Berlin Diary: Gus Van Sant’s Latest. Serial Killings In Teheran. A Super-Sweet Superhero Story., Film Companion

In Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, Gus Van Sant tells one of his patented stories about a troubled soul who finds a mentor and sorts his shit out: call this Good Wheel Hunting. Joaquin Phoenix plays (the real-life) John Callahan, an alcoholic who was paralysed in a car crash, learnt to negotiate life on a motorised wheelchair, and found his calling as a controversial cartoonist. Callahan’s cartoons form a sort of parallel narrative, not just commenting on the action but also taking much-needed shots at today’s politically correct climate. Callahan cracks jokes about dwarves, lesbians, even Jesus. (He’s nailed to the cross, and the speech balloon says, “T.G.I.F.”) The warm, funny tone, almost entirely free of angst, ensures this isn’t My Left Foot – Part 2. I mean, look at that title again!

This is one of Van Sant’s more conventional outings. The narrative flips back and forth in time, not so much chronicling Callahan’s life — step by meticulous step — as giving us a general sense of the man. Even as the beats turn familiar — a romance with an Air Scandinavia stewardess (Rooney Mara), heart-to-hearts with the mentor (a terrific Jonah Hill), the 12-step recovery programme — Phoenix keeps us watching. An interview with Van Sant in The Hollywood Reporter reminded me that this isn’t the first time he’s working with Phoenix. They collaborated on To Die For, a film I’ve nearly forgotten. When asked about Phoenix’s evolution, Van Sant said, “It’s very similar, but he’s 20-something years older, so he has had so much more experience in creating a role, using all the experiences from the past.”


“But otherwise, he seems to do it in a similar way. He just gets very involved in the role, to the point where he’s kind of living it, and then he shoots it.” This sort of thing suggests a prickly, Method-y, actorly performance, but Phoenix is loose and unfussy as he hasn’t been in a while. He suggests Callahan’s spirit by simply speeding in that wheelchair. The fact that he can no longer walk hasn’t slowed him down. The film’s most touching sequence shows Callahan being helped by a bunch of kids after he falls on the side of a street. There’s no orchestrated drama here — it’s just something that happens. The kids discover he’s a cartoonist. They look at his work, and think he’s kinda cool. We do too.


Khook (Pig), directed by Mani Haghighi, comes with a delicious premise. It equates Iran’s silencing of filmmakers — with “work bans,” house arrests — with literal silencing. Someone is serial-killing filmmakers, and instead of worrying if he’s next, blacklisted director Hasan (Hasan Majuni) — maker of classics like Rendezvous in the Slaughterhouse — wonders why these “irrelevant filmmakers” are being offed and why he’s not being targeted. It’s narcissism run amuck, and there’s some marvellously ghoulish humour involving decapitated heads and Hasan’s mother’s penchant for wielding weapons. I died when Hasan asks her, mournfully, “He should have come for me first.” Her deadpan reply: “He’s saving the best for last.” But after the setup, the film fizzles out, veering off into social-media witch hunts and surrealism. But I was surprised to see that Iranian filmmakers can out-Tarantino Tarantino in the blood-and-gore department. A shotgun execution was balm for my eyes glazed by all the good taste in the films I’ve been seeing.


Tom Tykwer is the president of the international jury this year. He does not have a film showing, understandably, but he makes his presence felt with Supa Modo, which was produced as part of the One Fine Day Films Project, founded by Tykwer and his wife, Marie Steinmann, to help African filmmakers create stories for an international audience. This film, directed by Likarion Wainaina, is guaranteed to fulfill that mandate. It’s a real crowd-pleaser that will resonate with viewers around the world — though it takes a while to get going. Nine-year-old Jo (Stycie Waweru) is terminally ill, and her mother, Kathryn (Marianne Nungo), brings her home from the children’s ward at the hospital because she doesn’t want Jo to see her friends dying, one by one.


Jo’s sister, Mwix (Nyawara Ndambia), realises that Jo is being suffocated with TLC. Something needs to be done to make Jo feel alive — even if only for the little time she has. So she orchestrates elaborate charades to make Jo believe she’s the superhero she wants to be. (The walls of Jo’s room are plastered not only with images of fictional crime-fighters but also a poster of Jackie Chan. The girl knows a superhero when she sees one.) Supa Modo really takes off when the locals gather to make a superhero movie. Rarely has the “it takes a village” dictum been put across more unsentimentally. The director has pulled off the impossible. He’s made a delightful movie around a dying child.

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