The Beta Test
Over the course of now three feature films, Jim Cummings has established himself as the premier chronicler of a very contemporary, very specific kind of failson cringe comedy. As the writer, director, and star of Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow, Cummings created two indelible portraits of barely-contained neurotic energy shot through with a large streak of absurd, faux hyper-masculinity. It seems very pertinent that in both films he portrays police officers, symbols of institutional power and state-sanctioned violence, and then tears down their facades, revealing barely functional, middle-aged divorcees prone to fits of drunken rage and bumbling incoherence. He’s a hilarious performer to boot, and as his own director, is particularly attuned to capturing his weird physicality onscreen, allowing scenes to play out in length before sharp edits reveal a punchline or exasperated reaction shot.
After a startling prologue that features a particularly brutal murder, The Beta Test introduces Cummings’ latest creation, Jordan Hines, a wannabe big-shot Hollywood talent agent who shares no small amount of DNA with Cummings’ prior unhinged male oddities. Jordan is engaged to the lovely Caroline (Virginia Newcomb), and he goes about planning their wedding with the same passive-aggressive nice-guy shtick he uses on potential clients. Jordan and his pal PJ (PJ McCabe, credited here as co-writer and co-director with Cummings) are trying to land a Chinese businessman for their agency, regaling him with rhapsodic tales of packaging deals, access to loads of corporate IP, and cross-platform synergy. Naturally, Jordan seems pretty bad at this job. In the midst of this, a purple envelope arrives in the mail, and enclosed is a letter that offers a no-strings attached, totally anonymous, one-time sexual encounter. All one has to do is fill out the enclosed preference card (male or female, dom or sub, etc.), return it, and wait. Jordan seems sure that it’s some kind of joke and quickly tosses it out, only to soon find his imagination is running wild, overwhelmed by the thought that every woman he comes across could be a secret admirer or potential conquest. Before long, he’s digging the letter out of the garbage and returning the questionnaire. It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that Jordan goes through with the act; arriving at a predetermined location, he dons a face covering, enters a dark hotel room, and sleeps with a masked woman. After the encounter ends, Jordan is elated, but the mood sours quickly; he’s soon checking his mail every day, visibly frustrated that another purple envelope hasn’t arrived. This frustration curdles into obsession, and Jordan becomes fixated on tracking down the masked woman from the hotel. Meanwhile, Cummings occasionally cuts away to a series of brief vignettes of couples arguing, each of which ends in a murder that mirrors the film’s opening scenes.
Cummings has referred to The Wolf of Snow Hollow as “dumb Zodiac,” which could fairly make The Beta Test his “dumb The Game” by way of a “dumb The Social Network.” Cummings and McCabe weave their disparate narrative threads together into an intricate mystery encompassing the internet, data-mining conspiracies, and rough sex, with Jordan clumsily play-acting private detective all over town and alienating Caroline. It’s part Giallo, part ‘90s erotic thriller, and very much a brutal condemnation of a particular kind of egotistical white male who believes himself the center of the universe. Cummings’ long-winded monologues, stringing words together in an aggressive stream of consciousness that gets angrier and angrier, are well countered by McCabe’s more laid-back persona (he’s kind of a prick too, just more reasonable about it). Things eventually come to a head that we won’t spoil here, but suffice it to say there’s a barbed stinger at the end of The Beta Test, where the full scope of the eponymous test is revealed, and Jordan faces a reckoning of sorts. It’s a bold advancement for Cummings as a filmmaker, with precise compositions and some complicated sequence shots that may or may not be the contribution of McCabe. Taken as a trilogy of sorts, Cummings’ films map out a very precise critique of the dark recesses at the center of so-called “nice guys,” who only need the slightest nudge to careen over the ledge into violence. As Caroline says to Jordan at one point, “It must be exhausting pretending to be you.” When that facade crumbles, what’s left is a hollowed-out shell of a man who has to decide what to do with himself when his carefully-constructed world collapses around him. It’s a precipice that The Beta Test captures with cutting precision. It’s funny, too.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
as of yet
2021 film fest season is underway, and with it comes a whole bunch of movies reckoning with last year’s lockdown and the still ongoing global pandemic. It’s hard to say what the value of these films will be in hindsight, hyper-topicality capable of being either a great source of inspiration or a confounding element, though it has at least been consistently interesting to see how this moment has gotten filmmakers to reconsider the tools of their medium. as of yet is one such lockdown film, and it follows Twitter personality/comedian/former child actor Taylor Garron as she navigates the early days of the COVID pandemic from her Brooklyn apartment as her roommate situation deteriorates and a new romance is developing. Garron also wrote, co-produced, and co-directed (with Chanel James) as of yet, and has made the appealing choice of telling the story primarily through FaceTime calls and video diaries (there are a couple quick scenes that break into traditional cinematography); an apt, realistic choice given the film’s setting/context, and a freeing storytelling device that allows the script to introduce characters and exposition without a lot of pretense.
On screen, Garron plays Naomi Parsons, though the difference between actor and character seems to begin and end with the name change, as of yet’s screenplay borrowing details of Garron’s actual life for Naomi’s backstory (written as a black woman raised in the very white college town of Amherst, MA), and goes so far as to cast her real-life parents as her character’s parents (they even share the same iconic Twitter avi). Needless to say, as of yet was very consciously conceived as a vehicle to show off its star’s talents, especially the video diary moments in the way they recreate the front-facing camera sketch aesthetic popular in the Twitter comedy milieu and approximate the fourth-wall-breaking confessional style of, say, a half-hour, pay-cable comedy program. Sadly, the film is not the most ingenious realization of this sort of formal approach (devotees of Screenlife should adjust their expectations), but it’s always not entirely invalid, and is helped along by the fact that Garron is charismatic and lively as a performer, her presence never deflating or grating over the course of the film’s 81 minutes.
The plot has its moments of inspiration too, taking on the under-discussed “friend breakup,” with as of yet’s primary arc tracing out Naomi’s emotional journey to the realization that it’s time for her to part ways with long-time toxic (white) friend and roommate Sarah — the film opens with her bemoaning the then on-going George Floyd protests. A selection of friends (fellow Twitter comedians Quinta Brunson and Ayo Edebiri, providing funny voices of reason) and family pop up to offer advice and tough love — all pleasant, amusing exchanges, though none so specifically written that one stands above the others. In general, Garron’s writing is a little thin, indulging a few too many sitcom-isms when it comes to plot machinations and romance, falling into that classic North American film fest comedy gray area (is it a TV pilot or a film?) Indeed, the film’s greatest offense is wispiness, though it almost manages to cancel it out with weightier (less-depicted) moments of dispute between Naomi and Sarah (these are also the best-acted scenes). Ultimately, as of yet never quite figures out how to say all that it wants to say without forsaking nuance or elegance, but there’s enough here that one might be inclined to wait and see Garron’s vision once she incorporates those missing elements into her repertoire.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
In the middle of one of Poser‘s early scenes, we see Lennon Gates (Sylvie Mix), a young girl who dreams of making her mark as a podcaster in the underground indie music scene of Columbus, Ohio, talking with Micah (Abdul Seidu): “I’d strive to capture honesty in the musicians I record.” This statement works as well as anything to reveal the essential idea and quality of Ori Segev and Noah Dixon’s debut feature. In following Lennon, as she goes from one interview to the next, or from the backstage of a live show to a house party, as she rides her bike in the streets with a cellphone in hand and donning headphones, or in between her shifts working as a late-time dishwasher in a restaurant, the film curiously tries to articulate nothing less than the meaning of life, finding one’s purpose, and the struggle for identity in a time when social media, smartphones, podcasts, and Google search engines govern the world of youth more than ever. It’s also indicative of the interstice between one’s outward persona and true self, and the resultant struggle to cope with one’s surroundings. Understood differently, it’s something of a study in how passion(s) can be re- and misdirected along the way through a hidden discourse, or invisible (peer) pressures — a complicated encompassing condition that can be most loosely related to the French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu’s term “Symbolic Violence,” in which a person operating in a self-alienating mode strives to coalesce with the subtle expectations of a specific group or community.
From Poser’s opening art gallery scene, Lennon appears to be such a character, trying to secretly record the opinions of others about a painting so that she can later recite their thoughts and mimic their rhetorical expressions. It’s an idea that again appears in a later, remarkable scene in which she meets the enigmatic, talented, and uncompromising musical artist, Bobbi Kitten (front-woman of the rock band Damn the Witch Siren), and mirrors her bodily gestures and facial expressions in almost performance art fashion. Newcomer Mix, whose presence holds ephemeral appeal, scans on-screen like a mix of Imogen Poots and Hannah Gross, perfectly embodying her introverted, timorous protagonist who, as her character admits, wants to push herself out of her comfort zone and find space to be truly creative. It’s a narrative arc that later builds in intensity, particularly as it sets a stark contrast with Bobbi, who is gradually characterized as cooler and more rebellious, operating as a duality in which she is both ideal-self and nemesis for Lennon. It calls to mind Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, but here, Segev and Dixon execute such elements with a lighter mood, shaping Poser into an airy, eerie piece of work.
Just as Lennon slowly moves from eager fandom into the dark obsessions of stalking — and from an avid archivist to a hesitant plagiarist — the film also engages in various modes of filmmaking: Poser frequently merges different fiction and documentary qualities in its study of art v. reality, truth v. forgery, while also paying homage to local, underappreciated Columbus musicians and acts (both real-life icons and fictional creations), resulting in work that imbues micro-portraiture into a broader panoramic view. Add to that a delightful atmosphere and a slick, stylish aesthetic, and this ambient psycho-erotic music thriller testifies to a directorial duo in total control of their work. Developments that could easily slip into stereotypical machinations or evince inanimate engineering are instead treated with such tender care as to feel entirely effortless. That’s to say, Segev and Dixon don’t just render the story into a compositional bravura series of sounds and images, but also caress every fine detail they capture within each shot and frame; every color pigment and ray of light, characters’ facial expressions, the fabric of clothing, and each instance of silence and sound are in such balance that both the film’s mysterious aura and upbeat quality build easily and effectively. The directors’ visual craftsmanship — it’s easy to see their music video background here — seems to be inspired by the gauche maximalist grunge of Harmony Korine’s later films or even the work of Nicholas Winding Refn, while their precise narrative minimalism recollects someone like Gus Van Sant at his best. Whether depicting a landscape (in long-shots), the characters (in close-ups), or action/interaction (in mediums), the camera is always attentive to what it’s recording, while layering onto that an array of visual textures — from digital to old-school Handycam cinematography. Ultimately, then, Poser is an ambitious work without ever feeling pretentious, one that intends to push contemporary indie filmmaking out of its familiar comfort zone (an aim not unlike Lennon’s), and does so with authenticity and creative aplomb, achieving a rare sincerity in all it captures.
Writer: Ayeen Forootan
Mark, Mary & Some Other People
It’s fairly remarkable that there has yet to be a film made that addresses the topic of open relationships — or any of the myriad configurations found under the umbrella of ethical non-monogamy — in a way that isn’t reductive or otherwise grossly conservative in its views. This is especially perplexing in the indie film scene, which has always been more liberal in its portraits of relationships and sexuality. But here we are, in 2021, with Mark, Mary & Some Other People, writer-director Hannah Marks’ take on modern-day marriage and monogamy that feels like a product of a bygone era. Things don’t exactly start on a promising note, as we are introduced to the titular Mark (Ben Rosenfield) and Mary (Hayley Law) through an extended meet-cute in a convenience store that involves a pregnancy test and a sing-along in a public restroom. Smash cut to one year later, and the two are married and enjoying life as blissful newlyweds. It’s only upon a friend’s casual discussion of an online dating app that Mary begins to wonder if she would like to pursue other sexual partners, an idea that initially sends Mark reeling, but one he ultimately agrees to after a series of rules have been established. One sex-filled montage later, in which it is made explicit that the two are getting banged more than a drum, and it’s Mark who enjoys the arrangement more than he ever expected, while Mary begins to harbor doubts — because this film is nothing if not backwards in its views on female sexuality, going so far as to punish Mary the longer the movie progresses. This particular wrinkle seems especially heinous considering this was written and directed by a female, but that is par for the course for this particular sub-genre, where couples ultimately determine that open relationships are a death sentence for true love.
It’s hard to determine what Mark, Mary, etc. is ultimately trying to say on this particular subject, as the last half-hour is a clusterfuck of half-realized ideas and plot points. Like other films of this ilk, it might be that the message is that ethical non-monogamy is really just a cover for people not meant to be together, which is as narrow-minded a view as anything being put out by Hollywood. Or, maybe this is simply a portrait of two people who are meant to be together but who let their libidos get the best of them, which is still pretty gross and gravely lightweight. Marks seems as confused as her central couple, which wouldn’t be quite so obnoxious if the film wasn’t presented as a glorified sitcom. Rosenfield and Law do exhibit a fair amount of chemistry, but even they can’t seem to make heads or tails of the characters they are playing or what they are supposed to be thinking or feeling from one moment to the next. Surely, one day we will finally get a movie that takes the topic of open relationships seriously — right? tell me I’m right — one that isn’t afraid to present them in a progressive light and is willing to interrogate them with intelligence. For now, we are stuck with Mark, Mary & Other People (not a fun group to be with), which would make for a fantastic double-feature with any episode of The 700 Club.
Writer: Steven Warner
No Man of God
On the day before the official premiere of the latest Ted Bundy thriller No Man of God, director Amber Sealey received a scathing letter from true-crime enthusiast & fellow film director Joe Berlinger. The letter — which contained a glut of baseless slander accusations from the man who recently mounted his own Bundy film starring Zac Efron as the handsome psycho — primarily focused on Sealey’s previous interview comments on how Berlinger’s crime-related thrillers often glorified notorious killers. As humorous and toxic as this spontaneous filmmaker beef is on the surface, the whole situation genuinely begs a couple questions. What compels us to adapt the lives of murderers for the big screen — entertainment, artistic self-gratification, basic schadenfreude? And who holds the right to tell these stories to begin with? Victims? Witness? Any old interested bystander? The answers are certainly complicated, and in their absence, the go-to rule of thumb when it comes to such creations is to simply avoid platforming the perpetrators. Ethically speaking, it seems safest not to glorify or mythologize a person known for mass or serial murder.
That established, No Man of God tells Bundy’s story through the perspective of renowned FBI Analyst Bill Hagmaier, an operative widely considered to be one of the most prolific criminal profilers in the world. Sealey’s film recounts various interviews dating from 1985 up until Bundy’s death in 1989, and she predominantly focuses on direct dialogue between FBI analyst Hagmaier (Elijah Wood) and Bundy (Luke Kirby). This dynamic narrative setup, which accounts for the film’s first two acts, is admittedly eerie and suspenseful, and frequently enthralling. The two performers constituting the core of the film’s central conversations do aces work, and the interrogation sequences consistently deliver a unique perspective on the Bundy case, without relying on needless theatrics. In fact, with the exception of a few technical gripes, including some frequent overcutting that occasionally disrupts some of the more tense moments, the flow and smart blocking of these interrogation scenes deliver a largely non-exploitative experience.
For her part, Sealey’s direction shines in scenes involving silence and stillness. The film’s most notable such sequence is set during a televised interview with Bundy, where we see a young female crew member blankly staring in disgust at the evolving broadcast conversation between Bundy and the invested reporter. The scene offers an intelligent, subtle critique of the dangers of sensationalization, and indicts the exploitative enterprise of giving syndicated space to such people in the interest of economic or political gain. Where one person might find stimulation or seek introspection in a televised program of this magnitude, others will simply watch in horror as their mind suffers through another traumatic unraveling; fear of the murderer never stops, even post-mortem.
It’s ironic, then, that a conflict of interest arises in No Man of God’s final act regarding Sealey’s intent. For a film that so narrowly avoids any romanticizing of Bundy’s legacy, the sudden shift in character during the final major confession scene is jarring. Completely contradicting the pre-established and carefully-layered drama of the film’s preceding sequences and character arcs, the scene in question relies on gruesome descriptions of Bundy’s murder process, all in the name of a disturbing climactic kick. But the scene doesn’t add anything particularly new or certainly nothing nuanced to the conversation of Bundy’s fear-mongering, and instead only diminishes the alluring impact and dexterity of the film’s core interrogation scenes. It’s an ending that reflects a profound diminishment of No Man of God’s prior accomplishments as a psychological thriller (and one that situates Sealey’s work closer to Berlinger’s cinematic crimes).
There’s no denying that No Man of God is a strange beast of a film, one that almost succeeds as keen, formidable crime drama until it falters at the feet of grand hypocrisy. That’s not to deny the accomplishments that are present: all key players on the technical and performance front deserve credit for their commitment to and excellence in/on a project that originally started as an unconventional retelling of the Bundy case. It’s profoundly unfortunate, then, that No Man of God is that rare film so utterly undone by its final sour note: a scene of schlocky shock-value that should have been lost on the cutting room floor.
Writer: David Cuevas