Bridge of Spies

October 17, 2015 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda
Directed by: Steven Spielberg (“War Horse”)
Written by: Matt Charman (“Suite Francaise”), Ethan Coen (“True Grit”) and Joel Coen (“Inside Llewyn Davis”)

Bringing Oscar winners like director Steven Spielberg, actor Tom Hanks and the screenwriting duo of Joel and Ethan Coen together feels like the producers of the Cold War drama/thriller “Bridge of Spies” are just showing off. While the combination of Spielberg and Hanks hasn’t always been a perfect pairing the last three times out (“The Terminal” is still one of Spielberg’s weakest films), odds will always be in their favor based on talent alone. With “Bridge of Spies,” Spielberg delivers some solid, mature storytelling that rarely wavers. It might be one of those second-tier Spielberg films that really won’t make or break any kind of legacy he has built throughout his career (think “War Horse” and “Amistad”), but even Spielberg on autopilot is pretty damn good.

As a history lesson on espionage during the Cold War, Spielberg and company keep the tension high and the story at a level that won’t go over too many heads (unlike other recent spy thrillers like “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “A Wanted Man,” which might take a couple of viewings to let all the nuances sink in). In “Bridge of Spies,” Hanks plays James Donovan, an American insurance lawyer who is called upon to defend British-born Soviet spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), who has just been captured by the CIA. James takes the case, although he knows there will be a lot of baggage that comes with it. How is he supposed to defend someone when the American judicial system and the court of public opinion have already condemned the man? James’ responsibilities become more complicated when an American pilot and an American student are taken prisoner in the Soviet Union and the CIA asks him to take the lead in a prisoner exchange with the enemy. These backroom dealings are straight to the point and make for some entertaining and thought-provoking scenes.

“Bridge of Spies” asks important, timely questions about how the U.S. has handled war criminals throughout history, but never preaches to the audience with political statements or underlying messages. It plays out like a theatrical production would in the Situation Room. The dialogue is palpable and it’s easy to hang onto every word James and Rudolph speak. It’s this relationship between these two characters that, while spending only a few scenes together, feels like there’s actually something important everyone is fighting for.

Tower Heist

November 4, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck
Directed by: Brett Ratner (“Rush Hour 3”)
Written by: Ted Griffin (“Ocean’s 11”) and Jeff Nathanson  (“Rush Hour 3”)

Can anyone remember the last time comedian Eddie Murphy was actually funny? No, voicing an animated donkey with a love for waffles doesn’t count. I’m talking about Murphy debating boxing greats in “Coming toAmerica” or hustling his way into a swanky suite in “Beverly Hills Cop.” Hell, I’d even take him parodying Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood during his “Saturday Night Live” days if it would help me forget “Norbit.” Wherever you were in the 80s, chances are you were laughing at something Murphy was doing on screen or on stage. Nowadays, you’d probably have better luck being entertained by his older brother Charlie.

If you believe the hype, however, Murphy’s return to glory comes at full force with “Tower Heist,” a comedy crime caper that originally started as an idea in 2005 for Murphy to team up with a host of other black comedians including Chris Tucker, Dave Chappelle and Martin Lawrence. When that overly-ambitious idea fell through, “Tower Heist” became a poor man’s version of “Ocean’s 11” and even enlists “Ocean’s” screenwriter Ted Griffin and supporting actor Casey Affleck. But “Ocean’s” this is not. And while it’s true that Murphy provides his best comedy outing since 1996’s remake of “The Nutty Professor” (I still don’t understand the love for “Bowfinger”), he’s not given as much screen time as you’d think for someone who’s billed so high. Honestly, this is a Ben Stiller movie and Murphy is just coming along for the ride.

Still, the ride has its moments with a solid cast who could easy make an impact off the bench in lieu of George Clooney, Brad Pitt or Matt Damon. In fact, the diverse makeup of characters and personalities is what makes the movie casually fun, at least for the first half of the heist. In the film, a group of hotel employees plot to take back the money they lost in a Ponzi scheme orchestrated by Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), a Wall Street billionaire and tenant in the high-rise. With little experience in thievery, the team, which includes Stiller, Affleck, Michael Peña (“The Lincoln Lawyer”), and Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious”), recruit “Slide” Dalphael (Murphy), a common criminal with the know-how to exact revenge. Also joining in is actor Matthew Broderick (“Election”) as a former Wall Street investor who goes bankrupt because of Shaw’s shady business ethics.

With every cog in place, you’d think this comedy machine, even directed by industry tool Brett Ratner (“Rush Hour 3”), would run a little smoother. While the setup works well enough, the heist itself isn’t very creative or executed on the page very well. What’s left is an amusing team of misfits bumbling around aimlessly in search of a disappointing payoff more ridiculous than a humanitarian award named after Bernie Madoff.

To a lesser extent, this might be a comeback for Murphy, but until he can stand front and center as the leading man he once was, it’s still difficult to forgive him for the last 15 years (“Meet Dave,” “The Adventures of Pluto Nash,” “I Spy”). Hosting the Academy Awards this coming February just might be what he needs to prove “Tower Heist” wasn’t a fluke.