At what point do you make your mind up about a movie? It's an especially pressing question at a festival like Berlinale, where you can watch as many as seven or eight films a day. There’s a risk of just letting these films wash over you and, to borrow a French phrase, “fall from your eyes,” so that you leave the theater with just a vague impression of what you’ve seen and few specifics to say. To fight this I’ve decided to shape my Berlinale coverage around decision points: the moment where I pretty much made up my mind about a film, and how that moment reflects on the film as a whole, capped by my Indiewire grade:
Death Row (Werner Herzog) Towards the end of this three hour made-for-TV series on American murder convicts awaiting execution, Herzog has a contentious exchange with a Texas DA over a female inmate fighting for a retrial whom he's been interviewing. The DA, after making a heart-stirring plea on behalf of the victims of the case, warns Herzog about the risk of humanizing the killer in his mind by talking with her. Herzog replies, "I do not attempt to humanize her. She is already simply a human being." It's a startlingly direct statement of authorial intent that vindicates the presence of Herzog's voiceover that dominates the show. Unapologetically he asserts a clear-eyed personal sense of decency amidst an absurdly callous and punitive justice system. Someone should get him to replace Judge Judy. B+
Farewell My Queen (Benoit Jacquot) You would think a lesbian scene with Diane Kruger and Virginie Ledoyen would be something to celebrate; instead it's emblematic of what's off in this new wave costume drama. Kruger's Marie Antoinette bids adieu to her courtesan as the storm clouds of revolution approach the royal court. Kruger spouts teary platitudes of love while (Ledoyen hardly says anything, both are practically mummified in heaps of fancy dress, reducing them to decorative ornaments in their own key scene. Jacquot is a great director of in the moment cinema but his handheld camera feels wrong for a period piece, buzzing like a mosquito trapped in the grand halls of Versailles. The Paul Greengrass editing further diffuses the focus turning it into Marie Antoinette meets 24. C-
Formentera (Ann-Kristin Reyels) A remarkable middle sequence turns a late night swimming frolic involving a married couple into an eloquent dramatization of their discord, unfolding into extended sheer terror and humiliation for the wife when she's left stranded in the water. Nothing that follows matches the wordless power of that sequence, certainly not the climactic argument between the couple, featuring such accomplished dialogue as "Our life in Berlin really fucks me up." "I like our life in Berlin." B-
Nuclear Nation (Atsushi Funahashi) About midway in this documentary about the impact of the Fukashima nuclear disaster on the nearby city of Futaba, we encounter a cattle farmer tending to his herd, all of them contaminated and unable to be sold. The farmer, himself exposed to radiation, insists on feeding them - they wander freely through the nuclear ghost town, themselves ghosts, with no function to serve the society that abandoned them. It's the first truly immersive moment in the film, one that allows us to serve as committed witnesses to this devasting tragedy. B
The Delay (Rodrigo Pla) A weary single mother of three decides to abandon her senile father in an apartment complex, then later changes heart and seeks to retrieve for him. She spends a long cold night searching through every homeless shelter in town while her dad freezes in the apartment courtyard, remembering her command not to go anywhere so that she doesn't lose him. Several scenes later lady gets the bright idea to back to the place where she left him in order to find him, and we get the idea that the screenwriter has been stalling to milk the melodrama. Even the accomplished narrow focus camerawork can only do so much to elevate the shallow narrative. C+
Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of Press Play, and contributor to RogerEbert.com and Fandor. Follow him on Twitter.