Friday January 25th – Thursday January 31

 

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Featured Film:

Blackkklansman at A Few Multiplexes

In a futile attempt to get my hopes up, the Academy this week nominated Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman for a bunch of awards, including Best Director and Best Picture. I thought after I first saw it this summer, that this would probably be Spike’s best chance to win the Best Picture Oscar that has eluded him for so long, and the narrative of him beating Green Book, after Do the Right Thing didn’t even get nominated the year Driving Miss Daisy (Green Book‘s closest cinematic analogue) won is irresistible. But it’s probably not going to happen. But maybe? It’s playing this week for a handful of shows at the AMC Seattle (formerly the Metro) and the AMC Alderwood, along with the Regals in Auburn and Lakewood. I never wrote about it here, but I did write a blurb for it a couple weeks ago as part of InReview Online’s Best Films of 2018 round-up, wherein I claim it’s Spike Lee’s Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Playing This Week:

AMC Alderwood:

Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi (Kangana Ranaut & Krish) Fri-Thurs 
URI (Aditya Dhar) Fri-Thurs 

Central Cinema:

Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988) Fri-Sun, Tues
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009) Fri-Sun 
Real Genius (Martha Coolidge, 1985) Weds Only 

Crest Cinema Centre:

Roma (Alfonso Cuarón) Fri-Thurs  
Free Solo (Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) Fri-Thurs

SIFF Egyptian:

Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski) Fri-Thurs 

Century Federal Way:

The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) Sun, Tues & Weds Only 

Grand Cinema:

Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) Sat Only Final Cut
Mademoiselle Paradis (Barbara Albert) Tues Only 

Grand Illusion Cinema:

Shoplifters (Kore-eda Hirokazu) Fri-Sun, Tues & Thurs  
Sicilian Ghost Story (Fabio Grassadonia & Antonio Piazza) Sat-Mon, Weds
Saturday Secret Matinee Sat Only 16mm
Blade of Fury (Sammo Hung, 1993) Weds and Next Fri & Sun Only

Cinemark Lincoln Square:

Petta (Karthik Subbaraj G.) Fri-Thurs 
Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi (Kangana Ranaut & Krish) Fri-Thurs 
Thackeray (Abhijit Panse) Fri-Thurs 
Mr. Majnu (Venky Atluri) Fri-Thurs
F2-Fun and Frustration (Anil Ravipudi) Fri-Thurs
URI (Aditya Dhar) Fri-Thurs
Mikhael (Haneef Adeni) Sat & Sun Only
The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) Sun, & Weds Only 

Northwest Film Forum:

Children’s Film Festival Fri-Sun  
The Worlds of Ursula K. LeGuin (Arwen Curry) Fri, Weds & Thurs 

AMC Pacific Place:

Destroyer (Karyn Kusama) Fri-Thurs 

Regal Parkway Plaza:

Simmba (Rohit Shetty) Fri-Thurs 

Seattle Art Museum:

Shame (Ingmar Bergman, 1968) Thurs Only 

AMC Seattle:

Shoplifters (Kore-eda Hirokazu) Fri-Thurs  

SIFF Film Center:

Mirai (Mamoru Hosada) Fri-Sun Our Review Our Other Review

Regal Thornton Place:

The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) Sun, Tues & Weds Only 

SIFF Uptown:

Shoplifters (Kore-eda Hirokazu) Fri-Thurs 

Varsity Theatre:

An Acceptable Loss (Joe Chappelle) Fri-Thurs 
The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) Weds Only 
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Hale County This Morning, This Evening (RaMell Ross, 2018)

 

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You can read Sean Gilman’s previous review here

Hale County is a documentary in the poetic mode – it is not straight reportage with talking heads and a didactic method, but rather built of texture and mood. RaMell Ross has staked his film on the belief that his image fragments can sustain the viewer’s interest, and for the most part he is right. He films those in his community, the young men who become fathers, who go off to school but remain attached, the people in their orbit and their stories. Every so often an intertitle will appear, marking a new section, “whose child is this?”

When watching the films of Frederick Wiseman one marvels at his precise distance. Over 50 years he has honed his craft to the point where the distance between camera and subject is always finely judged, never out of place, his gaze never tips the scales. Ross works differently in that each image works as a moment-by-moment recalibration of this distance, between observer and participant; his gaze trembles before his subjects as he is intimately involved in their lives. Certain images would not be possible without this collapsing of distance – the sharing of a cellphone background image, the small child back and forth in the living room, literally walking up the camera’s lens and obscuring it with his presence. Sometimes he does not get things right and his gaze feels invasive, such as when he films the digging of the grave or the intrusive angles of the mother’s face after she has given birth (this after an intertitle tells us she does not care about the film).

Each image is linked to another one by a series of visual and aural echoes and gains strength through these repetitions and reworkings. There is no straight through-line besides the general one of the years passing. Certain images stick in the mind: a basketball shooting drill where the camera sticks closely to the figure, the physical gesture made visceral; the inside of a locker room with players in every corner, testosterone and energy waiting to be released; the children playing outside while lightning is visible in the background. Each moment sticks momentarily and then we are on to the next. Sometimes what sticks is a small detail, the look of a child curious about the camera, water on the ground, a shadow. The editing makes these images abstract, become a tapestry of daily life.

In today’s cinema one of the pressing issues is the matter of representation. So it is necessary to see these images – modest domestic images, shot with sensitivity. We have small-town Alabama, its parking lots, its gatherings, made strange and beautiful, given focus. As in the newly restored 1898 actuality Something Good – Negro Kiss, we are witness to intimate moments of black life, which have longed been missing in American cinemas. We have been robbed. Charles Burnett should have made a film every single year, like Renoir in the 30’s. Julie Dash and Cheryl Dunne and Kathleen Collins and Bill Gunn and more. Each time a struggle, each time necessary. When Ross uses footage from 1914’s Lime Kiln Field Day, Bert Williams in blackface, it is not just a comment on representation, the effect of this figure emerging the woods, seemingly observing the everyday events in front of it, as it cuts back and forth, acts as a specter haunting these images, the distant past commingling with the right now. Soon after however Ross films the smoke of a bonfire rising from the trees, the speech of a bystander comes on the soundtrack and says, “You see, we need more black folks making photos in the area and taking pictures and stuff, you know?” It’s beautiful and troubling.

Hale County remains fascinating, imperfect; in an interview Ross states that his film language is “growing” and this feels right. It feels like a first step, but hopefully one among many.

Playing at Northwest Film Forum

Friday January 18 – Thursday January 24

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Featured Film:

Cold War at the SIFF Egyptian

It’s been four year since we launched Seattle Screen Scene, and if there’s one thing I hope we’ve established over that time, it’s that there are a great many more Asian films, specifically films from China, Korea, and India, playing around town than anyone ever seems to notice, and that quite a few of them are very good. If there’s one other thing, it would be that European cinema, at least for the last several decades, has been a vast wasteland of drab, dull, self-important, ugly, and overrated movies. European cinema has been, in my opinion of course and with notable exceptions, for lack of a better word, dead. So I was as surprised as anyone when I watched Pawel Pawlikowski’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning Ida at VIFF last fall and absolutely loved it. A vibrant, breathless, decadently romantic love story set against the sweep of mid-20th Century history, anchored by two fine performances, excellent music and lustrous black and white cinematography that ranks with the best Europe has ever produced (by which I mean Luchino Visconti’s White Nights), it was almost enough to make me rethink my sweeping condemnation of the cinema of an entire continent. Almost.

Playing This Week:

AMC Alderwood:

The Secret Mission (Eom Yu-na) Fri-Thurs 
URI (Aditya Dhar) Fri-Thurs 
Petta (Karthik Subbaraj G.) Fri-Thurs 
Perfect Strangers (Manolo Caro) Fri-Thurs 

Central Cinema:

The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979) Fri-Weds
The Muppets Take Manhattan (Frank Oz, 1984) Fri-Tues 

SIFF Egyptian:

Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski) Fri-Thurs 
The Muppet Movie (James Frawley, 1979) Thurs Only 

Century Federal Way:

Kaka Ji (Mandeep Benipal) Fri-Thurs 

Crest Cinema Centre:

Roma (Alfonso Cuarón) Fri-Thurs  
Free Solo (Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) Fri-Thurs

Grand Cinema:

Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki, 2008) Sat Only Free Screening
The Princess Bride (Rob Reiner, 1987) Sat Only 
Border (Ali Abbasi) Tues Only

Grand Illusion Cinema:

Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966) Fri-Mon, Weds  
Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972) Sat-Sun & Thurs Only  
Saturday Secret Matinee Sat Only 16mm

Cinemark Lincoln Square:

Petta (Karthik Subbaraj G.) Fri-Thurs 
NTR: Kathanayakudu (Krish) Fri-Thurs
Accidental Prime Minister (Vijay Gutte) Fri-Thurs
F2-Fun and Frustration (Anil Ravipudi) Fri-Thurs
URI (Aditya Dhar) Fri-Thurs
Ente Ummante Peru (Jose Sebastian) Sat & Sun Only
Viswasam(Siva) Fri-Thurs 

Regal Meridian:

Petta (Karthik Subbaraj G.) Fri-Thurs 

Northwest Film Forum:

2018 Sundance Film Festival Short Film Tour Fri-Sun  
All that Passes by through a Window that Doesn’t Open (Martin Diciccio) Fri-Sun
Hale County This Morning, This Evening (RaMell Ross) Sat & Sun Only Our Review 
The Rattlesnake (Raúl Araiza, 1977) Sun Only 
The Worlds of Ursula K. LeGuin (Arwen Curry) Starts Tues 
The One-Armed Swordsman (Chang Cheh, 1967) Weds Only Our Review 

AMC Pacific Place:

Destroyer (Karyn Kusama) Fri-Thurs 

Regal Parkway Plaza:

Aurora (Yam Laranas) Fri-Thurs 
Simmba (Rohit Shetty) Fri-Thurs 

Seattle Art Museum:

Hour of the Wolf (Ingmar Bergman, 1968) Thurs Only 

AMC Seattle:

Shoplifters (Kore-eda Hirokazu) Fri-Thurs  

SIFF Film Center:

Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945) Fri-Sun
Elvis, Evergreens, and Umbrellas: 50 Years of Seattle on the Big Screen Sat Only 

AMC Southcenter:

Perfect Strangers (Manolo Caro) Fri-Thurs 

SIFF Uptown:

Shoplifters (Kore-eda Hirokazu) Fri-Thurs 
The Bruce McMouse Show (Barry Chattington, 1977) Mon Only 

Varsity Theatre:

Adult Life Skills (Rachel Tunnard, 2016) Fri-Thurs 

Friday January 11 – Thursday January 17

Featured Film:

Dead Souls at the Northwest Film Forum

Oh sure, the easy way out would be to highlight the Cinerama showing in its glorious theatre a bunch of digital projection (ahem, “laser projections”) of movies that play around town all the time, but never let it be said that Seattle Screen Scene takes the easy way out. No, we’re gonna recommend the eight-hour documentary about Maoist political prisoners playing at the Film Forum this weekend. Wang Bing is one of the most important, least watched directors of our time, a Robert Caro of the cinema, making monumental yet minimalist documents of Chinese society past and present. Dead Souls, consisting entirely of interviews with survivors of Anti-Rightist re-education camps, with Wang’s usual lack of cinematic ornamentation, is surely a better way to spend your movie budget than watching Brazil or A Clockwork Orange for the zillionth time.

Playing This Week:

AMC Alderwood:

Petta (Karthik Subbaraj G.) Fri-Thurs 
Perfect Strangers (Manolo Caro) Fri-Thurs 
Viswasam (Siva) Fri-Thurs 

Central Cinema:

The Man Who Would Be King (John Huston, 1975) Fri-Tues Our Review
The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001) Fri-Weds

Cinerama:

Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987) Fri Only  
Dredd (Pete Travis, 2012) Fri Only  
Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006) Sat Only  
The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984) Sat Only  
Battlefield Earth (Roger Christian, 2000) Sat Only  
Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) Sun Only  
Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985) Mon Only  
12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995) Mon Only  
Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964) Tues Only  
A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971) Tues Only  
Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) Weds Only  
Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) Weds Only  

Century Federal Way:

Petta (Karthik Subbaraj G.) Fri-Thurs 
Do Dooni Panj (Harry Bhatti) Fri-Thurs 

Crest Cinema Centre:

Roma (Alfonso Cuarón) Fri-Thurs  
Free Solo (Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) Fri-Thurs

Grand Cinema:

Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988) Sat Only
What They Had (Elizabeth Chomko) Tues Only
The Princess Bride (Rob Reiner, 1987) Weds Only

Grand Illusion Cinema:

The Aspern Papers (Julien Landais) Fri-Thurs
Sicilian Ghost Story (Fabio Grassadonia & Antonio Piazza) Sun Only
Saturday Secret Matinee Sat Only 16mm

Cinemark Lincoln Square:

Free Solo (Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) Fri-Thurs
Petta (Karthik Subbaraj G.) Fri-Thurs 
NTR: Kathanayakudu (Krish) Fri-Thurs
Simmba (Rohit Shetty) Fri-Thurs 
Accidental Prime Minister (Vijay Gutte) Fri-Thurs
F2-Fun and Frustration (Anil Ravipudi) Fri-Thurs
URI (Aditya Dhar) Fri-Thurs
Vinaya Vidheya Rama (Boyapati Srinu) Fri-Thurs
Viswasam(Siva) Fri-Thurs 

Regal Meridian:

Petta (Karthik Subbaraj G.) Fri-Thurs In Tamil or Telugu, Check Listings

Northwest Film Forum:

Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes (Alexis Bloom) Fri Only
Over the Limit (Marta Prus) Fri-Sun
Dead Souls (Wang Bing) Sat & Sun Only
Golden Swallow (Chang Cheh, 1968) Weds Only Our Review
2018 Sundance Film Festival Short Film Tour Weds-Fri
Phantasm (Don Coscarelli, 1979) Thurs Only

Regal Parkway Plaza:

Simmba (Rohit Shetty) Fri-Thurs 

Seattle Art Museum:

Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman, 1963) Thurs Only

AMC Seattle:

Shoplifters (Kore-eda Hirokazu) Fri-Thurs  

SIFF Film Center:

Becoming Astrid (Pernille Fischer Christensen) Fri-Sun

AMC Southcenter:

Perfect Strangers (Manolo Caro) Fri-Thurs 

Regal Thornton Place:

Free Solo (Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) Fri-Thurs

SIFF Uptown:

Shoplifters (Kore-eda Hirokazu) Fri-Thurs 

Friday January 4 – Thursday January 10

Featured Film:

2018 Documentaries at the Pacific Place

I said I’d do my best not to name whichever film was playing in the Northwest Film Forum’s Shaw Brothers series as our Featured Film every week, so I’m definitely not picking Come Drink With Me, the King Hu classic that started it all, which is playing Wednesday night only. Instead I’m going with the AMC Pacific Place, which is playing 15 of the best documentaries of the year (the ones shortlisted for the Academy Awards nomination) for a couple of shows each over the course of this week. The ones not to miss are: Shirkers, which has otherwise only be available on Netflix, Minding the Gap, and Hale County This Morning, This Evening, each of which had unfortunately brief runs here in Seattle. This might be your last chance to ever see them in a theatre.

Playing This Week:

AMC Alderwood:

Swing Kids (Kang Hyeong-cheol) Fri-Thurs 
Take Point (Kim Byung-woo) Fri-Thurs 

Central Cinema:

Labyrinth (Jim Henson, 1986) Fri-Tues
Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006) Fri-Mon, Weds

Century Federal Way:

Swing Kids (Kang Hyeong-cheol) Fri-Thurs 
Take Point (Kim Byung-woo) Fri-Thurs 

Crest Cinema Centre:

Roma (Alfonso Cuarón) Fri-Thurs  
Free Solo (Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) Fri-Thurs

Grand Cinema:

Shoplifters (Kore-eda Hirokazu) Fri-Thurs 
Suspiria (Luca Guadagnino) Sat Only
Supa Modo (Likarion Wainaina) Tues Only

Grand Illusion Cinema:

The House that Jack Built (Lars von Trier) Fri-Thurs
Sicilian Ghost Story (Fabio Grassadonia & Antonio Piazza) Fri-Thurs
Saturday Secret Matinee Sat Only 16mm

Cinemark Lincoln Square:

On the Basis of Sex (Mimi Leder) Fri-Thurs
Njan Prakashan (Sathyan Anthikad) Fri-Thurs
Simmba (Rohit Shetty) Fri-Thurs 
Bhai Vyakti Valli Purvardh (Mahesh Manjrekar) Fri-Thurs

Regal Meridian:

Simmba (Rohit Shetty) Fri-Thurs 

Northwest Film Forum:

On Her Shoulders (Alexandria Bombach) Fri-Thurs
The Trouble with Wolves (Collin Monda) Fri-Sun
Seattle Arabian Nights Festival 2019 Sat Only
Come Drink With Me (King Hu, 1966) Weds Only Our Review
Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes (Alexis Bloom) Thurs & Next Fri Only

AMC Pacific Place:

Mojin: The Worm Valley (Fei Xing) Fri-Thurs Our Review
Ben is Back (Peter Hedges) Fri-Thurs 
On the Basis of Sex (Mimi Leder) Fri-Thurs
Charm City (Marilyn Ness) Fri & Mon Only
Crime + Punishment (Stephen Maing) Fri & Thurs Only
Free Solo (Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) Fri & Mon Only
Communion (Anna Zamecka) Fri & Mon Only  
The Silence of Others (Almudena Carracedo & Robert Bahar) Fri & Mon Only
RBG (Betsy West, Julie Cohen Sat & Tues Only
Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle) Sat & Thurs Only
Minding the Gap (Bing Liu) Sat & Tues Only  
The Distant Barking of Dogs (Simon Lereng Wilmont) Sat & Tues Only  
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Morgan Neville) Sun & Weds Only  
Dark Money (Kimberly Reed) Sun & Thurs Only  Our Review
Hale County This Morning, This Evening (RaMell Ross) Sun & Weds Only  Our Review
Of Fathers and Sons (Talal Derki) Sun & Weds Only  
Shirkers (Sandi Tan) Sun & Weds Only  

Regal Parkway Plaza:

Zero (Anand L. Rai) Fri-Thurs
Simmba (Rohit Shetty) Fri-Thurs 

Seattle Art Museum:

Sawdust and Tinsel (Ingmar Bergman, 1953) Thurs Only

AMC Seattle:

Shoplifters (Kore-eda Hirokazu) Fri-Thurs  
Free Solo (Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) Fri-Thurs  

SIFF Film Center:

Garry Winogrand: All Things are Photographable (Sasha Waters Freyer) Fri-Sun

Regal Thornton Place:

On the Basis of Sex (Mimi Leder) Fri-Thurs

SIFF Uptown:

Shoplifters (Kore-eda Hirokazu) Fri-Thurs 

Mojin: The Worm Valley (Fei Xing, 2018)

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A prequel to 2015’s Mojin: The Lost Legend, in which a band of intrepid treasure hunters brave mysterious wilds and scary animals in search of a MacGuffin that will cure a curse they picked up during an earlier treasure hunting expedition. Where the first Mojin film had an exceptional cast, led by Shu Qi, Angelababy and Huang Bo, and an intricate plot weaving present-day scenes in New York’s Chinatown, a love triangle amid the Cultural Revolution, and effects-driven action scenes together in an uneasy and ultimately unsuccessful blend of the personal, the political and the ridiculous, Worm Valley is linear all the way through. After a quick setup, including a minimal amount of backstory related in a speech and a visit to a crazy, blind, and sexist old man, the party of six adventurers head into the jungles of Yunnan to discover whatever the thing is they’re looking for.

Also missing from the first film is the cast, which has been entirely replaced by young actors who kind of but don’t quite resemble their forbears, an uncanny valley effect to match that of the film’s CGI monsters and environments. Also gone is director Wu Ershan, and in his place is Fei Xing, making his first film since the 2013 Aaron Kwok/Sun Honglei film Silent Witness. Fei, somewhat surprisingly given Wu’s history with the effects genre, proves much more interesting a director of spectacle, though that may simply reflect a welcome change in the genre’s conventional style. Like last year’s Monkey King 3 and the previous year’s Once Upon a TimeWorm Valley is full of bright environments, lush with greens and pinks and blues: tall grasses and crystalline flowers, flying bugs that burst into flame when touched. Only its initial action sequences are set in the darkness, but even those are well-lit, allowing the digital creations to shine rather than hide in the murkiness of bad effects. As such the film has a cartoonish quality, at best approaching something like the charm of a lesser Ray Harryhausen movie (more Mysterious Island than Jason and the Argonauts or Clash of the Titans).

The Mojin films are based on a highly popular book series called Ghost Blows Out the Light (or alternately, Candle in the Tomb) by Zhang Muye, which has been adapted several times into film and television. There was another film the same year as The Lost Legend, (Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe) though it didn’t, to my knowledge, get a US release. There have also been three TV/web series adaptations of different books in the series, and another film version is to be expected in 2019, Candle in the Tomb (or Mojin X), starring Zhang Hanyu and Celina Jade and directed by Li Yifan. I imagine that knowing the source material or some of the other adaptations is helpful in filling in some of the backstory and fleshing out the characters, but Worm Valley is at its best when it isn’t concerned about any of that, when it just gives into the straight-ahead thrills of an old school adventure serial, with one literally cliff-hanging sequence after another. The only times the movie slows down over its final hour and a half are for brief moments of rest, some joyous nightswimming and a pre-climax motivational crisis, neither of which have the kind of emotional resonance a serious movie would require. It’s not camp, overblowing genre clichés with Aquaman-ian gusto. But it is almost two hours of pretty people wearing leather and canvas shooting giant alligators with arrows and slicing at razor-toothed fish with machetes.

Entanglements in the Dark Web: Cam and American Vandal

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When David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin made The Social Network in 2010, a lot of discourse was generated with a lot of genuine surprise that a film about people being in front of their computers would be so compelling to watch. There was reason for that reaction: there had been and have been many films that fail to really engage in modern communications whether on computers, social media, or texting. Many filmmakers and shows outright avoid ‘the smart phone issue’, setting films in periods that predated that technology or build a world where characters simply do not engage with those ways of communication and online interaction in the narrative. But as this decade has grown from The Social Network, there has gradually developed a syntax for how films use and integrate people on computers and smart phones, how people use social media and the ways people on those platforms use technology, such as cataloguing and uploading videos. Two works, a feature film and a television program, Cam (Daniel Goldhaber and Isa Mazzei) and season 2 of American Vandal (Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda) show the multifaceted complexities and personal stakes tied to each of their digital landscapes that go to show that you cannot just ‘get off your computer’ to remedy things when something bad happens to you online.

Cam and American Vandal, both available to stream on Netflix, both make perfect sense as entertainment to watch on your computer or electronic device. The films are not merely about their characters being entangled on the Internet–both use real-life platforms, apps, websites, and even in some cases create their own fictional but cannily similar to real-life websites and platforms which nail the dialogue our characters have with the great unknowns on the other side of their communications.

In American Vandal‘s second season, the two teenage documentary filmmakers from Season One, Sam (Griffin Guck) and Peter (Tyler Alvarez), are enlisted by the Catholic high school St. Bernadine in Washington state to solve a new incident: who spiked the cafeteria lemonade with laxatives to cause a massive ‘brown-out’ (read: diarrhea outbreak) and goes under the pseudonym “The Turd Burglar”? The Turd Burglar (online handle @theturdburglar) communicates their plans via social media with teases and oblique but ominous messages. At points even The Turd Burglar communicates with Peter and Sam as well. Part of this is lifted from common true crime tropes, such as criminals communicating with authorities, but in its high school setting and through contemporary technology, this becomes the bread and butter of American Vandal itself–a show that is a mockumentary and spoof of true crime docs in which series creator Tony Yacenda gets how to use online and smart phone communication as well as anyone. Season One (that dealt with vandalism in the teacher’s parking lot) was all about connecting clues from various witness accounts by using their phones and social media accounts which ultimate exonerated the accused. Season Two takes it a step further, namely unlike in Season One we definitively find out who committed the crime. The accused, teenager Kevin McClain, turns out to be an accessory and not the only accessory of The Turd Burglar. Peter and Sam quickly notice this is more than just a one-man job and find other students at the high school who are tied to The Turd Burglar. Like Kevin, they were all manipulated into committing these acts by blackmail because they were all catfished by an expelled student of St. Bernadine’s named Grayson Wentz, who was able to fool them all by copying and stealing from the social media account of a young woman from out of town.

The way American Vandal dives into this knotted plot is engrossing and unsettling all at once, one unshakeable scene being when Peter and Sam meet the girl who they were led to believe was the catfish of the St. Bernadine student only for her to turn out to be another victim and discovering her identity from her Instagram account got stolen on-camera. Then ‘The Dump’ (surely inspired from the iCloud leak photos of celebrities in 2014) occurs, where St. Bernadine’s students and a staff member have all of their compromising information and photos of themselves revealed to their student body and the local media. The vulnerabilities of teenagers being manipulated and used and the vulnerabilities of their technology being up for grabs to be stolen and used maliciously against them become intertwined. The season’s coda succinctly states in Peter’s narration, “We’re not the worst generation, we’re just the most exposed.”

Cam (a Blumhouse Production) is also about personal information getting compromised and stolen identity, in this case the stolen identity of a ‘cam girl’ an online sex worker on adult web sites. The film intelligently shows the blurred lines of online persona, sex work, reality, identity, and artifice, from the very start showing that not everything is as it seems. The film begins with Alice Ackerman (Madeline Brewer), who goes under the screen name of Lola­­­_Lola, broadcasting in her shag-carpeted, candy-colored room in her home as she interacts with fans who come to see her strip, perform sex acts, and other kinks that they jive with, which includes her pretending to kill herself. What makes this fake-out so effective is the building tension of Lola interacting with a troll in her comments section. It turns out that she and a friend are manipulating the situation, setting up a false troll to help Alice/Lola get attention and shoot up the rankings of the ultra-competitive cam girl website “FREEGIRLS.LIVE” (a fictional web site but a very credible imitation of that type of adult web site as far as layout and the quick, free-flowing messaging and interaction of user and performer). Over the course of the film, Alice finds out that what at first appears to be someone imitating her, or someone directly lifting videos from her shows and passing them off as their own. But it gets so much weirder than that. Cam was inspired by screenwriter Isa Mazzei’s own experiences as a cam girl which included having her own videos stolen, promoted as belonging to a different person on an adult web site. The film understands how these websites work and how the threat of stolen identity and how their anonymity can be breached and heightened. Losing your online identity becomes a kind of Steven Soderbergh meets Brian DePalma hyper-text. Alice has to confront her doppelgänger, who has become intertwined with her web persona because this is not just a hobby for her. It is lucrative work that pays her bills. So when Lola finds herself locked out of her online account, a financial resource is being cut off. This menacing omnipresence in her life is revealed to have happened because of her friend Tinker, the friend who had previously helped her rankings by posing as a troll, who created the account to feed directly into his fantasies that he felt Alice denied him.

Cam and American Vandal‘s disturbing depictions of being online can lead to cynical or alarmist readings of how bad being online can be. But that would be overlooking the many times each of them show the failure by those in power to protect these characters, whether they are still in high school or online sex workers.  School administrators, officials, as well as law enforcement in American Vandal look ridiculous in their quick rush to find a guilty party, as more ‘brown outs’ occur while Kevin McClain is under house arrest, and that they are unable to tell what is real versus manipulated, compromised ‘fake news’ shows how hapless the adults are in dealing with online-based crimes. In Cam, Alice’s run-ins with the adult web site’s customer service phone line goes nowhere and her attempt to get help from the police leads to nothing but their moral disapproval of her sex work and completely ignorant unsolicited advice like, ‘Just stay off the internet’.  Both works know how unrealistic this advice is, as the Internet is in each of their DNA formally and in how they both communicate in narrative to the viewer. One of my favorite sight gags in any film this year are the endless, ongoing messages that keep scrolling by the background in Cam whenever Alice is in the foreground. It is that level of detail becoming banal white noise that is exactly how to portray the 21st Century on-screen.

Both Cam and American Vandal know that they do not exist to solve the internet or show how to protect users with a safe and secure online experience, like a PSA or after-school special, but they do show how normal and abnormal online experiences have their own ebbs and flows. Those ebbs and flows can be significantly consequential to the depiction of the Internet as a Wild West that is boundless, as equal in promise as potential hazard. With that in mind, who could ever say a film about being in front of your computer or phone is boring?