MSPIFF: The Interrupters, Louder Than a Bomb, and more

Reviews from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival

In Another Lifetime

Sunday, April 17, at 12:30 p.m.
Tuesday, May 3, at 7:30 p.m.

This taut, nail-biting Holocaust drama ranks with The Pianist and The Grey Zone. A group of Hungarian Jews on a forced march to the Mauthausen camp are detained, due to a break in the German command, in a barn in a small Austrian village. The farmer who owns the barn (Johannes Krisch, in a powerful lead performance) resents the Jews as much as he does the German officers who force him to keep them there. His wife and daughter, however, take pity on the prisoners. In addition to feeding them, they indulge the whims of a flamboyant Budapest tenor (Péter Végh) who asks to stage an operetta using instruments the family hides in the barn and his ragged, starving fellow inmates as the cast. Reluctantly, Krisch's farmer also finds himself taken in by this mad project—in part because he desperately wants to play his prized accordion. Screenwriter Peter Turrini, who adapted the script from his own play, presents a roster of characters who are complicated, interesting, and at times quite funny. Director Elisabeth Scharang draws indelible performances from every cast member large and small—and makes the last 15 minutes a true cliffhanger. John Ervin

The Interrupters

Le Quattro Volte
Le Quattro Volte
Dumas
Dumas

Details

Festival Facts

Dates: April 14-May 5

Location: St. Anthony Main Theatre, 115 Main St. SE, Minneapolis

Admission: $11 ($10 for seniors, $9 for students) Visit the MSPIFF website for prices on opening- or closing-night films and multiple-show packages.

More info: www.mspfilmfest.org

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Sunday, April 24, at 4:30 p.m.
Monday, April 25, at 7:30 p.m.

If it isn't part of your daily existence, Chicago's recent epidemic of street violence is the kind of domestic issue that can seem just as distant as the revolutions in the Middle East. Hoop Dreams director Steve James's latest documentary spans that distance by placing viewers at the epicenter of the killings and introducing us to a host of people who are undeniably heroic yet unmistakably human. James captures an astounding amount of drama, frustration, and redemption over one tumultuous year with Chicago's CeaseFire, a community action group dedicated to defusing confrontations before violence erupts. The titular Interrupters are former gang members, felons, and convicted killers whose knowledge and street cred helps them connect with kids wary of more traditional authorities. Upsetting, uplifting, and packed with characters twice as compelling as those in even the best crime fiction, The Interrupters shines a much-needed light on America's tragic war at home. —Ira Brooker

Le Quattro Volte

Saturday, April 23, at 5 p.m.
Monday, April 25, at 5 p.m.

Grave, beautiful, austerely comic, and casually metempsychotic, Michelangelo Frammartino's Le Quattro Volte is one of the wiggiest nature documentaries—or almost-documentaries—ever made. Frammartino's second movie is virtually without dialogue, yet filled with the sounds of the world and intensely communicative. The movie's title translates to "The Four Times" but, not simply seasonal, it projects four states of being: human, animal, vegetable, and mineral. Le Quattro Volte begins with a wheezing old man and his herd of goats emerging out of the smoke rising from a charcoal kiln; the movie ends with the charcoal haze of what was once a mighty fir tree drifting across the screen. In between, the goatherd gathers up dust from the floor of the village church, which he mixes in water and drinks each night as a medicinal elixir. It evidently works—the morning after he misplaces his daily packet of church sweepings, he dies. The moment is stunningly casual. Le Quattro Volte is a movie in which animals have at least as much presence as humans. The goatherd's persistent cough merges with the clamor of his herd's conversational baas and tinkling bells. Man has been displaced from the center of the world but, if one follows the filmmaker's logic, his soul migrates first into a newborn kid and then, once the kid is separated from the herd and lost in the snowy forest, into the sheltering tree that becomest the movie's ultimate protagonist. —J. Hoberman

How to Live Forever

Saturday, April 30, at 12:30 p.m.
Sunday, May 1, at 3:30 p.m.

Mark Wexler's unexpectedly entertaining documentary explores the fear of growing old. Driven by his own anxieties, the director seeks reasons to feel hopeful, interviewing everyone from funeral directors to scientists, cyronics devotees, philosophers, and even fitness pioneer Jack LaLanne (who gives Wexler a killer workout). The result is a self-effacing and often enlightening glimpse into the aging process, told with a This American Life vibe. What is the secret to a long life? It's not readily apparent, given that some folks in the film reached the century mark thanks in part to a healthy lifestyle, while others enjoy beer and cigarettes with apparently no ill effect. It's to Wexler's credit that he doesn't try to give answers (unlike some people he interviews), respecting one of the few remaining mysteries of the human experience. Caroline Palmer

Louder Than a Bomb

Thursday, April 21, at 9:15 p.m.
Sunday, April 24, at noon

Each March, the largest high school poetry slam in the world dominates the life of eager, talented, and old-beyond-their-years high schoolers in the Chicago area. Louder Than a Bomb takes us through the year leading up to the 2008 contest by following students from four very different Second City high schools as they prepare for the event. What unifies them all is a love for the art form and a great desire to share their work with the world. Creators Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel don't dwell on the lives that brought each of the teenagers to this particular point—though it's pretty clear that there are a lot of broken homes and tough situations—mainly using those details to underscore the topics that come up in their poems. And while the structure is pretty familiar (getting ready, getting ready, team conflict!, and then the competition itself), the characters are so engaging, and their poetry readings so intense and powerful, that all of this thinking is set aside to just watch and listen. "This is a weird family I didn't even know I was a part of," one of the founders of the event says midway through. That sense of family permeates the proceedings, down to the fact that the winner of the competition isn't revealed until midway through the credits. The rest is about the words. Ed Huyck

Kinshasa Symphony

Friday, April 15, at 6:45 p.m.
Saturday, April 16, at 5:30 p.m.

Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is the third-largest city in Africa and has one of the poorest populations in the world. It is also home to the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste, a resolute group of musicians and singers who overcome considerable odds every day to bring classical music into their own lives and the lives of their fellow citizens. Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer have created an eloquent documentary about the power of art as a means for survival, told through personal stories of orchestra members. The electricity is fickle, many of the instruments are handmade, and life outside the rehearsal room is defined by innumerable challenges, but the symphony does what it can to stay in tune in a country that has seen more violent discord than peaceful harmony in recent years. —Caroline Palmer

My Perestroika

Tuesday, April 26 at 4:45 p.m.
Sunday, May 1, at 2 p.m.

The lives of five school friends who grew up in Soviet-era Russia are explored in Robin Hessman's engrossing documentary. The Muscovites came of age just as the Soviet Union was collapsing and began their adulthood in earnest in the heady years of perestroika, glasnost, and the collapse of the order that had raised them. Now in their early 40s, the former classmates find themselves surrounded by typical middle-age concerns—and wondering what happened to the revolution they watched as youngsters. They run up and down the economic ladder, from punk rocker/street musician Ruslan (who wants nothing to do with capitalism or the current Russian order) to Andrei (who sells exclusive men's shirts and owns 17 stores across the globe). The main focus is on schoolteachers Borya and Lyuba, who share a tiny apartment—the one Borya has lived in his entire life—with their son, while trying to make sense of their world. As their current stories unfold, we hear about the comfortable conformity (or fight against it) of their Soviet youth followed by the heady days of the 1980s and early '90s, when choices in politics, clothes, and music erupted around them. Apart from some television footage, modern-day politics are mainly on the sideline here, as Hessman gives each of the stories the space needed so we get to know each of the characters' dreams, histories, and quirks. —Ed Huyck

Dossier K

Monday, April 18, at 6:45 p.m.
Friday, April 29, at 9:30 p.m.

If the prospect of a Belgian cop movie filtered through the Albanian mob's insular, sometimes inscrutable code of honor sounds daunting, don't worry. It turns out gangster cinema is a universal language, and veteran director Jan Verheyen is fairly fluent in it. There's nothing particularly novel about the story—a by-the-book detective and a revenge-minded enforcer follow parallel paths as they work to unravel the same gangland murder—but Verheyen keeps the action tense and fast-moving. The film's vision of a grim, gray, violent Antwerp sometimes brings to mind the chilly efficiency of Michael Mann. Well-crafted though it is, Dossier K really only comes to life when it delves into the inner workings of the Albanian mafia. The mobsters' devotion to ancient codes and family ties is as fascinating as the adjacent police boilerplate is formulaic. —Ira Brooker

A Good Man

Sunday, April 24,at 2 p.m.
Tuesday, April 26, at 6:45 p.m.

Chris and Rachel Rohrlach's story is one of those real-life tales that would need a massive make-under to work as fiction: Pregnant with Chris's child when she was 21, Rachel had a massive stroke that left her a quadriplegic. The couple married anyway and built a life on a farm in the Australian Outback, with Chris tending to his newborn son, his invalid wife, and a flock of sheep. Drought threatens the farm 14 years later just as a second son is born; Chris's big idea is to build and operate a brothel (legal in New South Wales) to keep the family afloat. Director Safina Uberoi struck gold with her title subject, a congenital joker with an implacable will whose load-bearing personality could prop up at least three documentaries. Supported by their families but facing community protest, Chris and his partners (two fellow farmers) fail to imagine that a well-built brothel with "nice, clean sex workers" could be construed as anything other than a foolproof business plan. The story of their disillusionment gets away from Uberoi, as well it might: Each potential stand-alone narrative gets tangled with the next, with none of them emerging to form a satisfying arc. Michelle Orange

Bill Cunningham New York

Monday, April 18, at 7 p.m.
Tuesday, April 26, at 9:45 p.m.

No passion for fashion is required to enjoy this absorbing portrait of legendary New York Times "On the Street" photographer Bill Cunningham, but a sense of history and tragedy might help. Director Richard Press doggedly shadows the chipper octogenarian, foregrounding the modest lifestyle and quietly radical work ethic that have made him as much a hero as an anomaly. Several big-name fans offer enthusiastic tributes, including a positively bubbly Anna Wintour, but the film is no more a document of high style than Cunningham is a spendthrift. Instead, Press has crafted a near-Buddhist reflection on what it takes to fully engage Gotham, as well as an astute snapshot of its evermore avaricious soul: Cunningham's cheerful asceticism is so out of step with what we currently expect (and don't expect) from our city that tagging along with him is a bracing reminder of what's been lost to the bottom line. Perhaps inevitably, Press also slyly raises the question of whether Cunningham's self-deprivation and single-minded focus on surface aesthetics ("If it isn't something a woman can wear, I'm not interested") have taken an unacknowledged toll. Decide for yourself whether the climactic Oprah moment is earned or contrived; it's heartbreaking either way. Mark Holcomb

If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle

Monday, April 25, at 9:30 p.m.
Saturday, April 30, at 5:30pm

Youthful offender, two years in juvenile detention and only a week from release, gets a visit from his dysfunctional family and flips out big-time in this memorable first feature from fertile Romania. For most of its 94 minutes, Florin Serban's If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle is straightforward and observational, using a largely nonprofessional cast to dramatize the prison routine and its sometimes mysterious hierarchy, as well as the pressures building inside the close-cropped skull of its handsome antihero Silviu (neophyte actor George Pistereanu). Understatement only heightens the sense of smoldering resentment. Self-contained Silviu, often shown in Dardenne-style back-of-the-head close-ups plowing through his confined world, is fatally unable to articulate his situation—a plight emphasized by the pretty young sociology student (Ada Condeescu) who arrives on a mission to interview the inmates. If I Want to Whistle is slack yet taut—tension builds whenever Serban hits the narrative pause button. Even once all hell finally breaks loose, the suspense is enhanced by lengthy stand-offs, real-time delays, and pervasive confusion on how to best handle a situation gone wildly out of control. The viewer is prompted to ponder the crisis's possible (and unpredictable) resolution as well as the degree to which Silviu's freak-out was premeditated. It's a measure of the movie's success that one oscillates between two despairs—noting the abject failure of the system and the utter futility of revolt. —J. Hoberman

L'Autre Dumas

Tuesday, April 19, at 6:45 p.m.
Saturday, April 23, at 6:30 p.m.
Wednesday, April 27, at 4:30 p.m.

This 2010 film from director Safy Nebbou delves into a controversy from French literary history: Whether revered writer Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo) actually authored all of his work. The Other Dumas is a fictionalized account of the real-life relationship between hedonist Dumas (Gérard Depardieu) and his uptight co-writer Auguste Maquet (Benoît Poelvoorde). The story plays with the topic of appropriated identity when Maquet, acting as Dumas, attempts to seduce a beautiful revolutionary (Mélanie Thierry). The outcome of this well-acted and scenically beautiful film surprises in that neither of the main characters remains true to the selves we imagine for them. And while debate continues about who was the true master of the pen, Nebbou gives us plenty to ponder about individual desire to break free of a prescribed role. —Caroline Palmer

Honeymoons

Friday, April 22, at 5:30 p.m.
Tuesday, May 3, at 7:15pm

In modern-day Albania and Serbia, two very different couples attempt to leave their homelands for a better life in the EU, but their countries' violent histories catch up with them along the way in this film from Goran Paskaljevic. In one storyline, a young man and the fiancé of his missing brother make plans to escape to Italy. In the other, a cellist and his wife make plans to travel to Vienna for an audition. Their plans are stopped by an attack in Kosovo, where two Italian soldiers are killed. As each storyline develops, the modern-day Balkans are revealed through Paskaljevi's crystal clear direction and strong attention to detail. The richly detailed wedding scenes–not of the main characters, but of relatives–showcase a collision between cultures, both within the lands (essentially, city vs. country) and when they emerge from their Eastern European homes in search of a better life. It's part of the story's wry irony that these essentially apolitical characters find their dreams derailed by a decidedly political act. The film's odd structure, taking us deep into one storyline before ever introducing the second and then eventually settling into a cross-cutting approach, may make for an initial disconnect, but the overall quality of the film, from design to acting to direction, works through any of those issues. —Ed Huyck

Nostalgia for the Light

Saturday, April 16, at 12:30 p.m.
Monday, April 18, at 8:45 p.m.

Chile's self-appointed, one-man Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Patricio Guzmán, has devoted the past four decades to chronicling the short-lived Allende administration and the Pinochet dark ages that followed, long after his countrymen wanted him to stop. At first blush, though, his new documentary detours toward astronomy, landing rather Herzog-ishly in the Atacama Desert, the elevation and absolute dryness of which make it one of the globe's optimal observatory locations. Guzmán uses the stars' distance to ruminate on the nature of time—as in, everything, even light, even this, is in the past. He eventually winds his way around to how time has treated the ghost-town-turned-concentration-camp of Chacabuco, its ex-prisoners, the dumped bones of disappeared Pinochet victims, and the tough, striking old women who still scour the desert plateau on foot hunting for remains. Guzmán fugue-weaves all over the place, montage-cutting from the lunar surface to giant close-ups of calcified bone, and the film's philosophical musings slowly funnel down into a silent yowl of rage and a desperate plea for remembrance. (If Guzmán is to be believed, Chileans have an even stronger urge to forget than Americans do.) Often stark and ravishing, Nostalgia for the Light is most moving as a manifestation of the filmmaker's stubborn righteousness. Michael Atkinson

Cracks

Friday, April 15, at 9:45 p.m.
Sunday, April 17, at 4 p.m.

As boarding-school bodice-rippers go, this assured debut by British director and girls'-school alumna Jordan Scott fairly bursts with pent-up carnality trying to ripen under rigid autocracy laden with lesbian denial. Shot in a lushly wild corner of Ireland, Cracks looks as lovely as a colorized old postcard, all vibrant vermilions and deep blues to set off the ethereal beauty of Casino Royale Bond girl Eva Green. Alas, the hopelessly miscast Green is too darn French, lacking the voraciously loony brio it takes to play Miss G, a glamorous but increasingly unhinged teacher who lives for her pubescent maidens while dreaming of foreign travel. Much of the pleasure comes instead from the erotic symbiosis of the mädchen in school uniform, topped off by a sharply intelligent performance from Juno Temple (Kaboom) as a smart but unfinished head-girl type whose perch as teacher's pet is toppled by the arrival of a pneumatic Spanish blueblood (María Valverde) who catches Miss G's roving eye. Copious diving into lakes, scads of Jean Brodie dialogue ("Do you have desire, gehls?"), and midnight feasting in drag follow. All of which is heavy-breathing fun until an ill-judged lapse into Lord of the Flies territory and a Jean Rhysian climax all but bury the message about the evils of repression. Ella Taylor

Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune

Friday, April 15, at 9:15 p.m.
Wednesday, April 20, at 4:30 p.m.

Protest singer-songwriter Phil Ochs, with just a guitar and a vibrato tenor, found the sources for his lyrics in daily and weekly periodicals, titling his 1964 debut album All the News That's Fit to Sing. Rich in archival material, Kenneth Bowser's documentary traces his subject from handsome, skittishly affable troubadour in a turtleneck to a mentally ill ranter puffy from too much drink and irrevocably broken after the Chicago '68 riots (Ochs hanged himself in 1976, at age 35). Fans Christopher Hitchens and Sean Penn praise the sting of Ochs's songs like "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" (particularly when compared with the anodyne offerings of folkies like Peter, Paul, and Mary), but the more illuminating anecdotes come from those who knew and worked with the performer closely. Gaslight Café manager Sam Hood dismisses Bob Dylan, with whom Ochs had a friendly rivalry if pathological attachment, as a "prick"; journalist Lucian Truscott IV recalls of the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK, "I think Phil was a big enough egomaniac to take it all personally." Though hewing to a too-conventional structure, Bowser's film is densely researched enough to yield insights not just into its overlooked subject but also into his overly analyzed era. Melissa Anderson

Dooman River

Wednesday, April 20, at 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, April 28, at 9:30 p.m.

The sun doesn't make a lot of appearances in Dooman River, literally or otherwise. Taking its name from a popular byway for North Korean refugees escaping into China, writer-director Lu Zhang's film is about as grim as its setting and subject matter would suggest. The story revolves loosely around the friendship between a young Chinese boy and his similarly aged North Korean playmate, but Zhang frequently lets the narrative wander to the fringes of the community. As the snow-covered border town emerges as a ramshackle collective of drunks, smugglers, and barely supervised children, Dooman River sometimes veers toward heavy-handed melodrama (a scene where Kim Jong-Il's televised image drives a man instantly insane comes to mind). Still, the film is peppered with enough poignant moments and wintry beauty to appeal to viewers with a taste for bleakness. —Ira Brooker

Twelve Thirty

Saturday, April 23, at 7 p.m.
Sunday, April 24, at 6:30 p.m.

In Twelve Thirty, getting fucked by a bright-eyed college kid proves a bonding experience for one Iowa family. In the aftermath of three wildly different sexual encounters with twentysomething Jeff (Jonathan Groff), spunky Mel (Portia Reiners), her morose sister Maura (Mamie Gummer), and the pair's mom, Vivien (Karen Young), re-establish a measure of interfamilial intimacy—both with each other and with the latter's gay ex-husband. Sexuality runs from the thrillingly casual to the squeamishly disagreeable in Jeff Lipsky's film, but mostly screwing—like trust, love, and happiness—becomes the stuff of ceaseless conversation. Essentially a series of verbal pas de deux, the film pairs off its six characters (Maura's Satanist friend completes the sextet) in various arrangements for chats by turns aggressive and stutteringly awkward. These exchanges have an echo-chamber feel to them, as if they're cut off from both the outside world and the way actual people talk, but realism is clearly not what Lipsky is after. Instead he crafts an odd self-contained universe in which the characters' compulsive need to explain themselves or simply hold their interlocutor's attention stands in for the meaning of the words they actually say, resulting in a film more satisfying in occasional isolated moments than as a coherent dramatic entity. Andrew Schenker

We Are What We Are

Friday, April 15, at 10 p.m.
Monday, April 18, at 9:30 p.m.

The tale of a disoriented cannibal family trying to survive in the lower depths of Mexico City, Jorge Michel Grau's We Are What We Are is a darkly comic social allegory as well as an atmospheric little genre flick. This promising first feature is nearly as apt to use the power of suggestion as to ladle up the gore, and just arty enough to have secured a slot in last year's New York Film Festival. Grau's opening scene is good enough to anthologize. A wild-eyed middle-aged man staggers up out of the subway, collapses on the sidewalk, vomits black bile, and dies. Passersby are oblivious, and the clean-up is all but instant. Later, at the morgue, a medic discovers an undigested human finger in the corpse's stomach. The case of the missing finger is never solved; the rest of We Are What We Are concerns the dead man's absence. Without him, his family-cum-cult are not sure how to feed themselves or continue what they call "the Ritual." Who are these unspeakably sordid people holed up in a drab, working-class neighborhood? Are they los ricos, los pobres, capitalist exploiters, social parasites, an atavistic Aztec sect, metaphors for Mexico's self-devouring drug wars? Don't look for logic. They are who they are, and mainly they're hungry! Once under way, We Are What We Are is a long journey through an urban miasma to the end of a dark and bloody night, a modernist score adding to the anxiety around the invariably messy kills. This is a movie where mise-en-scène trumps the suspense. —J. Hoberman

Orgasm Inc.

Tuesday, April 26, at 9:30 p.m.
Tuesday, May 3, at 9:15 p.m.

Orgasm Inc. outlines the pharmaceutical-industry-sponsored classification, diagnosis, and marketing of FSD—"Female Sexual Dysfunction"—as a disease suffered by "43 percent of women," and the subsequent race for a lucrative cure. Innovations detailed include the Orgasmatron, a jerry-built spinal-implant doohickey, testosterone patches, and the clinical trials of a cream developed by Vivus, whose offices director Liz Canner infiltrates. Doing the on-camera investigator-narrator thing, Canner sticks to the established formula of strained-gonzo muckraking, including stock-footage asides and devastatingly unfunny animations. There's plenty of inherent absurdity in the marketing-speak from Vivus ("...working closely [with physicians] to develop this disease entity...") and the tests applied at the headquarters of a Chicago-based FSD clinic ("You'll be wearing these 3-D glasses, you'll be watching an erotic video..."). Instead of giving the snake oil salesmen (and -women) enough rope, though, Canner smothers irony with condescending indignation. Too scattered in its arguments and piecemeal in its sources to weave together a convincing institutional condemnation—and the one FDA advisory panel we see does its work quite well, thank you—Orgasm Inc. attacks Big Pharma with little more than sex-positive platitudes, funky-mama coffee-shop strumming, and the usual "We as a society..." and "Our culture has made..." conclusions. Nick Pinkerton

The Queen of Hearts

Sunday, April 17, at 2:45 p.m.
Tuesday, April 26, at 5 p.m.

While watching this French romantic comedy, I thought, "Oh, yeah, this is the country that likes Jerry Lewis so much." Adèle (Valérie Donzelli, who also wrote and directed) is a beautiful young woman who was so dependent on the boyfriend who kicks her out of his flat at the beginning of the film that she acts like a bumbling preadolescent when she steps out in the world. In other words, she is prime bait for the men of Paris, three of whose pursuits are depicted in this rather nauseating farce. The trio comprises a sketch artist whose sensitivity is made loudly apparent by his fondness for scarves, the married father (who sports enormous, Reagan-era specs) of a baby Adèle sits for, and a creepy park predator who forces her into some Last Tango in Paris-style moves that should appeal to those who find rape darn funny. All these men are played by the same actor (Jérémie Elkaïm), which I suppose could be an homage to Jerry's The Family Jewels. Periodically, Adèle breaks out into musical numbers, despairing of her plight with lyrics like "I feel strangled like a Hitchcock heroine" (too bad Juice Newton's "Queen of Hearts" wasn't available). Director-writer-star Donzelli is an appealing comic presence. But her talky script is saturated with out-of-date one-liners and slapstick that's as painful to watch as the silent antics of Stuart Margolin on Love American Style. Instead of Lewis, Newton or Margolin, she would have done better to pay tribute to Joe Orton by titling this What the Baby Saw. —John Ervin

Applause

Thursday, April 21 at 7:15 p.m.
Sunday, April 24, at 9 p.m.

Appearing in every frame of Applause, Thea Barfoed (Paprika Steen), an aging actress and recovering alcoholic trying to get her life back together, is a woman under the influence—of Gena Rowlands's Myrtle Gordon, another aging, alcoholic actress, in John Cassavetes's Opening Night. Danish director Martin Pieter Zandvliet, making his feature debut, co-wrote Applause expressly as a vehicle for Steen. As besotted as Zandvliet obviously is with the combustible Cassavetes–Rowlands collaboration from 1977, his film too often relies on slack maternal-weepie material, as the drama of Thea's offstage life revolves around her increasingly desperate demands for more involvement in the lives of her two young sons. More satisfying are the moments when Thea is thoroughly repellent. Steen, who's 46 and is often shot in stark close-up, navigates one of the trickiest roles to play—the mercurial diva of a certain age—without relying on camp shorthand. Usually an enervating process to witness onscreen, Steen's subtle calibrations of self-hatred and raging narcissism exhilarate. And yet this memorable, soaring performance remains tethered to the ground by Zandvliet's frustrating literal-mindedness. Whereas Opening Night delves into the alchemy of meta-acting, focusing on Rowlands/Myrtle transforming into her role within a role onstage, Applause skips the potentially mesmerizing process altogether, simply interspersing footage from Steen's actual, recent stage performance in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Steen has the aplomb of an actress who knows the fine distinctions between big, messy emotions and scenery chewing. If only her director had similar confidence. —Melissa Anderson

Illegal

Friday, April 29, at 7:30 p.m.
Tuesday, May 3, at 5:30 p.m.

Laudable in intent if creaky in execution, Olivier Masset-Depasse's second feature awkwardly combines a scalding condemnation of Europe's detention centers for immigrants with maternal melodrama. Tania (Anne Coesens), a Russian living in Belgium with her 13-year-old son, Ivan, is sent to a stygian holding pen for undocumented immigrant women and children after she fails to produce the proper identification during a random police check. A prisoner without a name (she refuses to tell the authorities what it is) or fingerprints (she seared all of her digits' pads with an iron in the film's prelude), steel-willed Tania slowly starts to connect with her Chilean and Malian cellmates, who, less fully developed characters than constructs, are almost as anonymous as our heroine. In between enduring the bureaucratic sadism administered by guards who appear to be the Wallonian descendants of the prison matrons in Caged!, Tania calls Ivan, now staying with a family friend, exhorting him not to become the errand boy of the local Russian mobster. The scenes of Tania cradling the pay phone receiver typify Coesens's fiery commitment to the part, but Illegal's plausibility is strained in its final quarter when the mother-martyr thread overtakes Masset-Depasse's jeremiad against injustice. —Melissa Anderson

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