BERLIN, Germany — The bitter winds of winter are back at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, and I don’t just mean the snow flurries and frozen writing fingers here in the Potzdammer Platz. (Global warming has made a brief appearance, but only as a film seminar topic, so bring along Arctic gloves.) Many of the official films themselves have gotten a chilly reception from the critics here, some justifiably, and some decidedly not.
On the justifiable side is Stephen Frear’s disappointing period piece, Cheri, about an aging prostitute finding love in the very late afternoon of fin-de-siecle Paris. You want to like this handsome film. You want to revel in Frears revealing his usual mastery of the world of political and emotional intrigue (ala Dangerous Liasons, The Deal, The Queen, Pretty Dirty Things).You want to be seduced by the sumptuous sets and costumes and all the moaning and maquillage. Alas, you are not. Because much like an aging courtesan, this film is significantly past its sell date in the seduction department.
Part of it – most of it – is Christopher Hampton’s distressingly banal script. Who’d of thunk it? Part of it is Kathy Bate’s hammy performance as a gossipy, retired and very expired femme de la nuit (with a very pouty Rupert Friend in the title role). Even though Frears reunites two of the standouts of his Dangerous Liaisons team, Hampton and star Michelle Pfeiffer, there’s nary a spark in this liaison — nor for that matter in any of the movie’s other more carnal couplings. It’s proof to me that, for this director, you can’t go home again. (Though a number of festival viewers did, escaping to the exits midway through the press screening.) That’s sad, because Frears is wonderfully wry and trenchant with the right material. Until future liaisons, then.
I found plenty to charm in Rebecca Miller’s deliciously funny, wry and angst-ridden The Lives of Pippa Lee, by far her most fluid and accomplished film to date. But you wouldn’t know that from the lambasting it got from a few critics, including Variety’s, who seemed to be watching a different film entirely. The critical disconnect was also apparent for another competition entry, Storm, from the young director Hans-Christian Schmid. It’s a deftly-told tale of another kind of political intrigue, one lurking behind a Bosnian war crimes case that confronts an impassioned prosecutor, played by the exceptional Kerry Fox. While a few critics gave it the brush off, the verdict of many festgoers, including mself, was that it’s a highlight in a somewhat dim competition lineup.
So far, the best buzz is for French director Rachid Bouchareb’s London River, starring a favorite actress of mine, Brenda Blethyn. It’s about two people gravely affected by the London bus and subway bombings of 2005, and all its screenings are sold out, even for press. I’ll have to catch it in the States, but in the meantime I’m rooting for Blethyn to nab a Golden Bear for best actress when the awards are handed out Sunday. She’s gotten the warmest welcome of any actor yet in this freezing but always fabulous city.
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There’s been little time to pen my regular festival columns at this year’s Berlinale, thanks to running around town with my ever-dependable and enjoyable colleague Tanja Meding, shooting a small cavalcade of videos for our website. Tanja arranges and books the interview and shoots the photos, I do the reporting, shoot the video and suffer the film editing (next year, I’m learning Final Cut Pro). Thanks to Tanja, we’ve run into folks I hadn’t managed to meet in 12 years of covering the Berlinale. Plus she’s made sure I haven’t tripped over a mike cord yet, which if you know me is an accomplishment. (I have, however, succeeded in dropping the Handycam a couple of times, but then it’s indestructible, a veteran of trips to Kazakhstan, China, Brazil and Cannes).
We capped off today with a shoot at the mansion offices of director Tom Tykver’s X Film (makers of the classic Run Lola Run). Rumor had it that the manse had a past life as a Nazi bordello, though rumor apparently turned out to be just that – rumor — upon making our official inquiries. Still, you’ll be intrigued by our friend Andreas’s interview as he shows us around the offices, pointing out the posters of the company’s hit Hitler comedy (an oxymoron?) and the singing elk’s head on the hall wall….Earlier, we had fun “buttering up” Tribeca Film Institute’s Brian Newman, with a humongous bag of fake popcorn which we presented to him as a reward for sitting for our battered Handycam, and which he doubtless took as an ironic comment on the commerciality of art films…
I’ll let Tanja report on who else you can expect to meet in some of our future videos, but I’ll leave you with this piece of advice: Next time you’re at a festival and the movies you watch are short on intrigue (or even memorability), try adding a little of both by shooting your own videos, preferably with a friend. Then spend until 3:30 each morning editing them for viewers like you. Then get up four hours later to start the crazy process all over again.
I guarantee you’ll be intrigued that you ever survived the festival, which you certainly won’t forget. If I’m wrong, consider my head frozen numb from the raging winter winds outside. Forgot to pack that Arctic cap.