For Reel

The Vanishing (1988)
July 29, 2016, 6:12 pm
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Director: George Sluzier
4 Stars
The VanishingAmong everything that The Vanishing is, it is a meticulously crafted thriller about the grieving process. In one scene, a woman reassures a man that he will get over the loss of a loved one in about half the total amount of time that they were together. It’s not quite enough for Rex Hofman (Gene Bervoets), who is so driven by curiosity that it almost seems as if he’s bypassed grief—he’s obsessed and haunted, not wallowing in self-pity. Our mind’s need to process events as narratives is often set against the unpredictability of the world, driven by chance encounters and simple misfortunes. That Rex’s narrative regarding what happened to his girlfriend (Johanna ter Steege) is forever incomplete is the catalyst for a consuming madness—one gets the sense that he might be able to cope and move on if he simply knew why. The Vanishing is a horrifying suspense film both because of its calculated, uncommonly analytical villain (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), and because it is a story that punishes this very basic human curiosity. It’s a film about a search for answers, even if getting closer to those answers means quite knowingly tangling oneself in a spider’s web. And yet, if the audience of the film not only knows most of what happened on that fateful afternoon, but has some idea what might happen in the end (which proves to be even beyond one’s imagination), director George Sluzier keeps the levels of suspense high. If he’s not a showy visual stylist, his obsession with the seemingly mundane (there are documentary-like stretches where Donnadieu practices his crime) brings a disconcerting level of realism to the material. Unlike a thriller by Hitchcock, there is very little pleasure in The Vanishing—it is a film of consuming dread, where the sense that bad things await is approached in the very first scene and carried through to the end.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
February 22, 2016, 2:09 pm
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Director: Isao Takahata
5 Stars
Grave of the FirefliesIt’s shocking to learn that Grave of the Fireflies made its debut as a double feature with Studio Ghibli’s other masterpiece about siblings, My Neighbor Totoro. Tim Brayton at Antagony & Ecstasy rightly points out a few of the similarities in the films’ non-condescending approach regarding the point-of-view of characters who float in the uneasy territory between childhood and adulthood, but the essences of the stories are nonetheless very different. Grave of the Fireflies, like My Neighbor Totoro, does have sublime moments of caring between people–it is a brutal film, but one very much linked to a theme of empathy–but it is largely about the ugliness of war. Furthermore, director Isao Takahata’s neorealistic approach brings animation to an entirely new light, pushing the medium even further than Totoro does. Animation allows more room for the viewer’s imagination than live action ever could, and yet Takahata assaults the audience with images as grimly realistic as the corpse of a mother covered with maggots. Meanwhile, accompanying images of brutality are the shots of the titular fireflies, which illuminate the faces of the siblings as the film touchingly remarks on their love for one another. Roger Ebert was taken with the choice of animation for this material, arguing that, “animation produces emotional effects not by reproducing reality, but by heightening and simplifying it, so that many of the sequences are about ideas, not experiences.” Takahata’s mastery of the form (which was also on display in his followup masterpiece Only Yesterday) involves his ability to convey the “feeling” of a scene through simple framings or even plays with the color palette. The opening framing device could have been an overly-sentimental misjudgment, but it is approached with a delicacy that doesn’t undermine the horrors that the characters go through, but rather suggests a warmth in their eternal bond. Takahata achieves this through the use of objects (a spilled container that prompts an appearance) and lighting, with the symbolic fireflies serving as a haunting echo of the fallen bombs. This is one of the rare war films that makes its statement by simply being content to mourn, not by sermonizing what could have been done differently.

Story of Women (1988)
December 19, 2015, 2:51 pm
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Director: Claude Chabrol
3.5 Stars
Story of WomenThe title of Claude Chabrol’s 1988 abortion drama Story of Women makes it clear that it is intended to dramatize an individual’s journey as a reflected criticism of society at large. Set in Vichy France, Isabelle Huppert plays a woman loosely based on Marie-Louie Giraud, an abortionist and brothel keeper famed as being the last woman guillotined in France. Neither Chabrol nor Huppert are particularly interested in moralizing–despite the complexity of the material, notice how Huppert shows a businesslike indifference to her trade. The ethics of abortion rarely come into question, rather it serves as an avenue for one woman to make ends meet. Similarly, Huppert’s character entirely neglects traditional roles of womanhood, outsourcing her chores to a maid and even hiring a woman to sleep with her husband (Francois Cluzet). And yet, despite these conventional immoralities, the film is more concerned with the irony of a society that sentences a woman to death due to her participation in terminated pregnancies, and yet leaves her children without a mother. Her fate suggests the violent impossibility of escaping the throes of repression–taking initiative in her life is ultimately what spells her downfall.

Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)
March 23, 2012, 6:40 pm
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Director: Terence Davies

The convergence of two films made two years apart, Distant Voices, Still Lives was the debut feature of Terence Davies. If he’s come a significant distance in his characterizations, he was already exercising a remarkable control over setting, period detail, and a suggestion of the way in which popular culture can linger in one’s subconscious. Davies has spoken of his abusive father in interviews, but nonetheless the intense Pete Postlethwaite rings false as the patriarch. This, however, may be the point – just as one distorts people and places within their own memory, he perhaps exaggerates the domestic melodrama in order to suggest the lingering emotional weight of these particularly violent moments. Davies’ picturesque embellishments – those long, sweeping camera tracks that explore, among other things, the communal singing within a pub – find a strange footing between realism and memorial fraud, creating an almost surreal poetry within natural situations. One particularly striking moment involves a mother perched on her windowsill in order to clean the windows. The soundtrack plays “Taking a Chance on Love”, as if to emphasize her self-destructive passivity towards her abusive husband. It’s a heartbreaking moment, but it transcends the expected cynicism – it’s a profound image of forgiveness, a valentine to his courageous mother.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
April 30, 2011, 10:56 pm
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Director: Martin Scorsese

The Last Temptation of Christ was a hugely controversial undertaking for Martin Scorsese, inciting protests after years of suspended development due to written complaints. It is unfathomable to think that an effort this confrontational will ever again be released by a major studio while the box office continues to reward the most generalized, guileless entertainment. The material that caused the most outrage was a lengthy hallucinatory sequence wherein Jesus, while crucified, imagines an alternate universe in which the devil (posing as a young girl) tricks him off of the cross and forces him to face mortality. Although, as a non-believer, I have no authority to speak about the legitimacy of this interpretation from a Christian perspective, I would think that, in humanizing Jesus rather than glorifying him to the extent of caricature, his redemption is rendered all the more profound.

A Short Film About Love (1988)
March 25, 2011, 5:09 am
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Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

An extended cut of the sixth episode of the Decalogue series, A Short Film About Love is one of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s many masterpieces. A nineteen-year-old voyeur, Tomek, watches a beautiful older woman, Magda, in the apartment complex across from his. After confronting her, what ensues is a fascinating deconstruction of the nature of obsession and love, and the line (or lack thereof) that distinguishes them. Ironically, Kieslowski shows how Magda, previously the victim, becomes an obsessor herself, and with a point-of-view change the film fully articulates how Magda’s outlook on love is influenced by her relationship with Tomek. In this sense, Tomek can be considered a Christlike figure, complete with a metaphorical resurrection. The performances of Olaf Lubazenko, Grazyna Szapolowska, and Stefanie Iwinska as Tomek’s Godmother are all spectacular – particularly Szapolowska, whose character in lesser hands could have reduced the film to a chauvinistic tale of the cruelty of women and their dire need for a man’s affection. However, Szapolowska never compromises Magda’s dignity even at her most vulnerable, and it is because of her that the film’s delicate truths can unbridledly resonate.

A Short Film About Killing (1988)
March 25, 2011, 5:06 am
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Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Two episodes from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s oft-praised Decalogue series were expanded into feature films – A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love. The titular killing of the former references two murders which Kieslowski presents to be on an equally moral ground. In the first, a young delinquent, Jacek, ruthlessly kills a taxi driver without cause. After being sentenced to hang, the final scene documents his execution. Both of the deaths are played out in extensive length and detail and are daunting to get through. The murder of the taxi driver is familiar of Torn Curtain, wherein Hitchcock wished to present the difficulty it takes to kill a man, and the execution scene mirrors this mercilessness by depicting the mechanical preparation of the execution chamber. Slawomir Idziak, a frequent collaborator of Kieslowski’s who shot two of his masterpieces – Three Colors: Blue and The Double Life of Veronique – lights the film with strange green and rustic hues, which doesn’t take away from the gritty realism but rather sensationalizes the dreary ugliness of Jacek’s surroundings. Kieslowski’s inditement of the death penalty might have resonated more had he not tried to manipulate the audience’s sympathy by giving Jacek such a melodramatic backstory, but one has to praise the film’s achievement as a bitter, humanitarian outcry – while it is the mysteries of Kieslowski’s later films that often attribute to their power, this picture is unforgettable with it’s grim unambiguity.