The Vanishing (1988)

This review contains SPOILERS!
George Sluizer's "The Vanishing" is not the movie you're expecting. It seems like something of a predecessor to "The Forgotten" or some other such pulp, cheap nonsense; but that's not what it is. To call it a precisely machined thriller is a misnomer, because the film itself is not terribly suspenseful, nor does it try to throttle its viewer with scares; but there is something innately disturbing about the film and how it treats its subject matter with poise and with frustrating withdrawal.
"The Vanishing" starts with Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) on a road trip. They are traveling when they run out of gas in the middle of a tunnel and after a quick and rather emotional fight, Rex abandons Saskia in the tunnel to go get gas. Once reunited, they continue on their way with this wall between them. Eventually apologies are said and the couple make up before coming to a rest stop, the last one before their final leg of the journey.
Saskia goes inside a gas station to buy a few drinks and she never comes out. After a while, Rex goes to investigate and finds her missing, vanished. Now panicked, he tries to think of every possible situation and the one that makes the most sense to him is that Saskia has been kidnapped. He circulates this thought with the people around him and they all roll their eyes at him. It would be impossible for the police to get involved this early.
And then the film switches characters to Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) and we're stuck on him for a very long time. Although by all rights Saskia and Rex are the two leads of the movie, it's Raymond who is the most complex character that burns up the most screen time. There's a very simple reason for this: he did it.
We're not exactly sure what he did with Saskia but every scene with him suggest something more and more nefarious until the audience has conjured up something far nastier than a film could ever produced...and I think that was the intention. By letting us see the bad guy so early on in the film, the suspense comes from a place of hesitancy for gore. We don't want to know and yet Rex's passion for the truth makes it impossible for us to desire anything but the story.
"The Vanishing" is a fractured story, it's timeline rarely ever linear, but this is half the enjoyment. The movie skips over large chunks of time, spirals back on the narrative, and then switches characters quick as a flash. It's like the audience is the baton in a relay race, it's almost dizzying at times; but always effective.
The only thing that is glaringly out of place for the movie is the music. Henny Vrienten's score is nothing short of a disaster here. It's never chilling or evocative, instead just being some Vangelis-wannabe. The experimental nature of the score could have been gold, but I found it more distracting than anything else (I made the same complaint about Vangelis' score for "Blade Runner" but whatever...).
As Saskia, who actually is featured very little in the film itself, but hold such a power of its, Johanna ter Steege is remarkable. She's charming, beautiful, clumsy, passionate, and fascinating. It is no wonder that Rex is so transfixed by her and how he refuses to let her go in his memory.
"The Vanishing" is a well-paced movie that actually features very little flash-and-bang for something that would now be remade into a shitstorm of weird edits and jump scares. It's a little snapshot of cinema history, a well-told tale, and a analysis on the psyche of insanity and sanity. It's quite good.

Score: ★★★½

How to Survive a Plague (2012) (Not Rated)

"PLAGUE! We are in the middle of a fucking plague!"
David France's "How to Survive a Plague" is an important minority and activist based pieces. It's also one of the most important documentaries. Beginning in the late 80s, the film chronicles the AIDs epidemic through the mid 90s and up to present day where it poses the problem of people still dying en masse due to the disease. What do you do with that?
At the beginning of the movie, there is a movement with a group called "Act Up" that is protesting politically in order to garner research and treatment for AIDs. At this point in time, AIDs was something that was thought to be incurable, degenerative, and a problem only for the homosexuals. This was before any treatment was available whatsoever. So Act Up was not only fighting to make changes within a legislative and medical sense, it was actually carving the path.
By the early 90s, a few drugs like AZT had appeared and although more fictional movies like "Dallas Buyers Club" would optimistically like to have their audiences believe that these were miracle medications, the sad truth that David France states is that AZT was simply not enough and this would be found out later. It was a good start, but it was nowhere near close enough.
Hellbent on finding a way to help the next generations, the audience is privy to carefully reconstructed portrayals of martyrs for the cause. These people were already going to die, they had resigned themselves to that, so they actively placed themselves in the line of fire from police, from politicians, and from the general public. They took whatever drugs they could because—"what the hell?"—it couldn't make their situation worse.
As such a backdrop, "How to Survive a Plague" is almost brutally hard to watch because you will be observing people at their wit's end in every scene. Then again, this is also what gives us hope, because these people would no take no for an answer and devoted their entire lives to this activism which then helped millions of people receive treatment.
Happy for some, the film doesn't masquerade as the hope of humanity piece that Spielberg might turn it into, instead it's a reminder that progress has occurred, we should honor those who fought for it, now let's move on and keep demanding more. Like many great social commentary documentaries of recent years—from "The Square" to "Blackfish"—it tries to promote a change in the mindset of its viewer. It struggles, it wrestles, it bleeds.
What the movie from a technical standpoint succeeds at the most is being one of the most comprehensively edited and developed documentaries I've ever seen. It relies solely on interviews and archival footage and the amount of film that it manages to recover is staggering. Every scene reeks of the desperation of the activism movement and it is so potent that it can't help but seep out of the screen.
"How to Survive a Plague" wants to make you think, it wishes you to be educated, and it is not as biased as you may believe. The cutting together of the footage and the interviews is such that proves that even within the minority group of the minority itself, there were divides and differences of opinions. People were not always rational; but that's the beauty of the movie.
Its accomplishments are so profound that they leave me at a loss for words, drained of my emotions.
It is essential viewing.

Score: ★★★★

Jesus Camp (2006) (PG-13)

Perhaps the most infamous documentary of the last decade, "Jesus Camp" horrified viewers and put an interesting small cultish society in the front...or did it? Although directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady point the camera and blatantly judge, their opinions are subtle enough that to those zealots watching, "Jesus Camp" could seem—for most of the movie—like an exposé that works more like a promotional informercial. That is, if you cut out like the last twenty minutes.
There's a small community in Missouri that preaches evangelical doctrine to the youth of America. Pastor Becky Fischer takes it upon herself to be the prophet of the Lord, raising an army of spiritual warriors.
The children of this next generation are the key to this "war" that will be waged and Becky is convinced of her higher calling for this purpose itself.
I think that Ewing and Grady are assuming most people have not seen the inside of a charismatic or Pentecostal church and thus will be shocked to see Becky and co. walking through the aisles of the summer camp facility, laying hands on the chairs, speaking in tongues, and commanding that the devil not take over the sound equipment. I, on the other hand, was raised in this environment and it caused no great surprise to me—perhaps I was desensitized to the setting; but it wasn't as disturbing for me personally to watch than the average agnostic.
That being said, there are moments in the film that make you pause and question the sanity of thought involved. There are moments when Becky Fischer looks in the mirror and says that summer camp drains her energy...we can begin to question her authenticity that way; but I don't think we can ever question that actually emotion behind the film.
The movie's logical voice comes from radio talk show host Mike Papantonio who says the things that the "educated" audience is supposed to. But even from him, we get some sort of odd warning against the war...this time it's with politics. He warns us that the far right is training children to blindly side with the Republican part and that these voters now hold the keys to every election. Ted Haggard, a pastor who appears late in the movie, agrees with this.
Instead of being about the treatment of children in summer camp, which is what the name implies and became what I expected of the movie, "Jesus Camp" is much more interested in the political doings of George W. Bush.
What disappears are the stories of kids like Levi, who are seen submitting to the religious thought and even younger  kids who acknowledge publicly (and far more maturely than I could have at that age) that they have issues with faith concerning the Scriptural text of the Bible. These are the kids who could have made the film much more interesting, not that it isn't already.
"Jesus Camp" may send shivers up your spine and it may raise red flags against the Pentecostal denomination...I think that's its intention. But I do think that any member of the camp watching the movie would firmly believe that what they were doing was nothing wrong and nothing cultish...and that's what I find most disturbing.

Score: ★★★

And the Oscar Goes To... (2014) (Not Rated)

Right before the 2015 Oscars, TCM made and aired a documentary about the infamous Academy Awards. Using the powers of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the movie they released is both coy, honest, and a complete worship of the institution.
The movie seeks to show the history of the Academy Awards and on this front, I'm not sure what good this actually does. We all know that this has a long history and that it exceeds at highlighting the "best" of the year. Some of the interviewees laugh at the fact that each and every year there is public flack for "the right movie" not getting nominated...after all, the vote is a vote. It's the opinion of the Academy and not anyone else's. You want a different list, make your own.
With this brash, brassy, and self-congratulatory way of directing, it's amazing that the minorities do get honored as often as they do. Whoopi Goldberg makes the point of pointing out the history of black actors and actresses in Hollywood and the audience is privileged to seeing the acceptance speeches of the few actors and actresses who won these awards. Then we move on.
Paralleling the actual awards night, the movie takes you through the minor awards leading up to the more major awards; but herein lies the problem: there is always an explanation for the minor awards, what they each mean to the industry. Instead of telling us what the major awards, like Best Actress mean for movies in general, we just get success stories of people like Helen Mirren and Jennifer Hudson and Jane Fonda, etc. etc. The movie is more sympathetic with the female voice, as if the emotions of winning mean more to the feminine persuasion.
Jason Reitman is featured as one of the "losers" of the Oscars, but George Clooney, smug as ever, smirks at the camera and talks about all his Oscar nominations; yet we are sure never to see his acceptance speech.
I think what it eventually boils down to is the power of the pop culture influence and the mysteriousness of the movies/Academy Awards. Instead of being a little more edgy with its critique of the awards, the movie dances around the evening. We do get the comment that the "real Hollywood" never appears on the camera, because the "real Hollywood" isn't glamorous. You win your awards, go on to your work the very next day with no fans screaming around you, applauding you or chanting your name.
It's just an illusion.
But what a glorious illusion it is and what a history it has.
You can see the way the Rob Epstein's own history with the Oscars influences his usually other straightforward techniques. Having won two awards, you might think that he would be slower to push critical thinking would be right.
Eventually, it does mirror the night of awards completely—it's dazzling, funny, sometimes politically forward, and over in a flurry leaving you thinking that it might come back next year.
By the next day, it might have been forgotten except for a few highlights.

Score: ★★★

Hoop Dreams (1994) (PG-13)

"Hoop Dreams" may just be the most well-known documentary, thanks in largely to Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel who praised the movie upon its release in the 90s. Ebert would later go on to say that it was the best film of the decade, beating out such mammoth pictures as "Pulp Fiction" or "Goodfellas"; but that doesn't mean that the film has aged well.
The movie follows two young boys, William Gates and Arthur Agee, as they go through highschool and begin a collegiate career, hoping to eventually find themselves in the NBA—hence the title of the documentary.
Because it's such a lengthy film, spanning four plus years, you can expect that your butt will probably lose its feelings; and there really isn't a motivation to the film—it's realism and we understand this, but that doesn't make it watchable.
The film is interesting in odd characters and wonderfully intimate moments, in failures and successes.
William Gates is one of the most promising basketball starts to reach highschool, commentators can't shut up about his promise and about how he'll find himself in the big leagues eventually. That dream seems to be far out of reach as William keeps running into injury after injury. His coach is interested in making "men" out of these boys and my skin crawls every time he is on screen; but that's because I have a personal aversion to dominance in adolescence. There is one scene near the end of the film where William is talking to his coach and seems pretty resentful for the treatment that he got. But the coach is positive that in five or ten years, William will walk back in the door and shake his hand, thankful for every time he had to run more laps.
Yet William finds himself at a more prestigious institution than Arthur does. William is attending the local Catholic highschool which is supposed to be a better school for helping students who want to go to college.
Arthur originally attends the same school as William, but when his mother has to quit her job and his dad leaves home, he finds himself without the financial means to go to the school and is forced to return to the public highschool. He gets placed on the basketball team there, but his in-and-out of different schools has made a chaotic transcript that will need heavy editing before he can even think about going to college. He tells the camera that he is mad at both schools for doing this to him.
William and Arthur both come from low-income homes, but William is privately being financed by a couple who sees his potential for a basketball career. Arthur gets no such funding.
At this time in the documentary, the audience is still left wondering what will happen to the two boys as they transition from one year to the next and if they will ever find themselves in the NBA. In this way "Hoop Dreams" is not as optimistic as certain recent documentaries like "20 Feet to Stardom". It never sugar-coats its issue and it never presses to hard into the personal life.
It does have the unfortunate feeling of faux situations. There are so many shots of a single instance that it makes me question how many cameras they had and how "honest" they are being. It's certainly questionable.
But the thing that really sinks the documentary is its length and its lack of emotional appeal. It may be altruistically superior; but it does not make me care about either William or Arthur or their potential careers.
It is well-handled, well-made, often revealing, and often boring.

Score: ★★★

Heavenly Creatures (1994) (R)

Before Peter Jackson became known for fantasy and in between his cult horror flicks of yesteryear and his massive success of today, he made a little picture called "Heavenly Creatures" which remains unfalteringly questionable, deeply disturbing at moments, and an uncompromised film. While it may seem like a love story, a kinship saga, or the influence of parental hypocrisy—one thing if for certain: you can't be quite sure what the film really wants you to believe.
At an all girls' school in New Zealand, Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) doesn't fit in. She's a loner and doesn't seem to mind staying in her own sphere, that is, until Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) comes to the school. This English girl has an unflappable spirit, and she won't take crap from the teachers, who all assume the "dark overlord" cliche that we have come to expect from these types of settings.
The two become friends and it doesn't take them long to show each other their literal childhood scars.
They begin to write a book about knights and ladies and ravaging and lack of chivalry together as their days start to blur into montages.
For Pauline, Juliet is the doorway to step into something a little less formulaic and for Juliet, Pauline is the pursuer. Neither of them is bothered with labels, but both sets of their parents are, who come down hard on the girls for living in a fairy tale and spending too much time with each other.
The surrealism of "Heavenly Creatures"is what is most surprising. At first, the film whirls quickly and the camera spins wildly and you get the feeling that the setting is being made, but that's not the case. The entire movie jumps from style to style, never fully claiming one as its own, and melodrama is supreme here. Jackson uses cliches, tropes, and technology to make every scene just as puzzlingly moving as the last. For here lies the movie's biggest secret: it is emotional, and it shouldn't be. There should be no reaction from the audience, and yet, I couldn't help but give one. Lynskey and Winslet are so good and the movie is so subtle and so loud simultaneously that I couldn't help but be caught up in the whirlwind of it all.
At times, the film seems inappropriately funny, considering the subject matter that it's juggling; but these times are so zany and so beyond description that it feels as if you're entering the mind of the character, which is precisely what Jackson wants it to feel like.
The story that "Heavenly Creatures" tells is a true one, supposedly, and it is based off the diary of Pauline, thus it would make the most sense to be in her head.
The movie's politics may give rise to questionable correctness; but I don't think the intention of the film was to harm, even though it may do so just by its existence.
In any case, the film succeeds so well because of its two previously unknown stars and because of its constant self-understanding. There is nothing so refreshing as seeing Jackson take his gloves off and present a wide-sweeping, unexplained, horror-meets-sentimental-meets-problem drama.
Perhaps its own scope is the reason why the movie isn't great; but for what it was trying to accomplish and for what it does, I can't help but be amazed at the virtual tight-rope that Jackson walked.
It's pretty stunning, often frustrating, somewhat laughable, and absolutely impossible to tear your eyes away from.

Score: ★★★½

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Of the horror movies that grew from the 50s, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is probably one of the most well known. It came well before "Night of the Living Dead" and started a craze that can still be traced to today. This is no zombie movie; but it's only a hop, skip, lunge, creepy walk, or jump away.
Keeping in theme with noir madness, the movie begins with a question of sanity. Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is being held by policemen as two doctors question him, trying to judge on whether he's insane or not. He has one hell of a story to tell them; but they don't seem to keen on listening. But as he talks, we go back in time with him to see the events leading up to his quasi-incarceration.
Dr. Bennell is the doctor of a small town in California and he's returning home from a trip. As he gets back into his routine, he is informed that half the town seems to have melted into some sort of hysteria. People make all sorts of appointments to see him and then cancel just as quickly, showing up only hours later completely fine, showing no symptoms of illness whatsoever.
One of the first things that Bennell notices is a boy who is deathly afraid of his mother, this is followed by a friend who doesn't think that her uncle is really her uncle. One of Bennell's colleagues, Dr. Kauffman—the town psychiatrist—thinks that this mass hysteria can be logically explained and doesn't worry too much about the ramifications of an entire population slowly losing their collective mind.
As the days home continues, Bennell starts to court Becky Dricsoll (Dana Wynter) and his thoughts are momentarily distracted by her beauty and charm. It's only when he thinks that Becky might be in danger does he start to reconsider the events of the town in a different light.
The arrival of a cadaver brings around the final straw for Bennell. This body has no identifying marks and it seems to be trying to reproduce one of the good doctor's friends. This has gone too far.
Things start to be uncovered and the truth may hurt just as much as the lie.
"Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is by no means a great twist of narrative strength. Even its title, corny and unashamed, sort of gives away the entire plot of the movie. There are body snatchers who invade...the end.
Not so fast.
The movie's thrills come with the suspense, because even though we aren't surprised by the larger plot movements, it's the smaller scenes of wondering who's going to get it next that make up it.
"Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is beautifully shot and remarkably well-paced. It's not a long movie and quickly dances from one important moment to the next, never letting itself settle. Because of this, the movie feels like it's being whipped around, spinning at an incredible speed and that sense of adrenaline and momentum is hard to capture.
Don Siegel's direction brought him a sense of fame that he later duplicated in "Dirty Harry" but beyond that, his films seemed to have slipped through the cracks. There is a lot of ease to the terror of the movie, which is never frightening enough to make your hairs stand on end; but it is well-orchestrated. While it may suffer from a larger sense of doom and perhaps predictability, its cliched commentary on assimilation and individuality is actually quite enjoyable.
What can I say? It's exactly what you'd hope it would be.

Score: ★★★

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) (PG-13)

John Hughes is the king of the teen movie. No one else can ever compare to the influence he had on children in the 80s. Though "The Breakfast Club" seems like the most readily available movie to cite with Hughes' name, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" also has generated its fair share of pop culture phenomena.
The movie launched Matthew Broderick into stardom as well as making its titular character something resonate in American society. Even if you didn't know the movie itself, you knew the name Ferris Bueller and that in of itself speaks volumes for Hughes.
The movie begins as the title states, Ferris Bueller has decided to take one day's reprieve from school. This is his ninth sick day of the semester and the principal Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) is beginning to get a little heated at Ferris. The boy can't be such an important role model to freshmen and still expect to walk over the school's principles (see what I did there?) so easily.
So on this day, as Ferris is calling his friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) and they're collectively getting Ferris' girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) out of school for the day, Rooney is determined to prove that Ferris isn't sick and that he will rue the day he ever tried to cross the most powerful man in highschool.
A lot of the humor in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" comes from the wacky, almost non-sensical approach that Hughes has while addressing Rooney.
Hughes is the teenager's best friend, and some part of it feels like he himself never aged past highschool. His films are always so loving and so genuine when dealing with this age bracket. "Ferris Bueller" is no exception to this.
Though the film has influences that stretch from Scorsese to Tarantino, Hughes is very much in the emotional element of it all, not caring to woo the very nature of film itself. His characters are his heart, this is what he wants to show us.
The plot of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" is very slight. It gives us three teens skipping out and their various adventures. No where is there some great crisis, the most enjoyable moments come when the group has to evade the ever present, always condescending adults.
The grown-ups in Hughes' movies are always the villains, always over simplified, and always flatter than the teens. Here we see them be naively innocent and insanely hell-bent on "justice".
There are moments when "Ferris Bueller" could come across as a slapstick attempt for a blockbuster, but I don't think that's quite it. Even if it was, there would be more depth to it.
Cameron is just an enigma of a character and unfortunately the reason that the movie doesn't succeed completely. His story is left open-ended with questions hovering all around; but I think that it's also justifiable to do this to him because of what he has to go through in the movie.
The angst is real here; but so are the laughs.
Hughes' quirky style has Ferris breaking the fourth wall at every opportunity, letting text appear on screen in a coy fashion, and stereotyping highschool once again. Most of the time, the movie is a sheer joy; yet its calmer moments are somewhat uncomfortable and altogether necessary.
"Ferris Bueller's Day Off" rivals and perhaps surpasses "The Breakfast Club" as Hughes' ultimate love letter to adolescence.
It is right to marvel at this movie because after almost thirty years, it remains as relatable as when it was first released.

Score: ★★★½