The DVD Report #622

nullNever Look Away is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s return to grace after the disaster that was his second film, the 2010 Hollywood flop The Tourist.

The German director, who grew up in New York, the son of a Lufthansa executive, hit the big time with his direction of the 2006 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film, Germany’s The Lives of Others, about the inner workings of the East German secret police in East Berlin in the early 1980s. After his stumble with the Venice-set The Tourist, starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, he was all but written off as a failed artist, but then came this collaboration with his childhood idol, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.

The film that made von Donnersmarck fall in love with the art of moviemaking was 1983’s The Right Stuff for which Deschanel received the first of his six Oscar nominations to date. He later not only met Deschanel but served on an AMPAS panel with him and became a close friend vowing to work together some day. That day arrived with Never Look Away, a film about creativity and the artistic temperament. He had wanted to make such a film for years, thinking it might be about a musician but then he discovered visual artist Gerhard Richter, long considered one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

The film begins with the six-year-old Kurt Barnett and his late mother’s younger sister, Elisabeth, visiting the Degenerate Art Museum in Dresden in 1937 where both he and his aunt take a liking to “The Girl with Blue Hair” sculpture against the dictates of Goering’s exhibit. Barnett, a fictionalized version of Richter, has already decided to become an artist and is already adept at painting nudes thanks to his young aunt.

The young and beautiful Elisabeth is diagnosed as schizophrenic by the local doctor and reported to the Gestapo. She is taken away and marked for sterilization. The doctor in charge of the Dresden hospital determines that she is incurable and has her transferred to a concentration camp where she will eventually be euthanized.

Time passes, Elisabeth’s brothers are drafted into the German Army and killed in the war. Dresden is bombed and the war ends several months later. Kurt continues to perfect his genius as an artist. In 1951, he is attending art school in Dresden where he meets and falls in love with a beautiful fashion design student whose name is also Elisabeth, Ellie for short. Ellie asks Kurt to apply for the room her wealthy family is renting in their huge home. He meets her father who is the doctor, unbeknownst to him, who ordered his aunt’s death. That, as they say, is just the beginning.

The film takes a roller coaster ride through East and West German history through the mid-1960s while at the same time detailing Kurt’s growth as an artists, creating and then destroying his work several times over until he finally finds his place in the art world as he paints pictures from old family photos starting with the one of himself and his aunt, calling it “Mother with Child” but claiming the picture is of people taken at random.

Deschanel’s camerawork is superb throughout the lengthy film and the actors are flawless, particularly Tom Schilling who plays Kurt from his late teens to his early 30s, Sebastian Koch as the Nazi doctor, Paula Beer as Ellie, Saskia Rosendahl as Elisabeth, and Oliver Masucci as Kurt’s professor and mentor in Dusseldorf where he makes his reputation as an artist.

Never Look Away is available on Blu-ray and standard DVD from Sony.

This week’s Blu-ray upgrades include The Bostonians, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, and Ring of Bright Water.

Even with its brand new 4K restoration by the Cohen Film Collection, James Ivory’s 1984 film of Henry James’ 1886 novel The Bostonians looks muddy throughout much of its talky narrative about an aging lesbian suffragette based on James’ sister played by Vanessa Redgrave and her southern gentleman cousin, a badly miscast Christopher Reeve, as they vie for the affections of sweet Madeleine Potter. Redgrave was nominated for an Oscar for her performance, but there isn’t much substance to either her role or the film itself. Indeed, it only comes alive when Oscar winners Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy) and Linda Hunt (The Year of Living Dangerously) appear. Sadly, that isn’t nearly enough. The film doesn’t come anywhere near the best of the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala collaborations. It isn’t a patch on A Room with a View or Howards End.

Neil Simon was a prolific playwright. Much of his work had been adapted to the screen both before and after Mel Frank’s 1975 film version of The Prisoner of Second Avenue. Before there had been such highlights as Barefoot in the Park, and The Odd Couple. After it would come The Goodbye Girl and California Suite. Like all of those, its best moments come from Simon’s dialogue, not an opening up of the play for the screen, of which there is precious little. Working within a confined space, the dialogue had better be good and in The Prisoner of Second Avenue, I found myself doubling over with laughter at lines I had long forgotten were in the film. It helps that the comedy is spewed by such farceurs as Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft at the top of their games.

Lemmon plays a neurotic mess of a guy who has lost his job, much of his possessions, and his dignity. Bancroft plays his sturdy wife who picks up the pieces and goes to work when he can’t. The scene near the end when she too, loses it, is more sad than funny but thankfully doesn’t last too long. The Warner Archive transfer is perfect.

Jack Couffer’s 1969 film Ring of Bright Water, based on Gavin Maxwell’s 1960 book about his pet otter with a screenplay by Couffer and star Bill Travers, was a perfect follow-up for Travers and his wife, Virginia McKenna, to their world-wide 1966 hit Born Free in which they raised an orphan lioness. Here he has his pet otter while she has a pet dog that becomes the otter’s playmate. It’s a deft mixture of comedy and drama as the otter gets into mischief in Travers’ London flat and on the train on which he attempts to pass him off as a dog. McKenna doesn’t come into the film until past the 30-minute mark and doesn’t have nearly as much to do here as she did in Born Free, but the two had an unmistakable chemistry that they portrayed on screen in seven films. This was one of the best. The Kino Lorber release doesn’t disappoint.

Kino Lorber also released the previously-not-on-home video Mamie Van Doren Film Noir Collection on both Blu-ray and DVD. Comprised of three of the one-time blonde bombshell’s late 1950s films, The Girl in Black Stockings, Girls, Guns and Gangsters, and Vice Raid, none are really good but The Girl in Black Stockings is at least of historical value given its cast.

Lex Barker, Anne Bancroft, Ron Randall, Marie Windsor, and John Dehner star along with Van Doren in The Girl in Black Stockings in which she is one of the victims of a psychotic serial killer. This easily contains the worst performances of both Van Doren’s and Bancroft’s careers. Randall and Windsor come off best.

This week’s new releases include Blu-ray upgrades of Blue Velvet and Portrait in Black.

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