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.
The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From a Mythical Man is a documentary on Netflix about a curious phenomenon involving the comic actor who’s reinvented himself as a kind of trickster guru over the last decade.
“Bill Murray sightings” have been reported for many years. These are seemingly random incidents where Murray appears in unlikely places such as a kickball game, a college dorm, or at a random party. Filmmaker Tommy Avallone sets out to document these sightings and find out if they are real or simply bizarre urban legends.
These aren’t like typical celebrity sightings. Murray is always alone and simply blends into the local culture. As Avallone discovers, many of these stories are true. The documentary has footage from several of these events as people are shocked and overwhelmed to have a star in their midst.
You can look at Bill Murray Stories in a number of ways. On one level, it’s a study in the modern obsession with celebrity. Several of the interviewees have almost religious awe at having met Murray, saying how the experienced transformed their lives. This is touching yet also a bit disturbing.
On the other hand, Murray seems intent on providing inspiration and positive energy without the usual celebrity fanfare. Even if these encounters do make the celebrity gossip columns, Murray doesn’t really need the exposure at this point. He seems to be having a good time as he elevates the environment.
We’re also reminded that many of Murray’s films such as Razor’s Edge, Groundhog Day, Caddyshack and even Meatballs have a transformative message. In a strange way, Murray truly seems to be a latter-day Zen master who is now wandering the world inserting himself into the lives of ordinary people.
There’s also a clip from Coffee and Cigarettes, one of my favorite Jim Jarmusch films, which is a series of semi-improvised sketches with odd pairings of celebrities having random conversations. In one scene, Bill Murray plays himself pretending to be a waiter, referencing the whole Bill Murray Sighting phenomenon.
Possible Spoiler Alert: Bill Murray is never directly interviewed in this film. All the footage is taken from previous “sightings” and public appearances (such as one Murray made at a Comi-Con festival). This, however, is actually part of the appeal of Bill Murray Stories. If Avallone had full access to Murray, it would just seem like another insider piece. Instead, it’s more like a doc you might catch at an indie film festival.
The Netflix documentary Fyre looks at the infamous Fyre festival of 2017. What was meant to be a game-changing super luxury music festival for privileged millennials turned into a disaster.
While much of the blame can be attributed to organizer Billy McFarland (one of his associates labels him an “operational sociopath”), it was really a group effort that required the complicity of influencers, marketing agencies, and, not least, the people who gullibly bought the exorbitant tickets on faith.
Fyre is interesting on many levels. Far more than just a failed event, it speaks to a crucial aspect of contemporary culture: the obsession with social media and influencers and the obsessive need to be associated with celebrities and glamour.
One darkly amusing segment at the end shows how McFarland, out on bail after the collapse of Fyre, was able to con people on the festival’s mailing list yet again with a bogus “VIP Access” scam that promised imaginary meetings with Taylor Swift, a private dinner with Lebron James, and discounted tickets to Burning Man and Coachella.
What really SOLD people to pay as much as $250,000 for a Fyre ticket? It obviously wasn’t the opportunity to hear great music or even lounge on the beach. You can do that for a fraction of the cost. To really get the idea, you need to watch the original promo video for the event.
They recruited some of the world’s top models along with scenes of pristine beaches, private jets, and yachts to appeal to what MacFarland says in one of the doc’s most revealing comments:
“We’re selling a pipe dream to your average loser.”
What’s so incredibly significant about that statement is that it applies to so much of the modern media, advertising, and social media landscape. TV commercials and magazine ads were doing this decade before the internet. What’s different is that now they can package more than mere products.
Fyre: A Lifestyle App
At the beginning of the doc, it was pointed out that Fyre was meant to be more than just a one-off festival. It was supposedly going to be a platform for matching people (presumably ones with lots of disposable cash) with amazing experiences. Macfarland was also involved in another gimmicky endeavor: Magnises, a metallic black card that was meant to be an even more exclusive version of the American Express Black Card. Like the Fyre Festival, Magnises crashed due to lack of substance.
All of McFarland’s projects from Magnises to Fyre to the post-Fyre VIP Access were blatant attempts to exploit the public’s (it would be unfair to confine it to the easy target of millennials) fascination with celebrity, wealth, and glamour.
Lord of the Flies Meets The Beach in 2017?
One disturbing aspect of Fyre goes beyond the intentions of the promoters and organizers and relates to how the festivalgoers themselves behaved. Granted, they had good reason to be disappointed, angry, and even scared. What had been promised as a luxury resort atmosphere resembled a refugee camp, with hundreds of tents lining the beach.
We see how their mood transforms from exuberant to skeptical to outraged. This is perfectly understandable. What’s unfortunate is how this quickly degenerated into what one observer called a “looting mentality.” The scene became a nightmare that evoked some of the most dystopian novels/movies set on beaches from Lord of the Flies to The Beach.
One festivalgoer, without apparent shame, admitted how he and his friends destroyed neighboring tents to make them uninhabitable, all so they wouldn’t have close neighbors. This type of reaction doesn’t bode well for civilization if any major catastrophes ensue.
Equally interesting was the reaction on social media from the general public -in other words, people not suffering at the festival. The reaction was hardly sympathetic. On the contrary, there was widespread hilarity and exuberance. The prevailing attitude was that it served these spoiled rich kids right for spending so much money on a luxury excursion. There’s was definitely an element of class envy going on here.
The Dot Com Collapse, Blockchain and Castles in the Air
The way McFarland and co-conspirators were able to sell the Fyre concept is reminiscent of other internet-related phenomena. While fast-talking scammers have always been able to con the gullible, it’s now much easier to create the appearance and framework of substance even when none exists.
It turned out that many companies were built on nothing but vague concepts. Many were running at a loss. Of course, it’s well known that Amazon, now one of the world’s wealthiest companies, went for many years losing money. However, the majority of businesses that start out losing money don’t turn into Amazon: they simply fade away.
Now, almost 20 years later we have several new developments that make it even easier to create castles in the air: social media, online video, and smartphones. The Fyre Festival was able to construct such a castle by creating a glamorous video and hiring some models and influencers.
The blockchain and cryptocurrency are also producing all kinds of vague and untenable companies. Following the rise of Bitcoin, hundreds of new cryptocurrencies were (and continue to be) released, enticing speculators to invest. Apart from cryptocurrencies, many businesses are using the blockchain concept in realms from publishing to online security.
When McFarland gets out of prison (he’s currently serving a 6-year sentence) it wouldn’t be surprising if he starts a blockchain company. This isn’t to say that the blockchain and cryptocurrency don’t hold real potential. The point is, they can easily be used to create promising yet impractical businesses (or outright scams in some cases).
The Fyre Festival, like McFarland’s other schemes, points to how much of modern society is built on vague and shaky promises. It may be significant that the virtual space where so much data is stored is called The Cloud.
A Society Obsessed With Images
Last year, I read and reviewed a modern classic of sociology, The Image, by Daniel J. Boorstin. This book from 1961 identifies many of the key movements that would morph into contemporary social media/influencer culture. Another prescient classic that dealt with this type of issue was The Society of the Spectacle, by Guy Debord in 1967. Both of these pre-internet thinkers identified the emerging trend of a society where people are obsessed with appearances, images, and celebrities (i.e. people whose images are worshipped).
The Fyre Festival was indeed a pipe dream but one that was irresistible to people immersed in an image and celebrity-centric culture.
Title: The Ritual
Where to see it: Netflix
Director: David Bruckner
Cast: Robert James-Collier, Paul Reid, Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Sam Troughton, Maria Erwolter
If you love horror movies, Netflix has been generously feeding your habit the last few months. Some of these efforts have succeeded more than others. The Babysitter, for example, is a fun and campy movie while The Open House was almost universally panned by critics (who discouraged me from even watching it). The plot of The Ritual falls into a familiar category for modern horror: a group of friends venture into the wilderness and end up wishing they’d stayed home.
This review contains some spoilers (it’s actually one of those films that’s hard to talk about without giving away key plot points), so you might want to watch the movie before reading any further.
The Ritual is a movie with an English cast that’s mostly set in the mountains of Sweden. Unlike most movies of this type, where everyone is joyfully planning for their doomed expedition, in The Ritual, something bad happens right at the beginning. Five friends who went to college together plan and debate where they should take a vacation together. Before they embark, however, a tragedy occurs where one of them is killed in a convenience store robbery. One of his friends is with him during this incident and hides in the back, so the entire trip is marred by feelings of guilt and blame, an ominous start. They decide to go hiking in Sweden in honor of their deceased pal.
Predictably, the hike to the remote mountains of Northern Sweden turns out to be a bad idea. After conducting a ritual for their deceased friend, one of the men injures his ankle, slowing their progress. They decide to take a “shortcut” through the forest, a really bad idea as anyone who’s ever seen a horror movie knows. At this point, the group encounters scenarios from both The Blair Witch Project and The Wicker Man (both versions, the earlier one is better, as is usually the case). They discover a rundown cabin with strange runes and a bizarre headless figure. They all have nightmares and start to see strange visions. Then, it becomes apparent that a malevolent creature is stalking them. Not only that, but they run into a group of pagan cultists who practice human sacrifice (the Wicker Man idea).
So the movie does have some familiar tropes, but what horror film doesn’t? On the plus side, the film is genuinely scary in places. The sense of dread builds as the woods and creepy surroundings close in on them. Adding to their trouble is the tension and distrust between them. Then there’s the monster itself. While critics are generally positive about The Ritual, with some reservations, everyone agrees that the monster is exceptional. It’s not only scary but original and imaginative. It’s difficult (as well as pointless and counterproductive) to describe it, but let’s say it’s a terrific embodiment of the very last thing you’d want to run into late at night in the woods.
The ending isn’t bad for a horror movie. It’s not exactly cheerful but it’s not quite as bleak, confusing, or meaningless as it could have been and many such films are. The last remaining hiker escapes and basically confronts his inner and outer demons (he’s the one who failed to save his friend at the beginning -I warned you there’d be spoilers). The monster fails to catch him, but is alive and well (if angry and fuming), so there’s always the possibility of a sequel. If you want further clarification on the ending, check out the helpful explanation on Heavy.com. All in all, The Ritual is a good choice for horror fans looking for something fun and scary on Netflix.
The Circle, a Netflix original movie, will appeal to fans of the UK series Black Mirror. Each episode of that series was a dark, dystopian look at modern technology and how things that seem to be making life better also have truly sinister consequences. In the case of The Circle, the issues examined are privacy and the prospect of a completely transparent society where all of our actions can be viewed by the public at all times.
The Circle has a well-known and high-quality cast, especially for a movie without a theatrical release. Emma Watson stars as Mae, a young woman who gets an entry level job at a company that’s sort of a combination of Apple, Google, and Facebook. Tom Hanks is the charismatic and megalomaniacal Steve Jobs-type cult figure who runs the company known as The Circle. Also appearing are Bill Paxton and Karen Gillan, known for her role in Dr. Who.
At first, The Circle evokes familiar images of ultra-hip work environments such as the Google Campus. The setting is Sunnyvale, California, the heart of Silicon Valley. The campus has the kind of amenities normally associated with a cruise ship. At the same time, the atmosphere is eerily cultlike and employees are all but compelled to socialize constantly, weekends included, and report all of their doings on The Circe’s own social media site.
Mae, at first skeptical of the company’s all-pervasive technology (which includes a mini-camera that can take in entire scenes without being noticed, supposedly to help expose abuses of power) but who is gradually drawn into the mystique. For one thing, her father is suffering from MS and the company helps him with its cutting edge medical technology. Then, she impulsively goes out in a kayak late at night and almost drowns -thanks to The Circle’s cameras, however, she is observed and saved. Then she agrees to participate in an experiment where her life is broadcast 24/7 – sort of like a Truman Show, only in this case the star/victim knows she’s being filmed all the time.
We can question the realism of The Circle -especially the idea that someone like Mae could so quickly go from “guppy” (the company’s cutesy name for new employees) to one of its most powerful and influential spokespeople in a matter of weeks. There are also some actions taken by The Circle that would most likely have been prevented by the company’s legal team to avoid lawsuits and criminal prosecution.
As with Black Mirror, however, it’s best to view the movie as a kind of sci-fi thought experiment and parable rather than hold it to a strict standard of realism. The Circle raises fascinating questions about two opposing values: the right to privacy vs. the benefits of a completely transparent society. The ending is somewhat ambiguous and darkly ironic, which leaves the fundamental questions open-ended.
As the article points out, Netflix is now becoming more popular for its original shows, namely House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, while its selection of streaming movies is sadly limited. The article goes on to allude to the “decreasing importance of film in pop culture.”
One thing that this analysis leaves out is that some people don’t seek out Hollywood blockbusters on Netflix. The site, for all its limitations, can be a good source for finding smaller, lesser known indie films. Granted, some of these are direct-to-video, low budget (and in many cases low quality) flicks.
There are, however, also quite a few good ones that deserve more attention than they receive. Just to name a few recent examples, while the average person may not have seen or heard of The Institute or Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus, some Netflix customers subscribe to the service mainly for the pleasure of finding such hidden gems.
There are also plenty of in-between films -not quite mainstream yet not obscure or art house. To give an example of such a recent release, check out Mr. Nobody, which was released in 2009 but only recently became available on Netflix Streaming.
It’s a little sad to see people equating movies with mainstream movies.
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