Movies: The Zookeeper’s Wife and Queen of the Desert

 

The Zookeeper’s Wife

The Zookeeper’s Wife is an adaptation of the book by the same name (which, by the way, was excellent).  It stars Jessica Chastain as a Polish woman who with her husband manages a Zoo in Warsaw as Hitler rises to power. The movie doesn’t have the subtlety or complexity of the book but it is fine and Chastain is quite good.  The story is true and worth knowing about as this couple saved as many as 300 Warsaw Jews through their commitment and bravery while constantly risking their lives.

This is a difficult story to bring to screen and the film over simplifies the story.  The “good guys” are heroically perfect and the “bad guys” completely evil with no “grey” to be found.  The atrocities against the Zoo animals are graphically displayed yet the even more horrific atrocities against those in the Warsaw ghetto are glossed over.  Are we to walk away thinking more about the animals?  I think not but that is not clear in the film.   Chastain as Antonina is at times more like Cinderella with the little birds floating around her ( at least while there are still animals in the zoo) than what I suspect was a very hard working couple in real life.  I never got that impression reading the book as this was a difficult profession to be in even before the war.

In the end, the Zookeeper’s wife is a perfectly acceptable film about World War II that lacks the urgency, complexity and magnitude of the impact of the player’s actions.  The story has been told before and better by other filmmakers but I think most viewers will still like it.  It certainly is one of the better big box movies playing now.  I just wish there had been more depth to the story telling.

Queen of the Desert (Limited Release and Streaming)

Queen of the Desert, with a 16% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, went pretty much straight to Streaming.  It is the story of Gertrude Bell, based on a biography of the same name and Directed by Werner Herzog.  Nicole Kidman stars as the lead character who was a British Woman in the early twentieth century who journeyed to the Middle East and became one of the most influential persons of her time.  She was often referred to as the “female Lawrence of Arabia” (played in the film by Robert Pattinson).

There are some positives to the film.  Nicole Kidman plays Gertrude Bell with the authority and gravitas that the character requires.  Arabs were actually cast to play Arabs.  Robert Pattison, James Franco as her first love and Damien Lewis (as her second) are all fine.  The cinematography while not in the same league as Lawrence in Arabia is still compelling and realistic.  Above all, the story of Gertrude Bell and her role in carving up the modern day Middle East is an important one that everyone should be aware of.

There are more negatives. The beginning of the film drags.  The back and forth with James Franco seems endless and I just wanted to skip it and get to the time in Bell’s life where she was being impactful.  Also, the noises that camels make is certainly not understated and becomes distracting. But perhaps the most significant issue with the film is that we leave not having a better understanding of what drove Gertrude Bell to be the pioneer that she was nor the role she played in the 1921 Cairo Conference.  While instrumental in the Conference which divided up the Middle East, her recommendations were largely overridden by the political scheming of Churchill and the French which was not mentioned.  Instead, the end of the film sees Gertrude riding off into the desert on a camel as if she was Lawrence.

Everyone should know more about Gertrude Bell but I’d read her biographies rather than see this movie.

 

 

TV: The Americans, Billions, The Catch, Feud, Big Little Lies, 13 Reasons Why and Colony

 

I am so behind on TV for several reasons and April TV which is an entire season in and of itself is beginning which means even more premiers so I’m just going to jump in and hit some of the highlights for shows that I’m watching which have recently started or ended.

Season Premiers:

The Americans (FX)

My favorite TV show is back for its fifth (and next to last) season and seems even more relevant given the current “Russia” headlines.  At the end of last season, Philip (Mathew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) were on the verge of being discovered and seriously contemplated taking their family back to Russia.  Their daughter Paige is aware of her parent’s profession and struggles to come to grips with it as she pursues a relationship with the next-door son of an FBI counter intelligence officer.

The season opens with the immediate crisis passing and a new mission involving a recently settled Russian family.  The father is very anti-Russia and the son Pasha is having difficulty adapting to American life.  There are connections to the real Russian wheat shortage of the time.  Also in transit, presumably on his way to America is Philip’s son Misha.  The premier has the longest grave digging episode in the history of television but we do get past that albeit without a surprise death.  Thankfully, Margo Martindale (Claudia) and Frank Langella (Gabriel)are back in their handler roles.  As the season progresses, things get more complicated as Philip struggles with the morality of his work; Paige has no idea how to deal with having a boyfriend whose FBI father could destroy their lives and Claudia and Gabriel are losing some confidence in their star spy family.

Note:  If you haven’t seen the Peabody award winning “The Americans”, you can see the first 4 seasons on Amazon Prime.  There isn’t anything better on Television and each season gets better and better.  This is a great show.

Billions (Showtime)

I missed Billions last year because my Sunday nights were filled with TV shows that I was watching so I caught up on Season 1 and am have watched about half of Season 2.  I like Billions.  The interplay between the lead character Bobby Axelrod (Damien Lewis) and his arch enemy Chuck Rhodes (Paul Giamatti) is fantastic and there has rarely been a more despicable character than Rhodes.  Even though Bobby, a billionaire hedge fund magnate has obtained his money through shrewd insider trader schemes and taken advantage of 9/11 victim’s families, you still want him to win against the Feds (headed by Rhodes) who are on his trail.

Season 2 again pits the two main characters with a laser- like focus on eliminating each other.  Bobby is consumed by a desire to destroy Chuck and this single-minded focus seems certain to wreak havoc on both his personal and business life.  Chuck, who was hit hard both personally and professionally at the end of last season is still out to get Bobby but seemingly in more devious and creative ways.  There are a couple of new faces at Axe Capital which so far are very intriguing.  One is the performance coach (replacing Chuck’s wife) and the other is a transgender whiz kid whom Axe is immediately ready to take advantage of.  Billions may be the first Showtime drama that hasn’t crashed and burned its second season.  I’m in for the ride. 

The Catch

The Catch, Shonda’s Thursday night replacement for HTGAWM, premiered its second season a few weeks ago.  I gave up on HTGAWM a long time ago.  Viola Davis couldn’t make up for all the obnoxious 20 something year olds that were on the show along with their ridiculous storylines.  The Catch isn’t going to win any awards but it has much better leads (Peter Krause, Mireille Enos, Sonya Walger) and supporting characters (Gina Torres for one).  I love to watch all of them at work – even with the crazy over the top plots.

In my opinion, the thing that worked best last year with this show was the Pink Panther-like escapades that Ben (Krause) was engaged in during his various heists.  Season 2 quickly gets him out of jail and sets him up to do undercover work for the FBI doing the same type of work.  This is a fun show and after all those seasons of the Killing where Enos never smiled or changed her clothes, it is great to see her do both.  There is a freshness to this Shonda show that makes for a good, light-hearted crime series that hopefully will continue to grow and get better.  

New Series:

Feud (FX)

Feud is the story of Joan Crawford (played by Susan Sarandon) and Bette Davis’s (played by Jessica Lange) relationship.  This should have been a great series given the actresses involved but I have found it boring and hard to stay awake for.  It is worth it, however to stick with it (or just skip directly to episode 5) to watch the epic Oscar dual that that pits a vengeful Crawford against Davis who is nominated for Best Actress.  If you love movies and the Oscars, episode 5 gives great insight into the political side of the Oscars. of the past. Sarah Paulson is fantastic in a brief appearance as Geraldine Page.  Feud can be skipped but you may want to check out the last couple of episodes. 

Big Little Lies (HBO)

Big Little Lies is based on the book by Liane Moriarty which is a total beach read.  I didn’t care for the novel so wasn’t going to watch the miniseries produced by Reese Witherspoon (and others) as a vehicle for great women parts.  It stars Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley along with Alexander Skarsgard.

Even knowing how the mystery ends, I found this mini-series so well done that I couldn’t miss it each Sunday.  The acting is phenomenal, the writing (David E Kelly) great and I enjoyed the show so much more than the book.  If you have HBO and somehow missed this series, go watch it.  It is great.

Thirteen Reasons Why (Netflix)

 13 Reasons Why dropped on Netflix last week.  At first I was hesitant to watch a show about a teenager who commits suicide but it hooked me from the get go.  Hannah (Katherine Langford) commits suicide and leaves 13 cassette tapes about the people in her life who impacted her decision to kill herself.  Langford is riveting as the lead in her first major role as is Clay (Dylan Minnette) her (questionably?) best friend.

I am less than half way through but I understand from those who have watched the entire 13 episodes that it drags in the middle. Also, you will be very frustrated by Clay’s slowness in listening to the tapes.  It is irritating.  Apparently the 13 people who had tapes about them, don’t necessarily deserve an entire episode devoted to their character.  It would have been much better to do some doubling up and have maybe 9 or 10 episodes.  I also understand that the last few episodes are great so it is well worth sticking with.  I’ll let you know when I finish it up if that is the case. 

Season/Series Finales:

Colony

Colony ended its second season with what we are led to believe is LA being blown to bits by the aliens as the Bowman family and Snyder escape the city.  Madeline and Broussard’s fates are unknown.  We also get a glimpse at an Alien in a closing segment that ties to the season’s opener.  Colony was renewed for season 3 a few days before the finale and it has been announced that the show is being moved from LA to Vancouver.  Colony isn’t the best show out there but it fills my Sy Fy needs and I will always hold on to a Carlton Cuse/Josh Holloway show.

 

 

 

 

 

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