Along with 132 short films and a slew of masterclasses, installations, discussions, and other events, the Berlin International Film Festival presented 253 features this year. I managed to catch twenty-seven of them, and Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not, winner of the Golden Bear, was not one of them.
Without peeking at the ratings that I, along with nineteen others, sent into critic.de during the festival, I’ve ranked the twenty-seven and made a surprising discovery. For me, personally, given the way I happened to slice it, this year’s Berlinale was front-loaded with the best it had to offer. Turns out, I’ve already written about the top six in the first two Berlinale 2018 Diary entries. As for the rest of the list, I did manage to find something—something—to like about each of these films, even the ones toward the very bottom of this page. The six:
1. 11 x 14 (James Benning), see Diary #2
2. Transit (Christian Petzold), #2
3. Madeline’s Madeline (Josephine Decker), #1
4. Grass (Hong Sangsoo), #2
5. Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson),#1
6. The Green Fog (Guy Maddin), #1
Here, then, we begin with . . .
7. An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu Bo)
If you know, going in, that director Hu Bo took his own life last October shortly after completing An Elephant Sitting Still, his first feature, this plain fact, about which you may know nothing more, will hover over and then permeate nearly every minute of the film’s four-hour running time. Based on Hu’s favorite story from his own novel Huge Crack, Elephant begins in a nameless town in northern China where sixteen-year-old Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) tells a friend about a circus elephant in Manzhouli that simply sits, ignoring the goings on around him. Defending that friend, he accidentally shoves a bully down a stairway in school. The bully’s brother, Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu), a small-time gang leader in this bleak town wracked by economic blight, feels grudgingly obligated to take revenge. Wei understandably decides that this would be the day to go take a look at that elephant.
Two other stories run parallel to Wei’s over the course of this single day. Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen) sees her affair with her teacher blow up on social media and the family of Wang Jin (Liu Congxi), sixty, is trying to shuffle him off to a nursing home. This bare outline only begins to suggest the richly convoluted routes these stories take as they eventually begin to intertwine.
Each scene, whether it be a nasty argument or a desolate tour of some godforsaken corner, will last as long as Hu clearly felt it needs to, but his choices as to what constitutes a scene are uniquely his. A smoldering confrontation between Wang and members of Yu’s gang, for example, looms for minutes and then suddenly snaps shut with the first thrust of a pool cue. We don’t need to see the fight because, when Wang appears again all but unscathed, our hunch that he’ll have been victorious will be confirmed. And there are moments when I found myself thinking, oddly enough, of Josephine Decker. While her shots are swift and swirling and Hu’s are languid, and frankly, often dreary, each filmmaker frames a shot like no one else would. Hu favors a narrow depth of field, too, at times to such an extreme that he’s blatantly flagging his choice to keep the focus right where he put it.
An Elephant Sitting Still would end with a train ride to Manzhouli—if that train weren’t cancelled. All that’s sure by the time the credits roll is that night has fallen.
What others are saying: “These lives are very hard to take,” grants Daniel Kasman in the Notebook. “But soon the film’s shroud—so effectively conveyed by long, uncut sequence shots following characters around as they search for a way out—envelops completely, and, within its bleak world, you can’t turn away. It would seem the ultimate act of cruelty for us to abandon these poor souls.”
“An Elephant Sitting Still is not an unwatchable exercise in miserabilism,” insists Giovanni Marchini Camia, writing for Sight & Sound. “To be sure, the script’s negativity does become somewhat willful—there are two suicides and one accidental killing in a mere twelve-hour period—but the exceptional delicacy with which Hu delineates his characters’ trajectories transcends their wretchedness. The film’s images extricate beauty from the most dismal of situations and together with his actors, all of whom deliver performances of astounding sensitivity, Hu manages to evoke emotions so deeply felt and overwhelming, they compensate for any narrative contrivances.”
“Influenced by European art house icons such as Krzysztof Kieslowski and Béla Tarr—specifically the latter’s Werckmeister Harmonies, in terms of its fatalistic premise and omnipresent tracking shots—Elephant provides proof of Hu's promise as a thoughtful filmmaker,” writes Clarence Tsui in the Hollywood Reporter. “The movie stands as a memorial to a young talent who burned out too soon.”
Update, 3/7: For Dan Sullivan, writing for Film Comment, “the film at times feels engineered to grind us into dust by the efficacy of its portrait of a Schopenhauerian world of will, representation, and cruel impossibility. But Hu’s compassion for these everyday survivors quickly grows infectious.”
8. Unsane (Steven Soderbergh)
“If you write a low-budget thriller, I’ll shoot it this summer,” Steven Soderbergh told James Greer in January 2017. Greer and writing partner Jonathan Bernstein delivered, and Soderbergh picked up an iPhone 7 Plus and decided to do “things that ‘Steven Soderbergh’ wouldn’t ordinarily do.” That’s a list that grows shorter with each project, and not every experiment conducted pre- or post-retirement from feature-making has paid off. This one does. Unsane whips along with a B movie efficiency that’s particularly welcome and refreshing in the context of a festival like the Berlinale. It’s possible that it’d cut less of a profile elsewhere, but there’s something awfully winning about the way that, even as it’s expertly yanking you around the sharp corners of each twist, it’s also slyly encouraging you to laugh along, albeit a bit more blatantly in one scene featuring an outright comic cameo performance.
As sharp-witted Sawyer Valentini, a woman whose stalker has forced her to relocate and seek a little therapeutic help that lands her in the Highland Creek Behavioral Center, Claire Foy convincingly shakes off Elizabeth II—no small feat, considering that those piercing eyes are the most indelible image left by two seasons of The Crown. The other notable turn here is Jay Pharoah’s as the patient who knows the ropes, a Virgil to Sawyer’s Dante.
What others are saying: “We’re in schlock corridor here and Soderbergh runs with it, cellphone in hand; under the buzzing suspense mechanics, however, a cautionary note on the perils of disbelieving women is just audible,” writes Guy Lodge for Variety.
This is Soderbergh’s “most unabashedly pulpy film and yet it fits in aesthetically with his earliest digital explorations, Bubble (2005) and The Girlfriend Experience (2009),” finds Adam Cook in the Notebook. “Unsane is funny and wholly disconcerting, not alternately but in tandem, a tension of clashing moods that exaggerate the paranoia and surreality of the plot.”
“Returning to the knowing twistiness of his 2012 thriller Side Effects, Soderbergh makes Unsane work teasingly, until things edge too far into the realms of the Gothicly lurid to be remotely plausible,” writes Jonathan Romney for Screen.
“Simply put, if you’re in the Saturday night date mood to see a high-concept, formulaic horror-thriller with some slashery gore and a pretty high body count, this is one of the better ones we’ve seen in a while, image quality notwithstanding,” adds Jessica Kiang at the Playlist.
For the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, it’s “ultimately ridiculous in all the wrong ways.” Sight & Sound editor Nick James finds that “there is a televisual feel that makes it feel more like a companion piece to Black Mirror episodes than to Soderbergh’s other films—not that there’s anything wrong with that.” More from Ben Croll (IndieWire, B), Patrick Gamble (CineVue, 3/5), Thomas Humphrey (ScreenAnarchy), Rory O’Connor (Film Stage, B+), David Rooney (Hollywood Reporter), and Matt Thrift (Little White Lies). Update, 3/18: For Dazed, Daisy Woodward talks with Soderbergh about “the secrets behind making a movie on your phone.”
Updates, 3/22: “Mr. Soderbergh’s quick-and-dirty approach works here better as a conceptual gambit than as an entertainment,” finds Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “What keeps you watching even as the story becomes more off-putting are the actors and Mr. Soderbergh’s filmmaking. It helps, too, if you ignore the woman-in-peril clichés and sadism and just read Unsane as a self-aware riff on the relationship between critics and creators.”
“Soderbergh concocts an unusually literal vehicle for his principles of deception, clinical detachment, and self-imposed constraint (not to mention his interest in the deceptive language of therapy) in Unsane,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the A.V. Club. “Most of the thrills here come from watching one of our canniest directors perform rattling wheelchair dollies on a waxed hospital floor while over-punctuating video-noisy close-ups and cheesy music cues.”
“With equal splashes of wit and gore, this cool, nasty little thriller fearlessly exploits up-to-date strains of social and sexual paranoia,” writes Michael Sragow for Film Comment. “Neither overheated and over-calculated, like Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, nor frigid and laminated, like David Fincher’s Gone Girl, it resembles Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor mixed with elements of Neil Jordan’s scandalously ignored In Dreams.”
More from Sam Adams (Slate), Charles Bramesco (Guardian), David Edelstein (Vulture), Steve Erickson (Gay City News), Robert Ham (Stranger), Andrew Lapin (NPR), Matt Lynch (In Review Online), Dan Schindel (Hyperallergic), David Sims (Atlantic), Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert.com, 3/4), April Wolfe (Village Voice), and Stephanie Zacharek (Time).
Updates, 3/24: “The performance that lingers, once the tale is told, is that of Jay Pharoah as Nate,” writes Anthony Lane in the New Yorker. “Nate thinks that Highland Creek is running a murky racket, and a serious movie about mental disorder and the insurance business would be ten times clammier and more disturbing than Unsane. For now, we have to be content with passing hints.”
“This isn’t just an experiment,” writes K. Austin Collins at the Ringer. “It’s an argument for a new direction for Hollywood filmmaking, deceptively cloaked in the B-movie trappings of a movie that knows it doesn’t ‘matter.’” More from Sean Burns (WBUR) and Philip Kemp (Sight & Sound).
Updates, 3/28: “The subject of the film . . . is simply a pretext for a technical exercise,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody. “But Unsane is also one of his best movies, because for Soderbergh, a filmmaker with an obsessive devotion to technique and process, there’s nothing impersonal or distanced about that exercise; it’s the very spark of his artistic passion, and that passion is the energizing force of Unsane.”
“The formal playfulness may occasionally undermine Unsane’s narrative tension, but it keeps the movie engaging on a visual level,” writes Ben Sachs in the Chicago Reader. “Unsane is being sold as a genre entertainment, but it’s ultimately as serious as the director’s The Girlfriend Experience in its open-ended consideration of gender politics and the zeitgeist.”
Updates, 3/31: “Soderbergh’s interest in finding cinematic means to describe mental disquiet and the Kafkaesque nature of contemporary experience goes at least as far back as, well, Kafka (1991),” notes Nick Pinkerton at Reverse Shot. In Newcity, Ray Pride argues that Unsane is “more than an intelligent exercise in grindhouse provocation.”
Update, 4/1: “The scripts for Mosaic and Unsane leave something to be desired,” writes Amy Taubin for Artforum, “but in both cases Soderbergh—who is the most serious American narrative filmmaker to match the prolificity of Godard in the 1960s or Fassbinder during the thirteen years of his tragically brief career—was more interested in taking technology out for a spin than he was in making an important genre movie.”
9. Central Airport THF (Karim Aïnouz)
This isn’t the time or place to get into the bizarre history of Berlin and its airports, but just briefly, when the Wall fell and Germany was “reunified” (in quotes because it’s a loaded term), Berlin suddenly had at least two of everything—and three airports. The plan was to shut them all down and replace them with a single Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER), the construction of which began in 2006. And it’s still nowhere near complete. Tegel (TXL) is currently handling far more traffic that it was ever intended to do, but with commendable proficiency, while ugly old Schönefeld (SFX) rattles along as a hub for your EasyJets and Ryanairs. Tempelhof (THF), easily the most accessible and architecturally impressive of the three, was shut down in 2008. It’s a long story.
Karim Aïnouz’s majestically shot Central Airport THF begins with a tour—a literal tour with a guide and tourists snapping pictures—that sketches a history of this magnificent structure up to that shutdown. The abandoned main terminal inspires awe tinged with guilt, because one is aware that awe is precisely what Albert Speer and his architects and builders intended to inspire when they reconstructed Tempelhof in the late 1930s as part of Hitler’s never realized “World Capital Germania.” THF was redeemed somewhat when it played a vital role in the Berlin Airlift of 1948 and 1949, but what would have truly goaded the Nazis would be its function, since late 2015, as one of the primary shelters to which Berlin has been funneling the influx of refugees from, primarily, the Middle East and northern Africa.
They’re currently housed in the hangars, in makeshift rooms that look like office cubicles with bunk beds but no ceilings. Over the course of one year, mid-2016 to mid-2017, Aïnouz follows several recurring “characters” in his documentary, but latches on to one in particular, Ibrahim Al Hussein. In October 2015, at the age of twenty-one, he left his home and family in Aleppo, and he misses them dearly. He talks about waking to the sound of his brother’s music and the smell of his mother’s coffee. Over and again, Aïnouz subtly reminds us that none of the people in these hangars are here by choice.
While the tone of Central Airport THF isn’t quite as upbeat as the trailer suggests, this is not an angry film. Never leaving the airport means never seeing the atrocities that prompted so many to begin their journeys to Berlin, nor the abuse they may have suffered along their various ways through Europe. Waiting for the bureaucratic machinations to determine their fates can be a grind, but this sprawling space is teeming with life. After the closure, Berlin eventually decided to turn THF into Tempelhofer Feld, a wide-open field of grass and runways, where Berliners come to picnic, skate, and socialize. Aïnouz’s camera wanders the field to find that, among the Germans, British club-hoppers are sobering up here, Turkish families are BBQing, and snippets of countless languages are buzzing by, enriching the social fabric of a city that’s become home for so many born elsewhere. Like me.
What others are saying: “Aïnouz wisely focuses on just a few people in the center, so apart from overhead shots of the rows upon rows of white cubicle-like living spaces set up in the different hangars that give a vague notion of just how many people reside there (upwards of 3,000), the director avoids the kind of anonymous mass that neuters individuality,” writes Jay Weissberg in Variety, where Ed Meza interviews Aïnouz. Update, 3/28: Héctor Llanos Martínez interviews Aïnouz for Cineuropa.
10. The Waldheim Waltz (Ruth Beckermann)
Winner of the second annual Glashütte Original – Documentary Award, Ruth Beckermann’s The Waldheim Waltz is a straightforward retelling of the rise of Kurt Waldheim to the office of UN Secretary General and his subsequent campaign to become president of Austria in 1985 and 1986. Beckermann, perhaps best known outside of Europe for The Dreamed Ones (2016), has been reporting, writing, and making films for over three decades now. While she has little use for formal acrobatics, she has no qualms at all about making her presence and opinions known, calmly narrating and even appearing now and then in her own archival footage as an activist protesting Waldheim’s candidacy.
Before 1985, Waldheim had always claimed that he was a good but innocuous soldier while serving in the Wehrmacht during World War II, a mere interpreter, and what’s more, he’d received a medical discharge in 1942. During the campaign, investigative journalists at home and the World Jewish Congress abroad claimed to have evidence that he was still quite active in the SA in Yugoslavia and Greece at least a year afterwards, during which time the Nazis committed war crimes and deported thousands of Greek Jews.
The “Waldheim Affair” was already an international uproar when Waldheim squeaked into office in July 1986 after a second round of voting. Though he’d lived in New York throughout his two terms as UN Secretary General in the 1970s, the U.S. Justice Department barred him from entering the country in 1987. Within Austria, the cleft between the left, who’d opposed Waldheim from the start, and the right, who reacted to condemnation from the outside by strengthening its resolve, grew wider and louder.
Beckermann takes us to the streets. A crowd gathers around a Waldheim supporter who, seeming to thrive on the outrage he triggers, turns up the rhetorical flames, beaming from ear to ear as the crowd tries to shout him down. By this point, noting the film’s relevance to the present moment would be overstating the obvious. What keeps The Waldheim Waltz engaging from moment to moment isn’t so much a matter of narrative twists and turns as Beckermann’s explorations of the ramifications of the arguments flung back and forth thirty years ago on the identity and future of a country that, just last December, voted in a ruling coalition of conservatives and nationalists.
What others are saying: Writing about this “tightly focused, dryly corrosive documentary” in the Notebook, Daniel Kasman adds that it’s “obviously, brutally relevant not only for its native Austria, whose new thirty-one-year-old Chancellor has raised alarm bells of conservative extremity, but also for all world leaders who have the ghastly ability to somehow survive the fiercest and most upright scrutiny.”
More from Stephen Dalton in the Hollywood Reporter. And for more on Beckermann, see the Austrian Film Museum’s introduction to a collection of essays on her work edited by Alexander Horwath and Michael Omasta. Update, 3/22: Marina Richter interviews Beckermann for Cineuropa.
Update, 3/28: “No doubt Beckermann’s film is sure to make inroads at home, but there still remains the unfortunate fact that in some countries a skewed version of history remains entrenched in the national psyche,” writes David Perrin, introducing his interview for the Notebook.
11. Classical Period (Ted Fendt)
Speaking of books from the Austrian Film Museum, Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet, appearing in 2016, was edited by Ted Fendt. Asked for an initial impression of Classical Period, I went with my first impulse: It strikes me as a film by someone who’s just edited a book on Straub-Huillet. My second impulse was to seek out some sort of guide to this series of scenes of texts being recited, studied, and discussed. I didn’t need to look far. It’s right there in the director’s notes. Fendt lays it out plainly: “Classical Period is a long, circling conversation around, away from, and back to an 1864 translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The translation is by Henry Longfellow, its endnotes are copious, the result of an over twenty-year engagement with the book.”
Classical Period, shot on 16 mm, is sixty-two minutes long, one minute longer than Fendt’s previous feature, Short Stay (2016, 35 mm), but on the surface at least, exponentially denser with allusion. It’s a film about scholarship, its pleasures and demands, and it’ll be all the more fascinating to cinephiles who know Fendt for his invaluable translations from French to English of key texts in film criticism (full disclosure: I’ve met Ted briefly a couple of times and can vouch for his German as well). Fendt’s other contributions, such as his astounding annotated list of works cited in Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language (2014), suggest that he can readily relate to Cal (Calvin Engime, who also appears in Short Stay) and his circle of friends who seem to spend every waking hour absorbing, decoding, discussing, and explicating literature—specific passages, whole volumes, recollected histories.
Scene by scene, text by text, taken individually, these lessons richen the mind (and again, I didn’t realize, first time around, that we were drawing a full circle). Taken as a whole, however, you begin to worry. Because he made Short Stay, we know that Fendt is aware that even scholars would have to attend to the banalities of life, the teeth-brushing, the grocery shopping, and so forth. And no doubt, these characters do these things in between the scenes Fendt has chosen to write, film, and edit together. It’s as if Cal and his friends live two parallel lives, one we see, and the other we don’t—until, towards the end, Evelyn (Evelyn Emile) pierces the wall between them. She mentions the bouts of insomnia she’s been having and raises the possibility of shaking up her routine. I could be reading too much into to it, but I thought I detected a faraway cry for help in her eyes. I could imagine that some viewers who have given countless hours to their cinephilia might relate.
What others are saying: “Each set of ideas leads seamlessly into the next, until the flow they form is endless,” writes James Latimer for the Forum: “there are always more footnotes, theoretical perspectives, cantos, translations to cite, so many ways of keeping everyday life at bay.”
“When Evelyn reads of and speaks about Dante’s character of Pia de’ Tolomei is the moment Classical Period epitomizes a cinematic ideal,” writes Daniel Kasman in the Notebook: “the actress seems to at once embody the book she’s reading, taking it into herself, and also transform it, reveal it through her own version of the story it tells. Afterwards, she skewers Cal for his constant airing of his knowledge, and the dramatic relief this provides, and the honesty of the confession, suggests that despite a supporting role, Evelyn may be the film’s real hero.”
Updates, 3/7: “The triumph of Classical Period resides largely in how engrossing, compelling, and even entertaining these history lessons are,” writes Dan Sullivan for Film Comment: “the sheer pleasure of watching the film resides in listening to uninterrupted intelligent discussion, something we seldom see nor hear in cinema.”
Christopher Small introduces an interview for the Notebook: “Fendt’s unassuming style draws on a legacy of great non-directors (the Straubs, Pialat, Moullet, Chaplin, early Garrel, et cetera); this time his erudition is matched by his characters, who have a purpose to their lives which was—at least ostensibly—absent for his previous creations. This parallel between movie-character and movie-maker is liberating, a revolutionary shift in sensibility from a once-entrenched stylist of the inarticulate. Exciting stuff indeed, and handily the most refreshing movie I saw at the festival.”
12. Notes on an Appearance (Rickey D’Ambrose)
The first mystery to be tackled here is the title. Why would Ricky D’Ambrose call his new film Notes on an Appearance when the event at the core of it is a disappearance? I don’t have an answer to that. The second mystery is, of course, that disappearance. No one within the world of the film has an answer to that. We know that the story begins with a postcard from Milan, the first of a series of meticulously designed works on paper all placed just so within the frame: Newspaper clippings, handwritten notes, maps, tickets, checks, and magazine articles about Steven Taubes, a relatively recently deceased philosopher whose followers seem to be congealing into a violence-condoning movement.
The postcard is from David (Bingham Bryant), sent to Todd (Keith Poulson), who’ll be his roommate in Brooklyn, where we’ll catch glimpses of panel discussions and denizens of New York film culture, some of them with speaking roles: Tallie Medel, James N. Kienitz Wilkins, A. S. Hamrah. David takes a part-time job cataloguing Taubes’s papers, videos, and recordings, and spends the other hours of the day looking for a job that’ll actually earn him a living. And then, one day, he disappears. Todd takes on the case, but the leads are discouraging. The appearance, then, might be David’s in Brooklyn or it might be the appearance of something that isn’t actually all quite there but is nonetheless exceedingly attractive and watchable.
What others are saying: “This is more scrapbook of ideas than a cohesive work, which is fine,” writes Neil Bahadur. “But there’s an aspiration to a sort of neo-classicalist formal rigor which almost seems like posturing—but I would reckon it’s because the films basic ideas and concepts never cohere in a sophisticated way. Yet they do cohere—the film really seems like a longer narrative chopped down into bits and pieces, working less on montage construct and more as a kind of Bressonian polyphony.”
James Lattimer for the Forum: “Dossiers should provide certainty, but they no longer do, how unnerving it is to realize that life is now the gaps.”
Update, 3/7: “D’Ambrose has organized the telling of the story around a set of imposed narrative self-impositions, restrictions and formal simplifications, reveling in the obtuse, the unspoken, the provisional,” writes David Perrin in the Berlin Film Journal. “Even his use of space involves a flattening of New York’s geography. The city is reduced to a series of close-ups of street and subway maps, each one delineating exactly where we are located; the jumble of the city organized into a satisfying symmetry.”
Update, 3/18: For Michael Sicinski, this is “one of the only films I’ve seen to really take seriously the challenges put forth by Angela Schanelec’s work—the compression, the economy, the jettisoning of extraneous backstory and character development, and the surefooted, lock-fit editing that moves the film along on a formal level, even when it seems to work against our usual habits of narrative motility.”
Updates, 3/22: “Notes on an Appearance functions as a summary of the first phase of D’Ambrose’s filmmaking,” writes Phil Coldiron for Cinema Scope. “Its style is, in its particulars, nearly identical to Spiral Jetty : it retains its rich, primary palette and monochrome intrusions, its distant, cooling relation to dramatic incident, and its intrusive, inciting story, again related through documents . . . Most significantly, it revisits and refines the rigorous musical form introduced in Pilgrims , an approach to constructing a film which, in its determination to maintain its images’ opacity, cannot precisely be called either montage or découpage.”
“D'Ambrose creates a hermetic world in which everything is orderly and clean, like an assiduously arranged scrapbook,” writes Greg Cwik for Slant.
For Senses of Cinema, Brigitta Wagner interviews D’Ambrose, Ted Fendt, and their producer, Graham Swindoll.
13. In the Aisles (Thomas Stuber)
It takes cajones to use Johann Strauss II’s “The Blue Danube” at all after that indelible sequence in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it takes a second pair to set it to a sort of mechanical ballet as well: A superstore in an unnamed town in eastern Germany slowly wakes, the rows of florescent lights flickering awake, department by department, the first forklifts humming down the aisles. This will be the first day on the job for Christian (Franz Rogowski, in his second lead role in a Competition entry after Petzold’s Transit). His supervisor, Bruno (Peter Kurth), seems gruff but softens up within minutes. Christian eventually falls for Marion (Sandra Hüller, now internationally known for her performance in Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann) over in the candy section. She’s married, albeit unhappily, so Christian keeps a respectful distance.
That “Blue Danube” misstep aside, Thomas Stuber’s In the Aisles rumbles along pleasantly, its comedy not particularly fresh but just endearing enough, until Marion vanishes. The pace slows almost to a full stop, another gutsy move, though this one works. The mood takes a deep dive, then recovers. In the Aisles is fine. Considering the cast and the Competition slot, though, what’s most notable about it is how unremarkable it is.
“As we peer increasingly into the characters’ lives, Stuber pulls back from using quirky as a means to get to comedy,” writes Kaleem Aftab, who also interviews Stuber, for Cineuropa. “Indeed, as we meander through the aisles, it is melancholy and poignancy that become the driving forces, and this switch in tone is slightly too jarring. It’s the only fault in an otherwise outstanding feature.”
The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw finds the film “poignant and richly sympathetic.” More from Stephen Dalton (Hollywood Reporter), Thomas Humphrey (ScreenAnarchy), Demetrios Matheou (Screen), and Aldo Padilla (desistfilm).
14. Pig (Mani Haghighi)
Someone is killing the great directors of Iran. More specifically, someone is beheading them and tossing the heads in public places. This is played for comedy—successfully—and to show he’s game, one of the heads belongs to Mani Haghighi. Hasan (Hasan Kasmai), a bearish metalhead director blacklisted by the government who’s been reduced to making commercials for a cockroach killer, is furious that he hasn’t been beheaded yet. Haghighi builds on the premise by turning Hasan’s life into a circus of humiliation. The actress Shiva Mohajer (Leila Hatami!), with whom he’s regularly worked and with whom he’s still carrying on an affair—his wife (Leili Rashidi) more or less takes this as part and parcel of being married to a brilliant and volatile artist—takes a role in his rival’s new film; his mother (Mina Jafarzadeh) may be losing her mind but not her favorite rifle; and the police are beginning to suspect that he’s the killer.
Pig tumbles from funerals crowded with cameos (oh, look, it’s Payman Maadi) to bombastic arguments on an array of film sets to hallucinations and rock concerts, and it’s kind of fun, occasionally silly, and, here and there, rather touching. It’s also a welcome reminder that films this raucous are still being made in Iran.
What others are saying: “Pig, named for the word the killer carves into the foreheads of his victims, is a profoundly unserious examination of the directorial personality, packed with dream sequences, strobe lighting, costume parties, and overly aggressive games of tennis,” writes Jessica Kiang for Variety, where Nick Vivarelli interviews Haghighi. “At a stretch, it also satirizes gender relations in Iran in refreshingly irreverent ways, with the unprepossessing Hassan being essentially surrounded by, and completely reliant on, the capable, intelligent, beautiful women in his life. And modern social media culture does also come in for a (rather tired) drubbing: Hassan’s petty delusions of grandeur are of course validated and exacerbated by Instagram likes and YouTube video views. But where Haghighi’s delirious last film A Dragon Arrives! which also played in competition in Berlin, achieved an almost Zen-like profundity in its completely bonkers metatextuality and postmodern genre deconstruction, the less dizzying, more comprehensible Pig feels underwhelming by contrast.”
15. 3 Days in Quiberon (Emily Atef)
Emily Atef’s 3 Days in Quiberon is built on Marie Bäumer’s resemblance—I’d call it an “uncanny resemblance,” but everybody’s calling it an “uncanny resemblance”—to Romy Schneider. In 1981, Schneider was not in a good place. Two years before, Harry Meyen, the father of her fourteen-year-old son David, hung himself. Meyen and Schneider hadn’t been married since 1975, when Schneider married her private secretary, Daniel Biasini, but the suicide struck hard. What’s more, she and Biasini had just separated. And David’s told her he doesn’t want to live with her anymore. Add to all this the exhaustion of taking on one role after another; oddly enough, one completed and released just one year before 3 Days takes place was Bertrand Tavernier’s Death Watch, in which Schneider plays a woman diagnosed with an incurable disease. For a considerable fee, she agrees to have her death broadcast live, but then escapes with a man she barely knows (Harvey Keitel), who, unbeknownst to her, has a camera implanted in his head and is sending a live signal back to his HQ. It’s surprising, but also perfectly acceptable, that 3 Days doesn’t make more of the parallel between Death Watch and its own story.
As 3 Days begins, Schneider has checked herself into a spa hotel in Quiberon, a modest township on the coast of Brittany, to dry out. A childhood friend, Hilde (Birgit Minichmayr), arrives to offer emotional support and she’s horrified to discover, given Romy’s state, that Schneider has granted an interview to Michael Jürgs (Robert Gwisdek), a reporter for Stern, a German weekly that, especially back in the 80s, was a tabloid-like alternative to Der Spiegel. Jürgs is accompanied by photographer Robert Lebeck (Charly Hübner). Lebeck and Schneider go way back, and their bond of trust has allowed him to take countless photos of her in a wide range of moods and settings. These spectacular and spectacularly famous black and white portraits set the aesthetic parameters of Atef’s film. In theory, for the sake of realism, Atef might have shot in color to contrast with Lebeck’s photos, to highlight their mythologizing effect. Instead, she’s embraced the effect, and I don’t mind.
Little in this story—Jürgs’s manipulation, the fallout between Romy and Hilde, the reconciliations all around—surprises, but these two hours go down easy. There’s a diverting turn, too, from Denis Lavant, and a nice little bit of business for Vicky Krieps.
What others are saying: “For fans of Romy—a superb actress who conveyed charm and vulnerability in equal measure—3 Days will pleasurably feed the sheer joy of connecting with a beloved star,” writes Jay Weissberg for Variety, where Ed Meza interviews Atef. “Even those less familiar with her work and personality will sympathetically respond to the portrayal of a troubled woman on the cusp of further tragedies (her teenage son was accidentally killed later that year, and she died of a heart attack not long after). Yet Atef’s recreation, admittedly not exact, doesn’t add to our understanding of Schneider’s struggles, it just offers a primer of her self-doubts.”
More from Stephen Dalton (Hollywood Reporter), Wendy Ide (Screen), Oliver Johnston (Upcoming), and Vladan Petkovic for Cineuropa, which has posted a video interview with Atef (8’36”). At Women and Hollywood, Laura Berger has more questions for Atef.
16. The Heiresses (Marcelo Martinessi)
There’s often (not always) a party atmosphere on the first day of the Berlinale, and this year, that festive mood was heightened by the opening film, Isle of Dogs. The next morning nearly always feels like buckling down to business, and sure enough, the festival rolled out a realist drama from Paraguay with a pinch of LGBT advocacy. All well and good, but within that context, Marcelo Martinessi’s The Heiresses struck me at the time as an almost parodically typical Berlinale selection, which is a lot for a film to overcome. In hindsight, The Heiresses, a portrait of Chela (Ana Bryn), a woman of a certain age with her own private collection of phobias, has grown on me. When her partner, Chiquita (Margarita Irún), is obliged to spend time away at a chaotic women’s prison, Chela begins to nibble at the opportunity to strike out on her own. I understand that many critics have their problems with some of the jury’s choices, but Bryn absolutely deserves her Silver Bear for Best Actress.
What others are saying: “We’ve seen before in cinema the constricted, oneiric world of the cloistered rich in their slow decline (it seems to be taking forever!),” writes Daniel Kasman in the Notebook, “but the almost entirely female-only world of Marcelo Martinessi’s debut feature, as well as its focus on rich women segueing (if they aren’t already firmly entrenched) into their elderly years, offers a modest but beguiling keyhole view into a specific and rarely filmed milieu.”
For Jay Weissberg in Variety, this is a “finely crafted, beautifully realized debut.” More from Nicholas Bell (3.5/5, Ioncinema, where Amir Ganjavie interviews Martinessi), Lindsay Bellinger (Upcoming, 4/5), Patrick Gamble (CineVue, 4/5), Wendy Ide (Screen), Bénédicte Prot (Cineuropa), David Rooney (Hollywood Reporter), and Hannah Woodhead (Little White Lies).
17. Dovlatov (Alexey German Jr.)
Alexey German Jr.’s Dovlatov, depicting a week in the life of Sergei Dovlatov, who wouldn’t become one of Russia’s most popular writers until shortly after his death in 1990 at the age of forty-eight, is another film I’ve only begun to warm up to as it periodically returns to mind in the week after the festival. Thing is, passages, images, quips, taken singularly, are suggestive of what must surely be a solid film built around them. German’s camera is forever gently reframing clusters of writers in smoky offices and cafés, out on the street, or—and this really is a terrific scene or two—by the docks, where the workers are putting together a production in which each of them portrays a Russian literary giant (Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, etc.) so that Dovlatov, who’s taken a job reporting on it, the only job he can get these days—it’s 1971, Leningrad, the height of the Brezhnev era, and his manuscripts are routinely rejected—can, in his dryly sardonic way—and Milan Marić, as Dovlatov, is one of the best things this film has going for it—interview them in character.
Strong scene follows strong scene, but the ultimate point of each of them is the same: Dovlatov can’t get published. He’s got his standards and won’t lower them for journalistic grunt work. His friends, first and foremost, Joseph Brodsky (Artur Beschastny), know he’s great and say so, but what are you going to do. Over and over, until the first hour feels like two, and there’s another hour to go.
What others are saying: “There’s much to like here,” writes Michael Pattison for Sight & Sound. “German accumulates a dense index (images, reference points) as a means of properly fleshing out a cinematic space: his scenes drift with an understated, oneiric agitation. It’s not enough to orchestrate multiple planes of action across single takes lasting several (unshowy) minutes. There are deliberate obstructions, background details, extras blocking our view of a scene’s ostensible point of interest: a kind of slow-burn, narratively redundant maximalism in aid (I think) of a lived-in verisimilitude—even if the washed-out color palette, all earthy browns and custard yellows, somehow comes out looking too clean, too easy, too digital (the costumes are in bad need of some dirt, some filth). . . . Progressing in such a way that neither its premise nor endpoint is clear, the film is simultaneously persistent on a scene-to-scene basis and yet elusive in its totality.”
More from Nicholas Bell (Ioncinema, 3/5), Sean Gallen (Upcoming, 4/5), Patrick Gamble (CineVue, 3/5), Aldo Padilla (desistfilm), C. J. Prince (Film Stage, B-), Jonathan Romney (Screen), Ola Salwa (Cineuropa), Jay Weissberg (Variety), and Deborah Young (Hollywood Reporter). Interviews with German: Leo Barraclough (Variety) and Yonca Tulu (Film Comment).
18. Mug (Małgorzata Szumowska)
Małgorzata Szumowska’s Mug opens on silent, expressionless faces in the blue-gray light of dawn. Cut to the establishing shot: The crowd has gathered in front of a department store advertising an underwear sale. The front doors swing open, and in a flash, it becomes clear that “underwear sale” means that customers must strip down to the bare necessities before they can dash off through the aisles. Cut to an overhead shot of a stack of flatscreen TVs. In slow motion, men and women of all sizes, shapes, and ages clamor over each other to grab one, either off the pile or from another customer’s clenched arms. This is not going to be a subtle movie.
Jacek (Mateusz Kościukiewicz) and a friend race in a tiny car through the Polish countryside towards their tiny hometown just this side of the border to Germany. TV’s tied to the roof, metal blasts from the radio through the diegetic barrier. We get to know Jacek’s boisterous family and watch him at work at the site where the town is raising an open-armed statue of Jesus who’s size will best Rio de Janeiro’s. Jacek’s got a girl and a dog who love him. Things are good. Then, the accident. He’ll need to undergo Poland’s first face transplant. He’ll be famous, but folks at home will start to show their true colors.
I’ve found it hard to pinpoint what it is that, for me, keeps Mug from taking off. But Jessica Kiang, writing for Variety, is onto something here.
What others are saying: Kiang writes: “Szumowska, who is returning to the Berlin competition after winning best director in 2015 for Body, wants to tackle manifold issues, often unrelated to each other, and her attention feels magpie-ish and unsettled, a flaw literalized by the choice to shoot on old-style folding cameras with a very narrow depth of field.” And she’s just getting started.
For Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema, though, Mug is “a potent slice of sacrilegious daring, which allows a true sense of humanity to bleed into focus.” More from Allan Hunter (Screen), Bénédicte Prot (Cineuropa, where Ola Salwa interviews Szumowska), and Deborah Young (Hollywood Reporter).
19. The Rare Event (Ben Rivers and Ben Russell)
As a documentation of a three-day symposium on “Resistance” in a recording studio in Paris, Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s latest collaboration, The Rare Event, begins conventionally enough with a philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy, discussing the idea of magic with two colleagues—except that, seated with them is a “Green Man,” a person covered head-to-toe in green-screen green so that, at various points throughout this forty-eight-minute work, he becomes a human-shaped portal to an abstract digital landscape created by artist Peter Burr. Far more visually intriguing is the framing of shoulders and the backs of necks as the camera prowls behind symposium participants seated in a circle and listening to what for us are excerpts from presentations and conversations. Then we’re off skipping through fields of geometric figures again before returning to listen to another speaker. Compared to a work like A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (2013), The Rare Event is a diverting exercise, an étude.
20. Victory Day (Sergei Loznitsa)
There’s an inherent tension in Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz (2016) between the unimaginable horror of the camps at Dachau and Sachsenhausen and the nonchalance of the tourists wandering the grounds and snapping selfies seventy-plus years after the Holocaust. Victory Day, which Loznitsa calls his “second film dedicated to the memory of tragic events in recent European history,” lacks that tension. There is no juxtaposition here.
On May 9, 2017, the seventy-second anniversary of the Red Army’s victory over the Nazis, hundreds of Russian patriots and nationalists gathered at the Soviet Memorial in Treptower Park in Berlin, as they do every year, to listen to speeches, sing songs, snack and drink, snap photos of men in military uniform and women in traditional garb, dance, and just generally revel in the temporary cultural bubble. With one exception towards the end, they’re pretty much left alone.
There is an arc, the day. The morning begins relatively quietly. A small dog pulls a wagon bearing a portrait of Stalin. The crowd thickens, the noise level rises, then subsides as the long day closes. Victory Day is not at all uninteresting; it’s just about three times as long as it needs to be.
What others are saying: Clara Miranda Scherffig for Reverse Shot: “Normally a filmmaker so rigorous in building the mise-en-scène (for instance fixing the focus on architectural elements instead of visitors at Sachsenhausen's concentration camp, or in Maidan, framing barricades, people and buildings in hierarchical layers), Loznitsa here sometimes gives in to his camera’s fascination with the crowd. Close-ups of the bas-reliefs depicting Stalin or the achievements of the Soviets in strict perspective are frequently juxtaposed with messy ensembles of people drinking, dancing, waiting—images without geometric order or architectural detail. In these, Loznitsa’s gaze appears to be charmed by human figures, thus losing control over the space, a temporary infatuation with public demonstration of cultural identity that briefly allows us to relax and enjoy the view.”
21. Infinite Football (Corneliu Porumboiu)
Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Second Game (2014) was not only a formal coup—over the playback of a grainy VHS recording of a 1988 soccer game, we hear Porumboiu and his father, the referee of that match, talking through each play—it also had far more to say about Ceaușescu’s Romania than anyone could have reasonably expected it to. Infinite Football is to The Second Game as Victory Day is to Austerlitz. The brilliant conceit is missing. But, like Victory Day, it’s not uninteresting.
Infinite Football is essentially a series of Porumboiu’s interviews with the brother an old friend, Laurențiu Ginghină, who’s got some pretty elaborately developed ideas about how to improve the beautiful game, inspired by debilitating injuries he suffered on the field back in the 80s. So that’s one aspect of the film. It involves white boards and pointers and eventually an attempt to put the new rules into practice with a trial game involving real players on a real field. But there’s more to Ginghină, too. He’s taken his ideas to the States (where, as he claims, he also came up with a solution to an irrigation problem) and to countries in western Europe, only to return empty-handed to the small town of Vaslui and become a bureaucrat. The frustration is relieved with some wedding photos and a splash of colorfully animated closing credits. As a a minor, in-between project, Infinite Football is perfectly fine.
What others are saying: “When [Ginghină] likens himself to Clark Kent and Peter Parker—outward losers with lame jobs who secretly dedicate their lives to fighting for the good of humanity—rather than laugh, one wants to reach into the screen and give him a hug,” writes Giovanni Marchini Camia for Sight & Sound. “Given that Ginghină suffered a trauma that roughly coincided with the fall of the Ceaușescu regime, felt spurned by the West and escaped into utopian revolutionary fantasies, it’s automatic to read him as a representative of Romanian society. Thankfully, despite being obvious, this dimension doesn’t weigh the film down, as Porumboiu is one of contemporary cinema’s deftest allegorists.”
Ginghină’s “sports philosophy is ennobled by the ironic tact, deadpan framing and directorial elegance of Porumboiu, who can often be seen on camera listening intently,” writes Celluloid Liberation Front for Filmmaker. More from Stefan Dobroiu (Cineuropa), Patrick Gamble (CineVue, 4/5), Thomas Humphrey (ScreenAnarchy), Allan Hunter (Screen), Jessica Kiang (Variety), Rory O’Connor (Film Stage, B+), and Neil Young (Hollywood Reporter).
Update, 3/7: “Porumboiu explicitly links Ginghina’s efforts to the tradition of utopian political thought, seemingly arguing that, while it’s easy to laugh at the particulars of Ginghina’s ‘football 2.0,’ his conceptual endeavor is, while quixotic, essentially noble,” writes Dan Sullivan for Film Comment: “trying to fix something that no one thinks is broken (at least not at the level of how the game is played) is still trying to fix something—and, besides, who wants to side with the status quo?”
Update, 3/9: Michael Sicinski notes that Infinite Football bears “more than a passing resemblance to the films of Errol Morris.”
22. Season of the Devil (Lav Diaz)
When Lav Diaz’s A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery premiered at the Berlinale two years ago, it proved to be a richly moving tapestry of the historical and the fantastic. It may not have measured up to the likes of Norte, the End of History (2013), but it was nonetheless a vital addition to a major oeuvre. Several critics I admire are in thrall to Season of the Devil, Diaz’s new musical about militias running rampant in the Philippine jungle during the 1970s, but I can’t see it as anything but a misfire.
First, yes, a musical. Diaz wrote the thirty-three songs himself, and his actors, whose talents range from the endearingly amateur to the outright astonishing, sing them without accompaniment. Overall, there’s a slapdash feel to Season of the Devil that could have worked in the film’s favor if every line of dialogue weren’t delivered at the same monotonous pace. For all the plodding of the tempo, though, there is an undeniable sense of urgency to the project. In his notes for the press, Diaz explains that Season has its roots in a film noir he’d been mulling over since late 2016. “While held up daily in my ‘writing room’ in a very, very cold (freezing) corner of the world, I got caught up with what was happening in my country and the rest of the world. The pattern was horrifying and deafening. We were witnessing a world enmeshed in political cataclysms and mindlessly sliding in an abyss of barbarism—both overstaying and new leaders are either sons of Satan, Hitler, Marcos, Idi Amin, Stalin, bin Laden, and a chimp.”
This entirely justifiable fury seems to have prompted Diaz and his team to get this film, this cri de coeur out into the world as quickly as possible. Shot digitally, the black and white tones are often flat, though Diaz retains his expert sense of composition. Blocking is sloppy. At one point, the ropes binding a poet being tortured slip off and it’s minutes before one of the members of the militia bothers to somewhat lazily wind them back around the victim. Diaz made a conscious decision not to cut and reshoot the scene. I find the decision intriguing. Is he aiming for a sort of Brechtian distancing effect? Are we meant to concentrate on the content rather than its delivery? And if so, what’s the point being hammered home here?
We’re informed right at the outset that, having declared martial law, President Ferdinand Marcos called for civilians to form armed militias to create an atmosphere of fear and paranoia (relying at times on Philippine folklore) and to chase down and eliminate any resistance—under the guise, of course, of weeding out rebels and drug dealers. The parallel to current president Rodrigo Duterte’s call for the extrajudicial killing of drug users and other criminals is immediately obvious. Season’s narrative, then, is a string of individual stories of innocents being targeted, tortured, and killed. These stories vary somewhat, but the essential arc is the same. Again, the urgency is palpable, but Season lacks the depth and texture of Diaz’s previous work.
What others are saying: “Season of the Devil is a tragedy, a national tragedy told through a simple, even childish story set in a rain-soaked godforsaken land,” writes Kong Rithdee in the Bangkok Post. “The film’s power comes from the visuals and the miserable longing in the songs that lament the fate of the country. Diaz’s lyrics are at once simple, childlike, and also shimmer with pathos.”
“Lav Diaz puts a unique trust in cinema’s power to transcribe ideas,” writes Locarno artistic director Carlo Chatrian. “Shots become ideas in that, though they point towards a specific historical and political situation, with present-day parallels (the hideous two-faced leader and the current President of the Philippines), they convey a sense of the absolute. And if absolute evil is met with sardonic laughter, the desolation of the poet who mourns the death of his wife with a gun in his hand is something that speaks to us across generations and latitudes.”
“The actors perform in a very precise mode of populist amateurism that revels in being in part artificial and in part overwhelmingly affective,” writes Daniel Kasman in the Notebook. More from Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 3/5), Kevin Jagernauth (Playlist, A-), Aldo Padilla (desistfilm), Jonathan Romney (Screen), and Clarence Tsui (Hollywood Reporter). And Amir Ganjavie interviews Diaz for Ioncinema.
Update, 3/18: “In my opinion this is a concrete masterpiece, one more politically cogent and relevant than anything I saw in 2017,” writes Neil Bahadur. “Furthermore, it's possibly the single most powerful and angry film Diaz has yet made.”
Update, 3/28: “With Season of the Devil, Diaz’s decades-long project of excavating and examining Philippine history and its present day parallels has found a striking new means of expression; it makes the pomp and celebration of most movie musicals look hopelessly blinkered and naïve by comparison.” Jordan Cronk talks with Diaz for Film Comment about “his composite characterizations, the formal and logistical challenges of making a musical, and his conceptual approach to history and genre.”
23. Daughter of Mine (Laura Bispuri)
Way up at the top of this page, I mentioned the grid of critics’ ratings. Grades range from three pluses to three minuses and the option in the very middle is a plus and a minus, which is meant to stand for “ambivalent.” That can mean either “meh” or “there are some things about this film I really like, and other things about it I really don’t.” I had that second reading in mind when I sent in a plus-minus for Laura Bispuri’s Daughter of Mine.
Alba Rohrwacher, who turned a furious storm of emotion entirely inward as Hana in Bispuri’s Sworn Virgin (2015), heads full tilt in the opposite direction as Angelica, first seen making out with, let’s presume, a stranger in a shaded corner of a rodeo. Angelica is a shouty alcoholic who lives alone on a disheveled farm in Sardinia and, at night, trades sexual favors for drinks. There’s something about her that piques the curiosity of ten-year-old Vittoria (Sara Casu), much to the consternation of Vittoria’s mother, the upright Tina (Valeria Golino). The inevitable battle between Angelica and Tina over Vittoria’s love and devotion ensues and it is a very long, drawn out, and eventually rather tedious battle indeed. Rohrwacher and Golino are lively and strong, and a few moments here and there are outstanding, but the journey towards the only destination that would make any sense is ridiculously convoluted.
What others are saying: “Bispuri presents Sardinia as a rugged and primordial place where the houses are built out of cinder blocks and the catacombs ensure that even the dead never have to leave,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich. “Shot with an artful intimacy that feels both posed and naturalistic in equal measure, Daughter of Mine is gripping from the very first scene, as gifted cinematographer Vladan Radovic immediately conflates these characters with their terrain, infusing the handheld reactiveness of a Dardenne brothers’ movie with the windswept gusto of the Italian New Wave.”
More from Jutta Brendemuhl (Vague Visages), Ed Frankl (Film Stage, B), Sean Gallen (Upcoming, 4/5), Patrick Gamble (CineVue, 4/5), Carolina Iacucci (Ioncinema, 4/5), Demetrios Matheou (Screen), Bénédicte Prot (Cineuropa), and Deborah Young (Hollywood Reporter). Interviews with Bispuri: Marta Bałaga (Cineuropa) and Nick Vivarelli (Variety).
24. Foreboding (Kiyoshishi Kurosawa)
Speaking of the ridiculous. Etsuko (Kaho) and Tatsuo (Shota Sometani) cower in a warehouse as an alien in human form (Masahiro Higashide) approaches. Tatsuo spots a convenient lever, tells Etsuko that if they pull it, a ton of heavy metal pipes suspended from the ceiling will come tumbling down on the alien’s head. They pull the lever! Alien looks up, sees the pipes. Looks back at Etsuko. Tells her alien’s don’t fall for such silly tricks. The pipes come tumbling down on the alien’s head. Is this scene being played for comedy? On paper, it certainly reads like an attempt at comedy. On screen, it lands with a dull thud.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa has now adapted Tomohiro Maekawa’s play Before We Vanish twice. The feature premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard program last May to so-so reviews, though critics seem to have enjoyed themselves somewhat. And the trailer looks kind of fun. The second time around, Kurosawa turned the play into a five-part television series, and what the Berlinale’s Panorama section has presented is a 140-minute cut. And still, it drags.
What others are saying: “The premise is the same across the films,” explains Daniel Kasman in the Notebook: “in advance of an invasion, aliens are quietly inhabiting the bodies of normal people, finding human guides to escort them around, and harvest ‘concepts’ (work, love, death) from the minds of those around them in order to better understand their enemy. . . . Avoiding the scale (including gunplay and CGI) and goofiness of its predecessor, Foreboding picks up this idea at a more constrained and intimate level.”
“Foreboding plays like an unwieldy summary of Kurosawa’s gloomy thematic preoccupations,” writes Jessica Kiang in Variety, “and his worst formal tendencies: It’s overlong and lacking focus, and the underwater pacing and dissociative, somnolent acting style make it hard to invest in the human characters even before they’ve been partially zombified.”
25. Damsel (David and Nathan Zellner)
I gathered reviews of Damsel when it premiered at Sundance, and just today, I’ve updated that entry with a few more reviews from Berlin. I’ve been rooting for David and Nathan Zellner since I caught a program of their terrific short films at SXSW umpteen years ago. While their two previous features, Kid-Thing (2012) and Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014), have been generally well-received, the very qualities that critics have come down on them for—an oddly unclassifiable voice, maybe, or simply not enough there there—have been precisely what’s attracted me to their work. When that first wave of critical reaction to Damsel rolled out of Park City, I brushed off any and all negative commentary and braced myself for the Berlinale screening—a Competition screening no less.
Well. Robert Pattinson is outstanding, Mia Wasikowska is mighty strong, and I’ve always found David Zellner’s performances extraordinarily appealing. But the Zellners struggle with tone, slipping and sliding from the wry to the merely goofy and back again. Hopes that Damsel will eventually settle on just one and pull through rise and fall and rise and then fall again.
26. Eva (Benoît Jacquot)
What’s to like about Benoît Jacquot’s Eva? Isabelle Huppert, obviously. She would be utterly incapable of sleepwalking through a performance, but I’m not sure she’s ever come closer than this. She plays the titular character that James Hadley Chase created in the novel on which Joseph Losey’s 1962 version with Jeanne Moreau is based, and there’s nothing in her collection of Huppertisms here we haven’t seen before. Not that they aren’t, as always, eminently watchable, of course, but I’m afraid they’re all Eva has to offer.
What others are saying: “Alluringly led by Gaspard Ulliel as an acclaimed playwright whose career is built on artistic theft, and Isabelle Huppert as the prostitute leading him semi-willingly into ruin, Eva begins as hot buttered nonsense of the least resistible variety before, echoing the writer’s block that propels its daft narrative, it runs drily out of ideas,” writes Guy Lodge for Variety.
More from Geoff Andrew (Sight & Sound), Nicholas Bell (Ioncinema, 3.5/5), David Ehrlich (IndieWire, C-), Ed Frankl (Film Stage, C-), Oliver Johnston (Upcoming, 3/5), Fabien Lemercier (Cineuropa, where Bénédicte Prot interviews Jacquot), Jordan Mintzer (Hollywood Reporter), Jonathan Romney (Screen), and Hannah Woodhead (Little White Lies).
27. The Real Estate (Axel Petersén and Måns Månsson)
I hadn’t seen Léonore Ekstrand before, but she turns in a pretty daring performance in Axel Petersén and Måns Månsson’s The Real Estate as a woman who takes matters into her own hands when what first appears to be a great fortune turns into a great misfortune. Otherwise . . . Well, I’ll cede the floor to Jay Weissberg.
What others are saying: Four days into the festival, Weissberg wrote in Variety: “There surely won’t be an uglier movie in the Berlin competition this year than The Real Estate, nor one so deeply unpleasant on every level. Whether it’s the tediously coarse characters, some of whom appear to have been poached from a Swedish Twin Peaks knock-off, the deliberately unattractive lensing that makes you gasp for air, or simply the absence of any remotely genuine statement, this patience-tester about a hard-living dame inheriting an apartment building feels like the sort of thing cobbled together in a hash-induced haze by a couple of homeboys with nothing to say. The fact that co-directors Axel Petersén (Avalon) and Måns Månsson (The Yard) made accomplished films before now is even more perplexing, as is the head-scratching discovery that The Real Estate somehow made it through multiple film labs.”
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