Movie Review ~ The Book Thief

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The Facts:

Synopsis: While subjected to the horrors of World War II Germany, young Liesel finds solace by stealing books and sharing them with others. Under the stairs in her home, a Jewish refugee is being sheltered by her adoptive parents.

Stars: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Nico Liersch

Director: Brian Percival

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 131 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  You know you’re in trouble when you discover in the first minutes of The Book Thief that Death will be your unseen narrator.  Having not read Markus Zusak’s 2005 novel of the same name, I can’t rightly tell you if Death’s narrative had a less cavalier attitude toward the horror of Nazi Germany during World War II.  It’s presented on screen though with an uncomfortably lighthearted approach that winds up sanitizing these dark times to fit into a more family-friendly-lets-have-a-discussion-afterward book club-y vibe.

Let’s backtrack a bit.  In bringing the bestseller to the screen, director Brian Percival (right at home in a period drama having coming from directing Downton Abbey) and screenwriter Michael Petroni kept the framework of Zusak’s novel intact but didn’t go any further with it.  What’s left is a perfectly fine drama that seems a natural fit to take in on a snowy day but one that tries at all costs to avoid addressing the inevitable outcome of most of the characters we’re introduced to.

Orphan Liesel (wide-eyed and remarkable newcomer Sophie Nélisse) comes to live with adoptive parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush, The Best Offer) and Rosa (Emily Watson, Anna Karenina) in a small German town.  Quiet, solemn, and unable to read the girl is warmly received by Hans but kept at a distance by Rosa who had expected to receive a boy that could help with the chores.  As family dramas go, the eventual bonding between the three happens like we know it will; Hans teaches Liesel to read and Rosa eventually comes around.  If it weren’t for those pesky Nazis burning books and killing an entire population of people the story may have been over.

Liesel and her next-door pal Rudy (another strong child performer, Nico Liersch) grow up side by side, dealing with bullies, personal squabbles, and the eventual realization that their lives will be forever changed when war breaks out.  There’s a lot of material to mine for dramatic purposes here and most of it is taken in stride by our able bodied leads and several strong supporting performances.

So why didn’t The Book Thief move me more?  John Williams’ Golden Globe nominated score is rich with emotion that sets the appropriate tone and the vibrant cinematography from Florian Ballhaus (Hope Springs) puts you right where you need to be to have your hankies ready for a tear-stained-face sorta finale.  Still, the eventual ending didn’t have much of an impact on me because the central danger, the omnipresent fear these people lived in was always kept on the periphery and not addressed.

I’d say to those interested in The Book Thief to focus on the performances rather than whatever the film fails to let materialize.  Nélisse and Liersch are charmers and give fuel to a cautious recommendation from this critic.

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Movie Review ~ The Company You Keep

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A former Weather Underground activist goes on the run from a journalist who has discovered his identity.

Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Robert Redford, Julie Christie, Richard Jenkins, Susan Sarandon, Stephen Root, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Anna Kendrick, Jackie Evancho, Stanley Tucci, Brit Marling, Nick Nolte

Director: Robert Redford

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: The first of two movies that Robert Redford starred in in 2013 was this curious little project that Redford also sat comfortably in the director seat for.  Though the film came and went with very little fanfare, I’d expect some collateral buzz to be drummed up for it when Redford is (hopefully) nominated for an Oscar for his career-high work in All is Lost.

Redford has seen more action as a director lately and he seems to be enjoying this part of his career which appears to be having a slow moving but surefooted renaissance.  It’s known that Redford is picky about the material he’ll take on as an actor and perhaps more so with his directing work which makes The Company You Keep all the more puzzling because it’s one of those half-there efforts that no one seems particularly invested in.

Scanning the cast list I get the notion that Redford peppered his film with actors he’s long wanted to work with and vice versa.  Why else would some big name stars drop in for what amounts to glorified cameos in an independent picture?  I kept thinking that actors like Richard Jenkins (White House Down, Jack Reacher) were just stopping by for lunch in Sundance when Redford asked if they could film a quick scene before dessert was served.

When Redford’s activist past is exposed by an opportunistic journalist (Shia LaBeouf, Lawless), he goes on the run and works his way through people from his younger days he’s long forgotten and who would just as soon forget about him.  Even with their brief screen time Oscar winners Susan Sarandon (Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Robot & Frank) and Julie Christie are effective as two fellow radicals that re-enter Redford’s present in two very different ways.  And keep your eyes out for Brit Marling (The East), Stanley Tucci (Jack the Giant Slayer), Nick Nolte (Cape Fear, I Love Trouble), and Terrence Howard (Prisoners) in the aforementioned brief supporting turns.

An overlong film, The Company You Keep winds up feeling like the guest that won’t take the hint to go thanks to several false endings.  While it’s diligently made like most Redford films are, there’s an evident emptiness at the core that doesn’t give the film any lasting weight past the final credits — that’s a shame when you consider the might of the stars Redford has assembled.

I should add it also doesn’t help that Redford has cast LaBeouf who continues to be one of the more overrated yet increasingly disliked actors in Hollywood.  Known for badmouthing his costars and film projects, LaBeouf had an overdue denouement at the end of 2013 when it came out that one of his short films was plagiarized from preexisting work.  It’s hard to take him seriously as a flawed film persona because LaBeouf’s personal persona is so much worse.

That casting aside, there’s admittedly a level of sophisticated maturity that should prove interesting to the more astute viewer.  I absolutely suggest you see Redford’s solemn work in All is Lost before taking this one on (he’ll also appear in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) but if you’re a Redford devotee or a fan of the political dramas/thrillers of the late 70’s you may find something worth your time here.

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The Silver Bullet ~ Open Grave

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Synopsis: A man wakes up in the wilderness, in a pit full of dead bodies, with no memory and must determine if the murderer is one of the strangers who rescued him, or if he himself is the killer.

Release Date:  January 3, 2014

Thoughts:  For the sake of good will in the new year I’m trying to squelch this feeling I have inside that Open Grave is another routine thriller amped up with a well edited trailer.  Starring Sharlto Copley (Elysium, Maleficent) as an amnesiac that wakes up to a nightmare, the film appears to have a nice coating of grim grime to keep things menacing as our lead character must unravel a mystery concerning his own identity while staying one step ahead of a killer on the hunt.  I’ve seen so many similarly designed films that have cop out endings with twists that make no sense so my fingers are crossed that  Open Grave keeps those silly plot devices buried.  I’m cautiously interested.