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Never Look Away (2018)

This is only the second film for writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck since his 2006 Oscar-winning masterpiece, The Lives of Others. Seeing his name attached to any movie was enough to secure my ticket. Going back to his native language, the director traces the life of a young, daring Dresden artist, loosely based on Gerhard Richter, trying to find his sense of self and truth from the reign of the Nazis to the GDR under Soviet influence. It’s a sprawling yet intimate human drama that has a full range of emotions, from the swooping romance to the heartbreak. It balances many emotions and tones as it presents a rich portrait of a young man’s life set across a fascinating backdrop. His free-spirited aunt, an inspirational figure, is abducted due to her schizophrenia and ultimately sentenced to death by an SS-enabling doctor (Sebastian Koch). This gets even more complicated when he goes to college and starts secretly dating the daughter… of that very same doctor, now being protected by a high-ranking Soviet official he aided. The simple strokes of a love story, or the disapproving father trying to destroy their love story, or the efforts of the family post-war to find some foothold in a new East Germany, it all adds up to a deeply felt and deeply alluring human drama with plenty of breathing room. The length (3 hours 8 minutes) gets to be unwieldy, especially during the third hour when we visit our second art school education. It’s just less generally captivating to watch a guy try and find his artistic voice when his life has all this other potent drama afoot, and that’s even after the lingering fallout from a forced abortion and hidden Nazi searches. Never Look Away is compelling, compassionate, thoughtful, and a tad too long for its own good. Hopefully the director doesn’t take another long eight years for a follow-up (please!).

Nate’s Grade: B+

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Welcome to Marwen (2018)

When I saw the trailer for Welcome to Marwen my first response was pained wincing. Robert Zemeckis is one of the most daring, inventive, and imaginative filmmakers working today, but this movie just looked misguided with its approach. Welcome to Marwen is so fascinating, so tonally off, that I might almost recommend people watch it.

Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) was a war illustrator until the day he was attacked by a gang of neo Nazis. In the ensuring months, Mark has lost portions of his memory, is unable to use his hands to illustrate any longer, and has become something of a shut-in. He has gained notoriety through his new artistic outlet. Mark has created a WWII era Belgian town called Marwen with a group of dolls fighting evil Nazis. We escape into fantasy sequences where Mark imagines himself as Cap’N Hogie and his gang of supportive ladies. Nicol (Leslie Mann) moves in next door to Mark and he takes an immediate interest in her (she even appears in Marwen in doll form). Mark must grapple with his feelings and work up the courage to attend the court hearing to make sure the men who hurt him stay in prison.

I was amazed at how miscalculated Welcome to Marwen plays out. It feels like Steve Carell’s Patch Adams, a sentimental movie where every step seems strange, mistaken, maudlin, and false. Firstly, this is the second documentary that Zemeckis has taken and adapted into a live-action film, as if the man is spending the wee hours of his nights pouring over award-winning documentaries of the past and determining which he can add a little razzle dazzle to with visual whimsy. Look out The Cove because maybe an undersea realm of talking dolphins will open up that horrifying Oscar-winner to a whole new mainstream audience. I’d have less of an issue with Zemeckis remaking the documentary if it didn’t seem like his entire rationale was the fantasy interludes.

The original documentary is about one man and his unique brand of healing through art. He is becoming further whole by building an intricate world through his imagination. By visualizing the fantasy worlds, Zemeckis is turning the doll segments into literal escapism that becomes tedious, obvious, and often redundant. The doll segments are about his gang of girls supporting him, expressing his interest in his kind new neighbor, and tackling the Nazis in a safe space where he can win. Every time we cut to the doll sequences it feels like the movie is spinning its wheels with these ill advised fantasy cut scenes. It gets boring watching the doll segments without any sense of stakes. The special effects are creepy and there are aspects that amplify this, like one doll’s penchant for having her top ripped off in combat, revealing her stout, rounded chest. Keep in mind that the female dolls, with the exception of one, are all analogues for people in his life, so then Mark is consistently indulging in stripping one woman of her clothes. Even though the movie sets this character up to be a potential love interest, it’s still not a good choice. Zemeckis intends to literalize Mark’s struggles and fears so that he can triumph over them, but it feels like it’s minimizing the complexity of trauma into digestible whimsy. With every trip to Marwen, I was eager to return back to the land of human beings where they might still be over-the-top but at least I wouldn’t have to watch creepy doll CGI.

The most significant doll is the blue-haired Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger) who is meant to represent Mark’s suicidal impulses. He keeps her atop his wall so that she can watch over him, and in his sleep he dreams about her whispering in his ear, “Nobody will ever love you like I do. You should just end it now.” Oh man, that’s heavy, but when applied through the prism of a talking Barbie doll it loses its sense of seriousness. If you don’t lose yourself in the central conceit and take the dolls seriously, the movie will fall flat. Take for instance the cross-dressing aspect of Mark, which is what lead to his brutal beating. It’s a delicate subject and something easy to get muddled, and that’s exactly what happens in the presentation of this movie. The shoe fetish is initially portrayed as wacky and then becomes serious and then becomes like an artifact of horror. It’s another sign that the tone for this movie is mismatched. These things require a delicate touch with some ambiguity and sensitivity. Welcome to Marwen turns these into a loud, noisy cartoon that bumbles into its messages. Things that are meant to be charming or endearing or emotional can come across as goofy or campy or even uncomfortable.

I felt bad for so many of the actors. Carell (Vice) is trying to maintain his character’s sense of dignity throughout, but the story often goes into contrived contortions to force him into dramatic confrontations. It turns out the court appearance is rescheduled to be the same day of Mark’s photographic exhibit. Will he be able to triumph over these forces to stand up for himself? Carell is a capable dramatic actor but he’s struggling here to find stable footing because of the mish mashing tones. The development of Mark makes him come across as a creep in some moments, like his one-sided advances for Nicol, and a simpleton at other moments, where he might have sustained brain damage. Mann (Blockers) is sweet and gentle but strangely the movie hides her most interesting character aspects, like the prospect of a deceased child. You would think overcoming tragedy would be a tool for Nicol and Mark to bond. Merritt Wever (Godless) is another sweet and gentle woman in a world that seems overstocked with them. It feels like everyone in this small town exists just to be nice to Mark. She’s clearly romantically interested in Mark but he doesn’t care until the very end. She deserves better than being someone’s runner-up choice, especially only after he was turned down.

A movie that deals with delicate issues through fantasy escapism can work, but it requires a precise hand with tone and with its storytelling detours. Guillermo del Toro has been able to prove he can tell rich, adult stories with the assistance of whimsical, weird fantasy elements. Charlie Kaufman has been able to weird the mundane and the fantastic. It can be done and Zemeckis has done it himself before, best evidenced by the masterpiece, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. However, Welcome to Marwen is a sizeable tonal misfire. The serious elements don’t blend well with the fantasy elements, and even worse, they are made less serious and approach the realm of camp. The fun, fantasy elements are given bizarre and unsettling contexts that make them creepy and inappropriate. Escaping into Mark’s imagination winds up stripping him of much of his agency, and literalizing his psychological push-and-pull feels like a misguided examination on depression. I left my theater in a daze, trying to make sense of what I had just witnessed. The filmmakers and cast certainly mean well and want the film to be a triumph of the human spirit. I found it to be two meandering hours of watching somebody play with their disused toys.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

This twisty documentary begins as a chronicle of guerilla street art and then flips the script. Its star subject, mysterious British artist Bansky, becomes the director, cutting down Thierry Guetta’s massive amount of footage into a workable frame. The subject becomes the filmmaker and the filmmaker becomes the subject. Exit Through the Gift Shop is a canny film that questions the nature of art, good and bad, the documentary format, and even our perspectives on reality (what is real when seen through a lens?), all with prankish humor and an anarchist’s eye. The film starts as an introduction to street art and famous underground street artists. Initially wary, they come to trust Guetta’s ever-present camera and then wish they hadn’t. At the end, when Guetta becomes a multi-million dollar street artist under the guise Mr. Brainwash, you’re not quite certain whether everything you’ve just witnessed is one elaborate put-on, a master practical joke on the commercialization of art and style. This is far more than a look at ordinary graffiti artists. These cultural satirists question the very idea of what constitutes art, who owns it or deserves to, and the overwhelming power of self-manufactured hype to hoodwink. You get to watch the birth of an underground art form and then watch its commercialization. We’re probably only minutes away from knock-off Bansky-like tote purses. See Exit Through the Gift Shop and watch the stylistic birth and near death of an art form you never knew existed.

Nate’s Grade: B+

My Kid Could Paint That (2007)

Prodigy, fraud, normal preschooler? This incisive and captivating documentary looks at a four-year-old who has made thousands of dollars on her modern art paintings. If she is the real deal, what does that say about modern art when a child can compete with serious artists? This intensely interesting story is given as objective a viewpoint as possible even as the filmmaker is forced into his own movie when the family he’s been documenting is looking at his film as a favorable retort to a very critical 60 Minutes segment casting doubt that the paintings are genuine. The filmmaker has his own doubts and explores the nature of journalism and storytelling and objectivity and what is art, and that’s when the documentary transcends its story and becomes about much more. I have no doubt that the child is involved in painting (the question registers with how involved her failed artist father is), but the people that are buying her paintings are buying them because they are also purchasing the story. My Kid Could Paint That, as one interview subject states, is really a story about adults seeking the limelight, because otherwise it would just be a kid having fun painting in the confines of her home. Is she exploited? Is she a genuine talent in a world of paint splashes and squiggly lines? Will she ever just be allowed to be a kid? These are just a few of the tantalizing questions this mature and insightful movie raises.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has been a best selling novel for three years running. Continents of trees have been felled to produce the 50 million published copies worldwide. Brown’s novel details a centuries long cover-up of some crucial background on Jesus Christ, as well as certain omissions about the role of women in Jesus’ discipleship. The book has been condemned by Christian watchdog groups as heresy, never mind that it is clearly labeled “Fiction.” Debunking fiction is simply redundant. Now Hollywood has adapted The Da Vinci Code into a massive movie, directed by Ron Howard. I must be one of eight who have not read the book, so I entered the theater with little expectation and no idea where the story would take me. Is this a great threat to the Christian church, as some argue, or is it just another dime-store thriller that lucked into becoming a national phenomenon?

Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is a Harvard professor of symbolism lecturing in Paris. He’s called in by a police captain (Jean Reno) about a local murder. The curator for the famous Louvre museum has been killed and his death leads to a series of coded clues about a deeper conspiracy involving Leonardo Da Vinci. Sophie (Audrey Tautou) is an investigator, and the granddaughter of the museum curator. She helps Robert escape and the two of them set off on an adventure through France and England, finding clues that lead them closer to the location of the Holy Grail. They get help from Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), an old friend of Roberts that has his own theories about what the Catholic Church may be so desperate to keep hush-hush. All the while Silas (Paul Bettany), an albino monk, is on the warpath to dispatch all who know too much, including Robert and Sophie.

There are just so many harebrained, hokey moments in The Da Vinci Code that can rip you right from the movie. Why does Sophie have to pay someone to leave a park bench when she and Robert can just walk out of earshot? Why does a bank teller, with his own devious intentions, drive Sophie and Robert to safety and then threaten them at gunpoint? Surely letting them be captured by the police would have served his needs better. Oh, the bank also has a payable escape clause, like it was a Scooby-Doo mansion. But the hokiest moment comes in the opening minutes. The museum curator, an old man who couldn’t hobble away from his attacker, gets shot in the gut, a quite painful place for a bullet to lodge itself. So he’s fatally shot in the stomach, but the man still has time to scribble coded messages on three separate paintings at different points in the museum, strip down, pose, write a message on the floor and a symbol on his chest. And remember, he’s an old man on top of all this. It’s like he had a checklist he pulled out in case he was ever mortally wounded at the Louvre.

The characters aren’t any better. There’s little to any depth to these people and most of them are irrational stock roles. The Jean Reno cop character is laughable in how doggedly he’s convinced Robert is his man. Apparently, a priest told the cop Robert confessed. Case closed? Perhaps the cop, in his furtive rush to judgment, should do some outside research. The museum curator?s time of death, something any crime scene tech could denote, would prove that Robert would be ruled out, given that the man was giving a lecture in front of hundreds of alibis. That’s verifiable science, but no matter. Would not a place as heavily trafficked as the Louvre, with so many priceless pieces of art, have security cameras? I think that alone would tell you who murdered the museum curator. These details make the Reno character stupid and unbelievable. The police work hasn’t been this sloppy since the Police Academy saga.

There’s a late scene where a character addresses another and more or less says, “No one will suspect us, my partner. Let us split our winnings together. I will take your identity to my grave. What? Yes I will take a drink from your flask you’re offering me but not drinking from yourself.” The film could not hit you over the head harder with what is to come. I’d expect these kinds of half-hearted character turns from a rote made-for-TV thriller, but The Da Vinci Code has too much intended intellectual prestige to wallow in this manner.

This is not a good film adaptation. This isn’t structured like a thriller, let alone a movie. There?s no sense of momentum and the story is really an ongoing series of mini-climaxes, sputtering out to no payoff. Puzzle-solving and word games can work on the page, with the reader feeling like they’re right along, but onscreen it cannot work in a story of images. Howard highlights certain letters a la A Beautiful Mind, but then it simply becomes less a puzzle and more just witnessing how a character’s mind breaks down the code, nothing more. As a thriller, Brown seems to do just enough to push his narrative further, but he frequently writes himself into a corner and relies on plot contrivances to save his ass. There’s a scene at Leigh Teabing’s mansion involving a gun standoff, and how does Brown get his characters out of it? By conveniently having a bird fly and distract the evil gun-bearing monk. Talk about a cheat. The Da Vinci Code‘s lame behavioral explanations and short cuts are expected in a rote thriller, but Da Vinci doesn’t want to be seen as one.

But that’s the fundamental error of The Da Vinci Code: it wants to have it both ways. The film, and I’d judge that the novel as well, wants you to shut your brain off and swallow these trite lapses in judgment and reality, forgiving the movie for zero character development and polluting the narrative with stupid genre stock roles, but then it also wants you to pay close attention and activate your brain to untangle the origins of symbols, conspiracies, and church doctrine. This flick was destined to fail at birth. You can’t be a brainy thriller and fill the story with hokey moments and lapses in thought, and likewise you can’t be an enjoyably straight forward thriller if you bookend all your action sequences with talky sit-downs to explain the minutia of your story. The Da Vinci Code is thusly pulled in two directions and grinds its gears to the very end.

This is not a very entertaining flick, in fact is nearly put me to sleep a half dozen times. The Da Vinci Code has tiny bursts of action, and most are easily swept away before the viewer can get a grip. These moments are then succeeded by lengthy, ponderous sessions of heavy exposition. It’s like characters will breathe a sigh of relief at another ludicrous escape and then say, “Well, now let’s discuss in detail some more convoluted theories.” The dialogue reeks, and characters spout plot points whenever they’re needed. The conspiracy doesn’t even make sense. Why would the Church protect a secret that could supposedly destroy its hierarchy? If Jesus was not divine then what difference does it make to go after relatives 2000 years removed? And if Jesus did have heirs would there not be thousands in 2000 years time, not one convenient individual? Even The Da Vinci Code‘s ending seems to soft peddle its “dangerous” message, where Robert, after learning all he has, says it’s all about what you believe.

If it wasn’t for Bettany and McKellen I really would have nodded off. Silas is by far the most interesting character in the whole film, and the only one with a penetrable personality. A deeply religious albino killer monk is a great character, and Bettany makes him scary but also frightfully sympathetic. I was rooting for Silas to knock off the film’s heroes and go on a better adventure of his own. McKellen is handed most of the monologues and he gives his character all the gravitas needed. Thank God for these two actors, because Hanks is miscast and Tautou isn’t nearly as endearing as her work with Jean-Pierre Jeunet. There’s a really good international cast assembled for The Da Vinci Code and the movie manages to mishandle most of them.

The Da Vinci Code played out on the big screen is ponderous, talky, boring, poorly adapted and poorly written. Some things work better on a page than onscreen, and I guess if this is the final product than the whole damn things works better on the page. The story is brimming with lame, hokey moments you’d see in a lazy TV thriller, but then the story also wants to talk you to death with its convoluted storyline. The action sequences are brief, the dialogue is smothered by lengthy exposition, and the plot just isn’t that entertaining. The cast is mostly wasted in thankless stock roles. So let me get this straight. After seeing The Da Vinci Code, the biggest threat the Christian church is facing is … bad movies? I think they’ll be alright.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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