Berlin 2001

Friday, 9 February. Local time 9:04am according to the clock on the TV remote control, permanently attached by a cord to the bedstand. It's odd and disorienting to be up this early, though the weather's gloomy enough that my nocturnal sensibilities aren't as threatened as they might be. Complimentary breakfast at the Crowne Plaza (Nürnberger Str. 65, roughly half an hour's walk from Potsdamer Platz, the location of most Berlinale events) continues until 10:30am, but I'm giving it a miss this morning, having OD'd on dainty little sausages and massive strips of bacon after a mere two all-you-can-eat days. I'm still excited about the room's shower, though, which includes a feature so ridiculously useful that I can't fathom why it hasn't taken hold in the States yet: One knob controls the water temperature and nothing else. Meaning that once you get the temp exactly where you want it (for me, just shy of blistering), you can leave it there for the duration, assuming that you're traveling alone and aren't suave enough to attract overnight guests. There are even marked gradations for those who know in advance what number in degrees Celsius they're aiming for. Does this sound newfangled to my American cousins, or have I just been staying in the wrong hotels?

Truth be told, there's no compelling reason for me to be awake at this hour, apart from the fact that I crashed shortly after midnight and thus managed my eight and change. For an American, the Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin -- running from 7-18 Feb this year, though I'll only be here until the 13th -- is perhaps the least worthwhile of the big-name festivals, since it's primarily used as a launchpad for the European release of movies that have already made their bow west of the Atlantic. This year's competition includes Traffic, Malèna, Chocolat, Bamboozled, and Finding Forrester (here called Forrester -- Gefunden!, which I pray translates as Forrester -- Find Him!); screening out of competition are Quills, Hannibal, and Thirteen Days. A happenin' lineup if you're European and don't already know that the Tornatore, Hallstrom, Lee, Van Sant and Scott pictures suck igneous rocks...but if not, not. The Forum and Panorama sidebar sections, meanwhile, seem to be devoted almost exclusively -- whether by design or happenstance I'm not sure -- to emerging and/or obscure filmmakers; I'm all for making discoveries (and it's worth remembering that George Washington made its debut here a year ago), but in practice it requires the lure of a new film by an established master to separate me from my bed and temperature-controlled shower before noon. To be perfectly honest, I'm in Berlin this week primarily because I couldn't pass up a free trip to Germany -- the festival itself is something of an afterthought, even if I am trying to see three movies per day out of a likely misguided sense of responsibility.

Everything to do with this country seems to be color-coded. Walking onto the Lufthansa jet was like taking a stroll through a field of marigolds; I'm pretty severely colorblind, so if that shade of yellow is registering as eye-searing on my cones, I can only imagine what it's doing to people with normal vision. Potsdamer Platz, on the other hand, is currently awash in Berlinale crimson -- roughly the same hue, he abruptly segued, as the blood that soaks the very first film I investigated, Adam Simon's class-take-your-seats documentary The American Nightmare (C+). Embarrassing admission: Because my formative film-exploration years were predicated on the notion of Quality embodied by the Maltin guide and its ilk, I haven't yet seen many of the movies Simon champions; clips from Shivers, Dawn of the Dead, Last House on the Left, etc. proved so queasily intriguing that I'll certainly be all over the next '70s horror retrospective that crops up in Gotham. But if I want to experience pasty-faced academics pontificating about the ways that horror films reflect and explore societal neuroses, I know where the bursar's office is. Even the interviews with the filmmakers tend toward the irritatingly pedantic; the whole movie is a bit like those talk-show appearances where Stallone deliberately emphasizes his well-read-dude's vocabulary, which of course is tantamount to him wearing a t-shirt sporting the legend I AM INSECURE ABOUT MY INTELLIGENCE. And really, did we need the ominous shadow of a rotating ceiling fan behind Wes Craven, or that dorky wax-museum tableau that John Landis (?!?) was perched in front of? As Count Floyd used to say: Ooh! scary!

Had the theater virtually to myself for that screening*, but the press corps turned out in force for this year's opening-night extravaganza, Enemy at the Gates (C), featuring rising Soviet superstar Jude Law and beloved German thesp Ed Harris as dueling snipers in 1942 Stalingrad. No less ostentatiously empty-headed than Jean-Jacques Annaud's previous work, it cruelly flirts with intriguing ideas -- Law's disillusion when he finds himself incapable of living up to the heroic portrait painted by journalist Joseph Fiennes; Fiennes's jealousy vis-à-vis Law's dalliance with spunky Rachel Weisz informing his (Fiennes') reports from the front -- before revealing itself to be wedded and faithful to the unfortunate notion that visual bombast is the pinnacle of cinematic art. To be fair, the action sequences are generally sturdy enough -- there's a genuinely gripping scene in which Law's position is revealed to Harris when a large hunk of glass falls from the ceiling and acts as a mirror (though even here we're talking more about a particularly fascinating engineering problem than about human drama) -- but any movie in which Bob Hoskins (bizarrely splenetic as Nikita Khruschev) growls dialogue like "Vodka is a luxury we can afford. Caviar is a luxury we can afford. Time is not" really ought to employ a bouncer to turn away patrons with functioning brain cells.

Jet lag finally caught up with me about a third of the way through Help!!! (C-), my first exposure to Hong Kong's famed Milkyway production company. Unfortunately, the picture's so consistently frenetic that it was impossible to nod off; every time my eyelids would start to droop shut, there'd be a BANG! of some sort and I'd jolt guiltily upright for another 7-8 minutes. In any case, I hope that the large percentage of Help!!! that I did see isn't representative of the Milkyway aesthetic; while both of the film's co-directors, Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai, have made acclaimed movies on their own, this overblown satire of the country's health-care woes -- 2000 Toronto vets should imagine an episode of "E.R." shot in the style of Wild Zero -- struck me as boundless energy largely unaided by real wit or verve. After a while, it started to feel like the low-budget, campy equivalent of something like The Rock; I'm not sure how much my desire to catch some Z's may have influenced that assessment, however, so consider my grade ever-so-slightly sodium-enriched.

* (quick aside for those who care: The CinemaxX multiplex in Potsdamer Platz, where the non-competition press screenings are being held, is far and away the best of its kind I've ever seen, with enormous screens and a gentle but sufficient stadium-style rake; there's not a bad seat in the house)

Saturday, 10 February. 2:50pm. Press room, Berlinale Palast. Still trying to get used to this keyboard, which has been configured to type in American English but appears to have originated in the UK: There's an English pound sign above the numeral 3 in lieu of the U.S.A.'s good old '#,' for example, and the net-crucial @ can be found immediately to the right of the colon/semicolon key -- though in order to type that '@' (and this one), I had to press shift-2, which the keyboard indicates will produce a quotation mark. Everything's where it should be, in other words, but many of the keys are "improperly labeled"; if I'd learned how to touch-type properly -- or were willing to stop seeking visual confirmation and just give in to The Force, like Luke on that last run toward the Death Star -- this wouldn't be a problem.

Right now I've got roughly two hours to kill before the next movie -- not enough time to accommodate travel beyond the immediate area, which I've already explored pretty thoroughly. In any case, I suspect that I'd have to leave the city entirely in order to find a topography substantially different from the one that lies between Potsdamer Platz and my hotel. (I walk from the latter to the former every morning/afternoon, but hop a fest-sponsored shuttle back -- 30 minutes alone after dark in a city you don't know just seems like asking for trouble.) Thessaloniki looked genuinely foreign when I ascended to the residential area atop the hill -- kind of like a streamlined, suburban version of a village in a Kiarostami picture. What I've seen of Berlin, by contrast, could almost pass for San Francisco, if not for the German road signs and the flat terrain. I'd expected grand, ancient architecture, but I think I was forgetting about that whole WWII deal, not to mention the global economy; mostly the area's awash in the usual Burger Kings and KFCs and McDonald'ses (they call it a Royale here, too, for the record), and the recognition factor is simultaneously comforting and depressing.

For exotica, of course, there's always the movies -- although Love/Juice (B-), from Japan, ominously sports an English-only title, no Chinese characters in sight. (Can't really say I'm keen on it in any language, apart from a vague desire to see it reviewed on Ebert & Beavis & the Movies.) Truth be told, I might have liked Kaze Shindo's affecting debut more had it seemed a bit less familiar -- it's basically a female version of Nico and Dani, contemplating the maddeningly blurry line separating camaraderie and desire. (This dynamic makes more sense applied to adolescents; the adult characters here are subtly but unmistakably infantilized for plausibility's sake, and it does the picture some damage.) Shindo indulges in too much clunky piscine symbolism (and soft-hearted me does not care to see unsimulated footage of a goldfish being gradually bitten to pieces by a piranha, thank you kindly), but she also knows how to use budgetary limitations to aesthetic advantage, creating an ostentatiously grainy dreamscape that's not a million miles removed from what Kubrick spent a small fortune achieving in Eyes Wide Shut. It's a minor film, hesitant and occasionally clumsy, but I'm growing to appreciate those qualities in the work of beginners; demanding a confident and distinctive sensibility from frame one seems to me more likely to stifle creativity than to encourage it. Not/Bad.

Korean cinema sgems to be enjoying a bit of a vogue in the U.S. at the moment -- the three films (Lies, Nowhere to Hide, Chunhyang) released Stateside in the past six months number three more than we'd seen in the previous, oh, hundred years -- so with any luck we'll be getting Kim Ji-woon's hilarious The Foul King (B) before its inevitable reappearance as a studio-financed Jim Carrey vehicle. Really, this premise couldn't possibly be more Carreyesque: Timid, perpetually harried bank employee discovers reserves of inner strength via professional wrestling, eventually taking on his sadistic, headlock-happy boss. Lead actor Song Kang-ho can't match JC's facial elasticity, of course, but his deadpan demeanor proves almost as funny; better still, the film is superbly directed -- probably the most visually impressive comedy since Rushmore, with as much emphasis placed on composition as on performance and editing. Peters out toward the end, as comedies often will (the climax is surprisingly perfunctory), but it's hard not to feel real affection for a movie in which the crusty old trainer tries to get rid of the persistent new applicant by tickling him out of the building. Like The American Nightmare, this was part of Midnight Madness at last year's Toronto fest; turns out an utterly incoherent narrative (see Time and Tide, Wild Zero, The City of Lost Souls) isn't actually a requirement for that section. Good to know.

A return to the stylish portent of 1997's Wintersleepers, The Princess and the Warrior (C+), Tom Tykwer's latest examination of the mysteries of fate (not part of the Berlinale per se, but screening as part of an associated market à la Cannes), is endlessly intriguing...until the intrigue abruptly ends, that is, and the flick drips rancid pop-psych goo all over the unsuspecting audience. Tykwer's a whiz at creating both momentum and atmosphere, but he apparently took criticism of Lola too much to heart; where that film was dazzling but shallow, this one announces itself as Contemporary Myth in its very title -- though Tykwer's understanding of mythology seems a bit shaky, given his reliance on a creaky emotional-trauma-overcome scenario better suited to the likes of post-Idaho Van Sant. It takes a monumentally inept conclusion to ruin a movie that employs an impromptu sub-lorry tracheotomy as its dramatic fulcrum, and that's precisely what we get here, alas. Matter of fact, this may very well be the dumbest ending of all time (note to Berardinelli: It is not remotely ambiguous; I defy you to offer more than one plausible interpretation), virtually guaranteed to obliterate all but trace amounts of viewer goodwill. Like the man said, it don't make no nevermind how pretty the scenery is en route -- if you're headin' for the city dump, you'd best stick a clothespin on your nose.

Sunday, 11 February 2001. 1:22am here in Deutschland; back in New York it's barely even Saturday night, too early for dinner for a lot of people. After several days of largely pointless self-restraint, I've finally raided the mini-bar in my hotel room (just a bottle of Coke, folks, don't get excited), though I still hope to make it all the way to checkout on Tuesday without ever once turning on the TV set. (The pay-per-view presentation of Der Sturm does look mighty tempting, though, if only because I'm curious to know whether the movie might be semi-watchable with Clooney and Wahlberg and Co. dubbed in German.) Three large handfuls of tissue sit on the desk beside my laptop; for some reason, this fucking cold simply will not go away, and I fear a repetition of the excruciating pain I suffered last week during the descent into both Frankfurt and Berlin-Tegel. [Long, involved, probably not all that interesting anecdote about my adventure in the Frankfurt airport pre-emptively elided, but here's the helpful tip I can offer as a result of same: The flight number assigned by the carrier you bought the ticket from (e.g., United) may be different from the flight number assigned by the carrier that's actually transporting you (e.g. Lufthansa), even though both numbers are referring to the same damn flight. So don't immediately panic if you don't see "your" flight number on the board.]

It's entirely possible that being under the weather is making me even crankier than usual. In any case, I'm finding myself increasingly exasperated with the films I'm seeing, most of which come across as little more than tepid variations on other movies. Disco Pigs (C), the first feature directed by Kirsten Sheridan (daughter of Jim of My Left Foot fame), plays like a hetero variation on Heavenly Creatures, minus Peter Jackson's prodigious visual and narrative imagination and with a pair of uncharismatic blobs (Cillian Murphy and Felicia's Journey's Elaine Cassidy) in lieu of mademoiselles Winslet and Lynskey. In order for these deliberately ugly "you and me against the world" scenarios to work, it's crucial that we find the protagonists at once sympathetic and repellent; Disco Pigs manages the latter quite nicely (their pet names for one another, Pig and Runt, seem all too apt), but neither actor possesses the chops to make us look past their selfish solipsism, and Sheridan, though considerably more energetic with the camera than her da, fails to create a distinctive private universe in which her characters' delusions can fester. (I did like the holes in their bedroom walls that allow them to hold hands during the night, I'll admit, even if it was more suited to the stage play from which the film was adapted.) Doesn't take advantage of its strengths, either -- Runt's pyromaniacal roomie looks like she's about to push the narrative in a new direction, presumably à la Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted (see what I mean about the déjà vu?), but then nothing ever comes of it, so what was the point? Why waste our time?

Wit (C+), Mike Nichols' stagy adaptation of Margaret Edson's apparently unjustly acclaimed play (it won the Pulitzer), can't exactly be written off as a waste of time, but the whole thing is predicated on a dichotomy that I consider not merely specious but offensive and even somewhat dangerous: that intellectualism and emotion are somehow mutually exclusive. Again, we've already seen this movie -- it was called The Doctor back in '91, and starred stodgy William Hurt as the cold clinician who discovers the value of kindness and consideration when he winds up on the other side of the hospital bed rails. Edson substitutes a Classics prof (specializing in Donne) for the medico, but otherwise it's the same basic yarn; flashbacks establishing the character as a stern academic taskmaster ensue, and while it's a pleasure to see Emma Thompson again, any part that involves shaving your head and repeatedly dry-heaving can't help but seem a bit self-congratulatory. Anyway, some may argue that I'm being defensive, and maybe I am; it just seems so easy to castigate those who think hard for a living for allegedly missing out on life's true importance (just as we ordinary-looking folk desperately want to believe that the gorgeous among us are really pretty dim). Christopher Lloyd wasted in a nothing role (apart from his terrific opening scene), but where did this Jonathan B. Woodward dude come from? Sensational. And while it won't bolster my case, I'll confess that I did cry once -- not during any of the grim hospital scenes, but when baby Emma discovers her love of the English language via an encounter with the word 'soporific' in a Beatrix Potter tale. Pity they had to ruin the loveliness by manhandling the word into the present-day narrative for an arbitrary moment of "resonance."

There's also a fairly comprehensive Fritz Lang retrospective going on, and since nothing much was happening elsewhere I elected to check out his 1946 spy flick Cloak and Dagger, which I'd never seen before. Not Lang's best, I must say, but you haven't truly lived until you've seen Gary Cooper posing as a German doctor with an audience of tittering Teutons.

Tuesday, 13 February 2001. 10:26am. My return flight to New York lifts off in roughly four hours, so forgive me if I dispense with the local color this time around and just get right to the movies -- especially since Saturday's lineup unexpectedly proved to be far and away the most intriguing of the festival (or at least the half of the festival I'm actually attending). Certainly I hadn't expected a whole lot from Fat Girl (B-), aka A ma soeur!, the latest oh-so-frank (and oh-so-Français) exploration of female sexuality from famed eros/thanatos conflator Catherine Breillat; her previous films (Une vraie jeune fille, 36 Fillette, Romance) have felt to me more like personal therapy than like art -- admirably forthright, yes, but also self-involved to the point of tedium. Fat Girl seemed for a long time like more of the same, scarcely deviating an iota from its director's anti-formulaic formula -- though her use of siblings means that the standard Breillat protagonist is here effectively split in two, with one sister playing the confused, nubile temptress/victim while the other composes endless symphonies of silent self-loathing. Imagine my surprise, then, when the film's final reel turned out to be almost unbearably unnerving -- not in the masochistic sense you'd expect, but more in the manner of early Spielberg, with the tour de force culminating in what has to be the most startling conclusion of any movie I've seen in ages. (The whole freakin' Palast jumped as one.) Still can't quite get behind Breillat's rather nauseating worldview (is the final line suggesting what I think it's suggesting? if so, what can one say except: What is wrong with you, lady?!?), but good luck finding another movie so powerfully visceral this side of Haneke. If this is a move in a new direction, I applaud it. Hell, I'll even stand.

No, wait, lemme sit down again -- I need to clear my head. Truth be told, I suspect that I didn't properly appreciate Jiang Hu -- "The Triad Zone" (C+), Dante Lam's spoof (or so I assume) of Hong Kong's gangster genre, possibly because I'm not terribly familiar with the objects of Lam's affection. Whatever the reason, I never really got a handle on this picture; it's obviously supposed to be funny (loved the literal 'deus ex machina' with Anthony Wong), but at the same time parts of it seem almost achingly sincere -- and not in a deliberately over-the-top, Farrelly Bros. kind of way, either. Tonal incongruities aside, though, I wasn't terribly impressed; many of the jokes felt forced or belabored, and I must confess that I've never been very keen on The Other Tony Leung, who seems to be roughly the Pierce Brosnan of Asian cinema: an attractive, smirking mannequin. (Angry HK fanatics are welcome to e-mail recommendations of great TOTL performances; I've only seen him in Ashes of Time, The Lover and this to date.) "Scattershot" seems the most appropriate word; Jiang Hu has its moments, but its essential purpose seems to have been lost on this gweilo.

Speaking of clueless white dudes, I very nearly missed the best film I saw in Berlin, as I'd made up my mind to skip Don's Plum (B+) in favor of an early night's rest. I wound up on the wrong shuttle, however -- one does a hotel circuit, the other a theater circuit -- and once at the Zoo Palast I figured I might as well stick around for the first couple of reels, resolving to bail if it hadn't yet grabbed my attention after 40 minutes or so. Five minutes in, I knew I wasn't going anywhere: This is the movie that Kids wanted so desperately to be, and with the exception of some ill-advised "bathroom interludes" (director RD Robb's term), in which the characters deliver too-pointed monologues to their mirror reflections and indulge in some unnecessary "backstory," every moment feels utterly true, with none of the contrived, emptier-than-thou provocations of Clark/Korine's boring, turgid opus. Robb cited Mike Leigh in the post-film Q&A, but his film is a lot closer to teenage Cassavetes, especially w/r/t its high-contrast b&w cinematography -- it takes real guts to light the set in such a way that large chunks of the frame are this white-hot. (You can't even see the table around which most of the "action" takes place.) Superb ensemble work -- DiCaprio hasn't been this strong since This Boy's Life, and his is among the least effective performances here -- takes this acute dissection of pain and privilege over the top; unfortunately, odds are you won't be able to see it without buying the eventual video from overseas, as the court settlement with DiCaprio and Maguire prohibits any form of release in North America. Ingrates. What's the matter, fellas -- afraid people might get the right idea?

Wednesday, 21 March 2001. Needless to say, I am no longer in Germany...though I do still possess something like 25 German Deutschmarks, as the currency-exchange people at airports and banks categorically refuse to handle coins of any kind. This policy is fine when it comes to the foreign equivalent of piddly little nickels and dimes, but European coinage can be considerably more robust; the converted USA value of just one of the hunks of metal on my desk would be sufficient to purchase two double-A batteries -- four double-A batteries, actually, assuming that the vendor plies his trade on a New York subway car. Any coin that you'd bother to retrieve in a non-emergency if it rolled underneath a vending machine should damn well be exchangeable. This seems an eminently reasonable standard, and I hereby urge its immediate adoption by any sovereign nation to which I am likely to travel in future.

Anyway, a full month has elapsed since I saw the remaining six films, and my memory is predictably hazy, so let's just address each one in a sentence or two and put this report out of its frickin' misery, shall we?

Chloe (Go Riju, Japan): Words like "pretentious" and "precious" and "pseudo-artsy" seem insufficient, somehow -- what I'm looking to coin here is an adjective conveying the paradoxical sense of a work that's both unforgettably outré (the plot concerns a woman who's being slowly smothered to death by a water lily growing in her lung; the only remedy is to surround her with hundreds of flowers) and mind-bogglingly tedious (the key subplot concerns an audience that's being slowly smothered to death by a lot of high-toned drivel posing as Art; the only remedy, quickly sought by most of the folks in my immediate area, is to get up and motor). Not quite as [nonexistent adjective proposed supra] as The Loss of Sexual Innocence, but that's little consolation to those who must endure your screams. Grade: D-

Anita Takes a Chance (Ventura Pons, Spain): And so did I, since I didn't much care for the Pons picture I saw at Thessaloniki, To Die (Or Not). This one begins much more promisingly -- shrillness kept to a minimum, structural cleverness apparently in aid of something other than an Aesopian moral (viz. "We all need/Somebody/To leeeeean on") -- but never quite takes off; to steal one of my all-time favorite lines (courtesy Phillip Lopate on All About My Mother): It's a film difficult to dislike, but let me try. On the one hand, movies about the romantic/sexual adventures of middle-aged women are so dispiritingly rare that it seems churlish to dismiss one of the few to turn up as trite and uninspired. On the other hand, Anita Takes a Chance is, well, trite and uninspired, despite the energetic and frequently moving performance of Rosa María Sardà in the title role. Bittersweet denouement notwithstanding, it comes across as little more than generic wish-fulfillment fluff; next time I'd prefer to see Ventura take a chance. Grade: C

Lost and Delirious (Léa Pool, Canada): Finally got to see this Piper Perabo woman in action (and the action in question permits more than just a cursory glance, if my fellow voyeurs get my meaning), and I wasn't disappointed: Her gutsy, impassioned performance is the only thing preventing this formulaic tale of adolescent rebellion from drowning in a morass of clichés. Pool contributes the same workmanlike sensibility that so enriched Set Me Free (aka Wake Me Up), and the script features such time-honored conveniences as the Wise Old Gardener Played by Lovable American Indian Graham Greene. More fucking avian symbolism, too -- it's been done, people. By all rights this is a C movie at best; trouble is, it does feature three very attractive young women, two of whom keep taking their clothes off and fondling each other. I'm only human, folks. Grade: C+

Joint Security Area (Park Chan-wook, South Korea): Slick but satisfying, Park's DMZ drama -- reportedly the highest-grossing movie in South Korean history -- feels uncannily like Hollywood fare in terms of its tone, narrative structure, visual schema, etc. Also in terms of good old-fashioned star power: One of the lead roles is played by the Foul King himself, Song Kang-ho (see above), and seeing those two movies virtually back-to-back confirms that he's an actor of tremendous range and bottomless charisma; JSA (as it's apparently known back home) is worth checking out for his performance alone. The Rules of Engagement-style military inquiry material doesn't really work, and the movie as a whole is neither profound nor especially probing, but its dream of rapprochement (think A Midnight Clear) is quite touching, and at no point during its two hours was I even remotely bored. Grade: B

Félix et Lola (Patrice Leconte, France): Remember when Félix slaved over a hot stove all evening making pasta and Lola came in already annoyed at Félix for being an anal-retentive twit and the two started bickering and trading wisecracks and Lola demanded that Félix get that damn spaghetti off of her poker table and Félix observed that the noodles in question were in fact not spaghetti noodles but linguine noodles and Lola silently picked up the dish and hurled it against the wall and growled "Now it's garbage"? C'était magnifique. Grade: C+

The Tailor of Panama (John Boorman, USA/Ireland): To be reviewed in TONY in a matter of days; if you're reading this sentence after roughly 2 April 01, check the main alphabetical list. Short version: Geoffrey Rush typically overbearing; Pierce Brosnan even more comatose than usual; Boorman apparently on autopilot. Grade: C

(Anybody with an irrational desire to see many of the above phrases in a slightly different context -- the primary difference being that they're surrounded on three of four sides by ads competing to capture your attention via clunky animation -- is more than welcome to check out the TONY version. If nothing else, it sports by far the best headline/caption I've yet written [though "Felonious Lunks" for Small Time Crooks runs a close second].)