It’s a busy week for this week in home video, particularly in new releases with the latest from Steven Spielberg and David Simon, a mediocre journalism film with a star-studded cast, a strange dramatization of a bitter political event, and Bill Murray’s latest and unfortunately failed attempt to charm his audiences.
Let’s start with Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” currently nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Mark Rylance, and Best Original Screenplay for Matt Chapman and the Coen Brothers. The film follows James Donovan (Tom Hanks, in a stellar performance), an insurance lawyer first recruited by the United States to defend a recently captured Soviet spy Rudolph Abel (Rylance, also stellar) in court so American present the image of a “fair trial.” But when Donovan strongly defends Abel by convincing the judge to give him 30 years in prison instead of the death penalty, and later appealing to the Supreme Court that the prosecution’s evidence was obtained illegally, he’s denounced by the American public for his actions. But when the Soviets capture an American pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and an American graduate student Frederic Pryor (Will Roger), the U.S. government sends Donovan to negotiate their release in exchange for Abel. One of the best movies of the year and certainly one of Spielberg’s very best films in years, “Bridge of Spies” depicts American politics as a series of intense discussions where a pragmatic man can reign supreme by standing firm and appealing to others’ decency.
Next, there’s David Simon’s latest mini-series “Show Me a Hero,” about the public housing crisis in Yonkers, New York and how one eager council member (Oscar Isaac) fought against the desegregation in the hopes that it will get him elected mayor, and then became a strong advocate of desegregation while in office once he was forced to comply. (For those interested in David Simon’s relationship with actors, specifically Isaac on the show, read this blog post about the push-pull relationship between writers and actors who have opinions). Then, there’s James Vanderbilt’s “Truth,” about the 2004 Dan Rather scandal and the subsequent firestorm of criticism that cost Rather (Redford) and “60 Minutes” producer Mary Mypes (Cate Blanchett) their careers. After that, David Gordon Green’s “Our Brand Is Crisis,” a strange dramatization of James Carville’s Clintonian victory in Bolivia starring Sandra Bullock as a spin doctor and Billy Bob Thornton as the Carville character but working for the other side. Next, there’s Barry Levinson’s “Rock the Kasbah,” which basically puts Bill Murray in Afghanistan so he can be Bill Murray and spout one-liners and sing “Smoke on the Water.” Then, there’s “Freeheld,” the true story of a lesbian couple (Julianne Moore and Ellen Page) who struggle to maintain pension benefits after one of them is diagnosed with cancer. Finally, there’s “Suffragette,” a cheeky dramatization of the early feminist movement, “Man Up,” a British rom-com starring Lake Bell and Simon Pegg, “Hellions,” a Canadian horror film about a pregnant teen fighting monsters, and “The Keeping Room,” about three Southern women defending their home against rogue soldiers in the dying days of the Civil War.
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There are only a few releases on the classic front. First, Disney’s Signature Collection has “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the classic fairly tale about the beautiful young maiden, the wicked stepmother who puts her in a deep sleep, and the handsome young prince that saves her with love. Then, Kino Lorber has “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka,” the classic parody of Blaxploitation films about a black war hero (Keenan Ivory Williams) who takes on a powerful local crime lord (John Vernon) after he’s responsible for the death of his brother (who was killed because of an overdose of gold chains.) Finally, Kino Lorber also has “Delirious,” starring John Candy, in one of his last film roles, as a lead soap opera writer and producer in over his head.
More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:
“Bridge of Spies”
Criticwire Average: B+
Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
Throughout Mr. Spielberg plays subtly with different registers of realism, from the sweat-soured naturalism of Abel’s apartment, where you can almost smell the neighbor’s boiling potatoes, to the more cartoonish aspects of Donovan’s family life and espionage encounters. The family is as picture-perfect and plastic as a 1950s sitcom (or a later Roy Lichtenstein canvas), with Amy Ryan dolled up as Mrs. Donovan in Donna Reed-style pearls, heels and a Pepsodent smile. Like the silhouetted dark figures that loom throughout, reverberating with intrigue and film-noir dread, Donovan’s wife and children don’t so much register as distinct individuals but as manifestations of an America that seems more and more unreal the closer Donovan gets to yet another double, East Berlin, with its haunted faces and streets. Every movie is about its own historical moment, though some are more overt or adamant about connecting the past with the present. “Bridge of Spies” is, like most of Mr. Spielberg’s films, a consummate entertainment that sweeps you up with pure cinema. As the story clicks along – Abel is convicted, Powers and Pryor snared and Donovan tapped to handle the swap – Mr. Spielberg heats up the drama with some action, throws in crowds and chaos, and transforms ordinary spaces like a home, an office and a street into battlefields. None are more ominous than the funereal rooms in which cold, gray men move lives like chess pieces. (The supporting cast includes Peter McRobbie as Allen Dulles, the C.I.A. director, and Mikhail Gorevoy as Ivan Schischkin, a Soviet mystery man.) With its scenes of prisoner abuse, arguments about American justice and all the cameras that telegraph the emergence of the surveillance state, “Bridge of Spies” suggests that the Cold War has its own twin in the war on terror. That’s hardly controversial, yet it’s something far too few filmmakers engage. In 1966, John le Carré, that great bard of the Cold War, responded to a Russian critic who said he had fanned its flames in his work, including “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.” Mr. le Carré countered that what concerned him was the cost, “in moral terms,” to the West in its fight. “How long can we defend ourselves – you and we,” he wrote, “by methods of this kind, and still remain the kind of society that is worth defending?” A half-century later, Mr. Spielberg is asking the same question. Read more.
Criticwire Average: B-
Noel Murray, The A.V. Club
But there’s an indication of what’s going to go awry with “Truth” in its very first scene, which has Mapes in a post-scandal debriefing, delivering her resumé to her inquisitor in one fast-talking line — not for his benefit, but for ours. Blanchett is commanding as ever as Mapes, but a lot of what she’s asked to do in the movie is lecture, hector, and explain. And “Truth’s” repeated attempts to tie the producer’s anger to growing up with an abusive father comes across as too pat and blunt. It’s not enough to hear that Mapes was beaten by her dad as a girl for being too precocious; the movie also later has her explode at the right-wing media because they “smack us” for “asking questions.” (The outburst is followed by an awkward silence from her colleagues, lest we all missed the connection.) It’s not just Blanchett who carries the burden of underlining “Truth’s” message. Grace can be effective in the right role, but Vanderbilt does him no favors by having Smith be the guy who stands up to the CBS brass to tell them what they’re doing wrong — complete with detailed statistics, which Grace is meant to produce as though he were delivering a spontaneous rant. Again, what the character and the movie has to say is important, and as a behind-the-scenes look at one of the major newsroom crises of the past 15 years, “Truth” is fascinating and often exciting. But the film lacks the qualities of great drama that make it feel like it’s unfolding right in front of the audience. Instead it has well-known actors in costumes, reciting talking points. No one can complain that “Truth” buries the lede. It’s all lede. Read more.
“Our Brand Is Crisis”
Criticwire Average: B
Glenn Kenny, RogerEbert.com
It might be possible to make a good movie out of a cross between Mike Nichols’ “Primary Colors” and Costa-Gavras’ “Z,” but “Our Brand Is Crisis,” directed by David Gordon Green in a seeming attempt to do something along those lines, is not that movie. Written by Peter Straughan, and according to its credits “inspired” by the 2005 documentary film of the same name, “Our Brand is Crisis” uneasily mixes the star vehicle with the screwball-political-comedy/satire with the (half-heartedly, in the end) impassioned call to social consciousness arms. Though not without its entertaining moments — the cast, led by Sandra Bullock, is energetic, sharp and gets a fair number of juicy bits to rock out with. But as a whole, “Our Brand is Crisis” is a messy affair that sputters along when it should be humming with assured cynical momentum. It begins poorly, with an odd montage intercut to stagey “interview” footage in which Bullock”s character, “Calamity” Jane Bodine, formulates an apologia for we-don’t-quite-know-what. Her words are intercut with footage of newspaper headlines and, oddly, shots of Bullock’s hands molding clay at a pottery wheel. Underneath it all plays Ten Years After’s “I’d Love To Change The World,” the absolute nadir of Woodstock-era protest rock; the movie’s sound editor deserves some kind of award for smoothly deleting the song’s opening volley against “dykes and fairies.” Read more.
“Rock the Kasbah”
Criticwire Average: D+
Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian
There’s a special variety of infuriating that comes from a bad movie by talented people. Barry Levinson has some outstanding films under his belt: “Diner,” “Bugsy,” “Wag the Dog.” His 1990 family epic “Avalon” is a masterpiece, and the finest film made about 20th century immigrants and their assimilation into American culture. “Rock the Kasbah” is so unworthy of him, I’m surprised he didn’t find a way to get his name off it. Murray is just following orders, but here he’s far more antic and grating than usual. I can see a pitch meeting in which “then Bill Murray sings ‘Smoke on the Water’ to a group of baffled villagers” sounds like it might work, but the execution here is just awful. Murray isn’t cute in this role, he’s just annoying, and that’s something he’s rarely been before. McBride only has a few scenes, but does breathe in some life when he appears. One can’t help but cringe for the actors punching the clock as the various villagers and gun-totin’ baddies, and poor Leem Lubany (so terrific in Hany Abu-Assad’s “Omar”) is given nothing to do except look pretty and quote Rumi. I don’t know if that’s actually her singing, but whoever it is is no more than OK: to think that she can lead a culture into enlightenment on the strength of her voice is a wee bit far-fetched. The movie crams a final title card down our throats, dedicating this dreck to a woman who actually did sing on television, thus trying to make you feel guilty for scoffing during the entire third act. Maybe we should be pointing at Levinson and asking: “Can you believe this guy?” Read more.
Criticwire Average: B
Bilge Ebiri, New York Magazine (Vulture)
There’s potentially a nice conflict here, between the pragmatism of Dane and the activism of Steven. (“This is a circus!” one yells. “It’s political theater!” the other responds.) But the film doesn’t quite know how to convey that conflict with any nuance or dramatic verve. Perhaps seeking not to sensationalize or to Hollywood-ize a story set in a drab, mundane world, Sollett shoots without any frills. That’s usually a good thing, but here it helps to suck the life out of the material — in part because Nyswaner’s screenplay seems to have settled for the most direct, speechifying way of dramatizing the issues at hand. More important, the film loses sight of the humans at its center. As we get more and more protests and controversy and backroom wheeling and dealing, Stacie and Laurel fade into the background. Maybe that’s intentional: One could say that “Freeheld” forsakes the individual for the collective, as a dying woman’s cause becomes a symbol for a national civil-rights movement. “Like it or not…you’re a gay-marriage activist now,” Steven tells her late in the film. The cause is beyond them now. But a cause does not a movie make. Read more.