Berlinale 2015

Berlinale Palast
February 5th – 15th, 2015
Berlin, Germany

by Joanna Orland

The Berlin International Film Festival is a staple in the film industry’s diary.  Every year, the Berlinale showcases roughly 400 films, mostly international and European premieres.  More importantly for the film industry, the European Film Market (EFM) holds around 400 companies and over 8000 film professionals who gather to both network and negotiate their film rights.

In its 65th year, the Berlinale continued its tradition of showcasing a diverse collection of films from around the world.  The appointed 2015 jury president, director Darren Aronofsky, led a panel including such high profile acting talent as Daniel Brühl and Audrey Tautou, as well as Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner as they selected key films that were to play at this year’s festival.

A highlight of the festival included the performances by Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years, both receiving deserved accolades by winning Silver Bear awards for their acting talents.  Other highlights included Sebastián Silva’s new film Nasty Baby which shocked audiences by its dark material, the long-awaited urban legend of the 54 Director’s Cut which has been in the making since 1998, and the premiere of the first two episodes of Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul, with Saul himself, Bob Odenkirk, hosting a post-screening Q&A.

Celebrities and filmmakers were in abundance, attending press conferences, junkets and parties to celebrate and promote their latest efforts.  The star-studded festival saw the likes of James Franco, Nicole Kidman, Werner Herzog, Robert Pattinson, Dane DeHaan, James Franco, Ryan Reynolds, Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Christian Bale, Natalie Portman and James Franco but to name a few.  Did I mention that James Franco was there?  He was promoting three films as the 2015 Berlinale festival declared itself to be “Francophile”.  Amongst the James Franco films and other Hollywood content, a fine selection of global and independent films padded out the programme, often superior to the high profile premieres that were on the bill.

Attending only 5 days of the festival from February 6th until the 10th, I managed to see a handful of films, attend a few press conferences, and interview some very inspiring talent who were on hand to promote their films for Berlinale 2015.  Our full coverage of the 65th Berlinale:

View all of our videos from the 65th Berlinale Film Festival.

45 Years Berlinale
45 Years
Directed by Andrew Haigh
Starring Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James and Dolly Wells

45 Years is a bleak and gripping tale of a strong and loving relationship falling apart at the seams as the pull of the past becomes stronger than the potential of the future and the reality of the present.

Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) have been married for 45 years, and they are about to mark the occasion with a celebration amongst friends. In the week leading up to the party, Geoff receives news that draws him back fifty years into the past to his life before Kate. Fifty years ago, Geoff’s girlfriend had a fatal accident in the Swiss Alps, and just now has her body been discovered, frozen in ice and time.

Geoff retreats into memories of the past, and Kate is swallowed up by doubt and insecurity of all she has shared with Geoff over the past 45 years. Kate is jealous and anxious, but as stoic as any British woman strives to be. She finds the anniversary party planning the perfect distraction. But it’s not enough. Was she ever enough for Geoff?

From the wet grey climate and endless cups of tea to the quiet stoicism of a stiff upper lip, this film is British through and through. Kate and Geoff’s relationship is perfectly played and seeps authenticity in their everyday interactions. The catalyst of Geoff’s ex comes in the first scene both of the couple feature in. Even so, their 45 year relationship that would’ve been previous to this scene is obvious and their dynamic instantly expressed. The performances are very impressive, empathetic, frustrating and moving. Rampling in particular produces quite an achievement with her portrayal of Kate.

45 Years is tender, cold, touching and bleak. A harsh story of how the past can change our perception of our present and potentially destroy our future.

54 director's cut - berlinale 2015
54: The Director’s Cut
Directed by Mark Christopher
Starring Ryan Phillippe, Salma Hayek, Neve Campbell, Mike Myers, Sela Ward and Breckin Meyer

The director’s cut of 1998 film 54 has long been an urban legend. Plagued by studio reshoots and edits, the studio cut of the film failed to be the box office and critical success it should have been. Now seventeen years later, director Mark Christopher brings his long promised director’s cut to the 65th Berlinale Film Festival.

The studio cut follows the story of Shane (Ryan Phillippe), a bartender at the infamous Studio 54.  He befriends coat check girl Anita (Salma Hayek) and her bartender husband Greg (Breckin Meyer), while having a bit of a romance with soap star Julie Black (Neve Campbell).  The director’s cut, however, has a shift in focus. “It’s the story of the bartender, the coat check girl and the busboy and their love triangle,” says director Mark Christopher.  “It’s not just a director’s cut, it’s a different movie, because it’s a different story and the characters are different. So, thirty minutes of reshoots have been pulled out of it, and forty minutes of original unseen material have been put back.”

Our full interview with director Mark Christopher.

Are You Here Matthew Weiner
Are You Here
Directed by Matthew Weiner
Starring Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Poehler and Laura Ramsey

To go from creating highly acclaimed TV series Mad Men to producing such big screen trite as Are You Here, Matthew Weiner reinforces the power of television as a more relevant medium for drama.

For his first attempt at film-making, television creator Weiner has chosen dramedy Are You Here starring some of today’s great comedians Amy Poehler, Zach Galifianakis, and Owen Wilson in the lead role. The film is about friendship and family, and two men who struggle to grow up into the adults they’re long overdue to become. The film starts off as a stoner buddy comedy, with Galifianakis and Wilson being as charming and quirky as ever. The film then gets serious. About as successfully serious as the failed family drama This Is Where I Leave You of which this film is reminiscent.

Are You Here is a mess tonally, surprisingly so from the creator of Mad Men, a show whose tone is the best thing about it. The comedy falls flat although Galifianakis and Wilson are funny performers, and the drama is full of self-righteous pretentiousness. While Wilson and Galifianakis have some funny moments, Poehler is completely underused. She has no comedy in her role and her dramatic moments are as fruitless as her character’s womb.

With a running time of two hours, this film never puts a foot right. It has no substance and very little charm, even with notorious charmer Owen Wilson in the lead. In fact, Wilson and Galifianakis are better than the material they are given. If Are You Here followed the comedic tone it began with, perhaps these performances could have salvaged something of Weiner’s lacklustre ideas. The examinations of friendship and family pale in comparison to Mad Men‘s exploration of the complexities of human behaviour, and if it wasn’t the same genius behind such a show who was at the helm of this, I would have given up fifteen minutes in, which I probably should have anyway.

Weiner wrote the script for Are You Here ten years ago, before he made Mad Men. Since the days of Mad Men, he obviously has grown as a creative voice, producing very meaningful work that has affected the populous, firmly establishing itself as an icon in pop culture. As a creative, Weiner should have looked forward and evolved his work rather than look back to before he found his success. This vanity project could hinder his chances of a film career post Mad Men, but perhaps that is for the best if this is the work he feels speaks for him.

Or maybe it’s not Are You Here setting Weiner creatively back to before he found success – Perhaps Mad Men was a fluke. I’ve often struggled with the show, dipping in and out of watching it, finally giving up when it failed to keep my attention yet again for the umpteenth time. But with Mad Men, I respect it as a creative work. The tone, the performances, the character studies are often brilliant. Are You Here has none of that, and no redeeming qualities. Weiner has clearly exhausted his character development skills with Mad Men and left nothing for Are You Here, a film better left unseen in order to keep intact Matthew Weiner’s stance as creative ‘genius’.

Better Call Saul
Directed by Colin Bucksey, Adam Bernstein and Vince Gilligan
Starring Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Patrick Fabian, Rhea Seehorn, Michael Mando and Michael McKean

The fact that AMC television show Better Call Saul was included in the Berlinale film festival lineup speaks volumes about the credibility of television drama, especially when programmed alongside heavy hitters including films by Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders. Better Call Saul certainly held its own – playing better on the big screen than most of the Berlinale films themselves. The first two episodes of the Breaking Bad spinoff further delves into the character study of shady lawyer Saul Goodman, exploring his backstory, and in the words of lead actor Bob Odenkirk – it tries to answer the question ‘what problem does becoming Saul Goodman solve?‘.

Tonally different to Breaking Bad but featuring many familiar faces and homages to the original series, Better Call Saul is the perfect balance of drama and comedy. Whereas Saul Goodman acted as the comic relief in the very dark series of Breaking Bad, here he has to act in all roles – comic relief and dramatic hook. And boy, does he deliver. Bob Odenkirk’s portrayal of Saul, with more of a dramatic element to his performance, is superb. He’s empathetic and gripping as much as he is funny. This new dimension to Saul is what is going to carry this series forward.

The series begins in black and white in a setting that I can only imagine to be the post Breaking Bad life of Saul Goodman as he reminisces about his days as The Saul Goodman. Flashback to his life pre Breaking Bad to the days where Saul Goodman is known as James McGill, a down-on-his-luck lawyer who tries to do right by the law, all the while dipping his toe into shady territory.

For Breaking Bad fans, Better Call Saul may require a bit of getting used to. As Saul was the comic relief to Walt and Jesse’s harrowing dark tale, it’s make or break time for this character to see if he can hold dramatic ground on his own. Cameos by Breaking Bad characters may have initially delighted audiences at its Berlinale screening, but will this introduction of familiar faces help Saul to forge his own path in the world of television, or will it hinder him? As far as a premiere screening amongst an audience goes, these cameos certainly delighted.

Better Call Saul is a completely different show to Breaking Bad both tonally and story wise. I have no doubt that after a few episodes, the audience will fully commit to Saul’s story, more intensely than a bad meth habit. Perhaps five years from now, style-over-substance Saul will have emerged from Walt and Jesse’s shadow to become a complex and fascinating character in his own right.

Dora oder Die sexuellen Neurosen unserer Eltern (Dora or The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents)
Directed by Stina Werenfels

Starring Victoria Schulz, Jenny Schily, Lars Eidinger and Urs Jucker

by Laura Patricia Jones

Eighteen – an age of sexual enlightenment often portrayed vivaciously with post-prom lovemaking and awkward scenes in cars. But Dora or The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents is a difficult watch. 18-year-old Dora is blossoming and sexually curious, she is also mentally handicapped. After following an unsuspecting man into a subway toilet, they embark on a practically abusive sexual relationship that leaves her pregnant.

This kind of subject matter is a difficult feat in itself, and at times Stina Werenfels’s script becomes farcical. The cast is strong and the film remains well acted throughout, but some scenes just stray too far into the realms of the absurd. In Dora’s first sexual encounter with Peter, we are subjected to what looks like an uncomfortable and vivid rape scene which makes it even more of an uncomfortable watch as their relationship develops into one of consented sexual exchange. Scenes such as Dora wanting to be married and Peter handing her a key ring off his car keys, as well as an attempted three-way while she is heavily pregnant, were a mixture of upsetting meets borderline cringe. Peter with his suaveness, BMW, heavy smoking and attraction to seedy bars, is the stereotypical ‘bad boy’ – Werenfel couldn’t have made it anymore obvious if she stuck a pair of horns on his head. But, there are moments particularly towards the end where he shows small signs of empathy to make the plot more bearable.

This aside, one of the major flaws is that Dora’s parents don’t really demonstrate any kind of ‘sexual neuroses’. They, like any parents, are just uncomfortable about their disabled child being in an abusive sexual relationship with a prized misogynist. The opening and closing scenes attempt an art house style approach with stylised montage, but this doesn’t really work as the theme doesn’t hold strong throughout. Dora is predominantly an exploration of motherhood and relationships, but dealing with sensitive issues such as learning difficulties, sexual abuse, abortion and pregnancy prove problematic as it doesn’t address these issues with the correct level of empathy and respect. Attempting to take on such a plot shouldn’t be without credit, but these 90 minutes of cringe worthy chaos requires a strong stomach.

I am Michael
Directed by Justin Kelly

Starring James Franco, Zachary Quinto and Emma Roberts

LGBT activist Michael Glatze was a voice of the Queer youth in 1998, San Francisco. As the magazine editor of a popular LGBT magazine, documentary filmmaker and advocate for gay rights, Michael was seemingly comfortable in his sexuality and openly so. I am Michael is the true story of how Michael Glatze went on a journey of self-discovery in a struggle to go back in the closet as a heterosexual Christian.

The film begins with Michael (James Franco) preaching to a young gay boy about the sins of homosexuality, how it is a choice, and how he should choose his faith over his sexual desires. Flashback to 1998 when Glatze is open, free, and romantically involved with Bennett (Zachary Quinto), his partner with whom he chooses to settle down. They move to Halifax, Nova Scotia for a more domesticated life with their third partner Tyler. Life is far from domestic bliss as Michael begins to fear his own mortality, having lost both of his parents, feeling alone, obsessing over the lack of meaning in existence. Through his recurrent panic attacks, he ponders, soul searches, and goes on a journey of self-discovery leading to the ultimate conclusion that he no longer identifies as gay.

Michael hurts not only Bennett and Tyler, but the entire LGBT community, particularly the youth, who viewed him as an inspiration who spoke up for their mutual rights. This is the ultimate betrayal as not only does Michael no longer identify as gay, but he is claiming the identity of heterosexual, of Christian faith, now an advocate for homosexuality being a choice that we must not make.

For Michael, it is impossible to balance his sexuality and his faith. He begins his journey exploring the possibility of their mutual exclusivity, but realizing that impossibility, his identity as Christian prevails over his one as part of the LGBT community. This portrayal of Michael’s story is naturalistic, gradual and frustrating as Michael seems desperate for something to believe in. The concept of identity is prominent throughout this film, and the idea of reversing a cliche to tell the story of an openly gay man struggling to come out as Christian, is the perfect approach for Michael’s story.

While the real Michael Glatze has stated his approval of this film, it does depict doubt over Michael’s motives, beliefs and relation to his identity. Director Justin Kelly has stated that Glatze has taken this film as an opportunity to soften his anti-gay preaching as having now had a mirror held up to himself, he can realize his harsh views are hurting those he once valued as friends and lovers. The film casts doubt over Glatze’s true state of mind once his transition is complete. If Glatze is truly happy with his decisions in life, this remains something that no film, but only the real Michael Glatze, can answer.

"Knight of Cups"
Knight of Cups
Directed by Terrence Malick

Starring Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, Wes Bentley, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Joe Lo Truglio and Nick Offerman

Terrence Malick films tend to evoke the feeling of intruding in on someone’s memories. In Knight of Cups, these memories belong to slave to Hollywood Rick (Christian Bale) as series of events from his life flash before the audience’s eyes, abstract and ethereal, strung together by fragments of voiceover. Rick is searching for fulfillment in life, once having mistaken his career success as a fill for this void, but ultimately realizing it not to be the answer. It’s not only his career that he turns to in search of fulfillment, but Rick is a womanizer. Women in his life come and go with the wind, but there are a few that leave a strong impact, and these women are explored rather shallowly in Knight of Cups.

Structured using Tarot Cards as chapter headings for the film, Knight of Cups at first is evocative and intriguing, beautiful in its abstraction, carried by the fascinating Christian Bale in the role of Rick. To film Knight of Cups, director Terrence Malick did not provide his actors with a script. Bale worked through his character’s backstory with Malick, and was often encouraged to react to situations thrown at him as Rick, rather than to follow any structured story or dialogue. Bale was also at times given a GoPro camera to run amok and film life in the shoes of Rick. I’d be curious to see how much raw footage ended up on the cutting room floor in this epic montage of nonsense.

Again, the film starts strong, as captivating as the beautiful Tree of Life. Sadly, there is a very key turning point in Knight of Cups where the film completely derails, losing the hold it nearly has on its audience. This turning point is the arrival of Cate Blanchett. Normally I am a fan of the actress, but Malick has once again, as he did with To The Wonder, created misogynist roles for women, shallow, underdeveloped and only present to further his flawed male lead. Something about the female voiced character arcs leave a sour taste, completely withdrawing the viewer from the immersion felt at the start of the film. The female characters are two-dimensional, shallow and vulgar.

One supporting character that actually adds to the narrative is Rick’s brother played by Wes Bentley. This is very good casting and an actual point of interest in the long and drawn out story of Rick. Bale and Bentley are really the only two well cast roles. The ensemble of Knight of Cups is oddly padded with cameos from a bizarre choice of actors such as Antonio Banderas and a gaggle of television comedians including Joe Lo Truglio and Nick Offerman. Now, I love these actors, especially Nick Offerman, but they have no business being in this film.

Towards the end of Rick’s journey, I literally did not care if he found his way or not. I walked out with only 10 minutes left to go in Rick’s search for fulfillment, with the intention to never relive the memory of Rick’s journey again. #KoC

Directed by Anton Corbijn
Starring Robert Pattinson, Dane DeHaan, Joel Edgerton and Ben Kingsley

I didn’t manage to see this film due to high demand, but I attended the press conference where director Anton Corbijn and stars Robert Pattinson and Dane DeHaan discussed the story of Hollywood photographer Dennis Stock (Pattinson) and actor James Dean (DeHaan) in Life.

Love & Mercy
Directed by Bill Pohlad

Starring Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti

Love & Mercy is a portrait, not a biopic, of The Beach Boys auteur Brian Wilson. Choosing to cast his film anthologically rather than logically, director Bill Pohlad has decided on very different actors to play Brian, representing different times in the musician’s life. The original intention was to do an anthology in three parts with one actor playing “present” day Brian as he spends nearly three years in bed, crippled by depression. Another actor was to play “past” Brian as he struggles with his genius to create something as innovative and legendary as the album Pet Sounds. The third Brian was to be played by yet another actor representing “future” Brian as he meets his current wife Melinda who saves him from Dr. Landy, a selfish and manipulative man who holds Brian emotionally hostage. The casting choices were to be reminiscent of the Bob Dylan film I’m Not There, with completely different actors playing these roles, representing Brian’s character during this period, rather than resembling an actual likeness to the artist.

In Love & Mercy in its final state, only two of these story threads are followed – “past” Brian and “future” Brian. The anthological approach to casting the role is still in play and detrimental to the enjoyment of this film. Patterns only work in threes – the third of a series is what defines the pattern. With only two Brians, and one radical casting choice, the anthology idea is lost and one Brian is left to feel miscast in the role. This miscast comes in the form of John Cusack, who is excellent as the character of “future” Brian, but completely unconvincing playing next to the genius performance of the younger Paul Dano as “past” Brian, who emanates the spirit of Brian Wilson better than Brian Wilson himself.

While the “future” thread of the story feels like a separate movie, one less worth watching, the “past” thread is a revelation. If “past” Brian were the sole focus of this movie, it would be a five star masterpiece. Paul Dano has finally arrived with this role. While acting since a young age, he’s often had smaller roles in big films, or bigger roles in small films. The role of Brian Wilson is finally his time to shine in a high profile piece worthy of his talents. The “past” thread follows Brian Wilson’s journey as he creates his masterpiece album Pet Sounds. Shot partly in a documentary style, the film uses actual Beach Boys music, combined with Paul Dano’s singing voice, and intertwined with audio footage that was actually recorded in the original studio sessions. This audio soundtrack is seamless and completely affirms the film’s authenticity and immersion, giving the audience the feeling of being a fly on the wall during the recording of Pet Sounds and Brian’s descent into madness. Kudos to composer Atticus Ross for intertwining his score with The Beach Boys music in a faultless manner.

I literally could have watched the Paul Dano story of Brian Wilson all day. Sadly, this amazing performance, directorial style and innovative soundscape was repeatedly intercut with “future” Brian as John Cusack tries to escape emotional captivity from Dr. Landy (Giamatti) with the help of his newfound love Melinda (Banks). This aspect of the movie makes a fine love story with an emotional dark side, but compared to the Dano story and performance, this feels more suited to be its own romantic spinoff, not fit for the telling of this Brian Wilson story.

I know the director wants to have created a portrait of Brian rather than a biopic, but nonetheless, a strong focus on the Pet Sounds years would have been a much more solid and respectable approach to this film. Brian Wilson the later years could have been a sequel in its own right, giving “future” Brian a chance to shine. As it stands, the two strands feel completely disconnected. It’s not just the actors’ looks that are disparate, but their approach to the character of Brian couldn’t be any more contrasting.

In spite of this disconnect, this film is a must see as Paul Dano gives the performance of his career, bringing the youthful genius of Brian Wilson back to life for the big screen.

Min lilla syster (My Skinny Sister)
Directed by Sanna Lenken
Starring Rebecka Josephson, Amy Deasismont, Annika Hallin, Henrik Norlén, Maxim Mehmet, Ellen Lindbom, Åsa Janson, Hugo Wijk and Karin de Frumerie

by Laura Patricia Jones

Growing pains and teenage struggles are a bleak time that none of us would want to go back to. The melodramas of fitting in, body image and inappropriate crushes are something everyone can relate to on some level, but the darker realms of eating disorders and sibling rivalry are what takes the forefront in Swedish director Sanna Lenken’s coming of age tale.

My Skinny Sister tells the tale of two sisters told through the eyes of the youngest Stella, as she hits that awkward age between childhood and puberty, watching her elder sister Katja blossom into a slender figure skater. Stella is not a small child and her weight and awkwardness is taunted by her sister in amusing yet cruel gestures as she develops a crush on Katja’s attractive older skating coach. Sounds like just any tale of typical sibling rivalry, but as Stella discovers Katja’s hidden eating disorder, the relationship between the pair reaches breaking point. What is powerful about this story is the very ‘real’ portrayal of an eating disorder and how it can infect an entire family making victims out of everyone. Through Katja’s body dysmorphia, she takes out her suffering cruelly on Stella, picking on her body issues and triggering Stella to question a similar pattern herself, passing on food and purging. This behaviour can be a common cruel side effect between women who live with an anorexia suffer, even though it is rarely explored – something that makes Lenken’s tale all the more believable.

The film can make difficult viewing in places, which is down to the stark realism Lenken brings to the screen in her powerful portrayal. Moments of humour provide relief, but it’s the kind of film that sticks with you. Credit here goes to the amazing performances from Rebecka Josephson as Stella and Amy Deasismont as the epitome of teenage angst queen. What works well for the film is that although it’s set in modern day Sweden, it could really be anywhere, transcending a universal issue that speaks volumes. It’s an at times uncomfortable watch, but one that will certainly leave you thinking.

Mr. Holmes
Directed by Bill Condon

Starring Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker and Hiroyuki Sanada

Ian McKellen is the go-to actor for taking on iconic literary characters and making them his own. In Mr. Holmes, McKellen steps into the shoes of Sherlock Holmes – but not as we know him. In this adaptation, Holmes is an elderly man approaching the end of his life. His mind is on the brink of senility and his body barely able to carry him through the day as Mr. Holmes lives his last days reminiscing about his life’s regrets, and tending to his bees alongside his housekeeper’s young son in whom he sees much intellectual promise.

While this film centers around the well-known character of Sherlock Holmes, the point of the story is that this could be about anyone at the end of their life. Examining life’s regrets and the acceptance of one’s mortality are what this film is truly about. Any allusion to the character of Sherlock Holmes and the flashbacks to the mystery elements of his tale only provide a hindrance to the character development and the story at the forefront. This film would fare better if the name Sherlock Holmes was removed from the equation, as it is about the humanity of people and what it is to live life post-war and past prime.

The mysterious flashbacks to Sherlock’s final case, the one he regrets most of all, make a poignant statement of what he regrets most in life, but also detract from the focus of Holmes in his later years, where this story should have stayed. The other flashback of Holmes’ trip to Japan is more relevant than the one of his last case, as his time in Japan emphasizes his desperation to keep a grasp on his lucidity in the fight against his aging process and death. This flashback thread also acts as another reminder of the horrid aftermath of life after World War two. It is a nice compliment to the main reminder of life post-war which is in the form of Laura Linney’s Mrs. Munro.

The widow Mrs. Munro is Holmes’ housekeeper and cook. She lives on his property with her young son Roger (Milo Parker) and strives to give him a better life. She is a character who was clearly not a housekeeper before the war, and all that she lost is evident, even when unspoken, as the audience can sense her vulnerability and loss. Linney portrays this character effortlessly with an English accent that even McKellen himself has stated to be “spot on”. Laura Linney will never be anything less than perfect in my eyes, in spite of this film being so.

As an adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, this film is faithful. As a classic Sherlock Holmes tale, this film is not. Audiences who are expecting anything Holmesian will be pandered to in the flashback of his last case, but this is the weakest thread of the story, and without it, Mr. Holmes would be a much better film.

Nasty Baby
Directed by Sebastián Silva
Starring Sebastián Silva, Kristen Wiig, Tunde Adebimpe and Alia Shawkat

You should know better than to expect a straightforward story when director Sebastián Silva is at the helm. The director of Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and Magic Magic has created Nasty Baby, which on the surface is the story of a gay couple trying to have a baby with their closest female friend. At its core, the film is about human nature, primal urges and morality. There is charm in the authenticity and vulgarity of its characters, who are complex human beings rather than two dimensional bohemian types, which they would perhaps be viewed as from an outside perspective.

Freddy (Silva) is an artist who is obsessed with having a baby, so much so that he has made ‘baby’ the focus of his latest art installation. When his best friend Polly (Wiig) tells him that his sperm count is low, she then convinces him to get his partner Mo (Adebimpe) be the father of the baby they are all trying to have together. At first Mo is hesitant, but Freddy and Polly are persistent in their effort to convince him.

Freddy is not merely obsessed with the idea of having a baby, but he is also dealing with anger issues. He’s not a violent man, but he experiences moments of rage triggered by daily annoyances, usually caused by their crazy neighbour who refers to himself as the ‘Bishop’. As Bishop wakes Freddy and Mo early one morning by his noisy leaf-blowing activities, Mo tells Freddy to use this as an opportunity – an opportunity to calm down. As he deal with these frustrations of his art installation proving more difficult than first thought, his attempt at impregnating Polly coming to a sudden halt, and his escalating feud with the Bishop, something has got to give. This is truly the story of dealing with the pressures of life.

As the film begins in one realm and ends in another, it’s quite hard to digest Nasty Baby, and if I’m honest, I’d rather sit on this review a bit longer before assessing my true thoughts and feelings on it. With deadlines being as unforgiving as they are, that’s not a luxury I have at this time. Initial reactions are that it is a strong character and social study, sometimes straying into the absurd, but all grounded in the reality it creates for itself. The raw freedom this film uses to convey the frustration of its characters, who are confined by the social norms that society boxes them into, is visceral and horrific to watch, but will leave the audience thinking and questioning right from wrong, social constructs, and the system as a whole. It is definitely not a straightforward story by any means, and thank goodness!

Our interview with director Sebastián Silva.

Queen of Earth
Queen of Earth
Directed by Alex Ross Perry
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston and Patrick Fugit

Queen of Earth is a psychological thriller about a very complex female friendship. Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) and Virginia (Katherine Waterston) have been best friends for most of their lives. Last year Virginia (“don’t call her Ginny”) was in a dark place – Catherine wasn’t there for her. This year, Catherine is in a very dark place – will Virginia be there?

Very naturalistic in its portrayal, their friendship is not an easy one. Having grown up together, they have history, but do they have anything in common? There is envy, judgement, tears, laughter, love, a full range of emotions. After Catherine is dumped by her boyfriend and her father has committed suicide due to a battle with depression, Catherine feels abandoned and is losing her grip on reality. Her own mental health is in question as she’d always been dependent on these men in her life. Now she only has Virginia, who she believes doesn’t truly care for her in the same way.

Their friendship is tested through the good times and the bad. And the times certainly do get bad. Very bad. As they holiday in a lakeside cabin owned by Virginia’s parents, Catherine flashbacks to the previous year of Virginia’s struggle, while going through her own present day one. Abstract droning filled with tense tonality and a montage of beautiful dark imagery are intercut with extremely close shots of the actresses. The film is claustrophobic and maddening as a metaphor for Catherine’s own descent into madness. The friendship at the forefront is maddening as well. In a very long and tense scene, the two confide in each other, almost through two separate monologues – their disconnected connection never more prevalent. They criticize each other for their differences yet cling to each other for comfort. It’s frustrating and beautiful.

While director Alex Ross Perry strongly sets the tone and style of this film, it’s the two actresses who carry it. With many shots being framed as extremely close and focused on their faces, minimal expression is heightened. Waterston can convey her disdain for Catherine’s boyfriend in a mere smirk of her lip. Moss has a wider range of emotions on raw display, fully getting the audience on side, even if her character’s likability is a bit more questionable.

It’s not all about the women – Patrick Fugit as neighbour and love interest for Virginia is brilliant as Rich. His role is to push Catherine over the edge, and he does so in the finest form possible. Annoying enough to be convincingly hated but charming and humourous enough for the audience to forgive him. When Catherine uses Rich as the object of all of her anger and issue transference, it is glorious.

This complex tale of female friendship is psychologically tense. Even more so, it has characters that are true to life once you can see past the thriller genre at play. The performances are minimal, naturalistic and outstanding.

Our interview with director Alex Ross Perry.

Queen of Desert
Queen of the Desert
Directed by Werner Herzog

Starring Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Damian Lewis and Robert Pattinson as Lawrence of Arabia

Queen of the Desert tells the story of Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman), a traveler, poet, archaeologist, spy and eventual politician who played a major role in establishing the modern states of Jordan and Iraq. Bell is portrayed as the female “Lawrence of Arabia”, as obviously men are far more important in the grand scheme of things.

Gertrude Bell is a strong-willed woman who spends her days exploring the desert and developing much admiration for its landscape and people. In reality she was a huge influence on the politics of the Middle East as she utilized her travel perspectives and relationships to moderate relations between the British and the Arabs, who remember her with some form of affection. If you visit her Wikipedia page, you can read her long list of accomplishments and adventures – she is an excellent role model for female empowerment and not anywhere in her biography does it list the men with whom she was romantically involved. But director Werner Herzog has taken a feminist subject and made an anti-feminist movie with Queen of the Desert.

Herzog depicts Bell as a whiny lovesick lady who gets by on her good looks and charm. Sure, there is mention of her intelligence, but none of it is on display. Instead she falls for the charms of James Franco playing an Englishman less convincingly than Keanu Reeves in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Damian Lewis who plays a married British soldier willing to leave his wife for Gertie. Her heartache over losing these men seems to be her main motive for her adventures, as why else would a woman want to better herself, if not for a man or the loss of one?

Not only is it offensive to focus so much on Bell’s love life rather than her accomplishments, but her love stories aren’t even remotely engaging. Herzog has said that with a film so prominently about relationships, it’s the chemistry between the actors that makes or breaks the film. Well this film is irreparable. It’s like Franco is acting in a room by himself against a green screen and CGIed into the film in post production. He makes no eye contact with Kidman or the camera, completely disengaged from anything except trying to pretend to be English. Laughably so. Yes, the audience laughed. Lewis and Kidman are even worse as I didn’t even realize that it was supposed to have been romantic until they literally said so using words. This is a film with zero chemistry – enter Robert Pattinson as Lawrence of Arabia.

Again, it was like he was acting in a room by himself, but Pattinson as T.E. Lawrence was single-handedly the funniest thing I’ve seen on screen this year. The audience burst into uproarious laughter on the first shot of him on screen in Lawrence garb – he hadn’t yet muttered a word. I don’t know what the thought was behind this casting choice, but oh my god, it got a bigger laugh than James Franco speaking the Queen’s English.

Werner Herzog is very proud of this work and his focus on a female-fronted story. “I should have done films about female characters much earlier in my life. I’m glad that it happened and I shall continue,” said Herzog at the Berlinale 2015 press conference. Werner buddy – please do yourself and all of us a favour – don’t. While there is a huge need for strong female-fronted films, you are not the one to lead this movement. You cannot write women, especially if all they do is long for horrible sappy men. My entire being is offended by this effort.

If you want the true inspirational and feminist story of Gertrude Bell, read a book. If you want a sprawling whiny mess that sets feminism back to 1914 (featuring some genuinely hilarious moments), then Queen of the Desert is for you.

Directed by Ava DuVernay

Starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, André Holland, Giovanni Ribisi, Common, Alessandro Nuvola, Cuba Gooding Jr., Tim Roth, Colman Domingo and Oprah Winfrey

The hype behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. film Selma almost eclipses the success story that it truly is. Being declared the biggest of this year’s Oscar snubs (in spite of getting a Best Picture nomination), the true story of the Dr. King led Selma protest march of 1965 is an inspiration to witness on film. This depiction of the true story is a solidly made film, and director Ava DuVernay uses this movie to express her very important political voice. But, it should not be a surprise that Selma is lacking a Best Director Oscar nomination – not because it has a black female director at the helm, but merely because its directorial style is not a unique voice, albeit an important one. The voice comes from the politics behind the story with other more innovative directors including Boyhood‘s Linklater and Birdman‘s Iñárritu far more deserving of the technical filmmaking accolades. That said, I do not mean to belittle DuVernay or Selma, as this film is quite a feat.

It’s been fifty years since the death of Dr. King and Selma is the first feature film to be made of his influence. The film itself took roughly 8 years from inception to final product, with various directors being attached to the project before DuVernay was put forward by star David Oyelowo. The drama of the inspirational story itself is enough to carry the film even without such a strong lead performance, but Oyelowo heightens the film by his mere presence. He embodies Dr. King so convincingly, it’s hard to imagine anyone else ever portraying the activist on screen, in spite of plans for an upcoming Steven Spielberg film of King’s life story.

The filmmakers themselves are an inspiration, with Oyelowo declaring themselves as “cinemactivists” who utilize cinema as a medium to express a political voice. Hearing their own thoughts and words on Selma at the Berlinale press conference was empowering not only for the filmmakers, but for the audience listening to their inspiring opinions and stories. DuVernay explained how because of this film, a charitable initiative in America has been formed, allowing school children of a certain age to go to the cinema for free to watch Selma as an educational experience. Witnessing them talk of some of the positive outcomes this movie has created was a highlight of this year’s 65th Berlinale film festival, and the second time I’ve felt so inspired as I have previously met DuVernay at the UK premiere of Selma.

While the movie itself is standard fare, the story and lead performance make this film the most important one in cinemas today.

The Beat Beneath My Feet
The Beat Beneath My Feet
Directed by John Williams
Starring Luke Perry, Nicholas Galitzine and Lisa Dillon

Reviewed at Raindance Film Festival

A formulaic concept at its core, The Beat Beneath My Feet impresses with its unique voice and endearingly catchy songs. The film puts a new spin on the classic cinematic premise of young awkward boy meets grumpy older man who used to have a life full of promise but now has a haggard soul. While the boy character originally seeks help of older man, the film ends with older man’s life being profoundly changed by boy. This has been seen time and time again on the big screen, but none until now have starred Luke Perry as a faded rockstar who’s faked his own death alongside newcomer Nicholas Galitzine in a star-making performance as teenager Tom who suffers from depression, social awkwardness, bullying and finds songwriting and guitar-playing as his only solace. Things begin to change for Tom as the friendship between him and Perry’s rockstar blossoms as they help each other overcome their issues.

The performances in this film are outstanding. Luke Perry plays Steve, the disabled and faded star who spent his youth as a 90’s guitar hero reminiscent of Kurt Cobain. Steve blames himself for the death of his three-year-old son and unable to forgive himself, he fakes his own death and finds himself living in a council flat in London, neighbouring Tom and his mother. Perry gives a minimal performance, downplaying the rockstar persona of Steve and focusing on the human aspect of the character. His guilt, grief, disability and fondness for Tom are at the heart of his portrayal which is gripping in every scene.

Nicholas Galitzine is clearly one to watch with his excellent debut film performance. Bearing a slight resemblance to Nicholas Hoult from About A Boy + 10 years, Galitzine’s characterization of Tom is fascinating to watch, but it’s his musical talent that takes this performance to the next level. In the Q&A which followed the Raindance Film Festival screening, director John Williams discussed how the audition process for Tom included actors performing a rendition of Radiohead’s hit song Creep as Williams felt it embodied the character, and would also test the actors’ musical skills in relation to the emotively awkward lyrical content of the song. A quick Google search later, and here is Nicholas Galitzine performing a cover of Creep on his Soundcloud page.

This brings us to the third star of The Beat Beneath My Feet – the music. Song and score composition is credited to Geoff Jackson, Phillip Jewson and Paul Cartledge. Nicholas Galitzine brings these songs to life in his performance, but director John Williams does something even more impressive with them as he turns them into music video segments within the film. It’s blatant that Williams comes from a music video background, having directed videos for artists including Coldplay and Radiohead. His use of live action and animation melded seamlessly is visually stunning and a delight to watch within this already joyous film.

Ironically, the only criticism I have for this film is related to these musical numbers. The first one that appears in the film is near the start as Tom sings about being a Loser, envisioning a music video with a loser motif at every turn. As this is visually minimalist compared to later music videos segments of the film, I took this as merely an insight into Tom’s mind, not expecting any further elaboration on the music video idea. The second segment seems to come out of nowhere as it appears so much later in the film, it breaks the pace without warning, drastically changing the film from comedy/drama to musical. After the second musical number, the following numbers feature at a much better pace, allowing the audience to grasp the idea which is wonderful in its concept and delivery. It’s just a shame they don’t feature more in the first half to help the consistency and pacing of this absolute gem of an idea.

It’s hard to believe that this is only director John Williams’ first feature film as well as Nicholas Galitzine’s debut performance. The talent on display in The Beat Beneath My Feet is immense as it flies the flag proudly for independent cinema. Please support this excellent film by helping it to fund its distribution, marketing and getting its soundtrack published for the masses. I just basically really want to hear these songs again!

Our interview with Nicholas Galitzine, John Williams & writer Michael Mueller.

Woman in Gold
Directed by Simon Curtis
Starring Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Brühl and Max Irons

Woman In Gold is another film I didn’t manage to see, but producer Harvey Weinstein and cast members Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Brühl and Max Irons were at the Berlinale press conference to discuss the film.


Leave a Reply