Fighting Monsters. Films Reviewed: Tickling Giants, The Void, The Zookeeper’s Wife

Posted in 1940s, Animals, Arab Spring, Cultural Mining, Horror, Human Rights, Journalism, Poland, Psychological Thriller, WWII by CulturalMining.com on March 31, 2017

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

If relationship, family, work or school problems are too hard to handle, a movie is a good place to escape it. Especially if the people on the screen are fighting real monsters. This week I’m looking at movies bout people facing monsters. There’s a Polish zookeeper facing the Nazis, a political comic facing a military government, and a smalltown sheriff facing something scary… he’s just not sure what.

Tickling Giants

Dir: Sara Taksler

Bassem Youssef is a heart surgeon in Cairo. In the heady days of the Arab Spring, he heads to Tahrir Square to help support protesters as best he can. Many of them are beaten and need medical attention. But what he really wants to be is a comedian – specifically a political comic like Jon Stewart of the Daily Show. Under Mubarek, outright criticism of the government was not permitted. But with the newfound freedom that came with the popular uprising, he is able to launch a TV show, known simply as the show. With a team of writers and producers it brings political satire to the masses. The show is wildly popular, but the newly elected president Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t like him one bit. So he takes him to court and loses! Baassem Youssef is a free man. Until… Morsi is overthrown in a military coup, putting General Sisi in charge of Egypt. Sisi is popular and dictators don’t like criticism. SomeoPro-Sisi protesters declare Youssef a traitor for criticizing the army, while others fear he will disrupt the relative calm the military coup brought. Is Bassem Youssef just what Egyptians need? Or is he too much, too soon?

Tickling Giants is a funny and informative documentary about how US style political humour fares in Egypt’s. Illustrated with political cartoons by a young man Andeel, it offers behind the scene look at TV production and how it influences and is affected by politicians. One criticism: it could have been a bit shorter; it doesn’t take almost two hours to tell this simple story.

The Void

Wri/Dir: Jeremy Gillespie, Steven Kostanski

Daniel (Aaron Poole) is a police sheriff in a small town – a place with very little crime. So he’s startled to see a bloodied young man, under the influence, come stumbling out of the woods. But when he takes him to the nearby hospital where his wife Alison (Kathleen Munroe) is a doctor in the ER, things get strange. Patients behave erratically, and two heavily armed men show up at the gate threatening to kill the kid. Stranger still, a group of identically-dressed men appear outside the hospital brandishing large knives. They are wearing white sheets and hoods, sort of like flat-topped Klansmen, but with a mysterious triangle painted on the front their faces.

And otherworldly visions appear in Daniel’s mind, full of dark clouds roiling over a lunar landscape. Has the town been invaded by satanic worshippers, drug fiends or sex-crazed maniacs? Nobody knows for sure. It’s up to the people trapped in the hospital — including a pregnant woman, a kindly doctor (Kenneth Welsh) a young intern, and a state trooper (Art Hindle) – have to settle their differences and fight the mysterious powers before they tear each other apart.

The Zone is a horror and psychological thriller about ordinary people driven to extremes in there resistance to unknown killers. There are some fun scenes and a few shocking parts — and I loved the weird images that appear in Daniel’s head — but on the whole, it’s more unintentionally funny that genuinely scary. Some of they dialogue is atrocious, and much of the movie left me scratching my heads as to what exactly is going on. (For example, when two characters are fighting in an imaginary landscape, you don’t know which of them is hallucinating.) I kept waiting for the robot commentators from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 to appear on the screen to explain it all to me.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

Dir: Niki Caro

It’s 1939 in Warsaw. Husband and wife Antonina and Jan Zabinsky (Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh) run the zoo as if the amimals are family members. Especially Antonina. She’s a female Doctor Doolittle, who really does talk to the animals. She goes for daily runs around the park with a dromedary and sleeps with a white lion cub. And at a party, everyone sees her save an elephant calf from choking. Especially impressed is Lutz Heck, a leading German zoologist (Daniel Brühl). But when the Germans invade, their world is turned upside down. The zoo is bombed and wild animals run rampant across the city. Afterwards Lutz offers to help save the zoo animals by sending the best ones – the purest breeds – to Berlin. (Purest breeds? Sounds a bit Nazi…)  Sure enough, the next time she sees him, he’s dressed in full Nazi  regalia. He’s a high-ranked officer. And he has his eye on the beautiful Antonina. But she and Jan have a plan of their own: to help save their Jewish friends and colleagues from certain death in the Warsaw Ghetto, and help move guns to the resistance. The concoct a complex plan to smuggle people out of the ghetto inside a garbage truck holding slop to feed their pigs. (They’ve turned their beloved zoo into a pig farm.) They are hidden in plain sight, inside the Zabinsky villa even while Lutz is operating an army base on the same premises. Will there plan succeed? Or will they and their rescued friends be sent to their deaths?

Based on a true story, the Zookeeper’s Wife is a romantic drama set in war-torn Warsaw, where a zoo serves as a secret sanctuary for Jews escaping the Nazi death machine. It’s also a Holocaust rescue story… with furry animals. As such, it abbreviates familiar images that have been shown in movies so often: broken windows, Nazi banners covering public buildings, ashes falling like snowflakes, children loaded onto cattle cars… At the same time, it avoids most of the blood, death and gore — the camera always turns away. There are some devestatingly sad parts, like a young girl, Urszula (Shira Haas) who is raped by two German soldiers before she is rescued.  Still the movie didn’t show me much I haven’t already seen, aside from the zoo  — which had new, haunting images.

Good as a tearjerker.

The Zookeeper’s Wife and The Void both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Tickling Giants is playing at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival this weekend. Go to tiff.net/human-rights-watch/.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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