Berlinale

review shadow dancer

Editor’s note: We’re re-running Scott’s review from last year’s Berlinale Film Festival as Shadow Dancer opens this weekend in limited theatrical release. The image of the bomb is an apt one for Shadow Dancer. As a hunk of parts with a timer, there’s nothing naturally threatening about a bomb; it’s the explosion that matters. Hitchcock was right, and in this IRA thriller from James Marsh, incendiary devices are all over the place. Some are literal, most are figurative, and Bomb Theory abounds. It opens with the shocking death of a young boy, surrounded by his family as blood pours from a bullet hole in his chest. It’s a direct insight into the fight the members of the IRA hold as sacrosanct and the guilt that the boy’s sister feels over sending him out into the streets on a simple errand. That sister, all grown up, is Collete McVeigh (achingly performed by Andrea Riseborough). After dropping off a suspicious bag in a tube station, she’s picked up by the authorities and taken to see Mac (Clive Owen) who dangles the promise of hard jail time in front of her until she turns reluctant informant for the MI5. The people she’s betraying forced her into a war, but they’re also her family.

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review my brother the devil

Editor’s note: Scott’s review originally ran during last year’s Berlinale Film Festival, but we’re re-running it now as the film opens today in limited theatrical release. With its social pressures and troubled definitions of manhood backed into a corner, Sally El Hosaini‘s My Brother the Devil gropes toward acceptance with two characters seeking to define or redefine who they are and how they see themselves. Like most things, the difficulty often lies in how others see them. It’s an hebetic flick where religion, sexuality and socio-economic status all collide to muddy the waters of the East End. That’s where Rashid (James Floyd) and his little brother Mo (Fady Elsayed) live with a mother who is obliviously sweet and a father who is only present long enough to berate them. Rashid is a drug dealer popular with the neighborhood and with his boys. Mo idolizes him, but Rashid is pushing him away from the crib and into the classroom. Good grades aside, there are no easy paths in this movie. After knives get bloodied on a shitty street in London, Rashid begins questioning his chosen profession and seeks a real job and friendship with professional photographer Sayyid (the always strong Saïd Taghmaoui). As that relationship evolves into something more identity-challenging, Mo finds himself without the God of his Big Brother and is left to fall into his footsteps.

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  Editor’s note: With Bestiaire hitting limited release, here is a re-run of our Berlin Film Festival review, originally published on February 15, 2012. Before the screening of Bestiaire, writer/director/producer Denis Côté relayed a story about an audience member who approached him at Sundance and told him that she felt like the movie was less about animals and more “a movie about an audience watching a movie.” Even without planting the seed of this idea, it would have become obvious within a few minutes of watching the semi-staged documentary. It has an eerie ability to make you aware that you’re in an audience watching something, yet it does so magically without taking you out of the movie. The surrounding people are more obvious, but the images up on the screen are still transfixing. The simple way to describe this convention-bucking flick is that it’s a little over an hour of animals. That alone makes it watchable, but the brilliance of the project is in its more complex description: a film composed entirely of sequential static shots of wild beasts and humans watching or caring for wild beasts that shines a spotlight on observation and fine art.

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Editor’s note: Farewell, My Queen is opening in limited theaters this week, so please enjoy this re-run of our review from the Berlin Film Festival, originally posted on February 9, 2012. The realm of 18th century France is a dusty one. Period dramas, especially lofty costume dramas, are so numerous that you can barely toss a powdered wig without hitting one. With Farewell, My Queen (Les Adieux à la Reine), writer/director Benoît Jacquot tears off the wig, pulls down the drapes and sets fire to both. The wonderfully un-stuffy film stars and is told through the eyes of Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) who acts as a cipher for the manic last few days of Marie Antoinette’s (Diane Kruger) reign in the late 1700s. It’s Laborde’s story, meaning it’s the story of a voyeur who watches from doorjambs as the business of being extravagantly wealthy and powerful becomes not only meaningless, but fatal.

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There’s a solid chance that you haven’t heard of most of these movies. Yet they exist – out there somewhere as a thorn in the side of movie fans trying to see as much as possible. Nuggets of potential waiting to be picked up from the movie orphanage by a distributor and given a warm home with cup holders in every seat. The European Film Market is fascinating for that reason and for the way people attend it. Tickets this year were around $600, but that’s a reasonable price for companies sending representatives trying to find the next moneymaker for their company or the hot movie to bring to their festival. That means screenings come complete with people on cell phones and unimpressed buyers walking out after ten minutes to hustle next door to see if the other movie playing has any promise to it. It’s a bizarre way to watch movies, but it makes a kind of sense given the massive size of the movie list compared to the tiny amount of time to see everything. There were upwards of 675 movies in the EFM this year, all of them with their own selling points. Here are the 87 most interesting-sounding with descriptions found in the official catalog. For the most part, I haven’t seen these movies (and didn’t even know about many of them until the Berlin Film Festival), but they all have something going for them that should earn them a spot on your radar.

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In his last day on the planet, Satché (Saul Williams) doesn’t go sky diving, and he doesn’t go skinny dipping. He probably doesn’t even have a bucket list. What he does have is a vibrant world at his fingertips and a courageous ability to walk calmly toward death. In Aujourd’hui (the french word for “Today”), writer/director Alain Gomis has used the stuffy old cliche of impending death and faced it with a poetic tone and a philosophy rooted more in sex and friendship than in deeper thinking. This is a mirror world that resembles our own. Possibilities are shunned, the end is embraced, life is just as dull and beautiful as it’s always been.

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In Death For Sale, the three best friends that anyone could ever have falter under the weight of their petty crime lives and the economic reality facing twenty-somethings in Morocco. They’re lost youth, scumming their way on the streets and in the nightclubs without any kind of direction. Writer/director Fauozi Bensaïdi‘s story picks up just as the group is beginning to diverge. Malik (Fehd Benchemsi) has fallen hard for a prostitute called Dounia (Imane Elmechrafi) despite her status as forbidden fruit. The naive Soufiane (Fouad Labied) hatches a plan to steal a rich girl’s purse that has profound, unintended consequences. The hardened Allal (Mouhcine Malzi) is determined to become a big fish in the suddenly empty drug-dealing pond. Everything should work out fine, right? Like most films from the Arab world, this one deals with 1) what it means to be a man and 2) crime. Yet, even within a sea of sameness, the film has its own statements to make and its own way of making them. Most directly, with a strong visual eye and a serpentine story where chasing dreams leaves its inhabitants out of breath standing right where they started.

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Based on title alone, would you go see a movie called The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears? Probably not. It sounds like the kind of bland puffery that consists mainly of scenes where groups of women are crying and telling each other it’s going to be alright. The purple poetry of the name is unfortunate, because it almost guarantees that some will skip over a strong, unique revenge story with a killer lead actress. In this case, judging a movie by its poster is the wrong move. From writer/director Teona Strugar Mitevska, it’s the kind of movie that toys around with convention and flirts with pretense while, for the most part, staying focused on characters and conflict. That conflict begins with a devastating opening scene which pairs timing, taboo and gripping performance to great effect. It’s a gut punch, but instead of picking you up off the curb, the movie kicks you when you’re down. It’s a catalyst that greatly affects Helena (Victoria Abril), a parole officer who sleepwalks through work where everyone she deals with is brushing off crocodile tears. Her teenage son kills himself, unable to process being sexually abused at a young age by his father Emil (Jean-Marie Galey), and the way she responds to her world changes. Something invisible snaps.

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Based on Win Lyovarin‘s novel, Headshot (Fon Tok Kuen Fah) is a noir assassin story that features a killer who takes a bullet to the brain – leaving him seeing the world upside down. Considering that it’s from Thailand, has a crazy premise and involves violence, there’s a word of warning that should come along with writer/director Pen-En Ratanaruang‘s film: it’s far more drama than action film. For whatever reason, Ratanaruang and company chose to abandon anything about the story’s gimmick that makes it viable and loaded down their structure with faulty flashbacks and confused caricatures. It’s a fairly standard crime story with wasted potential, but it has a leading man that comes close to making it worthwhile.

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After last year’s Arab Spring, there will undoubtedly be a host of documentaries and narrative projects with Middle Eastern revolution chanting from their cores. It will be interesting to see how well they stack up against The Reluctant Revolutionary because it should be considered the standard. Sean McAllister‘s tennis-shoes-on-the-ground doc is unexpected in its storytelling and unflinching in its display of the mass murders that cemented the people of Yemen against their leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh. But this story doesn’t start with crowds shouting from tents. It starts with a tour guide named Kais who can only see his business dwindling because of some disgruntled citizens. He’s actively against the revolution for that pragmatic reason, but even as his professional life deteriorates, his understanding and support of the movement dramatically shifts his opinions.

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On a hillside overlooking the beaches of Normandy, American soldiers surround a Korean and a Japanese man wearing Nazi uniforms. This is the second-most intriguing image of Mai-wei, the WWII epic from writer/director Je-gyu Kang. What’s even more fascinating is that the image is drawn directly from real life. How they got there (and into Hitler’s army no less) is a story told while trudging through the freezing mountains of Russia and the hot open plains of Korea. It’s an enormous movie, told through a decade as two competitive marathon runners – Jun-shik Kim (Dong-gun Jang) and Tatsuo Hasegawa (Jo Odagiri) – begin as alienated enemies and become friends through the brittle evolution of battle. Certainly its most striking achievements are the extended, highly-choreographed war scenes that steal the breath right out of your lungs. The visual style is an angrier version of Saving Private Ryan, but instead of beginning with Normandy, Mai-wei ends with it, and instead of having a few huge battles, Mai-wei has a solid half-dozen. Make no mistake; it’s a movie that slams your head into the wall without giving you a helmet.

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Echoing throughout the concrete of the subway between Stadtmitte and Potsdamer Platz is a young man slamming out a guitar chord like it owes him money and singing out “I want to see the movies of my dreams.” His droning twang sounds more like it was unearthed from the soil of North Carolina, but the Euro coins in his case and the writing on the wall prove he’s in Berlin. His sentiment is a powerful and timely one as the red signs everywhere shout out the presence of the Berlin International Film Festival. Just a dozen feet above that young man’s head is the shuffle of mud-covered feet swishing through snow as more of it falls on the ground. An ice cream parlor is inexplicably still open and doing good business nearby. It’s 21 degrees outside, but it feels like 8, and that creates a kind of energy. People are moving quickly to both to keep up with the lazy first day rush and to keep their bits from freezing off. Maybe that will make getting into a darkened (and heated) theater all the sweeter. At least that’s the hope on the largely movie-less, paper work-heavy start to the Berlinale.

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So you can’t afford the plane ticket (or you’re afraid they’ll show Mr. Popper’s Penguins on your cross-Atlantic flight). So you can’t stand to wait outside in freezing temperatures. So you can’t figure out why an international film festival is showing A Prairie Home Companion in a one-film Robert Altman retrospective. So what? That’s why we here at FSR are going to do all that for you. In 24 hours, I’ll be boarding a train, and 6 hours after that I’ll arrive at the apartment where I’ll sleep on Tim League’s floor for a week, catching all of the strange, the challenging, and the Oscar-worthy films of the future right here in the cold as hell country of Fritz Lang, Werner Herzog and Uwe Boll. That’s right sports fans, it’s the Berlin International Film Festival (also affectionately known as the Berlinale). It’s my first time, so we might all feel a little pinch, but I go undaunted into the morass of venues, celebrity sightings and movies in search of the flicks that demand to be cheered and shared. Coverage starts Thursday and will head on into next week. Berlin! It’s like Cannes except colder and more Prussian! Aren’t you glad you can experience it from home?

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