REVIEW: “The Zookeeper’s Wife”

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For decades filmmakers have plowed the dark and savage subject of the Holocaust. Countless movies have been made documenting the heartbreaking atrocities as well as self-sacrificing acts of valor. There are some who feel we are given too many of these films (a form of Holocaust movie fatigue perhaps). It’s a sentiment I can’t say I share especially when filmmakers continue to find deeply human stories and experiences to share.

Such is the case for Niki Caro’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife”. Based on Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction book, this story of Polish couple Jan and Antonina Żabiński is mostly a fact-based account set during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. Ackerman’s book leaned heavily on the diaries of Antonina Żabiński. Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman are careful to keep the same authenticity in their telling.

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The film begins just before the September 1, 1939 Nazi invasion. In its idyllic opening scene Antonina (Jessica Chastain) glowingly rides her bicycle through the Warsaw Zoo which she operates with her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh). She makes her way to the front gate where people have gathered. She opens the zoo and greets the visitors as they enter.

This opening scene sets up the inevitable clash that comes when the Nazis invade Poland. The zoo is ravaged by aerial bombers and like Warsaw is soon under Nazi occupation. Seeking a way to keep their zoo and with practically no animals left, Jan turns to pig farming as a way to support the German war effort. But in truth it’s a guise to hide the Żabiński’s true conviction – to save as many Jews as they can and right under the Nazi’s noses, particularly that of German zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl).

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On the surface Workman’s script doesn’t place a heavy focus on the horrors that took place. We do get glimpses and often quite potent ones. Yet some feel the film doesn’t go far enough in its depictions of the atrocities. In reality there were quieter stories that required just as much heroism despite garnering little attention. Workman is rightly content to stay within her narrative bounds.

Caro’s direction works much the same. She doesn’t anchor her film in a tortuous visual representation. To the film’s benefit she’s clearly not interested in meeting common war movie expectations. Instead there is a soulful grace to her presentation that oozes empathy yet still manages to be tense and harrowing.

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Most importantly both Caro and Workman wisely lean on their biggest strength – Jessica Chastain. She gives us an earnest and unassuming Antonina with a strong moral conviction that drives her heroism. Chastain masterfully juggles her character’s fortitude and stoicism with human elements of fear and uncertainty. It’s a delicate balance that makes this portrait of courage all the more inspiring. Chastain’s work is deserving of some genuine Oscar consideration.

Despite its many positives the film’s final act is a bit bumpy. The story darts forward in time more than once and some fairly big developments happen with little attention given to them. It’s easy to follow but it did seem as though the back end was rushed even though it still packed some strong emotional punches. But that doesn’t undermine some wonderful work from a talented group of women. “The Zookeeper’s Wife” may not satisfy those looking for a more visceral experience, but not every Holocaust story requires that approach. Many of these stories weren’t as pronounced, yet they were just as powerful and inspirational. This is such a story.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Zootopia”

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I think it has become abundantly clear that Pixar isn’t Disney’s only animated money maker. Recently Walt Disney Animated Studios has blown away the box office. It should be said that their films always make money, but their last three animated features have made just under $3 billion. Those films include 2013’s “Frozen”, 2014’s “Big Hero 6”, and now this year’s surprise mega-hit “Zootopia”.

“Zootopia” was predicted to perform well, but no one expected it to break numerous box office records. It shattered projections and has earned over $1 billion globally. Not only did people come out to see it, but most critics lauded it with some even calling it one of the best animated films ever made. That is hefty praise especially for a movie I could never fully embrace.

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There are two sides to “Zootopia” that provoked two different reactions from me. Let’s start with the good. In part “Zootopia” is a fun, playful buddy cop film that also tells a touching story of a young bunny setting out to accomplish her dreams despite the numerous obstacles thrown her way. Ginnifer Goodwin plays Judy Hopps, a young country rabbit who sets out to accomplish her dream of being a police officer in the metropolis of Zootopia. But everyone tells her she can’t do it, she’s too small, that no rabbit has ever made the police force.

Judy presses on against a barrage of opposition, graduates from police academy, and lands a job at a Zootopia precinct. But even there she faces a bigotry that lands her on traffic duty. Themes of sexism and prejudice resonate and are handled smartly and effectively. When the film keeps this lean focus it can be surprisingly and subtly thought-provoking.

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Unfortunately the film doesn’t maintain its subtlety. In fact it obliterates it. It becomes so ridiculously heavy-handed in its indictments of intolerance, prejudices, and stereotyping. It doesn’t allow for you to think about and chew on their message. It spells everything out in the most obvious ways. At times it feels like they are presenting political talking points instead of a movie script.

And this isn’t an issue found in scattered instances. It’s a drum the writers and directors beat over and over again. They don’t just hit you over the head with their social message. They bludgeon you to death with it. And the problem isn’t that they have a message. It’s that their lack of subtlety and tact subvert the power of it. It resonates early in the film. Later it begins to feel like a big lecture emanating from almost every pore of the story.

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Thankfully we do find moments where we can catch our breath. The central relationship between Judy and a con-artist red fox named Nick (slickly voiced by Jason Bateman) is a lot of fun. There are also some really funny moments. A hysterical bit from the extended trailer involving sloths and the DMV is still laugh-out-loud hilarious. Also seeing Idris Elba playing a cape buffalo police chief is inherently funny.

Clearly “Zootopia” has several things going for it. The humor often hits its mark. Judy and Nick have a sparkling relationship. The deeper themes are provocative and absorbing when wisely explored. Negatively the animation doesn’t blow you away and things can occasionally get a little silly. But those aren’t the biggest problems. The collection of seven writers and two directors get so caught up in their statement that it nearly smothers the message. We aren’t allowed to glean much for ourselves or come to our own conclusions. Instead it becomes a relentless social politics lecture with a handful of breaks in between.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS2.5 stars

REVIEW: “Z for Zachariah”

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The post-apocalypse has become one of the favorite settings for modern day filmmakers. Think about it. We’ve witnessed the aftermath of an earth ravaged by everything from nuclear war to energy depletion to zombie outbreaks. And while some may argue it has been done ad nauseam, I have to say I love it. It’s a setting that offers filmmakers opportunities to put human beings through a plethora of powerful emotional and relational situations.

So right off the bat “Z for Zachariah” places itself in this familiar setting. But the film, directed by Craig Zobel and based on a novel originally published in 1974, shows us several new things and quickly differentiates itself from the post-apocalyptic norm. Flickers of science fiction can occasionally be seen but for the most part it lingers in the background. Instead the film focuses on the most compelling and absorbing dynamic – human drama.

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The movie begins after what appears to be a nuclear holocaust. There is no widespread destruction or vast wastelands. Only emptiness and radiation – vacant mountain cities filled with remnants of a once vibrant past. It is here that we meet Ann (Margot Robbie) rummaging through a radiation-soaked town before heading back to her home – a farmhouse in a miraculously radiation-free pocket of territory high in the mountains. Ann is alone, surviving by working the same farmland as her father during her childhood. She also shares her father’s deep faith believing God has sheltered their land for His own purposes.

One day while out hunting Ann is stunned by what she sees – another human being. Roaming a winding mountain road in a radiation suit and pulling a cart full of his belongings is John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor). After a complicated first meeting, Ann brings John to the farm where he begins sharing in the work. John was a scientist and an engineer and is respectful of Ann’s beliefs and gracious for her hospitality. We watch as a unique human relationship is formed, each approaching it from very different walks of life. But things get complicated when a mysterious stranger named Caleb (Chris Pine) arrives; a veritable ‘third wheel’ who brings an entirely new set of emotional complexities to the relationships.

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This is the story Zobel seeks to tell. There are no mutated monsters, hordes of zombies, or packs of marauders. Simply three people dealing with their internal and external situations. They could just as well be the last people on Earth which adds a unique perspective to the story. Even in their incredible instances of survival, the basest and most primal human instincts still must be dealt with. And despite their miraculous situations, people will always birth conflict.

But Zobel and writer Nissar Modi look at these things through different lenses. For example there is a deep spiritual element that we see in Robbie’s character and through the rich symbolism sprinkled in the story. It allows for the pondering of several compelling points. But Loomis and Caleb bring interesting twists of perspective that ask a number of thoughtful questions. This was one of the many things that impressed me. Even in its simplicity, the story is an intelligent and nuanced exercise in human examination and internal exploration.

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And what a telling performance from Margot Robbie, an actress I had given little attention. She is sublime, turning in a beautifully delicate and stripped-down performance. She is the heart of the film and in many ways its frail moral compass. But right behind her is Ejiofor. In a sagacious performance he gives us the most layered and complex character of the film. Even Chris Pine, and actor who hasn’t always impressed me, is very good in giving us an interesting and cryptic third character. These three make up the entire cast and each deliver on a high level.

“Z for Zachariah” is a breath of fresh air, a post-apocalyptic morality yarn that may play out too slowly for some. It unwinds at a deliberate pace, patiently touching on its subjects while never spelling itself out. Yet there is such a satisfying effectiveness to the slowness. Zobel engages his audience not through the normal and expected genre machinations, but by peeling back revealing layers of humanity. Layers that, when examined by an honest eye, can sometimes be quite ugly. Personally, I found it fascinating.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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“Zero Dark Thirty” – 4.5 STARS

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Kathryn Bigelow may be the boldest and gutsiest director in the business. One things for certain, she’s not scared to jump head first into a part of the film industry sandbox normally dominated by male directors. I think that’s the main reason I like her so much. Bigelow doesn’t allow others to define what type of director she is or what type of movies she’s going to make. She makes the movies she wants to make and lately they just happen to be gritty and realistic military pictures. But what’s really cool is that she does it better than almost anyone else. She doesn’t bow to gender trends, political positions, or industry traditions. She tells powerful and mesmerizing stories and does it her own way.

Bigelow’s latest film is “Zero Dark Thirty” and it didn’t take long for the cries of controversy to begin. This is also a movie that’s received a lot of praise even garnering several Oscar nominations including Best Picture. But Bigelow herself received what I think is the biggest snub of the Oscars when she was passed over for a best director nomination. This has brought speculations of gender bias from some while others believe it’s Academy backlash for what they perceive as bad politics from Bigelow. I don’t know about any of that but it’s an inexplicable snub. Bigelow has crafted a dense and thrilling film that surpasses her previous movie, the Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker”.

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“Zero Dark Thirty” is an edge-of-your-seat procedural that follows the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden. This isn’t a paper-thin conventional Hollywood action picture. This movie follows the CIA’s taxing search through evidence, information, and leads in order to find the terrorist mastermind. It’s an arduous and toll-taking mission that weeds through enhanced interrogations, misdirections, and loss of life. Bigelow manages to condense this decade’s worth of investigation into a gripping and concise 2 1/2 hours. She stops at critical points during the manhunt, some where we made important progress and others that were disastrous.

Bigelow once again teams up with writer Mark Boal and, as with “The Hurt Locker”, they aren’t out to make political points or deliver a heavy-handed statement. Regardless of the “pro-torture” accusations from the left and the “inaccuracy” claims from the right, Bigelow and Boal throw out a lot of information and allow the audience to sort through it, process it, and come up with our own conclusions. I like that. Unlike so many Hollywood productions of this kind, I wasn’t beaten over the head with a political slant. Instead I was allowed to view the events through my eyes and interpret them accordingly. That’s one of the reasons there has been such a range of reactions and I think it’s a sign of brilliant filmmaking.

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Before I move on let me address the “pro-torture” debate that surrounds this film. I think “pro-torture” is a self-serving term that doesn’t do the film justice. Yes the movie shows several scenes of enhanced interrogations and it does say bits of important information were gathered through them. But it also shows the heavy personal and emotional toll it takes and it asks the question ‘Was it worth it?’ Bigelow doesn’t gloss over the harsh and disturbing nature of the torture and it’s impossible to view those scenes in a “pro-torture” light. On the flipside, just when you’re questioning the at-all-cost approach to the search for Bin Laden, Bigelow injects a scene of savage terrorist violence that reminds you of the barbarism at the heart of the enemy. These scenes, along with the brief but sobering opening featuring 911 calls from the 9/11 attacks, really hit home with me and reminded me of the ruthless reality of terrorism. But I had to decide if the ends justified the means and the film makes that decision a challenge.

2012 has been the year of ensemble casts and “Zero Dark Thirty” may have the best of them. It’s a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of actors that I love. It all starts with Jessica Chastain. She plays Maya, a brash and determined CIA operative whose entire career has been devoted to finding Osama bin Laden. Early on she is assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan where she grows tired of the political wrangling and red tape. She may at times look like a supermodel but she’s really a firebrand who will stir things up to get results. Maya is devoted to her mission and at times she seems like the only one interested in succeeding. But as the movie progresses we see the physical and emotional toll the manhunt is taking on her. Chastain is simply phenomenal. There’s not one disingenuous moment in her entire performance and while 2011 was a great year for her, this was superstar making work.

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And speaking more of that ensemble cast, there are several other standout supporting performances. Jason Clarke is fantastic as a tough and slightly unhinged CIA interrogator. Kyle Chandler is wonderful as Maya’s CIA boss in Pakistan. Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt are perfect as members of the Navy SEAL team tasked with pulling off the final mission. I loved Edgar Ramirez as a skilled CIA ground operative. The great Mark Strong plays a CIA head caught in the middle of Washington politics and the mission at hand. James Gandolfini is a lot of fun as a heftier Leon Panetta. I also enjoyed Jennifer Ehle as Maya’s co-worker who starts as a rival but ends up a good friend. This is just an enormously strong cast from top to bottom.

Everyone knows how “Zero Dark Thirty” ends but that doesn’t keep it from being an intense edge-of-your-seat thriller. The story starts with the frustration of bad leads and dead ends but the intensity is ratcheted up to crazy levels once the first big break comes through. I was absorbed in what I was seeing. And then there is the finale, possibly the best 20 minutes of military action ever put on screen. Bigelow never Hollywoodizes the sequence. She makes it as grounded in reality as possible. But when it comes down to it Kathryn Bigelow likes to make movies about people. This is a movie about women and men who sacrificed their skills, their lives, and some may argue their humanity to accomplish a greater good. It’s a movie that’s not afraid of asking tough questions or of challenging popular sentiments. It’s also a movie made with impeccable filmmaking  style and skill which all comes back to Bigelow. So Academy, you’ve got explaining to do!