The Zookeeper’s Wife

For F*** Magazine

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE 

Director : Niki Caro
Cast : Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl, Michael McElhatton, Iddo Goldberg
Genre : Biography/Drama
Run Time : 2h 6min
Opens : 30 March 2017
Rating : NC-16

After the second world war, various accounts of everyday heroism started coming to light. The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the true story of Antonina Żabińska (Chastain), who along with her husband Jan (Heldenbergh), ran the Warsaw Zoo in Poland. On September 1st 1939, the German invasion of Poland began, with the zoo devastated by bombings, many of Antonina and Jan’s beloved animals killed. The couple attempt to raise their son Ryszard (Timothy Radford and Val Maloku at different ages) amidst the horrors of war. They also become involved in the Polish underground resistance against the Nazis, using the zoo to house over 300 Jewish “guests” escaping from the Warsaw ghetto. During this time, the Warsaw Zoo is frequently visited by German zoologist Lutz Heck (Brühl), who spearheads a Nazi program to recreate extinct breeds of cows and horses. Heck begins to suspect something is amiss, as Antonina rebuffs his advances, all while ensuring the safety of those who have found a safe harbour in the Warsaw Zoo.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman. As crass a thing to say as it is, many audiences have developed a jadedness towards biopics set in Europe during WWII. Most of us have a general idea of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi regime, and these films tend to be sombre, stuffy affairs, often too concerned with being respectable to have a visceral impact.

While The Zookeeper’s Wife has much in common with your average WWII prestige pic, there are fascinating, moving elements to the story. For one, there’s the setting of the Warsaw Zoo, and the depiction of the menagerie that Antonina, Jan and their staff cared for. There are elephants, camels, lions, tigers and birds of prey, with the film doing a good job of setting up how dear the animals are to the zookeepers. When everything is ripped away, we get a sense of their pain.

The film was predominantly shot in Prague, with production designer Suzy Davies creating a convincing environment for the story to unfold in. A combination of well-trained animal actors and visual effects work bring the zoo’s denizens to life. A battle sequence in Warsaw’s Old Town area is appropriately intense. There’s also a haunting scene in which the Nazi troops setting the ghetto ablaze with flamethrowers is intercut with the Jews hiding in the zoo observing Passover, singing a seder song.

War films tend to have male protagonists, and it’s easy to see why director Niki Caro and star Jessica Chastain were drawn to Antonina’s story. Caro made waves with her film Whale Rider, and is attached to direct the upcoming live-action remake of Disney’s Mulan. Chastain is as radiant as ever, essaying utmost poise in the most desperate of circumstance. Antonina is not afraid to get her hands dirty, and early on, resuscitates a new-born elephant calf. As with many films of this nature, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a story of sacrifice and principles. We can’t tell if that’s a good Polish accent she’s affecting, but it’s not as distracting as it could’ve been.

The relationship between Antonina and Jan goes through a trial by fire. Heldenbergh is believably rugged, a rough-hewn hero who cares deeply for those around him, even if he doesn’t show it on the surface. Like many German actors, Brühl seems typecast as a Nazi, but he makes for a layered antagonist here. At first, Lutz doesn’t seem quite so bad as his compatriot – after all, he loves animals. However, the depths of his viciousness are gradually revealed.

With the focus placed squarely on Antonina, we don’t quite get to know the people who are huddled in the basement of the zoo’s residential villa, such that The Zookeeper’s Wife sometimes succumbs to the pitfalls of making them faceless victims. The film also hits a considerable lull in the middle, and could have benefited from more suspenseful moments. Caro does strike a balance in portraying the cruelty of the German occupying forces without making the film gratuitously gory.

Throughout The Zookeeper’s Wife, there are glimmers of the bracingly powerful film it could’ve been. Instead, this is largely standard war biopic stuff, but it will bring the story of Antonina and Jan Żabińska to a larger audience than ever before.

Summary: While it’s bolstered by a stirring, engaging lead performance from Jessica Chastain, there’s not too much to distinguish The Zookeeper’s Wife from other wartime biopics of its ilk.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

 

From a House on Willow Street

For F*** Magazine

FROM A HOUSE ON WILLOW STREET 

Director : Alastair Orr
Cast : Sharni Vinson, Steven John Ward, Gustav Gerdener, Zino Ventura, Carlyn Burchell
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 27min
Opens : 30 March 2017
Rating : NC-16

Don’t you just hate it when decent, honest, hardworking people fall victim to a cruel twist of fate? In this horror flick, a band of decent, honest, hardworking kidnappers get more than they bargained for after they unwittingly abduct the host of a powerful demon. Hazel (Vinson) leads a team of criminals including her boyfriend Ade (Ward), Ade’s cousin James (Gerdener), and Mark (Ventura). Over six weeks, they plan the kidnapping of Katherine (Burchell), the teenage daughter of a wealthy couple, demanding that the ransom be paid in diamonds. Alas, what was meant to be an easy job turns out to be anything but, when the demon that has possessed Katherine wreaks havoc. Hazel and her cohorts must face their deepest, darkest fears, made manifest by the demon’s power, as the tables are turned and the criminals become the victims.

From a House on Willow Street has a rather novel premise: mash up the home invasion thriller and supernatural horror subgenres to deliver twice the tension. While director Alastair Orr displays an affinity for the horror genre, the execution here leaves quite a bit to be desired. The back-story is conveyed through clunky exposition, and the audience is fed a lot of information about the history of the titular house at one go. Things get tedious rather than suspenseful, such that this feels longer than its 87 minutes.

Even though there is an effort made to humanise our protagonists, they’re still largely unlikeable by dint of being career criminals. Then there are the shocks, which are almost all basic jump scares of the “there’s nobody behind you, THEN THERE’S SOMEBODY BEHIND YOU!” variety. Out of all the scares, the most effective is probably a relatively lo-fi gag involving a framed portrait that transforms when one looks away from it.

There is a large amount of appropriately gruesome makeup effects on display, created by South African studio Dreamsmith. Jaco Snyman, who supervised the creature effects, has worked on films such as Mad Max: Fury Road and District 9. If gory, ghoulish figures stalking our ‘heroes’ are what you’re after, From a House on Willow Street has plenty of that. Orr wisely doesn’t overuse computer-generated effects, with the barbed, slimy tongue-like appendage that emanates from Katherine’s mouth looking just as disgusting as that description sounds.

Australian actress Vinson is building her ‘scream queen’ repertoire, after starring in the hit horror film You’re Next. She gives the role her best shot, summoning the toughness that Hazel should exhibit, but is saddled with poorly-written dialogue. The relationships between the four members of Hazel’s crew are roughly defined. Just as in many home invasion thrillers, the people doing the invading are constantly at each other’s throats. Everyone has a tragic backstory that is exploited by the demon, but the bloodied and maimed ghosts popping up throughout the movie lose their frightening effect because of how repetitive things get.

From a House on Willow Street has decent makeup effects and is competently shot, but its potential is gradually eroded thanks to director Orr falling back on too many tried and tested genre tricks. The film relies on the soundtrack lunging at the audience repeatedly, and while the jump scares provide a few jolts to start with, they soon become predictable.

Summary: This horror film promises a different spin on things with its kidnap plot set-up, but ends up falling back on genre devices we’ve all seen before. Star Sharni Vinson and some grisly special effects makeup work barely lift it above mediocrity.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Boss Baby

For F*** Magazine

THE BOSS BABY 

Director : Tom McGrath
Cast : Alec Baldwin, Miles Bakshi, Tobey Maguire, Steve Buscemi, Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow
Genre : Animation/Comedy
Run Time : 1h 38min
Opens : 30 March 2017
Rating : PG

Alec Baldwin recently played the sitting President of the United States on Saturday Night Live. In this animated film, Baldwin plays a character who wears better-fitting suits, is more articulate, throws fewer tantrums, but has the same sized hands.

Virtually every review of The Boss Baby will open with or otherwise contain a passage just like the one above, but it’s just too difficult to pass up the comparison. Baldwin voices the title character, a corporate high flyer who just happens to be an infant. He is dispatched to the Templeton family by Baby Corp, after the love that babies in general are receiving is threatened by ever-cuter breeds of puppies. Mr. and Mrs. Templeton (Kimmel and Kudrow) work for Puppy Corp, so the Boss Baby attempts to infiltrate the company via his new parents. Seven-year-old Tim Templeton (Bakshi) has a feeling that something’s amiss with his new baby brother, and quickly discovers the Boss Baby’s secret. Even though they strongly dislike each other, Tim and the Boss Baby must cooperate to stop a dastardly scheme engineered by Puppy Corp’s CEO, Francis E. Francis (Buscemi).

The Boss Baby is directed by Tom McGrath, who directed Megamind, co-directed the Madagascar films and voiced Skipper the Penguin. Dreamworks Animation has built its brand as being more cynical and wiseacre than other studios that cater to children. The Shrek films were a vehicle for Dreamworks studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg to express his spite towards Disney, his former place of employment. You get the occasional oddity like Bee Movie. There’s an expectation that there will be lots of pop culture references. Big-name stars are slotted in, regardless of whether they’re capable voice actors. The best Dreamworks films, like the two How to Train Your Dragon movies, are praised as being “Pixar-like”.

The fundamental problem with The Boss Baby is that this is a premise which some suits in a boardroom found amusing. Much of the humour is derived from the incongruity of an infant spouting business jargon, and that the Boss Baby salivates at the thought of a gleaming corner office in Baby Corp. This is not stuff that kids will connect to. In the meantime, the parents will be alienated by the typical bodily function gross-out jokes. Family-aimed animated films can package challenging themes in a palatable way, the example that springs to mind being the recent Oscar winner Zootopia. The Boss Baby doesn’t do this at all. The best animated films are easy to connect and get lost in, when it’s clear that The Boss Baby was the brainchild of a bored studio exec.

Even though the premise doesn’t work as a whole, there are individual parts of The Boss Baby that are entertaining. The animation is lively, and there’s an inventive stylistic flourish in how Tim’s overactive imagination is depicted in a simpler, more colourful animation style. There’s an unexpected grandeur to the soundtrack composed by Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazarro, which is influenced by the big band style. The Tim character is likeable and has adequate personality thanks to Bakshi’s performance. Baldwin also showcases keen comic timing, even though his turn as Santa Claus in Dreamworks’ Rise of the Guardians was more fun.

Buscemi, replacing the initially-cast Kevin Spacey, can play ‘weaselly’ in his sleep. It’s a fine performance, but nothing we haven’t heard from him before. Kimmel and Kudrow are serviceable but unremarkable as the Templeton parents. Weirdly enough, there isn’t a scene-stealing supporting character, when Dreamworks movies can often be counted upon to provide those.

Throwing the parents a bone in the form of a pop culture reference or two is fine, and can be amusing if done right. However, The Boss Baby has entire scenes built around homages to films that its target audience will not be familiar with, including a gag spoofing the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s also the “cookies are for closers” line, a nod to “coffee is for closers” from Glengarry Glen Ross, in which Baldwin starred opposite Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon. These moments geared towards older audience members do not gel with the lowbrow humour, such that it’s not quite clear who exactly The Boss Baby is for.

While The Boss Baby can be viewed as a comically exaggerated allegory for sibling rivalry and it does get some moving moments in, cynicism is always bubbling beneath its talcum powdered skin.

Summary: An animated film with a half-clever premise, The Boss Baby’s corporate-themed plot will fly over the heads of most younger viewers, while the adults will barely tolerate the lowbrow gross-out jokes.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong