Operation Finale

Release: Wednesday, August 29, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Matthew Orton

Directed by: Chris Weitz

Operation Finale takes audiences on a top secret mission into the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires, following a group of Israeli spies as they attempt to capture a high-ranking Nazi officer who fled Europe at the end of the war to seemingly escape without consequence. While the broader historical significance of the mission objective cannot be overstated, the drama is at its most compelling when it gets personal, when it explores the emotional rather than political stakes.

In 1960 the whereabouts of SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolph Eichmann, the man responsible for deporting hundreds of thousands of European Jews to ghettos and extermination camps 15 years earlier, had finally been confirmed. Having bounced around the region in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Nazi Germany, Eichmann eventually obtained the necessary emigration documents and under his new identity “Ricardo Klement” he eked out a quiet existence in South America from 1950 until his arrest a decade later.

This is where we pick up on the trail. We follow closely behind members of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, as well as those from Shin Bet, the internal security service, as they decide to finally pursue a lead that surfaces in Buenos Aires, fearing a public outcry if they don’t. They are tipped off to a young Jewish refugee named Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson) who has become intimately involved with a Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn). Her father becomes suspicious of Klaus’ background and bravely alerts the proper authorities. Shin Bet’s chief interrogator Zvi Aharoni (Michael Aronov) soon confirms the identity of Klaus and his father.

Complications arise in part due to environmental factors, with a rising Nazi sentiment gripping post-war Argentina (represented by Pêpê Rapazote’s intimidating Carlos Fuldner) leaving the team with little support from local government. In fact the film draws most of its tension from the air of secrecy in which business is conducted. There’s also a lot of emotional baggage to check at the door. Even though the war ended more than a decade ago, the knowledge of what Eichmann did is a constant burden, one that threatens to undermine the team’s professional objectivity.

The respectfully told story is bolstered by a strong ensemble that includes the likes of Oscar Isaac, Mélanie Laurent, Sir Ben Kingsley and a refreshingly solemn Nick Kroll. The international cast also includes Lior Raz, Ohad Knoller, Greg Hill, Michael Benjamin Hernandez, Greta Scacchi and Torben Liebrecht. While each is given a juicy supporting role, replete with moments of earnest introspection, the bulk of the film’s psychological and emotional weight accrue to two thespians who are in seriously high performance mode here.

Matthew Orton’s very first screenplay takes a humanistic approach to creating characters on both sides of the equation. On the side of the good guys you have Isaac‘s highly-qualified but just as vulnerable Peter Malkin, whose mind keeps taking him back to what he lost in the Rumbula Forest, where Eichmann personally oversaw the mass shootings that took place there in November and December of 1941. Opposite him sits (often literally) a disturbingly convincing Kingsley as the notorious war criminal. Sure, he physically looks the part, especially in make-up-heavy flashbacks, but it’s when he speaks lucidly on matters related to his past that confesses to the depths of his depravity — his “aw, shucks” reaction to labels like ‘architect of the Final Solution’ being particularly difficult to process.

As we progress through this deliberately paced timeline, one thing becomes increasingly clear about Operation Finale. This isn’t a flashy production, though it certainly looks good from a costuming and, occasionally, cinematographic perspective. While its lack of action punch may be a sticking point for viewers seeking a more immediately gratifying thriller, and the climactic chase sequence at the end threatens Hollywood cliché — that which the film thus far has done an impressive job of avoiding — there’s no denying the film carries the weight of history responsibly and gracefully.

Recommendation: A product of emotive power, Operation Finale adds further proof of the talents of Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley. Equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring, this is historical drama done right. It feels organic, earnest. Quietly profound. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “My job was simple: Save the country I loved from being destroyed. Is your job any different?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Loving

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Release: Friday, November 4, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Jeff Nichols

Directed by: Jeff Nichols

One of the most common red marks on my college papers was the criticism ‘Show, don’t tell.’ These notations littered my 300-level Opinion Writing assignments. I recall one particular article in which we had to discuss how a recent environmental disaster in Kingston, Tennessee had been handled by the company and how the media covered it. I did nothing but go around in circles, relying far too heavily on abstraction and flowery language that ultimately offered nothing concrete.

Jeff Nichols doesn’t seem to have my problem. I left Loving with little doubt as to whether Richard and Mildred Loving could be anything other than together. He has made a series of conscious decisions to show rather than tell audiences what the love was like between an interracial couple living in 1950s Virginia. The portrait is so simplistic and earnest it becomes cathartic. Its quiet but undeniable power left me in awe. While the story of the Loving family is set against a backdrop of racial tension and bigotry, this isn’t a political film. It’s purely an ode to a married couple who deeply cared for one another and who would do anything to ensure they could pursue a life of happiness together.

Historical drama details the events that led up to the Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia. The majority of the film centers squarely on the couple as they endure the harsh prejudices of society but the climax, subtle as it may be, shows how their trials — both literal and figurative — set a legal precedent in a nation on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement. The ruling struck down nationwide laws that prevented whites and people of color from being legally married. In Loving, the couple make the trek from their quiet country home in Caroline County, Virginia to Washington D.C. to get married.  They return with a marriage license which Richard promptly hangs on their bedroom wall.

One night they are rudely awakened by a pair of officers who have somehow received word about their nuptials. The couple are jailed, but because Richard is white he is bailed out first. Meanwhile his wife must stay the weekend in a holding cell. In court the couple plead guilty to breaking the state’s anti-miscgenation law and now face a one-year sentence. However, the judge offers to suspend the sentence under the condition that they do not return to Virginia for at least 25 years. The Lovings move in with a friend in D.C., but then later return to the countryside for the birthing of their first child. They are arrested again shortly thereafter but are spared further punishment as their lawyer successfully lobbies for leniency, claiming he had misled his clients.

As time passes and after the couple bear two more children, their circumstances begin weighing heavily on Mildred. She eventually seeks help from a Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll), a lawyer representing the American Civil Liberties Union. Bernie’s investment in the couple’s plight is not merely a mark of maturity in the actor; the performance confesses the sort of attitude and open-mindedness that restores hope for humanity. He seeks the advice of Constitutional law expert Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass) to help bring the case to the attention of the Supreme Court.

In Nichols’ latest, beauty runs deep. In Loving there is an element of physical attractiveness but that dynamic is subdued in favor of the way souls attract. In fact, skin color is only ever addressed by the outsider — those not directly involved in the affair. Throughout we see how Richard not only maintains a friendly rapport with his extended family, who happen to be black, but how he is truly accepted by them. But even the level-headed aren’t totally devoid of judgment. The couple’s actions have clearly made many of their neighbors uncomfortable and it is this reality that Richard often finds himself battling — not so much because he is white but because of his defiance. Mildred’s sister in particular becomes embittered by Richard’s decisions.

What’s most impressive is how Nichols’ screenplay never resorts to reductive or manipulative techniques. There are no great sacrifices — at least, no one freezes to death in the north Atlantic so their other half could survive the night on a floating door — nor are there any explosive arguments that threaten to rip apart the fabric of love itself. Instead Loving uses a pair of heartfelt performances to demonstrate what love actually is: trusting, patient, unflinching in the face of adversity. Love is an arm gently resting upon your partner’s shoulder or wrapped around their waist; it’s about sharing a moment of silence in the kitchen and being distracted from the discomfiting temporariness of such peace.

Joel Edgerton, who plays Richard in a potentially career-best performance, and the Ethiopian-born Ruth Negga, who is Mildred, are so good together it almost hurts the heart seeing the two in much more casual stances in photos for the accompanying press tour. The last time I had this much trouble reconciling reality with fantasy was when it was revealed that John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer were, in fact, not an item. Why, oh why, can’t these two people really be together? Such is the net effect of this profoundly moving film.

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4-5Recommendation: Such a touching, precious film about real relationships has this reviewer raving! Performances are virtually the whole deal, and yet another strong directorial effort from one of my favorite up-and-coming directors (hell, he’s already here) in Jeff Nichols puts Loving in a position to make at least one of my end-of-year lists. The film paces itself leisurely and at times I found myself getting fidgety but other than that, this is a pretty close to perfect little film. Romantics at heart certainly need to buy a ticket, but Loving will also appeal to those seeking an uplifting, fact-based story that doesn’t resort to melodrama. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “Tell the judge I love my wife.”

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Sausage Party

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Release: Friday, August 12, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Seth Rogen; Evan Goldberg; Kyle Hunter; Ariel Shaffir

Directed by: Greg Tiernan; Conrad Vernon

Sausage Party represents Seth Rogen’s strongest screenwriting effort since Superbad. It’s been even longer since he’s been this charming in a lead role as well, and he plays a six-inch-long frankfurter. Or sausage, wiener, whatever. He’s a real hot dog in this outing, a riotous, deliriously perverse bite of modern satire that will in all likelihood cause you to think twice the next time you’re thumbing through greens-turning-brown in your local Wal-Mart.

In the world of Sausage Party, Wal-Mart would be the Warsaw ghetto for perishables. In the world of Sausage Party the Food Pyramid takes on an entirely new meaning, a reality that’s manifested brilliantly via anthropomorphic food groups. There’s hierarchy and a universal belief system that shoppers are Gods. Food items believe they’re destined for great things once they’re Chosen, that they’re headed for a place called The Great Beyond where they’ll enjoy an eternity of being loved and treated like royalty by the human that rescued them from their prisons/shelves. A place where a sausage like Frank (Rogen) looks forward to slipping inside a nice, warm bun. A place where an Arabic flatbread named Kareem Abdul Lavash dreams of being greeted by 77 bottles of extra virgin olive oil that will help him stay lubricated and not dry out and be nasty and shit.

Broader arcs, involving Frank’s quest to save his sweet friends (and even salty foes) from continuing to be blinded to a horrible reality — food gets eaten, not laid — and Brenda’s determination to not act on her own sexual urges in fear of upsetting the Gods, are not exactly revelatory. Nor are the main beats delivered en route to one of the most ridiculous afterparties you are likely to ever see. (Yeah, This is the End may have been blessed by the Backstreet Boys but you’ve never seen food porn until you’ve watched this movie.) Because the story is rather store-brand generic, you’re left sort of worrying if there is a way Rogen and company can wrap things up without cooling off completely or melting down or some other food metaphor that suggests deterioration.

But there is no need to worry. At all.

And broad arcs be damned by the way. Getting lost in this supermarket is just way too much fun. There’s so much to see and do. Rogen, once again reunited with Evan Goldberg and aided as well by Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir (the latter two co-wrote The Night Before with Goldberg, a rare case in which Rogen did not share writing duties), has crafted a genuinely hilarious and heartfelt film that manages to strike a near-perfect balance between satire and sobriety. One wouldn’t necessarily think Sausage Party has any right to be stepping into arenas like proving the existence of God, thereby the purpose of religion, or that packaging certain foods into certain aisles could be viewed as segregation but we should never downplay Rogen’s creativity.

In this adventure there is strength in numbers. That applies both to the mission Frank and friends find themselves embarking on as well as to how we’re able to connect with this strange little world. Frank is joined with varying degrees of hesitation by fellow wiener Barry (Michael Cera), who suffers from serious confidence issues; Frank’s love interest, the curvaceous bun Brenda (Kristen Wiig) and two squabbling neighbors from the International Foods Aisle in David Krumholtz’ Lavash and Edward Norton’s argumentative bagel Sammy (I still can’t believe that was not the voice of Woody Allen). The diverse selection of characters makes the watch more dynamic and energetic. Nevermind the fact that mainstays like Ketchup, Mustard, apples and oranges are wholly unoriginal, they don’t really lend themselves to comedy. And even though a hot dog does take center stage, brilliantly the summer grilling classic is broken down into two distinct characters. And of course we know why.

Food puns abound and as is expected, ethnic, gender and religious stereotypes play a role in deciding which items we are going to spend time with (for example: the non-perishable items are colored as wizened old Native Americans who have seen it all and it’s no coincidence that the film’s primary antagonist is a Douche named Nick Kroll. Er, played by Kroll, rather . . .). Incensed after Frank cost him his chance to go to The Great Beyond during a shopping cart collision, Douche sets out on a murderous vendetta to take out the wiener (and bun) responsible for not only the missed opportunity but his new physical deformity. (In this reviewer’s opinion we venture a little too deep into TMI territory when watching him mentally breaking down, mourning his lack of purpose. And we really could have done without 90% of Kroll’s brutal dude-broisms.)

It wouldn’t be a comedy from the Rogen-Goldberg school of puerility if it doesn’t make you feel at least a little guilty for laughing at some of the things you end up laughing at. Even still, Sausage Party (hehe) finds a number of ways to justify genre-defining tropes like making sex jokes out of literally everything. Wiig brings strength, courage and conviction to the part of a sexy piece of bread. Some things will never change though, as even here Rogen’s every bit the pothead we’ve come to love him for being as he finds room for a scene where a wiener gets roasted with a can of water and a gay Twinkie, and he does it without disrupting the flow of the narrative. The characters are well-defined and each have individual motivations for survival, which is critical in helping us actually “buy into” the situation at hand. (Let’s get real: we never take any of this seriously but we take it far more so than we thought we would when the project was first announced.)

Sausage Party is classic Seth Rogen-Evan Goldberg. It’s rib-ticklingly funny from start to finish, with only a few brief moments where all action comes to a halt in favor of more somber reflections on the state of life in a grocery store that’s about to erupt into civil war. You’ll find almost every alum from previous Rogen-Goldberg offerings here, and, hidden behind the guises of ordinary foods, they become icons. This is far too fattening a meal to keep having, but damn it all . . . why does fat have to taste so good?

Stephen fucking Hawking gum and Michael Cera the wiener

Recommendation: Irreverent, profane, over-the-top, delirious, and bizarrely heartwarming. Sausage Party uses anthropomorphism to its advantage and then some, creating memorable characters out of mundane food items and giving them distinct human personas that we can identity with and care about. (Obviously some more than others.) The rules of course still apply: fans of Seth Rogen’s sense of humor need apply while all others who aren’t big on the guy probably won’t find much mustard to squeeze out of this one. Visiting the supermarket will never be the same again, and I think that more than anything is the mark of an effective comedy.

Rated: R

Running Time: 89 mins.

Quoted: “Banana’s whole face peeled off, Peanut Butter’s wife Jelly is dead! Look at him, he’s right there.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Adult Beginners

'Adult Beginners' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 24, 2015

[Netflix]

Written by: Jeff Cox; Liz Flahive; Nick Kroll

Directed by: Ross Katz

Fans of FX’s The League, here’s a movie you’ve kind of been waiting for. Kind of. And maybe ‘waiting for’ is extreme. Regardless of my lack of enthusiasm towards star Nick Kroll, Adult Beginners finds a way to encourage a more well-rounded performance out of Ruxin by making him a nanny instead of a ninny.

Jake (Kroll) is responsible for the collapse of his upstart tech company when it immediately goes bankrupt, costing the jobs of many and subjecting him to their understandable rage. Feeling terrible, mostly for himself, he finds himself with no choice but to move in with his sister Justine (the always welcome Rose Byrne) who has settled down with her husband Danny (Bobby Cannavale) in the suburbs. In their house life is hectic, what with Danny working long hours in his blue collar day job, Justine being pregnant with their second child and their son Teddy (played by twins Caleb and Matthew Paddock) proving to be quite a handful.

Ruxin . . . er, I mean Jake ingratiates himself for several months with his sister who is every bit as unsure about what his next moves are going to be as he is. Unfortunately Danny and Jake don’t exactly hit it off from the get-go. In exchange for his temporary living arrangement, Justine asks if Jake wouldn’t mind babysitting their kid — it’d really help them out. Plus, you know . . . responsibility and stuff.

I suppose this is the part where I start accusing Adult Beginners of underachieving, and to be sure this family-oriented comedy is lightweight. I should be more specific. This isn’t family friendly material but rather a spotlight on relationships and how they evolve as people grow older and take on new, larger responsibilities. (You might be wondering what any of that has to do with the swimming pool on the poster. You see, neither Jake nor Justine know how to swim and yet Justine has enrolled her son in a beginner swim class. As it becomes clear to the instructor, the adults probably could benefit from a beginner class of their own.)

Adult Beginners plays out episodically rather than as a fluid film, with few plot threads enduring the full 90-minute runtime, save for the tension between Jake and his brother-in-law, the aquaphobia and Jake’s transitioning into the life of a stay-at-home dad. But it’s perfectly serviceable, even if bordering on inconsequential; a harmless comedy that’s more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, one that speaks to the mundanities of every day life.

If nothing else it’s a showcase for the more sensitive side of Kroll who has spent much of his acting career portraying a somewhat insecure, neurotic man-child with a smoking hot wife who can’t quite satisfy him the way his obsession with fantasy football does. Here, even though he still exudes some of the foibles of that character, Kroll overcomes and matures in an organic way that neither feels manipulative nor unrealistic. Though one can’t help but feel he benefits greatly from being surrounded by a reliable, talented cast.

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Recommendation: Adult Beginners gets by on the charm of its cast and a strong sense of the family unit. It’s nothing more than minor comedy but the cast and crew have more than enough chemistry to make the whole experience worthwhile sitting through, at least just once. And there’s something comforting about watching people older than you who are still trying to get their shit together. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 92 mins.

Quoted: “You can basically take the last three years of my life and light them on fire.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed, written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com