ON THE BASIS OF SEX – movie review


Focus Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Mimi Leder
Screenwriter:  Daniel Stiepleman
Cast:  Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 11/20/18
Opens: December 25, 2018
On the Basis of Sex - Poster Gallery
In 1972 a single male caring for his disabled mother was denied a $296 tax deduction that he claimed.  In 97% of cases such a minor situation ends up with the guy’s writing the sum off.  But this fellow in Colorado not only went beyond tax court, where almost every disagreement is settled.  He took the case to a federal court of appeals.  (I’m not clear on the reason the case was not first heard by a federal district court.)   Quite rare.  You needed a superwoman to win this one, and he found her.  RBG, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg, depicted by Kate McKinnon not on Saturday Night Live as Wonder Woman may be stretching the truth somewhat though the octogenarian does pushups and indulges in resistance training.  By granting two movies to the public about the prominent justice—“RBG” a documentary, and now “On the Basis of Sex,” the industry finds special appeal in Ms. Ginsburg, though it remains to be seen whether Mr. Justice Kavanaugh gets a movie treatment—which will probably be not as warm as Hollywood has given to Ginsburg.

The final third of “On the Basis of Sex,” as directed by Mimi Leder—whose “Pay It Forward” is a sentimental look at a youth who decides to do good for the world—is the most riveting.  By contrast, the first two segments play up certain sentiments to broaden its appeal. For example, Daniel Stiepleman’s script pays attention to Cailee Spaeny in the role of Ginsburg’s teen daughter Jane, including a scene that finds her telling off a trio of construction workers who gently harass her.  The love between Ginsburg, here played by Felicity Jones who appears in most scenes, and her handsome and considerably taller husband Martin (Armie Hammer), is played up.  The audience is encouraged to boo (mentally, we hope, for the sake of audience concentration) when the Dean of Harvard Law school, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) tells Ruth that she should be gratified even to be accepted as one of the only eight women in the school.  Harvard students, except for the women, all report to class in dark suits and ties, and there is not a single African-American face in the group during a rebellious time in the U.S. of the late sixties, early seventies.  What’s more even when Ginsburg graduates from law school—she switched to Columbia to allow her to be with her husband who landed a job in New York—a law firm ignores the applicant’s first-in-her-class status to say that “our wives would be jealous if we hired a woman.”

Catharsis is achieved with considerable dramatic effect during the appearance before the federal Court of Appeals in Denver where one Charles Moritz (Christian Mulkey) has been denied a $296 tax deduction.  He had hired a nurse to take care of his wife, who is disabled, has dementia, and is in a wheelchair, but the tax court, following the law, notes that men who had never married are not eligible to deduct for such care while a woman, a divorced man and a widower is eligible for the deduction.  The specific law is this:
(a)    General rule.-There shall be allowed as a deduction expenses paid during the taxable year by a taxpayer who is a woman or widower, or is a husband whose wife is incapacitated or is institutionalized, for the care of one or more dependents (as defined in subsection (d) (1)), but only if such care is for the purpose of enabling the taxpayer to be gainfully employed.”
In what might pass for a cliffhanger, it looks as though the case would be lost. The three male judges signal by subtle body language that they have no intention of declaring this law unconstitutional.  Fighting for Moritz are Ruth, her husband Martin, and an energetic, extroverted staff member of ACLU Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux).  The government side include the solicitor general, the same fellow who had been the sexist dean of Harvard Law School.

While the case is going badly for the appellant, fighting against the forces of the U.S. Government, and Ruth appears to be so nervous that she is unable convincingly to answer questions that the judges pepper her with, the final four minutes of her argumentation changes the world, or at least the U.S.

So, feel-good this film is.  Whether a broad commercial audience might follow the legal arguments is debatable, though anyone with focus should be able to understand the briefs.  Felicity Jones, though a British woman who grew up in the Midlands, handles a perfect American accent and is ably supported by her colleagues, surely to the extent that the real Justice Ginsburg—who shows up in the final scene—must be pleased.

120 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS – movie review

Focus Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Josie Rourke
Screenwriter:  Beau Willimon, adapting from John Guy’s book “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart
Cast:  Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Martin Compston, Gemma Chan, Guy Pearce
Screened at: Crosby Hotel, NYC, 11/19/18
Opens: December 7, 2018
Mary Queen Of Scots Movie Poster 18'' x 28 FINESTPRINT88
With due respect to Theresa May, David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, and John Major, none of them could hold a candle to Mary Queen of Scots.  They cannot be the focus of an adventure movie like this one, even while wearing their cool, white, parliamentary wigs.  Benjamin Disraeli and William Pitt, maybe. In fact, yes, William Pitt the Younger (movie: 1942) doing battle with France and Napoleon.  OK I’d grant that.  Or could it be just that history itself grants majesty to the people conveyed therein?

There is ample majesty in Josie Rourke’s “Mary Queen of Scots.”  Two majesties in fact, though one wanted to expand her power, and like many leaders, authoritarian and otherwise, met their downfall because they overreached.  If Mary remained content to be the Scottish monarch, all would be kosher, but she provoked her cousin Elizabeth who felt threatened—as anyone in her position would.  Mary believed she was rightfully queen of Scotland, England and Ireland: think of it as office politics with jewelry and makeup.

Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan—rhymes with “inertia”) became, in her country in her time, what we in the United States would require a chief exec to be at least 35.  She ascended the throne of France at 16, widowed at 18, returning to Scotland where she finds that Scotland and England are being ruled by Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie).  In Josie Rourke’s version, love becomes as important a theme as power.  Conspiracies abound (Conspiracies: those are the things that American politics today have nothing to do with.)  One branch of Scottish nobles are with Mary.  They’re all for putting her on the throne of England, Scotland and Ireland.  Another faction in Scotland is opposed and favors recognition of Elizabeth.  Naturally the English encourage the faction that wants to quell the competition so that all can live in peace.  But this is not to be, lucky for us, as we can watch a beautifully costumed, made-up, jewel-wearing rival monarchs, though for beauty, Mary has it all.  Elizabeth, afflicted with smallpox as of Oct. 10, 1562, must cover her pock-marked face with increasing layers of white powder—which, by the way, made her ill and caused her hair to fall out.

If you’re a cinephile having absorbed previous attempts to bring Mary to life, you’ve seen Katharine Hepburn in “Mary of Scotland” and Vanessa Redgrave as “Mary, Queen of Scots,” Cate Blanchett and Samantha Morton squaring off in “Elizabeth:  The Golden Age,” and a lesser known “Mary Queen of Scots” in 2013 with Camille Rutherford.  This time directing honors go to Josie Rourke in his freshman movie, but whose qualifications come from his being director of London’s Donmar Warehouse theater company.

Rourke’s version brings the episodes into modern times, portraying at least two men of color among the conspiring nobility, with much warmongering going on among people who might fit well into today’s Tea Party and would be most welcome by Bible-thumpers with political ambitions.  Difficult as it might seem today when all religions in America are living in peace and harmony (granted with some exceptions played up bigly in the media),  Catholics and Protestants are at one another’s throats as they were in recent times in Northern Ireland, with the fanatics playing up the fact that Mary is Catholic and is accused of wanting to smuggle the pope over the border to rule with her.

Forget about the complexities of accession.  Suffice it to say that Mary became Catholic Queen of France and Scotland, Elizabeth the Protestant Queen of England.  Mary comes across as more aggressive in the movie than she may have been in life.  She might have settled at first for the dual monarchy but those Bible thumpers orated against Mary for being not religious enough or at least not caring whether her people worshipped as Protestant or Catholics. (In America today the word is that our great people might not oppose a President who is Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, even Muslim: as long as he or she is not an atheist.)

If the monarchy were to be decided on mere looks, Mary would be accepted unanimously.  Saoirse Ronan is stunning, carrying herself as regal as a woman can be, stretching her terrific acting chops as a woman whose judgment in men is not always on the money. Elizabeth is made difficult to look at once had face is covered with the boils of smallpox, then has her face whitened to cover the scars, and, were it not for the elaborate red rug that she is entitled to wear could scare your children with the impact of that dread disease.  Much of director’s time is taken up with the conspiracies of the males since aside from the two monarchs, the only other women are ladies-in-waiting who at one point stand fretfully at the door of the royal bedroom while Mary tries with her insufficiently excited man to conceive an heir.

This is a picturesque look at the scepter’d isle in the Sixteenth Century, an authentic one so far as anyone but a historian might see, a multi-cultural, feminist drama with the occasional battle scene as two rival Scottish factions wave their swords at each other, though for what purpose one would want to risk his life is beyond the ken of the film.

125 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B-
Technical – B+
Overall – B

THE GREAT BUDDHA+ – movie review


Cheng Cheng Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Hsin-yao Huang
Screenwriter:  Hsin-yao Huang
Cast:  Cres Chuang, Bamboo Chu-Sheng Chen, Leon Dai, Shao-Huai Chang
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 11/18/18
Opens: November 23, 2018: Taiwan’s Oscar Candidate for 91st Academy Awards!
The Great Buddha+ (2017)
You should not be surprised to discover that the U.S. is not the only country to be plagued by inequality.  Hsin-yao Huang’s film “The Great Buddha+” finds that Taiwan, called Formosa when it was under Dutch rule, has a similar situation.  Huang, whose 23-minute film “The Great Buddha” deals with the discovery of a secret behind a great Buddha statue, adds a plus to his current offering: hence “The Great Buddha+” his first full-length narrative movie.

With a population largely from the descendants of the people who fled the Communist revolution in China in 1949, Taiwan lives with the fiction that it is an independent country when in fact, the People’s Republic of China considers it part of their vast country but allows the current status to continue.  Taiwan has rich and poor, the latter having little say about their lives other than needing to flatter their bosses while those with wealth can enjoy luxuries including relationships with the opposite sex “with benefits.”  This theme underlies “The Great Buddha+” serving not only to entertain us with comedy but also to provide a serious, underlying message that would make Mao Tse-tung, Vladimir Lenin, Pol Pol, Karl Marx, and others of their leftist views say “I told you so.”

The poor in Huang’s film are known by nicknames Pickle (Cres Chuang), Belly Button (Bamboo Chen) and Peanut (Na Daw).  Kevin Huang (Leon Dai) stands in for the rich, entitled not only to material luxuries but to the services of perhaps scores of women whom he seduces (or more likely is seduced by) and abandons.  In this case, the poor, Pickle and Belly Button, serve the interests of comedy while Huang becomes an increasingly sinister and more loathsome figure for us in the audience to contemn.

Belly Button digs through trash to uncover reams of sticky porn magazines, but when Pickle’s boss is away, the mouse will play. Specifically Belly Button and Pickle spend hours gazing at a screen where, having absconded with Huang’s Mercedes dashboard camera, they observe his prowess with women.

A black-and-white movie except when observing the footage on the dashcam taken from the boss’s luxury car, “The Great Buddha+” finds Pickle and Belly Button marveling at Huang’s success with women, though we get the idea Huang is not Brad Pitt, he wears a large, ridiculous rug presumably in danger of falling off during his athletic bouts with women, and is desired for his Benz, which serves as a chick magnet.  “Birth is eight-tenths of dignity” becomes the movie-summarizing quote, meaning that those who are lucky to choose the right parents know how to live while the other are lucky to get the scraps from the king’s table.

We can laugh at the indignities suffered by people like Pickle and Belly Button but the laughter gets stuck in our throats, as we recall a society showing the rich growing richer and the poor becoming poorer.  Scenes dealing with a giant statue of Buddha which serves as a commentary on religion, demonstrate that religious beliefs are exploited, just as Marx had said, by the powerful.  The film  won the top prize at the 19th Taipei Film Festival and received 10 nominations at the 54th Golden Horse Awards, winning Best Adapted Screenplay and Best New Director.

104 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B

SHOPLIFTERS – movie review

SHOPLIFTERS (Manbiki Kazoku)

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Kore-eda Hirokazu
Screenwriter:  Kore-eda Hirokazu
Cast:  Lily Franky, Ando Sakura, Matsuoka Mayu, Kiki Kilin, Jyo Kairi, Sasaki Miyu
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/31/18
Opens: November 23, 2018
Manbiki kazoku Movie Poster
It could be an ordeal for a typical American audience to watch two hours of a film with such a measured pace as “Shoplifters,” but for those who appreciate a deeply humanistic look at a scruffy, odd-ball Japanese family, the film offers rewards.  The director, Kore-eda Hirokazu, in fact, is known for stories about folks who are living on the edge, barely getting by, or families that are faced with momentous decisions.  Consider “Like Father, Like Son,” in which a businessman is told that babies were switched at birth.  He faces the decision of a lifetime: to keep the boy that he and his wife raised from birth, or to tell the truth and replace him with his biological son.  In “Our Little Sister,” a group of sisters living with their grandmother prepare for the arrival of a 13-year-old half-sister.

“Shoplifters,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May, is all about a rag-tag group of people who consider one another as though they are legally or biologically related.  Husband, wife, children—all are together in a small rickety suburban home. They are led by a good-natured man, Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) who makes the young ones earn their keep by shoplifting.  Osamu is Fagin to his Oliver Twist-like “son” Shota Shibata (Kairi Jo) and “daughter” Yuri (Miyu Sasaki).  Shota looks about 14 years old, having lived for a while with Osamu and Osamu’s “wife” Nobuyo Shibata.  Five-year-old Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) is picked up by the family, the product of an abusive home, and she is treated like their own.  In fact, it’s not completely clear just which people have makeshift identities and which are genuine.  But all little Yuri had to do was show the burn on her arm, and she is immediately taken in and fed, no matter how poor her new family is.  What income the family uses is largely from the alleged pension collected by Granny (Kiki Kilin), an elderly lady who seems always to be eating, schlurping up noodles or biting into croquettes.

When we meet Osamu and his “son” Shota, they have been shoplifting on a freezing winter’s night at the local grocery store.  Back in the shack, the family ponders the danger of taking in five-year-old Yuri.  Isn’t that kidnapping?  It certainly is, but surely if anyone in the family were charged with the crime, they could always plead “guilty with an explanation” as we would do in traffic court.

Just as Osamu trains Shota to shoplift, so Shota trains Yuri.  In one scene, Shota takes off with a pair of fishing rods, a theft made easy as Yuri pulls the plug on the alarmed door and replaces it when her “big brother” has done the deed.  If this family were treated by the strict laws of kidnapping and shoplifting, the “dad” and “mom” would go to jail.  But a wise judge would consider the circumstances, and a kidnapping charge would be reduced to probation.  They have performed a service, taking in people from abusive homes and making them happy and healthy.

The sparks fly only in the final half hour, as police move in to enforce the law.  Granny’s demise has much to do with the penalties they face, and while we root for everything to turn out according to true justice rather than the formal laws, we wonder what will happen to Shota, who obviously would like to stay forever with these quirky people, and to Yuri, who has been treated with kindness for the first time in her life.

The acting is naturalistic, standouts being Lily Franky as the putative head of the family and Kairi Jo as his teen “son.”  Behind the lenses, Kondo Ryuto captures a part of Tokyo probably no tourist ever sees, while Hosono Haruomi issues a score that makes the proceedings look like a fairy tale—which, I suppose, it is.  In Japanese with English titles.

121 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B-
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B

UNDER THE TREE – movie review

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson
Screenwriter: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson, Huldar Breidfjord
Cast: Steinthor Hroar Steininthorsson, Edda Bjorgvindottir, Sigurdur Sigurjonsson, Lara Johanna Jonsdittir, Sigridur Sigurpalsdottir Scheving)
Undir trénu Movie Poster

Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/13/18
Opens: July 6, 2018: Iceland’s Oscar Candidate for 91st Academy Awards!

Second graders in America know something about George Washington designed, obviously, to encourage the little elves always to tell the truth. When the Washington household’s cherry tree was found on the ground, George’s father asked the future president who chopped down the tree. “I cannot tell a lie,” says George, “I chopped it down.” For telling the truth, George Washington was forgiven, and could hold his head morally high when he took the oath of office. A tree is the source of quite a problem in a movie that opened this year from Iceland, specifically a suburb of Reykjavik where the cube houses all look as though they were just built, there is no litter on the ground, a car in the garage, and hey, this is Iceland where everyone is civilized. Not everyone, though, in fact possibly nobody in this taut yet often hilarious dramedy is quite the person you would expect them to be.

Iceland has daylight six months or the year and darkness the remaining months, so you wonder whether the climate can make people edgy, but there are no real excuses for the spats that escalate from a simple request from a gentleman to the older man living on the other side of the fence. Both leave their doors open most of the time, but when the story plays out and their compatriots in Iceland learn from the newscasts what happened, you can expect the locksmith business to start booming.

Inga (Edda Bjorgvindottir) and her husband Baldvin (Sigurdur Sigurjonnson) live next door to Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann) and his athletic second wife Eybjorb (Selmer Bjornsdottir). Inga and Baldvin have a son Atli (Steinthor Hroar Steininthorsson), who is married to Agnes (Lara Johanna Jonsdittir) and have a pretty young daughter Asa (Sigridur Sigurpalsdottir Scheving). When Agnes catches her husband Atli watching a porn and quickly discovers the film was actually of her husband and a neighbor, she kicks him out of the house, leading to a second series of conflicts. While Konrad complains to his neighbors Inga and Baldvin that their tree is shading Konrad’s porch, Konrad does nothing. One thing leads to another. Tires are slashed, a cat is missing and suspected of being poisoned, while something unusual happens to a dog. With tension sky high, the stage is set for a Shakespearean climax.

Actors are probably among Iceland’s leading thesps, each contributing mightily to the ratcheting up of tensions, while a Bach requiem sung by the local chorus foreshadows its use. Though the neighborhood could have been anywhere and is not easily identifying as a Reykjavik suburb, the unusual (to us) names cannot be mistaken. (You won’t find anywhere there with a simple, British name like Sam Jones or Bob Wilson.) They are citizens of a small European state comparatively close to us in New York (a five hour flight on Icelandair), sometimes used by tourists on a two-nights’ break before proceeding to the continent.

Iceland’s candidacy for our Oscar race to be announced February 24, 2019 is a strong one but will face serious competition from scores of other foreign language movies, especially from the German entry, “Never Look Away.”

89 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+

BECOMING ASTRID – movie reveiw

Music Box Films
Reviewed for BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Pernille Fischer Christensen,
Screenwriterd:  Kim Fupz Aakeson, Pernille Fischer Christensen
Cast:  Alba August, Maria Bonnevie, Trine Dyrholm, Henrik Rafaelsen, Magnus Krepper, Björn Gustafsson
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/14/18
Opens: November 23, 2018
Unga Astrid Movie Poster
Pippi Långstrump, Pippi Longstocking as we know her here in America, is the principal character in a series of books translated into eighty-five languages.  The little girl is a red-head, unconventional, strong enough to lift and carry a horse with one arm.  She has contempt for adults for their pomposity and condescension (kutchi-koo, presumably, and “you look like your mother”).  Her sense of morality is as strong as her muscular arm, as she cannot tolerate a man’s beating his horse.  All this comes from being the daughter of a buccaneer captain, who provides her with a solid role model or inner and outer strength, the ability to tackle just about anything, including dedicating hours daily to cleaning a house and cooking.  It’s no wonder that the book series itself provides a terrific model for the readers the world over.  In fact, I would opine that if you find high-school students today who can barely read, who have no idea of emotions behind the words in a book, those youngsters probably did not have moms and dads to read stories as they tucked them into bed.  (I know this from personal experience with hundreds of such high-school boys and girls.)
Yet the words “Pippi Longstocking” gets nary a mention in a movie loosely based on the author’s early life.  Co-writer and director Pernille Fischer Christensen bookends her charmer of a movie with the author, now an elderly woman receiving sacks upon sacks of mail from youngsters everywhere, many of whom ask the key question, “How do you write so well about childhood when you’re are not yourself a child?  How can you write about PippI, monkey, horse, Tommy and Annika?  What comes across in “Becoming Astrid” is that by the time the movie wraps up, you have a good idea of the experiences she has from age 16 to about age 23, the hardships faced, all fueling her vivid imagination. Her books enjoy the popularity of those written by Theodor Seuss Geisel. She’s a Dr. Seuss on the loose. 

Ms. Christensen may be best known for “A Soap,” hardly as conventional a movie as her latest, as the 2006 film deals with the relationship of the owner of a beauty clinic and a transgender woman.  Now she takes a break and goes conventional, tackling her subject in strict chronological order from ages sixteen to about twenty-three.  That should appear to a wider audience rather than the small arthouse crowd that indies often have to accept.  Not that this is a sentimental, Hallmark-type film, considering what happens to the principal subject, Astrid Lindgren (Alba August), despite spending her youthful days with religious parents Marie (Trine Dyrholm) and Samuel (Magnus Krepper) and listening to Sunday sermons of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Under Erik Molberg Hansen’s lensing, we get the feel of the life in a small farming village in the Sweden of the twenties where Astrid begins to display the unconventional behavior of her favorite character Pippi.  Bored with the Saturday night dancing and from the exhausting work on the small farm, she is discovered by Reinhold (Henrik Rafaelsen), a newspaper editor who has read some of her essays and hires her to intern on the paper.  Instead of settling for routine, she branches out with articles of her own and falls under the influence of fashion magazines.  She has the barber cut her braids and becomes a thoroughly modern Astrid.

The editor becomes more than a boss, falling in love with her despite an age difference of some twenty years, and gets her pregnant despite his promise to be careful.  Abortion in freewheeling Sweden did not become legal until 1938, leaving the young woman without quite the dilemma.  To avoid the censure of her whole family by the locals, she goes to Copenhagen by train where she lucks out by finding one Marie (Trine Dyrholm), who takes care of the babies of women like Astrid.  Though Astrid could take the easy way out by accepting the father’s marriage proposal, she refuses his entreaties and develops the strength that even nowadays could label her a liberated woman.

It’s not that anyone who makes strong choices is able to write children’s books.  The problems faced by Astrid might appear resolved, as she had the option of leaving Lasse, the child—played by Sigrid af Ekström at three weeks of age, Ludvig V Görensson at six months, and an already accomplished performer, Marius Damslev, at three years.  None of these experiences really explain how the woman who would become Astrid Lindberg became such a popular writer, so maybe we should forget about Pippi Longstocking and not worry about the fictional changes the director and writers make.  This is an involving enough tale brought nicely up to date as in 1987, Astrid (Maria Fahl Vikander) makes room in her home for the sacks of mail from appreciative kids whose missives are in plain envelopes and in sturdy wrappings alike.  Those of us born before the digital revolution might wonder whether such hero worship of a writer of children’s books could ever come to pass in 2018.  But take a look at any Barnes and Noble store, go to the children’s section, and you’ll find young mothers sitting on the carpet with their small fry as though they are monitor-hating intellectuals who keep reading and books alive in the marvelous sci-fi picture “Fahrenheit 451.”  In Swedish and Danish with English subtitles.

123 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+

NEVER LOOK AWAY – movie review

NEVER LOOK AWAY (Werk ohne Autor)

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Screenwriter: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Cast: Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl, Cai Cohrs, Oliver Masucci, Ina Weisse, Rainer Bock, Johanna Gastdorf, Jeanette Hain, Hinnerk Schönemann, Florian Bartholomäi,Hans-Uwe Bauer, Jörg Schüttauf, Ben Becker, Lars Eidinger
Screened at: SONY, NYC, 11/12/18
Opens: November 30, 2018

When a mother names her newborn baby Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, that kid better do something in his life that justifies the fancy moniker. In this particular fellow’s case he more than meets his family’s expectations. In his Oscar-winning “The Lives of Others,” von Donnersmarck looks at a Stasi official in the 1984’s East Berlin who surveiles a writer and his lover, becoming absorbed in their goings-on, a stunning look at the repressive forces in East Germany. Germans who saw the film were said to be amazed at the authenticity of their lives back then, including the idea that the government was suppressing the elevated number of suicides plaguing the state. And that was just von Donnersmarck’s debut! Now he has done it again, with a film which, to date, should be considered not only for awards in the best foreign language category but, what the heck, the best movie of the year. Period. So far. “Never Look Away,” whose German title “Werk ohne Autor” (Work Without Author) is too bland considering the subject matter, has a better English title, one which is based upon one character’s telling her young nephew to look at life in all aspects with enough curiosity to make informed decisions.

Werk ohne Autor (2018)

If the three and one-quarter hours of running time makes you hesitate to check this film out, ignore indecision. This film is so riveting, so absorbing a story about art and love and politics and finding your identity, that I dare you to look away even once. That’s how brilliant this modern masterpiece is.

Though based loosely on the life of Gerhard Richter, a popular German painter who in this fictional form takes on the name of Dresden citizen Kurt Barnert, “Never Look Away” is an epic work encompassing some almost decades of German civilization from 1937 through the early 1960s. If you did spend a week play hooky from your history class for a week or so, you’ll know that that Central European nation had undergone years of tragedy, as extremist ideas take a role first as a country under National Socialism, then, after the war, shifting gears wholly as the Eastern sector is dominated by pro-Soviet governments. Specifically, von Donnersmarck, using his own script, gifts us by portraying an artist who at first is pressured to conform to Nazi ideology in painting canvasses that eschew so-called degenerate art, later pushed by communists to knock out works of socialist realism (the “boy loves tractor” idea crafted to uplift the people by glorifying workers and farmers).

Nor does it hurt that the writer-director enjoys the talents of Sebastian Koch, Germany’s greatest contemporary actor, here playing an evil s.o.b. that will condemn one young woman to be asphyxiated with carbon monoxide and another, during a different political climate, to have an abortion which may cause her to be unable to produce the children she so resolutely desires.

Prepared to be nailed to your theater seat right from the beginning as in 1937, the Nazi government invites people to visit the Degenerate Art exhibition, the guide (Lars Eidinger) delivering a snarky but captivating lecture to a tour group about the alleged evils of what we today would call contemporary or avant-garde painting. Young Kurt Barnert (Cai Cohrs) will never forget the experience as his favorite Aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) introduces him to a museum that will likely be avoided by people his age who might prefer to play soccer with his pals. Elizabeth, a beautiful young woman with flowing blond hair, may well be the kind of Auntie Mame type we all wanted, a woman who is anything but conventional and whose idea of educating a young boy includes appearing before him in full, frontal, naked beauty. Older relatives catch her the raw, and turn to gynecologist Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch) to send her away to an institution which must decide whether to eliminate her (returning soldiers need more beds) or simply sterilize the poor woman.

When little Kurt, now a young man (Tom Schilling) is admitted to an art academy, he finds that the new Communist regime in East Germany allows socialist realism as the only acceptable art form, warning him that the country does not need more Picassos. The best is to come when Kurt flirts with and eventually marries fashion student Ellie Seeband (Paul Beer), not realizing that her father is the notorious professor who sent his beloved aunt away. The hateful professor continues to spew venom, arguing that Kurt is not good enough for his daughter in part because he considers the handsome young man unemployable. Kurt’s favorable future is virtually assured, however,when he is taught at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf by Antonius Van Werten (Oliver Masucci), a man who covers his deformed head by a hat and who relives his rescue by Tartars when his plane was shot down over Crimea. Now without restrictions—he and Elizabeth had fled to the West—Kurt survives the humiliation of scrubbing hospital floors to pay for his schooling and to go on to find his true identity in his art.

The great changes that befall Germany during a thirty-year period are dealt with flawlessly. You might think the Communists and the Nazis have much in common, at least as their viewpoint on art coincide. It’s almost predictable that a movie with art as a subject would conjure the idea that a great artist must have suffered trauma or be emotionally disturbed. “At Eternity’s Gate,” Julian Schnabel’s new picture about the last days of Vincent Van Gogh, is the latest entry into the subject, though when considering off-center neurotics and psychotics like the professor and Aunt Elisabeth, Kurt is the model of stability and maturity.

The movie soars cinematically under Caleb Duschanel’s lensing. Outdoor scene are of brilliant sunlight of the kind that fought to keep Vincent Van Gogh from going completely bonkers. The historical background is illuminating without being reductive, the passages from Nazism to Communism to democracy seamless and pristine. The mostly large paintings, notably the ones we see when Kurt’s coming into his own, look as though they might be in a museum rather than mediated by the screen in a film that’s in German with English subtitles and photographed in Berlin, Dresden, Dusseldorf, North Rhine-Westphalia, Saxony and the Czech Republic.

189 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – A
Overall – A