Christopher Shea's Berlin Diary, part one

Christopher Shea, our correspondent at the Berlin Festival, a.k.a Berlinale 2013, files this report.



Set in World War II-era Foshan and Hong Kong, The Grandmaster traces the rise and fall of Kung Fu master Ip Man. The movie is gorgeous, strange and stylized, bouncing between tea houses and brothels and beaches and back alleys, all with operatic sweep. A slow-motion  Kung Fu fight in a train station is a highlight, as is one slow-motion scene where brothel employees sweep fans across their faces while staring straight into the camera. The ladies don't fight often in this movie, but their strength is nothing to sneeze at.

Still, full enjoyment of the movie probably rests largely on your belief in the infallibility of Wong Kar Wai's genius. Seen through this lens, the movie's inscrutability is a sign of mastery; its nearly incomprehensible early scenes - during which we learn the details of 1930s Sino-Japanese politics and the history of Kung Fu - aren't sloppy, but deliberately, unsettlingly obscure. If you trust that your ignorance of Kung Fu wisdom and Wong's  craft lie behind these little confusions, you'll love the movie; otherwise you might find it satisfyingly epic, but opaque.


The third installment in Ulrich Seidl's Paradise trilogy takes place in a summer camp for overweight teens, where a young camper (Melanie Lenz) begins a strange almost-love affair with the resident doctor. What starts out as a slight breach of standard bedside manner slowly morphs into something chaste enough to stay within the bounds of law, but far from fully kosher.

Seidl has a terrific cast, a good ear for teenage dialogue, and a sly humor about the whole dictatorial enterprise of fat camp. He doesn't pass moral judgment on his characters, refusing to humiliate the ones who behave badly or to reward those who do good. Instead, he seems content simply to creep us out quite mildly by showing the budding relationship but allowing it to remain tame enough that we can never quite cry foul. The result is an exceedingly clever movie, and a satisfyingly amoral one, but one your brain sheds as easily as water weight.



Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) hits the gym daily, slams ladies on the weekly, makes good money at the Jersey bar where he works, and looks a bit like Rocky. Unfortunately, he's also addicted to porn-- like several times a day addicted. The combo's well and good and fairly unobtrusive, all things considered, until a husband-hungry ladyfriend (Scarlett Johansson) turns up, discovers the porn, and wants the filth to stop.

The movie is Levitt's first foray into feature film writing and directing, and it has a rookie's feel, steeped as it is in obvious metaphors - Don Jon's hair frees itself from gel just as he frees himself from himself, and so on. Certain things also straight up don't make sense. Barbara (Johansson) really cares that much that he watched porn? Don Jon's really never heard of clearing his internet history? The latter wouldn't be such a problem if the plot didn't hinge on it.

Still, Joseph Gordon Levitt's movie is sweet, funny, and incisive. Levitt is appealing as always, and it's intriguing to see this congenitally erudite-shy boy take on the persona of a meathead. Julianne Moore provides her usual blank but soothing presence, as a woman who Don Jon meets in night-school who ends up being his cure. The script is sympathetic to all of its characters, but also probing, and by the end it makes a very trenchant point about how selfish the selfless drive to start a family can be.


Overheard at The Grandmaster:

"These are the expensive seats. There are no more expensive seats. We are only not sitting down in those seats because we got here later than they did."

Catchy refrain:

"If you're happy and you know it clap your fat"

Paradise: Hope

Notable entrance:

On the movie screen just before Paradise: Hope began, we could watch the actors and directors enter the building lobby and walk into the movie theater in real time.

Notable: The sound of hundreds of press heads trying not to turn and gawk.

Stray observation:

The perfume of the woman sitting next to me's thoroughly altered my experience of Paradise: Hope.

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