Category Archives: Hulu

Lodge 49: Understated Alchemy

Listen to my Lodge 49 Review podcast.

In a world where most TV shows (as well as movies) are cliche-ridden and predictable, Lodge 49 offers something truly original.

Lodge 49 refers to a Masonic-type organization with a fledgling headquarters in Long Beach, CA. While, on the surface, the lodge has the stodgy atmosphere of an Elk’s Club, with mostly older members who spend hours at the lodge’s bar and play lots of golf, there’s a mysterious background involving shadowy occult forces that a few members dabble in.

The story begins as Sean “Dud” Dudley (Wyatt Russell), a likable 30ish slacker, who’s unemployed and near-homeless, wanders into the lodge and discovers a sense of purpose as he meets the various eccentric members, starting with Ernie (Brent Jennings), a long-time member in his 50s who’s a bit disillusioned with the lodge and his life in general.

In at least one review, Dud has been compared to The Dude in The Big Lebowski (even his nickname is similar). This is fair but Lodge 49 is not even remotely derivative of that film or anything else. It has some elements in common with a range of shows that explore occult or supernatural themes. Unlike these mostly fast-paced and action-packed shows, however, Lodge 49 is understated to a fault. Don’t expect explosions, special effects, swords and sorcery, or people transforming into werewolves. There’s definitely magic afoot, but it remains in the background and doesn’t really start to assert itself until Season 2.

Much of the mystery is suggested in the theme music and the mystical artwork scattered on the lodge’s walls. Students of such lore will recognize tarot cards and various occult symbolism. The lodge’s resident mystic is Blaise (David Pasquesi) who’s even a healer/herbalist in his day job. However, his fascination with old alchemical texts and potions is tolerated rather than embraced by fellow members.

A great deal of the story focuses on Dud’s twin sister Liz (Sonya Cassidy), who has nothing to do with the lodge (at least until well into Season 2). She’s a misfit like her brother, but a very different type. While Dud can’t hold onto a job, she works diligently as a waitress at a Hooter’s-like bar called Shamrocks and tirelessly aims to pay off their deceased father’s debt.

There are numerous backstories involving Liz, including flashbacks involving their dad, and the careers and relationships of the other characters. In fact, part of Lodge 49’s charm is its slow pace and willingness to spend time with each character. A show like this could easily have been populated with a bunch of lovable but ultimately stock and sitcommish characters. Yet every member of the cast is fleshed out to reveal his or her foibles, dreams, and heartbreaks.

When you deal with a topic such as alchemy, there’s also the temptation to turn it into a supernatural/sci-fi genre piece (or, perhaps, a by-the-numbers paranormal mystery along the lines of The DaVinci Code and its many imitators). There’s nothing wrong with that approach but there are enough shows like that already. Lodge 49 charts its own course, finding an odd but captivating balance between drama, comedy, mystery, and just enough magic and mystery to keep us wondering. Even the characters go back and forth between belief and skepticism as during a series of episodes involving some alleged mysterious scrolls that reveal hidden secrets.

Whereas most shows dealing with paranormal elements get completely immersed in heroic quests and battles between good and evil, with Lodge 49, we never forget that we’re watching real people who are struggling with bills, difficult relationships, and everyday angst. Sometimes the pace is a bit slow but overall this adds to the authenticity and gives the more fantastical elements more credibility.

I won’t try to recount any more plot points as they are very complicated and almost secondary to the characters, setting and atmosphere. It’s the kind of show that’s clearly not for everyone. I’d suggest that if the first episode doesn’t pull you in, you probably won’t like it any better further in. While things speed up a bit in Season 2, it’s a very meandering and non-linear journey. At the same time, Lodge 49 doesn’t go to an extreme in the absurdist/existentialist/mumblecore directon (which has its own charms, to be fair). The characters are quirky but they do evolve and there is some forward movement, albeit in an unpredictable and circuitous manner.

The program, which first aired on AMC and is now available on Hulu, has run for 2 seasons with Season 3 apparently up in the air. It was canceled but there are rumors that another season is possible, which I hope happens. TV history, alas, suggests otherwise as the most innovative programs seldom survive more than a season or two (with exceptions, to be sure).

In summary, if you’re drawn to anything offbeat, give it a try!

For some insights into the motivations behind Lodge 49, here’s an interview with Jim Gavin, the creator.

the art of self-defense on hulu

Fans of martial arts dramas will probably want to catch The Art of Self-Defense, now showing on Hulu. This quirky indie film stars Jessie Eisenberg as Casey, a meek accountant who learns Karate after getting mugged.

Jesse Eisenberg has one of the most varied resumes in Hollywood. He alternately stars in mainstream films such as The Social Network, high-profile indie films such as The Squid and the Whale and seriously offbeat indie efforts such as Free Samples and, more recently, The Art of Self-Defense.

The rather generically-named The Art of Self-Defense, written and directed by Riley Stearns, is sort of like a twisted version of The Karate Kid, with perhaps some Fight Club thrown in. It’s a bizarre and uneven mix of comedy, violence, and just plain darkness.

The premise of a wimpy protagonist learning martial arts is hardly new. Casey (Eisenberg) is, of course, not a kid or teen but a guy in his mid-thirties who, nonetheless, finds himself bullied wherever he goes. This culminates in a vicious assault that winds him in the hospital. After shopping for a gun, Casey wanders into a local dojo and is drawn into the warped world of Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), an intense instructor who makes The Karate Kid’s Sensei Kreese (who’s still menacing Daniel LaRusso and California’s dojos in the recent YouTube series Cobra Kai, btw) seem like a pacifist by comparison.

I won’t recount the entire plot of The Art of Self-Defense as this would inevitably contain spoilers. Suffice it to say that Casey undergoes a transformation from a meek and frightened victim to a belligerent (and rather unhinged) tough guy who takes no $hit. Sensei (who only has that title, no name) is a strange character who mixes typical martial arts traditionalism with large doses of sadism, misogyny, and, eventually, outright insanity.

There’s no real message to The Art of Self-Defense and it’s a hard film to categorize. To me, it has a pessimistic and nihilistic soul. It could be called a satire of martial arts except that few martial artists embody quite the oddball mixture of traits practiced by Sensei. One of the sub-themes involves sexism as the dojo’s female instructor Anna (Imogen Poots) is treated unfairly and never promoted to black belt. This theme, however, doesn’t quite mesh with the obvious fact that Sensei and his entire dojo are basically nuts. In effect, Anna is being discriminated against by a death cult. Why doesn’t she just quit and find a more normal place to train?

The Art of Self-Defense is an interesting, mostly engaging but ultimately unsatisfying dark comedy/drama that plays with several serious issues without offering much depth or consistency on any of them. It’s about vengeance, the violence underlying modern society, the nature of martial arts and male-dominated clubs in general, and the dangers of blindly following authority. By the end, many things have changed but no one has necessarily learned anything.

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary

John Edward Szeles, better known as The Amazing Johnathan, is a high-profile renegade magician who’s appeared in numerous venues as well as in movies and various celebrity shows. In 2014, Johnathan was diagnosed with a heart condition called cardiomyopathy and given a year to live. Several years later, however, he was still around. Director Ben Berman decided that an infamous magician on borrowed time would be a good subject for a documentary.

Of course, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary turns out to be a lot less straightforward than the above introduction suggests. It seems that it’s not enough to make an ordinary documentary these days. It helps if there’s an air of mystery and a heavy dose of “meta,” where the documentarian and his work is at least as important as the alleged subject. Exit Through the Gift Shop comes to mind, and The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, while not quite as fascinating as that one, has some similarities.

There are a few twists in the doc that it’s probably better not to reveal. One, however, must be mentioned. As the filming got underway, several other documentary makers began to surface. One, allegedly, was the production company behind hits such as Man on a Wire. Then another, and yet another, documentary maker appeared, turning Berman’s own doc into a kind of hall of mirrors.

At this point, Berman, as well as the viewers have no idea what’s really going on. Is Johnathan playing him (and us) or is he himself being used by multiple filmmakers cashing in on his impending death. Speaking of which, is he even sick at all?

One backstory is that Szeles is a heavy drug user, which possibly explains his heart condition. In fact, if he really uses meth every day, it truly is a miracle that he’s still alive. At one point, Berman offers to take meth with Szeles as an act of “Gonzo journalism.” He goes as far as to consult with a lawyer on the possible legal ramifications. This episode is an example of how the doc drags in spots. In 2019, it isn’t really shocking or necessary for authenticity to watch people take drugs. Yet this is treated as a major ethical and aesthetic issue.

There are other places where the action slows or feels repetitive. While it’s interesting to contemplate who’s telling the truth and what’s really going on, most doc viewers have already seen this kind of thing before. Just as Berman doesn’t know how far he can trust Szeles, so the viewer is in the same position in regards to him. Do we even know, for example, that there really are multiple documentary makers? The main focus is on the notorious second group. Berman doesn’t let us see or hear anything they do, either for his own purposes or because they don’t want to be filmed.

There’s one scene, in a Vancouver theater, where the second doc is allegedly playing, but we don’t get to see any of it, only a sparse crowd that includes an actor Berman pays to crash and ask a question. If we want to get in the spirit of suspicion and paranoia, there’s little evidence that this doc actually exists. Of course, I haven’t taken the trouble to research it and perhaps others have verified it. The point is that the whole film puts one in this state of mind where everything can be doubted.

Whatever other docs may or may not have been made, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary has obviously broken through. It was showcased at Sundance, has been shown in art theaters and is now on Hulu. I’d recommend this film to anyone who’s fascinated in The Amazing Johnathan and/or who can’t get enough of murky doc/mocs where it’s never quite clear what is and isn’t real. It’s not my favorite example of this genre but it did hold my interest.

Wet Behind the Ears

Wet Behind the Ears (2013)
Director: Sloan Copeland

Wet Behind the Ears is a film I found on Hulu without having any prior knowledge of it. I always watch unknown indie movies with fairly low expectations (the same for most Hollywood movies, truth be told). This one, however, was a welcome surprise. It wasn’t only good for a low budget indie film, it contains some of the best acting and writing that I’ve seen in a while.

The movie starts off in fairly familiar territory, with recent college graduate Samantha (Margaret Keane Williams, who also co-wrote the script along with director Copeland) having trouble finding a job. After being turned down rather condescendingly by a friend of her father’s for a job in the advertising industry, she ends up working behind the counter in an ice cream shop and moving back in with her parents.

We follow Samantha’s low key but funny adventures as she searches for a better job. She runs into an old friend from college and he tells her about a promising job lead. Instead, she is lured into a meeting with a network marketing rep. Anyone who has any familiarity with this type of business will find this scene hilarious, as the man recites his pitch about getting rich via an endlessly expanding pyramid of distributors.

Samantha’s friend Vicky (Jessica Piervicenti) also plays a key role. The two friends were going to be roommates until Samantha’s lack of employment made this arrangement impossible. Vicky is then forced to find a new roommate. After turning down a couple of obviously (and hilariously) unsuitable prospects, she ends up sharing the apartment with an apparent nymphomaniac who brings over a new man every night and keeps Vicky awake.

A typical Hollywood rom-com might have put in a montage scene of awful roommates, but Wet Behind the Ears handles this in a much funnier way without using the montage cliche. Furthermore, the wacky roommates and would-be roommates are weird yet believable. One of the interviewees snobbishly critiques Vicky’s taste in art and demands a reduction in rent.

Samantha, desperate to escape her day job (where she is even harassed by a gang of obnoxious kids she went to high school with), she is tempted when her friend Dean (Doug Roland) tells her about his lucrative video piracy business. She lures Vicky into helping with a scheme that could net all three of them with a nice chunk of cash.

The genius of Wet Behind the Ears isn’t in the plot, but in the humor of the scenes, witty dialogue and nuances of the characters. The movie manages to perfectly capture a variety of very funny and well conceived character types. Arrogant New York City (the film takes place in Manhattan and Long Island) hipsters, such as Vicky’s boss are mercilessly skewed here.

I hope this film, which apparently enjoyed some success at film festivals, attracts a wider audience. It’s so much wittier than the average Hollywood film dealing with similar subjects.
Hulu, unfortunately, tends to bury little known films amidst hundreds of mediocre titles (including Lifetime and other basic cable offerings). Unless you go out of your way to unearth obscure indie films (as I do), you are likely to miss them. I’ve found a few gems this way, with Wet Behind the Ears being one of the best of them.

The film does have a Facebook page, where you can find out the latest news about it.