Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

Released: March 31, 2017. Directed by: Niki Caro. Starring: Jessica Chastain, Daniel Bruhl, Johan Heldenbergh. Runtime: 2h 4 min.

The WWII era makes for some fascinating films. I sometimes like them more when they have different perspectives or depict main conflicts other than with the German Reich.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is the former, offering a woman’s perspective on the war from a heroic woman, which makes this unique. It tells a behind-the-action tale set during Germany’s Invasion of Poland, also offering a point-of-view of the war from those affected in Warsaw, Poland.

Antonia (Jessica Chastain), a sympathetic animal lover, and Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), the zoo director, are the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo, one of Europe’s most thriving zoos in the 1930’s.

Their world changes in September 1939 during the German invasion of Poland, as bombs damage the zoo and kill many of its animals. As Polish resistance collapses, German forces began to use the zoo as a base and it effectively closed the zoo.

Despite the Nazis being in their backyard, they essentially created a temporary haven for Jewish people to evade German forces.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is beautiful because of the Zabinski’s sheer bravery – and director Niki Caro earnestly captures their humanity. Their humanity is not only the focus but the film’s beating heart, and it doesn’t flatline.

The film’s a celebration of Antonia’s bravery. Caro directs a stellar cast, and Chastain is the strongest link. She gives a performance that’s sympathetic, earnest and moving. She’s fantastic and elevates the forgettable screenplay to new heights.

Johan Heldenbergh is good as Jan, though you don’t get to know his character well enough – and he feels like an extension of Antonia’s bravery and humanity. The female characters are stronger, and Antonia’s the star of the show. I liked scenes that express her sympathy for animals and general compassion. It’s a shame that the film about her life feels so unremarkable.

Zookeeper's Wife (1)

Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife. (Source)

Daniel Brühl plays Dr. Lutz Heck, the film’s antagonist and Hitler’s zoologist, who is the keeper of the Berlin Zoo. He’s forgettable and I just call him the Nazi zoologist. Brühl is good, but Heck isn’t a good villain.

He has compassion one minute, like bringing the prized animals of the Warsaw Zoo to his zoo in Berlin since it has more resources. Then out of the blue he’s cruel and comes back to the zoo and shoots a beautiful eagle and casually tells a soldier to have it stuffed and mounted.

Creative choices done for his character are bad fictional aspects. The addition of the Hollywood fiction weighs it down, since Zabinski’s story seems fantastical enough on its own.

Though, one of the strongest aspects is the depiction of getting the Jews out of the Ghetto – and it’s a good creative choice because the real way is plain. These scenes are tense and exciting, with a heist-like vibe.

One of the main problems are random scenes that feel like they come right out of left field. Developments come with little introduction and granted, it might be because it’s fitting six years of story into two hours of film, but the editing disjoints the storytelling.

In one scene the Zabinski’s have hanky panky and when you’ve forgotten that, she’s nine months pregnant when we see her again and going into labour. There’s not even a discussion of the pregnancy or anything. I was questioning if I’d missed something or if it was some sort-of immaculate conception.

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Johan Heldenbergh in The Zookeeper’s Wife. (Source)

There’s a lot that happens in the film but it’s unraveled slowly and pacing becomes an issue. It would have been great if everything moved faster, and the dropping of boring sub-plots would have brought it well under two hours. At least it has really cute lion cubs.

The Zookeeper’s Wife doesn’t have the impact a film like this should possess, and feels light because of it. The story’s beautiful but it’s a shame that the writing doesn’t match the passion and beauty of Antonia’s story, as it ends up feeling unremarkable. There are a few moving scenes – namely when they get a glimpse into the scope of how many people they’re helping.

It also doesn’t feel mature enough. There are moments that could depict human horrors which would have packed a heartbreaking punch. Chastain delivers a monologue about how people are evil and animals are great, and it would have made the scene have even more impact if we could have seen some of the human evil that she’s talking about. Instead, the film shies away from moments, and it feels like it’s missing out on great opportunities.

Score: 60/100

What’s your favourite WWII film?

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Lawless (2012)

LawlessLawless

Release Date: August 29, 2012

Director: John Hillcoat

Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce

Runtime: 116 min

Tagline: When the law became corrupt, outlaws became heroes.

Lawless is probably the most fun you’ll have not understanding half the words that come out of the actors’ mouths. They don’t exactly master Southern accents; especially, Tom Hardy. The guy’s a fantastic actor, but he’s no Christian Bale in mastering any kind-of American accent. The actors are fantastic in their roles, but you might have to put on the subtitles when the Bondurant’s are on-screen. And that’s almost the whole time. The ensemble cast is one of the more memorable of 2012; composed of Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain (she gets nude!), Dane DeHaan, Jason Clarke, Mia Wasikowska, and a very small role from the always-fantastic Gary Oldman.

The story follows a bootlegging gang (the Bondurant family) who get threatened by a new deputy and other authorities who want a cut of their profits. It’s a slow story at that, but it’s gruesomely violent and one heck of a gangster feature. It’s set in the fascinating Prohibition era in Franklin County, Virginia, and it’s essentially a story of standing up for oneself. Especially for the youngest Bondurant, Jack (LaBeouf), whose innocence is heavily contrasted by the incredibly tough Howard (Clarke) and the brain and brawn, Forrest (Hardy). They’re not the type to give away a cent of their profits, and it’s usually entertaining to watch the violent brawls and how they defend what’s right. If you like Prohibition era gangster movies, Guy Pearce playing a major nance, shoot-outs, great ensemble casts but a fairly forgettable story, and well-developed characters; check this out. Prepare to use subtitles whenever Tom Hardy speaks.

74/100

The Help (2011)

the help

Released: August 10, 2011Director: Tate TaylorStars: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia SpencerRuntime: 146 minDid you know? Director Tate Taylor and the author of the book, Kathryn Stockett, were childhood friends in Jackson, Mississippi.

Plot: An aspiring author during the civil rights movement of the 1960s decides to write a book detailing the African-American maids’ point of view on the white families for which they work, and the hardships they go through on a daily basis.

While the concept of racism may shine too vibrantly and be a little too preachy, its ensemble carries it well. From Viola Davis to Emma Stone, to Bryce Dallas Howard as the wicked bitch of Mississippi, Hilly Holbrook; the performances are stellar. Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain are both stunning. They mend one of the greatest relationships in the feature. As do Stone’s Miss Skeeter and Davis’ Aibileen Clark. The voice-over narration that Davis offers is often great, and it adds a further meaning to the picture. Her [Clark’s] relationsiop with the children she has taken care of over the years is charming, precious, and sometimes heartbreaking. It is not necessarily surprising to see how the white people treated the black people in these times, so it is accurate. When Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) opens up to Minny (Octavia Spencer) and eats with her, it really displays how skeptical these two races are towards each other – and it makes this period piece have a more touching and compelling impact. Also, one could feel for Miss Skeeter when many of her friends turn their backs on her. It’s equally heartbreaking for the character, and the audience member – at least, if they’re emotionally invested in her. It really is hard not to be emotionally invested in these characters, as the performances given are just so fine. This is a faithful adaptation to the Kathryn Stockett novel of the same name. It’s poignant, surprisingly funny and charming, and brilliantly written and filmed. It is one of the best films of 2011.

Score90/100

Mama (2013)

MamaMama

Release Date: January 18, 2013

Director: Andrés Muschietti

Stars: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier

Runtime: 100 min

Tagline: A mother’s love is forever

In this modern age, it is very difficult for horror films to be original. There is so little ground that has not already been stepped on. This is exactly one of the biggest problems of Mama, a film that has a great backstory, but it’s a story that reminds me of The Woman in Black and it copies scares from many other features.

One day, a father goes insane, kills his wife because she is going to leave him, and he takes his two young daughters with him and they hit the road, meaning to go far away. The father, Jeffrey, is zooming too fast, and the car skids off the road and down into the forest. They find a cabin, and just when the father is about to kill the elder daughter, a mysterious being comes and takes him away.

It is now five years later, and the girls have not been found. The uncle of the two young girls, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), hasn’t given up hope of finding them. With the support of his girlfriend, Annabel (portrayed by Jessica Chastian, who is sporting a short jet black wig and rocker tattoos), he has been paying investigators to look for them for those five years. When the investigators finally find them, they are in odd states. They crawl to get around, they’re dirty, and they claim to have been taken care of by something they called “Mama”. When Lucas and Annabel take in Victoria, 8, and Lily, 6, Mama isn’t very fond of her girls being taken away from her.

The back story established in Mama is a good one: a institutionalized woman steals back her baby in the late 1800’s, but she dies and her baby doesn’t. Soon, her ghost searches everywhere for the baby, only to find Victoria and Lily instead.

The only reason this feels reminiscent of The Woman in Black is the back story, the spirit in that film also wants to rest with their son, but in the meantime kills the townsfolk. It’s not extremely similar, but I still thought of it during. The film’s main scares are from better horror films, so there isn’t much content one hasn’t seen. There are also many convenient things that happen in the film: the uncle gets put into a coma rather early on in the film, leaving Annabel take care of the little eerie tykes so he doesn’t lose custody. Whilst the film does a few things wrong, it does a lot of things right.

We may have seen the scares before, but it doesn’t stop the film from being effective and spooky. Many of the scares also do linger on the mind after watching the feature, which is an effective thing that horror flicks aspire to possess. It’s an atmosphere that doesn’t give its audience many senses of security. Mama is often popping up every which way, and the feature can really get the heart racing. Mama starts off on a strong note, keeps going strong, and the third act is the weakest of them all because of a characters’ stupid decision not to tell anyone where they were going.

Until it loses its pacing balance during the final act, it’s a chilling experience each time the sun goes out. It is even quite scary during the day, because apparently spirits never sleep. The bond between the two sisters is generally strong throughout the feature, but there is room for improvement. Lily, the youngest, is still very dependent on Mama, while Victoria is getting closer to Annabel and Mama’s malevolent tendencies are becoming more visible. Lily seems as if she’s too afraid to be abandoned again, as is Victoria in a way. Mama doesn’t want to be abandoned either, rousing malevolent jealousy. Annabel is depicted as a character not open to having kids in the beginning because of her excitement to a failed pregnancy, but she does open up to the girls as the film goes along. This is much to Mama’s dismay, as she is suffering from a disease called JBS (Jealous Bitch Syndrome). You really don’t want to screw with this mother. All of this duelling of jealousy leads to the unbalanced third act, but it also leads up to a surprisingly emotionally stirring ending.

The performances in the feature aren’t top-tier, as this is still a horror movie. Each performer does express the usual fear and anxiety, topped on with more screaming. It was a great decision by the casting director to cast such a big star as Jessica Chastain. However, for Chastain, this is a career low-point for her. Even though this doesn’t say a lot because this is still a great feature. At least her character didn’t commit too many horror flick clichés. Chastain does prove she really can rock any look.

In a nutshell: Mama has a great backstory, but it doesn’t strive on originality. With great pacing until the final act, Mama makes for a thoroughly scary experience with hardly any room for a feeling of safety. And if there is, don’t fall for it. The concepts of abandonment and jealousy are cool to bring into horror flicks. Mama is a solid antagonist who won’t allow me to look at moths and butterflies the same again*.

*The moths and butterflies would show up whenever she is near.

Did you know? This isn’t extremely interesting, but; this was filmed in Hamilton, Ontario and a studio in Toronto, both a little more than a five-hour drive from where I live.

78/100

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Did you know? “00 dark 30” in military terms means an unspecified time in the early morning hours usually when it is still dark outside, usually said as “oh dark thirty” (according to its IMDb trivia page).

Zero Dark ThirtyZero Dark Thirty

Release Date: January 13, 2012 (wide release)

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Stars: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Kyle Chandler

Runtime: 157 min

Tagline: The greatest manhunt in history

With Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow proves she is one of the best directors in the business. She is especially one of the best directors to direct a war or history drama.

Zero Dark Thirty is a chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden after the September 2001 attacks, and his death at the hands of the Navy S.E.A.L. Team 6 in May 2011.

The only main character, Maya (Jessica Chastain), is followed the closest during this film. The beautiful and talented Chastain does an astounding job of portraying her. She really captures the real feelings she would be feeling. The character is a highly ambitious character whose motivations get fueled by deaths of her friends over the years. As they go through a series of leads, they get to Abu Ahmed, said to be Osama’s messenger. While Maya is the main, and practically only (for the most part), protagonist, Osama is most obviously the antagonist, no matter how hidden he may be.

This film depicts the manhunt for bin Laden extremely well. While we, the audience, don’t know what exactly happened, this film gives us a general idea. And boy, is it ever usually enthralling. Especially the last hour, and it makes for one of the best sixty minutes of cinema this year. The first 97 minutes of the feature is a solid introduction of what’s to come. While it may not be entertaining, it is fascinating and I was compelled to listen to what the flick had to say.

This feature is mostly controversial for its disturbing yet oddly compelling and inarguably intense torture scenes. Bigelow’s intention wasn’t to be an advocate for torture, and she isn’t. It is simply an aspect that did happen in the hunt for Osama. Would you give up Osama’s location that easily, if they knew very well who are? A monster that ordered the 9/11 attacks? No, because he is a powerful man whose people will find and kill you. It’s a frightening thing, and one couldn’t necessarily give up that easily. They have to be tortured, no matter how bad that sounds – it’s the honest, unfortunate truth.

The controversy is embedded in the film, but this gripping feature’s purpose is to rouse the spirits of patriots everywhere. Even if you are not American, the 9/11 attacks shook the world, and this is simply a story everyone would enjoy watching unfold. No matter how sensitive the case of something like 9/11, this is an important film depicting, yes, the greatest manhunt in history. While this may not be as magnificent as The Hurt Locker, this is nonetheless a very unique and memorable experience.

In a nutshell: Zero Dark Thirty is an extremely important film that depicts the greatest manhunt ever executed. It also shows us that Osama really isn’t the ultimate winner at Hide’n Go Seek, that’s Waldo. This feature is controversial because of its disturbing torture sequences, but it is necessary to be included in a film such as this. Bigelow’s direction, Mark Boal’s expert writing, its gripping story, its astounding final sixty minutes, and Jessica Chastain’s incredible portrayal of Maya, make it one of the best history dramas of 2012. You did it again Bigelow, I can’t wait to see what you give us next.

88/100

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

Release Date: June 8, 2012

Director: Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath, Conrad Vernon

Stars: Ben Stiller, Jada Pinkett Smith, Chris Rock

Runtime: 93 min

Tagline: Six years ago, they disappeared without a trace. Next summer, they finally resurface

After Alex (Ben Stiller), Marty (Chris Rock), Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman (David Schwimmer) get abandoned by the penguins and the monkeys, they have to find a way to get off the African island. They swim to Monte Carlo to reunite with them, so they can get a ride home. They run into the antagonist of the movie when their actions attract the attention of Animal Control. How does the king of the jungle, a zebra, a hippo, and a giraffe get around Europe without attracting attention? The answer: they bamboozle their way into a circus. The penguins buy the circus with their earnings from Monte Carlo, and the gang try to find a way home.

The message is pretty nice and the story is great; the characters they meet are great, too; but most of all, this feature is fun.

It’s the ultimate road trip film of all animated films. It’s really the longest detour to home of all films. This is the third film featuring the New York Zoo gang, but they still haven’t found their way home. The Madagascar trilogy isn’t a great one, but it’s a good one. It isn’t great because the first two features aren’t anything special. This is a series that has improved in quality each endeavour. That is quite rare for a trilogy (the only other that comes to mind is The Lord of the Rings), and that makes it admirable.

The new characters they meet along the way are quite great. The character of Vitaly (voiced by Bryan Cranston) is a reserved character with a grudge toward life and the circus, itself. Though, the mystery behind this towering tiger is sort of intriguing. The other character of Gia the jaguar (voiced by Jessica Chastain) is nice. The potential relationship between Alex and Gia at first feels forced, but then it gets a little charming. Lastly, the other new main character is the scene-stealing Stefano (voiced by Martin Short). Stefano is hilarious, and he’s my favourite sea lion, ever (sorry scary sea lion from Eight Below and any sea lions at Sea World, but you guys can’t talk and this guy can, so he wins). Sometimes, he’s funnier than the primary characters themselves.

The message is a little preachy. It’s all about having a passion and finding one’s homeland; home is where the heart is, apparently. They don’t water this one down. It’s way out there.

Sometimes, the filmmakers just don’t give enough focus on the primary characters of Alex, Marty, Gloria and Melman. The supporting characters are so vast in numbers, they just make the story feel a little flooded. Though, they’re all screen stealers and they offer some jokes the feature – so I won’t complain that much. The biggest screen-stealers are, as expected, the penguins. They’re masterminds at work, and they could probably work for the penguin version of James Bond. They’re little penguin Q’s in the making! The other large screen-stealer, besides Stefano, is King Julien, Maurice and that little big-eyed lemur, Mort. That little dude just multiplies the cuteness factor by 1002. Maurice may not get a big part in this (he has about two or three lines of dialogue) but when they’re all together [Julien, Maurice, Mort] – they make one of the funniest scenes in the film, possible.

The main antagonist, Captain Chantel DuBois (Head of Monte Carlo Animal Control), is simply annoying and over-the-top. Whenever she comes onscreen, it may make the viewer quite exasperated. She plays out sort like a parody of Cruella DeVille. She is despicable like Cruella DeVille, but she isn’t nearly as good a villain. Also like DeVille, their motivations are, in a way, similar. DeVille wanted the dogs to make herself a fur coat, and DuBois wants the lion’s head to put on her wall. They both wants trophies of sorts. Anyway, back to DuBois. I realize that the film must have a main antagonist, but it’s just a tad ridiculous to think that she’d have the audacity to follow this lion to Rome and London, while she only has any real authority in Monte Carlo. A few more notes on her: Why is her butt on backwards? And what’s up with that when she sniffs and crawls on the ground? She’s like a psychic spider. Her portrayal makes the people of France seem like a very animated and despicable people, and it’s sort of just a smack in their face. I’m not sure how much those from France would appreciate this sort of humour.

Madagascar 3 is filled with so many scene-stealing characters, that at times, they feel like the primary focus instead of the intended four zoo animals. The message is quite preachy and the antagonist is very irritating, but this is still great animation. The experience it offers is fun, and at times it is very exciting. There’s great humour for children, and for the older audience, too. It’s a great installment to the series, but in all honesty, I hope it’s over. They should really end it on a good note.

70/100

Take Shelter (2011) Review

Take Shelter 

Release Date: November 10, 2011

Director: Jeff Nichols

Stars: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham

Runtime: 120 min

Curtis (Michael Shannon) is a loving father and husband, who works as a construction worker. At the age of thirty-five, he begins experiencing horrible dreams and frightening hallucinations. He automatically assumes he has a mental illness, mostly because his mother is a paranoid schizophrenic, and searches for help from doctors and counselors. He fears the worst of a possible impending disaster, and builds a storm shelter in his backyard. In the process, it starts affecting his family life, work life, social standing, and his own sanity.

Curtis’ family life can get a little rough. They’re having trouble with getting some insurance money, and have been line for it for a long while. They really want this insurance coverage because their daughter is deaf, and the surgery is for a cochlear implant, so she may hear again. This definitely adds layers to Curtis, and his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain). They are definitely family-oriented. Sometimes they seem to struggle with funds, because Samantha only sells knick knacks like sweaters and stuff that she knits over the week. But, Curtis seems to be the big bread-winner, and they aren’t poverty-stricken or anything.

They live out in a small country town that definitely has a strong community vibe, so when everyone gets news of Curtis building a storm shelter in his backyard, they don’t react too kindly.

There are some impressive visuals, especially for a film that only had a budget of $5 million. The cinematography is great, and it really is a fine B-film thriller. Sometimes, it feels a lot more like a dramatic experience, because in some areas a lot of stuff doesn’t happen. When stuff does happen, though, it is pretty exciting. It’s a little slowly paced in some areas, but that’s whatever. I don’t think this film has really ever of a climax. Either that, or they’re really against it. I usually don’t really like ambiguistic endings, but for this one, I didn’t overly mind. This film was just so well done.

Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain really do deliver stellar performances. This is really a fine independent drama thriller. One of the things I love about independent films is that the performances can get so genuine, that I just forget it’s a film. It turns into a great art. Michael Shannon really did deserve a Best Leading Actor nomination.

Some of the scenes are a little mediocre, but others are just really great and memorable.

The family drama of it all is nice, and the story can be really memorable. Just when you think you’ve figured it out, it can take a turn in an opposite direction. It really does make for a great experience.

Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart, Shea Whigham, Katy Mixon and Natasha Randall star in this film.

The cast really delivers in this. Michael Shannon gives us his most powerful performance to date. The story is really original, it has the tendency to get dark and haunting,  and the visuals are really impressive. Take Shelter makes for a great experience, that may be disliked because of the anti-climactic ending and slow execution, but it still can be really exciting. It is the best independent film (I’ve seen) of 2011.

80/100