Wednesday, September 16, 2020


As synopsized, Jeff Orlowski’s Netflix original documentary The Social Dilemma (2020) “explores the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations.” 

In the 1970s, as one of the “heads” coming out of Twin Falls High School in Twin Falls, Idaho, I leaned into the poetry of Richard Brautigan and remember being particularly enthused about his poem “All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace”—what has since become his most frequently reprinted poem—for its utopian vision of a world where machines would improve and protect the lives of humans, leaving them free to commune with nature.

Needless to say, 50 years later, one has to ask: “What’s love got to do with it?”

Very little, unfortunately. It’s perhaps not surprising at all that documentarian Adam Curtis contributed three episodes to the television mini-series documentary named after Brautigan’s poem, and followed-up with his hard-hitting Hypernormalisation (2016)—which should have had some influence in the 2016 presidential election, but which was mysteriously (not-so-mysteriously?) thwarted in distribution (though generously awarded by Jonathan Marlow to participants of Camera Obscura). In Hypernormalisation Curtis proposed that the greatest blow to an informed citizenry protesting government policies was when—after the failure of the national protest against the Gulf War—everyone went online, thereby siphoning off the spirit of physical resistance, and instating a culture of barbershop mirror-gazing.

It has not only been their physical verve that adherents to social media have lost. Collective will has gone anemic in the age of surveillance capitalism. Orlowski (whose previous credits include the equally powerful documentaries Chasing Ice (2012) and Chasing Coral (2017) employs straightforward talking-head interviews with tech luminaries Tristan Harris and Jaron Lanier, among others, but reinforces their talking points with chilling animations that articulate visually how hands on a computer keyboard are equivocal to hands on the strings manipulating marionettes. Dramatized scenarios further illustrate the hazards presented on the screen. Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men) especially does a grand job (in triplicate) of representing the A.I. algorithims of engagement, growth and revenue that have served as the business model effectively steering social media platforms. With disinformation for profit becoming a lucrative endeavor, the role of social media in bringing the experiment of democracy to "a crisis of confidence" is laid out clearly, let alone the statistical success of technology overwhelming human weakness in a grand strategic checkmate move.

Indeed, strategic manipulations abound. Orlowski cleverly uses the theatrical poster for Chasing Ice as set dressing in one of the film's dramatized episodes, making me want to watch it again. The Social Dilemma is available for streaming on Netflix. I’ve already watched it twice. We’re all in danger of having our attention spans usurped, but I can vouch for this film and hope I can steer your attention to where it might do you some good. If you're a Facebook friend, however, I won’t know if you’ve even read these thoughts as I’m turning off notifications once and for all. Imagine if we all did.


Thursday, September 03, 2020


Consistency is a quality I respect in the Fantasia International Film Festival. They are consistent in their commitment to inviting and supporting new talent in genre films—grooming them with the most enthusiastic audiences imaginable at a film festival—and they are consistent in their loyalty to the filmmakers they have introduced, allowing fans to follow the careers of their chosen favorites film after film. It was through Fantasia that I first experienced the particular genius of the McManus Brothers—Kevin and Matthew—when they attended the festival in 2010 for the international premiere of their directorial feature debut Funeral Kings, which screened to considerable acclaim. In stark contrast to a solemn backdrop of grieving mourners, foul-mouthed teens—thinly guised as altar boys—pilfered the communion wine, stealthily smoked cigarettes, and hungered to get to first base with girls way more mature than themselves. The film’s "wonderful vulgarity" (Scott Weinberg) shifted into poignance when the boys experienced the grief of becoming young men sooner than they intended. 

In 2015 the McManus Brothers upped their game by becoming producers for newcomer Victor Zarcoff's Slumlord, which had its world premiere at Fantasia. Slumlord focused on the jaundiced eyes of Gerald (the titular slumlord whose perverse voyeurism was creepily portrayed by Neville Archambault). Archambault’s intensity, as noted by Fantasia programmer Simon Laperrière, instilled fear from his very first appearance on screen. It was an honor and a thrill to subsequently program Slumlord (since re-named 13 Cameras) in San Francisco’s Another Hole in the Head, and I remain forever grateful to the McManus Brothers for their generosity. 

Continuing in production, the McManus Brothers then steered two television series—American Vandal: Clean-up (2017) for Netflix (which earned them an Emmy nomination), and Cobra Kai (2019) for YouTube (and now available for streaming on Amazon Prime)—but then returned to their director chairs for The Block Island Sound (2020), wherein Neville Archambault once again set the bar for creepiness in his portrayal of fisherman Tom Lynch, father of protagonist Harry (Chris Sheffield). Harry’s concerned sister Audry (Michaela McManus, real-life sister of the McManus Brothers), returns home to Block Island where tons of dead fish are mysteriously washing up on shore, and dead birds are dropping out of the sky. Audry finds out that their father is suffering from hallucinations and blackouts and—when he goes missing—she and brother Harry embark on a horrifying discovery of a strange overlord force that has possessed their father and begins to threaten Harry similarly. As the emotionally volatile, often argumentative (yet vulnerable) Harry, Sheffield colors his characterization with multiple tones and hues, ranging from paranoic belligerence to mounting bewildered fear. 

As an admitted genre fan—and as much as I can appreciate predictable zombie rom-coms or yet another vampire squeezing blood from a stone—I am always hoping for a storyline or effect that is different than anything I’ve ever seen before, and The Block Island Sound turns all expectations upside down and delivers a sinister force that is never fully explained and, sagely, never actually seen nor personified. Only demonstrations of its force are experienced, by way of possession, electro-magnetic disturbances, radio static and mindblowing gravitations. Strengthened by this commanding quality of the unknown, the scares in The Block Island Sound are heightened by a spine-tingling collaboration between Paul Koch, whose music for the film coupled with sound design and editing by Shawn Duffy and Andrey Randovski create the unsettling sound of The Block Island Sound, which will have you gripping your seat, gritting your teeth, and fearing the worst. Of the 16 films I had a chance to screen at this year’s virtual edition of Fantasia, The Block Island Sound was the most unnerving. The film’s tense ambiguity is offset by commendable comic relief by Jim Cummings as Dale, the resident ride-bumming conspiracy theorist.


On their YouTube channel, Fantasia offers the virtual Q&A session following the film’s world premiere, moderated by Fantasia programmer Mitch Davis and featuring the McManus Brothers, sister Michaela McManus, and long-time associate Chris Sheffield. 


Tuesday, September 01, 2020



How do you envision an angel of death? Is the angel gendered male or female, robed in religiosity? If male, is he young, handsome and kind, like Robert Redford in his role as wounded police officer Harold Beldin in the 1962 Twilight Zone episode “Nothing In the Dark”? Or is he burly and rotund, a seasoned male nurse in a palliative care ward named Marcos (Carlos Portaluppi), an Argentine Raymond Burr hiding in plain sight? 

 Like apples and oranges, I’m referencing two wholly different angels of death. Redford as Beldin is an angel of death whose responsibility as a psychopomp is to escort newly deceased souls from Earth to the afterlife. His role is not to judge the elderly Gladys Cooper—so afraid of dying—but simply to guide her out of the apartment that she has refused to leave, to allow “the old to make room for the new.”

 Marcos, on the other hand, is a secular angel of death comporting with the euphemism used by criminologists to describe hospital employees who—for one reason or another—take it upon themselves to euthanize the elderly and chronically ill. Likewise branded as “angels of mercy”, Marcos administers “mercy” out of empathic pity; he feels for the suffering of the terminally ill. As arguably delusional as his empathy might be, it motivates him to behave as a casebook “malignant hero” when in an opening sequence he breaks protocol and takes it upon himself to revive a patient that the doctors have pronounced dead. He wants to be seen as selflessly making an effort even if he is criticized for overreaching bounds and his “heroism” allows him to judge and criticize his superiors who he believes care nothing about the suffering of their patients. His logic is circular. If the doctors will do nothing to relieve the suffering of the terminally ill—in effect, allowing them to die as animals—then he has the right to use their trust in him to schedule himself for late night shifts where he can put these poor souls out of their misery by giving them a special “dose” to edge matters along. 

Enter Gabriel, a new nurse on rounds, who—discovering Marcos’ secret—feels emboldened to mimic Marcos; motivated more, however, by pleasure than pity. Gabriel (Ignacio Rogers)—a dead ringer for Anthony Perkins in Hitchcock’s Psycho—shares Marcos’ eye about what should be done with the terminally ill, but begins to loosen the definition of terminal and escalates the practice to include the treatable, thereby personifying a true angel of death and less an angel of mercy. He’s not really practicing euthanasia—which requires a certain level of compassion—but murder, plain and simple, front and center, perhaps because he can and unquestionably because he enjoys it.  The film’s theatrical poster visually synopsizes how the two nurses share a perspective (a shared eye), albeit at risk of a conflict of interest. More accurately, however, theirs is not a conflict of interest at all, but a conflation of interest, articulated by the film’s theatrical poster. 

Argentine helmer Martín Kraut’s debut feature La Dosis [official website], in its North American premiere at Fantasia, is an effective psychological thriller that ramps up tension between the two angels of mercy and provocatively stages their tension as a merciless cat-and-mouse romance. Not since Baran Bo Odar’s The Silence (2010) have two men, compelled by a shared desire outside the realm of normalcy, been so passionately drawn to each other (though equally repelled). Kraut’s complicated script (he’s also the film’s producer) is strengthened by its exploration of how an empath falls under the thrall and manipulation of a narcissistic sociopath; an all too common dyad in today’s world. Suspensefully directed, palpably acted, and sensually portrayed on screen, this unpleasant subject is a slow burn narrative as chilling as a morphine drip, but rendered evocative through a blue and green color palette engineered by Juan Giribaldi’s art direction and Gustavo Biazzi’s beautiful cinematography. The screen capture at left is a compelling sample of their combined efforts.

Friday, August 28, 2020


“A querencia is a place the bull naturally wants to go to in the ring, a preferred locality... It is a place which develops in the course of the fight where the bull makes his home. It does not usually show at once, but develops in his brain as the fight goes on. In this place he feels that he has his back against the wall and in his querencia he is inestimably more dangerous and almost impossible to kill.”—Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon (1932). 


Boasting its world premiere at the 2020 virtual edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival (“Fantasia”), Unearth [official website / Facebook] is an American independent from Lyons Den Productions that gains traction as an eco-thriller in its first three quarters, then ramps up to full-on squicky horror in its final sequences. Billed as a “fracking horror story”, and co-directed by John C. Lyons and Dorota Swies, Unearth shuffles genre veterans Adrienne Barbeau (The Fog, Escape From New York, Swamp Thing), Marc Blucas (Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, the TV series) and P.J. Marshall (American Horror Story, Luke Cage, Mindhunter) with newcomers Brooke Sorensen and Rachel McKeon to effectively nuance the tensions between two neighboring families in rural Silverthorn, Pennsylvania whose relationships become strained when one of them leases their land to a natural gas company. 

Sweeping aerial drone shots to connote emotional distance and a seemingly objective detachment are now nearly de rigueur for genre filmmakers to situate threats which, inversely, are frighteningly near at hand. From high above, cornfields appear green and geometrically ordered, but Unearth wastes no time joining the ranks of films that convert isolated American cornfields into sites of horror: Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981), The Children of the Corn (1984) and its numerous sequels, Signs (2002), The Messengers (2007), etc.—I’m sure each horror fan has their own list—Unearth, however, eschews the supernatural underpinnings of horror to reveal more relevant monstrous forces ripped from the headlines: environmental degradation, corporate manipulation and the psychological trauma of heartland farmers facing bankruptcy and the collapse of their way of life. 

"It’s so uncommon to see the plights of rural farming families depicted in cinema,” cites Fantasia Artistic Director Mitch Davis, “let alone in genre film.” Davis admires how Unearth addresses farmers’ vulnerabilities to being exploited. He opines that Unearth is “beautifully put together, vivid and compelling, with genuinely startling bursts of shock and atypical horror, and of course, the cast is just fantastic." Jenn Adams at Consequence of Sound adds: “Unearth is a timely metaphor in the midst of a pandemic which has crippled the US economy ... showing no difference between the threat lurking within the earth and the one that knocks on the door with a friendly smile and a clipboard." At Filmmaker, Jim Hemphill interviews the filmmakers and asserts unequivocally that Unearth is “one of the best films of 2020 in any genre.” 

As George Lomack, Marc Blucas portrays a farmer / mechanic, estranged from his wife and raising his two daughters on his own, down on his luck struggling to keep his farm and family afloat against a crumbling economy; but, despite his best intentions, he is failing them. The failure of presumed traits ascribed to gender is in itself a form of horror as men become demasculated by forces beyond their control. Equally, women who are complicit in the failures of men who are meant to protect and provide for them, enable that horror. It’s telling that Christopher Shy’s (Studio Ronin) theatrical poster design emphasizes three generations of women in this narrative whose beings are intimately connected to the land they live on. It is reminiscent of Gustav Klimt’s 1905 painting “The Three Ages of Woman.” 

Lomack’s neighbor, Kathryn Dolan (Adrienne Barbeau), is the residing no-nonsense recently-widowed matriarch of the two neighboring families and is keenly aware that the remaining men in her clan are weak. Her son-in-law Tom (P.J. Marshall) is hostile to her daughters and ready to jettison the hard work necessary to maintain their farm. Kathryn likewise knows that Lomack is thinking of leasing his land to the fracking firm “Patriot Exploration” as a quick remedy to his financial woes. Once identified with her buxom sexiness, Barbeau has admirably evolved as an actor, delivering a sharply-chiseled characterization of a matriarch whose natural beauty is her fierce agency. It’s one of her best performances to date. Unable to convince Lomack to hold onto his land, and critical of his thinly-veiled affair with her daughter Christina (Allison McAtee), Kathryn can only watch in dismay as nearby drilling poisons the water table, pollutes the air and introduces parasites into the soil. 

Suggested in this tension between George Lomack and Kathryn Dolan is what might, arguably, be considered one of the United States’ growing horrors: the collapse of the common good (whether through the use of land, or in the ways people treat each other). As the current administration seeks to do away with Social Security and Medicare by eliminating the payroll tax, the Dolans and Lomacks reflect in microcosm the discontent, desperation, greed and shortsightedness of our nation and demonstrate yet again how social and political issues can find expression and come to catharsis through genre. 

Though Kathryn attempts to keep her family together by adherence to the land, emphasizing a collective partnership with her neighbors, individual needs undo her efforts to strengthen their community and commitment to each other. George entangles himself in a contract with Patriot Exploration and thoughtlessly threatens the livelihood of both families; Tom stumbles under the weight of his chores and rankles at his masculinity rendered ineffective by the independence of Kathryn’s daughter Christina; Christina, in turn, believes herself separate and superior to their farming lifestyle and—as evident from the film’s opening scene—fantasizes leaving the farm to become a professional photographer; George’s daughter Heather (Rachel McKeon) struggles with her illicit feelings for Christina, while her younger sister Kim (Brooke Sorenson) seethes in resentment at the personal sacrifices necessary to save family expenses. Offering the metaphor of the querencia (defined by the Hemingway quote above), no one takes heed of Kathryn’s warnings and weaken themselves through selfishness. 

By referencing the querencia—a metaphysical concept in the Spanish language related to the bullfighting arena—Kathryn stakes out what she foresees as the families’ last stand (and, by extension, America’s last stand). The term querencia comes from the Spanish verb querer, which means "to desire." In bullfighting, the term refers to how a bull may stake out his querencia, a certain part of the bull ring where he feels strong and safe. Kathryn argues that—if the families stick together and fight the fracking company—they might be able to save their farms; i.e., their querencia. It’s a strong metaphor in an already bracing script co-written by Lyons and Kelsey Goldberg that uses smart character development to advance the narrative. If—as Kathryn suggests to Christina—that her aptitude for photography is intimately connected to the land of her upbringing, the intrinsic critique is that she might lose the fount of her creativity by moving away. 

Further, staging a scene at a demolition derby, the writers create a tense sense that a collision is about to happen, exactly like a broadside car accident; but—as Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano has poignantly proposed—there is no such thing as a car “accident.” Instead, Galeano suggests they be called “consequences”. Concomitantly, it is no “accident” that vehicular emissions are ushering in global warming; that environmental disaster is yet another consequence of our culture’s misguided reliance on fossil fuels. 

Integrated naturalistic performances by the ensemble enhance the script and demonstrate that disaster does, indeed, ride on fear. A year after George leases his farmland to fracking, the land shifts—seeping poisons and a parasitic hazard into the water table—and the water becomes the transformative agent that provides the horror of the film’s final quarter. Earlier, I mentioned how Adrienne Barbeau’s performance revealed a maturation of her craft, but—allegiant to the excesses of genre—Barbeau bravely satisfies her fans by being the member of the cast who we witness transform into something that looks like a potato that has been left in a root cellar too long. This horrid physical transformation coupled with (or, again, as the consequence of) hallucinatory psychosis induced by the parasitic water and polluted air introduce a vagueness to this cautionary tale. Are these physical transformations actually happening or are they being imagined? I’m not sure it really matters. The horror is visualized. Through cross-cut edits certainties are unmoored in Unearth and physical trauma is layered upon and conflated with psychological trauma, compounding both. 

Although scholars of folklore discount as baseless the speculation that the childhood rhyme “Ring Around the Roses” references the Great Plague of England (1665), it is a presumption that has gained popularity since after World War II. Monica Wyche’s character Aubrey Dolan mutters the jingle several times under her breath as water poisoned by fracking begins to sicken the two families. In a scene where Aubrey is rinsing an infected wound on her hand, she begins to sing the jingle. It’s perhaps no more than a curious coincidence that—in March of this year, during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom—the British current affairs news magazine Private Eye jokingly proposed that the traditional rhyme was the "ideal choice" of song to accompany hand-washing in order to ward off infection. It’s scriptural touches like this that make Unearth such an interesting film, leaving viewers with questions and thoughts hovering like gas fumes over poisoned cornfields, and adding menace to the simple act of harvested produce being transported to market. The film’s final shadow-dappled image proves disquieting.  

Unearth has an encore live screening at Fantasia on Sunday, August 30, before serving as the Opening Night film for Germany's Hard:line Film Festival on September 23. With its first screening at Fantasia, Unearth secured international representation by the Paris-based sales company Reel Suspects. The filmmakers retain domestic rights. Photos courtesy of Unearth Film LLC.