Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Berlinale 2011

I recently visited one of Europe's biggest film festivals for the first time. I probably should've made a habit of going to Berlinale a little earlier, as I heard a lot of grumbling from veteran festivalgoers that things just weren't as good as they used to anymore. Ticket prices had gone soaring up, and getting the tickets to the screening you wanted proved to be tricky to say the least. Also the programme didn't seem as high-quality as it had been on previous years. But I've got no beef as I got to see the one film I eagerly awaited, and got a lot of information about interesting films which will probably crop up later on in interesting places. Thus, after a few reviews, I also have a MIWS section at the end of this post.

The Devil's Double
Director: Lee Tamahori

Since his most acclaimed film, Once Were Warriors, director Lee Tamahori has made a career in Hollywood directing shitty action films. His latest, The Devil's Double, is at least a little more ambitious, although it's by no means a masterpiece itself. The film tells the story of iraqi Latif Yahia, a man who was forced to act as Uday Hussein's doppelganger. Uday, son of Saddam, was a person who was directed by his impulses. He could brutally murder on a whim, pick up underage schoolgirls from the street for just feeling horny, and generally acted like a threatening lunatic. It's no wonder Latif starts to develop a plan to escape from him in one piece.

The main thing I got from the film was interest in the actual historical facts, upon which the film is based on. I wonder if there really had been so many double-crossings and all-round spy stuff surrounding the court of Saddam. In the case of Uday Hussein, I'm willing to accept any kind of mad ramblings as being actually true. Dominic Cooper does a terrific dual role as both Uday and Latif. The film obviously portrays Uday as a stone-cold psychopath, like he really was. This is balanced by Latif being shown as almost inhumanely virtuous and righteous. I get that the film tries to create the Freudian analogy of Id and Ego running around personified. But I would just feel a little more morally dubious main character would've been more interesting. As the real-life Latif has been closely tied to the filming of the movie and was present at the screening himself, they wouldn't do this to taint his reputation, of course. This is why biographies should be made only after the subject has died, or as thinly-veiled analogies.


Griff the Invisible
Director: Leon Ford

The director-screenwriter Leon Ford was also present at the screening of this symphatetic drama-comedy. He explained that the idea for the film became from observing a 5-year-old acting out his superhero fantasies. The film itself is a study on what would happen if an adult would never abandon these fantasies, but would go on playing a hero in his everyday life. Griff (Ryan Kwanten) is a timid and shy young man, teased by his co-workers. His friend is worried that he doesn't go out enough, and intoduces him to a young girl, Melody (Maeve Dermody). Melody becomes intrigued by Griff's fantasies and wants to start participating in them. But is it really healthy to live in one's own world or is growing up required for everyone?

Griff the film is a little hard to get a grip on. Parodying the modern superhero films, it has a dark colour pallette and athmosphere, which makes Griff's loneliness seem crushing. But one really can't think of him as a pure victim, as he fights secretly back to his office bullies and creates nasty ways to mess with them. In theory I like that such a silly premise is played so seriously. Yet, the film made me laugh very scarcely, but ponder the relationships adults have on their daydreams and their values all the more. It's a good thing, I suppose, but a whole different kind of film than I was expecting.


The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975
Director: Göran Olsson

Sweden, about as white-bread as countries get, had a strange fascination on the Black Panther movement in the USA in the late 60's and early 70's. Many reporters were working in the country shooting the everyday life in Harlem, interviewing movement leaders and of course reporting on the most important events. Director Göran Olsson has recently found these tapes and cut them together as a movie that tells a story about the Civil Rights Movement from a little different perspective than usual.

The material's strength is in the multiple interview tapes of important Civil Rights protesters that were not that well known outside America. As Olsson said in the film's Q&A, the media in the US was more interested in the violence and other concrete acts the Movement was able to do. They never asked too many questions about their ideology, unlike the Swedes. The political viewpoint is nicely formed in the various interviews of the film. Olsson has also peppered his film also with modern interviews with people linked to the movement. As he's out to create an image of the past times, he only uses the modern interviews in audio, letting the contemporary images tell another half of the story. This is a stylish idea and works incredibly well. The only quarrel with the film is that one must know the main details about the American history in those years beforehand. The most important leaders such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are ever-present in the background, but their basic ideas and means are dealt with only briefly in the film.


The Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Director: Werner Herzog

My most awaited film of the festival was somehow also the easiest to get tickets for, too. So, I got to walk the red carpet to my favorite director's latest documentary's world premiere. Herzog has decided to shoot a film about the oldest cave-paintings found on this Earth, at Cave Chauvet in Southern France. This is the cradle of our culture, yet it's not available for just everyone to see nowadays. Thus, it makes sense that Herzog's film has been converted in 3D as the paintings have been made to a certain uneven canvas and make good use of the varying depths. Other mediums wouldn't be able to recreate the paintings as accurately. The paintings themselves are marvelously beautiful, deeply mysterious and they do feed one's imagination quite a bit. I almost dropped from my seat as Herzog revealed a painting of a half-bull half-naked woman - the same kind of themes Pablo Picasso used in his work. The Human Culture certainly carries similar themes along it through the ages. It's miraculous to think how old these paintings are, ranging from 26,000 to 32,000 years.

The only fears I had towards this film beforehand were whether Werner would be able to fill up 1,5 hours of running time by just shooting cave walls. But one needn't worry. Herzog has again found his trademark eccentrics to interview about the subject. There's a computer expert that used to be a circus performer, an ancient weapon-maker who demonstrates ancient spears and a fellow who feels he should dress in the same kind of furs the stone-age people had. Herzog also allows himself to have some poetic monologues of himself. Only at the very last scene does this go a little over the top, but otherwise the questions he raises on the dreams that create culture and whether it is possible to have a relationship with the past are very relevant.

★★★★  1/2

The Advocate For Fagdom
Director: Angélique Bosio

The films of Bruce La Bruce are always fun to see at various film festivals because they at least stir controversy and it's fun to see when other people walk out of the theatre. They like to mix hardcore gay sex with gory subjects, such as zombies and skinheads. At core, they are simple romantic love stories. In the end, his films are not that good, alas. They are made pretty cheaply and keep the fucking around with genres as the most important thing rather than a story or a multi-dimensional message. It's still a lot of fun to see La Bruce talk about his own work and his peers on his merits in this documentary film. Like one would guess, John Waters pops by to praise La Bruce from the earth to the sky. The man should make a truly shocking trash movie after a while himself, instead of always just encouraging others. But mostly the interviews are poignant enough and it's interesting to see La Bruce's orgins as one of the first people to embrace a gay punk scene. It's also respectable that to this day he makes his own kind of films and has never sold out to make more easily distributable films, like so many of his peers.

What I would've hoped for this film would've been to pin La Bruce's part in the American underground filmmaking a bit more precise. For instance, we don't hear a lot from his influences, besides the general American drive-in -culture. I wonder what kind of influence the Kuchar brothers and Kurt McDowell must've had on him, as their earlier work, such as Thundercrack, already has a mixture of horror themes and outrageous hardcore sex, like is evident in La Bruce's films as well.

★★★  1/2

Mishen - Target
Director: Alexandr Zeldovich

I closed my festival with its most difficult film. Mishen is a Russian sci-fi film set in the near future. It uses elements from such Russian classics as Stalker and Anna Karenina to create something entirely different. In its world, the rich are even more priveledged than today. The women use age-constraining masks every morning and stay looking like 19-year-olds long after their prime. But it can't be maintained forever. A group of these snobs travel to a mysterious target that supposedly has the ability to give immortality as well. But of course this comes with a price of one's humanity for good.

Most clearly the film is an attack on the new-found upper class running rampant in Russia. In the satirical film, the rich really have almost no limits, and are able to treat poorer people, especially immigrants, as they please. Yet fortune is not consistent. People are willing to gamble and in weird TV shows they might lose their entire fortune by losing one crucial bet. Hilariously the same logic is applied also to elections which are handled by advocates shouting their policies in the middle of a cooking match. Politics is reduced to nothing, the real value in Mishen's world is found in business.  China is the country to suck up to and a lot of effort is being put to please the Chinese businessmen, because a deal with them can resolve a lot from one's future.

The rich people in the film may have strong passions, but in the end, they have problems coming up with real emotions. When everything is handed to you on a platter for all eternity, it is hard to act humane at the point of defeat. The rich do try to act as if they act by their emotions as hard as possible. Sometimes they must go to extremities to accomplish this. That makes it so chilling when the tables are inevitably turned and all the coldness gets to shine out. Mishen doesn't spell everything out and it's scenes can sometimes feel inconsistant. It is a mammoth of bitterness, a fight against the unfair modern world. And that's what I got from it from a single screening. It would deserve to be seen again as there is so much more going on.


Missed, but eagerly awaited:

Like I said, I missed a lot of interesting films in the festival, but would like to list them here so you'll remember where you first heard about these when they come to the cinema near you.

Tropa de Elite 2 - The Elite Squad 2

The sequel to the southamerican drug film that goes a little like The Wire times City of God. The drug business has roots in almost every major part of the society, and thus is almost undefeatable. Familiar characters are put on a surprising bend on the sequel. I haven't seen the first one, so I missed the sequel on purpose. Nearly everyone who saw it hailed is as one of the best of the festival. As soon as I returned home, I put the first one on order and eagerly await a new chance to see this.


I hear it's a fantastic romantic drama, like Scott Pilgrim but a little more down to earth. It also won the main award at Sundance earlier this year.

Viva Riva! 

This Congoan thriller reportedly has a strange, upbeat feeling in it. It was a sure hit with the audience, with huge lines flocking to see it.


One of the most talked-about films of the festival, this is a documentary about the Russian billionaire, who dared to face up against Vladimir Putin. Sure enough, he's now in prison, but this controversial film tells his story about fighting the Russian windmills.


Wim Wenders directed a 3D ballet movie about the dancer Pina Bausch. This attracted a lot of older dames that didn't seem to go to the movie often. Oh, well. Even though I was intrigued by the director and the 3D, I wasn't that interested in the subject matter.

Gandu - Asshole

This Indian avantgarde film has cult already written on it. Directed by a fellow named Q, it seems to channel a lot of the nightmarish surrealism like the Tetsuo films. I heard it wasn't that good as a whole, but some strange scenes were definately worth watching.

Kampf die Königinnen (The Fight of the Queens)

Having witnessed the cow-fights in the Lausanne region in western Switzerland, I would've been interested in seeing the documentary made about this brutal sport. Each year, the cows fight to find out who's the Queen that will lead the others to the summer herds. The Swiss have made this into a sport, betting on different cows and having a true festival around the happening. Alas, I wasn't present on the viewing days and I fear my chances of seeing this elsewhere are pretty slim.


I really had no idea that this was even playing at the festival. Yet it is a new Studio Ghibli movie and thus a must-see in my books. This one is a remake of The Borrowers, a story about tiny pixies, who tend come out at night to borrow stuff. Doesn't sound that cool, but I bet the Japanese studio can pull off a charming tale out of that.

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