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!

Side Effects (2013)

sideeffects_1Starring Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum, Vinessa Shaw, Ann Dowd, Polly Draper, David Costabile, Mamie Gummer

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Expectations: High. I’m becoming quite the Soderbergh fan.

threestar


Side Effects is ultimately a thriller, but you’d never know it by the way the film sets itself up. Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is a depressed woman whose husband (Channing Tatum) has just been released from prison. He was locked up for insider trading, but now that he’s back on the right side of the bars, he’s trying his best to set their lives back on course. Meanwhile, Emily is having a hard time dealing with her mental issues, and one day while exiting a parking garage she decides to take the exit sign painted on the brick wall literally. She drives her car straight into it, and thus sets into motion the twisting that must occur for any thriller to be successful.

But those expecting a thriller right out of the gate will be disappointed by the slow, dramatic crawl towards the thriller content in Side Effects. It’s there, and it’s rather intriguing and interesting to unravel, but less patient viewers will definitely feel the urge to switch the film off before it gets there. Even acknowledging this fact, the film is a little slow in places, and the some of the second half isn’t as strong as it could be. Regardless, Side Effects is largely a successful film.

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Hugo (2011)

Starring Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory, Michael Stuhlbarg, Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, Jude Law

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Expectations: High, but really cautious. Everything I hear sounds good, but whenever I see footage it looks dumb.


OK, I’m going to try and rein in my negativity. I did like Hugo, but I take issue with much of it as a film. With all the film history stuff contained in the film Scorsese is preaching to the choir with me, and I doubt that any kids in the audience are going to take the film’s look back at the life’s work of George Méliès and run with it to their nearest DVD retailer to snatch up a copy of A Trip to the Moon. I don’t know… I think this is another case of me just being too jaded to truly appreciate the film at hand, although I have to say that I don’t think it’s an entirely well made film. For Scorsese to get so much respect for this movie is ridiculous as it shows very little of the clever, powerful director he once was. I have to imagine it’s because this is easily one of the safest and most boringly mainstream movies of his entire career, but hey, I generally hate movies about movies, so your mileage may vary.

Hugo is about a boy name Hugo who lives in the crawlspaces of the train station. He winds the clocks and pretty much keeps to himself, except to steal a little clockwork gear every once in a while. He does this because he’s got an automaton stashed away in his home, and he’s desperately trying to fix it. Despite this fantasy setup, the film is a lot more grounded than you’d expect it to be from the marketing. Don’t get me wrong, everything plays out in somewhat comical, ridiculous ways, but it still feels tied to our reality by all the film history lessons sprinkled throughout.

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Contagion (2011)

Starring Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle, Sanaa Lathan, Elliott Gould, Anna Jacoby-Heron

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Expectations: High, I have a good feeling about this one.


I’m not a huge Steven Soderbergh fan, but I respect him immensely. Where most Oscar-winning directors are happy to stay sheltered within the studio system once they receive their acclaim, Soderbergh is not one to be shackled to any one genre or tied to any specific type of film. He consistently makes the films he wants to make, casting unknown actors in one film and then following it up with a slickly produced Ocean’s Eleven film. If there’s one style that has become synonymous with his name though, it’s the ensemble cast drama, even if he hasn’t really made too many of them. Traffic was clearly his defining film for most people (and me as well), so going into Contagion I had an idea that it would be “Traffic with germs”.

That’s pretty much what I got, but that’s far too simple of a way to put it. It both sells the film short and fails to convey the triumph that Soderbergh has achieved with Contagion. There have been lots of viral epidemic movies throughout the years, but never have they been as hyper-realistic as this. Contagion methodically moves from day-to-day, tracking the course of the outbreak across the world. It focuses on a number of people in various locations around the world, and together their stories weave into an overall picture of the epidemic story that is Contagion. It’s like a disease procedural, so if you zoned out or got bored during this paragraph, then perhaps this film is not for you. If, on the other hand, this sounds interesting and up your alley, then definitely give Contagion a shot.

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