AFFRetro Review: While Beautifully Filmed, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE Doesn’t Escape the Conventions of Holocaust Cinema

Posted on: Apr 1st, 2017 By:

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017); Dir. Niki Caro; Starring Jessica Chastain, Daniel Bruhl, Johan Heldenbergh; Trailer here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Before the Atlanta Film Festival screening of THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE, an introduction promised the audience that this film was not going to be “just another Holocaust film.” Although it seems callous to think that films about the signature human rights catastrophe of the 20th century could ever be boring, it would be accurate to say that, over the years, a particular set of tropes has taken root when portraying the event on the screen. The situation will look bad; some will say that it will pass; the noose will tighten; and then comes the iconography of the horror—trains, camps, ash. Inevitably, choices must be made about who to help, and how. Sometimes the films end on a down note, sometimes on an up note. But no ending can ever accurately be called “happy.”

I’m sorry to say that, despite that hopeful introduction, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE doesn’t quite escape these expectations. Apart from a few key flourishes, the film follows the pattern mostly down the line. To garble a famous phrase, the people who don’t like this kind of thing will find this the kind of thing they don’t like.

Jessica Chastain plays the title character, Antonina Zabinski, principal animal caretaker at the Warsaw Zoo and wife to stoic Jan (Heldenbergh). We follow Antonina on an idyllic day through the zoo, which is presented as a utopian free-range menagerie where visitors can run alongside a camel or frolic with a set of baby lion cubs. Of course, this scene takes place in 1939, and within short order the German invasion has begun. The zoo is hit particularly hard—the animals are “liquidated” for soap and meat (mostly off-screen, with some startling exceptions—be warned), and the Germans place a permanent munitions garrison on the site. But the Zabinskis are concerned when a Jewish friend is forced to relocate into the Warsaw ghetto, and they decide to hide his wife, at great personal risk (“You can be shot for giving them a cup of water,” Jan reminds Antonina).

The situation is complicated by the presence of Lutz Heck (Bruhl), Hitler’s top zoologist who hopes to breed an extinct auroch from the Zabinski’s oxen. Heck has designs on Antonina, who spends most of her time at the zoo alone as Jan involves himself into the Warsaw resistance, helping as many as he can flee the ghetto to safety. As the war goes on, and as the tunnels beneath the Zabinski house fill with hidden Jews, it becomes harder, but ever more critical, to keep Heck from discovering their secret.

The film’s stakes are certainly high, and the drama is reasonably intense. But director Niki Caro [WHALE RIDER (2002)] fails to give the film the kind of visual tension it deserves. At its weakest moments, the film appears like one of the more inert of the Merchant-Ivory films, nicely decorated but somehow flat, with the performers stuck pantomiming rote material in a dollhouse. For example, as Jan becomes aware of Heck’s flirtations, he becomes bafflingly infuriated with Antonina. Surely he understands her need to keep the German distracted while on their property? And yet he seems to be angry simply because there’s not enough conflict in the second act, and the film still has the rest of the war to wait out.

Jessica Chastain stars as Antonina Zabinski in director Niki Caro’s THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features

The star attraction should be the movie star Chastain, but she plays Antonina with a demure squeak of a voice that befits the muted passions of the movie she’s in. If there is any element to distinguish the film (beyond the costuming and production design, which are lovely), it’s the way in which the story is shifted to Antonina from her more traditionally heroic husband. While Jan is crossing into the ghetto, rescuing abused children, and taking up arms in an open fight, the film posits that Antonina’s role in protecting her family and the all-important hiding place is worth every bit the heroic acclaim. The film attempts to identify a female perspective on the life in occupied Warsaw, where Nazism is inextricably intertwined with toxic masculinity. The Germans don’t simply kill their victims, they displace and starve and rape them, dominating non-German bodies as outbursts of masculine bravado. If there’s a second element to distinguish the film, it’s that it seems eerily uncomfortable when compared to the modern mood in some of the more unsavory—but increasingly visible—corners of our national conversation.

Ultimately THE ZOOKEER’S WIFE is another holocaust movie. Your interest in that promise may vary, but let us be clear that the world, the trajectory, and the situations in the film are nakedly (and all too uncomfortably) familiar.

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE screened this week at the Atlanta Film Festival on march 29. For more information, check out the official site.

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AFFRetro Review: Skateboards, Jet Packs & Silver Scream Spook Show Stars: SPRING BREAK ZOMBIE MASSACRE Is a Graveyard Smash!

Posted on: Apr 1st, 2017 By:

SAM & MATTIE PRESENT SPRING BREAK ZOMBIE MASSACRE (2016); Dir. Robert Carnevale; Starring Sam Suchmann, Mattie Zufelt, Madeline Brumby, Allison Maier; Trailer here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Sam and Mattie are typical American teens. They like to skateboard and play video games. They chase girls. They have cybernetic implants coveted by the devil and his army of zombies, demons, and zombie-demons. The usual stuff.

SPRING BREAK ZOMBIE MASSACRE is an unexpected title for a heartwarming, feel-good picture. The real-world Sam Suchmann and Mattie Zufelt hail from Rhode Island, inseparable best friends who became fixated on the idea of making a violent, gory zombie film starring themselves, an idea that may have seemed easy for their friends and family to dismiss before the boys revealed the elaborate storyboards they’d been building in their spare time. Director Robert Carnevale helped them launch a Kickstarter, thinking that a few bucks might allow them to put a film together. Sam and Mattie’s story, however, struck a nerve, went viral, and became a runaway crowdsourcing success story. The boys became stars of the mainstream press, and their project attracted talent from across the country, including Atlanta actors Madeline Brumby (Kool Kat here) and Allison Maier, and local special effects maven Shane Morton (Kool Kat here). 

Now, Sam and Mattie’s dream film is very real, and happily delivers more than just its great backstory. The Sam and Mattie of the film are the coolest, most interesting teens at their school, the kind of kids who tend to the needs of their knockout girlfriends before humiliating the local bullies with their sick skateboarding skills. Sam is the sensitive type and Mattie is his aggro best pal. They’ve literally known each other since birth, the moment made memorable when Satan appeared in the delivery room and murdered both of their moms—one of the downsides of having an epic destiny.

Now that they’re teens the Devil is back to finish the job, calling on all the bullies who hate Sam and Mattie’s unbridled awesomeness to join his undead army. The boys respond by unlocking their full superhuman potential, partying at Spring Break, and learning valuable lessons about the dangers of buying drugs. Also, Mattie has jet packs.

L-R: Madeline Brumby, Mattie Zufelt, Sam Suchmann in SPRING BREAK ZOMBIE MASSACRE (2016). Used with permission.

The project resembles less of a coherent narrative than a series of isolated vignettes strung together by the boys’ needs to kill zombies and have their hero moments. The emotional weight of the zombie outbreak is high in some scenes, while in others the monsters resemble irritating pests that have sprung up on Mattie’s lawn. What the film really provides is a bright and imaginative window into the way that Sam and Mattie see the world. Their script—every word of which Sam and Mattie wrote on their own, with Carnevale’s helpful translation—allows them to play out power fantasies and express their take on right and wrong. Sure, it’s a kick to watch Mattie shotgun zombies in the head (he has a surprising presence in the action scenes), but it’s hard to see the occasional quiet moment, such as the pivotal bit where Mattie and Sam stare into mirrors and remind themselves how valuable and special they are, and not think of the artists behind them. This thing is destined for endless cult screenings at midnight festivals and Halloween parties.

SPRING BREAK ZOMBIE MASSACRE may be a vanity project, but it finds its own heartwarming moments amidst its Michel Gondry-inspired cardboard hellfire. The word is that Sam and Mattie are hard at work on a sequel. That’s good. The movie screen is always hungry for real heroes.

SPRING BREAK ZOMBIE MASSACRE screened at the Atlanta Film Festival on March 25. For more information on the film, visit the official site.

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AFF Retro Review: Forbidden Lens: FRAME BY FRAME Focuses a Camera on Afghanistan

Posted on: Mar 29th, 2015 By:

maxresdefaultFRAME BY FRAME (2015); Dirs. Alexandria Bombach, Mo Scarpelli; Documentary; Atlanta Film Festival; Trailer here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Farzana Wahidy sifts through the books in her apartment, searching for one particular image among many. At last she finds the right one and holds it up for the camera. The picture is black-and-white and depicts three young, pretty Afghan women wearing shorts and loose blouses, their heads uncovered, arms cradling books. They are on their way to class at the university in Kabul. The picture is captioned: “Afghanistan in the 1970s.” When compared to modern Afghanistan, the picture seems to come from an alternate reality, not the relatively recent past. After the photo was taken came war, revolution, and the Taliban. Soon, taking another photo like it would become illegal. A generation of Afghan culture vanished under a Taliban regime that considered photography a crime. Today, without the archive of their struggles, people like Farzana sift through old books and wonder how they got here, and how they left so much behind.

FRAME BY FRAME, a new documentary from Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli, is a look at a nation awakening to find itself. When the Taliban ruled in Afghanistan, they came as redeemers and reformers under a banner of peace and with a mission to return the nation to the true Afghan people. As with too many such movements, it ended in suffering when the regime revealed its narrow, strict idea of who the true Afghans were. To retain control, the Taliban limited the media and made taking photographs a crime punishable by imprisonment, torture or even death. After the U.S. invasion ousted the Taliban from power, a few took up cameras and began to take pictures once again and now, for the first time in decades, the visual history of Afghanistan is back in the hands of its people. Challenges remain. The Afghan media is still new, standing on shaky legs and trying to gain momentum. In the face of an uncertain future, FRAME BY FRAME attempts to mark the moment and legitim
ize it for the world.

frame_by_frame_stillThe documentary follows four Afghan photographers as they travel the country and encounter distrust, opposition, and bigotry. One man visits city slums to capture the face of opiate addiction. Another runs a photography school to develop the camera skills of the next generation. A journalist, Massoud Hossaini, runs into harm’s way to capture staggering images such as the photo of grief and violence that won him the Pulitzer Prize. Each faces cultural challenges as the lingering grip of the Taliban is still felt, but perhaps none more so than Farzana Wahidy, who seeks journalistic access and respect in a country where the rules work very differently for  women. Journalism is no longer a crime in Afghanistan, but even an act as simple as taking a woman’s photograph carries a deep social stigma, one that Wahidy bravely, and too often unsuccessfully, confronts.

Bombach and Scarpelli know what they have here. They’ve stated in interviews that the film began as a short subject, but refused to be contained, eventually swelling to feature length. There is something intoxicating about watching an oppressed people discover that the rights to their heritage are theirs. This is what the Taliban took away, the ability to define their country’s reality. Without photography, without media, there is no document of the now and no story of today except that which those in charge decide upon. This is the foundational idea behind a free press, that an informed populace can look past a false narrative and take action. By stealing away their right to document, the Taliban denied the Afghan people the ability to self-identify, made them conform to an identity of religious zealotry that still lingers at the edges of the frame. The film’s subjects point their lenses at poverty, addiction and bloody violence, but also at smiling children, marvels of Afghan architecture and an old man voting in his first election. There is both the destruction of the past and hope for the future—the country exactly as it is.

frame-by-frame-670x377But with hope comes anxiety. Afghans nervously discuss the upcoming exit of US troops, and with it the possibility of civil war. Warlords still rule and hold sway in the outskirts, and the new free press could disappear if the Taliban returns to power. In one of the film’s episodes, Farzana visits a hospital in a western Afghan town. Women are said to be self-immolating at an alarming rate. Although she’s arranged the proper permissions, she’s greeted at a hospital by a male doctor who speaks over her, talks down to her, and tells her that she will not be able to take the pictures she’s there to take. His concern is for his own life. If the local warlord hears that a woman has been taking sensitive pictures of other women—who, the film implies, are not self-immolating but are instead the victims of abuse—then the doctor could be killed or the hospital burned. Farzana tries to explain that the people have a right to hear the story, that it’s her job to report the news. He has no problem with her reporting the news, he says, just so long as the stories are about men. Even in freedom, progress is slow and precarious.

FRAME BY FRAME mirrors its subject by becoming a snapshot of an Afghan moment in time—informed by, but unmoored, from its past and anticipating an unknown future.

FRAME BY FRAME screened at the Atlanta Film Festival. Click here for a schedule of upcoming films. For more information on FRAME BY FRAME, visit the film’s website for more information.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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AFF Retro: GIALLO FANTASTIC: THE EDITOR Slashes Into the Notorious Italian Horror Genre With Blood and Humor

Posted on: Mar 26th, 2015 By:

EditorPosterTHE EDITOR (2014); Dirs. Adam Brooks, Matthew Kennedy; Starring Paz de la Huerta, Udo Kier, Adam Brooks, Matthew Kennedy; Trailer here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Giallo is a firecracker of a word. Sure, for most people, it doesn’t mean anything at all. If you speak Italian, you know giallo means “yellow,” but beyond that it’s just a word. It lies there on the page, dormant. But for the initiated—mostly cinephiles and lovers of pulp (including our ATLRetro editor)—giallo absolutely explodes with meaning. The word doesn’t just deliver a definition, but an entire state of mind. It’s music and color. It’s operatic and sleazy. Giallo is a complete reality, flung forward from a skuzzier past.

THE EDITOR, a new horror-comedy screened at the Atlanta Film Festival and presented by Buried Alive Film Festival, is drunk on giallo. The movie takes pains to replicate the peculiar charms of a 1970s Italian slasher film, hilariously sending up the genre’s goofier tendencies. It’s all here—the bad dubbing, the hilariously on-the-nose exposition, improbable moustaches. But multi-hyphenate creators Adam Brooks and Matthew Kennedy (who wrote, produced, directed and starred in the film) aren’t satisfied with an easy genre spoof. Beneath the corny riffs on Italian machismo and candy-red blood lies a vein of deep strangeness in THE EDITOR. Any homemade fan film can walk and talk giallo, but THE EDITOR’s beating heart pumps pure yellow.

Editor-740x493Our moustachioed protagonist is Rey Ciso (Brooks), the titular editor who once had a promising career in prestige cinema before a freak accident cost him his fingers. Now Ciso, sporting a set of wooden replacement fingers, toils in the mucky world of low-budget slashers, searching for sublime truth in the jump cuts between a swinging axe and its doomed target. As fate would have it, life soon begins to imitate art, actors start dropping to a serial murderer, and Ciso finds himself living inside the type of film that he so thanklessly cuts. Even worse, missing fingers on the victims lead the presiding detective (Kennedy) to suspect that Ciso is cutting much more than film.

THE EDITOR is the latest genre exercise from ASTRON-6, a Winnipeg-based outfit who’ve staked claim on film festival midnight slots with romps like MANBORG (2011, which screened at Buried Alive) and FATHER’S DAY (2011). Over this cycle, Astron-6 perfected the art of taking a genre apart and reassembling it to suit their needs; with a bit more grain on their image, there would be little to distinguish THE EDITOR from the kinds of movies that it’s aping. Their style of meticulous homage jives with a larger trend in the indie scene that includes movies like BLACK DYNAMITE (2009) and HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN (2011), films use camera tricks and careful craftsmanship to copy the cheapo feel of yesterday’s trash cinema. The irony, of course, is that those old movies looked crappy on accident. Bargain filmmakers of the 70s and 80s would have flipped for today’s clean and easy digital technology, but guys like Brooks and Kennedy are working harder to look worse, rejecting the digital sameness often found in the independent scene in favor of styles that made even the worst films teem with an inner life.

the-editor-toronto-film-festivalNot everything lands perfectly with THE EDITOR. An actress’s hysterical blindness gets easy laughs; a running gag showing the male characters slapping their girlfriends does not. The movie also loses its narrative momentum somewhere in the middle, lingering perhaps a bit too long for audiences who get tired of the surface-level spoof. But a shorter run time would rob THE EDITOR of its best idea. Simply pointing at giallo’s singular tics would have made the film an empty execution of style—basically, an extended sketch. Where THE EDITOR earns its credentials is the sheer insanity it gets up to in its late stages as Ciso—who may very well be going insane—begins to question his own innocence, existence, and role in the murders. Haunted by the loss of a colleague, Ciso takes a bizarre inward journey through the cinema he loves, crawling into his editing machine, wandering through the landscapes of celluloid and peering out through the screen at those who would edit him. I

t turns out that there are real existential ideas at the heart of THE EDITOR, and the movie’s abject weirdness that elevates it to the surreal terrain that the best of the old giallo films sometimes played in. I’m not certain these sequences make sense, or that an already too-long movie absolutely needed them, but I do have the distinct feeling that I liked them, and that’s always the first rule of giallo—give the people what they want.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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