February 14, 2012
Berlinale Review: Rentaneko (Rent-a-Cat)

Rentaneko in one word: adorable. Considering the Internet’s overflow of cute kitten pictures, this film was just waiting to be made. With its absurd and idiosyncratically Japanese premise and humour, it’s basically Tampopo (1985) with countless cuddly cats in place of the mountains of mouth-watering food. 

Sayoko (Ichikawa) lives alone with an army of cats. The kitties are naturally attracted to her as if via pheromones and everyday she takes them around in a cart, renting them out to lonely people. The film has a cyclical structure, with Sayoko meeting a client, renting a cat, for some reason lying about having a lucrative, always oddball job on the side – ranging from fortune teller to TV jingle composer – curing the client’s loneliness, and then finding herself at home lamenting her lack of a husband.

The story is pretty thin and largely irrelevant. This is of no importance, for Sayoko is as adorable as her many cats and Rentaneko’s bizarre humour is absolutely irresistible. The whole film is basically a succession of hilarious scenes that includes some lighthearted philosophy on the side. It could have been a bit shorter, as it stretches its premise out a bit by nearing the two-hour mark, but that’s really just nitpicking – it’s completely enjoyable and anyone with an affinity for Japanese absurdity will have a thoroughly good time.

Rentaneko (E: Rent-a-Cat) | Directed by Naoko Ogigami (Japan 2012) with Mikako Ichikawa, Reiko Kusamura, Ken Mitsuishi, Maho Yamada, Kei Tanaka

World premiere in the Panorama section of the Berlinale 2012 at the CinemaxX 7 on Tuesday, February 14th, at 19:00.

Further screening times and venues:
-    Wed, Feb 15, 22:45, CineStar 3
-    Thu, Feb 16, 22:30, Cubix 8
-    Thu, Feb 16, 22:30, Cubix 7
-    Sun, Feb 19, 20:15, CineStar 3

All screenings in Japanese with English subtitles.

February 14, 2012
Berlinale Review: Cherry

Cherry presents the archetypal Hollywood story of the poor, underprivileged girl who moves to the big city and through her perky resourcefulness ends up finding success and self-fulfillment (overcoming a number of character-building/narrative-propelling obstacles and disillusionments on the way, of course). It seeks to set itself apart from its countless predecessors by having the protagonist Angelina (Hinshaw) pursue a career not in the fashion, art or literary world, but in the porn industry (gasp!). Despite its ‘risqué’ premise – which amounts to little more than some topless scenes and using the word ‘fuck’ a handful of times – it still ticks every single cliché box and with its pretense to some kind of realism, the level of ignorance and gullibility it expects from its audience is borderline insulting.

Nothing in this film is even remotely plausible. Angelina is supposedly from a filthy, alcohol and conflict-ridden working class household, yet her perfect hair, skin and teeth give the impression she grew up in a spa – it was perhaps disingenuous to pick a former Abercrombie & Fitch model for the role. She runs away to San Francisco and after a short stint serving drinks in a strip bar, she decides to become a porn star. The porn firm’s offices are located in a large, super-hip building that would put any architecture studio to shame and the staff is almost exclusively made up of attractive girls in their twenties. Everyone is incredibly friendly and supportive and the 18-year-old Angelina jumps into her role as ‘Cherry’ with the enthusiasm of a girl scout and not the slightest trace of hesitation.

On the side, she starts dating a hotshot lawyer (Franco), who’s also a cokehead. His cocaine addiction, which is as ludicrous as anything else in the film (what Audi-driving, penthouse-inhabiting lawyer scores his drugs from a seedy biker bar?), eventually causes them to break up and Angelina to give up on men altogether. Instead, she starts a relationship with her director (Graham), who had been lusting for her since their first shoot, and becomes a porn director herself. From waitress, to porn star, to director, to lesbian, all with the same ease and within what seems like a few weeks – this girl’s indeed come a long way!

Cherry was co-written by Lorelei Lee, a seasoned porn actress. She started her career at 19 and eventually became a director. Perhaps this film was her way of providing a sugarcoated autobiography, because despite her credentials, the film’s portrayal of the porn industry is beyond preposterous. There isn’t so much as a hint at the possibility of psychological distress for the actresses, of drug abuse or exploitation in the industry, of any negative side to sex work whatsoever, really – according to this film, there is no reason why anyone wouldn’t want to work in porn. Heather Graham must really have rued her days working on the set of Boogie Nights

Cherry | Directed by Stephen Elliott (USA 2012) with Ashley Hinshaw, James Franco, Heather Graham, Dev Patel, Lili Taylor

World premiere in the Panorama section of the Berlinale 2012 at the Kino International on Tuesday, February 14th, at 17:00.

Further screening times and venues:
-    Thu, Feb 16, 18:15, Friedrichstadt-Palast
-    Fri, Feb 17, 10:30, CinemaxX 7
-    Sat, Feb 18, 17:00, Cubix 9
-    Sun, Feb 19, 22:30, Cubix 7
-    Sun, Feb 19, 22:30, Cubix 8

February 13, 2012
Berlinale Review: Prílis mladá noc (A Night Too Young)

Fans of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog should check out this one, as both its aesthetic and its treatment of the subject matter are strongly reminiscent of the Polish director’s masterpiece. Prílis mladá noc relies on strong performances to present a simple story through which to explore universal human themes. A remarkable feature debut for its 27-year-old director Olmo Omerzu, it’s the type of subtle film whose impact is not immediately apparent, but will have you reflecting about it long after leaving the cinema.

Two twelve-year-old boys, Baluska (Machuta) and Rezac (Vasi), are approached by Katerina (Rehorová), their schoolteacher, and her two friends, David (Pechlát) and Stepan (Cerny). They ask the boys to buy a bottle of vodka for them and bring it up to Katerina’s flat, where they intend on making up for a squandered New Year’s Eve party the night before. Once there, they are invited to stay, and what starts as an exciting adventure, develops into a premature introduction to the ugly adult world of dishonesty and self-centredness.

Though Baluska and Rezac do try alcohol and cannabis, no big deal is made of this, for such experiences are ultimately inconsequential. It’s their witnessing of the unscrupulous psychological harm the adults inflict on one another through their blind selfishness that is truly upsetting. The children, particularly Machuta, are excellent actors and their increasing disillusionment is conveyed entirely through their facial expressions. No cheap denunciatory or guilt-tripping dialogue is ever employed and by the time they are walked back home the next morning, their mute countenance is truly heartbreaking.

An infelicitous dream sequence at the end jars with the otherwise understated tone of the film. Apart from this, Prílis mladá noc remains unpretentious throughout and provides an effective exploration of a common theme – the lost innocence of youth – innovative in its restraint.

Prílis mladá noc (E: A Night Too Young) | Directed by Olmo Omerzu (Czech Republic/Slovenia 2012) with Martin Pechlát, Jirí Cerny, Natálie Rehorová, Vojtech Machuta, Jan Vasi

World premiere in the Forum section of the Berlinale 2012 at the Cinestar 8 on Monday, February 13th, at 22:00.

Further screening times and venues:
-    Tue, Feb 14, 21:30, Bundesplatz-Kino
-    Wed, Feb 15, 19:30, CinemaxX 4
-    Thu, Feb 16, 20:00, Colosseum 1
-    Fri, Feb 17, 19:00, Delphi Filmpalast

February 13, 15, and 16 screenings in Czech with English subtitles. February 14 and 17 screenings in Czech with German subtitles.

February 12, 2012
Berlinale Review: Hemel

Those who were taken by Steve McQueen’s Shame or are avidly awaiting its German release next month will find a lot to appreciate in Hemel, which in many ways works as a companion film. In fact, as a psychological study, where Shame teetered on the brink of fatuousness, Hemel manages to be much more satisfying.

In the film’s first part we watch as Hemel (Hoekstra), a ravishingly beautiful girl in her twenties, throws herself at various men. Her promiscuity smacks of desperation and all her escapades seem to provide her with are varying levels of dissatisfaction. Once her father Gijs (Dagelet) is introduced, the reason for her behaviour starts to become clear. Her overly affectionate upbringing by her single father has engendered a bond so close it verges on the incestuous. Every girlfriend is perceived as a threat, every break-up is welcomed with thinly veiled glee. It is the impossibility of her desire that compels her to sleep with countless men in search for a substitute – a quest as desperate as it is futile and every failure sends her back to Gijs, fostering a self-destructive back and forth with little hope for redemption.

The feature debut for both its director Polak and its lead Hoekstra, Hemel is a remarkable achievement. Hoekstra fully lives up to her demanding role, bearing the look and demeanour of a femme fatale, while her wide eyes betray a deep-seated vulnerability. Polak’s direction is also excellent, the stunning panoramic shots as evocative as the many close-ups on Hemel’s face, thus visually conveying her state of mind better than any expository dialogue would. Over the course of the film, the viewer’s perception gradually evolves from incomprehension to compassion and what could easily have deteriorated into an affected narrative instead allows for a successful portrait of a conflicted youth at a difficult stage of transition.

Hemel | Directed by Sacha Polak (Netherlands 2012) with Hannah Hoekstra, Hans Dagelet, Rifka Lodeizen

World premiere in the Forum section of the Berlinale 2012 at the Delphi Filmpalast on Sunday, February 12th, at 21:30.

Further screening times and venues:
-    Mon, Feb 13, 20:00, Cubix 9
-    Tue, Feb 14, 11:00, Cinestar 8
-    Fri, Feb 17, 13:45, Cinestar 8

All screenings in Dutch with English subtitles.

February 12, 2012
Berlinale Review: What Is Love

A more appropriate title could have been Where Is Love, because love, just like any sentiment other than tedium, makes no appearance in this film. Or perhaps it’s a really ironic nod to the Haddaway song of the same name, which would be kind of brilliant; sadly, irony is in even shorter supply than love.

The film depicts five different cases of the dreariest vapidity – a single woman, a priest, and three families – and since we learn as good as nothing about any of them other than their visible discontent, the film’s point must be that we’re all miserable and frustrated. No need to go any deeper than that, it’s a universally accepted fact, sit back and enjoy.

Interminably long stretches are dedicated to observing the characters do nothing (as in, literally nothing – see picture above for a perfect example) and the little dialogue there is alternates between depressingly boring and infuriatingly boring. The stasis in the characters’ lives is reflected in the cinematography: the camera almost never moves, which is a technique that works brilliantly in films by artists à la Michael Haneke or Yorgos Lanthimos, but no image in What Is Love is captivating or evocative enough to warrant looking at for as long as they are held here.

The whole film is brilliantly encapsulated in its final scene in which we’re made to watch as a housewife silently makes every bed in her five-person house. Yes, brilliant, it makes a point – you’ve made your bed and now etc. – but is it one so enthralling or original to justify a treatment of such length?

What Is Love | Directed by Ruth Mader (Austria 2012) with Saskia Maca, Helene Bubna, Michael Bubna, Thomas Rath, Walter Scalet, Eva Suchy

World premiere in the Forum section of the Berlinale 2012 at the Delphi Filmpalast on Sunday, February 12th, at 19:15.

Further screening times and venues:
-    Tue, Feb 14, 13:45, Cinestar 8
-    Wed, Feb 15, 11:45, Kino Arsenal 1
-    Sat, Feb 18, 15:00, Cubix 7

All screenings in German with English subtitles.

February 11, 2012
Berlinale Review: The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears

This third feature by Macedonian writer/director Teona Strugar Mitevska is one of those typical indie films with relatively high production values that take themselves very seriously and attempt to conceal their lack of substance through highly contrived plots and unduly pretentious cinematography.

The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears is split up into two parallel narratives. The first is set in Belgium and opens in Helena’s (Abril) apartment as she struggles with her intoxicated twenty-something son who is trying to sleep with her. Once rejected, the son climbs on the railing of the balcony, screams at Helena that his father Emil (Galey) molested him some fifteen years earlier and jumps off, killing himself. The second story focuses on Aysun (Mitevaska), a farmer living in rural Macedonia with her young son and her authoritarian, traditionalist father. She is desperately waiting for the return of her lover Lucien (Bajraktaraj), gone to Belgium to earn the money necessary to buy her from her father. The grief-stricken Helena works as a parole officer and the stories converge when she is assigned the supervision of Lucien, who had been jailed for dealing hashish. After their first meeting, she decides to help Lucien, hides him in her apartment and then drives him over to Macedonia together with Emil.

Helena’s idiotic action, which would not only get her fired but also land her in jail, makes absolutely no sense. Perhaps she feels pity for Lucien’s predicament; however, as such stories must be commonplace to a parole officer and he has no personality apart from being rather dislikeable, one can only rationalise it as grief-induced lunacy. Though her actual reason is revealed in the film’s affected climax, the film never arouses the viewer’s curiosity by hinting that she may have ulterior motives. As a result, rather than being the bombshell the film evidently hoped for, its eventual revelation simply falls flat after all the protracted, illogical action that preceded it.

The film’s strained narrative is complemented by its infuriating cinematography. Countless scenes are shot entirely in extreme close-ups for no apparent purpose, allowing indistinct body parts to fill up the screen and making the actual action difficult to follow. The rest of the time, overly artificial shot constructs and camera movements call attention to themselves unnecessarily, giving the whole film an annoyingly artsy feel.

The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears | Directed by Teona Strugar Mitevska (Macedonia/Slovenia/Germany/Belgium 2012) with Victoria Abril, Labina Mitevska, Jean Marie Galey, Arben Bajraktaraj

World premiere in the Panorama section of the Berlinale 2012 at the Kino International on Saturday, February 11th, at 20:00.

Further screening times and venues:
-    Sun, Feb 12, 13:30, CinemaxX 7
-    Mon, Feb 13, 14:30, Cubix 9
-    Wed, Feb 15, 14:00, Kino International
-    Thu, Feb 16, 17:45, CineStar 3

All screenings in French/Macedonian/Turkish with English subtitles.

February 10, 2012
Berlinale Review: La Demora (The Delay)

This is only the second film from Uruguay I’ve seen – the other being the 2009 Silver Bear-winning Gigante – and both have been gems of the typically Latin American brand of social realism, manifesting a sensibility almost spiritual in its humanity.

La Demora’s protagonist, Maria (Blanco), is a single mother of three, working long hours in a textile factory and devoting what little time she has left to caring for her increasingly senile father Augustín (Vallarino). After Augustín wanders off for the umpteenth time and Maria spends half the night looking for him, she is forced to face up to the untenability of her situation. A costly private home is out of the question and when she attempts to enrol her father in a public nursing home, her measly income level is still considered too high to qualify for public assistance. Helpless and at wit’s end, she takes the spontaneous decision of abandoning Augustín and calling social services anonymously so that they take him to a shelter. When she realises her plan has failed, she sets off on a frantic search, checking every shelter in the city in the hope of finding him there, knowing that if he isn’t given his medication by morning he will die.

The two leads are truly notable. Blanco is brilliant as the overburdened Maria, her toil clearly visible in her features, and her drastic, foolish decision is very difficult to flatly denounce. The real show-stealer, however, is Vallarino. It is impossible not to feel for Augustín as he spends long hours waiting for Maria in the cold, helpless and clueless, yet unyielding in his conviction that she will return.

La Demora thankfully refrains from moralisation and eschews melodrama, which allows it to pull off its potentially contrived premise without slipping into cheap or preposterous territory. By painting such convincing portraits and placing them in a situation that disallows facile judgment, the film involves the viewer on a very intimate level, thus generating a deep level of affection and concern for the characters that though may not make it an easy watch, makes it all the more rewarding.

La Demora (E: The Delay) | Directed by Rodrigo Plá (Uruguay/Mexico/France 2012) with Roxana Blanco, Carlos Vallarino

World premiere in the Forum section of the Berlinale 2012 at the Cinestar 8 on Friday, February 10th, at 19:15.

Further screening times and venues:
-    Sat, Feb 11, 22:15, Cubix 9
-    Mon, Feb 13, 11:00, Cinestar 8
-    Sun, Feb 19, 14:00, Delphi Filmpalast

February 10, 11, and 13 screenings in Spanish with English subtitles. February 19 screening in Spanish with German subtitles.

February 10, 2012
Berlinale Review: Beziehungsweisen (Negotiating Love)

How anyone ever read this script and thought it would make for an interesting film is baffling.

Dubbing itself as an ‘acted documentary’, the film depicts three couples, played by actors, in marriage counseling sessions with therapists played by real-life professionals. Unfortunately, these people aren’t Tony and Carmela Soprano, but the most bland, ordinary couples sharing banalities that don’t get much more interesting than, “We don’t get along as well as we used to. We fight more frequently than before” – and this for an hour and a half!

The sessions take place on a studio set and the film attempts a stripped down, Dogville-ish aesthetic for the re-enactment of the couples’ soporific private lives. With a fraction of the budget of Dogville (and a fair few other differences), however, all it achieves is to have a production design that somehow manages to be even duller than its subject matter. To top it all off, the digital image is very ugly and could clearly have used a more expert hand in the colour correction.

If the point of the film is to make us feel seriously sorry for marriage counselors, then it may just be a masterpiece. Facetiousness aside: do yourself a favour and skip this one.

Beziehungsweisen (E: Negotiating Love) | Directed by Calle Overweg (Germany 2012) with Leopold Altenburg, Abak Safaei-Rad, Axel Hartwig, Anja Haverland, Franziska Kleinert

World premiere in the Forum section of the Berlinale 2012 at the Cinestar 8 on Friday, February 10th, at 16:30.

Further screening times and venues:
-    Sat, Feb 11, 20:00, Colosseum 1
-    Thu, Feb 16, 15:00, Kino Arsenal 1
-    Sun, Feb 19, 19:00, Delphi Filmpalast

All screenings in German with English subtitles.

February 6, 2012
Berlinale Review: Kid-Thing

The Zellner bros.’ Kid-Thing is a US indie oddity that revels in the squalid and tries very hard to emulate Harmony Korine without managing to be much more than a lesser knock-off (and I am definitely not one of the latter’s admirers).

Annie (Aguirre), the film’s protagonist, is a 10-year-old tomboy living in a seedy Texan suburb. Bored to tears and with no company other than her imbecilic father and his equally dim-witted friend (played by Nathan and David Zellner as grotesque caricatures of your standard rednecks), she spends her days making prank calls, shop-lifting, and causing general petty havoc wherever she goes. She eventually stumbles upon a hole in the ground from which an old lady’s torturous whine is emitted, claiming to have fallen in and begging Annie for help. Annie is reluctant to help her, but throws down a walkie-talkie and some PBJ sandwiches and Capri-Sun to keep the woman alive while she makes up her mind.

The story is pretty threadbare and secondary, as the film’s focus is on portraying various bizarre incidents – Annie shooting dead cattle with a paintball gun or smashing up a handicapped girl’s birthday party with a baseball bat, for example – observed in overlong takes that are supposed to elicit deadpan humour simply because of their eccentricity. Much like in Korine’s Gummo, this humour is at the expense of working class characters that are for the most part mentally or physically impaired and relies on making the viewer deeply uncomfortable. However, not daring to be nearly as outrageous as Korine – neither on a thematic or on a visual level (the cinematography is actually quite pleasing) – the film merely succeeds in being exploitive and distasteful rather than innovative; for whatever that type of innovation is worth…

Kid-Thing | Directed by David Zellner (USA 2012) with Sydney Aguirre, Susan Tyrell, Nathan Zellner, David Zellner

Premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

International premiere in the Forum section of the Berlinale 2012 at the Delphi Filmpalast on Saturday, February 11th, at 22:30.

Further screening times and venues:
-    Sun, Feb 12, 13:45, CineStar 8
-    Tue, Feb 14, 20:00, Colosseum 1
-    Thu, Feb 16, 22:30, Cubix 9

All screenings in English with German subtitles.

February 6, 2012
Berlinale Review: Keep the Lights On

Keep the Lights On is director and co-writer Ira Sachs’ autobiographical account of a decade-long gay relationship blighted by drug abuse. It’s clear that this is a story very close to Sachs’ heart (he even resorted to crowd-funding to gather the finances that proved difficult to acquire through traditional means) and the extent to which he is willing to lay his own past bare is remarkable. However, as is so often the case with very personal stories, what is very meaningful to the author isn’t necessarily very interesting to the audience. Despite a strong beginning, the film gradually loses its drawing power and by the end it becomes very difficult to care for this drawn-out relationship.

The film starts in 1998, where Sachs’ alter ego Erik (Lindhardt) is a thirty-something independent documentary filmmaker living in New York. Single, he engages in a series of amusing (because now fully anachronistic) flings via phone sex line, which lead to his encounter with Paul (Booth), a still-closeted lawyer working for Random House. Paul is addicted to crack, which doesn’t seem to faze Erik. A passionate relationship blossoms and they fall in love, eventually moving in together. The film is split up into rough chapters, depicting the gradual deterioration of their relationship at two- to three-year intervals. As Paul’s addiction worsens, Erik’s futile attempts at saving his partner and their relationship become increasingly desperate, exerting a heavy toll on his emotional state.

The main problem is that the focus is entirely on conveying Erik’s torment and no effort is made to explain what it is that makes this relationship worth it, so that the latter three quarters of the film essentially amount to Erik whining and despairing. Paul is an underdeveloped character and considering his selfishness from the outset, Erik’s unrelenting and completely self-denying dedication to him is difficult to empathise with. It doesn’t help that Lindhardt’s performance is sappily monotone, becoming excessively grinding as the film progresses and denying the eventual climax the strength it strives for.

The film does have its strong points. The cinematography by the brilliant Thimios Bakatakis (Dogtooth, Attenberg) is gorgeous and renders a beautiful, brightly lit New York. There are also some notable scenes that nicely capture the zeitgeist of the era, as when Erik calls his doctor regarding his HIV-test results and her professional reluctance to give them over the phone immediately causes him to panic. Unfortunately, these are overshadowed by the film’s overlong yet insubstantial treatment of its subject matter, which instead of engendering compassion on the part of the viewer results in increasing exasperation towards its two-dimensional characters.

Keep the Lights On | Directed by Ira Sachs (USA 2012) with Thure Lindhardt, Zachary Booth, Julianne Nicholson, Souleymane Sy Savane, Paprika Steen

Premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Screening times and venues:
-    Fri, Feb 10, 13:30, CinemaxX 7
-    Wed, Feb 15, 19:00, CinemaxX 7
-    Thu, Feb 16, 22:45, CineStar 3
-    Sat, Feb 18, 17:45, CineStar 3

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