Category Archives: Cold War

Happy end of the world: Top 15 Nuke Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 5, 2017)

https://i2.wp.com/www.japantimes.co.jp/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/f-npt-2-a-20150524.jpg?resize=474%2C324

“The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country.”

-J. Robert Oppenheimer

Sunday marks the 72nd anniversary of mankind’s entry into that “different country”.  So what have we learned since 8:15am, August 6, 1945-if anything? Well, we’ve tried to harness the power of the atom for “good”, however, as has been demonstrated repeatedly, that’s not working out so well (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, et al) Also, there are enough stockpiled weapons of mass destruction to knock Planet Earth off its axis, and we have no guarantees that some nut job, whether enabled by the powers vested in him by the state, or the voices in his head (doesn’t really matter-end result’s the same) won’t be in a position at some point in the future to let one or two or a hundred rip. Hopefully, cool heads and diplomacy will continue to keep us above ground and rad-free.

Yes, one can always hope. Yet…this happened earlier this week:

There will be war between the United States and North Korea over the rogue nation’s missile program if it continues to aim intercontinental ballistic missiles at America, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said President Donald Trump has told him.

“He has told me that. I believe him,” the lawmaker said Tuesday on TODAY. “If I were China, I would believe him, too, and do something about it.”

Graham said that Trump won’t allow the regime of Kim Jong Un to have an ICBM with a nuclear weapon capability to “hit America.”

“If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong Un], it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here. And He has told me that to my face,” Graham said. […]

Graham said military experts are “wrong” that no good options exist.

“There is a military option to destroy North Korea’s program and North Korea itself,” he added.

The senator’s not saying we won’t get our hair mussed, but hey…I feel safe. You?

Every January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists gives the human race its annual physical, to determine the official time on the Doomsday Clock (with midnight representing Armageddon). This past January, they moved the hands 30 seconds closer:

This already-threatening world situation was the backdrop for a rise in strident nationalism worldwide in 2016, including in a US presidential campaign during which the eventual victor, Donald Trump, made disturbing comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons. […]

It is [now] two and a half minutes to midnight. The board’s decision to move the clock less than a full minute—something it has never before done—reflects a simple reality: As this statement is issued, Donald Trump has been the US president only a matter of days.

I needn’t remind you that 6 months on, Donald J. Trump continues to be President of the United States. Like the scientists said: The clock ticks. Global danger looms. And the Master of 3am Tweets has those nuclear codes. With that happy thought in mind, here are my picks for the top 15 cautionary films to watch before we all go together (when we go).

https://i0.wp.com/www.tasteofcinema.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/The-Atomic-Cafe.jpg?w=474

The Atomic Café- Whoopee, we’re all gonna die! But along the way, we might as well have a few laughs. That seems to be the impetus behind this 1982 collection of cleverly reassembled footage culled from U.S. government propaganda shorts from the Cold War era (Mk 1), originally designed to educate the public about how to “survive” a nuclear attack (all you need to do is get under a desk…everyone knows that!).

In addition to the Civil Defense campaigns (which include the classic “duck and cover” tutorials) the filmmakers have also drawn from a rich vein of military training films, which reduce the possible effects of a nuclear strike to something akin to a barrage from, oh I don’t know- a really big field howitzer. Harrowing, yet perversely entertaining. Written and directed by Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty and Kevin Rafferty (Kevin went on to co-direct the similarly constructed 1999 doc, The Last Cigarette, a take down of the tobacco industry).

https://i1.wp.com/akirakurosawa.info/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Black-Rain-600x321.jpg?resize=474%2C254

Black Rain– For obvious reasons, there have been a fair amount of postwar Japanese films dealing with the subject of nuclear destruction and its aftermath. Some take an oblique approach, like Gojira or I Live in Fear. Others deal directly with survivors (known in Japan as hibakusha films).

One of the top hibakusha films is this overlooked 1989 drama from Shomei Imamura, a relatively simple tale of three Hiroshima survivors: an elderly couple and their niece, whose scars run much deeper than physical. The narrative is sparse, yet contains more layers than an onion (especially considering the complexities of Japanese society). Interestingly, Imamura injects a polemic which points an accusatory finger in an unexpected direction.

https://i1.wp.com/www.asset1.net/tv/pictures/show/the-day-after-trinity/The-Day-After-Trinity-03-16x9-1.jpg?w=474

The Day after Trinity– This absorbing film about the Manhattan Project and its subsequent fallout (historical, political and existential) is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. At its center, it is a profile of project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose moment of professional triumph (the successful test of the world’s first atomic bomb, three weeks before Hiroshima) also brought him an unnerving precognition about the horror that he and his fellow physicists had enabled the military machine to unleash.

Oppenheimer’s journey from “father of the atomic bomb” to anti-nuke activist (and having his life destroyed by the post-war Red hysteria) is a tragic tale of Shakespearean proportion. Two recommended companion pieces: Roland Joffe’s 1989 drama Fat Man and Little Boy, about the working relationship between Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) and military director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves (Paul Newman); and an outstanding 1980 BBC miniseries called Oppenheimer (starring Sam Waterston).

https://i1.wp.com/www.newyorker.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/dr-strangelove-still-580.jpg?w=474

Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb- “Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic masterpiece about the tendency for those in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered to make it all up.

It’s the one about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…”funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity and oblivion ensues. And what a cast: Peter Sellers (as three characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull. There are so many great quotes, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks.

https://threerowsback.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/fail-safe-2.png?w=474

Fail-SafeDr. Strangelove…without the laughs. This no-nonsense 1964 thriller from the late great director Sidney Lumet takes a more clinical look at how a wild card scenario (in this case, a simple hardware malfunction) could ultimately trigger a nuclear showdown between the Americans and the Russians.

Talky and a bit stagey; but riveting nonetheless thanks to Lumet’s skillful  knack for bringing out the best in his actors. Walter Bernstein’s intelligent screenplay (with uncredited assistance from Peter George, who also co-scripted Dr. Strangelove) and a superb cast that includes Henry Fonda (a commanding performance, literally and figuratively), Walter Matthau, Fritz Weaver, and Larry Hagman.

There’s no fighting in this war room (aside from one minor scuffle), but lots of suspense. The final scene is chilling and unforgettable.

https://i1.wp.com/stmedia.startribune.com/images/CTYP+I+liveinfear+1955.jpg?w=474

I Live in Fear-This 1955 Akira Kurosawa film is one of the great director’s most overlooked efforts. It’s a melodrama concerning an aging foundry owner (Toshiro Mifune, unrecognizable in Coke-bottle glasses and silver-frosted pomade) who literally “lives in fear” of the H-bomb. Convinced that South America would be the “safest” place on Earth from radioactive fallout, he tries to sway his wife and grown children to pull up stakes and resettle on a farm in Brazil.

His children, who have families of their own and rely on their father’s factory for income, are not so hot on that idea. In fact, they take him to family court and have him declared incompetent. This sends Mifune’s character spiraling into madness. Or are his fears really so “crazy”? It is one of Mifune’s most powerful and moving performances. Kurosawa instills shades of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” into the narrative (a well he drew from again 30 years later, in his 1985 film Ran).

https://i0.wp.com/2.bp.blogspot.com/-KQTGjRykHW8/TzjkltRRLpI/AAAAAAAAAdw/xuxnfHWIvi4/s1600/ladybug2.jpg?w=474

Ladybug, Ladybug– I only recently caught this 1963 sleeper for the first time, when Turner Classic Movies presented their premiere airing several weeks ago (to my knowledge, it has never been available in a home video format), and it really knocked my socks off.  The film marked the second collaboration between husband-and-wife creative team of writer Eleanor Perry and director Frank Perry (The Swimmer, Last Summer, Diary of a Mad Housewife).

Based on an incident that occurred during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the story centers on how students and staff of a rural school react to a Civil Defense alert indicating an imminent nuclear strike. While there are indications that it could be a false alarm, the principal sends the children home early. As teachers and students stroll through the relatively peaceful countryside, fears and anxieties come to the fore. Naturalistic performances bring the film’s cautionary message all too close to home.

https://i1.wp.com/cdn1-www.comingsoon.net/assets/styd/assets/uploads/2015/11/Miracle1.jpg?w=474

Miracle Mile- Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a fairly reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way.

The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted, 90-minute sleeper offers more heart-pounding excitement (and much more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this 1988 gem (his only other feature was Cherry 2000).

https://i1.wp.com/images.moviepostershop.com/one-night-stand-movie-poster-1984-1020195924.jpg?resize=474%2C697

One Night Stand – An early effort from director John Duigan (Winter of Our Dreams, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, Sirens, etc.). This 1984 sleeper is a worthwhile entry amidst the flurry of nuclear paranoia-themed movies that proliferated throughout the Reagan era.

Four young people (three Australians and an American sailor who has jumped ship) get holed up in an otherwise empty Sydney Opera House on the eve of escalating nuclear tension between the superpowers in Eastern Europe. In a concerted effort to deflect their collective anxiety over increasingly ominous news bulletins droning on from the radio, they find creative ways to keep their spirits up.

The film is uneven at times, but for the most part Duigan capably juggles the busy mashup of romantic comedy, apocalyptic thriller and anti-war statement. There are several striking set pieces; particularly an eerily affecting scene where the quartet watch Fritz Langs’s Metropolis as the Easybeats hit “Friday on My Mind” is juxtaposed over its orchestral score. Midnight Oil performs in a scene where the two women attend a concert. The bittersweet denouement (in an underground tube station) is quite powerful.

https://johnkennethmuir.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/specialbulletin2.jpg?w=474

Special Bulletin– This outstanding 1983 made-for-TV movie has been overshadowed by the nuclear nightmare-themed TV movie The Day After, which aired the same year (I’m sure I will be lambasted by some readers for not including the former on this list, but I find it overly melodramatic and vastly overrated). Directed by Edward Zwick and written by Marshall Herskovitz (the same creative team behind thirtysomething), the drama is framed like an actual “live” television broadcast, with local news anchors and reporters interrupting regular programming to cover a breaking story.

A domestic terrorist group has seized a docked tugboat in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. A reporter relays their demand: If every nuclear triggering device stored at the nearby U.S. Naval base isn’t delivered to them by a specified time, they will detonate their own homemade nuclear device (equal in power to the bomb dropped on Nagasaki). The original airing apparently created a panic for some viewers in Charleston (a la Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938). Riveting and chilling. Nominated for 6 Emmys, it took home 4.

https://i2.wp.com/cineplex.media.baselineresearch.com/images/103779/103779_full.jpg?w=474

Testament- Originally an American Playhouse presentation, this film was released to theatres and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander. Director Lynne Littman takes a low key, deliberate approach, but pulls no punches. Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike.

There is no exposition on the political climate that precipitates the attacks; this is a wise decision, as it puts the focus on the humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the histrionics and melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amidst such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it very difficult to shake off.

As the children (and adults) of Hamlin succumb to the inevitable scourge of radiation sickness and steadily “disappear”, like the children of the ‘fairy tale’ Hamlin, you are left haunted by the final line of the school production of “The Pied Piper” glimpsed earlier in the film… “Your children are not dead. They will return when the world deserves them.”

https://i1.wp.com/www.petertrumbore.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/13-days.jpg?w=474

Thirteen Days– I had a block against seeing this 2000 release about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, for several reasons. For one, director Roger Donaldson’s uneven output (for every Smash Palace or No Way Out, he’s got a Species or a Cocktail). I also couldn’t get past “Kevin Costner? In another movie about JFK?” Also, I felt the outstanding 1974 TV film, The Missiles of October would be hard to top. But I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be one of Donaldson’s better films.

Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp make a very credible JFK and RFK, respectively. The film works as a political thriller, yet it is also intimate and moving at times (especially in the scenes between JFK and RFK). Costner provides the “fly on the wall” perspective as Kennedy insider Kenny O’Donnell. Costner gives a compassionate performance; on the downside he has a tin ear for dialects (that Hahvad Yahd brogue comes and goes of its own free will).

According to the Internet Movie Database, this was the first film screened at the White House by George and Laura Bush in 2001. Knowing this now…I don’t know whether to laugh or cry myself to sleep.

http://i2.wp.com/vulturehound.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/The-War-Game-%C2%A9-1965-BBC1-620x350.jpg?resize=590%2C333

The War Game / Threads– Out of all of the selections on this list, these two British TV productions are the grimmest and most sobering “nuclear nightmare” films of them all.

Writer-director Peter Watkins’ 1965 docudrama, The War Game was initially produced for television, but was deemed too shocking and disconcerting for the small screen by the BBC. It was mothballed until picked up for theatrical distribution, which snagged it an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1967. Watkins envisions the aftermath of a nuke attack on London, and pulls no punches. Very ahead of its time, and it still packs quite a wallop.

The similar Threads debuted on the BBC in 1984, later airing in the U.S. on TBS. Mick Jackson directs with an uncompromising realism that makes The Day After (the U.S. TV film from the previous year) look like a Teletubbies episode. The story takes a medium sized city (Sheffield) and depicts what would happen to its populace during and after a nuclear strike, in graphic detail. It’s stark and affecting.

Both  productions make it clear that, while they are dramatizations, the intent is not to “entertain” you in any sense of the word. The message is simple and direct-nothing good comes out of a nuclear conflict. It’s a living, breathing Hell for all concerned-and anyone “lucky” enough to survive will soon wish they were fucking dead.

https://i0.wp.com/www.dvdizzy.com/images/w/whenthewindblows-05.jpg?w=474

When the Wind Blows– This animated 1986 U.K. film was adapted by director Jimmy Murakami from Raymond Brigg’s eponymous graphic novel. It is a simple yet affecting story about an aging couple (wonderfully voiced by venerable British thespians Sir John Mills and Dame Peggy Ashcroft) who live in a cozy cottage nestled in the bucolic English countryside. Unfortunately, an escalating conflict in another part of the world is about to go global and shatter their quiet lives. Very similar in tone to Testament (another film on this list), in its sense of intimacy amidst slowly unfolding mass horror. Haunting, moving, and beautifully animated, with a combination of traditional cell and stop-motion techniques. The soundtrack features music by David Bowie, Roger Waters, and Squeeze.

Blu-ray reissue: Seven Days in May ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

https://hertigenavketchup.files.wordpress.com/2017/02/sevendaysinmay2.jpeg?w=474

Seven Days in May – Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray

This 1964 “conspiracy a-go go” thriller was director John Frankenheimer’s follow-up to The Manchurian Candidate (the cold war paranoia force was strong in him!). Picture if you will: a screenplay by Rod Serling, adapted from a novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II.

Kirk Douglas plays a Marine colonel who is the adjutant to a hawkish, hard right-leaning general (Burt Lancaster) who heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The general is at loggerheads with the dovish President (Fredric March), who is perceived by the general and some of the other joint chiefs as a “weak sister” for his strident support of nuclear disarmament. When Douglas begins to suspect that an imminent, unusually secretive military “exercise” may in fact portend more sinister intentions, he is torn between his loyalty to the general and his loyalty to the country as to whether he should raise the alarm. Or is he just being paranoid?

An intelligently scripted and well-acted nail-biter, right to the end. Also with Ava Gardner, Edmund O’Brien, and Martin Balsam. No extras (Warner has a rep for skimping on them), but a great transfer.

Happy End of the World: Top 10 Nuke Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 7, 2017)

https://img.washingtonpost.com/wp-apps/imrs.php?src=https://img.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2017/01/doomsday-1.jpg&w=480

Every January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists gives the human race its annual physical, to determine the official time on the Doomsday Clock (with midnight representing Armageddon). Last January, they moved the hands to 3 minutes to midnight.

Those geeks in the white lab coats didn’t mince any words, either:

Today, unchecked climate change and a nuclear arms race resulting from modernization of huge arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity. And world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe. These failures of leadership endanger every person on Earth.

So how do things look for 2017? The latest word from their website is not encouraging:

“It is still Three Minutes to Midnight […] that probability has not been reduced. The Clock ticks. Global danger looms. Wise leaders should act—immediately.”

In a 2011 Hullabaloo post about the ever-sobering Hiroshima anniversary, I wrote:

So what have we learned since 8:15am, August 6, 1945-if anything? […] there are enough stockpiled weapons of mass destruction to knock Planet Earth off its axis, and we have no guarantees that some nut job, whether enabled by the powers vested in him by the state, or the voices in his head (doesn’t really matter-end result’s the same) won’t be in a position at some point in the future to let one or two or a hundred of ‘em rip. Hopefully, cool heads and diplomacy will continue to keep us all rad-free.

In just under two weeks, Donald J. Trump will be sworn in as the President of the United States. As they said: The clock ticks. Global danger looms…and the Master of 3am Tweets will have the nuclear codes. That in mind, here are my picks for the top 10 cautionary films to watch before…we all go together (when we go). In alphabetical order:

https://i0.wp.com/www.tasteofcinema.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/The-Atomic-Cafe.jpg?w=474

The Atomic Café- Whoopee, we’re all gonna die! But along the way, we might as well have a few laughs. That seems to be the impetus behind this 1982 collection of cleverly reassembled footage culled from U.S. government propaganda shorts from the Cold War era (Mk 1), originally designed to educate the public about how to “survive” a nuclear attack (all you need to do is get under a desk…everyone knows that!). In addition to the Civil Defense campaigns (which include the classic “duck and cover” tutorials) the filmmakers have also drawn from a rich vein of military training films, which reduce the possible effects of a nuclear strike to something akin to a barrage from, oh I don’t know- a really big field howitzer. Harrowing, yet perversely entertaining. Written and directed by Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty and Kevin Rafferty (Kevin went on to co-direct the similarly constructed 1999 doc, The Last Cigarette, a take down of the tobacco industry).

https://i1.wp.com/akirakurosawa.info/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Black-Rain-600x321.jpg?resize=474%2C254

Black Rain– For obvious reasons, there have been a fair amount of postwar Japanese films dealing with the subject of nuclear destruction and its aftermath. Some take an oblique approach, like Gojira or Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear. Others deal directly with survivors (known in Japan as hibakusha films). One of the top hibakusha films is this overlooked 1989 drama from Shomei Imamura, a relatively simple tale of three Hiroshima survivors: an elderly couple and their niece, whose scars run much deeper than physical. The narrative is sparse, yet contains more layers than an onion (especially when one takes the deep complexities of Japanese society under consideration). Interestingly, Imamura injects a polemic which points an accusatory finger in an unexpected direction.

https://i1.wp.com/www.asset1.net/tv/pictures/show/the-day-after-trinity/The-Day-After-Trinity-03-16x9-1.jpg?w=474

The Day after Trinity– This absorbing film about the Manhattan Project and its subsequent fallout (historical, political and existential) is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. At its center, it is a profile of project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose moment of professional triumph (the successful test of the world’s first atomic bomb, three weeks before Hiroshima) also brought him an unnerving precognition about the horror that he and his fellow physicists had enabled the military machine to unleash.

Oppenheimer’s journey from “father of the atomic bomb” to anti-nuke activist (and having his life destroyed by the post-war Red hysteria) is a tragic tale of Shakespearean proportion. Two recommended companion pieces: Roland Joffe’s 1989 drama Fat Man and Little Boy, about the working relationship between Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) and military director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves (Paul Newman); and an outstanding 1980 BBC miniseries called Oppenheimer (starring Sam Waterston).

https://i1.wp.com/www.newyorker.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/dr-strangelove-still-580.jpg?w=474

Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb- “Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic masterpiece about the tendency for those in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered to make it all up. It’s the one about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…”funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity and oblivion ensues. And what a cast: Peter Sellers (as three characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull. There are so many great quotes, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks.

https://threerowsback.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/fail-safe-2.png?w=474

Fail-SafeDr. Strangelove…without the laughs. This no-nonsense 1964 thriller from the late great director Sidney Lumet takes a more clinical look at how a wild card scenario (in this case, a simple hardware malfunction) could ultimately trigger a nuclear showdown between the Americans and the Russians. Talky and a bit stagey; but riveting nonetheless thanks to Lumet’s skillful pacing (and trademark knack for bringing out the best in his actors), Walter Bernstein’s intelligent screenplay (with uncredited assistance from Peter George, who also co-scripted Dr. Strangelove) and a superb cast that includes Henry Fonda (a commanding performance, literally and figuratively), Walter Matthau, Fritz Weaver, and Larry Hagman. There’s no fighting in this war room (aside from one minor scuffle), but lots of suspense. The film’s final scene is chilling and unforgettable.

https://i1.wp.com/cdn1-www.comingsoon.net/assets/styd/assets/uploads/2015/11/Miracle1.jpg?w=474

Miracle Mile- Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a fairly reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way. The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted, 90-minute sleeper offers more heart-pounding excitement (and much more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this 1988 gem (his only other feature was Cherry 2000).

https://i0.wp.com/2.bp.blogspot.com/-mGLWnUTJL6k/WHGbA6l-eZI/AAAAAAAApxE/51tUJHstMEAYhOX_O4iKyAPrJ1pVAvsHACLcB/s1600/one-night-stand-movie-poster-1984-1020195924.jpg?resize=474%2C696&ssl=1

One Night Stand – An early effort from eclectic filmmaker John Duigan (Winter of Our Dreams, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, Sirens, etc.). This 1984 sleeper is a worthwhile entry amidst the flurry of nuclear paranoia-themed movies that proliferated throughout the Reagan era. Through circumstance, four young people (three Australians and an American sailor who has jumped ship) get holed up in an otherwise empty Sydney Opera House on the eve of escalating nuclear tension between the superpowers in Eastern Europe. In a concerted effort to deflect their collective anxiety over increasingly ominous news bulletins droning on from the radio, they find creative ways to keep their spirits up.

The film is uneven at times, but for the most part Duigan capably juggles the busy mashup of romantic comedy, apocalyptic thriller and anti-war statement. There are several striking set pieces; particularly an eerily affecting scene where the quartet watch Fritz Langs’s Metropolis as the Easybeats hit “Friday on My Mind” is juxtaposed over its orchestral score. Midnight Oil performs in a scene where the two women attend a concert. The bittersweet denouement (in an underground tube station) is quite powerful.

https://i2.wp.com/cineplex.media.baselineresearch.com/images/103779/103779_full.jpg?w=474

Testament- Originally an American Playhouse presentation, this film was released to theatres and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander. Director Lynne Littman takes a low key, deliberate approach, but pulls no punches. Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike.

There is no exposition on the political climate that precipitates the attacks; this is a wise decision, as it puts the focus on the humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the histrionics and melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amidst such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it very difficult to shake off.

As the children (and adults) of Hamlin succumb to the inevitable scourge of radiation sickness and steadily “disappear”, like the children of the ‘fairy tale’ Hamlin, you are left haunted by the final line of the school production of “The Pied Piper” glimpsed earlier in the film… “Your children are not dead. They will return when the world deserves them.”

https://i1.wp.com/www.petertrumbore.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/13-days.jpg?w=474

Thirteen Days– I confess that I had a block against seeing this 2000 release about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis for years, for several reasons. For one, director Roger Donaldson’s uneven output (for every Smash Palace or No Way Out, he’s got a Species or a Cocktail). I also couldn’t get past “Kevin Costner? In another movie about JFK?” Also, I felt the outstanding 1974 made-for-TV film, The Missiles of October would be hard to top. But I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be one of Donaldson’s better films.

Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp make a very credible JFK and RFK, respectively. The film works as a political thriller, yet it is also intimate and moving at times (especially in the Oval Office scenes between the brothers). Costner provides the “fly on the wall” perspective as Kennedy insider Kenny O’Donnell. Costner gives a compassionate performance; on the downside he demonstrates a tin ear for dialects (that Hahvad Yahd brogue comes and goes of its own free will). According to a tidbit posted on the Internet Movie Database, this was the first film screened at the White House by George and Laura Bush in 2001. Knowing this now…I don’t know whether to laugh or cry myself to sleep.

http://i2.wp.com/vulturehound.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/The-War-Game-%C2%A9-1965-BBC1-620x350.jpg?resize=590%2C333

The War Game / Threads– Out of all of the selections on this list, these two British TV productions are the grimmest and most sobering “nuclear nightmare” films of them all.

Writer-director Peter Watkins’ 1965 docudrama, The War Game was initially produced for television, but was deemed too shocking and disconcerting for the small screen by the BBC. It was mothballed until picked up for theatrical distribution, which snagged it an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1967. Watkins envisions the aftermath of a nuke attack on London, and pulls no punches. Very ahead of its time, and it still packs quite a wallop.

The similar Threads debuted on the BBC in 1984, later airing in the U.S. on TBS. Mick Jackson directs with an uncompromising realism that makes The Day After (the U.S. TV film from the previous year that tackled the same scenario) look like a Teletubbies episode. The story takes a medium sized city (Sheffield) and depicts what would happen to its populace during and after a nuclear strike, in graphic detail. It’s stark and affecting.

Both of these productions make it very clear that, while they are dramatizations, the intent is not to “entertain” you in any sense of the word. The message is simple and direct-nothing good comes out of a nuclear conflict. It’s a living, breathing Hell for all concerned-and anyone “lucky” enough to survive will soon wish they were fucking dead.

#   #   #

UPDATE 1/26/17 – Oh boy. This seems like an important addendum:

 

“It is [now] two and a half minutes to midnight
The board’s decision to move the clock less than a full minute—something it has never before done—reflects a simple reality: As this statement is issued, Donald Trump has been the US president
only a matter of days.”
That’s today’s update from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
Read on, if you dare…
h/t Digby

Better poke him to make sure: Revisiting Cuba on film

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 26, 2016)

https://i1.wp.com/www.abc.es/Media/201412/23/castro--644x362.jpg?resize=474%2C266

Time, he’s waiting in the wings

He speaks of senseless things

His script is you and me, boys

-from “Time” by David Bowie

So the dictator who once inspired a documentary entitled 638 Ways to Kill Castro was finally taken out by time-honored method #639: Patience. Whether you are happy, sad or ambivalent regarding the passing of Fidel Castro, it’s inarguable that it’s been a long, strange trip for U.S.-Cuban relations since the Teflon strongman seized power in 1959.

In light of this development, I’m re-running a post that was originally inspired by Secretary of State John Kerry’s historic visit to the island-nation in October of last year:

https://articulosparapensar.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/soy-cuba1.jpg?w=474

There’s just something about (Castro’s) Cuba that affects (U.S. presidential) administrations like the full moon affects a werewolf. There’s no real logic at work here.

-an interviewee from the documentary 638 Ways to Kill Castro

The Obama administration’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba is the latest foreign policy misstep by this President…

from Gov. Jeb Bush’s official Facebook statement, December 2014

Pardon me for interrupting, Jeb. October of 1962 just called…it wants its zeitgeist back.

the author of this post

 Although you wouldn’t guess it from the odd perfunctory mention that managed to squeeze in edgewise through the ongoing 24/7 Donald Trump coverage dominating the MSM, that flag raising at the American embassy in Cuba yesterday, coinciding with the first official visit by a U.S. Secretary of State in 70 (seventy) years was kind of a big deal.

Wasn’t it?

Maybe it’s just me (silly old peacenik that I am). Anyway, in honor of this auspicious occasion, here are my picks for the top 10 films with a Cuban theme. Alphabetically:

Bananas– Yes, I know. This 1971 Woody Allen film takes place in the fictional banana republic of “San Marcos”, but the mise en scene is an obvious stand-in for Cuba. There are also numerous allusions to the Cuban revolution, not the least of which is the ridiculously fake beard donned at one point by hapless New Yawker Fielding Mellish (Allen) after he finds himself swept up in Third World revolutionary politics. Naturally, it all starts with Allen’s moon-eyed desire for a woman completely out of his league, an attractive activist (Louise Lasser). The whole setup is utterly absurd…and an absolute riot. This is pure comic genius at work. Howard Cosell’s (straight-faced) contribution is priceless. Allen co-wrote with his Take the Money and Run collaborator, Mickey Rose.

Buena Vista Social Club- This engaging 1999 music documentary was the brainchild of musician Ry Cooder, director Wim Wenders, and the film’s music producer Nick Gold. Guitarist/world music aficionado Cooder coaxes a number of venerable Cuban players out of retirement (most of whom had their careers rudely interrupted by the Revolution and its aftermath) to cut a collaborative album, and Wenders is there to capture what ensues (as well as ever-cinematic Havana) in his inimitable style. He weaves in footage of some of the artists as they make their belated return to the stage, playing to enthusiastic fans in Europe and the U.S. It’s a tad over-praised, but well worth your time.

Che– Let’s get this out of the way. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was no martyr. By the time he was captured and executed by CIA-directed Bolivian Special Forces in 1967, he had put his own fair share of people up against the wall in the name of the Revolution. Some historians have called him “Castro’s brain”. That said, there is no denying that he was a complex, undeniably charismatic and fascinating individual. By no means your average revolutionary guerrilla leader, he was well-educated, a physician, a prolific writer (from speeches and essays on politics and social theory to articles, books and poetry), a shrewd diplomat and had a formidable intellect. He was also a brilliant military tactician. Steven Soderbergh and his screenwriters (Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. Van Der Veen) adapted their absorbing (two-part) 4 ½ hour biopic from Guevara’s autobiographical accounts. Whereas Part 1 (aka The Argentine) is a fairly straightforward biopic, Part 2 (aka Guerilla) reminded me of two fictional films with an existential bent, both of which are also set in torpid and unforgiving South American locales-Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear and Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Like the doomed protagonists in those films, Guevara is fully committed to his journey into the heart of darkness, and has no choice but to cast his fate to the wind and let it all play out. Star Benicio del Toro shines.

The Godfather, Part II– While Cuba may not be the primary setting for Francis Ford Coppola’s superb 1974 sequel to The Godfather, it is the location for a key section of the narrative where powerful mob boss Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) travels to pre-Castro Havana to consider a possible business investment. He has second thoughts after witnessing a disturbing incident involving an anti-Batista rebel. And don’t forget that the infamous “kiss of death” scene takes place at Batista’s opulent New Year’s Eve party…just as the guests learn Castro and his merry band of revolutionaries have reached the outskirts of the city and are duly informed by their host…that they are on their own! And remember, if you want to order a banana daiquiri in Spanish, it’s “banana daiquiri”.

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay– Picking up where they left off in their surprise stoner comedy hit Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, roomies Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) excitedly pack their bags for a dream European vacation in weed-friendly Amsterdam. Unbeknownst to Harold, Kumar has smuggled his new invention, a “smokeless” bong, on board. Since it is a homemade, cylindrical device containing liquid, it resembles another four-letter noun that starts with a “b”. When a “vigilant” passenger, already eyeballing Kumar with suspicion due to his ethnic appearance, catches a glimpse of him attempting to fire up in the bathroom, all hell breaks loose. Before they know it, Harold and Kumar have been handcuffed by on-board air marshals, given the third degree back on the ground by a jingoistic government spook and issued orange jumpsuits, courtesy of the Gitmo quartermaster. Through circumstances that could only occur in Harold and Kumar’s resin-encrusted alternate universe, they break out of Cuba, and hitch a boat ride to Florida. This sets off a series of cross-country misadventures, mostly through the South (imagine the possibilities). As in the first film, the more ridiculously over-the-top their predicament, the funnier it gets. It’s crass, even vulgar; but it’s somehow good-naturedly crass and vulgar, in a South Park kind of way. Also like South Park, the goofiness is embedded with sharp political barbs.

I Am Cuba– There is a knee-jerk tendency in some quarters to dismiss this 1964 film about the Cuban revolution out of hand as pure Communist propaganda, and little else. Granted, it was produced with the full blessing of Castro’s regime, who partnered with the Soviet government to provide the funding for Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov’s sprawling epic. Despite the dubious backing, the director was given a surprising amount of artistic leeway; what resulted was, yes, from one perspective a propagandist polemic, but also a visually intoxicating cinematic masterpiece that remains (accolades from cineastes and critics aside) curiously unheralded. The narrative is divided into a quartet of one-act dramas about Cuba’s salt of the earth; exploited workers, dirt-poor farmers, student activists, and rebel guerrilla fighters. However, the real stars here are the director and his technical crew, who leave you pondering how in the hell they produced some of those jaw-dropping set pieces (and if you think Birdman has tracking shots, think again).

The Mambo Kings– Look in the dictionary under “pulsating”, and you will likely see the poster for Arme Glimcher’s underrated 1992 melodrama about two musician brothers (Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas) who flee Cuba in the mid-1950s to seek fame and fortune in America. Hugely entertaining, with fiery performances by the two leads, great support from Cathy Moriarty and Maruschka Detmers, topped off by a fabulous soundtrack. Tito Puente gives a rousing cameo performance, and in a bit of stunt casting Desi Arnaz, Jr. is on hand to play (wait for it) Desi Arnaz, Sr. (who helps the brothers get their career going). Cynthia Cidre adapted her screenplay from Oscar Hijuelos’ novel.

Our Man in Havana– A decade after their collaboration on the 1949 classic, The Third Man, director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene reunited for this wonderfully droll 1960 screen adaptation of Greene’s seriocomic novel. Alec Guinness gives one of his more memorable performances as an English vacuum cleaner shop owner living in pre-revolutionary Havana. Strapped for cash, he accepts an offer from Her Majesty’s government to do a little moonlighting for the British Secret Service. Finding himself with nothing to report, he starts making things up so he can stay on the payroll. Naturally, this gets him into a pickle as he keeps digging himself into a deeper hole. Reed filmed on location, which gives us an interesting snapshot of Havana on the cusp of the Castro era.

Scarface– Make way for the bad guy. Bad guy comin’ through. Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is a bad, bad, bad, bad man, a Cuban immigrant who comes to America as part of the 1980 Mariel boat lift. A self-proclaimed “political refugee”, Tony, like the millions of immigrants before him who made this country great, aims to secure his piece of the American Dream. However, he’s a bit impatient. He espies a lucrative shortcut via Miami’s thriving cocaine trade, which he proves very adept at (because he’s very ruthless). Everything about this film is waaay over the top; Pacino’s performance, Brian De Palma’s direction, Oliver Stone’s screenplay, the mountains of coke and the piles of bodies. Yet, it remains a guilty pleasure; I know I’m not alone in this (c’mon, admit it!).

638 Ways to Kill Castro- History buffs (and conspiracy-a-go-go enthusiasts) will definitely want a peek at British director Dolan Cannell’s documentary. Mixing archival footage with talking heads (including a surprising number of would-be assassins), Cannell highlights some of the attempts by the U.S. government to knock off Fidel over the years. The number (638) of “ways” is derived from a list compiled by former members of Castro’s security team. Although Cannell initially plays for laughs (many of the schemes sound like they were hatched by Wile E. Coyote) the tone becomes more sobering. The most chilling revelation concerns the 1976 downing of a commercial Cuban airliner off Barbados (73 people killed). One of the alleged masterminds was Orlando Bosch, an anti-Castro Cuban exile living in Florida (he had participated in CIA-backed actions in the past). When Bosch was threatened with deportation in the late 80s, many Republicans rallied to have him pardoned, including Florida congresswoman Ileana Ross, who used her involvement with the “Free Orlando Bosch” campaign as part of her running platform. Her campaign manager was a young up and coming politician named (wait for it) Jeb! Long story short? Jeb’s Pappy then-president George Bush Sr. granted Bosch a pardon in 1990. Oh, what a tangled web, Jeb! BTW, Bosch was once publicly referred to as an “unrepentant terrorist” by the Attorney General (don’t get me started).

UPDATE [11-28-16]  #

I’m not the only one with Fidel on the brain…I received a flurry of emails from readers, who offer these excellent recommendations:

h/t to Michael I., Douglas W., Michael H., Carl C.,  & Timothy S.

Plus ca change: Criterion reissues Dr. Strangelove ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 16, 2016)

https://i2.wp.com/www.trespassmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/StrangeloveStrangelove3.jpg?resize=474%2C317

Now then, Dmitri, you know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the Bomb…The *Bomb*, Dmitri… The *hydrogen* bomb!…Well now, what happened is… ahm…one of our base commanders, he had a sort of…well, he went a little funny in the head… you know…just a little…funny. And, ah…he went and did a silly thing…Well, I’ll tell you what he did. He ordered his planes…to attack your country…

 –from Dr. Strangelove (1964)

That’s POTUS Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), making “the call” to the Russian premier from the War Room, regarding an unfortunate chain of events that may very well signal the end of civilization as we know it. It’s a nightmare scenario, precipitated by a perfect storm of political paranoia, bureaucratic bungling and ideological demagoguery that enables the actions of a lone nutcase to trigger global thermonuclear war. Sound familiar?

Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet (knock on wood) to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic 1964 masterpiece about the tendency for people in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why Kubrick and company bothered to make it all up. In case you skipped the quote at the top of this piece, it’s the movie about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…”funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity (and oblivion) ensues.

You rarely see a cast like this: Peter Sellers (playing three characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull (who can be seen breaking character as the Russian ambassador and cracking up as Strangelove’s prosthetic arm seems to take on a mind of its own). There are so many great lines, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks.

https://i0.wp.com/www.oscarchamps.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/1964-Dr-Strangelove-03.jpg?resize=474%2C305

Vodka. That’s what they drink, isn’t it? Never water? On no account will a Commie ever drink water, and not without good reason. Water is the source of all life. Seven-tenths of this earth’s surface is water. Why, do you realize that 70 percent of you is water? And as human beings, you need fresh, pure water to replenish our precious bodily fluids. Are you beginning to understand? –Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), from Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (its full title) did not necessarily spring from a, you know, “funny” place. Indeed, Red Alert, ex-RAF officer Peter George’s 1958 source novel, was anything but; and did not even include the character of Dr. Strangelove, the ex-Nazi scientist who emerges from the shadows of the war room just in time to contextualize all that inspired madness of the film’s third act. “He” was the invention of Kubrick and screenwriter Terry Southern. In a 1994 Grand Street article called “Notes from the War Room”, Southern recounts Kubrick’s epiphany:

[Kubrick] told me he was going to make a film about “our failure to understand the dangers on nuclear war.” He said that he had thought of the story as a “straightforward melodrama” until this morning when he “woke up and realized that nuclear war was too outrageous, too fantastic to be treated in any conventional manner.” He said he could only see it now as “some kind of hideous joke.”

Kubrick had approached Southern as a collaborator on the basis of having read his social satire The Magic Christian (which was itself adapted for the screen in 1969). You have to keep in mind that while Kubrick’s film was in production, the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was still fresh in the minds of a nervous public. This was the height of the Cold War; few people found nuclear annihilation to be, you, know, “funny”…least of all studio suits. When Sellers backed out of the role of Major Kong (to Kubrick’s chagrin), it was first offered to Bonanza star Dan Blocker. Southern recalls (from the same article):

[Kubrick] made arrangements for a script to be delivered to Blocker that afternoon, but a cabled response from Blocker’s agent arrived in quick order: “Thanks a lot, but the material is too pinko for Dan. Or anyone else we know, for that matter. Regards, Leibman, CMA.”

 As I recall, this was the first hint that this sort of political interpretation of our work in progress might exist. Stanley seemed genuinely surprised and disappointed.

But it worked out in the end. Could you imagine anyone but Slim Pickens as Maj. Kong?

https://i0.wp.com/agentpalmer.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Slim-Pickens-riding-the-Bomb.jpg?resize=474%2C267

Survival kit contents check. In them you’ll find: one forty-five caliber automatic; two boxes of ammunition; four days’ concentrated emergency rations; one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills; one miniature combination Russian phrase book and Bible; one hundred dollars in rubles; one hundred dollars in gold; nine packs of chewing gum; one issue of prophylactics; three lipsticks; three pair of nylon stockings. Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff. –Major Kong prepping his B-52 crew

It was in the interest of possible “political interpretation” that a critical revision had to be made to that memorable monolog in post-production. In an eerie bit of kismet, Kubrick had scheduled the first test screening of Dr. Strangelove for November 22, 1963…the day of JFK’s assassination; in view of that zeitgeist-shattering event, the film’s originally slated December premiere was postponed until late January of 1964. But that wasn’t the spookiest part. Originally, the last line of the bit was: “Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff.” Pickens had to be recruited to re-loop the line as we now know it. If you listen carefully during the scene, you can pick up on the edit.

However it did manage to fall together is really moot; the final product stands the test of time as a satire that will never lose relevancy (one could say that about any Kubrick film, as each ultimately points to the absurdity of all these self-important hominids, scurrying about blissfully oblivious to their insignificance within a vast, randomly cruel cosmos).

Hell, Mr. President…I could do a 2,000 word dissertation on the Freudian subtext alone; from the opening montage of aircraft engaging in (decidedly coital) airborne re-fueling maneuvers, to General Ripper firing the .50 caliber machine gun from his crotch, not to mention his cigar and his monolog about why he denies women his “essence”, to the character’s names (Dr. Strangelove, President Muffley, Buck Turgidson, Mr. Staines), and of course all of that phallic weaponry, and montage of nuclear explosions at the end.

But I won’t.

https://cynicritics.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/strangelovebuck3.jpg?resize=474%2C322Oh…and uh, shug? Don’t forget to say your prayers!

Fans of the film will be glad to hear that Dr. Strangelove has been given the Criterion treatment, with the release of their Blu-ray edition. The restored 4k transfer is gorgeous; the best print I’ve seen of the film on home video (this is the third digital version I’ve owned…it’s a sickness, I know). They’ve really piled on the extras; there’s a plethora of archival interviews, as well as featurettes produced exclusively for this edition, like audio essays by film scholars and interviews with Kubrick collaborators and archivists. So fans can immerse themselves in the Strangelovian universe…if that doesn’t seem redundant.

Oh, when November rolls around…don’t forget to say your prayers.

# # #

Previous posts with related themes:

Criterion peddles Kubrick’s noir cycle

Synchronicity: Criterion reissues The Manchurian Candidate

Synchronicity: Criterion reissues The Manchurian Candidate ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  March 19, 2016)

https://i2.wp.com/www.thevintagecameo.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/manchurian-card1.jpg?resize=474%2C267

Would I block you? I would spend every cent I own, and all I could borrow, to block you. There are people who think of Johnny as a clown and a buffoon, but I do not. I despise John Iselin and everything that Iselinism has come to stand for. I think, if John Iselin were a paid Soviet agent, he could not do more to harm this country than he’s doing now.

 –from The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

That’s Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver), in response to Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury), the wife and political handler of Senator John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory), who has just asked him if he would have any objection if her McCarthy-esque husband’s name were to be “put forward” at an upcoming political convention.

Thank god that’s from a movie, because, well…could you imagine what kind of chaos would ensue in this country if someone who is widely perceived as a “clown and buffoon” were somehow jockeyed into a position of high office…perhaps even the highest office? I mean, that’s purely something that could “only happen in the movies”, amirite? Anyone?

Here’s what I know. Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing the members of the American public for suckers. He gets a free ride to the White House and all we get is a lousy hat. His domestic policies would lead to recession. His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president and his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.

-from Mitt Romney’s recent speech regarding Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency

Who said that? Mitt Romney? Really? He denounced his own party’s steamrolling frontrunner in the race for the Republican presidential nominee? I suppose I see some parallels between Donald Trump and the fictional Senator Iselin, but let’s keep this in mind…director John Frankenheimer’s Cold War thriller was made 54 years ago. And the story itself is set in the early 1950s, at the height of the Red Scare. Those were different times! Back then, the political climate was informed by fear and paranoia. You actually had politicians publicly calling each other commies, fergawdsakes. What is that line in the film, where Senator Jordan is explaining to Senator Iselin’s stepson Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) the chief reasons for the political enmity between himself and the insufferable tag team of Raymond’s Red-baiting stepfather and control freak mother…?

One of your mother’s more endearing traits is her tendency to refer to anyone who disagrees with her about anything as a communist.

Yes, that was it. See? That was then, but this is now. Donald Trump doesn’t go that far.

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump on Saturday blamed supporters of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders for protests that shut down his Chicago rally, calling the U.S. senator from Vermont “our communist friend”.

-from The Raw Story (March 12)

Oh. But, in the film, it’s the candidate’s wife who is described as a Red-baiter, so let’s not get carried away. Because if that were the case, this would be getting downright spooky.

[Bernie] Sanders is a communist. I was born in a communist country, so I know when I see them or hear them.

-Donald Trump’s ex-wife Ivana (from Page Six, March 15)

All right…now it’s getting downright spooky.

https://i1.wp.com/www.fact.co.uk/media/2770952/The%20Manchurian%20Candidate%2012.jpeg?w=474

Speaking of “spooky”, in January of 2011, in my armchair psychologist’s attempt to answer “Why?” regarding yet another mass shooting, I explored the pathology of the perversely “All-American” phenomenon known as the “lone gunman” via what morphed into a rather wordy genre study. In the piece, I posed some questions. What is the motivation? Madness? Political beef? A cry for attention? What is to blame? Society? Demagoguery? Legislative torpor? The internet? Then, prompted by last year’s horrible Charleston church shooting, I felt compelled to republish a revised version of that piece.

In the intro to that revised posting, I noted an unsettling similarity between something Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump said in his official campaign kickoff speech to what the Charleston shooter had allegedly said to his victims just one day later:

“When Mexico sends its people (to America), they are not sending their best… (Mexican immigrants) are bringing drugs and they are bringing crime, and they’re rapists.”

 -from Donald Trump’s speech announcing his presidential bid, June 16, 2015

“(African-Americans) rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”

-Charleston shooter’s statement to his victims before opening fire, June 17, 2015

Was it coincidence, or was it cause-and-effect? I drew no conclusions then, nor do I now. At any rate, my point is…one of the films I analyzed in the post was The Manchurian Candidate, which is now available in a newly restored 4K Blu-ray edition from Criterion.

The story is set after the Korean War. Frank Sinatra stars as former POW Major Bennett Marco. Marco and his platoon were captured by the Soviets and transported to Manchuria for a period, then released. As a consequence, Marco suffers from (what we would now call) PTSD, in the form of recurring nightmares. Marco’s memories of the captivity are hazy; but he suspects his dreams hold the key. His suspicions are confirmed when he hears from several fellow POWs, who all share very  specific and disconcerting details in their dreams involving the platoon’s sergeant, Raymond Shaw. As the mystery unfolds, a byzantine conspiracy is uncovered, involving brainwashing, subterfuge and assassination.

I’ve watched this film maybe 9 or 10 times over the years, and I must say that it’s held up remarkably well, despite a few dated trappings. It works on a number of levels; as a conspiracy thriller, political satire, and a perverse family melodrama. Interestingly, each time I revisit, it strikes me more and more as a black comedy; which could be attributable to its prescient nature (perhaps the political reality has finally caught up with its more far-fetched elements…which now makes it a closer cousin to Dr. Strangelove and Network).

Indeed, I found myself laughing out loud at lines like “Yak dung…tastes good, like a cigarette should!” and “…having been relieved of those uniquely American symptoms of guilt and fear, he cannot possibly give himself away” (both delivered by scene-stealer Khigh Dhiegh, as the droll Manchurian brainwashing expert). Sinatra is assigned one of the most quotable lines: “Mr. Secretary-I’m kinda new at this job, but I don’t think it’s good public relations to talk that way to a United States senator…even if he is an idiot.” The intelligent screenplay was adapted from Richard Condon’s novel by George Axelrod.

Good performances abound, but Lansbury is the standout, with a magnificent turn as one of cinema’s greatest heavies. Harvey is heartbreaking as the tortured Raymond. Sinatra is, well, Sinatra (i.e. uneven). It’s been well-documented that he was never a fan of doing multiple takes; frankly it shows and works against him here, particularly whenever he lapses into that Rat Pack patois (he recounts a dream as “one swinger of a nightmare”). It’s not enough to sink the film, but those moments do take Sinatra out of his character.

As usual, Criterion packs in some worthwhile extras. They port over the 1997 commentary track by the director that was done for the original MGM DVD release, as well as an 8-minute round-table between Frankenheimer, screenwriter Axelrod and Sinatra that was recorded in 1987. New supplements exclusive to this edition include a recent 11-minute interview with Lansbury (engaging as ever at 89), a 21-minute interview with historian Susan Carruthers, and an enlightening 16-minute appreciation by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who gleans a few subtexts I’ve never picked up on. That’s one mark of a truly great film-the more times you “watch” it, the more you’ll see.

There’s a Red’s house over yonder: Hail, Caesar! ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  February 6, 2016)

https://i0.wp.com/i3.mirror.co.uk/incoming/article7023248.ece/ALTERNATES/s615b/JS78900468.jpg?w=474

Not that Hollywood ever tires of making movies about Hollywood…but “they” really seem to be on a roll lately. Arriving on the heels of Jay Roach’s Trumbo (my review), which depicted the Red Scare-induced fear and paranoia that permeated the film industry in the 1950s through the eyes of a slightly fictionalized real-life participant, we now have the latest effort from co-writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen…which depicts the Red Scare-induced fear and paranoia that permeated the industry in the 1950s through the eyes of a slightly fictionalized real-life participant (although in this case, its funnier side).

In fact, the Coens have gone into full “screwball” mode for Hail, Caesar! – leaving no gag unturned (think The Hudsucker Proxy or O Brother, Where Art Thou?). That said, it wouldn’t be a Coen Brothers film without its Conflicted Everyman Protagonist; for this outing it’s Hollywood “fixer” Eddie Mannix, (the ubiquitous Josh Brolin). Not unlike his (wholly fictional) contemporary counterpart “Ray Donovan” (who I wrote about recently) he’s a responsible family man on the one hand, yet earns his living in a twilight world where he is required to bend whatever rules he needs to (moral and/or legal) in order to clean up after his clients. Also like Donovan, Mannix is racked by Catholic guilt.

When Mannix isn’t in the confession box (which provides some of the film’s more drolly amusing scenes) he’s busy putting out fires; like the one that involves the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), one of Capitol Studio’s biggest stars. Whitlock has been snatched off the set of his latest picture (a sword-and-sandal epic bearing a striking resemblance to Spartacus) by an enigmatic organization called The Future…whose true identity I’m sworn to protect, in the interest of remaining spoiler-free.

In the meantime, Mannix has to stave off a pair of persistent gossip columnists (twin sisters played by Tilda Swinton, who through no fault of her own has to follow Helen Mirren’s recent bigger-than-life, Golden Globes and SAG-nominated turn as Hedda Hopper in Trumbo).

Truth be told, the narrative is actually a bit thin in this fluffier-than-usual Coen outing; it’s primarily a skeleton around which the brothers can construct a portmanteau of 50s movie parodies. 1950s musicals provide fodder for several set pieces; including an Esther Williams send up (with Scarlett Johanssen poured into a mermaid suit), and a takeoff of On the Town, featuring a nimble-footed Channing Tatum firing up a barroom full of hunky sailors and leading them in a winking, cheerfully homoerotic song and dance.

Singing westerns are parodied via Alden Ehrenreich’s character, a hick who hit the big time based not so much on his nominal acting abilities, but due to his looks and rodeo skills. The main plot cleverly mirrors 1950s Red Scare films like Big Jim McLain and I Was a Communist for the FBI (I also found the kidnappers’ hideaway suspiciously reminiscent of the antagonists’ digs in North by Northwest).

Brolin plays it straight, Clooney plays it broad, Ehrenreich is endearing, Johanssen is, uh, gorgeous, and Tatum proves quite adept at comedy (who knew?). Ralph Fiennes hams it up as a finicky “prestige” director, and you can have fun playing “spot the cameo” with the likes of Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Clancy Brown, Christopher Lambert, and Dolph Lundgren.

This is far from the Coen’s best work, but the film has just enough of their patented “little touches” (like a Communist who has named his dog “Engels”) that make it unmistakably Coen. Oh-and a character is repeatedly told to shut up; undoubtedly this is a callback to the catchphrase “Shut the fuck up, Donnie!” from The Big Lebowski.

Which is what I will do now.

By any other name: Trumbo ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 21, 2015)

https://i0.wp.com/cdn1-www.comingsoon.net/assets/uploads/1970/01/file_611801_trumbo-picture.jpg?w=474

Chris Hayes shared this Harry Truman quote on his MSNBC show, All In the other day:

 When we have these fits of hysteria, we are like the person who has a fit of nerves in public; when he recovers, he is very much ashamed…and so are we as a nation when sanity returns.

 –from Years of Trial and Hope, Volume 2

Hayes was doing a piece on the current political backlash and fear mongering (mostly from the Right) against Syrian immigrants in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks. That quote from President Truman’s memoirs, Hayes pointed out, referred to the “Red Scare” of the 1940s and 1950s; his point being that, (as the French always say) plus ca change

Speaking of “timely”, one could draw many historical parallels with the present from Trumbo, a fact-based drama by director Jay Roach which recounts the McCarthy Era travails of Academy Award winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was on the Hollywood “blacklist” from the late 40s until 1960 (the year his name appeared in the credits for Exodus, ending nearly a decade of writing scripts under various pseudonyms).

The film begins in 1947, the year that the House Un-American Activities Committee launched its initial “investigation” into whether or not Hollywood filmmakers were sneaking Communist propaganda into films; and if so, who was responsible. Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) and nine other members of the industry (now immortalized as “The Hollywood Ten”) were summoned. All ten refused to cooperate. Their reward for standing on their convictions was…contempt convictions. This precipitated their inductions as premier members of the infamous blacklist (which, if one were to ask the studio suits that did the hiring, never officially existed). Trumbo ended up doing eleven months in the pen. The bulk of the film recounts his long, hard-won road to redemption.

Despite the somewhat rote narrative choices, I’m heartily recommending this film, for a couple reasons. First, for the performances. Cranston plays the outspoken Trumbo with aplomb; armed with a massive typewriter, piss-elegant cigarette holder and a barbed wit, he’s like an Eisenhower era prototype for Hunter S. Thompson (especially once he dons his dark glasses). He is ably supported by a scenery-chewing Helen Mirren (as odious gossip columnist/Red-baiter Hedda Hopper) Diane Lane (as Trumbo’s wife), Louis C.K. (his finest dramatic performance to date), and Michael Stuhlbarg (as Edward G. Robinson). John Goodman (as a boisterous and colorful low-budget film producer who is suspiciously reminiscent of the shlockmeister he played in Matinee) and Christian Berkel (as larger-than-life Austrian director, Otto Preminger) make the most of their small roles.

Screenwriter John McNamara (who adapted from Bruce Cook’s 1977 biography, Dalton Trumbo) plays it by-the-numbers; with broadly delineated heroes and villains (Trumbo himself conceded years later that there was “courage and cowardice […] good and bad on both sides”). While not as emotionally resonant as Martin Ritt’s similar 1976 dramedy, The Front (it’s tough to beat those end credit reveals that key members of that film’s cast and crew actually were victims of the blacklist), Roach’s film happily shares a like purpose; it provides something we need right now, more than ever…a Rocky for liberals.

It’s just a jump to the Left (of Miami): Top 10 Cuba films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 15, 2015)

https://i0.wp.com/41.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m2dl29DwMw1r3owlzo1_500.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

There’s just something about (Castro’s) Cuba that affects (U.S. presidential) administrations like the full moon affects a werewolf. There’s no real logic at work here.

-an interviewee from the documentary 638 Ways to Kill Castro

The Obama administration’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba is the latest foreign policy misstep by this President…

from Gov. Jeb Bush’s official Facebook statement, December 2014

Pardon me for interrupting, Jeb. October of 1962 just called…it wants its zeitgeist back.

the author of this post

 

 Although you wouldn’t guess it from the odd perfunctory mention that managed to squeeze in edgewise through the ongoing 24/7 Donald Trump coverage dominating the MSM, that flag raising at the American embassy in Cuba yesterday, coinciding with the first official visit by a U.S. Secretary of State in 70 (seventy) years was kind of a big deal.

Wasn’t it?

Maybe it’s just me (silly old peacenik that I am). Anyway, in honor of this auspicious occasion, here are my picks for the top 10 films with a Cuban theme. Alphabetically:

Bananas– Yes, I know. This 1971 Woody Allen film takes place in the fictional banana republic of “San Marcos”, but the mise en scene is an obvious stand-in for Cuba. There are also numerous allusions to the Cuban revolution, not the least of which is the ridiculously fake beard donned at one point by hapless New Yawker Fielding Mellish (Allen) after he finds himself swept up in Third World revolutionary politics. Naturally, it all starts with Allen’s moon-eyed desire for a woman completely out of his league, an attractive activist (Louise Lasser). The whole setup is utterly absurd…and an absolute riot. This is pure comic genius at work. Howard Cosell’s (straight-faced) contribution is priceless. Allen co-wrote with his Take the Money and Run collaborator, Mickey Rose.

Buena Vista Social Club- This engaging 1999 music documentary was the brainchild of musician Ry Cooder, director Wim Wenders, and the film’s music producer Nick Gold. Guitarist/world music aficionado Cooder coaxes a number of venerable Cuban players out of retirement (most of whom had their careers rudely interrupted by the Revolution and its aftermath) to cut a collaborative album, and Wenders is there to capture what ensues (as well as ever-cinematic Havana) in his inimitable style. He weaves in footage of some of the artists as they make their belated return to the stage, playing to enthusiastic fans in Europe and the U.S. It’s a tad over-praised, but well worth your time.

Che– Let’s get this out of the way. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was no martyr. By the time he was captured and executed by CIA-directed Bolivian Special Forces in 1967, he had put his own fair share of people up against the wall in the name of the Revolution. Some historians have called him “Castro’s brain”. That said, there is no denying that he was a complex, undeniably charismatic and fascinating individual. By no means your average revolutionary guerrilla leader, he was well-educated, a physician, a prolific writer (from speeches and essays on politics and social theory to articles, books and poetry), a shrewd diplomat and had a formidable intellect. He was also a brilliant military tactician. Steven Soderbergh and his screenwriters (Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. Van Der Veen) adapted their absorbing (two-part) 4 ½ hour biopic from Guevara’s autobiographical accounts. Whereas Part 1 (aka The Argentine) is a fairly straightforward biopic, Part 2 (aka Guerilla) reminded me of two fictional films with an existential bent, both of which are also set in torpid and unforgiving South American locales-Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear and Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Like the doomed protagonists in those films, Guevara is fully committed to his journey into the heart of darkness, and has no choice but to cast his fate to the wind and let it all play out. Star Benicio del Toro shines.

The Godfather, Part II– While Cuba may not be the primary setting for Francis Ford Coppola’s superb 1974 sequel to The Godfather, it is the location for a key section of the narrative where powerful mob boss Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) travels to pre-Castro Havana to consider a possible business investment. He has second thoughts after witnessing a disturbing incident involving an anti-Batista rebel. And don’t forget that the infamous “kiss of death” scene takes place at Batista’s opulent New Year’s Eve party…just as the guests learn Castro and his merry band of revolutionaries have reached the outskirts of the city and are duly informed by their host…that they are on their own! And remember, if you want to order a banana daiquiri in Spanish, it’s “banana daiquiri”.

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay– Picking up where they left off in their surprise stoner comedy hit Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, roomies Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) excitedly pack their bags for a dream European vacation in weed-friendly Amsterdam. Unbeknownst to Harold, Kumar has smuggled his new invention, a “smokeless” bong, on board. Since it is a homemade, cylindrical device containing liquid, it resembles another four-letter noun that starts with a “b”. When a “vigilant” passenger, already eyeballing Kumar with suspicion due to his ethnic appearance, catches a glimpse of him attempting to fire up in the bathroom, all hell breaks loose. Before they know it, Harold and Kumar have been handcuffed by on-board air marshals, given the third degree back on the ground by a jingoistic government spook and issued orange jumpsuits, courtesy of the Gitmo quartermaster. Through circumstances that could only occur in Harold and Kumar’s resin-encrusted alternate universe, they break out of Cuba, and hitch a boat ride to Florida. This sets off a series of cross-country misadventures, mostly through the South (imagine the possibilities). As in the first film, the more ridiculously over-the-top their predicament, the funnier it gets. It’s crass, even vulgar; but it’s somehow good-naturedly crass and vulgar, in a South Park kind of way. Also like South Park, the goofiness is embedded with sharp political barbs.

I Am Cuba– There is a knee-jerk tendency in some quarters to dismiss this 1964 film about the Cuban revolution out of hand as pure Communist propaganda, and little else. Granted, it was produced with the full blessing of Castro’s regime, who partnered with the Soviet government to provide the funding for Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov’s sprawling epic. Despite the dubious backing, the director was given a surprising amount of artistic leeway; what resulted was, yes, from one perspective a propagandist polemic, but also a visually intoxicating cinematic masterpiece that remains (accolades from cineastes and critics aside) curiously unheralded. The narrative is divided into a quartet of one-act dramas about Cuba’s salt of the earth; exploited workers, dirt-poor farmers, student activists, and rebel guerrilla fighters. However, the real stars here are the director and his technical crew, who leave you pondering how in the hell they produced some of those jaw-dropping set pieces (and if you think Birdman has tracking shots, think again).

The Mambo Kings– Look in the dictionary under “pulsating”, and you will likely see the poster for Arme Glimcher’s underrated 1992 melodrama about two musician brothers (Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas) who flee Cuba in the mid-1950s to seek fame and fortune in America. Hugely entertaining, with fiery performances by the two leads, great support from Cathy Moriarty and Maruschka Detmers, topped off by a fabulous soundtrack. Tito Puente gives a rousing cameo performance, and in a bit of stunt casting Desi Arnaz, Jr. is on hand to play (wait for it) Desi Arnaz, Sr. (who helps the brothers get their career going). Cynthia Cidre adapted her screenplay from Oscar Hijuelos’ novel.

Our Man in Havana– A decade after their collaboration on the 1949 classic, The Third Man, director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene reunited for this wonderfully droll 1960 screen adaptation of Greene’s seriocomic novel. Alec Guinness gives one of his more memorable performances as an English vacuum cleaner shop owner living in pre-revolutionary Havana. Strapped for cash, he accepts an offer from Her Majesty’s government to do a little moonlighting for the British Secret Service. Finding himself with nothing to report, he starts making things up so he can stay on the payroll. Naturally, this gets him into a pickle as he keeps digging himself into a deeper hole. Reed filmed on location, which gives us an interesting snapshot of Havana on the cusp of the Castro era.

Scarface– Make way for the bad guy. Bad guy comin’ through. Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is a bad, bad, bad, bad man, a Cuban immigrant who comes to America as part of the 1980 Mariel boat lift. A self-proclaimed “political refugee”, Tony, like the millions of immigrants before him who made this country great, aims to secure his piece of the American Dream. However, he’s a bit impatient. He espies a lucrative shortcut via Miami’s thriving cocaine trade, which he proves very adept at (because he’s very ruthless). Everything about this film is waaay over the top; Pacino’s performance, Brian De Palma’s direction, Oliver Stone’s screenplay, the mountains of coke and the piles of bodies. Yet, it remains a guilty pleasure; I know I’m not alone in this (c’mon, admit it!).

638 Ways to Kill Castro- History buffs (and conspiracy-a-go-go enthusiasts) will definitely want a peek at British director Dolan Cannell’s documentary. Mixing archival footage with talking heads (including a surprising number of would-be assassins), Cannell highlights some of the attempts by the U.S. government to knock off Fidel over the years. The number (638) of “ways” is derived from a list compiled by former members of Castro’s security team. Although Cannell initially plays for laughs (many of the schemes sound like they were hatched by Wile E. Coyote) the tone becomes more sobering. The most chilling revelation concerns the 1976 downing of a commercial Cuban airliner off Barbados (73 people killed). One of the alleged masterminds was Orlando Bosch, an anti-Castro Cuban exile living in Florida (he had participated in CIA-backed actions in the past). When Bosch was threatened with deportation in the late 80s, many Republicans rallied to have him pardoned, including Florida congresswoman Ileana Ross, who used her involvement with the “Free Orlando Bosch” campaign as part of her running platform. Her campaign manager was a young up and coming politician named (wait for it) Jeb! Long story short? Jeb’s Pappy then-president George Bush Sr. granted Bosch a pardon in 1990. Oh, what a tangled web, Jeb! BTW, Bosch was once publicly referred to as an “unrepentant terrorist” by the Attorney General (don’t get me started).

The mole from the ministry: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 24, 2011)

https://i2.wp.com/images.amcnetworks.com/ifc.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/tinker-tailor-soldier-spy-12092011.jpg?w=474

It is always the quiet ones that you need to watch out for. I’m sure you’ve viewed enough nature documentaries on the National Geographic Channel to figure that one out. Lions will sit patiently for hours, waiting for the right moment to pounce. As casual and disinterested as they may seem at times, they never lose their focus. They are studying your every move, all the while visualizing how nicely you will fit on today’s fresh sheet.

Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s new film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (adapted from John le Carre’s classic espionage potboiler by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan) is chockablock with such animals. However, these are not creatures of the four-legged, furry variety that you will find in the sun-drenched African Savanna, lurking about in tall grasses. These are creatures of the bipedal, D-deficient variety that you will find in the fog-shrouded British Isles, usually lurking in musty offices with nicotine-stained ceilings.

The story is set in 1973, against a Cold War backdrop. Our unlikely hero is not so much a leonine, but rather an owlish sort of fellow. His name is George Smiley (Gary Oldman), and despite the fact that he would look more at home behind a library check out desk than behind the wheel of, let’s say, an Aston Martin, he is a seasoned intelligence agent for MI6. Actually, Smiley’s long-standing career with a branch known as “The Circus” is not going so well. When his boss, known simply as Control (John Hurt), gets booted out for a botched operation in Hungary, Smiley finds himself out of a job as well (more as a scapegoat). It seems that the office politics of the Circus are nearly indistinguishable from the acrimonious and paranoia-fueled spy games played in the field with “enemy” agents.

Smiley’s forced retirement is short-lived. He is summoned to a meet with a government under-secretary (Simon McBurney), where he is asked to surreptitiously come back to work. There are suspicions that there is a double agent among higher echelons of the Circus, who has been feeding intelligence to the Soviets. Smiley’s mission, should he decide to accept it, is to smoke out the mole.

Interestingly, it was Smiley’s ex-boss, Control (now dead), who  intuited this possibility, narrowing the field of suspects down to five men in the department. Given that he didn’t have much going on outside of his job (apart from brooding about his estranged wife), Smiley jumps at the chance to get back in the game. And as movies have taught us, the Crusty yet Benign (city editor, lawyer, police inspector, seasoned beat cop, or in this case, Master Spy) needs an Ambitious Young Apprentice to watch his back (Benedict Cumberbatch).

What ensues  is too byzantine and multi-layered for me to summarize here. And when I say “byzantine and multi-layered”, I mean that in the most positive possible context, thanks in no small part to that rarest of animals found at the multiplex these days: The Intelligent Script (#1 on the endangered species list). Not only do Alfredson, his writers and actors refuse to insult our intelligence, but they aren’t afraid to make us do something that we haven’t done in a while: lean forward in our theater seat to catch every nuance of plot and character (it’s been so long that I think I pulled something).

That is not to say that this is a static and somber affair. There’s “action” here and there, but it’s not calculated and choreographed; Dr. No’s island doesn’t blow up at the end. When violence does occur, it’s ugly, ungraceful and anything but cinematic (as in real life). Most of the “thrills” are drawn from the arsenal of the skilled actor; a sideways glance or a subtle voice inflection that can ratchet up the tension as effectively as someone holding a gun to your head.

This is Oldman’s best performance in years. It’s nice to see him take a break from playing cartoon villains and getting back to where he once belonged (his bespectacled, enigmatic characterization hearkens back to another Cold War film spy hero, Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer). Rounding off a top-notch cast are Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong (a standout) and the wonderful Kathy Burke (who nails 2011’s best movie line: “I don’t know about you, George, but I’m feeling seriously under-fucked.”).

DP Hoyte Van Hoytema (who also photographed the director’s moody 2008 vampire tale, Let the Right One In) deserves a mention. He sustains a bleak, wintry atmosphere that could be pulling double duty as a visual metaphor for the Cold War itself; or for the arctic desolation of the alarmingly pale souls who populate this tale. Not unlike vampires, they are twilight creatures who stalk their prey under cloak of darkness, and live in mortal fear of illumination and discovery. As I said…always watch out for the quiet ones.