Thursday, March 30, 2017

Rapid Reviews: The Zookeeper's Wife and The Discovery

Ever since her near-Oscar win for the role of CIA Operative Maya in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain has built a career portraying strong female characters in the films she's tackled. This trend continues in Niki Caro's World War II drama, The Zookeeper's Wife. But even with the feature's amazing true story and its formidable lead actress, Caro's work lands as an early-year release and not an Oscar-season contender for a reason.

As Nazi Germany begins its invasion of Warsaw, Poland in 1939, Zoo-owners Antonina and Jan Zabinski (Chastain and Johna Heldenbergh, respectively) lose many of their animals due to the bombing of their facilities. And as the Nazi occupants begin rounding up Jewish residents and relocating them to an enclosed ghetto, the Zabinskis devise a creative plan to help these persecuted individuals escape from the ghetto and take refuge in their Zoo. But under the watchful eye of German soldier Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), the Zabinski family finds themselves taking an enormous risk.

Considering the film's heavy-handed source material, The Zookeeper's Wife sadly elicits only artificial emotion that feels expected rather than earned. Perhaps this vital flaw emerges because the audience never truly believes that the Zabinski family is at risk of being exposed. This unforgivable omission of necessary conflict leads to a flat dramatization filled with weakly developed characters that ultimately fails to break ground on the often highlighted World War II era. Thankfully, though, The Zookeeper's Wife manages to tell a fascinating story that deeply examines the methods of the Zoo-owner's harboring. Jessica Chastain delivers another fine performance, but one that seems very unlikely to linger deep into the awards season run. Niki Caro adapts an exceptional true story in a very mediocre and sluggish way, leaving plenty to be desired with The Zookeeper's Wife.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C

Non-traditional film studios have carved a niche in the movie industry as both Amazon Studios and Netflix earned Oscar wins this past year. One of Netflix's most recent purchases includes the Sundance selection, The Discovery, which releases globally on the streaming platform this weekend. After a snubbed performance for his elite portrayal of American author, David Foster Wallace, in The End of the Tour, Jason Segel continues his dramatic push in Charlie McDowell's fascinating examination of the afterlife.

Set in the near future Segel stars as Will, son of the famed Dr. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) who proves that our consciousness travels to a different plane of existence after we die. Once news spreads of a definitive afterlife, suicide skyrocket by individuals looking for "a fresh start". And when Will disrupts a young woman's (Rooney Mara) attempt at suicide, they travel together to Dr. Harbor's research compound where they discover the truth behind where our consciousness goes.

Ambitious and artsy almost to a fault, The Discovery ponders bold ideas and stirs the imagination with a thought-provoking finale that explodes with possibility. However, Charlie McDowell decides to spend the wide majority of the film developing a slow-burning story of love and loss that merely uses this cerebral conclusion as an afterthought. Rooney Mara grips the audience with a nuanced performance. Her onscreen prowess is further complemented by Jesse Plemons' energetic supporting work. Sadly, lead star Jason Segel, whom I have defended and supported in the past with all my might, provides a monotonous turn that constantly strikes the same chord over and over again. The Discovery isn't the most entertaining or exciting watch, but once everything finally pieces together, there's a satisfying bit of beauty to this somewhat muddled and arduous affair.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

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