David Appleford is a member of the Phoenix Film Critics Society and the American Theatre Critics Association
To read more film and theatre reviews, plus navigate through archival material CLICK HERE to go to the David Appleford Film & Theatre Review website.
To read more film and theatre reviews, plus navigate through archival material CLICK HERE to go to the David Appleford Film & Theatre Review website.
The question I am asked the most is, "Are you Australian or English?"
For the record, it's English. I was born in Tilbury, Essex, made temporarily famous by the film 'Elizabeth: The Golden Age' with Cate Blanchett. Tilbury is the town where Elizabeth 1st gave her infamous speech where she rallied the troops in preparation for the oncoming, though disastrous, attack from Spain. Look on a map of Britain, go to London, then slowly run your finger to the right along the River Thames. There's Tilbury.
The second question that I'm usually asked is, "Are you thinking of becoming an American citizen?"
Actually, I became a citizen in 2001, exactly one week after 9/11 when government offices around the country re-opened for the first time after the attack. Taking your citizenship and pledging allegiance to your adopted country is always an emotional moment, but the significance of the timing in September of 2001 made this ceremony all the more poignant.
Returning to the valley this Friday and Saturday, November 29 and 30, at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts is The Capitol Steps, the political satire troupe who put the mock in mockumentary. They’ve been performing song parodies of current political events since 1981.
Co-writer and co-founder of The Capitol Steps, Elaina Newport spoke to KEZ this morning to tell us what we can expect at this weekend’s performances.
Elaina talked of the origins of The Capitol Steps and how a congressional staffer suddenly turned to showbiz.
To hear our full conversation with Elaina, click on the link below.
For more details regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for to the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts website.
When a film is as hugely popular as 1965’s The Sound of Music and known so thoroughly by its legion of fans, there’s always a snag for new theatrical productions: Do groups adapt the show from its origins to correspond with what audiences expect from the film or do they keep to the original book with all songs in their original order?
If there’s one thing we know about Arizona Broadway Theatre is how it continually sticks by its theatrical guns and keeps to the original. This is something mentioned frequently in this column, but for theatre fans who continually face the challenge of having to sit through interpretations, updates or commercially altered musicals to reflect more closely its big screen counterpart, ABT goes back to the beginning.
Because of its obvious love and dedication to presenting Broadway musicals in its purist form, the theatre may run the occasional risk of upsetting some by not recreating exactly what they think they already know or expect, but here’s the reality; as time passes, if it wasn’t for theatre’s like ABT, fans of live performances would never have a chance to see the real thing anymore, and so it is with the theatre’s new, exciting production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. The musical is presented here in all its original 1959 glory, no songs omitted that weren’t in the film and everything sung in the right order and the right setting, and we shouldn’t want it any other way.
A large, painted canvas of Salzburg with the Nonnberg Abbey sitting atop of the hill, overlooking all in the Austrian city adorns the stage. It’s the first thing you see as you enter the theatre and it nicely creates the tone of the musical’s European setting. Then the show begins as the pure, unaccompanied voices of the abbey nuns singing Dixit Dominus (Preludium) floats out from the stage and you know from the beginning just by the harmonizing beauty of the sound alone you’re in good hands.
It’s a large cast, supported by outstanding music direction from Mark 4Man, but there are standouts. Trisha Hart Ditsworth, a recent regular at ABT, continues to broaden her range and charms as Maria, a considerable departure from recent roles where Trisha played the ditzy high-schooler Penny in Hairspray and the clueless teenager Pickles in The Great American Trailer Park Musical. Sporting a pixie wig and the brightest of smiles, not to mention playing someone closer to her real age, Trisha truly delights as the postulant nun who doesn’t fully realize that the monastic way of life might not be for her. Trisha sings well, but as a performer, from her energy and that unstoppable ebullient nature she projects from her character, she instills a sense of infectious excitement at the mere idea of singing and making music. Do-Re-Mi, here sung when Maria first meets the Von Trapp children, is a highlight. Plus, hearing the song performed live illustrates just how clever the Rodgers and Hammerstein score really is, something that tends to get lost in the film.
Ariana Valdes is a tremendous grounding presence as the Mother Abbess. She successfully expresses a firm though loving nature to her character, which is exactly what the Mother Abbess requires if we’re to side with her decision when she forces Maria to do something that the postulant obviously doesn’t want to do, plus Ariana’s rendition of Climb Ev’ry Mountain is a genuine crowd pleaser. It ends the first half of the show with such dramatic and musical power, the kind that delivers goosebumps, that some members of the audience couldn’t help but leap to their feet and cheer in admiration as the curtain fell.
Plus, there’s solid support from Jill Tieskoetter as Frau Schraeder, who in the theatrical production gets a chance to sing; from Sarah Powell who captures the authentic spirit of a sixteen year old in both looks and sound as the oldest daughter, Liesel who needs to hold back on growing up too soon; and from Andy Meyers as Max Detweiler, who, when he appears towards the end of the first half, injects much needed comic energy and humor. Despite the upbeat nature of the show, The Sound of Music doesn’t possess an overly funny book – it’s essentially a true story and the threat of Nazi control is ever-present, hanging like a dark, threatening cloud over the proceedings – so the audience doesn’t always have a lot to warm to in terms of humor. When Andy turns up he arrives at just the right moment when the show needs a character like Detweiler the most.
Even though we spy the touches of grey added to his hair, the makeup and coloring can’t disguise the fact that maybe John Dooley is too young as the captain. For an actor, the part of Captain Von Trapp was always a difficult one – the way the character is written there’s a tendency to appear wooden, an empty cipher portraying a theme rather than a fully fledged character – and John can’t seem to flesh out anything other than a humorless and unrelentingly stern delivery in his dialog, even when the character’s heart later changes and he’s supposed to warm to Maria and his children, but when he sings, that’s another matter. John’s voice is so powerful and robust filling the auditorium in a way no other male performer in the show can, he’s a pleasure to hear. You find yourself wishing that not only had writers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse created a more rounded character for an actor to work with but that Rodgers and Hammerstein had given the captain more songs to sing.
As always, ABT has fun with its menu and drinks to reflect the show you’re about to enjoy. For drinks there’s The Detweiler, a seasonal eggnog for the holidays, and something extra called The Flibber-ti-jibbet. No idea what the latter tastes like, but let’s face it, the real fun is just asking the waiter for a glass while attempting to keep a straight face. It can’t be done.
For more information regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the ABT website.
For more film and local theatre, CLICK HERE for the David Appleford Film & Theatre Review website.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire benefits from a change of rules.
In the first, teenagers were paired against teenagers in a fight to the death, an appalling notion considering that the target audience was also teenagers, so in order to present the battles, or the games, the scenes were shot with a queasy hand-held and edited at such a rapid pace it was almost impossible to see what was going on. The idea was to dilute the impact of what was actually happening – children murdering children - and earn that PG-13 instead of an R. The end result might have won have the desired rating but it also made for one clumsy looking film that appeared to chicken out when it finally got to the parts you were there to see in the first place. This second installment is considerably better.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire takes off at exactly where the first ended. The filmmakers take for granted that everyone knows what has already happened, so with no introductory prologue, characters make their entrance with little or no announcements and principle players talk of events that have already happened without bringing anyone up to date. It’s TV story telling for the big screen. The assumption is, you should already know. If you’re a casual viewer rather than a fan of the books and, like the majority, saw the original just the one time, there could be a few minutes or longer of getting yourself up to speed.
The young and resourceful heroine, Katniss Everdeen – such a great name – returns home after winning the 74th Annual Hunger Games, but principle villain President Snow (an effectively obsequious Donald Sutherland with a firm grip on the proceedings) is not happy.
The games were not supposed to end like that and Snow lets Kat know. “It must be a fragile system if it can be brought down by some berries,” Kat tells Snow, referring to the poisonous Nightlock berries that ended the games in the first film. Snow is going to make Kat pay for her defiance and force her to participate in the 75th games, only this time it’s going to be different. “Why don’t you just kill me now?” Kat asks the president, but he’s not going to. He wants to make her an example in front of everyone. “She has become a beacon of rebellion,” the president will later say, “And she needs to be killed.”
Once the victory tour for Kat and her fellow victor Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is completed they will have to return for another outing, only this time they’ll be fighting for their lives against past winners, all of whom are now considerably older and more resourceful. This time, there are no teenagers against teenagers; these are adults, which is fortunate for us because now there’s also no dilution of the action. Even though what is actually happening is still as appalling as ever, somehow having adults in the playing field and not other kids makes everything more palatable when presented as entertainment.
Once again, Jennifer Lawrence triumphs. Since her big screen introduction in 2010’s Winter’s Bone, Lawrence has never looked back. Not every film has worked – House at the End of the Street wasn’t exactly the best of its genre – but Lawrence has always maintained a standard of performance worthy of everyone’s attention, and even though the initial complaints that she was miscast and actually too old to play Katniss when the fist film was all over the social network, no one should be thinking that now. Jennifer Lawrence is simply the best of her generation and to date has that ability to make anything she approaches her own.
Woody Harrelson as her monitor and guide, Haymitch Abernathy, appears to have a more prominent role this time around. It’s difficult to say whether he has more screen time during this second outing than the first, but his presence is here more grounded and necessary, plus he brings his own level of defiance against the system to the fore, something that was only hinted at in the original. “Nobody ever wins the games,” he tells Katniss in a moment of honesty. “You survive them.”
The games themselves start around the eighty-five minute mark – there’s a lot to get through before the countdown begins – but once it starts, the action is taught and well presented, with conflict after deadly conflict thrown in the faces of the participants. These contestants aren’t simply trying to fight each other, that would be too easy; here, the odds are stacked against them by having the authorities manipulate all kinds of unannounced challenges, like invisible force fields that electrocute, smoke clouds that pour over you, burning your skin like acid, and killer baboons that appear from nowhere and attack en masse.
But the film lets itself down with its conclusion; or rather, the absence of a conclusion. It doesn’t have an end. After almost two and a half hours it simply stops. There’s a cliff-hanger to lead you into part three but it comes with no sense of satisfaction. Those who know the books will be prepared, but those who go to the movies for the one time experience may feel cheated. Ending with a to be concluded attitude feels anti-climactic, like watching a TV series week after week for a whole season only to have the finale end with a tease to keep you wanting more but resolving nothing.
However, based on what we see in part two – better, well-crafted action with more story conflict, an adult approach and far more lives at stake – there’s every indication that part three just might be great.
MPAA Rating: PG 13 Length: 146 minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)
Ever received one of those sweepstake scams in the mail inviting you to subscribe to all kinds of magazines while giving you the impression you’ve won a million dollars? Everyone has, and so has elderly and somewhat cantankerous Woody Grant (Bruce Dern). Only unlike most of us who hurl the invitation, along with the official looking certificate, in the trash, Woody takes it as gospel. As far as he’s concerned, he’s won the sweepstakes – it says so on the envelope – and he wants to collect. “They can’t say it if it’s not true,” Woody insists.
Nebraska is road trip odyssey, a journey across country from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska where the sweepstake prize office resides. That’s the base. The bulk is made up of short conversations between father and one of his sons, stereo salesman David (SNL’s Will Forte who does quiet exasperation surprisingly well). David is the one who wants to support his father and give him something to aim for. During these final years of his life, the man has nothing else, and David recognizes this. The other son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk) is less accommodating. He wants his father in a home, but it’s David who wins and gets to share time with his father.
Bruce Dern is so perfect as the elderly Woody you’d swear that everything before was a rehearsal. This is what he’s been waiting for, and now his time has come. Under Alexander Payne’s direction, it’s a wonderfully nuanced performance, one that effortlessly commands our attention. You really can’t take your eyes off him.
The strength of Nebraska, aside from Dern’s performance, is that everything about the film rings true. Everything. This isn’t simply a slice of Americana presented in glorious widescreen black and white, this is truly something authentic; a peek into the lives of other Americans we feel we already know, or at least may have met at some point in the past. What they do, what they say and how they say it is something close to the real thing. The winning number on the sweepstakes certificate may not be Woody’s but by the end of the film he’ll be a winner in his own quiet way. So is Nebraska.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 110 Minutes Overall Rating: 9 (out of 10)
Each week from now up until Christmas we’ll take a look at some Christmas films that for one reason or another are considered seasonal classics, regardless of age. We start this week with a film that truly is a classic: It’s a Wonderful Life
The one thing that surprises most who have enjoyed It's A Wonderful Life over the years is this: When it was first released in 1946 it was considered a major disappointment, and yet today for many, Christmas would not be complete without seeing at least one showing of this crowd-pleasing film.
The original story upon which it was based, The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern, began life as a Christmas card. No one was interested in publishing the story, so the author attached it to a seasonal greetings card and mailed copies to family and friends in 1943. However, the story was passed around and eventually fell onto the lap of RKO Pictures producer David Hempstead who intended to develop the project into a vehicle for Cary Grant. Grant would go on to make The Bishop's Wife instead, leaving the central role of George Bailey up for grabs.
Director Frank Capra was handed the script to develop and began assembling his cast. Henry Fonda is said to have been in the running for the part of George, but it was James Stewart who eventually landed the role. As for Stewart's leading lady, several famous names were considered, including Olivia de Havilland, Martha Scott and Jean Arthur, but it was Donna Reed who won the part.
Because of its enormous popularity today, it's hard to imagine that on its initial release the film struggled to find an audience. Reviews were generally less than stellar, and one industry insider reports that in 1947 the FBI became interested when it was asserted that the film was really Communist propaganda - it made the banker, Mr. Potter, the villain of the story.
Today, It's A Wonderful Life is considered a national treasure. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in 1984, director Frank Capra, obviously thrilled with the turn of events, said, "I'm like a parent whose kid grows up to be president."
In We’re the Millers David Burke (Jason Sudeikis) owes money to his drug dealer (Ed Helms) who offers David a job. Somehow he is to smuggle a large amount of pot out of Mexico and get it pass customs into the United States. When David protests, his boss points out that, “It’s not drug dealing. It’s smuggling,” as if somehow the difference makes things better. The comedy, where Sudeikis creates a fake all-American family to ride in an oversized SUV and smuggle a huge amount of weed across the border into America, is low-brow and goes out of its way to grab some of the shock humor that made There’s Something About Mary so popular, but now and again it actually rises above its own stupidity with some big laughs, mostly due to Jennifer Anniston and her well primed comedic reactions. Available in an extended version with a few extra minutes not seen on the big screen in Blu-Ray and on DVD.
In The World’s End, Simon Pegg plays Gary King, a forty-something waste-of-space who wants to complete something he never fully achieved when he was a teenager - the pub crawl from all twelve pubs in his hometown of Newton Haven. For his friends, time has moved on; they’ve grown up, but not Gary. The World’s End starts off being one film then ends as another. At about the forty minute mark something really strange happens. To explain what will be taken as a major plot spoiler, so let’s just say that the apocalypse is nigh and the name of the last pub on the Crawl, The World’s End, is about as appropriate as it gets. The World’s End is a funny film. It puts the winning trio of Pegg, Nick Frost and director Edgar Wright back together again for their third outing, completing what they have described as a trilogy of comedies beginning with Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and now The World’s End. If all three films have anything in common, other than being truly funny genre bending exercises, it’s that all major plot points take place in a pub. It’s the Brit way of doing things. Available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
The action thriller 2 Guns with Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg has so many plot twists that in the end not only do we have another film where just about everyone is basically rotten to the core but it’s often difficult to be fully aware of where you are in terms of story. Everyone appears to be double-crossing each other in ways that are not altogether clear, even the two likable leads, and it’s this convoluted approach that may well confuse. But there’s also a lot to like. The action is top-notch and both Washington and Wahlberg have fun with their shady characters. If the balance between humor and violence was more evenhanded and the plot didn’t appear to purposely go out of its way to bewilder, what is merely a good popcorn thriller could have been a great one. A script that keeps you guessing is one thing, but keeping you at bay with confusion is something else. Available in DVD and Blu-Ray.
Disney’s Planes exists in the same world as its Cars, a land populated by only machines with human eyes, mouth and personalities. The film, which was originally intended to be a straight-to-video movie, will find its audience with the very young. More so than Cars, Planes feels closer to being an extension of TV’s Thomas The Tank Engine or even Theodore Tugboat; the story telling is simple with little complications in its conflicts, the animation is bright and eye-catching though relatively plain by many recent standards of big screen computer animation, and the humor is mild with very little to engage the parents, though the idea that Brent Musberger voicing a Ford Mustang called Brent Mustanburger is funny, plus comedian Carlos Alazraqui as El Chupacabra, a Gee Bee Model R singing The Miracles’ Love Machine as a ballad with a Mariachi arrangement should make adults smile, if only for a couple if minutes. Available on DVD, Blu-Ray and 3D Blu-Ray.
The setting is real, the content, imagined.
In The Mountaintop, playwright Katori Hall depicts a fictional conversation between the Reverend Martin Luther King and the maid who brings him late night room service. It’s room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where a single room is ten dollars and a double, just twelve. It’s also the night before his assassination and Dr. King has earlier completed his “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” address. He was in town to support the black sanitary public works employees who were on strike.
What follows next is a ninety minute drama set in real time where the reverend begins his evening by ordering room service – he needs coffee immediately – and where he will eventually get a premonition of his death that will occur at the next day.
The play begins in a casual manner. Five minutes or so before house lights down, as you’re still taking your seats and making sure your cell is switched off, Dr. King (James T. Alfred) makes his entrance. He checks the phone, looks around his motel room and checks the drawers. It’s not immediately apparent what he’s doing or why, but instinct tells you he might be checking the room for bugs, a suspicion later acknowledged. He then sits on the bed, hands on knees, and contemplates. A crack of thunder outside the motel room causes King to jump. Even before the play has begun, a tone is set.
“Why America is going to hell,” Dr. King suddenly announces out loud. It’s not a question, it’s a statement, and he says it again, only this time with a different inflection. The doctor is practicing a speech and he’s trying to get it right. “They’re really gonna burn me on the cross for that one,” he says to himself and continues to practice until another crack of thunder from outside interrupts.
The idea of presenting a play that depicts what might have happened with Dr. King the night before his death is a good one, but playwright Hall has theatrically grander and more demanding issues in mind than just a conversation between a celebrity motel guest and the maid, most of which are revealed in the final thirty minutes, concluding with an ending so visually and emotionally powerful you may leave the theatre somewhat overwhelmed but at the same time wishing that the first two thirds had been more engaging. The play premiered in London in 2009 and won the Olivier Best new Play award. It’s a good play, but it’s not great play, which makes the win all the more baffling.
The maid is called Camae and she is played with unstoppable ebullient energy by Erika LaVonn. Her bubbly presence and playful force are so infectious you begin to suspect long before a big reveal – and it’s a really big one – that Camae isn’t quite what she seems, but there’s a lot of ground to cover before we get there. It’s obvious that there’s something about Camae we do not fully understand. The play spends a long time having Dr. King and Camae exchanging barbs, cracking jokes and generally flirting with each other but you wonder where it’s going and why it’s taking so long to get there. Knowing what we know of the allegations of Dr. King’s adultery you wonder if maybe the play is heading in that direction. When Dr. King pronounces Camae’s name correctly she says, “Sounds good coming out of your mouth,” to which he replies, “A lot of things do.” At a later moment, after Camae tells him she can tell from the look in his eyes he finds her attractive, she states, “You’re blushing.” “Which is hard for a black man,” Dr. King responds.
But the serious side continues to emerge every time lightning strikes. The man jumps. He’s continually on edge. It’s when Dr. King opens the motel door and finds he’s walled in with at least four foot of snow suddenly blocking his entrance that you suspect something unnatural might be happening. “You put some hippie pills in my coffee?” Dr. King demands of Camae not accepting the evidence of his eyes.
What follows is a reveal so startling it takes several minutes to fully comprehend the sudden change of direction, and not everyone is going to buy it, particularly when Camae hands the phone to Dr. King having placed a call on someone’s futuristic cell phone. To discuss further or to explain how in the final minutes we leave the claustrophobic confines of room 306 and become one with the universe would be an injustice, but the moment is overwhelming. You will be both stirred and shaken, and even though the message tells you nothing you didn’t already know, as directed by Lou Bellamy with outstanding sound and stirring visuals from Martin Gwinup it remains a thrilling and completely unexpected moment of inspirational theatre supported by a speech delivered with such overwhelming power by Alfred that goosebumps are all but guaranteed.
Vicki Smith’s scenic design, recreating the interior of the Lorraine Motel is effective in its simplicity, perfectly recreating the plain motel room with its two double beds, the view of the lighted sign through the large windows and the slightly stained walls with its watermarks on the wall paper.
The Mountaintop was a huge hit in London though less so on Broadway. Maybe America is too close to the subject. From a distance, European audiences see America and its history in a different light than here. Broader strokes are perhaps easier to take. It’s difficult to say. Perhaps part of the problem is that The Mountaintop feels as though it should be more important and insightful than it is, or maybe the big reveal isn’t as clever as you might hope after having invested a chunk of time waiting for it, for something, to occur. But there’s no denying the startling impact of its conclusion, the power of the two leads and the overall, handsome looking production Arizona Theatre Company has delivered to the Herberger.
For more film and local theatre, CLICK HERE for the David Appleford Film & Theatre Review website.
If you’re familiar with the outstanding novel The Book Thief by Australian author Markus Zusak then you already know how rich and complex both the characters and the situations are in this tale of a young German girl’s bond with her foster parents during World War 2.
The fear of enjoying a book so much, especially when it feels as potentially unfilmable as this, was of serious concern. After all, the narrator is Death himself. Here’s the good news: With a minimum of cuts, a few absent characters and a certain amount of reorganization, for the most part, The Book Thief succeeds far more than a limited imagination, such as mine, could ever have perceived, and it’s still narrated by Death.
“When death comes, don’t panic,” the cultured voice of Death (Roger Allam) tells us at the beginning. “It doesn’t seem to help.”
When the film begins, war has yet to break out. Young Liesel (French-Canadian actress, Sophie Nelisse) is on her way to meet her foster parents. At the funeral of her young brother, Liesel retrieves a book fallen from the pocket of one of the funeral workers. It’s The Grave Digger’s Handbook, and even though Liesel can neither read nor write, she clings to it, keeping it hidden, like a piece of secret treasure.
Eventually, Liesel will acquire reading skills with the help of her new and kindly foster father Hans (Geoffrey Rush), who refers to her as ‘Your Majesty,’ though she’ll still have to suffer the torment of her fellow class mates who circle her in the school yard crying “Dummkopf” repeatedly.
The film leads us in to the horrors of the second world war, though the awful impact of what we know is going on around the world is diminished somewhat when seen almost exclusively through the eyes of a young girl. Liesel learns to love books. Despite a traumatic upbringing, the loss of a father, the arrest of her mother and the death of her younger brother, the girl proves to be a strong survivalist, and though death is ever present she keeps going, spurred on by a secret love of books and the desire to learn more.
Sophie Nelisse plays Liesel with a quiet charm. She tends to be more an observer than a contributor, though part of her reticence to ever get over-involved with anything or anyone around her, particular in the earlier scenes, is simply another survivalist trait. The young girl’s face occasionally appears like the blank page of a book she has yet to write, yet the more you come to know her, the more her look of what appears to be vacuity is really the look of someone taking everything in. As time passes, without the need of aging makeup or other tricks, Liesel takes on the appearance of someone older and wiser than her years. She’s wonderful to watch.
Both Geoffrey Rush as Papa and Emily Watson as Mama give the kind of heartfelt performances you would expect. Rush is a comforting, friendly presence while Watson plays the foster mother as an ever-complaining harpie, the kind of woman who goes to bed irritated and wakes up angry every day. Yet, just as you would suspect, she really has the warmest of hearts, though it’s deeply buried, reserved for that special moment that the woman would most likely identify as weakness.
The film is tastefully restrained throughout. There are tense moments, such as when Nazi soldiers inspect the basement where the foster parents are hiding a young Jew, or when Leisel rescues a book from a book burning rally – that icon of “intellectual dirt” that would poison the future of a superior German culture, The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – but the kind of horrors we’ve witnessed more graphically in other war films have here a less threatening impact. Nowhere is this illustrated better than during glimpses of Kristalnacht (Crystal Night) where Nazis spent a night in 1938 attacking Jews in the streets and smashing the windows of Jewish businesses, all played to the backdrop of an angelic choir of children’s voices singing a song of anti-communist and anti-Jewish sentiment.
The widescreen cinematography by Florian Ballhaus is continually well-framed and solid throughout, while John Williams’ score, like the film itself, is tasteful and restrained. The whole film has the look and feel of a foreign movie enhanced further by the occasional use of the German language supported by subtitles, though here things can sometimes feel somewhat odd. Characters speak mostly English with German accents, but now and again they break in to German words or phrases, as in Nein for No. It’s jarring, particularly when the town’s mayor gives a whole, impassioned speech in German during the book burning rally. The jumping of languages doesn’t make sense.
The Book Thief can be interpreted to be about many things, but principally it’s about the power of words. Leisel discovers her strength and her ability to continue under terrible circumstances through the joy of reading and what pictures those words inspire in the mind. When a group of young German boys learn that war has broken out they run through the streets in joyous celebration while the voice of Death observes that when young men run at the enemy “…They’re really running towards me.” We don’t need to see their fate; the impact of what Death is saying is just as effective.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 length; 125 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)
The Superman reboot, Man of Steel, is really a 148 minute prologue, a lengthy introduction to what I’m sure Warner Brothers hopes will be a hugely profitable franchise in the way the Dark Knight was. British actor Henry Cavill makes a good-looking Superman. Whether he can act is difficult to tell as the screenplay asks of only one expression throughout; one of mournful concern. Director Zac Snyder can make things look great and he excels when directing the action, but like his previous outings – 300, Watchmen and particularly Sucker Punch - he appears to have lost the ability to tell a story in the process. In the end it feels as though he’s just piling it on, determined to give an audience its money’s worth with eye-popping images but neglecting to tell a worthwhile tale in the process. The gloomy, introspective, heavy approach may have worked for the Dark Knight, but let’s face it, even though the designers have muted the bright, comic book colors of Superman’s costume, it’s still a film about a guy flying around in a red cape wearing blue tights and little red boots; you’d think there’d be a moment of levity in there somewhere. Available in DVD, Blu-Ray and Blu-Ray 3D.
Thirteen Days is a thoroughly engrossing drama that hit the screens in 2000. In keeping with all the salutes and memories of JFK, releasing the DVD on a new Blu-Ray disc is a sensible move; it serves as a reminder of just how good the film was. The story covers the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 as seen from the White House. Bruce Greenwood plays JFK, but the central character is surprisingly not the President, it’s his special assistant, Kenneth O’Donnell, here played by Kevin Costner. When the film was originally released, critical reception was mostly positive but audiences didn’t take to it with quite the same enthusiasm. If you missed it, now’s your chance, and even though the same ground was covered in the 1974 film The Missiles of October, Thirteen Days is a better film. You’ll come away with a much better understanding of what happened. Available on Blu-Ray.
Speaking of Kevin Costner, the actor turns up again in another political drama, only this one is considerably more famous. Oliver Stone’s JFK is first and foremost a drama but it moves like a fast action thriller. The film examines the events that occurred after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The groundwork is similar to the recent docudrama
For more film and local theatre, CLICK HERE for the David Appleford Film & Theatre Review website.