Tag Archives: Berlin Film Festival

Berlinale 2021: North By Current

Filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax returns to his rural Michigan home town after the mysterious death of his two-year-old niece, Kalla. His sister Jesse, the girl’s mother, is a suspect, his brother-in-law David is arrested, Kalla’s cause of death inconclusive, and the family tragedy as a whole is just a lot to process when there are so many eggshells to tiptoe around.

Minax is himself a trans man with a fraught relationship with his Mormon family. As he intercuts present day footage with old home movies of his childhood, it’s easy to see how his sister might have struggled with such an unstable upbringing and addiction issues. Motherhood seemed to have grounded her for a time, but the death of her daughter and her own possible responsibility and/or culpability seems to have both unraveled her but also encouraged her reproduction, replacing one baby with the next before the last one’s out of diapers. Grappling with trauma and depression, Jesse all but refuses to discuss the matter, but slowly their mother starts to open up, but she’s not exactly a great source of comfort to either. In fact, Minax’s mother is quick to point out that she’s lost two girls – Kalla, and the little girl that Minax himself used to be. While Minax’s mother may be entitled to her grief, it’s clear his transition and queer identity are still the family’s biggest challenge – even the murder of one family member at the hands of another is more easily overlooked.

North By Current is a testament of grief, tinted by faith, family, history, and isolation. Spanning topics including depression, domestic violence, motherhood and transgender masculinity, I’m not sure to what extent any true healing or catharsis occurred, but I know Minax, at least, is headed in the right direction.

Berlinale 2021: Je Suis Karl

This one is juicy, folks!

Maxi is a teenage survivor of a terrorist attack that blew up her building, killing her whole family save for her father. Maxi (Luna Wedler) and her dad are grieving separately, her father consumed by guilt and doubt and obsessed with keeping his family’s memory alive, leaving Maxi to mourn alone, and drift apart.

Maxi is still a kid herself, and very vulnerable, so we’re not terribly surprised when she falls under the spell of a cute boy named Karl (Jannis Niewohner). She’s desperate for someone to lean on. Unfortunately, Karl’s ready shoulder is no coincidence. He’s the leader of a “youth movement” (a WHITE SUPREMACIST “youth movement”) that’s all about protecting “native Europeans” and excluding all non-whites. And who better to become the spokesperson of this youth movement than a young, beautifully broken girl who’s just lost her family to terrorism? A perfectly haunting example of the threat of “others,” her testimony will be powerful and persuasive. But what we know and Maxi doesn’t is that Karl’s appearance in her life isn’t just well-timed. It was Karl himself who set off the bomb that killed her family, eager to stir up some anti-immigrant sentiment, and proving it’s all too easy to do so.

Je Suis Karl is not a perfect film by any means. In fact, as you can probably tell by my description so far, it’s a little on the nose, with perfect parallels to real-life. But those parallels are frightening. Karl’s movement has major ambitions, and clearly will stop at nothing to achieve them. Recruitment is deliberate and intense, the organization is cult-like but self-aware, its leaders charming and charismatic. For many of us, it’s scary to watch history repeating itself while these disillusioned kids are using history as a blueprint to improve upon. Of course, the temptation to scapegoat someone is not exclusive to the youth, and we’re seeing this kind of thing far too often. Maxi is obviously a compelling and tragic character, but I wish we’d seen things more from Karl’s point of view. He may be reprehensible and sociopathic, but we’d gain more from understanding his perspective. Are these truly his beliefs, or has he merely calculated this to be his best way to power? A drama could easily turn into a horror asking questions like these, but director Christian Schwochow plays it safe and keeps things relatively superficial, taking everyone at their word. The result is not a bad movie; in fact, I admired it for even broaching the subject, but I did hope we’d get our hands a little dirtier. I don’t expect a movie to solve racism, but I do hope that a movie that takes such careful aim would handle things a little more responsibly.

Berlinale 2021: Ninjababy

Rakel is a young woman with her whole life ahead of her: astronaut, forest ranger, comic book writer. She’s not sure which path to follow but enjoys contemplating her options. One thing that’s definitely not on her list: motherhood. Which makes her pregnancy highly inconvenient. Worse still, the abortion clinic won’t perform the procedure because it turns out Rakel (Kristine Kujath Thorp) isn’t just pregnant, she’s 6 months pregnant, and this thing is really happening, whether she likes it or not.

Ninjababy is the fetus comic book character she starts drawing in order to sort out her feelings. Pretty soon Ninjababy is off the pages and interrupting her real life with his own thoughts, needs, complaints, and suggestions. Director Yngvild Sve Flikke brings the character to life with selective animation, and we’re treated to the unusual screen representation of a young woman speaking directly to the baby she doesn’t want. The baby’s daddy, a booty call situation Rakel calls Dick Jesus (Arthur Berning) isn’t exactly an ideal candidate for fatherhood either, and Ninjababy (voiced by Herman Tømmeraas) objects pretty heartily.

Rakel is not your typical protagonist. She’s rough around the edges, reckless and youthfully arrogant. She doesn’t have it together, and not in a cutesy movie way, in a very real, slovenly, rudderless, impoverished way. Ignorant of her pregnancy, she’s been drunk, stoned, and slutty. Yet Flikke manages to balance her wildness with warmth and humour, resulting in perhaps not the most sympathetic of characters, but a realistic and resilient one, grounded in tough choices and a growing attachment.

Ninjababy has some laugh out loud moments and some truly heartbreaking ones. It’s an honest look at unwanted pregnancy, told through the young mother’s perspective as well as the unborn fetus’s, who will not be ignored. Ninjababy is a cool and almost magical take on the situation, but the real treasure is that the film isn’t afraid to put Rakel first, to let her really explore her own wants, needs, and ambitions, and to choose her path accordingly. Thorp is up to the task, showing flexibility and range as she transitions from earnest to sardonic, even skirting among emotional landmines with dexterity. Ninjababy isn’t breaking new ground thematically but its tone and execution are refreshing and unique and exciting to watch.

Berlinale 2021: Albatros (Drift Away)

Laurent is a good cop in a small town in Normandy, where little ever happens. The police work may be on the dull side but his recent engagement to Marie means his personal life makes up for it. Laurent (Jérémie Renier) and Marie (Marie-Julie Maille) have already been together long enough to share a home and a daughter, Poulette (Madeleine Beauvois), who was excited to be part of the low-key proposal. But then things take a turn for the more interesting.

A local farmer goes missing, armed with a rifle and seemingly suicidal after a series of failed inspections that threaten his livelihood. This being a small town, the farmer is known to Laurent, a friend. Laurent is obviously very motivated to have this man found safely, but does his familiarity cloud his judgement? When the farmer is eventually located, it leads to an altercation, resulting in Laurent discharging his weapon in an effort to prevent the farmer from taking his own life. Laurent kills him.

The aftermath is as messy as you’d expect. Everyone agrees it was an accident, but was it reckless? Negligent? The farmer’s sister obviously thinks so; she’s suing both Laurent and the force. Thrown into self-doubt, recrimination, and emotional turmoil, Laurent takes off on a journey he must take alone. Which, honestly, is where the film lost me. Up until it veers off into a very different direction, I was enjoying this slow-burn character study. Renier kept things dignified, stoic but just expressive enough to hint at upheaval behind the façade. Unfortunately, director Xavier Beauvois muddies the water with some confusing and unnecessary subplots, taking away from the power and potency of Renier’s performance.

Albatros’s final moments redeem some of its earlier mistakes but there’s no way the film needed to be two hours long, which seems to dilute the urgency and impact of what should have been the movie’s central themes. Albatros is a good idea unevenly executed, not quite saved from a stellar star performance.

Berlinale 2021: Petite maman

Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is eight years old when her grandmother dies. Nelly and her mother (Nina Meurisse) are both sad as they empty her room at the nursing home and say farewell to her elderly friends. Next they meet Nelly’s dad at Nelly’s mom’s childhood home, which also needs to be packed up. Nelly and her grandma were quite close, and the death has taken a toll on them all. But the next day, Nelly’s mom is gone, and only her dad (Stéphane Varupenne) is left to box up an old woman’s life. The sadness was too much for mom, Nelly is told, though mom is often sad, and Nelly is worried that mom might not come back.

While her father works diligently, Nelly explores the outdoors in search of a cabin her mother constructed out of sticks as a child many years ago. In the woods she finds something even better: a playmate. Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) is also eight years old, and is devoting her time to building a little cabin out of sticks. Nelly knows right away who Marion is; it’s her mother, as a child. When Marion brings Nelly back to her house, grandma is alive and well, and 20-some years younger. The girls, who look like they could be twins (and are indeed played by twins), are immediate best friends. Being eight, Nelly doesn’t much care how or why this time anomaly has permitted her such an intimate new playmate, she just takes it at its face value and enjoys the time with her little mother.

Imagine, if your old brain still has any magic left in it, encountering your own mother as a child, when you yourself are also a child. This is such a beautiful, innocent thought experiment I can’t believe I’ve never seen it done before.

Nelly takes full advantage, asking her mother things that are much harder, and sometimes impossible, to broach between mother and child under normal circumstances. And Marion has questions too. “Did I want you?” she asks in all innocence. “Yes,” comes the reply. “I’m not surprised,” Marion responds, while gently stroking Nelly’s cheek, “I’m already thinking of you.”

Writer-director Céline Sciamma infuses this film with such tenderness that I constantly feel like weeping, though the film is not particularly emotional or fraught. The two young actresses are absolute perfection, like little dolls who are made for each other. It helps us to understand that his manifestation is somehow essential to Nelly’s grief and loneliness during a painful time. This is next-level self-soothing and the whole thing is coated in such a thick layer of loving kindness that I’m pretty sure I want some too.

Berlinale 2021: The Scary of Sixty-First

Worst movie EVER. Not to brag, but there are 2485 reviews on this site, and this one is the worst by a LARGE margin.

Noelle (Madeline Quinn) and Addie (Betsey Brown) are best friends, supposedly, who have just moved into a shared apartment in Manhattan. Not only do they move in immediately, they use the furnishings left behind by a previous unknown tenant. I’m developing sympathy scabies just thinking about the used bedding situation, which is reason enough to have given them nightmares on their first night, but this is a horror movie, not a hygiene movie.

The next day a young woman (Dasha Nekrasova) wrestles her way into the apartment, revealing to Noelle that it used to belong to Jeffrey Epstein. Together they deep dive into the conspiracies surrounding his pedophilia, arrest, and “suicide.” Noelle, clearly an impressionable young woman, is immediately 100% on board. They imagine that the apartment was used for orgies, rapes, human trafficking, the whole lot. Addie, meanwhile, seems to have been possessed by the spirit of a small child. She sucks her thumb while masturbating to images of Prince Andrew (who is alleged to a close friend of Epstein’s, and/or a pedophile himself), and by ‘masturbating to,’ I of course mean rubbing magazine images of his face against her crotch and inserting commemorative items from his marriage to Fergie into her various orifices, while squishing oranges between her toes. None of this seems pleasurable, in case you were wondering.

The acting in this movie is very, very, exceptionally, terribly bad. I realize no one with an actual career or future in the movie business would ever, in their right minds, consent to be in such a film, but even considering that it’s total amateur hour, it’s still unbelievably bad, across the board. In fact, the only thing worse than the acting is the “writing” which I’m confident was simply copied and pasted from the dregs of Reddit. Dekrasova and Quinn share writing credit and it’s mystifying that anyone would put their names on this thing. Even the sweaty Reddit trolls hide behind anonymity.

Dekrasova is also the director responsible for this mess, and it’s impossible to tell if she’s got any talent because she hasn’t got any taste. I’m mostly afraid to ask how this thing got financed because I have a feeling I know exactly how, and I’m deeply uncomfortable in having been involved in this even tangentially. Did these girls pick this topic because it was the only way they’d ever get significant screen time and they were willing to sell their souls for it…or worse, do they actually believe this stuff and are willing to serve as mouthpieces?

Whatever the answer, I’m not sure how this was chosen to screen at the Berlin Film Festival. Film Festivals absolutely have a duty to push the boundaries of the art form and challenge us to step outside of our cinematic comfort zones, but this movie isn’t that. It’s just a piece of trash that’s in very poor taste. After all, Epstein was a real man, a real pedophile, with real victims, and this film only serves to trivialize it in the most disturbing and disappointing way.

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.

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.