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!

Quick Takes: Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, Crash

nakedlunch_1Naked Lunch (1991)
threestar

Starring Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands, Roy Scheider, Monique Mercure, Nicholas Campbell, Michael Zelniker, Robert A. Silverman, Joseph Scoren
Directed by David Cronenberg

Naked Lunch is one of those movies that’s hard to classify. I’ve never read the source novel, but from what I understand it was always assumed to be unfilmable. Cronenberg definitely found a way around that, incorporating elements of William S. Burrough’s life into this wild, weird, paranoid tale. It’s something of a horror movie with its gross-out physical FX work, but it’s also nothing like a horror movie. I mean, does a living typewriter that looks like a bug automatically make this into a horror movie? No, I don’t think so, but this movie would be a hard sell to any “normal” audience, that’s for damn sure. If you are intrigued by the creative process or surrealism, Naked Lunch is a must. I don’t know if you’ll like it, but it’s definitely a movie that you won’t be able to shake easily.

MButterfly_1M. Butterfly (1993)
threestar

Starring Jeremy Irons, John Lone, Barbara Sukowa, Ian Richardson, Annabel Leventon, Shizuko Hoshi, Richard McMillan, Vernon Dobtcheff
Directed by David Cronenberg

On the surface M. Butterfly seems like an odd film for David Cronenberg to make, but its themes of sexual politics and identity fit right in with much of his other work. Both of the lead characters, René (Jeremy Irons) and Song Liling (John Lone), are compelling and very well acted, but together I don’t think their relationship is satisfactorily developed. It always felt a bit cold emotionally, but I suppose that’s part of the point of it all, isn’t it? In any case, because of this I didn’t connect with the film as I’d have liked to, but as Cronenberg clearly made the film he wanted to, I’m sure that’s more my fault than his. Shooting the film in China, on back alleys and grand vistas alike, with some truly exceptional lighting, M. Butterfly is one of Cronenberg’s most beautiful films, and that’s saying a lot within his filmography. My personal obsession with China and its culture probably helped, too. A good film that I appreciate and respect, but don’t especially like too much.

crash_1Crash (1996)
threestar

Starring James Spader, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas, Deborah Kara Unger, Rosanna Arquette, Peter MacNeill
Directed by David Cronenberg

Speaking of films that I appreciate and respect, but don’t especially like too much: Crash. But in this case, I think Crash is a much better film than M. Butterfly. It’s incredibly bold, telling its story almost entirely through car crashes and sex scenes. Surprisingly then, there’s a ton to deconstruct and engage with intellectually while the actors writhe on-screen. This is Cronenberg exercising his visual storytelling abilities to the absolute max, creating a non-traditional, challenging film to stand the test of time. The cars and the taboo sexual desires associated with them in Crash are provocative and integral to the film, but it also feels like they could be replaced with non-offensive, traditional elements to craft a more mainstream pleasing film. But where’s the fun in that? I feel like if I saw Crash a few more times, I’d really come to understand and appreciate it more fully. I can’t say that I liked it, but Cronenberg definitely didn’t make a bad film. In fact, it’s probably one of his finest achievements.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

The-Hobbit-Battle-of-the-Five-Armies-poster-9-691x1024Starring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Ryan Gage, Billy Connolly, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Sylvester McCoy, Stephen Fry, Manu Bennett, John Tui

Directed by Peter Jackson

Expectations: The highest of high.

fourstar


The Hobbit, as a whole, is hands down one of the most entertaining fantasy films out there, and The Battle of the Five Armies is perhaps the most entertaining piece of the trilogy. The idea that the films are bloated and stretched too thin remains somewhat incomprehensible to me. I can understand if you think the Tauriel/Kili love story is unnecessary — because it totally is — but it also allows for elves to hang around and do a bunch of slick elf stuff, so I don’t really see a problem. In any case, the richness that three films brings to this adaptation is exceptional. I can’t even imagine a one-film version, or even two films. If that was the case, so many of my favorite “unnecessary” moments would be left unseen.

This film picks up immediately after the events in Desolation of Smaug, as Smaug flies towards Laketown to burn it a new one. This is one hell of a thrilling opening, and it whets the appetite for what’s to come… basically two solid hours absolutely bursting at the seems with thrills. I can’t really think of a film quite like it. It’s nothing like either of the previous Hobbit films because the adventure the party set out on is essentially complete. The dragon has been slain, Erebor has been re-taken, what’s left but to dive headfirst into the gold like an unkempt, bearded Scrooge McDuck? Apparently a lot! The Battle of the Five Armies is also nothing like the Lord of the Rings films, so don’t expect anything with the weight of Return of the King just because this is the third film of a trilogy. The Hobbit is and always will be a lighter tale that happens before everything in Middle Earth went to hell in a handbasket, so it’s just wrong to expect it to hit the same way as Lord of the Rings.

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The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

returnoftheking_1Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, John Noble, Bernard Hill, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, John Rhys-Davies, Miranda Otto, Karl Urban, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, David Wenham, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Paul Norell, Lawrence Makoare, Sarah McLeod

Directed by Peter Jackson

Expectations: High. I love this.

fourstar


Can I give this one five stars? It took 10 years and more than a few re-watches, but I have finally come around on this one. Don’t get me wrong, I always loved the film, but I also always thought it was the weakest of the trilogy. This time I was struck by how powerful a film Return of the King is, and how well it brings everything set forth in the previous films together. But what this recent change of heart proves to me is that there is no truly standout film from the others. They are all interdependent and equal in their greatness, and I will most likely shift allegiances between the three throughout my lifetime.

Opening with Gollum’s backstory provides us with a glimpse of how he became the creature we’re familiar with, and it also allows the film to open in the quiet green of the Hobbit lands. The Two Towers ends with a lengthy battle sequence at night, finishing a film that contains trial after trial for our fellowship. So to begin the next film in a peaceful, happy place (if only for a few moments) is surprising and brilliant. It reminds us a bit of what the hobbits are fighting for, and shows us the depths of despair, all within that first scene. It also skillfully leads us right back into the thick of things where we can finally reckon with the one ring and finish the journey once and for all.

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The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

2002-lord_of_the_rings_the_two_towers-3Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Bernard Hill, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, John Rhys-Davies, Miranda Otto, Karl Urban, Brad Dourif, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, David Wenham, Christopher Lee, Sean Bean, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Craig Parker

Directed by Peter Jackson

Expectations: High. I love this.

fourstar


While Fellowship of the Ring is an excellent opening to the trilogy, The Two Towers has my vote for the best of the bunch. It’s fun to see the Fellowship come together and venture through snowy mountains and deep, dark mines, but once they split and begin their own adventures, the real journey begins. The hopefulness of newfound friends was only a respite from the coming storm of war and villainy, and here in The Two Towers Peter Jackson fully unleashes that force upon viewers. As clichéd as it sounds, this makes The Two Towers the “dark middle” of the trilogy, but eh, what’s a good trilogy if it doesn’t have a dark middle chapter? We have to despair before we can triumph.

I lamented a bit in my review of Fellowship of the Ring that no one had continued the charge with the fantasy film genre, but honestly, after re-watching The Two Towers, I think it’s because no one is confident enough to try to top what Jackson accomplished here. Similar to how I think Jackson is reluctant to return to the splatter genre after Dead Alive — it’s better to drop the mic and walk away than to continue pureeing the dead horse with the lawnmower (so to speak). Imagine you’re a director trying to mount a fantasy epic. Jackson was going up against years of fairly lackluster high fantasy filmmaking, but anyone trying now is going up directly against Jackson. Hell, even uber fanboy Guillermo del Toro couldn’t get The Hobbit going, the studios only resolved their legal issues with the rights when Jackson relented and agreed to make the films.

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The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

the-lord-of-the-rings-fellowship-of-the-ringsStarring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Sean Bean, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Andy Serkis

Directed by Peter Jackson

Expectations: High. I love this.

fourstar


The Lord of the Rings films are the high-water mark for modern fantasy filmmaking. Even now, 12 years on from its initial release, nothing has come close to capturing a world filled with elves, dwarves and magic quite like Peter Jackson did with his adaptation of the beloved J.R.R. Tolkien work. When I first saw this film back in 2001, I remember thinking that Jackson had opened the floodgates for the studios to green-light tons of thrilling high fantasy screen adventures, similar to how X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man were the jumping off point for the modern explosion of superhero films around the same time.

But someone must have stood at those open gates and yelled, “You shall not pass!” because it never happened. The teen fantasy genre definitely caught fire, but that’s probably more a result of Harry Potter than anything Lord of the Rings did. My only real guess as to why this cinema revolution never happened is that from a production standpoint, the enterprise of producing Lord of the Rings was insane. Green-lighting a genre director with no mainstream hits to adapt one of the most well-known books of all-time, filming an entire trilogy simultaneously with no guarantee that they’ll make even a shred of their budget back at the box office? Those aren’t the kinds of risks that studios like to play with, thus keeping the high fantasy film revolution at bay.

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Alien (1979)

Starring Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Bolaji Badejo, Eddie Powell

Directed by Ridley Scott

Expectations: I love this shit.


I’ve never been much of a Ridley Scott fan, but goddamn if Alien isn’t a stunning, amazing piece of work. It’s undeniably one of the greatest genre films of all time, perfectly bridging the gap between science fiction, horror, and psychological thriller. There’s nothing I can say that hasn’t already been said about Alien, and even noting that everything’s already been said has been said ad infinitum. But still, I would like to share just a few of my observations during this most recent re-watch of one of my most favorite films.

When I was a kid, I watched this film several times, and its haunting, realistic, slow build-up to the reveal of the alien ship thoroughly grabbed me and refused to let go. To this day, this first hour or so of Alien is still my favorite, even though the Alien isn’t around yet. I enjoy this section for its ability to create a world, and give the characters a mystery to uncover that we can follow along with. These are just space truckers who got shafted; they are you and me thrust into the deep black of space and asked to investigate an alien ship. Ridley Scott’s camerawork is nothing short of perfect here, blending static, gorgeously composed shots with video footage from the ground team entering the ship. Just the use of video footage alone is ahead of its time and wonderfully effective, proving the point I was trying to make in my review of Chronicle about how the method of acquiring the footage is in certain cases directly proportionate to its ability to draw you in.

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