The Book of Stars (1999) is a passable tearjerker that eventually collapses under the weight of its own self-importance. The primary focus of the story is the relationship between two sisters: 15-year-old Mary (Jena Malone) and her older sister and guardian Penny (Mary Stuart Masterson). Mary is terminally ill with cystic fibrosis and Penny's life has degenerated into drugs and prostitution. Through her interactions with Mary (and a never-ending string of secondary characters), Penny tries to not only deal with Mary's impending death, but to also deal with the problems in her own life.
What could have been a reasonably decent melodrama doesn't quite work in BOOK OF STARS. The screenwriter has added too many pretentious subplots that take too much screen time away from the two leads. Some of these extra moments work well, but most do not. What you're left with is a saccharine and weakly-developed main story along with a series of symbolic and heavy-handed subplots that never quite gel. On a positive note, the performances are very good and the characters are likeable. However, I was tempted several times to just walk away from this film -- there just isn't enough substance on the screen to keep the viewer's attention.
Although not as bad as most transfers from the infamous Fox Lorber/Winstar label, BOOK OF STARS is not without its share of problems. From the first moments of the opening credits, I was very surprised at how much dirt and damage there was on this print. It isn't excessive, but if you look for it (especially in the first few minutes), you'll see a speck of dirt or two pop up almost constantly. While not a huge distraction, this film is only a year old and any source damage in a DVD transfer is unacceptable. The transfer is also a bit soft, and although the film itself uses a wonderfully varied color palette, the colors on the DVD do not have much punch to them. The movie is presented in a 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio and is enhanced for 16x9 televisions.
The 2.0 stereo soundtrack is restricted to the front speakers, with no surround use. Overall, the sound is fine and clear. The vast majority of the film is dialog, which is firmly anchored to the center speaker. On occasion, sound effects (like passing traffic) will pan across the front speakers nicely. The sound is satisfactory and fitting for the material (although a little ambient surround use would have been nice).
There are no special features for this DVD, except for a few filmographies and a trailer. The trailer appears to be a video advertisement (like the kind that is usually seen at the beginning of VHS rentals) rather than an actual theatrical trailer. I believe that BOOK OF STARS went straight to video after briefly flirting with the film festival scene, so it's possible that an actual theatrical trailer was never created.
There really isn't much to recommend about BOOK OF STARS. The movie fails on many levels and the video and audio presentation is mediocre at best. If you are really curious about the film, I would definitely suggest renting rather than buying.