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I was shocked in the first act of Bridge of Spies.
The movie opens with a beautiful, gentle sequence in which a mild-mannered painter shows himself to be a spy.
Then we are on to Tom “Everyman” Hanks as a good-guy lawyer, relentless and committed to his clients, though perhaps not to the most honorable of ends.
As seen in the commercials, the spy is caught and Hanks is assigned to defend him.
Within 20 minutes, Hanks’s James Donovan is fighting the hurricane winds of what the film offers as a near-universal American position that the ends would justify the means if it meant the Russkie spy (they don’t use that term… but they might as well) is found guilty and sentenced to death.
The movie has me.
Spielberg and his team have recreated the late 50s perfectly and have not only two great lead actors (the second being living theater legend and “Wolf Hall” Emmy nominee, Mark Rylance as Rudolph Abel), but a parade of excellent supporting actors bringing this all to life. But the screenplay also appears to be wildly subversive.
There is no one here is playing the regular Joe fighting a bunch of people who look down their noses at him or who will shock the system from the outside. Hanks’ Donovan is part of the power elite. And the spy, Rylance’s Abel, is mild-mannered, but unquestionably working against the interests of the United States. These are the good guys!
Spielberg is telling us, right up front, that people willing to give up liberty for safety deserve neither. He is saying, quite clearly, that the judicial system, people of means, the U.S. Government, and the military are all only as honest and respectful of the U.S. Constitution as is convenient for them and their ultimate goals.
Wow. Pretty radical for a studio owner. I’m not sure that Spielberg has ever stuck his neck out this far.
Donovan & Abel go in front of a judge who has already made up his mind and finds Abel guilty without allowing proper procedure. This leads to an appeal, against the wishes of the powerful, to The U.S. Supreme Court, which refuses to overturn the quite obvious mistakes in the original trial in a 5-4 politicized decision.
Good guys lose. The system, which is wrong, wins.
CUT TO: Francis Gary Powers being trained with a few others to fly the U2 spy plane. Everyone in the military is a jackass, including Powers. As we all (well, most of us) know, Powers will crash and survive.
Where is this going?
Well, it turns out there is a second Tom “Everyman” Hanks movie coming. And it’s not particularly subversive. It’s pretty straightforward. We have shifted from Hanks as Gregory Peck to Hanks as Henry Fonda. Rylance’s Abel is not in that movie much until the end… no longer a lead… not a supporting player, though we are desperate for more of him as an audience.
This second tale is a classic fish out of water story with the added element of a Cold War travelogue.
Hanks, still the same character, is now the outsider who is brought in to do a job by the government. Handle the trade of Powers for Abel on a bridge… of spies. Hanks pretty much will do what is asked, but he is treated poorly in the process. And in time, he will find, as he did in the first act, a moral cause that he will hold higher than what he is endlessly told is his “duty.”
We get to see the building of the Berlin Wall. We get the images and feel of the comforts of the west versus the harsh lifestyle of the east.
But in terms of story, there isn’t that much difference between the communists and our democratic world. The U.S. government, as represented by the CIA and the military, doesn’t care about people… just like the other side.
Well, that’s a subversive, interesting idea. Right?
No, Not really. This movie stops mining the idea of a good man fighting his own self-interest because of his moral ideas. Hanks’ Donovan isn’t passionate about freeing Powers. He becomes much more interested in also bringing back an “innocent” non-combatant who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This is when the movie could have gotten even more subversive and angry and scary and political. But it doesn’t. It lingers in Tom Hanks-as-Henry Fonda Land. We watch a beautifully rendered, luxuriously paced, rather simple film for quite a long time. It doesn’t offend… but that is kind of the problem. The primary provocation of the tale that is left, that bureaucracy – especially those based on fear – is equally problematic on either side of the bridge, is not enough in 2015. We know. We get it.
So by the end of the movie, we have a soldier coming home who no one much cares about, a spy going home who seems to have more honor than any of the other “official” players in the story, and a kid who Hanks saves… but is an apolitical cheese sandwich. We don’t like any military much. We don’t really respect the U.S. government. And really, much as we like the Hanks character, he hasn’t changed much, outside of acquiring a cold and exhaustion.
The movie ends with a humorously exhausted Hanks coming home to his loving family, not quite able (pun intended) to by honest with itself and close with the portrait of Hanks by the Russkie spy who is more honorable than the U.S. government or military and who sees Hanks, via the painted image, as a true hero.
This movie is a Capra film that feels like it wants desperately to evolve into a giant “fuck you” to American exceptionalism… but can’t quite get the middle finger to stick straight up. It is “Disappointed Capra” when it seems to want to be the angriest Sturges/Wilder/Pollack movie ever.
Bridge of Spies also reflects another Spielberg film that famously starts with one story and then shifts to another, Saving Private Ryan. Some felt that the story of saving said Private was “worth it.” (I did.) Some did not.
And Bridge has a bit of an advantage over Ryan. By the end of the “B” story, there will be a callback to the “A’ story. Once the beach as taken in Ryan, it was taken.
What Bridge goes back to is Mark Rylance’s Abel, who is the only actor given the room to create a full character aside from Hanks. Amy Ryan gets a lot out of her 6.5 minutes in the film (untimed), but when Hanks & Rylance are reunited on the bridge near the end, we are reminded again that the movie is only great when the two of them are together (or when Rylance is alone, as Spielberg makes beautiful near-silent sequences with him). But I don’t think Rylance is even in a third of the film… which is the central problem.
The man who knows things, but says almost nothing and the man who talks a lot, but can only learn what he hasn’t even imagined from the silent man is the DNA of a great movie. And I don’t mean government secrets. I mean that these men share a kind of zealotry, though Abel knows why he does – though it is unspoken – and Hanks is just becoming aware of his.
At the end of the movie, Hanks’ character has had a lot more worldly experience, but he doesn’t really know much, except that he doesn’t have a great deal of respect for governments. The rest of the stakes are incredibly low.
The politics of this period were, we all know now, hysterical and false. Both spies are guilty and unapologetic. Our hero has done pretty much exactly what we would have expected from him from his second or third scene. And the one guy other than the lead who we like seems to be going off to his death, even though he was honorable. Titles tell us otherwise before credits. So why did they have a piece of dialogue telling us otherwise and then not dramatize it? Your guess is as good as mine.
At this point in this review, I feel like I am circling, trying to find a reason to care about this film more than I do.
Is it at least a good story well told? Yeah… I guess so. It takes its time. But I can live with that. I didn’t want to run for the exit. But I did want it to get where it was going a bit faster… because it was totally apparent by the hour mark that it wasn’t going anywhere unexpected.
I would pay a lot of money to watch Hanks and Rylance in a variation on Midnight Run with very much these same characters.
I would pay a lot to watch My Dinner With Abel with these two men having dinner in Paris for two hours.
A beautifully-made movie. But I didn’t feel it. Or to be fair, I felt it and then I lost interest when it got more conventional. And no matter how much clever verbal play from the Coens, it’s not about the dialogue or the scenery or some wonderful performances… this is a big movie that just isn’t as smart as it wants to be. Munich, on the other hand, had big ideas it was pushing from start to finish. That remains Spielberg’s most daring film. Saving Private Ryan had duty and the unity of brothers in a time of war as a powerful theme from start to finish. Lincoln, which was not spry, was laser-sharp on theme from start to finish.
Either I don’t know quite what they were trying to say here… or I just didn’t care that much. Lots of nice stuff… but the 20 minutes I loved in this two hour movie just wasn’t enough for me to love the whole thing.
What a difference a day or two makes. Welcome to October, where it’s not summer or even November, but it’s a helluva lot better than September.
Whatever the weekend number for The Martian, look for this one to pass $150m domestic with ease and do at least double that overseas. Yes… I expect it to be Ridley Scott’s highest grosser.
Sicario isn’t new, but it’s expansion week and the result is… well, mixed. $12 million isn’t a disaster, but it’s also nothing to write home about.
Searchlight brought Malala out to over $20k per screen on four. But the answer to that film’s success will come at around 200 screens.
The Walk opens in limited… and doesn’t change the exhibition business at all with a per screen of $3000 or less.
So The Maze Runner series is the mini-me of the Divergent series which was the mini-me of the Twilight series. Well, kinda. The thing about Twilight that keeps studios chasing the dream is that even with a solid base, the series expanded from the first film to the second by 50% domestically and 100% internationally. It settled in and the variations moving forward were minimal, but it did make that leap. Divergent didn’t. And now, Maze Runner hasn’t. And though it is at a much bigger number, neither did Hunger Games. And really, though also at a biggest number, neither did Harry Potter, although there was a sharp uptick for the finale, which was both cumulative excitement and timed to the explosion in international box office (including China).
So, class, with this base of information at our disposal, what should studios assume will happen with book-based series with hardcore audiences? Right. What you see on that first episode is what you are going to get, which some variations from film to film. But with Potter more of a family phenom, Twilight was the first of the tween and cult adult series and its trajectory can be looked back upon as out of the ordinary. If your budget level means that the gross for the first film will suffice to make all of the films in the series profitable or highly profitable, great. If not, don’t be chasing butterflies.
Also in this category of “good luck with that” is the massive leap of the Fast & Furious franchise, which is giving false hope to many executives who are now desperate to believe that they, too, can raise their flagging franchises from their slide. And now, also thanks to Universal, Jurassic. I predict that some studio will have to write off $75 million or more sometime soon trying to make this maneuver work. Personally, I think Jurassic is reasonably explained by a 14-year layoff in the franchise, allowing the dino craze of the first Jurassic generation to fall away and then return as well as for CG to take a giant leap forward since Jurassic launched it, essentially, in 1993. People were ready to LOVE realistic dinosaurs chasing humans again. Jurassic replaced Godzilla as the great tale of human hubris creating a monster that would come kill us. And it continues to own that turf, as comic book movies are really only about supers.
As for why Fast & Furious doubled worldwide box office from #3 to #4, then against (nearly) from #4 to #5, then again from #6 to #7… well, someone serious will have to write that book someday. If I were to guess, I would say that the evolution of the international box office, the Americana feel of the material combined with a diverse ethnic cast, and again, the comic book movies, which make F&F look restrained in comparison (faux real) are the core causes. But mostly, I shrug. Fascinated shrug, but a shrug.
So, four paragraphs later, I guess its time to note that Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials was 7% off the first of the series on opening weekend. In other words… the same.
Black Mass‘ $23 million can be parsed in many ways. It’s no Mortdecai, but it is almost exactly Once Upon A Time In Mexico, a Depp-driven film from 2003. It’s no Transcendence, but it didn’t open as well as Public Enemies, which was considered a commercial flop.
Box Office Mojo has no “Mafia” categories under genres, but it does have “Irish.” And there, Black Mass opened right between The Departed and Road To Perdition, both of which cracked $100 million.
Everest did well per-screen, but no avalanche. Universal chose to open the film on just 545 screens, which is profoundly confusing given the downer elements of the film, which may be daring filmmaking, but tends not to be very commercial. If ever there was a “get them in there on opening weekend” film that wasn’t because it is a pure stinker, this was it.
Whatever the screen count, this was Universal’s first single-digit opening since February. One has to wonder about the date.
FUN FACT: This year’s The Visit is the biggest opening for a September release in the entire history of Universal and will soon be the second highest grosser (passing The Rundown & The Kingdom).
Pre-2000, Universal positioned movies in September that were interesting, like Sea of Love, The River Wild, Sneakers, and All of Me. But since then, it has been a place for movies, including some good ones, to die quietly. It’s not a dumping ground. But there just isn’t much upside. That rule can be broken (see: Moneyball, a Sony release), but it is rare. And even Moneyball and Burn After Reading and other smart films that “better than expected” in September don’t break out to huge numbers. The Equalizer cracked $100m last year… but mostly family films thrive with September releases.
Captive escaped from Paramount. There must be a story. I don’t know the story. I don’t care to know the story. See you on EPIX, Captive. (Not really. I don’t get EPIX.)
Sicario opened to an estimated $65k per screen on six. Strong. For some reason, Box Office Mojo doesn’t have American Sniper and Inherent Vice yellow-bolded, apparently causing at least one trade to misreport that the film had the biggest per-screen opening since The Imitation Game. And those two titles show the weird meaninglessness of opening weekend per-screen averages. One did $8m domestic and one did $350m domestic. Sicario will be somewhere in between. And when the “actuals” land, there is a good chance that Sicario will actually be closer to the $59k per-screen of Ex Machina, which did $25m domestic… which is, I would guess, about where Sicario ends up.
Please note… I really like Sicario. I think it is worthy of serious consideration for many awards. Still, box office is made up on numbers, not fantasies and spin.
An amazing thing happened at the festivals this last couple weeks…
Okay, perhaps nothing is an exaggeration.
But mostly, nothing.
Movies being seen changes things. Nature of the beast. But the only thing within a country mile of a revelation coming out of the Venice/Telluride/Toronto running of the bulls was Room. And in the long run, it is hard to be sure whether it is really an awards players aside from the central adult performance by Brie Larson.
Going through the Gurus Top Ten of (then upcoming) festival movies…
The Danish Girl delivered pretty much exactly what was promised. There is some critical pushback, which will become irrelevant as soon as the film is seen by Oscar voters. Some writers have reacted to a solid Alicia Vikander performance as though they thought that she wasn’t much of an actress before or that they didn’t understand the emotional depth of the Ex Machina performance. She is, as I have been saying for 2 years now, a sensational emotional actress (who cannot do “silly” well at all… perhaps she will grow into that).
Steve Jobs, which only showed at Telluride, is my top title of the moment… but I am not 1000 Oscar voters. We’ll know a lot more after more screenings and NY, but critics – as always – will not decide the awards fate of this film. Real people with votes to offer, sitting in movie theaters, will.
If there is an Argo this season, it’s Spotlight… though I personally like this film better than Argo. It is solid, hard-not-to-like classical movie making. Spotlight is the movie that will be there, never wavering, through the entire season, waiting for voters to tire of the trendy movie of the various moments of the season. Not the likely Best Picture winner… but sure to be in the Top 5 conversation until the very end. And if it wins, I will not be shocked.
Black Mass has some critic love… but mostly, “it’s okay” kinds of responses. Depp may be nominated (Globe nod is a mortal lock), but cannot win for this performance.
I managed not to see Trumbo in Toronto… just timing issues. But did you hear the giant explosion when it screened, changing the award season instantly? No? Neither did I. A nomination nominee.
Suffragette was something everyone wanted to happen at Telluride. Meryl Streep was in great form. It’s lead, Carey Mulligan, is about to drop her first. Year of the Woman and all that. But then we saw the movie. And Carey Mulligan still has a shot at a nomination. Maybe a couple below-the-line nods.
The Martian is terrific. Could be nominated. Under some circumstances, it could end up winning. But probably not. Ridley Scott is so good and does such complex work here which doesn’t demand that you praise his magicianship, this film could easily be written off as “just a good commercial movie.” It’s more than that. It’s better than many expected. But like Spotlight – a lot less commercial a movie – it could end up in the mix at the end by simply lingering and being well liked. It’s really up to Ridley and Matt and the great supporting cast. If they show up and let people compliment them and enjoy the love, it could work out surprisingly well.
The new Michael Moore, Where To Invade Next, is evolutionary, not revolutionary.
Beasts of No Nation is a beautiful, very tough movie that would have had a hard time getting top tier distribution as a festival film. Maybe Weinstein… but it would be a tough call. It will get a lot of attention because of Netflix. More people will see it. That is a win. Screen count will make the film seem like a Netflix movie… and that will keep it at bay. Could be an interesting Indie Spirit player.
The Walk hasn’t opened New York Film Festival yet. We’ll see.
Reactions were muted positive (or negative) for Our Brand Is Crisis, I Saw The Light, The Program, Legend, Truth, and Demolition. None of them turned into serious Best Picture candidates at the festivals.
Paramount bought the Charlie Kaufman/Duke Johnson film, Anomalisa… which has some juices flowing. But it’s a puppet movie… and it’s the Academy, Jake.
That was a lot of detail leading to… not much has changed in the last two weeks.
That said, here are the 13 titles already released or premiered at festivals that I think still have a shot (huge or tiny) at a Best Picture nomination.
Disney: Inside Out
Focus: The Danish Girl
Fox: The Martian
Fox Searchlight: Brooklyn, Youth
Open Road: Spotlight
Sony: The Walk
Sony Classics: Son of Saul
Sundance Selects: 45 Years
Universal: Steve Jobs
Warner Bros: Max Max: Fury Road
Weinstein Co: Carol
And here is the thing…
By my count, there are more than 10 films that have not been widely seen or premiered that have a legit shot at joining and/or superseding this list. The only titles already out here that would be really shocking if left out of the Best Picture nominations list are Spotlight and Steve Jobs. I am not saying they will be the only ones… but they could be the only ones. So the door is pretty wide open.
Of course, one of those two films could end up winning and then The Media could continue to push its festival narrative, even if this year’s festival would be incidental to either film having won.
But unlike any year in recent memory, after Venice and Telluride and Toronto, it really feels like the season has barely shown itself.
42nd TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL ANNOUNCES 2015 PROGRAM
Twenty-seven new feature films to screen in the main program
Danny Boyle, Adam Curtis and Rooney Mara to receive Silver Medallion Awards
Telluride, CO (September 3, 2015) – Telluride Film Festival, presented by the National Film Preserve, today announced its official program selections for the 42nd edition of the Telluride Film Festival. TFF’s annual celebration of artistic excellence brings together cinema enthusiasts, filmmakers and artists to discover the best in world cinema in the beautiful mountain town of Telluride, Colorado. TFF will screen over seventy-five feature films, short films and revival programs representing twenty-seven countries, along with special artist Tributes, Conversations, Panels, Student Programs and Festivities. Telluride Film Festival takes place Friday, September 4 – Monday, September 7, 2015.
42nd Telluride Film Festival is proud to present the following new feature films to play in its main program:
– CAROL (d. Todd Haynes, U.S., 2015)
· AMAZING GRACE (d. Sydney Pollack, U.S., 1972/2015)
· ANOMALISA (d. Charlie Kaufman, U.S., 2015)
· BEAST OF NO NATION (d. Cary Fukunaga, U.S., 2015)
· HE NAMED ME MALALA (d. Davis Guggenheim, U.S., 2015)
· STEVE JOBS (d. Danny Boyle, U.S., 2015)
· IXCANUL (d. Jayro Bustamante, Guatemala, 2015)
· BITTER LAKE (d. Adam Curtis, U.K., 2015)
· ROOM (d. Lenny Abrahamson, England, 2015)
· BLACK MASS (d. Scott Cooper, U.S., 2015)
· SUFFRAGETTE (d. Sarah Gavron, U.K., 2015)
· SPOTLIGHT (d. Tom McCarthy, U.S., 2015)
· RAMS (d. Grímur Hákonarson, Iceland, 2015)
· MOM AND ME (d. Ken Wardrop, Ireland, 2015)
· VIVA (d. Paddy Breathnach, Ireland, 2015)
· TAJ MAJAL (d. Nicolas Saada, France-India, 2015)
· SITI (d. Eddie Cahyono, Indonesia, 2015)
· HEART OF THE DOG (d. Laurie Anderson, U.S. 2014)
· 45 YEARS (d. Andrew Haigh, England, 2015)
· SON OF SAUL (d. Lázló Nemes, Hungary, 2015)
· ONLY THE DEAD SEE THE END OF WAR (d. Michael Ware, Bill Guttentag, U.S.- Australia, 2015)
· TAXI (d. Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2015)
· HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT (d. Kent Jones, U.S., 2015)
· TIME TO CHOOSE (d. Charles Ferguson, U.S., 2015)
· MARGUERITE (d. Xavier Giannoli, France, 2015)
· TIKKUN (d. Avishai Sivan, Israel, 2015)
· WINTER ON FIRE: UKRAINE’S FIGHT FOR FREEDOM (d. Evgeny Afineevsky, Russia-Ukraine, 2015)
Additional Sneak Previews may play outside the main program and will be announced through the Telluride Film Festival website over the course of the four-day weekend. Visit the TFF website for updates: www.telluridefilmfestival.org.
The 2015 Silver Medallion Awards, given to recognize an artist’s significant contribution to the world of cinema, go to filmmaker Danny Boyle (TRAINSPOTTING, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) who will present his latest film, STEVE JOBS; documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis (THE POWER OF NIGHTMARES) who will present his latest work, BITTER LAKE; and actress Rooney Mara (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) who will present CAROL. Films will be shown following the on-stage interview and medallion presentation.