THE CATCHER WAS A SPY (2018)

June 22, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. World War II. Baseball. Spies. A true story. Assemble all those pieces and you have Morris “Moe” Berg. Director Ben Lewin (THE SESSIONS, 2012) brings the fascinating story to the big screen with Robert Rodat’s (Oscar nominated for SAVING PRIVATE RYAN) screenplay adapted from the 1994 biography “The Catcher was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg” written by Nicholas Dawidoff. This is neither your typical spy movie nor your typical baseball movie.

Background information is provided by pre-movie title cards: in 1938 German scientists split the atom for the first time, ushering in the nuclear age; renowned German physicist Werner Heisenberg (1932 Nobel Prize winner) was charged with building an atom bomb; the United States responded by sending a baseball player to assassinate him. It’s 1944 Zurich and two men exchange uncomfortable glances across a dimly lit room.

We then flashback 8 years to see Moe Berg utilizing his gut instincts to survive as a veteran journeyman catcher for the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. We later learn his sixth sense is not limited to the baseball diamond, and is used in situations much more important than whether a baserunner is stealing a base. Growing up Jewish, Berg had always been somewhat of an outsider, admitting, “I don’t fit in.” In baseball, they called him a walking enigma. Educated at Princeton, Columbia and Sorbonne in Paris, Berg spoke several languages, had a ‘fake’ wife, was a regular on quiz shows, and was constantly followed by insinuations of homosexuality … though he only admitted to being good at keeping secrets.

Berg’s is a truly fascinating story, but unfortunately Paul Rudd is a bit overmatched in the lead role. He just doesn’t quite have the dramatic acting chops to convey the intellectual depth of the man. However, the rest of the cast is stellar: Paul Giamatti (as Samuel Goudsmit), Connie Nielsen, Mark Strong (Heisenberg), Sienna Miller, Hiroyuki Sanada, Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels (as William J Donovan), Tom Wilkinson (as Paul Scherrer), Giancarlo Giannini (a 50+ year career), and Shea Whigham (as Joe Cronin). Many of these are little more than cameos, and the choppy feel of the film’s flow prevents us from ever really connecting to characters.

An extended battle scene volleys from intense and well-filmed to slightly comical as Mr. Giamatti is forced to run and dodge bullets. The look, tone and color palette of the film is quite similar to Spielberg’s BRIDGE OF SPIES (another true story), though this current one pales in comparison, as director Lewin presents it as a “will he won’t he kill the guy?” scenario. Berg’s story is likely more suited to documentary treatment, as his time with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS, later the CIA), resulted in his being awarded the Medal of Freedom. Upon his death in 1972, Newsweek’s headline read “3rd String Catcher, 1st String Spy”.

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THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928) revisited

June 20, 2018

Oak Cliff Film Festival 2018

 

 

 

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s a rare treat to watch a 90 year old silent movie. Especially in a remastered format. Especially on the big screen. Especially at a historic theatre. Especially with a nearly packed house. And especially with a live score! The 7th annual Oak Cliff Film Festival, held at the Texas Theatre (opened 1931), afforded just such a treat with its Friday evening screening.

Most know the story of Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc), a teenage heroine of France for her role in the Hundred Year War. She claimed that she received spiritual and religious guidance through voices and visions. Once she was captured by English allies, she was charged with heresy and burned at the stake in Rouen in 1431. A quarter century later, the Pope declared her a martyr and she became a symbol of France – canonized as a saint in 1920. Of course, here the story is as much about the film as it is the martyr and historical figure.

The eyes are what first grab our attention. The eyes of actress Maria Falconetti as Joan of Arc. It was Falconetti’s only screen appearance, and though she spent the rest of her career on stage, this role cemented her place in cinematic history. Without the benefit of sound and voice, the silent era performer had to emote through eyes, facial expression and body movement. Few ever did it better than Falconetti. It’s gut-wrenching to watch the church counsel attempt to break her resolve. Our minds hear the intensity of their voices though we only read the subtitles.

Renowned Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer directs the script from writer Joseph Delteil (taken mostly from the transcripts of the trial), and the cinematography is through the eye of 5 time Oscar nominee Rudolph Mate’ (FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, PRIDE OF THE YANKEES). It’s impossible not to notice a style so different from modern day filmmaking. The harsh lighting and almost exclusive use of close-ups and medium shots bring an immediacy of which we aren’t accustomed. The single piece set is quite unusual and provides a stage aura. Another thing that stands out is the editing style. Continuity of scene wasn’t important here. What mattered was the sense of frantic pacing and over-bearing stress brought on by the rapid-fire questioning. We share the claustrophobic feeling with Joan, though of course, we know where this is all headed.

As part of this special showing, the Oak Cliff Film Festival arranged for a live score performed by composer George Sarah, a 4 piece chamber orchestra, and a vocal group accompanying the music.

Perhaps this meant even more to me since I visited Rouen last year, and the lasting legacy (almost 600 years) of this courageous young woman is evident throughout much of France. The re-mastered film is stunning to look at, and even more historically important knowing that the film had long thought to be lost to a fire. The story and the film are quite something to experience.

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THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ANDRE (2018, doc)

June 20, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Being an expert, or even a genius, in one’s chosen field doesn’t necessarily translate to celebrity or a life in the public eye. Few of us can name the best structural engineer or the best commercial airline pilot, yet we regularly drive over bridges and book flights to our vacation spots. However some professions lend themselves to a bit of fame … and that’s either a burden or an opportunity depending on perspective.

Director Kate Novack (writer of PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES, 2011) focuses her camera on one who seized the opportunity. Andre Leon Talley was raised in the Jim Crow South of North Carolina and rose up to become a literal giant in the fashion industry. It’s mostly a biopic of a fascinating, larger than life figure, but also a quasi-history of the fashion industry since the 1970’s. Andre crossed paths with all of the greats, and many of them are interviewed here: Marc Jacobs, Anna Wintour, Tom Ford, Valentino, Fran Leibowitz, Manolo Blahnik, and Isabella Rossellini – along with her pigs, a chicken and a turkey. We learn that he worked for Andy Warhol, was mentored by Diana Vreeland, and worked alongside Anna Wintour (teaching her as much as he learned).

Fashion is fleeting, style remains.” So Andre tells us as the film begins. He knows the difference between the two, and understands that beauty comes in many forms. Certainly the first, and often the only black man on the front row of runways in Paris and New York, Andre has lived quite the life. Director Novack’s film is at its best when Andre is front and center. He commands attention with his size, his clothes, his voice, his charisma, and mostly his talent. Claiming his eye developed watching the Sunday fashions at the black church of his youth, we also learn young Andre preferred shopping to attending a ballgame with his taxi-driving father.

Thin until age 40, Andre now describes himself as a manatee. The racism he faced within the industry is vivid as he recalls being called “Queen Kong”. Sometimes criticized for not taking a more active and vocal stance against racism, Andre simply proclaims that he was too busy with his career … his same reason for having ‘no love life’. The emotional moments of his recollections fade quickly in the segments where he discusses capes, and later veils. His expertise is on full display.

Looming over much of the film is the backdrop of the 2016 Presidential election. It’s often distracting, but does lead to one of the more powerful moments. This verbose, grandiose couture figure is stunned and mostly at a loss for words as Donald Trump takes his oath. For most of the film and for most of his life, Andre has talked the talk and walked the walk – and continued talking while he walked. As one of style and influence, he has plenty to say and there’s a reason for us to listen.

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EATING ANIMALS (2018, doc)

June 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Our food supply and sources have become a deserved focal point of interest over the past few years, and director Christopher Quinn brings the 2009 best- selling book by Jonathan Safran Foer to the big screen to ensure we are paying attention. What began as a project looking at how animals were raised to fulfill the demand for edible meat, evolved into an analysis of traditional farming methods versus today’s prevalent factory/big corporation farming. We learn that the growing demand for affordable and convenient food in the 1970’s really kicked off the factory farming industry, and now it’s roughly 99% of the market. Only 1% of farmers resisted and survived (as farmers).

We eat meat not because of how it’s produced, but in spite of it.” Consumers demand delicious, affordable and convenient food, and the film looks at beef, chicken, turkey, pigs and dairy. We are told that factory farming began accidentally thanks to an overshipment of baby chicks several decades ago. Farming and our food supply haven’t been the same since. There is some rare behind-the-scenes footage from factory farms that is difficult to watch. Narrator and Producer (Oscar winning actress) Natalie Portman talks us through the disgusting “pink lagoons” of hog poop, as well as how the raising of animals for food is said to be responsible for up to half of climate change, and for having a significantly negative impact on air pollution and water quality.

Of course most people, when asked, are against animal abuse and geological degradation so what goes on “inside” the barns remains confidential and secure. Going behind the doors of Confined Animal Feeding Operations, we witness conditions and actions that we would prefer not to see. We are informed that 80% of the anti-biotics being produced go towards farm factory animals, and the goal is to modify normal growth size and speed by 4 times. With this approach comes increased risk of pandemics, superbugs, and flu viruses. That’s our tradeoff for the delicious, affordable and convenient demands.

The USDA comes under attack here as well. The agency is accused of silencing the whistleblowers who are doing the job the agency was created to do. They are now ‘protecting the fox, not the hen house’. This is all tracked back to politics and money from the big corporations affiliated with or benefitting from factory farming. Some old clips of Col Harland Sanders (of KFC fame) proves even he was concerned about this many years ago.

Emotion comes into play here as the connection of traditional farmers to their animals is contrasted to the mass production of farm factories. Industry secrecy and protection is presented as a red flag, and the independent farmers are shown as good guys while the giant corporations remain faceless and (mostly) nameless. Only towards the end of the film do we gain some insight into the research being conducted on meat replication through plant-based systems. It’s brilliantly compared to the early days of “gas light substitute” as a name for Edison’s electricity. We are told that India and China now combine to total almost 3 billion people, and their diets are trending towards that of the U.S. – leading to more pressure for faster and cheaper food. Traditional farming isn’t even taught in school these days, and the film barely touches on the always on-going debate between “humanely” raising animals for food vs. veganism. The film succeeds in showing us the problems, but doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions or even a better way … although it’s clear one is needed.

watch the trailer:


INCREDIBLES 2 (2018)

June 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. In 2004 THE INCREDIBLES became the 6th Pixar film in a row to dominate the box office, and also the 6th straight to “WOW” us with a combination of animation, story, action and characters. All these years later, Brad Bird, the creative force behind the original, is back with the much anticipated sequel. Mr. Bird’s career over those years has featured a blend of other animation (RATATOUILLE, 2007) and live-action (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL).

Bird is not the only returnee for the sequel. Also back is the entire Parr Family: Holly Hunter as Elastigirl/Helen/Mom, Craig T Nelson as Mr. Incredible/Bob/Dad, Sarah Vowell as Violet, Huck Milner as Dash, and Eli Fucile as baby Jack Jack. The story picks up not long after the original ended. “Supers” have been outlawed, and the Parrs are in some type of Super Protection Program – similar to Witness Protection. Of course when one is a superhero, doing the right thing just comes naturally, and the opening scene finds them battling their old nemesis Underminer (voiced by Pixar good luck charm John Ratzenberger, who voices a character in each of the studio’s films). Our heroes stop the crime, but cause significant damage to the city. This leads to our first social commentary when the powers that be scold the Parrs and inform them that the banks have insurance, and it’s cheaper to let the criminals get away so that the damage is minimized.

As superheroes non-grata, the Parrs try to go “straight” and live a normal life. That is until a powerful brother and sister corporate duo offer a proposal. Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and Evelyn Deavor (twist that pronunciation just a bit, voiced by Catherine Keener) want to generate a PR plan to help rebuild the reputation of supers. The idea is to make Elastigirl the public face of the program by having her wear a body cam to show off her heroic deeds (in this age of ‘pics or it didn’t happen’). She’s chosen over Mr. Incredible for economic reasons, and he’s relegated to stay-at-home parent (or as we called Michael Keaton in 1983, MR. MOM – an unacceptable sexist term these days).

Elastigirl enjoys her time in the limelight, while Bob doesn’t much like being just Bob. Plus he can’t understand why they changed math, as he gets frustrated trying to help Dash with his homework. He’s also challenged with Violet’s teen angst over a boy, and even moreso over the discovery that Jack Jack has POWERS! In fact, Jack Jack has multiple powers, but as a baby, he has little control – though his battle with a raccoon is not a segment you’ll soon forget.

Also returning is Frozone – voiced by Samuel L. Jackson (minus his trademark “MF’er), and costume designer Edna Mode – voiced by director Bird. Other new voices include (Odenkirk’s fellow “Better Call Saul” castmate) Jonathan Banks as Rick Dicker, Isabella Rossellini as the Ambassador, and Sophia Bush as Voyd, one of the new generation supers (which includes Reflux – one you’ll just have to experience).

The big new villain causing problems for Elastigirl is ScreenSlaver, who hypnotizes large groups of people through their screens – more social commentary on our dependence on technology and the addiction/affliction we have toward device screens. The flood of superhero movies over the years since THE INCREDIBLES exposes the not-so-complex story in this one, but it’s terrific that the film keeps much of the original look and feel, and yet brings something new … baby Jack Jack is a star!

Filled with the beautiful colors and art design we’ve come to take for granted from Pixar, the film also features some of the best action sequences you’ll see in any movie. The train sequence with Elastigirl is simply spectacular – as is the final action sequence. It’s also nice to see the flip in gender roles as Mom (Holly Hunter) takes the lead. Michael Giacchino returns as the composer and he blends in a touch of James Bond theme with his wonderful work. If the film needed extra credit (which it doesn’t), certainly the inclusion of a “Jonny Quest” clip would qualify. Family films don’t get much better than this, and even though it runs 2 hours, the closing credits feature the theme song for each of the superheroes, and could easily have been a short film unto itself.

Speaking of short films, a Pixar tradition is to include one before new releases. This time it’s BAO, a Chinese mother/son and food-oriented story from director Domee Shi (animator on INSIDE OUT)

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WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (2018, doc)

June 8, 2018

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Is it too good to be true? We often ask that question in life, but when it comes to Fred Rogers of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”, director Morgan Neville’s documentary proves the answer is no … he was good and true. Fred Rogers hosted the children’s TV show on PBS for more than 30 years, starting in 1968. The terrific (and surprisingly emotional) film provides the background of the show, and more importantly, profiles a wonderful man.

Director Neville (BEST OF ENEMIES: BUCKLEY VS VIDAL, 2015) has produced numerous biopics on musicians ranging from Keith Richards to Muddy Waters to Johnny Cash to Brian Wilson. His subject this time out was known for his singing the show’s familiar opening number, and his lyrical legacy was his substantial impact on many generations of children. Mr. Rogers was an ordained minister and, in the early days of television, recognized that violent cartoons were not appropriate programming for the formative childhood years. Even in the early years, he was an outlier with sincerity and wholesomeness in entertainment. He never shied away from tough topics – not even death – whether it was the assassination of Robert Kennedy or a dead fish in the aquarium on set. He spoke directly to children in a voice and language they understood.

There are interviews with fellow cast members, long timer crew members, and relatives, including his wife Joanne. We hear Francois Clemmons (Officer Clemmons on the show) discuss how Mr. Rogers addressed Clemmons’ homosexuality and race, adding poignancy to the shared televised foot bath. Archival footage takes us back to the early years, and we see Lady Aberlin and Daniel Tiger in both black and white and color segments. We learn that the puppet Daniel most resembled the personality of the host himself … a quiet, patient, compassionate being who cared about others.

We see footage of Fred Rogers testifying in front of a Senate sub-committee to prevent funding for PBS from being eliminated, and we see numerous cardigan sweaters and tennis shoes. Mostly we see the approach of a man who built a legacy on kindness and human decency … a lifetime pursuit of uniting that led to struggles with depression. His obsession with 143 – both his weight and his code for “I love you” provides some insight into his personality, and mostly we hear others speak of his lasting impact.

Rather than comedy and pranks, Mr. Rogers was intent on making kids feel safe and secure in a scary world. Sure he educated – often subtly – but it was his innate ability to comfort that kept kids coming back. There are naysayers who say he is responsible for generations of entitled kids who grew into entitled adults, but the film addresses this by showing Roger’s commencement address where he clearly explains the “special” label. His final show was in 2000 and he died in 2003. His legacy is simple yet powerful. We can each do better. We can each be better. We can each be better neighbors.

watch the trailer:


HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018)

June 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The feature film directorial debut of Drew Pearce is original and clever, while teasing with hope for a bit more than it delivers. Mr. Pearce is best known for writing the screenplay for IRON MAN 3, and now as a first time director, he shows enough promise to leave us interested in what comes next.

The film is set in dystopian Los Angeles a mere 10 years in the future. The streets are flooded with desperate rioters after a mega-corporation shuts off the clean water supply. The company is the film’s real villain, and the only one that The Nurse (Jodie Foster) can’t treat. See, she runs Hotel Artemis, an underground hospital for top tier criminals – the element that can’t just pop into the local community clinic for treatment on the latest bullet hole or knife wound. These patients follow a subscription plan and must stay current on their dues to gain admission.

The Nurse forgoes any attempt at personal vanity and is instead an agoraphobic, booze-chugging, (mostly) stick-to-the-rules type, who pops in anti-anxiety tapes and ear buds whenever her pulse quickens. She has run the place since it opened 22 years prior and is assisted by a mountain of man named Everest (get it?) played well by Dave Bautista. He’s a combination bodyguard, bouncer, handyman and assistant healthcare professional (check his badge).

The set design by Ramsey Avery deserves special mention as the Hotel Artemis is quietly housed in the shell of a former grand art deco hotel, now a victim to the city’s carnage – though the neon sign remains illuminated. Its vacation spot-themed rooms are a sight to behold, despite the frustratingly low lighting. Occupants are incognito and use their room names as identifiers. Sterling K Brown is Waikiki, a philosophical bank robber who dragged his brother Honolulu (Brian Tyree Henry) here for treatment after a heist went wrong. Acapulco (the always energetic Charlie Day) is a crass, motor-mouthed arms dealer, while Nice (Sofia Boutella, THE MUMMY) is a freakishly skilled assassin.

The stress level picks up when the biggest crime lord of Los Angeles shows up seriously wounded. Known as The Wolf King, an admittedly bad choice for a nickname, Jeff Goldblum brings some smooth-talking toughness, humor and twisted class to the proceedings. More than a few tentacles are attached to The Wolf King and other folks we’ve previously met, not the least of which is a very special ink pen stolen by Honolulu. Mix in an injured cop (Jenny Slate) with a personal link to The Nurse and her constantly alluded to tragic backstory, and the movie puts off a Graphic novel vibe … missing only the off-the-cuff insanity. It’s just a bit too grounded for its own good.

The high tech/low rent feel forces us to recall BLADE RUNNER and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, but of course, this film isn’t at the level of either, as it lacks top tier suspense. It is a terrific reminder of what a talented actress two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster is, and what a shame that we haven’t seen her in such a substantial screen role since 2013’s ELYSIUM. She really sinks her teeth into this odd character, and more than the action scenes, she keeps us interested the entire run time. The score is a bit too heavy on the droning electronic bass line, and while the Florida joke and nod to John Phillips (The Wolf King, “California Dreamin’”) earns some bonus points, it’s really the performance of Ms. Foster and the set design that saves a too-safe script.

watch the trailer: