As a Phoenix resident, it’s been tough the last couple of months to avoid hearing about the Jody Arias trial. Personally, I find the whole thing completely baffling, but I’m sure there are plenty out there who can’t get enough of it, who feast on every sordid detail like it’s some kind of rejuvenating elixir. Antiviral, the debut film from Brandon Cronenberg, son of David, is about the kinds of people who crave intimate connections with celebrity culture. It takes the idea of society’s unhealthy celebrity obsession and follows it down a disturbing road, creating a grotesque yet grotesquely plausible future reality where clinics sell the diseases of celebrities to obsessive clients interested in sharing the experiences of their idols. The antihero of the film works at one of these clinics, and he takes advantage of his unique position by smuggling out celebrity diseases in his own body and selling them on the black market. This side business comes back to haunt him when he unknowingly injects a life-threatening disease into his system, leading him into a murky world of corporate conspiracy.
One of the more common labels that David Cronenberg has received over the years is that he is a cold, strangely detached filmmaker, whose films maintain a frosty tone despite their oftentimes quite warm-blooded and confrontational subject matter. I’m 100% positive I’m not the first person to say this, but the apple truly hasn’t fallen too far from the tree, and this is apparent right from the opening shot of Brandon Cronenberg’s film, which features the antihero standing against a solid-white background. As befits a film that deals mainly with disease and infection, the color palette has an appropriately antiseptic quality, all whites and grays, broken up only occasionally by red splashes of blood. Watching Antiviral almost feels a return to the kind of thought-provoking body horror that David Cronenberg ruled over in the early portions of his career. It’s bizarre and surreal and slyly comic and frequently uncomfortable, and it isn’t afraid to raise interesting ideas and questions. Time will tell if Brandon Cronenberg can do more than just follow in his father’s footsteps, but for now I’ll take this nice nostalgic reminder that horror can be more than just gruesome torture and apparitions with an obsession for sudden loud noises. 8/10.
This 1968 samurai film from director Kihachi Okamoto is based off the Shugoro Yamamoto short story Peaceful Days, the same source material as Akira Kurosawa’s Sanjuro. Consequently, the two films share a number of similarities, chief among them the presence of a solitary drifter who stumbles upon a conflict that provides him with a renewed sense of purpose. In this film, Tatsuya Nakadai handles the role of the drifter, disillusioned with samurai life, who finds himself assisting a small group of clan members who rebelled against their chancellor. An extra element is added into the mix with a character played by Etsushi Takahashi, who dreams of becoming a samurai and ends up on the opposing side as Nakadai’s character, despite a friendship that gradually grows between them. Despite a storyline filled with betrayals and death, the film is oftentimes darkly comic. A running joke involves Takahashi’s halfhearted attempts to kill Nakadai, and the different objects/people he ends up stabbing instead. The film’s editing is a little odd though, hopping around between different tones with little to no rhyme or reason. One moment will be lighthearted, while the scene immediately after will be deadly serious, with little to no buffer period in between.
Even with its strange rhythm, the film holds together, in large part due to the always-brilliant Tatsuya Nakadai. As I watch more and more of his films and performances, I continue to be impressed by his range. Not many actors who could jump between the psychotic and imposing killers of Yojimbo and The Sword Of Doom to the humanist military officer of The Human Condition to the tormented burn victim of The Face Of Another, but Nakadai does it with ease. His role in this film is his chance to have a go at the same type of character that Toshiro Mifune made iconic in Yojimbo and Sanjuro. Nakadai adds his own spin to the role though, slightly aloof and sly, a contrast to Mifune’s more stoic presence. He’s the standout element in what is otherwise a consistent but never quite spectacular production. Still, even if Kill! doesn’t rise to the level of the great samurai films, it still has enough material of interest to be worth a look, especially for budding fans of the genre. 7/10.
It’s a rare thing for me to see a remake of a classic film before getting around to the original. It’s an even rarer thing when I find a remake that brings its own worthy elements to the table. Such is the case though with James Mangold’s 2007 version of 3:10 To Yuma, a remake of this 1957 classic from director Delmer Daves. The plot of both films, taken from a short story by Elmore Leonard, revolves around down-on-his-luck cattle rancher Dan Evans. Broke but with a wife and two children to support, he agrees to escort notorious outlaw Ben Wade to Contention to board the 3:10 prison train to Yuma. Along the way, an uneasy bond will form between the two men, and Evans will have to decide whether to give in to Wade’s temptations and let him go or to see it through to the end, taking a moral stand against a society that seems all too willing to cave in to amorality. Mangold’s film stretches out the running length to show more of the journey to Contention, while also adding another wrinkle into the storyline with an extra emphasis on a father/son dynamic between Evans and his oldest son, who reveres the amoral Wade. Not only does Evans end up making a stand for himself, he also does so as an example for his son. The filmmakers behind the remake deserve credit for recognizing a layer to the original story that had previously been unexplored.
I’m starting to realize I’ve been focusing a little too much on the remake and not enough on the original. I don’t mean to suggest that Mangold’s remake is a substantial improvement over the original; the two films are really quite similar. Compared to Mangold’s film though, the original is a case study in efficiency. The journey between towns is almost entirely excised, placing more emphasis on the conversations between Evans and Wade in the Contention hotel room. This is a good thing, as both Van Heflin and Glenn Ford are well-cast in their roles as the cattle rancher and the outlaw, respectively. Without any extra fat, there’s a consistency to Daves’ film that the remake doesn’t have (the remake also changes around the particulars of the ending, to varying degrees of success). Still, even with its shortcomings, I feel like the remake provides a slightly richer experience overall. Extra emphasis on the word slightly though, because the original film has all the qualities of an essential western, very rarely if ever striking a false note. 8/10.
Every now and then, a film comes along that requires a little bit of an adjustment to get in tune with its particular frequencies. This 1984 film from director Alex Cox is one of those types of films (as well as a recent addition to the Criterion collection). Emilio Estevez plays the street punk Otto, fresh out of a job and drifting along aimlessly when he meets Harry Dean Stanton’s Bud. He’s a repo man, and it doesn’t take long before he enlists Otto in the strange and occasionally dangerous work of repossession. Everything gets more complicated when a bounty is placed on a mysterious 1964 Chevy Malibu with a trunk full of deadly radioactive light (shades of Kiss Me Deadly), attracting the attention of rival repo men and government spooks. The film is a sharp criticism of 1980s culture. Everyone eats and drinks out of cans labeled “FOOD” and “DRINK”. When Otto returns home for the only time in the entirety of the film, he has a one-sided conversation with his parents, who sit zombified in front of the television. Scenes will often start mid-action, including one memorable moment when our main characters walk into a convenience store, unaware of the robbery that just occurred there seconds beforehand. This might be the film’s greatest achievement, its presentation of a society teetering on the brink of oblivion.
There were many times during the film when the action reminded me of something you would find in a Thomas Pynchon novel. Like so much of that reclusive author’s work, Repo Man combines pop culture and government paranoia while focusing on outsiders living on the fringes of society. Novels like Against the Day and Mason & Dixon and Gravity’s Rainbow make for good comparisons, both in terms of content and overall effect. I’ve found many of my experiences with Pynchon to be a little exhausting, and my feelings towards Repo Man are about the same. You end up remembering them as a series of memorable character traits and situations and setpieces, and really whether or not it adds up to anything substantial or satisfying by the end almost feels beside the point. But just as reading Pynchon novels can be refreshing simply because of their unwillingness to follow formula, spending time in Repo Man‘s oddball company ends up serving as a nice, if fleeting, break from the norm. 6/10.
Chris and Tina’s vacation across the English countryside starts off innocently enough, as they visit cheap roadside attractions and enjoy romantic evenings in their slightly-grungy trailer. But because this is the new film from Ben Wheatley, whose last directed the gritty thriller/horror film Kill List, it isn’t all that surprising when the vacation quickly takes a dark turn. The couple has an unfortunate encounter with a gruff litterbug, and not wanting anything to spoil their vacation, Chris decides to take care of the problem in a particularly gruesome way. The litterbug will be just the first in a long string of victims, as Chris discovers that he has a homicidal side. To his credit, he does make sure his killings appear accidental; the same can’t be said for Tina. When she starts to join in, her actions are more impulsive and reckless, which doesn’t sit well with Chris. The rest of the film follows their attempts to patch up their relationship as they continue to nonchalantly take care of more nuisances along their journey.
As would be expected with a comedy about serial killers, Sightseers requires a morbid sense of humor. Even though there are some solid laughs (especially the final moment, which achieves the perfect mix of shock and hilarity), the film operates more in the Ricky Gervais tradition by generating its humor through awkwardness and uncomfortable situations. Wheatley doesn’t hold back on the violence either, and there are times during the film when it almost feels like a direct stylistic follow-up to Kill List; the British countryside hasn’t looked this ominous since Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising. To Wheatley’s credit though the film never forgets its comedic roots. I have a feeling that quite a few cultural digs flew over my head, and that the film would register more with people familiar with the territory. But as a whole it works quite well, and it continues to establish the prolific Wheatley (who already has another film scheduled for release this year) as a director to keep an eye on in the future. 7/10.
Looking at the slate of projected 2013 films at the start of the year, no other release sparked as much interest as Richard Linklater’s revisitation of a screen relationship that started way back in 1994 with Before Sunrise and continued 9 years later with Before Sunset. It’s a great relief to report that watching Julie Delpy’s Celine and Ethan Hawke’s Jesse interact with each other is as compelling as it’s always been, but the overall experience this time is a little different, the conversations more intense and sobering in nature. Unlike the first two films, where the big question was “Will they get together?”, the big question in this new film is “Will they stay together?”. That shift results in a trickier and distinctly more down-to-earth tone, as Celine and Jesse reach a critical stage in their now-established relationship. Even though the two of them are vacationing with their family in Greece, Celine is feeling pressure because of a new job offer and Jesse is feeling remorse over how he’s missed most of his son’s childhood and adolescence. These concerns force the two of them to recognize that their storybook romance might not have a traditional happy ending, that reality might have to come first.
I will admit that there was one point early on in the film where it almost lost my sympathy. Unlike the past two films, which consist almost entirely of conversations between the two main characters, Before Midnight incorporates more voices into the mix, at least in the beginning. One lengthy dinner discussion in particular between the couple and a group of well-to-do intellectuals made me wonder for a moment if I would find anything substantial and relatable in their discussions anymore. Fortunately, the film rights the ship quickly afterwards, returning the focus solely to Celine and Jesse, as they reluctantly head off to a romantic night in a hotel room that ends up serving more as an arena to air out their grievances with each other. There was a lot of laughter in my theater during this segment, but it was definitely nervous laughter, the kind that only appears during moments of prolonged tension. How it all plays out I won’t reveal, but the end result is a film that, while maybe not quite as satisfying as the first two films, takes quite a few risks and establishes its own worthwhile and welcome identity. 9/10.
Top five first-time viewings in May 2013:
The Place Beyond The Pines
Antiviral / Three Times