THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017) Reminds Us Atrocities Need Not Be Accepted

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zookeepers_wife

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017) is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Diane Ackerman and tells the true story of how the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo hid, protected, and ultimately saved hundreds of Jews during the Nazi invasion and subsequent occupation of Poland during World War II.

The film opens just before the Nazi invasion, in the summer of 1939, and we are introduced to the couple who run the Warsaw Zoo, Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain).  It’s a remarkable place, and the Zabinskis treat the animals like family.  Antonina in particular has a way with the animals that enables her to share a special bond with them.  We see this firsthand in a touching scene where she tries to save a dying baby elephant while its nervous and frightened parents stand nearby, ready to pounce on her, and yet, because of her sensitivity towards them, they allow her to treat their baby.

We also meet a German zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) who brushes off talk of an imminent German invasion, as he says he’s a zoologist and keeps out of politics.

But on September 1, 1939, the invasion happens, first with bombs which decimate the zoo, and then with soldiers, and once the Nazis take over, they herd the Jews into ghettos and force them into deplorable living conditions.  Jan sees these actions firsthand and is horrified by them.

The bombs destroy most of the zoo and kill many of the animals.  Later, their former friend Lutz Heck, now a prominent member of the Nazi party, informs Antonina that all the animals will have to be killed for food for the war effort.  However, he tells Antonina that with her permission he will remove her prize animals and bring them to his zoo in Germany where they will be safe, and she agrees.

However, Jan is outraged, believing that Lutz is simply stealing their animals, and when Antonina says that at least Lutz asked her permission, Jan testily answers that as a Nazi Lutz doesn’t need her permission.  And as winter approaches, the Nazis kill the remaining animals anyway.

Jan tells Antonina of the horrors of what’s going on inside the ghetto, and they decide they cannot stand by and do nothing.  Since the animals are all gone, there is plenty of empty space in the basement beneath the zoo, and they decide to use these empty areas to hide people.  With help, they come up with a system of removing people from the ghetto and secretly bringing them to the safety of the zoo, which is no easy task with Lutz and his fellow Nazis constantly on the prowl.

There no doubt will be comparisons between this movie and SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) because they tell similar stories, and while SCHINDLER’S LIST is a more powerful movie, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE is effective in its own right.

Beautifully shot by director Niki Caro, we at first glimpse the wonderful life the citizens of Warsaw experience before September 1, 1939, in particular the harmonious haven created by the Zabinskis at the  Warsaw Zoo.  And when things turn harsh after the invasion, the camera does the same.  Looking out their window, the Zabinskis see what they at first believe are snowflakes falling from the sky, but upon closer inspection they see that what is falling is ash.  The Nazis are burning the ghetto to the ground.

The screenplay by Angela Workman based on Ackerman’s book doesn’t overplay its hand.  The Nazi atrocities are well-known— or at least they should be— and the story  while not sugar-coating things does not go out of its way to show these horrors first hand either; hence the PG-13 rating.  Yet, there are still some jarring scenes, like when two Jewish women are shot in the head at point-blank range.

I’m a huge fan of Jessica Chastain, and I really enjoyed her performance here as Antonina Zabinski.  She especially captures the sensitivity Antonina possessed which allowed her to work so closely with the animals; they trusted her. Likewise, when it’s up to her to work closely with Nazi Lutz Heck, her skills once more come into play.  She has a way with him as well, and like the animals in the zoo, he trusts her.  This allows them to continue to hide the Jews under the noses of the Nazis.  For a while, anyway.

As much as I enjoyed Chastain, the best performance in the movie belongs to Johan Heldenbergh as Antonina’s husband Jan.  As Jan, Heldenbergh displays a wide range of emotions, from strength, to horror and outrage at what the Nazis are doing to his Jewish friends, to jealousy over his wife’s and Lutz’ relationship, even though he knows that its integral to the success of their efforts.  It’s a deep resonating performance, and while Antonina spends most of her time at the zoo working with Lutz, it’s Jan who’s active in the streets of Warsaw and who is personally responsible for whisking the Jews out of the ghetto.  As such, he sees much more of the atrocities than his wife does, and it takes a heavy toll on him.  The scene where he watches children being loaded onto the box cars of the crowded train is one of the more powerful images in the film.

Daniel Bruhl  makes for a sufficiently villainous Nazi, Lutz Heck.  However, since he’s for the most part “tamed” by Antonina, he’s nowhere near as despicable as some other movie Nazis.    His actions are somewhat muted because of his feelings for Antonina.

The rest of the cast does a nice job in support of these three main actors.  Iddo Goldberg is memorable as their Jewish friend Maurycy Fraenkel, and Shira Haas stands out as a young girl Jan rescues from the ghetto after she is raped by Nazi soldiers.

Michael McElhatton is memorable as the Rabinski’s loyal employee Jerzyk who stays with them through the whole ordeal and risks his life for them on numerous occasions.  And while McElhatton appears on GAME OF THRONES, I just saw him in a horror movie I liked, THE HALLOW (2015).

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE is a potent movie about a horrible time in our world’s history, and it tells an uplifting story about bravery in the face of unspeakable horrors and says a lot about the human spirit.  In spite of the Nazis threat, the Rabinskis refused to stand by and do nothing.

As the world continues to be a sadly dangerous place, it’s a message people the world over should take to heart and remember.  Atrocities need not be accepted.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

Best Movies of 2014

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GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY poster- my pick for the second best movie of the year.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY poster- my pick for the second best movie of the year.

BEST MOVIES OF 2014

By

Michael Arruda

 

Here’s my list for the Top 10 Best Films that I saw in 2014.

 

10 – JERSEY BOYS – Clint Eastwood’s film version of the popular musical about the life of singer Frankie Valli.

9 – CAPTAIN AMERICA:  THE WINTER SOLDIER – I love the Marvel superhero movies, and I enjoyed this Captain America sequel more than the original.

8 – EDGE OF TOMORROW – I really enjoyed this science fiction tale starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt.  Clever, creative, and so much more than just a science fiction variation of the GROUNDHOG DAY gimmick.

7 – THE BABADOOK – creepy horror film most notable for me for its lack of false scares.  Nearly every fright in this one is genuine.

6 – THE QUIET ONES– this horror film by Hammer Films about a college professor trying to disprove a demonic possession case didn’t do well at the box office but it really is an intelligently made horror movie that is as eerie as it is thought-provoking.

5 – NIGHTCRAWLER –slick thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a sociopath named Louis Bloom who spends his evenings stealing scrap metal and other items in order to sell them and make some cash, before deciding to become a photographer for the nightly news.  This high-energy thriller came out of nowhere this year, as I had heard very little about it, and then suddenly there it was.

Jake Gyllenhaal delivers a phenomenal performance, as he gives the main character Louis such tremendous energy and vitality that everything he does, no matter how outlandish, you believe it.  He also makes Louis likable, which is no easy task.  NIGHTCRAWLER also has a lot to say about today’s media, as the television news station continues to buy Louis’s videos, even when they know he’s manipulating events to get the footage.  It’s all about ratings!

NIGHTCRAWLER is a high octane thriller that features an outstanding performance by Jake Gyllenhaal.  It’s not to be missed.

 

4 – GONE GIRL – superior thriller in which nearly everything works, thanks to director David Fincher. It features a terrific performance by Ben Affleck, and an even better one by Rosamund Pike.  The story of a husband blamed for his wife’s disappearance starts out as a straightforward thriller but there’s oh-so-much-more going on here, with twists and turns you’ll no doubt won’t see coming.  The other thing I really liked about this movie was that three of the main characters were women, and that’s not something you see every day, unfortunately.  There was Rosamund Pike as the missing wife Amy Dunne, Carrie Coon as Ben Affleck’s sister, Margo, and Kim Dickens as the hard-nosed Detective Rhonda Boney, and all three of these performers are excellent.

3 – THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY – a deliciously smart and enjoyable feel-good movie starring Helen Mirren, THE HUNDRED FOOT JOURNEY tells the story of an Indian family led by its patriarch, Papa (Om Puri), that relocates to France where they open an Indian restaurant 100 feet across the street from the most popular eatery in the area, a fine French restaurant owned by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren).  The comedy stems from Mallory’s and Papa’s efforts to continually try to one-up the other, and things grow more complicated when Papa’s son Hassan (Manish Dayal), who he promotes as the finest Indian chef in the land, turns to Madame Mallory for training so he can become an even better chef.  Everything works in this movie, as it has terrific acting, a top-notch directorial effort by director Lasse Hallstrom, and an excellent script by Steven Knight.  Just don’t see it on an empty stomach.  The dishes in this flick are absolutely delectable.

My favorite feel-good movie of the year, featuring some of the most mouth-watering dishes you’ll see in a movie.

 

2 – GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – the most fun at the movies I had this year, this is one of the best superhero movies ever made, and it’s hilarious to boot.

I loved this movie! The humor was spot-on, thanks to a hilarious script by Nicole Perlman and director James Gunn, and the performances were all top-notch, from Chris Pratt in the lead role of Peter Quill, “Star Lord,” Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Dave Bautista as Drax, and the voice talents of Bradley Cooper as Rocket and Vin Diesel as Groot.  There hasn’t been a superhero group like this since The Avengers, and these guys are more fun!  If there were an Island for Misfit Superheroes, these guys would be on it.

There was pretty much nothing I didn’t like about this film, and in terms of all-time great superhero movies, it’s up there with THE AVENGERS (2012), IRON MAN (2008), and THE DARK KNIGHT (2008), but what I think makes this one so special is just how light and funny it is without sacrificing the integrity of the superhero story.  It’s not mindlessly stupid.  On the contrary, it’s intelligently funny.

 

It also has an amazing soundtrack.

 

1 -INTERSTELLAR – My pick for the Number 1 film of 2014 is INTERSTELLAR, Christopher Nolan‘s ambitious big budget science fiction thriller which one day may rank as one of the all-time great science fiction films.  It stars Matthew McConaughey as an astronaut who leaves his family and travels to the far reaches of space in a desperation mission to find a habitable planet on which to relocate the human race because Earth is dying due to a lack of food.

For me, INTERSTELLAR was a near perfect film.  It had everything:  acting, direction, script, pacing, twists and turns, but by far the best part for me was that it tackled some truly big ideas:  it dealt with worm holes, the theory of relativity, time travel, black holes, and what happens when someone enters a black hole.  It remained intelligent enough throughout to keep its science fiction believable.  It also scored high with its human element, as the tale of McConaughey’s character Hooper’s plight to return home to his family no matter what was a winner and grabbed me from the get-go.  It also had an excellent cast led by McConaughey that also featured Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Casey Affleck, Michael Caine, and John Lithgow.

Of all the films I saw in 2014, INTERSTELLAR was the most satisfying.

 

So, there you have it, my picks for the best films that I saw in 2014.

Next time I’ll share my list for the worst films that I saw in 2014.

Until then, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

INTERSTELLAR (2014) – Science Fiction at its Best

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interstellar - posterMovie Review:  INTERSTELLAR (2014)

By

Michael Arruda

 

INTERSTELLAR, the latest film by writer/director Christopher Nolan of THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy fame is an instant classic, not only one of the best movies of the year, but also destined to be one of the all-time classic science fiction films ever made.  No kidding!

INTERSTELLAR takes place in the not too distant future, a time when Earth is in crisis due to a shortage of food.  People work as farmers, because the need for food is so great, even though the soil is dying, and the time is coming when the Earth will no longer be able to sustain life.

 Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a former astronaut/pilot who now works as a farmer, and he’s none too happy about it.  He has to raise his children on his own, as his wife recently died from cancer, and he receives some help from his father, Donald (John Lithgow).  Through an odd series of events, Cooper and his young daughter Murph find themselves inside a secret NASA base in which Cooper is reunited with his former professor, Professor Brand (Michael Caine).

Professor Brand informs Cooper that NASA is secretly working on a plan to save the human race.  A worm hole has been discovered near Saturn, and Brand reports that they have already sent manned space crafts through the worm hole in search of other habitable planets.  Now they need to send a new mission to seek out those previous missions in order to learn which planets if any are inhabitable.  Brand wants Cooper to pilot the mission.

Cooper decides to go, against the wishes of his ten year-old daughter Murph, and even though he promises her that he will come back, she doesn’t believe him.  Cooper leads the mission through the worm hole, and in a race against time, as their voyage through time and space will take years, they attempt to find a new planet able to sustain human life and then get the word back to Earth before the planet dies.

INTERSTELLAR is a compelling, exciting movie that works on multiple levels.  It contains enough big ideas and gets enough of the science right to succeed as an exemplary work of science fiction, and it also scores high with the human element, as it contains major conflicts for nearly every character in the film to overcome.  It also works as a melodrama, as it tells a riveting and oftentimes suspenseful story.  It’s visually very satisfying, it contains great acting from nearly everyone involved, and it has a fantastic script by brothers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan.  And oh yeah, there’s the work of its talented director, Christopher Nolan.

Some of the ideas explored in INTERSTELLAR include worm holes, black holes, the theory of relativity, and time travel.  The worm hole is the plot device which sets the story in motion, as it allows our astronauts to travel impossible distances through space in one lifetime.  The theory of relativity also takes a prominent role in the story, as on certain planets years pass by as mere hours.  Spend a few hours on the planet, and back on earth two decades pass.  These are highly interesting topics, and they’re handled in this movie by screenwriters Christopher and Jonathan Nolan with near perfection.  The science isn’t dumbed down to the point where it plays as theatrical fantasy, nor is it so highbrow that it flies over our heads.  It strikes a nice balance.

Like last year’s GRAVITY (2013) it also gets the silence of space right, as scenes of space travel are shot in eerie silence.

Only the dealing with the black hole gave me pause— at first.  The fate of someone entering a black hole is most likely death, and anything else seems somewhat less than believable, but since the truth is, we really don’t know what happens inside a black hole, there are certain creative privileges that go hand in hand with this subject.  In other words, until there is definitive scientific proof of what really happens inside a black hole, writers can get away with certain creative indulgences, as long as they remain believable.  What happens inside the black hole in INTERSTELLAR ultimately passes the believability test.

Nearly every character in INTERSTELLAR has a major conflict to overcome.  Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) in addition to trying to save the human race (yeah, that’s a biggie!) also wants to make good on his promise to his children that he will indeed return home.  Fellow astronaut Brand (Anne Hathaway), Professor Brand’s daughter, is in love with one of the astronauts from the previous mission and thus is biased about travelling to his planet.  Cooper’s adult daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain) desperately wants to prove that her father didn’t lie to her, that he really planned to complete his mission and return home to her.  Professor Brand (Michael Caine) in spite of his herculean humanitarian effort is harboring a terrible secret.  It’s one of the reasons INTERSTELLAR remains compelling for all of its 169 minutes running time, because nearly every character has a conflict to work through.

Another reason it remains enthralling is it doesn’t play like a cold stoic science fiction tale.  INTERSTELLAR is a heartfelt melodrama, with characters you truly care about placed in some very dangerous and life threatening situations.  There are also some exciting scenes of suspense, including a fierce fight on an ice planet, and a nail biting sequence involving an impossible space docking maneuver on an out-of-control space station.

Matthew McConaughey leads the very talented cast with another neat performance, this time as Cooper, the former astronaut who makes the bold choice to pilot a ship through a wormhole into the unknown in order to save humankind, all the while believing in the improbable, that he’ll be able to make it back home alive.

Jessica Chastain is equally as good as Cooper’s adult daughter Murph, albeit her screen time is much smaller than McConaughey’s, but it is these two characters who drive this story along.

Anne Hathaway is also excellent as fellow astronaut and scientist Brand, as is Michael Caine as her father Professor Brand.  Throw in John Lithgow as Cooper’s father Donald, Casey Affleck as Cooper’s adult son Tom, and a few other familiar faces, including a major star who appears unbilled, and you have the makings for a phenomenal cast.

Visually, INTERSTELLAR is impressive and doesn’t disappoint.  Director Christopher Nolan fills this one with memorable scenes and images.  Even better is the screenplay by Nolan and his brother Jonathan.  Everything seems to work.  I was hooked within the first few minutes and remained so for the nearly three hours the movie took to reach its conclusion.  It’s Nolan’s most satisfying film since THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).

Still, it’s not perfect.  The logic behind the appearance of the worm hole, for example, doesn’t exactly hold up to scrutiny, and a key scene where Cooper attempts to communicate across dimensions to his daughter had me scratching my head.

But these are minor quibbles.

INTERSTELLAR is a superior science fiction movie.  It’s better than the recent science fiction efforts like GRAVITY (2013) and PROMETHEUS (2012), and it deserves to be included in the conversation with some of the all-time greats, films like THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968).

One of the best movies of the year, INTERSTELLAR is one voyage you definitely do not want to miss.

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