Talking Movies

November 25, 2015

Bridge of Spies

Steven Spielberg returns with a true Cold War spy story that’s thankfully imbued with far more energy and clarity of purpose than his meandering Lincoln.

ST. JAMES PLACE

Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is a deep cover Soviet spy apprehended in Brooklyn in 1957, who is assigned as his counsel insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks); after some arm-twisting by Donovan’s boss Thomas Watters Jr (Alan Alda). Watters, and Donovan’s wife Mary (Amy Ryan) are soon surprised by the bond that develops between wry Abel and the stolid Donovan, and Donovan’s dogged determination to demand the rights promised by the Constitution be granted to an illegal alien from an enemy power. The Donovan children Peggy (Jillian Lebling), Roger (Noah Schnapp), and Carol (Eve Hewson) are as uncomprehending as Joe Public of their father’s actions. But when U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down in May 1960 Company man Hoffman (Scott Shepherd) brings Donovan to Allen Foster Dulles (Peter McRobbie) to be entrusted with a secret mission.

First off, history… English playwright Matt Charman’s screenplay was polished by the Coens, but in a BBC Radio 4 interview Charman didn’t mention Giles Whittell’s 2010 book Bridge of Spies. Perhaps it’d raise uncomfortable questions; like why Hoffman and Dulles tell Donovan their intelligence suggests the GDR is about to wall off East Berlin when the CIA, despite Berlin crawling with so many spies Willy Brandt derided it as grown-ups playing Cowboys and Indians, had no idea till secretly stockpiled barbed wire went up overnight. Also master spy Abel (Willie Fisher during his British adolescence) perfected his Brooklyn cover, as a retiree taking up painting, at the expense of actually spying. Despite prosecutorial fulminations he wasn’t charged with acts of espionage, because there was no evidence of any. And the arrest of Yale doctoral student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is total melodramatic fiction; the Stasi were simultaneously extremely sinister and blackly hilarious. Their ineffectual interrogations of Pryor were True Kafka.

There are three moments in this tale spun from historical elements; a polite mugging, a pompous phone call, and a fake family; that are pure Coens, but this is Spielberg’s show. His visual storytelling is concise and expressive; especially the opening FBI pursuit of Abel, where we recognise Agents by glances, and Powers’ dismayed expression at his Moscow show trial, where a craning pull-out emphasises his isolation. Janusz Kaminski mostly reins in his diffuse supernova lighting to showcase Adam Stockhausen’s decrepit design, while Thomas Newman stands in for John Williams with orchestral flavours akin to Williams’ JFK score. Donovan’s line, “It doesn’t matter what other people think, you know what you did,” is the moral of the film, emphasised visually twice over. And his bloody-minded defence of the 4th amendment seems extremely pertinent when the 1st amendment is equally beleaguered.

Twitter lynch-mobs wouldn’t appreciate the nuance Donovan tries to impart to Judge Byers (Dakin Matthews) but Spielberg’s film is a call for decency over outrage that is alarmingly timely.

3.5/5

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March 6, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s second period film in a row is a considerable contrast to the charmingly nostalgic Moonrise Kingdom, and that’s not necessarily a good thing…

the-grand-budapest-hotel-international-trailer-0

To begin at the beginning, a young woman visits the grave of a writer. Wait, no, that writer (Tom Wilkinson) before he died recorded a talk about the background of his most famous novel. Hang on, when he was a young writer (Jude Law), [now we’re getting somewhere] he stayed in the Grand Budapest Hotel. There he met ineffectual concierge M. Jean (Jason Schwartzman). Wait, no, M. Jean didn’t matter, what mattered was that the young writer met Mr Moustafa (F Murray Abraham), who told him about the glory days of the hotel in the 1930s. Back then, [finally, real progress!] Moustafa was known as Zero (Tony Revolori), and he was the lobby-boy to legendary concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Gustave was completely devoted to rich, widowed, amorous guests such as Mademe D (Tilda Swinton, after she wrecked the picture in her attic.) So much so that when she unexpectedly died after leaving the hotel he was summoned by her staff Serge X (Mathieu Amalric) and Clotilde (Lea Seydoux), to hear her lawyer Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum) read the will – which left a priceless painting to Gustave, much to the fury of Mademe D’s son Dmitri (Adrien Brody), and as he had the scary thug Jopling (Willem Dafoe) on retainer that meant Gustave was well-advised to run for his life, despite the protestations of policeman Henckels (Edward Norton); who remembered Gustave’s abundant kindness to him as a boy. And after that, reader, things really got complicated.

Anderson’s film is bursting at the seams from sheer busyness, and the film thus lacks emotional depth even as it boasts under-used actors (Harvey Keitel, Saoirse Ronan), a deliberately unnecessary Chinese box of narratives, and a sequence in which Anderson tests how many times the same gag can be made in succession; even by Bill Murray and Bob Balaban; before an audience grows restive. His regular production designer Adam Stockhausen’s archly mannered sets are the most artificially coloured he has rendered for Anderson to date. Think about that.

Anderson showcases an unexpected flair for blackly comic suspense but there’s an odd and draining mean-spiritedness to this film’s gruesomeness. Fiennes’ dialogue makes no sense for the setting, lurching as it does from a gentlemen quoting poetry to an R-rated Oddball from Kelly’s Heroes, but it does make for some spectacular laughs. Anderson is apparently honouring the terrifyingly obscure author Stefan Zweig, and the worst thing I can say about this film is that after seeing such loving homage I have no desire to read Zweig’s work.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is an impeccably mounted film, but it unavoidably disappoints because it doesn’t come close to The Darjeeling Limited for depth or Moonrise Kingdom for whimsy.

3/5

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