OPERATION FINALE (2018)

August 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Historical dramas, by definition, carry added depth and weight to stories that sometimes seem almost beyond belief. Such is the true story of the 1960 Mossad mission to capture Adolph Eichmann, the noted architect of the Final Solution, who was hiding in plain sight in Argentina. You might think there have already been enough Holocaust movies, but director Chris Weitz (ABOUT A BOY) hones in on the personal aspects of loss and anger, and the need for justice.

Matthew Orton’s first screenplay benefits greatly from a terrific cast, especially the two main characters played by Ben Kingsley (Adolph Eichmann) and Oscar Isaac (Mossad agent Peter Malkin). Sir Ben is notably restrained in his performance of the last surviving mastermind of the Holocaust, and one of the most despised men on the planet. His subdued performance aligns perfectly with the “ordinary” man of which we’ve since read. Mr. Isaac adds the element of psychology in his “good cop” approach to getting Eichmann to crack.

Playing much like a heist movie, we see the team assembled and the quite convoluted plan devised. The high risk strategy underscores the desperation so many felt in their need to see Eichmann pay for his atrocities. The manhunt required some political tip-toeing, and we even gain a history lesson on the role of the Catholic Church. A tip from a “secret” Jewish daughter (Haley Lu Richardson) and her father (Peter Strauss) set things in motion. Sylvia (Ms. Richardson) actually dates Klaus Eichmann (played by Joe Alwyn), who is a picture-perfect Aryan carrying on the horrid Nazi tradition of hatred.

Of course, Klaus is the son of Adolph, and the one who spills the beans about his father being “a big deal” in the war … thereby ruining the quiet and mostly unassuming life they have been living with Adolph’s wife (a nearly unrecognizable Greta Scacchi). Sylvia and Klaus meet at a movie when she shushes him and his friends. Director Weitz even includes a clip of IMITATION OF LIFE (1959), a film that not coincidentally stars his mother, Susan Kohner. It’s a nice touch.

Much of the film takes place in the safe house where Adolph Eichmann is blindfolded and spoon-fed. It’s here that the psychological games and political maneuverings begin. Supporting actors who add strength to the film include team members Melanie Laurent (Hanna), Michael Aranov (chief negotiator Zvi), Lior Raz (as the demanding team director), Nick Kroll, and Simon Russell Beale (as Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion). There is a history of bumpy romance between Hanna and Peter, though it adds little to the story.

Alexandre Desplat’s score is terrific, especially during a creative and informative opening credit sequence. “Who did you lose?” is a recurring question throughout, as it’s 1960 and everyone involved lost someone – a driving force behind their persistence and commitment to the cause. The film is focused on the mission to capture, not the details of the subsequent trial; however it does close with archival photos of the actual trial – adding historical relevance to this fine dramatization.

watch the trailer:

Advertisements

THE OTTOMAN LIEUTENANT (2017)

March 10, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. A story of romance smack dab in the middle of war is always a bit risky and sometimes difficult to sell. Make it a love triangle and toss in distinct religious differences, and if it’s not a mess, it’ll do till the mess gets here (a sentiment borrowed from the Coen Brothers).

This is director Joseph Ruben’s first feature since The Forgotten (2004), and he’s also known for Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), the breakout dramatic role for Julia Roberts after Pretty Woman. The film is written by Jeff Stockwell, who is best known for Bridge to Terabithia (2007), and the script leans heavily on melodrama while also sprinkling in some acts of war.

Hera Hilmar (who favors Abbie Cornish) stars as Lillie Rowe, a head-strong free-thinking nurse living a life of privilege in 1914 Philadelphia, but committed to an ideal of justice for all. She meets a handsome and equally idealistic Dr Jude Gresham (Josh Hartnett) who is fundraising for his hospital located in the remote hills of Turkey. Circumstances are such that a Turkish officer is assigned to escort Lillie to Gresham’s hospital. As if enough sparks haven’t already flown between Jude and Lillie, it’s pretty clear that the attraction between her and Ismail (an excellent Michiel Huisman, “Game of Thrones”) is even stronger. The fourth key character here is Jude’s partner, Dr. Woodruff (Sir Ben Kingsley), whose immediate dislike of Lillie is quickly dispensed once she exhibits her medical competency.

Lillie is warned … war is coming. It’s WWI and it’s the Muslim Ottoman Empire vs the Christian Armenians. To label this revisionist history is an understatement. The 1915 Armenian Genocide is only alluded to with passing mention that the Ottomans “took steps” to control the Armenians. Even in such a lightweight and hokey melodrama, an omission like that jumps out. Whether it’s selective memory or outright propaganda, it seems obvious that the Turkish financiers were hoping to make a political/historical statement hidden behind a romantic triangle wrapped in war. The sweeping score by Geoff Zanelli and the beautiful cinematography of Daniel Aranyo both emphasize the romance aspects, while minimizing the fighting and cultural clashes.

watch the trailer:

 


LIFE (2015)

December 22, 2015

life Greetings again from the darkness. The film’s title has multiple meanings: “LifeMagazine as the source for the famous photographs we have seen so many times; the crossroads in “Life” of both rising star James Dean and photographer Dennis Stock; and a philosophical look at “Life” – how quickly things can change, and how we should appreciate the moments.

Director Anton Corbijn (A Most Wanted Man, The American) and screenwriter Luke Davies offer up a snapshot of 1955 as the not-quite-yet-famous James Dean (Dane DeHaan) traveled cross-country with photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) from Los Angeles to New York to Indiana. Each man was searching for their true self as Stock’s professional ambition and personal stress are palpable, while 24 year old Dean’s ambivalence about his pending superstardom borders on self-destructive.

DeHaan and Pattinson both underplay their roles, and it’s certainly more than a little confusing to see Pattinson in a movie about James Dean where he is not the actor playing the icon. DeHaan captures the low key, soft-spoken side of Dean but only teases at the “rebel” studio head Jack Warner (Sir Ben Kingsley) wanted so badly to control. We get a feel for Dean’s vision of challenging roles in quality productions … a commitment to the art of acting he no doubt sharpened in his time with acting guru Lee Strasberg. The story leans more heavily to the tale of photographer Stock, which is unfortunate, because he is significantly more awkward than interesting. Pattinson plays him as a social misfit who broods nearly as much as the “moody” young actor he is stalking through the streets.

The period look is well appointed, and we are privy to some of the moments of Dean’s life just prior to the release of East of Eden and his being cast in Rebel Without a Cause. His relationship with Pier Angelli (Alessandra Mastronardi), friendship with Eartha Kitt (Kelly McCreary), and his bond to the family and farm of his childhood in Indiana are all captured. In fact, it’s the clumsy relationship with Stock that comes across as the least realistic portion … though it may very well have happened this way. Even the manner in which the famous photographs were taken is underplayed … although it makes for a terrific tie-in with the closing credits where the real Stock/Life Magazine photographs are displayed.

It’s now been 60 years that James Dean has exemplified Hollywood “cool”, a label that can never be removed due to his tragic death in 1955 after making only three films. Capturing the essence of what made Dean cool is unnecessary because it’s present in every scene of those three films, as well as the photographs taken by Dennis Stock. That’s all the legacy either man needs.

watch the trailer:

 


LEARNING TO DRIVE (2015)

September 10, 2015

learning to drive Greetings again from the darkness. Many movies have utilized the career-focused husband who is oblivious to how his inattentiveness leads to a crumbling marriage and estranged family. It’s much rarer to have a professionally successful woman at the core of a story where she is the neglectful one, and the dissolved marriage leaves her in emotional shambles.  The metaphor here is obvious yet effective, as the woman tries to put her life back together and discover herself in the process … by “learning to drive”.

Patricia Clarkson stars as Wendy, a very successful New York book critic, who is blindsided when her husband (Jake Weber, “Medium”) dumps her for another woman. It turns out Wendy is infinitely more attentive to her computer screen than to her husband and daughter (Grace Gummer). In a fortuitous turn, the cab driver during the marital break-up is a Sikh Indian-American named Darwan, played by Sir Ben Kingsley.

Darwan’s second job just happens to be driving instructor, which means he can provide life lessons and philosophy to Wendy while simultaneously reminding her to fasten her seatbelt and check the mirrors. During this time, Darwan is also taking on a wife via arranged marriage to Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury, “Homeland”). His patience and way of life is challenged by both women, so the teacher also becomes a student.

The scenes featuring Clarkson and Kingsley are the film’s best, and inject some moments of humor to go along with the force-fed melodrama. Ms. Clarkson is at her best here flashing anger, vulnerability and a realization that life opens up for those who open up themselves, but she can’t overcome what amounts to a film that should air on Oprah’s network.

Director Isabel Coixet also worked with Clarkson and Kingsley in her 2008 film Elegy. Though it teases some interesting topics, this story sticks mostly to the surface, never digging too deeply. Because of this, it’s a pleasant film that will easily entertain adult audiences who prefer their movies with no real surprises or suspense.

watch the trailer:

 

 


EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014)

December 12, 2014

Exodus Greetings again from the darkness. Two huge Old Testament epics in one year (Noah being the other) is quite unusual in this era of superhero overload. But then, if you squint just right, there is a dash of superhero in both Noah and Moses, and each of their stories plays equally well as an action-packed adventure or bible scripture. If you are the type to analyze all the religious errors, you might first consider that the three male leads are played by an Australian, a Welsh, and a Knighted Sir. So a grain of salt is in order; and you should understand that director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, 2000) is more interested in the cinematic “wow” factor than he is in biblical accuracy.

Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are raised as brothers in Egypt circa 1300 BCE. Ramses’ father is the ruling Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro) who believes Moses to be the better leader of people than his own son. But in those days, blood ruled, and soon after discovering that Moses is actually Hebrew rather than Egyptian, Ramses cast him into the desert.

A few years later Moses chats it up with God (actually Metatron archangel that looks like a schoolboy), and the next thing we know, fish are dying in poisoned waters, giant crocodiles are chomping on fisherman, an impressive onslaught of frogs and locusts attack, followed by massive swarms of flies, and finally the darkness of death. Ramses finally ends the streak of plagues by agreeing to free the Hebrew slaves. Moses then leads the masses on the infamous trek … a not so enjoyable trip that peaks with the parting of Red Sea – a very impressive movie effect, even when compared to the wall of water seen recently in Interstellar.

The movie is dominated by Bale and Edgerton, with only minor supporting roles from John Turturro, Sigourney Weaver (maybe 3 lines of dialogue), Aaron Paul as Joshua (lots of quiet eye-balling of Moses), Sir Ben Kingsley as Nun, a hilarious Ben Mendelsohn, the always energetic Ewen Bremner, and the very classy Hiam Abbass.

Director Ridley Scott has dedicated this one to his brother Tony, and it’s sure to be one of those movies that some critics will enjoy bashing, just because they can. And there will be the nostalgic viewers who fondly recall Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (either version), and the pomposity displayed by Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. But for those movie goers looking for an adventure movie in the form of a throwback biblical epic with eye-popping special effects, it seems the answer will be a resounding “yes” to the question of … “Are you not entertained?”

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are really into special effects and plagues OR you were a fan before “the pictures got small”

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a literal interpretation of bible scripture OR you expect anyone other than the extras to bear even a slight resemblance to ancient Egyptians

watch the trailer:

 

 


STONEHEARST ASYLUM (2014)

October 23, 2014

stonehearst Greetings again from the darkness. A surefire indication that a movie is a must-see for me are the words “based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe” … no matter how loosely. Then, set the film in a creepy turn of the 20th century insane asylum, and cast Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine and Brendan Gleeson, and consider me exceptionally excited.

From the opening moments, there is a certain nostalgic or throwback feel.It recalls the “B” movie feel of so many from the 40’s and 50’s that I grew up watching on late night TV. Imagining the production in Black & White rather than color, and picturing Vincent Price as one of the leads, probably give this one more credit than it earns. Despite the stellar cast – also featuring Kate Beckinsale, Jim Sturgess, David Thewlis, and Sinead Cusack – it doesn’t manage to generate any real suspense or feeling of danger.

Director Brad Anderson works mostly in television, but has kicked out some films of interest along the way. These include Session 9, Transsiberian, The Call, and especially The Machinist. Here, he has an exceptionally deep and talented cast, yet manages to waste Mr. Caine and Mr. Gleeson with minor roles. Even Ms. Beckinsale is treated as simple eye candy with a stunning wardrobe that defies logic, given the circumstances.

Three characters that deliver some fun are Sophie Kennedy Clark as Millie (the nurse), David Thewlis as the comically named Mickey Finn, and of course Sir Ben Kingsley as Silas Lamb. Kingsley is one of the few actors who can walk the fine line between elegance and madness, and leave us wondering (even if we really know). He thrives on scenery-chewing roles and this one definitely qualifies.

The script avoids any real insight or statement on the cruel treatment of the mentally afflicted from the pre-psychoanalysis days brought on shortly thereafter by Freud. Allowing the inmates to run the asylum does make it clear that insanity comes in many forms with differing degrees. In fact, I would challenge viewers to name one truly sane person in this film. Loosely based on Poe’s short story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”, what the film lacks in tension and terror (it’s not Shutter Island), it mostly makes up for in production design and nostalgia.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: a throwback to the asylum movies of the 40’s and 50’s brings you a warm nostalgic feeling

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you prefer not to see electro-shock therapy administered to Michael Caine

watch the trailer:

 


IRON MAN 3 (2013)

May 5, 2013

iron man1 Greetings again from the darkness. My initial reaction upon seeing this opening day was that some fanboys are not going to be happy. Of course, this happens every time Hollywood makes changes to the original comic book material in hopes of attracting massive box office numbers. While I recognize many of the “flaws”, I found this to be an interesting and entertaining turn on the Tony Stark/Iron Man series.

Shane Black was brought in to direct and help write the script. Mr. Black is best known for his crackling buddy dialogue in movies like Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (also with Robert Downey Jr), but doesn’t have significant directorial experience (his most recent effort was KKBB 5 years ago). My belief has always been that what sets this franchise apart is Robert Downey Jr’s take on Tony Stark. A wiseiron man4-cracking billionaire playboy technology and mechanical genius searching for his true identity. Mr. Black re-focuses the story on Stark. In fact, he basically takes everything away and has him start over.

Regardless of the story, many line up for these movies to see the special effects and the bad guys. The special effects are everywhere … and loud … and massive. The trailer shows a clip of Stark’s Malibu mansion being destroyed, but the entire segment is quite impressive. The number of Iron Man suits seems unlimited at times and the big finale gave me the same feeling of a 4th of July fireworks display when it ends with so many clumps of fireworks being fired at once, that the impact is dulled. As for the bad guys, The Mandarin is one of the most fierce opponents faced by Iron Man in the comics. His portrayal here by Ben Kingsley is a blast to iron man2watch, but will undoubtedly upset the true fanboys. Guy Pearce plays Aldrich Killian, a demented mastermind, once snubbed by Stark – in a scene we witness in flashback.

My preference here is to focus on the fun elements since that’s clearly what Marvel and Black are shooting for. Jon Favreau directed the first two entries in the franchise and here takes on a slightly bigger acting role as head of security for the Stark corporation … and he provides some comic relief. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) finally gets to do more than roll her eyes, but she still has her damsel in distress moments. Don Cheadle returns as Col. Rhodes … or War Machine … now re-branded as Iron Patriot, but mostly he is just waiting for his own movie. Rebecca Hall has some screen time as a smart woman who is not so wise in her choosing of partners. No comment. Ty Simpkins plays Harley, a country boy who helps Stark in his time of need. James Badge Dale, Miguel Ferrer, William Sadler, and Dale Dickey all have strong moments, but therein lies what may be the film’s biggest weakness.

iron man3 It’s an incredibly impressive film to watch … giant visuals, really good actors and quick, witty dialogue. But there seems to be an overload of each of these things. Guy Pearce’s character is woefully underdeveloped. I so wanted more of his backstory and motivation. Same with Harley, the boy. Much could have been done with that. Miguel Ferrer, always a worthy opponent, must have had his best scenes left in editing. The scene with Ben Kingsley, Don Cheadle and Robert Downey Jr, may have been the best in the movie simply because we got a real peak at each of these character’s personality. That’s way more fun that another explosion!

The film pummels us with action, probably has too much Tony Stark and too little Iron Man for the fanboys, throws in a hard-to-swallow sub-plot regarding Anxiety issues for Stark (thanks to his Avengers escapades), and underutilizes Guy Pearce in what could have been a world class evil doer. Still, despite all of that, it’s fun to watch and Robert Downey Jr will always be Iron Man!

*NOTE: the expected Stan Lee cameo occurs during the Beauty Contest scene (he plays a judge)

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are fan of the Iron Man franchise … it delivers what we want and what we expect

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting something wildly different from the first two Iron Man movies – the tweaks are minor and mostly effective

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aV8H7kszXqo