After ten days in Vancouver and another couple of weeks trying to recover from ten days in Vancouver, I’d fallen quite a bit behind on the early stages of autumn multiplex season, the time of year when superheroes and cartoons recede from Seattle Screens to be replaced by middling movies for grownups, long shot award hopefuls, and films that star actors people like me (old people) grew up with. So over three trips to the multiplex this past week, I caught up with five of the first wave of what will amount to the (self-proclaimed) best Hollywood has to offer in 2015. More of the same will follow between now and then end of January, when the stragglers of Oscar season will finally make their way onto Seattle Screens, but if the early returns are any indication, this is shaping up to be a solid year for the American cinema. And when you consider that it’s also a banner year for international film, the year in film 2015 is shaping up quite nicely indeed.
In former years, the combination of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks in a cold war espionage thriller would be headline news, but Bridge of Spies seemed to sneak onto screens. Not in the same way that their 2004 pairing The Terminal did, I had literally never heard of that film until two days after it began playing at my theatre, but still a film like this should probably be considered a leading Oscar contender. It’s exactly the kind of movie Hollywood does so well: an engrossing narrative with compelling performances, a clever and slyly quirky script (co-written by none other than Joel and Ethan Coen), suffused with a pleasingly inoffensive liberal patriotism.
Hanks plays an insurance attorney who is assigned to defend an accused Soviet spy (played by Mark Rylance). Being the upright standard bearer for all-American (and all American) values that he is, Hanks zealously defends Rylance’s constitutional rights all the way to the Supreme Court, losing in the face of bureaucratic indifference or outright hostility to those values when they conflict with the broader game of Cold War one-upmanship. The film begins in the late 1950s and follows Rylance’s case through to its inevitable conclusion. The narrative then resets as Hanks is assigned a new mission: American spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers is shot down over Soviet airspace, and Hanks is recruited to negotiate an prisoner exchange, their spy for ours. At the same time, the East German government detains an American student on the wrong side of the newly built Berlin Wall, and Hanks intends to get him freed as well.
Spielberg focuses on the minute details of Hanks’s negotiations, battles of logic, legality and will that recall his last film, and one of his very best, 2012’s Lincoln. Both films are highly patriotic critiques of American politics, movies which use the logic of our constitutional system to expose the hypocrisies and contradictions in the way we have historically conducted ourselves as a nation, with the none too subtle implication that things aren’t any better today. In their focus on the legal and political minutia of their protagonists maneuverings, they look back to the early 1960s films of Otto Preminger, which examined with analytic precision the functioning of various public institutions: the courts (Anatomy of a Murder), the Senate (Advise & Consent), the Church (The Cardinal) and even the process of making a nation (Exodus). This focus on process is somewhat new in Spielberg’s career (though you can find its roots in films from Close Encounters through Catch Me If You Can), and it provides a stark contrast with his tendency toward sappiness. Spielberg, even at his least soft-hearted, could never summon the coldness of Preminger, so perhaps the comparison is misleading. Similarly his expressive miss-en-scene is a far cry from Preminger’s angular framing and snaking camera movements. Bridge of Spies isn’t as visually abstract as Lincoln, nor is its screenplay as nuanced (Tony Kushner’s script for that film remains one of the best Hollywood has produced this decade). Spielberg continues that film’s visual motif of blinding, overexposed white lights bleeding into the frame, pouring through windows of conference rooms and offices, angelic or ghostly, the light burns through the haze of rhetoric that clouds the moral center of his films. His Cold War is as desaturated and gray as you’d expect, and certain compositions and repetitions are strikingly moving despite how obviously motivated and heavy-handed they are. There’s a line that’s said twice early on in the film, a deadpan joke Rylance tells Hanks. Everyone knows that you can’t just say something like that twice, that there will be a third iteration near the end of the film. But when it inevitably comes, it works. Few people can get away with that kind of thing, but Spielberg, our greatest sentimentalist is one of them.
An even better example of a process film, though, is Ridley Scott’s The Martian, which is emerging as a serious Oscar contender. It’s several orders of magnitude better than Scott’s other Best Picture-winning film, 2000’s infuriating Gladiator. In fact, it’s probably my favorite Scott film since Alien, all the way back in 1979. Sometime in the future, a crew of astronauts is exploring Mars. A storm comes and they have to quickly take off, but one of them gets lost and is presumed dead, so they leave him there, ET-style. Of course, that crew member is Matt Damon and he is not dead, so when the storm is over he begins the long process of trying to stay alive until he can be rescued. He proceeds to, in what has quickly become an immortal line of Hollywood dialogue, “science the shit out of this”. Walking us through every step of his survival plan, Damon explains the science behind his actions (most of which apparently checks out as actual science) in a series of highly entertaining video monologues (his ship is littered with cameras and monitors, Scott deftly shifts perspective from an objective view to the cameras Damon addresses throughout the film).
As NASA eventually figures out Damon is alive and manufactures a way to communicate with him, the film broadens its procedural scope to the maneuverings, both scientific and political, the agency and its various actors go through in order to effect the rescue. An ever-expanding all-star cast is introduced (Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, etc etc), usually with an on-screen title stating their character’s name and occupation, which is then, in an increasingly hilarious trope, repeated in the dialogue. The script is by Drew Goddard, the Joss Whedon protege who wrote and directed 2011’s clever horror-comedy The Cabin in the Woods. The Martian isn’t a self-conscious genre critique in the manner of that film, but it does find a great deal of joy in its characters recognition of the absurdities of their situations. Goddard and Scott wisely leave the film’s most poignant moments unspoken, leavening the glory of space stuff with a puncturing humor. The result makes those powerful moments (Damon taking a break from the hard task of surviving to simply watch a glorious Martian sunset, for one) much more meaningful. In its clever tone, overwhelming cast and trompe l’oeil special effects, The Martian is the 21st Century Hollywood cinema at its very best.
Crimson Peak, on the other hand, is what happens when Hollywood allows a true weirdo access to its toy box. For some reason attempting to revive the gothic romance genre, something that has been attempted on the fringes with small scale adaptations of Brontë novels in recent years but not at all in the mainstream cinema, Guillermo del Toro has fashioned a gory, gorgeous film reminiscent of some of the more lurid works of Roger Corman’s Poe unit and the late-1940s domestic horror cycle exemplified by Fritz Lang’s The Secret Beyond the Door, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Dragonwyck and Joseph H. Lewis’s My Name is Julia Ross, films in which a reasonably independent young woman finds herself trapped in a house with people who have terrible secrets, may be trying to kill her and are, in most cases, now married to her. Mia Wasikowska plays the young woman, Tom Hiddleston the mysterious man she marries and Jessica Chastain his sister. After meeting in Buffalo, the trio head to the ancestral home in England, a mansion atop a red clay mine, half fallen apart and open to the elements, wheezing with the wind and bleeding through the floors and walls as the house sinks into the primal ooze.
Without the grasping self-seriousness that made Pan’s Labyrinth, for me, ultimately distasteful if not insulting, but rather full of the joy of filmmaking that enlivens the best parts of his Hellboy series, this resolutely unmarketable movie is exactly the kind of film I’ve been waiting for del Toro to make. Too horrific for romance fans and not scary enough for horror fans, it’s the rare mainstream film that doesn’t feel like it’s been market-tested. It’s the loving expression of a lunatic mind.
Another example of a lunatic run amok is Steve Jobs, the latest from director Danny Boyle though without a doubt the primary operating force here is screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. The second in what will hopefully be a trilogy of Sorkin films about tech geniuses (after The Social Network), Jobs is a highly theatrical film structured around three of Jobs’s most famous product launches, in 1984, 1988 and 1998. In the half hour or so before each launch, Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is confronted by a number of people he has wronged, the same people in each time period: his Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), one of his engineers Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), his daughter Lisa and her mother (Katherine Waterston), and the guy who will fire him at his lowest point at Apple, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels). The various characters are ushered on and off-stage by Jobs’s loyal assistant/friend/marketing director Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet). The conceit is more than a little absurd, and the various arguments never really amount to anything more insightful than “sometimes people who do great things are kind of jerks”. The primary pleasure of the film lies just in listening to Sorkin’s dialogue, not the content of it so much, because there isn’t really much of depth there (despite some really awkward stabs at the psychology of people who were adopted that is frankly embarrassing even by the low standards of the Hollywood biopic), but because of the pure rhythmical beauty of the way he can make people talk. That isn’t always enough for a Sorkin product, the pretentiousness of his most recent television shows have made them unwatchable despite that dialogue, but that overblown nonsense is for the most part absent here. Or rather, because the absurdly grandiose things spouted about Jobs are coming from Jobs himself, we can safely side with those who spend most of the film yelling at him. We don’t have to forgive him the way Sorkin seems to want us to do.
Boyle is almost an afterthought in the production. As with 127 Hours, the location restriction forces him to reign in some of his most expressionistic tendencies, and the theatrical structure of the film forces him onto a single set at a time for long dialogue exchanges among two or three characters. He does cut in some flashbacks and he keeps the camera pointlessly roaming and spinning, but it could have been a lot worse. It could also have been a lot better. What makes The Social Network a great film while this one is merely an OK one is that director David Fincher is seemingly working at cross-puporses to Sorkin’s script. Where the screenplay is a denunciation of the friendless geek who made Facebook, Fincher and star Jesse Eisenberg take Zuckerberg’s side, exposing instead the false world of privilege that defines the kind of social connections someone like Sorkin would deem most acceptable. Boyle and Fassbender, though, are content to merely transplant Sorkin’s script to the screen, to the extent that Fassbender’s performance seems as much based on Bradley Whitford, the most Sorkin actor of them all, as Jobs himself (I swear if you told me Whitford overdubbed Fassbender on the soundtrack, I would believe it). There’s nothing running counter to the Sorkinism of the film, nothing to puncture or challenge him. In the end, as everyone seems to forgive Jobs for everything, it just feels self-congratulatory.
Vastly more nihilistic is Sicario, a mean-spirited dirty little film, a police procedural about Mexican drug cartels and a young police officer who finds herself caught up in the extra-legal manipulations of a CIA guerrilla group. Emily Blunt stars as the agent, with Josh Brolin as the flip-flop wearing, gum chewing spook and Benicio del Toro as a sinister secret agent. As a statement of fact about the universe or political reality, the film is almost entirely useless. It’s better seen I think as a pure dark thriller, an intricate web of paranoia and brutality about a world where normal notions of morality simply don’t apply. It’s a reducto ad absurdum of the drug war, not a commentary on the way thing are now. And as a thriller it’s pretty successful. The standout suspense sequence is a border crossing, as director Denis Villeneuve economically maps a location and its threats, building tension until it explodes in quick bursts of violence. It’s a sequence no Hong Kong director would be ashamed of. None of the other sequences are as good, relying more on horror than suspense for their visceral thrills, but they sure are horrifying (an attack on Blunt in her home, a hit on a family at a dinner table). Its the kind of movie that makes you want to move somewhere nice and safe.