Film Review: Tim’s Vermeer

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 22 July 2014.

From the twisted and warped minds of famed Las Vegas illusionist duo, Penn and Teller, comes a new documentary that is neither twisted or warped but manages to be magic nonetheless. Tim’s Vermeer tells the tale of inventor and successful entrepreneur Tim Jenison and his obsession with unlocking one of the mysteries of the art world.

Prior to the screening I was the last person you would invite to be on your table at a great Dutch painters trivia night, so apologies if you already are familiar with the topic. Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) is renowned for his photo realistic painting style, seen in perhaps his most famous work, The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Said to “paint with light”, there has been much speculation that Vermeer utilised optical devices to aid his work.

Armed with this knowledge, Jenison goes one step further and sets out to prove this theory by attempting to design and build an optical “machine” in order to paint his own Vermeer.

I had the pleasure of attending Penn and Teller’s Las Vegas show at The Rio, which has been successfully running for the past 12 years. Highly intelligent and utterly hilarious, their act can be a little confronting if you do not agree, or are at least sympathetic, to their political ideals (libertarianism) or philosophical beliefs (atheism and skepticism).

Unlike their fantastic pseudoscience debunking TV show, Bullsh*t!, Penn and Teller do not adopt their usual aggressive and confrontational style for Tim’s Vermeer. Instead we are drawn in with a gentle observational approach which does not cast judgement on Jenison’s preoccupation but rather simply takes us along for the journey.

Directed by Teller and narrated by Penn (the former is the one who doesn’t speak onstage), it is hard not be totally absorbed in Jenison’s quest as he travels to Delft in the Netherlands to see where Vermeer worked, and London to speak to experts. He even is granted 30 minutes with the Queen’s own Vermeer in Buckingham Palace.

Neither a painter or a tradesman, Jenison almost singlehandedly reconstructs the setting of The Music Lesson, including walls, furniture, props and costumes, before spending almost five years painstakingly recreating the painting one brushstroke at a time using his ingenious lens and mirror device.

Although a shortlisting in the best documentary category in the 2014 Academy Awards did not eventuate into a nomination, Tim’s Vermeer is a fascinating and highly enjoyable tale of one man’s eight year quest. Edited from 25,000 hours of raw footage, Penn and Teller have crafted their own masterpiece.

Published in: on October 5, 2014 at 15:08  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Film Reviews: Sydney Film Festival 2013 Day 2

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 18th June 2013.

It is day 2 at the Sydney Film Festival and things are starting early for me with a 10am screening at the State Theatre. I really love seeing films here. The sound may not be fantastic and the screen is a little small compared to the megaplex stadium style of cinema to which we are now accustomed, but there is something old school and charming about enjoying a movie in a grand theatre, complete with sculptures and chandeliers.

I have fond memories of coming to the State Theatre with my late grandmother to see several Alby Mangels’ World Safari films. This series of movies featured the rugged explorer sailing the world, accompanied by a nubile girlfriend and a dog. Inevitably, some unfortunate accident would ensure that neither the girlfriend or dog made it to the end of the film, but sure enough, Alby would find a new set of companions for the next instalment.

Rule #37: Just like getting out of town when Jessica Fletcher arrives for a visit (someone is getting murdered), you should never accept an invitation to be Alby Mangels’ onscreen girlfriend, or dog.

Ginger and Rosa is the latest film from English director Sally Potter (Orlando, The Boy Who Cried). Set in the 60’s, the titular teenage characters have been friends since birth but are now starting to grow apart. Ginger is concerned about the threat of nuclear destruction and Rosa is more interested in boys and smoking. When Rosa takes up with Ginger’s estranged pacifist father, their lives are shattered.

This is Elle Fanning’s film. Following on from her radiant performance in Super 8, she is the best young actress working today. Alice Englert (Beautiful Creatures), daughter of Aussie director Jane Campion, is also impressive as Rosa. Annette Bening, Oliver Platt and Timothy Spall make the most of their supporting characters. Ginger and Rosa is sure to be a hit in the arthouse scene.

Documentary The Moo Man follows dairy farmer Steve Hook. He owns a small herd of cows near Hailsham in Sussex and sells raw, organic milk via his home delivery service and at local markets. At risk of being crushed by the major supermarket chains, Steve has a close relationship with his cows and runs his family farm in a traditional way.

The first 60 minutes of the film are a joy. We follow Steve talking to his cows, milking them, talking to them, helping them give birth, talking to them and bottling the milk by hand. Nothing much happens, but that’s the charm of the piece. Unfortunately, the film is about 30 minutes too long and I found myself squirming when several opportunities to conclude the film were missed.

I closed my Sydney Film Festival 2013 movie marathon with Grigris, a French-Chadian film. Grigris has a gammy leg and makes a living working for his uncle and picking up some extra cash dancing in nightclubs. When his uncle falls ill, Grigris turns to illegal petrol smuggling. Unfortunately, he’s not a very good trafficker and soon plots to steal a delivery, with potentially disastrous consequences for himself and his new girlfriend, the local prostitute with a heart of gold.

I found the plotline to be a little dreary and the stuff of standard late night movie fodder on SBS. Whilst the depiction of life in Chad was interesting, stupid people making stupid decisions is yawn inducing worldwide.

Sydney Film Festival closed on Sunday and will be back, bigger and better, in 2014.

Film Review: Searching for Sugarman

This review was originally published on The Orange Post on 3rd March 2013.

This year’s Oscars came and went with few surprises. Sure, Christoph Waltz beat out everybody’s favourite curmudgeon Tommy Lee Jones in the Best Supporting Actor category. And solid thriller Argo took out the Best Picture gong, over my pick, the brilliant Zero Dark Thirty. All of the other major categories fell as predicted to deserving winners in an awards ceremony that is rapidly losing relevance.

As always, picking up an Oscar directs millions of extra eyeballs towards a film. Argo, a movie that pretty much everyone except me had seen before the ceremony, will benefit with a boost in retail sales and rentals. Hell, even my mother was raving about Argo in January. I’ve since caught up, but for my money, the film that deserves its dues post-Oscars is the winner of the Best Documentary category, the amazing Searching for Sugarman.

Directed by Swede Malik Bendjelloul, the film focuses on Sixto Rodriguez, an American folk musician who recorded two little heard albums in the early seventies, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, and then disappeared without a trace. In a bizarre twist of fate, a copy of Cold Fact made its way to South Africa, where Rodriguez’s anti-authoritarian lyrics found an audience in a country at war with itself over apartheid.

Half a million copies of Rodriguez albums were sold in South Africa, however, due to its political isolation for much of the seventies and eighties, little else was known about the singer. All they had was his likeness which adorned his record covers. Rumours circulated about his suicide which eventually became accepted fact.

The documentary follows two Cape Town fans, Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, as they set out in the late nineties to find out what really happened to Rodriguez.

It would be a crime for me to say anything else about what happens next. What’s important is that you do not read anything else about this film (besides this review) before you see it.

The soundtrack, which consists of original Rodriguez tunes, is magnificent and I’m sure, like me, you’ll be adding a copy Cold Fact to your shopping list before the credits end.

Searching for Sugarman is a fascinating tale about a musician who unknowingly became an icon. His story and the search to find him are unbelievable, if not for the fact that it is a true tale. The film is a near perfect example of storytelling at its finest, and will stay with you long after its 86 minute running time.