Tag Archives: Cold War

Never Look Away

15 Feb

‘Never Look Away’: Germany’s Oscar entry takes artistic license with historic traumas

 

Image result for never look away pictures

The German Best Foreign Language Film nominee for the Oscars, “Never Look Away” has stiff competition coming at it next weekend from “Capernaum” (Lebanon), “Cold War” (Poland), “Roma” (Mexico) and “Shoplifters” (Japan) – films that crowned many Top 10s last year regardless of language, begging the question: Is it worthy to be in such a distinguished field,arguably the best in years?

Well, yes and no. It’s a stirring cinematic achievement, gorgeously shot, well-acted and peppered with piquant daubs of erotica, but at three-plus hours and with a slightly mawkish protagonist, “Never Look Away” never gets into your bones the way its competitors do. A fictionalized account of abstract artist Gerhard Richter’s life, the film – as most biopics do – begins with the stand-in youth, Kurt (Cai Cohrs) growing up in Dresden in the 1930s and living through the infamous Dresden firebombing, which, when rendered onscreen, is itself grandly reimagined through an abstract lens. Long before the catastrophic event, however, in a telling setup, the wide-eyed Kurt is taken to an art gallery by his eccentric and comely aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl). A Nazi guide promptly demeans and dismisses the works of foreign greats such as Picasso, but it’s during the visit that Kurt discoveries his inner passion to paint, and his aunt, who often parades around the house nude, instructs him: “Everything that is true is beautiful” and therefore he should “never look away.”

It doesn’t take long to realize that Elizabeth’s free-spiritedness is mental illness. Kurt’s parents, at a loss after a far too stark incident, place her in a sanitarium, where on the eve of the air raid she’s gassed by the hospital’s director Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch, reminiscent of a young Bruno Ganz – though with a stronger chin and steelier gaze). Depressing indeed, but where there is fire there is rebirth.

The film, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who notched an Oscar for his 2006 contemplation on the devious impact of the Stasi turning citizens against each other in “The Lives of Others” (which also starred Koch), postures the ambition of an epic – it certainly has the historical scope and running time of one. After the bombing we lurch forward to a postwar Kurt, now a young man (played by the dewy-eyed, handsome Tom Schilling), diligently painting away at an art school. It’s there that he falls for a fellow student named Ellie (Paula Beer), who oddly (or poetically) enough happens to be a dead ringer for Elizabeth. She’s also the daughter of Koch’s hospital director. Yes, you can see miles away where the karma connection is goingthe kind of fate you’d find in a Greek tragedy in which the players are unaware of their position as the gods – or in this case, the director – move them around to suit their purpose.

The cast has ardor, especially Beer and Koch, but the script by von Donnersmarck can’t match it. The restrictions of the biopic-shaped arc can take some blame. (Richter, apprised of being the inspiration for the story, has expressed disdain, flagging it as a gross exaggeration.) No matter, it’s rewarding to see von Donnersmarck return to form after the 2010 debacle“The Tourist,” a mindless thriller that paired Johnny Depp with Angelina Jolie and somehow made the result sexless and dull, even pulling Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”) to Hollywood hack level. Here von Donnersmarck artfully concocts a dreamy rewind of how war and shifting circumstance can afflict the passionate. Fellow nominee “Cold War” covers a similar swath of time; the last act of “Never Look Away” even unfurls with the erection of one of the greatest of all Cold War icons, the wall between East and West.

Cold War

20 Jan

‘Cold War’: When Iron Curtain falls on love, you really can’t just sing your troubles away

Image result for cold war movie

“Cold War,” that other gorgeous black-and-white film in a foreign language (opposite Oscar fave “Roma”), tells the tale of an improbable love made even more improbable by world-shaping events that unite and rip apart the lovers across decades, shifting borders and political ideologies. It’s heartbreaking, deep in romantic angst and propelled by sound and music.

The well-known subject of the title is the film’s driving force. We catch up after World War II with Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) an accomplished pianist and musicologist wandering the Polish countryside recording song of the region, when he encounters Zula (Joanna Kulig), a young woman of the mountains with talent – and with a very dark past. It’s love at first note, but the two are torn apart by time, totalitarianism and station. She’s whisked off to a perform in a troupe entertaining the Russian upper brass under Stalin. He defects to the west, she even takes on work as an informant as Russia’s conformist tendrils wrap around and strangle the Polish spirit. Time and coincidence bring them back together for trysts, the passion etched upon their faces. They also take on other lovers and companions, but when they meet up in their old homeland, Yugoslavia or Paris, all that exists is each other.

The film, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski (who won the 2015 Foreign Language Best Film   Oscar for his conflicted nun drama, “Ida”) wins primarily on the all-consuming performance by Kulig. Her Zula is aloof, enigmatic and sensual. It’s like looking at a young Catherine Deneuve – you can’t take your eyes off her, and you’re not exactly sure what she’ll do next. In an early 1960s Paris nightclub, when Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” comes on the jukebox and, buzzed on bourbon and freed by the rock anthem, Zula takes over the club, a whirlwind of pixie dust that ends up sashaying across the bar top. It’s as infectious as it is outrageous. As Zula’s long-burning object of desire Wiktor, Kot’s no mere garnish; he has melancholy eyes that betrays his vulnerabilities. 

For some, the jumps in time and place between reunions and the personal and global events that fill those chasms might seem like too much for a love that has never been allowed to blossom, but that’s kind of the point of “Cold War.” It’s about a love that is incapable of being squelched no matter what is thrown at it – the Iron Curtain, nuclear proliferation, insidious spy games or government-sponsored hit squads, take your choice. Of course, the stark framing in black and white serves to emboss the improbable union. It’s got fairy tale trimmings and dreamily romantic gazes, but this is about as far from Hollywood as one can get and still be in love in every frame.

Red Sparrow

7 Mar

 

Plots within bloody plots fill this thinking person’s spy thriller that’s two parts “Atomic Blonde” and three-fifths “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” Forget all the flap about the dress – Jennifer Lawrence is a big screen star. If there was any question (as after 2016’s sci-fi miscue, “Passengers”), “Red Sparrow” should squelch doubts. We all knew the outspoken actress could bring mettle and grit from the “The Hunger Games” series, but here, in this chilly bit of Cold War espionage rewarmed – and aptly so, given the Mueller probe – she takes it up a notch. Much must be delivered to the screen: ballet dancing, full frontal nudity (close enough) and a Russian accent, and Lawrence does it all convincingly so, at least for the most part. Not that she or the film are going to make off with an Oscar, but they may knock “Black Panther” from its box office roost, though the R rating makes that an extra tough go.

Steamy and ever shifting, “Red Sparrow” takes us back behind the curtain, ostensibly of Putin’s Russia, where the commoners live hand-to-mouth and at the mercy of the state. It’s there that Lawrence’s Dominika lives a cut above as the lead dancer of the elite Bolshoi Ballet, but just as we drink her in, up on the stage beguiling a packed house, a freak accident ends her career and she’s suddenly on the cusp of being evicted from her cozy pad and there’s no money to care for mum (Joely Richardson) who’s suffering some kind of illness. No worries, uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), an intelligence officer, steps in and gives Dominika a “one-off” job that will solve her problems. All she’s got to do is lure an admiring fan and enemy of the state into a sting. The grand hotel where it all goes down, draped in red and gold, is regal and inviting; the mark, not so much. Needless to say, things veer off script, but in the end, Dominika gets it done. From there she’s in too deep – an intelligence liability, so to speak – so it’s either back to school or into the harbor. Continue reading

Bridge of Spies

16 Oct

James Donovan (Tom Hanks) must go to great lengths to rescue U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers from Soviet Russia

Courtesy of Dreamworks Pictures

James Donovan (Tom Hanks) must go to great lengths to rescue U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers from Soviet Russia

When people think about the body of work Steven Spielberg has put out over his illustriously long and celebrated career, most gravitate towards the fantastical fantasies imbued with childlike wonderment (ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) or the satiating swashbuckling adventures (Raiders of the Lost Ark andJurassic Park). Before all that however, Spielberg minted the blockbuster with Jaws and later, with stark, visceral effect, crafted the preeminent cinematic portrait of the Holocaust (Schindler’s List), a film which still resonates as an exposed nerve. Recently, the solemn lessons of history, more so than adolescent curiosity or high adventure, have become the inspiration for Spielberg’s creative vision.

Spielberg’s last history lesson, Lincoln, was a plumbing of a stout character standing tall and resolute in the face of grave opposition and the tenuous society hanging underneath. The director’s latest,Bridge of Spies, follows the same blueprint, but unlike Abraham Lincoln, few have ever heard of James Donovan, an insurance attorney from Brooklyn, N.Y. More relevant from the history-book perspective perhaps is Francis Gary Powers, the U2 pilot shot down over Soviet airspace and taken prisoner in 1960. Continue reading

Pawn Sacrifice

3 Oct

MOVIES  |  REVIEWS

<i>Pawn Sacrifice</i>

The name Bobby Fischer might trigger a Google search for some of the internet age who haven’t at least dabbled in chess. For those who recollect the epic clashes of the ’70s—Ali vs. Frazier, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. ensconced in the heat of the Cold War—Fischer was likewise a prominent player on the international stage of conflict. His arena, while smaller and with less prospect of bloodshed, was no less tumultuous. In the bigger scheme, it plastered the chess prodigy across as many magazine covers as the two well-matched pugilists, and more so, had a profound impact on the cultural and ideological sparring between Uncle Sam and the Kremlin.

For those hoping for more than a Wikipedia regurgitation of the facts, even-keeled director Ed Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai) goes beyond a dull history refresher, putting the volatile genius’ contribution to the game and global politics, as well as his struggle with mental illness, in context. It’s by the latter facet that Pawn Sacrifice gains our hearts. Fischer grew up a poor Jewish kid from Brooklyn, but he was on the national stage by the time he was a preteen. Even at that young age, when his talent was glaringly obvious, he was an arrogant prick already displaying the clinical signs of delusions. As the movie has it in one early scene, he demands his mother banish her boyfriend because the soft coos from their infrequent sex disrupts his practice in their small apartment.  Continue reading