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

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Hannibal


Hannibal

Ray Liotta flips his lid for Hannibal!

(2001) Thriller (MGM) Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman, Ray Liotta, Frankie R. Faison, Giancarlo Giannini, Francesca Neri, Zeljko Ivanek, Hazelle Goodman, David Andrews, Francis Guinan, James Opher, Enrico Lo Verso. Directed by Ridley Scott

 

The main problem with Hannibal, the multi-bazillion dollar grossing thriller, is Silence of the Lambs. Inevitably, it is going to be compared to that modern classic (after all, it is a sequel) and quite frankly, it doesn’t hold up. But y’know, director Ridley Scott really isn’t trying to do that. To his credit, Hannibal is a completely different type of movie, not so much suspenseful as visceral; it is more horror than it is heartstopping.

Some years have passed since the events of Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling (a terribly miscast Moore) has managed to alienate most of her superiors and peers at the FBI, and after a botched arrest which leaves her partner dead and Starling under intense media scrutiny, has begun to have doubts about her career.

Meanwhile, escaped madman Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins) has settled into a quiet life in Florence, Italy, as an academic. Careful not to attract too much attention to himself (and circumspectly wearing gloves and wiping wineglasses to protect from his fingerprints being discovered), he has found a niche that appeals to his love of antiquity, fine dining and academia. The problem is, Hannibal the Cannibal has become bored.

The only living survivor of a Lecter attack, multi-billionaire Mason Verger (Oldman, wonderful under a queasiness-inducing makeup job), has been plotting his revenge since Lecter’s escape, but has been unable to locate the good doctor. Starling’s disgrace becomes Verger’s chance to smoke the good doctor out of hiding, and he uses a Justice Department bureaucrat (Liotta) to do just that.

In the meantime, the academic has been spotted by an Italian policeman (Giannini), who is trying to support a high-maintenance, beautiful wife on a policeman’s salary. The reward for bringing in Lecter proves to be too tempting for the lawman, and so the game is afoot.

At the risk of giving too much away, things go south and Lecter comes home, mainly to observe Starling. He has a rather unique bond with her, and although his motivations are never made as clear as they are in the book, there seems to be a hint of romance in the doctor’s motivation.

Quite frankly, there is a lot of gore here, much more than either of the first two Lecter movies (Michael Mann’s Manhunter being the first). Although there is some nifty viscera (particularly the scene where a man eats a meal you won’t find in the average fast food joint … well, then again, you never know), that alone won’t carry a movie.

What does is story and performance. The acting is certainly solid. Hopkins chews the scenery like his character chews other characters but still makes Lecter one of the most interesting screen villains ever … in fact, “villain” is not quite the right term for Lecter. Most of the movie, you spend rooting for him to get away from those who wish to take away his freedom, but you are reminded at every turn just how dangerous and homicidal he is.

Giannini is as soulful an actor as there is today; here is a man not hemmed in by desperation, but by resignation. His pain is quiet and restrained, mostly communicated through his eyes and a sad smile.

Oldman’s scarred, twisted Mason Verger is the true baddie of the movie, and I am not aware of very many actors today who do bad guys as well as Gary Oldman. Verger revels in his wickedness, wearing his scars like a badge of honor. He can’t let the pain and suffering go – but in a sick way, he needs them to be who he is.

Director Ridley Scott must have been flashing back to his Blade Runner days when filming this; the movie is filled with rain, umbrellas and crowds (although the neon is missing). The cityscape of Florence is in its own way a major part of the movie’s allure; the beautiful, ancient, civilized Florence has an underbelly that can’t be trifled with.

There are certain unexpected moments of lightness – for example, prominently featured in Lecter’s kitchen is a vegetarian cookbook. However, for the most part, there is a heavy sense of impending destiny that drags the movie down. The showdowns — between Lecter and Verger, as well as the one between Lecter and Starling — are both too predictable.

Moore, while a fine actress, doesn’t really capture the toughness of Starling. She doesn’t really have the physicality needed for the part (although, to be fair, neither did then-recent mother Jodie Foster at the time this was filmed). Moore never for a moment convinces me that she is dangerous, or even well-trained. In all of the physical confrontations she is involved with, she gets bested rather easily.

While the ending of the movie differs significantly from the more controversial ending of the book, I think it works better. I never really understood why novelist Thomas Harris had Starling do what she did at the book’s conclusion; the ending screenwriter David Mamet came up with here seemed more consistent to her character. Nevertheless, I’m not a huge fan of Mamet’s writing; he is a bit too cerebral and slow for my tastes. Here, the pace drags and the plot is obfuscated with unnecessary little “See how smart I am”-type intellectualisms that I found a tad pretentious. Did we really need Lecter reading sonnets by Dante aloud?

Hannibal made a ton of money, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. I recommend it mainly for the performances of Hopkins, Oldman and Giannini and I think the movie works despite the godawful script, elephantine pacing and inept plotting. Let’s face it. Most of us are going to see a movie like this regardless of the reviews. Let’s just say this is a good movie that didn’t meet the impossible expectations set for it.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s Hannibal Lecter, people. Brilliant performances by Hopkins, Oldman and Giannini. Scott pulls off a sequel to a classic that stands on its own.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moore is terribly miscast. The script is full of intellectual showing off, almost talks down to its audience. Moves slowly and some of the plot points are ludicrous.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of violence, some of it gruesome at times. There is also a little bit of nudity and some foul language peppered about here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The scenes at Verger’s mansion were filmed at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC. Winnipeggers can take pride that the killer hogs in the hog massacre scene were purchased from a Manitoba farm just outside of Winnipeg.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The Special Edition DVD includes footage from the press conference announcing the making of the movie. Strangely, the Blu-Ray edition (released in 2009 as part of a Hannibal Lecter collection that includes Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $351.7M on an $87M production budget; the movie was a big hit.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Made in China

Quantum of Solace


Quantum of Solace

Bond's morning after is always so much more interesting than everybody's elses.

(MGM) Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Gemma Arterton, Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright, Jesper Christensen, Joaquin Cosio, David Harbour. Directed by Marc Forster

After Casino Royale, fans of the James Bond franchise were over the moon. Despite early misgivings, Daniel Craig had turned out to be a magnificent 007 – maybe the best since Sean Connery. A gripping storyline that adds more detail and background to the Bond mythology than any single movie ever has whetted the appetite of fans for more, but did the follow-up deliver?

Following the events of Casino Royale, the new one picks up literally minutes after the last one left off. Bond, who has captured Mr. White (Christensen), is being chased on the mountain roads of Italy by a cadre of thugs in black cars who can’t shoot straight. Bond eludes them and manages to deliver the banker to M (Dench) in Portofino, I think – it might be Siena. Somewhere in Italy, anyway.

It turns out that the organization that Mr. White works for (identified later in the film as Quantum, although nobody explains what this stands for – at least SPECTRE and SMERSH actually were acronyms that stood for something) has agents everywhere, including in that very room. A shoot-out ensues followed by a chase across Italian rooftops, ending up in a church undergoing refurbishment.

M is understandably shaken and pissed off. How could there be an organization so well-financed, so large with fingers in so many pies but MI6 doesn’t even have a clue about who they are? She sends Bond to go get some answers.

I won’t give a lot of the plot away because it really is unnecessary to. Nobody goes and sees a Bond film because of the plot. People want the same elements from their Bond movies – great action, beautiful women, clever gadgets and exotic locations. That’s it. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to keep Bond fans happy, but they’ve gone and done that anyway.

Some of the changes are definitely for the better. The relationship between Bond and M becomes the most important relationship in the story. That’s a new twist for the series and one which I quite like. Dame Judi Dench need play a second banana to nobody, and she makes a fine foil for Craig. The chemistry between them exceeds that between Bond and Kurylenko as Camille, this edition’s Bond girl. Trust becomes a central theme to the film, which is bloody revolutionary for a spy film.

I also like that Daniel Craig’s Bond is cold, vicious and driven by the events at the climax of Casino Royale. First of all, a little continuity between movies isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Secondly, it lends a new edge to James Bond and while he does toss a quip out every now and again, he is all business. That has its pros and cons, but I don’t mind that we take Bond a little more seriously with Craig than we did with, say, Roger Moore.

Some of the changes, however, leave something to be desired. The action sequences should have an element of the unbelievable to them, a sense of scale; these are action sequences that are straight out of the Bourne movies (which is, I admit, a bit of an unfair comparison but it does make a useful reference point) and they are a bit rough, the shaky hand-cam which works in other action franchises just seems out of place here. The James Bonds of yesterday always seemed to get into brawls without so much as messing up their impeccably tailored tuxedo or immaculately coiffed hair, but this is a James Bond that gets dusty, bloody, filthy…he survives a plane crash and looks it. I kind of want my James Bond to step out of the wreckage, arch an eyebrow and loose a devastating witticism that gives you the comfort of knowing that Bond is going to save the day in about 20 minutes, and that the megalomaniac of the moment is going to get his comeuppance in a gruesome and deserving manner.

In short, I want to have fun with my James Bond movie and to be honest, I didn’t here. Despite the work of Daniel Craig who is as perfect a Bond for this era as Connery was for his, I didn’t feel exhilarated after watching Quantum of Solace as I usually do for other Bond movies. I felt I’d endured it, survived it but not enjoyed it.

That’s not to say that this is a movie totally without merit. I like some of the changes, as I said and I hope they continue to explore them. I might have liked a more vicious villain than Amalric as Dominic Greene, and a more urgent plot than to – horrors! – steal Bolivia’s water supply.

Unlike other critics, I don’t think that the franchise needs to be burned to the ground and rebooted again but some tweaking is definitely in order. Less grim, more fun I say. Now, I’m going to namedrop a little – I went to college with Bond executive producer Barbara Broccoli and actually shared several classes with her (we shared the same major) although we weren’t ever close. In fact, the odds that she reads my blog are about a hundred trillion to one, but I kind of hope she does. Not that I’m any sort of cinematic genius or anything, but if I had one word of advice to pass along to my fellow alumni of Loyola Marymount, it would be to ratchet up the fun quotient.

That’s the key. At the end of the day, I want to live vicariously through James Bond. I don’t want to see him shot, bloodied, beaten or bruised. If I wanted to be those things, I’d pick a fight with a NASCAR fan. I want to be pampered with the very best luxuries that the taxpayers of Great Britain can afford. I want to be with the most beautiful, seductive women on earth. I want to look great in a tux, use my license to kill and save the day. In short, I want to be stirred, not shaken.

WHY RENT THIS: It is James Bond, after all – the action sequences are second-to-none.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The reboot of Bond is moving a little too far from the original concept for comfort.  

FAMILY VALUES: There’s violence and sexuality but no more than any other Bond movie.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: For the first time, Felix Leiter is played by the same actor in two consecutive films.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: For a 100-minute movie, there are a ton of locations and a feature called “Bond on Location” discusses the logistics of all of them, as well as living up to the expectations raised in Casino Royale.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Iron Man 2