erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2011 posts

Wednesday April 13, 2011

Movie Review: Win Win (2011)

WARNING: TAKE-DOWN SPOILERS

I left “Win Win” in a calm state of mind. Tom McCarthy’s movies tend to do that to me. I went home, fed the cat, got ready to write, turned on the light in my office, and, pop!, one of the two light bulbs in the ancient, overhead lamp blew out. So I got out the stepladder and replaced the bulb. But it was one of those new curlicue bulbs that gives off a harsher, more piercing light. Didn’t like it. So I removed it, fumbled for an old-fashioned, softer bulb. Wouldn’t screw in properly. The overhead lamp, as I said, is ancient, and probably needs electrical work, and finally I gave up, returned the unspent bulb to its case, returned the stepladder to the closet, turned on the light with its one working light bulb, and sat down to write this, as calm as could be. If I’d just seen a Michael Bay movie I probably would have yanked the overhead lamp down by its roots.

McCarthy, as an actor, is most memorable to me as the fictionalizing, preppy journalist from the final season of “The Wire”—a role so indelible I doubt I’ll ever be able to trust his face again—but he’s directed three movies now: “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor,” and “Win Win.” Three for three.

"Win Win," directed by Thomas McCarthy, starring Paul GiamattiHe’s been topical lately, hasn’t he? Muslim incarceration and deportation in “The Visitor”; now the post-global financial meltdown world.

We never hear those words in “Win Win,” though, do we? The film doesn’t mention Wall Street or subprime mortgage loans or CEO salaries. It’s just tough economic times. The movie could take place in the late 1970s.

Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is an attorney with a small, solo practice, a wife and two girls, and a metaphorical piece of toilet paper stuck to his shoe. Nothing goes right for him. The dead tree out front needs to be taken down, the clunking furnace in his office needs replacing, but he has no money for either of these things because his business is dying. Plus he’s having anxiety attacks. Plus the high school wrestling team he coaches is oh-for-whatever. They’re winless. They’re lose-lose.

Then a solution to his money woes presents itself and changes everything. A client, Leo Poplar (Burt Young), suffering the early stages of dementia, can no longer live on his own but doesn’t want to become a ward of the state, and his one relation, a drug-addicted daughter, can’t be found. What to do? Mike’s secretary, Shelly (Nina Arianda), mentions how she sure could use that $1500 guardian fee ... which is when the light bulb goes on over Mike’s head. During the court hearing to determine Leo’s future address, Mike convinces the judge that he will become Leo’s guardian, and the judge, after some befuddlement, agrees. Instead, Mike takes Leo to an assisted living facility. Mike is pocketing $1500 a month from the state, Leo gets cared for at Oak Knoll, it’s win-win. Except it’s completely unethical and could get him disbarred.

For a time, to be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what was going on, because McCarthy cuts away before the judge makes her ruling. But you suspect something’s not right ... just as most of us suspected something wasn’t right with those subprime mortgage loans. This is McCarthy’s M.O. He doesn’t hand us things; he doesn’t engage in sloppy or obvious backstory. He lets events play out. Knowledge comes by and by.

The wins for Mike keep coming, too. Watching Leo’s house, he finds, on his front steps, Leo’s grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), the drug addict’s son, a teenager with dyed blonde hair and deadpan expression, lost in the buzz of an iPod. Leo didn’t know he existed but accepts it with the calm fatalism of most McCarthy characters. (Which explains my own calm fatalism with the light bulb.) Kyle, meanwhile, turns out to be a great wrestler, and, when he lands on Mike’s wrestling team, he becomes a kind of Roy Hobbs for the suburban New Jersey set. He inspires others to win. Or lose less.

Shaffer was a wrestler and non-actor in suburban New Jersey when McCarthy plucked him for the role, and his character, who has some of the funnier scenes in the film, bursts the confinements of the stereotypical teen. He’s monosyllabic but not sullen. He seems to have no goals until he does. There’s something almost Zen about him. The men become fans. When Mike and his friend, Terry Delfino (McCarthy regular Bobby Cannavale), find a clip of Kyle at the Ohio state wrestling tournament, they high-five each other and whoop it up. When assistant coach Stephen Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor), well-meaning but even more hapless than Mike, sees Kyle wrestle, he says, “I don’t think there’s anything we can teach him.” After a match, we get this exchange in the school hallway:

Mike: What is it like—to be as good as you are?
Kyle: Feels like I’m in control. Of everything. You know?
Mike: Must be nice.

That’s one of the great ironies of the film. Kyle has no control over his life (he has to live where people say), Leo has no control over his life (he has to live where people say), but the people who do have control, like Mike, feel like they have no control. Maybe because they’re the ones who actually run things. You only feel out of control when you’re supposed to have it in the first place.

The ethical lapse in the first act, of course, goes off in the third. Kyle’s mom, Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), turns up, friendly but with a local lawyer (Margo Martindale, the Denver mail carrier from “Paris je t’aime”), and demands custody of both Kyle and Leo. Transcripts are dug up, Mike’s secret is revealed. What will happen?

Surprisingly little. The ethical lapse is confronted personally but not penalized professionally, while the solution Mike feared in the beginning—getting a second job as a bartender—is the solution he embraces in the end. It’s not exactly a Hollywood ending but there are Hollywood elements to it. The economic crisis in the film world means having to take a second job; the economic crisis in the real world means being unable to find the first.

Even so, bravo. It’s sad that a film like this—accessible, funny and warm; a crowd-pleaser that doesn’t pander or dumb down—can’t get wider distribution. Maybe if more of us saw it we’d be a calmer country.

Posted at 06:50 AM on Apr 13, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Wednesday April 06, 2011

Movie Review: “La Rafle” (2010)

WARNING: SIX MILLION SPOILERS

You know how you have that moment when you can choose not to eat a cookie or pastry, and you hold it in your hand and some part of your brain thinks, “This isn’t a good idea,” but you pop it into your mouth anyway; and even as all that sweetness is coursing through your system, regret sets in, because it’s what you wanted but it’s not what you needed? I’m increasingly feeling like that at the movies.

I felt like that at the end of “La rafle” (“The Round-Up”), Rose Bosch’s film about the Vel’ d’Hiv incident, in which, at the behest of the Nazis, and with the help of French police and civil servants, 13,000 Jews were taken from their homes in Paris in July 1942, placed in the Velodrome d’Hiver for nearly a week, then the internment camps of Drancy, France, before, after further deprivations, being carted off to extermination camps in Poland. One of the film’s final scenes takes place in July 1945. The sympathetic, Protestant nurse, Annette Monod (Melanie Laurent), is working at a center where survivors, some still wearing the striped, soiled uniforms of the camps, look for lost loved ones and generally find death certificates. But Annette runs into Jo Weismann (Hugo Leverdez), the cute, blonde-haired boy "La rafle." (2010)who made his escape from the camp and survived the war. He’s with a family up north now, he tells her, and she nods, tears in her eyes. She’s happy to make this connection but we know her heart really goes out for Nono Zygler (Mathieu/Romain Di Concerto), a curly-haired boy, motherless but ignorant of his motherless status back in ’42. Annette had wanted to save him then, but was feverish, and knowledge about the final destination of the Jews, Hitler’s Final Solution, came to her too late, and he’d been carted off with the others. Yet here, at the center, shortly after the moment with Jo, she sees a boy walking through the crowd, holding up, in front of his face, a framed photo of a woman, a mother, who looks like, yes, the mother of Nono! And Annette follows that boy and that photo. Then she squats in front of him and moves the picture aside.

By this point I’d long given up on “La rafle.” I knew it had taken one of the most tragic events of the 20th century and turned it into kitsch. Even so, at this moment, I thought, “Let it be him.”

And it was him! It was little Nono, hardly aged for whatever horrors he’d gone through! And Annette begins to cry from happiness and holds the boy in her arms. And immediately, with all that sweetness coursing through my system, regret set in. The scene was what I wanted but it wasn’t what I, nor the film, needed.

What is it with these recent movies about the horrors of World War II anyway? Why do we need to milk tragedy this way? Why is it not enough that Jewish mothers and children are stuffed into cattle cars bound for Poland? Do we need to intercut to the sympathetic, feverish nurse, biking to the train station on her last legs, on the hope that ... what? What if she got there in time? What could she do? Who would she stop? The French police? The Nazis? History? Yet the intercutting continues in order to heighten the drama. Or melodrama.

“La rafle” begins with video footage that still infuriates: Adolf Hitler, that failed architecture student, touring a conquered Paris in an open car in June 1940. Here he is checking out the Eiffel Tower. Here he is checking out the Arc d’Triomph. On the soundtrack, Edith Piaf sings nostalgically.

The action picks up two years later as Stars of David are introduced to the Jewish population. Jo is ashamed of his but comes out of his shell quickly and runs everywhere with his friends. Fat French merchants make anti-Semitic remarks about how many of them there suddenly are. Schmuel Weismann (Gad Elmaleh), a Polish immigrant, Trotskyite, and Great War veteran, assumes it’ll all blow over. He makes quiet jokes with his kids about how Hitler blames even the sinking of the Titanic on the Jews. “Iceberg,” he says. “Another damn Jew!” It’s a good scene, and that rare pun that works in both languages (since iceberg is the same in both languages).

Even as we’re introduced to these two families, the Weismanns and the Zyglers, we also get snippets of the various authorities who make the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup happen: Parisian politicians, national collaborators such as Marechal Petain (Roland Cope) and Pierre Laval (Jean-Michel Noirey), and, most unnecessarily, the Nazis themselves, Hitler and Himmler, who talk about the deportation matter-of-factly in the mountains of Bavaria. Udo Schenk, generally a voice actor, is approximately the 275th man to play Hitler in the movies and doesn’t acquit himself. His moustache seems too dark or his hair too light or something. He seems off. Also unnecessary. Why include such scenes? To exculpate French gentiles in some way? As if Melanie Laurent doesn’t do that on her own.

But they waste our time, and thus, when the round-up begins, we barely know the Weismanns and the Zyglers beyond, you know, Jo is popular and likes to run; Nono is innocent and cloyingly cute in the way of Chaplin kids. At the velodrome we’re introduced to Dr. David Sheinbaum (Jean Reno), who is singlehandedly trying to administer to all the medical needs of too many people in too small a space. A vague romance, or at least an understanding, is sparked with Nurse Monod. A plumber helps a young girl who... oh, right, there’s another family, isn’t there? The Traubes. They’re most notable for Anna (Adèle Exarchopoulos), who, with the plumber’s help, escapes. Does anything else happen with them? Not much anyway. Nothing became their lives like Anna leaving them.

There are other acts of kindness, both small and large, from the French gentiles; but more often the reduction of the Jews’ status brings out the bullies in petty French functionaries, who eye women, lounge on expensive couches, or drink expensive liquor, because now they can. Except we’ve seen it done better elsewhere.

Is the Holocaust such an incomprehensible moment in history that it’s best understood through documentary (“Nuit et brouillard,” “The Sorrow and the Pity,” “Shoah,” “A Film Unfinished”) or memoir (“Survival in Auschwitz,” “Night,” “Maus,” “The Diary of Ann Frank”)? Through a strict adherence to fact? The events are so horrific that the slightest fictional touch turns the drama into melodrama.

To my mind, only one movie, non-documentary, has done it right: Not “Schindler’s List,” which contains its own brand of melodrama, but Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist.” Polanski, of course, besides being an artist of the first rank, lived, just barely, through the Holocaust, and you can feel it in the film. It’s there in the way bodies fall; it’s there in the sudden matter-of-factness of death; it’s there in the lack of sentimentality.

“La rafle” is sentimental, melodramatic, pretty. It does a disservice.

Posted at 06:47 AM on Apr 06, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Monday April 04, 2011

Movie Review: “Sucker Punch” (2011)

WARNING: DON’T GO SEE THIS MOVIE. OH, SPOILERS, TOO.

“Sucker Punch” combines the worst aspects of American culture in one movie. Bravo. There’s violence without consequence, titillation without release, a gritty, comic-book surrealism masking as realism. The women are dolled up for sex, prone to violence, and treated as extras in their own story. The only thing more shabbily treated is the whole of human history, which is seen as a backdrop for cool stuff to happen.

We get a scene, for example, where the five female leads, with names like Baby Doll and Sweet Pea, wearing fetishistic gear such as bustiers and fishnet stockings, walk in slow motion through the Allied trenches of WW I. In the air, bi-planes swoop and dirigibles soar. "Sucker Punch" theatrical posterOne of the girls has a bare midriff, another sucks on a lollipop. Around them, the doughboys stare with dead expressions. They’re not fighters, these soldiers, but the girls are, and they’re about to take on the Germans, who are zombies now, in order to retrieve a map, which is merely the first step in their journey. The fact that within the movie none of this is really happening—it’s all in the head of Baby Doll as she dances her erotic dance for customers, which, by the way, isn’t really happening, either—doesn’t excuse it. The insult to history is so overwhelming I wish someone had copywritten WWI and could sue.

As awful as all this is, though, the most awful aspect of “Sucker Punch” may be its form rather than its content.

Since storytelling began, around whatever campfire or inside of whatever cave, our stories have tended to the horizontal: this happened then this happened then this happened. Recently, for a generation now, our most popular stories, video games, have tended to the vertical: you go to this place, then advance through four levels to get to the next place, where there are more levels. “Sucker Punch” is like a video game except we have no control over it. Alas.

Here’s the horizontal story: A girl is committed to a mental institution, where, after five days, she is lobotomized. The End.

Here’s the vertical story: Baby Doll (Emily Browning), petite and blonde, with big eyes and full lips, deals with her incarceration in a mental institution by escaping into a fantasy world, in which her doctor, Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), is a Russian dance instructor, and an orderly, Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac, in full throat), is a gangster who runs an erotic nightclub where all the girls are forced to dance. Why is this her fantasy—this odd mix of “Showgirls” and “White Nights”—rather than, I don’t know, the fantasy of writer-director Zack Snyder (“300”; “Watchmen”) and most of the fanboys in the audience? Sorry. Stupid question. I’m assuming Baby Doll is a three-dimensional character when she’s just a two-dimensional avatar for Snyder to move about to places where cool shit happens.

The cool shit, and most of the movie, doesn’t happen in the erotic nightclub, by the way. It happens in the fantasy world Baby Doll escapes into so she can perform her mesmerizing dances in the erotic nightclub. It’s the fantasy of her fantasy. And in this fantasy, she’s student to a wise man, known only as Wise Man, who is vaguely Oriental—she first meets him sitting in a temple in the lotus position and surrounded by Chinese characters and Japanese swords—but he’s played by Scott Glenn of Pittsburgh, Pa. Speaking in vaguely wise bromides with a tendency toward the American vulgar (e.g., “Don’t write a check with your mouth that you can’t cash with your ass”), he sends her on a quest to find five items: a map, fire, a knife, and a key. And the fifth thing? “The fifth thing is a mystery,” he tells her. “It is the reason. It is the goal. It will be a deep sacrifice and a perfect victory.” Then he sends her off to fight three giant samurai warriors in slow-motion

The actions in this double fantasy world correspond, in some fashion, to the actions in the fantasy world. So while, in Fantasy II, the girls steal the map from the zombie German commandant, in Fantasy I, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) steals a map out of the office of Blue Jones. One assumes this map-stealing corresponds to actions in the real world, the world of the mental asylum, but we barely see that world. We’re mostly just trying to get to the next level: first, World War I (map), then medieval castle and dragon (fire), then high-speed train (carrying a bomb: codenamed, clumsily, “kitchen knife”). Mom! Don’t bug me about the real world! I’m trying to get to the next le-vel!

It’s on the highspeed train that the fantasies fall apart. Rocket (Jena Malone), scrappy kid sister to Sweet Pea, dies on the train, and so dies in the kitchen of the erotic nightclub, and so, one assumes, dies in the mental asylum. And that’s our last double fantasy. The nightclub owner—read: nasty orderly—is onto the girls’ escape plan, and kills two of them. But then Baby Doll sticks a kitchen knife in his neck, sets a fire as a diversion, and uses his master key to unlock the doors to freedom. Except—still in the nightclub fantasy—there are too many 1940s gangstery dudes hanging out front. Which is when Baby Doll realizes what the fifth thing is. It’s herself. So she uses herself as a diversion to allow Sweet Pea to escape. And the moment the biggest gangster dude is about to shoot her in the head is the moment the doctor (Jon Hamm, of all actors) gives her a lobotomy.

That’s pretty much it. There’s some comeuppance for the nasty orderly, and, through the blissful face of a lobotomized Baby Doll, we see, in an apparent mix of Fantasy I and Fantasy II, Sweet Pea trying to board a bus to freedom, being stopped by cops, but being saved by the bus driver, the Wise Man, who uses subterfuge (an old Jedi mind trick) to send them away.

Meanwhile, the narrator (still Scott Glenn, I believe), asks the audience a series of questions about who holds what key to where, then gives us the answer that Baby Doll figured out for herself. “It’s you,” he says. “You have all the weapons you need. Now fight!” Cue: blast of hard rock/rap and the words “Directed by Zack Snyder.”

You know the guy at school who thinks he’s cool but is just ridiculous? Like Mike Damone, the ticket scalper, in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”? That’s “Sucker Punch.” “Sucker Punch” is the Mike Damone of movies.

What’s with this final message anyway? Yes, kids. Be like this movie. Go home, turn on your video game console, and fight.

Me, I went home, took a shower, and tried to wash this shit off me.

Posted at 06:32 AM on Apr 04, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Friday March 25, 2011

Movie Review: “Poetry” (2010)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry” begins with the sights and sounds of a river flowing toward the camera. It’s the opening shot, one assumes, because it’s a nice poetic image that represents beauty, and the flow of life, and yadda yadda. Then one realizes the sound of the water is similar to the Korean word for poetry (shi), so it has that going for it, too. Then we see the body. This body—who she was and what happened to her—will drive much of the film, so the opening image does what the best poetry does: It also serves a purpose.

“Poetry” is a slowly devastating film. I went hoping for some uplift, as per the trailer, but the trailer lies. Trailers, particularly trailers for foreign films, tend to lie.

Poster for the Korean film "Poetry" (2010)Mija (Yoon Jeong-hee, in her first role in nearly 20 years) is a 66-year-old woman caring for her worthless college-age grandson, Wook (Lee Da-wit). She also works part-time as a housemaid for an apparent stroke victim, and generally views life with a kind of childlike wonder. That won’t last.

As the film begins, she visits a doctor because her right arm feels prickly. “It’s like that thing passing though,” she says, and when the doctor asks, “What thing?,” she points to the light bulb. “Electricity?” the doctor asks. She nods, adding, with a small, apologetic smile, “I keep forgetting words.” For her arm, the doctor recommends some exercises. For her memory loss, about which he’s much more worried, he runs a series of tests. Halfway through the film she finds out she’s in the early stage of Alzheimer’s.

Is there a correlation between mental illness and poetry? Why did I think that was part of the point of the film? Because it’s not here. Mija takes a poetry class at the local cultural center, because, she says, “I do like flowers and I say odd things,” but she finds the lessons of the teacher hard to fathom. On the first day, he tells his students that the most important thing in life, in poetry, is seeing. He holds up an apple. He asks them what it is. He asks them how many times they’ve seen an apple. A thousand? Ten thousand? He shakes his head. “Up until now you’ve never seen an apple before. If you really see something you can feel it.” He talks about the joy of white paper, “a world before possibility,” and the joy he has sharpening pencils. He tells the class that for their month-long class, “Everyone has to write one poem.”

At home, while Wook and his five friends hang out in his room with the door locked, Mija studies an apple, ponders it, before deciding, “Apples are better for eating than looking at.” But she keeps at it. She sits outside her apartment with a notepad, looks up at the trees, feels the wind, sees the leaves shaking. When she expresses frustration in class, the teacher tells her to find beauty. “Every one of you carries poetry in your heart,” he says. This is said right before Mija attends an impromptu meeting with five other men, the fathers of Wook’s five friends, who confer on the best way to handle the problem. Oh? Doesn’t Mija know? That girl who killed herself by jumping off the bridge and drowning in the river? According to her diary, she’d been raped, repeatedly, by their six children. The school, of course, doesn’t want a scandal, and no charges have been filed yet so the police aren’t involved. So if they can raise the money to pay off the girl’s mother, a small farmer, their boys will be off the hook. They’ve offered ... 30 million won. Five million each. What does Mija think of that? But Mija has already wandered out of the restaurant, stricken with horror.

The horror stays. As Wook keeps shoveling food in his face, watching crap TV and listening to crap music, as the stroke victim finagles a way to make his baths more interesting, as the fathers finagle a way out of the trap their sons have set for themselves, she stays horrified. She attends a sparsely attended funeral service, a Christian service, for the girl, and steals away with a framed photo of the girl in her purse. The fathers send her to deal with the girl’s mother but instead she engages the woman, working in the fields, in conversation about a crushed apricot she found on the path. Initially we don’t know if she’s involved in subterfuge—a way to get close to the woman first—but after she turns and begins to walk away, smiling at this small connection she’s made, she suddenly remembers, and the look of horror, accompanied by panic, returns. Does she go back and confront the woman with their tawdry offer now? One can feel her dilemma. One senses how impossible her task is, and, back in the city, she lies to the fathers, telling them the mother simply wasn’t home.

But she confronts Wook. She confronts him about the girl, shakes him, asks him why he did it, puts the girl’s photo on their breakfast table. She studies the photo. She visits the school and presses her nose to the window of the science room where the rapes occurred. The girl is the crushed apricot on the path. She is the apple the teacher talked of at the beginning of class. People have seen the girl thousands of times but no one sees her. The boys saw her as one thing, the fathers as something else. The mother as something else? Mija studies her the way the teacher told the class to study the apple—not because it’s an assignment but because she can’t help it. She can’t get over the horror of it.

Is the poem she writes a great poem? It’s not bad. Is “Poetry” a great film? It’s a good film that never suggests sentimentality. It simply shows us what it needs to show us.

The IMDb.com synopsis reads as follows: “A sixty-something woman, faced with the discovery of a heinous family crime, finds strength and purpose when she enrolls in a poetry class.” But this is like the trailer: full of uplift (“strength”; “purpose”) that doesn’t exist in the actual film. The synopsis should read: “A heinous family crime forces a sixty-something woman to write a poem.” That seems dismissive but it’s what happens. She sees the girl, she feels the girl, in a way others do not. Out of this, poetry arises.

Posted at 07:19 AM on Mar 25, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Wednesday March 23, 2011

Movie Review: “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story” (2010)

WARNING: SCHPOILERS

At the Seattle Jewish Film Festival screening of the documentary “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story,” the only character onscreen who was razzed by the mostly Jewish audience was not Adolf Hitler, who made his usual appearance as counterpoint to Hank Greenberg slugging 58 homeruns in the summer of ’38 (“every one a homerun against Hitler”), but current baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who bought majority ownership of the Seattle Pilots in 1969 and promptly moved the team to Milwaukee, where they became the Brewers. As Selig, a talking head in the doc, proudly discussed the move, the hissing began, slowly at first, then winding its way through the auditorium as other, less-baseball-savvy viewers picked up on what was actually being said.

Way to go, Bud. Not many Jews can get razzed more than Hitler by Jews.

“Jews and Baseball” is a welcome doc, a fun doc, but it arrives with two strikes against it. The first is Aviva Kepner’s superlative documentary “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” (2000), which covers a lot of the same ground: baseball as avenue to Jewish assimilation; the name changes and anti-Semitic slurs and leatherlungs; the debate over whether or not to play on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; the pride that “one of our own,” etc., etc., tall and broad-shouldered and good-looking, etc. etc. If you know “Greenberg” like I know “Greenberg,” a lot of “Jews and Baseball” will be familiar.

Poster for the documentary "Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story" Where it differs, of course, is taking in the whole 150 years of baseball history. So we get not only Hankus Pankus but Barney Pelty, the Yiddish Curver (1903-12), and Moses Solomon, the Rabbi of Swat, John McGraw’s Jewish answer to Babe Ruth, who hit 47 homeruns in the Southwest league in 1923, played two games for McGraw, got into a salary dispute, and left for football. Zay gezunt. We get Al Rosen, who had a helluva year in ’53, then went through salary disputes with, of all people, Indians’ GM Hank Greenberg. We get Ron Blomberg, baseball’s first DH, and Shawn Green, signing autographs for the kids, and snippets of Denis Leary’s great, anti-Mel Gibson rant as Kevin Youkilis played a superlative first base. And, of course, we get Sandy Koufax, the Left Arm of God, who broke decades of silence to become a talking head in this doc.

But this 150 years is actually the second strike against it. How do you create a cohesive story, an arc, from that 150 years? Written by Ira Berkow and directed by Peter Miller, “J & B” inevitably goes for the chronological approach, which isn’t bad; but as we chomp our way through the years, we take two huge bites (Greenberg and Koufax), some mid-sized bites (Rosen), and then a lot of what the candy-makers call “fun-sized” bites. They’re not that much fun. I would’ve liked to know more about Pelty, for example, or all those Cohens who changed their names in the '10s, and what they went through. I suppose I’m asking for that which doesn’t exist, or which might not be that interesting.

A counterpoint to my critique is provided by Elliott Maddox, who played everywhere in the 1970s, and who first shows up giving shit to Blomberg for ruining baseball with his DHness. Ronnie, we know, is Jewish. But Maddox? Turns out he converted and his Christian mother is glad he did. She’s happy he believes in something. As if to prove his Jewishness, he also has one of the funnier lines in the doc. He talks about being a good two-strike hitter because he lived his entire life with two strikes against him: He was black and Jewish.

So two strikes against it but the doc is a good two-strike hitter. I’d call it a clean single or a looping double. (“Greenberg” is a homerun.)

The Al Rosen section is good if incomplete. Too much of his shortened career is blamed on Greenberg.

I liked learning that, Adam Sandler aside, and despite a Jewish wife and two bat-mitzvahed daughters, Rod Carew never converted.

Both Moe Berg and Marvin Miller probably deserve their own docs.

It’s the Koufax section that recommends the movie, but not necessarily because of him. He’s fine as a talking head. He’s aged incredibly well. (Although I’m curious how his arm is after all these years, since that was the reason for his shortened career: the fear of losing that arm.) But the greater insight comes from his catcher, Norm Sherry, who talks about that moment in a 1961 spring training game when he told the usually wild Koufax that he should forget about speed and just throw the ball over the plate ... and Koufax promptly struck out the side with pitches that, Sherry was quick to inform him, were faster than when he was trying to throw hard.

Ron Howard, of all people, adds insight to this section. He was a national figure himself in the early 1960s, as Opie on “The Andy Griffith Show,” and, living in L.A., Koufax became his favorite player. He talks about the poetry of Vin Scully’s perfect-game call: how Scully kept mentioning date and time as a way of letting late-arriving listeners know that something historic was happening without jinxing the proceedings by bringing up the dreaded words “no hitter” and “perfect game.” More, when Koufax and Drysdale unprecedentedly held out together in the spring of ’66, and there was bad press because of it, and little Ronnie Howard was inevitably disappointed because of it, he still got out pencil and paper, did the math, and realized that he, working on “The Andy Griffith Show,” was actually making more money than the great Sandy Koufax. He knew that wasn’t right.

Is it odd that the best talking heads in the doc tend to be gentile? Where are the guys like Don Shapiro and Bert Gordon, two Tigers fans, who helped make the “Greenberg” doc such a joy? Where is Jane Leavy, who wrote the great book on the great Koufax? Where is Rod Carew?

I do think baseball fans should see “Jews and Baseball” if they get a chance. There’s enough here for them. For everyone else, I offer a noncommittal Jewish shrug.

Posted at 06:57 AM on Mar 23, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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