by Ray Schillaci
The Movie Guys

There are independent writer/directors out there that I run out to see no matter what the word-of-mouth may be. As it stands, I look forward to anything from Robert Eggers (The VVitch, The Lighthouse, The Northman), Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) and Brandon Cronenberg (Antiviral, Possessor). It’s their unique way of storytelling. Alex Garland and David Cronenberg can also be thrown into that category, but with some hesitation.

Garland impressed genre audiences with his screenplays for Sunshine, 28 Days Later and wowed us with his directorial debut, Ex-Machina. But, he also disappointed many with his follow-up project, Annihilation. The older Cronenberg has given us cult favorites from his early works: Shivers, Rabid, Scanners, The Brood and Videodrome. He’s also delivered true gems of cinema with The Dead Zone and The Fly and proved his versatility with the remarkable A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.

Both have a tendency to ramble on artistically to the point where their properties become exclusively for the die-hard fans with no intention of attracting a mainstream audience. That can be bold or fall flat as in the case of both their recent movies, Garland’s Men and Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future. Do they at least have something to say? Of course, but the message gets muddled in the theatrics, the ugly somber mood and in the preponderance of disturbing and disgusting imagery.

Let’s start with Cronenberg. He’s never been one to shy away from the gruesome. His first theatrical feature in 1975 entitled Shivers, which underwent a title change in ’83 as They Came From Within, was a nasty bit of horror about residents in a plush high rise that contract a parasitic infection that causes them to become murderous sex fiends. It would not be the last time the Canadian writer/director would explore sex, pain and body disfigurement. He would explore these themes with Rabid, The Brood, Videodrome and eventually bring it to new heights with his very successful remake of The Fly.

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After several of his movies (Naked Lunch, Crash, eXintenZ) received mixed reviews and low box office returns, he rose like a phoenix with a pair of critically acclaimed and box office hits, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. Did they have sex and violence? Yes, but they were more about the human condition and what lengths it could go through. They were as close to a mainstream audience film as Cronenberg could reach. From there, his other films were absent of body horror up until recently. For some reason, Cronenberg decided to return to his bizarre roots and serve up a distasteful morsel that comes across as more of an oddity that he is comfortable with, Crimes of the Future (the same title of an early work of his that bears no relation to the original plot).

Cronenberg’s latest is like attending a freak show where people commit atrocities in front of you for entertainment: the guy that hammers a nail through his nostril, the woman that dangles a brick from a hook attached to her earlobe. Okay, it’s not as simple as that, but it certainly feels that way. The big question is, can you stomach 147 minutes of people doing far worse than piercing themselves for the future of entertaining?

Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux play Saul and Caprice, a performance artist couple. Saul has developed “accelerated evolution syndrome” and his partner helps him remove new organs he is able to generate in front of a live audience. This syndrome leaves Saul in a great deal of pain, he has constant respiratory and digestive problems with the maturity of each organ. The weirdest part in all this is that Saul no longer has sex, removing the organs is the closest thing to an orgasm the man can get. Are you turned off yet or does the thought of this intrigue or titillate you?

Meanwhile, the government is trying to use Saul to infiltrate a radical evolutionist group. There’s also the subplot of a young boy who only consumes plastic and his mother can no longer live with the “monster” and she suffocates him before our eyes. This is pure Cronenberg: body horror, evil entities within the government and in our bodies. The mood of the entire film is near suffocating as it revels in the oddities it displays. Some will find meaning, but many will be left confused and nauseated, especially with an ending that seems to be the butt of a joke I did not get.

Alex Garland’s Men is nowhere near as dreadful, but it does manage to leave a terrible taste in one’s mouth. I could easily finish this review up with one sentence, men are bad. But, that would not be fair to Garland even though that is the message being conveyed in his film. He surrounds this message with elaborate set pieces for the audience to contemplate. Some of the visuals are striking, but the overall production is bogged down with a script that was just not ready to be filmed until all the fanciful ideas were fleshed out.

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A beaten-down woman, Harper, played by Jessie Buckley (I’m Thinking of Ending Things), witnesses her husband’s suicide. She decides to get away from her venomous surroundings and vacation in a remote village in the English countryside. Once there she runs across several men that all resemble each other.

Rory Kinnear (The Imitation Game, Penny Dreadful) plays every irritating and offensive male including the very sick idea of a young boy through CGI resembling the actor. Soon Harper is not only rubbed the wrong way with the men she meets – from the owner of the manor to an officer and a vicar – while taking pictures of the village she starts seeing a naked man. That man begins to stalk her all the while missing his clothes. Men baaad on different levels.

Things only get worse as Harper steps into a pub only to have an uncomfortable feeling among all the men that look similar. The police end up releasing the naked man for an “absence of any legal ground.” Even the vicar manages to upset her. What is this all about? The bad behavior of men, not just some men but all men. You can’t help but plead with the writer/director to use a smaller hammer to pound his message into our heads.

Both these movies are artistically self-indulgent, catering to only the most dedicated of their fanbase. To classify either film as horror is a misnomer. Both films have disturbing images and a modicum of suspense but that does not place either in the fright category. The only thing that scares me is that both directors repeat their mistakes in the near future and/or spawn a homage of imitators that just throwing out a lot of disturbing imagery and a few suggestions constitutes a completed film.

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