Everybody can identify with hating the Nazis (well, except maybe other Nazis). That might have been the only positive to be gained from the Third Reich: movies will forever have historical protagonists who everyone can agree were terrible. You don't have to watch Saving Private Ryan for the hundredth time to get your Allied fix. You can watch movies from all over the world set in the Second World War and still be able to relate to hating Nazis -- unless you're a fan of Das Boot.
Based on the Jan Terlouw book of the same name, Winter in Wartime is a darkly compelling tale of espionage and loyalty set in the final winter of the Dutch Nazi occupation.
Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier) is a 14-year-old boy living under the yoke of the Germans with his family outside of Amsterdam. His father (Raymond Thiry) is the town mayor and cooperates with the Germans, attempting to keep a relative peace. His bear-like uncle Ben (Yorick van Wageningen) is working with the Resistance, to Michiel's admiring approval, smuggling in extra ration cards and even the occasional, apparently prized, tin of sardines.
One night a British bomber crashes out in the woods and the next day Michiel and his best friend Theo (Jesse van Driel) discover the wreckage, believing there were no survivors. But when another friend, Dirk (Mees Peijnenburg) entrusts Michiel with a set of directions to a cabin in the forest he soon discovers there was a survivor, a Brit pilot named Jack (Jamie Campell Bower) who needs the Resistance to help him escape from behind enemy lines.
Michiel quickly finds himself thrust into the conflict, despite his uncle's wishes and unknown to his father. The more he becomes involved the more he resents his father for remaining neutral to his country's suffering. When his father learns that making nice with the Germans doesn't necessarily get repaid in kind, and when he realizes someone close to him might not be all that they seem, Michiel takes action to help the wayward pilot get home.
Director Martin Koolhoven has been enjoying international success for a decade since his debut film, AmnesiA opened to domestic and international critical acclaim. It's easy to see why with Winter in Wartime. Koolhoven paces the story with an adept deliberation, eliciting uniformly fine performances from his cast while capturing the frosty Danish terrain with a coolly discerning eye by the talents of cinematographer Guido van Gennep.
Aside from injecting a tonally out-of-place action sequence towards the end, Koolhoven maintains a rich atmosphere thick with suspense and desperation as the script (by Koolhoven, Paul Jan Nelissen and Mieke de Jong) tightens the screws, pushing young Michiel from boyhood to manhood, from victim to patriot. The tension languorously builds to a palpable and engaging peak just as the story's final reveal throws its perfectly timed uppercut.
Martijn Lakemeier delivers a stellar feature film debut as Michiel. The role is wonderfully written and Lakemeier runs with it, giving a finely detailed performance that pulls all the right punches, subtly revealing his frustration with fear and his growing anger with the state of his home, while preserving a boyish innocence underneath. Lakemeier is fantastic, and his Danish unfamiliarity makes the character of Michiel that much easier to fall in with.
Yorick van Wageningen turns in a warmly comforting performance as uncle Ben and shares a natural chemistry with his on-screen nephew. As the Brit pilot, Jack, Jamie Campbell Bower gives a fine performance though his resemblance to Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors) is just striking enough to be distracting. The sometimes overbearing score by Pino Donaggio provides a fitting sonic bedrock for the drama and suspense, brought to tangible life by the cast, though it's occasionally too on-point with its evocative sonic swells.
Ultimately, though, Winter in Wartime is a beautifully constructed, suspenseful and dramatic window into the past that's compellingly plotted, expertly acted and lands on both feet as artfully as an Olympic gymnast. Achtung, baby.
The list of movies for which director Tom Shadyac can never be forgiven is long. Ace Ventura; The Nutty Professor; Patch Goddamn Adams and the Almighty's (Bruce and Evan) are all some combination of either lowbrow or maudlin humor wrapped in exceedingly obvious characterizations. Sure, Jim Carrey talking out of his ass is funny when you're a teenager but in retrospect that laughter isn't a proud moment.
But apparently Shadyac, after the 2007 flop Evan Almighty, had a bicycling accident resulting in a post-concussion syndrome that left the overly successful director suffering from acute migraine headaches and sensitivity to sound and lights that rendered him nearly incapacitated from the pain. As he slowly recovered, Shadyac decided he had to make a maudlin documentary that asks two impossibly big questions: What is wrong with the world and what can we, as a species, do about it.
I Am is 75-minutes of bleeding optimism and mostly specious, new agey bullshit substituting for substantive answers to those questions.
It starts out a little stronger than that, though, with Shadyac talking to some interesting people and thinkers including Noam Chomsky, Desmond Tutu and the estimable Howard Zinn as well as scientist/futurist David Suzuki. Environmentalist and writer, Marc Ian Barasch, memorably delineates an interesting difference between avaricious modern man and our atavistic, tribal ancestors. With tribalism, the accumulation of unnecessary wealth was considered a defect. Collectivism was the norm. By that rationale, objectivism (or the Randian American Dream) as we know it would be, to them, a mental disorder.
So Shadyac, figuring the capitalist accumulation of possessions and wealth is the problem, puts his money where his mouth is. He sells off his palatial Los Angeles mansion with much of its furniture and art giving away the money and opening a homeless shelter while he himself moves into a--admittedly high-end--Malibu trailer park.
Along the way he gleans sometimes-profound thoughts from his cast of intellectuals and sometimes silly scientific "data" from experiments, one designed to demonstrate the near telepathic interconnectedness between Shadyac and a petri dish full of yogurt (not kidding).
The most interesting subjects cover human nature and how it's changed over the millennia, changes brought about by technology, economics, politics, war and Western expectations of civilization. What makes us happy now as opposed to then -- the main difference being that we've become a bunch of greedy, self-satisfied, exclusionary assholes who feel like the only species that really matters as opposed to a race in symbiosis with its natural habitat. I Am notes that when the balance between man and nature or man and himself gets too out of whack then extinction is not far behind.
To a degree I understand the existential malaise Shadyac is going though. Why can't we all get along and put aside differences for our collective benefit? In this country, at least, that sounds too much like communism. But that's only one fly in the ointment of Shadyac's desire to reconcile the whole of human interaction and behavior into touchy-feely idealism. Shadyac's premise, despite some input from some truly sharp thinkers, that we can overcome our basest natures to attain the goal of utopian civilization amounts to so much navel gazing. One never gets the sense that I Am is anything but an amiable thought experiment that intended to leave the audience feeling good rather than enlightened or significantly changed.
I Am has the depth of a puddle of rain though its intellectual curiosity makes it mildly interesting and the sweet nature of Shadyac, who really should be hateable based on his entire filmography, make I Am difficult to really feel much contempt for. If you don't think there's anything funny about peace, love and understanding (and yogurt telepathy), I Am might be your thing.
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