Reel Reviews

‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’

Audience: A-III – adults


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Life in wartime

Moviegoers of goodwill may ask themselves, while watching the fact-based historical drama “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (Focus), why they aren’t enjoying themselves more. The story the film tells is undeniably inspiring. But the manner in which it’s told is dramatically thin.

That’s certainly not the fault of Jessica Chastain, who brings brio to her portrayal of the spouse of the title, Antonina Zabinski. Together with her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), Russian-born Antonina enjoys an idyllic life in Poland peacefully presiding over the Warsaw Zoo where her unusual affinity for animals proves a valuable asset.

All that changes Sept. 1, 1939, with the Wehrmacht pouring across the Germany-Poland border, and the Luftwaffe raining down bombs from the sky. What remains of the devastated zoo is eventually put under the supervision of Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), the Zabinskis’ counterpart in Berlin – a colleague and acquaintance before the outbreak of war.

Powerless to save many of the animals in their care, the Zabinskis turn to rescuing people. They begin on a small scale by sheltering Magda (Efrat Dor), a close Jewish friend who – along with her husband, Maurycy (Iddo Goldberg), also an old pal – is about to be confined in the now-infamous Warsaw Ghetto.

The Zabinskis ratchet up their defiance of the Nazis by developing a clever scheme to gain Jan access to the ghetto. He uses this entree to smuggle out groups of its oppressed residents, hiding them in the zoo’s underground network of cages until the resistance can arrange their escape from the country.

Chastain forcefully conveys her character’s appealing personality, while Bruhl maintains the ambiguity of Heck’s persona, part ruthless army officer, part humane man of science. But, in adapting Diane Ackerman’s 2007 nonfiction bestseller, director Niki Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman fall short of a compelling narrative.

In deciding whether “The Zookeeper’s Wife” makes suitable fare for older teens, parents will have to weigh the uplifting nature of the tale – having helped more than 300 potential victims of the Holocaust, the Zabinskis were eventually declared “righteous among the nations” – against some of the grim incidents it depicts.

These include the off-screen sexual assault by a group of soldiers on Urszula (Shira Haas), a young Jewish girl, as well as the possibility that committed wife and mother Antonina may have to submit to Heck’s adulterous advances. Additionally, the Zabinskis’ son, Ryszard -- played first by Timothy Radford, later by Val Maloku -- finds himself imperiled by his parents’ secret activities.

Honorable but hardly riveting, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” feels as though it might have made a better documentary than dramatization.

The film contains considerable combat and other violence, a couple of marital bedroom scenes, a glimpse of upper female nudity and mature themes, including gang rape and adultery. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III – adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 – parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

‘Kong: Skull Island’

A-III – adults


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Big ape alert

With a thematic agenda that takes it beyond the usual confines of its genre, and a story driven forward by sustained, nervous dread – an emotion skillfully conveyed from the characters to the audience – “Kong: Skull Island” (Warner Bros.) is an impressive monster movie.

The multiple dangers the cast confront lead to some unsettling mayhem and a few grisly deaths, however, marking this as a film strictly for grownups.

Set in 1973, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ action adventure uses the waning days of the Vietnam War as a backdrop – and as a cue for its exploration of the destructive human aggressiveness that gives rise to armed conflict.

The movie’s embodiment of such belligerence is hard-bitten Army Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Together with his civilian counterpart, fringe researcher Bill Randa (John Goodman), Packard leads an ensemble of scientists and soldiers on a government-sponsored expedition to the location of the title, a previously uncharted island perpetually surrounded by a turbulent weather pattern.

There, Packard, Randa and their followers – most prominently British special forces veteran James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), who has been hired to serve as the group’s guide, and self-described anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) who has decided this is her next big story – encounter an updated version of King Kong.

Scattered by the helicopter swatting rampage with which the outsized ape greets their unwelcome intrusion (supposedly to further “seismic research,” they’ve announced their arrival by bombarding the terrain with powerful explosives), the travelers are split into two contingents. One of these crosses paths with eccentric World War II-era Air Force officer Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly).

Forced to bail out over the isle way back in 1944, Marlow has been stranded there ever since. To their considerable surprise, he informs his newfound acquaintances that, while Kong may be the monarch of this hidden realm, he is far from the most lethal threat they’ll have to face there.

The stage is set for a clash between Packard, who’s out to avenge his fallen troops by exterminating Kong, and those accompanying Marlow who only want to avoid trouble and reach a prearranged rendezvous point where they hope to be rescued.

As this contest of wills unfolds, screenwriter Dan Gilroy’s script references a range of science fiction movies. More significantly it also evokes Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film “Apocalypse Now” and its partial source material, Polish-born British author Joseph Conrad’s classic 1899 novella “Heart of Darkness.”

On the lighter side, the dialogue is kept sprightly by a consciously campy, self-mocking tone, especially in early scenes where exposition is needful. And at least some of the mature viewers for whom “Kong” is suitably will be old enough to get a kick out of such period details as rotary phones and wide, loud neckties.

The film contains stylized but grim combat and other violence with little gore, a few gruesome images, a few uses of profanity, at least one rough term and occasional crude and crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III – adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 – parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

Monthly List of Recent Film Ratings (June 2015)

CNS classifications: A-I: general patronage; A-II: adults and adolescents; A-III: adults; L: limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling; O: morally offensive.
MPAA ratings: G: general audiences. All ages admitted; PG: parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children; PG-13: parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13; R: restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian; NC-17: no one 17 and under admitted.

The Age of Adaline, A-III (PG-13)
Aloha, A-II (PG-13)
Avengers: Age of Ultron, A-III (PG-13)
The Awakening, A-III (R)
Begin Again, A-III (R)
Chappie, L (R)
Child 44, A-III (R)
Cinderella, A-I (PG)
The D Train, O (R)
Danny Collins, A-III (R)
The Divergent Series: Insurgent, A-III (PG-13)
Do You Believe?, A-II (PG-13)
Dream House, L (PG-13)
The DUFF, A-III (PG-13)
Ex Machina, O (R)
Far from the Madding Crowd, A-II (PG-13)
Focus, L (R)
Furious 7, A-III (PG-13)
Get Hard, O (R)
The Gunman, L (R)
Home, A-I (PG)
Hot Pursuit, A-III (PG-13)
It Follows, O (R)
Jupiter Ascending, A-III (PG-13)
Kingsman: The Secret Service, A-III (R)
The Last Exorcism Part II, L (PG-13)
The Lazarus Effect, A-III (PG-13)
Little Boy, A-II (PG-13)
The Longest Ride, A-III (PG-13)
Mad Max: Fury Road, L (R)
Marie's Story, A-II (not rated)
McFarland, USA, A-II (PG)
Monkey Kingdom, A-I (G)
Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, A-I (PG)
Pitch Perfect 2, A-III (PG-13)
Poltergeist, A-III (PG-13)
Project Almanac, A-III (PG-13)
The Pyramid, A-III (R)
Run All Night, L (R)
San Andreas, A-III (PG-13)
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, A-III (PG)
Seventh Son, A-II (PG-13)
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, A-I (PG)
Tomorrowland, A-II (PG)
The Trip to Italy, A-III (not rated)
True Story, A-III (R)
Unfinished Business, O (R)
Unfriended, O (R)
The Water Diviner, A-III (R)
Woman in Gold, A-II (PG-13)

Copyright (c) 2015 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops