February 27, 2023
WRITTEN BY: QUENTIN
After taking Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) by storm last September (40 movies in 11 days!), I knew going in that Berlin International Film Festival, or Berlinale, was going to be a different beast altogether due to the inherent language barrier, the February timeframe, the serious focus on the “international” aspect, and the fact that I was the lone Bitesize writer in attendance. Also, since I couldn't attend the entire 11-day festival, my time in Berlin was going to be extremely truncated, so given all that, how could it be the same experience? In the end, I only had 72 hours at Berlinale, which, with some scheduling magic, afforded me the time to see seven movies and the opportunity to visit famed sites like CheckPoint Charlie, Berlin Cathedral, and the highly rated speakeasy Bellboy Berlin. All in all, it was a good trip that came together better than I anticipated. I’ll talk more about the films I saw in a bit, but first, let’s talk about the Berlinale experience.
Ultimately, all the things I mentioned above had a huge impact on my festival experience; not in a “bad” way, but in a “it’s just different” way. For one, the language barrier made it extremely difficult to chat and network with other critics and film fans. Couple that with the fact that, unlike TIFF, nearly all the festival theaters were roughly 20 minutes from each other by train, and the whole experience simply felt a little less communal and celebrated. Sure, there were posters hanging around town, but there wasn’t a centrally located “Fest Street” like at TIFF. Furthermore, the overall vibe was pretty subdued…like, if you didn’t know the festival was happening, you might not have noticed it at all. Admittedly, the weather was awful: cold, windy, and rainy (like “pouring piss out of a boot,” as my late grandfather would say), which I’m sure put a damper on things, but still…. it just didn’t feel very festive.
On the plus side, the international focus and early festival date created an environment for true film discovery. TIFF premiered movies like The Fabelmans, Glass Onion, and The Whale, all of which came with massive hype and expectations as we neared awards season. Berlinale doesn’t play the same because there isn’t any hype or narrative surrounding these movies yet (most don’t have trailers or even posters), so you’re basically throwing darts. For example, I chose one movie merely because Alicia Silverstone was in it, which is a weird sentence to say in 2023. Also, I was able to secure extra tickets to two screenings, so my girlfriend got to enjoy a bit of the festival experience as well, including the world premiere, red carpet, and Q&A for Reality, starring Sydney Sweeney. As for those dart throws, I got pretty lucky because they hit the mark for the most part.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about some movies…
This is the movie I chose mostly because of Alicia Silverstone, but I was also intrigued by the synopsis and Midnight Madness horror vibes it gave off. And frankly, there weren’t a ton of options for the time window I had. Unfortunately, my first Berlinale movie was also the worst movie I saw. It’s never lacking in gore or violence, but the whole affair feels like a slightly elevated student film, from the amateurish acting to the over-the-topness of it all. It’s angry, visceral feminist horror, which isn’t a bad thing, but it plays more like a visual art experiment than a coherent movie. It’s simply overstuffed with too many ideas and too many swings at extreme and campy rawness. All that said, Cronenberg die-hards might find something here worth their while. As for Silverstone, her campy staccato line delivery is laughably distracting at times, but my teenage crush remains strong, nonetheless.
Synopsis: On her 18th birthday, tough-girl Jonny (Kiah McKirnan) eats a cake baked by her aunt according to a magical family recipe and undergoes a radical metamorphosis. As several classmates go missing, a bloody coming-of-age story takes its course.
Starring: Kiah McKirnan, Alicia Silverstone, Christopher Lowell, Melanie Liburd, and Ireon Roach
Director: Jennifer Reeder
Of all the movies available to me during my short time, BlackBerry is probably the one I was most looking forward to. For one, it seemed to be the most accessible movie for an English-speaking American in Germany because of its recognizable cast and my general familiarity with BlackBerry phones. But also, I love a good rise-and-fall corporate story, something this film certainly delivers. Tone-wise, it nimbly bounces between Silicon Valley and The Social Network, while the "rise" arc is much stronger than that of the "fall," which is a tad rushed. However, I can’t say enough about the casting. Glenn Howerton is perfect as a hot-headed corporate shark, bringing the same deep-seated rage he has demonstrated on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia for 15 seasons, and Jay Baruchel’s natural awkwardness serves his nerdy, “tech guy” character well. It’s not Oscar-worthy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if BlackBerry eventually wins some smaller awards down the line.
Synopsis: Adapted from the bestselling book Losing the Signal, BlackBerry tells the story of the spectacular rise and meteoric fall of the world’s first Smartphone. A humorous but unforgiving modern-day tale of big business and the relentless need to stay on top.
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Glenn Howerton, Matt Johnson, Cary Elwes, and Saul Rubinek
Director: Matt Johnson
Going in, I had a few reservations about Reality. If you aren’t aware, I am a former NSA contractor, so I have personal opinions about those who leak national secrets to the press, and typically, movies like this tend to go in the opposite direction of what I think. But I must give director Tina Satter credit because for most of the film’s 83-minute runtime, she doesn’t really take a side or paint Reality Winner (Sydney Sweeney) as a hero or a villain. The film remains neutral…until the last 10 minutes or so, when a quick montage belies that neutrality. Still, the movie is excellent. The approach is incredibly inventive, creating a surreal pseudo-documentary that helps establish a matter-of-fact point of view in the early goings. Plus, Sweeney is absolutely remarkable, playing a character that evolves from innocent naiveté to terrified realization with aplomb, and the chemistry and tension built between her, Josh Hamilton, and Marchánt Davis is off the charts. All in all, Reality should be on the shortlist of movies coming out of Berlinale with genuine Oscar buzz.
Synopsis: Director Tina Satter presents a snapshot of recent U.S. history and, using unedited original dialogue from an FBI recording, re-enacts the 2017 search of NSA whistle-blower Reality Winner’s home as a tense chamber piece.
Starring: Sydney Sweeney, Josh Hamilton, and Marchánt Davis
Director: Tina Satter
Truth be told, broadly speaking, this isn’t a movie that I’d make an effort to see. I’m just not a fan of Michael Cera’s particular brand of insecure nerd quirk, and the “person reconnects with family on a random trip home” isn’t exactly my go-to genre. That said, slim pickings, a recognizable star, and the mention of poker addiction in the synopsis made it the default choice on an early Sunday morning. Turns out, I would have been right to avoid The Adults. First of all, the most interesting aspect to me (the poker addiction) is severely underdeveloped. The story never paints Eric (Cera) as a true addict. He’s not broke, he’s not on tilt, and there is no struggle. He’s just a dude that really likes to play poker. Secondly, the dynamic between Eric and his two sisters is quirky and odd, but not in a cute way. There are multiple scenes where they talk to each other through weird impressions and made-up characters that they give absolutely zero context for. If you thought Michael Cera could be annoying before, wait until you see him crash his sister’s party doing a cringe Tony Soprano impression. I admit my preconceived bias likely is a factor here, but with even the lowest of expectations, this was a stinker.
Synopsis: The plan to make a trip back home as short as possible begins to unravel when Eric (Michael Cera) has to balance his addiction to poker with the challenging relationships with his two sisters Rachel (Hannah Gross) and Maggie (Sophia Lillis). All three are not the kids they used to be. Or are they?
Starring: Michael Cera, Hannah Gross, Sophia Lillis, Wavyy Jonez, and Anoop Desai
Director: Dustin Guy Defa
While not a “movie” in the most typical sense of the word, Hello Dankness is the Berlinale offering that I will spend the next few years telling everyone about. It’s an amazingly brilliant piece of art that perfectly encapsulates what it was like to live in the U.S. during President Trump’s time in office (depending on your political affiliation, I suppose). By repurposing, deep-faking, and manipulating movie clips from things like The ‘Burbs, Wayne’s World, American Beauty, and multiple zombie movies, the narrative’s stunning accuracy is only outdone by how clever it all is. Plus, as a movie fan, I was in constant “DiCaprio pointing at the screen” mode with each new doctored clip. In one surreal moment – keep in mind that I’m in Berlin – a 1940s-era, pro-Nazi song starts playing over a section that is representing the most extreme of Trump’s supporters. It drove numerous people to walk out. It was a wild scene, just like the movie, and it solidified that the directing duo Soda Jerk is a team whose work I will constantly seek out.
Synopsis: Assembling hundreds of film clips and media images, artist duo Soda Jerk creates a startling narrative about the changes undergone by American society since President Trump, while relishing in reflecting on contemporary cultural values.
Director: Soda Jerk
Similar to Michael Cera, Jesse Eisenberg also has his own particular brand: the internally angry and insecure white man. In Manodrome, with seemingly complete disregard for being further typecast, Eisenberg perfectly captures the aura of a rage-filled incel and toxic masculinity. Between the way he carries himself in the gym to the stone-washed "Bro" jeans, it’s all on point. Opposite him is Adrien Brody, who despite being an Oscar winner, has quietly made a career of popping up in supporting roles to inject a level of menace and gravitas. Granted, the story isn’t quite as strong as their performances, going pretty much where you’d expect it to go, but that doesn’t mean it’s poorly told or weak. It’s just not as incisive as it could have been despite still being an interesting examination of a broken man who feels he is a casualty in the battle against the patriarchy.
Synopsis: Ralphie (Jesse Eisenberg) is about to become a father, but his job and his personal situation fail to make him happy. When he is inducted into a libertarian masculinity cult, this awakens repressed desires and he loses his grip on reality.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Adrien Brody, Odessa Young, Sallieu Sesay, and Philip Ettinger
Director: John Trengove
Having already premiered in the U.S., Infinity Pool finally had its European Premiere at Berlinale, and I gotta say… I wasn’t a fan. It kicks off with a very intriguing premise, and I can’t fault the acting for the most part, but it slowly, and admittedly confidently, goes off the rails as the story moves along. It seems director Brandon Cronenberg was more interested in putting together a series of jaw-droppingly provocative set pieces than weaving together a coherent narrative. After not caring for Cronenberg’s last directorial effort, Possessor, it might be that his films just aren’t my thing. With that in mind, there are surely those who like to vibe out to pure shock-value horror imagery and trippy sex scenes, and for those people, Infinity Pool is a must see.
Synopsis: James (Alexander Skarsgård) and Em (Cleopatra Coleman) are enjoying the perfect vacation, but once a tragic accident occurs, there is no way back for the couple. Violence, boundless hedonism, and the horror of an unimaginable choice: be executed or, if you can afford it, watch yourself die!
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Mia Goth, Cleopatra Coleman, Jalil Lespert, and Thomas Kretschmann
Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Photo Credits: Berlin International Film Festival