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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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, 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.
Safe is one of those low-key films it’s easy to miss even though it received quite a bit of acclaim when it was released in 1995. Directed by Todd Haynes, this is a stark and understated psychological drama starring Julianne Moore as a suburban housewife who becomes increasingly distraught over symptoms and chemical sensitivity.
Safe is the kind of film that raises more questions than it answers. Anyone who suffers from an autoimmune disease such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (or a host of other conditions) may identify with Carol. On the other hand, you can also interpret her situation in a more existentialist way. Is Carol actually physically sick, or is she suffering from a kind of societal malaise that leaves supposedly successful people feeling empty and at odds with an increasingly alienating environment?
In the early scenes of Safe, Carol is shown shopping, having coffee with friends, and driving her Mercedes around nondescript, affluent suburban California neighborhoods. When she first describes her symptoms, she mentions being under stress. Yet her life contains very little stress, at least as conventionally defined. What we can see is that she moves through her life in a robotic way, barely connecting with her unsympathetic husband and her friends from the gym. Her perpetually blase affect is contrasted not by her bland surroundings but by references to the more dangerous and passionate wider world, as when her son excitedly talks about gangs or she hears a fundamentalist preacher on the radio.
As Carol’s symptoms worsen and she doesn’t get help from doctors, she visits Wrenwood, a retreat center that’s run by a self-help guru named Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman). Wrenwood, like Carol’s illness, is hard to pin down. Friedman’s new age rhetoric is meant to be inspirational but it also emphasizes that people are responsible for their own conditions. Is Dunning helping people reach their potential and heal themselves or is he a huckster taking their money while mouthing cliches? As with Carols’s illness, you have to make up your own mind.
At one point, Carol makes a halting, confused speech about how much Wrenwood has helped her. Julianne Moore does a superb job of playing a character whose words are often incongruous with what she’s actually feeling. Soon even the isolated retreat center isn’t sufficient escape from the encroaching pollution and chemicals as Carol starts to believe that fumes from the nearest highway are reaching her.
As Safe has little in the way of a linear plot, I don’t think discussing the ending really qualifies as a spoiler. The final scene (from which I’ve posted a clip from YouTube) reveals that Carol has retreated still further, to an isolated igloo where she’s alone, breathing through a gas mask. The final scene has her repeating “I love you” into the mirror with an utterly hollow expression that belies this affirmation.
Safe, as you can probably gather, isn’t an uplifting film. It has a protagonist with an undefined problem with no apparent solution. With such murky material, I feel entitled to my own interpretation, which centers on the film’s title.
I actually started thinking about this film partly because in 2020 we’re living in a time when the word “safe” is repeated endlessly and people are widely concerned about symptoms, even if from a virus rather than the more nebulous environmental contaminants faced by Carol. The whole idea of being safe brings up the eternal dilemma of living in a world that is inherently unsafe and suggests that when we place too much value on safety it turns us into prisoners at odds with the very fabric of life. The latter, of course, is only one possible interpretation. To me, the film is elegantly ambiguous, leaving us to take from it what we will.
Fans of martial arts dramas will probably want to catch The Art of Self-Defense, now showing on Hulu. This quirky indie film stars Jessie Eisenberg as Casey, a meek accountant who learns Karate after getting mugged.
Jesse Eisenberg has one of the most varied resumes in Hollywood. He alternately stars in mainstream films such as The Social Network, high-profile indie films such as The Squid and the Whale and seriously offbeat indie efforts such as Free Samples and, more recently, The Art of Self-Defense.
The rather generically-named The Art of Self-Defense, written and directed by Riley Stearns, is sort of like a twisted version of The Karate Kid, with perhaps some Fight Club thrown in. It’s a bizarre and uneven mix of comedy, violence, and just plain darkness.
The premise of a wimpy protagonist learning martial arts is hardly new. Casey (Eisenberg) is, of course, not a kid or teen but a guy in his mid-thirties who, nonetheless, finds himself bullied wherever he goes. This culminates in a vicious assault that winds him in the hospital. After shopping for a gun, Casey wanders into a local dojo and is drawn into the warped world of Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), an intense instructor who makes The Karate Kid’s Sensei Kreese (who’s still menacing Daniel LaRusso and California’s dojos in the recent YouTube series Cobra Kai, btw) seem like a pacifist by comparison.
I won’t recount the entire plot of The Art of Self-Defense as this would inevitably contain spoilers. Suffice it to say that Casey undergoes a transformation from a meek and frightened victim to a belligerent (and rather unhinged) tough guy who takes no $hit. Sensei (who only has that title, no name) is a strange character who mixes typical martial arts traditionalism with large doses of sadism, misogyny, and, eventually, outright insanity.
There’s no real message to The Art of Self-Defense and it’s a hard film to categorize. To me, it has a pessimistic and nihilistic soul. It could be called a satire of martial arts except that few martial artists embody quite the oddball mixture of traits practiced by Sensei. One of the sub-themes involves sexism as the dojo’s female instructor Anna (Imogen Poots) is treated unfairly and never promoted to black belt. This theme, however, doesn’t quite mesh with the obvious fact that Sensei and his entire dojo are basically nuts. In effect, Anna is being discriminated against by a death cult. Why doesn’t she just quit and find a more normal place to train?
The Art of Self-Defense is an interesting, mostly engaging but ultimately unsatisfying dark comedy/drama that plays with several serious issues without offering much depth or consistency on any of them. It’s about vengeance, the violence underlying modern society, the nature of martial arts and male-dominated clubs in general, and the dangers of blindly following authority. By the end, many things have changed but no one has necessarily learned anything.
Room For Rent, a low-budget Canadian blackish comedy directed by Matthew Atkinson, is the kind of indie comedy that provides a respite from the steady stream of formula action, horror, rom-coms, and other generic fare churned out by the Hollywood machine.
This isn’t to say that Room For Rent doesn’t fall into genre cliches of its own. There’s definitely an established category of psycho roommate who won’t leave. However, while Brett Gelman infuses the unhinged roommate Carl with an edgy creepiness that could turn scary, the film never quite goes into full-fledged horror mode.
Mitch (Mark Little) is a thirty-something slacker who still lives with his parents. The catch in his case is that he’s a former lottery winner who managed to blow over $3 million in a few years with a series of failed inventions and improbable business ventures, including a self-drying umbrella and a sex doll marketed to teen girls.
When Mitch’s father (played by Mark McKinney, known as the goofy manager on the TV show Superstore) loses his job, the family is faced with the prospect of losing their home. Rather than consider the extreme prospect of getting a job, Mitch comes up with the idea of renting out a room. Enter Carl, who arrives with a suitcase, ready to move in on the spot, and a thick wad of cash which overcomes the parent’s reluctance to take in a complete stranger.
Carl wins over the parents but makes Mitch uneasy. An undertone of creepiness soon becomes outright threats and pranks. Carl calls up Mitch’s ex-girlfriend Lindsay (Carla Gallo), who Mitch alienated while going on his spending spree years ago.
The second half of Room For Rent takes a slightly different course than you might expect from the Roommate From Hell genre. Without getting too specific, let’s say that the film provides a semi-coherent motive for Gelman’s bizarre behavior.
I found the explanation a bit convoluted and contrived. For one thing, it depended on Carl arriving at Mitch’s household literally minutes after the “Room For Rent” sign was put up. It also gets into some dubious legal and business matters involving patents that may or may not make sense (I’ll let someone with an MBA or a patent lawyer answer that one).
All in all, however, Room For Rent is an entertaining movie. I always give props to a film that’s at least somewhat unpredictable. In a typical Hollywood film with this kind of setup, you’d have something like Pacific Heights (actually a pretty good example, and one of the first, of that genre), where Michael Keaton’s psycho character gets crazier and crazier until the predictable bloodbath ensues.
Countless cable (e.g. Lifetime) knockoffs of this variety have been made. At least Room For Rent, though not perfect, manages to walk an interesting line between drama and dark comedy without falling into total cliche.
Reviews, news and information related to independent films.