Gus Van Sant returns to the Berlinale with his best film this decade, an open-hearted exploration of recovery that features a great central performance from Joaquin Phoenix. A biopic detailing the cartoonist John Callahan’s recovery from alcoholism and an accident that leads him completely paralysed below the legs, this is Phoenix’s attempt at a My Left Foot-style awards run. While nowhere near as remarkable as that Daniel Day-Lewis film, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is a fine crowd-pleaser that should do rather well once it is released domestically.
Don’t Worry is based on the memoir of the same name by the cartoonist, whose works eventually featured in the Portland newspaper Willamette Week for twenty-seven years. Callahan is a man burdened by anxiety and fear, who uses alcohol to mask his inability to process his emotions. One day he goes to a party, where he runs into Dexter (Jack Black) and together they carouse around town. When Dexter falls asleep at the wheel, drunkenly driving to the next party, the car crashes and Callahan is instantly paralysed. At first finding it extremely hard to move on with his life — having never envisioned himself as a paraplegic — his journey sees him trying to find some kind of inner peace.
This story is not told in a straightforward way, Van Sant deploying a nonlinear structure that moves between different times in Callahan’s life. Initially feeling rather disconnected, the purpose of such an approach reveals itself around two-thirds through. As such a broad movie, it might get too tiresome simply waiting for the usual tropes to occur. The accident, the “my names x and I’m an alcoholic” moment, the epiphany, the amazing girl, the relapse and so on — these clichés have been done to death. By cutting to the quick with this innovative structure, and focusing on the complexity of the character, the drama feels fresher than perhaps it should. Even the clichés of the AA program — which everyone can recite by now — feel real again by virtue of their relation to Callahan’s progression. His story is an inspiration, but through its humour never feels too didactic.
At its heart Don’t Worry is a feel good movie, designed to pull on the heartstrings and show people that even when things are at their lowest ebb, they can get better. Its sentimental nature is common from Gus Van Sant, who is unafraid to open his character’s hearts to the audience. The miracle is that it doesn’t become too soppy, largely thanks to the acting chops of the cast. Callahan’s journey is also Phoenix’s journey, the brilliant actor submerging himself into the role. Simply one of the best actors working today, he never short-changes a role, meaning that even when the film isn’t that great, he still performs exceedingly well. His embodiment of Callahan feels like the perfect corollary to his drawings — which in their gentle, sometimes un-PC observation of human nature — are extremely funny and give the film its unique personality. In addition, the context of the alcoholic recovery means that the movie is not afraid to discuss questions of faith and believing in a higher power — adding a strong spiritual layer to proceedings.
Van Sant casts repeatedly against type here; Rooney Mara as a kind Swedish helper, Jonah Hill as Callahan’s wise and helpful AA mentor, and Jack Black giving one of the best scenes of his career once we revisit his character a second time. Seeing comic actors such as Hill and Black play for drama works very well, because their body language and delivery is completely on point, helping to undercut the seriousness of the movie and give it that perfect sweet-spot between comedy and sincerity.
It is far from perfect, at times losing the thread of the narrative through its impressionist presentation, and repeating too many conversations when the point has already been made. Gus Van Sant experiments constantly here, sometimes employing unnecessary stylistic devices that don’t add anything to the movie’s themes. These things prevent the film from being a masterpiece in the general sense, yet as a crowd-pleaser, this story really knocks it out of the park. For any artist who thinks they are having a hard life, the story of John Callahan should give them both perspective and inspiration.
The 68th annual Berlin International Film Festival is scheduled to take place from 15 to 25 February 2018.
Berlinale 2019: ‘Greta’ Is an Important Tale, Turgidly Told
‘Greta’, inspired by the famous performance by Garbo in ‘The Grand Hotel,’ shares its inspiration’s lifeless quality.
An old nurse and a criminal strike up an unorthodox relationship in Greta, a moody queer drama from Brazil. Coming at a time when the full ugliness of homophobia has reared its head in the Latin American country, it’s a gentle reminder of the humanity of LGBT people just when they need it most. Still, its repetitive dramatic conflict, uninvolved dialogue, and stagey camerawork render the subject matter rather inert, delivering a film ultimately lacking in hard-hitting emotion.
Pedro (Marco Nanini) is a man desperately in need of human contact; he’s old and irascible, but cares deeply for his friends. His transgender girlfriend, Daniela (Denise Weinberg), is in the hospital, but the doctors won’t put her in the women’s unit, and Daniela refuses to go in the men’s unit. Yet, after finally convincing her to take a room in the men’s section, Pedro finds that the bed has been taken by Jean (Demick Lopes), a wounded criminal awaiting the police. Pedro helps him escape in exchange for giving Daniela a bed, and later, Daniela refuses to seek medical help for her terminal condition while the police are hot on the tail of Jean. Pedro, stung by the rejection from his girlfriend, builds a new relationship with Jean, in the process coming to terms with his own life.
The key to his character is his fascination with Greta Garbo, especially her legendary performance as a reluctant ballerina in Grand Hotel (1932). Her famous line from the movie — “I just want to be left alone” — spoke to Greta Garbo’s own dissatisfaction with Hollywood, especially after the sound era reduced her immense fame. Pedro even gets turned on by associating himself with the star, asking lovers to call him by her name. The irony of Garbo is that she doesn’t really want to be left alone in Grand Hotel, and neither does Pedro, who believes that Jean may be the one to repair his broken heart. It’s a fitting reference; Grand Hotel is a so-so movie elevated by a great Greta Garbo performance, while Greta is a so-so movie with only one thing worth really celebrating.
Greta deserves credit for its explicit homosexual sex, which, with the exception of one scene in a brothel, is always tethered to the plot. Director Amrando Praca reveals so much vulnerability and strength through body language alone here, his long takes really absorbing us into the sexual lives of our characters. My issue is that these long takes are also deployed for nearly every other scene, and talky one-take arguments quickly lose their power as they drag on too long. While the initial scenes between Pedro and Jean haunt us in their seductive dance, later confrontations veer too much into conventional crook-on-the-run territory.
Additionally, considering that Pedro falls for a literal criminal, it would have been interesting to see the film explore the context of homosexuality in Brazil and its current issues a little bit more. We do see sweaty dark rooms and glittering bars, but outside of these moments Greta feels rather thin on the ground. Sweet, but underwhelming.
Berlinale 2019: ‘The Awakening of the Ants’ is a Fine Study of Personal Change
‘The Awakening of the Ants’ subtly critiques Costa Rican gender relations through one woman’s personal change.
Isa’s hair is very long. She braids it to stop tangling, and washes it outside with a large bucket of water. Despite her best efforts, however, her hair still finds its way into the unlikeliest of places, such as her sewing machine and her familial bed.
Her approach to hair is somewhat like her approach to life: constantly organising, cutting, and shaping things to her desire. Balancing looking after two kids with her job as a seamstress, Isa has to do a million things at once, while couching her wishes within a framework that is respectable for a woman in Costa Rican society. Suffering from exhaustion, Isa faces a crisis when her husband expresses a desire for another child.
He is not a stereotypically toxic man. He is not a brute, neither is he a layabout. He is a product of a patriarchal environment, simply expecting his wife to provide for him. The point the film makes is that any man can be like this if he doesn’t listen to his wife’s needs. Shaping herself to his comfort in the economic, gastronomic, and the reproductive departments is too much for Isa, who finds a novel way to undercut her husband’s best efforts to conceive.
The Awakening of the Ants is a fine study of personal struggle that doubles up as a critique of a society that expects women to have as many children as God can allow. One early scene tells us the way the film is going: after Alcida’s family constantly pressure Isa to have another baby, she imagines herself destroying the family cake, aptly decorated with the shape of a cross. It’s undeniably heavy-handed, but nonetheless effective.
This is one of many metaphors used to illuminate both personal and political change. Hair is one of them, as are the different fabrics Isa weaves together to create beautiful dresses. The ants of the title, which creep into Isa’s house against her wish, seem to suggest the incremental movement of progress while hinting at the broader struggle all women must contend against. Ants may not be powerful by themselves, but together they can achieve almost anything.
Much of the movie’s power resides in the quiet conversations between Isa and Alcida. Director Antonella Sudasassi has a great knack of framing these conflicts within the domestic space. Rarely is there a two-shot scene of the two bickering, but instead the director centres these arguments around broken lamps, money in the pot, and raising the children, all with the little ones constantly breaking into the scene. Like the Netflix show Tidying up With Marie Kondo, it reveals the extent some women go to in order to ensure a perfect household, while men are unable to acknowledge the physical and mental efforts expended. With a strong focus on objects and metaphor itself, the conflicts in Ants lead to very satisfying pay-offs later on.
The film’s success rests upon Valenciano’s performance. She does a great job of embodying this internal change, one that doesn’t even manifest at first in any obvious way. She is not a perfect domestic goddess — simply a woman trying to do her best for the man she loves. Coupled with the confident and calm direction of Sudassassi, The Awakening of the Ants is a strong portrait of womanhood undergoing fundamental change.
Berlinale 2019: Settlements are Suicide in Israeli Drama ‘The Day After I’m Gone’
A quiet bereavement drama with international overtones, The Day After I’m Gone uses the theme of suicide as a metaphor for the state of Israel. Slowly peeling layer after layer to reveal the darkened heart underneath, it argues that inaction can often be the worst sin of all. Smart and complex right up until the final act, its power lies in the strength of its two central performances.
Yoram (Menashe Noy) is a veterinarian at a safari park. An early scene indicates his non-committal approach to life: driving along the park, he notices a man standing outside his car. He tries to convince him to get back inside, considering the obvious dangers of hanging around wild rhinos. He talks in vain until a park ranger arrives, shouts angrily, and gets the man back to safety. This scene displays Yoram’s inability to convince anyone to do anything, especially his daughter, Roni (Zohar Meidan), who has been missing for two days.
Yoram files a police report, and they ask him if he knows any of her social media log ins. He does not. He seems concerned, yet she comes home the next day and he doesn’t bother trying to speak to her. The next day, she tries to kill herself, and is saved only by the intervention of the police monitoring online messaging boards. Yoram has no idea how to deal with any of this; he can’t ask his wife for help, as she is already dead — a possible reason why Roni feels so low. A call from his mother-in-law, however, gives him an idea for a road trip and a potential place to bond. They drive across the desert towards one of the most controversial places in the world: a Jewish settlement in Palestinian land.
It quickly becomes evident that first-time writer-director Nimrod Eldar has bigger things on his mind than mere family drama. He doesn’t use the occupation as a direct metaphor for Yoram’s inability to connect with Roni, yet the tension with Palestine creates a source of permanent sense of unease for the residents in the settlement, as well as their tense relationship with Yoram. If only it was incorporated into the plot in a more satisfying way.
A magician they meet on the way says that he can bend spoons, but when Yoram presses him, he refuses to show his trick. This is symptomatic of the film of the whole, which steadfastly refuses to reveal what it’s really about. Is it trying to make a deep statement about problematic elements of the Isreali state, or simply leaving things open to interpretation? This central mystery drives the movie right up until the point that it doesn’t, refusing to commit one way or another. The broader thematic elements eventually serve as a distraction from the serious issue of suicide, depression, and bereavement that The Day After I’m Gone is trying to tackle.
Menashe Noy is suitably subtle as the indecisive father, a man who evidently loves his daughter but cannot find the energy to figure out why she wants to die, and Zohar Meidan complements this performance excellently, digging deep to find real resentment and sadness behind the self-hatred. They make the film worth watching, even if it can’t quite figure out what it wants to say. No one would expect the filmmaker to make an outright criticism of these settlements, yet a little more confrontation seems to be in order.
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