Film reviews: The Book Thief | We Are What We Are

Sophie Nelisse in The Book Thief. Picture: Contributed
Sophie Nelisse in The Book Thief. Picture: Contributed
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WE’VE seen Death before in movies, cowled and stalking Vincent Price in Masque Of The Red Death, or assuming the form of Brad Pitt and unable to keep his hair out of his eyes in Meet Joe Black.

The Book Thief (12A)

Director: Brian Percival

Running time: 131 minutes

* *

Now he narrates The Book Thief, an adaptation of Markus Zusak’s bestselling novel set in 1938 Nazi Germany, in a self-congratulatory Roger Allam voice that unsurprisingly belongs to Roger Allam. “When the time comes, don’t panic,” he smirks suavely. “It doesn’t seem to help.” Ah Death, where is thy zing?

This middle-aged Grim Reaper is quite the chatterbox and, despite having his hands full, has a particular creepy interest in 11-year-old Liesel (Sophie Nelisse). He snatches up her little brother on a long train ride, and later on perhaps also takes her mother, who has been sent to a concentration camp for being involved in communist activities. One of the problems with The Book Thief, despite the natter, is that it becomes opaque and allusive when it comes to life in wartime Nazi Germany, keeping real atrocities hidden from sight.

Instead, like Allam’s Death, we must focus our attention on Liesel, who presumably figures that Death owes her one when she impulsively filches a book at her brother’s funeral. It’s an odd thing to do since, as her foster parents discover, Liesel cannot read. Fortunately, her accordion-playing, free-spirited new Papa (Geoffrey Rush) is happy to teach her, and soon she’s raiding forbidden libraries and smouldering piles of burning books for works of great literature to feed her habit.

Director Brian Percival and screenwriter Michael Petroni have shaped a very young adult commentary on the Holocaust. Swastikas blossom around town, a blond schoolkid (Nico Liersch) coats himself in mud to look like his running hero, the black Olympian Jesse Owen, and Liesel’s Hitler Youth uniform arrives.

Through a child’s eyes, Rush’s stern wife (Emily Watson) initially only seems interested in children if there’s a stipend for taking in one of these new German orphans, but later the couple surreptitiously add to their household by hiding young Jew Max (Ben Schnetzer) in their cellar. Since he’s pretty sickly, you’d expect Death to take a keenly garrulous interest in him too, but it soon becomes clear that the stranded Max is here to encourage Liesel’s interest in books, offer big brother advice, and inject some hunkiness into the film for inattentive young adult viewers.

There are worse films about kids and the Holocaust – The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is one, The Reader another. The Book Thief simply suffers from an excess of taste, with its weakness for pretty pictures, photogenic youngsters, and hammy “ach liebling” acting.

At first, this might even pass as well-intentioned restraint, until the Hubermann family hit a point where money and food are scarce, prompting dutiful talk of hunger but no real evidence of it, or when a bombing raid hits the town, destroying buildings but producing only a few good-looking corpses. In short, The Book Thief is a plod that is disingenuous to the point of wide-eyed tweeness: a weird film that seems keen to avoid its own point.

Nymphomaniac, Volumes 1 & 2 (18)

* *

Movie adventurers know better than to judge a film by its title, especially when the director is a notorious provocateur like Lars von Trier. This goes double for his two-part opus Nymphomaniac, where Charlotte Gainsbourg plays a glum Scheherazade, who decides to recount her lengthy sexual history to the more academically inclined Stellan Skarsgard.

The result is four hours combining scenes of compulsive copulation with some Da Vinci decoding by Skarsgard’s character. If Anais Nin and Freud spent a night on the absinthe they would probably make Nymphomaniac. A mixed-race threesome and a speech about paedophiles “deserving a medal” for repressing their urges confirms the film’s real intention as a heavy-handed button presser, but since the film only toys with its sexual politics, Von Trier never achieves the heady intellectual affront he’s aiming for.

Sunk by pretentious psychosexual silliness, this comes close to being a primer on the Joylessness of Sex, but Nymphomaniac is never completely flaccid, thanks to the procession of actors or stunt doubles prepared to go the full-frontal distance, and Von Trier’s eye for a striking image.

He also draws remarkable performances from unexpected quarters. Who knew that Uma Thurman could be thrilling as a maddened, cheated wife? Christian Slater is also not bad as Gainsbourg’s devoted father, the only man off-limits to her, while Jamie Bell coolly enslaves housewives with his 50 Flays of Grey. But it falls to Shia LaBeouf to offer real pain, with a British accent last heard from a chimney top in Mary Poppins.

We Are What We Are (18)

* * *

Director Jim Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici make a decent fist of translating a 2010 Mexican cannibal movie into a southern gothic story of a backwoods family whose religious faith is shaken when their matriarch dies suddenly, forcing them to confront some skeletons in their closet.

Like Mickle’s previous monster picture, Stake Land, this is slow, melancholy and elegant – and then not. A reasonably savoury stew.

• On general release from Friday

Unforgiven (15)

* * *

Director Lee Sang-il relocates Clint Eastwood’s revenge Western to 1880s Japan, where a former Samurai (Ken Watanabe) is drawn out of retirement by poverty and a chance for redemption.

The sword fights are as tense as the original’s duels, but the film struggles to find a hero as austerely regretful as Eastwood’s widower.

• Selected release: GFT and Glasgow Cineworld from Friday

Ride Along (12A)

* *

Swaggering action comedy where a tough cop (Ice Cube) has to park his big crime investigation for a day, in order to take his future brother-in-law (Kevin Hart) out on patrol with him. Unbelievably, four writers worked on lines like “he’s about one chromosome short of being a midget”. Astonishingly, despite the film’s doddery mismatched-buddy clichés, Ride Along still topped the American box-office last month.

And most jaw-droppingly of all, Cube’s old Boyz In the Hood co-star Laurence Fishburne turns up at one point to play the film’s obligatory evil crime lord. To be fair, he invests the part with the game regality of the late Queen Mother opening a bodypopping studio, but Ride Along hasn’t enough gas to sustain its journey.

• On general release from Friday