All posts by Admin71

Squid Game and Dystopias: What are They Telling Us?

Squid Game, directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, is the latest dystopian thriller that recalls aspects of The Hunger Games as well as many Black Mirror episodes. For many fairly obvious reasons, audiences can relate to the idea of a dark present-near future where survival hinges on horrific actions and ethical choices.

This will be more analysis and speculation about Netflix’s huge hit than a review. I’m not going to recount the plot in detail and there will be spoilers, so it’s really meant for people who have already seen the miniseries.

It’s interesting that a Korean film dealing with economic hardship and class struggle, Parasite, won the Academy Award for Best Picture and now a mega-successful miniseries from the same country breaks Netflix records. Of course, Korea is certainly not the only country dealing with such issues or these works wouldn’t resonate in so many other places, including the United States.

I watched the entire miniseries and found it mostly compelling. It’s more depressing than enjoyable, but that’s by design of course. I can’t say I’m anxious to see the next season, assuming there is one. More than anything, I wonder what the intention of such works really are, beyond the obvious motives to entertain and, from the point of view of the creators, to make money.

I can think of three ways to interpret Squid Game: As purely escapist entertainment, as a metaphor of present-day life, and perhaps a warning of where we’re headed or as a tool to demoralize the audience.

Even nightmarish scenarios, such as horror films and dystopian tales are escapist. Perhaps they provide relief by presenting a world even grimmer than the real one.

As a warning and expose, in the vein of 1984 and Brave New World. The games are a fairly obvious metaphor for a ruthless capitalistic society that values only competition and winning.

Russell Brand weighs in on the second possibility, seeing Squid Game as an expose of capitalism. Like many YouTube video titles, his is a bit clickbaity, suggesting that his analysis is unique and unprecedented. While Brand is always entertaining and unusually articulate, I don’t think seeing Squid Games as a metaphor for contemporary life is much of a stretch (sadly).

The third and darkest possibility is that Squid Game, along with other dystopian movies, shows and novels, may actually be part of a plan to condition us for a bleak future. Indeed, there are conspiracy theories that books like Orwell’s 1984 were meant to demoralize readers and get them to accept the inevitable.

Since I can’t get into the heads of the creators, I prefer to consider the effects of works such as Squid Game rather than try to guess the intentions behind it.

Daniel Pinchbeck gives a thoughtful analysis of this perspective, seeing this type of work as nihilistic
neo-liberal pornography.” From this perspective, the grim choices faced by the contestants are there to prepare us for such a grim reality.

Is the world of Squid Game really one of pure brutality and hopelessness? There are traces of humanity, most notably displayed by the star, Seong Gi-hun, who plays Gi-Hun, a flawed character who joins the game due to gambling debts. Throughout the games, however, his empathy is revealed and, at one point, he refuses to kill an antagonist even though it meant winning the entire game.

Can’t Stop Playing the Game

The ending of Squid Game shows Gi-Hun, the winner (I told you there’d be spoilers), unsatisfied and unable to enjoy his newfound wealth. At the very end, he even decides to rejoin the game rather than visit his estranged daughter. Of course, the obvious reason for this is to set up a possible Season 2. However, it also raises questions about the nature of gambling, games, and life.

What are Gi-Hun’s motives? Presumably, he doesn’t care about winning more money as he hasn’t even enjoyed what he’s already won. Rather, he seems intent on infiltrating and perhaps exposing and destroying the game.

Where Does That Leave Us?

Putting aside the need to end the season on a cliffhanger, where does the ending leave the audience? The game is certainly evil, run by ruthless sociopaths. However, even this is not without ambiguity, as we learn that the old man, player Number 1 (Oh Yeong-su), is actually the creator. His motives are vague –he supposedly wanted to recreate games from his childhood -yet, why make them brutal life-or-death contests then?

The problem is, the people who volunteer to play are in a can’t-win situation. They choose to play because they have nothing waiting for them in the outside world and no way to improve their situation. So, even if a hero such as Gi-Hun were to dismantle the whole enterprise, would he really be helping society? Rather than risk a quick death, the players would just live out their lives in poverty and misery.

So, the world of Squid Game indeed presents us with a grim world where there is no apparent solution. The real world is hopeless for many people and their only chance is to play a game that will most likely mean death. This can be seen as an exaggerated version of poor and working class people relying on the lottery or some other form of gambling as their only salvation. Indeed, Gi-Hun is a gambler himself.

Squid Game may have subversive intentions or it may not. Either way, it doesn’t present a very hopeful vision of the future (or present). Rather, it portrays a scenario where the vast majority of people are helpless pawns in a vast, omnipotent system. It may be time to look beyond dystopian and post-apocalyptic visions. Utopias, which are out of fashion now anyway, don’t really help much either as they seem completely removed from our current reality. Perhaps we need a new genre, one that provides more of a roadmap from dystopia to a utopia or at least a tolerable world.

A Glitch In The Matrix: Documentary streaming on Hulu

Are we living in a computer simulation? Are alternate realities bleeding into our own, causing multiple interpretations of the same events, also known as the Mandela Effect? How can we even know what is real? If these sorts of questions fascinate you, A Glitch In The Matrix, a documentary currently streaming on Hulu might be for you.

Directed by Rodney Ascher, who also directed Room 237, which explored strange symbols and synchronicities associated with The Shining. While the unifying topic of Room 237 keeps it relatively reigned in, A Glitch In The Matrix is an unfocused romp through various loosely related topics concerning science fiction, philosophy, and technology.

Philip K. Dick provides the closest thing to an anchor for the film. Specifically, we see portions of a lecture he gave in Paris in 1977, where he refers to reality glitches and basically describes the popular idea of the Mandela Effect without naming it (obviously, as Nelson Mandela, in any timeline, was still alive back then). Beyond anything else, the doc establishes Dick as one of the founding influencers on modern simulation theory as well as The Mandela Effect.

As the title suggests, The Matrix is also a major theme. The Matrix films actually introduced an ancient concept into popular consciousness —the notion that the world we perceive isn’t the real reality, but some type of projection. Of course, it’s only in the digital age that we came up with the idea of a computer simulation.

Some of the documentary’s more interesting speculations remind us that philosophers from Plato to Descartes have examined these themes. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in particular, is an obvious influence on the Matrix.

The 17th century philosopher Descartes, posed the idea of a demon who fools everyone into believing in a false reality. This connects to his famous adage, “I think, therefore I am.” While self-identity is fairly persuasive most of the time (I don’t think Descartes was familiar with psychedelics), it doesn’t necessarily prove that the world around us is real.

The film doesn’t mention Gnosticism, an early Christian heresy, which was strongly influenced by Plato and various schools of ancient mysticism. Gnostics believe the world we see was created by the Demiurge, a kind of false god (who may also be the God of the Old Testament) and usurper. The goal of gnosis or knowledge is to find our way back to the true creator.

Buddhism and other Eastern religions also helped to set the stage for simulation theory. Of particular relevance is the concept of Maya, which can be translated as illusion or deceit. If we don’t perceive reality as it is, it’s not so farfetched to believe we’re inside a simulation.

When not focusing on Philip K. Dick and ancient philosophy, A Glitch In The Matrix features a group of seemingly random interviewees. These are all guys dressed in bizarre sci-fi outfits. I’m not sure if these costumes are from cosplay events, comic books, or computer games, but the effect doesn’t exactly add to the film’s credibility. To me, it has the effect of pigeon-holing the topic into the realm of sheer geekiness. To be sure, these are geeky, intellectual topics, but they didn’t have to go overboard to drive home this point.

I’m not sure if the interviewees wanted to remain anonymous or if they just thought it was cool or entertaining to have these get-ups. They sounded intelligent enough, but didn’t seem to have any special credentials apart from having some interesting anecdotes regarding synchronicities. I found some of these stories a bit underwhelming, at least as far as providing any real insights into simulation theory. Arguably, they could have better spent the time by delving more deeply into the history and philosophy of these ideas.

Aside from Philip K. Dick and the costumed characters, the film quotes various other opinions on simulation theory, including Elon Musk to Neil deGrasse Tyson, who both believe it’s likely we are indeed in a simulation. A couple of the talking heads bring up the statistical probability of this being true. Personally, I don’t find statistics convincing with this type of metaphysical argument. It’s either true or it isn’t.

A Glitch In The Matrix also reveals the potential dark side to simulation theory. In the 19th century, Dostoyevsky explored the idea of nihilism in novels such as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. A famous line from the latter novel, spoken by the atheist Ivan, states, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Of course, Dostoyevsky meant this in the worst possible way, meaning that people have no reason to follow any type of moral code. In the 21st century, simulation theory can be seen as posing a similar moral dilemma. A Glitch In The Matrix explores this in depth.

One character who gets lots of air time is Joshua Cooke, who came to be known as “The Matrix killer.” He also used The Matrix Defense in court, a variation on the insanity plea. We hear Cooke himself describing in detail how, after repeatedly watching the films (along with listening to various hardcore music soundtracks), he murdered his parents with a shotgun. This eerie and unnerving sequence reveals a dark side of simulation theory, the possibility that, if our lives aren’t even real, we don’t have to worry about the consequences of our actions.

On a similar note, they cover a case of someone who randomly decided to steal a plane because he’d done so in computer games. Before fatally crashing, he is heard over the airwaves saying that it’s just like a video game.

A Glitch In The Matrix is not the most coherent presentation of ideas such as the Simulation Hypothesis and the Mandela Effect. On the other hand, these topics are intrinsically confusing, paradoxical, and multidimensional, so a logical linear approach may not be ideal or even possible.

It’s not likely there will ever be a definitive study of this infinitely complex and unprovable theory (which is equally impossible to disprove). A Glitch In The Matrix, despite its unevenness and the distracting costumes, does contribute something of value to the discussion and certainly provokes further thought.

Bo Burnham: Inside on Netflix

Bo Burnham is one of the most innovative stand-up comics regularly featured on Netflix. As he related in this latest special, Bo Burnham: Inside, he just turned 30 (something he celebrates during the special in a strange and sad way), and has positioned himself as a leading spokesperson for the social media generation. His material clearly sets him apart from the old guard of comics, who still tend to fall back on familiar topics such as airports, bad drivers, the differences between men and women, and their kids’ wacky antics. Nothing wrong with covering familiar yet universal material but Burnham inhabits a different universe, one that’s ultra postmodern and self-conscious. He’s always been this way, but Inside takes it all to a new level.

Inside is groundbreaking while testing the patience of his audience. Filmed over many months in 2020, it features Burnham’s endless hours of self-reflection and self-doubt during months of confinement. Of course, it’s doubtful that he literally never left his house as the on-screen scenario implies, but we can grant him this fiction for the sake of the performance. Not everyone is so generous. A reviewer for Slate takes Burnham to task for exaggerating his isolation and mental state, apparently causing some naive viewers to worry about him.


Another way this performance differs from those in the past is the emphasis on musical numbers. While Burnham always includes a few of these, Inside consists mostly of bizarre ditties, such as Welcome to the Internet :

Welcome to the Internet! What would you prefer?
Would you like to fight for civil rights or tweet a racial slur?
Be happy! Be horny! Be bursting with rage!
We’ve got a million different ways to engage.

This may be my favorite part of the special, as he really does manage to encapsulate the absurdity of social media and the internet, which he sums up in the chorus:

Could I interest you in everything all the time?
A little bit of everything all the time?
Apathy’s a tragedy, and boredom is a crime?

Bo Burnham, even with his more typical performances, is big on self-reflection and meta analysis. Here, devoid of an audience and free to play with his video cameras and special effects, he takes these tactics to an extreme. There’s a sequence where he analyzes himself analyzing himself, ad infinitum until he quits in exasperation.

In another skit, which could be seen as a microcosm for the whole show, he critiques his own performance saying “It’s boring, but that’s the point.” That’s the weird thing about Inside; it’s brilliant and thought-provoking, even as it taxes your attention span. I confess I watched it in two sessions and even then it seemed a bit long. Burham is certainly aware of the challenge of presenting a show meant to shine the spotlight on claustrophobia and angst and keep people’s attention. At one point, he sang about not wanting to know if people were paying attention or looking at their phones.

Bo Burnham is an artist who provokes criticism as well as adoration. He’s constantly walking a razor’s edge that borders on narcissism, if not solipsism. His self-awareness on this very tendency only accentuates the point, as when he says “And I think that, ‘Oh, if I’m self-aware about being a douchebag, it’ll somehow make me less of a douchebag.'” By the way, to remember that quote I referred to the transcript of the show, which is available in case anyone actually wants to read it through.

The absurdity of Burnham’s self-absorption is a microcosm of the world that’s emerging all around us. He’s not merely an astute spokesperson for the social media generation, he’s a kind of prototype. Much in the way Quentin Tarantino raised himself on movies, Burnham raised himself on YouTube. If nothing else, he knows this world inside out, creating a weird kind of sensibility that’s both brilliantly creative and morbidly insular.

Bo Burnham is definitely worth watching, as his finger is on the pulse of so much of what’s happening now, for better and for worse. Aside from that, he’s one of the most original comics working today.

Nomadland: Film and Book

Nomadland, directed by Chloé Zhao and starring Frances Mcdormand, is a fictionalized rendering of a book by Jessica Bruder. The book is a nonfiction study of the emerging subculture of nomadic people who, mainly due to economic necessity, adopted the nomadic lifestyle of living in vans.

The movie focuses mainly on a woman named Fern (McDormand) who sets off in her van after her husband dies and the town in Nevada where they lived literally shuts down after losing a factory. The movie, while fictionalized, follows a documentary format. Indeed, it stars many actual nomads who are discussed in the book such as Bob Wells, who acts as a mentor for people new to the van lifestyle.

Since around the financial collapse of 2008, many people in late middle age and even older, became van-dwelling nomads. Some subsist on social security or savings but many work at a variety of temporary jobs all over the country. Amazon warehouses are a major employer of these folks, which is portrayed in the film and, much more comprehensively, in the book.

The movie was recently awarded a Golden Globes Award for Best Drama. While the acting (such as it is, as many characters are simply playing themselves) and cinematography are flawless. The lonely beauty of the American Southwest plays a major part in setting the mood. However, compared to the book, Nomadland tends to water down some important aspects of this lifestyle.

A Self-Reliant Loner

Frances McDormand expertly portrays low-key, earthy characters such as Fern. Her character here is still recovering from the heartbreak of losing her husband and home. The movie mainly depicts the challenges of life on the road and the creative ways nomads cope with everyday issues such as staying warm, going to the bathroom, and cooking.

The closest thing to a plot is that a fellow nomad is obviously interested in Fern and pursues her while she keeps him at a distance. There’s also a scene in which Fern visits her family and tensions from the past arise. These scenes all depict the conflict between the “normal” domestic way of life and the nomadic one. It suggests that living on the road for a long time makes one feel imprisoned by conventional life.

Led by Bob Wells, we see how the nomads form temporary yet close-knit communities. Many, like Fern, are fiercely independent loners who, nonetheless, take pleasure in one another’s company and who help each other out as much as possible.

Nomadland Downplays the Harsh Realities of Gig Work

In Jessica Bruder’s book, the modern nomadic lifestyle is explored as a kind of sociological study, with an emphasis on how economic hardship is forcing people to find new ways to survive. This is certainly obvious in the film as well. When Bob Wells makes his pitch to novice nomads, he preaches an ultra-individualistic philosophy of self-reliance and realizing that society isn’t going to take care of you.

The movie, though insightful about the motivations and personalities of its subjects, avoids looking too closely at what its subjects have to do to survive economically. This is most apparent when we see the nomads working in an Amazon warehouse. My first thought was, “Amazon actually let them film this?” The book, after all, pointed out how hard and exploitative these temporary gigs are, especially on older adults. Bruder describes, for example, how injuries on the floor are common.

In the film, however, we only see brief snippets of people working. And, significantly, the only words actually spoken about Amazon are positive, when Fern tells someone that the pay is good. The film, similarly shows a variety of mostly brief scenes of nomads working in different environments, such as a campground. In this manner, the film underplays one of the most significant facts about this lifestyle —it compels people to work very hard for relatively low wages and no benefits. In this manner, the living in van lifestyle of these contemporary nomads who rely on temp jobs can be seen as one branch of the emerging gig economy.

Vulture discusses this at length in an article, What Nomadland Gets Wrong About Gig Labor. Of course, it’s doubtful Amazon would have permitted filming in their facilities if it was portrayed in a less positive light. Or, perhaps, Zhao preferred not to focus on these issues, which would have made the film more political. As it is, the film is more about the expansive landscapes of the American West and the resourcefulness and community-mindedness of the nomads.

An Emerging Nation of Nomads?

Bruder’s book came out several years ago, and explains how many of the new breed of nomads were victims of the 2008 economic crisis. Today, many of the conditions of that decade have only worsened, made even more severe by businesses closed and jobs lost due to COVID. Even before the pandemic, issues such as homelessness and economic inequality have been steadily worsening. Thus, it’s likely that the lifestyle depicted in Nomadland will become more and more common.

Nomadland is currently streaming on Hulu. I recommend it, but you should definitely read the book to get a fuller picture.

My review of Nomadland on Goodreads

I also did a short podcast on Nomadland (the book).

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.