Crash (1996) Review

(excerpt from my Cronenberg paper)

When one looks at the films typically considered “Cronenbergesque” it’s clear why. Videodrome, The Fly, Scanners, eXistenZ all have the clear melding of man and technology with plenty of sexual content strewn about. Cronenberg in his later years has done quite a few films that on the surface seem very odd for him, but actually end up fitting his style perfectly. Crash is one such film. On the surface it’s about a group of people who get sexually excited by car crashes, but just underneath the surface is a slow commentary on sex and technology. The tropes of a Cronenberg film are there, just shown in a different light.

The editing in a lot of Cronenberg films is very discontinuous, forcing you to read between the lines and most of the time creating the feeling of a labyrinth. This usually makes sense with the descent that most characters make into madness/sanity/clarity/etc… With Crash it also fits, marking the characters James Spader’s and Deborah Unger’s descent into the world of erotic crashes. This descent is clear, but what isn’t clear in the story is where it’s going. There’s no end goal, no antagonist. There’s just an ever increasing amount of sex and violence that ends with (big shocker) a car crash (with more sex). While this may turn off some viewers, what it does allow is for an audience to mull over the images presented in front of them and fully understand or at least interpret Cronenberg’s metaphor.

Cronenberg’s movies tend to take place in the shadows, and Crash is no stranger to them. Sure there are scenes that take place during the day, but a good chunk of the film contains low-key lighting. The lighting, coupled with the editing, is what really gives the film it’s Cronenberg feel. Be it to emphasize the shady world the characters are descending into or to show how certain characters have a dark side, the lighting gives life to the world we’re viewing.

The score is a unique listen, containing little more than an electric guitar. The eerie sounds it emits blanket the movie in this strange surrealistic ambience. The lack of any other instrument helps also to create a feeling of isolation, despite the frequent sexual activity on screen. In fact Cronenberg plays on isolation not just with the sound, but with the framing as well. There are several points in the movie where despite characters sitting right next to each other, their close-ups are framed to show just them, leaving empty space to the side if necessary. In one particular scene were James Spader, Holly Hunter and Rosanna Arquette are sitting on the couch and their close ups show only their heads, but immediately following those shots is a single shot showing all of their crotches, where they are stroking/fingering each others genitals. It’s isolation of the mind, despite intimacy of the body.

Cronenberg’s metaphor that runs through Crash is that the meeting of metal violently in a car crash is not unlike the meeting of flesh during sex. The only difference is the speed at which each happens. Hence Holly Hunter yelling at the VCR to go slower when watching car crash test footage. Cronenberg seems to speak occasionally through the character Vaughn, bringing some of Cronenberg’s traditional ideas into context. For example the Cronenbergesque idea of body manipulated by technology is quite relevant to Crash. The bodies of the characters are not only twisted and broken by the car crashes, but also manipulated by the medical technology. These manipulations, as the true melding of technology and body, Cronenberg and his characters fetishizes them, making out with the scars and bruises. At the end of the movie where Deborah Unger’s car crash proves to provide her no real bodily harm, James Spader whispers “Maybe next time.” It’s as if these manipulations are the ideal furthering of the body, or as Videodrome calls it “The New Flesh.”

Cronenberg uses long, and what could be considered gratuitous sex scenes. These scenes are plentiful and often times long, but they do serve a purpose. The NC-17 this film earned prevented people from seeing what Cronenberg was trying to do. There are so many sex scenes and each one is different, conveying different emotions and serving different purposes. They are not only important for character development and showing their addiction and descent into a sex-crazed madness. That’s not to say that the plot of the film doesn’t becomes lost amongst the constant sex and soon it becomes clear that we’re as lost as the characters are. Whether this was Cronenberg’s intent or not is up for debate, but it does make for a viewing experience that requires a lot of patience.

Can you believe that my professor thought my analysis of Cronenberg’s metaphor (with some revision) would be worthy of publishing?

eXistenZ (1999) Review

(Excerpt from my Cronenberg paper)

eXistenZ is a unique picture to say the least, but it is no doubt a Cronenberg film. It has technology and man melding, sexual under and overtones, and some creepy insects, all Cronenberg tropes. In his previous film Videodrome Cronenberg played on the idea of not only technology and man melding, but also humans creating new realities for ourselves through technology. He’s said that the ultimate goal is to remove the screen, allowing that separation between virtual and real to become indistinguishable. In eXistenZ we get that removed screen as now virtual reality takes over our brains. It’s done so through bio-ports and organic technology, literally becoming an extension of ourselves.

Cronenberg’s said that guns are extensions of people’s hands, phones extensions of our mouths and ears. After all technology comes from us, it’s not some foreign thing that invades our lives. This is portrayed quite well with some unique production design. The organic gun is made out of bones and looks like the extension of a hand, the phone (that we see briefly) looks like some puffy tissue, almost like ear wax and the cords that connect the people to the flesh colored pod clearly resemble umbilical cords. The color scheme of the clothes, walls, etc… in the testing room all have a similar flesh color to them too.

The film has a unique way of covering up what would typically be called pitfalls by incorporating them back into the movie. The inconsistent actions of the characters are merely the game forcing them to do certain things. The twists and turns of the plot that have little foreshadowing are akin to how video games actually progress and a character even remarks when emerging from the game that they were hard to follow. Any unknowns over the course of the movie are not only covered by the fact that it was all a game, but double covered in that it still could be a game. These unknowns play into the intentionally open ending, whether we would like answers or not. For as much world-building as Cronenberg does though, it’s still not enough. We only see the world from the perspective of a few characters and it’s never quite explained what’s normal or not. Is the world totally ruled by the Virtual Reality companies? How many people do have bio-ports? How are the games actually programmed? It leaves us asking more questions than the characters, but we’re left with no answers at the end when it’s revealed that everything we had questions about might not have answers since it’s all a game.

The actual testing event itself has the unique feel of not a game testing site, but rather a self-help seminar. This all plays into the theme of virtual reality being more real than reality and where the lines are drawn. The people in the testing room treat Allegra like she’s a god of sorts, and in a way she is. She literally built the worlds that they live their lives in and prefer and they worship her for that. When they meet up with Gas, he’s talking about how his “real life” is the lowest form of reality for him and Cronenberg puts him in a doorway (showing he’s trapped) in a small part of the frame (showing how empty the world around him is. Once she and Ted enter the virtual world, Cronenberg puts an emphasis on shots of their hands touching things, a sign that things feel real, despite not being and continues this motif after they enter the “real world.” The realities start to blur together and as more and more things get thrown at us we become uncertain of where things are going to go and suspense is effectively created.

Sex is an integral part of the seduction of the Virtual reality. The very plugging in is very sexual and the inclusion of saliva solidifies this. On top of that, the characters they become in the game start to have sex and for Ted (the audience stand-in) he is literally being seduced by the game so that’ll he’ll accept it. When he gets back to the real world Allegra acts just as seductive as in the game, tipping us off that something might be off.

Overall, eXistenZ is an unusual trip into the world of Virtual Reality, akin to both The Matrix and Inception, but of course with the Cronenberg twist. His use of odd technologies to emphasize our bodily connection, religious and sexual themes to get us invested in the virtual reality and confusing twists to make us doubt actual reality all serve to put us in the place of Ted and in a way experience this odd trip for ourselves. It’s open-ending may be unsatisfying, but it’s designed to be that way.

The Untouchables (1987) Review

The Untouchables is considered to be a classic gangster film, and for good reason. It has an all-star cast and hits all the police cliches of the genre (emphasis on the police). Despite it’s outstanding story and fantastic acting, it’s not without flaws. With all of it’s head explosions and dramatic speeches… it’s cheesy. And until I confirmed with rottentomatoes, I was wondering if it was intentional.

The Untouchables is the story of Elliot Ness who assembles a small crew of honest cops to take down the dangerous Al Capone. In the process he must watch his, his companions and his family’s backs or suffer the harsh reality of the Chicago streets.

The first main problem that lead to cheesiness is the score. It’s so bloody terrible. With booming orchestras that remind you of a western followed by an electric synth/horn jazz remix, the music is horribly distracting and overwhelms a good chunk of the scenes. I could have taken it more seriously if it had the subtlety (yes subtlety) of Goodfellas, but with the cacophonous score I just can’t.

The cheesiness doesn’t end there. Some of the speeches characters give don’t come off as effective as the writer would like, not because of the actors, but because of the stupid analogies or catchphrases. It’s hard to take Capone seriously when he’s rambling about prize fighting for no reason. While there are genuinely intense and suspenseful scenes, there are plenty of outrageous scenes that leave you with tonal whiplash. From the intensity of a baby and mass shooting to Kevin Costner catching a gun and Andy Garcia stopping the carriage with his leg, it’s not a smooth transition.

Speaking of shitty transitions, the editing in this movie is all over the place. I know this is a snob complaint, but there are many rough cuts and inconsistencies in the editing. The dubbing is absolute shit too, which is a pet peeve of mine. To be fair, the second half of the movie got better (probably because of the second editor).

Now that I’ve complained, lets talk about the good stuff (which we all know isn’t as fun). If you can get past the cheesiness that may or may not be there, then there is an engaging story to be had. The story develops at a good pace and even though we all know how it ends, the journey is still an exciting one. The acting is stupendous, Shaun Connery being his usual big badass (although I don’t know if it was Oscar worthy). DeNiro does an okay Capone, but he still is very DeNiro. It’s not an intense emotional drama like Goodfellas or The Godfather, since it’s from the police perspective, but it does have it’s fair share of character drama.

The Untouchables is a fun and engaging cops and robbers movie, but it’s “classic” status is up to question. That’s not to say you shouldn’t watch it, just that I’m too much of a snob. For the first movie I’ve seen about Chicago since moving there, it’s a pretty good one. The Untouchables is available on Netflix, Amazon Instant, Google Play, itunes and Blockbuster (OH WAIT!).

Roswell (1999-2000) Season 1 Review

(or How I Stopped Worrying about the 17 hours of My Life I’ll Never Get Back)

Roswell is the 1999-2002 sci-fi teen romance television show that aired on WB (and later UPN in it’s 3rd season). It follows the familiar tropes of movies like Twilight or shows like Smallville, presenting a supernatural romance that goes either right or wrong. Underneath that romance is a sci-fi subplot that becomes increasingly important as the season goes on. And by increasingly important I mean increasingly stupid. The following is reformatted from a paper I wrote so pardon it’s formality and redundancy.

Roswell is the story of Liz Parker who after being saved from a gunshot by the mysterious Max Evans discovers that he, his sister Isabel and their friend Michael are all aliens with no idea of where they come from or why they’re there. To save her friendships with her two best friends, Maria and Alex, she’s forced to tell them and the six of them evade Sheriff Valenti and the FBI, all the while looking for clues to the alien’s past. The series follows the familiar episodic main plot with serialized subplot formula that many shows in it’s genre follow. The typical episode’s three act structure is: Problem or clue is discovered; Character or characters make it worse or get into trouble; Other characters save said character(s) or a deus ex machina occurs that sets up the problem/clue for the next episode. It’s a formula that when done well allows both infrequent and frequent viewers to enjoy the show. Roswell never really struck this balance, leaning a little too much towards the serialized storytelling so that infrequent viewers couldn’t follow without the incredibly long recaps they have in front of every episode. However, since they were attempting to remain episodic frequent viewers get annoyed at the inconsistency of the episodes from week to week.

The protagonists of the show are the six core characters: Liz, Max, Isabel, Michael, Maria, Alex. They never really change to become antagonists with the exception of Michael, whose stupidity results in some antagonistic behavior. The cast remains fairly ensemble, with the focus shifting between Max and Liz to Michael and Maria or to Isabel and Alex. The primary out of that ensemble is Liz and Max, since their romance is the inciting event of the show and shapes a lot of the events. The actual individual characters are fairly bland relying on stereotypes to get character across, if any. Since the show is so romance driven, it is necessary for a viewer to understand the characters to “enjoy” the show. It’s hard to sit there and listen to them whine for 10 minutes about their feelings if you’re not invested in the characters. However, getting invested may prove tricky if you’re not into 6 whiny teenagers somehow making being extraterrestrials seem as dramatic as getting grounded. Since the show is fairly bipolar in it’s focus (romance or story) it’s hard to call Roswell anything but both plot and character driven. It seems that the two collide with each other. The story often times gets in the way of the romance (Michael not paying attention to Maria because he’s obsessed with the pursuit of truth) and the romance can put the plot to a dead stop (Michael and Maria having an intimate scene together in the hotel for no reason except to stall the plot and develop the romance). The romance of the show constantly interferes with the plot, often time taking what are fairly simple developments and turning them into high school drama-fests.

The show looks fairly standard for the late 90s/early 00s, with a few marks from other obvious inspirations (The X-files, Dawson’s Creek) included. It’s nighttime lighting is very X-files reminiscent and it’s background music seems to be pulled straight out of some X-files episode. Along with poor writing, it’s clear that the show has inexperienced directing as well. Beyond the occasionally awkward blocking, the directors have the tendency to chose close-up shots of the actors so that they are staring right at the camera. It’s typically used in the fantasy/romance situations and it’s in no way romantic. It’s just plain ugly to look at and is unflattering to the actors. It’s very clear that show is low budget, especially when it comes to effects. A lot of them are super cheap CGI and when they can’t afford even that the editing covers it up rather poorly, not letting you know exactly what’s going on. The dubbing, which should be unnoticable is actually quite bothersome when the characters are clearly speaking in two different microphones. The production design is fairly basic, preferring bland backgrounds and locations. The color pallet of the show is mostly dark colors and browns, as the backdrop of the show is the desert of New Mexico. The music is, no matter the styling, some whiny musician complaining about their life. Which is of course appropriate for a teenage drama show. All of this definitely fits the tone and style of the show, that being a low-budget teen supernatural romance. It’s an adequate balance between the very consistent and more unique look of Smallville and the extremely low-budget, bland and inconsistent Vampire High.

Here’s where I shall break from my more formal style and explain why Roswell sucks monumentally (yes this was part of the paper). I first encountered this show a few months ago and out of curiousity I decided to check it out. I forced myself through six episodes, desperately hoping that it would get better. It seemed so much like Smallville, but without any of the charm or interesting plot. Instead it would be like you pulled the Clark/Lana romance out and made it it’s own show and then sprinkled a little X-files on top for good measure. Considering how the Clark/Lana romance was my least favorite part of that show it’s no wonder I didn’t like Roswell. It was one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever gone through to finish this show. It was so long, with each episode feeling like an eternity to get through. Every time something interesting would come up, the show would crush it with the crippling weight of the eventual three romances. The constant stupidity of the characters made me scream at the screen a few times. It’s not that the characters are stupid, it’s that they’re inconsistently stupid. Michael may be the coolheaded one for an episode, but you can guarantee that he’ll be the biggest dumbass the next three. The writing was so inconsistent, from episode to episode entire subplots would just be dropped and characters could completely switch attitudes. Sheriff Valenti, for example, had a character arc yes, but the actual moment where he decides to help them despite them being aliens is never actually shown, just implied. And Roswell does not have the chops to imply anything.

Speaking of not having chops, Roswell tries (and fails) to tackle actual issues, with pathetic results. Michael is being domestically abused by his father and after spending an entire episode fighting with Isabel and Max, who make it all about them, he finally decides to emancipate himself, somehow completely circumventing the months long process and never actually having his father there to testify. All for what reason? Hell if I know, so that the FBI can spy on him so that Max can discover it etc… Another thing they try to tackle is the idea of sexual awakening, but instead of it being Max and Liz actually having a hard time handling their growing attraction, it’s that the spaceship was making them horny so they could discover the crash site. In fact Roswell pulls the sin of a lot of TV shows and darts around interesting concepts, but then decides to ignore them for the sake of the status quo. Towards the end of the season, Isabel thinks she’s pregnant with Michael’s baby since they had weird dream sex. Despite the incestous undertones and rather serious implications, this is only used to drive a wedge between Maria and Michael and is dropped when our Deus Ex Tess explains that they still have to have sex the normal way in order to get pregnant.

I could have picked any revelatory scene from the series to analyze because they all are the same. They ask questions about it and then someone will have a vision later on that explains everything. The vision’s are the writer’s crutch and they use it so much that you begin to wonder why they bother to go out and find things when they can just wait around for a vision.

The very romance of Max and Liz, which the show essentially focuses around, plays on the tired old tropes of the super-hero/vampire/alien not wanting to be with a girl to protect her or to protect himself. Of course we as an audience know they’ll get together eventually and the waiting game in Roswell is the most infuriating out of all the versions I’ve seen. They get so coupley, then Max tells them to slow down, then Liz freaks out and back off, then Max says he still wants to be friends, then they get closer, then some weird snogging thing happens and that brings them closer and apparently that means they’re dating even though they never actually said that on screen then they break up at the end because next season we need to do the same thing AGAIN. The odd love triangle between Max, Tess and Liz is introduced at a very awkward time, with Max fantasizing about this other girl in the episode directly following the one where Liz and Max (may have) had sex. At least the faults in the Maria/Michael relationship is because Michael is psychologically fucked up, and not just because he’s an alien. There relationship was forced at the beginning, but not as forced as the Isabel/Alex “thing.” Isabel started in the first few episodes as the super popular Queen B, but as she got more popular around Liz and Maria acted kinder to them. That in no way means that she was a kinder person. So the idea of her being friends or actually dating Alex is so goddamn nonsensical, it’s like the writers just forced it because they felt weird about not pairing everyone up or because it was in the books (which it was) and they had to make it work somehow.

Roswell portrays quite a few groups with harsh stereotypes and a comedic approach. For one, the UFOlogy group that come to Roswell and should be an important part of the show are treated like paranoid nerds with some weird fantasy. While there are individuals like that, the show chooses to portray all of them like that. As an individual who believes in the probability in extraterrestrial life having visited Earth, I was extremely offended by this caricature, but more shocked that they wouldn’t be kinder to a group that could significantly affect the plot of the show. Another group was Orthodontists, who were in town for a convention for an episode. This would be minor, but they were portrayed as all nerds and even fetishizing teeth. This was astounding in a show that wants you to take it’s Alien protagonists and teenage melodrama seriously. In general the portrayal of teens in media, especially in shows designed for a younger audience, bothers me and this show is no exception. Writers have to make the romances drag out and have tons of problems, incapable of imagining a good relationship. All the teens are irrational and inconsistent in their emotions and despite the fact that their interactions with adults are the most interesting, often times choose to focus on the melodrama of teenage “life.”

Roswell is a melodramatic poorly written waste of time. Even if it’s following seasons had a spike in quality, the first season is so impossibly hard to get through that it wouldn’t be worth your time. It’s a relic of the late 90s/early 2000s, when white kids were still rich and entitled and the center of the universe (in this case literally). What makes watching Roswell even worse is the poor notion that this show could have been good, if it had picked up its pace and concentrated more on the dramatic part of melodramatic. Roswell is available nowhere because I’m currently working on destroying all the copies.