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Head to head movie reviews: The Last Vermeer vs. Sound of Metal

Gazette's movie critic reviews two new independent releases, one set in European art and legal circles after WWII and the other set in heavy metal clubs and a stone-silent retreat in the woods.


The Last Vermeer

Stars: 4.5

Starring Guy Pearce, Claes Bang, Vicky Krieps, Roland Møller, August Diehl, Olivia Grant, Susannah Doyle, and Adrian Scarborough

Written by John Orloff, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby

Directed by Dan Friedkin

Rated: 14A for coarse language, nudity, substance use, and violence

Runtime: 117 minutes

Now playing at Cineplex North Edmonton and Scotiabank Theatres


Sound of Metal

Stars: 5.0

Starring Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, and Mathieu Amalric

Directed by Darius Marder

Written by Darius Marder and Abraham Marder

Rated: 14A for coarse language, nudity and substance use

Runtime: 120 minutes

Now playing at Metro Cinema on Nov. 20, 21 and 29 and will be available digitally and on demand across Canada on December 4

Pacific Northwest Pictures

Any time a movie features Nazis getting taken for chumps is a good movie in my book. Nazis killed more than six million people during the attempted genocide of the Holocaust but they also stole many pieces of art and cultural artifacts. Getting them back has been the subject of other movies, including the very good Woman in Gold and the awful and entirely avoidable The Monuments Men

The story of Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce) is a new one to me. The artist is widely considered the most successful art forger of all time and he earned that acclaim by creating and selling forgeries of Johannes Vermeer paintings to the Nazis, swindling millions of dollars from them and depleting their war chest. Well done, Han.

The Last Vermeer is based on Jonathan Lopez’s non-fiction book set in post-Second World War Amsterdam when van Meegeren is taken to trial for being a Nazi collaborator. No one believes that the second-rate artist (who couldn’t even sell a work with his own name on it) could succeed so easily on such an elaborate ruse to fool Nazis and art experts alike.

This movie itself succeeds on many levels, not the least of which is in casting the kinetic and perpetually watchable Guy Pearce in the lead with strong support from the resolute Joseph Piller (Claes Bang of Ruben Östlund's 2017 Palme d'Or winner The Square). Piller is a Dutch Jew tasked with identifying and redistributing stolen art. As a lawyer, he must defend van Meegeren against the charge, practically an insurmountable task considering the magnitude of the deception his client has perpetuated. It is the perfect con and it runs at van Meegeren’s ultimate peril.

The film has all the best attributes of art history, brilliant deception against heinous villains and a tricky legal battle all rolled into one. It’s well worth the watch and then some. It has some great art in it, plus the lush cinematography during the scenes of the beautiful canal-lined streets of old Amsterdam are par excellence. It's a work of beauty for certain.

There's a different kind of beauty at work in Sound of Metal, but it's no less touching to the soul. It's long overdue not only for its content but for its presentation. While the movie does an absolutely sterling job of depicting a man’s loss of hearing, it works even better for the social implications it speaks to. Deafness and hearing loss, after all, are the fastest growing and most prevalent chronic conditions facing Canadians today, according to many sources including the Hearing Foundation of Canada. It’s been called an invisible epidemic.

More importantly than the story, as I see it, is that the movie is screened with closed captioning, as was its trailer. It’s always boggled my mind that theatrically released movies haven’t already included this, though many theatres do offer closed captioning and descriptive service devices. Going even further, it’s frequently a great challenge and source of frustration that DVD releases – the perfect facility to offer CC – often don’t include subtitles, or the subtitles are wonky and imperfect in many important ways. Who’s with me on this?

Now that Sound of Metal has broken the seal on this, I fully expect and demand that more and more movies do the same. If movie producers and distributors want their audiences, and more and more of their audiences are experiencing hearing loss, then the math is not that hard to figure out.

Now back to the show.

Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a heavy metal drummer in a band, the lead singer of which is his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). Repetitive exposure to loud noise is commonly known as one of the main causes of hearing loss, and Ruben soon discovers that when his ears start ringing and the sounds of the world go muffled.

Faced with this life-changing health and psychological issue, he checks into a secluded community centre for recovering drug addicts. He’s been clean of heroin for four years but old crutches can sometimes revive themselves during fresh traumas. He needs help, but doesn’t really want it. It’s only through the love and support that he gets from his committed relationship with Lou that he learns to get through this struggle and come out the other side. Hearing loss doesn’t mean he can’t live and be happy, after all, though it’s a tough lesson. Watching the determination of their love during several scenes is more than enough to tenderize even the toughest heart. Well done, that. 

As beautiful and warm as the story is, it gets better during Ruben’s experience in the community centre, a place filled with good people dealing with their own struggles but still with open arms and helping hands to give the newcomer better footing for his own life. Paul Raci’s job as Joe, the intake co-ordinator of the facility, is just as lovely as you’d hope it could be.

Cooke too shines like a light in her support role but this is clearly Ahmed’s show. I’m coming to a growing admiration of the still-rising star of Riz, whose work in The Sisters Brothers and Nightcrawler were characters filled with integrity: ones that you wish were real and that you could know in real life. I want more of this actor but not in Star Wars or superhero movies please. They’re such a waste of his generous talent.

Cowriter/director Darius Marder should get oodles of kudos for succeeding in getting this gem on screen. I understand the journey was long and beset with many unexpected obstacles but the fact that a large portion of the cast was hired from the deaf community and that Ahmed himself learned American Sign Language for his role should earn SOM a special place in cinema's hallowed halls of praise for authenticity and progressiveness.

"It was important to me that the film was genuine and visceral in its approach, and that the story provide a window into a culture and way of life that encapsulates so many people: deaf, hard of hearing, and CODA (Children of Deaf Adults)," Marder explained in his director's statement. "In order to create an authentic experience of deafness, Riz wore custom devices in his ears that emitted a white noise of varying intensity, thus allowing him to experience the closest approximation to progressive deafness that we could simulate, including the inability to hear even his own voice." 

At the very least, it won the Golden Eye for Best Film in the International Feature Film Competition category at the 2019 Zurich Film Festival, so there's that.

Scott Hayes

About the Author: Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns and profiles on people.
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