The Real Story: The Zookeeper’s Wife

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“The Zookeeper’s Wife,” starring Jessica Chastain, is based on the nonfiction book by Diane Ackerman, the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, Warsaw zookeepers who helped Jews hide from and escape the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Copyright Zabinski 1939
Copyright Zabinski 1939

Yad Vashem, the world’s most comprehensive resource on the Holocaust, paid tribute to the Zabinskis and Dr. Zabinski planted a tree on the Mount of Remembrance there.

Dr. Jan Zabinski was the director of the zoo. He was the author of many popular-knowledge books about biology and the psychology of animals, as well as the producer of a number of very popular radio-shows. Despite the enormous problems he faced as the director of a zoo during wartime, he was not blind to the suffering of the Jews. When the Warsaw ghetto was established Jan and his wife, Antonina, began helping their Jewish friends. As an employee of the Warsaw municipality he was allowed to enter the ghetto. Under the pretext of supervising the trees and small public garden within the ghetto area, he visited his Jewish acquaintances and helped them as best as he could. As the situation in the ghetto deteriorated, he offered them shelter.

“Dr. Zabinski, with exceptional modesty and without any self-interest, occupied himself with the fates of his prewar Jewish suppliers… different acquaintances as well as strangers,” wrote Irena Meizel. She added: “He helped them get over to Aryan side, provided them with indispensable personal documents, looked for accommodations, and when necessary hid them at his villa or on the zoo’s grounds.” Regina Koenigstein described Zabinski’s home as a modern “Noah’s ark”. According to the testimonies, many Jews found temporary shelter in the zoo’s abandoned animal cells, until they were able to relocate to permanent places of refuge elsewhere. In addition, close to a dozen Jews were sheltered in Zabinski’s two-story private home on the zoo’s grounds. In this dangerous undertaking he was helped by his wife, Antonina, a recognized author, and their young son, Ryszard, who supplied food and looked after the needs of the many distraught Jews in their care.

Here is an interview with one of the “guests” who hid at the zoo.

And a documentary about the Zabinskis.

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The Real Story

New on Netflix: Five Came Back

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Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, is a book by Mark Harris about five of the greatest directors of all time who joined the war effort to document it and to promote morale at home. It is also about how the experienced changed them and inspired them to come home after the war and create richer, more complex, and more powerful films than they had before. George Stevens, Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Ford, and John Huston created films during and after the war that helped shape our views on the war but also on America and what kind of world we would create when the war was over.

The book is now a series on Netflix, narrated by Meryl Streep and featuring commentary from today’s top directors, including Guillermo del Toro, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg, as well as clips from films we know by heart like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “The Best Years of Our Lives,” and film that has been rarely seen since the war, including stunning documentary footage.

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After the kids go to bed Directors Film History Movie History Television Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Ghost in the Shell

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: sci-fi/action style peril and violence, guns, explosions, fire, terrorism, suicide, murder, characters injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Questionable cross-race casting
Date Released to Theaters: March 31, 2017
Date Released to DVD: July 25, 2017
Copyright DreamWorks 2017
Copyright DreamWorks 2017

Oh, I don’t know. Maybe if you are a long-time fan of the “Ghost in the Shell” mange by Masamune Shirow and anime and are yet still not offended at the casting of a white actress in a Japanese story you might enjoy seeing a big-budget version of the story with very high-end design and special effects. I am new to the franchise and I was bored. Like a lot of video game movies, it loses the story and characters in a barrage of visual effects and shoot-outs.

Scarlett Johansson plays Major, who used to be a person but is now robot with a human brain or a human brain with a robot body. People do a lot of explaining in this movie, but never about the stuff we would like to have explained. So one character tells us that Major is not a machine but a weapon in the fight against cyber-terrorism. But we never find out why Major’s clothes keep disappearing when she goes into battle. Or why a robot breathes and cries.

In an early scene, we see businessmen at an expensive dinner, being served by elegant but not un-sexy robot geishas. I hope you have seen enough movies to know that when one of them arrogant insists that “There is nothing I can’t do, nothing I can’t know, nothing I can’t be,” he is not going to be around much longer. Some gunmen break in and start shooting, and Major arrives to fight them.

Major was once a human woman. When she was injured in the terrorist attack that killed her parents, her body could not be saved but in a pioneering experiment by Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), she is turned into a cyborg. At least that is the story she has been told. She has flashes of what could be memories but it seems to her as though there is thick fog over her memories “and I can’t see through it.” Dr. Ouelet is very proud of Major, almost maternal. And Major has a partner, Batou (Pilou Asbæk). Where she is a robot with a human brain, he is a human with mechanical parts.

The man/robot/operating system/entity behind the attack is cerebral hacking and killing more people as Major is experiencing what she calls “glitches,” especially after she does a risky “deep dive” into the network of the hacked geisha robot. But are they glitches or “Total Recall”/”Bourne”-style flashes of memory?

When the comic first appeared, some of these issues were cutting edge but they have been so thoroughly hashed out in so many movies (and in real life) that most of it is as outdated as a VHS video of “WarGames.” The issue of consent is more timely, as Major has to affirmatively accept various risks and procedures (like all of those “I agree” boxes you have to check every time you update your software), but the movie is too busy showing us zippy Pokemon Go-style virtual ads all over the city to spend any thought on it, or anything else, for that matter.  It is a shame that a movie about the spark of human consciousness that remains inside a machine is itself a machine without any evidence of humanity at all.

Parents should know that this film has constant sci-fi/action style peril and violence, guns, explosions, fire, terrorism, a suicide, murder, with characters injured and killed, and some graphic and disturbing images, some nudity, prostitutes and sexual predator, smoking, and drinking. There has been some controversy over the casting of non-Asian actors. Scarlett Johansson responded “I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive. Also, having a franchise with a female protagonist driving it is such a rare opportunity. Certainly, I feel the enormous pressure of that—the weight of such a big property on my shoulders.” The director of the anime version also supports Johansson in the role: “What issue could there possibly be with casting her? The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her.”  On Slate, Aisha Harris explains why a revelation late in the film is especially troubling in the movie’s portrayal of race.

Family discussion: Is Major a person, a machine, or a weapon? What enhancement would you like to have?

If you like this, try: the “Matrix” and “Bourne” series, “Lucy,”  and the Ghost in the Shell comics and anime

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3D Action/Adventure Comic book/Comic Strip/Graphic Novel DVD/Blu-Ray Remake Science-Fiction

The Boss Baby

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some mild rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: "Formula" that keeps babies from growing up
Violence/ Scariness: Cartoon-style action peril and violence, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 31, 2017
Date Released to DVD: July 25, 2017
Copyright Dreamworks 2017
Copyright Dreamworks 2017

Yes, sure, babies are adorable and it is wonderful fun to nibble their toes and kiss the backs of their necks. But let’s be honest. They are also tiny tyrants. Who decides when it is time to eat and sleep? It is not the adults in the household. And who is no longer the top priority in the home anymore? The older child! (Let me state for the record that my two younger sisters are lovely people and I couldn’t be luckier to have them as siblings, but those first few months are tough.)

“The Boss Baby,” inspired by the Marla Frazee book, takes these ideas hilariously to the extreme with a baby who is literally the boss.  He arrives complete with suit, tie, Rolex, briefcase, and the ultra-adult voice of Alec Baldwin. This is deeply disturbing for Tim (Miles Bakshi, grandson of animation pioneer Ralph Bakshi), whose previously blissful life of undiluted devotion from his mom (Lisa Kudrow) and dad (Jimmy Kimmel) is destroyed by this demanding creature and it seems that only Tim really understands what a monster he is.

Somehow, Mom and Dad, a sweet couple who both work for a pet food company, can only see the baby’s cute little face and have no idea that the baby is really a spy, even though “if things weren’t to his immediate satisfaction, he had a fit.”  They are so numb from sleep deprivation and so captivated by what looks to them like an infant that they never suspect there is anything unusual going on.  But Tim overhears the Boss Baby talking to his office — and then the Boss Baby blandly tosses some money his way and asks for some sushi: “I’d kill for a spicy tuna roll.”

Once Tim learns that the baby will return to his office after his mission is complete, he and the baby join forces to take on the real villain of the story — I will not spoil his very funny nefarious plan.

Director Tom McGrath says that this film is a tribute and apology to his older brother, because like all younger siblings, he was for a time the “boss baby.”  He gives the story a pleasantly retro look, setting, and soundtrack, evocative of old-school cartoons and an era before everyone was mesmerized by devices. It is surprisingly funny and even more surprisingly sweet. Tim is a great kid, brave, smart, and wonderfully imaginative, and it is nice to see a movie for children that is about something other than following your dreams or learning to be confident. It’s about visceral feelings everyone will recognize — worrying that there is not enough love to go around, jealousy, competitiveness. And it is also about feelings we should recognize but too often overlook: the importance of imagination and the pleasures of being a kid.

NOTE: Stay all the way through the credits for an extra scene!

Parents should know that there is cartoon-style peril and violence along with some potty humor and schoolyard language.  The theme of the movie centers on issues of sibling rivalry.

Family discussion:  Why wasn’t the Boss Baby sent to earth as a regular baby? What are the best and worst parts of having a sibling?

If you like this, try: the “Madagascar” films, from the same director

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Animation Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Scene After the Credits Stories About Kids

The Zookeeper’s Wife

A+

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Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity and smoking
Profanity: Some strong and bigoted language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime and holocaust violence involving humans and animals, characters injured and killed, rape of a young girl (off-camera), sexual abuse
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: March 30, 2017

Copyright Scion Films 2017
Copyright Scion Films 2017
Jessica Chastain is luminous in the real-life story of Antonina Zabinski, a Warsaw zookeeper, who, with her husband and son, saved the lives of Jews during the Holocaust. Director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) brings her love of the natural world and her gift for telling stories of courage and triumph over bigotry to give us a timely reminder that the direst circumstances can inspire the greatest acts of courage and generosity. It also reminds us that there are still new stories to be discovered, even in a period of history that has inspired hundreds of films and thousands of books.

The movie opens on scenes of Edenic paradise. Antonina looks lovingly at her sleeping son — and at the baby lions sleeping beside him. She leans over and holds his foot, but it is the lion cubs she nuzzles. We then see her opening the zoo for the day, riding her bicycle through the magnificent Belle Epoque zoo, with the young camel loping along behind her, lovingly greeting each of the creatures. We will later learn that she is a refugee from Russia, and her childhood hardships left her more willing to trust animals than people. Animals trust her, too. Her skill at “whispering” even the most frightened and frightening wild thing will prove essential once Germany invades Poland.

Antonina is married to Jan (the Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh), and the zoo is in every way their home. They live on the premises, but it is more than that. There is no distinction between the rooms they live in and the rest of the zoo. Animals wander in and out of the house and Antonina feels that the animals are her treasured guests — that is the term she uses.

And then Germany invades Poland, and the zoo is destroyed. A German zookeeper, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl of “Rush” and “Captain America: Civil War”) offers to take the best of the surviving animals to his zoo in Berlin, promising to care for them and return them after the war. Later, as an officer in the German army, he returns to shoot the animals left behind. The Jews of Warsaw are moved into the Warsaw ghetto. Antonina and Jan figure out a way to smuggle some of them out of the ghetto, and soon they are living in underground cages once used to house animals. Once again, Antonina refers to them as her guests, and each night, after the patrol has gone home, she has music and serves food on elegant trays to remind them that there is still civilization in the midst of madness and kindness and courage in the midst of brutality and terror.

It would be easy to mistake the gentleness of Caro’s approach as not sufficiently harrowing to convey the horrors of the Holocaust, especially after the Oscar-winning “Son of Saul.” But that would be wrong. Caro, who made a film about sexual predation in “North Country,” understands that an unwanted touch of a hand or coming a few millimeters too close can feel soul-destroying, especially when it is misunderstood by someone whose trust and respect mean everything. She understands that a drawing, a bunny, a chance to create, a moment of sympathy can begin to heal a ravaged heart, and she presents Antonina’s story with as much grace and humanity as Antonina showed her guests.

Parents should know that this movie takes place during WWII and the Holocaust, and there are disturbing and violent images including scenes of bombing, the Warsaw uprising, and execution of Jews. A young girl is raped (off-screen) and a woman faces a sexual predator. There is some bigoted language and human and animal characters are injured and killed.

Family discussion: How did Antonina’s love of animals help her in taking care of her “guests?” Why was it important to her to treat her “guests” to gracious entertainment in the evenings? What should she have said to her husband about Heck?

If you like this, try: the book by Diane Ackerman

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Based on a book Based on a true story Drama Epic/Historical Movies War
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