Bridge of Spies

November 9, 2015 at 12:30 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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There can be something very satisfying in a Spielberg movie. There won’t be anything remotely “indie” about it, it won’t be edgy or gritty and you can guess roughly where it’s going but it will also be immaculately crafted, well acted and it will usually leave you feeling good. To that end, “Bridge of Spies” is very classically Spielberg. Even his dirty streets and their thugs seem like you have just wandered down the wrong lane at Epcot. Nothing here is too horrifying and nothing truly dangerous feels at stake. Sometimes that gloss can feel distracting, like a veneer between you and the real world but, sometimes, that’s what you want from a film; not to be horrified or to have to stare into the darkest abyss but to watch good, old fashioned everyday folks being brave and noble and standing up for something important. That is this film. Insurance lawyer Jim Donovan (a perfectly cast Tom Hanks) is asked to step up and do his patriotic duty (take one for the team, so to speak). But Donovan is a man of integrity and, if he’s going to do his duty, then he’s going to do it right, doggone it. Based on the true story of Donovan’s defense of accused spy, Rudolf Abel, and his subsequent involvement in negotiating with the USSR and the GDR, the film has almost too much material to work with. Spielberg’s storytelling skill is well on display here and he was able to keep the fairly complex plot moving along and easily enough to follow. However, at almost 2 1/2 hours, it might feel a bit over long.  He could have left most of the U2 spy plane backstory in the cutting room, probably saving the film 20 or so minutes, but you would lose some depth and some of the weight of what was at stake. The story itself is interesting enough that I was entertained for most of the full time. There is very little here that will surprise you, though it helps to remember that these events were real and could have turned out any number of ways. Hanks plays well this type of noble, all-American character (think of his “Charlie Wilson”) and, though he is almost 20 years older than the man he plays (who actually died younger than Hanks is now), he was still he perfect actor for the role. He is our modern Jimmy Stewart and this is a very Jimmy Stewart role.  In fact, this is classic American filmmaking with drama and pathos but an overall sunny view of human beings. You’ll see some darkness but, you never have to worry, a bright day is coming just around the next bend in the tracks. Sometimes, that is exactly the film you want to see.

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Spectre

November 9, 2015 at 10:23 am | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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I was struck about half way through this behemoth 148 minutes (the longest Bond film to date) that I just wasn’t having that much fun. I realized, as I watched Daniel Craig fret and brood, how deadly serious his Bond series has been. The general trend in films and television over the past decade has been to make everything darker, grittier and more “realistic.” Even superheroes have not escaped this shift (think of the recent “Batman” and “Superman” films as well as shows like “Gotham” and “Daredevil”). I have strongly applauded this trend and am not backing away from that now but I have to admit that I felt a bit fatigued by it here. I loved Craig’s Bond at first but, as I look back over his last several movies, neither of us seem to be having much fun. His Bond has depth, with a layered backstory and ambivalence to spare. Likewise, the supporting characters are also more complex, the gadgets less ridiculous and the plots more psychological. In “Spectre,”  we are reintroduced to a classic Bond villain but, while there are a couple of nice homages to the original, this version is not hell-bent on world domination. Rather, he simply wants to ruin Bond’s life for the perceived slights of their childhood. The consistent theme of Craig’s Bond films from “Casino Royale” through “Skyfall” to “Spectre” has been to dig into the man and look at the psychology behind the hero. In this way, these films have had more in common with Nolan’s “Dark Knight” series than with any previous Bond. I don’t want to slight the story of “Spectre.” It’s a rich, dark tale full of almost Shakespearean themes. Craig and crew are fantastic actors and the tension between him and Christoph Waltz is electric. In fact, this film would have done well to have a great deal more of Waltz on screen. He does joyful creepy in a way few other actors can touch. However, as I said, I kept missing the fun. The Bonds of Brosnan, Connery, and especially Moore were larger than life. Nothing in those films felt grounded in the real world but that was part of the fun. Bond was unflappable and full of playful quips. His toys were ridiculous and his villains were so over-the-top that Mike Myers made a career out of parodying them. The WWE wrestler Dave Bautista (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) is a hot commodity right now as Hollywood hopes to make him the next Dwayne Johnson and he certainly has the size to be a formidable Bond villain. But that size (and his character’s silence) just reminded me of Jaws, who created real terror in his Bond films that just served to remind us of how grounded the recent films have become. Yes, Jaws was silly. As was Blofeld and Nick Nack and Oddjob. As were submarine cars and exploding pens and undersea layers. But they were all also so much fun. Craig is famously unhappy with his Bond role and wants out of his contract, which contains one more film. I say, let him go and let’s get back to what Bond once was: pure, simple, escapist pleasure.

Room

November 7, 2015 at 11:28 am | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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Occasionally, modest budget films like this one get recognized come Oscar time, thought they are more often overshadowed by behemoth star-driven vehicles. If that happens this year, it would be more the shame because this little gem is a tour-de-force of acting and writing. The less said about the plot the better as one of the joys of the film comes in watching it unfold. In fact, I’m bothered that the trailers give away as much as they do. Director Lenny Abrahamson (who directed last year’s beautifully quirky “Frank”) clearly has an interest in complex, character driven dramas and this one focuses a mother and her 5 year old son. The mother is played beautifully by Brie Larson.  She rocketed into my awareness with 2013’s “Short Term 12,” where she was the anchor in a fantastic cast of young actors and she now has a half dozen films coming out over the next year, so she is likely to be a household name soon. This film alone may put her there. As with “Short Term 12,” she showed a natural talent for playing a complex character who was both strong and deeply broken and terrified in her fearlessness. But, as strong an actor as she is, the young boy (Jacob Tremblay) who played her son was the revelation here. Tremblay, who was actually 8 when he made the film, is wondrous as Jack. Joy, confusion, terror, rage, heartbreak, and so many other complex emotions play across him so completely that you cannot imagine he isn’t experiencing them. He draws the audience in; while he is on screen, you are glued to that performance. Equally as fantastic was the superb writing. Emma Donoghue wrote the screenplay based on her own novel by the same name. I was thrilled by her ability to capture the world of a small boy raised in isolation. Everything about how he conceived of the world seemed exactly right to me; that perspective would have never occurred to me but it struck me as entirely true. She has an eye for the little details (like his need for help when he first encounters stairs) that made the world of the story so rich and engrossing. There were two missteps, once with a police officer and once with a reporter, that did not feel real to me; they were the rare exceptions where it felt like they existed simply to move the plot rather than to be true to real life. Those are tiny exceptions that only serve to point out how remarkable the rest of the film is.  Truly this is one of the best I have seen this year.

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