathe.

First, the basics: MSPIFF starts Thursday, April 4, and ends Saturday, April 20. The 260 films – including 160 features – hail from 77 countries around the world. The 2019 festival won’t spotlight a particular country, but “we have a large number of films from Mexico, and we’re delighted to be able to say that,” Smoluchowski said.

The festival will take place in five venues: the St. Anthony Main Theatre (all five screens), the Capri Theater, Film Space at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, the Marcus Rochester Cinema in Rochester and, new this year, the renovated Parkway Theatre in Minneapolis. “The Parkway is a film venue but also a music performance space,” Bishop said. “We’re showing a good roster of music-related films there.”

What to see? Smoluchowski recommends the opening night film, for one. Based on the memoir by Cuban ballet superstar Carlos Acosta, “Yuli” is the story of Acosta’s rise from the streets of Havana to London’s Royal Ballet. The after-party at Jefe will include food, drink, and dancing to music by Salsa Del Sol.

Smoluchowski loves “Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins.” It’s “Molly Ivins in all of her brilliant, funny glory,” she said. Ivins got her start at the Minneapolis Tribune as its first female police reporter.

Along with Ivins, the festival includes “quite a few profiles of public figures and luminaries,” Bishop said. He pointed to “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael,” “Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin,” “Mike Wallace Is Here” and “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool.”

Smoluchowski recommends that if a film you want to see is sold out, go to the one next door, even if you don’t have a clue about it. She did that at Telluride and ended up seeing “Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out in America.” It’s a documentary about two short-lived syndicated TV series Playboy founder Hefner hosted in 1959-60 and 1969-70. “I went in thinking – why do I want to know about Hugh Hefner? I came out astonished. He brought all of these activists and musicians into his living room, including black musicians who couldn’t appear on broadcast television at the time. It was mind-blowing.”

Everybody’s excited about “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché.” Who? “Born in France in the late 1800s, she made the first-ever fiction film – before the Lumiére brothers or anyone else,” Smoluchowski said.  “She was involved in making more than 1,000 films and directed 500. Her films are extraordinary. Radical. She talks about gender, relationships and race. But she was forgotten.”

The documentary is narrated by Jodi Foster. “It’s really great,” Bishop said. “It’s like a rewriting of cinema history.” The MSPIFF Centerpiece Party will follow the screening. Held at the A-Mill Artist Lofts, it will celebrate all the women filmmakers and special guests attending this year’s festival, including Washington Post chief film critic Ann Hornaday. The next day, MSPIFF will show a selection of Guy-Blaché’s films.

In 2015, MSPIFF launched a Women & Film Initiative to focus on the work of women filmmakers. This year’s festival will include more than 102 films (features and shorts) directed by women, the most in MSPIFF’s history. What were some of the challenges involved in finding and identifying so many films by women directors?

“I don’t think it’s been the kind of challenge people would expect it to be,” Smoluchowski said. “There are women making films all over the world – extraordinary films. Especially in this country, we have the sense that women don’t make films. That’s simply not true. We haven’t had to dig at all. We’ve just found that some of the best films we’ve seen are made by women.”

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The picks

Tonight at the Cowles: Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.” When tickets to all five concerts sold out, VocalEssence added a general admission preview performance to this new take on Bernstein’s work, long hailed for the beauty of its music but never successful on stage. Director Peter Rothstein (Theater Latté Da) has re-imagined it as a radio play, the VocalEssence Choir sings, Philip Brunelle leads the choir and a chamber orchestra, and the cast is fantastic: Phinehas Bynum, Michael Fairbairn, Bradley Greenwald, Liz Hawkinson, Susan Hofflander, Rodolfo Nieto, Liv Redpath and G. Phillip Shoultz III. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($35); 612-371-5656. Orchestra Hall is selling the tickets, but the event is at the Cowles.

The Avishai Cohen Quartet will perform at Vieux Carré tonight.
Courtesy of Vieux Carré
The Avishai Cohen Quartet will perform at Vieux Carré tonight.
Tonight at Vieux Carré: Avishai Cohen Quartet. The esteemed German label ECM is celebrating its 50th birthday and touring several of its artists this spring. Sun of Goldfinger played Icehouse on Monday, and tonight the Avishai Cohen Quartet will perform at the basement jazz club in St. Paul (down the hall from the Park Square’s Andy Boss Stage). Israeli-born trumpeter Cohen, brother to clarinetist Anat and soprano saxophonist Yuval, has made three albums to date with ECM; his latest, “Cross My Palm with Silver,” is spacious, reflective and ravishing. The quartet features Fabian Almazan on piano, Barak Mori on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums. 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. FMI. $15-$25 at the door.

Thursday at the Walker: Next Generation of Parks: Robert Hammond. Created on a former New York Central Railroad spur on the west side of Manhattan, the High Line has transformed its neighborhood – and not for everyone’s benefit. The cofounder and executive director of Friends of the High Line, Hammond will reflect on the park’s legacy, its impact, and the need for more equitable community development. This should be interesting. Presented by the Minneapolis Parks Foundation. 7 p.m. Free. This is a Target Free Thursday, so admission to the Walker is also free.

“The Living Word” will feature a world premiere from Angélica Negron.
Courtesy of the Walker Art Center
“The Living Word” will feature a world premiere from Angélica Negron.
Friday and Saturday at the Summit Center for Arts and Innovation: ModernMedieval: “The Living Word.” Created by Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, a former member of Anonymous 4, with singers from Roomful of Teeth, ModernMedieval combines medieval chant and polyphony with new commissions and contemporary sounds. Co-commissioned and presented by the SPCO’s Liquid Music and the Walker Art Center, this concert will feature ecstatic chants of Hildegard of Bingen, new music by Julianna Barwick, and world premieres by Ben Frost and Angélica Negron. Old meets brand new. 8 p.m. FMI and tickets ($25/20).

Friday through Sunday at HUGE Improv Theater: 4th Annual Black & Funny Improv Fest. This is the fourth year of a festival that aims to raise awareness in the Twin Cities black community that improv is something they can do and benefit from. Daily workshops and panel discussions are followed by nightly performances. The festival features local groups (Blackout Improv) and groups from New York, Atlanta and Chicago. FMI and tickets ($15; passes available)