Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Out of the Furnace, and The Book Thief

        Dragons and Inbreds and Nazis, Oh My!

                Review by Ken Burke
                             The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Second installment of Bilbo Baggins’ journey with dwarves and a wizard to liberate a kingdom’s treasure from a dragon; lots of action but still feels like it’s marking time.

                              Out of the Furnace
Hard-luck guy gets even more trouble when his brother disappears into the hillbilly-hills-domain of a vicious kingpin; heavy on bloody-boxing and angry-revenge scenes.
                              The Book Thief
WW II story of a foster child and her non-Nazi parents attempting to live a normal life under an oppressive regime, with a focus on her love for literature and human decency.

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Almost a year ago I posted my review of the first episode of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit franchise (the first one to come out after our Two Guys first anniversary, coincidentally just as this one follows last week’s second anniversary posting), where I based a lot of my complaints on the situation that this was only the beginning of a 3-movie-extension of a book that barely gets to page 287 in total (in the Ballantine Books paperback edition that I bought many a decade ago), while the shortest of the 3 The Lord of the Rings novels (The Two Towers) runs to 447 pages (Ballantine again, an edition without any appendices or other enhancements) yet was transformed very effectively into a single-3-hour-movie with little lost from the standard literary-compression-process (some of which is recouped in the DVD Extended Edition with an addition of another 30 minutes).  Whatever my complaints from 2012, they’re magnified this year when Jackson presents another episode approaching the 3-hour-mark (OK, a mere 161 min.) that moves our intrepid explorer team of 13 dwarfs, 1 hobbit, and 1 wizard a relatively small distance just from the east side of the Misty Mountains, through the dangers of Mirkwood Forest, and into the Lonely Mountain of the former dwarf kingdom of Erebor, where they finally confront the great dragon, Smaug, actions which occupy only 115 pages in the book (the first Hobbit movie came even closer to 3 hours—169 min. based on just 105 pages of the original, but it gets worse for the final chapter next year in which we’ll get another oversized-edition based on a mere 54 pages of the final actions of Bilbo’s journey, so be prepared for even more non-stop-battles than we’ve had in these first 2 Hobbit excursions, although there’s only 1 last orc attack in J.R.R. Tolkien’s book so you may have plenty of time for a mid-movie-popcorn-run if Jackson has to stretch that out for at least 1 of his likely 3-hour scenarios).  As I further noted in my year-ago-review of the first installment of these Hobbit encounters, this is one page-to-screen-adaptation where I’ve read the original (although in a few cases I get to the print version after-the-fact of the screening, as with Solomon Northup‘s 12 Years a Slave—a compelling account of our former “peculiar institution” [film version directed by Steve McQueen, just chosen by the San Francisco Film Critics Circle as their Best Film of 2013 (a decision I heartedly agree with based on my highly-positive review, at least until I see a few of the last top-notch releases for this year), along with Best Adapted Screenplay (John Ridley), and Best Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor)]), although the last time for The Hobbit was decades ago in my graduate-school-days so I make no pretense at remembering details nor comparing the strengths of one medium to the other.  What I do remember, though, is that it was an engaging, smooth read (even if I did have to consult the provided maps of Middle Earth frequently in order to keep this unfamiliar geography clear in my mind’s eye) which didn’t feel padded just to fill pages; would that I could offer the same compliment for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

That’s not to say that there aren’t oodles of impressive visuals to be found in this current release (which looks natural and dynamic in 3-D [to my eyes anyway] if you want to wager the extra cash for this version), such as the wonderfully-rendered-scene pictured here where hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) scurries up to the top of a Mirkwood tree to get an orientation on how to get through this thickly-wooded place of danger once the needed path eludes our travelers.  As he pops over the top of the upper branches a marvelous flock of colorful butterflies fills the air around him, providing an uplifting attitude of possibility and hope that stands in stark relief to the ugly orcs and giant spiders, as well as the ferocious dragon, that our heroes must subdue in order to achieve their quest.  Other scenes are equally impressive as visual experiences in themselves, either because of the dazzling-computer-created-images such as the intricate architecture and acres of gold in their own glittering mini-“mountain range” that Bilbo eventually finds under the Lonely Mountain as this episode nears its long-awaited end (I’m assuming I don’t have to shout out my occasional repetition of our standard Two Guys Spoiler Alerts here because if you’re among the few dozen beings in our solar system who either haven’t read the book or already seen the movie then you’re just as likely to get by on my past-shelf-life-review as you are to actually spending big bucks to see Middle Earth in 3-D) or the spectacular scenery of actual locations in New Zealand (gotta go there sometime), which has sustained all of Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations so far, just as the battle and river-escape scenes with those constantly-pursuing-orcs rarely give your adrenalin a chance to ease up, but we all know what too much sound and fury often signifies … well, it sure ain’t something as far as I'm concerned, even though I’ve seen lots of reviews of this hobbled-hobbit-tale that find it to be “somethin’ else,” with those critics enjoying much greater pleasure in it that I’m able to muster (for once, my 3-star/60% average falls below that of the Rotten Tomatoes [74%] and Metacritic [66%] numbers, although I’m back up to my old tricks with the other 2 offerings under review this week where I’m notably nicer than they are, even though I’ve held myself back from potentially higher ratings in both cases).

       So, assuming that you know who’s going where and why in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (but if not you can refer to this marvelous resource that addresses the whole of Middle Earth’s chronology) and not wanting to get too repetitious of things I was complaining about the first time around it would be most useful to note the new inclusions here (along with expressing pleasure at once again seeing Gandalf [Ian McKellen], Bilbo, head dwarf Thorin Oakenshield [Richard Armitage] and the rest of his dwarves, Legolas [Orlando Bloom] the extremely-athletic-elf, and even a brief appearance of ethereal-elf Galadriel [Cate Blanchett, poised in my opinion as Oscar’s Best Actress top-contender for Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, an opinion shared as well by the San Francisco Film Critics Circle]), especially a character who seems semi-marginal at first but soon takes on more importance, then will become vital in the final episode, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) of Esgaroth or Laketown, a location close to The Lonely Mountain—just to sustain “suspense” I won’t note what’s so vital about him in this review, but you can wait another year for the finale can’t you?  (If not, just read the book, or if you’re in even more of a hurry then consult the aforementioned timeline link for the Third Age 2941 entries, or if you really want details of The Hobbit’s story you can consult this site for an even more extensive timeline and map, but to enhance your knowledge of all-things-Bard you should know that he carries the shame of his ancestor having failed at killing Smaug long ago).  You also have the addition of a monster that has a personality (rather than just being an uglier-than-the-next-one-orc) in Smaug, given that he’s voiced by the amazingly-versatile Benedict Cumberbatch—who also supplies the brief vocalization of the ultimate-evil-once-again-returning-to-a-material-state (Hey, J.K. Rowling, didn’t you have an idea about something like that once?  Or maybe you read it somewhere?), The Necromancer, whom Gandalf recognizes as the ancient villain Sauron, but further development of his presence will have to wait (I assume, but, again, something’s got to fill up that third Hobbit movie next year) until they tangle again in The Lord of the Rings stories (further adding to the mild frustration that those books were adapted to screen first when it would have been so much more satisfying to have begun with [a less-extensive-version of] The Hobbit, then blossomed into the larger, more all-encompassing events, but such are the limitations of history and studio-financing-decisions).

And don’t put it past Peter Jackson to pump up that final Hobbit installment by adding whatever he can think of to stretch to his 3-hour-standard because he’s already done it this year by creating a non-Tolkien-character, the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who can match Legolas arrow-for-arrow in combat against the orcs but shifts a bit from war to love by becoming interested in one of her supposed-mortal-enemies, Kili the dwarf (Aiden Turner), creating a bit of a tense triangle as Legolas has his eye on her, even though as an elf prince (son of King Thranduil [Lee Pace]) he’s not supposed to be seeking mates from among the mere warrior corps.  She kicks a lot of orc butt this time, so we’ll just have to see what Mr. Jackson has in store for her when next we all meet.  For now, she and Legolas are still being exhorted to maintain the long-standing-elfish-enmity toward the dwarves that can be traced back to when Thorin’s royal ancestor and his materially-fixated clan were driven out of Eredor by Smaug, re-stirring the ancient bad blood between these beings when the isolationist-elves refused to come to the aid of the expelled dwarves, modified in the present only by the reality that orcs are a more deadly enemy so the elves find it easy enough for now to save the Laketown people and the wounded Kili (shot by an orc arrow as our adventurers made their daring-barrel-escape down the river out of the elves’ kingdom, thanks to Bilbo’s invisibility tactics of his occasional use of the One Ring he found back in the first Hobbit movie, the most mysterious object any of them will ever encounter but one that frightens Bilbo with the evil shadows that it reveals) from an invasion by these mega-ugly beasts.  Bilbo also proves his worth by figuring out the prophecy that allows his company to enter the Lonely Mountain through a magic door, where his task is to retrieve the legendary Arkenstone, a source of power and symbol of unification of Thorin’s far-flung-clan, without waking Smaug.  But what would these Hobbit/Rings stories be if anything went that smoothly, so of course the beast roars again, but instead of merely destroying Bilbo and the dwarves (there must be a rock band somewhere with that name) Smaug heads off to Laketown to really show his anger, leaving us in the typical-second-act-of-a-trilogy-suspended-state-of-tension as the screen fades to black and the credits roll, acknowledging the army of actors, cinema wizards, and technical-foot-soldiers needed to create something of this magnitude, stretched out as its story may be (scenes that seemed particularly long to me included the barreling-down-the-river-escape from the elves’ Woodland Realm of Northern Mirkwood as well as Smaug chasing the dwarves around his vast under-the-mountain-chambers until they trick him into firing up the great furnaces [the guys in the next film to be reviewed could have used his help with that in trying to keep their version of a metal mill in operation in rural Pennsylvania], resulting finally in him being covered in molten gold but all that did was make him angrier as he flies off to destroy Laketown)The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a grand demonstration of how a visually-assaultive-movie can be effectively created without being constrained by the limits of landscape-based-cinematography, but it just drags on for too long, building us up to the sudden-but-final-pause where we know that we’ve got to wait even longer for this story to finally find its resting place.  Accordingly, I’ll begin this week’s collection of musical metaphors to accompany the filmic product with something that has no connection to this movie’s content but rather its ultimate impact, The Beatles’ “Long, Long, Long” (from their 1968 “The White Album,” officially titled The BEATLES) at http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=ef2MIhOphhc (with imagery from their Maharishi Mahesh Yogi days in India, but if you want something REALLY LOOONG [and enigmatically-fascinating] here’s another version of that song stretched [800% supposedly] to a 24:37 re-creation at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jFCNMInuhSw  [Just kidding, Peter; don’t get any Hobbit ideas from this, please!]).

Other long (and involved) matters have occupied my attention lately so I’ve been a bit late getting around to Out of the Furnace (Scott Cooper), admittedly because I read a couple of local San Francisco-area reviews that were not supportive, essentially saying that it was too predictable despite some fine acting from the many name-brand-performers who populate it (that opinion seems to have prevailed at the box office as well where on its opening weekend it brought in just over $5 million—even at the #3 overall position, far behind the animated feature Frozen [Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee] at about $31.6 million and the slowly-declining-but-still-hugely-successful The Hunger Games: Catching Fire [Francis Lawrence] at $26.1 million, with both of those having already been out for 2 weeks prior).  However, thanks to my wife, Nina’s, insightful intuition and a few other reviews from around the country that were more positive (now I’m not sure who they were because I see that the Tomato Tossers offered only 52% while the Metacritics were just a bit better at 64% [more details far below if you like], so once again I’m finding myself in the lonely position of joining only a few positive voices in the wilderness, but at least Richard Roeper is one of them which helps my sensibilities somewhat [to quote Mr. Zimmerman from "Talkin’ New York" (Bob Dylan album, 1962):  “Wintertime in New York town/The wind blowin’ snow around/Walk around with nowhere to go/Somebody could freeze right to the bone/I froze right to the bone/New York Times said it was the coldest winter in seventeen years/I didn’t feel so cold then”—OK, I can’t resist; here’s the whole song if you want to give a listen) we decided to check it out anyway and found it to be generally quite worth our time (although my impression is that Nina was more taken by it than I was, possibly because of how she was even further affected by the overall intensity of the situations depicted and the unrelenting grim personas of Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson—for the latter, in a role a far cry from alcoholic-cynic Haymitch Abernathy in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire; his grotesquely violent character in Out of the Furnace is usually heavily under some substance influence as well—more often crystal meth than cheap liquor [moonshine, for all I know], but this guy is just pure evil, not merely disturbed at the state of his society because … Furnace’s Harlan DeGroat is quite pleased with the only society he cares about: the somewhat-human-beasts [on their way to becoming orcs] who live up in the New Jersey Appalachians within his drug-and-“fight-club”-domain where he’s as close to a king as you can get without a drop of either royal blood or decency in your veins).

Essentially, what you have in Out of the Furnace is a dark story about a decent guy, Russell Baze (not to be confused with a race horse jockey of the same name with the most wins in North American history, a man who’s actually won some money for me at the Alameda Country Fair races in past summers—not much, though, because cheapskate me won’t put down more than $2 per bet), played by the constantly-watchable Christian Bale (just wait until we get to his role in American Hustle [David O. Russell] next week), who’s metaphorically given his life to working in his hard-scrabble-Pennsylvania-Rust-Belt-steel-mill-town only to see everything around him fall apart:  his Dad, Rodney Baze Sr. (Bingo O'Malley), is very sick from literally giving his life to that mill (he’ll eventually die); his brother, Rodney Jr. (Casey Affleck), is suffering a bad case of PTSD after a couple of brutal stints in Iraq; following a couple of drinks one night while waiting uselessly in frustration for his hot-headed-younger-brother to show up, Russ accidently crashes on his way home when a car suddenly pulls in front of him, killing a mother and her child, so he’s off to prison for an unspecified term (I assume for involuntary manslaughter, compounded by the alcohol); when he’s out he finds that his lover, Lena Taylor (Zoe Saldana), has taken up with the local police chief, Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker), because she’s pregnant; then, to cap it all off, his out-of-work-brother (who refuses to consider the mill after what’s it’s done to Dad) loses a wad to a bookie, John Petty (Willem Dafoe), so Jr. sets out to clear his debts by heading into rural New Jersey to make some fast cash in Harlan’s brutal beatdowns (I’ve never met a Harlan, but the only ones I remember from movies are this monster and the foul rapist [Timothy Carhart] who cashed in early in Thelma and Louise [Ridley Scott, 1991], so I doubt this will be a name possibility for any future cats in our house), only to turn up missing, causing Russ and Uncle “Red” (Sam Shepard) to head east a few hundred miles into those lawless hills on a desperate rescue mission.  What they don’t know yet is that Harlan’s despicability knows no bounds so that even after superior-puncher-Rodney agrees to throw the fight in order to beef up Harlan’s take the backwoods impresario still expected cash for the debt owed to him by Rodney’s “manager,” Petty, so he viciously kills both of them (although we don’t actually see Rodney dead yet when the scene fades to black, so based on what we’ve come to expect from the trailer we hold out hope that he’s still alive somehow, only to have that dashed soon after when his body’s found by New Jersey troopers).  By the time Russ gets his latest dose of bad news he’s back home after he and “Red” were run out of the neighboring state by NJ police cooperating with Chief Barnes who’s both playing by the jurisdictional book and continuing to blame Russ for the deaths of the innocents that sent him away previously (not to mention his jealousy that Lena still has the hots for Russ, despite her determination not to answer those urges).  Not one to give up easily, Russ concocts a scheme to entice Harlan to the mill town in order to collect that still-outstanding-debt from Petty’s partner in a local bar, all as an attempt to ambush DeGroat in retaliation for Rodney, prison-return-for-first-degree-murder-be-damned.

You should know by now that bloodshed is a principal dramatic element here, so a couple of others are dead by the time that Russ finally gets control of the wounded Harlan, then terminates him in full view of Chief Barnes who’s screaming for Russ not to shoot (in the back of the head, no less, as DeGroat is slowly limping away in what would be an easy arrest for proper police procedure).  Yet, in a quick final shot we see Russ in what looks like a woodland cabin somewhere, leaving us with the impression that Barnes and his deputies somehow let him go (“Round up the usual suspects!” [If I have to explain it, go watch Casablanca [Michael Curtiz, 1942], as you should have already, at least a dozen times) in a final acknowledgement of the preeminence-of-the-spirit-if-not-the-letter-of-the-law in this constantly-struggling-to-get-by-world and the penance already paid by Russ in his miserable life so far.  Unless you’re a died-in-the-wool-law-and-order-no-matter-the-extenuating-circumstances-devotee you should be able to appreciate this final act of grace on Chief Barnes’ part (in much the same way that you’re expected to accept boxing-trainer Frankie Dunn’s [Clint Eastwood] mercy killing of paralyzed-boxer Maggie Fitzgerald [Hilary Swank], also with no retribution as he simply slips away into the night in Million Dollar Baby [Eastwood, 2004]), given that Russ appears (briefly, before the final fade-out) to have finally achieved some peace in his compromised life, even though we know that nothing is likely to get better in his miserable home town during the devastation of the Great Recession and its aftermath (there’s a clear clue that this all takes place in 2008 as some guys in the bar distractedly watch Ted Kennedy speaking in favor of Barack Obama’s first-term candidacy, trying to offer hope that won't trickle down anytime soon to this failing-industrial-region) nor will other desperate souls likely escape a life of bone-shattering-cruelty as hopelessness leads them into various kinds of beatings-for-bet-money, either in the shadows of the mill (unless it’s closed by now) or back up in the God-forsaken-hills where Harlan’s replacements will still be cooking meth and destroying lives for their own pleasure and sustenance.  There’s not much to live for in Out of the Furnace, except some sense of family loyalty (Russ) or a different sense of misbegotten-entitlement (Harlan), so don’t consider seeing this for any sort of previous-era-Charles-Bronson-revenge-and-restitution-climaxes, as characters you assume will survive don’t and the end for DeGroat is more preordained than you’d expect, because once he realizes he’s been set up cleverly (which, given his feeble brain power, as opposed to his flaming fists—as we see in the opening scene at a drive-in movie [you know you’re close to or truly out in the sticks if you’ve still got access to one of those] where he attacks his date [Dendrie Taylor] by shoving a hot dog wiener down her throat for laughing as he gets nauseous from the grubby food, then pounds a guy to a pulp for daring to try to interfere—doesn’t take a lot of strategy to outmaneuver as long as you’ve got proper firepower to back it up) he really doesn’t fare well against Russ who fiercely overcomes Harlan’s counter-attacks and easily ends with the upper hand, taking his kill shot from a distance so there’s none of the face-to-face “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it” finale that so decidedly finishes off brutally-pompous-sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) when William Munny (Clint Eastwood) fires a shotgun into his face in Unforgiven (Eastwood, 1992, netting his other Best Picture and Best Director Oscars prior to the same for Million Dollar Baby).

     So, if assumed survivors die and there’s no glory in revenge, what do we have in Out of the Furnace that makes it worth your time?  One thing is consistently-superior-acting from a host of well-established-screen-veterans who produce a marvelous ensemble group (even if the recently announced Screen Actors Guild 2013 nominations [due to some Internet weirdness you have to go this linked site first, then click on the first item under Press Releases because I can’t link you here to what you get when you go to the nominations page] didn’t recognize this but instead took the cast from Lee Daniels’ The Butler, along with nominating Whitaker for his title role in that film rather than Bale as a candidate for Best Actor, whom I’d likely put in the finalists but for his performance in American Hustle instead of this film).  Another positive aspect of Out of the Furnace is a no-nonsense depiction of life on the edge both for the dying industries of physical laborers (at least in the U.S.) in a global economy where big, bulky things aren’t nearly as commercially-profitable as little electronic gizmos and for the returning veterans of these damn endless Middle East wars that gobble up endless lives and resources for no appreciable difference in geopolitical stability yet dump thousands of damaged ex-soldiers back into a society unable to mend all of them, leaving the most unfortunate ones looking for stability and/or paydays in built-to-fail-situations such as the devious schemes of Harlan DeGroat.  And, finally, we have DeGroat himself, the product of isolated, insulated generations of anti-social-anti-society-hillbillies of the worst sort (far removed from the relatively-benign-hooch-peddlers in the Discovery Channel’s TV series, Moonshiners, who hide in the hills considerably south of New Jersey), a grotesquely violent kingpin who lives only to satisfy himself with whatever tactics it takes to break anyone who fails to heed his authority, yet even in his maniacal manner he’s a fascinating character with a resonance of Heath Ledger’s more-intelligent-higher-stakes anarchist, The Joker, in The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)—or even Harrelson's own homicidal-fame-seeker in Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994).  You shudder to see Harlan DeGroat pound his way into whatever outcome he desires, but you can’t help but be fascinated with such a dominating presence, even if you hope to never be within 500 miles of him.  Maybe you don’t want to be within viewing distance of Out of the Furnace either, because it may not come across as a compelling story for you as it didn’t for my local taste-makers or because the content is too disturbing, as nothing short of cunning vigilantism seems to have a chance against agents of self-sustaining-destruction, but if you’re willing to watch a downbeat tale of what confronts those who don’t have the escape hatches to more stable lives that heritage, education, or just good fortune often provide, then I think you’ll find something disturbingly-worthwhile in Out of the Furnace(Although I can’t argue with anyone who says that if you want to see a superior film about steel-mill-Pennsylvania, shooting animals in the forest [or not, as Russ goes out for venison with Uncle “Red” but finds that he no longer has the stomach for killing a noble buck, although “Red” does so we have parallel scenes of their kill being bled out back home while Rodney Jr.’s being bloodied as well as he allows himself to be pounded in his DeGroat-run battle with a guy he could easily have beaten], and observing the traumas suffered by ex-G.I.’s returning from war, then you should just rent The Deer Hunter [Michael Cimino, 1978], a Best Picture Oscar winner with its own all-star cast of Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, John Cazale, and Meryl Streep.  They’re different films entirely, with different themes built around these similar elements, but if you’re familiar with this harrowing story of the impact of the Vietnam War on previously-patriotic-homeboys then it may be difficult to keep from thinking of it when reminded of similar narrative elements in Out of the Furnace, so I’ll leave that decision up to you as to whether to consider the new one or not.  And speaking of similarities, here’s my musical metaphor for Out of the Furnace, Billy Joel’s “Allentown” [from the 1982 The Nylon Curtain album] at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BHnJp0oyOxs, about as obvious as you can get but appropriate nevertheless.)

Similarly, if you want to venture back a couple of generations to the horror days of WW II to revisit another troubled society that’s often found its way onto movie screens—people burdened by the genocidal Nazis—then you might want to see the perspective of how they imposed themselves on ordinary German citizens who weren’t in support of their inhuman policies in The Book Thief (Brian Percival).  While the situations depicted here are reminiscent of a host of other Holocaust-era films, the particulars may feel a bit different to you because: (1) While the main protagonist, Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), often runs afoul of the strict regiment of the government dictators, she’s German (not Jewish, homosexual, communist, Catholic, Roma [gypsy], or any of the other members of European society that were the explicit targets of Hitler’s purges) so her life isn’t in immanent danger just because of her heritage, although her family does bring trouble upon themselves that could have been disastrous for them; (2) In regard to this last point we see more of a focus here on intra-German conflicts as many within the Nazi regime’s grip of power were not in league with their surface subordination to the new order so it’s interesting to see the struggles of Germans vs. other Germans during this time of oppression (related—but with a different focus—to Lore [Cate Shortland, 2012], released in the U.S. last spring about the immediate postwar situation where families of now-deposed Nazis found themselves the target of retribution from their formerly-oppressed neighbors) ; and (3) Most importantly for differentiation, this film is narrated by Death, which gives us an interesting perspective on how the most-powerful-but-neutral-force-in-existence looks at human life and its fragile nature where his/her/its (the voice is male but a lot of other vocalization in this film isn’t literally what’s being spoken [that is, the story takes place within a German community where all graphics and some speech is in that native language [especially when spoken by Nazi overlords] but much of the dialogue is presented in English—delivered with German accents, just to remind us of the artificiality of the double-speak-system being employed here—for the benefit of promoting the film mainly to English-speaking viewers, so who are we to say that what we hear is Death’s “true” voice instead of another needed contrivance to match audience expectations) commentary ruminates upon the events that Death must participate in (especially reaping the souls of the innocent multitudes condemned by war-mongering-social-anarchists, even those in power via elections) but leaving the impression that Death itself is unable to actively determine when someone’s time is up, with those choices seemingly made by Fate or some more specific Higher Power.  (Although those concepts aren’t articulated in the film; as is often the case—except for rare examples like The Hobbit—I can offer no clue as to how such lofty situations may be discussed in the book, although my well-read-wife, Nina, has consumed this lengthy novel, in which our unusual narrator has a much more active presence that we find in the film adaptation, and assures me that the essence of the original is conveyed properly in the new version and that no metaphysical explanations about the afterlife are offered by Death in the original, although the crafty structure of eloquent-language-usage has been sacrificed, as usual, for the narrative needs of straightforward-film-plot-exposition; therefore, any brilliant comments I make about what’s contained in the cinematic The Book Thief should result in high praise to me while any glaring errors or misstatements are all Nina’s fault—fair enough?  I thought so.)

So, Death (whom, as a character, we don’t find in a lot of well-known movies, although in various guises Death does pop up in hundreds of cinema and TV examples as catalogued at http://www.imdb.com /character/ch0035562/, a list which vastly exceeds my direct knowledge [and, extensive as it is, may have missed some other notable inclusions such as Jessica Lange, named Angelique but clearly intended as the Angel of Death in Bob Fosse’s 1979 All That Jazz], but I’ll wager that most of the time the appearance is brief, used for dramatic impact rather than as an ongoing presence in the narrative such the finest presence of Death on celluloid that I’ve ever seen, played by Bengt Ekerot in Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 The Seventh Seal) proceeds to tell us how in 1938 Liesel comes to live with her foster parents, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) Hubermann, after her mother is sent off to prison for being a communist, leaving this almost-teenager in a situation where her much-younger-brother has died enroute, her new Mama seems initially to be a grumpy tyrant, her new Papa is much more sympathetic to her plight, and her new schoolmates ridicule her for being illiterate (except for welcoming neighbor, Rudy Steiner [Nico Liersch]—an aspiring track-star-kid who brings trouble on himself as well from his peers by emulating African-American Jesse Owens, star-gold-medalist of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin [immortalized in Leni Riefenstahl’s brilliantly-shot-and-edited 1938 documentary, Olympia, even though his victories were a repudiation of Hitler’s concept of a Nordic “master race”; within The Book Thief we get some grainy footage of Owens which might have been from Olympia, but if so I missed the attribution in the final credits]--but then they all back off when she shows that she’s no wimp by beating up the boy who’s most antagonistic toward her, Franz Deutscher [Levin Liam]).  From this beginning the story moves through several years of Liesel’s growing awareness of the horrors evolving around her—with her command of written language helped along by Papa and Rudy—and her witnessing of/participation in resistance to the authoritarian horrors imposed upon everyone under Nazi domination until Allied victory in 1945.

One of the complications that Liesel learns to understand about life is how much power lies in loyalty when Hans and Rosa take in Max Vandenburg to hide in their basement after the horrors of Kristallnacht (if you need info on this 1938 event there’s lots to be found on it and related situations at http://www. ushmm.org/information/ exhibitions/online-features/special-focus/ kristallnacht, but you get an immediate understanding in the film with the juxtaposition of shots of Liesel and Rudy as part of a large Nazi children’s choir singing of the wonders of the Fatherland as its militant representatives bring destruction to Jewish communities throughout the country) make it clear that no Jew is safe any longer anywhere within the Nazi empire (this is done not just as an humanitarian gesture by Hans but also in repayment to Max’s father for saving his life back in WW I, demonstrating Han’s sense of devotion to justice even when it presents great danger to him and his family; he does the same in a much briefer manner by trying to appeal for mercy for a local shopkeeper suddenly unmasked as Jewish but, unlike the lengthy shelter provided for Max with no repercussions until their lodger quietly sneaks away in the night to save the family from danger should he be discovered, the spontaneous challenge that Hans presents to the arresting officer is likely in a factor in his conscription later on, when even war-weary Germany would likely have little to gain from sending such an old former soldier back into the battlefield [but at least he returns soon after, not too much the further worse-for-wear except for impacted hearing abilities]).  As Liesel spends more time with Max, though, reading to him during his prolonged period of illness, she comes to further her love of literature, even though the books are being borrowed from the home library of local Buergmeister Hermann (Rainer Bock), where the window is conveniently always unlocked (probably through the help of his wife, Ilsa [Barbara Auer], who wants to encourage Liesel’s ever-growing literacy and command of language even though her harsh husband has banned the girl from his house when he caught her there reading under Ilsa's supervision).  Liesel’s words become her refuge as she finally starts recording her thoughts in a journal given to her by Max, ironically a copy of Hitler’s autobiographical Mein Kampf with the pages painted over in white to both eradicate his foul anti-Semitic ideology and to allow her to replace it with anti-Reich-reminiscences.  As the war grinds on this journal will remain as her only connection to the principal components of her relocated life after an Allied bombing raid mistakenly (so Death tells us, regarding an event that provided “him” with plenty of work that night) strikes Liesel’s Himmel Street, killing her foster parents, Rudi, and many of her neighbors.  Victory against the Nazis finally comes, though, allowing her to meet up with Max again briefly, then grow old (90) before Death comes to reunite her with all whom she lost during the war, after a fine life blessed with a family and literary success as an author.  Even Death is charmed by her, noting that she’s the only one of his countless assignments who ever gave him true curiosity about what it must be like to be alive (a theme similar to the more ethereal, haunting tale of an angel, Damiel [Bruno Ganz], who so yearns to feel the pulse of life that he sacrifices his immortality to engage in a relatively short span as a human, beginning already in middle-age but now able to share passion with a woman he’s long watched and admired in Wim Wender’s fascinating Wings of Desire [1987], a film on an entirely different cinematic plane from the moving-yet-calculatedly-sentimental story of The Book Thief—at least in filmic form, although it may be more interpersonally-powerful in the original novel).

Liesel’s harsh journey through the terrifying years of WWII provide another insight into what the war was like for those Germans who weren’t simply the evil enemy as portrayed in innumerable American- and British-based movies about the soul-destroying-cruelty of the Nazis as seen from the perspective of the victims of their insanity (with Schindler’s List [Steven Spielberg, 1993] as one of the most insightful; if you can ever visit Krakow [near the haunted memorial museum that is the remains of the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp] I highly encourage you to visit Schindler’s actual factory there which has been transformed into a mesmerizing museum of the city before, during, and after the war years) or as target-practice for the liberating armies (with Saving Private Ryan [Spielberg, 1998; the director’s other Best Director Oscar winner] one of the best of this type).  Everything we see here is about ordinary citizens in the small town of Molching (a fictional location, set on the outskirts of Munich, although there is an actual German city of Olching, also close to Munich which did suffer a bombing raid in WW II) or the various army and SS officers who come there in search of hidden Jews or to conscript residents (Hans and Rudy primarily in our story) for the Führer’s various forces (Rudy was to be trained as an elite athlete to further the cause of "Aryan superiority").  We see how blind-obedience to the Third-Reich-worldview became an accepted way of life with even our eventual-Hitler-hating protagonist forced to attend school in her Hitler Youth uniform and Hans being upbraided by some of his neighbors for not joining the party or displaying his swastika-flag more actively, but like fish in a constrained pond with nowhere else to go there was little alternative except to offer public expressions of obedience despite growing private abhorrence by our film’s primary family and a few of their acquaintances.  Yet, within all of this environment of rigid social control Liesel and her foster parents survive in a relatively unscathed manner until the destructive bombing; Max fights off a deadly illness and months of confinement in a cold, dark basement yet somehow escapes until after the war when he returns to visit Liesel; and she goes on to literary prominence over the rest of her life.  The camera pans across awards in her final dwelling as Death offers his final thoughts on his attraction to her life force—although we see not enough of that in the film as her initial sorrow of being separated from her birth mother is soon replaced by the warm acceptance of her foster parents so that the boldest actions she takes are her forays into the mayor’s library while harsher realities are faced by Hans, Rosa, and even Rudy, while implied threats from Franz recur but never materialize, yet the film—as does its source material—shows us nothing of how this orphaned young woman in the war-torn-residue of a city somehow made her way through those remaining 70 or so years after VE Day, how she transformed her love of words into words commanded by her vision, etc.; I’m not saying that we need another hour of story here (although more of Liesel and less of The Hobbit wouldn't be a bad trade) because I’m sure that in the book there’s a lot more of what seems to shape her spirit into something that even Death had never encountered (over all the millennia of humankind?), but as far as the film is concerned I see her as a loving, literature-obsessed, vital element of a resistance-attitude-pocket within a likely-typical-German-community of this era but not as the shining light of human existence that she’s hailed as by the Ultimate Arbitrator of all of our existences—or at least the Ultimate Entity who comes to collect our souls after Whomever else decides that out time on Earth is concluded, whether we're ready to depart or not.

The setting, the acting quality, the sincere beliefs of the characters in The Book Thief are all well-conveyed, but, despite its novel approaches (apparently well-inspired by the source novel itself, based on my quick skimming), and highly-sympathetic-central-character, I just couldn’t get as moved by the film as I felt I was being encouraged to (although it had a much more successful impact on Nina, who could probably make a nice extra-pension-income by taking bribes from movie publicists to soften me up a bit more on films such as this one and Out of the Furnace, so if any of you PR guys with extra promo money to burn want to make a useful investment her email address is      [Never mind! It got erased.  I guess the Goggle censors who stopped me from getting any advertising revenue don’t want me to get any blog-related cash from that source, either.  Damn!]).  Overall this week I’ve found compelling points about all 3 of the filmic works under consideration, but when the ratings axe had to fall it just didn’t slice off as many stars as I thought each of these had the potential to reach, despite stupendous CGI in the latest Hobbit and some attractive, effective (even scorching, where Bale and Harrelson are concerned) acting in the others.  Come back next week, though, when the ante will be raised considerably with 2 of the heavier-hitting Oscar contenders, American Hustle and Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen).  In a move to get us into more frivolous territory for these upcoming mostly-comedies I’ll close out with my snarky musical metaphor for The Book Thief, assisted once again by The Beatles and their 1966 single “Paperback Writer” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnEhAHDRPHI, a rare video from their June 30, 1966 concert in Tokyo (but the sound quality is bad so if you want to hear the tune better here’s this recording at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxVlNy7vjoE, although the video quality is just as marginal as on the other one).  Further, it speaks to my review writing style (with this one being compiled on the last day of my year 65—hello, Social Security, next month, as I post this on the first day of year 66, now almost fully vested for those benefits [couldn't wait until age 70 because the bourbon supply might run out before then]) with lyrics such as “It’s a thousand pages, give or take a few/I’ll be writing more in a week or two,” which I’m sure you can appreciate—or endure—whether you’re a novice or regular reader of my William Faulkner/Pauline Kael-inspired-approach, so rest your eyes because I’ll be back soon!

If you’d like to know more about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug here are some suggested links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUhuWVfvmbE (3:05 information from Grace Randolph on new characters in this first of The Hobbit sequels)

If you’d like to know more about Out of the Furnace here are some suggested links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rl9NLWfbaiE (30:23 interview with actor Christian Bale)

If you’d like to know more about The Book Thief here are some suggested links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbIgReUB4OY (11:31 interview with actors Geoffrey Rush and Sophie Nélisse, director Brian Percivalon)

As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control.

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at kenburke409@gmail.com.  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. I agree that Out of the Furnace is a good film, should have been very good, and is saved by Cristian Bale's performance. The film and most of the screen time revolves around him, however the trailers make it look like Natural Born Killers Part 2 with Harrelson. While Killers was a strong film in it's time, nuturing an association was counterproductive by the marketing gurus.

    No doubt the Coen Brothers would have rewritten or eliminated the initial drive-in scene and the totally ridiculous conclusion. The film failed at these critical bookends which probably sunk the book office. Undoubtedly, secondary media and overseas sales will bail them out.

  2. Hi rj, Useful comments on strengths and weaknesses of Out of the Furnace which did make an impact on me but as it evolved it just didn't quite connect the way that I thought it would, especially with that odd ending. Thanks for the contribution. Ken

  3. To All Readers of Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark, I know nothing about the links noted above from Admin so I leave it to your individual discretion to check into them. If, however, anyone encounters viruses or the like from them please let me know so that I can remove these options from any further consideration here. Thanks, Ken