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This yearís Berlin Film Festival was not lacking in glitz and glamour. Jennifer Lopez, Cate Blanchett and Sharon Stone graced the red carpet in their finery. Clint Eastwood and Robert De Niro upped the quality quotient when they presented their latest efforts as directors. There were ageing blondes, Marianne Faithful and Lauren Bacall delivering fine performances and giving fun interviews. There were some good films and there was ample mediocrity. Itís kind of what festivals are about, reports Helen Barlow.

The films that impressed most this year were smaller projects by directors who have stayed true to their own unique style. In fact it was something of a relief to watch Hal Hartleyís Fay Grim to see the one-time New Yorker who now lives in Berlin return with a kind of sequel to Henry Fool, though itís not necessary to have seen that film to appreciate this one. Parker Posey is at her quirkiest in this absurd spy thriller, where her character embarks on a quest to find her husband who may or may not be dead.

Steve Buscemiís second directorial effort, Interview, where he stars with Sienna Miller, dispels any notion that the British actress cannot act. In this remake of a movie by murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, Miller is fabulous as a bleached blonde American soap star, who gives Buscemiís journalist more than he bargains for.

Scottish director David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Asylum) seems to have brightened up with Hallam Foe, the irresistible coming-of-age tale of a teenager, who struggles to deal with his motherís suicide and becomes a peeping Tom. Jamie Bell, last seen in Flags of Our Fathers, is growing up fast and is emerging as a major talent. Embodying Hallam he says was his biggest challenge to date. Stephen Daldry, his Billy Elliot director whom he refers to as his best friend, flew over for the Berlin premiere.

"a conspiratorial thriller"

Paul Schrader likewise stays close to his roots with The Walker, starring Woody Harrelson as a gay eccentric millionaire, who takes wealthy women like Kristin Scott Thomas to the opera. The film, like Fay Grim, develops into a conspiratorial thriller.

Bordertown, however, was less successful partly because it was too ambitious. Directed by American Latino Gregory Nava (Selena) the film may tell a worthy story of the atrocities committed against women on the Mexican border, but even the presence of Jennifer Lopez (who acts convincingly enough in her role of a tough-minded journalist) couldnít save the film from audience derision because of its clunky dialogue. Itís a pity as there are some beautifully filmed scenes, which bring to mind the gritty textures of Mexican filmmakers.

Antonio Banderas, who seemed a little straight-jacketed as a newspaper editor in the film, garnered a more positive response (and the valuable Europa Cinemas Label prize) for his directorial debut, Summer Rain. He shot the raunchy coming-of-age-story in Spanish in his home town of Malaga not only because the story is set there but to escape the strictures that would have been imposed on him in Hollywood. He admits that the success of his Puss ín Boots character in the Shrek movies has afforded him a freedom to pursue the creative and politically oriented films he presented at the festival. (Shrek The Third looks likely for Cannes.)

Like J-Lo, Sharon Stone caused a media flurry with her Berlin appearance to promote the Canadian movie, When a Man Falls in the Forest, yet that film met with the weakest reception of all.

Sarah Polley stuck to her Canadian roots with Away From Her, a film about Alzheimerís disease that might not be to everybodyís taste. If you are prepared to go along for the ride though, itís ultimately a touching love story as a former university professor watches his wife drift away from him at a younger age than anyone might expect. Julie Christie, who aged for the part, is formidable in the role of the Alzheimerís victim and retains her luminous beauty.

What everyone conceded at the festival was that it was a good year for performances, and probably none were better than Oscar nominees Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal. Blanchett also set the mood for the cold war drama, The Good German, even if German critics complained that a German actress should have been cast. Soderbergh explained how the moody black and white film, a kind of tribute to the movies of directors including William Wyler and Billy Wilder, could never have been financed without major stars. George Clooney, his production partner in the now defunct Section Eight company, is madly in love with Blanchett in the film, though the Hollywood heartthrob did not make it to Berlin.

"from strength to strength"

Their Oceans 13 buddie Matt Damon made the journey over from the London set of The Bourne Ultimatum and thereís no doubting that his acting goes from strength to strength. After playing against type as the bad guy in The Departed for Martin Scorsese, he now teams with Scorseseís one-time muse Robert De Niro for his second film as director, The Good Shepherd. Damon is impressive as a repressed agent in the early days of the CIA and manages to be unhappily married to Angelina Jolie in the film, which could be deserving of an award in itself.

Marion Cotillard and Ramola Garai were way better than the films in which they appeared. Last seen as Russell Croweís south of France love interest in A Good Year, French actress Cotillard excels as Edit Piaf in La Vie En Rose and renders herself unrecognizable.

Garai is the subject of Francois Ozonís vivid imagination in Angel. Based on British writer Elizabeth Taylorís novel it tells of a pulp romance writer who experiences success in her work but cannot relate to the darker soul of the man she marries. The film is one of Ozonís lesser efforts and it seems strange that for his first full-blown English-language venture--which was shot in England - that he should revert to the heightened stylization that made his French hit, Eight Women less of a success in the Anglo market. Sam Neill, impressive as Angelís publisher, travelled to Berlin to promote the film. Garai said she was comforted to be reunited with her Mary Bryant co-star while performing her most demanding role to date.

Warner Brothers brought their latest visual extravaganza, 300, to the Festival. While the film, based on Frank Millerís graphic novel, is artfully realised by Zack Snyder it was strange to hear a director talking about his revelling in violence at such a politically correct event. Snyder achieves the seemingly impossible task of visually depicting the heroism and gore of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. where 300 Spartan warriors went up against the barbarous hordes of the Persian god-king Xerxes.

Definitely a cool movie for the teens, as is Timur Bekmambetovís Night Watch sequel, Day Watch. Although a little too convoluted in its story, the Russian Matrix-like blockbuster delivers fireworks and special effects on a grand scale in its dealing with light and dark forces co-existing in a real world which looks mighty Soviet. Bekmambetov, who is currently directing his first English-language sci-fi feature, Wanted, starring Morgan Freeman and James McAvoy, and who is co-producing the animated feature, 9, with Tim Burton, is a creative filmmaking force to watch.

Clint Eastwood brought his most unusual movie to date, his Oscar-nominated Japanese-language Letters From Iwo Jima, to the festival. The lucid 76-year-old told how he became interested in telling the story of the famous World War II battle from the Japanese point of view when he filmed Flags of Our Fathers. ďEdmund Hilary climbed the mountain because it was there, so I thought why not do it? I like to learn new things. I have to develop a passion for something to make a film at this stage of my life.Ē Eastwood notes that now, 62 years later, we are allowed to think differently about the events. While the Iraq war did not influence the film, he admits that ďevery war has its parallels, the futility of it, the human condition of war. I didnít think about the Japanese point of view just about how tough it was for 19 year old boys to endure it.Ē

The Festivalís prizes came as something of a shock to the attending critics as English-language films hardly rated a mention. The awards can be viewed as an almost deliberate shun of English-language fare by the jury, headed by Paul Schrader and including his regular collaborator Willem Dafoe, with Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal.

If any Asian film was going to win, critics had been betting on Li Yuís controversial and sexually charged Lost In Beijing, yet it was the other Chinese competition entry, Wang Quaníanís Tuyuís Marriage, which took out the major Berlin prize, the Golden Bear. The filmís story of a Mongolian woman, who falls ill and is forced to leave her disabled husband in order to find a more able spouse, is a metaphor for rapidly changing modern China.

The best actress Silver Bear went to Germany's Nina Hoss for prime Golden Bear contender, Yella, where she plays a young East German woman who quits her job and broken marriage and moves from eastern Germany to the west, but remains haunted by her past. Argentinaís Julio Chavez won for best actor for his portrayal of a man who takes on a new identity following a family crisis in The Other. The Argentine/French/German co-production also won the Jury Grand Prix Silver Bear.

The best director prize went to US-born Israeli Joseph Cedar for Beaufort, his story of the last military unit to be stationed in southern Lebanon prior to the troops' withdrawal from the country in 2000. Personal, minimalistic and powerful, the film does not show violence and deals more with the soldiersí fear of facing death.

As for the few Anglo awards, David Mackenzie received a Silver Bear for his use of music in Hallam Foe, while a Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution went to the cast of The Good Shepherd. German actress Martina Gedeck, who has a small role as a German woman Damonís agent beds in the film, accepted the award for her absent co-stars. "Robert De Niro, this is for you!Ē she told the crowd. The retiring Gedeckís own talents will soon come the fore in the Oscar-nominated German film, The Lives of Others.

The critics prize went to I Served The King of England by Czech director Jiri Menzel, who had earlier been one of the favourites to win the Golden Bear.

While the Australian films at the festival were screened in sidebar categories and did not garner red carpet attention, they were well received by audiences and buyers. Ultimately they will be widely seen around the globe, unlike many of the award winners ó which of course is the point of giving such films awards.

Three Australian features and three short films screened across four sections of the festival. The Home Song Stories, written and directed by Tony Ayres (Walking on Water) and based on his own life, stars Joan Chen as a woman who falls in love with an illegal immigrant and then has to deal with her teenage daughter falling in love with the same man. Ayres fascinated international journalists with the details of his life in interviews, and the well-received film, which Variety called ďa finely chiselled dramaĒ, looks set for international release. Screen International called it ďa lively melodrama about a roll-with-the-punches beauty and her marriages and crisesĒ.

Darren Astonís Razzle Dazzle, set amongst the big hair and hoped-for glamour of a dance school competition for youngsters, created excitement in the Generations section. The filmís over-the-top tone, which harks back to Strictly Ballroom, makes it highly accessible to all audiences.

Far grittier is Daniel Krigeís low-budget West, which tells of two cousins in their early twenties living together on the outskirts of Sydney. Khan Chittenden (The Caterpillar Wish) and Nathan Phillips (Wolf Creek) play the cousins.

The short films comprised: Playground by Eve Spence, Tommy the Kid by Stuart Clegg and television presenter Paul McDermott yet again trying his hand at movie directing with the partly animated, The Girl Who Swallowed Bees starring Pia Miranda, narrated by Hugo Weaving.

Published February 22, 2007

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Sharon Stone in BerlinSharon Stone in Berlin


Hallam Foe

Notes on a Scandal

The Home Song Stories

Razzle Dazzle

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