Friday, April 7, 2017

"The Zookeeper's Wife" and The Week in Reviews

[I review the new movie "The Zookeeper's Wife" as well as "20th Century Women" and "Rules Don't Apply."  The Book of the Week is "The Arrangement: A Novel."  I also bring you up-to-date with "My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die" with Michelangelo Antonioni's "Red Desert"]

The Zookeeper's Wife

A zoo becomes an unlikely hiding place for Jews during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw during WW II.

In the summer of 1939, Antonina Zabinksi (Jessica Chastain), her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and their young son, Ryszard (Timothy Radford) are happily running their zoo in Warsaw, Poland.  Antonina is a bit of an animal whisperer and has a gift that is particularly exemplified by a scene early in the film where a baby elephant has just been born, and it's not breathing.  The elephant mother is going berserk and Antonina enters the pen, calms the mother and saves the baby.  I have to say that as the mother elephant was grieving her baby, I was starting to have childhood flashbacks remembering "Dumbo," one of the most heart-rending mother/child films ever. 

Anyway, let's just say that Antonina has a gift.  She has also caught the eye of a visiting German zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) who owns a zoo in Berlin.  And let's just say, "caught the eye" is a euphemism because Heck is clearly enamored of Antonina and not just for her skills with the animals.

All is happy and bright and lovely until...

Poland is invaded by Hitler's army, Warsaw is bombed and the zoo is a casualty in a devastating scene, especially if you are an animal lover, as the zoo animals are killed in the bombing.

When we think of war and cities being bombed, it is unlikely that are first thoughts would be about what would happen to the city's zoo.  Now we unhappily know. 

Heck returns to offer the Zabinski's safe haven at his zoo for the best stock of their surviving animals and the Zabinski's reluctantly agree.

The Zabinski's are not Jewish but they have several close friends who are and when it becomes apparent what is happening to the Jews in Warsaw, they begin an underground effort to hide them in their zoo by offering to raise pigs as food for the Nazis using food waste from the Jewish ghetto. Thus, Jan was able to go into the ghetto to collect the waste, hide Jews under the waste and bring them to the zoo to hide them in the empty cages. As Antonina says, their zoo had become a human zoo.  Since the Nazis were also using the zoo as a sort of armory, this was highly dangerous as Jan and Antonina hid their "guests" in plain sight.  During the day, the "guests" would sleep and remain quiet and when the soldiers and the cook left for the day, Antonina would play the piano to signal that it was safe for them to all come out of hiding. 

Heck returns, this time as a Nazi officer, and Antonina uses his affection for her to her advantage and to keep his suspicions at bay until an incident threatens to expose the whole operation.

This is a true story based on the 2008 best-selling book by Diane Ackerman, and it's a tale of heroism in the midst of depravity.  And it's a wonderful film.

There have been many movies about the Nazi occupation of Europe and the extermination of the Jews.  What sets this apart? As I said, we never think of the fate of zoos in war so that is an unusual element, especially in the role it played as a sort of underground railroad for the Jews, but it's also the story of people who risked their lives to help others, and in today's world that is the kind of inspiration we need.  We also need to be reminded about the horrors of the past so that they are not repeated. The Zabinskis were able to save over 300 Jews before the end of the war.

Jessica Chastain puts in a powerful performance as Antonina, who starts out as a shy, retiring woman who loves her husband and son and just wants to enjoy her zoo, but who martials the courage to stand up to evil. Chastain is one of those actresses whose presence on the screen can exude warmth and this film is no exception. I was even impressed with her accent, something I usually find fault with when actors attempt it, though I always wonder why bother with accents at all? 

Daniel Bruhl is also wonderful as the zoologist who works with Antonina to try to breed the extinct "auroch" back into existence.  But the person I was so impressed with was Heldenburgh, as Antonina's husband, Jan.  Heldenbergh is probably best known so far for the TV series "The Tunnel."  He was very believable as the loving husband but also as the zookeeper turned resistance fighter.  His face told many stories.  I want to see more of him.

Directed by Niki Caro with a screenplay by Angela Workman, who has fictionalized the story somewhat, this is a fast-paced, tension-filled film with wonderful performances and an equally wonderful message: that in the face of evil, there are good people who will not only resist evil but do good in the face of it.

Rosy the Reviewer of the best films of the year so far. Don't miss it!

***Some Movies You Might Have Missed***
(And Some You Will Be Glad You Did)!


20th Century Women (2016)


The story of three women living in Santa Barbara in the 1970's.

Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning star as Dorothea, Abbie and Julie, three women who have come together in the waning days of the 1970's.

Dorothea is divorced and raising her young son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) alone.  She was 40 when she had him, which means she was born in the 20's and lived through The Great Depression.  She lives in a big house that she is slowly renovating and rents out rooms to a motley crew, people all living together, making their way together, Abbie being one of them.  Abbie is a photographer recovering from cervical cancer who is taking pictures of everything that happens to her in a day.  William (Billy Crudup) also lives there and is helping Dorothea fix up the house.  He is a guy who was once mainstream but is now a hippie who is happy to just be a carpenter and potter.  Julie is a young neighbor who has an unhappy home life so seeks refuge at Dorothea's.  She sneaks into the house to sleep - just sleep - with Dorothea's son, Jamie. 

Dorothea was born in 1924 and didn't have a child until 1964 so there is a sort of culture shock there.  On the one hand, Dorothea's feet are firmly planted in her own formative years of the 30's and 40's - she smokes like a fiend because according to her it wasn't bad for you back when she was young so why stop now? - but she wants to be "with it" and wants to do a good job raising her son. She is trying to acclimate to the tumultuous 70's while at the same time maintaining some of her values from the past, which creates a schism for her.  She is a 20th century woman but caught between two very different parts of the 20th century.

I had a similar circumstance in my own life.  I felt my mother's presence watching this film. My mother was 40 when she had me, but she was born in 1908 so there was even more of a culture shock for her raising a daughter in the 60's and 70's.  We were both 20th century women but experiencing the 20th century in two very different ways.  However, where Dorothea tried to embrace it, albeit awkwardly, my mother didn't in any way, shape or form and it drove a wedge between us.  I remember getting my mother a subscription to "Ms. Magazine, hoping I could share that part of my life with her and possibly be feminists together.  Ah, the hope of youth. I remember visiting her and her telling me I didn't need to renew the subscription.  She didn't approve of the "language" in the magazine, forget the political content.  All it took was for there to be some expletives and she was turned off.

Dorothea is also insecure as a woman alone raising a son so she asks Abbie and Julie to help her to raise "a good man," one who understands and knows how to treat women.  Abbie is a feminist.  She gives Jamie a copy of "Our Bodies Ourselves," and tries to coach him in the ways of women.  There is a very funny dinner scene where she says the word "menstruation" should not be a taboo word to Jamie or anyone else and then makes everyone at the table say the word.  She's that kind of feminist.

Julie, on the other hand, is a sexually active teen, except not with Jamie, and since Jamie is in love with Julie and she climbs into his bedroom window most nights just to sleep, that is concerning to a young boy just coming into his own sexuality. Add to that the fact that Julie shares her sexual exploits with him, we have one frustrated young boy.

You can always count on Bening to put in a good performance, and this film is really all about her. Here she plays a quirky character who was raised during the Great Depression and is now trying to make sense of the 1970's, not an easy task. She is also at the end of one decade and about to enter another where AIDS, hard drugs, disco and Reagan will reign, and we will eventually be confronted by 9/11. 

The late 1970's now seem like a very innocent time.  I could relate to what Dorothea was going through, and I think her character was supposed to be endearing but she actually kind of drove me crazy. That is no aspersion on Benning's talent, I just found Dorothea to be annoying. 

However, her character in this film aside, I have to say that it's refreshing to see an actress of a certain age who hasn't had plastic surgery.  After a time you take for granted that actresses will continue to look young like Jane Fonda who at 79 doesn't have a wrinkle on her face.  That's not right.  But it's common in Hollywood.  So then when you see an actress who looks her actual age, it's shocking.  Deborah Winger in the upcoming movie "The Lovers" is another example.  I didn't even recognize her in the preview.  But it's also real and honest, and I applaud Benning and Winger.  And don't get me wrong, they are still beautiful woman, even more so by letting their age show.

Greta Gerwig is another outstanding actress who I can always count on to put in a great performance.  However, I keep wondering when she will break out into mainstream stardom.  She has starred in many, many indie films, but is still not a household name. I mean, have you heard of Greta Gerwig?  She is a highly talented actress, but perhaps her unconventional looks hold her back.

Billy Crudup is another actor who hasn't broken through the stratosphere, and I don't know why. He had the looks and the acting skills to make it big as a romantic lead. He made a huge splash in "Waking the Dead."  I loved that movie and watched it several times and really thought he was going to be a huge star.  Though he has acted steadily since then he has never achieved the superstar status of a Tom Cruise or a Richard Gere, and I wonder why.

Written and directed by Mike Mills, this Oscar nominated screenplay is a semi-autobiographical look at Mills' mother and other women in his life (his 2010 film "Beginners" was about his Dad).  I sometimes have a problem with movies about women written and directed by men, but that's not really my issue with this film. Despite the good acting and a story that will keep your interest, I found most of these characters to be really irritating.  I had to think, was everybody so irritating, quirky and self-absorbed like that back in the 70's? 

And as a feminist and someone who usually loves movies all about women, I feel guilty that I can't wholeheartedly love this film. But despite my bias about quirky people, I liked the film. Is it possible to find the characters irritating and still like the film?  I think so.  Don't we all find each other a bit irritating at times and yet we still like each other?  That's real life.  And maybe that's the point. We can all be irritating and annoying but underneath, we all mean well. That's what this film is like.

Rosy the Reviewer says...a very real and compelling (though sometimes irritating) examination of the lives of three women, all of whom were born and lived in the same century but who all experienced it differently.

Rules Don't Apply (2016)

A young naïve actress arrives in Hollywood for a screen test with Howard Hughes and falls in love with her driver...but not before boy gets girl, boy loses girl...

This film starts when a controversial book has just come out about billionaire eccentric Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty), stating that Hughes was senile and sequestered in a hotel.  He needed to come out of hiding to debunk the book by proving to the world that he was fine. Funny, because he really was losing it and he really was sequestered in a hotel. 

Then the film flashes back five years earlier when a young beauty queen, Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), arrives with her mother (Annette Bening again) from South Carolina for a screen test for Howard Hughes.  Hughes owned a movie studio and was famous for seeing a picture of young beautiful girls and offering them screen tests.  He would lure them out to Hollywood and then put them up in hotels, sometimes keeping them waiting for weeks or months.  He had a literal harem of young women waiting to meet Mr. Hughes.

Marla was no different.  Marla is a virginal church-going Baptist and her mother has accompanied her to Hollywood.  Frank (Alden Ehrenreich) is a young man from Fresno and naturally he is attracted to Marla. She and her mother are put up in a lovely house and Frank is their driver, assigned to them by Hughes. Young men were not immune to the lure of Hughes, either.  Frank may be a driver, but he, too, is waiting to meet Mr. Hughes so he can pitch him a real estate deal. As she sits around waiting for her screen test and to meet Howard Hughes, Marla and Frank form a relationship. 

This film very much reminded me of "La La Land,"  in its theme of young people and their Hollywood dreams.  It even had a haunting song that Marla sings aptly named "Rules Don't Apply."  However, these young people don't know the rules.

"C'mon, Frank, aren't those the rules?" Marla asks Frank.
"You're an exception. The rules don't apply to you," Frank replies.

Hollywood has it's rules, but those rules don't apply to Hughes. Hughes has his own rules, and he has no problem using the young people around him and preying on their dreams. Hughes is clearly a man living his life for himself.

Beatty doesn't show up in the film until about 30 minutes into it and when Marla finally meets Hughes, the room is dark, they eat TV dinners on TV trays and he plays his saxophone for her. She nervously talks his ear off and he makes a quick exit.  Later, however, they meet again and while waiting for Hughes to appear, Marla gets drunk and there is a very uncomfortable seduction scene which leads to a surprise ending to the film, one that is purely fictional (I think).

Most of us Baby Boomers remember the handsomeness and sexuality that oozed off the screen when Warren Beatty starred in "Splendor in the Grass." He was the consummate bachelor making his way through every beautiful actress of the day, most notably Natalie Wood (whose heart he broke in "Splendor in the Grass" and in real life too), Joan Collins, Julie Christie and Diane Keaton and not marrying until his 50's when Annette Bening finally captured him. So it's difficult to see him in this as an older and very pervy Howard Hughes.  But after you get used to it, he pulls it off.

However, the main problem with this film is that it doesn't know if it's a comedy or a drama.  When Frank and Marla are together, the film seems like a romantic drama.  When Hughes takes the stage with all of his eccentricities, the movie feels like a comedy, causing jarring juxtapositions.

Beatty not only stars in the film but he wrote, directed and produced the film as he does with most of his films.  The film only briefly touches on Hughes' accomplishments and fame and where his money came from: owner of Hughes Aircraft, then RKO film studio and TWA; he was an adventurer who flew around the world, the infamous flight of his experimental plane, the H-4 Hercules known as The Spruce Goose...To enjoy this movie, it helps to know something about Hughes, how he became involved in the movie world, the women he discovered and romanced before his physical decline. Otherwise he comes off here as just a pervy movie studio owner.  But I also must add that Beatty took many liberties with Hughes' story and the characters.  Let's just say it's a fictional story about Howard Hughes, a sort of "what if" story.

Hughes was an accomplished man, but also a peculiar man with a taste for young girls and a predilection for strange sexual practices.  He instructed the men who drove the girls around to go slowly over bumps in the road (never more than 2 miles per hour) so as not to unduly jostle their breasts, believing that would cause them to sag unnecessarily.  He also invented the bra that Jane Russell wore in "The Outlaw" to show off her, er, "assets" to their best advantage.

Matthew Broderick plays one of Hughes' factotums and is strangely calm and almost menacing.  I have become used to him playing jittery comic roles so this was a nice change. This film is also full of cameos by big name actors - and I mean cameos.  If you blink you will miss many of them.  Ed Harris, Martin Sheen, Oliver Platt, Alec Baldwin, Steve Coogan, Haley Bennett and Candace Bergen were on the screen for about a minute, and I must have blinked, because I totally missed Paul Sorvino, Dabney Coleman and Amy Madigan. Beatty must have had to call in some favors or maybe it's that he does so few films (this is his first effort since 1998's "Bulworth"), and he is just so well-respected and liked in Hollywood that everyone wanted to be associated with this film. These were probably the smallest roles these people have ever had since they rose to prominence as actors. 

If you watch the film, you will have fun seeing how many actors you recognize.  Remember, don't blink!  

Rosy the Reviewer says...a strange film that captures the time and place, but I still had a hard time seeing Beatty as a pervy old guy.

***My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project***

207 to go!

Have YOU seen this classic film?

Red Desert (1964)

A woman with mental problems embarks on an affair with a visiting businessman.

Giuliana (Monica Vitti) is a woman with a young son. She lives in the port city of Ravenna on the east coast of Italy. She is married to Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), the manager of an oil refinery and she is recovering from a suicide attempt. She is clearly going through some anxiety and neurosis.  Though her husband is sympathetic, he is not helpful and she is clearly losing it.  So what do you do when you are going mad?  Why you have an affair, of course. When you are seeking love and meaning in your life, why not have sex?

As Giuliana walks around Ravenna with her young son, she is surrounded by industrial structures spewing smoke and making loud sounds.  She meets Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris), an associate of her husband's.  He is there to recruit workers for a plant in Patagonia.  There is an attraction between Giuliana and Corrado, and she confides in him about her mental state and he shows interest and sympathy to her. She seeks solace in a relationship with him.  Likewise, she draws comfort from her young son, but when he supposedly becomes paralyzed from the waist down and Giuliana discovers he was faking it, her alienation is complete. She accepts the fact that she is alone and "separate."

Once again, director Michelangelo Antonioni's muse, Monica Vitti stars, this time as a woman with mental problems.  It's not surprising she was Antonioni's muse.  She was certainly a gorgeous actress with one of the great faces of cinema, perfect for all of that staring off into space that characterizes Antonioni's films. Richard Harris also stars and this was his hunky period before drink got the better of him.

I lapped up so much Antonioni in my college years and early 20's that I wasn't sure if I'd seen this one already.  Looking back, I can't believe how much I reveled in alienation and existentialism, something Antonioni specialized in.  However, I don't blame him because Italy took a big hit during WW II and many of the European postwar films reflected that.

Set in a modern but bleak industrial area, Antonioni focuses on technology as a sort of alienation hell. In 1964, technology was represented by the manufacture of chemicals and the spewing of pollution, something that probably was not a big deal in 1964 but in hindsight, prescient. Then it was a sign of progress. But it could also be alienating. However, Antonioni isn't condemning modernity.  He shows that it is a fact of life and we must accept it and change with it.

Despite the industrial setting, this film is beautiful to look at, which in itself is a lovely irony. This was his first film in color and it was such a big deal that he had entire fields painted so he could get just the hue he wanted.

Why it's a Must See:  "Michelangelo Antonioni's first feature in color remains a high-water mark for using color...Restored prints make it clear why audiences were so excited by his innovations, not only for his expressive use of color but also his striking editing."
---"1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die"

Rosy the Reviewer says...the film is really quite brilliant and now I remember why I loved Antonioni so much.
(In Italian with English subtitles)

***Book of the Week***

The Arrangement: A Novel by Sarah Dunn (2017)

"It is true that in the natural world, there is one foolproof way to revive a flagging libido - find a new partner."
--Constance Waverly, The Indigo Initiative

When you have been married for awhile and the sex has gotten ho-hum, it's only natural that one's mind might wonder what it would be like to have sex with someone new. Back in the 70's and 80's, open marriage was a "thing."  There were nonfiction books written about it and marriage encounters that promoted it. Of course, that was back then, a more socially experimental time, and you wonder, are those people who were living an open marriage still married? Are people still experimenting with that concept?

Sarah Dunn has tackled the issue of open marriage in this new novel.

Lucy and Owen have moved to Beekman, a bucolic, quaint suburb after a life living in an apartment in Manhattan. Beekman is one of those places where the stay-at-home moms volunteer at the school, using plastic grocery bags is akin to making a pact with the devil and everything on the surface seems perfect, except one of the teachers is transitioning from a man to a woman, the kids AND the adults might all be highly medicated and everyone knows everyone else's business.  But no one talks about that.

Lucy and Owen are trying to get used to their new life.  They have an autistic son and seventeen chickens and not much sex.  They love each other but their lives have become hectic and stale and it has all taken a toll on their marriage.

One night when friends are over and the wine is flowing, they all get into a discussion about open marriage and, though Lucy and Owen are initially shocked by the thought that some of their friends have embarked on such a venture, wouldn't you know...soon they are having some "what if" discussions.  What if they gave it a try?  Maybe it would spark up the marriage and remind them both why they fell in love.  So the two eventually settle on a six-month marital experience using "Fight Club" rules - no snooping, no leaving, no falling in love, no questions.

Here are the possibilities of what might happen when a couple embarks on an open marriage:

  • It does actually spark up the marriage (I mean the thought that someone else might want your partner suddenly makes your partner look much sexier, right?)
  • One or both of the partners falls in love with their new sex partners
  • One or both of the new sex partners falls in love with them
  • One or both of the new sex partners turns into bunny burners a la "Fatal Attraction"
  • Divorce

What do you think will happen?

Dunn has a done a good job of character realization and providing believable dialogue in writing this engrossing tale of a marriage.  She is a television writer who created and wrote the ABC sitcom "American Housewife," and the book does have a TV/movie feel to it. It's a fast, witty read and one of my favorite parts is "Constance Waverly," a fictional (or I think she is fictional) marriage counselor or psychologist who introduces each chapter with a quote.  She is never referred to in the story itself, but her comments provide some interesting, and often humorous, perspectives on marriage in general.  And if Constance is really Dunn, then Dunn has some very real and funny insights into marriage.

"When people ask me, 'What is the best predictor of long-term success in a marriage?' I always have the same answer: 'A mutual respect for suffering.' Nobody likes that answer."
-Constance Waverly, Huffington Post

"How many times have you heard a woman say that her idea of foreplay is watching her husband do the dishes?  How about changing diapers, scrubbing the toilets, vacuuming the floor? Are you getting excited, ladies? Feeling a little tingle down there? Today's married women have been told so often that a man folding the laundry constitutes foreplay that both parties are shocked when it doesn't actually work."
---Constance Waverly, Women and Power, New York City

"The idea that one's marriage should be a primary arena for self-actualization can be profoundly destabilizing.  The truth is that growing while married often means growing apart."
--Constance Waverly, The Eros Manifesto

Rosy the Reviewer engrossing and fun read that will get you thinking about your own marriage.

Thanks for reading!

See you Tuesday 

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Cooking Successes and Cooking Conundrums -

"Moroccan Chicken and Vegetable Soup and Comfort Food Favorites"

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  1. In reference to the book The Arrangement...I will paraphrase one of my husband's comments when the topic of infidelity comes up (on TV, social media, etc)..."I can hardly deal with the one woman I've in hell could I ever manage two?!" And with that, I guess you could say that being high-maintenance may have it's benefits!