Their Finest (2017)

WWII movies have been done to death, but Lone Scherfig (An Education) brings a new angle on the conflict. Mrs. Cole (Gemma Arterton; Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) joins the British Ministry of Information’s film team working on propaganda films. Her job is to write the “slop”, meaning the women’s dialogue, and inspire them to send their sons and husbands to war. In her way are production conflicts, entitled actors, and a clearly sexist mentality in her predominantly male organization.

The film’s visuals are what we’ve come to expect for period pieces. Colors are muted with only subtle blues and reds to stand out from the dominant grays. The sets incorporate a lot of green screen in order provide era-appropriate backdrops, but these skylines are glaringly synthetic. The contrast in the gray is more reminiscent of Sin City’s hyper-stylized visuals than sepia-toned photographs the filmmakers were likely targeting. While not unpleasant by any means, the heavy digital coloring and choice of sets instead of physical locations make the film more like an artificial, computer-generated landscape than an authentic 1940s London.

The elaborate sets never feel like a real location.

Feminist themes provide the backbone of the film. Mrs. Cole has to deal with constant derision and her intelligent opinions are often overruled or simply disregarded because of her gender. The film makes it obvious how little her contribution is initially valued as she accepts no writing credit and a lower pay than her male peers. As cliché and predictable as it might be, her growing confidence and reputation with the cast and crew are incredibly rewarding. She pitches movies, rewrites endings, and becomes the go-to writer as she consistently proves her ability to create emotions in her screenplay. Her progression from meekly consenting to others to firmly standing by her opinions is a simple, but enjoyable change.

Along with its message, the film brings plenty of humor. Bill Nighy (Love Actually) plays an aging self-absorbed actor whose fame may have subsided in reality but is still very much alive in his own mind. His melodramatic flourishes during his acting scenes or exaggerated advice to a new actor are hilarious. He is the veteran with too much pride and too little patience to bother with pleasantries as he calls out others and demands rewrites so he can have more screen time. His sassy attitude prevents the film from becoming too rigid.

The producers from the Ministry say they are looking to make films that have “Authenticity informed by optimism” to motivate their people for the war efforts.  The makers of this film have plenty of the latter but lack the former. There are major, unneeded plot turns that add forced drama. They feel cheap and go against the grain of the otherwise natural character arcs. These may be holdovers from the novel the film is based on, but they feel constructed for the sole purpose of making the audience cry by any means necessary and are so blatant that they are almost insulting. Arterton’s performance as the ever-committed Mrs. Cole and the unexpected humor are enjoyable, but they can’t overcome a contrived third act.

3/5 stars.

Colossal (2017)

Nacho Vigalondo, the Spanish director who debuted with the similarly strange Timecrimes, is back with his highest profile release yet. Colossal stars Anne Hathaway (The Devil Wears Prada) as she plays against type as Gloria, an out-of-control alcoholic writer who returns to her small-town family home after being kicked out by her fed-up boyfriend. When back home she reunites with a childhood friend (Jason Sudeikis; We’re the Millers) and discovers that she is somehow controlling a giant Godzilla-like monster rampaging through South Korea.

The ridiculous setup brings lots of laughs. As Gloria discovers the rules of her powers, her drunken attempts to make sense of things are hilarious and Hathaway is clearly enjoying herself in the role. In her few moments of sobriety she fails miserably at explaining her situation to her friends. It isn’t until she starts making the monster dance or do other unusual movements that she is able to convince them. These scenes become comedic as the director crosscuts between her steps in a suburban playground and the masses of hysterical people fleeing city-wide destruction in Seoul. Then, when she is afraid of what might happen if others knew about her ability, she clumsily tries to hide the truth, as if anyone would believe her. When Gloria is still discovering the rules of her situation, the film is as funny as it is intriguing.

The discovery of Gloria’s powers is the best part of the film.

What’s surprising is how being the monster changes her. In her previous life, Gloria’s lack of responsibility allowed her to spiral out of control. She didn’t have any impact on others so she was left without a purpose until now. The ability to control a gigantic beast in another country becomes empowering. She can suddenly communicate with and affect the lives of millions and it changes the way she approaches her life. She starts to make better decisions (i.e. drinking less) and taking more responsibility. The use of the supernatural setup to grow her character is an unexpectedly compelling character arc.

It’s the film’s latter half that drags it down. Unsatisfied with the lighter tone, Vigalondo moves the film into much darker territory. Certain characters make abrupt turns into villainous roles and the sudden change is unearned. It ruins the fun of the wacky premise and doesn’t match the precedent set by the early parts of the movie. The director also adds unnecessary exposition. There are brief flashbacks throughout the film that hint at the cause of Gloria’s powers, but when their true nature is fully revealed it creates plot holes rather than filling them. The explanation doesn’t add gravity to the film and only distracts from the core: Gloria’s self-improvement. As strange as it seems, these changes stretch belief more than Anne Hathaway controlling a kaiju.

The most important factors in a film like this are consistency and commitment. Consistency in tone and commitment to the story. Far-fetched premises like Being John Malkovich, or any of Charlie Kaufman’s works for that matter, succeed because they have a clear emotional direction and stick to that angle. Other unusual takes on the kaiju genre like Bong Joon-ho’s The Host managed their lighter approach because they never deviated from their initial intent. Instead of continuing in the tone of Colossal’s successful early sections, Vigalondo loses focus and falls prey to damaging forced conflict and exposition.

3/5 stars.

The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

The WWII/Holocaust movie has been explored ad nauseam but New Zealand director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) has brought her attempt to standout within the crowded genre. The film covers the true story of Antonina (Jessica Chastain; Zero Dark Thirty) and her husband. They are the owners of the Warsaw Zoo and when Germany invades and their animals are taken away, they use the extra space to smuggle Jews from the ghetto. Daniel Brühl (Rush) plays the German head of zoology that takes command of their zoo and has his eyes on Antonina as well.

With so much centered on the lead, Caro couldn’t have cast a better actress. Chastain’s Polish accent is jarring at first, but it never falters and becomes more natural as the film continues. She is completely at ease with the animals, large and small, and her gentle nature make the role believable beyond the problematic script. This is helped by the decision to only use live animals. It allows a natural chemistry that wouldn’t have been possible with computer generated effects and makes the setting feel like a real zoo.

The film’s major failing is that Antonina is too one dimensional. Despite Chastain’s committed performance, the character is unintentionally simplistic. Instead of being a pure, innocent person in a world where humanity is lacking, much like Chastain’s character in The Tree of Life, she can come off as weak, short-sided, and childish, particularly early on. There are a few moments of strength but she spends most of the time at the mercy of others and when the situation worsens, her actions are unrealistic for any adult in the same circumstances.

Antonina is not the brave or nuanced character the story requires her to be.

Antonina is supposed to be a hero, and her real-life efforts were truly deserving of that descriptor, but the film underplays her involvement. When her husband first suggests bringing Jews from the ghetto to hide in their zoo, she protests on grounds that it would put them at risk. While this is a very reasonable fear given the consequences of the period, it does nothing to cast Antonina in a heroic light. When the German troops first invade Poland, she seems more concerned with keeping her animals than the people that are suffering. Her focus on animals before humans makes her a myopic character and her initial dissent against the rescue efforts portray her as more of a bystander than an active participant in the noble acts.

The director has claimed that this is a different type of Holocaust story. It’s true that few movies set in this period or about war examine female-led stories, and even fewer still show them as brave. The trouble is that the script has held too closely to established tropes of the genre. There is very little that separates this film from the glut of similar stories. The biggest surprise is that it is opening in March instead of the end of year release expected for biopics. Furthermore, the script doesn’t give Antonina the strength she needs. She is often shown as more submissive than courageous and that prevents her from becoming the icon she so clearly deserves to be. Caro’s intent is admirable and Chastain’s performance is excellent, but they are held back by the underwritten lead role and familiar biopic dressings.

3/5 stars.