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Filmfestival Hamburg 2007 Film Reviews - Part III
by the KinoCritics

The 11th Hour **
Nadia Conners/Leila Conners Petersen
Starts November 15

This swank documentary on the state of the environment sports co-writer / narrator/ producer Leonardo DiCaprio, which along with the topic, will ensure its success. Be ready for a treatise more appropriate in a classroom or boardroom than in movie houses. Even stony Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was a much more accessible and entertaining film on the same subject. More "infomercial" than film, as film implies artfulness, The 11th Hour supplies viewers with endless doomsday testimonies which become tiresome, even when given by the likes of Dr. Stephen Hawking, Dr. Andrew Weil, James Woolsey and too many more. All in all good information and I love Leonardo on the screen anytime, so bring your notebook along and hopefully the message will sink in. (Nancy Tilitz)

The Champagne Spy (Der Champagner Spion) **1/2
Nadav Schirman
, Germany / Israel
Showed on November 18

“ Wow – my father is a real spy, like 007”. This was not the reaction of the 12-year old Oded Gur Arie. Instead it frightened him a little because he could not visualise what his father’s job description really meant. All he knew was that this is the reason why his father often had to be away from his family in Paris. At the same time he was proud of his father’s trust in him and he swore to keep this secret to himself, feeling very important and grown-up for his age.

In 1960 his father, the Israeli officer He’ev Gur Arie, goes on a long business trip. The family does not know that he has taken on a new identity with a new name. He is now the German Wolfgang Lotz and has been sent to Egypt with the mission to gather information about the missile programme being developed with the help of German scientists. In Cairo he is the ex-Nazi, millionaire and horse breeder, leading a life in luxury and throwing champagne parties. Every six months he gets on a plane to Germany, continuing on to Paris and spends a few days with his family there. He also meets with officers of the Israeli Secret Service to report on his progress. Back in Cairo, he again takes up his life in the high-society, falls in love with a German woman (who has no clue of his family in Paris) and the two even get married. By now the Israeli officer He’ev Gur Arie is confusing his two identities which eventually leads to his discovery in 1965. The couple’s arrest and following sensational trial is covered extensively by the International press. The death sentence is looming. This is how the young boy Oded Gur Arie and his mother find out where and how his father has spent the last years away from his family.

The Israeli director Nadav Schirman based his documentary on interviews with Oded Gur Arie and the home movies made by his father, when home in Paris, as well as on interviews granted to him by officers of the Israeli Mossad. The film emphasises the effect the secret double life has on the whole family and how it influences his friends. I was as shocked as the little boy must have been when learning of the life his father led in luxury with his German wife in Cairo, cheating on her just as much as on his wife and son in Paris. The story is quite fascinating and unusual, but the frequent use of the 1960s home movie sequences are of the typical bad quality and become boring. A short version of this documentary may have been more effective.(Birgit Schrumpf, BT, BS)

The Empire of Evil (Im Reich des Bösen) ***
Mohammed Farokhmanesh
, Germany 2007

This is not a film about terrorists as the title might suggest. The director Mohammed Farokhmanesh was born in Iran and studied in Hamburg where he still lives and works as director and producer. For this documentary film he chose the country of his birth as a subject and shows us some very personal views of life in this modern Muslim society. When we read about Iran in the news we mostly get a one-sided critical picture of the Islamic state with president Mahmud Ahmadinedschad’s ultra-conservative and provocative attitude towards the West. We wonder how ordinary people manage their daily lives, work or enjoy themselves. How far does the state interfere into their personal life? What effect has the internet with ever-increasing influence from the West? Mohammed Farokhmanesh is provides us with a look at the realities of this society. He takes us on a visit to Tehran, the capital of Iran.

We meet Mahtab, a young music student who dreams of a singing career. This presents her with more difficulties than we in the West can ever imagine. She has to abide by a law that forbids women to perform on their own. Diligently she keeps on studying, hoping to find a way to fulfil her dream and that the law may change in time. Setayesh, an enthusiastic and very successful sportswomen fencing for her club, is in a similar position. There is very little support for women’s sport and, therefore, no sponsorship available. She is further handicapped by the very restrictive Islamic dress code for women. This dress code also makes it impossible for her to participate in an international competition. She and her husband dream of immigrating to the States to start a new life there.

The two men introduced next are a total contrast to these women. The good looking and fanatic believer, Mr Meidani, owns a private language school. As a matter of course he includes the teachings of Islam in his courses, mainly attended by eager young women, naturally covered in the traditional gear from head to toe. Another protagonist is Abbas, belonging to the infamous Basiji, the pro-Islamic militia. They openly speak in front of the camera and there can be no doubt in which side of the system these two men wholeheartedly believe.

Yet another contrast represents the little girl Golsa, growing up in a wealthy and loving family. Her mother playfully shows her the rules and regulations of her Islamic surroundings without any forceful demands. With her well-roomed grandmother she dances aerobic steps next to the indoor swimming pool. The family has access to all the Western media they would care to get.

What direction will the country have taken when Golsa has grown up? This is difficult to answer, but small changes seem to take place and the protagonists with their very different hopes and dreams, look forward into the future. This film has certainly helped to broaden my horizon about life in today’s Iranian society. (Birgit Schrumpf, KB)

The Savages***1/2
Tamara Jenkins
Starts April 24, 2008

The candy-coated retirement villages of Arizona may appear to be a viable solution to a surging population of elderly Americans, but it cannot hide the reality of prevalent issues of dementia. Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) is an ageing senior who has been sharing his retirement years with live-in partner Doris, who has round-the-clock hospice care as she stares vacantly into space. Although Lenny isn’t quite as oblivious as Doris, the opening scene of The Savages reveals that he’s slipping in the same direction as he frustratingly smears profanity written with his own excrement on the bathroom wall after being patronized by a care-worker. When Doris passes away, Lenny’s two adult children must find a new home for their father. The weight of inconvenience for Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffmann) to postpone their lives and travel to Arizona to deal with their cranky father’s care is obvious as it becomes apparent that the Savages are not a close-knit happy family. On the contrary, it appears that this is an unsavory set of circumstances for everyone.
Jon and Wendy are deeply embedded in their own neurosis’ and dramas of mundane lives, with little choice but to come together and find a place to dump dear old Dad. Wendy seeks an optimistic outcome by applying for a high-end assisted-living center; Jon is the realist as he checks his father in to a dreary local nursing home. Thus begins the journey of two grown siblings who evolve individually through the shared responsibility of caring for a father that needs their love without the capacity or desire to love his own children in return.

Director/writer Tamara Jenkens has created a scenario perhaps all too familiar for millions of families dealing with the fallout of mind-degenerating disease, and has cast the most brilliant actors to convey a fine message: they are us and we are them. Linney nails the part of younger sister as she struggles for brotherly approval and personal growth, stalled in a dead-end affair and stunted career as a hopeful playwright. Seymour-Hoffman shines once again as he wears Jon Savage like a second skin; an ambivalent professor who cannot make a commitment professionally or personally. Bosco has the right balance of confusion, anger, frustration and ennui as he gives you reason to care about Lenny despite the fact that he really doesn’t deserve your empathy. Stellar performances from all three, threaded with layers of humor and hearty family weight that shoot this film to award-level consideration.

The Savages is not a happy movie, and although the denouement gives you a certain sense of promise for Jon and Wendy, it isn’t a good vehicle for a “resounding hope” ending. I found myself depressed for a long while afterwards and so knocked a star off the top: dementia isn’t entertainment, however accurately portrayed. (Kirstan Böttger)

To Love Someone***
Å ke Sandgren
, Sweden

Everything in this movie is bleak, from the Danish town in which it is set to the story itself, which asks questions that have no answers. Alf (Rolf Lassgard) is a middle-aged fishmonger who is very happily married to Lena (Sofia Ledarp), a younger woman who works in his shop. All appears to be well between the two until they hear that Lena’s ex husband has been released from prison. He’d been sent there for violent assaults on Lena but had received therapy while incarcerated and was let out with the advice that he must stay away from his victim. In the opening shots of the movie Lena’s battered face is photographed while she lies in her hospital bed in the hope – forlorn, of course – that she will never forget her ex husband’s brutality. Hannes never explains the reasons for his violence, but he knows that he must not risk temptation by being near Lena when he is released. This proves difficult in the small town where they all live and very soon Lena sees Hannes on the street. The old and truly fatal attraction is still there, and Lena cannot leave Hannes alone. Alf, whose thoughts and feelings begin and end this movie, states that he has no idea of the nature of love. Danish scriptwtiter Kim Fupz Aakeson is responsible for this tragic but thought-provoking tale which was directed by Åke Sandgren. (Jenny Mather, BS, KB)

Underdogs ****
Jan Hinrik Drevs
, Germany
Starts January 31

With a title like this it is easy to confuse this film with the prominent comic figure Underdog. So dn’t do it! Director Drevs leads us into a brutal prison world with a large cast which includes not only the human characters but dogs with dog trainer as well. At the opening night we were introduced to all of them. This is a Hamburg-made film and many cast members including dogs are from Hamburg.

Prison director Gloria Cormelius ( Clelia Sarto) wants to introduce a rehabilitation program about training dogs for the blind. One candidate for this project is Mosk (Thomas Sarbacher) whose brutal and introverted character will make this project a sure failure or at least that is what the supervisor hopes will happen. The rules state that every single person has to be rehabilitated in order for this program to succeed and Gloria is determined to do just that. Since dog training is about bonding, each prisoner is to give his dog a name which means something to him. This works with all the inmates except Mosk who can only think of the prison weightlifting championship in which hewants to participate. He names the golden retriever “Dog” and treats her with about the same amount of disregard. Gloria tells Mosk he can not participate in the weightlifting championships unless he has succeeds with his “Dog”. The other inmates also put pressure on him but soon realize that he lacks the natural instinct and simple learning skills to manage this job.

It isn’t until his dog nearly dies because of something he gave her to eat that his emotions are awakened and he begins to open up. But when it comes time to give up the dogs to their new blind owners, will these prisoners be ready to do it? This film is a warm-hearted story that gives hope to those behind prison walls.

Drevs came up with the idea after working on stories in the U.S. about the prison rehabilitation system. This film could also be seen by older children since it does not contain extreme violence or language and they can learn something about prison life, dog training and human nature. (Shelly Schoeneshoefer)

V2 Dead Angel **1/2
Aleksi Makela
, Finland

This is a quick-paced murder mystery with a black sense of humor and a “made-for-TV” look. A beautiful prostitute is found dead in the snow after making a snow angel. The film reminds you of old Starsky and Hutch series with stylized scene cuts switching from one scene to the other. The private detective is hired by an old school friend who has been framed for the murder. The story wanders its way through many slimy and strange characters. The only character that is redeemable in this film is the detective himself since all others are motivated by money, greed and have a criminal side. This film most likely will show up on television since that is the media that suits it best. (Shelly Schoeneshoefer)

Vienna’s Lost Daughters
Mirjam Unge
r, Austria
(Birgit Schrumpf)

See festival coverage

Waitress (Jennas Kuchen für Liebe gibt e skein Rezept) ****
Adrienne Shelly
Starts November 1

Waitress is a very cute and witty movie. True, it has sad moments, but mostly it is upbeat and fun. Jenna (pretty Keri Russell) works as a waitress in a pie diner in a small southern town. From her mother she has inherited the amazing talent to invent mouth-watering pie recipes to suit every occasion and mood. On the down side, Jenna is stuck in a miserable marriage. Although Earl was considered a good catch before they married, he has since become controlling and mentally abusive. Jenna does get lots of moral support and laughs though from her two waitress colleagues.

And then enters the new handsome gynecologist in town Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion) to whom Jenna goes to get her unwanted pregnancy confirmed. Instant rapport! The two begin an affair. At work Jenna is the only server who can put up with pie diner owner Joe's (Andy Griffith) cranky demands and unwanted advice. During the course of the film though, his "words of wisdom" become important and, after giving birth to a baby girl and receiving an unexpected large monetary gift from Joe, Jenna finally has the means to take charge of her life. She finds the courage to leave Earl and to admit that her affair with married Dr. Pomatter must be ended. Jenna is rewarded with a new start in life and a big career in piemaking! (Thelma Freedman, BT, KB)

Who Loves The Sun ***
Matt Bissonnette
, Canada

This is director Bissonette’s feature film debut and he has set it in Canada against a backdrop of stunning lakeside scenery. The movie seemed at first to be set in the seventies, the era of bad haircuts and bland room settings, but the appalling language which everybody used set it very firmly in the present. This movie continues the trend of modern actors using non-stop obscenities every time they open their mouths. Will (Lukas Haas) turns up at his friend’s holiday house after disappearing five years before. Daniel (Adam Scott) comes home for a break from his successful career in New York. Daniel’s mum decides to phone Will’s wife Maggy (Molly Parker) so that she can be reunited with her husband.

A lot of swimming, boating, eating and swearing takes place as the plot unfolds. The reason for Will’s abrupt disappearance was a betrayal of love and he and the others involved make half-hearted attempts to sort out their feelings and their emotions. They do this sometimes with fisticuffs and always with swear words. Family secrets are exposed along the way but the unexpected twist in the plot as the movie comes to an end offers a glimpse of hope for the unhappy Will. (Jenny Mather, BT, MW, NT)

Zu Fuss nach Santiago de Compostela (On Foot to Santiago de Compostela) **1/2
Bruno Moll
, Switzerland, Poland

For more than a thousand years pilgrims walked along the path in Northern Spain to see the tomb of the apostle Sankt Jacob whose bones have been put to rest in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Many legends tell of the miracles that happened to believers en route and the wonders they witnessed.

Roman Weishaupt, who needed a break after completing his studies, starts his pilgrimage from his village in the alpine region of Switzerland leading him through France to Santiago de Compostela. His chosen route is 2300 kilometres long and will take him 80 days on foot. Bruno Moll, a Polish photographer and director of TV documentaries, will be meeting and filming him frequently during this time. Roman is not walking for religious reasons but rather likes the challenge. Recently I saw the French comedy Pilgern auf Französisch (Pilgrimage the French Way) which entertains you with a hilarious family pilgrimage en route to Santiago de Compostela. Roman’s first days are not as comical nor are they enjoyable for him as his path leads him strait into a bad weather zone. His backpack begins to feel heavier by the hour, the continuous rain drenching him to his skin. Some of the hostels are not in a good condition either and his mood sinks to zero. His route through mountainous France is stony, steep and seems to be never-ending.

When he eventually reaches the Spanish border his spirits lift – together with the clouds above him. He meets other pilgrims of different nationalities, exchanges stories about hostels on the way or chats with the locals. Even though he speaks French, English, German and Spanish he is totally frustrated when an old local tries to explain the way to the next accommodation, speaking only the dialect of the area. He ends up sleeping on the ground under a bush. To find a place to put up your tired feet and lay down your exhausted body in the evenings can be a trying task. Some of the places are overcrowded or closed for the season which means slogging on for a couple more miles. Upon finally reaching Santiago de Compostela’s cathedral all pain and hardships are forgotten and he joins in jubilation with the hundreds of pilgrims in town.

In parts the film reminded me of a home movie. I would have liked to have seen more unusual shots of the surrounding landscape or life in the villages on the way. The subject of this documentary is a very popular one. To quote some Spanish statistics: In the year 1970 only 68 pilgrims were registered. During the 1980s and 1990s there was a steady increase, and last year 100,377 pilgrims were counted. Therefore, plenty of information can be found and I feel that the film could have taken more advantage of this. A number of good books have been published in recent years, i.e. by Paul Coelho, Shirley McLaine and the German entertainer Hape Kerkeling (his book Ich bin dann mal weg has been on top of the bestseller list for months). (Birgit Schrumpf, MW)

Also seen at the festival:
A Place in the Cinema, BT, NT
A Place in the Sun, NT
Aria, JM
Fabricating Tom Ze, NT
Fur, An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, BT
How Much Further, KB, MW
Hula Girls, NT
Jasminum, NT
Kicks, BT, NT
Moonpie, KB
Savage Grace, MW
The Go-Getter, SS
The Rebirth, BT, BS, NT