Sunday, July 07, 2019

Friday Double Feature: The Spy Behind Home Plate & The Third Wife

Not a real problem: Having so little time between returning from a baseball-inspired vacation and leaving for a three-week film festival, with a family barbecue in between, that you despair of how you're going to fit all the movies you want to see into the days allotted, and only belatedly think, hey, I could just see two right now. Sure, it keeps you up a little late on a night where you need to catch a bus the next day, but not excessively so. Concerns about this not really meshing well as a double feature are also unimportant.

That vacation had me missing the owning weekend of Spy when the director was present, and I wondered if anybody had asked her about the things included in last year's Moe Berg movie that wasn't in hers, most notably the hint that he was bi. It connected a lot of how his story was told in that once but wasn't mentioned here, with the only real reference that Berg had a life outside his own head a brief line about him having the reputation of a ladies' man. As I mentioned last year, it's the sort of thing that might be hard to make stand up, because he apparently was pretty good at keeping secrets, but I also kind of wonder if it's the sort of thing an LGBTQ person might infer from this movie, just from knowing the empty space to look for. At any rate, it's the sort of thing that highlights how both films are imperfect, although I suspect they both got made with similar intentions.

I think the second movie of the night, The Third Wife, might have been playing on the next screen over at the IFC Center when I was there a month and a half ago, but just reached Boston now. I liked it more than Spy but had a harder time lasting through it, which I mostly chalk up to lingering time zone issues. I did find it kind of amusing that this very Vietnamese film had a prominent credit thanking Spike Lee that day after I saw Do the Right Thing for the first time, but later on they mention a fellowship he endows or sponsors, so I guess that's just moe reason to like him.

The Spy Behind Home Plate

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 July 2019 in Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run, DCP)

Usually you get the documentary first and then the less-impressive narrative version afterward, but that order is reversed for Moe Berg, as The Spy Behind Home Plate comes out almost exactly a year after The Catcher Was a Spy. This documentary is a broader look at the life of their subject than the narrative feature, wholly avoiding and arguably repudiating what served as the other film's central conceit while focusing more on his background. Even together they probably don't tell his whole story, though this one gives you the full sweep.

For those who have not heard of Berg, he was born in 1902, the third child of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, and both a gifted baseball player and high-achieving student from a young age. His skill with a bat helped get him into Princeton at a time they did not admit many Jewish students; his keen intellect made him both a catcher prized for his game-calling abilities and a favorite of sportswriters. In 1932 and 1934, Berg - who already spoke ten languages and traveled during the offseason - joined other players in tours of Japan, surreptitiously filming infrastructure of the already-militarized nation on the second, with that footage reaching the State Department. When the United States joined the war after Pearl Harbor, Berg joined the OSS, and would be sent on undercover missions in Europe.

Berg's life both gives potential audiences several points of entry and the filmmakers license to travel in a dozen different directions, which can be a tricky thing - there can seem like a lot of time spent on Berg's father for someone who came for a World War II story, or too much material on the founding of the OSS for someone drawn in by the baseball. It's a documentary that is necessarily sometimes a mile wide and an inch deep, but that is also a huge part of the appeal of this story - it legitimately stretches from the religious traditions of a Ukranian village to which sort of nuclear physics Werner Heisenberg was researching, and it's a rare viewer that won't learn something new from watching it. Writer/director/producer Aviva Kempner does a fair job of juggling which threads get the most time, even if she occasionally can't help but follow a path is more too good to leave out (for instance, Babe Ruth's anger and betrayal after Pearl Harbor) than a particularly important part of a story that already includes a lot.

Full review on EFilmCritic

The Third Wife

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 July 2019 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run, DCP)

The Third Wife is the sort of film where the first subtitle doesn't appear for a while and dialogue can be sparse throughout, asking the audience to soak it up as the wispy story plays out. It earns the audience's patience, by and large, and does an impressive job of immersion even as it is built to be seen with a modern eye.

In order to do that, it opens with a little bit of text to set the scene: It's the late 19th century, in Vietnam, and 14-year-old May (Nguyen Phong Tra My) has just become the third wife of a wealthy land-owner. The audience watches her meet her new family on her wedding night, and then start learning the ways of her new life. For some movies, this might be the start of a tale of competition and intrigue, but senior wives Ha (Tran Nu Yen Khe) and Xuan (Mai Thu Huong Maya) seem mostly friendly, even if she is closer in age to Xuan's daughters Lien (Lam Thanh My) and Nhan (Mai Cat Vi). Ha has more status because she has produced a male heir, Son (Nguyen Thanh Tam), so May naturally hopes that the child she is carrying will also be a boy.

Not much seems to be happening at first, aside from the scene where May and her husband consummate their marriage, but filmmaker Ash Mayfair is good at making the audience look and ponder. She and cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj frame May traveling to her new home in the middle of the river, pointedly alone as the sole passenger on a slender boat, and then framed by much older men at the reception. There's an uncertain distance between her and Xuan's daughters in early shots, and nervous gazes at Ha and Xuan. It's a catalog of ways that May doesn't feel like she fits in or belongs, even as the different scenes show her more integrated into the household It does hit some visual metaphors pretty hard, whether caves or silkworms or enough attention to the nightshade growing all over the landscape that you can't help but wonder who will be poisoned.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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