Tag Archives: C+

THE BOOK THIEF

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C+

Dramas about the Holocaust must walk a delicate line between detachment, which can come across as uncaring, and strident emotionalism, which can easily slip into abject sentimentality. Brian Percival’s adaptation of Markus Zusak’s best-seller “The Book Thief” has some sterling qualities, but it veers too often toward the latter extreme, frequently winding up in tearjerker mode. And frankly its ultimate celebration of the written word—a clichéd message delivered by movies as varied as the reading-is-fundamental, kid-friendly “The Neverending Story” and the piously platitudinous melodrama “The Words”—is getting rather long in the tooth, especially when reiterated in a medium that itself emphasizes pictures over pages. And the device—taken from the book—of having the story narrated by Death (Roger Allam) doesn’t give the film the profundity it’s meant to, coming across as more risible than powerful.

Still, there are affecting moments in Zusak’s tale of Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) an orphan girl in late 1930s Germany who finds a home with adoptive parents and learns life lessons from them. After her younger brother dies in the arms of their mother, apparently a leftist who’s taken off by the Nazis, she’s deposited with Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) in a small town near Munich. Hans is a tender-hearted sign painter who’s resisted joining the party and has suffered financially as a result, while Rosa is his long-suffering, sharp-tongued but supportive wife. The newly-minted father finds a book that Liesel appropriated at her brother’s funeral—The Gravedigger’s Handbook—and proceeds to begin teaching the illiterate girl to read. She’ll eventually become devoted to the practice as well as to writing, composing a journal while developing a secret relationship with the mayor’s wife (Barbara Auer), who’s still grieving the death of her son and allows the girl to borrow books from his beloved library, at least until her officious husband intervenes.

There are two other important men in Liesel’s life. One is the exuberant boy next door, tousle-haired Rudy (Nico Liersch), who immediately takes it upon himself to become her protector and boyfriend, taking out time only to show off his speed in local track meets and pretend that he’s his hero, Jesse Owens. The other is a fugitive Jew named Max (Ben Schnetzer), the son of a man who saved Hans’s life in World War I; he shows up on the Hubermann doorstep and becomes their secret guest, leading to some predictable close calls with the authorities while the family continues to pay lip service to the regime they despise.

Obviously the primary narrative thrust of “The Book Thief” is to insist that goodness can survive even in a barbarous environment, amid air raids, book burnings and anti-Semitic brutality. That explains why the film has been done up in a visual style that’s probably best described as magical realist, with the grittiness given an air-brushing that endows it with something akin to a fairy-tale feel. Of course, that’s also of a piece with the conceit of omnipresent Death looking down on human affairs and viewing them from his lordly perspective—and the notion that they’re made transcendent by the fact of Liesel’s later writing about them. From a purely technical viewpoint, the result is impressive, with the production design (Simon Elliott), art direction (Bill Crutcher, Anja Muller and Jens Lockmann), set decoration (Mark Rosinski) and costume design (Anna B. Sheppard) all contributing to the mixture of authenticity and artsy exaggeration while Florian Ballhaus’ cinematography gives the compositions an elegant glow, accentuated by John Williams’ score, which is fine even if not among his most distinctive.

But the surfeit of plots and subplots haven’t been very expertly juggled by adapter Michael Petroni. He abbreviates the book, of course, jettisoning characters and incident to keep the script within feature-length. But he’s retained elements that would probably have been better off omitted—such as Hans’s being drafted for military duty after standing up for a Jewish neighbor being carted off to the camps, or Liesel’s emotional reaction at seeing a troupe of emaciated Jewish men being herded off to them under strict guard—and can’t always manage the transitions back and forth from the Hubermann family’s difficulties to Max’s ordeal and the Rudy subplot very smoothly. Then there’s the periodic return of Death’s narration, which seems an effortful mechanism of spelling out what the tale means, and which ties in too comfortably with the overarching theme of literature as a means of transcending the cruelties of actual events. It’s no wonder that Percival’s direction comes across as cautious and a bit enervated and John Wilson’s editing as somewhat unsteady, though together they manage to hold one’s interest.

A further problem lies in Nelisse, who looks the part of Liesel but doesn’t convey the heartbreaking quality it demands. Rush goes far to compensate with a performance that doesn’t avoid overstatement but certainly exudes warm-heartedness, and Watson draws a marvelous portrait of hard-headed practicality concealing a heart of gold. Liesel’s two male friends are also winners. Schnetzer provides an attractive presence as Max, who shares her passion for books, and Liersch is even more likable as Rudy, whose puppy-dog infatuation can lead to trouble but whose devotion proves boundless.

“The Book Thief” is undoubtedly high-minded and well-intentioned, but it’s also overplotted and sentimentalized. Still, if you can stand a dose of treacle, you might well find that its virtues outweigh its flaws.

CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2

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C+

Nowadays it seems obligatory to make sequels of even the most mediocre children’s animated movies. “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” was okay—a visually splashy but pretty silly flick with a few amusing characters and some clever riffs on end-of-the-world action movies. But it went downhill toward the close and wound up like a deflated balloon. The follow-up contains some genuinely gonzo eye-candy, but the weirdly imaginative images are wedded to a tired script. Though even more colorful than its predecessor, it manages to take off, but not to stay aloft for ninety minutes.

“Cloudy 2”—which, it should be noted, isn’t an adaptation of the sequel by Judi and Ron Barrett that appeared in print—takes up immediately following the end of the first movie. Goofy inventor Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) and his pals have succeeded in knocking out his FLDSMDFR, the machine that turned water into food but went berserk, threatening to engulf all of his island home, Chewandswallow, in oversized edibles. The government orders an evacuation of the place and tasks Flint’s boyhood idol, genius inventor Chester V (Will Forte), to handle the cleanup. The wacky, multi-hologram Chester enlists Flint to join him in the task by tracking down the FLDSMDFR and inserting a computer drive into it that will shut it down and prevent future misconduct on its part.

So it’s back to Chewandswallow for Flint and his band—spunky Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), infantile Brent (Andy Samberg), solemn cameraman Manny (Benjamin Bratt), ebullient policeman Earl (Terry Crews, replacing Mr. T), and dour Lockwood pere Tim (James Caan), as well as chattering Steve the Monkey (Neil Patrick Harris)—who are accompanied by Chester’s amanuensis, Barb, a buxom talking ape (Kristen Schaal). It turns out, unsurprisingly, that Chester V is not the selfless scientist Flint had always assumed, but a fellow with his own plans, all designed to profit his so-called Life Corporation.

Those plans involve what the FLDSMDFR is now producing on the island—genetic mixtures of plants and animals, or “foodimals,” that Chester describes as dangerous. Certainly the “cheespider,” a mega-burger that runs about on French fry legs and threatens to gobble up its prey, looks menacing. But others, like an ultra-cute strawberry baby with big eyes and a mournful cry, are sweet, and most of the remaining fruit-and vegetable offspring appear harmless, too. The question that Sam poses to Flint is whether it’s right to shut down the system that gave birth to these creatures and sustains them, and he’s torn between heeding her and going along with his revered master-inventor.

It’s in the portrayal of the mutant menagerie that “Cloudy 2” shows witty artistry. There’s a touch of the daffiness one finds in “Fantasia” and Lewis Carroll to the various hybrids concocted by the scripters, and the Sony animation crew brings entities like huge, ravenous pickles and a taco-crocodile combination to life, setting them against a lush, vivid wilderness background. True, much of the running-time is merely a rather tedious trek through a place inhabited by strange thingies that jump out of the foliage and chase our heroes around, but at least the thingies are amusing cartoon constructs. Unfortunately, the journey does run on, and in the last reel morphs into a typical action-packed confrontation in which the fate of the world is at stake—except in this case it’s the new world fashioned by Lockwood’s invention, which has evolved beyond anything he’d intended. In fact, the whole of the movie could be interpreted as a sort of wacky parable of evolution, but the message it’s trying to impart is garbled. On the one hand it’s clearly a warning about the destructive potential of capitalist greed on nature (no surprise there). But are kids also supposed to draw the disturbing conclusion that fruits and vegetables aren’t far from being cuddly critters too, and that consuming them is somehow wrong? If so, good luck to parents demanding that they eat those string beans or go to bed without desert.

But though “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2” is kind of bonkers thematically, it does show imagination in the depiction of the wild mutant creatures, and while the humans are bland by comparison, the voice talent does what it can with them (Caan stands out with his gravelly delivery and mournful air, and Bratt’s deadpan delivery is fun). They’re hobbled, however, by the fact that the dialogue is generally uninspired and there’s too much throwaway potty humor.

So the verdict is a mixed one. The movie offers some fantastical visuals, but to enjoy them you have swallow a pedestrian script and a muddled message. It’s trippy in one sense but trite in another, and you have to be picky about savoring the good stuff while pushing the rest to the side of the plate.