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 7, 2013

Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh reunites with Channing Tatum for a more serious film than Magic Mike, as Rooney Mara takes an  experimental drug for depression and unravels…

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Emily (Mara) is depressed. Her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is coming to  the end of his 5 year sentence for insider trading, and she’s very nervous about  him coming home to a small apartment in Manhattan that is a substantial step  down in the world from the privileged Connecticut life they once led. After she  deliberately drives her car into a wall Martin insists that she seek therapy  from English psychiatrist Dr Banks (Jude Law). But little seems to help until an  office co-worker suggests she take a new experimental drug. Banks reluctantly  prescribes it but soon Emily’s behaviour becomes wildly erratic, leading to a  tragic accident. As her previous psychiatrist Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones)  shifts all blame for Emily’s actions onto Banks, he finds himself trapped in a  Kafkaesuqe legal nightmare alongside Emily as the justice system looks for  scapegoats.

Soderbergh’s regular screenwriter Scott Z  Burns (Contagion, The Informant!) grounds this nightmarish drama  in well researched reality. Some of the most chilling scenes involve not Emily’s  hallucinations but the insidious cosy relationship between doctors and Big  Pharma, and the subsequent shafting of Banks by all his colleagues once Emily’s  case makes the tabloids lest it endanger their own lucrative practices. The  obvious comparison for a story like this you’d think is Douglas Sirk’s Bigger than Life but in fact it’s impossible  to guess where Burns’ script will go next, one moment it feels like The Crucible as the legal net catches the  blameless Dr Banks, and the next it feels closer to a Henri Georges Clouzot  suspense thriller. If you’re not conscious then you can’t have intent – but can  you be programmed by others? This question makes Banks increasingly  paranoid.

Law, following an unexpectedly revelatory  turn in Anna Karenina, is very  sympathetic as the good man caught inside an inexorably tightening legal vice  and being abandoned by his friends and his shrill wife (Vinessa Shaw) as he  tries to prove his innocence. Tatum oddly seems to be wearing Magic Mike outfits at times, and is involved  in dodgy deals in the South again, but he makes Martin a very caring  white-collar criminal. Zeta-Jones fares less well, looking positively sepulchral  in a cold role, while Thomas Newman, composing well outside his comfort zone, is  equally unimpressive. But this film belongs to the sensational Rooney Mara. She  is utterly compelling thru all plot twists and medicated character changes, and  remains an utter chameleon: she can resemble physically and persona-wise Tom  Hiddleston or Sam Rockwell depending on what the scene needs from her.

Side Effects tackles serious matters  of depression, medication culture, and legal chicanery, and does so with  compelling tension; yes, there are quibbles, but this is Soderbergh near his  best.

3.5/5

October 26, 2012

Skyfall

Director Sam Mendes nostalgically marks James Bond’s 50th anniversary with a typically measured piece of work that is very enjoyable  but which never quite matches the heights of Casino Royale.

The thrilling opening sequence in  Turkey sees Daniel Craig’s 007 implacably pursue a man who has stolen a  hard-drive containing the identities of NATO agents undercover in terrorist  organisations. Unfortunately the pursuit ends disastrously courtesy of the  bungled intervention of his back-up agent Eve (Naomie Harris), carrying out M’s  ruthless orders. Judi’s Dench M is being threatened with retirement by new  Security Chairman Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) over this blunder but Bond, now a  broken man (he has a beard…) and champion of a Turkish drinking game involving  scorpions, only returns when MI6 HQ explodes. Bond returns to a rattled agency,  hiding in Churchill’s old war bunker, and with a ridiculously young new  Quartermaster (Ben Whishaw), who trades barbed insults with Bond and then equips  him with the needful to get back out into the field, where there’s always  terrible wear and tear. Bond’s search for the stolen list of agents leads him to  the sultry Severine (Berenice Lim Marlohe) and her sinister employer,  super-hacker Silva (Javier Bardem)…

When reviewing the pointlessly maligned Quantum of Solace I held out the hope that the  ideas surrounding Quantum might lead to a Bond 2.0 film even better than Casino Royale. Well, sadly Quantum and Felix Leiter  are absent from this movie, but one idea from Quantum, that M and Bond have almost a fraught  mother/son bond, has been amplified and given a dramatic counterpoint to power  this film’s twisting plot. Oddly this feels at times like a Nolan Bond not a  Mendes Bond. Mendes has drafted in some regulars: Thomas Newman replaces David  Arnold but fails to make much impact; indeed dramatic strings during the Tube  sequence are uncannily like Arnold’s motif for similar sequences on Sherlock. Roger Deakins though gives the  mirrors motif of the title credits dazzling life in the Shanghai sequence which  is all reflective glass, and blue and green neon, while the night-time Macau  sequence is just gorgeously staged in warm oranges. But the crumbling city where  Silva has his lair screams Inception, a  plot twist is a familiar gambit from The Dark  Knight, and Rises echoes in the  constant references to Bond being a physical wreck, and the persistent  questioning of why this rich orphan continues to risk his life.

The deliberately measured pace of the movie is pure Mendes and he even  produces a trademark move with Silva’s entrance, a slow push-in while Silva  walks towards the camera from a distance. For the most part this approach works,  the first act feels like one of Fleming’s short stories, and the belated  entrance of Silva pays off in some wonderfully discomforting dialogue scenes and  a huge shock. Even Silva as cyber-supervillain works, mostly due to Q’s rivalry  with Silva. But then along comes the third act… Mendes throws everything at  the screen; the full Bond guitar riff, Aston Martins, references to and  borrowings from Goldfinger, Apocalypse Now, and From Russia with Love. But while it’s fascinating in  exploring Bond’s past, and ends fittingly with some in-joke references, the  climactic action just lacks the forcefulness or epic scale of Casino Royale and even Quantum.

Skyfall is a good film, which runs  out of steam somewhat, but it does seem to prove that action directors handling  sharp scripts make for the best Bond films.

3.5/5

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