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Moe Berg

“THE SPY BEHIND HOME PLATE” My rating: (Opens June 21 at the Glenwood Arts)

141 minutes | No MPAA rating

Morris “Moe” Berg was an unlikely professional athlete any way you look at it.

He went to Harvard (one of the few Jews admitted in the 1920s), spoke a dozen languages (apparently he self-taught himself Japanese on a boat ride across the Pacific) and was a catcher for several Major League teams.

True, Berg’s batting average was mediocre (less because of his batting than because of his glacial base running), but he was a very good defensive player and was often utilized by his managers as a bullpen catcher who nurtured, encouraged and brought out the best in young pitchers.

On top of that he was a fairly notorious ladies’ man.

All of which would have been enough for most of us.  But in the years before and during World War II Berg was a secret agent for the OSS, the precursor of the CIA.

On a goodwill trip of American All Star players to Japan he risked his neck by making home movies of ports and military installations in and around Tokyo, earning the gratitude of the U.S. intelligence community.

On another mission he dodged bullets with American troops liberating Italy so he could locate and relocate Italian scientists who had worked on German military projects.

And at the height of the conflict he was sent to a technical conference in Switzerland to observe a German scientist believed to be working on the Nazis’ atomic bomb.  Berg’s orders were to determine if the scientist was indeed involved in nuclear research and if such was the case, to assassinate the man. Had it come to that Berg undoubtedly would have been charged with murder by the Swiss authorities…providing he survived retaliation by the scientist’s bodyguards.

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Sienna Miller

“AMERICAN WOMAN” My rating: B+ (Opens June 14 at the Glenwood Arts and Town  Center 20)

111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

People can change.

That’s the hopeful message at the core of the often brutally grim “American Woman,” a film that casts American-born, Brit-reared beauty Sienna Miller as a working-class American floozie transformed by tragedy.

Written by Brad Ingelsby and directed by Jake Scott (son of director Ridley Scott), “American Woman” (a terribly meaningless title, BTW) offers an unconventional narrative covering 16 years in one woman’s life, leaping months or even years between scenes and often eschewing big dramatic moments for tiny glimpses of  everyday existence.

If you’re looking to compare it to another movie, Bruce Beresford’s “Tender Mercies” comes to mind. As antecedents go, that’s a pretty great one.

At the movie’s outset we meet Debra (Miller), a thirtysomething grocery store clerk living in small-town Pennsylvania with her  daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira) and Bridget’s baby boy, Jesse.  Teen pregnancy seems to run in the family.

Debra, it quickly becomes apparent, is a good-time girl who in short skirt and go-go boots is a regular at the local honkytonk.  She is having a shameless affair with a married man, and though she seems a smart-mouthed tough cookie, she’s soft enough to entertain the notion that someday he’ll leave his wife.

This sort of behavior doesn’t sit well with her sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks), who lives across the street with her burly, decent-as-the-day-is-long husband Terry (Will Sasso). Nor does Debra’s mother Peggy (Amy Madigan) much approve of her daughter’s lifestyle. The two are always at each other’s throats.

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Bill Murray, Chloë Sevigny and Adam Driver

“THE DEAD DON’T DIE” My rating: C+ (Opens wide on June 14)

104 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The world really doesn’t need another zombie movie.

On the other hand, the world can always use another Jim Jarmusch movie.

Except, I guess, when it’s a zombie movie.

The latest from the idiosyncratic Jarmusch,  “The Dead Don’t Die,” has been written and played for chuckles.  It adds nothing to the zombie genre (unless you count the last-reel appearance of an alien spaceship) but allows a huge cast of players (Carol Kane and Iggy Pop, for instance, as a couple of the voracious corpses)  to have fun riffing on the whole walking dead phenomenon.

In sleepy Centerville the sheriff, Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray), and his deputy, Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), spend most of their time drinking coffee and keeping tabs on a forest-dwelling hermit (Tom Waits).

They mediate disputes among the citizenry, folk like a MAGA hat-wearing farmer (Steve Buscemi) and a black handyman (Danny Glover).

All the while,  Deputy Ronnie is oblivious to the fact that his co-worker, Deputy Mindy (Chloe Savigny), has a huge crush on him.

The two lawmen are a sort gun-toting Mutt & Jeff who face each new revelation of horrors with deadpan drollery.

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Mindy Kaling, Emma Thompson

“LATE NIGHT” My rating: C+ (Opens wide on June 14)

112 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The funniest moments in Nisha Ganatra’s “Late Night” depict the consternation of a bunch of Ivy League-educated white-guy TV joke writers upon earning that they have to share their workplace with a woman.

A woman of color.

A woman who is as nice as they are jaded.

“Late Night” was written by (and stars) comedy phenom Mindy Kaling, who knows what it’s like to be the only minority woman in the joint. While in interviews Kaling has taken pains to point out that she personally was never treated as badly as her character is, her depiction of life in a male-dominated writers’ room roils with sexual conflict and class consciousness.

In other words, on certain topics the film is as timely as hell.

Alas, in other important areas it feels tired, cliched and passe.

The ever-watchable Emma Thompson stars as Katherine Newbury, long-time host of a late-night TV talk show.  Early on she’s paid a visit by a network bigwig (Amy Ryan) who almost gleefully informs her that she’s being replaced with someone hipper, funnier and more willing to push the envelope.

Faced with a career that is circling the drain,  Katherine makes a rare appearance in her show’s writers’ room to stir up the troops. She doesn’t really know these guys and in fact  has banned them from the set.  Unwilling to learn their names, she assigns each of them a number.

Perhaps some diversity would help. How about a woman writer?

Enter Molly (Kaling), an aspiring comic who works in a chemical plant and only gets a job interview because the same conglomerate that owns her factory also owns the network.  Against all odds — and with absolutely no professional resume —  she’s hired.

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Blythe Danner, John Lithgow

“THE TOMORROW MAN” My rating: 

94 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Not even the dynamic duo of John Lithgow and Blythe Danner can save “The Tomorrow Man,” a film so determined not to be your typical geriatric love story that it goes way too far in the other direction.

Ed Hemsler (Lithgow) lives in small-town America (it looks like Iowa) and is, to put it mildly, eccentric.

“I just want to be ready,” Ed tells his grown son in a telephone call, and we soon realize what that means.

Ed is a prepper. He has a secret room filled with survival supplies and he watches TV news constantly, looking for signs that it’s time to bunker down.  He’s arrogant, believing that the rest of us are self-deluding nincompoops. He keeps his house spotlessly clean. (Of course, he also imagines that the lady newscaster speaks to him directly.)

Ed isn’t a total loon. He can pass for more-or-less normal on his trips to the store to pick up bottled water, canned tuna and other essentials.

That’s where he spots Ronnie (Danner), a fellow septuagenarian who seems as timorous as Ed is self-assured.  Basically he stalks her (Ed knows his way around the Internet), planning out “accidental” meetings.

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Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench

“ALL IS TRUE” My rating: B

101 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Aside from what’s to be gleaned from his plays and poems, we know next to nothing about William Shakespeare.

Kenneth Branagh’s “All Is True” attempts to rectify that by imagining the great writer’s final days.

The screenplay by Ben Elton informs us up front that in 1613 at the premiere in London of “Henry VIII” a prop cannon started a fire that destroyed Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.  At that point the bard vanished from public life; he is not known to have written another play.

According to “All Is True,” Shakespeare (Branagh, almost unrecognizable with receding hairline, beard and prosthetic nose) retired to his native Stratford on Avon to be reunited with the wife and children he had kept at arm’s length for decades.

It’s not a joyous homecoming. His arrival is met with indifference by wife Anne (Judi Dench), who has more or less been a widow to her husband’s literary and theatrical career. (“To us you’re a guest.”)

Nor are Shakespeare’s two grown daughters all that thrilled to have Daddy back in the bosom of their family.

Judith (Kathryn Wilder) is married to a joyless Puritan physician (Phil Dunster) who regards his father-in-law’s profession as inherently sinful. Desperate to produce a grandson who will inherit Shakespeare’s comfortable estate (her husband may be firing blanks), Judith is having an affair with a local merchant. She may also have contracted a sexually transmitted disease.

Younger daughter Susannah (Lydia Wilson) is unmarried and carries a huge chip on her shoulder. She knows that her father still mourns the death of his only son, 11-year-old Hamnet, 20 years before. She’ll always be an also-ran in his affections.

Apparently Hamnet inherited his father’s writing talent (“wit and mischief in every line”) and Shakespeare, still grief stricken all these years later, decides to honor his dead offspring by creating a garden outside the family home.

The Shakespeare women are resentful of this male-centric obsession. (“It’s not Hamnet you mourn. It’s yourself.”)

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Taron Egerton as Elton John

“ROCKETMAN” My rating: B+

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

I’m not sure exactly what I expected from “Rocketman” — probably just another musical biopic — but this retelling of the rise and near-fall of Elton John is nothing short of terrific.

Oh, sure, it has the standard-issue narrative — musical genius rises from nothing to fame and fortune, then almost loses it all in a whirlwind of drugs, drink and ego — but writer Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”) and director Dexter Fletcher (“Eddie the Eagle”) keep finding inventive, eye-popping ways to tell the story.

It doesn’t hurt that they had access to the Elton John musical library of hits (at one time he was selling nearly five percent of all albums worldwide) or that young star Taron Egerton (of the “Kingsmen” franchise) is absolutely riveting in the transformational starring role.

Toss in a slew of very fine supporting performances (especially Jamie Bell as Elton’s long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin) and you have one of the best musical biopics ever made, one that blows “Bohemian Rhapsody” out of the water.

The film begins with the flamboyantly attired Elton (orange sequined jumpsuit, red angel wings, horned helmet) charging into a rehab group session.

As he “shares” with the other addicts, the film shoots back in time to the boyhood of little Reggie Dwight (Matthew Illesley), keyboard genius and unloved son of an emotionally numb military man (Steven Mackintosh) and a borderline floozie mum (Bryce Dallas Howard, utterly convincing as a working-class British mater).

The first sign of just how off the rails this film is willing to go comes early with a scene set in the local pub where the teenage Reggie (now played by Egerton) witnesses a bar brawl and in one complex, uninterrupted shot stumbles out into the streets singing “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fightin’,” weaving in and out of dozens of gyrating dancers.

It’s a bacchanal of music and sex and heavy-breathing (it’ll leave audiences breathless) and announces that “Rocketman,” though remarkably factual, will at times be played like a Felliniesque musical fantasy. (At times I was reminded of Julie Taymor’s Beatles tribute “Across the Universe”…and that’s a very good sign.)

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