Berlinale 2018

Roundup, Part Two

Same procedure like every year: First you cannot wait for the program to finally be completed and eventually presented, followed by a lot of eye rolling and trash talk about the insane quantity and assumed lack of quality, discussions about worn-out superstructures and a shortage of contemporary style compared to Sundance and Rotterdam - the other two early film festivals of the year. And while this is all true and grossly exaggerated, it’s safe to state that the Berlinale hardly ever worked any other way within the last twenty years. The festival never was too interested in genres and show values - maybe as a result of its complex historical background - it’s more of a consciously understated cinematic playground fueled by a weird kind of educational task, where the actual fun factor grows proportional to your low expectations. If you’re willing to get rid of the cinematic language you’re usually communicating with, you’ll certainly get rewarded with a few unexpected future favorites. So, yeah, one can say that 2018 was business as usual at Berlinale. Anyway, here’s the second pile of flicks we watched:

MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. by Steve Loveridge
From her childhood as a Sri Lankan immigrant in London to present-day fame and all the controversies and ever-increasing complexities life can throw at you in-between: Loveridge’s doc on polarizing pop star/rapper/beatmaker/artist M.I.A. might take a rather conventional and linear route on paper, but since its subject is anything but ordinary the film immediately becomes a discourse about race, media, politics and freedom of speech, showing how unpopular it still is - especially when you’re talented, female and of colour - to not only be outspoken but being passionately politically active. And even though the doc falls a bit short on giving insights on her creative process and art, it still teaches a lot about the struggle behind finding your own voice - and getting tarred and feathered as soon as you do.

YARDIE by Idris Elba
Whether it comes to music, fashion or obviously acting, you don’t need to get a second opinion to state that Idris Elba is one impressively talented guy. Surprisingly though, directing isn’t necessarily one of his personal strengths - or: it isn’t yet. Almost everything about his crime drama-debut “Yardie“ (based on Victor Headley’s 1992 novel about a young Jamaican drug courier with a score to settle in 1980s London) feels uninspired and stereotypical, up to the point where not even the great soundtrack or Stephen Graham’s tribute to Gary Oldman’s Drexl Spivey-character can save this underwhelming film.

Two decades after “To Die For“, director Gus Van Sant reunites with Joaquin Phoenix for a biopic on controversial/troubled cartoonist John Callahan, which finds a very pleasant balance between comedy and drama as it focuses on the artist’s struggle with alcoholism, his tragic accident and sobriety years that finally began at the age of 27. But make no mistake: as satisfying as it is to see the director back on form and Phoenix’s subtle performance, it’s Jonah Hill’s Donnie as Callahan’s AA sponsor who totally owns the film, an overly empathetic and almost Jesus-like figure that adds a very different kind of oddball character to the actor’s oeuvre.

UNSANE by Steven Soderbergh
If you wondered why the celebrated director ended his self-imposed hiatus from filmmaking with the substandard “Logan Lucky“ of all things, now might be the time to get officially concerned about his professional judgement since “Unsane“ - whose only gimmick is that it’s shot entirely on iPhones - unfolds itself as a pulpy, half-baked, semi-entertaining mental-health thriller, which actually is so much more conventional and unsophisticated than it would like to sell itself.

U - JULY 22 by Erik Poppe
The latest entry to fuel the endless discussions about ethical values and the merits and alleged dangers behind depicting the incomprehensible comes in the form of “U-July 22“, which reconstructs Norway’s biggest nightmare - the 2011 massacre on Utøya - in real time via a single-take shot that follows a girl named Kaja through the unfolding hell of the viscous attack. The first minutes of the film offer random snapshots from summer camp, which soon transforms itself into an emotionally compelling and most definitely horrifying experience that leaves the audience drained and empty - which might be director Poppe’s point given the senseless atrocity his film depicts.

YOCHO by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
After the far more superior “Before We Vanish“, Japanese director Kurosawa delivers another alien invasion film - a cut-down version of a five-episode TV drama. People around factory worker Etsuko suddenly change their behavior quite drastically, and it doesn’t take our reluctant hero too long to figure out that this is the result of aliens who steal people’s concepts/emotions about family, hate, guilt, etc. As luck will have it, she’s the only one immune to their antics - which unfortunately doesn’t imply that she’s making the right decisions to save our planet. What sounds like a rather playful take on sci-fi genre conventions in theory turns out to be a pretty dull affair on screen. Let’s just hope that the masterful director will move on to different topics anytime soon.