Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl, Oliver Masucci, Ina Weisse, Rainer Bock, Johanna Gastdorf, Jeanette Hain, Hinnerk Schönemann, Florian Bartholomäi, Hans-Uwe Bauer, Jörg Schüttauf, Ben Becker, Lars Eidinger, Cai Cohrs
Written by: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Directed by: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
MPAA Rating: R for graphic nudity, sexuality and brief violent images
Language: German, with English subtitles
Running Time: 188
Date: 01/25/2019

Never Look Away (2019)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Paint Mush

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Here's an example of what is wrong with the Best Foreign Language Film category of the Academy Awards. The Academy does not simply choose from the best foreign language films released in a year. Each country submits one (and only one) film to a committee that narrows it down to the final five. Of course, each country is going to submit something that they think will win, something noble and upright and proper, something that represents the country in a positive light... in other words, boring. Many countries have their favorite go-to filmmakers that grind out these things. Germany's is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, and he won with The Lives of Others, a film that somehow beat Guillermo Del Toro's masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth.

The true value of these filmmakers can be measured when they inevitably decide to go Hollywood and make an English language film, as von Donnersmarck did with the awful The Tourist. Now von Donnersmarck is back in Oscar land with Never Look Away, and he has pulled out all the stops, making a three-hour-plus biopic inspired by a respected German painter, Gerhard Richter, here called "Kurt Barnert."

During the course of its massive running time, Never Look Away ranges from aggressively mediocre to painfully awful. Some scenes, such as the one in which characters ask a fleet of busses to honk their horns so that the camera can swirl around the actor looking blissed out, are so weirdly bad that they could be comedy YouTube videos. After the long setup, showing the young painter's loving relationship with his batty, but beautiful aunt (Saskia Rosendahl), and leaping over chunks of times (with the year printed on the screen), passing through WWII, the painter finally grows into the actor who will play him for the rest of the film, Tom Schilling.

Watching him try to find his own personal voice is actually pretty interesting, and the film lovingly details his efforts, painting murals, trying different styles. But the rest of the movie is devoted to a hackneyed melodramatic plot. Kurt falls in love with a fellow art student, Ellie (Paula Beer), whose father happens to be the sinister ex-Nazi Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch) that tormented his aunt during the war. The Professor is so dedicated to protecting his family line from being tainted by Kurt's seed that he actually performs an abortion on his own daughter. (The dude is evil.)

On it goes. Another perplexing thing about Never Look Away is that it received a second Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. Aside from a scene of Kurt walking through field of tall foxtails, I couldn't understand the Academy's decision, although cinematographer Caleb Deschanel is certainly very talented (this is his sixth nomination). Anyway, the main reason for this movie even existing is to fill one of the five slots in the Best Foreign Language Film category, and it's doing that now. But when the awards are announced on February 24, its purpose will be done, and it will likely be quickly forgotten.

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