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.