The Good, The Great, and The Perplexing: A Berlinale Update
By Brendan Power . February 11, 2015
We are now over two thirds through the long process that is the Berlinale. A few promising films remain to be seen in the coming days, but for now please allow me to bring up you up to speed with three films, each of which more or less fall into one of the titular categories. Warning there may be very minor spoilers ahead, but nothing which should spoil the viewing experience should you decide to go see these flicks.
We will start with my favourite film of the festival so far, an unassuming Icelandic/Danish production, written and directed by Dagur Kári, with the eye-catching English title of Virgin Mountain. This is essentially an off-beat romantic comedy which hits all the right notes as we follow the story of Fúsi, an overweight 43 year old man-child who wears a ponytail, plays with kid’s toys, lives at home with his dear old mum, and enjoys nothing more than recreating WW2 battles with his scale model figures. Fúsi, expertly played by Gunnar Jónsson, is socially awkward to say the least, and suffers from constant teasing and mean pranks from his co-workers at the airport. For these and many other reasons, both his mother and her boyfriend encourage him to step into the real world by buying him line-dancing lessons for his birthday.
Naturally he is loath to take part in these lessons, but a chance meeting with a female line-dancer, Sjöfn, changes all that. Where this film really scores a win for me is in the unusual mixture of deadpan Icelandic humour, which creates some seriously unexpected laugh out loud moments, and the heart-warming tale of someone trying their best to improve themselves even if that means conforming to societies norms. I think these type of films make us feel better about the world and ourselves for two distinct reasons. Firstly there is the schadenfreude aspect – most people will watch and feel that they are probably better off than this “big fat loser” seems to be, and secondly, seeing someone like him come out of his shell and improve his life makes us feel like there is hope for us all. Watching the relationship between Fúsi and Sjöfn develop almost made me feel nervous at times, as director Kári does a great job at making you care about the outcome, but will it all work out? As many of you may sadly know already, falling love is rarely, if ever, a straightforward process. 8/10
Next up, another film for the softies amongst us, and another which I really enjoyed is Mr. Holmes, a new and interesting slant on the long running Sherlock Holmes saga. Given the growing list of incarnations of the famous detective which we have seen recently, you would be forgiven for asking, as a friend of mine did, whether the copyright on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books has run out recently, but rest assured this one is worth it. Gone are the famous pipe, hat and side-kick Dr. Watson, as we encounter a 90 year old Sherlock, majestically played by Sir Ian McKellan, who has been in retirement in the England’s West Country for almost 30 years now. The plot centres around his desire, despite his fading memory and power of deduction, to write a factual account of his final case, the very one which caused him to retire so abruptly.
Credit must go to Laura Linney and Milo Parker, who play Mr. Holmes housekeeper and her son, for their fine supporting roles, but this is really the Ian McKellan show, as the venerable actor puts in a tour de force as the aging super-sleuth trying to make amends for his life’s many regrets. This is a gentle and touching film, about the difficulty of dealing with and letting go of the past, which is structured with remarkably measured pace by director Bill Condon (don’t let the fact that he directed Twilight put you off!) and includes many beautiful scenes of the Great British countryside. Aged 76, McKellan is an international treasure and seeing him play a man almost 20 years his senior, on his last legs, made me realize how much I‘ll miss him when he‘s gone. I just hope there‘s some grain of truth in the myth that wizards live forever. 7.5/10
Last we come to one of the most highly anticipated films of the Berlinale, reclusive director Terrence Malick‘s Knight of Cups, starring Christian Bale, Natalie Portman (both above) and Cate Blanchett. First off, let me just say that if you are already a big Malick fan and loved Tree of Life unreservedly, then don’t bother reading any further, just book a ticket at your nearest cinema as soon as you can, as this one is definitely for you. On the other hand, if you have mixed feelings about his style and the effort it often takes to even begin to get your head around some his films, you might want to proceed with caution as this is another film with a dreamlike narrative which is left largely open to personal interpretation.
Christian Bale does a solid job of playing Rick, a Hollywood screenwriter who, despite achieving a successful career in a highly rewarding industry, laments the vacuous nature of his extravagant, womanizing lifestyle. Seeking more answers he visits a tarot card reader, whose cards subsequently structure the rest of the film into chapters according to their title. At times this film, which utilizes very extensive narration by many of the cast of characters, feels like an extended existential musing purely for existentialism’s sake. As the story progresses we meet a slew of naked and semi-clothed women who briefly wander in and out of Ricks life, not so subtly raising the “there must be more to life than this” question in the watcher’s mind. The city of Los Angles is practically a character in itself, as Malicks peerless ability to weave landscapes, cityscapes and interior shots comes to the fore. Despite the many moments of strong social commentary laced throughout the film, in the end we are left with as many questions as we are answers, probably just as Malick intended.
It was pleasing to see Bale return to a role not so removed from Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, albeit without the psychopathic murdering tendencies, and overall the film looks simply amazing, but I was left asking myself “Is that enough?”. To many fans, as mentioned earlier, the answer will be “most definitely” and this film will be a rare treat. For others like myself, we will probably be able to say that the just watched a film about a man on a spiritual journey, but in the end, won’t be able to tell you where, if anywhere, it took him. The answers to this film may not be all that important a factor in enjoying it, but they certainly remain as elusive as the camera-shy director himself. As you can see in this video from the press conference below, Malick is so rarely seen in public that many of the journalists have no idea what he looks like, and, you would suspect, he‘d like to keep it that way. 6.5/10