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Never Look Away

15 Feb

‘Never Look Away’: Germany’s Oscar entry takes artistic license with historic traumas

 

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The German Best Foreign Language Film nominee for the Oscars, “Never Look Away” has stiff competition coming at it next weekend from “Capernaum” (Lebanon), “Cold War” (Poland), “Roma” (Mexico) and “Shoplifters” (Japan) – films that crowned many Top 10s last year regardless of language, begging the question: Is it worthy to be in such a distinguished field,arguably the best in years?

Well, yes and no. It’s a stirring cinematic achievement, gorgeously shot, well-acted and peppered with piquant daubs of erotica, but at three-plus hours and with a slightly mawkish protagonist, “Never Look Away” never gets into your bones the way its competitors do. A fictionalized account of abstract artist Gerhard Richter’s life, the film – as most biopics do – begins with the stand-in youth, Kurt (Cai Cohrs) growing up in Dresden in the 1930s and living through the infamous Dresden firebombing, which, when rendered onscreen, is itself grandly reimagined through an abstract lens. Long before the catastrophic event, however, in a telling setup, the wide-eyed Kurt is taken to an art gallery by his eccentric and comely aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl). A Nazi guide promptly demeans and dismisses the works of foreign greats such as Picasso, but it’s during the visit that Kurt discoveries his inner passion to paint, and his aunt, who often parades around the house nude, instructs him: “Everything that is true is beautiful” and therefore he should “never look away.”

It doesn’t take long to realize that Elizabeth’s free-spiritedness is mental illness. Kurt’s parents, at a loss after a far too stark incident, place her in a sanitarium, where on the eve of the air raid she’s gassed by the hospital’s director Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch, reminiscent of a young Bruno Ganz – though with a stronger chin and steelier gaze). Depressing indeed, but where there is fire there is rebirth.

The film, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who notched an Oscar for his 2006 contemplation on the devious impact of the Stasi turning citizens against each other in “The Lives of Others” (which also starred Koch), postures the ambition of an epic – it certainly has the historical scope and running time of one. After the bombing we lurch forward to a postwar Kurt, now a young man (played by the dewy-eyed, handsome Tom Schilling), diligently painting away at an art school. It’s there that he falls for a fellow student named Ellie (Paula Beer), who oddly (or poetically) enough happens to be a dead ringer for Elizabeth. She’s also the daughter of Koch’s hospital director. Yes, you can see miles away where the karma connection is goingthe kind of fate you’d find in a Greek tragedy in which the players are unaware of their position as the gods – or in this case, the director – move them around to suit their purpose.

The cast has ardor, especially Beer and Koch, but the script by von Donnersmarck can’t match it. The restrictions of the biopic-shaped arc can take some blame. (Richter, apprised of being the inspiration for the story, has expressed disdain, flagging it as a gross exaggeration.) No matter, it’s rewarding to see von Donnersmarck return to form after the 2010 debacle“The Tourist,” a mindless thriller that paired Johnny Depp with Angelina Jolie and somehow made the result sexless and dull, even pulling Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”) to Hollywood hack level. Here von Donnersmarck artfully concocts a dreamy rewind of how war and shifting circumstance can afflict the passionate. Fellow nominee “Cold War” covers a similar swath of time; the last act of “Never Look Away” even unfurls with the erection of one of the greatest of all Cold War icons, the wall between East and West.

The Films of Nicolas Roeg

10 Feb

Going Roeg: Seminal ’70s flicks pushing limits get mini-retrospective weekend at The Brattle

 

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The Brattle runs a short but potent program this weekend remembering the life and works of director Nicolas Roeg, who passed away in November. Roeg, best known for “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976) starring David Bowie as a stranded and vulnerable space alien, took flight first as a cinematographer and shot many of his own early works. His eye and keen framing are essential to the heightened mood and intrigue of many of the offerings appearing at the Brattle.

Of 16 films by Roeg, the Brattle will showcase three early works as well as Roger Corman’s 1964 cinematic adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” starring Vincent Price as the lascivious and paranoid prince – Roeg provides the camera work. The three Roeg-helmed works on the slate: “Performance” (1970), “Walkabout” (1971) and “Don’t Look Now” (1973), a trio that could whimsically be classified as pop, peril and outré.

Bowie wasn’t the only rock star to work with Roeg; “Performance,” co-directed by the free-wheeling Donald Cammell (“Demon Seed”), starred Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger as a reclusive rock star held up in a manse with his girlfriend (Anita Pallenberg) and a notorious gangster (James Fox). Hallucinogenic drug trips, mind games and identity swaps propel the psychedelic psychodrama – alluringly so, up to the gonzo, doesn’t-quite-make-sense-but-okay conclusion. Jagger’s role of Turner was based allegedly in part on recently deceased Rolling Stones founder and former Pallenberg lover, Brian Jones. Cammell, the son of a shipping family, painter and a notorious partier, came up with the conceit. Pallenberg at the time of the filming was dating Jagger’s bandmate, Keith Richards, who allegedly became so incensed by the love scene between Jagger and Pallenberg he refused to play on the soundtrack song “Memo from Turner,”which the Stones were set to record (slide guitar master Ry Cooder filled in).

“Walkabout” marks one of Roeg’s more complete and affecting films. It’s a more grounded and visceral affair than “Performance” and something of a massive changeup, as it tails a teenage girl and her younger brother (Jenny Agutter, who would go on to star in “Logan’s Run,” and Roeg’s son, Luc) lost in the Australian outback. Luckily they latch on to a young aborigine (David Gulpilil) on an ordained quest to achieve manhood. The suicide that precedes the desert stranding, the rife sexual tension between young man and ripening female who don’t speak the same language and the mirage-tinged imagery shot by Roeg present a perverse, primitive and poetic palette.

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With the death of Bernardo Bertolucci recently too, much has been made of that now infamous sex scene in “The Last Tango in Paris” (1972) for which the actress Maria Schneider said she was kept disturbingly in the dark. The other most-talked-about such scene of the early ’70s was in Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now,” when a grieving husband and wife (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) convene in a graphically filmed carnal connection that is at once erotically electric and deeply emotionally felt. The couple have come to Venice in part to recover from the haunting loss of their young daughter. Sutherland’s husband, an art historian on assignment, keeps seeing the image of his red-hooded daughter among the city’s misty canals and dark alleyways. There’s also a string of unsolved murders, and a blind woman keeps telling Christie’s character that she can put her in touch with her daughter. The psychodrama, tinged with beyond-the-grave intrigue, is based on the story by Daphne du Maurier, whose works “Rebecca” and “The Birds” inspired other movies. Sutherland and Christie deliver palpable and nuanced performances, and the imagery shot and assembled by Roeg bring the film to eerie and visceral heights.

Many of Roeg’s later films – none on the docket – that mostly starred his wife, Theresa Russell, were far less critically successful (“Eureka,” “Bad Timing” and “Track 29”), with the standout being “The Witches” (1990) aRoald Dahl adaptation starring Anjelica Huston as the covenant head. Roeg, as much as he tried, never really rediscovered his trippy and experimental roots, but the path he blazed remains riveting, bold and legendary.

The films run Friday to Saturday. For details and tickets, visit the Brattle’s redesigned website.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then Bigfoot

10 Feb

‘The Man Who Killed Hitler, Then Bigfoot’: FBI has work for a senior with experience

 

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As far as freaky, gonzo film titles go, it’s pretty tough to top “The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot.” The film lands on streaming platforms Friday and was shot in part locally – out in Turners Falls, where the emerging director behind this era-hopping fantasy hails from.

Does it live up to the audaciousness of the title?

Well, yes and no. Checkboxes are checked and the film is bolstered quite vividly by the gorgeous cinematography of Alex Vendler with visual effects help from Douglas Trumbull, whose credits include “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and “Blade Runner” (1982). Of course, the big draw is current Academy Award nominee Sam Elliott (for “A Star Is Born”) as the legendary man of the title, Calvin Barr, who gets it done during WWII. When things kick off we’re somewhere in the late ’70s in a podunk town, with Barr driving a classic boxy Ford LTD or the like that a band of punks want to take from him. Good luck. They get the drop on Barr initially, but this grizzled old vet with can-do valor and battle-tested brawn isn’t quite over the hill. In teasers we flash back to the younger Barr (a handsome Aidan Turner) as a multilingual infiltrator dressed up as an SS officer crisscrossing Germany on a quest to take out der Führer. We go back and forth until midway in, in the ’70s now, an FBI agent (Ron Livingston from “Office Space”) comes a-begging for Barr to saddle up and take out Sasquatch. Steve Austin must have been tied up.

The why’s a wispy WTF, something about being infected with the mother of all plagues with the creature isolated in a 50-mile dead zone north of the border (no life left but plants, we’re told, even though we see a stag once in); Barr’s the only one immune to the virus, and the only hope to take down the mangy beast. 

I’m not sure which quest is the more improbable onscreen, but writer-director Robert D. Krzykowski embraces them wholeheartedly, splicing the timelines together in nearly cohesive fashion. This first-time film is clearly a passion project, and you can bet Krzykowski is a massive Sam fan. (But then again, who isn’t?) 

Elliot and Turner, good individually, don’t seem to be the same human – the connection between icy wartime assassin and affable backwoods gent just happy to spend time with his pooch is more than decades and worlds apart. No matter. “The Man Who Shot Hitler” is a high-quality spectacle though, if it weren’t such a mashup of history, myth and a revered, drawling thespian, it might not draw our eye. A definite curio for the curious.

The Lego Movie 2

10 Feb

‘The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part’: Sequel an expansion kit lacking that satisfying click

 

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The pieces are all there, but they all don’t snap together like last time. The 2014 “The Lego Movie” was so sharp and fresh, full of wit that appealed to young and old, marvelous movie references and a world reimagined in a way no one thought possible – even a Lego sea. It was “Toy Story,” but revolutionary in vision, style and delivery.

The director-writer tandem of “The Lego Movie,” Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (they were most recently involved penning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”), remain part of the writing crew for “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part,” but Mike Mitchell has taken the director’s seat. We’d left Emmett (Chris Pratt) and sassy love interest Lucy, with the saucy moniker of Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), in a Lego utopia; it is now a wasteland evocative of “The Planet of the Apes,” with a half-crumbled Statue of Liberty at the center and a “Mad Max” barrenness all around. Alien Lego beings have come and blasted the happiness all to hell. There’s malaise and a small oasis and things seem to be getting slowly put back together, until Lucy and a few others are abducted by Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi, a shape-shifting, duplicitously motormouthed charm-arella voiced by Tiffany Haddish. Emmett, finding his inner hero, turns his happy home into a spaceship and sets off to save his crew. 

That inner can-do actually manifests itself physically, in the form of Rex Dangervest (Pratt pulling double duty), a rough-and-tumble space traveler who pulls Emmett from certain destruction amid a meteor field and signs on for the “Star Wars”-like quest to rescue the princess from the impregnable palace – refer to Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress” for origins and blueprint. Pratt’s Rex, spoofing on Pratt’s dino wrangler from the “Jurassic World” flicks, helms a spaceship crewed by communicative raptors. It’s funny for a second. As is much of the rest of the film. The gritty irreverence and punchiness of the last film is greatly diminished, though, feeling snapped on and borrowing heavily from the “Toy Story” plot device of toy owner Andy getting on in years. Getting old is hard on toys and plastic bricks, as well as on humans. 

As with the last “Lego” film, the funny centerpiece is the growling, constipated-sounding Batman (Will Arnett). In a cheeky sendup, there’s a run-through of all the actors that played The Bat onscreen, from Michael Keaton to Christian Bale (homeboy Ben Affleck is in there too). There’s just not enough of that good stuff to make part two stick the way the first one did. The animation is just as visually stunning, but in the end it’s just pieces of its former self.

Don’t get me wrong, “The Lego Movie 2” is a great way for kids to pass a cold winter day, but adults won’t be grinning cheek to cheek the way they did back in ’14.

Piercing

30 Jan

‘Piercing’: He only thinks he called in a victim, but she’s his adversary in a psychopathic game

 

Nicolas Pesce’s “Piercing” unfurls a wild psychosexual thriller rife with S&M depravity and bloody parlor games. It’ll likely be compared to the macabre works of Chan-wook Park (“Oldboy,” 2003) and Takashi Miike’s “Audition” (1999), and fairly so: Miike’s bloody mating game was based on a novel by Ryû Murakami, who is also behind the material in “Piercing,” though Pesce’s followup to his equally eerie debut, “The Eyes of My Mother” (2016), isn’t quite as visceral. “Piercing” is sleek and stylish, like its posh hotel setting, but the blood-soaked cat-and-mouse between the two mains lacks motive, and doesn’t quite resonate.

We begin with a father (Christopher Abbott) hovering over an infant with an icepick – yeah, the piercing here is not goth, but more aligned with Sharon Stone’s foxy femme fatale in “Basic Instinct.” “You know what we have to do, right?” the baby says, or at least it does in the father’s head, à la Son of Sam. Reed kisses his wife and child goodbye and sets off on a faux business trip to that swank hotel, where he arranges for a call girl and goes about the careful choreography of a murder, including the feature act with an icepick, hacking up the body and the tough task of severing the head – all with grim audio effects by Pesce as a prelude of what’s to come. Or maybe not.

The statuesque call girl, Jackie (Mia Wasikowska, from Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” and Park’s “Stoker”) has a few skeletons in her closet as well. When Reed check on her in the cavernous bathroom, she’s piercing herself with a pair of scissors – plans upended. After a trip to the hospital, after Reed readjusts on the belief Jackie might offer herself up sacrificially, things flip and Reed finds himself bound and tied. Back and forth the evening goes, drugs, oozing open wounds and visions of past victims filling the frame. There’s a haunting zoom-in of someone in a gimp mask having sex with a gagged woman who, if not Reed’s wife (Laia Costa), is a dead ringer.

Wasikowska pulls off the role of Jackie convincingly, adding some demonic spin without going over the top. Abbott is weak tea by comparison, unable to match Wasikowska’s rising intensity; a bravura performance like Christian Bale’s in “American Psycho” (2000) is demanded here, but not delivered. It’s not all on Abbott’s shoulders, however; Reed is never fleshed out – we never really understand the need to bleed others, and those calls back home to discuss how the plan is coming along befuddle when they should beguile and revile. Still, scrumptious framing and intimate intrigue carry “Piercing” boldly forward, pick in hand drawing the viewer’s wincing eye.

Cold War

20 Jan

‘Cold War’: When Iron Curtain falls on love, you really can’t just sing your troubles away

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“Cold War,” that other gorgeous black-and-white film in a foreign language (opposite Oscar fave “Roma”), tells the tale of an improbable love made even more improbable by world-shaping events that unite and rip apart the lovers across decades, shifting borders and political ideologies. It’s heartbreaking, deep in romantic angst and propelled by sound and music.

The well-known subject of the title is the film’s driving force. We catch up after World War II with Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) an accomplished pianist and musicologist wandering the Polish countryside recording song of the region, when he encounters Zula (Joanna Kulig), a young woman of the mountains with talent – and with a very dark past. It’s love at first note, but the two are torn apart by time, totalitarianism and station. She’s whisked off to a perform in a troupe entertaining the Russian upper brass under Stalin. He defects to the west, she even takes on work as an informant as Russia’s conformist tendrils wrap around and strangle the Polish spirit. Time and coincidence bring them back together for trysts, the passion etched upon their faces. They also take on other lovers and companions, but when they meet up in their old homeland, Yugoslavia or Paris, all that exists is each other.

The film, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski (who won the 2015 Foreign Language Best Film   Oscar for his conflicted nun drama, “Ida”) wins primarily on the all-consuming performance by Kulig. Her Zula is aloof, enigmatic and sensual. It’s like looking at a young Catherine Deneuve – you can’t take your eyes off her, and you’re not exactly sure what she’ll do next. In an early 1960s Paris nightclub, when Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” comes on the jukebox and, buzzed on bourbon and freed by the rock anthem, Zula takes over the club, a whirlwind of pixie dust that ends up sashaying across the bar top. It’s as infectious as it is outrageous. As Zula’s long-burning object of desire Wiktor, Kot’s no mere garnish; he has melancholy eyes that betrays his vulnerabilities. 

For some, the jumps in time and place between reunions and the personal and global events that fill those chasms might seem like too much for a love that has never been allowed to blossom, but that’s kind of the point of “Cold War.” It’s about a love that is incapable of being squelched no matter what is thrown at it – the Iron Curtain, nuclear proliferation, insidious spy games or government-sponsored hit squads, take your choice. Of course, the stark framing in black and white serves to emboss the improbable union. It’s got fairy tale trimmings and dreamily romantic gazes, but this is about as far from Hollywood as one can get and still be in love in every frame.

Glass

17 Jan

Glass’: In face-off two decades in the making, Shyamalan reveals he’s lost his powers again

 

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Back in 2008 I just about threw in the towel on M. Night Shyamalan after the pointless “The Happening” made its way to the big screen. Never before had something so deadly but mysterious (was it the trees?) seemed so silly and inane – “Bird Box,” similar in concept, is a massive step up by comparison. “Signs” (2002) and “The Village” (2004) were big finale-twist flicks that tried too hard to emulate the skillful sleight of hand that Shyamalan’s classic “The Sixth Sense” did in 1999, but the artifice was obvious too early. “The Visit” (2015) resurrected my faith. It was something different, a horror-in-the-woods psychological thriller B movie with “American Gothic” granddad and grandma as class A homicidal nuts with warm smiles on their faces and cups of cider in their hands. “Split” (2016) seemed another quirky turn for Shyamalan akin to “The Visit,” as it focused on a disturbed young man (James McAvoy) who takes young women hostages, horrifies and fascinates them with his 20 or so personalities and ultimately mutilates them with a superhuman persona known as The Beast (both a physiological and psychological transformation). It felt like an intriguing one-off driven by a fantastic performance by McAvoy, showing range and humor you suspected he had but had yet to see – but wait, what’s that at the end? A tie back to Shyamalan’s 2000 superhero-among-us flick, “Unbreakable.”

If you missed “Split” but are a fan of “Unbreakable” I can give you the green light to proceed here and see “Glass” without hesitation. Bruce Willis is back as David, Philly’s working-class man of steel who, as the lone survivor of a massive train wreck, is somehow able to fall from great heights without a scratch. He’s still lurking on the streets in his green rain poncho, doing minor bouts of vigilante good and pissing off the police. Samuel L. Jackson, as the evil mastermind who blew up the train in “Unbreakable,” reprises his title character, Mr. Glass. It’s a nice reunion, but what do these rivals have to do with McAvoy’s Kevin Wendell Crumb? Well, Glass has been incarcerated in an asylum and drugged up for 19 years, while David, investigating a slew of cheerleader massacres, susses out the Beast & Co., nabbing him on the cusp of his next slaughter; for the effort, he and The Beast end up with Glass in the ridiculously low-security asylum. Enter Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) who for some reason has three days to convince the trio that their superhuman skills are delusions – and then, it’s implied, they all get to go free? Cockamamie convolution to be sure, but Glass, more obsessed with comic books and superhero history than Kevin Smith, believes his arch-villain magnum opus will be to break David and The Beast out and have them wage battle on the new Osaka skyscraper towering above the Philly skyline. (I kept thinking Nakatomi Plaza, more a lingering effect from my repeated Christmas viewings of “Die Hard” than Willis’ presence.)

There’s more to the too-long-to-get-to-the-point buildup than I care to explain, including the fact David has a son (Spencer Treat Clark) and that one of the survivors from “Split” (Anya Taylor-Joy) shows up; while they’re fine, they only add more stumbling blocks to an already clunky confluence. (I never got why Willis’ David always wore that vinyl rain poncho. To hide his identity? A thick vinyl rain jacked is a sauna, and too flimsy and vision-obstructing for real combat.) It’s not that “Glass” doesn’t entertain, but it does so mostly on the performance by McAvoy and, to a lesser extent, Jackson and Paulson, who’s not given much to work with. Willis strangely mumbles his through the film and never raises a brow above nonchalance, even when David first encounters The Beast. The most eye-catching of all is Shyamalan, who in a brief Hitchcock insertion makes Quentin Tarantino look like Peter Finch – “stilted” is the word. The film wraps with what’s supposed to be a cathartic coming together, but even that, orchestrated in a Philly train terminal with folks having a universal iPhone epiphany, makes about as much sense as the whispering trees in “The Happening.”