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.

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BY THE SEA (2015)

November 19, 2015

by the sea Greetings again from the darkness. As a devotee and lover of the cinematic art form, I tend to focus on the positive elements of films, and maintain a near reverent respect for filmmakers who engage in personal projects. Because of this, I typically avoid labels such as “bad” or “good” and instead focus on the experience. Unfortunately, this latest from writer/director Angelina Jolie (billed for the first time as Angelina Jolie Pitt) has delivered a prolonged experience of monotony and misery that can only be described as bad. Or awful. Or even beyond awful.

It’s based in the mid-1970’s and filmed on the island of Gozo in Malta. The setting is stunningly beautiful, and cinematographer Christian Berger captures the essence of this unique spot with naturalistic lighting and plenty of wide shots of the rocky beaches that provide the foundation for a classy and quaint inn run by Michel (Niels Arestrup, A Prophet). Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Angelina Jolie) are the epitome of an unhappily married couple … though they are stylishly dressed while driving their 1967 Citroen convertible.

He is a writer who doesn’t write and she is a former dancer who doesn’t dance. While he is not writing, Roland sucks down gin, beer and anything else Michel will serve him. Vanessa mostly hangs out in the room popping pills and watching a fisherman in a row boat. When they are together, they rarely speak except to ensure we viewers understand just how miserable they are … with a lousy reason that isn’t explained until late in the film. Mostly she bats her porn star fake eye lashes while he sports a porn star mustache.

A glimmer of hope emerges when a honeymooning couple takes the room next door. Lea (Melanie Laurent) and Francois (Melvil Poupaud) seem quite happy and enjoy spending time together in bed. We know this because Vanessa discovers a peephole where she can take in the sights. In what is probably the only interesting twist, Lea and Roland are soon sharing peeps … a step that somehow begins the process of rebuilding their relationship. Of course, that doesn’t happen without many more scenes of misery prior to the quite predictable finish.

Angelina is clearly paying tribute to the 1950’s and 1960’s French arthouse films, but having two unlikable lead characters who can’t stand to be in the same room never allows the viewers to connect … though she seizes many opportunities to show off her exquisitely rebuilt breasts. The film is entirely too long – and feels even longer – as it squanders a real chance to explore the second stage of marriage. The beautiful scenery and Gainsbourg songs don’t come close to making this a movie worth enduring.

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BEGINNERS

June 10, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is a terrific little art-house character study with comedic elements, fine acting and superb writing. The creative force is Mike Mills, who was also the writer and director on another excellent little movie from about 5 years ago called Thumbsucker. When I say “little movie”, I mean intimate and poignant with a nominal budget.

Three interwoven time periods are presented to an effective end. One period shows us Oliver (Ewan McGregor) as a young kid interacting with his mother (Mary Page Keller). Another period shows Oliver’s 75 year old father Hal (Christopher Plummer) confessing to him that he is gay (this is a few months after the mother/wife dies). The third period has Oliver trying to forge a relationship with Anna (Melanie Laurent) whom he met at a costume party.

 While that may sound like a simple set-up, I assure you that the complications created by these characters are realistic and head-spinning. It turns out Hal knew he was gay prior to marrying Oliver’s mother, but claims she promised to “fix” him. Once he proclaims his gayness, Hal jumps in with both feet to all causes gay. He thoroughly enjoys himself and even clicks with a new, younger lover. And just when he admits to joy, inoperable cancer is discovered in Hal’s lungs. This begins the second major secret of his life.

 The scenes from Oliver’s childhood provide crucial evidence on why he is so solemn and afraid of relationships. He suffers quietly just as his mother did. Things begin to shift for him when, dressed as Freud, his costume party sofa becomes occupied by Anna – a beautiful, alluring French actress who, it turns out, is just as messed up emotionally as is Oliver. They make the perfect threesome … including Arthur, Hal’s Jack Terrier, who (speaking through subtitles) lets us know when things are either OK or not. Arthur takes a great deal of the heaviness away, though not in a slapstick manner.

There are many elements of this film that I really like. The houses of both Hal and Oliver are full of as much personality as either of the characters. The look and pace of the film is meticulous and steady given the material. It seems to be naturally lighted from windows and interior sconces. Nothing even comes close to looking like a Hollywood set.

 Ewan McGregor plays his part very close to the vest and conveys the pain and uncertainty that Oliver has learned over the years. His defenses are up! Melanie Laurent was my favorite part of Inglourious Basterds (she was the cinema owner on a mission) and here she offers both hopefulness and melancholy. To me, the heart of the film is Christopher Plummer’s performance. He portrays an elderly gay man with grace and then takes it to another level in his “cancer” scenes. He is a wise man who may or may not understand how selfish he was, but is intent on showing Oliver that it’s never to late to be a “beginner” in love.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can appreciate the special moments that a well made arthouse film can deliver OR you want to see the leader in the clubhouse for Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Plummer)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: Thor or X-Men is more your cup of tea, as the only chase scene involves McGregor catching a flight to apologize to Laurent.


THE CONCERT (Fr., 2009)

August 8, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Typically when a film is billed is a “French comedy”, we can expect a farcical good time with self-centered characters who flitter their days away. Director Radhu Mihaileanu delivers something completely different and unexpected.

Two really fine performances drive this film. Aleksei Guskov plays Andrei Filipov, the one time conductor of the Russian Bolshoi orchestra, who lost his beloved job because he employed Jewish musicians during the harshest of Communist days. Nearly three decades later he finds himself as the janitor in the same hall where he once conducted. Because of this, an opportunity presents itself that allows him to seek redemption in his own life, and that of another.

Melanie Laurent, who was so outstanding as the theatre manager with a nasty plan in Inglourious Basterds, plays Anne-Marie Jacquet – a violin virtuoso who Filipov longs to have in his orchestra for a show in Paris. Ms. Laurent displays tremendous screen presence with minimal dialogue. She is quite a talent and I hope she spends more time in the U.S. making movies! The comedy portion of the film occurs as Filipov frantically assembles his orchestra from all over town. They have each gone their separate ways and some no longer even have their own instruments. Of course, none of the musical portion is believable, but as I said, this is a story of redemption.

The film climaxes with a wonderful onstage performance combined with a startling montage that deftly provides the details into the story that’s been skirted for the first 90 minutes. It is a wonderful ending to a decent film that really had the potential to be amazing.