Friday, October 16, 2015


Opening this weekend:

Bridge of SpiesThis Cold War drama opens with one of those mesmerizing sequences that the mature Steven Spielberg does so effortlessly, as Soviet spy “Rudolf Abel” (Mark Rylance) is stalked by the Feds through the streets and subways of Brooklyn. After Abel, a British-born Russian who seems to have squeezed his espionage work in around his passion for painting, is captured in 1957, his defense is turned over to a staid Brooklyn insurance lawyer, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) who had worked on the prosecution at the Nuremberg Trials.

From there on, Bridge of Spies, scripted by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen, becomes a reflection on the meaning of patriotic duty. Donovan regards it as a point of national pride to provide Abel with a genuine best defense, while everyone from the judge (Dakin Matthews) to his wife (Amy Ryan) to the CIA creep shadowing him (Scott Shepherd) regards his role as a formality in a kangaroo court, and roll their eyes with disgust at his idealism. The public is even less sympathetic, glowering at him over their newspapers on the subway.

But a few years later, when U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Sowell) is shot down and captured by the Soviets, Donovan’s spirited advocacy in keeping his client out of the electric chair seems prescient. He’s asked by Allen Dulles (Peter McRobbie) to travel to Berlin, where the wall is just then going up, to unofficially negotiate the swap of Abel for Powers at Glienicke Bridge between Berlin and Potsdam in February of 1962.

Hanks is terrific in the sort of Capra-esque hero part for which he’s the modern go-to American star—Spencer Tracy or James Stewart or Henry Fonda would have excelled in it too. But Hanks makes it his own, giving Donovan a certain wry perplexity at how those around him don’t seem to get it; don’t grasp that excluding foreigners or alleged enemies from full due process and civil protection is a betrayal of American values. These issues never seem to go away, alas—Donovan’s frustration will be familiar to anyone who ever felt like their head was going to explode in arguments over, say, waterboarding or Abu Ghraib.

Reliably fine as Hanks and several other members of the veteran cast are, the best performance in Bridge of Spies is by Rylance, as the mysterious, ethnically pied, imperturbable Rudolf Abel. Initially dismayed at his assignment, Donovan is almost immediately disarmed by his client’s dignity, resolve and ironic humor, while Abel seems moved by Donovan’s honor and good faith. Rylance and Hanks get all of this across without heavy-handed telegraphing; in each of their scenes together the two men are closer and closer friends.

I’m not historian enough to say to what degree this story has been streamlined and made symmetrical for dramatic purposes. Plenty, I’d guess. Nor can I say how much the movie’s version of Donovan, or any other character, reflects the reality. But as drama, it’s insistently absorbing. The final minutes—Donovan’s return to Brooklyn, just as his family is seeing a TV news report about him—are perhaps a bit too pat and burnished and reverent. It’s the only moment when Spielberg drops his impressive reserve here, and it’s brief. Otherwise, this low-key, sedately-paced movie builds quietly, earning its emotional payoffs with both and verbal and cinematic eloquence.

GoosebumpsJust in time for Halloween comes this comedy fantasy riff on the popular series of young-adult horror novels of the '90s. The work of the insanely prolific R. L. Stine, the formulaic Goosebumps yarns featured young protagonists going up against zombies, ghosts, werewolves, blobs, abominable snowmen, giant insects, murderous garden gnomes and just about every other imaginable horror motif (almost all of them, of course, pillaged from the movies).

Stine is an onscreen character in the film, played by Jack Black as a curmudgeon living in small-town Delaware. It turns out that Stine’s imagination is so potent that his monsters will “literally leap off the page” of the original manuscripts if their locked covers are opened. Our young hero (Dylan Minnette), a new kid in town who is drawn to Stine’s daughter (Odeya Rush), inadvertently liberates all of the Goosebumps monsters. Under the leadership of the evil ventriloquist dummy Slappy, they go on the hunt for their author, who they resent for their imprisonment in the books.

The storyline is silly, to be sure, but the script, by Darren Lemke (from a story concocted by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski), is a little wittier than you might expect, and Rob Letterman’s direction is exuberant. Black’s short-fused, fussy, vain, self-dramatizing Stine is a study in broad and happy hamming; he seems to be channeling Gale Gordon.

It's also great to hear the scherzos of Danny Elfman, in his classic style, on the soundtrack. Goosebumps is a trifle, certainly, but it’s a well-crafted, funny and colorful trifle. It would perhaps be a good family option for the season—grown-ups can get a kick out of it, and on any but the littlest viewers, it’s unlikely to raise any serious goosebumps.

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