Saturday, July 23, 2016
In the late 1950s, as the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union begins to become more and more frigid, Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested by the FBI. American attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is assigned to represent Abel in court. Abel is found guilty of espionage and sentenced to federal prison. Shortly thereafter, an American U-2 spy plane is shot down as it attempts a long-range overflight of the Soviet Union. Its pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured, tried, and found guilty of espionage. Donovan is recruited by the government to negotiate a prisoner exchange, Abel for Powers. Complications ensue.
I've been a fan of Steven Spielberg since Jaws (earlier, if you count Duel, though at the time of its broadcast I didn't know he was the director). He's the only director working today who can capture 100% of my attention 100% of the time, even if a particular film is less than stellar. Yes, I enjoy the works of others, such as Ang Lee or Martin Scorsese, but Spielberg seems to know exactly what I want to get out of a film. While he's made a stinker or two, and a couple of films which are, to one extent or another, morally bankrupt, even at his worst the quality of his films is striking.
One of the first things that struck me while watching Bridge of Spies was how there's not a single bad performance. To the contrary, each and every actor seems to be punching above their grade. You expect exemplary work from Tom Hanks, but here even the slightest of performances is rendered with verve and gusto. Take for example Peter McRobbie as Allen Dulles, the legendary first civilian head of the CIA who recruits Donovan to negotiate Powers' release. McRobbie's performance is marvelous, full of nuance. Amy Ryan, as Donovan's wife, Mary, renders a perfect balance of stoicism and concern. On and on, throughout the entire cast. Each is a little marvel in their own right.
As Abel, Mark Rylance is a revelation. Watching him engage in the intricate tradecraft of being a spy is wonderful. His telling of the tale of the "standing man" is entrancing. And who knew that "Would it help?" could become the catch phrase of the year, if not the decade? Rylance was the dark horse candidate for winning the Supporting Actor Oscar and it's wonderful that he got to take the statute home.
On the face of it, you wonder how such a straightforward story (negotiating a prisoner exchange) could become an entire, enthralling film. The film's success hinges on Spielberg's seemingly limitless skill as a director, Hanks fantastic performance as Donovan, and the little known detail that Donovan turned a simple one-for-one exchange into a two-for-one, seeking the release of a second American held by the East Germans. The story gains complexity as Donovan now must juggle the demands of the Soviets, the East Germans, and even the CIA, all the while remaining true to his own moral compass.
Every time I watch this film I'm captivated by this juggling act, by its attention to small, human details. At first you almost feel that Spielberg is moralizing, with Hanks imploring the Supreme Court that we must remain true to our ideals while fighting our foes. Then you see the horror of the Berlin Wall being built, the families it separates with mechanical indifference, the collapse of civilized norms, the rise of tiny grabs at power, etc. A border guard exerts his authority because Donovan can't speak German, is an American, and doesn't seem to care if he has the right paperwork. A street thug negotiates an honest trade even while robbing Donovan. A lawyer abandons Donovan to local police, just to demonstrate how little power Donovan has over his own fate. The CIA dumps Donovan in a literal dump of a hotel, while insisting they stay at only the best, the only reason for doing so being a bureaucrat wanting to demonstrate his own power over Donovan. On and on, a series of tiny incidents, all working at a common end.
Spielberg treats each of these with the same importance as any of its major scenes. It's his willingness to almost stop the film for these and other moments that makes him a genius. Do other directors do this? Of course, but more often than not they are more concerned with the big scenes, the ones that propel the main story, and never mind the more human moments. Spielberg films revel in these moments, all the way back to Jaws with that tender, wordless exchange between father and son, the son mimicking the father's every move. Perhaps my favorite in Bridge of Spies is at the end, with the wife picking up her exhausted husband's hat, looking at where he's passed out on the bed; it's a moment that, to me, speaks volumes about their relationship.
Spielberg pulled together his familiar team for the film. Janusz Kaminski's cinematography is beautiful and lends a haunting air to several key moments. At other times, it's beautiful in a straight-forward manner. Michael Kahn's editing is clean and crisp; some day he'll bring home the Oscar he earns each time he cuts a Spielberg film.
A notable change was the film's composer. Spielberg regular, John Williams, due to health issues and other work (The Force Awakens) was unavailable. Thomas Newman stepped into the gap, and his Oscar nomination gives you some idea of how well he did. Most of the music is clearly Newman, lush strings and all. One bit sounds as though it comes straight from Newman's score for Wall-E, and there's a moment that, if I'm not paying attention, has me ask, "What film did Williams write this for?" That this moment makes me confuse Newman with Williams tells you how much I enjoy this score. It's also worth noting that Newman also did the music for the aforementioned Shawshank Redemption.
All in all, Bridge of Spies is a marvelous film. It deserved all the recognition is earned; it should have received more. I can't see how Spotlight is a better film, but then again Spotlight was the safe Oscar vote and the Academy, more often than not, opts for safe. I'm still inclined to name Mad Max: Fury Road as my personal favorite for 2015, but time will tell. Despite numerous viewings, neither film has yet to wear out its welcome, and Bridge quietly becomes more and more entrancing.
Saturday, February 27, 2016
Sunday, February 7, 2016
Williams' career is somewhat contemporaneous to Goldsmith's. Both started in television. That's where I first heard Williams' music, for Irwin Allen's Lost in Space. This relationship with Allen would lead to Williams composing the music for Allen's two greatest disaster films, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. Williams became the master of the disaster suite.
His music always struck me as almost startlingly different from other composers. Goldsmith could shock you with an inventive use of one instrument or another, but Williams would seduce you with lush melodies and rich harmonies. Listen to the track "Planting the Charges" from The Towering Inferno soundtrack; Williams takes you on a journey through the film, from bold opening, to the quiet creeping about, culminating with a countdown to detonation. There's also the marvelous musical underpinnings of the finale to Poseidon, at once sorrowful yet ending with hope as the survivors finally see daylight again.
And this is essentially how Williams started his career.
Williams is a long-time collaborator with director Steven Spielberg. Indeed, over his entire cinematic career, Spielberg has used Williams for all but two of his films. The two exceptions were to let Quincy Jones produce the music for The Color Purple and for Thomas Newman to handle Spielberg's latest, Bridge of Spies. Newman had to step in because Williams' health would not allow him to handle two films at once. Instead, he concentrated on Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Which is as it should be. For all my love for all things Goldsmith, Williams simply owns the ability to make sequels to his own music. Goldsmith made a valiant effort at that title with the three Star Trek scores he composed, but in the end, except for some opening and closing music, they sound like three different films. James Horner might have come closer if he had the opportunity to score Star Trek: The Voyage Home, because his work for The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock was excellent.
But no, Williams holds the crown. You listen to all four compositions for the four Indiana Jones films and you hear 1) music that is recognizably John Williams and 2) the music that sings Indiana Jones. And that string of work is surpassed by seven Star Wars films.
What Williams does is compose themes that work wonderfully on their own. Luke's Theme, Leia's Theme, Yoda, Rey, etc. You can listen to each of these and feel a warm joy at the sheer beauty that's caressing your ears (yes, hyperbole but damn, this is fine music). Williams will then take each of those themes and intertwined them with each other for a wholly new composition. I don't know of any other film composer doing this. I doubt anyone can do it as well as Williams does, almost as casually as you and I draw breath.
It seems to harken back to one of those dead Russian composers Williams reportedly discussed with Spielberg way back when they were working on Jaws, perhaps including Sergey Prokofiev. The most obvious example of what I'm talking about is Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. Each animal and character not only has their own music instrument, they each have their unique theme. And Prokofiev wove them all together, which is what Williams does.
Which also might explain why I love Williams' music, because I love music from those dead Russian composers. If I was stranded on a desert island and could only listen to one music composition for the rest of my life, I'd be torn between Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture and Williams' End Credits for The Empire Strikes Back.
Williams is nominated for an Oscar for the umpteenth time, for The Force Awakens. It's wonderful work, albeit not quite reaching the exuberance of the original Star Wars or the dizzying heights of The Empire Strikes Back. I'm tempted to call him a shoe-in, except that one of the other nominees of Ennio Moricone. While I'm not a tremendous fan of Moricone's work (except for what he did with Sergio Leone, because oh my God, all of that is awesome), there's little question that the Academy now finds itself with two music giants in the arena, along with three others who must be awed to find their work in the company of honest to goodness Legends (yes, capital L).
I wouldn't cry if Moricone won, but my heart is with Williams. For both of these men, the day is coming when what we have of theirs is all that we'll ever have of theirs. Like Goldsmith and Horner, the pen will be put down and the final note played. I have 80 some albums of Williams' work, and it will never be enough.
Tuesday, December 29, 2015
Monday, December 28, 2015
In 1977, Star Wars was a revelation. I never thought of it as science fiction, because it isn't, but it was fantasy that I could love. Give me blasters and spaceships over broadswords and horses any day of the week. And then The Empire Strikes Back came along and it was even better. It's been downhill ever since. The Force Awakens does very little to reverse that.
Some 30 years after the fall of the Empire, a galaxy far, far away is in a state of upheaval. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last Jedi Knight, has vanished. In his absence, the First Order has risen up from the ashes of the Empire, and seeks to crush the nascent New Republic. A Resistance stands in opposition, led (at least in part) by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) who sends one of her finest pilots, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) on a mission to recover information that may lead to Skywalker's whereabouts because he is, apparently, her only hope. Everything hits the fan.
I'm going to avoid outright spoilers here, but even discussing some of the characters may result in light spoilers and plot details. If you want to avoid all of that because you are one of the two or three people in the world who haven't already seen this film at least once, then let me summarize and say: It's not a bad film, it's just disappointing. "Meh" comes immediately to mind. TFA is also so chock full of setup that I wonder whether it may even be properly reviewed until Star Wars VIII comes out in 2017. Even The Fellowship of the Ring felt more complete, despite being nothing but setup for two more films.
That said, in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you got to see characters learn things and evolve. Here, everyone is instantly competent. Discussions about TFA introduced me to a new term, Mary Sue, meaning a character who is ridiculously competent. The internets are alive with the debate as to whether Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a Mary Sue and I'm here to tell you, woo boy, is she ever. She's a scavenger on a desert planet who can fix, quite literally, anything, fly like the best fighter jockey in history, fight with near impeccable skill, and...well, do all sorts of other stuff that we've come to assume requires at least a hint of training. She's absurdly competent.
At least with her erstwhile companion, Finn (John Boyega) there's a vague learning curve, but even here you get flashes that he's a Marty Stu (or is it Gary Stu?), the male equivalent of a Mary Sue. You get a glimpse of his lightsaber duel with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in the trailers, and how Finn lasts more than one swing is beyond me.
And please, don't rev up the response that I wouldn't be making these comments if Rey was Ray, a dude, because yes, yes I would. Back in 1977, criticism of Star Wars was rife with the noting that Luke went from zero to hero a little too quickly, but at least within that film there was a hint that Luke may have latent abilities. For example, Luke's father was a Jedi knight so it wasn't surprising that Luke had some talent with the force. Further, Luke was established as being "quite a pilot." These were tossed in lines, but they were something. None of this is present for either Rey or Finn.
It's a leap of faith to believe that all will be explained in the next film, and that's the most serious problem with TFA. It simply isn't a standalone film. Characters have abilities without explanation. Things happen which have no bearing on the story or characters here, but may come to mean something a film or two down the line. This isn't a cliffhanger situation, a la The Empire Strikes Back. This is nothing but threads everywhere, while at the same time representing a sort of "soft reboot" or even an outright remake of Star Wars.
The callbacks, rehashes, repeats, etc., just keep piling up. R2D2 carries information vital to the rebellion in SW; BB8 carries information vital to the resistance in TFA. The main character of each lives a hard life on a desert planet. Cantinas and bands abound. The retreads keep coming at you and bounce you right out of the film. I was no sooner beginning to settle in then, boom, another rehash or callback or whatever the hell you want to call it. Oh look, an old, wizened, and wise tiny alien. Good grief, there's even a rehash of Luke's underground trial in TESB. In SW you have to fly down this narrow trench to hit your target. In Return of the Jedi, you have to fly into the heart of the Death Star. In The Phantom Menace, spinning is a good trick as you fly into the enemy spaceship and blast The Important Component. In TFA, you fly down the trench AND into the installation AND do some spinning, too.
Ugh! There is absolutely nothing new under the sun. TFA is less of a film and more a series of fanfic's greatest hits. No wonder it's a hit because it's rank wish fulfillment.
There are good aspects. I really like Finn and his bromance with Poe. There's an authentic warmth here and I really want to see where they go with Finn's character. I want to like Rey and all may be explained in future films; she may develop into someone I give a flying fig about.
I'm having a love/hate relationship with Kylo Ren. Mask on, he's all menace and threat; mask off, he's a wuss of a first order. And he throws temper tantrums, which is the very definition of weak.
Everyone else generally sucks. Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is hilariously awful. General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) chews scenery and little else. Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o) is a Yoda wannabe, while Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow) is a throwaway. The greatest sin is Captain Phasma, which is a waste of the (literally) towering talent of Gwendoline Christie; Phasma registers as less than zero and buckles under the slightest of threats.
So, summing up, as it's own film The Force Awakens is a wreck. As the first of a trilogy, it maybe gets the job done, though we won't know until all three films are in the can. I have high hopes for SW VIII because with Rian Johnson it has a vastly superior director at the helm. If the powers that be give him sufficient creative control, he may redeem all that is wrong with TFA and advance the series in much the same way that Irvin Kershner advanced things when following up George Lucas. Until then, TFA is typical JJ Abrams work, which is to say, "Meh."
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
In destroying the Death Star, the Rebels have dealt the Empire a serious blow. However, the Empire is relentlessly pursuing them across the galaxy. At the same time, young Luke Skywalker is attempting to come to terms with his growing ability to use the Force. Action, adventure, love, betrayal, education, and revelations ensue.
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is one of those rare examples of a sequel being better than the original. Not that there's anything wrong with Star Wars (aka: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) , but Empire pretty much expands and improves on everything. It's impossible to overstate how great a film Empire is.
Irvin Kerschner, working off a screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, maintains a deft touch over the film. Kerschner was a curious choice for director, with little standing out in his resume before Empire, yet he took to the Star Wars universe like a duck to water, guiding the cast and crew to precisely the correct notes in shot after shot. There's not a misstep in the entire film.
Kerschner also made the assumption that the film's audience was intelligent enough to fill in the narrative blanks he may have left. For example, I can remember some critics noting that the rebels just mysteriously gather at the end of the film, yet it's clearly stated early on that they'll meet at a designated rendezvous. It’s said once and done on the assumption that people are paying attention. Apparently critics are were either not paying attention or aren’t people.
Perhaps nothing illustrates my point better than how George Lucas came along later and butchered a portion of the film's climatic set piece. In the original, after his confrontation with Luke, Vader says, "Bring me my shuttle," when he wants to leave Bespin; the next time we see him he's back on his super stardestroyer. Lucas inserted shots of Vader walking to his shuttle, the shuttle flying, Vader disembarking, etc., completely destroying the pacing at the film's climax. Kerschner assumed you were intelligent enough to fill in the gaps; Lucas acted as if you needed to be walked through the steps.
This is why as much as I love this film, it's difficult to watch the current "special edition." It's not the addition of "better" visual effects, or inserting windows where before there were blank, white walls, it's this disruption of a thrilling end to a fantastic film. Curse you, George Lucas! Disney, give me back the original!
As for those "better" visual effects, Empire has so few changes because it represents sublime perfection of the visual effects craft of its era. It's one of only two films that I'm aware of where the Academy simply handed over the Oscar for visual effects, where there weren't any other nominees (the other film is Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall, by the way). They simply said, "And the Oscar goes to…" and handed it over to Industrial Light and Magic. Decades later, in the era of CGI this and that, Empire still more than holds it's own.
It would be criminal to not mention the fantastic score by John Williams. This was the film where it became clear that Williams has a talent almost unique among film composers, the ability to write sequels to his own music. James Horner made a valiant stab at it (I’ll forever wonder what a third Horner Star Trek score might have sounded like) and others may also have tried, but Williams holds the crown. He took everything he had done for A New Hope and not only successfully reused his established themes, he built new ones. He then wove each of those themes into new compositions to fantastic effect. The entire score is brilliant, the closing music the stuff of dreams (and apparently the new intro music on the digital editions of the films).
The Empire Strikes Back is a great film and I thought so from the first time I saw it, when it premiered way back in 1981. I think of all the naysayers who said otherwise and go "Neener neener!" History has vindicated my love for this film, the one that The Force Awakens will be measured against.
Friday, November 13, 2015
The Holocaust remains an unfathomable atrocity, the unholy benchmark by which all such are measured. Stalin and Mao both make Hitler look like an amateur when it came to sheer body count, yet the Holocaust remains unique. It seems to boil down to two reasons. First, the Nazis were terrifying in their systematic approach to the slaughter of Jews, driven by their ideological belief that they were acting for the greater good of all mankind. And second, they hunted Jews in any land they conquered; the goal wasn't merely to "purify" Germany, but the world.
Few films have captured these points as well as HBO's 2001 film, Conspiracy.
On January 20, 1942, a group of senior officials of Nazi Germany met at a lovely house in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee. The purpose of their meeting was to determine the "final solution" for the Jews. The Wannsee Conference developed what is referred to as the Wannsee Protocol. A single copy of the document remains. Conspiracy, drawing from that and other resources, chronicles that meeting.
I've watched this film several times and it's fascinating each and every time. Director Frank Pierson keeps stylistic flourishes at a distance, lending an almost documentary feel to the production. The lack of musical score emphasizes this feel. The performances are beyond reproach and avoid any hysterical melodramatics. The result is a clear discussion of the unthinkable, while at the same time small details such as meals, drinks, cigars, and crude humor allow that human beings, rather than cartoon renditions of inhuman monsters, were discussing inhuman matters in a cold, calculating fashion that illustrates, perhaps more than anything else, Hannah Arendt's notion of "the banality of evil."
In a film filled with excellent performances, finding a standout is almost futile. I say "almost" because then there's that moment with Colin Firth as Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart. He and David Threlfall (Dr. Wilhelm Kritzinger) are the most reluctant to proceed with the topic at hand, the mass murder of Jews, but their objections are decidedly different. Kritzinger objects because the discussion contradicts what Der Fuhrer has told him directly, and there's that chilling moment when Kenneth Branagh, as Reinhard Heydrich, the architect of the meeting and the driving force behind development of a final solution, looks at him and says that yes, the Fuhrer has denied this, and will continue to deny this. The silent exchange between the two is all it takes to understand that officially, this won't be policy, yet equally officially, yes it will.
But it's Stuckart's objection that haunts me. He is all about the law, and having written Germany's racial purity laws, he's not about to see them all tossed aside willy nilly. He doesn't object to the idea of killing, or any other other proposed solutions, but he insists it be done in accordance with law. This, to me, emphasizes the monstrous nature of what was being discussed. The morality of slaughtering people was never in question; they felt they were doing a moral, even ethical, duty. But by Wodan, they were going to do it in accordance with law and proper procedure.
There are no monsters at this conference, at least not by their beliefs. Yet they casually planned the monstrous. More so than any other Holocaust film, Conspiracy gives you a glimpse at the morally bankrupt, bureaucratic mind that planned the final solution for the Jews. The hint that they knew how evil what they proposing was comes from the insistence on controlling all records of the meeting (nicely managed by Stanley Tucci as Adolf Eichmann, Mr. Banality himself). If they truly believes that they were doing the moral and ethical thing, why the demand for secrecy?
It's this contradiction that Conspiracy captures so well, men talking openly, even brazenly, about genocide on an industrial scale, while at the same time wanting to keep their little discussion as secret as possible. This film tells you all the need to know about the Nazi mentality and why it does, indeed, represent the greatest horror in history.