The suspense of 'Bridge of Spies' and 'Goodnight Mommy'

With movies like “Apollo 13,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and “Captain Phillips,” Tom Hanks proved himself to be the symbol of historical American heroism. Now, with the new Steven Spielberg-directed drama “Bridge of Spies,” he has firmly cemented himself as the perfect representative of something even more relevant in complicated modern times: The American Conscience.

Ironically, this superb if somewhat restrained morality tale, which feels very relevant today, takes place during the Cold War of the 1960s. It’s no coincidence. Although set in the Jim Crow South in the 1930s,“To Kill A Mockingbird” was released in 1962 during the civil rights movement. When history is viewed at a remove, its lessons are easier to swallow and be applied to the present day.

After several other law firms pass, Brooklyn lawyer James B. Donovan (Hanks) agrees to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (an understated, powerful Mark Rylance). The screenplay, from Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen, makes a shrewd decision up front. It shows us that Abel is guilty, removing all doubt in the audience, even as Donovan fights against popular sentiment in America to make sure that he gets a fair trial.

Spielberg raises the stakes in this already dramatic true story for cinema’s sake — six bullets come flying through Donovan’s living room while his daughter watches TV instead of the one shot that was reported — but for the most part, “Bridge of Spies” is a sober reflection on America actually living its values and living up to its promise. Even after it turns in the second half into a suspenseful hostage negotiation in East Berlin, the movie keeps coming back to the surprisingly respectful relationship between these two enemy combatants.

“Bridge of Spies” reminds us that if we are going to continue calling ourselves the greatest country in the world, we’ll have to keep earning it. One visual analogy in the film, which while viewing seemed a little too on the nose, has actually stuck with me and continues to resonate: From the subway crossing over the newly divided city, Donovan sees German citizens get shot and killed as they try to escape into West Berlin. From the train back home in America, he watches young kids running and playing, as they climb walls into and out of their neighbors’ backyards.

“Bridge of Spies” is rated PG-13 for adult language and some violence and is 141 minutes.

'Goodnight Mommy'

Halloween is almost upon us, and several new movies are vying for our horror-related dollars this season. The best of them is “Goodnight Mommy,” playing at Liberty Hall, an Austrian import (which that country has submitted for Oscar consideration) that arrives in America with deafening critical buzz. It’s easy to understand why.

Like last year’s standout dreadfest “The Babadook,” “Goodnight Mommy” preys upon adult fears of raising children, and is masterly at creating anxiety and sustaining it for the entire running time.

Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala are the co-writer/directors of this foreboding chamber piece, which asks us to identify with two 10-year-old twin brothers (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) whose mother (Susanne Wuest) returns home from the hospital after reconstructive facial surgery. Not only does she look different, but she’s acting different, and the boys are immediately suspicious that she’s an imposter.

Shot from the point of view of the kids, it is terrifying to think of the control she has over her sons as their parent and sole guardian. What nefarious plans does mommy have for them? By the same token, what has happened to the twins to give them such dark thoughts?

Franz and Fiala’s clever script doles out much-needed context in small, strategic doses, and keeps the audience guessing, even as the strange behavior on both sides gets increases and becomes more squirm-inducing.

With an extremely limited scope and special effects budget, “Goodnight Mommy” is a prime example of a film that mines and sustains suspense out of universal psychological fears and clever storytelling.

“Goodnight Mommy” is 99 minutes and is rated R for disturbing violent content, some nudity, and terrifying twin weirdness.

'Crimson Peak'

Set in 19th-century America and England, “Crimson Peak” — a disappointing Gothic romance/haunted-house story from Guillermo del Toro — is the opposite of “Goodnight Mommy” in many ways.

The film’s budget has been reported to be $55 million, and every single penny is up on the screen. Between tasteful CGI and ornate art direction, del Toro has created a beautifully designed picture that hearkens back to the haunted houses of classic-era Hollywood horror — from England’s Hammer Films to Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” — but in full, resplendent color.

It is a lovely backdrop for Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain to play in, but none of the performers ever catch fire — at least partly due to a ponderous script that foreshadows too much and under-delivers when the time comes.

Del Toro, who co-wrote the screenplay with Matthew Robbins, has his actors play the melodrama completely straight, but the audience is impatiently ahead of them at every turn, waiting for them to catch up.

With previous passion projects like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone,” del Toro has masterfully balanced distinctive production design with suspense, but in “Crimson Peak,” there isn’t much of the latter. Instead, the film comes across like a pretty standard Tim Burton effort, minus the ironic post-modernism.

“Crimson Peak” is 118 minutes and is rated R for bloody violence, some sexual content and brief strong language.

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