Wednesday, February 24, 2016

New(ish) Releases!! Brooklyn, The Big Short, and Bridge of Spies

Brooklyn (2015)

Director: John Crowley

A great example of a simple tale told exceptionally well.

Brooklyn is the story of Eilis (pronounced "Ay-lish", and played by Saoirse Ronan), a young woman in Ireland who emigrates to Brooklyn, New York in the 1950s. Though very smart and attractive, Eilis goes through most of the typical stages of culture shock and homesickness. She eventually settles into her job and begins a romance with a charming young local man of Italian heritage. Just as she decides to fully commit to him, though, she is pulled back to Ireland by an unexpected tragedy. She is then torn between choosing between her old life in Ireland and her new one in New York.

There is nothing terribly complex about the plot in Brooklyn. Rather, its complexity lies in the emotions at play when someone must make a very difficult, life-altering decision. Eilis's is not a tale of epic, world-changing choices or even wide-sweeping tragedy. Instead, it is about more common life decisions which greatly affect the person who makes them and the people closest to them, when either option will cause severe pain to several people involved. In Brooklyn, the different options are set across the Atlantic from each other, but the vastness of the emotional differences is what gives the movie its dramatic power.

Brooklyn looks amazing. So amazing, in fact, that it is quite obvious that it is a work of fiction. The actors' good looks and the high sheen on every prop and set offers us viewers enough separation to realize that we are not watching a documentary or even a film memoir. This might be a weakness in other films, but in Brooklyn it works since the tale and the acting are organic and masterfully performed. In a way, it actually enhances the struggle and sadness Eilis deals with, given that it is happening in an otherwise supernaturally beautiful place.

I don't know that I will ever need to see Brooklyn again, unless I wish to drink in the aesthetic once more. It was, however, an excellent movie and well worth seeing.

The Big Short (2015)

Director: Adam McKay

Who knew that learning about big finance and a massive recession could be so entertaining?

With a dazzling combination of strong narrative, steady pacing, daring creativity, and phenomenal acting, director Adam McKay crafted Michael Lewis's source book into an educative and often surprisingly fun ride. The movie follows a few groups of individuals who were among the small handful to accurately predict the impending housing market crash in 2008. Leading us through the complicated tale is the fourth-wall battering ram narrator Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a smug financier who takes several breaks from his attempts to get filthy rich betting against the housing market in order to teach us viewers about exactly how things went so horribly wrong. It's a great device that spices up what could otherwise be some rather dull details about the minutiae of high finance. One could rightly argue that it is a narrative crutch, but it is an entertaining one.

The characters central to the story are portrayed as varied bands of oddballs, crusaders, noble aspirants to wealth, or some combinations of those three. The film versions of Michael Burry, the awkward mathematical genius and medical doctor-turned financier, and Mark Baum, a righteously furious financier with a serious grudge against corrupt bankers, are magnetic. The performances of Christian Bale and Steve Carell, respectively, bring them to life in hilarious and fascinating ways to the point that I found myself itching for the next scene with them. While those two stand out, the many players around them all nail their roles to a tee.

The unraveling of the causes behind the greatest economic crash in modern history makes for a fascinating and upsetting education. The Big Short, despite its steady humor, lets us all in on the rampant greed, irresponsibility, and grand-scale corruption that essentially allowed a relatively small group of wealthy bankers and financiers to bilk millions of people out of nearly a trillion dollars. It has a very similar feel to Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, though focused on the entire odious panorama of banking thievery rather than a single avaricious crook and his Biblical hedonism.

I would gladly watch this movie again, if not to try and pick up some of the economic and financial explanations more clearly, then to simply re-watch the great performances and galloping narrative. I don't know that this movie will win the Best Picture Oscar for which it is nominated, but it is definitely in that top tier of candidates.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Flawless technique. Crisp narration. Strong acting. Fairly predictable story arc. In other words, a Steven Spielberg film.

Bridge of Spies's greatest strengths lie in its source material and in its actors' and director's technical abilities in terms of storytelling in film. At this point in their careers, guys like Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg simply do not drop the ball. Ever. This is not to say that everything they do is fantastic. In fact, I find very little creativity in anything they do. However, they are also masters of professionalism and the technical aspects of film. Their movies always look great, feature clear narratives, and allow top-flight actors to play their roles extremely well. Bridge of Spies is no exception. Sets and costumes look great. The lighting, cinematography, and editing are above reproach. Lines are delivered in appropriate tones and with expert timing. None of this should surprise anyone who has seen more than a few Spielberg's many films. The only criticism that one can level at Spielberg is that he really never takes any artistic chances. By now, though, we know that, as great a director as he is, the man is simply not an auteur.

The story itself is certainly an interesting slice of real history. Hanks plays James Donovan, a brilliant insurance lawyer in the 1950s who is tapped by the U.S government to be legal counsel to Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Abel is accused of spying for the U.S.S.R., and the U.S. government wants to ensure that Abel is shown to be given competent legal advice, so as to avoid any public accusations of mistreatment or lack of due process. The case was one of many such ostentatious political maneuvers during the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Donovan does an exceptional job, even managing to help Abel avoid what would have almost certainly been the death penalty. Three years later, Donovan is again recruited to negotiate a prisoner exchange, whereby the U.S. will exchange Abel for a captured U.S. pilot and a captured college student. Donovan must achieve all of this under very shady and uncertain circumstances in a chaotic East Berlin, where the infamous Berlin Wall has just been completed.

The summary itself should spark a fair amount of interest, and the tale is unfolded as well as one would expect from this group of film-making talents. I must say though, as is typical for most of Spielberg's movies, the ultimate outcome was never really in question (and no, I hadn't read anything about this case before seeing the movie). Thankfully, some of the details and the paths which the story takes are a bit surprising, but the ultimate destination held nothing remarkably thoughtful. Of course, this can be due to the limitations of telling a historical tale. This doesn't make it any more exciting, though.

I personally put this movie in that second tier of this year's Best Picture nominees: "Very good, but not winning material". It's a very well-done movie which will probably have no lasting impact on the landscape of cinematic history.