Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Laina At the Movies

By Laina Farhat-Holzman
April 2017

Ghost in the Box

When I saw this title, I thought of the Roman Deus ex Machina (god out of the box), which meant a hard to believe rescue in a play, a superhuman intervention.
Perhaps this is what this film had in mind.

The story is based on a popular Japanese manga (a comic book) which tells the story of a young woman who is the first of her kind, her brain housed in a completely artificially manufactured body (think about the computers now that can produce body parts). She has been designed to be a superhero who fights terrorism. She comes to life on her creator's table, taking her first breath. Everything works in her brain except for her memory of her past life as a human being, which is very vague.

I really like science fiction films, especially when they explore issues that are beyond our current capabilities. These films also give me a window on the current public psyche. Every summer, sci-fi films come out with the same paranoid visions: there is always a mad scientist (science going amok), danger to the world posed by human arrogance, and intervention by heroic opponents. For me, this is a reading of some subliminal public fears.

This film, unfortunately, ran into trouble because its star, Scarlett Johansson, who plays the human-robotic heroine, Major, is not Japanese, or not Japanese enough. She did look, perhaps, exotic if not Asian, but considering the story, her face and body were artificially created and were neutral. Her brain might be Japanese, but her human robotic form might not be.  I had no trouble with this, but the “identity politics” folks complained bitterly about a White woman playing a Japanese. Considering that this is a science fiction film, I find that silly.

Of course the very idea that a human brain could exist in an artificial body gives in to a very bad western notion: that mind and body are separate. They are not. The brain is affected by hormones, health, blood flow, and many other elements of our physical makeup. But setting that scientific reality aside, if such a thing were possible, this is a very interesting heroine. These very ideas are based on the increasing use of computer-generated aids to the body, with the concern that in the future we will all be both human and robot.
Despite its box office failure, if you can find this film somewhere, I really recommend it. Ghost, in Japanese terms, means Soul in ours. She is a soul in a shell.

Although better than many sci-fi films that come in the summer, this one still shares the fear of the future, a Tokyo that is so robotized that it is freaky, yet the beautiful Tokyo Bay reminding us of our earthly home. There is the heartless mad scientist, of course, the motherly scientist who creates the beautiful “Major,” Juliette Binache (Dr. Ouelet), and the fascinating CEO of the robotics factory, Takeshi Kitano, who speaks Japanese throughout the film while everyone else speaks English. The film is very cosmopolitan (world of the future), but recognizably Japanese. I think it was fun and I don't care that Scarlett Johansson is not Japanese. She was Japanese-ish, and that is fine with me.

The Zookeeper's Wife

This is the true story of a couple in World War II Warsaw who owned a private zoo where they hid a number of Jews fleeing Nazi massacre. The film is based on a book that I have not yet read, but knowing the story, I really wanted to like this movie. The filmmaker's intentions were good, but the results were less than credible.

Why the film only mention's the zookeeper's wife and not her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski played by Johan Heldenbergh (who was equally involved in the rescues) is puzzling. Perhaps this was supposed to be a corrective on the idea that only men can endeavor dangerous and brave things, which we already know is not so.

The wife, Dr. Antonina Zabinski, was played by Jessica Chastain. The character was a refugee from the Russian Revolution herself, which explains why she was so particularly sympathetic to the plight of the Warsaw Jews, a sympathy not widely shared among Poles, unfortunately. In hiding Jews, she was indeed risking her life and that of her husband and young son, and could well have been betrayed by anybody working in or around the zoo.

The war began on September 1, 1939, when the Nazis bombed Warsaw and shortly thereafter occupied the country. The animals in the zoo were terrified by the air raids and quite a few were killed. In the film, Antonina is shown hugging, kissing, and nuzzling, calling each by name, every creature in her zoo. I find it difficult to believe that any zoologist would treat wild animals that way and expose them to the public with so little protection, but the filmmaker wanted to make the point that she was very kind-hearted, despite keeping animals imprisoned.

After the German occupation, it was obvious that the family's business would not be able to support them. With the occupying force comes a German zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) who presents himself to the Zablinskis as a “fellow scientist” who offers to rescue the more valuable animals not killed by the air raid. He promises to keep the creatures safe in Berlin during the war which, he says, Germany will quickly win, and then return them to her. (Unknown to her, this zoologist was a devoted Nazi who wanted to conduct experiments to try to bring back the prehistoric auric, a giant buffalo-like beast.) But in return for surrendering the animals, he offers to keep them in business raising pigs in the now empty cages since meat will be much needed by the occupying army.

Meanwhile, Dr. Zabinski witnesses what is happening in Warsaw where a ghetto is set up to imprison all the city's Jews, until they can all be taken to concentration camps to be exterminated. The Ghetto is a nightmare place where during the first winter and thereafter, people froze, starved, and died of diseases, their bodies lying on the streets. The Zabinskis had Jewish friends, whom they initially hid in the caves beneath their home, but then as the numbers rose, used the caves as a way station while forged documents were created for them to use in escaping the country.

I am sure that reading the book would better allow me to believe the details of this story: the horrors of the ghetto, the problems of feeding so many people at a time of war when food was scarce and rationed.  Antonina asks her cook to double the beet soup because she is really hungry (not convincing!).

The German zoologist turns out to be a high-ranking Nazi officer and he takes the opportunity to visit the Zabinskis at will, particularly hoping to get sexual acquiescence from Antonina. She flirts with him, only to keep him at bay and unaware of their illicit activities, but her flirtation upsets her husband (and this moviegoer).

The Jews, people who had been deprived of any property, changes of clothes, opportunities to bathe, little food, looked far too healthy and pristine in this movie. I just did not believe that they were in the straits they were in. This film was not Schindler's List.

The emotional response to this story was damaged by the way it was filmed. It was well intentioned and poorly executed. Read the book.

Going in Style

I had been less than amused by the trailer, but gave this movie a chance because of the actors in it.  Playing lifelong working class buddies were thee elderly men, Willie (Morgan Freeman), Joe (Michael Caine), and Albert (Alan Arkin). At the film's opening, they are shown, each facing a new and devastating problem. Joe has received a notice from his bank that his mortgage payment is in arrears, and he goes to the bank to discuss this problem, including the mysterious absence of his retirement checks. The banker, an obnoxious snob, tells him that he should have read the small print about his mortgage payment doubling and that the missing retirement funds were not his problem.

Willie is having a medical problem that he has not shared with his buddies: that his kidneys are failing and the treatments he has received are no longer working. There is a hint that money for a kidney transplant, even should he find a donor, is not there. He depends on his retirement money to help support his daughter and much loved granddaughter.

Albert, Willie's housemate, has pretty much given up on longevity but is nonetheless pursued by a beautiful shopkeeper (played by Ann-Margaret), who refuses to give up on seducing him.

All three find out together that the company they had worked for for 40 years was now being acquired by an overseas company and that their pensions would be cancelled.

Joe had shortly before been in the bank when bank robbers came in and left with suitcases full of money and they had gotten away with it. He convinces his pals that this would be the only way out of their problems: go where the money is and take it!

So the rather insulting humor directed at the three old fogies by the film turns into a heist movie, much to its improvement. Everything having to do with the working class people, especially the older ones, had been milked for cheap humor until that point.

This movie is worth seeing for how the heist is carried out, what the three do with the money, and how the entire dark underpinnings of the movie change when money is introduced. Being both old and poor is pretty bad; old and rich is much better.

Watching the credits at the end of the movie, I suddenly saw one name that explained why so much of this film was distasteful:  Stephen Mnuchin! Mnuchin, now Donald Trump's Treasury Secretary, was formerly a very rich hedge fund manager and a Hollywood producer! Suddenly I understood some of the elements of this film: they echoed Trump's election campaign which demonized banks, large corporations, and American institutions that oppressed “the working class.” This otherwise light entertainment was in reality a political illustration of what is wrong with America (disdain for the working class) and the way to get even: rob the bank. Under our now president, the banks are doing very nicely, the restraints on their abusing their unwary customers are being removed, and the swamp of New York and DC moneymen is not only not being drained, but is doing very well indeed.  Bah, humbug.


With the centennial of the end of the horrific World War I, there are many books and quite a few films that illuminate that period.  Frantz was one of them.

In this French/German film, Anna (Paula Beer) is a bereft young German woman whose fiancé, Frantz, was killed in the trenches of World War I. Adrian (Pierre Niney), a French veteran of the war, makes a mysterious appearance in her town, placing flowers on Frantz's grave. Adrian's presence is met with resistance by the small community still reeling from Germany's defeat, yet Anna gradually becomes closer to the handsome and melancholy young man, as she learns of his deep friendship with Frantz.

This was the information available about the film, and I was expecting to see a moving romance in which the still bitter enemies find a way to reach out to each other, even to the point of falling in love.

Alas, I found the film very sad indeed; the two young people who might have let their love produce healing, not able to go beyond their own countries' bitterness. The young German woman tried to bring healing by perpetrating a huge lie to the parents of her dead fiancé, a lie that was the initial stance of the young Frenchman as he courted her and her almost in-laws. He finally told Anna the truth, and she, too late, tried to forgive him. Perhaps this was too much reality for me. It was just sad, sad, sad.

What was significant in this movie was the reality that World War I was over, but the poison that caused it was still festering.


One significant mystery among human beings is “genius,” the emergence of some extraordinary gift well beyond the norm and something not acquired by hard work alone. Human intelligence is a spectrum that runs from simple to extraordinary.  Furthermore, genius can be directed to numbers (math), science, music, literature, and art.

Sometimes genius emerges early in childhood, such as Mozart's prodigious musicality that was evident when he was three years old.  Math geniuses appear in young adulthood, but sometimes can be seen in young children.

This film is about a seven year old girl (played with unaffected charm by Mary Adler) who is obviously a math prodigy whose gifted mother committed suicide, leaving the child in the care of her brother (Chris Evans in a beautiful performance too), a philosophy professor. The girl's uncle has been home-schooling her, but at seven, he decided that she needed the normal experience of school with children her age. His aim was to see her grow into a happy, well adjusted child, which he believed was his sister's wish too.

Enter the girl's grandmother (Lindsay Duncan), a British mathematician who is set upon providing every opportunity for the child to further ready her for a brilliant career as a math genius. She and her son take the dispute to court, which exposes both arguments to a judge.

This is a lovely film, beautifully and sensitively acted, and it has (for me) a happy outcome.

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