“BRIDGE OF SPIES” (2015) Review

“BRIDGE OF SPIES” (2015) Review

Several years ago, I read an article in which Steven Spielberg had expressed a desire to direct a James Bond movie. It has been over a decade since the director had made this comment. And as far as I know, he has only directed two movies that had anything to do with spies – the 2005 movie “MUNICH”, which co-starred the current Bond actor, and his latest film, “BRIDGE OF SPIES”.

Like “MUNICH”, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” is a spy tale with a strong historical background. Based upon Giles Whittell’s 2010 book,“Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War”, the movie centered around the 1960 U-2 Incident and the efforts of attorneyJames B. Donovan to negotiate the exchange of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers for the captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel – whom Donovan had unsuccessfully defended from charges of espionage against the United States. Although Whittell’s book focused upon a larger cast of characters involved in the U-2 incident and the famous spy exchange, the screenwriters – Matt Charman, along with Joel and Ethan Coen – and Spielberg tightened their focus upon Donovan’s role in the incident.

It occurred to me that in the past fifteen years, I can only think of five Steven Spielberg-directed movies that I have truly liked. Five out of eleven movies. Hmmmm . . . I do not know if that is good or bad. Fortunately, one of those movies that I managed to embrace was this latest effort, “BRIDGE OF SPIES”. I enjoyed it very much. I would not rank it at the same level as “MUNICH” or“LINCOLN”. But I thought it was a pretty solid movie for a director of Spielberg’s caliber. The latter and the movie’s screenwriters made the intelligent choice to focus on one particular person involved in the entire incident – James B. Donovan. If they had attempted to cover every aspect of Whittell’s book, Spielberg would have been forced to release this production as a television miniseries.

Yet, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” still managed to cover a great deal of the events surrounding the shooting of Powers’ U-2 spy plane and the exchange that followed. This is due to the screenwriters’ decision to start the movie with the arrest of Rudolf Abel in 1957. More importantly, the narrative went into details over the arrest, the U.S. decision to put Abel on trial, their choice of Donovan as his attorney and the trial itself. In fact, the movie covered all of this before Powers was even shot down over the Soviet Union. The screenwriters and Spielberg also went out of their way to cover the circumstances of the arrest and incarceration of American graduate student Frederic Pryor, who was vising his East Berlin girlfriend, when he was arrested. And that is because the writers had the good sense to realize – like Whittell before them – that the incidents surrounding the arrests of both Abel and Pryor were just as important as Powers being shot down by the Soviets.

What I best liked about “BRIDGE OF SPIES” was its ambiguous portrayal of the nations involved in the entire matter – the United States, the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). No country was spared. Both the United States and the Soviet Union seemed bent upon not only projecting some image of a wounded nation to the world. Both engaged in sham trials for Abel and Powers that left a bad taste in my mouth. And the movie portrayed East Germany as some petulant child pouting over the fact that neither of the other two countries were taking it seriously. Which would account for that country’s vindictive treatment toward Pryor. And neither the U.S. or the Soviets seemed that concerned over Pryor’s fate – especially the U.S. Watching the movie finally made me realize how the Cold War now strikes me as irrelevant and a waste of time.

As much as I enjoyed “BRIDGE OF SPIES”, the movie seemed to lack a sense of urgency that struck me as odd for this kind of movie. And I have to blame Spielberg. His direction seemed a bit . . . well, a bit too relaxed for a topic about the Cold War at its most dangerous. Many might point out that “BRIDGE OF SPIES” is basically a historic drama in which anyone familiar with the U-2 incident would know how it ends. Yet Both “MUNICH” and “LINCOLN”, along with Ron Howard’s “APOLLO 13” and Roger Donaldson’s 2000 film, “THIRTEEN DAYS”, seemed to possess that particular sharp urgency, despite being historic dramas. But for“BRIDGE OF SPIES”, Spielberg’s direction seemed just a tad too relaxed – with the exception of a few scenes. One last problem I had with “BRIDGE OF SPIES” was the ending. Remember . . . this is Steven Spielberg, a director notorious for dumping a surprising layer of saccharine on an otherwise complex tale. This saccharine was on full display in the movie’s finale sequence that featured Donovan’s return to the United States . . . especially the scene in which he is riding an El train to his home in the Bronx and his family’s discovery of his activities in Eastern Europe. It was enough saccharine to make me heave an exasperated sigh.

Speaking of Donovan’s El Train ride back to his neighborhood, there was one aspect of it that I found impressive. I must admit how cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, a longtime collaborator of Spielberg’s since the early 1990s, allowed the camera to slowly sweep over Donovan’s Bronx neighborhood from an elevated position. I found the view rather rich and detailed. In fact, Kamiński provided a similar sweeping bird eye’s view of the Berlin Wall and the two “enclaves” that bordered it. Another aspect of the movie’s production values that impressed me were Adam Stockhausen’s production designs. I thought he did an outstanding job in re-creating both New York City and Berlin of the late 1950s and early 1960s. And his work was ably assisted by Rena DeAngelo and Bernhard Henrich’s set decorations; along with the art direction team of Marco Bittner Rosser, Scott Dougan, Kim Jennings and Anja Müller.

The performances featured in “BRIDGE OF SPIES” struck me as pretty solid. I thought Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Jesse Plemmons, Michael Gaston, Will Rogers and Austin Stowell did great work. But for my money, the best performances came from lead Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Dakin Matthews and Sebastian Koch. Dakin Matthews has always been a favorite character actor of mine. I have always found his performances rather colorful. However, I would have to say that his portrayal of Federal Judge Byers, who seemed exasperated by Donovan’s attempt to give Abel a fair trial, struck me as a lot more subtle and effective than many of his past roles. Sebastian Koch gave a very interesting performance as East German attorney Wolfgang Vogel, who seemed intensely determined that his country play a major role in the spy swap and not be cast aside. Superficially, Tom Hanks’ role as James Donovan seemed like the typical “boy scout” role he had especially became known for back in the 1990s. And in some ways, it is. But I really enjoyed how the actor conveyed Donovan’s increasing disbelief over his country’s questionable handling of Abel’s trial and his sense that he is a fish-out-of-water in a divided Berlin. However, I feel that the best performance came from Mark Rylance, who gave a deliciously subtle, yet entertaining portrayal of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. What I liked about Rylance’s performance is that he did not portray Abel as some kind of stock KGB agent, but a subtle and intelligent man, who seemed clearly aware of the more unpleasant side of both American and Soviet justice.

I might as well be frank. I do not think I would ever regard “BRIDGE OF SPIES” as one of Steven Spielberg’s best movies. I thought the movie lacked a sense of urgency and sharpness that nearly robbed the film of any suspension . . . despite it being a historical drama. But, I still believe it was a first-rate film. I also thought that Spielberg and the movie’s screenwriters did a great job in conveying as many details as possible regarding the U-2 incident and what led to it. The movie also featured a first-rate cast led by the always incomparable Tom Hanks. Overall, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” proved that Spielberg has yet to lose his touch.

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“THE MASTER” (2012) Review

the-master

“THE MASTER” (2012) Review

Paul Thomas Anderson seemed to be one of those filmmakers who embody what critics would categorize as a modern day “auteurist” that release a movie every few years to dazzle moviegoers and critics with his or her personal creative vision. During his sixteen years as a director and filmmaker, he has made four short films and six feature movies. One of the six feature films is his latest, “THE MASTER”

Believed by many to be an exposé on Scientology, “THE MASTER”tells of the story of a World War II Navy veteran named Freddie Quell, who struggles to adjust to a post-war society. Freddie uses sex and alcohol to escape his personal demons. But when his drinking and violent behavior leads him to lose jobs as a department store photographer and a field worker on a cabbage farm, Freddie ends up in San Francisco, where he stows aboard a yacht that belongs to one Lancaster Dodd, a leader of a philosophical movement known as “The Cause”. Dodd sees something in Quell and accepts him into the movement. But Freddie’s drunken and violent behavior fails to abate and Dodd’s wife, daughter and son-in-law begin to express doubt that the latter can help the World War II veteran.

What can I say about “THE MASTER”? Did it turn out to be the exposé on Scientology that many believed it would become? Not really. Despite its title, “THE MASTER” seemed to be more about Freddie Quell than Lancaster Dodd and “the Cause”. The movie did feature practices that are believed to be similar to those practiced by members of Scientology. But the movie’s deeper focus on Freddie’s personal demons has led me to believe that the Church of Scientology has nothing to fear. In the end, “THE MASTER” seemed to be more of a character study of the very disturbed Freddie Quell, along with a secondary study of Lancaster Dodd . . . and their friendship. And Paul Thomas Anderson revealed these two character studies in a movie with a running time of 143 minutes.

There were aspects of “THE MASTER” I found very admirable. The movie featured outstanding performances from Joaquin Phoenix, who gave a volatile portrayal of the disturbing Freddie Quell. I was also impressed by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of the charismatic Lancaster Dodd. His performance not only hinted in subtle ways, his understanding of Freddie’s demons, but the possibility that he once possessed similar demons. And Amy Adams was memorable as Peggy Dodd, Lancaster’s second or third wife, who not only seemed more dedicated to “the Cause” than her husband; but also seemed to understand both him and Freddie with a frankness the two men seemed unwilling to face. The movie also featured solid performances from Laura Dern, who portrayed a hardcore devotee to Dodd; Rami Malek, Dodd’s quiet and unassuming son-in-law who assumes a dislike of Freddie; Ambyr Childers, Dodd’s daughter, who hides a lusty attraction to Freddie; Jesse Plemons, who portrays Dodd’s disenchanted son; Madisen Beaty, who portrays Freddie’s love of his life; and Kevin J. O’Connor, a devotee of “the Cause” who is not impressed by Dodd’s writing.

I was also impressed by the movie’s production designs. David Frank and Jack Fisk did an excellent job in re-creating America during the post-World War II era and the beginning of the 1950s. Mark Bridges’ costumes were tasteful and at the same time, projected an accuracy of the era. And cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. captured Anderson’s direction and the movie’s setting with some impressive photography.

So, did I enjoy “THE MASTER”? No. In fact, I dislike the movie . . . intensely. There is nothing more boring than a 143 minute character study, in which the main character does not evolve or devolve. Freddie Quell never changes. Perhaps this was the lesson that Anderson was trying to convey. But honestly, he could have done this with more solid writing, a shorter running time and with less pretentiousness. And I have never seen a movie with so much pretentiousness since Joe Wright’s movie, “HANNA”. While watching an early scene that featured Freddie dry humping a nude woman made from sand on a beach, I began to suspect that my patience might be tested with this film. I had no idea my patience would eventually slipped into sheer boredom. One cannot image the relief I felt when the movie finally ended.

I realize that “THE MASTER” has received a great deal of acclaim from critics and some moviegoers. But I simply failed to see the magic. And if this movie manages to acquire a great deal of nominations during the awards season (which it probably will), I will not be one of those cheering the movie for critical glory. I dislike it too much. Oh well. Perhaps I will like Anderson’s next film.

“BATTLESHIP” (2012) Review

“BATTLESHIP” (2012) Review

Several years ago, the toy company Hasbro made a deal with Universal Pictures to produce and release a series of movies based upon their games and toys. The first movie to emerge from this deal turned out to be the 2009 movie, “G.I. JOE” THE RISE OF COBRA”. Recently, another movie emerged from this deal, namely an alien invasion tale called“BATTLESHIP”

Named after the popular board game, “BATTLESHIP” told the story of a fleet of U.S. and Japan Navy ships forced to do battle with an advanced group of invading aliens. The story began in 2005, when NASA discovers an extrasolar planet with conditions similar to Earth. The space agency transmits a powerful signal from a communications array in Hawaii. Also, an undisciplined slacker named Alex Hopper tries to impress a woman by getting her a chicken burrito by breaking into a convenience store. The woman in question is Samantha Shane, the daughter of the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Terrance Shane, who is the superior of Commander Stone Hopper, Alex’s older brother. After Alex is arrested, an infuriated Stone forces Alex to join the Navy.

Seven years later, Alex is a lieutenant and the Tactical Action Officer aboard the destroyer, U.S.S. John Paul Jones, while Stone is the commanding officer of U.S.S. Sampson. Alex is still dating Samantha and wants to marry her, but is afraid to ask her father for permission. During the opening ceremony for the RIMPAC naval exercises, Alex clashes with Japanese officer Captain Nagata. This incident proves to be the latest in a string of incidents that could result in the end of his Navy career. Meanwhile, Samantha, who is a physical therapist, accompanies retired Army veteran and amputee Mick Canales on a hike to help him adapt to his prosthetic legs. However, the arrival of five alien ships places Alex and Samantha’s problems on the back burner, when the U.S. Navy and forces from the Pacific Rim nations to deal with the alien invading force, after it places a force field around the Hawaiian Islands.

When I first saw the trailer for “BATTLESHIP”, I found myself wondering if Universal Pictures and Hasbro came up with the idea of a movie about the U.S. Navy battling aliens, from the naval warfare service. And I found myself wondering if the Navy wanted their own alien invasion movie, following the success of last year’s “BATTLE: LOS ANGELES”, which was about U.S. Marines fighting aliens. However, production for “BATTLESHIP” began some two years ago; so I nixed that idea. Whoever came up with the idea for “BATTLESHIP” . . . I wish that he or she never had in the first place.

There were aspects of “BATTLESHIP” that I liked. I thought it had a solid cast. Taylor Kitsch was very effective as Alex Hopper, who developed from an undisciplined slacker to a responsible and resourceful naval officer. He also had good chemistry with singer Rihanna, who portrayed a weapons specialist under Hopper’s command; and Alexander Skarsgård, who portrayed Alex’s uber disciplined older brother, Stone. But I was especially impressed with Kitsch’s chemistry with Tadanobu Asano, who portrayed Japanese naval officer, Captain Nagata. Both Kitsch and Asano did a great job in developing the relationship between the two men. I was also impressed by Tobias A. Schliessler’s breathtaking photography of the Hawaiian Islands and the nearby Pacific Ocean. And I was also impressed by the visual effects team led by Akemi Abe. Although I found the aliens themselves a little too mechanical, I must admit that visually, they were effectively frightening.

But when all has been said and done in the end, I must admit that I did not like “BATTLESHIP”. Not one damn bit. Well . . . at least most of it. I feel that it was one of the most over-the-top action movies I have ever seen. Even worse, I got the feeling that Peter Berg, who has proven to be a solid director in the past, was trying to channel Michael Bay and the latter’s TRANSFORMER movies. And it just did not work. It is bad enough that I am not a fan of the TRANSFORMERfranchise. For me, it is like watching a science-fiction version of the TWILIGHT films. But that a decent director like Berg felt he had to lower himself to that level . . . dear God! Why? What director in his or her right mind want to become a second-rate Michael Bay?

So . . . what was it about “BATTLESHIP” that I disliked? After watching this film, I realized that a movie about an alien invasion set aboard naval ships is not very effective. The aliens in this movie limited themselves to naval ships and a communication array in the hills above Honolulu, Hawaii. Very limiting. And how on earth did a character like Alex Hopper lasted seven years in the U.S. Navy? Apparently, seven years of military service had done nothing to curb his undisciplined personality. It took an alien invasion to get him in line. Really? Give me a break. I bet that a character like Alex would not even last during officer training school, let alone seven years in the Navy. How on earth did a guy who had been arrested for breaking into a convenience store ended up as a naval officer in the first place? Guys like Alex would have ended up as an enlisted man. And yes, I found some of the performances rather mediocre – especially from the inexperienced Gregory Gadson, who was a former U.S. Army Colonel amputee; and actor Jesse Simmons, who came off as a second-rate Matt Damon, “the early years”. And Liam Neeson proved to be wasted in this film, due to his appearances in the movie’s first 30 minutes and last 10 minutes. But what proved to be the last straw for me was the initial encounter between the survivors of the destroyed U.S.S. John Paul Jones and a group of World War II veterans aboard the museum ship U.S.S. Missouri. This scene was so ridiculous that it took me at least five minutes to stop rolling my eyes in disgust.

I wish I could say that I liked “BATTLESHIP”. But I would be lying through my teeth. It had certain aspects that I found . . . admirable and likeable, including a strong screen chemistry between leading man Taylor Kitsch and Tadanobu Asano.  And there were moments in the movie that I found entertaining.  But in the end,“BATTLESHIP” made director Peter Berg seem like a second-rate Michael Bay. And you know what? That is not good for a solid director like Berg.