Knights of the Boardroom Table

In the 1960’s there were two main types of spy movies. There were the gritty, realistic films like The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, The Ipcress File, and Funeral in Berlin (the last two both starring Michael Caine), and then there were the wry and slightly over the top – sometimes very over the top – James Bond films and its imitators like Our Man Flint or the Dean Martin “Matt Helm” films. With the latter movies, it was a short step to camp comedies like The 2nd Best Secret Agent in the World or Modesty Blaise. The spy genre got a kickstart in the new millennium with the Bourne series, which reinvigorated James Bond when Daniel Craig slipped into the tux. Now, in the new movie Kingsman: The Secret Service, we have a paean to those earlier fantasy spy films, though it also has a strong dose of Bourne in its blood.

Based on the comic book “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar (who wrote the comics “Kick-Ass” and “Wanted,” both later filmed) and Dave Gibbons (who illustrated the classic “Watchmen”), the Kingsmen are operatives of a small but well-funded private intelligence operation. They take their cue from the legend of Arthur and his knights, roaming the world to do good, and their aliases are based on the characters from the legend. Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is known as Galahad, while its weapons, tech and training officer is Merlin (Mark Strong). The head of the organization is, appropriately, known as Arthur (Michael Caine). When one of the agents is killed during a mission to save a kidnapped scientist (Mark Hamill), the others are called upon to nominate a replacement, who are then all invited to a training class run by Merlin.

Galahad chooses Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton), who on the face of it is an uncouth London youth on his way to becoming a criminal. Eggsy, though, is intelligent and capable, and he happens to be the son of a former Kingsman who sacrificed himself to save Galahad, Merlin and others. The training allows for a classic origins story, though with this one it’s like you’ve drunk a full bottle of adrenalin.

With Bond, the good ones have a great villain – something that is referenced in Kingsman. For this movie, it gets both a failing and a passing grade. The main villain, tech billionaire Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), is too prissy and his lisp gets old real fast. What saves the film is his Odd Job, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), whose lower legs have been replaced by knife-blade prosthetics. Her fights are a blend of ballerina and ninja.

Firth gets to cut loose from the proper characters he’s often played while still maintaining a gentlemanly decorum. It’s like he’s followed Liam Neeson and discovered his inner action hero at an age when most action heroes should have retired. Instead the casting works wonderfully. Taron Egerton had done a couple of shorts and TV series back in the UK before 2014, when starred in Testament of Youth and filmed Kingsman. He’s almost too neat at first, but you forget about that once he meets up with Galahad. Mark Strong is wonderful as Merlin, and having Caine as Arthur is perfect, a bridge to the 1960s spy films.

Writer/Director Matthew Vaughn knows how to handle comic book material. He, along with his co-writer Jane Goldman, had done Kick-ass in 2010, and then rebooted the X-Men series wonderfully with X-Men: First Class in 2011 as well as doing the story for X-Men: Days of Future Past. (They also wrote the excellent spy-revenge drama The Debt in 2010, which was directed by John Madden and starred Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain.) In visual style, Kingsman dances along the edge of parody, but it has a giddy time doing it. The movie definitely goes over the top near the end, though it’s nothing to lose your head over. What helps is an intelligent script that has several surprising twists, and one complete shock.

Kingsman is a popcorn movie, an action flick that’s a good waste of time. It’s rare to get one of these outside of summer, when they usually fill the cinemas, and especially not in February where you normally have studios dumping their bombs like Jupiter Ascending and Seventh Son. If you enjoy this type of action film, Kingsman does have some delights to offer.

The 10 Best Movies About Making Movies

For my 200th post, I thought I’d look at my favorite movies that deal with making movies, so you could subtitled it “Incest is best.” In a broader sense, though, it’s a way to both explain how the magic trick is done on the screen, as well as make magic at the same time. For this list I’ve ruled out movies that deal with simply watching films, even though that eliminates one of my all-time favorites, Cinema Paradiso. Instead the films below all feature some aspect of creating a movie, be it the actual filming or the creative process before the first camera shot. There are quite a few films that fit that criteria, and I’ve included a couple of Honorable Mentions that have similarities to the films on this list. If I’ve left off a favorite movie-making film of yours, please feel free to mention it in the comments. So, in no particular order, here are my choices.

Singing in the Rain (1952)

Okay, so I went with an obvious choice to start, but this not only is a great movie about the early days of the talkies, it’s also one of the – if not THE – greatest musical films. The songs by Arthur Freed (who also produced the film) and Herb Brown blend perfectly with the sparkling script by Betty Compton and Adolph Green. Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor were at the top of their game, and they were matched by Debbie Reynolds even though she wasn’t a trained dancer. Outstanding, too, was Jean Hagen as the silent star with a fingernails-on-a-chalkboard voice. Sadly, this movie was the high point of her career, and she worked mostly in television after it (including a 4 year stint as Danny Thomas’ wife on “Make Room for Daddy”). She died in 1977 at age 54.  Honorable Mention: The Artist (2011), which looks with the same time period from the opposite perspective.

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

Jean Hagen should have won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Singing in the Rain, but instead she lost out to Gloria Grahame in this movie. Kirk Douglas plays an unscrupulous but talented producer who’s trying to make a comeback. He turns to three people whose careers he built up but who were each hurt by him – an actress (Lana Turner), a writer (Dick Powell) and a director (Barry Sullivan). Grahame played the writer’s wife who interferes with Douglas’ plans until he maneuvers her into an affair with an actor, with tragic results. The script by Charles Schnee could be viewed as a prototype for the Hollywood tell-all novels of Jackie Collins, but the acting and Vincente Minnelli’s direction transcend the material. Honorable Mention: Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), which was also written by Schnee and starred Kirk Douglas.

Hugo (2011)

While movie-making isn’t central in Martin Scorsese’s film, the sections dealing with Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley) and the fantastic cinema world he created when film was in its infancy capture the wonder of the magic lantern days. Scorsese has been at the forefront of film preservation efforts, and this film is his dissertation on why it’s important. On the technical side, it also demonstrates how 3D can be used to augment the power of a film.

Super 8 (2011)

2011 was a banner year for movies about movies. Here you have a group of six kids who are making a zombie movie, but are interrupted when an alien invades their Ohio town. Written and directed by J.J. Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg, the movie harkens back to their preteen years when they made their own films. Abrams let his young actors actually film a Super-8 movie that plays during the credits, so we get to see the footage that we watched being shot. It turns out to be a pretty good film, too.

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

What if your vampire movie actually stars a real vampire? The movie tells a legend about Nosferatu, the classic 1922 film by F.W. Murnau. We watch the filming of that movie, including the recreation of many of the scenes, while we’re also watching a horror movie. John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe (who was nominated for an Oscar) are excellent as Murnau and his star, Max Schreck. Nosferatu qualifies as the first movie adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It follows the plot of the book, but Murnau didn’t have the rights to film the story so he changed the names to protect the guilty.

Day For Night (1973)

Francois Truffaut made many of the classics of French cinema before his untimely death in 1984 at the age of 52. This film, about a director struggling to complete his movie while dealing with a host of personal crises, won the Best Foreign Language Oscar. The title refers to a direction in the shooting script for the cinematographer to film a scene during the day but make it look like it takes place at night. You can often tell when this was done in old films because of the strong shadows in outdoor shots.

Bowfinger (1999)

Written by Steve Martin and directed by Frank Oz, this is a film for movie wannabes. Martin plays a low-rent producer/director who fails to get a major action star, played by Eddie Murphy, to appear in his movie. So instead he stalks the actor to get the needed footage and uses a hapless lookalike (also played by Murphy) for other scenes. While it’s played for laughs, hidden camera filming has been used in films, and it resulted in one of the all-time classic lines. Dustin Hoffman ad-libbed the “I’m walkin’ here” line in Midnight Cowboy when a taxi tried to roll through a scene they were filming with a hidden camera.

Boogie Nights (1997)

Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson usually makes movies that are fascinating character studies, such as There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, and The Master. His first big success was this film that looked at people involved in porn films in the 1970s, when Deep Throat’s success made them think that porn could become a legitimate filmmaking endeavor. The cast is incredible, with Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, Mark Walberg, and Burt Reynolds. An interesting piece of trivia: Anderson made a short version of this story as his first film in 1988, after dropping out of NYU Film School.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Billy Wilder’s poison pen love letter to Hollywood has to be on the list. Silent star Gloria Swanson’s over-the-top performance as Norma Desmond was balanced by William Holden’s sardonic turn as the hack screenwriter she drags into writing her comeback. The film features appearances by Cecil B. DeMille, H.B. Warner, Buster Keaton and others, playing themselves. It was nominated for 11 Academy awards, including in every acting category, but in the end it won for writing, score and art direction. Honorable Mention: The Stunt Man (1980), which featured another maniacal performance that led to a comeback, this time for Peter O’Toole.

Argo (2012)

While it’s a based-on-a-true-story thriller, Argo makes this list because of how the fantasy world of movie making was used to ex-filtrate six US hostages from Iran. Alan Arkin and John Goodman are wonderful as the Hollywood insiders who help Ben Affleck’s character pull off the rescue mission. One aspect of filmmaking featured in the movie is storyboarding, where the film’s shots are drawn out to give the filmmakers a visual for the shots. Affleck uses reproductions of the actual storyboards that were done for the original script before it went into turnaround, the Hollywood term for purgatory. Those storyboards were done by Jack Kirby, a legendary cartoonist whose work goes back to the first Captain America comic book in the 1940s and worked with Marvel during its Silver Age (1958-1970).

Fractured Fairy Tales

Growing up, I loved the cockeyed humor of “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.” One of its segments was called “Fractured Fairy Tales,” where common stories got twisted like a balloon animal. Now there’s a grownup version of it playing on the silver screen – Into The Woods, directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago).

The musical is one that Stephen Sondheim wrote during a ten-year partnership with James Lupine. Sondheim is a genius of musical theater, having written the lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” and then both the music and lyrics for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “A Little Night Music,” and “Sweeny Todd.” During the years 1984 to 1994, when he collaborated with Lupine, they produced three musicals: “Sunday in the Park with George” in 1984, “Passion” in 1994, and in the middle “Into The Woods” (1987). While they were interesting, even audacious stories and were honored with several Tony awards, they didn’t match the success of Sondheim’s earlier work. “Passion” had the shortest run of any winner of the Best Musical Tony.

Into The Woods mashes together several of the classic fairy tales. You have Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and her Prince (Chris Pine), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and her own prince (Billy Magnussen), Jack of beanstalk fame (Daniel Huddlestone, who played Gavroche in Les Miserables) and his mother (Tracey Ullman), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and her Wolf (Johnny Depp). What binds them all together is a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt). A witch (Meryl Streep) who lives next door tells them that they’ve been childless because she cursed the baker’s family after his father (Simon Russell Beale) stole magic beans from her garden. That act also twisted the witch into an old crone. But for the next three nights the moon will be blue, and if the baker and his wife can gather four items, one each from the fairy tale groups above, the curse will be broken.

For the first act, the fairy tales progress pretty much as known, except with the baker and his wife stepping into the stories as they gather the needed items. But Sondheim is not a “happily ever after” kind of writer, and in the second act the story turns very dark. In truth, the actual tales, instead of the Disney-fied versions of them, can be scary, horrifying, and deeply creepy. (Strangely enough, this movie is produced by Disney.) But Sondheim goes beyond even those elements of the tales and has the characters face death, sexual betrayal, and loss, even as a rogue giant (Frances de la Tour) is destroying the woods.

The movie’s screenplay was written by Lapine, and he’s cut down the second act so it’s not quite as bitter and sad as the original musical. Marshall does a decent job keeping the production moving along, though with the cuts (or maybe because of them) the movie lags at the end. Film does allow for more interesting staging of on the songs. For Cinderella’s main song “On the Steps of the Palace” she can actually performed it on the palace’s steps, and Marshall’s staging of “Agony” is a standout.

The production has received a couple of Oscar nominations, including Streep’s 19th (!) for acting. To put that in perspective, over the course of the entire history of the Academy Awards, Streep’s been nominated for over a fifth of those years. While it seems gaudy for one actress to rack up that many nominations – and three wins – the problem is she deserves them. The witch is a fascinating character who flows through a whole river of emotions. The role was originated on stage by Bernadette Peters, and she won a Tony for her portrayal.

Anna Kendrick showed her pipes in Pitch Perfect (and on the singles chart with “The Cups Song”), and she handles Sondheim’s music like a Broadway veteran. It’s a pleasant surprise that those in the cast who aren’t known for their musical talents, such as Chris Pine and Emily Blunt, have gorgeous voices to go along with their acting prowess. James Corden isn’t familiar to American audiences (unless they’re Doctor Who fans – he’s appeared in two episodes during Matt Smith’s tenure as the Doctor), but in England he’s well-known as a writer and producer as well as an actor on both stage and screen. He won a Tony in 2012 for the play “One Man, Two Guv’ners.” His anonymity should come to an end because of this movie as well as his replacing Colin Ferguson on “The Late, Late Show” later this year.

Curiously, Johnny Depp has been promoted as a main part of the cast, even though he has only two scenes and one song. While the role is short, it is both memorable and enjoyable. That’s a stark contrast to his recent starring roles in The Lone Ranger, Transcendence, and the current release Mortdecai, where the roles are long but the movies are eminently forgettable and painful to watch.

Into The Woods has done decently at the box office, surpassing $125 million, and it stayed in the top 10 for over a month. But there is an inherent weakness in the production that is deadly for a musical. It doesn’t have a “Send in the Clowns” or a “Tonight” or a “No Business like Show Business” – or to make the point with a recent movie, it doesn’t have a “Let it Go.” While the music is good and the lyrics witty, there’s no song that the audience will be humming on the way out of the theater. Regardless of the strong work of Marshall and his cast, Into The Woods will remain a minor example of a great talent.

No Reflection

Clint Eastwood’s new film American Sniper has become a sensation after having the best wide-distribution opening weekend for a drama ever. Warner Brothers had rushed the film into limited release in December, to qualify for the upcoming Oscars, and then put it in regular release in January, instead of waiting for its originally scheduled release in December 2015. The studio had done this once before with an Eastwood Film; Million Dollar Baby was release earlier than planned and won the Best Picture Oscar in 2005. Now to go along with 6 Academy Award nominations, American Sniper has made more than $200 million in less than two weeks, giving Eastwood his greatest financial hit ever. It’s also become his most controversial.

Part of the controversy lies in the subject of the film. Chris Kyle was a Navy SEAL sniper in Iraq who was credited with 160 plus kills, the highest official count in the history of the US military. Some have questioned the whole idea of snipers, in spite of their being a component of war from the time firearms became accurate. As long as there’s been a US Army, there have been snipers. (The British forces during the Revolutionary War were angry at the colonials for shooting at them from concealment rather than marching out on the field so the British could shoot back.) In the past, films often portrayed snipers as cowardly, if they were the enemy’s sharpshooters – see the end of Sands of Iwo Jima when John Wayne is killed by one – while pretty much ignoring US snipers. Recently that changed. The best depiction of a sniper as part of a fighting unit is Private Jackson (Barry Pepper) in Saving Private Ryan. Another movie that focused on sharpshooters was Enemy at the Gates, which told a fictionalized version of the story of Vasily Zaytsev (played by Jude Law), a sniper who was instrumental in helping the Russians win the Battle of Stalingrad in WWII. If you’re going to have a war, there will be snipers, on both sides.

Kyle did four tours in Iraq, and no one can dispute his courage in service. After he returned, though, he collaborated to write the autobiography on which the movie is based. Several of his claims in the book are problematic and doubtful, and led to Jesse Ventura winning a seven-digit judgment against Kyle for defamation of character. The movie ignores those aspects of his post-Iraq life.

Instead the film focuses narrowly on Kyle himself. It begins with Kyle (Bradley Cooper) watching over troops moving through a city in Iraq. Most of the first trailer for the movie (see above) is composed simply of lifting that sequence from the film. From there it jumps back to Kyle’s early life, beginning with his first kill while hunting with his father. His father instills in Kyle a simple religious faith that is rooted in the Old Testament. As an adult, Kyle competes on the rodeo circuit until he’s motivated to join the Navy SEALs following the Al Qaeda attacks on American embassies in Africa.

The scenes of him going through SEAL training are one of the weakest parts of the film. It plays out like a short, light version of An Officer and a Gentleman, though with less conflict. (Kyle’s instructor for sniper training has also taken issue with them.) The intensity of the training was better depicted in the opening of Act of Valor. With his marksmanship experience, Kyle is chosen as a sniper. It’s during training that Kyle first meets Taya (Sienna Miller) who later becomes his wife.  They are together when the 9/11 attacks take place.

Bradley Cooper’s performance as Kyle is rightly being touted as his best ever, mostly because he’s able to convey depths and subtleties while the character himself is unaware of them. The lack of self-awareness has Kyle ignore the effects of combat on himself and his family. In a scene after his first deployment, Kyle accompanies a pregnant Taya to a doctor’s appointment. After hearing Taya describe how Kyle’s heart is racing, the doctor checks his blood pressure and finds it’s dangerously elevated. But rather than being concerned about dying of a heart attack, Kyle’s more upset at what he sees as being ambushed by the doctor. Sienna Miller gives an exceptional performance as Taya, showing both her deep love for her husband and her exasperation at his behavior. Late in the film, Taya tells Kyle, “If you think the war isn’t changing you, you’re wrong. You can only circle the flames so long.” Taya was a source for the production, and most of the scenes of her and Kyle together are told from her viewpoint.

It’s been said that movies are a mirror that allow us to see our lives and the lives of others from a different perspective, but in the case of the war scenes for American Sniper Director Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall do not expand understanding of what happened during the war. Instead they present a mirror clouded by Kyle’s us/them mentality. The movie doesn’t even mention Sunni, Shiite, or Kurd, and instead treats the Iraqis as a monolithic nation of savages. It does allow the filmmakers to expand the character of Mustafa, a Syrian sniper who fought against the US forces. While he’s only mentioned once in Kyle’s book, in the movie he becomes Kyle’s nemesis, which sets up a climatic confrontation between the two. In reality, no one could float between the different fighting factions, who hated each other as much as they hated the Americans.

In some respects, American Sniper has echoes of Eastwood’s classic meditation on the corrosive effect of violence, Unforgiven. The difference is that William Muny was aware of the price he’d paid spiritually, but in American Sniper Kyle is unable to see what has happened to him. He doesn’t have the capacity for reflection that Muny displays. Eastwood underline the tragedy of Kyle’s death without showing the actual event. The archival footage at the end of Chris Kyle’s funeral show how the story is already passing into the realm of legend, which was Kyle’s nickname. Eastwood has followed the advice of the newspaper editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Grandly Idiosyncratic

It’s unusual for a movie released in the summer to have the legs necessary to pick up Oscar nominations in January. The last film to win Best Picture after being release before September was Gladiator. That’s one reason why it was unusual that The Grand Budapest Hotel tied with Birdman for the most Oscar nominations with nine. Another reason is it’s a comedy, and a true comedy hasn’t won Best Picture since Tom Jones back in the 1960s. It’s unlikely Grand Budapest will pull off a win for the top prize on Oscar night, but as Han Solo said, “Never tell me the odds.”

Director and screenwriter Wes Anderson has made a career out of telling stories that are both unusual and decidedly off-kilter. As attested to by Rushmore, The Royal Tenebaums, The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom, his view of life skews toward an absurd realism. He’s one of the more idiosyncratic visual stylists working in films these days. While filmmakers often focus on camera angles for shots, Anderson’s angle is usually 90 degrees – taking the scene straight on – and in contrast to directors who’ll do gorgeous slow pans through scenes, Anderson will do whip pans up, down, or sideways to capture another view of the scene again straight on.

Anderson and story collaborator Hugo Guinness credit the works of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig as the inspiration for the film. Zweig was one of the most popular authors in the 1920s and 1930s, and his writings have been the source for almost 70 films according to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com). Zweig’s books were old-fashioned in style and centered on the plot, but he’d also blend in revelations about the characters that were deep and transcended the style. Not surprisingly, Zweig was a good friend of another Austrian, Sigmund Freud. Along with novels, Zweig wrote biographies and memoirs, and his work was translated throughout the world. The rise of the Nazis forced Zweig, who was Jewish, into exile in England, then America, and finally Brazil. It was there that he and his wife committed suicide in 1942.

Author Stefan Zwieg

Anderson pays anonymous tribute to Zweig with the film’s prefaces, of which there are three. It begins with a girl in a European town walking up to a bust in a park that is simply labeled “Writer” and then opens up the book titled “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” The movie flashes back to the 1980s when the writer (played by Tom Wilkinson) is giving a talk about writing the book, leading to another flashback to the 1960s when the writer (now played by Jude Law) was staying at the Grand Budapest. He’s approached by the hotel owner, M. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who admires the writer’s work and wants to tell him the story of a most amazing man, the former concierge of the hotel, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Anderson plays with the look of the film to match the flashbacks. For the present day and the 1980s, he uses the common film ratio today, 1.85:1, but when he goes to the 1960s, it changes to the wide-screen that was used for almost every movie at that time, with a ratio of 2.35:1. For the story of M. Gustave, Anderson uses the ratio of 1.37:1, which was the standard for movies in the 1930s.

What follows is a remarkable confection with thriller elements mixed in with a comedy of manners. Imagine a crime caper movie written by Oscar Wilde. In that day M. Mustafa was a refugee known as Zero (Tony Revolan) who takes a job as a lobby boy at the Grand Budapest and comes under the influence of M. Gustave. Gustave is vain, shallow, avaricious, and entirely charming. Fiennes is wonderful in the role, carrying off some of the most outrageous lines with panache. When Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), an elderly client of the hotel, passes away unexpectedly, M. Gustave goes to her at once, with Zero in tow. The Madame has bequeathed a priceless painting to Gustave, but he realizes her son Dimitri (Adrien Brody) will try to cheat him out of it. Instead, Gustave takes the painting, with the help of Serge X. (Mathieu Amalric), Madame D.’s butler.

Soon afterward the police, commanded by Henckels (Edward Norton), arrive at the Grand Budapest with news that Serge has denounced Gustave as a murderer and then fled. With that the movie becomes a wild ride of prison escape, murderous frames, and chases as Gustave tries to clear his name. Along for the ride is Willem Dafoe as a deadpan killer, Jeff Goldblum as a lawyer and Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, Hannah) as Zero’s love interest who helps save the day. Quite a few well-known actors make cameo appearances, among them Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Owen Wilson, Harvey Keitel and Jason Schwartzman.

Anderson’s styling also carries over to the special effects, where he uses miniatures in the style of the 1930s rather than modern CGI. To give the feeling of the time and location, composer Alexandre Desplait’s score relies on balalaikas and other folk instruments. The score has been nominated for an Oscar, which means Desplait is competing against himself as well as others – he was also nominated for his score for The Imitation Game.

The movie is currently playing on HBO as well as streaming services, and will be out on video next week. It’s well worth a viewing.

Time To Get It Done

The old saw is that behind every great man is a woman. To be truthful, the woman has to be pretty extraordinary to get through the vicissitudes that a great man can face, as well as the vicissitudes the man himself may throw at her. Jane Hawking detailed those travails of living with her husband, cosmologist Stephen Hawking, in the book “Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen.” That book is the basis for The Theory of Everything.

The movie picks up Stephen’s life when he enters Cambridge as the pupil of Dennis Sciama, who was himself a famous physicist and is counted as one of the fathers of modern cosmology. Stephen is brilliant but unfocused, unsure where to aim his powerful intellect. In a wonderful scene, Sciama (David Thewlis) takes Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) into one of the labs at the school and explains some of the great work done in that room, such as Ernest Rutherford’s splitting the atom in 1917. (Rutherford had already received the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1908 for work on the disintegration of elements and the chemistry of radioactive substances.) Sciama leaves Stephen there to contemplate what he will do.

Soon after his arrival at Cambridge, Stephen meets Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) at a campus mixer. It was an odd mix from the start, since Jane is an Arts major with a focus on medieval poetry. Jane is also a faithful member of the Church of England while Stephen isn’t a believer. In the film he explains that cosmology is “kind of the religion of intelligent atheists.” While attending a party with Jane, Stephen is inspired to focus his study on time, with the idea of following time backward to the creation of the universe. But it seems that time is something Stephen won’t have when he’s diagnosed with what was called motor neurone disease in the UK, but is more commonly known as ALS or, in the States, Lou Gerig’s Disease. The doctor gives him two years to live.

The Theory of Everything is an incredibly intimate portrait of the highs and lows of a marriage. With the Hawkings, the highs were stratospheric, the lows devastating. Both of the principles cooperated extensively with the filmmakers. Stephen lent the production his copy of his doctoral thesis that he had signed at the time, and he allowed them the use of his copyrighted mechanical voice. In the delightful scene when he first gets the voice simulator, Jane is surprised that it has an American accent and wonders if there are any English voice options.

The movie could have been a turgid tearjerker like the disease-of-the-week films that television loves, but screenwriter Anthony McCarten has done a sterling job adapting the book and filling the movie with surprising humor. The mechanical voice is used this way a couple of times. After receiving it, Stephen has it say the first line of “A Bicycle Built for Two,” ala HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and later he chases his children in his wheelchair while the voice repeats “Exterminate, exterminate.” That humor makes the tears that the movie does jerk from us come from our hearts, not shallow sentiment.

Eddie Redmayne is a revelation as Hawking. He was excellent in his first major role, My Week With Marilyn, and held his own in Les Miserables, but here he’s able to speak volumes with a slight smile. It was a physically demanding performance for which he lost 15 lbs and also trained for months as a dancer to gain complete control of his body. His remaining in character physically in between takes actually hurt the alignment of his spine. Redmayne’s dedication to the role has already brought him the Golden Globe for best actor in a dramatic role, and it may translate to Oscar gold at the end of next month. Interestingly, fellow nominee (and close friend) Benedict Cumberbatch is another actor who has portrayed the cosmologist, in the 2004 BBC TV-movie “Hawking.” Hawking has gotten into the act himself, you could say, with recent appearances on “The Simpsons” and “The Big Bang Theory.”

But you need iron to sharpen iron, and Felicity Jones provides that. Hers is a deeply internalized embodiment of Jane, where the character shines out through her eyes. Her first major leading role was in 2011’s Like Crazy, which also starred Jennifer Lawrence (pre-Hunger Games) and Alex Kingston (“Doctor Who,” “ER”). Like Remayne, with this role she matures into a full-fledge and powerful actress.

Director James Marsh is known more as a documentarian, having won the Oscar for Man On Wire in 2008. His eye for drama in real life serves the film well. Assisting with the emotional impact of the film is a gorgeous score by Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson, who picked up the award for best score at the Golden Globes. He’s likely to win the Oscar as well, since his main competition, Alexandre Desplat, is nominated for two films (The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel) which will likely split his support.

Although there have been some changes made to the story, Stephen Hawking told the filmmakers that watching the movie was like watching scenes from his life. For a biographical film, that’s the best recommendation you can get.

 

Belated Honor

In the 1970s, in books such as “The Ultra Secret” and “Bodyguard of Lies,” the greatest secret of World War II was revealed – the Allies had broken the supposedly unbreakable German code Enigma. Enigma was a mechanical encoding/decoding machine that was the size of a portable typewriter. When the key code for the day was set, operators could type in the letters of a message and it would generate replacement letters on a lighted display. When the message was received, the operator there would type the coded letters into their Enigma machine and it would display the actual letters of the message. With options in the billions, it would take codebreakers searching manually for the right key code over a hundred years to find it. Since the codes were changed daily, the German High Command was justified in thinking the code was unbreakable. Now the movie The Imitation Game tells the story of the men (and woman) who broke the code, and the tragic final chapter of the man responsible for the breakthrough as well as for much of the technology we now use daily – Alan Turing.

Turing was a mathematician, logician and cryptographer who developed much of the computer theory needed for the machines. He formalized the concept of algorithm and computation, and developed the idea of the “Turing machine” that could mimic the work of other machines. The paper he wrote on that subject was titled “The Imitation Game.” Today most everyone’s life is touched by digital computers, but it was radical science back in the 1930s. When the war broke out in 1939, Britain had a secret outpost located in Bletchley Park where the finest cryptographers in the country were trying to break the German codes. Turing joined the group and soon realized men would never break Enigma. Their only hope was to create from scratch a working version of the Turing machine that could work the code infinitely faster than humans.

After the war, Turing taught at the University of Manchester. It was there in the 1950s that he was arrested for being a homosexual, the same charge that was brought against Oscar Wilde decades earlier. The arrest and conviction destroyed Turing’s life, a sad end for the man whose work shortened the war by years and saved millions of lives. None of that, though, could be said in his defense; his work at Bletchley remained secret for years.

The Imitation Game recreates the time in glorious detail. While the sparkling script by Graham Moore, based on Alan Hodges’ book “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” does take some liberties with the story, it gets the main points right and it finally gives Turing his due. The production was fortunate to have Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of Turing, as he gives a towering performance as the awkward, socially-maladroit mathematician, yet still makes him sympathetic. At the Golden Globes, Colin Firth joked that he was interested in doing the role, but the producers decided to wait until Cumberbatch was born. In truth, it’s hard to conceive of another actor who could have pulled off the role with the accomplishment of Cumberbatch.

He’s aided by an excellent supporting cast, including Kiera Knightley as Joan Clarke, a brilliant female mathematician at a time when the field was the province of men only. Charles Dance (most recently Tywin Lannister on “Game of Thrones”) plays the head of Bletchley Park, and Mark Strong is excellent as Stewart Menzies, the chief of MI6 from 1939 to 1952. Some think that Menzies was the basis for Ian Fleming’s M, although there are other candidates for that distinction.

This is the first English-language film for Director Morten Tyldum, who has worked mostly in his native Norway. In his hands the movie plays out like a riveting thriller that captures the distrust among countries who were allies during the war but who knew that would change once Hitler was defeated. The production design by Maria Djurkovic (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Mama Mia) is outstanding, as is Oscar Faura’s cinematography.

Colin Firth’s comment at the Golden Globes touched on another aspect of the movie. The script for The Imitation Game sat unproduced for several years. It was voted the best unproduced movie script in 2011. Now honor has belatedly come to the man that Churchill said made the single greatest contribution to the British war effort.