The Social Dilemma

Social media dominates our lives more and more. The Social Dilemma is a persuasive documentary that looks at some of the ways sites such as Facebook may be manipulating us, even beyond what’s obvious. The doc features a panel of speakers, mostly tech industry insiders or ex-insiders.

The main point of The Social Dilemma isn’t really that controversial. The algorithms of sites such as Facebook are designed to target, influence, and reinforce certain patterns in users. While the most obvious example of this is retargeted advertising, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Retargeting, if you’re not familiar with the term, is when you click on a link, say for a product on Amazon, and then you suddenly start seeing ads for that product everywhere you go.

The retargeting principle also applies to things like YouTube videos as well as the types of posts you interact with on Facebook. In areas such as politics, this contributes to the so-called echo chamber effect. People get increasingly categorized and segregated into subcultures and see fewer and fewer alternative or opposing viewpoints. As the film points out, it’s actually profitable for these sites to do this, as people are creatures of habit. If you’re addicted to conspiracy videos, for example, it makes sense to encourage you to watch more of these. You’re also more likely to click on ads and just spend more time on the sites, which is part of the plan.

The Social Dilemma dramatizes the algorithm process by Anthropomorphising AI into actual people who scheme to manipulate an unstable teen into staying online, which leads to tragic results. The movie avoids getting overtly political, so there’s no tangible movement or group he joins. But the implication seems to be that social media sites may encourage people to join extremist groups and possibly turn into terrorists, school shooters, and such.

The main points made by The Social Dilemma are hard to dispute. At the same time, I’d advise watching this doc with a healthy degree of skepticism. For one thing, what we have here are powerful, influential people warning us about other powerful, influential people. In some cases, the two groups overlap quite a bit. The film’s narrow focus is on social media but some of the underlying issues apply equally to the mass media in general -which certainly includes Netflix.

If we’re talking about manipulation, the film itself uses a fair amount of it to make its points. The creators and the people they interview are clearly part of an elite intellectual class whose views are constantly heard in books, TED Talks, conferences, and docs like this one. Jaron Lanier, declared the “Founding Father of Virtual Reality” has become one of the official spokespeople for exposing the dangers of the digital age. Tristan Harris worked at Google, Jeff Seibert, at Twitter. Shoshana Zuboff is the author of the popular book, Surveillance Capitalism.

So what are the solutions they are proposing? While the movie isn’t putting forth an actual plan, the implication seems to be that we need more regulation and oversight. There’s also the option of unplugging, of course. Towards the end, it’s mentioned that several top executives of social media companies don’t let their own kids use these sites.

Slate published an interesting critique of The Social Dilemma by Pranav Malhotra, where he points out that the film overlooks many key issues such as privacy and how social media depends upon and contributes to economic inequality. He also points out that many scholars and other experts not directly affiliated with the tech industry don’t get a voice. There is a sense here that we’re supposed to trust these tech industry reformers to clean up the damage they’ve done.

With a documentary on social issues, you always need to consider the source as well as what’s being said between the lines. This is most certainly not something put together by an indie filmmaker. It’s a slick production, complete with a website that tells you how to organize, promote it, and take further action. Okay, nowadays, even a kid who made a $1500 doc would most likely have a website and links to more content. But, in this case, it’s Netflix, and the creators are well-connected with the corporate media. So it’s worth questioning their motives.

The Social Dilemma can be seen as a severe critique of the social media age but equally as a pre-emptive action to ensure that entrenched forces remain in control of the narrative.

I’m Thinking of ending things

Netflix is really pushing I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the enigmatic film directed by Charlie Kaufman, based on a book by Iain Reid. This movie isn’t typical for Netflix, which tends more towards the mainstream while Charlie Kaufman is known for experimental indie efforts such as Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, and the extremely challenging Synecdoche, New York. I’m Thinking of Ending Things approaches Synecdoche in terms of obscurity and the mind games it plays on the audience. Unlike that bizarre film, however, you don’t realize what you’re in for until the last half hour or so.

Your reaction to this film will tend to fall into one of two categories. Either you’ll think it’s a brilliant, original, and mind-bending work of art or you’ll dismiss it as a gimmicky movie that tries too hard to be clever. My reaction was somewhere in the middle. It is clever and mind-bending but it also relies on a fairly frustrating and not all that original gimmick.

I’ll avoid spoilers as much as possible. The interesting thing about I’m Thinking of Ending Things is that, unlike most obscure and intellectually challenging films or TV shows (for example, Twin Peaks or anything by David Lynch), Charlie Kaufman has actually explained what this film means, or at least the gist of it. You can read his comments in an interview with Indie Wire. I suggest watching it first. This is sort of refreshing. I mean, there’s a long tradition, which Lynch exemplifies, of telling viewers to make what they will of the film. Kaufman is rare in actually solving the mystery.

I‘m Thinking of Ending Things is ostensibly about a couple, Lucy, though her actual name is a matter of contention, which is a clue about what kind of film this is (Jessie Buckley) and Jake (Jesse Plemons) who are driving through a snowstorm to visit Jake’s parents, who live in a remote farmhouse. In the beginning, Lucy narrates, expressing her intention to end things with Jake for fairly vague reasons (i.e. the relationship isn’t “going anywhere”).

From the start, we notice that everyone is, well, strange. Jake has an ominously quiet personality (exacerbated if you’ve seen other parts Plemons has played on shows like Fargo and Breaking Bad) while Lucy seems to be fragmented and unsure of who she is. If you pay attention, you’ll notice odd discrepancies. For example, when they arrive at the farmhouse, she says it reminds her of where she grew up. Yet, less than five minutes later, she claims she grew up in an apartment.

Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) take the weirdness to a new level with their awkward giggling fits. More striking is that their ages morph from one scene to the next. At this point, we realize that things aren’t merely odd but downright surreal. From there, it only gets stranger.

In the background is a school janitor (Guy Boyd) who appears to be observing and/or thinking about these characters, though his connection to them remains obscure.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a film you really need to study rather than just watch. The best approach would be to see the film then read some reviews, especially ones that contain Kaufman’s revelations. Then see it again. To be honest, I’ve only seen it once and I don’t think I’ll watch it again. I mostly enjoyed it but I just wasn’t that impressed with the contrivance. At around 2 hours and 15 minutes, it’s a long stretch.

I have a certain ambivalence about films or novels where the creator is playing with your mind and manipulating your expectations. I’m probably giving a bit away here, but I’ll say that if you think Fight Club was one of the most brilliant novels/films ever, you might love this. On the other hand, there’s also the problem, particular to modern media-crazy society, of getting jaded with devices that may seem clever at first but then appear derivative.

The idea of art being derivative is more of an issue the more alternative or arty you get. With a conventional thriller, rom-com, or a heist movie, for example, you accept that you’re dealing with a genre and have certain expectations. With more experimental works, however, the stakes are higher and the recollection that you’ve seen it all before is a harsher criticism. That may be because an experimental approach sacrifices certain qualities such as accessibility and comfort.

We tolerate the contrivances of a genre film as long as it offers at least something original. Yet when your expectations are shattered, you want it done in a way that’s not just clever but unique. For me, the film wasn’t quite brilliant enough to justify all the mystery. At the risk of sounding prosaic, I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed that it didn’t turn out to be something more conventional, such as that Jake and his parents were Satanists who fed guests to the farm animals. But that’s not really what Charlie Kaufman does.

I try not to be the kind of reviewer who says that you “should” or “shouldn’t” see a film. In regard to I’m Thinking of Ending Things, if you’re even remotely interested in offbeat and intellectually challenging films, you should definitely watch it and make up your own mind. On the other hand, if you prefer straightforward plots where the characters’ very identity or existence aren’t in doubt, you may want to skip this one.

1BR on Netflix

1BR, streaming on Netflix, is a gripping, suspenseful, and thought-provoking movie that caught me by surprise. I assumed this would be similar to countless streaming and made-for-cable suspense thrillers where someone moves into new sinister digs and hellish events unfold. While this does describe 1BDR, it’s quite a bit more compelling and riveting that anything I’ve seen in a while. It definitely qualifies as a horror film, but it’s also a lot more than this. 1BDR might be described as Rosemary’s Baby meets 1984.

Some spoilers follow, though the basic premise of 1BR is revealed quite early so there’s no real mystery about who the baddies are.

First of all, this isn’t a film for squeamish viewers. Among other things, there are scenes of extreme torture that are fairly shocking even by today’s standards. All the more because it goes beyond what you’d expect from the situation.

Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom) is a young woman living on her own for the first time, against the advice of her seemingly overprotective father. She has a thankless job in a cubicle while trying to start a career as a costume designer in LA. She lucks into (or so it seems at first) an ideal apartment with unusually friendly neighbors.

It quickly becomes apparent that Sarah has gotten herself into more than just a new apartment. The residents of the building are members take their community-minded philosophy to an extreme, to say the least. And when they want you to join them, they don’t take “no” for an answer.

I already mentioned Rosemary’s Baby, and both films effectively portray a sinister cult imposing its will on a reluctant victim. In this case, however, the neighbors aren’t Satan-worshipers but adherents to a Scientology-type group.

The 1984 element is also strong here, with video cameras everywhere. More to the point, the controllers use a similar type of conditioning as the Party, compelling newcomers to conform through a brutal system of operant conditioning (i.e. rewarding conformity, punishing disobedience).

With a film like 1BR, it helps if you don’t ask too many questions about how viable the scenario actually is. That is, could such a cult operate in the middle of a major city and never have anyone escape to warn the outside world. It’s portrayed as fairly believable here.

I mentioned that 1BR goes beyond the scope of most horror movies. Like 1984, it pits the spirit of individuality against a ruthless oppressor and poses the question of whether it’s possible to maintain a sense of dignity and freedom against all odds.

Without giving away details about the ending, it suggests something wider about society, that the cult that oversee Sarah’s complex might have wider tentacles.

1BR could also be discussed (or criticized) as exhibiting the Western or, in particular, the American, obsession with individualism. The cult here extols the virtues of community and criticizes the alienation of modern life. Arguably, and in the hands of less psychotic proponents, these are valid points. 1BR suggests there’s no room for nuance. Turn your back on individualistic capitalism and you end up a brainwashed cult member. I don’t know anything about the writer/director David Marmor but I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that he was influenced by Ayn Rand, the ultimate individualist, anti-socialist (who, ironically, herself created a cultlike movement around her writings). But wherever you stand on the communalism vs. individualism spectrum, 1BR makes you think.

The fact that a streaming horror movie can be thoroughly engrossing and also bring up complex cultural issues tells you that 1BR distinguishes itself from the vast majority of thrillers out there.

The Long Dumb Road

The Long Dumb Road, directed by Hannah Fidell, is a fairly standard road/buddy movie, the kind that was fairly common in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. It’s a meandering, episodic tale of two mismatched travelers: young, naive Nat (Tony Revolori) and 30-something burned-out drifter Richard (Jason Mantzoukas). Nat is headed for art school, driving from Austin, Texas to LA. Along the way, his car breaks down and he meets Richard, who’s just storming off from his auto mechanic job.

First of all, the movie’s title is a bit misleading as it conjures up the Dumb & Dumber franchise. In fact, that’s probably why I didn’t watch it sooner. Not that I’m above enjoying a stereotypical Hollywood gross-out comedy every so often, but two Dumb & Dumbers (or were there more?) were enough for me, thanks anyway. Other than the fact that these are also buddy films that largely take place on the road, the tone of The Long Dumb Road is very different. There’s comedy, but it’s far more nuanced and relies more on dialog and character development than the better-known franchise.

The dynamic between Nat and Richard is fairly typical in one way, with uptight Nat paired with the loose cannon Richard. There’s a certain amount of tension along the way. Nat manages to offend Richard with his comfortable lifestyle (he’s traveling with a vehicle and bankroll from his middle-class parents), while Richard has to hustle day-to-day to get by. There’s also the possibility that Richard, who has ties to unsavory characters, may be setting Nat up in some way.

Along the way, the two get into a bar fight, track down Richard’s ex with disastrous results, and pick up a pair of adventurous women heading in the same direction. As with many road movies, the meandering plot is less important than the atmosphere and interaction between the buddies.

Both Revolori and Mantzoukas bring enough shading to their characters to prevent them from being mere caricatures. They’re both self-aware enough to have some idea of how they appear to the world and each other. This makes for an interesting chemistry and allows the film to veer between comedy and drama. As with all good road movies, there’s also the scenery, in this case mostly long, empty stretches of road and desert with bars, gas stations, and small towns scattered along the way.

The Long, Dumb Road isn’t an especially powerful or memorable film, and it probably wouldn’t survive at multiplexes (though as of now, movie theaters are still shut down anyway). However, it’s a nice alternative if you’re looking for an old-fashioned and not entirely predictable indie film to watch on Netflix.

An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn: Absurdist Comedy

An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn (2018), directed by indie British filmmaker Jim Hosking, is a bizarre, absurdist comedy currently streaming on Netflix. Like Hosking’s first feature film, The Greasy Strangler, An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn premiered at Sundance.

The Plot, Such As It Is

The protagonist, Lulu (Aubrey Plaza, who generally stars in more mainstream movies) does have a goal -seeing Beverly Laff Linn perform- but this is the type of film where the plot is practically irrelevant.

The story, such as it is, involves Lulu leaving her husband Shane (Emile Hirsch), a bumbling coffee shop owner who robbed Lulu’s brother (who inexplicably is an East Indian) along with his even more bumbling co-workers, all who have suits and hairstyles that seem to be from the 70s. Lulu takes up with an incompetent enforcer named Colin (Jemaine Clement), who quickly falls in love with her and basically obeys her every command.

Lulu is basically indifferent to Colin, and is only fixated on seeing the mysterious Beverly Luff Linn (Craig Robinson), who mostly grunts rather than speaks for most of the film. Linn, for his part, has a manager/hanger-on named Rodney (Matt Berry) who is just as fixated on him as Colin is with Lulu. Lulu, as it turns out, was involved with Linn many years ago and wants to reconnect.

All of these ridiculous characters converge at the hotel where Linn is allegedly going to perform in some non-specified way. I say allegedly because his performance is repeatedly postponed due to health reasons and/or Rodney’s neurotic interference.

Hosking vs. Lynch

Glenn Kenny of Rogerebert.com compares Hosking’s style (unfavorably) to that of David Lynch, as in Twin Peaks. It’s an understandable comparison as both directors populate their films with ridiculous characters with bizarre mannerisms and quirks. Kenny suggests it’s “the difference between genuinely idiosyncratic vision and an avid desire to be different.” Of course, talking about Lynch is setting the bar very high, as he’s one of the true masters of the bizarre.

Some Thoughts on Absurdism

While there are many screwball comedies, indie comedies, mumblecore comedies, and other sub-niches, there are relatively few truly absurdist comedies. A few I can think of that I’ve seen include Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman), Schizopolis (Steven Soderbergh), and The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos). There’s a reason that few films truly fit this category. I suppose it overlaps with surrealism, but then you’d have to start including European directors such as Fellini and perhaps David Lynch.

We could debate definitions forever, but in general, surrealism tends to be more visually-oriented, intellectual/philosophical, and dreamlike. Absurdism is more random, lighthearted, and comical. Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, one of the earliest modern indie films, isn’t surrealistic, but it has definite absurdist qualities.

This long digression is really to point out why absurdism is so hard to pull off. Lacking the visual depth of surrealism and the logical narrative of more conventional scripts, an absurdist tale has to engage the audience, keep them laughing and at least somewhat connected to the characters without the usual narrative devices, such as the protagonist reaching a goal.

Worth Seeing if You Have a Taste for the Offbeat

I think Hosking does succeed to some degree at creating a macabre parallel world where people dress and speak in a weirdly anachronistic manner. The film did make me laugh a fair amount. At the same time, although the film ran an average108 minutes length, it seemed very long and probably could have been edited down to 90 minutes or even a little less.

I haven’t seen Hosking’s previous film, The Greasy Strangler. Based on An Evening With Beverly Laff Linn, though, I’d be interested to see what he comes up with in the future. At the very least, his films are something different. And while some reviewers may accuse him of being weird for its own sake, Hosking does have an aesthetic and sense of humor of his own that invokes interest in his characters.

Dean: Directed and starring Demetri Martin

Dean – Demetri Martin (2016)

Dean, the indie film directed and written by and starring Demetri Martin, is somewhere in between a minimalist/mumblecore and a standard rom-com. You may be familiar with Martin’s stand-up performances, which have appeared on Netflix (where you can also find this film, though you may have to search).

Not everyone is a fan of Demetri Martin’s ultra low-key, hipster persona. In terms of stand-up, the closest analogy I can think of is Steven Wright , who delivers his often absurdist lines in a similar monotone (as Wright has been around since the 70s, he may have been an influence on Martin). I’ll confess that I actually like both of these guys more than many people do. But then I’m not a big fan of standard stand-up, which to me all starts to sound the same after a while with jokes about airports, relationships, having kids, and aging. I’ve heard Martin described as pretentiously hip and so forth but I actually appreciate that you never really know what he’s going to say and it doesn’t always make sense.

Even as a Martin fan, however, I can’t muster much enthusiasm for Dean. Martin’s style on stage, where he delivers unexpected and often hilariously absurd one-liners, doesn’t really work the same way on screen. Here, he’s just another emo-type hipster with a broken heart.

Dean is a youngish (Martin was 44 when this came out but could pass for late 20s) struggling artist living in an improbably stylish Brooklyn brownstone. He and his father Robert (Kevin Kline) are suffering from the recent death of Dean’s mother. Robert wants to sell their house, which is a source of disagreement between father and son. To avoid dealing with that, and to get away from his life in general, Dean flies to LA where he has an interview with an internet company that’s interested in his darkly whimsical illustrations (the drawings, actually done by Martin, are featured throughout the film).

We get a familiar parody of LA with its decadent parties and obnoxious internet startup types. Dean’s trip is not a total waste, though, as he meets Nicky (Gillian Jacobs), the sort of perky blond co-star that’s practically mandatory in rom-coms. There’s a parallel romance happening back in New York as Robert flirts with a real estate agent (Mary Steenburgen). Are either Dean or Robert ready for a serious relationship?

Dean isn’t only a lightweight indie-ish rom-com. It’s also about how people deal with grief. This isn’t an original topic, but it’s one that has archetypal relevance to everyone. Martin attempts to convey an arc for his character, who goes from flippant and obnoxious to more self-reflective and considerate of those around him. I think the problem with Martin is that minimalism is what he does best and while this definitely works for a certain type of humor, it doesn’t really work for creating a complex and sympathetic character.

I’ll also add that I’ve developed a certain attitude towards movies where the director, writer, and star are the same person. I’m sure you could come up with examples of great films that fit this category, this approach has its pitfalls such as a lack of objectivity -someone to watch what’s going on and notice areas that may need tweaking.

There’s nothing to hate about Dean. It has passably funny dialog in places and anyone in creative fields and/or who has lost a parent will be able to relate to Dean to some extent. It just doesn’t really stand out from the thousands of other indie/ rom-coms set in New York and/or LA with scripts that have similar trajectories.

Safe (1995), When life Makes You Sick

Safe is one of those low-key films it’s easy to miss even though it received quite a bit of acclaim when it was released in 1995. Directed by Todd Haynes, this is a stark and understated psychological drama starring Julianne Moore as a suburban housewife who becomes increasingly distraught over symptoms and chemical sensitivity.

Safe is the kind of film that raises more questions than it answers. Anyone who suffers from an autoimmune disease such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (or a host of other conditions) may identify with Carol. On the other hand, you can also interpret her situation in a more existentialist way. Is Carol actually physically sick, or is she suffering from a kind of societal malaise that leaves supposedly successful people feeling empty and at odds with an increasingly alienating environment?

In the early scenes of Safe, Carol is shown shopping, having coffee with friends, and driving her Mercedes around nondescript, affluent suburban California neighborhoods. When she first describes her symptoms, she mentions being under stress. Yet her life contains very little stress, at least as conventionally defined. What we can see is that she moves through her life in a robotic way, barely connecting with her unsympathetic husband and her friends from the gym. Her perpetually blase affect is contrasted not by her bland surroundings but by references to the more dangerous and passionate wider world, as when her son excitedly talks about gangs or she hears a fundamentalist preacher on the radio.

As Carol’s symptoms worsen and she doesn’t get help from doctors, she visits Wrenwood, a retreat center that’s run by a self-help guru named Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman). Wrenwood, like Carol’s illness, is hard to pin down. Friedman’s new age rhetoric is meant to be inspirational but it also emphasizes that people are responsible for their own conditions. Is Dunning helping people reach their potential and heal themselves or is he a huckster taking their money while mouthing cliches? As with Carols’s illness, you have to make up your own mind.

At one point, Carol makes a halting, confused speech about how much Wrenwood has helped her. Julianne Moore does a superb job of playing a character whose words are often incongruous with what she’s actually feeling. Soon even the isolated retreat center isn’t sufficient escape from the encroaching pollution and chemicals as Carol starts to believe that fumes from the nearest highway are reaching her.

As Safe has little in the way of a linear plot, I don’t think discussing the ending really qualifies as a spoiler. The final scene (from which I’ve posted a clip from YouTube) reveals that Carol has retreated still further, to an isolated igloo where she’s alone, breathing through a gas mask. The final scene has her repeating “I love you” into the mirror with an utterly hollow expression that belies this affirmation.

Safe, as you can probably gather, isn’t an uplifting film. It has a protagonist with an undefined problem with no apparent solution. With such murky material, I feel entitled to my own interpretation, which centers on the film’s title.

I actually started thinking about this film partly because in 2020 we’re living in a time when the word “safe” is repeated endlessly and people are widely concerned about symptoms, even if from a virus rather than the more nebulous environmental contaminants faced by Carol. The whole idea of being safe brings up the eternal dilemma of living in a world that is inherently unsafe and suggests that when we place too much value on safety it turns us into prisoners at odds with the very fabric of life. The latter, of course, is only one possible interpretation. To me, the film is elegantly ambiguous, leaving us to take from it what we will.

Lodge 49: Understated Alchemy

Listen to my Lodge 49 Review podcast.

In a world where most TV shows (as well as movies) are cliche-ridden and predictable, Lodge 49 offers something truly original.

Lodge 49 refers to a Masonic-type organization with a fledgling headquarters in Long Beach, CA. While, on the surface, the lodge has the stodgy atmosphere of an Elk’s Club, with mostly older members who spend hours at the lodge’s bar and play lots of golf, there’s a mysterious background involving shadowy occult forces that a few members dabble in.

The story begins as Sean “Dud” Dudley (Wyatt Russell), a likable 30ish slacker, who’s unemployed and near-homeless, wanders into the lodge and discovers a sense of purpose as he meets the various eccentric members, starting with Ernie (Brent Jennings), a long-time member in his 50s who’s a bit disillusioned with the lodge and his life in general.

In at least one review, Dud has been compared to The Dude in The Big Lebowski (even his nickname is similar). This is fair but Lodge 49 is not even remotely derivative of that film or anything else. It has some elements in common with a range of shows that explore occult or supernatural themes. Unlike these mostly fast-paced and action-packed shows, however, Lodge 49 is understated to a fault. Don’t expect explosions, special effects, swords and sorcery, or people transforming into werewolves. There’s definitely magic afoot, but it remains in the background and doesn’t really start to assert itself until Season 2.

Much of the mystery is suggested in the theme music and the mystical artwork scattered on the lodge’s walls. Students of such lore will recognize tarot cards and various occult symbolism. The lodge’s resident mystic is Blaise (David Pasquesi) who’s even a healer/herbalist in his day job. However, his fascination with old alchemical texts and potions is tolerated rather than embraced by fellow members.

A great deal of the story focuses on Dud’s twin sister Liz (Sonya Cassidy), who has nothing to do with the lodge (at least until well into Season 2). She’s a misfit like her brother, but a very different type. While Dud can’t hold onto a job, she works diligently as a waitress at a Hooter’s-like bar called Shamrocks and tirelessly aims to pay off their deceased father’s debt.

There are numerous backstories involving Liz, including flashbacks involving their dad, and the careers and relationships of the other characters. In fact, part of Lodge 49’s charm is its slow pace and willingness to spend time with each character. A show like this could easily have been populated with a bunch of lovable but ultimately stock and sitcommish characters. Yet every member of the cast is fleshed out to reveal his or her foibles, dreams, and heartbreaks.

When you deal with a topic such as alchemy, there’s also the temptation to turn it into a supernatural/sci-fi genre piece (or, perhaps, a by-the-numbers paranormal mystery along the lines of The DaVinci Code and its many imitators). There’s nothing wrong with that approach but there are enough shows like that already. Lodge 49 charts its own course, finding an odd but captivating balance between drama, comedy, mystery, and just enough magic and mystery to keep us wondering. Even the characters go back and forth between belief and skepticism as during a series of episodes involving some alleged mysterious scrolls that reveal hidden secrets.

Whereas most shows dealing with paranormal elements get completely immersed in heroic quests and battles between good and evil, with Lodge 49, we never forget that we’re watching real people who are struggling with bills, difficult relationships, and everyday angst. Sometimes the pace is a bit slow but overall this adds to the authenticity and gives the more fantastical elements more credibility.

I won’t try to recount any more plot points as they are very complicated and almost secondary to the characters, setting and atmosphere. It’s the kind of show that’s clearly not for everyone. I’d suggest that if the first episode doesn’t pull you in, you probably won’t like it any better further in. While things speed up a bit in Season 2, it’s a very meandering and non-linear journey. At the same time, Lodge 49 doesn’t go to an extreme in the absurdist/existentialist/mumblecore directon (which has its own charms, to be fair). The characters are quirky but they do evolve and there is some forward movement, albeit in an unpredictable and circuitous manner.

The program, which first aired on AMC and is now available on Hulu, has run for 2 seasons with Season 3 apparently up in the air. It was canceled but there are rumors that another season is possible, which I hope happens. TV history, alas, suggests otherwise as the most innovative programs seldom survive more than a season or two (with exceptions, to be sure).

In summary, if you’re drawn to anything offbeat, give it a try!

For some insights into the motivations behind Lodge 49, here’s an interview with Jim Gavin, the creator.

Parasite: Class war in modern Korea

Parasite, directed by Bong Joon Ho, is a rich, often shocking, and genre-bending look at class conflict in modern Korea. Unlike many films that tackle such topics, Parasite is fairly ambivalent about its heroes/villains. More accurately, there are no heroes and the villains slide helplessly into this role rather than due to any evil intentions.

Parasite starts off as a fairly lighthearted comedy, as a familiar genre piece about con artists. Failed entrepreneur Ki-taek Kim (Song Kang-ho) lives in a bug-infested tenement with his wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam), and son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik). The children are grown but, like their parents, unemployed and without prospects. The family survives by doing odd jobs such as folding boxes for a takeout pizza place but even fail at this and have their meager wages cut when the boxes aren’t folded properly.

The family’s fortunes take an upward swing when Ki-woo is recruited by a friend headed for university to tutor the daughter of an affluent family. This is meant to be a short-term assignment but the family conspires to turn it into something much bigger. Taking advantage of Ki-jung’s computer skills (and her natural talents as an actress and forger), the family sneaks its way into the household. Ki-taek becomes a drive; Ki-jung an art tutor, and Chung-sook a maid. They do this in a humorously unethical manner, getting the legitimate household servants fired and scamming the socially insecure couple, pompous CEO Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) and his naive wife Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong).

Any further discussion of the plot would amount to spoilers, so I’ll just say that Parasite veers in a very different direction from its farcical opening act. I’ll just list a few key impressions the film left me with.

Much of the film’s impact comes from imagery rather than plot developments. For example, the stark contrast between the homes of the two families. The Parks live in a modern mansion on a hill while the Kims live at the bottom of a hill (a fact that becomes important). Elevation plays a both literal and metaphorical role throughout the film.

The very title of the film is a bit of a puzzle. The title complements an earlier film of Bong’s, called The Host, which was about a sea monster. Any parasitism in the current film originates in human nature. All of the characters can be considered parasites, depending on one’s perspective. While Bong is clearly calling attention to issues such as economic inequality, his approach is far more nuanced than simply pitting the noble working class against their evil overlords. It’s more like everyone is victimized by a faceless system that fosters inequality and, ultimately, tragedy and mayhem.

It’s worth noting, and a bit disconcerting, how globally relevant the fundamental issues in Parasite are today. While the film is set in Korea, it could just as easily be the U.S. UK, France, Canada, or many other places where the gulf between economic classes is expanding.

Parasite was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best International Feature Film. I saw Parasite at Bytowne Cinema, an independent theater in Ottawa, Ontario.

the art of self-defense on hulu

Fans of martial arts dramas will probably want to catch The Art of Self-Defense, now showing on Hulu. This quirky indie film stars Jessie Eisenberg as Casey, a meek accountant who learns Karate after getting mugged.

Jesse Eisenberg has one of the most varied resumes in Hollywood. He alternately stars in mainstream films such as The Social Network, high-profile indie films such as The Squid and the Whale and seriously offbeat indie efforts such as Free Samples and, more recently, The Art of Self-Defense.

The rather generically-named The Art of Self-Defense, written and directed by Riley Stearns, is sort of like a twisted version of The Karate Kid, with perhaps some Fight Club thrown in. It’s a bizarre and uneven mix of comedy, violence, and just plain darkness.

The premise of a wimpy protagonist learning martial arts is hardly new. Casey (Eisenberg) is, of course, not a kid or teen but a guy in his mid-thirties who, nonetheless, finds himself bullied wherever he goes. This culminates in a vicious assault that winds him in the hospital. After shopping for a gun, Casey wanders into a local dojo and is drawn into the warped world of Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), an intense instructor who makes The Karate Kid’s Sensei Kreese (who’s still menacing Daniel LaRusso and California’s dojos in the recent YouTube series Cobra Kai, btw) seem like a pacifist by comparison.

I won’t recount the entire plot of The Art of Self-Defense as this would inevitably contain spoilers. Suffice it to say that Casey undergoes a transformation from a meek and frightened victim to a belligerent (and rather unhinged) tough guy who takes no $hit. Sensei (who only has that title, no name) is a strange character who mixes typical martial arts traditionalism with large doses of sadism, misogyny, and, eventually, outright insanity.

There’s no real message to The Art of Self-Defense and it’s a hard film to categorize. To me, it has a pessimistic and nihilistic soul. It could be called a satire of martial arts except that few martial artists embody quite the oddball mixture of traits practiced by Sensei. One of the sub-themes involves sexism as the dojo’s female instructor Anna (Imogen Poots) is treated unfairly and never promoted to black belt. This theme, however, doesn’t quite mesh with the obvious fact that Sensei and his entire dojo are basically nuts. In effect, Anna is being discriminated against by a death cult. Why doesn’t she just quit and find a more normal place to train?

The Art of Self-Defense is an interesting, mostly engaging but ultimately unsatisfying dark comedy/drama that plays with several serious issues without offering much depth or consistency on any of them. It’s about vengeance, the violence underlying modern society, the nature of martial arts and male-dominated clubs in general, and the dangers of blindly following authority. By the end, many things have changed but no one has necessarily learned anything.

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