Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (1993)


13. M. Butterfly

When I first started getting into David Cronenberg as a teenager, primarily attracted by the fucked-up horror movies he made in the eighties and seventies, most of his films were commercially available. Even oddities like “Fast Company” and his early student films quickly came to home video. Yet one of Cronenberg's movies remain available only on VHS for a long time, giving it a mysterious vibe. This is not the only reason “M. Butterfly” probably remains the director's least discussed work. Though based on a Tony-awarding stage play, the film had only a limited release in 1993 and received little critical attention. A re-evaluation of “M. Butterfly” hasn't come yet, leaving the film the most overlooked of Cronenberg's career.

Rene Gallimard is a French diplomat who, beginning in 1964, is assigned to China. While living in Beijing with his wife, he sees the opera “Madame Butterfly.” He finds himself attracted to Song Liling, the singer starring in the opera. He pursues Song, eventually beginning a romantic affair with the singer. Rene seems ignorant of one thing: In traditional Chinese opera, all parts are played by men. Rene and Song carry on an affair for years, Song eventually spying on Rene and reporting back to Red China intelligence. Never, during all this time, does the Frenchman ever acknowledge that his lover is actually a man.

The main point behind “M. Butterfly” is obvious. This is a film about the ways Westerners fetishize Asian women. After watching “Madame Butterfly,” Rene and Song talk about the opera. The singer points out that, while the music is beautiful, the film feeds into the stereotypes of Asian women as subservient, sexually pliable, naive, and in awe of Western men. This conversation seems to go completely over Gallinard's head. He quickly decides that Song Liling will be his flawless Asian lover, who will obey his demands and serve his desires. Song puts herself in the role of slave for her Anglo lover, possibly because it makes him easier to spy on. There are other obvious indicators of the film's themes of imperialism, such as when Rene talks about the Chinese dismissively or assumes America will win the war in Vietnam just by force of racial purity.

These political themes only seem to interest Cronenberg so much. Instead, his “M. Butterfly” is more preoccupied with what Rene sees Song Lilong as. Inside his mind, Song is Rene's perfect love. He believes everything she says. When she announces that she's pregnant and must leave him for a time, he buys it. When she returns with their child – actually a baby Song procured for this moment – he accepts the boy as his own. Maybe he accepts these things because he believes a foreigner could not outsmart a superior white man like him. Or, the film seems to suggest, maybe it's because the perfect love that exists in his mind, and probably only in his mind, is more important than the facts. Rene creates a fantasy and Song is at the center of it. He willingly denies reality to keep that fantasy alive.

I've never seen a performance of “M. Butterfly” nor read the stage play. However, from what I've heard about it, the play sounds more critical of Rene. It seems to depict him as a buffoon, an imperialist blinded by his own prejudice who is eventually punished for his arrogance. Cronenberg's “M. Butterfly” seems more sympathetic to the Frenchman's feelings. It's true that Gallinard is an overly self-assured white man taken advantage of by a more wily foreigner. However, the film depicts his impossible love for Song as a somewhat quixotic quest, foolish but utterly sincere. In the end, rejected by his love personally and factually, he recreates himself as his perfect butterfly, mythologizing his own feelings and story. There's certainly room for criticism of the man's actions but his devotion is kind of beautiful.

“M. Butterfly” seems to lead its audience to ask one question. Is Rene truly unaware of Song Lilong's actual gender, completely fooled by the opera singer's facade? Or is he aware that Song is a man and ignoring the facts to preserve his perfect fantasy? Is the man totally ignorant or just deluding himself? “M. Butterfly” does not provide a clear answer either way. When he sees Song dressed as a man for the first time, he smiles, as if he's just happy to see his love. Afterwards, Song reveals himself to Rene, stripping naked. The Frenchman seemingly refuses to acknowledge that this man is the same person he's loved for years. Ultimately, it's up to the viewer to decide. I believe Rene knows the truth but ignores it to preserve his fantasy. But the film doesn't say either way.

Supposedly, Cronenberg was such a fan of the play that, when a film adaptation was announced, he volunteered himself to direct. It's easy to see why the material appealed to him. “M. Butterfly” tackles many of the director's favorite themes. There's issues of identity, as Song is playing a role for Rene and is, to a degree, absorbed by it. There's no body horror in “M. Butterfly” but the way the story blurs gender lines suggests a certain degree of physical transformation. The most Cronenbergian aspect of “M. Butterfly” is how it depicts the power the mind has over the body. Rene's fantasy of Song, for the Frenchman anyway, is so powerful that it displaces the physical reality of the situation. Whether he knows the truth or not, Song Lilong is a woman inside Rene Gallimard's mind. The internal – the fantasy of the perfect Asian lover – disrupts the external, that Song Lilong is a man. And what would be more Cronenbergian than that?

Over the years, David Cronenberg has not worked with the same leading men that often. No matter how well his collaborations with Jeff Goldblum or Peter Weller worked out, they never made another movie together. With “M. Butterfly,” Jeremy Irons would make his second lead appearance in a Cronenberg movie. Clearly, “Dead Ringers” was a beneficial teaming for both of them. Irons is excellent as Gallimard. Irons' natural erudite quality makes it easy for him to play the role of a conceited diplomat in a foreign country. Yet the role provides plenty of opportunities for Irons to be more vulnerable. He conveys the passion of Rene's love and the pain it ultimately causes him beautifully.

When “M. Butterfly” was released in 1993, much of the criticism of the film was directed at John Lone's performances as Song Lilong. Critics said he was not convincing as a woman, with his deep voice and obviously masculine build. It's a rather silly criticism, as I don't think Lone is suppose to be convincing as a woman to anyone but Rene. Truthfully, Lone is also extremely good in the part. Lone does a great job of conveying the ambiguity of Song's feelings towards Rene. Spying on the diplomat is Song's job but the opera singer does seem to have some feelings for the man. There's a tragic quality to Song's character arc too, as he ends up rejected by someone who clearly meant something to him.

There's a lot of chew on in “M. Butterfly.” The film clearly has a lot to say about the relationship between men and women. In one key moment, Song says that “only a man truly knows what a woman should be,” further pointing towards the film's themes about the role fantasy plays in love. The political element of the film, however, ends up being background. The espionage subplot is barely focused on, only coming to the forefront in a few scenes. We see Red China soldiers marching in the streets or creative types sent off to labor camps. When he returns to France, years later, Rene spots college students organizing communism themed marches, getting into conflict with the local police. While this links “M. Butterfly” to a very specific time and place, it's not what the film is really about.

His third collaboration with Peter Suschitzky, “M. Butterfly” is as lovely looking as the director's prior two projects with the cinematographer. The scenes of Rene and Song together, especially the one true love scene they have together, are shot with a sweaty intimacy. The story is freed from its stage-bound roots without loosing that sense of familiarity with the characters. The film also embraces the beauty of the China as a country, luxuriating in the color and warmth of the culture and people. It's a really pretty movie, full of deep shadows and cordial colors.

If there's a problem I have with the film, it's that the progression of the plot can sometimes be a little hard to follow. “M. Butterfly's” story takes place over the course of about twenty years. However, we rarely get a sense of that time passing. Aside from a few dates popping up on-screen, we don't often get a specific year for these events. In the last act, the exact length of the love affair between Rene and Song is sprung on the audience and it's surprising. The story certainly doesn't seem to have been set over two decades. I know montages are pretty cheesy devices but maybe one or two would have done a good job of establishing how much time has passed.

It's easy to assume “M. Butterfly” was Cronenberg making a serious stab at respectability, as he leaves behind the more extreme surface elements that characterized his earlier film. Yet a closer look shows that “M. Butterfly” fits right into the director's career. At the time, Lone's performance and a perceived inferiority to the stage play had critics mostly dismissing the movie. There's been no attempt to reclaim the film since then. But maybe 'M. Butterfly” deserves another look, as it's an interesting motion picture and shows the director's obsessions evolving in new, more personal directions. [Grade: B]

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

RECENT WATCHES: Scanners III: The Takeover (1991)


Producer Pierre David was determined to cash in on “Scanners'” enduring cult appeal as much as possible. I have no proof that “Scanners II” and “Scanners III: The Takeover” were shot back-to-back. However, the sequels were released in the same year. They were both directed by Christian Duguay and share a few of the same cast members. If not immediately afterwards, the third film was obviously produced very quickly after the second. As this Canadian psychic/action/sci-fi/horror franchise continued into its third part, it strayed further and further from David Cronenberg's original vision.

In fact, aside from the concept of super powerful psychics known as scanners, “The Takeover” is totally unconnected to Cronenberg's film. Alex and Helena, both scanners, were adopted by Elton Monet, the head of a pharmaceutical company that has been searching for a cure the scanner condition. At a Christmas party, while demonstrating his abilities, Alex accidentally causes the death of a friend. He retreats to a Tibetan monastery, determined to learn how to control his powers. Back home, Helena steals a drug from her dad that is supposed to ease scanners' pain. Instead, the patch stripes away Helena's morality and increases her abilities. Soon, she's wildly abusing her psychic powers and plotting world domination. Alex has to return home to stop his sister.

“The Takeover” continues the series' tradition of over-the-top villains and boring heroes. Steve Parrish, who has only appeared in six other films, is fairly flat as Alex. His inner struggle, between his desire to be a normal human and his scanner nature, is resolved about halfway through the film, leaving the actor nothing else to do besides react to the other characters around him. Lilana Komorowska, as Helena, is far more entertaining. Once the drug takes over, Helena becomes a ridiculous supervillain. Her natural Polish accent even fits the cartoonishly evil character. Komorowska vamps or hams it up in nearly every scene. She laughs wickedly, cracks one-liners, disposes of her rivals and enemies. She even seduces a guy she thinks is cute, just because she can. It's a supremely silly performance but the actress is having such visible fun that it elevates the otherwise dire material. (Komorowska, by the way, would marry the director.)

Helena has a bit more screen time than Alex, who disappears for about half-an-hour following the opening scene, which is good for “Scanners III.” Whenever the focus turns to the hero, the movie falls into a sluggish slump. Alex is given an utterly routine romantic subplot with Joyce, played by Valerie Valois, a friend and co-worker of his sister. The two are introduced as lovers. By the time Alex re-enters the film, I honestly forgot about this. So I was a little confused when Valois and Parrish immediately fall back into bed. The two actors have no chemistry and the subplot adds pretty much nothing to the story. It seems clear it was introduced to get a little more gratuitous T&A into the film and to give Alex another reason to stick around.

Duguay's direction for “Scanners II” was frequently melodramatic. He doubles down for the sequel. The trick of people being tossed across the room psychically, while the camera focuses on their screaming faces, is repeated here. For most of the scanner fights, Duguay utilizes the cheaper tactic of actors making constipated faces, tossing their heads back and forth, and adding swooshing sounds on the soundtrack. Most of Duguay's credits are in low budget action films. He incorporates some of those tactics into “Scanners III.” While in Tibet, an evil scanner mind-controls a trio of kickboxers into attacking Alex. There's a fairly uninspired motorcycle chase, a rooftop shoot-out, and several explosions. One explosion occurs when a small motorized cart collides with a wooden crate, a poorly executed moment that made me laugh.

This is not the only moment of unintentional comedy in “Scanners III.” One of Helena's minions is a buxom blonde nurse, sent to seduce Alex. This leads to her other henchmen, ridiculous goons in black suits, attempting to brainwash him in some weird machine. Of course, it wouldn't be “Scanners” movie without some exploding heads. The film's first is its best, when Helena tortures her old doctor, causing his eyeballs to bulge, before bursting his cranium. Later, Alex explodes a bad guy's head underwater, a sillier scene. The goofiest scene in the movie occurs when Alex traps the lead henchman in a revolving door, squishing his face against the glass until his head splatters. That's more memorable than the final scanner dual, which features more dramatic glances, a laser beam, and ends with a ridiculous electrocution. There's also an inexplicable scene of someone casually having their arm blown off, a really oddly framed moment.

“Scanners III: The Takeover” is a slight improvement over “Scanners II.” The sequel is extremely silly – the subtitle is referring less to Helena's attempted global takeover and more to her corporate takeover of her dad's company – and that campiness adds a certain entertainment value. However, the sequel is ultimately still a very mediocre experience. For every hilarious moment, there's two or three that drag. It's hard to see any connection between this bland exploitation product and Cronenberg's original, which had it's own problems but was still daring and innovative. [5/10]

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (1991)


12. Naked Lunch

When I was a teenager, I rented “Naked Lunch” as someone who was a long-time fan of David Cronenberg. I saw the film more-or-less completely unaware of who William S. Burroughs was or what his landmark novel was about. After watching the film, I was very confused. However, the movie obviously got under my skin, as I couldn't stop thinking about it. I decided to retrieve a copy of Burroughs' book from my local library, in hopes that it would help me understand the film better. Once again, I was not prepared for what I was getting into. However, the experience did give me an appreciation for Burroughs, launching me into that pretentious teenage period where I got really into “dangerous” authors. Returning to “Naked Lunch,” now that I'm much more familiar with Burroughs, the film plays quite differently.

William Lee is many things: an on-again/off-again drug addict, a secret homosexual, a would-be writer. In 1953, he's working in New York City as an exterminator. After seeing his bug powder is low, he discovers his wife, Joan, is shooting up the substance as a drug. Bill begins to experiment with the bug powder too. He has vivid hallucinations. Giant beetles appear that tell him he's a spy and that enemy agents from Interzone are after him. That his wife is one such agent. In a spontaneous act, he accidentally shoots Joan in the head. Bill flees to Interzone, a surreal world in Northern Africa. He chases strange drugs, is followed by enemy agents, meets a woman that looks just like Joan, and somehow writes a book called “Naked Lunch.”

William S. Burroughs' “Naked Lunch” is a landmark book for many reasons. It's a watershed novel for the beat movement, helping birth a new style of writing. It's also one of the most controversial novels ever. Originally published by a company that specialized in pornography, the book is packed full of explicit sex, extreme violence, and any number of deprived acts. A straight film adaptation of Burroughs' work would be completely incoherent, prohibitively expensive, and would require a rating more severe than the NC-17. So, instead, Cronenberg mixes elements of Burroughs' life with reoccurring elements from his various books. The real life death of Burroughs' wife is used as a catalyst into his own fictional world. His affair with an Arabian boy named Kiki crops up. His friendships with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac is incorporated. This is put aside the addictive black meat, the villainous Dr. Benway, and the monstrous Mugwumps that appeared in Burroughs' books. The result is neither biopic nor adaptation but a hallucinogenic blending of both.

The film is not Burroughs' “Naked Lunch.” It is Cronenberg's “Naked Lunch.” The director attempts to fuse his aesthetic with Burroughs'. Cronenberg's obsession with the malleability of identity continues. The two separate women named Joan seem to blend together, much how the Mantle twins in “Dead Ringers” eventually become one. Luckily, both the director and author share an interest in insects and mutated monsters. However, Cronenberg's fascinations are ultimately very different from Burroughs', creating a work that is distinct from the one it's adapting. As a compromise, Cronenberg includes several of Burroughs' trademark monologues, the talking asshole story and several others, presenting the bent prose completely untouched within the film. The two aesthetics stand apart from each other but ultimately prove complimenting.

As a biographic work, “Naked Lunch” focuses on what led Burroughs to becoming a writer. In an early scene, while the Ginsberg and Kerouac stand-ins talk about their methods, Bill Lee does not refer to himself as a writer. He begins writing as “reports” to his invisible spy masters. These drug-induced ramblings soon form the backbone of Burroughs' novel. Burroughs once said the accidental murder of his wife drove him to become a writer. Thus, in “Naked Lunch,” Joan's death is the one haunting event that drives his work. The joys of writing literally become orgasmic, as Bill's talking typewriters ejaculates or moan when the writing is good. These joys, like a drug high, are short-lived. Bill Lee exercises his real life horrors in fantastical writing. The process of writing is one of struggle and pain. So “Naked Lunch” is one of the most accurate films about writing ever made.

Burroughs' “Naked Lunch” had no real plot to speak of. The episodes of sex and violence, and rambling anecdotes were kind of linked by a loose spy/detective narrative. Cronenberg's film operates in a similar way. “Naked Lunch” is a spy movie set entirely in the head of a drug addict. So the espionage plot makes no sense. Bill shifts back and form between working for Interzone and against it. His evil spymasters, represented by giant beetles that talk through their anuses, program him to perform tasks he doesn't understand (Though they speak to his secret desires). While “Videodrome” also featured rival conspiracies and programmed assassins, in “Naked Lunch,” there's no attempt to make this coherent. The film instead operates as a druggy satire of the spy genre, where back-stabbing and secrets are more symbiotically important than plot relevant.

In “Naked Lunch” and many of his other books, William S. Burroughs wrote frankly about drug addiction. He talked openly about control and needs while graphically describing the methods and lifestyle of the drug addict. Cronenberg's “Naked Lunch” approaches Burroughs' addiction with a metaphoric distant. The real drugs of Burroughs' writing – junk, morphine, grass, pills –  are replaced with fantastical drugs: Bug powder, the black meat of a giant aquatic centipede, Mugwump jism. Though primarily set in Bill Lee's fantasy world, the film occasionally pulls back, showing the needles, bottles, and other debris of Burroughs' addiction. However, the specifics of the drugs are ultimately unimportant to Cronenberg's “Naked Lunch.” The way they influenced Bill Lee's mindset is what matters.

William S. Burroughs frequently wrote about his homosexuality. The only previous depiction of homosexuality in Cronenberg's films was the cartoonish, deprived gay couple in “Shivers.” The film strikes an odd compromise. Both Burroughs and Bill Lee seem somewhat disgusted by their own desire. When his talking typewriter brings up his gay desires, Bill leaves the room. He repeatedly rejects various come-ons. When Bill walks in on a gay rape, he sees it as a giant centipede monster attacking and killing the prone boy. Bill's feelings for his wife are complicated, romantic but seemingly non-sexual. (The film toys with the idea that Joan's first death was inspired by seeing her with another man.) And he successfully seduces the other Joan. The cinematic “Naked Lunch” treats Bill Lee's sexuality as distant and alien, malleability, which is an odd way to depict Burroughs' homosexuality.

Burroughs' often used genre conventions as a clothesline to hang his surreal episodes. So creatures and monsters, out of science fiction or horror pulp novels, frequently appeared. Cronenberg brings some of Burroughs' strange creations to life. The talking typewriters are the primary creature. Depicted as massive beetles, they talk through fleshy, hairy, pulsating anuses, as in one of Burroughs' most famous monologues. The beetles crawl, leap into bug powder, and tear apart other beetles. Equally prominent are the mugwumps. Their designs bring reptiles, insects, and sea creatures to mind. They also casually drink or smoke, contrasting oddly with their alien appearances. At one point, a normal type writer turns into a pink crawling creature with both a penis and pert butt cheeks. By having bizarre monsters traipse in and out of the plot, Cronenberg continues to make “Naked Lunch” a psychotropic trip into Bill Lee's mind.

William S. Burroughs' appearance, usually wearing a brown suit, fedora, and round-frame glasses, and droning voice are as iconic as his writing. Peter Weller, the former RoboCop himself, assumes both attributes to play Bill Lee. He perfects Burroughs' particular cadence, particularly the way he slips “dig” into casual conversation. However, Weller's performance is not just imitative. Like any of the creatures in the film, Weller uses a dead-eyed stare except during the brief moments of drug-induced bliss. Weller gets as Bill Lee's inner vulnerability, hidden behind a very specifically crafted artificial appearance. He also does a great job of conveying Burroughs' odd sense of humor. All in all, it's a fine performance and Weller really made the right decision to star in this instead of “RoboCop 3.”

The film also has a varied supporting cast. Notoriously, Judy Davis made both this film and “Barton Fink” the same year. In both, she plays the muse to a troubled writer. In “Naked Lunch,” Davis has to play two separate characters as well. Both Joan Lee and Joan Frost are slightly frosty and off-putting, though Lee is harsher. Davis creates continuity through both women, who are different versions of the same women, after all, while also making them distinct. Ian Holm appears as Joan Frost's husband, playing up his sweatier sides as a desperate, rat-like man. Julian Sands is perfectly cast as Yves Cloquet, a predatory dandy that allows Sands to ham it up as much as he wants. Lastly, Roy Scheider has a brief role as Dr. Benway, Burroughs' supervillain that represents both his helplessness against his addiction and his discomfort with his own sexuality.

“Naked Lunch” was Cronenberg's second collaboration with cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and the two continue to do beautiful work together. Since “Naked Lunch” is riffing on pulp spy stories in a very bizarre way, Suschitzky shoots the movie like a vintage spy story. There are heavy shadows in scenes devoted to tough guys in fedoras sitting in dark rooms. Suschitzky filters the entire film through earthy colors. This recalls both the desert setting of Interzone and also the brown textures of the beetles and centipedes that take up so much time in the story. Also fitting the material is Howard Shore's score, which is heavy on the wild, chaotic jazz saxophone sounds we associate with the beat era. (Even if this results in a largely unlistenable, cacophonous score.)

The first time I saw “Naked Lunch,” I didn't understand it and I wasn't sure I liked it. The more I've seen the film, the more my opinion has shifted. I still don't entirely understand the film, even after reading a lot about Burroughs' life and his writing, but I'm definitely sure I like it. In fact, I think it's a brilliant film. By turning the struggle of writing into a monster-filled nightmare of paranoia and addiction, Cronenber does a good job of portraying the conflict of the creative process. While not the perfect encapsulation of William S. Burroughs' obsessions and fetishes, it's an interesting filtering of these ideas through Cronenberg's own interests. Pretty good for a film that is probably best known today for a pretty good joke on an old episode of “The Simpsons.” [Grade: A]

Monday, June 18, 2018

RECENT WATCHES: Scanners II: The New Order (1991)


David Cronenberg's movies very rarely lend themselves to franchises well. There was never going to be a “Naked Lunch 2: Return to Interzone” or “A More Dangerous Method.” However, one of the director's films did inspire a long running series. Following the success of the original “Scanners,” producer Pierre David retained the rights to the title. Ten years after the first film exploded heads all over the world, he would produce a series of direct-to-video “Scanners” sequels. The first of which, “Scanners II: The New Order,” would project itself onto video store shelves in 1991. Obviously, the follow-up was successful enough to warrant further adventures. But the question has to be asked: Is it a worthy successor to Cronenberg's original?

Many years after the events of the first film, rumors of scanners continues to persist around the world. Police Commander John Forrester has been collecting scanners, getting them addicted to a drug called Eph2 to control them, in hopes of using them to take over the local government. Enter, David Kellum. A veterinarian student, he displays powerful scanner abilities when he protects his girlfriend from thugs during an armed robbery. Recruited by Forrester, Kellum soon discovers the plot to use his kind to instill a new order. He also discovers that he's the son of Cameron Vale, the original film's protagonist.

Cronenberg's “Scanners” was a very different take on the idea of telepaths. Scanners couldn't just read people's thoughts or control someone's minds. They could directly influence a person's nervous system, causing things like the infamous exploding head. “The New Order” seems to misunderstand these ability in a really boring way. The scanners in the first movie pointedly could not move things with their minds. That is immediately thrown out the window for the sequel. Within minutes, the evil scanner, Peter Drak, is manipulating games in a video arcade and tossing people through the air. Telekinetically throwing people across rooms, usually while the camera is attached to the victim's screaming face, is the movie's favorite trick. It repeats it incessantly. This odd habit peaks during a ludicrous scene where David makes a security guard spin around like a tornado.

While “Scanners II” does not engage much with the psychic potential of the scanners, it does feature some exploding heads. The attempted robbery ends when David makes a fountain of blood gush from the bad guy's skull. Later, after taking over an unimportant character's mind, Drak and David get into a scanners duel. This concludes with the proxy's head pulsating and then exploding in a rather spectacular manner. The movie tries out other types of body horror. The addicted scanners develop weeping sores all over their skins. When a normal person is injected with the same drug, their eyes weep amber fluid. David uses his powers to brutally deform the film's human villain, his face sagging and mutating. Drak gets sucked dry, reduced to a meaty skeleton, by a crowd of scanners. This stuff is the highlight of the film, as the make-up effects are decent

Sadly, “Scanners II” is a pretty dull thriller otherwise. The villain's master plan seems very small in scope. Commander Forrester keeps talking about wanting to create a new order, to rebuild society. This entails getting himself promoted to police commissioner, a pretty moderate goal, which he achieves in a very public and silly manner. Soon, the film devolves to underwhelming scenes of David being chased by Forrester's goons. There's enough running and half-hearted chase scenes in this movie for several lackluster sequels. Aside from those silly flourishes during the scanning scenes, Christian Duguay's direction is very flat.

The cast in the film is not very inspiring either. The film was an early starring role for David Hewlett, who went on to a solid career including appearances in nerd favorites like “Stargate: Atlantis” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Hewlett's performance is serviceable but uninspiring. When attempting to play up the awe factor of his scanning powers, he too often stares ahead blankly.  Yvan Ponton never attempts to disguise Commander Forrester's villainy, making the character's evil nature easy to guess. Mostly, I want to talk about Raoul Trujillo as Drak, the head evil scanner. Where the hell did they dig up this guy? Trujillo mugs wildly in the part, alternating between melodramatic whispers and overplayed screams. It's a deeply silly and cartoonish performance, a miscalculated attempt to emulate Michael Ironside's villainous performance in the first “Scanners.”

“Scanners II's” setting also leads to some unintentional chuckles. The first movie was set in the near future. Since David is the adult child of Cameron Vale, the sequel is obviously set over twenty years later. However, there's no attempt to depict a futuristic setting. There's even a very silly scene where people are standing around and rocking out to cheesy synth music! Maybe retro was really big Canada during the last few years, which is when I'd wager the movie probably should be taking place. Anyway, “Scanners II: The New Order” is a pretty cheesy sequel, misunderstanding the original and attempting to emulate only its most obvious surface elements. Those exploding heads are cool though. [5/10]

Sunday, June 17, 2018

RECENT WATCHES: The Fly II (1989)


The original “The Fly” spawned two sequels. After the remake became a commercial success,  and one of the most talked about horror movies of 1986, Fox realized the new film could become a franchise as well. David Cronenberg, however, doesn't really do sequels. Especially not to a movie with such an open-and-close story. That didn't stop Fox. After a bizarre treatment from Tim Lucas, that had Seth Brundle's consciousness being transferred into a computer, “The Fly II” went ahead with a story by Frank Darabont and Mick Garris. Chris Walas, the first film's Academy award winning special effects artist, would make his directorial debut with the sequel. But filling Cronenberg's shoes was a tall order. Walas' film made money but was poorly received by critics, preventing the new “Fly” series from growing further. Over the years, the sequel has attracted some defenders though.

I'll give the filmmakers' credit for consistency though. “The Fly II” is pretty much a remake of “Return of the Fly,” following the son of the first film's scientist. In the opening minutes, Veronica gives birth to Seth Brundle's child. Veronica dies in childbirth and the son, named Martin, is adopted by Bartok Industries, Seth's sponsor that was mentioned in one line in the first film. From the beginning, Martin Brundle is not entirely human. He ages at a rapid rate, growing into a teenager's body in five years. He's a genius. He also harbors his father's latent, mutant genes. He goes to work on rebuilding the telepods, which Bartok has failed to master. He also develops a romance with Beth, a pretty co-worker. As he matures, Martin's fly genes begin to manifest. He realizes Bartok Industries only wants to control and study him. So he goes on the run with Beth, becoming more monstrous with every passing day. 

Cronenberg's “The Fly” had depth. It was as much a tragedy and a twisted love story as it was a gore-strewn horror film. Walas' sequel, meanwhile, is very childish. Instead of representing age and disease, Martin Brundle's transformation is a half-assed metaphor for puberty. He even seems to relish his inhuman metamorphosis. His progeria serves no story purpose, other than to keep the sequel close to the original's events. The side-effects of his rapid aging doesn't amount to much other than some social awkwardness. The story, of a virtuous monster-boy fighting against an evil corporation, comes off like comic book nonsense compared to the previous film's complexity. Martin even gains some superpowers, like when he tosses aside a security guard or leaps onto a boat in a single bound. The film's goofy streak is most apparent in the early scenes of Martin, boy genius, outsmarting and humiliating the adults around him. Scenes like that have no business being in a sequel to a Croneberg film.

Walas' goals are obvious. His movie is all about setting up the gory rampage in the last third. Martin, however, is not really a bad guy. In order to justify the boy-turned-fly-monster slaughtering the people around him, nearly everyone who works at Bartok Industries is a cartoonish asshole. Anton Bartok is an evil corporate overlord. He tells the boy whatever he wants to hear to ensure his compliance, while violating his privacy and keeping important secrets. As the story progresses, Bartok makes it clear he's only interested in Martin as a subject. The female doctor that watches over Martin is always in a bitchy mood, constantly shouting at him. The head security guard is a pervert, sexually harassing Beth, and looking for any excuse to bully Martin. There's no humanity to these cardboard targets, meat-puppets designed to be hated by the audience so we can cheer when they're inevitably torn apart.

“The Fly II” does not star Jeff Goldblum or Geena Davis. Goldblum only appears in a cameo, as footage recorded during the first film's events. Davis was willing to return but dropped out when she read that Veronica dies in the first five minutes. The only returning cast member is John Getz as Stathis Borans. Getz delivers some painful puns, his character choosing to help the child of the man who melted his limbs. Otherwise, this is a new cast. A fresh-faced Eric Stoltz plays Martin. Stoltz was cast due to his familiarity with heavy make-up, after appearing in “Mask.” Stoltz is okay in the part, being kind of cute as the conflicted boy. He somehow manages to ground the melodramatic script – which has Martin wrecking his apartment or putting down his sick dog – to a slight degree. Dapne Zuniga, Princess Vespa herself, is cute and charming as Beth. However, Zuniga can't overcome the limits of a silly screenplay.

As I said, “The Fly II” is really all about the mayhem. Once Martin emerges from his cocoon, the film devotes itself to him gorily dispatching his enemies. Admittedly, there's some amusingly graphic death scenes. A guard has his face completely melted off with acidic fly vomit. Another has his head graphically flattened by an elevator. Chris Walas' background as an effects artist is clear, as he puts the elaborate Martinfly puppet front and center. Yes, it looks cool. Aside from the two set of arms and the segmented jaw, it also doesn't resemble a fly much. It's green skin, spiky hide, red eyes, and pointed claws make it look more like a reptile. The gooier make-up effects, like Martin's pupa stage or the other mutations the telepods produce, are more interesting looking. Still, there is definitely some cheap thrills to be had from seeing a crazy looking monster brutally kill a bunch of bad guys.

“The Fly II” wasn't a quicky sequel. It was released three years after the first. Some real money was spent on the follow-up. The silly screenplay – which values violence over characters – still makes it feel like one. There have been other attempts to follow up Cronenberg's classic. When they were married, Geena Davis and director Renny Harlin kicked around an interesting idea called “Flies.” In that, Verona survives birthing Brundle's offspring, which are twin boys. A Kafka-inspired second remake was kicked around in 2003 but was discarded for being too cerebral. Most intriguingly, Cronenberg himself wrote a mysterious “sort of sequel” in 2009, supposedly dealing heavily with teleportation, that sadly never surfaced. More recently, IDW published “The Fly: Outbreak,” a comic book directly sequelizing this film. As interesting as some of these ideas are, I ultimately think that Cronenberg's film should probably be left alone. “The Fly” is great. “The Fly II,” despite some fun gore gags, is mediocre. [6/10]

Friday, June 15, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (1988)


11. Dead Ringers

Twins have a special history in literature and cinema. The image of two different people who look identical, born at the same time, understandably fires the imagination. Most stories about twins play up on this eerie quality, this sense that there's something not quite right about the connection between indistinguishable siblings. Occasionally, reality fits this notion. Stewart and Cyril Marcus were twin gynecologists. When Stewart died of a barbiturate overdoes, Cyril died three days later of no obvious cause. This unusual story would inspire the novel “Twins” by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland. The novel would, in turn, inspire David Cronenberg to make the film “Dead Ringers.” The adaptation would move the director outside the horror genre without leaving behind his trademark obsessions.

Elliot and Beverly Mantle are identical twins. Elliot is the outgoing one, while Beverly is more shy. As boys, a perverse interest in sex led them to study gynecology in school. Now, as adults, they run a successful fertility clinic. The two often pretend to be each other. Elliot will seduce a woman and, once he's bored, pass her on to Beverly. Their latest conquest is actress Claire Niveau. Claire has an unusual, three-headed uterus. She also has a casual addiction to pills. Beverly falls in love with her. After she leaves to shoot a movie, he develops a crippling drug addiction of his own. Elliot attempts to pull his brother out of his stupor but soon starts to take on the same tendencies.

“Dead Ringers” is a layered story. The twins frequently recount the story of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, and specifically the mysterious nature of their death. This foreboding tale becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for the twins. “Dead Ringers” wraps up themes of sex, identity, and bodily discomfort to tell a tale of co-dependence. Elliot and Beverly sleep in the same bed. They have sex with the same women. They work in the same building. The two are so connected that one seems to pass his illness, his depression and addiction, onto the other. Throughout the film, we see images of twins in the uterus, connected to each other. “Dead Ringers” makes this image literal, showing the unbreakable and ultimately fatal link between Beverly and Elliot.

The film's original poster showed the twins' faces overlapping with each other until they made one face. This is a nice visual summation of the film's themes of identity. Beverly and Elliot are so close, they begin to wonder where one begins and the other ends. The two look identical enough that they can easily swap places and most people won't notice. There are several scenes in “Dead Ringers” where the viewer isn't immediately certain which twin they are looking at. In the last third, there's a brief moment where their movement is perfectly synced. The film's final line of dialogue is someone asking Beverly who he is, seeming to point towards the confusion he feels. Eventually, even the twins loose the ability to tell themselves apart, such as when Elliot asks a pair of twin escorts to call him by his brother's name. The malleability of identity is a theme Cronenberg had toyed with in “Scanners” and “The Fly” but it comes to the forefront here.

One of the first scenes in “Dead Ringers” is about the Mantle twins as boys. They discuss sex, comparing human relations to those of fish. The sequence ends with them propositioning a girl, suggesting she have sex with them as an experiment. This begins the movie's scientific approach to kinky sexuality. Beverly and Elliot trade women, the more submissive brother getting the more confident brother's cast-offs. When Claire asks Beverly to spank her, he is completely confused. But he quickly learns and is soon tying her up with rubber tubes and surgical clamps. Yet the film never looses Beverly's squeamishness to physical intimacy. Cronenberg previously limited his discomfort to the human body to mutated forms. In “Dead Ringers,” that approach now applies to regular (or, at least, regular on the surface) bodies.

More than anything else, “Dead Ringers” is a crushing depiction of drug abuse. Beverly's ingestion of pills is nonchalant at first. He does them to get over his social anxiety, to increase his sexual euphoria with Claire. However, he quickly becomes dependent on them. He needs drugs to go to sleep and he needs drugs to get out of bed in the morning. Soon, his addiction takes over his life, to the point where he starts shooting up at work. “Dead Ringers'” characterization of drug addiction borders on the melodramatic, like when Beverly tries to huff from a patient's gas mask during surgery. However, the film perfectly captures the desperate nature of addiction, how someone can quickly come to rely on pills for even the most basic function. This realistic approach is especially depressing.

With “Dead Ringers,” the director leaves behind the horror genre for the first time since “Fast Company.” But only sort of. The film is an extremely dark psychological character study but still continues the director's fascination with abnormal bodies. Claire's rare cervical condition has her repeatedly being referred to as a mutant. There's a nightmare sequence where Beverly and Elliot are connected by a hideous lump of flesh. In the throes of his drug addiction, Beverly designs bizarre looking medical tools, instruments for operating on mutated women. These terrifying sculptures, ultimately used to sever the Mantle boys' connection, are the film's most famous image. They are not out of place with the medical horrors from the director's previous films. Considering how the twins' mental connection dictates what happens to their bodies, Cronenberg's fascination with transforming internal problems into external ones remains.

On paper, the decision to get one actor to play twins is a gimmicky one. It seems like a stunt to earn awards. Well, Jeremy Irons did win some awards for “Dead Ringers” but his casting still isn't a stunt. Irons' brilliantly creates two separate characters with just his body language. Except when the film is intentionally blurring the line between them, you can always tell which is Elliot and which is Beverly. It's two impressive performances from Irons. Beverly endears your sympathy. Elliot frequently earns your disgust. Yet you feel sorry for both of them once their world begins to fall apart. It's an excellent performance from Irons.

As in “The Fly,” Cronenberg mostly narrows his cast here mostly down to three people. (Though only two actors.) Genevieve Bujold co-stars as Claire. Bujold brings her own level of sadness to the part. Claire is desperate for affection. When she can't have the affection of a child, due to her abnormal plumbing, she seeks out the company of different men. It would've been easy to make Claire the film's villain, the woman that tears the brothers apart. Bujold gives the part more depth. She comes off as someone who is mostly well adjusted with her vices and disorders, balancing them with a normal life. As opposed to the brothers, who are out of balance and unable to control themselves.

“The Fly” was a tragedy and “Dead Ringers” continues in a similar direction. As Beverly begins to beat his addiction, Elliot develops one of his own. Reunited, the two fall into a self-destructive pattern. They retreat into child-like personalities. They swallow pills like candy. At one point, they throw a birthday party for each other, eating cake by the handful and gulping orange soda. Elliot weeps like a baby when he can't have ice cream. These scenes are immensely sad, the brothers attempting to regain their innocence even as their lives completely fall apart. The final images show Beverly still trying to draw comfort from Elliot, even after he's dead. “Dead Ringers” forms into a deeply sad story of two man-children, unable to cope with the world without each other.

“Dead Ringers” is Cronenberg's moodiest looking film yet. It would see the director working with cinematrographer Peter Suschitzky for the first time, a partnership that would continue throughout the rest of Cronenberg's career. The two create a highly expressive visual experience. “Dead Ringers” is bathed in melancholic blues and sickly grays. This certainly matches what the Mantle twins are feeling. That use of color continues in other ways. The bright red medical gowns the twins wear during surgery are unforgettable. The director's interest in architecture returns as well, as the modern design of the twins' apartment seems to speak to their detachment from the rest of the world.

David Cronenberg's previous films were, no matter how sophisticated, straight-ahead horror movies. Howard Shore dutifully provided horror movie scores, no matter how pretty. With “Dead Ringers,” Shore is allowed to make something more elegant. His music is undeniably pretty. The opening music feels like dawn breaking, cascading notes beautifully dancing over each other until a clear melody rises up. The music implies the nostalgic connection between the brothers, hearkening back to the simpler times of their childhood. Shore, of course, incorporates more foreboding undertones as well, just so we know this is going to end badly. Ultimately, the music is characterized by moments of serene beauty, not portentous bass.  Which makes a nice contrast with the grim film.

“Dead Ringers” is a real downer. The film leaves you with an intensely sad feeling, as you've just watched two lives completely fall apart. Yet it's a valuable experience. Irons' performance is excellent. Cronenberg's direction is fantastic. The film's themes and ideas are intriguing. The film shows the director's continued ability to balance his fascination with strong narratives. Following the success of “The Fly,” it proves that Cronenberg could make interesting, disturbing movies that didn't rely on bubbling gore or malformed special effects. [Grade: B+]

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (1986)


10. The Fly

After the financial success of “The Dead Zone,” David Cronenberg was once again a sought-after filmmaker in Hollywood. Producer Dino DeLaurentis would scoop Cronenberg up to direct “Total Recall.” That, however, was a troubled project. The producers wanted a crowd-pleasing adventure movie. Cronenberg wanted to explore the psychological ideas present in Philip K. Dick's original short story. Around the same time, a minor trend was sweeping through Hollywood of remaking classic horror movies from the fifties. Fox and Brookfilms were looking to make a version of “The Fly.” David Cronenberg were their first choice to direct but he was busy with “Total Recall.” Once Cronenberg left that project in frustration, and the other chosen director suffered a personal tragedy, he immediately boarded “The Fly.” Cronenberg's remake would become a huge success, praised by critics and popular with audiences. It's, by far, his most iconic movie.

Veronica, a science journalist, meets Seth Brundle at a party. Seth promises her that he's invented something that will change the world. He calls it the telepod, a machine that can transport solid matter across space. And it works. However, it doesn't work on living things. Veronica and Brundle soon fall into a romance. She inspires Seth and he perfects his invention. After discovering Veronica's editor is her ex-boyfriend, he drunkenly teleports himself. Unbeknownst to Seth, a fly was also in the pod with him. Soon, his body begins to change. Seth Brundel begins a slow transformation into a half-human/half-fly hybrid. Veronica watches the man she loves change into a monster.

As a kid, I went through a weird trend where the original 1958 version of “The Fly” was my favorite movie. I was a big Vincent Price fan and I responded to the movie's love story and its monster movie thrills. Cronenberg's “The Fly” almost always appears on lists of remakes that are superior to the original. Even as someone who loves the original, I'd say that's an accurate statement. Cronenberg's film does everything a remake should do. It takes the original's premise – a teleporter mishap involving man and housefly – and puts a totally different take on it. Instead of an instantaneous swapping of man and fly parts, 1986's “The Fly” depicts a gradual fusion of the two. Having a distinct directorial voice like Cronenberg piloting the new version certainly guaranteed that the new “Fly” wouldn't just cash in on the original's name recognition. It would be a genuine reinvention of the story.

Cronenberg's earliest films had an element of emotional distance to them. With “The Dead Zone,” he fashioned a love story for the first time. With “The Fly,” he makes that romance the main point of the film. From the moment Seth and Veronica meet, there's sparks. As he takes her home to his lab, she slips off her stocking, showing a clear sexual interest in him. He works his quirky charms on the woman, quickly winning her over. “The Fly” could be read as a movie about the perils of getting in too deep with someone too quickly. Yet their passion, their concern, for each other is real. Veronica and Seth's chemistry forms the heart of the story. If the audience didn't buy the romance, “The Fly” wouldn't work at all. Luckily, the love story is touching and beautifully orchestrated.

The romance was a central part of the original “Fly” too. The 1958 version was ultimately about a woman who loves her husband enough to put him out of his misery, when his transformation becomes too much to handle. The remake essentially follows this same outline. Most monster movies are tragedies too and “The Fly” understands. Seth and Veronica's love, which is charming, cute, and heartfelt, is destined to be torn apart. He becomes pathetic and she feels sorry for him. Soon, that sympathy transforms into fear, as Seth becomes sicker and more unpredictable. Yet no matter how inhuman Brundle becomes, Veronica can never let go of her feelings for him. In the end, as in the original, she loves him enough to end his suffering, even after he's changed into both a physical and psychological monster.

Upon release in 1986, “The Fly” was widely interpreted as a metaphor for the AIDS crisis. It is, after all, a film about watching your love one slowly fall apart, being consumed by a terrible condition. Cronenberg has admitted the AIDS parallels were entirely unintentional. He designed “The Fly” as a story about decay and death. After going through the telepod for the first time, Seth is invigorated. He's stronger, more agile, more virile, and can think faster. However, this brief period of exhilaration prefaces a slow decline. Soon, Seth's body is literally falling apart. As with all of us, the energy of youth is destroyed by the ravages of age. A healthy body falls to a disease that cannot be understood or control. “The Fly” makes this universal concern visceral with the best special effects the eighties could provide.

“The Fly” would also allow Cronenberg to take his beloved body horror further than ever before. The director plays the premise of a man changing into a fly for as much horror as possible. Seth's fingernails are pulled off. His teeth fall out. The shot of his ear falling off is shocking and gross. By gaining a fly's digestive system, Seth now has the bizarre ability to produce acidic vomit. He pukes on his food and, later, melts limbs. Other human body parts are destroyed, such as in a shocking scene where Seth cracks a romantic rival's arm right in half. While not the most explicit gore featured in a mainstream horror film by 1986, it's probably the nastiest. Cronenberg alternates between approaching the gore like a detached scientist and happily reveling in the extremeness of it all.

Cronenberg manages to top himself when it comes to grotesque body horror in “The Fly.” The inhuman transformations of “Videodrome” are taken even further. Seth Brundle's entire body is mutated by the process. The transformation begins subtly, with some bad acne on Jeff Goldblum's face or a patch of thick hairs. Soon, his skin is slimy, covered with tumors and bumps, as he begins to loose parts. By the film's last third, he's hunched over and completely deformed, his body bent and twisted, fingers fusing together. The climax features the most extreme mutations yet. Goldblum totally splits apart, his body shifting finally into an asymmetrical humanoid fly beast. The creature is sometimes awkwardly framed, revealing its status as an elaborate puppet. But just as a work of monstrous art, the final Brundlefly is impressive. In fact, a layer of gross beauty highlights all of “The Fly” The film's effects team would win an Oscar for their work.

So there's quite a lot of blood and slime in “The Fly.” The movie's obsession with the nastiness of the human body peaks during Geena Davis' nightmare about giving birth to a giant, bloody, squirming maggot. Yet gore is not the only horror movie technique that Cronenberg utilizes. There's a fabulous jump scare, all the sound dropping out before Brundle leaps through an enormous glass window. The climax builds and builds in tension, the scenario growing more lurid and shocking. The scariest part of “The Fly” is not the gnarly gore. It's the sense of sadness that washes over the viewer, as they realize how hopeless Veronica and Seth's situation truly is. 

“The Fly” is practically a two-hander, nearly the entire movie revolving around just two characters. As Seth Brundle, Jeff Goldblum finds an ideal vehicle for his unique acting ability. At the story's beginning, Seth is already slightly off, due to his eccentric personality. As he changes, Goldblum gets a free pass to get as twitchy as he wants, emulating the erratic behavior of a fly. Goldblum's performance is not just composed of trembling body language. He's funny at first, making it easy to believe Veronica would be charmed by him. As he grows more unstable, Goldblum's nervous energy is taken to a disturbing level. Finally, he embraces the pathetic nature of the character as Seth's humanity slips away. Goldblum is not dissuaded by the extensive make-up, acting his way through the layers of latex to create perhaps the most memorable performance of his storied career.

As great as Goldblum is, Geena Davis is equally good as Veronica. Davis is very easy to buy as a hotshot reporter. She fires back against her sexist boss/ex – a delightfully acerbic John Getz – and cracks wise about her disorganized nature. Goldblum and Davis were in a relationship at the time of filming and that real life chemistry translate to the film. Davis seems genuinely into him. So when the transformation begins, her shock, grief, and fear seems similarly real. Davis spends most of the movie's second half crying or screaming, not exactly being the most proactive protagonist. Yet she makes Veronica seem so convincing and likable that the character never comes off as weak.

After taking a break with “The Dead Zone,” Howard Shore returns to score David Cronenberg's films with “The Fly.” It's probably my favorite of Shore's soundtracks. The music begins with a series of huge, striking notes, similar to his “Scanners” score. They reverberate and shock the audience. This is then followed by majestic waves of strings and woodwind. This suggests both the film's romance and its sense of scientific awe at what follows. All the while, there are moments of deep bass, hinting at the horror to come. That foreboding builds to another graceful crescendo. Shore's music manages to sum up all the film's feelings – revulsion, romance, tragedy, curiosity – into notes and sounds. The score is big in its emotion, approaching the operatic at times. Fittingly, if bizarrely, Shore and Cronenberg would adapt the story into an opera in 2008.

The first time I saw “The Fly,” it was part of a television marathon of all five films. Following the classic, and somewhat campy, monster movie thrills of the original trilogy, I was unprepared for Cronenberg's remake. It shocked me, grossed me out, and made me very sad. However, in the days afterwards, I couldn't stop thinking about the film. Cronenberg's masterpiece had gotten under my skin. Since then, I've realized “The Fly” is an incredible achievement. The tragic love story blends perfectly with extreme body horror, fusing serious themes with sensational horror movie violence. I'm surprised a big studio let Cronenberg make the movie. I'm even more surprised that it connected with audiences. I'm glad it did though. “The Fly” remains Cronenberg's trademark film, a staggering work of mad genius. [Grade: A]