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The Beatles were a once in a generation cultural phenomenon. They weren’t just ‘another pop group’. Their simple but somehow unforgettable melodies and lyrics led them to be sung, copied and covered, literally all over the world. In a sense it is hard to imagine popular culture without them, but what if they had never existed?

That is the brilliant conceit/hook that Danny Boyle hangs his new comedy upon. And, because the screenplay is by Richard Curtis, it has to be a soppy rom-com at the same time. But more of that anon.

Jack Malik (Brit TV actor Himesh Patel in a career-launching performance) is a wannabe muso. Despite having some native talent (and thankfully Patel has a pretty good voice in real life), Jack is stuck at the very bottom rung playing to three dullards and a lager lout in divey pubs. Like all musos, he cannot actually give it up, as to do so, would be to give up on his very raison d’etre. He even has a sort of ‘manager’ called Ellie (the ubiquitous Lily James) who keeps on booking the gigs even in the face of world-sized audience indifference. It is no spoiler to say that things change for Jack when an ‘altered timeline’ kicks and he is given a chance to coast on the genius of Lennon and McCartney. (Incidentally, this is The Beatles of the wacky fab four mop top era, not the psychedelic drug band they morphed into.)

The premise has so much going for it. Well exploited in places are the fun possibilities of imagining that the commonplace things that you know, are unknown to everybody else. Mixing up quirky high concepts with love stories is a balancing act that Curtis has pulled off before (see the rather charming About Time for example), and both Patel and James are likeable screen presences, with chemistry.

However, the end result is that for the rom-com to work, we should care about the long-denied love much more. As usual with Curtis, so much of the engine of his story is in the idea of thwarted love or misrecognised attachment, or just the very-English idea that emotionally retarded men can never really say what they want until it is too late. How much you like the film will depend on your tolerance for this trope. As Lennon said, life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans; perhaps in a funny way this applies to this film too.

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Annabelle Comes Home

Horror, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Annabelle the doll first appeared in The Conjuring (2013) and was subsequently spun off into her own starring flick, Annabelle (2014). It was a powerfully awful film that nonetheless earned several dump trucks worth of cash, so a sequel (technically a prequel) was made, Annabelle: Creation (2017) and against all odds it was actually pretty bloody good. It also netted groaning sacks of filthy lucre, so naturally a third chapter, Annabelle Comes Home was spawned. So, does the old doll still have some new tricks? Actually, kinda yeah.

Annabelle Comes Home features an appearance by the Warrens, Ed and Lorraine (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga respectively) but they’re less an important plot element and more a reminder of the larger cinematic universe. No, the real story of ACH revolves around Judy Warren (Mckenna Grace) and her babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), the latter of whom is looking after the former while the elder Warrens are away for the night. Judy and Mary Ellen are almost somnambulistically wholesome, so it’s a relief when Mary Ellen’s friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) pops over to liven them up. Daniela is dealing with the recent death of her father, so when she gets a quiet moment, she decides to have a look in the Warrens’ room of evil aka The Spin-Off Closet. Naturally a certain almost comically ugly doll catches her eye and, well, you can probably figure out where this is going.

The striking thing about Annabelle Comes Home is its distinct tone, which sets it apart from other Annabelle films and The Conjuring series as a whole. While recent spin-offs like The Nun (2018) and The Curse of the Weeping Woman (2019) have felt like dollar store Conjuring knock-offs, Annabelle Comes Home embraces its logical position as safe horror for pre-teens. It’s low stakes, death-free, goreless, giggly thrills, full of goofy jump scares, wide-eyed teenagers and CGI ghosties that wouldn’t look out of place in the next Goosebumps film.

Director Gary Dauberman is clearly having a hoot with this flick, and the young cast – particularly Katie Sarife and Mckenna Grace – do solid work here as well. Ultimately, Annabelle Comes Home is a film that knows what it is and performs accordingly. It certainly won’t be for horror aficionados looking for something that transcends genre boundaries, but is highly likely to be a much shrieked at classic of pre-teen slumber parties.

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The Secret Life Of Pets 2

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With the likes of Despicable Me, Minions, Hop, Sing and The Grinch, major player animation house, Illumination Entertainment, has established itself as a creator of polished, entertaining, reliable family animation. But this is serious middle-ground stuff; while Illumination’s films never fail to hit the sweet spot, they also never really achieve anything truly new or transcendent. There’s nothing on their list, for instance, to rank alongside the likes of Zootopia, The Lego Movie or anything from the Pixar stable. In short, Illumination is always good, but never great. 2016’s popular The Secret Life Of Pets – and now its sequel, The Secret Life Pets 2 – fit tightly with the studio’s modus operandi.

Somewhat lazily structured, The Secret Life Pets 2 seeks to divide and conquer by splitting up its ensemble of domestic animals and sending them off on various adventures. Max (voiced by Patton Oswalt, who’s been subbed in for #metoo casualty Louis C.K) and Duke (Eric Stonestreet) are sent off to the country; now-superhero-wannabe Snowball (Kevin Hart) and new pal Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) set off to rescue a tiger from an evil circus owner; and the primping Gidget (Jenny Slate) disguises herself as a kitty to reappropriate Max’s favourite toy, which has been lost in a house owned by an eccentric cat lady. They all reunite for the climax, but the separation tactics undeniably give the film a distractingly episodic feel.

That said, there’s a lot to like here. Comedy talents du jour, Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish (who have collaborated on several past projects), are an absolute laugh riot as Snowball and Daisy, while big screen animation debutante Harrison Ford effortlessly steals all of his scenes as the imposing Rooster, a too-cool-for-school farm hound who teaches the wimpy Max to toughen up a bit. Gidget’s freaky adventures in the crazy cat lady’s house are highly inventive and amusing, and there are a few welcome jokes (Lake Bell’s kitty Chloe high on catnip is a highlight) for the grown-ups. Though good fun from start to finish, The Secret Life Pets 2 won’t quite have you rolling over and begging for a third installment.

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Child’s Play

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The original Child’s Play first lurched onto screens in 1988, introducing the world to a Brad Dourif-voiced killer doll, Chucky, and a surprisingly solid horror franchise. Six sequels followed, of varying degrees of quality (the best arguably being 1990’s Child’s Play 2 and 1998’s Bride of Chucky) and creator Don Mancini is currently working on a TV series, Chucky, due sometime next year. It’s something of a surprise, then, that while the original creators bring the Chuckster to the small screen, a remake of the original film is hitting cinemas. All ethical considerations aside, it’s a very 2019 thing to happen. So, with that backstory established, is the new Child’s Play any chop? Or does the curse of extremely ordinary horror remakes – including but not limited to A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), Carrie (2013) and Poltergeist (2015) – continue? The answer is somewhere in the middle, because while Child’s Play 2019 has some enormous flaws, it’s also got its rough charms.

Child’s Play (2019) tells the story of Andy Barclay (Gabriel Bateman) and his single mother, Karen (Aubrey Plaza). Life isn’t exactly grand for the Barclays, as the pair have moved to a dodgy neighbourhood where Andy doesn’t know anyone, and would rather spend time on his phone than attempt to socialise. Karen, who works at the rather grim looking Zed Mart, decides to acquire a new Buddi doll, a wifi-connected toy that acts like an exceptionally ugly Amazon Echo, to try and bring Andy out of his funk. Surprisingly, it seems to work, because while the doll who calls himself “Chucky” is “for little kids” according to Andy, it’s also malfunctioning in frequently hilarious ways. Chucky imprints on Andy, and slowly begins to learn the moppet’s likes and frustrations. While Andy and his new mates watch (somewhat inexplicably) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) and laugh uproariously at the gore, Chucky seems to believe that Andy and chums actually like violence and wields a knife accordingly. Later, when Andy expresses his dislike for his mum’s boyfriend Shane (David Lewis), well, Chucky has a neat solution for that little problem too…

The biggest aspect that’s lacking in Child’s Play is, weirdly, Chucky himself. The newly designed doll is so unspeakably ugly that it’s simply not credible it would be a valued item on the market. Further to that, short of an intriguing prologue that seems to criticise the capitalist abuse of third world countries (that is swiftly abandoned), he has a maddeningly inconsistent agenda. While the original Chucky was actually the spirit of serial killer Charles Lee Ray attempting to use dark magic to possess a small boy and get out of the doll’s body, 2019 Chucky is a toy whose “evil switch” has been turned on, which is just not a terribly compelling narrative. Mark Hamill’s voice work as Chucky is fine, but never feels integrated to the extent of Brad Dourif’s standout turn in the original series. The relationship between Andy and Karen is a lot better here, however, with Aubrey Plaza bringing her trademark snark and wit to a role that could otherwise have been thankless and dull, and young Gabriel Bateman is one of about half a dozen kid actors who isn’t hideously annoying.

The direction by Lars Klevberg is mostly effective, but its in service of a script that feels somewhat unfocused and almost certainly heavily rewritten and reshot. That said, there is fun to be had here. The initial reaction of the kid characters to Chucky is genuinely funny, a couple of the kill scenes are extremely well-staged and there’s a decent amount of gore and stoner comedy to amuse anyone looking for some amiable trash.

Ultimately, it’s apt that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 features so heavily here, because that film was rather famously criticised for being much less effective than its predecessor, relying instead on excessive gore and goofy comedy. So it goes with Child’s Play 2019, it’s less effective than the original Child’s Play movies (the first two in particular) but still delivers 90 minutes of mostly enjoyable, albeit thematically empty, gore and giggles. One can’t help but feel, though, that it would have been nice if they’d set their heights just a little higher than “evil wifi”.

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Asian Cinema, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

What with Bong Joon-ho’s increasing work rate – this film appears just two years after his last, Okja, his shortest ever gap between features – it can be easy to forget that Parasite is the director’s first film made fully within the Korean system in a decade, since 2009’s Mother.

Both 2013’s Snowpiercer, Bong’s Hollywood debut, and 2017’s Okja, the first major film to launch through Netflix – are very fine films, although among the weaker entries in a formidable body of work, with a thematic reach that sometimes exceeds their grasp.

By contrast, Parasite is the work of a director intoxicatingly in his element. In many ways, this feels like the culmination of inimitably Bongian preoccupations: his obsession with psychologically freighted subterranean spaces, stretching all the way back to his debut, Barking Dogs Never Bite; immaculately executed whiplash moments that snap from comedy to tragedy; and a predilection for the surreal in his setpieces. Bong’s sense of the baroque has sharpened since Okja, and Parasite’s finale, involving a conglomeration of beautiful, wealthy people, gains in horror and poignancy from the luridness of its conception.

Bong is operating here at peak craft: the mise-en-scene is dazzling, evincing his flair for witty ensemble staging, then unleashing overwhelming imagery that heightens character and mood. All of this is aided by superb production design. It is also tightly plotted – a rarity for Bong – with a strong comedy of manners influence, a new direction for the director.

Very much like Snowpiercer, the chasm between rich and poor is the leitmotif of the film; it even follows a similar visual schema, and the ‘parasite’ of the title is left deliberately unclear. But there are also distinctive, piquant Korean flourishes that may, or may not, hold a deeper allegorical meaning: multiple allusions to North Korea, and a surprise reference to the 16th century Japanese invasions of Korea.

The characters are acidic creations, yet the film lacks a traditional protagonist: Parasite is a true ensemble work, with the characters driven by collective concerns. The cast is uniformly excellent, although Song Kang-ho does nothing to diminish his reputation as Korea’s finest character actor with his subtle performance. That the high-wire, precarious confidence act of the film’s tone can be sustained is testament to the total commitment of the actors: one only has to recall something like 2010’s unloved The Housemaid, a glorified Korean melodrama with similar setting and themes, to see how something like this could easily fall apart.

There are minor shortfalls in the storytelling. Bong sets up the arc of child character Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun) but fails to follow through, and a crucial turning point involving a kick (a recurring motif for Bong) is dubious in terms of its physical staging, the only occasion in which the carefully constructed spatial environment of the film is violated. All this can be forgiven, though, when Bong delivers another of his caustic, haunting endings (in retrospect, perhaps the reason why Okja and Snowpiercer seem like lesser works is that their endings fall ever so slightly short). This is Bong’s best film since 2003’s Memories of Murder, and makes a good case for being the first out-and-out classic of Korean cinema since 2016’s The Handmaiden.

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Claire Darling

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The Grande dame of French Cinema, Catherine Deneuve stars opposite her real-life daughter Chiara Mastroianni in Claire Darling, based on Lynda Rutledge’s novel Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale.

Set over the course of a summer’s day in Verderonne, Deneuve plays the eponymous recluse who decides to empty her mansion of its precious belongings and sell them in an impromptu garage sale. Her reemergence catches the attention of the town’s residents, and also her estranged daughter, Marie (Mastroianni), who she has not seen for 20 years.

Filmed predominantly on her Grandmother’s actual estate, director Julie Bertuccelli’s (The Tree, Since Otar Left) film looks at the effects of age on the mind, alongside the intrinsic relationship between mother and daughter.

She builds the severity of Claire’s dementia and unreliable mind through fantastical scenes and visual intermittences, such as having the camera follow a group of ethereal children dressed in white through the house and garden.

Bertuccelli creatively switches between different timelines, during which the present-day character will appear to reminisce and observe their younger counterpart.

It is through these frequent Dickensian flashbacks that we come to predominantly follow the flamboyant middle-aged Claire (played by Alice Taglioni), and learn more of the Darling family’s tragic history. We also gain insights into her penchant for collecting antiques, with a family ring proving to be the catalyst that drove away her daughter. For the modern-day Claire, these trinkets and objets d’art are echoes of her (fading) memories, and also double as inanimate substitutes for her loved ones.

Although still smoking cigarettes in her signature style, Deneuve is convincing as the complex and senile heiress, often caught drifting between consciousness and unconsciousness.

Considering their troubled relationship in real-life, her scenes with Mastroianni are fascinating to watch; with reality potentially converging with fiction.

Bertuccelli’s adapted script also presents intriguing plot points and motifs, but they are ultimately never fully explored, including a recurring “magical” elephant clock. There is also an arc involving a local priest, who despite his minor screen-time gets a flashback scene of his own.

With a (foreshadowed) climax that may leave its audience dissatisfied, Claire Darling remains a poignant study of mortality and memory, elevated by its ‘back and forth’ narrative and strong intertextual performances.

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Men In Black: International

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The original Men in Black (1997) was that rarest of blockbusters that managed to be entertaining, smart and visually spectacular. The superb comic timing of director Barry Sonnenfeld, the tight script from Ed Solomon and the eye-popping practical special effects from Rick Baker, combined with the on screen chemistry of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, created a deservedly beloved classic. A sequel followed in 2002, Men in Black II, and it was pretty bloody awful and then a third chapter, Men in Black 3, dropped in 2012 that managed to finish the trilogy on a surprisingly satisfying, emotional note. Because we live in the wretched End Times, a mere seven years passed before studios decided the property needed a soft reboot. And, look, to be honest, the idea of a fresh take on the MIB isn’t a bad one, it’s just that Men in Black: International is not the right film for the job. Or, in fact, any job.

Men in Black: International tells the tale of Molly aka Agent M (Tessa Thompson), a whip smart civilian who witnesses the MIB in action as a child and spends her life trying to find the secret organisation and join them. After swiftly accomplishing this goal, she is sent to the London division and paired up with hunky, glib Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) and the duo swiftly find themselves on a hunt for a space MacGuffin while also uncovering a mole in the MIB. Oh, and they’ll need to save the world while they’re at it.

In terms of broad strokes this isn’t a terrible set up for an action comedy of this type, however Men in Black: International is saddled with one of the laziest, most threadbare scripts in recent memory. Scenes just sort of happen, without anything clever or interesting to watch, and the entire weight of the film depends utterly on the charisma of the actors. Don’t get us wrong, Tessa Thompson is a wonderful actress and Chris Hemsworth is usually a delight, but when neither are given anything meaty or funny to work with, we’re left watching extremely well-dressed, attractive people just sort of hanging about, improvising poorly in the cinematic equivalent of a bored shrug.

After the stellar, albeit wasted, cast (which includes Liam Neeson and Emma-fucking-Thompson, by the way) bugger off to their second or third international location, with plenty of product placement for booze and cars, it becomes clear what Men in Black: International truly is. This isn’t an actual movie, this is a commercial that’s infiltrated the world of movies, imitating the cadence but never understanding the substance; the soul. It’s a corporate machine that runs off gloss and market research, with not one glint of originality or imagination to liven its slick, empty machinations.

Men in Black: International is a cynical marketing exercise in a nice pair of pressed black trousers. An action comedy with precious little action and bugger all discernible comedy. It’s proof, if you still need it, that the best cast in the world cannot overcome a deficit of inspiration. This isn’t a film, it’s a product, it’s “content” and you deserve better.

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Defend, Conserve, Protect

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The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is one of the most highly visible (we’ve all seen someone on the street wearing one of their promotional hoodies, right?) and instantly effective environmental protective organisations in the world. Founded by Paul Watson – who was ousted from Greenpeace because his approach was too confrontational for the appropriately titled environmental activist group – Sea Shepherd has used various seagoing vessels to obstruct the Japanese whale trade via direct and often aggressive methods. Unsurprisingly, they are a highly divisive player on the environmental protection scene.

This crowd-funded, Australian-produced documentary from director, Stephen Amis (whose diverse resume includes everything from the Shane Jacobson-led comedy, The BBQ, to the schlock-action of The 25th Reich), however, is unapologetically in Sea Shepherd’s corner. With a ragged sense of urgency, the film takes viewers on-board Sea Shepherd’s various vessels as they set out into the icy waters of Antarctica to way-lay a phalanx of Japanese whaling ships on their way to harpoon as many Minke whales as they can.

With different types of ships with catchy names (including the Brigitte Bardot and the Steve Irwin) and flashy paint jobs, the small Sea Shepherd flotilla is almost like an environmental version of The Thunderbirds, heroically crewed by its own version of the Tracy brothers. Committed and charismatic, the likeable likes of Captains Peter Hammarstedt and Luis Manuel De Pinho put their lives on the line as they bump their vessels up against the much larger (and utterly horrific) Japanese factory ships, which are basically blood-stained aquatic abattoirs equipped with high powered water cannons.

The footage is high-intensity and gripping, while on-screen interviews with iconic figurehead Paul Watson provide context about Sea Shepherd. Sequences featuring Dan Aykroyd as the collective voice of the Minke whales, however, are far less effective and largely superfluous. It’s in Sea Shepherd’s sense of commitment, passion and daring that the exciting and compelling Defend, Conserve, Protect finds its best footing, playing out more like a seafaring adventure tale than an environmental doco.

Previews of Defend, Conserve, Protect are being held in June – find out where it’s playing by clicking here. A general release will then follow from July 25, 2019.

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Under the Silver Lake

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In 2014, director David Robert Mitchell thrilled the world with clever indie horror flick, It Follows. The film’s elegant premise – a sexually transmitted demon – combined with tense direction and a Carpenter-esque score by Disasterpeace made the film a legitimate hit and raised anticipation for his next flick. Said film, Under the Silver Lake, is about to hit our shores for a limited cinema release and the result is… odd, sporadically engaging but not entirely successful.

Under the Silver Lake follows the antics of shiftless slacker, Sam (Andrew Garfield) who spends his days finding conspiracy theories in popular culture, not paying his rent and getting laid with almost surreal frequency. The story, such as it is, kicks off when Sam’s sexy neighbour, Sarah (Riley Keough) vanishes after the pair spend a flirtatious evening together getting baked and watching old movies. Sam investigates what he believes is a layered conspiracy, shambolically moving through Los Angeles uncovering quirky shenanigans such as B-list celebrity prostitutes, a dog killer, ethereal emo bands, the Homeless King (David Yow) and a renowned billionaire whose death hides even further secrets.

The concept of a slacker investigator isn’t a bad one, it was used to great effect in The Big Lebowski (1998) and to slightly less stellar results in Inherent Vice (2014). The problem with Under the Silver Lake’s Sam is that he’s just a bit of a non-event. Pleasant but utterly passive, we’re never entirely sure why he’s doing what he does, which makes him a frustrating protagonist. Also, the film clocks in at a confounding 139 minutes (!) which is way too protracted a runtime for a tale with little or no narrative thread. That’s not to say there aren’t solid moments here; despite his thin character Andrew Garfield does a lot with the little he’s given. Plus, some of the subplots are intriguing, particularly during the story’s third act, but there’s so much extraneous filler you’ll likely find yourself exhausted by the sheer volume of quirk.

David Robert Mitchell’s direction remains solid, stylish and effective, however Under the Silver Lake is let down by surprisingly sloppy writing and a general lack of focus. The end result is the shaggiest of shaggy dog stories with some wonderful ideas but far too much bloat, practically screaming for a more judicious editor to take a run at the material. Ultimately, Under the Silver Lake is fun at times, but too uneven and woolly to recommend without qualification. Still, if you’re in the mood for something loose, amiable and mostly charming, there are worse ways to spend the day.

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Never Look Away

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

After following his Oscar-winning masterpiece The Lives of Others with the Johnny Depp/Angelina Jolie infamous flop The Tourist, Florian Henckel van Donnersmarck returns to soaring form with Never Look Away – a drama spanning three eras of German history through the eyes of Kurt Barnert, a character based on the acclaimed artist Gerard Richter.

Opening in 1937 Dresden, the 6-year-old Kurt visits Joseph Goebbels’ Degenerate Art exhibition with his freethinking Aunt Elisabeth; played by Saskia Rosendahl in a short but affecting performance. She advises him to “never look away” from horror or beauty because both contain elements of truth. When Elisabeth shows signs of mental health issues, she is taken away to be ‘sterilised’ by the horrifying Nazi Euthanasia program – a tragedy that will have a profound and latent effect on Kurt and his artistic aspirations.

We then follow Kurt’s (played as an adult by Tom Schilling) career arc through Nazism, the Second World War and Communist occupancy in Germany. It also details his romance with fashion student Ellie (Paula Beer) – a relationship resented by her father (Sebastian Koch) who harbours an unforgivable crime.

Koch, who featured in The Lives of Others, is brilliant as Professor Seeband, a revered physician who refers to his daughter’s boyfriend as being not of “the genetic material I want for our descendants”. His nuances of behaviour are captured so well that you can feel his hatred for Kurt emanating from the screen.

Although a familiarity with Gerard Richter is not necessary, it does bring interesting weight to the film. Donnersmarck was inspired by an investigative article on Richter and the true nature of his photorealistic painting period and mysterious ‘blurring’ technique. After meeting with the artist over the course of several months and forming a friendship, he came up with the eventual script for Never Look Away. Richter has since gone on to publicly disown the film for grossly distorting his biography. Which is rather appropriate, given that the film’s German title translates to “Work Without Author”.

Despite his subject’s disapproval, Donnersmarck’s 189-minute film covers substantial moral ground and addresses a totalitarian society whereby people, even monsters, reinvent themselves to assimilate into its changing landscape and ideologies. This is what permeates Kurt’s journey, as he moves from socialist realism in East Germany to modern art in West Germany and begins to channel repressed memories and generations of trauma into his work.

Praise must also go out to Caleb Deschanel’s gorgeous Oscar-nominated cinematography; from POV shots of a young Kurt trying to obscure traumatising sights with his hand, to a flowing single take through the avant-garde Kunstakademie Academy in Düsseldorf.

Regardless of whether you take on board the parallels to Richter’s life (Donnersmarck has recently remarked that the film is perhaps ‘for everyone except him’), the irony of the film’s title is that you’ll be glued to the screen throughout its epic running time.

Never Look Away stands as both a stirring historical drama and meditation on creativity and art, flanked by outstanding direction and intimate performances.