Tuesday, 10 February 2009

BFF5: It's a warzone

Working at a film festival is pretty tough going. After about four days of wall-to-wall screenings, navigating a seemingingly impenetrable system of checkpoints, internet access, transport options, venues and officials, you're not sure whether it's day or night or if you should be running to a screening or scrounging for food in the five minutes you have to spare all day. Meanwhile, here in Berlin, you have to keep an eye out for bicycles roaring up and down the pavements, as sidewalks have a bike lane in the middle of them.

And up on the screen it can be pretty brutal as well, with movies dealing with subject matter that's much heavier than normal multiplex diversions. Although for a film critic, it feels like taking a holiday from mindless fluff. Even when you see a bad movie here, it's usually provocative and intriguing. And of course there's also the star spotting! On Monday, I caught a glimpse of Keanu Reeves (here with Rebecca Miller's latest film) as well as the foursome above from The Messenger: Steve Buscemi (also seen here in Sally Potter's Rage), director Oren Moverman, Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster. Speaking of which...

The Messenger
dir Oren Moverman 09/US ****
Sensitive and devastating, but a bit too straightforward to be a masterpiece, this post-war drama stars Ben Foster as a young veteran assigned to casualty notification with a bitter, twisted veteran of Iraq War I, played with a lot of steely emotion by Woody Harrelson. An offbeat romantic plot involving war widow Samantha Morton constantly threatens to become seriously yucky, but stays thoughtful and surprisingly haunting. It's also extremely well directed, with a raw sense of silence.

The Good American
dir Jochen Hick 09/Ger ***
This low-fi doc about male escort promoter Tony Weisse tells a fascinating story of a man who moved to America and then disappeared illegally into the system, where he turned to prostitution to survive and eventually helped launch the most successful rent boy website on earch, accompanied by a circuit of parties. The film follows him around America and then as he returns to Berlin for the first time in oevr a decade, knowing he might never be able to go back to New York. It's all rather indulgent, never quite sure whether it's documenting the man or his business. But it's lively and entertaining, sometimes almost uncomfortably intimate, and when it sticks to one aspect of the story, pretty revealing. Filmmaker Hick, along with Weisse and many of the guys from the film, took to the stage at the end for an intriguing Q&A that centred on what it was like to live with a camera peering at your every move the years the film was in production.

Fig Trees
dir John Greyson 09/Canada ***
This is another outrageously inventive rant from Greyson, similar to his pop musical Zero Patience, but this time playfully using opera to look at the life of notable Aids activists Tim McCaskell from Canada and South African Zackie Achmat. Mixing new interviews with film clips, satirical songs, animation and Gertrude Stein's opera Four Saints in Three Acts, this film keeps us mesmerised with its multi-screen, subtitled lyricism, constant comical touches and an underlying sense of anger at the greed of pharmaceutical companies and government inaction (or worse) that have resulted in the loss of literally millions of lives. It's extremely bold and inventive, and well worth seeing, but will never cross over to mainstream viewers. Greyson was at the screening, and fielded a wonderfully articulate, entertaining Q&A session afterwards.

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