Tag: david cronenberg

Maps to the Stars

Maps to the Stars (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) makes a trip from Jupiter, Florida to Los Angeles, California because it has been seven years since she had seen her family—the very people she tried to set on fire. Her goal is to make amends but she is unsure whether enough time has passed for them to be able to forgive. In the meantime, she gets a job as a personal assistant to Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an actress with many connections and even more personal demons, including a history of drug abuse.

“Maps to the Stars,” based on the screenplay by Bruce Wagner, is not the sharpest biting satirical film about Hollywood culture but it does command highly watchable performances across the board. There are plenty of familiar faces, from Robert Pattison as a limousine driver to Carrie Fisher playing a version of herself, and just about each one, no matter how brief they appear on screen, intrigues. Looking at the material from a big picture point of view, however, it leaves a lot to be desired. The bad, erratic, and self-destructive behaviors are present but there is no soul. At one point one cannot help but wonder, “What’s the point?”

Not surprisingly, Moore is the standout performer. Although Havana is not the lead character, Moore plays Havana as larger-than-life but tragic. In one scene she is despicable, but the succeeding scene makes us wonder that maybe there is more to her than pills, guilt, and a past she is unable to run away from. The best scenes involve Havana wanting to get a part so badly—a role that her late mother played many years ago—that she comes across as on the brink of breaking down. So people around her tiptoe. She, too, is in self-denial; she thinks she’s a bright star but in actuality, maybe she needs to focus on getting into the right frame of mind to be able to handle holding down a job.

I did not expect to feel sympathy toward a child actor who is a complete jerk to everyone he encounters—even to young fans who just want a simple autograph. Thirteen-year-old Benjie (Evan Bird) already has a history of drug abuse and he is trying to keep clean—not because he wants to necessarily but in order to keep a role that his mother (Olivia Williams) thinks he should hold onto. I wondered at times about the kind of future Benjie might have given he continues traveling in the same self-destructive track.

Looking at their rather palatial home, one must wonder why the mother insists that he remain in show business. Is it for his future or is it a way for her to compensate on what she feels she is lacking, a missed opportunity when she was young? Of course, in a movie like this, which follows expected beats in terms of story arc, the answer is somewhat obvious.

Directed by David Cronenberg, “Maps to the Stars” shows the ugly side of being in the Hollywood machine: the vanity, the histrionics, the exploitation, the loneliness of living in spacious home but there is no joy or laughter in it. There is a sadness here that the picture seems almost afraid to touch, afraid of delivering more dimension to cynicism. I get the point that it aims to make but cynicism must be paired with something else—preferably contrasting elements—or else the film ends up being a one-note critique.


Shivers (1975)
★★ / ★★★★

A pair of scientists sets out to replace organ transplantation with a radical idea: breed a strain of parasite that can function as a human organ. The research comes to a halt, however, when one of the scientists, Dr. Hobbes (Fred Doederlein), becomes involved in a murder-suicide. Soon after the tragic event, Dr. St. Luc (Paul Hampton), a medical doctor, is asked to come see a man who has a strange lump in his abdominal area.

Writer-director David Cronenberg’s first feature film sets the foundation of what kind of movies he will be known for: bizarre, gruesome, curious, daring the audience to not look away. “Shivers” is a creature-feature picture with an effective rising action but the climax and resolution run for too long and tend to unfold in uninteresting ways at times. It is a mixed bag, but it is a work worth seeing once.

Usually in the horror genre, it becomes obvious in the first few minutes who the audience is supposed to root for. What is fresh here is initially we suspect that the couple considering to move into the newly established high-rise apartment will be the main characters. One can argue that it is easier to create a story and build a defined perspective from that of an outsider attempting to assimilate himself into a new environment. We see the story through his eyes.

Cronenberg understands suspense. Take the lady in the laundry room as an example. We are aware that a creature is out there using the vents to get from one place to another. Obviously, the creature will be in the room. Otherwise, there would be no point in showing the scene. But the filmmaker is patient. He shows the woman opening a washing machine, putting in the clothes, adding the detergent, and closing the lid. All the while we wait when the surprise attack will occur. The longer we wait, we cannot help but wonder: Will the “Boo!” moment transpire in this room? Right next to it?

The motivation of the monster requires a suspension of disbelief. I embraced the idea immediately because it relates to how diseases are spread. However, once the idea is explained somewhere around the halfway point, many of the scenes that follow grow progressively weaker in curiosity and anticipation. It hammers us over the head what happens when the creature infects a human being.

The possessed humans move slowly, sometimes leading to rather amusing results. Due to the lack of tension, I began to notice irrelevant elements like an actor wearing a bad wig (or an egregious dye job), obvious voice-overs of awkward moaning when someone is being attacked, or two separate shots of a bathtub denoting one event—most unconvincing because the water is bloody in one shot and clear in the other shot. Clearly, the picture needs to be edited further in order to eliminate the silliness and amp up the horror.

“They Came from Within,” also known as “Orgy of the Blood Parasites” and “The Parasite Murders,” has its moments of inspiration but they are heavily found in the first half which makes the latter half feel like a drag at times. Like a lot of horror films, the more it shows and as chaos ensues, the more we yearn for the quieter, creepy happenings.

A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

A hysterical woman, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), is taken by horse carriage to the clinic of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), hoping to be cured of her mental affliction. Psychoanalysis, though popularized by Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), is not yet considered an official form of treatment. By taking careful notes of Spielrein’s verbal accounts and eventual behavioral changes while using psychoanalysis, Jung and Freud become optimistic that psychologists will learn to embrace the value of the new concept.

“A Dangerous Method,” directed by David Cronenberg, aims to balance the science that contributed to the commercialism of psychoanalysis, the affair between Jung and Spielrein, and the professional chasm between Jung and Freud, but the picture fails to excel in any of them. Though the subjects are alluring on the surface, they do not have enough details. As a result, watching the picture is like reading a textbook that offers nothing but summaries.

Christopher Hampton’s screenplay only touches upon the various relationships superficially. For instance, while there are about three or four scenes where Jung sits about a foot behind Spielrein and asks her questions about her childhood and the point when she has come to discover her sexuality, the filmmakers’ decision to jump forward in time—several times and without warning—is, to say the least, careless. The picture inadvertently makes it look like psychoanalysis is a magical panacea. I was afraid that people who may not have a background in psychology would watch the film and assume that psychoanalysis itself is an effective cure. It is not.

Psychoanalysis, broadly speaking, is a form of treatment—one that is not universally accepted by many professionals back then or nowadays. It is accompanied by other techniques but it is not a cure. For some, it works; for others, it does not.

The film might have benefited from highlighting the flaws and intricacies of Jung and Freud’s methods, like not having a big enough sample size, instead of simply dropping a slab of answers on our plate and expecting everyone to know what makes a good scientific method. Jung and Spielrein’s relationship is mildly interesting, reaching high points when the camera zooms toward Spielrein’s face and she looks as if she is about to regress to her scary hysteria every time her advances are shut down.

Knightley does a wonderful job in playing a woman who is out of control. The way she contorts her lower mandible, accompanied by a barrage of ticks, made me feel very uncomfortable. On the other hand, there are times when I sensed that Fassbender is trying too hard in illustrating personal, romantic, and professional betrayal. While it is ultimately up to him to balance the subtle emotions, the screenplay is equally at fault since it does not spend adequate time in exploring each angle it pursues in order to provide necessary support for the story and the performers. Lastly, while Mortensen is successful in portraying Freud’s confidence and arrogance, we do not discover much about the character. The screenplay assumes we already know Freud, what he represents, and why he remains to be an iconic figure.

“A Dangerous Method” is relatively dry in tone and mood. It makes a lot of assumptions. Halfway through, I wondered if we were all better off reading a more informative book about Spielrein, Jung, and Freud in a library instead of having to sit through tired melodrama being stacked together like pancakes.


Spider (2002)
★ / ★★★★

Spider (Ralph Fiennes) is recently released from a mental institution and has been assigned to live in a transitional residential facility manned by Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave) to determine if he, in fact, is cured. When not interacting with the residents, he spends his time unintelligibly writing on a journal, followed by flashbacks of Spider as a boy (Bradley Hall). He loves his mother (Miranda Richardson) but he is convinced that every time his father (Gabriel Byrne) visits a pub for some drinks, he is actually having an affair. But why Spider is committed to a mental hospital?

“Spider,” based on a novel by Patrick McGrath, comes off too controlled and calculated, every step a contrivance, so rarely do we get a chance to truly connect to the disturbed main character. Though Spider is a curiosity some of the time, the heavy-handed images, like the attempt to complete a jigsaw puzzle which is supposed to reflect his broken memories, neither ring true nor add weight to the material.

There are too many symbolic images designed to convince us that there is still something wrong with him. They are unnecessary. We can easily see for ourselves just by looking at Spider’s appearance, like his neglect for hygiene, talking to himself when no one is around, and the tremors, that he should not yet have been released. It was as if the screenwriters had seen too many uninspired thrillers and made a checklist of what makes someone with mental problems so scary. Instead of narrowing down what feels right for their story, everything is thrown at the wall.

The material might been more effective if the filmmakers refrained from judging the lead character so consistently that we end up being forced to think a certain way. Why not allow us to think for ourselves and weigh what is possibly happening? Back in the day, people with abnormal psychology were not fully understood so they were treated with animosity and violence. I wished the filmmakers have attempted to find a way, without being heavy-handed, to convey that message. Turning someone into a villain is easy; creating a figure worthy of our sympathy and interest requires a bit of insight and effort.

Moreover, the flashback scenes are not as effectively executed. A handful of details are messy, confusing, and frustrating. For example, how can adult Spider have images of what his father did with a local prostitute if young Spider was not in the same room with them at the time? With this example, among others, the lack of logic is astounding.

Directed by David Cronenberg, “Spider,” despite its many ideas, a few of them quite smart, feels too thin and drawn out. The unexplained holes make it seem like the ending depends on a coin flip, usually a sign of a weak picture, instead of a defined inevitable conclusion. At one point I wondered if the film would have been stronger if the ending had been shown in the first scene so we know what signs to look for that lead up to it. In any case, it is still a complete mess.

Naked Lunch

Naked Lunch (1991)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Bill Lee (Peter Weller) was an exterminator with a wife, Joan Lee (Judy Davis), who was addicted to the yellow powder, pyrethrum, he used to kill bugs. Bill came home one day and saw Joan shooting the drug, in liquid form, into her breast. She invited him to shoot up with her and, because he was a writer and therefore had to be open to new experiences, he welcomed the opportunity. Soon enough, Bill was picked up by two cops out of suspicion for distributing illicit drugs, a mere cover so that Bill could be in a room with a giant cockroach that could speak. The insect revealed that Bill was an agent of the Interzone, that his wife was not really his wife but a rival agent. She was to be assassinated. Based on a novel by William S. Burroughs and directed by David Cronenberg, “Naked Lunch” was an imaginative trip down the zigzagging rabbit hole of the recondite subconscious. One could argue that everything that transpired around the protagonist was a mishmash of undeveloped great ideas that ended up saying not much. While I can agree to some extent, probably because of the fact that, admittedly, I didn’t understand it all, I found it absolutely invigorating because it was able to challenge me in a way that so few films have. It took pride in being wildly bizarre and violently shook the conventions of storytelling. Just when we started to believe we had a solid grasp about who Bill was and his constantly evolving mission, it changed gears, sometimes abruptly, other times gradually. We were forced to reevaluate, and thus it was tempting to get lost in the microscopic details. What was certain was that the film’s reality was divided into two: the human world and Interzone, which seemed to be located somewhere in the Middle East because the inhabitants spoke Arabic. Americans who lived there, like the mysterious Tom Frost (Ian Holm) and his wife Joan Frost (also played by Davis), were convinced that, like most foreigners, Bill was there to have sex with willing younger men. Homosexuality was a common theme but there was not a trace of homophobia. In fact, being gay was considered a positive quality because it allowed certain flexibilities. Being open to experiences, not necessarily limited to sexuality, was tantamount to being powerful and free. There is undeniable truth in that. The bug convinced Bill, who claimed to be sexually ambivalent when asked by Kiki (Joseph Scoren), one of the Interzone boys, about his sexual orientation, to pose as a homosexual to gain important connections and find his way to the top of Interzone, Inc. But it seemed as though the more bridges he made, the less certain he became about his role as a spy and as a human being. Lastly, there was a vanity involving giant cockroaches and typewriters. Bill, a writer striving to be published, was assigned to write and submit a report about everything that happened on his mission. The typewriter transformed into a bug every time Bill experienced a creative high, oftentimes aided by a black powder, made from the flesh of giant aquatic Brazilian centipede, prescribed by Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider). To claim with hubris that one could find exact logic in the happenings presented in “Naked Lunch” was to deny its fiery creativity. It demanded my interest as it dabbled with nightmares, hallucinations, depravity, and taboos, all enveloped in a delirium of dry at times dark humor.


Scanners (1981)
★★★ / ★★★★

Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), a homeless man, was drugged by men in a shopping mall after he gave a woman seizures with his mind. He was taken to Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), a scientist who worked with a company called ConSec, to teach Cameron how to control his strange but powerful abilities. There, he learned that he was a scanner, someone who had the ability to become one with another entity that contained a nervous system, not simply a person who had the ability to read minds. Eventually, Cameron was given the assignment to hunt down a rogue scanner named Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) and stop his plan of world domination by eliminating human beings sans gifts unique to scanners. Written and directed by David Cronenberg, “Scanners” had a strong concept which used spy movies as an inspiration to tell a fascinating science fiction film. It wasn’t just about one chosen man trying to stop another driven by an insane crusade. It was also about voiceless underground groups easily used as a scapegoat by those in charge, the government’s experimental programs involving espionage and advanced weaponry, and the corporations that benefited from lives that had been unnecessarily sacrificed. The concept was as strong as the actors’ performances. Ironside stood out as the villainous Revok. He reminded me of a less deranged Jack Nicholson in movies like Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” He had just the right dosage of insanity in the eyes and a creepy voice to match his dark ambitions. Meanwhile, Lack played a character that we couldn’t help but root for. Although he didn’t know who he was, he forged on in order to find the truth. He strived to protect those not unlike him, like Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill), scanners who were forced to live underground while trying to find their own versions of a peace of mind. Ironically, his lack of reason to keep moving forward was exactly the reason why we wanted to see him succeed. “Scanners” was without a doubt a B-movie which unfairly came to be known as a movie with exploding heads. Yes, some scenes were grotesque because Cronenberg wasn’t afraid to show purposefully fake-looking blood seeping from a human body and guts being thrown on walls. But there was only about two or three scenes that featured exploding heads. The film was actually philosophical, intelligent, and unpredictable. It had great focus in exploring the relationship between the human body and technology that came to influence Cronenberg’s later projects. Those searching for atypical work will most likely found “Scanners” enjoyable.

The Brood

The Brood (1979)
★★★ / ★★★★

Frank (Art Hindle) found his daughter (Cindy Hinds) covered in bruises and bite marks. To Frank, there was only one person to blame–the mother (Samantha Eggar) who was entitled weekly visitations from a psychiatric institution run by Dr. Raglan (Oliver Reed), a doctor who had a strange way of providing therapy to his patients. It seemed as though he induced his patients into deep hypnosis. By pretending to be key figures from a specific patient’s life, they engaged in conversations and sorted through many emotions in hopes of arriving at some form of closure. Writer-director David Cronenberg took a lot of risks with this project by focusing on how negative emotions could potentially manifest themselves physically. There was true horror when the mutants started killing people. Were they real or were they simply a product of the mind? During an autopsy of one of the mutants, it was revealed to resemble a human but it did not have a navel. When the film was concerned with specifics regarding the mutants and how the new therapy technique worked, I was most fascinated. There also came a point when I stopped and asked myself if I was being paranoid for characters. Perhaps there was a scientific explanation that connected all the strange happenings. But the movie was not just about the horror of the unknown corners of our minds. It was also about ethics such as a doctor’s relationship with his patients. How far should we push a patient to go through therapy when, if they had been in extended states of hypnosis which possibly altered their judgments, they were not aware of its effectiveness? Or worse, they were not allowed to see their loved ones so that they, too, could see how the therapy was coming along. I was constantly challenged because metaphysical and psychological questions often came up and just when I thought I arrived at a valid conclusion, new evidence made me question. In a way, it felt like I was analyzing the movie as my own patient. Even though it asked us to take certain leaps of faith such as the so-called psychoplasmic therapy, the material had a solid grasp between playing within the extremes based on today’s established psychology (such as psychosomatic disorders) and total unbelievability. The final twenty minutes was very memorable because it offered grotesque images even the most hardcore horror fans would be impressed with. “The Brood” may have been deliberately slow-paced but the rewards were plentiful. It was the kind of horror picture that did not sacrifice intelligence and actually incited thoughtful discussion about mutation as a tool (or side effect) of therapy.