Operation Finale — Having played saintly as Gandhi and flamboyantly evil as the gangster in Sexy Beast, Ben Kingsley now turns to the notorious real-life poster boy for the banality of evil. He’s a close-to-the-vest Adolph Eichmann in this account of the Nazi fugitive’s extraction from Argentina by Israeli agents in 1960.
Oscar Isaac plays Peter Malkin, one of the Mossad agents who captured Eichmann, and who reluctantly connects with him during the tense days that follow, as the team work to smuggle the Holocaust planner out of Buenos Aires, so that he can be put on trial in Jerusalem. Kingsley’s performance is shrewdly built, only allowing the deadpan Eichmann brief flickers of emotion, so that a climactic burst of spite is quite shocking. Isaac is equally strong as the sexy, self-deprecating but quietly confident Malkin.
Like Ben Affleck’s Argo, this movie is fictionalized in places, partly in order to make it more of a conventional spy tale. Also like Argo, it probably didn’t need this melodramatic spice. Even so, Operation Finale, skillfully directed by Chris Weitz, and driven forward by another superb score by Alexander Desplat, is crisp and absorbing and satisfying, both as a thriller and as a moral drama.
The Bookshop — Set around the same time period as Operation Finale, this adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1978 novel stars Emily Mortimer as a bibliophilic young widow who decides to buy an old house in her lovely coastal town in England, and turn it into a quality bookstore. For this blameless if quixotic project she unwillingly earns the enmity of a local rich lady (Patricia Clarkson) who’s fixated on turning the place into an arts center for the town. Even more unexpectedly, she earns the friendship of the local misanthropic recluse (Bill Nighy), another passionate bookworm, by introducing him to the works of Ray Bradbury and Nabokov.
In short, it’s another moral drama, albeit on a cosmically less consequential level than Operation Finale. At times it feels almost like a parody of an art house movie, with its cozy setting and its tweedy, genteel, bourgeois characters and conflicts and its romanticizing of independent bookstores. But the Spanish director, Isabel Coixet, doesn’t let the movie go cutesy; she gives it a lowering, sober atmosphere.
And the actors give it bite. Mortimer has the stiffest English upper lip in a while, but she somehow lets you feel the depths of her grief without telegraphing, and when she at last unleashes her emotions it feels natural. Clarkson is archly odious, and the furious Nighy is a joy as usual.
Behind this movie lies a mystery that has long perplexed me: How does any independent bookstore ever make money? Small indie and used bookstores are among my favorite places to spend time, and I know that we’re all supposed to mourn what’s happened to them in the face of chains and online outlets and e-books and so forth. But even before those factors, I never understood how a store with only a handful of dawdling, slow-browsing customers (like me) at any given time could pay rent, utilities and employees, stock their shelves and still turn a profit.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m delighted if any are still able to hang in there. But even the store in this movie, set more than a half-century ago, seems like a shaky enterprise. Soon the old-school bookstore may seem as archaic as an iceman’s wagon or a milk-box.
The Bookshop plays at Harkins Camelview.
One more set in that general period:
Little Shop of Horrors — FilmBar presents the musical, set in “an early year of a decade not too long before our own,” as a “Big Gay Sing-Along” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, September 5. If you’ve never seen this garish screen version of the Off-Broadway stage show of The Little Shop of Horrors, Roger Corman’s quickie classic of 1960 about a flower shop taken over by a predatory plant, this could be a fun introduction.
The songs, by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, are witty in themselves, and excitingly staged by director Frank Oz. Along with Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene and Vincent Gardenia in the leads, and the Chiffons-style Greek chorus backup singers, the film also features an impressive supporting turn by Steve Martin as a brutal, bullying dentist, and the potent vocals of Levi Stubbs as the plant, “Audrey II.” “Feed me, Seymour!”