Saturday, February 20, 2016

Reviews from gulag: In the eternal war of dads against communism, sometimes your dad comes home, and sometimes he does not

Given that the Cold War has been over for a quarter century now, perhaps it's mildly surprising that 2015 offered not one but two stories of fathers who crossed the Iron Curtain for their country.  Today we take a look at Bridge of Spies and Creed... and, okay, fine, it's a lot more because I watched them back-to-back than they have any actual thematic overlap whatsoever.

It's 1957, the Cold War goes on, and in the midst of a counterintelligence sweep, Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is identified, captured, and charged, inter alia, with espionage.  James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a lawyer at a prestigious New York law firm specializing in insurance defense—but, more importantly, a veteran of the prosecution team at Nuremberg—is cajoled into taking Abel's case, to demonstrate that the spy has received the due process of law.  But Donovan, a man of principle, takes Abel's rights more seriously than anyone might have expected, and offers a vigorous defense, even appealing the case to the Supreme Court—though he finds little sympathy there for his arguments.  In the end, it's all Donovan can do to persuade the trial judge to not execute Abel—not because the judge wouldn't like to see the commie fry, but because, one day, a live Soviet prisoner may be more useful to America than a dead one.  And, hey!  Wouldn't you know, apparently later that very same week—or maybe it's five years later, for Bridge of Spies exists in the kind of bizarre timewarp where children don't age and the ongoing narrative finds itself crammed into a space that is at once too large and too small—Gary Powers gets himself shot down over the USSR.  And this isn't to even mention poor, innocent Frederic Pryor, arrested under false charges in East Germany.  The CIA reasons that since it was Donovan's idea in the first place, it seems only fair that Donovan be drafted into the service of his country once again, and thus do they send this untrained civilian into East Berlin to bring our boys home.

Firstly, Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski need to stop, or be stopped.  For twenty years, Kaminski has coasted on his twin triumphs of Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, a pair of films notable for being shot in high-contrast black-and-white and being set almost entirely outdoors, respectively.  Otherwise, Kaminski has largely busied himself with undermining Spielberg with perhaps the most offensively grating interior lighting set-ups in all cinema—and Spielberg, for his part, has fucking loved it.  Meanwhile, it makes it all the more distasteful that critics unaccountably seem to like Spielberg and Kaminski's ENORMOUS SHAFTS (of light), although I strongly, strongly suspect this has more to do with all the other moving parts of Spielberg's emotion machines—the editing, the scoring, the acting, etc.—which all still function more-or-less as well as ever.

Now, you can make excuses for S & K if you want.  Certainly, I have in the past: Minority Report and A.I. are set in chilly technocracies, for example; War of the Worlds is the story of Tom Cruise fighting enormous globs of film grain, and revolves principally around the man hiding in basements from lasers; The Lost World, of course, is a terrible movie not even its makers cared about.  But now, with Bridge of Spies, the director and the DP reach the point of outrageous self-parody, between a palette largely leeched of color, and windows—so many windows—that appear to be the only thing standing between Kaminski's camera and the exploding heart of one thousand suns.  Thus do vast and piercing swathes of bright white light dominate and annihilate the compositional space of Spies, and it's so distracting, and just so damned ugly, that even a much better film would still be injured by this fundamentally terrible aesthetic.  Perhaps in a world where Spies were not the culmination of two decades worth of flood lights behind every pane of glass, it would even add up a kind of bizarre yet cognizable visual metaphor: it is, after all, a movie about a man doing his best to live up to his principles against a forbidding backdrop of potential thermonuclear war.

Of course, we know damned good and well that it isn't.  Why, for all I can tell, Spielberg and Kaminski actually died a few years back, and War Horse and Lincoln and Spies are just the inevitable result of coding all the well-worn tricks and annoying tics of two auteurist filmmakers into a single immortal algorithm, which—when fed with sufficiently Oscarbaiting screenplays—uncannily move their cameras around their sets and stars, all on their own and without any human hand involved.  And this is why it's so very, very important to get actors like Daniel Day Lewis—or, in our present case, Tom Hanks—because they're just not going to get too much in the way of nuanced direction from the terrifying, robotic voice of the Spielisnki 9000.

Anyway, Tom Hanks is awfully great in it, playing his upstanding lawyer with what amounts to a great heaving sigh of inconvenience, and his tendency toward snapping at his scene partners seemingly draws as much from Donovan's annoyance as it does his righteous indignation.  Hanks' performance salvages much—it may not be the only saving grace of the film, though it is the only one that extends beyond one or two scenes—yet it cannot quite salvage a screenplay as ramshackle, discontinuous, and overloaded with its own self-importance as this one.  It's no new observation to point out that Spies is essentially two movies, that happen to have the same protagonist, both of them bolted together by the film's other major saving grace, the awesome bit of Gravity Lite that Spielberg gets up to with the downing of Gary Powers' U-2 spyplane.

That first film is nominally a legal drama, but it's actually something a bit less dry: it's a 50s-style patriotic melodrama (not dissimilar to 12 Angry Men in tone, and vaguely like All That Heaven Allows if you stripped all the lust out), and it turns principally on how Donovan's defense of the Soviet spy has transformed him into an overnight pariah.  There's a lot to enjoy here, as all Brooklyn joins together in a conformist mob to pour disdain upon Donovan and his family, while Donovan keeps trying to Do The Right Thing, knowing it won't matter one bit anyway because nobody else is the least bit interested in anything but an ironic Soviet-style show trial—but damn it, somebody has to be the last sane American.

Indeed, this is sufficiently compelling stuff—certainly it's more fascinating than the actual legal mechanics at work here, given that Abel's constitutional case is relatively straightforward (merely preempted by political reality), whilst the procedural elements are dumbed down to the point that it appears that Donovan, Super Lawyer, might not realize that there is a whole layer of process standing between Abel's trial in the Southern District of New York and the Supreme Court in D.C.  (Donovan's very first scene is quite instructive on what to expect in terms of legal drama: it is a character- and motif-building discussion between the heroic [sic] insurance lawyer and his adversary, a plaintiff's attorney, and it revolves around a legal point about whether an accident involving the defendant's car and the five plaintiff motorcyclists constitutes one occurrence, or five, and the two argue about this—in this scene set in 1957—without either party ever citing a single piece of case law for what is transparently a question that would have been decided very long ago, even assuming it wasn't explicitly countenanced by the insurance contract itself.)

Yet, humble as Spies might be as a legal procedural, this is still the best part of the film, for it drinks fully from that cup of Sirkian alienation, punctuated with moments of outright cartoonish intimidation and oppression—which, for all I know, are based on true events.  That's why it's a little unfortunate that the second half of Spies—more like the second 60%—is concerned with the negotations surrounding the Powers/Abel exchange, undertaken five years later in East Berlin.  You see, it's here that it becomes apparent that the Coen Bros. had a crack at this script, and even more apparent that it's still being directed by Steven Spielberg, and that the two styles don't mesh all that well.  Earlier, in retrospect, you can see a lot of Coen DNA in Rudolf Abel's unnerving and amusing stoicism; here it comes into its own, and strange outcroppings of absurdity stud the screenplay from top to bottom, like unhammered nails.  Indeed, once we arrive in East Germany, a full-on wacky bureaucratic comedy begins straining to break free of the funereal chilliness of the film—and it is not clear to me, even now, whether Spielberg should be commended or condemned for burying it with his snow and his grayness and his cinematographer's unpleasant lighting.

Now, Spies never becomes bad: Spielberg keeps this two and a half hour exercise in foregone conclusions moving with admirable speed, while Hanks continues to anchor his character in something both fascinating and suitably mythic, and the film's climax—the actual handoff on the Glienicke Bridge—comes very close to single-handedly redeeming everything else about the film that was dull or routine.  The sequence is powered by the twin engines of Hanks' humane performance and Spielberg's tension-building direction; indeed, for the first time in the whole film, even Kaminiski's hyperwintry photography looks good.  It's a great scene, is what I'm saying: it pulls the heartstrings more adeptly than anything Spielberg's made in a very long time, as Donovan wonders aloud about Abel's fate at the hands of his countrymen.  He asks him to look for certain subtle cues, for these will speak volumes about what the Soviets intend to do with him, once they have him back.  Waiting for the sign is thrilling; seeing it is really something else.

And, at this point, we end, with Spielberg splattering some deeply inappropriate visual echoes across the frame as he gently upends his movie's own apparent themes in order to remind us "America, fuck yes," even though nothing, absolutely nothing, up till this point in the film could possibly have made one particularly proud to be an American—admittedly, with the sole exception that we share our nationality with Tom Hanks.

Score:  6/10

CREED (2015)
In this sequel to the seminal boxing film, Rocky IV, we learn that Apollo Creed had a son born of an affair: Adonis "Donnie" Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), rescued from the orphanage and the workhouse by his father's own widow.  Since his formative experiences as a young child, Donnie has lived well—Mrs. Creed is no pauper, let us be clear—but he chafes against the life of a gentleman his station has afforded him.  He fights in the shadow of his maker: born to be a boxer, just like Apollo, Donnie both loves and hates the dead and deified father he never knew.  Proceeding from this starting place of confusion, he forswears his father's name, even while seeking out as a mentor the one man who knew him best, and the one man who beat him: Ivan Drago.  Wait, I mean Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), but, yes, that would've been even cooler.

Okay, there's something very mildly obnoxious about Creed, although it shouldn't be, and it's possible I only even registered the problem because of its pseudo-verite aesthetic—something which served director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan immeasurably well in their previous collaboration, Fruitvale Station, a quintessentially holocaustal film about an innocent black man gunned down by an idiotic and evil police establishment, whereas Creed is another incredibly standard, bordering on gauche, tale of a Chosen One, a fact which is not well-hidden behind its facade of decrepit urban realism.  Anyway, the obnoxious thing is this: Donnie Johnson is, in virtually every respect, absolutely fine when we begin his story.  He's a child of relatively immense privilege (or, at least, one kind of privilege), who's doing so incredibly well at his nondescript office job that he's just been promoted, and then he quits in order to pursue his dream of being punched in the face till his brain stops working.  Thus one of the major themes of the movie is how a rich, connected young man can nevertheless overcome those obstacles and achieve all his ambitions anyway, mostly at the expense of all the poor people who had no other option but to trade their bodily integrity for cash in what amounts to gladitorial combat.  "I am Jack's smirking revenge," he seems to say, embodying most of the problems with Fight Club's narrator without giving us any explicit permission to hold his bottomless wells of self-regard in contempt.  And yet, to its credit, Creed never forgets that Donnie is intentionally slumming it, in order to try to find some identity that he can call his own, either; and thus, whatever Coogler and his co-screenwriter Aaron Covington are trying to say with this aspect of Creed, you can take what you want from it, and do with it as you will.  For my part, as I said, I found it very mildly obnoxious.

I'm not entirely in love with Coogler's mostly-unevolved style, either—as Fruitvale before it, Creed relies on (surprisingly good!) handheld video, a grayish/realistic color palette, and an elliptical "day-in-the-life" cutting scheme that (thankfully) doesn't pass up opportunities for editing-driven humor and pathos, or interfere with Creed's more structured (honestly overstructured) narrative.  But even with those caveats, I obviously criticize too much: because when it counts, Coogler demonstrates conclusively that "well-mounted indie filmmaking" is still nothing like the limit of his capabilities.

"When it counts," in a Rocky movie, is of course largely synonymous with "in the ring," and although Creed is clearly about twenty minutes too long (it's a bit of a wait to get to the first real fight), when we do finally get to it, Coogler takes that realist style and makes it glorious with an unblinking long-take match that is probably the best thing in any Rocky movie, in terms of its raw, visceral, physical impact.  The third and final fight (that is, the second fight of any lasting resonance) does not reach this level, at least not immediately—Coogler, probably wisely, mixes it up a bit.  Rather than the wincing panic wrought by the long-take, the many rounds of the draining final fight opt instead for emotional punch, with nothing more (and absolutely nothing less!) than some well-deployed stock footage, which sounds like nothing until you see it, but then you do see it: and, in an instant, Creed is granted a coherence that it had never quite possessed before this very moment.

This brings us around to the main attraction, namely Jordan himself, who is probably not quite as good as he was in Fruitvale, but he is, obviously, playing a much, much harder part—though it's still a part that gives him a lot of opportunity to indulge in one of his best tricks, his ability to turn on a dime, from charming affability to frightening anger, and make it seem like the most natural thing in the world for Donnie Creed to do.  Jordan underplays things, making no special pleading for us to like him, though we find him likeable enough anyway, and wind up giving a great many shits about his several personal demons.  Jordan, let's say it, is fantastic, imposing a consistency upon what is, on the page, a dangerously discontinuous arc punctuated by a lot of contradictory actions.  Even without Coogler tying it all together in the end, you'd still have gotten a character whose existence feels messy, but nevertheless real, and Jordan keeps Creed floating—surprisingly effortlessly—until that final superlative moment, when Coogler swoops in to finish the job.

And, say, ain't Sylvester Stallone in this movie too?  Oh, sure, and he's also pretty great (talk about pathos, thy name is Rocky Balboa, not necessarily in the best way).  Unfortunately, the places they take Rocky in Creed are so painfully obvious, that I have no doubt that you could take this movie back in time a hundred twenty years, show it to that primordial cinematic crowd who tried to leap out of the way when the Lumiere Bros. screened Arrival of the Train, and even those uninitiated rubes would nevertheless find that what Creed gets up to with Rocky is just a tiny bit tired, for in this regard Creed breaks so little new ground that it seems more like it's actively engaged in tossing all the dirt it can find back into the fucking hole dug by a thousand movies before it.  But that's a relatively small part of the overall dynamic here—and there can still be beauty, even in the hackneyed, when it's played by game and talented actors who have found the truth of their characters, and when they're supported by filmmakers who believe in their creation with great sincerity.  And sincerity, it is frankly impossible to deny, Creed offers in abundance.

Score:  8/10

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