The Berlinale’s third day presented a string of disappointments in the Competition section. First up was A Long and Happy Life by Russian director Boris Khlebnikov. The film shares a strikingly similar premise to Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land, which featured on yesterday’s Competition schedule. While thankfully devoid of the dewy-eyed pastoralism that rendered Van Sant’s film so grating, A Long and Happy Life paints an only marginally more compelling portrait of the decline of country life in the face of capitalist expansion.
A Long and Happy Life
Sasha is the owner of a potato farm, which at the film’s outset he is ready to sell off in exchange for a healthy sum and a blank credit slate so that he may leave farming behind and relocate to the city with his girlfriend. His workers are dismayed, and, invoking the collective ideals that went into founding the farm, declare themselves ready to use violence to fight off the money-hungry invaders. This impresses Sasha into changing his mind, even as the impossibility of financial success becomes increasingly inescapable. Despite losing his girlfriend in the process, it’s the workers that end up turning their backs on Sasha.
A lot could have been made out of the death of idealism, a theme more than pertinent to Russia’s current sociopolitical situation. However, as soon as the betrayals start, the unambitious script contents itself with depicting the flight of each of the workers and resorts to a wholly overblown climax to neatly wrap up the story in a mere 77 minutes.
Some of this succinctness would have been better suited in Thomas Arslan’s Gold, a film so terrible it almost legitimizes accusations of programmer bias towards German productions. Overlong and exasperatingly tedious, Gold depicts a group of German immigrants at the turn of the 19th century who journey from Ashcroft, Canada to the recently discovered Klondike region.
Although the journey doesn’t appear to be particularly arduous—for almost two hours we watch the group leisurely trot across perfectly tractable plains and forests under impeccable weather conditions (it doesn’t rain once over several weeks)—the characters keep insisting that it’s perilous and whoever crosses their path is a suicidal lunatic, so we have no choice but to take their word for it. Everything in Gold is an amalgamation of tired Western clichés, and the film doesn’t manage to generate the slightest shred of audience involvement in the characters or their quest. It does, however, provide a great deal of unintentional hilarity. You know there’s something wrong when an entire auditorium is howling with laughter during a scene in which a character’s leg gets amputated after being caught in a bear trap.
The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman
The day ended with Fredrik Bond’s film debut The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman. After Charlie’s (Shia LaBeouf) mother dies, her ghost appears and tells him to go to Bucharest. Why Bucharest? The film doesn’t even bother to make up a reason, though it becomes evident pretty quickly: for some reason in mainstream American cinema, setting a film in Eastern Europe grants the filmmaker carte blanche to represent the country of his choosing as an orgy of drugs, tits, and gangsters, which is precisely what happens here.
The perfunctory plot involves Charlie falling in love with the young wife (Rachel Evan Wood) of a ruthless gangster (Mads Mikkelsen) within seconds of landing in Bucharest and mainly serves to set up a series of scenes in which Bond can flaunt skills acquired during his successful career directing commercials. These expertly executed and exhilarating set pieces use a wide range of lensing techniques, constantly shifting between shooting speeds and edited at a rapid-fire pace to a pumping soundtrack. The ridiculous cast list also includes Rupert Grint and James Buckley as two idiotic and drug-happy tourists, Vincent D’Onofrio and Melissa Leo as Charlie’s parents, and John Hurt as the film’s narrator. All of them have a lot of fun with their caricatured roles and the overall result is a good-looking but vacuous romp that seems wholly out of place at a film festival such as the Berlinale, but is likely to be very warmly embraced by more mainstream audiences.