Hare Krishna!


The swami and the snow storm.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Srila Prabhupada, Allen Ginsberg, Armarendra Das, Edwin Bryant, Yogesvara Das, Rukmini Dasi, Larry Shinn, Shaunaka Rishi Das, George Harrison, Hari Sauri Das, Yamuni Dasi, Sumati Morarjee, Radhanaath Das, Sally Agarwal, Boy George, Mikunda Goswami, Thomas J. Hopkins, Ramesvara Das, Niranjana Swami, Gurudas. Directed by John Griesser and Jean Griesser

 

Most of those reading this probably are too young to remember what was a common sight in airports around the United States and indeed around the world; people in yellow robes and shaved heads, dancing and chanting/singing “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare Hare, Krishna Krishna, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Hare Hare, Rama Rama” and asking for donations – sometimes in a very pushy manner.

They are less a ubiquitous sight now than they once were but most people are aware of the Hare Krishna movement even if it is just through the iconic George Harrison song “My Sweet Lord” (Harrison had a deep abiding interest in Eastern religions and was extremely supportive of the movement). Few however are aware of how it started.

Srila Prabhupada a.k.a. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada came to New York City in 1965 at the behest of his guru to spread the word of Krishna consciousness to the West. He had no money, no contacts and a few translated copies of ancient sacred texts to help him. He was an educated businessman with a wife and son who had set all that aside to follow his spiritual quest.

Had he come to New York City in 2017 it would have been unlikely that he’d have made any headway but in 1965 the hippies were beginning to come into their own and they were looking for alternatives to the lifestyles and spirituality that they’d grown up with. The hippies turned out to be extremely receptive to Prabhupada’s rejection of the material and embrace of Krishna consciousness – a devotion to Krishna, an aspect of the Hindu godhead.

 

At first the movement was an ember, a dozen or so devotees living in a converted gift shop in the Village somewhat fortuitously named Matchless Gifts. After a gathering of chanting Hare Krishnas in a local park caught the notice of the New York Times, the ember became a spark. When the nascent movement caught the attention of the Beatles, he spark became a flame that spread around the world, even to the USSR where religion was forbidden and promulgating it a capital offense.

The movie is the work of insiders of the movement – although Griesser uses his birth name for the film, having adopted the name Yadubara Dāsa as a member of the religion – and as such we get some interesting insights. For example, did you know they adopted the yellow garments in order to stand out among the colorful fashions that were all the rage in London at the time? I didn’t and that’s the kind of thing that makes history a joy to me.

But it’s also a double edged sword. Critics have used the term “hagiography” – an uncritical biography that ignores the less savory aspects of the subject – in conjunction with this film and in all honesty the term fits here. The movie shows the Hare Krishnas to be essentially harmless Hippies in search of spiritual enlightenment despite the fact that the movement grew to the point that it had a bankroll of millions of dollars. There is no mention of the transgressions of self-styled Swamis like Keith Ham who created little hegemonies under the aegis of ISKCON (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the sort of ruling body for the religion today) or the troubling anti-Semitic and racist remarks penned by Prabhupada himself. The movie would have benefited from a little bit more perspective as nearly everyone interviewed is a devotee with the exception of a few academics. As the song goes, never is heard a discouraging word.

Incidentally the full title of the documentary is Hare Krishna! The Mantra, The Movement and the Swami Who Started It All. I’ve chosen not to use the full title because it is unwieldy and takes up too much space as a title. I have to admit that I’m growing annoyed with the current need for documentaries to follow the lead of nonfiction books and possess secondary titles that are overly long and unnecessary – does anyone think the secondary title here is going to attract any more viewers than just titling the film Hare Krishna!?

The subject matter is an interesting one and I would have appreciated a more scholarly approach to it. This comes off more as a commercial for Krishna Consciousness and in that aspect I’m sure there are people who could benefit from the teachings of the late Prabhupada who passed away in 1977. However, this is a commercial that masquerades as a documentary and those expecting a balanced and impartial look at the Hare Krishna movement will not find it here.

REASONS TO GO: The historical footage is fascinating.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a lack of any sort of perspective other than that of the Hare Krishnas themselves.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scattered drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John Griesser began documenting the Hare Krishna movement as a photojournalist in 1970.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wolfpack
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Dean

The Most Hated Woman in America


Madalyn Murray O’Hair does her thing.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Netflix) Melissa Leo, Josh Lucas, Juno Temple, Rory Cochrane, Adam Scott, Michael Chernus, Alex Frost, Vincent Kartheiser, Jose Zuniga, Brandon Mychal Smith, Sally Kirkland, Anna Camp, Ryan Cutrona, Andy Walken, Devin Freeman, Peter Fonda, Anthony Vitale, Ward Roberts, David Gueriera, Danya LaBelle. Directed by Tommy O’Haver

 

Madalyn Murray O’Hair was a polarizing figure. Notoriously profiled by Life Magazine as the Most Hated Woman in America, her lawsuit against the Baltimore School System – which eventually made it all the way to the Supreme Court – marked essentially the end of mandatory Bible passage reading in schools after mandatory school prayer had been abolished a few years earlier. She founded American Atheists and was a gadfly arguing for complete separation of church and state.

Her disappearance from her Austin, Texas home along with her son and granddaughter in 1995 raised nary an eyebrow. She was notorious for her publicity stunts and was known to take off mysteriously for weeks at a time. However, there was something about this particular occasion that just didn’t sit right. A San Antonio reporter, enlisted by concerned friends of O’Hair, looked into the affair and eventually came up with a former employee with an axe to grind.

It’s hard to believe but there have been no cinematic biographies of the notorious O’Hair until now. Melissa Leo, one of the more versatile and underrated actresses of our generation, takes on the role and does a bang-up job of it. O’Hair was an acerbic and abrasive personality who had a tendency to alienate those around her, not the least of which was her own family – her son William, played here by Vincent Kartheiser, was completely estranged from his mother by the time of her disappearance and these days spends his time trying to undo the achievements his mother made in the name of secularism.

The movie is mostly centered on her disappearance, kidnapped by former employee David Waters (Lucas), an ex-convict who discovered that American Atheists had off-shore accounts worth millions that could make him a very nice severance package. With thug Gary Kerr (Cochrane) and his friend Danny Fry (Frost), he kidnapped O’Hair and her family and stowed them in a seedy hotel until the end.

The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks covering the highlights of O’Hair’s life and career. The story flow is often disturbed by these flashbacks; I think the filmmakers might have been better served with a more linear narrative here. There are re-creations of her frequent talk show appearances (she was a favorite of Carson and Donahue for her combative nature and acid sense of humor) as well as essentially fictional accounts of what went on during the days she was kidnapped.

There are really several stories being covered here; the life story of O’Hair, the story of her bumbling kidnappers which is handled in something of a Coen Brothers style, and the reporter’s story which is more of an All the President’s Men kind of tale. The three styles kind of jostle up against each other; any of the three would have made a fine movie but all three stories tend to elbow each other out of the way and make the movie somewhat unsatisfactory overall.

The kidnapping scenes have a certain dark humor to them that actually is quite welcome. There’s no doubt that the kidnapping was a botched affair that didn’t go anything close to how the kidnappers hoped. I also appreciated the history lesson about O’Hair’s life; in many ways today the details of what she accomplished have been essentially overshadowed by emotional reactions to her perceived anti-religious views. Most of her detractors don’t understand that O’Hair wasn’t after abolishing religion altogether; she just didn’t want it forced on her kids in school, or on herself by her government (she also led an unsuccessful charge to have the words “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance). In that sense I can understand and even appreciate her vigilance but it seems fairly certain that her personality alienated people and in many ways overshadowed her message. You do win people over more with honey than vinegar.

REASONS TO GO: Melissa Leo channels Madalyn Murray O’Hair, warts and all. An interesting mix of historical and hysterical.
REASONS TO STAY: The violence, when it comes, is shocking and tone-changing. The movie kind of jumps around all over the place.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some shocking violence and a scene in which rape is implied.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film depicts David being hired on as an office manager, in reality he was hired as a typesetter and later promoted.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bernie
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Lazar

The Freedom to Marry


Two women wishing to marry each other face a daunting obstacle.

Two women wishing to marry each other face a daunting obstacle.

(2016) Documentary (Argot) Evan Wolfson, Mary Bonauto, Marc Solomon, Thalia Zepatos, Jayne Rowse, April DeBoer, Brian Brown, Janice Shaw Crouse, Barbara Rosenstein, Joan Wolfson, Sondie Rieff, Dr. Jerry Wolfson, Carole Stamyar, Matt Foreman, Garry Buseck, Ward Curtin, Tim Gill, Kate Kendell. Directed by Eddie Rosenstein

 

There is no doubt that one of the most important court cases of our time resulted in the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2015. By a 5-4 margin, the Supreme Court invalidated the laws of 13 states that made same-sex marriage illegal. Gay men and lesbians from that day forward had the same freedom to marry whomever they wished as their straight counterparts.

Getting to that point however was no easy task. Evan Wolfson, a Harvard-educated lawyer, started crusading for this freedom starting back in 1983. He had co-founded Freedom to Marry along with Marc Solomon who was a seasoned campaign director. Together, the men started a grassroots organization charged with changing America’s mind. Back then, Americans were overwhelmingly in favor of traditional marriages as being the only recognized ones. Nonetheless, Wolfson and Solomon, along with a handful of volunteers, felt that they needed to fight so that same sex couples got the same rights and privileges as straight couples got, including the right to inherit, the right to make medical decisions for an incapacitated partner and the right to adopt and raise children.

Mary Bonauto felt very much the same way Wolfson and Solomon do. A lawyer working for GLAD, a gay and lesbian organization along the same lines as the NAACP, Bonauto had been waging a battle to represent same sex couples get their unions legally recognized for decades. It was often frustrating heart-wrenching work as again and again gay rights lawyers like Bonauto and Wolfson were denied justice.

The passing of California’s heinous Proposition 8 was particularly galling. Wolfson in particular was devastated but as he began the postmortem of why the initiative had passed he came to a realization that most straight people saw gays as hedonistic deviants who didn’t marry for love but because they wanted the health care benefits of their “spouse.” He realized that the task was not necessarily to ramrod an unpopular law through but to turn the tide of public opinion and make them see LGBTQs as just like everyone else. In short, he needed their stories to be told.

What they accomplished was nothing short of miraculous. Starting with polls and focus groups, they began recruiting operatives – LGBTQ couples and their parents – to begin talking openly about their hopes and dreams, about the love they share for their partner and about their concerns for their children. In almost no time at all, public opinion began to shift. State laws began to change.

Wolfson felt the time was right to go for broke – a ruling from the Supreme Court itself that would once and for all make same-sex marriage legal throughout the land. Freedom to Marry and other advocacy groups chose four lawsuits that had made their way through the courts to challenge the Defense of Marriage Act as well as Proposition 8. One of those cases was committed couple Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer from Michigan.

Rowse and DeBoer are both medical care professionals who had a longstanding relationship. They had adopted four special needs children but they realized that due to Michigan’s laws, they could not adopt as a couple because they were lesbians; they had to adopt two of the children individually. Therefore if something happened to one of them, their adopted children would not stay automatically with the other partner but would be taken away and placed in a foster care home. To both these ladies this simply could not stand and they brought suit against the State of Michigan which went all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court where once again they were unsuccessful. This paved the way for history.

Rosenstein follows the triumvirate of Wolfson, Solomon and Bonauto in the months leading up to the landmark decision. Bonauto had been legal counsel on the Rowse-DeBoer lawsuit and was a welcome addition to the team that would be presenting arguments in front of the United States Supreme Court. Bonauto, who had never done so before, was understandably nervous. Rosenstein gives us background on all three of these major players (and to a lesser degree to the plaintiffs De Boer and Rowse, the only plaintiffs profiled at any length in the film) going back to childhood.

Some of the material, particularly when they’re discussing things like Amicus Briefs and legal strategies, is a bit dry. Bone-dry, as a matter of fact but don’t let that put you off; this is a film that even though you know how the decision is going to turn out still manages to build a certain amount of suspense and tension. The relief is absolutely cathartic and I was taken back to when I heard about the decision just a couple of years ago and the euphoria I felt. Finally, my gay friends had the same freedoms and privileges that my wife and I had and I couldn’t have been happier for them.

Rosenstein does present some opposing viewpoints – that of Bryan Brown and Janice Shaw Crouse – as well as protesters from the right including people who appear to be part of the Westboro Baptist Church. Brown sounds relatively reasoned at times but both he and Crouse come off as intolerant bigots whose Christian justification has more to do with fear than love. Evangelical Christianity does not come off well in this documentary and some might find that hurtful.

However, perhaps if more Christians stood up for love (and many do) rather than exclusion, perhaps they might not be judged so harshly. Certainly the anti-gay protesters will be on the wrong side of history when all is said and done. Regardless, this is a documentary that shows an amazing journey of how a relatively small activist group won the hearts and minds of the American people against all odds and helped make history in a positive way. To my mind this is an important and potentially Oscar-worthy documentary although having a relatively unknown distributor might work against it in that sense but were this being distributed by an outfit with more clout there would be no question that it would be getting consideration further down the line.

REASONS TO GO: A behind-the-scenes chronicle of one of the most important court cases of our time. Even though the outcome is well-known still manages to make an uplifting ending. Fast-paced editing keeps the audience’s interest. Evan Wolfson is a genuine hero.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes the subject matter can be a little dry.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult thematic content as well as some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Following their success making same sex marriage legal all over the land, Freedom to Marry shut its doors in December 2015 and Wolfson continues to consult for LGBTQ activist organizations.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Case Against 8
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Take My Nose…Please

CORRECTIONS: Marc Solomon was originally described as “an expert fundraiser” which should have read “seasoned campaign director.” Also, Mary Bonauto was a lawyer for GLAD, not GLAAD. The former was an error on the part of the reviewer, the latter a typo. Cinema365 regrets any confusion that may have been caused by our errors.

Loving


A loving couple.

A loving couple.

(2016) True Life Drama (Focus) Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Nick Kroll, Marton Csokas, Jon Bass, Will Dalton, Sharon Blackwood, Christopher Mann, Alano Miller, Winter Lee Holland, Bill Camp, Terri Abney, David Jensen, Michael Shannon, Matt Malloy, Jennifer Joyner, Quinn McPherson, Dalyn M. Cleckley, Brenan Young, D.L. Hopkins, Keith Tyree, Coley Campany. Directed by Jeff Nichols

 

At one time in our history, interracial marriages were illegal in a number of states of the union. Those who supported such laws often cited the Bible about how God never meant the races to intermix. This is living proof that the more that things change, the more they stay the same.

Richard Loving (Edgerton) is a hardworking construction worker in rural Virginia, a town called Central Point. He lays bricks to build homes. He also has fallen in love with Mildred Jeter (Negga), a woman of African descent. The feeling is mutual and he gets her pregnant. Richard is over the moon about this in his own stolid way; he proposes marriage and she accepts. However, in order to marry her, he’ll have to drive to Washington DC where interracial marriages are legal. The couple returns home to live with Mildred’s parents.

Five weeks after the ceremony, Sheriff Brooks (Csokas) and his deputies kick down their door and arrest the couple who had been sleeping soundly in their bed. Richard is bailed out but Mildred is kept several days as the obsequious county clerk refuses to allow anyone to bail her out until after the weekend. The couple engages a lawyer (Camp) who is acquainted with Judge Bazile (Jensen) who is hearing the case. He agrees to drop the charges – if the couple leaves the state of Virginia immediately and vow not to return for 25 years.

The Lovings are willing to comply but life in Washington DC (where they’re staying with a member of Mildred’s family) is a far cry from the peaceful rural life they loved. Homesick and without anywhere to turn, Mildred writes a letter to Bobby Kennedy, then the Attorney General who refers the matter to the American Civil Liberties Union. The case is assigned to lawyer Bernie Cohen (Kroll) who knows that this could be a landmark case – but it will require much sacrifice on the part of the Loving family.

The case is an important one, one that was used as a precedent in striking down recently the Defense of Marriage Act that prevented same-sex marriages. There is certainly a modern parallel to be made here but director Jeff Nichols wisely chooses to play that aspect down. He seems to prefer making his point quietly and subtly.

There is no speechifying here, no grand courtroom arguments and no stirring orchestras highlighting moments of great sacrifice. Mostly, Nichols portrays Richard and Mildred as ordinary folks who just want to be left alone. They are thrust into the national spotlight somewhat unwillingly; they never set out to be civil rights symbols but they certainly had to be aware that they would become one. We aren’t privy to that side of them however; what we see is the couple going about their lives while coping with what had to be immense pressure.

Negga’s name has come up this awards season for Best Actress honors and she’s almost certain to get a nomination for the Oscar (although she will have an uphill battle against Natalie Portman’s performance In Jackie which is currently the odds on favorite to win the award) . It is Mildred’s film and mostly seen from her point of view. A shy and retiring sort, she is by necessity the spokesperson for the couple; Richard is so taciturn that he is almost surly. Negga plays Mildred with grace and dignity, and at no time does she ever give a hint of feeling sorry for herself, although Mildred had plenty of reason to.

Edgerton has much less dialogue to deliver although he has maybe the most emotional scene in the movie when he breaks down when things are looking their bleakest. Richard was not a very complicated man and certainly not a loquacious one; he just wants to be left alone, but he realizes that he can’t have the life he wants in the home he’s always known if something isn’t done and so he simply allows those who have the savvy and the education to get things done to guide his steps, although he clearly isn’t always happy about it.

The overall vibe is very low-key; there are few scenes that are loud and I don’t mean just in volume. Mostly Nichols keeps things quiet and simple. He resists the urge to portray the couple as heroic in the traditional sense; they were heroic simply by saying “we only want to love each other and build a life together.” They weren’t activists, they weren’t firebrands and Nichols prefers to stick to history here. Some might even call them dull.

But they were heroic nonetheless. Many thousands of people who have married outside of their race owe their freedom to do so to Richard and Mildred Loving. Both of them are deceased at this point so there’s no way to know what they thought of this portrayal of them; something tells me that had they lived to see this movie, they probably would have wondered what all the fuss is about. This is an outstanding movie that portrays the kind of people that I think should truly considered American heroes. Heroes don’t always run into burning buildings or run onto battlefields; sometimes a hero is the one who simply says “this isn’t right” and sees things through until real change occurs. The Lovings certainly did that.

REASONS TO SEE: A story with reverberations that make it timely even now. Understated but powerful performances from Negga and Edgerton elevate the film. The film doesn’t hit you over the head with a political message.
REASONS TO MISS: May be too low-key for some.
FAMILY VALUES:  The themes are pretty adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Nichols, Edgerton and Shannon previously combined on Midnight Special.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Loving Story
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Allied

Wrestling Alligators


And bingo was his game-o.

And bingo was his game-o.

(2016) Documentary (Seventh Art) James Billie, Peter Gallagher, Jeff Testerman, Tim Cox, Bruce Rogow, Max Osceola, Dr. Patricia Wickman, David Cordish, Howard Tommie, Patsy West, Robert Butterworth, Jim Allen, Maria Lorts Sachs, Dr. Katherine Spidel. Directed by Andrew Shea

Florida Film Festival 2016

When people think of Native Americans, often we look to the stereotypes that we receive from Hollywood. We picture them on their reservations, putting on shows for tourists and living in abject poverty. To a certain extent, that has been true although that’s no longer the case for many tribes, including the Seminole tribe of Florida (where this reviewer lives currently).

The members of the Seminole tribe are well off now, receiving an impressive income and that prosperity can be traced back to their current chairman James E. Billie. Once an outcast in the tribe because of his half-Caucasian parentage, he scraped a living by wrestling alligators for tourists and got to be quite good at it. But it wasn’t enough for him.

He went to Vietnam to fight for his country and became well-respected by his fellow soldiers. He came back to Florida after his service to work construction, building chickees (traditional Seminole lodges) among other activities. The charismatic Billie took an interest in tribal politics, first serving on the tribal Council before being elected Chairman in 1979.

Under his stewardship, he opened up a bingo parlor on tribal land (an idea first proposed by the previous tribal chairman, Howard Tommie) which he eventually would convert into a full casino. Despite challenges from the State of Florida which felt that gaming regulations for the State superseded tribal rights, the Supreme Court disagreed and an industry was born.

The Seminoles were the first to open up a major casino on tribal land and their revenue by 2007 had exceeded $1 billion from not only their gaming enterprises but also cattle raising (they are the 12th largest cattle operation in the country) and other tribal ventures. Billie is largely responsible for making the tribe a major economic and political force not only in Florida but in America as well.

As such, he can be viewed as an authentic American hero. No other Native leader in the past 50 years has done more for his tribe than James Billie has for the Seminoles. That isn’t to say that he has always been popular even with his own tribe; in 2001 a financial scandal forced him out of the chairman’s position, although he was later exonerated from any wrongdoing. In 2011, he was re-elected tribal chairman and holds that position to this day; not even a 2012 stroke has slowed him down.

In addition to his business ventures, Billie is an accomplished musician, performing with a group called the Shack Daddies in a style of music he describes as swamp rock; he also has had an impressive solo career, garnering a Grammy nomination in 1999 for the song “Big Alligator” on the Alligator Tears album. He performs several songs in the film and has a pleasant, soothing voice.

This is a movie a long time coming. I hadn’t realized what a larger than life character James Billie was until I saw this movie and it only made me think “Why has nobody made a movie about this guy before now?” His charisma and energy are boundless and his passion for his tribe, their traditions and their well-being shine through. Much of the income from the casinos (the tribe in 2007 bought the Hard Rock Café chain and now owns seven different casinos along with several resorts and the restaurant chain) has been funneled back into the tribe, building schools, hospital and an infrastructure that would be the envy of any community.

The movie works whenever it concentrates on its main character; certainly there are other narrations going on here which tend to get a little bit dry and when you compare the other interviewees to Billie, it’s almost unfair because few people can really hold up to his natural force as a human being.

Billie is not really well-known to the general public outside of Florida and even within his own state; I can’t say I was really familiar with his accomplishments and I live here. The movie serves though to introduce the viewer to a man they should really get to know. I have to say that James Billie has joined an exclusive list in my own personal life for what it’s worth as a man to admire and try to emulate. I don’t know how the Seminole chairman feels about being a role model – he seems to be the sort of man that doesn’t take himself terribly seriously – but there are certainly not many out there who would be better ones.

REASONS TO GO: Billie is a larger than life character who fills up the screen.
REASONS TO STAY: A little dry in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity is occasionally uttered.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Andre Shea also has a law degree.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crooked Arrow
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Kill Your Friends

Bridge of Spies


Tom Hanks meets the press.

Tom Hanks meets the press.

(2015) True Life Drama (DreamWorks) Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Sebastian Koch, Peter McRobbie, Austin Stowell, Dakin Matthews, Eve Hewson, Jesse Plemons, Scott Shepherd, Lucia Ryan, Wil Rogers, Nadja Bobyleva, Joe Forbrich, David Wilson Barnes, Mikhail Gorevoy, Steve Cirbus, Billy Magnussen, Noah Schnapp, Jillian Lebling. Directed by Steven Spielberg

The Cold War was in many ways, anything but. While the Soviet Union and the United States weren’t shooting at each other, that didn’t mean there weren’t casualties.

Rudolf Abel (Rylance) is a painter living in Brooklyn. The FBI thinks he’s a spy for the Soviet Union and they are following him, although he manages to evade their pursuit. He picks up a nickel on a park bench and discovers the coin has been hollowed out with a message left for him inside. However, eventually the FBI catches up with him and arrests him.

Eager to make a good impression on the world stage, rather than summarily executing the spy the government is keen on putting Abel on trial. They engage insurance lawyer James V. Donovan (Hanks) to represent him. At first Donovan wants nothing to do with it; he knows that representing an accused spy would bring him into a spotlight he doesn’t want he or his family to be in; he knows that people will hate him almost as much as they hate Abel but he truly believes that every man is entitled to a proper defense and decides that this is the least he can do to serve his country after having served it well in the Second World War.

He undertakes to defend Abel, advising him to cooperate with the U.S. Government but Abel refuses. Donovan grows to admire Abel for his loyalty to his cause, even if that cause is diametrically opposed to that of his country. Donovan endeavors to give Abel the most vigorous defense he can, knowing the judge (Matthews) in his case is predisposed to let Abel swing from the highest rope in the land. Donovan pleads with the judge to consider sparing Abel’s life, arguing that it would be a good thing to have Abel in hand just in case an American spy were to get captured, not to mention it would make America look merciful in the eyes of the world.

As it turns out, they were about to get a reason to keep Abel alive when pilot Francis Gary Powers (Stowell), piloting a U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union, is shot down and contrary to his orders captured alive (his orders was to take a cyanide pill and kill himself before getting captured). The government, knowing that Powers has knowledge of their spy plane program that they don’t want the Soviets to have, discovers that the Soviets are making overtures for a prisoner swap through the East Germans and to Donovan. CIA chief Allen Dulles (McRobbie) sends Donovan to East Berlin to negotiate the exchange. However, the Berlin Wall is being built, splitting the city in two. Tensions are high and the East Germans have captured an American student named Frederic Pryor (Rogers) who was studying economics there as a spy. Everyone knows that Pryor is no spy but now there is another element to the mix – and the Soviet and East German agendas might be entirely different.

Spielberg is a master storyteller and in many ways he’s the equivalent of Frank Capra. Hanks as I’ve mentioned before is the modern Jimmy Stewart and like Capra and Stewart, Spielberg and Hanks make as dynamic a director/actor pairing as we’ve seen in the last 20 years (with the exceptions maybe of Scorsese/Di Caprio and maybe Burton/Depp in that mix. This is the fifth time the two have been paired together and they’ve never made a bad movie.

And neither is this one. Hanks imbues Donovan with decency without making him cloying. Donovan’s faith in the Constitution resonates and once more, he’s absolutely right to. Donovan – and through him Spielberg and writers the Coen Brothers – preach that the Constitution is our roadmap to guide us through difficult situations; suspending it or ignoring it lessens us as a nation. Considering how fast and loose we’ve played with the Constitution in our War on Terror, the lesson has an extra importance especially now.

Rylance, who has won his share of Tony Awards for his work on Broadway, nearly steals the show from Hanks (a daunting task) by creating a man who is loyal to his nation, intelligent but also a human being, who grows to respect Donovan for his own loyalty to the U.S. Constitution. The real Rudolf Abel was a complicated man and Rylance conveys that.

The movie really is divided into two halves; the first part in which Donovan defends Abel which is essentially a courtroom drama, and the second in which Donovan goes to arrange the exchange which is more of a Cold War spy thriller. The first part actually works a little bit better than the second although it is in fact a bit drier in some ways; while I suspect the average moviegoer will like the second half better (the first can be slow-moving), it is the first where the meat of the message is delivered and has much more connection with me, at least.

For those who lived through the Cold War, the fear of nuclear holocaust was a real one you lived with every day. Duck and cover was a real thing. It looks quaint to modern eyes but it was the reality of the situation. People fully expected that World War III would be the last war – and that war would be inevitable. People in America really thought the Soviet Union was as evil as Nazi German. The Soviet citizenry probably thought much the same about America.

In some ways we haven’t grown much past those days. We still need an enemy to fear. We still lose our shit when someone outrages us. We still think the constitution should be suspended when it comes to terrorists, never realizing that once you go down that road that you can never go back – and that constitution that has guided us and protected us all these years becomes a little less shiny, a little less secure. The lessons from Bridge of Spies are extremely important in that regard; that they are presented in a well-crafted tale is icing on the cake.

REASONS TO GO: Spielberg and Hanks make a terrific pair. Rylance gives Oscar-worthy performance. Period of history brought ably to life.
REASONS TO STAY: Plods a little bit. Feels like two different movies…
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, some brief foul language and adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene filmed on the Glienecke Bridge near the end of the film is the exact spot where the events depicted in the scene took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Thirteen Days
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Too Hip for the Room

The Next Three Days


The Next Three Days

Elizabeth Banks and Russell Crowe discover that this is anything but the Great Escape.

(2010) Crime Thriller (Lionsgate) Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Neeson, Brian Dennehy, RZA, Olivia Wilde, Daniel Stern, Ty Simpkins, Jason Beghe, Aisha Hinds, Lennie James, Trudie Styler, Allan Steele, Helen Carey. Directed by Paul Haggis

Desperate men will do desperate things, all in the name of love. When we are backed up against the wall with nowhere left to turn, we can become capable of things both amazing and terrifying.

John Brennan (Crowe) and his wife Lara (Banks) live a decent life. John is an English teacher at a community college, and Lara has a more upscale job with a boss she detests. The two go out with John’s brother and his wife and have a spirited conversation about female bosses (which Lara’s boss is) and their ability to work with female employees.

The two go home and the next day share breakfast. All seems to be normal – until the police arrive to arrest Lara. It seems she’s been fingered as a suspect in the brutal murder of her boss, bludgeoned to death with a fire extinguisher. The evidence is highly circumstantial at best; Lara was observed driving away from the scene of the crime (the parking lot at the office where she works), her fingerprints were on the murder weapon, she and her boss argued rather loudly earlier in the day and to seal the deal, some of the victim’s blood made its way to the back of her overcoat.

Lara claims that she didn’t see the body, and that she had bumped into another woman who was leaving the parking lot on foot, although nobody else saw her but Lara. Despite her protestations of innocence, she is convicted and sentenced to prison. Three years pass; appeal after appeal is denied and their lawyer (Stern) informs John that basically her options have been exhausted – she’ll have to do the time. Lara, who has grown increasingly more depressed, her relationship with their son Luke (Simpkins) deteriorating to the point of non-existence, attempts suicide.

John knows she’ll never last the full length of her sentence. He also is completely sure she is incapable of murdering another human being, no matter how angry she was at them or what the provocation. With no further legal recourse, he determines that the only other option is to break her out of prison.

Of course, he knows nothing of prison breaks other than watching them on TV. He meets with an ex-con (Neeson in what is essentially an extended cameo) who achieved notoriety by breaking out of seven different prisons and lived to write a book about it. The author informs him that he needs a plan and a timetable. Being that she’s languishing in Allegheny County Prison in central Pittsburgh, he needs to know that 15 minutes after the escape is detected the police will have the center of the city locked down, the bridges closed and all of the subway and train stations as well as the airports manned with officers. 35 minutes after the escape is detected, the city will be on lockdown with toll booths manned by police officers and roadblocks on every major road out of the city.

John begins to spend a heck of a lot of time studying the prison and trying to figure out a foolproof plan. He is also going to need a weapon and a whole lot of money. Then he gets even more devastating news – his wife is going to be transferred to a prison far away from where they live in three days. If he doesn’t break her out in three days, their window of opportunity will be gone.

Haggis is one of the most honored writers in the business and he based this motion picture on a French film called Pour Elle (Anything for Her) which I haven’t seen yet. Haggis is a meticulous screenwriter and tends to fill his stories with an amazing amount of detail and research. Much of the first two thirds of the movie is kind of a how-to, setting up the story in the first 15 minutes of the two hour plus movie, then spending the next hour or so showing John doing research for the break-out. Fortunately, it doesn’t involve tunneling under the fence, putting mannequins in the beds to fool the guards or masquerading as day workers.

Few actors can resonate as an everyman as Russell Crowe can. He is quiet and strong, a perfect husband and father. Yet there is a core of steel to him, one which glimmers from time to time through the sweaters and the tweed jackets. Several critics have complained that they never quite catch the transformation from bookish teacher to efficient criminal, but I disagree. He is driven by desperation; desperate people have lifted automobiles off of other people. You never know what you’re capable of until you’re put into an untenable situation with no other options available to you but to achieve the impossible.

Banks has become one of Hollywood’s more reliable leading ladies. She doesn’t get the due of a Katherine Heigl or a Cameron Diaz but she is nonetheless just as competent and in many ways a better actress. We literally watch her fall apart before our very eyes and it is a compelling and believable performance in every way.

The movie really picks up during the final third when the actual escape is taking place. That is handled with edge-of-the-seat thrills and more than its share of gotchas. If the movie had been able to sustain that pace throughout, this would have been one of the year’s best.

Instead, we get kind of a how-to of prison breaks for the first two thirds that often stops dead in its tracks, particularly as we watch John stumble around Pittsburgh’s underbelly looking for falsified documents. The movie might still have gotten a decent audience, but stacked up against Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 it was essentially doomed to underperforming at the box office. This is a pretty solid movie that may not necessarily fit into your holiday movie plans, but is certainly worth a look on DVD/Blu-Ray if you can’t make it out to the multiplex.

REASONS TO GO: The last third of the movie when the escape takes place is tense, fun and energetic. Crowe is one of the best in the business.

REASONS TO STAY: The first two thirds of the movie about the planning stages drags a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence as well as some drug references and a bit of foul language. There is also some implied sexuality; basically this is fine for any teen and/or mature older children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Haggis remains the only screenwriter to date to win the Best Screenplay Oscar in back-to-back years (for Million Dollar Baby in 2004 and Crash in 2005).

HOME OR THEATER: With all the holiday offerings coming out thick and fast, chances are you won’t be able to fit this into your movie going schedule which is okay – it will work just as well at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Painted Veil