GREEN BOOK (2018) – Oscar Contender Worth A Trip to the Theater

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It took a while for GREEN BOOK (2018) to make it to the theaters in my neck of the woods, and so I was only able to see it recently.

This Oscar contender, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Original Screenplay is both worthy of these nominations and a trip to the theater. Had I seen this movie before I had comprised my List of Top 10 movies for 2018, it most certainly would have made the cut.

GREEN BOOK (2018), based on a true story, takes place in 1962 and chronicles the unlikely friendship between an eccentric African-American classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and a rough and tough Italian bouncer from Brooklyn, Tony LIp (Viggo Mortensen) who are brought together when Shirley hires Tony to be his personal driver on a concert tour which will take him into the Deep South.

In terms of story construct, the one told in GREEN BOOK is one you’ve seen many times before. Yes, it’s a “buddy story,” that plot where two very different characters spend time together, especially on the road, and eventually they form an unlikely friendship.  It’s been done a million times, from classics back in the day like MIDNIGHT RUN (1988) and PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES (1987) to more recent fare like DUE DATE (2010) and THE HEAT (2013).

But what makes GREEN BOOK different and a cut above the standard “buddy movie” is its dueling themes of racism and racial acceptance.

Shirley’s concert tour is bringing him to the Deep South, as far as Mississippi, not a safe place for a black man in 1962. And that’s where the titular “Green Book” comes in, as it refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a publication which listed places which were safe for blacks to visit. Hence, on the road in the south, Shirley and Tony stay at separate hotels, as Shirley has to stay at hotels which accept Negroes, and these are usually poor decrepit places.

And when Shirley is performing inside the elegant establishments of the wealthy white audiences, who give him rousing applause, he is not allowed to use the bathroom inside these places, nor can he dine there.

Tony Lip, while not from the south, initially holds views that are just as racist. He and his fellow Bronx Italians use racial slurs when speaking of blacks, and when his wife hires two black repairmen, and Tony observes  her giving them something to drink after they’ve finished their job, he takes the empty glasses they drank from and tosses them into the trash.

Yet, when asked by Shirley if he would have trouble working for a black man, Tony says no, and since Tony is a man of his word, it turns out to be true, and as the story goes along, and he observes the way Shirley is treated, he becomes more and more protective of his employer.

The story also takes things a step further. Don Shirley is a man alone. He’s wealthy and educated, and he doesn’t identify with what he sees as his fellow black brethren. He’s more similar in class to the wealthy whites he plays music for, but he certainly doesn’t identify with them.  And then there’s his sexual orientation. By all accounts, Shirley is alone and he’s miserable, and in one of the movie’s best scenes, he breaks down and laments to Tony that he hasn’t been able to find any community that wants him in it.

The script, nominated for an Oscar, by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Peter Farrelly does a masterful job at showing not only the racism Don Shirley faced but also the pain he felt at being so isolated from seemingly all walks of life. It also makes Tony Lip the face of white acceptance. At first, Tony may have suppressed any racist feelings just so he could take the job, but later, he truly comes to like and accept Shirley as a person, and his words and actions back that up.

The script also gives Tony the best moments in the film, especially the laugh out loud ones. Indeed, why this movie is also listed as a comedy has to do entirely with Tony. He’s got the best lines in the film, such as when he tries to quote JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you—” speech, but completely botches it and finishes with “Ask what you do for yourself,” and he has the funniest scenes, like when he introduces Shirley to Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The best part of the script is that none of it comes off as superficial or preachy. It makes its points on race simply by allowing its story to unfold. Likewise, the bond between Shirley and Tony is not forced or phony. It’s convincing and natural. The whole story works.

As I said, Mahershala Ali has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Dr. Don Shirley, and it’s certainly a powerful performance.

However, GREEN BOOK belongs more to Viggo Mortensen and his portrayal of Tony Lip. Tony is the larger role, and the story mainly focuses on his reaction to racism. In terms of acting, it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen Mortensen give. He plays the Bronx bouncer so effortlessly. And like Ali, Mortensen has also been nominated, for Best Actor.

GREEN BOOK has also been nominated for Best Picture, although it’s not expected to win. Of its four major nominations, according to the experts, Mahershala Ali has the best chance of winning Best Supporting Actor.

GREEN BOOK was directed by Peter Farrelly, of Farrelly Brothers fame. He successfully captures the 1962 setting. There’s a nice contrast of colors, between the bright and opulent upper class white southern establishments and the dark and dreary poverty-laden black establishments.

And one of my favorite scenes brings both worlds together, when Shirley takes Tony into a black friendly restaurant, and Shirley is invited to play piano and ends up jamming with the jazz musicians there. It’s one of the liveliest scenes in the movie, and it allows Shirley for the first time to feel some camaraderie with a culture he had thus far felt alienated from.

I really enjoyed GREEN BOOK. It has a lot to say about racism, using the south in 1962 as its canvas, and it makes its point while not always being heavy-handed. In fact, its tone is quite the opposite. For most of the movie, thanks to Viggo Mortensen’s performance as Tony Lip, you’ll be laughing. Tony is a likeable character who may not be as skilled and as polished as Dr. Don Shirley, but his heart is in the right place, as is his head. He befriends Shirley not only because he likes him but also because deep down he knows that the color of Shirley’s skin has no bearing on what kind of person he is.

GREEN BOOK is a thoroughly satisfying movie that speaks on racism and entertains at the same time. It’s not to be missed.

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STAN & OLLIE (2018) – Nostalgic Look at Comedy Duo’s Final Tour Together

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STAN & OLLIE (2018) is a pleasant homage to the work of the classic comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

It tells the bittersweet story of their final tour together, long past their superstar years. The film is driven by two top-notch performances, Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel, and John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy.

The movie opens in 1937, at the height of their film career.  Stan (Steve Coogan) is the more business savvy of the two, and he wants a larger contract from studio head Hal Roach (Danny Huston). When it’s clear he’s not going to get it, he tries to convince Ollie (John C. Reilly) to leave the studio with him and sign a contract elsewhere, but it’s a decision that is far more difficult for Ollie to make, since he’s still under contract with Roach. As a result, Ollie stays with Roach. And when Ollie makes a movie without Stan, things hit rock bottom for the duo.

The action switches to 1953, where Stan has convinced Ollie to join him for a European tour as a promotional tool for a new movie he’s writing for the two of them. When financing for the film falls through, and they’re met with small audiences on the tour, the realization hits them that this could be the end of their career.  But as the tour continues, the crowds grow, until once more they are playing to sold out theaters.

But all is not right for the comedy duo. Ollie’s health is fading, and the two men squabble about their friendship and loyalty to the each over the years, causing a rift that they may not be able to overcome.

STAN & OLLIE is a very enjoyable movie. It’s well-made and is a rich looking period piece. Director Jon S. Baird convincingly transports his audience into the film, stage, and personal worlds of Laurel and Hardy.

The screenplay by Jeff Pope squarely focuses on their friendship, as these are not good times for the two men. They’re aging, they can’t get financing for a new movie, they’re playing to small crowds, and there’s a lot of tension between them. Their friendship is pushed to its limits. And yet when they look back at their years together, they realize the value of their friendship, and it’s this realization that is the best part of the story.

The comedy, on the other hand, while light and humorous— and it’s certainly fun to see some of Laurel and Hardy’s best comic bits recreated here— is never flat-out hilarious. And so it’s not the strength of the film.

The best part of the movie by far are the performances by the two leads. They’re both excellent, which is a good thing since they’re in nearly every single scene.

Steve Coogan captures both Stan Laurel’s comic genius as well as his drive to constantly write gags for the duo. Laurel is portrayed here as a man who is almost addicted to writing, so much so that he really has time for little else. And during one of their arguments, Ollie accuses Laurel of being flat-out cold, robotic, a writing machine who has no sense of friendship or humanity.

Coogan also plays Laurel as a man carrying a lot of hurt with him, as he still feels betrayed by Ollie’s decision years earlier to make a movie without him.

John C. Reilly is just as good as Oliver Hardy. During the tour, Hardy is ailing, and Reilly does a nice job capturing the comic who continues to drive himself to perform, even against doctor’s orders. Ollie is portrayed here as a man with more balance in his life than Stan, as he’s interested in other things besides work, and while he says he doesn’t need Stan, he really does feel lost without him.

Coogan and Reilly really do make this movie, and they easily carry it along for its 98 minute running time.

Rufus Jones adds fine support as Bernard Delfont, the man responsible for arranging the European tour. He goes back and forth between sounding like a con man and a legitimate agent.

Shirley Henderson is excellent as Ollie’s wife Lucille, who is fiercely protective of her husband, and Nina Arianda is memorable as Stan’s wife Ida Kitaeva, a former dancer who doesn’t let anyone forget it.

At times, STAN & OLLIE is emotionally flat. The best scene in the movie is when Stan and Oliver finally have their huge argument, and that’s the one scene that packs a powerful punch. Other than this sequence, it’s all rather mild.

And in spite of this being a movie about Laurel and Hardy, there’s a sense of sadness that permeates the film.

That being said, I still really enjoyed STAN & OLLIE. It definitely succeeds in reacquainting modern audiences with the classic comedy duo.

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Best Movies 2018

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 Movies from 2018:

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10. BOOK CLUB – I really enjoyed this comedy starring Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen, and Candice Bergen about four friends who decide to read 50 Shades of Grey for their monthly book club, and it changes the way they think about sex and relationships during their senior years. Also starring Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Richard Dreyfus, and Craig T. Nelson. My favorite comedy of the year.

9. WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?  – in a banner yeary for documentaries, this one was my favorite. Its recounting of the life of Fred Rogers, TV’s Mister Rogers from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, resonates deeply today, as Rogers’ message of inclusion and gentle understanding is sorely missed in today’s antagonistic and deeply divided society.

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8. ANT-MAN AND THE WASP – I enjoyed this Ant-Man sequel more than the original. Story is better, jokes and situations are funnier, and Evangeline Lily adds a lot as the Wasp and is a nice complement to Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man. Oh, and then there’s that after-credits tie-in with AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR which produced audible gasps from the audience.

7.BOY ERASED – Joel Edgerton wrote and directed this film which exposes gay conversion theory for the dangerous procedure that it is. Fine performances by Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, and Russell Crowe, and by Edgerton himself as an unqualified leader of the conversion camp.

6. THE FRONT RUNNER – Sure, I’m partial to political movies, but this tale of Gary Hart’s fall from being the Democratic front runner in the 1988 presidential election to dropping out of the race entirely due to an exposed extra-marital affair pushed all the right buttons for me. The film asks relevant questions which are still being asked today. Hugh Jackman is terrific as Gary Hart, as is Vera Farmiga as his suffering wife Lee.

5. EIGHTH GRADE – Awesome film which completely captures what it is like to be an eighth grader. On target writing and directing by Bo Burnham, especially the dialogue, and a fantastic lead performance by Elsie Fisher as eighth grader Kayla Day.

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Elsie Fisher in EIGHTH GRADE (2018)

4. THE GUILTY – From Denmark, this claustrophobic intense police drama is as compelling as they come, the type of film Alfred Hitchcock would have made. All of the action takes place inside a police dispatch office as an officer relegated to the emergency dispatch receives a call from a woman being kidnapped, and he has to deal with the situation in real time. You’ll swear you’ve seen all the action scenes, but that will be your mind playing tricks on you, as the camera remains focused on the police officer throughout. Excellent movie, and lean, as it clocks in at a swift 85 minutes.

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3. AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR – It was an outstanding year for Marvel, as three of my top ten films this year come from the Marvel Universe. This was the biggie, the ultimate showdown between the Avengers and their most dangerous adversary yet, Thanos. Amazing superhero movie, with a big bold ending which is no longer a spoiler, which is, the bad guy wins in this one. One of the most emotional endings to any superhero movie, causing audible gasps and groans multiple times as the film races to its inevitable conclusion.

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2. ROMA – An extraordinary movie, ROMA was unlike any other film I saw this year. Unassuming simple tale of a maid working for a family in Mexico in 1970-71. Features some of the best camerawork of the year, all of it in mesmerizing black and white. Slow at first, but stick with it. The final 45 minutes is among the most emotional moments on film I saw all year.

Roma

1. BLACK PANTHER –  My pick for the best movie of the year is another Marvel gem. This one takes the superhero movie to a whole other level, dealing with racial issues as well as any mainstream drama. My favorite superhero film since THE DARK KNIGHT (2018). I loved the conflict between hero Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and villain Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan),and one of the rare times in a superhero movie where the hero admits he’s wrong and the villain is right.  Outstanding in every way, easily my favorite movie of 2018.

So, there you have it, my picks for the Best Films of 2018.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE FAVOURITE (2018) – A Period Piece With An Edge

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Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone in THE FAVOURITE (2018).

THE FAVOURITE (2018), the latest film by acclaimed director Yorgos Lanthimos, is on many critics’ lists as one of the best films of 2018. While I liked this one well enough, I wouldn’t call it my favorite. Heh-heh.

THE FAVOURITE is a period piece with an edge. It takes place in 18th century England, and is as raunchy and vulgar as a modern-day R-rated comedy, only it presents these raw elements with much more dignity and grace.

In THE FAVOURITE, the miserable Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) rules England with a depressed demeanor, and she’s melancholy because of both physical ailments like gout and emotional ones, like the fact that all her children have died. Her friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) takes care of her and helps her with both her physical maladies and with the running of the country.  Lady Sarah has a keen political mind, and she has the Queen’s ear, and so many of the decisions regarding England’s involvement in its war with France are made by Lady Sarah.

And as we come to find out, these two women are more than just friends. They’re lovers.

When a young woman named Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives at the castle, she presents herself to Lady Sarah as her cousin, a woman who had been a lady but due to the fault of her father, had lost favor and had become a servant. She arrives at the castle seeking work, and Lady Sarah hires her as her personal servant.

Abigail is an enterprising young woman, and she soon works herself into the favor of Queen Anne, so much so that her presence and relationship with the queen becomes a threat to Lady Sarah. At this point, the story becomes a duel between the two women to see who will ultimately gain favor with the queen, and the only rules here are that there are no rules.

There’s certainly a lot to like about THE FAVOURITE. Probably my favorite part of the movie is that it never deteriorates into silly comedy at the expense of its story. While there is much that is funny that happens in this movie, when Abigail declares war on Lady Sarah, the ensuing battle is dark and nasty rather than upbeat and goofy. The story is still good for a few chuckles at this point, but the characters and their actions remain true to the plot.

Writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos, known for his provocative and offbeat movies like THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017) and THE LOBSTER (2015), has made a much more straightforward film here with THE FAVOURITE.  I enjoyed THE LOBSTER more than THE FAVOURITE, mostly because it was such an unusual film.

While THE FAVOURITE delivers in that it successfully tells this story of these three women, it didn’t pique my interest quite the same way THE LOBSTER did. That being said, Lanthimos includes enough creative camerawork here to put his stamp on this one.

Interestingly enough, he didn’t write the screenplay here. The script was written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. It’s a good screenplay. The dialogue is first-rate, and it’s quick and snappy, and the characters are all fleshed out. What interested me the least here was the actual story. While I was intrigued by the way Abigail and Lady Sarah went about their business in trying to impress the queen, I ultimately didn’t care all that much. Abigail is a cunning manipulative character, and while Lady Sarah is much more honest, she’s also cutthroat and abrasive.  So, while I enjoyed watching a story about these two beguiling characters, I can’t say that I liked them very much, and so ultimately they both could have failed, and I wouldn’t have cared.

Director Lanthimos has been hailed for getting the most out of his actors in THE FAVOURITE, and I would have to agree. The performances in this movie are all outstanding, from the three female leads to the supporting male characters.

I continue to be a huge Emma Stone fan. I’ve enjoyed her in nearly everything she’s done, even those awful Andrew Garfield SPIDER-MAN movies. While I enjoyed her recent performances in BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017) and LA LA LAND (2016) more, she is still excellent here as Abigail, creating in this character a spirited enterprising woman who knows what she wants and what to do in order to get it. And we see her maltreated by enough men to feel empathy for her when she goes for it.

Rachel Weisz makes for an indomitable and focused Lady Sarah who throughout most of the movie is less sympathetic than Abigail, but that changes as the stakes get higher and the manipulations grow darker.

Olivia Colman also delivers a noteworthy performance as the long-suffering Queen Anne. The queen’s emotions and behaviors are all over the place, as she goes from happy one minute to shouting in anger the next, and Colman captures her unpredictability masterfully.

The supporting male characters are just as impressive. Nicholas Hoult nearly steals the show with a dashing performance as Robert Harley, a member of Parliament who is politically opposed to Lady Sarah. He’s mean and he’s manipulative, and as he bullies Abigail to help him, she acquiesces because his positions frequently align with hers. Hoult has been very enjoyable as Beast in the re-booted X-MEN films, and his performance here as Harley is even better.

Joe Alwyn is also memorable as Masham, the young man who is fascinated by Abigail and pursues her even as she continually proves herself to be his superior. Alwyn is having a very good year, as he has also been in BOY ERASED (2018) and OPERATION FINALE (2018).

And James Smith gives perhaps the most restrained performance in the movie, as the respected and honorable Godolphin.

I can’t say that I enjoyed the ending to THE FAVOURITE all that much. It’s not a bad ending, and it succeeds in making its point, but it seems to lack the dagger effect which stabbed at the rest of the movie.

I enjoyed THE FAVOURITE for what it was, an R-rated period piece showing that women can be just as devious as men in the world of politics, and it tells this tale of debauchery and intrigue in a raunchy bawdy manner that will have you chuckling far more than wincing.

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THE FRONT RUNNER (2018) – Story of Gary Hart’s 1988 Downfall Asks Questions Relevant Today

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THE FRONT RUNNER (2018), which recounts the fateful three weeks where 1988 presidential front-runner Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) saw his chances for becoming president derailed by an extramarital affair, is at its best when asking questions that are still relevant today.

In 1984, Gary Hart finished second to Walter Mondale in the Democratic primary, done in as shown in the movie during a debate where Mondale used the catchphrase from a popular Wendy’s commercial, saying that whenever he listened to Hart discuss his ideas, he felt he had to ask, “Where’s the beef?” I saw that debate in 1984, and the line worked. Mondale, of course, was trounced by Ronald Reagan in the general election.

So, in 1988, Hart emerged as the popular choice among Democrats, and early on was the clear front-runner.

Hugh Jackman plays Hart as a candidate who is all about ideas, and as described by his staff in the movie, his gift is that he can break down complicated ideas and help people understand them. It’s easy to see Hart as a successful U.S. president.

Hart also believed his private life was exactly that- private, and the press had no business knowing what went on in his bedroom. He felt so strongly about this that when pressed by reporters who continually hounded him due to rumors about extramarital affairs, he famously challenged them to follow him around, claiming they wouldn’t find anything, that he was a pretty boring guy.

The reporters did just that, and they photographed him with a woman Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) who obviously wasn’t his wife, and who appeared to stay the night with him. When more photos surfaced from unnamed sources, the firestorm which followed so engulfed Hart and his family that he found he had no choice but to withdraw from the election.

At the end of the movie, Hart makes a dramatic speech after his withdrawal, saying that the current climate of press hounds was only going to get worse, and it was no surprise that the best and the brightest avoided politics because of it, and if it didn’t change, worse candidates would emerge.

The screenplay by Matt Bai, Jay Carson, and director Jason Reitman asks questions that we are still discussing today, and covers such topics as the role of the press, the expectations of a political leader, the way men treat women, and the effect of adultery. It’s a complex script that asks questions without providing answers, mostly because we are still searching for answers even today.

The press is shown doing its job diligently. The press pool reporters genuinely like Gary Hart and feel uncomfortable asking questions about his personal life, but yet, some of them feel obligated to persist. The press is also shown camped outside Hart’s home, not allowing his wife or daughter to leave in private.  They’re aggressive and harassing. Yet, if the reporters hadn’t done their job, the story would not have come out.

In one conversation, veteran reporters relay the story of how Lyndon Johnson assembled all the White House reporters and told them lots of women would be coming in and out of his place, and he expected the same kind of discretion on their part which they had shown Jack Kennedy, and that’s what they did. These same reporters acknowledge that things are different in 1988, and they don’t understand why, but they know that it is different. If candidates are sleeping around, it’s now their job to expose them, because if they don’t some other news outlet will do it and earn better readership or ratings.

The women in the film, in 1988, did not have much of a voice, but they do express their outrage, upset that the male reporters aren’t angry with Hart over his treatment of women and that they aren’t being more aggressive to uncover the story.

In one of the better sequences in the movie, Hart staffer Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim) spends time with Donna Rice and empathizes with her plight. She later points out how alone Rice is, that after this, her life will never be the same, that she doesn’t have the massive staff of volunteers supporting her like Hart does, that her life in effect has been ruined by a simple affair, while Hart’s life will continue.

Regarding Gary Hart, he is not shown here as a man who blatantly disrespects women, with the exception, of course, of his wife, since he was being unfaithful to her. But he’s not making derogatory remarks about the female anatomy or sexually assaulting them. He simply doesn’t see that it’s anyone’s business what he does in the privacy of his bedroom, or nor does he believe that his affairs affect anyone else except himself and his family, most likely because for years this was how things worked.

He seemed to be oblivious to the hypocrisy of his statements on morality and his personal behavior.

Director Jason Reitman lets this story unfold naturally, and his camera allows the audience to follow things along as if they are part of the campaign. In fact, even though Hart is the main character, the many members of his staff and the press pool make up the bulk of this movie and pretty much move the story along.

The acting is fine throughout. Hugh Jackman is excellent as Gary Hart, and while he does capture the politician’s mannerisms, his performance is superior to a caricature. He makes Hart a very tragic figure. He means well, he has ideas that are poised to make the country a better place, and he’s in a position with a public that really likes him to win the election, and yet he seems to be stuck in a prior time where reporters let things slide. Had he paid more attention and realized the press was emerging into a different animal in 1988, he might have been able to save his campaign, and the country would have seen a President Hart, but that’s not what happened.

Of course, some may argue, that it’s a good thing that he didn’t become president because he’s a womanizer. Which is another question the movie addresses, which is, does this kind of behavior even matter? Do Americans care who presidents sleep with? These questions are still being asked and debated today.

Vera Farmiga plays Hart’s wife Lee, and she’s excellent as she always is. The scenes where she tells Hart in no uncertain terms how much he has hurt her and humiliated her are some of the strongest in the movie.

J.K. Simmons plays Hart’s campaign manager Bill Dixon, who firmly believes in Hart and sees him as the next president, but when these stories surface, he puts his foot down and tries to convince Hart that he needs to get out ahead of them, but Hart resists saying it’s no one’s business and that the American people care more about his ideas than his personal life. It’s an idealistic rationale that proved to be false. Dixon also makes things personal, saying that the huge staff of volunteers, many of whom have left jobs to help Hart, deserve the truth, as does Dixon himself, but again Hart resisted.

The rest of the cast is chock full of talented character actors playing campaign staff members and reporters.

I loved THE FRONT RUNNER. It’s blessed with a talented cast and director, and features a script that asks important questions about the role of the press, the responsibility of presidential candidates to the voters, whether or not the private life of public figures is fair game, the immorality of adultery, and the treatment of women by even the most well-meaning of men.

THE FRONT RUNNER has a lot to say about both an event that happened in 1988 and events that continue to play out today. It doesn’t really provide answers because it doesn’t appear that we have the answers yet. So the bigger question I suppose by film’s end is have we learned anything since 1988?

The answer seems to be a resounding “no.”

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OPERATION FINALE (2018) – Tale of Nazi Capture Relevant Today

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Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley in OPERATION FINALE (2018)

There are moments in OPERATION FINALE (2018), the new historical drama about the capture and extraction of Nazi Adolph Eichmann from Argentina in 1960 by a group of Israeli agents, that resonate more powerfully today because they call to mind current events.

Watching a raucous Nazis meeting you can’t help but recall images of the hate-filled march in Charlottesville or the frenzied crowds at a Trump rally.  The images are eerily similar.

But the action in OPERATION FINALE is all historical.

When we first meet Israeli Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) he’s leading a failed attempt at capturing a Nazi target.  Shortly after they remove the man from his home, ripping him away from his wife and kids, Malkin realizes they have the wrong man, but before he can do anything about it, his associates shoot the man dead. When Malkin tells them they grabbed the wrong Nazi, his partners shrug and ask, does it matter? He was still a Nazi.

The action jumps ahead a few years to 1960, where in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a young German girl Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson) brings home her new boyfriend Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn) to meet her blind father Lothar (Peter Strauss). When Lothar hears the boy’s name, he sends word to the Israeli government that he believes he has met the son of Adolph Eichmann, the infamous Nazi known as the mastermind of the “Final Solution,” the Nazi plan which led to the mass murder of millions of Jews.

Israeli agent Isser Harel (Lior Raz) sends a team which includes Malkin to Buenos Aires, and shortly thereafter they confirm the identity of Eichmann (Ben Kingsley).  They then plan to capture him and extract him from the country so he can stand trial in Israel for his crimes, which will be no easy task, since Eichmann is surrounded by a vigilant group of Nazis looking to rise to power once more.

OPERATION FINALE really isn’t receiving strong reviews, as I keep hearing it described as slow and unimaginative, but it really deserves stronger praise than that.  I will agree that it is subtle in its storytelling, and it’s rated PG-13 so the horrific violence from the Holocaust will not be on full display here, but there are enough potent images to make it work just fine.

The film is anchored by two very strong performances by Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley. Both actors drive the story forward with their convincing interpretations of the two leads.

I like Isaac a lot, and he seems to get better in every movie I see him in. While he’s probably most known today for his recurring role as pilot Poe Dameron in the new STAR WARS movies, it’s not in that role that he’s really been allowed to strut his stuff.  He’s been excellent in films like ANNIHILATION (2018) and EX MACHINA (2014), and way back when he made an impression in the stylish action fantasy SUCKER PUNCH (2011).

He’s excellent here as Israeli agent Peter Malkin.  He plays Malkin as a man not quite sure of himself at first, and his confidence grows as he’s allowed to establish a relationship with Eichmann while they’re held up in a safe house awaiting the opportunity to fly out of Buenos Aires. The Israelis need Eichmann to sign a document expressing his willingness to leave the country, and when their hardball tactics continually fail, Malkin believes he can get him to sign by appealing to his ego.

The two men partake in a psychological cat and mouse game which heats up in one of the movie’s best scenes when Eichmann attempts to get under Malkin’s skin by telling him the story of how he shot a woman and her baby, knowing that Malkin’s sister and baby were lost in the Holocaust. He asks Malkin if he thinks it was his sister and her baby he shot , and if so, wouldn’t that have been a good thing, for them to have been killed so quickly as opposed to the horrifying ways Eichmann saw others killed?

Ben Kingsley is very, very good as Adolph Eichmann, a man who refuses to stand trial in Israel because he knows there will only be one result, his death, and he believes that in order to receive a fair trial he should be tried in Germany. He also refuses to be the scapegoat for the sins of his former government, and he makes the argument that he was only following orders, just as Malkin is doing now.

At one point Eichmann tells Malkin that he actually tried to help many Jews escape, as he didn’t agree with his fellow Nazis’ solution for getting rid of the Jews. He believed they should have been relocated, and he in fact did relocate many of them, to which Malkin scoffs that he sent them to malaria-filled Madagascar. Eichmann replies that no other country would take the Jews.

It’s a subtle performance by Kingsley, yet it’s no less successful. He makes Eichmann a formidable  force to be reckoned with, and there is something icy cold and sinister underneath nearly every civil line he utters.

The rest of the cast is equally as solid. Lior Raz as Israeli agent Isser Harel, and Nick Kroll as fellow agent Rafi Eitan, and Michael Aronov as agent Zvi Aharoni are all convincing, as are the rest of the actors who round out the team, including Melanie Laurent as the sole woman of the group, Hanna Elian, tasked with drugging Eichmann during their escape.

I also enjoyed Haley Lu Richardson as Sylvia Hermann, the young Jewish woman whose relationship with Klaus Eichmann led to the capture of his father. Richardson is a promising young actress who has yet to land her break-out role. She’s been memorable in supporting performances in films like SPLIT (2016) and THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016). Her role here in OPERATION FINALE is again small, and she again makes an impression.

It was also fun to see Peter Strauss back on the big screen as Sylvia’s blind father Lothar. I think the last time I saw Strauss in a movie was the Johnny Depp thriller, NICK OF TIME (1995). Of course, Strauss mostly did TV work, bursting onto the scene eons ago in the highly popular mini series RICH MAN, POOR MAN (1976).

Director Chris Weitz’s straightforward unassuming style allows the story to unfold gradually and build towards a rather riveting conclusion.

The film does a good job of getting under your skin without blood and gore. For instance, the scene where the young mother raises her child to Eichmann is unnerving to watch even without the actual shootings occurring on-camera.

Weitz also directed THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON (2009), the second TWILIGHT movie. Needless to say, OPERATION FINALE is a much better movie than NEW MOON and should go a long way towards helping moviegoers forget that Weitz made that vampire clinker.

The scenes between Malkin and Eichmann are the best scenes in the movie, and they’re also the best written, thanks to a credible screenplay by Matthew Orton.

And while the screenplay doesn’t make Eichmann a sympathetic character, it does make him a three-dimensional one. We see him caring for his family, we catch glimpses of the cold psychological power he possesses, we experience his raw fear when first captured, and we are allowed to enter his calculating mind while he’s a prisoner.

Critics are not being overly kind to OPERATION FINALE, and that’s too bad, because it’s a solid well-made movie.

It works as both a historical piece, in that it’s a compelling tale of the capture of Nazi Adolph Eichmann, and as a cautionary tale for our times, reminding us of the importance of striking down fascism.

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BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018) – Effective Essay on Race Relations in the U.S.

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Adam Driver and John David Washington in Spike Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018).

Believe it or not, BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018), Spike Lee’s latest movie which tells the tale of a black Colorado cop who infiltrated the KKK in the 1970s, is based on a true story, chronicled in the memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth in 2014.

But Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN is less a bio pic of Ron Stallworth and more an essay about race, and that’s what ultimately makes this all-too-often-over-the-top tale a success. From its opening shot from GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) to its closing news footage of the horrifying events in Charlottesville, Virginia, the film is structured as a treatise on race relations in the United States, and sadly shows that rather than progressing to a better place, we’ve largely stayed the same, or worse, as judging from the emboldened unmasked faces of the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, we may have gone backwards.

It’s 1972, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes the first black police officer in Colorado Springs. His dream is to become an undercover detective, and he sets out to do just that as he phones the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and pretends to be a racist white American male. When he’s invited to join the KKK, he arranges for a white officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to play him, and the ruse is on.

Together, and with the full support of their superiors, Ron and Flip infiltrate the KKK’s inner circle and move to take down its more prominent members. Their investigation even leads them to the KKK’s grand master, David Duke (Topher Grace).

This in a nutshell is the plot of BLACKKKLANSMAN, but as I said, what’s more important and impressive about this movie is what it has to say about race relations. On that note, there’s a lot to digest.

BLACKKKLANSMAN makes the case that we haven’t gotten anywhere with race relations, that we’ve actually gone backwards. At the height of Ron’s and Flip’s success, late in the movie, they are informed that their unit is being disbanded due to budget cuts, the symbolic meaning being that here was a moment in time when racism was being driven back, and we took our foot off the pedal and allowed it to return unchecked to the point where it is now, as chronicled in the film’s final few minutes with the footage from Charlottesville.

Early on, there’s a speech by a former Black Panther member to a college crowd where he speaks about his childhood love of Tarzan and how he used to root for Tarzan to beat the black Natives, until he realized those Natives were him. This, along with the footage from GONE WITH THE WIND, speaks to how ingrained racism has been in our culture, even in our movies.

Later, in one of the best sequences of the movie, the film jumps back and forth between two events. A speech by Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) who recounts in explicit and painful detail his eyewitness account of a brutal lynching of a black boy, watched by a crowd of white onlookers behaving as if they were at a sporting event, is intercut with David Duke and other KKK members watching THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915). This is the closest the film comes to making its audience weep at the horrors of race relations in our country.

One of the things that doesn’t work in BLACKKKLANSMAN is Spike Lee’s lack of subtlety. Too often his in-your-face style backfires with the unintended result of giving credence to the opposite side. Some of the KKK members, for example, seem like walking clichés for what racist people should be like. The same with some of the police officers. The white racist officer, for example, seems to have walked off the set of last year’s THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) as if he’s Sam Rockwell’s Officer Dixon’s long-lost cousin, but with far less realistic results.

The screenplay by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee, based on the memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth, gets an A for its race relations content but scores far less when it comes to its characterizations and plot points. The characters struggle to remain real and the story doesn’t hit all the right notes. There are times when it feels like an awkward “special” episode of Norman Lear’s ALL IN THE FAMILY (1971-79).

On the other hand, one thing Spike Lee does well is take advantage of our knowledge and feelings of present day issues.  There are several uncomfortable scenes of police brutality, for example, in this story which takes place in 1972, but by and large they pale in comparison to real events which have happened in the here and now, again showing how things are worse here in 2018.

John David Washington, the son of Denzel Washington, is solid as Ron Stallworth, but strangely the character isn’t developed as thoroughly as he should be. We know that he always wanted to be a cop, and that he likewise wanted to fight for his people, but we know this because he says this.  We don’t really see or experience his passion or his pain.

Adam Driver fares better than Washington, and his Flip Zimmerman character is actually better developed than Ron Stallworth. Zimmerman is a Jew who at first doesn’t mind hearing all the KKK’s insults, but later in another of the movie’s better scenes, he tells Ron that the reason he didn’t mind the slurs is that although he is Jewish he wasn’t raised Jewish, and so his heritage meant nothing to him. He just saw himself as an average white American, but after hearing all the KKK members’ derogatory remarks, he says now for the first time in his life he can’t stop thinking about his heritage.

He also has a key scene where he responds to Ron’s question of why he doesn’t do anything about the racist cop in their midst, as he tells Ron that although the cop in question is a bad cop, they won’t do anything about it because they are a family and they must look after their own, to which Ron says “that sounds like another group I know about.”

Two of the better performances belong to the supporting players. I loved Laura Harrier as Patrice Dumars, the college student who leads the black movement on campus and who Ron falls for. Harrier possesses a strength and energy that oddly is missing from both Washington’s and Driver’s characters. The movie picks up in intensity every time she’s on-screen. Harrier was similarly successful in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017).

And Topher Grace is excellent as David Duke. His matter of fact businesslike style showing how Duke tried to intellectualize the KKK and make it mainstream, doing everything in his power to make it more acceptable, is unlike the rest of the movie, subtle and chilling. And when we see the real David Duke in 2017 footage, you can see how well Grace nailed the role.

Some of BLACKKKLANSMAN works. Some of it doesn’t. For example, the conversation where it’s explained that the role of the KKK in the 1970s was to legitimize racism to the point where it’s accepted in U.S. politics in the hope that one day someone with similar views is elected U.S. President, works on the one hand because here in 2018 that appears to be the case, but on the other hand seems too convenient and trite, the perfect ammunition for those arguing the opposite point that such talk is “fake news.”

That being said, I liked BLACKKKLANSMAN a lot, but I didn’t love it. What it has to say about race is absolutely required viewing. We still have a race relations problem in the United States and right now it’s not even close to getting better. But in terms of how it tells its story, I liked it less so.  Its characters struggled to draw me in, its story often seemed too blatant, as if Lee’s emotions about this topic were so strong he couldn’t see to it to tell it through a more nuanced lens, and its comedy rarely struck a chord and drew nary a chuckle.

Strangely, I was more emotionally moved regarding race by Marvel’s BLACK PANTHER (2018) earlier this year.

However, I may be in the minority. The film received a hearty round of applause from its full audience as the end credits rolled.

I do agree, however, that it’s Lee’s best film in years. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a Spike Lee movie that I’ve really liked. You probably have to go all the way back to MALCOLM X (1992).

The strength of BLACKKKLANSMAN is not in its storytelling but in its unabashed openness to look at issues of race. As such, it makes for a highly successful and effective essay on the history of race relations in the United States.

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