Tag Archives: B+

NEVER LOOK AWAY (WERK OHNE AUTOR)

Producer: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Jan Mojto, Quirin Berg, Max Wiedermann and Christiane Henckel von Donnersmarck
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Writer: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Stars: Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl, Oliver Masucci, Cai Cohrs, Ina Weisse, Evgeny Sidikhin, Mark Zak, Ulrike C. Tscharre, Bastian Trost, Hans-Uwe Bauer, Hanno Koffler, David Schütter, Franz Pätzold, Hinnerk Schönemann, Jeanette Hain, Jörg Schüttauf, Johanna Gastdorf, Florian Bartholomäi and Jonas Dassler
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics

B+

Perhaps by accident, the English title of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film (the original German one translates as “Work Without An Author”), taken from a line of dialogue early on, fits it well: though at over three hours “Never Look Away” is of epic length, it tells so fascinating a story, at once personal, political and aesthetic, that it’s difficult to tear your eyes off the screen.

The script, which covers roughly three tumultuous decades of German history, is loosely based on the life of artist Gerhard Richter, who—according to a recent New Yorker article by Dana Goodyear—has criticized the finished film, though in terms that are rather opaque. It begins in the mid-1930s, when little Kurt Barnert (Cai Cohrs) is taken by his free-spirited aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) to an exhibit of so-called degenerate art in Dresden, where a pompous Nazi vilifies the works on display. Elizabeth confesses that she likes them, and after getting home proceeds to play the piano in the nude and bang her head until she draws blood.

She’s quickly carted off for a mental examination, after which gynecologist Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), an SS man, orders her to be committed and—per recent eugenics orders—terminated when the hospital space she’s occupying is needed for more important members of society. She and other so-called defectives are, in fact, killed in a fashion designed to mirror the death camp gas chambers—a fate juxtaposed with other horrors of World War II, including the bombing of Dresden and the deaths of family members on the front lines.

In the aftermath of the war, Kurt (now played by Tom Schilling) has obtained a job making stencils at a sign factory in the new East Germany. His talent, however, wins him a spot in the art academy, where his personal expression is submerged by the demand that all work subscribe to the dogma of socialist realism. There is, however, a positive element to his studies: he meets Ellie (Paula Beer), a high-spirited classmate, and the two become romantically involved. When their relationship becomes known to her imperious, well-connected father, however, he attempts—through the most brutal of means—to break it up. But he fails.

It’s the identity of Ellie’s father that provides the film’s major twist, though some might prefer to call it a melodramatic contrivance: he’s Seeband, who has won the protection of a prominent Russian general despite his Nazi past by assisting in his wife’s difficult delivery and is now an eminent member of the East German medical community.

The final act of the film shifts to West Germany in the 1960s, where Kurt and Ellie flee just before the construction of the Berlin wall. Though he’s admitted to the cutting-edge Dusseldorf art academy by its unconventional director Antonius van Verten (Oliver Masucci), who’s clearly modeled on Joseph Beuys, he struggles to find his artistic voice. Domestically, his life is no less difficult, as he and Elizabeth seem unable to start a family and Seeband, who has also come to the West after his Russian protector is called home, does all he can to humiliate his son-in-law by getting him a menial job as a janitor at the hospital over which he reigns. A resolution of sorts occurs when Kurt has an artistic breakthrough that, as a corollary, compels Seeband to realize that his past is closing in on him.

“Never Look Away” is about many things—the stifling effect of dogmatism on art, whether it comes from right or left, and the need to come to terms with history, however difficult it might be, among them. But it can be savored simply as an old-fashioned domestic drama set against the rush of uncontrollable events, given piquancy by its suggestions of biographical secrets. One might complain that its narrative turns are based too much on coincidence, or that it sometimes veers overmuch into melodramatic territory. But such criticisms are misplaced, as those are the very elements that carry this kind of story along, as are the rare humorous moments—the scene in which Kurt has to climb out Ellie’s second-storey window into a tree without his clothes, for instance, or the jocular encouragement of his fellow Dusseldorf classmate Gunther (Hanno Koffler).

The film is very well crafted. Silke Buhr’s production design features some imposing sets and furnishings, and Andreas Schön’s Richteresque paintings are impressive, while Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography gives everything a seductive glow; and though it can be insistent, Max Richter’s score adds to the effect.

As to the performances, Schilling can seem overly bland as Barnert, but Koch cuts a striking figure as the martinet Seeband, and Masucci a charismatic one as Van Verten. And while Beer isn’t given as much opportunity to shine as one might wish, Rosendahl is unforgettable as a girl who is at one point a Nordic Nazi favorite but becomes their victim.

Inevitably “Never Look Away” will be compared to Von Donnersmarck’s searing 2007 Oscar winner “The Lives of Others,” and it doesn’t match its power, being more diffuse and episodic. But it’s another perceptive, thought-provoking examination of the painful realities of Germany’s recent past, and certainly far superior to his 2010 Hollywood misfire “The Tourist.”

COLD PURSUIT

Producer: Michael Shamberg, Amett Shukla, Stein Kvae and Finn Gjerdrum
Director: Hans Petter Moland
Writer: Frank Baldwin
Stars: Liam Neeson, Tom Bateman, Tom Jackson, Emmy Rossum, Domenick Lombardozzi, Julia Jones, John Doman, Laura Dern, William Forsythe, Nicholas Holmes, Micheal Richardson, Wesley MacInnes, Arnold Pinnock, Michael Eklund, Bradley Stryker, Michael Adamthwaite, Elizabeth Thai, Benjamin Hollingsworth, Glen Gould, and Raoul Trujillo
Studio: Summit Entertainment

B+

As a general rule, when European directors do English-language remakes of their home-grown successes, the result is pretty dismal; perhaps the most egregious example is “The Vanishing,” Dutch director George Sluizer’s chilling 1988 tale of a man’s obsessive search for his missing girlfriend that he turned into a laughably inept Hollywood bomb five years later. Happily Norwegian helmer Hans Petter Moland breaks the pattern with this reworking of his 2014 movie “Kraftidioten” (released here as “In Order of Disappearance”). “Cold Pursuit” is every bit as good as, and in some ways superior to, the original.

That’s not only because Moland’s skill hasn’t deserted him in the move from Norway to Alberta (where the film was shot), and because it provides a solid vehicle for Liam Neeson to tweak his stern action-hero persona to good effect, but because neophyte screenwriter Frank Baldwin, adapting Kim Fupz Aakeson’s script, has found clever solutions to the problems posed by the geographical change in the plot, and has retained—even amplified—the mordant humor that permeated the first film. The result is a genuine surprise, in the best sense.

The picture is basically a revenge story in the vein of the “Death Wish” formula, the targets in this case being the drug dealers that Neeson’s Nels Coxman blames for the death of his son Kyle (Micheál Richardson). Nels is the reliable snow plow driver in small-town Kehoe, Colorado, which has long depended on him to keep the major arteries open in the worst blizzards. Kyle worked as a baggage loader at the Denver airport, and is kidnapped and killed by a scurvy type named Speedo (Michael Eklund), who makes the death look like a heroin overdose—a conclusion the cops quickly accept despite Nels’ insistence that the boy was not an addict.

Kyle’s death creates a rupture in Nels’ relationship with his wife Grace (Laura Dern), who soon leaves him. In his grief Nels is prepared to commit suicide until Dante (Wesley MacInnes) arrives, beaten up, to tell him that Kyle was murdered as a result of a smuggling operation gone wrong. He also reveals that Speedo was the killer.

Nels takes it upon himself to track down Speedo and take his vengeance—but not before extracting the name of Speedo’s immediate boss in the operation—a bridal-gown shop owner called Limbo (Bradley Stryker), who becomes his next victim. Before Limbo breathes his last, Nels gets another name—of a big guy nicknamed Santa (Michael Adamthwaite), whom he intercepts with a briefcase full of cocaine. He kills the guy and disposes of the drugs.

By this time Nels’ work has grabbed the attention of the dead men’s cartel chief, a preening Denver yuppie called Viking (Tom Bateman), who assumes that the disappearances are the work of Native American cartel boss White Bull (Tom Jackson), with whom he’s long had a tense agreement to respect each other’s territory. (In the original the opposing cartel was Serbian, and the change Baldwin’s contrived here provides ample opportunity for witty cultural observations.) When Viking recklessly orders a hit to retaliate, the victim turns out to be White Bull’s own son, and the act sets off a turf war that will eventually endanger Viking’s precocious, sensitive son Ryan (Nicholas Holmes), over whom Viking–who offers the boy “Lord of the Flies” as a teaching tool of conduct–and his ex-wife (Julia Jones) are constantly fighting, and bring both gangs to Kehoe for a showdown.

Nels, meanwhile, continues his vendetta, enlisting his ex-gangland brother Brock (William Forsythe) to provide inside advice that leads him to hire a hit-man called The Eskimo (Arnold Pinnock) to take out Viking. Nibbling around the edges of everything that’s happening is eager Kehoe policewoman Kim Dash (Emily Rossum), whose banter with her older, cynical partner Gip Gipsky (John Doman) provides a streak of puckish humor that contrasts with the periodic bursts of violence and script’s darker jokes that begin with a slow-moving machine at the Denver morgue and continue through a final ghoulish gag involving a paragliding accident initiated when White Bull and his crew show up at the Kehoe ski lodge—and include adding little crosses with the appropriate names each time another corpse is added to the enormous body count. The bit even continues into the cast listing in the closing credits, which hearkens back to the American title of the Norwegian original.

Moland handles most of the film with exceptional skill. True, the exteriors often look more Nordic than Coloradan, but Philip Øgaard’s cinematography is superb, and while the final confrontation between the two gang cartels isn’t terribly well choreographed, editor Nicolaj Monberg generally keeps the convoluted plot twists comprehensible (including a subplot involving Viking’s lieutenant Mustang, played by Domenick Lombardozzi, that explains why White Bull and his gang show u to do battle with Viking’s crew when they do). Jorgen Stangebye Larsen’s production design is also estimable (Viking’s and Brock’s modernist houses, Nels’ rustic one, the Kehoe ski lodge interior and the antique warehouse White Bull uses as a headquarters are especially impressive), and George Fenton’s score, which mixes sternness with almost jocular lightness, is refreshingly different.

The picture also offers strong acting, beginning with Neeson, who brings his customary toughness to Nels, without having to resort to the super-he-man poses of most of his action vehicles. But Moland secures excellent turns from all of his crowded cast, from Bateman and Jackson, who offer contrasting portraits of crime kingpins (the former as over-the-top as Jimmy Cagney in “White Heat,” the latter as laid-back as Chief Dan George) and the various members of their respective crews, through Rossum and Doman (who ably bounce Berman’s snappy lines back and forth) and even young Holmes (who makes Ryan one of the most likable tykes to appear onscreen in a while).

In short, this is a Liam Neeson vehicle unlike most of those that have made him a later-in-life action star: it’s much more like “A Walk Among the Tombstones” than “Taken,” and all the better for it. “Cold Pursuit” is a worthy English adaptation of its cunning Norwegian source, both exciting and morbidly funny, often simultaneously. If you enjoyed “Hell or High Water,” give it a shot.