A film that may just blow your mind, quietly and without too much of a fuss.
If it sounds like your kind of thing of course. If a narrator who is Death, an old accordion, a girl who borrows books (it’s not stealing), and a snowman in a cellar all sound intriguing enough for you. The Book Thief is certainly no ordinary tale of Nazi Germany. It doesn’t allow itself to become mired in the sentimentality or the brutality that so often define war-based dramas. It sticks with its characters and doesn’t let go.
Liesel is a communist’s daughter, sent from her mother to live on Heaven’s street in Germany with new parents. She can’t read and thus learning becomes her one goal, which soon grows into a passion for books. Various characters, some expected and some surprising, help her along in her education. All the time there is danger and the voice of Death threatening the peace she has found. Whether you’re a young athlete chosen for elite Nazi training, or a girl whose family is hiding a Jew in the basement, no-one can feel safe. In a war where ideas and personal opinions are forbidden, Liesel is a girl so alive that even Death himself is fascinated by her.
The cast is any director’s dream. Truly, the acting is flawless. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson are the big leads, but the unknowns such as Sophie Nélisse (Liesel) and Ben Schnetzer (Max) stand as tall. Performances are even throughout, and each relationship has its own unique chemistry. Technically the film is also strong. Moments aren’t clung to by the camera; instead they’re fleeting and all the better for it. It could so easily have become a boring film, and yet it never is. Instead there is a slow-burning intensity about the whole story.
It’s very difficult to criticise The Book Thief. There is the unavoidable problem which all films of this nature face, and that’s the historical backdrop. The end is too predictable perhaps, but then again there’s only so much you can rewrite about a war and its consequences. The Book Thief is a new perspective on World War Two, but there’s no way round the fact that the bombs will still be dropped.
A problem that could have been fixed is the purpose of the film’s ominous narrator. Death – voiced by Roger Allam – introduces himself at the very opening before any characters have been on-screen. From such a beginning, it’s fair to assume that he will play a fairly prominent part in the story. However Death is only to be heard from a couple more times, and this isn’t really enough to justify him being present at all. In the adjustment of the novel, The Book Thief’s narrator is condensed too far. His pieces – while creepy – add little substance.
If you’re a book-lover like Liesel, you need to watch this film. If you aren’t too much of a reader, you still need to watch this film. The only way to know The Book Thief is to see it, and despite its few flaws it has the potential to be one of 2014’s most original pieces of cinema.
The Book Thief is now showing at the Phoenix Picturehouse
Three stooges whimsy. Whip pans to Bill Murray. Snakes on a train. The Phoenix Picturehouse’s WesFest rolled ahead Sunday with a showing of The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Wes Anderson’s fifth film and cultural odyssey through the particolored landscapes of India. After the mixed reviews garnered by The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson returns to Royal Tenenbaums form with a whirlwind portrait of the Whitman brothers, a family one degree removed from reality yet tied to it by the depth of their dysfunction.
As the three estranged brothers reunite to seek Enlightenment and Reconciliation on a fantastical Indian train, Francis (Owen Wilson) tells them, “I want us to be open to everything, even if it’s shocking and painful.” But none of them are prepared for the buried agony they each reveal. Swaddled in bandages, Francis has survived trying to off himself on a motorcycle; Peter (Adrien Brody) suffocates under a pregnant wife he doesn’t love; and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) hacks his ex-girlfriend’s phone messages in a self-destructive return to the past. Weighted down with heaps of Louis Vuitton luggage and an inability to confront his demons, Francis seizes his siblings’ passports, hires a personal assistant, and holds them all to laminated itineraries made with the printer he insists on hauling. Peter and Jack won’t stand for a control-freak and greet his commands with punches and pepper-spray. The kaleidoscopic world outside the train proves insufficient, and they seek alternative voyages in pill-popping and liquid painkillers purchased with reckless abandon.
With a soundtrack synthesizing cuts from The Kinks and Rolling Stones with Bollywood tones of Satyajit Ray, the film accelerates to its multicultural climax when an Indian boy drowns despite Peter’s attempts to rescue him. India – until now a vibrant backdrop tolerating the Whitmans’ self-absorption – emerges as a character in itself, shattering the staged quality of their interactions and providing an occasion for reliving their father’s death through a second funeral. In a final twist, Francis surprises his siblings by discovering their runaway mother (Anjelica Huston) in a Himalayan monastery, where not even a man-eating tiger can deter us from understanding the boys even as they come to terms with themselves.
Anderson’s film succeeds because it oscillates as much as its titular train. While pastel costumes and Technicolor spectrums of yellow-red-blue echo the style of The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic, the radiance of India and the cultures it contains expands the imaginative scope of the world this auteur conjures. It’s a breakneck and meticulous ride – with rockified slow-motion sequences and tracking shots through compartmentalized worlds, Anderson’s hand is never far from view – but the film leaves its characters and audience with the suggestion that satisfaction lies in embracing the improvised. The Whitmans abandon their return plane for a roaring motorcycle into the Indian sunset, and we’re delighted to go along for the ride.
After a brief break from Screen 1, the sold-out auditorium refills and we are introduced, again, to the second half of Nymphomaniac by the strangely cast Edith Bowman. She throws around the term “masterpiece” a couple of times and then leaves us to next two hours of von Trier’s sexual epic.
Nymphomaniac Vol. 2 finishes the tale of Joe and her sexuality in three chapters: The Eastern and Western Church, The Mirror and The Gun. The three tales explore Joe’s extreme measures to try and reconnect with her orgasm, a new career path and a maternal-cum-sexual relationship with her adopted protege. This second half of the film provides a more interesting thematic exploration, but it still doesn’t pose many interesting questions to the audience.
Similarly to Vol. 1, the flashbacks are interspersed with the conversations and asides of Joe (Gainsborough) and Seligman (Skarsgård), however their prevalence and humour reduces as we move through Nymphomaniac. The humour that made the first half enjoyable is non-existent in Vol. 2, and is instead replaced by Joe’s ‘provocative’ rants. These range from the quite interesting (a discussion on the similarities of paedophilia and nymphomania) to the pointless and offensive (Joe’s digression on “negroes”).
In the sub-chapter The Dangerous Men, Joe partakes in a fumbling threesome with two African immigrants. These are the only non-white characters to appear in the entirety of von Trier’s four-hour film and they are portrayed as being intimating and “dangerous”. This in itself is problematic, but when you add Joe’s nonsense spiel about the prohibition of words and democracy, which includes the phrase “calling a spade a spade”, you have a serious issue. This discussion comes to no conclusion and has no relevance to the plot; it is purely an attempt to provoke and mars the entire film.
Contrastingly, it is the same sub-chapter which contained the infuriating low point of Vol. 2 that also contained the film’s high point. Moving on from Joe’s threesome, she decides to partake in some SM with K (Jamie Bell). In his refusal to make eye contact with the camera or his subject and hushed tones, Bell creates the engrossing socially awkward sadist. The interplay between Gainsborough and Bell – the cold sadist and the masochist wanting tenderness too – is the highlight of the film. This is not saying much; there is very little to mention in praise.
In many ways, the film can be summed up by it’s god-awful ending. Once Joe finishes reciting her tale, Seligman tries to rape her and is subsequently killed by the female protagonist. Described by Skarsgård as a “fuck you to the audience”, the scene makes little sense in the context of the film and feels purposefully provocative.
As was the problem with the first part of Nymphomaniac Vol. 1, Vol. 2 doesn’t work as a singular piece. It lacked the coherence and character development that the entirety of Nymphomaniac provides. Where there was enjoyment and humour in the first part, the second half of von Trier’s new film gives the viewer very little. We are left underwhelmed and offended by this concluding half.
You shouldn’t lie, Edith.
Her is a difficult film to review. Some people will buy into the premise of a man falling in love with his computer, and be genuinely moved. Others will find the whole thing just a bit creepy. I suppose I’m somewhere in the middle. Writer-director Spike Jonze plays with this tension, delicately teasing out insights about our relationship with the virtual world. But he is careful to avoid a preachy social allegory, and instead offers something richer and more tragic.
This wouldn’t be possible without two brilliant performances, delivered by Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. I doubt that any other casting choice would have worked for either role. Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a sweet man who wears pastels. He lives in a futuristic Los Angeles, and writes for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, a gentle reminder that almost anything can be purchased online. Despite his horn-rimmed glasses, high-waisted trousers, and 1970s B-list porn star moustache, Theo’s taste in women is decidedly ambitious. Going through a breakup with Rooney Mara, and unwilling to commit to Olivia Wilde, he can only connect with one woman: Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, his Operating System (OS).
Phoenix’s performance is at once whimsical and sad. We never get to see Theo’s wounds, but we sense their depth. It makes perfect sense that his version of the perfect women exists exclusively in cyberspace. Samantha organises his emails, doesn’t hesitate to perform “aural” sex, and appears genuinely interested in everything he has to say. The fact that she doesn’t have a body is made to seem insignificant; Johansson’s voice gives her character life. It’s crackling, sensual, and imperfect, enough to create the illusion of her humanness. Samantha isn’t a cipher, but at the same time she doesn’t ask anything of Theodore. The relationship remains almost entirely about him.
Perhaps that is what makes the film’s resolution inevitable. There’s a lot of talk, arguably a half-hour too much. And Phoenix, though entirely convincing, spends a lot of time gazing ahead and looking wistful. It’s interesting to see how Theo and Samantha attempt to navigate the challenges faced by ordinary couples, like when Samantha, eager to spice things up, finds a sex surrogate online to fill in for her body. But it’s difficult to see past the absurdity of the situation when they’re trying to be serious. And Theo eventually has to face this reality, as he realises the impossibility of a personal connection to an impersonal computer. It’s up to Samantha to be the mature one and finally dispel the illusion.
Her reverses the relationship between human and cyborg that has come to define the science fiction genre. While Blade Runner is about the identity crisis robots face, Samantha is by far the film’s most self-assured character. Everyone else is out to seduce their OS, or become BFFs. As humans scurry around trying to nab a virtual date or get more followers on Twitter, we’re forced to question whether social media makes our lives easier, or just provides new ways for us to be awkward and insecure.
I don’t think Her is a cautionary tale, despite Samantha’s frightening resemblance to Siri. Ultimately, Jonze’s film reminds us that the same anxieties, foibles, and needs will always be part of being human, though we might convince ourselves technology has made us immune.
Her is now showing at the Phoenix Picturehouse
How to create anticipation according to Nymphomaniac: 1) have a director veiled in controversy, who is unwilling to talk about said controversy or at all; 2) create the best poster campaign in years; 3) employ actor who is willing to wear a paper bag and quote Cantona. It certainly worked. Lars von Trier’s four hour opus has had people talking since that first teaser shot was released over a year ago. Now it is finally here and the Phoenix is sold out.
Von Trier opens his epic with ambience-filled darkness. The darkness rises and we find Joe (Charlotte Gainsborough) upon the floor, bloodied and bruised, with snow slowly falling. She is found and aided by Seligman (Stellen Skarsgård) to his bare, dingy flat, fed tea and encouraged to tell her tale.
Vol. 1 is told in five chapters, each of which is bookended by the musings of the quickly formed comedy odd-couple: Joe, the self-confessed nymphomaniac and social pariah; Seligman, the 60-odd year old virgin, whose life is the books that surround him. It is these musings that accompany the tales of young Joe (Stacey Martin) finding her sexuality, embracing it whole-heartedly and then losing its sensation.
I can be forgiven for not expecting this humour – the trailer was sounded by Rammstein after all. However, this light-heartedness is the highlight of Vol. 1. Whether it be found in one of Seligman’s many digressions – Fibonacci, fly-fishing or Zionism (subtle, Lars) – or in the bizarre, other-worldly tales of Joe.
The style of this first film mirrors the playfulness of the script – interspersed archival footage, split-screens and screen-filling graphics create a carefree mood. This is not to say that the film is without seriousness; the chapters Mrs H and Delirium showcase that.
Mrs H sees Uma Thurman as the cheated wife confronting Joe and her estranged husband. This acts as the first reality check for Joe, whose sexual voyage thus far had seemed harmless. Swinton is magnificent; her calm facade deteriorating to complete agony at the infidelity. Delirium, in contrast, is not related to Joe’s sexuality. The agony of witnessing a loved one’s slow demise is played out in monochrome. This is one of the few parts of the film where we see Stacey Martin lose her nonchalance, which otherwise dominates her performance, and adds depth to the youthful Joe.
However, there is a persistent problem with Vol. 1 – Shia LaBeouf’s accent. Hollywood’s most confusing actor plays Jerôme, Joe’s one persistent love interest, whose voice flitters between bad-British, Australian and something akin to Leonardo’s “Rhodesian” twang in Blood Diamond. You question whether it is purposeful of just shoddy acting; whatever the answer, it’s annoying.
Aside from this aggravation, the acting is on point throughout and relationship between Gainsborough and Skarsgård is exceptional. However, the sex scenes, though well done, felt overly fake. Yes they were explicit, but barring one instance they were more porn-world instead of real-world. This, I felt, detracted from the overall emotional context of the sex scenes.
With the first half of Nymphomaniac over, I felt slightly deflated. Vol. 1 didn’t feel like a complete piece. “That’s why Vol. 2 is there” is the answer – but this film is being released stand alone and does not work as such. It wasn’t the full exploration of a woman’s sexuality that I was hoping for, but it was superbly funny and, from the flashes of Vol. 2 that appear in the credits, a much easier ride than what is to come.
A New York Winter’s Tale is both a brave film, and an overstated one. It’s brave for its openness to the fantastic and the fearless inclusion of well-worn romantic clichés. Overstated however, because while the film celebrates its modern day fairy-tale twist with gusto, it never lets it alone to flow effortlessly through the story. Instead, the magical element is thrust into the face of the audience time and time again in repeated motifs. Ironically this makes the film exactly what the narrator says it is not; unbelievable.
The central concept is the eternal battle between the light and the dark, the good and evil inside the individual. Based on the novel by Mark Helprin, A New York Winter’s Tale is the story of a thief on a date with destiny. He is to fall in love, quarrel with an agent of the devil, and defy death for a century. From 1916 to present day, Peter Lake is on a quest to bestow upon a red-haired girl the one miracle he has to give; he can save a life.
A horse with a surprise trick up its hoof is a nice charm. Russell Crowe as a demon servant of Lucifer (another surprise, a casting choice which got a few chuckles from the audience) is phenomenally twisted with a lust for vengeance. The two leads Colin Farrell and Jessica Brown Findlay are perfectly portrayed as doomed lovers Peter and Beverly, whose on-screen chemistry is adorable, if a bit heavy-handed script-wise.
Watching is a pleasant experience. The first half of the film has light humour, threat, true love, and a lot of nudges by destiny. The second half though lacks a lot to be desired. Perhaps that’s just a product of travelling through time into the technological modern day (though maybe that’s optimistically over-reading). Events begin to feel rushed and poorly thought out, with the plot twist actually detracting from the story. Thrown in and resolved so abruptly, the audience is left a little bewildered. Disappointed too, because it makes the first half of the film seem redundant, which was truthfully the more enjoyable.
The story starts off with an intense burst of energy, which has sadly fizzled out by the end. It’s an uneven directorial debut from Akiva Goldsman. It’d be polite to say that the story was more than most could handle on a transition to the big screen – Martin Scorsese deemed it ‘unfilmable’. In reality though, Goldsman went into it with his own heavy-handed screenplay, a script that attempts to knock into you the idea that that THERE IS DESTINY and we will all become stars, a few too many awkward times. No-one, however, can have left that cinema disheartened. If life’s a bit grim at the moment, A New York Winter’s Tale will definitely put the shine back onto things. Just don’t expect miracles.
The Lego Movie initially looks like an enormous toy advert and although that is true, don’t let that put you off. It’s packed with great gags and a solid story line that culminates in one of the most excellent closing 15minutes to a film that I’ve seen in a long time.
The Lego Movie tells the story of an ordinary Lego construction worker, Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt), who merrily goes about his life building according to instructions until one day he meets Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), a tough tech-savvy “Master Builder”, searching for something on his construction site—The Piece of Resistance. After this, his life becomes extra-ordinary as he joins the Master Builders in their fight against Lord Business (Will Ferrell), the evil tyrant of Bricksburg, who is attempting to stamp out creativity.
The animation in The Lego Movie is incredible. I spent several moments during the movie trying to work out whether it was genuinely stop motion animation or just CGI designed to look like stop motion. It turns out that it’s a clever and seamless combination of the two. How much of it is one or the other, however, is near impossible to tell.
Much like some of the best loved “kids’” movies and TV shows like The Simpsons, Spongebob Squarepants and especially Aardman films, there’s a lot of jokes that will go straight over the heads of children in the audience but teenagers and adults will enjoy, especially those that grew up with Lego but not exclusively so. The comedy is fairly Aardman in style—silly humour, clever puns and always something going on in the background. You feel like you’re only getting about 50% of the jokes first time around.
The film plays to all audiences and cleverly addresses the different generations of Lego. Younger fans will enjoy seeing Batman, Gandalf, Dumbledore and the Star Wars gang while slightly older Lego fans will appreciate the more subtle jokes such as the design of Benny (aka 1980-something space guy); the bottom half of his helmet is cracked, a common injury that this figure sustained. For the most part though, the humour is universal so if you’ve never played with Lego in your life, you’ll enjoy the film as long as you get some of the basic ideas about it. 1. They’re blocks that click together to build things, 2. They have evolved from being just basic blocks to now encompassing Hollywood movie themes, and 3. There are two basic approaches to Lego: those that build according to instructions to make specific pre-designed models and those that just make whatever their imagination lets them.
The Lego Movie has an impressive cast. As well as the main cast of Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson, the film has managed to get some famous stars to do very small parts in the film. Anthony Daniels and Billy Dee Williams reprise their original Star Wars roles as C3PO and Lando Calrissian. Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill voice Superman and Green Lantern (understandable given that the directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, also directed 21 Jump Street.) There are a host of other stars that have just one or two lines: Cobie Smulders, Shaquille O’Neal, Will Forte, Dave Franco and many more.
Fox Business TV claimed last week that the film is “anti-capitalism” and “pushing its anti-business message to our kids”. One can understand why, upon first inspection, they would assume this. The villain is called Lord/President Business, consumer culture is mocked when the inhabitants of Bricksburg drink coffee at $37 a cup, the anthem of the city is the Brave New World-esque “Everything is Awesome” (which you’ll be singing for weeks, by the way), and our protagonist, Emmet, is the archetypal proletariat hero.
Ayn Rand worshipers need not worry, however – there is also a legitimate interpretation that the film is anti-communism. Our heroes fight for creativity and freedom against uniformity, state control of media, government instruction and control of all industry. The reason both interpretations are possible is that the film is about neither. How could this film be anti-capitalist when it’s a giant advert for a toy that’s valued at $14.6 billion and produced by a major studio that, deservedly, took $67million dollars in its opening weekend?
George Clooney’s fifth feature film is a disappointingly executed rendering of one of those life-affirming true stories in which individuals go above and beyond to make the world better for others. Cinema seems to be good at ferretting these out lately, giving us reluctant heroes/support systems in Steve Coogan’s Martin Sixsmith (Philomena), and Matthew McConaughey’s Ron Woodroof (Dallas Buyers Club).
Clooney’s film assembles an entire platoon of heroes just as unlikely as Sixsmith and Woodroof in order to infiltrate 1940s war-torn Europe and recover centuries’ worth of priceless art stolen by the Nazis, intended for display in Hitler’s projected Führermuseum. Clooney’s is a performance of undeniable Clooneyishness – his infamous charm is misplaced and distracting – as his character Frank Stokes puts together a team of knowledgeable art historians and architects to fight for Europe’s cultural history.
Unfortunately, some of the talented and well-loved actors called upon to do their duty for Clooney and country are somewhat wasted and underused. The film feels overburdened with characters and as a result we come to know them only slowly, and some are killed before they’ve even made much of an impression.
Although museum curator James Granger (Matt Damon) is saddled with the same lame joke about his terrible French, his role in the mission becomes the most interesting to watch. While his teammates debate with US army officials who refuse to make preserving art and architecture anything like a priority, James must attempt to get valuable information out of Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a Parisien museum curator who has been keeping her beedy eye on masterminding Nazi art thief Stahl.
She’s no (Blue) Jasmine, but in playing Claire Blanchett creates many of the films great moments. For example, when ordered most discourteously to bring Stahl a champagne glass in the film’s opening she spits in it, providing the first clue to her crucial importance in making the monument men’s mission a success. But James must earn her trust first.
The Monuments Men has a frustratingly plodding and episodic pace, and is praiseworthy for individual set pieces rather than for the progression of the narrative as a whole. The first act attempts to show us the men as they bond, partnering them up and sending them to various points in Europe. But their respective missions are poorly explained. They don’t achieve anything early on, and the film doesn’t manage much character development either. Stakes are higher once the men have more information, and must race to recover art before the Nazis, now aware of the mission, destroy it.
The most significant drawback is Clooney’s attempt to wrangle a serious theme in a film which, oddly, is largely light-hearted. John Goodman’s character Walter is predominantly comedic, as is the at first strained partnership of the art-experts-turned-soldiers played by Bill Murray and Bob Balaban. Yet in voice over as Frank Clooney aims for profundity, and the inevitable deaths of war are ably treated with the appropriate emotional tone, but become sporadic interruptions to the atmosphere of fun and games which just won’t stay away.
The film’s sets are impeccably realised, and hoards of extras increase the material realism of Europe at war. Sadly, the failure to maintain the necessary tones results in presentation of motivations which is far less convincing than the visuals. Ultimately The Monuments Men doesn’t convey conviction in its own message of the importance of preserving art, though we do see flashes of this in Stokes’ speeches, and in the flash-forward which provides a cameo for George Clooney’s father, and is the perfect conclusion to an imperfect film.