Back for more: Unsolved Mysteries (Season 2)

Slightly less captivating than the first season, this show about mysteries which remain – literally – unsolved to this day, still managed to keep me hooked for long enough to recommend it.

A body found in a landfill – how did it get there? We still don’t know for sure.

The first season kicked off with a genuinely eerie mystery – a man found lodged in the roof of a hotel building, having seemingly fallen through it from a great height. Season 2 kicks off in similar fashion with the discovery of a body in a landfill site. Former White House aide Jack Wheeler showed up there after a short disappearance following calls of a disturbance near his house. We see lots of CCTV footage of Jack’s last hours, where he looks agitated and confused, which raises plenty of questions aside from the apparent murder.

For the rest of the episodes, we swap out last season’s broad theme of ‘injustice’ (recalling the murder of a black man at a house party in a highly conservative town) with one of sheer mystery, as we learn about abduction of two different toddlers from the same New York City park – just three months apart. Absolutely mortifying.

Another one for the mystery fans – and one that makes for really good book material – is the unexplained death of a woman in a hotel room in Norway. This was probably my favourite of the series. For starters, we don’t ever find out the woman’s identity, let alone how or why she died. But the story of how they tried to answer these questions is fascinating and a real treat for mystery fans. Of course, it is also grossly tragic – and one must remember that these are real cases with real people waiting on the end of a phone line to hear from viewers who may have information that can lead to the case being solved.

There is also, like last season, a paranormal episode, this time involving ‘spirits’ said to have appeared after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. I gave this one a miss, as I usually don’t do paranormal stuff where it is represented as fact.

Overall, whilst I wasn’t quite as captivated by the mysteries from the first season, viewers who enjoyed that one will no doubt enjoy this one as well.

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Quickfire round: Borat Subsequent Movie Film

What is America like in 2020? Actually, no, don’t answer that. I want to be able to sleep tonight. Instead, let Borat answer it for you, as he presents his latest documentary, journalling his delivery of prodigious bribe to American regime for make benefit once glorious nation of Kazakhstan.

One of the most uncomfortable scenes I have ever watched.

I have never actually seen the original Borat movie. I admire Sacha Baron Cohen’s skill as a comedian and writer, but I do find some of his character’s presentation a little unnecessarily exaggerated. So when I watched this film, I had to filter out the subtle humour (some of which is particularly excellent) from the more in-your-face absurdity shown by Borat (and his daughter). This requires filtering out about half of the film, which means I can’t really give it more than half-marks.

Borat, apparently ridiculed in his home nation of Kazakhstan due to the events of the first film, is sent back to the US by his glorious leader to provide a tainted gift to a US Vice President Mike Pence (a porn star monkey, if you must know). The plan is somewhat ruined when, in place of the monkey, his daughter shows up instead.

I should explain that this film is a sort of mix between reality and acting. It reminds me of Nathan For You (review coming… eventually), whereby an exaggerated character engages with real-world people who are slightly more willing to accept the character’s absurdity by the mere fact that the cameras are rolling and they signed a release form. So, we see Borat interact with a cross-section of American society, from plastic surgeons and bakery owners, to babysitters and extreme Trump supporters. Oh, and yes, Rudy Giuliani, who doesn’t come out of the movie looking particularly good.

Okay, so – what do you want me to say? Was the film any good? Well, like I said, I can only give it half marks. It was funny and it was cringey and some of the stuff he did was quite impressive. But it was also obscene and cringey and some of the stuff he did was unnecessary. I watched it because it’s current and I can talk to people about it. I certainly wouldn’t watch it for fun.

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Quickfire round: American Murder: The Family Next Door

Despite its forgettable title (is it American Family: The Murder Nextdoor? Or America Nextdoor: The Family Murder? Neither!) this documentary uses incredible original footage to tell the chilling story of how, and why, Shannan Watts and her two children were cruelly murdered.

One person in this photo escaped death. Can you guess who it was?

I’ll start off by saying that this documentary shows how far we’ve come with technology in our society that it is able to tell the story in such a coherent manner with absolutely no voice-over and only first-hand footage (from police body cams and interview rooms, neighbours, news crews, text messages, and Shannan herself).

This method of telling the story makes it all the more terrifying. We start out with police body cam footage – after Shannan’s friend and colleague called the police, concerned for her whereabouts as she wasn’t responding to texts. The footage – otherwise entirely routine – immediately captures a scene of confusion and mystery as Shannan – and her two young children – are nowhere to be seen. Her phone is there and switched off, but the children’s blankets are gone. Her husband, Chris Watts, raced back from work at a remote oil well, and seems distracted as he speaks to officers about the last time he saw his wife alive and who – or where – she could have gone to.

Incredibly, the documentary also features Shannan herself. She was a prolific Facebook user, recording and posting footage of family moments almost daily. What a juxtaposition these happy videos of her and her husband are to the text messages she was exchanging with her friends and colleagues shortly before her death – telling a story of how her husband had become distant and uninterested in her.

I think I know what makes the documentary so gripping. The Facebook videos and text messages are all pre-death, of course. And the police footage is post-death. We therefore see the story unravel from two perspectives – Shannan’s, as she hurtles towards her murder, and the police, as they piece everything together. Everything is revealed in sync with each other – the text messages become more surreal and desperate as the police interviews become more dramatic and revealing. It’s great storytelling, if incredibly tragic.

If you like true crime, you absolutely don’t want to miss this.

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Quickfire Round: The Social Dilemma

I’m glad this documentary exists, as it’s made a lot of people wake up to the fact that massive social media companies like Facebook are hardly being generous by giving free access to their platform. Alas, corny acting prevents it reaching its full potential.

Haters gonna hate.

First, the good bits: this film presents first-hand accounts of how social media companies are engineering their platforms to maximise user engagement, putting the health and safety of their billions of users on the back burner as they compete to sell advertising spots. We hear about techniques such as A/B testing – tiny tweaks to the user experience, like moving the location of a button, are rolled out to a random selection of users to see whether it increased or decreased engagement.

Little nuggets of inside information and analysis like that are welcome – another example is Facebook’s photo tagging feature. Ever had an email like, ‘Emily tagged you in a photo on Facebook’? Notice how they don’t show you the photo in the email – you have to go onto the platform to see it. And while you’re there, you might as well check your notifications, and your news feed, and the latest group posts… you get the idea.

Okay, now the not-so-good. Firstly, the show entertains a little too much conspiracy for my liking. In some painfully acted live action scenes, we see ‘the algorithm’ represented by three Facebook engineers in a lab, watching their target’s life and deciding when to ping their phone to drag them into the platform and view an ad that they just sold for 3 cents. The thing is, Facebook does run instant auctions for advertisers to bid on an impression on a user’s Facebook feed. What they don’t do is literally spy on your actual life and ping you at the exact time it most benefits them. They just don’t.

The rest of the acted scenes are also pretty bad. I understand what they were trying to do with the part showing the teenage boy getting increasingly radicalised by far-right propaganda, enough to attend a rally and get arrested, but it didn’t hit deep enough and it just felt so weak as to be worthless.

Thankfully the takeaway from the film is something I can agree with: social media wasn’t invented to be evil, but evil it has become. Delete Facebook, the worst offender by far. If you need to, create a plain shell account to stay in touch with those who can’t be persuaded off the platform.

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What I thought about: [Un]Well

Bee sting therapy? Ingesting essential oils? Drinking breast milk? Water-only fasting? Sorry, hold up a minute, BEE STING THERAPY?! Alternative medicine – if it can be called medicine – is a booming industry. This series takes a look at some of the weirdest practices and see if any of them actually work.

Listen carefully while I make up some nonsense about what these oils can cure, and neglect to recommend that you speak to a doctor first..

What’s it about?
Each episode focuses on a different type of alternative medicine: essential oils, tantric sex, breast milk, fasting, ayahuasca, and bee venom. So yeah, some of these are pretty weird.

We hear from a number of people in respect of each treatment: desperate people who are looking for a cure to their ailments, the manufacturers / sellers / practitioners of the therapies, scientists who are vehemently opposed to the notion that any of them can be effective, and some scientists or doctors who, with a dose of caution, suggest there could in fact be some benefits.

I’ll answer some of your questions in advance. Yes, the bee dies after you get stung. No, you should probably not ingest essential oils. 99% is the percentage of Forever Living associates, who sell essential oils in an MLM scheme, who make only one dollar in commission. No, I did not watch the tantric sex episode.

What do I like about it?
It seems pretty balanced. I’m very sceptical of alternative therapies – and can you really blame me when some of them are distributed by literal pyramid schemes, that enrich the founder? Or when they’re peddled by a man who claims ‘we’re just as real as anyone else’ but then, in the same scene, looks at the camera with an incredibly creepy face and says ‘we consider ourselves a for-profit ministry’. This is essential oils we are talking about here!

But each episode provides anecdotal evidence from people who claim the therapy worked for them, as well as the journey of someone who hopes it will work for them (a chronic Lyme-disease sufferer heard that bee stings can cure her, and is desperate for a solution). It also balances this with studies and the views of medical professionals, some of whom outright deny the treatment’s efficacy (and/or warn about its risks) and some who try to explain a possible way in which the treatment may produce some kind of effect. I like these parts – if something unconventional actually works, I want to know why, and they can offer a bit of that.

What do I not like about it?
Nothing really, each episode is well done.

Worth a watch?
As long as you don’t hold me responsible for trying any of these things (in fact I suggest you DO NOT try any of these) then go right ahead, it’s interesting!

By the way…

  • Of course most of the people discovered this medicine on Facebook groups. Please do yourself a favour and delete Facebook before it’s too late.
  • BEE STING THERAPY?!

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