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The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
a compelling portrait of human evil
Wow. Just wow. The most deeply frightening movie I have ever seen. The plot revolves around Clarice Starling, an FBI trainee, who, to track down serial killer "Buffalo Bill" (who kidnaps and skins women) must talk to another captured killer and psychopath, Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter. Her relationship with Hannibal evolves into something slightly sado-masochistic, and becomes a twisted version of the father-daughter dynamic - Clarice has issues with her father, and with guilt. Deep consideration of what constitutes "higher" and "lower" forms of being in a human, what exactly is psychopathic and what exactly is evil, and all forms of destructive being are taken into account, symbolized by the death's-head moth. The character Hannibal is extremely intriguing and multi-dimensional, especially compared with Buffalo Bill...while the latter knows that what he's doing can get him in trouble, he still doesn't perceive himself as psychopathic, but Hannibal does. He continues to do what he's doing when possible, to acknowledge it, to even use it to his advantage with the weapon of fear, and all the while functioning on a higher, very intellectual and thoughtful level. His morbid curiosity in Clarice's past runs parallel to the desire to consume another human being. By the way, did you know that there is a species of moth that lives on nothing but tears?
The Conversation (1974)
Everybody says this is a key movie of the '70's, but to me it seems somewhat ahead of its time. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola right after The Godfather Part 1, it paves the way for the likes of M. Night Shyamaylan...I would seriously not be surprised if M. Night grew up on this movie. It reminds me of Taxi Driver too, in a way, in its tone of communicating the state of being on the fringe of society (complete with jazz too...how about that). Gene Hackman plays a professional wiretapper who is paid by a mysterious figure to record a conversation between a man and a woman, knowing nothing about them. When he starts to put the pieces together he finds he has knotted issues about involvement with the people. This movie deals directly with the morality of voyeurism, individualism and involvement. We know nothing about the main character, but in a dream scene we catch a glimpse of the demons of his childhood and his inclination to death. There is also a sideways glance at the closet skeletons of his professional career. A motel scene close to the end becomes outright surrealistic, and an unexpected twist at the end combined with his search for a bug that is never found, leaves him alone with his saxophone, playing a solo melody for the first time. Beautifully artistic direction by Coppola. My main problem with this movie is Gene Hackman...his character is full of possibility, an exercise in loneliness, but the man screwed it up, because he is a third-rate actor.
The King of Comedy (1982)
a rare peek into the sadness of comedy
Don't be fooled by the title, first off. Often compared to Taxi Driver, this 'black comedy' (on closer inspection not a comedy by any means) is one of the more genuinely sad films I've seen. Rupert Pupkin, played by Robert De Niro, is a wannabe comedian stuck in a dead end communications job. He desperately wishes he were Jerry Langford, his idol and a comedy show host. He manages to meet Langford, but when he is brushed off he devises a more drastic and immediate way to get his routine on the Jerry Langford show. It's very much like Taxi Driver in a lot of ways - Rupert and Travis Bickle share ultimate loneliness, although Rupert tries to cover his up with laughs, while Travis builds his existence around it. They both unsuccessfully attempt to make connections with the outside world, which fail because they really are living in a dream world (Rupert more literally than Travis). While Travis turns his terrible pain into violence against himself and strangers, Rupert tries to turn his into laughter. This is most notable in his actual routine that he does - it's full of jokes, but they only serve as a shabby cover for an ocean of sadness. I guess the most glaring similarity are the very ends of both movies, which would give too much away to tell.
Girl, Interrupted (1999)
powerful story about healing
This was actually much better than I expected it to be. Scratch Winona and I'd have given it a 10/10. Since, sadly, she's there and she can't act, it's not a classic in my opinion. Based on the book, "Girl, Interrupted", it is the chronicle of Susanna Kaysen's stay in a mental hospital in the late '60's. The issue deep down is healing - how do we heal? How do we get attached to our own illness? How do we change our own view of ourself? Susanna first needs to realize she's sick, to face up to her suicide attempt as not simply 'trying to get rid of a headache', and then she can heal. Lisa (portrayed by the ever-gorgeous Angelina Jolie) is another inmate at the hospital, who identifies with her mental illness and holds onto it, believing it makes her better than normal people. She's the voice of negativity and stasis, oddly seductive. She introduces herself as a sociopath, but by the end, she says, in what is possibly the most memorable line, "I'm not really dead inside." Lisa's story is, in my opinion, more powerful and tragic than Susanna's, and Jolie is definitely the better actress. I completely changed my opinion of her. All in all, it's about escaping yourself, or your own negative side that blocks the path to the remedy. The most important image is close to the end, when Susanna and Lisa are in the basement - Susanna's leaving the next day, and Lisa is tormenting her for submitting to the outside world. Lisa following Susanna through the dark, underground corridors screaming, as Susanna tries desperately to find a way out, is a troubling metaphor for the battle between the dual natures of our own egos. The Frank Sinatra song "Downtown" at the end was really sad, for some reason, and it really makes you understand, if you're depressed, that not all happy people are shallow. People that have gone through bad times and come out the other end whole are the strongest of all.
Blue Velvet (1986)
genuinely disturbing...eerily resonates with audience
Usually when I see a movie that is 'universally hailed as the most controversial film of the decade' they end up having been widely misinterpreted - such as The Silence of the Lambs, which wasn't 'sick' like everybody said, but merely portrayed the hypnotic effect of a consuming nature of evil, by drawing the viewer into it too. But Blue Velvet was the only film I've seen to date that shocked me far more than I thought it would. It's hard to say exactly what it was, but it did such a grotesquely fine job of carving out sickness from beneath an idyllic front that it couldn't help but be disturbing. It's also partly because David Lynch is a genius - some of the camera angles alone are enough to give you nightmares. Jeffrey is a young guy visiting his hometown when his father has a stroke. He finds a human ear in a field, and when he tries to find out more about it independently, he's drawn farther and farther into the world of sado-masochistic violence via Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini in a troubling role) and her tormentor, until he uncovers some unsavory findings about his own soul. Dennis Hopper - from Easy Rider - gives an absolutely disgusting performance as Frank. I mean, really, really disgusting. This from a person who thought Hannibal Lecter was kind of cool - trust me on this. All in all, the satirical film-making and saturated color, together with Rossellini's and Hopper's performances, make it really disturbing. By uncovering the hypocrisy in the idyllic front of a small town, the film uncovers the hypocrisy within everyone's soul. Because, no matter how repulsive some of it is, aren't we, against our own wills, irresistibly drawn to some of this perversion? We'd like to say we're all perfect, that it holds no attraction, but the fact is it does, no matter what we try to do about it. Is it really better to attempt to cover it up? Or is it better to surrender entirely to the dark forces within our natures, and thus release ourselves? And can we ever be one thing, or are we essentially divided? These are only some of the issues approached - it's a great film, but I wouldn't want to watch it again.
Mean Streets (1973)
The first film Robert De Niro made with Martin Scorcese, and also Scorcese's first independent project. Made with a stunningly low budget, it's the hard-hitting realization of a young director's dream to send out his message. The very first line of the movie is said by Charlie, a small-time hood with aspirations of saintliness: "You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it." This is the theme for the rest of the movie. Charlie's own redemption in Little Italy starts with Johnny Boy, his slightly insane friend who he believes is his cross to bear. Throughout the movie he keeps looking out for Johnny Boy (played by De Niro) while tension gradually builds towards the shocking ending. Johnny Boy and Charlie have an interesting relationship--while Charlie is always restrained and controlled, even to a neurotic degree (he practices holding his hand over a flame to remind himself of the horrors of Hell) Johnny Boy has nothing really wrong with him apart from the fact that he sincerely doesn't give a damn about what happens to him. Johnny's intro to the movie is him throwing a bomb into a mailbox and running away...you can predict what the rest of it is like. Ultimately heartbreaking, this study of love and responsibility on the mean streets of New York is a key examination of what adulthood means, ultimately, and how actions affect other people around us.
lightweight tragicomedy, but good fun
I had a great time watching this movie. I haven't laughed like that in front of the TV for ages. But...once it was over, it was over. In my opinion, it's really over-hyped - it's the story of Jeff (William H. Macy) who is in deep financial trouble...so he pays some small-time crooks (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife for part of a ransom he will extract from his wife's rich father. When the deed is done and the crooks are hauling Mrs. Jeff to their hideout, a cop stops them for not having the right tab on their car, and is shot. Uh-oh, two innocent bystanders noticed! Boom-boom, dead too. About four or five other people have gone to Jesus by the end, and the movie centers around Marge (Frances McDormand), the Fargo police chief trying to track down the killers. Her performance was actually pretty good as a sensitive woman who is intentionally oblivious, refusing to let the horrible things she must witness seep in and bring her down. Since Steve Buscemi is here too, you can predict the tone of the comedy, which is very dryly hilarious - the point of the movie is to contrast tragedy with comedy for a haunting and bittersweet ending. An interesting idea, but the tragedy wasn't tragic enough, it was disaffected in an odd way. Normally gruesome scenes are trivialized in a way that I don't like. It would have been very powerful had you just felt a bit more for the characters. As was, it was slightly off-kilter and I felt it left you with nothing. Great fun, however.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
art film at its finest
Unfortunately the only thing I'd heard previously about this film was that Jared Leto's eyes are dreamy, so I put off renting it for a bit. I have no idea how it got to be the success that it is - it's basically an art-house film with cutting-edge interpretive camera work and grueling to watch besides. The only big problem I saw was, why on earth is Jared Leto's character addicted to heroin? His girlfriend Marion is a jaded, little-girl-whore type, his best friend has mother issues, and his own mother, Sara Goldfarb (played by Ellen Burstyn) has probably the most convincing and affecting drug addiction ever - a lonely, old widow who gets a phone call saying she'll be on TV and consequently becomes addicted to diet pills. The uppers make her irrationally happy, and she keeps going on nothing more than a dream of recapturing her old self, her family, and her happiness. Ellen Burstyn is amazing (you may remember her from The Exorcist) and I have that much more respect for her when I found out she was the co-president of The Actor's Studio after Lee Strasberg died - along with Harvey Keitel and...and...Al Pacino! Returning to the topic - the camera work is the main thing here. In some parts it gives the impression of being on tranquillizers, diet pills, crack, what have you - also despair - and in the last scene, with cuts in between extremely traumatic experiences for each of the main characters, it literally gives you a headache, but you still can't look away. In that way, and also in its extremely sympathetic approach to drug addiction, it's fearless in a way you don't see much anymore. I shall end with the conclusion that Jennifer Connely is an execrable actress, and that Requiem for a Dream is a must-see.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
quite possibly the best and most important film in history
Even with all the cinema dealing with the trauma of the Vietnam War (Jacob's Ladder, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, and Taxi Driver to an extent) one feels that we don't even know the half of what happened. Even contemplating the horror feels inhuman. And a progression - or retreat? - to the inhumanity that it necessitates is a key part of Apocalypse Now, Coppola's greatest and one of the most important films ever made. Loosely based on Joseph Conrad's 1902 classic, "Heart of Darkness" which chronicles the loss of sanity and corruption of morality that comes with distance from civilization - a surfacing of a bestial nature, as it were, a la Lord of the Flies - it brings the story of a physical and psychological journey to Vietnam. The story is of Willard, a general commissioned on a special mission to Cambodia after his first tour of duty in Vietnam is served. Willard at the beginning of the film is stuck in Saigon, psychologically unable to go back home - eerily echoing Nicky in The Deer Hunter. So he is contacted: his mission is to assassinate a renegade Green Beret who has isolated himself in a remote outpost on the Nung River, and who has purportedly gone completely insane - worshiped like a god by the natives, and killing indiscriminately. This man's name is Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando in the second best role of his career (the best being Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire). As Willard journeys upriver in an army boat with some soldiers accompanying, his witnessing the horrors and the insanity - and the overwhelming pointlessness of it all - leads to an eerie sympathy and identification with Kurtz before they even meet. By the time they do, Kurtz's methods don't really seem as wrong or as they should, and they certainly don't seem too unusual or out-of-place. Apocalypse - a place beyond morality, the outpost on the end of the world. The loss of civilization, the loss of judgement, of self. Kurtz's monologue about an atrocity he witnessed as a Green Beret, and his later revelation, is one of the most chilling and well-delivered speeches in cinema history. The film is about trauma, about the human spirit and its breaking point - here, it's a lot like The Deer Hunter, and just as good. Apocalypse, however, takes the boundaries of what we can endure to a global level - Coppola's sweeping footage of the humid, murky jungles of Cambodia and an opening sequence of helicopters amid exploding forests and an orange sky - set to an oddly fitting Doors soundtrack - as well as chilling scenes on the river and of an air raid on a village with Wagner blasting from speakers (a scene which has gone down as one of the most chilling, darkly humorous, and strikingly pointless war scenes ever) - this all contributes to the sense of Apocalypse - the end of the world - and not at some distant point in the future, but Apocalypse Now and forever. The Deer Hunter is much more up close and personal, you can even tell by the title, and shows the totalling effect trauma has on the individual psyche, the breaking down of the human soul, and its ability to either surrender completely to forces of darkness, or to limp on. This is why both films are equal - they are two parts of the same thing. In "Heart of Darkness", Kurtz is shown as conflicted between morality (civilization) and his inner savage. In Apocalypse Now, Kurtz has left all conflict behind. He is beyond good and evil. He has let go of morality like a drowning man lets go of a saving hand in the moments before his death. Kurtz indeed is only waiting for death, quoting T. S. Eliot in his temple to himself, lost in the jungle. His last words, and the words echoed at the end of the movie, are, "The horror...the horror." He is referring to the infinite void of existence, of the human psyche, and to the pitch black emptiness within his own mind, where atrocities are born again. It is impossible to express in words the experience one goes through watching this film - the experience, in short, that Willard experiences on his journey. The end part, at the outpost, almost in fact comparable to its brother scene in The Deer Hunter, is one of the most deeply, calmly, and seductively disturbing things I've ever seen.
The Matrix (1999)
This was really really good, and well-done...in my opinion, a very important film for this generation. The Wachowski brothers' talent for packaging philosophy in a way that's accessible to the average Joe, really comes through in this stylish movie. The story of computer hacker Neo's realization that his world - the Matrix - is nonexistent and his subsequent filling of his role as the man who will set everybody free is loosely based on "Siddhartha" and Buddhist ideas pop up every now and then. It still is, however, primarily an action film - the symbolism of the Matrix is still comfortably at one remove from reality and thus the film is not as naked or troubling as, for example, My Dinner With Andre. The action sequences are never clichéd and sometimes funny (in a good way!) It's clearly a movie with an agenda - to get people to think - and I thought it accomplished this objective extremely well. Even though it's all symbolic, some parts (I'm thinking of Smith's early interrogation of Neo) are still very disturbing. I can't really think of anything to make this film better, except that the characters so far have been rather flat for the most part (Smith least of all, and Neo the most, although I'll refrain from bitching about Keanu Reeves' acting). I'm told Smith gets more interesting in the two sequels, but giving Neo a bit of a backstory and character would have helped this film immensely. It's still very good though, since the plot isn't very character-driven and thus can survive on its own. All in all, it was surprisingly addictive in a very kickass way.