Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge)


Jack Sparrow in his usual befuddled state.

(2017) Adventure (Disney) Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, Golshifteh Farahani, David Wenham, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Stephen Graham, Paul McCartney, Angus Barnett, Martin Klebba, Delroy Atkinson, Bruce Spence, Adam Brown, Giles New, Danny Kirrane, Juan Carlos Vellido, Rodney Afif, Hannah Walters. Directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg

 

Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me! As a young lad venturing to Disneyland, the Pirates of the Caribbean was always one of my favorite rides. Gore Verbinski adapted the ride’s backstory into a rollicking supernatural adventure that became yet another lucrative license to print money for Disney. In many ways, the film franchise that developed from the theme park attraction has outstripped the ride of its place in pop culture.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) has fallen on hard times. With his beloved Black Pearl reduced to a ship in a bottle, he only commands a land-bound disaster of a boat, the Dying Gull. An attempt to rob a bank – by dragging it through the streets of Saint Martin by a team of horses, certainly a novel approach – ends up disastrously with most of his crew quitting in disgust.

In the meantime young Henry Turner (Thwaites), son of Will Turner (Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Knightley) has encountered the undead Captain Salazar (Bardem) who was lured into the Devil’s Triangle by a young Sparrow and cursed to remain there. Salazar spares Henry to pass on a message to Jack – “death is coming straight for you.”

Jack’s spectacular bank robbery failure has put him in touch with astronomer/horologist Carina Smyth (Scodelario) who has been studying the legendary Neptune’s Trident which supposedly gives the wielder control over all the seas. She believes she has discovered the location of the fabled relic; Jack needs it to protect himself from Salazar, Salazar needs it to restore his life and Henry needs it to restore his father to life so that he and his mother might be reunited permanently.

In the meantime Captain Barbossa (Rush), the former antagonist turned ally, also seeks the Trident for reasons of his own. All of these competing factions will collide on a desolate island; at stake is control of the oceans and of course their very lives.

With Verbinski out of the picture (although he remains in the capacity of a producer), Norwegian directors Ronning and Sandberg who previously teamed up on the epic Kon-Tiki take over the franchise and deliver a movie while not the best in the franchise history is not the worst either. The special effects are right up there with the first film in the series and while the plots are as convoluted as they tend to be in this series there is a little more personal background being revealed here. One of the main characters also has a major revelation that will affect the franchise should it continue on to a sixth film, which Disney seems to have every intention of doing.

I kinda hope that they don’t however. A lot of loose ends are tied up here and this would certainly make a fitting end for the franchise. It might also be a jumping off point for a new series although Thwaites and Scodelario don’t hold a candle to Bloom and Knightley in the parts that they play; the late-film cameo of the two veterans of the first three films only serve to highlight how much better the two were. It’s not that Thwaites and Scodelario are inferior actors, mind you – it’s just that the roles of Henry and Carina are way too similar to Will and Elizabeth that the differences are pretty much too minute to mention. The writer, Jeff Nathanson, definitely could have made the characters a little bit more distinct.

Depp has for better or worse made the role a signature and all the elements are there, but the charm is wearing off. I don’t get the sense that Depp is overly enthusiastic about continuing to play the role of Captain Jack; there’s only so much you can do with the role. He’s colorful, yes, but the part has become a parody of itself. In the first film, Jack was not just befuddled and lurching about like Dean Martin on a Saturday night, but also clever and occasionally vicious as well. You got the sense that his demeanor is something of a means to get others to underestimate him.

Sadly, there’s none of that in Depp’s performance now. Depp has resorted to mugging over acting; it could be that he literally has nothing more to add to the role. I’m certain that the paycheck is enough to entice him to do it and given the box office cold streak Depp has been done I’m sure the salary for these movies is welcome. Jack Sparrow has become a WYSIWYG role, a lovable drunk with all the charm that lovable drunks possess. Sad to say, that charm overstays its welcome when it comes to lovable drunks and I feel like the franchise has reached that point too where the antics become less endearing and more exasperating.

Bardem however was inspired casting. He is without a doubt one of the best in Hollywood at playing villainous characters, maybe one of the best of all time. Salazar would be a worthy adversary in any film but in some ways, his evil is wasted because none of the heroes hold a candle to him. Every franchise needs great villains but they also require the heroes to be the equal of those villains and Captain Jack has become more parody than pirate.

There are some nice action set pieces, particularly one involving a guillotine and another involving zombie sharks (which is teased in the trailer). Often a film franchise feels the need to one-up themselves when it comes to action sequences; wisely, Ronning and Sandberg resist the urge and instead use action sequences that fit the story more than dazzle the eye.

The series feels worn out and without ideas. If the franchise is to continue, I really think that it needs an infusion of fresh blood, no pun intended. Some shaking up needs to be done and the post-credits scene which strongly hints that there will be another film in the franchise, it also teases the return of one of the iconic villains of the series which seems almost a step back. I hope they go in a different direction if they do intend to make another film in the series.

REASONS TO GO: Bardem is one of the finest villains in Hollywood today. The loose ends of the franchise are tied up nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Thwaites and Scodelario are inadequate replacements for Bloom and Knightley. At times the plot seems to be spinning its wheels in a single place.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some action and violence as well as some mild sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The six year gap between films is the longest of the series; the running time of two hours and nine minutes is also the shortest run time of the franchise.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Treasure Planet
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: 68 Kills

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New Releases for the Week of May 26, 2017


PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES

(Disney) Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Kevin McNally. Directed by Joachim Renning and Espen Sandberg

Jack Sparrow returns to the high seas but not in the style in which he has been accustomed. Down on his luck having lost the Black Pearl, he ekes out a living pirating on the desultory Dying Gull, a small and shabby ship with a small and shabby crew. But as bad as things are, ill winds are blowing a storm in of biblical proportions as a deranged and enraged Spanish captain returns from the dead to wreak revenge on all pirates – particularly one named Jack Sparrow.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Fantasy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of adventure violence, and some suggestive content)

96 Souls

(Gravitas) Grinnell Morris, Sid Veda, Paul Statman, Toyin Moses. A university researcher, about to lose his funding, has an accident in the lab. Afterwards, he discovers he can see what the true intentions of people are. Like most superpowers, it makes his life a whole lot worse.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: NR

Baywatch

(Paramount) Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Alexandra Daddario, Priyanka Chopra. This reboot of the hit 90s TV series sees head lifeguard Mitch Buchanan budding heads with a new recruit – an Olympic champion who has been brought aboard to rehabilitate the fading Baywatch brand. When the two discover a criminal conspiracy that may threaten the bay and their livelihoods forever, the two are forced to take action.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release (opened Thursday)

Rating: R (for language throughout, crude sexual content and graphic nudity)

The Buena Vista Social Club: Adios

(Broad Green) Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal, Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuando. The sequel to the groundbreaking documentary looks back at the history of the Buena Vista Social Club and its effect on the music and culture of Cuba. With the island nation facing an uncertain future in the wake of the death of Fidel Castro and the loosening of embargo restrictions by the United States, the surviving members of the group look to be part of that future.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG (for historical smoking throughout, thematic elements and brief suggestive material)

Chuck

(IFC) Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts, Elisabeth Moss, Ron Perlman. Chuck Wepner was a mid-level boxer who’d had some success, but not really a lot of it. When Muhammad Ali, then the boxing champion of the world, decided he wanted to fight an underdog to celebrate America, Wepner was the boxer he chose. The improbable fight would eventually become the inspiration for Rocky.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Sports Biography
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for language throughout, drug use, sexuality/nudity and some bloody images)

David Lynch – The Art Life

(Janus/Amazon) David Lynch. Once the enfant terrible of filmmaking, Lynch went from cult classics like Eraserhead to Oscar nominees like The Elephant Man with stops at Dune, Videodrome and Twin Peaks along the way. This documentary looks at the creative process of Lynch who also looks at his less-known but equally brilliant career as a painter as well.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

Drone

(Screen Media) Sean Bean, Mary McCormack, Joel David Moore, Patrick Sabongui. A high-level defense contractor operates covert drone missions, then goes home to his wife and son and a suburban life far removed from what he does for a living. When a Pakistani businessman who believes the contractor was responsible for the death of his family, the contractor will have to come to grips not only with keeping himself and his family safe but also the guilt for the things that he’s done.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: NR

The Lovers

(A24) Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Aidan Gillen, Melora Walters. A middle-aged married couple has seen their marriage slowly lose its luster over the years. Both are in the middle of long-term affairs and both are growing more committed to their partners outside of their marriage. On the verge of calling it quits, something quite unexpected happens – they fall in love with each other all over again.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace

Rating: R (for sexuality and language)

Gods of Egypt


Choke like an Egyptian.

Choke like an Egyptian.

(2016) Swords and Sandals Fantasy (Summit) Gerard Butler, Nikolaj Koster-Waldau, Brenton Thwaites, Courtney Eaton, Elodie Yung, Bryan Brown, Rachel Blake, Emma Booth, Chadwick Boseman, Rufus Sewell, Alexander England, Goran D. Kleut, Yaya Deng, Geoffrey Rush, Abbey Lee, Kenneth Ransom, Bruce Spence, Robyn Nevin. Directed by Alex Proyas

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. What power, dare I say, is more absolute than that of a god? And if that’s the case, does that not make gods the most corrupt of all creatures?

Ancient Egypt had it’s share of Gods and at one time, they not only walked among men but they ruled as well. Osiris (Brown) who rules the Valley of the Nile is getting ready to pass the crown on to his son, Horus (Koster-Waldau). Attending the festivities are Bek (Thwaites), a thief and a bit of a con artist and his girlfriend Zaya (Eaton), a beautiful young lady with an eye for beautiful things.

Also attending is Set (Butler), the brother of Osiris who rules the desert. Having a kingdom of scorpions and sand to rule hasn’t exactly put him in the best of moods and being a treacherous sort, he takes the opportunity to seize power from his brother, murdering him in the process. He also fights Horus and defeats him, plucking out his eyes in the process.

This sets up a despotic rule in which Set enslaves most of the population of Egypt to build obelisks, towers and temples – to Set including one tower that rises higher than any in tribute to Ra (Rush), the sun god more powerful than any other and the father to Set and the late Osiris. Oh, and did I mention that the gods bleed molten gold? Not so much an important plot point as an interesting factoid, that.

In any case, with the architect Urshu (Sewell) designing these monuments to human misery and enslaving Zaya as his personal assistant, Zaya convinces Bek that the only way to alleviate the suffering is to get Horus back in the game and she happens to know where his eyes – well, one of them anyway – is being kept. Bek being the master thief that he is retrieves it but at a terrible cost.

Now with an emotional stake in the game, Bek delivers the eye to Horus in a temple way out in the middle of the desert. At first Horus is none to keen on involving himself in the affairs of humans but he does have a strong streak of vengeance. With the aid of Hathor (Yung), the goddess of love who happens to be Horus’ lover and Thoth (Boseman), the arrogant god of intelligence, Horus and Bek must divine a way to defeat the evil Set and set things right in Egypt but Set has some allies and monsters to throw against the small band of rebels.

This CGI-laden effects fest is directed by Proyas, who has in the past done some memorable work (The Crow, Dark City). He has shown himself to have an imaginative visual sense and that comes out in spades here. What he didn’t have was an adequate budget or a satisfactory script.

The CGI here is for the most part lame and there is nothing that can kill a movie more easily than bad CGI. It mostly looks shoddy and unrealistic, from the elephants hauling stone to the building sites that look like they came from a videogame twenty years ago, to vistas of cities that look like they came from websites ten years ago. I don’t know if the sheer amount of computer images overwhelmed the effects houses that the filmmakers contracted, or if they gave them unrealistic deadlines – or if they simply contracted cheaper effects houses that didn’t have the capabilities to pull off the work (most likely explanation). Whatever the cause, I was constantly pulled out of the movie because the effects were noticeably bad.

The script also has a lot of lapses of logic and is riddled with cliches. If you’re going to do an epic like this, the least you can do is at least try not to cobble together a story that steals elements from other movies, including some that aren’t very good. At times, it seemed like the story existed to show off the visual effects – and we all know how those turned out. And what’s the deal with making the gods slightly taller than the humans (by two to three feet)? It’s distracting and unnecessary. Horus looks like Plastic Man upon occasion; all he needed was the goggles.

At least Butler and Koster-Waldau acquit themselves as well as can be expected; both are dynamic actors who can at least command the attention of the audience. Rush provides some needed gravitas, although quite frankly one gets the sense that he also found the script ridiculous and made an effort to get this over with as quickly as possible. I imagine he won’t be including his work here on any audition tapes.

I will give credit where credit is due; as much bashing of the visuals as I’ve done, some of the visuals have some imagination to them which I can only assume come from Proyas as he has a history of such things. Unfortunately, there’s not enough of that to overcome the fact that this movie looks bad and tells its story badly. Only the charisma of the antagonists really saves this movie from being completely unwatchable which hopefully will translate to better movies for the both of them.

REASONS TO GO: Butler and Koster-Waldau make fine antagonists. Some imaginative visuals.
REASONS TO STAY: El Crappo CGI. Incoherent script lacks imagination.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of sexuality and plenty of fantasy violence and action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Proyas himself is Egyptian, born of Greek parents in the city of Alexandria.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 23/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Immortals
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Boom Bust Boom

Minions


Scarlet Overkill attempts to kill the Minions with kindness.

Scarlet Overkill attempts to kill the Minions with kindness.

(2015) Animated Feature (Universal) Starring the voices of Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan, Jennifer Saunders, Geoffrey Rush, Steve Carell, Pierre Coffin, Katy Mixon, Michael Beattie, Hiroyuki Sanada, Dave Rosenbaum, Alex Dowding, Paul Thornley, Ava Acres, Carlos Alazraqui, Lori Alan, Laraine Newman, Mindy Sterling. Directed by Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin

We know the villains. They are often flamboyant, deliciously evil and unforgettable. But what of their henchmen? What of the cannon fodder they send to take on the hero, or to do whatever nefarious deed needs doing. What of them?

Master criminal Gru (Carell) has long been supported by his yellow pill-like Minions (all voiced by Coffin), odd creatures in denim overalls, usually with two eyes (occasionally with just one) who speak an odd high-pitched patois of every language on Earth as well as some gibberish that sounds like a 33 1/3 vinyl album played at 45 RPM (ask your parents or grandparents; they’ll understand the reference). But where do these non-human creatures come from?

It turns out from right here. An amusing opening sequence (much of which is seen in the trailer) shows them evolving from single-celled organisms who are determine that the best way for them to survive in a hostile world is to find the biggest, baddest villain they can, serve him and by doing so, come under his protection.

This goes badly for the Minions. It isn’t so much that their masters turn on them, as you might expect that evil villains might. It’s just that the Minions, in trying to serve, have an unnerving knack of killing their masters by accident. This causes the Minions to sink into a deep depression.

One of their number by the name of Kevin won’t sit idly by for this. He determines to leave their ice cave lair and find a new boss to serve. To accompany him will be Stuart, a would-be rock and roller, and Bob, the most adorable Minion and perhaps the most enthusiastic.

As the Minions have been in hiding for a number of years, the world has changed somewhat since last they had been seen. It is 1968 and it is New York City. You’d think that Minions would find plenty of villains there but they discover that, rather, Orlando is the place to be. That’s because a convention of evildoers is about to convene in The City Beautiful in the years Before Disney.

They hitch a ride with Walter (Keaton) and Madge Nelson (Janney) who are driving down to Orlando with their kids. It turns out that they are villains as well, expert bank robbers. And there are a number of Villains who might be worthy of the Minions, like Professor Flux (Coogan) or Sumo (Sanada). However, the biggest baddest villain of them all is Scarlet Overkill (Bullock) who it so happens is hiring.

Kevin, Bob and Stuart get the gig and go to London in Scarlet’s private jet (apparently crime does pay after all) where they meet her mechanical genius of a husband Herb (Hamm). Scarlet’s already got a job in mind for the adorable yellow Minions; to steal the crown of Queen Elizabeth (Saunders). Easy peasy, right? Of course, the Minions make a hash of it and things go rapidly downhill from there.

There has been a tendency in the world of animated features of late to populate them with adorable supporting creatures, from the slugs of Flushed Away to the penguins of Madagascar. Sometimes these creatures are more interesting than the main characters (see Skrat, Ice Age). The Minions may be the best of these, entirely incompetent but always worth a giggle. They often upstage Gru in his own movies.

They actually do an adequate job of carrying their own movie as well, although not a spectacular one. While their Minion language gets a bit old in its indecipherable glory, it still gets the message across. Their simplicity appeals to children who tend to like their characters to be uncomplicated and the Minions are definitely that.

The entertainment factor is solid. There are plenty of sight gags that are clever although truth be told they occasionally are too clever for their own good (like the Minions emerging from a sewer on Abbey Road only to be stepped on by Four sets of Fabulous feet at the crosswalk. It’s a famous album cover – ask your parents or your grandparents, they’ll understand the reference.

But the problem here is that there really is no there there, as Gertrude Stein might say. It’s entertaining, but only that; the content is so light and airy that the slightest of breezes will blow the whole thing away like a dandelion in spring. The story, while disposable, grinds to a halt in a few places and unnecessarily so. There were some scenes the movie could well have done without.

I would have thought that the Minions could have survived on their own but it turns out that they need Gru more than he needs them, which comes as a bit of a shock. At the end of the day, they are supporting characters and because they are meant to be in the background, they don’t really make an impression in the foreground for the hour and a half running time. This really feels like a Saturday morning cartoon stretched out to feature length, and while that may be a bit harsh and perhaps unjustified, nonetheless that’s the impression I walked out with. It’s entertaining enough that if you take your kids to see it you won’t be unbelievably bored (as with several animated features from last year) but at the very least this movie will make you appreciate Gru all the more.

REASONS TO GO: Reasonably entertaining for both parents and children. Minions are adorable.
REASONS TO STAY: Disposable fluff.  Drags in places.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of slightly rude humor and animated action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Kevin, Bob and Stuart are watching Scarlet Overkill’s presentation at Villain-Con, Gargamel from the Smurfs can be seen sitting directly in front of them.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flushed Away
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Ant-Man

New Releases for the Week of July 10, 2015


MinionsMINIONS

(Universal) Starring the voices of Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan, Jennifer Saunders, Steve Carell, Geoffrey Rush. Directed by Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin

Before Gru, the world’s greatest criminal mastermind, there were Minions and those Minions have been a merchandising bonanza for Universal. It was only inevitable that the cute little yellow pill-shaped creatures would get a movie of their own and here it is. Here we discover the story of the Minions, a race of creatures existing only to serve the greatest criminals of all time. However, in 1960s New York City, they discover that this could end up being a much more dangerous undertaking than ever before – and could mean the end of Minionkind forever.

See the trailer, clips, an interview and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website .
Release Formats: Standard, 3D (opens Thursday)
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for action and rude humor)

Amy

(A24) Amy Winehouse, Tony Bennett, Blake Fielder-Civil, Mitch Winehouse. Singer Amy Winehouse had the world by the tail. A Grammy winner with million-selling albums, she was bringing back jazz singing almost singlehandedly. She had an unusual honesty, confronting her own issues in song. And she had plenty of issues, including an unhealthy lifestyle and troubled relationships with people who didn’t have her best interests at heart, leading to a tragic end for what might have been a bright future.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Downtown Disney, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for language and drug material)

The Gallows

(New Line) Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown, Ryan Shoos, Cassidy Gifford. Students at a small high school decide to honor a tragedy 20 years earlier in which the lead actor was killed during the performance of a play by re-enacting the play. Of course, they do it at night without any adult supervision which is dangerous enough but worse still, their “tribute” stirs up restless spirits they’d have been better off not disturbing.

See the trailer, clips and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for some disturbing violent content and terror)

Self/Less

(Gramercy) Ryan Reynolds, Ben Kingsley, Natalie Martinez, Matthew Goode. When a billionaire discovers he has inoperable cancer, his prospects look grim. However, a radical new procedure allows him to transfer his consciousness into the body of a younger man who is brain-dead but otherwise healthy. Grasping at straws, he doesn’t ask too many questions until after the procedure is completed. Then he discovers that the origin of the body is not what he was told and that those who made this miracle happen will stop at nothing to keep their sinister plans from going public.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for sequences of violence, some sexuality and language)

Testament of Youth

(Sony Classics) Alicia Vikander, Kit Harrington, Taron Egerton, Emily Watson. A woman, who sees her brother go marching off to World War I, decides to volunteer herself as a nurse thus beginning a journey into the horrors of war. Based on the memoirs of actual nurse Vera Brittain, this powerful indictment of war has been quietly flying under the critical radar thus far this year.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material including bloody and disturbing war images)

The Book Thief


Sophie Nelisse tries to get Ben Schnetezer to rehearse their lines with her but he's too tired.

Sophie Nelisse tries to get Ben Schnetzer to rehearse their lines with her but he’s too tired.

(2013) Drama (20th Century Fox) Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watkins, Roger Allam (voice), Nico Liersch, Ben Schnetzer, Oliver Stokowski, Carina Wiese, Rainier Bock, Barbara Auer, Kirsten Block, Heike Makatsch, Julian Lehmann, Hildegard Schroedter, Levin Liam, Sandra Nedeleff, Carl Heinz Choynski, Sebastian Hulk, Beata Lehmann. Directed by Brian Percival

The power of words can be transformative. The description of the day can bring someone trapped indoors into the world even for just a few moments. They can transport us to faraway places, transfer us into heroic beings and leave us like we can do anything.

In 1938 Germany, young Liesel (Nelisse) is being taken by train to meet her new foster parents by her mother (Makatsch) who is no longer able to keep her. Unfortunately before they can get there, her younger brother (Lehmann) dies suddenly and is buried by the tracks. At the graveside Liesel finds a book and even though she can neither read nor write, she impulsively takes it with her.

She is brought to a small German town where her new parents are waiting for her – kindly Hans (Rush), an out of work housepainter whose business has suffered because he hasn’t joined the Nazi party, and his harpy-esque wife Rosa (Watkins). She attracts the attention of Rudy Steiner (Liersch), the blonde young boy next door who happens to be the fastest runner in the neighborhood and who idolized Jesse Owens although that’s not exactly looked upon with favor by the Nazi regime.

Liesel’s illiteracy has caught the attention of the kids in school, particularly school bully Franz (Liam). Hans determines to teach Liesel how to read and write and turns their basement into a kind of living dictionary where Liesel writes new words she learns from various books she picks up.

Rosa takes in laundry to help make ends meet and one of her clients is the Buergmeister Hermann (Bock) and his wife Ilsa (Auer). At a book burning, Ilsa had noticed Liesel picking up a slightly charred copy of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man but tells no-one about it. Instead, she introduces Liesel to her library, a kind of homage to her son who had been killed. Laundry day becomes reading day for Ilsa and Liesel until the Buergmeister discovers what’s going on and puts a stop to it – and Rosa’s laundry.

In the meantime, following the infamous Kristallnacht of November 10, 1938 a young Jew named Max Vandenburg (Schnetzer) shows up at Hans and Rosa’s door, needing to be hidden. Max’s father had saved Hans’ life during the First World War at the cost of his own so Hans feels honor-bound to save his son. For two years, Max lives in their basement and becomes fast friends with Liesel.

However as World War II begins and things start to go badly in Germany, things go from bad to worse for Liesel’s new family. While Liesel defiantly “borrows” books from Ilsa’s library, the war begins to turn against the Nazi’s and Hans’ refusal to join the party begins to get him viewed with further suspicion. What can good people do to survive such evil and such horror in their midst?

Based on the award winning bestseller by Marcus Zusak, this is brilliantly realized by Percival, best known for his work on Downton Abbey so he is at least experienced with the period. The German village (filmed in picturesque Gorlitz in Saxony) is bucolic and lovely but the ugliness hidden within is at times shocking. Not everyone in the village is a Nazi nor are most of them heroes; they are simply trying to live their lives as peacefully as possible and turn away when things get ugly, hoping that the ugliness won’t touch them directly. This is human nature, like it or not.

Nelisse, who was impressive in Monsieur Lazhar last year positively shines here. It is not an easy thing for an actress her age to carry a motion picture but Nelisse manages without being overly cute while being completely believable. It doesn’t hurt that she has actors the caliber of Rush and Watson to play off of. Rush, who won an Oscar for Shine may actually be more memorable here. He brings incredible humanity to the role of Hans without making him too good to be true. Hans simply put has a warm heart and a poet’s soul. Watson has a more difficult role with the prickly Rosa and manages to keep Rosa’s heart well buried beneath her gruff exterior. I think she has a good shot at a Best Supporting Actress nomination when the Oscars come around.

Some critics have groused over the narration which is done by Death himself, in the guise of Roger Allam. The book was also so narrated and part of the book’s message requires Death to be involved because Death is a part of life. We are reminded of our mortality in the movie early and often and we are also reminded how precious life is and how easily we can lose it. Those who are complaining about Death’s narration may well have missed the point.

The movie is extremely moving and while there are elements of fantasy involved – not just Death’s narration but a scene in which the bodies of unfortunates caught in a bombing are lined up next to each other, beautifully untouched and looking mostly asleep (whereas if they had been in a bombing raid of the sort depicted they would have been charred and battered beyond recognition) – that’s fantasy. That’s death through a child’s eye (and perhaps through Death’s eye as well) in which death is a peaceful naptime, a transition from wakefulness to slumber.

Chances are the Academy is going to ignore this one – it simply hasn’t generated the buzz that American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave both have (haven’t seen the former and the latter is certainly justified). That doesn’t mean this isn’t worth seeing. While this is based on a young adult novel, the subject matter may be a little too much for smaller kids. Do exercise parental caution is determining whether or not your kids are ready to see this. However if you feel they can handle it, it is well worth a family movie outing and is definitely one of the best movies this year.

REASONS TO GO: Moving and occasionally beautiful. Fine performances by Nelisse, Rush and Watson.

REASONS TO STAY: Blend of fantasy and reality doesn’t always work.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence and some scenes that may be too intense for the very impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The writer of the book this is based on, Marcus Zusak, is actually Australian.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Nebraska

New Releases for the Week of November 29, 2013


Frozen

FROZEN         

(Disney) Starring the voices of Kristen Bell, Idris Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Ciaran Hinds. Edie McClurg. Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee

In a kingdom of eternal winter, an optimistic and brave girl teams up with a rugged mountain man, his loyal reindeer and a bumbling snowman to take on the forces of magic that have locked it there. The trouble is that the evil witch holding the kingdom spellbound is her sister.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for some action and mild rude humor)

Black Nativity

(Fox Searchlight) Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Jacob Latimore. A streetwise teenage Baltimore boy is forced to spend the holidays with his strict and devout relatives the Rev. Cobbs and his wife. Unwilling to live by the strict rules imposed by the pastor, he decides that he will return home to his mother, opening himself up for an unexpected Christmas miracle.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Holiday Drama (opens Wednesday)

Rating: PG (for thematic material, language and a menacing situation)

The Book Thief

(20th Century Fox) Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nelisse, Roger Allam. During the Second World War a spirited young girl is sent to live with a new family in Nazi Germany. In a place where books are routinely burned and ideas that conflict with official state policy are dangerous, she  finds courage in the immense power of words and books.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material) 

Bullett Raja

(Fox STAR) Saif Ali Khan, Sonakshi Sinha, Vidyut Jamwal, Jimmy Shergill. An ordinary man is pushed to the limit and turns to a life of crime. Now a powerful criminal, he declares war on Indian society in an effort to take down the corruption that forced him to the other side of the law.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Good Ol’ Freda

(Magnolia) Freda Kelly, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr. As a shy young teen in Liverpool, Freda Kelly was asked to work for a young local band with great aspirations. She became the secretary to the Beatles as well as their friend and confidante. This documentary tells her story set to the music of the Fab Four, offering a whole new perspective on the band that changed popular music – and world culture – forever.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: PG (for some thematic material and smoking)

Homefront

(Open Road) Jason Statham, James Franco, Winona Ryder, Kate Bosworth. When a DEA agent’s wife passes away, he leaves the agency to settle down in a small town community to raise his daughter quietly and get past his own grief. Unfortunately the town he chooses is far from quiet or quaint and soon he finds himself in a war that he will have to go all out to win and keep his daughter safe.

See the trailer, a featurette and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Action

Rating: R (for strong violence, pervasive language, drug content and brief sexuality)

Oldboy

(FilmDistrict) Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharlto Copley. An ad executive and family man is kidnapped and held in a locked room for 20 years. In that time he discovers that his wife has been murdered and that he has been framed for the crime. When he is just as suddenly and as inexplicably released he goes on a quest to discover who imprisoned him and why. The more he discovers however, the more he realizes that his torment is far from over.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for strong brutal violence, disturbing images, some graphic sexuality and nudity, and language)

Philomena

(Weinstein) Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham. An elderly woman and a BBC reporter go on a journey to find her son who was conceived out of wedlock and given up for adoption to an American couple. Although she had signed a waiver promising never to look into her son’s whereabouts, she still feels that connection and defies the Catholic Church and convention to reunite with the baby she gave up so many years ago.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and language)