Berlin Festival Films

Werner Herzog/GmbH/Berlin International Film Festival

A round-up of notable films screening at this year's Berlinale.

Death Row
Directed by Werner Herzog

Condemned murderers in Texas and Florida tell their lurid life stories as interviewer Herzog tries to fathom the reasons in four disquieting 47-minute documentaries. "They manage to be engrossing, at times even with a touch of black humor, thanks to their uncanny closeness to their subjects, nearly all of whom have committed repulsive, heinous crimes," wrote The Hollywood Reporter's Deborah Young from Berlin. Wife-strangling, nurse-burning James Barnes seems voluble, intelligent, remorseful and unmonstrous, while Hank Skinner's "wonderfully theatrical face [and] hysterical laughter make it difficult to believe he murdered the woman he lived with and her two sons." Even when faced with the inhuman -- DEA informer Linda Carty, who had a mother killed and her newborn abducted -- Herzog shows a "relentless insistence that each person be viewed, first of all, as a human."

Iron Sky
Directed by Timo Vuorensola

Udo Kier's gang of Nazi scientists hiding out on the dark side of the moon prepare a 2018 invasion of Earth in Finnish director Vuorensola's Paul Verhoeven-meets-Galaxy Quest comedy. About $1 million of the $9.9 million budget came from online fans, who will love the seamless mix of CGI and vintage B-movie fakery. "It's just too bad the film runs out of comic juice long before its climactic nuclear showdown," wrote THR's David Rooney.

Jayne Mansfield's Car
Directed by Billy Bob Thornton

Thornton's first feature in 11 years reunites him with his brilliant One False Move co-writer Tom Epperson, but the drama starring Robert Duvall as the bad daddy of Kevin Bacon and Thornton in Vietnam-era Alabama is "overlong and overstuffed," wrote Rooney, with "the feel of a clumsily adapted novel that tries to cover too many characters, plot threads and backstories."

Caesar Must Die
Directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani

Convicts in Rome's maximum-security Rebibbia Prison stage Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in the Taviani brothers' docudrama, closer here to the hybrid territory of their 1977 breakthrough, Padre Padrone. "The real heavy lifting is done by Salvatore Striano as an impassioned Brutus," wrote Rooney. Now pardoned and out of prison, Striano has become a professional actor.

My Way
Directed by Kang Je-kyu

South Korean director Je-kyu's $25 million World War II epic, billed as the costliest local production to date, is "a kitschy, overtly violent tale about two rival marathon runners caught in a continent-hopping battle of blood, guts and bad dialogue," wrote THR's Jordan Mintzer. Despite a dizzying first reel, the film's "preachy and highly nationalist storytelling" plays best in Korea. The runners, one Japanese and one Korean, find themselves fighting on opposite sides from Mongolia to Siberia to the Allied invasion of Omaha Beach in "one of the first movies in history where the Nazis seem to be the most civil people depicted onscreen."

Directed by Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky

Melissa Leo plays an ex-convict struggling to reconnect with humanity in what Rooney calls "a minimalist, image-based character study that is almost impossibly fragile yet emotionally robust, propelled by Leo's remarkable title-role performance, rigorous in its honesty and unimpeded by even a scrap of vanity." Working on a shoestring budget with producers Joshua Blum and Katie Stern, who have worked with director Kelly Reichardt, Cassidy and Shatzky echo the stark naturalism of Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy and the early work of the Dardenne brothers. Francine moves to a rural cottage, thrash-dances with headbangers, works as a waitress at a horse track and has disconnected sex with a stranger, but she bonds best with the animals she tends at her vet clinic. Strange, compelling, often wordless, "Francine is a legitimate discovery," wrote Rooney.