Film Review: Dunkirk (2017)

Dir: Chris Nolan
Starring: Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Fionn Whitehead, James D’Arcy, Harry Styles, etc.
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 1hr 47min
Spoiler Level: Light

A lot of the early buzz about the latest WWII drama Dunkirk has called it Christopher Nolan’s best film to date. Considering he’s the man who brought us both critically-acclaimed Inception (2010) and widely-lauded The Dark Knight (2008), that’s a statement that isn’t to be taken lightly. Now that I’ve seen it, I have one thing to say about the monumental praise this film’s gotten thus far; it is 100% deserved, and Dunkirk may well be Nolan’s best so far.

Dunkirk_Film_poster.jpgBased on true events, Dunkirk presents three different timelines (land, sea, and air) within a non-linear narrative that chronicles the journeys of various characters – from struggling soldiers to stalwart civilians – during the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940.

Story-wise, I didn’t find the three different timelines too difficult to follow – it was compelling to see land, air, and sea diverge from and intersect with one another. The timelines are a bit disjointed, and it might take a bit to get used to the switching between perspectives (at one point it’s day, then night, then day again, though less than 24 hours have passed) but the narrative is consistently captivating, and as the timelines merge, it’s intriguing to see how certain characters meet and interact with one another.

The entire cast is strong; newcomer Fionn Whitehead delivers a mesmerizing performance as an Army private desperately trying to survive a relentless wave of peril, Tom Hardy, a Royal Airforce Pilot, evokes powerful emotion even while most of his face is concealed, and Mark Rylance is solid as a civilian mariner heading to Dunkirk to try and save some of the stranded soldiers. No one really stood head or shoulders above the rest, but in that same vein, I don’t think there was a weak link among the cast. Performances all around were impressive, especially considering the sparse dialogue, as great acting speaks much louder when there are no words at all. The narrative is carried by everyone, and even though about 90% of the character’s names don’t get spoken onscreen, it’s easy to get invested.

And for those of you wondering, Harry Styles is fine in it – definitely holds his own against the talented veterans. From what I’ve seen browsing around the internet, I imagine a significant chunk of this film’s box office will come from 1D fangirls, because anytime I’ve looked up anything about this film I have to slog through pages upon pages of Harry Styles swooning before getting anything of use, and there were as many middle-aged history professor type men in the theater last night as there were middle-school and high-school 1D fangirls. That’s not a criticism, though; it was actually awesome to see the IMAX theater in my local cinema close to full for a film that isn’t from Marvel. But I find the voracious media attention Styles has received simply for being in a popular boy band prior to this film is unfortunate because Dunkirk is an ensemble effort, and the other actors all deserve just as much, if not more, attention and praise for their performance.

Visually, the film is absolutely stunning – that’s an odd thing to say about a war film, I suppose, but the cinematography (per usual for Nolan) is gorgeous and the film is beautifully shot and edited. Dunkirk is also Nolan’s tightest film to date, as it offers nothing in excess; it’s clean and concise, presenting a well-balanced narrative and a clear picture without delving too deep or dragging too long. Sure, the film doesn’t show too much in the way of blood or gore, but it also didn’t need crimson spills in the sea or severed limbs splayed around craters to convey the horror and cost of conflict, nor does the lack of blood and guts glorify the idea of war in any way. The unseen enemy threat closing in, the stark faces of fear, a foot sticking out from a sandy grave, and the dead bodies floating in with the tide, are all images that stand out long after the credits have rolled.

The music (by Hans Zimmer) and the sound weave together to enhance the intense, knuckle-biting atmosphere. The scream of sirens, the whine of engines, the creak of sinking ships, the wails of dying men, the boom of torpedoes and crash of bombs and the ticking of precious time running out – and at times, silence – all serve to make the events of the film more visceral, more engrossing. The sound of bullets made me jump out of my seat on more than one occasion and honestly, I was so stressed out and tense throughout this film that I forgot to eat my Reeses Pieces. (I’m eating them now, don’t worry).

If it is possible for you to see this film in IMAX, you MUST do so – it’s worth splurging for the price of the ticket. The sound is incredible (VERY loud, but not deafening) and the sweeping shots of the beach and the sea and the dogfights in the air are best seen on a massive screen. My only quibble with the IMAX experience was the dialogue, as it was difficult to discern at times. It didn’t detract too much, since the gist of the narrative is easy to follow, but there were times that I genuinely had no idea what the characters were saying and wish I could have picked it up better. This might be different for the standard version, as it usually is.

I don’t know if this is Nolan’s best, but it is certainly a contender for the spot, and well worth seeing for fans of Nolan and war cinema alike. A sprawling film with a strangely intimate feel, Dunkirk shares bleakness and hope in equal measure, and though countless war films have been made, especially about WWII, there are still so many stories to be told, and Nolan’s put a unique stamp on this one. There’s not much bravado, virtually no soap-boxing, no victory-touting, no medals doled out, and the film doesn’t offer a lot of chit-chat about the horrors and toll of war; it simply shows it, along with the dedication and perseverance of the soldiers who yearn for home, and the civilians striving to get them there. It’s not as gory as Saving Private Ryan or as in-depth as Band of Brothers, but it certainly deserves a place among the memorable high-tier war films.

Overall Rating: 9/10

Top Superhero Film Themes

With so many superhero and comic book films coming out over the last few years, and more still looming on the horizon, I decided to scroll back through my music library and compile a list of what I consider to be the best superhero “themes” from these films. There may be a few films I haven’t seen, so certain themes might have evaded my notice, but I have witnessed the bulk of them and here are my results!

I’ve linked a Youtube video (not mine) after each selection that contains the theme, as well as the Amazon link for purchase/listening. This isn’t sponsored or anything and I don’t own the rights to these songs; just want to have a bit of fun and spread some good hero themes around!

5.) Spider-Man 2 (2004) – Danny Elfman
Obviously I haven’t seen Tom Holland’s solo spin on our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man yet (besides his appearance in Civil War, which was excellent) but I’ll always have a place in my heart for the original Spider-Man films and Toby Maguire’s portrayal of the character. Maybe it’s because they were the first superhero films I got into, but regardless, I love both the original Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 – I actually still consider the second one to be one of the greatest superhero films to date. Not big on the third one, to be honest, but one thing is consistent throughout the three films – the music, and the amazing Spider-Man theme provided by Danny Elfman. In a way, the theme covers an “arc” – it hits different tones, from sweeping and emotional to action-packed and intense, hitting all the notes that combine to make a heroic sound. I honestly can’t even remember the theme from the second series of films; that’s not to say the music is bad, just that Elfman’s theme packed a bigger punch and has come to define the character (for me, at least.)

Here is the LINK! (Youtube)
Or purchase on Amazon: LINK!

4.) The Avengers (2012) – Alan Silvestri
Though I’ve loved nearly all of the Marvel solo hero films to date, I actually have trouble remembering the theme music for all of the individual characters; they’re all good in the moment, but none of them really “stuck” with me after the films ended. However, when the characters all teamed up for 2012’s The Avengers, they earned a new “team” theme, and it’s pretty great. It’s definitely the kind of song that will encourage you to finish the last strenuous laps of a running session or push you to the end of a difficult workout, and when it plays in the film, it’s easy to get pumped up about seeing a team of heroes take on a dastardly villain. It’s got the right blend of hype-building and morale-boosting, which is perfect for an ensemble film like The Avengers; it helps them sound like a team, instead of just looking like one.

Here is the LINK! (Youtube)
Or purchase on Amazon: LINK!

3.) Doctor Strange (2016) – Michael Giacchino
Benedict Cumberbatch’s turn as Doctor Strange is the most recent introduction into the MCU, and his theme music is very fitting for him as a character. Doctor Strange is enigmatic, sarcastic, and his ingenuity is as much as strength as his actual powers are; and since he is a “different” sort of hero than most of the other MCU characters, his theme is also a little strange – in the best way.  It’s definitely my favorite theme from the Marvel films, which isn’t much of a surprise, since Giacchino consistently delivers great themes and scores (Rogue One comes to mind as a recent non-superhero standout). I went into this film knowing very little about Doctor Strange, and emerged from the theater humming the theme song under my breath. It’s whimsical and heroic and evokes strength all at once; the perfect sound for a hero who defies the norm.

Here is the LINK(Youtube)
Or purchase on Amazon: LINK!

2.) Wonder Woman (2017) – Rupert Gregson-Williams / Junkie XL
One of the major highlights of 2016’s Batman V Superman was the introduction of Gal Gadot’s portrayal of Wonder Woman, and her solo film was released to glowing reception a little over a year later. And her theme music is absolutely BADASS – just like the character herself. The theme was initially created by Junkie XL for BvS but was also included and expanded on in the solo film, and Gregson-Williams does it justice. When this theme starts playing, it’s obviously a pulse-pounding, energetic prelude to some serious action, and it’s the perfect music to serve as the buildup and backdrop to battle. When Wonder Woman made her first appearance in BvS, this theme played to announce her arrival, and I remember sitting in the theater, listening to the music, and thinking “Wow – this is how a hero makes an entrance.” Now, every time it starts playing when Diana is fighting onscreen, I get chills; it’s everything a heroic theme should be and I hope we get to hear it in all Wonder Woman appearances to come.

Here is the LINK! (Youtube)
Or purchase from Amazon: LINK! (WW) and LINK! (BvS)

1.) The Dark Knight (2008) Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard
Though the theme from the original Batman film back in ’89 is pretty excellent as well, I think Zimmer and Howard’s theme for the caped crusader is the most definitive and powerful version thus far. Whenever this theme kicks up, it gets the energy flowing; it’s come to signify Batman as a character and really helped to mold The Dark Knight Trilogy as a whole. Like Elfman’s Spider-Man theme, this one seems to cover an arc – it hits all the notes of Batman’s character; his suffering, his heroism, his experiences, his humanity. None of these films would be what they are without their score, but I’d argue that Zimmer and Howard’s contribution to this trilogy has the biggest overall impact. It’s a theme I won’t forget, even when new incarnations of Batman take the screen; this is a theme that will endure, and whenever I think of Batman, this is the theme I associate him with. I’m still baffled the soundtrack wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar, though that’s probably because I’m biased. The Dark Knight Trilogy really revolutionized the “comic book film” genre with its gritty, dark tone and groundbreaking performances, and the music provides the a fitting, powerful soundtrack to Bale’s incarnation of the much-beloved character.

Here is the LINK! (Youtube)
Or purchase from Amazon: LINK! 

Film Review: Everything, Everything (2017)

Dir: Stella Meghie
Starring: Amandla Stenberg, Nick Robinson
Runtime: 1hr 36min
Spoiler Level: Light, mostly; discussion of the ending will be below a “Read More” and will be preceded by a bold warning.

I have a policy about films with approval rating below 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is to not spend money to see them in theaters unless I have some sort of investment in the story/previous films/source material. Even scores in the 50’s are questionable. But, since I read and enjoyed Nicola Yoon’s YA novel Everything, Everything last year, I figured I might as well head out for Tightwad Tuesday and see how well the pages transitioned to screen.

16601948_699564803538333_7623149780067371960_o.jpgEverything, Everything follows 18-year-old Maddy (Stenberg), who suffers from an illness that severely cripples her immune system and basically makes it impossible for her to go outside. But when Olly (Robinson), a boy her age, moves in next door, Maddy starts to wonder even more about what she is missing out on. As she and Olly grow closer, Maddy decides that she wants to experience everything, no matter the cost.

Overall, I’m not a stickler who believes that book to movie adaptations have to be 100% accurate and true to the book, so I’m usually not a “the book is so much better” person. For a novel to make the leap to screen, changes always have to be made. Always. Sometimes, the changes can be for the better, as with The Lord of the Rings, or they at least stick mainly to the source material, like Harry Potter. However, they can also totally decimate the work on which they are based, like the Percy Jackson movies. Sea of Monsters is flat-out unforgivable.

Luckily, Everything, Everything, while it trims plot-lines and neutralizes characters, doesn’t fall into the “decimated” category. From what I remember of the novel, the film stays close, and the heart of the work – Maddy’s relationship with Olly, and her evolution as a person – is not severely damaged by the changes. It’s not a perfect adaptation, but I’d say it’s acceptable, and nowhere near Percy Jackson territory.

Stenberg is charming and bright as main character Maddy, and Robinson is equally as effective as her co-lead, Olly, although he does need a haircut. I’m glad he managed to escape that crazy dinosaur park, though. Unfortunately, Olly also gets less development than Maddy; they touch on his history and the issues he’s facing with his family, but don’t explore as deep as the book does, which made his character seem “unresolved” in some ways. He’s kind of relegated to “cute boy next door with some emotional baggage” but doesn’t get as much exploration or resolution. As a pair, their chemistry is convincing, but their connection suffers from the same pitfalls as several similar films/projects; it treads the dangerous line of “insta-love.” I didn’t really feel that way about the book, as their relationship seemed to grow over a greater length of time and with much more conversation, but in the movie, while their relationship is totally adorable, the risks that Maddy ends up taking just seem… a bit rash. But hey, it’s teenage romance, and maybe I’m getting jaded in my old age. I will say that as a duo, Maddy and Olly are mega adorable and felt more or less like a real young couple than some unrealistic idealization of teen romance.

The “texting” sequences are especially impressive and engaging; I liked the visualization of Olly and Maddy being inside Maddy’s architecture projects, speaking face to face, as opposed to through a screen, as it helps to better portray the development of their romance. The little pop-ups representing their email/text interaction works too, but I’m glad it didn’t dominate the entire film. Could have done without the narration, though; that’s something YA novel adaptations can’t seem to get away from, but it’s a superfluous inclusion that defies the “show not tell” mentality and undermines a viewer’s ability to draw conclusions on their own. Like, there are other ways to include exposition without a narrated info-dump at the beginning. Also, I must say, the astronaut is definitely the best supporting character in the film.

Other supporting characters of the fairly small cast include Maddy’s mom Pauline, played by Anika Noni Rose. Her portrayal is equal parts calculated and loving as she juggles the dual role of mother and doctor and grapples her own demons while dealing with Maddy’s illness. Ana de la Reguera is great in her role as Carla, Maddy’s nurse, as she does a great job of showing how Carla sympathizes with Maddy and wants her to experience at least a few aspects of a “normal” life. But really, it’s Stenberg and Robinson that helm the ship, and they do a fair job of plucking at your heartstrings; it’s easy to root for them and hope for a happy ending, even in the face of such bleak, unrelenting odds.

As far as other elements go, the music is nice; I’m not a big fan of insert songs, but the choices seem to fit the narrative, and the score was charming, if not exactly memorable. I loved how Maddy’s wardrobe changed over the course of the film, reflecting the growth in her character – even Olly trades in his signature black for a spot of color at one point. The sets are decent and the colors pop, and, as I mentioned before, the visuals are utilized in a compelling way. All in all, each portion of the film is solid and comes together smoothly; it looks and sounds great.

If you’re a fan of Yoon’s writing or are a hopeless YA fan (like myself) just looking for a way to pass a rainy day, then Everything, Everything is definitely worth a watch.  It’s a touch cliche, it’s escapist (to a degree), and it’s a love story – all the ingredients of great young adult media But if such content really isn’t your style, it might be wiser to sit this one out.

Overall rating: 7/10

DISCUSSION OF ENDING AND SPOILERS BENEATH THE “CONTINUE READING,” YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Continue reading

Film Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Dir: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Kurt Russel
Runtime: 2hr16m
Spoiler Level: Light (ANY MAJOR SPOILERS WILL BE UNDER A “READ MORE”)

MV5BMTg2MzI1MTg3OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTU3NDA2MTI@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_.jpgBack in the summer of 2014, I knew nothing about Guardians of the Galaxy, but when Marvel’s film adaptation rolled into theaters, my best friend and I decided to venture out to see it on opening night. I knew there was a raccoon involved, and I do love my nocturnal, trash-eating rodents, so I figured it would be worthy entertainment for a Thursday night.

However, I did not expect it to become my favorite installation in the MCU up to that point. The original Guardians is an action-packed, visually-engrossing space opera laden with laugh-out-loud humor and fantastic music, and 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is a worthy sequel and excellent addition to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, even though it doesn’t quite achieve the same level of quirky charm of the first.

Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 follows the titular band of space misfits as they continue their travels through space and adapt to their new role as “heroes”, but after a mission goes awry, they must work to resolve their internal conflicts while also navigating various precarious situations, including the question of Star Lord’s parentage, the sisterly rivalry between Nebula and Gamora, and Baby Groot’s inability to understand even the most basic directions.

Naturally, with such a stacked cast, it’s easy for the more “supporting” characters to get shoved aside so the main cast can bask in the spotlight, but GotGv2 does a decent job of balancing the plot and the narrative focus between all of the characters. I think this contributes to the somewhat “nonlinear plot” of the film, as this film is far more character-driven than it is plot-driven, but that’s not necessarily a drawback; in fact, I think it’s the film’s strength. Each character seemed to get their own sizable piece of the action, and in most cases, the character arcs “overlap” to help ensure enough time is devoted to each person/creature. Gamora has to grapple with her dysfunctional relationship with Nebula, which also gives the viewer a better look into Nebula’s motivations. Drax strikes up an unusual (and hilarious) friendship with Mantis, and Rocket finds an unusual kinship with Peter’s old mentor/guardian Yondu (Michael Rooker), which also opens a window into Yondu’s past as a ravager and his history with Peter. Peter struggles to reconcile the dreams he once had about his real father with the reality of his actual father, Ego, in addition to dealing with an “unspoken thing” with Gamora. And Baby Groot is… well, he’s Baby Groot. Every moment he is onscreen is a moment to treasure.

But this focus on the characters only seems to add more of an emotional impact to the film, even if the result is a less “plot-driven” film than the previous one. I mean, while there’s a solid plot and all, the individual stories and plotlines are kind of loosely interwoven until the climax, where they all crash into one another; but instead of stretching the story too thin, I think it adds a unique sort of depth. After all, a film about a superhero team should give adequate screen time to each of the members, and this film does a great job of doing just that. It didn’t feel like anyone got left behind, and certain events over the course of the film packed more of an emotional punch because of the enhanced focus on the entire cast, not only the leads; this is especially apparent in the treatment of Yondu and Nebula, who get more of a layered portrayal this time around.

New additions to the cast include Pom Klementieff as the empath, Mantis, who expresses a genuine naivete and wide-eyed sweetness that balances out some of the “rougher” members of the team. Mantis contributes to a lot of big laughs throughout the film, especially through her interactions with Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer. Kurt Russell oozes confidence and charisma as Star Lord’s father, Ego, and Elizabeth Debicki is “gold” in her appearance as High Priestess Ayesha of the Sovereign, though her screen time is limited. Also, Sly Stallone is in this for a hot second – didn’t know that until I saw the opening credits.

Much like with the first film, the music in this film is fitting for the plot and all around fantastic to listen to, and the effects are amazing, per usual – especially the design of Ego’s Planet. There’s plenty of action, and several sequences that are just an absolute blast to watch, especially in IMAX/3D. Plus, for a film/property that is generally more light-hearted in tone than other Marvel installments, GotGv2 isn’t afraid to land a roundhouse kick right to your feels in a couple of spots. Unlike Mantis, the film is beautiful – on the inside, and the outside.

Alas, with the good comes the bad; while the film features several legitimately hilarious moments (I’ll discuss a couple of them under the spoiler cut), some of the humor feels a bit forced and awkward, especially in the beginning – though obviously, this might differ for other folks depending on their sense of humor. It takes a bit of time for the film to find its groove, and a few jokes failed to hit the mark. However, Drax (along with his interaction with Mantis) is definitely the comedic heart of the film, along with the lovable Baby Groot. Everyone gets a few quips, and the film eventually finds a rhythm and sticks to it, despite a faltering start.

If you’re a fan of the first film, or just love a good, humorous jaunt through the distant reaches of the universe with a twig, a couple of aliens, a human/celestial, and a cybernetically-engineered trash panda, then prepare yourself to get hooked on a feelin’ (again) by Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2.

Overall rating: 9/10

SPOILERS BENEATH THE “READ MORE,” YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Continue reading

Film Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

Dir: Niki Caro
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl, Michael McElhatton
Runtime: 2hr6m
Spoiler Level: Light (Unless you are somehow unaware of the events of WWII)

I have a few rules when it comes to seeing movies in the theater, and one of those rules is: If Jessica Chastain is in it, make every attempt to see it. I haven’t regretted it yet – she’s stellar in just about everything. Then again, I did manage to miss out on Snow White and the Huntsman: Winter’s War. So, there’s that – though I’m sure Chastain is not the primary cause for that film’s poor performance.

Since The Zookeeper’s Wife has finally landed in my hometown, my mom (my frequent cinema-going companion) and I ventured out to see it, despite a relatively lukewarm reception.

The_Zookeepers_Wife.jpegThe film is based on the true story of zoologist Jan Żabiński (Heldenbergh) and his titular wife, Antonina (Chastain) who operate a zoo in Warsaw, which features a variety of impressive, exotic animals. When WWII ignites in Poland in the summer of 1939, their zoo is no longer able to function as it once did, and as the Jewish residents of the city are herded into the ghetto and the horrors of Hitler’s rise overtake Warsaw, the couple must adapt to their new circumstances and they begin the incredible task of secretly harboring and ferrying both friends and strangers to safety via their re-purposed zoo.

The film’s best feature is the cast; Chastain is predictably marvelous as Antonina, conveying an empathy for animals (she’s basically an elephant-whisperer) that is only matched by her compassion for and willingness to help those in need, even if it means risking her own safety. She becomes the center of the film, but Heldenbergh’s portrayal of Jan is similarly impressive; I found his scenes and character development equally as compelling, even though Chastain’s character is intended to be the heart of the film. The pair function extremely well together, especially as Jan and Antonina struggle to adapt to the new state of their zoo after the bombing, then grapple with the decision to involve themselves in daring attempts to rescue those trapped in the ghetto, and all the ensuing battles they face each day they put their own lives (as well as their young son, Ryszard, played by Timothy Radford and Val Maloku) at risk. A major highlight for me was how both Antonina and Jan expressed hesitance about taking Jewish friends and strangers into their home, and weighed the possible repercussions that would befall them if they were caught rebelling against the Nazis. Jan and Antonina’s decision was not easily made, but, after they arrange to assist one friend, it soon opens the door to even more dangerous attempts and intricate plans, and that initial hesitance quickly evolves into sturdy resolve. Watching the strain of the war and their resistance efforts on their family and their relationship was the most engrossing aspect of the film for me; though the film is called The Zookeeper’s Wife, it was Jan and Antonina’s actions, struggles, and scenes as a duo that left the biggest impression.

The third lead, Daniel Brühl, is convincingly sleazy and intimidating as German zoologist Lutz Heck. Granted, anyone with the name of “Heck” is guaranteed to be at least somewhat villainous, but Brühl’s portrayal, while occasionally vicious, is also grounded by his humanity – at times, he even comes across as brash and foolish rather than calculated and cunning. His motivations, though horrendously skewed and deplorable on the moral scale, are not done without purpose. As a result, the character is not degraded to a 2D, mindlessly-evil Nazi, which makes for a different sort of monster; one much more frightening and believable. However, at a few points, I felt like I was watching a palpably angry Helmut Zemo. Also – sidenote – super nice to see the talented Michael McElhatton (A.K.A., Father-of-the-Year Roose Bolton from Game of Thrones) in something where he isn’t a complete asshat!

However, despite a handful of great performances (shout-out to the adolescent camel, who is the star of the animals) the other aspects of the film struggle to stand out. The music (Harry Gregson-Williams) is excellent, the costuming/makeup is superb, and the cinematography is gorgeous, especially the lush colors. However, despite those key factors, it’s a great film that isn’t great; it tries to make the viewer scramble for the tissue box, but, though there are heartbreaking moments (Urszula’s plight, the devastation of the zoo, the horrific conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto,) the film’s maneuvering and shifting direction makes it difficult to invest and pinpoint what the focus is meant to be, which creates a conundrum – the film tries to do too much, yet, as a result of that, it also does too little. Each time it plucks up a new thread, it leaves others dangling, even as it strives to have them all tied up in a neat bow at the end. The viewer can experience a vast spectrum of emotions (and it delivers lots of gut punches), but it ends up being more of a detriment to the film than a high point. Stylistically, the film is stunning and it’s a visual triumph, but from a narrative standpoint, it hits a few snags that no amount of heartwarming or heart-wrenching moments can patch up.

But I will say that the film is worth watching, if just for the performance of the lead actors, and the overarching story of the is a compelling one, as it draws on a segment of history that, while well-known, still contains so many untold stories. Had I not seen the film I might never have known about the Żabińskis and their zoo. It might not end up earning many statues at the end of awards season, but the film is entertaining; it delivers a strong message, features powerful performances, and it’s got a bunch of cute animals… not all of the animal-based scenes are cheerful ones (be forewarned, oh ye of tender heart!), but seeing adorable lion cubs is never a bad thing.

I haven’t read Diane Ackerman’s book, which the film drew from, nor have I read Antonina’s diaries, which are only available in Polish, so I don’t know exactly where the film crossed over from “historical” to “historical fiction.” I’m sure artistic liberties were taken, with certain events exaggerated and others downplayed. I wonder about the tension between Antonina and Lutz, the backstories and introductions of some of the people they assisted, a few other key interactions between the characters, and the events of the final confrontation, as certain elements of the film seem like they were added for dramatic effect. I’m not a stickler for 100% accuracy (largely because it’s pretty much impossible) but the more accurate, the better – more toward the Tora! Tora! Tora! end of the spectrum than Pocahontas. I mean, I like The Patriot well enough but they shouldn’t be showing it in history classes. In any case, The Zookeeper’s Wife, while it blurs the fictional line, doesn’t tread into Braveheart territory, and despite artistic liberties, the scenes and scenarios felt plausible, and nothing left me saying “There’s no way that happened.” I’ve poked around a bit on the internet, and, from what I’ve gleaned thus far, it seems that the film does contain several historically accurate scenes and depictions, which is encouraging, but I haven’t delved too deep.

Though it might not land itself on any “Best Of 2017” lists, The Zookeeper’s Wife is far from a letdown. It shows an important perspective of a war that has been recounted hundreds of times in literature, film, and other media; a perspective that many might not know anything about. It’s not perfect, but if the film brings a greater awareness to the real story of Jan and Antonina and their zoo, and inspires others to do more research into that tidbit of the past, then the film has accomplished something great, even if the film itself fails to break new ground.

Overall Rating: 7.5/10

Unexpected and Underrated

Before I became a frequent movie-goer, one whiff of a bad review would be enough to convince me to avoid a film. I’d go to the theater to see the “hits,” the usual popcorn flicks, but that was more or less it. Now, over the past few years, my film taste palette has expanded considerably. Since this shift in my habits, I have seen a slew of movies that I found enjoyable despite a poor performance at the box office, as well as movies that I loved against my expectations. So, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite “underrated” films and “unexpected” films.

The Grey (2011)
Whenever I am tasked with thinking of an underrated movie (which is almost never) my automatic answer is The Grey. I only ended up seeing it when some friends recommended it to me during my second year at college. It’s a survival/thriller about an oil-drilling team stranded in the wilderness after a plane crash in Alaska, and their efforts to survive both the harsh weather and being stalked by a pack of grey wolves. Plus, it stars Liam Neeson, which should have been enough to drive throngs of people to see it. It’s a sort of “subtle” thriller, in a way – it’s not super fast-paced, nor does it feature nonstop action, but I was completely engrossed throughout the film; especially as details of the character’s lives start to trickle through the narrative. The colors/imagery/cinematography of the film are also excellent, as is the tension/suspense woven throughout. I can still picture the ending of this movie in vivid detail, complete with Liam Neeson’s closing narration – the film really stayed with me, like a grey wolf on my periphery, and it made me think. It’s easily one of my favorite Liam Neeson performances (besides Schindler’s List, obv) and a seriously underrated and unexpected hit. Even if you aren’t a fan of survival thrillers, complete with seemingly hopeless situations and increasing feelings of despair among the characters, I recommend giving it a try. AND SPEAKING OF UNDERRATED, Dermot Mulroney also stars in the film and he is consistently great.

Tron: Legacy (2010)
Tron: Legacy is a movie that I did not expect to love as much as I do, to the point where words cannot accurately convey my adoration for this movie. I like the original Tron just fine, despite the fact that it has not exactly aged well, but the sequel is one of my all-time favorites. The story follows Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) and his journey into the digital frontier of The Grid in order to rescue his father, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who has been missing for two decades. It’s not groundbreaking in terms of plot or character development, but the story is compelling enough and the acting is superb on all fronts, though it does take some time to get used to CLU and Kevin (both played by Jeff Bridges, though John Reardon was the body double for CLU) being onscreen at the same time. Bruce Boxleitner is also back as Tron/Alan, though Rinzler is physically portrayed by the talented Anis Cheurfa. The cinematography and stylistic elements are amazing, and the symbolism, while overt at times, contains more subtle allusions that I didn’t notice until my 2nd or 3rd time watching – and yes, I did see it 3 times in theaters. The 3D was phenomenal, and the film is a visual and auditory feast. I love this movie so much I even wrote a 20+ page paper on Tron Legacy in college, entitled Biodigital Jazz, Man: Simulation and Identity in Tron Legacy for my Video Games in Literature class. AlsoI still consider Daft Punk not getting at least nominated for Best Original Score one of the worst Oscar snubs of all time.

Crimson Peak (2015)
When I went to see Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak about a week or two after it was released, my mom and I were the only two people in the theater – though I attribute this mainly to the fact that it was a Wednesday afternoon and “Back to the Future Day,” so most folks were at the theater to see the one day re-release of “Back to the Future” – someone even had a flux capacitor with them in the concession line. I think Crimson Peak also suffered from a minor case of mis-marketing, because people seemed to think it was a horror film, when really, it was a gothic romance which contained elements of horror – but all the ads I saw seemed to encourage the “horror” aspects of the film. I enjoy period pieces and the like, but I went in with no expectations, so I was not disappointed. It’s a gorgeous film, though it doesn’t delve quite as deep as it could – the story is somewhat predictable, but that didn’t make me enjoy it any less. It has typical “horror” moments, and romance moments, and suspense, but, while it has so many components of a gothic romance, it never quite realizes a concrete identity. The film has an all-star cast in Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, and Charlie Hunnam as the leads – Chastain is especially and wonderfully creepy in her role, and the highlight of the film. It’s visually arresting, and I recommend seeing it solely for how beautiful it is, from the music to the sets to the costuming, especially for fans of del Toro’s style.

The Finest Hours (2016)
Though T.S. Eliot might disagree, I think January is the cruelest month – especially when it comes to film releases. I don’t know exactly what causes this to happen, but January seems to be the month where new movies go to die a slow and painful death, and I think 2016’s The Finest Hours was an unfortunate victim of this phenomenon. I actually saw it on opening night, so it was pretty busy in the theater – but attendance waned in the following weeks, and ultimately, the film bombed. I don’t think it should have crashed and burned, though – because it was a perfectly good movie. Following the true story of the 1952 Coast Guard rescue of the SS Pendleton during a vicious storm, The Finest Hours boasts a stellar cast (Chris Pine, Holliday Grainger, Casey Affleck,) an engaging story, and all of the elements to make a great movie; and, in my opinion, it is quite good. Certainly underrated, considering the poor performance at the box office; I came out of the theater impressed, and definitely expected it to do well in spite of an unfavorable release date. It just couldn’t rise above the January doldrums, and it’s a shame that it didn’t.

This Is Where I Leave You (2014)
Although I just finished reading Johnathon Tropper’s 2009 novel This Is Where I Leave You a few weeks ago, I saw the movie adaptation when it was released in 2014 – and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Following the colorful (and conflict-ridden) Altman family during their time sitting shiva in the wake of their father/husband’s death, the film has an excellent cast – Tina Fey, Timothy Olyphant, Adam Driver, Jason Bateman, among several others – and the chemistry between them gave off a very believable family vibe. It’s not the most fast-paced or exciting film, but it has its fair share of humorous moments and poignant moments, and never tries to do “too much” in either department, so the story is relatively balanced and the pacing is decent. While it doesn’t attempt “too much,” it also doesn’t do quite “enough,” especially with such a stacked, talented cast – though I did find the narrative more entertaining and engaging than the lukewarm reception implied. However, the real highlight of the film is the cast; I recommend seeing it solely for the sibling relationships portrayed onscreen, especially between Fey and Bateman.

Rise of the Guardians (2012)
This animated gem is a visual triumph and features a stellar voice cast (Hugh Jackman as the Easter Bunny is a stroke of genius, as is Alec Baldwin as Santa) but it failed to become a real “hit.” When my best friend and I saw it, the theater was almost empty; but I still remember how ensnared I was by the film’s trailer. The story, based partly on a book series by William Joyce, is unique – when the evil Pitch Black threatens the world, the four “Guardians” must band together with the enlisted help of Jack Frost to stop the rise of darkness – and though it contains familiar tropes, it’s plenty entertaining, and it features intriguing interpretations of well-known characters, from the Sandman to the Tooth Fairy. It had all the components of a great film, yet still resulted in a studio loss. For fans of animation who missed this film upon its initial release, I definitely recommend giving it a chance. It was likely hindered by being released around the same time as a few box-office giants from that year (a Twilight film, Skyfall, Lincoln) but I found it to be an unexpected delight, and I still think it didn’t quite get the recognition that it deserved.

The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014)
My mother is my most frequent movie-going companion, because we share a similar appreciation for film, both as an art form and as entertainment. I like to think of it as being film snobs who simultaneously don’t take it too seriously. Regardless, The Hundred-Foot Journey is one such example of a “mom and me” film. It’s got a great cast, and engaging story about an Indian family who opens a restaurant after a tragedy forces them to relocate to France, and the subsequent rivalry with the Michelin-star restaurant 100 feet away. The film also focuses on Hassan (Manish Dayal), the son of the Kadam family, who strives to make a name for himself as a chef. It’s a story about love, compromise, competition, and acceptance; a great movie to see on a Friday night when you want to put the stress of the work week behind you. I mean, it’s about warring restaurants, and it stars Helen Mirren and Om Puri – what’s not to like? It’s a prime example of a great film that is entertaining and heartwarming, but doesn’t try too hard – resulting in an unexpected delight.

Whisper of the Heart (1995)
When people think of Studio Ghibli, they probably think of the landmark titles like My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke, three memorable projects by legendary director Hayao Miyazaki. Because Miyazaki’s works are consistently brilliant and are the most well-known of the Ghibli lore, some other works from the studio get overshadowed. Yoshifumi Kondo’s  Whisper of the Heart is one such film, and it is actually my favorite Ghibli production – plus, it features The Baron, my favorite Ghibli character. It’s a sweet and simple story about a young girl who dreams of being a writer and her interactions with a boy who aspires to make violins. It follows the trials and tribulations of adolescence, young love, and the struggle between making dreams come true and facing reality. The animation is gorgeous, the music is great, and the writing (provided by Miyazaki) is poignant. It might not carry a message as deep as Mononoke or feature the whimsical magic of Howl’s Moving Castle, but Whisper of the Heart is a subtle slice-of-life that hits the closest to home, and fans of Ghibli’s other projects shouldn’t miss out on this underrated gem. And semi-sequel The Cat Returns is a hilarious companion to the film that is well worth seeing – especially since Cary Elwes reprises his role as the Baron.

Oblivion (2013)
I didn’t hear much about Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion when it was first released, and, as such, I didn’t see it until it came to Red Box. The film is a post-apocalyptic scifi film about a tech named Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his partner Vika (Andrea Riseborough) who are doing recon/repair work on Earth while the rest of Earth’s population has allegedly relocated to Titan; however, Jack is haunted by flashes of memory of a previous life, which leads him to question his purpose and his identity. While the film does rely on previously used scifi tropes (hey, if it works, it works, as long as it’s entertaining) and it’s somewhat predictable, I also think it did an excellent job of not making familiar material feel stale, and it does introduce some new, fresh ideas into a genre with so many possibilities. Also, the film is gorgeous – it’s sleek, like Tron Legacy, only with a different aesthetic. I just saw Arrival (2016) the other night and Oblivion’s setting/atmosphere was semi-reminiscent of that; futuristic, but subtle and not over the top. It allows the viewer to put the pieces of the story and characters later, and doesn’t rely on excess exposition and explanation, which scifi does tend to fall victim to. I know that many folks have grown weary of the “post-apocalyptic” style of scifi, but Oblivion breathes a whisper of new life into it.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
My parents and I ended up seeing this film after the film we wanted to see was sold out – and I ended up enjoying it so much that I don’t even remember what we originally intended to see. The story is about an employee of Life magazine named Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) who must embark on a search for a film negative and, subsequently, finds himself hunting the “meaning of life.” It’s definitely not a runaway box-office hit, but I found the premise of the film intriguing, and was definitely engrossed by the story as it was unfolding onscreen; as such, I was stunned when I found out that reception to the film was mixed, with some folks loving it and some hating it. If a ~50% Rotten Tomatoes score is enough to deter you from seeing I film, I recommend you reconsider that stance and give this film a shot. It’s a visually stunning film with a good story, amazing scenery, and a great cast. It might not be award-fodder and it doesn’t hit all the high notes, but it’s worth seeing simply for the fact that most people can likely find a bit of themselves in the character of Walter Mitty.

Film Review: Lion (2016)

Dir: Garth Davis
Starring: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara
Runtime: 121 min
Spoiler level: Light

Last week, the local movie theater gods heard my prayers, despite the fact that January seems to be the month where new movies go to meet their doom. I wanted to check another Best Picture nominee off my “to see” list, and when I checked the Fandango app, I got the notification that Lion was starting a run at one of my local theaters, in answer to my plea. Sometimes, the local movie theater gods are benevolent and merciful.

lion.jpgI haven’t read the book that the film is based on, nor did I know much about the story going into it – but I’m glad I went in mostly blind, with only a general idea of what was about to unfold across the screen.

Lion, which is based on true events, follows Saroo Brierly, a young boy who ends up nearly 1000 miles away from home, with no idea how to get back. Several years later, as memories and “what-ifs” about his previous life begin to haunt him, he tries to balance his search for “home” with the life he’s built for himself and with the family who raised him.

The first segment of the film, following little 5-year-old Saroo’s separation from his family and his struggles in Calcutta, culminating with his adoption by Australian couple Sue and John Brierly, is utterly engrossing. Sunny Pawar’s performance as Saroo is the spellbinding heart of this film; watching him wander through dirty subway tunnels, flee from malevolent pursuers, and cry for his brother Guddu and his mother is heartbreaking and harrowing. That look at what life was like for him, from the suspicious people he encounters to the awful places he ends up – especially considering this film is based on a true story – makes his experiences as a lost little boy desperate for home all the more impactful, and it’s as wrenching as it is captivating.

Unfortunately, the film loses a bit of steam once Saroo ages up. It jumps right from young Saroo to adult Saroo, with a brief look at one year post-adoption, when the Brierlys add Mantosh to the family. These scenes are powerful, but it skips over adolescence, and ultimately, I think this made a bit of a lopsided narrative – the switch wasn’t seamless and the pacing suffered for it, as it seemed like a chunk was left out of Saroo’s history. Rooney Mara’s character, Lucy, acts more like a device than a fleshed-out character; her purpose is to give Saroo someone to interact with besides his adopted parents, often while they’re staring meaningfully at one another whilst laying on a mattress. The viewer only gets a glimpse into her life, through snippets that function as a tool to get Saroo to reflect on his own experiences. Mara’s performance is fine, and the chemistry between Patel and Mara is fine, and I understand why the character is there, but, although the story is not focused on her, the character lacks a concrete identity, which I found difficult to relate to in the context of the film. Since I haven’t read the book, I don’t know what content was added/cut or what liberties were taken with these characters (I certainly wonder about the depiction of Saroo’s adopted brother, Mantosh, who struggles with self-harm, as his backstory and prior to adoption is not really explored in the movie) but within the parameters of the film, the middle portion fell a bit flat, especially compared to young Saroo’s journey in the first arc.

The music is excellent – a fusion of strings and piano that enhances the atmosphere. The editing/cinematography also aids the flow of the narrative, with scenes contrasting the roaming wild of Australia to the varied landscape of India, representing how Saroo’s life has changed with his surroundings. Saroo’s memories trickle back to him throughout the film, with images and scenes of young Saroo and Guddu interwoven within various scenes, which then transition seamlessly back to older Saroo as he yearns for answers and desperately scours Google Earth for a glimpse of something familiar, something that says “home.”

Despite the pacing in the latter part of the film, the overall acting is stellar throughout. Eight-year-old Sunny Pawar deserves ALL OF THE AWARDS for his performance as young Saroo. ALL. OF. THEM. He carries the entire first arc of the film, with palpable joy, anguish, desperation, fear, and hope, and his interactions/scenes with Abhishek Bharate, who plays Saroo’s biological brother Guddu, are both heartwarming and gut-wrenching. Patel’s performance as the older Saroo, featuring occasional impish smiles and playful banter, is rife with emotional turbulence, and I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t have to brush my tears away a few times when he spoke of his fractured past and how it feels to be “lost.” Coupled with the visual components of the film, Patel does a great job of showing how Saroo struggles to move forward while feeling such an incredible pull toward his past. Kidman’s portrayal of Sue Brierly is superb, though I found myself wishing she had more screen time – I almost feel as though the Lucy character could have been cut or minimized in favor of shedding more light on the mother-son relationship between Saroo and Sue, as well as her experiences as a mother to two adopted boys. Also, I was so pleased when David Wenham’s name showed up in the opening credits, as I had no idea he was in this until the film started – I am always down for an unexpected Faramir appearance.

Lion might not be getting the same amount of buzz that Moonlight and La La Land have garnered during the awards circuit, but this film, with its powerful, multi-layered definitions of “family” and “home”, lets out a big roar.

Overall rating: 8/10