Operation Finale

Posted on August 29, 2018 at 5:49 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and related violent images, and for some language
Profanity: Some strong and hateful language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 31, 2018
Date Released to DVD: December 3, 2018
Copyright 2018 MGM

Operation Finale considers what is, perhaps, the ultimate conundrum, one that echoes throughout all of human history. How can good guys defeat the bad guys without becoming bad themselves? If the bad guys do not play by any rules at all, the good guys have two choices: to stay within the rules themselves, which can be high risk because it is like going into a fight with both arms tied behind your back, or decide that the ends justify the means and violate the rules to improve their chance of winning. Can it really be a win if you abandon your principles to get there?

Sometimes there is ambiguity about who exactly are the good guys and the bad guys. That is not the case with the Nazis in WWII. Among the worst of the worst, certainly the worst to survive the war, was Adolf Eichmann, the head of the “Department of Jewish Affairs” and the man responsible for creating the system that led to the murder of millions of people, including six million Jews. The other top Nazi leaders, Hitler, Himmler, and Goering, killed themselves at the end of the war. Then there were the Nuremberg trials for many others. But Eichmann and a few others escaped to Nazi-friendly Argentina. Fifteen years later, agents of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency captured him and brought him back to Israel for a trial that was broadcast around the world. This is the story of how that happened, so tensely presented that we hold our breath even though we know that Eichmann made it to Israel, where his “man in a glass booth” (for security) trial was broadcast as it happened throughout the world, giving most people their first chance to hear testimony from Holocaust survivors.

Director Chris Weitz and screenwriter Matthew Orton skillfully portray the people of the young state of Israel, just 12 years old, still defining itself internally and still justifying its existence to the world. When someone approaches Mossad with evidence that Eichmann has been identified in Argentina, the first reaction is that the atrocities are old news, and they don’t have the resources to go after him because they are too busy fighting for the right to exist now. They ultimately decide to get him less from a sense of justice or even revenge than from the notion that at this stage, everything they do is definitional; every choice they make shows the world what it means to be a Jewish state after the Holocaust, an atrocity so unprecedented that the term was not even in widespread use for several more years.

We see what it is to have a country made up of displaced people, each of whom has suffered unthinkable trauma and grief. In one scene they almost start to have a grim “who lost the most” conversation before they stop. Their focus has to be on what happens next, and that is the risky, complicated plan to get Eichmann out of Argentina, even though there is no extradition and they don’t have access to military aircraft capable of transporting him.

Sir Ben Kingsley plays Eichmann, living under an assumed name, working at a Mercedes factory, living with his wife and sons, and speaking often to groups of other escaped Nazis about his wartime experiences. Oscar Isaac plays Peter Malkin, the Mossad agent who actually tackled Eichmann, and who, with his colleagues, had to keep him captive until he could be extracted and put on a commercial flight to Israel.

There is a wisp of a love story, and there is some exploration of the moral dilemmas. But it is the electrifying scenes between Kingsley and Isaac that are even more riveting than the “can they get him” and “will they be caught” moments of spycraft.

It was Eichmann himself who inspired Hannah Arendt’s term “the banality of evil,” and disconnect is jarring between Eichmann’s deeds in overseeing the mechanics of rounding up Jews and transporting them to their execution and torture and the bland, civilized factory foreman who loves his wife and children. Eichmann is not bothered by the slaughter of millions, even when a murdered baby’s brain was splattered over his coat. Malkin is still deeply wounded by the loss of one person, his adored sister, who was killed with her children. He is still anguished by a fatal mistake on a previous mission. We see that the very conscience that keeps Malkin from “putting a bullet between eyes,” as he said he would gladly do, can make it much harder to bring him to justice.

Eichmann, a master manipulator, tries to put them both in the same category of following orders to save their country. Malkin tries to manipulate Eichmann into signing the necessary consent form for leaving the country. Each tries to gain ground over the other, usually through appearing to be conciliatory, to find some point of vulnerability. The action scenes, especially toward the end, have a ramped-up “Argo” rhythm, but what is far more engrossing is when two people talk to each other.

The stakes are incalculable and inherently dramatic, but Kingsley and Issac take it to another level as characters and as actors, and it is fascinating to see them challenge each other. Two of the greatest actors alive, each with endless screen magnetism, superb control of acting technique, and the ability to tell a lifetime with an almost imperceptible shift of the eyes or slight additional huskiness in the voice, put all of that to show us a massive historical event can come down to two people in a room.

Parents should know that this film includes footage of Holocaust atrocities, including mass murder, with some graphic and very disturbing images, some peril and violence, drinking, smoking, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Why is it important to give someone a fair trial when the crime is unimaginably big and the evidence against him is overwhelming? Is it possible for a trial under those circumstances to be fair? Why did Eichmann sign the agreement?

If you like this, try: “Argo,” “Munich,” and “The Eichmann Show,” a film about the trial, and read Peter Malkin’s book, Eichmann in My Hands.

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The Happytime Murders

Posted on August 23, 2018 at 5:35 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material)
Profanity: Very strong, crude, and offensive language
Date Released to Theaters: December 3, 2018
Copyright STX Films 2018

A couple of minutes into “The Happytime Murders,” an adorable Muppet-like puppet says the f-word. If that strikes you as funny, think very carefully about whether it is funny enough for 90 minutes of pretty much the exact same joke to justify the price of a movie ticket. If you want to hear puppets swear and talk about porn, see “Avenue Q.” If you want to see a detective try to solve a murder in a show business community where entertaining non-human characters are second-class citizens, see “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” If you want a good time at the movies, do not go to see this.

It might have made a pretty good Funny or Die video. But it is not enough to sustain even a less-than 90-minute running time. It is vastly less entertaining than the behind-the-scenes credit sequence showing how some of the scenes were filmed. And it is vastly less interesting than a movie about adults trying to trash the imperishable legacy of a legendary father, as is the case here with the Henson kids making a hard-R movie with characters from the Muppet world their father created.

Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) is a disgraced cop-turned private detective with a comely receptionist named Bubbles (Maya Rudolph, the movie’s highlight). A beautiful new client (Dorien Davies) asks Phil to find out who is blackmailing her. Phil investigates a possible connection in a porn shop (where a puppet cow is having her udder massaged by a puppet octopus) just as a gunman arrives and kills everyone else in the store. One of the victims was an actor on a popular television show called “The Happytime Gang,” featuring Phil’s brother and a bunch of other puppets, along with a human named Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), once Phil’s girlfriend.

Phil’s former partner, Connie Edwards (co-producer Melissa McCarthy) shows up, and her lieutenant (Leslie David Baker) assigns them to work together on what turns out not to be a simple robbery but a plot to kill off all of the Happytime Gang. Phil and Connie track each one down, bickering along the way, and failing to protect any of them. This is an opportunity to show many puppets engaging in extremely depraved behavior including substance abuse and prostitution and brutal murders with bits of fluff and disembodied puppets everywhere. Fun!

What makes the Muppets magical is the vivid personalities. We don’t love Kermit and Miss Piggy and Statler and Waldorf and Elmo and Oscar and Big Bird and the Swedish Chef and Fozzy Bear because they are puppets. We love them because they are characters, as vivid and engaging and real as any human. The puppets here, are expertly made but bland. And so, despite all the naughty talk and truly filthy behavior, is the script. It is too lazy to even think through its premise, beyond “it’s funny to have characters usually designed for children say and do R-rated things.” A human has a transplanted puppet liver. Puppets and humans apparently have sex with each other. Puppets have puppet children and, if the puppets who have children are cousins, those children do not have the correct number of eyes. Hilarious! And on top of regular old fashioned bad taste, it has the extremely poor judgment to have a “puppet lives matter” element.

A brief pause before my conclusion to mention Maya Rudolph, who almost packs a whole movie’s worth of watchability in her irresistible performance. As Bubbles, she manages to pay tribute to and slightly parody the classic hard-boiled but soft-hearted dames who used to work for detectives like Bogart’s Marlowe and Spade. The timbre of her voice, she way she holds her shoulders, the way she walks, the way she picks a lock, the way she thanks Phil for bringing her a candy bar — each moment is a small chamber piece of exquisite choices. McCarthy is great. She’s always great. But she is not always great at picking projects, and this one, despite her crackerjack timing and remarkable focus, is a big, fluffy, dud.

Parents should know that this film includes constant extremely strong, vulgar, and crude language, very explicit sexual references and situations, drinking, smoking, drugs, violence including guns and fire, and characters injured and killed.

Family discussion: What parallels is this movie suggesting about today’s political issues? Why did the humans feel superior to the puppets?

If you like this,try: “Avenue Q”

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Juliet, Naked

Posted on August 23, 2018 at 3:32 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to alcoholism and drug abuse, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Medical issues
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 24, 2018
Date Released to DVD: November 13, 2018
Copyright 2018 Lionsgate

Nick Hornby understands passionate fans of rock music and the people who create it. His novel High Fidelity and the film starring John Cusack are classics. He also wrote About a Boy, the story of a man who, years after his father’s one novelty hit, is living off the royalties and not doing much else. It became a beloved film starring Hugh Grant and television series. He brought those two ideas together in Juliet, Naked, the story of a passionate fan and a faded rock star who are connected by the woman they both love.

Annie (Rose Byrne) cannot quite figure out how she got where she is and is even less able to figure out how to get anywhere else. When her parents died, she took over her father’s job as curator of a small history museum and raised her younger sister, who now works there with her. She has been living with Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), her boyfriend of 15 years, a professor of popular culture who shows his students clips from “The Wire” and who operates a fan site for the elusive Tucker Crowe, a rock star whose disappearance has only increased the interest in his one classic album, called “Juliet” and inspired by a break-up.

Duncan receives some previously unreleased Crowe songs, the original demos of “Juliet,” “naked” because they have no studio sweetening or instruments other than Crowe’s guitar. For a fan who obsessively collects Crowe arcana, this is the ultimate treasure. Annie, irritated with him for his fixation on a musician who has not released any new music in decades, writes a bad review of the new tracks on Duncan’s fan site, calling it a cash grab, and she gets an email from Crowe himself, agreeing with her. This leads to an email correspondence, “You’ve Got Mail”-style. And then to a meeting IRL.

The movie was directed by a real-life rock star, Jesse Peretz of The Lemonheads, and he has a feel for the life of a rock star and the life of a fan. He (and Hornby) have less of a feel for Byrne’s character, and even Byrne’s endless charm and skill cannot make up for an underwritten role. Hawke does better. Crowe is so shaggily rueful about his own failings as a performer, a person, and a father that we almost forget just how irresponsible he has been. It’s a slight story, but it’s a sweet one.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, sexual references and non-explicit situations, references to alcoholism and drug abuse, references to irresponsible behavior, and a medical issue.

Family discussion: What makes some people into super-dedicated fans? Was Annie right about the museum exhibit?

If you like this, try: “About a Boy” and “High Fidelity”

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Crazy Rich Asians

Posted on August 16, 2018 at 11:25 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, brief drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 15, 2018
Date Released to DVD: November 19, 2018
Copyright 2018 Warner Brothers

The Beatles song “Money” (“The best things in life are free/But you can keep them for the birds and bees/Now give me money/That’s what I want”) sung in Chinese begins to prepare us for the rarified world of the ultra-wealthy families of Singapore in “Crazy Rich Asians.”

It is a romantic comedy that lets us see over-the-top glamour, money, privilege, and parties through the eyes of a Chinese-American daughter of a single mother, which invites us to gawk and judge. It raises thoughtful, nuanced questions about the difference between traditional views of sacrifice for family and American views on pursuing individual dreams. It introduces us to a fabulous cast of talented, gorgeous performers all clearly loving the opportunity to be in a story with an all-Asian cast. And it presents the essential elements of a romance with great specificity of detail about the Asian and Asian-American perspective but also with great universality of experience. Most of us will never attend a $14 million wedding, but most of us have experienced the terror of meeting the family of someone we love and hoping we will be judged worthy.

A flashback scene set in 1995 gives us a sense of the scope of wealth so enormous it is a sort of superpower. A rain-drenched Asian family with young children arrives at a snooty London hotel, only to be told that the reservation they had confirmed the day before has somehow disappeared. “Perhaps you can find a place in Chinatown.” The mother (Michelle Yeoh as Eleanor) politely asks to use the phone. We next see her out in the rain again, talking in a phone booth. Then she is back in the hotel lobby, being greeted warmly by the hotel’s owner, or, to be exact, the former owner. She has just bought the hotel.

And then it’s on to the present day, where Rachel Chu (Constance Wu from “Fresh off the Boat”), a professor of economics at NYU, is showing off her expertise in poker as a demonstration of game theory for her students. “Game theory” is the study of the strategies people use in situations that give one person a chance to do better than another, whether in an actual game like chess or a contract negotiation, management of employees, or even family issues like who empties the dishwasher. This is a skill that can be a sort of superpower of its own, as we will see.

Rachel is in love with hunky Nick Young (newcomer Henry Golding, host of the BBC Travel Show in his first acting role), who seems like an ordinary, if exceptionally good-looking and charming, sort of guy. He asks her to go with him to Singapore, to attend his best friend’s wedding and meet his family. He does not mention that he is a Crazy Rich Asian, but we begin to get the idea when a fellow Singaporean snaps a photo and sends it around the world in an amusing avalanche of “OMGs” and “Who’s that girl with Nick” messages. (Look very quickly to see author Kevin Kwan hashtagging away.)

Rachel begins to get the idea when they are greeted at the curb of the airport and escorted into the first class lounge, before being given silk pajamas and a suite with a bed on the plane. But she does not understand how far up in the stratosphere of wealth Nick and his family are until she visits her college roommate Peik Lin Goh (rap star Awkwafina, stealing every scene as neatly as she picked pockets in “Oceans 8”) and her nouveau riche parents. They proudly point to their vulgar furnishings. “It was inspired by Versailles Hall of Mirrors,” Mrs. Goh explains. “Or Donald Trump’s bathroom,” Peik Lin replies.

Peik Lin also explains just how crazy rich the Youngs are, and she also explains that the nice off-the-rack red dress Rachel brought is not going to make it, and offers a gown from her own closet. Rachel may be dressed appropriately for the party at the Young’s castle-sized mansion, but she is overwhelmed and, after a couple of minor faux pas (who knew the finger bowl was not soup?), she meets Nick’s family, and begins to realize that the obstacle is not the money but the mother.

Where there is money, there are people desperate to get it and keep it, and that leads to some mean girl moments at a fabulous bachelorette party and also to encounters with people who have different reactions to money — snobbery, obsequiousness, jealousy, resentment, and of course good old-fashioned greed. All of which would make a great lecture in her economics class.

Wu gives a warm, smart, sensitive performance, with a dimpled smile so irresistible that we don’t just feel Nick’s affection for her; we feel our own. It is a great pleasure to see the heroine of a romantic comedy have a serious academic position and not the usual cutesy rom-com jobs like blogger or proprietor of a bakery or gift shop. Her professional accomplishment gives her perspective and confidence and a few years more experience than the usual rom-com heroine. And it is a great pleasure to have Asian actors in such a wide variety of roles, every one specific, integral to the story, and lending the movie layers of meaning. “Crazy Rich Asians” is one crazy good movie.

NOTE: A mid-credit scene featuring “Glee’s” Harry Shum, Jr. hints at sequels, and there are two more books in the series, so here’s hoping.

Parents should know that this film includes non-explicit sexual situations, adultery, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Do you agree with Mrs. Young’s comments on Americans? How do you balance family obligation with individual dreams? Who are “your kind of people?”

If you like this, try: “Fresh Off the Boat” on television, starring Constance Wu, and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” starring Michelle Yeoh

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The Meg

Posted on August 9, 2018 at 5:51 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for action/peril, bloody images and some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Character drinks to deal with stress
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, characters injured and killed, characters sacrifice themselves to save others, some grisly and disturbing images, sad death of parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 10, 2018
Date Released to DVD: November 12, 2018

The Meg” is what an international distribution deal come to life looks like on screen. Take an assortment of actors of various races representing the nationalities of the major movie markets, especially China. Come up with an instantly recognizable concept (a prehistoric shark 75 feet long that can chomp through a whale with one bite!), an instantly recognizable bad guy (arrogant, selfish billionaire, in case that isn’t redundant), an instantly recognizable action hero (yay, Jason Statham!). Let’s put an adorably precocious child in the group, and give her angel wings, for goodness’ sakes, to make sure we see how adorable she is.

Add tons of first-class stunt work and digital effects, and make sure the dialogue is disposable enough it won’t matter if it translates well. In fact, with lines like “Man vs. Meg isn’t a fight. It’s a slaughter” and some painfully awkward romantic banter, this movie would be better viewed with no dialogue at all.

Copyright Universal 2018

Jason Statham plays Jonas, an expert at deep sea rescue who in a prologue has to make a split-second terrible decision. He saves some people, but many others are killed, and he is blamed. He insists that it was the only choice, and that if he had tried to rescue the others, everyone would have been killed, but the official finding is that he was suffering from underwater-pressure induced diminished capacity that caused hallucinations and poor judgment. Five years later, he is living in Thailand and drinking to forget everything he has lost.

That is when he gets a visit from an old friend, Mac (Cliff Curtis). The giant shark they said was a hallucination is real. It is a megladon, previously thought to have been extinct for millions of years, but now discovered in an expedition funded by Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) a crass billionaire all faux bonhomie and limitless entitlement. The research operation has gone to Earth’s deepest spot to prove that what had been thought to be its bottom was a layer of gas, with a deeper part of the ocean underneath. The exploration ship, piloted by Lori (Jessica McNamee) has been trapped and no one else has the experience r expertise to rescue it.

“You’re going to offer me a job,” Jonas says, “and I’m going to say no. You’re going to offer me money, and I’m going to say no. You’re going to appeal to my better nature and I’m still going to say no.” But they bypass all of that to skip to the ultimate persuader: Lori is his ex-wife.

So, back on the job after a quick check-up with the team doctor. Fortunately, five years of drinking have not had any adverse affect whatsoever, as we will later confirm when we see Jonas in nothing but a towel. After that, it’s pretty much one action/rescue/escape scene after another, which is fine because the parts in between are not very good. A tragic death is played as romantic foreplay. And a racist stereotype is played as — the same racist stereotype? If there’s an effort to go meta, it fails.

Here’s the good news — the action scenes, stunts, and digital effects are really well done! Director Jon Turteltaub (“National Treasure”) stages them well, with a series of different settings and circumstances that actually feel now and then almost like a real story. Each one builds on the next with an additional layer of difficulty and a different balance of stakes. The audience did cheer when one character was eaten. and we never fear for a second that anything would happen to that child, but overall, there are enough characters and enough variations of threat and logistical complications to keep each one interesting.

It would be easy for this movie to slide into “Frankenfish vs. Dinocroc” SYFY territory, but Statham strikes the right tone and it is great to see Curtis, who always brings great humanity and authenticity to the story.

SPOILER ALERT: The cute dog does not die.

Parents should know that this movie has non-stop peril, suspense, and violence, with characters injured and killed and some grisly and disturbing images. Characters sacrifice themselves to save others. The movie also includes some strong language and drinking to deal with stress and depression.

Family discussion: How do Toshi and Heller decide what they should do? Can we explore without disrupting the environment or putting people at risk?

If you like this, try: “Jaws”

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