Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)
The Zookeeper's Wife poster
Source

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.

Zookeeper's Wife (2)
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?

April Fool’s Day (1986)

April Fool’s Day (1986)
April Fool's Day
Source

Released: March 28, 1986. Directed by: Fred Walton. Starring: Amy Steel, Deborah Foreman, Ken Olandt. Runtime: 1h 29min.

April Fool’s Day is a 1980’s slasher only notable for its ability to put a spin on a basic story.

Muffy (Deborah Foreman) has invited eight of her college friends to a weekend getaway on April Fool’s weekend to her family island. These people are kind-of weird in the first place to make April Fool’s Day a weekend celebration.

There are nine main characters for the getaway and that’s a lot of characters when the usual getaway vacation slasher has five or six characters so it doesn’t get crowded.

Kit (Amy Steel) is the main blonde goody-two-shoes character who wants to go to convent school and is dating Rob (Ken Olandt). Chaz (Clayton Rohner) carries around a camera a lot to videotape things for some reason and he’s with the blonde Nikki (Deborah Goodrich).

Skip (Griffin O’Neal) is simply characterized as Muffy’s cousin. Harvey (Jay Baker) is super preppy and wants to be called Hal but no one ever calls him that. There’s so much characterization to go around to everyone that a bookworm named Nan (Leah Pinsent) feels like a useless character, and the majority of them feel one-dimensional.

The comic relief comes from Thomas F. Wilson (Biff in the Back to the Future trilogy) who plays Arch, and he has some of the funniest moments as the ladies man. He’s the only actor I recognized in this. He and Deborah Foreman give the most memorable performances as Arch and Muffy, respectively.

The acting when they’re asked to be scared – mostly just Amy Steel and Ken Olandt – is bad, and Olandt’s screaming is almost annoying as the crickets that are constantly chirping. The general chemistry of the whole cast is good, and Chaz and Arch have some of the funniest moments together.

April Fool's day photo
Source

The comedy is better done than the horror itself – because it’s never actually scary, even as far as slasher films go. The setup at the beginning is good and some of the April Fool’s pranks are childish but most of them are funny.

When the killing begins, the fun stops because all of the kills actually suck because they show the bare minimum of the kills, removing a lot of the violence and it makes it really disappointing to me as a horror fan. Half of the kills literally happen off-screen and when someone wound up dead I wondered if I had missed something.

In that way it definitely sets itself apart from other slashers but it’s one of the reasons it’s not a good movie for horror fans, and a lot of it isn’t entertaining. When they don’t show the bit of what makes a horror movie successful – the kills – it feels a lot like when someone tells a story that ends with “you just had to be there.”

It’s a competent mystery because the story is developed somewhat well and there’s characters that just start acting strange.

It gears up to an interesting ending that filled in plot holes and some of the film’s major faults, and made it feel like an exercise in making an ending first and then just thinking up everything else in between. It makes it feel all a bit pointless.

It also would have been great if it were scary. April Fool’s Day is unique in the way that the comedy of the beginning is the best part even though it’s not billed as a comedy, and everything goes downhill when the killing comes, because that’s supposed to be the fun part of horror.

Score: 40/100

Mr. 3000 (2004)

Mr. 3000 (2004)
Mr. 3000 poster
Source

Released: September 17, 2004. Directed by: Charles Stone III. Starring: Bernie Mac, Angela Bassett, Michael Rispoli. Runtime: 1h 44 min.

I decided to review this because I’m about to reach 3,000 tweets on Twitter and I thought this would be a review of a movie with ‘3000’ in the name would mark the occasion. 

Bernie Mac stars as the very, very self-confident (fictional) Stan Ross in Mr. 3000. He got the name by reaching 3,000 hits playing for the Milwaukee Brewers. He thinks the name is synonymous with greatness and he talks about the name like it’s his big-headed alter ego or superhero name. Granted – Stan Ross would make a boring movie title.

He’s so obsessed with the name that the moment he achieved 3000 hits, he quit the game and abandoned the Brewers in July in the middle of a pennant race (even for fiction that’s totally unacceptable). Now it’s nine years later in 2004 and he’s the owner of the Mr. 3000 Shopping Centre and desperately wants into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Fact checking uncovers that he’s only Mr. 2997 because of a clerical error. Since his name simply loses meaning, the 47-year-old goes back to the MLB to try to get his 3,000-hit crown back.

Interestingly, if Ross were real, he would be tied for 30th on the career hitting record list with Roberto Clemente, who finished with 3,000 hits over 18 seasons, ending with a .317 batting average. The film’s writers did some research since they say Ross finished with a .314 batting average and if we assume he started playing at 20 – he’d have played about 18 seasons.

I think his ego would have prevented him from retiring when he did since he would have had a couple of good years left. Since he wants to be the best – you’d think he would just keep climbing up the hitting leader boards instead of being content with 30th. I digress and accept that he quit so he can have the name, just since the premise is amusing.

The baseball realism was lacking since he was brought up with September call-ups into the big leagues without doing spring training or any sort-of rehab games. I know he’s one of the greatest (fictional) hitters of all-time, but the guy hasn’t played pro ball in nine years.

He basically has a month to just get three hits, and when he starts striking out left and right it’s hard to believe since he was one of the best hitters of his time. Even though it’s about bringing old school into new school and trying to show how much the game has changed, I’m not believing that he’s going to be hitting like Mario Mendoza (one of the worst hitters in history).

It’s only plausible he stays in the Majors because the Brewers are fifth out of six teams in their division and because his presence sells tickets. High stakes are removed for the Brewers because they’re in a terrible position and the only thing they can play for is a respectable finish. It just leaves Stan to root for, but that’s hard because he’s such a jerk – plus, since he has a month to get three lousy hits, the stakes aren’t that high.

Mr. 3000 photo
Stan Ross (Bernie Mac) demands his 3,000th hit ball back from a fan at the film’s beginning. (Source)

It’s an entertaining film and Bernie Mac is believable as the title character; he’s touching at times and keeps the Ross from always being unlikable. Still, the character and his arrogance is the film’s biggest hurdle. It doesn’t help that there’s another Brewers player – Rex “T-Rex” Pennebaker (Brian White) who’s just like Stan. Rex needs a slice of humble pie, but Stan needs the whole bakery.

If you can get past Stan’s arrogance, it’s fun because Mac is funny as the character when his ego’s in check. One of my favourite moments is when Stan is working out and he looks like a fool because he’s so out of shape. It’s delightful that he’s put in his place, and his silence is nice. Then he’s fit again and his cockiness returns. It’s not good character work if one of my favourite aspects is the main protagonist looking like an idiot.

Angela Bassett’s a highlight as ESPN reporter Mo Simmons. She’s one of Stan’s old flames, and brings a natural charm to Mr. 3000 and keeps the man himself grounded. He is way easier to tolerate when she’s around. Before she’s there, he’s an ass – even with the charming Bernie Mac playing him. Some of his worst moments are calling his new team little leaguers.

There are a few memorable laughs, especially a joke that Japanese pitcher Fukuda (Ian Anthony Dale) doesn’t know how to swear properly. The pay-off’s funny when teammates try to teach him. Some of the jokes about how old Stan is fall flat, but there are a few funny ones including one about Viagra.

It’s a mediocre feature but it becomes an entertaining sports movie at the literal halfway point. Before that it had a handful of chuckles but it never gets fun until Stan starts enjoying the game of baseball, too, and learning that it’s not all about him.

Score: 60/100