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Berlin Reviews: ‘Two Men In Town,’ Blind Massage,’ ‘If You Don’t, I Will’ & ‘In Between Worlds’

Berlin Reviews: ‘Two Men In Town,’ Blind Massage,’ ‘If You Don’t, I Will’ & ‘In Between Worlds’

Two Men In Town” Dir. Rachid Bouchareb, starring Forest Whitaker, Brenda Blethyn, Harvey Keitel and Luis Guzman

A remake of a 1973 French film starring Alain Delon and Jean Gabin, “Two Men In Town” is a sadly missed opportunity. It’s a beautifully shot film (kudos to DP Yves Cape, who also served on “Holy Motors” and “White Material”), but one that, aside from some unusual casting decisions, brings nothing new to the ex-con-trying-to-go-straight genre. In fact it falls into its overfamiliar rhythm so quickly that you have to keep reminding yourself you haven’t seen it before. And it really is a shame, because Blethyn’s pragmatic, “Fargo”-esque parole officer is a pleasure, Whitaker’s character’s racial profile (black man with a white adoptive mother and a Latina girlfriend) is oddly but laudably rarely even mentioned, and the dusty, sun-blanched New Mexico landscape is well evoked by Cape’s Western-style photography; all sun flares and nods to John Ford. Not faring so well are Keitel, whose grudge-holding Sheriff is given major character inconsistencies in lieu of depth, Guzman’s one-note villain whose motivation for wanting so badly to drag Whitaker back in to his dirty trade is never clear, and Dolores Heredia as the girlfriend who is just a little too pretty and personable to convince as a woman who’d fall so hard for an ex-con on first acquaintance that she’d let him move in with her, like a week later. We can’t say we hated the film at all, and it is very good to look at, but we do wish that director Rachid Bouchareb had chosen a story that unfolded in an even fractionally less expected, less genre-loyal way. [B-]

Blind Massage” Dir. Lou Ye, starring Huang Xuan, Guo Xiaodong, Mei Ting, Zhang Lei

Touching on an aspect of Chinese culture that is of itself maybe more fascinating than the overwrought soap operatics the film devolves into, controversial director Lou Ye (he has been banned from filmmaking several times over by the notoriously sensitive Chinese authorities) uses a mix of professional and non-professional actors to play the blind protagonists of his sprawling ensemble film. It centers on a massage parlor run entirely by blind people, which is apparently a thing in China, and a viable career option for those afflicted with this disability. But Lou is less interested in exploring this as a cultural phenomenon than as a sort of college dorm series of romantic entanglements and mortifying misunderstandings, as love triangles spring up between the various sightless employees (all of whom live in shared accommodation on the premises too), and the psychological as well as physical difficulties that blindness can cause creates additional friction between the participants. To its credit, the film does not shy away from a frank treatment of the sexual nature of many of these relationships, and does not try to suggest that the unfairness of these characters’ lots renders them saints who are above physical, emotional and sexual violence. But the loose, unstructured feel of the story—as one of the masseurs falls first for a colleague’s girlfriend, and then for a prostitute, and as a boss becomes obsessed with the beauty of one of his employees (beauty he, naturally, cannot see), while his old friend resorts to desperate tactics to save his brother from a debt (the film boasts several memorably gory self-harming scenes)—makes it all feel like it’s never going to end, telenovela-style, until it abruptly does, making little sense of what’s gone before. Shot in pedestrian fashion, it is set in an intriguing and entirely foreign milieu, but the film ends up just too inscrutable and oblique for us to really engage with it, or its often incomprehensibly motivated characters. [C+]

If You Don’t, I Will” Dir. Sophie Fillieres, starring Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric

A slight, but enjoyably pessimistic bourgeois comedy that sees Pomme (Emmanuelle Devos) and Pierre (Mathieu Amalric) push their marriage beyond its breaking point simply through the kind of stubbornness and blame-finding that a lot of long-term couples might be able to relate to, Sophie Fillieres here reteams with her “Ouch” stars, but really this is Devos’ film. Her Pomme is a tremendously well-drawn and appealing character, an empty nester who is off work as she recovers from surgery to (successfully) remove a benign brain tumor, and who turns a casual hiking trip with Pierre into a days-long personal odyssey when she decides to stay in the forest and fend for herself following an argument. Endearingly, it’s only up to a point, as Pomme is not above choosing to nip out to a nearby shop for supplies when faced with the alternative of killing and skinning a rabbit. Reminiscent in its relationship dynamics of Roger Michell terrific Le Weekend” (both films also share a side commentary about the self-absorption of couples’ grown children), “If You Don’t, I Will” is, however, a less hopeful film that sees in all the bickering that often crosses that unflagged line into hurtfulness, a reason to split rather than a reason to stay together. Still Devos is a tremendously watchable presence, even when alone in a literal pit of despond in a forest, and her scenes with Amalric have the authentic feel of a long-taken-for-granted partnership. One to watch and laugh ruefully at with your partner if you’re in a pretty secure place—those on the skids should not apply. [B]

In Between Worlds” Dir. Feo Aladag, starring Ronald Zehrfeld, Mohsin Ahmady

Though it shares the “War is Hell” theme with the terrific “‘71” (review here), German Afghan co-production “In Between Worlds” traces a much more traditional narrative, in which the good intentions and resolutely balanced personal politics can’t quite compensate for the rote feel of a lot of the plot turns, even as a fine cast do their best to inject empathy and humanity into the proceedings. Well shot by director Feo Aladag and DP Judith Kaufman, the story follows Jesper (Ronald Zehrfeld, also star of another Berlin Competition film “Beloved Sisters”), a German officer returning to Afghanistan, which has already claimed his brother’s life, to lead a mission to stabilize a small rural region against the encroaching Taliban. There he meets Tarik (Mohsin Ahmady), a young teacher with a sister studying engineering, who thrusts himself on the troupe as an interpreter and soon becomes a mascot of sorts for Jesper, as well as a friend. But when Tarik’s association with the “occupiers” puts his sister in jeopardy, Jesper has to make a difficult Sophie’s choice-style decision that ends inevitably, in tragedy. The film won’t judge any of its protagonists, but perhaps a bit more pointedness could have helped make it a punchier affair, with a climax that doesn’t rely on the kind of massive, unfortunate coincidence that goes on here (of course it’s during exactly the short window that Jesper is not where he should be that a certain event goes down, despite there having been days of seeming inactivity beforehand). Impeccable intentions and fine performances are all very well, but it would have been more impressive if the film’s undeniable strengths had been brought to bear on a more provocative narrative, which, despite a hefty body count (including a completely unnecessary final addition to the tally) and a lot of Anguished Moral Decisions, feels a little too comfortable. [B]

Click here for all of our coverage from the 2014 Berlin Film Festival.

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