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The elevator pitch for The Book Thief isn't exactly grabby: the story takes place in Nazi Germany; it's narrated by Death; and almost everyone gets killed in the end. Yet both the bestselling novel and its screen adaptation have that certain ich weiss nicht that keeps people coming back for more.
For director Brian Percival (Downton Abbey), the uncommon choice of narrator was one of the main elements that drew him to the project, as he recently told a press gathering in New York. "It's the key to the whole story because that's what gives us a perspective on humanity," he said. Percival recalled telling the book's author, Markus Zusak, that he "didn't feel quite so scared about death" as he had before encountering The Book Thief.
To convey Death's "comforting" nature, Percival cast an actor (Robert Allam) with an "empathic, warm, velvety nature to his voice that makes you think that, well, when my does time comes it mightn't be so bad if a guy like that's looking after me."
While Death hovers over, at the core of the drama is tweenaged Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse). Liesel's coming of age begins with the loss of her brother, who dies before her eyes, and of her destitute mother, who has relinquished her offspring to a working-class family in a fictional Bavarian town.
Liesel comes to the Hubermanns with baggage including the emotional kind and a copy of The Gravedigger's Handbook, which she snatched at her brother's funeral. Her foster father, Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush), helps Leisel with both. His warmth and solicitude allow her to feel at home while his lessons in literacy awaken her passion for the written word. So much so that she filches her second book of the narrative, one being burned in a Nazi book purge. There will be many more purloined volumes before the saga wraps.
The brazen young book thief strikes a victory for the creative act of storytelling as against the fascist crackdown on artistic expression. When Hans and his wife (Emily Watson) hide a young Jew (Ben Schnetzer) in their basement, Liesel's connection with words -- and with their secret houseguest -- significantly deepen. Along the way she and her foster family resist injustice with a range of actions that put their courage to test.
To find their Liesel, the filmmakers searched for seven months across four continents. It was Zusak who suggested the young Nélisse from Monsieur Lazhar. As Percival put it, the actress to play Liesel would "have to appear very vulnerable" but also "be incredibly feisty." Nélisse brought both a tenderness and a "fighting spirit" that stood out from the pack, not to mention a heightened spatial awareness thanks to her advanced training as a gymnist, said Percival. Prepping her for the role meant an immersion in the era.
"I read Anna's Suitcase when I was in sixth grade, but I didn't know a lot about about the Holocaust," said the 13-year-old Québécoise. Among the movies Percival had her watch were Schindler's List, The Reader, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Pianist; and she was sent on a tour of Berlin bomb shelters. "I think that my generation...doesn't really know a lot on this period," remarked Nélisse. Now that she has aroused her friends' curiosity about the Holocaust, her hope is that "more people my age are going to know and it's going to be better for the next generations."
For the film's many German participants, recreating Nazi history brought up complex emotions. Singing "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles" ("Germany, Germany over all"), the hallmark stanza of the then national anthem, itself picked a few scabs. The filmmakers had to teach 450 local extras the verses, which had been banned since 1946. "There were people singing that song as best as they could; it's hard to sing it with pride," noted Percival. "The mostly German crew were there with tears in their eyes because it was painful for what their forefathers believed in...some of the shame that they still feel till this day for the terrible things that happened." That the town square was dressed in hundreds of swastikas rendered the exercise all the more powerful, he reported.
Michael Petroni's screenplay distilled World War II information from Zusak's source material. Yet the book itself served as a valuable reference for this period film celebrating books. "We've got a 580-page book, which is a guidebook to the film," said Percival. Right down to the art department, its historical detail and "message about the human spirit" enlightened both crew and talent alike.
Rush described rereading bookmarked sections of the novel on nights before performing relevant scenes. "We all wanted to honor the book," said Rush. "There aren't major substantial changes. It's not like they've rewritten the end for the film or put in another character for some marketing demographic."
Call me crazy, but at the 2013 edition of The New York Comic Con (October 10 - 13, at the Jacob Javits Center), I noticed many many more women attending, especially dressed as either renowned female characters or taking their own unique spin on established heroes. Now maybe I was paying more attention to feminine pulchritude I was encountering instead of those stock muscle bound (or just rotund and t-shirt clad) male figures but I really do think I have taken note of something I might have found utterly unbelievable when I started out in science fiction and comics fandom many years ago.
Is it an indication of such cultural shit, a triumph of geek nerd culture, a celebration of the fantastical rather than the testicular. But what was the cause?
Certainly it could be women reading the YA and dystopian fiction proliferating bookstores and providing source material role models that cosplayers and LARPers (for the uninitiated that’s costume players and live action role playing) identify with. But there are also the comic characters from Marvel and DC that have persisted for decades, characters from indie comics, films and so on. Cons all over the world are filled with women who tirelessly create costumes that bring these comic characters to life.
But what astounds me is how these character become the scrim that people step out from behind and transform themselves totally, and at the same time, express their own unique identity and fandom. Even better, women and men are playing out these fantasies without subscribing to conventionally acceptable body types, color, or behavior. Now that might confound some part of the social norms police but that makes these cons a new kind of celebration of this world of infinite niches.
To learn more, go to http://www.newyorkcomiccon.com/
Steve Jobs devotees are an unshakable lot, and their fixation isn't petering out any time soon -- despite the nearly two years since Apple's co-founder succumbed to his off switch. So there should be plenty of room for movies autopsying his life and brain.
In a mad rush that itself memorializes the tech genius, the first release to hit the marketplace is indie biopic Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher. And hovering in the works is Steve Jobs, which Oscar-winner Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) is adapting for Sony from Walter Isaacson's bestselling biography.
But as Kutcher knows, things only happen when they happen. So our focus here is Jobs. At a recent press conference, the film's director, Joshua Michael Stern, relayed an anecdote from the shoot illustrating his star's command of chronology, especially regarding tech innovations:
"Ashton, who had sort of an encyclopedic knowledge of the technology of this time, would walk onto a set, and there would be a chip that was randomly on a table, and he'd pick it up and so we'd have to take if off because it wasn't going to be invented for two years...'This is not invented yet...' "
Kutcher's immersion in Jobs' universe was not as big of a stretch as you might imagine of the Two and a Half Men co-lead. Before becoming an actor and producer, he studied biochemical engineering, and he's an active investor in Internet properties through his venture fund, A-Grade Investments. Another company he co-owns, Katalyst, has him generating properties across multiple platforms.
So when Kutcher gets down to channeling Jobs, he's not just flexing his thespian chops, he's getting business tips to boot. His homage extends to the legendary Apple chief's ethos.
"By proxy (Jobs) made the shareholders a lot of money, but he was never going, 'We need to make this company more profitable.' He was saying, ‘We need to make something that's even more brilliant and more beautiful and more wonderful for people's lives.’ " That the Apple chief was beholden to consumers and innovation -- and not to shareholders per se -- is a modus operandi that gets Kutcher's vote.
To viscerally understand the man, Kutcher put his own flesh on the line. This meant emulating Jobs' loping, barefoot gait to the point where the actor all but stressed his musculature. But this pales in comparison to the fruit-only diet he adopted after reading Jobs' "dietary bible": The Mucusless Diet Healing System. Going frutarian seems to have landed Kutcher in ER just prior to the shoot.
Kutcher recalled that the book by Arnold Ehret "talked about the value of grape sugar and that that was the only pure sugar that you could have in your body." He deadpanned, "I think that the guy that wrote that book was pretty misinformed.
"My insulin levels got pretty messed up and my pancreas kind of went into some crazy, I don't know -- the levels were really off and it was really painful. I didn't know what was wrong. And we figured out that my insulin levels were really off."
Despite Kutcher's bodily risks, the Jobsian world he inhabits in real life hardly portends anything nasty, brutish or short. Asked about Job's personality traits that he identifies with, he lit up:
"I love creating efficiencies...I bought a house five minutes away from my work so I didn’t have to drive through traffic. I figured out a way to organize my closet so that I can actually wake up and get dressed in the order that I like to dress and move right down a line in my closet. So I can start at one end and move to the other and by the end I’m done. I kind of have the thing set up so that I can wake up and get out of my house in about four minutes and get to work within 12 minutes from the time I wake up, so I try to do a lot and accomplish a lot in a short period of time..."
It's hard not to wonder what Jobs would've thought about the actor who immersed himself so fully in his books, videos, music, diet, walk, career and associates. As for Kutcher, he regrets never having met his real-life avatar, but he withholds criticism about the "flawed man" and his apparent disregard of others' feelings.
"One of the first things you learn as an actor is never judge your character."
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