Local cinemas this week

The Sydney Film Festival has finished, and the first of its in-competition movies hit local screens. It’s one of the best.

Movie of the week: Never Look Away

Will the Germans ever get over the trauma of their country’s Nazi past and its equally troubling aftermath? It’s the question I asked my partner after the recent German Film Festival’s centrepiece, the insidiously creepy The Captain. “Nah, never…” she reckoned. “They’ll still be puzzling it out in movies, literature and art for a thousand years.” And maybe that’s a good thing, especially if those efforts are as thoughtful, gorgeous and as exhilarating as Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away. He’s the German director of the slick 2006 Stasi drama The Lives Of Others, and he now lives and works in the US. Fortunately Hollywood hasn’t blunted either his talent or ambition, but no, he doesn’t come up with answers… how can anyone? But he makes a damn good stab at suggesting that only the transformative power of art has any chance at all of really seeing the truth – of exposing the powerful illusions and the lies we as citizens choose to blindside ourselves with – as so many Germans did all those years ago.

We first meet the film’s hero Kurt (Cai Cohrs) as an artistic young boy in 1937, and Dresden is awash with swastikas and young blond girls in rapture as the Fuhrer pays a visit. Later, after his beloved free-spirt aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) has been dragged away and eliminated as a “mental deficient”, we watch the city burn to the ground before catching up with him as young man (Tom Schilling) – rapidly rising as a painter of rousing murals showing the heroic German working class with hammers aloft, the art so beloved by the East’s Soviet overlords. Schilling has the angular, brooding good looks of the stoic patriotic figures he paints (“Building a Glorious Future, Comrades!) and Kurt is very good at his job. But he’s a restless, ambitious truth-seeker too, and pretty soon he’s off to the West and an avant-garde art school in Dusseldorf, taking his pretty lover Ellie (Paula Beer) with him. It’s her father Carl (Sebastian Koch), an all-round nasty guy who proves a thorn in his side. He’s a celebrated professor and gynaecological surgeon – someone who somehow managed to thrive though the Nazi times, the GDR’s and is now a powerful figure in the West. Tragically, his and Kurt’s pasts are more connected than either of them know… 

The film is quite schematic, despite its lengthy 3 hour plus run time, there are no wasted scenes – the narrative (and it gets quite tense at time) is straightforward and drives in one direction only. It’s also quite old fashioned in its elegant simplicity, it most reminded me of another gorgeous-looking European masterpiece, 1988’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being in its sweeping attempt to wrap up a huge slab of European political turmoil in a romantic potboiler. Or maybe it was that earlier film’s beauteous actors, hot sex scenes and copious full frontal nudity that I most remember – all present and accounted for here too. Well, they’re Germans, and Germans do like to get naked, but if that’s not your thing, there’s a ton of lofty theorising about the nature of “truth, art and beauty” to get your head around too. And countless little scenes which flash by like sparkling gems, some of which might be too clever by half. When Kurt and Ellie arrive in the West, the first movie they go and see is Psycho, of course it is… It’s that sort of story. A single viewing will simply not be enough. M from June 20. Local cinemas include Palace Norton St, Central and Dendy Newtown ★★★★★

Claire Darling

Judging by the number of Gauloises Catherine Deneuve puffs her way though in Julie Bertuccelli’s elegant but perplexing family melodrama, it’s no wonder she’s convinced her life is about to end. She’s cast as Claire Darling – a rich widow living on an estate in a French village – one of those impossibly charming ones that keep popping up in French movies but are so hard to find in real life. Actually, she looks in robust health and doesn’t so much as cough once – her issues only seem to be a fading memory, slight confusion and an advanced case of melancholia. She tells her priest and estranged daughter Marie (Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve’s real-life daughter) who has been summoned by an alarmed friend that as it’s her last day on earth, she wants to be rid of all her possessions – an astonishing collection of priceless antiques, heirlooms and curiosities. So out they go, in a hastily arranged and massive garage sale for next to nothing prices.

Marie seems curiously unperturbed that her inheritance is literally walking out the door – but she recognises that something is up with her mum. Their prickly exchanges suggest a long-term problematic relationship – something horrible has happened in the past… Marie’s father is missing, there’s an unexplained absent brother too – and what happened to them is gradually revealed in flashbacks as Claire and Marie ramble about the gorgeous house and its grounds, teased out by a tantalising script laden with hints about the fallibility of memories and the meaning of time. It’s a great set-up, but what does it all mean? That curious elephant clock has got to signify something, right?  The synopsis suggests a surprise ending that “packs an emotional punch,” and the wait is never less than intriguing. But there’ s not enough character development, and too few clues. Leaving the cinema after that dramatic “Huh? WTF just happened?” climax, all I was able to get from my partner was a mystified shrug. M from June 20 Local cinemas include Palace Norton St and Central ★★★

Also opening

David Robert Mitchell’s strange but wonderful LA noir Under the Silver Lake has been getting mixed reviews, but at least David Stratton proclaims, “it’s well worth travelling down these mean cinematic streets.” That should be good enough for most of us. In Sydney it’s screening at Dendy Newtown only, though needless to say, Toy Story 4 and The Secret Lives of Pets 2 are on everywhere. All three not previewed.

Now showing: Men In Black International

The original MIB from 1997 was funny and successful enough at the box office to spawn two sequels  – both dismal enough to permanently kill the franchise. Or so everyone figured… But nothing stays dead in a Hollywood – anything that made money once has to be resurrected and updated for our enlightened times – though not to the point of (accurately) renaming it “Men and Women in Black”. After Sorry to Bother You and Little Woods, a lot of people were predicting great things for indie princess Tessa Thompson. Sadly, for her mainstream breakout, she chose to wisecrack her way through an unfunny script with Chris Hemsworth and very annoying tennis-ball shaped elf called Pawny. M on now, everywhere. 1/2


I think we all know that the lives of working writers – who spend entire days sitting motionless in front of screens developing all sorts of painful ergonomic complaints – are incredibly dull. So too are their lives before they became writers – at least according to Dome Karukoski’s polite and plodding version of the early days of one of last century’s greatest fantasy novelists. It features Nicholas Hoult as the young Tol-keen (that’s the correct pronunciation), some embarrassingly poor WWI trenches CGI, but no hobbits. M on now, everywhere ★★

Reviews – Russell Edwards