NEVER LOOK AWAY (2019, Germany)

February 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. As much as we pride ourselves on ‘artistic freedom’, the reality is that politics has long played a vital role – either as inadvertent inspiration for the work, or as organized suppressor or moderator. Rarely in history has the latter been more in effect than during the Nazi regime. This film begins at an art gallery in 1937 Dresden as a loving aunt takes her young nephew to an installation of “degenerate artists”. Nazi propaganda presented modern art by such artists as Picasso and Kandinsky as a blight on German culture, and proceeded to educate (or brainwash) the populace accordingly.

Writer-Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck was behind the extraordinary Best Foreign Language Oscar winner THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006), as well as the all-but unwatchable THE TOURIST (2010). Fortunately, this latest is much closer to the level of the first one, and it has been rewarded by also being Oscar nominated. Miss May, the loving and free-spirited aunt of the opening sequence is played by the luminescent Saskia Rosendahl. As a student, a simple gesture of handing Hitler a bouquet of flowers destroys her psyche, which leads to even more dramatic ramifications. This was an era when being a free-spirit was treated harshly, which could mean mass sterilization or even being “relieved of a meaningless existence.”  Miss May crosses paths with Nazi gynecologist Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), in a gut-wrenching scene that hovers over the entire film, and especially that beloved young nephew.

Tom Schilling (and his turquoise eyes) plays Kurt Barnert (the nephew at older age), one who possesses exceptional artistic talent. As Kurt begins making a name for himself (painting as directed), he meets and falls for design student Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer, FRANTZ). Yes, she is the daughter of the Professor who determined the fate of Kurt’s aunt, although Kurt is unaware. As the war escalates, Kurt and Ellie flee to West Germany, while the past haunts all involved.

Once accepted into the new art school, Kurt falls under the guidance of Professor van Verten (Oliver Masucci). It’s this Professor’s personal horror story that becomes a turning point for Kurt, and enables him to discover his own voice as an artist. During this time, Professor Carl Seeband has smoothly switched allegiances and become a communist to save his arrogant hide, though he is burdened with the knowledge that his war crimes past could catch up at any moment. This man is both family member and villain to Kurt and Ellie, tormenting and belittling at every opportunity. It’s fascinating to see how the couple perseveres through his psychological games and even medical malpractice – as if the war, Nazism and Communism weren’t enough of a daily challenge.

The film is loosely based on German artist Gerhard Richter, though mostly in the form of his earliest artwork. Mr. Richter is still alive today and still creating. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (father to Emily and Zooey) has produced a beautifully shot film, and the result is his 6th Oscar nomination. Brace yourself for a 3-plus hour run time, and the frustrations of how an artist can discover their voice despite an organized singular ideology that one is pressured to accept.

watch the trailer


THE DANISH GIRL (2015)

December 17, 2015

danish girl Greetings again from the darkness. There was a time when movies were cultural trendsetters in such areas as speech, style and behavior. Somewhere along the way, a transition occurred, and these days movies are more a reflection of the times – showing us who we are and focusing mostly on what society focuses on. Oscar winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) capitalizes on the current movement to mainstream the LGBT community by telling the story of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, a transgender from more than 40 years before Dr. Renee Richards, and 75 years before Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner.

Lucida Coxon has adapted the 2000 novel from David Ebershoff, which is a fictionalized version of the 1933 “Man Into Woman” … the personal letters and diaries of Einar/Lili (edited by Niels Hoyer). The film opens in 1926 Copenhagen as successful landscape artist Einar Wegener and his struggling-to-gain-respect portrait artist wife Gerda appear to be happily married and quite attracted to each other. During this segment, Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen utilize a somewhat distracting quasi-fisheye lens that distorts most every shot … presumably making the point that this couple’s life is itself distorted. There is no shortage of foreshadowing despite the bohemian artist lifestyle. Einar doesn’t miss a chance to caress the silks and frills as he visits his ballet dancing friend Ulla (Amber Heard), and things escalate quickly once he poses in stockings for one of Gerda’s portraits.

The best and most interesting segment of the film is the middle as Einar begins to explore his Lili persona, and Gerda is diligent in her support … going as far as to encourage her husband to attend a party as Lili (introduced as Einar’s visiting cousin). The public interactions with their friends and acquaintances are a little difficult to accept, though the scenes with her initial male suitor Henrik (Ben Whishaw) make it clear this is a point of no return. Despite this, the times are such that Einar willingly attempts to repress the Lili side, and even visits multiple medical and psychological specialists. It’s this segment that reminds us how quickly the medical profession of the era overreacted by prescribing radiation, electrotherapy, and even by institutionalizing those who were so inclined.

Gerda and Einar/Lili “escape” to Paris, where it becomes obvious that it’s Lily who has been masquerading as Einar, rather than the other way. The duality of Einar/Lily soon dissolves and daily life is filled with lessons … such as a Paris peep show where hand and body movements become part of the transition. Eddie Redmayne (last year’s Oscar winner for The Theory of Everything) gives an extraordinary performance, and is at his best when exploring the subtle nuances of Lili. It’s crucial to note that while Redmayne’s performance is a physical marvel, it’s Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair, Ex Machina) as Gerda who provides the real heart and soul of the story. Though the film glosses over some traits of the real life Gerda, Ms. Vikander is stunning in more than a few scenes, which in the hands of a lesser actress, could have proved cringe-inducing.

Adding some depth in limited roles are Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone) as Hans, Einar’s childhood friend all grown up, and Sebastian Koch (The Lives of Others) as the pioneering doctor who performs the sex reassignment surgeries that physically transition Einar into Lili. Even with the strong supporting cast, there is no mistaking this as anything other than a film that belongs to Mr. Redmayne and Ms. Vikander.

Director Hooper takes a very conventional approach to an unconventional story, and this “safe” direction seems designed to make the uncomfortable story more palatable for mainstream audiences (similar to how Brokeback Mountain handled homosexuality). However, don’t mistake this for Tootsie or Mrs. Doubtfire. There are two serious stories here: the struggles of one person’s identity, and the corresponding challenges of a married couple. Hooper’s style is by no means cutting edge, but does feature one of the best lines of the year … “I’ve only liked a handful of people in my life, and you’ve been two of them.” This story has bounced around the movie world for awhile, and for many years was rumored to have Nicole Kidman in the Einar/Lili role. Your imagination can determine if that would have made for a better fit.

watch the trailer:

 

 


A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD (2013)

February 20, 2013

a good Greetings again from the darkness. With only a few exceptions, comparing any sequel to its original is a bit unfair and usually somewhat disappointing. This is especially true with the Die Hard franchise. That initial entry in 1988 is often referred to as the top of the class in the action film genre. It combined stunning action sequences, breath-taking suspense, a world class villain, and a few characters to whom we could relate. Most notably, it introduced us to John McClane, a NYC cop making a trip to California in a last ditch effort to re-connect with his estranged wife and have Christmas with his kids. McClane, as played by Bruce Willis, was a likable guy with a touch of insecurity and a terrific stream of wise-cracks. Oh yeah, he also managed to run barefoot through broken glass while outsmarting a team of high-powered terrorists looking to steal millions.

Twenty-five years later, McClane (and Willis) is back for the fifth entry in the Die Hard franchise. Unfortunately, he is the only a good3piece that bears any resemblance to the original brilliance. The action is only stunning in its level of absurdity and exaggeration. The first car chase seemingly destroys at least a third of the existing vehicles in Moscow. It does so with film editing that is likely to spur nausea and migraines among viewers. Subsequent action scenes include numerous explosions and enough gunfire and violent falls to kill off McClane and his son (Jai Courtney) at least a dozen times. Chernobyl makes for an interesting connection to the past, but falls flat in the end. Speaking of falling, McClane and Junior somehow manage to avoid paralysis or even broken ribs despite numerous falls and jumps that are just plain laughable.

a good2 The only “breathtaking” suspense offered was an obvious twist among characters we can’t name with baggage we aren’t privy to. The only other significant breath was my exaggerated sighs of frustration. As for the villain, I couldn’t remember his name during the movie and we are never let in on the big secret file … only that it contains some bad stuff on important Russian big guys. This particular bad guy chomps on a carrot while performing a goofy little dance … all while threatening to kill McClane and his son. Guess what happens? You’re right … McClane doesn’t die.  We know this because Die Hard 6 was announced a week before this one opened.

Relating to these characters is impossible. McClane has some lame parent-regrets that don’t come across as sincere. His son is such a highly trained CIA operative that we aren’t sure what to make of him. We know he botched his mission and apparently it was because he stopped to yell at his dad for the ill-timed visit. The Russian that Junior is supposedly rescuing is bland, though he has a good4a lovely daughter … but even she is saddled with truly awful dialogue. The only fun character in the movie is the Russian cabbie played by Pasha Lychnikoff. He sings Sinatra with a smile, even if he actually never drives the cab thanks to the traffic.

It’s been a rough year for action icons Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Statham and now Bruce Willis. Maybe the action genre has been muted due to the terrific action sequences of the recent Batman and James Bond movies … each of which offer interesting stories to go with endorphins rush action . The first Die Hard had a great story and fun dialogue. Now McClane spends much of the time telling people “I’m on vacation“. When it’s not funny the first time, each successive time is just exasperating. That’s not acceptable writing and this isn’t acceptable movie directing. Director John Moore is also responsible for The Omen (remake) and Max Payne, while writer Skip Woods gave us Swordfish and The A-Team. There have to be more talented filmmakers who deserve a shot.

**NOTE: I did not like this movie

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: and only if, you are OCD and must keep your streak of Die Hard movies going

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: at all possible

watch the really good trailer (it’s much better than the movie):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=riIaTrjyGZ4