by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: David Cronenberg
CAST: Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Scott Speedman, Kristen Stewart
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 80% Certified Fresh

PLOT: In a dystopian near-future, the human pain threshold has suddenly disappeared, giving rise to bizarre performance artists who publicly showcase bodily mutations and self-mutilations.

Somewhere at the core of David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future is a crackling good thriller waiting to happen.  I was still waiting for it when the end credits rolled.  I couldn’t predict what was going to happen next, which is normally a big plus for me, but the problem was, I didn’t care what was going to happen next.  Just when the movie seemed about to kick into a new gear story-wise, boom, credits.  Shame.

In the near future, human bodies worldwide have started undergoing bizarre mutations involving the development of new internal organs and the disappearance of a pain threshold.  This leads to the proliferation of underground performance artists who are either publicly mutilated or mutilated themselves.  Why?  Because Cronenberg.  We get close ups of the lead character, Saul Tenser (Mortensen), lying in a special chamber while knife-wielding robotic arms controlled by his partner, Caprice (Seydoux), slice, probe, and excavate his thorax in search of unwanted new organs.  Another performer lies in a chair while a surgeon literally cuts grooves into her face.  Yet another performer has grown dozens of additional ears all over his body, and has his eyes and ears sewn shut while he dances to modern music as a voice intones, “NOW is the TIME to LISTEN.”

This is all typical stuff from Cronenberg, who was and is a virtuoso of so-called “body horror,” going all the way back to Scanners, Videodrome, and the remake of The Fly.  It’s so typical, in fact, that the sight of various bodily injuries and mutilations didn’t really faze me as much as I thought it would.  Or should.  Maybe this says more about me than about Cronenberg, but the most off-putting sight was that one dancer with the extra ears.  Everything else, while graphic, didn’t feel “real.”  It all felt like effects.  Instead of recoiling, I found myself thinking, “Wow, how’d they do that?”  (By contrast, the dancer with the ears may yet give me nightmares.)

The storyline of the movie remains maddeningly vague for the first half.  In a weird prologue, we watch as a mother performs an unthinkable act after seeing her son eat a plastic trash can as if it were made of gingerbread.  Saul Tenser seems to encourage the growth of these new organs in his own body, even though they could become harmful over time.  His assistant, Caprice, gets turned on by seeing him getting carved up in his chamber; he seems to enjoy it as well.  They call it “the new sex.”  There is a subplot about a new police division, New Vice (not terribly original), trying to crack down on people who perform these public acts of mutilation.  We watch as an unknown gentleman stalks Saul and Caprice while he eats what looks like a purple chocolate bar.  At a bar, another stranger inexplicably grabs the purple bar and takes a bite out of it himself, and immediately experiences something that makes him wish he hadn’t.

This is all interesting, cerebral stuff, I must admit.  The makings of a dystopian thriller a la Blade Runner or Gattaca (with more blood) are all there.  But the mood and lethargic pacing of the movie literally put me to sleep.  I had to rewind it several times during the first half to catch what I missed.

But then the second half kicks in.  Saul is contacted and asked to perform a public autopsy on a child who may have inherited a surgical self-mutilation from his father, a medical first which might be the signal of a true next step in human evolution, but one which was engineered by man and not by nature.  New Vice reaches out to a deep-cover agent (whose identity I wouldn’t dream of revealing) who is assisting the search for cells of bio-terrorists who are trying to alter the course of human evolution.  Meanwhile, Saul, who has been battling some kind of respiratory affliction for the entire film, is tempted with one of those purple bars.  Caprice undergoes a self-transformation of her own…

And then, when a crucial discovery is made that might change the course of the entire movie…it’s over.

How to describe my disappointment?  I was a huge fan of Cronenberg’s two entries in the genuine, “traditional” crime thriller genre, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, both starring Mortensen.  Both films are much more conventional than Crimes of the Future, but both are light years ahead in terms of holding my attention.  I naively thought this film (with the word “crimes” right in the title!) would be along the same lines.  Am I critiquing the film I wanted it to be instead of critiquing the film it is?  Maybe I am, because the first half of the movie was so bland and stultifying that I can’t think of anything else to say about it except to compare it to something that I wish it had been.

Crimes of the Future, Cronenberg’s first feature film after an 8-year hiatus, sees him returning to a horror sub-genre that he virtually created, or at least perfected, nearly 40 years ago, and he does have something meaningful to say about what mankind is doing to itself and the planet without regard to future generations.  I just wish he had found a way to say it without boring me for the first fifty-four minutes, then leaving me hanging at the end.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill, Léa Seydoux, Michael Sheen
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 93% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A nostalgic screenwriter travels with his fiancée’s family to Paris where, every night at midnight, he inexplicably finds himself going back in time to the 1920s.

The best of times is now / As for tomorrow, well, who knows?
La Cage Aux Folles

It’s currently 11:05 at night on a Sunday evening.  I’m getting older, so if I’m smart, I should get off to bed, owing to the fact I have to get up early tomorrow to get ready for work.

But I can’t.  I have just re-watched Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris for only the second time in my life, and I have revised my original rating of 9 up to a 10.  And I am just bursting to write about how wonderful this movie is.  I’m hoping that I can reach someone who has not seen it before, so I can convince them that, even if they’ve never seen a Woody Allen movie before, this is the one they should start with.  Yes, even over Annie Hall or Manhattan or even Match Point.  In my mind, Midnight in Paris captures the voice of the artist as he is reaching a certain age and has something important to say about nostalgia, and how sometimes it’s not always what it’s cracked up to be.

Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a Hollywood screenwriter trying to complete his first novel.  He and his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), travel to Paris with her family so he can perhaps get inspired by one of the all-time great cities of the world.  He is immediately smitten with the atmosphere of the place; the movie opens with a wordless montage of static shots of Parisian cafés, streets, museums, statues, apartment buildings, and, of course, the Eiffel Tower.  The sequence sounds simple on paper, but the effect is – I don’t know how to describe it.  It captures the ineffable romance of the place.  More so than any other movie set in Paris, Midnight in Paris really, REALLY makes me want to go there.

Gil and Inez seem happy enough, but he is a little more antisocial than she is.  He is star-struck by Paris, but Inez is not incredibly fond of it.  They bump into an old friend of Inez’s, a pleasant enough man who turns out to be a bit pedantic; during a museum tour, he presumptuously corrects the tour guide on details of the life of Auguste Rodin.  This is not the kind of guy I would want to be stuck with on an elevator.

One night, Gil goes walking by himself on the Paris streets and gets a little lost.  Long story short, he inexplicably finds himself transported back to Paris of the 1920s, when the cafés were full of American expats and frequent visitors like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, etcetera.  As a writer, Gil is over the moon; it just so happens his unfinished novel is about a man who runs a “nostalgia shop”, so this pleasant turn of events is a welcome tonic to his vaguely unhappy days back in the present.

Watching the scenes of Gil rapturously conversing with Hemingway, or goggling at Cole Porter playing the piano, I was swept away by the audaciousness of this movie.  It’s illogical and steeped in fantasy and seems to be begging not to be taken too seriously.  But it is a pure joy to watch.  I immediately identified with Gil.  I found myself imagining how I would respond if I were somehow transported back to a time and place when some of my own idols walked the Earth: Hollywood, the 1940s, walking around and conversing with Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn.  Or even not so far back: the 1970s, having lunch with young Spielberg and Coppola and Lucas, and Pacino and Streep and DeNiro, discussing film and life and getting insight into their inner workings.

From our perch in the present, it’s easy for us to look back at the past and say, well, those were the days.  Just earlier today, I was having an online discussion about the difference between CGI and practical effects in movies like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings and even Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.  We tell each other that older movies felt more real because the effects were made with real props occupying real space, whether they were miniatures or matte paintings or what have you.  And we say, “Man, they just don’t make them like that anymore.  They knew what they were doing back then.”

That’s Gil.  He looks around at the shimmering jewel of Paris in the 1920s and he’s convinced that this is “where it’s at.”  What can today’s world offer in comparison to sitting in a café and discussing art with Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel?  Or the pleasure at hearing Ernest Hemingway tell you he’ll hate your book, even if it’s good, because that would make you a better author than him?  Or getting constructive notes on your novel from Gertrude Stein?

The story progresses.  Gil becomes infatuated with a beautiful woman from the past, Adriana (a luminous Marion Cotillard), and it becomes harder and harder for him to go back to his own present each night.  Inez’s father gets suspicious and hires a private detective to follow Gil during his midnight strolls.  You may ask how a private detective can follow someone who is traveling back in time.  Well, my friend, that is an EXCELLENT question, one which the movie answers in satisfying and gut-busting fashion in the final reel.

But the heart of the movie lies in the touching, revealing segment when Gil and Adriana go even further back in time, this time in a horse-and-carriage, back to the Belle Époque, the “Beautiful Age” of Paris, which lasted from about the 1870s to the 1910s.  Adriana, who lives — lived — in the ‘20s, is entranced with this even more bygone era.  She feels about the Belle Époque the way Gil feels about the ‘20s.  To her, the ‘20s are slow-paced, a drudge.  But, oh, to be back in the 1890s!  Dinner at Maxim’s, the Moulin Rouge, meeting Toulouse-Latrec and Gauguin and Degas!  How wonderful those days must have been compared to the Boring Twenties!

And there’s the message of the movie.  We can grouse and grumble about the modern world all we want.  The movies are dime-a-dozen.  The books even more so.  The music is crap.  Cell phones have turned us into tiny-screen junkies.  But, oh, to be back in the good old days of the 1980s, when the music was gnarly, and the movies were iconic, and the books were amazing, and everything was just better.

But we forget that, in the ‘80s, people were grousing and grumbling about THAT era, and they longed for the more sedate and rosy era of the 1950’s.  And in the ‘50s, people said the ‘30s were the BEST.  DECADE.  EVER.  And so on and so on.

It’s human nature for us not to realize what we’ve got going for us until it’s gone.  We are living in glorious times.  (Coronavirus and politics notwithstanding…gimme a break, I’m trying to make a point here.)  Look around.  Really SEE it.  Embrace it.  We don’t need a time machine to go back to our glory days.  We’re IN our glory days.  Just wait.  In 20 years, you’ll look back on the 2010s and say, “Man, wasn’t that a time?”

If you take nothing else away from the above review, remember this: Midnight in Paris is pure charm, is laugh-out-loud funny, and is the best Woody Allen film since Match Point.  So if you haven’t seen it, you really, really, REALLY need to make a point to do so.