The 5 Browns: Digging Through the Darkness is a heartfelt documentary about five siblings, Melody, Desirae, Deondra, Gregory and Ryan, who rose to fame when they formed a piano ensemble, The 5 Browns. It turns out that their father, Keith, who's also their manager, sexually abused Melody, Desirae and Deondra during their childhood and went to prison. Director Ben Niles doesn't introduce you to that darker element of the narrative right away. At first it seems like the doc will be about The 5 Browns and their rise to fame, but it gradually gets darker and darker as you realize that the Browns are far from the Brady Bunch. He combines archival footage and home videos with concert footage and candid interviews with The 5 Browns siblings each of whom has been through a lot emotionally and psychologically. It's amazing and uplifting, though, how they have managed to say together and persist throughout their journey. They also acknowledge how music has helped them to heal in many ways. There's a segment of the doc that veers a little off track when it focused on Desirae's battle something besides the trauma from the sex abuse: her eye disease. However, it doesn't derail the film completely nor is it a systemic flaw. Desirae along with Melody and Deondra should be commended for be brave enough to speak out about their traumatic childhood. They were clearly groomed by a father who's a pedophile and a narcissist. Their mother, Lisa, seems like an enabler. Bravo to Deondra and Desirae for turning lemons to lemonade by starting The Foundation for Survivors of Abuse to help other survivors of sexual abuse find the courage to speak out about it. At a running time of 99 minutes, The 5 Browns: Digging Through the Darkness is an equally poignant, heartbreaking and inspirational documentary. It opens Wednesday, January 23rd at IFC Center. In the unflinching doc Jihadists, co-directors François Margolin and Lemine Ould Salem interview Islamic extremists who are members of the Salafi sect. They openly discuss their idealogy and have no shame in admitting that homosexuals ought to be killed. Anyone who doesn't agree with and obey their laws and ideologies are killed. On camera, the jihadists seem brainwashed, simple-minded and cruel. The filmmakers are quite courageous and bold for risking their lives to bring attention to these jihadists and their twisted ideologies that fuel ISIS, but the doc quickly becomes repetitive and monotonous with audience feeling only one emotion for the entire duration: anger. Anger toward such hatred, bigotry, extremism and evil. What Jihadists fails to do is to go beyond that emotion and to explore the nature of evil. The Banality of Evil, written by Hannah Arendt, for instance, would've been a good source to allow the filmmakers to dig deeper. If a documentary only makes one angry on a visceral level with no other emotions, it isn't very effective overall because it's too shallow. Moreover, it's somewhat distracting every time co-director François Margolis interrupts the doc to explain what you just saw directly to the camera---that probably would've worked better as part of the director's commentary on the DVD. At a brief running time of 1 hour and 15 minutes, Jihadists opens at Cinema Village via Cinema Libre Studio.
The Kid Who Would Be King
Never Look Away
Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling) studies at an art academy in East Germany where he meets Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer), a fashion student. He falls in love with her despite the disapproval of her domineering father, Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), who was responsible for sending Kurt's aunt, Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) to death years earlier. Kurt marries Ellie and moves with her to West Germany and further develops painting skills and passion while studying at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf. However, his dark family history come back to haunt him.
Based on the life of painter Gerhard Richter, Never Look Away is an enthralling and sweeping saga that's just as powerful and provocative as The Lives of Others. Writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck begins the film by setting up the tragic events that led to Elisabeth's death as you're introduced to young Kurt (Cai Cohrs), Elisabeth's nephew. Those key scenes put the rest of the film in a very compelling and tragic context especially when Kurt meets his lover's father, Professor Carl Seeband. There's nothing dry or dull about the way that Never Look Away unfolds because the intelligent screenplay immerses you into the story from the very first frame and gets inside the head of its protagonist, Kurt Barnert. His romantic relationship with Ellie feels organic and their love of each other remains palpable throughout. It's equally fascinating to watch Kurt emerge as a very talented artist, but the film's most compelling aspect is how the tragedy from his childhood gradually rises to the foreground as Kurt comes to terms with harsh truths about Professor Carl Seeband.
A less sensitively-written screenplay would've led to melodrama, distracting flashbacks and schmaltz, but Henckel von Donnersmarck steers clear of those pitfalls which is a testament to his skills as a filmmaker. Editors Patricia Rommel and Patrick Sanchez Smith wisely move the film at a leisurely pace which helps you to be more easily absorbed by many of the scenes and to pay close attention to the stylish cinematography by Caleb Deschanel and production design by Silke Buhr. It's refreshing to watch a film that trusts its audience's patience, emotions and intelligence with more emotional grit than physical grit. Admittedly, it would have been interesting were the film shot in black-and-white instead of color, but its color cinematography is nonetheless breathtaking to behold.
Further enriching the film are the stellar performances by Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch and Paula Beer. Schilling not only has good looks, but also exudes charisma which helps to make him a very appealing leading man. Sebastian Koch nails the role of Professor Carl Seeband with aplomb. Koch does indeed has charisma, but he's also convincingly tough and threatening without going over-the-top. There's no cheese to go with any ham here because none of the actors give a hammy performance which adds to the film's authenticity. In other words, Never Look Away find just the right balance of Truth and Spectacle while also finding Spectacle within its Truth. It's not an edge-of-your seat thriller, but rather a slow-burning, spellbinding and quietly poignant film. Despite the running time of 189 minutes, you never feel the weight of the lengthy running time which reflects precisely how entertaining the film truly is during its captivating beginning, middle and end. Prepare to be haunted and moved by the very powerful, wordless final scene. Never Look Away ranks as one of the best films of the year.