“Never Look Away”, new film from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

Never Look Away.

The Lives of OthersFlorian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s feature debut from 2006,was one of the standout films of the last decade. His follow-up, The Tourist from 2010, starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, and costing over 100 million dollars, wasn’t merely disappointing, it managed somehow to pass everyone by, going completely un-noticed. 

The Lives of Others.

Which was quite a feat given its cast and cost. So was that debut a chance accident of converging talents, or did it genuinely herald the arrival of a serious film maker?  

In his new film, Never Look Away, Tom Schilling plays Kurt, an artist struggling under the restrictions of life in post-war East Germany. Married to the daughter of a former SS officer, who does everything he possibly can to sabotage their union, they flee to freedom in the West. 

There’s little enough to get excited about in cinema these days, so when you do seem to have stumbled upon an actual find, you cross your fingers that whoever it is turns out to be the genuine article. So I desperately wanted to be wowed by Never Look Away. But it’s felled, alas, by two fatal flaws.

Sirk’s Imitation of Life.

First, it’s a melodrama. Personally, I love melodrama, it’s probably my favourite genre, being to cinema what country is to music. And Germany has a proud tradition of brilliant melodrama. 

On the one hand, there are those glorious, Technicolor weepies that Douglas Sirk made in Hollywood in the 1950s; All That Heaven Allows (’55), Written on the Wind (’56) and Imitation of Life (‘59). Gloriously over the top, unashamedly mannered and defiantly theatrical. “You don’t believe in the happy ending,” Sirk said of that last named, “and you’re not supposed to(!)


Fassbinder’s the Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.

And on the other, there are those flurry of do-it-yourself, handmade films that Rainer Werner Fassbinder produced in the 70s, before burning so spectacularly out at the tender age of 37. Films like Fear Eats the Soul (’74), Despair (’78) and the peerless the Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (’72). Archetypally art house, brazenly intellectual and comfortably, almost casually avant garde. 

The problem with Never Look Away is that it is neither fish nor fowl, falling midway between those two twin poles. Much of it is gloriously silly, but how intentional that is, is impossible to say. What, for instance, are we to make of the fact that the artists Kurt meets on his arrival in the West look like they’ve stepped out of one of those paintings produced back in the Communist East, that they are supposed to be critiquing? And what about that ending – no spoilers -? Are we meant to smile knowingly, à la Sirk, or are we supposed to take it seriously? In short, it’s a film that desperately wants to be taken seriously, but devotes its entire energy into merely looking wondrously pretty.

David Lynch’s Dune, which is every bit as bad as that poster suggests.

It’s not hard to see where the project went wrong. Donnersmarck befriended the great German artist Gerhard Richter, interviewing him at length, which you can read about in the New Yorker profile here. But with what in mind? That intimacy meant that he was then incapable of producing a distanced, warts and all biopic of the man. So instead, he made a fictionalised film about someone quite like, but not actually, Richter. The result is polite, well mannered and extremely dull. It’s not even the sort of spectacular failure that we got with Dune. Which somehow makes it even more of a disappointment. 

Hopefully, just as David Lynch did after Dune, Donnersmarck will go back to the sort of small, intimate film that he began with. But as of now, so far as his gifts as a film maker go, the jury is very much out. He seems, at least for the moment, to be more of a Darren Aronofsky than he does an Asghar Farhadi.

You can see the trailer for Never Look Away here.

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The Columbian film, Birds of Passage.

Birds of Passage.

Ciro Guerro’s Embrace of the Serpent was the stand out film of 2015 (reviewed earlier here), so his follow up was much anticipated. On the face of it, Birds of Passage, which he directed with his production partner and former wife Cristina Gallego, couldn’t possibly be more different.

Over the course of two decades, we watch as the decease of narcotics comes to infect the whole of Columbian society. It begins innocuously enough, with the arrival in 1968 of a ragbag of hippies in search of a better class of high. But very quickly, every corner of the countryside has been laid low by the kind of blind greed that only ready cash can produce. And before long, the whole country has descended into a very modern hell.

Embrace of the Serpent.

Where Embrace of the Serpent was a meditation on colonialism in measured blacks and whites, the new film is a riot of colour and awash with noise. But that colour palette aside, the two films share remarkably similar concerns. It’s just that they are looking at the world through opposite ends of the telescope.

This time around, we are embedded in the Wayuu group, tribes of native Americans who live to the very north, on either side of the border between Columbia and Venezuela. And it is through the prism of their concerns and their traditions that we witness the havoc wreaked by the spread of the international drug trade. So once again, we are looking at ethnicity, ethnography and the discordant clash as age-old traditions come up against the progress offered by the modern world. 

It’s ravishing to look at, and sumptuous to behold, sonically speaking. And I desperately wanted it to lift off and take flight. But it doesn’t.

The Wayuu people.

The film’s problems can be traced to its casting. Not the cast, who all do their best, but to the ethos behind the casting. For the film makers insisted on casting actual Wayuu tribespeople in a third of the roles, and deliberately avoided any “named” actors throughout – the only name is Natalia Reyes, soon to star in the latest Terminator reboot. Yes, that’s what the world needs, a n other instalment from yet another CGI, green screen Hollywood franchise. 

She plays the wife of the protagonist, Rapayet. He himself is played by the Cuban baseball star Jose Acosta. So, unsurprisingly, with so many inexperienced performers, there is a decided dearth of passion to the telling of the tale. And this is further exacerbated by the script. Reyes, for instance, who is so strikingly central to the film’s opening half an hour, tamely disappears from view for much of the rest of the film. And without that core relationship to root for, and given the bloodless, one-dimentional nature of so many of the other performances, it’s impossible to care very much about what happens to the various characters as they make their way inevitably down.

(L-R) – José Acosta and Natalia Reyes in Birds of Passage

In short, the film is weighed down by its lofty ambitions and its sense of moral rectitude. It’s too ethnographically concerned to allow the drama catch fire, but not sufficiently to qualify as a documentary. It looks and sounds amazing, and it’s definitely not a bad film. It’s just nowhere near as good as it might have been.

You can see the trailer to Birds of Passage here

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A cult classic road movie from the 70s.

Two-Lane Blacktop.

Two-Lane Blacktop is exactly the sort of film everyone expected there to be hundreds of after the global success that Easy Rider enjoyed in 1969.

Easy Rider starred and was written by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, together with Terry Southern, who’d previously worked on the script for Dr. Strangelove and was credited by Tom Wolfe as having pioneered New Journalism. It cost just $400,000, but went on to gross over 60 million dollars. 

Both a commercial and a critical sensation, it ushered in the New Hollywood era that blossomed throughout the 70s with the likes of Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese, Francis (ex of Ford) Coppola and Paul Schrader.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider.

Surprisingly, Easy Rider has aged remarkably well and is definitely worth a look if you haven’t already seen it. As is this, its spiritual sequel.

Two-Lane Blacktop, the blacktop being the open road on which our latter day cowboys face up to one another on, came out in 1971 and was directed by Monte Hellman

A driver and a mechanic prowl the open road looking for likeminded loaners to race, living off of the proceeds. Inevitably, they pick up a girl looking for a, ahem, ride, and what plot there is revolves around their pursuit of her, and their confrontation with the older outrider they square off against on their respective steel steeds.

But neither the film nor its principle characters seem terribly interested in pursuing their objects of desire. Instead, it’s the spirit of Antonioni that reigns supreme. His regal Zabriskie Pointe (reviewed by me earlier here) had come out the previous year, and, as there, the predominant mood is one of existential ennui. 

Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point.

This is further accentuated by the casting. The two male leads are played by James Taylor and Dennis Wilson. The former went on to establish himself as the archetypal 70s singer songwriter, while Wilson was the least naturally gifted of the three Beach Boy brothers, musically speaking. And was so insanely young when the whole Beach Boys thing happened – he was 23 when Pet Sounds came out at the endof their heyday – that inevitably, he spent most of his thirties in a drug-addled haze, before drowning tragically at just 39.

Harry Dean Stanton, in a brief cameo in Two-Lane Blacktop.

So instead of the sort of performances with a capital P that you would have expected from a Dennis Hopper or a Jack Nicholson, they amble they way through the film in exactly the right state of disinterest, not so much by design as by default. Pleasingly, you suspect that their casting was similarly happenstance. They just happened to be there when that particular joint got passed around.

It doesn’t quite give the heady hit that Easy Rider produces. But it is a curio well worth investigating and is a pleasing antidote to all that green screen nonsense. 

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Suspiria: Dario Argento V Luca Guadagnino.

Dario Argento’s Suspiria (’77)

Dario Argento’s sixth film, Suspiria, was released in 1977 but it’s as startlingly arresting to look at, and to listen to, today as it was then. And that despite the fact that much of what was so original about the film at the time has now become commonplace.

Written with his wife, the actress Daria Nicolodi, and inspired by a Thomas De Quincey essay, the film follows the arrival of a teenage dancer at a prestigious ballet school in Germany. What elevates it and so immediately distinguishes it, is the way that it brilliantly melds the conventions of horror with the aesthetics of classic, art house cinema.

Lines and colours to die for.

The result is a film that delves deep beneath the surface to explore the depths of the subconscious, to produce an expressionistic phantasmagoria decked out in the pristine lines and primary colours of a particularly lurid art deco.

Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli based their colour palette on Disney’s use of blocks of primary colours in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). And they shot the film using the last three strip Technicolor cameras in Europe, to create the same kind of intensity that the process had given to the likes of the Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind.

Argento teamed up again with the Italian prog rock band Goblin, with whom he’d worked on Deep Red (’75), to produce the sort of eerie and unsettlingly child-like score that would later become such a cliché in the decades to come.

Jessica Harper in Suspiria (’77).

It’s impeccably crafted, dazzlingly original and, if anything, is even more visually and sonically striking today than it was when first it was released.

Luca Guadagnino seemed initially to offer so much potential. After the promise of his third feature, I am Love in 2010, he made the visually impressive A Bigger Splash in 2015, reviewed earlier here. But he followed that up with the anaemic Call Me By Your Name in 2017, reviewed earlier here. And now there’s this, his “homage” to Suspiria.

Ah, Technicolor…

Gone are the primary colours and any sense of visual flair, gone too is any attempt to connect what’s going on up on screen with primal fears buried in the subconscious. The witches are still present and correct, as is the setting of Germany in the late 1970s. What we are offered instead is the wholly irrelevant backdrop of the political chaos fostered by the Baader Meinhof group, a tedious Me Too subtext and an extraordinarily ill-judged Nazi coda.

The question that nags throughout, apart from how in God’s name did they manage to drag this out for over 2 ½ hours, is, why on earth did they bother? What, literally, were they thinking? As Argento himself commented to Eric Kohn in his IndieWire interview here:

“Either you do it exactly the same way—in which case, it’s not a remake, it’s a copy, which is pointless—or, you change things and make another movie. In that case, why call it Suspiria?”

Ralf Fiennes injects much needed life into A Bigger Splash.

In retrospect, and ironically, given his choice of subject matter, what’s missing from Guadagnino’s films is plain to see. With the exception of A Bigger Splash, they are each so bloodless, flaccid and completely devoid of passion. There’s an all too revealing profile by Nathan Heller in the New Yorker, here, where Guadagnino comments airily that he has recently been spending as much time shooting ads, and on his latest pet pastime, interior design, as he has on film making. Imagine what Ingmar Bergman or Jean-Luc Godard would have made of that.

In the meantime, if you’re more interested in full blooded cinema than you are in Wallpaper, treat yourself to Argento’s timeless gem. You can see the trailer to Suspiria (77) here.

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“I, Dolours”, fascinating window into Irish history.

I, Dolours.

There were a number of new Irish features released this summer. Fortunately, one of them at least has genuine substance. I, Dolours is based entirely on an interview that life-long Irish Republican Dolours Price gave to veteran journalist Ed Moloney.

Moloney is the one time Northern Editor of The Irish Times and the Sunday Tribune, and the author of a number of highly acclaimed books on the troubles. So when Price approached him in 2010 about conducting a lengthy interview with her, he was happy to oblige on one condition. That they only publish the resulting interview after she had passed away.

Ed Moloney’s A Secret History of the IRA.

When subsequently she died of a drug overdose, not long after in 2013, Moloney teamed up with film maker Maurice Sweeney to begin the process of what would eventually become this film.

The decision to tell her story entirely from her perspective is an inspired one. It frees them up from any need for objectivity or balance, and what they produce instead is a history of the troubles from the inside out.

So instead of trying to produce an objective history that seeks to establish exactly what happened and who was responsible, we follow the chain of events that helps explain why it is that a normal, highly intelligent, and extremely articulate woman can end up leading a life, and committing acts that, from the outside looking in, appear to be indefensible and inexplicable.

Born into a life of poverty and prejudice, her staunchly Republican Belfast home was haunted by the presence of her mother’s sister, who had lost her hands and her eyes in a botched IRA bombing, and who lived upstairs in perpetual pain and discomfort. Surprisingly, given the atmosphere at home, Price begins by marching for peace in defiance of her heritage. But when she is amongst those who are attacked in the infamous Burntollet Bridge incident, in 1969, she, like most of those with her there, becomes permanently radicalised.

Lorna Larkin as Dolours.

She then moves quickly up through the IRA ranks, and describes in detail, and with chilling detachment, her role in a number of those that the IRA had “disappeared” throughout the 1970s. The most controversial of which was Jean McConville, mother of ten and, according to Price, a British informer, and about whom Price is especially caustic. And for the rest of the film, we follow her as she moves from activist to rudderless, former paramilitary.

Just how much credence you give her version of these events will largely depend on which side of the Orange Green divide that you stand. And when we later hear just how embittered and disillusioned she becomes in the wake of the Peace process in the 1990s, it’s clear that at least some of what she has to say about the past has been warped by the prism of her prejudices. None the less, a great deal of the story she tells rings resonantly true.

Price’s former husband, Stephen Rea, carrying her coffin.

And in any case, that would be to miss the point. How reliable she is as a witness to history is not what this film sets out to explore. That atrocities were committed on all sides over the course of three decades is not disputed. What’s much more important, and much more interesting, is being given an insight as to how it is that thousands of perfectly normal, and often highly intelligent people, can end up devoting their lives to acts of apparently senseless violence. And how hard they find it to cope, once their raison d’être has been erased.

Condemnation is easy and ultimately hollow. Illuminating why and how is the only thing that can produce understanding. Which is what makes this film so important. And so fascinating.

You can see the trailer to I, Dolours here.

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