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

New Releases for the Week of March 18, 2016


The Divergent Series: AllegiantTHE DIVERGENT SERIES: ALLEGIANT

(Summit) Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Jeff Daniels, Zoë Kravitz, Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Daniel Dae Kim. Directed by Robert Schwentke

With Chicago embroiled in chaos following the events of the previous film, Tris, Four and the others decide to leave the city and pass beyond the wall for the first time. What they find out there is shocking; the wasteland has a habitation far advanced of their own and the world they thought they knew is suddenly turned upside down forever. They’d hoped to find a peaceful solution but now they realize that their city and everyone they know and love is in mortal danger. They must quickly discover who they can trust and fight the most overwhelming odds they have ever faced if they are to survive. This is the penultimate chapter in the successful young adult film franchise.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, Large-Screen
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for intense violence and action, thematic elements, and some partial nudity)

The Bronze

(Sony Classics) Melissa Rauch, Gary Cole, Thomas Middleditch, Sebastian Stan. Once upon a time, a gymnast from a small Ohio town captured America’s heart with a gutsy performance on a ruptured Achilles tendon that netted her a bronze medal at the Olympics. Since then, she really hasn’t moved on, her gymnastics career ended prematurely. Living in her dad’s basement, she exists on the memories of a faded past and the well-wishes of a town that still continue to treat her like America’s sweetheart. However, there is a new presence – a gymnast with the sort of talent that might exceed her own accomplishments. And that doesn’t sit well with her at all.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout and some drug use)

Hello, My Name is Doris

(Roadside Attractions) Sally Field, Max Greenfield, Beth Behrs, Tyne Daly. Doris, whose life has for too long revolved around her ailing mother, finds herself adrift when her mother finally passes. She falls for an attractive younger man at her job and urged on by her same-aged friend and her friend’s 13-year-old granddaughter, Doris determines to put some life back into her life. These changes might end up alienating the friends she has as she takes a long look at who she’s become. Cinema365 will be publishing a review of this tomorrow, Friday March 18.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for language)

New Releases for the Week of October 23, 2015


Steve JobsSTEVE JOBS

(Universal) Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Sarah Snook, Adam Shapiro. Directed by Danny Boyle

One of the brilliant visionaries of our time, Steve Jobs became the guru of technology although he was never an engineer so much as a marketing genius. Under his leadership, Apple became a juggernaut of a company, spearheading the personal computer revolution as well as creating markets for the iPhone, iPad and iPod. His personal life was more tumultuous as he was as a boss a demanding taskmaster and sundered personal relationships in his quest to change the world and gain market share. This driven man has already gotten a biopic and now a second, more prestigious one is coming along that has already garnered rave reviews and Oscar buzz for Fassbender in the title role.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for language)

A Brilliant Young Mind

(Goldwyn) Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan. A brilliant British math prodigy who is unable to navigate social behavior due to his autism finds comfort in numbers. Taken under the wing by an unconventional math teacher, he earns a spot on the British Math Team. There, while training in Taipei with the Chinese team, he meets a young Chinese girl and begins to develop unexpected feelings for her. The director based this fictional film on his own documentary about the training of the British math team.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: NR

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon

(Magnolia) Henry Beard, Matty Simmons, Bruce McCall, P.J. O’Rourke. If you look at modern American comedy both on television and in the movies, the roots go back to National Lampoon magazine. Founded by a couple of Harvard grads who had worked at the venerable Harvard Lampoon, the magazine became a breeding ground for some of the most brilliant comedians and writers of our time. A favorite from this year’s Florida Film Festival, the film has since received distribution through major indie Magnolia and makes it to the Enzian for a brief run; read my Festival review of the film here.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: NR

Jem and the Holograms

(Universal) Juliette Lewis, Molly Ringwald, Aubrey Peeples, Stefanie Scott. A young woman becomes an internet sensation when her sisters leak a video of her playing an original song onto a website. She soon becomes a global superstar and is made to jettison her band, which is made up of her other three sisters. Needing to make things right, she and her sisters soon go off on an adventure that she never expected to find. Based on the 80s Saturday morning cartoon.

See the trailer, interviews, clips, a featurette, a music video and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Musical
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for thematic material including reckless behavior, brief suggestive content and some language)

The Last Witch Hunter

(Summit) Vin Diesel, Elijah Wood, Rose Leslie, Michael Caine. For centuries, the evil creatures of the night – source of our most horrific legends – were battled by valiant witch hunters. When the Witch Queen is slain by Kaulder, the best of the witch hunters, she curses him with immortality, separating him from his beloved wife and daughter in the Afterlife. Now, hundreds of years later, he continues battling what few rogue witches are left, the last of his kind. When the Witch Queen is resurrected, an epic battle will ensue on which rests the future of the human race.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a music video and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror Fantasy Action
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for scary and intense creature action and images, and for some rude humor)

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension

(Paramount) Chris J. Murray, Brit Shaw, Ivy George, Dan Gill. The most successful found footage franchise in history comes to an end as a pair of brothers find a box of videocassettes in their new house, as well as a camera that allows them to see the spirit world. When a daughter of one of the brothers opens a portal to the ghost dimension, all hell will literally break loose as all the loose threads from the previous films in the series will be tied up at last.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and a promo here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cityplex, AMC West Oaks
Rating: R (for language and horror violence)

Rock the Kasbah

(Open Road) Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Kate Hudson, Zooey Deschanel. A washed up manager of rock performers is abandoned in Afghanistan by his last remaining client, then in a cave outside Kabul discovers the most amazing voice ever. Determined to help the beautiful woman who possesses that voice reach her dreams of winning Afghan Star (the local version of American Idol), he enlists a motley crew of allies to help him overcome cultural prejudices and take his new client all the way to the top. Incredibly, this is based on actual events and is directed by Oscar winner Barry Levinson.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for language including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence)

Victoria

(Adopt) Laia Costa, Frederick Lau, Franz Rogowski, Burak Ligit. The winner of the prestigious Silver Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival, this ambitious film was shot in a single night all in one take. It concerns a party girl who meets three guys and a night of wild fun turns into a bank robbery. Sebastian Schipper directs.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Crime Thriller
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: NR

The Martian


Matt Damon takes a break.

Matt Damon takes a break.

(2015) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Peňa, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, Nick Mohammed, Chen Shu, Eddy Ko, Enzo Cilenti, Jonathan Aris, Gruffudd Glyn, Naomi Scott. Directed by Ridley Scott

The exploration of other planets is a dangerous undertaking, maybe the most dangerous thing that humankind can do. So many things can go wrong. When compounded with human error, life or death can rest on a single decision made not always by ourselves but by others as well.

The Ares III manned mission to Mars is going well into its 18th day but then mission control in Houston detects an oncoming storm, a massive one that will force the crew to end their mission early and blast off into space. Already the escape vehicle is tipping over dangerously in the Martian sand. As the crew struggles to prepare for an emergency liftoff, the storm hits with brutal wind force. A piece of debris slams into astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) who is blown into the storm. His beacon and life signs indicator both are off. After a brief search in the storm fails to turn up Mark or his body, expedition leader Melissa Lewis (Chastain) is forced to leave Mars without him.

Except Mark isn’t quite dead yet, to quote Monty Python. Yes, he’s injured and his suit electronics non-functional but he’s alive. He gets back to the habitat and assesses his situation. He has food rations and water for a further 30 days but it will be four years before NASA can mount a rescue mission, assuming they realize that he’s still alive. As Mark says in his video logs that are to chronicle his struggle to survive, he’ll have to science the shit out of things in order to create drinkable water out of rocket fuel, grow potatoes from some vacuum packed spuds in an environment where nothing grows (let’s just say that he utilizes both the shit and the science), and manage to keep the atmosphere breathable in the habitat. It’s a daunting task.

Mark has a doctorate in botany so he’s a pretty smart guy. However, he knows that any one of a million things can go wrong. He has to contact NASA and once they realize that he’s alive, he has to stay that way until they can get there. However, it isn’t going to be just Mark on the line; when his crew discovers he’s still alive, they will put their own lives on the line to get their colleague and teammate back and what could be more heroic than that?

Ridley Scott is a prolific director who has a history of making screen worlds come to life, from ancient Rome to rural Provence to a doomed spaceship. Here the Red Planet – desolate and arid, although a mere four days before this movie opened NASA announced that water flowed on Mars – becomes a living creature, deadly as a cobra and majestic as a moose. Shot in Tunisia on red desert sands, The vistas are bleak and alien but realistic.

He got NASA’s cooperation on the movie which while it doesn’t come off as a two hour advertisement for the space agency, does portray it in a heroic light in much the same way Apollo 13 did. NASA doesn’t do movies that don’t have the right science; here they made something like 50 pages of notes in order for the solutions to the various problems that Mark Watney come up with are grounded in real science and are the lot of them quite ingenious.

Scott also had the good sense to put a stellar cast in place. While this is Damon’s movie without a doubt (more on that in a minute), he gets plenty of support including Daniels as a beleaguered NASA chief, Wiig as a press officer trying to spin the story the right way, Bean as a project manager whose first and only loyalty is to the crew who have placed their lives in his hands, Ejiofor as a NASA manager tasked with getting Watney home and Peňa as Watney’s closest friend on the crew. All of them do memorable work in parts that have in many cases much less screen time than they are used to.

But as I mentioned, this is Damon’s movie from start to finish and he responds by turning in maybe the best performance of his career. Certainly come Oscar nomination time he will have a very good shot at making the short list. He gives us exactly the heroic astronaut we’re looking for; one who is lonely and vulnerable but who faces his issues with intelligence and aplomb. He is a man who absolutely refuses to lie down and quit where many would have. Dying 145 million miles away from home is simply unacceptable.

The science in the film has been vetted by no less a personage than Neil deGrasse Tyson (who also recorded a trailer for the film) who proclaimed it accurate for the most part other than some minor details; for example, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena doesn’t work on manned missions, but the one element that doesn’t pass the science test is the storm that scrubs the mission; because the atmosphere on Mars holds 1% of the air pressure than the atmosphere on Earth, the dust storms there (and there are dust storms on Mars) are much less violent and only pick up the lightest of dust. Having a wind storm on Mars that has the capability of picking up debris and slamming it into the body of an unsuspecting atmosphere doesn’t work but of course it is necessary to the plot that the crew believe that one of their number is dead, otherwise they would never leave without him. Like our military, NASA leaves nobody behind.

But what we have here is a rare movie that promotes intelligence and individual scientific knowledge. Granted, we are unlikely to ever be put in a situation in which our science IQ is all that stands between us and oblivion, but it is a reminder of how important science is not just into making new cell phones for us to use but to our own survival as well. The kind of problem solving Watney exhibits is the kind of problem solving we need for our own future as our global climate changes, which may lead to famine and starvation. We’ll need a lot of Mark Watneys to get us out of that one. Nonetheless any movie that gives us this kind of portrayal of science and scientists and does it in a story that is this compelling gets the highest praise I can offer.

REASONS TO GO: Damon is brilliant. Gripping story with real life science. Maintains tension throughout. Realistic-looking Mars (other than the storms).
REASONS TO STAY: Not everyone likes science fiction..
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, images of injuries and brief male posterior nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ridley Scott delayed filming on his Prometheus sequel to make this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gravity
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Pan

New Releases for the Week of October 2, 2015


The MartianTHE MARTIAN

(20th Century Fox) Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peňa, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Chiwetel Ejiofor. Directed by Ridley Scott

During a manned mission to Mars, a savage storm strikes the landing site and forces an early departure of the astronauts. One of them is presumed lost during the storm and the team takes off without him – except he’s not quite dead yet. Alone, abandoned on a dead planet hundreds of millions of miles from home, the stranded astronaut has to first contact NASA or his space craft and let them know he’s alive, then find a way to survive until help finally does come. Neither one is an easy task.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a promo, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard, 3D  (Opens Thursday)
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for some strong language, injury images and brief nudity)

Finders Keepers

(The Orchard) Shannon Whisnant, John Wood. When Shannon Whisnant buys a smoker from a storage unit auction, he is surprised to discover an amputated human leg being stored inside it. This unleashes a bitter dispute between Whisnant, who determines to keep the leg because it is bringing him the fame he craves, and John Wood – the smoker’s previous owner – to whom the leg has a very personal connection. It could only happen in the South, folks.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for language)

Hell and Back

(Freestyle) Starring the voices of Mila Kunis, TJ Miller, Susan Sarandon, Bob Odenkirk. Never underestimate the idiocy of a young white male. When a group of bros inadvertently open a gateway to Hell and one of them gets sucked down into it, his three buddies try to do the right thing and go down to the infernal regions to welcome their friend. Hell has no idea what’s about to hit them. From the same animation studio that is guilty of giving us Robot Chicken and Bo-jack Horseman.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal Winter Park Village, UA Seminole Town Center
Rating: R (for pervasive strong crude and sexual content, language and some drug use)

Sicario

(Lionsgate) Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Victor Garber. An idealistic FBI agent is brought into the war zone that is the U.S.-Mexican border to join a task force with the mission of stopping cartel violence from reaching its tentacles onto American soil. A mysterious consultant with an enigmatic past and an elite government agent whose ambitions are only matched with his amorality force the agent to question everything she believes in as she must go to extreme measures just to survive. The latest from talented director Denis Villeneuve has been receiving critical accolades wherever it has gone.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for strong violence, grisly images, and language)

The Walk

(Tri-Star) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale. Only one man has – and ever will – walked on a high wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. That man is Philippe Pettit and his real life exploits were captured on the excellent documentary Man on Wire – if you haven’t seen it yet I highly recommend it. This is a dramatization of the events that took place way back when. Director Robert Zemeckis has apparently utilized modern technology to put the audience in Philippe’s shoes, so high above the ground in New York City. This may end up being one of the few movies Da Queen and I end up seeing in IMAX 3D this year.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes, premiere footage and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D (opened Wednesday)
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Large Format Screens
Rating: PG (for thematic elements including perilous situations, and for some nudity, language, brief drug references and smoking)

Infamous (2006)


Capote's flamboyant tastes are reflected in his sumptuous Manhattan apartment.

Capote’s flamboyant tastes are reflected in his sumptuous Manhattan apartment.

(2006) Biographical Drama (Warner Independent) Toby Jones, Sandra Bullock, Daniel Craig, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, Lee Pace, Sigourney Weaver, Gwyneth Paltrow, Isabella Rossellini, Juliet Stevenson, John Benjamin Hickey, Peter Bogdanovich, Michael Panes, Frank Curcio, Terri Bennett, Marco Perella, Libby Vellari, Terri Zee. Directed by Douglas McGrath

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” but sometimes the truth is the good story. In the hands of a master storyteller, the truth can be the most powerful weapon of all.

Novelist and raconteur Truman Capote (Jones) is the toast of New York. Effeminate, flamboyant and the man everyone wanted at their parties,  he lived and moved effortlessly among the social elite of Manhattan in the 1950s,, counting Babe Paley (Weaver), wife of CBS chairman William and fashion icon Diana Vreeland (Stevenson) among his very best friends and confidantes. It was an endless parade of cocktail parties, power lunches and acclaim for his essays and novels. He was one of the few openly homosexual men able to live pretty much as he chose, with a lover (Hickey) who essentially allowed him to have sex with whomever he chose. He lived at the center of the world and knew it.

One morning a story nearly buried in the newspaper caught his attention; Family of Four Slain in Home. The Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas had been brutally murdered, apparently without struggle and without anything taken from the home. The police were baffled and the town was deeply disturbed by so horrible a crime occurring in their midst. On impulse, Capote decides to go to Kansas to cover the murder but moreover its effect on the town. To aid him, he brings his childhood friend Harper Lee (Bullock) whose own novel To Kill a Mockingbird had just been published.

Once he gets there, the outrageous Capote fits in like a clown at a funeral. The dour district attorney Dewey (Daniels) isn’t inclined to grant the diminutive Capote special access and most of the other reporters make him the butt of their jokes. To his chagrin, Capote is mistaken for a woman on more than one occasion. Finally, with the charm of Southern belle Lee, he begins to make some headway among the suspicious Midwesterners, with tales of his dealings with Hollywood celebrities. That’s when the murderers are caught.

At first, they seem an odd pair. Richard Hickock (Pace) is loud and boisterous, young and terribly over his head. Perry Smith (Craig) is taciturn and sullen, almost paranoid. He knows what the future holds for him, and it is not rosy. The only control he has is whether or not he is exploited for the ends of others, and he thinks Capote smells of it. Capote, on the other hand, has astutely seen that the focus of the book has to change; from the effect of the murders on the townspeople, to something completely new and revolutionary; a true crime story told with the tools of a novel. In order to make it work, he needs the co-operation of the accused killers. While Hickock, with the promise of money, is eager to oblige, Smith refuses. Capote tries to woo them with porn and later, with literature. Slowly, grudgingly, Capote gets Smith to soften. Eventually the two are confiding in each other, but with the gallows looming over the two killers, Capote finds himself in an awful position as he writes what will be a classic novel – In Cold Blood.

Jones, who at the time was best known as the voice of Dobby the House Elf in Harry Potter series is truly a revelation here. He doesn’t just portray Capote, he inhabits the role as closely as an actor can. He is utterly believable from the moment he steps on-camera, and while Phillip Seymour Hoffman may have gotten the Oscar for essentially the same part, Jones may have actually delivered the superior performance. It doesn’t hurt that he physically resembles the late author.

Craig plays a decidedly un-Bond-like character. His Perry Smith is prone to fits of rage but is full of genuine remorse. He is the kind of man that can slip a pillow under a frightened boy’s head to make him comfortable, then shoot him in the head with a shotgun at point blank range moments later. Craig brings the role to life, making the notorious convicted killer as human as someone capable of that kind of horror can be. Bullock, who has been doing some of the best acting of her career in recent years (Crash and The Blind Side for example) is again excellent here as the shy, reclusive Lee who is capable of warmth and charm but seems more comfortable in Capote’s shadow, even though she was certainly his equal as a writer. Daniels, Pace, Weaver and Stevenson deliver strong performances in small roles.

The bleakness of small-town Kansas in winter contrasts with the bright sophistication of New York City, and the production design team does an excellent job bringing both locations to life. Director McGrath doesn’t resort to gimmicks to tell his story as recent movies set in this time period often do, but rather prefers to allow the story to tell itself, feeling that the story is sufficient. That’s a wise choice.

The movie had the great misfortune to be released after Capote. It unfortunately suffers from the comparison and while in many ways it’s a better movie, in many ways it isn’t as good – the Hoffman film has a bit more depth to it as Infamous essentially concentrates on a short period in Capote’s life whereas Capote gives us more perspective of who the author was as a person.

The recreation of the murders is a bit intense and there is a sexual encounter between Capote and another man that may be a bit much for the impressionable. Otherwise, you should absolutely see this movie, I say. Yes, some will say it covers the same ground as Capote – and it does – but let’s face it, this takes a far different approach to the subject than Capote did, and Jones’ performance is so authentic that you should see the film just for that. This is one of those hidden gems that got almost no notice during its initial theatrical release, overshadowed by a bigger star and better promotion; I can’t recommend this enough.

WHY RENT THIS: A career-defining performance by Jones. Strong supporting cast. McGrath wisely allows the story to stand on its own.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks context.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a fair amount of foul language, some violence and brief sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Sigourney Weaver’s first film role was in Annie Hall which also featured the real Truman Capote.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.6M on a $13M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Capote
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Into the Grizzly Maze

New Releases for the Week of November 14, 2014


Dumb and Dumber ToDUMB AND DUMBER TO

(Universal) Jim Carey, Jeff Daniels, Rob Riggle, Laurie Holden, Rachel Melvin, Kathleen Turner, Bill Murray, Paul Blackthorne, Patricia French. Directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly

Harry and Lloyd are back. Not that anyone missed them.

See the trailer, clips, interviews B-roll video and world premiere footage here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide release
Rating: PG-13 (for crude and sexual humor, partial nudity, language and some drug references)

Beyond the Lights

(Relativity) Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver, Danny Glover. A pop superstar finds herself being overwhelmed by the pressures of stardom and decides to end it all. However, she is saved by a handsome young cop on her detail. The two fall hard for each other and although nobody around them approves of the romance, the two persevere and in the process save each other.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Romance
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content including suggestive gestures, partial nudity, language and thematic elements)

Rosewater

(Open Road) Gael Garcia Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Claire Foy. A Newsweek reporter, covering the 2009 elections in Iran, is arrested for an interview he conducted. He remains in captivity for 118 days, mostly blindfolded and only knowing his interrogator because of the scent of rosewater that he always seems to be wearing. After his release, the reporter would go on The Daily Show and discuss his ordeal with host Jon Stewart who then made a movie about it.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Downtown Disney, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for language including some crude references, and violent content)

Gods and Generals


The Civil War: the greatest American tragedy of them all.

The Civil War: the greatest American tragedy of them all.

(2003) True Life War (Warner Brothers) Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, Jeff Daniels, Bruce Boxleitner, C. Thomas Howell, Kali Rocha, Frankie Faison, William Sanderson, Mira Sorvino, Alex Hyde-White, Matt Letscher, Joseph Fuqua, Jeremy London and a cast of thousands. Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell

The American Experience

When Gods and Generals came out in 2003, it was made by pretty much the same team that made the very successful Gettysburg in 1993 and certainly there had to have been high hopes that this would follow suit. However, while Gettysburg had Ken Burns’ highly personal and riveting PBS miniseries The Civil War to leapfrog from, it’s prequel would have no such assistance.

Based on a book by Jeffrey Shaara (whose father Michael wrote the book that Gettysburg was based on), the movie follows Confederate Lt. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Lang) who was one of the most brilliant and fearless military minds of his time. He worked well with General Robert E. Lee (Duvall), who considered him his best field general. Jackson, a devout man who prayed to God even as he set out to kill as many Northern invaders as he could, resigned from his post as an instructor at the Virginia Military Institute to take a post in the Confederate Army. He was responsible for some of the most important victories the Confederacy would have in the war and died senselessly, shot by his own men who mistook him and his escort for Union scouts.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the movie, even though critics at the time lambasted it for being florid, long on dialogue and riddled with too many subplots and characters. Some even criticized it for depicting Southerners as being more concerned with States rights than with Slavery. Nobody ever accused movie critics of being knowledgeable about history however. For the South, Slavery drove their economic engine and the feeling was that the abolition of Slavery would be an economic catastrophe. They didn’t want Northern politicians to tell them how to run their affairs. There is a tendency with some to depict the South as sadistic twisted slave owners who wanted the institution of Slavery to continue because of a cruel streak. What it really was about, as it usually is, was money.

So how does this film depict the American Experience? It captures a period in time when America stood at a crossroads and would in four bloody years come to define itself and its future. Certainly the movie tends to lean a little bit towards the Southern point of view, but to tar the South with a single brush is both inaccurate and a disservice. Quite frankly, I think it’s a good thing to see things from the other side – history is written by the winners and while Slavery was an abhorrent practice, to see what the South really thought they were fighting for is certainly worth considering. Gods and Generals definitely captures the period, not only in the sense of how the armies operated but the civilians as well. One thing that has been praised about this movie was their attention to detail when it came to accuracy; in fact this may be one of the most historically accurate films ever made.

Lang’s performance brings Jackson to life. While the style of speech has been heavily criticized, this is how the people of the time spoke. Clearly there is an element of history lesson here and it might be argued that the length and pacing of the movie is akin to one of those history professors who talks on and on and on and on. However, the sumptuous visuals and the attention to detail make this a history lesson that if one is willing to sit through will inform and amaze, and that’s the kind of history professor that always got my attention.

WHY RENT THIS: Unusual historical accuracy. Terrific performance by Lang. A crackerjack reproduction of the era.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Slow and ponderous. Too much speechifyin’. Overly long.

FAMILY VALUES:  While the battle sequences are tamer than some, there is still enough material here that might disturb the very sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Duvall, who played Robert E. Lee, is actually descended from the great general.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an introduction by Ted Turner who put up the production budget of the film himself (nearly $60 million) as well as music videos from Mary Fahl and Bob Dylan and  a look at the life of Stonewall Jackson.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.9M on a $56M production budget; unfortunately the movie has to be considered a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gettysburg

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The American Experience concludes!

Looper


Looper

Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt engage in a staring contest to determine who picks up the check.

(2012) Science Fiction (Tri-Star) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Jeff Daniels, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Pierce Gagnon, Summer Qing, Tracie Thoms, Frank Brennan, Garret Dillahunt, Nick Gomez, Marcus Hester. Directed by Rian Johnson

 

They say time travel is impossible, that because of the nature of paradoxes travelling into the past would so change the future that you might cease to exist (at least in the way you did before you left the future) and because there are so many variables travelling into the future is likewise impossible. But if there were a way around it, human nature is such that we’d find a way to make it sordid and awful.

And that’s just what we do. In 2044, time travel hasn’t been invented yet but in 2074 it has – and has been outlawed. When something is outlawed, only outlaws then do it and that’s exactly the way it works. Because it is nearly impossible to get rid of bodies due to advances in tracking technology, crime syndicates who want to make someone disappear send them back to 2044 where there is an assassin waiting. These men are called Loopers; they put a shotgun blast into the chest of their assignments, then collect their payment in silver which has been draped over the back of the body. The corpse is incinerated and the Loopers have themselves a nice little party.

Considering that by 2044 the U.S. economy has pretty much tanked being a Looper is a pretty lucrative profession. Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is one and he’s a lot smarter than most. He hoards most of his silver, hiding it in a hidden compartment in his apartment. He spends time with Suzie (Perabo), a stripper who has a kid and a fairly practical attitude, while Joe wishes for something else.

What he gets is his best friend and fellow Looper Seth (Dano), terrified because he had botched his last hit. His target had turned out to be his future self from 30 years hence. All Loopers know that inevitably their last target will be themselves. It’s called “closing the loop” and is part of their contract. However, a lot of loops have been getting closed of late. It seems there’s a new boss in town in the future; he’s known only as the Rainmaker and his identity is a closely guarded secret. This much future Seth (Brennan) communicates to his younger self.

Joe reluctantly agrees to hide Seth and the big boss, Abe (Daniels) summons him to his office – at the point of a Gat (a powerful handgun that is useless in close range but a fearsome weapon farther away), wielded by Kid Blue (Segan), a young and unstable wanna-be gangsta. Abe himself is from the future and has used the Gats, as his Gat-wielding thugs are called, to take over the crime in the city. Abe convinces Joe to give up Seth, which he reluctantly does leaving both Seths to a gruesome fate.

This is all well and good until Joe gets a client to kill who turns out to be his own future self (Willis). Old Joe is wily and manages to use young Joe’s payment to protect himself from the shotgun blast and overpowers his younger self to get away.

Old Joe isn’t just motivated by self-preservation; the woman he married (Qing) in the future was accidentally murdered by the Rainmaker’s flunkies when they came to collect Old Joe. The wily old ex-Looper has discovered some information about when the Rainmaker was born and has figured out that he was born not far from the city in Kansas where Young Joe was based; and he has an idea of how to find him but he must go pretty far off the reservation beyond where his moral compass will send him.

In the meantime Young Joe is being stalked by Abe’s crew who are none too pleased that he failed to carry out his contract. Young Joe, having been injured in a gunfight takes refuge at the farm of Sara (Blunt), a comely young woman who is raising up the precocious young lad Cid (Gagnon) by herself. Still, the forces that are after Young Joe are implacable and there really isn’t a safe haven. He knows that he must find Old Joe before Old Joe finds him – and in the process stay out of the way of trigger-happy Kid Blue and all of Abe’s gang.

This is one of the smartest movies I’ve seen in quite awhile. Johnson wrote the film with Gordon-Levitt in mind and that’s a smart move in and of itself. Gordon-Levitt is the real deal; he’s a star in the making and he holds his own with Willis, who looks nothing like him in reality; Gordon-Levitt studied films of the young Bruce Willis and adopted his mannerisms and vocal patterns, not to mention wearing make-up prosthetics to make him appear a lot more like his co-star (there is one montage where we see the progression of Joe’s aging in which Gordon-Levitt and Willis have the same haircut and the resemblance is a little spooky).

Willis has always been a solid movie star, He’s always good in terms of being kind of a rumpled action hero. He doesn’t always play smart but he does play clever and that’s what he does here. Joe is more cunning than brilliant, more pragmatic than ruthless. He’s a character who is basically within the understanding of most of us – bad enough to do what he wants, good enough not to be a total jerk.

Blunt affects a fine Midwestern accent and is less the English rose that she usually is. Sara’s seen some hard times and has become hardened herself, but again, not so much that she’s a block of ice. She has some compassion and Joe helps her discover that – and, of course being a mom has a lot to do with it too.

The visuals are a mix of dilapidated 2012 and futuristic 2044 (some of the film was shot in Shanghai which looks like it’s been 2044 there for ten years) which makes it again relatable to the viewing audience. Yeah, there are cell phones in the movie that make it look like the iPhone 27.0 is worth camping out for but most of the vehicles and weapons are strictly early 21st century. There is an economic meltdown collapse going on, after all. Still, they do have hover-cycles so it’s not all bad. There is some gee-whiz stuff here.

Time travel flicks are generally among the hardest to make work simply because by their own nature they have complicated strictures. Rian Johnson, whose first film was the much-praised Brick has written a movie that succeeds both as a taut thriller and a sci-fi action film and does both while retaining a level of intelligence that is rare in American films.

REASONS TO GO: Intelligently written. Taut, well-made thriller and visually stunning.

REASONS TO STAY: Cid is a little too creepy in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, a bit of sexuality and some drug use. Of course, there is a fair amount of foul language as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A set for the diner, built outside of Thibodaux, Louisiana was so realistic that locals were enquiring when the diner would be opening. The set withstood Hurricane Isaac which went through the area after production wrapped and is reportedly still there.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100. I think it’s safe to say the movie has been a ratings hit with the critics.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Timecop

SHANGHAI LOVERS: Some of the movie’s financing came from China so scenes that were initially written for Paris were moved to Shanghai not just because of cost-effectiveness but because Shanghai’s Pudong district already looks futuristic and relatively little CGI was required to add additional buildings and vehicles to make it look like 2074.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Butter

Paper Man


Paper Man

Jeff Daniels is tired of seeing Ryan Reynolds demonstrate his superpower – imitating a bunny.

(2009) Comedy (MPI Media) Jeff Daniels, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Lisa Kudrow, Kieran Culkin, Hunter Parrish, Chris Parnell, Arabella Field, Brian Finney, Eric Gilliland, Violet O’Neill, Jill Shackner, Brian Russell, Conrad Wolfe, Louis Rosario. Directed by Kieran and Michelle Maloney

 

Writing can be a tricky road to navigate. Sometimes, the words are a flood and you can barely get them out on paper (or laptop) fast enough, the torrent is so overwhelming. Other times it’s a trickle and it seems like every word is a struggle.

Richard Dunn (Daniels) knows that better than most. It’s hard to call him a successful novelist – he has at least published something – but not many people have bought it. He’s having trouble getting his second novel out. Fortunately for him, his wife Claire (Kudrow) is a successful vascular surgeon in New York which means he really doesn’t have the pressure of making a living, but that doesn’t help the creative juices to flow in this case. He is getting on and childless and knows that there won’t be any kids. He is the last of his line and wants to leave something behind that people will remember him for.

The thing that he might be remembered for is that he has an invisible friend and has had one since he was a boy. His invisible friend is a superhero named Captain Excellent (Reynolds) who follows him around and urges him to get off of his ass. Claire is fully aware of the Captain’s existence and while she tolerates it – in fact, there is much about her marriage that she can merely tolerate – she doesn’t like it much.

Richard needs a change of venue and Claire frankly needs some time away from her husband – call it a trial separation and Claire might wince but she won’t disagree. She packs him off to their summer cottage in Montauk on Long Island where perhaps, in the off-season when it is less crowded, he might be motivated to put pen to paper or in his case, fingers to typewriter keys.

Richard, while riding to town on a young girl’s bike (the only vehicle he owns) spies Abby (Stone), a young girl somewhat lackadaisically committing arson. Fascinated by her boredom, he hires her to babysit, the fact that he is childless notwithstanding. When Abby finds out about this little deception, rather than run away she merely shrugs and accepts. At least it’s something to do.

The two form a friendship that is somewhere between that and a surrogate father-daughter relationship. Things get a little dicey when Abby mistakes that friendship for lust, or when Abby’s thuggish boyfriend (Parrish) objects – nobody gets to abuse Abby but him – and finally when Claire finds Abby and Richard asleep on the sofa after Richard throws a kegger for her friends. Richard has reached a crossroads; his marriage is in jeopardy, his career as a writer is in the toilet and his friendship with Abby is perhaps not the healthiest thing. Can even Captain Excellent save him from himself?

This is the kind of movie that is full of indie angst. Co-directors (and co-writers) Kieran and Michelle Mulroney (the brother and sister-in-law respectively of actor Dermot Mulroney) have concocted a tale that takes a quirky character, sticks him in a kind of a quirky place (off-season Long Island) and throws a few quirky incidents into the mix.

The result is a bit on the precious side. There are times you want to throttle Richard, he’s simply so without direction and without clue. Daniels can do these kinds of characters very well; in fact, he’s noted for them (check out Dumb and Dumber and The Squid and the Whale for further evidence).

Fortunately, he’s paired with Emma Stone whose career was just starting to take off as this was made (The Help hadn’t been released when this was filmed). This might well wind up being most remembered for affording the opportunity to see a huge star in the process of becoming one. She takes a role that could easily have been overbearing and made her relatable and more than that, sympathetic. While the focus is ostensibly on Richard, I found myself wanting to spend more time with Abby and it isn’t because Stone is stealing the movie; our focus just naturally gravitates to her. That’s the mark of a great actress.

While I’m okay with the Captain Excellent conceit (and the bleach-blonde Reynolds is now as adept at playing superheroes as anyone), it was just one of the many quirks in this movie that has too many of them, from Christopher (Culkin), the suicide-obsessed friend of Abby to the incessant talk of soup, there comes a point where it simply overdoes the indie charm. I personally wish more indie movies would rely more on story and less on eccentricity. I get that quirky people are interesting but in the long run people who are relatable to thee and me are of more lasting value – and keep my attention. There was a better film to be had here but that doesn’t mean that it should be avoided – Stone’s performance alone is certainly compelling enough to be worth the rental.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-acted (particularly by Stone) and clever.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lays on the indie quirkiness on a bit thick.

FAMILY VALUES: Mostly a lot of bad language but there’s a bit of sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie received its world premiere at the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13,514 on an unreported production budget; it is extremely unlikely that the movie made any money whatsoever.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Play It Again, Sam

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Safe