Thursday, April 21, 2011
It seems Europeans will never run out of World War II tales. Too many people were involved, and the struggle transformed the entire world. The story refuses to go away. Martin Koolhoven’s Winter in Wartime, a Dutch production from 2008 just now getting its North American look-see, is adapted from a book by Jan Terlouw about the adventures of a 14-year-old boy in a small town in the Netherlands under German occupation.
It’s January, 1945 – only four months before the war would end, but no one could foresee that. The ground is covered with snow, and food is running out. Young Michiel (played well by Martijn Lakemeier), son of the town’s mayor, has fun with his friend investigating the wreckage of a British fighter plane, but the prankish mood soon turns grim. The downed RAF pilot, Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower), has escaped the crash and is hiding in the woods near town (shot on location in Lithuania), and by coincidence it falls to Michiel to help him make his getaway. This takes place as Michiel’s beloved Uncle Ben (Yorick van Wageningen), a fighter in the resistance, has arrived to hide out with his family.
The film’s perspective is a little different than other WWII dramas we’ve seen from the Netherlands – Black Book, Soldier of Orange, etc. – because it’s told entirely from the boy’s point of view. So it’s more or less a coming-of-age drama with Nazis as the bullies. The first thing Michiel does after befriending Jack is to take the cardboard out of his bicycle spokes – no use making unnecessary noise when trying to avoid sentries. Michiel begins to notice things about certain townsfolk, like the Nazi sympathizer next door. The boy is in for a few surprises as the narrative plays out.
Director Koolhoven’s storytelling is a bit too obvious and heavy-handed. His mise-en-scène is too weighty, and Michiel’s numerous predicaments (he’s accident-prone) pop up in uncomfortable close-ups. Even composer Pino Donaggio’s score seems corny and overblown, with syrupy choral passages and lumpy cues. We can safely attribute all that to the kid’s “innocent” point of view. So what’s left? A child’s World War II where discovery counterbalances the terror.
Down we go into a subcategory of the current robots ‘n’ werewolves trend at the movies: the imperishable archetype of nerd-turns-superhero. That’s the type of flick in which a picked-on noodnik acquires strength, turns the tables on his tormentors, and gets the girl, in that order.
Writer-director James Gunn’s Super manages cheap drips and dabs of fun subverting that juvie premise in the story of Frank D’Arbo (sad sack supreme Rainn Wilson), a lifetime loser who freaks out by rigging a mask-and-tights costume and setting out to right wrongs, à la Kick-Ass.
Right off, it’s absurd that someone with Frank’s baked-potato kisser would have Liv Tyler for a wife. Someone is bound to steal her away – that would be Kevin Bacon, a cartoonish sleazebag bad guy with a gang that includes Michael Rooker. When they get tired of hanging around the strip club and subjecting Tyler’s Sarah to degrading acts, they relax by beating up Frank. In fact, everyone uses the poor fast-food fry cook as a punching bag, until he sews together a red jumpsuit and becomes the Crimson Bolt. The situations are utterly routine, the action padded out to the max.
But there’s a redeeming facet. Once again Ellen Page comes to the rescue, as a comic-store clerk named Libby who cottons to Frank and volunteers to become his sidekick, Boltie. Does Page ever get bored playing slackers in film after film? When is she going to graduate to lawyers or scientists? These and other burning issues will have to wait until after Frank and Libby climb the mountain of triviality that is Super. The whole enterprise has a homemade, Troma Entertainment feel – and sure enough, filmmaker Gunn once directed an episode of Troma’s Edge TV. Predictable as Frank D’Arbo’s plodding adventures might be, he has an advantage that the Toxic Avenger could only dream of: Ellen Page.
WINTER IN WARTIME (2) Directed by Martin Koolhoven • Starring Martijn Lakemeier, Jamie Campbell Bower • Rated R • 103 min • At Osio Cinemas
SUPER (2) Directed by James Gunn • Starring Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page • 96 min • At Osio Cinemas