Film Review: Blood Red (1989, directed by Peter Masterson)

The time is the 1890s.  The place is California.  Sicilian immigrant Sebastian Collogero (Giancarlo Giannini) has just been sworn in as an American citizen and owns his own vineyard.  When Irish immigrant William Bradford Berrigan (Dennis Hopper) demands that Sebastian give up his land so Berrigan run a railroad through it, Sebastian refuses.  Berrigan hires a group of thugs led by Andrews (Burt Young) to make Sebastian see the error of his ways.  When Sebastian ends up dead, his wayward son, Marco (Eric Roberts), takes up arms and seeks revenge.

Have you ever wondered what would have happened if the famously self-indulgent directors Michael Cimino and Francis Ford Coppola teamed up to make a movie about the American Dream?  The end result would probably be something like Blood Red.  Like Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate, Blood Red begins with a lengthy celebration (in this case, in honor of Sebastian’s naturalization ceremony) that doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the film but which is included just to make sure we know that what we’re about to see is more than just a mere genre piece.  Like many of Coppola’s films, Blood Red features a tight-knit family, flowing wine, and a score composed by Carmine Coppola.  The only difference between our hypothetical Cimino/Coppola collaboration and Blood Red is that the Cimino/Coppola film would probably be longer and more interesting than Blood Red.  Blood Red is only 80 minutes long and directed by Peter Masterson, who seems lost.  There’s a potentially interesting story here about two different immigrants fighting to determine the future of America but it gets lost in all of the shots of Eric Roberts flexing his muscles.

For an actor known for his demented energy, Eric Roberts is surprisingly dull as the lead but Blood Red is a film that even manages to make veteran scenery chewers like Dennis Hopper and Burt Young seem boring.  (Hopper’s bizarre attempt at an Irish brogue does occasionally liven things up.)  The cast is full of familiar faces like Michael Madsen, Aldo Ray, Marc Lawrence, and Elias Koteas but none of them get to do much.  Of course, the most familiar face of all belongs to Eric’s sister, Julia.  Julia Roberts made her film debut playing Marco’s sister, Maria.  (Because the film sat on the shelf for three years after production was completed, Blood Red wasn’t released until after Julia has subsequently appeared in Mystic Pizza and Satisfaction.)  She gets three lines and less than five minutes of screen time but she does get to briefly show off the smile that would later make her famous.  Today, of course, that smile is the only reason anyone remembers Blood Red.

Film Review: The Catcher Was A Spy (dir by Ben Lewin)

I was so impressed with Paul Rudd’s performance in Avengers: Endgame that, last night, I decided to watch another Paul Rudd film, 2018’s The Catcher Was A Spy.

Based on a true story, The Catcher Was A Spy tells the tale of Moe Berg (Paul Rudd).  When we first meet Moe, it’s towards the end of World War II and Moe has been sent behind enemy lines to investigate just how close the Nazis are to building an atomic bomb.  Intelligence suggests that physicist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong) is leading the Nazi effort and, if the intelligence turns out to be true, Moe has been ordered to assassinate Heisenberg.  As Moe considers whether or not he’s actually capable of killing a man, we get flashbacks to how Moe eventually ended up working as a spy.

What we learn is that, in the 1930s, Moe Berg was a major league baseball player.  He was a catcher and, though he was never a great player, he was famous for being far more educated than the average professional athlete.  At a time when open anti-Semitism was socially acceptable among America’s upper classes, Moe Berg managed to get an Ivy League education.  Not only does he keep up with current events but he can also speak several languages.  The other players aren’t quite sure what to make of Moe, nor does Moe ever seem to make much of an effort to open up to anyone, including his girlfriend, Estella (Sienna Miller, playing yet another girlfriend in yet another biopic).

Because he can speak Japanese, Moe is selected to be a part of a delegation of players who will be sent to Japan.  While the rest of the players hang out around the hotel, Moe hangs out with an intellectual named Kawabata (Hiroyuki Sanada), discusses inevitably of war, and — for reasons that the film deliberately leaves unclear — decides to shoot a film of Tokyo Harbor.

Five years later, with the United States now at war with the Axis powers, it’s that film that leads to Moe getting a meeting with the head of the Office of Strategic Services, Bill Donovan (Jeff Daniels).  No longer a baseball player and apparently bored with coaching, Moe wants to become a spy.  Donovan notes that Moe has never married and asks him flat out if he’s gay.  Moe smiles slightly and says, “I’m good at keeping secrets.”

And indeed, he is!  Unfortunately, Moe is so good at keeping secrets that we never quite get into his head.  It’s hard not to compare this film to the superficially similar The Imitation Game.  But whereas that film made you feel as if you were seeing the world through Alan Turing’s eyes, The Catcher Was A Spy always seems to be standing outside of Moe Berg.  In the film’s final title cards, it refers to Moe as being an “enigma” and that’s pretty much the way he is throughout the entire film.  We like him because he’s played by Paul Rudd but we never really feel like we know him.  The closest the film comes to suggesting what’s going on inside the head of its main character is when Moe — who has described himself as non-religious — attends a Kol Nidrel service at a Zurich synagogue and, for a few minutes, Moe lets his guard down.  But, for the majority of the film, Moe remains unknowable.

With the exception of one battle scene, it’s also a rather low-key spy film, one that’s more in the style of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy than SPECTRE.  Again, that may be true to the actual story but, considering that it’s a film about a possibly gay Jew working to take down a homophobic, anti-Semitic war machine, it’s still hard not to regret the film’s lack of big “stand up and cheer” moments.  Clocking in at a rather brisk 97 minutes, it’s hard not to feel that there’s some big pieces missing from the film’s story.

Here’s the good news: Paul Rudd proves himself to be a thoroughly charismatic leading man in this film, showing that he can hold the audience’s attention even without special effects or a punch line.  Rudd does an excellent job playing a character who, to be honest, has very little in common with what we may think of as being a typical Paul Rudd role.  Rudd is always watchable, even while Moe Berg remains an enigma.  Hopefully, Rudd will get more opportunities in the future to show us what he’s truly capable of doing as an actor.

You Too Can Be A Cinema Snob: Seven Beauties (1975), Storm Over Asia (1928), Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), Max Havelaar (1976)

If you’ve read enough of my reviews then you probably know that while I tend to write about B-movies, Hallmark, Disney, and late night cable movies, I do reference a lot of other films. Recently Gary did a post on The Great Train Robbery that not only revolutionized cinema by simply cutting back to a previously used set, but also firmly established that we preferred narrative films over actualites/documentaries and the cinema of spectacle. Since people seemed to respond well to his post, I thought I would occasionally do a post like this where I take advantage of YouTube to share some great films that happen to be available at the time of posting. If they are not available anymore, then simply take them as recommendations. Maybe one day I will actually review these, or perhaps they may have already been reviewed here. I hope you enjoy these kinds of posts. If not, feel free to tell me.

Seven Beauties (1975, dir. Lina Wertmüller) – This is a classic of Italian cinema from the 1970s by director Lina Wertmüller. It’s about a man who fancies himself quite a ladies man and a stereotypical suave Italian gangster type. Things turn bad for him and it takes him as far as a concentration camp during WWII. This is an example of Italian Comedy which was a special genre of comedies made between roughly 1960-1980 in Italy. The defining characteristic would be their choice of material that would often be dark, non-PC, and almost feel out of place in a comedy. It’s one of my favorites of the genre with a great performance by Wertmüller’s De Niro, Giancarlo Giannini who people might know from Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace (2008) among other films. This particular version is dubbed into English.

Storm Over Asia (1928, dir. Vsevolod Pudovkin) – Not all propaganda is bad filmmaking. Early Soviet Cinema was often loaded with propagandistic messages, but they were also very well made movies. Storm Over Asia is by director Vsevolod Pudovkin who also made such classics as Mother (1926) and The End of St. Petersburg (1927). This one uses a tale of a Mongolian who turns out to be a descendant of Genghis Khan to send its message. I love the end as he and his people cause such a storm with their horses that they are literally blowing over soldiers with the wind.

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943, dir. Maya Deren) – When you move beyond mainstream films and start looking into more underground/experimental cinema, then certain names will pop up. Names like Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, and Michael Snow. Maya Deren is one of these people. Meshes of the Afternoon is usually the first Maya Deren film introduced to people. You will find numerous versions of this film available. Not because the visuals are any different, but because the film was made with zero sound or musical accompaniment. This is one that is popular for people to add their own soundtrack to.

Max Havelaar (1976, dir. Fons Rademakers) – It’s sad, but to my knowledge most people only really know about one Dutch director. That being Paul Verhoeven. However, there are certainly many more out there. Fons Rademakers is probably not nearly as well known outside of Holland as Verhoeven even though his 1986 film The Assault won Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. Max Havelaar is his adaptation of the very important Dutch novel of the same name. After it’s publication it changed the nature of Dutch colonialism and has ramifications for the country beyond that as well. Keep your eyes peeled for Rutger Hauer before he became a star in the United States. Also, I suggest checking out more of Rademakers’ films. Especially one of my personal favorites called Als Twee Druppels Water (1963) AKA The Dark Room of Damocles.