Reviewed this week: The Book Thief; Winter's Tale; Stranger by the Lake; Tim's Vermeer; Only Lovers left Alive
The Book Thief
Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) is nine when she first attracts the attention of Death (who narrates the film mellifluously in the voice of Roger Allam). On a train across snowy Germany, Death takes her younger brother and this loss is compounded when her mother, a Communist, is forced to give Liesel up for adoption.
She is delivered to an older couple, the warm Hans Huberman (Geoffrey Rush) and his dour wife Rosa (Emily Watson) on Himmelstrasse, Heaven Street. Liesel can't read but when she learns, it becomes her hobby. To see the Nazis burn books in pyres horrifies Liesel, and her first act of defiance is to save an illicit book.
Soon after Kristallnacht she and the whole family will be offered the opportunity to engage in a much more serious and dangerous act of anti-Nazi rebellion when Max (Ben Schnetzer), a son of an old friend of Hans, and a Jew, appears at their door. Rudy (Nico Liersch) is Liesel's loyal best friend, and together they attempt to grow up normally in the oddest of circumstances.
Directed by Brian Percival (Downton Abbey) and based on Markus Zusak's 2005 novel, the film sees Nelisse give a wonderful performance; indeed, the performances are all round good, but the film lacks emotional depth.
What it does show, if not hammer home, is the climate of fear in which people lived, not so much of war or their nominal enemies in that war, but of each other. The fear of being seen and reported as someone about whose devotion to the Nazis there might be doubts, shows the girders around which repressive regimes are built.
A (New York) Winter's Tale
COLIN Farrell can never be accused of being predictable in his choice of films and whilst his performances are fairly steady, the movie quality can waver. And it's true of A Winter's Tale, Farrell is great, but the film isn't really.
Very long novels don't make good films. A Winter's Tale is based on Mark Helprin's 700-page best-selling behemoth from 1983 and its mix of magic and myth demands suspension of disbelief.
In order for that to be possible a story needs to create a weighted alternative reality to which we can transfer our attachment for the duration, and whilst a novel has space in which to do that, a film does not. In 1895, Peter Lake's immigrant parents are turned away from Ellis Island. They float their baby son, Moses style, in the North Atlantic and he lives a largely vagrant life. We first meet Peter (Farrell) in 1916, on the run from Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) a scarred bad guy with an inexplicable, and occasionally unintelligible, Irish accent. Saved by a flying horse, really, Peter is about to leave NY when he meets a magnate's (William Hurt) beautiful dying daughter Beverley (Jessica Brown Findlay, aka Lady Sybil in Downton Abbey) while robbing her house.
Fate and miracles and magic and love combine but their power is not enough to combat the vengeance of a demon (Crowe) who defies Lucifer (Will Smith). Or is it? After a lost century Peter recovers his memory around a sick child and her mother (Jennifer Connelly) but Pearly is still around too, and still overacting.
Written and directed by Akiva Goldsman, A Winter's Tale is so heartfelt and well intentioned that it feels churlish to criticise. But it tries to be too much and none of it is convincing. It looks beautiful and the chemistry between Beverley and Peter is great. Farrell gives his all, he is still beautiful when he cries, and his charm, in full untweaked Dublinese, lifts the film because he's in almost every scene.
Unashamedly romantic, it is perhaps a little too convoluted to appeal to the most devoted audience for unashamed romance, the teenage girl.
Stranger by the Lake
IF YOU go down the woods today – the lakeside ones in writer/director Alain Guiraudie's perplexing sex drama – you're in for a carry-on that's not for the easily offended. Without a single note of soundtrack or a clear raison d'etre, Guiraudie lolls by the Edenic lac de Sainte-Croix, following young frisky Franck (Pierre de Ladonchamps), who is among a handful of holidaying gay men who cruise for casual sex in the nearby trees.
Franck lays eyes on moustachioed Michel (Christophe Paou) and falls for his sexual prowess while at the same time engaging in platonic chat with past-it but thoughtful older man Henri (Patrick d'Assumcao). X-rated frolics are had in the undergrowth and full-frontal nudity is de rigueur.
Any dynamic there exists between the doggers is altered when Franck spies Michel drowning his partner. Franck oscillates between being fearful and turned on by Michel, even after a local police detective stops by to question everyone.
Guiraudie seems more concerned with exhibiting the male form and the machinations of the ultra-liberal cruising scene than developing a yarn. Gratuitousness (some scenes are simply porn) overshadows the crux of the tale, namely Franck's libido taking precedence over his conscience and the risk that he may become an accomplice.
PENN Jillette, of Penn and Teller fame, produces and narrates some of this story about his friend Tim Jenison, whose curious mind made him millions. The documentary focuses on Tim's quest to discover how Johannes Vermeer, painter of renowned masterpieces like Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Love Letter, could have painted with such photographic accuracy 150 years before the invention of photography.
In a sub-lesson in why some people are so dedicated and meticulous that they become millionaires, the story follows Tim – an inventor, not an artist – as he follows a hunch he got in the bath. There have long been questions over whether Vermeer used a camera obscura in his work. The notion upsets some art purists, but they'll undoubtedly be even more upset by Jenison's theory. Long convinced that the camera obscura alone was not enough to explain Vermeer's unparalleled skill with light, and inspired by David Hockney's book on artistic trickery, Jenison studied, learned, considered, analysed and came up with an even more mathematical theory.
The documentary covers the further years it took him to create the circumstances in which to test the theory, the ultimate proof of which would be his own painting of The Music Lesson.
Directed by Teller, this 80-minute documentary is really interesting in itself. Hockney and other experts get involved, there's brief consideration of the nature of art but what really makes it work is Tim himself, he's a great subject.
Only Lovers left Alive
TRUST director Jim Jarmusch to sit back and wait for every permutation of the vampire film to come and go before casually serving up his own vision and leaving something properly iconic behind. In Only Lovers Left Alive, the writer, director and cult hero pours his trademark love of absurdism, rock deification and weird science into the bloodsucker mould, and creates something so harmonious you wonder why no one thought of it before.
Jarmusch's 11th feature film in 34 years is a sort of gothic love letter to addiction, guitars and companionship that takes the husk of the vampire myth and fills it with fresh ingredients.
Leading the excellent cast is Tom Hiddleston as Adam, a jaded succubus/ strung-out rocker. Adam is holed-up in a Detroit studio full of instruments, dicky technology and pictures of literary greats. Bringing him vintage guitars and other supplies is Ian (Anton Yelchin) while Jeffrey Wright's doctor sells him hits of clean blood.
Equally strung-out and vacant is Eve (Tilda Swinton, above), his Tangier-based soulmate of long standing. She senses his protracted case of the blues, and jets over to the US to be with him. In typically languid fashion, Jarmusch watches the pair play chess, dance and cruise around a ghoulish night-time Detroit before Eve's brat sister Mia Wasikowska shows up to add to Adam's worries.
Once you've slowed to Jarmusch's pace and accepted the slight sag in the middle, Only Lovers Left Alive is a beguiling, beautiful and deadpan love story with added John Hurt. That it operates within its own parameters is evidence of a return to form by a film-maker of undulating brilliance.
Sunday Indo Living