Back to the Competition today to catch up with four entries, two of which I quite like; as for the other two, well. Notes will be briefer this time around, as I let other reviewers sketch the plots and tick off a few notable details.
Karim Aïnouz’s Praia do Futuro is the very definition of a slow-burner, even if it does open with an event: Brazilian lifeguard Donato (Wagner Moura) manages to save German tourist Konrad (Clemens Schick) from a ferocious undercurrent the “Beach of the Future” on Brazil’s northern coast is famous for, but not Konrad’s friend. It doesn’t take terribly long, either, for Donato and Konrad to become lovers, but once they do, there’s an awful lot of lolling about, whether it be in apartments, on seaside rocks, in an elevated train, and so on. But each succeeding chapter—there are three in all—seethes with what we’ve picked up on in the previous one. The pace of the third is no quicker than the first, but by this point, every movement is loaded. Aïnouz, Moura and Schick get something very right about the way relationships evolve and, working with cinematographer Ali Olcay Gözcaya, effectively evokes the contrast between sunny Brazil and cold, cold Berlin.
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
“Whether the men at the center of Praia do Futuro are swimming, running, dancing, fighting or having vigorous sex, the physicality of their bodies is mesmerizing,” writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “It can be sensual, liberating, dangerous or all three. But Karim Aïnouz has always been more attentive as a filmmaker to the creation of atmospheric and emotional texture than to story or character, and that bias inhibits this visually seductive drama from fully engaging beyond the aesthetic level. Still, the film’s extraordinary tactile beauty and depth of feeling—even if the latter is too seldom articulated—will cast a certain spell over admirers of poetic, image-based cinema.”
“Down to the geometric, pop-hued credits, not one aesthetic element of the film’s construction has been ill considered, though stylistically, Aïnouz is something of a magpie,” finds Guy Lodge in Variety. “There’s a touch of Jacques Audiard to the film’s oblique, movement-driven opening, and Michelangelo Antonioni to its later, chillier stretches of landscape-fixated mysticism…. Like the best appropriators, however, Aïnouz works any such scraps into a patchwork that is consistently his own.”
“Low on dialogue, high on gorgeously moody photography, this [is a] thoughtful, erotically-charged piece,” agrees Jonathan Romney in Screen Daily. And “Moura’s sensitive Donato contrasts nicely with Schick’s more abrasive style.”
About ten years ago, D.K. Holm introduced the term “film soleil,” and while Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice (Bai Ri Yan Huo) has its share of neon-spiked night scenes, it is a bright and smartly lit noir that’d fit right into the subgenre. Body parts scattered across an area of northern China a couple of hundred miles wide kick off a swift detective story that slows in the middle but picks up nicely again in the third act.
I don’t know what to make of the two reviews that have appeared as of this writing. “What’s missing is a solid, well-told plot to keep audiences alert and justify the painstaking trouble taken with the background,” writes Dan Fainaru in Screen Daily, while the Hollywood Reporter‘s Deborah Young finds the plot “incomprehensible.” No, all the pieces are very much there, and they do eventually fall into place. What’s more, we’ve got a terrifically unconventional detective in Zhang Zili (Liao Fan), a mysterious femme fatale in Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun Mei), excellent camera work by a Dong Jingsong (the shift from 1999 to 2004 is a particular standout) and, yes, an intriguing story.
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
At least Young finds Black Coal, Thin Ice to be “an exciting stylistic tour-de-force in which writer-director Diao Yinan combines the wry humor of his debut film Uniform with the bleakness and pessimism of his 2007 Night Train.”
For Fainaru, though, “the one thing that an audience can hope to latch onto is the realistic feeling of each frame, offering the equivalent of a visit to one of the more remote and less fashionable corners of China, at one of the less attractive times of the year.”
Updates, 2/21: “What could have been an 80-minute, conventional crime story is instead a mysteriously meandering exercise in pure mood,” writes Adam Cook of the Golden Bear-winner in the Notebook. “Diao Yinan is far more invested in the peripheral elements of the narrative landscape, emphasizing objects, spaces, lights, incidental digressions—exploring the space around the story. Rather than serve the narrative, this instead reinforces the film’s secretive pacing, which consistently unfolds in focused precision, even when bursts of violence interrupt the film’s almost lethargically poker-faced direction.”
For Variety‘s Scott Foundas, Black Coal, Thin Ice is “a bleak but powerful, carefully controlled detective thriller in which—as with all the best noirs—there are no real heroes or villains, only various states of compromise. A most curious hybrid of genre movie and art film, drenched in neon and wintry industrial bleakness, this third feature by the gifted mainland Chinese director Diao Yinan reps a significant advance in scale and craftsmanship over his festival favorites Uniform (2003) and Night Train (2007).”
“In its first half, the film is excellent,” agrees Giovanni Marchini Camia, writing for Film Comment. “The unkempt, unorthodox detective, the sudden bursts of violence and acrobatic action, and the dark, incongruous humor, all of which are strongly reminiscent of Bong Joon-ho’s work, move the story along at a brisk, captivating pace. As Zhang sleuths his way to the truth, however, this momentum disappears. The primary reason for this is sloppy storytelling, which makes the increasingly complex chain of events confusing instead of intriguing.”
The BFI’s Geoff Andrew finds Black Coal to be “flawed by the odd clumsy, perhaps unintentionally funny moment and by a narrative that occasionally rambles a little; but it deploys its staple elements—divorced detective who drinks too much, femme fatale, mysterious prime suspect—with genuine affection, so that one forgives and is carried along by any familiar tropes.”
For Jessica Kiang at the Playlist, “the odd rhythm of very fast and slick followed by very slow and arty is difficult to settle into, and the film ultimately frustrates, willfully obscuring the apparatus of what appears at first to be a promising film noir framework.”
In 2009, Claudia Llosa won the Berlinale’s top prize, the Golden Bear, for The Milk of Sorrow, and this year she returns with her first feature in English, Aloft, and a lofty cast it has, too: Jennifer Connelly, Cillian Murphy, Mélanie Laurent, Oona Chaplin (yes, Charlie‘s granddaughter), and William Shimell (still best known for playing opposite to Juliette Binoche in Abbas Kiarostami‘s Certified Copy), and I’m embarrassed for all of them.
Now, anyone who’s seen Rivers and Tides (2001) is going to admire Andy Goldsworthy, but suppose, just suppose that his site-specific sculptures had healing powers. And suppose that the gift, the ability to create them, could be passed on. And suppose… or don’t. Aloft lost me early on, but I stuck it out. Because I’m afraid it might win something.
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
The Telegraph‘s Tim Robey: “The odd thing about Aloft, which is bleakly bonkers, and shot with verve by the talented Nicolas Bolduc, is that it keeps your attention in skeptical suspense, at least up to a point. It’s arrestingly pretentious.”
At Indiewire, Eric Kohn gives it a C+: “Aloft lingers in tragedy and somber characters, yielding a project better at generating mood than deepening its plot over the course of two alternating eras: In the first, farmer Nana (Connelly) struggles to care for her two young boys, one of whom suffers from a terminal illness; decades later, the movie follows the plight of her adult older son Gully (Murphy), who hasn’t seen his mother since she abandoned him during his childhood and now leads a challenged married life while caring for his falcons. After a woman named Jannia (Melanie Laurent) shows up at Gully’s own farm claiming to be a television journalist, she expresses interest in tracking down Gully’s long-lost mother, who joined up with a cult-like faith healer (William Shimell) years ago after the man convinced her that she had powers similar to his own. Struggling to face the demons of his past, Gully joins the young woman in her quest; the result is a dreary road trip through the tundra that sets the stage for more flashbacks.”
Updates, 2/21: Llosa “invents a rickety belief system as a pretext for tearing it all down, botching the telling of a more satisfying character-based story in the process,” finds Variety‘s Peter Debruge. “In the end, everything fits together rather ingeniously, though it’s clear that in orchestrating her needlessly complicated nonlinear narrative, Llosa has mistaken confusion for suspense.”
“It opens with a pig giving birth on camera, which is always a promising start,” writes Stephen Dalton in the Hollywood Reporter, “and ends with a self-help sermon which seems to suggest that a child’s tragic death is all part of Mother Nature’s cosmic plan. Which is plain fatuous. The meandering journey between these two points is bumpy, occasionally sublime, but ultimately disappointing. Strip away its gorgeous wintry landscapes and we are left with a symphony of ponderous New Age mumbo-jumbo masquerading as philosophical wisdom.”
“Aloft is a meditative, thoughtful film, that wants to glide like a hawk into the sky and inspire us to wonder, but its narrative has feet of clay that all the wispy winsomeness cannot conceal,” writes Jessica Kiang at the Playlist.
“At nearly two hours, much could have been cut and it likely would have held together better, with unnecessary moments abandoned in favour of what is already a fairly stripped-down story,” finds Shelagh M. Rowan-Legg at Twitch.
Anna Weinstein interviews Llosa for Film International.
Feo Aladag’s When We Leave (Die Fremde, 2010), featuring Sibel Kekilli, whom we haven’t seen enough of since Fatih Akin’s Head-On, is a pretty engaging story about a young mother torn between two value systems that Aladag, a German married to a Turkish-German, clearly knows something about. Just as clearly, she hasn’t got a clue as to what’s going down in Afghanistan or, to be fair, hasn’t the ability to turn her research (surely she did her research!) into a convincing narrative. Everything about Inbetween Worlds (Zwischen Welten)—screenplay, casting (as much as I generally admire the work of Ronald Zehrfeld and Burghart Klaußner), direction, pace, everything, is wrong, off, disastrous. Inbetween Worlds doesn’t even earn the critic’s standard mercy killing, “well-intentioned.”
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
“Anyone who believes Western military intervention in Afghanistan is a huge waste of time and lives will probably have their opinion confirmed by Inbetween Worlds, a beautifully shot art house film that takes the audience behind the scenes of a German Army unit defending a village from Taliban attacks,” writes Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter. “Another viewer could argue that director Feo Aladag shows precisely the opposite: the urgent need for Western and Afghani cooperation to win the conflict, at a time when German troops are preparing to withdraw from the country after more than a decade. These multiple viewpoints are inevitable in a film that dilutes its strength by switching back and forth from Germans to Afghanis, leaving the drama in no man’s land.”
“Although the film’s emotional impact can occasionally be diluted through the mechanics of familiar plot devices, this is still a very accessible, even-handed story,” finds Fionnuala Halligan in Screen Daily.
Guy Lodge, hammering the last nail, however intentionally, in Variety: “The film’s visual palette, as well as its marriage of classic melodrama with contempo grit, is most strongly reminiscent of Susanne Bier’s earlier work; if seen in the right places, it’s slick enough to potentially secure her an English-language assignment.”