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 Faculty (1998) Review

The supernatural teen drama can come in many forms, such as the cheesy super hero styled Smallville, the melodramatic shit-fest Twilight or the slow-ass “thriller” Disturbing Behavior. The supernatural teen “insert genre here” really started to take off in the late 80s-early 90s. The Faculty is yet another one of these and I swear I didn’t plan these two to be together, but it seems to be a much better version of Disturbing Behavior. It’s by no means perfect, but there is an endearing charm to it that I can’t help but feel attracted to.

The Faculty is the story of a high school whose teachers begin to act strangely and soon Elijah Wood and his friends discover that this is due to an alien invasion. So the chase is on to somehow stop the invasion, but that’s pretty tricky when all your classmates, teachers and parents are against you. Oh and there’s some teenage drama character stuff but nobody gives a shit about that.

The story of The Faculty is definitely the product of its time, relying heavily on tropes and themes we’ve seen before. It even throws in some meta-sci-fi referencing cause, you know, Scream was a thing. The story requires some intense suspension of disbelief and even then there are still plenty of plot-holes and stupid decisions that will have you groaning. Nonetheless there are still a few genuinely good moments of suspense, but I think we can mainly attribute that to director Robert Rodriguez. The plot does seem to be weirdly paced, picking up a lot at the beginning and then slowing down a lot after that. However, unlike Disturbing Behavior, the story does keep moving forward during these parts. The flashforward at the end is probably the most objectionable part of the story (and that’s saying a lot) with characters ending up in downright impossible situations. Speaking of which…

The characters are all stereotypes… to an extent. Like in a Hughes project, the characters all start out as their respective clichés, but then as we get to know them, we find they aren’t that cut and dry and we inevitably find ourselves actually slightly invested in them. They certainly aren’t memorable, but for the duration of the movie you won’t hate them (which is a plus compared to the horror/thriller movies of today). The acting ranges from good to bad, with mediocrity being the standard. The adults mostly ham it up, and the kids either do a good job or overact. Elijah wood and Josh Hartnett and Jon Stewart (fucking what!) are highlights in my opinion.

The technicals are all pretty solid. The actually directing/lighting/sound/etc… are all fine. It’s the effects that are going to bother people. Now there is a mix of CGI and practicals, which is nice, but the CGI looks really dated. In my opinion, practicals couldn’t have done much better, so either way you’re stuck with a distraction. This is a nitpick, but the introduction of the characters have each of them with their names on screen. This is stupid since their names are said quite quickly after or repeated a lot over the course of the movie.

The Faculty is, above all else, fun. Its mediocrity is evident, but it nonetheless manages to partially captivate and completely entertain. If you’re a fan of Buffy, Smallville, or Roswell then this will be familiar and comfortable territory for you. It’s sure as shit superior to Disturbing Behavior on every level, but then again that’s not saying much. The Faculty is available from Amazon, iTunes and Netflix instant for your popcorn munching pleasure.

Disturbing Behavior (1998) Review

Disturbing Behavior is an inept thriller, completely lacking in thrills, a solid story and any sense of pacing. But before I get too ahead of myself I should probably say that Disturbing Behavior is the 1998 sci-fi thriller starring James Marsden, Katie Holmes and Nick Stahl and is brought to us by a good chunk of the X-Files crew, including director David Nutter.

Behavior brings us the story of Steve whose family has recently moved to island town Cradle Bay. New to the school, Steve finds himself thrown together with Gavin, UV, and Rachel, three rejects who show him around and warn him about the Blue Ribbons, a group of A+ students who suck up to adults and look down on everyone else. Gavin tries to convince the others that these Blue Ribbons are brainwashed former students who now occasionally go batshit crazy whenever they get turned on. After Gavin gets turned into one of them, Steve and Rachel start to investigate the mysterious project of Dr. Caldicott.

Behavior really does feel like an X-files episode. And not a good one. The script itself seems like a rejected episode and the actual content of it probably would fare better in the 45 minute time slot. It has the same formula of an opening scare and an ending cliffhanger, but without any of the charm of our favorite FBI agents and with the same flimsy supporting characters taking up more screen time.

As stated before, the script is incredibly flimsy with the story really only taking up about half of it and the rest easily being superfluous. Sure you could call it character development, but then I’d have to laugh in your face. The pacing is ungodly slow, with the actual investigation of the mystery not starting until an hour into the movie. The first hour is just the characters stewing in this predicament and it slowly getting worse, but they still refuse to do anything until the movie pulls a Scream 3 and they find a videotape of Gavin reiterating what he already told them, but this time it gets them off their asses. There are entire scenes and sequences that could be removed and no one would care. For example the scene with the girl going insane because she really what to fuck Marsden doesn’t fucking matter. The whole subplot of the janitor doesn’t need to be there, he just needs to be a genius, that’s all. The subplot of the horny Blue Ribbon hitting on Rachel serves its purpose in that it adds “scares” but if the plot was actually more substantial, it wouldn’t need to do that. The actual investigation/climax moves at such a quick pace you almost get whiplash and it becomes incredibly obvious that the writer did not think it through. There are tons of plot holes and the “resolution” of the story is so poorly explained, that we know there are still Blue Ribbons out there before the movie itself pulls that dumbass twist. Now this could have worked in an episode of X-Files, because you don’t notice such things as easily during a TV show, but its so painfully obvious here because any suspension of disbelief got thrown out two jock fights ago.

The acting ranges from hammy/campy to mediocre/flat. James Marsden occasionally presents a real emotion, but for the most part he just walks around looking at things. Not that I really blame any of the actors, since the character flaws are very script related, and to be honest their goofy performances did make it more entertaining.

The movie is solid on a technical level, extremely indicative of it’s crews origins. Alas if only they had the story to back it up. I would have loved for The X-Files to kick off an era of really good sci-fi/fantasy thrillers, but alas Dangerous Behavior is just another example of how that rarely works out. If you’re looking for a fun riff, I might recommend this movie, but for anybody else steer clear and just watch X-Files on Netflix. Dangerous Behavior is only available on DVD, not that you should go looking for it.

Christina’s House (1999) Review

Christina Tarling (Allison Lange) is a teenage girl who lives with her unstable father James (John Savage) and her younger brother Bobby (Lorne Stewart) in the family’s new home. While Christina is trying to sort out her feelings for both Eddie (Brendan Fehr), her boyfriend, and Howie (Brad Rowe), a handyman she’s become infatuated with, she soon discovers she has bigger fish to fry: there is a stranger in the house who begins leaving messages and gifts for Christina — and who isn’t averse to the idea of killing people in order to make an impression.-rottentomatoes.com

Christina’s House is a VHS I found at a second hand store for 40 cents. The back stated that its plot twists were shocking. Having been burned by Shyamalan and enraged by other shitty teen movies, I figured that this was ripe for the riffing. And ooooohhhh my it was. Christina’s House was delectably bad, with nonsensical story-telling, terrible acting, and… just plain weirdness. It’s not terrible like Dick Tracy where it enrages you because it’s terrible nature comes from how unfunny it is, but rather this film is fun for all from beginning to end because it’s bad moments hit all the right notes.

The movie centers around Christina (big shocker) who’s a whiny teenager with a dumbass younger brother, an horny asshole boyfriend, a creepy father, a ditzy best friend and a shy handyman. Weird things happen in Christina’s house, such as loud noises, random visits from her boyfriend and the inability of anybody to approach her without grabbing her from behind. The movie’s plot isn’t exactly the strongest, with those so called plot twists being just random events that Christina puzzles over while her boyfriend and dad fight over her. The appearance of a dead body means that shit gets real… sort of. The killer is revealed an hour later, but it’s really not a surprise and… well we stopped caring by that point. The movie really does just meander along, hiding so much from us that it doesn’t end up showing us anything and instead just lets us chill with the red herrings. If anything does happen, it’s because the characters acted even more stupid then they already are or the movie just said “fuck it” and screwed both continuity and logic. The killer’s reveal at the end makes no goddamn sense, with none of the kills or strangeness being explained by it.

The killer (who I won’t spoil out of courtesy) is brilliantly acted, not because it’s good, but because it’s sooooo weird. It makes no sense, but the killer’s ramblings and inconsistent behavior are a ball to watch. The rest of the acting is, of course, shit, but also shitty to a degree that made me wonder why they didn’t do another take. It makes me cringe to think those were the best. That being said, all of the performances stand out for being, again, so weird. The dad in particular is so borderline incestual, so much so that your brain is yelling “Bad Touch!!” whenever he starts to pet her. The boyfriend is a complete asshole and throughout the whole movie is fighting Christina on having sex. It makes you wonder why there a couple in the first place if they disagree on such a key issue and have nothing else in common. Sure the actors aren’t good, but the director clearly didn’t know what he was doing, as even the experienced actors can’t get their shit together.

The movie takes itself way too seriously, trying to pass little noises as huge events and characters freaking out over little things and doing random shit as if it was… well logical. To be at least partially fair to the writing, there are some points where there are clear cuts to the movie, and if those scenes had been left in, maybe some of the nonsense could have been… slightly less nonsensical. Character interactions might have been a little clearer and plot holes might have been solved. That’s not to say you won’t be able to follow along, rather it just means you’ll have a couple things to raise an eyebrow at. Christina’s House suffers from the post-Scream syndrome, where horror movies stopped being horror and became thrillers, and this is a detriment to it. If it had more gore and a better designed slasher finale, then this movie could have become a cult favorite. Instead it relies on plot twists that make no sense and a mystery it gives no clues for and doesn’t give a shit about until the finale.

Christina’s House is nowhere close to a good movie; in fact some could call it a bad one. It comes down to the clearly amateur filmmaking, as I got the same vibe from this as I did Devour. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it. If you’re tired of watching Final Destination 5 for all your horror movie giggles, then give this a viewing. It’s a film you should definitely watch with a few companions, because you will make jokes. Its just gonna happen. If you can find this movie then buy it, because it’s b-movie badness at its best.

The Tall Man (2012) review

When her child goes missing, a mother looks to unravel the legend of the Tall Man, an entity who allegedly abducts children. -imdb.com

Any fan of the Slender Man web series will have heard of The Tall Man as being a Hollywood attempt to capitalize on this phenomenon. The people who think that haven’t seen the movie. No, the promise the movie makes in its hype, its poster, and its first 20 minutes are soon dashed by convoluted storytelling and a piss poor reveal.

The movie is well made, and on a technical level it does everything to par, but doesn’t shine too bright. It feels like X-files meets Supernatural meets Mothman Prophecies, and that’s a comfortable feeling for me. After all, this should be a more script driven movie, not an acting, directing, special effects or production design driven movie. And that’s too bad in this case since the script fails to deliver. It’s not scary, it’s not thrilling, and it’s very convoluted.

The movie tries to juggle too many character relationships in the beginning, leaving you lost as to what’s going on. By the time you catch up new characters are introduced and the process starts all over again. Jessica Biel does a fine job as the lead nurse Julia, but she becomes victim to a script that takes her character in confusing directions. She’s not the only victim, with many of the characters acting very stupid or very strange. The side characters are competently acted with many of the actors being TV faces, but there’s not enough to keep you interested when the movie goes off the rails. Speaking of going off the rails, about halfway through the movie takes a twist, leaving you not surprised, but confused. You’re forced to think through what you just figured out and reevaluate it. In the process we are left with no protagonist and nobody to particularly care about. Even the young mute girl Jenny has confusing motivations and actions and we just aren’t sure what to think of her. The action on screen is vaguely intriguing, not because the plots good or the characters are interesting, but because of the mystery of The Tall Man. The movie does a good job of setting up the mystery and leaving it vague as to its true nature. We want to know who The Tall Man is and for 40 minutes after the main twist we just sit and wait for an answer. This is where the film falls apart. If what’s going on doesn’t directly help solve the mystery, then we just plain don’t care. Filler isn’t a perfect word to describe these scenes since they do help explain some character motivations (better late then never), but they don’t service the plot as much as the movie would have you think.

The ending is where all this build up, all these twists and turns should pay off… and of course it doesn’t. An amazing ending could have saved this movie, but instead of the supernatural mystery we’re promised, we end up with the blandest, most disappointing reveal I’ve seen since The Box. It’s not worth waiting an hour and forty minutes to see, but just in case there is some poor soul who wants to, I won’t spoil it. It does leave a bitter taste in my mouth and when you look back at the film you can come up with a dozen better twists and endings.

The Tall Man is not something I recommend to anybody. It’s not a film you should follow something else up with, but rather it’s a movie you follow up with other, better things. For those who liked the paranormal beginning I point you towards Marble Hornets, Mothman Prophecies, and The X-Files. For those who liked the more “Town is Evil, twists and turns” aspects of the movie I recommend the short lived series Happy Town, the anime Higurashi: When They Cry or once again The X-Files. All these are far more worth your time then The Tall Man, but then again so is watching funny videos of cats so that’s not saying much.