MOVIES

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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

An ob­nox­ious prankster who calls him­self Toni Erd­mann (Peter Si­monis­chek) wins the heart of his daughter and most film crit­ics. But not all of them.

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