Most films, old or new, follow well-established formulas. Boy gets girl, hero wins against all odds, and we always triumph over the alien invaders. Natural disasters bring out the best in mankind, and those reliable comedians are guaranteed to leave us chuckling. Even the ‘anti-films’ of recent decades; anti-war, anti-homophobia, anti-racism, wear their colours on their sleeve, and we comfortably know what to expect.
Every now and then, a film comes along that challenges our preconceptions. It turns a genre on its head, or at least on its side, and gives the viewer a necessary jolt. These films make us think once again. We cannot just sit back and let the story wash over us, content that we can anticipate the finale, and all the rest is just a way of leading us towards the inevitable. We need films like this occasionally, to remind us how a good story can get us involved (no spoilers, where possible).
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Assembling a first-rate cast for a crime thriller doesn’t guarantee producing a good film. This is very much the exception. A great story, actors at the top of their game, with one of the most watchable casts ever, this cracking film from director Bryan Singer seemed at first to be following some tried and tested formula. Told in a familiar flashback style, we follow the gang as they plan their big score, with much of the narration delivered by a snitch, Verbal Kint, (Kevin Spacey) during interrogation by the investigating customs detective, played by the wonderful Chazz Palminteri. We only have this snitch’s word for what occurred on the fateful night, as the rest of the gang (Kevin Pollak, Benicio Del Toro, Gabriel Byrne, and many others) are dead. There is also a great cameo from British actor Pete Postlethwaite, as the curiously named, and strangely accented, Mr Kobayashi. The mystery centres on the identity of feared crime lord, Keyser Soze. Who is he, where did he come from, and where has he gone?
In one of the best endings ever, all is revealed in a marvellous montage that I guarantee nobody guessed, even if they said they did. A true modern classic, and rarely bettered.
The Vanishing (1988)
A couple stop at a motorway services for fuel and a snack. When he returns to the car, the man finds the girl is missing. He searches frantically for her, but it is all in vain. Three years later, he receives a communication from someone, claiming to be able to show him where she is. He must meet the man, and go with him, to an undisclosed location. Sound familiar? This is the original, the first in a long line of pale imitations, remakes, and stolen movie plots. The character of the kidnapper, played with cool detachment by Bernard-Pierre Donadieu, is a respected pharmacist, and family man, somehow making him all the more disturbing as we watch his day-to-day routine. It is completely riveting, uncomfortable to watch, and a thriller that will leave you feeling that you have seen something completely fresh. At least that was how I felt in 1988, when I first saw this Dutch/French film. Even today, after many years of plot spoilers, it proves the old adage that the original is still the best. Avoid the US remake from 1993. Please.
I confess straight off that I have seen this film three times, and I am still not completely sure that I have got to the bottom of it. I have viewed it late at night and on a couple of occasions, with a glass or two of wine. It deserves more concentration, complete commitment from the viewer.
Leonard’s (Guy Pearce) wife has been murdered, and he wants to find the second of two killers, as one died during the murder. The trouble is, he has memory problems, and has to leave himself notes and messages written on his own skin so as not to forget the many clues. This completely unusual film runs two narratives of the story, one flashing back, with the aid of the mementos of the title, the other moving forward at the usual pace, as everything unravels in Leonard’s life.
He spends time on the phone from his motel room, telling somebody how he has been investigating a Sammy Jankis, who also had the same memory condition. He meets some characters during his quest who may or may not help him in his search. The confusion continues, with the filming changing from black and white to colour, and the events in the story reversing. The story continues to baffle, and the viewer becomes immersed and exasperated in turn.
With supporting actors of the calibre of Joe Pantoliano, and Steven Tobolowsky, and an intense lead from Guy Pearce, you always know that something good is happening, but you are not always sure why. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will reassure you that it has one. Try it for yourself. You might get it immediately. Maybe it’s just me…
Fermat’s Room (2007)
This complex Spanish thriller stars many of Spain’s better known actors. That they are not well known to audiences outside that country is a bonus for the English-speaking viewer.
Diverse characters, all sharing a skill in mathematics, are invited to the house of a host unknown to them. Once there, they are challenged to perform various tasks, the outcomes of which will change their lives. Though not as glossy or slick as some thrillers made in the USA, it is all the better for that. The steady pace, and feel of isolation all adds to the tension. Some have remarked that this has an ‘Agatha Christie’ feel about it, but don’t let that put you off.
This is a real cracker, with plot twists, intriguing challenges, and a claustrophobic feel. When you expect something to happen, chances are it won’t. I can highly recommend this for fans of the mystery genre, and those that simply appreciate good acting and directing.
A ninety-minute film, with one actor visible, some off-screen voices, and the only set is a coffin-sized box. You’re kidding me, surely? This tale of a captured truck driver in war-torn Iraq seems like it might fall at the first hurdle. After all, who would want to watch that? Like me at first, you would be wrong. Starring Ryan Reynolds, this tight film (in more ways than one) grips the viewer from the outset. Buried alive, no idea where he is, or how long his air will last, Paul Conroy has little to help his predicament, or does he? He only has a lighter, though he later finds a torch, a mobile telephone, and some glow-sticks, all concealed in his ‘coffin’. But most of all, he has the will to live, and the determination to get out of this impossible situation.
Okay, might as well turn off now. After a few not very convincing shocks, and a last-minute reprieve, he will surely be rescued, won’t he?
This film is brave enough to really make us wonder what the outcome will be, and to show us the unfolding situation in real time so we can perceive ourselves in just this position. Seemingly helpless, he discovers his captors wish him to use the mobile to make a video, to post on the Internet. With the ‘phone, he manages to contact his employers, the police in the USA, the FBI, and even his family. He is transferred, put on hold, and eventually taken seriously. Help is on the way, an attack will be made on his location, and he will be freed. You will have to watch it, to find out more.
If you can forgive the unlikelihood of the phone working underground, the length of time that the lighter flame lasts, and a few other ‘oh come on’s’, you will be rewarded with a surprisingly satisfactory film experience, and an ending that you might not expect.
The Arrival Of Wang (2011)
An Italian film about a captured alien who only speaks in Chinese? You couldn’t make it up. Luckily, someone did – Italian film-makers Antonio and Marco Manetti. A young woman interpreter is offered a lucrative job translating for someone who can only speak in Mandarin. The pay is high, and the job should not last too long, so she accepts. When the car comes to collect her, she is asked to wear a blindfold. We immediately know that this is going to be a far from routine assignment.
Arriving at the headquarters of a government agency, she is informed of the secrecy of her mission and told that the interview will be in darkness. Soon after it begins she complains and insists on having light. This reveals that the Chinese ‘gentleman’ she is interpreting for, is in fact a captured alien. Think E.T. grown up, with a different agenda. He insists that he is on a peaceful mission to Earth. He is calm and gently spoken, even though he is restrained, denied water, and constantly shouted at by the interrogator. She takes pity on Wang, as he calls himself, explaining that he speaks Chinese because it is the most widely understood language on the planet. The woman finds the attitude and tactics employed by the interrogator unacceptable, and occasionally alters her translation to help the prisoner.
Given a chance to be alone with him, she resolves to help him get free, as she is so appalled at the welcome given to this alien ambassador. With no outright plot spoilers, let’s just say that her decision is flawed, and what we might have expected to happen doesn’t.
Dealing seamlessly with subtitles covering both languages, and with a sparse set, small cast, and an improbable situation, the Italian brothers have given us a little gem of a film, deserving of a much wider audience.
I appreciate that there are many similar films out there, but these are a few of my personal favourites. I hope that you manage to discover something new, or if you have seen them, I’d love to hear about others.