Wednesday, 3 May 2017
The Zookeeper's Wife, directed Niki Caro (Whale Rider, 2002), is adapted from the 2007 Diane Ackerman novel by Angela Workman, and it is very much a workman-like effort. Solid and tasteful (and handsomely mounted for just $20 million) it's not the least bit remarkable: the film trades on cute animals and the horrors of the Holocaust to wring tears from the audience.
Jessica Chastain, who is also a producer on the film, is valiant in spite of her distractingly thick Polish accent. She plays Antonina Zabinski, the wife of the keeper at Warsaw Zoo, Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), who together, when war arrives, decide to use their bombed out animal park to house, hide and aid in the escape of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto.
Although based on actual events – and end credit tells us that the Zabinskis saved some 300 lives, men, women and children – the film is more storybook than history book. That's not helped by Daniel Bruhl as Lutz Heck, a snarling Nazi villain and fellow zoologist with an eye for Antonina. (Ironically, among a cast who speak English with varying Polish accents, German actor Bruhl sounds the most English.)
You may get weepy during The Zookeeper's Wife but Caro's film boasts very few real emotions and only the occasional dose of suspense. Perhaps Ackerman's novel would be a better place to learn about the heroics of the Zabinskis; good people who risked their own lives to save others from a once unimaginable horror which is, sadly, all too believable today.
Tuesday, 25 April 2017
Besides a complicated mother-daughter relationship and a ubiquitous feline, there is a world of difference between Isabelle Huppert's two critically-acclaimed films of 2016, Elle and Things To Come; Paul Verhoeven's rape-revenge thriller is as in-your-face as Mia Hansen-Love's study of female mid-life crises is meditative. Both films, of course, boast a stellar performance by Ms Huppert, as inscrutable in the former as she is transparent (yet somewhat elusive) in the latter.
A professor of philosophy at a Paris university, Nathalie Chazeaux (Huppert) is adored by her students and lives a comfortable bourgeois existence with her husband, and fellow professor, Heinz (Andre Marcon); their two children, Chloe (Sarah Le Picard) and Johann (Solal Forte), having already flown the family nest. Seemingly living in domestic and professional bliss, Nathalie is soon shaken from her bubble; first, her mother (Edith Scob) has to be moved to a nursing home, having threatened self harm and calling the fire department once too often (the aforementioned cat, a black and obese creature named Pandora, belonging to her but falling into Nathalie's care); and then Heinz reveals he has a lover, and he will be moving in with her.
Forced into a mid-life crisis, Nathalie doesn't rail against the world, or even her philandering husband. She seems to take it all on the chin with resolve if not good grace; the occasional cry her only concession to her lot. She doesn't seem to have any friends either (at least none Hansen-Love seems concerned with introducing), other than former student and self-professed anarchist, Fabien (Roman Kolinka). Nathalie -- and Pandora -- travelling to his country farm where like-minded radicals drink, smoke and debate the ways of the world. Or just go swimming, and drink and smoke some more.
Unlike a film about a man's mid-life crisis, there are no sports cars or sex-capades. And while Hansen-Love may tease at an obvious attraction between Nathalie and Fabien, she knows better than to deliver on cliche. On the other hand, when Nathalie scoffs at the suggestion of romance, declaring "I'm a grandmother", the audience just as easily scoffs at the suggestion that Huppert could be anything but desirable at any age.
The lack of action may bother those more conditioned to a Hollywood take on mid-life crises, but Hansen-Love's films aren't driven by, or are slaves to plot; things happen just as they would in life: there's no heightened emotions or contrived events in Things To Come, just her fifth feature (though you may need a degree in philosophy to obtain some deeper meaning). Life has handed Nathalie some lemons, and she's going to make the best tasting citron presse she possibly can.
Career woman and doting grandmother may seem at odds -- and not particularly heroic in a filmic sense -- but by the time Unchained Melody plays (performed not by The Righteous Brothers but by 1950s a capella group The Fleetwoods), you get the sense that Nathalie is going to be just fine.
Thursday, 30 March 2017
Not nearly as clever or as much fun as The LEGO Movie, the surprise animation hit of 2014 that boasted both laughs and smarts for all-ages, The LEGO Batman Movie arrives to take some much needed piss out of the super-serious superhero genre. If it's not the LEGO movie we deserve, it's the one need.
And even more so than its predecessor, the humour and themes of The LEGO Batman Movie are aimed at an older audience. Younger kids may be dazzled by the colour and movement that abounds in director Chris McKay's feature, but its core story of an isolated orphan-cum-hero vigilante who fears connection and commitment, familial or otherwise, will be of no interest to tykes who are here for the (yellow) man in black tights.
After Batman (Will Arnett) saves Gotham once more from The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) --steadfastly refusing to acknowledge that he and his nemesis have any kind of relationship -- the caped crusader inadvertently sets in motion a plan that sees The Joker banished to the Phantom Zone: a space prison which holds the universe's most evil villains: Godzilla and King Kong, the gremlins and Daleks, and the raptors from Jurassic Park. From here, The Joker will initiate a prison break, unleashing all manner of villainy on Gotham.
The plethora of villains, super and celluloid, who abound in this very silly caper are voiced by a name cast (Conan O'Brien, Jenny Slate, Eddie Izzard, Zoe Kravitz) to little or no effect which is disappointing; McKay and co. (there are five credited screenwriters) seemingly gathering more pieces than the instructions called for.
Meanwhile, Batman, a.k.a Bruce Wayne, accidentally adopts an orphan, Dick Grace (Michael Cera), whom Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), Bruce's long-suffering manservant, believes could be the making of the man; Bruce, however, sees him as a lackey who is only too eager to be at his beck and call. Bruce also falls for the new Police Commissioner, Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), a no-nonsense woman who has no time for vigilantes, lone wolves -- or narcissists. Sorry Bruce.
But Batman will have to play nice if he wants to defeat The Joker. 'There's no 'I' in team' and 'family is what you make it' are the two messages children may be able to take away from this fizzy confection. But it's the adults who will have the most fun in this sporadically entertaining flick.
Wednesday, 29 March 2017
If victors get to write history, they also get to mete out the punishment. Sometimes that punishment suits the crime committed; other times it may be excessive or especially cruel.
At the end of WWII, the Danes decided to have captured German soldiers defuse the 20,000-odd landmines the German forces had buried along the Danish coast. A precarious undertaking for sure, but on the bright side, if they were to stuff it up, well it's no skin -- or worse -- off the Danes' noses.
Sgt Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller) is placed in command of a team of eight or so German POWs, none of whom can be a day over 20. "If they can go to war, they can clean up the mess", is the reasonable argument of Lt. Jensen (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), Rasmussen's commanding officer, and initially, the Sargeant has no reason to object.
Rasmussen's just as tough on the men: locking them in their makeshift quarters of an evening and neglecting to feed them until they're soon too tired for work and are stealing scraps from a nearby barn. But gradually, a respect and then a fondness develops between Rasmussen and his charges: unofficial leader, Sebastian (Louis Hofmann), Helmut (Joel Basman), Ludwig (Oskar Bokelmann), Wilhelm (Leon Siedel), and twins Ernst (Emil Belton) and Werner (Oskar Belton).
Land of Mine, written and directed Martin Zandvliet, may not be a horror film but it doesn't shy away from the horrors of these men's task. Nor, in the case of the Danes, does it ignore that there is such a thing as sore losers. Like all war films, Land of Mine is anti-war. Tellingly, and no doubt deliberately, the term 'Nazi' is never used, nor is there any mention of the Holocaust: we are to view these young men first and foremost as boys, then prisoners, and at worst, German soldiers.
And, of course, like Rasmussen, we come to care for the fate of these young men. Every time we witness them on the beach, tentatively searching for and defusing the mines, you are on the edge of your seat, holding your breath or peeking through your fingers. And as this is not an American film with recognisable actors boasting marquee value, there is no way of knowing who will survive the task at hand and who will not.
At 100-minutes, Land of Mine, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars, never overstays its welcome though ironically, it ends with a whimper rather than a bang. But in its best moments, it's gripping drama.