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“Operation Finale” Proves Slightly Less Banal Than Evil Itself

When the Third Reich went kaput, and Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler chucked their vile lives into the void rather than face this world’s justice, the detestable Adolf Eichmann, the “architect” of the führer’s Final Solution, slunk his sorry ass off to Argentina. There, under an assumed name, he lived with his family in a brick house on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, toiling at a Mercedes-Benz factory. But the thing about Nazis is they’re always still going to Nazi, no matter how quiet they should keep. As we see in Chris Weitz’s uneven caper-thriller Operation Finale, Eichmann (played by an appropriately sulfurous Ben Kingsley) couldn’t resist swanning into underground Nazi supper clubs and rallies, where he coyly allowed himself to be feted. If someone cracked the old joke about how, under the fascists, at least the trains ran on time, this glory hound would probably snap back, “Because of me!”

Weitz’s film, concerning a Mossad team’s 1960 hunt for Eichmann, is a sort of Argo Goes to Munich, blending heist-movie jollies with some moral inquiry into justice, revenge, torture, and execution. The mix is sometimes unpalatable: The gang breezily plots its big score and dances to boogie-woogie piano, but David Ben-Gurion himself (played by Simon Russell Beale) establishes the stakes thusly: “For the first time in our history, we will judge our executioner.” It’s almost held together by the face of Oscar Isaac, who plays Peter Malkin, the Mossad agent in charge of the mission to snatch the old murderer and sneak him to Israel for trial without the Argentine government catching on. Pulsing just inches above the movie-star smile is that knot of nerves between Isaac’s eyes, that pinch of worry that sets Isaac apart, even in a leading-man role. Early on, Isaac sharks about in smashing midcentury sports jackets, radiating Clooney-esque confidence and charm as Malkin tries to convince his superiors and colleagues that he can pull all this off. But he doesn’t look convinced himself. Nothing comes easy for the best Isaac characters, and they’re not blessed with the force of self to hide this. And then when things do seem to come easy for them, as in the case of his cocksure Star Wars flyboy, things really go to hell.

In Operation Finale’s best scenes, Weitz dramatizes the tension that’s always there in Isaac’s face, emphasizing the difference between the breezy caper films we might wish we could live in and the brutal messiness of actual life. We see Isaac’s Malkin painstakingly rehearse the moves he’ll use to seize and subdue his villain; we see him caught up, chokingly, at crucial moments, in the memory of his sister, who was murdered by the Nazis. But Isaac’s pained expressions, the way doubt and conscience kink up Malkin’s impulses toward heroism, ultimately prove more engaging and revealing than Matthew Orton’s script or much of Weitz’s staging.

The scenes of planning and teamwork, suspense and complication, work well enough, though the fact that the Israeli, German, and Argentine characters all speak their lines in English robs them of richness and specificity. They’re what mainstream Hollywood remains adept at, all momentum and banter, minor surprises and minor dread. Weitz and Co. prove adept at communicating several beats of story within a single arresting shot, and they do nice work with reflections, cramped quarters, and the nasty prevalence of anti-Semitism in Argentina.

The filmmakers prove less certain when working outside the templates of genre. In flashbacks, Weitz suggests the scale of Eichmann’s crimes through visions of trenches overflowing with Jewish corpses; the image is somehow obscene and banal at once, lacking the gravity even of the scenes in the X-Men movies of young Magneto at Auschwitz. After Eichmann gets grabbed — basic twentieth-century history ain’t a spoiler, people — the Mossad crew must, for reasons never quite made clear, coerce their captive into signing a statement declaring that he has agreed to be taken to Israel. They have just days to do this, before the departure of the only plane they can escape in, and before Argentine authorities discover their safe house. Their stern interrogator has no luck getting Eichmann — blindfolded, polite, pathetic — to sign. One team member keeps pushing for torture. Another balks that they should have just killed him already. But Malkin sees another way: Strike up something like a friendship with their captive, sharing cigarettes, listening to his wheezing stories of childhood as the Nazi is perched on the toilet, even telling the man who designed the death camps about the family that Malkin lost to them. Eichmann offers up the just following orders excuse and insists that there’s no reason he should cooperate: “Your lawyers and your lying press will try the man they think they know, not the one who sits before you now.”

Since Malkin is the hero, we know that this approach is the correct one, though Operation Finale never makes a case as to why, exactly. At times, it seems to be edging toward the tense colloquies of Steven Spielberg’s anguished, fascinating Munich, a film that found one of cinema’s greatest orchestrators of heroic violence ambivalent about the morality of his gift. But Weitz and Orton don’t dig in, don’t question Malkin’s choices, don’t honor the temptations of revenge, don’t manage to make us fear their hero getting too close to the desperate and manipulative Eichmann. Rather than interrogate the tools of Hollywood storytelling, as Spielberg did, they use them as crutches. Toward the end, as the plot lurches — like Argo or a 1990s rom-com — toward a mad dash to the airport, Eichmann suddenly is invested in Malkin’s inner life the same way that a supervillain tends to be caught up in his opposing hero’s, monologuing about his mad brilliance. Rather than the cagey, caged mastermind who later would play dumb at trial, this Eichmann is just another movie bad guy — and Operation Finale is just another movie.

Operation Finale
Directed by Chris Weitz
Metro Goldwyn Mayer
Opens August 31

 

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Vincent Price Himself Could’ve Starred in Stellar Horror Flick Stonehearst Asylum

With Stonehearst Asylum, director Brad Anderson doles out a vintage Halloween treat — a straightforward Poe adaptation of the sort that Vincent Price used to star in — and gives it a freshness and complexity that make it a delight. Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) is a young doctor arriving at Stonehearst on the eve of the 1900s to get experience treating the mentally ill.

He’s met by Dr. Lamb (Ben Kingsley), an alienist with unusual methods, and Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), a troubled, talented pianist with whom Newgate is immediately smitten. Yet something’s not right, and we soon learn why: Lamb is an inmate who staged a revolt, and the real staff (including head doctor Michael Caine) is locked in a dungeon while lunatics, both dangerous and benign, roam freely above.

Complicating matters is that Lamb seems much more humane in his methods than the primitive psychiatry of the era, getting better results by eschewing torturous aversion therapies…and yet he shows little mercy to the imprisoned hospital staff, enlisting a thuggish maniac (David Thewlis) as his enforcer.

Anderson never forgets that his primary job is ratcheting up the suspense, but the implicit criticism of psychiatry without compassion makes this confection unusually filling. Vincent Price never had it so good.

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Grub-Dating Boxtrolls Thrive in Moral Grayness

The Boxtrolls is a kiddie charmer that makes you laugh, cower, and think of Hitler. That’s an unusual trifecta, but then again, this is an unusual film. If the German Expressionists were skilled at stop-motion animation, they’d have already made it. This is cartoon Caligari, a fable set on a hillside village crammed with cobblestone streets that look like old photographs of the Frankfurt ghetto. Nothing is perfect. The doorknobs are crooked, the clothes are dirty, and the humans’ faces are smudged with pinks and blues, as if Wassily Kandinsky had painted them on a bender.

The Boxtrolls themselves are monstrous creations: one part Nosferatu, one part hairless cat. We first spot one sprinting into the sewers with an infant — more on that boy in a second — but we’re meant to love them, which for children into grody things is easy to do. The Boxtrolls munch on grubs, babble like babies, and act like Legos, climbing on each other like staircases and, at night, nesting cardboard flap–to–cardboard flap like a hoarder’s dream.

Ten years ago, they took ownership of that human boy (Isaac Hempstead Wright), named him Eggs, and have raised him like a Boxtroll. When excited, he joins them in thumping on his chest like a gorilla. And if he’s noticed that he’s the only one in his family who can’t tuck his arms and legs into his box like a turtle, well, that’s just fine by him. But above ground, villainous Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) is using Eggs’s abduction as an excuse to exterminate the Boxtrolls, which the film shows in a hushed, devastating montage of their cuddly cardboard cube shrinking night by night. (As there are no female Boxtrolls, reproduction is out of the question — and don’t think too hard about how, then, they came to exist.)

Immediately, directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi assure us that logic isn’t important. This world operates as if it were created by Mad Libs. Snatcher is destroying the trolls because he wants to earn a white hat. Men with white hats like Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris) are important, we learn, because they’re allowed to eat cheese. Cheese parties matter simply because Snatcher’s upset he isn’t invited — he’s actually grotesquely allergic to dairy — but it’s the point, or really, the implied power, that counts. This is logic that makes sense to children, who already navigate their lives looking up to people who care deeply about things they can’t understand. Cheese or credit cards, what’s the difference?

But The Boxtrolls’s emotional logic is dead on. This is a story of propaganda, genocide, suppression, servitude, and apathy. In short, it’s the story of the Jewish nightmare of the 1930s, and of dozens of other terrible trials that have happened throughout the ages. The arc is always the same. An ambitious climber scapegoats a minority group for his own benefit, and the masses don’t disagree. They’re either focused on their own wealth, like Portley-Rind’s heaping stacks of brie and cheddar, or fooled by false claims. Here, a self-serving stage actress (also Kingsley) puts on a nasty play about how the Boxtrolls kidnap and kill children, and Annable and Stacchi cut to the crowd roaring for vengeance. It’s like outtakes from a Leni Riefenstahl film. And unlike the rest of the film, the so-called crime is no metaphor — blood libel accusations have been leveled against the Jews for over a thousand years in Europe, and we saw shades of them again this summer in Israel, on both sides of the struggle.

What’s smart about The Boxtrolls is that even the brightest townspeople have been suckered into siding with the wrong side. When Portley-Rind’s headstrong daughter Winnie visits Eggs in his home, she disappointedly whines, “I was promised mountains of bones!” The film asks children to parse not just good versus evil, but the gray area of good people who do evil — and grayer still, the good people who see evil and do nothing about it. Bleakest of all: the victims who refuse to fight back. It’s sophisticated stuff, hammered home just a little too hard by two of Snatcher’s three Boxtroll-hunting henchmen, who continually assure themselves that they must be the heroes; otherwise, “why would they hide from us?”

The minions are just repeating a good joke from the British sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look where one Nazi SS officer whispers to another, “Have you noticed that our caps have actually got little pictures of skulls on them? Hans, are we the baddies?” The gag has bite because it’s a question that the 17 million German soldiers who fought in World War II apparently didn’t — or couldn’t — ask. How wonderful to find a cartoon for children that will.

Directed by Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable. Written by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava. Based on the novel Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow. Starring Ben Kingsley, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Elle Fanning, Dee Bradley Baker, Steve Blum, Toni Collette, Tracy Morgan, and Simon Pegg.

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In War Story, a Photo Journalist Lives in the Aftermath

American photojournalist Lee (Catherine Keener) barely speaks during the first third of War Story, and when she does, it’s to demand that she be left alone.

She turns her room at a small Sicilian hotel into a bunker, ignoring pleas to return home and refusing treatment for her physical injuries. Obviously traumatized and emotionally fragile, Lee is also stubborn, testy, and imperious. She may have been taken captive in Libya, but she is unwilling to play the victim.

So much of War Story relies on capturing Keener’s expressions and body language, which reveal more than her cryptic answers to inquiries from a former mentor (Ben Kingsley). Lee thrives in the immediacy of war zones, with her photographs imposing order on the chaos, and cinematographer Reed Morano mirrors that aesthetic by using handheld camerawork to create classically beautiful wide-screen images.

Director Mark Jackson (Without) follows Lee’s erratic rhythms, intimately documenting her isolation and watching her keen eye fall on Tunisian refugee Hafsia (Hafsia Herzi). Jackson and co-screenwriter Kristin Gore prize ambiguity, allowing for cathartic revelations but no easy resolutions.

Lee shows an unexpected tenderness toward Hafsia, who accepts assistance while gently questioning her motivation (“Why do you think you know people you don’t know?”). Hafsia confronts her own trauma and pressing needs with a pragmatism that pushes Lee to take the first steps back into a life that no longer makes sense to her. Ultimately, it’s clear that Lee’s recovery is not going to be easy on anyone, least of all herself.

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WWII Drama Walking with the Enemy Crams a Lot of Big Ideas Into a Small Movie

In the World War II drama Walking with the Enemy, everything unrelated to the actual war feels like a nostalgic grandpa’s rose-tinted recollections of the old country.

Times are tough, of course, but the family dinners and young love in the air prove idyllic. Everything else in Mark Schmidt’s based-on-a-true-story thriller feels like a lot of big ideas crammed into a small movie.

As with many other WWII films, it takes genuinely stirring source material — a young Hungarian man poses as a Nazi to find his dislocated family — and reduces it to its most shopworn components. (It’s the opposite of Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, which maximized the potential of the dressing-as-Nazis genre three years before the war even ended.)

Schmidt stops just a few steps short of absolving German-aligned Hungary of any wrongdoing by showing what a tough spot Regent Miklos Horthy (Ben Kingsley) was in: “I aligned myself with what I thought was the lesser of two evils,” he says in a plaintive, hindsight-is-20/20 explanation early on.

Most impressive as yet another showcase for Kingsley’s chameleonic ability to be convincing regardless of when and where his characters hail from, Walking with the Enemy seems to shrink whenever the veteran actor isn’t onscreen, which is most of the time.

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Culture Clash Yuks in Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator

In his third collaboration with director Larry Charles, Sacha Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the young, dumb dictator of fictional North African nation Wadiya. Under Aladeen’s rule, oil-producing, uranium-enriching Wadiya is a hostile threat to global peace and capitalism. And yet, Aladeen himself is so attracted to Western culture that he has commanded a parade of American celebrities to have sex with him (Megan Fox plays “herself”), taking Polaroids afterward as proof. It’s not a “Fuck you, America!” power thing (that’s a fetish saved for another character, one The Dictator codes as unequivocal slime). “I really want someone to cuddle,” Aladeen confesses, then gazes longingly at walls covered in photos of his celebrity conquests. A poor little rich boy with no limits and no one to love, he’s sort of the Muslim-extremist version of Arthur.

He might not even be a murderer: Without the self-absorbed leader’s awareness, everyone Aladeen sentences to death is smuggled to safety by his resistance-minded executioner. Soon, Aladeen’s brother (Ben Kingsley) attempts to sell him out, hiring a goat-fetishizing look-alike (also played by Baron Cohen) to serve as Aladeen’s double as they all travel to New York to defend Wadiya’s nuclear program to the U.N. The plan is to have the real Aladeen killed, then coach the fake into using the U.N. speech to renounce Aladeen’s regime and announce Wadiya’s impending transformation into a democracy. (Kingsley’s character is no human rights champion: He needs Aladeen out of the way to exploit Wadiya’s oil.) The dictator escapes his scheduled assassination and ends up outside the U.N. in bum garb, leading the gathered protesters in a cry against the “illegitimate” leader addressing the assembly inside.

This draws the attention of Zoe (Anna Faris), a crunchy Brooklyn activist who mistakes Aladeen for a dissident and welcomes him into her refugee-staffed Williamsburg food co-op. While plotting to overthrow the impostor and take back Wadiya, Aladeen uses his disciplinary talents to reform Zoe’s store and falls for her in the process. This subplot activates the film’s most successful joke: Of course a despot who rails against democracy while accumulating gold-plated Hummers and watching Real Housewives would feel at home in a place where “resistance” to the American mainstream revolves around the rigid dictates of political correctness and the consumption of luxuries like coconut water. Faris gets most of the films freshest, funniest bits: Zoe’s memory of her time in a “feminist mime workshop” made me laugh harder than anything Baron Cohen did the whole movie.

Ali G and Borat were such genius characters because Baron Cohen immersed himself so totally while thrusting himself out into the real world and into contact with unsuspecting strangers. The Dictator, in contrast, exists purely in movie world: Although there was apparently much improvisation on set, there’s no interaction with “real” people. Baron Cohen reportedly stayed in character between takes on The Dictator, but I’m not convinced he stays in character during takes. The character doesn’t seem to amount to much more than an imprecise, inconsistent accent and an unapologetic, played-for-laughs proclivity for rape, in a film dedicated to the rehearsal of old-hat culture-clash stereotypes that generally fail to unearth anything new about any of the cultures involved. Aladeen is so implausible as a real-world construction that neither character nor actor takes him seriously—in one early scene, during a speech about how Wadiya is developing uranium for “peaceful purposes,” Aladeen gets the giggles. Twice.

One of Aladeen’s accomplices realizes that the Supreme Leader has been transformed by his Brooklyn sojourn when he starts working Yiddish words into conversation, but he shouldn’t be surprised, given that Aladeen’s comic sensibility is thick with borscht. (“Twenty dollars a day for Wi-Fi?!?” he exclaims on checking into his hotel. “And they call me an international criminal!”) Eventually, the staleness of Aladeen’s one-liners starts to seem like the joke in and of itself—that’s gotta be the only reason why there’s an Eat Pray Love punchline in this movie . . . right?

Much of the material that isn’t dusty feels strained, as if the film is reaching to simulate the anarchic no you didn’t! moments that Baron Cohen’s previous vérité experiments stumbled into. But even in its manufactured boundary-pushing—a flash of full-frontal Baron Cohen, another scene set partially inside a birth canal—The Dictator never really risks anything.

As a comic stunt and a political statement, the film seems to exist to support its climax, in which the “real” Aladeen tries to sell America on the perks of a dictatorship but ends up illuminating America itself. (“Your media would appear free but be secretly controlled by one person and his family!” “You could fill your prisons with one particular racial group!”) As a punchline hammering home the film’s core polemic—basically, that “freedom” and “tyranny” aren’t black and white or mutually exclusive—it’s pretty great. But it doesn’t justify the film-long setup that precedes it. It suggests what could have been had Baron Cohen and Charles played the material a little straight and given the movie’s world stronger ties to our real world. Great satire, after all, is funny because it’s true.

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Scorsese’s Head-Trip Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, a florid art shocker that Paramount welcomed into the world with the strained enthusiasm of a mutant baby’s parents, begins with U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leo DiCaprio) seasick, head in the toilet. The film is his prolonged purging, with Daniels coughing up chunks of his backstory in flashback and dream. Now topside, he joins his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), and their destination looms into view: an ominous hunk of rock in Boston Harbor that houses Ashecliffe Asylum, where they’ve been assigned to find a missing inmate.

Pounded eighth notes by Krzysztof Penderecki score a gathering-storm approach that anticlimaxes at a tidy, ecclesiastical-looking brick campus. They’re shown the grounds by progressive chief physician Dr. Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley), who manages to seem both a natty, patrician liberal, circa 1954, and a bit of a satyr, with his Anton LaVey bald head/goatee combo and ironic twinkle—an ambiguous balance Kingsley keeps seesawing throughout. They also meet Cawley’s colleague, Herr Doktor Naehring (Max von Sydow)—and Daniels, an ex-GI who witnessed the liberation of Dachau, takes an immediate dislike to the German.

As Daniels and Aule begin to investigate, there’s a sense that their presence is an inside joke with the staff, that they’re being given rehearsed misinformation. Daniels reveals that he’d heard sinister rumors about Ashecliffe long before this assignment, and not even a pretense of cooperation and normalcy can outlast their first hurricane-force dark-and-stormy-night on the island, when they trade their soaked civvies for orderly uniforms. (The film is elemental, whipped with fire, ash, snow, paper, bracken, and torrents of rain.)

As the outline of a conspiracy comes into view, Daniels’s digging brings on strobing headaches, hallucinations, and a shrinking list of trustworthies that ultimately includes only his dead wife, dolorous Dolores, visiting him as a beyond-the-grave Technicolor prophet (Michelle Williams, not quite right for “ethereal”; it doesn’t help that she’s upstaged by Emily Mortimer’s psychopath, who takes only one scene opposite DiCaprio to establish an immediate and spellbinding intimacy). As for DiCaprio, well, he’ll never step onscreen and immediately suggest a liver-and-onions Greatest Generation Ralph Meeker he-man—Ted Levine’s warden almost eats him at one point—but he has made suffering a specialty, and does so with an abandon that is frightening.

Production design maestro Dante Ferretti’s island is a rugged symbolist mythscape, pocketed with hidden places: soothsayers’ sea caves, Ward C, a squat Civil War–era fort where the most violent offenders are kept in a Goya madhouse, and, beyond it, the ultimate locked door—to the lighthouse! Scorsese’s return to his Roger Corman AIP roots is an object lesson in the proximity of high and low culture—Shutter Island is lousy with modernist references, soundtracked by avant-garde 20th-century composers, pretentious in the best Pulp-y tradition.

138 minutes is dangerously epic for a talky thriller, but you forget the time and even whether the plot makes sense—and if you don’t notice, it doesn’t matter. Since more attention has gone into filigreeing details into each scene than worrying about the way they’ll fit together, the rattletrap engages you moment-to-moment, even as the overall pacing stops and lurches alarmingly.

Though the film takes place entirely out-to-sea, the mainland isn’t left behind—it’s concentrated here into a midcentury chamber of manmade horrors. Loonies praise their island as a safe haven from news “about atolls, about A-bombs.” There are rumors suggesting the House Committee on Un-American Activities (!) is dabbling in brainwashing experiments. Daniels flashes back repeatedly to Dachau: a camp Kapo choking in his own blood; a firing line tracking shot popping with squibs like a string of firecrackers; piled corpses frozen into a horrible sculpture. No violence is unsuitable for aestheticization; at one point in the film’s web of visions, the perpetrator of a triple filicide points proudly to her handiwork and says, “See, aren’t they beautiful?”—and DP Robert Richardson’s image concurs.

Scorsese is as famous a movie lover as a moviemaker. This is manifest in his too-much-discussed homages, but also in his understanding of how his characters have themselves been shaped by entertainment, how they model themselves as actors in the American drama—Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, or Bill the Butcher addressing his public with Edwin Forrest brio at a performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Gangs of New York. (The announced Scorsese project, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, dealing with our nation’s premier self-publicist ham, has enormous potential.) Without revealing too much of an ending that everyone will soon insist on telling you their opinion of, Shutter Island, deep in its camp gothic trappings, seems to me a flea-pit occult history, with Daniels’s headspace a confusion of “Hideous Secrets of the Nazi Horror Cult” schlock, hard-ass Mickey Spillane machismo, Cold War psychic confusion, and the post-traumatic bad dreams of ex-servicemen.

In his documentary Personal Journey, Scorsese spoke of the ’50s as a time “when the subtext became as important as the apparent subject matter, or even more important”—and in Shutter Island, his most distinctly ’50s movie, he replays the trash culture of the era as the manifestation of an anguished subconscious.

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Fifty Dead Men Walking As Close to Truth as Earth to Pluto

Canadian writer-director Kari Skogland’s slick, soapy procedural—an unreliable adaptation of former IRA informant Martin McGartland’s bestselling memoir—again proves how easy it is to shamelessly bilk audiences of their empathy with an “inspired by true events” credit. McGartland himself, still in hiding, publicly claimed that the film is “as near to the truth as Earth is to Pluto.” From off the violent streets of Northern Ireland during the late-’80s peak of the Troubles, cocky Belfast hoodlum Martin (Jim Sturgess) is recruited to infiltrate the IRA by British Special Branch officer Fergus (Sir Ben Kingsley). Unable to tell even his trigger-happy mate (Kevin Zegers) or pregnant girlfriend (Natalie Press) of his thorny situation, Martin gets pulled dangerously under the spell of both his new extremist family and his avuncular handler. The private jousting sessions between Sturgess and Kingsley are easily the most compelling moments, though it’s the younger actor’s convincing desperation that pretty much carries the film. The unfitting flashiness and clunky segues between thriller and melodrama kill any real sense of tension, making this a poor man’s Donnie Brasco—that is, if its self-congratulation and failure to contextualize the values on both sides of the ethno-political struggle didn’t already make it the poor man’s Hunger.

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Penélope Cruz and Ben Kingsley in Elegy

It’s May-December time again, and for an aging dude who scores one of the ripest young lovelies in cinema (Penélope Cruz), Ben Kingsley looks mighty down in the mouth. Or something—it’s hard to tell because Kingsley is pulling one of his wooden-faced sphinx routines as David Kepesh, a skirt-chasing professor who gets his comeuppance from Cruz’s Consuela, the luscious Cuban-American graduate student with whom he falls in love. Or something. Spanish director Isabel Coixet’s hushed and understated Elegy is a flat, joyless affair, not just because of the total absence of carnal spark between Kingsley and Cruz—absurdly infantilized in bangs and a headband—but because it’s adapted (faithfully, up to a crucial point, by Nicholas Meyer) from The Dying Animal, one of Philip Roth’s least successful efforts to come to grips with male helplessness before what he calls “the tyranny of beauty.” Funereally lit, the movie sags beneath fatally tasteful shots of Kingsley’s profile in half-shadow, remorseful after his departed lover returns with a request he fears will unman him. Their dreary love story is enlivened only by excellent supporting performances from Peter Sarsgaard as Kepesh’s son, Dennis Hopper as his best friend, and Patricia Clarkson as his sometime sex partner. The softened ending is a travesty of Roth, even at his flawed second-best.

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Brad Anderson’s Transsiberian

Though not one for literal smoke and mirrors, master of horror Brad Anderson, with his panache for arousing fear from harried reality and rotted atmosphere, is still a shaman. In his latest spooker, Anderson locates dread not just inside his characters’ psyches but also in the lines across a babushka’s face, the insides of a matryoshka doll, and Ben Kingsley’s ushanka. The setting this time is the wintriest wasteland of Siberia, through which a train lumbers toward Moscow from China with a bobble-headed Christian dweeb (Woody Harrelson) and his wife Jessie (Emily Mortimer) on board, plus a lascivious Spaniard (Eduardo Noriega), a fishy narcotics officer (Kingsley), and a half-dozen other easily excitable foreigners seemingly pulled from Eli Roth’s go-to central casting. At its queasy best—when absorbing the naturally phantasmagoric vibes of Siberia and surveying Jessie’s grueling efforts to discard a backpack filled with unwanted goods—Transsiberian more subtly critiques our American sense of privilege than any of Roth’s Hostel pictures. But just as nasty as the titular mode of transport is the script’s wanton declaration of theme and a cynical and fashionable belief in moral grayness that may complement the frosty setting but nonetheless feels easy.