Sunday, October 25, 2015

Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg), Crimson Peak (Guillermo del Toro)

When worlds collide

Steven Spielberg's latest Bridge of Spies is ostensibly about the Soviet Union and America collaborating, two distinct if mistrustful sensibilities joining tentative hands on an unlikely venture. What it's really about in my book is Spielberg and the Coens collaborating--two distinct if mistrustful sensibilities joining tentative hands on an unlikely venture.
Spielberg is in top form with the opening, when Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) plays hide-and-seek across Brooklyn and through the New York subways with the FBI; the film flattens a little when James Donovan walks in--as played by Tom Hanks (the go-to guy to represent All-American decency) he's from the same improbable shelf as The Whore with the Heart of Gold and The Gangster Seeking Redemption. Here Donovan is The Lawyer Who Believes in the Law: he takes up Abel's hopelessly prejudiced espionage case not because the publicity will further his career but because it's the right thing to do (Last time that ruse worked was when John Ford directed Henry Fonda, mainly because the results had a plainspoken poetry*--the kind Spielberg can only wish he was more capable of putting onscreen). You could almost hear the groans from theater audience: Spielberg's giving his standard-issue spiel again, about man's basic humanity in the face of adversity. And this movie's a hundred and forty minutes? Ugh.

(Come to think of it didn't Spielberg attempt his own Lincoln pic?)

But Donovan turns out to be legally sharp as well as verbally deft, and Hanks capitalizes on both Donovan's qualities to turn in a more-defined-than-usual performance. After an interlude where a U2 plane is shot down (in a sequence I'm assuming is meant to outdo the Chuck Yeager ejection scene in Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff--louder here, digitally rendered (as opposed to Kaufman's whizzing zooming wire-guided models), not as a result as memorable--) the real story begins: in East Berlin, where the Coens' surreal absurdity and deadpan fatalism take over and perfectly incarnate the surreal absurdity and deadpan fatalism of Eastern Bloc countries

Here Hanks' long-expired comic instincts sputter back to life and he begins to embody the classic Coen hero, a loner lost in Kafkaesque nightmare. When matters reach a point of crisis Hanks' Donovan has come to understand the essentially malevolent absurdity of this world and negotiates confidently through its tangled rules, mainly by establishing rules of his own. 

Upstaging Hanks and walking away with picture tucked securely in his pocket is Mark Rylance as Soviet intelligence agent Rudolf Abel. His lost-puppy look and tightset mouth--one suggesting utter cluelessness the other a kind of survivor's determination not to give away anything potentially useful, or even call unnecessary attention to oneself--marks him as supremely adapted to thrive in both the paranoid streets of Eastern Bloc nations and the more bewilderingly candid world of the United States. His tagline "would it help if I did?" his standard response to everything the FBI, the CIA, and life itself throws at him, is brilliantly phrased--it gives nothing away about his current condition yet it expresses the survivor's constant hope that some crumb of information might fall his way, to be used to his advantage. The phrase gains sad humor and knowing pathos with every repeating, and in the end acquires an almost metaphysical significance; it's also irresistibly funny.   

Along the way in an almost throwaway gesture Spielberg stages a superb sequence, arguably the finest in the picture, of Donovan on a train crossing from East to West watching people climbing the Wall, and of the horrifying consequences (Spielberg then goes on to ruin the shot's beautifully random meaning by repeating it in Brooklyn, only with kids mounting a chainlink fence--"Thangs sure are diffrent tween here and thar," you can imagine the actor drawling in his best Gump). 

Who knew the Soviets and Americans at that time could still work with each other? Who knew a Coen-Spielberg collaboration could be so successful (aside from a few missteps here and there)? One must remember that early Spielberg films were all about toys and games, and at the center of every early Coens (But when were they ever immature? They seemed to leap from the Blood Simple screen fully developed, and hung around ever since) was an ingeniously constructed Rube Goldberglike plot that worked itself out and broke itself down during the length of the film. Imagine Spielberg doing Goldberg and the idea seems not just feasible but almost inevitable.

Inevitable that is till Spielberg asserts his auteurist prerogatives and rams a feel-good ending up our collective ass, complete with wife admiring her husband's heroically unconscious carcass. Ah, relationships--just when you begin to feel you could trust your partner he goes and does something unforgivable. Makes you want to go build your own Berlin Wall.       

Hell house

Critics have groused that Guillermo del Toro in Crimson Peak fails to tell a substantially compelling and original story; reminds me of a complaint I once read (on the internet of course) that Hamlet wasn't a good ghost story because it focused on the prince's wishy-washiness

Del Toro lives for the visual setpiece, and perhaps the script's finest achievement--not much, but it will serve--is to string the setpieces together in something like a story. We're not really supposed to sympathize with Edith Cushing's (Mia Wasikowska's) character (another off-the-shelf creature, The Would-be Writer Seeking Something to Write About) so much as see the world through her eyes (I bet del Toro would be just as happy casting a tripod for his lead); we're not supposed to hiss at Lucille and Thomas Sharpe's (Jessica Chastain's and Tom Hiddleston's) hidden sins so much as shudder and perhaps salivate over their once-decadent lifestyle.

No, scratch that--don't agree with the common complaint that the film is underwritten; if anything it's overwritten, with too many moments between Thomas and Lucille where they talk in mysterious whispers and we're meant to read between the lines. Actually the gaps in between are too easily filled and maybe ten minutes into Edith and Thomas' wedding we realize we're well into Notorious territory with generous helpings of Rebecca (Del Toro is apparently letting his Hitch flag fly)--Edith fills the hapless newlywed role while Lucille combines the malevolence of Mrs. Danvers with the beauty and charisma of Hitchcock's mysterious woman. 

If Del Toro had resisted adding the exposition needed to clarify his storyline; if (and I'm only guessing here) he'd stuck closer to the script he originally wrote, we'd have a less predictable plot, a more bare-bones feature depending on visual style and production detail (a prodigious amount, piled Citizen Kane-high) to elevate it to a whole other level. 

While we're at it let's acknowledge the film's real star, Allerdale Hall. As designed by Thomas E. Sanders (who helped realize Francis Coppola's equally overwrought Dracula) and lit and shot by Dan Laustsen (who gave del Toro's Mimic its dankly luminous catacomb look) the old house feels like the unholy child of Manderley, Gormenghast and the Bates residence, as midwifed by Miss Havisham on a really bad day.

Del Toro starts early: at a party Thomas demonstrates to the clueless Americans how to dance the waltz. He picks Edith (who refuses but Thomas won't take 'no' for an answer) and declares that a waltz should be executed at a pace and speed that a lit candle will threaten to but not actually extinguish. As he and Edith glide into action in a series of long takes the candle's flame gutters and dims but nevertheless persists--the little fire might be a digital effect (doesn't look like one) but you're riveted, nevertheless, and with nary a phantom in sight. 

Del Toro in scene after scene shot after shot keeps swinging for the fences, from a pan upward that recalls the stupendous carved-wood staircase in Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons to a sideways glide through moldering ruins (with characters flitting in and out of shadows and crumbling corners) that seems inspired by Welles' Touch of Evil (when a filmmaker must depict despair and decay Welles is the apparent go-to guy). Del Toro crams every frame with intricate little visual knicknacks (the pace of presentation kicking into overdrive when the action moves to Allerdale Hall), an Aladdin's cave of gems and treasures revealed by candlelight. Normally I'd hoot at such thin strategem but for the sparkle and glow of del Toro's wonders (some digital, many corporeal) as they pass beneath our eyes. Are those spikes growing out of the overhead hallway carvings? Is that dying butterfly* (you can hear the papery flutter of its wings) waving its tiny legs helplessly in the wintry air? Is Lucille's scarlet dress done up in a series of taut knots up and down her spine, mimicking the vertebrae's interlocking structure?

*And while we're at it is there been a major pop filmmaker more enamored of insects? From the 'fairies' in Pan's Labyrinth to the Judas breed in Mimic to the mandibled vampires in Blade 2 (and The Strain) to here, del Toro in the way he lights and shoots and allows them to crawl into (and onto) his frame seems to consider them every bit as fabulous as fauns, demons, ogres.

Some details add to the plotline, believe it or not; a dog (a Papillon, naturally) suddenly pops up and Edith is charmed enough to ask to keep it; later as spectres start to appear you wonder--why doesn't the dog bark or growl at their presence? Because they're not strangers, you realize; the ghosts represent folks the dog actually knew. 

In melancholy dramas like Pan's Labyrinth and even I submit in horror comedies like Hellboy 2: The Golden Army del Toro managed to cobble together enough story to engage our sympathies; with recent efforts like Pacific Rim and this he seems to have dropped all pretense and focused autistically on the visual texture, creating what seem less like SFXd narratives and more like digital abstractions unfolding on the big screen. 

We've seen this before actually, in the epic fantasy novel by Mervyn Peake, a series of colorful if barely connected adventure experienced by grotesque if barely explored characters--what carries the novel, gives it furious whirling life is the Panorama Technicolor Sensurround prose, the fabulist sense of Grand Guignol, of an ancient Gothic drama outlining a world gone to ruin. It's all style yet in the hands of a Peake (Is that where part of the title comes from? Maybe maybe not) or in the hands of a del Toro sometimes style is satisfying, style is enough. Dare I say it? Del Toro's delirious melodrama is the closest we've come so far to realizing Peake's prose on the big screen. 

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