BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL 2007 - WRAP
THE GOOD, THE MEDIOCRE AND THE GLITZY
This year’s Berlin Film Festival was not lacking in glitz and glamour. Jennifer
Lopez, Cate Blanchett and Sharon Stone graced the red carpet in their finery.
Clint Eastwood and Robert De Niro upped the quality quotient when they presented
their latest efforts as directors. There were ageing blondes, Marianne Faithful
and Lauren Bacall delivering fine performances and giving fun interviews. There
were some good films and there was ample mediocrity. It’s kind of what festivals
are about, reports Helen Barlow.
The films that impressed most this year were smaller projects by directors who
have stayed true to their own unique style. In fact it was something of a relief
to watch Hal Hartley’s Fay Grim to see the one-time New Yorker who now lives in
Berlin return with a kind of sequel to Henry Fool, though it’s not necessary to
have seen that film to appreciate this one. Parker Posey is at her quirkiest in
this absurd spy thriller, where her character embarks on a quest to find her
husband who may or may not be dead.
Steve Buscemi’s second directorial effort, Interview, where he stars with Sienna
Miller, dispels any notion that the British actress cannot act. In this remake
of a movie by murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, Miller is fabulous as a
bleached blonde American soap star, who gives Buscemi’s journalist more than he
Scottish director David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Asylum) seems to have brightened
up with Hallam Foe, the irresistible coming-of-age tale of a teenager, who
struggles to deal with his mother’s suicide and becomes a peeping Tom. Jamie
Bell, last seen in Flags of Our Fathers, is growing up fast and is emerging as a
major talent. Embodying Hallam he says was his biggest challenge to date.
Stephen Daldry, his Billy Elliot director whom he refers to as his best friend,
flew over for the Berlin premiere.
"a conspiratorial thriller"
Paul Schrader likewise stays close to his roots with The Walker, starring
Woody Harrelson as a gay eccentric millionaire, who takes wealthy women like
Kristin Scott Thomas to the opera. The film, like Fay Grim, develops into a
Bordertown, however, was less successful partly because it was too ambitious.
Directed by American Latino Gregory Nava (Selena) the film may tell a worthy
story of the atrocities committed against women on the Mexican border, but even
the presence of Jennifer Lopez (who acts convincingly enough in her role of a
tough-minded journalist) couldn’t save the film from audience derision because
of its clunky dialogue. It’s a pity as there are some beautifully filmed scenes,
which bring to mind the gritty textures of Mexican filmmakers.
Antonio Banderas, who seemed a little straight-jacketed as a newspaper editor in
the film, garnered a more positive response (and the valuable Europa Cinemas
Label prize) for his directorial debut, Summer Rain. He shot the raunchy
coming-of-age-story in Spanish in his home town of Malaga not only because the
story is set there but to escape the strictures that would have been imposed on
him in Hollywood. He admits that the success of his Puss ’n Boots character in
the Shrek movies has afforded him a freedom to pursue the creative and
politically oriented films he presented at the festival. (Shrek The Third looks
likely for Cannes.)
Like J-Lo, Sharon Stone caused a media flurry with her Berlin appearance to
promote the Canadian movie, When a Man Falls in the Forest, yet that film met
with the weakest reception of all.
Sarah Polley stuck to her Canadian roots with Away From Her, a film about
Alzheimer’s disease that might not be to everybody’s taste. If you are prepared
to go along for the ride though, it’s ultimately a touching love story as a
former university professor watches his wife drift away from him at a younger
age than anyone might expect. Julie Christie, who aged for the part, is
formidable in the role of the Alzheimer’s victim and retains her luminous
What everyone conceded at the festival was that it was a good year for
performances, and probably none were better than Oscar nominees Judi Dench and
Cate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal. Blanchett also set the mood for the cold
war drama, The Good German, even if German critics complained that a German
actress should have been cast. Soderbergh explained how the moody black and
white film, a kind of tribute to the movies of directors including William Wyler
and Billy Wilder, could never have been financed without major stars. George
Clooney, his production partner in the now defunct Section Eight company, is
madly in love with Blanchett in the film, though the Hollywood heartthrob did
not make it to Berlin.
"from strength to strength"
Their Oceans 13 buddie Matt Damon made the journey over from the London set
of The Bourne Ultimatum and there’s no doubting that his acting goes from
strength to strength. After playing against type as the bad guy in The Departed
for Martin Scorsese, he now teams with Scorsese’s one-time muse Robert De Niro
for his second film as director, The Good Shepherd. Damon is impressive as a
repressed agent in the early days of the CIA and manages to be unhappily married
to Angelina Jolie in the film, which could be deserving of an award in itself.
Marion Cotillard and Ramola Garai were way better than the films in which they
appeared. Last seen as Russell Crowe’s south of France love interest in A Good
Year, French actress Cotillard excels as Edit Piaf in La Vie En Rose and renders
Garai is the subject of Francois Ozon’s vivid imagination in Angel. Based on
British writer Elizabeth Taylor’s novel it tells of a pulp romance writer who
experiences success in her work but cannot relate to the darker soul of the man
she marries. The film is one of Ozon’s lesser efforts and it seems strange that
for his first full-blown English-language venture--which was shot in England -
that he should revert to the heightened stylization that made his French hit,
Eight Women less of a success in the Anglo market. Sam Neill, impressive as
Angel’s publisher, travelled to Berlin to promote the film. Garai said she was
comforted to be reunited with her Mary Bryant co-star while performing her most
demanding role to date.
Warner Brothers brought their latest visual extravaganza, 300, to the Festival.
While the film, based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel, is artfully realised by
Zack Snyder it was strange to hear a director talking about his revelling in
violence at such a politically correct event. Snyder achieves the seemingly
impossible task of visually depicting the heroism and gore of the Battle of
Thermopylae in 480 B.C. where 300 Spartan warriors went up against the barbarous
hordes of the Persian god-king Xerxes.
Definitely a cool movie for the teens, as is Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch
sequel, Day Watch. Although a little too convoluted in its story, the Russian
Matrix-like blockbuster delivers fireworks and special effects on a grand scale
in its dealing with light and dark forces co-existing in a real world which
looks mighty Soviet. Bekmambetov, who is currently directing his first
English-language sci-fi feature, Wanted, starring Morgan Freeman and James
McAvoy, and who is co-producing the animated feature, 9, with Tim Burton, is a
creative filmmaking force to watch.
Clint Eastwood brought his most unusual movie to date, his Oscar-nominated
Japanese-language Letters From Iwo Jima, to the festival. The lucid 76-year-old
told how he became interested in telling the story of the famous World War II
battle from the Japanese point of view when he filmed Flags of Our Fathers.
“Edmund Hilary climbed the mountain because it was there, so I thought why not
do it? I like to learn new things. I have to develop a passion for something to
make a film at this stage of my life.” Eastwood notes that now, 62 years later,
we are allowed to think differently about the events. While the Iraq war did not
influence the film, he admits that “every war has its parallels, the futility of
it, the human condition of war. I didn’t think about the Japanese point of view
just about how tough it was for 19 year old boys to endure it.”
The Festival’s prizes came as something of a shock to the attending critics as
English-language films hardly rated a mention. The awards can be viewed as an
almost deliberate shun of English-language fare by the jury, headed by Paul
Schrader and including his regular collaborator Willem Dafoe, with Mexican actor
Gael Garcia Bernal.
If any Asian film was going to win, critics had been betting on Li Yu’s
controversial and sexually charged Lost In Beijing, yet it was the other Chinese
competition entry, Wang Quan’an’s Tuyu’s Marriage, which took out the major
Berlin prize, the Golden Bear. The film’s story of a Mongolian woman, who falls
ill and is forced to leave her disabled husband in order to find a more able
spouse, is a metaphor for rapidly changing modern China.
The best actress Silver Bear went to Germany's Nina Hoss for prime Golden Bear
contender, Yella, where she plays a young East German woman who quits her job
and broken marriage and moves from eastern Germany to the west, but remains
haunted by her past. Argentina’s Julio Chavez won for best actor for his
portrayal of a man who takes on a new identity following a family crisis in The
Other. The Argentine/French/German co-production also won the Jury Grand Prix
The best director prize went to US-born Israeli Joseph Cedar for Beaufort, his
story of the last military unit to be stationed in southern Lebanon prior to the
troops' withdrawal from the country in 2000. Personal, minimalistic and
powerful, the film does not show violence and deals more with the soldiers’ fear
of facing death.
As for the few Anglo awards, David Mackenzie received a Silver Bear for his use
of music in Hallam Foe, while a Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic
Contribution went to the cast of The Good Shepherd. German actress Martina
Gedeck, who has a small role as a German woman Damon’s agent beds in the film,
accepted the award for her absent co-stars. "Robert De Niro, this is for you!”
she told the crowd. The retiring Gedeck’s own talents will soon come the fore in
the Oscar-nominated German film, The Lives of Others.
The critics prize went to I Served The King of England by Czech director Jiri
Menzel, who had earlier been one of the favourites to win the Golden Bear.
THE AUSTRALIAN FILMS
While the Australian films at the festival were screened in sidebar categories
and did not garner red carpet attention, they were well received by audiences
and buyers. Ultimately they will be widely seen around the globe, unlike many of
the award winners — which of course is the point of giving such films awards.
Three Australian features and three short films screened across four sections of
the festival. The Home Song Stories, written and directed by Tony Ayres (Walking
on Water) and based on his own life, stars Joan Chen as a woman who falls in
love with an illegal immigrant and then has to deal with her teenage daughter
falling in love with the same man. Ayres fascinated international journalists
with the details of his life in interviews, and the well-received film, which
Variety called “a finely chiselled drama”, looks set for international release.
Screen International called it “a lively melodrama about a roll-with-the-punches
beauty and her marriages and crises”.
Darren Aston’s Razzle Dazzle, set amongst the big hair and hoped-for glamour of
a dance school competition for youngsters, created excitement in the Generations
section. The film’s over-the-top tone, which harks back to Strictly Ballroom,
makes it highly accessible to all audiences.
Far grittier is Daniel Krige’s low-budget West, which tells of two cousins in
their early twenties living together on the outskirts of Sydney. Khan Chittenden
(The Caterpillar Wish) and Nathan Phillips (Wolf Creek) play the cousins.
The short films comprised: Playground by Eve Spence, Tommy the Kid by Stuart
Clegg and television presenter Paul McDermott yet again trying his hand at movie
directing with the partly animated, The Girl Who Swallowed Bees starring Pia
Miranda, narrated by Hugo Weaving.
Published February 22, 2007
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Sharon Stone in BerlinSharon Stone in Berlin
Notes on a Scandal
The Home Song Stories