The Spy Behind Home Plate


Moe Berg: The catcher is a spy.

(2019) Documentary (The Ciesla FoundationMoe Berg, Larry Merchant, Sam Berg, Ira Berkow, David Povich, Bud Selig, Nicholas Dawidoff, Jerry Reinsdorf, Brad Ausmus, Franklin Foer, Neil Goldstein, Tommy Thomas, Irwin Berg, Ed Harkey, Ray Robinson, Denise Shames, Robert Kaplan, Joseph Cascarella, Ray Errol Fox, Jonathan Black, Stan Bernard.Directed by Aviva Kempner

 

They say truth is stranger than fiction but sometimes truth is exactly like fiction. The story of Moe Berg, a handsome Jewish baseball player during what is considered the Golden Age of baseball reads like something Ian Fleming might have written. You might well scoff but the fact is that Berg knew Fleming and the two were friendly – who knows how much of Fleming’s fiction was truth?

Morris “Moe” Berg was born to Jewish immigrants who clearly hoped for a better life for their children; his dictatorial dad wanted his brother Sam to become a doctor, which in fact he became; he wanted Moe to be a lawyer. Moe in fact did graduate from the Columbia University School of Law but preferred a career in baseball, a game he loved to play and excelled in as an undergrad at Princeton.

As a Major League ballplayer, Berg was middling; he did last 15 years in the majors as a can’t hit/good field catcher for five different teams (mainly in the American League). He started out with his only National League team the Brooklyn Robins (who later became the Dodgers) as a shortstop, but in something of a fluke he wound up being a catcher because Brooklyn needed someone behind the plate more than they did in the infield. He was nicknamed “the Professor” because of his insatiable thirst for knowledge. He spoke seven languages fluently and did extraordinarily well on the radio quiz show Information Please to the astonishment of his teammates – the audio clips from his appearance on the show are among the highlights of the film.

Berg spoke Japanese fluently which is likely the reason that he was added to an all-star team that toured Japan in 1933 and again in 1934 and it might be there that his career in espionage began. He took clandestine footage of the Tokyo skyline during a visit to a hospital there which according to journalist Paul Bernard may have been used to assist James Doolittle in his retaliatory raid following Pearl Harbor, although Kempner doesn’t bother to follow up on the claim. Then again, much about what we know about Berg is conjecture; the man was intensely private during his life and kept mainly to himself. Like both of his siblings, he never married and while he had people he was friendly with, even his closest friends admitted that he was a hard man to truly know.

When Berg was asked later in life what he did in the war, he would only smile and hold a finger to his lips, as if what he did was top secret. As a matter of fact, it was. His great assignment occurred during the Second World War when he was recruited by the OSS (precursor to the CIA) to locate Italian physicists and determine how close the Germans were to successfully detonating an atomic bomb. He was also tasked with observing their genius physicist Werner Heisenberg who was in charge of the project with orders to kill him on the spot if it appeared they were close. Most of what we know bout his service in the OSS came from secret documents released years after the war was over.

There are a ton of interviews in this movie, maybe too many; some of them appear from an aborted documentary from years ago that was partially filmed but never completed.. Some of the interviews are with people who neither knew him or were particular experts on his career. There is archival footage of his baseball career (and they do show excerpts of the home movie footage he took in Japan) as well as plenty of photographs but the movie feels padded out and extended; I get the sense that Kempner was frustrated that there isn’t more out there on a man who on the surface at least seemed far more intriguing than most documentary subjects.

There is a ton of information but we never get a sense of who Berg was as a person and that was probably how Berg wanted it. He remains today as ever an enigma, a man who fascinates even the casual viewer but is essentially not really knowable; even those closest to him admit that he was a difficult man to really get to know. That hardly makes for good documentary filmmaking but Kempner does the best she can with what she had. A pity she didn’t cut out some of the chaff here and settled for a shorter film.

REASONS TO SEE: The story is a fascinating one, almost too good to be true.
REASONS TO AVOID: An overabundance of talking head interviews.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Berg was played by Paul Rudd in a dramatization last year of one of several books written on his story.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/21/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews: Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Catcher is a Spy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Isle of Dogs

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Unrest (2017)


There can be beauty in medicine.

(2017) Documentary (Chicken & Egg) Jennifer Brea, Omar Wasow, Nancy Klimas, Paul Cheney, Stig Gerdes, Lee-ray Denton, Casie Jackson, Ketty Hansen, Ron Davis, Per Hansen, Whitney Dafoe, Jessica Taylor, Darwin Jackson, Jessica Harden, Lee Routh, Sawyer Jackson, Ruby Taylor, Samuel Bearman, Colin Taylor, Randy Denton, Per Fink, Ron Gill, Theo Haugen, Linda Tannenbaum. Directed by Jennifer Brea

Unless you’re a medical professional, you’ve probably never heard of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME). You may be more familiar with its popular name, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It’s a medical problem that the medical community has almost no understanding of. There are many doctors who believe it is entirely psychosomatic – in the patients mind  In some countries, that is in fact medical policy.

Jennifer Brea, originally from the Orlando area, was studying for her PhD at Harvard. A bright and vivacious girl, she traveled the world and lived life to its fullest. She was engaged to be married to a handsome Internet analyst (and later professor at Princeton) named Omar Wasow. Life was only going to get better.

Then she got sick, struck by a fever that at its worst measured 104.7 degrees. The fever broke, but she was left with extreme sensitivity to light and sound and bouts of fatigue so all-encompassing that she could barely get out of bed and eventually could only crawl inch by inch along the ground (the opening scenes of the movie document this). Eventually she is confined to a wheelchair but soon she is unable to sit up in a seated position. She is only capable of being prone.

Of course, she sees her doctor, and then specialists, and then other specialists. None of them can even offer a diagnosis. Some told her she was dehydrated and stressed due to her doctoral work. Others told her that her symptoms were due to a long-buried trauma that was surfacing only now. Meanwhile, her symptoms were growing worse. Unconvinced by what her doctors were telling her and determined to get to the bottom of what was affecting her, she did her own research and came up with ME and CFS which is said to affect as many as 17 million people around the world. She went onto YouTube and heard stories that were eerily similar to her own. She knew she had found the source of her problems.

But as she looked into it, she found the depressing fact that despite the fact that her disease was so widespread, there was little to no research being done on it. Few knew how the disease operated and those that did were only in the early stages of understanding how it worked. The more people Jennifer talked to, the more she realized that hope  was being lost on a widespread basis. Rather than face a lifetime confined to bed, many sufferers were taking their own lives.

Determined to make these stories public, Jennifer decided to make a documentary. She enlisted camera crews in England, Denmark and around the United States to capture sufferers of ME/CFS on-camera. We hear the story of Jessica Taylor, a young woman living in Kent, England who has spent her 16th through 21st birthdays in bed and whose inactivity has caused osteoporosis which gives her the bones of a 100-year-old, not an uncommon side effect for ME/CFS sufferers. There’s also Lee-Ray, a Georgia housewife whose husband left her after years of caring for her and when their daughter came down with the disease, finally realized that this wasn’t something Lee-Ray was making up and has since begun the process of reconciling with his ex-wife. One of the few geneticists looking into the disease is Stanford’s Ron Davis who has a personal interest – his son has ME and is unable to speak anymore.

The most outrageous case is that of Karina Hansen, a young girl afflicted with the disease who is forcibly removed from her parents home by the police and confined to a mental hospital in Copenhagen where her parents are refused access to her. Largely due to a Danish physician named Per Fink, the Danish medical establish operates on the principle that the disease is entirely psychosomatic and that removal from the environment which reinforces belief in the disease is the only means of cure. It was only after this proved ineffective that Karina was finally allowed to return home.

Through these stories we get to see how ME/CFS impacts not only the person who has it but their families and loved ones as well. The central story however belongs to Brea and her husband and in some ways we feel a bit of the intimacy between them as we are privy to moments of romance, frustration, and conflict but mostly support and love. Omar sometimes questions the desperate methods Jennifer tries to ameliorate her disease like ingesting a hookworm and living in a tent out in her yard to avoid any vestige of mold but for the most part, he does everything he can to give her a normal life and most importantly to keep hope alive.

The movie keeps the focus mainly on Jennifer herself but gives an adequate amount of time and focus on the other stories as well. As with all things, ME/CFS affects different people differently so seeing the various degrees and results of the symptoms on the lives of different people gives us a bit more of perspective. The only thing I can really fault the film with is the opening sequence may prove challenging to those who are more sensitive to camera motion, as I am; a chronic vertigo sufferer, I found the opening sequence started to bring my symptoms on. I recognize the need for the sequence; it gives viewers a sense of what Jennifer goes through but those like myself who have that sensitivity should be aware that the opening few minutes may be a problem.

That can be hard to do; we look at the prescriptions Jennifer is supposed to take; it’s a staggering amount and personally I can’t believe all those pharmaceuticals can possibly be doing her body any good. It’s no wonder that Jennifer is looking into alternative treatments.

But she’s also not taking her situation if you’ll excuse the pun lying down. She’s helping to organize and was involved with the Millions Missing event in which family members of ME/CFS victims left shoes out in public places to illustrate how he people who have this affliction have disappeared from life (some literally; the suicide rate is high). Most importantly, she’s made this documentary which brings to light the plight of those suffering from this illness and the medical establishment’s attitudes towards it. One can’t help but notice that suffers of Multiple Sclerosis were once upon a time often told the same things by the medical establishment until the invention of CAT scans revealed an actual issue. As of yet there are no tests that show a medical cause for these issues although some work is finally starting to get done.

This documentary goes a long way into not only showing the global impact of the syndrome but also its immediate effects. That gives the film both an intimacy as well as wide perspective, a very difficult wire to walk. This is an important documentary which hopefully will give a greater understanding of the illness not only to the general public but to the medical and scientific communities as well.

REASONS TO GO: This is a heart-rending and occasionally heartbreaking film. You can’t help but admire Brea for her courage. Brea manages to reveal the scope of the disease worldwide and provide intimate details of its effects at the same time.
REASONS TO STAY: The use of the Go-Pro camera at the beginning of the film may be rough for those who are sensitive to jarring camera movement.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and brief graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers are mounting a campaign to show the film in medical schools to allow new doctors to get a glimpse into what ME means to the patient.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gleason
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: In Circles

Leatherheads


Even in 1925, "hi, mom" was a thing.

Even in 1925, “hi, mom” was a thing.

(2008) Comedy (Universal) George Clooney, Renee Zellweger, John Krasinski, Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Root, Jack Thompson, Max Casella, Wayne Duvall, Keith Loneker, Malcolm Goodwin, Matt Bushell, Tommy Hinkley, Tim Griffin, Robert Baker, Nick Paonessa, Randy Newman, Grant Heslov, Mike O’Malley, Heather Goldenhersh. Directed by George Clooney

The NFL is the most powerful sports league in the United States. The championship game, the Super Bowl, is one of the most-watched sporting events on planet Earth. The league makes billions in advertising and sponsorship revenue, broadcasting rights fees, game attendance and merchandising. Millions follow their teams week after week during the fall. But it wasn’t always that way.

Carter Rutherford (Krasinski) is on the top of the world. The star football player for the Princeton Tigers football team, he is matinee idol handsome, a war hero, admired by millions and blessed with a bright future ahead of him. Pro football? C’mon, it’s 1925! Pro football is for miners, farmers and lumberjacks, the pay is ridiculously low, there are no rules to speak of and the crowds are ghastly.

Dodge Connelly (Clooney) is at rock bottom. The star player for the Duluth Bulldogs pro football team is trying to hold together his club by the skin of his teeth. They have to forfeit a football game because the game ball – the only one the team has – is stolen. As much as he loves the game, Connelly knows the future is bleak. He’s no longer a young man, he has almost no skills to speak of and football is all he knows. To make matters worse, the Bulldogs main sponsor is pulling out, and the team is about to fold.

Lexie Littleton (Zellweger) is on the ladder to success. A brassy dame hustling, scratching and clawing to make her way as a reporter in a man’s world, she’s given a plum assignment by her editor (Thompson); a lieutenant (Casella) in Rutherford’s unit has stepped forward, claiming that his war record is false. Littleton is to get the confidence of Rutherford, build him up with a series of puff pieces and then when she gets the dirt, print the exclusive. If she does it, there’s an editorial position for her.

Connelly hits upon the bright idea of enticing Rutherford into pro football. In order to do it, he’s going to have to fast talk Rutherford’s agent/publicist CC Frazier (Pryce) into even considering pro football. When Dodge brashly guarantees ten grand per game, Frazier and Rutherford (mostly Rutherford who loves the game and wants to play past his college years) agree to join the Bulldogs. Littleton, smelling a fish story, decides to tag along.

At first, it looks like the most brilliant idea ever. Huge crowds show up to see the college star – even at Bulldog practices. The players begin to work harder to get into shape and Rutherford suggests some “effective” plays he used at Princeton. Of course, being a natural athlete better than most of the people playing the game doesn’t hurt and the Bulldogs begin to win. Connelly does his part by playing up the new guy and making sure he’s the one to score the touchdowns and that Rutherford gets all the glory. Dodge is far more interested in getting the girl, but when she discovers the truth, everything is at risk.

A nice period piece that captures the very early days of professional football nicely although I’m sure the NFL would take issue with some of the more, ahem, sordid aspects of the Duluth Bulldogs. Krasinski does some fine work as the ultra-preppy Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford. He was still best known for his work in The Office at the time (which was still on the air) and launches his film career with a completely different character than his Office work and does a great job in the process.

Clooney does his usual solid job; he seems to have an affinity for period pieces (O Brother Where Art Thou, Goodnight and Good Luck) and he plays a wise-cracking, hard-nosed Leatherhead well. Zellweger seems born to play the brassy, sassy dame with more than a little moxie. She looks right for the flapper era, and gets the cadences right.

Clooney captures the period nicely, with speakeasies and swell hotels. While the football sequences are mostly played for laughs rather than for any kind of authenticity, they are at least staged in an entertaining manner. Randy Newman’s score is reminiscent of his work in Ragtime and Parenthood; look for his cameo in one of the bar scenes.

I’m not sure whether Clooney intended an homage to screwball comedies or to actually make one; either way, it’s a bit light on jokes to match up to the better examples of the genre. The chemistry between Zellweger and Clooney isn’t as convincing as it could be.

Leatherheads is flawed, but generally entertaining. They try for the kind of screwball comedy that made things like His Girl Friday, Sullivan’s Travels and Adam’s Rib, but don’t quite get there. With a better script and better chemistry between the leads, this could have been a memorable movie, but it’s still worthwhile on several fronts – just not really anything you’d want to sing the praises of too loudly. Definitely worth the rental at least if you don’t have anything particularly pressing that you’d like to see. It’s not a complete waste of your time and money at least.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice era re-creation. Clooney and Krasinski do fine jobs.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fails at being a true screwball comedy. Chemistry between Clooney and Zellweger not quite there.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a smattering of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Due to a dispute with the Writer’s Guild of America over credit on the script, George Clooney removed himself as a voting member of the Guild.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: Infamous prankster Clooney is shown playing some memorable pranks on his unsuspecting cast and crew.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $41.3M on a $58M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eight Men Out
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Minions

The Reluctant Fundamentalist


Which one will blink first?

Which one will blink first?

(2012) Drama (IFC) Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, Liev Schreiber, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Martin Donovan, Nelsan Ellis, Haluk Bilginer, Meesha Shafi, Imaad Shah, Chris Smith, Ashwath Batt, Sarah Quinn, Chandrachur Singh, Adil Hussain, Ali Sethi, Deepti Datt, Gary Richardson, Victor Slezak, Ashlyn Henson, Cait Johnson. Directed by Mira Nair

What creates a terrorist? How does one go from being a devout member of one’s religion to a wild-eyed fanatic willing to kill – and die – for his/her faith?

After an American professor (Richardson) is kidnapped after attending a movie in Lahore, Pakistan, a colleague of his at the university, Changez Khan (Ahmed) is interviewed by journalist Bobby Lincoln (Schreiber). Changez has fallen under suspicion of being connected to a terrorist group mainly based on his anti-American rhetoric and firebrand speeches in the classroom  He’d also met with a notorious terrorist cell leader

However,  Changez had started out as a rapidly pro-American, a big believer in the American dream. Born in Lahore to a poet (Puri) and a housewife (Azmi) who had been well-to-do at one time but who had blown through the money they had as poetry even in Pakistan isn’t a job that brings in high earnings. Changez gets a scholarship to Princeton and when he graduates is pegged by Jim Cross (Sutherland) to be a gifted evaluator of business worth which makes him a valuable commodity with a bright future at Underwood Samson who evaluate the value of companies and come up with ways to increase that value. It’s a pretty lucrative field and Changez looks to be on the fast track to success.

As he banters with his friends Wainwright (Ellis), Clea (Quinn) and Rizzo (Smith), Changez falls for Erica (Hudson), the artistic niece of  Underwood Samson’s CEO. It isn’t long before they move in together, although Erica has a deep melancholy – her previous boyfriend had died in a car accident and she’s still grieving. Even though Changez moves slowly and gives her as much leeway as she wants and she clearly has feelings for him, she still feels like she’s cheating on her dead lover.

Everything changes though when the Twin Towers come down on 9/11. Changez is in Manila on business when it happens and when he finally comes home, he is stripped and forced to undergo a humiliating body cavity search. People begin to view Changez with suspicion, particularly now that he’s sporting a beard to reconnect with his Pakistani roots. He is growing more and more distant from his family which hits him hard when he goes home for his sister Bina’s (Shafi) wedding.

The final straw is when he goes to Turkey to evaluate a publishing company that one of Underhill Samson’s clients had just purchased. Even though the company had done much to promulgate Turkish culture and that of their neighbors (Changez’ dad had even had a book of his poems published there) the numbers point to liquidating the assets and shuttering the doors. Changez has an epiphany and refuses to do it. He quits his job and returns home, finding a job teaching.

So now things in Lahore are a powderkeg as American CIA and local police are detaining and arresting students at the University and conducting random searches. Even Changez’ family has received a visit of the state police simply because of their association with him. It won’t take much for this powderkeg to blow. So how involved is Changez with the kidnapping. Had his treatment in America paved the way for his conversion into jihadism? Or is he simply an innocent victim of circumstance?

Nair, who has on her resume some impressive efforts (not the least of which are Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake) has another one to add to that list. Based on a novel by Mohsin Hamid that is largely a monologue by Changez, she utilizes some brilliant cinematography and a terrific cast to explore the complex themes of the book.

Changez is largely a cypher. On the surface he seems a gentle, kind soul who adheres to non-violence but in practice he spent his Wall Street career practicing a kind of economic violence. While he eventually turns away from it, there is that sense that he is blaming America for allowing him to willingly participate in an admittedly immoral career. He made his choices but took no responsibility for them even after he quit. In that sense, Changez is unlikable and I personally find it a bit refreshing to have a character who turns a blind eye towards his own imperfections – most of us are like that.

Ahmed, a Pakistani-born British rapper and actor has a great deal of charisma and reminds me of a young Oded Fehr in looks and manner. He holds his own in his scenes with Schreiber who is an excellent actor so it’s no small feat. Their scenes are the most compelling in the film and it is their confrontation that provides the essence of the film.

Sutherland and Puri do great work in supporting roles. Hudson, who is also capable of strong roles, kind of gets a little lost here – it could be that she plays her character, who is weak and clings to her grief like Linus and his security blanket, too well. There are never the kind of sparks between her and Ahmed that I would have liked to have seen although that possibly was deliberate on Nair’s part. However, a good deal of time is spent on the relationship between Erica and Changez and quite frankly that is the weakest part of the story.

The film’s climax is powerful as we are left to ponder whether we are creating our own enemies out of our own arrogance and insensitivity, which I think is clearly the case. If so, then we come by that hatred honestly but we refuse to acknowledge it, one more reason for people in other countries to despise us. It isn’t until the final five minutes of the film that we discover where Changez’ sympathies lie and whether or not he is involved in the kidnapping. In a way it’s almost a moot point; ultimately this isn’t about who Changez is. It’s about who we are.

REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking and balanced. Fine performances by Ahmed, Sutherland, Schreiber, Puri and Ellis.

REASONS TO STAY: The film is far more powerful when focusing on Changez’ conflicting feelings about America than on his relationship with Erica.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a fair amount of swearing, some violence and a bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hudson was initially unable to do the film because she was pregnant at the time that shooting was scheduled to take place. When shooting was delayed until after she had her baby, Hudson was able to take the role.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Syriana

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Rush (2013)

Raiders of the Lost Ark


Raiders of the Lost Ark

Harrison Ford is having a ball.

(1981) Adventure (Paramount) Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, Wolf Kahler, Alfred Molina, Vic Tablian, Don Fellows, William Hootkins, Fred Sorenson, Anthony Chinn. Directed by Steven Spielberg

When news came that Spielberg and George Lucas were joining forces back in 1980, movie fans couldn’t help but rub their hands together in anticipation. After all, these guys were two of the brightest flames in Hollywood; Lucas with two Star Wars movies (to that point), Spielberg with Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

What nobody anticipated was that these two men, along with star Harrison Ford, would rewrite the book on adventure movies. An homage to the great serial movies of the ’30s and ’40s, Indiana Jones, trusty whip on the hip and battered fedora on his head, took the world by storm. The first Indiana Jones movie was the box office champ of 1981 and spawned numerous imitators, clones and wanna-bes which persist to this day (Tomb Raider for instance).

But nobody has even come close to the entertainment delivered by the Indiana Jones series. The first movie of the series, set in the 1930s, introduces Indiana Jones, professor of archaeology and “how should I put it? — obtainer of rare antiquities.” An expedition to South America to retrieve a golden idol puts the tattered archaeologist through fiendish traps and less-than-loyal associates (Molina, in one of his first movie roles, meets a particularly gruesome end) to emerge from the cursed temple, idol in hand – only to have it snatched away by his nemesis, Rene Belloq (Freeman), a French archaeologist with fewer scruples than Indy.

Jones returns home to find Army intelligence waiting for him; they’ve intercepted a Nazi communiqué that is puzzling to them, but makes sense to Jones and his sponsor, museum curator Marcus Brody (Elliot); they realize that Hitler’s minions may be close to finding the resting place of the Lost Ark of the Covenant, which held the actual Ten Commandments Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. Realizing that this was something they had to prevent Hitler from obtaining, the Army sends Jones to go retrieve it.

In order to find the actual location of the Ark itself, Jones needs a staff headpiece that former flame Marion Ravenswood (Allen) has. After going to her bar in Tibet to try to retrieve it, he foils a Nazi attempt to take it by force.

The two head down to Egypt, where they are aided by Indy’s close friend Sallah (Rhys-Davies), who helps Indy divine the correct location. However, Belloq (who is working with the Nazis), manages to steal the Ark that Indy found and takes it and the girl to a remote island, with Indy close behind. There he will learn the secret of the Lost Ark, one that is beautiful and terrifying at once.

Raiders sets the tone as a virtual roller-coaster ride, putting Indy in one perilous situation after another, with little let-up. Spielberg proves himself to be an absolute master of pacing — editors Michael Kahn and George Lucas deserve a lot of credit here as well — knowing when to ratchet up the thrills and knowing when to give the audience a chance to catch its breath. Using devices common to serials and adventure movies from the ’30s and ’40s, Spielberg creates a wonderful sense of the era without forgetting the modern sensibilities of his audience.

The result is a movie that can legitimately be called a classic, one that has lost none of its luster in the 30 years since its release. While Star Wars made a star out of Ford, Raiders cemented him as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. His screen charisma is never put to as good use as it is here; Jones is both a traditional adventure hero but also a fallible one – he hates snakes and he has a penchant for getting beaten up. Unlike the heroes of past serials, Indy rarely fights fair – the scene of him shooting an expert swordsman who tries to intimidate him with a series of elaborate moves was both improvised and classic. The ability of the film and its actors to poke fun at traditional adventure movie clichés is part of what makes the movie great.

Personally, I was never a big fan of Karen Allen’s performance although I understand why people adore her. She was supposed to be a strong, bold woman of her era, able to drink big ol’ Nepalese under the table and a woman willing to stand up to the Nazis but at the end of the day she was just a heroine in jeopardy, waiting to be rescued by the hero while whining “Indyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy” as she does. The part was a little too schizophrenic for my liking, although it did set the tone for heroines for the rest of the series, for good or for ill.

Freeman made Belloq smooth, suave and pretty much forgettable. He was the more “reasonable” of the heroes, the dark side of Indiana Jones who allowed his own greed to become his driving force. It was the money that motivated Belloq, not the actual artifacts that he was after. Jones wanted the items that he found to be displayed in museums for everyone to enjoy; Belloq only wanted the payday. He makes an interesting contrast to Jones, but Freeman doesn’t have the charisma to really compete against Ford.

It is Lacey who is the villain most everyone remembers. As the eager Gestapo agent, he is both dangerous and disarming. He can torture a young woman with a red-hot poker, or lead a group of thugs to beat up a single aging archaeologist.

This remains to this day one of my favorite movies and I’m not alone in that regard – Raiders has everything that makes going to the movies fun. Even 30 years after the fact, it remains as fresh and fun as it did the day it came out. It is currently only available as part of a four-disc DVD set of the original trilogy which is kind of a shame because this deserves to be part of everyone’s home video collection and the prohibitive price of the multi-movie set may be out of reach for some. I don’t think Indiana Jones would approve of that kind of thinking, although Belloq might.

WHY RENT THIS: The perfect adventure movie. Harrison Ford shows why he’s one of the world’s biggest stars. A roller coaster ride from beginning to end, brilliantly paced.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenswood is a bit whiney.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some fairly scary images and a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The name of the lead character was originally Indiana Smith, which was an homage to the Steve McQueen character Nevada Smith. The surname was changed to Jones on the first day of production.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: All of the special features on the DVD are on the fourth disc of the four-disc collection and include a massive Making of the Trilogy featurette that is more than two hours long and includes much behind the scenes footage. There are also featurettes on the stunt work, the music, the special effects and Ben Burtt’s amazing sound work. There is also a promo for the new (at the time) Indiana Jones video game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $384M on an $18M production budget; the movie was a massive global blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Footnote

Burn After Reading


Burn After Reading

George Clooney and Frances McDormand find more to laugh about than I did.

(Focus) John Malkovich, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons, David Rasche, Elizabeth Marvel, Olek Krupa. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

The only thing in Washington easier to find than a crooked politician is someone else’s secrets. There are few towns in the world with more skeletons in more closets than D.C.

Osborne Cox (Malkovich) is a CIA analyst who is given his walking papers. Judging from his reaction, we can safely assume it was because of his people skills, although actually it was because of his alcohol abuse which led to the erosion of his people skills.

Cox, a self-righteous prig when he’s sober and a mean-tempered bastard when he’s not, decides to write his memoirs, which predictably are completely uninteresting to anybody but Osborne. His wife, Katie (Swinton) who’s the kind of dentist who scars kids for life over tooth hygiene, is thoroughly disgusted. She’s been having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), a U.S. marshal who’s never fired his weapon and a wannabe lothario. His marriage to a children’s book author is a thing of boredom, and not only is he sleeping with Kate, he’s using a variety of dating services to fill up his remaining days while she’s on a book tour.

Kate, a true bitch (and maybe the reason Osborne drinks so much), is dead-set on divorcing her husband and taking as much as humanly possible for herself. At the behest of her divorce lawyer, she loads all the financial information for the household onto a CD-ROM which, as it happens, also has the first draft of Osborne’s memoirs on it. She gives this disk to her lawyer’s secretary, who promptly loses it at her gym.

This gym has quite possibly the world’s most knuckleheaded employees at any gym anywhere. Linda Litzke (McDormand) is an administrator who desperately wants surgery to enhance her face and figure; her romantic life has been an utter disaster and she’s tired of being alone. Chad (Pitt) is just a knucklehead who actually looks at the contents of the disk and deduces that it’s “spy shit.” He gives the disk to a friend who is knowledgeable about computers and is able to deduce that the source of the disk is one Osborne Cox.

Linda sees this as an opportunity to make enough money to be able to pay for the surgeries her insurance won’t cover (“Elective? My doctor signed off on it!”) and that her harried but smitten manager (Jenkins) doesn’t think she needs. They call Osborne, hoping that he will be so gratified to get the disk back that he’ll give them a generous reward.

He instead gives Chad a bloody nose and an earful of invective. Linda, by now sleeping with Harry, decides to take the obviously valuable disk to the Russians, where a disinterested functionary (Krupa) promises to look into it. In the meantime, Chad decides to do a little reconnoitering in Osborne’s house, not realizing that Osborne has been tossed out on his ear by Katie. Then, things get really complicated.

The Coen brothers are known for their slightly bent perspective and quirky sense of humor. Usually they keep the quirkiness reined in to a dull roar, but here it overwhelms the story to the point where it becomes annoying. The characters are all so unlikable that you actually don’t care what happens to any of them, not even Linda who is self-centered and a bit stupid.

That’s not to say that this fine cast doesn’t do a fine job. Clooney and McDormand are two of the Coens’ favorites, and they both turn in sterling performances. In fact, most of this cast does. Malkovich is a it over-the-top as only Malkovich can do it, but he plays one of the most disagreeable louts you’ll ever meet covered with a veneer of civility that is a patent falsehood. He may be well-educated and upper-crust but he’s still just another S.O.B. drowning in his own bottle.

There is a lot of swearing in this movie. A whole lot. I’m not usually prudish about such things, but those who are ought to give this a wide berth. Still, it is a Coen Brothers movie, which means it’s well written, well-acted and professionally filmed and always interesting. Still, even their least efforts are better than the best of most other directors. This ain’t no Fargo but it has enough moments to make it worth your while.

WHY RENT THIS: Malkovich is over-the-top in a good way. Uniformly good acting throughout.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unusually for the Coens, the story isn’t very compelling and so daffy that it doesn’t resonate as much.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a ton of “F” bombs dropped here, particularly by Malkovich’s character. There is a graphic murder as well as a rather explicit sex machine that is…well, see for yourself. In any case, this is REALLY rated R.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first Coen Brothers movie without cinematographer Roger Deakins since 1990; he was busy filming Revolutionary Road.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Sunshine Cleaning