Wednesday, 29 February 2012

'The Avengers'/'Marvel Avengers Assemble' trailer:

I'm about as excited for the upcoming 'Avengers' superhero movie as it's possible to be, and the latest trailer (above) has done nothing to diminish my anticipation. In fact, my girlfriend and I are going on holiday to Rome at the end of April and I'm honestly more excited about getting back just in time for the film's April 27th UK release date. Which is pretty sad, I guess.

Now titled 'Marvel Avengers Assemble' on these shores, presumably to avoid confusion with the British 1960s spy series 'The Avengers' (already adapted into a universally panned mid-90s movie), the film sees Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) combining forces to fend off a threat to our planet - with Tom Hiddleston's Loki, brother of Thor, so far the only known villain. If this is a big hit then it could be a real game changer - ushering in a new era of inter-film continuity projects, particularly in the superhero genre. Once Christopher Nolan finishes with Batman this summer, perhaps Warner Brothers will attempt a similar arrangement with the DC heroes?

It's certainly an ambitious move and it remains to be seen whether director/writer Joss Wheadon can make a satisfying individual movie juggling so many characters. Will he feel the need to introduce all the heroes again and, in so doing, undermine the previous movies? Or will the film be inaccessible for those not already versed in the Marvel universe? It's an intriguing problem and I look forward to seeing how (if at all) it has been solved.

With this, 'The Amazing Spider-Man' and 'The Dark Knight Rises' all sharing a single summer, 2012 looks set to be another year dominated by comic book heroes.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Pretty much sums up last night's Oscars for me...

The above celebration - recorded in an excitable Iranian household - of the Best Foreign Language Film win for 'A Separation' mirrors my feelings about last night's festivities. I'm pleased Woody Allen won the original screenplay category for 'Midnight in Paris', but would have preferred to see Asghar Farhadi's film triumph there too. Also raising a smile is the Best Supporting Actor win for Christopher Plummer and 'Beginners'.

I didn't stay up to watch last night's telecast, mainly because the prospect of staying up until 4am in the company of Billy Crystal to see 'The Artist' crowned the year's best movie just wasn't doing it for me. I'm not an Oscar hater at all (or even a Billy Crystal hater), for what it's worth. It's just that not being especially enamoured with 'The Artist' and doubting the chances of 'Hugo', 'The Descendants' or 'Moneyball', I fancied it would be a long night riddled with sighs and perhaps featuring a "thank you" to Margaret Thatcher.

That tribute to Thatcher didn't materialise though Streep did win the award as anticipated, whilst 'The Artist' scooped up Best Picture, Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius) and Best Actor (Jean Dujardin) - along with two others. Best Supporting Actress went to 'The Help' star Octavia Spencer. Scorsese's lovely 'Hugo' scored five technical awards. On the positive side, a win for 'The Artist' does contradict those troubling reports last month that the film might suffer a backlash from voters for being non-American, with the campaign told to play down the movie's Frenchness. Happily that doesn't seem to have been the case.

Meanwhile, on a tangentially related note, I fear for Sacha Baron Cohen, who "stole headlines" when he arrived on the red carpet as the character from his upcoming comedy 'The Dictator'...

It's not that I'm bothered on any level by that stunt, but just that Cohen's new character isn't particularly inspired and raises uncomfortable questions about national stereotyping. I thought 'Borat' was really funny because it seemed prejudice was the target of the jokes, with people's willingness to think the character was real being in some way an expose of ignorance. Yet "the dictator" is just a guy with a funny beard and an accent that wouldn't be out of place in those dreadful meerkat adverts. Hope the film proves me wrong.

'The Woman in Black' review:

The post-Potter presence of Daniel Radcliffe as the lead in this new film version of ghost story 'The Woman in Black' - already a hugely successful stage play - has no doubt been a considerable boon to box office takings so far. Aside from being an increasingly fine actor, Radcliffe has brought wider media attention to what is otherwise a low-budget, determinedly old fashioned British horror movie (from 'Eden Lake' director James Watkins) and, with the studio making cuts to secure a '12A' rating, has ensured that fans of his 'Harry Potter' movies are flocking to see it. Though this proves a double-edged sword, because seeing a horror movie in a room packed with one hundred plus 10-14 year-olds is far from ideal.

Though they left me with a thumping headache by the end, I did't actually mind the shrill screams that accompanied literally every single scare. In fact I'd go as far as to say it's nice to see a scary movie surrounded by people who are genuinely terrified: one of the pleasures of cinema is sharing an experience in this way. After all, comedies are much funnier in a room full of laughing people, whilst my only positive memory of Peter Jackson's turgid 'King Kong' is when the audience audibly shuddered at some of the big, disgusting CGI insects. What bothered me about the young audience for 'The Woman in Black' is that they were "at that age" where they were determined to be part of the fun and where laughing ironically at EVERYTHING is the default social mode.

It's difficult to get sucked into a Gothic horror atmosphere under these circumstances. If a fidgety schoolboy persists with shouting "dum dum duuuum" whenever the titular ghost lady appears it can be a bit of a mood killer. Ditto for the constant rustling of sweet packets and the kid down the end of my row who kept opening his carbonated drink in order to laugh at the fizz noise (before shaking it up again in order to recreate the magic). Even more annoying were the older couple behind me, whose wry comments about the noisy children were harder to filter out, being right behind my head and taking the form of conversation rather than isolated, random bursts of child-guff.

Yet even in spite of this less than ideal audience situation I found the film pretty consistently compelling. In places it's truly frightening, even if it is (by design) playing on oft-seen horror tropes. It doesn't do anything new but it does the old stuff very well. Radcliffe is a good fit for the protagonist, seeming both vulnerable and capable. Some are bound to find his youthful appearance and image as a boy-wizard a distracting incongruity, especially given that here he is playing a father, but I didn't find this to be a problem. At 22 Radcliffe is an adult who could feasibly have a child - this is simply a fact. If anything his most famous role compliments this one, with both Harry Potter and solicitor Arthur Kipps being of unfailingly good nature.

'The Woman in Black' is on general release in the UK, rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

'Bel Ami' Berlinale (Out of Competition) review:

I'm actually pretty conflicted as to how to feel about 'Bel Ami', an intermittently effective and highly sexed adaptation of Guy de Maupassant's 19th century novel co-directed by British theatre directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod. It's a little verbose in places and features either too much or too little of the book's politics (I'm not sure which), yet it's pretty enough to look at and features some cracking supporting actors. In it 'Twilight' star Robert Pattinson takes the central role of Georges Duroy - an ambitious and spiteful man who rises Barry Lyndon-style from poverty to the pinnacle of Parisian high-society through self-delusion and amorality.

For the first half-hour I sat convinced that Pattinson had been miscast: aside from looking a little too young for a war veteran (one whose peers all seem to be middle aged), Pattinson's permanent snarl and the infinite emptiness of his eyes seem to make a mockery of the fact that his character inspires so much amorous affection - even if we're well aware he engenders this reaction from the ladies off-camera. Yet this seems to be precisely the point, making Pattinson an inspired choice: the ladies like Georges because he is pretty, but actually he is an empty vessel. Lazy, petty, illiterate, lacking social graces and disloyal, French high-society assumes something lies behind his eyes that simply isn't there. The jury is out on whether Pattinson has much range as an actor, but he makes for an oddly compelling Georges.

Precipitating his ascent is Madeleine (Uma Thurman), the highly politicised wife of a newspaper man, who writes several influential articles in his name, lending him a vicarious sense of power and significance. Madeleine is the fiercely independent power behind the scenes in a society that doesn't openly covert the political opinions of women. Georges also seduces the wife of another member of the upper-crust, bedding Clotilde (an especially ravishing Christina Ricci) - being supremely casual with her affections in spite of her unending support and faith in him. Later Georges takes yet another lover in Madame Walter (an underused Kristen Scott-Thomas), a joyless older woman whom he beds simply in order to spite her husband, his business rival (Colm Meaney).

Georges is a man of few talents, yet he feels a sense of entitlement, harbouring bitter resentment against those in whom he perceives slights. This story of a deeply unsympathetic character, potentially doomed to unhappiness by his own limitless pursuit of status, is interesting and so is the film. Though 'Bel Ami' is also heavy-handed - peppered with cumbersome dialogue spoken by actors affecting rigid British accents in an attempt to play French characters - and overly glossy, shying away from showing much of the poverty that is ultimately to power Georges' desperate longing to move up in the world, whatever the cost to his personal happiness. Arguably, with its emphasis on finely embroidered corsets and shots of Pattinson's bum, the film is as superficial and self-important as its protagonist.

'Side by Side' Berlinale (Special) review:

In terms of how films are made - literally, how they are captured on camera - we are potentially at something of an epoch-defining crossroads. 35mm film cameras are no longer being manufactured, with studios now turning more and more to digital filmmaking and new technology. This moment in time - and its polarising effect on the industry - is the topic of 'Side by Side', a comprehensive, thoroughly entertaining look at both sides of the issue. In it Keanu Reeves, the film's producer and narrator, interviews those at the forefront of both camps: speaking to top directors, cinematographers, actors, editors, colourists, camera manufacturers, studio heads, and even students.

It's a film which pits staunch 35mm loyalists like Christopher Nolan and DP Wally Pfister against the progressive likes of George Lucas, Steven Soderbergh, James Cameron and Robert Rodriquez. It provides a potted history of the medium, explaining how cameras work, and breaking down who does what on a film set, in a way which some viewers might find simplistic and insulting to their intelligence. However, as someone who is intimidated by and largely ignorant of the technical side of filmmaking, I appreciated the film's accessibility. Sequences in which clips of films shot on 35mm and on digital are alternated are also really effective at practically demonstrating the ideas being discussed.

Keanu Reeves proves a really capable interviewer, getting some great, illuminating quotes from his subjects who seem at ease in his presence. Many contributors are so disarmingly frank that the film exceeds its brief, providing insight into the work methods of lots of the individuals involved. Danny Boyle unleashes his infectious enthusiasm, talking about his use of consumer cameras to make '28 Days Later' after falling out of love with film following the debacle of 'The Beach'. David Fincher is also good for a quote, voicing some very direct, unguarded criticism of various cameras - and he doesn't pull his punches when it comes to the cinematography fraternity either, citing the DP's loss of on-set authority (and the increase of his own) as one of the benefits of the digital age. Unsurprisingly you hear the reverse from the likes of old school cinematographer Michael Chapman.

Although the weight of opinion seems to go with digital - with most arguments in defense of 35mm coming down to nostalgia and fear of change - the documentary is overall careful not to come down on one side or the other. Instead both arguments are aired and made convincing in their own way. More a document of record than a polemic of any sort, the film leaves us with questions rather than answers, pondering what the future holds - for distribution and archive preservation as well as production. With such great use of film clips and boasting simply unprecedented access to high quality interview subjects, the only obvious problem with 'Side by Side' is that (at 99 minutes) it's far too short. It's a tantalising prospect to consider that there are longer interviews with people like David Lynch, Lars von Trier and Martin Scorsese sitting on director Chris Kenneally's hard drive.

'Francine' Berlinale (Forum) review:

It's not often that a director working on their first ultra low-budget dramatic feature stumbles upon an Academy Award winner who actively wants to star in their little movie. But that's exactly what happened to directors Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky, who were originally looking for local non-actors to play the lead role in 'Francine' before Melissa Leo called and asked for the part. Apparently Leo, who snared the Best Supporting Actress statuette last year for 'The Fighter', stumbled upon the script due to being on an obscure local film mailing list. It's a good job that she did because it's difficult to imagine the film without her.

The titular Francine is in almost every shot of the film and though Leo is surrounded by a cast of authentic seeming non-actors, it's important that Cassidy and Shatzky lucked into the involvement of a world class professional for the lead. It's likewise fantastic to see said professional given such a tough and gritty central role, in an industry where women of Leo's age are customarily confined to supporting parts. As Francine, Leo is given the chance to carry the movie on her shoulders, and the result is something special - elevating a lo-fi film shot on handheld consumer cameras to the point where it's one of the clear highlights of this year's Berlinale.

'Francine' takes the perspective of a women who has been released from prison - having done unspecified time for an unspecified crime - presenting her struggle to readjust to the world following a certain amount of institutionalisation. Though competent, on the outside she finds it difficult to maintain any of the low-skilled jobs she takes up, preferring not to talk to co-workers or make friends. When a lady comes to her door with an invitation to a church event the conversation is typically one-sided and awkward, yet Francine goes along to a roller disco regardless. Her inability to connect with people is not for want of trying, yet when she gets there she sits alone on the outside. Even still a male admirer approaches and, with some reticence, she agrees to go on a date with him. However she spends the date either in silence or in her own world on the dance floor (the only place where she seems able to release her inhibitions).

In the background during all of this is Francine's escalating obsession with animals, as she begins gathering dozens of pets, who roam freely around her cramped dwelling. Soon the place is filthy, with the floor covered in feces and pet food. In the past I've heard friends say that they have more empathy for animals than humans, and this is definitely the case for Francine who is only shown to release any of her obvious, internalised pain when relating to an animal. During one scene, working as a vet's assistant, she weeps uncontrollably as a dog is euthanised. In another she loses all sense of proportion and reason when she finds a dog locked in the back of a car in an empty parking lot.

This connection is suggested right from the outset as Francine leaves prison, sticking her head out of the moving car window like an excited dog. Post-incarceration, it seems, she no longer feels like one of us. In leaving Francine's past a mystery Cassidy and Shatzky avoid miring their film in any specific social problem and present a more universal, nonjudgmental portrait of Francine, as a women wounded and irreparably damaged by her removal from mainstream society. That she clearly likes her male admirer and yet only gets drunkenly intimate with a female neighbor speaks more to an inability to break the routines of (potentially) years in a women's prison than it does to her sexuality.

'The Flowers of War' Berlinale (Out of Competition) review:

In 1937 the Imperial Japanese Army took the Chinese city of Nanking, then the capital. In the six-week period after the city's capture numerous atrocities were committed by Japanese soldiers against civilians and Chinese prisoners of war, the most notorious involving the rape and subsequent mutilation of women and children. Known today as "the rape of Nanking", it's a black chapter of human history and just reading historical accounts of the massacre is guaranteed to turn your stomach. It is in this historical setting that 'Hero' director Zhang Yimou's 'The Flowers of War' is set, with Christian Bale starring as an American caught in the middle.

Apparently loosely based on a true story (and I think "loosely" is the key word), 'The Flowers of War' sees Bale play a selfish mortician who is present during the massacre, making his way to a church where he is due to bury a European priest killed by a stray shell. The church is one of the last remaining safe areas in a city plunged into something resembling hell on Earth, so when Bale's John Miller turns up he decides to take refuge there himself, all the while looking for money, liquor and a means of escape. Also taking shelter in the church are a group of convent girls who immediately look to Miller for protection, begging him to help them, as well as a group of high-maintenance prostitutes (whose spirits are apparently untroubled by events in the city), who climb the walls and set up shop in the basement.

The prostitutes and the convent girls don't see eye to eye, whilst Miller is torn between his lust for the beautiful courtesan Yu Mo (Ni Ni) - who consistently rejects his advances - and his sympathy for these poor, frightened young women. The moment of epiphany for Miller comes as Japanese soldiers violate international law by entering the church, subsequently attempting to rape the young girls, whilst the prostitutes lock themselves in the concealed cellar below. Posing as the fallen priest, Miller wards off the attackers in the name of the lord. He is aided by a guerrilla Chinese soldier who launches a solitary attack on dozens of Japanese troops, persuading them to leave the church grounds.

This extreme and breathtakingly stupid action sequence is full of trailer-friendly explosions and gunfire is a rare flash-point, with this less focused on action set-pieces than the director's previous efforts. Most of the film is confined to the church where the girls bicker and an overacting Bale alternates wildly between a drunken Han Solo and the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. The crux of the drama occurs when a Japanese officer invites the convent girls to attend celebration of his army's victory in the city. He says they are to sing for the general, but Miller and Yu Mo know the truth: the girls will be raped and killed. So they come up with a brilliant and not at all stupid plan: the prostitutes will go in place of the girls.

This is the story of how the potential rape and murder of 13 girls is averted by simply providing different girls - one of whom is forced to go, kicking and screaming by Miller. I can't get behind that. And the notion that these are somehow better victims, because they are prostitutes, is unseemly. But accepting the story (perhaps true) on its own terms for a moment, Yimou's film is a mess. Out of place comedy moments abound, as child rape and slapstick hijinks are often a mere moment away from one another. The action, when it happens, is gruesome and absurd. High-octane in the usual style of the director but this time grounded in a mucky episode of history, for some in living memory.

The acting is awful, the musical interludes (two terrible songs) are spectacularly misjudged (though a Japanese officer mistakenly informs us his piano ballad is the best song ever written), and the film's tendency to caricature the Japanese soldiers sells short what is actually profound about these horrid events: that they were perpetuated by human beings. It's not often that the distance between a film's opinion of itself - here as an earnest high-drama - is so far short of the calamitous reality. If it weren't based on such nasty events it would very funny.

'Shadow Dancer' Berlinale (Out of Competition) review:

Andrea Riseborough has long been a star in search of a fitting vehicle. Though she certainly has the screen presence, acting chops and good looks required to be considered a big deal, to date Riseborough has been unlucky in terms of her choices, with her most high-profile lead roles being in 2011's stomach-churningly awful adaptation of 'Brighton Rock' and playing the infamous Wallis Simpson in this year's 'W.E', directed by Madonna (and also shredded by critics). But she needn't live in fear of a fatal third strike, for she has finally snared a starring role in a film of very fine pedigree indeed, as a Northern Irish member of the IRA, forced by MI5 to spy on her staunchly republican family.

Whilst planting a bomb at a London underground station, single mother Colette McVeigh is detained by Mac, a British secret service officer played by Clive Owen. He presents her with an ultimatum she can't easily ignore: she can either spend the next 25 years in prison and lose her young son, or she can return to Belfast and gather intelligence on her brothers Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson) - suspected as being responsible for a number of political murders and terrorist attacks. Already conflicted about her brothers' violence (she "forgets" to arm the underground bomb) and unwilling to be separated from her child, Colette reluctantly agrees to help Mac.

Of course, this decision places Colette in fresh danger, with her quick escape from the authorities in London and sudden unexplained visits to the local telephone box attracting attention from within the organisation. Soon a local IRA enforcer is hot on her trail, seemingly convinced that she is a mole and waiting for her to slip up. The result is a straight thriller about an informant caught in the middle between two forces to whom she is equally dispensable: Mac tries his best to reassure her of her safety, but his boss (Gillian Anderson) sees Colette as an expendable asset, whilst her the IRA won't hesitate to put a bullet in her head the minute they learn the truth. Soon it dawns on Mac that Colette is simply being used a bait to detract attention from another mole. Will he manage to pull her out of this situation before she's sold down the river? The final twenty minutes, full of unexpected twists and turns, is incredibly tense.

Directed by James Marsh, better known as the documentary filmmaker behind 'Man on Wire' and 'Project Nim', 'Shadow Dancer' is an extremely taut and gritty piece of work which is less about examining "the troubles" as it is the increasingly paranoid mental state of a character who's powerless escape her situation. Clive Owen is dependable as ever, whilst Gillen is a quietly menacing presence as the more hardline of the two brothers, but it's Riseborough who owns the film. She gives exactly the sort of subtle, layered performance required for this film to work, convincing both as a street-smart, lifelong IRA idealist and a mother scared out of her wits.

'The Girl With a Hat Box'/'Outskirts' Berlinale (Retrospective) review:

Part of the Retrospective strand at this year's Berlinale, "The Red Dream Factory" presented a number of inventive and pioneering Soviet and German films of the 1920s and 30s. Of these I saw two directed by Boris Barnet: enchanting 1927 silent comedy 'Devushka S Korobkoi' ('The Girl With a Hat Box') and early sound film 'Okraina' ('Outskirts'), in which small town life is shattered by the coming of the First World War.

'Hat Box' is fantastic - the film people who sit down to watch 'The Artist' think they're seeing, with buckets of charm and loads of really cleverly devised physical comedy and sight gags. Star Anna Sten - as fiercely independent small town hat maker Natasha - is so beautiful and captivating that she seems the Russian equivalent of Clara Bow: highly expressive, inherently lovable and naturally very funny. It's not that surprising that Samuel Goldwyn brought her to the US in the 30s in order to make her a huge international star. Sadly that never worked out as planned with Sten appearing in several flops, though she did star alongside the likes of Gary Cooper (in King Vidor's 'The Wedding Night') and Frederic March ('We Live Again').

As well as being timelessly funny the film is actually fairly risque, culminating the suggestion that Natasha is settling down with both her admirers: a homeless klutz who she hastily marries in order to give him a place to live, and the train station guard who obsessively follows her. Yet somehow this climax feels sweet and innocent to a fault. 'The Girl With a Hat Box' is breezy and light on its feet - the definition of a good time.

'Outskirts' is a very different proposition, with the harmless escapism of the earlier comedy replaced by a much more socially conscious, actively political anti-war film. 'Hat Box' has a political element to it: Natasha and her male friends are hard working and poor, whilst their enemies (the owner of the store that sells her hats and her greedy lover) are decadent and seek to profit from the work of others. Yet this feels incidental and, arguably, it isn't a million miles away from the populism of a Frank Capra movie. By comparison 'Outskirts' depicts the pre-revolutionary Russia as a place where local authorities put down striking factory workers with a cavalry charge.

It's still funny and endlessly inventive - playing games with early sound to create strange sound effects and to enable an increased sense of spacial continuity (for instance, action from a previous scene might still be heard   if the next takes place in an adjacent room). Best of all it enables Barnet's lyrical sense of visual comedy to expand into a world of new sensory possibilities. One inspired gag assigns the same sound effect used for a cavalry charge to a child's rattle, frightening who is hiding from the mounted police. Perhaps its the more important and experimental film, even if it doesn't ever match 'Hat Box' in terms of fun.

Monday, 20 February 2012

'Everybody in Our Family' Berlinale (Forum) review:

Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude's sardonically titled 'The Happiest Girl in the World' was one of my favourite film's of 2010. A bitter little portrait of inter-generational discord as parents bickered with their wilful and moody daughter about the proper way to deal with a car she'd won in a soda promotion. They, knowing the value of money and the difficult reality of life, want to sell it and invest in property. The girl, understandably enough, wants to drive her mates around in it and have a fun, care-free summer. All of this is in the backdrop as the girl records a TV advert for the soda company in which she is forced to declare, with escalating levels of irony, that she is the "happiest, luckiest girl in the world".

With 'Happiest Girl' I loved not only Jude's patient, documentary like shooting style and the naturalistic performances of his actors, but also the fact that each character could madden or thrill you in equal measure. Each player in his film could be infuriatingly stubborn or entirely justified depending on your own viewpoint, with no sense of good guys or bad guys. Personally, I thought the girl was being selfish, but you could easily say the same of the parents. All of this is equally true of Jude's second feature 'Toata lumea din familia noastra' ('Everybody in Our Family') - which is every bit as brilliant, complex and darkly comic a family drama as his debut - but with added tension.

The film follows Marius (Serban Pavlu), a father who is visiting his ex-wife's house in order to take his daughter Sofia (Sofia Nicolaescu) on a pre-arranged day out to the beach. However when he arrives his ex-wife, Otilia (Mihaela Sirbu), is out and her new partner Aurel (Gabriel Spahiu) stops him from leaving with the child. The two men have a pathetic little fight which leaves Aurel injured and Sofia crying - and then Otilia gets home. She tells Marius his visit is over and threatens to curtail his visiting rights further in court. This sends Marius crazy and what happens next should have you on the edge of your seat, wondering if this well-meaning if idiotic chap is going to seriously hurt somebody.

From the opening shots of 30-something Marius in bed, surrounded by empty beer cans, with film posters on the wall and shelves full of DVDs, it's clear that he's an adult but not necessarily a grown-up. The same could be said for Aurel and Otilia, who never compromise even when it's in everyone's interests to do so. In fact arguably Sofia is better behaved - more moral, empathetic and understanding - than any of the adults in her life. At the beginning we see a short, highly confrontational scene between Marius and his parents which adds an interesting dimension - suggesting that we perhaps never grow up. Here we see the routes of his own temper and confrontational tendencies, but also observe, through their unhappiness at his short, infrequent visits, how a parents desire to be close to their child is a universal constant, even when they (paradoxically) can't stand each other.

'Everybody in Our Family' could obviously be seen as a call for increased father's rights (a hot contemporary issue), with the heartbreaking reality that Otilia could stop Marius from seeing his daughter at the forefront of the drama. Yet it's equally the story about how otherwise quite gentle people might suddenly snap if pushed too far. The fact that Marius' actions, born of increased distress, are only adding to the likelihood that he'll never see his daughter again creates a sense of deep, inevitable tragedy.

'King of Comics' Berlinale (Panorama) review:

The name of documentary 'König des Comics' loses something in translation to the more prosaic English handle 'King of Comics'. The German title is a pun on the name of the film's charismatic subject: comic book artist Ralf König, whose defiantly graphic and frank homosexual comedy books of the 80s and 90s remain a source of reassurance, comfort and great pleasure for many in the gay community throughout Europe.

The film goes through König's life and comics chronologically, providing insight into the gay scene in Germany from the 70s to the present day, as much as giving a "for dummies" course on a (to UK audiences) obscure, but influential, comic book artist and wit. König comes across very well, especially when performing his work to audiences, doing the voices as he goes. He is full of life and his political activism and no-nonsense attitude are infectious.

Ultimately the books themselves aren't my cup of tea, but König and his story are good value regardless even if the doc itself is unpolished and without a clear focus. It lacks any great feeling of narrative climax, meaning that enjoyment of the cartoonist's company, if not the wider world of gay comic books, is paramount to the film's appeal.

'Marina Abramović the Artist is Present' Berlinale (Panorama) review:

It's difficult to review some types of documentary film without tending towards reviewing their subject. This HBO produced look at the life and work of pioneering Yugoslavia-born performance artist Marina Abramović is one such example. The film itself is extremely competent: well paced, with access to interesting people, making compelling use of archive material, and coming across as authoritative in regards to Abramović's experimental, provocative pieces (exploring their context and meaning). Yet enjoyment of it will hinge far more on whether or not you buy into the art and the artist herself than on the documentary's own merits.

For my part I found 'Marina Abramović the Artist is Present' fascinating and strangely moving in some places, though frustrating in others. It certainly raises questions. The film's focus is on the titular MoMA exhibition, "The Artist is Present", which saw Abramović sit still in the middle of a room during the gallery's opening hours for three consecutive months, with members of the public invited to sit opposite and look into her eyes. Around 750,000 visitors took the opportunity over that period, with the film showing how many people were moved to tears by the poignancy of it all. Abramović suggests that in gazing into another's eyes participants are really looking at themselves, laid bear in a mirror.

It's a compelling idea and an interesting exhibition - however much it hinges on a distracting central "stunt" (it's not entirely incongruous for David Blaine to appear as one of the artist's friends). But it's odd that people felt the need to queue for 16 hours (and overnight) in order to experience this mutual stare-fest with the artist. Surely the point that there's inherent power in silently gazing into another person's eyes, as opposed to Abramović's in particular? Indeed the most moving sequences occur when former colleagues and lovers of Abramović take the chair, implying that there is something more profound about the experience of looking deep into the soul of someone you have a connection to. Instead many of the participants here seem like art groupies, engaging with a "must-see" happening or high-brow cultural celebrity. Fodder for dinner party conversation.

The MoMA's director, a former husband of the artist, speaks about how radical the exhibition is because Abramović is treating everybody as though they were the same (though one suspects special guest James Franco didn't have to wait too long). He says some of these members of the public seem to feel "entitled" to that equality, which they of course are. This statement speaks to a thinly-concealed elitism behind this section of the art world. For instance members of the public are hauled away from the viewing area if they (as happens in one case) decide to take their clothes off, even though Abramović's own art has frequently used nudity as a way of exploring vulnerability, sex, gender dynamics and voyeurism.

Why is it alright for an artist to do something that is socially unacceptable for anybody else? Who decides the viewer is not entitled to become part of the art - to dress funny, or pull a face or take their clothes off? What sort of ego does it take to initiate this one-way exchange, inviting hundreds of thousands of people to look at you - and pay for the privilege? The early experimental pieces of Abramović's that we see are so much more daring and conceptually interesting than this. Especially one earlier work (1974's "Rhythm 0") which saw the artist lie naked in a room full of props (guns, knives, a whip, coloured paints etc), with viewers encouraged to use these objects to interact with her creatively.

A study of what people choose to do when given this social permission is very interesting. Who is it that chooses to draw on her breast and what is it they choose to draw? What does that say about the nature of being a spectator? Why might somebody reach for a weapon rather than a hat? And so on. Yet here this interaction is diminished and the artist's place has become rarefied, commodified and controlled. Her former partner in art, Uwe Laysiepen, jokes that the life of a performance artist is poverty, but that Ambramovic has moved profitably into something closer to theatre. Elsewhere her manager talks candidly about the business model that enables her to buy €300,000 designer clothes. The struggling artist indeed.

Yet whether it's down to the inherent power of looking another in the eye, or to a mix of social expectation (or even a natural impulse to justify a day of queueing), it's fascinating to see how "The Artist is Present" really moved people to tears. The film's exploration of Abramović's loveless communist upbringing, body of exceptional 70s work and subsequent growth as an art world business powerhouse is likewise compelling.

'My Way' Berlinale (Panorama) review:

It's bombastic and occasionally very silly - a tonal mess of genres and styles, which switches between slapstick comedy moments and bloody massacres without pause. Yet South Korean WWII movie 'Mai-Wei' (or 'My Way') is not only entirely entertaining but also quite brave and, if you can look beyond the CGI-fuelled excess, even fairly profound. It follows two marathon runners, lifelong rivals and occasional friends - one Japanese and one Korean - as they are enveloped by a war that will take them across the world on an all-star tour of man's darkest hour.

The spoiler-adverse should turn away now, but what's great about Kang Je-kyu's epic is the way it fundamentally rejects the wisdom of nationalism. It begins with our heroes separated by Korea's war against Japanese occupation and then by segregation within the Japanese army, as they fight together against the Soviets. Taken prisoner by the Soviets, the duo are then forced to fight in the Red Army against the Nazis. Then, you guessed it, they are captured and (recognised as Japanese allies) pressed into the German army to fight the Americans on the beaches of Normandy (giving us a rare looking at the D-day landings from the perspective of German soldiers).

That every army we see is forcing their men to fight, shooting those who run away in battle, suggests not only a commonality between those fighting in war, but also that the low-ranking soldier is a pawn in a much bigger game. That it doesn't ultimately matter who they are fighting for and who they are shooting is a challenge to the very idea of nation states. This is a point reinforced by the ending in which the surviving soldier competes in the London Olympics, appearing as the only runner whose shirt does not feature a national flag.

So there's this very important, anti-war, anti-nationalist sentiment which is entirely winning. Then there's also a crack-shot Chinese sniper woman who shoots down fighter planes with a rifle, and a guy who single handedly destroys armies of Russian tanks with nothing more than a sword. There's a romance sub-plot, a survival in the Siberian wilderness bit, an unflinching glimpse at the horrors of a Soviet prisoner of war camp, buckets of gore, and also a game of beach football between loveable Nazi soldiers. It's a pretty sprawling, occasionally mad, film but an honourable and thoroughly enjoyable one.

'Elles' Berlinale (Panorama) review:

With a frank and vanity-free central performance from Juliette Binoche, French drama 'Elles' was one of the festival's early highlights playing in the interesting and diverse Panorama strand. In it a veteran journalist spends a day at home performing thankless chores and preparing dinner for her husband's work colleagues. Whilst doing this cooking and cleaning she is also trying to write a glossy magazine article on French students who support their studies by working as prostitutes. Over the course of the film she thinks back on interviews with two young women and, through backflashes, we are told their stories.

Over the day the journalist goes from feeling smug and superior to showing some signs of kinship with the girls - eventually coming to the realisation that her life may be no better behind a veneer of middle-class respectability. In fact in some respects she seems to be having less fun: sexually repressed and in a loveless marriage, disrespected by her teenage son and pushed to meet tight writing deadlines. Yet the film is also careful not to glamorise prostitution, instead depicting it with rare nuance. Sometimes the girls encounter violence or humiliation, but often they are shown to enjoy a job with flexible working hours and for which they are handsomely paid.

Polish director Malgoska Szumowska shoots everything in a claustrophobic, handheld style which wrings the maximum from Binoche's raw, unguarded performance. I'm loathe to call an actor "brave" simply for appearing naked or allowing themselves to be photographed in unflattering light, but there isn't really another way of describing this performance. The slightly pretentious acting buzzword "honesty" also seems entirely appropriate here.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

62nd Berlinale Winners Announced

Golden Bear: Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Cesare deve morire (Caesar Must Die)
Jury Grand Prize: Bence Fliegauf, Csak A Szél (Just the Wind)
Best Director: Christian Petzold, Barbara
Best Actor: Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, En Kongelig Affære (A Royal Affair)
Best Actress: Rachel Mwanza, Rebelle (War Witch)
Best Outstanding Artistic Contribution: Lutz Reitemeier - cinematographer, Bai Lu Yuan (White Deer Plain)
Best Script: Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, En Kongelig Affære (A Royal Affair)
Alfred Bauer Prize for Innovation: Miguel Gomes, Tabu
Special mention: Ursula Meier, L'enfant D'en Haut (Sister)

Friday, 17 February 2012

'Rebelle' Berlinale (Competition) review:

The final competition film screened to press at this year's Berlinale, African child soldier drama 'Rebelle' - being sold internationally as 'War Witch' - is a strong candidate for the Golden Bear, ticking many boxes. It's about a current real world social problem, shot beautifully, and difficult without being unpalatable. It blends social realism with poetic use of fantasy and visual metaphor. It also features a strong central performance from Rachel Mwanza - as the girl abducted by rebel soldiers, forced to shoot her parents, before being put on hallucinogenic drugs and sent out to fight government soldiers.

Writer-director Kim Nguyen's movie is also pretty tightly paced, without the aimless, naval-gazing demeanour which has been typical of so many at this year's festival. It has a definite narrative through-line. In fact I'd say this movie is among the most commercial films on show here, in terms of potential appeal outside of the so often wilfully oblique programme. Its chances of reaching a UK arthouse would be further improved if Mike Leigh's jury awards it Berlin's top film prize - as many journalists here seem to expect, judging by conversation after the screening. Personally I'd prefer to see 'Tabu', 'Just the Wind' or 'A Royal Affair' win the prize, but I wouldn't complain if 'Rebelle' were rewarded.

'A Royal Affair' Berlinale (Competition) review:

An epic tale of romance, ambition and the tragic fallibility of idealism, 'A Royal Affair' (or 'En Kongelig Affære') is a historical drama recounting the story of how provincial German physician and amateur philosopher Johan Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) became the power behind the Kingdom of Denmark - for a brief time transforming one of Europe's most backwards feudal powers into a progressive model of the enlightenment that pre-dated the French Revolution by several decades.

After being appointed the personal physician to Christian VII (a frequently hilarious, scene-stealing performance from Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) in 1768, Struensee used his close friendship with the mentally unwell monarch to banish the country's conservative ruling council and institute a bold raft of social changes which included ending censorship, vaccinating common people against smallpox and abolishing torture. Pretty soon he was actually signing new laws himself, without need of the king's signature. However the old ruling elites, stripped of much of their power, used the newly free press to make Struensee deeply unpopular with the people - enabling his overthrow and eventual beheading.

The key to undermining his popularity - at least according to director Nikolaj Arcel's splendid film - lay in publicising details of his passionate, doomed affair with Christian's estranged wife, the English-born Queen Caroline Mathilde (rising Swedish actress Alicia Vikander). Though they begin this romance very quietly, the two are soon madly in love and even have a daughter (officially Christian's), with their passion an open secret at the palace. A few lurid details later, and with fabricated talk of Struensee poisoning the king to steal power, the people are baying for blood and aching to restore the old order - founded on religion over reason.

The power of the yellow press to turn a mob against its own interests is just one of many potent themes, as is the battle between progress and traditionalism - and that between the wealthy and the poor. But also visible here is something of how power corrupts, for instance as Stuensee brings back censorship when he is the target of criticism. There is also some truth to the idea that he is taking advantage of this mentally ill king, with his use of the ruler as a puppet in no way dissimilar from that of the previous council. Do his good intentions excuse his behaviour in this regard? I'm not sure.

As he faces the block, the doctor - who has already signed a letter condemning enlightenment ideals in the hope of a pardon - looks out onto the crowd in their thousands who have come to cheer his death, and is stunned about where his determination to improve their lot has landed him. Perhaps he moved too fast or gave "the people" too much credit. In any case even if his optimism about the human condition seems to be placed in doubt, the film is not itself given to pessimism: merely the cruel irony of fate.

Everything about 'A Royal Affair' is stunning. Its ambitious scope in terms of subject matter, its intelligence, its brilliant cast of actors (I'll now happily watch anything with Alicia Vikander in it), and its lavish production values. I cried at the end, with the once vital Caroline separated from her children and living in exile, and I laughed far more and far harder than I have at the last dozen or so comedies. The story of a doctor who gives a king new confidence and inspires him to greater things, it could easily be billed as Denmark's answer to 'The King's Speech'. It's far better than that.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

'Mercy' Berlinale (Competition) review:

Set in, Hammerfest, one of the world's northern most towns, 'Gnade' (or 'Mercy') sees a German family move to this remote part of Norway characterised by long cycles of unbroken darkness and unbroken sunshine. Matthias Glasner directs this compelling morality play in which a married couple struggle to come to terms with the fact that they are responsible for the death of a 16 year-old girl. Almost as bad as having caused her death is the fact that they look set to get away with it, a detail which weighs heavily on their shoulders - especially as they know her distraught parents.

The event itself is an accident as Maria (Birgit Minichmayr) hits the girl in her car whilst driving home during the ever-sunless Polarnacht. At first she isn't sure what she's hit and it takes a short while for her to stop the car. Then she can't bear to get out and look, beyond quickly scanning her rear view mirror. After getting home, alarmed at the prospect of having killed a dog, her husband Niels (Jurgen Vogel) ventures back out to the spot looking for evidence of the accident and - after a very short, slightly half-hearted search - finds nothing. The next day news reports confirm their worst fears, but they decide to remain silent.

At school their son Markus (Henry Stange) is also having to ask moral questions of himself - should he bully the unpopular kid to fit in or accept his offer of friendship and be picked on? Niels, for his part, is having an affair with a lady from work. So there's a lot to weigh up all round, though understandably the vehicular manslaughter plot takes centre stage. These problems are explored in interesting ways with defenciveness, self-justification and denial being among the early reactions from characters who say they "aren't that kind of person" even after repeat immoralities. Beautiful night-time helicopter shots of the Arctic town only enhance this rare drama that is actually every bit as profound as it aspires to be.

'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' Berlinale (Out of Competition) review:

Who knew 9/11 could throw up so much potential for whimsy? Adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer's best-selling novel, 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' is the story of how the tragic events of that day cure a boy's autism. That's really pretty much what happens, as nine year-old protagonist Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) goes on a life-affirming quest to find out why terrorists blew up his super-swell father (Tom Hanks).

Of course this being an Eric Roth ('Forest Gump', 'Benjamin Button') screenplay, Oskar's disarming sincerity and can-do attitude ensure that he heals the gaping emotional wounds in everyone he meets - and he meets everyone with the surname "Black" in the New York City phone book, incidentally fixing marriages and mending souls as he goes. Black is the only word on an envelope in which Oskar finds a mysterious key belonging to his late father - a key he hopes will unlock some powerful nuggets of truth, but which'll most likely be for a back door or bleeding a radiator, or something.

He is buoyed in his quest early on by a friendly old man at a key cutting shop who - in a line recalling Gump's famed box o' chocolates - says that he likes keys because they all unlock something. Yes, I'm afraid that is the acidic taste of sick in your mouth. He is also helped by his walkie talkie wielding Germanic grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) and her mute house guest, with "yes" and "no" tattoos on the palms of his hands - I told you this was whimsical. He's also apparently aided in a clandestine fashion by his mostly absent mother (Sandra Bullock), the reveal for which is so far-fetched it makes the rest of the film seem grounded. Bear in mind that "the rest of the film" in this case includes the making of a 9/11 pop-up book.

I haven't even mentioned Tom Hanks' wacky antics in the frequent backflash scenes, because I don't want to relive them. As "the renter", Max von Sydow (who has received an Oscar nomination) is the film's clear (for "clear" read "only") highlight. It's not without emotionally distressing moments, but those stem more from being reminded of the horror of 9/11 than anything the movie is doing. In fact it's own attempts to wring tears from the tragedy feel crass and exploitative. The only noteworthy thing about 'Extremely Loud' is that Stephen Daldry has made perhaps the worst film in recent memory to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' is released in the UK tomorrow, rated '12A' by the BBFC.

'Just the Wind' Berlinale (Competition) review:

Reminiscent of last year's equally bleak and gritty Albania-set 'The Forgiveness of Blood', Hungarian film 'Just the Wind' - or 'Csak a Szél' - is similarly about a rural family living under the threat of violence. But whereas that other film was focussed on the entirely regionally specific problem of inter-familial blood feuds, Bence Fliegauf's film concerns the murder of Romani families - with gypsies being massacred in the night by shotgun wielding thugs out of centuries old prejudice. An opening paragraph tells us that the events of this film, though fictionalised, are based on actual recent anti-gypsy attacks in Hungary. Again like 'Forgiveness' this is a very carefully researched and authentic feeling piece.

It's set over a single day in which we follow a middle-aged mother Mari (Katalin Toldi) and her two children - teenage Anna (Gyongyi Lendvai) and younger brother Rio (Lajos Sarkany) - as they go about their regular business under the shadow of recent violence and suspicion within their own community. Rio seems lazy as he sleeps in to avoid school, but he's really just too worried to be on the streets - spending his day hiding in the nearby trees and stealing supplies for an emergency hideout. Anna sees school as an escape and a means to learn English, the dream being to join her father in Canada. Mari, the breadwinner, is far too busy to worry about anything in between working two cleaning jobs and tending to her ailing father.

All three encounter prejudice and kindness from outsiders. Anna is neglected by her teacher, who encourages other students to pay attention but seems oblivious to her lying face-down on the desk. Yet she also knows people who admire her drawings, trading make-up for her tattoo designs. Mari is given a bag of new clothes for her children by one sympathetic boss, though another disrespects her and implies that she smells. Rio, whilst in hiding, bears witness to the most astounding prejudice of all as he hears one police officer tell another that recent gypsy attacks have been - to some extent - justified.

This rural cop startles his colleague from the city, bemoaning the fact that gypsy children grow up and he doesn't come far short of endorsing future killings of families, suggesting he could show gangs where the worst families live. As with the other examples, this scene is balanced by the other cop who is horrified to encounter such a mentality within the police. It's these moments that prevent the film from suggesting Hungarian society is completely prejudiced. The thugs clearly represent a vocal minority and are acting on many of the lazy stereotypes we hear cited throughout the movie. Ironically, these murderers want to kill gypsies whose dream is to leave the country anyway.

In terms of examining the Romani people's status in this community, the richest scene involves Anna being present in a school locker room as another girl - a pale-skinned western European - is sexually assaulted (possibly raped). The victim of the attack never calls to her, the attackers clearly don't see her as a witness to their crime or as another potential victim, and Anna does nothing - this is not a society in which she feels like, or is treated as, an equal participant. A nuanced and well-paced film that leads to an incredibly tense finale, 'Just the Wind' is one of the best of this year's Berlinale.

'Postcards From the Zoo' Berlinale (Competition) review:

The quirky Indonesian feature 'Kebun Binatang' - or 'Postcards From the Zoo' - is a disarming and beautifully shot competition oddity from a mono-monikered director known as Edwin. In it a young girl named Lana, played with great charm by Ladya Cheryl, spends her formative years living alongside the animals in the confines of Jakarta zoo, where she obsesses over the solitary giraffe. She doesn't work there but lives with a band of misfits on the premises until one day she is asked to leave by the zoo authorities.

She then joins up with a magical (possibly imaginary) cowboy (Nicholas Saputra) who teaches this naïve and entirely passive spirit about magic. She becomes her assistant until, one day, he disappears from her life just as suddenly as he entered it and Lana (nonplussed as ever) embarks on a new phase of her life as a prostitute in a gentleman's sauna. Wearing the number "33" and viewed from behind one-way glass by the establishment's clientele, Lana is evidently now living out her life in much the same way as the giraffe she recites facts about endlessly.

Though there are undoubtedly many ways to interpret this elliptical, metaphorical journey - on a personal and societal level - for me the most compelling reading (at least that I've thought of) frames it as a tale about the nature of viewer complicity. The magician ceases to exist after she first enters the seedy world of the sauna-brothel: has the innocence (and audience engagement) that requires magic to work left her at this point? Likewise aren't we all complicit in the morally questionable practise of keeping of exotic animals in captivity, subsidising this industry whenever we visit a zoo? I know I'm guilty of this.

But most profoundly I felt this theme resonate strongly through a scene in which a customer asks Lana to change clothes (into a skin-tight leopard suit, no less). Here she tells the man not to look at her, but he does anyway as soon as her back is turned. But as we judge him for his voyeurism it dawns on us that we are also watching her undress, perpetuating this violent cycle of endless leering.

'Tabu' Berlinale (Competition) review:

After a week of films that have only occasionally dipped their toes in the shallow end of decent, Portuguese colonial love story 'Tabu' is the first in this year's competition that I would describe as unequivocally brilliant. Director Miguel Gomes divides his highly stylised tale into two parts presented in reverse chronological order, with the first ("a paradise lost") showing the lonely, paranoid final years of a bitter old woman living in Lisbon, frittering away her savings through compulsive gambling.

Aurora (Laura Soveral) is losing her marbles, convinced that her African maid, Santa (Isabel Cardoso), is out to get her and trusting only her nurturing, perennially concerned Polish neighbour Pilar (Teresa Madruga). This chapter of the movie is told from the introverted Pilar's perspective, with Aurora a sad and desperate figure, separated from a distant daughter who seems to pay her no attention. It ends with the old lady dying and Pilar coming into contact with her former lover, Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo) who, over coffee, narrates the second chapter ("paradise"), shedding light on their doomed love affair as care-free youngsters living a decadent existence in a then-thriving African colony.

It's here that the film really springs into life as we begin to understand more about the sad story behind the difficult and slightly unlikable lady of the earlier scenes. In this sunnier part of the film Aurora - heiress to a colonial fortune and world famous big game hunter - is played by the dazzlingly pretty Ana Moreira and Ventura - a well travelled lothario and successful rock and roll drummer - is portrayed by the charismatic Carloto Cotta. The whole thing is narrated, without any dialogue between characters, as old Ventura recounts how he fell in love with Aurora even as she was pregnant by her husband. They try to do the "decent" thing and go their separate ways, yet it's far too painful and they come back together with disastrous results.

Despite the fact the entire film is black and white, framed in a 4:3 aspect ratio, a lot of it reminded me of the hyper-colourful films of Wes Anderson: with Portuguese language cover versions of 60s popular songs, childlike romanticism of the colonial spirit of adventure, characters with obscure quasi-celebrity status, and a highly precise sense of composition. Funny, bizarre, imaginative, unique, and emotional in that way that hits the hairs on the back of your neck - I'll be surprised if this festival goes on to present a better film than 'Tabu'.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

'Home for the Weekend' Berlinale (Competition) review:

Another warmly received German competition entrant, 'Was Bleibt' - which translates literally as "what remains", but given the far sappier English title 'Home for the Weekend' - is a quietly effective examination of how one family falls apart during a routine get together. However much they lie to one another and retreat behind false jollity, each person has significant problems - be they financial, medical or of the heart.

Berlin-based writer Marko (Lars Eidinger) is struggling to spend time with his son Zowie (Egon Merten) after separating from his wife - though he makes excuses for her absence, keeping his family in the dark. Jakob (Sebastian Zimmler) puts on a superior attitude, as the responsible, attentive son, yet his dental practice - paid for by his father Gunter (Ernst Stotzner) - is on the verge of bankruptcy. A fact he doesn't even tell his wife Ella (Picco von Groote), who in turn feels disrespected and kept at a distance.

Over the weekend all of these traumas come to the fore after Marko and Jakob's manic depressive mother
Gitte (Corinna Harfouch) discloses that she has not been taking her medication for some time and has no plans to do so. The family is divided over how to proceed, fearing violent mood swings if they talk openly in front of Gitte. This exacerbates her own feelings of isolation and threatens her will to live. When she goes for an early morning drive alone and does not return the family begin to fear the worst, intensifying their internal feud and hastening the airing of grievances.

Director Hans-Christian Schmid handles this potentially sombre story a deceptive lightness of touch, the film being peppered with smile-raising moments which enliven the kitchen sink drama. As it stands it's one of the most purely watchable films of the competition here.

'Sister' Berlinale (Competition) review:

Set in the Swiss alps, 'E'enfant D'en Haut' - which carries the English title 'Sister' - is about a young boy called Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) who escapes his grim life in a tower block by spending his days in the affluent mountain ski resort above, where he steals expensive ski equipment to sell on to local kids. Director Ursula Meier's film has a strong undercurrent of grim socio-economic reality behind it, however it's also lyrical and occasionally whimsical - as Simon strikes the pose of a flush, big-time hustler to great comic effect.

Going by the name Julian in the world above, he wears sunglasses whilst dining on fries in the restaurant, mingling casually with upper class patrons - who include serial stilted Brit impersonator Gillian Anderson. In the world below he uses money earnt from selling on stolen goods in order to support his frequently absent older sister - as played with great sensitivity by the coma-inducingly beautiful Lea Séydoux.

Beautifully filmed by Claire Denis' regular DP Agnès Godard, 'Sister' is tragic in its depiction of a situation in which a desperate child is ultimately forced to barter with his only relative for even the slightest expression of affection. Simon is a likeable kid whose one means of escape is not only criminal but destined to be short-lived: the ski season does not last forever and nor can his mischievous hijinks.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

'Captive' Berlinale (Competition) review:

If this was made ten years ago 'Captive' would have felt like a shrill, pernicious little piece of reactionary Islamophobia. Coming a decade after the events of 9/11, as tempers cool, it seems all the more unnecessary and unwelcome. In it a group of middle class French tourists - headed up French star Isabelle Huppert - are abducted from their luxury Philippine resort by a group of muslim fundamentalists who seek to use them as leverage to make political demands from the government. They are ruthless to a man, bumping off any who are not worth much in ransom, beheading them and then laughing about it, firing their rifles into the air and shouting "praise be to Allah". They are cartoon villains and lack even genuine spiritual conviction.

They preach at their captives constantly, telling them about the laws of the Qur'an even as they make a mockery of them: for instance, it cuts to one man stealing a hostage's watch as the prisoners are told not to take things that don't belong to them. They also force female captives to marry them in order to have sex with virgins without offending religious tradition. The events of the film are set during 2001, so we are even shown them celebrating 9/11 to the horror of the westerners, who instantly understand the event's significance based on few details. In reality the enormity of those events needed time to sink in, even with access to the shocking images on live television.

Kidnappings such as these - as happen frequently in South America, Africa and Asia - are an interesting and frightening prospect, certainly worthy of an interesting and insightful film. Though this feels like white post-colonial panic. You could say these terrorists happen to be muslim because in the Philippines that is the reality, and that the things they do are similarly routed in a horrific truth that doesn't obey the laws of so-called "political correctness". Yet it's not that the film includes (or even highlights) the Islamic specificity of this kidnap that's offensive: it's that it dominates the movie totally, with many of the abductors' rants sounding like deliberate attempts to put Islam on trial, whilst Christian characters are shown to be charitable, respectful and unwavering the face of adversity.

'Jayne Mansfield's Car' Berlinale (Competition) review:

Set in Alabama in 1969, 'Jayne Mansfield's Car' is a blackly comic film about the failure of each successive generation to learn from the mistakes of the previous one. Here two families from different backgrounds, each with their share of war-scarred men, are brought together by a funeral: an event which basically enables an exploration of the way each character romanticises tragedy - a concept embodied by the wrecked car of ill-fated movie star Jayne Mansfield, which is a local sideshow attraction.

Withdrawn, WWI veteran and traditional southern patriarch Jim Caldwell (a note-perfect performance from Robert Duvall) is saddened when his ex-wife - and mother of his now adult children - dies after years of living in England with her second husband (and fellow Great War veteran) Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt). In spite of long-harboured feelings of bitter resentment towards the man who took his love, Jim invites the Bedford family to come and stay in his home with his children and grandchildren. These include three wildly different sons, all of whom served in WWII.

Director and writer Billy Bob Thornton takes on the role of a decorated navy pilot who finds it easier to relate to machines than people. Robert Patrick is a seemingly uptight guy, whose resents never having seen combat - yet he has subsequently been successful and is head of a nuclear family. Kevin Bacon was also decorated in the war, yet now he is a long-haired hippy protesting Vietnam in the hope that his teenage son doesn't have to go through what he did. Kingsley's son accompanies him to the US - a WWII Japanese prisoner of war. Ray Stevenson is compelling, for once not playing a fun tough guy.

Relatively free of southern clichés, the film pokes affectionate fun at the Caldwell's occasionally tacky manner (as seen by the stuffy Bedfords) without being patronising or mean about the characters. Perhaps it's a little long and unfocused, with some characters (like Frances O'Connor's likeable Camilla) disappearing for long stretches. Yet overall it's warm and fun with moments of effecting tragedy all in service of a laudable anti-war message.

Monday, 13 February 2012

'Metéora' Berlinale (Competition) review:

Folks who have no interest in arthouse cinema or festival films probably assume that they are all humourless, chin-scratching borefests like 'Metéora', a Greek film from director Spiros Stathoulopoulos. Over 82 minutes that feel far longer, it's the story of a Russian nun (Tamila Koulieva) and a Greek monk (Theo Alexander) who are doomed to live lives of quiet despair unless they consummate their forbidden love. Turns out they're in luck because, conveniently enough, "the only sin that cannot be forgiven is despair".

They repeat that word, "despair", over and over (in Greek and Russian), whenever they aren't in mournful solitude, gazing through the windows of their remote, mountaintop monasteries across the abyss that separates them physically and emotionally. A stunning setting for the well-worn theme of sexual repression and self-flagellation within the church, with Nun burning her hand in order to resist the temptation to masturbate. Monk is tempted not only by what's under Nun's garments, but also by the simple rural idyll outside the order. In fact he is so much more at home among the shepherds and such that it's hard to understand why Monk became one in the first place.

As an escapist outlet for repressed fantasies, both experience vivid dreams brought to life via crude, jerky animation and styled to replicate traditional Christian art. These segments, infused with provocative religious imagery, deserve credit for being imaginative and, aesthetically, they represent an improvement on the ultra-low quality cameras used to film the live-action stuff. There are some nice touches here and this device is a clever one.

Yet the part of the film that's destined to live longest in my memory is a scene in which a real mountain goat is cornered, captured, stabbed and skinned - a scene which feels unnecessary and cruel. I'm not a vegetarian and am under no illusions about where food comes from (however much I'd rather not think about it), but filming the grisly death of a screaming animal for the purposes of a movie just doesn't sit well with me.