REVIEW: “Operation Finale” (2018)

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Otto Adolf Eichmann was a high-ranking Nazi SS officer and one of the key architects of Hitler’s “Final Solution”. Decorated and revered among the Nazi hierarchy, Eichmann’s fingerprints were all over the Holocaust. He would organize and oversee the mass deportation of Jewish communities to extermination camps across Eastern Europe during World War II. The hunt and subsequent capture of Eichmann is a fascinating story to behold.

After World War II Adolf Eichmann escaped custody and hid throughout Europe before settling in Buenos Aires. “Operation Finale” from director Chris Weitz spotlights the Israeli intelligence team who located Eichmann and were tasked with bringing him back to Jerusalem to stand trial before the nation.

Oscar Isaac stars as Peter Malkin, a secret agent from the more aggressive wing of the Mossad. In 1960 the intelligence agency initially ignores a lead claiming Eichmann had been spotted in Argentina. But fearing public outcry, Malkin and his team are sent to South America to covertly extract Eichmann under the noses of an unhelpful local government and a rising Nazi sentiment. Ben Kingsley plays the enigmatic Eichmann, a queasy mixture of family man and outright monster.

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First time screenwriter Matthew Orton covers a lot of ground in the film’s two-hour running time. A good chunk is spent peeling back the layers of Eichmann and revealing an unexpected touch of humanity. It’s a tough juggling act particularly for Kingsley who is both unsettling and convincing. His portrayal hides Eichmann’s heinous beliefs behind a veil of good manners and fatherly devotion giving form to what historian Hannah Arendt referred to as “the banality of evil”.

Then you have the Jewish intelligence team whose pain-driven impulses for revenge routinely clash with their sense of duty. It is especially true for Peter who still finds himself haunted by flashbacks of the German atrocities. This adds another level of stress to the already demanding mission. Some good performances fill out the rest of the team – Lior Raz, Nick Kroll, and the always good French actress Mélanie Laurent. She plays a doctor and Peter’s former love interest although their relationship isn’t given a lot of detail.

An integral side story features one of my favorite young actresses Haley Lu Richardson (“Columbus”, “The Edge of Seventeen”). She plays Sylvia, the daughter of Lothar Hermann (Peter Strauss) who secretly feeds information to the Israelis regarding Eichmann’s whereabouts. But her budding relationship with Eichmann’s Nazi-sympathizing son (Joe Alwyn) puts her in a precarious position. It’s an interesting story angle but unfortunately Richardson’s character gets lost in the third act as the film crunches the timeline and focuses more on the extraction.

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The film’s slow boil may push away those looking for a snappier or more action-oriented thriller. But I appreciated its deliberate pacing and attention to character. As I said about Richardson, not everyone gets the fullest treatment, but there are some fabulous character-driven moments specifically between Isaac and Kingsley. They offer some great exchanges amid two top form performances.

Producers Fred Berger and Brian Kavanaugh-Jones have stated that there is far more truth to their story than dramatic license. That’s one reason you won’t find “Operation Finale” leaning too heavily on routine tropes and gimmicks to amp up the tension. They want it to come from a more authentic place. That gives this film a different feel – patient, even methodical to a point. It wouldn’t appear to be the easiest sell, but a strong backing from MGM Studios ensured its production.

It has been said that as the end of the war drew close Eichmann declared he could “leap laughing into the grave because the feeling that he had five million people on his conscience would be for him a source of extraordinary satisfaction.” It’s that deep-seated wickedness and unspeakable callousness mixed with their own personal losses that drove the Mossad throughout this incredible mission. “Operation Finale” shines a light on their efforts and does so with reverence, patience and with the help of one stellar cast.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Exodus: Gods and Kings”

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I can’t help but wonder if it’s actually possible for a ‘by the good book’ movie to be embraced and appreciated within the arena of contemporary film criticism. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying critics have been given a lot of quality Bible-based movies to consider. I’m just curious if a receptive environment exists in criticism these days for movies like Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments”? Is this why a flawed movie like “Noah”, which drastically alters the biblical account, is widely accepted among critics? Is this why Ridley Scott chose to omit some key portions of the Moses story in his new film “Exodus: Gods and Kings”?

Now make no mistake, thankfully “Exodus” is no “Noah”. Darren Aronofsky used his Noah story as a platform to promote everything from environmentalism and animal rights to redefining the God of the Bible in several unsavory ways. Ridley Scott doesn’t do that in “Exodus”. “Noah” was also utterly ridiculous and downright dumb at times. “Exodus” doesn’t have that problem either. Scott takes several dramatic liberties, but he does maintain a level of respect for the source material. Instead it’s the numerous omissions that hold the film back a bit.

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It may be an overused term, but “Exodus” is by definition an epic. Ridley Scott is definitely playing in a familiar period piece sandbox and the sheer scope of the production is jaw-dropping. Over 1,500 special effects shots and some incredible costume and set designs were used to create this vast and vivid landscape. This may be the most visually arresting movie I’ve experienced this year, and it could be said that it should be seen on the big screen to fully appreciate its accomplishments.

The sweeping story begins in 1300 B.C. with Moses (Christian Bale) serving as a general in the Egyptian army. He holds a place of prominence after being adopted into the royal family as an infant and raised with friend and Pharaoh-to-be Prince Ramesses (Joel Edgerton). The Moses of this film is a very complex character. We see him as stubborn, defiant, and conflicted. These traits really come out after God appears to him and tasks him with leading His chosen people out of Egyptian slavery. The film paints Moses as a reluctant prophet at first – one who often disapproves of God’s actions. Only over time does he finally understand that God is with them.

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Now “Exodus” could be theologically picked apart, but I felt its central focus was on target. But there were interpretive decisions that puzzled me. For example, when God speaks to Moses He does so through a messenger – a young boy. I’m sure there is some deeper meaning behind that imagery, but it’s completely lost on me. I also think Moses’ reluctance to follow God and general lack of faith carries on for too much of the film. I think it robs the story of some of its deeper meaning.

On the other hand there are some interpretations that really intrigued me. For instance, I love the way Scott presents the ten plagues. Aside from the odd way the film launches them, there is a natural connection between several of plagues that is very well realized. Some people have voiced displeasure with the use of nature, but I think it works because the plagues are still clearly supernatural. The same with the parting of the Red Sea. It’s definitely a different approach and some of the changes are unnecessary. But the entire sequence is tense and thrilling. It’s an incredible visual spectacle.

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There has also been criticism about the casting of predominately white actors playing Hebrew and Egyptian characters. Some have gone as far as to ask for a boycott. I don’t like these objections because they automatically assume a degree of racism is behind the casting even though no evidence exists to support it. I also think in this case they ignore some really good performances. Bale gives a solid performance that skillfully moves his character from prominent Egyptian royalty to tired and destitute Hebrew leader. And Joel Edgerton is very good as Ramesses. It’s an incredibly committed performance that could have gone terribly wrong in lesser hands. Both actors put all into their characters and I have nothing bad to say about their casting.

“Exodus” is an interesting Bible-inspired epic. There are a number of Bible omissions and deviations that actually hurts the plot. There are also some unfortunate narrative jolts – moments where the story leaps ahead without giving us the information we need to fill in the gap. But the movie doesn’t disrespect the Biblical account and there no hidden or secret agendas as with Aronofsky’s “Noah”. And then there is the overall presentation from director Ridley Scott. No one can visualize huge and ambitious period pieces like he does. I can’t tell you how many times I said “Wow” while sitting in the theater. It’s that visionary style that ultimately brought this amazing and beloved story to life for me. I doubt it will resonate with most critics, but I’m hoping it finds an audience.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Ender’s Game”

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It would be easy to lump “Ender’s Game” in with the current trend of science-fiction films centered around young people. These movies seem to be popular now and modern Hollywood has shown it will milk popular trends dry. But while “Ender’s Game” has several elements that puts it in this category, it also does somethings that sets it apart. It is a movie with a thinly-veiled message, but it’s also a fun bit of science fiction that doesn’t always feel original but still works as a whole.

Asa Butterfield, who I loved as the wide-eyed title character in Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”, plays a young prodigy named Andrew “Ender” Wiggin. After months of observation, he is sent to an advanced battle school by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford). The school is the first step in preparing the kids for war with an alien species known as the Formics. 50 years earlier the Formics attacked Earth but were finally repelled by the heroic and sacrificial acts of a now iconic soldier named Mazer Rackham. The military believes another alien attack is inevitable so they plan to strike before the aliens do.

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The film follows Ender and a number of other kids through various stages of Battle School. You see apparently these video game savvy youth have acquired a better skill set for the video game-like combat of the future. As Ender advances he encounters an assortment of new kids, some of which are characters we’ve seen in movies a hundred times before. For example, there is an adolescent “Top Gun” rivalry that was just too corny to buy into. All of this is going on under the watchful eye of the cold, businesslike Colonel Graff and his counterpoint Major Anderson (Viola Davis) who is more interested in the children’s emotional well-being.

The story builds and builds towards the seemingly inevitable war to come. Ender develops a few close relationships with fellow cadets including an outgoing girl named Petra. She’s played by Hailee Steinfeld, one of my favorite young actresses in Hollywood. Ben Kingsley also pops up in the second half of the film with an interesting role and a face full of tattoos. The performances from all who I’ve mentioned are solid. I’m really impressed with Butterfield and Steinfeld, both of whom know how to handle themselves in front of the camera. Some of the other young actors, not so much.

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While I liked the story of “Ender’s Game” as a whole it does run into a wall about two-thirds of the way through. It begins to feel as if it is repeating itself (with slight advancements of the plot) at certain junctures. I eventually found myself ready to move past Ender’s training and get to the big finale. It certainly does come with some big special effects and a few rather disorienting twists that took a minute or two to soak in. Some interesting ramifications and personal conflicts follow which I thought was a neat way to end the story.

Maybe I shouldn’t say “end the story” because “Ender’s Game” is clearly set up with a franchise in mind. The final scene leaves no doubt about that. I would check out another chapter of this story although I’m not sure how compelling the new direction might be. As for this first installment, it is a fairly satisfying bit of science fiction that walks the tricky line of trying to appeal to youth and adults alike. For the most part it succeeds. It’s not a movie I would rush to see again, but it is a film I can appreciate.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Iron Man 3”

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Marvel Studies’ wildly successful 2012 film “The Avengers” confirmed several things. First, the amazing interconnected universe experiment that started all the way back in the first Iron Man film worked brilliantly. Another thing it did was establish Robert Downey Jr. and his Tony Stark character as the biggest draw of the group. Well now Downey Jr. returns for his third individual Iron Man flick in what’s sure to be another mammoth blockbuster hit. And while hordes of moviegoers and fanboys are sure to flock to it, can “Iron Man 3” continue to build on its already successful formula?

Let me say I loved “Iron Man” from 2008. And while its sequel “Iron Man 2” had its shortcomings, it was still a fun and entertaining entry into Marvel’s cinematic universe and a cool link into the Avengers project. I was really hoping that “Iron Man 3” would more closely resemble the franchise’s first film – a movie that I still think is one of the best superhero films period. But for me it more closely resembled the second picture, perhaps better but only slightly.

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Gwyneth Paltrow in “Iron Man 3”

This is the first Marvel Studios film since “The Avengers” and we do get a few cool references to what took place in New York City. But by and large this is a separate story focused on Tony Stark more so than his metal man persona. The movie starts with a flashback to 1999 where Tony (Downey Jr.) and his best friend Happy (Jon Favreau) are partying it up at a science conference in Switzerland on New Years Eve. Tony, ever the womanizer back in the day, hooks up with a brilliant botanist named Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall). At the party Tony pompously brushes off the wormy Aldrich Killian (Guy Pierce) who approaches Stark with an invitation to join his think tank Advanced Idea Mechanics (comic fans will most certainly recognize A.I.M.). This brief prologue introduces the beautiful Maya and the scorned Killian into the movie’s landscape.

From there the film moves to present day where Tony has found himself a nervous wreck since the alien invasion of New York City (ala “The Avengers”). Battling panic attacks and insomnia, he finds refuge in building Iron Man suits. Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), the cure to Tony’s past life of excess and carousing, begins to feel the effects of Tony’s emotional state. Aside from his personal troubles a Bin Laden-esque terrorist named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has claimed responsibility for a series of deadly bombings. When Happy is seriously injured in one of those attacks an infuriated Tony calls The Mandarin out publicly. What follows leaves Tony alone, armorless, and presumed dead with only his brains, wits, and deductive skills to find The Mandarin and stop him.

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Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark

Shane Black directs and co-writes the story that tosses a lot at the audience. Killian pops back into picture in a much better physical condition than when we first see him. We also see Maya again and even though its a pretty small role she holds some rather important bits of information. Don Cheadle gets plenty of screen time as “Rhodey” who dons the more politically sensitive Iron Patriot armor. But everything comes back to Tony Stark and the movie really focuses on the man outside of the Iron Man suit. To some degree I enjoyed that and many have responded to the movie because it tries to look more at the man than the superhero. He’s forced to resort more to his inventive ingenuity much like in the early scenes of the first film.

But if I’m honest I have to say that I don’t know if that’s what I want from an Iron Man superhero movie. Don’t misunderstand me, I love the idea of giving the character some depth. The first film did that well. But considering how much time is spent with Tony outside of the armor, I didn’t feel his character was expanded that much. Downey Jr. certainly gives us another solid performance and I love him in this role. And while the more desperate tone did lessen the number of quick quips and smart-alecky jests, he still pulls in some good laughs especially when partnering with a precocious young boy (Ty Simpkins) who otherwise serves no other purpose than to play his cliched temporary sidekick.

The film does have strong moments and it delivers some pretty hefty payoffs. The tension surrounding The Mandarin really works for most of the movie and there are some big time action sequences that visually blew my socks off. I also loved the work of Guy Pearce in a performance that he himself viewed as “experimental” in a sense. Rebecca Hall was also very good and she had me craving more screen time for her. In fact, the entire cast gives us some really good performances and even when the dialogue occasionally trips over itself they still impress.

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Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin

But I keep coming back to one thing, something stemming from a conscious choice of Shane Black. I wanted to see more of Iron Man in his armor and while the buddy cop elements with Rhodey and the super sleuth angle in small town Tennessee didn’t equal bad cinema, it did leave me anxious for a superhero film that I’m not sure ever came. I don’t want to leave the impression that we never see the armor, but even then many of those moments aren’t Tony Stark at all (I’ll leave it at that). Even with the number of wild explosions and hair-raising action scenes which I thoroughly enjoyed, the movie still didn’t feel quite like the second phase of Marvel’s movie universe.

And I can’t help myself, I have to mention another thing. This film takes Tony Stark and his Iron Man story far away from its comic book source material, farther than either of the other films. For many this is a non-issue, but for a fanboy who sees the original material as better, well let’s just say it’s a shame. And it’s not just the Tony Stark character who is altered. There’s a huge reveal in the second half of the film that obliterates a major part of Iron Man’s history. It’s pushed by some pretty lame attempts at comedy and it drains the film of one of its strongest story angles. Frankly, it didn’t work for me. Black and co-writer Drew Pearce’s choice for a twist combined with several plot holes and the typical maniacal world domination story was a surprising letdown.

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Yes, that’s Pepper Potts

I’m still conflicted about “Iron Man 3” and it’s a film I think I need to rewatch before I can truly cement my overall rating. But I don’t want my gripes to overshadow the fact that I had a lot of fun with the movie. The performances are wonderful and I’m surprised to say that they are what kept me enthralled more so than the action or drama. But the action sequences are for the most part outstanding. There are a few cheesy effects but there are also some of the most jaw-dropping visual sequences yet to come out of Marvel Studios.

So is this just a case of enormous expectations or was I expecting a different movie altogether? Well, a little of both I think. In the end “Iron Man 3” does deliver but it’s certainly not the ‘blow you away’ flick both the fanboy and superhero fan in me was hoping for. Black had a decent vision for this film and he certainly had a wonderful cast. But his overall story direction is lacking and his shredding of key source material took away from what he did right. I’m afraid that’s what is keeping me from fully embracing this movie. It’s certainly a fun time, but in a way it was a little disappointing.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “SCHINDLER’S LIST”

Many movies have looked at the Jewish Holocaust from a variety of different angles. There have been films that examined it through the eyes of children, those that have focused on specific regions, and others that show individuals who went to great lengths to help the persecuted Jews. A well done movie on the subject always has a strong effect on me. It’s not just the terrible things and disturbing images that filmmakers are showing us, but it’s the fact that they are dealing with a very real and devastating time in our world’s history. The Nazi slaughter of 6 million Jews marks one of the world’s darkest times. But it’s also a period that should never be forgotten and there are several films that help us remember.

While many movies have done an excellent job responsibly depicting events surrounding the Holocaust, Steven Spielberg’s 1993 movie “Schindler’s List” is the one that has had the strongest impact on me personally. I recently had an opportunity to revisit the film. It had been several years since I had last saw it and with good reason. It’s not an easy movie to watch. It features some of the most realistic and graphic depictions of Nazi violence and mistreatment of the Jews and doesn’t shy away from presenting it in a crushing and penetrating way. From their initial relocation to Krakow’s Jewish Ghetto to their brutal and deadly time spent in the Nazi extermination camps, we see the Jews experience all forms of cruelty and brutality made more disturbing by its roots in reality.

The Jewish plight is brilliantly and cleverly shown through the true story of Oskar Schindler. Schindler, played wonderfully by Liam Neeson, is a German businessman who arrives in occupied Krakow in hopes of making a load of money exploiting the war. At first, Schindler is a self-absorbed, money-hungry man who quickly finds acceptance by kissing up to an assortment of high-ranking German SS officers. Through bribes and his Nazi Party membership, Schindler obtains several contracts to make metal pots and pans for the German soldiers in the field. To secure even more money for himself, he brings in a Jewish workforce who work considerably cheaper than the local Catholic Poles. To keep his fledgling company up and going, he hires Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), an accomplished Jewish accountant and highly regarded member of the Jewish community. It’s through this relationship that Schindler begins to see his perceptions change.

Coinciding with SS Officer Amon Goeth’s (Ralph Fiennes) arrival at the Plaszow concentration camp, the Germans raid and empty the Krakow Ghetto, shipping Jews to the camp and slaughtering almost 2,000 in the streets. As Schindler witnesses the atrocities taking place, he’s deeply troubled and an internal conflict begins between his desire for a money-making business and his growing affection for his Jewish workers. He struggles with the temptation to take his money and leave the city. Instead he sets out to use his fortune to try to save his workers and as many other Jews as he can. To do so requires him to get close to high-ranking Nazi’s like Goeth making it all the more difficult.

The story of Oskar Schindler and his personal transformation is quite moving and Liam Neeson is nothing short of brilliant in his portrayal. Neeson’s Schindler is a confident and looming opportunist. Even Spielberg’s camera makes him stand head and shoulders about so many of the people he is in contact with. That’s just one reason the ending is so stirring (I’ll leave it at that for those who haven’t seen the film). I was particularly enamored with the relationship between Schindler and Stern. You initially see the two on a strictly business level. Neither really like or trust the other. But as mentioned, it’s this growing friendship that plays a key role in Schindler’s transformation. I talked about the fantastic work of Neeson. Let me just say Kingsley is equally good and I still view this as his very best performance.

I also have to take time to praise Ralph Fiennes and his incredible work as Goeth, easily one of the most detestable villains on film. Fiennes visually captures this sick and twisted personification of evil. While Schindler does find ways to manipulate Goeth, his ingrained wickedness never goes away and we see it on display through some of the movie’s more disturbing scenes. What makes the character more frightening is that the movie doesn’t stray that far in its portrayal of the real Amon Goeth. He was a sadistic cold-hearted murderer who is said to have killed close to 550 Jews himself. That’s not counting the thousands he sent to be executed. Spielberg included several scenes that show Goeth’s murderous tendencies including his penchant for sniping Jewish workers in the camp from the terrace of his château on the hill. This sick bit of reality only makes the character more despicable and Fiennes sell it perfectly.

“Schindler’s List” is also a technical achievement. Spielberg’s decision to shoot it in black and white was perfect. It gives the movie an added feel of authenticity and when mixed with the frequent hand-held camera work and strategically placed wide angled shots, it makes you believe you’re watching a documentary. The clever style of several scenes almost resemble old film footage of the actual events. It’s that convincing. The movie was shot in a way that resembled a more classic style of filmmaking but yet never shied away from the harsh reality it was depicting. The movie was helped by being filmed on or near the locations of the actual events. Spielberg’s desire for realism really pays off and the locations were a big part of it. But that same desire for realism also made filming difficult for the director. It’s been said he cried repeatedly during the filming and there were certain scenes he literally couldn’t watch.

While “Schindler’s List” is a great film, it can also be a difficult movie for audiences to watch. It’s a movie that’s sometimes painful and emotionally draining. But it’s also a film of immense power and the deepest sincerity. It’s a visually stunning war picture that makes you feel as though you are witnessing these horrific events first-hand. It’s also a story of incredible personal transformation in the middle of some of our world’s darkest moments. The performances are outstanding and Spielberg’s direction bypasses most of the other work on his resume. It’s a stirring historical drama that reminds me of the power movies have to entertain us, to move us, and inform us. It’s also a reflection on a time that we should never forget and events we should never repeat.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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