FESTIVALS: Berlinale Decision Points Pt. 3: Billy Bob Thornton and Melissa Leo play to their own tune

FESTIVALS: Berlinale Decision Points Pt. 3: Billy Bob Thornton and Melissa Leo play to their own tune

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Part three of my Berlinale coverage, focusing on decision points: the moment when I pretty much made up my mind about a film, and how that moment reflects on the film as a whole, capped by my Indiewire grade.

Read Part One  Read Part Two

Meteor (Spiros Stathoulopoulos) It’s hard to pick a defining moment for a film that juggles multiple modes, between hi-def animated sequences, digital landscapes, documentary/interview footage and romantic scenes between a nun and a priest secluded in a remote Thessalonian monastery. The film can be quietly audacious in isolated moments, like a matter of fact close-up shot of the nun’s genitals while she’s masturbating. But there’s a lack of cohesion between the diverse elements that keeps it from amassing dramatic power worthy of its blashemous climax. C+

Captive (Brilliante Mendoza) Basically this is the film Woman in the Septic Tank was made to ridicule, Pinoy no-budget exploitation trying to alight the festival prestige film elevator and missing the first step bigtime. A movie so mired in social issues-fellating, gratuitous audience-pandering and plain ineptitude I couldn’t stop watching just to see how bad it could get. There’s the awful CGI bird, the terrorists throwing Bibles off the boat and loads more Muslim-baiting, the shot of a baby being pulled out of a woman’s vagina in the middle of a firefight. But for me it was a shot of hostage Isabelle Huppert slurping pathetically on a flimsy bowl of instant noodles, wearing a look that deserves our outright contempt. F

friends after 3.11 (Shunji Iwai) I think it was the third consecutive extended talking head interview that made me realize that I was in for a two hour movie version of reading a long series of blog posts on the nuclear aftermath of Fukushima. Potentially great (or at least important) content thoroughly undermined by uninspired form. D+

Shadow Dancer (James Marsh) Towards the endgame of this thriller set in early 90s Northern Ireland, MI5 agent Clive Owen meets with the IRA double agent (Andrea Riseborough) he’s trying to protect. She’s wearing a red trenchcoat, a ridiculous choice for a secret outdoor meeting. They talk spy stuff and from out of the blue she kisses him. I took this to be a desperate attempt for the script to squeeze some half-baked romance into the proceedings, but upon further reflection there may be more cunning underneath the gesture. The direction throughout feels a bit flat for the narrative nuances to register, but still there may be more intelligence to this than I would initially credit. B-

Francine (Brian M. Cassidy, Melanie Shatzky) There’s a scene where Melissa Leo’s off-kilter animal lover is feeding her extended household of cats and dogs, scattering a nauseating mess of dry food all over her floor and even sprinkling it on the backs of the animals. Here the film seems to take the eccentriticies of its character too far: she’s worked at a pet store and a vet for crying out loud, and we’re to believe she resorts to this behavior? The only reason this comes off as remotely plausible is Leo’s commitment to the role portraying someone terminally lost in her own world, Leo’s guileless playfulness in the part invites us in. B-

Jayne Mansfield’s Car (Billy Bob Thornton) For all the Southern Gothic rococo and cul-de-sac subplots this film takes on, there are a lot of great little things going on, like around the start of the second act when Billy Bob is showing Frances O’Connor his car collection. He sets up the scene with a brazen obviousness of purpose (Billy Bob’s “Hey you wanna see my cars?” basically uttered like “Hey you wanna find out why you should fuck me?”) but as he geeks out over his hot rod the tone of the scene shifts in register into something dark and menacing, an all consuming obsession for things pure and fast wells up so quickly that it threatens to explode in his face. The film is chock full of such surprise tonal shifts, parting a cloud cover of narrative and thematic intentions to reveal many sublime moments underneath. This has been poorly received as a belaboured, ungainly work, but it plays like music to my ears. A-

Bestiaire (Denis Cote) For a good half hour there’s a masterful play of sound and image generated by various animals, whose organic physiognomies and noises clash wildly against the concrete and steel of their holding pens. The tipping point comes about midway with the introduction of a taxonomist plying his craft on a bird, eviscerating its carcass and reupholstering its feathered surface upon a styrofoam body. Sort of a stand-in for what the director is doing cinematically. What follows after doesn’t feel as attentive or compelling to what it’s filming, but this moment in all its tactile glory vindicates the film’s underlying thesis of us humans exerting control on all creatures with eyes and hands alike. B+

Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of Press Play, and contributor to RogerEbert.com and Fandor. Follow him on Twitter.

FESTIVALS: Berlinale Decision Points Pt. 2 – Paul Dano, Zellner Brothers and the first great film of the festival

FESTIVALS: Berlinale Decision Points Pt. 2 – Paul Dano, Zellner Brothers and the first great film of the festival

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Part two of my Berlinale coverage, focusing on decision points: the moment when I pretty much made up my mind about a film, and how that moment reflects on the film as a whole, capped by my Indiewire grade. Read Part One

Our Homeland (Yang Yonghi) For the most part this drama about a repatriated North Korean returning to his family in Japan is given a solemn, safe treatment. Things liven up when the man visits his childhood friend who’s come way out of the closet. Made by an accomplished documentarian making her fiction debut, the script feels saddled by a need to dispense documentary facts about Japan-North Korean relations, but the gay friend takes his expository function(“I’m gay and ethnic Korean, a double minority!”) and sells it like he’s making his Broadway debut. His exuberant presence catalyzes the entire ensemble, transforming them from societal representatives to flesh-and-blood characters. B-

Kid-Thing (David Zellner) Basically a candy-colored Texas version of Bresson’s Mouchette that kind of goes nowhere, but there’s no denying the ferocity of vision in some moments, especially the most disgusting ones: a reprobate girl crushes an inchworm with her bare hands; close ups of cow dung and a cattle carcass being pulverized with paint gun pellets, the screen exploding with brown and orange. There’s a lot of untamed energy in this film. B-

The Woman in the Septic Tank (Marlon N. Rivera) So many good moments in this South Park-esque satire of two young Filipino filmmakers trying to break into the film festival circuit with the ultimate third world festival movie, about a suffering slum mother forced to sell her son to a pedophile. There’s the raucous casting debate between three actresses as the lead, creating three simulated scenarios for the outcome; and Eugene Domingo running away with the show as a seasoned diva breathlessly breaking down all the DIY filmmaker bullshit into Sundance-ready formulas. But my favorite has to be when the production assistant imagines the project as a Hollywood musical, with Manila slumdogs breakdancing to lyrics like “we are burping our souls,” and a tender serenade by the pedophile to his victim. As the filmmakers say while high-fiving themselves, “Forget Cannes, we are going to the Kodak Theater!!!” B+

Caesar Must Die (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani) Julius Caesar performed by Italian inmates in a prison, moving freely (if sketchily) between straight performance of the play to actors breaking character talking about how the story relates to their lives. The movie never fully explores that interplay, leaving us with teasing moments like when an actor insinuates that another’s impeccable performance as a traitor reveals his true nature. They threaten to come to blows, and then abruptly the scene ends. But despite the shuttling, half-finished quality of it all, there is tremendous care taken to the textured black and white images and a consummate sense of staging. B-

Barbara (Christian Petzold) Barbara, a East German doctor stuck in a countryside hospital and secretly planning to escape to the West, while fending off her supervisor who has an obvious yen for her. With compelling matter-of-factness, he tells her the story of how he wound up in the boondocks: a tragedy involving a state-of-the-art baby incubator, a nurse with a crush, and a two infants blinded for life. Barbara’s response: “Is your story true?” She can’t be bothered to care about or trust the people she’s trying to escape from. But too late: her doctorly concern and shared sense of personal setback expose her weak points, camaraderie has wormed its way in. All of this is conveyed through the subtlest nuances in looks and timing. Masterful stuff. A-

Parabeton – Pier Luigi Nervi and Roman Concrete (Heinz Emigholz) In theory I get the connection between Emigholz’ amazingly dynamic 70s work and what he’s doing now with his static shot documentaries of architecture, where motion and energy are conveyed simply by the geometries of buildings. And I do like the haunted house approach to his filming buildings devoid of people, so that the focus is more on a sense of natural decay affecting the utopian lines and surfaces of modern concrete. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re just watching shots of buildings, especially when it’s hard to discern a logical flow from one building shot to another. C

For Ellen (So Yong Kim) As a fan of Kim’s In Between Days and Treeless Mountain as well as Paul Dano’s mutant-like weirdness, I really wanted to like this one. But something is terribly missing at the center of this minimalist study of a rock star trying to retain his wife and daughter. For me the dealbreaker came when father and daughter finally sit down to their first conversation, a painfully drawn out series of banalities. Dano is usually great at being game for anything, but here it seems he’s called upon to synthesize moments for So’s characteristically docu-realist camera to capture, and his zombie-like character is so submerged inside his own inarticulacy that there’s hardly a ripple on the surface. The dreamy, shoegaze camerawork, so expressively precise in past So films, here merely compounds the obfuscation. C-

Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of Press Play, and contributor to RogerEbert.com and Fandor. Follow him on Twitter.