Saturday, October 17, 2015

Bridge of Spies

Steven Spielberg's best movies are generally about decent men doing extraordinary things. They're rarely about women although women are vitally important to the decent men. In Spielberg's latest film, Bridge of Spies, Tom Hanks, a trusted Spielberg collaborator, stars as New York insurance attorney James Donovan, whose firm is asked to represent a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) who is caught by American G-men in Brooklyn. Donovan is reluctant to take the case at first but after meeting the enigmatic, taciturn Rudolf Abel commits to offering top drawer representation. Because it is the late 1950s and the U.S. is mired in paranoia and fear of the Reds, Donovan finds himself alone in providing what the Constitution guarantees even enemies of the state -- a fair hearing. Still, the jury finds Abel guilty of all charges but the judge, rather than ordering him executed, sentences Abel to 30 years in prison in hopes, as Donovan pointed out ex parte, that such mercy might be viewed favorably if an American was ever captured by the Soviets doing just what Abel was doing. From his mouth to God's ear for shortly after Abel's sentencing, an American pilot (Austin Stowell) is blasted out of the sky high over Russia while shooting film of the terrain (a thrilling set piece BTW). The pilot is taken into custody, tried and imprisoned. Simultaneously, an American economics student (Will Rogers) studying in a disintegrating Berlin is detained and accused of spying by East Germany. Donovan is approached by the CIA and agrees to go to the Soviet Embassy in Berlin to negotiate an exchange of Abel for the American pilot. He agrees but insists on adding the student to the trade, a condition everyone around him believes will kill the proposition. Donovan won't be dissuaded and the second half of the film -- the Cold War showdown -- is riveting. This is a rich and fascinating tale, based on actual events and written for the screen by the Coen Brothers, masters of taut, complex narrative. Hanks appears comfortable in the role of this highly principled and selfless man -- he's no stranger to such parts, after all -- and delivers a performance that is assured and captivating.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

99 Homes and The Walk

99 Homes and The Walk are two marvelous films that feature remarkable performances by their lead actors but are still difficult to watch. Ramin Bahrani's 99 Homes stars Andrew Garfield (a fine actor) as a construction worker in Central Florida who is trying to hold onto his family home even as foreclosure looms. The angel of death finally arrives in the form of a cold-blooded, unscrupulous real estate scarfer named Rick Carver (a superlative Michael Shannon) who meets Garfield's Dennis Nash on the latter's doorstep during an eviction. Nash had been assured by a judge the day before that he had 30 days to appeal the eviction. Carver claimed to know nothing of this extension and has his goons toss Nash, his 10-year-old son, Connor (Noah Lomax), and his mother (Laura Dern) into the street. This early scene is one of the most disturbing I've seen in film this year, and it is only one of several that feature Garfield's Nash trapped in the grip of a vise that pressures and twists him torturously until he doesn't recognize himself. This is a thoughtful and sensitive film that is both a searing critique of those who preyed upon Middle America before and after the economic collapse of 2008 and a morality tale of how one man lost his home and his way and nearly lost his soul. Highly recommended.

Few actors are as amiable of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and he pours all of his preternatural likeability into his role as high wire walker Philippe Petit in Robert Zemeckis' vertigo-inducing The Walk. (It must be seen in 3D.) Petit was the subject of the 2008 documentary Man on Wire, which won the Oscar for best documentary feature in 2009 but there is little similarity between the two films. Zemeckis' imaginative and romantic retelling of Petit's high wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974 is the story of man's love affair with "the void," the gulf that lies below the high wire. It's not that Petit courts self-destruction. It's more that he knows his life belongs to the wire but he enjoys teasing and enticing the void. As the Frenchman Petit, Gordon-Levitt, a fully engaged (and engaging) performer, recounts the original inspiration for the feat and his recruitment of "accomplices" (principally Charlotte Le Bon and Clement Sibony) in Paris and in New York to pull it off. Yes, Gordon-Levitt is terrific but the stomach-turning recreation of the infamous walk between the towers is astonishing. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Martian and Sicario

Ridley Scott's interplanetary Robinson Crusoe tale, The Martian, is a crowd-pleasing nail-bitter that borrows from Ron Howard's feel-good playbook -- maybe a little too much. Scott was once an edgy visionary (Blade Runner, Alien, Thelma & Louise, American Gangster) but this film is stylistically arresting but narratively safe, few surprises. In Scott's latest picture, Matt Damon plays a member of a six-person NASA exploration team on Mars who gets left behind by his fellow crew members because they presume he was killed in a violent storm. He indeed survived and must devise ways to keep himself alive and communicate with Earth. The film has a great deal of star power propelling it -- Jessica Chastain, Jeff Bridges, Chiwetel Ejiofor, head the cast -- but most of its bang is in the science that Damon's Mark Watney brings to bear on his otherworldly predicament. The film invests so much in the mechanics and in the international sensation the eventual rescue mission attracts that there is no doubt all will end well. Still, it's an entertaining ride. Recommended.

Denis Villeneuve's Sicario (Spanish for "hitman") is a thrill ride of another sort entirely and, in the end, a better film than The Martian, I feel. In it, Emily Blunt plays FBI agent Kate Macer, who is fighting the drug war in Arizona, with little to show for her efforts. She volunteers for a special interagency team to capture the Mexican drug kingpin whose murderous enterprise is spreading rapidly in the U.S. The mysterious crew is run by a tousled hot dog named Matt (Josh Brolin) who gets lethal assists from a dead-eyed enforcer named Alejandro (a wonderful Benicio Del Toro). Nothing about the operation feels right to Kate and when she brings in her partner (Daniel Kaluuya), he smells a rat, too. The truth is slowly revealed during agonizingly intense scenes, the staging of which are truly masterful because they suggest much more than they show. Villeneuve's Prisoners (2013) was an engrossing exploration of obsession and vengeance. Sicario contains those elements, as well, in its chilling, unblinking treatment of a war that seems to have no end -- only mounting casualties. Highly recommended but bloody.


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