Ménilmontant (1926)

SCORE: 4/5

This 38 min avant-garde silent film by French-Russian director Dimitri Kirsanoff displays early modernist techniques far ahead of its time (e.g., superimpositions, dissolves, unexpected juxtapositions). There are no intertitles, the film relying (successfully) on pure visual narration and viewer engagement. The violent opening scene is likely influenced by the murder of Kirsanoff’s father by Bolsheviks in 1919.

There is an emotional sequence where the impoverished young woman played by the striking Nadia Sibirskaïa (with her out-of-wedlock-newborn in tow, the product of a cad’s manipulation of her) is in a torturous psychological state: rapid superimpositions convey her frenzied and turbulent mind. We cling to our chair as she, holding her newborn, considers suicide (via long gazes into the river).

There is a scene where she is sitting on a park bench, hungry and cold, while an old man sits down nearby to eat his lunch. She is too proud to beg. From a sidelong glance, the man can see she is homeless and hungry, and so pushes a piece of bread and some meat towards her on the bench. She doesn’t immediately take it, but instead begins to tear up. With just these facial expressions, we see the sudden depth of her painful realization of how dire her situation is, how her dreams are utterly shattered, her pride smashed. She eventually takes the food and nods to the man in thanks. It’s one of the most emotional scenes I’ve ever seen.

Posted in Film | Comments Off on Ménilmontant (1926)

Dream Scenario (2023)

SCORE: 4/5


In the style of Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays (e.g., Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)), Norwegian writer/director Kristoffer Borgli’s Dream Scenario (his first English-language feature film) is a smart and stinging rebuke to the celebrity of influencer culture, consumer capitalism and, perhaps most provocatively, cancel culture. As such, there is a decidedly conservative streak to this satirical film with, at one point, overt references made to the ‘Alt-Right’ and IDW-aligned figures (e.g., Rogan, Peterson, Tucker). As an outsider’s critique of American culture, Dream Scenario follows in the steps of Borgli’s first film, the well-received black comedy Sick of Myself (2022), which skewers the social cult of inclusivity/diversity and its associated reward mechanisms for exaggerated claims of victimization. “Though there were good intentions,” Borgli has noted, “an economy formed around being a victim, being marginalized or looking differently. That’s what incentivized me to think that placed in the wrong hands, it could have a very fatalistic outcome” (Keogan, 2023). (Borgli wrote the scripts of both films shortly after moving from Norway to Los Angeles, a place he found far more narcissist than his home country).

In Dream Scenario, Nic Cage plays Paul Matthews, a meek and frumpy professor of evolutionary biology who lives with his wife and two teen daughters (both perpetually glued to their cell phones) in an upscale suburban neighborhood in Massachusetts. He is a drab and unremarkable figure, and somewhat emasculated: we learn, for example, that he “chose” to take his wife’s last name in a cringe-worthy, misplaced gesture of feminist solidarity; at home we see him continuously defer to the females of his household, and at the college where he teaches we see him generally ignored by his class of bored students. As the movie unfolds, one could argue that Paul’s arc becomes an allegory for the accumulated cultural repression of White males in modern American society and the potentially explosive, defensive reactions from said White males that might ensue if pushed to the breaking point. Borgli subtly frames the film’s events within the Darwinian contours of evolutionary biology and its sister field of memetics.

Influenced by Jung’s writings on the tension between the conscious and unconscious mind, as well as his internet dives into online discussions of astral projection (Kaplan, 2023), Borgli depicts a freak phenomenon of the collective unconsciousness manifesting itself in a strange new way: Paul begins to appear in other people’s dreams, the common feature of these dreams being Paul’s disinterest and inaction while the dreamer is being hunted or otherwise threatened. In these dream scenarios, Paul’s curbed role as a bystander partially serves as a representation of the aforementioned generalized White male anxiety, emasculation, and beta male passivity. In an interview about the film, Borgli notes:

We spend a lot of our lives dreaming in bed, but we also spend our waking life mostly in our heads too. I feel like we’re not participating in reality as much as we are thinking about our past or the imagined future at any moment. That is a big part of the experience of life. I thought of this movie as a possibility of going there and exploring that. There’s a discrepancy between reality and what you dream about, and I wanted to put those two in dialogue and explore that tension (Lee, 2023).

Despite his bystander passivity, and due largely to the novelty of the phenomenon, Paul becomes fleetingly famous, a viral sensation driven primarily by Gen Z types on social media. At the college where Paul teaches, a throng of students has experienced his appearance in their dreams. As Paul enters the lecture hall one day, instead of it being nearly empty (as is typical for his lectures) the room is crowded. The students in attendance give him a round of applause, and although he’s a bit embarrassed by the adulation, Paul soaks it in before talking to the students:

PAUL: Who’s really here for the lecture on kin selection? Show of hands… Okay, the rest of you, I’ll give you five minutes before I start the lecture, okay? Ask me anything… Yes, you?

STUDENT: How does it feel to go viral?

PAUL: Huh… Well, we can discuss that when we get to memetics later this year.

Paul hopes to leverage his newfound fame to find a publisher for his yet-to-be-written academic book on ants — itself an apt allusion to the collective, hive-mind, human behavior generated by social media and ubiquitous advertising. Borgli says of Paul:

He feels he is being robbed of academic success and has an image of himself that doesn’t match his image in the world. It’s interesting that while he has this midlife crisis, that’s when everyone starts dreaming about him. He’s so starved for attention that he conflates being seen in this way with success (Lee, 2023).

As he listlessly attempts to find a publisher, we see the awfulness of Madison Avenue types represented in Trent (Michael Cera), an unscrupulous upstart public relations agent and his sycophant assistant Mary, who essentially deliver to Paul one false promise after another in an effort to lock him down as an account. They’re eager for Paul to agree to do product-placement (Sprite) in other people’s dreams, a proposition that Paul is disgusted by. However, despite extolling such principles we see the lure of fame ensnare Paul: a young woman from the Madison Ave agency named Molly pursues him in the hopes of actualizing the sexually explicit dreams she’s had of him. He clumsily facilitates the setting for this scenario, but for Molly it doesn’t go down quite as expected, and for Paul it leads to a moment of humiliation that begins a subsequent unraveling of his life.

“So, I’m starting to think that maybe Nick Bostrom was right about the simulation theory,” Paul says at a dinner party that turns sour. “That would sure explain a lot about my situation.”

Whereas in Act 1 Paul was an odd but welcome feature in others’ dreams, Act 2 takes a darker turn as Paul becomes a Freddie Krueger-type nightmare character in these people’s dreams, engaging in all sorts of sadistic depravities there. It is within this context — where some of his college students become “traumatized” by Paul’s sudden appearance in their nightmares — that the film engages in an effective critique of cancel culture. When pushed into a corner by false and baseless allegations, and with nowhere else to turn, might the White male become the very thing society is accusing him of being?

At Paul’s college, we see a cognitive behavioral therapist working with a dozen or so students who feel “unsafe” around Paul. In several instances, the film mocks woke mantras of “lived experience” and how infantilized students being triggered is, on woke campuses, sufficient cause for a college to cancel someone, especially if the ‘offender’ is a straight White male. The bullying mob mentality of social media-fueled cancel culture is most pointedly depicted when a large group of students paint “Loser” on Paul’s car and in response he shouts insults at them (his rage captured on students’ cell phone cameras, of course). To the college’s Dean, Paul protests against the absurdity that he is somehow responsible for their dreams, but his protests are in vain. The handwriting is already on the wall. Despite tenure, his employment at the college is threatened. Fissures begin to appear in his marriage, leading to its ultimate dissolution.

Trent, the Madison Ave agent, explains to Paul that, given the dark turn people’s dreams of Paul have taken, Sprite has pulled out of consideration as an advertiser. The corporations are now scared and risk-averse, Trent and his team explain to Paul, however, they propose an “audience-pivot”:

TRENT: We’re talking about a complete 180. We have to think fresh. Corporate culture won’t touch this. It’s too risky.

MARY: Yeah, but we are getting positive signals from a different venue. The whole — I don’t want to say ‘alt-right’ — but the kind of anti-establishment space, you know, kind of the Jordan Peterson route.

TRENT: Yeah, we can maybe get you on Rogan or something. Share your experience of being cancelled and just, like, pivot…

PAUL: Guys, no. I hate that idea. I don’t want to be some culture war person. I… I… I don’t want to be controversial.

TRENT: There is a chance, we think, to get you on Tucker Carlson this week… So, that’s a big audience. Just think about that. Don’t answer right now.

MARY: And then also, there’s France, Paul. For some reason, they love you over there. Even with the nightmares, they love it.

TRENT: Yeah. You’re building a fanbase over there.

A striking sequence is when Paul dreams of being hunted with bow and arrow by a version of himself wearing hunter camouflage. The allegory here seems to be that while in a social media age where the operative dynamics of ‘natural selection’ appear to be shaped less by physical prowess (genetics) and more by the cunning manipulation of cultural tropes (memetics), especially with respect to wokeness and how it currently serves as a winning strategy in our current ‘evolutionary biological’ game/model, it is physical strength and power – however dormant it might be at the moment – that will prevail in the end.

Desperate to keep his job, Paul tries to get ahead of the cancel culture mob by releasing a self-pitying apology video, where he cries and asserts that he is the victim, which might provide him some leeway in a culture animated by the victimology cult of wokeness. This video humiliates his wife and leads to their imminent divorce.

In the final sequences of the film, set at some undetermined but near point in the future, we see how the discovery of a shared collective unconscious experience has led Silicon Valley to develop wearable tech allowing one to enter someone else’s dream… and promote corporate advertising or one’s personal projects. We see youth gravitate towards this tech commodification and praise it in the most superficial and conformist of ways. Of this sequence in the film, Borgli says:

I was thinking about taking a strange, abstract, and metaphysical concept from an H.P. Lovecraft story and placing it into our banal and real culture to see how they clash. I just followed what I thought would be the playbook of how that would all play out. I thought that if this were to really happen, at some point, the dream phenomenon would get co-opted and made into a product. It captured some of my fears—i.e. if we let everything be a race to the bottom of market decisions, we will have nothing sacred left. I’m scared of the American model winning over and then turning everything into products (Lee, 2023).

With respect to the uncertain future between Paul and his wife, the film ends on an ambiguous and bittersweet note, although that ambiguity is somewhat clarified by Borgli in an interview. “He loses perspective over his values,” notes Borgli, “and at the film’s conclusion you see a man who finally understands what is important, but at the cost of having lost everything” (Lee, 2023).


In its critique of American culture, Dream Scenario offers many prescient and interwoven layers. Being a Norwegian who is quite fluent in English, Borgli offers us an outsider’s perspective, and Dream Scenario is instructive satire, pressing various themes that the New Right has been pressing for quite a long time. Of the commodification of virtually everything, Borgli notes:

As a filmmaker from a country where they have a film institute that funds movies and who’s coming to work in America where there’s no such system, there’s only the business model. I’m always aware and fearful of how market incentives can corrupt anything good, original, or sacred. It’s something that I want to talk about because there are ways that we don’t even see that advertising and marketing are slowly paving the road to hell (Shaffer, 2023).

Of social media and influencer culture:

There [are] so many of these 24-hour viral sensations—unlikely celebrities—and some capitalize on it and even create a career around this accidental fame. Some, of course, get completely humiliated and shamed and wish they could delete themselves from the internet. It just feels like more of a scary time to engage with the public, because the public is the world now (Kaplan, 2023).

Through both the film and in interviews, Borgli hammers home the detrimental and dysfunctional aspects of this dominant cultural trend:

We’re more and more pressured into making ourselves personal brands. It’s hard to live up to that personal brand. I think the discrepancy between person and persona is extremely vital and vibrant in the culture right now because we’re curating and branding ourselves. Maybe in ways that we don’t know, it’s damaging our own identity and self-worth. It’s harder to change positions on things because you’ve made yourself a solid, one-idea brand. That’s sort of how we deal with people now. There’s less space for nuance in that way, and we’re contributing to that (Shaffer, 2023).

When asked if he believes the celebrity and fame dynamics of social media and influencer culture are redeemable in their current form, Borgli offers a trenchant reply that employs an Aristotelian definition of excellence:

We need to understand that some of the goals we pursue in the more conceptual and abstract parts of our modern life have an effect on our bodies. For example, we realized that fast food is not something we can run on. We can’t live a life on empty calories. Similarly, I think there’s a lot of empty calories in our culture right now. There’s a lot of noise and not a lot of signals. There’s something positive about status and recognition. It’s important that collectively, we can deem something as “good,” such as a good piece of art. While this mechanism for recognition is positive and a good cultural tool, it has been weaponized against us with all these different ways that we can self-promote and get what we think feels like status. But it’s this empty calorie version of status. We need to parse out what is healthy and unhealthy, and we need to stop chasing the byproduct of achievement and start chasing achievement itself (Lee, 2023).

Lastly, there is a metatextual element to Dream Scenario when one considers the memeification of Nic Cage himself, usually surrounding his often intense (and sometimes endearingly over-the-top) performances. In a highly informative interview to promote the film, Cage discusses all of this and places it within the context of his character Paul:

I think the movie works on many different levels. It’s a bit like peeling an onion, it has different layers. On my mind was more of my own memeification and how I was trying to process waking up in 2009 and foolishly Googling my name and seeing those ‘Cage Loses His Sh*t’ memes, and thinking, well, I signed up to be a film actor. I didn’t sign up to be an internet meme. I don’t know what this is. I had no reference point for it. I found it frustrating, but I also found it stimulating. I thought it was confusing, but I had nowhere to put it.

So, when Dream Scenario came along, I quickly thought I might have, in some strange little way, the life experience to play Paul’s dreamification, because what he’s going through is not really unlike that: People start dreaming about him overnight and then they start talking about their dreams and it goes viral. And I thought, I can make it real for myself and real within the performance because of my memeification. I don’t say this with any complaint anymore or with any ill will. I’ve made friends with it, subsequently, and I’ve decided that, if anything, it’s kept me in the conversation. And it’s also given people a kind of id release. I mean, when they see these meltdowns, I think there’s some vicarious enjoyment to be able to kind of play out those fantasies that we can’t really do, because we all want to behave in society, you know? (Wise, 2024)


Kaplan, Ilana. “‘Dream Scenario’ Director Kristoffer Borgli on How His Surreal A24 Film Is Inspired By ‘Shin Godzilla’,” Backstage, November 15, 2023, https://www.backstage.com/magazine/article/dream-scenario-director-interview-kristoffer-borgli-76637/

Keogan, Natalia. ‘“I’m Very Comfortable With Repeating Ideas Until They Are Perfected”: Kristoffer Borgli on Sick of Myself ,’ Filmmaker, April 12, 2023, https://filmmakermagazine.com/120781-interview-kristoffer-borgli-sick-of-myself/.

Lee, Zachary. “Inside My Head: Kristoffer Borgli on Dream Scenario,” RogerEbert.com, November 06, 2023, https://www.rogerebert.com/interviews/inside-my-head-kristoffer-borgli-on-dream-scenario.

Shaffer, Marshall. “Interview: Kristoffer Borgli on Satirizing Meme-ification and Cancellation in Dream Scenario,” Slant, November 10, 2023, https://www.slantmagazine.com/features/kristoffer-borgli-interview-dream-scenario/.

Wise, Damon. “Nicolas Cage On ‘Dream Scenario,’ Resurrecting Superman And Working In Television: “I Never Would’ve Considered It Five Years Ago.”,” Deadline, January 11, 2024, https://deadline.com/2024/01/dream-scenario-nicolas-cage-the-flash-interview-1235699131/.

Posted in Film | Comments Off on Dream Scenario (2023)

The Hired Hand (1971)

SCORE: 4/5

A flop when it was first released, Peter Fonda’s directorial debut The Hired Hand (1971) is now widely considered a minor classic in the then-burgeoning anti-Western subgenre (otherwise known as ‘revisionist Westerns’ , e.g., Little Big Man, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Sam Peckinpah’s westerns), with splashes of experimental ‘Acid Western’ stylizations (e.g., The Shooting). It is a simple but extraordinarily powerful film.

After the huge success of Easy Rider (1969), Universal Studios helped launch the brief New Hollywood phase of the industry by giving Peter Fonda $1,000,000 to make a movie (it is Fonda’s directorial debut), granting him full artistic control, as they had similarly done with Dennis Hopper, who would make the acid-drenched The Last Movie in the same year.

Fonda and a superb Warren Oates (Fonda gave up part of his producing fee to bring Oates aboard) play world-weary drifter cowhands at something of an impasse in life. Seven years prior, Fonda had left his wife and child for the ‘freedom’ of the open terrain of the American Southwest; he now longs to return home, unsure of how his wife will receive him but nonetheless determined to try. Although Oates would rather continue westward to California and the Pacific Ocean, he is game for returning to Fonda’s old homestead. (In many ways, Oates’ balanced and nuanced performance is the centerpiece of the film, the gravity upon which all events revolve around).

Verna Bloom plays Fonda’s forlorn wife, a woman hardened by loneliness and abandonment, yet still vulnerable and emotionally fragile in the presence of her husband… and Oates. She doesn’t initially accept Fonda back into her life in the role of traditional husband, but allows both he and Oates to stay on as ‘hired hands’. While Fonda plays a sort of aimless Odysseus returning home, Bloom is an all-too-human Penelope who, in the seven year interim, has both succumbed to various suitors’ advances and made her own advances to various cowhands she’s employed.

The screenplay by Scottish novelist Alan Sharp has some extraordinary dialogue, subtle and existential in the best of Western traditions. There is one scene between Bloom and Oates that is one of the most moving scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie.

The terrific cinematography is by the now-legendary Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe and Mrs. Miller; Deliverance; The Long Goodbye; Close Encounters of the Third Kind; The Deer Hunter; Heaven’s Gate), but it is Frank Mazzola’s editing of Zsigmond’s footage that gives The Hired Hand such a unique feel. Moving images stop in freeze-frame and then dissolve into another, similarly-shaped still which then proceeds into new moving imagery, providing a poetic element to the visuals. This further coalesces vis-à-vis the haunting and atmospheric soundtrack self-recorded by Greenwich Village folk scene fixture Bruce Langhorne. Minimalist instrumental pieces involving banjo, sitar, and fiddle perfectly matches the film’s mood. The movie’s heralded, opening montage sequence – which consists of slow-motion footage of Oates bathing in a river while Fonda fishes – is a mini-masterpiece: the soft light and deliberate sunlight-infused lens refraction, the slow dissolves, and Langhorne’s simple banjo-centered melody collectively create a powerful and emotional backstory… without a single word. It is bookended by the film’s silent and very moving ending.

There is a sense of foreboding throughout the film, with incarnations of death (as well as unmitigated evil in nature) all around: a boy crying out for his mother as he lays dying; the corpse of a young drowned girl slowly cascading down a river. Christ symbolism (a widely-used trope in hippie films of the era) is present, but not in an overbearing way. The film’s longevity, however, is assured through its overarching thematic elements: With age comes the abandonment of youthful dreams and idealism (represented here through the discussions of California), the yearning to return ‘home’, the pragmatic acceptance of one’s limited lot in life and love, and the resignation that comes with seeing these truths.

Posted in Film | Comments Off on The Hired Hand (1971)

The Pentaverate (2022)

SCORE: 1/5

I used to love Mike Myers’ movies: the Austin Powers franchise, So I Married an Axe Murderer, etc. But something happened to him after the critical panning of his last comedic film The Love Guru (2008), which was 14 years ago. It appears a deep introspection followed. Mike Myers got way more serious (with small roles in more serious films) and, unfortunately, as we see in this really bad and embarrassingly unfunny 6-episode Netflix series… he became woke.

My first clue that this was going to be bad was by via the simple fact that I had to search for it on Netflix. One would expect that a new and rare Mike Myers project would be featured prominently on the main Netflix page, but nada. Red flag #1.

Then I saw how The Pentaverate has a 33% critic score on RT, which is generous to say the least. Red flag #2.

Then I read a Hollywood Reporter interview with Myers where he extolls the virtues of The Obamas™ and warns us that “Right now, in the global war between fascism and democracy, the first casualty of war is truth.” Throughout the series, there are lots of nods to Kubrick (whom Myers worships), including the conspiracy theory that he was involved with the U.S. moon landing ‘hoax’, the ‘eye in triangle’ of A Clockwork Orange, HAL from 2001, and the creepy piano motif from Eyes Wide Shut.

Qua past Myers, the series is chock full of his usual over-the-top Britcom scatology, except that none of it is funny. I hate to say it but it is cringeworthily juvenile and facile, and in a non-transgressive way, signaling that Myers has outlived his comedic usefulness. (I think I laughed maybe 3 times across all 6 episodes).

Myers plays a variety of #WhiteMenAreDumb characters:

  • Ken Scarborough, the series’ primary protagonist (that is, until a Strong Young Black Female colleague tells him what to do) who is a Canadian journalist tasked by his Strong Black Female Canadian Boss to expose something big or else lose his job due to his career expiration date. He is a naïve and bumbling senior citizen who is aided and abetted by his much smarter and able young black female colleague Reilly Clayton, who works with him at the Canadian TV news channel “CaCa”.
  • Anthony Lansdowne, a middle-aged incel Bronx-accented conspiracy theorist who sports a “Take the red pill” sticker on the side of his van, and who is easily rattles by the ‘reasoning’ of young Reilly.
  • Rex Smith, an Alex Jones knockoff.

Even the members of The Pentaverate (a benevolent secret society that runs the world and holds Davos-like global meetings, etc.) are portrayed as Dumb White Guys whose time has passed:

  • Lord Lordington, a rather pointless Derek Jacobi impression who heads the current (and short-to-be-of-this-world Pentaverate).
  • Shep Gordon, a faithful impression of the rock and roll manager that Myers is a close friend of and whom Myers directed the biopic documentary Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon.
  • Mishu Ivanov, a Rasputin-like ancillary to Russian oligarchy.
  • Bruce Baldwin, who also serves as the series’ villain, an Australian tabloid tycoon who is an obvious impression of Rubert Murdoch (owner of Fox News).

Throughout the entire series, young Reilly wears a black T-shirt with white lettering that reads: “Canada: Living the American Dream violence-free since 1867”.

In the first 2 episodes, Keegan-Michael Key (of “Key & Peele”) plays a streetwise, jive-talkin’ Black Man recruited into The Pentaverate who is… drumroll… the world’s greatest nuclear physicist who is on the verge of solving cold fusion. Think Eddie Murphy from 48 Hours but also as the most brilliant scientific mind alive. (“Y’all know you kidnapped a black man!?”). Naturally, Myers checks off the miscegenation box with Key getting it on with the one Cishet White Woman in the series.

As the show progresses, we are lectured by young Reilly on how both the media business and The Pentaverate is nothing but “white man after white man after white man”, how the Cishet White Chick working for The Pentaverate has tried to increase Diversity™ in the organization, but all too often only at low levels of the org, not at the top.

The series culminates in the benevolent Pentaverate members (sans the dastardly Rupert Murdoch member, who escapes for a sequel that will never be) agreeing to… and I’m not making this up… commit suicide in order to pave the way for what becomes The New Pentaverate: a group of progressive and smarter-than-the-white-guyz POCs and Women.

Just when you though Wokeness couldn’t possibly create any more droll and predictable activist programming, Mike Myers comes along with with his pick-axe to prove that the virtue-signaling of Hollywood’s most insulated celebs has no boundaries.

Posted in Film, Hollywood | Comments Off on The Pentaverate (2022)

Slow Horses (2022)

When I learned that this new 6-episode spy series on Apple TV – of which the first two episodes have aired — starred Gary Oldman, as well as Jonathan Pryce and Kristin Scott Thomas, I was in. Based on the 2010 novel by Mick Herron, Slow Horses is a spy thriller in the understated, mundane, John Le Carre mode rather than the over-the-top James Bond mode. Adapted from the novel by Will Smith (The Thick of It; Veep), the show follows the goings-on at ‘Slough House’, a dumpy administrative place-of-demotion (resembling the worse precinct police station one can imagine) for spycraft misfits who have made career-ending mistakes. Their miserable boss, Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman), is intent on making each and every one of them quit from drudgery or boredom.

E01 begins promising enough, with the show’s premise launched, and various characters introduced, but by the end of E02, insufferable wokeness rears its ugly and ubiquitous head. The antagonists of the show’s heroes are shaping up to be various “right-wing” and/or “fascist” individuals. Every character in the spy agency voices their unanimous contempt of a conservative, immigration-restrictionist politician who simply expresses his wish to “keep Britian British”, a sentiment that the characters all find odious. A ‘disgraced rightwing journalist’ (who an MI5 agent has been tasked with spying on) is depicted as a mean, ugly, wiry man who has never tipped at the small Greek eatery he’s been going to for 5 years (says the restaurant’s owner). Just so we get the idea that he’s a bad person.

He’s been ‘disgraced’ and unemployed apparently for having contributed to a fictional UKIP or English Defense League-type group, whose “Keep Britain British” mission statement is #LiterallyHitler. A former high-level MI5 employee (Jonathan Pryce) justifies the doxing of this journalist and other individuals (via orchestrated MI5 leaks), saying something to the effect of “We can’t have these fascists walking around openly in our midst.”

Plotwise, the nefarious terrorist incident that is captivating the nation involves… get ready for it…. white skinheads (at least one of which we can infer is an active policeman) kidnapping a young Muslim Paki (who’s a business student at university!) and promising to behead him on camera because, presumably, they want to “Keep Britain British”. We get lots of sequences of the skinheads being mean and cruel to the crying, terrified Vibrantly Diverse One who is tied to a chair in a dingy townhouse basement somewhere in London.

The cold female MI5 higher-up (Kristin Scott Thomas), who humiliates/emasculates various men underneath her (basically telling one “don’t speak unless your spoken to”) lectures some colleagues that MI5 has been so preoccupied with Muslim domestic terrorism that they’ve ignored white supremacist domestic terrorism. Just like in real life!

And, of course, by the end of E02 there is an office romance miscegenation in the works. (Yes, there’s even a black MI5 misfit… Wait, is that progressive casting or racist ‘incompetent blacks’ casting?)

I’m not sure I’m going to stick it out with this one. I may, if only to see more of Oldman, who embodies his role with relish. His Jackson Lamb character is a severely unkempt (e.g., holes in his socks, often on display), foul-mouthed alcoholic, who sleeps at his desk, in between ashtray-overflowing, chain smoking marathons. I imagine we’ll eventually find out what led Lamb to be sent to Slough House himself.

Posted in TV | Comments Off on Slow Horses (2022)

Vanishing Point (1971)

SCORE: 5/5

This movie is a f*cking revelation. A cult fave, I was expecting a more conventional muscle car movie, but this is so much more. Directed by the underrated Richard Sarafian, with stunning cinematography by John Alonzo. A mythopoetic road movie + existentialism + knockout performances from everyone, especially from the lead actor, the equally underrated Barry Newman who plays ‘Kowalski’, the guy the police are chasing and who challenges authority and all around him in his souped-up Dodge Challenger. He downs a supply of amphetamines to reach his Sisyphean goal of driving from Denver to SF in record time, for an unspecified goal. All the secondary actors are top-notch. Though countercultural ala Easy Rider, it is incredibly based and salient for the New Right of today, who are today’s counterculture.


The layers of symbolism and allegory here are many. Though he doesn’t show it, Kowalski is damaged goods. He served with distinction in Vietnam. He became a cop but left that role after acting against police corruption. He then became a race car driver, but saw some die in wrecks and nearly died himself. And he is haunted by memories of his lost surfer girlfriend. For the most part, he refrains from the temptations of pot, ‘free love’, and whatnot for a higher purpose… getting to SF in record time, but does succumb to a desert seduction by a young hitchhiker (Charlotte Rampling) who, in her downhearted musings about waiting and eternity, may represent death itself.

In getting the car he’s driving to SF, we never learn why it is so urgent to get it there in record time, and it seems that Kowalski’s urgency is a purpose-in-itself, where the ultimate telos of one’s ‘vanishing point’ – the eyes fixed as far as one can see down the road — is the annihilation of being which comes with death.

The fantastic era-specific soundtrack, with its evangelical rock tinge (which serves as meta-commentary on the film’s proceedings), accentuates the Christ allegory of the protagonist. In the third act, Kowalski is aided by a guardian angel of sorts, a blonde hippie biker dude named ‘Angel’, who lives in a trailer in the middle of the desert with his gorgeous blonde girlfriend (who herself rides around the house naked on a motorcycle).

The role of the desert is central throughout. The sequence where, in the middle of Death Valley, Kowalski (fixing a flat tire) is stumbled upon by an old man snake collector, is like something out of the Bible. While the movie leans to the left for the time, by today’s standards this is less apparent. For example, on a lone stretch of desert highway, Kowalski picks up two gay hitchhikers whose car had broken down (one is carrying a “just married” sign that was on the back of their car), but this humorous interlude soon turns dangerous when they pull a gun on Kowalski to rob him. He bests them in the end though.

George Miller must have been greatly influenced by this movie when making Mad Max. From the centrality of desert highway, to the highway chase sequences, to the similarity in names between Kowalski, Max Balchowsky (the ex race car driver who maintained the five 1970 Dodge Challenger R/Ts used during filming), and Max Rockatansky, the name of Mel Gibson’s character in Mad Max.

If you haven’t seen this movie, do check it out. It’s achieved cult status for very good reasons. The cinematography is sharp, wide, and spectacular. The car driving is top-notch. And the deeper allegorical levels of the film will pull you in.

Posted in Film | Comments Off on Vanishing Point (1971)

Normism: The Philosophy of Norm Macdonald

Normism: The Philosophy of Norm Macdonald, a short book I wrote about a great comedian, is now available on Amazon.


Norm Macdonald’s philosophy of life, comedy, and death is sketched out thematically from his original material, as well as from extant interviews with him and profiles of him over the years.

Among his fellow comedians, Norm Macdonald was widely hailed as one of the funniest men alive, a DGAF Mark Twain whose unique combination of cadence, persona, material, and delivery left a cultural impact that greatly outsized the limited commercial success he experienced. To his fans, Norm’s everyman persona engendered a sense of relatability and connection.

But there were aspects of his life not well known. He was a child prodigy who graduated high school at the age of 14. His experiences with cancer since his youth led to a lifelong existential obsession with death, which was also the dominant theme of his comedy throughout his career. In the last decades of his life, he led a notably ascetic lifestyle and was largely unconcerned with achieving breakout success.

For comedic effect, early on his career Macdonald carefully crafted a ‘dumb guy’ persona, but there was a trickster element to this. Largely hidden from public view was his Christianity, his cultural conservatism, and how well-read he was in literature, philosophy, and theology, all of which he would subtly weave into his material. From a position of anti-intellectualism, he played the Philosopher-Fool. Through both his original works and the various interviews he did over the years, Macdonald would touch upon subjects ranging from the nature of comedy, to culture, politics, and religion, to his all-consuming fear of death.

More than just a comedian telling jokes, Macdonald embodied his material — the comedy and comedian were one and the same.

‘Normism’ was his philosophy, his way of being.

Long live Norm.

Posted in Culture, Humor | Comments Off on Normism: The Philosophy of Norm Macdonald

Avanti! (1972)

SCORE: 4.5/5

This vastly underrated comedy directed by Billy Wilder stars Jack Lemmon, Juliet Mills, and the criminally underrated British actor Clive Revill, who is a comic revelation (his comic timing is absolutely perfect) as Italian hotel manager Carlo Carlucci. The supporting cast is terrific, especially Gianfranco Barra as Bruno, the valet who desperately wants to get to America, and Edward Andrews in a small but hilarious role as a swinging-dick, conservative State Dept official.

Based on a 1968 play by Samuel A. Taylor, and with a script co-written by Wilder and longtime script partner I.A.L. Diamond, dialogue was tailored to Jack Lemmon, who is at the height of his comedic powers in this movie, playing the son of a recently deceased corporate magnate who has traveled to Italy to claim his father’s body, and is rushing to get back in time for a high-profile funeral already scheduled in the U.S. He soon learns that his father did not die in his traffic accident alone, but a woman he’d been having a passionate, 10 year-long affair with died with him as his passenger. Juliet Mills plays wonderfully a carefree British woman of very modest means, who has similarly come to claim her mother’s body, her mother having been the mistress of Lemmon’s father. Through a series of farcical misfortunes, and the classic situational comedy that Wilder excels at, Lemmon & Mills are drawn together.

Wilder wanted to make a film “a little like Brief Encounter, which I always admired,” but the comedic element supersedes the romantic. Mills agreed to gain twenty-five pounds for her role, and a couple of scenes involving explicit nudity (breasts and buttocks, not the other bits), at first seem out-of-place, but ultimately resonate satisfactorily given the associated existential sub-theme of mortality and physical imperfection.

The movie has great poignancy today, with anti-Nixon, political jokes that — while being topical — still have relevancy today, as well as a subplot involving the theme of people desperately wanting to immigrate to America. The movie is chock full of hilarious Italian stereotypes and pokes fun at Italian inefficiency, bureaucracy, and the norm of 3-hour lunches during the work week.

After viewing a number of Italian films, Wilder selected Luigi Kuveiller as his cinematographer, which was a superb choice. Avanti! is beautifully shot on the islands of Ischia and Capri, and along the spectacular Amalfi Coast. Both exteriors and interiors pop with a vibrant color that are masterful in their composition.

Upon its release, the film’s stars were rightfully hailed (Lemmon, Mills, and Revill were all nominated for Golden Globes for their performances here), but reviews were mixed. Some critics felt Wilder was floundering here, trying to stay hip with post-60s, Euro-cinema nudity and sex, but the the script makes some veiled self-referentiality on this. Wilder himself expressed disappointment with the end product, having wished the comedy to be secondary to the romance. Some also found Avanti! to be 30 minutes too long (it stands at 140 minutes), and while I agree that some scenes could have been trimmed or excised altogether, the movie’s length is a minor critique for what is otherwise a hidden masterpiece.

Posted in Film | Comments Off on Avanti! (1972)

Rifkin’s Festival (2020)

SCORE: 3/5

Woody Allen has had an incredibly prolific output of films – an average of one per year over the past 45 years – and I, as a big fan of his work, have seen them all. With that volume of material, there are bound to be misses among the hits, but a mediocre Allen movie is still better than 95% of what Hollywood puts out. Now a 100% persona non grata in Hollywood circles, Allen was unable to get a single U.S. distributor for Rifkin’s Festival, a movie which was filmed in (and is set in) the beautiful Spanish coastal city of San Sebastian.

Throughout his entire career, Allen has obsessed over existential questions about mortality and the fundamental meaningless and pure contingency (moral luck) of existence. Now 85, Allen surely realizes his own existence is reaching its conclusion. As such, the themes and concerns depicted in Rifkin’s Festival (one of Allen’s worst films) serve as a distillation, of sorts, of Allen’s own psyche and its ever-narrowing and repetitive concerns: the certainty of death; the meaninglessness of existence; disintegrating marriages; art and passion and sex (invariably involving the ‘excitement’ of infidelity) as primary pursuits, ways to feel young again, and a means to distract us from nihilism and the repetitive boredom of domesticity, which is itself a distraction of sorts. But whereas his early films in the late 70s through the mid-80s explored these themes brilliantly, vis-à-vis hilarious characters & plots or characters mired in relatable pathos, Allen’s films of the past 10 years feel like uninspired copies of a copy of a copy.

His last truly great film was Midnight in Paris (2011), but since then his movies have lost any sense of originality and, worse, reflect the rarified insularity in which Allen himself has been living in for more than half his life. For instance, the first dialogue of Rifkin’s Festival is the following voiceover by Wallace Shawn (the surrogate for Woody Allen’s typical nebbish on-screen persona, even down to the Allen’s signature, green military field jacket):

I actually don’t know where to begin. I had to stop work on the novel I was writing and accompany my wife to the San Sebastian Film Festival. Well, Sue had to go. For her it was work. She represented several clients who were there, and did the press for them. Now the ironic part was that, you know years ago when I taught my film class, the thought of going to any film festival would’ve been very exciting to me.

But film festivals are no longer what they were. I mean it was no longer what I was teaching. I taught cinema as art — the great European masters. I only went because I couldn’t shake the suspicion that she had a little crush on this bullshit movie director she did publicity for.

The layers and surfeit of elite lifestyle and concerns alluded to here are almost bottomless. In Woody Allen movies, nearly everyone is either a writer, an artist, a filmmaker, or some other extension of the culture industry, all living in magnificent apartments in exciting cities. They are rarely ever middle-class characters, or low-level white collar workers working tedious jobs, or blue collar people. This is a reflection and function of Allen’s own closed-circle lifestyle and cadre of friends.

Movies often require us to suspend disbelief, but Rifkin’s Festival stretches this concept to its breaking point in that we are expected to find plausible the idea that someone with the looks of Gina Gershon would be the wife of Wallace Shawn, or that (even more implausibly) a strikingly beautiful, middle-aged, Spanish female doctor would almost fall in love with Shawn’s character: a whiny, chinless, balding, pot-bellied, hypochondriac, septuagenarian Jew from NYC, all because Shawn’s character mentions he taught film on the ‘European masters’ (e.g., Fellini, Bergman, Godard, Truffaut).

While the mutual attraction between Shawn’s character and the doctor is not consummated (it does not get to the stage of even a kiss), there are revealing depictions of how Allen sees the ‘artist’ as having license for infidelity and, presumably, other discretions. “He has affairs,” the doctor says to Shawn’s character, regarding her tempestuous artist husband, “and I accept it. After all he’s an artist. And you can’t judge an artist by bourgeois standards.” (This theme has been in several Allen films, most fully in Vicky Cristina Barcelona).

Rifkin’s Festival inserts several dream sequences that are direct homages to several of Allen’s favorite films: Fellini’s 8 & ½, Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, and several films by Ingmar Bergman (Allen’s favorite director) such as The Seventh Seal and Persona, but the gimmick falls flat in most instances. 

As has been increasingly true with Allen’s career as it has progressed, Rifkin’s Festival contains several explicit references to Jewishness and, ipso facto, characters separating the outside world of Gentiles and their culture from that of Jews and their cosmopolitan culture. And, to me, that has been the allure of Allen’s films: one gets the universality of existential and moral philosophical concerns and also the particularism of the quintessential NYC Jewish worldview.

At one point in the movie Shawn’s character voices a sentiment that Allen has made in numerous films: “There’s no doubt the American [Hollywood] masters were wonderful, but generations of Americans were mislead into thinking that Hollywood endings were real and not make believe. And then the Europeans came along and movies grew up.”

Rifkin’s Festival ends as an antithesis to the happy ‘Hollywood ending’, not with any intense or sudden or violent apogee, but by conveying the contingency and randomness of existence, and how even the rich cannot escape the despised routinization of the bourgeois, the plodding, almost uneventful, meandering of life itself.

Posted in Film | Comments Off on Rifkin’s Festival (2020)

Cleopatra (1963)

SCORE: 4/5

At 4+ hours in length, I’d been putting this one off for years, but I’m glad I finally got around to it, as this sometimes maligned, big budget film — skillfully directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz — is excellent. As far as swords-and-sandals epics go, this one ranks among the best. The lavish production (a record-setter for the time) is something to behold, tastefully and not egregiously deployed.

The film follows the true-to-life-events of the historical timeline. Per Wikipedia (and the film’s opening credits), the film’s screenplay was “adapted by Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman from the 1957 book The Life and Times of Cleopatra by Carlo Maria Franzero, and from histories by Plutarch, Suetonius, and Appian.”

There are fine turns from all of the primary actors: Liz Taylor, Rex Harrison (Julius Caesar), Richard Burton (Marc Antony), Hume Cronyn (Sosigenes), Andrew Keir (Agrippa), Martin Landau (Rufio), and Roddy McDowall (Octavian aka Caesar Augustus). It is Burton’s performance, as the tortured soul of Marc Antony, that really shines here, a bravura performance with some terrific dialogue and line-readings. (Shakespearean dialogue stylization is used in the film, but not in a distracting way). Some of the screenplay’s dialogue – especially the third act’s ruminations on mortality – is poetic and downright beautiful.

My only beef was that, in Hollywood’s narrative need for a villain, such a role is largely filled by Roddy McDowall’s snotty and petulant Octavian (Augustus), something not historically accurate. Augustus wasn’t unusually cruel for the time but was, in fact, a paragon of the benevolent dictator and arguably Rome’s finest Emperor.

Posted in Film | Comments Off on Cleopatra (1963)