Friday, June 28, 2013

Medicine Has Gone Awry in CRIMES OF THE FUTURE

Crimes of the Future (1970)
Director: David Cronenberg
Rating: 5.5 / 10

Over the past couple of weeks I've suffered a rare illness that has damaged my throat and removed my ability to speak. Often mistaken as a simple virus or bacterial infection, the malady actually results from the atrophy of the Broca's region of the frontal cortex. The now inert neural matter of that region becomes available as auxillary support to other regions of the brain, and may adopt a new function as required by the afflicted. In my case the disease was triggered by the stress accompanying my own scientific endeavors, and has been employed to provide additional short-term memory and analytical ability. Side effects have included fatigue, bronchial irritation, and the resurfacing of long-buried memories in the form of dreams.

Okay, only a small fraction of that is rooted in truth, but that's likely the sort of diagnosis I'd receive from the doctor at the center of Crimes of the Future, David Cronenberg's bizarre second film. Ronald Mlodzik (a staple of early Cronenberg) adopts the role of Dr. Adrian Tripod. Tripod narrates his search for the errant madman Dr. Antoine Rouge after forced out of the dermatology clinic where he and Rouge pushed the boundaries of modern medicine. Through his work at the clinic, known as the House of Skin, Rouge inadvertently killed most of the world's women with a plague resulting from an experimental dermatological treatment gone horribly wrong. The disease leaves men unharmed but not unchanged, and causes a white discharge to emerge from the ears or nipples. When in one of the opening scenes of the film Tripod milks a colleague and eats the white foam, it's clear that this future's medicine has become less focused on healing and more on the transformation of the patient.

Crimes of the Future has much in common with Cronenberg's first effort, Stereo - a meandering story, a narrator who takes center stage with a jargon-laced monologue, an eerily cold portrayal of the future as one populated by effete men wandering sparse landscapes. The University of Toronto campus has again been reconfigured by Cronenberg's camera into a stark series of futuristic locales filled with looming concrete buildings and deserted plazas. It also shares the languid pace that dragged down Stereo, here with the silence supplanted by a grating soundtrack of electronic noise.

The ideas here are somewhat more developed, and having the story presented by a narrator who's also a character in the film gives it an impact that the clinical voiceover in Stereo lacked. Cronenberg's take on relatively mundane fields of medicine are a highlight. Here something as seemingly unremarkable as podiatry is transformed into a manifestation of evolutionary regression wherein people forget how to walk as their minds devolve into those of primitive oceanic creatures. The idea of medicine that's been perverted and warped would resurface later in Cronenberg's career, primarily in the gynecology for "mutant women" featured in Dead Ringers. While in that film the ideas were integrated into the story along with fascinating characters, in Crimes of the Future there isn't much else. The latent homoeroticism of Dead Ringers is also present, although more front and center here since it's almost mandated by the plot. I still can't quite surmise Cronenberg's aim with it though, other than to explore the evolution of sexuality as well as that of the physical form.

Visually (as in Stereo) the film is remarkable, especially given how little Cronenberg had to work with. Here he also learns to be slightly less in love with his creativity. Fewer shots linger simply for the sake of lingering. It's a more engaging film, but one that's dragged down by the sheer number of ideas it presents. It jumps from scenario to scenario as Tripod switches careers, never bothering to really follow through with any particular element of the story.

I've always been impressed at how Cronenberg can elevate seemingly low-brow genre stories above the mediocre simply by virtue of his ideas. Years later in Shivers, he'd combine psychosexual themes with the momentum of a B-horror flick - a formula that launched the main phase of his career. Much like Stereo, Crimes is interesting for anyone who wishes to see Cronenberg wrestling with ideas he'd revisit later in his career. As a standalone film it leaves a bit to be desired.

Friday, June 7, 2013

CANNON FODDER: "There's a New Conflict in the Middle East..."

Cannon Fodder (2012)
Director: Eitan Gafny
Rating: 4.5 / 10
Seen via: Digital Screener

With the zombie craze showing no signs of slowing down, sometimes I wonder if it'd be better to hole away in a bunker and wait for its inevitable decay. It takes a special twist on the subject to spark my interest these days, such as the pared-down character-driven approach of the recent indie endeavor Dead Weight. Another trick is to incorporate some regional flavor, as in Alejandro Brugu├ęs' Juan of the Dead, in which the Cuban setting played an integral role in the story. This seems to be Cannon Fodder's approach, as it proudly brandishes the title of the first Israeli zombie film (although not the first Israeli horror film - that title goes to Rabies). I was interested to see how the decades of civil unrest and tribulation in the middle east were worked into the story of this film, and whether it'd rekindle my interest in a trend that won't seem to die.

The film gets started quickly, opening with our hero Doron (Liron Levo) having his honeymoon interrupted by a call from a former employer. Doron is an ex-special forces operative for the IDF, and his commander needs him back on the job to lead a crack team of soldiers on an urgent mission. The group is charged with the task of retrieving a Hezbollah leader who is believed to have been responsible for developing biological weapons, and is currently at large in Lebanon. Doron is skilled enough that this should be a routine mission, except things don't pan out quite so easily once he's in the field. After his squad is attacked by a series of crazed "civilians" while approaching the Hezbollah compound, he begins to wonder exactly why the IDF is interested in the man he was sent to capture and how much he hasn't been told.

Cannon Fodder adopts one of the more traditional zombie plots by pitting a military squad against a zombie horde. Along with the well-worn story come several familiar archetypes. Doron's squad consists of Avner (Gome Sarig), a sort of naively devout Jew, Moti (Emos Ayeno), a pure-hearted African immigrant, and Daniel (Roi Miller), a slur-spewing meathead who's too headstrong for his own good. While the backgrounds are different than you'd normally see in a Western zombie flick, the characters are mostly one-note (the hero, the goofy guy, the noble minority, and the jerk) and their interactions play out in a pretty predictable fashion.

I was very interested to see where the film went with its political subtext, but at the same time somewhat wary. Contrary to the social consciousness in Romero's early zombie films, I've noticed an alarming amount of recent entries into the genre playing on xenophobia and homophobia in really off-putting ways. With such a potentially touchy subject at the core of Cannon Fodder, I'm happy to say that it's handled deftly. While it's occasionally jarring to watch IDF soldiers gunning down Arab citizens - er zombies - it doesn't feel exploitative. The introduction of a sympathetic character from the opposition also helps balance the film, and at one point the characters even explicitly address the zombies as an enemy outside the regional conflict.

At the same time, I feel that the film missed an opportunity with its premise. By eschewing political commentary for the structure and feel of an action film, it gives up the ability to say much of worth. By the end of the film I kept looking for something to take away, but came up with nothing more than I would have gotten out of an American action film. Maybe that's the point though. An Israeli zombie film that fits right so seamlessly with its ilk will undoubtedly attract some interest in its home country. As anyone who's ever watched a film set in a familiar location knows, it's kind of fun to watch a story play out on your home turf. But it'd be nice if the regional flavor was played a larger role in the narrative.

If you're an effects purist, you may find the use of CG here somewhat off-putting. I'm willing to overlook its limitations when I'm caught up in the flow of a film, and most of the time that was the case. The action is generally well-shot, well-paced, and constitutes the most engaging portions of the film. There are some really well-crafted scenes near the end of the film (see the image above). On larger scales the seams begin to show a bit - mostly when large crowds of zombies are being blown up or hit by cars. While I appreciate the ambition, bigger isn't always better.

Now that Israel has gotten its first zombie film, I'm looking forward to seeing how the second turns out. Cannon Fodder lays a decent foundation, and I'm interested to see how future films will build on it.

Thanks to director Eitan Gafny for sending me a screener copy of the film. Cannon Fodder has been showing at film festivals across the U.S., most recently the Cape Fear Film Fest in Wilmington, NC and the Las Vegas Film Fest, where it was awarded the "Wild Ace" award for Independent Spirit. Future screenings include the Hoboken Film Fest in New York. You can learn more about the film at its Facebook page.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Unearth the Evil that Lives Beneath THE CHURCH

The Church (1989)
Director: Michele Soavi
Rating: 8 / 10
Seen via: Blue Underground DVD

In medieval Germany, a band of Teutonic knights encounters a gathering of pagan heretics and slaughters them, dumping them in a pit to rot. To contain their evil and keep them from rising from the mass grave, they're sealed in the ground with holy symbols, and a cathedral is built on the gravesite. There they remain until modern times, when a visiting scholar arrives at the cathedral to study the ancient documents held in its library. Will his curiosity unlock the secrets that have been literally buried for centuries?

It sounds like a pretty standard premise for a horror film, but it's the way in which director Michele Soavi (Cemetery Man) handles that sets it apart. If Soavi's name isn't enough to spark interest, The Church also features music by Goblin (in one of their later incarnations), and stars a young Asia Argento, whose father Dario was heavily involved in the film's production. Even with this many stars of Italian horror aligning, the film could have easily gone astray. The Church was adapted from the script of what would have been the third film in Lamberto Bava's Demons series, and in less talented hands it could have been another low-grade franchise entry. Fragments of the Demons formula remain, particularly toward the latter half of the film when a diverse group of people find themselves trapped in a building with an evil that's spread through wounds. Where the previous films culminated in giant action-packed finales, The Church moves forward in fits and starts, gradually unearthing the arcane history of its setting and drenching the proceedings in alluring visuals and subversive imagery.

The Church lulls you into complacency and then interrupts it abruptly with phantasmagoric violence and visions of infernal terror. It lifts imagery from sources as diverse as renaissance wood-carvings and Boris Vallejo paintings, but manages to unify them all in a consistently dreamlike atmosphere. Soavi doesn't have any qualms about taking his time with the plot, and chooses to indulge his lavish set-pieces, which boast some seriously impressive practical effects. Ask yourself this: how often does a movie featuring demons actually show you some demons? Here they're portrayed in all their disturbing glory.

Where most films involving demonic forces treat them as external entities that have been invoked or provoked in some way to enter our world and wreak havoc, the evil in The Church comes not from outside our world but from its past. Far more awful than the peaceful pagan cult in the opening of the film is their slaughter at the hands of the medieval church. Their second coming is a reckoning, a inevitable balancing of the scales and a revealing of long-buried secrets. If there's any evil here, it's the church itself.

While the pacing might be offputting to some, the wonders on display here are just too weird and unsettling to make for a boring film. I'd been saving The Church for a while because I had a feeling it'd be something special. I wasn't wrong.