Friday 19 January 2018

War caper fails to steal hearts

Bookworm: Liesel is taken in by a foster family who teach her to read and thus fuels her book obsession
Bookworm: Liesel is taken in by a foster family who teach her to read and thus fuels her book obsession

Paul Whitington

The Book Thief tells its story competently but lacks imagination and a visual spark.

The book Thief

(12A, general release, 131 minutes)

Director: Brian Percival. Stars: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Barbara Auer. HHHII

Who knew Death was such a windbag? He interjects constantly during the course of this worthy film based on a novel by Markus Zusak, to blather on about what a busy time he had during WW2 and how much various people's souls weighed when he snatched them.

The Book Thief is set in Bavaria in the late 1930s, and stars Sophie Nélisse as Liesel, an unfortunate young girl who's left all alone on the eve of World War Two. She's on a train with her mother and younger brother when the little boy is taken ill and dies. Unable to cope, the woman sends her daughter to live with a foster family in the fictional Bavarian town of Molching. Liesel's first impressions of her new mother are not good, as Rosa Huberman (Emily Watson) is a brusque and sharp-tongued woman.

But her bark turns out to be a lot worse than her bite, and her husband Hans (Geoffrey Rush) is a gentle soul who teaches the illiterate Liesel to read. She soon forms a strong bond with her adoptive father, and develops her love of books by pinching tomes from the library of Molching's Nazi mayor. But this cosy set-up is disrupted by the outbreak of war, and the Hubermans risk everything when they agree to hide a displaced Jewish man in their basement.

Director Brian Percival tells Markus Zusak's story competently but unimaginatively: his film is plodding and lacks a visual spark. The performances are good, especially those of Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, but The Book Thief adheres too faithfully to its source to amount to anything genuinely interesting.

Callous gratuity ruins film's potential

Nymphomaniac Vols I & II

(No Cert IFI, 233 minutes)

Director: Lars von Trier.

Stars: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Christian Slater, Shia LaBoeuf.

3 Stars

It is with a heavy heart and appropriate dread that I approach any film by Lars von Trier. This is not to say that the mercurial Dane is incapable of greatness: I thought Melancholia was a thing of beauty.

It's just that old Lars has a tendency to loiter in the more unsavoury back alleys of human nature, and a disturbing habit of testing the limits of female suffering. That's certainly true of Nymphomaniac, a positive endurance test of a movie that's presented in these parts as two films and is very much a game of two halves.

In Nymphomaniac Volume I, we have the pleasure of making the acquaintance of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a middle-aged woman who's found lying beaten and bloody in the street by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), a kindly bachelor who rescues her. When she comes to, she tells him of her extraordinary adventures as a self-proclaimed nymphomaniac. Cursed with a foul mother, Joe began acting out sexually as a teen, and later her obsession with orgasm takes precedence over everything else – career, marriage, even motherhood.

Part one of von Trier's film is full of ideas and bravura moments and almost achieves a playful tone. But the sadism is really ramped up in Part Two, when the callous and mechanical loves scenes become so frequent as to lose all meaning, which was possibly the point. The result is an undignified and occasionally offensive movie that indulges in transgression for transgression's sake and might have been brilliant if it had been two hours shorter.

Action is Non-Stop


(12A, general release, 106 minutes)

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra.

Stars: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery, Scott McNairy.

3 Stars

These days Liam Neeson mainly plies his trade in action films, knocking seven bells out of lowlifes and in Non-Stop he plays Bill Marks, a US air marshal who's not having a very good day. He's drinking too much, and has just boarded a flight from New York to London when he begins receiving a series of bizarre text messages.

The texter claims he'll kill a passenger every 20 minutes if Bill doesn't persuade his bosses to wire $150million to an undisclosed account. Marks thinks it's a hoax, but when the first body turns up he realises he's up against it.

A superb work of art

Tim's Vermeer

(12A, Light House, 80 minutes)

Director: Teller.

Stars: Tim Jenison, David Hockney, Pen Jillette, Colin Blakemore.

3 Stars

Critics have long marvelled at the technical accomplishment of Johannes Vermeer's paintings, and wondered how an artist with no formal training could have so outstripped his 17th century peers in terms of verisimilitude.

And while romantics like me might assume he was just a genius, others have come up with more prosaic explanations. In this engaging documentary from Penn & Teller, inventor and businessman Tim Jenison sets out to prove the theory that Vermeer used camera obscura and mirrors in his work by painting a Vermeer himself. With astonishing single-mindedness, he worked out a possible mirror system and painstakingly recreated the room and setting for Vermeer's masterpiece. Following the outline of a refracted reflection, Mr. Jenison slowly creates an eerie facsimile of The Music Lesson, and it's hard not to admire his extraordinary determination.

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