Naked Lunch (1991)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Bill Lee (Peter Weller) was an exterminator with a wife, Joan Lee (Judy Davis), who was addicted to the yellow powder, pyrethrum, he used to kill bugs. Bill came home one day and saw Joan shooting the drug, in liquid form, into her breast. She invited him to shoot up with her and, because he was a writer and therefore had to be open to new experiences, he welcomed the opportunity. Soon enough, Bill was picked up by two cops out of suspicion for distributing illicit drugs, a mere cover so that Bill could be in a room with a giant cockroach that could speak. The insect revealed that Bill was an agent of the Interzone, that his wife was not really his wife but a rival agent. She was to be assassinated. Based on a novel by William S. Burroughs and directed by David Cronenberg, “Naked Lunch” was an imaginative trip down the zigzagging rabbit hole of the recondite subconscious. One could argue that everything that transpired around the protagonist was a mishmash of undeveloped great ideas that ended up saying not much. While I can agree to some extent, probably because of the fact that, admittedly, I didn’t understand it all, I found it absolutely invigorating because it was able to challenge me in a way that so few films have. It took pride in being wildly bizarre and violently shook the conventions of storytelling. Just when we started to believe we had a solid grasp about who Bill was and his constantly evolving mission, it changed gears, sometimes abruptly, other times gradually. We were forced to reevaluate, and thus it was tempting to get lost in the microscopic details. What was certain was that the film’s reality was divided into two: the human world and Interzone, which seemed to be located somewhere in the Middle East because the inhabitants spoke Arabic. Americans who lived there, like the mysterious Tom Frost (Ian Holm) and his wife Joan Frost (also played by Davis), were convinced that, like most foreigners, Bill was there to have sex with willing younger men. Homosexuality was a common theme but there was not a trace of homophobia. In fact, being gay was considered a positive quality because it allowed certain flexibilities. Being open to experiences, not necessarily limited to sexuality, was tantamount to being powerful and free. There is undeniable truth in that. The bug convinced Bill, who claimed to be sexually ambivalent when asked by Kiki (Joseph Scoren), one of the Interzone boys, about his sexual orientation, to pose as a homosexual to gain important connections and find his way to the top of Interzone, Inc. But it seemed as though the more bridges he made, the less certain he became about his role as a spy and as a human being. Lastly, there was a vanity involving giant cockroaches and typewriters. Bill, a writer striving to be published, was assigned to write and submit a report about everything that happened on his mission. The typewriter transformed into a bug every time Bill experienced a creative high, oftentimes aided by a black powder, made from the flesh of giant aquatic Brazilian centipede, prescribed by Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider). To claim with hubris that one could find exact logic in the happenings presented in “Naked Lunch” was to deny its fiery creativity. It demanded my interest as it dabbled with nightmares, hallucinations, depravity, and taboos, all enveloped in a delirium of dry at times dark humor.
Big Night (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci) were Italian brothers who ran a struggling Italian restaurant. On the verge of foreclosure, Secondo took Pascal’s (Ian Holm) offer, a fellow restaurant owner, of inviting a celebrity who he claimed to be his friend in order for the brothers’ place to gain a bit of popularity. The big night consisted of a wild party with a mix of great food, good friends and influential people. Directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci, the film was a delectable piece of work. It successfully captured passionate people who happened to lead a struggling business without having to result to the audiences having to feel sorry for them. Instead, the movie simply showed that Primo and Secondo had a great combination of talent and excellent palate, but the one thing they needed was a good word-of-mouth. Typical Americans just couldn’t appreciate the way they served their food. Primo wanted to make genuine Italian food but most Americans were doubtful of the strange. Early in the movie, there was highly amusing scene of a woman and her husband not understanding why the pasta didn’t have any meatballs. I had to laugh at their confused looks and frustrated voices because I recognized myself in them. There’s just something comforting about the familiar and having to step away from it most often causes friction. The film was also about the women in the brothers’ lives. Phyllis (the alluring Minnie Driver) loved Secondo but maybe he just wasn’t ready to be in long-term relationship. Money was near the top of his priorities but Phyllis didn’t consider it to be all that important. On the other hand, Primo was interested in Ann (Allison Janney), who worked at a flower shop, but he was too shy to invite her to attend the party. The best way Primo could communicate was through food. Luckily, Ann liked to eat. What I admired most about the film was its fearless ability to hold long takes. My favorite scene was when Primo returned to the kitchen after he and Secondo had an altercation. Secondo was initially by the stove as he prepared a dish for the feast. As a gesture of forgiveness, the younger one slowly inched away from the fire and allowed his older brother to be at the place where was most comfortable. Not a word was uttered. There was something assured and powerful about the way the camera was held and the manner in which it framed the two characters’ movements. A similar technique was implemented in the final scene when the space between the brothers grew smaller. There was no doubt in our minds that they would keep moving forward together. “Big Night” was beautiful film but not just because of the mouth-watering Italian food. It unabashedly explored the love between brothers without the clichéd epiphanies.
The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) visited a small town a few weeks after a tragic school bus accident that killed most of the children passengers. The lawyer tried to talk to the children’s parents to create a case of negligence against the company that made the school bus. While the parents were reluctant at first, they were eventually persuaded by Mitchell because he was able to offer an explanation out of the unexplanable. In a way, I saw him as a vulture or an opportunistic organism that nourished itself on the parents’ grief. Most of them wanted to move on but he wouldn’t allow them because he really wanted to have a case to serve as a distraction from his own personal life regarding his drug-addicted daughter (Caerthan Banks). Maybe he was doing it for the money. Maybe he was doing it to atone for his own mistakes. Either way, his presence helped to drive the town further apart. Based on a novel by Russell Banks and directed by Atom Egoyan, “The Sweet Hereafter” was not a typical drama about loss. There was no big homage to demonstrate how sad the town was and there was no screaming matches between the parents because their child had passed away. Instead, all of the negative emotions were suppressed. It was the kind of sadness I felt when we’ve lost a family friend or a relative. There was more silence than screaming to the top of our lungs. The stand-out for me was Nicole (Sarah Polley) as a once-promising singer who was now confined to a wheelchair. One of her secrets was she and her father were in an incestuous relationship. Nicole was torn because she wanted to deal with the paralysis over the lower portion of her body while her parents wanted to join the lawsuit. I felt sad for her but I didn’t feel sorry for her. And I think that’s what Egoyan did best: His project was able walk between delicate emotions and deliver a film that did not feel manipulative. From several reviews I read, they claimed that it was slow and they did not really learn anything new about the characters. I agree to some extent, but I don’t believe that type of critique necessarily means that the movie is not worth watching. With certain kinds of films, it’s more difficult to simply show what is instead of offering a defined explanation that we can easily grasp. Losing a child defies explanation and grieving need not make sense. That was the film’s main thesis and I thought it was successful at tackling those issues. “The Sweet Hereafter” was challenging, beautiful, and heartbreaking. It was a complex and painful examination of the human condition.
★★★★ / ★★★★
A spacecraft containing a crew of seven (Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto) was supposed to be on its way to Earth. After waking up from hypersleep, the crew discovered that they were nowhere near Earth because their ship, known as Nostromo, received a transmission. One of the rules of their mission was if the ship received some sort of signal, it was requisite that they investigate the source which most likely could be extraterrestrial. This film held my attention like a vice grip right from the opening credits. There was something eerie and cold in the way the camera scanned the darkness of outer space. It made me feel small and almost insignificant. Even though I knew that Ripley, Weaver’s character, was the hero of the story, I liked that I didn’t immediately notice her. Her character only began to grab my attention when one of the three crew members was infected with an alien larvae and she refused to let them inside due to a risk of infection. Naturally, their leader ignored her sound reasoning and it was only a matter of time until the crew met their gruesome demise. Ridley Scott’s direction took the film to the next level. Stumbling upon an alien planet could have been done in a cliché manner such as showing too much disgusting slime and, worse, showing too many alien creatures in the beginning of the film, taking away some of the effective scares found later in the picture because we would know exactly what the alien looked like. Instead, Scott used the alien planet’s environment to mask certain corners but at the same time highlight the areas closer to a light source. Since it didn’t show too much, it took advantage of my imagination, making what I didn’t see much scarier than what I did see. (But what I was still horrified when I saw the alien in larvae form.) Granted, most of the crew members made some bad decisions. But I think the unwise decisions they made were not equal to brainless teenagers in a slasher film. It was different because the crew faced the unknown and the usual rules did not apply. For instance, there was no way they could have known that the alien’s blood was so acidic to the point where it was able to eat through metal. A major theme I focused on was human instinct being pitted against animal instinct. Both were different because human instinct, represented by Ripley, is capable of being controlled, to an extent, given that the person actively takes a moment to evaluate a situation. On the other hand, animal instinct, represented by the alien, cannot. However, both are similar in that instinct has one goal: self-preservation. “Alien” is an intelligent science-fiction film that expertly mixes wonder and horror. Undertones which comment on feminism and technology can be found but it doesn’t get in the way of first-class entertainment.
The Fifth Element (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
I didn’t know much about this movie when I decided to watch it so my expectations were not that high. I thought it was going to be another one of those science fiction movies that deals with the apocalypse and so happens to take itself way too seriously. I couldn’t be anymore more wrong because “The Fifth Element,” written and directed by Luc Besson, was as funny and interesting as the vibrant colors that could be found in it throughout. Every 5,000 years, a strange power appears and tries to engulf life. It could be stopped by combining the powers of fire, water, wind, earth and the supposed “fifth element” for another five thousand years and the cycle continues. Bruce Willis stars as Korben Dallas, a taxi driver in futuristic New York who used to work for the military. He got sucked into the madness of intergalactic battle when Milla Jovovich–the fifth element, also known as the perfect being–literally dropped into his taxi. Their mission was to gather all the elements and save the planet from being obliterated into oblivion. Gary Oldman as the evil Zorg, Ian Holm as the priest, and Chris Tucker as the hilariously flamboyant DJ also star. I enjoyed this movie more than I expected to because its pace was quick; it didn’t dwell on the specifics on who’s who and what their intentions and motivations are. This film definitely reminded me of a hybrid between the “Star Wars” saga and the B movies of the 1950’s because it had that nice balance of imagination and humor. The only minor complaint I had was that sometimes it managed to distract itself from the story to make room for some of the more obvious funny moments. Tucker was the one who stole most of the scenes he was in because he was able to focus his manic personality into a character that had to be very enthusiastic about everything every time he was on his program. As for the visual and special effects, yes, they are sort of dated but I really didn’t care because I’m more concerned about the concept, how well a film builds on the story, and how it utilizes its characters. “The Fifth Element” is one of those movies that one can really enjoy if one doesn’t mind watching something over-the-top on a slow night.