‘The Birth of the Living Dead’ is a Great Documentary; ‘The Book Thief’ – Effective Engagement

night of the living dead

MOVIE REVIEW – ‘THE BIRTH OF THE LIVING DEAD’

Movie Info

In 1968 a young college drop-out and aspiring filmmaker named George A. Romero directed Night of the Living Dead, a low-budget horror film that shocked the world, became an icon of the counterculture, and invented the modern movie zombie, which has spawned legions of films, books, comics, and video games, generating billions of dollars. Night of the Living Dead is not only internationally recognized as an art film, revered for its groundbreaking treatment of American race relations and allegorical references to the Vietnam war, the film still maintains its cult status as a classic horror masterpiece. The film made history when it simultaneously screened at MOMA and the notorious grind-house theater circuit on 42nd Street. Since its release Night of the Living Dead has been selected for preservation by the Library of Congress and the National Film Registry. Rob Kuhns’ feature documentary BIRTH OF THE LIVING DEAD goes beyond just being a tribute to director George Romero’s work, to explore a critical moment in the American experience and the notion that horror acts as a reflection of national anxiety. The film details how Romero gathered an unlikely team of real Pittsburgh citizens — police officers, iron workers, teachers, housewives and a roller-rink owner — to shoot in a revolutionary guerrilla style that became a cinematic landmark and one of the most visceral and influential horror films ever made.
Unrated, 1 hr. 16 min.

Documentary

Zombie Doc Birth of the Living Dead Is Full of Riveting Romero Anecdotes

By Ernest Hardy
www.villagevoice.com

Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero’s 1968 zombie flick classic, has long been the subject of intense critical analysis laying bare its rich social and political commentary.

Romero not only set in motion the zombie fetish that thrives globally today, but created a film that simultaneously captured the late-’60s zeitgeist and created a pop-cultural template still used to critique the ills that gird the status quo. With that in mind, a lot of the information and insights that documentary filmmaker Rob Kuhns presents in Birth of the Living Dead won’t be news for longtime scholars (academics or laypeople) of the film.

That Night was inspired by Richard Matheson’s seminal 1954 novel, I Am Legend, that it was groundbreaking in the way it used its African-American lead actor, and that it was a critique of mainstream America’s somnambulism leading up to the Vietnam War and civil rights turmoil are all already well known.

What distinguishes this doc from much of the tedious critical prose Romero has inspired is the fan-boy and fan-girl ardor that fuels its smarts — both behind and in front of the camera. Interview subjects, from producer Gale Anne Hurd (who says she drew heavily from the film in creating the cable TV hit The Walking Dead) to various film scholars, directors, and critics, all key their commentary into the film’s visceral power and the unpretentious intelligence behind it.

That includes a glorious bit discussing how Sidney Poitier’s blackness was being used in Hollywood at the time, and how Night upended the protocol. It’s the anecdotes and remembrances of Romero — a 27-year-old college dropout losing his movie-making cherry with Night — that make the film, though.

An utterly charming figure who often ends his sentences with “man,” he fills in behind-the-scenes tales that likely haven’t been heard by many before, and they are riveting; his story of the film’s copyright battle is jaw-dropping.

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the book thief

MOVIE REVIEW – ‘THE BOOK THIEF’

Movie Info

Based on the beloved international bestselling book, The Book Thief tells the story of an extraordinary, spirited young girl sent to live with a foster family in WWII Germany. Intrigued by the only book she brought with her, she begins collecting books as she finds them. With the help of her new parents and a secret guest under the stairs, she learns to read and creates a magical world that inspires them all.

PG-13, 2 hr. 5 min.

Drama
Film Review: ‘The Book Thief’
Brian Percival delivers a quietly effective and engaging adaptation of Markus Zusak’s WWII-set novel.
Dennis Harvey
www.variety.com

Markus Zusak’s international bestseller “The Book Thief” has been brought to the screen with quiet effectiveness and scrupulous taste by director Brian Percival and writer Michael Petroni. This tale of Nazi Germany seen from a child’s perspective translates into solidly engaging drama, albeit one that may not be starry, flashy or epic enough to muscle its way into the front ranks of awards-season contenders. Bolstered by the novel’s fans, the Fox release (which opens limited Nov. 8) should ride solid reviews and word of mouth to midlevel prestige returns in line with such comparable medium-scaled WWII dramas as “The Reader” and “The Pianist.”

Petroni streamlines or eliminates some peripheral characters and subplots without compromising the book’s essence. Like its source, the film is narrated by Death (voiced by Roger Allam), who says at the start that he seldom bothers with the living, but took a particular interest in young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse). Liesel is first seen on a train in 1938 with her mother and brother, en route to a destination that her sickly sibling never makes it to. Neither does her mother, who may be headed to prison due to her communist leanings, it’s later rumored. So Liesel arrives alone at the doorstep of her new foster parents, housepainter Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his endlessly henpecking wife, Rosa (Emily Watson).

When it emerges that Liesel is illiterate — inviting immediate ridicule from school bully Franz (Levin Liam) — kindly Hans makes a game of teaching her to read. The first tome they conquer is one she’d grabbed when it fell from a laborer’s coat at her brother’s funeral: “The Gravedigger’s Handbook.” Later she dares rescue a burning book from a bonfire of “decadent” works at a Nazi rally. This act attracts the lone notice of the local Buergermeister’s wife, Frau Hermann (Barbara Auer), who later clandestinely lets Liesel use her late son’s personal library during her weekly laundry deliveries to that imposing mansion.

In contrast, the Hubermanns barely scrape along on Rosa’s laundering and little else; we eventually deduce that Hans’ perpetual underemployment is due to his refusal to join “the Party.” As time passes and wartime privations grow worse, their domestic situation turns downright dangerous with the arrival of Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), the fugitive son of a Jewish comrade who saved Hans’ life during WWI. Honor-bound to hide the young man from the authorities, they nurse him back to health, and he bonds with the fascinated Liesel. She’s sworn to tell no one of his presence, not even best-friend neighbor Rudy (Nico Liersch), though several times the secret comes fearfully close to exposure.

There are modest setpieces: an air-raid, a worrying house-by-house search by Nazi officials, Max’s second serious illness, and Liesel’s hysterical response when Jewish prisoners are marched through town. But “The Book Thief” spans these wartime years from a microcosmic vantage point, seldom straying far beyond the main characters’ ironically named “Heaven Street.” It’s to the credit of Percival (best known for helming several “Downton Abbey” episodes) and Petroni (“The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” “Possession”) that they refuse to artificially inflate the story’s key points for melodramatic or tear-jerking purposes. By the same token, such intelligent restraint may strike some as too even-tempered and slow-paced, touching our emotions without heightening them in the way that often gets more attention come Oscar time.

Rush generously provides the movie’s primary warmth and humor; Watson is pitch-perfect as a seemingly humorless scold with a well-buried soft side. Hitherto little-noticed New Yorker Schnetzer is a real find, making Max a thoroughly ingratiating figure. French-Canadian Nelisse (“Monsieur Lazhar”) doesn’t come across as the most expressive of junior thesps here, but she looks right and does a competent job.

Impeccable design contributions are highlighted by Florian Ballhaus’ somber but handsome widescreen lensing, and an excellent score by John Williams that reps his first feature work for a director other than Steven Spielberg in years. One slightly distracting element is the use of “Ja” and “Da” in otherwise English (but German-accented) dialogue, apart from a few public speeches that deploy subtitled German. The print screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival lacked complete final credits (the ultimate running time will be longer than listed here), and was also short a few (unnoticeable) final-mix tweaks.

 

 

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