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Operation Finale (2018)

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+

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The House (2017)

It’s got an appealing premise and many funny people attached, so why is The House such a shoulder-shrug of a comedy? Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler open a casino in a sleepy suburb to try and make enough dough to send their daughter to the college of her dreams. Ultimately, it’s just too safe and expected. There are plenty of jokes about the couple trying to adopt the mafia thuggery they’ve seen in popular movies. The set pieces feel underdeveloped and quick to end on strangely violent notes, including a running gag of physical harm coming to one of the daughter’s friends. Ferrell and Poehler don’t have strong characters to play, so when the scenes go long, as they often do, you feel like they’re just throwing whatever improv riffs they can to see what sticks. It gets tedious. The depiction of this reality also leads to difficult questions. They didn’t lose their child’s college fund through some swindle; they just never saved, always assuming their daughter would earn a scholarship. They also have never heard about student loans, which every person is guaranteed access to. We also don’t see the ramifications of Ferrell and Poehler fleecing their neighbors of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Wouldn’t that have a deleterious effect on a small suburb? It should at least create more conflict. The movie jumps directly from the parents deciding they will open a casino to having an open casino. It feels like we skipped a whole act of valuable material. How did they hire these people? Where did they get the capital? I think a major mistake was having such a select number of characters. This premise deserved to be an ensemble comedy with each character contributing in some fashion. Jason Mantzoukas (TV’s The League) is the funniest resource the film has and I knew at least when he was on screen that I had the best chance for laughter. I may be heartless but I found the daughter to be a simpering, annoying character. What teenager doesn’t have or desire an independent life outside his or her parents? She doesn’t seem worth all the trouble. The House finished filming around January 2016, which means it’s been a long edit to find as much funny as they could with the available footage. I think they either ran out of time or just gave up.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Loving (2016)

loving_onesheetRichard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga) are a young couple deeply in love in the late 1950s. The only problem: he is white and she is black. The laws in their native Virginia forbid marriages to different races. The Lovings traveled to Washington D.C. to be married and then had to live as fugitives before ultimately getting caught and exiled under threat of jail time. Eventually an ambitious ACLU lawyer (Nick Kroll, broadening his range) challenges the legality of the miscegenation law, which will lead to the landmark 1967 Supreme Court ruling striking down laws barring interracial marriage.

The ordinariness of the Lovings betrays the kind of movie moments we expect from great historical turning points, namely moral grandstanding and stentorian speechifying. We’re so used to accentuated versions of history because, deep down, that’s what our storytelling impulses crave because the real thing is often less streamlined and usually more boring. We want Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln admonishing his fellows with the power of his oratory. We don’t necessarily want to watch President Lincoln rewrite his speeches for grammatical mistakes. With all that being said, I appreciated the approach that writer/director Jeff Nichols took with Loving because the very point at the heart of the movie is just how powerfully ordinary Mildred and Richard Loving are. Their love is meant to be ordinary, their relationship relatable. They’re meant to be just like you or I. This thematically taps into the message of the movie about the fundamental human rights of American citizens to love who they love regardless of what others may think. There is nothing dangerous or subversive about their marriage. There is nothing radical. The rationale for why the state would care so much about a marriage can be flabbergasting, including one judge’s written opinion that God created separate races and placed them at separate points on the globe thereby never intending for them to mix. This was considered acceptable legal justification for discrimination in the 1960s and it’s absurd. The other argument against interracial marriage is that biracial children are a harm to larger society… somehow. It’s easy to look back to the past and shake our heads with a fury of moral indignation and say “How could they do that?” but some of these exact same legal arguments have been used in the twenty-first century to justify denying gay citizens the same equality. In that sense, Loving shows us how far we’ve come but also how far we have to go to make sure that human beings are simply considered human.

loving2_h_2016If that wasn’t enough the movie also makes a powerfully compelling case about how the state’s miscegenation laws were an offense to human decency. The Lovings are given the legal ultimatum to separate or be exiled from the state, their families, and the home they were making for their family. They have been banished for loving the “wrong” person. Mildred and Richard try living out of the state in a D.C. suburb but it’s not the same; Mildred misses the quiet and relative safety of the country as well as the warmth of her immediate family. They decide to sneak back into Virginia and lay low, and you get a genuine sense of the day-to-day anxiety of having to constantly look over your shoulder and fly under the radar lest someone throw you in prison for loving another race. The degradation and dehumanizing effect of the miscegenation laws is on full display with how Mildred and Richard must act like criminals afraid of their country of laws. They may be used to the glares and hateful comments from intolerant onlookers but it’s another thing when the power of the state is employed to enforce that same hate. The wear and tear of their love perplexes some of the Loving friends and family. Mildred’s brother and sister each take turns blaming Richard for knowingly bringing this heap of trouble upon their beloved sister and for taking her from them. Her brother confesses he doesn’t know why he doesn’t just divorce her and stay together, satisfying the definition of the law. It’s a pertinent question that asks what is the value of marriage? He could readily be with Mildred and save themselves the persecution, but why should they have to settle for something less with their love? Why should they have to be second-class citizens?

This is very much a duet of a movie and Negga and Edgerton deliver admirable, understated work that cuts deeply. I was most impressed with Edgerton (The Gift) who has the more private and insular character. He’s not seeking the spotlight and doesn’t want to be a civil rights crusader. Richard Loving isn’t exactly a man prone to those speeches we crave and he’s certainly not a man to blurt out his feelings. Edgerton has to play within a tiny frame of emotional reference and he makes it work. When he does start to break down, his stoic defenses melting under the pressure and soul-killing compromises, the moments carry even greater emotional weight. Negga is the more emotive of the two but even much of her performance lies in her large, expressive eyes, taking in the collective injustices and triumphs. Using approximately the same Southern accent from her plucky performance on AMC’s Preacher, she radiates warmth and goodness and a sense of indomitable perseverance. It’s a performance that speaks in small gestures and small moments. Much of the film is Negga and Edgerton working together and each lifts the other up, providing the right space needed. There’s a physical intimacy that says much as each member of the relationship seeks out the other’s touch, grip, presence for comfort. It’s a delicate and understated duet of performances that bring the Lovings to faithful life.

loving-november-2016-movieNichols (Mud, Take Shelter) is the kind of filmmaker that astonishes me with every new movie. He reinvents himself with every picture and he takes genres and redefines them, shaping them to his needs, while never losing sight of tone and characters and narrative payoffs. He’s already delivered one of the best movies of the year with Midnight Special and now he impresses yet again, this time turning toward awards-friendly Important Stories of History. Nichols’ sense of place is implacable. He’s also superb at developing characters and giving them the time to properly breathe. He keeps the spirit of the story linked to his subjects, Richard and Mildred Loving, and makes sure we understand their plight and the larger issue at hand. This isn’t a film that’s going to hit you over the head with its message; in fact you could make a claim that perhaps the movie is too insular. As presented, the Lovings are relatable but we’re only given a fraction of insight into who they are as people and what makes them tick. There’s much subtext here to unpack. It does feel like we’re fighting through the defenses of Mildred and Richard to better know them. This specific approach allows the movie to keep in spirit with the ordinariness of the Lovings and their unknowing place in the history of civil rights, but it also caps the potential emotional impact. We’re invested in them as people but not as completely as characters. It’s a minor criticism perhaps but it’s really the only one I have for Nichols’ movie.

Given our recent turbulent political environment, Loving is an even more significant film. Jeff Nichols has crafted a poignant and affecting movie that passes over easy histrionics for a better representation of history and its characters. These people didn’t want to change the world; they just wanted to live out their lives. Mildred and Richard Loving are regular people living regular lives and that’s the ultimate message of the movie and their love. Having won their Supreme Court battle, the couple returns home to their original plot of land Richard bought in Virginia with the purpose of building his wife a house. Somber text appears in the sky to inform us that Richard would die in a car accident a mere six years later. It left me with a pall thinking about what a short span of time this man had to cherish the woman he loved without recriminations before it all came to a tragic end. It doesn’t seem fair, and I hope that’s a message other audiences take with them. When demagogues try and use religion in place of civil law to justify state-sponsored discrimination, saying the love others share is inferior and somehow a danger to their own lives, that’s when people need to remember the Lovings. This life is too short to harangue others about whom they choose to give their love to. Here is a beautiful, gentle, and restrained film that reminds us that the power of love is in its superhuman perseverance.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Sausage Party (2016)

sausage_party_ver2Following the “secret life of” Pixar story model, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s hard-R animated movie about anthropomorphic food literally uses just about every possible joke it can from its premise. I was expecting plenty of puns and easy sexual innuendo, but what I wasn’t expecting was a religious parable that actually has substance and some crazy left field directions the movie takes that made me spit out my popcorn. Sausage Party seems like a one-note joke as we follow Frank, a sausage (voiced by Rogen), and his girlfriend Brenda, a hotdog bun (Kristen Wiig) and their food friends over the course of the Fourth of July weekend. The supermarket items have been told that loving gods will take them to a wonderful promised land. The reality is far worse as the humans consume and “murder” the supermarket products. The messy food massacre sequences are some of the cleverest moments in the movie, which too often relies on a lot of easy profanity and vulgarity and broad ethnic stereotypes (it earns points for pointing out its lazy ethnic stereotypes too). However, when it veers into its religious commentary and the plight of the atheist, the movie becomes far more than the sum of its sex jokes. It’s consistently funny with some hard-throated laughs toward the end, especially in the jubilantly demented third act that takes an extreme leap first into violence and then into food-based sexuality. The concluding five minutes might be some of the most insane images put to film I’ve ever seen. The only equivalent I can even think of is the concluding act of Perfume. I credit Rogen, Goldberg and their team for taking a potentially one-joke premise and finding something more interesting and substantial, while still finding plenty opportunities for crass humor when called for and then some. Sausage Party is not a film for everybody but it’s also a film that is hard to forget, although you might feel guilty about munching on your popcorn at some point.

Nate’s Grade: B

Get Him to the Greek (2010)

How many scene-stealers get spin-offs? That sounds like something you’d more likely find in the realm of TV, but it does happen occasionally in cinema. In 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, comedian Russell Brand played British rock star Aldous Snow. He stole Sarah Marshall and he also stole the movie. Now the stringy Brit with the crazy hair gets is own movie, Get Him to the Greek, a semi-sequel to Sarah Marshall.

Aldous Snow (Brand) has had his career hit a bit of a snag. His latest album, and lead single, “African Child” has been met with a tidal wave of bad press. Critics are calling it the worst thing to strike Africa after famine, war, and apartheid. His longtime girlfriend and fellow recording artist, Jackie Q (Rose Byrne), has dumped him and gotten full custody of their son. His life, and he, has gone off the wagon. Music exec Sergio (Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs) is desperate for ideas to help make money for his company. Aaron Green (Jonah Hill) suggests to the boss man that it will be the 10-year anniversary of Snow rocking out at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, a seminal concert event. The boss tasks Hill with traveling to London, retrieving Snow, getting him to a Today Show performance in New York and then to the Greek in L.A. for an anniversary concert. Of course babysitting a drug-addled rock star and getting him places on time is easier said than done.

Get Him to the Greek is ultimately a buddy movie. Brand and Hill play off each other so well. In fact, I might say that Hill’s character is a tad too dull when he’s not around the hyperactive and impulsive Snow. You sort of feel for the guy and you’d like life to turn out well for him and his girlfriend, but you’re not completely committed to the character. However, when he’s bouncing off Brand, the movie transforms into a wild comedy with many funny moments and a few that miss the mark. Green has been entrusted to handle his high-maintenance rock star and this presents a few stellar comic setups. Green has to make sure that his star is not impaired when he performs on the Today Show, so he steals Snow’s flask of booze and joint and downs them both to protect his star. The resulting appearance on the Today Show then flips the script, having the flaky star be the straight man to the highly impaired handler. The funniest sequence for my taste involves a drawn-out drug trip in a Vegas hotel. Things spiral out of control and involve furry wall groping, mass amounts of property destruction, and Snow stabbing Green in the chest with an adrenaline needle, then being chased by an incensed Sergio who will not be stopped even after being hit by a car. It’s an exhilarating, madcap sequence that picks up comedy momentum and plows ahead. You may not be able to relate to either character, but when you put them together the movie comes alive with comic mischief and misfortune.

Being a Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad) production, Get Him to the Greek has got to bring the heart with the raunch. Even though we spend the majority of the running time with two characters, the film is less character-based than other Apatow-produced products. The sentiment slips in at the end. Obviously, given the setup, you expect Green to become more aggressive motivated, Snow to become more mellow and conscientious, and we’re all better for it in the end. The two characters do begin to bond in their unusual way, which elicits much of the film’s enjoyment. I enjoyed spending time with these two guys, especially when they were together. That likeability factor got the film through some of its rough patches. As far as supporting casts, a hallmark of an Apatow-produced film, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs is the movie’s scene-stealer, mostly through sheer force of will. He’s not the funniest guy but man does he chew scenery with gusto. He’s so loud and crazed that he practically scares you into laughing as a defensive impulse.

Brand is a terrific comedy discovery. He has such an electric energy and his wild-eyed hijinks and deadpan delivery had me in stitches. I was worried that a full movie for Aldous Snow would wear thin, but Stoller and Brand have deepened the character. It would be extremely easy, and almost understandable, for Snow to just be this caricature of the rock and roll lifestyle, an easy send-up for easy jokes. But just like with Sarah Marshall, the more time you spend with Snow the more you start to like him. He’s genuinely charming. His onstage persona evokes memories of Mick Jagger, Led Zeppelin, and Freddie Mercury. He’s self-destructive and egotistical but he’s not as shallow as he may appear to be (his vocabulary is a notch above, too). He’s unpredictable but he’s not stupid. He’s fairly vulnerable with some real feelings, lamenting his failed relationship with Jackie Q and yearning to be the father for a son that may not even be his. His life is filled with hangers-on and leeches, including his own parents. Brand can be good at being ridiculous but he can also be very good at being miserable. His vulnerability and attempts to be something more than the sum of his lifestyle allows for some tender moments between the babes and booze.

Hill has graduated from supporting player to “regular dude” lead in the Apatow Academy. He’s presented almost as a brazenly average everyman, albeit one who appears to be dangerously overweight (seriously, Hill has ballooned like a blowfish and I worry for the guy). This role allows Hill to showcase the most range he ever has yet. He believes in the power of music and has a personal stake in what goes down at the Greek. He sells his dramatic parts better than expected. He and his girlfriend, Daphne (Elizabeth Moss from TV’s Mad Men), make for an unconventional couple via Hollywood’s superficial standards. It’s an interesting match and somewhat refreshing that Hill isn’t dating some knock-out (Moss is quite fetching, don’t get me wrong).

Greek doesn’t measure up to Sarah Marshall and part of that is because the story is a bit too shaggy, housing gags but lacking a stronger driving plot. Many of the scenes don’t connect so much as independently exist. Also, writer/director Nicholas Stoller (who also directed Sarah Marshall) sometimes doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone. The drug-addled sequences tend to get a little tedious after the third or fourth time. Granted, drugs and alcohol are all apart of the modern rock and roll experience, but watching people act weird on drugs can get tiresome unless given a different context to work with. Some of the comic setups are a tad lazy but are saved by the efforts of Brand and Hill. When Aldous orders his lackey to smuggle heroin in his rectum, it feels strained even by the standards of wacky comedies. It feels like one episode that doesn’t lead to anything other than a quick, almost absurd, comedy dead-end. And for a movie with a ticking clock constantly running down the hours before Snow needs to be at the Today Show and then the Greek Theater, there sure is a strong lack of urgency. When they run late or miss planes, you don’t really care because you know it’s a matter that will be easily solved.

A fact I really enjoyed with Sarah Marshall was that the girls were given something to do — they were allowed to be more than the joke, they could be in on the joke. Mila Kunis and Kristen Bell’s characters were allowed to be nuanced, mature yet able to make mistakes, and both were funny while being central to the story. With Greek, the female characters are mostly one-note and then given a little polish. Jackie Q is all brash sexuality and Daphne is prim and constantly exhausted. They’re extremes made for easy laughs. When Jackie Q tries to get serious, we don’t really buy it because she seemed rather pleased to soak up the unhealthy riches of fame. Her behavior is inconsistent. With Daphne, her wet blanket personality is supposed to be the joke, and then when she cuts loose toward the end, requesting a three-way between her, Green, and rock star Aldous Snow, it feels wrong for her character and weirdly reminiscent of Chasing Amy. I know Get Him to the Greek is primarily a boys movie, but it lacks the same generosity of character that aided Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

Get Him to the Greek is a solid comedy helped by two strong lead performances. It’s a nice addition to Apatow’s family of character-based comedies even if it doesn’t live up to its ambitions. The movie is consistently funny throughout, which is integral to being a comedy. The character dynamics lead to some entertaining comic set-ups and sometimes some lazy ones, but the troupe of actors makes it all work. Brand and Hill are a fine team and the movie has plenty of surprises and cameos to keep things fresh when a gag misfires. I wouldn’t mind seeing the further exploits of Aldous Snow, or even listening to some of his recordings (his Sarah Marshall tune “Inside You” was criminally left off the Oscar nominees in 2008). But this movie just made me realize how much more I appreciate Sarah Marshall, and how that movie has grown on me over time. I suppose like Hill’s character, it took an extended detour with Aldous Snow to make me realize what I truly appreciate in life.

Nate’s Grade: B

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