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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
HOME / STORY

Lessons From Steve

Jorge Ignacio Castillo
Published Thursday October 15, 06:00 pm
Bridge of Spies sees Spielberg at the top of his game

 Bridge of Spies

Cineplex

4.5/5

Over the course of his career, Steven Spielberg has managed to develop two equally successful personas: Serious, and Fun. “Serious” Spielberg has brought us Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Lincoln, while “Fun” Spielberg is responsible for Jurassic Park, E.T. and the Indiana Jones saga.

Bridge of Spies fits in the former category, but it’s playful enough that it doesn’t feel like homework. Once again, Spielberg appeals to America’s best self, at a time where foreigners are distrusted and due process is less popular than hasty retaliation.

Tom Hanks is James Donovan, a sharp insurance lawyer who’s tapped by the American government to defend Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Wolf Hall’s Mark Rylance) in the early years of the Cold War. Abel’s guilt is never in question: the case is more a matter of ensuring the punishment fits the crime.

Both the establishment and public opinion call for Abel’s execution, but Donovan mounts a defence based on decency: If this is a war, shouldn’t we hope that our people are treated with humanity by the other side? And if so, how can we not do the same?

The strategy is successful — Abel gets life in prison — but it carries an unforeseen side effect: Donovan must negotiate a trade with the USSR for an American pilot who was shot down on Russian soil. And he has to do it as a civilian (as neither government would acknowledge their participation), meaning minimum protection.

Bridge of Spies sees Spielberg trying to make two points. First, a country’s willingness to act within the margins of the law defines its character, and there are unforeseen benefits in doing so. Second, at an individual level it doesn’t matter what other people think if you know that what you’re doing is the right thing. (And it’s fair to assume the filmmaker doesn’t believe the U.S. is behaving up to standard these days.)

Beyond the ethics lesson, Bridge of Spies is tremendously entertaining. Even though the real-life events that inspired the film are fairly well-known, the script (by Joel and Ethan Coen, no less) crackles and the acting is top-notch. A subdued Hanks concocts an unlikely hero worth following, while Rylance’s barely perceptible mood changes are thrilling to watch. He provides both comic relief and emotional payoff without as much as lifting an eyebrow. Impressive.

As expected for a Spielberg film, the production design is remarkable. The reconstruction of post-war Berlin (both sides of the Iron Curtain) is flawless, as is the stark beauty of the compositions. Spielberg even allows himself a bit of fun with a nifty sequence involving a plane in freefall and a pilot struggling to abandon it.

Most of Spielberg’s usual team, like cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn, are on board here, although composer John Williams is missing due to Star Wars duty. But even that’s okay: The score by Thomas Newman is restrained, serving the story as opposed to bringing attention to itself.

When Spielberg’s on his game, he simply operates at a different level than everyone else. That’s what’s happening here, making Bridge of Spies mandatory viewing.

 

Meru

Roxy (opens Sunday 25)

3.5/5

These days, “conquering” Mount Everest is more a matter of money than skill, and there are very few corners of the world that remain unexplored. Because of that, Meru is quite refreshing — for documentary fans and adventure-lovers alike.

A mountain in the Indian Himalayas, Meru Peak features a borderline-impossible obstacle for climbers aiming for the summit: A smooth, 4000-foot wall known as “Shark’s Fin.” There’s little to grab on to, it takes a very long time to progress just a few hundred meters and even setting up camp is a feat of herculean proportions. Add in treacherous weather and limited human endurance and you have a helluva challenge.

Meru chronicles two attempts — both by Conrad Anker (the climber who found George Mallory’s body on the Everest), regular collaborator Jimmy Chin (who also directs the film) and relative newcomer Renan Ozturk. As we see them push themselves beyond any sensible threshold, the audience is treated with snippets of their lives at home. That cliché of “the mountain is calling” becomes real when we see these three well-adjusted guys hankering to trade the comforts of home for a cramped tent that’s hanging by a thread.

The documentary features remarkable imagery, and a dramatic twist of fate that further raises the stakes. I could’ve used a little less “climber mystique” and a bit more texture in the depiction of their lives (there are some red flags that go unaddressed), but for the most part Meru is raw and fascinating. Harrowing drama emerging organically from extreme situations is a rare sight, and Meru provides it in spades.

The answer on whether Anker, Chin and Ozturk succeeded or not is just a click away, so I’d recommend staying away from Wikipedia until after you watch the film. It’s so much better without knowing.

 

Beeba Boys

Coming soon

2.5/5

In a departure from her usual output, writer / director Deepa Mehta (Water, Midnight’s Children) tackles street violence in Surrey, B.C. in the lively Beeba Boys. Clearly influenced by Scorsese, Tarantino and Internal Affairs, Mehta is an apt pupil in dealing with gang wars. Unfortunately, while her traditional strength of character-building is on full display, the story isn’t up to par.

Inspired by real events, the Beeba Boys in question are a group of sharply dressed criminals of Punjabi descent. Their lifestyle is uniquely dangerous, with a life expectancy of around 30. Despite that, they’re viewed favourably by the community: Men fear them, women fall for the bad-boy attitude and kids want to join the ranks.

The leader of the Beeba Boys, Jeet (Randeep Hooda), is a loving family man, a proud Sikh and the most coldblooded killer in Surrey. Jeet thrives as a drugs- and ammo-trafficker. Business is booming, but he wants to take control of the entire suburb. To succeed, Jeet must take down a veteran kingpin.

Within this fiery (if muddled) crime drama, Mehta deals with her favourite issue — the immigrant experience — but from a new angle. Unlike their elders and more stable contemporaries, the Beeba Boys would rather be feared than respected, and the only forces that stand against them are other Indians pursuing a more organic form of individuality.

The film is flashy and has plenty of ideas, but the overarching storyline — a by-the-numbers gang war featuring the mandatory mole — just isn’t very interesting. The Beeba Boys are pretty terrible at organized crime (hubris trumps efficiency at every corner), and Hooda as the lead doesn’t fit the bill — he’s got the looks, but lacks the gravitas of a Tony Montana or a Sonny Corleone.

Mehta does better with individual scenes, such as those in which the traditional Indian lifestyle becomes warped by the gangster factor. It’s a noble effort by an excellent filmmaker, but The Beeba Boys just doesn’t get there.

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