“Truth”: All the president’s documents undo Robert Redford’s Dan Rather

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“Truth” opens Friday at Sundance and Marcus Palace Cinemas. R, 2:05, two and a half stars out of four.

James Vanderbilt is a screenwriter who revels in ambiguity. He wrote one of the best films of the ’00s, David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” in which the notorious San Francisco serial killer was maybe-not-quite revealed, but certainly not caught, at the end of the film.

There’s a similar uncertainty as to what’s really going on in the perhaps ironically titled “Truth,” Vanderbilt’s dramatization of the 2004 scandal at CBS over possibly forged documents suggesting that President George W. Bush had used family connections to get out of going to Vietnam. The evidence remains inconclusive either way as to their veracity, but longtime CBS anchor Dan Rather resigned, and his producer Mary Mapes was fired.

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“In the Courtyard”: Parisian apartment for rent, oddball preferred

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Pierre Salvadori makes the sort of light French comedies that you enjoy and then can’t remember if you ever saw or not. I had to check my review database to see if I had seen “Priceless,” with Audrey Tautou as a golddigger who falls for a bartender (I hadn’t), or “Apres Vous,” in which Daniel Auteuil plays a restaurant manager who tries to help out a sad sack (I had. I think.)

So it is with “In the Courtyard,” his pleasant and bittersweet new film starring the great Catherine Deneuve, which didn’t get much of a release at all in the United States and is now available on DVD from Cohen Media. I enjoyed it, and I probably won’t ever think of it again five minutes from when I finish this review.

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Gone in an Instant: Five great movies leaving Netflix at the end of October

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Each week, the Instant Gratification column runs down five good movies new to Netflix that you ought to check out. But the news isn’t all good. As the streaming site adds more and more movies and TV shows each week to its lineup, it quietly drops others, usually at the end of the month.

So “Gone in an Instant” is a monthly column highlighting a few good movies that you’ve only got a few days left to see before they disappear from sight. Don’t dilly-dally.

Fargo” — Netflix and chill (get it, because it’s winter in Minnesota) with the Coen Brothers’ upper Midwestern noir masterpiece, starring Oscar winner Francis McDormand as a good-hearted small-town police chief unraveling a kidnapping that a shifty car dealer (William H. Macy) is somehow entangled in. The FX show is good, but can’t compete with the original.

Changing Lanes” — I think this 2002 drama is tremendously underrated, as Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson give some career-high performances as motorists whose highway feud escalates into a dangerous game of tit-for-tat.

House of Flying Daggers” — Zhang Zimou’s absolutely gorgeous take on the martial arts genre features some beautifully staged wuxia action, including a climactic duel that conjures up a raging snowstorm.

Stand by Me” — Ooh, just got a little lump in my throat typing that title, as Rob Reiner turns Stephen King’s “The Body” into an achingly moving film about childhood, friendship and loss.

The Blues Brothers” — There’s almost too much movie in John Landis’ overstuffed ode to Chicago and the blues — too many musical numbers, too many cameos, too many car chases — but what’s there is classic, and Jake and Elwood Blues remain indelible comic creations.

 

 

“The Amazing Nina Simone”: A trailblazing musician gets a familiar documentary

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“The Amazing Nina Simone” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated, 1:42, two stars out of four.

All of a sudden, the movies can’t get enough of Nina Simone. Earlier this year came “What Happened Miss Simone?” a fine, haunting documentary by Liz Garbus that premiered on Netflix. Tentatively set for December is “Nina,” a controversial biopic starring Zoe Saldana as the late jazz singer and David Oyelowo as her aide and confidant.

Coming in between is “The Amazing Nina Simone,” an independent documentary that’s clearly a labor of love from writer-producer-director Jeff L. Lieberman. While “What Happened” relied heavily on audio interviews with Simone and intimate interviews with her daughter Lisa, Lieberman had access to neither.

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“Fidelio: Alice’s Odyssey”: In the middle of the Atlantic, a less than titanic love triangle

A scene in Lucie Borleteau's FIDELIO: ALICE'S ODYSSEY, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 - May 7, 2015.

“Fidelio: Alice’s Odyssey” has its Madison premiere on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St. Not rated, 1:37, two and a half stars out of four. Tickets are free for museum members, $7 for non-members.

“Fidelio: Alice’s Odyssey” opens with an idyllic scene in which lovers swim naked in a secluded cove. The woman, Alice (Ariane Labed) is about to leave for the sea, and the man, Felix (Anders Danielson Lie), draws a picture of her as a mermaid, swimming merrily off as he sobs on the shoreline.

But Alice doesn’t grow scales and a tail, but takes on the shapeless overalls of an engineer on a massive freighter, where she is the only female on board. That opening scene reminds us that, in a world surrounded by men, she is still a woman, which brings a host of complexities on board. It becomes ironic that the ship she’s assigned to is named “Fidelio,” as fidelity turns out to be something of a problem for her.

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Instant Gratification: “Beasts of No Nation” and four other good movies on Netflix and Paramount Vault

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Pick of the week: “Beasts of No Nation” (Netflix) — My full review is here. This brutal and beautiful film follows a West African boy who gets conscripted as a rebel child soldier under the tutelage of a charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba). Sections of the film are hard to watch, as the boy witnesses (and takes part in) unspeakable acts of cruelty, but we somehow hang onto a thread of empathy for him, especially as the war ends and he struggles with his guilt and grief.

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“Bridge of Spies”: Doing the right thing, doing the smart thing

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Those going to see Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” last weekend might have thought, based on the trailers, that they were getting a white-knuckle thriller in the vein of “Argo.” All the scenes of men drinking scotch and negotiating were left on the cutting room floor.

But hopefully audiences were able to adjust expectations, slow down their heart rates a little, and appreciate “Bridge of Spies” for the top-notch and engrossing film that it is. Featuring a director, actors (Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance) and screenwriters (playwright Marc Charmin and, on rewrite, Joel & Ethan Coen) working at the top of their game, “Bridge” is immensely enjoyable and something of a companion piece to Spielberg’s last film, “Lincoln.” Both are historical dramas about men doing the right thing against immense obstacles, both because it’s the right thing to do, and because it’s the smart thing to do.

Spielberg’s touch asserts itself in a witty opening shot, in which Russian spy Rudolph Abel (Rylance) is using a mirror to paint his self-portrait, likely an allusion to Norman Rockwell’s “Triple Self-Portrait.” Rockwell was the quintessential American, and so it seems is the quiet, normal Abel, who moves through 1957 Brooklyn with his ill-fitting coat and paintbox. But, of course, he’s also a Russian spy.

Spielberg reasserts this with his bravura ten-minute opening sequence, devoid of dialogue or music, in which Abel, shadowed by FBI agents, goes about his day — taking the subway, painting a landscape, and, oh, picking up a secret message in a hollow coin taped to the underside of a park bench. In its evocation of the authentic sights and sounds of 1950s New York, this opening could be a spy sequence as envisioned by “On the Bowery” filmmaker Lionel Rogosin.

From this wordless sequence, we go right into a sequence full of words, as we see insurance lawyer Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) negotiate a case. In one exchange, he shows himself to be canny, direct, and above all absolutely sure of what constitutes fair and unfair. I didn’t realize until the closing credits that Joel & Ethan Coen had done a rewrite on the screenplay, but of course their fingerprints are all over this scene in its use of quick, juicy dialogue to establish character.

Donovan is tasked with defending Abel in court, and the first half of “Bridge of Spies” is rather familiar one-man-against-the-system courthouse drama (not unlike Spielberg’s own “Amistad”). When even the judge is openly siding against you, you know you’ve got a losing case, and Donovan becomes a pariah for not just defending Abel, but defending him to the best of his abilities.

Two things stand out of this first half of the film for me. The first is how important the relationship between Donovan and his client Abel are. Donovan is no bleeding-heart, and recognizes Abel as a foe of his country. But he also respects the man as a fellow good soldier who plays by the rules rather than taking the easy way out. These are both practical, honorable men. It helps that Rylance turns in such a sly and winning performance, with Abel concealing a dry wit underneath that hangdog face.

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The second thing is how Donovan plays the case. In front of the Supreme Court, Donovan talks in flowery terms about America and the need for America to put its best foot forward, to play by the rule book, as an example to the rest of the world. He believes this. But in private, especially when he’s arguing sentencing with the judge, Donovan brings forth more practical arguments. Keep Abel alive, and he’ll be good insurance in case an American spy is ever caught by the Soviets. Treat Abel well, and our future captured spy might be treated as well in return.

This is where “Bridge of Spies” has its strongest linkage to “Lincoln,” which focused on President Lincoln’s political efforts to get the 13th amendment abolishing slavery passed into law. It’s the right thing to do for the country, but it’s also the smart thing to do for a divided country. “Lincoln” is less about big speeches and more about the hard work of politics, of calling in favors and twisting arms and using your power strategically to achieve a desired outcome.

And that’s what the second half of “Bridge of Spies” is all about, set in 1960, as Donovan goes to East Berlin to negotiate the exchange of Abel for U2 pilot Gary Powers and American grad student Frederick Pryor. The first half of “Bridge of Spies” has beautifully set up the second. The scenes of Donovan sipping Scotch with Russian and East German officials (each with competing agendas) may not making for thrilling spy cinema. But, just like in “Lincoln,” it does become thrilling to watch Donovan use his powers of negotiations, of understand when to bend and when to stand firm to achieve a desired outcome.

Rylance’s droll presence is missed in this second half, although the screenplay (presumably the Coens) includes some funny touches, such as the fact that these Cold Warriors all have actual colds. (When the cynical CIA agent catches Donovan’s cold, it’s a nifty metaphor for how he’s coming around to Donovan’s way of seeing the world.) And that last scene on the bridge, a pre-dawn stalemate, is suspenseful because the film has laid the groundwork for how shaky this agreement is, how it’s built on human relationships that could go wrong at any time.

Many critics have drawn connections between “Bridge of Spies” and contemporary American politics, whether it be Guantanamo Bay or drone strikes, and whether they reflect American values. I think that’s accurate, but the film is making an even broader point about the way America engages the world.

The Cold War was often described as a chess game between superpowers, and “Bridge” would like to see us get back to that mindset, to start thinking two or three moves ahead, to foresee what consequences might arise from what we do, instead of reacting rashly. To do the right thing, because it’s also often the smart thing. To keep talking to our enemies. And to carry some insurance.