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

Advertisements

Stronger


Love makes us stronger.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Richard Lane Jr., Nate Richman, Lenny Clarke, Patricia O’Neil, Clancy Brown, Katherine Fitzgerald, Danny McCarthy, Frankie Shaw, Carlos Sanz, Michelle Forziati, Sean McGuirk, Karen Scalia, Judith McIntyre, Dr. Jeffrey Kalish, Cassandra Cato Louis, Rena Maliszewski. Directed by David Gordon Green

 

In the aftermath of tragedy, it is perhaps the glory of humanity that we rise up and overcome. Even the most horrific of circumstances can bring out our resilience to an almost miraculous degree. It is in these situations that we as a species ten to show the most grace.

Jeff Bauman (Gyllenhaal) is a working class guy from Chelmsford who lives and breathes Boston sports, carves roast chicken at a local Costco and hangs out with his friends after work. There is the matter of a girl, Erin Hurley (Maslany) whom Jeff is absolutely crazy about but he always seems to find a way to mess it up. She justifiably complains that he never shows up; he promises that this time, he will.

This time is at the Boston Marathon in which she is running; he promises to show up, awaiting her at the finish line with a goofy sign. Well, this time he shows up and happens to be standing right next to one of the homemade bombs that went off at the 2013 Marathon. Both his legs are blown off by the blast. When he wakes up in the hospital and is informed about the extent of his injuries, he cracks a joke about being Lt. Dan from Forrest Gump.

He is unprepared for the public adulation that comes from being a survivor. An iconic photo of him being cared for by an unknown man in a cowboy hat (Sanz) has made him a celebrity. His blowzy mom (Richardson) is all about using his new-found fame to his advantage. Erin, overwhelmed by guilt, reconnects with him and becomes nurse and lover.

But Jeff is not the most mature of men to begin with and he self-medicates as the pressures of fame and the pain of physical therapy begin to become unbearable. He has become a symbol but he doesn’t want to be one; he is not interested in offering hope to the people of Boston and his old habits that tore him and Erin apart initially begin to resurface.

David Gordon Green is one of those directors who seem to have a loyal hardcore following but rarely gets the recognition he deserves. This is probably his most commercial film yet (which considering that one of his movies is The Pineapple Express is saying something) and certainly his most accessible.

He pushes all the right buttons here but admirably doesn’t make the film as cliché-ridden as it might be. He keeps things low-key and realistic. Bauman is far from heroic for most of this although by the end of the movie he seems to be accepting his role and begins to use it in a positive way.

Gyllenhaal is at the center of the film. He has become a regular contender for Oscar gold and this performance might very well put him in the mix again this year. He makes Jeff very human, very vulnerable and very flawed and yet charming enough with just enough heart o’ gold kinda stuff that we root for him even as his drunken antics and commitment phobia make us clench our collective teeth. One must also point out that the CGI that renders Gyllenhaal as legless is some of the most seamless and well done I’ve seen.

Maslany has been acclaimed for her performances in Orphan Black, shows that she has the chops to become a serious movie actress. She is much more low-key than Gyllenhaal here but she is really the heart and soul of the film. She is wracked by guilt, knowing if not for her that Jeff wouldn’t have been in harm’s way that Patriot’s Day. She recognizes that deep down Jeff has a good soul but he is also weak and this kind of burden doesn’t necessarily bode well for the future of a relationship but as long as he is trying, she knows she must hang in there for him.

The supporting cast is pretty strong as well, with particular kudos to British actress Richardson as Jeff’s overbearing mom and veteran character actor Clancy Brown as his estranged Dad. They are a bit New England Working Class typecast, but not knowing Bauman’s family at all I have to think that there is at least a germ of truth in there at least.

This isn’t always an easy film to watch. The movie doesn’t really dwell on the crime so much as the recovery and that’s a good thing – you can always watch Patriots Day if you are more interested in the hunt for the bombers. Still, the filmmakers pull no punches. We don’t get treated to endless scenes of agonizing physical therapy but more Bauman’s reaction to it. He becomes depressed and frightened of the staggering unwanted responsibilities he is forced to face. And he turns away from it, until he finally agrees – reluctantly I might add – to meet the angel of mercy who helped him on the worst day of his life.

Bauman doesn’t change overnight although it’s pretty close. There is certainly a turning point and it seems that Bauman makes a decision to live and be the kind of man he always had the potential to be. While I might question the night and day presentation of Bauman’s change of heart, there’s no doubt judged by his activities of late that there was one – a determination to become better. That’s what true strength is.

REASONS TO GO: Gyllenhaal could have an outside shot at an Oscar nomination. The CGI is absolutely perfect. The film is emotionally gritty and cathartic. The portrayal of Jeff Bauman pulls no punches.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is occasionally guilty of being a bit manipulative.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity, some disturbing images of carnage, violence, sex and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The release date for the film comes on co-star Tatiana Maslany’s 32nd birthday.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marathon: The Patriot’s Day Bombing
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
TBA

The Town


The Town

Jon Hamm confronts Ben Affleck over which one looks best unshaven.

(Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Chris Cooper, Blake Lively, Pete Postlethwaite, Slaine, Owen Burke, Titus Welliver, Dennis McLaughlin, Corena Chase, Brian Scannell, Isaac Bordoy. Directed by Ben Affleck

Before the credits start rolling, we are informed that Charlestown, a suburb of Boston near the city center and populated by a predominantly working class Irish demographic, has more bank robbers per capita than anyplace in America. I don’t know that it’s true, but it certainly makes for an interesting concept.

Doug MacRay (Affleck) lives in Charlestown and is one of the aforementioned excess of criminals. He and his crew Jem (Renner), Gloansy (Slaine) and Desmond (Burke) are robbing a bank wearing ghoulish masks and so far the caper is going like clockwork. However, things go a little sideways; it’s discovered that one of the employees set off the silent alarm and Jem, a hothead, reacts by viciously beating the assistant manager whom he thinks did it. He also forces them to take pretty bank manager Claire Keesey (Hall) hostage as insurance. However, once they’re satisfied the cops didn’t follow them they let the blindfolded woman loose feeling fairly comfortable that she didn’t see anything.

What they didn’t take into account is that Claire lives in the same neighborhood as the four of them, so Doug decides to keep an eye on her to make sure that she really didn’t see anything. He arranges to “bump into her” at a local Laundromat and the two begin to like each other, and maybe something more than that.

In the meantime Agent Adam Frawley (Hamm) of the FBI is hot on the tail of the crew, even if he’s at least two steps behind him. One advantage he has is that his partner is Dino Ciampa (Welliver), who grew up in Charlestown and knows most of the guys involved. Even with that, he’s no closer to figuring out who this mysterious crew is until he figures out that one of them worked for a specific electronic security company.

Despite the heat, the crew continues to pull jobs which turn more and more violent. Doug wants nothing more than to get out, preferably with Claire as company. However, Fergus “The Florist” Colm (Postlethwaite), who sets up their jobs and gets a cut of what they pull, wants him right where he is. Doug doesn’t want to end up like his jailbird dad (Cooper) but as The Florist tightens the screws and Frawley inching closer to pinching him, he knows that something’s got to give and it might be his relationship with Claire – who is still ignorant of his identity as one of the robbers who kidnapped her and is to his mind his only way out of Charlestown.

This is Affleck’s second directorial effort and like the 2007 crime thriller Gone Baby Gone it makes excellent use of the city of Boston. There’s a car chase through the narrow alleyways of Boston that is absolutely outstanding, one of the better ones you’ll see this year. Affleck also captures the gritty flavor of Boston’s working class neighborhoods.

He has assembled an excellent cast. Renner shines as the hair-trigger Jem, who served a stretch of nine years for taking out a guy who wanted to take out Doug. His relationship with Doug is strong, but he needs Doug far more than Doug needs him, and he knows it. Lively also turned my head with a performance as Jem’s drug-addled floozy of a sister, a role as far from her “Gossip Girls” character as it’s possible to get, and serves notice that Lively is an outstanding actress in her own right. Veterans Cooper and Postlethwaite have miniscule parts, but make the most of them.

Affleck has been on a roll lately albeit mostly in supporting parts, from Hollywoodland to Extract; taking a lead role since Surviving Christmas (2004) he is very strong, although he could have used a little more flavor. He is supposed to be the brains behind the operation but never comes off as excessively clever, and we get the sense that he’s more meticulous than smart.

Affleck’s best moment as both an actor and a director comes during a scene where Doug and Claire are sitting at an outdoor cafe when Jem strolls up. Throughout the scene there’s a great deal of tension; I won’t reveal exactly the source but suffice to say that there is real jeopardy that Claire will discover that Jem is part of the gang that robbed her bank and took her hostage. Affleck the director keeps the tension at a high level, while Affleck the director sells it with his body language, trying to hide his concern from both Claire and Jem. It’s a masterfully done scene and Affleck the actor makes it work.

The movie has done surprisingly well at the box office thus far and looks to be a hit, which is good news for Affleck’s career both as a director and as a lead actor. Hopefully his work in Company Men later this month will continue that trend; after the fallout from Gigli I always thought he was unfairly stigmatized as a terrible actor, which he obviously is not and I generally look forward to seeing his movies. Here, he’s crafted a satisfying crime thriller as a director that oddly doesn’t showcase his best skills as an actor, but still shows enough of him to make the movie worth seeing and Affleck’s role memorable. It’s enough that I look forward to seeing Affleck in both capacities in the future.

REASONS TO GO: Some pretty nifty acting performances and a terrific car chase sequence make this a gritty crime thriller worth checking out.

REASONS TO STAY: The thick Boston accents can be difficult to understand from time to time and the material may be a bit too gritty for some.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is extremely rough, particularly if the F-Bomb disturbs you. There’s some sudden and brutal violence, as well as a little bit of sexuality. Mature teens can probably handle this, but I wouldn’t go much past that.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rob Reiner founded Castle Rock, the production company behind Flipped but later sold it to Warner Brothers; this is the first time he’s worked with them since 1999.

HOME OR THEATER: The car chase is certainly worth checking out on the big screen, but otherwise the home video option is just as viable.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Final Destination