Friday, March 31, 2017

Holocaust tale ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ exudes hope among tears

By Steve Crum
Emotionally wrenching in many ways, The Zookeeper’s Wife succeeds as a fact-based story of love and perseverance. It echoes Schindler’s List, although not nearly so graphic, in depictions of Nazi atrocities against the Jews. The zoo setting is the difference here, so be prepared for one particular sequence involving Nazi soldiers rifling and machine gunning zoo animals. It is a stomach turning minute.
Knowing that the film involves Nazis taking over a zoo during WWII, and not having read Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction best seller of the same name, I had misguided expectations. Over 50 years ago, I had seen Hannibal Brooks, the 1969 Oliver Reed-starring movie about a Nazi-run Munich zoo. British POW “Hannibal” kidnaps an Asian elephant to protect the creature from Allied bombing of that zoo. Compelling as Hannibal Brooks might sound, rest assured that The Zookeeper’s Wife has little in common.
Directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider; North Country) and adapted by Angela Workman, The Zookeeper’s Wife recounts the keepers of Poland’s Warsaw Zoo, which still exists, in dealing with the German invasion on Sept. 1, 1939 and its extended aftermath. The story encompasses the city of Warsaw as well, particularly the persecution and containment of Jews in the so-called Warsaw Ghetto. (By the way, most of the filming was in Prague.) 
The film opens weeks before the invasion wherein zookeeper Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain) are hosting a cocktail party on zoo grounds with friends and colleagues. Among the group is Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), a German zoologist. Soon after the invasion, Heck shows up at the zoo’s gate, sporting his Nazi SS uniform. He has become an oppressive foe. (Remember how the young Rolfe turned Nazi in The Sound of Music?) To make matters worse, Heck lusts for—yep—the zookeeper’s wife. 
It is Antonina, in fact, who is the central character of the story. It is she who we first see bicycling on the zoo grounds with one of her many pets, a baby dromedary, freely galloping along in back of her. It is Antonina who we see tenderly help a frantic mother elephant care for its newborn. It is also Antonina who, along with her husband, devises a scheme to rescue hundreds of Jews from the ghetto. In the secretive process, she must also keep her ex-friend Nazi at sexual bay. It is a daunting task fraught with risk. 
Chastain’s acting is impressive, as are Heldenbergh’s, Brühl’s, and Shira Haas as the suffering Jewish teen, Urszula. 
Running six minutes over two hours, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a tearful reminder of the Holocaust and one’s will to survive. 

GRADE on an A-F Scale: B

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


By Steve Crum

Eleven year-old Bonita Granville autographs the Warner Brothers jalopy in 1933, a studio tradition at that time. Bonita played teen detective Nancy Drew in four Warner movies, 1938-39. Her co-star was Frankie Thomas (later TV's Tom Corbett, Space Cadet). Over coffee with Frankie several years ago, he shared a story about Granville as Nancy Drew: "Bonita was forced to literally tape down her breasts to be Nancy Drew, even though Bonita was only 15 years old when the series began in 1938. Otherwise it would've added 10 years to her appearance." Call it a restraining order.

By the way, Bonita Granville was Oscar nominated for These Three in 1936.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Savvy script, nearly non-stop action highlight ‘Kong: Skull Island’

By Steve Crum
Stereotypical in many ways, Kong: Skull Island is great fun to watch, thanks to a literate, savvy script, fine acting, and visuals that should please the most discriminating monster movie fan. Prepare for gigantic thrills, literally.
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer), this take on King Kong employs the basic template of Kong films since 1933’s King Kong. For example, there is the expected First Act set-up, covering the organization of an expedition to a remote South Pacific island, here called Skull Island—as in the ’33 version. 
Adding a diverse mix of explorers is part of the typical story scheme. In Kong: Skull Island, we get three scientists, Bill Randa (a slimmed down John Goodman), Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins of TV's 24: Legacy) and San Lin (Jing Tian). There also has to be a heroic adventurer type, here played by Tom Hiddleston. In a King Kong movie, a beautiful young lady is also required, but in this case it is not Ann Darrow, but Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) who fits the mold as a photojournalist, peacenik, and naturalist of sorts. All three attributes come in handy when dealing closeup with Kong as well as the terra firma and waterways of the island. 
As with many (most?) giant monster movies, there is a military element that sometimes clashes with the accompanying scientists. The soldiers want to immediately blast Kong and his fellow monsters to oblivion while the civilians would prefer to shoot only in self defense. Unique to K: SI is that the time setting is 1973, just as the Vietnam War is winding down. Samuel L. Jackson’s Lt. Col. Preston Packard is assigned to lead a squadron of grunts to escort the exploratory team. 
About the “fellow monsters” mentioned, there are realistic, jarring battles with humongous spiders, birds and octopi. Check out the huge walking stick insect that more aptly resembles a large walking log. Then there are the vicious baddies that give Kong himself a run for island dominance: the lizard-alligator big boys called Skullcrawlers. They are featured, along with Kong, in the bloody Third Act. (Kong and his antics essentially dominate the Second Act.) 
Not only is the Vietnam era angle a fresh approach, but there is also a tie-in to WWII via John C. Reilly as stranded American pilot Hank Marlow, discovered on Skull after living there with local natives (yes, there are live humans amongst) for nearly 30 years. A preamble to the main story sets up that backstory.  
Incidentally, the Marlow character provides K: SI with at least minimal comedy relief, a much needed ingredient for a film of this intensity.
Vogt-Roberts and screen scribes Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Sevak Anakhasyan have purposely laced Kong: Skull Island with numerous classic movie references. For one, there are both pop music and a a gunboat-cruising-down-the-river sequence from Apocalypse Now (1979). Add to that John Goodman’s wardrobe, a duplicate of what the Carl Denham character wore in 1933’s King Kong. Bits of 1987’s Platoon and 1964’s Dr. Strangelove are also woven into the storyline. 
Stick around for the tag following the film’s end credits. You will learn that this isn’t the end of King Kong movies. 
Or Godzilla movies. 

GRADE on an A-F Scale: B+

Friday, March 3, 2017

‘Logan’ combines slicing, dicing with 11 year-old lethal mutant

By Steve Crum
Hollywood has come a long way in its portrayal of children. From the silents to early sound films, kids were treated cautiously, depicted as total innocents to be sheltered on-screen. Things gradually began to change over the decades. (I could write a thesis detailing such.) Now we have the action crammed Logan, featuring an 11 year-old girl who is essentially a killing machine. Combining these two blade runners, working side by side, is a recipe for stunts, special effects, and big box office.
In keeping with the very dark script by Scott Frank, director James Mangold and Michael Green, there is a tragic finale. (I am trying so hard to avoid giving away the multiple spoilers.) Fans of X-Men and Wolverine should be pleased, tearfully so. The action includes some of the best stunt work since 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road
Hugh Jackman’s Logan/Wolverine character is definitely among the darkest in the Marvel Comics universe. But he is truly psychologically and physically down as the story opens in 2029 Texas. By this time, mutants have been outcast and mostly eliminated from USA society. No new mutants have been born for 20 years. Professor Xavier’s mansion school is long gone, and he is in hiding and poor health. Logan and mutant tracker Caliban (Stephen Merchant) continue to shelter the bedfast Prof. X (Patrick Stewart) in an abandoned warehouse. The two are essentially nursemaids. Logan works as a limo driver to make enough money for food and Xavier’s medications. Incidentally, Logan looks worn, acts gruff, and coughs a lot. His drinking problem does not help. 
Two events occur that change the trio’s fate. First, their hideout is discovered by the Reavers, a violent, anti-mutant organization headed by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook). He’s the one with a robotic right arm and hand. About the same time, Logan is saddled with an 11 year-old girl, Laura Kinney (a stunning and charismatic Dafne Keen). Laura is aka X-23 because she is a DNA lab-created mutant. And guess whose DNA was used? Hint: Long blades protrude from her knuckles when she is angered. Go figure.
The chase begins with four on the run for their mutated lives—with Xavier popping sedative meds to avoid his highly dangerous seismic seizures. All this is enough to make a stressed out Wolverine ever so weary. But now he has a preteen ward who is a holy terror.
Director James Mangold has said that several classic movies influenced the making of Logan, including George Stevens’ Shane. That referencing should help clarify the scene featuring our central heroes on the lam in a motel room, watching Shane on TV. 
By end credits, heads have rolled—literally, thanks to both the old and young Wolverine duo. The Wolverine movies have always been filled with slicing and dicing, but Logan is double-blade lethal, resembling a Freddy Krueger slasher movie extravaganza. No wonder this is the first Wolverine film to warrant an “R” rating. 
Logan is the third and reportedly last Wolverine film, even though there are rumors Hugh Jackman might be featured in an upcoming Deadpool sequel. 
Keep those blades sharpened.

GRADE on an A-F Scale: B