EXISTENZ
Written and directed by David Cronenberg

Just as David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986) came off as an organic reaction to a terrible new wasting disease, his new movie crystalizes the confusions of an epoch that can't decide whether it's the Entertainment Era, the Information Age or the Digital Millennium. Named for a fictional "game system" also called eXistenZ, eXistenZ takes place in a future where the explosion of game technology has merged machinery and biology. EXistenZ plugs right into a player's own nervous and metabolic systems and connects in open-ended ways to his or her own experiences and impulses. Cronenberg follows the game's creator, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and her bodyguard, Ted Pikul (Jude Law), as eXistenZ drops them into an alternate reality where Allegra's enemies -- let's call them vulgar realists -- turn out to be everywhere, armed to the teeth.

At a time when much of our national debate comes down to whether the country can tell a war from a computer game, eXistenZ seizes on that dangerous muddle and (unlike The Matrix) makes something witty and coherent out of it. It's Cronenberg's most assured and enjoyable movie in more than a dozen years. Much of the film's fun comes from the way he creates a novel kind of sex comedy out of an uproariously messy sort of sci-fi invention. The eXistenZ game pod, made from synthetic DNA and amphibian eggs, looks like a flesh-covered kidney with multiple nipples. The players link to it through a gnarled, enormous, perversely phallic "UmbyCord." And the UmbyCord links to them through their individual "Bioport," which on the inside connects to the spine and outside quivers like a hungry orifice. When the players palpate their game pods or arouse their Bioports, what ensues is somewhere between the autoerotic and the automatic, and at times resembles what Monica would call "messing around."

The setup gives us Leigh's Allegra, goddess of game development, preparing to play her new masterpiece, eXistenZ, with a focus group gathered in a church hall in the sticks. In this creepy netherworld, a test match for a game system has elements of Judgment and Election Day, and maybe opening night. Yet the momentous aura suffuses the melodrama with sardonic humor rather than inflating and busting it up.

The supporting players look totally committed and involved, but they all seem to be missing key ingredients -- it's as if they need a Bioport to complete them. Cronenberg builds this perception into the ambiance and the narrative, rather than making it a "point" about our addiction to sensation; this way, he allows viewers to maintain a skeptical distance without taking the sting out of his laughs and jolts. His abettors in this seductive form of cinematic alienation are Peter Suschitzky and Carol Spier, contemporary masters of cinematography and production design, who manage to keep the settings suitably generic -- like, for instance, the "rural church hall" -- while imbuing them with the unsettling fairytale shades of a haunted house in a deep wood.

Without giving too much away, it's fair to report that a would-be assassin disrupts the initial match with the cry "Death to the demon Allegra!" That sends Allegra hurtling through the countryside with Ted, a part-time security man and full-time PR geek. More than just nurse her own wound, Allegra wants to save her true life's blood -- her game system. She fears it's been damaged, even infected during the attack; to check it out she needs to play with someone else she's sure is "friendly." So poor squeamish Ted gets fitted with a Bioport and jumps spine-first into a virtual world he never stepped foot in before. The eXistenZ game system sets him and Allegra down into a weird arcade and then into someplace called the Trout Factory, where the innards of watery mutants are used to manufacture game pods. As things turn out, the same forces that catalyzed the assassin in the church hall exist in this alternate reality. To Allegra's foes, eXistenZ is the antithesis of authentic existence, and Allegra the anti-Christ. What starts as a euphoric trip becomes Allegra and Ted's not-so-excellent adventure.

All of Leigh's quirks work for her as Allegra: for once, she really seems to be creating a character out of self-absorption and dreaminess and a fragile, hard-to-pin-down sexuality. And Law, who was over-the-top or (under-the-bottom) as Bosie in Wilde (1997), appears to enjoy playing a regular guy. Leigh is a bit claylike, Law a smidgen plasticine -- yet those qualities fit an artist who forms herself through work and a yuppie who aims to get ahead in a brave new world. They enable Cronenberg to twist the film this way and that without losing its integrity.

The central joke of the movie isn't hard to figure out; what's fun is how many gags Cronenberg can funnel into it, from alarming special-effects slapstick (like a squiggly mini-pod popping itself whole into a Bioport) to beautifully timed routines about the nature of eXistenZ, er, existence. In the virtual world, when Ted resists following the rules of the game, he throws the other characters into a "game loop" in which they repeat previous behavior -- it's a primal riff on philosopher Henri Bergson's theory of comedy as disrupted habit. But not all the curlicues are joyrides. At one point, the game impels Ted to commit murder. He resists, in vain, but Allegra eggs him on and urges him to savor the act. In a non-moralistic way, the film explores how the extreme excitement of gamesmanship -- aesthetic or kinetic -- bleeds through into life. Ted starts to feel as if he's "disconnected from my real life," as if he's "losing touch with the texture of it." But Allegra responds, "It means your nervous system is fully engaging with the game architecture. The game is a lot more fun to play when it starts to feel realer than real."

Blithe, bleak joker that he is, Cronenberg takes an adage that usually comes draped in positive platitudes -- "art changes you" -- and stands it on its head, letting all the loose change roll out. The results are some of the deftest pieces of caricature he has yet committed to film. Willem Dafoe is surprisingly robust and hilarious as a gas-station attendant known as "Gas" who feels that Allegra's game systems have transformed him, though after playing them he's still a grease monkey. (His favorite Allegra creation is "ArtGod: Very spiritual. God the artist, God the mechanic. They don't write them like that anymore.") And Ian Holm, after his overrated bout of emotional rigidity in The Sweet Hereafter (1997), regains his satiric twinkle as an enigmatic Eastern European game-pod surgeon who jokes that dealing with materials like amphibian eggs has turned him and his assistant into "glorified veterinarians."

There's no question that Cronenberg's heart is with the game-makers. The script refers to the plot to eliminate Allegra as a fatwa (`a la Salman Rushdie), and Cronenberg peppers the film with potshots at the commercial and competitive pressures put on popular artists, and at the obsessive perfectionism they inflict on themselves. (Allegra rates one of her characters as "not very well drawn" and sniffs "his dialogue was just so-so.") Yet he doesn't let himself, or Allegra, off the hook. Even in an amusement like eXistenZ, where game parts are sex toys, Cronenberg wants art to play with fire -- and artists to shoulder the risks. This time out, the result is a movie mind game with an erotic tingle.

Opens April 23.
-- Michael Sragow

BESHKEMPIR(THE ADOPTED SON)
Directed by Aktan Abdykalykov

The feature debut not only for its director but for an entire country, Aktan Abdykalykov's Beshkempir comes from the central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, formerly partcontinued on next pagecontinued from previous pageof the Soviet Union. It is perhaps fitting that the film is steeped in tradition while cautiously casting an eye toward changes in culture. Equally appropriate are its cinematic roots, the long tradition of films that unblinkingly look at the world through the perspective of a young person taking the first steps away from childhood. Told in beautiful black-and-white images, punctuated from time to time with flashes of color, it's at once strikingly original yet hauntingly familiar.

The film begins with a ritual performed by five old women in which they symbolically adopt an infant. Following a local tradition, the child of a large family is given to an infertile couple. He grows up with no idea of his true origin -- even though his name, Beshkempir, means "five old women." Played with a fine balance of innocence and experience by the director's son, Mirlan Abdykalykov, Beshkempir engages in activities that wouldn't be out of place in a coming-of-age story from any other region, give or take a few cultural differences: He and his friends have mud fights, steal eggs, scare bees from a hive and go to the movies (a brief excerpt from a brightly colored Indian musical is one of the film's subtle, surprising reminders of the world outside of Beshkempir's village). They also, of course, begin to show curiosity about sex, spying on a village woman as she applies leeches on her body and constructing a crude female form out of sand. It is in the course of a rivalry over the attention of a local girl that Beshkempir first learns that he is adopted, and for a brief period his life is turned upside down.

And then it returns to normal. One of the remarkable things about Beshkempir is Abdykalykov's skillful avoidance of the melodramatic. Beshkempir's discovery of his parentage isn't a dramatic end in itself; it's just another step in his journey, another flash of insight on the road to maturity. Equally remarkable is the director's visual strategy of recording Beshkempir's rural life with unflinching realism while somehow managing to make it look sensually fresh, as if no one had ever really noticed a particular pathway or the signs of a breeze passing through the branches of a tree before. The familiar is made to startle, and the unusual is allowed its own reality. Abdykalykov's film is a vivid reminder of the subtle complexities in even the simplest lives.

In Kyrgyzstani with English subtitles.
Plays at 8 p.m. April 23-25 at Webster University.
-- Robert Hunt

PUSHING TIN
Directed by Mike Newell

In Pushing Tin, the edgy new comedy from British director Mike Newell, the dominant image is a black screen pulsing with obscure fluorescent markings, like the characters on some early prototype of Pac-Man. In this case, though, nobody's playing any games. The markings represent very real jet airliners filled with very real passengers. And "pushing tin" is the term that air-traffic controllers use to describe their jobs at New York's Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON). Hundreds of times a shift, these adrenaline-junkies play chicken with death, packing their planes into the limited airspace above the world's busiest airports as tightly as sardines in a can.

As Newell presents them, the people who are attracted to this job are a very rare breed of cat. And none more so than Nick (John Cusack), who seems to get more of a charge than the others out of playing God. Perhaps because of the life-and-death aspect of the job, the controllers at TRACON are a tightly knit bunch. They ride to work together, eat breakfast together and, on weekends, party together. Unofficially, Nick is their leader. On the job, he rattles off instructions to his pilots so fast it sounds like machine-gun fire. When the others have more flights than they can handle, Nick is always the first to come to the rescue, even if he has to stack the planes so high they're practically riding piggyback on each other.

Things are set up pretty much to Nick's liking, and that goes for the home front, too, where there's smooth sailing with his wife, Connie (Cate Blanchett), and two kids. Then, all of a sudden, the comfy status quo of Nick's life is thrown out of balance with the arrival of a new controller, Russell (Billy Bob Thornton), who dresses in black and rides a motorcycle. Russell swaggers into the control room at TRACON with the sexy roll of a cowboy coming into town after a long cattle drive. And his legend has preceded him. According to gossip, Russell likes to play it close to the edge. Word is that he once stood at the end of the runway while a 747 was landing in order to better understand turbulence.

This rocks Nick's world right down to the core. And if Russell's presence alone weren't enough to do it, Russell also happens to be married to a bombshell named Mary (Angelina Jolie), who wears leopard skin and leather and looks through other men as if they were tap water. Much as the arrival of Russell and Mary upsets Nick, it also gives the movie a much-needed kick in the pants. Written by Glen Charles and Les Charles (the creative team responsible for Cheers and Taxi), Pushing Tin derives from a 1996 Sunday New York Times Magazine article by Darcy Frey, and, understandably, its initial appeal -- and most of its humor -- is journalistic. Their presentation of middle-class life on Long Island is not only hilarious, it also rings true.

The same goes for the performances. As Nick, Cusack is the movie's manic engine. From the moment Russell arrives, Nick begins to lose control. Being the best is what Nick expects; he doesn't know how to be in second place -- not even in something as trivial as shooting free throws. And like a man in quicksand, the faster he moves, the deeper he sinks. Russell, on the other hand, is a study in contrasts. Where Nick speeds up, Russell slows down. Where Nick becomes panicky and talks a mile a minute, Russell becomes cryptic and terse. Thornton's minimalism makes Russell appear sexier and more centered. Funnier, too.

For Blanchett, playing a ditzy Long Island housewife after starring as the Virgin Queen may seem like the most radical change of pace imaginable. Regardless, she has brought it off magnificently. Not only does she get all the external business down perfectly -- that is, the wig, the accent, the clothes -- she also manages to give Connie an inner life that is both touchingly human and comic. Though it's certain she won't receive the acclaim for this performance that she earned for her part in Elizabeth, from my view her work in bringing this plain, good-natured woman to life is the better of the two.

Ultimately, though, it is Jolie who ends up stealing the show. As Mary, she lets her eyelids droop and her lower lip swell as if she were just so full of sex that she's almost drunk. It's not just that she's sexy; that goes without saying. But she's so florid and tumescent that she's also a riotous parody of sexiness at the same time. Watching her size up Nick as he attempts to seduce her is like watching a panther toy with a mouse. In short, she's amazing.

With performances as lively and engaging as these, it's hard to simply dismiss Pushing Tin. I admit that I was never actually bored. At the same time, though, the movie never really manages to come together in any meaningful way. Thematically, the movie revolves around the idea of control. Russell is the only controller whose life has real meaning because he has given up any expectation of control. In fact, he stood at the end of the runway not to understand turbulence but to understand surrender. And when Nick comes to Russell for answers at the end of the film, that's where he takes him. Although this may make sense on a poetic level, it comes across as too pat, too Zen an explanation to be satisfying emotionally. Also there's a built-in problem with any movie that must generate the suspense of an impending midair collision using only a few scant markings on a screen. Newell shows an experienced hand with actors, and with actors of this caliber it might seem petty to complain. They give off a light of their own, but in this case, unfortunately, their light reveals how little else there is to applaud.

Opens April 23.
-- Hal Hinson

DANCEHALL QUEEN
Directed by Don Letts and Rick Elgood

Twenty-five years have passed since The Harder They Come helped introduce reggae music and culture to the rest of the world, but the island of Jamaica remains barely explored by filmmakers, seen only in the occasional music video or as an exotic vacation paradise in commercials for cruise lines. Though deeply flawed, Dancehall Queen is one of the few films since Jimmy Cliff's street-smart B-movie to show the Jamaica hidden by the travel brochures. Exoticism and gritty realism go hand-in-hand, though unfortunately tied to a story that plays like an amateur version of Rocky with bump-and-grind dancing taking the place of boxing.

Cluttered by too many subplots and further hampered for American viewers by the frequently impenetrable Jamaican dialect (the producers should have followed the example of The Harder They Come and provided subtitles), Dancehall Queen is nearly redeemed by the fresh performance of Audrey Reid as Marcia, a single mother who decides to escape from poverty by donning hot pants and metallic wig and entering a dance contest.

Shot on digital video, Dancehall Queen has a raw look that is well suited to its rough locale, but the film is overcome by a script that is clumsy and sentimental in equal parts. It's never clear why the maternal Reid decides to enter the sexually charged dance competition (or even if there are more than two contestants), and the crime-oriented subplots only make it more confusing. Directors Don Letts and Rick Elgood (the former a member of the band Big Audio Dynamite) are surprisingly good with actors, but they're also seduced by the color and exoticism of the island. They're more interested in watching the writhing dancers than in exploring social content. The music and the energy are fine, but it's hard for a film to make much of a point when the camera frequently seems to have become stuck at crotch level.

Dancehall Queen is the first of a series of independent films sponsored by the always ambitious folks at Nebula Communications. Even if you don't like Dancehall Queen, they deserve your support, so watch for news about future programs.

Opens April 23 at Union Station.
-- Robert Hunt

HUMAN RIGHTS FILM FESTIVAL: PROGRAM 4

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival hopes, according to its announced intent, to "advance public education on human-rights issues and concerns using the unique medium of film." In choosing from more than 600 films and videos, the selection committee "concentrates equally on artistic merit and human-rights content," balancing countries and concerns. Three superb programs have appeared as part of this year's series, each consisting primarily of documentaries so extraordinarily well made and factually rich they linger emotionally and intellectually long after the screening ends. Sad to say, then, the fourth program's two fictional feature films don't meet the previous high standards. Important subject matter certainly need not be relegated to analytical nonfiction works. But these two narratives strain for impact, overstating and even undermining their cases.

The first of the two features, Carlos Siguion-Reyna's They Call Me Joy, was made and immediately banned in the Philippines, later becoming a huge hit in 1997 when authorities allowed its release. Well intentioned though it is, They Call Me Joy exploits the very sexual victimization it condemns while, ironically, targeting the hypocrisy of government and church officials. Stagy, preachy, forced and trite, it offers no new insights.

Here's lovely young Ligaya, a 17-year-old virgin sold by her aunt to a whorehouse for 5,000 pesos. The girls, and they are teenage girls, comfort Ligaya and each other when the madam beats them or johns abuse them. Routinely raped and ridiculed, they survive through their fighting, often flagging spirits and their pipe dreams. Hope arrives in the figure of Polding, a handsome young peasant who works hard and falls in love with Ligaya, a given name meaning Joy to replace her real name -- Dolor, sorrow (it's that heavy-handed.) Polding wants to marry Ligaya, his righteous stepmother objects, his bawdy stepfather rapes her, the priest and the mayor figure in, and so on -- all very melodramatic, not very convincingly acted, and sloppily photographed.

The second half of the program also lacks appeal. In the Czech film Marian, a gypsy mother abandons the title character (a man, not a woman) at age 3, leaving his socialization to one institution after another. Unfortunately, writer/ director/producer Petr Vaclav uses a style so elliptical that the story lurches forward; it's difficult to follow and, at times, to see, so dark are several scenes. Photographed with numerous lingering closeups, the incarcerated individuals become brooding ciphers when specificity and clarity would increase our interest, if not our empathy.

Marian's self-loathing culminates in one harrowing moment of self-laceration, especially powerful because most of the film's previous violence takes place offscreen or is partially obscured onscreen. We get the point -- a heartless system creates an emotionless criminal. But Vaclav's low-key style invites a numbing detachment from the two-dimensional characters. Several effective, symmetrical shots -- of stairways, buildings and hallways -- do convey a terrifying solidity and resistance to change. With a slightly more dynamic style or a more coherent exploration, Marian could have avoided its own despondency to provide fresh insights.

They Call Me Joy plays at 7 p.m. and Marian at 9 p.m. April 27 at Webster University.

-- Diane Carson

GOODBYE LOVER
Directed by Roland Joffe

Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields) directed this comic noir, which stars Patricia Arquette as Sandra, a femme fatale for whom seduction, murder and double-crossing are as natural as her severe blond China-doll hairstyle is artificial. It's a routine black-comedy/mystery, tricked out by an ambitious director, a classy cast and a first-rate cinematographer (Dante Spinotti).

The gag behind the characterization of Sandra is that she goes through the motions of being a good girl. She plays the charming wife and the churchgoer in public while cheating on her drunkard husband (Dermot Mulroney) with his brother and co-worker (Don Johnson). This is the filmmaker's notion of a rich, stinging irony. But Arquette's acting -- and, more important, her presence -- transcends the plot clumsiness and the yawny satirical ideas. With her half-awake eyes, her face somehow angular and infantile at the same time, and her placidly sexy voice, Sandra is compelling even if the plot that's been built around her is purely Cinemax-at-3-in-the-morning stuff. There's something essentially sweet, almost maternal, to Arquette in every role she plays, and this quality makes her especially amusing as deadly female. A fatale should always be attractive, of course, but Sandra is more -- she's likable.

Johnson, who looks terrific, brings frazzled comic energy to his anxious adulterer. As the cop looking into the murder toward which the plot leads, Ellen DeGeneres, though she's saddled with some dreary dialogue, also contributes to the film's tolerability -- there may be more range and flexibility in her discursive vocal patterns than was ever evident in her standup and TV acting.

On the margins of the plot are characters like the privately lascivious, publicly pious conservative senator (Barry Newman) and the smiling, silky pastor of Arquette's church (Andre Gregory). Compared to the real Bill Clinton or Bob Packwood or Robert Schuller, these are feeble stock figures indeed, yet Goodbye Lover carries on as if it were something more than a fluffy good time -- as if it were a withering indictment of corruption in contemporary America. To shoot fish in a barrel and then call yourself a marksman is pompous enough, but that pales beside missing those fish and calling yourself a marksman anyway just because you recognized them as fish. Goodbye Lover isn't a bad movie to sit through, but its sense of smug delight in its own cheap cynicism leaves a galling aftertaste.

Now playing.
-- M.V. Moorhead

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