Reviews of notable new releases …
‘The Book Thief’ (PG-13)
Over the past weekend, I zoomed through Markus Zusak’s 550-page, award-winning novel which spent a whopping 230 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. Now we have the inevitable screen adaptation and, while it lacks the book’s power and ambition, it still manages to capture much of its inspiration and warmth. Narrated by Death, “The Book Thief” is set in World War II Germany and focuses on a 12-year-old girl named Liesel Meminger who goes to live with a foster family, her brother dying en route. As the Nazis are taking control of Europe, the family takes into hiding a young Jew, whom Liesel befriends as she learns to read and write. Typical adaptation strains abound: the delicious dark comedy supplied by Death and gritty language have (unfortunately) been muted, and Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse, while certainly beautiful, cannot quite capture the protagonist’s spirit on the page. Lovingly shot on location in the German town of Görlitz, “The Book Thief” is very respectable and moving nonetheless, with excellent production/costume design and John Williams’ Oscar-nominated music score.
‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ (PG-13)
Confession: despite my love of books, I’ve not had the pleasure of reading Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of a teenage girl named Katniss Everdeen who volunteers to compete in the Hunger Games, a bloody battle among juveniles in a virtual environment specifically controlled by the wealthy elite for their own televised amusement. The original movie was cited as copycatting everything from Stephen King’s “The Running Man” to the Japanese action film “Battle Royale,” yet it still became immensely popular, going so far as creating a new type of screen heroine for audiences to root for and idealize. Hollywood princess Jennifer Lawrence returns as Katniss in this middle chapter, as does much of the original’s cast, with the noteworthy exception of the Gamemaker: the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman had filmed the majority of his scenes for the upcoming “Mockingjay”, with studio Lionsgate having to digitally recreate the actor for one major sequence in “Part 2.” As for “Catching Fire,” it’s definitely entertaining enough as a story bridge, but some scenes feel all too reminiscent of the original (even if that was the point).
‘Saving Mr. Banks’ (PG-13)
In the early 1960s, author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) is reluctant to give up the rights of her prim, proper, “practically perfect” character Mary Poppins to the coy, conniving and “colorfully cartoonish” Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). More revisionist fiction than fact, “Saving Mr. Banks” presents Travers as being a monolithic bitch – one entirely ignorant of the rules of adaptation – who subsequently recalls her upbringing in Australia and what ultimately drove her to write the Poppins books. If you want to be cynical, this movie definitely feels like a Disney commercial at times, particularly in a centerpiece where Walt guides Travers around Disneyland. What makes “Saving Mr. Banks” worth watching are the outstanding acting turns provided by Hanks, Paul Giamatti (as Travers’ valet) and particularly Thompson although, like “The Book Thief,” the film’s sole Academy Award nod was for the original score by Thomas Newman. The live piano performances of the now-famous Sherman Brothers songs are extremely difficult to resist and overall the film works as an ode to the most unlikely of creative marriages.
(Christopher Kulik is a Bishop resident. He works at The Video Place at 251 N. Main St. and has written more than 500 film reviews for various online publications. He is also a Navy veteran and American Legion member.)View more articles in: