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.

Quick Takes: Fast Company, The Fly, Dead Ringers

fastcompany_1Fast Company (1979)
threehalfstar

Starring William Smith, Claudia Jennings, John Saxon, Nicholas Campbell, Don Francks, Cedric Smith, Judy Foster, Robert Haley, George Buza, David Graham, David Petersen
Directed by David Cronenberg

Just a few months before unleashing The Brood, Cronenberg released this love letter to drag racing. It is easily the least “Cronenbergian” film from him I’ve seen, but even if I didn’t go into it knowing he loved cars, Fast Company would’ve told me as much. The film’s cinematography is superb, capturing wonderful, wide vistas of the Canadian roadways, as well as close-up shots of gleaming engines, smoking tires and all kinds of other machinery. I was especially taken by an intense close-up of a spark plug gap being checked. Also of specific note is an in-car shot of a complete funny car run, with a timer on-screen to further add to the wow factor. I’m not an experienced fan of drag racing, so I was quite impressed with the speed and the precision with which everything is carried out. The film’s story is relatively cliched, and it gets super campy — AKA Fun! — as it goes along, but during the racing segments it actually feels closer to a documentary. It is real cars with real drivers doing some real racing, after all. I think it would be a fine choice for a rumbling double feature with Mad Max: Fury Road. Plus there’s a Springsteen-like theme song, what more can I ask for? Anyone that loves cars, specifically when they were hulking beasts of steel and thunder, should check this forgotten gem out.

theflyThe Fly (1986)
threehalfstar

Starring Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz, Joy Boushel, Leslie Carlson, George Chuvalo
Directed by David Cronenberg

As I worked my way through Cronenberg’s films, I was eager to re-visit his take on The Fly. It was the first Cronenberg film I saw (as a kid sometime in the late ’80s), and all I remember from that viewing was that I thought it was really weird. I didn’t know how to comprehend or process it. Then I watched it again about 10 years ago, and while I liked it a lot more that time, it still felt kind of emotionally cold and I couldn’t get into it completely. When I look back on these experiences after this most recent re-watch, I’m shocked at myself. The Fly is one of Cronenberg’s greatest achievements, and the FX work that slowly transforms Jeff Goldblum into the Brundlefly is absolutely exquisite. My journey with the film is a testament to re-watching films at different ages; the Brundlefly may evolve rather quickly, but it takes much longer for a human such as myself. Sometimes you see a film too early for it to resonate, and thankfully when I watched it this time it felt exactly right.

deadringersDead Ringers (1988)
threehalfstar

Starring Jeremy Irons, Geneviève Bujold, Heidi von Palleske, Barbara Gordon, Shirley Douglas, Stephen Lack
Directed by David Cronenberg

Dead Ringers is an interesting film for Cronenberg to make directly after The Fly. Where that film went hard into the grotesque, Dead Ringers is reserved and intensely psychological. I must say that I prefer the methods of The Fly, but Dead Ringers succeeded in winning me over despite this. Jeremy Irons plays twin gynecologists, and it’s this absolutely riveting dual performance that glues you to the screen. Irons manages to create two distinct, believable characters, and Cronenberg somehow managed to often include them in the same shot without any hint of optical compositing or other visual trickery. It’s really something to see. Definitely a weird movie, though, so I don’t know who I’d recommend it to other than people who are already Cronenberg fans.

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!

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