Mike at the Movies

The Zookeeper’s Wife (PG-13) ****

Jessica Chastain sparkles in every way as Antonina Zabinski, the zookeeper’s wife. Her husband is Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), and he has a difficult role to play. A young, dashing zoologist, inducted into the SS, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) has an eye for Antonina and, because she’s hiding Jews in the basement of her bombed-out zoo, she has to be nice to him. As she tells Jan, “He frightens me,” but Jan is still jealous of the Nazi’s attention to her. This attention grows more intense with each visit, culminating in his first of two rape attempts.

The film set in Warsaw covers the years 1939 until two years after the war is over. The decline of the Warsaw Ghetto is graphically sketched, from its opening to its destruction in 1943. Deportation is presented—254,000 residents were sent to Treblinka, 300,000 killed in the ghetto by bullet or gas, and another 92,000 died from hunger.

All that time, the Warsaw Zoo was handling over 300 Jews, mostly one at a time or in small groups of 5 to 10 smuggled out of the ghetto in trucks filled with garbage meant for the hogs kept at the zoo for Nazi consumption. Many of the Jews escaped to safety when the time was right; several stayed through the end of the war and even returned after the war was over.

Antonina’s signal to be quiet in the presence of Nazis was to play her piano very loudly. That worked save for one example in which a naughty boy started making noise while Lutz was upstairs, romancing Antonina. She cooperated with him to distract him from the noise of those hiding in the basement.

The rape of a young girl who remained catatonic in the zoo basement when rescued exemplified Nazi viciousness. Only a rabbit saved her and freed her tongue and personality. She was one who stayed at the zoo until the end of the war.

While this film is mostly good for the family in educational terms, more sensitive members of your clan may be stressed out by the slaughter of many of the animals by Nazis, mostly for no apparent reason other than the presence of animals and guns. To Antonina, this slaughter was secondary only to the slaughter of humans that was going on simultaneously. Again, Chastain is brilliant at portraying all the emotions that must have attacked Antonina at the time. Don’t be surprised if she gains more recognition around Oscar time. The youngsters should first read about the Warsaw Ghetto and save this for more mature years. The story is true, by the way.

Going in Style (PG-13) ****

Perfect for summer viewing, this film is about a bank heist planned by three dirty old men—not really that dirty, but it seems appropriate to call three octogenarians who conspire to rob a bank “dirty.” Their motives are pure: Their pensions have been sold out by their former company, society is abusing them and they are down to their last free meal at the lodge hall. So why not rob a bank? To quote Michael Caine as Joe: “What have we got to lose?” All of them are on the frosty side of 70, if not 80, and all of them have families: Joe has his granddaughter, Brooklyn (Joey King), and hapless ex-son-in-law Murphy (Peter Serafinowicz); Willie (Morgan Freeman) has a granddaughter he never sees except by Skype; and Albert (Alan Arkin) has a blooming romance with Annie (Ann Margret). The relatives all get involved in the plot more or less and are always on the trio’s minds as they begin to plan the heist.

The three soon realize they are in over their heads and solicit Jesus (John Ortiz), a professional yegg, to advise them. Interestingly enough, the guys only want to rob the bank that destroyed their lives and for only what the bank cost them: $2.3 million and no more. In-between lessons from Jesus, Joe advises his ne’er do well former son-in-law: “You have to act like a man, even if you have to fake it,” and Willie has to deal with the fact that his kidneys are failing and he needs a transplant immediately if he is to survive, while Albert has to fend off Annie’s constant pressure to extend their relationship.

There is the classic comic relief role of Milton played over the top by Christopher Lloyd, and Matt Dillon plays a somber FBI agent, Hamer. In the meantime, we are treated to a karaoke interlude, and the bank job goes off almost as planned.

Is this a happy ending movie? One of the last lines is by the groom: “I’m feeling this odd feeling—I think it might be happiness.” You figure it out. A thoroughly enjoyable, inoffensive and imaginative remake of a 1979 film by the same name that was more elder-issue oriented, this edition is light on the issue element but strong on comic timing. Take the kids for a new image of being old and feisty.

The Boss Baby (PG) ***

With animated movies, it is often hard to determine their target audience. This is true of “The Boss Baby.” On the surface, young kids would be the correct answer except that the Boss Baby’s conceit is that he’s really a businessman dressed in baby duds on a mission for his company, Baby Corp. The Corp makes babies and delivers them so they are, to say the least, a major corporation.

Alec Baldwin is Boss Baby and his foil is Tim Templeton (voiced by Miles Christopher Bakshi). Tim is happy being an only child, and you can see why when Boss appears seemingly out of nowhere. The plot turns on BB’s attempt to find out the nature of the puppy that is being created by Puppy Corp, headed by a former head of Baby Corp who was fired and is out for revenge. His tool is the “Forever Puppy” that never turns into a dog.

BB calls a business meeting with several of his other not-quite-infants, and together they plan to break into the Las Vegas convention of Puppy Corp to find out what’s up.

There is a lot of running around, comic chase scenes and snatches of adult dialogue. BB’s intermittent transition back to babyhood is cleverly done and quite funny. I found the rest of the film to be a little on the frenetic and obvious side. Small kids will love the puppies and the babies. Adults may rethink their positions on parenthood.

Ghost in the Shell (PG-13) **

Two stars for special effects, one for overall trashiness of this film. After seeing the whole thing one question looms: Why does a gorgeous, talented actress like Scarlett Johansson take so many of these horrible roles? She has enough money and enough talent to do better material but she keeps getting used, forced to slide along concrete hallways or through water, firing innumerable weapons and killing innumerable thugs and aliens. It’s such a waste of talent and beauty. In this horrible, manipulative, “let’s see what we have left in the special effects box” exploitation of her remarkable face and figure, she is Major, a mostly robot with a human brain—the first of her kind. Programmed to get rid of bad guys, they keep tying her up, blasting parts off her artificial body, pulling other parts off her face and generally making her into a mess. She adopts a peculiarly masculine gait for the part, but then again, asked to dance she starts a fight, warning her opponents: “I’m not built to dance.”

“Ghost” in this instance is her spirit as in: “Your shell belongs to them but your ghost is yours.” Profound, eh? Eventually the film evolves into an attempt by Major, as she is called, to find her past or her “ghost.” She does it with the help of a friendly and adaptable white-haired robot named Batou who, when his eyes are destroyed by the bad guys, gets new ones. Very odd looking, but, as he points out, “very tactical.” We find out what that means when a couple of baddies try to sneak up on him from behind.

There is almost constant fighting in this film. It is funded by a Chinese partnership and most of the characters, as well as all of the settings, are Asian—appearing to be Japanese. The Asian market likes Johansson and violence and they get plenty of both in this mindless exercise. I intensely dislike films in which, when there are options to take on an action, the director and producers choose the easy way out and do something entirely unexpected, creating a new monster, a new weapon or a new situation, clearly desperate for something creative to fill the space. This is such a film. A waste of motion, sci fi and Scarlett Johansson. Shame, shame, shame.

Smurfs: The Lost Village (PG) *

Lord, this is a tiresome franchise. Sure, it’s for kids, but give them some respect! The cast is sensational: Demi Lovato, Rainn Wilson, Joe Manganiello, Mandy Patinkin, Julia Roberts and Ellie Kemper—are you impressed yet? Does it make any difference that you can’t recognize any of the voices? No, but nothing real really matters in this oddly old-fashioned trooping of much-flown bits and pieces: spooky animals, growling villains, miraculous escapes, returns from apparent death and an ending that is so predictable and soppy that only the most unsophisticated, inexperienced and innocent child will not see it coming. I do not like the Smurf franchise because it is not good enough for children and boring for adults. Sure, it’s colorful, but so are most movies today. Take the kids only if you can find no other alternative on a bad day. This movie may only make it worse.