All posts by Admin71

The Joker as Dark Trickster

Joker (2019), directed by Todd Phillips, is an example of how a movie can be highly flawed and highly derivative in some ways and still be significant. Though the story is uneven and ambiguous and the Joker himself (Joaquin Phoenix) isn’t a very coherently constructed character, the film manages to tap into the nihilistic zeitgeist of contemporary life. The strong reactions it provoked are proof of this.

A more “serious” filmmaker than Phillips, best known for popular comedies such as The Hangover (parts one, two, and three, sigh), might have created a more fully developed joker -perhaps one who was more politically correct and sympathetic or, conversely, one who was a pure villain. Phillips was content to let the character stray all over the map and leave us with a perplexing, ambiguous character and film that may be, after all, appropriate for the Joker.

The Joker’s Heavy-handed “Influences”

I was never a huge fan of Batman (or any comic/superhero franchise) and missed most of the movies. I do have childhood recollections of the original TV series, though, so references such as Gotham City and Bruce Wayne are familiar enough to me. That said, Phillips’ Joker borrows (or outright steals) more from 70s Scorcese films than from the Batman universe.

Set approximately in a gritty 1970s Gotham City, which is essentially New York, many scenes depict a Times Square-like neighborhood that immediately evokes Taxi Driver. The Joker, née Arthur Fleck, does have similarities with Travis Bickle after he transforms from an anonymous misfit loner to a violent vigilante. Yet he’s equally Rupert Pupkin, from The King of Comedy, another entry in the Scorcese-DeNiro partnership, the character who becomes obsessed with and eventually kidnaps a TV host played by Jerry Lewis.

In Joker, Robert DeNiro is the one playing the TV host, Murray Franklin (who evokes a TV radio host named Joe Franklin). Fleck, like Pupkin, has imaginary conversations with the TV host and visualizes himself as a star.

There’s a dubious assumption that if you blatantly refer to other works while winking at the audience, you’re doing a high-minded tribute rather than simply copying. The fact that DeNiro gave his blessing to the project with his participation doesn’t say much, as many of his later roles can be seen as essentially cashing out on his earlier, far greater roles.

Joker, of course, “borrows” from other films as well, especially A Clockwork Orange, which gave us one of the first truly disturbing depictions of modern society collapsing into violent chaos.

The Joker as Trickster

The Joker is part of an archetype that transcends modern cinema, comic books, and Batman. As a playing card, the Joker is wild, a close relation to The Fool in the tarot, also known as the Jester, a character who dates back at least as far as the Middle Ages in Western culture, and quite a bit further in others. Tricksters such as Loki in Northern Europe, Hermes in Greece, and Coyote in North America have always played an important role in mythology and storytelling.

Tricksters are, by nature, morally ambiguous. They can be fun and playful, but also deceptive and self-serving. It’s revealing just how dark so many tricksters have become in our modern myths. Aside from the Joker, the evil clown, a staple of so many horror movies, is probably the best example.

Modern audiences are split on how they respond to these dark tricksters. In an age when faith in traditional institutions such as government, religion, and even science is collapsing, the anarchic spirit of the trickster is appealing. Yet an amoral clown like the Joker can easily lead to random violence and total societal collapse.

Joker Triggers Many Critics

Joker triggered strong responses from many critics, well beyond the usual elitist vitriol often unleashed on popular movies.  For example, the New Yorker published a near-hysterical review that missed the mark in multiple ways, choosing to fixate on racial issues.

Somehow Fleck being assaulted by a multiethnic group of kids while waving a store’s sale sign equates to the infamous Central Park Five case and his being assaulted by a group of wealthy white guys on the subway makes him Bernie Goetz.

I can almost suspect that Phillips put in a few racially charged scenes to provoke such oversimplified reactions from old-school liberals. It’s easy enough to shove the Joker into the neat category of an angry white male, along the lines of Michael Douglas’s character in Falling Down. But Joker is considerably more complex. In a tense urban environment, it’s not shocking that an unstable person such as Fleck would be triggered by racially charged incidents. But the film is clearly dealing with wider issues concerning society, mental illness, anomie, and violence.

Does Joker Celebrate Nihilism?

I don’t believe in anything.” -Arthur Fleck in Joker.

Perhaps the central question about Joker is whether the film is a celebration of Fleck’s nihilism or a cautionary tale. It can be interpreted either way. Fleck is portrayed as a troubled man suffering from mental health issues. The system clearly lets him down when the program that provides him with medication is shut down. This, indeed, is when he starts to unravel. On the other hand, Fleck can just as easily be seen as a sociopath who doesn’t take responsibility for his own actions.

The final scenes, showing mobs of rioters celebrating the Joker as their antihero reminded me of another 70s movie, the cult classic The Warriors, in which street gangs took over the city.

While Joker is by no means a great film, it’s worth seeing and discussing because it portrays a character who is, unfortunately, relatable in a society where alienation and mental illness run rampant (as Taxi Driver was 50 years earlier).

Joker is also a kind of Rorschach test, revealing your attitudes towards complex issues like social unrest, race, anarchy, freedom, and creative expression. Your reactions may very well change over time and even through different scenes of the film. This makes Joker a film that’s always interesting despite its flaws.



11 Top Movies Featuring Trains and Subways

If you’re a fan of trains and the allure of the open tracks, you won’t want to miss out on the cinematic experience of a good train movie. From classic Westerns to pulse-pounding action thrillers, trains have been a staple of the silver screen for over a century. Here are some of the very best movies to take a ride on the rails. Subways are included here as well. These movies are listed in chronological order, going way back to 1903.

1. The Great Train Robbery (1903)

One of the earliest narrative films ever made, The Great Train Robbery was a sensation upon its release and set the standard for train-based action onscreen. Directed by Edwin S. Porter, the film, in a mere 12 minutes, tells the story of a band of bandits who take over a train and make off with its cargo of gold. With innovative editing techniques and thrilling action sequences, it’s easy to see why The Great Train Robbery remains a classic to this day. It was remade in 1978 by Michael Crichton, starring Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland.

2. The General (1926)

Buster Keaton’s silent comedy masterpiece The General is perhaps the definitive train movie. Set during the Civil War, the film follows Keaton’s hapless train engineer as he attempts to rescue his beloved locomotive and thwart a group of Union spies. With stunning stunt work and Keaton’s trademark deadpan humor, The General is one of the greatest films ever made.

3. Strangers on a Train (1951)

Alfred Hitchcock’s classic noir mystery is another example of a movie where a train plays a crucial role. Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train is about two men who concoct a farfetched but wickedly brilliant scheme: each will commit a murder on behalf of the other, making it extremely hard to catch either of them. This film has influenced countless other murder mysteries.

4. North by Northwest (1959)

Another entry for the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. North By Northwest is a masterclass in suspense filmmaking, and its climactic chase sequence atop a moving train is one of the most iconic moments in cinema history. Starring Cary Grant as an advertising executive mistaken for a spy, the film takes him on a wild cross-country journey that culminates in a showdown aboard a speeding train.

5. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

This one features the subway as a major character. A gritty crime thriller stars Walter Matthau as a New York City transit cop who must negotiate with a group of hijackers who have taken a subway train and its passengers hostage. With tense action and a sharp script, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a classic of the genre. The film was actually remade twice, once in 1998 and again in 2009. Critics may argue which of the three is best, but if you haven’t seen any of them you should definitely start with the original.

6. Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Based on Agatha Christie’s popular novel, Murder on the Orient Express is a classic mystery movie that takes place aboard the famous Orient Express train. The story revolves around Detective Hercule Poirot as he attempts to solve a gruesome murder on board the train. With an all-star cast featuring the likes of Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, and Lauren Bacall, this whodunit film remains a timeless classic. It was remade in 2017 by Kenneth Branagh.

7. The Warriors (1979)

Not well reviewed when it came out, The Warriors, directed by Walter Hill has become a cult classic and an iconic New York 1970s movie. It’s a violent, surreal journey of a street gang having to fight its way from the Bronx to its home base in Coney Island, mostly via the New York City subway system. It can be viewed as a modern urban version of The Odyssey featuring unique cinematography and intricately choreographed fight scenes.

8. The Fugitive (1993)

The Fugitive, a 1993 movie starring Harrison Ford, is based on the TV series from the 1960s that’s become a cult classic. One of the outstanding scenes in the film is a train crash scene. In the scene, Ford’s character is being transported to prison by train when a collision occurs, allowing him to escape. The crash, filmed using a combination of practical effects and CGI, is one of the most impressive train crash scenes ever filmed.

9. Before Sunrise (1995)

The first in Richard Linklater’s brilliant trilogy, Before Sunrise features two young travelers, played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke who meet and fall in love on a European train journey. The film is a great example of character and dialog-driven filmmaking as it manages to keep viewers captivated without any action or complex plot devices. The sequels Before Sunset, and Before Midnight are also worth seeing, though not as train-centric. See my full review of Before Sunrise.

10. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)

The Hogwarts Express, the train that takes young wizards to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is a major part of the Harry Potter books and movies. In the first film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the Hogwarts Express is introduced in a memorable scene where Harry boards the train and meets Ron Weasley for the first time.

11. Snowpiercer (2013)

In a post-apocalyptic world where the Earth has frozen over, the last remnants of humanity survive aboard a massive, perpetually moving train. Snowpiercer follows a rebellion led by Chris Evans’ character as they make their way through the train’s various classes and compartments, fighting against its strict hierarchy. With stunning visuals and a gripping story, Snowpiercer is a train movie unlike any other.

Trains have been an integral part of movie history. From the earliest films to modern blockbusters, trains have been used to create suspense, excitement, and drama. These iconic movies are just a small sample of the many great train moments in movie history. I may add more train movies in the future, as there are surely many I overlooked here.

Love trains? See Rail Buffs, another of my sites, where there’s a version of this article and lots of other content on railroad history, model trains, subways, metros, and more!


Vengeance: Blue State vs Red State Cultural Clash

Vengeance (2022); Directed by B.J. Novak

Vengeance, the 2022 comedy-mystery drama starring and directed by B.J. Novak, is a surprisingly compelling and thoughtful film. Based on the title and seeing the trailer, you’d be forgiven for assuming it’s another thriller in the desert entry, with the usual Tarantino, Coen Brothers, and other 90s and 2000s influences. While some of these can be entertaining in their own right, Vengeance is something different, more about subcultural conflict than typical movie violence (though it does have some of that too).

Novak is Ben Manalowitz, a smug New York City hipster who we see in the first scene at a rooftop party in most likely Brooklyn, sharing cynical zingers about the pointlessness of relationships and monogamy with his equally vacuous and intoxicated buddies.

Novak’s character, who is actually named Ben, reminds me a little of Ben Stiller, especially in some of the work he’s done for Noah Baumbach, such as Greenberg. He manages to offset some of his arrogance and smugness with self-awareness and at least a latent desire to improve. In Vengeance, this is a gradual process that has him transplanted in an extremely unlikely place for someone like him, rural Texas.

After getting a phone call from a distraught man telling Ben that his “girlfriend” Abilene has just died, Ben at first doesn’t even know who she is. She was, in fact, one of many women he casually slept with/dated. Somehow, Ty Shaw, the dead woman’s brother, convinces Ben to fly to an absurdly remote town of Abilene (the deceased girl was apparently named after the town). That Ben would take the bait to attend the funeral of a virtual stranger is a contrivance you just have to accept.

Ty and his family are about as stereotypical redneck Texans as you could imagine. Ty quickly reveals his plot to avenge his sister’s death. She officially died of an overdose, but the family is seeking a scapegoat, and the most likely suspects are a Mexican cartel. Ben gets the idea of pitching the scenario to a podcast producer, Eloise (Issa Rae). Skeptical at first, she then latches onto the appeal of a “dead white girl” and the premise is set in motion.

Ashton Kutcher plays Quentin Sellers, an enigmatic music producer who Abilens, an aspiring singer, recorded with. He reminds me a little of The Dude in The Big Lebowski with his drawl, cowboy hat, and obscure philosophical musings.

The basic fish out of water theme is magnified to look at the larger societal forces that Ben and his newfound Texas frenemies represent. Ty remarks at one point that Ben looks like many of the characters in Schindler’s List, the closest anyone comes to mentioning his Jewish heritage. Many of the stereotypes Ben has about his hosts turn out to be accurate. They own many guns, they’re obsessed with rodeos, football, and eating out at the local Whataburger.

At the same time, there are some blatant attempts to defy the stereotypes, as Abilene’s sister Paris is something of an intellectual. One of the funnier lines is when Paris accuses Ben of cultural appropriation and he responds by saying that it’s cultural appropriation for someone like her to accuse him of cultural appropriation. This is funny wordplay, but also reveals a deeper truth –that educated, urbanites like Ben tend to believe that they have a monopoly on culture.

The investigation into Abigail’s death leads to encounters with Mexican gang members, incompetent local cops, and an assortment of two-fisted, hard-drinking locals. There’s a twist at the end that is possibly predictable, but still surprising in how it plays out.

So what does Vengeance ultimately have to say about New York hipsters and Texas rednecks? Nothing conclusive, which is a good thing. The movie deals with some complex themes about the divisive state of contemporary America and they aren’t going to be resolved in 100 minutes. However, Vengeance does provide some amusing and thoughtful insights into cultural stereotypes without really taking sides.



Beef: Road Rage Leads to Chaos

Beef, a 10-part miniseries on Netflix, was created by Lee Sung Jin, with Jin along with Hikari, and Jake Schreier alternately directing. Beef has been called a dark comedy but it would probably be more accurate to call it a drama-thriller with some dark humor in the background. It also has elements of Greek tragedy and soap operas.

The premise is deceptively simple, leading to absurdly complex consequences. Set in Laguna Beach and nearby areas of Orange County,  the events are sparked by a seemingly trivial road rage incident.  Danny Cho (Steven Yeun) is a struggling contractor who is alternately depressed (to the point of contemplating suicide) and ambitious, while his soon-to-be nemesis Amy Lau (Ali Wong) is an affluent entrepreneur, wife, and mother who is feeling the pressures of balancing her increasingly stressful responsibilities.

Danny follows Amy home and later tricks his way into her house only to urinate on the bathroom floor. Amy retaliates by giving Danny’s contracting business a series of one-star reviews on Yelp. She escalates things further by catfishing Danny’s brother Paul (Young Mazino). Danny and Amy collide when both are at emotional breaking points. The road rage incident proves to be the last straw for both, as they cast the other as the cause of all the misery in their lives.

Danny and Amy get caught up in forces that seem beyond their control. While neither displays exemplary or even rational behavior, neither is purely evil or sociopathic. Danny is committed to helping his parents move into a new house. While his relationship with his brother is tense and fraught with mutual hostility and envy, he still feels responsible for his brother and experiences guilt over past betrayals. Amy, meanwhile, loves her daughter above everything and also feels guilt when she doesn’t live up to her own standards as a wife or mother.

Other characters contribute to Danny and Amy’s malaise. The closest thing to a pure villain is Danny’s cousin Issac (David Choe), an ex-con perpetually hatching schemes that range from marginally legal to blatant felonies. Amy’s boss Jordan (Maria Bello) is possibly the closest thing to a pure stereotype in the show, an affluent and thoughtlessly condescending entrepreneur/art collector/socialite who reveals the everyday subtle racism Asian Americans often face. Edwin (Justin Min) is a preacher at a Korean evangelical church with passive-aggressive tendencies.

What really drives the series of catastrophes are the seemingly small bad decisions both Danny and Amy constantly continually make. Both act out of rage and despair against their better judgment.

While Beef features a mostly Asian-American cast and cultural themes are certainly present, the story is really much more about the stress of modern life with some heavy doses of class conflict thrown in. For an insightful look at some of the details on Asian culture that most people will miss, see Asian Rage in Netflix’s Beef, by YJ Jun.

If there’s any single message to take away from Beef, it’s that every action can set off unpredictable, and possibly horrific, reactions in other people and the wider world. It has some elements in common with the 2004 Academy Award-winning film Crash, though Beef is far more insightful and nuanced than that heavy-handed and mostly overrated movie.

Beef is one of the best shows Netflix has shown recently. It’s an appropriately bizarre reflection of a world where everyone seems on the brink of disaster.



The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker: Netflix True Crime Doc





The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker is Netflix’s latest in a long series of true crime documentaries. This one is about Caleb McGillivary, better known as Kai, a homeless nomad who became famous in 2013 for allegedly saving someone’s life by hitting an assailant over the head with a hatchet.

Kai immediately became a media sensation as he came across as a benevolent free spirit who just happened to be at the right place to perform a brave deed. His story, however, takes a dark turn.

The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker, directed by Colette Camden, is about many things beyond Kai himself. It’s about homelessness, substance abuse, childhood abuse, mental illness, and, perhaps most of all, a celebrity-hooked culture desperate to find the next reality TV star.

The Next Reality Star

In an attempt to cash in on Kai’s popularity, there was a feeding frenzy to get him booked on TV shows from Jimmy Kimmel to the Kardashians. Through all of this, Kai is revealed to be an unstable character with many facets to his personality. In between TV appearances, he indulges in binge drinking, urinates in public, and makes statements that reveal a troubled past and a tenuous grip on reality.

From Hero to Convicted Killer

Kai is accused of killing a lawyer in his 70s who gave him a place to sleep. According to Kai, the older man sexually assaulted him and he was acting in self-defense. The brutality of the attack makes this hard to believe. Even if there is some truth to Kai’s version, it seems unlikely he couldn’t have escaped the man’s home without killing him.

A Not-So-Speedy Trial

Another issue that the doc casually brings up near the end is how flawed and inefficient the justice system is. All of the events took place in 2013 but Kai’s trial did not occur until 2019. If had been innocent, he would have spent 6 years in jail awaiting trial, which clearly goes against the Constitutional right to a fair and speedy trial.

Fabricating a Celebrity

Kai as a heroic figure was questionable from the start. After all, he was in the very car of the assailant he ended up clobbering. There is also the question of how he happened to have a deadly weapon ready at hand.

The real message of this movie, whether intended or not, is more about the pathology of a celebrity-centric culture. Even if his initial actions were justified, he was clearly a troubled young man, homeless and with a history of abuse. However, he became surrounded by people who focused only on his surface-level charisma and were eager to turn him into the next big thing. Were they to blame for Kai’s eventual act of violence? Probably not, but they certainly didn’t do anything to help him either.

Is The Hatchet-Wielding Hitchhiker Worth Watching?

Unlike many docu-series on streaming services lately, this one is a stand-alone film. In some ways, this is a relief, as many such series are stretched out beyond what the material justifies. In this case, however, the movie could probably have been split at least into two episodes. The quick transition from Kai being embraced by the media to his murder conviction is fairly abrupt. Nonetheless, the story itself has so many compelling elements that it remains interesting, mainly as a sad commentary on celebrity culture.


The Lost Leonardo: Art, High Finance, and Authenticity

The world of high-priced art, including auctions, art theft, and forgeries has captured the public’s attention over the last decade. Several popular documentaries and dramas have covered art-related themes. One of the latest is The Lost Leonardo, a documentary about a painting called Salvator Mundi, which may or may not be a recently discovered masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci, the most famous Renaissance artist best known for the Mona Lisa.

When I turned on The Lost Leonardo, written and directed by Danish director Andreas Koefoed,  I wasn’t clear if it was a drama or documentary and I suspect this vagueness is deliberate as more viewers might be likely to tune into a mystery drama about the art world. Although it is compelling, it is a doc after all, with interviews of art experts, dealers, and investors.

A minor spoiler alert is that, after watching The Lost Leonardo, you still won’t know whether or not the painting is authentic. Experts still debate the matter. Authenticity is what drives value but in so many cases, items are difficult to authenticate. As dealers and appraisers explain, provenance, the traceable lineage of ownership, is a key factor for authenticating art. With Salvator Mundi, the painting’s history can only be traced back to recent times, the first few hundred years of its existence remaining a complete mystery so far.

Restoration or Forgery?

The Lost Leonardo involves many characters who may or may not be trustworthy. Dianne Modestini is the restorer who first declared that Salvator Mundi was indeed painted by Leonardo da Vinci. However, others have accused Modestini of doing more than just restoring the painting, saying that she essentially took a work from a minor artist who was a mere Leonardo follower and forged it to make it look like Leonardo’s original work.

A Rivalry Between Billionaires

Another side plot is the bizarre rivalry between two billionaires, Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier, and Russian “oligarch” (for some reason, only Russians are described as oligarchs) Dmitry Rybolovlev. Bouvier acquired the painting, was less than transparent about how he acquired it and how much he paid, and sold it to Rybolovlev, taking a profit of many millions. While this practice is fairly common in many deals, from real estate to any type of collectible or antique, Rybolovlev was outraged and launched a global campaign against Bouvier. This is all fairly silly and sheds more light on the greed and egotism of the ultra-wealthy than it does on Renaissance art, but it’s all part of the world of the high end art market. Alexandra Bregman, who is interviewed in the film, has written a book called The Bouvier Affair: A True Story, that goes into more detail about this conflict.

The Painting is Acquired by a Saudi Prince

Salvator Mundi ended up being purchased at Christy’s for a record high price of $450 million by Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Louvre negotiated with him to display it at a large Leonardo exhibit, but the negotiations fell apart. As the film explains, the Saudis wanted Salvator Mundi displayed next to the Mona Lisa to dispel any controversy about its authenticity. The Louvre apparently refused and the painting hasn’t been publicly seen since.

Art: What is Authentic?

Aside from being of interest to art lovers and art historians, The Lost Leonardo raises some interesting questions about how we value art. After all, it’s the same painting, no matter who actually created it 500 or so years ago. Of course, the same can be said for any work of art or collectible. Whether it’s a painting or a celebrity’s signature, we want an assurance that the item we’re buying or just admiring is “real.” If you love and admire a work of art for years and then find out that it’s “fake,” do you suddenly stop appreciating it? If so, does this mean that abstract issues are more important than the sensual experience of viewing the work? Difficult questions to answer, highlighting the uneasy relationship between art and reality.

The Lost Leonardo is currently streaming on multiple sites, including Amazon Prime, Hulu, and YouTube.

Murder of a Cat

Murder of a Cat is perfect for people who like silly, relatively obscure, low-budget indie movies. I’ve always had a soft spot for such films. In the days of streaming, you’re most likely to encounter them on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, or another such site as many never even make it to theaters. Murder of a Cat was released in 2014 but is the kind of movie that is likely to get most of its views as people discover it streaming, as I did on Amazon recently.

Murder of a Cat was directed by Gillian Greene, who, according to IMDb, has only directed one other film, a short. It stars Fran Kranz (who’s appeared in a couple of suspense thrillers, Cabin in the Woods and The Village) as Clint, an awkward young adult who lives with his mother and a cat named Mouser. Given the film’s title, it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that the cat is murdered early on. As an arrow is sticking out of the animal’s body, it clearly was murder.

Clint teams up with Greta (Nikki Reed), a young woman who oddly lives in a retirement community, giving haircuts to seniors in exchange for rent. It turns out Mouser secretly lived with Greta half the time, so they unknowingly shared ownership of the cat. Murder of a Cat’s best-known actor is J.K. Simmons, who plays a lightweight version of his typical tough guy roles, in this case, a cop who’s also dating Clint’s mom.

The plot is silly and complicated, involving an unstable chain store owner and a couple of shady employees running a fencing scheme out of the store. Leonardo Kim (more recently in Westworld) is both funny and menacing as unhinged hoodlum Yi Kim. This brings up a recurring theme of Murder of a Cat, the uneven shifting from comedy to suspense and drama. This isn’t always handled smoothly and sometimes the attempts at humor don’t work, as when Clint “jokingly” tells someone that his mother has AIDS. Of course, if you’re a hardcore animal person (which I basically am, but not to the degree that I can’t appreciate some dark humor), you won’t find the whole premise of someone shooting a cat with a crossbow amusing.

Despite its imperfections, I appreciate the fresh energy of movies like Murder of a Cat. I also have to respect the people who make movies that have little chance of large-scale commercial success. I’ll go out of my way to see this type of film while snubbing anything related to superheroes, Star Wars, or any franchise. I suppose these smaller movies may achieve some type of cult classic appeal, but even there the odds are not great. So I have to believe the motive was simply to make an entertaining and original film that isn’t completely predictable.

T-Shirts and Merch

These products may be of interest to movie lovers. Affiliate Disclosure: some items may be affiliate links, meaning I get a small commission on sales.

I Love Movies t-shirt

I Love Movies” design is available as a t-shirt, mug, poster, and on dozens of other products!


Film Noir is another design that can be placed on dozens of products to wear, hang, display, drink from, etc.



I Write Scripts is a design for screenwriters, also available on t-shirts, mugs, posters, etc.

This book is a good primer on some of the best movies that should be on everyone’s list:

Film Fest: A Movie About Making Movies

As you can probably tell from the title, Film Fest is one of those meta exercises, an indie film destined for film festivals about an indie film premiering at a film festival. The main difference is that Film Fest actually premiered at the Austin Film Festival in 2020, whereas the fictional film is premiering at an obscure film festival in an unnamed (though scenic) location in the mountains.

Directed by Marshall Cook, Film Fest follows the struggles of indie director Logan Clark (Matt Cook). In the first scene, he is desperately pitching his finished movie, appropriately named Unknown Unknowns at a party where he’s working as a server. He’s not so gently rebuffed by an agent while his boss threatens to fire him.

The film’s producer, Alex Davis (Diona Reasonover) reveals that there’s a film festival that actually wants to premier Unknown Unknowns. The catch (the first of many, as it turns out) is that it’s an obscure festival called Hollywylde that no one has heard of. Though at first ready to refuse and wait for something better, Logan reluctantly goes along for the ride. He, Alex, their cinematographer (Laird Macintosh) who affects a fake Swedish accent, and PA make the journey to try their luck. Logan quickly goes from feeling the whole thing is beneath him to desperately wanting to come away a winner.

Film Fest is a spoof and insider’s look at the pretensions and often petty competitiveness of film festivals, where unknown directors desperately want to break through and outshine their peers. The fictional Hollywylde Festival, of course, is shadier and sketchier than even your average obscure film festival. It turns out that every entrant in the festival has been nominated for all the top awards. The festival’s creator is a bombastic character in a cowboy hat named Montgomery Nash (Will Sasso) who privately tells every participant that their film is his favorite.

Logan is portrayed as just as opportunistic and prone to compromising his values as anyone else. There’s a scene where Logan and Alex pitch their movie to agents and are immediately shot down because they lack a clear pigeonhole or star that will make it a predictable hit. Film Fest is an interesting and funny look at the world of independent filmmaking and how only the most dedicated will persevere in the face of such long odds.

Film Fest is currently streaming on Amazon Prime as well as YouTube.

Puzzle Review: A Woman Discovers Herself By Solving Puzzles

Marc Turtletaub, who produced notable indie features such as Safety Not Guaranteed and Little Miss Sunshine, is the director of Puzzle, an interesting, low-key drama about a woman who discovers that she has an unusual skill -solving jigsaw puzzles incredibly fast. As we’re introduced to Agnes (played by Scottish actress Kelly MacDonald), she is celebrating her birthday with friends and family with the look of someone enduring more than enjoying the occasion. Her life is conventional in a traditional working-class manner —living in the suburbs, cooking for her husband (auto mechanic Louie, played by David Denman) and sons, and active with the church.

One of Agnes’s birthday gifts is a jigsaw puzzle, which she effortlessly completes. After finding that the puzzle was purchased in downtown Manhattan. She takes the Metro North train (I’m not sure if she’s in Westchester, upstate NY, or Connecticut) for the first time and even finds buying a train ticket confusing.
In addition to buying some new puzzles, she finds a flyer someone posted advertising for a “puzzle partner.”

Agnes’s puzzle adventure really starts when she meets her puzzle partner Robert (the late Irrfan Khan, who sadly died not long after Puzzle was released), an eccentric, independently wealthy inventor who uses puzzles as a way to discipline his wandering mind, as he explains it (paraphrasing here). The world-weary intellectual Robert is about as far from Agnes’s home life as could be imagined. Agnes hides her new pastime and friendship from Louie, telling him that she’s caring for a sick relative. Somewhat predictably, as Agnes and Robert practice for a puzzle tournament, they become attracted to each other.

Despite her feelings for Robert and her enthusiasm for the new world he helps her discover, Agnes is not quite ready to leave her old life. She’s very attached to her sons, especially the sensitive and confused, and floundering Ziggy (Bubba Weiler). And, despite rebelling against Louie’s extremely old-fashioned values (when Ziggy talks about becoming a chef, Louie objects that it’s not a very manly profession), Agnes still has feelings for him.

What really matters in Puzzle isn’t so much what people do but how they do it. I wasn’t originally keen to see Puzzle as jigsaw puzzles don’t seem promising as a subject for a movie. Chess is another cerebral activity that has inspired a couple of good films, such as Searching For Bobby Fischer The Queen’s Gambit. But even chess, as a competitive strategy game, has more opportunity for drama than the basically solo activity of puzzle-solving. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t spend too much time actually showing people do puzzles but is much more concerned with why they do them.

Puzzle manages to avoid the expected sports movie formula (that can also apply to other competitive pursuits such as chess, dance competitions, etc) as the prodigy wins one tournament after another until he or she faces down the big rival in the final scene. Puzzle succeeds as an original and compelling drama largely because the actual puzzles remain mostly in the background. While the journey of a woman who discovers there’s more to life than being a wife and mother is familiar, Puzzle, largely due to magnetic performances by MacDonald and Khan, manages to break through and tell a compelling and original story.

Puzzle is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.