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.


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.