No Way Out (1987)

No_Way_Out_(1987_film)_posterIn the 1970s political paranoia involved issues in the realm of Watergate. Government conspiracy and that type of thing perfectly embodied by some of Alan Pakula’s best films. But it’s important to realize in order to better understand this particular thriller, the 1980s were a decade fraught with fears of Soviet infiltration compromising our national security. The Cold War was still a part of the public consciousness even after being a part of life for such a long time already. So No Way Out has a bit of Pakula’s apprehension in government and maybe even a bit of the showmanship of Psycho with some truly jarring twists.

The conflict is surprisingly close and even if it involves the vast bureaucracy of the Pentagon and various other arms of government, Roger Donalson’s film only takes great interest in maybe three or four characters really.

From early on its evident that Kevin Costner is our everyman and the person who we will be investing our time in for the rest of the film. It’s a star-making performance to add to a string of classics including the Untouchables, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and Dances with Wolves.

The always capable Gene Hackman takes on the role of Secretary of Defense and his ultra-loyal right-hand man Will Patton goes to great lengths to protect his superior. They are key to the storyline as is Lt. Commander Tom Farrell’s girl Susan Atwell (Sean Young) who also moonlights as the Secretary’s mistress. Her character is lively and a crucial player but over time it becomes evident that above all else she’s used to serve the plot and ratchet up the tension.

Already you can begin to see the complications and their ensuing implications. But that is only the beginning of No Way Out because in its latter half it drops off the deep end with a seismic shift that shakes up everything we knew before about this world.

It’s in these moments that I had the sneaking suspicion that I’d seen this before somewhere and it’s easy to see the striking resemblance to the 1940s noir The Big Clock. On further examination, the two stories do share some of the same plot points from Kenneth Fearing’s novel but this is certainly a re-imagining meant for the 1980s transposed to a politically charged arena.

Once more we have the authorities looking for a phantom man but the said man seems to be the only one who knows he is innocent. Off such a foundation No Way Out builds a pulse-pounding narrative that at times feels utterly absurd but it also tapped into the fears of that age and even this one that our highest modes of government are being undermined by our enemies. The Big Clock boasted a more idiosyncratic and colorful script but No Way Out certainly works well as a highly underrated thriller.

My initial assumption would have been that Hackman would have played a bigger role and potentially had a shot of pulling the spotlight away from Costner but our lead remains our lead to the very end, dashing in a uniform and incredibly fearless when it comes to defying authority.

If nothing else it leads to a vacuous car chase that ends up on foot in a Subway station. Hackman and Fernando Rey did a better job of it in The French Connection but that does not take away an ounce of the enjoyment. Because whether you’re ultimately a fan of them or not, No Way Out does have some monumental twists that will either leave you scratching your heads incredulously or cause you to fly off the handle in indignance.  If you crave a good old-fashioned political thriller 80s-style No Way Out is worth it.

3.5/5 Stars

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

film1956-invasionofthebodysnatchers-originalposterBody Snatchers works seamlessly and efficiently on multiple fronts, both as science fiction and social commentary. Don Siegel helms this film with his typical dynamic ease putting every minute of running time to good use. The screenwriter, Daniel Manwaring, put together perhaps one of the greatest political allegories ever penned and, on the whole, it’s a  taut thriller combining sci-fi and horror to a tee.

It’s a wonderful bit of ethos that our main hero Miles Bennet (Kevin McCarthy) is a well-respected doctor, a genuine guy who over time gets transformed into a blubbering paranoid mess. It begs the question. What would evoke such a change in this man? Because it’s true. When he starts out he seems immeasurably chipper. Shrugging off a euphemistic “trip to Reno” and the subsequent alimony as if it were nothing. His practice is well-respected and his old beau, the beautifully elegant Becky Driscol (Dana Wynter) has returned to their idyllic town of Santa Mira, California.

The film’s amiable leads are able to suggest chemistry in only a matter of minutes. And though Wynter hardly seems indicative of a small town girl, it’s strangely of little consequence. While their relationship is integral to the narrative it’s only suggestive of the broader issue at hand — this epidemic of mass hysteria that slowly ingratiates itself on the small town.

It’s a systematic takeover — a silent killer– that runs city deep from the farmers to the police and everyone else in between. It comes slowly at first, only evident from a few seemingly incidental cases of psychological duress and odd coincidence. Dr. Bennet has sick patients leave messages with him frantically asking for help, only to reverse their pleas for help later. Then Wilma insists her Uncle Ira isn’t the same. There’s something different about him that she can’t quite put a finger on. The same goes for a young boy who repeatedly runs away from home insisting his mother isn’t his mother.

Once more Dr. Bennet finds the behavior odd but isn’t ready to come to a conclusion on it. But the epidemic continues and pretty soon Miles and Becky are horrified to find a faceless body at the residence of their close friends. It’s at this point where the full-blown hysteria begins to deluge them as well.

They must fight to stay awake as they try and get to the bottom of this nefarious scheme. But that’s precisely it. These alien lifeforms are using human seed pods to duplicate and replace people. For all intent and purposes, they look, move, and talk exactly the same. But perhaps the most telling human characteristic is absent. Their sense of feeling. Their emotions.

And as Miles and his girl frantically flee the invasion it continues to become more and more obvious that this paranoia-filled chiller is putting a voice to the anxiety of the age. Both in Hollywood and elsewhere. Both because of the Red Scare and the backlash caused by Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts. Because that was the fear. That the Communists were infiltrating us. We couldn’t see them. We couldn’t weed them out because they were too well concealed. But another horror brought up by this film are the implications of having those you know and love turn against you and betray you.

All of that is in this film whether you want to acknowledge or not. But on a more cursory level, it certainly delivers on the horror and it’s the best kind of horror that’s not so much popping out at us. In those cases, the scare soon dies. It’s gone. But in the case of Body Snatchers, the horror is much more insidious as it burrows further and further into our brains. It has us unsettled from the first frame and it does not subside really until the film is over. Even with a “happy” ending, that cannot fully neutralize the impact of this 50s classic.

4.5/5 Stars

 

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965)

thespywhocame1Adapted from the John le Carré novel, this is a black & white spy thriller that personifies cold war paranoia in ways that Bond never could. Richard Burton is an operative working in Berlin before being demoted to a librarian job. It looks like our narrative is heading in a direction hardly fit for a spy film. Its intentions are not so obvious at first, and it keeps its audience working for the rest of the film.

Alec becomes fond of his colleague Nan Perry (Claire Bloom) who is a young member of the British communist party, but he’s also prone to drink and outbursts of anger. He’s become the perfect target for defecting, and the enemy reaches out to him just as would be expected. They send him to the Netherlands promising payment for the disclosure of British secrets. In these moments there is a great deal of dialogue that feels somewhat trying. It ends up being a slow burn for Burton and the viewer as new layers and wrinkles are added to this whole espionage affair. Only does it get interesting when the girl winds up back in the equation. All of the sudden, the stakes are a lot different, a lot more hangs in the balance, and a lot of new twists present themselves.

As an audience, we are thrown into the tension of the moment, and we become utterly befuddled by all that is going on around us. It’s as if when we finally prick up our ears in anticipation we no longer know all the ins and outs of what’s going on. Where do the allegiances lie?  Who is “good?” Who is “bad?” Or is everyone just a muddied shade of gray?

Perhaps the most disconcerting revelation is only alluded to and remains more prominent in the original novel. Here we have a storyline where the sadistic German ultimately survives and the Jewish agent is destroyed. It’s a cruel bit of irony that hardly needs to be explained, but the implications are decidedly troubling. With such an observation we cannot help but recall the pogrom-filled past of European history — most devastatingly the Holocaust a mere 15 or 20 years before.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a dour, misanthropic picture of the Cold War era. A narrative perfectly matched for Burton’s pair of somber eyes, cynicism, and brooding. He’s a man who speaks of Peter Pan and God in the same breath — they are both fairy tales. His role as a spy is never glorious, instead besmirched by conspiracy and lies. When you put it that way it’s not very appealing at all, and it shouldn’t be. Director Martin Ritt, unfortunately, is a greatly under-appreciated director and his films are often tinged with moral and political undertones that follow troubled characters.

Notably, this film felt like a precursor to The Three Days of the Condor, except this time it’s about the British organization Control that pulls the wool over the eyes of the enemy. The conspiracy runs so deep it’s almost difficult to even comprehend it.  Maintaining its tone, the story ends much like it began, very bleak indeed. This is a film that deserves your time and demands your full attention.

4/5 Stars

“What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?” ~ Richard Burton as Alec Leamus

Commissar (1967)

commissar1

Even with the so-called Khrushchev Thaw, it’s pretty amazing that Commissar even got made and perhaps even more astounding that it made it to the viewer all these years later. Some of that might be because it originated from Russian Civil War literature and anything else we can attribute to luck.

It is, as it titles suggests, about a commissar: an official of the Communist party, but this one seems special. First of all, she’s a woman which in itself is an interesting piece of commentary, but perhaps more so is the transformation she goes through.

From the outset, she is what we conjure up in our minds. Brutal, tough as nails, masculinized and mechanized by the collectivist agenda of the party. She’s the perfect comrade cog in the communist machine. Except then she receives the startling news that she is pregnant, and she must seek refuge in the home of a nearby Jewish clan. They are forced to quarter her, serving the greater good. She’s aloof to the whole idea and their diminutive patriarch puts up a fuss.

You see, he already has five children, a wife, and a mother to look after. He can’t afford to have this unwanted extra baggage, and she’s no friend of theirs. In this sense, the film feels reminiscent of Melville’s Silence de la mer. However, Commissar evolves into its own creature, just as all parties involved change over time. Yefim and his wife make their guest comfortable the best they know how and following the pregnancy they take good care of her.

Seeing her with a newborn is an altogether strange and foreign image, and with the cult of motherhood, the commissar’s whole demeanor shifts. She looks on at this family with contented eyes and stares back at her former life with some reluctance. It seems impossible to traverse the same paths she once did.

Perhaps most frightening are the images that are interwoven into the plot. They are disorienting, paranoia-filled, listless dreams that swoop in during pregnancy and restless hours of sleep. In the present, there are the children playing their militant games, terrorizing their sister, a sad reflection of the things going on outside of their own homes. There are constant contributions and pogroms always hanging over God’s people.

Whether it’s a hopeful fairy tales or a truth which you are willing to die for, the film paints a fairly bleak picture of what it means to live life. Our commissar is wholly disillusioned and the shadows of the Holocaust hang over the narrative because they lurk in the near future, not the past.

Director Aleksandr Askoldov’s favors a  fluid camera that nevertheless feels unrefined more times than not in its blunt and most certainly chaotic movements throughout the frame. It’s as if it’s not confident keeping still  — needing to prove its mobility in all circumstances. Still, the film boasts a lasting power that feels counter-cultural. This is not the film we expect coming out of the USSR circa 1967. These characters feel conflicted, their story feels sobering at best. It also offers up a strangely haunting dance sequence like no other, but then again this is far from an ordinary film. The director would soon be fired, expelled from the party, and exiled. The KGB would lock his film away and throw away the key for 20 years. He undoubtedly struck a cord — then and now.

3.5/5 Stars

A Most Wanted Man (2013)

mostwantedman1A Most Wanted Man gained some notability as one of the last works of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and it must be acknowledged that he gives a truly worthwhile performance. No surprise there.

He’s Gunther Bachmann, the German head of a covert team that is looking to undermine potential threats from Islamic terrorist organizations in a post-9/11 society. The film features cinematography that can be best described as sullen and pale, fitting the mood of a, at times, dismal Hamburg, Germany. It looks to be everything a spy thriller is supposed to be, boasting an international cast including the likes of Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Daniel Bruhl, Nina Hoss, and Robin Wright, who are all intriguing to see in action.

But it is Hoffman with his team that commands the most attention, as they try and monitor an escaped political prisoner from Chechnya, who is seeking refuge but is also suspected of terrorist affiliations. He is contacted by a compassionate lawyer  (McAdams) who wishes to help him, but they get caught up in Gunther’s plan and try and flee from his prying eyes. It doesn’t exactly work. But really they are both part of a bigger ploy to pin down a wealthy Muslim philanthropist who could be in it even deeper with terrorist organizations. They just have to catch him with the help of some insiders and a banker (Dafoe), so Dr. Abdullah can be put away unequivocally. But Gunther also has his superiors and the American diplomat (Robin Wright) continually questioning his plans and mistrusting his motives. After all, he works for a, technically, unconstitutional organization that’s supposed to be off the radar.

mostwantedman2What A Most Wanted Man becomes is a brooding game of watching and waiting interspersed with a few moments that get the heartbeat up. But honestly, it’s mostly waiting, and it does serve to build the tension. There is one final turn that we could probably expect, and overall this is not a film of high volumes of action. In fact, there is barely any. Except by the time it ends, we are left with the same hopelessness and moroseness that seems to float over these characters in a haze. We are constantly wondering, “Where do their allegiances lie?” or “Why are they doing this?” and in the end, it doesn’t seem to matter. This is by no means Chinatown in its intricacy or otherwise, but you do get that same sense of futility.

I must admit I was a little surprised to see Rachel McAdams playing a German, but ultimately I was able to accept it. And although my knowledge of German film is limited, it was exciting to see two talented actors like Nina Hoss and Daniel Bruhl be featured, but they regrettably were relegated to smaller, hardly interesting turns. We might have to simply content ourselves with their other roles. Because this is most certainly Philip Seymour Hoffman’s show first and last. And it would, unfortunately, end up being his last. However, he left us as jaded and distraught as ever, and that’s a compliment to the actor he was.

3.5/5 Stars

Barbara (2012)

Barbara_(2012_film)If you’re acquainted with director Christian Petzold you probably know what you’re in for. A character study that is deliberate and systematic in its execution, courtesy of Nina Hoss, and moreover impactful in more ways than one. In this film, the narrative mode of the period piece certainly serves Petzold quite well. The setting is East Germany circa 1980. The settings are wonderfully stark. Depressed representations of a bygone era and yet somehow still strangely beautiful for depicting a simpler age. As Americans, we have a certain perspective that includes Cold War sentiment, boycotting the Moscow Olympics, and the like. But it’s a much different even intimate picture on the inside.

Our person of interest is the eponymous Barbara, a nurse stationed in Berlin, who tried to get an exit visa to the West. Now she has been transferred to a rural locale to continue her work with close surveillance by the Stasi. Her primary colleague is chief physician Andre Reiser, who is genial, but from the get-go Barbara is aloof. She does not want friends and she knows anyone could be working with the police.  She goes about her work being the best nurse she can possibly be, treating patients humanely. Most notable is Stella a girl from a labor camp, who is suffering meningitis, and finds a comforting figure in Barbara. From then on she is the only person Stella trusts.

In her free time, Barbara can often be seen smoking, riding her bike, or taking the train, but there is always a purpose to her activity. It’s in quiet defiance of her plight — an active form of rebellion as she tries to rendezvous with her boyfriend from the West in an effort to reconnect with him. Unknowingly Dr. Reiser grows continually fonder of Barbara and continues to be nice to her because she is quite remarkable. Together they try and decipher what is wrong with a young man who is recovering from a suicide attempt. But of course, his necessary surgery coincides with Barbara’s set date of escape. What follows is far from melodrama, but it is a far tenser slow burn as we watch events unfold. Our heroine does something that will alter her future although we cannot know for certain. Sometimes the best place to end a story is inside our own minds, and that is true with Barbara.

It’s a film that can make you squirm, but also make you think and feel. The German scenery is often breathtaking, the perfect landscape for bike riding, and the birds chirp blissfully in the background. It is the ultimate irony that in such a peaceful land so much suppression and pain takes place. But then again there can be so much joy taken out of something so minute as a masterwork by Rembrandt, proving that the human spirit cannot be fully quelled even there.

In the film’s nuances, you are apt to find beauty and also great depth of character. Not just in Nina Hoss, who is once again brilliant carrying an air of mystery mingled with moroseness that lingers on her face. This might be a poor comparison, but Hoss reminds me in some respects to other European starlets like Juliette Binoche, Irene Jacob, and Julie Delpy, who all carry a fascinating aura around them. The truth is American actors, in general, have to use so many words and in this way, they lose some of their allure. Nothing is left unspoken. Nothing is left untrod. But with Barbara, we do not know her ins and outs, what she is thinking, or even how her story ends.

Next on the watch list is Phoenix, the latest Petzold/Hoss collaboration. It goes without saying that I am beyond excited.

4/5 Stars

Review: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Dr._StrangeloveHow to speak of Dr. Strangelove? To clarify I mean the film and not the character. First and foremost, it’s one of those films that has so much significance, because of the era it came out of and for the way it represents that time and space. It’s the defining film about the Cold War, much in the same way All the President’s Men is identified with Watergate and the sentiments at the time.

This film is wickedly funny, and yet I never found myself laughing out loud. There was more often a smirk slowly forming on my face. This film is a landmark and an important piece of cinema and yet I could never say I have a passionate love for it. What sets it apart is the way that Kubrick is able to tackle the paranoia at the time.

His plot is utterly ridiculous and absurd and yet in anything, there is always a sliver of truth that seems all too real. A film throwing around talk of nuclear war and doomsday devices is rather bleak and so I suppose Dr. Strangelove is a type of morbid humor. Certainly a black, satirical comedy.

Kubrick’s story is split into three sections: There the B-52 bomber where the crew including Slim Pickens and a young James Earl Jones patrol the skies until they get the unmistakable order to proceed with “Plan R” which begins an attack on Russia. Slim Pickens is an inspired piece of casting with his iconic southern drawl because he plays everything straight, but you cannot help find it funny. He sticks out like a sore thumb in the cockpit and then there’s, of course, his mounting the bucking bomb, but that comes later…

The order was given on the command of a General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) after he ordered his aide British officer Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) to put their base on high alert. All this came about because of Ripper’s fears about fluoridation and bodily fluids. He’s sure the Commies have infiltrated and so he prepares to decimate them. He bypasses the president, all communication is cut off, and he locks himself and Mandrake up in his office. As far as he’s concerned the deed is done. He can just go on chomping on his cigar while comforting Mandrake. Because there’s no way that he would ever disclose the three-letter code so his aide can warn the Pentagon.

The final setting of the film takes place in the legendary war room which feels rather like a velodrome with a table in the center. There the highest officials of the nation gather round to try and figure out what to do about this national crisis. General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) advises the president on what to do about the situation while chewing away at a wad of gum. President Merkin Muffley (Sellers once more), is far from pleased and he even sends a call over “the hotline,” to the Russian Premier. He shares his deep regrets about the situation with Dimitri and it gives Seller a stage on which to work his deadpan humor. Muffley also tries to maintain order after Turgidson and the Russian Ambassador get in a scuffle (Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!).

Meanwhile, a battle ensues at Ripper’s base as the apt billboard inscribed “Peace is our Program” sits in the background. This is an utterly ludicrous firefight and it ends with an appearance by Keenan Wynn ready to take Mandrake and Ripper captive. However, the general has already kicked the bucket and Mandrake attempts to use a payphone to reach the Pentagon.

But the best advice the president gets comes from Nazi-defector Dr. Strangelove (Sellers number three), who is restricted to a wheelchair and still has trouble stifling his “Heil Hitler” and “Mein Fuhrer.” His final solution is to gather a few hundred people in mine shafts underground, away from the radiation, where they can procreate. The female to male ratio optimally would be 10:1 and that starts Turgidson salivating. We don’t quite know how it ends, but Kubrick ends with the iconic juxtaposition of nuclear bombs exploding as “We’ll Meet Again” wafts through the air. It’s the last brilliant piece of humor.

Dr. Strangelove is a great film in part because of its performances beginning with Seller. We’re used to his lovable buffoon Inspector Clouseau and yet he’s quite different here. Each character is starkly different in fact, but each one is played straight with their assorted quirks laid out for us.  Slim Pickens, a man also known for his comedic sidekick roles is playing it straight which is also funny in itself.

Finally, George C. Scott is one of the stars that we would label a dramatic actor and yet this is probably the most over the top and odd performance of his career. It’s wonderfully vibrant in all respects from the gesticulation of his body to his facial expressions.

Everything’s an odd mix where hysteria with global consequence is matter-of-fact. There’s no fighting in war rooms. There are Cold Wars and Hotlines. Nazi Doctors advise the president and Russian ambassadors are tackled to the ground. It’s pointing to the inconsistencies in this world that we live in. It’s a satire about the absurdity of nuclear deterrence in an age where that was in vogue.

4.5/5 Stars

The Lives of Others (2006)

This is a moral tale that could only be told in the context of the GDR. A loyal member of the Stasi is given the task of bugging the home of an influential playwright and he spends countless hours listening in on The Lives of Others. In what would have been a very uncommon occurrence this loyal comrade sees another side of the nation he lives in. It is a place full of corrupt officials, double crossing girlfriends, repression, little free speech, and above all suicides.

In an act that proves detrimental to his own career and even his way of life, Wiesler caves to his emotions to do what is ultimately good and right. After the wall crumbles he and others like him seemingly fade into oblivion. However, the one man who was unknowingly saved finally learns of his savior and resolves to write his next great work. The Sonata for a Good Man. 

I think there is certainly a universal quality to this film because although it is German language and focuses on a subject that is distinctly German, the quality of the characters translates into any language because they are human. The struggle of Wiesler is the same for many of us and we can empathize with his evolution and ultimate resolve. We can only hope that people are not put in these same positions in the future and we must also constantly question our own government so they are never reach this degree.

4.5/5 Stars

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, and Janet Leigh, the plot revolves around a Korean war hero who is brainwashed to be a weapon for Communists. Several men in the company have recurring nightmares about brainwashing, communists, and murder. Sinatra’s character has trouble finding solace, however he does meet a beautiful woman (Leigh). Harvey’s character returns home constantly at odds with his domineering mother who is married to a dim-witted senator. He has no idea what deadly purpose he is being used for. His brainwashing causes him to commit several shocking murders. It is up to Sinatra to finally save him and stop his one final violent act. However, Harvey’s character does prevail by himself but not without tragedy. Sinatra and Harvey give wonderful performances and Lansbury is especially chilling. As you will find out, this film shows all the twists and thrills that come out of a simple game of solitaire. It was also a sign of the times during the Cold War.

5/5 Stars