Berlinale, along with festivals like Sundance, Cannes, and TIFF, to name a few, is one of the most prestigious movie events of the year. 2018 marks the penultimate edition of the festival led by its current director Dieter Kosslick. After next year, when Kosslick departs, the venerable festival will undoubtedly go through major changes. But, for now, Berlinale offers a selection of eclectic international cinema. Surprisingly, included in the main competition are three features helmed by iconic—and prolific—American indie auteurs: Gus Van Sant, Steven Soderbergh, and Wes Anderson. Each possesses its own style, spanning impossibly wide-ranging bodies of work. But despite the status and following these filmmakers have enjoyed for years, one or two of these latest efforts fail to find the same success.
Isle of Dogs
(dir. Wes Anderson)
The gifted and detail-obsessed Wes Anderson must really miss his childhood dog (if he ever had one) since “man’s best friend” seems to play an important part in many of his films, like The Royal Tenenbaums and the Moonrise Kingdom. This time, however, the dogs are in the lead. As is his vision for a mysterious, futuristic Japan—a country and culture of which Anderson has always seemed fascinated by, and in which his second stop-motion animation, Isle of Dogs, is located. The film opened this year’s Berlinale and is considered the frontrunner in the Golden Bear competition (or best of the show).
Like in Fantastic Mr. Fox, his first stop-motion film from a decade ago, here we are dealing with ubiquitous symmetrical camera shots, meticulously designed frames, pastel colors, omniscient narration, a frugal soundtrack (that once again includes whistling), and an all-star cast. And this time Anderson pays homage through respectful and inspired references to the works of great Japanese filmmakers Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki. It’s so good to have you back, Wes Anderson! We’ve waited impatiently.
(dir. Steven Soderbergh)
Something’s utterly wrong in Steven Soderbergh’s new film, Unsane, and it’s not just the dangers that protagonist, Sawyer (Claire Foy), faces in the movie. Inspired by the likes of The Blair Witch Project (Joshua Leonard of the original cast plays the villainous stalker here), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and, possibly, Sean Baker’s Tangerine (because of the pioneering use of the iPhone to film), Unsane offers a look at a gritty mental-health institution where Sawyer—in a fierce turn from Foy—is forcibly located after she confesses having suicidal thoughts to an overeager psychiatrist. However, instead of the at-the-edge-of-your-seat feeling a thriller should provide, the film quickly plunges into implausibility and silliness. The indie auteur’s filmography has always been quite unpredictable, but this (badly lit) turn is a bit of a disappointing entry.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot
(dir. Gus Van Sant)
It took Gus Van Sant over two years to recover from his historically brutal Cannes flop, The Sea of Trees, which premiered at the festival to boos and laughter. Now he returns with his latest effort, the adaptation of the 1989 memoir of the Portland-based quadriplegic cartoonist and sobering alcoholic John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix).
I often feel that movies “inspired by the true events,” as well as life-affirming bio-pics, have the tendency of being far too sentimental and repetitive for their own good and it’s no different with Van Sant’s latest effort. However, thanks to the charismatic, inspired and nuanced performances from an all-star ensemble cast, including Phoenix, Jonah Hill (in a Tom Petty wig), Jack Black, and Beth Ditto (of indie rock band Gossip), Van Sant is able to make good use of the comedic potential of the dire circumstances and manages to lose the evangelical tone of the source material.
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