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? 

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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: ALLIED (2016)

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So this is a film that has quite a pedigree. Starting w/ the director Robert Zemeckis, who have made some of the best films like Back To The Future, Romancing The Stone, Forrest Gump, Contact, etc. plus the two A-listers, Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. I have to admit my main draw was Zemeckis and Cotillard, as I’ve never been a Pitt fan. Well, my instinct is right the first time around as Cotillard is certainly the more interesting to watch out of the two.

The film is set in 1942, with Pitt as an intelligence officer Max in North Africa where he encounters a female French Resistance fighter, Marianne, in Morocco. The opening shot is striking, with an aerial shot of the desert and a wide shot of Pitt walking under the hot Sahara sun. Then he gets picked up in a car à la James Bond (the scene is reminiscent to when Bond and his girl get picked up by a Rolls-Royce in the middle of the Moroccan desert in Spectre). It plays out like some kind of retro GQ commercial with Pitt looking clean-cut and debonair, as he’s dropped off at a party to meet his pretend wife. Again it’s as if he’s playing Bond to his Bond girl, complete with the him speaking in French in front of Marianne’s friends.

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I love spy romances, it’s a sub-genre I wish Hollywood would make more of. Well, Allied certainly has all the ingredients for a great WWII romance drama. It’s definitely more drama than thrillers as you can count with one hand the amount of action in this film, which suits me just fine. What I do expect is a compelling story, great suspense and a sweeping romance worth rooting for. Unfortunately, the film falls short on all counts. The main thing for me is that it feels so insincere. Yes I know the actors are pretending to play pretends in the film, and it was rather amusing to watch at first. I especially enjoyed the scenes of them at the roof with Cotillard playing up her flirtatious side. But after a while it becomes kind of repetitive.


There’s not much espionage stuff going on in this film, but the first part was definitely much more engaging than the second. After an action-heavy scene at a top-ranking Nazi officer’s swanky party, the film then transitions from North Africa to the UK, where pretty much all the intrigue and flair fizzles almost instantly. Max and Marianne are now happily married with couple. When suspicion arises that Marianne is perhaps not who she says she is, the dramatic tension just isn’t there. I feel that Pitt is sort of sleepwalking his way through the film. Perhaps he aims to look poised and unruffled, but he comes across looking bored. Cotillard fares much better though she overacted a bit in parts, but her immense screen charisma is always a treat to watch. Then there’s the lack of chemistry between the two. Even the sex scenes lack any real heat, heck I was paying attention more to how they do that dust storm effects whilst they’re in the car! Overall I just don’t feel invested in their love affair. It’s really too bad as the story certainly has potential for a real heart-wrenching wartime romance.

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The supporting cast don’t really get much to do. Even the great Jared Harris, who was simply astonishing in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, was perhaps the most memorable one here as Pitt’s boss. Matthew Goode is barely recognizable and his cameo appearance seems like a waste of his talent. Lizzy Caplan is grossly-underutilized as her character doesn’t seem to serve much purpose at all.

Now, the Mr & Mrs. Smith comparison is inevitable given both leads are spies (not to mention the recent commotion of Brangelina), but the Morocco setting also instantly conjures up memories of the much, much more compelling WWII romance drama Casablanca. Watching this actually made me want to rewatch it and so I did. I convinced my hubby, who hadn’t seen it before, to rent it on Thanksgiving eve. Well, Allied could barely hold a candle to that masterful classic, no matter how visually dazzling it looks. Which brings me to the stunning cinematography by Zemeckis’ regular Don Burgess. The visuals, costumes and set pieces are definitely a plus here, they’re more authentic than the performances of the leads.

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Overall, this is quite a disappointing effort from Zemeckis. The film is more style over substance… an elegant, sleek but utterly superficial affair. I’d think this type of film would make me cry buckets, but my eyes were dry the entire time. What’s more, for a film about espionage, the utter lack of edge and suspense is indefensible.

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Have you seen ALLIED? I’d love to hear what you think!

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Rental Pick: Woman in Gold (2015)

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Maria Altmann, an octogenarian Jewish refugee, takes on the Austrian government to recover artwork she believes rightfully belongs to her family.

Let me start by saying that Dame Helen Mirren is one of my favorite actresses I’d watch in practically anything. She’s easily one of the best things of any film, including this one.

As a woman whose torn apart from her family in Vienna, Maria Altmann is given the chance to take back what’s rightfully hers, but she must also face her dark past in the process. Woman in Gold has a historical significance, but what drew me to the story is the personal connection.
WomanInGold_Mirren_MaslanyFollowing her sister’s funeral, Maria discovered letters dating back to the 40s that prompted her to reclaim her family’s artwork. She enlisted help from an inexperienced lawyer who happened to be the son of a friend, Randol ‘Randy’ Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds). I have to admit I’m not enthused on Reynolds’ casting and in the end, his performance confirmed my dread.

The film utilizes several flashback sequences of Maria’s once-blissful life with her affluent family. It’s a close-knit Jewish family but she’s her aunt Adele’s favorite (Antje Traue), who was the subject of famed Austrian painter Gustav Klimt. The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (also called The Woman in Gold, hence the title) is practically the Mona Lisa of Austria. Though the monetary value is clearly substantial, the personal value is what’s priceless to Maria. I find myself more drawn to the flashback scenes, I was quite impressed by Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany as the young Maria. That goodbye scene with her parents was such a tearjerker.

WomanInGold_Antje_PaintingIn fact, it felt like a different film entirely as the tone is far more serious and emotional. In fact, the scenes where Maria and her then husband Fritz (Max Irons) were chased by the Nazi officers was pretty intense. In contrast to the contemporary scenes in both L.A. and Vienna, the tone is rather whimsical and at times it didn’t seem to have the gravitas the story deserves. Now, I don’t blame Reynolds entirely, as it’s more of a writing and directing issue, but his casting doesn’t help. He’s fine when the role requires him to be whimsical, but I find him entirely unconvincing in the emotional scenes. I just don’t think he’s got dramatic chops, though I suppose I should give him props for trying. It’s quite infuriating to see a perfectly capable actor like Daniel Brühl [as the Austrian journalist who helped Maria’s cause] not given much to do.

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Overall I enjoyed this film, there are some emotional as well as fun moments sprinkled throughout. Yet, whenever the film hit a particularly poignant note, the next scene strikes an entirely different note that it seems rather jarring. I understand that perhaps director Simon Curtis injected humor to make the film less heavy-handed, but the movie became so uneven in the process.

That said, if you’re intrigued by the story, this is certainly worth a rent. It’s not exactly a work of art by any means, but I definitely like it more than Monuments Men. Of course having Helen Mirren in the lead makes the film all the more fascinating. I’d still recommend this one if you like historical dramas, I find the flashback scenes in Austria to be especially compelling.

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Have you seen Woman in Gold? What did you think?

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