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 LOST CITY OF Z (2017)

April 20, 2017

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. We aren’t likely to watch a more beautiful or expertly photographed film this year. Director James Gray’s (The Immigrant, We Own the Night) project looks and feels like a throwback to days of epic filmmaking, and cinematographer Darius Khandji (Se7en, Evita, The Immigrant) fills the screen with green and gold hues (similar to Out of Africa) that deliver both a sense of realism and a touch of romanticism. The minor quibble here is with the emphasis on the biographical rather than the more interesting and compelling and adventuresome expeditions to the “new” world.

Our true to life hero (and the film’s portrayal provides no other description) is military man and explorer Percy Fawcett played by Charlie Hunnam. Based on the book by David Grann, the film divides focus into three areas: the stuffy, poorly lit backrooms of London power moguls; the 1916 WWI front line where Fawcett proves his mettle; the jungles of Amazonia wherein lies Fawcett’s hope for glory and redemption. It’s the latter of these that are by far the most engaging, and also the segments that leave us pining for more detail.

The three Fawcett expeditions form the structure for the quite long run time (2 hours, 21 minutes). In 1906 the Royal Geographic Society enlisted Fawcett for a “mapping” journey to distinguish boundaries around Bolivia in what had become a commercially important area due to the black gold known as rubber. Fawcett was not just a manly-man, he was also obsessed with overcoming his “poor choice in ancestors” and gaining a position of status within society. Using his military training and personal mission, that first expedition (with help from a powerful character played by the great Franco Nero) was enough to light Fawcett’s lifelong fixation on proving the existence of Z (Zed) and the earlier advanced society.

Back home, Fawcett’s wife Nina (Sienna Miller) shows flashes of turn-of-the-century feminism, though lacking in judgment when she suggests a ridealong with her husband on his next expedition. Although the couple spends little time together, given the years-long trips, they do manage to produce a hefty brood of kids, the eldest played by Tom Holland (the new Spider-Man).

1912 brings the second Amazonia expedition, the one in which renowned Antarctic explorer James Murray (a snarly Angus Macfayden) joins Fawcett and his by now loyal and expert travel companion Henry Costin (a terrific Robert Pattison). The trip proceeds as one might expect when an ego-driven, unqualified yet wealthy passenger is along for only the glory. Murray’s history is well documented and here receives the treatment he earned.

It’s the third trip in 1925 that Fawcett makes with his son that will be his last, and the one that dealt the unanswered questions inspiring Mr. Grann to research and write his book. It’s also the segment of the film that leaves us wanting more details … more time in the jungle. With the overabundance of information and data available to us these days, the staggering courage and spirit of those willing to jump in a wooden canoe on unchartered waters and trek through lands with no known back story, offer more than enough foundation for compelling filmmaking. It’s this possibility of historical discovery that is the real story, not one man’s lust for medals and confirmation. More jungle could have elevated this from very good to monumental filmmaking.

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HIGH-RISE (2016)

May 12, 2016

Dallas International Film Festival 2016

high rise Greetings again from the darkness. When a novel has been deemed “unfilmable” for forty years, perhaps the designation should be honored, rather than accepted as a challenge. That said, there is probably a cult-like movie lurking somewhere in and around director Ben Wheatley’s (Kill List, 2011) personal spin on the 1975 novel from J.G. Ballard (who also penned “Crash” and “Empire of the Sun”).

Amy Jump adapted the screenplay from Ballard’s novel, and in the blink of an eye, the tone shifts from a microcosm of a decaying society and class warfare to all-out anarchy and hedonism. What’s fascinating is that the talented cast nearly rescues the film from the misguided script. Tom Hiddleston stars as Dr. Laing, a physiologist who moves into the futuristic (for the 1970’s) monolith, seemingly naïve to the wicked ways of this insular community. Sienna Miller plays Charlotte, a fellow middle-class resident, who not only crushes on Laing, but also seems to know where the skeletons are buried. On the Terrace level, the always entertaining Jeremy Irons plays Royal, the building’s architect and overseer … a kind of great and powerful Oz. An unrecognizable Luke Evans (out of his usual pretty boy mode) is stellar as the aptly named Wilder, a documentary filmmaker who adds a dose of skepticism towards the building – in contrast to Laing’s innocent approach.

Beginning at the macabre ending, the film then flashes back to “3 months earlier” as Laing first moves into the building. This device is the only semblance of time provided throughout. We witness how quickly Laing takes to the sport of social climbing, buddying up to Royal, and joining in with the communal decadence.

Power outages, orgies, class warfare and enough cigarettes to qualify as a non-smoking PSA, the film seems intent on ensuring viewers remain disoriented as to the reasons for mass chaos. The building itself could be considered a character, and certainly the use of mirrors and a kaleidoscope makes a statement … even while we hear multiple versions of Abba’s “SOS”. Black comedies typically make the best cult movies, and though this one is filled with aberrant and deviant behavior, it’s somehow not quite twisted enough … or at least not properly twisted for viewer fun. Beyond that, it comes across as an expression of filmmaker anger rather than the commentary on British infrastructure that Ballard intended.

**NOTE: I’m sure the similarities of the movie poster to that of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is no coincidence, although that’s a pretty ambitious stretch for High-Rise.

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BURNT (2015)

October 30, 2015

burnt Greetings again from the darkness. This one is not just for all you foodies out there – though there is plenty to digest for those who fancy themselves as some hoity-toity chef to the rich and famous. Don’t go in expecting a “How to Cook” seminar. Instead, simmer down and prep yourself for a serving of massive ego topped with arrogance and a side of narcissism. Blend those ingredients into one character, and this chef somehow remains likable … when played by Bradley Cooper.

Enough with the cooking terms, but let’s heap more praise on Mr. Cooper. When first we meet his character Adam Jones, he is readying himself to bounce back after self-destructing his career as a two-star Michelin chef in Paris. He simply walks out the door of the Louisiana diner where he has been serving his self-imposed penance … shelling 1 million raw oysters, each one recorded in his pocket notebook. This provides our first glimpse into the obsessive-compulsive personality of Adam, and helps explain how he has managed to kick his drug, alcohol, and women addictions. Feeling refreshed and on a mission to garner that rarified third Michelin star, Adam begins assembling his team in London and encouraging his old co-worker Tony (Daniel Bruhl, Rush) to entrust him with his restaurant.

We can’t actually taste the magnificent food that’s served on screen, but the colors and textures are a kaleidoscope to our eyes. The movie is beautiful to look at. The restaurant dining rooms are showplaces, the kitchens are pristine, and the customers are mostly dressed like runway models. On top of that, Bradley Cooper and Alicia Vikander (in a small role) are two of the grand champions in the gene pool sweepstakes. All of that beauty is balanced out by the quest for perfection and lack of interpersonal skills displayed by Chef Adam. It’s not until his star pupil Helene (Sienna Miller) shows him another way, does Adam even start to resemble a human being.

Drug dealers, old flames, a therapist (Emma Thompson), an arch rival (Matthew Rhys, “The Americans”), an unrequited one-way love, a deceased mentor, a ridiculously cute kid (Lexi Benbow-Hart, sporting hair that would make Julia Roberts envious), and a wronged co-worker (Omar Sy) combine to add plenty of action. Even the quick cut shots in the kitchen manage to make grilling onions and carving a fish interesting.

Never digging too deep, director John Wells (August: Osage County) delivers an entertaining movie with wide appeal, and a message of teamwork and family. The story is from Michael Kalesniko and the script from Steven Knight (who also wrote last year’s Michelin star-centered The Hundred-Foot Journey). The dialogue is sharp enough to deliver some laughs, though the element of danger doesn’t really work, and a couple of times it teeters on gooey melodrama. It doesn’t reach the level of Mostly Martha (2002), and is a tick behind last year’s Chef (Jon Favreau), but it may offer the most creative lesson yet in how best to serve a dish of revenge. It’s a tasty enough treat for those in the mood for an entertaining movie and an endless stream of pretty things to look at.

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UNFINISHED BUSINESS (2015)

March 5, 2015

unfinished business Greetings again from the darkness. Just a little bit of creativity goes a long way in comedies these days, as it seems most just care about pushing the bounds of crude and raunchy humor. The premise of this latest from director Ken Scott (Delivery Man) and writer Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness) teases us with the hope that it could be more Office Space than Neighbors, but the lure of cheap, bawdy laughs proves too great.

The story begins with Vince Vaughn’s Dan Trunkman having a Jerry Maguire moment in the middle of the office after being informed by his boss Chuck (Sienna Miller) of a 5% paycut. Dan’s Napoleonic charge to the parking lot results in his new company being staffed by Tom Wilkinson (fired for being too old) and a much younger and less-experienced Dave Franco. We follow the boys from St Louis to Portland, Maine to Berlin as they chase the ever-elusive “handshake” to seal their first big deal.

Featuring a near-endless stream of potential comedic elements, the film touches on: parenting, bullying, ageism, the G8 summit and corresponding protest/riot, a Fetish Festival, the Berlin marathon, a gay bar, marital challenges, small business ownership, mentoring, the politics of business, a unisex spa, a youth hostel, excessive drugs and booze, “maids” for hire, challenges for chubby types, and an introduction to inhabited art. Some of these are underplayed, while others go way over-the-top.

Vaughn is the leader of this “three amigos” triumvirate of misfits and is on a mission to put the welfare of his employees above company profits – all the while he is skyping with his wife (the underutilized June Diane Raphael) on the due date for private school tuition. Mr. Wilkinson plays the older guy looking for new experiences (as his marriage dissolves) and Mr. Franco is the most confusing of all characters – we are unsure whether he is absurdly naïve or somewhat mentally handicapped. The upstart company is competing directly against Chuck and the old company in a very confusing transaction involving “swarf”, which is described as metal residue from giant projects like bridges and skyscrapers. Because of this, the business element is really wasted and all we get is generic-speak about spreadsheets and profit margins.

Other supporting work is provided by Britton Sear and Ella Anderson as Vaughn’s kids, James Marsden as the prospective client, and a scene-stealing Nick Frost as Marsden’s operational sidekick with a lonely/wild side. In addition to the shenanigans mentioned above, the movie periodically throws up the stop sign for laughter in an attempt to mix in some real world family emotions – parenting via Skype is a bit challenging.

As one would expect, there are many laughs throughout, although Vaughn is working hard at evolving from the “zinger” guy he has been for two decades. Unfortunately the structure of the film is simply too loose to work as anything more than a few laugh-inducing comedy set scenes. Still, there is much to be said for a film and actors that can make us laugh … even with an unfinished handshake.

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AMERICAN SNIPER (2014)

January 17, 2015

american sniper Greetings again from the darkness. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”. Shakespeare wrote those words for “Henry IV”, but director Clint Eastwood’s latest film depicts the sentiment for Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL sharpshooter known as “Legend”. Screenwriter Jason Hall adapted the story from Kyle’s memoir (co-written with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice).

You may not be aware of the sniper’s role during a war. In an early scene (used in the trailer) we experience the incredibly stressful moment of decision that Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) faces as a mother and young child enter the street … are they a threat to the platoon or not? The decision means killing a woman and child or risking the death of many U.S. soldiers. If he is wrong, he faces a jury and military shame.  Most of us lack the capacity for such decision-making.  As a flashback to Kyle’s childhood shows, most of us are either sheep or wolves. Only a very few are sheepdogs with the aggressiveness to protect the flock. Chris Kyle: sheepdog.

The story takes us through Chris’ aimless young adult years on the cowboy circuit. He’s a tough guy who likes to drink and party with his friends. September 11 acts as a call to action, a call to service. SEAL training is shown and the point is made that Chris is the old man in the group, but he displays a quiet leadership trait. We then witness his flirting with a snippy Taya (Sienna Miller) at a bar counter as his SEAL buddies throw darts at each other’s bare backs (don’t try that at home, kids).  Soon enough Chris and Taya are married, and Chris is called to the front.

Back and forth we go through Chris Kyle’s four tours. His expertise in war is offset by his inability to adjust to family life. He has a compulsion to serve and to protect his fellow soldiers, but he is unable to fit into the suburban life of cell phones and grilled hamburgers. Not surprisingly, Taya struggles with his struggles. Bradley Cooper gets to be the legend, while Sienna Miller is the emotional mother who has seemingly lost her husband – not to death, but to an obsession to serve.

The film does little to explain why Chris Kyle is exponentially more productive than other snipers, and even less to explore his PTSD and mental anguish outside of the front. It’s Bradley Cooper’s acting that provides us what insight we do get, and he does a remarkable job capturing the hulking, uncommunicative giant who doesn’t really understand the “legend” title … he’s just doing his job and following his nature.

The tragic end is handled with grace by Eastwood, and it left my full-capacity movie theatre as quiet as a church during prayer. It’s possible to be a legend, but not a feel like a hero, and the movie makes no political statements regarding war or foreign policy. What it does show is that most of us are not sheepdogs.

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FOXCATCHER (2014)

November 30, 2014

 

foxcatcher Greetings again from the darkness. The 1996 newscast remains vivid in my mind. It was captivating due to the bizarre circumstances and the tragedy involving an athlete whose Olympic career I had followed closely. Initially, I had trouble reconciling the story of this popular world class athlete and the mentally troubled billionaire who was part of one of America’s richest and most iconic families. This movie fills in some of the gaps.

Director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) is a meticulous filmmaker and is never in a hurry as a story teller. He allows the characters to develop on screen at their own pace … and this time the pace is excruciatingly slow – in a brilliant, yet painful to watch manner. The lead characters are a diverse trio of men. Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) won Olympic Gold in 1984, but he is shy and withdrawn to the point of being socially awkward and unable to capitalize on his victory. His older brother Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) also won a Gold Medal in 1984, and is very engaging family man who helped raise Mark, while building endorsements and job opportunities for himself. The triumvirate is completed by the incredibly odd billionaire John duPont (Steve Carell), who proclaims himself a wrestling coach after building a state of the art training facility on his family estate. The ultra rich can do such things.

John duPont was never able to live up to his mother’s (Vanessa Redgrave) standards. She even paid the chauffeur’s son to be John’s friend as they were growing up. With Mark always in the shadow of his more popular brother, duPont seizes the opportunity to capitalize on Mark’s vulnerability and invite him to lead his Foxcatcher wrestling team (named after the family estate which is near Valley Forge). duPont’s ultimate goal is to also have Dave join them, but it’s a tougher sell for various reasons.

The mommy issues and brother issues drive the need for validation and are at the core of story here, as are ego, “patriotism”, and ultimately delusion. Steve Carell sports a nose apparatus that captures the reason DuPont nicknamed himself the “eagle”. He also kicks his head back, while slumping his shoulders, in physically capturing duPont’s unorthodox movements. But that’s nothing compared to the eerie aura he puts off whenever he must deal with another person. He sends up red flags to anyone even minimally aware of their surroundings, but to a lost soul like Mark, he becomes a father figure and “coach”.

A wrestling movie would figure to be male dominated, but even with that, Sienna Miller (as Dave’s wife) and Vanessa Redgrave (as Jean duPont) are almost non-existent as the only female characters. Anthony Michael Hall has a brief supporting role, and it’s nice to see Guy Boyd back on screen as well. However, most every scene is some mixture of Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo, and they each deliver. It’s a side of Carell we have never before seen (many of the greatest comics have a dark side), and Tatum is spot on as the hulking, sulking Mark, while Ruffalo captures the easy charm and sensitivity of Dave.

The story offers further proof that life can be stranger than fiction … especially when it involves an insecure and mentally unstable billionaire who envisions himself as a leader of men.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are familiar with the 1996 story OR you want a lesson in how not to act once you become a billionaire

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a typically comedic Steve Carell performance (he is creepy in a not-funny way)

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