If you're truly 'Divergent,' you should see 'Tim's Vermeer'

It may be a documentary, but “Tim’s Vermeer,” opening at Liberty Hall this weekend, unfolds like a mystery novel and then plays like a suspense thriller.

Directed by Teller and narrated by his partner-in-illusion Penn Jillette (who also appears on camera), it’s a crackling how’d-he-do-it — rather than a whodunit — that follows an American innovator/technologist named Tim Jenison on his curious quest to solve one of the art world’s biggest mysteries: How might 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer have actually painted his amazingly photo-realistic works?

The real star of “Tim’s Vermeer” is Jenison himself, an affable thinker who has both the intellect and the means to not only discover what he thinks the answer is but also to try to recreate one of Vermeer’s most revered works from scratch using his theory.

Jenison founded NewTek in Topeka in 1985, and is known as the “father of desktop video,” having developed the first full-color video digitizer. Out of a warehouse that doubles as his workshop, he first recreates the room Vermeer was paining in his famous work “The Music Lesson,” and then — without any natural artistic skill as a painter — tries to recreate the painting itself using his hypothesis.

From an aesthetic point of view, it’s sometimes a very ugly movie, with webcam shots and consumer-grade cameras used throughout, but it’s truly a documentary that only could have been made in the digital age. Teller, who has a reputation for demanding veracity, documented every second of Jenison’s project — over 4,500 hours — to make sure nothing was fudged.

“Tim’s Vermeer” makes what seems like a high-brow subject very approachable, laying out the stakes clearly and rounding out the context of the mystery with interviews from experts and people who have had similar theories. But beyond being an exciting suspense tale, the movie gets at some tricky, fundamental questions of art.

If Vermeer did, in fact, use optic assistance to create his masterworks, does that lessen the achievement of the paintings? Does it make them any less artistic? The crossroads between technology and art have always been troublesome, and the movie posits that without either, we might not have some of the art world’s greatest treasures. Certainly without digital video, we wouldn’t have this wonderfully entertaining movie either.

The "Factions" of the Future Look A Lot Like High School

Ever since the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” film series’ have struck gold, the young-adult fantasy section of bookstores has become fertile raiding ground for the next mega-hit franchise. But for every record-breaking “Hunger Games,” there’s an underwhelming “Eragon” or a “Percy Jackson.” The latest fant-angst-ical cash cow hopeful from Hollywood is called “Divergent.”

Now, I understand that this genre takes teenage issues of alienation and self-discovery that feel like life and death, and blows them up into literal life-and-death situations, but do they have to be so damned obvious about it?

In a post-apocalyptic Chicago, all society has been divided up into five cliques — I mean “factions.” And everywhere you go, the teens somehow outnumber the adults about 1,000 to one. The know-it-alls, the geeks, the jocks, the smart-asses, and the hardcore religious-types are clearly defined groups, and it can be tough if you don’t fit in anywhere.

These cliques — sorry, factions — all play their specific roles in the walled-in near-future city, but if you’re one of the mild-mannered Jesus freaks who has to wear frumpy gray frocks all the time, let’s face it: You’ve been itching to sport tight leather outfits and jump off of moving trains with the jocks for what seems like eternity, right?

The very capable Shailene Woodley lends some authority to a silly, one-dimensional script as Tris, a member of the Abnegation (extremely religious) faction who makes the decision to be Dauntless (jock). The catch is that she’s known the whole time that she’s Divergent (different). As she learns the value of asserting her independence, the fate of the entire city hangs in the balance, and she’s got some quick growing up to do.

Along the way there’s a chaste romance, an excruciatingly long military-training sequence that’s too dumb to be satiric, and Kate Winslet phoning it in as an evil former honor student with fascistic designs. Did I mention that her brilliant plan to take over rule of the city is basically genocide?

Winslet excluded, most of the actors are up to the task of treating this material with the dead serious tone it requires. Ashley Judd is a welcome sight as Woodley’s heartbroken mother in a couple of scenes and Theo James is fine, I guess, as the romantic interest. At least they are working hard to sell it.

When the plot mechanics are moving forward and there’s no time to think, “Divergent” churns on, high on its own dumb inevitability. But at two hours and 20 minutes, it can be rough going sometimes, and the humorless, dumb script asks way too much of its cast.

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