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Recent Movies: Certain Women; Graduation; The Zookeeper’s Wife

June 24, 2017

Recent Movies

Certain Women

In rural / small-town Montana, three stories interact: a lawyer (Laura Dern) seems unable to set boundaries with an ex-client (Jared Harris) who is unhinged and deranged; a rather uptight woman (Michelle Williams) tries to find motivation in building a new home even though her husband and teenage daughter are growing more and more distant from her; a young rancher (Lily Gladstone) is infatuated with a recent law graduate (Kristen Stewart) who arrives in her town twice a week to teach an educational law night class.

“Certain Women” is written and directed by Kelly Reichardt and based on short stories by Maile Meloy. Like other Reichardt films (her best is “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010)), this one tells so much in the unspoken word – where a silent reply says so much more than a bluntly worded statement. She is blessed with a superb cast who can make the viewer feel so much with a camera lingering on their faces.

It’s tempting to think “nothing is happening” at the beginning of each segment. But once viewers catch on to Reinhardt’s unique style, they can see that a lot is actually happening. The Gladstone/Stewart story stands out for various reasons and not just the great acting (Gladstone rightly won many awards for her performance). It provides a great re-telling of the tragic story of someone having a crush on another who aspires to be (or already is) in a higher class in the socioeconomic hierarchy.

Their story, like the others, have a theme of loneliness and isolation even for those who are surrounded by people. This film has a special and unique charm that is quite rewarding.

RATING:   * * *


Graduation

In a small Romanian town, Romeo (Adrien Titeini) is a local doctor who is hell-bent on ensuring his teenage daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) excels in her final high-school exams in order to be accepted at a university in the U.K. He is even willing to cross legal and ethical boundaries to make this happen after Eliza faces a crisis shortly before her exams.

Director/writer Christian Mungiu seems to have a knack for courageously exposing his home country’s culture of corruption and the moral dilemmas this causes for average citizens – especially when these folks are in a quandary and “taking the high road” would not likely get them what they want and need. In “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”, the story revolved around arranging an illegal abortion during the Communist era; in “Graduation” (which takes place in the current time), it involves Romeo’s insistence that his only child must leave corrupt Romania in order to have a decent life and future.

“Graduation” begins quite well in introducing the audience to interesting characters and how they respond to the corruption in their midst. The middle part is even more intriguing as Romeo’s moral compass goes so downhill that he is becoming what he once condemned. It is evident he’s acted this way before but not at this level.

There are two key scenes in this section in which Romeo defends his actions. One involves an argument with his wife; the other with Eliza. During the dispute with his wife (played by Lia Bugnar), he argues how much she benefited from his smaller moral slips in the past even if she wouldn’t have acted the same way herself. His argument is so convincing that even the viewer could agree with him in a very uncomfortable way.

The final segment does injustice to the beginning and the middle. It seems to go in various unnecessary directions and fails to continue the momentum built earlier. But “Graduation” is still a film worth seeing. It includes universal themes such as well-meaning parents over-planning their children’s future plus a challenge to the belief that “the grass is always greener” somewhere else. And of course, the saying “O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive” is well played out in the narrative.

RATING: * * *


The Zookeeper’s Wife

Based on a true story: the title character, Antonina Zabinska (Jessica Chastain) assists her husband Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) in caring for the Warsaw Zoo, showing great affection and connection with the animals. After Germany invades Poland in 1939, the couple work together to smuggle Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to live in hidden spaces of the zoo and their home.

This particular Holocaust story is certainly worthy of being told. It is in the same vein as “Schindler’s List” in which citizens risk their own safety and lives to help others in great need.

The trouble for “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is perhaps in its timing. The best films in the Holocaust genre (including “Schindler’s List”) have raised the bar so high that it becomes more and more difficult to meet, let alone surpass, existing levels of greatness. The most recent great examples include “Phoenix” and “Son of Saul”- each released within the last three years.

The English language is used in the film and spoken with Polish accents. While this helps to add authenticity, it is sometimes difficult to understand when the actors are speaking softly.

The directing style in “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (by Niki Caro who did a great job with “Whale Rider”) is perhaps too standard though the same could be said of the screenplay by Angela Workman based on the book by Diane Ackerman. The early scenes of the invasion and the ghetto are powerful. And who couldn’t envy Chastain as she provides affection for a couple of adorable lion cubs. While we can feel tension in the movie’s second half, the overall effect just doesn’t match those of other films on this subject. There seems to be an emotional distance between the characters and the audience.

Had this film been released over a decade ago, it might have fared better. But compared to similar films of this era and earlier, it comes up wanting.

RATING: * * 1/2

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