Operation Finale is one of those kinds of movies that is just good enough to make me wish it had been better. It’s based on the true story of an Israeli team of spies that located Adolph Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), one of Hitler’s lieutenants who authored The Final Solution. He’s been hiding in Argentina for years and giving public lectures, which isn’t helpful with keeping a low profile. Oscar Isaac (The Last Jedi) leads the Israeli spies as they plot to kidnap Eichmann, get him to admit his guilt for the Holocaust in writing, and smuggle him out of the country and to Israel to stand trail for the deaths of millions. This story should be exciting, it should be fascinating, it should be compelling, and for stretches it can be, but Operation Finale errs in capturing Eichmann too quickly. The majority of the film is the spy team holding him in a secret location and interrogating him, while the surprisingly Nazi-coddling police force of Argentina hunts for their location. I’m assuming the filmmakers were accurately telling the true story, but you start to question why the spies are taking their sweet time. Why not get on a boat as soon as possible and sail to another country to fly away, one less friendly to former Nazis? There aren’t really any set pieces where their cover might be blown. It’s mostly Isaac talking with Kingsley, and while their conversations are entertaining, it’s yet another preview of a better movie that we’re never going to have delivered. The film lacks enough urgency. The characterization is too limited and the supporting characters are more faces than people; Melanie Laurent essentially plays The Woman Spy. Operation Finale should have either spent more time on the specifics and complications of nabbing Eichamann, presenting a challenge, or it could have accentuated the debate between Isaac and Kingsley over the nature of culpability, rationalization, guilt, and vengeance. There’s probably a really good Nazi-hunting mini-series or Nazi-debating play in here. Either way, the actual finished film is well made, well acted, and well intentioned but also dramatically lacking.
Nate Grade: C+
Everybody loves magic, right? At least the prospect of being surprised and delighted. Now You See Me takes something everybody loves (magic) and mixes it with a genre everybody loves (heist movie) and has already profited from the results at the box-office. Mix an ensemble of actors, though all of them white, and look over in this direction for a diverting, entertaining, and ultimately frustrating film that is too breezy to hate.
Four different magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco) have teamed up to form a super team, The Horsemen, and they’ve taken Vegas by storm. A year into their reign, the insurance magnet and casino owner, Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), is sitting pretty with his investment until the Horsemen turn their targets on him. With each new fantastic trick, the quartet fleeces the shady businessman of his money, returning it to wronged parties and the public at large. FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol Agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) are tasked with finding the magical fugitives and figuring out their greater scheme. Just as one of the magicians notes, every time they think they’re one step ahead, they’re actually three behind.
Let’s begin by admitting that the premise of a group of magicians performing heists is excellent. Seriously, on that alone I’d be hooked. Wouldn’t an Ocean’s 11-style movie about a group of magicians working a big score just be awesome? There’s so much fun to be had with such a breezy premise and for the most part Now You See Me lives up to its breezy potential. It works in segments, presenting a magical set piece, watching it unfold, and then unpacking it, sort of like a reverse heist sequence. It provides a bite-size moment of satisfaction, and then the movie goes off and repeats the process. The Horsemen elude the police and we start to get a broader sense of their aims, namely a slice of class warfare vigilante justice. There’s a genuine thrill to watching smart, talented types outfox their antagonists, and Now You See Me is no different. Under Louis Leterrier’s (Clash of the Titans) direction, the results are fast-paced, constantly shifting and surprising, and so cheery in tone that it’s hard to fault the movie for its lack of substance. Here is an example of a summer movie that’s just fun to watch. It taps into the desire we all have to be fooled, the same willful disbelief we process when watching magic or movies themselves, the modern artistic equivalent of magic. For a solid hour-plus, Now You See Me is a diverting and entertaining action thriller.
There are only a handful of traditional action sequences in the movie as most of the thrills are comprised of the illusions and some foot chases. I do want to single out a great moment, namely a magic fight where Jack Wilder (Franco) runs al over an apartment subduing police officers with magic. At first he relies on stealth to get the drop on them, but then the guy resorts to what is practically magic kung fu, using his sleight-of-hand to disarm his attackers. He then uses playing cards and flash paper at his disposal. I only wish that Rhodes, Wilder’s main adversary in the scene, tried to fight fire with fire, so to speak, and make use of the magical accessories in comical matters. The scene’s imagination reminded me of the final confrontation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? where a selection of toon-specific tools were brought back for a unique showdown.
But with most magic acts, the good times start to fade once you find out how the trick is done. What hampers Now You See Me from being a stronger movie is a convoluted third act that goes to great preposterous lengths to explain the source behind the Horsemen. It’s pretty much who you’d assume it would be but I’ll still refrain from spoilers. Suffice to say, it’s an ending that doesn’t really work especially since it’s one of those reveals that makes you think back and question ordinary scenes. The movie muffs the landing, relying on twists to satisfy what was really just a high-concept heist movie. Another issue I had with the film is how quickly it marginalizes our would-be Robin Hoods of magic. After about the 45-minute mark, the Horsemen get sidelined as supporting characters and the movie is almost entirely told from the perspective of Rhodes. I understand there’s got to be some narrative discipline so that we don’t know the protagonists’ tricks before they perform them, but if I’m going to stuck with the dogged cop then make it his movie from the start. Compounding this problem is that the Horsemen, through no fault of the actors, barely register as characters. The actors are given one-note, and in the case of Fisher (The Great Gatsby) it was Woman, and that’s it. We see them as they perform their tricks and their daring escapes, but that doesn’t count as character development. In this regard, it’s less bothersome that these poorly conceived people get sidelined but then you stop and think that the only character you actually feel some interest in is Laurent’s Interpol agent.
My suggestion for any possible future installments (Now You See Me Again? Now You Don’t?) is to focus more on our core team of magicians rather than their mysterious benefactor. I would also stress less time spent talking about The Eye of Horus or whatever through-the-centuries secret club of magicians the film was hinting at. I liked that, while completely elaborate and with endless fortune in preparation, that the illusions still had some tenuous foot in reality, that the magic tricks could be done in a somewhat recognizable world of ours (ignore the hologram junk). I strongly feel that even hinting about secret magical orders is just a step too far, breaking the film’s credulity, and taking what was fun and making it silly. I was worried before seeing the movie that the magic, as advertised, was going to be too supernatural. I was relieved that there wasn’t going to be a late reveal where some character rolls their eyes, probably Eisenberg, sand says, “Well, yeah, magic is real. Stupid.” When you’re playing around with larger-than-life figures that deal in theatricality and misdirection, I think it’s paramount not to get too carried away, failing to ground your movie for the audience.
If you’re looking for a fun time out at the movies, Now You See Me will serve its purpose well enough until it begins to fall apart by the end. You may find yourself looking back and the earlier mystery and thrill of the unknown will dissipate upon reflection, leaving you with little. It’s fun while it lasts but when it’s all over you’re left with substandard characters and an overly convoluted plot that doesn’t satisfy in the clinch. Magicians-plan-heist is such a juicy premise that I hope someone else makes better use of it. I would still love to see that movie, only well developed and giving me characters to actually care about. Now You See Me is as substantial as a magic trick itself but it’s an inoffensive, carefree, and mostly fun ride at the movies, though I think so much more could have been done with this concept and this budget. For a $75 million dollar magic trick, I want a better result.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Burying a parent is one of the most gut-wrenching hardships of life, a passage I have thankfully not had to endure yet in my own life. Writer/director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) turned his own heartbreak into a subdued, life-affirming movie called Beginners. This gentle movie is comic, poignant, and frustratingly limited thanks to a miscalculation in its structure.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is reeling from the loss of his elderly father, Hal (Christopher Plummer). After the death of his wife, in his seventy-fifth year, Hal came out as being gay his whole life. And he decided to have some fun in those last years too, notably with a hunky younger boyfriend (Goran Visnjic, remember him, ER fans?). We get several flashbacks with Oliver and his ailing father, who was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer soon into his gay reemergence. In the present, Oliver, as a dissatisfied graphic designer, is trying to find his bearings after burying both of his parents. Hal’s dog, a Jack Russell terrier, is mourning as well, refusing to be left alone. As a result, Oliver takes the small dog with him wherever he travels, including social events. He meets Anna (Melanie Laurent) at a friend’s costume party. He’s dressed as Sigmund Freud and she mimes having laryngitis. Anna, a young actress who spends most of her life in hotels, invites him back and the two explore the possibility of a relationship. She’ll be off to another film shoot in a month, but the two become inseparable during the time they have together. Anna learns about Oliver and his complicated relationship with the complicated man he knew as his father. Oliver, and in flashback Hal, are beginners on a road to making sense of their lives.
What eventually holds Beginners back is its clipped structure. The film diverges into two main storylines, father and son (60%) and son with new love (40%). The new love stuff is presented fairly linearly, however, the father/son material is not, consisting of memories that can be triggered by objects or offhand sayings. Like (500) Days of Summer, memories are presented not in a linear fashion but through a connection of theme or tone. Rarely do we recount memories in a chronological fashion, and as such Oliver is beset by deluges of images of his father ailing at various points. But it’s like Mills took that fleeting memory approach to heart because Beginners is a slave to the altar of jump cuts. The editing, and the narrative, is constantly leaping forward; scenes rarely last longer than 30-45 seconds, making the film feel like somebody had their finger mashed against a stubborn fast forward button. As a result, the film feels hurried and unsettled, and this clipped structure mollifies the emotional impact of the movie. It’s because the romance only feels like someone’s remembrance of those burgeoning happy beginnings. The film doesn’t feel like it is in its own present; we’re in 2003 and Oliver will occasionally inform us, in High Fidelity-styled notation, of life at that moment. It feels like the entire enterprise is an assembly of past memories ping-ponging off one another. Another hurdle is that Anna and Oliver’s main conflict concerns their fear of happiness. Each had parents who wed as unhappy people, had unhappy unions, and both are fearful that they too will commit to living unhappy lives. It’s not an impossible feat, to be sure, but it does make it somewhat harder to relate to your characters when the main relationship problem is that they cannot accept happiness. While psychologically interesting in larger scope, due to the structure of Beginners, this conflict for Anna and Oliver seems petty and insufficient. The antsy story structure limits the emotional resonance of the movie. What should be a nourishing meal about the human condition ends up being a tidy snack instead.
Don’t get me wrong, Beginners is still a fairly moving film in its own right. Just the very nature of the story, dealing with the last months of an ailing parent and what to do next, is destined to hit poignant pockets of drama. Plus you have gifted actors doing fine work to wring out those tears. Mills’ tale is semi-autobiographical, which allows for several personal insights that can wound, like direct shots of honesty. Oliver narrates the steps taken after a parent’s death, including the mundane yet painful trivialities needed to convince every bill collector that their client has left the Earth. When Hal is informed that he has a spot of cancer the size of a quarter in his lung, the screen flashes to black as the doctor continues her somber diagnosis. A quarter appears. Then five nickels, finally twenty-five pennies. It’s a small little visual insert, and yet it manages to seem like a believable, personally relatable moment when delivered such thundering news. Something the size of a quarter will be responsible for your father losing his life. Five nickels. Twenty-five pennies. The scenes with father and son, coming to terms with saying goodbye, reflecting on lives lived and lives deferred, is what gives Beginners its beating heart. The clipped present-day romance plays more like a post-script attempt to forge a neat resolution after all that heavy grief.
Plummer gives a performance that is equal parts weighed with the gravity of death and the electricity of life. After his wife’s death, Hal finally has an opportunity to embrace who he has been his whole life. Mills and Plummer are delicate with how they handle the relationship between Hal and his wife (Mary Page Keller in flashback). Neither hated the other, and both did express love, but they were together in a marriage of convenience, both of them hiding who they were from preying eyes (Oliver’s mother hid that she was Jewish). Plummer’s celebration of life, the twinkling realization of accepting who you truly are, is an uplifting path for his character, and thanks to both Mills and Plummer it never feels like he’s dancing on the grave of his long-suffering wife. He’s not celebrating her death; he’s embracing who he is in the twilight of his years. He’s looking for a small amount of kindness and comfort while finally being socially recognized without fear or intimidation. Plummer is delightful during Hal’s happier moments and heart wrenching during the realities of his failing body. Plummer deftly bites into one of those juicy, Oscar-bait roles.
McGregor acts very well even if his character is kept in a very tight box of emotional expression. His character seems to sleepwalk from scene to scene; often little is said and much left to the imagination through pregnant pauses or gestures. McGregor does a fine job of balancing the different timelines of grief his character is experiencing. He’s in comic shock about his father’s newfound immersion in a gay lifestyle, he’s in mourning about the recent loss of his father, he’s in annoyance tinged with guilt about the burdens of taking care of a man that was often absent in his own life, leaving him in the care of his mother, resigned to a life of dutiful despondency, and he’s infatuated with the possibility of romantic love, a cleansing force. It’s a lot for one actor to keep straight and McGregor does an admirable job. Laurent does not fare as well. The Inglourious Basterds‘ actress is forced to rely mostly on wry smiles and her penetrating eyes. She also cocks her head to the side a lot, or a least that’s how I recall. She’s given something of a thanklessly underwritten role but she manages to be adorable from her first moment onscreen, which is her most vital acting accomplishment here. She’s supposed to be that happy ending we want Oliver to have.
Beginners is a moving, charming, and perceptive movie. If only there was more of it. The clipped, hurried jump cut-heavy structure keeps the audience at a certain distance and capping the emotional resonance. The father/son stuff is going to be easier to empathize with, both good times and bad, than two good-looking thirtysomethings afraid of being happy because their parents are screwed up. Ultimately, the film’s pretenses of a budding, quirky romance will take away from the more genuine father/son bonding late in life. You’ll get weepy at turns, maybe even swoon here and there, but the rewards are sadly too momentary, never cohesively assembling into a full-fledged narrative. Beginners has an equal number of hard truths and light moments of whimsy (the subtitled dog is a hoot), but ultimately it’s a movie that makes you wish it had left a better impression when it had the chance.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Quentin Tarantino has always been an artist that thumbs his nose at convention. Just as critics accused his last film, Death Proof, as wallowing in exploitation muck, here comes Inglourious Basterds, very loosely based on the correctly spelled 1978 Italian movie. War movies seem like a natural fit for the QT mold with their staunch violence, tough guy bravado, and vengeance-filled storylines. Tarantino has been working on the script for this film for over ten years, taking a break to produce the Kill Bill features. The finished product is a bloody alternative history wish-fulfillment fantasy with little conscience. This isn’t any sentimental, well-meaning, reflective war movie. This is war Tarantino-style and a celebration of war movies in general. Cinema becomes the weapon we win the war with.
In 1944, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is given a unique mission. He is to assemble and lead a crew of Jewish-American soldiers for one purpose — to kill Nazis. They will be dropped into German-occupied France and will use guerilla tactics to dismember Nazis and strike fear into the higher ranks. Aldo personally assigns each soldier with the task of collecting 100 Nazi scalps. “And I want my scalps,” he commands. The “basterds,” as they’re called, face steep opposition. S.S. Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) has earned the nickname “Jew hunter” for his terrifying precision at sniffing out Jews hiding along the French countryside. In the film?s terrific opening sequence, he systematically interrogates a French farmer into giving up the Jews he is hiding. Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) is a Jewish teenager who manages to miraculously escape this bloodbath.
Years later, she owns and operates a movie theater in Paris. The German high command wants to screen their newest propaganda masterpiece, Nation’s Pride about the exploits of sniper Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), in Shoshanna’s theater. Finally she can plot her vengeance, except that Landa will be providing security for the special screening. Meanwhile, Aldo and the basterds scheme to meet up with German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), who is secretly working with the British as a spy for Operation Kino. The top-secret mission involves attending the movie premier at Shoshanna’s theater and then killing all the high-ranking brass in attendance, thus ending the war.
Those looking for a rip-roaring good time of watching Pitt prance through the countryside dispatching evil Nazis will be disappointed to learn that Inglourious Basterds is, after all, a Tarantino movie. That means there is talking. Lots of talking, but it’s great, glourious talking with deep undercurrents of menace. The movie boils down to about six set pieces and most of that time involves long, drawn out conversations where the tension percolates underneath the surface. The characters play a cat-and-mouse game of deception, and the conversation transforms into a slow fuse waiting to go off. The characters engage in an “I know, and you know I know” bout of play acting, going about their business as if all is calm, when each is waiting for the next move. Tarantino turns dialogue scenes into slow-burning combat, and eventually those lit fuses do finally go off and the scene will erupt in a great splash of violence. Then we are left to assess the situation and collect our bearings, much like the characters if they are fortunate enough to be alive. This is a talky war movie, and Tarantino does fall in love with his dialogue rhythms and allow his characters to overindulge and circle the same plot points more than is needed, like the sequence with von Hammersmark in the bar, but the naysayers looking for an action romp that complain nothing goes on are missing the point. A tremendous amount is going on, you just have to look beneath the surface, lie in wait, and luxuriate in the simmering tension that Tarantino plays like a pro.
Tarantino has an encyclopedic knowledge of film that allows him to blend and deconstruct genres, and Inglourious Basterds feels like an homage not to World War II but war movies in general, with a dash of spaghetti westerns. When the French farmer watches Landa drive up to his home, linked with the great Enrico Morricone’s score, you definitely feel like you’re in a western transported into mid-twentieth century Europe. The conversations feel like high-noon showdowns. Tarantino’s direction feels less stylized and idiosyncratic this time. He still plays around with time and back-story, even recruiting Samuel L. Jackson to be a God-like narrator, but Ingloruious Basterds is mostly a literal and linear pop deconstruction of war movies. When Tarantino deviates sharply from the known historical timeline, it feels within reason given the cracked mirror world he?s created. Tarantino can turn World War II into a campy Warner Brothers cartoon, replete with goofy over-the-top caricatures of Hitler and Goebbles. He can also takes digressions and hard right turns with his story, allowing characters to chew over the finer intricacies of German silent cinema. It’s bloody, messy, but boy is it entertaining as hell.
Any conversation over Inglourious Basterds is inevitably going to gravitate to its fascinating central villain, Hans Landa. German actor Waltz plays the infamous “Jew Hunter” and he is astounding to watch; he enlivens every moment onscreen and won a Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. Landa is an extremely intelligent and polite inquisitor. He comes across almost like a diabolical S.S. version of Colombo: he’s three steps ahead, feigns ignorance, circles his prey, and finally strikes after mentally tearing down the suspect. Waltz is practically giddy in some sequences, enthusiastic for such sick endeavors. He likes to screw with people and make them nervous. And yet, thanks to the wily brilliance and magnetism of Waltz, you develop a perverse appreciation for the man. Despite the horrors he is responsible for, you may actually find yourself liking Landa. He has moments of great cunning, like his deliberate reasons for switching to English with the French farmer or his off-the-cuff destruction of von Hammersmark’s alibi. When he suddenly and fluently launches into his fourth language, it is one of the film’s finest “oh crap” moments. This is a truly memorable character that dominates every scene, and Waltz gives an astounding star-making performance destined to be remembered when it comes time to draw Oscar nominees.
The rest of the actors do well but no one approaches the planet that Waltz resides on. Pitt seems to knowingly be shooting for parody with his performance. His accent is twangy and coats every word in a honeyed glaze; you almost expect him to wink at the camera after each line. He’s still amusing to behold in the rather few instances that Aldo graces the movie. Laurent (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) and Kruger (National Treasure) both have intriguing albeit underwritten roles, and both actresses give the best performances in the film after Waltz. Eli Roth (writer/director of Cabin Fever, one of my favorite movie indulgences) looks the part as the commanding “Bear Jew” with his lean physique and Louisville slugger, but I couldn’t tell what he was doing with his accent. Is he supposed to be from New York or Boston? In war movies, there was usually a colorful collection of characters but Inglourious Basterds doesn’t really do much to accentuate its second tier players. The only basterd that leaves an impression is Til Schweiger (Driven, Far Cry), all humorless resolve and flinty stares. And what happened to the basterds in the final act? Where did everybody go? Yes, that really is Mike Myers doing one of his Austin Powers-esque British impressions.
What is truly surprising is that Basterds unflinchingly looks at all the ugly aspects of war. The movie doesn’t neatly categorize the villains and the heroes. Zoller is a German sniper that killed 300 Allied troops and yet he is portrayed as grounded and romantic, a film lover able to chip away at Shoshanna?s steely reserve. To the basterds, they refuse to see past the uniform and armband; there is no difference between a Nazi and a German soldier. They will mutilate both on principal. Tarantino also gives time to examining the collateral damage of war, watching innocents gunned down in the name of duty. Shoshanna’s plot for vengeance involves the horrific deaths of scads of people whose only sin may have been being German in Paris. Operation Kino is described by Landa as a “terrorist plot” and isn’t it, really? But then Aldo disputes that a “Nazi ain’t got no humanity” and that collaborators and bystanders are just as culpable. Aldo and his basterds march through France committing what could sensibly be described as war crimes, and these are the good guys! Even with all the camp and stylized violence, there may be moments where you want to cringe and ask yourself, “Am I supposed to be enjoying this??
There are those that bemoan that Tarantino is wasting away his remarkable talents on such low-rent enterprises. He is too caught up in genre filmmaking, they claim. He needs to go back to his earlier audacious works, like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, films of startling intelligence and playfulness. He needs to stop making collages of movies and go back to making real movies, they cry. Ingloruious Basterds will not please these critics. This is a verbose deconstruction of war movies that runs over 150 minutes and mostly involves characters seated and chatting. It will clearly not be for everyone, especially those sold into thinking Basterds was going to be a more graphic version of The Dirty Dozen. This movie is more Cinema Paradiso than The Dirty Dozen. If Tarantino wants to keep making high-gloss genre goofs, that’s fine with me as long as the end results are as creative and entertaining as this movie. Who else is going to make a World War II fantasy with excellent use of David Bowie’s song “Cat People”? No one makes movies like Tarantino. I rest my case.
Nate’s Grade: A