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.

Here Are The 70th Annual Emmy Winners!


To be honest, I didn’t actually watch the Emmys this year.  For one thing, I was upset that Twin Peaks was not nominated for Best Limited Series and I was even more upset that Kyle MacLachlan was totally overlooked.  It’s hard for me to take seriously an awards show that snubs Twin Peaks but honors Alec Baldwin’s uninspired Donald Trump impersonation.

However, I did kind of follow the ceremony on twitter.  I was happy, for instance, to learn that Bill Hader and Henry Winkler won for Barry and that Thandie Newton won for Westworld.  The Emmy that should have gone to Twin Peaks went to The Assassination of Gianni Verscace, which was good but uneven.  (The first five episodes were brilliant.  The final three felt somewhat superfluous.)  Ryan Murphy beat David Lynch for Best Director.  I mean, what the Hell?

Anyway, here’s the winners!

Best Comedy: “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Amazon)

Best Drama:“Game of Thrones” (HBO)

Best Limited Series: “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” (FX)

Best Actress, Comedy: Rachel Brosnahan, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

Best Actor, Comedy: Bill Hader, “Barry”

Best Actress, Drama: Claire Foy, “The Crown”

Best Actor, Drama: Matthew Rhys, “The Americans”

Supporting Actress, Drama: Thandie Newton, “Westworld”

Supporting Actor, Drama: Peter Dinklage, “Game of Thrones”

Supporting Actress, Comedy: Alex Borstein, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

Supporting Actor, Comedy: Henry Winkler, “Barry”

Best Actress, Limited Series or TV Movie: Regina King, “Seven Seconds”

Best Actor, Limited Series or TV Movie: Darren Criss, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”

Supporting Actress, Limited Series or a Movie: Merritt Wever, “Godless”

Supporting Actor, Limited Series or Movie: Jeff Daniels, “Godless”

*Television Movie: “Black Mirror: USS Callister” (Netflix)

Variety Sketch Series: “Saturday Night Live” (NBC)

Variety Talk Series: “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver”(HBO)

Reality Competition Program: “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (VH1)

*Reality Host: RuPaul, “RuPaul’s Drag Race”

*Structured Reality Program: “Queer Eye” (Netflix)

*Unstructured Reality Program: “United Shades Of America With W. Kamau Bell” (CNN)

*Guest Actress, Drama: Samira Wiley, “The Handmaid’s Tale”

*Guest Actor, Drama: Ron Cephas Jones, “This Is Us”

*Guest Actress, Comedy: Tiffany Haddish, “Saturday Night Live”

*Guest Actor, Comedy: Katt Williams, “Atlanta”

*Documentary or Nonfiction Series: “Wild Wild Country” (Netflix)

*Animated Program: “Rick And Morty” (Adult Swim)

Writing for a Comedy Series: Amy Sherman-Palladino, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Pilot)

Writing for a Drama Series: Joel Fields & Joe Weisberg, “The Americans” (“Start”)

Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or Drama: William Bridges & Charlie Brooker, “Black Mirror: USS Callister”

Directing for a Comedy Series: Amy Sherman-Palladino, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Pilot)

Directing for a Drama Series: Stephen Daldry, “The Crown” (“Paterfamilias”)

Directing for a Limited Series: Ryan Murphy, “The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” (“The Man Who Would Be Vogue”)

*Directing for a Variety Series: Don Roy King, “Saturday Night Live” (Host: Donald Glover)

Writing for a Variety Special: John Mulaney, “John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous At Radio City”

Directing for a Variety Special: Glenn Weiss, “The Oscars”

*Awards presented during the Creative Arts Emmy ceremony on Sept. 8-9.

Lisa’s Way Too Early Oscar Predictions for January!


How early can one predict the Oscars?

Well, it depends on how you look at it.  You can predict the Oscars at any time during the year.  However, predicting them correctly is next to impossible before October.  That said, I’m going to give it a shot!

Now, to be clear, this is not an attempt to predict who and what will be nominated later this month.  Instead, these are my predictions for what will be nominated next year at this time!  I’ll be updating my predictions every month of this year.

So, with all that in mind, here are my way too early predictions for what will be nominated in January of 2019!  As of right now, these predictions are a collection of instinct and random guesses.  For all we know, some of these films might not even get released in 2018.  In all probability, we’ll look back at this list in December and laugh.

 

Best Picture

Chappaquiddick

First Man

Lizzie

Mary Queen of Scots

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Mortal Engines

A Star is Born

Widows

Wildfire

The Women of Marwen

 

Best Director

Desiree Akhavon for The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Damien Chazelle for First Man

Paul Dano for Wildfire

Steve McQueen for Widows

Robert Zemeckis for The Women of Marwen

 

Best Actor

Steve Carell in The Women of Marwen

Jason Clarke in Chappaquiddick

Ryan Gosling in First Man

Jake Gyllenhaal in Wildfire

Joaquin Phoenx in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot

 

Best Actress

Viola Davis in Widows

Chloe Grace Moretz in The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Carey Mulligan in Wildfire

Saoirse Ronan in Mary Queen of Scots

Chloe Sevigny in Lizzie

 

Best Supporting Actor

Jeff Daniels in The Catcher Was A Spy

Bruce Dern in Chappaquiddick

Sam Elliott in A Star is Born

Robert Duvall in Widows

Hugo Weaving in Mortal Engines

 

Best Supporting Actress

Elizabeth Debicki in Widows

Claire Foy in First Man

Leslie Mann in The Women of Marwen

Kate Mara in Chappaquiddick

Kristen Stewart in Lizzie

 

Film Review: The Divergent Series: Allegiant (dir by Robert Schwentke)


Oh, Who Gives A Fuck About This Fucking Movie?

Oh, who cares?

I really hate to start my review with such a negative statement but seriously, after watching Allegiant today, I am now convinced that the Divergent movies are perhaps the least interesting film franchise since the Paranormal Activity sequels.  Not only are the films so derivative of The Hunger Games that I’m always surprised that Donald Sutherland isn’t lurking around in the background but they’ve also managed to waste the talents of some of the best actors of my generation.  When you’ve got performers like Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller at your disposal, there’s no excuse not to be interesting.

I watched Allegiant with my BFF Evelyn and I’ll admit right now that we talked throughout the entire movie.  We laughed at the most serious of moments.  When Jeff Daniels showed up, we had a very long discussion about how, when he’s good, Jeff Daniels is really good but when he’s bad, he manages to come across as being the most boring man on the planet.  When Miles Teller betrayed his allies, Evelyn said, “Again!?” and then she had to remind me that Miles Teller always ends up betraying everyone in every Divergent film.

(It makes you wonder why the Tris (played by Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) always bring Miles Teller with them as opposed to just killing him.  I suppose some of it might have to do with the fact that he’s Miles Teller and he’s a badass.  In fact, he probably should be playing Four.  He certainly has more chemistry with Shailene Woodley than Theo James does.  In fact, Theo James always looks like he’d rather be doing anything other than appearing in another goddamn Divergent film.)

And yes, Evelyn and I did get a few dirty looks from some people in the audience but you know what?  I fully understand that it’s rude to talk through a movie but oh my God, we had to do something.  Allegiant is such a boring movie.  The film moves slowly, as if the filmmakers don’t understand that everyone in the audience has seen enough YA adaptations to already know everything that’s going to happen.  If you want to truly understand what film critics mean when they say that a film is “draggy,” try to watch an entire Divergent film without standing up to stretch your legs or get something to drink.  Perhaps the biggest mistake you can make while watching Allegiant is to actually concentrate on what’s slowly playing out on screen.

The Divergent films aren’t terribly complicated and yet, I always find myself struggling to follow them.  They’re so bland and forgettable that I can never remember what happened in the previous film.  As Allegiant started, I was like, “Why is Naomi Watts in charge of Chicago now?  Oh yeah, Kate Winslet did die at the end of the last movie!”  And then I remembered that Evelyn was Four’s mother.

And then my BFF Evelyn (as opposed to the film’s Evelyn) said, “Four is a stupid name,” and I started laughing way too hard.  In fact, we made many jokes about Four’s nickname and then eventually, I remembered that he was called Four because he only has four fears.  But it took me a while to remember and, once I did remember, I couldn’t help but think about how stupid a backstory that was.

Anyway, the plot of the film is that the movie’s Evelyn is now in charge of Chicago but she’s turning out to be just as bad as the system that she’s replacing.  So, Tris, Four, and friends escape from Chicago and explore the barren landscape that surrounds the city.  Eventually, they are found by the Bureau of Genetic Welfare.  The Bureau is headed up by a boring guy named David (Jeff Daniels).  At first, David seems to be a good guy but then it turns out that the Bureau was behind the whole Faction experiment.  And now the Bureau wants to attack Chicago, wipe the slate clean, and start the experiment all over again.

Will Four and Tris go along with David’s plan or will they try to stop him?

At this point, who cares?

The thing that’s annoying about the Divergent films is that the storyline has potential.  At the heart of it all, the battle between the Factions and the Factionless has the potential to be a powerful, if simplistic, metaphor.  But the films are so plodding and take such an obvious approach that most of that potential is wasted.  Add to that, Shailene Woodley is a great actress.  In fact, I think it can be argued that she actually has more range than Jennifer Lawrence.  (Just check out her performance in The Spectacular Now.)  But the franchise has never known what to do with her uniquely off-center style.  Instead, it simply gives her speeches that feel as if they’ve been lifted from every other dystopian YA franchise.  The films insist on trying to make Shailene Woodley predictable and she deserves better on that.

As is typical of big franchise films nowadays, Allegiant is just part one of the Divergent finale and even the “to be continued” ending feels annoying because it’s so obviously lifted from every other franchise finale that’s ever been produced.  As with all the Divergent films, Allegiant never escapes the shadow of The Hunger Games.  The best that can be said about this franchise is that it will be over soon.  Hopefully, Shailene Woodley will be able to move onto a film more worthy of her considerable talents.

A Few Thoughts On The Martian…


The_Martian_film_poster

I’m a few weeks late in reviewing The Martian, largely because I was on vacation when it was first released.  When I finally did see The Martian, it was at the wonderful UEC theater in beautiful Russellville, Arkansas.  As opposed to my experience when I saw The Green Inferno, the theater was packed and, throughout the entire movie, it was obvious that the audience absolutely loved what they were seeing on screen.  They laughed, they applauded, and it was obvious they had a great time with the movie.

And why not?  After the commercial failures of both The Counselor and Exodus, it’s obvious that director Ridley Scott was not going to take any chances with The Martian.  There’s not a single scene that is not specifically calculated to keep the viewer as complacently satisfied as possible.  Telling the story of how botanist Mark Whatney (Matt Damon) gets stranded on Mars and must figure out a way to survive until he can be rescued, The Martian is such a positive film that its total lack of cynicism almost gets overwhelming.  The end result is a film that is a 100 times better than Exodus but never as interesting or challenging as The Counselor.

In fact, as I watched The Martian, I kept thinking about another film about a man stranded out in the middle of nowhere, Into The Wild.  The main character in Into The Wild spent his isolation contemplating the meaning of life and finally reaching some sort of spiritual peace before starving to death.  Mark Whatney, on the other hand, spends his isolation recording a snarky video diary and listening to classic disco songs.

And, before anyone gets offended or accuses me of being a film snob, allow me to say that I enjoyed The Martian.  I thought it was an entertaining movie and I especially loved the soundtrack.  But, at the same time, one can enjoy The Martian and still acknowledge that there’s not much going on underneath the crowd-pleasing surface.

Looking back on the film, I find it remarkable just how little we learn about Mark Whatney.  We hear at one point that he has a family but we really don’t learn anything about his life on Earth.  In a way, he’s a bit like Robert Redford in All Is Lost.  Except, of course, Mark Whatney talks.  He talks a lot.  Fortunately, Mark is played by Matt Damon, who is a great talker.  If I think that The Martian is entertaining but also a bit overrated (and I do), I also think that Matt Damon deserves every bit of praise that he’s received for his performance.

Interestingly enough, The Martian not only features Matt Damon’s best performance but it also features Jessica Chastain’s worst.  Chastain plays Commander Lewis, who is in charge of the Mars expedition and who take it upon herself to bring Mark Whatney home.  And really, this should have been a great role for Jessica Chastain but, for the first time that I can remember, she gives a performance that just isn’t that interesting.

Then again, there’s really only one interesting character in the entire film and that’s Mark Whatney  (though I would have liked to learn more about the astronomer played by Donald Glover, who gives an appealingly eccentric performance).  This is Matt Damon’s film and it’s best moments are the ones where Mark deals with life on Mars.  In fact, there’s a part of me that almost wishes the majority of the NASA scenes had been left on the editing room floor and almost the entire movie had just been Matt Damon on Mars.

In the end, I did enjoy The Martian.  It’s a good film that some people are insisting was great.  (Of course, a lot of that is because it’s trendy to be into science.  Fortunately, Mark Whatney isn’t as much of a pompous blowhard as Neil DeGrasse Tyson, nor is he as creepy as Bill Nye.)  Some people are even suggesting that The Martian is the new Oscar front runner and maybe it is.  (After all, it’s not like there was much going on below the surface of Birdman either.)

But for me, in the years to come, the main thing I’ll remember about The Martian is the totally kickass soundtrack…

 

Steve Jobs (Dir. by Danny Boyle)


imagesI don’t have much to say about Steve Jobs, which has been playing here in New York in a limited release. This is how I know I didn’t care for it.

When you look at the list of people who came together to make the new movie about Steve Jobs, it’s almost impossible to think that the end result could be bad. You’ve got Academy Award Winner Danny Boyle, whose work I’ve enjoyed since Trainspotting. With a track record like 28 Days Later, The Beach, Sunshine, and Slumdog Millionaire, he’s having a wonderful run. You also have Academy Award Winner Aaron Sorkin, fresh off both The Social Network, Moneyball and The Newsroom working the screenplay. With actors like Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave, Slow West) and Kate Winslet (Divergent, A Little Chaos) on board , it’s almost like having the stars align.

And yet, I almost walked out on Steve Jobs. It just wasn’t for me. Maybe I was just tired.

The film focuses on three places in the Steve’s life:

– The launch of the original Macintosh just after the “1984” Super Bowl commercial.

– The launch of the NeXt system, which Jobs created after being fired by Apple.

– The launch of the first iMac, just after Jobs returned to Apple as the interim CEO.

The entire first part was really good, with arguments going back and forth over the ability to get the on stage Mac to say “Hello”. Steve also argues with Chrisann Brennan over the financial support for her daughter, Lisa Nicole. Steve simply won’t admit she is his. When asked about the name of his first computer, Jobs goes to great lengths to explain that the acronym (Local Integrated System Architecture) is just a coincidence. When Lisa amazes him with her computer usage, he decides to support her mom with a check.

Every segment after that felt like a repeat of the first one to me, almost like Run Lola Run. In the beginning, it feels fresh, witty, nice. By the end, I was fighting to simply stay awake and care. What I hoped to see was more interaction with Steve and Lisa. If they were so distanced then, and grew close later in life, what was the catalyst? Was it the cancer diagnosis Steve had in the early 2000’s? We’ll never know, because the movie stops just before that time period. Did he suddenly realize that his heart wasn’t as small as the Grinch? What about Jonny Ive, who was responsible for much of Apple’s design after Job’s return? Nope, not even so much a mention. And I think this is the overall problem I have with the film. Yes, Steve Jobs by himself was a visionary, and as the story points out, he conducts the Orchestra, but there’s no reverence whatsoever to any of the other people that helped get Apple where it is. It doesn’t make the movie terrible for not covering these angles, but there are a number of missed opportunities as a result of using such a narrow range.

Fassbender was wonderful to watch onscreen, as well as Winslet. One of the odd things is that from a performance standpoint, everyone in Steve Jobs is effective. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Fassbender get some kind of recognition come awards season. Even Seth Rogen did a good job, though his version of Wozniak was limited to constantly arguing for credit like Morrie in Goodfellas looking for his cut of the Luftansa Heist. There are points, however, where the banter just becomes a little too much.

Mind you, I loved The Social Network. I enjoyed The Newsroom.  A Few Good Men is one of my favorite films. I’ve even seen the man in person once. He knows what he’s doing when it comes to having people talk. Here, it just seemed like Sorkin said…”What if I created a play about how Steve Jobs could be.” and rolled with it. Supposedly, he acknowledged that much of the writing here isn’t entirely accurate. I can accept that, but I think the structure of the film damaged it all for me. I would have preferred more of a straight A-B narrative than what I received. Is that too long to put to screen? Perhaps.

Here at the Shattered Lens, Lisa Marie and I have gone head to head regarding Aaron Sorkin, sometimes yelling from our respective offices. She’s not a fan, but I’ve liked his work. The argument is that for all of his abilities when it comes to writing, he doesn’t really handle women well. It’s true. Women haven’t always fared well in Sorkin’s world, and watching Winslet, I was almost sure I could come back here and say in his defense…”Hey, Sorkin wrote a good girl that doesn’t just exist to help the male hero to succeed or as a target for males to pick on. This isn’t Demi Moore in A Few Good Men. Aha!!” I wanted to say that. I really did…but I can’t. As good as Winslet is here, her character is almost Emily Mortimer’s from The Newsroom. She does have some great lines, and her screen time with Fassbender is nice.

I did enjoy Danny Boyle’s direction here. The approach with using the different film styles (old style camera work for the 1984 Macintosh launch, conventional film for the NeXt Launch, and HD optics for the iMac release) was interesting, and I liked how he used the environment to tell the story. I have little to complain about there.

Note that the audience did applaud the film. There were moments where a phrase or two yielded some laughs. In that sense, maybe the film accomplished something. You’ll have to see it and come to your own conclusions on how it works for you.

 It just wasn’t for me, and I was really looking forward to it.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #72: Terms of Endearment (dir by James L. Brooks)


Terms_of_Endearment,_1983_film

I have to admit that, when I first sat down and watched the 1983 best picture winner Terms of Endearment, I was actually taken by surprise.  Before I actually saw it, I was under the impression that Terms of Endearment was considered to be one of the weaker films to win best picture.  I had read a few reviews online that were rather dismissive of Terms, describing it as being well-made but overrated.

But then, a few weeks ago, I watched Terms of Endearment on Netflix.  The film started with a scene of new mother Aurora Greenwood (Shirley MacClaine) obsessively checking on her daughter, Emma.  Stepping into the bedroom, Aurora is, at first, scared that Emma’s dead.  Without bothering to take off her high heels, Aurora nearly climbs into the crib to check on her.  Fortunately, Emma starts to cry.

And I laughed because I’ve been told about how my mom used to obsessively check in on me when I was a baby.  And, while my mom was never the type to wear high heels around the house, I could still imagine her climbing into a crib to check on me and my sisters.

And then, when Emma (now played by Debra Winger) married Flap Horton (a very young Jeff Daniels) over the objections of her mother, I smiled but I didn’t laugh because, in this case, I was relating to Emma.  Because the fact of the matter is that every girl has known a boy like Flap Horton, the smart and funny guy who is destined to ultimately hurt her.

And when Flap got a job in Des Moines and Emma moved from Houston to Iowa, I knew — as did Aurora — what was going to happen.  I knew that Flap would deal with his insecurity over not being a good provider for his wife and children by cheating on his wife.  And when he did, I wanted to cry with Emma.

But then I wanted to cheer when Emma has an affair of her own.  In the role of Sam, John Lithgow doesn’t have much screen time in Terms of Endearment but he does get the best line.  When a rude cashier claims that she doesn’t feel that she was being rude to Emma, Sam replies, “Then you must be from New York.”

Meanwhile, the widowed Aurora is having an affair of her own.  Jack Nicholson plays Garrett Breedlove, a former astronaut who now has both a drinking problem and a house with a pool.  Garrett gets Aurora to loosen up.  Aurora makes Garrett realize that he actually is capable of being a decent guy.  MacClaine and Nicholson both won Oscars for their performances here and they deserved them.

And then, Emma was diagnosed with cancer.  And I cried and cried because, at this point, I had come to think of Emma and Aurora as being real people.  And when Emma told her friends that she was dying and she spent her final days with her children, I sobbed because it made me think about my mom.  And now I’m sobbing as I write this review.

But it’s a great film, even if it did make me cry.  Because, in the end, you’re glad that you got to know these characters.  And, even through the tears, the film leaves you happy that you got to spend some time with them.

And isn’t that what a great film is supposed to do?