The Films of Niki Caro
Memory & Desire
Whale Rider (June 13/03)
Whale Rider is the first major film to deal with the Maori culture following Once Were Warriors, and though it's not nearly as powerful as that movie was, it's still an intriguing look at a world that's vastly different from anything most of us know. Whale Rider revolves around Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a young girl struggling to find her identity in a society that places more importance on males than females - with the narrative detailing the character's efforts at winning the respect of her traditional grandfather (Rawiri Paratene's Koro). Though Whale Rider moves at a snail's pace, it generally remains interesting mostly because we're seeing a culture that's so different from our own. The film does a nice job in establishing a clear sense of what life is like in this small New Zealand village, seen from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl. It's Pai's story that propels the movie forward, and her longing to be accepted by Koro is something that's universal. It's only when the film delves a little too deeply into the myths of the Maori culture that credibility is stretched a lot further than it can go. The Maoris believe that whales hold supernatural abilities, and a sequence that comes late in the picture just doesn't gel with everything that came before it (the film eventually eschews believability in favor of staying true to the Maori legend involving the titular whale rider). But that's a small complaint regarding a film that's otherwise quite engaging, due in no small part to some spectacular acting. Castle-Hughes, who was just 11 when the film was shot and has no prior experience in front of the camera, does a superb job of embodying Pai's inner conflict and need to please her grandfather. Likewise, the various adults in the movie are absolutely convincing, with Paratene leading the charge as the grumpy old patriarch. It's that feeling of authenticity that makes it easy enough to overlook Whale Rider's flaws.
Based on a true story, North Country casts Charlize Theron as Josey Aimes - a working class woman who is faced with sexual harassment (and worse) after starting a job at a mine that's largely dominated by men. She consequently decides to sue the company, much to the chagrin of virtually everyone around her - including her son and father. While it's certainly possible that every single thing that transpires within North Country actually happened, there's simply no getting around the fact that Michael Seitzman's screenplay possesses all the complexity of a Lifetime movie-of-the-week. As such, the film is teeming with broad characterizations and sequences of a distinctly less-than-subtle nature - with the most egregious example of the latter no less than a variation on the infamous slow clap. As far as the characters go, the majority of the men in the picture are portrayed as such incredible scumbags - including her own father (!) - that one can't help but periodically roll their eyes at the man-hating bent of Seitzman's script (although, admittedly, it's entirely possible that everything happened exactly like this). Nevertheless, North Country generally remains surprisingly compelling - something that's due almost entirely to the uniformly superb performances. Theron's subtle yet powerful work is mirrored by her many costars, including Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, and Woody Harrelson, and there's little doubt that the movie would not come off even remotely as well as it ultimately does were it not for the effectiveness of the cast.
The Vintner's Luck
The Zookeeper's Wife (June 15/17)
Based on a novel by Diane Ackerman, The Zookeeper’s Wife follows Jessica Chastain’s Antonina Zabinski as she and her husband (Johan Heldenbergh’s Jan) attempt to save the lives of hundreds of people during the Second World War. It’s immediately clear that filmmaker Niki Caro isn’t looking to take a subtle or innovative approach to the well-worn premise, as The Zookeeper’s Wife’s been hard-wired with a slick, Oscar-friendly sheen that essentially (and effectively) prevents the viewer from wholeheartedly (or even partially) embracing the material. (The hands-off vibe is especially pronounced during the almost astonishingly unpleasant opening stretch, in which a series of zoo animals are brutally murdered by callous soldiers.) The disastrous first act segues into an aggressively middling and meandering midsection that is, basically, a bland amalgam of other, better World War II stories, and it’s ultimately clear that the competency of the film’s various attributes is rendered moot by the ongoing familiarity of virtually every plot development and twist. (And this is to say nothing of Chastain’s ill-considered and fairly catastrophic decision to deliver all her dialogue through a heavy Polish accent, which ensures that much of the character’s dialogue is hopelessly unintelligible.) It’s hardly a surprise to discover that Caro’s late-in-the-game efforts at provoking an emotional response fall hopelessly and completely flat, which, in the end, cements The Zookeeper’s Wife’s place as a well-intentioned yet entirely misbegotten endeavor that squanders a good cast and searing true-life setup.