Bridge of Spies. Directed by Steven Spielberg. This cerebral film, based on the real story of a Soviet spy and the American lawyer who defended him both in and out of the courtroom, is worth your time if you are a moviegoer who values intellect over action-heavy excitement, although I would argue that there’s quite a lot of action and excitement in Bridge of Spies. The film is better than the usual Spielberg schmaltz; it has an excellent screenplay written in part by the Coen brothers, and very fine performances by Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Stephen Kunken, Sebastian Koch and Mikhail Gorevoy. I was also impressed by Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, particularly in the Berlin scenes. There are some questionable elements to the film’s story – why was Rudolf Abel’s “honor” as a “good soldier” more important to Donovan than the fact that Abel, upon his return, might continue to aid the Soviets in planning an attack on the US? I also must point out that the trade wasn’t exactly equal; Abel had information, and Powers was a hired pilot who probably didn’t know anything more valuable than how to fly the planes – and as a New Yorker it irritates me that a) Spielberg didn’t cover up the post-9/11 American flags on the trains and b) there was no train intercom announcing the stations like there is today (it’s also redundant screenwriting; after announcing “Broad Street,” a moment later you see characters get off the train and there are Broad St. signs everywhere). Other than that, Bridge of Spies is definitely worth seeing. Obviously, though, if you have no interest in the Cold War era and even less interest in bothering with learning about it, then you may want to try something more popcorn-style. (P.S. Gotta love that moment when Tom Hanks says “HOT DOG!” Good old 1960-talk.)
Run All Night. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Having already seen two previous collaborations between director Jaume Collet-Serra and star Liam Neeson, Unknown (2011) and Non-Stop (2014), I had some idea of what to expect with Run All Night. This NYC-set crime thriller about a former Irish-mob hitman and his innocent son, on the lam after some murders get them set up as fall guys, has a lot of action and some interesting actors, even though it is predictable and not a movie you’re likely to remember after the end credits roll. Neeson does his usual fine work, decently supported by Ed Harris (a vindictive kingpin), Common (Harris’s foremost assassin), Vincent D’Onofrio (a tired but determined detective who has been tracking Neeson for decades), Holt McCallany and Bruce McGill. It would have been nice if Nick Nolte (uncredited!) had had more screen time and if Lois Smith had had anything more to do than lie in a hospital bed, but on the plus side I was impressed by two notable supporting performances: Joel Kinnaman in a respectable performance as Neeson’s hardheaded but sympathetic son (essentially the other lead in the film) and Boyd Holbrook as Ed Harris’s wildly problematic, drug-addled son who causes grief for everyone in the film. You won’t be surprised by many, if any, of the plot turns in Run All Night, and you may get a little tired of how Martin Ruhe’s cinematography gives so many scenes a weird yellowish tint (what is this, Taxi Driver by way of Steven Soderbergh?), but overall the film is good for what it is and Dirk Westervelt’s editing does a good job at keeping the pace pumping in the action scenes. Just don’t expect anything more.
Sicario. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. It’s hard to say whether I feel let down by Sicario (the Spanish word for “hitman”), a thriller about drug cartels run in Mexico and the blurred boundaries between lawful justice and vigilante revenge; maybe my expectations were not very high to begin with, or maybe I had A.O. Scott’s disappointed review in the back of my mind. I am glad that Denis Villeneuve made the film with Emily Blunt as the protagonist – she does as well in the role as she can – and yet the role does not seem like the coup it should have been. Blunt’s FBI agent character exists to take orders from men and react to their actions; unlike Josh Brolin’s and Benicio Del Toro’s characters, Blunt does not have interesting personality traits or particularly good lines (Del Toro corners the market on the latter). It’s true that Sicario effectively portrays the unequal power dynamic between the sexes in law enforcement (Emily Blunt’s character being the only woman working the missions, all of her superiors are men, they dominate her by their job status but also by their physical strength/guns, threatening her body in ways that she can’t threaten them likewise), but the film also does not give Blunt any good dialogue. That’s the biggest issue for me. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan expended all his energy giving Del Toro the memorable lines and Brolin the funny, unsettling quirks, while Blunt was left with nothing but clichés (“I wasn’t trained for this!” “You can’t do that, it’s illegal!”). Don’t tell me that a lack of punchy dialogue is supposed to indicate a difference between the sexes too, because I sure don’t buy that. It’s just poor writing. Kate is written like Caleb, the protagonist from one of 2015’s better films, Ex Machina: idealistic, in way over her head, and never wiser or more adept than the people in charge.
Tab Hunter Confidential. Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz. This award-winning documentary tells the compelling story of 50s screen idol Tab Hunter, whose carefully manufactured (by the studios) image of clean-cut, all-American heterosexual masculinity was at odds with the truth of his being a gay man. Having to stay in the closet held Hunter back at many times and he had to deal with family tragedies that I, a person who didn’t know much about Hunter, had no idea about. Learning about Hunter has allowed me to develop a deep respect for him. The talking heads may draw the most attention for casual viewers – Debbie Reynolds, George Takei, John Waters, Clint Eastwood, TCM host Robert Osborne, Portia de Rossi, Connie Stevens, Noah Wyle, Dolores Hart, Terry Moore, etc. – but it’s Tab Hunter who takes center stage, owning the spotlight as a fascinating subject and our narrator throughout the journey of most of his life.
The Walk. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. This was an incredible experience to have in IMAX 3D. (New Yorkers, I hope you went to the AMC Loews Lincoln Square theater because that is the only IMAX screen that could truly do justice to the amazing visuals photographed by one of my new favorite maestros, Dariusz Wolski.) For me The Walk is now second only to Gravity in terms of fantastic use of gravity-defying special effects, making human efforts into superhuman feats of unreal, jaw-dropping proportions. Like the younger kids in the audience with me, I too felt the exhilaration, fear and joy of everything Philippe Petit (played so well by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is growing into one of America’s most interesting leading men) does for his love of high-wire walking. Hearing Alan Silvestri’s score accompanying these astounding scenes made it all even more riveting and magical. Ben Kingsley is, as always, delightful to watch, here playing Petit’s mentor, Papa Rudy; I really liked César Domboy as Jeff, one of Petit’s “accomplices” who gets quite a bit of screen time in the second half of the film since he is the only other person working directly alongside Petit on the top of the south tower; James Badge Dale also has a good supporting role as an American companion on the adventure; last (but never least), it’s fun seeing Ben Schwartz (Jean-Ralphio from “Parks and Recreation”) rolling with the group as well. I suppose Charlotte Le Bon, who plays Petit’s girlfriend Annie, is pretty in a Winona Ryder way, but her performance was merely OK, not as special as it might have been with a better performer. Still, little flaws are a small price to pay for the experience of watching Philippe Petit’s walk – his loving tribute to the architectural mastery of the Twin Towers – recreated so beautifully. The Walk is currently my #1 movie of the year.