Movie Review ~ Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor)


The Facts
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Synopsis: German artist Kurt Barnert has escaped East Germany and now lives in West Germany, but is tormented by his childhood under the Nazis and the GDR-regime.

Stars: Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl, Oliver Masucci

Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Rated: R

Running Length: 188 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Most movie nerds like myself keep a director like Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck in their back pocket when they need to dole out a bit of comedy with their film trivia. After his 2006 film The Lives of Others won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, von Donnersmarck likely had his pick of projects to undertake and he settled on what looked like a sure bet. 2010’s European spy thriller The Tourist starred Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, both at the height of their box office potential, and when it was released it was a notorious bomb. Nevertheless, the Hollywood Foreign Press nominated it for three Golden Globes (for Depp, Jolie, and Best Picture) which has become a long-standing joke in Hollywood and a central reason people point to that nominating body as being enchanted by getting movie stars to attend their award shows instead of recognizing quality films.

It’s been eight years since that fiasco and von Donnersmarck has returned for his third film and found himself nominated again for Best Foreign Language film for Never Look Away (or Werk ohne Autor/Work Without Author as it was known in Germany). I admit that I’ve not seen The Lives of Others but know it to be a respected winner of the Oscar and with a nomination for Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography as well, it’s obvious the Never Look Away represents an embraced return to form for von Donnersmarck after what had to have ultimately been a bruising experience with the Hollywood system.  With a stellar production design and Deschanel’s stunning camerawork, it’s a high-class picture.

Never Look Away follows Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling, Woman in Gold) an artist in post-war Germany haunted by the memories of his past and attempting to exorcise his demons through art. As a child, he saw his beloved aunt suffering from undiagnosed mental health issues taken away and his town destroyed by bombings as the Nazi’s were rising to power. Though he doesn’t follow her journey, the audience sees his aunt relegated to a hospital where she’s barely treated before being sterilized and eventually shipped off to the gas chambers with other people deemed risks to the survival of a pure society.

The first twenty minutes of the film provide several thematic threads that von Donnersmarck will pick up and discard several times over the next two and a half hours. There’s the SS doctor (Sebastian Koch, The Danish Girl) who treats Kurt’s aunt that will enter his life again when he becomes an adult studying art in East Germany. This doctor also figures into a subplot involving his arrest after the war and eventual clemency at the hands of a Russian officer who continues to protect him as the years go by. When Kurt falls in love with another student (Paula Beer) she provides still another link to the past that we’re all privy to but our main characters aren’t.

With a running time of over three hours, knowing this is another WWII story involving Nazis may suggest a daunting sit but it unfolds at just the right pitch. With such a dark subject matter, von Donnersmarck grasps onto moments of levity when he can and uses them to break up some of the heavier passages. The performances are strong, particularly Koch as a severely morally compromised man who manages to get more deplorable with each chance he gets to redeem himself. Adding to a strong list of nominees this year (Capernaum, Shoplifters, Cold War, and the favored winner, Roma) Never Look Away more than makes its case for your attention.

Movie Review ~ Alita: Battle Angel

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An action-packed story of one young woman’s journey to discover the truth of who she is and her fight to change the world.

Stars: Rosa Salazar, Keean Johnson, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Eiza Gonzalez

Director: Robert Rodriguez

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The journey of Alita: Battle Angel to the screen has been an adventure almost three decades in the making. Originally a Japanese manga series created by Yukito Kishiro, it caught the attention of director James Cameron (The Abyss) and became one of those passion projects that followed the director over the ensuing years. With his attention focused on other films, documentary projects, pioneering technological advances in filmmaking, and talking about his Avatar sequels ad nauseum, Cameron eventually realized that he’d have to abdicate the director’s chair if the film were ever to get off the ground. That’s where director Robert Rodriguez (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For) comes in and how we have arrived at this strange 2019 release.

It’s been several weeks since I’ve seen the film and I honestly can’t decide whether it’s glorious or garbage. I can fully see where the effects extravaganza will be overpowering and maybe even off-putting but at the same time there’s a piece of me that silently was cheering on the never-ending barrage of bizarre your ticket purchase will provide.  I can tell you this, I was never, not even for one minute, bored.  If the film community and audiences decide to pass judgment that Alita: Battle Angel is a failure, it will have gone out swinging because it doesn’t seem to be afraid to embrace its oddity.

Five hundred years in the future the Earth has suffered a series of cataclysmic events, culminating with “The Fall” which separated cities of the sky from the junk-laden wastelands on the ground. Only the most elite live in that last surviving sky city, Zalem, while the rest of Earth’s inhabitants scrape by a living where they can. Some have turned to bounty hunting to earn enough money to travel up up and away and there are certainly enough sundry individuals roaming the streets for people to make a buck or two eliminating dangerous threats.

Scouring a junkyard for spare parts to aid in his robotic repair practice, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz, Big Eyes) finds the remnants of a female cyborg and rebuilds her, giving her the name Alita. When Alita (Rosa Salazar) comes back online and eventually falls in love with a local teenager (Keean Johnson), she begins to piece together her history as she discovers new strength and agility that seem to come naturally. At the same time, a killer is on the loose and Alita becomes a Hunter-Killer bounty hunter to track down who is harvesting people for their spare parts.  In doing so, she raises the ire of a punk bounty hunter (Ed Skrein, Deadpool) who doesn’t appreciate the competition from the supposed teenage girl.  When her mysterious past is revealed, it will put all who come in contact with her in danger as she’s revealed to be an important weapon and the only one that can stop the evil Nova (played in an uncredited cameo by an Oscar-nominated actor) from keeping bigger truths about Zalem from the public.

As you can probably tell, there’s a whole lot going on in the movie (I didn’t even bother to describe a sport called Motorball that figures heavily into the action) and Cameron’s script (co-written by Laeta Kalogridis, Terminator Genisys) is his usual mish-mash of overly syrupy dialogue intermixed with made-up jargon. Usually, this works against the film but here the script manages to serve things quite well as it prompts numerous set-ups for eye-popping special effects (see it in IMAX 3D, if possible) and nicely crafts a new world for our characters to explore.

Rodriguez has always had a way with making his films rock and roll even on a minuscule budget but here he’s given the keys to the bank vault and has cleaned out the coffers. It’s all rather lovely to look at, especially in an underwater sequence when Alita finds a crashed spaceship that holds a clue to her origins. Where things don’t go quite as swimmingly are in the character arcs, with several A-list actors left to fend for themselves with roles that are underwritten and underdeveloped. Oscar winners Jennifer Connelly (Only the Brave) and Mahershala Ali (Green Book) treat the material as high art, which leads to their performances taking on a camp factor that is surely unintentional. Salazar, digitized in post-production, turns in the most realistic performance – there were times I actually forgot she was an animation.

Not being familiar with the source material, I can’t say how close Cameron and Kalogridis stuck to the original story but there’s a definite energy injected throughout that’s hard to deny. It may be overstuffed and too effects-heavy but there’s an admirable bit of workmanship that has gone into the look of the film, even if the more dramatic pieces don’t quite gel correctly. This being a Cameron property, there’s a romance subplot that isn’t fully satisfying and Rodriguez has tacked on maybe two finales too many, but it ends on a high enough note that I’m curious to see if another installment might get the go-ahead now that Disney owns 20th Century Fox and could benefit from this property with international appeal.