Berlinale 2021: Ich bin dein Mensch / I Am Your Man

She’s doing it for science, guys. In order to get funds for her research, Alma (Maren Eggert) agrees to do a solid for the ethics board, testing out a controversial new product for three weeks, something designed with only her happiness in mind. Sounds easy, right?

The product is a humanoid robot with extraordinary artificial intelligence. ‘Tom’ is made from Alma’s brain scans with a specific algorithm that guarantees he’s her perfect made, a soul mate in (almost) every sense, designed to meet her every need and her every desire, even the unconscious ones. Alma, remember, is not a customer but a beta tester, performing an experiment to make a report to the ethics committee in three weeks’ time, who will then decide whether robots like Tom should be allowed to marry, hold passports, or be accorded rights like a human. Alma is not looking for love, but Tom is made to suit her perfectly. Can she really resist?

This is absolutely not some romantic comedy, despite the fact that ‘Tom’ looks an awful lot like dreamy Dan Stevens (and is in fact played by him). This movie puts Alma into an incredible and fascinating situation. We use the term ‘soul mate’ rather loosely, but even the love of your life is likely not 100% your ideal mate. Humans are flawed. Tom is not. Not human, and not flawed, or flawed only in the ways Alma finds endearing. Will this revolutionary new invention eradicate the scourge of human loneliness, or will so much perfection and devotion ultimately feel oppressive?

These are interesting questions that aren’t so much asked and answered as lived and experienced. Eggert is really good, expanding and contracting as she examines her own (human) responses to this experiment. A complete stranger who knows her intimately is living in her home. He is utterly devoted to her and knows her better than she knows herself. But Alma is a woman of science. It is difficult for her to see beyond the clever algorithm, to see his dedication as anything other than simulated human emotion, simulated being the operative word.

What is to become of Tom? Director Maria Schrader tackles this theme at new and interesting angles, probing tentatively at our most vulnerable spots just to see what’s there. I loved her style, I loved how bravely and honestly and unflatteringly the introspection was conducted, I thought both Stevens and Eggert were wonderful – all in all, this was quite a nice surprise at the Berlin Film Festival, exactly the kind of film you hope to accidentally encounter when you reach beyond your comfort zone at the mercy of festival programming.

Moxie

I feel old, I feel embarrassed, and I feel inspired. In that order.

To the young women of today, I’m sorry. I’m sorry we didn’t get the work done. I’m sorry there’s still work for you to do. I’m sorry we didn’t break the patriarchy but got broken by it, bit by bit.

Vivian (Hadley Robinson) and best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai) are introverts. They’re good students, quiet kids, girls who don’t make waves. But on the first day of school, Vivian is inspired by the new girl in class. Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) challenges English teacher Mr. Davies (Ike Barinholtz) on his syllabus of all white men. Lucy is interrupted by star quarterback Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger), who, being a white male himself, sees nothing wrong with maintaining the status quo, and belittling her simply for having an opinion different from his. Based solely on this, he starts a campaign of harassment against her, because females who speak their minds need to be put in their place. Vivian, who witnesses much of this, is quietly outraged, but it’s not until the football pep rally (when the whole school worships Mitchell jointly, despite the fact that the football team literally never wins), when the boys’ annual ranking of the girls in their class blows up everyone’s phone and suddenly a switch is tripped in Vivian’s brain. Taking a cue from her mother’s (Amy Poehler) old days of piss, vinegar, and protest, Vivian secretly starts up a zine called Moxie that ends up uniting and igniting the girls in their school (and a few of the more worthy boys). They’re mad and they’re not going to take it anymore.

Amy Poehler, fierce comedian, directs Moxie and shows some of her own. There are few people who can be this earnest and this funny at the same time, but she’s one of them. Although this film is about Generation Z discovering feminism on their own terms, it’s also a love letter to Poehler’s generation, and perhaps to all the women who have come before, women who failed to solve sexism but played a part in moving the needle. It’s also a call-out to adults who value obedience over truth and justice; Marcia Gay Harden plays the school principal who would rather look the other way than be responsible to resolving the actual issues presenting in her school. Madeleine Albright (and Taylor Swift) once said “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women” and I think it’s important to remember that today, womanhood and its consequences starts earlier and earlier. The patriarchy isn’t going to smash itself.

This movie is about a movement, but it’s also about friendship. These girls, who have been taught to see each other as rivals, realize they have a cause in common. They’re outgrowing the simplicity of childhood friendship and developing empathy and understanding. Moxie brims with hope and optimism. These young people aren’t waiting to inherit the Earth, they’re not afraid to bring change now.

Amy Poehler’s schtick is something like ‘sincere dork’, and there are plenty of those vibes in Moxie. She’s outfitted the film with a genuinely wonderful cast, including Robinson, Tsai, Pascual-Peña, Nico Hiraga, Sydney Park, Anjelika Washington, Josie Totah, Sabrina Haskett, Josephine Langford, and Emily Hopper, who can carry the film’s uplifting message while still seeming like ordinary high school students. Streaming on Netflix just ahead of International Women’s Day, Moxie is the feel-good film of the month.

Berlinale 2021: Ted K

Ted Kaczynksi, more popularly known as The Unabomber, lived in isolation in a 10×12 cabin in the woods of Lincoln, Montana. Arguably that might be enough to have driven anyone crazy, but director Tony Stone puts together a more detailed and intimate portrait of one man’s descent from loner to terrorist.

Focusing primarily on the seven years before his arrest while Ted (Sharlto Copley) was living that hermit life off the grid in the middle of a forest, Ted K doesn’t provide much context or insight into who Ted was before he left society completely, or what might have driven him to do so. Filmed in the same woods where he lived and using the 25 000 pages of his coded diary as its basis, the film tries to remain impartial, merely eavesdropping on our subject while he mutters to himself, shakes his fist at planes overhead, begs family for money over collect calls made from a phone booth. He rails against the industrial system, sometimes generally, sometimes more specifically (leaf blowers, snow mobiles), the destruction of nature, the proliferation of technology, which he predicts will be our downfall.

Bomb making becomes just one of his daily tasks in his cramped cabin. More angry than evil, more sick than disturbed, Ted exists on the margins of society in more ways than one. As his mental health frays and unravels, he seeks to soothe his pain with vengeance. Unable to engage in any meaningful way, anonymously sending violence through the mail to imagined adversaries feels like such an on-the-nose characterization of Ted’s particular psychology that if it was fiction rather than fact, you wouldn’t quite believe it.

At times I felt alienated by the film, which does its job a little too well painting Ted K as an unknowable type, but Sharlto Copley’s performance kept drawing me back in. His exact recipe is known only to him, but its ingredients include neuroses, coiled anger, desperation, internal grand-standing, loneliness, disconnection, superiority, inferiority, and more. Yet Stone chooses to show him in mostly banal circumstances, even his terrorism reduced to ordinary little tasks performed in ramshackle shed by a solitary, mumbling man. The film is Copley’s alone; other people are mere footnotes and even his victims are spared little thought. He is the subject of the largest manhunt in FBI history, but of that we have no sense. The film has no sense of urgency or drama. Ted K is just a sad and lonely man going about his business. The movie asks for no mercy, no sympathy, it just tries to get inside his head, and sometimes even succeeds in doing so.

 

Berlinale 2021: Tides

In the not too distant future, humanity will have completely decimated the Earth and fled 500 light years away, to a distant, alternate planet in the Keplar star system. But this planet isn’t the utopia they’d hoped; within just a couple of generations, they’ve lost the ability to reproduce. The first envoy they send back to Earth to check things out disappears completely. The second fares only a little bit better.

Astronaut Blake (Nora Arnezeder) barely survives the splashdown landing and immediately has some real problems; there are survivors, and they’re none too trusting.  Earth is a barren wasteland ruled by extreme tides and split into two warring, violent factions. But they are able to reproduce – Blake sees plenty of children and babies before she’s taken prisoner. Her jailers turn out to be surprisingly friendly – leader Gibson (Iain Glen) knew her as a child, was a friend of her father, who disappeared with the first envoy. He’s been working very hard to make things tenable for the Keplar community to return to Earth but lacks the means to communicate. Only Blake has that, but the longer she’s there, the more sinister everything seems, and she’s no longer convinced it’s the best course. But Gibson and his gang aren’t about to let go of their plans without a fight.

Tides doesn’t have a great script. Its details are frustratingly vague, and if you care about strict logic, I’m pretty sure the math here doesn’t remotely add up. But if you’re simply in the mood for an unabashed sci-fi genre film, you’ve got yourself a sure bet. So sure, in fact, you might find it looking familiar. It actually feels like, rather than telling its own story, director Tim Fehlbaum is setting up some sort of dystopian hub where more successful films in the genre might convene. It wouldn’t feel strange to see Tom Hardy drive by with someone strapped to the front of his doon buggy, or Kevin Costner sail by on a really big boat. But aside from building a world that feels and looks familiar, Tides fails to establish its own story. Despite a committed performance by Arnezeder and some interesting nuggets of premise, Tides is ultimately too weak to stand on its own legs.

Berlinale 2021: Language Lessons

Hello from the Berlin International Film Festival, streaming live from my bedroom for the first time ever. I’ve got a full slate of great movies ahead of me this week, or they better be after the very first one set the bar extremely high.

Adam’s husband Will gifts him with Spanish lessons. Two years worth of Spanish lessons! Hope you like them, Adam, because this is quite a commitment. Adam (Mark Duplass) is still getting used to the lavish lifestyle Will’s success affords them, and the time and freedom to pursue such projects at leisure. Cariño (Natalie Morales) is the Spanish teacher, beaming in from Costa Rica. Over the next two years, they’ll come to know each other very well through the miracle of conversation. Adam’s Spanish grammar may leave something to be desired but when you spend dedicated time in simple conversation with another human being, over time a relationship is cultivated almost as if by magic. Bonding over their own personal tragedies, the two are perhaps a little surprised by the friendship that seems to grow organically between them. They’ve never been in the same country let alone the same room, but their bond feels genuine and strong. Is it real, can it be trusted?

Natalie Morales directs the story she and Duplass wrote for themselves. It’s an interesting exploration of human attachment and what it means to connect authentically. We experience their relationship solely through the split screen of their online connection. I worried this conceit may wear thin over the course of a feature-length film, but these two share such compelling chemistry, and go to such lengths to entertain and stimulate each other, I found myself not minding it at all.

Perhaps most amazingly, this spontaneous friendship is allowed to remain platonic throughout the film. Adam and Cariño have shared pain and grief in their backgrounds, and the fact that they can find a way to reach out despite it is a tenuous little miracle it feels a privilege to witness. Trust is of course one of the most universal human hardships, and it feels elemental to watch it be birthed and nurtured on screen. Adam and Cariño are an endearing but flawed pair; their simple humanity is what’s touching. Language Lessons is disarming in the most delightful way.

Jump, Darling

What do you do when you you’re reeling from a break-up with no place to stay and no money to make things happen? To grandmother’s house you go, of course. It’s what Russell does. Russell (Thomas Duplessie) has decided to pack up his wigs and fishnets and lick his wounds in the country, at his Grandma Margaret’s place. Grandma (Cloris Leachman) is delighted to have him, not least of all because it’ll help her avoid the local nursing home, which she adamantly and steadfastly refuses to go to despite it being well established that she’s really no longer able to care for herself at home.

Russell has, until recently, pursued acting, but has dropped that passion for another – drag – which may have contributed to his breakup. His mother Ene (Linda Kash) drops in from time to time and hardly seems to know who to be most exasperated with – her stubborn, sickly mother, or her waffling, still-dependent son. Equally inefficient with both, she seems just to pop in to be a bummer and then leave again. Meanwhile, neither housemate is doing well. Russell is stagnant, torn between leaving, which means restarting, which is terrifying not to mention the whole abandoning Grandma thing, or staying, and quietly extinguishing an important part of himself. Grandma, meanwhile, is rapidly declining, but no less unwavering in her resolve to live at home. But this together time means they’re both learning about each other’s lives, their secrets, their dashed hopes, things many grandma-grandson duos may never normally exchange. Their relationship is unconventional but sweet.

Director Phil Connell keeps things simple, allowing the relationship to be the film’s primary focus. Newcomer Duplessie pours his whole self into the role. On the other end of the spectrum, this is Cloris Leachman’s final role. She died in January of this year, a talented lady to the very last, and though she seems as feisty and vibrant as ever, physically the years were taking a toll and it’s hard not to think of her demise while watching her declining mental state in the film. Still, such a meaty, involved role for a woman this late in her life is a rarity (she was 94 when she died), and Leachman was such a gem. This film isn’t her best, but it’s a great way to say goodbye to a legend.

A caveat: although I enjoyed this movie, and I enjoy drag as a whole, I do have one problem with both, and that’s the use of the word ‘fish.’ In drag, ‘fish’ is a compliment. It means the queen is looking particularly feminine, perhaps even passing as female. But fish is a dirty word, a derogatory word. I don’t mind anyone dressing up as a woman or performing as a woman but I do mind the offensive language, and I’m pretty sure you can guess where the term fish comes from. It’s a word that’s been used to shame women about the scent of their sex, as if a natural odor is somehow wrong. As a term it’s been co-opted by the drag community, the very people who apparently admire femininity so much they want to emulate it, but at the same time insult the people they’re imitating. It seems strange to put on heels and wigs and corsets and makeup and then sling sexist terms like this, but the patriarchy is pretty strong and even the marginalized will oppress those beneath them. The word is unnecessary, easily scrubbed. Let’s make that happen.

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge On The Run

The film opens with a David Attenborough nature documentary-style narration as we swim through the reef toward Bikini Bottom, where our protagonist resides. It’s a nice touch though possibly lost on a lot of kids, and unfortunately, pretty much the highlight of the entire movie.

In today’s extended episode, Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) decides that his longtime rival Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown) is not the true bane of his existence; it’s his devoted employee SpongeBob (Tom Kenny) who seems to thwart all his nefarious plans. And so Plankton hatches yet another nefarious plan, this time to rid Bikini Bottom of SpongeBob by kidnapping his beloved pet snail, Gary. Gary winds up in the hands of King Poseidon (Matt Berry), ruler of The Lost City of Atlantic City, who’s just a little bit obsessed with youth (and snail slime, or snail mucin, an even worse word, is an actual, legitimate ingredient in a lot of skin care products). So SpongeBob, his best friend Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke), and their robotic chauffeur Otto (Awkwafina) will embark on a road trip adventure that will take them across the sea and even on land in search of said Lost City. On the way they’ll find a sage named Sage (Keanu Reeves) and be guided spiritually if not geographically by him in their quest to bring Gary home.

Sean and I are not fans of SpongeBob generally, and without prior attachment to these characters, this movie isn’t exactly spectacular. Longtime fans might be quite happy to find out how young, cute SpongeBob, Patrick, and Sandy (Carolyn Lawrence) first met, but for the rest of us it feels suspiciously like padding for an extremely thin concept.

Not to mention you REALLY can’t get nitpick this show. You have to accept that they live under the sea AND their glasses can still be only half full AND there can still be puddles on the ground AND they can light grills and keep burgers from getting soggy etc etc. It’s a cartoon so I’m going to work on letting this shit go but just know that I’m on to you, Nickelodeon.

Sponge On The Run isn’t really meant for non-fans, and possibly not for adult fans either. Its simple story is constantly interrupted and sidetracked, with so many distractions no one would blame you for losing track of the plot. The stars of the show are upstaged by a tumbleweed and the truth is you’re just not going to be blown away by this film. There’s a slim chance you might be entertained by it though, at least mildly-to-moderately, especially if you care for these characters and wouldn’t mind paying them a socially-distanced visit.

Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry

Whether or not you’re a fan of Billie Eilish, you should probably watch her documentary. The music industry has a habit of chewing up and then spitting out female artists and Eilish’s meteoric rise to fame at such a young and tender age would normally be an immediate red flag. Couple that with her seemingly dark personality and you might be tempted to put her on your worry list, but Eilish surrounds herself with a tight-knit family who don’t just care for her – they care for each other.

RJ Cutler’s Billie Eilish documentary has a tremendous amount of access. We get to see her from the young woman first tasting success on SoundCloud to, almost instantly, a global superstar weighted down with Grammy awards. The film follows her while she writes her first album, whether she’s on the road, or at home, or even up on stage, performing to hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of people. And yet Billie, still a kid, doesn’t seem to love the attention, or being looked at, or being treated like an idol. She struggles to write songs, she struggles with quality vs. quantity when touring non-stop takes a toll on her body and she’s unable to deliver the top-notch performance that only she expects of herself. For such a young kid, her work ethic is remarkable, but even more so is her ability to stay grounded. Clearly mom Maggie, dad Patrick, and big brother Finneas have a lot to do with this. Mom will be helping Billie do the blocking for her next music video in the backyard while dad obliviously picks up dog poop. Finneas delivers sitcom-quality pep talks, psyching up his sister as only he can, and only he understands she needs. The two are clearly close, he her writer and producer, as much responsible for her success as she is. They are a team, often together, never seen squabbling, delighting in each other’s success.

Maybe because this documentary is being shot so early in her career, Eilish in her family seem totally authentic and filter-free, not that they have anything to hide. They’re a surprisingly wholesome family, Billie’s biggest complaint that Maggie drives a minivan, an unappealing thought for a teenager about to get her first driver’s license, and her parents’ main concern seems to have been a tweenage obsession with Justin Bieber that’ll really come full circle by the documentary’s end.

Eilish is a massively talented woman with a solid lime green head on her shoulders and her Nikes firmly on the ground. She is a different kind of pop star, not divorced from her image, but not co-opting it either. She’s protective of herself without being jaded. You will hope, while watching this, that she can continue down this path, continue to make healthy choices, and to blaze a path for a new kind of entertainer – the kind that doesn’t have to sell her soul to get what she wants and deserves.

Tom and Jerry

Did you ever wonder how Tom met Jerry, and why it was hate at first sight? Well too bad, this movie’s going to tell you anyway.

Jerry is a mouse, newly arrived in Manhattan, and while apartment hunting he comes across a blind, keyboard-playing cat busking in Central Park. Only the cat isn’t really blind, and of course Jerry finds time in his busy schedule to provoke him just before disappearing into his new digs, the fabulous Royal Gate Hotel. Between its floorboards he sets up a little rodent bachelor pad, and he sets out to sample all of the hotel’s fine amenities. The hotel’s manager is none too pleased to have vermin in his prestigious hotel, particularly before the year’s grandest event – the wedding of Preeta and Ben, set to take place in his hotel ballroom in just a few days. Event planner Terence (Michael Pena) needs help, and Kayla (Chloe Grace Moretz) needs a job, so she fudges her qualifications and through the magic of live action-animated children’s movies, Kayla has herself a job.

Kayla’s first task is of course ridding the hotel of its mouse infestation, and what better way to get rid of a mouse than to hire a cat to do the job. Enter Tom, who we know already has a beef with Jerry due to their earlier altercation in the park. True to their heritage, Tom and Jerry will get up to their same old antics, the same old back and forth, cat and mouse, push and pull of destruction that they’ve been getting up to since the dawn of time (well, since 1940, which is pretty much the same thing). Director Tim Story doesn’t have much of a modern twist to add to the proceedings, nor does he have much respect for his young audience.

Inserting Tom and Jerry into an uninspired live action scenario is not the best use of these vintage television characters. It won’t please older fans, nostalgic for the cat and mouse of their childhood, nor is it likely to impress young audiences meeting Tom and Jerry for the first time. Terence and Kayla are helping to plan the wedding of the century. Preeta (Pallavi Sharda) and Ben (Colin Jost) are getting married in the most over the top, larger than life way you can imagine; obviously this leaves lots of room for hijinks and lots of opportunity for trouble. The problem is, the hijinks are kind of played out, like, last century. I can’t really guess who this movie is made for, but I do know it wasn’t me and it definitely wasn’t Sean. Will it be you? Probably not. But if you’re willing to find out, wait until the movie doesn’t cost $25 to rent anymore. Even if you don’t hate it, there’s definitely not 25 bucks worth of movie in here and you’ll end up hating yourself, and possibly an age-old rivalry between a cat and a mouse.

The Last Vermeer

WW2 was ending, but for some, the work was just beginning. Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang) will spend the war’s aftermath investigating art – art stolen from the Jews as they fled or were removed from their homes. The few lucky enough to return found their homes stripped of valuables, and many of those pieces are still being searched for today. Piller is tasked with investigating renowned Dutch artist Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce), who is accused of selling Vermeer’s Christ and the Adulteress to the Nazis.

People were still rebuilding and recovering from the war so there was little mercy for suspected Nazi collaborators/conspirators/sympathizers. But something strange happens to Piller as he looks into van Meegeren’s background: he begins to suspect that he’s innocent. With the help of Minna (Vickey Krieps) and Dekker (Roland Moller), Piller will have to dig awfully deep to prove van Meegeren’s assertion that he is not a Nazi-loving traitor but a patriot who swindled the Nazis by selling them fake Vermeers painted by none other than himself.

Is van Meegeren’s story simply too good to be true? Does he have any credibility? Is he playing Piller, with his life on the line? Is there any post-war courtroom that would find him anything other than worthy of hanging? Is van Meegeren a master forger or a master of deception?

The best thing about this movie is Pearce’s performance; van Meegeren is funny, flagrant, and flamboyant, eminently entertaining even while on trial for his life. The rest of the cast is perfectly fine, but rarely rise above the perfunctory material. The Last Vermeer is a fascinating true story not particularly done justice by this paint-by-numbers film. Director Dan Friedkin lacks the inspiration to make this something special. It is a good but not great historical drama that gets the job done but fails to capture the imagination.