Family Fare, Family Good

In the 1950s, the Walt Disney Company was known for producing a regular supply of family films for theaters, after which they were shown on television as part of “Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” (later retitled “The Wonderful World of Disney”). Movies like The Absent-Minded Professor, The Incredible Journey, Old Yeller, Pollyanna, and Swiss Family Robinson brought laughter and tears to children and their parents. They weren’t major releases, but they were solid B pictures and very good at what they did – anyone who tells you they didn’t cry at the end of Old Yeller is either lying or they didn’t see the movie. Later in the 1960s and ‘70s, the studio lost its way and contented itself with endless sequels to The Love Bug as well as Don Knox comedies. Young Adult films have become popular these days, but while movies such as The Fault in Our Stars, The Perks of Being A Wallflower and The Hunger Games series are excellent films, they definitely skew to the Adult side of YA. Now Disney has brought out a movie that harkens back to their ‘50s films, even though it is comfortably entrenched in the 21st Century: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

The movie is based on Judith Viorst’s excellent 1972 illustrated children’s book, which was part of a series dealing with Alexander’s trials and tribulations. First-time screenwriter Rob Lieber captures the theme of the book, while updating it to cover what can be terrible, horrible, no good and very bad these days.

The story actually takes place over two days. The first day, the day before his 12th birthday, is a normal one for Alexander Cooper (Ed Oxenbould), which is to say crappy. He comes out of his house to catch the carpool to school and sees the girl he’s entranced by, Becky Gibson (Sidney Fullmer), standing by the car. But as Alexander runs across the lawn, he manages to trip on a sprinkler head. Becky’s brother takes a cell phone picture of Alex and then uses an app to put his face on the bodies of women in bikinis – then emails it to the entire school body. Alex also discovers the most popular boy in school has decided to move his 12th Birthday party to the next day, so no one will be attending Alex’s party. Even Alex’s best friend Paul (Mekai Matthew Curtis) is planning on going to the other party. In science class, Alex manages to get partnered with Becky, but then he accidentally catches her lab book on fire and nearly burns down the science room.

While Alex’s day is horrible, his family has a great one, and the next day looks even better. His mother Kelly (Jennifer Garner) is in charge of the nationwide debut of “Take a Jump,” a new children’s book, including a celebrity reading by Dick Van Dyke. If it goes well, she’s up for a vice-president position with the publishing house. His father Ben (Steve Carrell) is an engineer who’s been out of work for six months, but he’s asked to come in for an interview with a game design company. Alex’s older brother Anthony (Dylan Minnette) is dating Celia (Belle Thorne), the hottest girl in the high school. He’s planning to take his driver’s license test that next day so he can drive Celia to the junior prom that night. Alex’s slightly older sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey) has the lead role in “Peter Pan” at the junior high in the afternoon before Alex’s party.

At midnight, Alex treats himself to a birthday bowl of ice cream and wishes that his family could understand the kind of days that are normal for him. When the next day goes spectacularly wrong for everyone else, Alex wonders if it’s all his fault because of his wish. To make him feel even worse, his day turns into a wonderful one.

Director Miguel Arteta is not someone you’d think of first for a project like this. His movies have been more adult comedies such as The Good Girl and Cedar Rapids, and he’s done extensive TV work with shows like “Six Feet Under,” “Nurse Jackie,” and even “American Horror Story.” However he shows a sure hand with the set pieces and a fine sense of comedic pace within the movie’s swift 81 minute running time. Spiritually it’s a descendant of screwball comedies like What’s Up Doc, The Out-of-Towners (the Jack Lemmon original), and Noises Off. While some of the comedy is of the potty variety, it’s the experiential kind that any family with babies has likely lived through. The movie also manages to go its entire length without a noticeable swear word.

Carrell’s comedic chops are well-established, but Garner keeps up with him beautifully. The kids all do well, especially Ed Oxenbould. One fun part of the movie is that Alex is obsessed with all things Australian, while Oxenbould actually hails from Down Under. Rounding out the cast is Megan Mullally as Kelly’s tightly-wound boss, and Jennifer Coolidge as a driving test examiner from Hell.

It’s enjoyable to see a family portrayed positively without schmaltz or bathos. The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day brings them closer together, in spite of all that happens. I saw the movie as part of a party of 14, with ages ranging from Pre-K to grandparents and everything in between. They all laughed out loud and enjoyed the movie. That’s a remarkable accomplishment.

A Faith Full Story

This year has seen the release of a cascade of movies with religious themes. They have a Sergio Leone spread: they go from the Good (Heaven is For Real) to the Bad (Noah) to the Ugly (Left Behind). However, no one would call any of this year’s religious films devastating in their beauty and power. For that, you need to go back 28 years to a movie called The Mission.

The movie was the last one written by Robert Bolt, from his original story. Bolt was a former schoolteacher with his degree in history who began writing radio plays for the BBC on the side. He eventually left teaching and moved to writing for the theater. His major theatrical hit was “A Man For All Seasons,” for which he won a Tony award for best play when it was produced on Broadway. Later Bolt wrote the screenplay when it was adapted for the screen with Paul Scofield and Robert Shaw in the main roles and Fred Zimmerman in the director’s chair. Before that, though, Bolt began a three-film collaboration with David Lean. In 1962 he wrote the screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia, followed by Dr. Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter.

In 1979, Bolt suffered a severe stroke that affected his speech and partially paralyzed him. He worked hard to recover, and returned to screenwriting with 1984’s The Bounty, starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins. Two years later came The Mission. Bolt’s background in history made him the perfect person to tell the story of colonial South America in the 1750s. Robert Bolt passed away in 1995 at age 70.

Robert Bolt

Roland Joffe, who directed the movie, had started in television in his native England, including working a few episodes of “Coronation Street,” the BBC soap opera that’s been running for 54 years. In 1984 he directed his first film – The Killing Fields, for which he received an Oscar nomination. The Mission was his second feature film. The movie was produced by David Putnam, who’d also produced The Killing Fields as well as another movie that dealt with faith, Chariots of Fire.

The movie begins with a short preface as Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally) dictates a letter to his secretary, to tell Pope Benedict XIV that the cardinal has completed his assignment. Altamirano isn’t pleased with the tone and begins again, starting with the first Jesuit who climbs a waterfall to reach natives living in the highlands above the falls, known as the Guarani people. When they see the crucifix the priest is wearing, they create a wooden cross, tie the Jesuit to it, and then send him down the river to be martyred when he plunges over the falls. That iconic image was used for the movie’s posters.

Rather than stay away from the escarpment, the head of the Jesuits in the area, Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), climbs the falls himself. He can feel the natives in the forest around him, but rather than speaking to them, he sits on a rock and begins playing his oboe. The natives are drawn out of the forest by the music. Most of them are entranced, though some are angry at Gabriel. One takes the oboe and breaks it, but Gabriel knows he’s made a connection when another native picks up the two pieces of the oboe and tries to fix it.

Soon Gabriel learns why the Guarani are so hostile. A mercenary and slaver, Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), has also penetrated the area above the falls to kidnap natives and sell them to plantations. Mendoza is an intense man who takes laughter as an affront. When not on raids to capture slaves, he lives in the Spanish capitol of the colony with his half-brother Felipe (Aidan Quinn), close to his fiancée Carlotta (Cherie Lunghi). Mendoza loves Felipe, but when he returns from a raid to discover Felipe and Carlotta in bed together, Mendoza kills Felipe in a duel. While he’s excused of blame by the authorities, his grief over his actions almost drives him to madness. The head of the hospital where Mendoza is confined sends for Father Gabriel, who presents the slaver with a suitable penance. He must climb the falls, dragging a bundle filled with all the armor he wore as a soldier, and then let the Guarani decide his fate. What follows is an incredible sequence that ends with the most powerful and realistic depiction of repentance and salvation ever put on film.

Mendoza embraces the life of a Jesuit, serving those he once enslaved. But when Cardinal Altamirano arrives, Gabriel and the Jesuits learn that the area where their missions are located is to be transferred from Spanish control, where slavery is outlawed, to the control of the Portuguese, where slavery is still allowed. Gabriel tries through a series of debates as well as a tour of the missions to convince the Cardinal to prevent the transfer, but while Altamirano is deeply moved by all he sees, he can’t change the decisions made across the ocean. Altamirano warns Gabriel that the Jesuit risks the suppression of the whole order, as the authorities in Catholic Europe have grown tired of their independence. Three choices of action remain, none of them good: 1) capitulation to the authorities, 2) non-violent resistance, and 3) war against the Spanish and Portuguese. It’s a question of conscience for each man to decide which path he’ll follow.

Much of the movie was filmed on location, and the film recruited indigenous people to portray the Guarani people. Rather than write lines for them, they were given the thrust of scenes and then allowed to speak whatever they wanted in their own language. The waterfall that is a central part of the movie is one of the most beautiful in the world: Iguazu Falls, on the present-day border between Brazil and Argentina.

The story of The Mission is roughly based on fact. In 1750, the Treaty of Madrid was signed by Spain and Portugal to end a border dispute between their colonies in South America that had led to armed conflict. As part of the treaty, a portion of Paraguay where the Jesuits had missions was transferred to Portuguese Brazil. The transfer meant that all of the natives who were living at the missions could now be enslaved. That action started what was called the Guarani War, with the indigenous people fighting against the soldiers of both Spain and Portugal from 1754 to 1756. The suppression of the Jesuits mentioned in the movie happened a little later, in the 1760s and lasted into the 1800s. During that time the Jesuits left Catholic Europe and its colonies and worked in other nations and mission fields.

Altamirano was a real person, though rather than being a Cardinal he was a Jesuit himself, sent by the general of the order to enforce the Madrid treaty. Father Gabriel is based on Paraguayan saint and Jesuit Roque Gonzalez de Santa Cruz. One of the consultants on the film was Fr. C.J. McNaspy, S.J., who wrote the book “The Lost Cities of Paraguay” that deals with the history of this period.

Iguazu Falls

Music is an integral part of the movie, and the producers were fortunate to get Ennio Morricone to compose the score. It is one of the best ever written, from the beauty of “Gabriel’s Oboe,” to the native instruments blended into “Falls,” to the raw, discordant power of “Penance,” to the liturgical chanting in the “Main Theme.” It’s one of those scores that brings the images of the movie rushing back into your mind when you listen to the music.

The casting was excellent. Irons was respected for his work in “Brideshead Revisited” and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but it was still early in his career. It was four years after The Mission when he had his breakout role as Klaus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune. De Niro had had a string of unsuccessful movies after 1980’s Raging Bull, including The King of Comedy, Brazil, and Once Upon A Time In America, which as released in such a truncated form that it lost its coherence. (It wasn’t until it was released years later in a 4 hour version that its brilliance was recognized.) With his work in The Mission along with The Untouchables the next year, De Niro’s career was back on track.

Ray McAnally was an Irish character actor who was revered for his stagework, though he had a run of successful movies in the late 1980s (Cal, White Mischief, and My Left Foot) and did  the miniseries adaptation of John Le Carre’s “A Perfect Spy.” Sadly, he passed away in 1989 at age 63. Fielding, one of the Jesuits helping Father Gabriel, was played by another Irish actor just beginning his career – Liam Neeson. An interesting piece of casting in light of the theme of the movie is that of Sebastian, an elderly Jesuit. The role was played by Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J., who was a protester against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and nuclear arms in the 1980s. At the beginning of the credits it is noted that priests still fight for the rights of indigenous people, along with a verse from the first chapter of the Gospel of John: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The Mission was premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it took the grand prize, the Palm d’Or. At the Golden Globes, Morricone won for his score and Bolt for the screenplay. The movie was nominated for 7 Oscars, including Best Picture, Score, and Director, but it ended up winning only one award, for Chris Menges’ cinematography. In 2007 it was selected as #1 on the list of top 50 religious movies by “The Church Times.” This is a movie that wrestles with powerful themes: redemption, obedience, the conflict of Christianity with temporal power – and the danger of merging those two.

At the time it was made, adding a final tag to a movie after the credits had just become popular. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, with its famous tag, was released the same year as The Mission. The tag at the end of the credits in The Mission is only a few seconds long, without any dialogue, and it is devastating.

This year’s quantity does not equal the quality of The Mission. If you want to watch a powerful movie about Christianity, start here.

Great Girl

Gillian Flynn’s book “Gone Girl” was a rarity in the publishing world – a word-of-mouth bestseller. It parked itself on the fiction bestseller list shortly after it was published and stayed there for almost 2 years. Part of the appeal of the book was a third-act twist that changed everything. With that kind of readership, it was not a question of “if” but rather “when” the book would be made into a film. The biggest question, though, was if the film version of Gone Girl would be a good one.

When David Fincher signed on as the director, the odds it would be excellent rose to almost a sure thing. Fincher cut his teeth on twisty thrillers such as Se7en, The Game, and Fight Club, which had its own remarkable third-act twist. In recent years he expanded his reputation with the true-crime thriller Zodiac, the beautiful Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and the Oscar-winner The Social Network. He also did the English-language adaptation of another phenomenal mystery, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. If anyone was a perfect fit for Gone Girl, it was Fincher.

Fincher asked Flynn to adapt her novel. Flynn, a former “Entertainment Weekly” writer, had never done a screenplay before, but she distilled the book to the essential scenes and reworking some of them so the 400+ page novel is faithfully transferred to the screen. If you’ve read the book, the movie is like watching the visions of what happened that you saw in your mind recreated on a panoramic screen.

If you haven’t read the book, the bare bones of the plot is this: On his 5th anniversary, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) is called home by a neighbor who’s noticed Nick’s front door is standing open. Nick finds evidence of a struggle, and his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) is missing. Det. Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) finds some curious things, including an envelope marked “Clue One.”  Amy has celebrated their wedding anniversaries by creating scavenger hunts for Nick, but with her disappearance the hunt takes on an ominous air.

Amy is a minor celebrity thanks to a series of children’s books that chronicle the adventures of “Amazing Amy” that were written by her psychologist parents Rand and Marybeth Elliott (David Clennon, Lisa Banes). The search for Amy becomes a media circus, while Boney’s investigation turns up disturbing evidence about Nick. Is he a cold-blooded killer, is he innocent, or is the truth something much more messy and messed up?

Flynn and Fincher keep the novel’s format, contrasting Nick’s experiences after Amy’s disappearance with her diary that records their life before she vanished. It allows the absent Amy to be a major character. Affleck captures Nick perfectly with a restrained and nuanced performance. His career had just about imploded thanks to Gigli and the whole Bennifer tabloid mess, but Affleck has done the almost impossible and completely reinvigorated his career, both behind the camera (Gone Baby Gone, The Town, Argo) and in front of it with the last two movies. If anything, his experience with the tabloids helps his embodiment of Nick.

Fincher is excellent at casting a film, and often will make unusual choices that hit the bull’s eye, such as Rooney Mara in Dragon Tattoo. Originally, Reese Witherspoon had purchased the movie rights, intending to play Amy. Fincher didn’t see her in the role, though, so instead she’s one of the film’s producers. Fincher’s choice was a gutsy one: Rosamund Pike’s first major movie was the final Pierce Brosnan Bond movie, Die Another Day. Since then she’d done a number of supporting roles, including Jane Bennett in the Kiera Knightly Pride and Prejudice. Last year she was the female lead in Tom Cruise’s version of Jack Reacher, a role that was badly underwritten and reduced her to damsel in distress status. Gone Girl shows how fine an actress she is as she delivers a riveting, devastating performance as Amy. I would not be surprised to see her nominated for an Oscar.

The rest of the casting is similarly fine. Kim Dickens, who’s mostly worked on TV series like “Deadwood” and “Saturday Night Lights,” invests Boney with a sharp intelligence as well as an iron backbone. Multi-hyphenate Tyler Perry plays Tanner Bolt, the sharp lawyer Nick finally turns to for help, while Neil Patrick Harris is Desi Collings, a man from Amy’s past who shows up when she disappears. Rounding out the cast is Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous), Missi Pyle (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Casey Wilson (“Happy Endings”) and Sela Ward (The Fugitive). Of particular note is Carrie Coon, who plays Nick’s twin sister Margo – Go for short. She’d only done a couple of one-off TV roles before this year, when she won the role of Nora Durst on HBO’s “The Leftovers.” She was good on that series; in Gone Girl she’s a revelation, providing an emotional heart to the story.

As he did with The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Fincher recruited Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) to do the soundtrack. Reznor creates a tone-poem to support the action that goes into white-noise dissonance at times, a perfect match for the story. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, who also did Network and Tattoo as well as Fight Club with Fincher, keeps a moody edge to the film with shadows and diffused light throughout.

The old saw is that a movie is never as good as the book it’s based on. The movie version of Gone Girl is shorter than the book, but it is as good as the source material. That is an accomplishment for all involved.

Watching the Pages Turn

After appearing in prestigious films like The Mission, Excalibur, and Schindler’s List, Liam Neeson has completely reinvented himself as an action hero. That he did it at an age when most actors in that genre are past their prime makes it more of an accomplishment. Starting with Taken in 2008, he took his 6’4” frame and honed it into an imposing physical presence, and then built on it with the Taken sequel as well as Non-Stop, The A-Team, and The Grey. While they’ve been financially successful, no one would confuse them with the artistic power of his earlier work. Now he has a chance to take his action persona in a literary direction with A Walk Among the Tombstones.

The movie is adapted from a book by 4-time Edgar Award winner Lawrence Block, part of a series that follows former NYPD detective Matthew Scudder. There are now about a dozen and a half books in that series. That’s an impressive number, until you know that Block, a Grand Master and former president of the Mystery Writers of America, has written “in excess (oh, wretched excess!) of 100 books” as it says on his website. There was one previous appearance by Scudder on the silver screen, in 1986’s 8 Million Ways to Die. The film had Jeff Bridges playing Scudder and was directed by Hal Ashby (Bound for Glory, Being There) from a script by (pre-Platoon) Oliver Stone and Robert Towne (Chinatown). Even with all that talent, the movie was a failure; it’s been said they forgot about Block’s book and made up the script as they went along.

That doesn’t happen this time. Tombstones was adapted and directed by Scott Frank, who wrote the screenplays for the Elmore Leonard books Get Shorty and Out Of Sight. As a director, Frank made the excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt crime-drama The Lookout, working from his original screenplay. Frank stays true to Block’s book, so much so you can almost feel the pages turning as you watch the film.

Scudder (Neeson) left the NYPD in 1991 after he was involved in a shootout while half-drunk. The movie jumps forward to 1999, with Scudder receiving his 8 years clean coin at an AA meeting. Scudder makes his way as an unlicensed investigator – “I do favors for people and they give me gifts,” is the way he explains his work. Albert (Adam David Thompson), a junkie artist who met Scudder at an art show, asks him to help his brother, Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), whose wife was kidnapped and then murdered in spite of Kenny paying the ransom. Scudder realizes Kenny is a drug dealer and at first refuses to take the job. Kenny, though, eventually convinces Scudder to look into the case.

Scudder discovers that Kenny’s wife wasn’t the first victim. Two psychotic and sadistic killers have found the perfect people to prey upon – the loved ones of drug dealers. Scudder is helped by T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a homeless teen who basically lives at the public library. As he draws closer to the killers, Scudder doesn’t know they have already set their sights on their next victim, the daughter of a Russian trafficker.

Neeson wears Scudder like an old but beloved coat. After years of listening to his familiar voice, it may be strange to hear the New York accent Neeson uses in the role, but he does it so well you soon accept it. Those familiar with “Downton Abbey” may feel the same way about Dan Stevens, who played Matthew Crawley on the show. He’s very effective in the role of Kenny, presenting a tightly controlled exterior but giving glimpses of the roiling emotions and devastation just below the surface. Rapper Astro embodies T.J. beautifully, with a confidence that belies his limited acting experience. Icelandic actor Olafur Darri Olaffson has a small but memorable role as James Loogan, a worker at a cemetery where an earlier victim was found who might know more about what happened that he told the police.

The cinematography reflects the movie’s feel – dark, with bleached-out color, where the only brightness is in the graffiti forecasting doom with the coming Y2K crash. It’s reminiscent of the gritty New York City police thrillers of the 1970s such as The French Connection and The Seven-Ups.

This isn’t a cozy mystery – if anything it’s past Hard-boiled on the scale of Miss Marple to Silence of the Lambs. But if you enjoy that style of mystery, then you’ll appreciate taking A Walk Among the Tombstones.

A Cerebral Thriller, and a Bittersweet Goodbye

For over fifty years, the works of John le Carre have been the antithesis of James Bond over-the-top spy thrillers. His novels have almost no gunplay and nary a car chase; the thrills are cerebral as you watch damaged people struggle to unlock a puzzle box and reveal the secrets inside. On the silver screen, the first adaptation of a le Carre book, 1965’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, created its own subgenre in competition with Bond – the world-weary spy. Without From the Cold, it’s unlikely there’d have been The Ipcress File, The Quiller Memorandum, or A Deadly Affair (based on another le Carre book).

Le Carre’s books have continued to be adapted over the years, with The Little Drummer Girl, The Russia House, and the BBC versions of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Smiley’s People,” both starring Alec Guinness as spymaster George Smiley. With the new millennium, though, le Carre has had a bit of a renaissance on the screen. Along with the recent version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (starring Gary Oldman and featuring Benedict Cumberbatch), you have The Tailor of Panama and The Constant Gardner, which won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Rachel Weisz and was nominated for another three Oscars. The newest addition to these fine movies is A Most Wanted Man. Sadly, it marks the last major film role of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann, an experience German spy who, after a debacle in Beirut, has been put in charge of a small counterterrorist unit based in Hamburg. They operate in the gray area where the police can’t go, and their focus is turning terrorist assets and compromising their funding, rather than making the headline-grabbing arrests the police seek. Their current target is Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a wealthy benefactor of Islamic charities who preaches peace and understanding, but who might be siphoning off funds for terrorists through a shadowy Cypriot shipping company.

Then Bachmann’s second-in-command, Irna (Nina Hoss), catches the trail of Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen Muslim wanted by the Russians on terrorist charges. He’s slipped into Germany through the port of Hamburg, which has a history of being a porous entryway to Europe. He’s seeking out a German banker named Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), whose bank was involved in questionable deposits under Tommy’s father. To help with his status in Germany, friends of Karpov put him in touch with Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), an immigration lawyer working with a sanctuary group. Bachmann’s work is complicated by the police, who just want to arrest Karpov and be done with it, as well as interest from the CIA in the person of Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright). Is Karpov a terrorist meaning to strike in Germany, or a victim of the Russian war in Chechnya, or is there perhaps a third option?

Director Anton Corbijn started with rock documentaries featuring U2, Depeche Mode and Metalica, then made the well-received Control and the George Clooney bomb, The American. He gets his mojo back with A Most Wanted Man, letting the camera become a spy itself, eavesdropping on the characters. Stephen Cornwall (le Carre’s son) is one of the film’s producers, and le Carre himself is an executive producer, ensuring a faithful adaptation of the book.

The casting is excellent, especially with McAdams and Dafoe as innocents (perhaps) caught up in the intrigue. Wright is wonderfully enigmatic, while Hoss provides excellent support as a woman who’s loyal to Bachmann but who also sees many things with greater clarity than her boss. At first Dobrygin appears to be everyone’s nightmare terrorist, but as more of his story is revealed, he wins sympathy while still retaining the edge of danger.

The movie, though, belongs to Hoffman. Bachmann is rumpled and experienced, constantly in need of a shave and a cigarette. Yet within Bachmann is honor and a bit of an idealist who has dedicated his life to serving in a shadow world for the greater good. Hoffman submerges himself in the role, using only the subtle trace of an accent in his voice and a soft, shuffling physicality. The acting world lost a one-of-a-kind talent with Hoffman’s death.

Just as it’s unusual to have a tense thriller without gunfights and adrenalin-pumping car chases, it’s also unusual to have a spy film where you care deeply about the characters. But that’s the key to the le Carre world. His heroes are tarnished every-mans who, while they’re in situations far apart from normal life, are completely relatable to for the audience. It makes for devastatingly effective story telling.

Not Long Ago but Still Far, Far Away

Writer/Director James Gunn has balanced comedy and thrills before, with the comedic horror movie Slither that starred Nathan Fillion, and the superhero takeoff Super, starring Rainn Wilson. Neither of these were hits, though they have their fans. It seemed unusual that Gunn would be entrusted with a new Marvel franchise and a budget of $170 million (more than ten times the budget of Slither). But Marvel knew that for Guardians of the Galaxy to work, the thrills needed to be delivered with several stiff shots of wry humor. And deliver Gunn has.

On the face of it, Guardians of the Galaxy is a risk. It doesn’t have the built-in fan base of the Ironman, Thor, or Captain America series that have been going for decades in the comics. The Guardians first showed up in Marvel Comics in 1969, and then disappeared until 2008 when Dan Abnett and Andy Lansing reformed the team. Rather than superheroes on earth, you have regular guys in the far reaches of space – or at least as regular as a genetically-modified raccoon, a walking tree, and a green female assassin could be. With its off-world settings and space opera story, Guardians of the Galaxy has little in common with the rest of the Marvel universe. If anything it’s closer to the original trilogy of a story from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. As a place to live, that’s not a bad neighborhood.

After an unusual preface for a Marvel movie, we meet Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), an earthling who now wanders the galaxy, making his way as a scavenger. Quill also goes by the name Star Lord. On a deserted planet, he finds an orb that he’s been asked to recover by his mentor/partner Yondu (Michael Rooker). However, he’s interrupted by Korath (Djimon Hounsou), a servant of Ronan who’s also come looking for the orb. Quill manages to escape and decides to sell the orb himself on Xandar, the home planet of the Nova civilization.

Ronan (Lee Pace) plans to destroy the Novans, and wants the orb’s contents to help him obliterate Xandar. He’s assisted by two genetically-mutated adopted daughters of Thanos (Josh Brolin): the blue-skinned, bald Nebula (Karen Gillan) and the green-skinned, black-haired Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who’s engineered to be an assassin. (If you stayed around for the tags at the end of The Avengers, it was Thanos who showed up at the end of the first tag, flashing a very creepy smile. Another character from a previous tag – the Collector (Benito del Toro) from the end of Thor: The Dark World – has a longer role in Guardians. And do stay for the end of the credits for Guardians, where the tag features another legendary, even infamous, Marvel character.) Ronan dispatches Gamora to recover the orb, unaware she’s decided to betray both him and Thanos.

What distinguishes the Guardians story is how they form themselves into a team. With the Avengers, it makes sense for them to cooperate, even if Tony Stark doesn’t play well with others and one of them is a green rage monster who’s happy to hit friend or foe. With Guardians, they’re actively working against each other at first. When Quill tries to fence the orb, he comes to the attention of bounty hunters Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), a walking tree with a limited vocabulary. They strike at the same time as Gamora does, causing mass pandemonium and resulting in them all being thrown in prison by Corpsman Dey (John C. Reilly). There Gamora becomes the target of Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) who has a vendetta against Ronan for killing his wife and daughter. Watching them come to understand that they must work together to defeat Ronan and save Xandar is a delight, and is beautifully written by Gunn along with his co-screenwriter, Nicole Perlman. (Perlman was an uncredited script doctor on the original Thor and is now working on a spinoff for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow.) An even greater accomplishment is that you grow to care deeply for each of these characters.

Chris Pratt has transformed himself into a heroic physique, but he retains the gift for humor that he’s displayed on “Parks and Recreation” for five years. Zoe Saldana has displayed her action prowess in several movies now, such as Avatar and Columbiana, and she’s perfectly cast as Gamora. In a way she’s the straight person of the group, though you usually don’t that in a kickass character. Former wrestler Dave Bautista has always had the physique, but here he displays a killer simplicity. When Rocket says that metaphors go over his head, Drax responds, “Nothing goes over my head! My reflexes are too good; I would catch it.” Cooper does excellent voice work as Rocket, so much so that you forget it’s Cooper doing the role, while Diesel is able to mine both comedy and emotional depth from three words. For a movie like this to work, you also need believable villains, and both Lee Pace and Karen Gillan provide the right amount of antagonism for the story.

It has to be mentioned that what adds a cockeyed delight to this movie is the musical score. When Quill dances while looking for the orb during the credits, lip-synching “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone, you know this is not your ordinary Marvel adventure. A central factor of the plot is his mix-tape of 70’s hits, including songs like “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede and “Fooled Around and Fell In Love” by Elvin Bishop. It provides a giddy counterpoint to the action. (How his cassette could survive for a couple of decades without stretching, or where he could find batteries for his Walkman, is not explained. Don’t worry about it; just enjoy the music.)

Although this production was a gamble, it’s one that has paid off and keeps Marvel’s streak of hits going strong. It’s rare for a movie to reclaim the top spot on the box office list in its fourth week of release, but Guardians did just that, and has become the breakout hit of the summer. Needless to say, sequels are already planned. Marvel has added a wise caveat to the whispered line from Field of Dreams: “If you build it well, they will come.” And they’ll keep on coming.

Three Star

By this point in the summer, explosions and car chases are often losing their appeal. It takes a special action movie to go beyond one week atop the box office (such as Guardians of the Galaxy – more on that in my next post). There’s a place for a movie that bucks the big budget trend, and The Hundred Foot Journey fills that slot nicely.

Very Important: if you’ve seen the trailer, you might think you already know what will happen. You may have decided this film is just a clone of Chocolat, especially since they share the same director, Lasse Hallstrom. Hallstrom, though, doesn’t make movies that fit assumptions. He also directed The Cider House Rules, Salmon Fishing in Yemen, and had his first international hit 30 years ago with My Life as a Dog. The Hundred Foot Journey is no exception.

The beauty of Hundred Foot is the character interaction. Helen Mirren is excellent – as always – as Madame Mallory, whose restaurant in a small French town possesses one Michelin star. She covets a second star, but she’s use to doing things in the traditional way. Of equal delight is watching actor Om Puri. He’s a pillar of the Indian film community with over 250 credits, though he’s only appeared in a few Western films, such as Charlie Wilson’s War, The Ghost and the Darkness, and Ghandi. Here he plays Papa, the head of the Kadam family, who have come to Europe after a tragedy in their native India. While there’s a comedic element to the character, he also presents Papa with dignity and pride.

The main characters, though, are Hassan (Manish Dayal) and Margeurite (Charlotte Le Bon). Dayal is from North Carolina, and has appeared in TV series such as “The Good Wife,” “Law and Order” (both “S.V.U.” and “Criminal Intent”), and the reboot of “90210.” This is his first starring role in a major picture. Le Bon, who is from Quebec, is more of an ingénue, with a couple of movies to her credit. It’s a joy to watch them on the screen.

The movie’s based on a novel by Richard C, Morais and was adapted by Steven Knight. Knight has an eclectic résumé, having done David Cronenberg’s thriller Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things (which starred Audrey Tautou and Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Amazing Grace, which told the story of slavery abolitionist William Wilberforce. Recently he wrote the well-received Locke, starring Tom Hardy. Knight also created the original English version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” While the adaptation has plenty of humor, it is spiced with pathos and leavened with humanity.

Hallstrom is assisted by Linus Sandgren, whose cinematography infuses the film with the warmth of the southern French countryside. Sandgren’s mostly worked in his native Sweden, but last year he did the photography for the excellent American Hustle. The movie also boasts two major players in Hollywood as producers – Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey – who know a bit about making quality films.

The Hundred Foot Journey chronicles the Kadam family’s long journey to find a new home, as well as Madame Mallory’s journey to understanding others. Sometimes, though we may think there are vast differences between ourselves and others, when we actually make the effort it isn’t such a long trip after all.