Monthly Archives: February 2011

Berlinale Day 4 – Monday

V Subbotu – Innocent Saturday (Russia, Germany, Ukraine)

This film starts off so strongly, and is so compelling, but it suddenly tosses it all away and drags it down into an interesting but disappointing film.

The first Russian film to cover the events around the Chernobyl disaster, it follows a young party leader/low level plant worker moments after the explosion as he discovers what has happened and overhears officials discuss how they should not warn the people.  After being exposed to lethal doses of radiation he rushes to town to grab his girlfriend and leave.  Once the gravity of the situation hits her, they make a frantic dash for the train station, only to miss it by seconds.

Then things get odd.  She insists on going shoe shopping, then they stop by a wedding.  She is talked into singing with the band, a band he used to be the drummer in but left after a falling out.  He’s then talked into filling in as drummer.  They spend the rest of the day playing music, arguing, getting drunk, and talking.  The character motivations are all wonky, none of their actions make much sense.  Even if they’re in denial, they just don’t add up.  It’s confusing and all the momentum the film had is completely sucked out and everything is left flat.

The film is shot almost completely in closeup, and handheld.  This aggressive photography adds a palpable amount of tension to everything and truly focuses these massive events just around the characters.  It’s downright uncomfortable to spend so much time so close up to these people.  The performances are excellent too.  There are other great moments that add to that gnawing feeling of dread looming over everything as you know everyone you see is doomed to die a terrible death in a short matter of time.  “Your mouth tastes metallic…”

I was genuinely surprised this didn’t win the best cinematography award as the work they did was not only challenging, but extremely effective.  Too bad the second half is so meandering that it really hinders its chances of getting a good release.


Sekai Good Morning !! – Good Morning to the World!! (Japan)

Yuta is a teenage loner, with a mother always at work, and who spends his time doing typical teenage stuff.  He records his own diary, is made fun of by other kids, and plays air guitar in his room.  For some reason, he decides to steal a binder belonging to a homeless man he passes everyday.  When he goes to return it, he finds the police removing the hobo’s dead body.  Yuta panics and decides to try and find the hobo’s family based on what was in the binder.

Again, it sounds more interesting than it is.  While it is an interesting portrait of the universal feelings and goings-on of adolescence, it’s too muted and odd to really be effective.  It’s a first time director, only 25 years old or so, and it is a promising debut.  But it’s not effective enough, or wacky enough, to really keep people’s interest.


Sing Your Song (USA)

The first two musicians I ever started listening to intently, probably around the age of 5 or 6, were Elton John and Harry Belafonte.  My mom had a cassette of Harry Belafonte’s greatest hits and I absolutely adored it.  I would listen to it all the time.  My favorites were “Jump in the Line” (and not just because of BEETLEJUICE), “Man Smart Woman Smarter,” and “Jump Down Spin Around.”  I still listen to them.  I love his voice, I love the way he sings, and I love the style of music.  But, other then that, I didn’t know much about him.

SING YOUR SONG is a documentary not so much about Belafonte’s entertainment career, but his life in social justice and activism.  While it does cover his initial rise to stardom (I had no idea he was the first artist to sell a million albums), it starts to fold in his activism.  His TV and film work subtly by clearly folded in issues with race.  He had the audacity to hold a white woman’s hand on TV, which rose quite a stir in the south of course.  He worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and continues to work around the world doing what he can.  It is quite inspiring and admirable, and I’m glad I saw it.

While it’s not made expressly by the subject (though his children did produce it), it does start to seem shamelessly self-promotional by the end.  Not a single negative thing is said about him.  It does hint that he feels bad for spending so much time away from his children, but his children are shown forgiving him by admitting it was for a greater cause.  Even his two divorces are framed as almost positive things.  The final ten minutes were too much for me, and it sorted of disconnected me from everything I had seen before.  I started framing him differently, demanding great respect and fawning over him instead of just showing his work and letting us come to that conclusion on our own.

The audience went nuts for it.  A long standing ovation.  This will probably end up on HBO or something, and it’s well worth a watch.


Über uns das all – Above us Only Sky (Germany)

Everything seems to be going well for Martha and Paul.  He just received his PhD and they’re moving to Marseilles to start a new life.  Paul leaves a few days before and commits suicide.  Martha is blindsided and slowly comes to learn that Paul had been lying to her for years.  He was never a graduate student, and had no job waiting for him France.  Martha stays in Cologne and suddenly starts sleeping with, and falling for, a professor at the same university Paul supposedly went to.  She never tells him what happened, and eventually it all comes out.

I don’t have much to say.  The story is compelling enough, but the film just wasn’t.  Fairly dull, actually.


Rundskop – Bullhead (Belgium, Netherlands)

Finally, a film about the underground ring of bovine growth hormone gangs in Belgium!  Well, that’s part of it.  It’s more about Jacky and his estranged childhood friend.  Jacky was brutally attacked as a child by a mentally challenged teenager who smashed his testicles with a rock.  Jacky’s friend witnessed it, but because of the aforementioned gang ties, he couldn’t testify.  Jacky has spent the rest of his life obsessed with his masculinity and is just as into pumping himself with hormones as he is his cattle.  Jacky, who is the most masculine guy in the film, is jealous of the natural masculinity his friend and younger brother retained.  If he had ran a bit faster, the tables would have been turned.  The friend is secretly gay, which is somehow supposed to insinuate less masculinity or something.

It’s dark, occasionally violent, but lacks a satisfying ending.  I also feel it looks at the issue of masculinity and the way men are compelled to act far too simply.  Like nearly every movie I saw, it was good enough, but not good enough.



Berlinale Day 3 – Sunday

Les contes de la nuit – Tales of the Night (France)

One of three 3D films in competition this year (though one is not “in” competition), this is the latest animated feature from Michel Ocelot.  Two young actors and an older director meet late at night in a theatre to come up with stories.  They then act out those stories with the help of some fancy costume machines and the power of our collective imaginations.

The stories vary and are all quite charming.  Cities of gold, werewolves, the land of the dead, and so on.  The most touching and enjoyable was about a king’s young ward who could never tell a lie.  There’s a talking horse involved, and a dastardly princess.  They’re all very sweet, some more than others, and remind you of the power of good old fashioned storytelling.

The animation is in silhouette, so much is left up to your imagination.  The 3D, unfortunately, adds nothing to it.  The vivid colors and beautiful animation don’t need, or benefit from, the added depth.  Since there are no mouths to track, dubbing this in every language possible is a no-brainer.  Probably a tough sell in the US, but everyone who sees it should find it at least mildly enjoyable.


Heaven’s Story (Japan)

This film is 4 hours and 45 minutes long.  Plus a 15 minute intermission.  So it took 5 hours out of my day.

I told you I’d see anything from Asia.

From legendary Japanese pink film (think softcore porn…but not) director Zeze Takahisa, this is a sprawling (obviously) story about revenge, guilt, obsession, and so on.  It is not a pink film in any way.  Explaining the plot is fairly pointless, as there’s so much of it.  But, amazingly, it chugs along nicely, never feels long, and is completely unbalanced.  The first chapter (the film is broken up into titled parts) is so powerful and wonderful.  And it never fully tops it from that point on.  Not that you should give up on it, but it is disappointing that it starts out so great only to coast down from there.

The film doesn’t need to be this long.  At all.  Yet, oddly enough, it would benefit from a second viewing.  Not that I anticipate being able to as this won’t venture much out of Japan.  Hence why I took the opportunity to see it.


Dernier étage gauche gauche – Top Floor, Left Wing (France, Luxembourg)

A mildly madcap hostage comedy from France.  A young man hiding some drugs for a dealer overreacts when the police come to evict the family.  He takes the bailiff hostage and is soon completely over his head.  His shocked father, and the bailiff, both try to make sense of and peacefully rectify the situation.  Of course, things get a bit wacky.

It piles on the social, racial, and political commentary on, which is nice, but probably doesn’t translate as well if you don’t know the goings-on in France that well.  Still, it’s a nice, punchy, and perfectly watchable light comedy from a first-time director.  I wouldn’t be surprise if it wound up with some kind of limited release in the US, since we so often want something foreign that’s not necessarily very heavy.  This fits that bill.


Cave of Forgotten Dreams (USA, France)

I unequivocally adore Werner Herzog.  His documentary films bring me as close to feeling anything one might call spiritual as you can get.  Once I heard this was playing in the competition (but not in competition….yeah….) it was my number one must see for the entire festival.  So I was excited to snag a ticket for the big red carpet premiere of it at the Berlinale Palast (only downside was it was at 10:30pm, but no matter).

The film explores a cave containing the earliest known human paintings, up to 32,000 years old.  Walls full of beautiful paintings of animals, some extinct, in many different forms.  And also the first known painting of a human figure (a woman’s lower half, go figure).  The cave was sealed off in a sudden rock slide around 20,000 years ago, freezing everything inside in time.  There are bear scratches on the wall, bones of all kinds (none human), and even ash and carbon from torches.  Insane!  In a way, it’s like looking at an old family album, and it’s an incredible feeling to see something that stretches so very far back into our collective human history.

The film is shot in 3D, which sounds odd at first, but so much of the beauty of the paintings are enhanced by the natural curvature of the cave walls.  These people used the walls to the advantage of the drawings, and without 3D that effect would be lost unless you were to see it in person.  Which, the film makes it clear, will never happen.

It’s a breathtakingly fascinating film.  You wouldn’t think you’d spend so much of a film about cave paintings at the edge of your seat, or with goosebumps, but here we are.


Belinale Day 2 – Saturday

Schlafkrankheit – Sleeping Sickness (Germany, France, Netherlands)

A German entry in the competition, though it takes place in Africa and France, this was another listless film with little plot.  The first half follows a German doctor living in Africa and running a humanitarian program to treat sleeping sickness.  His wife and daughter are visiting him and he his clearly conflicted about returning to Germany as he has come to love Africa.  The second half follows a black doctor from Paris who is sent to Africe by the WHO to audit and investigate the project being run by the aforementioned doctor.  Not a lot happens and it ends with a hippo.

This is the first film I saw that got openly booed at the end, which is a time-honored tradition at European festivals.  Exciting for me.  Something like that would never happen in America, we’re just too polite I guess.  If we hated it, there’d be no applause, or light applause at best.

Like so many of the films the intent was clear, but the execution was listless.  This won the award for best director, another all around surprise, as the direction was the biggest problem.

I should probably note I was about 10-15 minutes late to this, so I missed some stuff.  But, based on the rest, it’s probably safe to say I didn’t miss anything at all.


Almanya: Willkommen in Deutschland (Germany)

A real crowd-pleaser about a Turkish family living in Germany and taking a trip back to Turkey.  After finally becoming an official German citizen the family patriarch decides to buy a house in Turkey and take his family there for summer vacation.  The story of their initial immigration is told to the youngest member of the family as he’s been conflicted about his Turkish roots while also being German.

Though I wouldn’t call myself an immigrant, and my situation is as different as can be, there was plenty to relate to.  Since so much of the comedy comes from looking at German life as a foreigner, I had a lot to laugh at.  Though, there’s equal grief given to the oddities of both cultures.  There are more Turks here in Germany than any other group, and it’s often a delicate topic as best I can tell among Germans.  So it was nice to see the issue of the Turkish family living in and loving Germany handled so sweetly.  It’s hilarious and touching and most any audience would love it.  Having some knowledge of German life and Turkish relations would help it, but it’s not necessary.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it made it to a few US festivals and some kind of limited release.


We Were Here (USA)

A documentary about the emergence of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco told from the point of view of 5 residents who went through it.  I tend to be resistant to documentaries like this, where the subjects themselves declare that what they did/do/saw are of great importance.  Their perspective is always essential, but it’s up to others to place the focus.  When the subject itself does it I see it more as a cry for attention.

So the film was rubbing me the wrong way for a good portion of it, not to discount the weight of what they were talking about.  But like last year’s STONEWALL UPRISING (which wasn’t told strictly by the subject) I feel that for someone of my age or younger the content is vitally important.  I knew what the Stonewall riots were about as a thing, but not why they were so important.  The same goes for the AIDS crisis.  I of course was aware of it, but I never knew anyone who died of it.  Hell, I still haven’t really known anyone who has been positive.  So it’s good, for us young’n LGBT folk, to have a sober reminder now and then.

This will be everywhere in the LGBT circuit.  It’ll play like gangbusters in San Francisco (it opens there next week), and surely get picked up by nearly every LGBT festival in the country.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it wound up on Netflix within a year.


Dance Town (South Korea)

I’m immediately fascinated with anything involving North Korea, and I love Asian film, so it was a no-brainer to see this.  It follows a young woman, Rhee, who’s husband manages to smuggle her to South Korea after a neighbor rats them out for watching western videos (porn!).  The husband’s fate is unclear for most of the film, but it’s not good.  Which is no surprise.

Rhee is supported by the South Korean government to start her new life, and she’s understandably overwhelmed.  Despite coming from a place as terrible as North Korea the film displays just how many can still live a hellish and marginalized life in any city.  The city of Seoul is the main focus (though it could be any city) and she encounters all sorts of people with their own problems.  Some clear, some secret.

It’s an interesting movie, and watchable, but not too compelling.  The message is clear though, and it is effective, but it’s not an message most foreign audiences are going to be willing to sit through.


Qualunquemente – Whatsoeverly (Italy)

This film was far, far too Italian for me.  The film follows a highly corrupted businessman fresh out of prison as he tries to run for mayor of his hometown.  It’s a farce, and everything is greatly exaggerated.  But the comedy doesn’t translate, the politics are too thick, and it’s just generally unwatchable if you don’t know the subject matter ahead of time.  And even then, it’s just not that funny.

So unwatchable in fact that it was the only movie I walked out on (about 15 minutes before the end).


Berlinale Day 1 – Friday

El Premio – The Prize (Mexico, France, Poland, Germany)

A competition film that takes place in Argentina in the 1960s (yet isn’t from that country) about a girl and her mother in hiding from the government for unspoken reasons.  The father is absent, for unspoken reasons.  He may be dead, he may be alive, they’re not sure.  The girl goes to school, does well, makes friends, and does kid things.  There’s a contest at school to write an essay about how great the military is, but she instead writes about how awful they are.  They killed her cousin, they act crazy and without honor.  Once the mother finds out, she freaks and the teacher gives them a chance to write the essay again.  Just write it exactly the opposite.  She does and, of course, wins first place.

That may make it sound like a lot is happening when, really, a whole lot of nothing is happening.  The majority of the film consists of long shots of the girl just doing stuff.  Sitting around, listening to the wind, playing with her mother, getting her hair combed, giggling with her friends.  There’s supposed to be a looming feeling of unease because of the tyrannical government and the way it makes people act, but it gets totally lost amongst the general day to day atmosphere the film builds. In the end, it’s all utterly pretty pointless.

Much to my surprise, this won best cinematography and best production design.  It’s odd because the cinematography is really nothing special.  It’s bland, muted, mostly handheld, and altogether par for the course.  The production design is also nothing of great note.  It’s almost as if the jury wanted to give it runner up, so they gave it the leftover prizes.

Don’t expect this one to be making the rounds in the US.


Berlinale Shorts Program 1
I went to this because, really, it was the only thing that would slot into my schedule.  I’ve seen so many short films.  So very, very many short films.  It was a large part of my job, and still is to an extent.  And, like poetry, they’re either amazing or terrible.  And, also like poetry, they’re usually terrible.  I had hoped the stuff that made the cut for Berlin would be better, but it’s really more of the same.

There were shorts from Hungary, Sweden, Canada (though that one didn’t play due to technical difficulties), Lebanon/UK, and the USA.  The only one of note was THE UNLIVING from Sweden, about life after a zombie apocalypse.  And as uninteresting as that sounds this deep into the world’s zombie obsession, it was quite good.  It was more like the first reel from a feature, and I’d hope to see more.  Very good.

The rest were either just OK, or too artsy to be watchable.  Unfortunately, I missed the shorts program with the new short from Korean master Chan Wook-Park and his brother made completely with an iPad.

Margin Call – USA

The big red carpet competition premiere of the day, MARGIN CALL had its initial premiere at Sundance.  It has a phenomenally strong cast all around.  Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Zachary Quinto, Demi Moore, Stanly Tucci, and Aasif Mandvi make up pretty much the entire cast, and they all give great performances.  It follows an unnamed Wall Street firm overnight as one of the low-level people (Quinto) is the first to figure out the already in progress subprime mortgage meltdown.  It’s structured differently than your average movie with no real climax, no big confrontation it builds to.  But it still works.  Instead, it manages to put a human face to the people involved.  The media and the reaction as a whole has been of a “what monsters!” type.  One would assume they live with dollar signs in their eyes and to hell with the repercussions.   Some may, but it helps point out that, while they knew exactly what they were doing and starting, that didn’t make it an easy choice.  It helps make it all a bit more understandable, which I appreciated.  I enjoyed it, it’s a strong film that can strike up some interesting conversations.


Tron: Legacy

Anything lacking in TRON: LEGACY lies squarely at the feet of the story.  And, while the story isn’t the strongest in the world, and the dialogue may be occasionally grating, it exceeds in all other departments.

After all the hate people were piling on the thing I wasn’t really expecting much.  I mean, I was still excited.  I’ve wanted to see this for quite some time.  The first TRON, while also flawed, it a lot of fun.  I think the fans of the first (i.e. mostly vocal nerd types) ended up idolizing it to the point that they were expecting…I dunno…something close to perfection with this.

What it is instead is your standard Hollywood fare.  And I found it to be a lot of fun.  I really, really enjoyed it.  A lot.  Yes, some of the plot was a bit obtuse and overwrought.  There were some bits of dialogue that felt forced (probably added by someone higher up).  And I found the final scene to make the whole experience a bit flat.

Joseph Kosinski is an impressive director, to say the least.  Every frame and angle and shot and movement and set is so carefully orchestrated and designed, all without ever feeling technical or cold.  It was refreshing to see an action film approached with such clear vision.  And this is his first film!  His first work of fiction!  His background in architecture definitely brings something unique to the table.  I can’t wait to see what he’ll do in the future.  Hopefully part of that will be getting a better control for the emotion and heart.

Needless to say the look of the film is, for lack of a better word, incredible.  It’s gorgeous in every way.  The 3D is beautiful, and subtly used, and not tacked on after the fact.  And the score by Daft Punk couldn’t be more perfect for the film.  Jeff Bridges also brings more to his performance than I thought possible for this kind of movie.

Not perfect, or course.  While Clu/young Flynn looks amazing as a still image, or in very brief shots, it simply doesn’t work beyond that.   Some serious uncanny valley vibes going on.  A small complaint, but a complaint nonetheless.

I would easily watch it again.  It’s playing again in English tonight, and I’d go if it wasn’t at 11pm and so expensive.  I had a lot of fun.  Expectations were set too impossibly high for the vocal fans to be truly satisfied (not that they ever actually can be) and that filtered down.  That’s what I’m taking form it at least.