A ‘look back’ at this year’s Golden Bear contenders

Saturday February 18th 2012

After ten fun but freezing days at the Berlin Film Festival, I’m glad to be back in London — home of a temperature I can cope with and an underground network I can understand. I saw an embarrassingly meagre thirteen films during my time there (compared with twenty at Cannes last year) and only seven of those were Competition entries, eligible for Berlin’s most prestigious prize: The Golden Bear, which is awarded this evening. Previous winners include Magnolia, In the Name of the Father and The Thin Red Line, but it’s safe to say that this year’s contenders are a little more ‘off the beaten track’. Let’s take a look:

When adolescent Gaëlle is released from from the basement in which she’s been held prisoner for the best part of eight years, the outside world proves every bit as menacing as her cell. This ripped-from-the-headlines French drama (blatantly modelled on the Natascha Kampusch case) is basically a peculiarly unaffecting sequel to Michael, with added techno music. ★★

Starring American alt hip hop luminary (and co-star of K-PAX!) Saul Williams, Aujourd’hui tells the story of Satché, a Senegalese man who returns to his home town from America on the last day of his life. The watchword, fans of arthouse movies will be pleased to hear, is ‘meditative’.

The longest film in competition this year is also one of the most critically reviled. Set in the peaceful Chinese village of White Deer Plain, the film tracks the fortunes of two prominent families from 1910 until the beginning of the second world war. It’s political, it’s full of sex, and apparently it’s hella boring.

No Berlinale would be complete without a poignant reminder of Germany’s troubled past, and sadly Iron Sky (which premiered in the Panorama strand) isn’t eligible for the Golden Bear, so I guess Barbara will have to do. With an impressive central performance from German actress Nina Hoss as a doctor eager to escape the GDR to the West, the film is wall to wall uncertain allegiances and necessary sacrifices. A little more pace wouldn’t go amiss though. ★★★

Amazingly named Filipino auteur Brilliante Mendoza is world cinema’s foremost purveyor of awful things happening very, very slowly. Captive is based on the 2000 Sipadan kidnapping of twenty tourists from a resort in Malaysia by Islamist separatist group Abu Sayyaf, and stars Isabelle Huppert as one of the group’s endlessly brutalised abductees. Grim doesn’t begin to cover it. ★★★

The only documentary in competition this year follows the inmates of Rome’s maximum security prison Rebibbia as they rehearse for a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I haven’t seen it so sadly I can’t verify whether or not it’s a real-world version of Lucky Break.

90 minutes of slow burning tension followed by 8 minutes of climactic action, Just the Wind addresses a spate of violence against Romany families in Hungary over the last decade. With big important things to say about race, discrimination and intolerance, it’d be an unsurprising (if not necessarily worthy) Golden Bear winner.

Spanish director Antonio Chavarrías brings a moody slice of genre cinema in the mould of The Orphanage to the Berlinale, and in doing so eliminates his chance of walking away with any prizes whatsoever (the first rule of festivals is: stick to drama). Despite its crappy English title, Chavarrías’s film is a wholly engaging new spin on the well-worn possessed child horror subgenre. ★★★

Award-winning actor (and uninspiring Bond villain) Mads Mikkelsen is a doctor to the King of Denmark in this 18th Century period drama, from Dragon Tats screenwriter Nikolaj Arcel. The film is notable for its lengthy runtime, decent costume design and the presence of Lars von Trier amongst its executive producers.

Sounding oddly similar to the 2008 arthouse snorefest The Headless Woman, this ‘intimate melodrama’ from German director Matthias Glasner examines the impact of a car accident on a small family living in perpetual twilight at the northern tip of Norway. Regardless of quality, the production stills suggest it’s a looker.

Billy Bob Thornton’s first film as director since 2001’s bizarre-sounding Daddy & Them is a family dramedy with an all-star cast, some handsome production design, and absolute no sense of structure or tone whatsoever. And yet, there’s something perversely fascinating about Thornton’s stubbornly erratic approach to ensemble filmmaking, willing as he is to abandon characters, conversations or entire plotlines at the drop of a hat. ★★★

Regrettably unrelated to the upcoming Matt Damon vehicle We Bought a Zoo (except in that they’re both about zoos, obviously), this hazy slice of magic realism from succinctly named Indonesian director Edwin is one of the few films in competition to contain both magic cowboys AND adorable giraffes.

Now a strong favourite to win the Golden Bear, Sister is a humanist drama about a young boy who steals skiing equipment from the wealthy guests of a Swiss resort to supplement his family’s impoverished existence in the industrial town below. It benefits from some decent name recognition (Gillian Anderson, Martin Compston and Léa Seydoux — the assassin with the farcically buoyant breasts in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol — all appear) and, according to reports, it’s actually funny, which instantly sets it apart from the grim shit that makes up the bulk of the competition.

Léa Seydoux re-appears in Farewell my Queen, which may well prove the finest hour for her breasts — hiked as they at least seven or eight feet above her chest — but is already a footnote in her career. She plays Sidonie, a member of Marie Antoinette’s (Diane Kruger) inner circle whose duties include reading to her and being the subject of her latent homosexual desires. It’s like really boring (but admittedly well-dressed) softcore porn. 

Metéora is set in an Orthodox monastery in the hot plains of central Greece, and apparently it’s about as interesting as that sounds. The crux of the story (which at least plays out over a merciful 82 minutes) is the burgeoning relationship between a young monk and a nun, and the spiritual dilemma posed by their mutual desire. Think Teresa: The Making of a Saint, with less star-power.

Second to Sister in the Golden Bear odds (I’m referring to this knowledgable resource) is War Witch, the tale of an adolescent girl forced to work as a child soldier during an African civil war. Shot documentary-style with non-professional actors by Canadian director Kim Nguyen, the film was well received when it premiered last night (the last film in competition to do so) despite some criticism of Nguyen’s ‘outsider’ approach to such a serious issue.

A quirky, cineliterate romance (shot in black and white, Academy ratio format) that’s come from nowhere to be the surprise hit of a major European festival — I wonder which movie Tabu is going to be endlessly compared to. (Hint: it’s The Artist.) They’re actually not all that similar, but at least it’s a fair comparison in terms of quality: Tabu is far and away the best thing I’ve seen in competition this year. ★★★★★

Exposed truths reveal the cracks beneath a seemingly united family during a routine reunion in Hans-Christian Schmid’s well received psychological drama Home for the Weekend. It’s a familiar story (in this year’s competition alone, Jayne Mansfield’s Car treads similar ground) but is apparently sufficiently well acted to ensure that the film stands out as a highlight of this frankly unimpressive roster of arthouse also-rans. There, I said it.

Cherry, and Hollywood’s love-hate relationship with porn

Friday February 17th 2012

Like an absent father refusing to accept his paternity, mainstream filmmaking wants little to do with contemporary pornography, the bastard child it fathered many decades ago. Movie portrayals of the adult entertainment industry are generally confined to two strands: gritty inside looks at the abuse and exploitation running rampant in the industry (Fame, the non-nostalgia-tinged bits of Boogie Nights) and grim meditative dramas about the power of pornography to influence and corrupt (Afterschool, Shame). Add to that the glut of documentaries detailing how monumentally fucked up large portions of the real-world porn industry are, and you’ve got a pretty negative picture of what can be — when done right — a harmless enterprise.

The stage is set, then, for Cherry. Co-written by jobbing pornstar Lorelei Lee and co-produced by San Francisco based fetish website Kink.com (who also leant their gargantuan film studio The Armory to the production), the film sets out to paint a friendlier, healthier picture of the porn industry, as seen by those within it. It tells the story of 18-year-old Angelina (Ashley Hinshaw of ‘annoying girl who films everything for her blog in Chronicle‘ fame) who leaves behind the monotony of her small town existence to pursue a porn career in California.

The film is based at least partially on Lorelei Lee’s own experiences as a porn performer. Like Angelina, she entered the industry in her late-teens, quickly carved out a niche in fetish videos and was soon directing her own movies. She’s also a staunch defender of pornography as an expression — rather than a corruption — of sexuality, and in 2009 was due to appear at a federal grand jury obscenity trial in defence of her work (the case was dismissed before her testimony). In an interview with Salon.com around that time she suggested that, “If we lived in a society in which women’s sexuality was celebrated, and was seen as usually proactive rather than usually passive, I don’t think people would jump so quickly to the concepts of exploitation and dehumanization when they thought of female [porn] performers.”

In her bid to showcase the brighter side of porn, Lee refrains from re-hashing any of the more familiar pornstar-rise-and-fall narrative staples. At no point is Angelina coerced into performing sex acts by creepy older men (instead, we get a chirpy guy named ‘Vaughn’ with a snazzy hat), nor is she ever exploited on set (rather, she discusses her limits pre-shoot with a woman in a reassuring cardigan). There’s also zero implication that Angelina’s line of work is slowly eroding her inner wellbeing (in fact, she seems far happier in porn than out of it). Somewhat uniquely, the film doesn’t seem to have a single bad word to say about the porn industry.

It’s a bold gambit, but sadly Cherry is little more than an ambitious failure where positive portrayals of the porn industry are concerned. In the absence of any conflict arising from Angelina’s porn career, the film desperately scrabbles to exploit as many other sources of drama as possible. So while it succeeds in sidestepping almost all of Hollywood’s porn industry cliches, it dives head first into a host of other hackneyed scenarios. Dev Patel plays Angelina’s nerdy friend Andrew, who’s so blatantly in love with her that he might as well have “DUCKIE” tattooed across his forehead; James Franco is a high-flying lawyer who fills the aching void in his life with cocaine, strip clubs and more cocaine; even our brief glimpse into Angelina’s childhood household (alcoholic mother, abusive father, vulnerable younger sibling) reveals little more than White Trash Family Unit 1.0.

Most disappointingly, the porn scenes themselves — surely where a film like Cherry should come into its own — feel badly compromised, switching to soft-focus, hazy close-ups as soon as the action begins. For a film whose stated purpose is the de-stigmatisation of the porn industry and those who work within it, Cherry is remarkably timid when it comes to sex. Even when we do get to see a little more of Angelina at work, there’s something distinctly 1970s about the long shots and masked nudity of her porn career. I realise a graphic double penetration might have taken a bit of the sheen off the film’s crude-but-cute sensibility, but to conceal the reality of jobs like Angelina’s is to contravene the film’s entire raison d’être.

Art movies like Destricted have made great capital of examining the intersection between porn and mainstream cinema, but mainstream cinema itself is still a little way behind. Even with porn performers like Sasha Grey achieving previously unimaginable levels of Hollywood success, there’s still an unshakeable ‘either or’ attitude when it comes to adult and non-adult career choices (Grey retired from porn in 2009, shortly after starring in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience).

Whether or not Hollywood will ever get to a point where it treats pornography as an extension of its film industry rather than as some kind of problem child is debatable, but Cherry — while awful in most respects — is at least a step in the right direction. Hopefully it’ll only take a few more IMDb entries like Lorelei Lee’s to level the playing field:

Side by Side

Wednesday February 15th 2012

Remember that digital filmmaking documentary I told you about the other week? Well I saw it at the Berlinale yesterday and it’s fucking amazing. A collaboration between documentarian Chris Kenneally and Nice Guy Keanu Reeves, Side by Side sees the latter sit down with a vast array of filmmaking icons, from George Lucas to Lars “no more interviews” von Trier, to talk about the film industry’s gradual transition into digital-only production. Obviously a film that goes into great detail about the precise differences between 1080p and 2K has a free pass into the innermost reaches of my heart, but even if digital resolution standards aren’t your idea of a good time there’s plenty to take from the film, thanks in no small part to the tOp BaNtEr between Keanu and his interviewees.

Keanu’s inimitable presence seems to relax his subjects, and they talk with uniform openness about the films they make, treasure and despise. David Lynch is a picture of politeness, finishing every sentence with a reverential “Keanu”, while Steven Soderbergh refuses to accept that digital filmmaking has even a single drawback or flaw, writing off its detractors as dinosaurs. David Fincher — ever the controversialist — can’t resist peppering his answers with gratuitous “fucks”, while Greta Gerwig is just adorable. JUST ADORABLE.

With its niche subject matter and low-rent camcorder aesthetic, Side by Side is destined for a TV premiere in the UK (my eyes kept darting towards the upper right of the screen to check there wasn’t already a preemptive More4 graphic there). But if you can see it on the big screen, I fully urge you to do so — not only for the sake of the stunning film clips that illustrate each interview, but also for the twenty different haircuts that Keanu apparently road tested during the shoot. They, perhaps more so than any of the historically significant films discussed in Side by Side, deserve the full, unsullied cinematic experience.

Shadow Dancer

Monday February 13th 2012

Ten films in and the Berlinale has yet to reach the stratospheric heights that I may have unwisely expected from it. Competition entries range from the provocative (Brilliante Mendoza’s hostage anti-thriller Captive) to the formulaic (French period drama Farewell My Queen) but are uniformly ‘difficult’, testing patience even at relatively short run times. Other strands also seem filled with arduous arthouse endurance tests which promise (but may not necessarily deliver) great rewards to those who stick with them to the bitter end. So given the circumstances, it’s hardly damning with faint praise to say that Shadow Dancer is entirely, unequivocally, 100% not boring.

Man on Wire director James Marsh whips out all the muted colours and grainy film stock at his disposal for this largely apolitical IRA thriller, starring human muppet Clive Owen alongside perpetual next-big-thing Andrea Riseborough. It’s always been a little hard to tell whether the hype surrounding Riseborough was warranted — sorting the wheat from the chaff in movies like Brighton Rock, W./E. and Magicians is a difficult process — but here she emerges as a fully formed leading lady, as you can see in this hastily prepared graph:

Even Clive Owen handles himself well in the relatively undemanding role of the hard-bitten (isn’t he always?) MI5 operative whose relationship with Riseborough’s IRA informant Colette exposes a mysterious government plot known only as (wait for it) “Shadow Dancer”. Quick! Close-up on the computer screen! Pull in on Clive’s confused face! And … scene.

From there, Shadow Dancer delights in the refreshingly unpredictable game of cat and mouse that plays out between Owen and Riseborough, themselves backed up by a solid supporting cast including Aiden Gillen and Domhnall Gleeson (a.k.a. one of the Weasley brothers, I forget which). The early 90s setting is equally convincing, thanks not only to great production design but also Marsh’s era-appropriate direction. You’ll know it when you see it.

And if this fast-paced British thriller is still sounding a little too frivolous for an IMPORTANT INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL like Berlin, then rest assured that the whole thing’s got moral ambiguity coming out of its ears. No mean feat considering Clive Owen’s recent track record.

One to look out for …

Saturday February 11th 2012

Fans of mindlessly smashing things to pieces with blunt instruments will go crazy for Kid-Thing, the new one from Sundance faves the Zellner Brothers. Newcomer Sydney Aguirre (and I mean new, check out her IMDb profile photo) is wholly terrifying as 10-year-old nihilist Annie, who spends the bulk of the film’s runtime finding as many ways as possible to inflict pain, suffering or simply confusion on those around her, until the discovery of a mysterious pit in the woods focuses her persecution on a single, seemingly helpless victim. UK distribution is still up for grabs.

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