Funeral in Berlin 1966 thriller, espionage
This film is the coolest Cold War thriller since The Third Man. The use of the real Cold War era Berlin and the performance of Caine and Oskar Homolka (as Soviet Colonel Stok) power this film as the plot gets rather complex, but rewards close attention. The film is at its best when Harry leaves the comfortable and wealthy West Berlin and enters the lion’s den of the hard core commies in East Berlin. The change in atmosphere is shocking and was the real deal – the cold reception by the border guards, menacing guard towers, and the run-down buildings still showing the wounds of the horrific 1945 Battle of Berlin. A friend was a teenage army brat in Germany in the 60’s and saw with her own eyes a dead body hanging in the barbed wire of the wall. The victim was trying to escape East Berlin and the guards machine gunned him. They left the body hanging in the wire to send a grim message to others that dreamed of escaping East Berlin.
Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) has been labeled the anti-Bond; he wears a cheap rain coat instead of a tux, drives no fancy cars – in fact has no car at all, nor is he armed with technological gimmicks. What he has is sharp wits, iron nerves and knows how to handle a wheel gun. Berlin was a vortex of Cold War tensions with the British, Americans, Israelis, Russians, and East Germans all pursuing different goals. Palmer is ordered to Berlin to manage a high value Russian defection, but in order to stay alive he must figure out who's triple crossing all the double crossers in the murky, dangerous espionage underground. This movie is sharp, intelligent, and unsentimental. It ranks with the very best spy movies ever made, and is now available on DVD. What are you waiting for?
(Harry in East Berlin) Stok: Do you play chess? Harry: I prefer a game with a better chance of cheating.
(Harry in London meeting with MI5 boss) Harry: I didn’t pick her (Samantha) up; she picked me up. Ross: Well, you’d have to say that to get it on expenses.
Coherence 2013 drama mystery sci-fi fantasy
Shot in only five days with an unknown, yet talented ensemble cast and mostly improvised scenes and dialogue, Coherence is a master example of what can be achieved with a modest budget, some good luck and plenty of inventiveness. It also has one of my very favorite sci-fi storylines: Parallel worlds or universe. The plot is simple: four couples are having a nice dinner party, and we, the audience, are like a fly on wall, watching their evening and wondering what the hell is going on. Coherence is a downward spiral of a movie where what appears is not exactly what it seems.
The movie is set in modern day California on the night that Miller’s Comet is visible from Earth, streaking across the dark sky with a long, fiery tail. There is no danger of the comet colliding with earth; the orbit is a safe distance away. But we soon learn the celestial event is not without strange affects, i.e. power and phone outages and cell phones self-destructing. So in a way, this movie is about the ancient practice of Astrology which is based on the belief that the position of the planets, moon, comets and stars in the sky can directly influence human life. If one has the slightest belief in Astrology, it is easy to suspend disbelief and just go with flow on this movie.
Stop reading here, if you are paranoid about mild spoilers.
So how does the comet influence people on earth, and what is “Coherence”? Simply put – the comet combines the parallel worlds; thereby, disrupting the logic and consistency of the real, or natural, world our eight main characters inhabit. People can change worlds simply by going outdoors to see the comet. Actually the movie should be titled, “Loss of Coherence”. The guests at the dinner party encounter slightly different versions of themselves. Gradually they take notice of the little things that are off kilter, and that leads to confusion, fear, panic, and even violence by the same peaceful, sane people who gathered for a polite dinner party. This behavior would have unthinkable only a few hours earlier, but remember the old saw that goes something like this: There is only a thin, delicate veneer separating the civilized from the barbaric. This movie is a good reminder how just the right amount of pressure can completely destroy that fragile veneer we take for granted.
The movie is a real Mind Bender and I have read negative reviews that complain about not keeping track of the characters. Well, that’s kinda the point here, and what makes it a fun movie. Here’s a few tips – let’s call the first house, prime, and the people in it are Em-prime, Hugh-prime, Kevin-prime and so forth. Keep your eyes on Em-prime as she is the only one of the cast the camera faithfully follows and it is really her story. Early in the film when Hugh-prime and Amir-prime leave the house, it is Hugh-2 and Amir-2 that returns, and that holds true for everybody that leaves the house, with the exception of Em-prime.
Sci-Fi movies these days tend to have so many similarities, that when a movie like this comes along, it’s refreshing to see something new. 'Coherence' is psychological science-fiction for a thinking person and it holds up much better than most big budget, pretentious science-fiction franchises. The movie is especially recommended for those who enjoy independent, minimalistic films.
The Cheap Detective 1978 crime comedy mystery
The lovely ladies of The Cheap Detective posing with Peter Falk: Clockwise beginning with Ann-Margaret (in fur coat), Marsha Mason, Stockard Channing, Louise Fletcher, Madeline Kahn, and Eileen Brennan. Gotta love those cool hats.
Not since the 1963 It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World had so many funny people gathered together for one film. Even mostly serious actors like Fernando Lamas, Louise Fletcher and Ann-Margaret seem to be having a ball just hamming it up. Peter Falk has a field day as Lou Peckinpaugh spoofing three of Humphrey Bogart’s most famous and beloved characters: Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon (1941); Rick Blaine from Casablanca (1942) and Philip Marlowe from The Big Sleep (1946). My favorite character, aside from Falk, is Eileen Brennan as Betty DeBoop doing an outstanding spoof of Lauren Bacall’s lounge singer, Marie “Slim” Browning from To Have and Have Not (1944). Set in 1940 San Francisco, with a delightful jumble of detectives, dames, Nazis, documents and a treasure hunt, you can't describe any kind of plot. The whole thing is so much wonderful nonsense. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. The other spoofs of the old school detective-mystery genre (Murder by Death and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid) are not near as funny as The Cheap Detective, making it easily the best of the three satires.
I suggest you watch the original Bogart movies, mentioned above, to better understand the in-jokes. I lost count how many times I have watched The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, and it is great fun introducing these classic films to film-noir rookies. If you are a fan of the Bogie movies which it satirizes, this is definitely a must-see. It is you, for whom this movie was written in the first place.
Magic in the Moonlight 2014 romance drama
The concept actually isn't bad. Stanley, the magician, is brought in to prove that Sophie is faking that she has psychic powers. She's so good at what she does, she ends up convincing him, and he falls in love with her. Sophie too ends up falling for him. It should have been a good and funny movie, but it was ruined by the lack of chemistry between the two stars – Emma Stone (Sophie) and Colin Firth (Stanley). The nearly thirty year age difference did not help. What could have been a charming romantic period piece/comedy turned bland, and totally devoid of humor. The story would make better sense had Stanley (Firth) wooed Sophie’s mother Mrs. Baker (played by Marcia Gay Harden). At least they are the same age, and Harden could have reprised Verna, her sexy femme fatale character from Miller’s Crossing. But leave it to Woodie to rob the cradle instead.
I enjoyed parts of the film. As we would expect from a Woody Allen period film, the Roaring 1920’s atmosphere is fun and well detailed. The picture is beautiful to look at. Skillfully shot on the French Riviera, the outdoor scenes arise as if from a dream; lush in beauty, serenity and luxury. Make no mistake, the upper class people know how to party and ENJOY their money. But the epic miscast of the two main stars brings the whole film crashing into the ground. Emma Stone, who I enjoyed watching in her two Zombieland movies, looks and acts like a little girl in this movie. Sophie travels around with her protective mother, wears an unflattering sack dress or childish sailor suit, and is made up to appear about 13 years old, far younger than her actual age (26). Stone never connects to her character. How could she?
No modern actor can play a cocky and arrogant English snob better than Colin Firth. And his act is best enjoyed when paired with comical situations, as in the excellent 2012 film Gambit, in which he was fantastically funny. This time, though, as Stanley, he went so deeply into the serious character that when he had to switch to the lighthearted “falling-in-love mode”, the transition was sharp, too sudden and not convincing. As if to announce the transition, he delivers a strange, brief soliloquy to the camera, violating the cardinal rule of “Show, don’t tell”. The whole anti-religion speech, direct from the pen of the Hebrew agnostic himself, was hilariously off and old fashioned. I did soldier on to the happy ending, but hesitate to recommend this movie to anyone but hardcore Allen fanboys.
The Good Liar 2019 drama crime
The Geezer movie is becoming a recognized genre. The Good Liar is the latest example in 2019. Despite the famous lead actors, Helen Mirren and Ian McKellan, this film is a weak melodrama with zero comic relief. Watchable if you admire the leads, but not one for the DVD shelf or even pay-for-view streaming. I recommend getting a free library rental, and save your cash for a better movie.
The driver of the plot is Roy (Ian McKellan) as an elderly con man who, among his other scams, romances lonely widows of means and fleeces them out of their life savings. His newest target is Betty (Helen Mirren), a recently widowed Oxford professor who he meets on an internet dating site for seniors. The first two-thirds of the movie is Roy turning on the charm with Betty, and working the con in his unhurried, crafty style. It works, almost too easily, as Roy is invited to Betty’s home to be her roommate, and soon becomes her friendly financial advisor. But Betty seems far from clueless, so we keep waiting to see how Betty turns the tables on Roy, while he thinks he's playing her.
Now if the writer / director had stopped here, and not flashbacked to unnecessary plot-point on top of plot-point, revelation on top of bizarre revelation, we'd have had a fine time. But pile on they did in relentless fashion, and it was jaw-dropping, head-shaking as a result. These seem to come out of nowhere. So far out of nowhere (think 1940’s era Nazis) that even after the film attempts to explain these strange, backstory complexities, I did NOT buy the rickety plot.
The twist ending has zero tension, partly because we've seen it coming and partly because Betty sandbags Roy so completely that there's no real contest. After Roy gets his comeuppance, we get pounded again with heavy-handed, moralizing scenes that could better have been left out, leaving Roy's aftermath to our imagination. Recommended only for fans of cold-hearted characters and revenge tales. Do not be fooled; this movie is NOT a “thriller” as flogged by the media.
Only the Brave 2017 action adventure
In the first few frames of the film we read “Based on True Events” of the Yarnell Hill Wildfire in Arizona. Perhaps you remember the deadly forest fire south of Prescott, Arizona in 2007. I did not, so the movie was a revelation to me. As I write this review, thirteen years after the event and three years since the film release, much has changed. I now live in a forest on a mountainside, and am painfully aware of the dangers of wildfires. The summer of 2020 has seen one of the worst Wildfire seasons on record – here in Colorado massive burns have set new state records, and the monster fire at Cameron Peak is still burning strong, as I write this review. With my interest peaked about wildfires, I was glad to discover this excellent movie.
Only the Brave could have gone in any number of directions, but it’s not a documentary, by any means. The filmmakers have no particular responsibility to hew to the exact details, but they got the key facts correct. Instead they delivered a character study with plenty of exciting action. The movie seeks a greater truth; trying to get at what makes someone with courage and strength and weakness and fear and flaws decide to risk it all in the face of deadly danger — in other words, what makes a real hero.
This is an intense movie, and also very realistic. The movie makers did an outstanding job of putting the audience right in the center of the action, for an inside look at fighting wildfires, and introduces the audience to the complex nature of battling an ever changing relentless foe. If you’ve never seen Josh Brolin in a movie before, you might think Hollywood found a fire chief who could act and stuck him in front of the camera. He creates a character so real and believable and human. It is a powerhouse, Oscar worthy performance. The supporting cast of young fire fighters is solid and believable.
This review is purposely vague about the plot. It is best to watch the movie and experience the events as they unfold. Don’t read any plot synopses, because depending on which ones you read, the entire movie could be spoiled by the first sentence. The film gave me a better understanding of what it takes to fight a major wildfire. As depicted in the movie, battling wildfires is incredibly hard labor and definitely a younger man’s job. I enjoyed this movie and my only regret is that I did not get to see it on the big screen.
It was a shame this excellent film was ignored during the 2017 awards season, but the social climate of the year wasn’t in the mood to honor this type of movie – heroic white males fighting fires to protect their fellow American citizens. Instead the Academy chose to heap praise and awards on very forgettable, preachy propaganda flicks while bestowing the Best Picture award on The Shape of Water – an utterly strange, mind numbing movie about a love story with the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Are you kidding me? After you watch Only the Brave, you’ll realize how ridiculous those choices were.
Gambit 2012 crime comedy
It was the screenplay by the Coen brothers and a stellar cast led by Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz and Alan Rickman that convinced me to try this unheralded British film. And I am sure glad I did. This gem is a classic caper-comedy about art curator Harry Deane (Colin Firth) hatching a plan to sell a forgery of a famous Monet painting to his ruthless billionaire boss Lionel Shabandar (Rickman). Deane picks American rodeo queen, P.J. Puznowski (Diaz) as his accomplice, for very clever reasons that I will not spoil.
This very British comedy was written by the very American Coen brothers, with wry and witty results. This is simple and straightforward comedy with plenty of wonderfully eccentric characters. Harry Deane gets into the most unfortunate and ridiculous of circumstances that sometimes warrant a punch in the nose as his foolproof plan goes haywire. Alan Rickman plays a very rich, formal and ruthless CEO who becomes quite taken by P.J. Puznowski. Their conversations in the backseat of his Rolls Royce limo are some of the funniest scenes in the movie.
Cameron Diaz once again plays a very pretty, perky, unsophisticated girl, and is pure fun to watch as she busts loose one-liners in a thick Texas accent. Overall, this is one very entertaining film. I recommend it highly should you be looking for a good crime-comedy that never takes itself too seriously. This film is a rare bird: entirely free of vulgarity, annoying diversity casting, and political correctness (or propaganda of any kind, for that matter).I enjoyed it a lot.
I love October – the cool, refreshing air and the colorful autumn leaves put us in the mood for a few ghost stories, a haunted house, and let’s not forget blood and gore and Scream Queens. This week our scary movie selection is not for kids or the squeamish. We promised to ramp up the terror quotient as the month proceeds, so it is time for a well done movie with some surprising guest stars – Cannibals in the jungle.
The Green Inferno 2013 horror adventure
The movie follows a group of naïve, do-gooder college students whose bleeding-heart Liberal activism takes them off to South America on an eco-terrorism mission to “Save the Amazon forest”. After a disastrous plane crash, the survivors (4 guys and 3 girls) are captured by a tribe of stone age, cannibalistic savages; proving once again that the most horrifying creatures on earth are the two-legged sub-humans capable of unspeakable cruelty to fellow human beings. This film has plenty of terrible realism but also some dark humor when you consider the eco-terrorists goal was to save the native tribe along with the forest.
The seven prisoners are frog marched into the native village, locked into a crude cage, and before you can say “Jack the Ripper” one of the male eco-terrorists, Jonah, is on the sacrificial alter. The remaining survivors watch in horror as the village erupts in gleeful cheering as poor Jonah is butchered by the tribe’s headhunter. Next the women of the village prepare the feast of Jonah with well-practiced cannibal cooking skills. How is that for gratitude?
The three girls surviving the plane crash are the best collection of Scream Queens I have ever seen, and for a bonus they are all very attractive, white revolutionaries, unlike in real life where we see fat, ugly female mongrels waving protest signs. Justine played by Lorenza Izzo (Miss Peru 2010) is a real beauty queen. The tribal high priestess/witch doctor loves Justine, so they strip her naked, stake her out spread eagle and do some serious, head-to-toe body painting on Justine. Form a queue ladies for those interested in vibrant, diverse, bone-in-the-nose primitive cultures. Justine of course is not interested and is quite terrified to learn she has been selected to be the lip smacking main course for a special religious ceremony.
The know-it-all “woke” leader of the climate hustlers, Alejandro, collapses like a two dollar suitcase when the going gets tough. He slumps in the corner of the cage like a defeated loser. He lacks the courage and toughness to lead an escape. When the mask drops we see Alejandro for what he really is – a selfish worm of a latte Liberal with a private agenda. He cares for no one but himself. Under the intense pressure of horrible death, Justine emerges as the new leader and takes charge. And this change in leadership was, to me, the most interesting part of the film, and makes her the only sympathetic character amongst the band of eco-terrorists. In the adventure movie universe, there are only two types of people in extreme duress – those who crumble and “wait to be saved”, and those who keep a cool head and devise a good escape plan.
“The Green Inferno” is not for kids or the faint of heart. But it is a tasteful, dark comedy of a cannibal flick with a very subtle conservative message. And who would have thought that a plane crash was not the worst part of your day?
I love October – the cool, refreshing air and the colorful autumn leaves put us in the mood for a few ghost stories and a visit to a haunted house. This week our scary movie selection is rather restrained, with mostly psychological tension, and little to no violence and gore. We promise to ramp up the terror quotient as the month proceeds with nightmarish results.
The Haunting 1963 drama horror
Still the template for haunted house movies, accept no substitutes for the 1963 original and avoid the clunky 1999 remake. The bulk of the movie takes place at the Hill House, an old and remote mansion with a grisly past. Dr. Markway, who has spent his career studying the supernatural, believes that he can prove whether or not the house is truly haunted. Off we go to Hill House to find an iron gated, huge, jumbled example of dark and dreary Gothic architecture. The well detailed interior can be described as cluttered Victorian, suggesting the owners collected everything and never threw anything out.
The four main stars of the movie take up residence in the spook house; Eleanora aka Nell (played by Julie Harris), Theodora aka Theo (played by Claire Bloom), Dr. Markway (played by Richard Johnson), and Luke (played by Russ Tamblyn). The acting is first rate, with Dr. Markway and Luke correctly underplaying their roles to allow the two ladies to take center stage. Both Nell and Theo are excellent. Nell is nervous, introverted and caught up in the atmosphere of the house, it's the pivotal role of the movie and Harris instills a heart aching fragility into her character. She is every inch a virgin-wallflower with a touch of madness. For the first half of the movie, Nell is a sympathetic character, but as the film progresses she reveals herself as quite obsessive and delusional. The look in Nell’s eyes says it all; she is a vulnerable and needy young lady, and I can’t picture anyone else but Julie Harris playing Nell.
Bloom, as Theodora, on the other hand has mystical qualities, a sexiness and a devilishly playful disposition, qualities enhanced by her bitch charisma. She is also obviously gay. The sexual tension is high anytime Theo is around, and she seems especially attracted to Nell while being indifferent to the two men staying at the Hill House. Theo seems capable of reading Nell’s thoughts and some of the bedroom scenes hint strongly at Theo’s lesbian nature. Keep in mind the time period and the Hay’s Code for movie censorship and you have a movie walking on egg shells quite effectively.
I think what makes the film work so powerfully at its core is the way we come to know all the main characters, and feel like they're real people. We don't like all of them all the time, but they all have unexpected virtues and flaws. The compelling power of the film resides in the intense emotions felt by these characters, and the way they relate to one another. When the Hill House starts to come to life, the four of them band together and soldier on. It becomes quite clear that the ghosts of Hill House prefer Nell, but why?
The sudden arrival of Markway’s wife, Grace (played by Lois Maxwell), really gets the pot boiling at the old Hill House. Everyone knows (or should know) Lois Maxwell as the one and only "Miss Moneypenny", but there's much more to her acting career than just Bond flicks. Grace Markway, tall and shapely, really knows how to make an entrance at Hill House. She is the Queen Bee and instantly takes command, and starts giving orders. Grace has zero time for discussing the supernatural and considers the subject to be utter nonsense. She is concerned that Dr. Markway’s reputation will suffer should the press discover he is out “chasing ghosts”. Any negative press on her husband, of course, would reflect badly on herself.
Darkness falls on the angry House, and the ghost rampage begins. I will not the spoil the ending. This is low-key, sophisticated psychological horror film with a powerhouse of underrated (and unknown by me) UK actors. This is not the type film to trigger nightmares, so hardcore horror fans will probably be left wanting. I can do without nightmares, so I consider the film a must see classic.
Chernobyl 2019 docu-drama, horror
HBO mini-series 5 one-hour episodes
'Chernobyl' is scarier than most horror movies in that it is a dramatization of the actual, real-life horror experienced by thousands of people on that fateful April 26, 1986 morning and the years that followed. This excellent series puts a human face on a deadly man-made disaster. The Chernobyl catastrophe has haunted Russia, Europe, and the rest of mankind more than three decades later. And that creeping dread permeates the whole show. It's difficult to watch knowing that so many innocent people are doomed. But it certainly makes it a must-watch, and is truly an exceptional, important piece of dramatized non-fiction.
Covered up by a secretive Soviet Union at the time, the true number of deaths and illnesses caused by the [Chernobyl] nuclear accident are only now becoming clear. A group who bore the brunt of the radiation exposures in the hours and days after the explosion were those living in the nearby town of Pripyat and the surrounding area. It took a day and a half before the evacuation began and led to nearly 50,000 people being evacuated. Later an additional 42,000 people were evacuated from another 80 settlements in a 30km evacuation zone around the power plant. For additional details, see the BBC report here.
Putting a figure on exactly how many deaths around the world may result from the Chernobyl disaster is almost impossible. But despite the grim picture much of the research paints, there are some stories of hope too. Three engineers who volunteered to drain millions of gallons of water from tanks beneath the burning reactor in the days immediately after the explosion waded through highly radioactive water and debris to reach the release valves. Their heroics are one of the most dramatic moments in this disaster movie. Astonishingly, the BBC reporters found that two of the three men are still alive (in June 2019) despite having minimal protection from the radiation during their mission. The third engineer, Borys Baranov, survived until 2005.
Is the TV series historically accurate? Why not interview a Chernobyl survivor, who also happens to be a nuclear engineer? That is exactly what the BBC did. You can read the June 12, 2019 interview with Russian engineer, Oleksiy Breus, here. I have summarized and recapped the article below:
Chernobyl survivor assess fact and fiction in TV series - Hours after the world's worst nuclear accident, nuclear engineer Oleksiy Breus entered the control room of the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. A member of staff at the plant from 1982, he became an eye-witness to the immediate aftermath on the morning of 26 April 1986. The story of the reactor's catastrophic explosion, as told in an HBO miniseries, has received the highest ever score for a TV show on the film website IMDB. Russians and Ukrainians have watched it via the internet, and it has had a favorable rating on Russian film site Kinopoisk. Mr. Breus worked with many of the individuals portrayed in the HBO Chernobyl series, and has provided a few comments about the accuracy of the presentation.
For those readers interested in digging into a forensic analysis of the Chernobyl accident, I leave you with this link to The Chernobyl Reactor: Design Features and Reasons for Accident by Mikhail V. MALKO. I performed a technical literature search on the subject, and determined the Malko paper to be the best available in the English language. In any case, avoid the early studies submitted while the Soviet Union controlled the information flow. The Party Line was “Operator Error main cause of accident” and they stubbornly stuck to that false conclusion for years. Dr. Malko was free to make up his mind and came to some sensible and astonishing deductions about the shortcomings of the Soviet RBMK reactor design.
Written by Ben Clark. Copyright 2016-2021. All rights reserved.