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.

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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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300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

300 Rise of an EmpireReleased: March 7, 2014. Directed by: Noam Murro. Starring: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey. Runtime: 102 min.

300: Rise of an Empire is a good sequel to Zack Snyder’s 2007 film, 300. There are sequels, prequels, and the odd sort-of meanwhile adventures movie, and this happens to be all three. It’s a prequel because it shows some things that started this war, and at the same time reminding us about it because a lot of people would forget after seven years; a meanwhile adventures because it shows what wars happen on the water while the 300 were fighting; and a direct sequel, following what happens after the mighty 300 fell. They have made quite an influence on this film. This follows the Greek general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), who leads the charge against invading Persian forces led by mortal-turned-god Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and Artemisia (Eva Green), merciless commander of the Persian navy.

While the first film followed the Spartan warriors, this film follows the Athenians, who are fighting for freedom – and represent a not-so savage Greek race, but still show their body armourless abs. Like I said, this film is largely a meanwhile adventures that takes place on the open seas, and it’s awesome watching war tactics happen on the water. The action sequences are spectacular, beautifully filmed, and have the same visual style as the first (not nearly as fresh seven years later, mind you) and a whole lot of gore. What else can one expect from the mind of Frank Miller? Who, by the way, is the authour of the graphic novel Xerxes upon which this is based. The film is better in 3D because one can easily tell where 3D is implied if one watches this in 2D. There’s splatters of blood, spears flying, and it just adds another great visual layer to the experience. At one point when blood splatters there’s even a smudge on the camera, where you’ll probably ask “Can someone wipe that off?”

The cinematography’s strong, even if there is a constant fogginess about it in the background, because of the mist on the water, and a mild glare when the sun is out. But it’s not noticeable when the fights are occurring, thankfully; probably because the editing is so impressive, and who would try to focus on the glare of it all when there are limbs and heads flying everywhere? I love the fighting tactics of the Greeks. The action scenes are definitely the best part of the film; and the drama is solid, as well.

There’s one particularly memorable scene where the leaders of each opposing country have a battle of power, deciding who will come out on top, so to speak. Sullivan Stapleton is adequate as a character who isn’t very compelling, but he’s great in combat sequences. I don’t think I’d ever rush out to see a film he’s leading, but he’s pretty good. Green is brilliant as her character, and she makes cruelty look sexy. She is just awesome in and out of battle, and a chilling villain at times, fuelled by vengeance. She wants to avenge her former king Darius (killed by Mistokles a few years prior at the Battle of Marathon), a motivation she shares with Xerxes, and to get back at the Greeks who killed her entire village, so she’s putting all Greeks in one category for that one. A lot of these characters are fuelled by vengeance, particularly Lena Headey’s Queen Gorga. She’s great, too, by the way. Xerxes gets a cool, origins story treatment told at the beginning, which is a real treat. I have a feeling the graphic novel is called  Xerxes because the villains have well-thought out development, but the hero’s development is light. Evidently, this works spectacularly as an action film, but it’s not strong in the ‘developing good protagonists’ department.

But this is an action movie, and that’s why you’re going to see this. We’ve seen some of this action before in the first one, but at least some of it feels fresh. It’s mostly just action on boats instead of land, so no phalanx formations this time around. The storyline isn’t nearly as strong as the first. It’s partly because the main character isn’t entirely compelling in his development, and this just isn’t as engaging as the great David and Goliath story that is the 300 Spartans. If you go in expecting more of the same with some fresh material at least in terms of fight location, this is a good time at the movies.

Score: 75/100

The Book Thief (2013)

Book Thief, TheReleased: November 27, 2013. Directed by: Brian Percival. Starring:  Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson. Runtime: 131 min.

“The Book Thief” follows a curious German twelve year-old named Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) during one of the most interesting time periods in history: the second World War, and a few years prior to it. Newly adopted by Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) Hubermann, Liesel adjusts to her new lifestlye by making new friends and learning to read. She inspires other people with her curiosity, bravery and kindness.

This is based on the bestselling novel of the same name, that is actually a young adult novel, but it can be enjoyed by all audiences. The film is good, and it’s refreshing because it doesn’t seem that there are enough WWII films told by the perspective of the Germans. From this perspective, I think it shows us that, in a time of war, even our enemies still have humanity; and they’re as scared as the people of your home country would have been at this time. Liesel is a character who brings people hope in a time of despair; and she brings them that by the beauty of the written word, and the great messages lying within stories. She has a poetic way of speaking and a thirst for knowledge that is engaging. Her adoptive father Hans gives her a blackboard as a present that she can write down all the words that she learns; and it’s a heck of a lot. This is what shows how much she absorbs from everything.

Since she has learned to read, she needs to find a way to find more books – and sometimes, she has to resort to stealing. That’s why she’s called the Book Thief; but she’s only borrowing, there’s a place where she goes and it’s someone’s sort-of personal library – she just doesn’t need a library card. It’s just the old-fashioned, five-finger discount. It seems to me that she always brings it back. Before I discuss anything else, it’s kind-of funny that these books are in English. One would think that her primary language would be German living in Germany, but she speaks English, and one would think she would learn to read in German, considering that English isn’t one of Germany’s official languages. English is spoken in school and on the street that she lives, so it’s just not that realistic. I guess it beats having to read subtitles throughout the film; but really, all these people have is German accents and German names, speaking flawless English.

But regardless, many might not even notice during the viewing. It’s just funny to think about afterwards. One part of the story that is the most compelling is the aspect of it where Liesel’s adoptive family is harboring a Jew, a young man named Max (Ben Schnetzer) in their basement. There are suspenseful scenes and heartwarming scenes created by that component of the story. They are hiding the Jew because Hans has a debt that he feels he must repay to Max’s father; his life was saved by him during a war he fought in. He’s a very kind man that is warm and comforting to Liesel, and he is portrayed beautifully by Geoffrey Rush. Emily Watson portrays the man’s wife, Rosa, a much more sour woman, but she experiences an enjoyable character arc. My favourite performance of the film is by the lead, Sophie Nélisse who captures the curiosity of her character phenomenally well. The story is told from the innocence of her; she is much more accepting than others. This is partly contributed to the fact that her mother was a Communist, making her hate Adolf Hitler like a lot of others. Another character who is accepting is her best friend, Rudy (Nico Liersch), whose idol is Jesse Owens; he gets discriminated against because he idolizes a black man. These prejudices are portrayed really well in a story of the human spirit.

The relationship between Liesel and Rudy is good, and it’s portrayed as accurately as a relationship between two young friends can be; it isn’t as romanticized as it is in other films. Nico Liersch, who plays Rudy, is just okay for me. The story is also told by a narrator, and it’s a bit of an interesting creative choice. The narrator, as you’ll realize quickly, is the Angel of Death; a tonally good choice during such a disastrous time, but I’m indifferent about the creative choice, because some of his dialogue is silly, and in those moments you can tell this aspect of the story was tailored for young readers. Roger Allman is the narrator, and he has a good voice for it – and he sounds particularly evil in parts. He’s okay for me, overall. The film is a good one, with yet another great score by John Williams. It’s hopeful and inspiring, a sound that is really great for the film. This is a good war flick, with a few boring scenes (I guess the idea of someone simply reading can’t be too entertaining), but there are a few great performances that save those scenes, and they save some other aspects of the film, as well.

Score75/100

The Monuments Men (2014)

the monuments menReleased: February 7, 2014. Directed by: George Clooney. Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray. Runtime: 118 min.

“The Monuments Men” follows a platoon of unlikely heroes at the end of the Second World War who are tasked with retrieving art masterpieces from Nazi thieves and returning them to their rightful owners. It’s a story about not letting culture die, because if all of this art is to be destroyed, that’s one less piece of history to state that the culture that made it existed.

I think this raises cool cultural ideas because history is an interesting thing, especially seeing and knowing how a culture evolves over time. I’m sure that’s what inspired the real life characters to be a part of this platoon. It’s an educational feature because I hadn’t realized that the Nazi’s stole so much art. The lengths these generically developed characters went through to try to get the art back makes for an okay film.

It’s billed as an action-drama but there’s a limited amount of action throughout, and only a few brief exchanges of artillery, which I find to be a defining trait for any war film. Since that is the case, any action fans out there who are looking for a good war movie with lots of action should seek entertainment elsewhere with the gritty “Lone Survivor.” That one at least has good characters, too. The drama’s okay when it’s happening, but there’s a lot of comedy so its sometimes goofy tone and sometimes serious tone is what makes this have a poor tonal balance.

Director George Clooney is just too eager to please with this one, because he adds so much funny banter it makes many scenes feel quite goofy. I’m one for comic relief in dramas, but the comedy takes too much precedence here for a film billed as a wartime drama, and there are even a few scenes that don’t complement the story, and could just be seen as mere opportunities for the actors to remind us that they can be funny every once in awhile. The scenes are funny, but it leaves me thinking “Well, it might have been funny, but how pointless was that?” There is also one scene that’s pointless, but not that funny, it just feels hollow. Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), who seems to be Viktor Stahl’s secretary. Stahl is one of the Nazis responsible for hiding the art, and when Claire spots him moving the art to another location via a train, she says “I see you Stahl!” He looks at her, hops on the train and starts shooting at her as it’s going along. Well, he’s not going to hit her at the distance they are from each other; so is he trying to be menacing, or is he just trying to lighten his gun for no apparent reason?

At least the humour hits when it isn’t too predictable, and they have to spice up a plot so simplistic somehow, if there’s not much action going on and if the characters aren’t the best overall. It’s difficult to remember what exactly their role is within the platoon, but they are introduced at the beginning of the film at their work – in one of those early-on recruiting sequences. Clooney is simply the leader of the platoon, the Lieutenant. Hugh Bonneville portrays a man named Donald Jeffries, who gets the most character development as a recovering alcoholic. Matt Damon portrays a painter who is best characterized as a man who cannot speak French to save his life, as the French person he speaks to tells him to speak in English after two sentences.

As previously mentioned, Cate Blanchett’s Claire is Stahl’s secretary, and also a valuable intelligence source. Bill Murray portrays an architect but really only gets depicted as a guy who likes to tease Bob Balaban, who looked like he was directing a stage play in his recruiting scene where George Clooney just sits behind him smiling. John Goodman portrays Walter Garfield, a sculptor who might as well just be the Funny Guy. Jean Dujardin plays a character I’d just refer to as The Guy Who Can Actually Speak French. The cast does their best because they all do get a few laughs in, and it’s quite an ensemble; but when their characters are generic like this, it’s hard not to think that a certain few (Clooney and Damon in particular) are surprisingly phoning in their performances.

To me, this feels like a film with a clear A to B plot. Only a few surprises, a few brief action scenes, but enough humour to keep viewers mildly entertained throughout. The tonal choice to be serious at times, and often too goofy, is fatal. I don’t know if Clooney intended to make this part caper part wartime drama feel as goofy with its humour as “National Treasure” (a fun movie) at times, but that’s the result. Compared to his [Clooney’s] other works as a director, this is disappointingly sub-par.

Score55/100

TIFF 2013 Review: Canopy

canopy 5“Canopy” is a World War Two film set during the Japanese invasion of Singapore in 1942. The film follows an Australian fighter pilot who is shot out of his plane, and wakes up in the treetops, suspended by his parachute. He must set out on a perilous journey to find sanctuary in this foreign jungle. Thankfully, he eventually finds a companion, a Chinese soldier who is also lost. They must join forces to make it out of this jungle alive.

This is a type of movie that people would see for the art of it, and not the sheer entertainment. But by god, it deserves to be seen. It’s an effective experience, if a flawed one. Disappointingly, some may find their attention wandering during the feature. This is only in some scenes, so it usually does a good job of maintaining the viewer’s attention. The feature is led by a tiny cast. Seng, the Chinese soldier, is portrayed by Tzu-yi Mo. He assists with carrying the film, and he is fairly memorable.

canopy_04Khan Chittenden, whose character is an Australian fighter pilot named Jim, is called to carry the film the most. He does an admirable job. There’s power in his silent performance – he acts well with his eyes and actions. He leaves an impression with what he must do, because it is definitely more challenging to act with little dialogue. For much of the film, it is only him and his thoughts – and the thought of putting oneself into the shoes of this man, is terrifying. He is vulnerable in this unfamiliar jungle, and only keeps going because it is his survival instinct. His performance is realistic and believable.

Aaron Wilson is also a star of the film as director. He may be behind the camera, but he controls this set and he creates a well-written story. It must be challenging to write a story with little dialogue. I only remember there being about less than ten words in English, all near the end; and other words in a foreign language that we could not understand. I think the way he does it is effective. When a foreign language is spoken, there are no subtitles. Jim does not understand what these people are saying, so why should we? The experience is enhanced because of this. These two people who are trying to survive must get over the language barrier and communicate. canopy_03

I like the way Wilson goes about handling this story. I learn from the Q/A after the film that, through research, he found that soldiers don’t remember conversations, but all of the sounds in the unfamiliar land and the actions they made. That is why there is such little dialogue. I’d never thought of that experience would deem true for a soldier, but it seems like a true thought after one thinks about it. It’s an innovative way to go about a film like this. I haven’t seen anything like it before. The characters are simply characterized. They are both soldiers fighting for their lives. It is confirmed that Jim has a family back home, but for Seng, it can be assumed. This film’s characterization is far from conventional. This shows the strong influence war has on humanity, and the impact it will leave on a person. This is a nearly wordless experience, but hardly a silent film.

canopy_02There are constant sounds from off-stage. Gun shots, explosions, twigs snapping, people approaching, which causes a state of panic. The sound design, landscapes, imagery and cinematography are phenomenal. It’s some of the best so far this year, and the surroundings Stefan Duscio shows on-screen are gorgeous. Dialogue takes a back-seat to the focus of sound design. In one scene, Jim is walking around in the jungle (like he does for most of the 80 minutes), and we are looking down on the forest. Audiences might have to look for him for a few seconds before they find him making his way through the terrain. I imagine that is how Jim feels throughout, but it takes him much longer to find any sort-of destination, in this terrifying jungle. That is effective. The two central performances, direction, writing, sound design and cinematography and photography are the film’s best aspects.

CanopyMany will have re-adjust their expectations for this experience, because it is so different. Whoever might be expecting a thriller might be disappointed. It’s heavier on the natural drama than it is on thrills, but has a controlled level of suspense.

This is a technically impressive experience. Some might find themselves bored at times, but it’s usually quite engaging. This experience shows that a story could be effectively told through sounds. There is not many other films like this, and especially not WWII features. It is memorable because it is so different and unique. Both Aaron Wilson and Khan Chittenden have bright futures ahead of them. I learn from Wilson that he has a film that has dialogue is on the way, so I will anticipate that one. Much like the sounds of war that soldiers remember for awhile, this feature leaves a lasting impression, right up to the final shot. Definitely see it, because it isn’t time-consuming and it’s quite an experience.

Score83/100