★★★★ / ★★★★
An explosion in an American oil well in Nicaragua renders businessmen desperate to stop the fire from burning off the precious and highly profitable natural resource. After the incident, crates of nitroglycerin are found in a shack. One is sufficient to stop the fire. However, it is two hundred miles between the problem and the solution. Aerial transport is simply not an option given the chemical’s unstable nature. So, four men from different countries are hired to drive two trucks containing the liquid nitro, each to be paid handsomely and provided citizenship if their mission is successful. The latter is especially attractive given that the men are fugitives in their respective homelands.
Once the central adventure, the transport of the chemical compound from one place to another, of “Sorcerer,” based on the screenplay by Walon Green, reaches an overdrive, it is a thriller so confident and so brilliantly executed, it dares us to look away from the screen due to the threat of the crates being nudged with just enough force to blow its vicinity to smithereens. While it can be criticized for taking too much time to establish the criminals’ backstories, I enjoyed it because it is challenging to pinpoint what the film is ultimately going to be about.
The cold-blooded assassination executed by the well-dressed and stoic Nilo (Francisco Rabal) in Veracruz, Mexico hints at a possible international espionage. A bombing in Jerusalem which involves “Martinez” (Amidou) suggests a trace of political thriller. Back in Paris, France, “Serrano” (Bruno Cremer) becomes increasingly desperate as he learns that his business has gone bad. A similar situation can be applied to “Dominguez” (Roy Scheider) after he has killed a priest during a robbery which happens to be a mobster’s brother. These last two has a similar template as a gangster flick. While the picture is really more about treacherous land of Nicaragua rather than the foreign men who take refuge in it, I appreciated that we are given an understanding of the men’s origins. When their lives are threatened, a part of us can identify with them because we know them somewhat outside of their tough guy reputations.
There is synergy in the utilization of sound effects and score. This is observed best in two ways: when our protagonists face seemingly insurmountable dangers in the jungles of Nicaragua and when the camera turns its attention on the faces of the locals.
The most exciting sequence involves the trucks having to cross a suspension bridge which consists of only wood and rope. When the trucks sway back and forth as it sits in the middle of the bridge during a storm, it appears as though it can be thrown off any second. The howling of the wind, the raging of the rain, the creaking of wood not designed to endure so much weight, and the exhausted engine of the transport together create a sort of poetic dirge, a misstep from either man or nature means certain death.
Meanwhile, its most moving sequence involves the delivery of incinerated corpses to a small town after the accident in the oil well. Initially, there is a lot of commotion: extremely angry and frustrated roars of the poor, a thirst for blood. But when the bodies are finally shown, wrapped in plastic, there is absolute silence, a sign of both sadness and respect for the empty shells that have been handed to them. Just as quickly, the atmosphere is taken over by outrage.
Directed by William Friedkin, “Sorcerer” is about the experience rather than the genre. So few films lead with this distinction. Notice that if the sound is taken away, the images still demand attention.
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.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Jaws,” based on a novel by Peter Benchley, started off like a romance picture with two teenagers eyeing each other by a bonfire and their eventual decision to swim in the ocean. The boy, drunk, never made it in the water and the girl never made it out because a shark had taken ahold of her lower limbs. We observed her being dragged across the water like a ragdoll as her high-pitched screams turned into deafening silence. Directed by Steven Spielberg, “Jaws” was a success because the horrific images we saw matched the horror of images we did not see. Sometimes we relied on the characters’ expressions and the words they used to describe what they saw. It was the Fourth of July and Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) was asked to look into the dead body. His instinct told him it was a shark attack but the mayor (Murray Hamilton) was convinced it was just a boating accident. The mayor wanted to protect Amity Island because its economy relied on summer vacationers. The cop was more concerned about people being shark bait. Spielberg was careful with revealing too much early on. For instance, when the girl’s mangled body was washed along the shore, we could only see her hand surrounded by small crabs and the rest were covered in sand. A less controlled film would have showed blood and intestines all over the place. We didn’t lay eyes on the shark until an hour into the film. It gathered tension by allowing us to imagine how big the shark was especially since it could easily take down jetties and small boats. After a few more victims, ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) was called to help with the investigation. He clashed with Sam Quint (Robert Shaw), a local fisherman who agreed to catch or kill the shark for the right price, in terms of how to deal with the situation. Quint didn’t like what to be told especially by someone who was educated. He saw it as a sign of condescension. Their interactions were often amusing which served as a nice contrast with the horror surrounding them. The humor found a way to sneak up from behind us and just when we thought it was safe, the shark appeared and we were back to being wide-eyed and gripping onto whatever was near. I admired the progression in the shark attacks. In the beginning, we couldn’t see the shark at all. Toward the end, our characters were literally inches away from it and, with John Williams’ memorable score, we could see its gargantuan stature and the power it generated in such close proximity. If I were to make a list of must-see summer movies, “Jaws” would be on top. I was impressed not only because of the horror, but because it captured how it was like to relax at the beach. It got the small details right like the sounds of the wind blowing in our direction, the screams of joy when children played, and the way the sounds were muffled when we dunked our heads underwater. I love being in the ocean but one of my biggest fears, reiterated every time I see this film, is opening my eyes in the water and there happened to be a hungry shark coming my way.
French Connection, The (1971)
★★★ / ★★★★
Inspired by a true story, “The French Connection” stars Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy Russo, a bad cop and a good cop, respectively. The two try to capture a French drug lord named Alain Charnier played by Fernando Rey. Hackman and Scheider consistently collide against each other because they have different ways of dealing with situations. I found this film to be really focused because right off the bat the audiences get to see how Hackman’s character is like: racist, having violent tendencies and not caring about anything else as long as a result is produced at the end of the day. Scheider is pretty much the complete opposite so it was interesting to see the partners’ dynamics in disparate situations of varying level of danger. This film won several Oscars including one for Best Picture so my expectations were really high prior to watching it. Although most people’s arguments when asked to explain why they didn’t enjoy the film was that the plot and the look of the film was dated, my problem with it was its abrupt ending. Just when things were getting really good, the credits started rolling and I was left in the dust. I was simply hungry for more. I had no problem that the movie looked dated because I’m used to seeing older films so that line of argument is a matter of acquired taste. I believe this film must be appreciated because a lot of movies that came after it used “The French Connection” as their template. The most infamous scene in this picture was when Hackman’s character tried to chase after a train. It was really exciting even though it didn’t use a lot of visual and special effects because the concept was rooted in the whole good-guy-must-capture-bad-guy schema. I also enjoyed the fact that there were many silent moments in the film where the images did most of the talking. William Friedkin, the director, was always aware that he was making an astute film for intelligent people so he didn’t result to spelling everything out in order to get a point across. Perhaps with repeated viewings I’ll love this film more and more but I don’t consider it as a great film after watching it for the first time (although it came close).