Review: The Book Thief (2013)

Director: Brian Percival

*

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com

All art, film included, has a responsibility towards history. Art can manipulate and distort history, where and when perceived as necessary, to shine a light on the past. Picasso painted the swirling dervish of chaos that is ‘Guernica’ to reflect the horrors of war. The makers of The Book Thief simply have an eye on awards and easy marketability. It is a hollow shell of a film, constructed of coloured artificial blandness to hide a distinct lack of a soul. It is engineered purely to manufacture false sentiment. Despite its ineptitude, its horrid deforming of history means it is not just a bad (poorly made) film. It is a BAD film, of questionable moral fibre. In an ideal world The Book Thief would suffer the fate of many a poor book in the film, and be burned on a pyre.

The problems begin right at the start, when our mysterious narrator (voiced by Roger Allam) begins to tell the tale. Fans of Markus Zusak’s source novel will know who he is, but it’s a silly structural gambit that should have been left with the book. His voiceover introduces us to Liesel Meminger, a young girl who is adopted by foster parents after the disappearance of her communist parents. Liesel is played by young French Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse, who it seems was cast based on her Bambi eyes. Her round face and big brown peepers look custom made for a weepie. Be assured; she will deliver pouty, cutesy crying of the highest order. Her foster parents are played by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, wasting their talents on ‘kindly old pop’ and ‘bitter realist mother’ roles respectively. Liesel is lonely, but begins making new friends and living a weakly-acted and idyllically photographed life. Her foster father begins to teach Liesel how to read, and thus is ingrained a love of the written word. So strong is this love that she begins saving books from burnings. It feels like a dumbed-down history lesson. Replace Jews with books, see? Good grief; it’s as if Shoah never happened.

As people start hanging swastika flags from their windows and Liesel and her friends are roped into the Hitler Youth, the clouds of war drift in. However, there’s little sense of threat or urgency. To counter this, a young Jewish man named Max (Ben Schnetzer) is roped in as a dramatic device. Liesel’s father must hide Max to repay an old debt; thus, the story is given a forced dramatic device and Liesel gains an oracle, spouting wisdoms and aiding her with her reading lessons. It’s all horribly trite; considering how many incredible survival stories are known from this time, surely telling one of them would have been much more worthwhile? Instead we get a forced episodic tale, with army conscription, air raids, atypically friendly Nazis and a plot development in the later stages which doesn’t so much tug at the heartstrings as rip them out with a Panzer. All this and the creepy narrator add up to a pile of patronising, middle-of-the-road awards bait. Ultimately, The Book Thief’s only Oscar nomination is for John Williams’ pretty score which, unlike the rest of the film, sidesteps WWII film clichés. Someone call Jerry Lewis; The Day The Clown Cried couldn’t be as bad as this, surely?

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Review: War Horse (2011)

Director: Steven Spielberg

**

Ooh arr, ooh arr! Certain accents lend themselves to exploitation and/or mockery in film and TV. The Devon accent that features in War Horse cannot but bring to mind simpler places and simple tastes (Combine Harvesters, anyone?). This is quite apropos since, in its emotions and themes, Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is as simple and unchallenging as films come.

This review could have been written with the kind of affectation like the ones sported by the likes of Jeremy Irvine and Emily Watson, but that’s a little too much to ask of a reader. Any’oo, there’s a poooor ‘orse, and ‘e gets taken awaigh from (alright, THAT’s enough!) his  young owner Albert (Irvine, surprisingly devoid of blemish for a farmhand). The horse, named Joey, was purchased at great cost by Albert’s father (Peter Mullan at his most restrained) much to mother’s (Watson) vexation. Throughout the film, Joey becomes an instrument of defiance and an object of affection for whoever possesses him. Joey is bought as a foal, and Albert raises him to be a fine young stallion. As usually happens in these things, the pair are separated at their finest moment by the outbreak of World War One, and Joey is taken by the army for the war effort. Irvine is a fairly bland lead, but Joey proves quite an engaging character. One could hope they dispense with the human characters as the film goes on. Alas, that would be just too daring.

What begins as a painfully unchallenging depiction of friendship between man and beast becomes a morally simplistic journey across Europe, as Joey goes from French battlefields to German battalion to Belgian farmhouse. Along the way, Joey encounters people who aren’t so much characters as moral standpoints and/or plot devices. There’s the dashing British army captain (Tom Hiddleston) who promises to get Joey back to Albert in one piece (The army is no place for idealists!). There are the brothers in the German infantry (Leonard Carow and David Kross) who take a shine to the horse; and then there is the Belgian man and his granddaughter who fall in love with the horse and try to hide him from the approaching German army. This hideously cutesy portion of War Horse sees the wasting of the mighty Niels Arestrup as the grandfather; he was in A Prophet, for chrissakes! Give him some grit to work with! Then again, this is a Spielberg film that was co-written by Richard Curtis (Four Weddings, Love Actually); simplistic sentimental gushing is the order of the day. The moralizing reaches a low point when a Geordie soldier and a German soldier emerge from the trenches and unite to free the horse trapped in wire in No Man’s Land. ‘ear that? An ‘orse ended the war! Ooh aarrrrr! In the meantime, why not play a kind of bingo game with the vast number of brilliant actors wasted in blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em appearances. Liam Cunningham, David Thewlis and Benedict Cumberbatch are worthy of a lot more than they are given in War Horse.

For all the condescension in the tone and plot of the film, War Horse looks and sounds great. The recreations of the battlefields are grim and dark, and provide some of the grit sadly lacking in the characterizations. A scene in which Joey runs through the trenches is breathtaking. John Williams’ score is expectedly-but-brilliantly rousing, and DP Janusz Kaminski makes the verdant hills of southern England look green and lush. However, when we glimpse Joey stare off into a none-more-perfect sunset towards the end of the film (It’s a Spielberg film; don’t take this as a spoiler!), you’ll need to check your blood sugar levels to make sure the overt sweetness of War Horse hasn’t induced diabetes. Ooh, and indeed, arr.

Review: Cold Souls (2009)

Director: Sophie Barthes

**

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Directors and actors often carve stylistic niches for themselves, but it rarely happens to screenwriters. However, no-one does better Charlie Kaufman scripts than Charlie Kaufman. No-one must have told Sophie Barthes, as she plunges into the cerebral depths of Kaufmanesque neuroses to unearth Cold Souls, a bizarre little film that toys with some fascinating ideas only to mash them up into a disappointing plot that belongs in another film altogether.

In the first of many overly-clever touches, Paul Giamatti plays Paul Giamatti. Yes, the character is named Paul Giamatti (stop, my sides!). He’s starring in a production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya and the emotional strife of his character remains with him after rehearsals end. To rid himself of this misery, Paul goes to a clinic run by David Strathairn’s Dr. Flintstein. The clinic specializes in removing souls for storage until the client wants it back. This premise would be enough material to construct a rather serious film around the nature of the soul and emotion. Instead, Barthes squanders the chance to make something thoroughly thought-provoking by introducing a plot strand about Russians smuggling souls back and forth across the Atlantic. When Giamatti discovers his soul has been stolen, he takes off for Russia to get it back. This is the point when the film descends into farce-cum-buddy-pic as Giamatti teams up with Dina Korzun’s ‘soul mule’ to get his soul back. This shift in plot only distances the audience from the characters as the premise gets more and more unlikely. We go from debating the purpose of the soul to chasing after Russian traffickers without suggesting any answers for the debate of the first half, leaving intriguing ideas flapping in the wind.

Giamatti does his trademark sad-sack routine, which suits this film just fine. Dina Korzun offers a sympathetic performance, but Emily Watson is wasted as Giamatti’s wife. The whole film is shot in chilly blues and whites, distancing the audience even more from the already elusive ideas introduced in the first half of the film. Cold Souls deserves praise for some intriguing and original ideas, but will ultimately disappoint for boxing these ideas in an unoriginal plot.  A textbook case of a missed opportunity.

Review: Cemetery Junction (2010)

Directors: Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant

***

imageAlmost every character in Cemetery Junction complains about the titular railway village, yet it is continuously bathed in such a sunny glow that it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to leave this lovely English idyll. Yet, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s depiction of youth on the cusp of adulthood in 1970s England is driven by this desire to escape. However, it struggles to keep afloat under the weight of simplistic expectations, despite the best efforts of cast and crew.

Who exactly lives in this oversized hamlet? For one, there’s Freddie Taylor (Christian Cooke), a keen twenty-something just starting his first job as a salesman for an insurance company owned by Mr. Kendrick (Ralph Fiennes), and working alongside slick shyster Mike (Matthew Goode), whilst pining for childhood friend Julie (Felicity Jones), Kendrick’s daughter and Mike’s fiancée. Think that’s clichéd? Try Freddie’s friend Bruce (Tom Hughes), always talking of leaving Cemetery Junction but stuck working in a local factory and getting into boozy fights on the weekends. Tagging on to these two is Snork (Jack Doolan), an ignorant doofus with a penchant for smutty humour. The only thing that stops these characters from being cardboard cutouts is the energy the actors bring to them. They blow off enough of the cobwebs from these clichés to make these characters identifiable and fun. An insurance dinner dance sees Bruce and Snork tag along with Freddie, with cringeworthy results.

The rest of the cast make the most of their roles (Fiennes and Emily Watson are particularly good as Julie’s parents) but, like the three leads, they are saddled with predictability. Gervais and Merchant’s script is surprisingly limp, offering no challenges or little character development or plot detours that you didn’t see coming in the first five minutes of the film. It’s a pity, because a lot of focus has been put into the look of Cemetery Junction. The 70s setting is beautifully realised, bathing the whole production in a balmy sense of nostalgia (David Bowie, Elton John and Roxy Music are standouts on the soundtrack). The cast do a lot with a little, and DP Remi Adefarasin paints an English countryside resplendent in golden sun. However, considering the edginess of Gervais’ comedy it’s surprising to find that, for all the f-bombs and see-you-next-Tuesdays littered about the script, Cemetery Junction is a relatively tame and undemanding affair.