We Met in Virtual Reality (2022)

The sci-fi anime Belle dreams of a far-out futureworld where all social & commercial activity online is ported to a Virtual Reality realm in which our external bodies & environments are just as fluid as our internal psyches.  According to the documentary We Met in Virtual Reality, that future has already arrived, at least for a small number of tech-savvy übernerds.  Billed as “the first feature-length documentary filmed entirely in VR,” it’s basically Belle except for “real” and without all those pesky trips back to the physical world.  It’s a pixelated descent into the kind of niche nerd-culture subdungeons that the internet was built for but rarely achieves anymore.  Right now, it’s unclear whether the Metaverse will succeed in replacing that psychedelic digi-realm with an infinite digi-Target, but this still feels like a vital, of-the-moment snapshot of what VR life looks like in the early 2020s.  It’s the utopian counterpoint to the more sinister vision of Belle, and it’s somehow one with just as much anime imagery.

Users of the virtual reality platform VRChat explain how VR offers infinite possibilities in how they can interact and be perceived in a new, revolutionized social space that’s only limited by their own imaginations.  Meanwhile, they’re speaking through digital avatars that can be neatly categorized into a few anime & furry subgenres, mostly made up of pre-existing IP.  It turns out that given all the possibilities in all human creation, most people want to be seen as a hot lady with a tail.  And who could blame them?  Taken at face value, the interviewees would have you believe they’re creating a digital utopia that’s broken free from the cruelties & limitations of the physical world, but what’s onscreen is just a virtual simulation of real-world grind & commerce now populated by catbois, wolfsonas, and anime babes.  The VRChat represented here is a glitchy, pixelated echo of pre-existing rituals under real-world capitalism: weddings, funerals, improv classes, lap dances, raves, etc.  That tension between what the infinite possibilities of this digi-realm offers vs. what’s actually achieved within it pushes the film beyond initial, superficial reactions like “This looks weird,” and “Who are these people irl?”.

A large part of the utopian rhetoric posited here is a result of COVID, since most of its interviews were recorded in the pre-vaccine days of 2020 & 2021.  Many of the subjects who flocked to VRChat in that time describe themselves as having been lonely, anxious, and suicidal before finding community there.  Every bellydancing class, ASL instruction, and virtual driving lesson captured “on film” ends with a group photo, with all the hot, tailed, anime avatars crowding into a single frame to make cutesy faces at a virtual camera.  It often feels like that group photo is more important than the activity it’s commemorating.  These nerds really do love each other, just as much as they love the freedom to style their digital bodies to match their true personae (often with little regard for matching traditional gender presentations to the expected pronouns of the “real” world).  I’m not yet convinced that Zuckerberg will lure your average normie into the VR lifestyle in the coming years, but it’s easy to see the appeal for this specific subset of very-online nerds, especially within the context of COVID-era isolation.

Beyond its introduction to a subculture most viewers don’t have access to otherwise, We Met in Virtual Reality is also an interesting advancement in documentary tech.  It’s not simply screengrabbed from a livestream of virtual reality interactions.  It’s traditionally directed, paying attention to coverage, “camera” placement, and narrative flow in an entirely simulated environment.  While VRChat feels like an early step into a new realm of online interaction that hasn’t quite gotten its footing yet, the movie does the same for documentary filmmaking in that new, digital realm.  Take a look at it now, while it’s still a rudimentary immersion in surreal images and far-out ideas; and fear the soon-to-come days of Belle when all significant social interactions are filtered through this exact lens.  For better or for worse, this is the future of life & art.

-Brandon Ledet

Everything is Terrible! The Movie (2009)

YouTube launched in 2005.  The found-footage meme site Everything is Terrible! launched in 2007, as if in direct response to the way YouTube mutated the internet into a new, hideous beast.  I’m sure there was some equivalent to Everything is Terrible! on 90s college campuses, where VHS compilation tapes of weirdo pop culture ephemera were passed around & red-dubbed into fuzzed-out oblivion for dorm room stoner watch parties.  There’s just something precisely post-YouTube about the Everything is Terrible! evolution of that format, where contextless clips of work-out tapes, self-help babble, Christian children’s propaganda, corporate training videos, soft-core pornography, and Z-grade Hollywood schlock all co-mingle as if they were part of the same cursed continuum.  The Everything is Terrible! project started as a way for a small collective of Los Angeles hipsters to highlight & mock the disposable media most people glance over in thrift store bins without giving it a second’s thought.  Through the timing of its launch and its incredible longevity, it’s evolved into a vivid record of American pop culture brain rot in the internet era, where everything is contextless, meaningless, cheap and, well, terrible.

Just two years into their historic run as a meme-culture institution, Everything is Terrible! branched out into making rapid-fire, feature-length compilations of their blog’s “greatest hits”, starting with Everything is Terrible! The Movie in 2009.  Their first movie is a primitive prototype for the much better mixtapes the collective has dispatched in the years since, with nine features to their name as of 2022.  Later EIT! titles like The Great Satan & Doggie Woggiez, Poochie Woochiez are much more thematically focused & purposeful than their first catch-all mixtape – the former being a frantic biopic of the titular Satan and the latter being a dog-video themed “remake” of Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain.  Even the 2010 “sequel” to the first EIT! movie, 2 Everything 2 Terrible 2: Tokyo Drift, smooths out a lot of the original film’s rough spots, including moments of edgelord hipster irony that evoke suicide imagery and the word “retarded” as punching-down punchlines.  Everything is Terrible! The Movie is very much a product of an aughts-era internet where cruel hellsites like eBaum’s World, 4chan, and People of Walmart were cornerstone content farms, an era the site has thankfully outlived.

As much as I struggled with the cruelty & aimlessness of the first Everything is Terrible! movie, it’s still impressive as an experiment in what an EIT! movie would even be, working with no previous blueprint to mimic or adjust.  Structurally (and sarcastically), it echoes the basic structure of a Real Movie by starting with direct-to-camera character intros (pulled mostly from celebrities like Bob Saget, Kathy Griffith, and Angela Lansbury introducing their self-help and workout tapes). It concludes with action set pieces from direct-to-video schlock for its climax, followed by flashback clips from earlier in the mix while a sentimental jingle drones on the soundtrack.  There’s also some early moodsetting that contextualize the medium the film is playing around with, including clips that explain how connections are made in a developing toddler’s brain and what, exactly, is a mixtape CD.  Everything in-between those guiding signposts is a chaotic mess, though, a broadcast from a post-YouTube world where images of Evangelical abstinence training, child abduction scaremongering, Angela Lansbury masturbating, toupee infomercials, magician flirting tips, and 80s comic Sinbad dressed up as a condom all mix together as if they’re fibers of the same ragged cloth.  It’s a little overwhelming, a little terrifying, and often very funny – the basic internet experience.

I watched Everything is Terrible! The Movie on a sun-faded laptop screen while loitering in a hotel lobby with a $3 Starbucks order and an hour to kill.  My other entertainment option was to absent-mindedly scroll through my Twitter feed, where a jarring, algorithmic mix of bad takes, solid jokes, celebrity gaffs, thirst traps, absurdist home videos, and protest footage would’ve given me roughly the same psychic experience as this ancient internet relic from 2009.  One of the smartest clips included in the film is a “What is the internet?” explainer where middle-aged women complain that they’re confused about “www.this” and “www.that”, framing the internet as a mystical nowhere space that cannot be fully understood.  They’re right.  Internet communication & culture is a menacing puzzle that cannot be fully understood, let alone explained.  The Everything is Terrible! project has done a great job of capturing that mystical menace over the years, ironically by dragging pre-internet video clips into a post-YouTube world.  Everything is Terrible! The Movie was an interesting early attempt to translate that project into proper cinema, and they’ve since only achieved greater & greater things in that new medium.

-Brandon Ledet

Neptune Frost (2022)

At its best, cinema is honest artifice.  At its best, cinema is fiercely provocative & political.  It’s a shared dream; it’s poetry. Neptune Frost is cinema at its best.  The genderfucked Afrofuturist sci-fi musical is the kind of start-to-end stunner that feels so peerless in its fury & creativity that there isn’t a clear, pre-established critical language to fully discuss what it’s doing.  In genre terms, it triangulates unlikely holy ground between the communal-solidarity sci-fi of Bacurau, the dreamworld lyricism of Black Orpheus, and the “Hack the planet” online resistance culture of Hackers.  Otherwise, it’s untethered to tradition, using the digital tools of internet-era filmmaking to build an entirely new cinematic sensibility from scratch.  While so many genre filmmakers are stuck mining the past for retro nostalgia triggers, Saul Williams & Anizia Uzeyman are honest about the look & means of the moving image of the present, and as a result Neptune Frost feels like the future of sci-fi in the medium.

Neptune Frost‘s resistance to clear comparison or definition is integral to its design.  It boldly opposes every institutional structure it can hurl a brick at, from major oppressive forces like Capitalism, Christianity, and rigid Gender boundaries to more pedestrian concerns like Plot.  There are two lovers at the center of its loose, musical fantasy: a coltan miner mourning the loss of his brother and a non-binary traveler mourning their loss of place & community.  They find each other in the Rwandan savanna, and their love for each other combines with their hatred of modern civilization to create a new way of engaging with spiritual life & the physical world.  Other refugees & dissidents appear drawn to their subsequent political commune like a spiritual magnet, finding a way to collectively “hack” into the world’s computer systems from their remote locale through the power of their own hearts & minds.  Enough characters have names like Innocence, Philosophy, and Tekno that Neptune Frost feels like it should have a clear metaphorical guide to its scene-to-scene events, but I would be lying if I could say that I can make full sense of it (or that I’m even confident about my vague overview of its big-picture premise).  Since it’s all conveyed through music & poetry, though, it doesn’t have to make logical sense; it just has to be emotionally potent, and I felt every minute of it deep in my chest.

I do believe there is a clear guiding force to its political messaging, at least.  As much as it sets out to methodically undermine every single institutional structure in its path, it’s all filtered through a very specific disgust with the mining of coltan in countries like Rwanda, where horrifically exploitative working conditions are treated as a necessary evil to powering the world’s smartphones.  It’s openly confrontational about this trade-off, starting with a needless death in a coltan mine and referencing “Black-bodies currency” in its free-flowing song lyrics.  The beauty in its political subversion is in the way its savanna hacker commune turns the tools of their oppressors against them, using the community of online connection to overpower the systems that profited from its creation.  It’s a purely electronic mode of spirituality & political fury that feels more real & vital to modern life than the organized religions & pre-existing political movements it’s supplanting.  I don’t know that it offers a clear, real-life solution to the exploitation of coltan miners, but it does have a clear ethos in how online political organization is necessary to create meaningful change in the physical world, despite the exploitation that makes that connection possible.

The closest I’ve seen previous experiments in form approximate Neptune Frost‘s specific mode of political-resistance sci-fi euphoria was in the feature-length music videos Dirty Computer & When I Get Home.  I love both of those films for their boldness in pushing the medium to its outer limits, but I don’t think even they quite match Williams & Uzeyman’s far-out achievements here.  More importantly, they’re both relatively recent works, which means Neptune Frost is at the forefront of something new, something not yet fully defined.  It’s a thrill to behold, even with the uneasy balance between its political hopefulness and the real-world misery that drives its resistance to current status quo.

-Brandon Ledet

Language Lessons (2021)

There was much attention paid to the dual achievements of Ridley Scott & Ryusuke Hamaguchi directing two films each in 2021, but I haven’t personally seen any of the four films they released last year (House of Gucci & The Last Duel and Drive My Car & Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, respectively).  However, I have seen the dual directorial debuts of actor-turned-auteur Natalie Morales, Plan B & Language Lessons – both released in 2021.  Plan B was the higher-profile release of the pair, boasting a larger budget and a substantial promotional push when it premiered on Hulu.  It’s a fun addition to the new wave of teen sex comedies that attempt to de-Porky’s the genre by giving girls’ libidos a spin at the wheel for a change (joining titles like Blockers, Booksmart, The To Do List, and Never Have I Ever). Language Lessons is a much smaller film in scope & cultural impact, both of which were restricted by circumstances of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  Filmed on laptops with an onscreen cast of two, Language Lessons finds Morales toying with the screenlife genre the same way she played around with the tropes of the teen sex comedy in Plan B.  There’s nothing flashy about her directorial style in either film, but she demonstrates a sharply tuned ear for comedic banter in both, which is especially evident in the film that is pure dialogue with no visual distractions from the script.

Mark Duplass stars as a nouveau riche Oakland hipster whose semi-famous husband buys him 100 Spanish language lessons as a surprise birthday gift.  His teacher is played by Morales herself, who’s much more protective of her personal life and is unsure how chummy she wants to be with a stranger she’ll be speaking to on a weekly basis for two solid years.  There are many barriers obstructing the mismatched pair’s path to a genuine friendship: their California/Costa Rica locations, their wealth/working class social statuses, their gringo/Latina cultural heritages, etc.  Gradually, though, the professional & transactional boundaries of their relationship break down and they become genuine, real-life friends – often through abrupt, shocking events in their lives off-screen.  The story is told entirely through Skype calls & video messages but doesn’t do anything remarkably unexpected with the screenlife format.  It’s just well written & performed enough to get by as a compelling one-on-one dialogue exchange, no visual embellishments necessary.  In comparison to other 2021 releases on similar topics, it doesn’t have quite as much to say about the transactional nature of modern online social life as Pvt Chat, but it’s a better attempt to remold dusty romcom tropes into a sincere story about friendship than Together TogetherPlan B is likely the 2021 Morales film that will be remembered & respected over time, but Language Lessons helps reinforce that her excellent dialogue & character work in that better-publicized debut was no fluke.

Sweeping Morales to the side for a second, Language Lessons does feel like a no-brainer Duplass Brothers project for the COVID era.  Not only was there a huge uptick in Duolingo users learning new languages in their idle time early in the pandemic (myself included, until Hurricane Ida power outages interrupted my momentum), but the safety protocols of COVID-era productions make for the exact kind of intimate indie dramas that the Duplasses cut their teeth producing.  At their best, Duplass productions are exciting reminders that just a couple people & a camera are more than enough resources to slap a decent movie together (as long as the script is strong).  Casting Mark as one of those two people in this instance makes Language Lessons feel like a wholesome counterpoint to Creep, a natural evolution of the exact kinds of movies they produce in normal circumstances anyway.  Morales is credited as the sole director of this production, but she shares the writing credit with Duplass, marking it as a true collaboration between them.  I’m not sure what she plans to accomplish as a filmmaker in the long term, but she had a great start in 2021 with two solidly entertaining, surprisingly political indie comedies released in the same calendar year.  Neither one is going to earn the level of attention the decades-established filmmakers Scott & Hamaguchi are enjoying but, again, she’s just getting started.

-Brandon Ledet

Belle (2022)

I went to see Mamoru Hosoda’s interpretation of Beauty and the Beast on the big screen solely because I recently enjoyed catching up with his 2006 debut (as a sole directorial voice) The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.  That introduction to Hosoda’s work should have primed me for the sci-fi spin the Japanese animator would put on that classic fairy-tale romance, but Belle was not at all the film I expected it to be.  Belle is a lot less about Beauty and the Beast and a lot more about The Internet than I was prepared for, which is fine by me, since I’m generally a huge sucker for Internet Age cinema anyway.  In this instance, Hosoda debates the merits & limitations of replacing in-the-flesh community with online engagement with the world at large.  He also uses the dreamscape visualizations of a pure cyberworld and the digi-humanoid avatars who populate it as an excuse to fill the screen with fun, excessively cute imagery for its own sake.  The result is a lot more exciting than a straight anime adaptation of Beauty and the Beast likely would have been, so it’s probably for the best that its supposed source material only accounts for roughly 15% of its sprawling plot.

The titular Belle is the online avatar for an anonymous, unpopular high school student who instantly becomes famous as a pop star after logging into the metaverse world of “U”.  Futuristic “bodysharing” technology allows U’s billions of users to be fully immersed in the senses & sensations of life online.  People still go to work & school in the physical world, but most social interaction & international celebrity is experienced in the digital one – like in The Congress, or like on Twitter.  Within U, Belle is the pop icon du jour, but she finds that she receives just as much cruelty from comment section trolls as she does adoration from her fans.  It’s still preferable to interacting with peers or adults in her real life, though, where her social anxiety and the very public history of her familial loss weighs heavily on her heart.  And at least as Belle she gets to wield her social capital for real world good: attempting to heal the broken heart of whatever similarly lonely teen is raging through U as The Beast.  Belle is both optimistic about and critical of what online community can achieve, and all the plot’s near-infinite twists & turns feel like a struggle to find a balance between that digital community and the one in “real” life.

I’m generally skeptical of modern anime’s need to supplement its traditional hand-drawn animation with CG backdrops & effects.  Hosoda gets away with it here by setting his coming-of-age sci-fi plot within a digital cyberworld, leaning into the uncanniness of the corner-cutting CG instead of excusing it for budgetary reasons.  Seeing it contrasted against a never-ending parade of trailers for shitty American cartoons in the theater certainly helped it stand out as an aesthetic object as well.  At least it’s constantly trying to look beautiful in every frame, as opposed to just seeking untapped IP sources that could be voiced by unenthused celebrites like Chris Pratt.  If anything, Belle is beautiful to the point of being sappy, but I cried at its emotional climax because I’m a total sap.  I can’t recall the last time an animated American film stirred up that emotional of a response in me purely through its visual artistry.  Maybe 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse?  And even that example has a much more limited imagination in straying from its already popular source material.

It’s probably for the best that Belle isn’t a direct Beauty and the Beast adaptation.  That French fairy tale already has a masterpiece adaptation in Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version, a beautifully animated adaptation in Disney’s 1991 version, and a horrific imbalance between flesh & CGI in Disney’s 2017 version.  Hosoda borrows a few images & relationship dynamics from that frequently trodden tale, but he mostly uses Belle as an excuse to reflect on what community, celebrity, privacy, and bodily identity are going to mean in our near digi-future as most of our interpersonal interactions are ported online.  I’ll always champion movies that sincerely, creatively engage with internet culture as a valuable cinematic subject.  Even so, this one is more beautiful to gaze at than most, and I’m almost curious enough about what the English-language versions of its pop songs sound like to rewatch it dubbed while it’s still playing in theaters.

-Brandon Ledet

Pvt Chat (2021)

I got so wrapped up in reflecting on how Adam Sandler’s career & persona reshaped the Safdie Brothers’ usual schtick in Uncut Gems that I forgot to mention the true standout discovery among its many NYC-caricature performers: Julia Fox.  As Sandler’s breathy, pouty mistress/employee, Fox softened Uncut Gems‘s acidity with a much-needed sweetness you won’t find elsewhere in the film.  At the very least, she’s the only character who finds the continuous fuck-up anti-hero adorable instead of despicable, and it’s oddly cute watching her play moll to his delusions of mafioso grandeur.  Fox felt refreshingly authentic & eccentric in the same way a lot of the Safdies’ NYC caricatures do, except with an unusual star power that had me leaning in for more, unsure that more would ever arrive.

2021 has been a pretty decent year for Julia Fox’s post-Uncut Gems career.  Not only did she land a small role in Stephen Soderbergh’s star-studded neo-noir No Sudden Move, but she also found an opportunity to co-lead a feature film that plays directly into her strengths as a screen presence (and, thus, one that’s unavoidably reminiscent of the Safdies’ grimy NYC filmmaking style).  Pvt Chat is a grim internet-age romance starring Fox as a camgirl dominatrix with the world’s wormiest fuckboy client (Peter Vack).  She spends most of her screentime domming the porn & gambling addict from the safety of a webcam, taunting him, “spanking” him, and using his tongue as a virtual ashtray.  Even when she’s playing mean in these exchanges, there’s a sweetness to her persona that leaks out of her patent leather armor.  It’s a dangerous allure for her character, whose approachability inspires her online client to become her on-the-street stalker.  It’s a huge benefit to her as an actress, though, proving that her radiant performance in Uncut Gems was not a one-time anomaly.  Julia Fox is the real deal.

Pvt Chat is not so much a Safdies photocopy as it is pulling inspiration from the same independent NYC filmmaking subcultures that inspire them.  It drags the late-night grime & mania of New York City livin’ up the fire-escape and onto the laptop computer, icing down the city’s up-all-night genre traditions with the cold isolation of life online.  It’s classic No Wave filmmaking echoed in 1’s & 0’s; it’s Smithereens for the Pornhub commentariat.  Pvt Chat declares itself to be “a romance about freedom, fantasy, death, friendship.”  In truth, it’s more about how all modern relationships have been completely drained of their intimacy through our transactional, performative online interactions.  It presents a world where intimacy is an illusion for purchase, not an authentic shared experience.  Setting that crisis in a city overflowing with genuine, in-the-flesh people only makes it more tragic (and more perverse).

There are some instances in which Pvt Chat‘s nostalgia for independent NYC filmmaking of yesteryear gets in its own way.  In particular, the way Julia Fox gradually falls for her sadboy crypto-bro client feels like the kind of pure masturbatory fantasy that would’ve been much more common on the 1980s & 90s film festival circuit than it is now.  Imagine a boneheaded version of Taxi Driver where Cybil Shepphard & Robert DeNiro genuinely hit it off after their porno theatre date on 42nd Street.  Personally, that romantic development didn’t ruin the film for me.  It arrives after so many preposterous, manic decisions made by late-night lunatics that it felt oddly at home with the movie’s M.O.  More importantly, even when the doomed lovers do physically connect, the movie does not abandon its themes of isolation & performance.  It perverts the consummation of their shared desire in a way that still leaves them physically alone & unfulfilled.  Maybe the movie is all in service of a delusional fuckboy fantasy, but it at least seems aware of how pathetic & grim that fantasy is.

Even if the unlikely central romance of Pvt Chat is a turn-off for most audiences, the movie is still a worthy vehicle for Julia Fox.  She commands the screen (and the screen within the screen) with an infectious ease that still has me leaning in for more.  It’s incredibly cool that her acting career wasn’t limited to a one-off novelty; she’s a goddamn star.

-Brandon Ledet

Host (2020)

I’ve already spilled gallons of digital ink praising high-concept horror films about The Evils of The Internet and how technology is going to kill us all. I promise it’s not a bit. I’m genuinely enamored with movies that fully commit to an Online Horror gimmick, especially the ones that hone in on a specific app or social media platform for a temporal anchor (Skype in Unfriended, OnlyFans in Cam, CandyCrush in #horror, Snapchat in Sickhouse, Facebook timelines in Friend Request, etc.). The argument against the Online Horror gimmick is that it makes these films feel instantly dated, which I’d contend is more of a virtue than a fault. We spend so much of our modern lives online, navigating virtual spaces, that it feels outright dishonest that contemporary cinema would not reflect that digitized reality. Yet, it seems only gimmicky horror films are the ones brave enough to truthfully document & preserve our daily “lived” experience. They’re no more dated than Citizen Kane was for capturing the media mogul megalomania of contemporary figures like William Randolph Hearst or Casablanca was for reflecting America’s selfish isolationism in the earliest days of WWII. Evil Internet novelty horrors capture the moods & textures of our current era, where most of our lives play out in the eerie spaces beyond touchscreens & keyboards.

In that context, the new Shudder original Host is likely to remain one of the most vital, honest films released this year. Written, filmed, edited, and released in the months since the world went into lockdown for the current COVID-19 pandemic, Host is an instantly dated horror film and damn proud of it. Like the real-time Skype session gimmick of Unfriended (and plenty of other online found footage horrors besides), the film is staged as a fictional hour-long Zoom meeting. It’s a digital space many of us have had to become quickly acquainted with in recent months as working remotely has become more of a norm. Host smartly builds a lot of its scares around Zoom-specific quirks like the eeriness of lag time, the obscured view of pixilation, the uncanny-valley creepiness of artificial backgrounds & facial-recognition filters, and the feedback echo of a user logging into the same meeting on two separate devices. Its end credits are even scrolled through as a Zoom Participants list, which is a wonderfully thorough commitment to the premise. Other COVID-era details like a character scrambling to put on a face mask before fleeing out of their apartment or a young couple in quarantine becoming increasingly frustrated with each other’s constant presence drives home the nowness of the film even further for a shockingly unnerving experience. A decade from now (assuming we’re all alive a decade from now), this will be a priceless cultural time capsule of what life has been like this incredibly bizarre year. Of course, watching it while those wounds are still fresh only makes it more perversely fun & horrific in the interim.

Story-wise, there’s not much going on here that hasn’t already been accomplished in Unfriended (or Unfriended 2: Dark Web or Searching or The Den or so on). If anything, this is basically just a kinder, gentler Unfriended with genuinely likeable characters. That doesn’t necessarily make it an improvement on the formula, but it at least opens it up to a different flavor palate. A group of college-age women gather in a Zoom meeting for an online séance led by a spiritual guide who becomes disconnected mid-call, leaving them vulnerable to whatever ghosts or demons they may have conjured in the process. They’re generally likeable kids, and their only sin, really, is not taking the idea of an online séance very seriously (a sentiment likely shared by most of the film’s audience), which results in supernatural backlash from spirits on the other side of barrier between realms. Once the spirits start punishing these women for their careless indulgences in sarcasm & edgelord humor (they seem to be particularly miffed about a tasteless suicide joke), the movie mostly devolves into a series of haunted house gags where each Zoom participant is snuffed out one by one. The scares are impressively staged, combining practical & computerized effects to really stretch how much can be collaboratively achieved in a social-distance lockdown. And, honestly, it’s impressive that anything was achieved at all, considering how difficult it’s been to complete simple tasks and function as a human being in recent months.

Perhaps the most COVID-aware aspect of Host is that it’s only an hour long, which graciously accommodates how scattered & limited our attention spans have been since the world stopped in its tracks. Even if you’re not fully convinced that this kind of high-gimmick novelty horror about The Evils of The Internet is worthy of your attention, that hour-long commitment is such a small ask. It’s unlikely that we’ll see another feature film this year that so directly, accurately captures what life is like right now, and I’m honestly not shocked that my beloved Online Horror subgenre was the engine that got us there. It’s perfectly suited for that kind of of-the-moment documentation, with plenty of other entertaining payoffs besides.

-Brandon Ledet

Jezebel (2019)

I first heard of the new memoir drama Jezebel when the writer-director-star of the film, Numa Perrier, was interviewed on an episode of the Switchblade Sisters podcast this summer, discussing how the deeply personal project came to be. It’s near-impossible to resist the film’s premise as “a true story” wherein Perrier looks back to her teen years in the late 1990s, when her older sister roped her into being a camgirl in the early days of online sex work. The context & conflict of that premise is only made more intriguing by the fact that Perrier performs in the film herself as that older sister character, making the project as personal & intimate of an account as possible. What surprised me most about the film when it screened at the New Orleans Film Fest after months of anticipation was how sweet & delicate it was willing to be with its subject despite its creator’s obvious closeness to its emotionally raw context. Perrier doesn’t shy away from the exploitation or desperation that fueled her sex work as a cash-strapped, near-homeless teen, but she’s equally honest about the joy, power, and self-discovery that line of work opened up to her at the time, making for a strikingly complex picture of an authentic, lived experience.

Thematically, Jezebel falls somewhere between the poverty-line desperation of The Florida Project and the tense online sex work fantasy realms of Cam, but it’s not nearly as aggressive as either of those predecessors in terms of style or sensibility. Mostly, we follow the fictional Tiffany (who performs under the titular stage name Jezebel) as she ping-pongs between two suffocating, cramped locales: an extended-stay hotel room in Vegas and a nearby office space that’s been converted into an online pleasure dome. She has zero privacy in either her work or home life, where her “alone time” & her professional sex acts are quietly under surveillance by authority figures in just the other room. Understandably, a lot of the emotional drama is centered on her relationship with her older sister, who’s ultimately doing the best she can to equip the youngster with a self-sustaining skill (one the sister picked up herself over years of working dial-up hotlines). What’s more striking than that increasingly tense relationship, however, is Tiffany’s relationship with her own body & inner desires. The circumstances of how she got roped into sex work are far short of ideal, but she quickly comes to enjoy the freedom, power, confidence and expanding sexual passions the profession offers her – in a relatively low-stakes form of sexual labor she’s careful not to escalate. That conflict between desperation & autonomy rages throughout the movie, but it is mostly contained under a wryly humorous, surprisingly sweet surface.

While it’s nowhere near as deliberately horrifying as the chat sessions in Cam, Jezebel does a great job of distinguishing both the dangers & escapist fantasies inherent to working as a camgirl. The flood of unfiltered, hedonistic comments from anonymous men online are an overwhelming menace here, something Tiffany is especially vulnerable to as the only black girl working at her jobsite. There’s also just something horrific about how devastatingly young she looks as a 19-year-old babe in the woods who’s treating this incrementally risky line of work as a self-discovery playground. Watching her learn to wield power over her clients (one of them voiced by eternal sleazebucket Brett Gelman) or developing an internal sexual persona of her own, you can tell that working as a camgirl has overall been a genuine good in her life, but it’s impossible to lose sight of the fact that you’re watching a vulnerable child navigate potentially dangerous waters that are gradually rising above her head.

Perrier’s experience in the field is fascinating for the period-specific details of how early webcam lag, lack of audio, and chatroom etiquette informed the first wave of camgirl artistry (which mostly amounted to pantomimed sex acts instead of The Real Thing). Where Jezebel really shines, though, is in how the complexity of larger themes like familial politics, racial othering, financial power dynamics, and self-discovery are effortlessly, subtly weaved into a story that could have so easily been played for flashy shock value. Few things about this scenario are easy or fair, but Perrier finds plenty of room to convey a full inner life for her semi-fictional teenage surrogate, including touching bouts of joy, tenderness, and self-fulfillment despite the subject’s potential for pure exploitation and despair.

-Brandon Ledet

Countdown (2019)

My eternal amusement with the Killer Internet gimmick in modern horror bows to no one else’s. A few brave souls will stick out their necks for the Skype horror gimmick of Unfriended, the chatroom horror gimmick of Cam, and the Pokémon Go horror gimmick of Nerve, but it takes an even sturdier love of the genre to appreciate the really trashy shit: the Snapchat horrors of Sickhouse & Truth or Dare?, the Facebook timeline horrors of Friend Request, the Candy Crush nightmare of #horror, etc. This is my cinematic junk food – my personal version of the straight-to-Netflix romcom or the Adam Sandler yuck-em-up. I do believe the Killer Internet genre has an inherent value as a cultural time capsule just as much as it does as mindless entrainment, though, especially when it’s at its least discerning. This genre is doing more to preserve what our daily lives online look & feel like than any respectable Prestige Drama would dare; its assumed frivolity as an instantly dated novelty will only prove more academically useful with time, as these films are essentially archiving our cultural experience with modern user interface tech. Enter the killer-smartphone-app thriller Countdown: another silly-ass technophobic horror specimen to add on top of this cursed data pile, and another excuse for me to go to bat for a genre no one else seems to value as much as we all should.

The online ghoul-du-jour in Countdown is a demon who haunts a free smartphone app. This titular app is a countdown clock that tells you exactly how long you have left to live, which could be 60 years or 60 hours, depending on your pre-determined fate. Unremarkable archetype characters download the app in groups at parties & workplace breakrooms, having a laugh at the arbitrary estimation of how much time they have left alive on Earth. Only, the countdown clock proves to be eerily accurate, which isn’t so funny for the unfortunate souls who happen to download it the very night they’re fated to die. Armed with this cosmically privileged information on their impending doom, they naturally attempt to avoid their fate in a myriad of futile schemes: changing their travel pans to avoid train wrecks & car crashes, hacking into the app’s code to add time to their ticking clocks, commissioning a priest to wage battle with the dark forces that haunt their phones, etc. Unfortunately, these half-cooked maneuvers only serve to summon an ancient demon who strikes them down at their exact predetermined time of death anyway. Bummer. Between the hospital setting & college campus environment its main “character” frequents and the inevitability of fated Death that haunts her, there’s nothing especially new to Countdown that you won’t find done better in the Happy Death Day or Final Destination franchises. Its only value is its novelty as an entry in the Evil Internet canon, then, which it contributes to in a few key ways.

Countdown’s central gimmick obviously exaggerates the uncertainty of downloading an untrustworthy app to your phone, not knowing what viruses may accompany it to threaten your data security (and, apparently, your life). It doesn’t help that the app somehow has a 3.6 approval rating despite literally murdering people, so you can’t event trust its user feedback. Worse yet, once downloaded it will not allow you to uninstall it from your device, nor can you mute its notifications. For an unsavvy luddite like myself, there’s a unique menace to not being able to mute the loud, horrific noises that come out of my evil, dumb phone – settings that seemingly revert back to their top-volume horror with every automatic app update. I’ve never seen such a relatable mundane horror from my daily life represented onscreen. Most importantly, Countdown hinges its demonic smartphone possession premise on the eerie unknown realm of User Agreement text – the Terms & Conditions scroll that no one ever reads, to the point where we’re giving strange malevolent forces free rein over our personal data so that we can share cutesy memes about Millennial ennui or whatever. Every single character who downloads the Countdown app is explicitly agreeing to being hunted down by the Countdown demon, which they do automatically without pause. If that’s not the most universally relatable shit that could be exploited in horror, it’s only because you’ve never added an unnecessary app to your smartphone. I commend you for that; you’re are much stronger willed than I am.

There’s a lot about this movie that feels half-cooked: a #metoo subplot that’s not taken seriously enough to justify its discomfort; a PG-13 level body count that’s not brutal enough to overpower the skeptical hurdle most audiences will have with this silly of a premise; the sub-gimmick of a car backup cam jumpscare, which really deserves its own feature lengthy movie (that apparently only I will enjoy). Still, as the only mainstream, over-the-plate horror move tossed into wide release the week of Halloween, I very much appreciate that Countdown found new ways to expand the boundaries of the Killer Internet genre by documenting & exploiting the most mundane annoyances of daily smartphone app use. Cinema is an excellent way for us to record & reflect the full spectrum of the human experience, and we’re very unlikely to ever see an Oscar Bait drama handle topics as pedestrian as unmutable app notifications, unreadable user agreement text, and untrustworthy app store review ratings. That work, documenting the real nitty gritty of daily life in the 2010s, is left to noble trash like Countdown.

-Brandon Ledet

Rukus (2019)

A lifetime ago, I used to be friends with the Memphis filmmaking collectives behind the microbudget docudrama Rukus. They were making backyard movies as long as I’ve known them, from music video fan art to thematically daring documentaries to an ambitious feature-length fairy tale titled What I Love About Concrete (that felt like a breakthrough achievement for the crew). Rukus is a different beast entirely, not least of all in its personal, diary-like confessions of central contributor Brett Hanover as the film’s writer-director, with the rest of the collective (mainly Alanna Stewart & Katherine Dohan of Do You Know Where Your Children Are? Productions) taking on a myriad of supportive filmmaking duties – music, sound, cinematography, assistant-direction, etc. This sense of a long-lasting community collaborating on a single project over many years of spare weekends & rigidly structured “free time” affords Rukus a sense of depth in both subject & emotion, especially in how it tracks Hanover’s own maturity from high school sexual anxiety to a more confident, adult sense of self-understanding over what feels like fifteen years of footage & backstory. It’s over that exact span of time that I have drifted away from this community myself, to the point where I’m so far outside their orbit now I’m hesitant to suggest I have the right to still call them friends – even if “acquaintances” sounds too cold. I also don’t believe it’s extratextual to mention my fading personal connection to the filmmakers here or to recount their backstory as a microbudget filmmaking collective, as Rukus is a film about communities & intimate connections, both online and in the flesh (and fur). Like all great documents of personal importance, it has universal implications about relationships we’ve all had over the internet & irl; we all already know the players in Rukus, whether or not we’ve actually met them.

It’s important to mention the universality of Rukus’s themes of isolation, community, maturity, and self-harm upfront, because its on-paper premise indicates that it’s about something far more niche: furries. The most flippant (and inaccurate) way you could describe Rukus would be to contextualize it as the furries equivalent of the Netflix documentary Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony. That might have even been Hanover’s original intent when he first documented a Memphis furries convention for a high school photography project in the aughts: a fascinated, but detached interrogation of furry culture that borders uncomfortably close to a gawking “Getta load of this freak show!” voyeurism. Smartly, Hanover instead shifts this eagerness to gaze at human oddities inward – confronting his initial impulse to engage with furry culture from the academic distance of an “anthropological observer” as a self-serving lie. Anyone looking for a culture-gawking doc on furry conventions is going to be disappointed by the breadcrumb trail of information Rukus leaves behind as it prods at something much more personally vulnerable & ambitious. I was frequently reminded throughout of Nathan Rabin’s (excellent) book You Don’t know Me but You Don’t Like Me, in which the pop culture critic learns almost too much about his own mental & emotional health while attempting to cheekily document the often-mocked subcultures of Phish & Insane Clown Posse fandoms, only to become a member of both communities himself. Hanover’s personal journey as the loudest creative voice & most central subject of Rukus parallels Rabin’s across two entirely separate communities: his irl Memphis friends who are directly confronted with his OCD & sexual hang-ups and an online contingent of furries whose digital anonymity offers a freer, more accepting playground where he can find himself. Larger themes of kink power dynamics, queer identity, depression, romance, abuse, and self-harm emerge over the long haul of the story’s over-sprawling narrative, but it’s all anchored to that pursuit of finding intimate connections & personal fulfillment while navigating the needs & politics of the communities that are willing to put up with you – furries and beyond.

The thematic ambition & personal vulnerability of Rukus is evenly matched by the film’s own formal adventurousness. It initially presents itself as a documentary on Hanover’s interaction with real-life furries (with a particular focus on his relationship with the titular self-published furry artist Rukus), but as it unravels the question of what is & what isn’t real becomes muddled to the point of not mattering at all. There are moments of pure fantasy represented through hand-drawn sketchbook animation and childhood fursona dreamscapes that recall the immersive artworlds of films like Paperhouse & MirrorMask. Outside those forays into escapist magic, though, the question of what’s “real” is much more deliberately confused. Real-life footage & interviews mix freely with dramatic reenactments and intangible online personae to test the boundaries of what could be considered a “documentary.” It’s a dissociative tactic that evokes the feeling of looking at the world through a video camera – a remove that’s echoed in the film’s multimedia indulgences in laptop-lit stage plays, webcam cinematography, and crudely drawn outsider art. It’s also a fitting approach for conveying the emotional lives & development of its subjects: furries that express their truest selves through the remove of carefully-sculpted costumes & online avatars and the director’s own expression of his sexual & romantic impulses through a detached “academic” interest in niche fetish communities outside his comfort zone. I’ve seen plenty of recent documentaries that blur the line between reality & crafted narrative in this way Rat Film, Swagger, and The World is Mine to name a few. The overall effect of Rukus is something much more personal & vulnerable than what those dramatically obscured titles offer, though. It reaches more for the unembarrassed emotional exhibitionism of Josephine Decker’s (criminally underrated) project Flames: the volatile self-revelation of reading your private diary’s most intimate passages at top volume in a public space.

It’s doubtful that if Rukus were an outside-observer’s anthropological examination of furry culture it would have meant as much to the community it depicts. I doubt Bronies gather around to watch that Netflix documentary as a community, for instance, whereas past public screenings listed on Rukus’s website (where you can now watch the film in its entirety, for free) include multiple furry conventions. It’s tough to suppose whether that’s because Hanover & the Do You Know Where Your Children Are? crew tapped into something deeply true about furries in particular or if the movie moreso taps into something universally true about the roles of community & identity in our larger modern digital hellscape while inviting furries along for the ride. Either way, it’s the exact kind of ambitious, challenging filmmaking you’d hope to see from no-budget outsider artists passionate about their craft but locked outside official means of production. I’m proud to have ever been even on the periphery of a community this empathetic, inclusive, and vulnerably honest, even if time has eroded those connections to the point where we’re total strangers only flimsily tethered to our shared past online.

-Brandon Ledet