REVIEW: “Bridge of Spies”

SPIES poster

A Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks collaboration is a sure-fire attention getter. Such is the case with “Bridge of Spies”, an old school Cold War espionage drama made to bloom as awards season approaches. The trailers are a tad misleading. This is a dialogue-driven thriller that crafts its suspense through its many scenes of political back-and-forths, judicial wrangling, and contentious negotiations.

The story is based on the embarrassing U-2 incident which occurred in 1960 under the watch of President Dwight Eisenhower. It actually begins three years prior after a Soviet spy named Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) is captured by the FBI. Wanting to give the appearance of a fair trial, the government appoints insurance attorney James Donovan (Hanks) to represent him. The prosecution, the judge, the government, and the media all seek to make an example out of Abel. Donovan sees things different.

SPIES1

Donovan is a man of principle and stands firm in his belief that everyone including Abel deserves due process. This sparks outrage among government agencies, the American public, and even Donovan’s own family. This is the film’s early focus. We spend a lot of time with the development of Donovan and Abel’s relationship and the uphill battle they face in the courts of law and public opinion.

Spielberg begins breaking away to young pilots being trained for a top secret reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union. Among them is Francis Gary Powers who is shot down and taken prisoner by the Soviets. Fearing that Powers will give up vital intelligence, the government sends Donovan to East Berlin where he is to negotiate a hostage exchange – Abel for Powers.

Negatively, these breakaways are intended to provide context to Donovan’s mission, but they don’t offer much. None of the characters we get in these scenes are all that interesting or compelling. Even Powers himself offers nothing more than a face to the negotiations. This wasn’t a major flaw but it did seem like wasted time and it made the film drag a bit.

SPIES2

Also, one of the most fascinating parts of the story was the ‘fish out of water’ element – an insurance lawyer in hostile territory negotiating between two global enemies. But I never got the sense that Donovan was too worried or fearful. Certainly there are scenes where he feels the pressure, but I would have loved to see more tension, uncertainly, and internal struggle. Instead he handles his tasks as he would any normal insurance settlement back home.

I don’t think the blame for that goes to Hanks. His performance is superb. There is no doubt that this role is right in his comfort zone. Donovan’s down-to-earth everyday man qualities are no problems for Hanks. He has been a master of that type of character for years. I also loved the subdued performance from Mark Rylance, a fine British theater actor. His Abel manages to be the most interesting person on screen even though he offers practically no flash at all.

in DreamWorks PIctures/Fox 2000 PIctures' dramatic thriller BRIDGE OF SPIES, directed by Steven Spielberg, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is an American U-2 pilot shot down over the Soviet Union.

And then there is Spielberg. There is such satisfaction in watching a master of his craft work. The film was written by Mark Charman (and polished up by Joel and Ethan Coen). Spielberg lets their script breathe by directing with tremendous restraint. He grants his actors room to work and allows the story to unfold at an organic pace. There is practically none of that overpowering Spielberg flair that we have seen in the past. Just steady and compelling storytelling nestled in a wonderfully rendered Cold War setting.

Don’t let the trailers fool you. “Bridge of Spies” is no thrill a minute edge-of-your-seater. Instead it is a talky yet quietly made period drama. It is a fine reflection of vintage moviemaking mixed with a riveting story. It may never be heralded among Spielberg’s very best, but it does feature many of his best filmmaking traits (shaky political subtext aside). And mixed with a fine performance from Hanks, it seems primed and ready for the inevitable attention it will get come awards time.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “Inside Llewyn Davis”

LLEWYNPOSTER2

I am such a fan of Joel and Ethan Coen. Dating back to 1984 with their first film “Blood Simple”, the brothers have put together an incredible filmography, etching out a prominent name for themselves in the process. Not only that, they have developed into some of the greatest filmmakers of our time. Armed with a sharp wit and an undeniable style, the Coens have taken their special brand of cinema to a variety of places. Their latest is the early 1960s New York folk music scene. The film is “Inside Llewyn Davis” and while it may not be the best Coen brothers movie, it is undeniably theirs.

I was so glad to hear that Oscar Isaac had gotten the lead role. This criminally underrated actor has amazing acting chops yet rarely gets big leading parts. Here he plays Llewyn Davis, a down-on-his-luck musician struggling to get by in 1961 New York City. Llewyn’s singing partner has committed suicide, his solo album isn’t selling, and he is flat broke. He spends his nights on the couches of different acquaintances and his days trying to get enough gigs to get by until his big break comes.

LLEWYN1

There really isn’t a lot of plot in “Inside Llewyn Davis”. We basically spend a few days with Llewyn witnessing his routine and seeing the nature of his struggles. It doesn’t take long to learn that Llewyn is his own worst enemy. He’s constantly driving people away whether it’s fellow musicians, family, hospitable friends, or even girlfriends. Llewyn is selfish, uncompromising, and irresponsible yet he never casts an examining light on himself. He’s not a character who will draw the audience’s affection. Much like the other people in his life, we can’t get that close to him even though we feel sympathy towards him. Llewyn is an extremely talented musician. He just needs to get himself out of the way.

This is a colder Coen brothers picture that clearly has no desire to be hopeful or uplifting. Perhaps that why I had trouble embracing the film at first. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying a movie has to be uplifting or hopeful. I don’t believe that at all. But watching Llewyn continually self-destruct for the entire film had me wishing for a glimmer of hope. There are a few scenes of the Coen’s signature dark humor that occasionally lighten things up, but mostly this is a pointed, unflinching character drama that captivated me while still holding me at arms length.

LLewyn3

As with all Coen brothers films this one is loaded with an assortment of interesting characters and captivating faces. We get quick but great roles for John Goodman and F. Murray Abraham. Justin Timberlake is surprisingly good as a fellow musician who is married to Llewyn’s ex-girlfriend Jean. She’s played by Carey Mulligan who is very good in the role. But her character is one of the few Coen creations that could have been handled better. She’s abrasive and profane to the point of being distracting. There is a subtle attempt at humor with Jean and her harsh personality but she disappears before we are allowed to see the compassionate side we are teased with. But this is Oscar Isaac’s show and he gives an Oscar-worthy performance. He brilliantly flexes his acting and singing muscles in what I hope is some career-launching work.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” has all the other traits you would expect from Joel and Ethan Coen. There is beautiful cinematography. The sense of time and place is impeccable. The music is unforgettable and the film features arguably the best soundtrack of the year. And it’s certainly a smart film featuring great vision and unquestionable craftsmanship. But for me it doesn’t quite rank up there with the Coen’s best pictures. That said, this is another time capsule experience brought to us by two of the best in the business, and anytime they make a movie it’s something special. Better yet, it has stuck with me and different themes from the film keep coming to mind. That a sign of something good.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

5 PHENOMENAL MOVIE FOOT CHASES

As an action movie fan I love a good chase regardless of the kind – motorcycle, car, or even on foot. It may surprise you just how many great foot chases there have been in movie history. And as technology has gotten better, particularly with new cameras and methods of shooting action scenes, movies have been able to create some incredible foot chases. So I decided to give some love to 5 great movie foot chases. I left out a few that certainly deserve mention, but these 5 were impossible for me to leave out. So, here they are. Now as usual, I wouldn’t dare call this the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these 5 movie foot chases are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “FAST FIVE”

“Fast Five”

The “Fast and Furious” series has made it’s reputation on fast cars and some ridiculously wild car chases. Who would have thought that one of the coolest scenes in 2011’s “Fast Five” would have been a foot chase? After meeting back up at Dom’s safe house in Rio de Janeiro, Dom, Brian, and Mia find themselves boxed in by the armed thugs of a local crime lord on one side and Special Agent Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and his men on the other. The three take off on a foot chase through the cramped, densely populated, hillside streets – running through tight alleys and jumping from rooftop to rooftop – with a host of pursuers hot on their tail. It’s a tremendous, high-octane sequence with some incredible camera work. I love this scene.

#4 – “POINT BREAK

“Point Break”

In what was one part free-spirited surfer movie and one part gritty heist film, “Point Break” was a popular action romp from director Kathryn Bigelow. Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) is the ring leader of a group of surfer bank robbers and FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) has infiltrated their ranks. As Utah gets closer to making the arrest, the “Ex-Presidents” – the name they go by due to the rubber masks of past presidents that they wear – pull off a heist. Utah arrives as they are leaving and bodhi is forced to take off on foot. Utah chases him into a neighborhood, over fences, through backyards and living rooms, and finally down a ravine where Utah hurts his knee and Bodhi gets away. It a furious chase with tight, close quarter camera work and even a touch of subtle humor. “Point Break” has a lot of memorable scenes, few better than the foot chase.

#3 – “THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM

“The Bourne Ultimatum”

The third film of the Jason Bourne series featured the same intense, spy thriller action and around the world globetrotting that the series is known for. One of my favorite sequences is the sequence in Morocco. Bourne (Matt Damon) and Nicky (Julia Stiles) are trying to get to a source who is coming clean about the CIA’s undercover project known as “Blackbriar”. But the organization has an asset on the ground to take him out before they get to him. After Bourne and Nicky split up, the asset turns to her with orders to kill on sight. Nicky takes off, the asset chasing her, and Bourne chasing the asset. The three run through the crowded streets of Tangier and finally through a series of close, cramped houses, before the scene ends with the best fight scene of the entire series so far. Director Paul Greengrass puts it all together perfectly with the perfect amount of tension and action. It’s an awesome scene.

#2 – “RAISING ARIZONA

“Raising Arizona”

Leave it to Joel and Ethen Coen to give us not only one of the best foot chases in movie history but by far the funniest. In 1987’s “Raising Arizona” Nicholas Cage plays H.I. McDunnough, a dimwit struggling with a most unusual addiction – robbing convenient stores. He’s stressed over some events at home, namely the kidnapping of one of the “Arizona Quints” – the children of unpainted furniture tycoon Nathan Arizona. While the story revolves around H.I. and his wife Ed’s lamebrain idea to solve her infertility by taking one of Arizona’s five babies, one of the funniest moments is when a stressed out H.I. gives into his addiction and holds up a convenient store with ED and Junior in the car outside. Once she realizes what he’s doing, she drives off leaving him behind. With the police arriving and the store clerk pulling out his Dirty Harry .44 magnum, H.I. takes off on foot. He’s chased by lunatic cops, dogs, and eventually Ed again. He runs through suburban backyards, living rooms, and supermarkets running into an assortment of funny characters and hilarious obstacles. It’s hard to beat.

#1 – “CASINO ROYALE”

“Casino Royale”

I’ve never been the biggest James Bond fan although I did enjoy some of the Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan films. But that changed dramatically with director Martin Campbell’s “Casino Royale” from 2006. Daniel Craig took over the role of 007 and brought a gritty more realistic Bond to the big screen. I absolutely loved it. It doesn’t take long for the action to fire up in “Casino Royale”. We see Bond in Madagascar where he has tracked down a wanted bomb manufacturer. When his partner botches the apprehension, the suspect takes off on foot with 007 right behind him. I recently rewatched this scene when preparing this list and it still blows my mind. The chase takes the two to a construction site where a high-rise in being built. They leap up scaffolding, run along steel girders, and fight on high altitude cranes. Then the chase takes them back to the ground and through the streets and finally through the Nabutu Embassy where it has an explosive ending. Even though it’s close to 10 minutes long, this chase keeps you glued to the screen, constantly draws “ooo’s” and “aah’s” from the audience. It’s beautifully shot, masterfully edited, and it serves as a wonderful introduction to this new era of Bond. I love the movie and I really love this scene.

There ya have it – my 5 Phenomenal Movie Foot Chases. See something I missed? Disagree with one of my choices? Please take time to share your favorite movie foot chase.

REVIEW : “No Country for Old Men”

Joel and Ethan Coen have established themselves as some of the best filmmakers in the business. Their wide creative range and unique storytelling style has given us great films from several genres. Yet there are several common threads woven throughout a Coen brothers picture and one of the greatest compliments I can give them is that you know a Coen brothers movie when you see it. “No Country for Old Men” is my personal favorite of all of their films and that’s saying a lot. Winner of four Oscars including Best Picture, “No Country for Old Men” examines several themes that the brothers frequently explore while incorporating their familiar quirkiness, dark humor, and gritty violence. But the film is also unlike any of the Coen’s other work and that uniqueness gives it its own special voice.

Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, “No Country for Old Men” stays pretty faithful to the book. It could be called a crime thriller or even a modern-day western. It’s rugged look and tone gives this modern tale of violence an almost old west feel. But that plays to one fascinating subtext to the film. It is a movie about the evolution of violence and the moral callousness at its root. It says “things aren’t like the used to be” but from a more broken and defeated point of view. But there is much more to the film than that. It’s also a story of choices and consequences, old versus new, and chance versus fate. I’m being rather vague on all of these but let’s just say the ideas are interwoven throughout the movie.

Set in West Texas during the early 1980’s, the story opens with Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbling across a drug deal gone wrong while hunting one day. Among the blood-soaked bodies and bullet-riddled pickup trucks, he finds a lone but wounded survivor begging for water. Having no water Llewelyn leaves him. Before leaving he finds another body with a satchel full of money. Faced with the first of many key decisions that drive the story, he grabs the satchel and leaves the scene. Several ill-advised decisions later, Llewelyn finds himself on the run from the Mexican cartel and more notably a psychopathic hired hitman named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Tommy Lee Jones plays Ed Tom Bell, a small town Texas sheriff following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He and his deputy find the busted drug deal and Llewelyn’s abandoned truck and start trying to put the pieces together. The rest of the story focuses on the triangle of Llewelyn, Chigurh, and Sheriff Bell. And even though they share practically no screen time together, their lives slowly become intricately connected.

As with every Coen brothers film the casting is impeccable. Almost every performance is pitch-perfect and there is rarely a moment where the characters feel false. Josh Brolin not only looks the part of Llewelyn Moss but his flawless accent, the delivery of his lines, and west Texas mannerisms nail his character. He is perfectly complimented by a subtle and reserved performance by Kelly Macdonald who plays his wife Carla Jean. She’s simple but sweet and you are drawn to her as she’s drawn into Llewelyn’s situation. I also loved Tommy Lee Jones’ work as Ed Tom Bell. He’s the perfect choice for a small town Texas sheriff and I was enthralled with how he flawlessly embodied his character. Even Woody Harrelson has a small but great role as a rival hired gun looking for the missing drug money. But the best performance may be from Javier Bardem (who captured the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role). He may sport the worst haircut in film history but he’s also one of the most chilling and brutal villains on film . Even with his amoral propensity for violence, he’s fascinating to watch and the film’s best moments are when he’s on-screen.

“No Country for Old Men” is also a technical gem. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, a long-time Coen collaborator, uses his camera to create a dark and dirty world but one grounded in a true sense of realism. The sparse, dusty landscapes provide the perfect canvas for the Coens to create their violent world. The action scenes are ferocious but even in their brutality they never seem gratuitous. Instead they feel perfectly in context. I also loved the Coen’s use of sound, or in many instances their lack of it. Many scenes feature no background music instead relying on natural ambience. Several intense scenes feature no music or dialogue yet it’s the silence that really thickens the tension. While the Coen’s can sometimes be a little, for lack of a better word, wild with their filmmaking, every thing here feels a little more tightly structured and controlled.

The Coens have made many good films and they have a style that’s undeniable. You may like or dislike their approach to filmmaking but you have to respect it. Their unique vision is stamped all over this film. The violence is startling, the pacing is perfect, and there is just the right amount of dark comedy. You’ll wince in one scene and laugh out loud in the next one. “No Country for Old Men” is a brilliantly written adaptation and a beautifully crafted film. It’s one of those movies that features several scenes that will always stick with me. It’s also helped by some truly searing performances led by Bardem’s memorable work. I understand that this film may not appeal to everyone but for me this is a masterpiece. It’s a lesson in expert filmmaking and cinematic creativity. It’s also a movie I can watch over and over and never grow tired of it. Yes, it’s one of my favorite movies of all time. There, I said it!

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5 STARSs

5STAR K&M