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Sander carries brilliant, complex Faraway, So Close

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@Eventname:Faraway, So Close

@Eventdesc:Directed by Wim Wenders.

Starring Otto Sander, Nastassja Kinski, and Willem Dafoe.

Coolidge Corner Theater.

@Eventname:Bad Behavior

@Eventdesc:Directed by Les Blair.

Starring Stephen Rea and Sinead Cusack.

Harvard Film Archive.

Jan. 29, 30.

@ByName:By Jeremy Hylton


@Dropcap:The beginning of Wim WendersÕ new film Faraway, So Close is dizzying. WendersÕ camera flies across the top of East Berlin and begins to circle the Angel of Victory statue. The camera moves in closer and closer as it spins faster and faster around the Valkyrie-like head. Suddenly a man is standing between the head and wing of the giant warrior.

@Body:It is a moving and beautiful sequence. As the background of the city blurs into a confusion of motion, Cassiel (Otto Sander) stands serenely in the foreground surveying the chaos. And then he jumps, and flies through the city.

Faraway, So Close, you see, is about angels. The sequence captures the timelessness of angels that Wenders tries to convey; as the world spins by at dizzying speeds, angels stand serenely by and watch. Two of those angels are Cassiel and Raphaela (Nastassja Kinski), surveyors of post-Cold War Berlin. They move through the city and watch their human charges, but can make contact with them only in dreams.

The opening scenes of the movie shot in a luminous black and white show Cassiel struggling against the boundary between men and angels. Cassiel moves, seemingly at random, from place to place, watching Konrad (Heinz Ruhmann) an aged chauffeur tinker with his 50-year-old cars, or Hanna (Monika Hansen), a working single mother, care for her sick, young daughter Raissa (Aline Krajewski), or stands behind Mikhail Gorbachev (as himself) pondering the worldÕs future.

There is an odd, but intriguing dynamic at work in these scenes: Cassiel longs to make contact with these people, and Sander captures perfectly the terrible sadness CassielÕs distance generates; his face, mouth betray no emotion, but his eyes ache. At the same time, Cassiel watches so intently that it is hard not to be uneasy. Is this guy an angel or a voyeur?

There doesnÕt seem to be much plot in these early scenes, until Cassiel the watcher is joined by another spy, a man (Rudiger Volger), who watches CassielÕs charges. Just as this complication starts to develop, though, Raissa falls off the balcony of her 10th-floor apartment. Cassiel is forced to act, and in an instant, he is standing on the ground below with the child in his arms Ñ and the movie is now in color. He has given up his serene, angelic existence for the colorful, fast-paced life of a human.

Sander is again wonderfully expressive as a man-child learning what it is like to be human. Sander navigates an enormous emotional range, capturing CassielÕs absolute joy at seeing the world as it is (we imagine that angels see in black and white, too), and the poignancy of his separation from Raphaela. In one painful scene, Cassiel sits in a booth to have his picture taken, and he longs to be with her; the film moves abruptly to black and white and we see that Raphaela is actually there, holding him and mugging the camera playfully, but he canÕt see her.

The biggest change for Cassiel in the new world is his sudden concern for time. It is also one of the weak points of the script, by Wenders, Ulrich Zeiger, and Richard Reitinger. Apparently, angels have trouble getting used to time and the script tries to set up some great significance for this difference, but succeeds only in making the issue of time a confusing mess. Great significance must be invested though in Willem DafoeÕs character Emit Flesti (Òtime itselfÓ backwards, in case you werenÕt hit over the head with it).

Flesti is some kind of supernatural figure, able to speak to angels and men at once, and the foil to Cassiel. He makes several efforts to end CassielÕs human life; in once scene, he introduces Cassiel to booze, sending him into a long decline of drunkenness and misery.

After some nights sleeping on the street, getting thrown out of a Lou Reed concert, and holding up a few small stores with a gun he finds, Cassiel is rescued from his drunken stupor by a sleazy businessman, Tony Baker. Baker takes on Cassiel as his man servant, and a strange mutual respect develops between them, strange because Cassiel doesnÕt see the underhanded side of Baker. After Cassiel saves BakerÕs life, Baker offers to let him in on a piece of the business, which unfortunately for Cassiel is a mix of pornography and arms dealing.

Baker, fully revealed, stands for everything Cassiel became human to stop, and Cassiel flees Baker to re-think his mission as a human. At this point in the film, Wenders starts to draw together the network of loose ends he has left over the course of the film. He turns the film away from the beautiful, rambling tale of Cassiel coming to terms with humanity. In the last half-hour or so of the film, Wenders builds connections between Konrad, Hanna and Raissa, Baker, and a host of other characters Cassiel has met, including Peter Falk as himself, tying the whole package up in a whiz bang finale.

The ending is incredibly strained. Wenders canÕt decide what kind of movie he is making and at times the final minutes seem grafted onto a wholly different earlier film. Wenders had the same trouble with the brilliant, but uneven Until the End of the World, which changed midstream from chase movie to a reflection on dreams and solipsism.

Despite the contrived ending, Wenders and Sander both give brilliant performances that more than compensate for the scriptÕs problems. Behind the camera, Wenders has an enchanting visual style, and makes good use of a soundtrack including songs by U2, Nick Cave, and Jane Siberry.

On the screen, Sander is left to carry the film, appearing in nearly every scene, and he succeeds masterfully. Kinski is beautiful, but rather bland, and Dafoe plays his usual sleazy, villainous character without any real distinction. Ruhmann, as Konrad, is touching, and wonderful in the few scenes he is in.

Two words of warning: The movie is long, two hours and 20 minutes, and is in German with subtitles.

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Though I wouldnÕt make a habit of reviewing movies that are going to close the same weekend the review is published, Bad Behavior playing Saturday and Sunday at the Harvard Film Archive demands at least a brief exception. The movie, starring Stephen Rea and Sinead Cusack as a couple going through their mid-life crisis, is absolutely brilliant. If you have to change your plans to see it, then change them.

The movie was developed by director Les Blair for a two-page treatment he wrote without any dialogue. Blair had the actors work for several months before filming developing their characters. The result is a set of wonderfully real and lived in people.

Gerry and Ellie McAllister (Rea and Cusack) and their two sons Joe and Michael (Luke Blair, Joe Coles) are an Irish family living in a London house with a bathroom that needs some fixing up. Gerry works in the city planning office; heÕs a curmudegon, he doesnÕt ever seem to comb his hair, and he likes to work secretly on comic strip-like drawings of himself and his wife. Ellie is a frustrated housewife, who spends part of her day running a book store and harbors a secret desire to be a novelist.

The movie picks up one morning in the middle of their life and ends a short while later, still in the middle of their life. There isnÕt much plot to speak of, and certainly no beginning or end, but that doesnÕt mean Blair gives up on a warmly funny and moving story, one that captures all the highs and lows of the McAllisterÕs life.

There is whole host of superb supporting characters that move through the McAllisterÕs life: ThereÕs Howard Spinks (Philip Jackson), a two-bit, slimeball real estate developer who tries to charge them bogus consulting fees, Ray and Roy (Phil Daniels), the twins who fix the bathroom, and Sophie (Saira Todd), GerryÕs exciting younger co-worker. Particularly thrilling is the relationship between Sophie and Gerry, which circles around some kind of sexual attraction neither can admit; the tension, though present, is also never in danger of overwhelming Ellie and GerryÕs obvious strong marriage. ItÕs just a deliciously realistic touch.

Rea and Cusack really shine in the film, though. Gerry can be grump about having to walk out at night to pick up the car when Ellie drinks too much, and turn the sour-puss joke into a disarmingly caring moment. Cusack is vital and attractive, blending maturity and sensuality in a decidedly anti-Hollywood way.

Bad Behavior is superb. DonÕt miss it.