Freitag, 27. Februar 2015

American Sniper

(Originally appeared in the Berlin Film Journal on Feb. 26, 2015)

Nobody crashes an Oscar party quite like Clint Eastwood. After "Million Dollar Baby" memorably parachuted into the race at the tail end of 2004 to steal the thunder from Martin Scorsese's season-long odds-on favorite "The Aviator", and, only two years later, "Letters from Iwo Jima" similarly shot into the Best Picture lineup while nobody was looking, his latest work came on the heels of the disappointing "Jersey Boys" (2014) and landed like a bomb. Breaking box office records left and right while permeating the public consciousness like few others could, it suddenly became THE zeitgeist movie in a prolonged award season, earned six Academy Award nominations and eventually took home one statuette.

Much like "Baby", "Iwo Jima" or another Oscar contender "Mystic River" (2003), "American Sniper", which recounts the life story of US Navy Seal Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper), is a technically polished, tragically elegant film that unfolds with impressive fluency. Despite the massive set pieces and deafening sound effects that go hand in hand with a war movie, it retains a feel of focused, graceful leanness that's trademark Eastwoodian and undeniably masterly. Aided by compact, soberly efficient editing, the narrative is deliberate and economical, moving from life-and-death judgment calls on the field to formative childhood memories, from the madness of ceaseless killings on foreign soil to the maddening stillness of the suburban day-to-day back home. In that process, the viewer is firmly locked in the mind and experience of one individual coping with extraordinary circumstances. Manipulative or not, the storytelling is exact, to-the-point, and compels with a muscular, unsensationalistic air of conviction.        

Certainly the script is not without its faults. The linear, connect-the-dots approach to dissecting a troubled personality can seem a bit too convenient at times and the dialogue, especially the lines of the underwritten Taya (played by Sienna Miller), Kyle's lonely home-bound wife, often strike one as simplistic of the obvious sort. A lot of that failing Eastwood made up for through his composed, fiercely committed direction, but ultimately this movie won't be known for its tact or subtlety.

That said, the themes of the film do come cross loud and clear: who are we if not how we're raised and what we've been exposed to along the way? What's there to fall back on but the sum of our upbringing, instincts and faiths when we're put in situations of extreme pressure and all else fails? How is one supposed to function in a pacified, blissfully oblivious existence after living through such traumatizing, dehumanizing trials? Can a society expect those it trains as weapons to return from duty with not much more than a few scars and some unhinged nerves?  

Here the movie is at its most divisive, in that portrayal of a way of life, a value system could be read as endorsement and depiction of a celebrated soldier could be interpreted as sympathy or glorification, which is just a stone's throw away from the view that the whole film serves as right-wing propaganda, ideological brainwashing. It's not surprising that the film has stirred up waves of controversy since its release in the US, considering how inherently, inevitably political its subject matter is. Especially in times of a polarized America and a world where religiously-inspired animosity continues to take lives, the project about a sniper known for gunning down Afghan enemies and civilians can't possibly win favors with everyone.  

Evoking just as much discomfort from this reviewer as the next liberal-minded audience member, particularly in its final stretches where a sense of martyrdom and hero worship asserts itself ever more prominently, the film nevertheless describes with success a specific mentality that deserves to be known. Based on the Bible, firearms and a survival philosophy that borrows from wildlife, it's certainly a limited way of thinking that carries with it a warped worldview, but that doesn't make the cinematic exploration thereof less valid. And whether one agrees with its innately conservative tone or not, the film represents a distinct and, judging by the phenomenal box office take, prevalent voice. A voice echoed with blunt, almost barbaric honesty. This fact alone very much justifies the making of the film. And however one sees in the tortured-soul narrative a reprehensible effort to exonerate, vindicate or even persuade, it's to be noted that films and other forms of artistic expression should not be discredited just because they opt for a perspective or take a stance.

Cooper is solid as the tough, ruthless, broken, haunted killer, compelling through mere physical presence and a fatal calm shared by the morally certain and doctrinally guided. Miller's performance feels considerably less substantial partly due to the undernourished written material. Otherwise the film looks fine and sounds even more impressive. The action sequences, whether close-range or panoramic, are characterized by a meticulous aural design, adding immeasurably to their tension and transportive effect. A scene towards the end set within a major sandstorm which showcases the various layers of material and movement involved is impeccably executed and worthy of that sound editing Oscar on its own.

Flawed in not unnoticeable ways and so hot-bloodedly Republican as to lend itself to incendiary interpretations, "American Sniper" is nonetheless an altogether accomplished and highly watchable piece of work. It's "dangerous" as many would label it exactly because, cinematically speaking, it's simply quite good.

Dienstag, 17. Februar 2015

Berlinale 2015

The 65th Berlinale is over. Of the 53 (!!) movies I saw this year, these are my personal favorites.

Best film: "Taxi"
Runner-up: "El Club (The Club)"
honorable mentions: "Knight of Cups", "Ixcanul (Ixcanul Volcano)", "Superwelt (Superworld)"

(Mysterious housing arrangement in Chile that hides unspeakably dirty laundry and would go to any length to keep it hidden (top); from courtship to divorce, all the stages of love as interpreted and woven together by Terrence Malick (left); young girl caught between family, tradition, her own heart, and a lot of snakes in Guatemala (bottom); retirement-age woman who awakens from the stupor of life only to find a world that's not so super (right); freedom, art, morality dissected in an exercise of perception and forms conducted by Jafar Panahi (central))

Best director: Jafar Panahi ("Taxi")
Runner-up: Pablo Larraín ("El Club (The Club)")
honorable mentions: Terrence Malick ("Knight of Cups"), Walter Salles ("汾陽小子賈樟柯 (Jia Zhang-ke, a guy from Fenyang)"), Karl Markovics ("Superwelt (Superworld))

Best lead actor: Ian McKellan ("Mr. Holmes")
Runner-up: Frederick Lau ("Victoria")
honorable mentions: Christian Bale ("Knight of Cups"), David Oyelowo ("Selma"), Christian Friedel ("Elser (13 Minutes)")

Best lead actress: Charlotte Rampling ("45 Years")
Runner-up: Ulrike Beimpold ("Superwelt (Superworld)")
honorable mentions: Elisabeth Moss ("Queen of Earth"), Bel Powley ("The Diary of a Teenage Girl"), Nicole Kidman ("Queen of the Desert"), Victoria Schulz ("Dora oder Die sexuellen Neurosen unserer Eltern (Dora or The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents)"), Catalina Saavedra ("La mujer de barro (The Mud Woman)"), Dakota Johnson ("Fifty Shades of Grey")

(A teenage girl discovers sex together with all its joys and consequences in the 70's; famed British traveller/archaeologist Gertrude Bell's journey to the east revisited; a Chilean woman returns to an old work place prepared for violence; a woman celebrating her 45th wedding anniversary realizes she hardly knows the man she's dancing with; a supermarket cashier about to retire senses there's something wrong with everything; a girl with Down Syndromes fights for a chance to love and get hurt like everybody else; a timid college student falls under the spell of a handsome billionaire with very particular playthings; a young woman retreats to her best friend's place for peace and solace but sinks ever deeper into insanity)  
(It's an incredibly strong year for female roles and performances. Even with 8 lead actresses nominated, it still leaves out Regina Casé ("Que Horas Ela Volta? (The Second Mother)"), Laia Costa ("Victoria"), Juliette Binoche ("Nobody Wants the Night"). Crazy!)

Best supporting actor: Lars Eidinger ("Dora oder Die sexuellen Neurosen unserer Eltern (Dora or The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents)")
Runner-up: Alfredo Castro ("'El Club (The Club)")
honorable mentions: Rainer Wöss ("Superwelt (Superworld)"), Milo Parker ("Mr. Holmes"), Alexander Skarsgård ("The Diary of a Teenage Girl")

Best supporting actress: Kristen Wiig ("The Diary of a Teenage Girl")
Runner-up: Antonia Zegers ("El Club (The Club)")
honorable mentions: Katherine Waterston ("Queen of Earth"), Janet McTeer ("Angelica"), María Telón ("Ixcanul (Ixcanul Volcano)"), 呂雪鳳 (Lu Hsueh-Feng) ("醉.生夢死 (Thanatos, Drunk)")

Best screenplay: "Taxi"
Runner-up: "El Club (The Club)"
honorable mentions: "Superwelt (Superworld)", "Mr. Holmes", "The Diary of a Teenage Girl"

Best editing: "Knight of Cups" 
Runner-up: "Taxi"
honorable mentions: "El Club (The Club)", "Пионеры-герои (Pioneer Heroes)", "汾陽小子賈樟柯 (Jia Zhang-ke, a guy from Fenyang)"

Best cinematography: "Cha và con và (Big Father, Small Father and Other Stories)"
Runner-up: "Victoria"
honorable mentions: "Knight of Cups", "Пионеры-герои (Pioneer Heroes)", "Exotica, Erotica, Etc."

(Endlessness of the sea and endless longings of the sex workers waiting for their sailors' return (u.l.); pristine suffocation of the Soviet years and crushing void of the Muscovite metropolitan existence (l.l.); desires and pains coursing through the feverish nights of Vietnam (central); 140-min real-time adventure in Berlin's dangerous underbelly (u.r.); excess, gloss, emptiness and zen of an A-lister's life in L.A. (l.r.))

Best art direction: "Под электрическими облаками (Under Electric Clouds)"
Runner-up: "Queen of the Desert"
honorable mentions: "The Diary of a Teenage Girl", "Angelica", "H."

Best costume design: "Angelica"
Runner-up: "The Diary of a Teenage Girl"
honorable mentions: "Queen of the Desert", "Nobody Wants the Night", "Mr. Holmes"

Best film music: "Queen of Earth"
Runner-up: "Als wir träumten (As We Were Dreaming)"
honorable mentions: "The Diary of a Teenage Girl", "Life", "ダリー・マルサン (Dari Marusan)"

(Looseness, nostalgia, careless cheer of 70's groove (top); raging techno from the last days of East Germany (left); light, sentimental jazz pondering James Dean's cool (bottom); unexpected use of synthesized, energetic J-pop (right); modern composition at its eeriest and most unpredictable (central))

Best sound: "Victoria"
Runner-up: "Knight of Cups"
honorable mentions: "H.", "ダリー・マルサン (Dari Marusan)", "Под электрическими облаками (Under Electric Clouds)"

Berlinale: 天の茶助 (Chasuke’s Journey) / Superwelt (Superworld)

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Feb. 13, 2015)

Every culture has its idea of the hereafter and the Divine, its way of explaining our purpose and life's transience. These existential questions of course also make for potent subjects in filmmaking, to be approached from very different angles.

The Japanese competition entry "天の茶助 (Chasuke’s Journey)" pictures heaven as a place with an army of writers who pen the destiny of every living soul on scrolls, to be followed through down below. Which is why somebody who serves these hardworking authors of fates tea every day and gets a peak at the stories they come up with, would know how each of us came to be and where we will end up. As the tea-serving Chasuke finds out that one of his favorite "characters" is going to die an immanent death and decides to intervene, all kinds of madness ensues.        

The easy hook and wonderful quirkiness of this premise is evident. So even when the movie doesn't start off looking very appealing – yellowish, steamy, coarsely photographed – you still expect to be swept away by something intricate or profound. Director Sabu more or less delivers on that promise in the first half hour, as the protagonist arrives on Earth and calmly recounts the peculiar backstories of the people he meets. Not only veritably funny, these anecdotes play with the notion of a scripted life and become even more intriguing with the possibility of an intervention.

Sadly, the movie doesn't seem to know where to go from there, introducing a series of contrived, ineffective plot developments and some truly wild mood swings. From screwball comedy to hardcore violence and unabashed romance, the narrative focus and the tone of the picture are just all over the place. Collapsing steadily into meaningless farce while still not looking particularly pretty, the last act of the movie is characterized by a stratospheric level of ridiculousness. Whoever wrote this hopefully did not come from Heaven.    

The Austrian deity, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have a plan for its subjects. In fact, when supermarket cashier Gabi, after spending the better part of her life in unquestioned mundanity and now all but set for retirement, actually pauses to think about the meaning of it all one day, panic threatens to uproot a lifetime of false contentment.

Written and directed by Karl Markovics, "Superwelt (Superworld)", screening in the Forum section, is a thoroughly observant, quietly affecting film about seeing past distractions and being truly aware. While there is an uncomfortable whiff of new age-y spiritualism in the story, overall it captures a sense of void and dread felt by someone trapped in the unbearable neatness of a suburban existence brilliantly. Sprinkled with comedic interludes that are as funny as they are insightful, the film exposes the tragic hilarity of being and the flimsy hold we have on sanity. Anchored by a magnificent lead performance by Ulrike Beimpold, whose facial expressions – by turning quizzically, desperately and calmly blank – are a constant revelation, the cast boasts great versatility and unlabored authenticity, complementing one another to delightful effect.

Shot with minute attention to the associative power of images, the movie is thoughtfully, deliberately framed and lit, using strong contrast to provoke and suggest. Although the muted ending isn't quite the home-run one would hope for, this gem of a cosmic protest surprises with how much it has to offer.      

Berlinale: Elser (13 Minutes) / H.

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Feb. 13, 2015)

When a film clearly has its heart in the right place, doesn't make particularly damning mistakes and is all-around likable, educational, even a little purgatorial, you obviously want to endorse it. But a technically accomplished and thematically important movie like "Elser (13 Minutes)" could also feel so standard, rehearsed, so exasperatingly safe you just can't seem to get worked up about it.

Screening out of competition, German director Oliver Hirschbiegel's latest work sees him returning to WWII territory which helped him gain worldwide renown in "Der Untergang (Downfall)" a decade ago. This time around the focus is on Georg Elser, a fun-loving everyman from the south who ventured one of the most famous assassination attempts on Hitler. The film starts literally with a ticking bomb, as we see Elser secure dynamite and a detonation device in place. Of course the plan didn't pan out and our hero ended up in detention. Convinced he couldn't have pulled off the attack by himself, NS-officers proceed with extreme interrogations, shedding light on an ordinary individual with an extraordinary life in the process.

In many ways reminiscent of this year's Oscar contender "The Imitation Game", this movie occupies itself with a personality well worth knowing and does so with skill and great care. The narrative is meticulous and orderly, guiding the viewer ever closer to an unlikely resistance fighter. The performance by lead actor Christian Friedel as a womanizer-turned-political-assassin is technically sound and the mood-setting score appropriately brooding/menacing. On the whole, however, the storytelling is so conservative it evoke serious Nazi-film-fatigue, as in the case of the Benedict Cumberbatch-starred film with traditional Oscar-season biopics. Although its opening scene is charged with an exhilarating, unexpected thriller sensibility, the film slowly but surely sinks back into a very familiar arc that does what it's supposed to do but affords no surprises whatsoever.
On the other end of the spectrum we have films that are wholly unconventional, that follow no customary narrative pattern and don't care if you can keep up. One (not so extreme) example at this year's Berlinale would be the futuristic/existential drama "H.", which screens in the Forum section.

Written and directed by Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia, the film is told through two parallel storylines both featuring a main female character named Helen. An old woman fixated on nursing plastic babies finds her husband missing after a fishing trip in one. In another, a young couple coping with the disappointment of a false pregnancy starts experiencing physical changes after a meteorite strike. Stringing its total of four chapters together are furthermore shots featuring the head of a large sculpture. In short, you learn very quickly the three-act routine is probably not in order and logic might not be the best way to approach this thing. Without those safety nets, it takes an open mind to experience something this foreign, instinctual, entirely its own.  

While it's certainly a little frustrating, for some even downright infuriating, not to have all the questions answered in a movie, the two filmmakers here are able to describe a visual landscape pregnant with meaning by using a highly evocative cinematic language. The sleek, wintry art direction keeps you constantly intrigued, as do the numerous symbolic icons scattered throughout the picture. And although this kind of idiosyncratic experiment with narrative and style tends to allow for multiple, open-ended interpretations, the movie's central themes of loneliness, detachment and the overpowering need to escape are conveyed with impressive clarity and urgency.

Berlinale: 一步之遙 (Gone with the Bullets) / 醉.生夢死 (Thanatos, Drunk)

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Feb. 11, 2015)

To be fair, a high-minded film festival like the Berlinale is scarcely the right place to launch a movie like Chinese competition entry "一步之遙 (Gone with the Bullets)". Its broad humor and mainstream sensibility are strictly targeted at the multiplex-goers, however insulting that might be to the intelligence of the film-consuming public.

Set in early 20th century Shanghai, the story starts with a money-laundering scheme in the form of a global escort competition. Glitzy song-and-dance numbers pile on one another before the awkward crowning of the best working girl in the world. What happens next just keeps topping your expectations of the least plausible and most cringe-worthy development possible, all written with breathtakingly bad humor and virtually zero sense of timing. It's essentially a parade of failed gags that proves tortuously unfunny and misfires in every way.

Celebrated director Jiang Wen made a name for himself by telling gritty tales of survival and human endurance ("鬼子來了 (Devils on the Doorstep)", 2000). Though he made an evident adjustment toward populist entertainment with his last movie "讓子彈飛 (Let the Bullets Fly)" (2010) – the spiritual prequel to this unqualified disaster – at least his directorial ambition and signature style remained intact. In this case his foray into the slapstick appears to be so misguided as to render him completely paralyzed. The embarrassing writing aside, the direction has no pulse or spark. The performances from the cast, which includes Jiang himself and long-time collaborator Ge You, are equally uninspired. The production design, which manages to make every automobile, house facade and street lamp look fake, and the costume design, which is low on texture and high on vulgar colors, give the obviously costly production a decidedly cheap look.    

Vision-less, art-less and tasteless, this is a catastrophe of monumental proportions that ensures the Golden Bear won't go to China two years in a row.

Across the Taiwan strait, there's no merriment insight in director Chang Tso-Chi's Taipei-set "醉.生夢死 (Thanatos, Drunk)". Screening in Panorama, the drama begins on a pretty suicidal note and ends in an even sadder place. Which is not surprising considering Chang's illustrious but consistently dark filmography. Only this time around the film itself is a lot less skillfully crafted and the moaning rarely feels justified.

Either jobless or working in the sex industry, all the main characters lead a somewhat marginalized existence. The young-ish Rat helps out at a vegetables stand to earn a few extra bucks but mostly just hangs around playing with ants or messing with the wrong kinds of people. His overachiever brother Shuo returns from the US seemingly unable to find professional or emotional fulfillment and jobs as a go-go dancer in the evening. Since the tragic death of their mother, the two have become estranged and have nothing left for each other but blame. As their affinity to another man from the red-light milieu deepens, more misfortunes follow.

The script is loosely structured, drifting from one incident to another with less elasticity than a simple lack of premeditation. Outbursts of rage, acts of debauchery, bouts of violence pepper the proceedings but seldom leave an impact in the absence of a sensible context. Ever the master of bleak, hopeless aesthetics, Chang shows in a couple of scenes that he can still make a lot out of very little. A dialogue-free sequence early on features images simmering with a yellowish sheen while some sorrowful jazz plays in the background. It's a lovely interruption whose poetry in design and execution is not repeated elsewhere in the film.

Acting-wise there's also little to salvage the movie. The three male leads don't have the charisma to sustain an underdeveloped screenplay. Supporting actress Lu Hsueh-Feng, who plays the alcoholic mother with tremendous authenticity and empathy, is the only highlight, but her role is too limited to really help matters much.

Berlinale: Под электрическими облаками (Under Electric Clouds) / Пионеры-герои (Pioneer Heroes)

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Feb. 10, 2015)

By a certain point at any major film festival, the viewer's patience inevitably starts to wear thin. So the ample amount of walk-outs at the press screening of the 140-minute Russian Competition entry "Под электрическими облаками (Under Electric Clouds)", in which nothing ever makes much sense, doesn't really come as a surprise. With no noteworthy plot to speak of, it's a vast, mystifying, nihilistic contemplation on history and the essence of being that would prove a tough film to sit through.

Divided into seven chapters with different sets of characters that share the flimsiest of connection, the elusive, insubstantial quality of the film is further exacerbated by the fact that even within any individual section, people tend to talk in circles, talk to themselves, talk over one another and generally just say the strangest things. It's a regular occurrence that someone would declare, unsolicited, something as impenetrable as "I just had a dream about diseases and now I don't eat tomatoes." And the response to that might well be the still more confusing statement. Overall a lot is spoken but there are precious few meaningful conversations. And although a couple of commonalities, or just symbolic cues like nosebleeds and construction sites can be established between the individual segments, it'd be a stretch to claim correlation or God forbid, even coherence.
What writer/director Alexey German Jr. manages to achieve, however, is communicating a languid, trance-like atmosphere that transcends reality/fiction and approaches something immaterial but vital, indescribable but timeless. It speaks to the past and the future as well as the repetition and the futility of human endeavors. Through striking production design that places surrealist structures of every kind throughout the picture, the sense of wandering in an all-encompassing realm of dreams and sighs becomes all the more pronounced.  

Discontinuous, random and utterly impenetrable, this movie might come across as a giant heap of gibberish to most. Having said that, this is a gutsy attempt at experimental cinema which demonstrates, if not yet a full-fledged directorial vision, then many of the exciting prerequisites thereof.

Another movie from Russia that deals with the past and especially the disillusionment of the present is Natalya Kudryashova's "Пионеры-герои (Pioneer Heroes)". Centered around three lifelong friends from the last generation before the collapse of the Soviet Union, it's composed of two parallel narratives that show the trio in their school years, determined to become the worshiped pioneer heroes fighting for the socialist cause, and now, when they're in their thirties, disoriented by the complexities of a changed world and desperate to hold on to a last glimmer of those childhood aspirations.

Viewed from its conclusion alone, some may find faults with the simplistic dichotomy between the rosy communist society and the merciless capitalist one. But at the heart of the story it's actually more about coping with adulthood and the realization that many promises in life will go unfulfilled, which should strike a universal chord. The script is not marked by subtlety but conjures plenty of endearing details about growing up in a party state. The extensive and tireless propaganda is not mocked but looked on with nostalgic tenderness, its only crime the unrealistically big dreams it made the children dream. Kudryashova, who makes her directorial debut here, moves things along with impressive fluency and makes her point succinctly, if at times a bit too forcefully. All six actors playing the three lead characters are fine, with a particularly winning young Olga whose innocent, absolute faith in the flag is quietly devastating.      

Berlinale: El Club (The Club) / I Am Michael

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Feb. 10, 2015)

Chilean director Pablo Larraín's dark and darkly comical competition entry "El Club (The Club)" is set in a seaside apartment that houses five clergymen and -woman. It's not immediately clear how this living arrangement came to be, although you do sense there's something off with this group of people who dine in silence and seem to have an uncommonly keen but carefully disguised interest in dog racing. With the arrival of a new priest who's determined to get to the bottom of a fatal incident that has transpired on their doorstep, all the dirty laundry hidden behind those walls finally comes to light.

This is a remarkable movie not only because of the all-around superb storytelling, but its pointed, ruthless indictment of the Catholic Church. Whether for the archaic dogmas, the countless acts of sexual transgression or just its habitual, firmly programmed tendency to cover things up, the Vatican is attacked, condemned, ridiculed on all fronts and no one from the church comes off clean. Through partly comedic portrayals, we see the absolute misery and psychological wretchedness in which people both sides of the altar live. And the accusatory, almost hopeless tone reaches its incendiary peak toward the end, when the figure seen as the conscience or even salvation of a rotten institution decides on a rather unexpected course of action. Suffice it to say this film is not going to win any favors with the Pope.          

The daringly confrontational stance aside, this is simply a wicked story expertly told. All major characters are vividly drawn. From someone so repressed as to project his need for attachment on a dog to another who's willing to risk everything to preserve what little sense of community and purpose there's left, these unfortunate souls are distinct, memorable creations that leap from the screen and linger in your imagination. The wonderful cast of actors including Alfredo Castro and Antonia Zegers swims in and out of parodic territory with ease and collectively makes this eerie, sad club feel even more iconic. That the deadpan humor would work so well in a film this heavy must be credited to Larraín, though. It's those unlikely touches of lightness that complement the tragic core of the story and take the whole film to another level.

Though not without its faults – the photography is occasionally underlit and the cello-dominated score gets a bit overbearing at times – "El Club (The Club)" wows with the force of its cinematic strokes and dares everyone to picture the horrible fates at play inside any ordinary-looking residence.

Screening in Panorama, American writer/director Justin Kelly's "I Am Michael" is also very much about sex and church, seeing that it's a biopic of gay activist-turned-Christian pastor Michael Glatze. Chronicling Glatze's life over a decade-long period, it tries to make sense of this drastic change, promising explosive material if done right.

The sad news is, then, that it's done not quite right. To begin with, the narrative is straightforward in an uninspired way, giving the impression of merely connecting the dots of the various landmarks in our protagonist's life. And the few times where the director actually breaks away from reenacting a biography to try some tricks, it doesn't have the desired effect. Instead these flashbacks or imaginary scenes expose an inexperienced hand behind the camera still looking for a style. The actors, including James Franco as Glatze, are passable, if never truly outstanding. Franco is mindful of not taking the theatrics too far, but one never has the feeling that he has shaken off his own skin to become somebody else. As his one-time partner Bennett, Zachary Quinto's performance is decidedly one-note and doesn't leave much of an impression at all.

What makes this film nonetheless interesting is, besides the unique personality at its center that's well worth knowing about, the fact that it manages to retain some level of political ambivalence regarding homosexuality. Strangely reminiscent of Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper", it could conceivably be interpreted as ideological munition for both the conservative and the liberal. It's not necessarily the anti-gay movie nor the anti-anti-gay movie. Exactly that flexibility of perspective hints at a tantalizing, if ultimately unrealized potential of creating someone complex and three-dimensional.      

Berlinale: Mr. Holmes / Angelica

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Feb. 9, 2015)

As part of the official Competition lineup but screening out of competition, "Mr. Holmes" tells the story of the world's most famous detective fighting against senility and trying to restore the truth about a case that had eventually sent him into retirement.

The plot is richly layered and carefully structured. Starting from present England, where Holmes, now 93, is a grumpy, testy old man living in a countryside house no longer bothered by other people's problems. It soon becomes apparent, however, that he can't find peace in his twilight years of chronic forgetfulness without figuring out what had actually transpired more than 30 years ago that broke his heart so and effectively ended his partnership with Dr. Watson. Thus begins a densely-packed journey in and out of memory, fiction, reason.

Ian McKellan is simply marvelous as Sherlock Holmes. Playing both older and significantly younger, his demeanor, speech, expressions change drastically to be convincing in both cases. It's not the make-up that does the trick, but the weariness in his look, the looseness in his posture, the cadence in his voice. The editing is also strong, weaving different timelines into an engrossing, constantly surprising narrative. American director Bill Condon shows an able if not particularly subtle hand conducting this piece of many themes. Minor complaints aside – the actual mystery at the center of the story is strangely forgotten for long stretches of time and finally too easily resolved – this is old-school storytelling at its most familiarly delightful.

The Panorama selection "Angelica" is set in Victorian London. After a taxing birth, young Constance is medically advised and warned to stay abstinent for the rest of her life. Her suppressed sexuality coupled with the accidental discovery of her husband's work releases panic and violent hallucinations in her that only get stilled by the comforting company of a fraudulent medium Anne.

People will be forgiven for hating this movie because of the over-the-top, spottily rendered supernatural scenes. The luminescent virus or the naked phantom are certainly poorly designed and just plain silly. But the film actually uses all that loudly reinforced impression of backward sexual politics and mental health care to illustrate the plight of women living in that era. Seen from this angle, the trashier the effects and hence the more ignorant and hysterical the heroine appears to be, the more emphatically it's making its point. Like the pang of genuine sympathy Anne feels toward her willing prey at their first meeting, the audience is put in the shoes of a choiceless, voiceless woman fighting for the safety of her child and may just be ready to look beyond the hysteria and see a strong, scared soul.

Both Jena Malone and Janet McTeer are more than solid in their roles as Constance and Anne. The former breaks your heart with her feigned composure over the shattered nerves. The latter brings an excellent counterbalance to the screen with her robust frame and steely gaze. Cinematography and costume design are outstanding, bringing all kinds of beautiful shapes and shades to life.                

Montag, 9. Februar 2015

Berlinale: Mariposa (Butterfly) / How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Feb. 8, 2015)

The Panorama section of the Berlin has always has a strong focus on LGBT films and this year's no exception. A sample of the Teddy contenders from the 2015-lineup reveals the interesting trend that sexually graphic portrayal of the gay lifestyle is no longer the mark of queer cinema. On the contrary, homosexuality is increasingly used as just another plot element to tell a story, drive a narrative.

First case in point is previous Teddy winner Marco Berger's "Mariposa (Butterfly)", a parallel-reality drama/romance that features a group of young people from rural Argentina in two sets of amorous constellations – as the extended consequences of an act of (non-)abandonment. A boy and a girl who would have ended up as adoptive siblings become strangers in a separate/imagined universe and are thus free to pursue their desire for one another. This deviation leads to a chain reaction where friends, acquaintances all inhabit a different version of themselves and their game of hearts finds a whole new outcome – or will it?

In short, it's a "Sliding Doors" / "The Butterfly Effect" revisit, only with a homosexual angle. In comparison to Berger's "Ausente (Absence)" or "Hawaii", however, that aspect is significantly toned down here. Although there are still unmistakably homo-eroticized scenes and one might argue the playful, sexually easygoing, somewhat fatalistic tone is altogether gay-friendly, the curiosity and attraction between two male characters is treated here as no more than one facet of a larger plot construct. In so doing, lust, whether hetero, homo, bisexual or even semi-incestuous, all gets its share of attention and a kind of stigma is quietly lifted.

On a technical level, the editing of the film is obviously of vital importance and it didn't disappoint. After a pretty rough start, where the constant switching between the two storylines gets a little mundane, the cuts get ever more confident and inventive, letting the alternative narrative pick up at unexpected places. The direction is also effective, especially in those many moments of tingling uncertainty. So even though the film's ultimately a rather pointless exercise in imagination, at its laziest it's a lot of harmless, flirty fun.

Hailing from Thailand, writer/director Josh Kim makes his feature debut with "How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)", a coming-of-age drama centered around 11-year-old boy Oat. Growing up parent-less, he's dependent on big brother Ek, who's the very symbol of worldliness and competence to his young eyes. As the date for the military draft lottery draws near and Ek faces a real possibility of having to leave home to serve, however, Oat learns not only about the fragility of his lifelong protector/idol, but also the dirty, disappointing workings of the adult world.

Once again, the homosexual element of the story is prominent but not zealously harped upon. The fact that Ek has a (rich) boyfriend and one of their best pals, Kitty, is a transgender person is taken as a given, enacted without much fanfare. Plot details such as Kitty's special treatment at the military draft lottery do inform one of Thailand's liberal awareness regarding sexuality. But that's also used mainly as general backdrop and not a focal point of the story. The film concentrates instead on the relationship between the two brothers and the loss of innocence that would shape the character of a child.

As refreshing as the normalcy afforded to homosexuality is, this movie comes up short in most technical aspects. The cinematography is patchy. Aside from the overall warm, pinkish-earthy tone of the imagery, the camera operation is less-than-inspired. Both the editing and the acting are rough, unable to shake the cartoonish out of the funny or find a more fluid rhythm. That said, the subject matter is well chosen and, at a festival with all kinds of high-minded auteur works, something that wears the heart on its sleeves like this actually offers a welcomed respite.    

Sonntag, 8. Februar 2015

Berlinale: Victoria / Härte (Tough Love)

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Feb. 7, 2015)

Just minutes into German writer/director Sebastian Schipper's competition entry "Victoria" and there's no mistaking where the movie takes place: club beats, disco strobe, graffitied surroundings, anonymous bodies dancing in reckless euphoria at 4 in the morning as a young girl from Spain tries, in accented English, to flirt with a bartender she takes to be Swedish. Welcome to Berlin.

As it turns out, Berlin would serve as more than just the geographical setting of this story, which sees a group of youngsters first embracing then fleeing the night, but also a sort of spiritual underpinning if not justification for the craziness that goes down. During the first scene where the titular character Victoria has a heart-to-heart with the male lead Sonne, it's revealed that she's left behind many a dashed dreams and wasted years back in Madrid to land in the European capital of drifters and dreamers. Although this fact alone can't nearly explain her motivations and reactions later on in the film, where things spiral down to some pretty ugly depths, it's one of those cases where a city is so closely connected with a type of mindset it begins to directly help shape characterization. We get the sense that Victoria has made the leap to Berlin to actively turn back on her old suppressed self and seek liberation. Might this be the reason why, even when it's clear that the guys she meets outside the club are trouble and when their requests of her get fishier and nastier, she still plays along without much protest?

Asking questions along these lines is fun but not enough to sustain a feature film, let alone one that runs 140 minutes. A significant chunk of this movie, which proceeds in real time and is done entirely in one take, is spent on silly, insubstantial bantering between the characters. These long, at times interminable-feeling sequences are not only grating for their stupidity and repetitiveness, but do nothing to involve or raise the emotional investment of the viewer. So even when there are places where a potent feeling of empathy threatens to break out, that never truly happens and we're mostly left wondering just how foolish one has to be to do the things these kids do. This serious lacking in screenwriting aside, "Victoria" is not without its merits. Schipper is a fine director with an assured command of mood and atmospherics. The couple of sequences where he pulls the sound and inserts a soothing, cosmically tender music are great touches, releasing a breezy, wondrously youthful energy in the night air. It's just unfortunate that whenever the speaking resumes, everything becomes instantly less interesting.

Both leads are strong. Laia Costa displays an impressive reserve of explosive feelings she's able to tap into with great immediacy. Frederick Lau has proven time and again he's good at playing the marginalized/asocial and as the stunted, hard-boiled Sonne he gives yet another performance full of instincts and quirks. The camerawork is of course the biggest selling point of the single-shot film. Unlike "Birdman: or the Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance", however, the cinematography here is not technically flawless nor rhythmically hypnotic. While the accomplishment of clearing the thousands of logistic hurdles faced by such a project is no doubt formidable, this decision to make no edits doesn't always feel necessary and leaves a slight hint of childish bravado behind.                      

Another, very different Berliner film which opened the Panorama Special this year- Rosa von Praunheim's unconventional biopic "Härte (Tough Love)"- provides this year's Berlinale with a healthy dose of WTF-eccentricity that any self-respecting international film festival must serve. Detailing the life story of local martial arts celebrity Andreas Marquardt, the film is composed in equal parts of candid interview footage (of Marquardt as well as his longtime partner Marion) and dramatizations of his troubled past.

Making no excuses for its kitsch factor and positively delighting in being comically in-your-face, this movie magnifies its own loopiness through preposterously fake set pieces, exaggerated emotional cues and ultra-cheesy camera angles. Shot in hollow, cheap-looking black and white, the overall effect of the staged part of the film is that of a poorly produced telenovela mocking its own lack of taste.

As laughable as the blunt cinematic strokes may come across, this is certainly a story worth telling and knowing, if for no other reason than how krass Marquard's life is. From a sexually abused and physically assaulted child to a pimp with pathological hatred of women, from a sentenced and imprisoned criminal to a Karate instructor for kids, this is one heck of an eventful ride. And it might possibly be argued that in order to process memories fraught with such trauma and unspeakable horrors, an approach as outrageous as this would actually be called for.

In that case, production and performances would of course be impossible to judge by regular criteria. One could just see the film at their own risk. If the enthusiastic response at its premiere screening in Zoo Palast is any indication, however, not a few should be won over by its very peculiar brand of charm.      

Samstag, 7. Februar 2015

Berlinale: Queen of the Desert / 45 Years

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Feb. 6, 2015)

Legendary German director Werner Herzog returns amid fevered anticipation with a biopic of famed British traveller/archaeologist Gertrude Bell to this year's Berlinale. What turns out to be most surprising about "Queen of the Desert" is not the fact that Herzog, known predominantly for his male-centric, hot-blooded filmography, decides to train his focus on a female protagonist for a change, but just how unapologetically, almost gooily old-fashioned his approach to the project is. After a quick set-up of the geopolitical backdrop surrounding the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, we jump 12 years back in time to find a young, rebellious, fiercely intelligent Gertrude suffocated by the prospect of a domestic life. Her father indulged her wish to be out in the world and sent her to the British Embassy in Teheran. Little did he know this would be the beginning of a lifelong, ever deepening passion to explore and perhaps, to escape.

The narrative is strictly linear, at times pedantically so, moving from one milestone to the next. And with all the stations of her life the film tirelessly chronicles, it does get caught up in details and can be pretty exhausting. What's potentially an even bigger turn-off for viewers is the grand emotions that are poured into many of the scenes. Shot against vast deserts, gorges and other literally awesome geological formations, the words and gestures of affection the characters share often prove even larger. And the way Herzog milks every last drop of romance out of candlelit interiors or windswept exteriors might be a bit much for those with a low sugar tolerance level.

That said, there's plenty to admire about a production that so painstakingly recreates the opulence of a bygone era and so earnestly seeks to make sense of a woman's lonesome path. The art direction of the film is superb. From the granite baths and silken drapes of the various estates or diplomatic agencies to the fragrant bustle of a Persian bazaar, the set pieces look exquisite and are often cast in a delicious, soft glow. Nicole Kidman carries the film with great confidence, reminding you in just a handful of key scenes- notably the textbook "devastation-upon-hearing-tragic-news" reaction shots-  what tremendous, nuanced control she has over her physicality. As the love of her life Henry Cadogan, James Franco is also in fine form, with his usual smarm reduced to a rare minimum. All in all, it's a worthy competition entry that should delight some for being pretty, thorough, dreamily traditionalist and draw the derision of others for those same reasons.

Coming off the success of critical darling "Weekend", British writer/director Andrew Haigh's comes back with another relationship drama "45 Years". Again it's all about two individuals and the changes in their understanding, appreciation of each other. Only this time it's a man and a woman at the center, and instead of marking the beginning of an affair, it maps the downfall of a decades-long marriage. Kate and Geoff Mercer are a week away from celebrating their 45th anniversary when the news comes that the body of Geoff's previous love Katya has been found frozen in a Swiss glacier. For him this stirs up all kinds of buried memories and regrets, but it might prove even more difficult for her to come to terms with a man she suddenly sees in a new light.

The premise of the story packs an instant hook and promises all kinds of insight into the human mind. In execution it's significantly less exciting, as Haigh fails to fully substantiate or make relatable the doubts and fears of these characters. Hammering repeatedly on a phantom from half a century ago that should all of a sudden become the unnamed shadow of their married life and deal the final blow to their relationship is not entirely plausible, making their sulks, distress, breakdowns look like a petty case of jealousy. The insufficient plotting also contributes to a padded feel, damaging for a film running just over 90 minutes. In contrast to "Weekend", which was also a simple story with few complications, this time around the emotional force that should drive forward the narrative mostly just isn't there.

As Kate, Charlotte Rampling is her old magnificent self. Her portrayal of someone slowly unraveling is technically impeccable and as always a joy to behold. Smartly ending the film on her face, the film manages to capitalize as much on that mystical, slightly unsettling appeal of hers as possible, but eventually the limitations of the role prevent this performance from being a clear knock-out. As Geoff, Tom Courtenay fares considerably less well, coming off strangely robotic in many scenes. On rare occasions the strengths of Haigh and his cast do come together though. The last stretch of the film, for example, offers a couple of penetrating looks inside Kate's seriously ruffled psyche, sending jolts of electric currents through a restrained if lax narrative. It's a shame, then, that these moments are too few and far between to piece together an altogether more compelling picture.

Freitag, 6. Februar 2015

Berlinale: Sangue Azul (Blue Blood)

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Feb. 5, 2015)

The selection of the opening film is a tricky thing at any film festival. You want established names to give the choice credibility, you want stars to up the glamour factor and media exposure, you want to set the tone for the entire upcoming program or you want to put your name behind a new discovery that you could later claim to have found first. Juggling all these demands is no easy task and lost in the shuffle is often the one crucial criterion – quality.

The Berlinale is no stranger to this dilemma, and that includes its premier sidebar section Panorama, whose opening night film is afforded a similar spotlight of exclusivity. For the past two years in a row, this dubious honor has gone to films ("Nước (2030)" from Vietnam & "Chemi Sabnis Naketsi (A Fold in My Blanket)" from Georgia) which turned out to be only sporadically brilliant offerings that barely made a dent in world cinema subsequently. A better fate probably awaits this year's opener, "Sangue Azul (Blue Blood)", seeing that it has already won top prizes at the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival back in 2014.

To be fair, this island-set family drama is certainly gorgeous to look at. Starting out in black and white, we accompany a travelling circus as it arrives and sets up camp on the beach. Images of sturdy men hard at work splashed across the screen against billowing classical music, it's unabashed old-timer romanticism that casts an instant spell. The visual allure of the picture holds after colors take over and we're treated to the dazzling blue, bronze, emerald of the Brazilian seashore. Add to that any number of intricate, hypnotic circus acts or just scenes featuring attractive people in seductive dances, and you have two optically striking, effortlessly sensual hours.

That said, the narrative gets looser and looser as the movie goes on. The four chapters (plus epilogue) don't really give the story structure and soon you find yourself asking just why is everybody becoming so restless/anguished/unhinged. Director Lírio Ferreira is no doubt an artist of sights and sounds, but his attempts at communicating the inner void, buried emotions and desperate struggles of the characters are dramatic without being expressive. Playing brother and sister with unresolved feelings for each other, Daniel de Oliveira and Caroline Abras have sex appeal in spades but are otherwise not particularly convincing performers.

Ultimately this is a justifiable, if underwhelming opening film that promises lots of exoticism and feasts of the senses ahead. Whether or not this year's Panorama program can make good on that promise we'll soon find out.

Donnerstag, 5. Februar 2015

Berlinale: Nobody Wants the Night

There are definitely things to like about Spanish director Isabel Coixet's polar circle-set drama "Nobody Wants the Night", which opens the 65th Berlinale today. Telling the story of Josephine Peary- wife of famed expeditionist Robert- who sets off for the North Pole in search of her husband at the dawn of the last century, it begins on a strong note by introducing a wonderfully unconventional, impenetrable heroine. Educated, opinionated and fiercely determined, this is not someone to be talked off an idea by her male compatriots. She delights in the fruits of her own hunts and holds an almost Darwinian outlook on life, believing in the superiority of grand, adventurous human endeavors. It's rare to find such a self-assured female protagonist in a period piece and her combination of intellect, ambition, elegance and an elusive need to find her spouse makes for an intriguing character study.

Portrayed by Juliette Binoche, whose face remains one of the most exquisite, volatile, captivating objects to consider, every minute shift in temperament of Josephine bubbles clearly to the surface. She brings a modern woman from an old world to life and you could just revel in the mystique of that performance. Elsewhere the art department and the cinematography are also unexpectedly potent for a filmmaker not necessarily known for visual pizzazz. The textured set decoration and costume design are shot in honey-colored sunbeam and fifty shades of white, projecting all levels of warmth while looking awfully pretty.

But then the movie hits its half-way mark. Josephine reaches the last known post of her still missing husband and meets an Inuit girl Alaka. The remaining hour will be about the evolving relationship between these two and it gets more and more boring by the second. The previously complex-appearing Josephine is soon reduced to the role of the passively waiting wife. And in part due to the less-than-subtle performance by Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi, Alaka never comes off as this pure, enlightened being but more of a caricature of uncivilization. The scenes of cultural clashes and gradual mutual appreciation between them are written with a whiff of (unintentional) condescension and quite uncomfortable to sit through.    

In short, this is a film with an exceptionally female-centric narrative set in the refreshing, breathtaking icescape of the Arctic that sees its life drawn out by an inexplicably overblown second half. It'll take something else to kick this year's Berlinale properly into high gear.    

Jupiter Ascending

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Feb. 5, 2015)

Even to someone who's ready to defend "Cloud Atlas" anytime, it's clear that the Wachowski Siblings have let their size problem run out of control with the follow-up to that millennia-and-continents-spanning epic.

The inheritance dispute at the center of "Jupiter Ascending" is wrapped inside some imperial power games, reincarnation myths and intergalactic politics, a touch of Shakespearean tragedy, and complemented by certain domination/harvest plans. Aliens, humans and an entire hierarchy of unspecified species populate a mind-boggling universe whose order and rules of entitlement would seem to take a book to explain. By all appearances, the Wachowski's have lost their ability to tell a story of moderate scale and reasonable budget since their breakout sci-fi classic "The Matrix", which was in fact an indie-spirited, highly conceptual movie that only got blown to monstrous proportions in its sequels. Their latest, original screenplay feels like a botched hybrid of larger-than-life ideas that's undoubtedly grand in vision but lacking in craftsmanship at every turn.

Technically this movie also leaves much to be desired. While the production and especially the costume design wows in moments of otherworldly beauty, with a million gowns, uniforms, headpieces, gears, ornaments, vehicles splashed across the screen, a homogeneous or harmonious design is missing. Same goes for the action choreography, which produced some memorable scenes like the final chase/combat between lead actor Channing Tatum and a giant lizard or the spatial ballet of Tatum's character after being ejected out into void, but also numerous terribly unexciting shoot-outs or flight sequences. Cinematography and score are neither here nor there, both contributing to an overall hurried sense of unrefinement.

There are some obvious casting problems, starting with the female lead Mila Kunis, who, with her well-groomed features and dreamy eyelashes, never for a second looks like a lowly maid. Douglas Booth is another one who stands out like a sore thumb beside the other two young British actors cast as his rival siblings. Of these Eddie Redmayne is also the best in show by far. As the evil, hollowed-out heir apparent, he communicates an inner vacuum not just through the parched lips and dead eyes, but also a peculiarly whispery voice/speech pattern that renders his every blink and utterance an effort.

Stuffed, loud, erratically executed, the few patches of fabulousness aren't enough to disguise the fact that "Jupiter Ascending" is a big, busy mess.