Two movies about Moe Berg in the last twelve months? What gives?
And who’s Moe Berg?
Decades before Austin Powers, Morris “Moe” Berg was an international man of mystery. A 15 year veteran of the Major Leagues, Berg was also a Princeton grad, a voracious reader with a photographic memory who clung to his privacy. He was a lawyer, a quiz show champion and an international spy who was once dispatched on a WWII kamikaze mission to assassinate the head of Germany’s nuclear research program.
Astounding stuff from a guy who, according to baseball legend Casey Stengel, “Could speak seven languages, but couldn’t hit in any of them!”
Just last summer, Paul Rudd played Berg in the enjoyable but underseen The Catcher Was a Spy. Now, documentarian Aviva Kempner brings a no-frills, uber-informative approach to uncovering the real Berg with The Spy Behind Home Plate.
Kempner (Rosenwald, The Life and Times of Hank Grennberg) unveils a succession of talking heads joined by wonderful archival stills and videos. Perhaps to mirror her subject, Aviva’s film is short on style, but it’s substance is extra innings worthy.
As unbelievable as Berg’s story is, the dry presentation doesn’t do much to entice the casually interested. But if you find these undertold slices of history fascinating, you’ll be hooked enough to want to seek out Rudd’s version next.
Almost 25 years ago, Pixar staked its claim as animation god with the buddy picture masterpiece Toy Story, where Tom Hanks and writer/director John Lasseter taught the world how to create a fully developed, nuanced and heartbreaking animated hero.
Woody and Buzz returned twice more over the next fifteen years, developing relationships, adding friends, enjoying adventures and life lessons all the while creating the single best trilogy in cinematic history.
And a lot of us wanted them to stop at 3. Is that partly because Toy Story 3 destroyed us? Yes! But also, it felt like a full story beautifully told and we didn’t want to see that completed arc tarnished for profit.
Toy Story 3 made an actual billion dollars.
Right, so let’s drop in and see how the gang is doing. Woody (Tom Hanks in the role he was born to play) loves Bonnie, the youngster who inherited the ragtag group of toys when Andy left for college and we left the theater racked with sobs. But the cowboy just doesn’t feel the same sense of purpose.
Enter Forky (Tony Hale, who could not be better), a spork with googly eyes, hand-made and much-beloved friend to Bonnie. Forky longs for the trash, and Woody takes it upon himself to make sure Forky is always there for Bonnie. But when Bonnie’s family rents an RV for an end-of-summer road trip, Woody finds it tough to keep his eyes on the restless refuse—especially when a roadside carnival offers the chance to reconnect with old flame Bo Peep (Annie Potts).
Will Woody cast aside Forky, bestie Buzz (Tim Allen) and gang to rekindle something lost and taste some freedom?
Josh Cooley (who co-wrote Inside Out) makes his feature directorial debut with this installment. He also contributes, along with a pool of eight, to a story finalized by Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton (his credits include the three previous Toy Story films) and relative newcomer Stephany Folsom.
The talents all gel, combining the history and character so beautifully articulated over a quarter century with some really fresh and very funny ideas. Toy Story 4 offers more bust-a-gut laughs than the last three combined, and while it doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of TS3 (what does?!), it hits more of those notes than you might expect.
Between Forky’s confounded sense of self and Woody’s own existential crisis, TS4 swims some heady waters. These themes are brilliantly, quietly addressed in a number of conversations about loyalty, devotion and love.
This somewhat lonesome contemplation is more than balanced by the delightful hilarity of new characters Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and Bunny and Ducky (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, respectively).
And the creepy yet tender way villains Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and her posse of ventriloquist dolls are handled is as moving as it is funny.
Characteristic of this franchise, the peril is thrilling, the visuals glorious, the sight gags hilarious (keep an eye on those Combat Carls), and the life lessons far more emotionally compelling than what you’ll find in most films this summer. To its endless credit, TS4 finds new ideas to explore and fresh but organic ways to break our hearts.
We are beyond delighted to have been allowed to screen Jim Jarmusch’s new zombie classic The Dead Don’t Die two days in advance of its national opening. To honor this remarkable film and its amazing cast, we look at the best other horror movies that star these actors.
5. Zombieland (2009) – Bill Murray
Just when Shaun of the Dead convinced me that those Limey Brits had
created the best-ever zombie romantic comedy, it turns out they’d only created
the most British zom-rom-com. Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick take the
tried-and-true zombiepocalypse premise and sprint with it in totally new and
And the cameo. I cannot imagine a better one. I mean that. I’m not sure a
walk on by Jesus himself could have brought me more joy.
That’s not true. Plus, in zombie movie?! How awesome would that have been?!
Jesse Eisenberg anchors the film with an inspired narration and an endearing
dork characterization. But Woody Harrelson owns this film. His gun-toting,
Twinkie-loving, Willie Nelson-singing, Dale Earnhart-number-wearing redneck
ranks among the greatest horror heroes ever.
I give you, a trip to a loud and well-lit amusement park is not a recommendation Max Brooks would make during the zombiepocalypse. Still, you’ve got to admit it’s a gloriously filmed piece of action horror cinema.
4. Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) – Tilda Swinton
The Dead Don’t Die is not Jim Jarmusch’s first foray into horror. In 2013, the visionary writer/director concocted a delicious black comedy, oozing with sharp wit and hipster attitude.
lead performances don’t hurt, either, and Jarmusch gets them from Tom
Hilddleston and Tilda Swinton as Adam and Eve (perfect!), a vampire couple
rekindling their centuries-old romance against the picturesque backdrop
since the David Bowie/Catherine Deneuve pairing in The Hunger has there
been such perfectly vampiric casting. Swinton and Hiddleston, already two of
the most consistently excellent actors around, deliver cooly detached,
underplayed performances, wearing the world- weariness of their characters in
uniquely contrasting ways.
There is substance to accent all the style. The film moseys toward its perfect finale, casually waxing Goth philosophic about soul mates and finding your joy.
3. Suspiria (2018) – Tilda Swinton
It is 1977 in “a divided Berlin,” when American Susie Bannion
(Dakota Johnson, nicely moving the character from naivete to complexity)
arrives for an audition with a world-renowned dance company run by Madame Blanc
(Tilda Swinton, mesmerizing).
This “cover version” (The Tilda’s phrase, and valid) of Argento’s
original lifts the veil on the academy elders early, via the diaries of
Patricia (Chloe Moretz), a dancer who tells psychotherapist Dr. Josef Kiemperer
(also The Tilda, under impressive makeup) wild tales of witches and their
Guadagnino continues to be a master film craftsman. Much as he draped Call
Me by Your Name in waves of dreamy romance, here he establishes a
consistent mood of nightmarish goth.
But even when this new Suspiria is tipping its hat to Argento, Guadagnino leaves no doubt he is making his own confident statement. Women move in strong solidarity both onstage and off, dancing with a hypnotic power capable of deadly results. In fact, most of the male characters here are mere playthings under the spell of powerful women, which takes a deliciously ironic swipe at witch lore.
2. American Psycho (2000) – Chloe Sevigny
A giddy hatchet to the head of the abiding culture of the Eighties, American
Psycho represents the sleekest, most confident black comedy – perhaps
ever. Director Mary Harron trimmed Bret Easton Ellis’s novel, giving it
unerring focus. More importantly, the film soars due to Christian Bale’s
utterly astonishing performance as narcissist, psychopath, and Huey Lewis fan
There’s an elegant exaggeration to the satire afoot. Bateman is a slick,
sleek Wall Street toady, pompous one minute because of his smart business cards
and quick entrance into posh NYC eateries, cowed the next when a colleague
whips out better cards and shorter wait times. For all his quest for status and
perfection, he is a cog indistinguishable from everyone who surrounds him. The
more glamour and flash on the outside, the more pronounced the abyss on the
inside. What else can he do but turn to bloody, merciless slaughter? It’s a cry
for help, really.
Harron’s send up of the soulless Reagan era is breathtakingly handled, from
the set decoration to the soundtrack, but the film works as well as a horror
picture as it does a comedy. Whether it’s Chloe Sevigny’s tenderness as
Bateman’s smitten secretary or Cara Seymour’s world wearied vulnerability, the
cast draws a real sense of empathy and dread that complicate the levity. We do
not want to see these people harmed, and as hammy as it seems, you may almost
call out to them: Look behind you!
As solid as this cast is, and top to bottom it is perfect, every performance is eclipsed by the lunatic genius of Bale’s work. Volatile, soulless, misogynistic and insane, yet somehow he also draws some empathy. It is wild, brilliant work that marked a talent preparing for big things.
1. Get Out (2017) – Caleb Landry Jones
Opening with a brilliant prologue that wraps a nice vibe of homage around
the cold realities of “walking while black,” writer/director Jordan
Peele uses tension, humor and a few solid frights to call out blatant
prejudice, casual racism and cultural appropriation.
When white Rose (Alison Williams) takes her black boyfriend Chris (Daniel
Kaluuya) home to meet the fam, she assures him race will not be a problem. How
can she be sure? Because her Dad (Bradley Whitford) would have voted for
Obama’s third term “if he could.” It’s the first of many B.S. alerts
for Peele, and they only get more satisfying.
Rose’s family is overly polite at first, but then mom Missy (Catherine
Keener) starts acting evasive and brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) gets a
bit threatening, while the gardener and the maid (both black – whaaat?) appear
straight outta Stepford.
Peele is clearly a horror fan, and he gives knowing winks to many genre
cliches (the jump scare, the dream) while anchoring his entire film in the
upending of the “final girl.” This isn’t a young white coed trying to
solve a mystery and save herself, it’s a young man of color, challenging the
audience to enjoy the ride but understand why switching these roles in a horror
film is a social critique in itself.
Get Out is an audacious first feature for Jordan Peele, a film that never stops entertaining as it consistently pays off the bets it is unafraid to make.
Big week! So many movies! Some of them are even great. This week we break down Men in Black: International, Shaft, Late Night, The Dead Don’t Die, Halston plus everything worth your time in home entertainment.
One part documentary, one part art piece, and one part love
letter, The Proposal is an unusual film.
Visual artist and director Jill Magid has an interest in the architect Luis Barragán, particularly his professional archive, which is currently owned by the Swiss furniture company, Vitra. Overseen by Frederica Zanco, the professional collection has been withheld from the public for over twenty years.
The beginning of the film asks some interesting questions
about the nature of art and ownership. Not only does Vitra own the physical
archives, they also own the copyright for Barragán’s work. A photographer who
has taken pictures of Barragán’s work, for example, owns the photo, but Vitra
owns distribution rights. It’s a confusing legal quandary that has, in many
ways, held Barragán’s work hostage.
However, rather than examine the implications of legal
ownership, artistic legacy, and the ethics of corporations owning an artist’s
work, Magid has a different agenda for the film.
Working on an artistic installation of her own, Magid has envisioned her entire project, including the film, as that love letter (or a proposal) to Frederica Zanco. What she wants is revealed throughout the course of the film, and her methods to entice Zanco are unorthodox. Many viewers will take issue with her tactics while others will see them as inspired. Part of the film focuses on the debate aroused by her project.
When the documentary explores the architect (Barragán) and not the artist (Magid), it’s a great film. The moments that concentrate solely on Barragán pay a stunning homage to the man and his work. However, most of the film is focused on Magid, her project and her goals, which often comes across as indulgent, sometimes even arrogant.
Though Magid claims she’s sincere in her interest in Barragán’s
work and its future, it’s hard to know for sure when each moment is used as a
piece in her own installation. Is the film a touching tribute to the architect
and those who admire him? Or is it a marketing ploy to draw attention to the
In a scene where Magid addresses Barragán’s family, we might have gained additional insight into her true intentions, but rather than allow us access to the meeting, it’s relegated to a montage. What did she say to Barragán’s family to convince them to allow her to carry out her proposal to Zanco?
The questions raised in the film have less to do with the future of Barragán’s archives and more to do with Magid’s own art, which makes The Proposal an unexpected, if not entirely interesting, film.
Indie god and native Ohioan Jim Jarmusch made a zombie
If you don’t know the filmmaker (Down by Law, Ghost Dog, Only Lovers Left Alive, Patersonand so many more jewels), you might only have noticed this cast and wondered what would have drawn Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Rosie Perez, RZA, Caleb Landry Jones, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop and Selena Gomez to a zombie movie.
It’s because Jim Jarmusch made it.
Jarmusch is an auteur of peculiar vision, and his latest, The Dead Don’t Die, with its insanely magnificent cast and its remarkably marketable concept, is the first ever in his nearly 30 years behind the camera to receive a national release.
Not everybody is going to love it, but it will attain cult
status faster than any other Jarmusch film, and that’s saying something.
He sets his zombie epidemic in Centerville, Pennsylvania (Romero
territory). It’s a small town with just a trio of local police, a gas station/comic
book store, one motel (run by Larry Fassenden, first-time Jarmusch actor,
longtime horror staple), one diner, and one funeral home, the Ever After.
Newscaster Posie Juarez (Rosie Perez – nice!) informs of the unusual animal behavior, discusses the “polar fracking” issue that’s sent the earth off its rotation, and notes that the recent deaths appear to be caused by a wild animal. Maybe multiple wild animals.
The film never loses its deadpan humor or its sleepy, small town
pace, which is one of its greatest charms. Another is the string of in-jokes
that horror fans will revisit with countless re-viewings.
But let’s be honest, the cast is the thing. Murray and
Driver’s onscreen chemistry is a joy. In fact, Murray’s onscreen chemistry with
everyone—Sevigny, Swinton, Glover, even Carol Kane, who’s dead the entire film—delivers
the tender heart of the movie.
Driver out-deadpans everyone in the film with comedic delivery I honestly did not know he could muster. Landry Jones also shines, as does The Tilda. (Why can’t she be in every movie?)
And as the film moseys toward its finale, which Driver’s Officer Ronnie Paterson believes won’t end well, you realize this is probably not the hardest Jim Jarmusch and crew have ever worked. Not that the revelation diminishes the fun one iota.
Though it’s tempting to see this narrative as some kind of metaphor for our current global political dystopia, in fairness, it’s more of a mildly cynical love letter to horror and populist entertainment.
Mainly, it’s a low-key laugh riot, an in-joke that feels inclusive and the most quotable movie of the year.
“JJ” Shaft walks gingerly into traffic, taking care to watch for cars. He doesn’t constantly drop expletives and he’s keen on Brazilian dance fighting.
So, he’s a little different from Dad, then?
It’s the first clue that writers Kenya Barris and Alex Barrow and director Tim Story might have a sound plan to bring Shaft into the 21st century. They need one, because successfully transplanting those solidly 1970s sensibilities to present day is a bit of a trick.
The Brady Bunch Movie got around it by having the 90s Bradys still living gloriously 70s while everyone else called them weird. Genius move.
2005’s Bad News Bears remake just tried to tone down the unacceptable elements. Swing and a miss.
Taking much more of a straight up comedic approach than John Singleton’s 2000 sequel, this Shaft‘s culture clashes between John (Samuel L. Jackson) and JJ (Jessie T. Usher) offer some amusingly organic attempts to freshen the air of misogyny and homophobia.
It’s not a bad strategy, but the dam can only be held back so long. Guys, quit being such pansies. Women like real men who only want sex, guns, and any chance to kill people!
And then there’s the matter of the unintentional comedy.
JJ is a data analyst at the FBI who’s also apparently a hacking genius: “This is the most advanced encryption I’ve ever seen…I’m in!” He drags Pops into a completely ridiculous drug case where the clues come easy and the henchman stand straight up in every line of fire while explaining their motivations for giving chase (“It’s that Shaft kid! He saw everything!”)
Is Jackson a wonderful badass who’s perfect for this? Duh.
Does Regina Hall (as JJ’s mother) brighten every scene she’s in? She always does.
Do the samples of Isaac Hayes’s original music remind it’s probably the greatest theme in movie history? You damn right!
And Richard Roundtree again, casually dismissing that “Uncle Shaft” business from last time? Love it so hard.
There are fun elements here, but the lazy execution never fully commits to the promising setup. Shaft’s early self-awareness ends up devolving into self-parody and sadly, I cannot dig that.
Someone somewhere at some recent point in history must have said, “What we need is another Men in Black movie.”
Someone else surely disagreed, suggesting that they’d beaten
that dead alien long enough.
“We’ll change it up,” this imaginary and somehow sad
conversation continued. “Hire a new director, new writers, new actors, take it
international. It’ll be—”
And there you have it. F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) directs an entirely new batch of humans in black as they don sunglasses, erase memories and suss out an alien conspiracy in their ranks, this time on European soil.
Tessa Thompson shines, as is her way, starring as Molly, a tenacious nerd who’s tracked down this mystery organization in hopes of a shot at joining. Head of the US division, Agent O (Emma Thompson—no relation that we know of, but how cool would that be?!) reluctantly gives her a shot.
As expected, all scenes between the Thompsons spark. And, as T. Thom has proven twice already, she shares solid onscreen chemistry with Chris Hemsworth, here portraying her new partner, H.
Gizmo-riffic adventures follow, although it’s pretty soft. There are a couple of fun sight gags, especially one with a hammer. Kumail Nanjiani pops off a few drolly comical lines as this go-round’s cute little alien sidekick, Pawnie.
Then the three are off to Marrakesh, then a fortress island, back to London, a desert, and London again all in pursuit of answers about a tiny little device and the evil twins looking for it. But the storyline was never really the MIB selling point, it was the relationship between the partners.
Thompson and Hemsworth seem like fine choices, having shown both chemistry and comedic spark in Thor: Ragnarok. But Thompson’s early, geeky charm is given little opportunity to show itself once she dons the black suit, and Hemsworth—fun enough as he, once again, basically mocks his own persona—has even less opportunity.
Writers Matt Holloway and Art Marcum don’t articulate enough in the way of plot or character arc and Gray’s listless direction leaves us with a Summer popcorn muncher that coasts rather than thrills.
Just weeks ago, Long Shot gave us an in-the-moment, proudly raunchy comedy with brains and big laughs. Audiences largely balked.
Late Night also offers plenty of insightful funny business, but trades the hard R-rating for a more agreeable sell, one that will hopefully translate into selling more tickets.
Mindy Kaling’s debut screenplay may be ultimately eager to please, but it’s also a sharp and solidly funny takedown of the challenge in navigating a social landscape in motion.
Kaling also stars as Molly, a factory worker who’s main outside interest is comedy. Though her only standup experience is cracking them up over the intercom at work, Molly lands an interview for a writing gig at her favorite late night talk show.
Her timing is perfect. Comic legend Katherine Newbury (a pitch-perfect, absolutely Oscar-worthy Emma Thompson) has ordered some diversity be added to her all male, all pale writing staff, so Molly gets the gig.
Katherine may have been the first woman to enter the late night wars, but her act has grown stale and complacent. Icon or no, Katherine faces an overthrow attempt from a network president (Amy Ryan) with eyes on an obnoxiously edgy comedian (Ike Barinholtz as Kaling’s barely-veiled swipe at Daniel Tosh) as new host.
Can Molly’s fresh comedic takes save her hero’s job?
Credit Kaling and director Nisha Ganatra for answering that question without sacrificing the bigger points at work.
From slut shaming and #metoo to diversity, office politics and the shifting sands of comedic relevance, Kaling’s script is brimming with writing-what-you-know confidence, even when it’s coasting on roads most traveled.
But still, in those most predictable moments, Thompson’s deliciously droll timing meshes irresistibly with Kaling’s wide-eyed enthusiasm. They both get able support from a uniformly solid ensemble, and the biggest question mark about Late Night becomes that R rating.
The convenient layups the film settles for in act 3 seem like an understandable trade-off for a greater chance at mainstream appeal. So why not trim a few of those F-bombs to get a PG-13?
Late Night deserves plenty of eyeballs. For F@#! sake, let’s hope it gets them.