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

Advertisements

King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen


Who loves ya, baby?!?

(2017) Documentary (Dark Star) Larry Cohen, Martin Scorsese, Jon Landis, Yaphet Kotto, Leonard Maltin, J.J. Abrams, Eric Roberts, Tara Reid, Traci Lords, Fred Williamson, Robert Forster, Michael Moriarty, Joe Dante, Rick Baker, Cynthia Costas-Cohen, Mick Garris, Barbara Carrera, F.X. Feeney, Laurene Landon, Daniel Pearl, Eric Bogosian, Janelle Webb, David J. Schow, Megan Gallagher. Directed by Steve Mitchell

Back in the 1970s, B movies in many ways reached their nadir. Guys like Roger Corman, Joe Dante and Melvin van Peebles were cranking out low-budget (or no-budget) horror flicks, exploitation movies of all manner and of course the Blaxploitation films that changed cinema as we know it. Among the icons of that era was Larry Cohen.

Cohen remains active today in films, a career spanning now six decades (he sold his first screenplay at 17 and will turn 77 this summer). He is credited with creating the Blaxploitation genre with Black Caesar (1973) and wrote and directed three of horror’s most revered films: Q (1982), It’s Alive (1974) and The Stuff (1985).

This clips-and-interview documentary has made the rounds of genre film festivals around the world (and other festivals, including our own Florida Film Festival this past April) and is shortly going to get a brief theatrical run before hitting VOD in August. The list of those giving testimony to Cohen’s lasting influence on moviemaking include such luminaries as Martin Scorsese, Jon Landis, Mick Garris and Dante; actors he worked with including Yaphet Kotto, Eric Roberts, Tara Reid, Traci Lords, Fred Williams, Robert Forster, Barbara Carrera,  Eric Bogosian, Laurene Landon and his close friend Michael Moriarty (who appeared in several of Cohen’s films) also appear.

The best part of the movie is Cohen himself. He’s a natural storyteller and his writing process is often unique. Around his house he has bits and pieces of ideas that he is busy turning into screenplays. H is a prolific writer, starting his career in television as one and working for live TV back in the 50s. He also created such shows as Branded and The Invaders. However, despite being the creator of these shows, the producers and studios generally wielded creative control of his own creations. This frustrated him to the point where he determined to make his own films his own way. Without millions of dollars to back him, he made films guerrilla-style, often shooting without permits in the streets of New York, staging certain stunts and then whisking his cast and crew away before the cops could arrive.

He is generally regarded with much affection even among those who are part of the studio system these days; Scorsese praises him as “the last of the maverick generation.” Cohen wasn’t (and isn’t) afraid to step beyond cultural mores and look closely at the darker side of life. While his films often had female nudity and much gore, his female characters were often much more than the standard victim or damsel in distress that most women in genre films were at the time.

One gets some glimpses of the inner Larry. He talks reverently about the great composer Bernard Herrmann (of the iconic Psycho score) and how they became close until his passing. One can see that his death hit the director hard. Those are the moments that elevate a documentary.

If I have any faults with the documentary it’s that it feels a bit hagiographic. In other words, this is more of a puff piece than a hard-hitting documentary but I suppose it doesn’t really have to be. If Cohen is presented without warts, who am I to complain? The man certainly seems nice enough. There may be those, like myself, who are not overly fond of talking head interviews and there are  a whole lot of them here. I grant you that this movie is really aimed primarily at those who are aware of his filmography and have seen many of these movies already. If you’re not that familiar with his work I’d recommend going to see some of his movies before watching this documentary. I think that would be much more edifying.

REASONS TO GO: A fascinating look at grindhouse cinema and one of its greatest auteurs.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie fawns over its subject a little bit too much.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity in the various film clips from Cohen’s career.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cohen grew up in the Bronx and majored in film at City College of New York, graduating in 1963.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% Positive Reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Borg/McEnroe

Gimme Danger


Iggy Pop seems a little surprised to discover that it's 2016.

Iggy Pop seems a little surprised to discover that it’s 2016.

(2016) Musical Documentary (Magnolia/Amazon) Iggy Pop, Ron Asheton, James Williamson, Scott Asheton, Danny Fields, Steve Mackay, Mike Watt, Kathy Asheton, Ewan McGregor, Ed Sanders. Directed by Jim Jarmusch

 

The aphorism is that true artists are not appreciated in their own time. That is certainly true of the Stooges, a seminal Midwestern hard rock band that erupted from Ann Arbor, Michigan in the late 60s only to self-destruct in 1971, only to return a year later like a bad penny, then break up again for nearly 30 years in 1973 until a resurrection in 2003.

Their music received scathing reviews from critics who didn’t know what to make of them and the public took little interest; their record sales were tepid at best. Still, they became one of the founding influences of punk rock and their music influences nearly every heavy music artist of the 80s and afterwards.

Indie auteur Jim Jarmusch is a clear fan of the band, having cast frontman Iggy Pop in two of his movies and it is equally clear that this is essentially a love letter to the band. Although incomprehensibly Jarmusch begins his film with the 1973 break-up, he then goes back to their roots and tells the story in a more linear fashion from there.

Mostly told through the music documentary tropes of talking heads interviews interspersed with performance footage and animated recreations of events, the movie captures the band’s management woes along with their descent into drug addiction – nearly the entire band was at one time on heroin which led to missed gigs, sloppy performances and poor decisions. In their glory, the band was raw and primal, a kind of primitive rock and roll which would have been equally at home with banging on rocks as it was with electric guitars.

Pop was the consummate front man, performing shirtless and dancing like an epileptic male exotic dancer whose DNA was equal parts Mick Jagger and Tina Turner. His bandmates – guitarists Ron Asheton and James Williamson, bassist Dave Alexander, saxophonist Steve Mackay and drummer Scott Asheton – tended to stare at the floor and move very little allowing their frenetic frontman to do the heavy lifting.

Pop and Williamson are the only surviving band members of the band’s glory years and each of them is compelling in their own way (Mackay and the Asheton brothers both lived into the 21st century and there are plenty of interview clips with them; Alexander passed away in 1975 and as a result we see him only In performance clips and publicity stills). Pop is surprisingly intellectual and a pretty entertaining raconteur; Williamson, who spent most of their post-breakup era as a software engineer for Sony, has a much more objective perspective of the band.

The solo career of Iggy Pop, which netted classic rockers like “Lust for Life,” isn’t mentioned here although the post-Stooge efforts of the other band members is gone into in some detail. There is also little outside perspective of the band itself; nearly all of the interviews are with the band members, Danny Fields and Kathy Asheton, sister to the Asheton brothers. Only bassist Mike Watt, who performed with a 21st iteration of the band, is interviewed.

There is also surprisingly little of their music used on the soundtrack. We do get to hear those magnificent opening chords to “I Wanna Be Your Dog” but we hear it several times during the film. I get that there is precious little performance footage from the band’s 1970s era but one gets a sense that what we’re seeing here is pretty much readily available elsewhere, or at least that’s what I get from Internet comments on the documentary by fans of the group.

I was a bit surprised at how ordinary the documentary was. Jarmusch has a reputation for turning convention on its ear, but this is as conventional a music documentary as you’re likely to find. Maybe Jarmusch is too close to the subject; they are surely worthy of a documentary but this is one of those occasions where the subject of a documentary isn’t done justice by the documentary itself. Still, the Stooges are so compelling a story, Pop so entertaining a storyteller that I can freely recommend this to not only fans of the group but students of rock music history in general.

REASONS TO GO: The Stooges make for compelling subjects and Iggy is an interesting storyteller.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is disturbingly light on actual music.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of profanity and drug references here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Danny Fields had been sent by Elektra Records to scout the MC5 for which the Stooges were opening; impressed by both Michigan groups, he signed the MC5 for $20K and the Stooges for $5K.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: We are Twisted Fucking Sister
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Doctor Strange

India’s Daughter


Protesters stand up for women's rights in India - even when they can't stand.

Protesters stand up for women’s rights in India – even when they can’t stand.

(2015) Documentary (Paladin) Asha Singh, Badri Singh, A.P. Singh, Dr. Maria Misra, Laila Seth, Pawan Gupta, Akshay Thakur, Kalyani Singh, Satendra, M.L. Sharma, Mukesh Singh, Vinay Sharma, Mango Lal, Dr. Sandeep Govil, Amod Kanth, Raj Kumar, Kavita Krishnan, Pramod Kishwa, Dr. Rashmi Ahuja, Pratibha Sharma, Gupal Subramanium, Puneeta Devi, Sheila Dixit. Directed by Leslee Udwin

It is estimated that a woman is raped in India every 20 minutes. It is a huge problem in the sub-continent which is an emerging global economic power. Part of the issue revolves around cultural attitudes towards women which can only be described as barbaric, backwards and unenlightened.

Jyoti Singh was a 23 year old medical student with a bright future ahead of her. When she was born, her mother Asha and father Badri “celebrated as if they’d had a boy,” which is unusual even in Delhi where the Singhs live. Although relatively poor (Badri is a worker at Delhi’s airport), they had land that they intended to give Jyoti as a dowry when she got married.

Jyoti had other ideas. Her dream was to bring modern medical care to impoverished villages such as the one where the Singhs held ancestral land; she convinced her parents to sell the land so she could get the education she needed. When they agreed, the rest of the family was dumbfounded. Jyoti’s tutor Satendra described the family as “traditional with a progressive mindset.”

On December 16, 2012 Jyoti had completed her last exam and would start her internship the following day. Her entry into medicine would mean a lucrative salary that would enable to bring her family out of poverty. A friend invited her to see the movie Life of Pi and she went for an evening out.

At about 9:30pm, she and her friend boarded a private bus that offered to take her home. As recounted by Mukesh Singh (no relation), the driver of the bus, several of his friends who were along for the ride – his brother Ram Singh, Pawan Gupta, Akshay Thakur, Vinay Sharma and a juvenile whose name has been unrevealed due to Indian law, approached the couple and asked them why they were out so late when Jyoti’s friend was clearly not her husband, her father or her brother. When the friend told them to mind their own business, he was viciously attacked and beaten. The other men then dragged Jyoti into the back of the bus and proceeded to rape her over and over while the bus circled around the streets and highways of Delhi, the girl screaming for help throughout.

The rape was a brutal one; she was beaten, bitten (dental impressions were among the forensics used to find and convict the men) and raped so savagely not only by the men but using a crowbar as an insertion that the juvenile, who appears to have been particularly bloodthirsty, reached inside her and pulled out her intestines. The bus finally stopped across from a hotel and the two victims were thrown off and left for dead.

A passing police patrolmen discovered them – they were astonishingly still alive – and summoned an ambulance. While her friend would recover from his beating, Jyoti would linger on for several days before succumbing to her injuries. The doctors who treated her described it as a minor miracle that she had not been dead on the scene.

The incident galvanized Indian women. Protests erupted in the streets of Delhi and elsewhere and despite some police overreaction (tear gas grenades and water cannons were used against the mostly female crowds) the government of India convened a special legal committee to look into the laws governing sexual assault in India headed up by the respected judge Laila Seth and some real changes were made.

Director Udwin interviews Mukesh who clearly feels no remorse for what happened – in fact, in his view the bitch had it coming because she was out late and not properly escorted. If she hadn’t fought back, he opined, it wouldn’t have been so bad, as if women are supposed to simply accept that they are being raped and move on. Mukesh, like his friends residents of a Delhi slum, can quite conceivably blame his archaic attitudes to ignorance and poverty.

What is jaw-dropping however is that his lawyers A.P. Singh (again, no relation to the victim) and M.L. Sharma – who are presumably well-educated  – reflect the same attitudes. How much of it is legal grandstanding in order to support their clients is debatable but it is clear that the attitudes towards India are outdated at best and misogynistic for certain. These attitudes are colliding with the desires of Indian women, who see how women in the West are enjoying careers and independence, to have the same for themselves. Udwin exposes this conflict dispassionately and looks at the incident as a catalyst. However, one can’t help but feel affected by the obvious grief of the girl’s parents. Jyoti, whom the Indian media dubbed “India’s Daughter” (hence the title of the documentary) became a symbol but we get a sense of who the girl was, although she only appears in the movie as pictures of a toddler for the most part.

There are a few flaws here. The format is very much like an American television newsmagazine program which means a whole lot of talking heads. The musical score occasionally, in order to sound ominous I suppose, is a bit overbearing and sounds like it was purchased in the same way as stock footage. While there is plenty of footage of the rioting and protests that followed Jyoti, there is little footage of the woman herself which may well be at the request of her family, who were at the center of a media storm in India back when this all happened; I can imagine they wouldn’t want a repeat of that.

At the end of the short but powerful documentary (which has aired on British television already), Udwin scrolls statistics of sexual assault, female genital mutilation and other sexual violence against women from various countries around the globe and those statistics are sobering. India isn’t the only place where women are raped after all, but perhaps their attitudes towards women may be more openly misogynistic than in other more supposedly developed countries where that misogyny is hidden below the surface but no less uncivilized. This could be an early contender for the Documentary feature Oscar. However, you won’t be able to see this in the country where perhaps it would do the most good – India has banned the film because of the views espoused by the rapists and their defenders which shows that India has a very long way to go in making things better. Sweeping a problem under the rug and ignoring it is generally the best way for that problem to grow worse.

REASONS TO GO: Emotionally raw. An eye-opening look at attitudes towards rape and women in general in India. Complete look at the issue. Respectful to the victim.
REASONS TO STAY: Talking heads. Occasionally overbearing score.
FAMILY VALUES: Violent and sexual content, including graphic descriptions of rape and mutilation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time Garfield has worn facial hair in a film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Back in Time

Gone Girl


This is NOT what a happy marriage looks like.

This is NOT what a happy marriage looks like.

(2014) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, Carrie Coon, David Clennon, Lisa Barnes, Missi Pyle, Sela Ward, Emily Ratajkowski, Casey Wilson, Lola Kirke, Boyd Holbrook, Lee Norris, Jamie McShane, Leonard Kelly-Young, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Pete Housman, Lynn Adrianna. Directed by David Fincher

There are some married couples who appear to have it all. I use the word “appear” because nobody really knows what goes on inside a marriage except for those in it. Even Da Queen and I have our disagreements. There are plenty of things that I do that make Da Queen crazy. Da Queen is also Da Saint.

Nick (Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Pike) are that couple. She’s a trust fund baby whose parents Rand (Clennon) and Marybeth (Barnes) immortalized her as the children’s book character Amazing Amy. Amazing Amy seemed to have a much better life and character than the original Amy which sticks in her craw a little bit but Nick seems to be able to deflect that parent-daughter conflict with his customary humor.

Nick and Amy are both writers but both of them lose their jobs during the recession. Then Nick’s mom gets cancer and they move from New York to North Carthage, Missouri to be close with her, buying a house with Amy’s trust funds. She also buys a bar called The Bar for him which he co-manages with his twin sister Margo (Coon).

On their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick comes home from the bar to find Amy gone and signs of a struggle. He calls the cops and at first Detective Boney (Dickens) is sympathetic but soon Nick’s somewhat un-emotional demeanor and mounting evidence begins to slowly point towards Nick as the prime suspect. Not helping matters is a Nancy Grace-like cable TV commentator (Pyle) who fills the airwaves with anti-Nick vitriol night after night. While Margo believes Nick is innocent, there is enough doubt that she has to ask him what he’s not telling her. And there are things he isn’t telling her.

This is a superb motion picture, not a perfect thriller but damn close. Gillian Flynn, who wrote the novel this is based on, also wrote the screenplay which can be a terrible idea – some novelists have a hard time figuring out what parts of their novel to cut out for the screen but Flynn does an admirable job. I haven’t read the book but I understand she sticks closely to what happens there so fans of the bestseller ought to be pretty satisfied.

The movie comes at you from every direction and although as someone who has seen a lot of thrillers in my time and can generally pick out which direction a movie is going, how it gets there can also be refreshing and new. I like how this movie takes an idea and runs with it.

Affleck is perfectly suited for this role; he can play the chiseled, handsome easygoing lead but he also knows how to allow just enough darkness out to make the character not only memorable but also leave plenty of doubt to the character’s guilt or innocence. This is right in his wheelhouse and he nails it.

And then there’s Pike. Her character is to say the least multi-layered and she handles all the different sides of Amy with perfect aplomb. I would go so far as to say that this is the kind of role Academy voters love to nominate and Pike is so good that I think that she’s got a very good shot at getting that nomination and possibly even the win. It hasn’t been as good a year for women’s roles as last year was and right now only Reese Witherspoon seems to have the other lock on a nomination but of course all that remains to be seen.

Fincher has always been an expert at delivering plots with a cynical but clear eye. There is some satire here on the way modern media influences opinion and on what passes for journalism these days. There is also some on the state of modern small town policing and while Detective Boney comes off relatively unscathed, her colleagues look like rubes. Keep in mind that the Ozarks run through Missouri.

He has also been an expert at keeping tension at a high level and knowing when to shock as opposed to attempting to use shock for shock’s sake (try saying that one five times fast). There is one scene of violence that isn’t entirely unexpected and yet when it does come it still ends up being shocking. That’s the mark of a great director.

If there’s a weakness, it’s probably in the dialogue. In places, the characters talk like characters in a movie rather than how real people talk. A little less cuteness in the dialogue would have made the movie better.

Some have complained that the movie is misogynistic (despite having been written by a woman). I disagree. It’s hard to state my reasons without giving too many plot points away but all I can say is that those who say that women can’t do some of the things that are done by women in this movie is patronizing at the very least. Ever hear of Jodi Arias?

As a critic, I have to be deliberately vague in describing the plot so be aware that much is being left out so as to improve the experience for those readers who haven’t read the book and don’t know what to expect going in other than what they’ve seen in the trailer. Trust me – as good a movie as the trailer promises, the one that is delivered is even better.

REASONS TO GO: Great plot. Pike gives Oscar-worthy performance. Affleck is solid and gets plenty of support.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the dialogue is a bit forced. A little too long.
FAMILY VALUES: One scene of bloody and shocking violence, some sexuality and nudity and a goodly amount of cussing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anna Farris was originally cast as Margo but had to drop out due to schedule conflicts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fatal Attraction
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The Equalizer

RoboCop (2014)


RoboCop takes aim at skeptical critics.

RoboCop takes aim at skeptical critics.

(2014) Science Fiction (MGM/Columbia) Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Samuel L. Jackson, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Aimee Garcia, Douglas Urbanski, John Paul Ruttan, Patrick Garrow, K.C. Collins, Daniel Kash, Zach Grenier, Maura Grierson. Directed by Jose Padilha

Military drones have become over the past 12 months something of a cause célèbre, although drones have been in use for years. In the near future, those drones will be even more sophisticated – human control may well be entirely unnecessary. However most Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of life and death being doled out by machines.

Pat Novak (Jackson) begs to differ. The host of the right-wing news magazine show The Novak Element thinks that having robots in law enforcement would be a very good thing. However, existing laws in the United States prevent drones and robots being used in a military or law enforcement fashion on U.S. soil. Novak is campaigning to change all that.

Raymond Sellars (Keaton) would like to see him succeed. As the CEO of OmniCorp, the multinational corporation that supplies robotic devices to the military and to international law enforcement, he’s chomping at the bit to get at the virgin U.S. market but is frustrated that public opinion is against him. However, he knows that given the right stimulation, public opinion can change. What the machine needs is a human element.

Cue Alex Murphy (Kinnaman). An honest cop on the Detroit Police Department, he is chasing a  criminal gang leader named Vallon (Garrow) whose investigation by other cops on the force has stalled. An inadvertent miscue by a lowlife gun dealer gives him and his partner Jack Lewis (Williams) an opportunity to connect Vallon to actual crimes and put him away. Unfortunately, someone tips off Vallon and Lewis gets shot for their troubles.

Realizing that Murphy is not going to give up until he gets an arrest, Vallon arranges for Murphy’s car to be wired with an explosive device. It goes off, critically injuring the cop in full view of his wife Clara (Cornish) and son David (Ruttan).

This gives Sellars the perfect opportunity. Brilliant cyberneticist Dennett Norton (Oldman) can rebuild Alex; he has the technology. He can give Murphy all the advantages of being a robot while still retaining his human control. However, there are glitches. A machine doesn’t hesitate or consider human consequences; it just acts. Murphy is held back by having a conscience and emotions. Norton reluctantly must delete these items from the programming.

In his RoboCop role, Murphy scarcely even responds to his family who quickly realize that something is wrong. Norton isn’t happy about the situation either – the whole point was to retain both the human and machine and what he has created is essentially an automaton with some organic material. Nonetheless RoboCop is a huge success and Sellars is getting exactly what he wants – a repeal of the laws that keep his company from profiting in America. However, when Murphy’s human side begins to reassert itself, RoboCop becomes expendable in a hurry.

The 1987 Paul Verhoeven-directed feature was more of an over-the-top satire of consumerism as well as social commentary on urban decay and the ultimate soullessness of our society. It was most definitely a product of its time. Brazilian director Padilha (making his English language debut) is far more subtle but no less satirical, but with a little bit more thought beneath the satire – what constitutes humanity and at what point do we cease being human? He also asks a question that is very much one that should be getting asked more often – is trading freedom for security a wise idea?

I appreciate undertones of that nature, and give the movie points for it. However, movies of an action/sci-fi bent also need to be entertaining and for the most part, this one is. Kinnaman has a facial resemblance to Peter Weller (who originated the role) but in the Alex Murphy scenes shows a little more warmth than Weller radiated. He does surprisingly well as RoboCop and gets the right movement that you’d expect from a robot.

Michael Keaton is one of those actors that you don’t realize you miss until he shows up for an infrequent role. He is perfect for Sellars, making him almost likable despite his black heart. Only near the end of the movie do we see Sellars’ true colors but by then Keaton’s sucked us in. Oldman also manages to bring the conflicted nature of Norton to the fore and show both sides of the coin equally. Cornish is, I think, supposed to act as the conscience for the movie but doesn’t quite jell there. Jackie Earle Haley is awesome as OmniCorp’s prejudiced chief of security.

While the CGI is good (especially a squirm-inducing scene in which we see Murphy without the RoboCop armor) and the action decent, the story has a fractured element to it and seems to be travelling in all sorts of directions. Reportedly, the studio was extremely involved in the film and frustrated Padilha’s creative control to the extent that he made some unwise comments which he later recanted. However, the movie does show all the earmarks of studio interference which is never a good thing. Too many RoboCooks spoil the RoboBroth.

Despite the critical bashing it’s received, the movie is decent enough entertainment. If you go in expecting the same humor as the original, you’re not going to like this much. In fact, this version could have used a little more humor which it mostly gets from the Novak show segments that open the movie and are shown intermittently throughout. I would have been interested to see what Padilha’s vision for the film would have turned out to be although I understand that the movie’s budget became an issue in that regard. I suspect that he could have turned this into a better film than it turned out to be – although what he did produce is pretty good in and of itself.

REASONS TO GO: Pretty decent entertainment value. Kinnaman does a fine job as does Oldman and Keaton.

REASONS TO STAY: Muddled and unfocused, a sure sign of studio interference.  

FAMILY VALUES:  While not as violent as the 1987 original, there are plenty of bullets flying and some mayhem. There’s also a few choice bad words here and there as well as a disturbing image of the remains of Alex Murphy after the bomb blast.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michael Keaton and Gary Oldman have both been involved in the Batman franchise; Keaton as the Caped Crusader in Tim Burton’s two films, Oldman as Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Norton’s trilogy.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Total Recall

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Hysteria

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff


An aging cameraman can still appreciate the timeless beauty of a young Audrey Hepburn.

An aging cameraman can still appreciate the timeless beauty of a young Audrey Hepburn.

(2010) Documentary (Strand) Jack Cardiff, Martin Scorsese, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Lauren Bacall, Kim Hunter, John Mills, Alan Parker, Thelma Schoonmaker, Freddie Francis, Rafaella de Laurentiis, Richard Fleischer, Peter Yates, Kathleen Byron, Orson Welles. Directed by Craig McCall

The golden age of Hollywood was marked by larger than life stars and beautifully photographed films in gorgeous black and white or later, in epic Technicolor. Part of the reason those movies looked so good were men like Jack Cardiff – not that there were many like him.

Cardiff has worked with some of the greatest names in Hollywood – from the stars (Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn) to the directors (Alfred Hitchcock, King Vidor, Michael Powell). He came out of the British cinema working with the director-writer team of Powell and Emeric Pressburger which was better known as “The Archers” and with them was responsible for such classics as The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus (for which he won the Oscar) and A Matter of Life and Death.

He would go on to work on other movies including The African Queen, The Vikings, The Barefoot Contessa, War and Peace, The Prince and the Showgirl (the Laurence Olivier/Marilyn Monroe film chronicled in My Week With Marilyn), Death on the Nile, Ghost Story and Rambo: First Blood Part II. He was active until 2007 but would pass away in 2009 while this film was in post-production.

Cardiff was known for his expertise with the then-nascent Technicolor process. Many cinematographers, used to black and white, had trouble when it came to color. You would think not since we all see in color but the fact is that the use of color can be a tricky thing when it comes to art and cinema. Cardiff always knew how to use color both subtly and epically.

McCall utilizes both archival footage and recent interviews with Cardiff and some of the people he’s worked with over the years. The segments featuring Cardiff are the most fascinating; he’s got a lot of interesting stories and his home movies on the set feature the stars letting down their hair somewhat are fascinating.

We don’t get a lot of background about Cardiff’s personal life. In fact, none at all that I can remember. I would have appreciated a bit of insight into who he was personally but that’s not really what this film is about – it’s about his professional life. That’s why his profession is the title of the movie and comes before his name although it might have been more accurately subtitled The Work and Not So Much the Life of Jack Cardiff.

There are a few too many talking heads mostly all saying essentially the same things. I thought the movie could have done with more examples of Cardiff’s work and more of Cardiff himself and less of people saying what a legend he is. But the movie serves to remind us of how glorious that age was and how much modern cinema owes to Cardiff. It makes you want to run right out and rent a copy of Black Narcissus and that can’t be a bad thing.

WHY RENT THIS: A look back at one of the greatest and most influential cinematographers ever. A reminder of Hollywood’s glamour.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many talking heads. Tells us next to nothing about the man himself.

FAMILY VALUES: A few mildly bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cardiff is to date the only cinematographer to be honored with a special Oscar (in 2001).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are some additional home movies Cardiff shot on the sets of his classic films as well as an examination of the three-strip Technicolor process that was one of his trademarks.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $20,840 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kid Stays in the Picture

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Black Death