The Vanishing (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a novel by Tim Krabbé (called “The Golden Egg”), director George Sluizer tells the story of a man’s (Gene Bervoets) obsession of finding what really happened to his girlfriend (Johanna ter Steege) when she was kidnapped three years ago. I thought the first part of this film was nothing short of excellent. There was a certain menace in its tone which began when the couple’s car ran out of gas in the middle of a tunnel and cars were not able to see them until the cars got very close to their vehicle. Scenes like that made me believe that something bad was going to happen so I couldn’t help but put a guard up. Surprisingly enough, the truly horrific things happened whenever I wasn’t expecting them so I was often curious where the story was going to go. Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu was very convincing as the kidnapper and (creepy) family man. There was something not right about his relationship with his wife and daughters but what I liked was that the movie wasn’t quite so obvious about it. It was the specific glances and silences between the characters that gave the chills to my spine. Sluizer made an interesting decision after the abduction happened; we got to see the kidnapper’s methods on how he planned to commit the crimes down to his thoughts and outlook on life when he was sixteen years old. It’s easy to tell that this is not a typical psychological thriller movie because it doesn’t succumb to the violence and graphic blood and guts in order to pull of scares. It’s more crafty and intelligent than that because it’s the unsaid and unseen elements that convinced me that it had a lasting power after the credits stopped rolling. Questions such as “What would I have done if that happened to me?” popped into my head so I was really involved in it. Having said all that, I don’t think this will appeal much to most younger viewers because it thrives on subtelty. If one is looking for overt killings where the film shows heads being decapitated, this will surely not impress. But if one is looking for movies that aren’t particularly violent but still chilling to the bone, this is the one to see.
In the Realm of the Senses (1976)
★★★ / ★★★★
Writer and director Nagisa Oshima tells the story of a former-prostitute-turned-maid’s (Eiko Matsuda) and her employer’s (Tatsuya Fuji) sexual obsession with each other. After Matsuda sees Fuji making love with his wife, something inside her changes–it is as if she has to have him no matter what the cost. When the two eventually sleep together, they begin to spend pretty much every minute in bed together as they experiment with their sexuality, sometimes in front of other people. I liked that this film really tried to push the boundary between art and pornography. While it did show certain body parts that a “normal” picture would not normally show, it was different from pornography because it had a story to tell: the repercussions of surrendering to one’s desires without ever having to think of the consequences. To me, even though this was released in 1976, it is still very relevant today, especially in college campuses, due to the high rate of casual hook-ups or one night stands. One can never really know what one is getting into by inviting another person into one’s life–may it be for sexual purposes or otherwise. Disease is one of the first things that comes to mind (or should come to mind) when one engages in random hook-up, but psychology should also come into the equation. I’m not saying that people with mental disorders are always violent (they are not). I’m referring to people’s fetishisms and what they are willing to do to maximize their pleasure. In this film, the two lovers eventually tried to suffocate each other for one reason: it felt good. Other issues that were explored include excess, sadism, masochism, traditional gender roles and transgressions of societal norms. While most people may get lost in its graphic portrayal of sex, one should really try to look at what’s underneath because it’s that much more rewarding. “In the Realm of the Senses” is indeed a classic and should be seen and remembered by film-lovers because it’s one of the first motion pictures that tried to tread the fine line between art and pornography and was successful at it.
Velvet Goldmine (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★
I can understand why most people would dismiss this film due to its disorganized way of telling the story and featuring a lifestyle that was not (and still is not) fully accepted in society. “Velvet Goldmine” was about a journalist (Christian Bale) who was assigned to write an article about a glam rock star named Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) whose stardom quickly plunged because he faked his own death. Incidentally, Bale was a fan of Slade when he was younger so the assignment was a lot more personal to him than any other projects he had before to the point where he rekindled some of that obsession he used to have for the rock star. In order to get the full picture regarding Slade’s life, Bale interviewed the people that knew Slade most: the one who discovered him (Michael Feast), his wife (Toni Collette), his manager (Eddie Izzard), and his competition/partner/lover (Ewan McGregor). I must give kudos to Todd Haynes, the director, for featuring strong performances from the four leads (Rhys-Meyers, Bale, Collette and McGregor). He told the story in such a way that each of the four had an equal share of the spotlight and really gave scintillating performances. I also liked the fact that Haynes’ message about music was different. Most pictures that tackle the meaning of music tend to argue that music is a meaningful entity. In here, the message is the antithesis: music is meaningless; music is driven by the artists’ ego and thirst for taking over or changing the world; lastly, music–or real music–should not and does not contain anything personal from the artist because its purpose is to simply entertain; to put something personal in it is to contaminate it and thus defying itself. Well, at least that’s how I interpreted the film. I found this film to be particularly cold: It did not make an effort to convince its audiences why they should care for the characters. Interestingly enough, I loved it because it embraced the feeling of the 1970’s glam rock era which consisted of revolting against the norm, being apathetic to things that should matter, and embracing the dirtiness and griminess of atypicality. For an independent film, I thought it was particularly powerful, especially when it used techniques from the film “Citizen Kane”–fusing past and present in order to truly understand the characters that have been so wrapped up in the darkness they’ve created for themselves. I also appreciated the fact that it featured the fluidity of sexuality, emotions and ideas. This is a rich film with fascinating images and ideas but it’s not particularly accessible so one should be wary on whether he or she should watch it. But if one has an open mind, this should be a pleasant surprise. This reminded me of a weaker “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (though the two are very different films); a little bit more focus would have made this an instant favorite of mine.
The Conversation (1974)
★★★ / ★★★★
The masterful Francis Ford Coppola wrote and directed this film about a man (Gene Hackman) who finds out and keeps track of what people are doing as a living. Having realized the fatal consequences of one of his past surveillance assignments, Hackman’s character becomes obsessive when it comes to his privacy and the types of people he keeps close to him. Right off the bat, the film is focused: two people having with what sounds like a normal conversation in public. Later on, the audiences realize that it’s no ordinary conversation and the last thirty minutes of the picture highlights the most crucial elements in that opening dialogue. I have to say that I did not see that twist coming despite my (many) guesses with what was really going on. I also didn’t expect this thriller to be so character-driven. There were a lot of scenes that took its time establishing how and why Hackman’s character is the way he is. I thought it was interesting to watch how various elements are placed in front of him and how he reacts to those elements. At first I thought he was just a man who likes to have control and doesn’t like the idea of change. But I was proven wrong because I soon realized that he is open to changes in subtle and modicum amounts as long as he still manages to stick to his basic beliefs. The film really pops whenever the idea of privacy is explored. The recorded conversation was analyzed by Hackman’s character so many times to the point where I found myself obsessing over certain details like the lead character. I had several hypothesis such as the conversation being in codes and certain lines are cues that point to something that they’re seeing; as a third party, we can’t figure out what they really mean because there’s a filter between primary and secondary sources. The story enters a final phase when obsession eventually leads to paranoia. I thought the last thirty minutes was exemplary but the last scene was the most haunting. The symbolism between the home and the mind was obvious but it was nonetheless effective because of the journey it took to get there. The only real problem I had with this film was its pacing. At times it felt too slow but that’s something that one can get used to upon repeated viewings.
★★ / ★★★★
This picture started out beautifully but as it went on, it got too wrapped up in its own soap opera. I’m not sure whether the original material was the problem (it was based on “The Dying Animal” by Philip Roth) or if it was Isabel Coixet’s style of direction, but what I do know is that it should have been a more effective character study. Ben Kingsley, a cultural critic, falls for Penélope Cruz, one of his students. Kingsley’s character is very obsessive, insecure about his aging body and has a lot of fears about not being accepted by certain people. Cruz’ character is beautiful but she’s also very smart and she sees something in Kingsley’s character that not a lot people do. So, in a way, they’re a fit for each other despite the thirty-year age difference. I also liked Patricia Clarkson’s character and her “purely” sexual relationship with Kingsley. I say “purely” because even though the two desperately want to believe that what they have is merely sex, I could tell by their actions and silent moments that there’s something more about that relationship. Clarkson provided a much needed break between Cruz and Kingsley’s sometimes suffocating (but stirring) conversations. What didn’t work for me was Kingsley’s relationship with his best friend (Dennis Hopper). Not only was Hopper’s character underdeveloped, the tone changed whenever he was on screen so I was constantly taken out of that solemn atmosphere that the film tried to consistently attain. When I look at the bigger picture, I feel like I’ve seen it all before: the strained relationships, the regret and anger that comes with self-doubt, and the man falling in love with a much younger woman. I did like the conversations because they had real emotions and intelligence. However, I can’t recommend this movie because it didn’t quite reach the level and staying power that the first few scenes had promised to achieve.
The Midnight Meat Train (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
Bradley Cooper has come a long way since I first discovered him in “Alias.” Even though he seems like a pretty boy on the outside, he can effectively play characters that have many sides to them. I also have to give him kudos for not playing the same type of character in his movies. In “The Midnight Meat Train,” directed by Ryûhei Kitamura and based on a short story by Clive Barker, Cooper plays a photographer who one day finds out about a butcher (Vinnie Jones) who kills people on the subway after taking pictures of a woman who was being harrassed by a couple of thugs. Wanting to gather more evidence before he approaches the police, he becomes obsessed with the butcher and his girlfriend (Leslie Bibb) becomes worried about his new personality. This film is especially gory and violent which horror fans will undoubtedly love. What’s even better is that it is quite suspenseful especially that one scene when two people decide to break into the killer’s apartment. I just had a feeling that it would go terribly wrong so I had to watch the film through my fingers. What didn’t work for me, though, was the last fifteen minutes. Instead of being a straight-up horror film, it hybridized with the science fiction realm. I understand that this is based on a short story and I shouldn’t hold the movie responsible for following it. I just needed to mention the fact that it did get ridiculous and I even caught myself rolling my eyes because of the ending. It definitely took away some of that realism regarding being attacked by a butcher on a subway in the most gruesome ways. Still, I’m giving this a slight recommendation despite the mediocre rating because it genuinely thrilled and scared me.
Bad Lieutenant (1992)
★★ / ★★★★
Even though I really wanted to like this film more than I did, I can understand why it gained its cult following. The film features dark alleys and hallways as if to resemble the dark side of humanity. That metaphor is consistent throughout so it’s difficult not to admire Abel Ferrara’s direction. Each scene is so visceral and honest to the point where it was painful to watch; two scenes I can recall right away is the scene that involves a rape and when the lead actor (Harvey Keitel) actually sees Christ. Keitel pushes his acting ability to its limit and it was great to see. His character is extremely difficult to like because he’s on drugs pretty much every hour of every day, he doesn’t really care for his family, he terrorizes unknowing teenage girls and his obsession with gambling ultimately takes a toll on his soul. That latter component, in my opinion, is the one topic that’s fully explored. On the outside, it seems like he gambles for the money but if one were to look closely, it’s more about his desperation to stay in touch with reality. Without living in some kind of risk, it seems as though the lead character doesn’t feel like he exists–at least exist in a meaningful way. As much as I love symbolism and reading between the lines, at the same time, that’s the most frustrating part of this film. It doesn’t really let the audiences know why things are unfolding as they are. It’s open to interpretation so it automatically weeds out those who are unwilling to look past the grimy, nihilistic setting. To me, it needs more focus in terms of exploring its core and why this tortured character ended up the way he is. The pictures gives us a lot of scenes that involve Keitel’s character doing a lot of very bad things but without some sort of background, he becomes the enemy instead of someone we can watch all the way through–not necessarily root for. I admired this film’s many conflicting ideas but I cannot quite recommend it because I feel like it needed more substance instead of just featuring self-destruction for about ninety minutes.