Guest Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife (2016)

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Directed By: Niki Caro
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl
Runtime: 2 hr 7 minutes

The diversity of Holocaust-themed movies has increased over recent years as filmmakers try different storytelling approaches to keep alive our collective memory of what happened. One film that has divided the critics is The Zookeeper’s Wife (2016). While most of this genre uses graphic realism to confront large-scale human carnage and moral dystopia, this beautifully filmed story tells how 300 Jewish lives were saved by the owners of the Warsaw Zoo.

The film opens in 1939 with stunning photography of an idyllic existence in the charming Warsaw Zoo. Owners Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) are devoted zoologists who love their animals and each other. There are many touching scenes of physical affection that portray trust and understanding across the human-animal divide. The peace is soon shattered by Nazi bombing and there are many disturbing scenes of animal destruction. Soon after the Nazis arrive, the Zoo’s best breeding specimens are sent to Berlin under Hitler’s zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). With Nazi soldiers needing housing, the Zoo is under threat but saved when Antonina obtains Heck’s support to convert it into a pig farm to feed Nazi soldiers. He becomes a frequent visitor to the Zoo and his sexual overtures towards Antonina means she must keep him charmed to save the Zoo. As the atrocities against Polish Jews escalate, Antonina and Jan hatch a plan to use garbage trucks to smuggle Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to freedom via Zoo tunnels. The story focuses on the dangers of hiding the Jews and the horror facing those who are loaded into cattle-trucks for transportation to Hitler’s Final Solution.

The critical ambivalence towards this film dwells on its aesthetic treatment of the opening scenes and what some argue is Chastain’s saintly characterisation of Antonina. While the cinematography is superb from beginning to end, it does adopt an excessively sugary style in the pre-Nazi-occupation part of the story. The opening scenes of Antonina cycling through the zoo, personally greeting the caged and free-roaming animals, smiling and waving to all of humanity, are both beautiful but incongruous for the story we know is about to unfold. From the extraordinary scenes of Antonina saving a new-born elephant in front of its distressed parents to the harrowing escape scenes, the film almost deifies the heroine for her goodness towards others. But these are directing issues rather than acting. Chastain’s performance is excellent across the range of emotions she portrays and she is a glowing beacon of light in a film that could easily have been depressingly bleak.

The Zookeepers Wife is a worthy addition to an honourable genre that includes the multi-award winning Schindler’s List (1993). It communicates the larger Holocaust narrative while keeping its carnage and dystopia off-screen. In an age of audience desensitisation, it is ironic that viewers can be emotionally touched more deeply by the death of animals than humans. This is a story of courage and triumph, told from a woman’s viewpoint, with top-tier production values in filming, acting, and narrative. It is also an important part of Polish history. Antonina and Jan were decorated as national heroes and the re-built Warsaw Zoo still stands as a legacy to their achievements.

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cinemuseRichard Alaba, PhD
CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Sydney, Australia


Have you seen ‘The Zookeper’s Wife’? Well, what did you think? 

Guest Review – Rough Night (2017)

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Directed By: Lucia Aniello
Written By: Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs
Runtime: 1 hr 41 minutes

I’ve been lucky enough to have had two amazing friends in my life since elementary school: Sarah and Annalise. We’ve seen one another at our most awkward, share the same stupid sense of humor, and can talk to each other about anything. Despite school and work-related distances separating us throughout the years, we’ve remained close, and now that we’re all finally living and working in the same area for the first time since high school, we’re trying to spend more time together. So when I had the opportunity to go to a screening of Rough Night, a movie about long-time friends getting into serious hijinks, I knew I wanted to see it with two of my favorite ladies. While my expectations for this film weren’t high, the casting had me hopeful that we’d get at least a few laughs.

Rough Night follows bride-to-be Jess (Scarlett Johansson) and her college besties Alice (Jillian Bell), Frankie (Ilana Glazer), Blair (Zoe Kravitz), and Pippa (Kate McKinnon) on a bachelorette weekend in Miami that goes horribly wrong when hiring a stripper from Craigslist leads to a dead body in their beach house.

This movie’s biggest problem is its tonal confusion. It can’t decide if it wants to be a raunchy ensemble flick or a dark comedy (which could have been so much fun with a plot like this), so it halfheartedly attempts both. If the movie had stuck with one tone, they might have been able to pace the movie better, but because they don’t and try to fit too much into an hour and a half movie, it just feels lazy and messy.

Some of that has to do with the expository writing of the characters as well. A lot of the information we’re given about our leads is done very heavy-handedly. At first, I worried this was too harsh a critique for a comedy, but the genre isn’t an excuse for a lack of decent character development. There are plenty of comedies that manage to be hilarious and have interesting characters the audience can connect to. Bridesmaids immediately comes to my mind as an example, mainly because a lot of the radio ads I’ve heard for Rough Night announce that Elle Magazine has called it better than Bridesmaids (which makes me wonder how much the movie’s marketing team paid Elle, because….no). Bridesmaids manages to develop interesting, flawed but likable characters and share information about their pasts without dumping it all in a few seconds of sloppy dialogue. The same can’t be said for Rough Night.

That said, this was still a surprisingly enjoyable movie, mostly thanks to a strong cast that can take a weak script and make it funny. Kate McKinnon is a treasure and always makes me laugh, and her performance in this is no exception. Scarlett Johansson is a little underwhelming, as she isn’t really known for comedy, but she has a couple stand-out moments. Zoe Kravitz and Ilana Glazer have fantastic chemistry, and Zoe’s comedic timing is especially impressive. Jillian Bell does a good job at being hilarious, obnoxious, and sympathetic all at once. Jess’s fiancé Peter (Paul W. Downs) and his bachelor party buddies (Patrick Carlyle as Patrick, Eric Andre as Jake, and Bo Burnham as Tobey) made me laugh the hardest, flipping the bachelor party bro stereotype around hilariously. I also really enjoyed the soundtrack; because the group of friends met back in the mid-2000’s, there’s a lot of pop and hip-hop music from that time, which is really fun and nostalgic.

While I wouldn’t pay to see this in theaters, it’s still a fun film, so if you’re looking for something for a girls’ night in Red Box or Netflix or something, check it out.

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Have you seen ‘Rough Night’? Well, what did you think? 

Guest Review: ALONE IN BERLIN (2016)

guestpost Directed By: Vincent Perez
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Emma Thompson, Daniel Brühl
Runtime: 1 hr 43 minutes

War films are stories writ large about aggression between nations. Few of them explore small-scale human undercurrents of suppressed dissent inside the countries at war. Alone in Berlin (2016) does this by looking at an ordinary working-class couple and their compulsion to express feelings about Hitler’s dictatorship at time when dissent meant certain death. It is also an essay on parental grief struggling to voice pain and loss.

Based on real events, the story opens in a small flat in Berlin where Otto Quangel (Brendan Gleeson) and his wife Anna (Emma Thompson) learn that their son has died in battle. In a long marriage that is under strain, the news pushes them further apart as they cannot console each other in grief. Otto had encouraged his son to join the Nazi army and now Anna blames him for their loss. Desperate to voice his rage against Hitler’s regime, he painstakingly writes postcards and secretly leaves them on stairwells and doorways where they can be seen by passers-by: he calls them “small grains of sand in Hitler’s machine”. Initially he keeps Anna away from his dangerous mission, but she insists on being involved and they both become clandestine resistance fighters whose weapons are simple messages about the evils of Nazism. They manage to write and distribute over 260 cards despite extensive investigative efforts to stop them. In the process, they resurrect their marital relationship. After almost two years of card-writing they are caught and together face Nazi justice.

This film has two parallel narratives that start in opposition and end in convergence: one is Otto and Anna’s actions, the other is the investigation. The first is focused on the smallness of the couple’s actions in contrast to the enormous risk they are taking, like a pair of mice squeaking at roaring lions. The filming, colour palette and period setting are drab and lifeless; the atmosphere is paranoid with suspicion and mistrust; and the acting is subdued and understated. Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson are actors with broad performance repertoires but here they are minimalist in expression and Spartan in dialogue, with much being conveyed through furtive glances or avoided eye-contact. It is a slow-moving story, observant of small details in an alienated world. This has the effect of amplifying the intensity of Otto and Anna’s actions. Close-ups of a pen leaving a trail of outrage on a small white card become powerful portraits of bravery that are ultimately futile as most of the cards were handed in to authorities. The couple’s nemesis is a young German investigator (Daniel Brühl) who pursues his work with ideological fervour for the Fuhrer but whose success turns into the film’s most devastating moments of despair.

This is a joyless story about humble heroism. Otto and Anna are emblematic of ordinary people dealing with tragedy and anger inside a world of fear and danger. Far from being mere victims, their small protests seriously unsettled the Nazi hierarchy and the closing scenes are a tribute to the power of two human “grains of sand”.

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cinemuseRichard Alaba, PhD
CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Sydney, Australia


Have you seen ‘Alone in Berlin’? Well, what did you think? 

FlixChatter Review – The Mummy (2017)

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Hoping to start their shared universe of monster films, Universal decided to reboot one of their earlier successful franchises with The Mummy. With Disney and Warner Bros. ranking in big dollars at the box office with their superhero flicks, Universal is hoping this so called Dark Universe will bring in big money for them as well. Unfortunately, they should’ve spent more time fleshing out better script and ideas because this latest incarnation of The Mummy is a mess.

In Iraq, military men Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) and Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) are working outside their duty, hoping to find antiquities or treasures and sell them to the black market for large sum of money. On one of their trips to a small village, they accidentally unearth a burial site beneath the sand. The men discover the remains of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), an Egyptian princes from thousands of years ago who wants power and live forever, so she made a deal with the god of death and murdered her family. She was eventually captured and was mummified. Now in present day, Morton who was driven by his own greed, decided to open the tomb and released an evil force that could destroy the entire world. In terms of plot, there’s not much going on, after Ahmanet is set free, she chases our hero around London and then gets captured by Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe) and his team. Then Dr. Jekyll proceeded to tell Morton and the audience of what’s really going on. Even though it’s advertised as a non-stop action/adventure, there weren’t a lot action in the film.

Six screenwriters were credited and I don’t think none of them knew what kind of film this is supposed to be. It tried to be horror then comedy then action then back to horror. The comedy was flat, the scares were non-existent and the action was scarce. Maybe had the film been directed by a more experienced director, it could’ve been a decent action/horror. But Alex Kurtzman is not that director, with the exception of a very cool airplane clash sequence; he couldn’t put together exciting action sequences or coherent story. I hate to use the terms “plot holes” but this film was full of them. There’s a prologue at the very beginning of the film that didn’t need to be shown and motivations of the characters just didn’t make a lick of sense to me.

Performance wise, Cruise was basically playing an older version of Maverick from Top Gun and he seemed to be having a good time in the first 30-40 minutes of the film. Then you can tell he lost interest and pretty much in cruise control mode with his performance for the rest of the film. Jake Johnson is pretty much wasted here as the thankless side kick/comic relief role. Annabelle Wallis who played Cruise’s love interest, is pretty lackluster in her performance. She’s the typical damsel in distress character. Sofia Boutella is The Mummy and she’s a one note villain, she wants to destroy the world and live forever. The only interesting character to me is Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll. Maybe the film would’ve much more entertaining had they made him the lead as Crowe seemed to have a good time playing the character.

It appears Universal’s Dark Universe is over before it began, they have no one to blame but themselves. I was never a big fan of 1999’s The Mummy but it has its fun moments and didn’t try to be anything than an action film. This latest version tried to be too many things and it failed miserably.

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So have you seen The Mummy reboot? Well, what did you think?

Everybody’s Chattin’ + ‘Professor Mars & The Wonder Women’ Teaser Trailer

Hello folks! What’s happening in your world? As you can imagine my life is still pretty much consumed by my short film… and will be so for at least the next year.

Hearts Want is currently on post production now, specifically in editing… where most of the magic of filmmaking happens. In the meantime, I’ve been busy working on getting the page up on IMDb, as well as planning our Kickstarter campaign that would hopefully launch sometime in mid June.

We need to get the word out about our film, and I do believe social media is a big part of that. So would you be so kind as to LIKE our FB page…

… and follow us on Instagram, too! 

Well, suffice to say I haven’t got much time for anything else. So pardon my lack of visit and comments to your blogs folks. But I do miss doing the community blogging thing on here, so I think this is as good a time as any.

So let’s get to those fine links now shall we?

I’m so thrilled that Wonder Woman is resonating in a big way w/ both critics and audiences alike. Over $100mil box office take, people, woot woot!!

Well, I’ve reviewed it earlier this week. Read on what Margaret, Chris, Brittani and Steven say about it.

Mark wrote about 12 Angry Men (1957) for the Decades Blogathon

Cindy‘s posted some gorgeous pics of cacti blooming in her hometown of Arizona

In honor of Roger Moore’s passing, Alex posted anecdotes from the late 007 actor

Nostra reviewed one of my fave films from last year, Hidden Figures

Last but not least…

Michael has a new entry of his ‘Same Song Different Movie’ series featuring Sinnerman by Nina Simone

Professor Marston & the Wonder Women Teaser

Well, talk about perfect timing. A few days after Wonder Woman opened with a box office smash, Annapurna Pictures, which unsurprisingly is founded by a woman (Megan Ellison) released this teaser…

Per SlashFilm, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a biopic about the three people responsible for creating DC’s most famous female hero.

Professor Marston & The Wonder Women is the story behind the creator of Wonder Woman and his unusual relationships that inspired the iconic super heroine. In a superhero origin tale unlike any other, this is the true story of 1940s Harvard psychologist Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), the inventor of the lie detector and creator of the iconic Wonder Woman, who defends his feminist superhero against charges of ‘sexual perversity’ while at the same time maintaining a secret that could have destroyed him. Unknown to others, Marston’s inspiration for Wonder Woman was his wife Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall) and their lover Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), two empowered women in the field of psychology who defied convention, building a secret life together with Marston that rivaled the greatest of superhero disguises.

I’m really curious about this one, and I quite like the cast too. Check out the awesome teaser poster!

 


What do you think of this teaser trailer?

FlixChatter Review: Wonder Woman (2017)

I started writing this review just a day after seeing it. It has become a rarity for me to be able to write reviews so soon after I saw it but I felt… compelled, yeah that’s the right word, to get my thoughts out as the film opens. Thankfully the embargo ends Wednesday night!

I’m not going to lie. Like many people who care and support gender equality in Hollywood and want female filmmakers, or just women in film in general, to succeed. We all want Wonder Woman to succeed. It’s no hyperbole that much is riding on this film, even if it’s not exactly the first big-budget superhero film, though really we should perhaps forget those who came before this because well, let’s face it, they’re not any good. No doubt there’s an unfair amount of pressure put on director Patty Jenkins, whose last film Monster, was 13 years ago. (Wow, seriously?? I had to double check on IMDb on that fact).

There’s also a sizable amount of pressure on relatively unknown Gal Gadot. I have to admit, I wasn’t crazy with her casting initially. But like my qualms with Daniel Craig as Bond, it was quickly squashed when I first saw the first trailer. I was immediately on board with Gadot’s portrayal. The fact that she was part of the Israeli army, no doubt she looked the part. But more than sheer athleticism, she is also extremely charismatic and has such a genuine ‘goodness’ the way Christopher Reeve was as  the first cinematic Superman. It’s perhaps no surprise that the scene of Diana saving Steve in a London alley is reminiscent of Clark saving Lois in a NYC alley in Superman The Movie.

Superhero films can live and die by casting… it is extremely crucial that we believe in the person playing the role. Gal Gadot absolutely rocks as the mighty Wonder Woman as well as the sweet and compassionate Diana. More so than her two fellow DC boys Ben Affleck as Batman and Henry Cavill as Superman combined. That’s why she’s the best thing about Batman V Superman despite her less-than-10-minutes running time. She’s also got a pretty effortless comic timing that works in the film’s many lighter touches. Plus she’s got such an earnest quality that made lines such as ‘I can not stand by while innocent lives are lost!’ works, instead of coming off lame or corny.

It’s superb casting all around. The Amazonian women. Diana’s mother Hippolyta is played with such grace by Connie Nielsen (I so miss her since Gladiator) and Robin Wright as Diana’s aunt Antiope is in phenomenally bad-ass form here (man she deserves her own superhero franchise!) I truly enjoyed the scenes in the paradise island Themyscira. The production design in Greece is absolutely beautiful, I’d love to see more scenes set here perhaps in the sequels? I also love the first big action scene on the island between the Amazonians and the German army set in WWI. It was so much fun to watch these fierce women looking amazingly cool in various acrobatics… on a horse, leaping in the air, etc. I would rewind that scene over and over when I get the Blu-ray!

Now, I’m not saying I love every action scene in this movie. In fact, I gotta say the slo-mo stuff gets overwhelming after a while as the movie goes on. Towards the end the pyrotechnics of the final battle dull my senses, though nowhere near as bad as all the bombastic blasts at the end of Man of Steel. I quite like the music though, and I’m glad they use the main theme by Hanz Zimmer and Junkie XL sparingly to make a real impact.

As for the villains, I’m not too fond of Danny Huston’s rather over-the-top performance and he’s basically forgettable. SPOILER ALERT [highlight text to read] I don’t think it’s that huge of a surprise that Ares God of War takes the form of a British cabinet member (David Thewlis), I didn’t think that part and the subsequent battle between him and Diana are all that interesting.

In any case, there are plenty to like in this movie that offset my quibbles. The always-watchable Chris Pine is charming and sweet as Steve Trevor, Diana’s love interest. He’s got that rogue-but-sensitive sensibilities down pat, and his attempt at a German accent is hilarious! Plus he’s nice eye candy and we got to see quite a lot of him in a particular scene, ehm. The tentative romance is handled well, akin to Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter in Captain America movies in that you immediately want them to be together.

Right from the trailer, I also love his secretary, played with such glee by Lucy Davis. My only complaint is that she’s not on screen enough. The rest of Diana’s earth-bound rag tag team are a hoot as well, played by Saïd TaghmaouiEwen Bremner and Eugene Brave Rock.

I enjoyed the fact that the movie isn’t as dark as previous DC installments but it’s also not all fluff and style over substance. There’s an emotional scene between Diana and her mother as they part ways, and Diana’s compassion and heartbreak at seeing people injured from the war is palpable. That’s what makes the first earthly action scene, Wonder Woman vs the German Army, is so powerful to watch. She’s driven by compassion and love for humanity, and she doesn’t have a chip on her shoulder like many of her male superhero counterparts.

Overall it’s a terrific start to what I hope will launch more and more female-led comic-book films. For me, any female-led films is a great thing in my book, regardless of genre. It helps to actually have an actual comic book writer, Allan Heinberg, amongst a team of writers that also include Zack Snyder. But mainly, kudos to Patty Jenkins for being a capable captain of the ship and Gal Gadot for portraying a symbol of female empowerment with such strength and grace. It’s not just the best DCEU film so far, it’s a solid and hugely entertaining film, period.


So have you seen WONDER WOMAN? Well, I’d love to hear what you think!