Cave Dwellers and Pool Swimmers at the Berlin Film Festival

DreamWorks' The Croods, David Gordon Green's Prince Avalanche, and more

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Note: I've been fortunate to attend the Berlin Film Festival (or "Berlinale") as a guest of the Goethe Institut and the German government. The following are brief thoughts on a few of the films in exhibition. The opinions, as always, are my own. You can find more of my capsule reviews from the festival here and here.

Perhaps the most peculiar entrant in competition this year was DreamWorks Animation's The Croods—hardly your typical example of a festival film. Featuring vocal performances by Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Catherine Keener, and Ryan Reynolds, the animated family film is essentially a homo-sapiens-centric Ice Age with higher production values. (In addition to the broad similarities, this movie's environmentally apocalyptic plot resembles that of the second Ice Age installment, and its score carries echoes of its Paleolithic cousin.) Grug (Cage) is the pater familias of a tiny Neanderthal clan that huddles in its cave, terrified of the mortal threats surrounding them on all sides. (Family motto: "Never not be afraid.") But when plucky (and hearteningly stocky) daughter Eep (Stone) meets a more inventive, Cro-Magnon-esque neighbor (Reynolds), he provides the appropriate lessons in optimism and embracing the unknown. The animation is first-rate, with moments of genuine visual imagination, and the story, while unremarkable, is entirely adequate. Kids—of whom there were, of course, few in evidence at the festival—will almost certainly enjoy it.

At the opposite end of the commercial spectrum is La Piscina, the feature-film debut of Cuban director Carlos Quintela. Ambitious in its modesty, the 65-minute film chronicles a day in the life of a pool, a swimming instructor, and his four charges, who suffer from various physical disabilities. Alternating between static compositions and portrait-like closeups, Quintela offers an intimate, minutely observed study in ordinariness. Those in search of shark attacks, tsunamis, or any aquatic event more notable than a mild dunking should look elsewhere; for the rest, Quintela's immaculate film was easily among the best at the festival.

Larger in scale—though not by much—is David Gordon Green's Prince Avalanche, which somewhat surprisingly won the festival's Silver Bear for direction. (The top prize, the Golden Bear, was awarded, also contrary to expectation, to the Romanian film Child's Pose, which I did not manage to see.) Following a few tours in the trenches of Apatowian—and sub-Apatowian—comedy (Pineapple Express, Your Highness, The Sitter), Green returns to his indie roots with this understated adaptation of the 2011 Icelandic film Either Way. Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch star, respectively, as Alvin and Lance, two road workers tasked with replanting signposts and repainting yellow lines following a devastating 1986 wildfire in Texas. Alvin is tightly wound and devoted to self-improvement; Lance (the younger brother of Alvin's estranged girlfriend) is slackerish and dedicated to weekends of sexual adventurism. Green's film, which follows the duo over the course of a week in the scorched, lonesome wilderness, is tender, beautifully shot, and dotted with odd moments of grace.

Finally, we're back to where we began, with yet another of the festival's many explorations of the world of pornography. Directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan (who last paired for the delightfully flimsy distraction The Trip), The Look of Love is the first of two upcoming biopics of British club owner and skin-mag magnate Paul Raymond. (The next one will star Tom Hiddleston, best known for playing Loki in Thor and The Avengers.) A playboy of Heffnerian proportions—far greater, in fact, if the yardstick is net worth—the charming Raymond succumbs to all the customary Y-chromosome temptations: sex, drugs, sex, and more sex. The film veers from the usual script in that it is not he who is ultimately crushed by the wheel of Karma but his over-indulged daughter (Imogen Poots). Like its festival sibling Lovelace, Winterbottom's well-crafted film evolves from picaresque to tragedy—though in this case, perhaps owing to its gender perspective, it makes a stronger impression in the former mode than the latter. Worthwhile, but hardly obligatory.

Here again, for those who missed them, are my two earlier installments from Berlin. I hope to weigh in with thoughts and predictions on the Oscars later in the week.