Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, June 30, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (2014)

21. Maps to the Stars

Like any cult-beloved director worth his salt, David Cronenberg has been attached to various unrealized projects over the years. In the early eighties, Pierre David wanted him to make an adaptation of “Frankenstein.” After “Videodrome,” he kicked around an insect-themed comedy called “Six Legs.” In the late nineties, he nearly indulged his gearhead side again with “Red Cars,” a biopic about race car driver Phil Hill. (And never forget that he was George Lucas' first choice to direct “Return of the Jedi.”) For a long time, it seemed like “Maps to the Stars” was going to be another doomed Cronenberg movie. It sat at the top of his IMDb page for years, never getting made. And then, in 2014, the film suddenly rolled into production. As of right now, it is David Cronenberg's most recent movie.

Set in the Los Angeles film industry, “Maps to the Stars” follows several separate characters living and working around Hollywood. Washed-up, burned-out actress Havana Segrand is desperate to star in a remake of “Stolen Waters,” a movie that starred her late mother. Her therapist is Stafford Weiss, doctor to the stars. His son is Benjie Weiss, teenage movie star of raunchy sex comedies, who is trying to rebuild his career following a stint in rehab. Entering into all of their lives is Agatha, a mysterious girl from Florida who is covered in burn scars, who gets a job as Havana's assistant.

“Maps to the Stars” was written by novelist/screenwriter Bruce Wagner, who seems to specialize in either far out sci-fi, like “Wild Palms” or “White Dwarf,” or dark satires of Hollywood excess, like “Scenes from a Class Struggle in Beverly Hills.” This film obviously belongs to the latter category. “Maps to the Stars” brutally targets Hollywood narcissism. Nearly every character in the film is a self-obsessed, morally bankrupt monster who is only concerned with their own fame. Some of Wagner's points are obvious, like the scenes of drug abuse and wild sex we've seen in plenty of other movies about Californian excess. The movie is even highly crude at time, such as a scene where a constipated Havana sits on a commode, farting up a storm.

So the film's satire is rarely funny or especially incisive. “Maps to the Stars” works better as a dark melodrama about how the past is never really done with us. Agatha is a rejected figure from the Weiss' past, coming back to haunt them and muck up their lives. Benji's mistakes as a rowdy teen hellraiser hangs over his head, growing more out of control and unhinged throughout the film. This, combined with the stress caused by Agatha's return, causes Benjiie's mother to suffer a mental breakdown. Havana is haunted the most by her past, of a mother who may have sexually abused her or whose status she simply can't live up to. In Hollywood, the past is hard to escape.

Some of the characters are rather literally haunted by their past. The most obviously Cronenbergian aspect of “Maps to the Stars” are the ghosts that appear to the characters. Havana is repeatedly visited by a spectre of her dead mother, who goads and mocks her for lying. Benjii also sees ghosts. He's haunted by a sickly, young fan he visited near the film's beginning. Presumably, we are not meant to assume these are literal ghosts. Instead, they are manifestations of the film's themes and hallucinations of damaged minds. Once again, Cronenberg brings the internal outside by depicting the world through the eyes of madness.

Wagner's script also shows a few weirdly specific obsessions. The first of which is incest. Most of the major characters in “Maps to the Stars” are involved in one incestuous relationship or another. Havana claims her mother sexually abused her, though her mom's ghost claims otherwise. Eventually, we learn that Agatha has an oddly romantic fixation on Benjie, her younger brother. Her burns are the result of a bizarre “marriage” ritual she tried to fulfill with him. Later, we learn that their parents are secretly brother and sister as well, a fact they were seemingly unaware of when they fell in love. What exactly the film is getting at with the incest vibes is hard to say. Is Wagner simply extending the narcissism of Hollywood life to an even more extreme place? Surely, there's a bigger point to it than that?

Another reoccurring element in the film is fire. Agatha still wears the burn scars from her youthful flirtations, which she covers up with rather fetishistic black leather gloves. Havana's mother died in a fire. Benjie's mother eventually commits suicide by fire, in a sequence that features some truly dodgy CGI. The film's interest in flames seems to be a pun of sorts. Wagner's original script was entitled “Dead Stars.” Like literal stars and fire, Hollywood stars burn brightly before fading. You could also say it's a pun referring to Havana's status as a has-been, someone whose fame has burned out. Again, I'm not sure if there's a significance to this thematic element beyond that.

Seemingly to remind you that you're watching a David Cronenberg movie, “Maps to the Stars” also features the occasional bursts of the extreme and the grotesque. Aside from the incest fixation, there's some kinky sex in the film. Havana participates in a threesome, which Cronenberg graphically depicts. Later, she seduces Agatha's boyfriend in a vulgar fashion. The film also features some blood. An innocent dog is shot to death. Agatha menstruates on a couch. The climax is surprisingly, shockingly bloody. Despite Cronenberg fashioning some fleshy horrors out of the script, the characters' behavior remains the most grotesque aspect of the project.

For its flaws, “Maps to the Stars” at least has an interesting cast. Mia Wasikowska, the most talented of the wave of British waifs that invaded Hollywood a decade ago, stars as Agatha. Wasikowska is excellent at projecting a damaged edge that is both vulnerable and unnerving. You feel sorry for Agatha, with her strangled attempts to reach out to other people or when her fragile fantasy world starts to crumble apart. She's also unhinged, featuring a dangerously obsessive edge that becomes more and more apparent as the film goes on. She doesn't have much chemistry with Robert Pattinson, reappearing from “Cosmopolis,” who is stuttery and insecure.

In the lead-up to “Maps to the Stars'” release, most of the press centered around Julianne Moore. Moore didn't have her Oscar yet and some pegged her performance here as a potential winner. (She would instead win for another melodramatic performance, the same year's “Still Alice.”) Moore is one of the great actresses of her generation but she comes awfully close to overdoing it as Havana Segrand. The character's nerves are completely frayed, torn between a monstrous ego and a child-like need to be loved. Moore pushes her abilities to their extremes to depict this frenzied mindset. She screams, groans, moans, cries, farts, stews and pouts. Moore manages to ground Havana's histrionics in just enough humanity to keep her from being a cartoon character. But it's a close call.

Perhaps more compelling as a depiction of a narcissistic star developing a human heart is Evan Bird as Benjie. Bird is introduced as a petty monster, being ignorant towards a fan and casting anti-Semitic and homophobic insults at his agent. He's a spoiled rich kid, hideously entitled. This is most apparent in the jealousy he feels over a young co-star. Yet Benjie is also growing, slowly coming to regret his actions and dislike the shallow friends around him. Bird is solid in the part, depicting an unlikable character without compromising his realism.

The supporting cast features a few familiar faces. John Cusack appears as Benjie and Agatha's father. Cusack is well cast as the voice of empty authority, pontificating about various causes but ultimately saying nothing of meaning. That emptiness also covers an ugly, violent side that comes out in occasional bursts. Appearing opposite Cusack is Olivia Williams, as the family's matriarch. Williams' performance begins as steely and detached in a very Cronenbergian fashion. This soon degrades into a hysterical side, as the character is torn apart by trauma. Also appearing, in a cameo as herself, is Carrie Fisher. It's easy to see why the project would appeal to Fisher, who was always frank and self-deprecating about Hollywood stardom, but I wish more of her humor rubbed off on the script.

David Cronenberg likes to describe all his movies as comedies. “Maps to the Stars,” however, was his first real attempt to create something like a regular comedy. The result is pretty much what you'd expect, as Cronenberg's satire is laced with disturbing psychosis and intense unpleasantness. Occasionally, it is an interesting film, when focusing on how the ghosts of the past manifests. However, the film is surprisingly broad and crass with its satire. When combined with a wide cast and an aimless story, it results in a film that dares the audience to hate it. There's certainly plenty of Cronenbergian aspects to the film but the project still seems like an odd fit for his style. [Grade: C+]

Last year, David Cronenberg's wife and editor, Carolyn, died. This news came among rumors that Cronenberg was considering retiring from making movies, simply due to the difficulty involved in raising funds for his weird projects. The factors certainly seem to be suggesting that we may not see another David Cronenberg movie any time soon. The director has sought out other avenues. He wrote a novel, "Consumed," which was being considered for a television adaptation. If we're going to get more projects from the director, it seems like TV or the written word might be a likelier place to look for them.

Revisiting Cronenberg's films has been a rewarding but challenging prospect. It should come as no surprise that I most prefer his earlier work, while still admitting that even his later films are interesting. If "Maps to the Stars" ends up being his last movie, that will be disappointing. Even moreso for we long time fans that have often hoped the director would return to the horror genre. (By the way, Cronenberg's son, Brandon, has also become a director and his only film thus far is very much in keeping with his dad's classic themes. You know, if you're really hungry for something that taste like vintage Cronenberg.)

Either way, it was certainly a trip. Thank you for reading. Film Thoughts will be taking a short break next but I'll be back with new stuff soon enough.

RECENT WATCHES: Scanners: The Showdown (1995)

The surprisingly entertaining and clever “Scanner Cop” managed to revive interest in a franchise that was pretty much done after two lackluster sequels. But producer Pierre David couldn't leave well enough alone. The video market was booming at the time and David was producing many low budget, direct-to-video action or horror films to satisfy it. So, for these reasons and more, a sequel followed. Depending on which country you live in, the second “Scanner Cop” movie and the fifth “Scanners” movie overall is known as “Scanners: The Showdown,” “Scanner Cop 2: Volkin's Revenge,” or “Scanner Cop II: The Showdown.”  While I doubt the producer lost much money on the film, no further adventures in mind control or exploding heads would follow.

While the two proper “Scanners” sequels are loose continuations of David Cronenberg's original, at best, “The Showdown” is at least a direct sequel to “Scanner Cop.” Detective Sam Staziak is still working for the Canadian police force. He's taking a new medication that allows him to use his scanning abilities without going insane. He's also attempting to find his mother, whom he's never known. Meanwhile, a remorseless killer and criminal named Karl Volkin escapes from prison. Volkin is also a scanner and an especially powerful one, who can drain the life force from lesser scanners to make himself stronger. He's got a personal grudge against Sam and is determined to ruin his life.

Most of the “Scanners” movies are about a good scanner fighting against an evil scanner. Like “X-Men,” it usually comes down to one party wanting to help humanity and the other wanting to enslave it. “Scanner Cop” refreshingly ditched that concept, letting the psychic hero fight a regular supervillain for once. That idea comes back hard in “Scanner Cop 2.” Once again, we've got a story about two rival scanners chasing after each other, that concludes with a body-horror filled duel. “Volkin's Revenge” combines this idea with another worn-out concept: The cop vs. killer thriller. Stories of rogue cops chasing after demented killers made up roughly ninety percent of the low budget action genre in the nineties. So the sequel certainly lacks freshness.

About the only thing “The Showdown” has to distinguish itself is the franchise's trademark body horror. There's a lot of scanning and mind control in “Scanner Cop 2,” with people and computers. There's also lots of corresponding shots of people starring at each other and making poop faces while the soundtrack drones. Yet the movie brings the creative gore. In an early scene, Sam melts the ears of would-be kidnappers. (One of whom is played by Kane Hodder.) When Volkin drains people's life force, it reduces them to gooey skeletons. This gets more creative as the film goes on, resulting in a couple being twisted into a modern art sculpture or a woman melting through her screen door. The scanner duel features one or two neat gags, like someone having the skin on their face torn off like paper. And, of course, there's an exploding head. Though it might be the weakest exploding head scene in the whole series.

Daniel Quinn is the only reappearing cast member from the first “Scanner Cop,” which I guess is okay. (Though I would've liked to have seen more of Richard Grove, as Sam's father figure.) Quinn plays more of a traditional hero here, his struggle with his powers mostly resolved. He even throws out a few lame one-liners. Co-starring as Volkin is Patrick Killpatrick. The redundantly named Kilpatrick played many bad guys, psychos, and heavies in low budget action flicks. He's certainly intimidating and seems to enjoy hamming it up. However, that's all Kilpatrick brings to the part and Volkin is defined by nothing else. Robert Forester also shows up for a nothing part as Sam's chief.

Mixing up the “Scanners” formula with “Scanner Cop” was a good idea but the sequel falls back on tired out routine. It's a bummer too, as this easily could've been a fun ongoing series. It's doubtful David Cronenberg imagined his head-exploding story would spawn such a long-running franchise, that would bend into so many odd directions. Pierre David would finally give up on the concept after this one, though the remake of the original film is still listed on his IMDb page. [5/10]

Friday, June 29, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (2012)

20. Cosmopolis

“Cosmopolis” was the point I lost interest in David Cronenberg. This was reasoning was two-fold and both were pretty shallow. Firstly, he decided to team up with Robert Pattison. The only thing I found more insipid and cloying than the automated cardboard dolls from the “Twilight” films have been their attempts to gain some hipster cred by appearing in artsy-fartsy films by beloved directors. Secondly, I was just increasingly exhausted with Cronenberg's refusal to make another horror movie. I wanted meat guns and telepods, mugwumps and rage children, not pretentious satires about billionaires in limos. A few years have passed and I like to think I've matured a little. It was time for me to give “Cosmopolis” a chance.

Eric Parker is twenty-eight years old. He is a millionaire, through the trading and selling of money he never sees. He is married to a beautiful young woman who is also from a rich family. Despite this, he feels uneasy. He decides one day to get a haircut. He sits inside a limousine, which moves at a crawl through a gridlocked city. During the day long trip, his fortune start to crumble. His wife threatens to leave him. His feelings of alienation with the world around him only grow stronger. Before the day is over, Eric Parker's life will be threatened.

I have never read the Don DeLillo novel that “Cosmopolis” is adapted from. From what I've heard, Cronenberg's film is an incredibly close adaptation. The material does not strike me as intrinsically cinematic. Much of “Cosmopolis” is made up of people sitting in a car and talking at each other. Not with but at. “Cosmopolis” is essentially a series of rambling monologues. Characters talk at lengths about all sorts of abstract concepts. Every line of dialogue is a faux-witty bon mont about the nature of existence. One person even admits that she does not understand the actual meaning of what she pontificates about. All of “Cosmopolis” is like this. The characters talk like alien drama students, speaking at lengths in bizarre and overly specific ways about topics that are ultimately meaningless.

This approach makes “Cosmopolis,” right out of the gate, a grating and impenetrable watch. I was finding the movie boring and irritating. Until I started to notice something else. “Cosmopolis” is a film about an alpha male billionaire having a nervous breakdown. Eric Packer is obsessed with control. As someone who has made himself rich in his twenties, he should have everything in order. But it's not. His invisible money is disappearing for reasons he can't grasp. The traffic in the city is so thick that a trip to get a haircut becomes a daylong trek. His newly acquired trophy wife won't have sex with him. His prostate is an abnormal shape. Packer gets sweatier and more disheveled as the film progresses, to the point where he's peeing in a bottle at one point. Cronenberg was once attached to direct “American Psycho.” “Cosmopolis,” another story about a hollow-hearted Wall Street trader and his fragile male ego, gives you a good idea of what that might've looked like.

It's also sort of fun when Cronenberg fuses his love of fancy cars with the loftier, more philosophical goals of his films. “Cosmopolis' is set entirely in a high tech limousine. It's outfitted with televisions, Wi-Fi, a mini-bar, rotating seats, and even an ultrasound machine. Cronenberg shoots the inside of the limo like a futuristic space ship. Eric sits in a Captain Kirk-like command chair, the leather-bound interior looking massive. The outside world flashes through the windows, rarely affecting the incredibly smooth ride. Cronenberg utilizes intentionally dodgy green screen, making it seem even more like Packer is cruising through outer space. The limousine is “Cosmopolis'” central metaphor, symbolic of the disconnect Eric feels with the world around him. It's no mistake that the car gets more roughed up as Packer becomes more unable to ignore his crumbling life.

“Cosmopolis,” in its own way, features the very Cronenbergian fusion of man and machine. The insides of the sterile, high-tech limo contrasts with the stinking flesh of its inhabitants. Packer has sex in the car, his pale skin become clammier and more corpse-like during the act. In one of the film's most interesting moments, he has a prostate exam in the vehicle. Squirming in discomfort or possible orgasmic throes, he tries to carry on a conversation while the latex and lube squishes off-screen. There's a discomfort with the flesh – such as when Eric blows a hole in his hand – and a need to replace it with cool, emotionless machinery in “Cosmopolis.” If the limo is the armor protecting the vulnerable, meaty Packer from the outside world, he's as much a body horror cyborg as Seth Brundel's final form or the car crash fetishists in “Crash.”

Something that's frustrating about “Cosmopolis” is whether it's suppose to mean anything or not. The constant chatter about the economy, currency, business, death, human rationality and other topics are obviously meant to become empty noise after a while.  Yet the film is clearly about the class separation wealth creates in America. This is most interestingly explored in a subplot about an anarchist protest. They fling dead rats into fancy restaurants. That imagery continues with a giant rat puppet they carry through the streets. We even see one such protester try to stab a businessman to death on Chinese television. One anarchist self-immolates like Thích Quảng Đức, a sight which naturally does not move Packer or his passenger much. This dovetails with the film's climax, which features another victim of the capitalistic system taking his revenge on Packer. Yet it's also, ultimately, more chatter from a film full of it.

As inscrutably weird and self-aggravatingly pretentious as “Cosmopolis” is, it's also the closest thing Cronenberg has made to a straight-up comedy by this point. There's a definite absurd thread running throughout “Cosmopolis.” Packer constantly being denied by his wife, his hemorrhaging horniness clear on his face, is sort of funny. A rogue protester splatters his face with a cream pie. (And then, like everyone else in the movie, talks and talks about it.) Amusingly, the cream pie residue remains on his face for the rest of the movie. When Eric finally makes it to the barber shop, the film's hyper-verbal tendencies comically bend towards folksy witticisms. This absurd streak ultimately curdles into things happening without much reason, like when Packer murders his bodyguard just because, but it's sort of interesting while it lasts.

So, what of Robert Pattison? He seems well cast as a pretty boy millionaire without much of a heart or soul. The part does not require the actor to be likable or humane. Yet, I'll give him some props, as he becomes more compelling as the character's grip on sanity begins to slip. There's a compelling moment where he cries about the death of his favorite rap star. He comes close to resembling a genuine human being in the scene where he chats with his old barber. Pattinson is certainly capable of spitting the script's reams and reams of dialogue. He gives a good performance, as much as is possible in an cryptic movie like this. But, like I said, the part is also really in his wheelhouse.

The film has a diverse supporting cast. However, since all the characters in “Cosmopolis” are delivering verbose but destitute monologues in a vacuum, it's hard for anyone to make too much of an impression. Sarah Gadon is robotic as Packer's wife. Kevin Durand is similarly stiff as his head of security. Yet some cast members emerge as more memorable. Jay Baruchel, as Packer's partner, is one of the few characters to actually show normal human emotions. Emily Hampshire, as the athletic chief of fiance, deflects Packer's bullshit with curt sarcasm and a weird sexual tension. Samantha Morton gets some of the film's most circular dialogue but delivers it with a puckish smile I like. Juliet Binoche makes the most of her one scene as Packer's sexually vivacious art consultant.

The showiest cast member in “Cosmopolis” is Paul Giamatti, as what I think is a disgruntled ex-employee who is attempting to kill Packer. Like everyone else in the film, he talks endlessly. Giamatti's monologues seem especially incoherent. Pattinson's feelings about the situation change from one minute to the next. By the time we arrive at this scene, the viewer is pretty tired of “Cosmopolis'” shenanigans. The ending of the film drags terribly, as it's clear this isn't going anywhere. It's vaguely interesting, the same way the rest of the movie is, but is ultimately frustrating and unfulfilling, also like the rest of the movie.

With cinematography from the ever reliable Peter Suschitzky, Cronenberg at least makes sure “Cosmopolis” looks good. There are several really cool tracking shots, following Pattinson as he runs through grungy back allies. The director makes the limo setting look as sterile and cold as possible, clearly going hand-in-hand with his inhuman themes. Howard Shore's score, a collaboration with indie rock band Metric, helps create this atmosphere of uneasy and icy animosity.

Cronenberg described “Cosmopolis” as a “hardcore art movie.” That's accurate. If the film hadn't starred Pattison right when he was red hot, I can't imagine it having any commercial appeal whatsoever. It's a dense and unpleasant movie, designed to confound expectations and bug the viewer. However, there are a handful of interesting ideas or moments contained within. If I had watched it in 2012, I probably would've hated it. The movie definitely requires an open mind. I still didn't like it very much but I eventually grasp some of what's going on under the hood of this one. [Grade: C+]

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (2011)

19. A Dangerous Method

By 2010, the David Cronenberg who made weird, cutting edge horror movies was truly gone. His next movie would belong to that most prestige worthy of genres: The biopic. However, this would not be your typical Oscar bait. The film would tell the story of how Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung became friends and then enemies. It was a topic especially well-suited to the director. I was excited enough about the film that it made my list of most anticipated movies of the year back in 2011. However, I had somehow missed watching the film before now. In fact, I haven't seen Cronenberg's last three movies at all.

The year is 1904. Europe is on the verge of war. A young Carl Jung is working at a psychiatric hospital in Zurich. He meets a young new patient, Sabina Spielrein, a young woman suffering from an extreme case of hysteria. Jung is intrigued by Sabina and she soon becomes his assistant. He's also attracted to the girl, who exhibits masochistic sexual desires, but feels loyal to his wife. Jung's work with Spielrein brings him to the attention of Sigmund Freud. The two men become friends. After Jung begins an affair with Sabina, his various relationships grow more complicated.

Throughout his career, David Cronenberg has shown an interest in the workings of the mind. The power of the mind was handled rather literally in “The Brood” and “Scanners.” Through his later films, he tracked the transformative power of the mind. “Dead Ringers,” “Naked Lunch,” “M. Butterfly,” and “Spider” all show perception and thought changing a person's life. So the director making a movie about the historical birth of analytical psychology seems like a natural choice. “A Dangerous Method” foregoes extreme body horror in favor of how an unstable mind can reek havoc on a normal life. Sabina's mental disturbance is enough to disrupt her entire world. Freud and Jung's attempt to bring order to this chaos only reveals their own neurosis and anxieties.

Though you can see a common ancestor in “The Brood,” Cronenberg's last three films were preoccupied with ideas of family. This continues in “A Dangerous Method.” Not just in Jung's relationship with his wife and children but in his relationship with Freud. He refers to the psychoanalyst as a father figure several times. When a rivalry emerges between the two men, there is something – if you'll excuse me here – undeniably Freudian about it. Jung's theories bristle against Freud's, the way a teenage son rebels against a father's rules. Symbolically, he kills Freud, his father figure, when a debate because so heated that Freud collapses. A big part of “A Dangerous Method” is how psychoanalyst reflect their own beliefs when they study their patients. It seems the doctors are not immune from their own syndromes either. 

Cronenberg is not the first director you associate with romance. This is a filmmaker's who made a movie full of rowdy, sweaty sex like “Crash” into something detached and scientific. Yet the romances in “The Fly” and “A History of Violence” is a big reason why those movies worked. “A Dangerous Method” seems to balance between the two approaches. Cronenberg examines Jung and Spielrein's sex life distantly. We watch Carl spank and cane Sabina, like a curious scientist observing the odd mating habits of animals. The film also depicts a genuine passion between the two. She leaps into his arms at one point. When she threatens to leave, Jung is on his knees before her, weeping for her to stay. Though kinky and detached, the love story in “A Dangerous Method” is depicted as believably and romantic.

There's another element of “A Dangerous Method” that is especially interesting, when its director's entire career is taken into account. David Cronenberg is Jewish. It's not something that comes up a lot in his movies, which reflect the director's more atheistic, scientific side. Through the also Jewish Sigmund Freud, Cronenberg delivers his thoughts on his own heritage for the first time. Freud says his Jewishness makes him an outsider among the scientific community of the day. That it's another reason for the establishment to question and disregard his theories. Sabina is also Jewish. This stands in contrast to Jung, who was raised Protestant and is even described as Aryan throughout the film. This isn't just another way to set the two shrinks apart, it also puts many of the outsiders from Cronenberg's films in a different context. Narrative outsiders can now be seen to stand in for cultural outsiders.

Starring as Carl Jung is Michael Fassbender. When given some nerdy glasses and a reedy mustache, Fassbender rather resembles Jung. The actor turns his trademark intensity inward. Jung has questions and theories. However, the anxieties and conflicts he feels are building up inside. By the film's end, Jung is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Fassbender is extremely good at showing how on-edge the young psychoanalyst is. The final shot of the movie, of Jung sitting in a chair and subtly quivering, is powerful strictly because of how much Fassbender implies with his face and body language.

With “A Dangerous Method,” Cronenberg made his third collaboration in a row with Viggo Mortenson. That's pretty unusual for a director who rarely reuses his leading men but his relationship with Mortenson was clearly fruitful. Freud is a very different part than Tom Stall or Nikolai Luzhin. The aging academic is increasingly stuck in his ways, unable to deviate from his own theories. Mortenson shows both how charming and frustrating a person in Freud's position could be. He's brilliant and charismatic but also stubborn and dogmatic. It's a strong performance from Mortenson. Smartly, he doesn't attempt the iconic professor's famous accent, allowing his Freud to speak clearly.

The harshest criticisms of “A Dangerous Method” were saved for Keira Knightly. As Sabina Speilrein, Knightly does adopt a not entirely convincing Russian accent. It's an extreme performance in other ways. During her treatment with Jung, Knightly depicts Sabina shaking and contorting out of control. (It's the most classically Cronenbergian element of the film, Sabina's mental illness causing her to loose control of her body.) This approach, however, works for me. Knightly never looses sight of Sabina's human element, which is more apparent after the character calms down some. Yet the intensity of the early scenes seem properly calculated for the material.

Also returning from “Eastern Promsies” is Vincent Cassel. Cassel plays another prominent figure from psychological history, Otto Gross. Cassel brings a similar unhinged quality to this part that he did to “Eastern Promises,” making the character seem dangerous. His Gross is a man of unbridled appetite, who uses drugs and women as he see fits. Also appearing in the film is Sarah Gaddon as Emma Jung. Gaddon probably has the least glamorous part in the film, playing a subservient wife. Yet it's an important role, showing how different Sabina is to what Jung is used to at home.

Visually, “A Dangerous Method” is Cronenberg's most handsome film yet. Peter Suschitzky has made Cronenberg's last eight movies look really pretty but he outdoes himself here. The film is largely defined by a clear, white color pallet. This seems to recall the sterile living conditions of a medical office. It's apparent in the white marble statues that Freud seems to surround himself with. Suchitzky also makes the darker moments, set inside the shadowy rooms of the mental clinic, look distinctive and interesting as well.

“A Dangerous Method” was based on two separate source materials. A non-fiction book called “A Most Dangerous Method” by John Kerr and a play, “The Talking Cure” by Christopher Hampton. The film's stagebound roots are quite evident at times. Cronenberg absolutely brings a cinematic approach to the material. His use of the camera is effective, especially during Jung and Sabina's love scenes. But it's hard to miss that most of “A Dangerous Method” is composed of people standing in rooms and talking to each other. There's even a pretty bad CGI shot of Freud and Jung looking out at Manhattan as their boat arrives in the U.S.

As with the director's last two films, “A Dangerous Method” was well reviewed. It was even poised to be an awards contender. For whatever reason, the movie didn't connect with Academy voters and was totally left out of the nominations. (Mortenson was nominated for a Golden Globe.) In fact, “A Dangerous Method” was largely overlooked, earning very little attention in general. However, it's an interesting film, well act and full of challenging ideas, as well as being the culmination of the director's interest in psychoanalysis. If nothing else, it's a lot better than “Eastern Promises.” [Grade: B]

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (2007)

18. Eastern Promises

Following the award season recognition of “A History of Violence,” David Cronenberg was suddenly a big deal even outside the world of horror nerds. The director would quickly re-team with Viggo Mortenson, the two collaborating together on a buzzy screenplay from celebrated British screenwriter, Steven Knight. The resulting film, “Eastern Promises,” would also earn critical praise. Mortenson would be nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award and the film would gain numerous other nods and awards. Among Cronenberg fanboys, “Eastern Promises” was more divisive.

A pregnant fourteen year old girl, showing the obvious signs of drug addiction, is wheeled into an emergency room. The girl dies during childbirth but the child is fine. Anna, a midwife and nurse, discovers a journal, written in Russian, among the girl's possessions. She takes a copy to Semyon, the owner of a Russian restaurant, for translation. She's unaware that Semyon is also a local crime boss. The girl was sex trafficked by the mob and Semyon is the father of her child. He orders Nikolai, a high ranking mob enforcer, to keep an eye on Anna. The two develop an odd friendship as they work to protect the innocent baby from Semyon and Kirill, his unstable son.

It's very tempting to draw a line between “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises,” thinking of the two as companion pieces. Both movies deal with the theme of family. Anna is living with her aunt and uncle, after being left by her husband. She draws them into the mystery, the Russian-speaking uncle helping to translate the journal. Anna quickly grows attached to the baby, naming it Christine and obviously wanting to adopt it. This contrasts with the Russian mobsters, a different sort of family unit. Kirill struggles to earn his father's acceptance. Semyon regards Nikolai as a surrogate son, a more worthy heir. So Kirill looks up to Nikolai like an older brother of sorts. Ultimately, Kirill is called upon to execute his infant half-sister. The story is set during the week between Christmas and New Year's, lending the role of births and children more significance.

The themes of family and brotherhood, however, are mostly dressing on a fairly standard crime story. There's a lengthy subplot in “Eastern Promises” about the rivalry between the Russian mob and the Chechens. This does not connect with the main story in any particularly important way. (Though it's notable that one of the mob associates, a barber, gets his autistic son involved in the criminal activities.) “Eastern Promises” also deals with the controversial and topical subject of human trafficking. It seems the film came out around the time that topic was in the news, people suddenly talking a lot about teenage girls being hooked on heroin and sold into sexual slavery. In many ways, the film feels more like a route genre effort than some of Cronenberg's horror movies. This is a mobster movie with little else to differentiate it.

So you can see Cronenberg attempting to add some of his unique flare to a somewhat standard story. This is most notable in the homoerotic element of Nikolai and Kirill's friendship. The deeply homophobic Semyon constantly expresses the fear that his oldest son may be queer. Kirill seems unable to attain an erection with a woman, which is one of the reasons why Semyon raped the teenage girl. Later, while partying with a crowd of clearly trafficked prostitutes, Kirill insists Nikolai has sex with one of the girls to prove he's straight. Kirill watches the two go at it a little too intently. He also hugs Nikolai a lot, further suggesting a possible attraction. The film takes place in the highly toxic and hyper-masculine world of organized crime, following that attribute to its natural, homoerotic conclusion.

Adding to that homoerotic edge is quite a deal of male nudity. There's a notable scene where Nikolai stands in nothing but his briefs before the mob elders, who examine his tattoos. Then there's the notorious Turkish bath fight. The most talked about scene in the movie is easily its most intense. Nikolai is attacked while completely nude in a steam house by Chechens with linoleum knives. Mortenson's graphic nudity emphasizes his vulnerability in this moment, as the knives slice his flesh. It's an tensely choreographed fight, the men tossing each other around. The focus on the blades breaking the flesh is the closest “Eastern Promises” comes to the director's trademark body horror. The end of the fight even features a seemingly dead body springing back to life, just like in a horror movie.

That cock-bearing fight scene got a lot of attention for Viggo Mortenson, as it's still very rare for a big movie star to expose himself so completely. That's but one example of the lengths Mortenson went for the part. Covered in extensively researched tattoos, Mortenson puts on a thick Russian accent. He exhibits a stiff, tough body language, often standing still with his hands crossed. He does a lot of acting with only his eyes and face, suggesting hidden depths. Nikolai is forced to live with a lot of brutality. Unlike the men around him, these events clearly weigh on Nikolai's mind. Mortenson shows these feelings without overdoing it.

There's another element that connects “Eastern Promises” with “A History of Violence” and Cronenberg's many other films. And I hate it. Midway through the film, following that brutal steam bath fight, it's revealed that Nikolai is actually a double agent. He's a spy for the Russian government who is deep undercover. While this certainly connects “Eastern Promises” with the double lives and fluid identities seen in Cronenberg's other films, it's such a cheap plot twist. The reveal is handled in a flat, shrugging way. It completely changes the context of Nikolai's behavior, taking him from a compelling criminal with a conscious to a man just doing his job. It's as if the screenplay was afraid to let the audience root for a “bad guy” and had to reveal that he's ultimately a “good” guy. It's a cheap shock, designed to get an audience “oh” out of the audience.

Starring opposite Mortenson is Naomi Watts. As Anna, Watts gives a highly emphatic performance. Her character is primarily motivated by wanting to give an abused young girl the proper respect in death that she didn't receive in life. Watts is strong and compelling in the part. In an odd case of fiction mirroring real life, Watts would become pregnant during filming. That's sort of funny, since her character adopts a child before the story is over. (The vintage motorcycle Anna drives throughout the film, which frequently breaks down and needs repairing, also seems like something Cronenberg specifically brought to the film.)

However, even Watts' performance is compromised in a way that bugs me. Throughout “Eastern Promises,” Anna and Nikolai form a friendship. Though she's clearly intimidated by the man, he's oddly kind to her. He even occasionally lets his tough exterior slip and tells a joke or two. Seeing the two very different people work together on a humanistic mission is interesting. Near the very end of the film, after saving the child, the two lean in and kiss each other. This not only ruins a relationship that was previously nothing but platonic, it also comes out of nowhere. There was no sign that the two characters were romantically or sexually attracted to each other. It's as if the film needed there to be a romance in there somewhere, regardless of how poorly that fit the story.

There's also some strong performances in the supporting cast. Vincent Cassel appears genuinely unhinged as Kirill. As dangerous and unstable as Cassel makes the character seem, he also projects a child-like vulnerability. Armin Mueller-Stahl as Semyon plays another character living a double life. To the public, he's a warm, grandfatherly figure. Privately, he's a brutal mob boss. Mueller-Stahl does well with these two sides. I also like Sinead Cusack and Jerzy Skolimowski as Anna's aunt and uncle, who are very likable while also showing a thorny, relatable element.

“Eastern Promises” wasn't exactly a commercial success, grossing only 56 million against a 50 million dollar budget. However, the film's critical popularity led to talks of the usually sequel-averse Cronenberg doing a follow-up. The sequel, entitled “Body Cross,” would've moved the action from London to Moscow. It would've been about Nikolai and Kirill's relationship, focusing on the former as he struggles to balance his double life. It's easy to see why Cronenberg would be attracted to that. The sequel fell apart due to budgetary reasons. In 2017, ten years after the original's release, talks of the sequel flared up again but nothing came of it again.

The idea of a sequel, which seems unlikely to happen after so many years, doesn't exactly excite me. “Eastern Promises” works fairly well through certain stretches. However, the insistence of inserting random plot twists and romances derails the film. Cronenberg fans are split on the film for another reason: It's easily the least Cronbergian Cronenberg movie. It feels a bit like a work-for-hire gig, which seems unlikely. Instead, I suspect the director was hoping to continue the critical attention he received for “A History of Violence.” The material, however, simply isn't as interesting. [Grade: C+]

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (2005)

17. A History of Violence

I remember, sometime in the early 2000s, being on some website that tracked all the movies based on comic books that were currently in development. Among never realized projects like a Lindsey Lohan-starring remake of  “Barbarella” and an adaptation of “Rust” was a little film called “A History of Violence.” I had never heard of the comic but was very surprised to see David Cronenberg listed as the director. When the film was released, it would become the most talked about Cronenberg movie in years, leading to the greatest critical acclaim the director had experienced in a very long time.

Tom Stall is a happy family man, with a beautiful wife and two children. He lives in small town Indiana and makes a decent living running a diner. This seemingly idyllic existence changes when two murderers enter the diner and begin threatening the customers. Tom leaps into action and quickly kills both men. The story is national news. Afterwards, strange men appear at Tom's diner, calling him “Joey Cusack” and claiming he's a gangster from Philadelphia. It soon becomes apparent that Tom is not who he says he is and that the past has come calling. The revelation may tear his family apart.

I've always thought of Cronenberg as a director with a decidedly Canadian sensibility. His movies do not feel like American films. With “A History of Violence,” the director is providing his own distinctive take on an all-American, idyllic, Norman Rockwell-like existence. The Stall family home or diner could easily be right out of Rockwell's famous paintings. Cronenberg presents a peaceful small town where people watch out for each other, the sheriff often checking in on Tom's family. The only thing that seems to stick out about the Stall's life is their kinky sex life. Edie can still slip into her high school cheerleader uniform, which leads to a night of acrobatic lovemaking with her husband. Which seems like an especially Cronenbergian take on the small town life.

Aside from that, “A History of Violence” does not seem like your typical Cronenberg movie. It's a slick thriller starring a big name actor, with no mutated bodies or evil corporation. However, fittingly beneath the surface, “A History of Violence” grapples with a big Cronenberg theme. The fluid nature of identity crops up again. Instead of being about two bodies sharing one soul, like in the Mantle twins in “Dead Ringers” or the two Joans in “Naked Lunch,” the film is about one man with two lives. Tom Stall repeatedly says that Joey Cusack is dead. In a sense, he's transformed from one person to another, a rather metaphorical take on a typically Cronenbergian metamorphosis.

As the title suggests, the film's primarily theme is the nature of violence. The title refers to not just Tom's personal history of violence but also to the human race's tendency to use violence to resolve problems. And that tendency, the film argues, is attractive. Tom's act of explosive violence makes him a local celebrity. He's regularly referred to as a “hero,” a title he resists. Business in the diner soars after two men are killed there. Edie is shaken by learning her husband used to be a psychotic mob thug. Yet, after this revelation, the two have rough, enthusiastic sex on the staircase of their house. As repulsive as violence can be, there is something undeniably compelling about it.

The violence, in some ways, even brings Tom closer to his teenage son, Jack. At school, Jack is being taunted by a bully, an easily threatened jock. After Stall kills the two men in the diner, Jack stands up to the bully, beating him in the school hallway. Father and son argue about his expulsion, causing Tom to strike Jack in a moment of frustration. The film seems to be asking if violence works, as a way to resolve conflict. It might, in some ways. Jack's bully certainly leaves him alone after he beats the shit out of him. Yet the consequences of violence are never easily escaped. Tom/Joey can only run from his chaotic past for so long and the cost of those actions will weigh on his family.

As I said, “A History of Violence” doesn't seem like a very Cronenbergian movie at first. Depending on how you look at it, the film could even be considered an action movie, a very unusual genre for the scientific director to approach. The director, however, brings his typically intense obsession with the insides and outs of the human body to the story. A bullet to the head blows ribbons of flesh out of a body, which then seizes in its own blood. The violence in the film often leaves people trembling and spasming. Bullets to the chest results in huge bursts of blood. A nose is brutally cracked, bone fragments pushed into the brain. Throats are stepped on, limbs are cracked, and flesh is penetrated. The film isn't full blown body horror but it definitely emphasizes the ways the human body can be twisted, broken, or destroyed.

“A History of Violence” stars Viggo Mortenson, shortly after the “Lord of the Rings” films were released. That series' billion dollar success turned Mortenson, a versatile character actor, into a genuine star. That box office clout, no doubt, helped the movie get made. Mortenson gives an intense performance. He's charming and believable as a family man in early scenes. Mortenson does not play Tom and Joey as two separate characters. He's a genuinely changed man, who loves his wife and kids. Yet the potential for incredible violence remains in him. When those moments come, Mortenson adopts a steely, distant gaze, snapping out like a cold and effective instrument.

Mortenson is obviously the star of the film but Maria Bello as Edie is undeniably the heart of the story's conflict. Bello does not have an easy job. Edie loves her husband. After discovering that he hasn't always been the person he presents himself to be, Edie still loves her husband. Bello never overdoes it when playing that conflict, allowing her character to live a double life of sorts too: As a woman who carries on a charade of believing her husband is a normal person and someone who knows the horrible truth.

Among the film's supporting cast, William Hurt received the most attention, even earning an Oscar nomination. This is despite Hurt only having six minutes of screen time. He plays Richie, Joey Cusack's brother and the leader of the Philly-based crime family. Hurt does make an impression, even if he's only on-screen for a short time. He does a good job of showing a brotherly love for Joey while also being a conniving villain. Ed Harris appears as Carl Fogarty, the “made man” that tracks Joey down. Harris, supporting a convincingly gnarly facial scar, is appropriately intimidating in the part. So is Stephen McHattie, who appears as one of the thugs in the dinner. More overlooked was Ashton Holmes as Jack, the Stall's teenage son. Holmes is actually really good, playing a teenager torn apart by the schism in his family.

After an explosively violent climax, “A History of Violence” concludes with a beguilingly ambiguous ending. Tom returns home, still carrying his wounds, and sees that the family has made a place for him at the dinner table. He sits across from his wife in silence, the two with tears in their eyes. It seems you can interpret the ending in two different ways. Either the Stall family will always be haunted by the reveal of Tom's past. Alternatively, the ending also suggest familial love is enough to forgive anything. It really depends on how you interpret that final shot. Which is a nice sign of a film with a lot of depth.

Cronenberg's direction uses color to indicate the two tonal halves of the story. The early scenes set in the Stall household have a warm, earthy tone to them, aiding the cozy and comforting feeling. The scenes devoted to the mob hitman, and the eventual climax set in the Cusack mansion, have a darker and hungrier coloration to them, illustrating the two worlds Tom Stall inhabits. Howard Shore's score walks hand in hand with this approach. The music has a sweeping, light-hearted tone that fits with the small town American setting. A darker undertone frequently builds through the music, also pointing towards the darkness that hides under the picturesque setting.

It's tempting to say “A History of Violence” was a huge turning point in Cronenberg's career, where he would truly leave his genre roots behind forever and focus on making more respectable, more mainstream films. The truth is twofold: That move away from blatant horror elements happened years earlier while, under the skin, “A History of Violence” is still very much within the Cronenberg tradition. However, the movie would gain a lot more positive attention than his last few films. It would even receive several Academy Award nominations, for its screenplay and William Hurt's supporting role. (A Best Director nod for Cronenberg remained elusive, though many believe he deserved it.) As a horror nerd, I want to dismiss the director's more mainstream work but the truth is “A History of Violence” is a fantastic film that proudly stands among the director's best work. [Grade: A]

Monday, June 25, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (2002)

16. Spider

“Spider” was the first David Cronenberg film to come out after I became really interested in the director's work. It would, in many ways, begin a new stage of the director's career. While Cronenberg had been drifting away from the horror and science fiction films that made him famous for quite some time, “Spider” would be the first movie he made seemingly as a bid for mainstream critical acclaim. While still awash in the themes and ideas that have fascinated him all along, “Spider” is a markedly different type of movie than Cronenberg's previous films. The film would earn positive reviews but would not be the breakthrough it could've been. “Spider” remains one of the director's less discussed pictures.

Dennis “Spider” Cleg has recently been released from a mental institution into the care of a halfway house. The building is in the same part of London where Dennis grew up. A schizophrenic, Dennis begins to remember his childhood. He attempts to piece together the events, as he remembers them, that led to his mother's death. He recalls his mom disappearing one day, while his father replaced her with another woman. Due to his condition, Dennis' past and present blends together. New and old memories become indistinct from each other, while Spider's grasp on his sanity becomes more slippery than ever.

Through “Videodrome,” “Naked Lunch,” and “eXistenZ,” David Cronenberg has created his fair share of unreliable narrators. Stories that take place on different or uncertain levels of reality are practically a trademark of his by now. Spider may be the most unreliable of Cronenberg's unreliable narrators. He is uncertain of his past and his present. His memories are an open wound, constantly shifting around him. “Spider” can almost be read as a murder mystery. In his old neighborhood, Dennis digs up clues and revisits childhood haunts. But the hero is a schizophrenic and we're not even sure a murder actually happened. By taking us completely inside the mind of an insane man, Cronenberg no longer has the need to make the internal external. We're inside the internal now.

“Spider' adopts its protagonist's damaged worldview fully, leading an interesting approach to the story. As he retraces his old haunts, Spider gets to relive his childhood. The film shows this in a rather literal fashion. “Spider” depicts the adult Dennis standing inside his old memories. He sees himself as a child, sees his mother and father. He stands in the corner of his childhood kitchen, watching arguments between his parents play out. He sits in the old bar, his young self and his father standing in front of him. This is a really interesting way to depict memories, showing the rememberer more involved in his own thoughts.  It also allows the audience to re-experience this events at the same time the character is.

In “Spider,” Cronenberg also revisits the idea of shifting roles and identities. For the third time, after Jeremy Irons in “Dead Ringers” and Judy Davis in “Naked Lunch,” the director has one actor inhabiting two separate roles. Miranda Richardson plays both Spider's mother and the vulgar blonde his father replaces her with. However, you'll be excused for not noticing this at first, as Richardson is put under enough make-up that she looks different. The shift is another example of Cleg's uncertain memories and mind. Yet his uncertainty isn't limited to his mother figures. At one point, Dennis switches places with his father. Cronenberg's favored theme of fluid identities finds a new meaning in “Spider,” a movie about the frailty of the human mind.

That scene where Spider puts himself in his father place is a sex scene, by the way. That speaks to the blatant Oedipal themes present in “Spider.” Dennis is very close to his mother. His father, on the other hand, is distant and cold towards him. The boy's disassociative episodes seemingly begin when he sees his father and mother intimately kissing outside his window. The next night, he sees his mother in a clinging nightgown, a sight that seems to captivate the young boy. Dennis' growing sexual desires are wrapped up in his feelings towards his mother. The town floozy that his father brings home shows little Dennis her breast. Adult Spider carries a nude photograph of the woman in his pocket. As I said, it's the same actress, further suggesting the twisted desires the character feels. The transformation of a child going into puberty goes along with Dennis' mind transforming into a tangled web.

“Spider” is full of some rather obvious visual symbolism. Dennis' mother nicknames him Spider because of his fascination with tying together strands of string. This stems from a story she frequently tells him about her discovering a mother spider when she was a child. As an adult in the halfway home, Dennis resumes the habit of creating homemade spider webs. This clearly represents the tangles of his own mind. In the halfway home, he repeatedly attempts to complete a jigsaw puzzle. This is compared with a broken window that was shattered during his time in the mental hospital. Clearly, this is indicative of his fractured mind and his attempts to put his past back together. Outside the halfway home is a giant, black silo. It looms over Spider, casting a shadow over him and his home, like the mental illness that has taken over his mind. I can assume these elements were taken from Patrick McGarth's source novel but it's clear Cronenberg must have been fond of them too.

Though the script is ambitious and its themes fascinating, “Spider” works primarily because of Ralph Finnes' lead performance. Finnes does not glamorize mental illness. Spider rarely talks in complete sentences. Mostly, he mumbles to himself, incoherently stringing words together in an unclear mutter. Finnes' body language is stiff and downtrodden, Spider usually looking down at his feet. He trembles frequently. He shows an odd obsession with the placement of his feet. This is an accurate depiction of someone deeply ravaged by mental illness. Finnes' performance is bravely inglorious. This is not the typical Hollywood depiction of the mentally ill, as someone struggling against a disease or full of eccentric wisdom. This is a man completely broken by his fractured mind.

As in a few other Cronenberg films, “Spider's” most important roles are shared among three people. Gabriel Byrne plays Bill, Dennis' father. Byrne does well at playing cold and distant, a man who clearly does not know what to do with a sick son. However, Byrne gets enough humanizing moments to show Bill Cleg was concerned about his boy. Miranda Richardson plays the dual roles of Mrs. Cleg and Yvonne. As I said, Richardson does an excellent job of creating two separate characters. You're unlikely to notice the two women are played by the same actress at first, due to how different they look. Richardson doesn't just let the make-up do all the work. She creates two distinct characters, a patient and gentle mother and a vulgar trollop.

In an interesting decision, the landlady who runs the half-way house resembles both Mrs. Cleg and Yvonne. At one key moment, the three seem to blur together. Lynn Redgrave plays this part, Mrs. Wilkenson. It's not the film's most well written role, as Wilkenson is mostly just confused and annoyed by Spider's behavior, but Redgrave still does fine. John Neville appears as Terrance, another former mental patient who lies compulsively. Though a much smaller part, Neville does a similarly good job of honestly depicting an ill man. Credit most also be given to Bradley Hall, who plays Spider as a child. His big eyes seem to show a detached chilliness, speaking to the character's illness.

“Spider” continues David Cronenberg's long, fruitful relationship with cinematographer Peter Suschitzky. The film's color palettes matches the darkness of the main character's mind. “Spider” is a film in shades of black, deep blues, and sickly greens. This not only suggests Spider's sick mind but also the dreariness of the location. The English setting is overcast and grey. It's a place where no happiness can take root. No wonder Spider is so unwell, he lives in a sunless world. This visual approach pairs well with Howard Shore's haunting score.

Much like “Dead Ringers,” “Spider” is ultimately a tragedy. The truth of what happened in Spider's youth, of why he was sent away to the mental hospital, is revealed right near the end. It's something like a twist ending but far sadder than that. It shows how the human mind can betray us. Following this, the film does not conclude on a shocking reveal or a sudden ending. Instead, it just slowly rolls to an end. Spider does not know the way out of his own web. Sometimes, there is no happy ending for sick people.

Cronenberg, Finnes, and Richardson believed enough in the movie that they worked for free, allowing the budget to be spent on the film instead of them. This conviction would be rewarded with some nice reviews but few statues. “Spider” would not receive a wide enough release to penetrate the mainstream critical conscious. Even if it had, it's unlikely a film this downbeat and unflinching would resonate with award shows. “Spider” is still a worthy picture to see, a gripping and sad exploration of mental illness that still shows David Cronenberg's pet themes and ideas surviving. [Grade: B]

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (1999)

15. eXistenZ

In 1999, people were fascinated with virtual reality. The rise of CGI, the internet, and video games with digital graphics made it seem more possible than ever that every detail of life could be simulated by a computer. The days when we all lived inside a virtual reality seemed closer than ever. Of course, all of this was wildly presumptuous. It's almost twenty years later and we still haven't made a VR headset that doesn't make people sick. The technology might have been a long way off but filmmakers were clearly stuck on the idea. 1999 would see three films dealing with the subject. There was “The Matrix,” a huge commercial success and pop culture phenomenon. This was followed by “The Thirteenth Floor,” a largely forgotten flop, and “eXistenZ.” What the latter film had that the other two lacked was David Cronenberg in the director's chair. “eXistenZ” somehow manages to be the director's strangest film yet.

Allegra Geller is the greatest video game designer of the near future. Her games, fully immersive virtual reality experiences, are played on bio-mechanical “game pods” that plug into holes surgically inserted into people's spines. During the debut of her latest game, “eXistenZ,”  she is attacked by the Realist Rebellion, people who consider her games to be affronts to the natural order. Her bodyguard, Ted Pikul, drives her to a remote hotel for safety. There, worried that her the programming for eXistenZ might have been damaged, she convinces Ted to plug into the game with her. Once inside the virtual reality, Ted begins to question what is real.

It is widely noted that “eXistenZ” is the first script Cronenberg wrote that wasn't an adaptation of some other story since “Videodrome.” It seems Cronenberg designed this film to be a companion piece to his earlier masterpiece. In both films, someone on a stage is attacked by a rogue gunman. In both, the attacker is carrying an organic meat gun that fires an unusual projectile. (Tumors in “Videodrome,” teeth in “eXistenZ.”) During the shooting, both assailants shout “Death to..” someone or something. Beyond these blatant callbacks, both films address the way technology can change humanity's perspective of reality. Both films also cause the audience to be uncertain of what level of reality the story is taking place on.

“Videodrome” focused on television as the technology that was changing the way people look at the world. “eXistenZ” points a similarly scrutinizing eye on video games. The film attempts to deconstruct the tropes of the platform. Inside the video game world, the players interact with many NPCs – non-playable characters – that only respond to specific stimuli. When a cut scene occurs, the human players are taken over by impulses they can't control. Their bodies are moved by outside forces and they're just dragged along. By applying these notions to flesh-and-blood humans, “eXistenZ” shines a light on how absurd they are. The film is satirizing video games in other ways. Game characters are reduced to just their bare attributes, such as a gas station attendant named “Gas.” Inside a game store within the virtual reality, we see a lurid advertisement for a horror game... About the mundane subject of a Chinese restaurant. Though obviously outdated, “eXistenZ” definitely is doing some interesting things with video game mechanics that existed at the time.

Cronenberg brings his own aesthetic obsessions to the subject of video games, creating a very bizarre take on the concept. There's a definite kinky quality to gaming in the world of “eXistenZ.” Gellar's game pods interact directly with the human mind. An implant must be drilled into the human spine, which is done as casually as people getting their ears pierced, we're told. The console's umbilical cords plug directly into this opening. There are obvious sexual connotations to men being given new orifices that can be plugged into. Furthermore, when the cut scene occurs, Allegra and Ted are forced to make-out with each other. The first thing he does, while being directed by the game's plot, is tongue and kiss Allegra's port, making the sexual attribute obvious. Cronenberg is obviously satirizing the sex-and-violence obsessed world of gaming but he's clearly playing to his own kinky predilections as well.

While “Crash” and “Dead Ringers” definitely qualify, “eXistenZ” features the most of Cronenberg's trademark body horror since “The Fly.” Oddly, most of it is not centered on human bodies. The game pods do not look like Playstations or Super Nintendos. They are pulsating mounds of flesh. Their joysticks resemble nipples. They can be infected with viruses, causing them to grow black and diseases. The primary weapon in the game world are pistols made from mutated animal parts. These animals – such as a two-headed lizard or squirming salamanders – are also eaten. This leads to the film's most disgusting sequence, were a cut scene forces Ted to devour a boiling pot of sickening, green, rotting mutant amphibians. It's a stomach-churning, revolting scene. The meat-guns are kind of cool but the film's other body horror elements seem gross for grossness' sake. It's the first time Cronenberg's mutated special effects seem to serve no higher purpose.

It's not just the organic firearms carried over from “Videodrome.” “eXistenZ” also continues that film's interest in overlapping realities. In “Videodrome,” we were never entirely sure what was actually happening versus what was only happening in Max Renn's head. “eXistenZ” pushes this further. Once inside eXistenZ, Allegra and Ted gain smaller game pods, which seem like this world's equivalent to Gameboys or Game Gears. They then go deeper, awakening inside another game world within the game world. Eventually, inevitably, the theatrics of the game world – explosions and machine guns – seem to spill over into the actual world. The game world is completely indistinguishable from the waking world. So the viewer is constantly left wondering whether or not any of the things they're seeing are “real.” This leads to a somewhat predictable twist ending, where the curtain is pulled back further and the whole film is revealed to be a simulation.

Inside this story is a debate about the nature of reality. After awakening from eXistenZ, back into the hotel room, Ted notes that the real world now feels less real than the video game world. (This also mirrors a line from “Videodrome” about reality being “less than television.”) Throughout the story, Allegra is pursued by the Realist movement, terrorists who are determined to wipe out all alternate reality games. This is one of the story's few elements that are revealed to be “real.” In the final scene, guns are pointed at a minor character, who then asks whether or not they're still “playing the game.” Cronenberg frames the shot so that the guns are also pointed at the viewer. “eXistenZ” hopes to get the viewer to question how much of anything they experience is “real.” Yet it never makes a clear point about whether or not virtual reality is bad, since the realists are obviously extremists. It seems a bit like the film is playing with the viewer's head just for fun.

The conspiracy in “Videodrome” was a little hard to follow at first, which was meant to follow Max Renn's fracturing mind. However, after a few viewings, it's apparent that the plot of “Videodrome” actually does make sense. I've watched “eXistenZ” three times and I still don't understand everything that happens. Inside the game world, new information is dumped on us at regular intervals. Eventually, there are multiple betrayals and double-crosses, none of them happening for easily discerned reasons. I think “eXistenZ's” plot being nonsensical is very much on purpose. Since it's all revealed to be a simulation anyway, Cronenberg may be making fun of the frequently disjointed plots of video games. Either way, it makes for a frustrating viewing experience.

A script like “eXistenZ,” which deliberately blurs realism and artificiality, must have been tricky for the cast to play. This is evident in the performances. Jude Law stars as Ted, one of a few odd genre roles he would take early in his career. Law plays Ted, at first, as something of a coward. He's incredibly nervous throughout the story's early parts. He's the only person in the movie that doesn't have a surgical game port and he's fearful of getting one. Due to the winding story, Law plays Ted as continually baffled. It's an occasionally funny performance and one that suits the material, even if you can tell that Law is having trouble finding an “in” to his character.

This conflict is also clear in Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance as Allegra Gellar. Leigh, an extraordinary gifted actress, seems a bit wooden at times. It's hard to tell if Leigh is playing the character exactly as written, as Gellar is a genius that has trouble interacting with normal people, or is simply under-emoting. There are other scenes where Gellar acts like an enthusiastic woman-child, which seems to give Leigh more to chew on. Still, it's an odd performance, another element leading to “eXistenZ” not being an entirely satisfying experience.

The supporting cast, mostly playing characters that primarily exist in the video game world, seem to be having a lot more fun. Ian Holm reappears from “Naked Lunch,” sporting a ridiculous German accent, as a scientist within eXistenZ. He happily hams it up throughout a few scenes. Willem DaFoe appears as Gas, the singularly named gas station attendant. DaFoe brings a lot of sarcasm to the role, making his relatively small part memorable. Robert A. Silverman makes his, thus far, final appearance in a Cronenberg movie as the game shop owner, who also has a silly accent. Silverman is clearly enjoying playing such a bizarre character.

As a critique or deconstruction of video games, “eXistenZ” has one pretty serious problem. It's hard to imagine anyone wanting to play a video game like this, with its dreary setting, lack of action, and confusing story. This is the last pure sci-fi/horror movie Cronenberg would ever make and it seems to show his obsession eating themselves a little. The body horror and mind-warping story of “eXistenZ” fail to make much of a point, existing simply because they can. The film remains one of the director's most divisive movies, embraced by some and shrugged off by others. While I think “eXistenZ” is full of interesting ideas, none of them connect in a gratifying way. Mostly, it's just a hard-to-follow viewing experience that is too often unpleasant in an unrewarding way. [Grade: C+]