Alfred Molina and John Lithgow play a newly-married couple who find themselves homeless in "Love Is Strange".
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Unknown pleasures at the Berlinale, the young upstart of the film festival world

Ryan Gilbey reports from the Berlin Film Festival 2014, where a viscous thriller about a soldier separated from his unit in 1970s Belfast rubs shoulders with a tender comic-drama starring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina.

This is Part 1 of Ryan Gilbey’s report from the Berlin Film Festival – Click here to read Part 2.

As the youngest in the triumvirate of European film festivals, the Berlinale, which has been running since 1951, is easily overshadowed by its elder siblings, Venice and Cannes. We all know how difficult it can be for stragglers to make their mark when the trailblazers have achieved so much. (I’m the eldest of three children. Why do you ask?) So it was a coup for the festival to secure as its opening film the world premiere of Wes Anderson’s candy-coloured caper The Grand Budapest Hotel, which has a delicious turn from Ralph Fiennes as a dandyish concierge embroiled in wartime intrigue. And the first half of Lars von Trier’s sexually explicit odyssey Nymphomaniac was shown in a slightly extended director’s cut – another premiere.

Having seen the two-part, four-hour-plus theatrical version (which I’ll be reviewing next week), I skipped this. Colleagues could be heard puzzling over what precisely had been added. The consensus seemed to be that there was a touch more chat and a few more of what Teri Garr in Young Frankenstein calls Schwanzstückers.

Talking of Schwanzstückers, one of the film’s stars, the volatile 27-year-old Shia LaBeouf, stopped by at the Nymphomaniac press conference briefly to repeat Eric Cantona’s gnomic quote about seagulls and sardines. He also appeared on the red carpet outside the Berlinale Palast with his face obscured by a paper bag on which was written the words: “I am not famous any more.” I was reminded of Peter Cook as Greta Garbo being driven through the streets proclaiming through a loudhailer: “I vant to be alone.”

Celebrity meltdowns aside, Berlin does not always sport the most tantalising line-up. “We complain about Cannes because it always has the same old names,” a friend observed, “then we moan about Berlin because it never has anyone we’ve heard of.” The upside is that any pleasures are all the richer for being unheralded. Remember, the likes of Gloria and A Separation made their initial splashes here.

Five days in and nothing yet has been quite that revelatory. I enjoyed La Marche à suivre, a documentary about a provincial Canadian school. The film places equal emphasis on discord and fun, dropping in on tense teacher-student powwows but also incorporating stylishly shot sequences of teenagers at play. Think of it as Être et avoir: the High School Years.

The tender comedy-drama Love Is Strange features heartfelt performances from John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a Manhattan couple who get hitched almost 40 years into their relationship, only to find themselves forced to lodge separately after they become unexpectedly homeless. While the lead actors are together, the film feels alive and vital; these characters deserve their own miniseries or chat show. Their rejuvenating reunion in a bar near the end of the movie is bliss for them and us alike.

The most encouraging hit of the festival so far is ’71, which played in the main competition. Yann Demange (whose TV credits include Top Boy and Criminal Justice) directs this sinewy thriller about Gary (Jack O’Connell), a squaddie separated from his unit in 1971 Belfast. The plot could be engraved on the nose of a bullet – hunted by foes and supposed friends alike, Gary must stay alive – but the film is lucid about the tribal complexities of the Troubles. The pace is expertly calibrated, too. There is a terrifying riot sequence and a brilliant breather in which Gary is “adopted” by a 12-year-old Protestant urchin who’s cock-a-hoop at finding a soldier. Genre pictures rarely bag festival prizes but at the time of writing, ’71 is the most complete and well-crafted film I’ve seen here.

Also gripping is History of Fear, Benjamin Naishtat’s elliptical portrait of Argentinean society in which the poor are feral and oppressed, the wealthy contemptuous and paranoid. A string of disorienting vignettes and tableaux amplify the sense of dread, Michael Haneke-style. Alarms howl, children vanish, military choppers loom sinisterly over a shanty town grid. The tension was weakened slightly by the suspicion that the scenes could have been arranged in any old order to little detrimental effect.

Thrillers in general are making a good showing. Lee Yong-seung’s Ship Bun (“Ten Minutes”) concerns a hard-working intern who goes from rising star to scapegoat, outcast and bullying victim after he is passed over for a staff position. Less convincing but similarly occupied with claustrophobic economic pressures is Things People Do, in which Wes Bentley (the kid from American Beauty with the cliff-ledge brow) becomes a moralistic, Robin Hood-style criminal. The New Mexico locations remind you that, while it’s not exactly bad, it isn’t Breaking Bad, either. One of the stars of that series, Aaron Paul, turns up in an inept adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel A Long Way Down. He plays one of a quartet of wacky misfits (Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette and Imogen Poots are the others) who arrive coincidentally on the same rooftop to commit suicide. Friendships are forged, tears shed. My body ached by the end. Not through laughing or crying but because I was rigid from cringing at each ingratiatingly zany line, flat joke and misjudged appeal to our sympathies.

Hossein Amini, the Iranian-British writer of Drive, makes his directorial debut with a fat-free film adapting Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Two Faces of January, about a US tour guide (Oscar Isaac minus his Inside Llewyn Davis beard) working in 1960s Athens. There, he is drawn to a con man (Viggo Mortensen) and his young wife (Kirsten Dunst). It’s as elegant and creepy as a Highsmith adaptation should be. And all those sun-dappled ruins and linen suits were bound to have a replenishing effect on those of us barricaded behind scarves and bobble hats around the concrete plains of Potsdamer Platz.
 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

Gaia with an iPad? Thomas Friedman's ideas for the future of humanity are already old hat

Thank You for Being Late: an Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations restates the dominant doctrine of America's political centre – with some added name-dropping, of course.

“I want everyone to become an American,” Thomas Friedman, arguably his country’s most influential newspaper columnist, told the New Yorker in 2008, the year in which the collapse of Lehman Brothers nearly crashed the world financial system. The three-time Pulitzer-winning New York Times journalist, whose paeans to US-led globalisation The Lexus and the Olive Tree and The World is Flat became bestsellers in the Clinton-Bush era, has largely left the failures of the market unacknowledged over his three decades at America’s liberal paper of record. The 2008 recession gets only a passing reference in his new book, Thank You for Being Late, where the high priest of the global marketplace evangelises over the web’s role in transforming the modern world.

In Friedman’s eyes, computing has had a more profound impact on the human race than fire and electricity, which failed to connect us with “all the world’s knowledge or all the world’s people”. As we move from the Industrial Age to the digital economy, the “three largest forces on the planet” – technology, globalisation and climate change (which he terms “Moore’s Law”, “the Market” and “Mother Nature”) are accelerating at such a speed that their impact on our futures is almost unfathomable.

But Friedman – whose folksy demeanour caused his New Yorker profiler to compare him to “a chipper uncle in line at a barbecue” – hopes to put readers at ease and persuade us to adapt to changes that will make humanity “more efficient than we ever imagined we could be”. We meet an optimistic Gordon Moore, whose half-century-old law shows how computing power is destined to  increase exponentially, and Friedman assures us that, even at 86 years old, “all of his microprocessors were definitely still functioning with tremendous efficiency!”.

In Thank You for Being Late, part theoretical sweep, part hand-shaking travelogue, the author traverses the globe in search of the “smart” technology that is revolutionising our lives (“That garbage can could take an SAT exam!” he exclaims at one point). We are introduced to Watson, a supercomputer that is looking to “get certified to read and interpret X-rays”, and to a “connected cow”, strapped to pedometers and linked by radio signal to a farmer, which allows him to gauge when best to administer artificial insemination, “maximising” the farm’s output. Never missing an opportunity to shoehorn in a mention of his own connections, Friedman namedrops Bill Gates, Sergey Brin (who shows him a prototype of Google’s “self-driving vehicle”) and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and at one point notes needlessly: “By coincidence, I had just interviewed President Barack Obama in the Oval Office about Iran a week earlier.”

His compendium of the digital present features all the usual suspects – Uber, Amazon, Airbnb – and compels us to imagine what life really was like in 2004 when ­“Facebook didn’t even exist yet”. Replete with buzzwords – selfie sticks, gig economy, sexting (the “tool du jour of edgy teenagers”, apparently) – the book is bold enough to borrow terms without crediting their authors (Niall Ferguson’s “killer apps”) and to coin its own, recasting the digital “cloud”, say, as the more impressive “Supernova”.

Friedman, who has stated his wish to rid environmentalism of its “liberal, tree-hugging, sissy, girlie-man” connotations, muses that since human beings have become almost godlike, we should harness technological innovation to address ecological crises. Think Gaia with an iPad. Now that mankind, empowered by “the Supernova”, is a force “of nature” and “on nature”, we have a duty to protect Mother Nature, who knows when she is experiencing stress or “getting a fever”. The author is aware of the planet’s limitations, as when he contemplates the extinction of rhinos, macaws and orang-utans and observes mournfully that “no 3-D printer will bring them back to life”.

Friedman’s travels take him to Greenland and West Africa, via India, Madagascar and Kurdistan, but he seems most ­comfortable when back home in America, where he seeks most of his insights from members of the elite – CEOs of computer firms, “legendary” venture capitalists – united in their belief that technology can save the world.

In Silicon Valley he gets inside the multinationals that humanity’s hopes are pinned on. There he finds his own, often italicised, banalities (“Guessing is officially over”, “naïveté is the new realism”) reflected back at him: IBM’s senior vice-president of cognitive solutions tells him the future “is much closer than you think” and the co-founder of LinkedIn talks of investing “in the start-up of you”. Email exchanges and Skype conversations are reproduced at length. He plucks lines from Joni Mitchell songs and recent hit films (Captain Phillips, The Martian). Discussing the temptation to stand still when the pace of change becomes overwhelming, he republishes the blogpost of an Olympic bronze-medal-winning kayaker.

Friedman’s wish to simplify arguments for his huge readership is driven by an overarching belief that democracy can only work when the people are able to make intelligent policy decisions, and not “fall prey to demagogues, ideological zealots or conspiracy buffs”. However, he is also willing to propose his own solutions, which he believes are “unlike anything on offer in America today”. Noting that the mainstream left/right parties are no longer fit for purpose, he wants to see a new force emerge to embrace international free-trade agreements, compassionate border control (“a very high wall with a very big gate”) and generous tax incentives for many of the big tech firms he interviewed for his book. He suggests calling it the “Making the Future Work for Everybody” party.

Friedman’s manifesto, far from breaking new ground, merely restates the dominant doctrine of America’s political centre. The author, a self-described “baby boomer”, shares his clique’s belief that the “titanic stubbornness” of empowered individuals drives humanity forward. Their companies should be left to themselves, paying little tax and gathering Big Data. Everyone should be given the opportunity to become an entrepreneur, a “citizen-worker”, financialising their everyday life and maximising their output. Those reluctant to do so will be left behind in the sweep of progress.

A dogmatic belief in the endurance of US power makes the author willing to cast an eye past his country’s frontiers, as “drones alone are a cure-nothing”. America, according to Friedman, acts as the last and best hope for those who find themselves living in the “World of Disorder”, his term for a long list of non-Western nations. So people in “places like Niger”, where people have “more kids as social security”, may also be offered the chance to achieve salvation.

Friedman’s epoch, the “Age of Accelerations”, coincides with the years following the financial crash: in his country, an age of retreat, when work became more precarious, economic safety nets more frayed, and society more inward-looking, culminating in the election of an illiberal nativist to the White House. Though he offers some familiar cures to America’s ills (“all that stuff you can’t download – the high five from a coach . . . the hug from a friend”), he warns that in this brave new world, we must adapt or die.

Declaring that “average is officially over”, Friedman wills his readers to wave goodbye to the days when you could just show up and do your job. This is dangerous territory for a twice-weekly op-ed journalist with a world-view unchanged over decades, who offers his readers orthodox prescriptions only. He must be praying that artificially intelligent supercomputers don’t take to column-writing any time soon. 

Thank You for Being Late: an Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations by Thomas L Friedman is published by Allen Lame (496pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage