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FESTIVALS: Berlinale Decision Points Pt. 3: Billy Bob Thornton and Melissa Leo play to their own tune

Festivals
by Kevin B. Lee
February 14, 2012 10:50 AM
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"Jayne Mansfield's Car."
"Jayne Mansfield's Car."

Part three of my Berlinale coverage, focusing on decision points: the moment when 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.

Read Part One  Read Part Two

Meteor (Spiros Stathoulopoulos) It’s hard to pick a defining moment for a film that juggles multiple modes, between hi-def animated sequences, digital landscapes, documentary/interview footage and romantic scenes between a nun and a priest secluded in a remote Thessalonian monastery. The film can be quietly audacious in isolated moments, like a matter of fact close-up shot of the nun’s genitals while she’s masturbating. But there’s a lack of cohesion between the diverse elements that keeps it from amassing dramatic power worthy of its blashemous climax. C+

Captive (Brilliante Mendoza) Basically this is the film Woman in the Septic Tank was made to ridicule, Pinoy no-budget exploitation trying to alight the festival prestige film elevator and missing the first step bigtime. A movie so mired in social issues-fellating, gratuitous audience-pandering and plain ineptitude I couldn’t stop watching just to see how bad it could get. There’s the awful CGI bird, the terrorists throwing Bibles off the boat and loads more Muslim-baiting, the shot of a baby being pulled out of a woman’s vagina in the middle of a firefight. But for me it was a shot of hostage Isabelle Huppert slurping pathetically on a flimsy bowl of instant noodles, wearing a look that deserves our outright contempt. F

friends after 3.11 (Shunji Iwai) I think it was the third consecutive extended talking head interview that made me realize that I was in for a two hour movie version of reading a long series of blog posts on the nuclear aftermath of Fukushima. Potentially great (or at least important) content thoroughly undermined by uninspired form. D+

Shadow Dancer (James Marsh) Towards the endgame of this thriller set in early 90s Northern Ireland, MI5 agent Clive Owen meets with the IRA double agent (Andrea Riseborough) he’s trying to protect. She’s wearing a red trenchcoat, a ridiculous choice for a secret outdoor meeting. They talk spy stuff and from out of the blue she kisses him. I took this to be a desperate attempt for the script to squeeze some half-baked romance into the proceedings, but upon further reflection there may be more cunning underneath the gesture. The direction throughout feels a bit flat for the narrative nuances to register, but still there may be more intelligence to this than I would initially credit. B-

Francine (Brian M. Cassidy, Melanie Shatzky) There’s a scene where Melissa Leo’s off-kilter animal lover is feeding her extended household of cats and dogs, scattering a nauseating mess of dry food all over her floor and even sprinkling it on the backs of the animals. Here the film seems to take the eccentriticies of its character too far: she’s worked at a pet store and a vet for crying out loud, and we’re to believe she resorts to this behavior? The only reason this comes off as remotely plausible is Leo’s commitment to the role portraying someone terminally lost in her own world, Leo’s guileless playfulness in the part invites us in. B-

Jayne Mansfield’s Car (Billy Bob Thornton) For all the Southern Gothic rococo and cul-de-sac subplots this film takes on, there are a lot of great little things going on, like around the start of the second act when Billy Bob is showing Frances O’Connor his car collection. He sets up the scene with a brazen obviousness of purpose (Billy Bob’s “Hey you wanna see my cars?” basically uttered like “Hey you wanna find out why you should fuck me?”) but as he geeks out over his hot rod the tone of the scene shifts in register into something dark and menacing, an all consuming obsession for things pure and fast wells up so quickly that it threatens to explode in his face. The film is chock full of such surprise tonal shifts, parting a cloud cover of narrative and thematic intentions to reveal many sublime moments underneath. This has been poorly received as a belaboured, ungainly work, but it plays like music to my ears. A-

Bestiaire (Denis Cote) For a good half hour there’s a masterful play of sound and image generated by various animals, whose organic physiognomies and noises clash wildly against the concrete and steel of their holding pens. The tipping point comes about midway with the introduction of a taxonomist plying his craft on a bird, eviscerating its carcass and reupholstering its feathered surface upon a styrofoam body. Sort of a stand-in for what the director is doing cinematically. What follows after doesn’t feel as attentive or compelling to what it’s filming, but this moment in all its tactile glory vindicates the film’s underlying thesis of us humans exerting control on all creatures with eyes and hands alike. B+

Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of Press Play, and contributor to RogerEbert.com and Fandor. Follow him on Twitter.

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