Thursday, August 30, 2012

eXistenZ (1999)

While the majority of the films of David Cronenberg are very visual affairs, any fan will tell you that they’re equally as cerebral, as he’s able to not only blown your mind with radical images, but with ideas as well. Idea’s that will be lingering in you brain just as long as the amazing visuals. While the metaphors in his films are unquestionably extreme, the more the surface is scratched the more water the ideas hold, gaining even more potency throughout the years. Given his unique treatments on revolutionary   technologies in past films, it made perfect sense that Cronenberg would tackle the topic of video games with eXistenZ. Think of how far the world of gaming had come when this film was released in 1999 and compare it to today, with all the advancements made in terms of game play, graphics and characterizations, not to mention the massive popularity of online RPG’s (that’s “Role Playing Games” for you squares out there) and the communities that form as a result. The difference is night and day. When this film hit video stores I was still spending quality time with the classic consoles (countless hours were lost in the 90’s thanks to the NES, Super Nintendo and original Play Station, but that’s another story onto itself) and was already a confirmed Cronenberg fanatic, so it goes without saying that I was all over this film. I’ve always found it to be one of Cronenberg’s most underappreciated works, and after having recently revisited it twice in the last few months, I now find it be an even more important entry into his filmography, as it not only found him going “back to his roots” so to speak, but the case could be made that some of the more psychological elements of the film foreshadowed what was to come with his next few films.

During a demonstration for the new virtual reality video game “eXistenZ”, an assassination attempt is made on the life of the games designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The attempt fails and Geller is rushed to safety, wounded, by her assigned security guard, marketing trainee Ted Pikul (Jude Law). Geller’s game pod, which contained the only copy of “eXistenZ” was badly damaged during the attempt on her life, and the only way she can survey the damage is to play the game with someone trustworthy, Pikul. Despite Pikul’s initial hesitation, he and Geller finally play “eXistenZ”, and the further the two advance in the game, the more the game play beings to mimic their real life dangers, gradually confusing the two as to which world they’re actually inhabiting as the lines between virtual and actual reality become more blurred by the minute.

eXistenZ has been dismissed by some as a mere rehash of Cronenberg’s earlier masterwork Videodrome (1983) (I’ve even seen it referred to in some places as “Videogamedrome”), and while it’s true that the common themes of both films do mirror each other, even some of the slogans heard throughout the film are somewhat similar (“DEATH TO THE DEMONESS ALLEGRA GELLER!”) simply writing the film off as a rehash is an unfair assessment. A more accurate description of the film would be a compilation of expanded upon idea’s that Cronenberg has explored in the past using video games as the catalyst, such as the relationship between the human body and technology previously touched upon in Videodrome, The Fly (1986) and Crash (1996), the identity crises of Dead Ringers (1988) and there were even certain portions of the film where I was reminded of the surreal Interzone of Naked Lunch (1991). With eXistenZ, Cronenberg takes the concept of video games as escapism to it’s most extreme, by having players not just wanting to play the games, but to actually “live” them. It’s suggested at one point in the film that Geller would rather have no contact with the outside world at all, preferring to sit in a room all day designing games, in her own world (I can relate), the world that she created, and it’s a world that the majority of the people in this odd universe that Cronenberg has created would rather spend their time in. Another telling moment regarding the escapist mentality of the players of Gellar’s game comes when the character of Gas exclaims to Pikul that he’s a gas station attendant “only on the most pathetic level of reality”, and it’s interesting to observe the people attending the game demonstration at the beginning of the film, as a good number of them appear to be middle aged, and even some much older. This says less about the age of the people actually playing video games, as age obviously isn’t a factor when it comes to enjoying games, but rather it’s Cronenberg saying that there are people of all age groups wanting a way out of the mundane reality they live in. It’s this idea of having two separate “realties” where eXistenZ really shines, as once Geller and Pikul enter the game, the film becomes a twisted mindfuck.

Like any great video game, eXistenZ might start off relativity simple but the further along Geller and Pikul get in the game, it becomes increasingly more complex in terms of deciphering what’s real and what’s the game, as elements from both worlds begin to intertwine and Cronenberg yanks us out of one world into another and back again to the point where we’re just as perplexed as Geller and Pikul, and like the best video games, despite the level of difficulty, it‘s all to easy to get sucked in very quickly, and you’ll want to follow Geller and Pikul all the way to the film’s cryptic end. Unlike a lot of films that deal with this type of material, eXistenZ doesn’t rely on computerized images, which was wise on Cronenberg’s part, after all the purpose of Geller’s games is to present the player with a more exiting extension of their own existence, plus the “real world”-eqsue presentation of the game makes it all the more ambiguous as to which world the audience as well as Geller and Pikul are experiencing. Having game characters stand idly by until the right game dialogue is spoken to them was a nice touch as well, something gamers will no doubt pick up on instantly. The classic Cronenberg theme of technology fusing with the flesh, which was pushed to it’s logical, ultimate extremes in Crash (in a non “fantastic” way, IE no virtual reality or things of that nature) comes into play by having the game literally plug into the player’s body via an umbilical cord attached to the game pods, which themselves look like thick mounds of flesh (Geller even refers to her pod as her “baby”, even treating it like it was a newborn). This idea is taken even further by having the game run on the body’s central nervous system, and Cronenberg once again finds a secondary use for anatomical parts with the organic, human teeth shooting gun made from bones used in the attempt on Geller’s life. Although nowhere near as sexually transgressive as Crash, there does appear to be some of the tech fetish from that film carried over into eXistenZ, given Geller’s euphoric writhing while plugged into the game, not to mention some bio-port licking thrown in for good measure. This is a Cronenberg film after all.

Is it just me or did this film totally fly under the radar when it was released? I don’t recall ever seeing any TV spots or any other kind of promotion for this film during it’s theatrical run, only finding out about it when it became available for rental, probably due to a certain other film dealing with a similar topic having been released around the same time hogging all the spotlight. It got pretty good reviews all around but it’s still a shame it didn’t get more recognition back then as it’s got pretty much everything going for it. The word “chemistry” comes to mind when it comes to Leigh and Law, who are fantastic together, playing off each other perfectly. Along with being mind numbingly beautiful, Leigh brings just the right amount of reservation to her performance as the introverted Geller and Law’s awkward apprehension about everything leads to some light comedic moments, especially the moments with Dafoe. Speaking of, although his screen time is brief, any Dafoe is good Dafoe, especially when he’s playing such an odd part. Cronenberg regular Robert A. Silverman also makes a memorable appearance and naturally his character is just as weird as Hans from Naked Lunch, plus the aforementioned Ian Holm in a minor role as Geller‘s mentor. eXistenZ actually wouldn’t be a bad place to start for someone who’s new to Cronenberg. It’s an overall great representation of what to expect visually and psychologically from his films, complete with all the trademark bizarreness fans know and love intact. Whether or not you know anything about video games won’t hinder your enjoyment of the film, but if you have an interest in such topics, consider it a bonus as you’d be hard pressed to find a film with a more original and creative take on such things. eXistenZ” IS PAUSED!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Torn Curtain (1966)

The mid to late 60’s weren’t exactly the best of times for Alfred Hitchcock in terms of critical response and box office recipes. In all honestly, a part of me feels that after the success he had with Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), a lot of critics were just waiting to pounce on him for something, and they’d soon get their chance. From 1964 to 1969, Hitchcock would helm three films, Marnie (1964), Torn Curtain (1966), and Topaz (1969), films that to this day seem to divide fans and always seem to spark up interesting debates. For whatever reason audiences and critics just didn’t seem to take to 1964’s psychosexual puzzle Marnie (which I consider to be a misunderstood masterpiece, although it seems time has been much kinder to that film than the others Hitchcock made during this period) so Hitchcock would again try something different with 1966’s Torn Curtain, a return to the espionage genre, a field in which he had found great successes in the past. Although Torn Curtain was a significantly more successful film than Marnie financially, his highest grossing film since Psycho in fact, critics still ravaged the film. The timing of the films release couldn’t have done it any favors with the press. At the time the market was flooded with spy films, what with the Cold War in full swing and the James Bond films being worldwide blockbusters, perhaps people thought that Torn Curtain was just one spy film to many, regardless of who the director was, which is interesting when you consider how many of the espionage films of that era blatantly ripped off elements from Hitchcock’s previous work. Whatever the case may be, I’ve always been under the impression that the film got the red headed step child treatment upon it’s initial release, and it still does. It’s a film that I’ll always consider one of Hitchcock’s most underappreciated and unfairly tarnished works, and one that I’ve always be quick to defend ever since I first saw it.

While attending a scientific conference in Copenhagen, renowned American physicist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) begins to act strangely after his assistant/fiancé  Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) receives a message that was meant for him. When she asks him about his suspicious behavior, he tells her that he must fly to Stockholm, and that she should return home. Although upset, she agrees, but upon making an inquiry about his flight to Stockholm, she discovers that he’s not flying to Sweden, but to East Berlin, behind the Iron Curtain. Unbeknownst to him (and much to his dismay when he finds out), she hops on his plane and follows him to Berlin, where he publicly announces his defection to the east, citing his disappointment in the American government after the cancellation of his missile research project. In reality, he isn’t defecting at all, it’s a ruse in order for him to obtain top secret scientific information from Germany’s leading scientist for the American government and plans are in order for his escape with the help of an underground network known as Pi. His plan, and the Pi network are put in serious jeopardy when he is found out after his government appointed shadow Hermann Gromek follows him to the home of a contact in Pi (The Farmer), resulting in Armstrong and the farmers wife murdering Gromek, and Armstrong’s loyalty being questioned later on due to Gromek’s mysterious “disappearance”. While meeting with a top German scientist, it’s announced via loud speaker that searches are being conducted for Armstrong and Sarah for questioning, forcing Armstrong to hastily memorize as much information as possible and make a daring and dangerous escape with Sarah, facing obstacles at every turn.

Of the three films Hitchcock made during his so called “down period” ( a term which I completely disagree with, by the way) Torn Curtain seems to be the one that gets the most mud slung it’s way (even more so than Topaz) and honestly, I just don’t get it. I know this writing will hardly change anyone’s opinion of the film, but I will say to it’s detractors that it deserves a serious reassessment. Judging from all the negative reviews I’ve read of the film over the years, the number one issue that the majority of the films opponents bring up is the casting, claming that Paul Newman and Julie Andrews were miscast and didn’t fit their roles at all. I happen to disagree (shocking I know). The classic Hitchcock theme of someone getting involved over their head in a serious situation is applied in this film, and while I’ll grant you that Newman’s character isn’t exactly an “everyman” in the traditional sense like a lot of Hitchcock protagonists had been in previous films on account of being a well known scientist, the general idea remains the same. I bring up that motif because Newman has that everyman quality about him, although his likeability isn’t instant. His character of Armstrong comes off as a bit of a selfish jerk in the beginning, the way he goes about handling his situation, keeping Sarah in the dark about the whole thing, yet it quickly becomes apparent that he is a good man, he knows full well the dangers of what he’s doing yet he feels it’s the right thing to do, so he becomes easy to root for. As for Andrews, were people expecting her to break out into song or something? You’re watching the wrong film. She’s easily the most sympathetic and likable person in the film. We instantly feel for Sarah, as she has yet to find out what the audience already knows, and Andrew’s handles the emotional material quite well. I’ve also never agreed with the claims that Newman and Andrews have no chemistry together, especially when you consider that their scenes together in the early parts of the film are supposed to come off as a bit awkward, what with Sarah questioning him about his odd behavior and him dancing around the issue of why he really wants her to go back home, plus the tension between the two after she follows him to Berlin and him finally telling her the truth about what’s really going on. As is the case with most Hitchcock films, it doesn’t take that long to become fully invested in the characters, and as the film moves forward and the more threatened they become, the more you’ll care about them and fear for their safety, making the events in the later part of the film all the more engaging and nerve wracking.

If Torn Curtain is remembered for one thing, without question it’s the murder of Gromek. Even the films naysayer’s have to accept defeat when it comes to this particular scene and admit it’s brilliance. Hitchcock deliberately made the scene as long and drawn out as possible, wanting to prove to the audience that killing a man isn’t as easy as it looks in the movies, it takes a bit more work, and indeed we see Armstrong and the farmer’s wife’s struggle in completing the act, as a knife, a shovel, and finally a gas oven are put to use. The fact that there is no music during the scene makes it even more excruciating to watch. We hear nothing but the noises of Gromek and Armstrong wrestling about the room, the sound knife breaking off in Gromek’s chest after he’s been stabbed and of course the noise of the oven. Even with the visceral nature of the scene, Hitchcock still found a way to inject some humor into it, with Gromek making the sly remark “Tell the cookie she should put that down, she’s going to cut your fingers off” after noticing the farmer’s wife coming at him with a knife. Hands down it’s the best moment of the film, just a masterfully constructed sequence, one that’s more than deserving to stand alongside scenes such as the finale of Saboteur (1942) on the statue of liberty, the Mt. Rushmore scene from North By Northwest (1959) and the shower scene from Psycho, amongst other iconic Hitchcock moments. The brief exchange between Armstrong and Gromek before the murder is smothered in tension, and speaking of intense, the second half of the film couldn’t get anymore. With a film like this there is always a sense of danger hovering above every scene given the subject matter, as it’s always a possibility that Armstrong’s cover could be blown at any moment. This is especially the case when Sarah is being interrogated, and keep in mind this is before Michael has told her the truth, so there’s always that element to keep us on edge, but it’s when the two try to make their escape when Hitchcock really lets us have it. Almost immediately after getting out of one dangerous situation, they’re yanked right into another. From their almost unbaringly tense ride on the supposed “safe” bus run by Pi, where along with being followed by the military they face other hang up’s such as belligerent passengers and checkpoints, to the scene in the theatre, (which is pure Hitchcock through and through) and the finale involving a very creative use of prop crates of all things, we barley get any breathing room, Hitchcock is in full control. Like any good spy movie, there’s plenty of intrigue to go around in terms of the inner workings of the Pi network, can this or that person be fully trusted, who is this or that person really working for and other things of that nature, so the suspense certainly isn’t in short supply.

Torn Curtain seemed to get the short end of the stick even before the film went into production. Numerous re-writes had to be done to the script and even when filming began things didn’t get any easier. It’s been said that both Newman and Andrew’s high salaries ate into the films budget, plus it’s well known that Hitchcock and Newman didn’t get along all that great. Newman was a method actor which drove Hitchcock crazy, and the two had many disagreements over the script, as Newman would later put it “"I think Hitch and I could have really hit it off, but the script kept getting in the way”. Throwing another wrench into the proceedings was the fact that longtime Hitchcock collaborator   Bernard Herrmann, who’s score for the film was written before filming ceased, left the project when the music he composed for the film wasn’t upbeat or “pop” enough to Universal’s liking, and they’re were no opportunities for Julie Andrews to possibly sing in the film. (I realize that the studio heads were thinking economics here, wanting to make whatever aspect of the film as commercially appealing as possible, but come on. A “pop” score for an intense spy thriller? The genius of Hollywood at work folks). Hitchcock replaced Herrmann with John Addison who rewrote the score (I love the film’s main theme by the way). Even with all the hassles that went into getting the film made, I still say it deserves far more credit that it gets. Am I saying it’s one of Hitchcock’s all time greatest films? No, but it’s nowhere near what it’s reputation would have you believe. If anything it’s a prime example of Hitchcock’s persistence as a filmmaker. Even with all the elements seemingly working against him, he was still able to deliver an incredibly gripping film that’s more than worthy your time that holds up well on repeated viewings (dated politics aside, but that goes without saying), one that I’ll continue to stick up for.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Man Bites Dog (1992)

Just like the last film I wrote about, Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), this was another film that I attempted to “review” way back when and the same thing ended up happening, my brain stalled and it ended up being a half assed paragraph. Links need not apply. So consider this a second attempt at me trying to redeem myself, as this is another film that most defiantly deserves a more valiant effort on my part. Man Bites Dog is one of my favorite films ever. I’ve been a fan and champion of this film since the 90’s, matter of fact I have 3 copies of it, a VHS I recorded off if IFC way back when, an official VHS and the Criterion DVD. I’ve watched it so many times that it’s to the point now where I think I could probably recite the entire script in French. Or at least watch it without any subtitles. If I were ever to make a “top 10 of all time“ list, it would easily have a secure spot. It’s a film that, no matter how many times I watch it, the impact it had during the first viewing is never lost. Truth be told I’d say that over the years it’s become even more potent, especially when you compare the media and “reality” TV obsessed culture of today with what it was like back in 1992, the fact that this film turns 20 years old this year makes it all the more endearing. Not to mention that with all the “found footage” and faux documentary styled films being hot commodities these days, thanks in part to the success of one particular franchise (the name escapes me at the moment, something to do with extracurricular activates I think), a film like this was way ahead of it’s time and then some, and 20 years later it still stands as one of the most unique and original, not just mockumentaries ever, but films in general.

Man Bites Dog (C'est arrivé près de chez vous, “It Happened In Your Neighborhood“) follows young filmmakers Remy and Andre (the films actual writers and directors Rémy Belvaux and André Bonzel) as they film a documentary on their subject Ben (Benoît Poelvoorde, also the films third writer and director), a serial killer. The crew films Ben practicing his “trade” while he describes his preferred methods, what works, what doesn’t, what victims are more profitable, things of that nature. Along the way we’re introduced to Ben’s friends and family, while Ben waxes philosophic on life, poetry, boxing, and pretty much whatever else is on his mind when the camera’s are rolling. He also helps fund the low budget production with the money from his victims. At first just mere observers, simply filming Ben, Remy and Andre become increasingly more involved in his actions, while other complications and occupational hazards arise as a result of the dangers of making a film about a subject like Ben and his line of “work”.

Much more than just a mockumentary, Man Bites Dog is a film that wears a lot of hats, and they all fit quite nicely, as this is a film that works on so many different levels,  mockumentary, black comedy/media satire and as social commentary. As a mockumentary it works because of the overall presentation. Shot in grainy black and white, featuring interviews with Ben’s family and friends, the constant sight of the crew and film equipment, plus the fact that everyone involved in the production uses their real first names, it all adds to the sense that this could be a legitimate documentary, filming this mans day to day life in real time, while also giving us a glimpse at some of the hassles that filmmakers go through while going into an under funded production. What’s even more unique about the film is, without giving too much away, as the film moves forward, certain events unfold that make the later part of the film starts to play out like more traditional, dramatic narrative, all the while the documentary aesthetic is never lost. I always thought that was a pretty neat way of telling the story of it‘s subject, and Ben is quite the “subject”. Violence aside, I think one aspect of the film that disturbed people the most was (and I’m only guessing) they found themselves getting to like Ben a little. If you take away the fact that he’s a murderer, Ben comes off as a pretty likable guy. He fancies himself to be fairly sophisticated, writes and recites poetry, plays music, he’s funny and charming, loves his family and treats his mother with the utmost respect. He defiantly loves the camera as well, and is charismatic enough that even him spouting off about something as benign as the look of public housing is never dull. Of course there is an obvious arrogance about him, and it’s impossible to forget what he does for a living, as we could be seeing him and the crew drinking and having a good time yet seconds before he was shooting someone in the head, and there are parts of the film where you’ll start to feel very nervous for the filmmakers, wondering what Ben’s reaction will be if he get irritated at something, no matter how friendly him and the crew might be. One of the more fascinating aspects of Ben’s personality is the way he views killing. A lot of what he does is for profit, a big reason why he prefers to target the elderly (they‘re “loaded“, according to him), and the reason he avoids young couples and suburban homes. After he murders an entire suburban family, upon realizing there’s nothing of any value in the home and after a crew member mentions they’re running out of cash for film Ben comments “The problem’s not cash. That, I have. It’s those three innocents. There oughta be a law. Well, I’m… I’m not… I’m not a lunatic.” Consider it a twisted sense of morality.

As a black comedy, Man Bites Dog works because well, it’s frankly quite hilarious. Obviously it’s not everyone’s style of humor, but there is something morbidly humorous about Ben describing his techniques or the way he so casually talks about how he usually starts off the month by knocking off a postman, the bone density of midgets, or how “scaring” an elderly woman to death by inducing a heart attack seconds after the act was easier on her and her neighbors, as it saves them from the noise, and saves him a bullet. One of the best lines in the film comes after Ben shoots a night watchman at a construction site, and after complaining about the cheaply made concrete says “I once buried two Arabs in a wall over there... facing Mecca, of course.” One of the more infamous scenes comes when Ben is trying out a gun holster the crew has bought him for his birthday, he accidentally shoots a guest at the table yet immediately resumes eating and asks for more champagne like nothing has happened. As a whole the films general premise could be seen as a parody, albeit an extreme one, on the media’s fascination with violence and the public’s consumption of it. This idea is expanded on when Ben and the crew run into another killer who’s being followed by a film crew of his own. There are actually a few instances where they run into other killers, and these run-in’s lead to some of the more dramatic moments of the film as crew members are accidentally killed during Ben’s shoot outs, but they also give way to more darkly comical moments, as after a member is killed, we see Remy making a tearful statement to the camera, dedicating the film to them, claiming to be thinking of their girlfriend Marie-Paul, who’s carrying their child. Later on when another crew member is accidentally shot, Remy makes the exact same statement, complete with the mentioning of Marie-Paul, the only difference being the name of the recently departed. Of course there are lighter moments of humor in the film, such as Ben getting knocked out via one punch during a boxing match, and his old man roommate during his hospital stay who, according to Ben, does nothing but “shit and sing” all day long. The man’s ensuing argument with his nurse after he “makes caca” as well as him singing out loud “I shit for nights, I shit for days, I shit all over, I shit always” is comedy gold. It might work better if your actually watching it as apposed to just reading it but if you’ve seen the film you’ll know what I mean. I’m laughing as I type this just thinking about it.

It’s been suggested that the filmmakers becoming more and more involved with Ben’s activates was a way of asking just how complicit we are when it comes to violence. Is simply viewing it too much? Or how about the crews filming of it in the first place? How far is too far? If that was truly the case, I can honestly say that the film never once comes across as “preachy”. According to the filmmakers during an interview done about a year after the film was released, it was never their intention to make any sort of statement whatsoever on violence, they simply wanted to make a film about making a film. Andre Bonzel, one of the films creators stated in the liner notes of the Criterion DVD that essentially the exact same film could have been made had even if Ben was a door to door salesman, except that wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting, and killers are typical characters in fiction, so take that as you will. (By the way, the term “Man bites dog” is a journalism term in case you didn’t know) Feel free to call me jaded and cynical all you like, but if you ask me, the idea presented in Man Bites Dog doesn't seem all that far fetched these days, especially when the internet comes into play. I often wonder if the film were to be released today what the overall response would be, both from critics and the general movie going population. Would it be as controversial and still be considered as shocking as it was back in 1992, or not so much when you consider what’s come after it in terms of content? My best guess would be probably a bit of both, with the former viewpoint most likely coming from media outlets in denial of some of the more sensational things they broadcast. Whether or not you “get it” and regardless of what your interpretation of the film is, one thing is for certain about Man Bites Dog, it’s sure to stir up a reaction and bound to leave a strong impression, one you won’t soon forget after watching.