More in brief

I don’t think I have it in me at the moment to do the long-delayed Godfather II post, so for now, just brief reviews of some mediocre movies.

The Spy Next DoorFILM: The Spy Next Door: There have been more than enough movies about spies, cops, hitmen, bounty hunters and ace criminals pulling one last job before they retire, but The Spy Next Door is the first I can recall where the character is actually at retirement age. At 55, it’s only natural that Jackie Chan’s movies don’t have the same mind-boggling action choreography that he brought to his early Hong Kong flicks, and the fact is, he’s still in better shape than I’ll ever be and the fight sequences are at least good enough for a film aimed at 8-year-olds. Anyone older than that, well, you’ll be stretching to find anything worthwhile here.

The minimal plot finds Chan babysitting the children (two precocious, one sullen) of his next door neighbour, who he’s trying to woo in his mild-mannered pen salesman alter-ego. Naturally, Chan’s character is likable yet bumbling, unable to do even the most basic household tasks until he brings in some hi-tech spy gadgetry — apparently cooking breakfast is easier with a high-powered flamethrower than with a frying pan. A few questionable bits of advice aside (no one should ever encourage anyone to pop their collars, ever), it’s all pretty tolerable. Chan doesn’t have much in the way of comic timing, but he’s likable enough.

Outside of the home environment, Chan’s last arrest — a Boris Badenov-type Russian who wants to destroy the world’s oil reserves — has escaped, and is tracking him down. This leads to some decent (for a kids’ movie) action, with Chan showing his usual flair for bringing an assortment of props into the battle. No one’s going to mistake this for Rumble in the Bronx — it’s probably closer to Suburban Commando, and it’ll be forgotten just as easily in a few years’ time.

The most revealing part of the movie is the end credits. It’s a longstanding Chan tradition to include outtakes while the credits scroll, and Spy keeps that alive. But instead of death-defying leaps and bone-shattering falls, the bloopers in Spy mostly consist of Chan flubbing his lines or fumbling with a chair.  Chan has a good two decades his most obvious successor, Thai sensation Tony Jaa, so no one’s expecting him to go through an Ong Bak-style ordeal when he makes a movie. But rather than peter away on middling family movies, maybe Chan should follow his character’s lead and consider an early retirement.

Yoo HooFILM: Yoo Hoo Mrs. Goldberg: It’s strange to think that the biggest television star of her time, a woman who was once voted the second-most trusted woman in America next to Eleanor Roosevelt (and who earned more money than Mrs. Roosevelt) could be completely relegated to history’s dustbin, but that seems to be the case with Gertrude Berg. With her radio show (and later TV series) The Rise of the Goldbergs, Berg arguably created the modern sitcom, a family comedy that paved the way for everything from I Love Lucy to All in the Family and beyond. Yet the movie’s tagline, “The most famous woman in America you’ve never heard of,” seems about right. Archie Bunker and Lucie Ricardo have stuck around in the collective memory. Molly Goldberg hasn’t.

Aviva Kempner’s documentary on Berg doesn’t make any attempt to understand why that is. Instead, it’s content to simply tell her story and expose her to a generation that’s been raised on the fruits of her labour. From the clips provided, it’s easy to understand Berg’s appeal. She introduces each week’s show by leaning out the window and welcoming America into her home with a warm, naturally motherly charm. The comedy mostly focuses on the malapropisms and misunderstandings that come naturally to immigrant families — the Goldbergs are first-generation American Jews, aspiring towards the American dream — and while it’s hardly edgy by modern standards, Berg did occasionally squeeze some controversial topics into her scripts. And they were hers — she wrote every word of dialogue for the radio and television show by hand.

It’s inevitable that a career-minded woman in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s would be picked up as something of a pre-feminist icon, and the movie makes a solid case for Berg on that front. As one of the film’s talking heads says, she really was the Oprah of her day, parlaying her character into cookbooks, endorsement deals and books of advice. The politics largely feel incidental, though. Berg didn’t seem to go out of her way to prove that women could write television, she simply wrote television. Likewise, her actions when accusations that one of her cast members was a communist had sponsors pressuring her to re-cast the role — she responded by threatening to encourage her fans to boycott the sponsor’s products, then spending a year trying to find another company to pick up the show — were more out of necessity and loyalty than ideology.

None of that takes away from Berg’s character, though, or from Kempner’s movie. Mrs. Goldberg makes up for a general lack of gravitas with a genuinely compelling subject, and it tells her story as straightforwardly as it can. It won’t boost Berg back up to Lucille Ball status, but at least it’s put her back in the cultural canon.

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