Quick Takes: eXistenZ, Spider, A History of Violence

existenz_1eXistenZ (1999)
fourstar

Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe, Don McKellar, Callum Keith Rennie, Christopher Eccleston, Sarah Polley, Robert A. Silverman, Oscar Hsu
Directed by David Cronenberg

From what I understand, eXistenZ is Cronenberg’s last hurrah in the body horror genre. While I’m sad to know that there’s no more gross-out delights coming my way, you couldn’t ask for a better film to go out on. I literally loved everything about eXistenZ, start to finish. I’m a huge fan of Philip K. Dick, and while his influence is apparent in other Cronenberg films, eXistenZ is like the best Philip K. Dick movie that’s not actually based on a PKD story. Cronenberg expertly explores the world of video games and the inner workings of our minds, leaving you with much to consider and contemplate. When this came out in 1999, I immediately wrote it off because of its title’s seemingly dumb capitalization, but now I know you should never judge a movie by its title treatment! Super gooey, super fun, I loved it. There are times when a movie feels like it was made just for you, and eXistenZ is one such movie for me.

SpiderSpider (2002)
threehalfstar

Starring Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne, Lynn Redgrave, John Neville, Bradley Hall, Gary Reineke, Philip Craig
Directed by David Cronenberg

Spider is about as opposite a movie from eXistenZ as Cronenberg could have made as a follow-up. Where eXistenZ is loud and grotesque, Spider is extremely subtle and disturbing. It’s a fantastic film, but probably one that would turn a lot of people off. It’s interminably quiet, with Ralph Fiennes mumbling all his dialogue (to great effect). Cronenberg never holds the audience’s hand and explains much of anything, either. We are an active part of the process, so decoding Spider and getting to know the character hinges completely on your engagement with the film. It’s the kind of film that takes a master craftsman to create, and with it Cronenberg one again proves how wonderful and unique a filmmaker he is.

historyofviolenceA History of Violence (2005)
threehalfstar

Starring Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Peter MacNeill, Stephen McHattie, Heidi Hayes
Directed by David Cronenberg

Even though I’d never seen A History of Violence before, I went into it pretty much knowing exactly what it was about. A few years ago I saw Wu Xia, the fantastic Peter Chan film starring Donnie Yen that is sort of a remake of this film. But while I knew the central conceit, thankfully A History of Violence and Wu Xia are very different films that happen to share a few key plot points. A History of Violence initially doesn’t seem to have much in common with Cronenberg’s other films, but by the end I thought it was one of his best and most accessible works to non-horror fans. Cronenberg masterfully pulls together the threads to create a tense thriller that’s also surprisingly got a lot of humor, too. Definitely check it out! And Maria Bello is spectacular as Viggo’s wife; I can’t believe she’s not a more well-known actress!

Armour of God II: Operation Condor (1991)

operationcondor_1Armour of God II: Operation Condor [飛鷹計劃] (1991)
AKA Operation Condor

Starring Jackie Chan, Carol Cheng Yu-Ling, Eva Cobo De Garcia, Ikeda Shoko, Vincent Lyn, Jonathan Isgar, Dan Mintz, Bozidar Smiljanic, Aldo Sambrell, Ken Lo, Ken Goodman, Winston G. Ellis, Wayne Archer, Bruce Fontaine, Steve Tartalia, John Ladalski, Nick Brandon, Chen Chi-Hwa

Directed by Jackie Chan

Expectations: Very High. This has always been one of my favorites.

fourstar


Armour of God is one of my favorite Jackie Chan films, and in my opinion this sequel sits right alongside it. It exemplifies everything Jackie had been working to refine over the course of his directorial career in the ’80s, to the point that he didn’t direct another film until 1998’s Who Am I? To be fair, I don’t actually know if that’s why Jackie handed the reins over to other directors in the ’90s, but it makes sense to me. He calls Miracles his favorite of his films, and it represents a real culmination and sophistication of his talents behind the camera. Jackie takes all of that wit and style and applies to it a more traditional Jackie film; the result is the stunning and incredibly fun Armour of God II: Operation Condor. After something as triumphant as that, why not take a break from complete control to see what direction others might push him in? This would ultimately result in his collaborations with Stanley Tong, arguably some of the most entertaining films of his entire career.

After another “Jackie tries to steal artifacts from natives” opening scene, we learn that Jackie’s mission this time is to find a cache of hidden Nazi gold. Like the first film, he picks up a few traveling partners: Elsa (Eva Cobo De Garcia), Ada (Carol Cheng Yu-Ling), and Momoko (Ikeda Shoko). These three women contribute significantly to the success of the film, enhancing the comedy of the film and playing off of Jackie quite well. They each get their individual moments to shine, but they are never better than when they come together towards the end to fight one of the henchmen.

Continue reading Armour of God II: Operation Condor (1991) →

Armour of God (1987)

ArmourofGod+1987-97-b

Armour of God [龍兄虎弟] (1987)
AKA Operation Condor 2: The Armor of the Gods, Mister Dynamite

Starring Jackie Chan, Alan Tam, Lola Forner, Rosamund Kwan, Ken Boyle, John Ladalski, Bozidar Smiljanic, Wayne Archer, Yee Tin-Hung, Marcia Chisholm, Linda Denley, Stephanie Evans, Alicia Shonte, Vivian Wickliffe

Directed by Jackie Chan

Expectations: It’s Armour of God! It’s amazing!

fourstar


When I think about my favorite Jackie Chan films, Armour of God isn’t the first one that comes to mind, but it’s definitely on the list. As one of the many kids who obsessed over Indiana Jones, I can’t help but love the idea of a film in a similar vein with Jackie Chan doing Jackie-tastic stunts and fights. I’m surprised my young head didn’t explode upon first learning of it. Anyway, I loved it then, and I love it now (with slightly more complex feelings).

Viewing Jackie’s film in the order of release has allowed me to see the films a bit differently from when I was first exposed to them. Jackie had made many successful films prior to Armour of God, but the signature Jackie style that is evidenced throughout his later work, and for which he has become well known, only really begins to show in earnest in Police Story and even there it’s a little rough around the edges. In Armour of God, it’s fully formed and ready to party. Realizing this also led to the thought that as big of an action star that Jackie Chan is (or was), his “Jackie-est” movies are not action movies in a classic sense. Instead they are “show off what Jackie can do” action movies, usually built around a flimsy plot. So while I love them, and anyone should be able to respect what he’s physically capable of, I think to truly love these movies you have to love Jackie (because as films they just can’t hold up to any traditional scrutiny).

Continue reading Armour of God (1987) →

Quick Takes: Videodrome, Stereo, Crimes of the Future

Videodrome-posterVideodrome (1983)
fourstar

Starring James Woods, Sonja Smits, Deborah Harry, Peter Dvorsky, Leslie Carlson, Jack Creley, Lynne Gorman, Julie Khaner, Reiner Schwarz
Directed by David Cronenberg

Videodrome is probably my favorite Cronenberg film from what I’ve seen so far, and I doubt anything could replace it. It’s an intoxicating descent into the media and what lengths our desensitized, media-obsessed culture will go to for entertainment. It’s probably more relevant now than ever. James Woods is fantastic, but I was surprised and impressed by Blondie singer Debbie Harry, who really pulled her weight and inhabited her character perfectly. The makeup FX work by Rick Baker is ultimately what sealed the deal for me, though, and moments like Woods communing with the pulsating TV are beyond amazing. What a movie! I don’t even know what to say. Watch it!

stereoStereo (1969)

Starring Ronald Mlodzik, Jack Messinger, Iain Ewing, Clara Mayer, Paul Mulholland, Arlene Mlodzik, Glenn McCauley
Directed by David Cronenberg

Stereo is technically Cronenberg’s first feature, but due to the experimental nature of the work, it’s hard to truly think of it in this way. I give those honors to his first “traditional” film, Shivers, but this is beside the point. I’m sure Stereo was very informative and necessary to Cronenberg’s growth as an artist, but as a viewer it is not an experience to relish. The film is mostly silent, with only a sparse, dry commentary chiming in now and then. Stereo is meant to be a series of educational films documenting the experiments of Dr. Luther Stringfellow (who is never seen) at the Canadian Academy of Erotic Enquiry. There Stringfellow was trying to give telepathic abilities to his subjects. Like actual educational films, Stereo is very dry and hard to stay awake through (and it’s only an hour). For me, its only saving grace is the stunning B&W cinematography capturing the architectural beauty of the University of Toronto Scarborough campus where the film was shot. Cronenberg may not have embraced narrative and entertainment at this point, but he clearly already knew how to frame an exceptional image. I do like the overall premise of the film, and the conceit of filming fake educational materials for a fictional doctor’s sci-fi experiments is inspired, but I can’t really recommend Stereo. If you are so inclined, though, the film is readily available on the Criterion edition of Scanners (or the Blue Underground release of Fast Company, in lower quality).

crimesCrimes of the Future (1970)

Starring Ronald Mlodzik, Jon Lidolt, Tania Zolty, Jack Messinger, Paul Mulholland, William Haslam, Willem Poolman, Stefan Czernecki
Directed by David Cronenberg

Crimes of the Future can be seen as a companion to Stereo, in that it’s also silent (with sparse commentary) and very experimental. But this film is in color and Cronenberg employs some limited sound design work to spice the soundtrack up a bit. Despite these “advancements,” Crimes of the Future is an even more boring film than Stereo, and the color cinematography doesn’t dazzle nearly as much (although there are some very nice shots throughout). The story centers around a doctor named Tripod, who wanders between various groups of men and tells us about his mentor Antoine Rouge, who somehow created a disease that spread through cosmetic products and wiped out Earth’s entire female population. Again, I have to give credit to Cronenberg for coming up with quite an interesting premise, but this is one hard film to watch. Just excruciating. Like Stereo, I can’t recommend Crimes of the Future, but if you’re a determined Cronenberg fan, the film is available on the Criterion edition of The Brood (or the Blue Underground release of Fast Company, in lower quality).

Police Story (1985)

PoliceStory_1Police Story [警察故事] (1985)
AKA Police Force, Jackie Chan’s Police Force, Jackie Chan’s Police Story

Starring Jackie Chan, Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, Bill Tung, Chor Yuen, Charlie Cho Cha-Lee, Kent Tong Chun-Yip, Mars, Lam Gwok-Hung, David Lau Chi-Wing, Kam Hing-Yin, Wan Fat, Fung Hak-On, Tai Bo

Directed by Jackie Chan

Expectations: It’s Police Story! It’s awesome!

fourstar


To make this review more exciting, listen to Jackie’s dope Police Story theme song while you read!

Police Story is one of the most influential and important Jackie Chan films, and it was always one of my favorites during my teenage obsession. But I hadn’t seen it in 15 or so years, and to be completely honest I found Police Story to be less thrilling than my memories of it. Part of my problem was that I incorrectly remembered that a bunch of stuff from Police Story 2 was in this one, but the root of my disappointment stemmed more from forgetting that Police Story, like most Jackie Chan films, contains a lot of humor. Those are my problems, though, and they shouldn’t sully the legacy of Police Story.

The film opens in amazing fashion, as Jackie and a team of cops are tasked with staking out a shantytown where a drug lord (played wonderfully by the great Shaw Brothers director Chor Yuen) is making a deal. The tone is immediately very serious and the film feels markedly different from all the Sammo Hung-directed films that Jackie had been in previously, even Heart of Dragon (which is actually a great bridge between the two tones). The feel is also distinct because Jackie is a very different style of director than Sammo, crafting films that are less visually exciting (from a framing/camera placement/editing standpoint), but yet, thanks to the incredulity of the stunt work, are also intensely more visually arresting. I think these days I prefer Sammo’s style, but Jackie is more of a visionary dreaming up insane stunts to consistently push himself and that is worthy of major respect. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Jackie — at least up to this point — was a director more focused on the planning and staging of elaborate spectacles, where Sammo was more down to Earth and traditional.

Continue reading Police Story (1985) →

Quick Takes: The Dead Zone, Rabid, The Brood

dead_zone_xlgThe Dead Zone (1983)
threestar

Starring Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lom, Anthony Zerbe, Colleen Dewhurst, Martin Sheen, Nicholas Campbell, Sean Sullivan, Jackie Burroughs, Géza Kovács, Roberta Weiss
Directed by David Cronenberg

Having just finished reading the novel, this re-watch of The Dead Zone was definitely a different experience than when I first saw this many years ago. I was struck by how episodic the book is, without any overt attempts to drive home big themes or large-scale payoffs in the third act. It’s a completely different style of writing compared to anything King had published prior, more character-driven and “small” (especially considering it was King’s novel published directly after The Stand). The movie echoes this structure, except it cuts about half of the book and condenses the rest into a very potent, but still weird and not-so-fluid film. Christopher Walken is a perfect choice for King’s everyman Johnny Smith, and the rest of the cast is well chosen, too. I can’t say that Martin Sheen really represents the Greg Stillson that’s present in the novel, but they changed his character some so it’s not hard to roll with it. It is Martin Sheen after all. As a Cronenberg film, it’s missing his unique, almost avant-garde approach to horror, but his cerebral nature fits well with this specific King tale. Definitely recommended, although I think reading the book first will make the movie a richer experience, as you’ll be able to fill in the blanks caused by the shift in medium, as well as spot the subtle details throughout that recall specific moments or scenes of the book not given their full due in the film version.

Rabid POSTERRabid (1977)
AKA Rage
threehalfstar

Starring Marilyn Chambers, Frank Moore, Joe Silver, Howard Ryshpan, Patricia Gage, Susan Roman, Roger Periard, Lynne Deragon, Terry Schonblum, Victor Désy
Directed by David Cronenberg

Rabid, on the other hand, delivers a healthy dose of sick Cronenberg body horror. Rabid opens with a motorcycle accident near a plastic surgery center, and our heroine’s injuries are too much to sustain travel to a hospital more equipped to deal with her issues. No, she’ll have to go into emergency surgery, and since this place is on the cutting edge of plastic surgery, her burns are repaired via skin grafts of morphogenic skin (which can form itself into any type of body tissue, depending on where it’s grafted). Things go awry — oh, do they! — and while Rabid is definitely too abstract and low-budget for many viewers to get behind, I found it to be riveting entertainment. Marilyn Chambers may be known for her pornographic role in Beyond the Green Door, but her turn here as our skin-grafted lead is fantastic. She definitely could have had a fruitful horror career if the fates had aligned. Rabid also features FX work by Joe Blasco, and while there isn’t a ton of it, what’s here is incredibly effective. I’m being vague because it’s really better to just see Cronenberg and Blasco’s creations for yourself and revel in their fucked-up, “I’m never going to forget that” nature. Definitely seek this one out if you think you’ve seen everything a horror movie can deliver.

the-brood-posterThe Brood (1979)
AKA Chromosome 3

fourstar

Starring Art Hindle, Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar, Henry Beckman, Nuala Fitzgerald, Cindy Hinds, Susan Hogan, Gary McKeehan, Michael Magee, Robert A. Silverman
Directed by David Cronenberg

The Brood was Cronenberg’s horror follow-up to Rabid (the car movie Fast Company separates them), and it is a film of markedly better quality. Cronenberg’s signature cerebral tone takes center stage right from the opening moments, grabbing hold of your attention in a way that his previous films couldn’t quite manage. Where Shivers and Rabid feel like a good director finding himself in low-budget genre films, The Brood represents the dawn of a fully formed Cronenberg, ready to unleash the full range of his talents on an unsuspecting mainstream audience. The film is a very slow burn during its first half, though, and while it is always interesting I did find myself questioning if it should be classifies as a drama with horror elements instead of straight horror. It was right about at that point in the film when Cronenberg twisted the knife and the film never let up. It’s definitely a horror film! I’m sure some modern audiences would find the premise somewhat laughable or ridiculous, but I found it to be chilling and very psychologically engaging. I’ve slowly warmed up to Cronenberg over the last couple of years, but The Brood firmly cements my place as a big fan. I guarantee you’ve never seen a movie quite like this one!

Quick Takes: The Happiness of the Katakuris, The Babadook, Terror Train

katakurisThe Happiness of the Katakuris [カタクリ家の幸福] (2001)
threehalfstar

Starring Kenji Sawada, Keiko Matsuzaka, Shinji Takeda, Naomi Nishida, Kiyoshiro Imawano, Tetsuro Tamba, Naoto Takenaka, Tamaki Miyazaki, Takashi Matsuzaki
Directed by Takashi Miike

It’s a stretch to call Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris a horror movie, but it does require being something of a horror fan to truly enjoy its multi-genre insanity. The premise is pretty standard horror movie fare, but don’t be fooled; this is anything but a standard film. The Katakuri family has opened a Bed & Breakfast in a remote part of Japan and are very happy when they receive their first guest. They are not so overjoyed when they discover he’s killed himself, which plays out on-screen in one of the finest moments of movie musical I think I’ve ever seen. Yes, The Happiness of the Katakuris is a warped, horror-ish musical comedy… and it’s a blast. According to the booklet included in Arrow’s wonderful Blu-Ray edition, there’s apparently a whole genre of films similar to this in Japan, but until I see definitive proof I’ll regard The Happiness of the Katakuris as a unique product. Besides, even if wacky Japanese musicals are a thing, I can’t imagine the whole genre is quite this inspired. It’s also worthwhile to note that Miike’s film is a remake of Kim Jee-Woon’s The Quiet Family, but I haven’t seen that one so I can’t offer any comparisons. If you’re into weird cinema that strays far, far off the beaten path, or you’re looking to completely baffle your conservative, mainstream friends and relatives, The Happiness of the Katakuris is a fantastic selection. Plus: Tetsuro Tamba (who I’m familiar with from his roles in Hong Kong films such as The Water Margin)!

babadookThe Babadook (2014)
fourstar

Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney, Daniel Henshall, Barbara West, Benjamin Winspear, Chloe Hurn, Jacquy Phillips, Bridget Walters
Directed by Jennifer Kent

In general, I’m one of those people saying that modern horror just isn’t up to snuff. But then something like The Babadook comes along and proves me completely wrong. Artfully well-crafted and featuring an exceptional pair of performances from its leads (Essie Davis & Noah Wiseman), The Babadook is gripping from start to finish. I don’t want to spoil anything so I’ll remain vague, but what set the movie apart is that it engages as both a visceral horror movie and as an intellectual piece. I spent the whole film in rapt attention, creeped out to the hilt and always questioning and deconstructing what the film was feeding me. It’s even more impressive to learn that this is the feature debut of director Jennifer Kent! Cross your fingers, say the name of your favorite horror film three times into the mirror, and wish upon a star that The Babadook is the beginning of a stellar career and not a lone spark in the darkness. Either way, The Babadook is fan-fucking-tastic, and you need to check it out.

terror-train-movie-poster-1980-1020541661Terror Train (1980)
threestar

Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Johnson, Hart Bochner, David Copperfield, Derek McKinnon, Sandee Currie, Timothy Webber, Anthony Sherwood, Howard Busgang, Steve Michaels, Greg Swanson, Vanity
Directed by Roger Spottiswoode

You can quickly describe Terror Train as “a slasher set aboard a train,” but to do so is to overlook the fun of the movie. It’s a slasher on a train! With crazy Halloween masks, Jamie Lee Curtis and magic courtesy of the one and only David Copperfield! But maybe that doesn’t do it for you; you’re more of a discerning cinephile type. Well, Terror Train marks the directorial debut of Roger Spottiswoode, director of such cinematic classics as Turner & Hooch, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, and Tomorrow Never Dies! If that’s still not enough cred for you, Terror Train features cinematography by Oscar-winner John Alcott, who got his big break/promotion while working on something called 2001: A Space Odyssey and went on to shoot such classics as A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend! As you might have figured out by now, I don’t have much to say about Terror Train! Nonetheless, it was a fun ride, and fans of late ’70s / early ’80s horror will most likely have a good time with it, too.

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