Stories from Berlin – Film and Music

Movie Rating:
April 25th, 2015 No comments

As many of you are aware, I just returned from a two week trip to Germany (including a day trip to Salzburg, Austria). It was an incredible trip, and over the next few weeks, I want to share some stories from my trip. Along with film, traveling is another huge passion in my life, and I feel lucky to have the ability to go on trips and slowly experience the world.

The first five days of my trip were spent in Berlin. In addition to seeing many museums, a palace, and the zoo/aquarium, I went to two concerts, and a film and television museum.

The Airborne Toxic Event

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I’ve been a fan of The Airborne Toxic Event for many years now. I love the depth and emotion in their lyrics, and I think lead singer Mikel Jollet has one of the most interesting and beautiful voices in music today. But, I’d never been able to see them live, as they’ve never come to Winnipeg. Well, it turns out they were playing a show in Berlin on the day that I arrived, so I bought a ticket the moment I found out. They were playing at a rather small club venue that was standing room only, and I arrived quite early so I was able to get a really good spot. The opening band was a German band (I didn’t catch their name, unfortunately…), and I really enjoyed them, but during the approximately 30 minutes between the opening band and the main event, I really started to feel the jet lag. I ended up sitting on a step in the club and had a little doze – haha! Of course, the moment The Airborne Toxic Event came on I pepped right back up and danced the night away. It was an amazing show, and I’d love to see them perform again.

The Symphony

My second evening in Berlin brought me to the Berlin Philharmoniker. I’d never been to a symphony before, and I thought this trip would be a great time to go for the first time. I really enjoyed it – but I was incredibly tired from a day of wandering around Berlin, as well as the remnants of jet lag, so I was fading in and out a little bit during the show. Nevertheless, to my musically untrained ears, the music was performed beautifully, and the sound quality in the concert hall itself was excellent.

Boulevard Der Stars

Berlin has its own Walk of Fame called the “Boulevard Der Stars”, and it was located near the concert hall, which itself was located near Potsdamer Platz. I came across it after the symphony and took some photos of some of the people I admire:

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I was pretty excited when I came across Brühl’s star! So excited, in fact, that I took the world’s worst selfie with it…

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To paint a picture of just how ridiculous I looked here – I was wearing a skirt at the time, and was sitting on the ground trying to angle myself in a way that I could get my face in the photo. I wasn’t particularly successful, but I have to laugh at how this photo turned out.

Museum für Film und Fernsehen (Museum for Film and Television)

This museum was also located near Potsdamer Platz, and I saw it the night I went to the symphony and vowed to return. This museum, as the name suggests, is dedicated to German film and television. The very lovely and helpful staff at the museum found my presence to be quite a curious thing, and I was asked several times where I was from. I don’t think they expected a Canadian to be interested in the museum, but as a cinema lover, I had to go! It was a very interesting museum (I skipped the television part, but the film portion was very thorough and captivating). It focused quite heavily on Fritz Lang, including an exhibit on Metropolis, as well as on Marlene Dietrich. There were artifacts, including letters, costumes Dietrich wore in films, and photographs, among many other things. There was also a section on more contemporary German cinema that included set pieces, props, costumes, storyboards, and scripts from several contemporary films.

It was an excellent museum, and one of many surprising finds in Berlin. I was glad I found it and visited.

Into the Woods

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 2.5
April 23rd, 2015 No comments

Into the Woods, 2014, USA

A baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) are unable to have children. It is revealed by a witch (Meryl Streep) that she has placed a curse on the baker’s family, and that until it is broken, they will remain barren. She gives them a list of things to find, which brings them into contact with other classic fairy tale characters who are looking for their own happily ever afters. But in this story, a happily ever after is not what it seems.

Oh, how I wanted to like this film. It’s a musical, and I generally adore musicals, but the film as a whole rings hollow. There’s little character development, so I didn’t find myself feeling any attachment for any of the characters, save for James (an amazing Daniel Huttlestone). We’re shown the characters, but we never have an opportunity to truly get to know them. Most of the characters aren’t very likable, either. Why should I root for a baker that is disrespectful to his wife? And why should I feel any pity for a witch who treats her daughter with cruelty?

It’s a shame, really, because the soundtrack was quite enjoyable and there were some catchy songs. The story itself just doesn’t work very well, and I get the feeling that the issues that presented itself likely only exist in the film version of the musical and not the stage version. How much was cut from the stage version, particularly given that it was a Disney film?

Streep received an Oscar nomination for her role, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why, other than that it’s because she’s Meryl Streep. Her performance was decent, but nothing outstanding (she’s certainly done far better). There were many other female performances last year that were far worthier of that Oscar nomination.

There were some good things about the film. The cinematography was fantastic. It’s dark and moody, which works well within the context of the story. The costume design and makeup were very good, as well. That being said, none of that makes the film worth seeing. I wouldn’t recommend paying to rent Into the Woods – it’s one of those films you may wish to watch once, but just wait until it airs on television.

Woman in Gold

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 3.5
April 5th, 2015 No comments

Woman in Gold, 2015, USA/UK

Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren; Tatiana Maslany as a young woman) comes from a wealthy Austrian family, but lost everything when she had to flee Vienna after the Anschluss just before the start of WWII. Her aunt (Antje Traue) was the subject of Gustav Klimt’s “Woman in Gold”, a painting that was taken off the walls of her family home by the Nazis. After her sister’s funeral, she discovers paperwork that leads her to believe that she may have a way to get the painting back as restitution. She hires Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), a young attorney and son of a family friend, and along with an Austrian investigative journalist (Daniel Brühl) work to build a case and take the Austrian government to court.

This film is based on a true story, which I’d first learned about in the documentary, The Rape of Europa. The Nazis stole artwork from all over Europe, and to this day, there are still restitution claims being dealt with, and there’s still a worldwide effort to ensure that art collections do not contain stolen art. Many paintings and pieces of art are still missing, sadly.

To those that are interested in this subject matter, Woman in Gold will be a riveting film. Altmann’s story is beautifully told, and both Mirren and Maslany are excellent. Admittedly, I am very unfamiliar with Maslany’s work, though I have heard the accolades she had received for her acting, and she was indeed wonderful. And, the vast majority of her dialogue is in German, as well! Brühl is also wonderful, as expected, in a supporting role as the investigative journalist helping out Altmann and Schoenberg, who is acting “in a very particular brand of patriotism”. I was less impressed with Reynolds’ work, which didn’t surprise me, as for the most part he’s not an especially good actor. While he attempts to display emotion during some of the emotional scenes, he remains stilted and awkward. Surely they could have cast a far more talented actor who would be more suited for the part, anyway?

I’m happy to read that this film is doing better than I thought it would. My afternoon screening of the film was almost full (though I think I was the youngest person in the theatre by about two decades!), and it sounds as if it will be expanded into more theatres.  This does my heart good, as I hadn’t seen any promotion for it whatsoever (I knew about it as I’m a keen follower of Brühl’s work, as regular readers will know). I had a bad feeling that the film was being “buried” after a very tepid premiere at Berlinale. I’m very happy to be wrong.

Woman in Gold is currently playing here in Winnipeg, and if it’s not playing near you this week, it surely will be in the coming weeks. Do make time and go see it, especially if you’re interested in the subject matter.

Noah

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 3
April 1st, 2015 No comments

Noah, 2014, USA

Noah is the director Darren Aronofsky’s adaptation of the Biblical story of Noah. In his version, he imagines Noah (Russell Crowe) as a bitter man wracked with PTSD and cynicism towards his fellow man. His only belief is in the Creator, and he is focused on building an ark to protect his family from the coming flood. His sons, Ham (Logan Lerman), Shem (Douglas Booth), and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), along with his adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson), his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and a group of fallen angels known as the Watchers assist him. As the flood nears, they’re attacked by a group of people led by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone).

Several aspects of the film worked well. Visually it looks spectacular. Most, if not all of the animals were created using CGI, and many of the animals looked entirely different from any known creature. They look fantastic, and this gives a sense that the film could take place thousands of years in the future, as opposed to in the past. There are impressively done battle sequences, and I loved the Watchers.

I also appreciated the more cynical Noah, as opposed to the traditionally virtuous Noah. This Noah is as brutal as his enemy, Tubal-cain, but in a different sort of way. It leaves you wondering why Noah was deemed worth saving by the Creator, when he was just as cruel as the non-believers. Is belief in the almighty enough to earn forgiveness in this film’s world? It was an interesting thing to ponder, and it is an interesting critique of organized religion, in my mind.

The film did have some problems, though – notably in the character of Ham. Ham was a detestable character, and one that reminded me of the modern day “men’s rights activists”. He was indeed meant to be detestable, but Lerman doesn’t do enough to own that role, and instead tries to straddle between being innocent, young and likable, and being a villain. He would have done better to more fully embrace the nature of his character, and play him as a more openly despicable character. Winstone was disappointingly underused, which is a shame, because he was excellent when he was on screen.

Generally, I enjoyed the other performances in the film. Aronofsky manages to get a surprisingly good performance out of Watson, who I’ve historically found to be a rather mediocre actress. Her character was probably the most interesting of the supporting roles, and she was given a lot to do in the film. And, her story is the real emotional centre of the film. Crowe is very good as Noah, as was Connelly as his long-suffering wife.

Noah was pretty decent, as far as epics go, despite its issues. It can be found on Netflix.

Love is Strange

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 3.5
March 28th, 2015 No comments

Love is Strange, 2014, USA/France

Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) are newlyweds. They’ve been together almost 40 years and have a small wedding with their family and friends in attendance. Once word gets out that they’re married, George, a music teacher at a Catholic school, loses his job. Unable to afford their apartment on Ben’s pension and George’s private music lessons, they sell it, and must move into separate accommodations until they find a new place to live. George sleeps on the couch of their friends, who throw loud parties. And Ben moves in with his nephew (Darren Burrows), his wife (Marisa Tomei) and their son, Joey (Charlie Tahan).

Love is Strange is a beautiful film about the power of love and commitment. It’s tragic to see this long-time couple separated shortly after finally being able to legally marry. It’s infuriating to think that this is not an uncommon scenario, and that you do hear stories of men and women who lose their jobs simply because of their sexual orientation. But, despite the separation, the two men make it work and remain just as committed as ever to one another.

Lithgow and Molina were excellent in the film. They have wonderful chemistry together. Both deal with very different problems at the homes they are staying at. Ben becomes privy to the problems his niece and nephew are having with their son, and is intruding on Joey’s private space. And George is up all night due to the late-night parties his friends are fond of having. But, most significantly, they struggle to find a new home that is affordable and suitable for them to live out the rest of their lives.

There were some threads that were left loose at the end of the film, particularly concerning Joey and his parents. The focus throughout the film was primarily on Ben and George, but I wish plot points about the secondary characters weren’t introduced, only to end up dropped and unresolved. It was a little frustrating and unsatisfying, when the ending itself was so emotional. Otherwise, the film itself was wonderful. You can rent it on Apple TV.

Touching the Void

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 3.5
March 24th, 2015 No comments

Touching the Void, 2003, UK

Touching the Void is a documentary about Joe Simpson and Simon Yates’ 1985 climb of the Siula Grande in Peru. During the descent, Joe was injured, and eventually Simon was forced to make a terrible decision. The film uses interviews with both Yates and Simpson, as well as Richard Hawking, who remained at base camp, and re-enactments to tell the story of how they survived.

Documentaries that use re-enactment footage don’t often sit well with me. I find that the re-enactments are poorly acted, and make the documentary feel artificial. I strongly prefer archived footage, contemporary footage and the use of pictures to tell a story. Touching the Void feels no less real, despite the fact that the story was told through re-enactments with professional actors. The acting was excellent (Brendan Mackey was especially good as Simpson), and the quality of the make-up, and cinematography were equal to that of any feature film. I truly felt like I was watching and edge-of-your seat thriller, and I was genuinely concerned for Simpson’s well-being, despite the fact that he was narrating his own story! This was easily the best use of re-enactments in a documentary that I have ever seen. It was just wonderfully done.

Director Kevin Macdonald was wise to let Yates and Simpson tell their own stories. There’s no outside narration, and the actors themselves have very little dialogue. Instead, the story is told through narration garnered from extensive interviews with Yates, Simpson, and Hawking. It added an extra touch to hear the story told in their own words. They’re both good speakers, and they are very straightforward and blunt about their experiences. It helps that the documentary was made almost 20 years after it happened – they’ve had a chance to process what happened and make peace with it in a way. They even acted as themselves in some of the mountain climbing scenes that were shot from afar.

Throughout the film there is a sense of tension and dread. It’s really a frightening story, and a warning not to underestimate the power of nature. There’s a controversial action that happens on the mountain that many people have mixed feelings on. I won’t reveal what it is, but many feel strongly one way or another. It’s an action that is well-explained and defended in the documentary.

Touching the Void was an excellent, if stressful watch. It is available to rent through Netflix.

Cinderella

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 4
March 18th, 2015 2 comments

Cinderella, 2015, USA

Admittedly, I was initially hesitant to hear that this film was being made. I am not a big fan of the animated Cinderella film, as I feel that Cinderella lacks any discernible personality. I feared that this adaptation would be similar, but I’m glad to say that the film does a lot to fix the issues of the dated animated version of the story.

Ella (Eloise Webb and Lily James) lives in a beautiful home with her loving parents (Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin). Sadly, her mother grows ill, but imparts her with the wisdom to have courage and treat others with kindness. Many years later, her father marries Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), a foul woman with two cruel daughters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera). After her father’s death, Ella is forced to act as the family maid and spends her days in solitude in the attic with her mouse friends. After a particularly bad bout of cruelty, Ella escapes into the forest, where she meets Kit (Richard Madden), the Prince, who says he is an apprentice in the castle. When a ball is announced, Ella is desperate to go so she may be reunited with Kit.

James is wonderful as Ella. She gives her a quiet sense of dignity; despite what her stepmother and stepsisters do, she will not be crushed. This incarnation of Cinderella actually has a personality, and she is driven by a desire to live the way her late parents encouraged her to. This film also improves on the stepmother, by giving her a history. We understand why she hates Ella, as misguided as it may be. And Blanchett is amazing as Lady Tremaine. We fear her, but in a way, we also pity her, because she has also faced tragedy, but instead of facing it with grace and dignity, she became embittered and cruel.

Another thing of note are the wonderful special effects. The scene where Ella’s dress transforms is absolutely beautiful. And the costume design was wonderful! Anyone who is a fan of period pieces will be grinning from ear to ear, because the costumes in this film are absolute perfection. Expect this film to receive a costume design nomination at next year’s Oscars, at the very least.

Director Kenneth Branagh managed to do what I thought would be impossible: make me genuinely love the story of Cinderella. This film is so moving and lovely that I cannot wait to watch it again. It will make you weep, but you’ll leave the theatre grinning from ear-to-ear. This is easily live action Disney film in quite some time. Do be sure to see it in theatres!

The Sound of Music

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 3
March 14th, 2015 No comments

The Sound of Music, 1965, USA

Yes, I hadn’t seen The Sound of Music – can you believe it? I finally made the decision to stop putting it off and watch it because I will actually be visiting Salzburg, Austria this year, which is where the film takes place. I couldn’t go to Salzburg without seeing the iconic Sound of Music! Though, apparently, the film is little known in Germany and Austria, which is understandable, given the subject matter and overall tone of the film.

Maria (Julie Andrews) is a young postulant at an Abbey in Salzburg. She’s well-meaning but has a penchant for mischief and would rather sing in the mountains than do her chores (who can blame her?!). She’s sent to work as a governess for Captain Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) and his seven unruly children. Maria manages to win over the children through song and play, and it is revealed that the children are all very talented singers. Maria and the Captain subsequently bond, leading to Maria facing a crisis of conscience concerning her commitment to the church. With the Anschluss approaching, Maria and the von Trapp family find themselves in grave danger and must make their escape from Austria.

Overall, I enjoyed the film. It’s a classic, and, of course I recognized many contemporary cultural references and satires as I watched the film. The tone is a little bizarre given the subject matter, though. It’s syrupy sweet and very schmaltzy, which is fine, but the Anschluss was a pretty dark time in Austrian (and German) history. Watching it as an adult with an interest in world history and knowledge of the actual events depicted just made the latter portion of the film seem a little strange and slightly uncomfortable. But, one must remember that this is a family film, so the actual threats and danger were undermined considerably. But I do absolutely understand why this film is so little known in that area of the world, especially since it was made in the 60s, when many people who survived the events of the film were still alive. It would have been profoundly disturbing to watch such a schmaltzy film depicting a traumatizing and difficult time you lived through. Even now, I get the feeling that it could be seen as belittling the Anschluss by people from that part of the world, so I can’t see it ever being a popular film in Germany and Austria.

The songs, many of which I was already familiar with, were mostly catchy. I had a particular fondness for Edelweiss, especially the reprise, which was easily the most moving part of the film for me.

The Sound of Music airs every Christmas here for some reason. So, if you hadn’t seen it (like me!), you can probably record it on TV sometime in December. Or, I’m sure it’s available to rent almost anywhere!

What We Do in the Shadows

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 4
March 10th, 2015 No comments

What We Do in the Shadows, 2014, New Zealand

This movie was such a surprise for me. I’d never heard about it before seeing it in the film listings, but looked up the trailer after the description intrigued me and decided to go see it. And, I’m happy to say, this was an excellent decision on my part, because it was hilarious.

What We Do in the Shadows is a mockumentary, with a tone that is a fantastic blend of Christopher Guest’s films and Shaun of the Dead. A documentary crew are shooting a film about four vampire flatmates, Viago (Taika Waititi), Vladislav (Jermaine Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and Petyr (Ben Fransham). The four vampires are clueless in the ways of modern life, and have the typical conflicts you’d expect flatmates to have, but with a vampire twist. When Petyr bites Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), he moves in, but further conflict erupts when it’s revealed that he’s crude and lacks discretion.

What makes this film work so well is the thorough character development. Viago is the neurotic one who tends to run the show, Vladislav is a washed-up shell of his former self, Deacon is the young rebel, and Petyr is the oldest one of the group. All of the development makes their interactions feel very natural and unscripted. I get the sense that much of it may have actually been improvised, which is common for films like this one. And, of course, the idea itself is ingenious: vampires dealing with the problems everyone else face, but in their own sort of way. It’s really such a funny film and the satire is very on point throughout.

And, another awesome attention to detail is the historical and cinematic homages that appear throughout. Petyr’s look is based heavily on Count Orlok, and Vladislav is clearly a homage to Vlad the Impaler. The filmmakers certainly got the documentary feel of the film down perfectly. While the audience knows rationally that this is a mockumentary, it looks and feels like a documentary throughout.

Vampires have become a bit of a tired trope in pop culture nowadays. However, I urge you to look beyond the tired trend and give this film a shot. The deadpan humour is perfect, and it’s unlike any other vampire film I’ve seen before. You can watch it in theatres now.

Eva Trailer

Movie Rating:
March 6th, 2015 No comments

I’m not sure I’ve ever posted a trailer for a film I’ve seen before! I saw and reviewed Eva last year, but at the time it hadn’t received an English subtitled release here in North America so I had to buy an imported copy. I’m happy to see that The Weinstein Company has finally decided to give this film a limited North American release. Better late than never, as the film initially came out in 2011.

I don’t love the trailer, though. It really doesn’t capture the tone of the film especially well. It’s a lovely, thought-provoking drama centred around Alex (Daniel Brühl), a shy robotics engineer and his niece, Eva (Claudia Vega). Eva bonds with Alex and helps him with the development of a free, childlike robot.

Anyways, the film was one of the best films I watched last year, so if it plays near you, definitely check it out.

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