Wrestling with Social Fanaticism

Remember when times were simpler, when you didn’t need to worry about expressing yourself without first having to weigh the long-term ramifications for yourself and the seven generations of progeny that followed? What’s more, recall what it was like to be able to have an opinion without running the risk of oppressive social ostracism from the overly zealous political correctness police force imposing its herd mentality on everyone everywhere? Somewhere along the way we lost our bearings – and ourselves – to a code of conduct that can easily (and unnecessarily) get one canceled for even the slightest misstep. And what a shame that has been for society and our freedom of expression, a situation in which tolerance has gone out the window in favor of some excessively inflated concept of enlightened conformity that, in many ways, flies squarely in the face of the supposed acceptance and open-mindedness that it so ironically claims to celebrate. Such are the ideas explored in the hilarious, insightful and biting new social satire, “Dream Scenario” (web site, trailer).

The life of middle-aged, mild-mannered university professor Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) has just taken an unexpected left turn. The father of two (Lily Bird, Jessica Clement), who’s happily married to his second wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), and tenured in his job, learns that he’s appearing in the dreams of countless people, including a long-separated ex-girlfriend (Marnie McPhail Diamond), many of his students and countless other people he doesn’t even know. In virtually all cases, he’s present as a mere observer to what’s going on in these nighttime ruminations, never getting involved as events transpire. But this phenomenon is so widespread that he soon becomes the object of public attention, including as a media sensation and potential pitch man for various commodities.

Mild-mannered middle-aged university professor Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage, left) enjoys a pleasant life with his wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson, right), until all hell breaks loose in the biting new social satire, “Dream Scenario.” Photo courtesy of A24.

Needless to say, Paul is completely baffled by these developments. “Why Me?”, he wonders. He’s not exactly a highly visible public person, content to be living out his life in relative solitude. It’s true that he’d like a little more notoriety for his research work, but it’s not something he obsesses about by any means, though he sometimes gets perturbed that his ex-wife, Sheila (Paula Boudreau), shows him up and steals his thunder. Nevertheless, he’s modestly excited by the prospect of being onboarded by a cutting-edge brand development company, Thoughts?, founded by an empty-headed young social media influencer and marketing whiz kid, Trent (Michael Cera), backed by his two trusty associates, Molly (Dylan Gelula) and Mary (Kate Berlant).

Paul is hopeful that the Thoughts? crew can help him get his admittedly esoteric research findings published in a book, but he’s quickly disappointed when he discovers that Trent, Molly and Mary don’t understand the first thing about what he’s seeking to accomplish. Instead of trying to help Paul realize his dreams, they work on trying to convince him to become the new spokesperson for Sprite, featuring him in commercials mirroring the appearances he makes in other people’s dreams. It’s another development that puzzles him – and one that proves disappointing when it doesn’t lead to the fulfillment of his aspirations.

The unexpected developments don’t stop there, though. After a prolonged period of what has been basically a series of benign appearances in the dreams of others, they suddenly begin moving in a new direction, taking a decidedly violent turn. The onetime-observer now becomes an active participant in the dreams, frequently engaging in grotesque and gruesome acts toward the dreamers. What’s that all about?

Paul is again mystified by what happens. As with his initial appearances in others’ dreams, he didn’t initiate or ask for this, either. This time, however, the reactions to his intrusions are different. People are scared of what’s unfolding in their dreams. His students turn against him, engaging in acts of defiant solidarity of what he represents, an initiative that not only affects their reactions to his presence in their dreams, but also in their everyday lives, including refusals to participate in his classroom instruction. It strains his relationship with the university’s dean and his longtime friend, Brett (Tim Meadows), who tries to be understanding and helpful but has his own career and future to think of in his management of these new guilt by association concerns.  What’s more, prospects with Thoughts? quickly dry up, and Paul’s home life becomes rocky at best. Suddenly he’s the object of an orchestrated cancel culture campaign, one that increasingly frustrates him, especially since he never asked for any of this and is fundamentally incapable of controlling how any of it plays out.

When he becomes an unexpected media sensation under unusual circumstances, university professor Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) is approached by a brand development company, Thoughts?, to be a possible pitch man for products unrelated to his field of study, as seen in writer-director Kristoffer Borgli’s latest, the biting new social satire, “Dream Scenario.” Photo courtesy of A24.

In relatively short order, Paul goes from being a happily contented family man to someone whose life is falling apart on all fronts. The degree of frustration is maddening as he sees his life being torn apart. And the worst part of it is that he didn’t see any of it coming. But, then, as any victim of cancel culture can attest, he’s not alone on this by any means. Moreover, the effects are so pervasive that he’s unable to figure a way out of this. Indeed, what is he to do?

Considering the volatile fallout that Paul must contend with, one might legitimately observe that no one should have to be subjected to such abuse. And that insight is indeed spot on. Yet why did it happen? What’s more, why does it repeatedly continue to happen in real life? Do those inflicting such scorn not care? Have they lost their perspective? Are they so anxious for retribution that they’ll pursue any avenue to attain it, no matter how trivial or unforeseen the infraction might be? Are they willingly buying into herd mentality without thinking or taking the time to examine and assess the consequences of their actions? Or is it some of all of the foregoing?

Regardless of the cause(s) involved in this, what’s most important to recognize is what its instigators believe, for our beliefs play a key role in what manifests in our existence. It’s unclear how many of us are aware of or have bought into this school of thought, but, based on what unfolds in this picture, it’s obvious that there are a good many of us who don’t have a clue about it, especially when it comes to what they’ve created.

There are several inherent problems in this. To begin with, by being unaware of the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents, we may well end up manifesting outcomes over which we have no awareness, even though their impact is clearly undeniable. This is a practice in which we’re so focused on the result that we give no consideration to the implications involved, including unintended side effects. One need only look at what comes from the initiatives of Paul’s students to see that.

Second, such metaphysical tunnel vision often carries with it a huge degree of irresponsibility. Recognizing that is crucial in light of the fact that we’re the masters of our own creations, no matter how much awareness we may have of this. The fates that befall Paul – from all sources – are a direct result of what others manifest, only he’s the one left to pick up the pieces from these circumstances. (So much for our sense of personal responsibility.)

Trent (Michael Cera, center), owner of a cutting-edge brand management company, confers with his two trusty associates, Molly (Dylan Gelula, left) and Mary (Kate Berlant, right), on how to make best use of a new client, an unexpected, unlikely overnight media sensation, in the biting new social satire, “Dream Scenario.” Photo courtesy of A24.

Third, the materializations Paul’s left to endure come about as a result of the joint efforts of others, a co-creation, as it were. One of the qualities that characterize such collaborations is that they’re infused with the collective power of the beliefs of all of their creators. This amplifies the impact – often significantly – when a vast number of participants are involved in these scenarios. And, in this case, they overwhelm Paul, not just because of the number of those involved, but also because of the degree of passion infused in their manifesting beliefs. They have tremendous faith in their efforts, truly convinced that they’re doing the right thing for themselves and others like them.

Of course, one might argue, doesn’t Paul play a part in this scenario? If indeed we each create our own existence, aren’t his beliefs involved in how matters unfold here? To an extent, that’s true, but what could he possibly stand to gain from getting caught up in such a toxic situation as this? There could be a variety of answers, and his reasons (and resulting beliefs) are genuinely his own business. But, if we were to speculate about possible intents, perhaps it’s because he’s volunteered to step up to the plate and show others what kind of impact their beliefs and actions might have on someone in a scenario like this. He might like to hope that the personal sacrifice he unwittingly makes can help the others see the errors of their ways, giving them food for thought to consider in whatever they undertake in future ventures. That could be a lot to hope for in light of their intransigent way of thinking, of course, but, then, someone has to get the ball rolling when it comes to something like this. And, given Paul’s intrinsic thoughtfulness and sensitivity, maybe he believes, albeit subconsciously, that he’s the one who should try to attempt it in hopes of bringing about meaningful change. What a noble gesture, to be sure.

I find it intriguing that Paul may be seeking to accomplish this by inserting himself into others’ dreams. It seems like an ideal way to “get into someone’s head.” On a metaphorical level, his insertion of himself into the dream state of others is akin to showing up in the newsfeeds of social media platforms, a somewhat comparable way of injecting oneself into the everyday lives of an array of individuals, including some we may not even know. And, like those newsfeeds, even though his initial appearance may seem somewhat benign – as evidenced by his presence primarily as an observer – once he’s established himself there, he takes on other distinguishing qualities with which others may agree or intrinsically find fault (and we all know from our own social media experiences what can result when that happens).

While Paul’s later dream appearances take on what seem to be violent tendencies, those actions can be interpreted metaphorically, too. For instance, if, after his period of initial observation, he discovers that the fulfillment of his adopted mission calls for him to point out the aforementioned manifestation pitfalls (lack of awareness, irresponsibility and the potentially disruptive power of joint efforts), he might well encounter strong opposition from those who resist such changes in perspective, prompting them to lash out at attempts at removing them from the comfort zones of their prevailing and established beliefs. The backlash could be considerable, depleting him of his enthusiasm and leaving him to sort matters out from a seriously weakened and vastly overwhelmed position. Martyrs, it would seem, seldom have it easy, particularly when faced with the force of an organized cancel culture campaign. His only hope under circumstances like these is that a seed gets planted for the future, one that viably takes root and successfully sprouts down the road.

When university professor Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) is confronted by his students, he becomes a pariah who’s no longer welcome on campus, as seen in writer-director Kristoffer Borgli’s latest, “Dream Scenario.” Photo courtesy of A24.

For everything that “Dream Scenario” has to say about the foregoing, it has much more to impart in other areas as well, such as the nature of fame and the downfalls that can come with it. Likewise, the film addresses the nasty ongoing intergenerational feuds occurring between Baby Boomers and the combined forces of Millennials and Gen Z, a situation most notably pointed out in the confrontations between Paul and his students. These factors don’t receive quite the same level of attention as the cancel culture considerations, but they’re present nonetheless, especially since they factor into the picture’s primary insights. Collectively, they weave a troubling tapestry of contemporary society, holes and all, showing us what a precarious path we’re currently on – and what could happen if we don’t soon take out our sewing repair kits to fix things before they completely unravel.

Packing a lot of material and ideas into a single film can result in a muddled, confusing mess, no matter how well-meaning a filmmaker’s intentions might be. However, in his third feature outing, writer-director Kristoffer Borgli succeeds for the most part when it comes to tackling such an imposing task. This offbeat fable takes viewers on a wild ride through the diverse realms of fame, metaphysics, cancel culture, unrelenting group think, and unexpressed, underpursued desire, along with the downside consequences of each. The curious oneiric anomaly that sets things in motion quickly transforms the protagonist into an overnight viral media sensation, one that starts off with a generous showering of attention and lustful admiration but that almost as quickly leads him to become a scorned put-upon pariah, a scenario not unlike what can happen to anyone in the public eye in the wake of even the slightest of transgressions. From the foregoing description, it might sound like the filmmaker has tried to overstuff this vehicle with far too much material for viewers to process and comprehend, and there are points in the story (especially in the last half hour) where a good case could be made for that argument. However, in telling this allegorical tale, the director manages to keep the narrative’s ideas distinctly sorted and in context to drive home his message, a powerful cautionary tale about the point we’ve collectively reached as a society. These are notions that we all need to hear but seldom do because of all the noise surrounding us that prevents us from hearing the music because of all the notes.

When the incessant frustration of cancel culture gets the better of him, mild-mannered university professor Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) fights back when he sees he has no other recourse in the new dark comedy/cautionary tale, “Dream Scenario.” Photo courtesy of A24.

For all its seriousness, however, “Dream Scenario” is loaded with absolutely hilarious, laugh-out-loud humor and fine performances all around (especially Cera and Golden Globe Award nominee Cage), complemented with skillful film editing and carefully selected incidental shots that effectively punctuate the mood of many scenes. The script is generally solid, too, though it begins to stray somewhat from the material that works best in the final act, and there are a few graphically violent sequences that sensitive viewers should be wary of. On balance, though, this is the kind of production that should be made in greater numbers in an age where so many of us have lost touch with reason, our existence and ourselves. Maybe watching an offering like this could help us all sit up, think and get back on track while we still can. The film is playing theatrically.

So many have said that there is something fundamentally out of whack when it comes to our society – if not our entire world – these days, and it often feels like the time to fix it may be quickly slipping away from us. “Dream Scenario” shines a bright light on this sentiment, and it does so with unrelenting, in-your-face candor. It’s an urgent wakeup call for those who are currently sleeping through their lives and don’t seem to care. One can only hope that the alarm is loud enough to have its intended effect before the opportunity to have an impact is gone for good.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

The Power of Determination

Fighting against a system determined to hold individuals back requires as much determination as the opposition puts forth. It can be frustrating to the activists taking on such a challenge, especially when progress moves along at a snail’s pace. However, when inspired, committed, fervent leaders step forward to address those issues, it’s remarkable how much momentum it can generate to move things forward, yielding tremendous backing and prompting surprising rapidity. One such advocate’s efforts in this regard illustrate these outcomes with sparkling clarity and zealous inspiration, as seen in the uplifting new film biography, “Rustin” (web site, trailer).

As the film opens in 1960, Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) (Colman Domingo) has developed quite a reputation for getting things done. The often-outspoken civil rights activist spent years working on various initiatives, and, in 1956, he became a trusted aide and advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Amil Ameen), who was emerging as the preeminent leader of the movement. In particular, Rustin taught King about the nonviolent resistance tactics developed by Mahatma Gandhi, a strategy that would come to define King’s subsequent protest efforts. Rustin also worked with King in establishing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, one of the most highly visible organizations involved in the civil rights movement.

Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo), organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, faces a variety of challenges in pulling together this landmark civil rights event, as seen in the inspiring new biopic, “Rustin,” now available for streaming on Netflix. Photo by David Lee, courtesy of Netflix.

For the upcoming 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, Rustin and King began work on plans for a civil rights march in conjunction with the event. However, influential Black leaders at the time – most notably Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-NY) (Jeffrey Wright) – had reservations about Rustin’s involvement, particularly when it came to how visible he would be. The reason? Rustin was open about being gay – a rarity at the time – and had a 1953 sexual misconduct arrest on his record. At one time, he had been affiliated with the Young Communist League (a connection he later rejected). And he was also an avowed conscientious objector to military service, a decision that prompted many to view him as a draft-dodger. Powell and others did not believe Rustin was a suitable representative for African-Americans seeking to make their equal rights case to a still-often-reluctant public, even in some of the country’s more open-minded regions. So, to assure that he would get his way on this matter, Powell said he would circulate rumors of a fictitious, albeit convincing gay love affair between Rustin and King, a threat that prompted King to back down on his plan.

With plans for the Los Angeles march called off, King and Rustin parted ways. Rustin took a job in which he maintained a low profile while he assessed what his next step would be. He kept in contact with his activist peers, but he was less involved than he had been previously. But, as plans for a proposed 1963 March on Washington were heating up, Rustin was approached to play a key role in organizing the event, largely with the backing of labor union and civil rights activists A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman) and Ella Baker (Audra McDonald). And, when Rustin and King reached an agreement to reconcile their differences, they managed to make peace with one another and recommit to the alliance they had so successfully forged years earlier.

Inspired by the potential for the march and with significant pieces of the puzzle in place, Rustin decided to get behind the effort. But, once committed, he again ran into opposition from community leaders like Powell and NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock), citing the aforementioned reservations about the propriety of Rustin’s appointment. However, with the firm backing of staunch allies like Randolph, labor organizer Cleve Robinson (Michael Potts), activist/writer/educator Dr. Anna Hedgeman (CCH Pounder) and Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Chairman John Lewis (Maxwell Whittington-Cooper), Rustin was given the mandate to coordinate plans for the event. But the downside in this was that he was operating on a tight time frame – eight weeks – with a long list of fundraising and logistical considerations to address, and some wondered whether he would be able to meet the deadline and the demands being placed on him.

The 1963 March on Washington, which was expected to draw 100,000 participants, attracted approximately 250,000 individuals, including such notables as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen, fourth from left) and NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock, fifth from left), as seen in director George C. Wolfe’s inspiring new film biography, “Rustin.” Photo by David Lee, courtesy of Netflix.

Rustin’s enthusiasm and charisma proved to be infectious. Not only did he garner the support, assistance and cooperation of the movement’s notables, but he also won over a team of dedicated, hard-working volunteers, like 22-year-old Rachelle Horowitz (Lilli Kay), who coordinated transportation for thousands of marchers traveling to the nation’s capital. Like him, the volunteers believed in the cause and put in long hours to make sure the march would come off as hoped for. And, when they saw Rustin’s diligence at work in solving issues related to safety, security, first aid, the supply of basic necessities, and recruiting marchers from far and wide, they doubled their efforts to pull everything together.

As events played out, though, there were incidents that threatened to derail Rustin’s efforts. For example, he became embroiled in a somewhat less-than-discreet affair with a young, married, sexually curious minister, Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey), a composite fictional character based on several of Rustin’s romantic partners at the time. It was a relationship that, if exposed, could blow the top off of his efforts. The affair also placed strain on Rustin’s on-again/off-again involvement with his roommate, Tom Kahn (Gus Halper), one his most trusted aides and occasional bed mates. There were also strong public criticisms from politicians like Sen. Strom Thurmond (D-SC; later R-SC), who openly denounced Rustin for his homosexuality, onetime-Communist leanings and conscientious objector status. What’s more, as Rustin’s organizing success began to snowball, he again faced opposition from Powell, who took an almost-perverse glee in wanting to see him fail, especially now that Rustin was beginning to draw attention away from the influential Congressman. But Powell’s scheming and skepticism soon placed him in the minority when it came to his view of Rustin; he and other detractors soon became marginalized when they saw how much the activist had accomplished in such a short time.

With things in place as much as they were going to be, the time came in August 1963 when the event was to take place. For all of his hard work, though, Rustin still couldn’t help but wonder whether the march was going to succeed, observing on the day of the event that he “hope[d] people would show up.” Those fears proved unfounded, however. While he and his peers had hoped that the march would draw 100,000 participants, it ended up attracting approximately 250,000, making it the largest peaceful demonstration ever to be held on the Washington Mall. It featured appearances by such noteworthy performers as vocalist Mahalia Jackson (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), and it became famous as the event that showcased King’s now-famous “I have a dream” speech.

Not a bad outcome for someone who was reviled for speaking his mind, being himself and making the world aware that it was indeed time for a change.

These qualities, of course, played a vital role in Rustin’s success, primarily because they were at the core of the beliefs he held most dearly. And that’s important given the part they play in the manifestation of the existence we experience. It’s unclear whether Rustin was familiar with this way of thinking, but, based upon the results he achieved, it’s apparent that he was well versed in its principles and how to apply them.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen) delivers his now-famous “I have a dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, an event organized by activist Bayard Rustin, as seen in the new Netflix biopic, “Rustin.” Photo by David Lee, courtesy of Netflix.

From how Rustin is portrayed in the film, it’s obvious he believed in the ideas behind the equal rights, civil rights and gay rights movements. They were part of who he was, and he naturally wanted to see them implemented for everyone in the wider world. His enthusiasm, faith in the process and hope for the future were visible to all, and he made no efforts to conceal these feelings and beliefs, no matter how unpopular they may have been in some quarters, including, ironically, among those who themselves would have benefitted most from their acceptance and implementation. His fervor was compelling, and others who agreed with his perspective couldn’t help but be impelled to follow suit and take action because of it.

Rustin’s belief in his determination was too strong to be denied. Even when he was attacked and criticized by the likes of Powell and Wilkins and experienced his falling out with King, he recoiled, coming back stronger than ever after taking time to regroup, alter his beliefs and rework his strategies. That willingness to reinvent himself when necessary carried the day and enabled him to step forward and fulfill his objectives. And those objectives were indeed crucial to his being, for they represented the destiny he was meant to live out.

Rustin’s achievements were indeed significant in many endeavors, including in those not addressed in the film. He played an active role in the Freedom Riders movement and would later go on to be a vocal advocate in the gay rights movement. Even though this picture focuses primarily on one aspect of his accomplishments, it nevertheless gives viewers a clear look at who he was, what he believed and the kinds of accomplishments that came to characterize him, attainments that, in the end, we should all be grateful for.

Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-NY) (Jeffrey Wright) sternly expresses his opposition to the appointment of openly gay Black activist Bayard Rustin as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, believing him to be an unsuitable representative of the African-American community, as seen in the new Netflix biopic, “Rustin.” Photo by David Lee, courtesy of Netflix.

Unsung heroes often don’t get their day. Fortunately, however, for Rustin, he finally gets his due in this new biopic. The flamboyant, outspoken activist shines in this feature from director George C. Wolfe, showing Rustin as the determined champion that he was. The film presents an informative period piece biography, even if the approach is somewhat conventional and, admittedly, gets off to a rather rocky start in the first half hour. However, that’s made up for by a strong second half and the picture’s powerhouse cast, including Domingo, a Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award nominee and a strong Oscar contender, as well as Wright, Ameen, Turman, Pounder and Ramey in fine supporting performances. While this offering may not be everything it could have been, “Rustin” nevertheless reminds us of what so many people fought so hard to achieve – and why it’s so important that we strive to protect those accomplishments against backsliding and those who might seek to undermine the fulfillment of those much-cherished attainments. The film is available for streaming as a Netflix exclusive.

At times when things seem bleak, it’s all the more important that we have committed leaders who can step up, take charge and rally supporters to their causes, especially when so much is on the line. Lethargy, ambivalence and disinterest get us nowhere in the face of such issues, which is why the kind of uplifting enthusiasm generated by someone like Rustin is so important to furthering these initiatives. In an age where it’s become all too easy to step back, watch and remain uninvolved, it’s become crucial that we have films like this to ignite the flames of activism to address the injustices that remain and are allowed to continue unabated. Bayard would undoubtedly have been pleased with what’s become of his efforts – and be the first one to stand up and tell us we need to get back to work to finish the job.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Skewering the Life of a Dictator

In the wake of the recent 50th anniversary of the 1973 Chilean coup d’etat that resulted in the overthrow of democratically elected President Salvador Allende, an effort led by the country’s military and backed by the US government, a number of film projects (both documentary and narrative features) have been released looking back on this event. These projects have come in a variety of forms, and one of the most unusual (and creative) among them has been a production that takes a metaphorical and wickedly satirical look at the life of Allende’s successor, dictator Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006), portraying him in a surreal but fitting milieu, as seen in the hilarious but insightful allegorical biography, “El Conde” (“The Count”) (web site, trailer).

This “biography” of Pinochet (Jaime Vadell) employs an alternative approach to telling his story, one that’s decidedly more metaphorical than literal. Considering the dictator’s brutal nature during his reign (1973-1990) and the relentless drain his tactics placed on Chilean civilians and society during that time, director Pablo Larraín has chosen to quite fittingly portray him as a vampire. And, to that end, the filmmaker tells Pinochet’s story in the style of director F.W. Murnau’s black-and-white silent film classic, “Nosferatu” (1922), with all its cringeworthy creepy Gothic trappings.

Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (Jaime Vadell, center) assumes power over the country after the 1973 ousting of President Salvador Allende, as seen in director Pablo Larraín’s metaphorical new biography, “El Conde” (“The Count”), available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

The story focuses on Pinochet’s time after he’s no longer in power, a sad, old, lonely man living in destitute conditions in a remote, decrepit compound. But, to put the autocrat’s life in context, the film presents his back story as told by an unseen, eminently articulate English-speaking narrator (Stella Gonet). She begins by speaking of the immortal protagonist’s birth in 18th Century France as Claude Pinoche (Clemente Rodriguez), a viciously unruly youth who was abandoned by his mother (Sofia Maluk) and came of age as a heartless royalist soldier during the French Revolution. It was during this time that he discovered his vampiric nature and adopted his penchant for vehemently supporting established, reactionary regimes. He carried these qualities forward during what appeared to be a series of “lifetimes,” ever fighting for archaic causes on the brink of collapse. He did his duty well, at least in the eyes of those he was supporting, but always as a soldier and never anything more.

By the mid 20th Century, however, Pinoche had tired of always fulfilling the role of a fighting man. Through his many years of combat, he had grown aware of what works and what doesn’t during the turmoil of struggling military and political campaigns. And so, with this outlook, he decided to change tracks, launching himself onto a path in which he sought to acquire leadership powers, an opportunity he found in Chile, a nation wrestling with finding a direction for its future. After rising through the country’s political and military ranks, the young, ambitious renamed would-be autocrat (Daniel Contesse) was poised to move ahead with his plans. That opportunity finally arrived in 1973, when he helped lead the overthrow of President Salvador Allende, a democratically elected leader who rose to power three years earlier but who was an avowed Communist, the antithesis of Pinochet’s ideological leanings and someone whom he saw as a scourge on the nation. With the coup successful, Pinochet finally had what he had been seeking.

By the late ’80s, however, Pinochet had fallen out of favor, and a national referendum saw him ousted from office in 1990, but not without having amassed tremendous wealth in plundering the country and collecting a fortune in kickbacks from lackies and opportunists. Still, though, what is a former all-powerful dictator supposed to do with himself under conditions like these? In addition to possible threats of prosecution and the lingering animosity of the Chilean people, it certainly wouldn’t be in his best interests to maintain any kind of a public profile akin to what he had while in office. As a consequence, he chose to slink away into obscurity, a protected but unfulfilling life option. And, for someone who’s immortal, it doesn’t hold much promise for the future, despite having the capability to start over anew at any time of his choosing.

However, after having lived a life where he attained everything that he thought he wanted – and the eventual disappointment that came from that – he had to ask himself whether he wanted to rejuvenate himself and begin another new life with another new identity. Moreover, having allowed his program of regular feedings to lapse, he began falling prey to the ravages of time, including the effects of physical aging that typically afflict most mortals, such as failing health and lost memory. It grew so extreme, in fact, that he forgot where most of his wealth was hidden and how to access it. In light of that, from his standpoint, would it thus be worthwhile to start over without the financial resources he had accumulated to make his standard of living possible? Indeed, could he build the kind of new life he would require without the means to do so, even if his health were restored?

A series of mysterious vampiric killings occur in the shadows in the Chilean capital of Santiago, raising many questions of what’s behind them, as seen in the satiric new dark comedy, “El Conde” (“The Count”), available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Such are the conditions in place as Pinochet’s story begins. He weighs his options about whether to start over or just allow himself to die. As noted, he doesn’t know where the money has gone. At the same time, he has lost interest in his wife, Lucia (Gloria Münchmeyer), a once-lusty, provocative beauty who, with age, has transformed into the embodiment of a ruthless, conniving crone. And then there is Pinochet’s best friend and butler, Fyodor (Alfredo Castro), and the Count’s five children (Catalina Guerra, Amparo Noguera, Antonia Zegers, Marcial Tagle, Diego Muñoz), all of whom are actively seeking to discover what happened to the cash, all of them driven by their own selfish motivations. In fact, the children are so anxious to get their hands on their father’s wealth that they’ve hired an accountant, Carmencita (Paula Luchsinger), to audit his books to see if the funds can be found. What the kids and their dad don’t know, however, is that the auditor is secretly a nun charged with exorcising Pinochet’s demons and, if possible, retrieving the lost funds and turning them over to the cardinal to whom she reports (Jaime McManus).

As all this is playing out, Pinochet still wavers about his future, although his head is certainly turned by the young accountant’s arrival at the family compound, especially now that Lucia is carrying on a less-than-clandestine affair with Fyodor in the wake of Augusto ignoring her and openly flirting with the nubile new visitor. And, in the nearby Chilean capital of Santiago, the city is being plagued by a string of new vampiric killings, making everyone wonder whether Augusto is returning to his old ways, rejuvenating himself perhaps as a prelude to secretly launching a new life for himself – and possibly absconding with the allegedly missing money, leaving everyone else high and dry. But, as matters continue going awry, none of these conditions can compare to the chaos and lunacy that emerge when the mysterious narrator at last appears in person, taking the story in an outrageous and even more unexpected direction.

Considering how everything has played out in Pinochet’s life, is the existence he envisioned for himself lived up to his expectations? If it hasn’t, his ennui and disillusionment are certainly understandable. But, if it has, then why has he grown so despondent and seriously considering ending everything? Needless to say, these are circumstances that should prompt him to look inward and do some serious soul-searching. But is such a thoughtful capability even possible for a vampire – or a dictator? By all rights, Pinochet has made his bed, but, as an immortal, need he lie in it? And, if not, what other options are open to him, especially with everything that’s unfolding around him?

Based on how events have unfolded here, it would appear Pinochet has some difficult choices ahead of him. Ironically, however, that power of choice could also prove to be his salvation with so many different possibilities available. What matters most in this, though, is what he believes, for those beliefs play a pivotal role in how his reality unfolds. It’s unclear whether he’s ever heard of this line of thinking, but, if employed skillfully, it could be essential to get the result he wants.

When a nun (Paula Luchsinger, center) is assigned to pose as an accountant to audit the books of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, she’s secretly charged with carrying out a more clandestine task, as seen in director Pablo Larraín’s satirical new film biography, “El Conde” (“The Count”), available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

However, Pinochet is up against many factors as he sorts things out. For instance, he has many people trying to influence his choices, including Lucia, Fyodor and his five children. There are also the beliefs and opinions of groups and institutions trying to have their say, whether or not he’s aware of it, including the Church and the Chilean people, constituencies heavily impacted by the deplorable actions of his past. They detest him so much, in fact, that their scorn is largely responsible for having driven him to live in seclusion, an existence that has caused him to lose touch with the outside world and even the possessions he once so zealously cherished, such as the now-missing fortune he amassed while in power. All of this has left him directionless, unable to decide which beliefs to embrace for himself going forward.

It could be also argued that his indecision is further driven by an assessment of his past. Having lived so many lives filled with reprehensible behavior, perhaps glimmers of guilt and disillusionment have finally caught up with him. In addition to those many lifetimes where he brutally did the bidding of heinous autocrats as a loyal foot soldier, he’s most recently experienced the kind of unbridled power that his sovereigns did previously. This unchecked lust for control led him to engage in unspeakable practices that could only be described as “vampiric” in every sense of the word. And, despite whatever momentary level of gratification they may have given him while in charge, he was ultimately removed from that position of power by those whom he most sternly controlled, leaving him without what he so jealously craved, as well as any meaningful kind of respect or admiration once out of office, not to mention a satisfying lifestyle in retirement. He can’t help but ask himself, was all the effort that went into creating that life worthwhile in the end, especially since everything he coveted has now gone away? What’s more, despite the ability to re-create those conditions in a new life for himself, does he want to go through that potential disappointment once again or just slip away and die? Regrets can carry considerable weight as beliefs, and they can make it easy to give up and look for a new path to follow, especially when heavily tinged with such pervasive discouragement.

Then again, maybe it is worth taking another stab at it, particularly when “incentives” emerge, such as the presence of the lovely Carmencita. Pinochet’s attraction to her is obvious, and, over time, she begins returning the lustful admiration, despite her vows and supposedly sacred mission. And then there’s the influence of the mysterious narrator, who offers some startlingly attractive propositions upon her arrival. Given Pinochet’s nature, these inducements might easily prompt him to change course and begin craving the old ways once again.

What will he decide? Will he sincerely follow a path of atonement and redemption by choosing a new course? Or will he slip back into his old self, returning to a life of self-serving avarice? The choice – and the beliefs behind it – are his, just as they are for any of us. We might like to hope he chooses wisely, but that decision is on him – one that he won’t be able to make until he’s ready to do so, a circumstance that’s as true for him as it is for us, no matter how patently obvious the choice may seem. Until that time, though, he’ll have to put up with whatever ancillary consequences accompany his choices, for better or worse.

When a vampire takes flight for a night of hunting, there’s no telling what will transpire in the wickedly funny biography, “El Conde” (“The Count”), available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Fusing cinematic genres can be tricky, especially if the mix doesn’t mesh. But the latest from writer-director Pablo Larraín successfully pulls off a brilliantly original blend and does so just about perfectly in this metaphorical account of the life of the onetime-Chilean strongman as a vampire a la Dracula (hence the title and the character’s nickname, “the Count”). As the elderly former dictator assesses his options for the future, many story threads emerge and become intertwined, satirically invoking wry observations about despotism, greed, power, lust, immortality and religion. On top of all this, there’s the hilarious appearance of the faceless narrator whose unexpected appearance late in the film takes things in an entirely new uproarious direction with deliciously twisted plot developments. Add to all this the film’s stunningly gorgeous monochrome cinematography, superb production design, fine performances and positively sparkling screenplay, along with just enough restrained campiness in the dialogue and special effects to make viewers giggle with delight without becoming silly, and you’ve got one finely crafted production, perfectly integrated and nicely balanced. Admittedly, the pacing drags a smidge late in the second act, but that’s easily dismissed considering how well everything else works together. Also, the film is quite graphic in a number of sequences, so squeamish and sensitive viewers would be wise to avoid this one. But, if you’re not faint of heart and have an appetite for the macabre, give this Netflix exclusive a look. Director Pablo Larraín’s pictures keep getting better and better with every outing, and this is the latest in a string of releases that have firmly established him as one of the finest auteurs in the business these days. Tune in and see for yourself.

It’s no secret that “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and Pinochet certainly proved that during his 17 years in office. By the same token, it’s also been said that “what goes around comes around,” as this offering so deliciously illustrates, leaving one destitute, disillusioned, indecisive and morally bankrupt in light of a legacy of unspeakable transgressions. This is one hell of a cautionary tale for those who seek personal gratification at any cost, those who blindly ignore the impact on those around them, as well as themselves. Our vast creative powers can indeed be put to many valuable uses, but we must choose our options wisely, no matter how many chances we may get – or how many lifetimes we may live.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Copyright © 2023, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.