Donnerstag, 20. Februar 2014

Nymphomaniac: Volume II

"Nymphomaniac: Volume II" is immeasurably superior to its predecessor as it's finally not about juvenile, relatively harmless debaucheries but the earth-shattering, all-destructive force of sexuality. Scenes of grotesque, vile, upsetting sexual practices replace those of theorizing and over-articulation to truly take you inside the mind of someone who's losing control. That sense of dangerous perversion, pathological need that's sorely missing in the first part soars in this one. Also in terms of narrative and style Volume II proves to be substantially richer. Literally within minutes after it opens, we're treated to strangely stunning images the likes of which not seen in Volume I as well as the revelation of a major character detail that immediately raises the stakes and changes the dynamics between the narrator and her listener/inquisitor. Another fundamental reason why the follow-up is so much more watchable is that Charlotte Gainsbourg is infinitely stronger than the fine but ultimately bland Stacy Martin, who plays her younger self. Not until you see Gainsbourg in action do you realize what a crime it has been to confine her to the role of all but a voice in the first half. A naturally physical performer, she allows unfiltered sentiments of pleasure, pain, shame, desperation to parade across her face and body, which twitch, squirm, relax and tighten with such calculated intensity that every blow counts. Add to that the extreme mix of confidence and self-hatred disguised under an analytical poise and she really puts the manic in nymphomaniac. You can't take your eyes off her.

In the third act the plot goes off course and loses its focus on sex a little, so when it comes full circle in the darkened alley, the pay-off isn't quite as fulfilling as one would hope. Still, the actual ending of the movie is one of THOSE that you just won't forget. All in all, this intricately woven film is emotionally and ideologically hardcore, bloodily kinky, unapologetically provocative and offensive. It might not rank among his very best works, but it's a hell of a Lars von Trier movie.

p.s. "Nymphomaniac: Volume I" improves somewhat upon second viewing. The complexity of the script reveals itself more readily, the debate structure becomes more organic once you know what to expect. The Uma Thurman scene remains the highlight and the chapter "Delirium" a drag. For a film thus entitled it also still feels neither sexy nor crazy and as such inherently underwhelming.

Montag, 17. Februar 2014

Berlinale 2014

The 64th Berlinale is over. Of the 24 movies I saw this year, these are my personal favorites.

Best film: "Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross)"
Runner-up: "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
honorable mentions: "白日焰火 (Black Coal, Thin Ice)", "Boyhood", "Hoje eu quero voltar sozinho (The Way He Looks)"

(Fairyland murder/heist mystery set in the last golden days of an European hotel designed by Wes Anderson (u.l.); Brazilian blind schoolboy's discovery of romance and sexuality through all senses but sight (u.r.); German schoolgirl's journey to divinity as propaganda for/indictment against religious fundamentalism (central); American family epic about that thing called life documented over the course of 12 years (l.l.); Chinese film noir dissecting love under the most precarious circumstances (l.r.))

Best director: Dietrich Brüggemann ("Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross)")
Runner-up: Wes Anderson ("The Grand Budapest Hotel")
honorable mentions: 刁亦男 (Yinan Diao) ("白日焰火 (Black Coal, Thin Ice)"), Richard Linklater ("Boyhood"), Yann Demange ("'71")

Best lead actor: Pierre Niney ("Yves Saint Laurent")
Runner-up: Ralph Fiennes ("The Grand Budapest Hotel")
honorable mentions: Mikael Persbrandt ("En du elsker (Someone You Love)"), Cillian Murphy  ("Aloft"), Florian Stetter ("Die geliebten Schwestern (The Beloved Sisters)"), Ghilherme Lobo ("Hoje eu quero voltar sozinho (The Way He Looks)")

(French fashion icon caught in depression, lust, addiction and fame; the smoothest hotel concierge trying to escape imprisonment and save his protegé; commitment-phobic musician coping with a new addition to his isolated, responsibility-free life; son with guilt and abandonment issues setting out to find estranged mother; renowned German poet Schiller torn by his love for two sisters at the same time; visually impaired Brazilian teenager having to clear some hurdles before finding the one)

Best lead actress: Hannah Herzsprung & Henriette Confurius ("Die geliebten Schwestern (The Beloved Sisters)")
Runner-up: Brooke Bloom ("She's Lost Control")
honorable mention: Jennifer Connelly ("Aloft"),

Best supporting actor: Guillaume Gallienne ("Yves Saint Laurent")
Runner-up: Sean Harris ("'71")
honorable mentions: 林雪 (Suet Lam) ("那夜凌晨,我坐上了旺角開往大埔的紅van (The Midnight After)"), Sofus Rønnov ("En du elsker (Someone You Love)"), 黃軒 (Xuan Huang) ("推拿 (Blind Massage)")

Best supporting actress: Franziska Weisz ("Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross)")
Runner-up: Patricia Arquette ("Boyhood")
honorable mentions: Uma Thurman  ("Nymphomaniac: Volume I"), Trine Dyrholm ("En du elsker (Someone You Love)"), Claudia Messner ("Die geliebten Schwestern (The Beloved Sisters)")

Best screenplay: "Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross)"
Runner-up: "Hoje eu quero voltar sozinho (The Way He Looks)"
honorable mentions: "Blind", "The Grand Budapest Hotel", "Die geliebten Schwestern (The Beloved Sisters)"

Best editing: "Blind" 
Runner-up: "'71"
honorable mentions: "The Grand Budapest Hotel", "白日焰火 (Black Coal, Thin Ice)", "Boyhood"

Best cinematography: "'71"
Runner-up: "The Two Faces of January"
honorable mentions: "The Grand Budapest Hotel", "She's Lost Control", "Blind"

(speed, menace, deadly hide-and-seek in the mean streets of Belfast; deception and intrigue lurking under the seductive Greek sun; innocence of first love and other sweet sentiments materialized in an explosion of sugary colors; professional intimacy and personal solitude expressed through strict lines and pushy lens; spotless Scandinavian aesthetics reflecting a pure existence or the imaginative limitation of someone who can't see?)

Best art direction: "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Runner-up: "白日焰火 (Black Coal, Thin Ice)"
honorable mention: "那夜凌晨,我坐上了旺角開往大埔的紅van (The Midnight After)"

Best costume design: "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Runner-up:  "The Two Faces of January"
honorable mentions: "La belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast)", "Yves Saint Laurent"

Best film music: "Die geliebten Schwestern (The Beloved Sisters)"
Runner-up: "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
honorable mention: "Yves Saint Laurent"

Best musical number: "Space Oddity" in "那夜凌晨,我坐上了旺角開往大埔的紅van (The Midnight After)"
Runner-up: "There's Too Much Love" in "Hoje eu quero voltar sozinho (The Way He Looks)"
honorable mention: every time Trine Dyrholm opens her mouth to sing in "En du elsker (Someone You Love)"

Best sound: "'71"
Runner-up: "Blind"
honorable mention: "Thou Wast Mild & Lovely"

Berlinale: Blind / The Two Faces of January

Norwegian thriller "Blind" has a nifty idea that's often utilized to titillating, confounding, shocking effect through intelligent, playful direction and razor-sharp editing. Writer/director Eskil Vogt toys ruthlessly with perception, imagination, sensation, illusion by way of narrating the story through a visually impaired woman with a suspicious mind and some wild fantasies. Very soon the viewer would learn to mistrust what they see as what's portrayed on screen proves to be highly unreliable and prone to shape-shift or auto-correct even mid-action. It gets ever more slippery when possibly made-up characters multiply and step ever further across the perceived boundary of fiction. In some ways this film reminds me of Christopher Nolan's masterpiece "Memento" as they are both essentially about storytelling and the flawed, emotionally manipulated way we have of processing reality. But in this case the result is not quite as compelling due to a noticeable lack of discipline and consistency of vision. One has the feeling the director is having too much fun playing God and gets carried away without realizing it. That said, the script remains a formidable achievement and all technical aspects of the film are pro.

Hossein Amini's "The Two Faces of January" is a thriller set in 1960's Greece involving greed, jealousy, deaths, deceit and questionable identities, all starting with a fateful clash between the affluent and the poor, typical Patricia Highsmith territory that is. This new adaptation, reminiscent of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" in some of its themes, is also very pretty to look at. The Greek ruins and landscape provide plenty of postcard-ready backdrop, the period costume with classic suits and retro sunglasses are darling creations, above all, the cinematography, dousing every frame in tones of tan and amber, gives the movie a faded newspapers look that's timelessly chic. In an airport scene later in the film, the camerawork also proves its mighty alertness, slithering right behind a fleeing Oscar Isaac and creating some über-heightened tension. Performance-wise, Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst are both strong and especially persuasive together as the posh couple. Ultimately the movie is hampered by its own narrow scope and low stakes, though, not being able to blossom into something more intricate and grand than a rather blameless, unmalicious game between three not very lucky/bright people. The plain ending doesn't help either.

Berlinale: En du elsker (Someone You Love) / Praia do futuro

Danish family drama "En du elsker (Someone You Love)" is built on a fairly formulaic set-up and ends with an extra helping of kitsch, but the experience of watching it turns out to be a surprisingly painless one and actually quite moving here and there. Principal reason for that is the quality of the performances, which are individually fantastic and collectively winning. Playing an aged musician caught up by his own past when confronted with a grandson, Mikael Persbrandt is effortlessly riveting. Just taking a look at his face, open, weary like an antique map with entire histories etched on it, and you'd be ready to buy his character's professional cynicism, trained callousness and chronic commitment-phobia right off the bat. His every move and pause carry with them an invisible weight that instantly captivates.The same can be said of both supporting players, Trine Dyrholm and Sofus Rønnov. The former brings her usual tranquility and down-to-earth appeal to the part of the veteran music producer while the latter shows a remarkable level of concentration and composure in many stare-downs with his estranged granddad. Thanks to the collaboration of these gifted, fearless performers, as well as the mostly unfussy, perceptive direction from helmer Pernille Fischer Christensen, there are next to no squirm-worthy moments in a film that could have gone Schweiger in so many ways.

Brazilian-German competition entry "Praia do futuro", about the romance between a Brazilian lifeguard and a German motorcycle racer, starts off slowly and never quite picks up speed. Most of the movie is dedicated to scenes of casual acts that are not very expressive of an inner drive or inarticulate conversations that don't really go anywhere. In fact, the two unhappy lovers spend much of their screen time establishing that they have nothing to do in the hometown of the other. That nothingness certainly comes across. In the third act, when the younger brother with abandonment issues shows up, there are finally signs of dramatic potential but the promise of sparks soon tapers off as more wrong questions are asked and non-answers given. Writer/director Karim Aïnouz has serious problems communicating what he's trying to say, both visually and especially verbally. In the end, that dull opacity and sluggish passivity leave one cold. The cinematography, while not exactly outstanding, is easily the most striking feature of the film. That final shot, following two motorbikes as they glide and swerve through a mystic fog with oiled, noiseless agility, is gorgeous and poignant like few others from all the 100 preceding minutes.

Berlinale: Boyhood / La belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast)

It's hard not to admire a movie like "Boyhood". The uniqueness of the idee and the sheer vastness of the undertaking alone demand respect, not to mention how classily it's been realized. Like no other filmmaker Richard Linklater understands time as an essential element of the human experience and plays with it in the most beguiling ways. Even more immediately time-centric than his "Before..."-series, this movie accompanies a boy from the age of 6 to his first day of college using the same group of actors as family members. Watching these people age 12 years in front of our eyes over the course of 165 minutes is in and of itself a surreal, riveting feast. At some point the mortality of the actors bleeds into their characters and documentary/fiction, life/theater become ever more indistinguishable, cementing within the viewer a true emotional attachment along the way. The movie rides on the strength of not just this temporally experimental approach though, but also Linklater's trademark naturalistic filmmaking. The dialogue, especially, written with an eye for details embedded with keen observations about situations or characteristics, makes the interpersonal dynamics instantly come alive. In the end, what stops me from loving this film unreservedly is, besides the lack of a consistently involving, compelling performance from lead actor Ellar Coltrane despite his formidable on-screen charisma, the fact that it's not always without the feeling of an elaborate science project or a family video collection. So while there's no doubt it's grand and in many ways groundbreaking work, it's not necessarily the most cinematic product. That the message of the transience of time is profoundly moving is unquestionable though. People with children would probably be even more eaten up by that great ending.

French director Christophe Gans' retelling of "La belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast)" suffers at once from the tiredness of an old tale and the tonal imbalance of all the new things they put in there. The whole backstory about the beauty's family members and the addition of those cute but completely out-of-place canine elves take up so much space the critical part of how these two characters separated by everything would fall in love with each other is treated like an afterthought. The direction goes for a more adult-oriented feel but ends up doing only kiddie stuff. In fact, when the teardrop of love bounces off the surface of the magic pond synchronized with the gongs from the belltower to stop all the evil spells, I'm not even sure if kids today would still buy that. Léa Seydoux is a feisty Belle but brings otherwise nothing to the part. Vincent Cassel is given zero to do and pretty much wasted in the role of the beast. Visually the movie probably aims for "The Lord of the Rings" but looks more like Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" or (gulp) Bryan Singer's "Jack the Giant Slayer". There are lavish set-pieces galore but tastefully rendered ones are few and far between. The costumes are sumptuous and more or less the one saving grace of an oft unintentionally funny CGI-fest.

Freitag, 14. Februar 2014

Berlinale: Aloft / Hoje eu quero voltar sozinho (The Way He Looks)

Peruvian writer/director Claudia Llosa's follow-up to her Golden Bear-winning "La teta asustada (The Milk of Sorrow)", "Aloft", is a serenely told, well acted, and, depending on your acceptance level of high-minded tales of forgiveness with an element of supernatural healing powers, affecting familial drama about guilt and salvation. Like all films dealing with manifestly spiritual subject matters, it walks a very fine line between the inspirational and the ludicrous. In this case, I'm willing to give Llosa a pass for being just this side of ridiculous, mostly because she has assembled a cast of actors that brings genuine emotions and compelling presence to the table. Mélanie Laurent is as dependable as always playing the disarming outsider with an unforeseen side of fragility, Cillian Murphy reminds us how forceful and convincing he can be even without cosmetic deformation or creepy accents. Jennifer Connelly does what she does best here, all soulful stares, tear-streaked daze and otherworldly aura. Unfolding in a slightly cheesy parallel structure, the movie itself cannot be called clever for its writing or original in the narrative, but the performances elevate it above melodramatic sappiness so you leave afterwards with a taste in your mouth that's probably nothing new or exciting but also not terribly disagreeable either.

The signs of inexperience and the strains of a streamlined, sugarcoated ending show in the second half of "Hoje eu quero voltar sozinho (The Way He Looks)", a Brazilian teenage dramedy about a blind schoolboy discovering sexuality and falling in love. But the first half of this impossibly sweet movie is a pitch-perfect celebration of the joys, doubts, fears and heartbreaks of adolescence that tip us into adulthood. Writer/director Daniel Ribeiro achieves the miraculous feat of capturing on film the most deeply personal yet universally relatable feelings of longing, vulnerability, anticipation, and that leap of the heart caused by the lightest brush against someone special. And it's all absolute fireworks. His screenplay is a marvel of empathy and the way he directs, traceless and organic, makes you forget there's a camera rolling. That he chooses to tell this story with a protagonist who can't see is a great touch in that the blindness of attraction and the terror of crossing into the unknown could find both literal and metaphorical expression. The three lead actors have wonderful chemistry together, the familiarity with which they interact with one another is the priceless ingredient to a successful depiction of romance. Otherwise the cinematography is blissfully sun-drenched and the soundtrack delightfully put together. All in all, a breezily enjoyable ride with a youthful beat.  .

Berlinale: Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross)

German writer/director Dietrich Brüggemann's forbiddingly strict, demonstratively confrontational, relentlessly watchable film "Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross)", about the journey of a 14-year-old girl raised under the ancient, most radical creeds of the Catholic Church, is an uncompromising work of genius.

Told in simulation of the 14 Stations of the Cross of Jesus in a total of mere 14 takes, the movie is a triumph of the Germanic minimalist film tradition. The formal restrictions prove to be way more than just stylistic stunts with symbolic value, they lock you from the very first moment on in the unforgiving rigidity of the depicted religion and put such magnified focus on the gradual change of the heroine, it makes both structurally and narratively perfect sense. The "faithful" script and the economical direction turn out to be so powerful because they never seek to portray the punishing belief system or the people who live by it in an ostensibly negative way. Instead, it's presented exactly as it is against the background of a largely impious modern world and all the resulting conflicts, absurdities, disconformities take care of themselves, reaping the maximum of dramatic, comedic, horrific potential out of the material along the way. Indeed, by recreating all the meticulous rituals as truthfully and neutrally as possible, the movie makes you appreciate both the awe-inspiring beauty of distilled discipline and the intense psychological toll it exacts. By withholding any judgment of its own, it ingeniously plays both sides and allows you to see from each the incorrigible wrongness of the other.

The cast is superb. Supporting actors like Florian Stetter as the priest ready to turn his young students into soldiers of the Holy War or Lucie Aron as the more reasonably religious French au pair trying to save a dying child, are faultless. Lea van Acken as the girl who can't wait to get to heaven shows the evolution of a militarized mind and a depleted body with tremendous believability. Perhaps even more impressive is Franziska Weisz as the fanatical mother who would stop at nothing to protect her family against demonic influences from the weak and the decadent. It's the lack of vanity and mockery she brings to this role that makes it so fascinating and unsettling at the same time.

Brilliant on just about every level, this movie demands you to take a hard, good look at the meaning of faith, sacrifice, normality through an illustration of circumstances that could be interpreted as inhumane or, just as easily, divine.

Berlinale: She's Lost Control / 白日焰火 (Black Coal, Thin Ice)

German writer/director Anja Marquardt's New York-based drama "She's Lost Control" is a fascinating exposé on intimacy and loneliness in modern times through the portrayal of a young woman working as a sex surrogate. The direction shows great confidence and instincts, designing scenes with clearly defined, emotionally eloquent set-ups and observing them from daring angles. It also puts the characters front and center, exploring their faces and bodies in close quarters with open curiosity and incisive attention. The actors, especially lead actress Brooke Bloom, play their part in making all this exciting to watch as they bare their comfort, awkwardness, lust and pain under microscopic scrutiny to highly engaging effect. The camerawork is terrific, capturing the action in bold, geometrical compositions and bright, crispy pictures. Ultimately the limited focus and lack of a more resounding concluding remark give this film a slight feel of an extended short, albeit one that's beautifully performed and crafted, with an immediate, magnetic pull.

Chinese competition entry "白日焰火 (Black Coal, Thin Ice)" is a very solid detective noir with artistic aspirations and bursts of directorial flourish. The plot is not exactly labyrinthine but has enough twists and a savage premise to be consistently absorbing. The brilliant production design contrasts seedy lime green and loud neon pink against a mercilessly white snowscape, creating images that are visually arresting and evocative of desolation, lurking misfortune. The cast, headlined by 廖凡 (Fan Liao), is good if most of them are not given that much to do, like the somewhat wasted 桂綸鎂 (Lun Mei Gwei) in the role of the stoic femme fatale. In the end this film firmly belongs to writer/director 刁亦男 (Yinan Diao), though. The way he stages and choreographs the scenes, filled with spontaneity, sly dynamics and a volatile mix of gothic gruesomeness and dry humor, is wonderfully layered and keeps you right on your toes. An early episode in a hair salon that ends horribly wrong showcases that ridiculousness and scary realness wrapped in one. Styled and shot with such discerning eyes and vivid cinematic language, there's not one boring frame to be found.

Mittwoch, 12. Februar 2014

Berlinale: 推拿 (Blind Massage) / Things People Do

Chinese competition entry "推拿 (Blind Massage)" tells the tale of a group of blind masseurs fighting for dignity and the chance to love in Nanjing. Through its thematic singularity, realist approach, compassionate tone and committed performers, the movie never loses your attention or sympathy. At the same time, it's just rather unspectacular in every way. None of the multiple storylines is particularly inventive or well-developed. The directness and honesty of its voice is slightly compromised by a whiff of sentimentality. And among its technical achievements, nothing really stands out. Which is why, even when there's a fair amout of sex and surprisingly copious blood spill, this has to be considered a soft offering from accalimed director 婁燁 (Lou Ye). Of the actors, 黃軒 (Xuan Huang) is the most effective, in no small part because of the most fleshed-out character arc. The sequence following a major incident that befalls him later in the film is also the one place where we get a peek at Lou's here largely suppressed visual pizzazz- furiously, kaleidoscopically shot with a strong dose of youthful energy, it's an invigorating but sadly rare breath of fresh air in a movie too preciously cautious for its own good.

Saar Klein is a two-time Oscar nominated editor, so it's no wonder there's a grace and suggestive power to the edits in his directorial debut "Things People Do". But that's the extent of the nice things I have to say about this misguided, ill-conceived, supremely stupid movie about a good-guy-turned-amateur-robber. So preposterous is the premise of the story, so far removed from reality or any common sense its development, one just can't stop the eye-rolling not long after it starts. In the third act, when the screenwriters attempt to put a cool spin on the traditional moralistic ending, the sheer implausibility and laughable simplemindedness of the twist they come up with make it backfire so badly it's embarrassing to watch. There are lovely images of the American southern sky scattered throughout the unlikely chain of events and you just don't have the heart to pan the cast's efforts for such a thankless job, but overall, this is another prime example of something that has no business being at a film festival.

Dienstag, 11. Februar 2014

Berlinale: 那夜凌晨,我坐上了旺角開往大埔的紅van (The Midnight After) / Historia del miedo (History of Fear)

Hong Kong sci-fi /horror comedy "那夜凌晨,我坐上了旺角開往大埔的紅van (The Midnight After)" is overlong and doesn't quite know how to wrap things up in a disorderly third act. The tricky note of creepy hilarity is not always struck perfectly, partly due to the uneven acting, the spotty dialogue dub and the music that's used a bit too heavy-handedly now and then. However, for a good chunk of time, the magic is there: a deliciously evil plot with a familiar but nonetheless irresistible hook, colorful characters carefully arranged in a constellation of surprise, marvelous veteran actors like 林雪 (Suet Lam), 任達華 (Simon Yam), 惠英紅 (Kara Hui) who can be relied upon to deliver their wicked lines with utmost precision at pivotal moments, and above all the zealous, unbridled commitment of director 陳果 (Fruit Chan) to scare and entertain. For well over an hour these pieces are in place and the devilishly funny movie hits that sweet spot time and again, hard. On a technical level, the cinematography is probably too polished for its own sake but the production design and the visual effects are ace- seeing one of the most densely populated areas of the world completely deserted is just so wrong in all the right ways.

Up until its very last 15 minutes or so, Argentinian competition entry "Historia del miedo (History of Fear)" consists almost exclusively of scenes where unrelated people do chores, play pranks, idle or be otherwise occupied, all with a wooden look on their face and never giving any hint at possible connections between the activities or why we should even care. Worse still, the scenes depicting these largely unknown characters carrying out tremendously unexciting tasks are often cut off mid-action, again without warning or explanation. The utter plotlessness and an overwhelming sense of pointlessness make watching the film a vastly trying experience. Starting with the late dinner scene with an- again, completely out-of-the-blue- game proposal, writer/director Benjamin Naishtat finally displays at least an inkling of interest in building something substantial, and in those ending moments one could vaguely sense the promise of tension or harm, but then it just concludes in yet another limp question mark. One must ask what such an underdeveloped, pretentious, stylistically anemic film is doing at the Berlinale at all, let alone in competition.        

Montag, 10. Februar 2014

Berlinale: Nymphomaniac: Volume I (director's cut)

The 145-min director's cut of "Nymphomaniac: Volume I" from everybody's favorite Danish madman Lars von Trier is, considering its subject matter, a surprisingly understated affair. Gone are the lavishly stylized visuals and in-your-face ideological taunts or emotional blows of "Antichrist", "Melancholia" & co. Instead, it's mostly a lucid conversation between two strangers accompanied by neutrally reenacted scenarios from the female narrator's past- all done in a conspicuously unassuming manner with scarcely any aesthetic fanfare. Even more disappointing for people expecting fireworks is the fact that story-wise, the film also misses a lot of that dangerous edge/ single-minded conviction that's been a signature of von Trier's writing. To be sure, there's just as much material in this script as in anything he's ever composed, stacking up references- be it scientific, literary or musical, philosophical discourses, religious allegories in the dense dialogue, and they do contain thought-provoking notes or at least sly observations of an acute thinker. But one can't help having the impression that here he's overcompensating a little, stuffing too much research into a project that's an easy target from the day it was announced. Because seen as a whole, all those discussions about trees, fishing, delirium seem only to function as padding and lessen the impact of the central theme; something organic, conducive that would string it all together and drive home the point is not there. Also curious is how in a movie about a self-claimed nymphomaniac, the sex comes off so benign. Which is not to say there aren't plenty of explicit sex scenes- there certainly are, genitals, orifices and body fluids are all amply featured. But the way those scenes are shot and used in the film is mechanical and clinical more than anything, not really convincing in their destructive power. Of all people, von Trier knows the potential of violence and aggression in sex, so it's underwhelming to see him approach the subject with all his big guns left unfired.

This is still very much a fine movie. In my favorite scene, where Uma Thurman appears as Mrs. H, the comic absurdity and devastation left behind by sexual abandon plays out beautifully and you can just sense the unmistakable imprint of a master filmmaker. It's just a pity that those hefty punches feel diluted in a sea of peripheral concerns. Otherwise there are no apparent flaws in the cast or technical department, but overall I'd say there's nothing to write home about either.

Berlinale: Yves Saint Laurent / Thou Wast Mild & Lovely

The biopic "Yves Saint Laurent" suffers from an inadequate script and less-than-inspired direction by Jalil Lespert, ending up with a film chronicling the rise to fame, relationships, escapades and life in excess of the legendary French fashion designer that's rigidly episodic and insipid in its telling. The production design and- of course- the clothes are fabulous as can be expected but the cinematography is a tad on the drab side, denying all that retro chic an extra radiance that would have probably livend things up a bit. That said, the story of such an iconic figure has its inherent hook, and young actor Pierre Niney's performance as the master of beauty is transcendant despite the lack of rich material available to him. Through those feline features, constantly shifting expressions and slowing evolving mannerisms, he communicates the curiosity, insecurity, desire, depression and the creative burn of a man exhausted by his own genius and it's all mesmerizing. As the life partner of YSL, Pierre Bergé, Guillaume Gallienne is also brilliant, matching every bit of neediness of his counterpart with steadfast composure and adoring calm. Between the two of them it's quite the acting ping pong to behold.

"Thou Wast Mild & Lovely", an erotic horror story set in rural Kentucky, is a highly experimental piece of filmmaking with numerous hallucinatory sequences and random shots of farm animals, grass, distant land, empty sky, etc. It's the kind of movie where characters say completely irrelevant things in response to others' questions or don't even get to answer at all before the camera finds its interest in the next cow. One could definitely call this subjective, immersive cinema as its deeply fragmented structure clings to the erratic workings of the mind and its lensing, by turns crisp and foggy but always trembling with some hidden knowledge, puts you firmly inside a most volatile dreamscape. The description might sound pretty impressive but when a movie consists solely of contextual chaos, dizzying movements and a predominantly improvisational violin solo that just drills and's also the very embodiment of a headache. Writer/director Josephine Decker seeks to disturb via the cryptic and proves she has a voice with this oddity, but the way she goes about it is still far from mature, so while comparisons to Lynch are understandable, they're not shared by this viewer.

Berlinale: 魔警 (That Demon Within) / Die geliebten Schwestern (The Beloved Sisters)

Hong Kong police thriller "魔警 (That Demon Within)" is an unqualified mess. In its 2-hour running time, somehow (poorly choreographed) mass shoot-outs, robberies, double-crosses, demonic possession, schizophrenic killer, repressed trauma all play a role in a loud, clunky, deadly humorless splatter-fest. Director 林超賢 (Dante Lam) fails at the most fundamental storytelling and shows nothing resembling an artistic vision here, jambling incoherent plotlines together with such panicky cuts under such unflattering guise that the film doesn't just bore the eyes but borders on the incomprehensible. 吳彥祖 (Daniel Wu) is a good actor but as the possessed/schizophrenic/repressed cop gone evil he doesn't seem to know what he's doing half the time. All-out genre fares could be welcomed riots at film festivals, but this movie has neither the polished craftsmanship nor the playful tone to be called entertaining.

It's a shame that German competition entry "Die geliebten Schwestern (The Beloved Sisters)" outstays its welcome by running that extra hour, because what it achieves in the first two is quite remarkable: a ginger, finely nuanced, Jane Austen-esque romantic comedy about the relationship between famed poet Friedrich Schiller and the two Lengefeld sisters. Classical in its visual design and verbal elegance but infused by director Dominik Graf with a sharp, contemporarized sensibility, the courtship and the ensuing game of hearts unfold with wonderful fluidity and infectious amorousness. All three lead actors are excellent, offering portrayals of three distinct personalities that are each lovable in its own way and together promise chemical reaction of every sort. The last third of the film makes itself felt not only for the sheer length, but also because the refreshing, post-modern take on ménage à trois regrettably gets crushed by the oh-so-conventional sentiments of jealousy and proprietorship aka human nature. Technical aspects of the movie are all pro, the score, especially, providing surprising, highly effective notes of uproarious joy and ominous gloom, is a highlight.

Berlinale: '71 / Jack

Not being well-versed in the historical background of the political/military conflicts in Northern Ireland would prevent one from following the often unspoken intrigues and plots depicted in the British competition entry "'71". Still, even without a full appreciation of the subtler nuances of the story, it's impossible to overlook the technical achievement of this film. Director Yann Demange, making his feature film debut here, shows a real knack for staging breathtakingly tense, edge-of-your-seat action scenes. In one extended chase sequence set in a residential compound, his directorial prowess is on full display as clever, freely-shifting camera angles, rawly atmospheric lighting and lensing, expertly-timed editing and a riveting drums-heavy score join forces to form such a tight grip over your throat it's the sweetest type of ordeal. Rising star Jack O'Connell has an easy confidence on screen that never wavers but the most watchable of the able cast is the utterly unreadable Sean Harris, who adds that extra cinematic weight whenever he appears. The final act of the movie leaves something to be desired, so the message of war-is-evil/ carnage-breeds-more-carnage doesn't quite come across so compellingly, but overall this is a very well-crafted action thriller about the senseless horror of violence.

There's at once too little and too much in the German competition entry "Jack". The plot is too simplistically constructed, lacking real surprises or narrative its account of two children deserted by their mother and having to fend for themselves in Berlin. At the same time, so much repetition is used (there is a lot of walking and running) to hammer home the very basic idea of abandonment the magical naturalistic ease of a Dardenne film gets drowned out in the abundant triviality. This is not to say there are no moments of true heartbreak in this movie. The sincerely told and cleanly shot family/social drama has good intentions and angelic tenderness written all over and features scenes that just destroy you with their (un)kindness, but the writer/director duo Edward Berger & Nele Mueller-Stöfen, also making their film debut here, fails to sustain that shattering impact and loses much of it to the long stretches of in-between wanderings. 11-year-old lead actor Ivo Pietzcker is well cast as the title character and delivers an affecting performance as the boy forced to grow up by fear, guilt, responsibility and in the end, the most painful realization of all.

Freitag, 7. Februar 2014

Berlinale: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson's movies are always bursting at the seams with elaborate set pieces sculpted to such pathological detail they're like the collective wet dreams of every art director out there. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is certainly no exception, in fact it just might be the prettiest of them all. Whether it be the wintry fairyland of the Alpine exterior or the era-hopping interior design- from turn-of-the-century opulence of old Europe to the utilitarian, ruthless beige of Communist days- virtually every frame of this film looks good enough to eat. Cruising through the lobby, corridors and dining hall of the hotel being greeted by explosions of macaron colors, especially, is like dying and going straight to Ladurée heaven and you just don't want to leave.

What makes this movie a doubly enjoyable experience is that for once, its story is actually coherent and juicy enough to match all that aesthetic indulgence. Packed into its 100 minutes are a murder mystery, family plot, prison break and above all the moving tale of a young man finding his place in the world through the guidance of a cultured concierge holding on to his last days of glory. Coupled with an impeccable cast led by Ralph Fiennes, who seems to have found the role he's born to play in the wonderful creation that is Gustave H., and all the usual ticks and tricks of Anderson that could be annoying and so soullessly theatrical reveal themselves to be endearing magnifications of relatable, vivid characteristics with way more than just neurotic face value.

Realized with dazzling imagination and undeniable finess, filled with visual cues and literary references to flairs and ages past, this movie is a delight from start to finish.

Berlinale: Nước 2030

"Nước 2030" by Nghiêm-Minh Nguyễn-Võ is a vietnamese sci-fi love/crime story set in a future where most of the land is submerged under rising sea water. The production design is adequate if never quite exceptional but the photography is oftentimes hypnotically beautiful as it shows the timesless splendor of waves and light in their lavish expanse and untamed colors. Add to that a mostly experimental score striking in its disharmony and you get a cinematic language that's expressively bold and vibrant. Unfortunately the film is narratively just all over the place, touching upon the melodramatic, the suspenseful, the political, the fantastical without hitting any one of those notes home. The questionable editing doen't help propelling or even explaining things much, so the uninitiated viewer could well be left alternately confused and bored through all that visual poetry.