Dreams of Dust
Laurent Salgues, France/Canada/Burkina Faso
See festival coverage
Eastern Promises ****
David Cronenberg, Great Britain/Canada
Starts December 27
The world of the Italian mafia in the US was brought to life in the series of “Godfather” movies, but in this exciting thriller from director David Cronenberg the viewer gets a fascinating look at the world of Russian organized crime in London. Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife at a London hospital, finds a Russian-language diary on the body of a young woman who dies in childbirth. The baby survives and Anna dutifully wants to reunite it with its family. In the diary she finds a card for the Trans-Siberian restaurant, which is owned by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who also happens to be a boss in the Russian mafia. In an attempt to get the diary translated, she goes to Semyon for help. This unknowingly puts her and her family in serious danger as the diary contains incriminating evidence against Semyon and his volatile son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel).
Semyon\'s and Kirill’s driver, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), serves as the family\'s enforcer, dumping dead bodies in the Thames River. His star rises within the mafia as he displays his loyalty to the family, but as he becomes involved with retrieving the diary from Anna, he inexplicably shows a more human side. He begins to assist Anna in her quest for information about the mother of the baby, leaving the viewer to wonder where his loyalties really lie. A series of plot twists keep the viewer engaged, deceit and retribution abound and the body count increases. Who is really to be trusted? When two bad guys are fighting, which one should you root for?
The film does contain some rather brutal violence, although it is not gratuitous, but nonetheless I did have to look away a few times. Many of the scenes are shot at night, in pouring rain or with damp streets, adding to the film’s dark and ominous feel. The ensemble acting is excellent, with Mortensen’s charismatic yet mysterious figure a sharp contrast to Cassel’s reckless and free-wheeling sunny-boy. Mueller-Stahl portrays a charming yet ruthless mafia boss who will stop at nothing to protect his family, although his Russian-ness seemed more generically European. Watts occasionally tends towards the whiny schoolgirl, and although Anna rides a motorcycle, her naiveté shows she is clearly in over her head. Many of the scenes achieve a powerful intimacy between the characters, with contests of wills adding suspense to the heightened drama. Not for the faint of heart, this dark film, which won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival, will keep you enthralled and wondering which bad guy is really bad. (Erica Fox Zabusky, SS, KB, MW, BS)
Empties ( Vratné Lahve) ****
Jan Svĕrák, Czech Republic
Starts January 24
Literature teacher Josef (Zaenek Svĕrák) can cope neither with the modern attitude of students nor with the new technological advances of the computer. He retires to stay at home with his wife Eliska (Tatiana Vilhelmova). She is not entirely ready to have him at home. Josef is bored with retirement and refuses to accept that he has nothing left to give back to the community. He becomes a bike currier as well as a bottle recycler and during this time changes many people’s lives including his own. He also has strange sex fantasy dreams which lead nowhere. In the end he realizes he needs to do something dramatic in order to shake his wife out of her retirement slump so that they can finally have fun together. The couple’s relationship is complicated and full of miscommunications.
At the Filmfest, Svĕrák gave us insight into this wonderful third part of a trilogy on human aging which his father wrote. He explained that his father, a well known actor in Prague, is getting older and wanted to capture not only the essence of aging but also the importance of continuing with life. Jan Svĕrák said that his father took a hard look at his own marriage and tried to write as much as possible from his side. So the film is really taken from the man’s view. He said that this was because his mother was unwilling to open up and explain her side.
It was interesting that this husband-wife team acted in theater some thirty years ago and they used photos from that time on this set. So, if any of you remember how good the film Kolya was, you won’t want to miss this one. (Shelly Schoeneshoefer BS, NT)
Andrew Shea, USA
Early one morning, Frank (Billy Burke) knocks on Karen’s (Sherry Stringfield) door; we see utter surprise, shock and a bit of frenetic terror cloud her face as she stands clutching her bathrobe tightly around her body. As she speaks to him through the door intercom, we know that they have a history, and it probably went bad. We relate to Karen immediately as the rational, sane part of this pair, as Frank emits a mysterious vibe that says “beware, this guy is dangerous in a calculating, matter-of –fact way”. And that is how it remains through this indie film of suspense, pay-back and mind games. But Forfeit doesn’t rest on its psycho thriller laurels; the story of Karen and Frank unravels within a darkly comedic sub-plot about an armored-car company run by corrupt, small-scale embezzlers cheating the insurance industry by taking out fraudulent policies on their non-ambitious employees, one of whom is Frank. Between a money heist, murder, flashbacks from Frank’s past, and his current obsession with following the spiritual advice of a questionable tele-evangelist (Gregory Itzin), we are presented with a film that is slightly reminiscent of American Beauty in its derisive humor and wit, minus the beauty. Forfeit is tense, callously funny, and deeply disturbing as each scene changes tone, until we arrive at a big bang finale that pops the bubble to survey all the sorry pieces with clarity and melancholy.
I was very impressed with this film, as the characters were well-drawn and acted. Especially entertaining was the humor threaded through the smaller roles pertaining to the armored-car company; scamming management duoWayne Knight (Neumann from Seinfeld) and Phil Reeves provide the film with a healthy sardonic contrast to the heavier themes of abuse, control, murder and vengeance that are delivered from Burke, Stringfield and Itzin. Pay attention to this smallish film and you will be rewarded with a memorable taut thriller from director Andrew Shea: a gritty gem if you can find it in the theaters or on DVD. (Kirstan Böttger, BT)
God Grew Tired of Us
Christopher Dillon Quinn/Tommy Walker, USA/Kenya
(Mary Wienke, BT)
See festival coverage
Ich will tanzen (Kaishui yao tang guniang yao zhuang
Hu Shu, China
See festival coverage
Immer nie am Meer (Always Never at the Seashore)***
Antonin Svoboda, Austria
Started October 4
This Austrian film could be called Three Men in a Car. Members of the trio are Herr Anzengruber (Christoph Grissemann), Herr Baisch (Dirk Stermann) and Herr Schwanenmeister (Heinz Strunk). They are, consecutively: a depressed pill popper, an opinionated history professor and a B-level stand-up comedian. While driving in the country, they bounce off the road and crash down the hill. They come to a stop wedged between two trees in such a way that no door will open. The car formerly belonged to Kurt Walheim, former Austrian president and, as a result, it is especially armoured with unbreakable glass. They are stuck.The three begin to talk while consuming the leftover herring salad and champagne from the trunk to pass the time until help comes. Time crawls and the men go from euphoria to rage, from tears to humor, from philosophizing to despair. They alternate between sharing stories about their past to screaming into the woods for help. A small boy arrives on the scene but he is useless. The film ends five days later and they are still in the car.
This reminded me of a play I once saw at Hamburg’s Thalia Theater in which two men sat in a car and discussed their lives. In the film costumes and sets are unimportant; the action rests on the actors who wrote most of their own lines. Often the characters were extremely polite, like civilized people going down on the Titanic; sometimes they panicked like mice in a laboratory. It’s an interesting idea for a film, which will appeal to German-speaking cinema fans. Filming lasted four and a half weeks, and three of those weeks were spent in the car. Heinz Strunk from Hamburg is the only German among Austrians and some Hamburgers might recognize his pseudonym, Mathias Halfpape, as well as a novel he wrote called Fleisch ist Mein Gemüse. (Becky Tan)
Shira Geffen/Etgar Keret, Israel/France
The lives of three women in their 30s are interwoven, although they never meet. Keren is the bride out of hell on her honeymoon. She breaks her leg at the post-wedding party and makes life miserable for her new husband as they holiday at the beach. She is a whiner and always was: it’s too hot, too cold, too loud, she can’t go swimming. Luckily, her husband has a heart of gold and can comply with all her wishes. Lonely Batya has no one: her boy friend has moved out; her mother makes a career of helping strangers, but overlooks her own daughter’s neediness. One day a small child emerges from the sea and befriends Batya. Is the child real or a symbol of compassion? Joy, from the Phillippines, works for a cranky old lady. Their relationship is strenuous, but they learn from each other and both are reunited with their children in the end.
These three stories could each stand alone. They could also very well reflect real life. The title sympolizes the way the three women swim through life: suspended, floating, not always in control of their fates. Jellyfish won best film by a newcomer at the 2007 Cannes film festival and closed out the Filmfest Hamburg as the final film. (Becky Tan, SS, BS)
Krimi.de – die Gang
Ulrike Grote, Germany
Showed on October 15
See festival coverage
La Fille coupée en deux (Die zweigeteilte Frau) ***
Claude Chabrol, France/Germany
Starts January 10
Paul (Benoit Maginel), the young heir of an influential family, falls in love with pony-tailed, blue-eyed Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier) after watching her at the local TV station, where she is cheerfully announcing the weather forecast. Spontaneously he bombards her with his affection, offering no less than to marry her on the spot.
He is not the only one with an obsession. Charles (Francois Berléand), 30 years her senior, successful author - and “happily” married - is unobtrusively spinning his web around an inexperienced and naive Gabrielle with his smooth words and relaxed mannerism.
She is drawn towards both men. With Paul, her own age, she can be fooling around, laughing at his silly, boyish actions. But when she meets his mother, she is confronted with an ice-cold reception and a hint of dark secretes in the family history.
Worldly Charles, on the other hand, is promising her sophisticated pleasures. He becomes her teacher, pretending to give her security, but is only seeking a new partner for his own weird pleasures and has no real intention of leaving his attractive wife. Soon Gabrielle totally loses her sense of reality and sound judgement. She realises too late that she has become a nuisance for the self-assured, mysterious Charles. It is painfully sad to watch this attractive young woman becoming a puppet of other people’s games, unable to take control of her own actions. Surrounded by insincerity she is caught up in a net of strong emotions, dangerous manipulation – and even murder.
This dramatic thriller is well made and well acted, with solidly developed characters. Like most of Claude Chabrol’s (script and director) films, it is another attack on the French bourgeoisie. Not all is well in the glittering world of high society. He is subtly scratching away the smooth surface of the façade, looking for skeletons in the cupboard. (Birgit Schrumpf, BT, NT)
Little Girl Blue ***1/2
Alice Nellis, Czech Republic
After making love to her husband, Julie(Iva Bittova ) seems lost and contemplative about life. She is clearly not happy in her current situation but then neither is he. On the surface it seems wonderful. She and her family have just moved into a fabulous apartment and while unpacking she hears the news that her favourite singer Nina Simone has just died. This has an unexplained emotional impact on Julie and she suddenly has an overwhelming desire to buy a piano. It appears that she is searching for her emotional voice to release all the secrets of her life. Her family thinks she has gone nuts. It must be menopause but her husband agrees, thinking it will come to nothing anyway. But her determination is undaunted in spite of difficulties to find a piano and to buy it. It seems the piano dealer isn’t so keen on selling his instruments even though he is in the business. He symbolizes the muse pushing Julie to search for her real goals in life. As a result, she not only breaks up with her long-time lover but also she takes a hard look at her marriage and life: She decides to make some changes. The film leads us down many paths which are not always clear, but with its humor prophesies the future of little girl blue. (Shelly Schoeneshoefer)
Nicolás Prividera, Argentina
(Mary Wienke, NT)
See festival coverage
Michael Clayton ***
Tony Gilroy, USA
Starts February 2007
Michael Clayton (George Clooney) works for a high-flying, corporate law office, whose clients are worth millions. That platinum profile and that much money often derive from illegal sources, and this group is no exception. However, these suave, well-dressed, inhabitants of fancy offices often need thugs or a nice guy to mop up the messes. Both are in this film and Michael Clayton is the later. His private life is in disarray: he has huge debts after buying a bar, he gambles, he has a child, but no wife and he argues with his brothers. He reminds me of Detective Colombo or Bruce Willis as John McClaine in the Die Hard series. However, Michael Clayton plays the fool for just so long, i.e., until his car explodes and his good friend Arthur (Tom Wilkinson) mysteriously dies. That’s the limit and Michael begins to fight back with unexpected cunning. He discovers that Arthur was representing a very exploitive company which was cheating the poor farmers of Dakota. Arthur changed sides, began to work for the underdogs and so he had to die.
Tony Gilroy is writer and director. In book form, this would be a typical airport book: a bit of action, a bit of intrigue, but not considered good literature. (Gilroy also wrote the Bourne series). As a film, it works well, simply because George Clooney is an excellent actor, well chosen for the role. Tilde Swinton is great as Karen Crowder, a Cruella DeVil type, who thinks she can keep the apple cart afloat through sheer will and determination. The film works it way forward through flashbacks, which can be confusing as many characters pop up and disappear, only to be explained later. It seems to go slowly, but picks up enough speed in the end when all is sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction. Try to see it in English and it will be entertaining enough for an evening out; you won’t be disappointed. (Becky Tan, NT)
My Father My Lord ****
David Volach, Israel
Rabbi Abraham (Assi Dayan) is highly regarded in the ultra-orthodox Haredic community of Jerusalem. His life is devoted to the study of the Torah and Jewish Law. Day in and day out his head is buried deeply into heavy volume books. He likes his son Menahem (Ilan Grif) to be around him but then hardly takes any notice letting him wait patiently to be spoken to. The six-year-old boy eventually amuses himself with little games until he is overcome by boredom, falling asleep with his head on the table.
From his mother (Sharon Hacohem) little Menahem receives all the warmth and tender care he could wish for, alas within the very orthodox rules and regulations of the community. Their quiet and orderly family is ruffled when Menahem discovers a bird’s nest on the windowsill which he excitedly shows to his mother. She also has news for him. The family is planning an outing to the Dead Sea and all preparations are already under way. A number of religious instructions have to be taken care off and the Rabbi is forced to take decisions between his duties as God’s servant and his duty toward his wife and son as a family man. Subtly a strong tension is building up which threatens to jeopardises the whole journey. Eventually, they take off, arriving safely at their destination. The unforeseen turn of events leave you speechless with highly stirred-up emotions.
With My Father My Lord, the young director, David Volach, created an engrossing film, opening a window into an alien and exotic culture, into the innermost world of the believer, of which he has an intimate knowledge. He grew up as one of 20 children in an ultra-orthodox Jewish family studying at the prestigious Ponevezh Talmudical yeshiva. It was there that his long process of secularization began. By the time he was 25 years old he left the religious community, became secular and moved to Tel-Aviv to start his film study. This is his debut film which brought him an award at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival in New York and a prize for best director at the Taormina Festival. (Birgit Schrumpf)
Nothing But Ghosts (Nichts als Gespenster) ***
Martin Gypkens, Germany
Starts November 29
An alternative title for this movie could have been Cigarette Smokers because it seemed that each of the many characters was a chain smoker. There are five interwoven stories in the film which is set in five different countries. The ambitious plot allows the cameramen to photograph some breathtaking scenery. Generally speaking, the scenery was more interesting than the characters. Martin Gypkens has taken on the challenge of fitting all the different stories together but there is no common thread to pull them together.
Ellen and Felix (Maria Simon and August Diehl) are forty-a-day people who are driving through spectacular American scenery and finding, in between puffs, that they aren’t getting along very well. Christine (Brigitte Hobmeier) visits her friend Nora (Jessica Schwarz) in Jamaica and falls for a local boy who has a wife and a baby. Despite these inconvenient encumbrances and brushing aside the fact that this man hardly says more than two words to her, she tells him that they’ll continue their relationship when it’s holiday time again. Jonas (Wotan Wilke Mohring) and Irene (Ina Weise) visit a married couple in Iceland, where Jonas manages to catch the eye of his hostess instead of falling in love with Irene as she’d intended.
Marion (Fritzi Haberlandt) visits her appalling parents on holiday in Venice and manages to leave them with her sanity still intact. And finally Cara (Karina Plachetka) falls in love with her fellow actor (Stipe Ercez) who falls in love with Cara’s best friend Ruth (Chiara Schoras.) Ruth manages to smoke before, during and after her act of deceit.
The stories are cleverly overlapped but there is nothing – apart from tobacco - to
link them together. (Jenny Mather, MW)
Odette Toulemonde ***
Eric-Emmanual Schmitt, France/Belgium
Started October 25
….. and they lived happily ever after!
The world is full of wonders, particularly Odette’s (Catherine Frot). One would think her world is drab and her life is hard, when living in a crummy apartment with her adolescent children and holding a boring job in a department store. Oh no, Odette’s life is music and fantasy, thanks to Balthazar Balsan (Albert Dupontel). She has read all his books which give her strength to face her life with an unshakable optimism. Her heart is full of gratitude for the author who makes her life so colourful.
Her hero is an attractive man with an attractive wife and a beautiful home. But instead of being happy he is depressive and miserable, especially after finding out that his wife has an affair. He is in a serious crisis of his life and it is Odette, his staunch fan, who helps him to regain his self-confidence and zest for life. She believes she owes him and feels responsible for his regaining happiness. Despite her dreams and romantic escapism she is a very down-to-earth and pragmatic woman. This does not stop her from cheerfully lifting up into the sky from time to time and singing her way through the department store or dancing Josephine-Baker-style through the kitchen.
Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s books are bestsellers in France as well Germany (i.e. Monsieur Ibrahim und die Blumen des Koran). 2004 he received the Deutschen Buchpreis in Leipzig. This is his first film as director. His script is considered autobiographical in parts, and there will be a book based on the story of the film. Catherine Frot and Albert Dupontel are two actors who understood and played his characters with the naivety and positive energy as is typical of his work. (Birgit Schrumpf, NT)
Ragnar Bragason, Iceland
Bragason arrived at the Filmfest Hamburg with yet another super film. Parents is the predecessor to the film Children, which showed last year. The director gives an inside view of Icelandic society and way of life. Three story lines cross, featuring the characters from Children. While Children focused on a social drama of dysfunctional people trying to survive, in this story the people are more affluent dysfunctional as well, although not as extreme as in Children. The first is a narcotic, childless dentist who yearns for a child. His wife is unable to have children, which makes him even more frustrated and neurotic. The second is a woman returning from Sweden to live with her mother and son whom she abandoned while abroad. Attempts to contact the son fail due to her insecurity. The third is business man unable to accept that his wife has thrown him out of the house.
Bragason films in black and white which gives the viewer a remote and isolated feeling that the characters themselves are struggling to shake off. Parents explores and captures the strange, small world of people living on an island such as Iceland. (Shelly Schoeneshoefer, NT)
Per Fly, Denmark
This was a TV series in Denmark. It is comprised of six, one-hour episodes of one story seen from six different viewpoints: those of Jakob, Tanja, Katrin, Eva, Jens, and Marko who are part of a theater troupe. The film shows them on stage and off, at home, together and alone. It follows them in their interactions of hopes, deceipt, love life and relationships. I saw the first two of the episodes, Jakob and Tanja. Although they told the same story, nothing was repeated; it was if they were two new stories. The different perspectives caused me to change sympathies. Suddenly, I understood the other actor’s concerns. This was excellently presented. My only regret is that I didn’t try to see the other four parts and I sincerely hope that this will come to German televsions sometime soon. (Becky Tan)
Marjane Satrapi/Vincent Paronnaud, France
Started November 22
After successfully publishing comics and children’s books this is Marjane Satrapi’s first film (script and director) for which she joined forces with Vincent Paronnaud. It is based on her memoirs Persepolis drawn in stark, expressive black and white pictures.
The girl Marja grows up in Tehran with her educated liberal parents. Her warm-hearted but firm grandmother encourages her to be fearless and true to herself. This is not always easy for a lively, energetic girl in the middle of a revolution. In 1979, after the fall of the Shah, she is only 10 years old and required to wear a head-scarf. Religious leaders are in charge.
The Iran – Iraq war is looming and Tehran becomes a target for scud missiles. Her parents decide to send Marja to a convent in Vienna where she completes her schooling. She is unhappy, does not fit in and is missing her family. After enduring lonely years she returns to Iran. Here she does not fit in here any longer either. Life for women has become restricted. Maybe marriage helps? She tries that, only to be more frustrated. Marja has to come to terms with her inner turmoil. In the end her independent spirit wins and she decides to go back to Europe once more, this time taking the plane to Paris.
The original film is in French, and for the voices Satrapi managed to cast the crème de la crème of French cinema: Chiara Mastroianni is Marja as teenager and young woman and Catherine Deneuve speaks the role of her mother (as in real life). The role of her grandmother is taken by the legendary Danielle Darrieux, and Simon Abkarian is her father. At the 2007 Cannes Film Festival the film was given a standing ovation by the audience.
I am not normally a great fan of cartoons but within minutes I was totally involved in the film and had forgotten that I was watching a “comic”. The figures move with smooth gestures, speak with realistic voices and the action is supported by an impressive sound track. The story is absolutely riveting - at times funny - and draws you in, involving the viewer even more than a normal movie could have done. (Birgit Schrumpf, NT, BT)
Roots Germania ***
Mo Asumang, Germany
If you ever became famous you may have a song dedicated to you. Would you not be thrilled? If the song started with “The next bullet is for you….”, what feelings would that stir up in you? Well, luckily, this film is not about you. The neo-Nazi band White Aryan Rebels dedicated this song to Mo Asumang, well-known black TV presenter and actress, born and bred in Germany. The homeland of her father is Ghana. He had come to Germany for his studies where he met her mother. Sadly, his family was not in favour of a German wife and the family elders ordered him to move to England and then back to Ghana into the folds of the tribe.
Just in case Mo Asumang is not a household name for you, I would like to mention that 43.2 million Germans know her. The agitating song, intensified with the slogan “Go home where you came from”, frightened Mo into helplessness, eventually affecting her daily life. Soon she realised that she had to take action to overcome her fear. Should she do exactly what her enemy suggests – go home? This is no easy task, because, where is home? This question is the inspiration and start of her wanderings through Germany and all the way to Ghana.
At first she visits her mother in Kassel, where she went to school before enrolling at Berlin University to study classical music (singing). We witness a very personal interview with her mother talking about how she had met her father. The next step for Mo is flying to Ghana to meet her African family. Her father greets her warmly, introducing her to the village people who have already prepared a big welcome party for her. She participates in tribal dances, has an audience with the witch doctor and goes for long walks with her father, discussing her life in Germany and hoping to find advice in handling her fears. Despite all efforts, Mo remains a stranger in his home country where she is treated with respect and good-will but is looked at as a “white” person.
Back in Germany she visits sites of prehistoric graves, attends ancestor worshipping rituals in the forest, talks to scientists, meets the prominent neo-Nazi leader Jürgen Rieger and even mingles with the 3000 supporters of an NPD demonstration (clearly not without a certain nervousness).
Roots Germania is more than Mo Asumang’s search for her own identity. At the same time she tries to understand and find reason for such hatred amongst certain groups in the German population. A small right-wing minority is very actively working against the integration of Germans with a different skin colour. Mo challenges the pure German ancestry of the neo-Nazi followers. She points to the historical fact of Germany’s development through wars and economical factors, resulting in a melange of different races originating from all corners of Europe and other parts of the world.
This is her first attempt as a film director taking on the difficult task of presenter and script writer as well. It is therefore excusable that the film has its weak and drawn-out moments but it handles an important issue that should not be ignored. Mo Asumang is not only concerned for her own safety but speaks up in the name of all Germans wanting to live in peace with their neighbours in a prosperous, democratic country. (Birgit Schrumpf)
Carla Garapedian, Great Britain
This interesting documentary shows the Californian, heavy metal band System of a Dawn both during concerts and off stage. Several members of the band are young men of Armenian descent. Being second generation Armenian has given them a mature awareness of the reasons for immigration including atrocities and mass murders around the world, e.g., Ruanda and Darfur. Their lyrics reflect these situations and “aren’t just about someone singing about his girl friend.” One special interest is the genocide against the Armenians in Turkey in 1915. Director Garapedian said that this was the first genocide of the twentieth century and that the word “genocide” is relatively new in our vocabulary. This is such a pertinent topic in Germany today, as Turkey is being considered for membership in the European Union. At the same time it is considered a crime even to mention the Armenian genocide in that country. Garapedian interviews the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk who won a Nobel prize for literature and also, just before his death, the Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, who was shot down on a public street in front of his office in Istanbul. The film shows that there are serious topics to scream about and the screams of heavy metal can reach people of all ages with an important message. (Becky Tan)