Comedy ain’t pretty in Toni Erdmann; Staying Vertical enigmatically falls flat; Mcconaughey pulls a Depp with Gold; Trespass Against Us plays in the shallow.
TONI ERDMANN Starring Sandra Hüller. In English, German, and Romanian, with English subtitles. Rated 14A
In her third feature, Toni Erdmann, 2 writer-director Maren Ade gives us three generations of modern Germans: an elderly mother with an unfortunate, if historically predictable, past; her son, Winfried Conradi, part of the postwar generation confronting their parents’ crimes; and his youngish daughter, Ines, who dived straight into a globalized business world, with English as a neutralizing lingua franca.
This extravagantly long import recently landed on many top-10 lists, but it contains ideas, not people. Fortunately, the actors are good enough to make you forget its inexplicable plot machinations. Pale, gamine Sandra Hüller brings melancholy humanity to Ines, a sharklike consultant who advises oil-related companies on how to drop employees with plausible deniability. And Austria’s bulky, grey-haired Peter Simonischek doesn’t let Winfried’s obnoxiousness drive you away— even after he turns up in Bucharest, where his daughter is negotiating a tough deal, and proceeds to mess with her life on every possible level.
Seriously, who behaves this way? The near-indigent Winfried covers his boredom with senseless pranks that border on cruelty. He loves to plunk false teeth over his own, giving him a silly overbite (oddly like Matthew Mcconaughey’s in Gold). This weird affectation wears thin in the first scene, and if the director cut out the denture-based scenes, she would remove about a third of the film’s almost three hours.
Rave reviews find outrageous hilarity invoked in the film’s centre, in which Dad leaves and then returns to Bucharest, this time with black wig and buck teeth, passing himself off as Toni Erdmann. Every random stranger seems to take “Toni” at his word; is he a business coach or Germany’s new ambassador to Romania? But why would control freak Ines play along with this masquerade, especially after it starts wrecking her job?
Still, my argument is less about logic than aesthetics. This is one crappy-looking movie, and the director’s rejection of soundtrack music, decent lighting, and interesting camera angles underlines the basic shapelessness of most scenes. Her rapport with the cast is terrific, but many improvisations drag, dulling the few inspired moments that pop up along the way. (Did I mention the three hours?) Essentially, Toni Erdmann is a bleak look at the virtues of indiscipline. But that’s a message this “comedy” takes far too seriously. > KEN EISNER
WHERE THE UNIVERSE SINGS: THE SPIRITUAL JOURNEY OF LAWREN HARRIS A documentary by Peter Raymont and Nancy Lang. Rated G
2In Where the Universe Sings, there’s a hugely illuminating sequence of Group of Seven leader Lawren Harris’s paintings of Lake Superior’s Pic Island. Edited together in the order he worked on them, the images reveal the way the celebrated artist would strip away forms to the essential, imbuing them with a transcendental light.
Though very much in the vein of educational Tv-doc filmmaking, this thorough new movie will raise your appreciation for Harris’s glowing ice forms and dreamlike islandscapes. After almost a century, Harris is enjoying massive new interest, his best-known collector being actor Steve Martin, who curated last year’s Art Gallery of Ontario exhibit and who appears amid a parade of experts in the film.
The doc provides ample opportunity to examine Harris’s art on a big screen, from his early representational work of Toronto street scenes, to his expressive and then abstracted landscapes, to the full-on, out-there abstraction that took his focus in late life.
It also attempts to reveal the forces that shaped his life, from wartime disillusionment to meetings with Emily Carr, whom he encouraged to take a dramatic new direction.
But Harris remains a bit of an enigma. Camera-shy and modest, he didn’t leave a lot of traces on film, so directors Peter Raymont and Nancy Lang build the portrait through dramatizations (cue his character surveying vast mountain ranges) and voice-overs of his letters and writing by Colm Feore. We learn his marriage broke up, we trace his movement from Rocky Mountain peaks to Maritime mining strikes to Arctic ice floes, and we witness the wealth that allowed him to pursue his art, and possibly drove him to depict the poorer quarters of his home city early on. We also glimpse his spiritual side, but the theosophy he believed in is almost impenetrable. All we know is his soaring peaks and luminescent natural forms reach for some higher place.
What’s telling is that, even after all the film’s analysis and birth-to-death storytelling, so much of the man’s true heart remains a mystery.
Then again that mystery, and the way his forms hold such otherworldly power—the kind that you feel more than you intellectualize— is probably a big reason we are still so fascinated with him today. > JANET SMITH
STAYING VERTICAL Starring Damien Bonnard. In French, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable
The main character in Staying 2
Vertical, played by tall, curlyhaired Damien Bonnard, is a filmmaker (or something) struggling to complete a screenplay seemingly stitched together from highly improbable and increasingly unrelated parts. The guy’s name is Léo, but we might as well call him Alain Guiraudie, the writer-director of this unwelcoming mess of a movie.
Guiraudie’s gay-themed thriller Stranger by the Lake was a tight little gem. But the only way to excuse this tale’s incomprehensible jumble of narrative is to see it as some kind of weird metacinema experiment. The new movie’s scarcely over 95 minutes, but time drags with an instantly unlikable character doing little to endear himself to audiences eyeing the exit signs.
Léo himself is an expert at vague comings and goings, and a specialist at boinking everything that moves, without the slightest pleasure in evidence. While on a wander in rural northwest France, he meets a young shepherdess (the enigmatically named India Hair) and gets on with her two little boys like crazy. Her tractor-driving dad (John C. Reilly type Raphaël Thiéry) not so much. Anyway, Léo knocks her up and they play happy family for a few months, until he’s suddenly raising a baby on his own. If he thought it was hard to finish his script before, try feeding a baby in the middle of nowhere with no milk and no money. Maybe if he heads into some swampy woods to visit a mysterious midwife who attaches green vines to his body, everything will work out. Or maybe not.
At some point, you must let go of any search for meaning in anyone’s actions—which rarely pass the Turing test of believably human behaviour— and just accept the notion that some directors simply want to indulge their characters in randomly chosen activities to see how they react. And guess what? It’s not all that interesting. > KEN EISNER
GOLD Starring Matthew Mcconaughey. Rated 14A
Matthew Mcconaughey goes 2
the Johnny Depp route for Gold, gaining weight, losing hair, and sporting ill-fitting crooked teeth. This trick helps him find a different voice than that of the glib hustlers he usually plays. But he tries on too many hats, shuffling from lovable rogue to desperate loser and then comic foil, depending on the needs of individual scenes—which initially amuse but don’t add up to anything coherently entertaining.
The famously casual leading man plays Kenny Wells, a down-on-hisluck mineral prospector loosely based on the principals of Bre-x, a Canadian mining company that went belly up in 1997, after one of its geologists did a swan dive from a helicopter crossing the Indonesian jungle. He was reacting to the fraud bubble that burst for investors in what truly was an incredible gold strike in that region—but let’s forget that bit, okay?
Via screenwriters Patrick Massett and John Zinman, director Stephen Gaghan (who helmed the much more complicated Syriana) moves the action a decade earlier, to change some particulars and, presumably, to get more of an American Hustle vibe. That also gives it some qualities in common with The Wolf of Wall Street, but Gaghan’s direction lacks basic crackle or even a clear attitude towards its “greed is good” antihero. His ’80s-themed music cues manage to be both obvious and oddly off the mark, just as the film’s editing often feels clunky and repetitive.
The two-hour effort is ambitious (the mining scenes were shot in Thailand) and filled with incidental characters. But few of these connect with the audience or each other. Bryce Dallas Howard likewise packed on some De Niro–esque pounds to play Kenny’s girlfriend or wife or something, but she mostly just pouts while he heads off on his latest hare-brained adventure. The dude’s real love affair is with rugged, multinational miner Mike Acosta, played by Venezuelan up-and-comer Edgar Ramírez. But this, too, is thin stuff for viewers, who may find that this Gold rubs off all too easily. > KEN EISNER
TRESPASS AGAINST US Starring Michael Fassbender. Rated 14A
You have to give Michael Fassbender 2 credit for resisting the lure of a career spent entirely inside the Hollywood dum-dum factory, but this U.K. production hardly glorifies the effort. Set among the indigent world of “travellers”—a nomadic underclass once (inaccurately) referred to in Britain as “gypsies”— Trespass Against Us takes an intriguing premise and then wastes it.
Fassbender is Chad Cutler, the illiterate, if unusually sexy, son of career burglar Colby, played by tracksuited Brendan Gleeson as a patriarchal bully with weirdly bent religious convictions and a real hate-on for straight society. For reasons that Alastair Siddons’s screenplay can’t quite square, sensitive Chad has visions of a better life for his wife and kids outside the makeshift trailer park, while Dad pours scorn on formal education and pushes him into ever more dangerous capers. The cops, meanwhile, are closing in.
Making his feature debut, director Adam Smith dresses the set with bare-knuckle fighting competitions, oil-drum bonfires, and the reliably ratlike Sean Harris (’71) as a mentally impaired crusty punk. He’s scarily convincing. By contrast, the film’s two leads both strain so hard to maintain their West Country accents that we’re eventually exhausted by the effort, not to mention reminded that this depiction of a rootless, caravandwelling microsociety is no more than an arbitrary style choice made by well-compensated filmmakers.
As if its maudlin finale isn’t enough, director Smith further signals his indifference to the film’s socioeconomic backdrop with overthe-top car chases and eardrumbursting sound design. Slick and superficial to the last drop, any real traveller would tell you that Trespass Against Us was made by middle-class wankers, and they’d be right. > ADRIAN MACK