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Why David Cronenberg recommitted to ‘Crimes of the Future’

A woman leans against a wall, with another woman visible through the door frame behind her.
Kristen Stewart, left, and Léa Seydoux in “Crimes of the Future.”
(Nikos Nikolopoulos)

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

I didn’t think I would be inclined to take note here of the Amber Heard/Johnny Depp defamation trial as it dragged along week after week. But seeing how it transformed from celebrity sideshow to something more disturbing has left me feeling deeply unsettled. My colleagues Mary McNamara and Meredith Blake attempted to make sense of the trial, its verdict and its aftermath. As Meredith said, “I am not one of those people who automatically thinks celebrity scandals — especially sordid, complex sagas that get turned into ‘pick a team’ narratives — are a woeful distraction from the ‘real’ news. If anything, they can serve as a mirror of our most deeply rooted prejudices. And in this case, the blind support for Depp and vitriol directed at Heard reflected a distrust of women that is, sadly, timeless.”

LALIFF and Edward James Olmos. This year’s Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival is already underway and continues through Sunday. Carlos Aguilar picked a few highlights from the program, many still to screen, noting that the festival “diligently represents the wide spectrum of experiences that fall under the Latino umbrella. Its organizers curate a balanced collection of short films, episodic projects and features both by U.S. Latino directors and Latin American artists across genres.”

For The Times’ Latinx Files newsletter, Fidel Martinez interviewed Edward James Olmos, co-founder of LALIFF. Besides the festival, they talked about films such as “Selena,” “Stand and Deliver” and “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez.” Olmos noted how his own legacy reflected the larger lack of representation for Latinx communities: “Over the last 30 years, the majority of American films on Latin themes, I’ve either acted in them, or directed them, or helped write them, or helped produce them, or helped distribute them, or helped in a multitude of different ways. It’s been amazing that we’ve helped so many people, but we’re still way, way, way behind the curve on the amount of images that you see of Latinos on the screen — or on television or the theater — given how many of us there are.”

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American neorealism at UCLA. The UCLA Film and Television Archive has launched Part 2 of its survey of American neorealism, covering the years 1984 to 2020. It is an astonishing group of films sure to move audiences, including Chloé Zhao’s “Songs My Brother Taught Me” and “The Rider,” Charles Burnett’s “My Brother’s Wedding,” Merawi Gerima’s “Residue,” Ronald Bronstein’s “Frownland,” Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy,” Garrett Bradley’s “Below Dreams,” Richard Linklater’s “It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books,” Ramin Bahrani’s “Man Push Cart” and “Chop Shop,” Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” and Allison Anders’ “Border Radio.” Among those scheduled to attend for Q&As is Burnett, along with filmmakers Roberto Minervini (“The Other Side”) and Jim McKay (“Our Song”). The program runs through July 31.

’90s romances at the Academy Museum. The museum has begun its program “Summer of Love: 1990s Romances.” Having already kicked off with a new restoration of Mira Nair’s “Mississippi Masala,” among the films still to screen are Jamie Babbit’s “But I’m a Cheerleader” on a double bill with Kathryn Bigelow’s “Point Break,” Martin Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence” and Theodore Witcher’s “Love Jones.”

David Harbour on “The Envelope.” This week on “The Envelope” podcast, I spoke to the actor about his role on the series “Stranger Things” along with playing the character of Red Guardian in the movie “Black Widow.” In both the new Season 4 of “Stranger Things” and in “Black Widow,” Harbour was playing characters being held in a Russian prison camp. While shooting “Black Widow,” he was surreptitiously sending photos from the top-secret production to “Stranger Things” creators Matt and Ross Duffer so the two prison sets could be distinct from each other. As Harbour said, “Don’t tell [Marvel Studios President] Kevin Feige. I don’t think he listens to this podcast, but if he does, I’m sorry, Kevin. … But yes, I was doing that because I really knew that people would pick up on it and they’d give us all kinds of crap for it. So I really wanted them to have big distinction. And the Duffers were totally game to play around with all those aesthetics.”

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‘Crimes of the Future’

Written and directed by David Cronenberg, one of the undisputed masters of modern horror flmmaking, the speculative sci-fi horror-thriller “Crimes of the Future” is his first feature film in eight years. In an indeterminate future, Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and his partner, Caprice (Léa Seydoux), are performance artists who publicly perform surgeries to remove the new organs that regularly grow inside Saul’s body. They encounter Timlin (Kristen Stewart), who works for the National Organ Registry, whose interest in them becomes more than just professional, as they all grapple with what might be the next step in human evolution. The movie is playing now in multiple L.A. theaters.

For The Times, Justin Chang called the film “a speculative horror-comedy as wildly deranged as it is beautifully controlled,” before adding, “Whatever else it may be — a blood-spattered neo-noir, a parable of environmental decay, an uncommonly bizarre and tender love story — ‘Crimes of the Future’ also operates as a deadpan satire of the modern art world. Seldom has the natural tendency of artists to mine themselves for creative material been pushed to such exquisitely yucky extremes.”

I spoke to Cronenberg for a story that will be publishing soon. Of the film’s hypnotic, trance-like tone, he said, “Well, I’m always trying to hypnotize my audience. I feel like that’s the goal. I mean, especially in something where you are creating an alternate reality, an alternate universe or world, because you have to have the audience believe that it’s real on a certain level. But to do that, they have to let go of all of the things that they know are real. It’s one thing if you’re doing a rom-com — everybody understands the dynamics of dating and dinners and all that stuff — but here nothing is familiar. So the audience in particular does need to be kind of seduced and hypnotized into accepting that, that this world somehow works.”

For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “For the most part, the world in ‘Crimes of the Future’ resembles what you imagine everyday life might look like in a not-too-distant future, one defined by need, decay, violence, extreme entertainment and environmental catastrophes of our own wretched making. It is terrible, and eerily familiar. But Cronenberg doesn’t pass judgment on it or shake his fist at the sky. Instead, with visual precision, arid humor, restrained melancholia and a wildly inventive vision of tomorrow that puts those of most movie futurists to shame, he reveals a world that can be agony to look at, exposing its pulpy innards much like Caprice opens up Saul.”

For Rolling Stone, David Fear compared the new film to Cronenberg’s 1999 “eXistenZ,” writing, “‘Crimes of the Future’ is, in reality, more of a spiritual sister film to that work than the one it shares its name with, down to the specific mix of sex, violence and playfulness, and a climax that doesn’t end the film so much as bring it to an abrupt halt, teetering on the precipice of either epiphany or basic comprehension. And if it’s not quite the 21st-century-schizoid-man equivalent of what that spirit-of-’99 thriller did for premillennial tension, it’s proof that some artists can keep finding fresh meat within decades-old preoccupations. … The words ‘return to form’ will likely get thrown around a lot, but the veteran filmmaker never lost his chops or his way; he just began poking around in different corners, nudging his way into psychological spaces rather than bats— biological ones. It’s a return to ‘a’ form. Yet it’s hard not to gape in future-shock, awe and sheer wonder at the way he’s so deftly pirouetted right back into a sticky, sickly subgenre everyone thought he’s ‘evolved’ out of. This is what the work of a visionary filmmaker looks like. Forget the new flesh. Long live the old Cronenberg.”

For the AP, Lindsey Bahr wrote, “‘Crimes of the Future’ does not seem to have been crafted to shock and disturb. Cheap thrills are for the newbies. Cronenberg has things he wants to say: About art, about pain, about self sacrifice, about evolution, about creativity, about ethics, about sex and about beauty.”

A man in black clothing and a hood lies on a chaise longue between two women, one in a red formal gown drinking wine.
Léa Seydoux, left, Viggo Mortensen and Kristen Stewart in “Crimes of the Future.”
(Nikos Nikolopoulos)

‘Watcher’

Directed by Chloe Okuno from a script co-written by Okuno and Zack Ford, “Watcher” is a slow-burn thriller that premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. Julia (Maika Monroe) has just moved to Bucharest, Romania, with husband Francis (Karl Glusman) and is finding her footing in a foreign land when she becomes convinced a man has been watching her in her apartment and following her around the city. The story becomes a sharp allegory of the treatment of women. The film is in theaters in limited release.

For The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “‘Watcher’ is a slow burn, but like its leading lady, it’s restrained and elegant. Monroe’s performance is less than operatic, but the strain of containing her fear and maintaining her composure is palpable. … [The film] creates a visceral sense of the genuine, and specifically feminine, fear that Julia feels, whether it’s founded in reality or not. But the greatest trick that Okuno pulls off in ‘Watcher’ is leading the audience to question our own intuition and interpretation of events, of what we’ve seen and heard. It throws the viewer off balance just enough that the finale is truly shocking, but rendered with the utmost control and refinement of style and emotion. This beautifully crafted jewel of a throwback thriller signifies Okuno as a talent to watch, but furthermore, it pushes the viewer to question what, and who, we choose to believe and why.”

I spoke to Okuno and Monroe about the film for a piece publishing soon. Okuno spoke about what she brought to the process of rewriting Zack Ford’s original script. “I think a lot of my work writing on the script was about pulling in from my own experience about what it’s like to be a woman in the world,” she said, “what it’s like to be confronted with people who are doubting you and just knowing that as women, unfortunately, I think we already know that we’re going to be doubted. We already know that people are going to be questioning our credibility. And so we already have to sort of police our own emotions and approach things very delicately, and that in and of itself can be very frustrating. So I feel like that’s the journey that you see Julia on in this movie; it’s what Maika did so beautifully, among many things, but I feel like I saw her self-regulating, and I saw the sort of quiet frustration in having to do that constantly. And I love the moments in the movie when you see that anger in Maika, because that’s what I feel a lot of times as well.”

For Variety, Jessica Kiang wrote, “Okuno and the effortlessly relatable Monroe have invested too much in Julie’s perspective to betray her, and by extension every woman who’s ever been forced to wonder if she’s ‘just being hysterical.’ The vulnerability Julie feels is an exaggerated version of a vulnerability recognizable to every woman who’s ever pretended to be on the phone on a walk home or gripped her keys in her hand on her way to her car. And her self-doubt is similarly an echo of the internal voice that shames us for overreacting when the danger passes. ‘Watcher,’ if it has an agenda beyond being a fun, shivery, fish-out-of-water chiller, is not so much a manifesto to Believe All Women as it is a reminder to all women watching to at least believe ourselves.”

For the Playlist, Elena Lazic wrote, “This not knowing could make for powerful suspense, but the film is too unsure whether it wants to keep its audience completely in the dark or not. Monroe does a lot to sustain what tension there is during the more perfunctory moments, delivering a seemingly effortless performance as a dejected young woman who approaches both her confusing new circumstances and the mystery that occupies her thoughts with calm and pragmatic patience, as well as curiosity. But with scenes suggesting too many possible explanations on the one hand, and others leaving little room for doubt, the moment-to-moment stakes feel blurred, in contrast to the film’s sharp cinematography and blunt editing. The result is an initially compelling mystery that becomes more predictable as it progresses, until an ending that feels both like a cheap last-minute attempt to steer the film into a more topical direction and hard to care about.”

A blond woman with upswept hair and wearing a winter coat stands on an empty subway platform.
Maika Monroe in “Watcher.”
(IFC Midnight)

‘Fire Island’

Directed by Andrew Ahn from a screenplay by Joel Kim Booster, “Fire Island” playfully riffs on Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” resetting it to a gay holiday getaway location on Long Island. Noah (Booster) and his best friend, Howie (Bowen Yang), go for a summer stay at the house of their friend Erin (Margaret Cho), both falling into romantic entanglements that test their friendship. The film is streaming on Hulu.

The Times’ Jen Yamato spoke to Booster for a story that will be publishing soon. He said he was “surprised” the movie got made but not because it starred “queer Asian leads — that in and of itself is, I think, kind of a big deal. We don’t see that a lot. But to allow me the space to really get into it about the various class issues within our community was sort of shocking.” He said, “Those kinds of layers are sort of missing from the modern rom-com. ... We love the hijinks and we love that we know that they’re going to get together, but how are they going to get together?” “Fire Island,” he added, “is such a crucible for those kinds of gay experiences because they happen every day as in a microcosm on the mainland.” But on this island, “Because there are no straight people there, it really is everything. The good and the bad are so outsized to how you experience them in the real world.”

For The Times, Robert Daniels wrote, “Even as it finds its footing, ‘Fire Island’ can be too much. There are about three false endings, and the needle drops perform more than their share of the emotional heavy lifting (even if Britney Spears’ ‘Sometimes’ never disappoints). But the heart behind the familiar rom-com choices — the parting of two flames, the last-second pursuit to save a relationship and the happy ending that follows — cannot be doubted. It’s laughter and it’s loving that Ahn’s ‘Fire Island’ gleefully contains.”

For IndieWire, Jude Dry wrote, “‘Fire Island’ marries the promise of the queer comedy boom with the artistic arrival of Asian American cinema. Gorgeously intersectional, subtly political, and a damn good time — it’s a guaranteed instant classic. … ‘Fire Island’ is ultimately a friendship love story wrapped inside a sexy matchmaking romp.”

For Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson wrote, “Given the strict and vexing hierarchies of Fire Island, Kim Booster’s choice of template is an apt one. All of Austen’s coy and prickly social maneuvering easily maps onto the particular gay ecosystem depicted in the film — interrupted, of course, by very modern bursts of sex and drugs. The greatest asset of ‘Fire Island’ is the island itself. Much of the film was shot on location in the late summer and early fall of last year, which gives the film a crucial specificity. Those of us who’ve been to the island before, for better or worse, may more potently recognize the strange significance of seeing, say, the Ice Palace looming large in a glossy, buzzed-about movie released on a streaming platform owned by Disney. But even if these places mean little or nothing to a viewer, I’d think they’ll still feel the enveloping pull of the film’s granular texture, the keen sense of place that so many movies — filmed on Atlanta sound stages or Canadian cities dressed up to look like something else — seem to lack these days.”

For Vulture, Alison Willmore wrote, “‘Fire Island’ feels hemmed in by its source material even when being loose and irreverent with it. Or maybe it’s the genre itself that’s the constraint. ... ‘Fire Island’ is, in other words, a reluctant romantic comedy that’s willing to acknowledge the genre’s shopworn pleasures while only begrudgingly indulging them itself. All of its best parts — and there are plenty — exist outside of that framing, which raises the question of why it’s there at all except as a means of wrestling with its author’s ambivalence about the conventional wisdom that a happy ending is the result of a pairing off.”

Five people in summer tank tops stand together outside a store looking off-camera.
Margaret Cho, left, Tomás Matos, Bowen Yang, Joel Kim Booster and Matt Rogers in the film “Fire Island.”
(Jeong Park / Searchlight Pictures)


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