Reel Scenes: ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ and ‘Going in Style’

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Reviews of two movies where nothing explodes and the people are ‘real’ humans, not characters from a comic book.

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE, a Niki Caro film

I’m always a bit hesitant to see a film based on a favorite book, but “The Zookeeper’s Wife” had good reviews and I was anxious to watch it. I read the book a couple of years ago in my book club and loved every page. It was one of those books you didn’t want to end. That said, I was very pleased with the movie. The story of Antonina Zabinski and her husband, Jan, is told with grace and respect for ordinary people doing extraordinary things during WWII in Poland.

In the movie, the Zabinskis are zookeepers; the Warsaw Zoo in fact. Before Hitler’s invasion in 1939, it was a famous zoo for its wide collection of animals native to that part of Europe and for the African animals they housed.

The character of Antonina is part Dr. Doolittle and a bit of St. Francis with her love of the animals. The opening scenes depicting her riding her bike around the zoo and ‘talking’ to her charges is beautifully filmed.

The Zabinskis have a working friendship with Hitler’s zookeeper Lutz Heck, and are naive enough to think their mutual love of zoology will keep them and their animals safe if the unthinkable happens. But they quickly realize how mistaken they were when Heck arrives in full Nazi uniform and watches as the animals are killed.

Antonina realizes they must do something or the entire zoo will be forever lost. She develops a plan of turning the zoo into a pig farm that will feed the occupying German troops. Heck agrees because he has some ‘ideas’ of his own he would like to see come to fruition in the zoo.

Meanwhile, Jan becomes aware of what is happening to some of his Jewish boyhood friends and the state of the Warsaw ghetto. He and Antonina decide they cannot just sit by and do nothing while their friends are being killed.

Jan becomes the ‘garbage man’ for the ghetto because it will provide food for the pigs and he can sneak out a few Jews as he leaves the area. Antonina finds clever ways to hide the Jews at the zoo and to eventually move them on out of Poland. This part is where the book and the movie differ, but it did not matter to me as a reviewer. The point of the story was still the same, with good people standing up to evil.

The movie is cast with actors most of us are not familiar with, but they are great in their roles. Jessica Chastain makes a luminous Antonina and Johan Heldenbergh is excellent as her husband, Jan, a quiet man who is drawn into the role of hero. His worry and concern over keeping his family from harm and for saving the innocent is etched on his face in every scene. You can feel his heartbreak when he is helping load Jewish children into a boxcar to be taken to a concentration camp and he knows he is powerless to stop it.

The movie has a PG-13 rating. There is Nazi violence, but it is not over the top and there is some sexuality, but not a lot. It goes with the story.

For me, the lessons taught in the film override those concerns and I would think the film is fine for young people over ten.

The Zabinskis are numbered among the Righteous in Israel for their work in rescuing people. I suggest viewers stay for the credits to learn what happened to the couple and their family. It should be playing at the Imperial cinema in a couple of weeks as the manager said it was coming.

The other non-explosive movie is “Going in Style,” the remake of the 1979 film that starred George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg. The new film stars Michael Caine, Morgan, Freeman, and Alan Arkin.  Ann-Margret is there as a love interest for Arkin and she still looks good. It is directed Zach Braff.

Our three heroes, Joe, Willie, and Albert are retired from their jobs and living on Social Security and pensions from a steel plant. Through them, the viewer gets a good look at aging in America. The trio find out their pensions have vanished due to bad investments on the part of their former employer and it looks like they all will soon be broke.

Joe, played by Michael Caine, witnessed a bank robbery and it spawns the idea that they too, can rob a bank and steal what they need to live out the rest of their lives in modest comfort. But as Willie, portrayed by Morgan Freeman, said, to not have to worry about having pie for dessert.

The movie plot revolves around the three old guys robbing a bank and trying not to get caught. Along the way, there are lessons about family, friendship, and finding one last chance at love.

The actors are well-suited for their roles as their talents shine from the screen and it was a pleasure to watch them. Their performances are effortless and there is a lot to be said for true talent.

The funniest scene in the film is of them “practice” robbing a grocery store.  Age and experience do matter and it shows well in the film.

Without becoming maudlin and overly drawn out, Braff makes a true statement about growing old in our country. If you’re my age, there is an underlying sadness to the film, but you will laugh and smile and hum along to the soundtrack. It’s a good film for an afternoon at the movies and it is playing at both our theaters.

Side note: ON DEMAND – right now LION is available ON DEMAND as is Hidden Figures; both are excellent and worth watching again or for the first time.

**Go bug the manager of The Movies in Imperial and let her know what you would like to see. She picks the films. Keep emailing Cinemark in Plano, TX and let them know what you would like to see, too. There are films being made that are not based on Marvel Comics and do not contain explosions, and we deserve to see them.