The Spy Behind Home Plate – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

In addition to various books and a narrative feature film (The Catcher Was a Spy [2018]) about the enigmatic athlete, scholar, and patriot Morris (Moe) Berg, baseball fans now have a documentary by director Aviva Kempner to add to the mix. The doc covers most of Berg’s adult life through photographs, newspaper clippings, interviews with baseball experts, authors, and historians, and archival footage of Berg, his family, and his overseas adventures.

Spied for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)

Berg caught and fielded during baseball’s Golden Age in the 1920s and 1930s during his 15-year athletic career. Well-known for also earning a law degree from Columbia Law School, speaking ten languages, memorizing facts about multiple subjects, and overcoming Jewish stereotypes, he also spied for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Europe to help America undermine Germany’s war efforts.

Moe Berg’s Passport

In addition to a few personal facts—including his father’s disdain for baseball and Moe’s reputation as a womanizer—the film divides its time between his professional career and his spy efforts. Berg’s time working for the Brooklyn Robins (which became the Dodgers), the Chicago White Sox, the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Senators, and the Boston Red Sox are highlighted, along with a mention of his mediocre running skills. Berg’s exotic travels to Japan, Paris, and Switzerland (often shrouded in mystery about their purpose) included instructions to film specific locations and interview Italian physicists about their knowledge of the German bomb program.     

Moe Berg: An American Hero

It’s hard to imagine a more intriguing real-life person to document. Berg was handsome, charming, athletic, brilliant, fluent, and daring. Despite the dramatic elements in his life and the enigmatic nature of the man, this documentary lacks the sizzle that Berg apparently possessed. Although it covers all the bases (so to speak), the doc fails to draw any important conclusions or delve into the psychology of the man.

We learn that parental pressure caused the respected athlete to also pursue a law degree, but there’s no insight into why Berg would repeatedly risk his life to gather information for his country. Rumors of his homosexuality (addressed in other works about him) are not addressed here; in fact, he’s portrayed as a ladies’ man.

The doc outlines the important facts about Berg and presents plenty of experts (often accompanied by their books on the subject prominently displayed next to them). Even so, there’s little dramatic flair in this film, despite the obvious dramatic flair of its subject. Yes, he clearly was an American hero, but what drove him to it?   

The Spy Behind Home Plate

This documentary focuses on Moe Berg, a professional major league baseball player and spy during WWII.

  • Stars: Moe Berg (archive footage),  Sam Berg (archive footage), Brad Ausmus, Bruce Adams, Ira Berkow, Nicholas Dawidoff, Robert K. Fitts, Franklin Foer
  • Writer-Director: Aviva Kempner
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Run Time: 101 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

The Tomorrow Man – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Contrived quirkiness is the main ingredient in this love story about two dysfunctional hoarders: one prepares for a future world disaster and the other hangs onto everything from the past (and then some).

John Lithgow and Blythe Danner star in The Tomorrow Man. Photo copyright 2019 Bleecker Street.

Ed Hemsler (John Lithgow) is an aging, divorced retiree who blogs about doomsday conspiracies on the internet. His son (Derek Cecil) considers his father to be a paranoid ass—a highly annoying paranoid ass who can’t stop blabbing about an impending disaster for which we should all prepare.

Isolated and Lonely

One day, Ed sees an attractive woman in his age range at the grocery store where he buys his bomb shelter supplies. Despite his isolation and awkwardness, he strikes up a conversation with Ronnie (Blythe Danner) and the two misfits spark an attraction. Ronnie is loaded with quirks—simultaneously shy and outspoken, a bad dresser but stylish in her own way. We soon learn that Ronnie’s only child died as a youngster, and she holds onto memories and physical items as a means of finding connection to something.

During their sweet, but rocky, relationship, the two learn secrets about each other. Old habits die hard, especially among the well-over 60 crowd. Both need to make adjustments to fit into society a little better, and more importantly, maintain their newfound relationship.

Too Many Quirks

Sometimes it feels like the script tries too hard for cute comments, offbeat humor, and general quirkiness. For instance, Ed has an absurd passion for ball bearings, geeky Ronnie works at a very hip gift shop, and Ronnie’s 20-something boss (Eve Harlow) dishes out advice on sex, love, and dating to her much-older employee as if she were a child. When Ronnie sings “Muskat Love” (Ed’s favorite song) on the car radio, he screeches the car to a halt and bolts out the door because it’s all just too perfect.

Although acting and production values are solid, the shaky script provides an interesting story that suffers slightly in the implementation. A few less quirks and a little more authenticity would have helped The Tomorrow Man see a brighter future.

The Tomorrow Man

A man obsessed with the future and a woman stuck in the past find love in a small town.

  • Stars: John Lithgow, Blythe Danner, Derek Cecil, Katie Aselton, Sophie Thatcher, Eve Harlow, Wendy Makkena
  • Writer-Director: Noble Jones
  • Genre: Romantic Drama
  • Run Time: 94 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language and some suggestive material)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

Tolkien – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

The latest in the recent proliferation of writer-based biopics, Tolkien recounts the early life and young adulthood of J.R.R. Tolkien (portrayed by Nicholas Hoult as a young man), best known as the author of the children’s fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Like the biopics, Rebel in the Rye (also starring Hoult as J.D. Salinger), The Man Who Invented Christmas (starring Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens), and Goodbye Christopher Robin (starring Domhnall Gleeson as A.A. Milne), this film focuses on the inspiration for what would become classic stories celebrated by generations of readers (and moviegoers).

Nicholas Hoult stars in Tolkien

As the actual process of writing is mostly cerebral and therefore not inherently interesting, the film must focus elsewhere. In this case, Tolkien looks at how the impoverished young Tolkien brothers lose their father and mother before John (the “J” in J.R.R.) turns 13, and must live with an elderly matron who takes in young orphans. While there, John meets another resident, Edith (Lily Collins), who is studying to be a pianist. Their budding romance interferes with his school grades, and is soon halted by Father Francis (Colm Meaney), a well-meaning, but misguided priest who made a promise to John’s dying mother that the boy would attend college and make something of himself.    

A Fellowship of Words and Beauty

Without Edith, John turns to his three best friends for support, classmates Robert (Patrick Gibson), Geoffrey (Anthony Boyle), and Christopher (Tom Glynn-Carney), with whom he forms an after-school think tank. Together, they plan to change the world through the power of art. Their fellowship of words and beauty, however, is disrupted by World War I, which forever breaks apart their bond. The film is told mainly through flashbacks from the battlefield, as John struggles desperately to find Geoffrey in the heat of a grisly attack.  

One of the film’s chief goals appears to be laying the groundwork for Tolkien’s eventual creation of Middle Earth. We learn of his love for inventing language, his connection to “rings,” his anguished love affair with a woman he is forbidden to see, and horrific battle scenes forever seared into his memory. While providing possible connections from Tolkien’s past to his groundbreaking books, the film leaves much unsaid – merely offering suggestions of where some ideas or images might have originated.

The acting is terrific, and the transition from younger actors to older ones especially so. Music by Thomas Newman is often reminiscent of the feature films based on Tolkien’s work. Production values excel across the board, making Tolkien a must-see for fans of the books and film trilogy.

Tolkien

The adolescent and early adult years of the famed author J.R.R. Tolkien are examined in this drama that explores how his real-life experiences influenced his later books.

  • Stars: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Patrick Gibson, Anthony Boyle, Tom Glynn-Carney
  • Director: Dome Karukoski
  • Writers: David Gleeson, Stephen Beresford
  • Genre: Biographical Drama
  • Run Time: 112 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some sequences of war violence)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

2019 Florida Film Festival Awards

By Leslie C. Halpern

The 28th Annual Florida Film Festival, produced by Enzian Theater with primary sponsor Full Sail University, concluded on April 21 after showcasing 184 feature and short films from 41 countries during the 10-day event.

Winners of the American Independent Competition and The Female Filmmaker to Watch award were announced on Saturday, April 20 at the Awards Bash held at Oliver’s Classic Cars in Winter Park, Florida.

Shorts Winners

  • Audience Award for Best Midnight Short. Chowboys: An American Folktale. Directed by Astron-6
  • Special Jury Award for Innovative Storytelling. Technology Lake: Meditations on Death and Sex. Directed by Brandon Daley
  • Grand Jury Award for Best Animated Short. Las Del Diente. Directed by Ana Perez Lopez
  • Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative Short.  Lockdown. Directed by Celine Held and Logan George
  • Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary Short. Departing Gesture. Directed by Brian Bolster and Jonathan Napolitano
  • Audience Award for Best Short Film. The Next Edition. Directed by Alice Li and Whitney Shefte.

Documentary Features Winners

  • Special Jury Award for Excellence in Documentary Filmmaking. The Interpreters. Directed by Andres Caballero and Sofian Khan
  • Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature. Kifaru. Directed by David Hambridge
  • Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature. Roll Red Roll. Directed by Nancy Schwartzman.
Taylor Buck won a Special Jury Award for Outstanding Performance in Princess of the Row. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

Narrative Features Winners

  • Special Jury Award for Outstanding Performance. Tayler Buck in Princess of the Row. Directed by Van Maximilian Carlson
  • Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature. Postal. Directed by Tyler Falbo
  • Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature. Chained for Life. Directed by Aaron Schimberg.

International Winners

  • Audience Award for Best International Feature. Yomeddine (Egypt/Austria/USA). Directed by Abu Bakr Shawky
  • Audience Award for Best International Short. Nefta Football Club (France/Tunisia). Directed by Yves Piat.

Female Filmmaker to Watch Award

  • Presented by Chloe Wine Collection to Alix Lambert. Director of Edge of Daybreak and Prison Zoo.

For complete information about the Festival visit the official website.

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

Teen Spirit – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Set in Whiting Isle, UK, this coming-of-age Cinderella story stars Elle Fanning as Violet, an introverted 17-year-old girl who feels trapped by her circumstances. Her single mother runs a small farm, and needs her daughter to work part-time at a diner to help support them. Between school, work, singing with the choir, and dealing with her unhappy Polish mother, Violet leads a lonely, unsatisfying life.

Teen Spirit.
Elle Fanning stars in Teen Spirit. Photo copyright 2018 Bleecker Street.

In a desperate act of rebellion, she sneaks off to sing at a local bar at night (pretending to be 21 years old), and meets Vlad (Zlatko Buric), an elderly alcoholic who was once a famous opera star. After her performance, for which only Vlad claps, Violet is faced with a group of drunken men harassing her at the bus stop or accepting Vlad’s offer for a ride home. She accepts Vlad’s offer, and they form a friendship of sorts.

New Singing Sensation

When an American Idol style competition called Teen Spirit comes to town recruiting for a new UK singing sensation, naturally Violet wants to audition, but knows her mother won’t approve. Having conveniently met Vlad a couple of weeks prior to the audition, she asks him to serve as her guardian.

Not content to prevaricate without profit, Vlad says if she wins and makes it big, he will serve as her manager and take 50 percent of her earnings. As Violet inches closer and closer to winning the local competition and moving on to the regional bout in London,  they inform her mother, who reluctantly agrees to the arrangement, but tells Vlad he gets only 15 percent.

Teens Should Love It

Although Fanning sings her own songs and does a good job of it, much of this film feels overly familiar. Some scenes and characters, including a jealous nemesis at school, an impoverished home life, a fairy godmother (in this case a drunken opera singer), and schemers ready to take advantage of her at the competitions, are predictable and trite. Likewise, her emotional outbursts at Vlad and his eventual return may send jaded adults out to the concession stand for refills. Even some of the music is recycled hits from earlier times.

Teens, however, probably won’t notice or mind the lack of fresh material. They have a hero to admire. Violet’s humble beginnings, lack of poise, and complete absence of social skills make her relatable, as does her pretty girl next door appearance that while pleasing, fails to dazzle. Buric also does a fine job in his portrayal of a man who has lost most of his reasons for living until he sees the potential in a young stranger at a bar. Backstory is barely covered, or even relevant, because this film is strictly in-the-moment.

Teen Spirit

A small-town farm girl dreams of becoming a pop star in this Cinderella story.

  • Stars: Elle Fanning, Agnieszka Grochowska, Archie Madekwe, Zlatko Buric
  • Director and Writer: Max Minghella
  • Genre: Musical Drama
  • Run Time: 92 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some suggestive content, and for teen drinking and smoking)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.