Berlinale Halftime Review: Chi-Raq, Tough Choices, Literary Genius, Young Love and Midnight Magic
By Brendan Power . February 17, 2016
Yesterday marked the halfway point of this year’s Berlinale, and we have been spoilt for choice so far with very few stinkers and more than a few gems showing up on the silver screen. While there are many excellent films which I have not been able to attend (most notably Alone in Berlin, how could I miss that one right? Answer: I slept in), what follows is a brief round-up of 5 of those which I believe merit a mention so far.
Screening out of competition yesterday was Spike Lee’s entertaining new movie, Chi-Raq, starring Teyonah Parris (above), Nick Cannon, John Cusack, Wesley Snipes and Samuel L. Jackson. While the film has been available to stream for some time via Amazon (who financed the film’s production) this was the first time people in Europe got to see it in theatres and, while it was not what I expected, it did not disappoint.
Set in Chicago, Illinois, which has an insanely high rate of gun-related violence and murders, Lee made the surprising decision to deal with the topic by making this a quasi-musical, sort of comedy-drama, with the vast majority of the dialogue delivered in rhyming verse by its characters.
The story is inspired by Aristophanes’ ancient Greek play Lysistrata, which is the name of Parris’ character in the film. Essentially, the women of Chi-Raq are sick of the killing and violence that the gangs (read: men) in their community are carrying out and decide to take matters into their own hands to put end to it.
How will they do this? By withholding all sexual activity from the men until a truce is signed, under the catchy title “No Peace, No Pussy”. What follows is an exercise in grassroots (or should that be ‘ass-roots’?) activism, as the movement begins to bare fruits. Not what I expected at all; in this film, Lee mixes hard truths with catchy musical numbers to create an excellent all round production.
Genius represents a triumphant feature film directorial debut for Michael Grandage, a man usually at home in London’s theatre world, and centres around the relationship between renowned editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) and his enigmatic writing protege, author Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law).
Set in late 1920s New York, at a time when the Great Depression was taking hold of the city, we find a young Wolfe desperately trying to find a publisher for his mammoth manuscript, ‘O Lost’. Perkins, seeing value in the novel where no other in his position could, sets to work with Wolfe on bringing it to press. An intense bond begins to develop, and we are treated to the story of one of the lesser-remembered Great American Novelists.
The implication I took away from the film is that not only does the titular genius lie with Wolfe’s writing, but also with Perkins’ ability to edit, nurture and encourage his most talented writers through his friendship with them. This is highlighted by the somewhat fleeting appearances of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) in the film.
A fantastic study of interpersonal relationships (old school bromance anyone?), with an excellent supporting female cast (Nicole Kidman and Laura Linney as the suffering spouses), this is a must for anyone interested in early 20th century American literature, as well as any fans of Colin Firth and Jude Law, of which I am sure there are many.
At the opening press conference, jury president Meryl Streep spoke that great films often “hits us first in the heart and then in the head”, and of all the movies so far, perhaps the German production ’24 Wochen’, directed by Anne Zora Berrached, fits that bill the most.
The film centres around the relationship between German stand-up comedienne, Astrid (expertly played by Julia Jewish, above) and her agent, partner and father of her young child, Markus (Bjarne Maedel). The film opens with Astrid’s public, on-stage announcement of her second pregnancy, and we are introduced to a family unit very much enjoying their lives. We soon learn that this will not last for long, as the unborn baby is diagnosed not only with Down’s Syndrome but also with a severe heart defect.
The film thus becomes a very moving and gritty depiction of the struggle and difficult position which expectant parents are placed in, when deciding to continue with pregnancies under such circumstances. Moral quandaries and ethical issues aside, Jentsch is outstanding in her portrayal of a woman facing possibly the hardest choice of her life, and may well end up scooping an award for her performance.
Quand Ons a 17 Ans
Set in rural mountainside France, this is a charming film charting the evolution of the relationship between Damien, whose mother is the local doctor and father a helicopter pilot in the army, and Thomas, the adopted son of two high-altitude farmers. For reasons initially unclear to us, the pair are constantly fighting each other at school, until circumstances conspire to bring them together under one roof.
Beautiful cinematography with breathtaking shots of snow-capped mountain ranges punctuate this fine effort from seasoned director Andre Techine, which expertly reflects on the awkwardness of the two boys-on-the-cusp-of-manhood’s lives. Watch if you feel like you need reminding what being 17 can be like, in all its uncertain glory.
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, Midnight Special is that rare combination of a chase movie and mystery Sci-Fi, in the vein of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T: The Extraterrestrial. If you think that those are rather esteemed company for such a film, you’re correct, as this may be my favourite of the festival so far.
The film focuses on the relationship between Alton Meyer (Jaeden Liberher), his father Roy (Michael Shannon), and Roy’s old friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) who, from the very start of the film, are on the run towards an unknown location for an as-yet-unknown reason. At this stage, all we know is that Alton has been living on a ranch run by a religious order, and that he is special, very special.
Director Nichols spoke at the press conference about how he made a rule of not allowing the characters’ dialogue to explain any background facts, and so most of the information as to why all this is happening is strictly withheld from the audience.
What we do know is that Alton is capable of some incredible acts, such as bringing down orbiting satellites, and this, naturally, has caught the attention of the FBI who are the ones giving chase in the film, aided by NSA agent Sevier (fans of TV show ‘Girls’ will be pleased to see Adam Driver ably bringing light comic relief to this role). Throw in Kirsten Dunst as the mom for good effect, and the cast is complete. I wish to adhere to Nichols’ rule of not giving too much away, so it suffices to say that Midnight Special will definitely sate the appetite of most modern Sci-Fi fans.