The Catcher Was a Spy


Fog and espionage go together like pitchers and catchers.

(2018) Biographical Drama (IFC) Paul Rudd, Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Jeff Daniels, Guy Pearce, Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson, Connie Nielsen, Shea Whigham, John Schwab, Hiroyuki Sanada, Giancarlo Giannini, Pierfrancesco Favino, Anna Geislerová, Bobby Schofield, Demetri Goritsas, William Hope, Milan Aulicky, Jordan Long, James McVan, Ben Miles, Agnese Nano. Directed by Ben Lewin

 

Doing a biography of a real individual is a difficult undertaking. It’s nearly impossible to get a sense of the subject in just a ninety-minute movie; real lives don’t always condense well. Sometimes, though, you get a subject who has so little known about them that ninety minutes seems too many.

Moe Berg (Rudd) was such a man. A journeyman catcher for five Major League ballclubs, he is depicted here near the end of his career with the Red Sox, being urged by his manager Joe Cronin (Whigham) to hang up his spikes and take up a coaching position. His teammates and contemporaries bestowed on him the nickname “The Professor” because of his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and his success on radio quiz shows.

But Berg had a destiny beyond the ballpark; fluent in seven languages, he was recruited by “Wild Bill” Donovan (Daniels) of the OSS – which would eventually become the CIA – to work initially as an analyst but eventually was sent out into the field to determine how close the Nazis were to developing an atomic bomb of their own and if they were close, to kill the lead German scientist Werner Heisenberg (Strong).

The film has a good number of atmospheric visuals, terrific production values that really bring forth the era and a stellar cast. All this combines to give the film a real noir feel which is a good thing. What it doesn’t have is a sense of urgency or of peril; the atomic race between the United States and Nazi Germany was essentially a struggle to the death for both nations. We never get that sense of suspense which would have been made the movie a lot more watchable; it feels more like an intellectual exercise.

Not all of that is the fault of the filmmakers. In real life Morris Berg was a private man to the point that it was nearly impossible to get to know him. He remains today as mysterious as he was in life. The movie brings up the rumor that the book this was based on did; that Berg was a closeted homosexual but there’s no valid evidence that proves or disproves it so rather than having the courage of its convictions, the film kind of wimps out on it. They do show him having a vigorous physical relationship with his girlfriend Estella (Miller) but even she found him a distant cold fish.

It’s hard for an audience to get behind a character like that and the normally very likable Rudd does his very best but in the end he becomes a bit standoffish and flat and the film kind of follows that lead. Berg is a fascinating character who deserves to have his story told but I sort of doubt it ever will be; the man was much too private for that to occur.

REASONS TO SEE: The strong cast gives it the old college try.
REASONS TO AVOID: Berg deserves a better movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, language and brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The baseball sequences were filmed at Fenway Park in Boston.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Showtime Anytime, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews: Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Spy Behind Home Plate
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Do It Yourself

Red Joan


The spy who knitted tea cozies.

(2018) Biographical Drama (IFCJudi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Laurence Spellman, Tereza Srbova, Ben Miles, Robin Soans, Kevin Fuller, Stephen Boxer, Simon Ludders, Steven Hillman, Ciarán Owens, Phil Langhorne, Stuart Whelan, Freddie Gaminara, Stephen Samson, Paul Kerry, Adrian Wheeler, Lulu Meissner. Directed by Trevor Nunn

Ah, the things we do for love. Sometimes we are moved to do things because of conscience but how many times have we done things we ordinarily wouldn’t or couldn’t do out of love? Most of us can ruefully admit to at least a small list.

Pensioner Joan Stanley (Dench), an octogenarian living in suburban London, spends most of her days fixing herself tea and working in her garden, weather permitting. Her son Patrick (Spellman), a busy lawyer and politician, rarely has time to visit her anymore so when there’s a knock on her door, she’s taken aback. However, it’s not a social visit; it’s MI-5, putting her under arrest for providing nuclear secrets to the Soviets.

Most of the rest of the film proceeds in flashbacks. While a University student, Joan (Cookson) had fallen under the spell of glamorous immigrant Sonya (Srbova) and even more so of Sonya’s smoldering, brooding cousin Leo (Hughes), a not-so-closet communist party member in the 1930s when the Reds were viewed with some distrust at the very least. It isn’t long before the naïve and mousy Joan is in Leo’s bed.

When the Second World War erupts and the Soviet Union becomes our ally, Joan is drafted into an atomic research team headed by Professor Max Davis (Moore). Although Joan is used as little more than a glorified secretary, she is in fact a brilliant physicist whom Max comes to rely on as a problem solver and eventually, on a much more personal level.

When the Americans drop the A-bomb onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Joan who knows better than most the consequences of such an act is absolutely horrified. She comes to the realization that these terrible World Wars will continue unless both sides have access to these terrible weapons. When Leo and Sonya come knocking on her door, she is more than willing to answer.

Although (very loosely) based on actual events, this film doesn’t have the air of authenticity that something based on reality has. Far from being a John LeCarre-like spy thriller which I believe it aspires to be, this is more like a soap opera that out of one side of its face decries the marginalization of women and on the other side has them as simple-headed sops who do mad, impetuous things out of love or maybe just lust. Apparently even feminists can be fools for love.

If that sounds a bit catty, it can be forgiven; there’s a hell of a story to be told here and Nunn and company squander it. Worse still, there are some terrific performances by Dench and Cookson that are essentially wasted. Also, let the viewer beware – although Dench is top-lined here, she is limited to a meager amount of screen time; Cookson gets the lion’s share of that.

While there are some terrific moments – young Joan’s confession to Max, Patrick’s repudiation of his mother – that are worth waiting for, for the most part the movie maddeningly doesn’t let us inside the head of Joan. She does things seemingly on whim. She’s not much of a spy; she gets by mainly because, as Sonya wryly puts it, no men would think a woman capable of such deception plus there’s more than a smattering of dumb luck and Joan’s pals willing to take the blame for Joan’s actions.

This isn’t a spy saga as I’ve said; it’s more of a melodrama and a fairly rote one at that. Given the superior cast and the remarkable true story that inspired it, this movie could have been so much more. However, I can’t review that movie, only the ones that Nunn and his colleagues have given us and it’s frankly not one that rises far above mediocrity.

REASONS TO SEE: Dench always delivers the goods. There are some very powerful moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit soapy and/or syrupy in places. Lots of potential here but ultimately the film doesn’t deliver.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie, as the novel that inspired it, was based on the real life case of Melita Norwood.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews: Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Theory of Everything
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Master Maggie

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)


Hercule Poirot is on the job!

(2017) Mystery (20th Century Fox) Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Penélope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Sergei Polunin, Lucy Boynton, Marwan Kenzan, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe, Phil Dunster, Miranda Raison, Rami Nasr, Hayat Kamille, Michael Rouse, Hadley Fraser, Kathryn Wilder. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

 

Train travel has a certain romance to it. Strangers trapped in a metal tube, rumbling across the countryside. Anything can happen; anything at all.

Many might be familiar with the classic Agatha Christie novel, one of the most famous mysteries ever written. Some might be familiar with the even more classic 1974 movie based on it which starred such legends as Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins and Richard Widmark. This new remake stars Kenneth Branagh (who also directed) as the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played by Albert Finney in the original) who is returning to England following a grueling series of cases leading to a successful resolution in Istanbul – not Constantinople.

Taking the Orient Express back home, he is approached by Ratchett (Depp) who is looking for protection after receiving some threatening letters. Poirot, exhausted, turns down the case. The next morning, Ratchett turns up dead. The train is stuck after an avalanche buries the tracks. As crews arrive to dig the tracks out so the train might continue, Poirot must solve the case quickly but there are a number of suspects – everyone in the Calais coach had opportunity and some even had motive. Soon it becomes apparent that the murder has links to a famous unsolved crime of years past.

The Sidney Lumet-directed 1974 version to which this will inevitably be compared was a light-hearted romp with a Poirot who was quirky but undoubtedly a genius. This Poirot is more tortured than quirky, a man who realizes his own obsession with perfection will leave him perpetually disappointed in life and of course he is. This is a different Poirot than any we’ve ever seen onscreen, whether David Suchet of the excellent BBC series or Peter Ustinov of several all-star Christie cinematic adaptations which followed the success of Murder on the Orient Express. The tone here is certainly darker than we’re used to seeing from a Christie adaptation.

Michelle Pfeiffer turns in an extraordinary performance as the predatory divorcee Mrs. Hubbard, portrayed by Bacall back in 1974. While Bacall was loud-mouthed and brassy, Pfeiffer is intense and smart. Once again the characters are very different although there are some recognizable similarities. Pfeiffer twenty years ago was one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood which she remains; that beauty often overshadowed her acting talent which is considerable. Although not in the league of Meryl Streep (who is in a league of her own), she is one of the four or five best American actresses working in film today.

Most of the rest of the cast do at least adequate jobs. Depp is as restrained as he’s been in a decade, playing Ratchett as a thug more so than Widmark did in the same role. Dame Judi Dench is, well, Judi Dench. She brings dignity and a regal air to the role of Princess Dragomiroff. Penélope Cruz has a thanklessly un-glamorous role that she makes her own.

I should mention the cinematography. The 1974 film primarily took place aboard the train. Certainly the Orient Express is the star and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos takes great pains to present her from every angle conceivable. Occasionally he goes a bit overboard – an overhead shot in one of the train’s cars gives us an uncomfortably long view of the tops of the actors heads – but he also manages to make the snowy Yugoslavian countryside look positively idyllic.

Let me be plain; this film is not as good as the 1974 version and I don’t think Branagh had any illusions that it ever could be. However, it is different than that 1974 version and one that is just as valid. You may not love this film in the same way that you loved the original but there is a good chance you’ll at least respect it. You may even want to see it more than once.

REASONS TO GO: Fans of the 1974 version will find the approach here very different. Branagh and Pfeiffer are outstanding. The cinematography is gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: The tone here is much darker than the 1974 version. This isn’t nearly as good as the original which it will inevitably be compared to. You don’t get as good a sense of the era it is supposed to be set in.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence as well as violent thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The song played over the closing credits was sung by Michelle Pfeiffer and the lyrics written by Branagh.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Death on the Nile
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Wonder

Goodbye Christopher Robin


A lovely father, son and bear moment from the Hundred Acre Woods.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther, Stephen Campbell Moore, Richard McCabe, Geraldine Somerville, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Shaun Dingwall, Tommy Rodger, Sam Barnes, Mark Tandy, Richard Dixon, Nicholas Richardson, Ann Thwaite, Allegra Marland, Victoria Bavister. Directed by Simon Curtis

 

The Winnie the Pooh stories and children’s books are among the most beloved on the planet. Who doesn’t long for the simpler times of the Hundred Acre Woods, the love and affection of Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger and of course Pooh himself? When the books were originally written between the wars, they were tonic for the troops, taking a country that had lost so much in the Great War and if not healing at least allowing those wounded and broken by the horrors of World War I to escape it for awhile.

The author, A. A. Milne (Gleeson) was himself  a soldier in that war, fighting in such places as the Battle of the Somme. When he arrived home, he suffered from what was at the time called shell shock but is better known today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The backfires of cars, popped champagne corks and balloons bursting were enough to trigger Milne with terrifying flashbacks to the war; London had become intolerable for him so he hauled his young bride Daphne (Robbie) to the countryside of East Essex and set about trying to heal.

Shortly thereafter, Daphne gave birth to Christopher Robin (Tilston) whom his parents dubbed Billy Moon. Like most upper class parents of the time, they enlisted a nanny – Olive (Macdonald) whom Billy named Nou – to do the bulk of the child rearing. Daphne disliked the country life immensely, missing the parties and the culture of London and eventually went back to the big city, with no firm date as to when she might return. To add to Milne’s misery, Nou was also obliged to return home due to a family crisis, forcing Milne to spend time with his tow-headed son.

Against all odds the two end up bonding and Milne finds solace in the little adventures that the two set up for Billy’s beloved stuffed bear Pooh. Milne becomes compelled to write the stories down, first as a poem and then as children’s books which prove to be wildly popular. Daphne and Nou both return home and the family basks in the success for a short time.

But the public clamors to meet “the real Christopher Robin” and the clueless parents aren’t above trotting their progeny around for personal appearances, interviews and publicity stunts without a thought of what this might be doing to the boy. With Milne writing sequels and the demand growing exponentially, the real Christopher Robin begins to wonder if he himself is as loved as the fictional one by his parents and the resentment begins to grow and grow and grow.

Considering the joy and lightness of the Pooh books, this is a dark tale indeed and parents thinking that this is suitable for young children brought up on the Disney versions of the characters should be dissuaded from that thought. The themes here are very serious and adult and some of the scenes of war and its aftermath are likely to produce nightmares in the very young.

The odd thing is that most of the people in this film are thoroughly unlikable; Daphne who is a whining harpy who is completely self-centered (it is well known that in reality her son refused to speak to her for the last 15 years of her life), A.A. (called Blue by his friends) who was also self-absorbed and nearly broken and even young Billie Moon acts out an awful lot (understandably). Only Nou comes off as genuine, sweet and caring; fortunately for us she’s also the narrator In fact Macdonald just about steals the show here but I think it’s because the character is a life preserver in a stormy sea of selfishness throughout the film.

Although the film is said to be “inspired by true events” I understand that the filmmakers stuck pretty close to the facts which makes this almost tragic. There are moments of magic, yes, but Milne’s condition is so often and so thoroughly thrust in our faces that after awhile we want to grab Curtis and yell in his face “WE GET IT!!!!” The story of the creation of one of children’s literature’s most beloved characters is not a happy one and while I admire the warts and all portrayal of the Milne family, at the end I was longing for an escape into the magic of the Hundred Acre Wood myself.

REASONS TO GO: Kelly Macdonald gives a marvelous performance as the nanny. The film really picks up momentum during the middle third.
REASONS TO STAY: Tilston is a bit overbearing. The filmmakers overplay the PTSD element.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of bullying, war violence, brief profanity and themes about coping with the aftermath of war and of parental exploitation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Christopher Robin had one daughter, Claire, who was born with Cerebral Palsy. She passed away in 2012 at the age of 56, 16 years after her father did.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% Positive Reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Neverland
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Daddy’s Home 2

Gangster Land


This is how you vogue, gangster-style.

(2017) Gangster (Cinedigm) Sean Faris, Milo Gibson, Jason Patric, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Peter Facinelli, Mark Rolston, Michael Paré Sean Kanan, Al Sapienza, Don Harvey, Jason Brooks, Veronica Parks, Mark Krenik, Ronnie Kerr, Ryan Kiser, Danny Hansen, Joe Coffey, Shane P. Allen, Louis Fasanaro, Devin Reeve, Drake Andrew, James Bartz, Alan Donnes, Jody Barton, Kevin Donovan, Grace Fae. Directed by Timothy Woodward Jr

 

We Americans have always had a fascination with criminals. We have tended to idolize them and mythologize them, from Jesse James on down to Charlie Manson. We have a particular fondness for the gangsters of the Depression era; even though they were vicious, brutal men we can only help admire their brazen outlook as they lived life on their own terms – and often died by them.

This film is a fictionalized account of the rise of Al Capone (Gibson) as seen through the eyes of his top lieutenant “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn (Faris) who despite his name was actually of Italian descent; he changed it when he went into boxing because he could get more bouts as an Irishman than he could as an Italian. After the murder of his stepfather by a rival Italian gang, he decides to throw his lot in with Capone who had seen McGurn box and was an admirer.

At first McGurn is just hired muscle for the Italian gang under Johnny Torrio (Sapienza) but he rises through the ranks with his friend Al and when Torrio is killed, Capone takes control and begins a ruthless war with the Irish gang of the Northside for control of Chicago. The Northside Irish gang is led by Dion O’Bannon (Rolston) and after O’Bannon is murdered, George “Bugs” Moran (Facinelli). He meets and falls in love with dancer Lulu Rolfe (Sigler) who is unimpressed at first – McGurn doesn’t have much cash and never thought much about dressing stylishly. However he wins her over and she is okay with his lifestyle as a mobster. Now known as “Machine Gun Jack” for his preferred weapon for murder, the war between the two vicious gangs quickly and decisively escalates culminating in an infamous massacre on St. Valentine’s Day that will change Chicago forever.

There is a B-movie gangster vibe here that recalls some of the great movies of that era, of James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and George Raft only with graphic violence and plenty of foul language. Cinematographer Pablo Diez uses interplay between bright colors and dark shadows to give the film a kind of updated noir aspect that I found interesting. While most noir feels more natural in a black and white atmosphere, Gangster Land gave the color a very noir-ish feel which is quite the accomplishment from where I’m sitting.

There is a bit of an amateurish feel to the movie that negates a lot of the good stuff. The dialogue feels wooden and unnatural and the lines are delivered in a ham-fisted and over-the-top manner that considering the caliber of some of the actors involved is a bit baffling. It’s like they’re channeling a community theater troupe at times and that feeling is a bit disonncerting.

This won’t compare well to the better film of the genre like The Untouchables for example but it’s rip-roaring entertainment in any event. This is, to my way of thinking, more George Raft than Jimmy Cagney. Those of you who love the gangster movies of the 30s and 40s will find this right up your alley particularly if your alley is dark, foggy and filled with shadowy men in fedoras and overcoats furtively carrying Tommy guns.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography makes good use of light, shadow and color. Think of this as a nod to B movies with modern sensibilities.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is well over-the-top and sounds a bit wrong-headed at times. There is a lot of scenery chewing going on.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s violence, gore, profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McGurn eventually became a pro golfer. He was assassinated in a bowling alley in 1936, a day after the seventh anniversary of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No reviews yet. Metacritic: No reviews yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Public Enemies
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Shadowman

Te Ata


The nobility and majesty of the Chickasaw culture personified.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Paladin) Q’orianka Kilcher, Gil  Birmingham, Graham Greene, Mackenzie Astin, Brigid Brannagh, Cindy Pickett, Jenni Mabrey, Marissa Skell, Boriana Williams, Don Taylor, Robert Ousley, Gordon Fox, Tom Nowicki, Zac Abbott, Gail Cronauer, Bill Anoatubby, Jeannie Barbour, Lona Barrick, Robert Cheadle, Chandler Schultz, Stacy Cunningham. Directed by Nathan Frankowski

 

The treatment of the native culture by the American government is not one of our finest and proudest achievements. We have put them in ghettos, marginalized them as a people, infected them with disease and alcoholism and relegated their culture to near-extinction. Some extraordinary Native Americans however have helped preserve that culture for all of us to marvel at and learn from today.

In Oklahoma, the Chickasaw nation has produced a film about one of their favorite daughters. Mary Frances Thompson (Williams) was born on their reservation, the daughter of Chickasaw shopkeeper (and tribal treasurer) T.B. Thompson (Birmingham) and his Caucasian wife Bertie (Brannagh). She was a precocious child who was in love with the natural world and with the stories of her people told to her by her father and grandparents. As she grew older, she developed a wanderlust and her natural intelligence compelled her to attend the Oklahoma College for Women (today known as the University for Science and Arts in Oklahoma) and be the first Native American to graduate from there.

Under the tutelage of Miss Davis (Pickett), a drama teacher who recognizes the light in the young Native, she develops “the bug” for the stage and emigrates to New York over the strong objections of her father (who knowing the racism of whites wants to keep his daughter close to home where he feels he can protect her better) to try to get a part on Broadway. However, although she shows some talent, it is when reciting the stories of her culture to adoring crowds (as she did during a school recital) when the girl most shines. Taking the stage name of Te Ata Thompson (Kilcher), based on a nickname given to her as a child from a Maori phrase meaning “bearer of the morning,” she begins to tour around the country and indeed the globe. One of her performances attracts the notice of Eleanor Roosevelt (Cronauer) who would become a lifelong friend and supporter. However, even more importantly, it would attract the attention of academic Clyde Fisher (Astin) who would at first be enchanted by the stories but quickly by the storyteller. The two would fall in love but in order to get married they would have to get the blessing of a man who would be a most difficult man to sell on the idea – Te Ata’s father.

The movie has a feel like a Disney movie to a certain extent and not necessarily in a good way. The home life feels a bit like Main Street, USA – all theme park-idealized and perhaps not very real. Te Ata early on witnesses an act of racially-motivated violence which was probably quite common and later in the film is upset by the racist depiction of Native Americans in a cartoon, something sadly common at the time. However, the treatment of the Natives is mostly observed through a law forbidding the practice of native customs and dances during a time when the American government felt these practices were heathen and anti-Christian. While it’s true that this symbolizes the prevailing official attitude of the government, we don’t get a sense of the petty indignities suffered by Natives at the time other than through the cartoon.

We do get a sense of the rich cultural heritage of the Chickasaw through the stories, taken from the actual stories the real Te Ata performed in her lifetime. The stories are marvelous and are at the heart of the movie. However, I must caution that when Kilcher (who is also a talented singer and musician) performs the songs of the Chickasaw people, they sound almost like pop songs right out of American Idol and I had to wonder if the real Te Ata would have approved of these interpretations.

Kilcher, who wowed audiences with her portrayal of Pocahontas in the 2005 film The New World (which made her the youngest person ever to be nominated for an acting Oscar, a record that stood until broken by Quvenzhané Wallis in 2012) reminds us that she is an accomplished actress with her performance here. There was some criticism that the storytelling performances depicted were over-the-top and highly mannered, but that was the acting style of the era. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find any footage (or even audio) of her actual performances but maybe with a diligent search you might be able to see them firsthand.

The cinematography is pretty nifty with some beautiful images of the Oklahoma outdoors as well as the small town early 20th century life near Emet, Oklahoma where the real Te Ata grew up (and later near Tishomingo where her family moved to when she was a young girl). The movie is perhaps the most respectful of native American culture since Dances with Wolves but hopefully will inspire more films about the culture and lore of Native Americans which has been sadly underrepresented on the screen. However, my big objection to the movie is that it feels sanitized, like a Native American gift shop of trinkets that capture the elements of the culture that maybe the non-native population wants to see without capturing the real essence of it. Only when Kilcher is reciting her stories do we really feel that culture as a living, breathing entity and in those moments Te Ata really soars. I just wish there were more of them.

REASONS TO GO: The stories Te Ata tells are mesmerizing and touching. Kilcher delivers a fine performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Everything feels a little Disney-fied, the songs too poppy and the atmosphere a little too Main Street USA. The film could have used a little more kick.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild violence and depictions of racism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 1939 (after the period depicted in the film), Te Ata performed for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England at Hyde Park in New York at the behest of President Roosevelt, an event that was depicted in Hyde Park on Hudson in which Te Ata was portrayed by Kumiko Konishi.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dances with Wolves
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Mummy (2017)

Brave New Jersey


Martians, Mexicans, it doesn’t matter: no illegal aliens!

(2016) Comedy (Gravitas) Anna Camp, Heather Burns, Tony Hale, Sam Jaeger, Erika Alexander, Evan Jonigkeit, Raymond J. Barry, Dan Bakkedahl, Grace Kaufman, Mel Rodriguez, Adina Galupa, Leonard Earl Howze, Noah Lomax, Matt Oberg, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Jack Landry, Bill Coelius, Blaque Fowler, Roy Hawkins Jr., Helen Ingebritsen, Harp Sandman. Directed by Jody Lambert

 

Older readers are probably familiar with the story of the radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the World by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater ensemble on Halloween night, 1938. A precursor to found footage films of more recent times, the show was done in the style of a news broadcast of the time, leading many Americans to believe that Martians were really invading New Jersey.

In Lullaby, New Jersey – population 506 – life is pretty idyllic despite the Depression. Sure, there are many stores that are closed but it is a pleasant small town and most people take care of one another. The town may be in for a windfall as local entrepreneur Paul Davison (Jaeger) has invented the Rotolator, a machine that can automatically milk up to 15 cows simultaneously. It will revolutionize dairy farming and ground zero for this mechanical marvel will be Lullaby.

The town’s mayor, Clark Hill (Hale) is a sweet-natured, easy-going fellow who is taken for granted by his constituents and is a figure of some amusement. Nonetheless he gives much of his energy and passion to the town, although some of it is reserved for Lorraine (Burns), the wife of Paul Davison for whom Clark has had a secret crush on for years.

It’s Halloween and Lorraine’s daughter Ann (Kaufman) and adopted cousin Ziggy (Sandman) who fled Poland ahead of Hitler’s invasion (which wouldn’t take place until the following year for those following along at home) are dressed up as Greta Garbo and Abe Lincoln, respectively. Most of the townspeople are looking forward to the extravaganza unveiling the Rotolator which will be the highlight of Halloween, complete with fireworks. However, things are about to change.

People listening in on the radio are shocked to discover that there are reports of meteorites landing near Grover’s Mills – a town about a three hour drive from Lullaby. They are further shocked when Martians rise from the meteorites (which turned out to be spaceships) and turn their death rays on the good people of Grover’s Mills. As more and more spaceships land to their horror, it appears as if the human race is about to be wiped off the face of their own planet.

Former World War I soldier Ambrose Collins (Barry) takes command from the overwhelmed Sheriff (Rodriguez) and somewhat indecisive mayor and girds the town to arm itself to make a last stand. Going all gung-ho is schoolteacher Peg Prickett (Camp) who longs for a much more exciting life than being a small-town schoolteacher and is finally getting her opportunity much to the amazement of her fiancée Chardy Edwards (Oberg). Other members of the town turn to Reverend Ray Rogers (Bakkedahl) who hasn’t had his faith for a long time but finds it in this moment of crisis. Still, with lovers turning on one another and fathers leaving their family standing in the driveway as they drive away without them, can the town survive the invasion or it’s aftermath?

Apparently many of the individual incidents depicted in the film actually happened, although not all in the same town. I can’t speak to that personally; I do know that there was large-scale panic when the broadcast aired back in ’38. Some may have seen the 1975 TV movie The Night that Panicked America which presented a much more realistic version of what actually happened that night.

The cast is mainly veterans of television and indie films and they acquit themselves well. Hale, one of the stars of Veep acquits himself particularly well; the role of the somewhat taken for granted mayor. It seems to be right in his wheelhouse. In fact, most of the actors don’t seem to be stretching all that far which is in some ways a tribute to the casting director for picking the right people for the right roles. It’s also a double-edged sword as none of the actors seem particularly challenged but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

What is necessarily a bad thing is that the movie is riddled with anachronisms and errors in logic. For example, Collins is depicted in his 70s – yet World War I ended just 19 years earlier. Chances are he’d be in his late 30s or 40s if he had actually fought in the Great War. Lambert would have been better off making him a veteran of the Indian Wars of the 1880s which would have made him about the right age if he wanted to use Berry for the role.

There is also the use of words like “data” and “hustle” which weren’t in general usage in the Depression, as well as a song that the mayor is writing which sounds more apropos to the Greenwich Village coffee house scene of the 60s than the Big Band era. I would have liked to see some of that cleaned up a bit.

The humor is mainly gentle and low-key; this isn’t a movie for belly laughs. It pokes fun at the absurdities of human nature and particular how gullible we can be. It does so without being particularly political which in this day and age is a welcome respite.

The movie which I would characterize as reasonably entertaining but flawed loses steam towards the end of the second act, leading to a set piece that concludes the action. There are no real surprises here but the movie is inoffensive and has enough going for it that I can at least give it a recommendation. Not a hidden gem so much as a hidden sweater that you can wrap yourself in for an hour and a half and feel cozy and warm.

REASONS TO GO: The film possesses a gentle and low-key sense of humor. This is a treatise on human gullibility.
REASONS TO STAY: There are far too many errors in logic and anachronisms. The humor is a little bit cornball.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and comic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the town exteriors were filmed in Maury City, TN – a very small town that has the look of a Depression-era town and with many of the stores on the main street long out of business, the feel of one too.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Chronically Metropolitan