Tag Archives: World War II

THE EXCEPTION

THE EXCEPTION
UK
Director: David Leveaux
Runtime: 108 minutes
Language: English

Mostlyindies Grading:

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Dear God, is Jai Courtney gorgeous. The Exception opens with a scene that wouldn’t be amiss in soft-core gay porn, in which Courtney is shown shirtless, pecs to the wind, lying in the dark as if in wait. And my, does the camera love him! In these days in which men can now flaunt everything while doing a full frontal, Courtney reveals so much jaw-dropping masculine beauty I had to stop the movie for a moment and take a breath to recover. Yes, he’s that distracting. No, don’t look at me like that and then roll your eyes; the man is a gentler version of Tom Hardy. And wouldn’t I want to see the both of them–

Okay, getting ahead of myself, and this is a simple review of The Exception, a movie by a director unknown to me, David Leveaux, who adapted the story from an Adam Ladd novel The Kaiser’s Last Kiss –itself a title that screams ‘historical romance!’. So, we have Courtney, all clothed in military garb being whisked off to protect the Kaiser of Germany (Christopher Plummer, having the time of his life, and has an actor been associated more with films on or around Nazi Germany than he? It’s as if though producers, while throwing out potential actors for their movies, saw this one, a war movie set in Nazi Germany and immediately thought, “Ha! Well, well. there’s that actor, Plummer. He’s been doing this since Sound of Music. He can basically phone it in by now. Send him in. No need for an audition. But give him the good one, and leave the asshole role to Eddie Marsan. He already looks like he could kill your children without as much as batting an eye.”).

It seems the Kaiser might be surrounded by spies, and why wouldn’t he? This was war in Europe, and Europe was crawling with spies trolling for intel. But wouldn’t you know, as it happens in a historical romance, Courtney’s SS Captain Brandt crosses paths with an exotic little beauty Mieke (Lily James, fresh off of Downton Abbey) who’s a maid in service of the Kaiser’s household. The flirtation between these two is not something we can call subtle — you’d have to be dead or delusional to not see it happening between your own eyes — but yes, it happens, and why does the plot give so much time to a simple chambermaid if it doesn’t have something up its sleeve? Because it does, and if you see the picture you’ll catch it as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face, but it works perfectly well because, historical romance = potboiler. Meaning, don’t be looking for any historical accuracy here even when there actually was a Kaiser, and his wife (Janet McTeer, who’s good but doesn’t have much to do but act perpetually worried/harried), and Marsan’s Himmler. [However, look closely at Marsan’s chilling portrayal of Himmler during a dinner scene when he talks about experiments made to children. Even in fluff like this, it’s still completely nerve-wracking, that such things were actually done to innocents.]

So with that in mind, I will say that The Exception is a very, very old fashioned war movie. I could easily see actors from the actual time period who could have performed this piece of nonsense without batting an eye. Crawford did it a couple of times at the end of her MGM tenure, Bergman did it as well. Now, Courtney is no Bogart or MacMurray — there is a scene in which he looks so completely vulnerable and naked — did I mention he shows a lot of skin here? — in a way I haven’t seen movies treat their male leads, usually all self-composure and alpha-male tendencies. Courtney’s role is much different: he’s stoic when he needs to, but is incredible sensitive and disarming. No wonder Lily James takes control of what becomes their relationship and basically becomes its pilot, leaving him with the role of protector. So, there you have it, a total crowd-pleaser, the type of movie the characters of Their Finest would have created, and it all ends well. Because in romance, you can’t ever deliver a good story and not have the two romantic leads not end in each other’s arms, can you?

THEIR FINEST

THEIR FINEST
UK
Director: Lone Scherfig
Runtime: 117 minutes
Language: English

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

 

It’s no secret that women figured prominently in the early days of film making, but as the Twenties gave way into the Thirties, their presence became much less prominent to the point that by the time the Forties came around the only thing they were allowed to do was to construct the ‘slop’ that made up the expository dialogue, the wardrobe, and cosmetics (hair and make up) department. Their Finest touches on the fictional character of Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), a woman who in the Second World War became instrumental in creating propaganda films to boost the British morale (and thus securing herself a position as a feminist at a time when feminism as such was barely an embryo.

When Catrin comes to the Ministry of Information looking for a secretarial job to make amends while her husband (Jack Houston) tries to score as an artist, she gets whisked into a world she couldn’t dream of: the motion picture industry. While working on short propaganda films that sought to make the women of England to join the workforce, she somehow, by a series of machinations, finds herself working in a major project. The project touches on the story of two sisters who stoke a boat to Dunkirk to save their father and in the evacuation, and the Ministry hopes to make it into a wartime movie. There she meets Tom Buckley (a dashing, bespectacled Sam Claflin who bares a strong resemblance to Nicholas Hoult), a screenwriter with whom she does not initially get along but with whom she must work with. Somehow the two of them manage to create a rousing variation of what was initially a bland picture to begin with and in the interim, a camaraderie develops among the cast members (among them Rachel Stirling, Richard E. Grant, Jeremy Irons — making his requisite cameo these days as upper management, which he plays with eyes closed as if the title were his — and best of all, Bill Nighy as a ham of an actor more concerned in his looks than the picture proper.

Their Finest will bring on some twists and turns with Catrin’s character as she slowly rises among the crowd to assert herself as a key player in the making of this film, and it’s often slightly predictable — a romance is almost certainly assured between her and Tom — but never dull or cardboard. The best part of Their Finest is how we as an audience get into the creative mind of a female who shapes a movie while living out her own drama as World War II rages on around them, and it balances comedy with drama rather deftly — often in the same sequence. This is a total crowd pleaser and a quintessential woman’s picture that would not have been out of place during its time, and it’s also a picture that speaks of the resilience of a people unwilling to surrender to chaos and death, but continue to soldier on while using escapism as a jumping off point.

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE

 

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE
Czech Republic / UK / USA
Director: Niki Caro
Runtime: 122 minutes
Language: English

3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

 

The Holocaust is the reluctant gift that keeps on giving, and I mean that with no disrespect. Seventy years after stories of bravery under extreme duress continue to make appearances in unique narratives that only fortify the notion that despite the atrocities committed against a targeted group of people solely for the reason of being Jewish, there were people who stood up and deftly managed to turn the tables against xenophobia. In the Trump age, where the threat of our nation reverting to barbaric methods of separation and discrimination, these serve as a reminder of what could happen if we become sheep and follow a mad leader blindly into oblivion . . . but that’s for another piece.

 

Niki Caro’s new movie focuses on a part of Poland we may not have been previously aware of: its zoo, and how it became a rather unique player in the fight against the Nazis. Antonina and Jan Zaminski (Jessica Chastain and Johan Heidelbergh) run the Warsaw Zoo rather successfully — life couldn’t be better. The film’s opening sequence have the look and feel of something straight out of Disney: we see Antonina riding her bicycle as a baby camel follows her around the grounds while Jan works away quietly but clearly content. It’s an establishing scene — cemented by another in which Antonina interrupts her own dinner party attended by the rich and powerful — among them Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl, repeating his Nazi role from Alone in Berlin) — to deliver a sick elephant baby back to life that tells us the kind of person she is: kind, caring, selfless.

 

However, war breaks out, the Nazi’s invade Poland, the zoo becomes a base of sorts for Nazi soldiers headed by Heck, and most of the animals perish — some rather cruelly at the hands of the Germans. Having little choice, the Zaminskis now have to walk an incredibly fine line in order not just to keep their place (and relative security) but to use the zoo to help Jews to escape certain death. It’s a bold move, and the movie never lets you get too comfortable. This is a risky gamble that could implode at any given second, especially since Heck, who has developed an attraction to Antonina (who has to play along if she is to carry out her part of the plan), drops in unannounced for visits.

 

The Zookeeper’s Wife suffers from its own isolation in that it never gives you the full scope of the horrors of war — we do hear bombings, yes. However, some of the more impacting images feature the innocent and vulnerable: a rape victim (Shira Haas) whom Antonina nurses back to life, and the unforgettable image of little children’s hands reaching up to Jan who has to help them board a train that we know is headed to a concentration camp. Chastain, dolled up in a perpetual Norma Shearer wig and a thick Polish accent, doesn’t achieve the emotional greatness that Meryl Streep did when she tackled her own horror story in Sophie’s Choice, and her character is probably a bit too perfect to be credible, but perhaps I’m being somewhat cynical. Even so, this is a crowd pleaser, solid, and entertaining.

FRANCOFONIA

Francofonia:

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

 

Marianne, and Napoleon Bonaparte as ghosts wandering the Louvre in Sokurov's new film Francofonia.
Marianne, and Napoleon Bonaparte as ghosts wandering the Louvre in Sokurov’s new film Francofonia.

Walking into the Film Forum to see Aleksandr Sokurov’s newest docudrama, Francofonia, I was hoping to see something in the style or at least similar to his 2002 classic Russian Ark, a movie that in one incredible shot narrated the evolution of Russian culture through the ages while inside the Hermitage, itself a spaceship trapped in its own time out of time. Perhaps I needed to be aware that art directors tend to produce oeuvres of wildly different nature. Had that been the case I perhaps would have been more persuaded to enjoy Francofonia more.

With its introduction of Tolstoy and Chekov, Sokurov narrates Francofonia as a guide and an omniscient character. He is the cameraman slowly zooming in and out of Parisian streets, over the Louvre, inside the Louvre, showing us the Great Masterpieces of art, describing some of their history and how they and the Louvre are inexorably tied together into a massive artistic heritage. Flittering in and out of the frames are two figures, the symbolic Marianne from the liberation of France, her only line being “Liberte! Egalite! Fraternite!” while on the other hand, someone a little less selfless wanders the museum and points out only the works that feature him. That figure is none other than Napoleon, a ghost of his former self, still believing his greatness as something present, proclaiming, “C’est moi!” as a mantra.

Francofonia_5_-_Louis_Do_De_Lencquesaing__Benjamin_Utzerath-620x371

Two other narratives also come into play and tie into the greater picture that Francofonia attempts to present here — that of the preservation of art as a document of a culture (and there will be a subtle tie to the recent events in Syria, where its own works of art were destroyed by ISIS militants. The first narrative presents two men from two sides of World War II — Jean Jaujard and Fritz Mettenreich — who attempted to secure France’s artistic heritage before they could be forever pilfered by the Nazi’s as they threatened to advance into France. Lastly, there is Sokurov again, chatting with someone on Skype who seems to be with some cargo at sea in the middle of a storm. I’m going to make an educated guess that this is Sokurov’s symbolic way of narrating what would be the act of artistic theft and its consequences, but the sequence somehow feels as though it belongs in another picture and not this one. And of course, I would kill to see one made of both Jaujard and Mettenreich as they went through hoops to protect these timeless works of art.

In short, Francofonia is a strange documentary of sorts — not quite drama, not quite a recreation, not quite a history lesson, but rich with imagery if it still tends to feel somewhat flat around the edges. As a lesson on preserving culture from forces that would very much destroy it to finance their means, this is an important film to watch.