BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 22 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Violence and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen & Joel Coen

Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Domenick Lombardozzi, Sebastian Koch, Eve Hewson & Peter McRobbie

BRIDGE OF SPIES sounded like a stellar project right from the beginning. You have Steven Spielberg directing Tom Hanks in a script written by the Coen brothers. It sounds like this film couldn’t possibly go wrong even if it tried. Based on a fascinating true story and set during the height of the Cold War, BRIDGE OF SPIES is an enthralling piece of cinema. That’s made even more impressive seeing that the film is made up of a bunch of conversations and people walking to conversations. If this doesn’t sound the least bit intense, then don’t worry, because you’ll be surprised at how suspenseful conversations can be when they involve warring nations and negotiations that might save lives.

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James Donovan is a gifted insurance lawyer living in Brooklyn. He’s very good at his job, so good that his superiors want him to defend a man who they believe no one else could possibly craft a defense for. Donovan’s latest client is Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy. Unsurprisingly, the evidence is overwhelmingly against Abel and mob mentality is calling for the man to be hanged. Donovan tries his very best to keep Abel from getting the death penalty. That turns out to be both a wise and humane move as Russia has captured an American spy of their own. Pilot Gary Powers was shot down in a specialized plane traveling through Soviet territory. So, taking his safety and life into his own hands, Donovan travels across the dangerous borders of East Germany and West Berlin to negotiate a trade of Abel for Powers.

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Unsurprisingly, Tom Hanks delivers yet another stellar performance. The man knows how to emote on a convincing level and he does the same thing here as James Donovan. You can feel that Donovan is a man who just wants to do what’s right and the compassionate side to his character makes him charming to watch. This character can also lay down an articulate verbal beatdown on certain people in this movie who need a good tongue-lashing. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen Mark Rylance in anything that stood out to me, but he’s great as Rudolf Abel. Even though he’s a Soviet spy, I couldn’t bring myself to hate this character. He seems quietly dignified and resigned to his fate, whatever that eventual fate might be. Next to Hanks, I’d argue that Rylance steals the show, even though his scenes are far more plentiful in the first half of the film. The rest of the performances are stellar, but I feel the only other major players come in Austin Stowell as Gary Powers and Scott Shepherd as a CIA agent who is aiding Donovan in his negotiations.

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As far as setting goes, Steven Spielberg captures an era where it seems like it was impossible to feel safe. As idealistically peaceful as certain movies and TV shows paint the 1950’s, it’s more realistic to believe that people were frequently worried that Russia was going to bomb the country or invade small towns. Spielberg successfully gets across the sense of unease that seems to have been a constant during the Cold War. I believed that I was watching an authentic recreation of a certain period in recent history and that becomes even more apparent when the movie goes to Germany for a majority of its second half. It’s all beautifully shot and pain-staking attention to detail seems to have been put into every frame.

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This constant tension also lives within the Coens’ dialogue. Though there are a handful of funny moments and good quotes, I found myself fully engaged in watching a number of different people simply have conversations for two hours about the Cold War and swapping spies. Every time I heard that the plan had hit a “snag” or had a “wrinkle,” I found myself thinking “How are they going to solve this mess now?” It became an automatic response for the plight of these characters and that alone shows that the story was insanely compelling.

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Spielberg arguably doesn’t go as far as he could have in depicting the harsh conditions of Berlin (this is PG-13 after all), but there’s a sense of constant danger here. A couple of speeches made by Hanks in the opening act border on becoming melodramatic, usually revolving around the repeated question of “What makes us American?” However, these are two minor complaints in an otherwise excellent film. BRIDGE OF SPIES is another winner for Spielberg, Hanks, and the Coen brothers. I would love to see these four talented names unite once again for something special in the future. BRIDGE OF SPIES is mature filmmaking that should deeply move those who are up for a movie that’s on the more serious side of things.

Grade: A

ROAD TO PERDITION (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and Language

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Directed by: Sam Mendes

Written by: David Self

(based on the graphic novel ROAD TO PERDITION by Max Alan Collins & Richard Piers Rayner)

Starring: Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, Paul Newman, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Liam Aiken, Dylan Baker & Ciaran Hinds

Try to think of nice guy Tom Hanks as a hitman. It’s not exactly an easy image to get into your head, let alone process how it might play out. Talented director Sam Mendes and versatile actor Tom Hanks pull of this unlikely feat in ROAD TO PERDITION. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, this film combines a father-son drama with a crime thriller. The result is one of the best movies from 2002!

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Michael Sullivan is a devoted husband and loving father who works closely with notorious mob boss/father figure John Rooney. His life is simple and he deeply loves his wife and two sons. When Michael Sullivan Jr. (his elder son) gets curious about his father’s mysterious work, he makes the shocking discovery that his father is actually a hitman for Rooney. This results in lives being lost and both Michael Sullivans (Sr. and Jr.) trying to get make it out of a bullet-ridden cat-and-mouse game alive, while also seeking revenge against Rooney’s gang.

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I was hesitating about details in that initial synopsis of this film. It’s very easy to give key plot points away that might come as shocking to someone who doesn’t know too much about this movie to begin with. I will say that the premise sounds simple on paper, but things actually get complex. With those twists and turns included, it never felt as if story was overly complicating itself. There’s a looming suspense that’s hovering over the whole film from the moment Hanks’s job is revealed.

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It goes without saying that if you have a movie where a son discovers that his father is a hitman, you’d expect the father and son to spend a lot of time together from that point onwards. That is the case here and it’s made all the better that their relationship feels real. Tom Hanks, though technically a bad guy, comes off as more of a concerned father than a cold-hearted killer. I never forgot what his violent profession was, but he was still a fantastic character. His job may have gotten his family into an awful mess, but I was rooting for him for the entire movie. Hanks breathes life into a character that was probably difficult to balance. A newcomer at the time this was filmed, Tyler Hoechlin (who hasn’t gone on to do much since) is phenomenal as Sullivan Jr. The pairing of Hanks and Hoechlin seems like a match made in heaven as they play off each other so well.

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Besides Hanks, a lot of other big names populate the cast. The best of which is Paul Newman (in his final live-action appearance) as Rooney. The late actor (who still had a joyful glint in his eye) excels in mafia boss role, injecting conflicted emotions that help the audience feel the struggle of his tough dilemma. Rooney isn’t just a cut-and-dried villain. He’s actually a sympathetic guy. You understand the appeal of working for a man like this and he’s also a father being torn apart by the sins of his son (played by Daniel Craig, pulling off a damn good American accent). The relationship between Newman and Craig is the antithesis of Hanks and Hoechlin, but there are also a lot of parallels that make things even more interesting. Stanley Tucci and Dylan Baker aren’t given a lot of screen time, but make the most of what they have. Then there’s Jude Law as the creepy Maguire. With long fingernails, thinning hair, and a devilish smirk, Law embodies a ghoul with a gun. As if that wasn’t enough to make his character terrifying, he also has an unusual hobby (shown in his introduction).

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To put the icing on the cake, the mood and atmosphere created in PERDITION is potent! If other directors had attempted to tell this story, they might have included tons of explosions and clichés galore. Sam Mendes opts for a more subtle approach and creates a quiet sense of tension that escalates in the more exciting scenes. It’s not all about brooding suspense though, as plenty of emotional moments (including a couple of devastating scenes) had enough impact to bring me close to tears. Adding to the mix is the awesome soundtrack from Thomas Newman, who seems to have constructed the music to fit the mood of each scene perfectly with a subtle pieces of music.

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Overall, ROAD TO PERDITION is not nearly as big today as it was upon its original release, but remains an amazing movie that still has a powerful emotional core. The premise might sound predictable on paper, but it moves into some pretty unexpected directions. Instead of just being a movie about violence, tragedy and revenge, ROAD TO PERDITION is more focused on fathers, sons, actions and consequences. This movie is perfect and I adored every second of it! One of the greatest crime films I’ve ever seen!

Grade: A+

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sustained Intense Sequences of Menace, some Violence with Bloody Images, and for Substance Use

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Directed by: Paul Greengrass

Written by: Billy Ray

Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhard Abdi, Barkhard Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus & Catherine Keener

In April 2009, the Maersk Alabama became the first American ship to be hijacked by pirates in nearly two centuries. The ordeal was no doubt a traumatizing one and as such things go, a thriller was released in October 2013 detailing the events. Though the validity is questionable on some parts, it doesn’t make CAPTAIN PHILLIPS any less nerve-rackingly intense.

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Richard Phillips is the captain of a cargo ship. His latest trip is taking him around the horn of Africa, close to the coast of Somalia. The warnings of possible piracy situations are everywhere and Captain Phillips does everything in his power to keep their surroundings safe and secure. Alas, it is not enough. A group of four pirates hook onto the side of the cargo ship and make their way on board. Taking the Phillips by gun point and searching the ship for other potential hostages.

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The style in which the film is shot looks grainy and feels handheld for the most part. While that sounds like a terrible thing when I describe it like that, it benefits the rip-roaring intensity of the film tenfold. The build up to the actual hijacking is well done with some foreshadowing and a look into the lives of the pirates themselves. Any other film could just have the Somalis come off as one-dimensional villains, but CAPTAIN PHILLIPS shows both sides of the coin. Does this make them sympathetic when they’re holding men hostage and threatening to kill them? Absolutely not, but it does give far more insight into the background of where these desperate pirates come from.

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While there aren’t many faces that stand out, Tom Hanks is the big draw here. His performance is breathtaking as Richard Phillips, who does his best to survive, even as the circumstances become more dire. The realistic approach to the film makes it all the more brutal and intense during moments. I was surprised this movie walked away with a PG-13 rating, especially after one moment of heart wrenching brutality that left me clutching my arm rests.

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So the film is damn near perfect, but what holds it back is actually the length of two-plus hours. This is a movie that could have used a trim here and there. The final 20 minutes of the movie feel stretched and this is especially true of one scene that seemed to go on for far too long until it almost got monotonous. This isn’t so much a movie as it is an experience though. You feel like you’re surviving the horrific situation (made all the more terrifying that it really happened) alongside Captain Phillips.

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Even though the film is a tad too long and has one scene that seemed to go on forever, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is a very rewarding experience that offers some food for thought about the piracy situation, the terrible condition of Somalia that drives men to do this awful deeds purely for the money, and it will leave you feeling a bit chilled long after the film is over. This is up there with RUSH as an almost perfect film to come out of this year that was a bit flawed due to some so-so pacing at points. CAPTAIN PHILLIPS still comes highly recommended!

Grade: A

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