Girl With a Pearl Earring<br/>Runaway Jury<br/>Paycheck<br/>Tokyo Story

Vermeer: the movie (or Barbara Cartland for gallery-goons)
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The Independent Culture

One reason why we love Vermeer's paintings is that they look so photographic. The nobles and servants in his pictures seem to have been caught daydreaming, often glancing up at us as if someone had just walked in and taken a snapshot. And if Vermeer's paintings look like photos, it should be possible to make a film that looks like a flickbook of Vermeer's paintings. Girl With a Pearl Earring (12A) is that film.

One reason why we love Vermeer's paintings is that they look so photographic. The nobles and servants in his pictures seem to have been caught daydreaming, often glancing up at us as if someone had just walked in and taken a snapshot. And if Vermeer's paintings look like photos, it should be possible to make a film that looks like a flickbook of Vermeer's paintings. Girl With a Pearl Earring (12A) is that film.

Based on Tracy Chevalier's novel, the story is a hoary fantasy about a maid (Scarlett Johansson) coming to work in the painter's household in Delft, where her intelligence, her integrity and the beauty of her bee-stung lips ignite flames of jealousy, admiration and lust in the hearts of everyone she meets: the smouldering artist (Colin Firth), his neurotic wife (Essie Davis), his moustache-twirling patron (Tom Wilkinson) and so on. Peter Webber, the director, uses glances and gazes, instead of dialogue, to convey the drama, but it still feels like Barbara Cartland for gallery-goers, even allowing for Johansson's quivering intensity. As in last week's Lost in Translation, the film is powered by the electricity between her and the middle-aged man she can never be with. And if you think the camera adored her in that film, you should see the way it caresses her here.

What Girl With a Pearl Earring does intoxicatingly well is bring Vermeer's paintings to life. The mimicry is eerie in almost every shot, not just because of the costumes and props and colours, but because of the angle of the camera as it peeks at its subjects through doorways, and the creamy light that softens the edges of people's faces. If Eduardo Serra, the cinematographer, doesn't win a shedful of awards he should quit the movie business and become a forger.

In Runaway Jury (12A), approximately the 412th film to be adapted from a John Grisham novel, a gun manufacturing corporation is in the dock. Dustin Hoffman, a New Orleans attorney, wants them to compensate the victims of shootings, so the corporation hires Gene Hackman, a "jury consultant", to use surveillance, manipulation and blackmail to bias the jurors in his clients' favour. However, one of those jurors (John Cusack) has his own agenda. He believes he's sufficiently silver-tongued to tip the verdict in either direction, and his girlfriend (Rachel Weisz) is offering his services for $10m.

Runaway Jury is a fun Friday evening of twists, turns and tension. But not even its high-calibre cast can hoodwink us that it's anything other than a slick, nonsensical yarn. It's a film in which Hackman has more personnel and ultra-modern gadgetry at his disposal than Ernst Blofeld, and in which three of the main characters are called Wendall Rohr, Rankin Fitch and Durwood Cable, names which sound like two accountancy firms and a local TV company.

Memento, Cypher and The Bourne Identity have generated a crowded sub-genre, the Amnesia Thriller. The new example, Paycheck (12A), stars Ben Affleck as a man who can't recall the past three years of his life, but who knows that people are out to kill him. The twist is that before he had his memory erased he saw his own future, and so he was able to equip himself with the exact objects he'd need to evade his pursuers. In a typical scene, he'll be chased into a car park, and suddenly find that he has the key to one of the vehicles in his pocket.

On one level, the film is an extended joke about the way screenplays are written in reverse, enabling Q to give James Bond the very contraption he'll require half and hour later. I enjoyed it, but if you haven't lost your memory recently you'll know that Cypher and co played similar games more craftily. The characters are, well, ciphers, and the director, John Woo, is rolling along in neutral. You wouldn't know he'd made it if it weren't for one of his signature white doves flapping into view.

Yasujiro Ozu's 1953 masterpiece, Tokyo Story (U), is the quietly poignant tale of an elderly couple who visit their married children in the city, only to realise that the distance between them and their offspring is no longer just a geographical one. Once you've slowed yourself down to Ozu's pace - or rather the pace of his aged protagonists - you'll see why the film came third in Sight & Sound's 1992 poll of the greatest films ever made.

n.barber@independent.co.uk

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