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Tommaso Tocci: The Sergeant Never Rings Twice
Turning the table on the cliché of an army family receiving news of a soldier's death, I'm Not There's co-writer Oren Moverman explores with the Berlinale Competition film The Messenger (USA) a different perspective on the war-casualties theme, focusing on the military officers assigned to the notifications. Moverman chisels the two main characters out of classic genre types — the young introvert Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the middle-aged bossy Captain Stone (Woody Harrelson) — but the appeal lies in the estranging mood. The uneasy pair at first go over the strict rules of the job, then carry out the assignments, providing the film with a solid pace — the repeated "notification" scenes have a dialectic relationship with the characters' development, thus helping tie up the narrative strings. They also invariably end up wrong, each time making a dent in the soldiers' souls. For all the guidelines that Stone can possibly shout out, there's always the odd reaction from a family member, or the event that the rulebook doesn't contemplate.
First-time director Moverman underlines the ambivalence by using quiet and controlled shots, until a sketchy hand-held camera kicks in to follow Stone and Montgomery into the family houses. It's the "go" signal for a clash between human emotions and a faulty containment protocol, resulting in a predictable claustrophobic feeling. As fond as he may be of this structure — at some point he even shifts in the middle of a scene, reinforcing the narrative mix-up between the two dimensions — Moverman chooses to throw it away halfway through the film to deepen his characters' male bonding. As a result, the story loses its grip, as if the forced perspective on the messengers' daily routine prevented the plot from levitating towards generic war-related topoi.
Foster's magnetic-yet-cartoonish looks in 3:10 to Yuma develop here into a catatonic stare, suddenly capable of revealing tenderness. Unsure of his place in the world, he is drawn towards an impossible love affair, which challenges his already problematic relationship with Captain Stone. The triangulation broadens the characters' horizon, yet goes down a very traditional path. The Israeli director, who's got both a military and a journalistic background, seems to find no other option in closing the last act, thus polluting the story's premise.
Moverman has said he believes American cinema is just starting its reflection on the recent conflict, and that's almost certainly true, as far as the historical process goes. Nonetheless, The Messenger's second part ends up dealing with the same themes as other recent films, like The Hurt Locker. Anyone who tries to deal with this subject faces competition not just from within the movie industry: HBO has provided the deepest account of battlefield drama yet (Generation Kill). Perhaps Moverman should have worked harder to develop his initial, unique point of view. Tommaso Tocci
Miao Miao is a fantastic love story. A debut feature written and directed by Cheng Hsiao-Tse (Hong Kong/Taiwan) in Mandarin, it is part of the Generation 14Plus section at the Berlinale. The film has been nominated for the Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong for best editor and best newcomer for actress Sandrine Pinna this year.
The film uses the international language of love. Love is the same everywhere, but manifested differently in various cultures. Schoolgirl Miao Miao is in love with Chen Fei, who works in a CD shop. He is a young man with a band, one of whose male members is in love with him and openly declares as much — though his love remains unrequited. Moreover, the schoolgirl Ai is very fond of Miao Miao in a complex way, and she gets annoyed when Miao Miao only seems to talk about her love for Chen Fei. But Ai's affection for Miao Miao remains resolute, and when, at the end, Chen Fei leaves Miao Miao broken hearted because he's going away, Ai even requests Chen Fei to stay back for Miao Miao's sake. It is wonderful how the film celebrates the friendship between the girls.
The director plunges us into a teenage universe of friendships and love. For instance, Miao Miao expresses her love for Chen Fei through a series of CD titles in his shop. Miao Miao, only in her second feature, marvelously plays out the crises of a teenager in love. Even her grandmother, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease with memory loss, invents a love affair with a young man for herself.
The photography is good, and includes night shots, effectively creating a good mood, as the teenagers enjoy themselves. The editing is fast-paced, in keeping with a teen-centric story. There is a lot of detailing that would appeal to youngsters — lovely romantic music, and elements like a pastry-making contest with delicious goodies. Miao Miao is a wonderful film, with acute observations on teenagers' lives that have a universal resonance. It should have wide teenager appeal. The end, when Ai wants to tell Miao Miao that she really likes her, but doesn't get a chance to say so, makes the film very poignant. Sitou Ayité
It's hard to believe that Bellamy, running in the Berlinale Special program, marks the first time that actor Gerard Depardieu and venerable master Claude Chabrol have teamed up together, each being so prolific in the French film industry for the past thirty (or in Chabrol's case) fifty years. Bellamy, the film, not the title character, is jovial and deliberate, containing the delicate craftsmanship beauty of an auteur working in his autumnal years.
Being that Chabrol's last several films — from The Flower of Evil (La fleur du mal), The Bridesmaid (la Demoiselle d'honneur), The Comedy of Power (L'ivresse du pouvoir) and The Girl Cut in Two (La fille coupée en deux) — have been female-centric, or, at the very least, dependant on the wiles of a woman who confuses our hero, Bellamy is startlingly masculine. Gerard Depardieu and his portly frame jaunt around doing the detective legwork, and even though there is a mistress that temporarily causes puzzlement, the rest of the leads are uniformly men. The story concerns the laconic hero (Depardieu) and his involvement in a murder by a man who can't quite remember whether or not he did the deed.
Chabrol has said of the film that it was his attempt at a homage to Georges Simenon, the Belgian author who created the fictionalized detective Jules Maigret. Comparisons could be made between Chabrol and Simenon himself, one of the most prolific writers of this or any other century. Both have been dedicated masters at spinning a yarn, slowly escalating their tales as the nooses are lowered on the protagonists.
The pacing could be said to be slow-blooded, downscaled, and even rigorously rigid. Chabrol continues to work in a formally restrained way, and there's an abundance of longer takes to compliment it — the style foregrounds the enveloping mystery with Bellamy in the thick of it.
We're not ensured that many more films from the director in his advanced age will follow. But like Bellamy's forever involvement in other people's stories of despair, one would hope that the type of methodical, almost austere tradition continued on by Chabrol, learned from watching the collective works of everyone from Hitchcock to Fritz Lang, will forever be somewhere, dawdling in the margins, deliberately crafting suspense gems that work on the spectator in a focused, perturbing way. Paralleling Bellamy's resolvement of criminal undertakings is Chabrol's investigations into the art-form, and at the end of the day, of life. Aaron W. Graham
"The panel was great, I felt really good. While I was listening I felt that I was learning something too. And I feel very honored that they asked me to join them", says Kosovar actress Arta Dobroshi after the panel that took place at HAU 1 on the fourth day of Berlinale Talent Campus. It was a one hour and forty five minute gathering called "Fatal Attractions — On Chance and Accidents in Cinema". Wearing eye-catching pink gloves, she shared her experiences with the audience (filled with attentive young directors and producers), and specifically her acting in the latest Dardenne brothers film, Lorna's Silence (Le silence de Lorna). This is her fourth feature and it meant a big jump in her career. International fame and acclamation came altogether, and that gave her global attention.
In a fifteen minute chat, she smiles gently while explaining what she's doing here: "I'm part of the short films jury. I've seen thirty of them already. It's a lot! The selection, I have to say, was really great. So it is hard to choose, because who are we to judge? It's difficult because it may change the life of the person we choose. So it's a big responsibility".
I asked about her part in Lorna's Silence (about an Albanian refugee in Belgium) and the fact that she comes from a part of the world where there is so much conflict. Did she think that coming from Bosnia gave her a suitable background to play this role? "My character comes from Albania, I come from Kosovo, but you can do this relation with any character you play, even if it is a princess. With Lorna I never thought about it. I just want to say that I have always felt a citizen of the world. We are all the same, it doesn't matter what language we speak, or what color we are, or the religion we practice, or if we are female or male. Not always the same, of course, because there are many cultures. But we're not so different. This movie has been accepted in more or less the same way everywhere because if you tell a human story everybody will accept it. I don't believe in frontiers at all". Eugenia Saúl
After watching The Queen back in 2006 I felt really strange. Although I really liked the movie and how Frears told the story of the crazy days that followed Lady Di's death, and how he portrayed Queen Elizabeth, I didn't know what to think of Tony Blair's character. Here's a person who radically changed over the years. The movie is of course set in 1997, and portrays TB as he was then: some sort of hero who carried the promise of change. But the movie was made nine years after that, when the Prime Minister had already radically altered his politics. Frears knew what came afterwards when he created his Tony Blair. Knowing the course of history, is it moral to make such a good person out of him, to ignore what he became over the years? It doesn't seem right. Maybe, he sees Tony Blair that way. He is telling the story of his own country, his princess, his queen and his Prime Minister. And of course, the movie is set in England.
But after watching his later film, Cheri (Chéri), the movie that brought him together again with the same team behind Dangerous Liaisons (Michelle Pfeiffer and screenwriter Christopher Hampton), there's a feeling of emptiness. Their adaptation of Colette's novel "Chéri" is very beautiful but feels a little shallow. It is a very nice portrait of la belle époque — those crazy years during the twenties in beautiful Paris filled with courtesans, when high society was dedicated to opium and cocaine. The story tells the dramatic love affair between Lea de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer), one of these rich veteran courtesans, and Chéri (Rupert Friend) a much younger man, her rival's son. They must part because he has to marry a young girl with a big dowry. Why does it feel shallow? Hard to say, but maybe it is because the direction relies on the actors' performances to provide the film with that melodramatic feeling that this French story originally has and needs. Shot almost entirely in interiors, in a very neat and contained way (could we say English?), the French style comes through the fine work of the art department (congratulations to them). He didn't seem to get the French flavor to this story and rather made it into an English one. Eugene Saúl
In the opening images Ousmane is praying, turned towards Mecca in the French countryside Mrs. Sommers is singing hymns in a small Protestant Channel Isles church. Depending on your point of view, their actions might seem very different or very similar. London River (Algeria/France) is a convincing little story, inserted into a big and horrifying surrounding drama, of how an initial focus on difference and distrust might transform itself into a belief in similarity and mutuality.
On the morning of July 7, 2005, a series of suicide bombings struck London. Three underground trains and a public transport bus were blown to pieces by Islamist terrorists. This morning Mrs. Sommers, a widow from Guernsey played by Brenda Blethyn, calls her London-based daughter, but the daughter doesn't answer. The television reports get more and more horrible, and her messages at the daughter's answering machine get more and more panicky. After numerous fruitless calls, she decides to travel to London to look for her child. The tall and calm Ousmane, subtly played by Sami Bouajila, decides the same. He hasn't seen his son since he left home for Europe fifteen years ago. He goes to a town he has never seen before, looking for a missing child with a face he doesn't recognize. It's a difficult job, and it doesn't get any easier when Mrs. Sommers, a potential help in the search, starts off their relation by turning him in to the police — she's not very fond of Muslims.
But they meet again, and again. Maybe the numerous chance meetings of Ousmane and Mrs. Sommers in London streets, schools, supermarkets and hospitals are a bit too unlikely in a city of seven million, but it's easy to forgive when you notice how Brenda Blethyn is handling these encounters. Every time her performance is fantastic. London River is totally Blethyn's film. She plays the countryside mother feeling lost and threatened in multi-cultural London with complete conviction. Her aggressive disorientation when she realizes she has to face a lot of Muslims in order to find her daughter explains so much about those very human feelings sometimes leading to very inhuman policies.
But with time, they start to understand each other. And the scene when they share the joy of having located their children to Paris, far from English suicide bombers, is very moving. All the more since a ghastly suspicion that they might be mistaken is painfully present in both of their faces. Jonas Holmberg
The Berlinale Talent Campus participants had a great opportunity yesterday to focus on an often overlooked component of a film: the title sequences. The panel "Watching the Titles: How to Start a Film?” featured Karin Fong, one of the partners at Imaginary Forces — a US-based graphic design agency responsible for the title sequences of such major Hollywood films as Spiderman, Daredevil and The Truman Show — and German title designer Darius Ghanai, whose works include collaborations with Wim Wenders (Don't Come Knocking, Palermo Shooting), Tom Tykwer (Perfume) and Wolfgang Becker (Good Bye Lenin!). Following a display of classic opening sequences and examples of their works, the designers commented on their creative process and Darius Ghanai conceded us an interview.
Ghanai's background had nothing to do with movies or design. "Actually, this is my second career," said Ghanai. Earlier, I spent 12 years as a professional singer and songwriter. Then I went to a graphic design school, but it wasn't until the early 90s, when computers took over the process, that I've decided to take a real break from music and realized I could design titles for films. That is what attracted me: the possibility of animating a design, combining music with moving graphics." He soon realized that title design was a great way to combine his musical abilities and his passion for film. "In many ways, rhythm is an important part of the job. What is most effective in convincing a director of an idea, is its rhythm, more than the design itself", he said. He remembered that the idea for the opening sequence of Good Bye, Lenin! came even before the movie was ready. "I called the director and said: 'I know how you should start your film!'", said Ghanai with a big laugh. The idea was to show how East Berlin was before the fall of the wall, a task that wouldn't be possible for the film's set design to accomplish, due to budget restrictions. "So I had this idea of using old postcards from the DDR, which worked just fine."
So, where does he get ideas from? "Usually, there has to be a click. At least for me, it's like that. In most cases, the idea comes straight away, after reading the script or seeing the film for the first time. One thing I've learned is to always come back to the things you thought first, your first ideas. Always stick to your first impressions." And that is also precisely the function of a good opening title sequence: creating a strong and lasting first impression about the film it precedes. Marcos Kurtinaitis
Irish animator David O'Reilly (24) doesn't want his specialty defined because "it would be just as bad as dying". Therefore he prefers to be referred to as a "narrative” filmmaker. No matter. When O'Reilly eventually decides what it is that he is, or if someone labels it for him, he will no doubt become the father of that genre. And he won't like it one bit. "Writing biographies is painful enough", OReilly says after his talk "Snow meets OReilly", an event held with formalist filmmaker Michael Snow at the Berlinale Talent Campus. "Every word feels like you are killing yourself."
Cyberpunk webzine Boing Boing refers to O'Reilly, now living in Berlin with his lawyer girlfriend, as having a vectorpunk vibe. "He's somewhere between Kubrick and Kaufman and Ketamine," writes Xeni Jardin on the website. O'Reilly, whose short animation film Please Say Something premiered at the 2009 Berlin International Film Festival, feels it is his duty to shape his form of filmmaking. No longer does he want commercialized-induced works of film. Rather he seeks animators to create work that is completely original. "I want to change the way people think about animation, find a language that is unique and honest and shift the focus to encourage a movement in 3D that is independent and free from commercialization."
Like the widget inside a can of Kilkenny, O'Reilly let loose bubbles of a cyber nature in his birth town in Ireland. Kilkenny, he says, even tastes like the beer. Nerd royalty was a distant idea when O'Reilly was in his teens and he confessed he never touched a computer until 2001, when he was 16. "I went straight into doing animation on a computer and didn't do the traditional thing of learning how to draw", he says. While he was still at school he started working for Cartoon Saloon. "I was a blank slate and they liked the fact that I hadn't been corrupted by any university."
In 2006, O'Reilly released Wofl2106, about a wolf exploring a black and white landscape and discovering a blood-soaked friend. But his real break came last year, where he showed RGBXYZ to audiences at the Forum section of the Berlinale. The narrative and style of the film, critiquing the Walt Disney style of animation, brought him into the limelight with various film festivals asking him to show his work.
One month later his fame skyrocketed. Well, not quite. He was so ashamed by the poor quality of Octocat that he credited the YouTube phenomena to make-believe Chicago 10 year-old Randy Peters. "Rolling Stone Magazine"called it an "epic masterpiece and a must see". When O'Reilly "came out", he refused to apologize to fans and said he proved that "audiences don't need polished, slick animation to find a story engaging. They are happy to follow the worst animated, worst designed and worst dubbed film of all time, and still laugh and cry and do all the things you do watching a so-called high end film."
O'Reilly's success is that he is 100% original and authentic. He funds his own work through his freelance work and is passionate about making films. "I have dedicated my life to this," he says. "I give every little film all I have.” But he knows he is still a young artist with much to learn. "I have so much further to go. When people ask me about my background, I tell them that I am still there." Matthew le Cordeur
Rehad Desai pulls up a fist as he says, "Cinema is not an art form. Sure, it can be sophisticated but it is a clear and functional tool at the service of society." South African documentary filmmaker and activist, Desai has an aura of no-nonsense about him. He sits tall, walks straight and speaks with precise words and movements. He's a man who moves and talks with a purpose — one that he claims is all the more charged now that the time has come for him to take a stand. Last spring, when the news of xenophobic violence in his country reached him and he was horrified. He had seen it coming. They had all seen it coming, brought on by the housing board problem, increasing ghettoisation, an economy that had a major rift between haves and have-nots and a rise of chauvinistic tendencies fuelled by the opportunistic tendencies of leading political leaders.
"Ignore these signs at your own peril", warns Desai, "You know what they say about chauvinism – you give it finger and… it eats you up." Desai along with several of his fellow documentary filmmakers have launched an initiative, Filmmakers Against Racism (FAR), in response to the xenophobic bloodshed when South Africans began to turn on and assault their own African brothers and sisters who had sought refuge from violence in their own homelands. He says, "refugee is a circumstance when you become invisible. What we're trying to do is to affirm their existence."
He likes to call it "working class cinema". The unofficial motto that he keeps repeating is "JFDI", standing in for "Just Fucking Do It". The FAR films' ability to reach a wider audience has been hampered by the whims of public television in South Africa, which has suddenly turned a volte-face on its promises to screen them at allotted slots. (But those screenings will happen,' assures Desai.) The films have been screened at schools, colleges, community centers and churches, facilitated by networking with like-minded organizations and the exchange of DVDs and other material. "The response", says Desai, "has been very strong. People seem to like when an appreciation of their own concerns is on the screen. There is an empowered growth in the people."
What concerns Desai is the lack of political engagement of the younger generation of South Africans. "A majority of the people who participated in the attack were between sixteen and thirty. South Africa was once a very political society. And the organization for mobilizing people still exists. But with no political consciousness, the same system is now exploited by political leaders for their own gains." This is why he wanted a group of young filmmakers around it. "The psyche has been damaged. The soul needs to be nurtured. We have to build bridges, build unity. We don't have to carry on killing each other. We need to reflect more sensitively on what we are." Siddharth Pillai
The Panorama film Claustrophobia (Chan Mat, Hong Kong) is an eight-act piece about five people having casual conversations in closed spaces. And that's it, although there is certainly more than meets the eye. Keeping things to a very minimal level, eclectic Hong Kong scriptwriter Ivy Ho sets out to perform an autopsy on the unborn love affair between Pearl, a young employee in a marketing company, and her boss Tom, gentle, caring and already married.
Carefully stepping into her first directorial job, Ivy Ho nails the story to the present time with a long opening sequence set in a car. She is simply showing five co-workers going home from the office, but the scene is actually a matrix on which Ho lays down the entire film. Using the writing equivalent of a zoom, she closes in on Tom and Pearl without the audience noticing it. She also capitalizes on a second couple, John and Jewel, who serve as a foil to the first one. Their loud, overexposed relationship — equally inconsistent — is antithetic to the silent glances shared by Tom and Pearl. The director then unveils a set of repeated flashbacks, each digging a bit further into the past of the five characters, in a sort of Memento-like experience — minus the intricate plot. In fact, there is hardly a plot: dialogues and encounters are more of a cross-section of daily, meaningless routine. Yet the script's nuances are rich and timed to perfection: every exchange pumps more life into the characters and transcends claustrophobic constrictions (yes, the international title is appropriate).
Despite its restrained form, Claustrophobia features several impressive scenes, the first of which is a Eric Tsang's priceless cameo. The veteran Hong Kong actor delivers a tender performance while retaining his usual humorous appeal, and he manages to do so in the only segment he appears in. Other actors, including protagonists Kar Yan Lam and Ekin Cheng, make the most of the brilliant writing by going quieter and quieter as the film progresses.
Despite Yo's expertise with national genres, Claustrophobia feels quite uncharacteristic of Hong Kong and succeeds in finding its own voice between classic Chinese melodrama and minimalist Taiwanese/Korean cinema. Moreover, the strictly verbal narrative is often punctuated by a sharp visual correspondence (the fish bowl in Tsiang's office, people passing by on rollerblades), sometimes worthy of Michael Mann's descriptive digressions. Tommaso Tocci