On The Beach

It’s surprising that the evacuation of Dunkirk has not been the subject of a film prior to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. It’s been touched on in other films, such as Atonement, but it’s never been the focus. Part of the problem is the story doesn’t fit the “Rah-rah, we’re gonna win” mentality of most World War II films. Even with the few made during the war years that dealt with defeats, such as They Were Expendable, Bataan, and Wake Island, were designed to motivate because of the sacrifice of the characters. The greatest US defeat, Pearl Harbor, has been filmed twice for the big screen, first in the interesting but uneven Tora Tora Tora, and then in Michael Bay’s over-stuffed mish mash Pearl Harbor. In each, the loss becomes the starting point for winning. Tora Tora Tora ends with Admiral Yamamoto’s quote that he feared all they’d done was awaken the slumbering giant. Bay extends his movie to include the Dewey raid on Tokyo months after Pearl Harbor, though the story of that raid was done better in 30 Seconds Over Tokyo.

Dunkirk doesn’t fit neatly into that narrative. The British army was swept back to the ocean’s edge by the German blitzkrieg, and suffered around 100,000 casualties or troops captured. Yet the British pulled off the astonishing achievement of rescuing over 300,000 troops off the beach. Even greater, the salvation of the Army was pulled off by private citizens who answered the call to pilot their small ships across the treacherous English Channel. While it went the other way, it was an accomplishment on par with D-Day, and in fact there likely wouldn’t have been a D-Day without Dunkirk. What shaped up to be an inglorious defeat that arguably would have led to a German invasion of Great Britain, was instead turned into a miracle.

Nolan has created a lean feature with a running time of an hour and forty-six minutes, and like his first success, Memento, it plays with time. He focuses on three stories that intertwine, even though one plays out over the course of a week, the second in a day, and the third in an hour. Eventually, all the stories come together.

The movie begins with the week-long story of the trapped soldiers. A group of British stragglers walks through the streets of Dunkirk as leaflets drop from the sky, proclaiming them surrounded. Then German snipers open up. One of the group, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) makes it over a gate and climbs to the next street where he reaches the French defensive lines. From there he wanders down to the beach, a wide expanse filled with English soldiers. German dive bombers regularly scream down upon the troops and attack transports that attempt to rescue the soldiers. Tommy meets Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and wordlessly forms a team with him. The officers in charge on the beach, Naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Army Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), fear they can’t even save a tenth of the troops.

In England, the day comes to activate a plan to mobilize small pleasure boats to sail to France. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) loads stacks of life preservers onto his cabin cruiser with the help of his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and another local lad, George (Barry Keoghan). At the last moment, George jumps on board to accompany the Dawsons, saying he can be of help. What they’re heading toward is soon brought home when they come upon the stern of a sunken ship bobbing in the water with a shivering soldier (Cillian Murphy) sitting alone on it.

In the air, a flight of three Spitfires head to Dunkirk where they’ll only have enough petrol left in their tanks to fight for one hour. One soon becomes the victim of a German fighter, but the other two pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), try to provide air cover for the ships rescuing the soldiers.

Nolan has meticulously researched the battle and the rescue operation, and while he purposefully didn’t seek to reproduce photographic images of the battle, he gets the details right. It helped that a majority of the movie was filmed on the actual Dunkirk beach. Nolan also used Spitfires left from the Battle of Britain in the aerial sequences, and a number of the small boats rescuing the soldiers in the movie were part of the evacuation 77 years ago.

Nolan also cast the movie to match the soldiers pictured from those days. Fionn Whitehead was eighteen years old when the film was shot and hadn’t been in front of a movie camera before. He gives an exceptional performance with very little dialog; Nolan wanted images to tell the story more than words. In the same way, Mark Rylance’s quiet heroism stands in for all those who answered the call to help. He’s straightforward without pretentiousness, but he also knows a compassionate lie can show mercy.

I read a story today of a 97-year-old veteran of the battle who saw the film at a theater near his home in Canada. He attended wearing a jacket and tie, mirroring Mark Rylance’s costume in the film. He wore his Army beret, and his medals from the war were pinned to his jacket. The veteran had tears in his eyes after the film. “It was like I was there again…I could see my old friends again.”

That’s the best endorsement a historical film could ask for.

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The Long Crawl Home

It’s Oscar Sunday, and in a couple of hours the odds are that Leonardo DiCaprio will finally receive a Best Actor Oscar on his fourth try. He’s also been nominated for Best Supporting Actor when he was a child actor (for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) and he was in line for a Best Picture Oscar as a producer of The Wolf of Wall Street, but he’s O for 6 as I write this. It’s not the longest drought – Peter O’Toole was nominated 8 times in a span to over 40 years and never won. Paul Newman was on his seventh nomination before he finally won for, oddly enough, reprising a character he’d performed 25 years earlier for which he received his second nomination – “Fast Eddie” Felson (in The Hustler and The Color of Money). If DiCaprio does win, he will have something else in common with Newman, for his performance in The Revenant is not his best.

Revenant means someone who has returned from the dead, and the movie is loosely based on Hugh Glass, a fur trapper and guide who was mauled by a bear while on an expedition in 1823 in the territory that became the Dakotas. Glass was left for dead but managed to survive and make his way 200 miles back to Fort Kiowa. This isn’t the first major film to tell the story. 1971’s Man in the Wilderness, starring Richard Harris and John Houston, was also based on Glass, though in the film his first name is changed to Zachary.

The Revenant began development in 2001, when producer Akiva Goldman bought the rights to Michael Punke’s book before it was published. As often happens, it was caught in limbo for many years with different versions of the screenplay and different actors attached to the project, including Christian Bale and Samuel L. Jackson. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu came on board in 2011, after directing Babel, 21 Grams, and Biutiful. DiCaprio and Tom Hardy signed on around that time as well. However, some of the financing fell through which caused the film to be put on hold. Inarritu instead did Birdman as his next film, which took several Oscars last year, including 3 for Inarritu (Picture, Directing, and Editing).

When the financing finally came together, Inarritu began filming in Canada, but a mild winter necessitated a move to the southern tip of South America. Inarritu eschewed filming with green screen, so the scenes had to be filmed in pristine wilderness. In the end the original budget of around the $65 million range had more than doubled, but the scenery in the film is spectacular.

What isn’t as spectacular is the screenplay which drifts over the course of the film’s 2 ½ hour running time. It’s the polar opposite of Birdman, which had some of the sharpest dialogue that’s been put on film. Large stretches of The Revenant take place with no dialogue at all. DiCaprio’s Glass is presented as a haunted man whose Pawnee wife was killed and who is now dedicated to his son Hawk (Forest Goodluck). When hostile Arikara warriors attack the expedition, the men are forced to abandon their boat and make for Fort Kiowa by land. Inarritu’s filming of the attack is a high-point for the film, capturing the confusion and brutality of battle in one long stylish shot with the camera doing 360 degree pans as the action flows around it.

The leader of the group, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), has the group hide the pelts they’ve caught and then set out for the fort. Glass is scouting away from the others when he’s set upon by a Grizzly. It is an extended, brutal scene with Glass fighting for his life. The others find Glass clinging to life and try to carry him with them, but the terrain is too difficult. Henry asks for volunteers to stay with Glass to bury him when he passes. Hawk stays, along with John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter).

Hardy disappears into his character as usual, and he is mesmerizing in the role. Poulter plays Bridger as youthful and inexperienced, which is historically correct. While Jim Bridger became a legendary mountain man who helped explore the West and was one of the first to describe what became Yellowstone Park, at the time of Glass’ attack he was 19 and new to the territory.

After the Arikara and the bear, the story focuses on Glass’ long struggle to get back, and that’s where the movie turns into a bit of a long slog for the audience. It would have been a physically taxing shoot for DiCaprio, and that has appealed to the voters this award season. Actors who play roles where the character dies or has a physical handicap have always had an advantage in the Oscar race, and DiCaprio has both of those covered in a sense. He is also deserving for his whole body of work, and that is considered by voters as well. But I wouldn’t rate this as his best performance. (I confess to a soft spot for The Aviator and The Departed, while others would choose The Wolf of Wall Street or one of his other memorable roles.)

The film has been nominated for 12 Oscars, mostly because it fits the place of a blockbuster with its scope. Different from, say, Titanic, it may not capture the majority of those categories. But I wouldn’t bet against Leo.

10 Movies I’m Eager to See This Fall (Plus One Given)

We are now officially in the season for the release of prestige pictures, as opposed to the blockbusters of the summer. It’s hard for a summer movie to have the legs to make it to the Oscars or the Golden Globes, unless it’s for a technical award or it’s an animated film. (You could write in Inside Out right now as the Best Animated Film, since it was a stunning accomplishment.) Of last year’s non-technical Oscar winners, only The Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood were released before September. So I always get excited about what’s coming in the Fall movie season. I’ll give you the ten films I’m most looking forward to in ascending order, but first there’s a given.

(Given) Star Wars: The Force Awakens

With JJ Abrams in the director’s chair and Lawrence Kasdan co-writing the episode with him, hopes have to be high that the new Star Wars film will be more A New Hope that The Phantom Menace. If the reboot of Star Trek that Abrams did is any indicator, the Force will be strong in this one. It also had me when Harrison Ford said, “Chewy, we’re home” in the second trailer. I still remember attending a midnight showing of Star Wars in Westwood before it became a phenomena and being completely stunned when the Battle Cruiser first comes onto the screen – and keeps on going for what seems like a year. It was a seminal moment for science fiction films and for movies in general, and I’ve been hooked on the series ever since. (Release date: December 18th – an early Christmas present)

#10: By The Sea

Angelina Jolie Pitt was pretty much overlooked for Unbroken in spite of the movie’s power and excellent performances. Here she’s not only directoring but also acting with her real-life husband Brad Pitt for the first time since they met on Mr and Mrs Smith. The couple made this film about a husband and wife dealing with grief while they were on their honeymoon. Not your usual getaway. (Release date: November 13th)

#9: The Revenant

Last year’s Best Director winner, Alejandro Inarritu, is back with a story that seems unusual for him to tackle – a fur trapper (Leonardo DiCaprio) is mauled by a bear and left for dead by his friends, but instead he wills himself to travel hundreds of miles to survive.  That the story’s true only makes it more unusual.  However, before Birdman would you have picked Inarritu to do a mesmerizing movie about putting on a Broadway play? (Release date: Christmas Day)

#8: Black Mass

Johnny Depp has had a run of inferior films, but this may make us forget them. Depp plays real life gangster Whitey Bulger who ran the rackets in Boston while serving as a snitch for the FBI at the same time. Bulger was part of the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed, though it appears Depp’s intensity will blow that performance away. The film also stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Joel Edgerton, and Kevin Bacon. (Release Date: September 18th)

#7: Secret In Their Eyes

This is the remake of an Argentinian thriller that won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2010. Julia Roberts plays an investigator for a District Attorney who must relive the rape and murder of her teenaged daughter when a colleague (Chiwetel Ejiofor) uncovers new evidence. The film was written and directed by Billy Ray (Captain Philips, Breach) and also stars Nicole Kidman. (Release date: November 20th)

#6: Sicario

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve made Prisoners, one of the darkest crime dramas in recent memory. Now he’s taking on the Mexican drug cartels, and it will likely be as dark as a smuggler’s tunnel. The film stars Emily Blunt – who proved in Edge of Tomorrow she could kick butt with the best of them – as an FBI agent assigned to a special task force, along with Benicio Del Toro as a Mexican policeman with questionable allegiances.  (Release date: September 18th)

#5: The Martian

Based on the bestselling book, The Martian stars Matt Damon as an astronaut marooned on Mars who must use all his scientific knowhow to survive until a rescue mission can reach him. The film was directed by Ridley Scott, and boasts the best cast of the fall: Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wigg, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, and Sean Bean. (Release date: October 2nd)

#4: Legend

What’s better than Tom Hardy in a movie? Two Tom Hardys in a movie. In Legend, Hardy plays real-life twin gangsters Reggie and Ron Kray who ruled over London’s underworld in the 1960s. Writer-Director Brian Helgeland had originally planned for Hardy to play Reggie, but Hardy was more interested in Ron. They compromised. The supporting cast includes Emily Browning, Paul Bettany, David Thewlis, and Christopher Eccleston. (Release date: October 2nd)

#3: Carol

This movie is based on a novel by the outstanding mystery writer Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley) and is directed by Todd Haynes who did the exceptional Far From Heaven in 2002. The 1950s-set story stars Cate Blanchett as an older woman and Rooney Mara as a clerk who falls in love with her. The movie was one of the hits of the Cannes Film Festival this year. (Release date: November 20th)

#2: Trumbo

I’ve been fascinated with the Hollywood Blacklist, and with Dalton Trumbo, since the 1960s when I picked up a reissue of his anti-war novel “Johnny Got His Gun.” Trumbo wrote Roman Holiday during his blacklisting and used a front man, Ian McLellan Hunter, on the credits. It won the Oscar for best screenplay. Trumbo finally got his name back thanks to Kirk Douglas and Spartacus. The trailer for this film, starring Bryan Cranston as Trumbo and Diane Lane as his wife Cleo, looks wonderful. It was directed by Jay Roach and also stars Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Alan Tudyk, Helen Mirren, and Louie C.K. (Release date: November 6th)

#1 Joy

David O. Russell is one writer/director that I’ll watch simply because he made the movie. With The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle, he created unique visions of unexpected stories. For the third time, he’s working with Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert DeNiro, and the rest of the supporting cast includes Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, and Isabella Rossellini. (Release date: Christmas Day)

Honorable Mentions (That I Still Plan to See): Bridge of Spys, Spectre; Truth; Freeheld; Suffragette; The Intern; Sisters; The Danish Girl; The Walk; Creed; Steve Jobs

A Trilogy Rises in the End

The third movie in a trilogy often becomes an embarrassing mush.  Along with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 and Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand, think of Coppola’s The Godfather: Part III.  The only good that came out of that movie was that Sophia Coppola moved behind the camera, and has become a fine director.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy was an exception, because of its strong source material and Peter Jackson’s filming it as one huge movie.

The good news is that The Dark Knight Rises is another exception to the “3rd Times the Harm” rule.  It is a fitting conclusion for the series.

The movie begins with an action sequence even more thrilling than the bank robbery in The Dark Knight.  A CIA agent (Aiden Gillen) and his crew of paramilitary operatives take custody from a local warlord of a rogue nuclear physicist, Dr. Pavel (Alon Aboutboul) as well as three hooded men who supposedly work with a terrorist named Bane (Tom Hardy).  While in flight, the CIA’s plane is literally hi-jacked by Bane’s operatives in order to get Dr. Pavel, for whom Bane has plans.

In Gotham City, it has been 8 years since Batman rode off into the dark after taking the blame for the crimes that Harvey “Two-Face” Dent committed.  In that time Gotham has been freed from much of the crime that had plagued it, thanks to draconian laws passed in Dent’s name that have filled the city’s jail.  Every year the anniversary of Dent’s death is a time for celebrating the DA’s supposed sacrifice, including a gala garden party held on the grounds of the rebuilt Wayne manor (after it was destroyed in Batman Begins by Ra’s al-Ghul and the League of Shadows).

In those 8 years, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a Howard Hughes’ figure, a hermit locked away in his mansion, mourning his lost love, Rachel Dawes.  Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) has paid a price as well; his family deserted him as a consequence of his covering up of Dent’s crimes.  He’s asked to give a speech at the garden party about the real Harvey Dent.  Gordon pulls out notes which tell the truth, but thinks better of it.  A business colleague of Wayne’s, Miranda Tate (Marion Cottilard), tries to meet with him during the party, but Alfred (Michael Caine) rebuffs her efforts.

Inside Wayne Manor, Alfred directs one of the catering staff to take a food tray to a locked wing of the mansion, unaware that she’s Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a burglar known as the Cat-woman.  Wayne interrupts her as she’s taking an heirloom necklace from the safe.  His previous adventures have taken a toll on his body, and Selena is able to escape, picking up a congressman on her way out.  Afterward, Wayne finds fingerprint dust on the safe.  Apart from the necklace, Selina has stolen his prints.

When the body of a youth is washed out of a storm drain, policeman John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) recognizes the boy as a former resident of the orphanage where Blake was raised.  After talking with Blake by the smashed Batman signal on the roof of police headquarters, Gordon promotes Blake to his assistant.  Selina meets her contacts to give him Wayne’s fingerprints in exchange for her fee, but she finds she’s being double-crossed.  She pulls her own double-cross and brings Gordon and the police racing to the scene.  The hoods escape into the sewers.  While following them, Gordon is captured by Bane, who’s living beneath the city with his gang.  Gordon manages to escape, but is shot in the process.  Blake has figured out Batman’s identity, and he barges in on Wayne, forcing Wayne to return to the world of the living.

Christopher Nolan had always viewed his Batman movies as a trilogy, and that vision has paid off in a final chapter that is not only strong in itself but also wraps up themes and pays off moments from the first movie.  The screenplay by Nolan and his brother Jonathan (based on a story developed by Nolan and Batman Begins co-writer David Goyer) expands on The Dark Knight to create a fully-rendered world.  Nolan had decided, after the death of Heath Ledger, to not mention The Joker in this movie.  Rises is so full on its own that you won’t even notice the omission.

As with the previous movies, the acting is sterling.  Bale, Oldman and Caine layer onto their characters the regrets and pain accrued in the previous two movies.  The new characters, and the actors playing them, blend seamlessly into the Batman world.  It helps that Hardy, Cottilard, and Gordon-Levitt worked with Nolan on the twisty, fascinating Inception.  Hardy embraces the anarchy of Bane, an erudite ‘roid rager extraordinaire.  Gordon-Levitt has the thankless task of playing a straight arrow, but he pulls it off beautifully and believably.  Cottilard offers a possible salvation for Bale’s Wayne, both on a business level as well as emotionally.

The opposite side of Cottilard’s coin is Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle.  Catwoman has been both fascinating and frustrating in previous incarnations.  You have the campy purr-formances of Lee Meriwether and Eartha Kitt in the 1960’s Batman series and movie (Julie Newmar originated the role, and was the best of the three).  In 1992’s Batman Returns, Michelle Pfieffer was mesmerizing.  2004’s Catwoman expanded on the character’s backstory from Batman Returns, but the film was an embarrassing mess.  Now Nolan has raised the bar for the character, just as he did with Batman in Batman Begins.  There’s a depth we’ve not seen before, and Hathaway embodies it beautifully.  (She has said she’d be interested in doing a spin-off for the character, if Nolan would be involved; here’s hoping that will happen.)

The movie runs 12 minutes longer than The Dark Knight, but if anything you’ll be sad to see it end.

***********

I’ve kept any mention of the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado until now because I don’t want to give any greater place to the madman who perpetrated that horrible crime.  Christian Bale showed a grace beyond what we often see when he and his wife quietly visited with the victims, first responders, doctors and nurses a few days after the shootings.  My prayers are with the many that were injured, and the families of those who lost loved ones.  But I choose to end by remembering three men: Jon Blunk was a security guard who’d served 8 years in the Navy, and was in the process of re-enlisting, hoping to become a SEAL.  He was 25 years old.  Alex Teves, 24, had served as a mentor at the University of Arizona near his hometown of Phoenix as well as at the University of Colorado.  Matt McQuinn, 27, had just moved to Colorado from Ohio with his girlfriend.  All three men gave their lives to save others, using their bodies as shields.  The Dark Knight Rises extols the virtue of heroes taking a stand to protect others from evil.  Jon, Alex, and Matt showed the reality of such heroism in their sacrificial act.

“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”                                                                                                                             John 15:13

Summertime Line Up

The summer movie season first began back in 1975, when Jaws made the theater the place to be in June, July and August.  Two years later, Memorial Day Weekend became the starting date of the season with the release (on May 25th, 1977) of a little film called simply Star Wars.  Since that time summer has been the time for blockbuster movies while in the fall movies aim for Oscar gold.  There are exceptions, but that’s the general rule.

This year the season started three weeks early, with the release of The Avengers.  It’s now grossed well over a billion dollars worldwide, and become the 4th highest grossing movie in US history.  It also capsized a Battleship and drove a stake through Dark Shadows’ heart.  This weekend, Men In Black III comes out.  Will it be more successful fighting aliens than The Avengers?  We’ll see.  For the rest of the summer, there are a number of movies I’m anxious to watch.  Let’s start with the elephant on the schedule…

The Dark Knight Rises:  After George Clooney’s major misstep with Batman and Robin, the series looked brain-dead.  Then Christopher Nolan worked his magic and resuscitated Bruce Wayne with the intelligent, inventive Batman Begins.  The second installment in his trilogy, The Dark Knight, had a complexity and depth beyond any other superhero movie to that date.  With its stellar cast and Heath Ledger’s amazing performance as the Joker, it set the bar for the genre.  Now, with The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan has added to the cast three veterans of Inception (Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt & Marion Cotillard) along with Anne Hathaway as an uncampy Catwoman.  Can you say two billion-dollar movies this summer?  I knew you could.

 

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel:  With a cast that includes Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy, directed by John Madden, this may be the anti-summer movie – an English comedy set in India.  Like sorbet, it could be the perfect choice for cleansing your palette.

Brave:  Only a few movies have the confidence to simply show a scene from the movie as its trailer.  Brave showed that bravery, presenting an archery contest that was magical.  This is Pixar’s first female hero after a dozen hit movies.  It looks like they’ve hit the bull’s-eye.

Prometheus:  Ridley Scott has made two science fiction movies, both of them seminal films: Blade Runner and Alien.  Now he’s made a third.  With Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender, it should be amazing.

Rock of Ages: Tom Cruise as a 1980’s hair band rocker?  This one’s a bit iffy for me.  It is based on a Broadway musical, and Cruise can surprise.  We shall see.

Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World: If the world’s going to be incinerated by an asteroid, getting to spend your last hours with Steve Carell and Keira Knightley sounds like a good idea.

The Amazing Spider-Man: Spider-Man 3 destroyed the goodwill generated by the first two Tobey Maguire movies.  Watching him do his Saturday Night Fever strut along the New York City streets was truly cringe-worthy.  Now we have a reboot with Andrew Garfield wearing the red and blue tights.  The director Marc Webb has mostly done TV and video, but his one movie credit is the delightful and inventive (500) Days of Summer.  This movie also features Emma Stone (always a plus) as Gwen Stacy, and Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt May.  Perhaps this is Spidey’s Batman Begins.  I hope so.

Savages:  Third time’s the charm?  Taylor Kitsch has starred in two mega-bombs in just six months, John Carter and Battleship.  He must be feeling shell shocked by now.  Here though, he’s under the direction of Oliver Stone, with a supporting cast that includes John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro, Blake Lively, and Selma Hayek.  The movie also cost only $48 million to make, a fraction of the budgets for Kitsch’s bombs.  Here’s hoping.

Neighborhood Watch:  Last year, a small-budget English film called Attack the Block made a major splash with its story of a London youth gang fighting an alien invasion.  Now Hollywood has taken the rough premise and made a comedy.  A group of volunteer crime fighters try to defeat alien invaders, with Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller and Jonah Hill saving the day.  This is another iffy one for me, but I’ll reserve judgment for now.

Ruby Sparks:  In 2006, the directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris made the off-off-beat and delightful Little Miss Sunshine.  Now they’re back with a story of a novelist whose character, his dream woman, comes to life.  While the Pygmalion legend goes back to the ancient Greeks, it’s still a good story, as George Bernard Shaw and Lehner & Loewe would attest.

Total Recall:  Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 over-the-top sci-fi adventure, starring Ah-nold himself, was popular.  Now Len Wiseman (Live Free or Die Hard) returns the story to its roots, Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.”  The cast (Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Bryan Cranston, John Cho, Jessica Biel) is first rate.  Dick’s imagination is responsible for Blade Runner, The Adjustment Bureau, Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly.  Going back to the source material seems like a very good plan.

The Bourne Legacy:  The original three Bournes completely remade the visual style of the spy movie, with intense action captured by handheld cameras and sharper cuts than a samurai sword.  (Casino Royale learned the new form and gave James Bond his best film in decades.)  With Matt Damon passing on a fourth movie, Universal turned to Tony Gilroy for help.  Gilroy wrote the first three movies, and he also wrote and directed Michael Clayton as well as the twisty Julia Roberts/Clive Owen industrial espionage movie, Duplicity.  Gilroy opened up the story, focusing on another assassin from the Treadstone project who goes rogue.  With Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton joining Joan Allen, David Stathairn and Albert Finney from the previous movie, this team is definitely not second-string.

Hope Springs:  Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as a married couple undergoing counseling from Steve Carell, under the direction of David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada)?  That’s enough to get me into a theater seat.

Lawless:  Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf play Prohibition-era bootleggers battling a villainous G-man played by Guy Pearce.  The story is based on a historical novel, “The Wettest County in the World,” that had a strong element of real history in it.  With Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain, and Mia Wasikowska also in the movie, it’s a 100 proof cast.

Cold War Redux

Every spy story of John Le Carre’s, starting with his first major hit, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, have been the antithesis of movie spy/action heroes like James Bond.  Le Carre’s thrills have always been anchored in reality.  Eleven years after Cold, Le Carre wrote what is arguably his masterpiece, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  The story features George Smiley, who was the main character in Le Carre’s first two books and a minor one in Cold.  After one more appearance, the character disappeared for several years, but then roared back in Tinker Tailor and the next two books of the Karla trilogy, The Honorable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People.  In 1979, the BBC adapted Tinker Tailor for the small screen, with Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley.  It was a success on both sides of the Atlantic.

Now Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has made it to the big screen, and the filmmakers have done the story proud.

Control (John Hurt) believes there is a mole highly placed in the British Foreign Intelligence Service (nicknamed the Circus).  He sends agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to get in touch with an Eastern Block general who may know the name of the mole.  But the meeting is blown and Prideaux is shot and captured.  The stink caused by the mess leads to Control being kicked out of the Circus, along with George Smiley (Gary Oldman).  That leaves the service under the overall leadership of Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), assisted by Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik).  Control passes away soon after he’s forced out.

Percy has been cultivating a highly-placed Russian source under the code name “Witchcraft.”  The source has given them what seems to be a gold mine of intelligence.  But then the government minister in charge of overseeing the Circus is contacted by rogue agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) who says the mission he was on was blown by a traitor inside the Circus.  The minister approaches Smiley, asking him to come out of retirement to catch the mole.

Smiley requests help from Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), a mid-level manager in the Circus.  In effect, Peter will be spying on his own bosses and stealing information for Smiley.  If he’s caught, he would be prosecuted as a traitor.

Working from an intelligent, nuanced screenplay by the husband/wife team of Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, Swedish Director Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In) has crafted a thriller in every sense of the word, even though there are only 4 gun shots in the film and not a single car chase.  The movie keeps winding back upon itself so you see scenes from different angles and learn more as Smiley learns more.  (Sadly, Ms. O’Connor passed away from cancer in 2010, shortly after completing the script.  The movie is dedicated to her.)

Oldman gives an interior performance, betraying very little as he absorbs information, yet it is riveting to watch.  He gained weight for the movie, so that he could have the middle-age paunch that Smiley would have had.  Cumberbatch is effective as the golden young boy helping Smiley.  Yet you can feel the inner tension within him, which finally bubbles over.  As Tarr, Hardy is an electric jolt within the film.  If this were a Bridge game, he’d be trumps.  Jones, Firth, Hinds and Dencik must remain enigmatic, so that all who haven’t read the book or seen the earlier TV adaptation won’t know until the final reveal the identity of the traitor.  But even if you’d read the book, as I did, you’ll be mesmerized by the peeling away of the covers to expose the mole.

The movie looks like it was filmed in 1970 – the props, the color schemes, the costumes are all wonderfully authentic.  The Circus is bland and low rent, realistic for those austere times in the UK.  This was long before MI-6 got their large modern office building along the Thames.  It’s a delight when you see the Circus’s Christmas party, with them drunkenly singing the theme song to The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World, a 1965 British spy spoof.  Or when Santa Claus appears in his red suit with a hammer and sickle on his chest and the whole group breaks into the Soviet national anthem.  (If you look carefully among the revelers, you will catch a glimpse of John Le Carre.)

While this is a movie tethered to the Cold War, it also transcends its time to look at the whole question of loyalty and betrayal, and how we can casually slide from one side to the other if we’re only concerned about ourselves.  As the traitor eventually explains, “It just got to point where I had to choose a side.”  That banal decision costs a number of people their lives in the course of the movie.

The movie has been nominated for 3 Oscars: Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Score.  In my opinion, it could also have been the 10th Best Picture nominee.  If you want an intelligent thriller that involves your mind more than just your sense of sight and sound, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is that movie.