Monday, October 21, 2013

Cosmopolis (2012)

Despite the fact that David Cronenberg has gradually moved away from the body horror and sci-fi genres where he got his start the man remains one of the most original and interesting filmmakers working today. Whatever project he chooses is bound to be miles ahead of whatever anyone else is doing in terms of ideas and plus, in the grand scheme of things, a good portion of his most recent work makes complete sense when viewed alongside his earlier films. Thematically speaking a film such as Spider (2002) or A History of Violence (2005) fits right in with the likes of Dead Ringers (1988) and/or eXistenZ (1999). When Cosmopolis was initially announced it certainly turned more than a few heads, perhaps the most obvious reason being Cronenberg’s surprising choice of megastar Robert Pattinson as the films leading man. But also because the film was based off of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel of the same name, a novel considered by many for the longest time to be “unfilmable”, the same way William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and J.G. Ballard’s Crash were once considered “unfilmable”, both of which Cronenberg brilliantly adapted for the screen in 1991 and 1996 respectably. As was the case for those two novels, Cosmopolis was material that no other director besides Cronenberg could pull off and the end result turned out to be one of Cronenberg’s most challenging and polarizing films.

28 year old New York City billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) sets out in his state of the art stretch limo with the intent of getting a haircut. It won’t be an easy ride as traffic is backed up considerably due to the President being in town, anarchist protesters all over the city as well as the funeral for a Sufi rapper taking place in the streets. Along the way Packer is informed that due to a risky bet against the Chinese Yuan the company of which he is the CEO is losing its fortunes by the minute and that there has been a very  credible threat made against his life. Despite the bad news Packer seems to care very little and as the day moves forward his trek to the barber becomes more and more unusual and  Packer’s carefully ordered life slowly begins to crumble all around him.

A bizarre experience even by Cronenberg standards, Cosmopolis is a film that, much like Crash, almost dares its audience to enjoy it. Confined to the inside of a limousine for the majority of the film and featuring some of the most clinical dialogue in cinematic history, Cosmopolis is perhaps Cronenberg’s most cerebral film yet, and it also happens to be one of his most fascinating in the way he presents the character of Packer and his (d)evolution. The film is comparable to Crash in the sense that like the characters of James and Catherine Ballard, Packer has become so bored and alienated by his existence that his fall from grace is the exact thing he needed to feel “alive” again so to speak. This is reflected by Pattinson’s performance, still and (purposefully) robotic while in the limo during the first half of the film and becoming increasingly more animated the more the film moves forward and the action leaves the car. The utter randomness of Packer’s encounters and interactions with other characters is another one of its strengths as it gives the film a feeling of unpredictability making it all the more compelling wondering just where its all going to end up. While Cronenberg is quick to point out that the film takes place in the “real world”, the film does share some qualities with eXistenZ in that Packer has essentially created his own artificial reality except he doesn’t need to insert a game pod into his spine, his limo is his escape.

The main criticism of the film seems to be, and understandably so, the dialogue, however without it the film wouldn’t have worked at all (although detractors would claim its precisely why the film doesn‘t work!). According to Cronenberg, the majority of the dialogue was lifted from the book 99.9% verbatim which was a masterstroke as these characters needed to speak in such dense, clinical and precise terms, it suits their nature, having them speak in any other way would have taken away the aura of the film which was already hypnotic enough in an almost Naked Lunch sort of way when considering the aforementioned random nature of the proceedings. The words may have been DeLillo’s, not to mention quite timely, its been suggested that the novel predicted the financial crisis as well as the occupy Wall Street movement and indeed the film could be interpreted as metaphorical considering recent economic events, but conceptually they’re pure Cronenberg. Pay extra close attention to the comments made during the final moments of conversation between Packer and his Chief of Theory played by Samantha Morton. These are concepts Cronenberg has been exploring going all the way back to Videodrome (1983). Speaking of Morton, she’s one part of a phenomenal supporting cast alongside Pattinson including Juliette Binoche, who’s introduction in the film is rather memorable, Kevin Durand, Sarah Gadon, who’s glacial performance of Packer’s distant wife Elise is reminiscent of Deborah Kara Unger’s equally icy turn in Crash, and a brief but show stealing appearance from Paul Giamatti.

Again, in the short time since its release Cosmopolis has proven to be Cronenberg’s most dividing film since Crash with the majority of negative reviews throwing around the notorious “P” word, pretentious with reckless abandon. Not that the reaction is all that surprising as the film is the antithesis of “mass appeal” (even with Pattinson as the lead the films theatrical run in America was ridiculously limited) although some of the reviews have been quite comical in the sense that it would appear that the film had somehow personally offended the viewer in some way. Granted some of those could have come from those unfamiliar with Cronenberg’s past work only watching the film because of Pattinson, who by the way, deserves a plethora of kudos for taking on a role such as this, those who are hesitant to watch the film because him would be wise to set aside such prejudices. The fact that Cronenberg is still making the type of visionary and radical films that can invoke such extreme reactions well over 35 years into his career is a testament to his uncompromising artistry, an artistry that Cronenberg fans have long been familiar with, making Cosmopolis an essential film for the Cronenberg faithful to check out as it sees him continue to explore new territories while at the same time revisiting familiar obsessions in a way that never feels rehashed or recycled.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993)

It might seem a bit strange to tackle not only a sequel but the third film in a series without giving coverage to the first two films but there is a very good reason for doing just that. For starters the original Return of the Living Dead (1985) is an undisputed classic who’s iconic status was certified a long time ago. The last thing the internet needs is yet another review highlighting the films fun blend of horror and humor, the fact that it was the first zombie film to employ the device of zombies specifically eating brains which has become a pop culture staple or its amazing soundtrack and Linnea Quigley’s equally amazing naked graveyard dance. Ad nauseam. Nor is it really necessary to go into great detail on how the significantly more comical 1988 sequel alienated a good number of fans of the original film with its reliance on, pun defiantly intended, brain-dead humor. In all actuality, aside from a few plot points 1993’s Return of the Living Dead 3 is a stand alone film, setting aside the comedic elements of the first two films and going in a radically different direction resulting in not just one of the most original sequels of any franchise but also one of the most unique films in the zombie subgenre, and a film that just may be the finest in the entire Return series.      

Looking for excitement, young lovers Curt and Julie (Melinda Clarke, billed here as Mindy) sneak into the military base where Curt’s father is in charge of a project designed to turn corpses into weapons of war using the Trioxin chemical which caused the zombie outbreak in the first two films. Later that evening the two are involved in a motorcycle crash which kills Julie instantly. Remembering what he saw at the base, in an act of desperation Curt sneaks back in and exposes Julie’s corpse to the Trioxin, successfully bringing her back to life. At first Julie seems normal, although it isn’t long until she discovers her uncontrollable hunger for human flesh which is only quelled by inflicting harm on herself, and whomever she bites becomes infected. With the military and a gang of Latin thugs on their tail, the pair retreat to the sewers, both struggling to come to terms with Julie’s affliction.  

Its always refreshing when a film, let alone a sequel in a particular subgenre deviates from the typical formula and does something different and Return of the Living Dead 3 does just that. The mixture of all out bloody zombie mayhem, a love story and some Barker esque S&M/body horror elements is certainly a strange concoction yet director Brian Yuzna pulls it off with ease. Again the comedic elements from the first two entries in the series is all but gone here and for the better. For what the first film was it worked wonders but the second film sort of drove the final nail in that coffin. That’s not to say this film is entirely devoid of humor as there are some chuckle worthy bits, and yes, Clarke does utter “Brains!” in an ecstatic fashion, but their brief and any attempt to inject more comedy in the film would have come across as awkward. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this film is just how strong the love story is. All too often in genre films these sort of things feel so out of place and tacked on but in the case of ROTLD 3 that couldn’t be further from the truth. The romance between Curt and Julie is the backbone of the film and more than anything believable as the film is so incredibly well written which results in many moments that are legitimately sweet and never once does it come off as corny which, all things considered, is quite the feat.

Of course the film wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as it does without the performance of one Melinda Clarke who for all intensive purposes IS the film. Not only does Clarke possess unlimited amounts of presence in both her living and undead forums, along with it comes range. She effortlessly handles every aspect of her character and she especially knocks it out of the park when it comes to the films more tender moments which up the films dramatic ante considerably. Her characters masochistic tendencies only make her more sympathetic, yet in an instant she’s able to do a complete about face and rip off a mans chin with her teeth with the same amount of conviction. The look of Julie’s character in her full on, almost Cenobiteish bondage zombie form is an unforgettable sight to say the least, tipping its hat somewhat to the punk rock aesthetic of the first film. The revelation of Julie in this state is perhaps the films finest visual moment, given more impact when coupled by the montage of Julie sticking various sharp objects into her skin shown beforehand. Its a key sequence in the film and a standout example of Yuzna’s skill behind the camera. For the most part Yuzna was able to sidestep any shortcomings the films limited budget could have presented especially in the gore department as the film is an absolute bloodletting, and the finale is definite highlight featuring some really creatively designed zombies causing all sorts of mayhem. Traditional this isn’t.

For some reason the fully uncut version of the film containing all the gore effects remains available only on VHS in America. What’s even more frustrating about the DVD containing only the R rated cut is it features commentaries from both Yuzna and Clarke which would both be interesting to listen to. Why Yuzna would agree to do a commentary for a butchered cut of his film is a mystery unto itself. Regardless, the unrated VHS should be fairly easy to find for a decent price for those unequipped with a multi-region DVD player and obviously fully uncut is the way to go. With some minor tweaking Return of the Living Dead 3 could have easily been its own thing and essentially it is, although in the grand scheme of things with it being the third film to bear the Return of the Living Dead moniker its perhaps destined to be a bit underrated by purists and always judged by how well it stands alongside the first film, although the character of Julie has gone on to become iconic to many and rightfully so. Despite the fact that the film turns 20 years old this year when considering the zombie trend of today, it still feels like the breath of fresh air that it was when it was first released in 1993. Unquestionably one of the best American genre offerings from the 90’s.