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What does it mean to be a kid? That can be a precarious proposition, especially these days. But what happens when you’re a child with special talents, such as phenomenal intelligence or extreme aptitude for a particular skill or ability? That can complicate matters even further, especially when you’re caught up between competing forces that each contend they have “your” best interests at heart. Those are the dynamics at work in the thoughtful new family saga, “Gifted” (web site, trailer).

Seven-year-old Mary Adler (McKenna Grace) is a whiz at math. In fact, she’s a prodigy capable of solving complex calculations far beyond her years. But she’s also a kid, and a somewhat isolated one at that. Having been orphaned at 18 months when her mother – also an arithmetic genius – committed suicide, Mary has been under the loving but unofficial care of her uncle, Frank (Chris Evans), a former professor who left academia behind and now repairs boats for a living. Frank recognizes his niece’s capabilities and doesn’t hesitate to encourage them. But he also wants Mary to be able to experience the joys of childhood, something his brilliant but lonely sister missed out on during her upbringing. And so, after years of home schooling and little contact with peers her own age, Frank decides it’s now time to enroll Mary in the local grade school, a decision she rails against.

Seven-year-old Mary Adler (McKenna Grace) is a math prodigy, but she’s also a kid struggling to be allowed to be one, as seen in the engaging new family saga, “Gifted.” Photo by Wilson Webb, courtesy © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Mary quickly grows bored by the lack of challenge in her studies. She frequently acts out, much to the consternation of her teacher, Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate). But Bonnie soon recognizes Mary’s abilities, and, with the backing of the school’s principal (Elizabeth Marvel), she encourages Frank to place his niece in a special educational facility for gifted children, a decision he rails against. He believes that enrolling Mary in such a school would isolate her even more, keeping her from making “normal” friends and developing necessary social skills, capabilities his sister never mastered when she attended a similar institution. But, before long, Frank’s decision gets challenged legally – and from what might seem an unlikely source.

Upon arrival home from school one day, Frank and Mary are met at their doorstep by Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), Frank’s mother and Mary’s grandmother, someone the youngster has no recollection of ever meeting. Having once been an overbearing stage mother of sorts toward her late daughter, Evelyn aggressively tried to mold the intellectual prowess of Mary’s mother, forever keeping her focused on her studies to the detriment of her social development. And now that she sees the same talents emerging in her granddaughter, she wants a second bite at the apple at creating a mathematical wunderkind.

Mary Adler (McKenna Grace, center) relishes the support and comfort she receives to be herself provided by her uncle, Frank (Chris Evans, right), and best friend, Roberta (Octavia Spencer, left), in director Marc Webb’s latest offering, “Gifted.” Photo by Wilson Webb, courtesy © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Frank, who has himself been estranged from Evelyn for years, is angered by her plan and vows to raise Mary the way he believes his sister would have wanted her to be brought up. But Evelyn sees her son’s decision as one that would hold back Mary’s potential, and she decides to challenge Frank in court. Since Frank has no official standing as Mary’s legally designated guardian, Evelyn believes she has a strong case to sue her son for custody, a claim made possible by her considerable wealth and fought by her high-priced lawyer (John Finn). However, Frank refuses to back down, and so, with the assistance of his impassioned attorney (Glenn Plummer) and the moral support of Bonnie and his feisty neighbor, Roberta (Octavia Spencer), Mary’s best friend, he matches wits with his mother in hopes of giving Mary what she needs to grow up fulfilled and, above all, happy.

Striking the right balance in a child’s intellectual and social development can be tricky, even under the best of circumstances. And, when conditions like those Mary faces get thrown into the mix, the situation can become incredibly complicated and exceedingly trying. The possibility of long-term damage in such scenarios is very real, with potentially devastating consequences lurking in the shadows. With opponents each claiming that they know what’s in the child’s best interests, the allegedly well-intentioned combatants could easily end up doing more harm than good. Is that what it means to be a dutiful guardian? That’s something all parties concerned need to step back and consider before proceeding with their plans to “fix” things, as Mary’s situation clearly illustrates.

Seven-year-old math whiz Mary Adler (McKenna Grace, right) wrestles with the controlling influence of her overbearing grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan, left), in “Gifted.” Photo by Wilson Webb, courtesy © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Despite some moments of predictability and a handful of underdeveloped elements, director Marc Webb’s delightful, crowd-pleasing family saga otherwise delivers the goods, especially when it comes to hearty laughs and deservedly earned heartfelt reactions. The generally crisp, insightful script, coupled with terrific performances across the board by a great cast, make for a winning combination that readily satisfies, one that draws its inspiration from such offerings as “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979) and “Little Man Tate” (1991). “Gifted” is easily one of the best releases to come out in an otherwise-disappointing 2017 movie season thus far.

When considering a youngster’s welfare, those seeking to achieve that end truly need to look at the child first and their own aspirations second. Undue harm can be inflicted – unwittingly or otherwise – if the child’s well-bring gets short shrift at the expense of adult egos and contentious claims. The gifted truly need to be allowed to let their talents flourish, but they also need to be allowed to be kids, and, if we want them to grow up right, we’d better not lose sight of that.

A complete review will appear in the near future by clicking here.

Grade school teacher Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate) seeks the best for a child prodigy in her class in director Marc Webb’s “Gifted.” Photo by Wilson Webb, courtesy © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Offering Shelter From the Storm

If you had the means to protect the persecuted from a horrific fate, would you be willing to provide it? If so, how far would you go with it? Would you proceed even if your own safety were at stake? Those are difficult questions and even more difficult choices. But, for a courageous husband and wife team, there was no question about what to do, as seen in the new, fact-based historical drama, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (web site, trailer).

In Warsaw, Poland in 1939, Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), run the city’s zoological garden, a beautiful and popular attraction among the locals. The Zabinskis warmly welcome visitors and lovingly care for their animals, especially Antonina, who dotes on the creatures as if they were her own children. They also readily share their experiences with visiting dignitaries, such as Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), chief zoologist at the Berlin zoo.

But then comes September 1, 1939, the start of German Chancellor Adolph Hitler’s blitzkrieg, the Nazis’ brutal, lightning-fast assault on Poland that quickly leads to the country being overrun, the event that marks the start of World War II. In the midst of the melee, the zoo is virtually bombed out of existence, with many of its facilities destroyed and many of its animals let loose into the streets of Warsaw. Somehow, Antonina, Jan and their son, Ryszard (Timothy Radford), manage to survive relatively unscathed. But the facility the Zabinskis have spent their lives developing is left in a shambles. And, to add insult to injury, German forces take over what’s left of the zoo to use it for a staging area under the direction of their commanding officer, Lutz Heck, now a high-ranking Nazi official.

Given the relationship Antonina and Jan have cultivated with Heck, as a fellow zookeeper, the German commander is surprisingly accommodating to their circumstances. For example, he agrees to spare the zoo’s best specimens by moving them to his facility in Berlin. But, at heart, Heck is still part of the invading German force and places his country’s interests first.

Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain), co-owner of the Warsaw zoo, loves animals almost as much as she loves people, a trait amply illustrated in the new, fact-based historical drama, “The Zookeeper’s Wife.” Photo by Ann Marie Fox, courtesy of Focus Features.

As the occupation of Warsaw proceeds, the Nazis’ plan to round up the city’s Jewish population begins. They are confined in the Warsaw ghetto and largely refused access to other parts of the city. Antonina and Jan, who have a number of Jewish friends, are quietly appalled by the development and wonder if there is anything they can do to help. It soon dawns on them that they have an extensive basement complex underneath their home, one that connects to the zoo’s facilities via a series of tunnels – an ideal place to hide the persecuted.

Antonina and Jan concoct a plan to convert the zoo into a pig farm, a source of readily available foodstuffs for hungry German soldiers. They propose that the swine be fed with food scraps collected from trash heaps in the ghetto, material that can be loaded into the large storage compartment of their truck, one that’s easily big enough to transport concealed refugees out of their confinement and into the safety of the zookeepers’ basement. Believing that Heck sees them as friends, they pitch the proposal to him, and he readily agrees. It’s a decision that unwittingly green-lights the Zabinskis’ plan, one that would inevitably save the lives of hundreds of Jews who would have otherwise met an unspeakable end in Nazi concentration camps.

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” clearly demonstrates what it means to be selfless and heroic. Through their efforts, the Zabinskis managed to spare the lives of many of Warsaw’s persecuted. And they did so under considerable duress, with their own safety – and even the sanctity of their marriage – often at risk. But, when it came to doing the right thing, they never hesitated to stick to their convictions and follow through on their plans.

Director Niki Caro’s inspiring tale of a courage is reminiscent of “Schindler’s List” (1993) but in a uniquely different setting. The film features an excellent lead performance by Chastain, gorgeous cinematography and a moving, heroic narrative. It’s the kind of movie that truly compels us to take a stand when one needs to be taken.

Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain, right) and her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh, left), co-owners of the Warsaw zoo, devise an inspired plan to help protect members of the city’s Jewish population at the start of World War II in director Niki Caro’s latest offering, “The Zookeeper’s Wife.” Photo by Ann Marie Fox, courtesy of Focus Features.

However, given the film’s subject matter, it unfortunately also feels a bit “sanitized” at times, with some of the action looking as though it’s taking place on a movie set and not in the kind of real-world conditions that existed at the time. In all likelihood this was done to appeal to a wider, more commercial audience, but this approach sometimes rings a little hollow in light of the story. While a gratuitous take undoubtedly would have been inappropriate, the film nevertheless probably would have benefitted from a somewhat grittier edge to make it feel a little more authentic.

Hard choices are difficult to face and even more challenging to address. But, when we consider what’s at stake, sometimes we may feel as though we have no choice but to act. That’s what it means to be a hero, and the Zabinskis truly epitomize that ideal. May we all draw from their inspiration when we come up against challenges of our own.

A complete review will appear in the near future by clicking here.

The Best of Movies with Meaning – “Anesthesia”

The struggles of everyday life can be overwhelming. They may even be more to cope with than we can handle. And, because of that, many of us may seek avenues of escape from the pain and hardship through various means. But, in doing so, we may also cut ourselves off from sources of support, comfort and guidance. Such are the themes explored in the engaging multifaceted drama, “Anesthesia” (web site, trailer), now available on DVD, Blu-ray disk and video on demand.

In the tradition of films like “Grand Canyon” (1991), “Crash” (2005) and “Disconnect” (2013), “Anesthesia” features a series of seemingly disparate story lines that all eventually become interwoven. In this case, the individual narratives revolve around Walter Zarrow (Sam Waterston), a popular New York philosophy professor on the verge of retirement. He looks forward to spending his golden years with Marcia (Glenn Close), his wife of many years whom he positively adores.

Longtime spouses Walter and Marcia Zarrow (Sam Waterston, left, Glenn Close, right) look forward to spending their golden years together in “Anesthesia,” available on DVD, Blu-ray disk and video on demand. Photo by Anna Kooris, courtesy of IFC Films.

Walter’s upbeat outlook, despite the challenges of urban living and years of intensive personal soul-searching, has endeared him to many. Even those who don’t know him personally somehow end up in his world, perhaps because he’s willing to face life head on and appreciate its virtues rather than looking for ways to anesthetize himself to deaden the pain of daily living. The inspiration he exudes provides others with new hope for living, including those caught up in the following scenarios:

  • Walter’s son, Adam (Tim Blake Nelson), struggles to deal with a largely dysfunctional family. His teenage children, Hal (Ben Konigsberg) and Ella (Hannah Marks), routinely smoke pot to drown out the seemingly perpetual bitching of their mother, Jill (Jessica Hecht). Adam attempts to play mediator, but even his patience gets tried when things become overly strained. And, if that weren’t enough, Adam is forced into facing a new challenge when he learns that his wife may have cancer.
  • Sophie (Kristen Stewart) is a troubled college student who has considerable difficulty dealing with others. She’s especially bothered by the mindless, self-serving, materialistic attitudes of her peers and the world at large. She feels so overwhelmingly numbed by it all that she desperately looks for ways to feel anything to remind herself that she’s still alive, a course of action fraught with potentially serious pitfalls.
  • Having traded a successful career in New York for the alleged storybook tranquility of suburban New Jersey, Sarah (Gretchen Mol), a housewife and mother of two (Jacqueline Baum, Ekaterina Samsonov), is bored by her life. Having sacrificed the things she loved for the well-being of her family, she now regrets her decision but avoids dealing with it by drowning herself in drinking binges. She may not yet be a bona fide alcoholic, but the handwriting is clearly on the wall. And Sarah runs the risk of things getting worse now that she suspects her husband, Sam (Corey Stoll), is having an affair.
  • Joe (K. Todd Freeman) had much promise in his life at one time. Unfortunately, the pressures of daily living and subsequent drug addiction derailed his plans, leaving him struggling just to get by. Joe’s childhood friend, Jeffrey (Michael K. Williams), seeks to help him by arranging an intervention aimed at getting him into rehab. But will Jeffrey be able to help Joe in time? And what will happen if his plan fails?

Troubled college student Sophie (Kristen Stewart) desperately looks for ways to remind herself that she’s still alive in an oppressively indifferent world in the engaging drama, “Anesthesia,” available on DVD, Blu-ray disk and video on demand. Photo by Anna Kooris, courtesy of IFC Films.

As these situations illustrate, there are plenty of ways to deaden the pain associated with life’s tribulations. But are these really the best courses to follow? When inundated by such challenges, it’s easy to believe that there’s nothing else we can do, that there’s no one in our corner. However, that’s seldom the case, and assistance is available as long as we’re willing to make an effort to overcome our adversities. Indeed, in the long run, wouldn’t it be more beneficial to attempt to address our issues rather than sweep them under the rug in futile hopes that they’ll go away on their own? That can be a very empowering experience, one that can bring new meaning to our lives at a time when it seems entirely devoid of it.

“Anesthesia” is a little-known gem that deserves far more recognition than it originally received. The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2015 and had a limited theatrical run before being made available for home viewing. Thankfully, though, it’s available in a variety of readily accessible formats and is well worth a look. Its performances are superb (especially Waterston, Stewart and Mol), and its insightful writing is punctuated by a great deal of thoughtfulness and eloquent literary references. Those looking for contemplative viewing options should give this film serious consideration.

A full review is available by clicking here.

Copyright © 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.