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The hunt for Holocaust architect Adolph Eichmann is chronicled rather blandly in Operation Finale, director Chris Weitz’s lost movie starring Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley and Mélanie Laurent.

When Eichmann (Kingsley) is discovered in Buenos Aires living a modest life and working at an automobile plant, secret agents led by Peter Malkin (Isaac) and Hanna Elian (Laurent) set up shop where he resides. They hatch a plot to grab Eichmann and return him to Israel to stand trial for his war crimes.

Up until the moment where they grab Eichmann, the movie is pretty good—but when the movie becomes about Malkin and Eichmann chatting in a dark bedroom, it loses its sting. A better movie would’ve had Eichmann standing trial for his crimes, thus educating those of us who haven’t seen his trial.

Too much of this film is spent showing Eichmann trying to persuade Malkin that he was just a normal guy taking orders. Hey, maybe that happened, but cover it in five minutes, and stay focused on what a monster this guy was. We already know he’s despicable, and I’m pretty sure the folks who risked their lives to grab him weren’t conflicted about whether he was really a nice guy forced to do a bad job. Yes, the movie shows a little bit of his trial, but this is one time where I found myself wishing that more of a movie took place in a courtroom.

Operation Finale is showing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The Jungle Book, Disney’s latest live-action take on one of its animated classics, is clever: It actually contains sly nods to Apocalypse Now and Saturday Night Live.

Jon Favreau’s delightful and funny take on Rudyard Kipling’s tale of a boy raised by wolves is an all-around winner. Kids and adults will love the talking (and sporadically singing) animals, while adults and some of the cooler kids will enjoy the movie references and clever Easter eggs.

The story is pretty simple: A young boy, Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi), raised in the jungle, is pursued by a pissed-off tiger (the voice of Idris Elba) who had his face burned by a human when he was young (shades of Darth Vader). When plans to leave for a human village are rudely interrupted, Mowgli winds up staying in the jungle longer than he planned. He encounters Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), an evil temptress snake, and other perils while building a special friendship with a big bear.

As far as I could see, he never stops to wash his red shorts. A swim in the river doesn’t count. You need detergent.

Bill Murray is a masterstroke of vocal casting as Baloo, the big bear who befriends Mowgli on his extended jungle trek. But casting Christopher Walken as King Louie, the Kong-sized master of all apes, actually tops the Murray casting feat. It gives Favreau’s film an opportunity to become truly weird, very funny and even a little scary.

Favreau finds some clever ways to mix musical performances into the movie, even though it’s not a bona fide musical. Baloo and Mowgli happily sing part of “The Bare Necessities” together while floating down a river, accompanied by a full orchestra led by John Debney. It’s great, but it’s not the film’s musical highlight: That comes when Walken’s King Louie, portrayed with undertones of Brando’s Col. Kurtz, suddenly busts out “I Wanna Be Like You.” Walken is perfect for the song and perfect for the character, making the scene an instant classic. Johansson performs another song from the animated movie, “Trust in Me,” during the credits.

Incredible special effects seamlessly mesh with live animals, motion-capture work and puppetry. The talking animals actually look like they are really talking.

Other voices include Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, the panther who raised Mowgli, and Lupita Nyong’o as the wolf, Raksha, who acted as his mother figure. Giancarlo Esposito, aka Buggin’ Out, lends his chords for Akela, leader of the wolves, and Garry Shandling voices Ikki in what turned out to be his final film.

If you have a couple of extra bucks, shell out for the 3-D or, better yet, IMAX version of the movie. Favreau was very conscious of the technology, and he gives the movie some nice extra scope. Tree branches look like they are going to poke you in the face, and it almost seems as if Kaa might get you into her death coil. The 3-D also makes the pop-up-book end credits all the more fun.

It’s worth noting that the movie, which appears to be very outdoorsy, was filmed entirely on studio sets and made within computers. Every landscape you see is artificial, making the filmmaking achievement something of a miracle.

Sethi, the only live actor with a big part in the film, is good enough as Mowgli, although interest in his character’s plight is diminished by the fact that the film is so much cooler when the animals are at the center of the action.

Talks are under way for a Jungle Book 2 already, with Favreau returning, so the adventures of Mowgli look to be continued. Perhaps a main plot point could be Mowgli finding some new shorts or a bathing suit. He’s going to get a fungus in those red shorts!

Hopefully, Murray will get over his sequel stigma and be back as Baloo. And Walken … I gotta have more Walken!

The Jungle Book is playing at theaters across the valley in various formats.

Published in Reviews

Director Anton Corbijn’s Control, about the final days of Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis, was one of the best biopics I’ve ever seen. Now Corbijn has turned his attentions to the great James Dean (Dane DeHaan) in Life, a sometimes-engaging account of the actor’s interactions with Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson), photographer for Life magazine, shortly before Dean’s death.

DeHaan plays a stripped-down, decidedly unglamorous version of the icon, with a performance that is perhaps a little too stifled and mumbling at times. Corbijn and company are shooting for a low-key portrayal here, and they succeed. The idea behind the film is good—a quiet look inside the back-story of James Dean. It’s fun to see some of Stock’s more famous stills of Dean come to life.

The film suffers a bit due to DeHaan’s sometimes-frustrating line deliveries, although he does look like Dean at some angles. Much of the film deals with Stock’s family troubles, and that also drags the film down a bit.

I suppose a rollicking biopic about Dean would not be in order; he was a complicated guy, probably a little tortured, and not necessarily the type to hang from the rafters at Hollywood parties. Still, Corbijn’s film isn’t quite up to the level of Control, although it certainly has its moments, especially when Ben Kingsley’s quietly sinister Jack Warner is occupying the screen. I’m thinking Dean’s life probably wasn’t as lonely and sad as this film depicts, but it probably was a bit moody.

Life is available on demand and via iTunes.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Robert Zemeckis—with the help of some massively talented special-effects artists—puts viewers on a wire more than 1,300 feet above Manhattan in The Walk, an uneven but ultimately thrilling account of Philippe Petit’s amazing 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers.

If you’ve seen Man on Wire, the documentary featuring Petit himself, you’ve seen most of what happens in The Walk. The big difference in The Walk is a stunning re-enactment of Petit’s stunt rather than still pictures. The people who crafted this film have done a terrific job of re-creating the towers, and Zemeckis really does put you on the wire with Petit.

Having grown up in Long Island, N.Y., I spent some time in, around and on top of those towers. While I can’t say what it was like to walk a wire from one building to another (I’m not insane, after all), I can tell you what it was like to stand atop one of them, or to gaze up at them, legs wobbling, from the ground—and Zemeckis absolutely nails it. Every inch of the buildings looks authentic.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, sporting a French accent that sounds a lot like Sacha Baron Cohen in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, plays a very jovial Petit. The film picks up when he is a young man miming in the streets of Paris. After a visit to the dentist’s office, Petit spies a picture of the Twin Towers and immediately starts planning his “Coup.”

The buildup to the big walk is a little goofy and a tad tedious. Zemeckis utilizes a framing device that has Petit narrating from the torch on the Statue of Liberty; it feels a little trite. However, the depiction of a rusty, dirty Liberty torch is a nice authentic touch: The city cleaned up the statue about 10 years later.

After some uninteresting stuff involving Petit and a tightrope-walking circus mentor (Ben Kingsley in a useless “Obi-Wan” role), Petit goes to Manhattan and assembles his team. As soon as he gets next to those buildings, the movie soars to a new level.

With the help of some fake moustaches, as well as architect and construction-worker disguises, Petit and friends managed to study the building multiple times before actually shooting a wire between the towers with a bow and arrow—and shocking the living heck out of city-dwellers on their way to work.

The walk itself has to be one of the year’s finest examples of special effects. I watched the film in 3-D IMAX, and the last act of the movie is stunning. The buildings are perfectly replicated, and there’s a true sense of being on that wire—and being one misstep away from a very long drop.

Petit didn’t just do one walk cross and call it a day. He was on the wire for more than a half-hour, during which time he laid down on the wire, saluted the people down below, and saluted skyward like the absolute maniac he was. Sure, Evel Knievel did some messed-up stuff on his motorcycle around the same time, but “the walk” has to be the most amazing daredevil feat of the 20th century.

Levitt is fine in the central role, even if his accent is a bit distracting at times. Apparently, he trained with Petit himself and got fairly astute at wire-walking and juggling. He also taught himself how to speak French. That’s a lot of work for a movie not many are likely to see: It’s not doing well at the box office. Perhaps that’s because most people who would be interested feel they have already seen the film after taking in Man on Wire.

This is not the case: Even if you have seen the documentary, see The Walk. When it is firing on all cylinders, it’s like the most dizzying of amusement-park rides, and the final 40 minutes are some of the most fun you will have at the movies this year. You just have to wade through the pre-Manhattan, Paris-dwelling boring minutes first.

The Walk is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The Boxtrolls, nominated for a Best Animated Feature Film Oscar, is another weird film from the studio that also made Coraline and ParaNorman.

As far as appearances go, this is the best film in this Oscar category, which also includes Big Hero 6 and How to Train Your Dragon 2. Most of the work is traditional stop-motion animation, with some fine digital animation included as well.

The story follows a young boy named Eggs (the voice of Isaac Hempstead Wright), who is being raised by strange creatures who live below the streets of London. The creatures wear boxes for clothing, and Eggs gets his name because, quite simply, his box says “Eggs” on it.

An evil exterminator looking for a higher station in society (Ben Kingsley) contracts to kill all of the boxtrolls, putting Eggs and his buddies in danger.

The voice cast also features Elle Fanning, Jared Harris, Nick Frost and a barely recognizable Tracy Morgan.

The story doesn’t hold up as well as that of Big Hero 6, but The Boxtrolls is still a lot of fun—and it scores points for being extra-twisted.

Special Features: The disc is packed with behind the scenes featurettes and commentaries. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

The third Iron Man film regained some magic after the enjoyable but inferior Iron Man 2. That’s thanks in large part to director Shane Black, a man who has great chemistry with Robert Downey Jr. Just watch their Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for proof.

Things get dark this time around, with Downey’s Tony Stark suffering anxiety attacks after the events of The Avengers. The world is being terrorized by a strange sort called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a cloaked psycho who uses television and the Internet to hold the world at ransom.

After a battle that annihilates his California abode, Stark finds himself on the road and hiding out with a kid; this leads to some funny banter. Guy Pearce shows up as a potentially bad guy, and Gwyneth Paltrow gets a chance to put on a suit and kick some ass.

As far as action goes, this film really delivers the goods. Stark must face off against some crazy, fire-breathing mutants that are capable of regenerating when they lose a limb. There are a whole bunch of new suits and gadgets flying about, and many pretty explosions. Downey, as usual, anchors the whole thing with a fun performance.

This might mark the end for Downey in solo Iron Man films, but he has signed on for more Avengers movies—so he remains Iron Man.

Special Features: They include commentary with Shane Black and writer Drew Pearce, a bunch of behind-the-scenes featurettes, a gag reel and deleted scenes.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Shane Black, writer of the screenplays for Lethal Weapon and Last Action Hero, made one of my favorite directorial debuts with 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I thought it marked the arrival of a true directorial force.

Then he basically disappeared.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang featured the best Robert Downey Jr. performance ever put to screen. Maybe Downey agrees with that statement, because he pushed for Black as his director on Iron Man 3. Thankfully, he got his wish.

Iron Man 3 is as good as the first film, and markedly better than the OK second installment; it’s just slightly inferior to last year’s The Avengers. Like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it features dark humor, and gives us a protagonist that is slightly unreliable.

The film opens with a few mistakes Tony Stark made a long time ago, and sets us up for the perils Stark is facing today. Chief among his enemies is The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a tripped-out version of Osama bin Laden who executes Americans on TV and openly taunts the president (William Sadler).

Another big enemy would be Tony Stark himself, because he’s battling panic attacks and insomnia after the events of The Avengers. These blows to his mental and physical capacity lead to mishaps in his laboratory, and a pretty scary moment when one of his suits pounces on Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in their bedroom.

Chief among Stark’s flaws has always been his vanity, which leads to him calling out The Mandarin, resulting in all kinds of hell fire coming down on his West Coast compound. Stark winds up going deep undercover, and at one point has a kid sidekick (Ty Simpkins). The kid-sidekick stuff sounds like it would be lame, doesn’t it? However, Black and Downey Jr. have a way of taking conventional crap and having a lot of fun, so the kid is cool.

Iron Man 3 piles on the villains and potential villains. In the intro flashback, we meet nerdy Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), who is working on some really big genetics project. Stark blows him off so he can sleep with Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), another scientist.

James Badge Dale and Stephanie Szostak are on hand as Mandarin assassins who have the power to heat up their bodies and regenerate limbs when they are lopped off. They reminded me a bit of Robert Patrick in Terminator 2 with their unstoppable evil, although their performances contain a little more depth.

Paltrow is allowed to play with her character a little more in this installment, as Pepper goes through all kinds of tribulations. As with Tom Cruise, Paltrow’s public-image garbage tends to distract from the fact that she can act up a storm, and she’s typically great in this one. Don Cheadle gets limited screen time as Col. James Rhodes/War Machine/Iron Patriot, but he makes the most of it.

As for the Mandarin, Kingsley has a lot of fun—in ways you won’t expect. The Mandarin is one of the more unique villains to arise from the Marvel movie franchises, and he takes some major detours from his comic-book incarnation.

Black and Downey faced a rather daunting task: How do you bring the Iron Man back to Earth after The Avengers, which involved aliens, a Hulk, a Thor and Scarlett Johansson in tights? The answer: You allow Downey to riff; you surround him with a cast that matches his brilliance; and you allow the Stark character to remain human and vulnerable.

The action scenes are stellar. One scene, involving a high-altitude rescue after a bunch of people are sucked out of a plane, is the best of the franchise thus far, and the finale is a rouser. Let it be said that Black manages an excellent balance of action and character development, with every major character getting satisfactory screen time. Black and Downey are a great screen team, and that’s apparent in Iron Man 3.

Next up for Tony Stark will be Avengers 2, and then who knows after that? This one is going to be a bitch to reboot when Downey Jr. decides to hang it up.

One last thing: Stay for the credits, will you? Despite many Marvel movies offering after-the-credits surprises, I still see a parade of people getting up and walking out as the credits start. You paid for the seat and perhaps the funny 3-D glasses, so stay put until everything fades to black.

Published in Reviews