The Conversation: Berlin Film Festival Buzz is Very Mixed on 10 Major Movies

The Conversation: Berlin Film Festival Buzz is Very Mixed on 10 Major Movies

Feb 14, 2012

It's hard to completely follow buzz on a festival like the Berlinale since it's held in Germany and spawns reviews throughout Europe in languages that I can't adequately translate -- even with the best software I'm afraid I might miss the true tone and meaning of such critiques.  We do have some friends and colleagues covering the festival that we can share, however, and from what I can tell this year is filled with premieres and competition titles that are splitting critics left and right. 

Unlike Iron Sky, the Nazis-on-the-moon movie that appears to be garnering entirely negative reactions, other major titles I'm keeping tabs on are consistently being highly praised and severely slammed with equal measure. From new films by Billy Bob Thornton and about Bob Marley to noteworthy performances by Gillian Armstrong and Melissa Leo to terribly generic "festival films" and the comedies that satire them, here are 10 Berlinale titles being talked about, whether good or bad, in the first half of the fest:  


What are people saying about the films at the 2012 Berlinale? Here's The Conversation heard around the Internet:


Jayne Mansfield's Car

The best thing one can say about "Jayne Mansfield's Car," Billy Bob Thorton's loopy family drama about a group of eccentric American southerners in 1969, is that it's not quite as bad as it looks. - Eric Kohn, Indiewire

If there are weaknesses here, it's that the Thornton/Epperson script wobbles a little in its presentation of its English upper-crust characters – very hard to do, as Woody Allen found out in Match Point, if you're American. And there are one or two over-cathartic crisis points buried in the numerous plot lines. But these don't really dent the effect of Thornton's film: it's ambitious enough to aim at polished, intelligent character drama, and pulls it off successfully. - Andrew Pulver, The Guardian

Neither the Brits nor the Americans convey a sense of being part of the same family given that Thornton as director fails to make the ensemble knit together in a convincing way. Across the board, these actors deserve better, but they frequently seem to be in different films. The lack of dramatic texture is matched by the drab production, which brings the visually flat look of a conventional TV movie to its stand-in Georgia locations. - David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter

A distinctly American, humanist drama, one that somewhat makes up in performances of warmth and generosity what it may lack in originality [...] as a nearly stageplay-like showcase for some extremely watchable actors, it is diverting enough to almost compensate for its awkwardness in other areas. Almost. - Jessica Kiang, The Playlist

Loved JANE MANSFIELD'S CAR from Billy Bob Thornton...deep Southern war-scarred barkingness. You'll want to see this one folks. - @muirkate

The film is chock full of such surprise tonal shifts, parting a cloud cover of narrative and thematic intentions to reveal many sublime moments underneath. This has been poorly received as a belaboured, ungainly work, but it plays like music to my ears. - Kevin B. Lee, Press Play




Macdonald’s touch for innovation within the documentary style, seen in 1999’s Oscar-winning “One Day in September” and 2003's “Touching the Void”) feels lacking in “Marley" - Susan Stone, 24 Frames (Los Angeles Times)

After his dalliances with Hollywood fiction and last year’s YouTube experiment “Life in a Day,” this is a fine return to Macdonald’s old-school, Oscar-winning documentary form. - Guy Lodge, In Contention

“Marley”is by no means a bad film, but we expected greater and all we really got was more. It presents a comprehensive portrait of the whens and wheres of Bob Marley’s life but the hows, and crucially, the whys remain largely elusive. - Jessica Kiang, The Playlist

Despite its breadth, "Marley" delivers little more than a well-crafted overview sure to please diehard fans while leaving others unmoved. - Eric Kohn, Indiewire

Marley is bottling some of what made Asif Kapadia’s Senna such a success, and certainly hopes to play to mainstream viewers as temperamentally indifferent to reggae as they might have been to F1 racing. The Trench Town slums are brought richly to life, as is Marley in the roles of husband, father, lover, songwriter, inspiration to his people, political muse and tragic poster idol. [...] Macdonald and his team certainly know how to make the movie sing. - Tim Robey, The Telegraph

An exhaustive portrait of the legend behind the music, Kevin Macdonald’s Marley is sure to become the definitive documentary on the much beloved king of reggae. Filled with thrilling concert footage and scores of in-depth interviews [...] Production values are top notch, while the music speaks for itself. - Jordan Mintzer, The Hollywood Reporter


Shadow Dancer/Gillian Anderson

There are plenty of movies to parse and examine here at the Berlinale, but at dinner last night with some colleagues (who happened to be guys), Anderson came up in the conversation, and we just looked at one another: “Gosh! Isn’t she something?” is the gist of what we said. Perhaps we love her more because she shows up so infrequently and so fleetingly, like a ginger comet. Her role in Shadow Dancer is small and tokenlike, but it’s interesting for its metallic coldness, not a quality we usually associate with Anderson. Then again, maybe it’s really just a mirror angle of the clinical skepticism she brought to the role of Dana Scully in The X-Files: She’s good at playing characters who can turn the warmth off when it gets in the way of the goal at hand, and in Shadow Dancer, she plays a character who’s all about goals. - Stephanie Zacharek, Movieline

The brutal success of the movie is that, instead of racing against the clock, Marsh and screenwriter Tom Bradby (from his own novel), intentionally walk as the timer runs down. It’s never dull, though. The intricate pattern of deception is worth keeping up with, and, make no mistake, Marsh makes you work for it. This isn’t spoonfed action or thrills that shock before bringing a cool smile up from the surface. The smiles never come in this world. In that way, the fear is much more pure and the stakes seem as high as the flames can carry. - Cole Abaius, Film School Rejects

Marsh takes no prisoners, makes no apologies and kicks you when you're down, all of which makes his films dangerous, inifinitely watchable and almost unbearably surprising. - Amber Wilkinson, Eye for Film

Script weaknesses make Shadow Dancer an ordinary NI Troubles thriller; sharp opening does not follow through - @filmnickjames

Sister/Gillian Anderson

Ursula Meier out-Dardennes the Dardennes. Nearly perfect in every regard. Agnès Godard (as usual) in top form. Only criticism of SISTER is casting of Gillian Anderson, which seems a bit random. Pretty confident it will walk away with an award or two. Found her presence a bit distracting at first. Not a very demanding role either. - @Filmbrain

On the whole, the picture is unevenly worked out, but it’s ultimately touching, thanks to the bittersweet grace notes scattered throughout. Anderson is one of those grace notes; her presence is as subtle as a sigh, but it’s the kind that sticks with you long after the credits roll. - Stephanie Zacharek, Movieline

SISTER ??? Dardennes-lite story of a child thief in a ski resort. Very solid, and the acting top-notch, but pace issues. - @Filmaluation

Favorite #berlinale competition film so far: Ursula Meier's SISTER, which is less ambitious than HOME but fluid, bittersweet, Dardenne-like. - @erickohn

Sister is brilliant! - @chhabs

Farewell, My Queen

A fantastic piece of period work that doesn’t follow any of the rules that make costume dramas so drab and dull. It’s innovative without being crudely rebellious, and the acting on display is formidable and incendiary. It goes without saying that the production design, make-up and costuming is strong – that’s the very least a film like this can do. What’s really magical about Farewell, My Queen is that it gives the audience something to do other than stare at the scenery. It’s thrilling. A rare example of something antique feeling genuinely brand new. - Cole Abaius, Film School Rejects

This is a solid, sometimes provocative piece, although substantially more old school than the knowingly hip revisionism of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Still, intelligently crafted and laudably serious as it is, the film should also benefit from contemporary resonances – what could be more timely in the recession era than the picture of a gilded, pampered elite provoking the wrath of the public? - Jonathan Romney, Screen International

Indeed, “Farewell, My Queen” operates as the moderate, less excitingly intuitive flipside to Sofia Coppola’s freeform imagining of the same tangy period in history. It’s both the handsomely lensed and designed corset-opera and the brittle Benoit Jacquot drama different parties might arrived expecting – but as pastel-toned, festival-opening macaroons go, its soured cream filling is an asset. - Guy Lodge, In Contention

You would think a lesbian scene with Diane Kruger and Virginie Ledoyen would be something to celebrate; instead it's emblematic of what's off in this new wave costume drama. Kruger's Marie Antoinette bids adieu to her courtesan as the storm clouds of revolution approach the royal court. Kruger spouts teary platitudes of love while (Ledoyen hardly says anything, both are practically mummified in heaps of fancy dress, reducing them to decorative ornaments in their own key scene. - Kevin B. Lee, Press Play


Francine/Melissa Leo

Francine is a legitimate discovery. It’s propelled by Melissa Leo’s remarkable title-role performance, rigorous in its honesty and unimpeded by even a scrap of vanity. Made on a shoestring, this first narrative feature from husband-and-wife filmmaking team Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky is raw, intimate and observed with penetrating acuity. - David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter

Just saw FRANCINE. Watching Melissa Leo claim her status as one of the Great American Actors is an ongoing joy. Needs stunning performance to hold it down. Gets one. [Leo's] devotion to scrappy new directors is an example to her peers. - @GuyLodge

Earlier, I watched filthy cats, dogs and rodents crawl all over Melissa Leo. She licked one of them clean. This was called FRANCINE. - @trim_obey

There’s a scene where Melissa Leo’s off-kilter animal lover is feeding her extended household of cats and dogs, scattering a nauseating mess of dry food all over her floor and even sprinkling it on the backs of the animals. Here the film seems to take the eccentriticies of its character too far: she’s worked at a pet store and a vet for crying out loud, and we’re to believe she resorts to this behavior? The only reason this comes off as remotely plausible is Leo’s commitment to the role portraying someone terminally lost in her own world, Leo’s guileless playfulness in the part invites us in. - Kevin B. Lee, Press Play



Caesar Must Die

The picture is stark and alive in its simplicity; rendered mostly in black-and-white, it’s gorgeous to look at -- you could practically use it as an illustrated textbook on framing and composition. [...] When Caesar Must Die eventually shows up in American theaters -- and it will -- it’s going to be easy as pie for marketing people to sell: An uplifting story about prison dudes finding meaning in art can pretty much sell itself. But even though that line essentially describes what happens in Caesar Must Die, it doesn’t come close to capturing the simultaneously joyous and mournful resonance of the picture. Caesar Must Die is really just about the way art lives on through people, sometimes in unlikely ways. There’s no way to keep it behind bars. - Stephanie Zacharek, Movieline

Remarkable, fresh and moving drama-documentary [...] its hold on the audience comes from the pared-back, unshowy, understated way that it lets two strong stories – one by Shakespeare, and one about prison life – unfold with a minimum of interference. - Lee Marshall, Screen International 

The concept of the film is very interesting but gets lost in Julius Caesar and you have to struggle to find the meaning. It is nice to see the prisoners become so immersed in their task but there is not enough substance to keep the audience engaged. If you are a huge fan of Julius Caesar perhaps you would get more out of this, but I found it rather monotonous. - Kezia Tooby, Flick Feast

Meh tu, Brute? Half-assed docudrama layers play within play within film, yet still needs to repeat intro to make 76mins. - @GuyLodge

Agree with the "slow start" verdict on Berlinale, but here are some faves: SOLDIER/CITIZEN, DOLLHOUSE, ELECTRIC CHILDREN, CAESAR MUST DIE. - @erickohn



Everybody In Our Family

A masterwork of black comedy and suspense, director Radu Jude's "Everybody In Our Family" typifies the best qualities of contemporary Romanian cinema. Tense to the point of exhaustion, brilliantly shot to evoke a real time effect, and filled with immersive long takes and naturalistic performances, Jude's third feature (following "The Happiest Girl in the World" and "A Film For Friends") chronicles the dissolution of family bonds with relentless innovation. Even when heartbreakingly honest and sad, it still manages to sustain a heightened sense of hilarity. - Eric Kohn, Indiewire

Running hot and cold, between short spells of humour and explosions of frustration, it lacks a real plot or structure [...] Pity it all stays in one place and can’t make up its mind which way to move. Life may be like that, films aren’t. - Dan Fainaru, Screen International

On this evidence Romania’s much-praised and surprisingly long-lasting New Wave might finally be running out of steam. [...] the most realistic and believable of the principal characters is little [Sofia] Nicolaescu in a remarkably fresh and natural screen debut – this six-year-old is one of the most delightful child-performers in a European movie since a previous Romanian moppet, Catinca Untaru from Tarsem Singh’s 2006 The Fall. - Neil Young, The Hollywood Reporter



The Woman in the Septic Tank 

So many good moments in this South Park-esque satire of two young Filipino filmmakers trying to break into the film festival circuit with the ultimate third world festival movie, about a suffering slum mother forced to sell her son to a pedophile. There’s the raucous casting debate between three actresses as the lead, creating three simulated scenarios for the outcome; and Eugene Domingo running away with the show as a seasoned diva breathlessly breaking down all the DIY filmmaker bullshit into Sundance-ready formulas. But my favorite has to be when the production assistant imagines the project as a Hollywood musical, with Manila slumdogs breakdancing to lyrics like “we are burping our souls,” and a tender serenade by the pedophile to his victim. As the filmmakers say while high-fiving themselves, “Forget Cannes, we are going to the Kodak Theater!!!”  - Kevin B. Lee, Press Play

Watched only one good film so far at Berlinale (THE WOMAN IN THE SEPTIC TANK) -- Light and effective satire of the international film festival community from perspective of Filipino artists - @tinahassannia



Basically this is the film Woman in the Septic Tank was made to ridicule, Pinoy no-budget exploitation trying to alight the festival prestige film elevator and missing the first step bigtime. A movie so mired in social issues-fellating, gratuitous audience-pandering and plain ineptitude I couldn’t stop watching just to see how bad it could get. There’s the awful CGI bird, the terrorists throwing Bibles off the boat and loads more Muslim-baiting, the shot of a baby being pulled out of a woman’s vagina in the middle of a firefight. But for me it was a shot of hostage Isabelle Huppert slurping pathetically on a flimsy bowl of instant noodles, wearing a look that deserves our outright contempt. F - Kevin B. Lee, Press Play

The bad movie that mainly defines the "Captive" experience is epitomized by a CGI bird. This strangely colorful (and obviously artifical) being manifests itself at a late moment in the film, after the trapped characters have traipsed around the woodsy terrain for months on end, repeatedly bitching to their kidnappers. The nonfiction backdrop and passing conversations about the politics driving the situation imply that Mendoza wants to make something deeper than a genre exercise, but neither Huppert nor various plot twists can salvage "Captive." - Eric Kohn, Indiewire

Delivers a gripping ride and leaves viewers with plenty to think about. - Brian Clark, Twitch




Follow Christopher Campbell on Twitter (@thefilmcynic) to join The Conversation.

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