THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE. Period drama can, and in this case does, provide a respite from the breakneck editing and handheld camerawork that have subsumed the modern cinematic lexicon. It can give its creators an opportunity to focus on details of set design and costuming and language that, in a contemporary setting, might not merit more than a second glance from whoever's job it is to ensure continuity from shot to shot. By being set in a bygone time, in other words, it almost requires a bygone style of moviemaking. Given a good script and cast, this can make a successful example all the more satisfying. This one, based on actual events and adapted from Diane Ackerman's book by Angela Workman and directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider, 2002; McFarland USA, 2015) generally succeeds in all the details, in its re-creation of a time in place and its application of style. But somewhere in the transition from actual events to nonfiction narrative to fictional storytelling, some of the visceral stuff of the story — the at-once repulsive and compelling horrors of the time — is lost.
In 1939 Warsaw, Poland, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and Antonina (Jessica Chastain) Zabinski operate a small but well-curated zoo. They are passionate about their work and deeply in love, and they have a young son, Ryszard (Timothy Radford) — who gets to sleep with lion cubs in his bed! Of course, in the background, a despot with a head full of mystical hogwash is making moves to take over the world. The war comes to Warsaw in short order, bringing with it the ghettoization of the city's Jewish population and the shuttering of the zoo. This terrible sea change also brings Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) back into the lives of the Zabinskis. A second-generation zookeeper and friend of the family, Heck has risen to prominence as Hitler's head of zoology. Sweeping in as benefactor, he offers to transport the zoo's rare and prized animals back to safety in Germany and allows the Zabinskis to stay on and operate the facility as a pig farm, raising meat for the occupying army. He then goes on to assist in the slaughter of many of the remaining zoo animals and make uncomfortable advances toward Antonina. What a guy. As weeks wear on into months, Jan and Antonina devise a plan to smuggle a few people at a time out of the ghetto and harbor them in their home until they can be delivered to safety. Eventually, as the prospect of liberation by the allies becomes real, Jan takes on a more active role in the resistance and is separated from his family. This leaves Antonina, Ryszard and the family's anti-Nazi efforts all the more vulnerable to discovery.
It shouldn't be noteworthy, standing as we do in 2017, but The Zookeeper's Wife is unique for having been written, directed and executive produced (Chastain) by women. I celebrate that in and of itself, but as a comment on contemporary culture it is pretty shameful.
For its many successes in atmosphere and style and performance, the movie never really finds its footing in terms of narrative pace and tone. Events unfold too slowly or feel rushed, the emphasized beats often feel mistimed and its intended moral ambiguity plays more as lack of development. And (maybe it's just me) Chastain's Polish accented English, while well-enough executed, is a distracting, distancing choice.
More to the point, The Zookeeper's Wife never really confronts the darker, more awful aspects of its specific setting, relying instead on well-intended oblique visual references (a pile of suitcases left behind at the train station, a cutaway when Heck kills a bald eagle with a pistol) to convey gravity. As much as I found to like about the movie, it does not feel resonant of significant in and of itself. It was, however, a depressing and constant reminder that 70-plus years of history haven't taught us all that much, socially or politically. PG13. 126m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS. Since 2003 (when 2 Fast 2 Furious was released), the prospect of another sequel has given me something to look forward to. And even as each installment has moved further from the corny, gasoline-tinged B-movie splendor of the original, each has also added some new dimension to delight the child-like movie fan in me, if not the gearhead.
Somewhere around 2009, we got to the point where these became over-the-top action movies prominently featuring cars, rather than car movies with action sequences. And I'm OK with that. That progression continues apace with this, the eighth iteration, directed by F. Gary Gray (Friday, 1995; Straight Outta Compton, 2015). It contains the most outsized, bananas-ridiculous action set-pieces yet, with tanks, a nuclear submarine and a horde of "zombie cars" all coming into play. I find it be undeniably fun, if a little divorced from the joys I derive from the earlier movies.
In brief, Dominic (Vin Diesel) and Letty's (Michelle Rodriguez) Cuban honeymoon is interrupted — not before a suitably nutty racing sequence — by a call to get the team back together. Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) has been enlisted by Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) to do some covert skullduggery with the assistance of bunch of SoCal street racers cum international operatives. Of course. Hobbs ends up in prison and Dom falls under the sway of a dastardly hacker (Charlize Theron) and her own haircut convention of a crew. Many things blow up and are crashed. Jason Statham finally gets the action sequence he deserves; it involves a baby. PG13. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
— John J. Bennett
For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (1957). Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr make you cry from the top of the Empire State Building. NR. 115m. BROADWAY.
BORN IN CHINA. Live action documentary follows panda, monkey and snow leopard families in the wild. With John Krasinski, thankfully narrating and not cast as a panda. G. 76m. BROADWAY.
THE CASE FOR CHRIST. An atheist journalist tries to disprove the existence of God after his wife finds Jesus. You won't believe what happens. Starring Mike Vogel, Erika Christenson and Faye Dunaway. PG. 112m. FORTUNA.
FREE FIRE. A warehouse gun buy in 1970s Boston descends into a prolonged shootout in this action movie starring Brie Larson, Armie Hammer and the ugliest suits you've ever seen. R. 130m. BROADWAY.
GIFTED. Chris Evans stars as an uncle raising his gifted niece (McKenna Grace) and fighting his own mother for custody. With Jenny Slate and Lindsay Duncan. PG13. 101m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
GROW HOUSE. Clueless dudes (DeRay Davis, Lil' Duval) try to cash in on the Green Rush to pay their debts. Or you could just watch your neighbors. Also starring Snoop Dogg — presumably paid in pounds. R. 86m. BROADWAY.
PHOENIX FORGOTTEN. Blair Witch meets Area 51 in this found-footage horror/sci-fi flick set in Arizona two decades after a UFO sighting. PG13. 80m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
THE PROMISE. A medical student (Oscar Isaac) and a journalist (Christian Bale) vie for the same Armenian woman (Charlotte LeBon) on the cusp of the Armenian genocide. PG13. 132m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
THE SENSE OF AN ENDING. A man inherits a diary that has him revisiting old wounds and mysteries. Starring Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling. PG13. MINOR.
SHOT! THE PSYCHO-SPIRITUAL MANTRA OF ROCK. Documentary about iconic, hard-living rock photographer Mick Rock. 135m. MINOR.
UNFORGETTABLE. Rosario Dawson and Katherine Heigl throw down as a new stepmother and the crazy ex-wife tormenting her. R. 100m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
YOUR NAME. Japanese anime about teenagers in different towns who swap lives in their dreams. PG13. MINOR.
AFTER THE STORM. A has-been author, gambler and private eye tries to bond with his son after the death of his own father. Starring Hiroshi Abe and Yoko Maki. NR. 117m. MINIPLEX.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. The cast, style and scale are impressive, but the moody darkness and slow pacing of this live-action/CG fairytale reboot seems tailored for nostalgic grownups more than kids. Starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens. PG13. 100m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
THE BOSS BABY. Fresh from SNL, Alec Baldwin voices another business-minded infant in this animated comedy about corporate intrigue. With Steve Buscemi. PG. 97m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
GOING IN STYLE. Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Alan Arkin are old, broke, desperate and starting a late life of crime. PG13. 96m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA.
KIKI. A post-Paris is Burning documentary about a drag ball movement for LGBTQ youth of color. Don't try these death drop moves at home. NR. 93m. MINIPLEX.
THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE. The plastic Dark Knight (voiced by a gravelly Will Arnett) takes on a partner in this brick-filled animated feature. With Micheal Cera. PG. 104m. MINOR.
MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI. Claymation story about an orphan who finds friendship and family among other children at a foster home. PG13. 70m. MINIPLEX.
SMURFS: THE LOST VILLAGE. For those adults about to take children to this animated movie, we salute you. With Ariel Winter, Michelle Rodriguez and Joe Manganiello. PG. 89m. FORTUNA.
TRAINSPOTTING 2. The sequel follows up with the schemers, thugs and junkies 20 years on. Starring Ewan McGreggor, Johnny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle. R. 117m. MINOR.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill