CIFF Review Wrap-Up: Alan Partridge & The Book Thief

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

Alan Partridge Alpha Papa posterThe Chicago International Film Fest wrapped up last week and I enjoyed the last two movies I screened more than anything else I saw at the festival except for Blue is the Warmest Color, which was just so damn good, I’m still thinking about it, weeks later. Anyway, about Alan Partridge.

I LOVE Steve Coogan’s self-absorbed alter-ego Alan Partridge, who has a long and varied history with British broadcasting, featuring on various radio and television programs spanning twenty years. I was worried that the long-awaited feature film would be too “in” for those unfamiliar with Partridge, especially here in the US where Coogan is best known for bit parts in comedies like Tropic Thunder and The Other Guys, but, happily, the movie is quite accessible. It doesn’t explain anything, so the first twenty minutes or so are a little like watching a foreign film and getting into the rhythm of reading subtitles—there is a learning curve for who the various characters are and how they relate to one another, but once the action gets going, the movie takes off and is very, very funny.

Alan-Partridge

I mean seriously, Alan Partridge is FUNNY. Laughs are consistent and range from mild to uproarious, and Coogan commits to the best physical gag I’ve seen in a while. The plot is completely farcical—Alan, being vain and supremely unconcerned by the plight of others, gets his co-worker Pat (Colm Meaney) fired. Pat then goes on a rampage, taking the radio station hostage and Alan has to act at the mediator between Pat and the police. It’s a ludicrous premise but everyone is totally committed, and the more absurd things get, the funnier the movie is. Give Alan Partridge a chance, even if you’ve never heard of him before.

The Book Thief

book_thief_posterAdapted from the novel by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief follows Liesel, an orphaned child taken in by the kindly Hubermanns during World War II. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t tell you how it stacks up, but as a movie, The Book Thief is engaging and affecting. It’s not an all-out emotional hurricane like 12 Years a Slave (which we will talk about next week, after more people have a chance to see it), but it’s a moving look at small-town life in Nazi Germany.

Liesel (French-Canadian actress Sophie Nelisse, Monsieur Lazhar) is orphaned after sickness carries away most her family and her mother vanishes into the early Nazi-werks due to socialism, maybe? Her mother doesn’t die—not that we see, anyway—but she is imprisoned for some nebulous reason that basically equals “Nazis being Nazis” and Liesel is sent to live with Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, respectively). Hans is kindly and warm while Rosa is, at first, a typical nagging housefrau, but over time, Rosa shows real empathy and kindness underneath her steely German façade.

The plot follows two basic tracks. One is the story of Liesel learning to read and write and her interactions with various townspeople, from schoolboy Rudy to a wealthy woman mourning her son. The other is the World War II story of Nazis overrunning an otherwise charming Alpine hamlet, the constant threat of air raids and the Hubermanns hiding the Jewish Max (Ben Schnetzer in what ought to be a break-out performance) in their basement. Nazi Germany, from a child’s perspective is frightening and nonsensical. Children have a way of seeing through bullshit and Liesel wears a “this is bullshit” look for much of the movie.

the-book-thief02_thumb[2]

The Book Thief is not particularly ambitious, opting to keep its focus narrowly on Liesel and her life with the Hubermanns and her friendship with Max. But it works well on that smaller scale, especially whenever Max’s possible fate is alluded to, as we know well what awaits him if he’s found. And there’s something about seeing the Hubermanns’ domestic struggle and ever-worsening circumstances as Hans refuses to join “the party” that is very effective—Nazis were dicks to everyone, including their own people. It’s a modest film that willfully avoids overreaching or stabbing the “emote, dammit!” button, favoring instead a thoughtful, measured approach. It’s probably a little too modest for its potential Oscar goals, but it’s a fine film nonetheless. Also, take some Kleenex.

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