Just as many of us, for all our rebellious inclinations to the contrary, eventually morph into versions of our parents, so has Steven Spielberg – brash movie brat of the 1970s, inventor of the blockbuster – begun to emulate the golden age classicists who preceded him. The muscular, arrow-backed John Ford-isms that felt a little strained in War Horse and Lincoln, however, reach more satisfying fruition (and join sprightly nudges to Hawks and Hitchcock) in Bridge of Spies (Fox, 12), a rare feelgood cold war thriller that roars and rouses in most of the right places, though not necessarily the obvious ones.
Liberally based on the story of James Donovan, an American insurance lawyer improbably recruited as a go-between in US-Soviet POW negotiations, it’s a more terse, politically questioning procedural than we might have expected from Spielberg. As Donovan, Tom Hanks lends the film his customary Jimmy Stewart-esque sense of American conscience, though the Coen brothers-aided script finds pockets of fault and sympathy in both sides of the dispute. Still, it’s Mark Rylance’s measured, mirthful, Oscar-worthy performance as Donovan’s chief ward, Russian spy Rudolf Abel, for which the film is likeliest to be remembered. Keeping his character’s agenda and affinities ambiguous to the last, Rylance gives the film its moral bridge between tensely opposed factions.
If Spielberg represents the old guard these days, Sean Baker’s Tangerine (Metrodome, 15) casually wields the sherbety shock of the new. Much has been made of how this transgender dual-character study was shot entirely on an iPhone – fair enough, since if that pocket device can yield compositions and colours this frenzied and alive, the medium is clearly in transition. But more startling still is the compassionate pop and fizz that Baker brings to social margins – not just the transgender community, but much of LA’s sidewalk underclass – that other film-makers have painted in far drabber strokes. I do wish the film’s storytelling was as crisp as its general strut. The woman-scorned arc of prison-fresh hooker Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is thin and shouty, and less intriguing than the subtler search for self undertaken by her beleaguered BFF Alex (a marvellous Mya Taylor). But attitude is everything here, and Tangerine’s is ferocious.
Far harder work than Tangerine, but no less bracing in its strangeness, Pedro Costa’s stony yet social exploration Horse Money (Second Run, 12) appears less overwhelming – for better or worse – on a smaller screen. Once more, the director returns to the staggered Lisbon slum of Fontainhas, with elderly real-life construction worker Ventura (star of Costa’s 2006 film Colossal Youth) this time our stoic guide through the labyrinthine corridors of a hospital in which he may or may not be the only living patient. Either way, he’s surrounded by voices and stories, articulating the tensions and confusions of post-colonial Portugal; whether they’re apparitions or not is the least of the mysteries embedded in Costa’s severe poetry.
Soon after a flurry of admiring TV reviews, you hardly need me to tell you that the BBC’s Susanne Bier-directed adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager (Sony, 15) is crackling, sharply tailored stuff. If you’re eschewing the iPlayer to catch up on DVD, just avoid confusing your order with The Night Before (Sony, 15), a Seth Rogen-starring stoner holiday comedy that wasn’t all that amusing at Christmas, let alone in the cold light of spring.
This week’s documentary pick (putting aside the hybrid identity of Horse Money) is a Netflix exclusive. Boasting David Lynch as a spiritual influence and executive producer, My Beautiful Broken Brain chronicles co-director Lotje Sodderland’s recovery from a haemorrhagic stroke, using a vivid array of visual and sonic distortions to illustrate her altered sensory view on the world in the wake of the event and her gradual journey back to language. The results are fractured and arrhythmic: it’s not always a elegant approach, but strokes aren’t terribly elegant things. As a first-hand projection of trauma that most viewers (this one included) could hardly imagine, it’s an affecting, empathy-driven curiosity.