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Monday, May 20, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Berlin & Beyond &... Milli Vanilli?

Screen Grabs: Berlin & Beyond &… Milli Vanilli?

The German-language film fest keeps broadening its borders. Plus: Ken Loach's finale 'Old Oak' and 'Dig! XX'

San Francisco has hemorrhaged movie houses in recent years, yet somehow we still have possibly the greatest density of annual film festivals—though it’s precarious times for them, too, not least because of that venue shortage. Among those still hanging on despite changes in cultural climate (and institutional personnel) is Berlin & Beyond, which the Goethe Institut’s Ingrid Eggers founded in 1996. She got shown the door 13 years later, but the festival continued—including some satellite events in other cities—highlighting the latest in German-language cinema from Austria and Switzerland as well as Germany.

Its usual home base of the Castro Theatre is out of commission for now, so B&B’s 28th edition will run this Thurs/18-Sat/20 at the Roxie Theatre, then Sun/21-Mon/22 at Berkeley’s Rialto Cinemas Elmwood. The festivities begin with Markus Goller’s One for the Road, a seriocomedy with Frederick Lau as Mark, a cheerful manchild who’s got his alcoholism under some semblance of control. Hey, he knows when he’s too drunk to drive. Yet the law doesn’t see it that way when, caught re-parking his car at a boozy night’s end to avoid a fine before he walks home, he is nonetheless ticketed for a DUI.

License suspended, he’s required to attend an AA-like course to get it back. There, he meets others who take their substance issues more seriously, including Helena (Nora Tschirner), who might become his partner in more than sobriety—if he can stay sober, of course. Munich native Goller, an editor and producer as well as director who has several respected home-turf hits on his resume, will be present to accept this year’s Berlin & Beyond Festival Film Maker Award. (One from the Road will also repeat Mon/22 in Berkeley.)

Another very special guest accompanies Friday’s screening of Girl You Know It’s True. This new biopic from Simon Verhoeven (son of two celluloid legends, the Austrian actress Senta Berger and German director Michael Verhoeven) looks back at what was Germany’s biggest, most improbable export 35 years ago: Pop R&B duo Milli Vanilli. They were a global sensation, racking up huge sales and a Best New Artist Grammy before it all went down in flames. Tijan Njie and Elan Ben Ali play Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan, the street dancers who rocketed to fame, then crashed down when it was revealed they were just lip-synching to other singers’ studio-recorded tracks; Matthias Schweighofer is Frank Farian, the producer/puppeteer for that and other global pop acts. Fab Morvan himself will be present at the Roxie screening.

Also appearing in person is Bettina Oberli, whose writing/directing career in Swiss film and TV will be spotlit Saturday afternoon. The program will encompass a 35mm screening of her 2006 Late Bloomers, a Full Monty-esque ensemble comedy about small-town women “of a certain age” opening a racy lingerie shop, plus an episode from her recent dramatic series 37 Seconds.

Youth will be served in many of this year’s B&B selections. There’s a reprise of Germany’s excellent Best International Feature Oscar nominee The Teachers’ Lounge, which we previously reviewed here. If that educational-system nightmare doesn’t put you off the profession, brace yourself for even more alarming classroom sequences in David Wnendet’s likewise impressive Sun and Concrete. His protagonists are four high schoolers living in a rough neighborhood on Berlin’s outskirts, running a gauntlet of violence between faulty or absent parents, ethnic gangs, and bullying fellow students—while frequently reckless and stupid in their own immature actions. It’s an intense, often unpleasant narrative, though one not without empathy, hope, or humor, and is highly recommended. Also reflecting youthful realities, albeit in presumably less-harrowing fashion, are Marc Rothemund’s autism-focused Weekend Rebels, Carolina Hellsgard’s boarding-school comedy The Flying Classroom, and Mara Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s Africa-set juvenile mystery Thabo and the Rhino Case.

Other features in Berlin & Beyond 2024 include celebrated longtime writer-director-actor Margarethe von Trotta’s latest Ingeborg Bachman: Journey Into the Desert. It has Vicky Krieps as the titular late Austrian author, whose short and stormy life included relationships with other famous writers (Paul Celan, Max Frisch) and even, reportedly, a young Henry Kissinger. Diu Hao Do’s documentary Hao Are You travels the world in search of his relatives, who fled Vietnam (mostly for Germany) at the “American War’s” end half a century ago. Now scattered and bitter, they reluctantly discuss a family history long since divided by geography and grudges.

The official closer in SF on Sat/20 is Charly Hubner’s Sophia, Death and Me, a caustic whimsy in which young Reiner (Dimitrij Schaad) gets an unwelcome visit from death’s emissary Morten (Marc Hosemann). But instead of his being dragged prematurely into the afterlife as ordered, a glitch strands this agent of mortality in the land of the living. You’ll die laughing…or at least, that’s the idea.

The festival’s virtual component (of home streaming options) was as yet unannounced at presstime. For the full schedule and other info, go here.

Other notable screen events this week include the arrival of what is apparently 87-year-old Ken Loach’s final film, The Old Oak. (He’s still alive, just retiring.) Though not necessarily among his best, it nonetheless provides a fitting capstone to a career almost exclusively devoted to portraying working-class UK lives onscreen, starting with the memorable duo of Poor Cow (1967) and Kes (1969). Forefronted here is a theme present in much current European cinema, including those at Berlin & Beyond: The arrival and reaction to new immigration waves, including those fleeing war or oppression in the Middle East and Africa.

Set non-specifically in “North of England, 2016,” its location is a onetime mining town fallen on hard(er) times since the mines closed—though we glean life was pretty hard when they were open, too. Still, residents faced with deprivation, joblessness, and anonymous offshore interests buying up and devaluing properties find a new target for their generalized anger when a busload of Syrian refugees gets deposited in a few empty row houses. Forced to flee civil war at home, leaving everything behind (including imperiled relatives for some), these people are beneficiaries of government charity here. But that only enrages the more xenophobic locals, as they feel charity should begin at home.

The titular local pub, a last surviving old-school hang hereabouts, is owned by TJ (Dave Turner). He’s the only person to show some kindness towards the newcomers, particularly young Yara (Ebla Mari), an aspiring photographer whose camera is broken by one loutish “lad.” They develop a friendship that begins building community bridges and addressing pervasive woes, including turning a shuttered back room into a badly needed soup kitchen. But that itself infuriates those who’d prefer to keep the outsiders well-isolated, considering any integration as a sort of betrayal. (Such types rail against these “ragheads” for not speaking “the Queen’s English”… a particularly ridiculous complaint given that they themselves speak in such slangy, heavily-accented form, their dialogue in necessitates English subtitling.)

Written by Loach’s frequent collaborator Paul Laverty, this latest, perhaps last effort can be preachy. It’s also more melodramatically sentimental than usual for those two, and suffers the usual pitfalls of reliance on non-professional actors. Still, there is power to its familiar message of solidarity against economic forces that would happily keep us all divided, the better to skim all profit from those who can spare it least. The Old Oak opens Fri/12 at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

Of additional note this weekend are two screenings on Sat/20 of Dig! XX, Ondi Timoner’s expanded new version of her 2004 documentary—one of the all-time-greatest “rock docs,” as it charts the contrasting careers of two initially simpatico indie bands (SF’s own Brian Jonestown Massacre, Portland’s Dandy Warhols) over several fateful years. Differing measures of commercial success, drug addiction, personality conflicts, and so forth conspired to gradually turn these separate camps of besties into enemies. Some personnel from both sides strongly disagreed with their portrayal, and you can ask Joel Gion of BJM about that, as he’ll be present for both shows at the 4-Star (more info here).

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