Operation Finale


Operation Finale (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Operation Finale” is like a car that has stalled—it requires a bit of push in order to get going. But once it is over the hump, the ride is suspenseful, thrilling, and also quite surprising at times. The plot is based on a true story involving a team of Jewish operatives who are tasked to capture Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), a war criminal considered to be one of the masterminds of the Final Solution—the systematic extermination of six million Jews in Nazi Germany—who is hiding, along with his family, in Buenos Aires. The Mossad agents must get him on a plane bound for Israel so he can be prosecuted for his crimes. We know how it is going to end. But like all true stories that undergo dramatization, what matters most is the details.

The first quarter of the picture is mildly interesting but messy. First, the many pieces that must be juggled are not handled with a high enough level of energy designed to combust and propel the significance of the mission. It goes by the assumption that the viewer already has knowledge of the monstrosities the Nazis had done to the Jews during World War II—a mistake because not everyone is well-versed in history. (Yes, even a mass genocide that each person should know about. You’d be surprised.)

This leads to the second shortcoming: the many faces and personalities introduced are not provided informative or relatable background information. And so when the Mossad agents finally do get together, we know only one or two of their names. There are seven of them—at least. One might argue, however, that this is the point: the operatives are but a part of a mission—expendable should they fail. But I argue that is important that we have understanding of at least half of them.

The reason is because the picture is a drama at its core, not a fictional action-thriller. The film is not about stunts or action sequences but the psychology of the Israeli secret agents, their anger, their hunger for justice. There is sporadic talk of agents having lost loved ones in concentration camps. Thus, it is critical that we have an appreciation of where each agent is coming from, to have a specific perspective of a mission so monumental, that failure could mean injustice for those who perished, perhaps forever.

The material’s strength is most undeniable once Eichmann is in the hands of the Mossad agents. They must stay in the safe house for ten days due to flight delay—without arousing suspicion. Meanwhile, Eichmann’s fellow Nazis, including his son (Joe Alwyn), inch closer toward the safe house. Every minute counts. And every scene is a march toward an inevitable conclusion.

Oscar Isaac plays Peter Malkin, a man still haunted by the death of his sister and her children. Isaac’s interpretation of Malkin is fascinating because the motivation is not anger first and foremost. Malkin, the character, does not seem to be aware of this initially. But we do because we see it in Isaac’s eyes when he is alone, how he moves, how he thinks through an objective, short- and long-term. The opening scene is most telling: Malkin is horrified when he learns his team ended up killing the wrong Nazi. Meanwhile, his fellow agent is blasé because the person they killed is still a Nazi after all.

And then there is Kingsley, accomplishing so much with so little. Notice that although a blindfold is covering half of his face and his head is in profile relative to the camera, while sitting in a dark room, his presence is able to overpower the space and those around him should he choose to do so. Most suspenseful—and worthy of contemplation—are interactions between Kingsley and Isaac exactly because the screenplay by Matthew Oerton is willing to take a look at evil, not to judge it or indulge it but to examine it. It dares us to consider the humanity of Eichmann specifically—not the Nazis as a group—while at the same time tasking us to sift through his lies, manipulations, and possible power play.

The Hustle


The Hustle (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Chris Addison’s “The Hustle,” a gender-swapped remake of Frank Oz’ “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (which is a remake of Ralph Levy’s “Bedtime Story”), is desert-dry when it comes to creativity in plot, jokes, and characterization. There is no big, genuine laughs to be had here, just sporadic light chuckles—if one were forgiving. About fifteen to twenty minutes in, one realizes that those in charge of the screenplay rested on simply switching genders of the original characters and called it a day. It is a lazy, misfire of a comedy—one with potential to shine had the screenwriters—Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning, Dale Launer, and Jac Schaeffer—actually tried to deliver a modern caper comedy that had something real to say about sexism.

For a picture with two talented performers—Anne Hathaway as a posh con artist with a European accent to match and Rebel Wilson as an American grifter who sticks out like a sore thumb—it is astounding that nothing is done to either character to establish even a semblance of superficially interesting scenarios. We endure Josephine and Penny’s shenanigans as they swindle men of money and jewels, like a series of cheap comic strips that have been rejected for publication. They are low energy. Jokes don’t land. Dialogue is juvenile. Nearly every element looks and sounds manufactured. There are stacks of cash and gemstones glisten, but there is nothing alluring, or exciting, or fun in the interactions among wolves and sheep. The film is on autopilot.

As the work splashes about in an attempt not to drown, the more hyperbolic it becomes. It is supposed to be funny, for instance, that Wilson is contorting her body in small spaces. The reason is because she is fat and fat people look awkward trying to fit in confined areas. She must trip, fall down a flight of stairs, slide across the floor. She must blend in with the trash.

Fat jokes can work, but must the material employ this approach so consistently nearly every time it is desperate? I found it insulting, insensitive, and ineffective as a comedy. The problem is there’s nothing else behind the one-note “jokes.” I give credit to Wilson for her willingness to make fun of her body; and I have enjoyed moments that poke fun of her size in much better movies. At the same time, however, Wilson has to realize she is better than stupid fat jokes, that there is more to her range than Fat Amy—the sooner, the better. She is a comedian with actual talent for acting. It is time she picks projects that are worth her aptitude.

The drama is not believable at all. The premise of two opposite con artists is present on paper, but the relationship is never explored in meaningful ways. Penny and Josephine try to one-up each other, but we do not believe the friendship born out of this clash. Do they like one another? Do they admire each other? The compelling answer is not found in one-word answers, but in the details that follow them. The work must answer questions starting with “How” (“How did Penny and Josephine realize that they were actually more similar than they initially thought?,” “How did Penny and Josephine earn one another’s respect?,” “How does Josephine need Penny, vice-versa?,” “How is their partnership viable?”), but it actually requires effort to be able to answer them. This movie is only interested in parading images, not convincing thoughts and emotions.

It goes to show that just because a movie is female-centric (or male-centric, or whatever-centric) does not automatically mean the story is worth telling. The screenplay must provide enough wrinkles in the expected that justify telling a similar sort of story. Otherwise, the work is reduced to an exercise of pointlessness.

The Farewell


The Farewell (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Amusing, bittersweet, and insightful in the most surprising ways, “The Farewell” shows rather than tells how a specific Chinese family chooses to take on the challenge of preventing their matriarch from finding out that she is dying of lung cancer and has only a few months to live. Take any one scene from this beautifully layered story and one can tell immediately that it is based upon writer-director Lulu Wang’s personal experiences because there is almost always at least one detail on screen that is honest, painful, funny, and real—often all at once. The storytelling is such a joyous experience because it feels as though the work is free from the shackles of the usual plot contrivances. We simply wish to know these characters as people.

Here is a film that takes on the subject of mortality and defines it through the scope of Chinese culture. It is not necessary that we agree with or support the aforementioned course of action. In fact, it acknowledges that in America, or the West, it is illegal to lie to a person when it comes to his or her medical condition. Required, however, is that we walk away from the story with an understanding, or at the very least an appreciation, of why in China, or in the East, it is, for the most part, an acceptable practice. To reveal this reason would be a disservice to the film, but Wang’s astute screenplay cuts so deeply into one of the main differences between Eastern and Western cultures.

Awkwafina plays Billi Wang, the granddaughter of the matriarch being kept in the shadows regarding her stage four cancer. Having grown up in America, Billi does not think like a traditional Chinese individual—she is capable of it, but she is an American first. Her relatives in China see her as such. It is in her accent when she speaks Mandarin, how she carries herself, her clothes. Perhaps more interestingly, even her own mother and father (Diana Lin, Tzi Ma) consider her to be an American in spirit, not Chinese. It is why they decided that Billi should not come to China for her cousin’s wedding—a ploy for a family gathering so everyone can have a chance to say goodbye to Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen)—in addition to her inability to hide her emotions. Naturally, American Billi chooses to disobey her parents to spend time with her grandmother.

It is a role that requires complex navigation. It isn’t enough to look sad. Awkwafina is seen as a rapper-comedian with a low tone of voice who acts crazy or kooky. She is a delightful surprise here because she embodies a real person who feels torn between her values and her family’s. In nearly every frame she’s in there is conflict behind those eyes and that is what makes the performance thoroughly convincing. In movies like “Ocean’s 8” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” you look at her and you want to laugh. But in here, you look at her and you don’t know whether to give her a smile in the hope that it might uplift her a bit, to cry with her, to urge her to scream and let out her frustrations, or to give her a big hug. It is an inward, committed performance.

The work is interested in Billi’s relationships with those she loves. There are numerous memorable interactions with Nai Nai. She is kind, cute, energetic, generous, and capable of being tough when necessary. Zhao plays Nai Nai with effortless zest. She invites the viewer to look closely at the character and consider this person’s light being taken away by disease.

Another standout involves an exchange between Billi and her mother, how failure to show exaggerated emotions when a loved one dies is frowned upon in Chinese culture. Mrs. Wang despises this expectation because she would rather be honest about what she is feeling or going through. Unlike Billi, Mrs. Wang is not an outwardly emotional person. This exchange is important precisely because it reveals that the mother cares about how others perceive her. In this story, people can be strong and weak at the same time—just like how people are in life.

“The Farewell” is both a story of familial love and a story about the immigrant experience. It is told with elegance and searing honesty and so nearly every moment is earned. By the end, I wished to know more about the characters, particularly Billi and her situation as a young American struggling to make ends meet in NYC. It shows, quite simply, that life goes on.

Zodiac


Zodiac (2007)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A deliberate sidestepping of overt action is the strategy director David Fincher employs in “Zodiac,” a true crime thriller surrounding the hunt for the Zodiac killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area from 1969 to 1971. Highly intelligent, meticulous, and efficient, at times the picture embodies the texture of a documentary in the way it dares to break away from the expected plot and dramatic parabola. What matters is information, how it is presented, and what conclusions, if any, can be drawn from them. What results is a film for a select audience: those who are tickled by the act of looking through a microscope and noting the beautiful, horrifying, surprising details of a specimen. It is not for viewers who wish to be entertained by ostentatious shootouts and car crashes where the bad guy drops dead in the final act. In fact, the climax consists simply of two people looking at each other in the eye, denoting common understanding.

Observe its use of violence. It is rapid, matter-of-fact, making a point to show how excruciating it is to get stabbed and shot. Notice how slow motion is used. Attention is not at the point of contact between weapon and flesh—as horror films tend to do—but on facial expressions of the victims. There is no score playing in the background when a person is being assaulted or murdered which makes the whimpering, the crying, the begging for help all the more deafening. Take note, too, how the victims’ desperation can be felt even after killing ends. The violence is meant to be ugly, traumatizing, and sad. Our sympathy is always with the injured or dying person, never the killer. These are designed precisely so that we wish for the Zodiac to get caught—even though we already know he never was.

The picture is an excellent procedural that brings to mind Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men.” We follow three men who dare to stare into the eyes of evil: San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), and SF police inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo). We experience their day-to-day interactions with colleagues; following—sometimes overstepping—rules and regulations; wrestling with bureaucracy. There is excitement in the rhythm of their workspaces. Downey Jr., Gyllenhaal, and Ruffalo deliver terrific, naturalistic performances. They have a habit of inviting us to question what it is they are thinking at any given moment.

Evil stares right back at these figures, however, and we watch their lives unravel throughout the course of twenty-two years: erosion of one’s physical and mental health, deteriorating relationships with family, coming to terms with one’s limitations as an investigator. There is a sense of surrender during the last third in particular. So many years have passed, people who were most enthusiastic to catch the killer then now just want to move on. Even the person who chooses to carry on the torch is forced to wonder at times whether his actions are still worth it. These are characters worth following not only because they are good at their jobs, getting to the truth is who they are.

Despite numerous details surrounding each murder (especially intriguing are scenes that allow us to walk a crime scene), handwritten letters that the Zodiac sent to newspapers, a dozen witness accounts, and endless paper trails, the labyrinthine mystery is told with urgency and clarity. For example, the screenplay by James Vanderbilt does not simply tell us that a partial set of fingerprints from an otherwise extremely cautious murderer is important. It shows how it is important and why. When a piece of evidence is presented, the astute and patience writing makes a point of relating the information to the bigger picture and so we always have an appreciation of the investigation. Does a seemingly reliable evidence make sense? How so? The film wishes to engage rather than spoon-feed us.

The picture is not without a sense of humor. In between gruesome deaths and barrage of possible case-breaking information are moments of exhalation: a date gone wrong (or gone right—depending on how one looks at it), police stations not having fax machines yet and so urgent files must be sent via snail mail, a character’s obsession with animal crackers, among many others. These did not need to be in the movie—and yet they are. Fincher wishes for us to be so invested into this world that he is able to find humor amidst terrifying events. Nearly every single change in tone is pulled off beautifully.

The Yellow Sea


The Yellow Sea (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

“The Yellow Sea,” written and directed by Hong-jin Na, is a highly entertaining, sometimes confusing but always interesting, action-thriller from South Korea. It engages the audience by presenting a seemingly straightforward situation and slowly the tentacles of deceit creep out of their hiding places as the protagonist gets deeper into his mission. In addition, the picture offers a sharp eye when it comes to its action scenes, proficiently balancing white-knuckle suspense and well-placed humor.

Gu-nam (Jung-woo Ha), working as a cab driver in China, grows increasingly worried and jealous that his wife, who traveled to South Korea for work, has been cheating on him with no intention of ever coming back—even to provide financial assistance to their child. The pressure to get in contact with her increases with each day because debt collectors need the money that Gu-nam and his wife owe for the visa. It appears most opportune when a leader of the Chinese mafia, Myun (Yun-seok Kim), approaches Gu-nam with an alternative: to go to South Korea and kill a man. Doing so would pay his debt in full. Gu-nam feels he is left with no other choice.

Despite a running time of one hundred thirty minutes, there is never a dull moment because the writer-director has complete control of the material’s tone and tonal changes. Notice that the first third is quite slow, more concerned with showing a man’s difficult situation rather than complicated stunts, and we get a chance to understand how the protagonist’s thinks and recognize his strengths and weaknesses. The rest of the picture offers an opposite approach: fast-paced, adrenaline-driven, noisy. It tests the man to his limits as he follows the strands that might lead to his wife’s whereabouts.

Its chase sequences are especially strong. One takes place in a high-rise apartment building and the other in and on a cargo ship. I found these refreshing because there is something about a mob, whether it be composed of cops or criminals, chasing a man that makes the scene scarier. In many American movies, chases usually involves only two or three people, certainly almost never more than five.

The constant movement in the background, accompanied by screaming and yelling, locks the viewer into paying attention as the distance between the main character and his potential captors grows shorter. In addition, the writer-director is not afraid to make the choice of minimizing the use of guns. Knives are used most often. I smiled at a character using a really thick animal bone, likely to be a femur, as a club. There is creativity here and Na makes smart choices in order to elevate the feel of action sequences.

Another impressive aspect is the film’s use of real cars smashing against one another coupled with really tight editing and most convincing sound effects so that the audience can almost feel the impact of every bump and glass shatter. There is a wonderful balance between close-ups and wide shots so we feel as though every decision by the person behind the wheel counts. There is plenty to appreciate in seemingly simple moments.

The Workshop


The Workshop (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

The quietly alluring “The Workshop,” written by Robin Campillo and Laurent Cantent, is courageous because it asks the viewers to empathize with a young man who has the potential to become radicalized by the extreme right. The keyword is “potential” because the material, for the majority of the time, is vague in terms of which path the curious character might take. He shows a number of so-called warning signs of a person who might shoot up a school or a grocery store: He is a loner, he possesses an above average intelligence, he has a proclivity for violence in terms of ideation and media consumption, and he listens to extremist right-wing rhetoric—“so-called” because I do not believe any of these factors, singular or in combination, necessarily lead to violence.

The subject is named Antoine and he is played by newcomer Matthieu Lucci, whose future is so bright should he wish to pursue more challenging roles as he so willingly tackles here. I found that his choices are fresh, particularly in how he portrays Antoine who thinks he is already a man but, in actuality, he is only a boy. Lucci commands great intensity when required and he is readily able to exude warmth at a moment’s notice. Notice how he interacts with adults, especially those who have some sort of power, versus his peers and children. Here is a performer with the potential to make a career of pretending to be someone else. He finds subtleties in his character’s frustration and anger.

The strongest moments in the film involve a successful novelist named Olivia (Marina Foïs) leading a group of diverse teenagers to brainstorm what sort of thriller they should write during the summer. Every single participant commands a distinct personality; even the quieter ones have something important or insightful to say, whether it terms of their group dynamics (sometimes they disagree to the point of physical confrontation about to break out) or the story they attempt to write.

It is so rare, especially in mainstream American films, to show teenagers as they are—flawed, challenging, contradictory, full of vitality—instead of some Hollywood idea, a fantasy of how teenagers ought to think, or act, or talk. Due to the screenplay’s sharply drawn characters, I enjoyed their fierce clashes as well as their unity. Each one has a reason for attending the writing workshop. Most importantly, by sitting in their sessions, we come to understand why the members choose to return for the next meeting even when the previous session may have been awkward, uncomfortable, or downright ugly.

But the main push of the plot involves the instructor’s suspicion that one of her students, Antoine, is a bomb waiting to go off. Although still quite solid, particularly with regards to the author being attracted to fear and threat of violence, I found her investigation to be less interesting than Antoine’s moments of isolation. Lucci communicates so much by simply looking at a distance or the way his body language changes when Antoine senses lies. I think the two would have been more interesting together if the material had further explored the twisted attraction between them. There must be a reason why Antoine follows and spies on his instructor. No, it is not due to a sexual nature. I think it is because, finally, someone recognizes his potential. Look at his family and friends. No one engages him on his ideas.

Some viewers will take one look at Antoine and label him as a young extremist. Although unfair, that’s the kind of world we live in—and I believe that’s the point the film attempts to make, how we are built to judge based on patterns that fit—or at least seem to fit. It has been a while since I have encountered a project that deals so intelligently with a misunderstood young person.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco


The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” brings to mind the great filmmaker and photographer Agnès Varda because of the way it focuses, studies, and falls in love with regular faces. Black faces specifically—of varying age, skin color, and personality—are front and center in this beautiful and pensive picture, so filled with small surprises and big emotions without feeling the need to cultivate and deliver a plot driven story where things happen just because it is expected. A case can be made that the fact that things don’t happen, at least in ways we thought they would—is what makes the work special. The film is freedom translated to moving images and I hope that aspiring filmmakers would look at this movie and follow its example. It is an original.

The vibrant screenplay is written by Joe Talbot (who directs), Robert Richert, and Jimmie Fails; it is apparent they grew up and love San Francisco because every breath the movie takes is not a negative space or moment like so many generic films tend to offer. Observe that in between “action” are shots that communicate culture: an old building, a sunset, the night sky, a famous bridge, a strange mode of transport, an antique, people briskly walking to their destinations, an unkempt street corner, the traffic downtown, a mom and pop store. No wasted image.

When characters are engaged in conversation, whether it be outdoors or indoors, there are details that prove not one scene is shot in a studio. Some events are unplanned; the performers go along with them. At times magic is created from happenstances. Look closely enough and notice regular folks—who may not be aware there is a movie being filmed—making direct eye contact to camera. Every second is alive, a risk, a joyous celebration of making a movie, and it feels like being in a specific place at a specific time. At its best, it feels like a documentary. Accidents or mistakes are turned into strengths. There is overwhelming positivity and so we are inspired to embrace imperfections.

The plot—for those who need it—revolves around Jimmie (Fails) and Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), best friends who decide to squat in a Victorian home after the owners leave due to a death and resulting family drama. Jimmie lived in this particular house when he was a boy and he feels the need reclaim it, especially since it is said that his grandfather built it in the 1940s. There is a four-million-dollar asking price for the house. (Finn Wittrock plays the real estate agent.) There is convincing drama because we know that Jimmie is fighting against the impossible. Time is against him. So is the system. He is not rich. He is black man in a mostly white neighborhood. Just because you want it badly enough does not mean you get to have it.

Homelessness lies in the center of this thoughtful piece. There is the physical definition that every one of us is aware of. After all, people tend to equate San Francisco with its growing homeless population. But then there is the spiritual definition which the film so beautifully explores. Jimmie is so driven, so obsessed, to live in this house he does not own that his identity becomes tethered to his imaginary ownership. When his need is threatened, trauma is revealed not in predictable ways. There is a reason why we meet his father (Robert Morgan), aunt (Tichina Arnold—a very welcome warm presence), and mother (LaShay Starks). We look away from the homeless; Jimmie yearns to be seen.