Sunday, June 24, 2018

Secret Agent Saturday: The Catcher Was a Spy and Lobster Cop

You would think that a movie about a Red Sox player who later went on missions for the OSS during World War II, one that was apparently shot in Fenway Park (with some CGI to knock about 80 years off the place), and one that played into the idea that its hero (played by Paul Rudd with an impressive supporting cast) was bisexual would find a few scenes in Boston during Pride Month, but no. If you want to see The Catcher Was a Spy in this area, you're heading out to West Newton. Good thing Moe Berg was also Jewish, or it might not have played there!

I kid, a bit; that the proprietors of the West Newton Cinema are willing to zero in on a specific audience and cater to it is actually something I genuinely admire about the place. I've talked before about how this neighborhood 6-plex is a genuine independent theater, so I won't repeat too much now. There's a bad side to that - I would hate to visit the old place in a wheelchair, for instance, and I suspect they're the sort of theater that keeps costs down by trying to stretch protector bulbs (I've read reviews claiming Catcher has gorgeous cinematography, but I found it hard to see). But it's no-nonsense and kind of homey in the way a lot of theaters aren't, the kind of place you'd hope to end up if you do actually have to go looking for a movie, even if that's because the movie really isn't that good.

That said, I do think the movie is good enough and of enough interest to a local audience that I'm surprised Some Cinemas in Fresh Pond didn't book it; they'll run less commercial indies that don't have the likes of Rudd in the cast for two shows a day, even if it's also playing VOD. I half-suspect that's on the distributor - IFC and Magnolia don't seem to have the sort of relationship with places like Fresh Pond that newer labels like The Orchard do, or they try to shoot too high (if they can't get a full screen at Kendall Square, they maybe don't settle).

Anyway, I don't really mind doing the Red Line-70A-57-553 thing to get there. The 70A used to be my bus to work, and seeing the gentrification/ development going on there is kinds of weird, but it's not my neighborhood to complain about. And it does apparently mean another movie theater in the general area, and I can't complain much about that.

Following that was a trip back downtown (553-57-B Line) to catch another movie at a theater catering to its local audience - the Boston Common theater is right outside Chinatown - for another movie about folks going undercover. Fresh new lot of previews for Chinese movies - L.O.R.D. 2, Detective Dee 3, Oolong Courtyard, and The Leaker from Hong Kong - and I'm kind of glad I don't have to head out of town for those.

The Catcher Was a Spy

* * (out of four)
Seen 23 June 2018 in West Newton Cinema #4 (first-run, DCP)

Morris "Moe" Berg, this film tells us, was an enigma, and he had reason to be during his life; he was Jewish in a time when one didn't loudly declare it, a "lifelong bachelor" who zealously guarded his privacy, and an academic achiever who spent his youth as a professional baseball player before undertaking missions for the OSS during World War II. It's a shame that the filmmakers aren't more interested in cracking that shell in order to see what's underneath.

Screenwriter Robert Rodat takes a fair amount of liberties with the story, starting by moving a 1934 all-star tour of Japan to 1936, when he was a backup catcher for the Boston Red Sox. While there, Berg (Paul Rudd) meets a Japanese historian (Hiroyuki Sanada) who opines that their countries will inevitably go to war and then surreptitiously makes his way to the roof of one of Tokyo's tallest buildings to get footage of the city's layout, including the naval yards. After Pearl Harbor, he contacts a friend from Princeton who works in the State Department. There's a place for smart, physically capable who speak nearly a dozen languages like Berg in the Office of Strategic Services, and though he's initially placed on a desk, he's given a mission to accompany Dutch physicist Samuel Goudsmit (Paul Giamatti) to Rome to learn what progress Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong) has made as the head of Germany's nuclear program - a mission that will take him to Zurich, where Heisenberg frequently visits colleague Paul Scherrer (Tom Wilkinson), tasked with assassinating Heisenberg if necessary.

You could cut about half of that out and still have a story that sounds too good to be true, but the trick is to tell it well. The basics of Berg's story are enough to capture the imagination, but the filmmakers seem a bit too willing to just let the audience fill in the details rather than stitch it together into a particular story. The through-line they do find is speculative, positing that his skill and passion for secrecy comes from being a closeted bisexual man in that era. It's entirely possible - Berg's ability to keep a secret might just have been good enough to leave no trace even when it might have made him a queer icon in the present - but it's a direction that can only have a limited payoff. The way they loudly tap-dance around his sexuality is right out of the era's playbook - shouted slurs rebutted by a heterosexual sex scene, assertions of open-mindedness only backed up by hints - so it's a kind of half-hearted commitment to the theme.

Full review on EFC

Long Xia Xing Jing (Lobster Cop)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 June 2018 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, DCP)

Lobster Cop may not necessarily be the best "undercover cops find they enjoy their cover story" comedy ever made, but a fairly decent one. It's got a brisk pace, a grimy messiness that seems to fit with its plot than the usual upscale setting, and gags that are just familiar enough to work without overplaying but not lazy. It's not groundbreaking, but it's a capable comedy that gets the job done.

It starts with a drug bust that can best be described as going so-so, which is par for the course with Squad 8 - motormouth leader Du Yufei (Wang Qianyuan), scruffy Hua Jie (Yuan Shanshan), rookie Chen Li (Zhou You), and veteran Neng Shu (Liu Hua). It leads them up the chain to gangsters Song Hui (Zhou Yunpeng) and Dong Zi (Cao Xing), although Du would much rather be watching the ones all the way up. They stumble onto a run-down crayfish restaurant that offers them a perfect surveillance point for Song's "logistics company", and wind up buying it. The plan is to keep it closed, but it turns out that Neng is a natural chef, and they're soon packed to the walls, with one loyal customer (Zhang Jincheng) especially fond of Neng and his cooking.

There are times when it seems like writer/director Li Xinyun (sometimes credited on other films as "Sabrina Li" or "Li Xiaofeng") was substantially more ruthless in the editing room than most Chinese directors who see their films cross the Pacific; Lobster Cop is 94 minutes including credits whose outtakes hint at subplots that have only the very smallest portions still remaining in the film. That's not necessarily a bad thing overall - I wonder if Li's own experience as an actress put it in her head that that Hua Jie plays more interesting with less material if what's cut is just a perfunctory thread pairing her off with one of the male characters - but it does leave what feel a bit like odd stubs on the movie at times. Fortunately, most of the plot-advancing bits also have a good joke or two in them, and though many of them are just worth a chuckle, relatively few fall completely flat. Li gets good mileage out of both the "family-owned restaurant" and the "logistics company" pushing at each other while trying to hide their true nature, as well as Du's seething envy of Squad 1. Mileage will vary on some - given that the best surveillance point is in the bathroom, there's a fair amount of literal toilet humor and basic horror at the grunginess of the place, and Uncle Nine's apparent crush on Neng often crosses the line from "you're mistaken" to gay panic material.

Full review on EFC

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