J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Tentacle 8: Microbudget Conspiracy Myth-Making

There is something uniquely tragic about conspiracy theory-mongers, who cannot understand why the world refuses to acknowledge the shadowy connections they see in the raft of coincidences they desperately cling to. Fictionalized treatments of their murky theories have the advantage of only requiring compelling narratives rather than bourgeoisie “proof.” Unfortunately, there is still not a lot of substance for us to process in John Chi’s microbudget paranoia trip, Tentacle 8 (trailer here), which opens this Thursday in New York.

Raymond Berry is a super-secret cryptographer and computer programmer, working undercover at a used bookstore, where he slips top secret correspondence to Tabitha Lloyd, a CIA field op, with whom he is secretly romantically linked. During the initial half hour of non-sequiturs, we also watch as tech start-up guru Rolland Towne is forced out of his company and the suits at the NSA go into full CYA mood when a data breach is discovered.

Soon, Berry is renditioned off to someplace more hush-hush than Guantanamo for some enhanced interrogation, until he is sprung by a mutual friend of the shadowy Mitchell, a long-vanished station chief who may or may not be involved with Tentacle 8, a fifth column organization buried within the intelligence establishment. Or something like that—who’s to say for sure?

To be fair, Chi will eventually lash these strands together in some fashion, but he takes several awkward narrative leaps to get there. Of course, the needlessly confusing flashback structure does not do any favors for narrative clarity either. To make matters even worse, he exploits the September 11th terrorist atrocities in the rather baffling conclusion. Everyone has a right to hold their own conspiracy theories as articles of faith, but they should have the decency to respect other people’s tragedies.

Despite the narrative confusion (both deliberate and unintentional), T8’s ensemble is surprisingly professional. As a result, they often seem quite credible, while making ridiculous statements. In fact, as Berry and Lloyd, Brett Rickaby and Amy Motta (who both have an extensive list of television credits) are shockingly compelling in a number of key scenes together.

Running a tad past the two hour mark, T8 feels excessively long, yet it seems to be missing scores of establishing scenes. There is no question where the responsibility lays. Frankly, if Chi is worried about intrusive government surveillance and data mining (which are legitimate concerns), he should forgo further filmmaking and volunteer for Rand Paul (who really is the only candidate who will curtail such practices). Well-acted, but poorly constructed and ploddingly paced, Tentacle 8 is safely skippable when it opens this Thursday (6/18) at Anthology Film Archives. Why is it opening now when it is already available on DVD? It is all part of the master plan, which includes a VOD launch on the 25th and availability on IndieFlix sometime in July.

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