October 17, 2019

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“The Farewell”

And a Fond One at That

3 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

film critic

 

Every so often, some philosophically inclined sort seeks a window into your soul by asking, “If you could spend time with anyone now deceased, who would it be, pray tell?” Akin in hypocrisy to first wishing for world peace or a cure for cancer before asking for a Ferrari whence blowing out my birthday candles, I perfunctorily answer, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Ben Franklin. However, after seeing the delightfully heartwarming, bittersweet and often hilarious “The Farewell,” about a Chinese family who throws a wedding as pretense for gathering to say goodbye to their terminally ill matriarch, I thought of the grandmother I never knew.

 

Anna Goldberger (nee Scherzer), who ran a farm just outside of Krakow and had either 13 or 14 children (it’s a family mystery), half by Mr. Goldberger, and about another half by Mr. Lieberman, dissolved somewhere into the Holocaust. Legend has it she was quite something, a captain of agricultural industry whose financially astute DNA skipped right over me. But in my fantasy, I think she wouldn’t mind sharing some thoughts with her dreamer of a grandson.

 

You see, watching Awkwafina’s Billi, the Americanized granddaughter of the feting family in question, I couldn’t help be envious of that special love that exists between grandparent and grandchild. You ever see ‘em in McDonald’s? The kids are running wild, grandma and grandpa smiling non-judgmentally…the more they can spoil ‘em, the better. Maybe that’s why my parents spoiled me… a compensation for what the vagaries and wiles of history denied. I ever tell you about the time I wanted a hot dog at 5:30 a.m. on the drive from Newark to Montreal?

 

In any case, it’s the universality of director-writer Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” that gives us gleeful pause…the humanity of it all. They keep the diagnosis a secret from Nai Nai, the granny superbly etched by Shuzen Zhau, a ploy that unearths a bevy of subterfuges and truths that live in the embroidery of every family. We see striking similarities, recognize quirks, have the cockles of our hearts warmed and, especially important considering the all but official policy of racism being perpetuated in America today, are reminded that we are all brothers under the skin.

 

Especially memorable and not without its compassionate humor is the depiction of the customs scrupulously observed when the international assemblage of family accompanies Nai Nai in her pilgrimage to the cemetery. But it’s in the conversations leading up to, during and after the wedding where we are most charmed and illuminated. While we know intellectually that different cultures deal with the very same problems in a diversity of ways, seeing that dynamic wrung out reaffirms the common thread that bonds us.

 

I think the mistake that the haters make is in fearing that the comradeship of humankind precludes any specialness that being so-called “pure of race” might contend. It’s also pretty lazy to assume that belonging to one particular group is status, when the good folks of every shade and stripe know full well that self-worth, validity and ultimately even the pursuit of happiness must emanate from within…from the worthy character we seek to build.

 

As part of the Chinese diaspora, Billi finds herself straddling two civilizations. And while around the dinner table at Nai Nai’s in China, her dad, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), asserts that he is an American, his older brother, an artist who had emigrated to Japan, identifies as Chinese. But these minor controversies merely underline the true fealty that’s at play here. It’s family, the concept ringing throughout the proceedings in a subtle variation of the same proud and dutiful passion Tevye flourishes when he hollers out “Tradition!” in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

 

Whether or not you were/are lucky enough to have a granny shower you with gifts, wisdom and whatever equivalent of a Happy Meal might have tastily ruined your generation’s appetite, you’ll find the most touching scenes are between Billi and Nai Nai. While psychologists have written erudite monographs on why a special endearment exists between grandparent and grandchild, here the two main protagonists comprise the beautiful picture that says a thousand words.

 

I bet my grandmother Anna made great potato latkes when she wasn’t busy deciding how much kasha to grow next year and how many pigs she ought to send to market. And if she wanted to slip me a few zlotys after each one of my visits, who am I to upset her? Personally affecting, “The Farewell” is a little movie with a big heart. And, because it’s PG and suggested for the whole family, this is a perfect opportunity to make sure that spoiled little grandchild in your clan doesn’t become the only freshman at Princeton who hasn’t seen a subtitled movie.

“The Farewell,” rated PG, is an A24 release directed by Lulu Wang and stars Awkwafina, Shuzen Zhau and Tzi Ma. Running time: 100 minutes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All this weeks Web Extra Articles

“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