Thursday, February 14, 2019

An artist's turbulent path toward realization

Never Look Away looks at an artist's life against several political backdrops.
Making a movie that tries to plumb the depths of an artist's soul constitutes a form of noble foolishness. Noble because the subject can be intriguing and elevating. Foolish because attaining the goal -- finding the key to an artist's work in the welter of an artist's life -- remains speculative and, perhaps beyond the knowledge of even the most self-aware of artists. Like some gifted actors, artists aren't always good at understanding their own obsessions, much less revealing them to others.

The point, I suppose, is that if you're making a movie about an artist, you probably need to turn the artist into a vehicle through which you explore another subject.

In the case of director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's Never Look Away, the subject becomes an artist's drive to discover the uniqueness of his vision while living under three very different social and political systems: Nazi Germany as a child, Soviet-dominated East Germany as a young student and West German liberal democracy as an artist on the road toward creative realization.

If you've read anything about Never Look Away, you already know that the movie is based on the life of German artist Gerard Richter, a highly regarded painter whose work has gone through radical shifts during a career spanning nearly five decades. The movie's artist is named Kurt and it's probably a mistake to look at Never Look Away as a precise representation of Richter's journey.

On the other hand, the general thrust of the story and the art that Kurt begins producing in the movie too closely resemble Richter’s life and work to brush all connections aside. The paintings in the movie were done by one of Richter's former studio assistants.

The movie begins when a young Kurt (Cai Cohrs) visits a 1937 exhibition the Nazis dedicated to "Degenerate Art," i.e., art that did not convey an Aryan grandiosity of a kind that matched the Nazi vision. Of course, the art that young Kurt sees with his aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) represents the best and most creative work of the day.

A guide denounces the art but it's clear that young Kurt and his aunt are impressed by work that's being held up as an example of degenerate impulses.

This section of the movie establishes von Donnersmarck's view of the primacy of individual vision, a trait embodied in Elisabeth, a woman who will be diagnosed as a schizophrenic. As part of their obsession with genetic purity, the Nazis eventually sterilize Elisabeth and, if that weren't enough to keep her from polluting the Aryan gene pool, they put her to death in a gas chamber.

The crushing of this unique, sensual and loving character becomes a signature event in young Kurt's life that reverberates throughout the movie. Elisabeth's spirit, more than Kurt's, informs nearly everything else that happens as von Donnersmarck mixes melodrama and artistic exploration.

Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch) appears as the doctor who seals Elisabeth's fate, an arrogant, efficient opportunist with a big enough ego to embrace whatever political winds happen to blow through his life. A preening, self-impressed gynecologist, Seeband values status as much as he values his skills, which evidently are substantial enough to make the gynecologist for the wives of Goebbels and other Nazi bigwigs.

After childhood, Kurt is played by Tom Schilling. Schooled in a Dresden art academy, Kurt learns and masters the requirements of Socialist Realism, helping to create bold propaganda that turned working folk into muscular heroes laboring to bring utopian Communism into a corrupted bourgeois world.

During this period, Kurt's father (Jorg Schulttauf), a reluctant member of the Nazi party is punished for his sins. Once an educator, he's relegated to scrubbing floors. Eventually, he commits suicide.

During his studies, Kurt meets Ellie (Paula Beer), a student of fashion. They begin an affair that's discovered by Ellie's mother (Ina Weisse). Know that Dr. Seeband will play a strange role in the life of Ellie and Kurt. To say more would amount to a spoiler. Although Kurt's life doesn't much benefit from contact with Seeband, the movie has the sense to keep Koch, a commanding figure, in its narrative.

Eventually, Ellie and Kurt decide to escape to the West. Initially, Kurt is advised to pursue a lucrative career in portraiture and, above all, to avoid the Dusseldorf Art Academy, where anti-classical, free-wheeling trends prevail. Of course, Kurt immediately opts for Dusseldorf, an art school run by Professor Van Vertin (Oliver Masucci), an artist who always wears a hat. Van Vertin insists that students attend his provocative lectures but that they never ask him to look at their work.

Don't look to Schilling for histrionics. His Kurt holds his emotions close, almost always seeming as if he knows more than he's willing to reveal.

Von Donnersmark, who won an Oscar for 2006's The Lives of Others, wisely employed cinematographer Caleb Deschanel to help him create Never Look Away's various looks. The decision paid off. Deschanel has been nominated for an Oscar. Never Look Away also netted an Oscar nomination in the best foreign-language film category.

Don't look to Schilling for histrionics: He creates a character who holds his emotions in check and who always seems to know more than he's revealing in this lengthy (three hours) and not entirely satisfying movie.

Von Donnersmark has assembled the right blocks for his story but can't quite convert them into a fluid, arresting whole. Kurt's life is so full of significant events that they tend to be placed in the story like library books being shelved.

It's possible to look at Never Look Away as a semi-success, a look at a life buffeted by political forces but one that also seems to deserve more than Donnersmark has been able to achieve.

Battling to survive in the frozen Arctic

There aren't many movies in which weather plays a role in deciding whether you might want to see them. But I'd think twice about seeing Joe Penna's Arctic if you're in the middle of a brutal winter cold spell. The story of a man struggling to survive the extreme temperatures of the Arctic after his small plane crashes offers the kind of bone-chilling realism that makes you feel every bit of hardship, even as you wonder whether the movie's main character (Mads Mikkelsen) will survive. Much of the movie involves watching Mikkelsen's Overgard improvise ways to keep himself alive; i.e., drill holes in the ice to catch fish, hand-cranking a radio to send out a distress signal and trying to stay as warm as possible inside the cabin of his downed aircraft. Eventually, Overgard discovers another crash and begins to care for its lone survivor (Maria Thelma Smaradottir,), a woman who never entirely regains consciousness and who battles sickness and fever. Eventually, Overgard realizes he can no longer stay put. He improvises a sled, bundles the woman in blankets and begins the long march toward what he hopes will be an outpost of civilization. Watching Mikkelsen lumber through snow or ascend hills proves both gripping and agonizing. One horrific challenge follows another until the movie reaches its conclusion. I'm a sucker for this kind of big-screen authenticity, and Arctic makes for a harrowing slice of life-or-death adventure.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A cyborg finds her true identity

Alita: Battle Angel boasts lots of CGI razzle-dazzle and a story that doesn't sustain.

Alita: Battle Angel revolves around an avalanche of CGI, production design, 3D and motion-capture acting, enough razzle-dazzle to satisfy those who want to be razzled and dazzled -- at least for a while. Director Robert Rodriguez and producer James Cameron, neither strangers to the world of effects, have teamed for a massive display of technical prowess.

I'm wondering then why screenwriters Cameron, Rodriguez and Laeta Kalogridis, working from a 1990 manga series by a Yukito Kishiro, couldn't come up with at least one scintillating line of dialogue.

To summarize my reaction to Alita: The visual environment created by Rodriquez and Cameron held my interest for three-quarters of the movie. After that? Not so much.

So who is Alita? She's a cyborg who has been tossed onto a scrap heap in Iron City, the lower-class part of a society that survived what every dystopian movie insists on, an apocalypse. Named by Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a doctor who rebuilds cyborgs, Alita comes to life as a teenager with a bad case of amnesia. She remembers nothing about her origins.

Once she's mobile and active, Alita meets Hugo (Keean Johnson), another scavenger. A kid of the streets, Hugo has an interest in the futuristic sport of Motorball, which looks depressingly like the sport that director Norman Jewison and writer William Harrison cooked up in the 1975 thriller, Rollerball.

A super-charged version of Roller Derby wasn't especially interesting in 1975 and it's no more interesting 43 years later, even as Alita emerges as one of the game's stars. Guys and enhanced cyborgs are no match for her, especially when she gets a spiffy upgrade in the form of a sleek new body.

Villains, of course, are on call. They arrive in the form of Dr. Ido's former wife (Jennifer Connelly) and Vector (Marhershala Ali), the man who controls the game of Motorball. Vector promises that Motorball champions will ascend to a mysterious upper region to which all the downtrodden residents of Iron City aspire.

The arc of Alita's journey -- the discovery of her past and of her true destiny -- is, I think, meant to give the movie its emotional heft. But as a character, Alita (Rosa Salazar) has a juvenile quality that may not please those who prefer sci-fi served with an intellectual garnish.

It's not her character but her physical qualities that seem most interesting, providing you can overlook (and you probably can't) orb-like eyes that might have been inspired by a Keane painting.

A romance between Alita and Hugo skates along the surface, ignoring obvious questions such as how they're going to ... well... you know.

Cameron (Titanic and Avatar) reportedly has been interested in this story for 20 years. He enlisted Rodriguez to help execute his long-standing dream. Rodriguez (Spy Kids and Sin City) seems like a natural for a megaton cyberpunk fantasy. The whole thing should have resulted in a killer collaboration. Instead, we get a movie in which early promise eventually fades and the prospect of sequels -- yes, they're suggested -- fails to create much by way of anticipation. Scrappy at the outset, Alita eventually loses its kick.


Thursday, February 7, 2019

What men want? Maybe less contrivance?

Taraji P. Henson stars in What Men Want, a comedy about a sports agent who can hear men’s thoughts.

Taraji P. Henson finds a big-screen showcase in What Men Want, a gender-flipping version of 2000's What Women Want, a movie that featured Mel Gibson as a Chicago ad man who has an accident and suddenly is able to hear women's thoughts. Guess what? A macho man becomes more sensitive.

In the female version -- directed by Adam Shankman -- Henson portrays Ali Davis, an Atlanta-based sports agent who's constantly passed over for a partnership she’s more than earned. In the male-dominated world of sports agency, Ali works with a major handicap. Try as she may, she's just not one of the boys. How could she be? The boys are making all the rules.

Henson dominates the movie, but can't entirely rise above the movie's sitcom conceits. In this version, Henson's Ali hits her head and suddenly can hear what men are thinking. She's initially appalled but soon realizes that this unique skill might give her the edge she needs to win the partnership she's craving -- and which her performance record clearly justifies.

Formulaic and predictable, the movie does include one bit of oddball casting that clicks: Erykah Badu plays Sister, a long-haired psychic with fingernails that resemble talons. Sister is hired by one of Ali's girlfriends to work a bachelorette party for a soon-to-be-married gal pal.

The cast also includes Josh Brener, as Ali's gay assistant, Tracy Morgan as the father of a prime basketball prospect (Shane Paul McGhie) that Ali is determined to sign. Richard Roundtree plays Ali's dad, a widower who runs a boxing gym and has instilled his daughter with a spirit of toughness.

Aldis Hodge does love-interest duty as Will, a single dad who works as a bartender and who catches Ali's eye. Hodge's Will eventually gets caught in strained plot antics in which Ali decides to fake a marriage to impress Morgan's Joe "Dolla" Barry, a self-proclaimed family man. She thinks the ruse will help her to sign Joe's son.

A variety of athletes turn up for cameos. Among them: Grant Hill, Shaquille O'Neal, and Karl-Anthony Towns.

The movie tries to find the kind of raunchy spirit that enlivened last year's much funnier Girls Trip but the R-rated results are mixed.

Hollywood comedies have a tendency to get preachy, so it's no surprise that before the picture ends, Ali must realize that she doesn't have to play a man's game to succeed. She needn't concern herself with what men think: She can make it on her own.

It's almost as if the screenwriters are lecturing both the character and the audience, another instance of a movie that can make you feel as if you're reading a book someone else already has underlined.

Once again, time for Oscar shorts

Even if you're not a devotee of the Oscars, you should applaud the fact that each year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences puts a spotlight on short films. Generally speaking, short films are long on creativity and on sustained willingness to tackle subjects that aren't often found in mainstream fare.

This year, for example, the French Canadian feature Marguerite offers a tender look at the regrets of an aging woman who never expressed her feelings to the love of her life, another woman. You'll also find a clear-eyed look at one of childhood's horrors (insane competitiveness) in the Canadian live-action short Fauve.

Overall, though, this year's nominees seem less impressive than what I remember from previous years. Still, you'll find docs that bring new light to the insidious impact of racism (Britain's Black Sheep) and Period. End of Sentence. takes us to rural India to alert us to an issue to which we've probably never given much thought.

In seven minutes, Night at the Garden — archival footage of a pro-Nazi rally that took place in Madison Square Garden in 1939 — reminds us that dark political currents aren’t new to the American experience.

One more thing: It's important to support the makers of short films whenever possible. If you see the whole package, you're bound to be moved by something and stimulated by something and you'll be casting a vote for open-borders cinema that isn't afraid to travel new turf.

List of short films nominated for 2019 Oscars
Live Action

Detainment. (Ireland) Directed by Vincent Lambe. A dramatization of the real-life story of a 1993 crime in which two Liverpool ten-year-olds were questioned about the kidnapping and murder of a two-year-old boy. The film’s re-enactments are based on police transcripts. 30 minutes. The film, by the way, has sparked controversy in Britain, particularly from the victim's mother. This New York Times story details the furor.
Fauve. (Canadian) Directed by Jeremy Comte. Two boys play a game that quickly and disastrously gets out of hand. 17 minutes.
Marguerite. (French Canadian). Directed by Marianne Farley. A lonely older woman feels the regrets of unexpressed love as she learns more about Rachel, the nurse who has become her caregiver. 19 minutes.
Mother. (Spain) Directed by Rodrigo Sorogoyen. An agitated thriller about a mother who receives a phone call from her six-year-old son telling her that he has been left alone on a beach. 19 minutes.
Skin (US). Directed by Guy Nattiv. The movie reveals the strange fate of a white-racist skinhead who indoctrinates his son in white supremacist ways. An unsettling look at a skinhead who seems to genuinely love his son. 20 minutes.

Documentary Shorts

A Night at the Garden. (US) Directed by Marshall Curry. A brief, disturbing look at footage from a pro-Nazi rally held at Madison Square Garden in February of 1939. Seven minutes.
Black Sheep. (UK) Directed by Ed Perkins. An interview with Cornelius Walker and re-enacted footage reveal the torment of a young black child whose Nigerian immigrant parents moved from dangerous London to the suburbs. There, the boy encounters brutal racism and adopts a soul-threatening attitude: "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." 27 minutes.
End Game. Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman examine the gut-wrenching issues that can torment family members when a close relative is put on palliative care. 40 minutes.
Lifeboat. (US). Director Skye Fitzgerald offers this year's entry on the horrors that accompany mass migration from North Africa to Europe. Refugees risk their lives on overcrowded boats, many drown and a few stalwart representatives of a non-profit try to save them. 34 Minutes.
Period. End of Sentence. (US) Rayka Zehtabchi's documentary exposes deep-rooted prejudice surrounding menstruation in an Indian village and efforts to help when the women create a business making sanitary napkins. 26 minutes.

Animation

Animal Behavior. (Canada) Directed by Alison Snowden and David Fine. A leech, a praying mantis, a cat, and a bird gather for group therapy in the office of a dog who happens to be a psychologist. The session is disrupted when an ape with anger-management problems arrives. 14 minutes.
Bao. (US) Director Domee Shi examines a mother's wishes when a Chinese-Canadian woman starts treating a dumpling as if it were her child. What's really going on? A metaphoric examination of mother's love in the face of increasingly independent offspring. Eight minutes.
Late Afternoon. (Ireland) Director Louise Bagnall's beautifully animated short examines the life and memories of an aging woman who seems to be suffering from dementia. 10 minutes.
One Small Step. (US/China) Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas direct a story about a Chinese American girl who aspires to be an astronaut and the single father who helps nurture her dreams. Eight minutes.
Weekends. (US) Writer/director Trevor Jimenez tells the story of a boy who shuttles between the homes of his divorced parents on weekends. 15 minutes.



Thursday, January 31, 2019

'Miss Bala' is one big miss

Miss Bala may have been intended to boost Gina Rodriguez's profile and shift the actress into an action gear. The star of TV's Jane the Virgin has appeared in other movies (Deepwater Horizon and Annihilation) but this time finds herself in the middle of a drug smuggling/gun-running/gangsta thriller that also happens to be a remake Spanish-language movie from 2011. This misguided outing must have lost something in translation, turning into a by-the-numbers thriller about a Los Angeles make-up artist (Rodriguez) who's drawn into the cross-border drug underworld. Hey, she's got good reason: She wants to save her Tijuana based friend Suzu (Christina Rodlo). In the process, Rodriguez's Gloria becomes entangled with the DEA and also begins to establish a relationship with Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova), a vicious, self-justifying and apparently aspiring cartel czar. Lino says he can help find Gloria's friend, who disappeared during an early picture shootout at a Tijuana nightclub. Director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen and Twilight) doesn't skimp on violence but much of it is more jittery than compelling. Anthony Mackie turns up in a too-small role as someone involved in the drug chain into which Gloria is coerced. The movie careens from betrayal to betrayal as Gloria tries to find her footing in this merciless world. Eventually, she must pick up an AR-17 and resolve matters in the way of such movies. Miss Bala, in which a beauty pageant plays a fringe role, can't replicate the corruption-heavy vibe of a movie such as Sicario. It's improbably plotted and predictable, yes. In sum, though, it's just Corruption Lite and, by the end, laughable.

A boy's struggle to survive the streets of Beirut

Nominated for an Academy Award, Capernaum makes a worthy addition to screen literature on impoverished kids.

It takes a fair measure of nerve for a kid, even one who has been badly neglected, to sue his parents for bringing him into the world. But Zain, the main character in Lebanese director Nadine Labaki's harrowing Capernaum, is more than equal to the task.

Getting great performances from kids can be tricky, but Zain Al Rafeea, who plays the endlessly enterprising 12-year-old at the movie's center, convinces us that he can fend for himself. Untrained as an actor, Al Rafeea holds Labaki's film together with foul-mouthed pluck and a determination that simply won’t quit.

Filmed in tangled streets of Beirut, Capernaum works on us because it's impossible not to fear for young Zain as he negotiates problems no kid should have to face. Zain attacks them with inspiring courage. He has so much heart that our hearts break just watching him.

Zain runs away from his parents (Kawsar Al Haddad and Fadi Yousef) after they marry off -- i.e., sell -- his 11-year-old sister Sahar to their landlord's son. Labaki takes us into a world so desperately depraved kids can be sold.

Amid the bustle of the city, Zain establishes a relationship with Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian refugee who puts Zain in charge of her one-year-old son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) when she goes off to work -- all the while hoping that she won't be caught by the police and prosecuted as an illegal.

The trio creates an impromptu family in a Beirut shantytown. But when Rahil fails to return home one day, Zain is left on his own. Again, we're fearful for his future. Zain leaves the confines of the hovel where Rahil has settled by carting Yonas around in a tub attached to a skateboard. Zain's affection for his charge is obvious and it warms the movie.

Labaki tells the story in flashbacks that flow from the courtroom proceedings. Zane initiated the suit against his parents while being held as a prisoner for a stabbing -- albeit one in which the "victim" hardly can be seen as blameless.

Nearly everything in Capernaum unfolds against a backdrop of urban squalor, criminal activity, and street hustles. Zain's family supports itself, in part, by smuggling drugs into a prison where one of their incarcerated offspring sells them to his fellow inmates. To call what happens to the movie's children "neglect" insufficiently describes the cruelties and indifference they face.

Capernaum has been nominated for an Oscar in the best-foreign-language-film category. Whether it wins or not, it stands as an important entry into the film liturgy on kids who must fight for every scrap of life they can find.

A quiet life that needs some noise

There aren't many movies in which a pair of sunglasses can define the central issue facing a character. In the Paraguayan movie, The Heiresses, a woman named Chela (Ana Brun) can't decide whether to wear sunglasses or not. Her indecision becomes a telling reflection of a life in stasis. Well into her 40s, Chela is stuck in a relationship with her longtime lover Chiquita (Margarita Irun). She's also stuck in other ways, so much so that she has difficulty getting out of bed. Directed by Marcelo Martinessi, The Heiresses tells Chela's story or perhaps non-story would be a better description. But don't let that deter you, Martinessi has made a carefully considered movie about a woman who badly needs to jump-start her life. The opportunity arrives when Chiquita is jailed for debts that she hasn't paid. The couple is going broke and Chela has been selling off family heirlooms from the house in which she grew up. Most of the things the couple sells belong to Chela. Decisive and bold, Chiquita has been more or less running this lopsided relationship. When Chiquita goes to prison, it's Chela who faces the most difficulty. Things begin to change for Chela when a neighbor asks her for a lift to a gathering of friends. Chela warily starts the couple's aging Mercedes. Soon, she establishes a business driving -- sort of a one-person Uber for older women. During her work, Chela meets Angy (Ana Ivanova), the daughter of a passenger Chela drives to medical appointments. It's obvious that Chela is attracted to Angy, but the question looms: Is she too immobilized to act? Thanks to Brun's beautifully calibrated performance, it's stirring to watch Chela flirt with the prospect of rejoining the world. Will she?

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A satire tries to give the art world its due

Velvet Buzzsaw aims at an easy target -- the commodification of art -- but the movie's cast produces enjoyable results.
If you think that the Los Angeles art world is ripe for satire, director Dan Gilroy's Velvet Buzzsaw won't disappoint. It's not that Velvet Buzzsaw lands a mortal hit. How could it? It's based on an obvious conceit about the obscene invasion of major money into a corrupted art world. It may not be a thematic powerhouse, but Velvet Buzzsaw makes some dead-on observations. Better yet, its cast of characters -- some bordering on art-world caricatures -- proves consistently amusing.

Reunited with his Nightcrawler star Jake Gyllenhaal, Gilroy introduces flashes of horror into a story in which the characters are precisely and wickedly drawn. Gyllenhaal's Morf, for example, is an art critic who regards his taste as nothing less than definitive. He's also in tip-top shape, a devotee of Peloton and Pilates. Sporting bangs and glasses, Morf evidently is one of those critics who can make or break a career. He's bisexual and so taste-conscious that he feels no compunction about expressing his displeasure with at the color of the coffin at a gallerist's funeral.

Rhodora Haze (Renee Russo) runs a top-drawer Los Angeles gallery. Rhodora has a keen eye for money and an attitude of superiority that flirts with bitchery. Oh well, forget flirts. Russo, who also worked in Gilroy's Nightcrawler, takes her character all the way. It's a pleasure to watch her.

Zawe Ashton works for Rhodora who claims to be grooming her charge for better things. Toni Collette has a sharply funny turn as a museum curator turned art consultant. Rhodora's main competition arrives in the form of another dealer Tom Sturridge's Jon Dondon.

The movie pushes us into the art world with style and wit before introducing its plot. The story gathers steam when Ashton's Josephina discovers a dead body in her apartment building. She enters the apartment of the deceased and discovers a collection of paintings done by the dead man, an unknown artist named Vetril Dease. Some of Dease's portraits evoke terror and torment. All his paintings, even those with wholesome subjects, have an eerie aura.

Josephina shows Dease's work to Morf. He immediately confirms her sense that she's stumbled onto a trove of original and highly marketable work. Eyes light up because Dease evidently is the next big thing. Even better, he's dead: His body of work never will expand.

No one seems particularly shaken by the fact that Dease wanted all of his paintings destroyed. As the movie unfolds, we discover why. People start getting murdered in horror-movie fashion.

But the resolution is less important than the way that Gilroy uses the plot to bring the characters into money-grubbing conflict.

John Malkovich sounds an almost sane note in a small role as an art star whose reputation has begun to fade.

Gilroy's satirical eye extends to the various high-fashion art uniforms worn by a chic-conscious cast of characters: Trends rather than trenchancy dominate.

The pretensions of the art world make for an easy target and Gilroy's overall insight -- greed motivates the sale and purchase of art -- can't be called fresh. But he invents a movie full of characters that provide a fair measure of entertainment. I'd say that the cast members were having one hell of a good time, even if some of their characters are brutally (and often creatively) knocked off.