BERLIN: Getting started, ‘Yelling to the Sky’

Posted by · 6:07 pm · February 12th, 2011

Well, it didn’t take long for me to break my promise of daily festival reports. In the unlikely event that you were eagerly awaiting for my first Berlinale dispatch yesterday, I can only apologize: it’s hard to review films you haven’t seen.

A domino-like series of misfortunes conspired to make my first day of planned festival action entirely: a last-minute train cancellation from London caused me to miss my flight, while the rescheduled flight landed me in Berlin too late to register with the press office. Add the fact that I’m still limping round the city on a single crutch, and I am the poster boy for the Twitter hashtag titled #festivalfail.

On the plus side, I can inform you that the Competition title I missed yesterday — corporate thriller “Margin Call,” whose starry cast includes Kevin Spacey and Demi Moore — was at least one that has been roundly dismissed. Meanwhile, while I gained no film-related knowledge yesterday, I can at least share a culinary tip: the best burger you’ve ever eaten in your life is to be found at a pleasingly rowdy American bar called The Bird in Prenzlauerberg. Book a flight, and thank me later. (I understand there’s a second branch opening in Wyoming soon. I swear I’m not making this up.)

So it was that my festival experience only kicked off this morning, and even then, the start has been a slow one. A last-minute writing commitment interrupted my evening schedule, but amid other bumbling activities, I did take in two of the day’s Competition titles — and while I’m feeling more generous than the critical collective on one of them, neither one looks terribly likely to set screens ablaze further down the road.

The first of them, a German-Anatolian immigrant dramedy awkwardly titled “Almanya — Welcome to Germany” (**), is one I’m reluctant to discuss at any great length — largely because it’s just sweet-natured enough that any extended analysis of its clunky narrative framing, haphazard tonal shifts and perplexing lingual choices feels as untoward as yanking one of Pollyanna’s pigtails. Certainly, the mostly German press audience laughed merrily along with the film, and such goodwill is sporadically earned by first-time writer-director Yasemin Samdereli, who at least has a droll way with a visual gag.

But occasional spots of bright humor aren’t enough to redeem the crudely flashback-dependent narrative, which centers on the past and present lives of a squabbling but happy Turkish family as they carve new lives for themselves in Germany, achieving varying degrees of cultural integration. The past is characterized by the deadening heightened nostalgia of Giuseppe Tornatore on an off-day, while the present resembles a particularly high-strung episode of “Brothers and Sisters.” The yawing gap between these modes isn’t nearly as troublesome as Samdereli’s ruinous decision to have all the principal dialogue in German, even in scenes where characters are supposed to have no knowledge of the language themselves; in a film purporting to celebrate the immigrant experience, this strikes a particularly disingeneous note.

The next film of the day, I thought, brought better news, though you wouldn’t have thought to from the post-screening grumbles I heard in the foyer. “From first-and-last-time director Victoria Mahoney,” cracked one particularly acidic critic, while a kinder one observed, “It’s like a promising Sundance development project taken out the darkroom too early.” The film in question was US indie “Yelling to the Sky” (***), and while it’s an under-drawn and sometimes ungainly debut, I don’t mind admitting to being quite taken with some of Mahoney’s bolder formal flourishes.

Mahoney hasn’t chosen the most unbeaten of paths with her story. Charting the emotional breakdown of abused urban teenager Sweetness (Zoë Kravitz), the script is an over-familiar mashup of “thirteen” and “Precious”; comparisons to the latter would be inevitable even if the film didn’t star Gabourey Sidibe in a disorienting extended cameo as a vulgar high-school bully. (Mahoney hasn’t made things easier for herself by picking “Sweetness” as her protagonist’s Christian name, either.) After a tight, well-observed opening act laying out the tensions of Sweetness’s domestic life, the film leaps too far and too fast in the second, with Sweetness’s abrupt bad-girl makeover and headlong dive into narcotics feeling alarmingly pre-programmed.

But if Mahoney lets her script get away from her, her jaggedly stylized direction is a source of consistent interest. Some viewers will be maddened by her camera’s selective approach to focus, isolating odd compositional elements as a visual reflection of Sweetness’s in-the-moment uncertainties; similarly, her arresting use of pre-existing music, cutting back and forth between spooky balladry and hard breakbeats like a restless radio dial, will strike some as merely messy.

Mahoney is aiming for poetically heightened realism in the Andrea Arnold mold here, without the equivalent level of control or conviction — in its least confident stretches, the film threatens to designerize its characters’ misery. But the reach and range in evidence here is scrappily promising, as is the ensemble. Kravitz is an uneven if not unaffecting lead, just lacking the force of personality to sell us on Sweetness’s behavioral swings, but there’s a remarkable performance from relative newcomer Antonique Smith as her put-upon older sister, a girl turned eerily weary before her time.

Tomorrow, a double-shot of German warhorses getting to grips with 3D — that’d be Herzog and Wenders, then. Plus, the latest animated feature from Frenchman Michel Ocelot, whose “Kirikou and the Sorceress” is so beloved by one Chad Hartigan. And quite possibly a return trip to The Bird.

→ 21 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily · Reviews

21 responses so far

  • 1 2-12-2011 at 6:40 pm

    Jim T said...

    I can already predict that critics will employ the catchy “Sweetness: based on the movie Precious” in their reviews :p

    Great start (writing-wise). I’m really curious about Coriolanus. I had seen the play some years ago and I’d like to see how differently it will feel as a british film version.

  • 2 2-12-2011 at 7:01 pm

    Andrej said...

    Yeah. What’s with ‘Sweetness’ as the character’s name? Did Victoria Mahoney cast Gabby Sidibe and not think of that?

    Nice to read about Yelling to the Sky. Seems interesting, to say the least. Sounds like it could be a very polarizing, love-it-or-hate-it movie.

  • 3 2-12-2011 at 10:51 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I neither love nor hate the film, so I wouldn’t say that.

  • 4 2-13-2011 at 1:43 am

    Motke said...

    Hehe, there’s nothing like a really good burger.

  • 5 2-13-2011 at 4:43 am

    Sertan said...

    German- Anatolian???? There is no Anatolian (!) as Anatolia is part of Turkey, and all the people living on Anatolia are Turkish citizens.

    And I dont see what’s awkward about that title “Almanya- Welcome to Germany”. Almanya is Germany in Turkish!

  • 6 2-13-2011 at 6:26 am

    Todd said...

    Sorry if this is off topic since not sure where to ask. Can anyone post what they would have considered 10 best pictures from 1990 to 1999 if they had 10 nominees in the 90′s Thanks

  • 7 2-13-2011 at 6:33 am

    Andrej said...

    Of course you didn’t love it or hate it, Guy xD I’m talking about the mass audiences with a more conventional mindset about moviegoing. They could have conflicting stances with this film, from what you’ve written.

  • 8 2-13-2011 at 6:34 am

    Hero said...

    Glad to hear you’re eating, Guy! I’m sure Anne is as well.

  • 9 2-13-2011 at 6:47 am

    Loyal said...

    Why are you on a single crutch? Broken bone?

  • 10 2-13-2011 at 6:55 am

    red_wine said...

    I recently saw the trailer of Yelling to the Sky on youtube (link found in a snarky post about about Sidibe’s career :D ) and it honesty looked like a fan video. It seemed like it was edited in Windows Movie Maker. I hope the movie has better production values.

  • 11 2-13-2011 at 9:43 am

    Afrika said...

    DEAD @ sweetness. LOL!!! With that said, I am very happy Zoe is getting glowing reviews. I’m also happy Ms. Gabby has been consistently getting work since her larger than life (no pun intended) debut in Precious. Howard Stern and other critics can go and suck a ****

    All the best to the cast and crew of Yelling to the Sky. They won’t escape the inevitable “Precious” comparisons but I hope they movie that stand on its own.

  • 12 2-13-2011 at 9:46 am

    Afrika said...

    *I hope the movie can stand on its own*

  • 13 2-13-2011 at 11:46 am

    Patrick said...

    Oh yes, the food at “The Bird” is great, isn’t it?! I have seen you walk past me in the festival palace and meant to say hi… Will do next time, just to let you know how much I like your work here…
    But about “Almanya”: I don’t how they did in the subtitles (as I’ve seen a version without any before the Berlinale), but Samdereli chose NOT to have all dialogue in German. That’s the whole point: all Germans in the film speak some kind of fantasy language that the newly arrived immigrants do not understand, while they themselves speak German. It might be an odd choice but I would call it disingenuous.
    Also, from what I read in the trades and daily (German) newspapers, “Margin Call” is so far the best reviewed film in competition, while critics where harsh on “Yelling to the Sky”… And I gotta agree…

  • 14 2-13-2011 at 2:35 pm

    Mike_M said...

    Interested in hearing more about the burger, what style is it?

  • 15 2-13-2011 at 2:39 pm

    Mike_M said...

    Just looked at the menu, I hope you had the burger from the griddle and not grill… sounds tasty.

  • 16 2-13-2011 at 5:39 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Sertan: I’m aware of that, thanks. The film itself is quite specific about that cultural distinction. And it’s not the meaning of the title I think is clunky — it’s the rhythm of it. Just my take.

    Loyal: Not broken, thankfully — just a foot injury that means I can’t put weight on the heel. And I should be off the crutch in a day or two.

    Patrick: Please do say hello! No need to be shy.

  • 17 2-13-2011 at 7:24 pm

    Glenn said...

    I agree with Mike, let’s hear more about this mystical burger!

  • 18 2-13-2011 at 11:58 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Mike_M and Glenn: A two-inch thick patty of medium-rare perfection on an English-muffin-style bun, with mature Cheddar, bacon and fried onions, served with a shot of vodka. That description still doesn’t do it justice.

  • 19 2-14-2011 at 3:01 am

    Loyal said...

    Get well soon Guy, and Happy Birthday.

  • 20 2-14-2011 at 6:22 am

    Mike_M said...

    Well Guy if I ever make it to Berlin I would def try the burger, one with just cheese (to get the flavor of the meat) and another with bacon and a fried egg (just for the hell of it).

  • 21 2-14-2011 at 10:03 am

    john t. said...

    A couple of weeks ago, I saw the trailer to “Yelling to the Sky” , and I was enthralled ( one of the most powerful trailers of 2011) , and it has become one of my “must see” of this year. While watching this trailer, I could tell Zoe Kravitz gave a vibrant performance ( I am not shocked by her great reviews). I am very curious to see what direction Zoe’s film career will take.