Thursday, December 3, 2015

Good Old-Fashioned Films

"They don't make them the way they used to." We don't hear that remark so much these days, in part because nobody remembers how they used to make them. The question is no longer "Who will be the next Katherine Hepburn?" but rather, "Does Star Wars 12 measure up to Star Wars 4?"

I saw a few films recently that struck me as old a good way—not self-consciously retro but simply solid, actor-driven dramas.


Brooklyn is a sweet, melancholy period piece, but it's more than that. It focuses on Ellis, a young Irish woman who leaves her family for better opportunities in America, and finds them. Things have been arranged for her by a local priest (Jim Broadbent) who left for New York decades ago—room and board in a boarding house, a job in a fancy department store—but that doesn't make the transatlantic passage any easier for Ellis, nor does it assuage the terrible homesickness she's stricken with on her arrival and for months afterward, as she learns to cope with the bustling city while pining to see her mother and sister again.

Saoirse Ronan is extraordinary In the central role of Ellis. Her face exudes shyness and fear but also intelligence and a pellucid dignity. Other characters are also well-etched, including the female residents of her boarding house (all of whom dine together with the proprietress), the Italian family she gets to know,  and the villagers she leaves behind in Ireland. The period atmosphere is delightful, and the characters fit in well to it, somehow preserving an almost cartoon-like simplicity that exposes the manners of the era rather than the comic stereotypes of more recent times.

Nick Hornby's screenplay is funny and thoughtful. Brooklyn in the early 1950s is made to look nice. There are soup kitchens and Friday night dances, baseball talk and other forms of romance. It's refreshing to see a movie where the Irish aren't drinking much, the Italians aren't extorting their neighbors or stabbing one another with ice picks, the priest doesn't have any skeletons in the closet, and no one gets mugged or raped on the late-night streets of the city. The film also deftly captures the charm of Ireland while pin-pointing its darker side of gossip, hopelessness,  and repression.   

Bridge of Spies

Move ahead ten years and we're in the heat of the Cold War. Straight-arrow insurance lawyer Tom Hanks is chosen to defend a Russian spy—just to show that "our" system is better than theirs. Everyone is confident the man is guilty, and they grow impatient when Hanks takes his role in what amounts to a show trail a little too seriously. Period details of U2 spy planes, bomb shelters, and concerns about communist infiltrators ring true, in the midst of which, Hanks and the alleged spy (played by the ever-morose Mark Rylance) develop some sort of bond of integrity.

The story gets more complex when Hanks agrees to facilitate an exchange of prisoners in Berlin, at precisely the time when the Wall is going up. Soviet, East German, and American interests are mutually at odds, and there's no James Bond-style figure in sight to clarify things with a few timely stunts. 

The narrative is tight, the tension builds. Though Hanks is in well over his head, he never loses his Henry Fonda-esque focus on doing the right thing. There are plenty of East-West contrasts in sight that still hold true today, but that's an old lesson, and it's not the one we're being taught here.

The Martian

I was undoubtedly the last kid of the block to see The Martian. Everyone saw it this fall, and why not? Matt Damon is abandoned for years on a hostile planet: let's see what he can do. 

It's a fun narrative, and Damon makes the most of it as he records his daily activities on a video-log—just in case anyone finds him. The landscapes are stunning, the scientific ingenuity is impressive. Meanwhile, the scenes at JPL in Pasadena show us an eccentric, multi-ethnic crew that carries the ring of truth.

Does Matt make it back? In the unlikely case you haven't seen the film, I'm not going to tell you. But I will say that beyond its summer-time entertainment value, The Martian is a bit thin. Director Ridley Scott has failed to bring much life or interest to the subordinate characters on board ship. Jessica Chastain, the captain, seems anguished that she left one of her men behind, but considering that the escape vessel was set to tip over in about three seconds and Matt had just been seen flying off at great speed in a big cloud of dust, it's obvious she really didn't have much choice.

Similar problems plague the NASA team in Houston, except in reverse, as the director (Jeff Daniels) tends to look more annoyed than seriously concerned by the unfortunate turn of events.

This bad acting (which is really bad scriptwriting) undercuts the emotional grip of the narrative to some degree. All the same, there are plenty of unusual developments to keep us engaged from beginning to end.

Potatoes, anyone?

The other day, the new York Film Critics handed its Best Actress award to Ronan, and the Best Supporting Actor trophy to Rylance. As darkness spreads across the frozen northland, let the winter film-going season commence!

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