All posts by Admin71

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.

All My Friends Hate Me

All My Friends Hate Me, currently streaming on Hulu, is a British dark comedy-drama directed by Andrew Gaynord. Tom Stourton, who is also a co-writer, stars as Pete, a young man preparing to meet up with old college friends for his 31st birthday. His journey to the countryside, where his old friend George has a massive estate, is fraught with unease. He approaches a dog on a chain and an apparently abandoned car, only to be chased by a homeless man. An elderly local whom he approaches for directions mocks him. When he arrives at the house, it is deserted. When his friends finally arrive, one even suggests that Pete’s invitation had been a joke. So, early on, Pete’s position is uncertain and he is wondering if his old friends really want him there at all.

All My Friends Hate Me is a fascinating study of group dynamics, insecurity, and the lingering British class system. It’s one of the most interesting films I’ve seen recently, and often uncomfortable to watch. The atmosphere borders on the horror genre, which is no accident, even though most (though not all) of the violence is verbal and psychological.

Pete’s history with these people is a little unclear, especially as his and their recollections often diverge. He has a romantic history with Claire (Antonia Clarke), something his fiance Sonia (Charly Clive) knows about. To complicate things, Sonia isn’t due to arrive at the house until a day later. The tension between Pete and Claire is exacerbated by the possibility that Claire is unstable and allegedly tried to kill herself after breaking up with Pete. Or is this just something the others are telling Pete to make him feel guilty?

Much of the tension is between Pete and Harry (Dustin Demri-Burns), who is supposedly an outsider that Pete’s ex-college friends found in a bar. However, Harry, who is loud and borderline aggressive, seems to have an unexplained hostility towards Pete. Pete also feels like he vaguely recognizes Harry. The others, meanwhile, seem oblivious to Harry’s increasingly unhinged antics.

It’s hard to readily identify heroes and villains in this film. Although Pete may be the victim, it’s also clear that he hasn’t made any effort to stay in touch over the last decade. Furthermore, his constant references to his volunteer work sound glib and self-important.

One interpretation of All My Friends Hate Me is that the entire group are privileged, atavistic characters from a bygone era. The museum-like mansion full of antique portraits is one clue. Another is a traditional pheasant hunt that the others insist Pete take part in, despite his obvious discomfort around guns and hunting.

It would be hard to reveal spoilers, as nothing very definitive happens. The audience is challenged to interpret the events, and Pete’s perceptions, in their own way. This would be an interesting film to watch a second time, though I’m not sure that even repeated viewings would net any definite conclusions.

If you were to analyze the film scene by scene, it wouldn’t be hard to poke some holes in it, especially if you want to stick with the interpretation that Pete is simply being overly sensitive or even paranoid. For example, on their way from the house to a pub, the group drives away, leaving Pete to walk. At best, his friends have a sense of humor that borders on the sadistic.

All My Friends Hate Me, with its emphasis on dialog and emotional outbursts, is the kind of film that could be a stage play, which isn’t usually a complimentary thing to say about a film. Fortunately, there are enough changes of scenery to prevent the claustrophobic feeling that filmed plays often suffer from.

However you interpret it, I think the main subject of All My Friends Hate Me transcends its class-related issues and effectively evokes the sense of social unease that is so common. While most of these characters may seem they are out of a period piece, anxiety about others’ opinions of you is at least as prevalent in the social media age. If there’s a takeaway, it may be that you can never really know how others feel about you or the motives for their actions.

The Deep End: Teal Swan

The Deep End, directed by Jon Kasbe, is a documentary about the spiritual teacher Teal Swan, who has been a controversial figure for years. While she has consistently attracted a large number of “haters,” this is the first mainstream coverage/expose of her work. It raises at least as many questions about the intentions and integrity of the media and documentarians as it does about Teal Swan and her organization.

I don’t have strong feelings about Teal Swan one way or the other. I subscribe to her YouTube channel and have watched probably 10 or so hours of her content over the last few years. Some of it is insightful, but I don’t have any urge to attend a live workshop. I watch many people but don’t really “follow” anyone. The word “follow” is relevant here because, in The Deep End, they insisted on labeling almost anyone who attends an event a Teal Swan “follower,” which is a loaded word typically applied to cult members. Just to be clear, this is mainly a discussion and review of the documentary The Deep End, and not of Teal Swan and her work. I’m not nearly familiar enough with the latter to have an informed opinion.

Documentarians as Narcs

If you are going to watch The Deep End, I highly recommend going to Teal Swan’s YouTube channel and watching her responses. She claims that the producers, who filmed her for 3 years, misrepresented the intentions of the project, at first assuring her that it would be portrayed in a positive light. While this may seem like a case of “they said, she said,” I doubt that she would have given permission to do such intensive filming if she knew that she would be portrayed as a cult leader. It seems like the director Kasbe and his crew approached the project with the mentality of narcs or undercover agents, infiltrating the organization and pretending to be allies.

Teal Swan points to the many ways that the documentary distorts reality, including the spooky music that often plays ominously in the background. Most notably, when you have hundreds of hours of footage and edit it down to a few hours, it’s easy to paint just about any picture you want. Cults are very popular right now and they make for sensationalistic TV.

This isn’t to say that Teal Swan is beyond reproach. When someone reaches her level of influence, it’s inevitable that “followers” will have good and bad experiences. One area that her critics (including the makers of The Deep End) have always focused on was her attitude towards suicide. While Swan doesn’t advocate suicide, she does talk openly about it, recognizing that it’s an option. Unfortunately, a certain number of people (a growing number) do take their own lives. This includes people who watch Teal Swan, as well as people who are under the care of psychiatrists and psychologists. However, the point of a program such as The Deep End is to point an accusing finger at Teal Swan.

Just about any popular self-help or spiritual teacher could be labeled a cult leader. Right now, this would include Anthony Robbins, Sadhguru, GaryVee, Abraham Hicks, and many others. if you applied a microscopic view to any organization and applied selective editing, you could alternately make anyone seem like a true savior or a complete charlatan.

By the last couple of episodes, The Deep End devolves into pure melodrama and cheesy horror movie effects, casting Swan as a demonic figure. Clearly, the intention here is to push a certain narrative and the intended audience are viewers who accept such narratives at face value.

The Media: Exposing Cults or a Cult In Itself?

The Deep End is a fascinating example of how media and art forms such as documentaries can construct reality. Personally, I am more interested in this general concept than I am in the doc itself or even Teal Swan and her teachings.

For anyone who shares this kind of bizarre obsession with the cultoid, propaganda, and how the media creates and distorts perceptions, I’d recommend watching The Deep End along with Teal Swan’s reactions (there are 4 videos, one in response to each episode).
It’s usually too flip and simplistic to say that the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but in this case, it truly seems like the most likely scenario.

Bisping: Documentary of the UFC Fighter

Bisping: The Michael Bisping Story is a documentary about a popular mixed martial arts fighter who became the UFC Middleweight champion. It’s an exciting look at a fast growing sport as well an engaging biography of an athlete who was determined to overcome all obstacles to achieve his dream.

I started out as a boxing fan and am only a rather casual and recent fan of mixed martial arts and the UFC (if you read comments on YouTube or forums, “casual” is one of the worst insults anyone can deliver), so I never knew about Michael Bisping until fairly recently when I discovered his YouTube channel.

Bisping looks at the fighter’s origins growing up in a working class area in England, where he frequently got into fights in the street and at pubs. He also started training in martial arts at an early age and began competing in tournaments. After a brief period in jail following a fight, Bisping resolved to turn his life around and began pursuing a martial arts career in earnest.

This documentary provides some great footage, not only of Bisping’s notable fights but also many other UFC stars with whom he fought or otherwise crossed paths. Featured in the film are his arch rival Luke Rockhold, Dana White, Joe Rogan, Micky Rourke, Rashad Evans, and even actor Vin Diesel, who was in a movie with Bisping.

The trajectory of Bisping’s career, which had many ups and downs, has the dramatic feel of a fictional movie. Some of the exciting matches covered in the film include Bisping vs. Luke Rockhold (twice), Anderson Silva, Dan Henderson, and George St. Pierre. One dramatic plot is how Bisping was injured and ended up losing an eye following a brutal knockout at the hands of Vitor Belfort, who, it turned out, was using steroids. Bisping continued to compete, hiding the fact that he was blind in one eye, and still managed to win the Middleweight championship.

Bisping is an inspiring story of one man’s journey to excel and overcome challenges. It’s a must see for UFC/MMA fans. It will also appeal to anyone who appreciates a real life “Rocky” story.

Bisping is currently available on Amazon and other streaming services. For more information see:

https://www.bispingdoc.com

You Can’t Kill The Meme

A documentary by Hayley Garrigus, You Can’t Kill The Meme explores the bizarre and controversial Pepe The Frog meme that became infamous during the 2016 election. Based loosely on the ancient Egyptian god Kek, the cartoon frog Pepe spread online, especially on 4Chan and many “alt-right” message boards.

If you search for Pepe The Frog, you’ll see that, somewhat absurdly for an innocuous-looking cartoon animal, it’s widely considered a “hate symbol.” With so much political controversy, mixed with mysticism and fairly obscure online subcultures, it’s hard to approach this topic with any kind of objectivity. Hayley Garrigus, however, manages to maintain a detached focus on the many unusual belief systems and eccentric characters she interviews. She herself stays in the background, barely appearing in front of the camera at all.

Garrigus isn’t so much concerned with Pepe The Frog itself, but the underlying ideas and movements that latched on or appropriated the symbol. She was inspired by the book Memetic Magic: Manipulation of the Root Social Matrix and the Fabric of Reality, by R. Kirk Packwood, a now out of print book. Packwood is interviewed and expresses an ambivalent attitude about the movement he unintentionally inspired.

Memes (including the word “meme”) Have a Life of Their Own

The terms meme magic and memetics go back to the original definition of meme rather than the more limited modern idea of memes as simply images shared on social media. Richard Dawkins coined the term as the cultural equivalent of a virus that spreads quickly through society. Of course, Dawkins is a rather dogmatic atheist and would most likely cringe at some of the ways the term has been used. But this is, somewhat ironically, the very way memes work: they evolve or mutate in unpredictable ways. Pepe The Frog is the perfect example.

If you want to follow the bizarre evolution of Pepe, you may be more interested in another doc called Feels Good Man, about Pepe’s actual creator, cartoonist Matt Furie who disowned his creation after it was appropriated by underground movements.

The ADL has labeled Pepe a hate symbol. Yet, the ADL website says, “In the fall of 2016, the ADL teamed with Pepe creator Matt Furie to form a #SavePepe campaign to reclaim the symbol from those who use it with hateful intentions.” So they are somewhat ambiguously calling it a hate symbol and trying to redeem it. The whole history of Pepe, including its creation and abandonment by Matt Furie, R. Kirk Packwood’s own distancing of his book on memetic magic all show how slippery memes can be and how they take on a life of their own.

Fortunately, Hayley Garrigus doesn’t get bogged down in the controversy of Pepe and the simplistic right vs. left conflict and gets into more esoteric territory. She interviews a self-described lightworker in Las Vegas named Carole Michaella as well as other eccentric magicians, including Billy Brujo, whose getup includes white face paint and a cross on his forehead. All of this seems practically designed to scare away “normies” to dismiss all this as woo-woo or the ravings of political extremists desperate for a way to feel empowered.

When memetic magicians (if that’s the correct term) claim they were responsible, not only for Trump winning the 2016 election but even for causing Hillary Clinton to collapse in the street, skepticism is understandable. However, Garrigus seems open to the ideas that are presented, however farfetched, or at least lets the characters express themselves without judgment (at least that she expresses). She seems more interested in the underlying possibilities of memes than in the particular idiosyncratic way certain characters have interpreted these memes. After all, versions of magic (or magick) have been around a lot longer than American politics.

I think some viewers and reviewers were frustrated by the film’s apparent lack of a clear message. If this topic was handled by, say, a network TV show such as 20/20, the focus might have been on exposing the characters as lunatics or dangerous extremists. On the other hand, I never had the sense that Garrigus blindly believes anything anyone says. Her detached style lets you judge for yourself and, if you’re so inclined, to do further research.

You Can’t Kill The Meme will probably be most appreciated by people who already have some knowledge of alternative belief systems, if not memetic magic itself. It at least helps to have an open mind. Our world is far richer and more complex than is portrayed by conventional institutions and this documentary sheds some light on one loosely defined subculture that is exploring certain aspects of human potential.

You Can’t Kill The Meme is not a movie for everyone, and it received more than its share of negative reviews. Most of these are from “normies,” people with either no background or interest in the occult and fringe movements who are often outright hostile to anything outside the mainstream. In this case, there’s additional pressure to distance oneself from a movement that’s been so closely associated with Trump and the “alt-right” (whatever that really means). However, Garrigus isn’t endorsing any political or cultural movements here but simply exploring a fascinating phenomenon. Memes are always with us and can have a profound, and often hidden, impact on society, whether we like them or not or whether we’re aware of them or not.

You Can’t Kill The Meme is currently streaming on Hulu.

Who You Think I Am: Catfishing French Style

Who You Think I Am (2019) is a French film directed by Safy Nebbou and starring Juliette Binoche, currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

The simple description of Who You Think I Am is that it’s a modern internet tale of catfishing. Binoche plays Claire, a professor in her 50s who takes on a new identity on social media, pretending to be much younger and romancing a young man. Claire already has a much younger boyfriend Ludovic (Guillaume Gouix) at the start of Who You Think I Am. However, he is extremely casual about their relationship and doesn’t even return her messages. This motivates her to create a fake profile. Claire isn’t simply trolling social media randomly. She targets Ludovic’s roommate Alex (François Civil) and the two quickly begin chatting and talking on the phone. Claire is doing full-on catfishing here as she uses a photo of a young woman and tells Alex that she’s 24.

The film is told largely in flashbacks as Claire recounts (not always reliably, as it turns out) her actions to her therapist Dr. Bormans (Nicole Garcia). Anyone who has seen the Catfish movie or TV show heard about (or perhaps even experienced) online deception knows that the biggest red flag is when the other person can never meet in person for complicated reasons. Alex does become frustrated and even suspicious as Claire (calling herself Clara) is never able to meet. She finally agrees to a meeting but only watches Alex from a distance; he, of course, doesn’t recognize her as he’s going by a fake photo. She then makes up a fake excuse, saying she lives with someone.

Who You Think I Am has several twists that I won’t reveal. Unlike the contrived twists that often occur in mysteries and thrillers, where the whole point is to fool the audience, the twists in this psychological drama are actually plausible. In any case, the film is more of a character study than a commentary on contemporary social media or even catfishing. Juliette Binoche, who has been an iconic presence in French cinema since the 1980s, does a brilliant job portraying a woman who is, at once, troubled, confused, and yet confident enough to pull off a grand deception.

Later in the film, things get a bit confusing as scenes not only move back and forth in time but also include bits of Claire’s imagination. Yet, for a character who is constructing an imaginary identity, it’s actually fitting that she moves seamlessly between fact and fantasy.

If this topic was covered in a typical American film, it would be either a cringe rom-com or a suspense thriller where someone was an obsessed stalker and at least one brutal murder. Fortunately, Who You Think I Am is a more complex and nuanced look at modern relationships as influenced by social media culture.

Nightmare Alley on Hulu

Nightmare Alley (2021), directed by Guillermo del Toro, is a remake of a 1947 film based on a novel by William Lindsay Gresham. It’s a long (2.5 hours), an ambitious period piece that evokes the atmosphere of old noir style movies.

Nightmare Alley stars Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle, a drifter running from a crime who starts working for a traveling carnival. Nightmare Alley is full of strong character actors, which is fitting for a movie that’s largely set in a traveling carnival. There’s the unsavory owner Clem (William Dafoe), a fortuneteller named Zeena (Toni Collette) and her brilliant but alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn), Bruno the strongman (Ron Perlman), and Molly (Rooney Mara), a girl who survives apparent electrocution night after night. The carnival also has a geek who eats live chickens, so the movie isn’t for the squeamish.

The early scenes of the carnival, which are left out of the 1947 film, simply serve as Stanton’s origin story. He takes up with Molly, convincing her that they are both capable of grander things, and they take their act to the big city (or Buffalo, anyway, which seems like a big city compared to the small towns Stanton and Molly are accustomed to). We next see them conning higher end marks in nightclubs.

Nightmare Alley is not only set in the 1930 and early 40s (the onset of America’s entry into World War 2 is a background story heard on news broadcasts) but the film’s style and sensibility recall movies of this era. Of course, as a remake, this isn’t really unexpected. However, del Toro could have chosen to reimagine Gresham’s tale through a more modern lens. Instead, he amplifies many old tropes, most notably the powerful figure of a beautiful but deadly femme fatale, perfectly cast with Cate Blanchett.

Nightmare Alley is an unapologetically old-fashioned film. The neat way the story cycles back on itself is reminiscent of not only movies from the black and white era but also shows like the original Twilight Zone, where characters get what’s coming to them. This, of course, can be traced back much further, such as to the Greek tragedies. However, sometime in the late 20th century, movies began to evolve (not necessarily implying improvement) in a more postmodern direction, and things didn’t have to make sense, destiny was uncertain, and you never know what might happen. Modern audiences may, therefore, find Nightmare Alley a bit hackneyed, which is fine as long as you understand that del Toro has not actually “post modernized” a tale from the old days of Hollywood, simply made it bigger, longer, and flashier.

The Lost Daughter: Enigmatic Character Study

The Lost Daughter, which premiered on Netflix right before the New Year, shows that Netflix aims at quite a diverse audience. The recent hit Don’t Look Up is a sendup of pop culture (with some heavy-handed messages); Cobra Kai attracts a mixture of older viewers nostalgic for The Karate Kid as well as younger, newer fans of the franchise. Meanwhile, The Lost Daughter is an ultra-indie offering based on an Italian novel. If you’re looking for action, sex or politics you won’t find it here. However, it is an interesting character study that also manages to be disturbing in its low-key way.

The Lost Daughter is the first film directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is also the co-writer along with the novel’s author Elena Ferrante. It stars Olivia Colman as Leda, a native of England who is currently a professor in Boston. Leda is on a solo vacation on a Greek island, where she, at first, seems to mainly want to be left alone.

Leda is a difficult character to understand or sympathize with. She is alternately aloof, hostile, and friendly to the people she meets such as her apartment’s caretaker Lyle (Ed Harris) and Will (Paul Mescal), a young Irish student working at the resort for the summer. Her solitude on the beach is interrupted by a large and loud American family. However, after a brief altercation over seating, she becomes interested in Nina (Dakota Johnson), one of the family who has a young daughter.

When Nina can’t find her daughter, everyone panics and searches the beach. Leda, however, finds the young girl and is at least temporarily embraced by the family. However, complications ensue when the daughter’s beloved doll is missing. Probably the closest thing to a spoiler I can reveal here I a film with no real action is that Leda has taken the doll because it apparently reminds her of a doll she used to have.Leda’s encounter with Nina and the child reminds her of the past and the film then slips in and out of flashbacks of Leda as a younger woman (played by Jessie Buckley) who has two young daughters of her own.

I haven’t read the novel, but a lot seems to hinge on Leda’s introspection. Apart from the flashbacks, however, it’s hard to understand her motivations. She is clearly troubled about the past, which seems to be mainly due to a period when she abandoned her husband and children. Perhaps she sees herself in Nina and her daughter, though she seems almost more obsessed with the doll than with the actual people.

The conclusion is a bit ambiguous and can be interpreted in multiple ways. If you’re a fan of quiet, introspective films that don’t offer simple explanations or resolutions, then The Lost Daughter is something worth checking out.