July 16, 2019

6/20/19

6-13-19

“The Spy Behind Home Plate”

Glove, Mask, Cloak-and-Dagger

3 & ½ popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

film critic

 

‘Get your scorecards. Get your scorecards. Can’t tell the spies from the conspirators without a scorecard.’

 

Such was just one of my thoughts after seeing filmmaker Aviva Kempner’s fascinating, incredible and rather mind blowing documentary about Morris ‘Moe’ Berg, Major League catcher, Princeton (B.A.) and Columbia (LL.D.) graduate, speaker of 12 languages who studied Sanskrit at the Sorbonne and, oh, almost forgot, spy for the OSS. Psst….He was assigned to help undermine the Nazi atomic bomb program during WWII. But what drives you crazy as you partake of Ms. Kempner’s scholarly and entertaining treasure trough of the superbly assembled puzzle that was Newark, New Jersey’s, Moe Berg, is, how about all the stuff we probably don’t know about him?

 

It’s pretty nutty in its obscurity…that every schoolkid in America doesn’t know who this unsung hero was. OK…by the very nature of Moe Berg’s life outside the baselines, it was all hush, hush. But one would think as you witness the extraordinary unraveling of the many sides of the catcher who, by the way, once went 117 games behind the plate without committing an error, that his exploits would by now be legend. I mean, gee, one of the Kardashians has an affair with a pop star and we practically declare a national holiday. As I once heard an old philosopher sitting on a soda crate in front of a candy store back in the old neighborhood say, “Something is upside down.”

 

But that’s part of the awesomeness that is “The Spy Behind Home Plate,” the proof of the pudding that there is the surface world where everyone is just pretty much oblivious, doing the bread and circus thing, whereas in little known, unheralded nooks and hollers of the human experience, there are folks doing the heavy lifting for our species. I’m sure hoping some of them are hard at work right now. It’s certainly time for the brave figure on the white horse to enter stage left.

 

Moe once had tea with Einstein, and the scientist kidded that he’d teach him the theory of relativity if Moe taught him the concept and finer points of baseball. He also enjoyed a friendship with Babe Ruth when he was part of a goodwill tour to Japan, wherein our ballplayers volunteered to help teach the ins and outs of our national pastime to the college players there. But if anyone was really paying attention back then in 1934, perhaps they’d have given pause to Mr. Berg’s attendance in the Land of the Rising Sun.

 

You see, while I’ll forever be impressed by anyone who ascends to the Major Leagues, by baseball’s highly rigorous standards, Moe was just an average backstop. And when fellow Washington Senator, outfielder Dave Harris, was reminded that his teammate spoke several languages, he said, “Yeah…and he can’t hit in any of them.” Thus it only makes sense that anyone with a passing interest in both baseball and international intrigue would have seen the curiosity in Moe being picked to join the likes of future Hall of Famers Earl Averill, Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer, Babe Ruth, Lefty Gomez, etc. Suffice it to note, this may have been Moe’s first assignment for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). Psst, again…he came back with pictures of important Japanese installations that were later used in the Doolittle Raid.

 

Director Kempner, who has previously treated audiences to documentaries such as “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” (2009), “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” (1998) and “Partisans of Vilna” (1986), may have been, in another life, a super sleuth herself…so astute is her sense of deduction. In cracking the code of the otherwise reserved, humble and handsome repository of knowledge that was Moe Berg, she once again proves she’s a connector of the dots extraordinaire. But it’s the stuff she pulls from the chasm of the unknown that best distinguishes her documentary creds. When she plucks a previously undiscovered plum out of the perplexing pie for the world to now know, it appears neither specious nor a stretch of the imagination.

 

Kempner’s erudite rummaging has us repetitively musing, “How many other anonymous and/or unhailed heroes who have lived and died do we have to thank for the freedoms we enjoy?” It’s a bit overwhelming.

 

On a personal level, considering how things ultimately turned out for Moe, we are a bit saddened by his astonishing tale, unsure if he nonetheless found lasting happiness. He wasn’t the type to complain. Hence, in decoding the big secret that was “The Spy Behind Home Plate,” we take the occasion to sing our own silent paean to him and console ourselves with the thought that, just as in baseball, there isn’t any crying in espionage.

“The Spy Behind Home Plate,” not rated, is an mTuckman release directed by Aviva Kempner, starring documentary footage of Morris Berg and a variety of people in the worlds of both baseball and international intrigue. Running time: 101 minutes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6-6-19

“Rocketman”

Godzilla vs. Elton John

4 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

film critic

 

I actually wanted to see the new “Godzilla.” Not that I’m a big fan of the franchise. Maybe it’s the kid in me…or perhaps because the early stuff was so hokey and so terribly dubbed that it was entertaining. Composed of poorly constructed miniatures and the barest of plots, it was probably the hyper suspension of disbelief engendered in us moppets that stirred our imaginations more than the calamitous perpetrations themselves. My curiosity was up. Hence, as the time approached to decide if it’d be “Rocketman” or “Godzilla” this week, the Japanese nomenclature became my recurring word of the day. “Gojira! Gojira!” I repeated in anticipation of the monster’s approach. It would sort of be like going back to the old neighborhood to see how things may have modernized. “Gojira” I murmured. But then I punked out.

 

Yeah, the adult said to the adolescent, ‘Lose the indulgence. ‘Rocketman’ is more significant than a plastic behemoth that levels entire cityscapes with one giant wag of his tale. Who needs that, anyway?’ So I saw “Rocketman.” Such are life-changing decisions. While certainly not as important as whether to become a film critic or Secretary of State, choices do have their consequences and, serendipitously, this latest selection also worked out just fine. Harvesting edifying revelations and soulful divulgences galore, director Dexter Fletcher’s biopic tells you everything you didn’t even think to ask about Elton John …that is, unless you’re a devout aficionado of Queen Elizabeth’s favorite rocker.

 

The biggest surprise is that Elton John as most of us have perceived him, major songwriter and performer extraordinaire, is technically only one-half of the illustrious hit-making dynamo that gave us iconic tunes like the one for which this superbly entertaining film is titled. Think Lerner and Loewe, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lennon and McCartney. While “Rocketman” doesn’t delve into lyricist Bernie Taupin’s biographical details the way it so pervasively deconstructs Mr. John, it dramatically informs that this silent partner was the wordsmith and collaborating catalyst who made it possible for Elton to realize his musical genius.

 

Attaching the innumerable, chart-topping songs strewn throughout the screenplay to the often tragic path Elton John traversed on his way to international stardom, director Fletcher, working from a screenplay by Lee Hall, amazes us with the prolificacy of his subject. But while the traditional storytelling style oft used in movies about composers is familiar, there is an individualistic verve that cuts right to the nerve of who this film says Elton John is. Alas, the phenom is the once unloved little boy of absurdly selfish and clueless parents. Oh sure, you think, it’d be great to have all that money and fame, Gojira no longer on your mind. But assuming you had a great childhood, would you trade it for Elton John’s debatable consolation prize?

 

Sharing a bit of DNA from any and all motion pictures about the rocky road to rock-‘n’-roll eminence, there’s the required amount of limousines, disingenuous lovers, corrupt agents, booze, drugs and the ever-fearful insecurity that comes of sudden success. But while such is afforded compulsory lip service, the central theme is neither the wiles, joys nor seductive decadences of showbiz, but rather, the Rocketman’s relentless and dishearteningly unsuccessful search for love. All of which makes us give a hoot when he falls victim to the shiny temptations …which he does with as much masochistic efficacy as any of his peers. Taron Egerton is so award-worthy credible, both in voice and thespic impersonation, that we nearly forget it’s not Elton John playing himself.

 

Here’s the deal. Despite the global cynicism that’s concealing the better essence of humanity like the candy shell on a Jordan almond, our heartfelt interest belies the cold protective mechanism of the sardonic worldview foisted on us by misanthropes and profiteers. This film is a big hit. And what’s it about? Love! People liking and needing each other…a lot. Quite a commodity, you know. Gadzooks, man…the poets have been telling us about it for millennia. But the firmest truth of it was permanently jolted into my brain during that rare, memorable instance when I had a drink with Mom. Despondent over my recent loss of a battle in the war between the sexes, I questioningly agonized over the power of love. Intent on dispelling any uncertainties I held, Dora Goldberger looked me in the face and succinctly informed, “People kill for it.” Aside from wondering, ‘Wow, where did that come from?’ I knew I was now playing in the majors.

 

Thus, because of its celebrated songbook and heartrending meditation on the search for love, I emphatically endorse “Rocketman” before setting my moviegoing trajectory for “Godzilla II: King of the Monsters,” and wonder if I’ll construe ‘tis also amour that motivates the beast.

“Rocketman,” rated R, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by Dexter Fletcher and stars Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell and Richard Madden. Running time: 121 minutes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Aladdin”

Wishful Thinking

3 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

film critic

 

Three wishes. It sure seems like a lot. One would think you could solve all the world’s problems as well as a few of your own if a genie granted them to you. But after mulling director Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the “One Thousand and One Nights” Arabian folktale Disney first treated us to in 1992, I’m still not certain how I’d proceed. Are you sure you can’t wish for more wishes? Yeah, I know, I know. That’s the way it has to be. You see, it’s all part of a built-in lesson about hopes, aspirations and the human condition, brought to the silver screen here in fine fettle.

 

Rated PG and boasting a bevy of positive beliefs, with special emphasis on the leadership roles it passionately affirms are rightfully waiting for the fairer sex to assume, it’s just the sort of film I’d want to take my daughter, Erin, to when she was little. Surrounding and intertwining the ennobling messages with engaging music, several wittily conveyed performances and bedazzling art direction, it all makes for a fulfilling experience at the Bijou. Plus, for folks like me who are always looking for parodic jabs at our current powers that be, replete with a happy path to extrication from their besmirching of all that is good and decent, like the commercials for Prego proudly asserted, it’s in there, too.

 

Fact is, this age old tale, with roots speculated to emanate from both Chinese and Arabian cultures, brims with political science theory that, alas and alack, never grows old. In this permutation, the elderly Sultan (David Negahban) bemoans having no male heir to his throne. Thus he falls vulnerable to the evil, inveigling spell of his Grand Vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), who not only wants the old dude’s job, but the hand of his comely daughter, Jasmine, effectively portrayed by Naomi Scott. Making no bones about it, not just yet, except in melodic soliloquy which essentially intones ‘I am woman, hear me roar,’ Jasmine is confident she’d be a sultan extraordinaire and a godsend to the good citizens of Agrabah.

 

Of course this Grand Vizier doing his Rasputin/Sherriff of Nottingham riff on government overthrow just won’t do…not if Jasmine and Aladdin, a clever street urchin masquerading as a prince courtesy of one rub of the magic lamp, have anything to say about it. Though at first led to believe that the apple of his eye is but her majesty’s handmaiden, our title hero, invigoratively played by Mena Massoud, soon agrees with the princess that she isn’t just chopped liver, and that there’s no reason why the royal succession should shun her. But as the Sultan reminds, the constitution says it’s a no-no. While you have to give His Majesty credit for revering the document before then convincing him to amend the chauvinist rule for the good of his kingdom, we can’t help but reflect on how our own grand document is being marginalized.

 

Whereas “Aladdin” has a brilliantly astute genie to intercede and direct wishful traffic, it occurs that we in the 50 states might benefit from some wise and altruistic intervention. And truth be told, I’d be all for Will Smith, who plays the genie with scene-stealing aplomb, to step from the screen, “Purple Rose of Cairo”-style, and give us a bit of a hand out here…perhaps toss his hat in the ring, and then, at an opportune moment during the Big Debate, flourish some of his genie powers. That’d give ‘em what for.

 

Such is how my mind wandered as I watched “Aladdin’s” richly filled treasure chest of enlightened dreams….each scene in one way or another aimed at convincing us that hope prevails. The idea is, once people make up their minds to do the righteous thing, it’s only a matter of time before they’re on the road to realizing their profound potential.

 

Note that history has been perennially punctuated with fables of every stripe to remind us of our inalienable rights, just in case some narcissist comes along and tries to convince us that we exist only to adulate him. The would-be oppressor invariably promises a great future as only he and he alone can provide, right then and there quashing any thoughts of a glorious destiny courtesy of our own self-determination. It is a dark part of human nature that must be battled regularly.

 

Hence, a cheery, uplifting illumination like “Aladdin,” both spiritually beneficial and a reminder of our civic responsibility, should be seen at least twice a year, or every 5,000 negative thoughts…whichever comes first. A knowledgeable populace with the commonweal at heart, appearing en masse at the polls, is ostensibly as powerful as any genie’s lamp. And there, as all tyrants fear, is the rub.

“Aladdin,” rated PG, is a Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release directed by Guy Ritchie and stars Will Smith, Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott. Running time: 128 minutes

 

 

 

 

6/27/19

“John Wick: Chapter 3- Parabellum”

How Can I Kill Thee? Let me Count the Ways

1 popcorn

By Michael S. Goldberger

film critic

 

There are two things in this world that really confound me. Nope…it’s not wondering what the secret of life is. I’ve got that figured. It’s to get a Ferrari. And it isn’t how many angels can you fit on the head of a pin, either. Fifty-six, I reckon…same as DiMaggio’s hitting streak. No…the first of my dual quandary is, how anyone in America isn’t repulsed by the administration currently besmirching the sanctity of democracy down in Foggy Bottom? The second dilemma that really has me scratching my head is why on Earth someone would want to see director Chad Stahelski’s “John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum?” I concur with Hesh Horn, my longtime moviegoing companion, that this ignominious, violence-saturated cauldron of ugly swill should be listed in The Guinness Book of Records for possessing the greatest number of individually perpetrated killings in any one movie. It is mind-boggling.

 

Of course, parsing it all out, citizens used to scamper for tickets to the Roman Coliseum to see lions eat Christians. And while it’s not as openly popular as it once was in the U.S., I betcha there aren’t more than three degrees of separation between your Uncle Mel and someone who knows where there’s a good cockfight Saturday night. Yeah, yeah, it’s some sort of recessive gene that goes back to our days in the primordial mud, way before Shakespeare, Groucho Marx and Cole Porter illustrated that there are much nicer amusements than watching  two pelt-attired cavemen try to snap off each other’s heads. But I tell you, Skip, I’m a bit tired of making excuses for the rather patchy evolutionary trip we humans are taking to that ultimate goal of becoming a breed of humanistic menschen.

 

But worse than that despondency is the gnawing realization that the same percentage of folks unconcerned with the current yoke wrapped around the neck of our republic isn’t really into the idea of a greater destiny. Apologists for the Dog-Eat-Dog set contend that one has little time to ponder a higher realm of existence when it’s all they can do to put food on the table. Thus the frightening horror that I fear I’ll see if I lift the rock from this socioeconomic conundrum is that it’s just easier to eat lots of Cheetos, drink massive quantities of beer and watch mind-numbing movies like “John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum” than to be a Braveheart and make all sorts of sacrifices for a beneficent civilization that you may never even live to see.

 

Adding insult to the societal injury movies like the John Wick franchise commit, this is big business. It has grossed $53 million as of this writing, and it’ll play all summer before going on to the really big money that movies make in the post-theater convenience of our dens. Hey, I like a buck as well as the next guy. But even when the cigarette industry knew it was killing countless millions, they kept us puffing. And now, global warming is discounted, as Mr. Gore assured, as an inconvenient truth. Oh, no way am I saying we should ban films like “John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum.” That’d be agin the 1st Amendment. Actually, its ilk should be displayed in a museum, perhaps next to the torture devices they used in Olde Salem to make witches confess.

 

And while this concludes the socially conscious, ranting diatribe portion of the review, astute readers will note that there hasn’t been a smidgen of the film’s plot divulged yet. Fact is, there’s really no need. First off, John Wick devotees couldn’t care less what a critic from among the Great Unwashed has to say about their cherished snake pit of entertainment. Secondly, there isn’t much to tell…at least not that I could grok. But lest the Pulitzer Committee cites the one time I didn’t describe a plot to deny me their brass ring, I comply in the next paragraph.

 

Keanu Reeves’s title character, an assassin extraordinaire, is on the run for slaying a colleague without authorization from the International Assassin’s Guild. Tsk, tsk. But while employing a veritable cast of thousands worthy of a Cecil B. DeMille epic to delete him, the home office is flummoxed. From the ubiquitous, point blank shooting of skulls to slicing bloodthirsty adversaries off their speeding motorcycles with a samurai sword, the only thing that perhaps keeps Mr. Wick from employing every possible way to end the lives of his pursuers is the brevity of a two-hour feature film. All of which suggests that if our executioner were to one day write his memoir, he might title it with a variation on John Barrymore’s fabled lament by bemoaning, “So many people to kill, so little time.”

“John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum,” rated R, is a Summit Entertainment release directed by Chad Stahelski and stars Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry and Mark Dacascos. Running time: 130 minutes

Living Green

5/30/2019