Film Review: In Bright Axiom

In Bright Axiom

in bright axiom

Spencer McCall presents In Bright Axiom as a documentary, but it never feels truly real. That’s partly because the subject matter is the disillusion of a sort of elaborate puzzle hunt club that operated under the guise of a cult. But it’s also due to McCall’s relationship with the Latitude Society and its here-unnamed founder, self-funded entrepreneur Jeff Hull. Hull was the man behind the curtain who created an experience unlike any other, and managed to populate The Latitude Society entirely through word-of-mouth. He held it together for a time with elaborate, faux-mystical experiences and free drinks. But in the end, the Society crumbled. And now all we have is this weird film that, like the clandestine Latitude Society promised more than it delivered.

There’s a place in this world for biased documentaries. I love a good memoir film, a la Sarah Polley, for instance. But In Bright Axiom would benefit from an outside perspective. As a result of McCall’s direct involvement with the San Francisco-based Latitude Society, the finished product feels more like an infomercial than a document. Especially since McCall’s only other film (The Institute) covers an earlier iteration of Hull’s brain child, The Jejune Society.

That said, there is much in this film to hold the viewers’ attention. McCall goes to great lengths (with the help of Hull as executive producer) in order to reenact what occurred within the Latitude Society. It always began with an invitation. An existing member would recruit someone that they deemed “of like mind and heart” by giving them a sparse white credit card that depicted a logo, a unique code, and a web address. Should the recipient choose to move forward, they would make an appointment via the website to arrive at a non-descript door with 5 minutes of their time window (lest their card be rendered invalid). Inside, they would find a fireplace and a hole leading to a slide. If they went down the rabbit hole, so to speak, it would lead to an elaborate, Matrix-like scavenger hunt throughout the city that eventually brought them to a banquet in the Mendocino woods, where they would meet other Society members for free drinks and revelry. This was Chapter One. New chapters became available to existing members, and one could become further immersed in the fabricated mythology of the Latitude Society, which included a set of code words and special greetings (i.e. “In Bright Axiom”), and the requirement that members maintain “absolute discretion” at all times.

At one point, someone refers to Latitude as an “international temporal fellowship society”. The problem with creating something free-form and then calling it a “society” is that the members will eventually want to get involved in shaping it and will start to question your leadership. In a cult with a figurehead, the followers tend to be a lot more open to the idea of handing over some cash. But because Hull at first stayed anonymous, and presented the experience as more democratic in nature, the people revolted when management asked for a mere $36 a month from each member in order to keep the lights on. These people didn’t care that they’d been kept in elaborate puzzle hunting and free drinks for months. They weren’t going to pay a dime. And thus, Hull shut it down, to the dismay and bewilderment of Latitude members. It’s absolutely fascinating how this played out. They don’t get into it too much in the film, but I recommend you seek out a couple of companion articles to illuminate the business aspect of Hull’s vision and why exactly it failed.

McCall’s film features interviews with several people involved in The Latitude Society. No one is named, but you can pick Hull out. He’s the guy dressed as Max from Where the Wild Things Are, complete with tinfoil crown. This outfit must have been a calculated choice, but the symbolism eludes me. We also hear from recruits who were led to Latitude by acquaintances and even complete strangers. They discuss how they got involved, how it affected their “real” lives (especially the “absolute discretion” part), and where they were when it all fell apart.

There is one sort of figurehead for the Latitude Society who appears in In Bright Axiom. He’s called The Professor, and his vibe is up-close magician meets motivational speaker. He’s played by real-life “leadership” guru, Geordie Aitken. He looks like a walking red flag to me, but a lot of people seem to buy his shtick. The Professor purports to be on a lifelong journey of self-discovery via the Latitude Society. He reeks of insincerity.

There almost needs to be a documentary about the documentary. For instance, I’d love for someone to explore why many cults can bleed their members for money, but these people were positively indignant at the notion of spending $36 a month for an experience they claimed changed their entire perspective on reality. Even you consider the experience merely immersive theater, it’s not unheard of to charge for theater. But for some reason, asking for money is what ultimately broke this society and they never address the psychology of that. Instead, In Bright Axiom feels like an after-the-fact recruitment video – as if McCall and Hull are trying to get back at the members for killing it, by showing us some of the magic and then saying it’s dead. Perhaps it’s partly because the base tenant of the Latitude Society is “Absolute Discretion” that the film merely skims the surface of the experience. But if discretion is still important to them, despite the Society’s downfall, why make a film at all?

 

Paid in Puke S3E6: The House of Yes

house of yes episode art copyIn this episode of PiP, we discuss Mark Waters’ (Mean Girls) 1997 indie black comedy, The House of Yes, starring Parker Posey and Tori Spelling.

Among our topics: Was there anything good about the Kennedys? Is it worse to do incest with your twin than a different member of your family? Is Parker Posey tired from running circles around her co-stars?

In our Lunchtime Poll, we reminisce about the era-defining news stories that shaped us, and try very hard to think of a positive news story from the last twenty years.

Paid in Puke S3E5: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

what-ever-happened-to-baby-jane-watching-recommendation-videoSixteenByNineJumbo1600On this episode of Paid in Puke, we say “I love you,” to Robert Aldrich’s 1962 “Hag Horror” camp classic, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as two washed up performers cloistered together in their Hollywood dwelling. We discuss Davis’ master class in committing to a role and Crawford’s inability to elicit any sort of sympathy for her character.

The Probs are extra Hot in this one, but extremely entertaining all the same. Check out our Facebook page this week for some pics of Baxter when she dressed as Baby Jane Hudson for Halloween (and nobody got it).

PiP will take a brief mid-season hiatus but we’ll be back with the second half of season 3 on June 23rd. Until then, stay safe and sane.

Paid in Puke S3E4: Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains

fabulous-stains-01In today’s episode, we put out for Lou Adler’s 1982 Riot Grrrrl origin story, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, starring Diane Lane and Laura Dern as baby punks. We talk about makeup and fashion goals, re-appropriating the attentions of patriarchal assholes, and we somehow tangent our way to St. Elsewhere snow globe endings.

Editor’s note: We experienced many technical difficulties during this episode so the sound quality is worse than usual. (How bad is it?) It’s so bad, we had to make a Max Headroom reference. S-s-s-s-sorry. That’s podcasting during uncertain times for ye.

Paid in Puke S3E3: Tully

tully picOn today’s episode, we’re psychotic for Jason Reitman’s 2018 motherhood dramedy, Tully, written by Diablo Cody, and starring Charlize Theron and Mackenzie Davis. We discuss how motherhood seems to turn women into public property in the eyes of others, and how what a woman really needs (besides a little help with the dishes) is for people to stop judging them for one second.

In our Lunchtime Poll, we reveal what unpleasantness we would gladly hand off to an imaginary friend.

Film Review: Babyteeth

babyteethThe plot of Shannon Murphy’s debut dramatic feature, Babyteeth is familiar: A spirited teen is diagnosed with terminal cancer and then falls in love with an eccentric boy who renews her lust for life or whatever, while her dysfunctional parents look on disapprovingly. But Murphy’s film, based on the hit play by Rita Kalnejais, is basically the antithesis of melodramatic schmaltz like A Walk to Remember or The Fault in Our Stars.

Eliza Scanlen (Sharp Objects, Little Women), utilizes her resume to play the terminally-ill daughter of Henry (Ben Mendelsohn, Captain Marvel, Rogue One), a psychiatrist and Anna (Essie Davis, Game of Thrones), a former piano prodigy. The story unfolds in the non-postcard parts of Sydney, Australia. A hand-held camera lends a home movie vibe to the proceedings (if your home movies were shot by a professional DP).

The film opens with a tooth falling into a glass. We eventually learn that it belongs to a fifteen-year-old girl named Milla Finlay. She has a bleak cancer prognosis and a baby tooth that’s holding on for dear life. Her middle-class life has been rather uneventful so far and now it’s almost over. Perhaps that’s what’s she’s contemplating en route to school one morning, when a hot young vagrant named Moses (Toby Wallace, Romper Stomper mini-series), nearly knocks her into an oncoming train. He sports a face tattoo and a haircut that looks like it was done by a toddler. He’s what the pop artist Two Thangs would call a “Dirtbag Pinup.” When Milla’s nose starts bleeding, Moses removes his shirt, pulls her into his lap, and places it oppressively over her nose and mouth. Afterward, he asks her for money. Milla is immediately smitten…

Read the rest on Hammer to Nail!

Paid in Puke S3E2: Superstar

superstar imageOn today’s episode, we get in touch with our inner Superstar with Bruce McCulloch’s 1999 comedy staring Molly Shannon as Mary Katherine Gallagher!

It’s a celebration of horny misfits! It’s also Tangent City as we get into what happened with the Switched at Birth families and try to explain Armageddon and Tom Green to modern audiences.

Our Lunchtime Poll is best expressed in a monologue from our favorite made for TV movies.

Film Review: The Third Strike

3rd strike

The American judicial system has long exemplified Orwellian justice. Some animals are more equal than others. To wit, everyone is entitled to representation and a jury of their peers but those who can afford better lawyers are more likely to receive a verdict in their favor. The Three Strikes law, enacted in 1994, was allegedly designed to manage repeat offenders of “serious crimes”. The problem is that at the time, narcotics possession (however minimal) was considered equivalent to armed robbery and murder. That’s how Edward Douglas, a family man who had never been to jail, ended up with a life sentence. His story is par for the course.

Nicole Jones’ debut feature documentary, The Third Strike, is a must-see film that brings to light the absolute miscarriage of justice that is the Three Strikes law. It follows the Decarceration Collective, a team of superhero lawyers who work pro-bono to overturn the sentences of the law’s victims. Their motto is to be “the best lawyers that money cannot buy”. Federal Defense Attorney Miangel (Pronounced “My Angel”, and she is just that to her clients) Cody leads this real-life Justice League, working tirelessly to repair the many lives damaged by Three Strikes. And it’s not just the incarcerated who are affected. There’s a ripple effect that spreads through their families and the generations that follow.

The War on Drugs was disastrous for myriad reasons, but the most egregious effect was that it unfairly and disproportionately targeted low-income black men and led to a generation of families growing up with an incarcerated parent. These families can thank Bill Clinton and Joe Biden for “getting tough on crime” at the expense of their lives. Because it meant a life behind bars, many low-income defendants would enter pleas instead of going to trial. Their fates were at the whims of whatever judge they ended up with, instead of a jury of their peers.

Ironically, these same people can, in part, thank Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump for righting these wrongs. Kardashian became a celebrity spokesperson for the First Step Act of 2019, along with Senator Cory Booker. Trump signed the bill, which immediately resulted in the release 17 people. Jones captures Senator Cory Booker meeting with Douglas after his release. The Decarceration team graciously roll their eyes at the celebs taking credit. After all, they did most of the leg work. But they are nonetheless thrilled with the results.

Jones introduces us to each of the Wonder Women in the Collective, including attorneys Cody, Amanda Bash and LaSheda Brooks as well as Community Architect Bella Bahhs, who does a fantastic job of iterating how the black community has been devastated by Three Strikes. They are parents, brothers, sisters, artists, workers, scholars, and partners. Bahhs explains that the Three Strikes Law tried to erase their multitudes and punish people for the circumstances that drove them to make mistakes. “You don’t get to put someone in jail for life without taking who they are into account,” says Bahhs. She also points out that for many of the Collective’s clients, the first system that paid any attention to them was the criminal justice system. If that’s a surprise to you, sit with it for a minute. It’s a rude awakening but that’s precisely what this country needs right now.

For Brooks, the fight is personal. During a particularly emotional scene in the film, she reveals that she became a lawyer specifically to fight Three Strikes and bring her father home. She doesn’t regret the long road she’s taken but a part of her mourns the life she would have had growing up with her father at home. She tearfully recalls all-nighters in law school where she used the image of her dad rotting in a cage as motivation to drink more coffee and carry on. She may have changed her father’s circumstances, but the psychological toll on the whole family is everlasting.

Another emotional story line follows Alton Mills, a man who served 22 out of 23 years for possession of marijuana before Obama commuted his sentence in 2015. All told, Jones profiles 5 of the 33 people the Decarceration Collective has managed to free as of 2019.

Jones hits it out of the park with her debut, keeping it short and sweet. It’s informative, easy to follow, and packs a hell of an emotional punch. She expertly intersperses facts and history with the stories of the families affected (negatively) by Three Strikes and (positively) by the Collective. The Third Strike adopts the tone of Jones’ subjects – burdened but optimistic. The Collective works tirelessly, but they take time out to celebrate the victories. There’s so much yet to be done but they don’t ever lose sight of the prize, which is reuniting families and shedding light on the people rendered invisible by the system that has worked against them since inception.

Paid in Puke S3E1: Terms of Endearment

TermsofEndearment-Watching-videoSixteenByNineJumbo1600-v4On the series three premiere, we celebrate Mother’s Day with some choice words for James L. Brooks’ 1983 drama, Terms of Endearment, starring Deborah Winger and Shirley MacLaine. It’s chock full of Hot Probs, but there are also many, MANY hard relate moments for all of us.

We get also really person in the Lunchtime Poll when we reveal which TV/Film moms most closely resemble our own matriarchs.

Editor’s Note: Series 3 of Paid in Puke is recorded in quarantine via Zoom so our sound quality has taken a slight dip. Our apologies. But the show must go on!

Film Review: Same Boat

same-boat-3Not enough is made of how insane cruises are as a concept. Think about it. According to The Independent, 3 out of 10 people have, at some point, paid exorbitant amounts of money to sail a behemoth across the ocean with roughly 3000 strangers, consumed obscene amounts of ostentatious-but-mostly-mediocre food and entertainment, slept in tiny boxes, and tried to make the most of the stuff that’s included (like free soft serve ice cream) whilst getting nickel-and-dimed to death over the stuff that isn’t (alcohol). My brain has so much trouble reconciling this phenomenon that after going on a cruise 10 years ago, I have had countless recurring dreams set on an ocean liner.

Like with filmmaking, it’s easy to spend a lot of money on a cruise in a short amount of time. That’s what makes the concept of Same Boat – Chris Roberti’s debut shoestring romantic sci-fi comedy – so fitting. Roberti, cast, and crew, utilized their time on a Key West cruise to craft a narrative and shoot it guerilla style during their week on board. It’s kind of surprising that no one has thought to do this before. Same Boat is The Love Boat meets Grosse Pointe Blank with an early Linklater vibe to the naturalistic patter and time travel thrown in to give the hired gun pause over completing his latest assignment…

Read the rest at Hammer to Nail!