Wild, Wild Country on Netflix

This podcast, which runs about 14 minutes, contains the following blog post (more or less) with some additional comments:

Wild, Wild Country, a 6-part documentary, directed by the Way brothers and produced by indie film director Mark Duplass, is about the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh cult that was established in Oregon in the 1980s. I was interested in watching this as I read several of his books and knew people who were followers (though no one who actually lived on the commune). Before I started watching, I didn’t even realize it was a doc; I assumed for some reason that it was a dramatization. The doc turned out to be more interesting, mainly because several of the principle players were interviews.

Rajneesh, who later become known as Osho, died quite a few years ago so all we have are clips of him speaking. Osho was known mainly for his advocacy of open sexuality and for his blatant materialism, expressed among other things by his large collection of Rolls Royces. But was he materialistic or mocking materialism with his excessive wealth? This is one of the many questions that are hard to answer. It’s worth noting that Osho has been called a trickster guru along the lines of other controversial spiritual leaders such as George Gurdjieff, whose name comes up briefly here as well.

Strangely, Osho is really a background character in this documentary. Most of the focus is on his secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, who turns out to be the character who really makes the whole movie fascinating. Sheela is a notorious figure who was accused of several criminal acts, including the poisoning of the entire town of Antelope, Oregon and attempted murders of rivals within the group. There are a couple of other higher-ups who were living in Rajneeshpuram who give extensive interviews as well.

In many instances, Sheela comes across like a textbook psychopath -charismatic, without remorse, and a natural leader. Her obvious love of the camera and willingness to talk at length are what really make Wild, Wild Country so interesting to watch. Those looking for a more in-depth exploration of Rajneesh/Osho’s philosophy would do better reading some of his books.

A couple of other figures are also prominent in the doc. Swami Prem Niren (like many in the group, he’s an American who took on a Sannyasin name), the group’s attorney for many years. He is clearly conflicted about many events and is brought to tears several times at memories of better days in the movement. Another is Catherine Jane Stork, an Australian woman who joined the movement and spent time in prison along with Sheela for attempted murder. Stork is the only interviewee who seems to have truly repented and left the movement behind.

Considering that it’s a documentary about a religious movement that’s generally labeled a cult, Wild, Wild Country is about as balanced as you could expect. The shocking events, which are well documented, are shown alongside the fond recollections of former members who still find much of value in their years under Rajneesh.

As much as anything else, this film is about sociology and culture; about what happens when you have two radically opposed subcultures living alongside each other. Rajneesh, and really Sheela, chose a remote rural community of Antelope Valley, Oregon, whose citizens were mostly elderly, insular and very conservative. You couldn’t possibly have more of a mismatch between a group following a Tantric Indian guru and a disapproving community of conservative Christians, many of whom probably disapprove of much of modern mainstream culture much less free love, polygamy, and anarchy (one of the recurring themes in Osho’s discourses is to distrust all traditional authority).

How you react to this film will, of course, depend on your own background and biases. Even if you see merit in Osho’s teaching, however, it seems clear that Sheela was a ruthless and power-hungry character. This also brings up some interesting issues about the nature of power and radical movements in general. Arguably, it’s people with those characteristics who are most likely to seize power in any institution. It’s just more noticeable in a cult because it’s operating outside the norms of society. We don’t notice the pathology of mainstream authority because it’s right in front of us.

Apart from the excesses and corruption within the group/cult, there’s little doubt that the locals in Oregon, and later higher up faction within the U.S. government, were determined to oust the Rajneeshees one way or another. When Sheela and others refer to themselves as an oppressed religious community, they have a point. At the same point, it’s instructive to note how quickly the leadership within the group sank to the same level, or even lower in some cases, as its opponents.

The story of Rajneesh and Rajneeshpuram is very complex, involves many people, some no longer living (most notably, the guru himself). This documentary is certainly not the whole story. Another of Osho’s disciples, who doesn’t appear in the doc, wrote her own book that tells, believe it or not, a far more damning picture of both Osho and Sheela. In a recent article, Satya Franklin claims that Sheela, true to style, manipulated the filmmakers into giving her control over the project. Somehow, I find this fairly easy to believe.
https://www.thedailybeast.com/wild-wild-country-a-rajneeshee-cult-insider-on-the-horrors-the-netflix-series-left-out

Take hold of your own life. See that the whole existence is celebrating. These trees are not serious, these birds are not serious. The rivers and the oceans are wild, and everywhere there is fun, everywhere there is joy and delight. Watch existence, listen to the existence and become part of it.”

– OSHO

Speaking of cults, ever wonder if all of society is really a cult? I explore this and other possibilities in my book, a collection of essays called Beyond The Cultoid, available on Kindle and as an audiobook on Audible.

The Ritual: Netflix Horror Film

Title: The Ritual
Where to see it: Netflix
Director: David Bruckner
Cast: Robert James-Collier, Paul Reid, Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Sam Troughton, Maria Erwolter

If you love horror movies, Netflix has been generously feeding your habit the last few months. Some of these efforts have succeeded more than others. The Babysitter, for example, is a fun and campy movie while The Open House was almost universally panned by critics (who discouraged me from even watching it). The plot of The Ritual falls into a familiar category for modern horror: a group of friends venture into the wilderness and end up wishing they’d stayed home.

This review contains some spoilers (it’s actually one of those films that’s hard to talk about without giving away key plot points), so you might want to watch the movie before reading any further.

The Ritual is a movie with an English cast that’s mostly set in the mountains of Sweden. Unlike most movies of this type, where everyone is joyfully planning for their doomed expedition, in The Ritual, something bad happens right at the beginning. Five friends who went to college together plan and debate where they should take a vacation together. Before they embark, however, a tragedy occurs where one of them is killed in a convenience store robbery. One of his friends is with him during this incident and hides in the back, so the entire trip is marred by feelings of guilt and blame, an ominous start. They decide to go hiking in Sweden in honor of their deceased pal.

Predictably, the hike to the remote mountains of Northern Sweden turns out to be a bad idea. After conducting a ritual for their deceased friend, one of the men injures his ankle, slowing their progress. They decide to take a “shortcut” through the forest, a really bad idea as anyone who’s ever seen a horror movie knows. At this point, the group encounters scenarios from both The Blair Witch Project and The Wicker Man (both versions, the earlier one is better, as is usually the case). They discover a rundown cabin with strange runes and a bizarre headless figure. They all have nightmares and start to see strange visions. Then, it becomes apparent that a malevolent creature is stalking them. Not only that, but they run into a group of pagan cultists who practice human sacrifice (the Wicker Man idea).

So the movie does have some familiar tropes, but what horror film doesn’t? On the plus side, the film is genuinely scary in places. The sense of dread builds as the woods and creepy surroundings close in on them. Adding to their trouble is the tension and distrust between them. Then there’s the monster itself. While critics are generally positive about The Ritual, with some reservations, everyone agrees that the monster is exceptional. It’s not only scary but original and imaginative. It’s difficult (as well as pointless and counterproductive) to describe it, but let’s say it’s a terrific embodiment of the very last thing you’d want to run into late at night in the woods.

The ending isn’t bad for a horror movie. It’s not exactly cheerful but it’s not quite as bleak, confusing, or meaningless as it could have been and many such films are. The last remaining hiker escapes and basically confronts his inner and outer demons (he’s the one who failed to save his friend at the beginning -I warned you there’d be spoilers). The monster fails to catch him, but is alive and well (if angry and fuming), so there’s always the possibility of a sequel. If you want further clarification on the ending, check out the helpful explanation on Heavy.com. All in all, The Ritual is a good choice for horror fans looking for something fun and scary on Netflix.

Misconduct: Muddled Legal Thriller

If you’re burned out on all the holiday specials and movies and are in the mood for a laughably bad movie, one that falls into the “it’s so bad it’s almost good” category, look no further than Misconduct. It’s really hard to believe just how awful this film is considering the cast, which includes Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, and Julia Stiles.

Misconduct (2016), a recent addition to Netflix streaming, was directed by Shintaro Shimosawa, who’s written and produced B-movie crime dramas and thrillers such as The Following and The Grudge tries his hand at directing here. The title makes it sound like a film version of a John Grisham or Scott Turow novel and the cast, you’d think it would be, at the very least, a middling legal thriller. I was completely unprepared what an incoherent mess this turned out to be.

Misconduct starts off a little confusing, picks up momentum with a familiar but fairly interesting plot about the unscrupulous CEO of a pharmaceutical company named Arthur Denning (Hopkins) trying to negotiate the release of his kidnapped girlfriend Emily (Malin Akerman). Then there’s the mandatory flashback (only one week here), where we’re introduced to an ambitious young attorney Beh Cahill (Josh Duhamel) planning to bring down Denning with the help of his unstable ex-girlfriend -the very same Emily who’s now hooked up with Denning. From this fairly conventional but palatable setup, it all falls apart quickly.

In a typical legal thriller, the case against Denning would be the main story. Here, that’s all resolved early on as Denning unexpectedly offers to settle for a generous figure, presumably to avoid bad publicity. However, Cahill’s problems are just beginning as he’s suspected of murder and being stalked by the real killer. One of the problems with the film is that the incident that sets everything off – Emily’s kidnapping and/or murder- doesn’t really make sense and has no direct connection to the legal case. By the time we find out what really happened to her, it seems random.

The first clue that we’re in fledgling B-movie territory is when Cahill, inevitably accused of the murder he didn’t commit, escapes the police by escaping through the back window. Apparently, these cops have never seen an episode of Law & Order much less received normal training, as there are dozens of cops and even helicopters overhead but no one thinks to check the back of the building for the fleeing suspect. He manages to open a nasty gash while escaping through the window, which he glues shut with superglue after waiting on a long line at the pharmacy. Despite a supposed manhunt for him in New Orleans, far from the world’s largest city, Denning seems to have an aura of invisibility as he wanders from location to location trying to find the real culprit.

To further muddle things, there’s an Asian assassin who may or may not be working for Hopkins or someone else, who’s stalking everyone connected to the case. There’s Al Pacino trying to pull off a Southern accent as a senior law partner. Cahill’s wife Charlotte (Alice Eve), who may or may not play a key role in the events, seems apathetic through most of the film. However, the acting isn’t really the problem here as the script seems little more than a composite of a dozen or so other (mostly better) movies, including Fatal Attraction, Chinatown, The Firm and so on.

By the end, there’s little attempt to tie it all together in any coherent way. For one thing, Cahill shoots and presumably kills a minor character who has the misfortune of opening the door when Cahill confronts Hopkins. This killing is just glossed over. Nor do we know (or really care) what happens to the huge settlement at the end when everything falls apart.

If you approach Misconduct with the lowest possible expectations and a sense of humor, it’s a viable 90-minute diversion. A revealing piece of trivia Misconduct only made a little over $100 when it opened in the UK.

Obey Giant Review

Obey Giant, a documentary currently on Hulu, covers the career of street artist Shepard Fairey and explores some of the movement’s influences and history. Fairey is best known as the creator of the iconic Obama Hope posters that were seen everywhere during the 2008 campaign. He’s also featured in Exit Through the Gift Shop, another documentary (some say mockumentary) about the even more famous street artist Banksy.

Obey Giant gets its title from one of Fairey’s widespread use of pro wrestler Andre The Giant’s image in his early work. Later, he began to use the word “obey” in his stickers and stencils, inspired by the sci-fi cult classic They Live (where advertising signs contain subliminal messages such as “obey” and “consume” that are only visible with special glasses).

One thing that makes Obey Giant more entertaining than the average documentary is that the director, James Moll, stays out of the way and lets Fairey (along with other characters involved in his life) do all the talking without inserting unnecessary interview questions or voiceovers. The film discusses the artist’s early influences, mainly 70s punk rock and skateboarding and concludes with a look at his legal problems after being sued by the AP and a photographer for allegedly stealing an image for his Obama poster.

Fairey’s popularity, along with that of Banksy and other street and graffiti artists, reveals the growing acceptance of this type of art (which doesn’t extend to authorities, who arrest Shepherd just before his biggest opening at a Boston museum). As with Banksy and Exit Through the Gift Shop co-creator Thierry Guetta, people are willing to line up around the block for his openings, a somewhat strange and paradoxical phenomenon for artists who made their reputations as outlaws who work under the cover of darkness and anonymity.

People have wildly conflicting views of street art, of course. Depending on your cultural and political leanings, you might see it as a vibrant form of rebellion or out-and-out vandalism. As Fairey points out, however, he only covers vacated buildings, something also done by big brands without legal consequences), Obey Giant provides a fascinating look into this world. Personally, I admired Fairey’s commitment and willingness to take risks (not only legal but also placing his art in dangerous places) while feeling a bit skeptical at some of his political views.

His “Obey” campaigns were based on the They Live premise that there’s a sinister subtext to everything put forth by mainstream culture (an idea Fairey eloquently explains early in the film) yet he seems a bit naive in thinking that certain political candidates such as Obama aren’t part of this manipulation. Political views aside, the film is close to flawless in letting its subject reveal what makes him tick. Nor does it (or Shepard himself) shy away from admitting his own insecurities and periods of self-doubt, as when he admits to lying about the photograph he used for the Obama poster.

One thing that stuck out to me is the fact that Banksy’s name is not uttered once in the whole film. Exit Through the Gift Shop is referenced, Banksy is listed as the director and Fairey talks at length about his contentious relationship with Thierry Guetta. However, Banksy’s name is never spoken out loud. A minor detail to e sure, but considering how many other artists are mentioned in the film the commission seems deliberate for whatever reason.

Regardless of how you feel about street art, Obey Giant provides insight into a popular and controversial type of art. It also gets into the lively debate about digital age issues such as fair use, copyrights and the anarchistic notion that art and ideas belong to everyone. Fairey isn’t 100% on the anarchist’s side, at least from what he says here. His argument with the Obama photo is that he transformed the image to the extent that it falls under the category of fair use (the case was ultimately settled). Obey Giant is one of the better documentaries of recent years and is recommended to anyone interested in art, culture, and countercultures.

The Circle: Social Media and the End of Privacy

The Circle, a Netflix original movie, will appeal to fans of the UK series Black Mirror. Each episode of that series was a dark, dystopian look at modern technology and how things that seem to be making life better also have truly sinister consequences. In the case of The Circle, the issues examined are privacy and the prospect of a completely transparent society where all of our actions can be viewed by the public at all times.

The Circle has a well-known and high-quality cast, especially for a movie without a theatrical release. Emma Watson stars as Mae, a young woman who gets an entry level job at a company that’s sort of a combination of Apple, Google, and Facebook. Tom Hanks is the charismatic and megalomaniacal Steve Jobs-type cult figure who runs the company known as The Circle. Also appearing are Bill Paxton and Karen Gillan, known for her role in Dr. Who.

At first, The Circle evokes familiar images of ultra-hip work environments such as the Google Campus. The setting is Sunnyvale, California, the heart of Silicon Valley. The campus has the kind of amenities normally associated with a cruise ship. At the same time, the atmosphere is eerily cultlike and employees are all but compelled to socialize constantly, weekends included, and report all of their doings on The Circe’s own social media site.

Mae, at first skeptical of the company’s all-pervasive technology (which includes a mini-camera that can take in entire scenes without being noticed, supposedly to help expose abuses of power) but who is gradually drawn into the mystique. For one thing, her father is suffering from MS and the company helps him with its cutting edge medical technology. Then, she impulsively goes out in a kayak late at night and almost drowns -thanks to The Circle’s cameras, however, she is observed and saved. Then she agrees to participate in an experiment where her life is broadcast 24/7 – sort of like a Truman Show, only in this case the star/victim knows she’s being filmed all the time.

We can question the realism of The Circle -especially the idea that someone like Mae could so quickly go from “guppy” (the company’s cutesy name for new employees) to one of its most powerful and influential spokespeople in a matter of weeks. There are also some actions taken by The Circle that would most likely have been prevented by the company’s legal team to avoid lawsuits and criminal prosecution.

As with Black Mirror, however, it’s best to view the movie as a kind of sci-fi thought experiment and parable rather than hold it to a strict standard of realism. The Circle raises fascinating questions about two opposing values: the right to privacy vs. the benefits of a completely transparent society. The ending is somewhat ambiguous and darkly ironic, which leaves the fundamental questions open-ended.

Entertainment (2015) -directed by Rick Alverson

The title Entertainment is ironic, as it’s about someone who calls himself an entertainer but is anything but. Director Rick Alverson, whose previous work includes another darkly comic film, actually named The Comedy (2012), here attempts the thankless task of presenting an unlikable, often repulsive protagonist as he alienates everyone around him and eventually loses the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

I have a certain admiration for this film even though it’s not very enjoyable (nor is it meant to be). Gregg Turkington plays the nameless comic who performs in mostly empty rooms in desolate towns. Apparently, this is a character that Turkington plays regularly in stage performances. Having never seen this, however, I can only comment on the movie.

The “comic”  alternately insults the audience and delivers offensive jokes with no punch lines. At first, I found the movie funny in a perverse way; the comic’s bizarre idiosyncratic sense of humor, or what passes for that, has elements found in some of the work of Jim Jarmusch (e.g. Stranger Than Paradise) or the Coen Brothers (e.g. Barton Fink).

As the mostly plotless movie meanders along, however, it goes from dark comedy to something more like surreal tragedy -closer to David Lynch territory. As the comic leaves messages for his estranged daughter, we start to wonder if the daughter is even real. Similarly, when he witnesses a woman giving birth in a public bathroom, it’s uncertain whether this is reality or a hallucination.

John C. Reilly, the best-known actor in the film, plays a kind of straight man role here as the comic’s cousin. Tye Sheridan plays a clown/mime who performs along with the comic at various desolate venues. The clown’s performances are similarly bizarre, though the crowd at least responds to him while they ignore or heckle the comic.

I have a high tolerance for mumblecore as well as lightly plotted and even absurdist films. But this one didn’t quite work for me. There’s just not enough to grab onto either intellectually or emotionally. There is no backstory or context here, so we have no clue how or why the comic has reached this state. I also wondered how an unfunny comic with no fans could have gotten so many bookings, but I suppose you’re not supposed to ask such questions.

As the comic’s behavior gets progressively more bizarre, it’s like watching a random insane person mumbling to himself on the streets of a large city. Perhaps that’s not far from what Alverson is going for here -to compel you to look at one example of what a cold and uncaring world has done to one person, without providing any of the details. Watching Entertainment is definitely not a pleasant experience, but the movie is  interesting and well acted if ultimately obscure and pointless.

Doomsdays: Dark Comedy About Antisocial Slackers

Doomsdays (2013), written and directed by Eddie Mullins, is an original, low budget independent film with a truly anarchistic spirit. Quietly released in 2013, it is now available on Netflix, where it will gain a wider audience.

The film is, on the surface, a kind of slacker comedy about a pair of drifters, Fred (Justin Rice) and Bruho (Leo Fitzpatrick), whose way of life consists of breaking into people’s vacation homes and living off the food and, even more so, booze that they find. Fred is a pure hedonist and nihilist, who is mainly interested in consuming alcohol and having sex. Bruho is an angry idealist who is obsessed with the impending end of civilization due to oil running out (also known as peak oil). To express his disapproval of modern bourgeois existence, Bruho vandalizes every automobile he encounters. He also has a tendency to hit people who get in his way.

The pair aren’t criminals in the ordinary sense, they aren’t very interested in money or valuables. They are, rather, expressing their own version of a Robin Hood fantasy, feeding off the excesses of those who, in their view, possess way more than they need. Along the way, they pick up a couple of other misfits -an overweight teenager named Jaidon (Brian Charles Johnson) and a young woman named Reyna (Laura Campbell).

Complications ensue when Fred and Reyna become romantically involved and Jaidon tags along. However, the movie is really about the daily lives of the characters and the plot meandering and incidental. There is virtually no backstory to Doomsdays -Fred and Bruho do what they do, reveal portions of who they are, but there is no explanation of how they met or ended up choosing their improbable existence. Jaidon’s past or reasons for following the pair are never mentioned. Reyna, the most superficially normal of the group, is the only character whose past is revealed at all.

Doomsdays is a darker film than it first appears. The duo first appear like clownish slackers who harmlessly prank middle class homeowners. Yet, unlike most movie slackers, these two are not especially likable or sympathetic. Fred is a casual liar and possibly a narcissist, while Bruho is a sullen character whose anger at the system seems like an excuse to avoid facing his own personal demons. Mullins doesn’t try to romanticize these characters; they are neither heroes or villains, but, at best, fledgling anti-heroes.

There is mostly low key violence throughout the film, reminding us that even supposedly non-violent acts of theft, vandalism and trespass can easily lead to bodily harm. When a more serious act of violence occurs, it is treated rather casual way.

The film this most reminded me of is a fairly obscure German film from 2003 called The Edukators, about a group of young anarchists who break into people’s homes and rearrange the furniture.

I also detected an underlying similarity to a much darker film, A Clockwork Orange. Though not nearly as violent or shocking, Doomsdays has a similar tone in some ways. Both films deal with characters who are completely alienated from society and who regard normal people as intrinsic enemies to be preyed upon. As the title suggests, these are people for whom society has already collapsed and are just making the best of its remnants. Only Bruho has anything resembling a cause, and for him it’s far too late to save the world so all he can do is strike out against those he blames for its downfall.

I could even recognize shades of Larry Clark’s style of nihilism, as revealed in films such as Kids, in Doomsayers. Yet Mullins’ style is more quirky and low key than anything by Clark or Kubrick’s style in A Clockwork Orange.

The above probably makes Doomsdays sound heavier and more depressing than it actually is. Most of the film’s tone is light and there are more than a few laughs –mainly at the sheer audacity of the group’s actions, especially when they encounter disbelieving homeowners.

Doomsdays is an interesting, entertaining, quasi-political film that is certainly more compelling and original than 95% of what’s being released these days. To his credit, Mullins doesn’t make any attempt to explain, justify, glorify or demonize his little band of thieves. We just get to see them in action for a while and get to make of them what we will.

Glass Chin: Postmodern Boxing Noir

Glass Chin (2014), directed by Noah Buschel and starring Corey Stoll and Billy Cruddup is an interesting hybrid of a film and one of the most interesting and entertaining offerings I’ve found on Netflix in some time. It combines characteristics of Rocky with older (as in 40s and 50s) films about washed up boxers with some 70’s-style Martin Scorcese and 90’s style Quentin Tarantino thrown into the mix. The result may not be seamless perfection, but it’s engaging, intelligently written and has a story that’s actually compelling rather than a mindless sequence of action scenes that you usually find in this type of genre.

Stoll plays Bud, an ex-boxer who is torn between training a promising young prospect and working for a sinister bookie named J.J. (Cruddup). He and his girlfriend Ellen (Marin Ireland) live in a working class New Jersey neighborhood but discuss philosophy as they sit in diners. Even the film style of Glass Chin is a hybrid, between old school gritty and extremely stylized shots of city streets, more like you’d find in a French film. The effect, however, is always interesting. I especially enjoyed the dialog, which takes up a good part of the time, a fact that will no doubt bore some viewers.

This is mainly a character (and dialog) driven film with a rather simple plot. It contains not one but two outlandish psychopaths, J.J., a very up to date thug who admires Steve Jobs and owns an art gallery and his volatile assistant Roberto (Yul Vasquez). Bud is hired to collect money from gamblers who owe J.J. money and accompanies Roberto on these shakedowns. During one of these incidents, Roberto commits a murder and Bud is framed, all so that J.J. can compel him to fix a fight.

Glass Chin is full of contradictions. It’s a boxing film with no fight scenes (save seeing boxers train in a gym). It’s a gangster film with no on-screen violence. It’s an old school, noirish film with very stylized scenes more reminiscent of European cinema. It also ends on an inconclusive note that is somewhat frustrating.

The title refers to Bud’s own glass chin, as he was infamously knocked out to end his own boxing career (in what may or may not have been an honest fight). Yet it refers equally to his moral weakness, how easily he gets sucked into J.J.’s corrupt world due to his own dissatisfaction with his ordinary life.

This is actually one of the film’s central themes –the conflict between the ordinary and the glamorous. J.J., who owns a snow leopard, shuns the ordinary at all costs, while Ellen, a student of Buddhism, embraces it. Bud is a tragic character caught in the middle and doomed by his inability to choose.

Oscars vs. BBC Critics

Many serious, and even not-so-serious fans of cinema have long taken the Oscars with a grain of salt. Personally, I haven’t watched them for decades. Academy Award winners tend to be sentimental and pop culture-friendly choices. Just a couple of examples point this out; in 1989 the old-fashioned feel-good Driving Miss Daisy, about a black chauffeur who is loyal to his rich white employer, won Best Picture while Spike Lee’s hard-hitting but disturbing portrayal of race relations, Do The Right Thing was not even nominated.

Spike Lee Still Mad at 1989 Oscar Snub

Similarly, in 1995, the clever but basically insipid Forrest Gump swept all the major awards, beating out the far more groundbreaking Pulp Fiction. Another great contemporary films that were never even nominated for Best Picture was Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), while another, far more simplistic and heavy-handed L.A. ensemble piece, Crash, did grab the award, in 2006.

Now, a BBC list of the 100 Greatest American Films challenges the relevance of the Oscars.

Oscar Shamed as BBC List of 100 Greatest American Films Largely Ignores Academy Awards Best Picture Winners

Personally, I like the BBC list more than most Academy Awards selections, but only up to a point. To me, for example, there is something rote and unthinking about putting Citizen Kane at the top of the list (as the BBC list does). It’s a great film, to be sure, but the almost universal assumption that it’s The. Best. Film. Ever. seems more like a shared myth than an objective fact. It’s similar in this way to the Great Books canon, where we repeat the list of the greatest authors and books so often that we no longer have to give it much thought. Obviously, every cultured person knows that the works of Homer, Shakespeare, Melville, Austen, Fitzgerald, etc. are superior to anything written in the last 50 or so years. Although this point of view is now controversial and politically incorrect, the mystique around the Great Books remains mostly intact. It’s similar with certain movies from the black and white era.

Of course, no one is going to agree with all choices made by any awards ceremony or any critics lists. In our decentralized age, such “Best of…” lists are quickly becoming obsolete. Ironically, the very ubiquity of such lists on the internet is evidence of their silliness and subjectivity; who’s to say your clickbait 10 best list of the year’s greatest films is any less valid than the Oscars or the film critics of the BBC, New York Times or Variety?

The Oscars is one of those dinosaur institutions whose relevance fades with each passing year (or, maybe more to the point, with each passing tweet). The age of renowned critics, whether the late Roger Ebert or the BBC reviewers whose opinions comprise the aforementioned list, has also passed, as today any movie fan can spout opinions on his or her fledgling blog (e.g. the one you’re reading now), on Netflix, Amazon, Rotten Tomatoes and hundreds of other places. Still, it can be interesting to use the experts’ opinions as the starting point for discussions about movies.


Hits: Satire Misses the Mark

Hits (2014), directed by David Cross, has the appearance of a low budget indie comedy, yet features some serious talent -Jason Ritter, Amy Sedaris, Matt Walsh and Julia Stiles even makes a cameo appearance. This is the type of film that I found on Netflix and approached with low expectations. At first, I was pleasantly surprised to discover what seemed like a sharp and original satire. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite hold together and derails completely in the final scenes.

Hits refers to “hits” on sites like YouTube, not contract killings, a more likely guess for a movie title. It seems that with Hits, Cross is trying to do a Tom Wolfe-like satire for the internet/reality show age. The targets, however, are a few too numerous and the tone uneven. We have several distinct characters inhabiting separate universes that intersect uneasily and in an often contrived manner.

Walsh plays Dave, the type of continually outraged populist misfit who listens to talk radio, writes angry letters to the newspaper and gives long-winded tirades at town board meetings. All places, especially small towns, have characters who are very similar to Dave, and Walsh nails this part very well. The problem is, Hits tries to tack on too many other elements and personalities. Dave’s daughter Katelyn (Meredith Hagner), is a young woman obsessed with becoming a reality TV star and who is willing to do just about anything to achieve fame, despite being rather limited in the talent department. Hagner is quite good in this role, but by now satirizing reality TV and the obsession with fame is a fairly worn out cliché. While Hits tries to be original by combining the stories of Dave and Katelyn, they don’t really mix.

Further complicating matters are a trio of Brooklyn activist-hipsters who decide to take up Dave’s cause. This is a fairly contrived and unlikely scenario, but since this is a comedy we can give the film this much. The hipsters travel from the city to Liberty and immediately experience culture shock. It’s worth noting that there is a town called Liberty in upstate NY, but certain elements are changed in the film (e.g. the real town is in Sullivan County; in the film, it’s called something else).

The most troubling aspect of Hits is that it can’t make up its mind whether the characters are misguided but sympathetic misfits we should root for or completely contemptible losers deserving our disdain. This is most true of Dave, who, for most of the film, rails harmlessly against potholes and the lack of snow removal services on his block but, inexplicably, turns into a raving racist in the last ten minutes.

There is also an implication that the whole town consists largely of ignorant racists, as when another character tells the hated hipsters to “go back to Jew York.” This comment, apart from its offensiveness, misses the mark culturally,as this is supposedly a town in New York State and only two hours from the city. The real Libery, NY happens to be located in the middle of what used to be called the Borscht Belt, with a large Jewish population. The cultural contrast between Brooklyn and Liberty is just too exaggerated to be credible, even for a satire. The conflict between rednecks and hipsters would have been more believable if the film were set in rural Texas and the hipsters were from Austin.

In addition to making derogatory remarks about Obama, blacks, Jews and Muslims, Dave says “I know its true because Alex Jones says so.” Apart from the fact that well known conspiracy theorist Alex Jones isn’t known for making racist remarks, this type of quote just makes Dave sound like a complete idiot, which undercuts the sympathy he garners in other scenes, such as his interactions with his daughter.

Katelyn is similarly ambiguous. Is she sweet and naive or a manipulative bitch? This ambiguity comes to the surface when a sleazy recording studio owner attempts to convince her to have sex with him in exchange for a reduced rate when she can’t afford his services to make a demo tape. Katelyn, like Dave, is alternately sympathetic and contemptible. As for the Brooklyn hipsters, they are mainly just over-the-top ridiculous, if amusing at times. At one point, the film is on the verge of making a valid and interesting point -that liberal, left-leaning urbanites have more in common with populist, conservative small town folk than you might think at first. However, by the end, everyone is cynically skewered, and not in a way that’s especially insightful or funny.

If Hits were a dark satire along the lines of, say, Citizen Ruth, which succeeds at lampooning both sides of the abortion argument, its cynicism would be justified. But this film manages to be ambiguous and slightly offensive without being especially insightful. It’s just funny enough to be entertaining -at least until the last few minutes -but it could have been much better if it had a more targeted objective. For a film that aims for hard-edged social satire, Hits, despite some strong performances and promising early scenes, misses the mark in too many areas.

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